Prospero stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow. It was late September in New York and the wind now had teeth. For most people on the street around him, the cool blast was unwelcome, something to be guarded against and shut out. As the month wore on, coats were steadily replacing jackets and people were lingering on the streets less and less. For Prospero, however, the wind was a relief, as the bucket was heavier than he’d thought it would be. But Prospero was a persistent man. He carried on, despite the niggle in his lower back, his aching biceps and his burning fingers, which were clenched tightly around the bottom of the bucket, as if it were a toddler who might wriggle free.
Prospero paused a moment on the sidewalk to catch his breath and give his fingers a rest. He shook out his hands, raised them to his mouth and blew on them, trying to tease the life back into them.
‘Come on,’ he said, in the same quiet but determined tone his mother used to use.
Prospero didn’t dare look back in the direction he’d come from. He ducked back down behind a parked van, fastened his grip on the bucket’s handle and heaved it from the grubby curb. As he waited to cross the street, fear zipped through his body, but the white car with the blue stripe that passed him by wasn’t the cops. It was just some other town car with the livery of a local bakery splashed along the side.
Nobody on the subway cast Prospero or the heavy metal bucket on the floor between his chunky legs a second glance. The people were caught up in their phones or staring aimlessly at their own reflections in the blackened windows of the carriage. Prospero was tempted to sneak a peek in the bucket, but he held off. He didn’t want to ruin the surprise. He kept telling himself it was probably nothing, just junk again, but he had this feeling, this inkling that it wasn’t, that this time it was something special.
By the time Prospero reached the apartment he shared with his cousin, his hands resembled two raw steaks. He eased the bucket down onto the beaten up coffee table and sank into the saggy sofa. Prospero stared at the bucket, but didn’t open it. He felt a sudden intense pang of fear shot through him. What if it was nothing?
Prospero didn’t know what had made him stop and double back around to the truck. Well, he did, but he knew it would sound ridiculous if he tried to explain it to anyone else, especially the cops. As he’d passed the truck, a voice spoke to him, as loud and clear as if someone had shouted in his ear. The voice had told him that ‘it’s in the truck.’ Before he had time to think himself out of it, Prospero had stepped up onto the truck’s tailgate, grabbed the bucket from the open back and simply walked off with it. He’d expected somebody to shout after him, ‘Stop, thief!’ but nobody did. He kept walking to the end of the block, and when he heard no footsteps chasing him, he turned the corner by the pharmacy and carried on walking. It was easy. Over the years, Prospero had learned not to run or look back. He kept his head down and walked with purpose. To anyone on the street, he looked just like any other delivery guy – vaguely foreign.
As Prospero struggled to lever the lid off the bucket with the flip knife he carried for protection, he felt a moment’s guilt trip over him. Prospero came from a religious family in Puerto Rico, not that that was unusual. Everyone was religious back there. It was simply a way of life, but in America there was more distraction and less nagging from relatives, less social shaming, and so he hadn’t been to church for several months. He didn’t feel overly guilty. Feeling guilt would have meant having some kind of connection with the deity he’d been forced to worship his whole life. The only guilt Prospero felt was that he didn’t feel guilty at all. In fact, in this very moment, as he levered away at the bucket, which may or may not forever change his life, he felt freer than he’d ever felt. His whole life lay stretched out before him. In the moment before he opened the bucket anything was possible. Prospero had seen an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands, and that was, after all, the American dream, wasn’t it?