At the sound of the alarm going off, I groaned and shoved the pillow over my head. I hadn’t fallen asleep until the assholes next door had stopped blasting their music at three am, and I was nowhere near ready to wake up. Not that waking up was any great thrill these days, but as my grandfather used to say ‘Any day you’re on the right side of the dirt is a good day’. I remember always thinking when grandpa said that, that who knew if it would be better beneath the dirt? By the time you found out, you wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.

Well as of five years ago grandpa knew, but of course wasn’t telling. On that cheery note, I thought that it really couldn’t be any worse than what it was for me now. No, that was the way a quitter would think, and my Aunt Marie didn’t raise a quitter. She may have raised a couple of assholes as I had found out the hard way, but I wasn’t one of them. Reaching out, I found the cheap plastic alarm clock and thumbed it off. Tossing the pillow from my face, I looked up at the yellowed cracked plaster on the ceiling and repeated the mantra I had started every day with for the past few months.

“It will get better than this.”

I said it loudly, if not confidently and sat up on the cheap cot that passed for my bed these days. I shivered despite the fact I had a blanket wrapped around me, and was wearing two sweatshirts. I could feel a draft and looking over saw that the small piece of plastic I taped over the broken window had fallen off. Getting off the rickety cot, I walked over to the pile of clothes in the corner, and picked up a grey hooded sweatshirt. It was stained and dirty even by my standards, but I only had a few dollars and would have to wait again to go to the Laundromat.

I thought about going down the hallway to see if the shower were free, but quickly changed my mind. I had to get going in a few minutes to catch the beginning of the morning commute and had no way to dry my hair. The weather was calling for the low teens today, and I didn’t need to get sick again. Besides, the last time I tried the shower the water was so brown I would have ended up dirtier then when I had started. Oh well, what did I expect for a hundred a week, heat and clean water?

Pulling the filthy sweatshirt over my other two, I found the least dirty of the three pairs of jeans I owned and slipped them on over the sweatpants I was wearing. I glanced down at the worn pair of sneakers on the floor and shook my head; it was too cold and wet for those. Going over to the narrow door less closet, I picked up my latest prize possessions, a pair of semi decent work boots someone had thrown in the dumpster around the corner. I sat down on one of the two mismatched chairs at the small table, and pulling the boots on, looked into the closet.

Hanging there were the three decent things I had, a long sleeved blue dress shirt, black Dockers and a pair of fairly decent looking black shoes were there. Those were my interview clothes, and sadly I hadn’t had a chance to wear them in close to a month. Not for lack of trying, I had put in dozens of applications in that time, but no one was hiring. Well at least they weren’t hiring people who had no real work history, no car, lived in the worst part of town, and had no phone number to give them. I usually gave them Gino’s number, but if he didn’t answer they would hear his voice mail and know it wasn’t my phone.

A couple of months ago when I had caught a break and been able to work under the table for a week unloading trucks, I’d bought a go phone, but the minutes ran out and things had come down to having a phone or a cracked plaster roof over my head. During that time all I’d had for work was the two nights a week Gino got for me, bussing tables at his father’s restaurant. I made fifty a night in cash. which was just enough to pay for my posh dwelling. Silly little things like food, laundry, and the occasional treat of a haircut, were paid for by my ‘day job’ as I referred to it.

Looking into the old mirror leaning against the wall on top of the dresser, I finger combed my sandy brown hair. I was looking a little scruffy, but figured I didn’t have any hot dates lined up in the near future and shaving in the cold water in the community bathroom gave me razor burn anyway. I looked over at the alarm clock and saw it was close to six thirty, I had to get going. Just because I didn’t have a job didn’t mean that other people didn’t and this was the best time to catch them. After all, in a way their livelihood was my livelihood these days.

I slipped on a pair of fingerless mittens, then after grabbing the six dollars that I had to my name off the table, shoved it in my pocket, before putting on the pair of bulky gloves I had gotten from goodwill. I walked over to the door and removed the chair I had wedged under the door knob. Several times lately I’d heard the door being tried and never took any chances. For the life of me, I couldn’t fathom how anyone who lived here could think that anyone else who lived here would have anything else worth stealing. For that matter I never understood why the crack head prostitute down the hall constantly solicited me. Even if I was interested in going where everyman had gone before, I couldn’t afford a peck on the cheek, let alone sex.

I started to step through the door, and then caught myself. I had almost forgotten my advertising. Reaching back down to the table I picked up the cardboard sign and looked at what I had written there. “Down on my luck, anything helps.” I closed my eyes, fighting back the tears of frustration that somehow after months of this still hit me on a daily basis. Taking a deep breath, I whispered, “It will get better than this” and went out to swallow my pride yet again.


I walked quickly down the street, partly because I wanted to get to the the off ramp before someone else claimed the spot, but also because it was only fifteen degrees outside. Then again I usually walked pretty fast anyway on this street, especially anytime it was dark. Once I crossed the intersection and headed down Broad Street the neighborhood became better and I slowed up. The clock outside the bank read six fifty which meant I was making good time and could spare a couple of minutes to stop into Cumberland farms for a quick breakfast. The brief stop would also give me a chance to catch a little heat before I spent the next couple of hours shivering outside.

