It was two o’clock in the afternoon when Isabelle finished her second job. The tenement hall was dark, dimly lit by one filthy yellow light bulb, naked on the ceiling. She fiddled around in the mailbox; nothing. The man sitting in his matchbox of a room looked up with displeasure when she opened the door and let the cold air in.
Her heels clicking against the tiled floor as she walked down the corridor weren’t the only things to be heard. Behind closed doors Isabelle walked past a loud man swore at an equally loud TV. A baby cried. Two people were arguing, joined by another guy. Her hands were in her pockets, one of them holding the keys. No-one tapped her shoulder when she opened the door.
It was dark inside the apartment as well. The curtains were drawn close. Not much furniture pieces were around the place, and the walls were mostly bare apart from some doodles Jack made on the wall when he was little.
Isabelle went for the fridge after setting he handbag on the clean kitchen counter; as hard as it was, she tried to keep the place neat most of the time. That was the least she could do.
We need vegetables.
Putting a hand to her temples and rubbed them with her thumb and middle finger, Isabelle sighed as she thought through. Jack wouldn’t finish school for another two hours, and it would take a fair while if she went to the prison now. She figured to do some shopping- mostly vegetables- with the money that was left after paying the rent this week. She went into her bedroom, second on the right- not a terribly cramped small space, really, since there weren’t much things to cramp- and opened the top bedside table drawer.
She tried to think of something cheery.
Better than last time.
No, that wasn’t good enough. Of course, Isabelle had no intention to train herself into a therapist, so she gave up after a split-second. Instead, she took the money, stood up and grabbed the keys on her way out. The little withered man looked up from the mini-TV again when she opened the door.
Snow piled on the sides of the pavements and streets. Most of it was dirty. Shopfronts were covered in layers of graffiti, glasses were frosted or fogged up from the heaters inside working their cogs off. Five or six boys, no older than mid-twenties, squatted and sat outside some video store on some steps.
“Hello Mrs. Alonso!” They all replied in a singsong unison, ragged and husky. A soft-featured dyed-blond dressed in mostly black kept his glance a tad longer than the rest.
“You got spare change, miss?” He asked, rather courteously. The other boys turned their gazes back on her, not as easy as they were a second before. Isabelle fished out a five-dollar bill and held it between her index and middle fingers with ease.
“Yes, it happens I do. You want tips?”
He smiled a little. A scar running from his left cheekbone to the jaw stretched.
Isabelle past him the note and kept on walking without a word. The boys called out “thanks miss” after her. Mafias here were as strong as the ones where she came from, mostly Italians, dominating where the police should be. Charlie was in there now because of them too, serving a half-year service as a warning from the godfather.
The supermarket three blocks down had the long-broken automatic slide doors closed. She wrested it open and back, entering the slightly warmer atmosphere that smelt like smoke and weed and sweat. Isabelle went for the fresh- rarely- fruit and vegetables sections up the back with her typical slow but steady pace. A woman was on the phone, loud, and two children- presumably hers- were running among the aisles, chasing. A man mumbled to himself and the youngest person beside the kids, a happy-looking emo, stood at the checkout as the store clerk.
Vegetables. Eggplants. Cucumbers. Tomatoes. Lettuce. Leek. Put it in the basket put it in the basket.
She got the hell out of there.
After mixing a salad, Isabelle set out to pick Jack up from school. After the bullying he received on the school bus, she couldn’t trust the driver to keep orders any more. The poor man had more than one job. Literally.
She had to use the subway. White fluorescent lights hung mercilessly overhead, illuminating everything in a cold, pallor manner and didn’t care.
A couple of African-American boys huddled to themselves in a corner of the almost-empty carriage and smoked. They didn’t look more than twenty.
Jack was standing around with some of his friends. They were laughing; he was smiling. Isabelle watched him through the wire fence, keeping a hand in her pocket as she approached slowly toward the far side of the gate.
Jack saw his mother. His smile didn’t waver a bit as he hugged a boy in the group and said something. The rest of them waved as he walked out of the circle and toward the gate. A girl had red hair. The gates were closed. Isabelle watched him as Jack pushed one side ajar with a metallic ring. He walked like his mother.
They started walking down the street toward the subway station. Jack was stepping on the dirty snow on purpose.
“I made salad.”
“Is there leek?”
The two of them walked in silence and entered the station with the people current.
“That boy. What’s his name.” She said, not as a question. “Julian.”
Jack was silent for a short moment. “Yes.”
Isabelle nodded as she scanned her card at the machine. “He nice?”
Silence in chaos. They boarded a carriage. It was cramped inside during peak hour. Jack took an empty seat and Isabelle stood beside him. He took off his backpack and hugged it to his chest. A woman who smoked sat down next to him. He breathed through his mouth.
It was warmer outside compared to earlier. Soft wind whirled around the streets. The young gangsters were gone. Jack put the backpack back on, over both shoulders. Isabelle opened the door. The old man was not sitting in his room. A man yelled. A baby cried. People were laughing. The laughter was strange. Jack didn’t flinch. He tried to open the door.
