by Maureen Grace
“Ohhh,” he cried quietly, so as not to scare off the passers by; their handouts had allowed him to eek out the barest of succor for (could it really be?) twenty-seven years. He shifted position – the meager carpet he sat on did little to keep the cold from penetrating his body. Uncrossing his legs, he leaned back against the stone edifice – a commercial building in Camden Town – one of the old piano-making factories long gone to trendy shops and sidewalk cafes.
It was his corner. After all these years, no one challenged him. It was a decent spot; at a busy intersection -especially at rush hour – commuters came out of the Tube right into his path. A penny here, a pound there, it added up. You could tell a lot about a person from the knees down. How they walked, for example. Did they shuffle belaboredly, or sprint like gazelles? Footwear gave even more away. The shiny loafers; impeccable hose – rarely did they notice him. But the shufflers did. The weekends were always good – the kids with stiletto heels and high-top sneakers. He hated the Goth look (his neighborhood had become its mecca) – mutilating their smooth young skin with tattoos and piercings, and capping it all with purple or pink hair. It offended his aesthetics; still they would toss some coins his way as they hurried to their gathering spots. But it was the business folk who sustained him. Early morning handouts.
“How’s it going, Alfie?” Another pound warmed his ungloved hand. Billy Anderson had taken a personal interest in him. Over the years they had become friends, sharing stories, always in generalities, about their young dreams – before life had had its way with them. They were complicit in their aversion to specifics, allowing a freedom of ideas without the Achilles heel of particulars, or emotional exposure. Billy was quite well off. Family money, Alfie surmised; but the bloke was quite enterprising in his own right. Hard to keep a shop going for a decade.
He shifted again. It didn’t help. The Christmas lights bounced off the ice-slicked puddle just off the curb – a silent rebuke for a broken life. He was suddenly struck with an awful clarity – he was homesick.
“Too cold to beg today, come in and have a cuppa,” Billy offered. Alfie rose slowly. He followed him into the cafe. It would take a few minutes for the heat to kick in; but it was already a relief.
“Sit in the leather chair, Alfie. Take a load off,” said Billy motioning to the most comfortable seat in the shop.
“Can only spare a minute, Mate,” said Alfie.
Still quite dark at seven, it was the beginning of his workday. The early morning rush.
“Why the long face these last weeks?” asked Billy with a hint of privileged guilt in his voice. Normally, Alfie would exploit it; but not today.
“I want to go home.”
Alfie was surprised at the pleading in his own voice; so was Billy.
“And home is where?”
“Brooklyn, New York in the good old USA -and by the way, my name is Henry Wordsworth Blaylock. First person I’ve shared that with in over twenty years.”
Alfie aka Henry removed his bright red stovepipe hat – always a crowd pleaser – a way for busy commuters to spot him. It was damp and wet. He touched his gray-flecked beard with unpleasant discovery. What a wreck.
“I never took you for a Yank,” said Billy.
“That was the idea. I came over in ‘87 – a graduate student in art. Believe it or not, on full scholarship. That’s when I met Julie. An Aussie, on scholarship too. I fell so far in love I never found my way back.”
“What happened to her?”
“I drank a lot. Julie couldn’t handle it. She hung in till ‘89; finally gave an ultimatum – the booze or her. I chose the whisky; or maybe it chose me; I couldn’t shake it. She went back to Melbourne. Heard from her once in ‘92 but that was it. I don’t blame her. But honestly, I loved her; still do.”
“And your family?”
“Couldn’t face them; the cajoling and all, so I just got lost. I became Alfie. Remember the song, What’s it all about, Alfie? Still don’t know. I just want to go home.”
Billy regarded him over his steaming cup. After a moment, he said,
“I’d like to help you with that, Alfie or should I call you Henry?”
“No, Alfie is fine. And how could you help?”
“My friend, I’m going to sort out your paperwork and buy you a first class ticket to New York City. I only ask one thing: write and let me know how you are. I’ll make it round-trip – just in case.”
“No can do, my friend. I’m a bum with no clothes and no money.” It was true, but they both knew he had his game on again.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” smiled Billy. “Meet me here tomorrow at two. And take a shower. We’re going shopping.”
