Piker Press Banner
September 18, 2023

Companionship Can Be a Fickle Thing

By George Gad Economou

Vroom-Vroom/Honk/inaudible obscene bawls; the morning Athenian traffic is the most effective alarm clock; more accurate than any digital one. It commences at quarter to seven and by seven thirty, the gridlock turns into a slithering monster that fills the streets and floods the air with its blaring grumbling and growling.

It forces Cynthia to stir out of her heavy slumber on the hard, cold pavement of the underway passage and clamber up to her feet. The first thing she does is ensure no privileged youngsters or impoverished bums helped themselves to her few belongings inside the shopping trolley bag.

Not that she has anything worth stealing but even the half-eaten sandwich she fished out of a trash can last night, the two plastic bottles of water, and the few stuff she’s found in the trash, which she might be able to sell at a pawn shop, are as valuable to her as a Dali painting is to most people.

As people start ambling through the passageway, she heads up to the street level. The pain and exhaustion ravaging her muscles, courtesy of sleeping on the hard pavement, births the desire to remain seated but she never could bear the dismissive and loathsome glares some people toss her way. Even worse is the complete apathy most people show towards her, acting as if she doesn’t exist—as if she shouldn’t exist.

Nothing but another invisible ghost, she shambles down Kifisias avenue, mingling with the crowd heading for bus stops or the subway, shuffling off toward their workplace, ready to begin another day of routine, but with something to do. She has nothing to do but perhaps try and get a cup of coffee, or tea, from the local coffee shop and wait for the night to come, when the heat dies down and the crowd disperses, so she can stroll around without constantly being treated like a parasite that won’t be killed off.

A long line has formed outside the local coffee shop on Panormou Avenue, all of them rocking back and forth on their heels while their noses remain buried in the gleaming screens of their phones. A single thought emanates from the line comprising of at least fifteen people acting like a single crawling-forth organism: “come on, hurry up, I gotta catch the subway, my boss’s gonna kill me if I’m late again.”

Once upon a time, she belonged in that crowd; she still was invisible, just like now, but, back then, she didn’t have the time, nor a reason, to contemplate the cruel anonymity of a large city. She’d get up, make her kids breakfast, then shower, get dressed, and brace the gridlock until she reached the office complex, mopping floors and scrubbing stairs, just a tiny cog in a gargantuan machine for eight hours per day.

Even back then, everyone in the office looked at her like an annoying fly. Now, she receives looks of disgust whenever she fishes a fresh, half-eaten pastry from the top of the trash bin or picks it up from the two tall tables right outside the coffee shop.

Too many people abandon perfectly good food, and sometimes even half-full plastic cups of coffee, just because they’re in a hurry and because they can afford to eat daily and, therefore, don’t think about the value of food.

To her, a half-eaten sandwich or chocolate croissant—let alone when combined with a cup of still-warm coffee—is the greatest treasure in existence, a more exuberant discovery than finding an actual map to El Dorado. What if the person that ate half of it had a disease? Worst case scenario, she dies. It’s all right, almost no one’s gonna miss her.

Her children live abroad, seemingly having forgotten they have a mother. Her husband died several years ago. Her friends abandoned her when her financial situation turned dire out of fear she’d ask for money or to use their guest bedroom.

The chance she might contract the flu, or coronavirus, or something else from a delicious, warm croissant is a better alternative than going through the day with a grumbling stomach and the dizziness and weakness extreme hunger causes.

“Jesus Christ,” grumbled a young man with a fresh, clean-shaven face.

“Disgusting,” mumbled a woman in her forties, biting her lips down and googling her eyes at Cynthia when she took a large bite out of the still-warm croissant someone left on the tall table almost untouched.

Unwilling to endure the judgmental glares of people that never felt the grip of despair around their throats even a second longer than she absolutely has to, she shambles down the smaller, less-crowded streets behind the central avenue holding onto the croissant and plastic cup of coffee. Away from prying eyes, she can relish the buttery croissant with the palatable chocolate filling and steal a sip of the black coffee. Some cream and sugar would have made it better but, as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers.

