The cold was the problem.
He first noticed the absence of sensation. Regaining consciousness, he shifted, and his arm dragged with dead weight. Still semi-frozen in the rigor of sleep, he strained to no avail. Arm wrapped across his chest and hand trapped below his side, it would not budge. Moments of panic hammered at a dry spot below his throat before a coughing breath broke the last of sleep's iron web.
Pins and needles stabbed though his hand as he flailed to roll over and scrambled backward, sitting up with his back pressed against the slimy brick wall. Shaky breaths slowly became even as he stared at the offending appendage lying at his side, the fingers only now beginning to respond weakly to his commands. The first true sensation was the pebbled texture of the asphalt. Damp with the morning dew, the returning flush of blood served only to replace the prior numbness with the deadening cold of the chill macadam. He sat and watched his own digits, entranced as he tried to curl them into a fist, tried to force a response, tried to find fire within himself to send them needed warmth.
Street sounds insinuated themselves into his meditations, and he roused from the kinesthetic ennui. Engine noise and car horns purred and blared as the morning commute began while taxis rushing by the end of the alley reflected muted flashes of yellow and white. The sweet smell of exhaust slowly reached his nose, swirling around trash and dumpsters, propelled by venting of subway grates. The overcast sky was infrequently pierced with streaks of wan, sterile sunlight, and he shivered not from the temperature but from the lack of promise. The late autumn weather did not appear encouraging, so he struggled to his feet, ready to begin the search of some other source of succor.
"God bless," the woman had said, even then able to hold eye contact for but a moment. Just six months earlier he might have sat across a conference table from her. Still the man, still in control, he might have provided valuable assistance with her legal and financial planning. The change from her latte slid quickly from a hand without a wedding band. On the downward side of his own divorce, perhaps they could have met later and helped each other in more intimate ways. They would have been alike, the two of them, perhaps neither thinking themselves happy, but both hoping happiness could be found. Perhaps both seeking a similar warmth along the way.
The barrista did not see the past, though. Did not see what could have, should have been. The server saw the differences. He saw the dirty face, the unshaven jaw, the tousled hair. He saw the rumpled suit jacket with the ripped shoulder seam, and he saw the soiled trousers with their fraying herringbone pinstripe. Raised to be preternaturally alert for these new, urban hazards, the young man noticed the elder as soon as the latter paused outside the cafe. Also trained to be civil and to avoid making a scene, he sprung into action only when the differences became too great. The juxtaposition of the lady's precisely, artificially windblown locks, her sophisticated peach blouse, even her prim yet caring demeanor toward the new arrival's request, all made the tension too great to ignore.
The man was also trained. Trained by the last few months, he caught the movement through the plate glass. The shiny pittance disappeared into a pocket as he dipped his head to the Samaritan and turned, shuffling away from the encounter, as ready to avoid a scene as his latest opponent. Only the most recent of the morning's challenges, he know what could happen if he tarried too long.
Slouching between buildings halfway down the block, he again plunged his hands into his pockets. Crumbled bills and slick metal met his fingertips, and he knew there was not enough. Of all the changes in the past months, the greatest was his discovery happiness could be found, could even be purchased. The thought cheered him, but the joy was fleeting. Yes, happiness could be purchased. But the cost. The cost was always a factor. The doubt chewed at his confidence, and his new tic surfaced, his tongue darting across his lips. He touched each small, rough crescent briefly, reminders of his hard-fought knowledge.
No! Clenching his fist around the moist bills, he straightened his back and strode further into the shadows. He had enough. He had to have enough. He would make it work.
"Dammit, man! I told you not to bother me with this penny-ante shit again!" The black teenager swatted the man's outstretched hands away, the offering cupped within scattering over the rough ground. "Don't you get it, you funk-ass bastard! You got to do better than that!"
The man kept his eyes on the sneering face as he dropped to his knees. His again-numb hands rooting through the brown grass and weeds for his spilled capital, he whined for negotiation.
"Come on, T! Don't be like that! You know how hard is right now. I brought you everything I've got. Just give me some. Please!" Even to his own ears, the syllables stretching into a higher octave were grating, but he could not keep the need out of his voice.
"Yeah, I know how hard it is." The youth snorted as he jerked his chin toward the city outside the tenement back lot. "Ain't nobody doin' nuthin' out there right now. You think I don't know?"
T turned to his companion, lounging against the back steps of the building, "Listen to this bitch cry! Jesus! You'd think he got the monopoly on problems."
Looking back down at the man, "You need to come up with a better reason than that, man! I ain't givin' away shit. I gotta make ends meet, you know. Just like them out there."
"But, but ... But, T!"
"B-b-b-b-b-b-but! Listen to yourself, man! Begging like a bitch, whining like a bitch! Too damn bad!"
"T. Wait! No. I mean, come on! You know I'm good for it. You know I can get you more."
The man raised the scrounged treasures back toward the dealer.
"See, T. I got some already today. Just give me a taste, you know? Just a taste. I can get more tonight. As soon as I get a taste, man, just as soon as I get a taste, I'm back out there."
The youth snapped his fist and the air and jerked toward the man, only to bark in laughter as the kneeling figure flinched back.
"Yeah, I thought so, man! I'm tired of your bitch-ass begging. You know what I'll do if you piss me off, don't you?" His menacing eyes at odds with the cartoonish twirling of his raised fist, "You know how not to piss me off, right?"
"T," the man started and paused, still kneeling but dropping his ass onto his heels, his head low in a mockery of zen contemplation. "T, just help me, man. Please!"
The final retort was forming on the youth's lips when he felt his associate's focus shift.
"T, look." The second youth nodded toward the opposite side of the overgrown lot optimistically labeled a garden by the original developer so many decades ago.
A spindly figure was making his way out of the narrow break between the adjacent tenements and aiming directly toward the tableau. The shock of unruly, grey hair belied the owner's forty-odd years, but it perfectly matched the deep creases in his pale, emaciated face.
"My man!" T greeted the newcomer with a huckster's ingrained joviality. "Good to see you! As always, regular as clockwork for your afternoon delight."
The kneeling man watched the dealer and his assistant step toward the arrival, the new man waiting as they approached, standing stiff with his hands thrust into the pockets of faded black sweatpants which ended above his ankles. The cheap sneakers without socks matched the light blue of the worn nylon windbreaker covering a stained wife beater tee.
"So," he heard Greyhair begin, "are we all set?"
He saw the new man pull a folded bill from the hip pocket of his sweats and extend it to the black youth.
"Well," began T, "we're all set with the first part of your usual, but, well, we got a little scheduling problem today..."