The next evening at six, Alfie looked like a well-heeled commuter. He took his freshly purchased navy carry-on – full of crisp new clothes – home to his small basement room. It used to be a storage closet and barely fit his cot and chair. When he lay down, his head touched one wall and his toes the other. He stared at the wet cracks in the ceiling. The mold spread in slow inky symmetry like the web of a languorous spider. Watery drops gathered mass, congealed and dove listlessly into the bucket in the far corner. Billy’s words echoed in his head. “We’ll meet at my brother’s – the attorney in the family – and sort out your passport. With luck, you’ll be in Brooklyn by New Year’s Eve.” Alfie didn’t believe in luck. And dreams were a luxury he had cast off along with his name. So he just listened to the rhythm of the drip, drip, drip.
Five days later, with passport and ticket in hand, plus $500 tucked in a fine-smelling leather wallet, Alfie was at Heathrow. Billy and he sat together at the departure drop-off.
“You’re actually a handsome fellow, Henry Wordsworth Blaylock. Kiss your Mom for me.”
He clapped him on the shoulder. “There you go now; that’s a good one then. Remember, just head for first class check in. They’ll take care of the rest.”
Alfie stepped out of the car and headed towards the airport entrance. He turned and waved.
“How can I ever thank you? Such a thing to do.”
“Good luck, Henry, just write me a note.” The car sped away.
He stood in the middle of the well-ordered first class lounge. The airline personnel assigned to the area were obviously the cream of the crop. Quiet solicitation and hushed voices offered flower-infused water and full breakfast. He noted that customers were helping themselves to the coffee and water. So they must be free. But what about the food? He was hungry but didn’t want to embarrass himself, so he had elderberry apple juice and vitamin water. Of course the bar was busy. Free as well? He didn’t want to find out. He’d been off the sauce for almost a week now. It felt pretty good. He saw his clean-shaven reflection bouncing off a glass-covered billboard. Julie had always gone weak for the cleft in his chin. He’d forgotten about that. His large gray eyes were steady and well spaced. Being tall had advantages; it had helped him protect his corner turf. Now he commanded another kind of respect. He could see it in the women’s eyes as they smiled up at him. The men took his measure, deferring to him as if he might be somebody. Who was he now? And why had he agreed to this? He found a taupe mid-century chair that faced the busy runway.
He hadn’t flown in almost thirty years. He remembered the newness, coursing in hopeful swells through his six foot-four frame as he crunched into his discount seat. Now he was about to board again – but this time consumed with fear.
“Your flight is boarding, Mr. Blaylock, this way please. Gate 32.”
“Good day, Sir.“ The captain tipped his hat as Alfie passed into seat 2A.
He was dazzled and confused by the myriad of buttons and electronics in his luxurious cubicle. But the seat was quite large and his legs stretched out as far as he wanted. He exhaled with the first sense of relief he had felt in days.
* * *
The city revealed itself suddenly, lifting like a mirage through orange-tinged clouds. The evening lights outlined a silhouette achingly familiar, interposed with strange new shapes. He took comfort from the Empire State Building, dressed in Christmas green and red. Although he knew better, he searched for the twin blocks that had been the World Trade Towers. He had never liked them architecturally but now he mourned them – lost beacons in his tenuous landscape.
He got through Customs quickly.
“Welcome home, Sir,” said the agent. Alfie nodded, took his bag and headed for the exit. He flagged a cab and headed immediately to his mother’s house – to his house. Better to bite the bullet right away. He clutched his wallet reassuringly; how much was a cab ride these days?
“Hendrickson and Flatlands, please.”
“Street address?” asked the cabbie.
“The corner will be fine.”
The trip from JFK was shorter than he’d expected. They were going against the Belt Parkway rush-hour traffic that inched like a frozen slug towards Long Island. Lucky me; poor suckers. He thought that maybe things would begin to break in his direction.
“That’ll be fifteen bucks even,” said the cabby as he pulled over.
Alfie handed him a twenty.
“Keep the change,” he said, lifting his bag onto the curb. He glanced around as the cab pulled away. The house was a mile away. He needed the time to center himself. He saw St. Thomas Aquinas rectory and wondered if Holy Family was still around, and Father Torres – a good priest who had pulled him away from trouble when he was a kid. He walked briskly, anxious now to get home. His house, a multi-family brownstone, had seen glory days, replete with Tiffany windows and inlaid wood; and desultory times – when everything had been stripped bare.
The neighborhood had always been a kaleidoscope of shifting cultures – the new immigrants often resented and sometimes feared by the entrenched inhabitants; who, in turn, had been feared and resented themselves when they had first settled there – going all the way back to the 1600’s and the Dutchman, Von Cowenhoven and the Lenape ‘Indian chiefs’ – from whom he had purchased most of what was now Brooklyn.