Entering the store, I immediately went over to the small bargain rack and looked over my options. The rack contained mostly pastries that we’re all under a dollar. For the last six months, things like this as well as the fast food dollar menus were my means of survival. For eight to ten dollars I could manage to eat three times a day, and occasionally even splurge for a coffee or two in between. After a few seconds debate, I grabbed a cheese Danish and looked over at the coffee pot. I could get a large for a dollar which would really help with the cold.

I began to walk over and stopped myself. People were pretty much jerks and once when I’d been standing there with a coffee, a guy had made a crack that seeing I had one I must just be one of those con artists he’d heard about. I hovered near the pot indecisively then with a shrug decided to pass; besides it was pretty cold, maybe Paula would bring me one today. At the thought of her I felt a smile briefly touch my lips. Paula was usually the highlight of my day, and had been for awhile now. Our conversations were brief, usually only a couple of minutes while she pulled over and gave me a coffee and a couple of dollars, but they gave me something to look forward to.

Turning from the coffee, I made my way towards the counter. Seeing I was passing on the coffee I grabbed a small pack of mini donuts to go with the Danish. Oh yeah, I was living large today for sure. I headed for the counter and stopped in my tracks when I saw a Providence cop waiting in line to pay for his coffee. I recognized him as the same one who had chased me off the corner several times, and hung back. Unfortunately he picked that moment to turn around and seeing me nodded,

“Morning Jamie, you staying out of trouble?”

“Yes sir.” I said.

I turned away embarrassed, as the couple of other people in line turned to look at me. Cops were such pricks. Then again he was doing his job, and had never taken me down to the station like he could have, just told me to get walking. Deciding to wait until he left to get in line, I wandered down the central aisle. I passed the guy stocking the shelves and felt his eyes on me. Glancing up in the round mirror in the upper corner of the store, I saw him staring at me. Most likely waiting for me to try to shop lift something. This was another of life’s little frustrations, I had never stolen anything in my life, but I suppose it’s easy for people to make assumptions.

A sea of red caught my eye, and I noticed the entire left side of the aisle was dedicated to Valentine’s Day. I narrowed my eyes, the days were a little hard to keep track of sometimes, but as I thought on it, I realized today was the fourteenth. What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, I was living with Aunt Marie, in my second semester at URI and had spent Valentine’s Day at a cozy little hotel with Tammy. Now my aunt was living in a nursing home and on a good day kind of recognized me, I had no money, had to quit school and as for Tammy?

I looked down at the floor, of all the things that had happened to me in the last few months that was still the most humiliating. Tammy’s family had money and she was always a bit better than. Even when I had my shit together, her family wondered what she saw in me. Once things got rough however, she began to change as well. When I was living with a roommate she was constantly asking me when I would get a job and have some money, or when would I be going back to school. Her Daddy was riding her about me and heaven forbid she be inconvenienced in anyway, or have to defend me.

When my roommate unceremoniously tossed me out because his girlfriend had to move in with him, I had ended up where I was now. Soon after that I lost my job and had gotten desperate enough to start panhandling. One day I heard my name called and looking up, wanted to crawl into a hole. It was three kids I had gone to URI with including one of Tammy’s best friends. They said a couple of things along the lines of “Hey how’s the new job going’ and took off.

The next day Tammy came by herself. They had told her and she hadn’t believed them. Once she saw me she pulled over and began yelling at me, how dare I embarrass her? Here I was a step away from homeless, my life in ruins and I was upsetting her. I lost it and told her to go fuck herself. That had been five months ago and since then fucking myself is pretty much what I’d been doing. I certainly couldn’t think about asking a girl out, and after all, my hand did have pretty low expectations.

I guess in a way I should be happy I saw Tammy’s true colors so I wouldn’t waste my life trying to make her happy, but the way it happened still bothered me. It was funny how life had a way of changing your perspectives and quickly. Not too long ago the thought of being alone on Valentine’s Day would have upset me. Now that every day was a fight to keep eating and existing I could care less. Although it was a shame that so many decent people were alone, and pieces of work like Tammy, or Aunt Marie’s kids for that matter, would always have someone.

My Aunt always claimed that what came around went around, and if you were good to people you would get it back, if you were bad you would get what you deserved. Sad to say Aunties theory pretty much worked in reverse from what I’d seen lately. Seemed to me the people that deserved something good in their lives were being shit on. Paula was a perfect example. She was an attractive, sweet, caring person who had given of herself her entire life. Yet here it was Valentine’s Day and she would be staying home alone as she usually did.

I started to walk towards the counter, but stopped and looked back at the cards. Maybe I should get her a Valentine. No, that would look funny, not to mention the cards were three to four dollars and who knew if I would get any money today. Right now those four dollars would guarantee I ate lunch. I took another step to the front of the store then stopped again. What was wrong with me? The woman had been far better to me than anyone else in my life right now including a girl who allegedly loved me. Now here I was with a chance to make her smile and I was hedging.

