He longs for a cigarette, the taste of the smoke in his mouth, the curl of it around his face, the familiar tingle when the nicotine hits his bloodstream. The overwhelming sense of calm and peace and purpose that fills his mind when he holds the cigarette between his fingers and takes a long, easy drag on it. He absentmindedly pats his jacket pocket and then feels foolish; of course, they aren’t there. He gave up smoking a long time ago. For her. He gave up a lot for her. Everything, in fact. And what did she ever give up for him? Nothing. She just left. The thought of her burns like a smoldering cinder against the skin of his brain. He hates her now. For what she did to him.
He is distracted from his thoughts by Blondie. He calls her Blondie because she wears a frightful blonde wig that looks completely ridiculous piled on top of her bald head. He doesn’t know why she is bald, nor does he care. All he knows is, she looks hideous, like some kind of freak scarecrow. And now she is shuffling over to him from her normal position by the bus stop, she and her repulsive little toy poodle who is more bedraggled than she is. The dog is nothing but an old stuffed toy, a scrap from some child who tossed it out – rightfully – when it was time to get rid of childish things and grow up. Blondie, if she had ever grown up, has long since regressed to childhood again, only this time, she is a whiny, bratty, disgusting caricature of a child, holding out her hands and asking passers-by for money. She holds out her hand towards Walter, only this time, she isn’t asking him for any money; she is holding her toy dog out to him.
“You look sad, mister. Would you like Maurice to give you a hug?” she asks.
“Get away from me, you old hag!” Walter grumps, turning his eyes away from her. She shrugs, smiles, and walks back to her familiar corner, smiling at something no one else can understand. When she has gone, Walter turns and looks at her again. Imbecile, he thinks.
His tummy rumbles. He almost forgot why he came down here. It’s lunchtime. Should he head down to the corner grill and grab a sandwich? Or should he drop by Elaine’s and see if they have a table for him? He loves going to Elaine’s. They have the best crab salads, and no one will say anything if he has a martini or two. They are very discreet at Elaine’s. But he’s not sure if he’s feeling quite that fancy today. Maybe just a sandwich. And a mineral water. They have very good mineral water at the corner grill. He walks down the street towards the corner.
He takes a seat in his usual spot and waits patiently for service, but they are very busy today and everyone seems to be ignoring him. He thinks of calling back to the office to let them know he might be a little late, and is reaching into his jacket for his cell phone when he realizes it isn’t there; he must’ve left it back at the office again. But there is something in his jacket, a bulge of some kind, and he pulls it out and looks at it a moment before realizing what it is. It’s a sandwich – half a sandwich, actually – wrapped in a plastic bag. Where did this come from? he thinks, but then it strikes him that this is fortuitous because now he won’t have to buy one; now all he needs is a mineral water. He takes a bite of the sandwich; it’s a bit dry. He looks around to see if he can catch the eye of a waiter so he can order that mineral water, and then he notices that there is a fountain, a real honest-to-goodness fountain right in the middle of the place. When did they put this in? he wonders. He likes fountains. He likes the sound of the water cascading into them. He likes the humidity of the air around them, so fresh, so reviving. He stands up and walks over to it.
The bottom of the pool has lots of coins scattered all over it. He looks at the coins, mesmerized. All those shiny coins, little rounded pieces of metal. Precious metal. Rusting in the water. Why would anyone want to leave all that metal lying at the bottom of the pool so it will rust away? It seems such a waste. Somewhere he remembers reading that rusty water has lots of minerals in it, so it’s kind of like mineral water. He leans down and scoops up a handful of water and brings it to his lips. It is cool and tastes like rust. It isn’t bad. In fact, it tastes good. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was. He takes another drink. And another. And then stops. Someone is watching him. He looks up. It is Blondie again. She must have followed him into the restaurant. Now she is watching him and smiling in a sad kind of way. He glares at her, motioning with his hand – Go away! She shrugs and turns away and ambles off. His face feels hot. But he is not embarrassed; he is just angry. He doesn’t like it when people look at him that way.
He looks down into the fountain and sees the coins again. Such pretty flashes of light reflecting off the metal. The light dances off the surface of the water, rolling over the coins and disappearing and then re-appearing a moment later as the ripples bounce back and forth. He reaches down into the water and picks up a coin. A dime. He pulls it out of the water and looks at it as it sits in the palm of his hand. So bright, so shiny. Not rusty like the pennies. He looks back down in the water and sees hundreds of dimes, thousands of pennies. He thinks that if he reaches down and pickes up a few handfuls of the pretty silver dimes, he could fill his pockets with them, and they would make a happy jingle as he walks up and down the street. He is just on the verge of reaching down with both hands and scooping up handfuls of the pretty dimes when there is a tug on the sleeve of his jacket. He turns to see who is interrupting his thoughts. It is a police officer, holding a night-stick out and poking him in the arm with it.
“Hey, buddy, you can put ’em in, but you can’t take ’em out, y’unnerstand?” Walter looks blankly at the police officer, who is far too young to be a real police officer, no more than a child, really, and drops the dime back into the water automatically, without even realizing what he has done. Somewhere in his brain, an automatic circuit fires.
“Yes, sir, Officer, sir,” he intones in a dreamy voice, as though from far away. And he turns slowly and walks back up the street toward the office building where he used to work, his threadbare shoes and raggedy old pin-stripe suit barely hanging on to his emaciated frame.