His grandfather, a dockworker of English-German stock and builder in his sparse free time, had bought the house in the Fifties and gradually made it livable – not elegant, but serviceable. When his parents inherited it in the late Sixties, they took the basement and parlor floors, and half of the second. They rented out the top two stories – sometimes a pain, but mostly, it was a reliable source of needed income for a family of five.
“Gee Mom, it’s great to see you.”
“Wow, Mom you look terrific. Your prodigal son is home at last.”
He stood staring at his well-polished shoes – not the footwear a beggar could count on for a handout. He kept rehearsing phrases, trying to get it right. He gave up and walked the remaining twenty yards, immersed in guilt and anticipation, to the front gate. He took a deep breath and looked up.
It was gone.
The house was simply not there. No gate, no steps, no trees, nothing. I’ve got the wrong street. You damn fool. What a moron. His heart sloshed against his chest. Panicking, he surveyed the block. It was his street. He fell to the ground – automatically assuming his beggar’s squat. The earth where his house once stood was smooth, packed down. He hadn’t realized how big the lot was. An ugly gap. The block seemed to be missing its front teeth. Who demolishes a house, just like that? He sat there for a long time. His mind was numb. So were his toes. It was getting cold, very cold. He rose slowly, hesitated, then turned and ran along Flatbush Avenue towards the water, searching frantically, with his carry-on bumping behind him.
Still there. “The Neon Mermaid”glowed garishly in raunchy red, just as it always had. One of his favorite haunts, back in the day. He slowed down and caught his breath. Only half full, the after work crowd was slowly trickling in. The bar was the same – highly polished and well-worn hardwood. But the bar stools sported cherry red Naugahyde cushioned seats with silver back rests. Upgrade. Someone’s doing okay. He found a spot at the end of the bar. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the light. Mood lighting. Hah. Fancy smancy. Summoning his courage, he sought and dreaded anyone familiar. There he is. Even from the back, Alfie recognized Tommy Allen. He had a full head of close-cropped salt and pepper hair, almost a buzz-cut. It seemed to extend to his face, the beard the same length as the hair – a monochromatic exposition of head fuzz. His powerful shoulders and ham hock neck showed no sign of age. He must spend a lot of time at the gym. Alfie waited. Tommy eventually looked his way, staring questioningly as he got closer.
“Tell me I’m not seeing a ghost. You goddamned son of a bitch. Henry? Henry Blaylock? What the fuck, Henry!”
Tommy raised his hand. Alfie didn’t know whether to duck or shake. He was five inches taller than Tommy but he had never beaten him in a fight. Not that there had been many; Alfie’s self-preservation saw to that. The youngest of three tough boys, the kid never backed down and never stopped punching. Even his beefy brothers gave up picking on him by the time he turned six.
Taking what he hoped was a friendly proffer, Alfie reached over the bar and grabbed Tommy’s hand with the strongest grip he could muster. Tommy burst into a wide even smile.
“We didn’t know whether you were alive or dead. Nobody did.”
He ignored the comment.
“Time’s treating you well, Tommy. The bar – is it yours now?”
“Yup, Dad’s legacy. Never thought he had that much confidence in me. He was as nasty as your old man. Longshoremen – mean-fisted old bastards. We both have the scars to prove it, right Buddy?”
He wasn’t smiling anymore.
Alfie was still relieved that his father was dead, some twenty years now – the last time anyone had tracked him down. His brother, Chuck, his father’s favorite, was always the one to try to hold things together. “You’ve got to see him, Henry, he needs to talk to you. He’s in bad shape. Doctors say he won’t last a week. Lung cancer; those damned cigarettes. Please, come home.”
“For him? Not on your life. Now maybe Mom can finally have some peace.”
Chuck had hung up on him. Alfie had responded by throwing his cell phone in the rubbish. Pay as go from now on. And that had been that.
“What happened to my house, Tommy? And Mom?”
His old friend regarded him carefully.
“Chuck and Sally sold it five years ago.”
“Because it was too much to keep up. Your Mom couldn’t handle it – the tenants and all. She went to live with Chuck in Forest Hills.”
“And who got all the money? Chuck, no doubt.”
“Hey, man, don’t drag me into your family stuff. I’ve got enough of my own. Don’t think I didn’t get this place without a load of resentment from my own brothers.”
“And what about Sally?”
