Published Monthly

Black and White
by Tom Quinn

I always get depressed, more so than usual, when I go to see Barton Kolonestesti.

He sweeps the bus station, cleans its shitters, boards in a two room efficiency on the fourth floor of a tenement house in a fucked up part of town; neighbors closer than skin, despair out the back window, disappointment out the front door; dark, stark … hopeless.

Kolo’s a heartbreak. He had the looks, was quite the athlete, but since has been leaned over the rail and reamed good. Now he humps double-time knee deep in waste before riding his stool at the tappy in his official bus station uniform, always in his official bus station uniform. A man works all day and he’s too tired and troubled and poor to change out of his work clothes.

And I wonder, anyway you look at it, what kind of life is that.

I slipped into The Down Under through the back door and up along a corridor to the corner where Kolonestesti sits.

“Slim!” he hollered when he saw me.

I shook his hand and kept half turned so he didn’t wrap his giant arm around me like I knew he wanted to.

“How the hell are you?” he asked.

“O.K.,” I answered sitting on the stool next to him. And before I could say anything else, he asked if I was eating. I couldn’t imagine eating--him smelling like a sewer.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“The pizza’s good.”

I ordered pizza and beers and choked on his stench.

Eventually the pizza came. I didn’t touch it, leaving it all for Kolonestesti, slobbering and huffing and puffing, all scabs and pus-filled cankers on his lips and face, and shit-stained boxers climbing out of him up over his belt. I cringed?the things we did together?and then asked, “You been home lately?”

Kolo shook his head, happy through the cheese and sauce, and mumbled, “Nah, I’m keeping low. The street is after me for a deuce.”

Yeah, great place to hide, I thought, the only bar that’ll have you.

“What are you gonna do?” I asked.

He faced me, all excited. “I got twenty on the Sixers, and fifteen on Holy Cross.”

And it all came back to me, the ease with which he triggered my temper.

“What the hell do you know about Holy Cross?”

“I know they’re undefeated as a home dog. And Bucknell’s best player is out with an ankle.” Then he winked, as if he had it all figured out, “And I got two hundred on the number.”

I drank some beer and thought of Kolonestesti, no more complex than a cockroach, and no less resilient, the strain of survival oozing from his bombed-out eyes, the corners of his mouth sagging down?the way he grovels around worse than a dog?and yet etched in every nuance of expression there flickered hope, a childish glimmer seemingly never dimmed. I knew to reason against him was futile. So I slumped forward on the bar, dismissed my inclination to lecture and then out of habit quizzed him.

“Who’re the Sixers playing?”

“The Hawks.”

“What’s the line?”

“They’re giving five at home.”

But I already knew, a sucker’s play?the Sixers beat the Celtics on the road the night before and had the Knicks up next. I bet the Hawks, had listened to the game on the radio on the way to the bar, the Sixers down twelve in the fourth quarter.
All during pizza Kolo flailed at the bartender, a nightly tussle to get the game on.

The bartender hated sports but finally gave in, spitting, “The Sixers suck!” as he fussed with the television, only to cheer up when he saw the score, the Sixers down by six with two to play.

Kolo sat silent a tight grip on his beer.

“Maybe there’s another game on,” I tried.

“No way,” Kolo said, quick to life. “There’s always hope.”

And right then I wanted to scream, wanted to nail him in the temple with a bottle, shake him by the throat until he gave in. But Kolo never gave in. For instance, his persistence in finding me, somehow every four or five months getting a hold of my new number and convincing me to see him, just to keep up, but mainly, I knew, to get some money. I cursed myself, was ready to leave but for a turn in the game?the Hawks kicking the ball around and missing their foul shots.

Kolo hung on to every second of the game, squeezing my arm and hollering at the T.V. as the Sixers closed in on the Hawks.
I squirmed, his mammoth hand always surprisingly gentle, and the spectacle unbearable: the Sixers had the ball with three seconds to go, the score tied. The only chance for Kolo to win the bet was for the game to go into overtime. And he was rooting for the Sixers to score.

We watched the inbound, the Hawks making it impossible for the Sixers to get a good look. But it didn’t matter. The Sixers threw in a prayer at the buzzer to win by three.

“Yes!” Kolo hollered, smacking the bar and giving the bartender the finger. “I told you they could do it!”

The bartender kept his back turned and flipped some ash while Kolo bobbed, all drool and giddiness. And there I was, stricken, as if stuck in a dream, the same foolishness, the same confusions over and over. Kolo’d never get it. He’d just never get it. Then he turned to me and put his arm around my neck, pulling me close. “I knew it, Slim. I knew it.”

