The Slow-Cooked Sentence

In which a homeless woman finds a name and loses everything else

Rachael Conlin Levy

Fifth Avenue was empty except for Agnes pushing a shopping cart that once held all she possessed. While she’d panhandled at the corner of James and Cherry, police swept her camp of sleeping bag and tarp, an extra set of shoes she’d picked out of a dumpster, the jacket that helped her through a wet spring, a moldy romance novel she’d filched from a thrift store, and her cooking pot. She’d been camping on the highway hillside for a few days, planned to stay through the week, but now, she guessed, it was time to move on.

Agnes took off smudged, Coke-bottle glasses donated by the local Lyon’s Club, and rubbed eyes that prickled and teared. Reaching into her backpack, she pulled out a cigarette, rolled it between her fingers as she weighed whether to light it. With her stuff gone, she might need it for trade. The unlit cigarette hung from her lips while she counted the bills hustled at the corner. Plucking the cigarette from her mouth, she ran it under her nose, sniffed deeply, then returned it to the backpack. At the base of the hill, she pulled a shopping cart from the bushes where she’d stashed it a few days earlier.

“Hey lady, whatcha got there? ” said a barefoot kid wearing a hunting hat with ear flaps and standing at the corner with his sign, asking, asking, always asking. “Don’t think you’re gonna set up cross the street from me. You push on down the road ’cause this is my spot. Slept here all night for it, an’ nobody gonna take it.”

“What’s nothin’ look like? Nothin’ to you, no how,” Agnes muttered, and bumped the shopping cart off the curb, crossed to the other side. Jeans hung limply from her hips. Body odor wafted worse than cheap cologne. “Kid fool, walking ’round with no shoes. Feet gonna get cut and ‘fected.” Then she thought better of it. Turning, she hollered, “Cops bustin’ campsites.”

“Let ’em! They can’t take nothing when I got nothing,” hooted the kid, and he shook his empty can and jigged on the street corner. “Looks to me like you got nothing to worry about neither.”

“Tha’s right, kid. We get along jus’ fine with nothin.’ ” She laughed and bared teeth stained from nicotine and rarely brushed. She steered the cart away from the corner, kept talking. “Jus’ fine. You gonna be jus’ fine. Now me? How I’m gonna keep being fine if I lose things, hafta start over?”

“You gonna be fine,” Agnes reassured herself.

“I donno,” she responded. “This is bad.”

Agnes muttered to the buses that drove by her, to the suits and briefcases that parted to let her pass, to the cart wheels that squeaked and rattled a response.

“You been worse off,” again reassuring herself.

“Thas’ true, but I’m tireder now. An’ older. An’ there’s only me.”

Her conversation was getting noticed. Sideways glances lingered on skin burnished as a hazelnut, a patina of dirt and sun so uniform it almost succeeded in convincing she was something other than a poor white woman. Only her neck betrayed her. Creases of aging skin were filled with grime; others were thin gray threads that hinted of a cleaner past.

“Shut your mouth, Agnes. People are lookin.”

She paused and let the masses, suited and sweaty and talking, flow around her. She tucked in strands of hair that’d fallen out of a makeshift bun, then cautiously rejoined the stream of people. She walked through them, untouched. Glances slipped off her like rain running down a window. Like glass, she was not looked at, but looked through. Invisible again, Agnes felt her breath slow, deepen, and her mind was permitted to come up with a plan. She turned down Jefferson and headed to the park.

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