“Your sister and Wayne are in Philly now. Her daughter is just as pretty as she is. And your nephew, he’s a handful. Teenagers! Just like someone I used to know.” He winked. “We talk every now and then; still carry that torch; can’t help it.”
“Can you give me her number? And while you’re at it, give me Chuck’s too.”
“Your sister never gave up on you, bro; neither did your Mom. Hey, you look thirsty. Let me get you a beer. Brooklyn is now the home of some of the best microbrews on the planet.”
“What I’d like is some hot tea. Got to thaw out a bit.”
Tommy looked surprised; he kept the wisecrack to himself.
“I’ll be right back with their contact info – and the tea. You take milk and sugar?”
“I like my tea neat,” Alfie smiled, admiring his friend’s restraint.
The first call was to Chuck. He needed to see his mother. He stepped out into the small vestibule – one of those temporary affairs made of plastic and canvas that keeps the cold and snow from blowing in.
“Chuck Blaylock here.”
He’s answering his home phone like it’s a business.
“Chuck, it’s Henry.”
“I’m in town, Chuck. I want to see Mom. I’m at Tommy’s bar. He told me she moved in with you and Janie.”
“Now you call? Do you think time stopped just for you, you selfish prick?”
“I’m not gonna argue with you. Just put Mom on.”
“Well, that’d be pretty hard to do, Henry. She died three weeks ago, you fucking asshole!” Chuck slammed the phone against the wall. Or that’s how it sounded from Alfie’s end. He could hear Janie ask, “Chuck, what’s going on? What is it?” The phone clicked off.
“Excuse me,” said a pretty young woman bundled up against the late December wind. He stepped aside to let her and her companions pass. The cold air blasted him as the canvas door admitted a steady stream of patrons. The place had filled up – the last workday before the long New Year’s weekend. He turned and thought to warm himself. The tea would taste good; so would a hot toddy.
Instead, he wandered onto the avenue and headed towards Marine Park – always a refuge when he was a boy. He’d played baseball and basketball there and sometimes, a game of bocce with the old Italian guys. He’d been a good athlete.
His dad worked with his hands and disciplined with his fists. Henry was always the one who got hit. Girls were never to be struck, not that Sally ever gave her father a reason to consider it. And Chuck? He was such a suck-up, always seeking paternal attention. He could still feel the blows hammering into his stomach – he’d crumble forward as the wind got snuffed out; then the old bastard would punch his bended head. His mother would break it up. When he was fourteen, she finally realized that gentle pleading was useless against a rage-aholic. In an act of adrenalin infused strength, she took a wicker kitchen chair and smashed it to smithereens over her husband’s head.
“If you ever hit him again, I will leave you. Do not test me, Martin.”
Her husband had frozen in astonishment. He never touched his son again; and that included hugs. Henry had become off limits to rage and affection. That was fine with him.
* * *
He loved the biting scent of the saltwater marshes. The wind whipped through the dunes – the grasses undulating in a hoary sea breeze. An almost full moon bathed the landscape in ghostly splendor – a study in glacial white – just like his heart, stripped now of his mother’s lifeblood.
He longed for spring; for the exuberant chirps of Myrtle warblers and grasshopper sparrows – the joyous cacophony that once soothed his young soul. He used to lie in the shrubs, very still. On a good day, a rabbit or a pheasant would cross his path. He thought of the horseshoe crabs; he’d discover their shells scattered among the seaweed, rocking in the tide. Through births and deaths of myriad species, continents, and new worlds – long out-lasting the dinosaurs, they still poured into this very spot, as they had for more than five millions years, seeking a mate. If he was very lucky, he’d encounter a loon (another multi-million year old survivor) bobbing offshore, as it preened from its molting and reclaimed its haunting call silenced by the winter winds.
But it was not spring. Shivering uncontrollably, he headed back to the Mermaid. Tommy was relieved when he spotted him through the festive crowd. Alfie made his way to a small opening in the now packed bar.
“About that tea,” he said mustering a smile.
“Coming right up. Where’d you go? Where are you staying tonight?”
“Not sure, yet. I’ll find someplace. Not to worry.”
“Not tonight you won’t. Everything in town is booked for New Year’s. Listen, I have a friend who has a bed and breakfast just up the street. She’s got a tiny room that she only rents out in a pinch. I could ask her; maybe it’s available. Why don’t I give her a call?”
“I’m used to tiny. Yeah, thanks, that would be good.”