I wiggled free, unpleased to break the news. “But you didn’t bet the bartender, Kolo. You bet the books.”

Kolo didn’t miss a beat. “I know,” he said. “But you can never give up. You can just never give up.”

I held my head, wondered about the simple bastard next to me. Does he have the muster to think beyond his next drink, his next meal? I thought of the odds against him even catching a brief succession of small victories when I remembered his play on the number. So I had to ask. “Where the hell did you get the two hundred?”

Instantly he brightened, leaned his face gently on me. “I busted a couple of skulls at the dogfights. The spics didn’t know what hit ‘em.”

I moved my head away from him, my ear wet from his mouth, and pictured him, 6’6”, creaky-kneed, pale as a ghost in his mangy bus station uniform, stalking the west end for unsuspecting Puerto Ricans.

“You’re pushing your luck,” I told him.

“Don’t worry. When the number hits I’m outa here.”

A burn worked through me; I had sworn he wasn’t going to get to me, but there it was, boiling ire up the neck and into the jaw and the head. I couldn’t contain myself.

“What if it doesn’t hit!”

Kolo winced, as if a baseball bat slammed him in the kidneys, and then hung his head over his beer. “It’ll hit, Slim. It’ll hit.”
I drank some beer, felt the bat against my own kidneys and took a long look at those around me, a huddled lump finding refuge behind the whiskey and water and the shots and the beer, waiting for nothing but the clock to push them along, the very seconds hovering with the cigarette smoke, rolling and tumbling, keeping despondence close to heart. If we could only get rid of time, Kolo once said to me in a fleeting lapse of brilliance, then we could be happy forever; that moment, long in the past, when we still enjoyed each other unconditionally, when we still set off something warm and good in each other; that first month together a brilliant streak of lucky circumstances, hitting on every roll of the dice, the fever escalating within us as if we held the sun in our vests; but then somehow, and as always, the bitchiness, the raw nerves of booze and drugs and sleepless, sex-charged nights, and the bets, always the bets, six, or eight, or even a dozen games a night. A man can’t last like that. I tensed further, Kolo nudging my thigh.

“You know what I’m gonna do with the money?”

I couldn’t imagine and remained silent.

He pointed to a sleepy character on the other side of the bar. “You see my buddy, Hoffnung, over there. He’s got a cabin in the mountains. Says I can go up and stay any time. I’ve never been to the mountains, Slim.”

Knowing there was a catch, but too weary to foresee it, I plodded along with the folly. “And how are you going to get up to the mountains?”

And then, still capable, through the filth and the sores and the bum luck was the look?brazen, innocent lust that smashed prudence into bits and pieces.

“I thought maybe you’d come along.”

I couldn’t answer, another shot to the kidneys, and took a drink to regain myself.

“Or I could just rent a car,” Kolo added quickly to fill the silence.

The foolishness brought me to my senses. “You can’t rent a car without a license,” I snapped.

Kolo didn’t give up. “But you could rent it for me.”

Right there, it all drained out of me, every last drop sucked down through the gaps in the floor. After a long silence I muttered, “I don’t know,” and then with all the strength manageable put a fifty up for Kolo and a fiver for the bartender.

Kolo reached for my arm. “Where are you going?”

“Gotta hit it, dude.”

I put on my coat, this time sure I’d never be back. Kolo had let go of my arm, but his eyes were heavy on me. He looked terrible, the worst I’d ever seen. I didn’t know what to say, so I blurted out, “What number did you play?”

He tried a grin. “Two-one –three.”

Stupid shit. My legs were rubber. I was done, had nothing left for him. Nothing. So I touched him on the shoulder and headed toward the corridor to leave when from behind me heard, “Remember Slim, ya gotta have faith.”
I hustled out the door before the words grabbed me by the collar. Faith. Hope. What bullshit.

I’ve always questioned my attraction to Kolo. Maybe love, I’m not sure. I do know my life is nothing like his. I own a large house in a fancy neighborhood. I have a wife who earns a healthy paycheck, and two kids who go to private school. I drive a Lexus, or a Range Rover, whichever one I want, and luxuries up the ass. But I can’t help thinking of him as I stand under a dilapidated fire escape in the middle of the projects. It’s dark, stark … hopeless. I keep my collar high and my back close to the brick of a barren building so the wind can’t find me. It’s 3 a.m. And I’m waiting for Gus, or Goose, or somebody. He’s a crack dealer.

And yeah, I think, at least Kolonestesti has his dreams.

"When giving advice I never suggest people follow my example; instead, I turn and point in the other direction."

Tom Quinn, author of poetry and short fiction, is just a regular guy with a regular job who spends too much time writing while his regular house falls down around him.


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