Dragging her shopping trolley bag behind her, within it everything she owns, she clambers around the streets, peeking into the large metal dumpsters she encounters hoping to find something, anything, that can be sold or recycled. In broad daylight, with people walking around, she hates digging into dumpsters and ripping black plastic bags open.

With a hasty step, she heads for the small park nearby, right next to the oldest, and possibly biggest, nursing home in Athens. In theory, she is eligible to get a room there, which would provide her with four walls and a roof, a bed, and daily meals. Who’s gonna cover the expenses, though? Staying there is not free and her social security cannot cover it; nor are her children anywhere near to pitch in (even if they cared to do so).

She sits down on one of the benches of the small park, shielded from prying gazes from pedestrians by the trees and shrubs engirdling the park. It’s the kind of place junkies sometimes come to sleep, or nod off, and closeted homosexuals come to play away from curious, prying eyes.

Just a couple of days ago, two junkies had sat on the bench next to her; one of them never woke up. OD’ed. The other one had simply sat next to him, slipping in and out of consciousness. She didn’t stay long enough to see the surviving man’s reaction once he understood he had lost a friend.

Thankfully, the park is deserted, except for a few fat, grey pigeons strutting about, searching for something, anything, to eat. If she hadn’t already devoured the croissant, she’d toss them some crumbs. The coffee has grown lukewarm but it still tastes sublime, more rejuvenating and palatable than anything she can remember.

Once upon a time, having coffee was just as normal as eating, sleeping, or taking a piss. Now, it has become one of the great luxuries she can only afford whenever Lady Luck casts a vague smile her way. Even with the coffee growing cold, losing some of its taste, she steals nips out of it for she never knows when the next time she’ll enjoy some coffee shall come.

Even in early August, with many Athenians on vacation in popular spots or the villages their grandparents hailed from, the streets remain crowded enough to make her uncomfortable to roam around in search of food and saleable stuff in the trash. All she has to look forward to is the nighttime, for the air to grow cooler and for the sidewalks to be deserted enough for her with more ease to do her usual round of the various residential blocks, hoping that people have thrown away food in disregard to the dire circumstances of poverty and homelessness. The hours refuse to pass, as is time’s wont when there’s nothing to do but stare at the trees and the ground, envisaging a different life, something that once was real and now has become unattainable, if not outright utopian.

Eventually, finally, the sun begins to descend, turning crimson, then sanguine, and the darkening sky also brings a cooler, more bearable breeze across the concrete jungle. Once she clambers up to her feet, leaving the darkening small park that may become dangerous soon enough, her heart palpitates faster out of sheer excitement and pure anticipation.

Now is the time to see if she can find something to call dinner—even if most people would call it leftovers—and meet the only creatures in this massive, hostile city she can call friends. Well, friends might be the wrong term; at any rate, they’re the only ones not running away from her reeking clothes, disheveled hair, and eyes emanating the madness deriving from a purposeless life on the streets.

Out of the park she ambles, heading toward the underway passage she has been calling home ever since she located the area on the verge of downtown Athens that is far quieter than the actual downtown area and doesn’t have an army of homeless and impoverished people competing for aluminum cans, glass bottles, and meal leftovers.

She comes back up from the passageway and clambers down the Kifisias avenue—which is delightfully devoid of both cars and pedestrians—until she reaches the tall, glass building housing the local tax office. Right behind it stand four large dumpsters; first, she goes to the blue recycling ones and her face lightens up when she picks up a plastic bag filled with aluminum beer cans.

Someone must have held a party lately, or maybe an alcoholic lives on the block; she can hold a party of her own, too, once she recycles the cans at the supermarket. With more than fifty cans in the bag, and with each one worth two cents, she’ll earn enough to buy a fresh croissant or something.