A hand tapped on Isabelle’s shoulder. She turned around and took one hand out of her pocket. The other was carrying Jack’s backpack.
“Hello, Mrs. Alonso.”
“My boys appreciate the tips very much.” The man said. He looked worn, the odd grey hair on his temples carelessly slicked back, but those eyes, vulpine, were still sharp. “They are happy. You are kind.”
Isabelle looked into his eyes straight back. “You stay that way.”
He chuckled as if it was a joke. “Have a nice day, Isabelle.”
She glanced at him one last time, sideways, before closing the door.
Jack washed his hands. Isabelle put his backpack into his room, on the floor by the door.
“I’m going to take a quick shower.”
He ate half the salad with a fork, straight out of the bowl, turning the TV on before sitting down on the sofa. As soon as the sound of the water started, Jack fished a phone out of his hoodie pocket. Motorola. A show was on about the seventies. When he wasn’t born.
Over the other side was Julian. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much. My mum’s in the shower and I’m having dinner.” He said, picking at the lettuce.
Julian’s side was quiet. Jack thought he could hear trees. “Yum. What is it?”
“Salad. It’s got leek in it. And lettuce. What are you up to?”
The water was turned off. Jack shifted.
“Nothing. Laying in my bed.”
Thinking about you.
“Right. Mum’s out.”
“Nah.” He said. The phone beeped, telling him a minute had passed.
“Shit. My credit’s running out. I might get the computer later.” Jack said as Isabelle opened the bathroom door. She walked down the corridor and, seeing that her son was on the phone, took over the salad and fork silently.
“Okay then.” Julian said. “Or do you wanna hang up and I’ll call you back?”
Isabelle glanced at him as she sat down on the sofa and nodded. The phone was loud; not loud, loud, but loud enough.
“Right.” Jack replied. He hung up first. They sat in silence as the show went on, which was set in Wisconsin- across the country away.
Isabelle liked the show. Jack was half-watching. The phone rang. He picked up immediately.
“Hey again.” Julian spoke first.
“Mum’s here. Wanna say hi?” He past the brick thing to Isabelle. Over the air Julian said, “Right. Hello, Mrs. Alonso.”
She smiled politely. “Hello, Julian. Doing anything interesting?”
“Nah, laying in my bed.” He replied. She quickly passed the phone back to her son and shooed him dismissively with one hand. Jack was standing up, and Isabelle could hear him on the phone as he walked into the room and left the door open.
“It’s me again. …I know right? …They all say she looks younger than she is. …I’m in my room now, ‘cause she wants to watch her show. …Yeah, okay. I have to as well. …’K, see you later. Byee-ah.”
Isabelle looked up a bit down the darkened corridor. She couldn’t really see him, but people do that sometimes.
“My shift starts in an hour. Leave the computer alone.”
He yelled, slightly louder. “But can I use it?”
“Yes. Do your homework first.”
The show finished. Isabelle turned the TV off and walked down the hall in her slow stride. Jack’s room was the fist one on the right. He was laying on his stomach on top of the covers, homework set out, all spread open. Small, neat writing covered the pages. Even maths was done in cursive.
“That’s bad for your eyes. Sit up.”
Jack grunted and did as he was told, reluctantly.
“I’m going to see your dad tomorrow. You coming?”
“Erm, maybe.” He shrugged, making the bed creak. “Is he okay?”
I’ll find out.” She watched him for a bit, then packed her handbag for work. It was at a video store downtown, from seven in the evening to four in the morning. The job itself only included checking out, but just for something to do Isabelle would organise the movies.
Knife in the pocket.
“Thanks mum. Love ya.”
The front door was shut with a muted thump. A few minutes of utter silence later Jack yelled out to the empty house.
“Woo-hoo! Take that, Smartass Steven. Let’s get on the new now!” He got up and started talking to Julian again in a virtual chat room.
Isabelle smelt the man before she saw him. The guy was clearly drunk, grinning lop-sidedly and stank of alcohol. She backed away and flashed the knife between them, just a little. He eyed her and backed away.
The subway is a damn messed-up place.
No, scratch that. New York is.
She entered the video store. Five or six people were going through the movies, a chick who looked like a freshman was browsing at the classical music section alone. A guy just paid at the counter and said “thank you” and left the way Isabelle walked in.
“Oh our best chick in the house!” The guy behind the counter laughed and yelled, maybe in relief. Isabelle smiled a little as she walked around.
“I’m getting too old for this. Don’t be ridiculous.” She rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Shaun. Get some rest.”
“Sure thing, miss.” He punched his card, got changed in the back and left. A few people borrowed or bought movies. A new movie called Remember the Titans ran out. Isabelle wrote that down on a sticky note. The freshman borrowed Mozart and Beethoven and Bach. She had the post-braces smile.
The night was cold. Outside, neon signs flashed and cars drove past, sometimes with people whopping inside. Things grew quieter.
At 3:42 a.m., it snowed.