I went back to the cards and frowned as I looked them over. I didn’t want one that was actually romantic or leading so to speak, just something thoughtful. I picked one up that had a picture of a red heart shaped box with a ribbon on it. Underneath the box it said ‘You are a gift to my heart’. Opening the card I read the short paragraph inside. It spoke of how true gifts were not the ones we received in boxes, but those we received in our hearts, our blessings.

Well I didn’t feel like I had too many blessings right now, but if I had one it was surely Paula. I flipped the card over and saw it was three dollars so within the budget. On the way to the counter I found myself in a better mood and smiled at the guy who had been staring at me the entire time. He gave me an odd look, and I gave him a wink and pursed my lips at him.

“Like what you see?” I asked.

He turned redder than the card in my hand and quickly went back to stocking the cat food. I was still grinning when I got to the counter. That was more like the old me, always looking for a chance to bust someone’s balls. While I waited for the guy in front of me to check out, my eyes fell on a small plastic bucket on the counter that contained artificial roses. I saw a purple one, which was Paula’s favorite color. The sign said they were a dollar, and doing some quick math, I put the donuts on the rack next to me and picked up the rose. The Danish would be enough, and I figured the rose would be a nice touch.

Once I paid, I stepped to the side and using the pen next to the credit card machine went to sign the card. I was just going to put my name, but after thinking for a moment wrote; For a woman who is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. Thank you for everything you’ve done, you’ve truly been a gift to me. Happy Valentine’s Day, Jamie

As soon as I finished, I frowned. That was a little strong, but it was how I felt, and from what I had seen of her she was pretty, maybe not lights out, but I always had the feeling she held herself back. Paula’s hair was always up, and she wore very little makeup. The couple of times I had seen her out of her car she was dressed not only proper, but almost unflattering. Besides, standing here in my stained clothes and second time around boots, who was I to judge? Main thing was I meant what I said and hopefully could get her to smile. She had done that for me plenty of times and as Aunty said I should treat people the way they treated me.

I slipped the rose inside of my sweatshirt so I wouldn’t look like an idiot standing there with it, hurried down the street. Choosing the card had me running a little behind and hopefully that weird old bastard that always wore the army jacket hadn’t gotten there first. Usually I beat him to it, but occasionally he would arrive first, and I had learned the hard way, by taking a beating one time, that street etiquette dictated it was only your spot if you claimed it first that day. The wind kicked up and pulling up the hood, I put my head down and made my towards the industrial park exit. In order to keep my mind off the cold and to try to hold onto the first good mood I’d been in all week, I thought about Paula.

Over the months I’d been doing this, I had found some regulars I guess you could call them. It made sense, seeing that I worked the corner of an industrial complex and people went to work that way every day. Although random people would give me a buck here and there it seemed like mostly the same people would give me something, and sometimes more than money. Last month a guy named Rob gave me two sweatshirts his son was going to throw out, and there was a woman who had brought me a bagel a couple of times.

Paula was my first regular, or at least the first I recognized. She had given me a dollar a couple of days in a row, then the next time I saw her, she had given me a five. I didn’t make that corner for a few days, due to getting a chance to work a little at the restaurant in the morning, and when next I saw her she asked my name and said she had been worried when she hadn’t seen me. I was surprised and asked why, and she said I seemed so young and she had been afraid something happened to me. I was touched, no one had worried about me in a long time and I think I had a lump in my throat when I thanked her.

The next day, Paula pulled her black SUV partway up onto the island and after handing me a coffee spent a few minutes talking to me. She told me her name and that she worked as an office manager at one of the companies on the far side of the park. She then gave me five dollars and after an awkward pause, asked me why I was out there. I gave her my standard answer of I was living with a family member who had gotten sick and I had no one else. She had tried to ask more, but after being vague with my answers, she took the hint.

From that point on any morning I saw her she would pull over and talk to me for a couple of minutes. Asking if I had any luck finding a job, and how I was doing in general. More often than not, she would give me at least five dollars and brought me coffee quite a few times. She was so nice to me I started feeling bad taking that much every day from her. One day when I was upset because I had run out of time on my phone she showed back up a half hour later with a ten dollar phone card.

A couple of weeks ago Paula and I had gotten to know quite a bit about each other. It was a Friday, and the night before it had snowed like an absolute bitch, over twelve inches of heavy wet shit covering the ground. I had trudged out to my spot, hoping the weather would gain me some sympathy and a few extra dollars. Paula had pulled up and asked if I wanted to make some money. I said I would be thrilled to, I would much rather earn something then just take handouts. Paula told me she had a huge driveway and walkway, and certainly wasn’t going to shovel it. She normally paid a couple of neighborhood kids twenty bucks apiece to shovel it, but figured why not ask me this time?

I initially felt a little weird and asked if she cared if I knew where she lived. Paula had smiled and said she could tell I was a good guy who was just having it rough, not a criminal. I still felt weird, but she was offering forty dollars, which meant I could get some more time on my phone and maybe buy a couple of small things I needed. I agreed and she asked where I lived so she could pick me up. I didn’t want her to do that, I hated where I lived and although I’m sure she knew I lived in a pit I did not want her to see it. I told her that it was a rough neighborhood and I didn’t want her driving through it.