Albatross, by Patrick McNeil

Al Bailey was six foot six in just the worst way. He ducked under every doorway he ever stepped through—even the one that led into the house, the one that was eight foot, just out of habit. It made him look like he was apologizing just for coming into a room. To see him curled up on those short ass cots in there, you felt it in your own back. You felt it, too, watching him do his rounds every morning—dragging his big ass feet up and down the strip, looking for butts, and then finding one, and stooping all six foot six down to pick it up and find out that most of the time it was nothing at all. That there was nothing left but filter.

“No rest for the weary, no sir,” he’d say, or something like that, and toss it off into the street and out of his way. Then he’d walk the rest of the strip outside the house with a crick to his neck and his greedy eyes on the ground. Every morning he’d be at it, doing his rounds before the rest of the city was even up—early bird gets the worm and all—and when he found one he’d put that someone else’s filthy, coughed-up, lipsticked butt in his mouth and light her up and pull like hell.

The he’d let out the smoke like free at last.

Gross as he was, most of us in the house sympathized with him. Even though we’d bust his balls about how filthy a dude he was—he only had the one pair of jeans, for example, that he slept in, too—we got a kick out of Al. None of us knew for sure how old he was. We placed bets that we never got to settle because he never told us–another thing we got a kick out of.

Still, we’d stopped giving him cigarettes a while back. We had to. Give Al a cig and twenty minutes later–at most–he’ll be right back with his hand out for another. If he knew you were holding and gave him one already, then what’s just one more, right? An addict’s an addict’s an addict’s an addict. So we cut him off altogether. If he’s just going to smoke it up and ask for another one then why give dude a cig in the first place? Right? You understand. You’ve thought the same thing, you, running into one of us begging on the el. Thinking: junkie. Junkie just going to spend it right up and it won’t change a thing, this dollar of mine. And you know what you’re right. It won’t.

Still, I felt for Al—I couldn’t help it. Just like you’ve felt for us. And so one morning, full pack in my pocket, feeling good about things, mostly, and looking at the poor guy walking the strip for a puff or two at a time, well I wanted to help him out. But I sure didn’t want his begging ass coming right back to me—it’s insulting, you know? It sure doesn’t make you feel appreciated anyway. And so anyways what I did was this one particular morning I left a cig on the sidewalk. Just right there in the middle of the sidewalk half a block down from the house, middle of his strip, and I stood a little ways off, smoking my own, waiting on Al. It was early enough in the morning that I didn’t have to worry about anyone else being up but one of us from the house. Neither did Al. The streetlights were still on.

Except when Al finally shuffled up to my cig, perfect white cylinder shining on the sidewalk like exactly what he wanted, he only looked at it. He watched it for a minute and I watched him back. And then he just kept on with his route. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him what the fuck he thought he was doing.

He said he didn’t trust it.

“But it’s exactly what you want!”

“Whole cigarette just sitting out like that? No, sir, ain’t none of my business.” He didn’t say it was too good to be true, he didn’t outright say it, but that’s what he mean

To stop my heart from breaking I lit the cig in question and I blew it in his face.

Sometimes that’s all you can do. There are things in this world you have to harden up against or they’ll break you down the middle and gut you like a Dutch. I willed myself to stop giving a shit about Al because it didn’t make a difference and I couldn’t afford to admit that.

And Al kept doing Al, up and down the strip, every morning certain as the sun. Days he didn’t find butts he’d bring us the change he found and buy one off somebody. Fifty cents per. Then came the new city-wide tax on tobacco, which, if it was a blow to all of us in there, and believe you me it was, it knocked Al flat on his ass.

He actually sat down when we broke it to him. “New tax? What you mean new tax. What new tax?”

“New tax on cigarettes. All tobacco products.”  

“What the fuck for, new tax?” It was the first time any of us had ever heard Al curse.

“The extra money,” someone said, “it’s going to go to the schools. To the kids. You know, textbooks and shit.”

“The rich get richer,” said Al, and he spat. The string of it hung there like that and we all wondered at him.

The going rate for loosies had climbed to seventy-five cents. This extra quarter would ruin Al, he could see it already. He wiped his chin and cursed his luck the rest of the day, like it was specifically his luck. Someone said to me one time that the problem with poets is that they’re always taking the weather personally. I kind of get it though. I mean, how could you not?

“Seventy-five cents, shit. Horse shit, man,” he said, separating the horse and the shit. “Three quarters. Soon enough it be up to four. You gone see, soon enough they going to want the whole thing. Yes they are. They going to want the whole thing, and what we going to do then? Huh? What we going to do but give it to them?”