The Have Nots
Updated: Oct 26, 2018
Masego awakes in the dark, immediately alert. There is no groggy transition, no rolling over under the covers for another ten minutes. He has no clock and would not have been able to read it if he did. His bed is a grassy hill; his blanket the shirt on his back. There is no reason to linger.
Nocturnal critters rustle the roadside brush as he passes barefoot through the quiet cold of the morning on his way into town.
Reaching main street, Masego walks slowly past the shops. Some still closed, some preparing for the business day. A few, the bakeries, are already open. Patrons dart in and out in the early morning chill, collecting their breakfast pastries and coffee. Each opening door he passes serves as his own personal space heater for that brief moment when the warm tendrils are allowed to escape.
Mingling scents of yeast and sugar bring a bitter comfort. Heaven, but just out of reach. He draws a deep breath as he pauses, breathing his breakfast. The counter worker spots him through the window, it’s time to move on. An itinerant by the front door is bad for business and he does not want to attract the attention of the police.
He slides down the gap between the shops, a familiar route for him, and eases into the deep shadows of the alleyway. The sharp stench of urine hits his nose as he finishes his business, only partially concealed by a rusting dumpster.
Picking his way among the debris, he searches for cast off items that can be put to good use. Finding a plastic handled screwdriver, partially bent, and a fine mesh bag that used to contain fruit, Masego has all he needs to make his way through the day.
He exits the alley, then hitchhikes to the water in the back of a work truck. Arriving at the ocean, he gives a smile and a thanks to the driver, then wastes no time stripping down. He leaves his meager belongings near a log, tucks the screwdriver and bag into his waistband, and enters the water.
Masego has always been a strong swimmer and today he puts that skill to good use, paddling out to the kelp beds in the predawn light. He isn’t the first diver to arrive, but there is enough for everyone. At least for now. He fills his lungs, then dives to the bottom to pry abalone off the rocks. Into the found fruit bag it goes as he rises to the surface for another lungful of air. Then another dive. Soon, his little bag is full.
Tired from his efforts, he swims back to shore, careful not to spill his catch. The sun has risen while he worked and now it dries his damp skin as he sits on the beach and pries the flesh out of the shells with his screwdriver. It’s quick work and soon he is dressed and trading the abalone flesh for a few dollars with the nearby vendors. It isn’t legal, but everyone knows each other and no one asks questions. They are all just trying to get by.
He has saved the prettiest shell, carefully protecting it on the long walk back to town. It is late afternoon when he arrives. Making his way back into town, he peeks in the bakery window once more.
He sees chairs upended on tables and the counter worker from this morning is just finishing the sweeping. The shop is closing up for the day. The worker glances toward the freedom promised by the window and spots Masego.
He retreats back into the alley and picks his way among the debris to the back door of the shop. He slides down to his heels and leans his back against the rough wall. While he waits, tries to ignore the filth around him as he gazes at his pretty abalone shell. It is full light of day by now, but the alley remains dark. The iridescent shell provides the only bit of light, of hope, in this desperate place.
Suddenly the door to the bakery opens and light spills over him. Quickly, her slender hand passes a weighty paper bag through the narrow opening. He accepts, offering the beautiful shell in return. His empty stomach announces its impatience with a rumble. Their fingers brush and their eyes meet for just a moment, his embarrassed, hers amused. A deep male voice from within yells to close the door. She retreats, the heavy old door closes, locking all the beauty this alley had ever known behind it.
He rises and leaves with his hard earned meal. It’s just another day.
This story was written for a contest on www.writing.com, with a word limit of 1000. The prompt was to use the following words: plastic, ignore, space heater, itinerant, abalone. It took first place in that contest and went on to earn an honorable mention in that website's annual Quill Awards for 2017 in the Cultural category.