Rose tells him she’ll wait in the hallway and James says, “I’ll be right back.”
He disappears into the dim apartment, and creaks around in there, making some rustling and thumping sounds. A drawer opens and squeaks as it closes again. Then he returns, jingling his keys.
“A lot of servers keep their change in big milk jugs by their beds – they get tipped in change and it accumulates. They probably don’t even know how much they have.”
He locks the door and then takes her wrist and slaps her hand against his thigh, startling her. Then she realizes his pocket is bulging with coins. They thump back down the stairs and when they get outside James says, “So I just went in there and picked up five or six bucks in change from each of them, and three dollar bills from each of them. They’ll never miss it, and if they do, they’ll blame each other before they’ll blame a stranger.”
Rose says, “It seems like it’s just a matter of time before your luck runs out, James.”
“It almost did today, but not quite. Not quite.”
“Okay, so where to now?”
“Now we get on a bus.”
A city bus. They catch one just a few streets over – James seems to have the bus schedule memorized – and he pays their fares in change and they ride the bus south, off campus and down into an older, undeveloped section of town. They switch buses, heading east, and end up on and old, dreary street at the edge of town.
It’s dusk as they start walking, James leading the way, still looking confident. A whole different neighborhood, and though his demeanor hasn’t changed, he still looks right at home. Still blends right in. How is that possible?
This is an area with a lot of vacant lots, and a lot of new construction. They’ll have this place cleaned up and looking good in five years, but for now the old, vaguely seedy element still hangs in there. Even the signs and storefronts are rusty, dingy, made for another era and never replaced.
The people have the same look, like they’re lost in time. Something about affluence lends itself to graceful aging – maybe it’s the clothes, the health care, the peace of mind. Out here the old folks walk bent over, their faces sucked in half the time, bulging the other half. And they don’t look at you, not ever.
Rose and James pass a couple of toddlers in a wide, fenced yard, one of them shirtless and chewing on a pacifier, his face smeared with orange popsicle, the other a little girl who isn’t finished with her popsicle yet. Hers is blue.
The two kids are pretty blunt about the flat stares they give the passing strangers. The kid with the pacifier has something in his hand – it might be a live toad. Behind them, a tired-looking woman smoking a cigarette watches them from a lawn chair on a simple concrete stoop.
James picks up the pace a little, trotting across the street to a wide lane leading out of the city. There’s even a sign, telling them they just left the city.
It’s another half hour’s hike – across a vast field crunching with withered corn husks and then into a wooded ravine. They finally emerge behind a single, two-story house with red siding, a lightpost bathing it in harsh light. The woods are thick around them, the old trees clicking and tapping in the purple breeze.
“That’s Debbie’s house,” James announces, scrolling through his phone. “She’s a nurse at St. Catherines, works twelve hour shifts. She just started ten minutes ago.”
He shows the phone to Rose; it displays a daily calendar showing Debbie’s schedule. She says, “I see you.”
“We’ll just swing by the garage and make sure the Elantra’s not here. She’s got a little Nissan truck, too, but she drives to work in the Elantra.”
“You have any idea how creeped out people would be if they found out even a little bit of what you do all the time?”
James shrugs. “Well, Debbie shouldn’t get freaked out. A few weeks ago she put a Lean Cuisine in the oven – her microwave broke – and then she forgot about it and went to work. If I hadn’t come in and smelled it, probably would have burned her house down.”
They walk right up to the garage window, crunching across the gravel to peer inside. “Nope,” James says. “She’s at work.”
He takes out his giant ring of keys and jingles them around as they crunch back across the driveway to the back door, which has a small white patio table arranged around a single chair and a few gardening tools and a small clay flowerpot doubling as an ashtray, two thirds full of sand and cigarette butts.
“A chainsmoking nurse,” Rose observes. “Nice.”
“I feel bad for her,” James replies as he unlocks the back door. “Husband left her for an actual stripper, moved down to Florida. That was three years ago, just her and the teenage daughter, Meggan. Now Meggan’s in college down in Florida, the old man gets to see her all the time – and he still lives with the same stripper!”
He cocks his neck to look back at her, getting a pursed-lipped series of very slow blinks from her, for being creepy. Then he pushes open the door, and a sudden noise gets a little jump out of her.
A beeping. Some kind of regular, computerized beeping coming from inside the house.
“Is that a security system?” Rose asks.
“It sure is,” James tells her.