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Mark E. Henry Sr.

Downtown was a bright and exciting place where the farmer’s market always filled the air with the aromas of fresh fish, produce and bread.  Children laughed and ran through the crowds as their mother’s anxiously shopped and the police knew everyone by their first names.  That was a long time ago.  There’s no longer a farmer’s market, you never see children downtown and it smells like exhaust and old buildings, with the occasional aroma of human waste as you pass a recessed doorway or an alley.   


Linda Thomas sits with her head down crying on an old couch in the small living room of her third floor downtown apartment.  She's been crying now for three hours and she won't be stopping any time soon.  Tommy, her boyfriend stands silently in the doorway, in a new shirt, a tie and new shoes.  This was to be their special day but he doesn't really know of anything he could possibly say or do to even begin to try to make her feel better.


Tommy and Linda have lived downtown all of their lives.  It's where their parents worked and it's all they've ever known.  Tommy's parent died when he was young and he's been scrounging on the streets ever since.  He survives by getting into a little of everything and most of it is not exactly legal.  Linda has worked a low paying job at a nearby restaurant since high school. Well, “Restaurant” is really stretching it.  It's a diner but that sounds so cliché, an ugly little dirty diner with a selection and quality that only a local employee could possibly appreciate.  She has no siblings and her parents, aunts and uncles all passed away years ago.  No one but Grandma Martha, the sturdy old battleship, survived the years. 


Martha always wanted Linda and Tommy to get married and leave downtown. She offered them many times to come and live with her in the quiet suburbs and get out from among the robbers, taxi cabs and slum lords.  Linda wanted to go but she couldn't leave Tommy although he was stupid, worthless and would never amount to anything more than that, he was someone to lie next to in bed and he needed her.  Tommy secretly wanted to go too but becoming completely dependent on an eighty year old woman and his girlfriend was just too much to swallow.  Martha knew that.  So on Linda's thirty eighth birthday, she put on her thick old black coat, took her walking cane from behind the door and left the suburbs to go downtown for a visit.  She took a cab from the quiet safety of her little neighborhood, to the train station and took the long ride into downtown. 


The station had changed a lot.  The smell of urine and the way people avoided eye contact was eerie and dirty.  It was only a short walk of not even a mile from the station to Linda's apartment so grandma naturally walked it.  She wanted to see how things had changed since she had last been downtown many years ago to sign mortgage papers on the little house that her and grandpa shared through the years before he died. 


She was a tough old woman and this was her home so she wasn't the least bit afraid when a young punk asked her for a dollar.  She looked at him sternly and told him not to spend it on alcohol, reached into her purse and gave it to him.  But when he snatch her purse from her hands and said, “What do we have here?” that pissed her off so she smacked him on the head with her cane and during his moment of shock, took her purse back. As soon as he was over his momentary stunning, he became furious as though she started the whole thing.  He pushed her back into the alley and she fell.  She tried to scream out but he held his hand over her mouth and called her terrible words, threatening to kill her if she made a sound but that didn't scare her either.  She gave him a kick where it counts and started to shout but her words where choked to silence.  He held her by the throat, squeezing until she was still.  He took an envelope of money from her purse, the ring lovingly placed on her finger at her wedding over sixty years ago and ran away, disappearing between the buildings.  No one looked, no one helped, no one cared. 


It took the police two days to find Martha's next of kin and when they came to Linda's door, she was already terrified.  She knew that only something very serious could have stopped Grandma Martha from calling her on her birthday.  That phone call had been the one stable thing in Linda's life since her earliest childhood.


The police drove Linda to identify Martha's body and. exposed her grandma's lifeless face by unzipping a plastic bag. They took Linda back home where she sat down on the couch, very weak from sadness and horror and started to cry. That was three hours ago. Now she was truly alone.  There was nothing to look forward to and no one who really loved her with that deep, unchanging love that separates the sheltered from the lonely. 


So Tommy stands there in the doorway all clean and dressed up.  He was finally ready to propose to Linda but now he’s speechless and horrified by the reality of that which cannot be undone.  His sanity slowly climbs up out of his head and leaves the apartment to walk away into the streets where it will revisit his crime, never to return.  Leaving him to the iron clasp of a worthless life and the burning hell closing in all around him now that he knows the seventy five hundred dollars in his wallet and the ring in his pocket are what Grandma Martha was bringing for him through Linda as birthday presents, to be sure that before she died, he and Linda would have the means to finally get married, find happiness and leave downtown.

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