The neon flickered on and off, all night long. "HOTE", darkness, "HOTE", darkness, "HOTE"...over and over. Red as an artery. It might have seemed like a stock element from some grade-B film noir, but for him it had become terribly real.

The couple in the room next door had been fighting for hours, shrilly trading idle threats, which would have kept him awake had not the neon and his insomnia already taken the job. But they had apparently reconciled, for now their angry words were replaced by gasps and the whump-whump of a headboard banging into a thin wall.

This was worse, much worse. He preferred the fighting.

He didn't want to think about how his life had come to this, but unfortunately time to think had become his most plentiful resource.

Once there had been promise. But now...a squalid by-the-week room on the third floor of a forgotten side street, a communal bathroom down the hall, a diet supplied almost entirely by cheap beaneries. Chili, beans, macaroni, cabbage, the cheapest he could find. He didn't even have enough money for a good drunk.

His meager expenses were paid by public relief and the occasional shoplifting success, which gave him just enough to keep this inadequate roof over his head--a critical consideration in this deep-frozen January. The cold locked him indoors, in this grimy cell, with nothing in the way of entertainment. Even the penny-ante pinochle game which ran almost continuously in the lobby was too rich for him, nor could he simply watch on account of the players' withering stares.

While winter held its grip, he had to resign himself to listening to his neighbors--hopefully they'd start fighting again soon--and thinking, thinking, thinking. Where had it all gone wrong, he asked himself repeatedly, almost in perfect time with the neon blinking just outside the cracked window.


Copyright 2004, P.J. Anderson