Her head felt weighted as it hung between her knees; she couldn't open her eyes because of the sunlight that threatened to pierce them and the fact that her eyelids were refusing to cooperate. Sarah's only protection against the clawing wind was a half folded newspaper that barely clung to her body and a cardboard box that she used as a windbreaker next to her; otherwise her exposed arms and face were covered in goose-bumps. No more energy remained to create coverings, as if the life had been sucked out of her. The pavement on which she sat on was speckled with little stones that pressed in to her legs like broken bones, not yet disintegrated; it was only by focusing on these little bumps that she could ignore the wind that was running its fingers through her clothes hungrily and disrespectfully.
New York City didn't waste its time on her and neither did its occupants; most of the women stomped around her with their hundred dollar high heels and handbags swinging before hungry eyes. The women acted as if only her breath could befoul the clothes that protected them.
How did I get here?
All the proper steps had been taken for success. A petite redhead, she wasn't the epitome of beauty but had secured a relationship with a promising young man early on. Then in 1929, the world turned upside-down when John had not only lost a high-paying job but moved away in search of a new one. She boarded with a nice family for a time, but eventually he stopped sending money, and even replies to her near-novel-length letters lessened until she heard nothing from him at all. The nice family pitied her situation, but they couldn't afford to feed a non-paying boarder, and with no children or nearby relatives, she was no better off than a childless widow.
On the side of the road she saw an apple, tossed there as if someone could possibly not want an apple, and she snatched it up before the others could see. As much as she wanted to save it until the last minute, that time was quickly approaching. Her wiry fingers kept reaching for it, caressing it like John's face.
If only I hadn't let John take me here, away from my family. However will I get back? I cannot live like this forever. Oh, John, what happened to you? The soup kitchens and the nighttime shelters provided help in the morning and at night, but the lines were so long, and during the day she could not stay. Those shelters were reserved for the sick and injured, neither for which she qualified.
Plenty of company lived on her corner. As she glanced over to make sure no one was watching, she shivered, seeing the man she only knew as the one who had no left arm, holding an illegible sign in his right hand and crying. Without realizing it, she rubbed her arm protectively, and then quickly bit out of the apple when she was sure he would not see. To eat next to a man who had less than she did already made her blood boil at her own cruelty, but at the same time, her watering mouth refused to let her share. Anyway, he could go to one of the shelters if he wanted to. Why is he not in a shelter, missing an arm like that?
After allowing herself a few bites, huddled over just in case one of the others did happen to look, she tucked it away beneath the newspaper.
To distract herself, she looked back at the armless man, and he noticed that she was staring at her. In a voice rougher than gravel, he asked, "You got any spare change?"
Sarah glanced over herself. Doesn't he knew I've been out here all week? "Look at me."
In reply, he stared at her silently with bloodshot eyes.
"Do I look like I have any money?"
"I-I don't know."
Too tired to have much more pity for the man, she snapped, "I have nothing at all."
I need another corner if I'm going to finish this apple. She stood up and began to walk away, hearing him yell after her, "You'll end up like me one day! I can see it coming. One day you'll be here and I won't and you won't get a damn cent!"
Cringing at his language, something John would have confronted this man for daring to say, in her old life. She told herself, I don't care what he says; I've got an apple, and you can't find that in any soup kitchen. As she passed businessmen in suits, other young women just like her with carefully-manicured nails and husbands hanging off their arms, Sarah repeated it to herself under her breath until she nearly skipped along the streets. I've got an apple!
When she was far enough away that all traces of his voice had died away, she leaned against a wall, slid down to the ground, and bit in again. Juice squirted on the sides of her mouth as she chewed viciously, as quickly as possible. After she finished, all she could think of, Now you don't have an apple or anything else. What happens now?
Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt tears trickling down her face, which had been almost numb with the cold until the warm sorrow washed over her. Her pale face reddened with embarrassment that anyone should see her like this, that her old friends in high society and the fanciest of clubs might walk past at any moment and see her in disgrace. My hair must be a wreck…I know my clothes are. The nice dress had long been stained with grime, and so had her face.
Sniffing, she wiped her face quickly and stood up to meet the speaker. "W-what?"
"Is that you, Sarah?"
Blinking away the tears, she realized that she recognized this face, but couldn't quite put a name to it. Thank heavens, it could not have belonged to one of the garden club ladies, for she had all their prim and haughty faces committed to memory after so many years of tolerating the meetings. "I-I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Miss…?"
"Why, Barstow. I'm John's sister, remember?"
Sarah put a hand to her forehead to steady herself. "John's sister? Mae?" Her voice cracked when she said his name, John's name, unspoken far too long.
Smiling gently, Mae nodded and embraced her sister-in-law. "How I have searched for you, Sarah! You cannot imagine my concern when I received no more letters from my brother, and found that no one had heard from him in months. "
"I rather think I can, dear sister," Sarah murmured. "I waited and waited, but when he stopped sending money, I could no longer afford to board with the Hudsons…."
Looking Sarah straight in the eye, Mae said, "You can stop worrying about shelter right now. I've a beautiful house on Prescott Street and we'd love to have you there."
"Thank goodness," Sarah breathed. "You are a lifesaver."
"Don't mention it. Now come, we must get you out of those clothes!"
For that day, and in the coming weeks, Sarah slept on a soft feather bed and forgot the pain of a famished stomach. But in the solitude of a new bedroom, staring at the evening sky outside her window, she could only gaze at the stars helplessly and wonder where her husband was sleeping that night. I can hardly stay with your sister forever, John; please come back to me. Or just give me some sign that you are out there, one letter is all it would take. Her tiny body shook as she wept, hands clasped together now in unspoken prayer.