Grunting for breath between gulps, he tears at a half-eaten bun not caring about the pain in his gums, garbage overflow lapping spongy shoes. His bowel hasn’t worked for days. He sees a piece of hamburger missed, squats for it as a novelty car horn freezes his thin frame in an athlete’s stance, a tatterdemalion ready to run, his mind an economy of survival. Sidestepping pigeons question his thirst as he drains empty soft-drink cans. Then he uses a puddle for a wash, rubbing greasy fingers against his dark face. He shakes a discarded deodorant can for a few feeble squirts.
The city smells of vehicle exhausts, concrete, burnt sugar, scaffolding, cooking oil. Early morning workers avoid him, each in his own space, air tangy. He feels a throb of hope, can’t allow himself the cushion of memory, can’t think beyond his immediate dream to work as a restaurant dishwasher, swap sweat for freedom.
He cuts and tugs sleeping asbestos, wearing a wee white mask of course, face hidden under lowered lids, not that he wants to open his mouth. The big ex-gangster who employs him, perhaps recalling his own beginnings, grins, silently checking the work. He is refurbishing an old restaurant. His expensive teeth often sparkle from the society pages of newspapers – his life could fill an opportunistic book – but our guy of the slashing sharp knife, the tightly-knotted bags of swirling unseen fibres that get taken for a ride come nightfall, uses newspapers for extra warmth, has only survival English.
He arrives and leaves by the rear lane, enduring nights in a Salvos bin keeping still deep inside utter darkness imagining passing vehicles as tanks, sometimes wakened by his strangled nightmare cries. He lets rip for $12.50 an hour cash, minus the cost of masks, saving some, wasting nothing, is advised, understanding body language, to continue keeping his mouth shut, a workplace condition he noddingly accepts. Imagine him, dishwashing dream down the drain for now, high on hope, doing the maths, buoyant with every breath he takes, aiming to be prosperous one day, fleshy like his boss, that grinning profiteer.