“Hello, Willie?” The man had to yell into the phone, shouting over the wind blasting between the billboards on the el platform. “It’s Benjamin,” he said. “What? No. No. I’ve got good news. I got a job today. I’m so excited.” He had an Irish accent and spoke with the breathless hurry of a telephone solicitor.
“Just this morning. I talked to the guy this morning. Eleven dollars an hour. You know that isn’t bad, Willie. Eleven dollars isn’t bad at all. And just in time. Me, I’m flat broke. I don’t have enough money for cigarettes. Busted, Willie.”
People turned from staring down the tracks to look at the man, some taking just a glance, others making less secretive appraisals. He was no longer young. The blond hair showing under his dirty denim cap had patches of white. Although the wind was cold, he wore a thin red ski jacket with white piping smudged gray. Above his left eye he had a round, fresh scab that looked as if he’d been bit by an animal or a bottle. His hands were bare, red from the cold. The phone receiver must have felt like a frozen pipe.
“I’ll be working with the mail and packages. I’ll be stamping things. Taking things out of boxes. Eleven dollars an hour. I’ll have my own badge and everything. I guess you could say I’m in shipping and receiving.”
He kicked at an old gum stain on the platform with the toe of a tennis shoe wrapped in duct tape. “It’s on the north side of town. A Polish guy gave me the job. I’ll never be able to thank him enough, Willie.
“Now Willie, I’m on the el station here. Only five minutes away. I was hoping you could make a little loan. The last loan, Willie. I’ve got this job and I’ll make everything square. Eleven dollars an hour. It’s just that I need a little money for celebration. Some cigarette money.”
The wind picked up again and everyone at the el stop stiffened. The man’s shoulders tightened into his neck. “What? No. No. Don’t worry about this guy, Willie. He likes his Jack Daniels on the weekends, but he’s a straight arrow all week long. And that’s what I’m going to do too. I’ve waited too long for this job. Too long.”
He bent his legs as if he were going to kneel, then began a slow-motion running in place to keep warm. “So Willie, I’m only five minutes away. I’m already on the el station. I could be right over.
“What? I thought 35. I know, but this is the last time. This is a celebration. OK, 25 then. The last time, Willie. I promise. Eventually I’m going to save up to go back. It’s too cold here. And bitter. There’s no spring. Here people think spring is only two inches of snow instead of a foot.
“So Willie, I could be over in ten. What?” He stopped his running dance, but he remained in his crouch, as if he were bracing himself to dive into deep water. “Oh, oh. She’s home, is she?”
He fell silent, rocking slightly in the wind. “I know how she feels, Willie. You don’t have to explain it. But things are changing for me.” He straightened his knees and his back and moved his feet apart. He stood listening for a long time. “Would she miss it?” His voice was a whisper.
He paused again, paused for such a long while that everyone who was listening began to look his way to check if he’d hung up. He began the running dance again, then stopped, his left foot still toeing the platform. “Fifteen will be great. I can–15 will be fine. I know you’re doing more than your fair share.”
He pivoted sharply on his right foot, finishing the movement with a short hop, half pirouette, half end-zone celebration. “By the corner store. The one with the Jamaican soda, got it. I’ll be there in ten. And Willie, first check I get, one week from today, half of it’s yours. She won’t have time to miss it. Thanks a million. See you in ten.”
He hung up the phone. The only one still watching him was a small boy immobile in a blue snowsuit. He beamed at the boy and announced to his mother, “Now there’s someone dressed for the weather. You bet. There’s a boy who’s dressed for this nasty weather.” Then he turned to look down the tracks.