God, it’s been too long since she last was able to eat a whole baked good, fresh out of the oven and with no bite marks. After locating a few glass bottles, too, and stuffing them in her shopping trolley bag—suddenly finding herself in possession of a small fortune—she starts searching the green dumpsters.

The first couple of bags she checks contain nothing of use; whatever food’s in there has been mixed with cigarette ash and other stuff that render it inedible. Yet, bingo, the third bag is the goddamn jackpot; not only does it contain a closed box of pre-cooked chicken with all the bones, charred skin, and even some pieces of white meat, but also a sealed bag of oregano-flavor potato chips. Granted, the chips expired three days ago; how some people throw away perfectly good food just because of an expiration date is beyond her.

Even when she still had a job, some money, and a home, she’d never throw away food just because it expired a couple of days earlier; she’d always find ways to use it. Despite her frugal spirit, she still ended up on the streets while so many people have a home despite throwing away food and wasting their money.

In the last bag she grabs, almost risking falling headfirst into the dumpster to reach it, she finds two yogurts that expired yesterday. With both dinner and dessert, she heads to the corner of the street, right next to the small garage of the tax office.

“Psst, psst,” she says. When nothing happens at first, she tries again, louder. Something stirs from across the small street, and two small, grey kittens sprint out of the parking lot of the apartment building, crossing the deserted street.

“Hey there,” she greets them. One of the kittens meows, the other just stares at her from a small distance. She takes one of the plastic bottles out of her shopping bag and fills the ceramic tray someone once left on the sidewalk with water before throwing the chicken leftovers on the sidewalk. “Don’t be afraid, eat,” she instructs the kittens.

At first, they just gawk at her, one of them constantly meowing but not moving close to the food. A couple of adult feral cats approach, slowly but steadfastly, and sniff the leftovers.

“No, not you,” she says in exasperation but the cats don’t care. Disappointed, she takes a step toward the kittens; immediately, they jump backwards, and the meowing one arches his back and hisses. “Fine, fine,” she says with a small frown and takes a step back.

Finally, the kittens approach the food. She runs her fingers through her dry, dirty hair and her thin, cracked-up lips twitch into a smile when the kittens start nibbling on the white meat. She squints and turns her gaze toward the apartment building across the street when a flashlight shines on the kittens.

Despite the lack of streetlamps to illumine the street, she senses the disdain of the people glaring at her from the balcony of their comfortable apartment.

“Hey, leave those kittens alone,” one of them bawls at her. Her stomach clenches and her heart races; why do they disapprove of her taking care of the poor kittens? She’s just feeding them despite struggling to keep herself fed. What’s so bad about it? “Come on, get lost,” the man repeats.

Defeated, and unwilling to yowl back at the man—explaining her situation is pointless, after all, since most people view her as a failure deserving nothing but to dissipate from the planet’s surface—she shambles away, right after waving goodbye at the kittens.

Her hope is that one day they’ll trust her enough to come near her, perhaps let her pet them or purr as they rub against her leg. It’ll be the sign she needs to keep on living, to keep on spending the bright, hot mornings in a small park notorious for gathering junkies and the nights meandering around the neighborhood searching for half-eaten food.

Having fed the kittens that have stolen her heart—and have given her a reason to keep on fighting daily, as she fears that if something were to happen to her they’ll starve or meet a morbid fate—and having found her dinner, she clambers back to the underway passageway, with her shopping trolley bag and the plastic bag with the aluminum cans and glass bottles.

As she lies on the cold pavement, using an old, worn-out blanket (one of the handful of mementos from her former life) as a pillow, she is baffled, once more, about how elated these five-ten minutes she spends near the kittens make her. Every day she falls asleep, and wakes up, with joy flooding her heart over the prospect of seeing them again, listening to them meow and watching them eat with glee shimmering in their tiny, grateful eyes.

Her eyelids flutter and soon she succumbs to the powerful, inescapable embrace of Morpheus while hugging the plastic bag tight and making sure her shopping trolley bag is glued to her side. Once again, the usual cacophony awakens her, the honking and engine-revving and swearing from drivers pissed off they had to get up in an ungodly hour.

She blinks and rubs her heavy eyelids. Something’s amiss; while still dazed from the heavy sleep, her eyes refusing to stay open for more than a few seconds, she flaps her hands around. Her shopping trolley bag’s still there, right next to her. But the plastic bag’s nowhere to be found; she fails to touch the heavy thing, no aluminum cans rattle against each other.

She sits up, her heart in her throat, and peeks about, confirming that the bag’s gone, along with the hope of an untouched breakfast, of eating something she bought and not something someone left behind. With nothing left to push her up to her feet sans the thought of the kittens and their nighttime feeding, she lays her head back on the blanket and shields her eyes with her forearm.

Her sobs cause her chest to heave and she sinks her teeth in her bottom lips to avoid giving passersby the satisfaction of seeing her utterly defeated. Even under the doorway of an old shop, that has been closed for years, she feels as if she’s taking up too much space and as more and more footsteps and murmurs reverberate across the passageway, she finally decides to get up and go up to the street level.

The blinding sun hits her exhausted, bloodshot eyes and she squints as she clambers through the amassed crowd standing around the bus stop; most don’t even bother to make way for her, despite them blocking the sidewalk, and she keeps mumbling “sorry, sorry,” as she pushes her way through them.

Finally, she’s back at the park, having failed to find anything to eat or drink at the coffee shop or in the trash cans. A lone man sits on another bench, his rags filthy, and the several feet that separate them are not enough to prevent his bodily stench to reach her nostrils.

“Fuck life, huh?” He said, with a hoarse, coarse voice that rattled her brain.

“Yeah,” she concurred, responding to his toothless smile with a gentle half-smile. How could she argue against the man’s crude but awfully accurate remark? If someone hadn’t stolen her plastic bag, she would be eating something fresh and hot, far more rejuvenating than the stale potato chips and somewhat sour yogurt she had as dinner yesterday.

They trade no more words; what was there to say, after all? The usual chitchat most people engage in to get to know a stranger cannot apply to their case; “what do you do for a living?”, “where do you live?”, “what about your family?”, all these questions are meaningless when you’ve got nothing and no one.

Soon, the man limped away from the park, letting out a grunt whenever he stepped on his right leg, favoring his hip. Once more all alone, she leans back on the bench, her hand tightly clenched around the trolley shopping bag’s handle, and gawks at the sky, trying to decipher whether something better awaits her beyond the horizon.

Nothing’s there. She knows it; she has known it ever since her husband died leaving behind nothing but massive debts. In the eyes of the law, she was not vulnerable enough to enter the welfare program offering indebted people the chance to save their homes from foreclosure.

The banks took everything, her old home got auctioned and last she heard the new owner (who bought it for peanuts) is making a fortune out of it by listing it on Airbnb. If they had had a second place to stay, she would have rented it to tourists and, instead of living on the streets and viewing a plastic bag filled with aluminum cans as a valuable treasure, she would have lived comfortably.

No point in mulling over things that never came to pass. It’s too late to change things and she does not possess the skills, talent, or determination to start anew. Despite the morbid thoughts, her lips twitch up into a vague smile as she envisions the kittens and how happy they seem when they see her. Several hours yet until she can go see them but the thought alone brings joy to her withering soul.

If someone was to see her—her clothes dirty and sporting spots from the pavement whereon she sleeps and her hair all disheveled and unwashed for weeks (since the last time it rained)—sporting a wide, lucent smile, they’d have thought her insane.

Perhaps, she is, placing not just her happiness but the whole reason for her staying alive on spending ten minutes around two kittens that don’t even come too close to her. Even if they did, even if they let her pet them, what would she do? Take them with her?

She could, keeping them off the busy avenues and streets and having some company during the long daylight hours she is too afraid and shy to meander around while trying to dredge up food out of dumpsters. As the hours go by, and after eating the second yogurt she found last night, washing away its sourness with some lukewarm water, her heart begins to pound.

Soon, she’ll see the kittens again. As she scours the various dumpsters on her way, she rejoices whenever she discovers something edible: today, she finds two separate containers with fish leftovers and some tupperware containing perfectly good food—a portion of pastitsio and some chicken and potatoes in the oven. Perhaps, they were deep-frozen and someone decided they didn’t want them any longer; perhaps, they turned bad but she’d o take the chance. After all, food poisoning has dropped too low on her list of worries, despite a case of diarrhea not being fun for anyone.

After putting the fish remains in one container, and the tupperware in her shopping trolley bag, she trots down the street and reaches the tax office. She sets the container down and calls the kittens, her heart fluttering as anticipation and elation flood her shivering body.

They don’t come. Other cats, feral, arrive, and take a sniff at the container; she tries to shoo them away, at least until the kittens have their share, but they hiss at her. And the kittens don’t show. They don’t come galloping across the parking lot from across the street, they don’t pop out of the yard girdling the hair salon.

She continues calling them for several minutes; she refills the ceramic pot with water and heads to the parking lot of the apartment building. There’s a tap there and she refills both her bottles with cool water, to have something to wash down her dinner.

Unwilling to give up, she continues calling the kittens, to no avail. She even peeks down the stairs leading to the building’s entrance. They’re not there, either. Nowhere. Her heart sinks into her knotted stomach and her skin grows pallid. She has to give up, lest she is caught and accused of trespassing, but she does not want to give up.

Seeing those kittens, and listening to the talkative one meow at her, has been the only positive thing in her day for a few weeks now. By the time she crosses the street, the feral cats have picked the container clean. Nothing left for the kittens to eat, if they show up late.

Biting her quivering bottom lip, she takes the tupperware containing the chicken out of her bag and puts the food in the container, flapping her arms around to keep the feral cats away. Perhaps, the sweet kittens will show up soon, and she wants them to have something to eat. The pastitsio and the oven-baked potatoes will more than suffice for her.

With a single tear rolling down her cheek, she shambles towards the underway passageway. Her stomach is rumbling and does not want to linger around the tax office too long; maybe, the security cameras will pick her up and get her in trouble with the law.

At the street corner, she steals a final glimpse around, hoping, praying, to see the kittens. Nothing. Perhaps, someone from the block took them to a vet and a shelter, or maybe even into their home.

Sadly, the most likely scenario is that the poor, sweet kittens cursed with homelessness, like her, met a much crueler and more morbid fate. She closes her eyes, uses her knuckles to wipe the glistening tears away, and lumbers away, keeping her gaze glued to the sidewalk just in case one of the kittens lies on the street, a puddle of grey fur and blood.

During the following days, the hours went by even slower than usual, as fear about never seeing the kittens again replaced the joyous anticipation of the ten-minute joyous affair. She never saw them again; every night, she prayed someone had given them a safe home to grow old in. She still put food on the sidewalk behind the tax office building, just in case they arrived later, and on a couple of occasions gave to the cats the only piece of food she found in the trash, preferring to go hungry than the possibility of the kittens starving.

Six days after the kittens’ disappearance, and with her stomach rumbling and whirling, she lay her head on her worn-out blanket and closed her watery eyes, seeing the kittens with her mind’s eye. Her heart palpitated, her legs and arms shook, and she fell into a slumber while sobbing.

She never woke up. Paramedics arrived two days later, when the underway passageway began to reek, and took her straight to a hospital’s morgue.

In her last living moments, when she still was dreaming, she encountered a massive green field with enough fruit trees to keep the planet’s population well-fed, and the kittens trotted around the field, this time eager to come up to her and rub their heads against her legs.

Article © George Gad Economou. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-05-08
Image(s) are public domain.
0 Reader Comments
Your Comments

The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.