“And how about a sandwich to go with the tea? You look like you could stand to eat.”
Alfie was hungry, and sick. He had felt it coming on since he’d been at the lawyer’s office five days before; it had finally caught up with him. He wanted to call his sister, but not now. He’d wait until he got some sleep.
That night, he listened to the hot water pipes gurgle up cozily. The heat felt good. There was a decent shared bath just across the hall. He treated himself to a long, hot shower and put on his new pajamas; Billy Anderson had insisted he get flannel. They were hunter green, dotted with small beige hunting dogs shaped like English Pointers. The proprietor had given him two extra blankets – one of which was wool. He piled them on and crawled under, pulling them over his shoulders. But he couldn’t get warm; a fever gripped him. It was almost midnight, five in the morning London time. The last thing he wanted to do was go out to get some aspirin.
Compared to his room in Camden, this place was a palace. There was a desk with writing paper, a comfortable chair, a small sink with hand towels stacked on a shelf, and a narrow closet. He even had a window that overlooked several back yards – three of them had Christmas trees. Their colorful lights swayed in the frozen breeze; through the darkness he could see their muted hues dancing behind the gauzy drapes. Maybe I’ll stay here for a few nights, until I feel better. Drawing the covers closer, he nestled into the lavender scented pillow and fell asleep.
He was still sick when he woke up at ten the next morning. The sun was shining weakly through a tired haze. After arranging to stay the weekend, he walked to a diner on the corner and ordered eggs and hot tea. He’d picked up some aspirin and downed it with the water that, ridiculously, was served with ice. A nice American touch in the summer, but not today. He shivered and cupped his tea. He decided to order some chicken soup.
As he headed back to his room, he surveyed his old neighborhood. It had changed. What did he expect? Of course, it had. There were high-rises where there used to be wooden row houses. Tucked into the ground floors, the storefronts were either national chains or small specialty shops. Artisan this and that: coffee, tea, leather goods, handbags, spices; trendy bars. There were some remaining bodegas sprinkled here and there. And the Hispanic Center was still open for business. Gentrification was infiltrating even the more dilapidated side streets. That’s probably what the neighbors grumbled about his grandfather, back in the Fifties, when he had bought the place for a song. He wondered what would be built on his property next. Not big enough for a high rise; so, probably some elaborate new brownstone. Did they have historic districts or strict building codes these days? Or was everything going to the highest bidder?
He sat on his bed and stared at Sally’s number. Somehow he knew that speaking to her would make all this real. He wasn’t sure he could handle it. He wrapped the blanket around himself and made the call anyway.
God, it was good to hear her voice. He found it hard to speak.
“Henry, is that you? Chuck called me this morning. Henry?”
“It’s me. How are you, Sally? Tommy Allen sends his love,” he said teasingly.
It was a stupid thing to say; she was a married woman now, not his fifteen-year old sister. He regretted it immediately.
“Forgive me. It’s just been so long. I’m a jerk. I guess that hasn’t changed.”
She laughed worriedly.
“How are you, Henry? Where are you?”
“Tommy got me a room at a friend’s place. What happened to Mom? Was she sick? Did she suffer? I can’t believe, I don’t believe she’s dead.”
“She didn’t suffer, Henry. She had a heart attack. By the time the paramedics got there, she was gone.”
He could tell she was crying.
“I’m so sorry, Sally. I swear I think I knew it. A few weeks ago, out of nowhere, I got so homesick; I had to come back. But I’m too late.”
He felt his eyes welling up; he stopped himself.
“You know the last thing she said to Chuck and Janie, really the only words she got out, before she died?”
He was afraid to hear.
“She said, Tell Henry when he comes home that I love him; tell him everything will be okay. And that was it. She loved you so much, Henry. She always knew you’d come back.”
He reeled back from a blow far greater than any his father had ever delivered – a merciless dagger of regret.
They were silent for a long while. He could hear her sobs; he wished he were there to hold her; to protect her as he always had. But who would he be protecting her from? He was surely a cause of her sorrow, of Chuck’s rage. Coming back had been a huge mistake.
“Where is she buried?”
“She’s in Greenwood, cremated, in Grandma’s family plot. It was what she wanted. Oh, Henry, why not come here and stay a while?”
“First, I’ve got to see Mom.”
“She’s gone, Henry.”
“Please, I need a few days. Then, we’ll see. I’m so sorry.”
He hung up before she could respond and sat shaking on the bed. From fever? From grief? What had he been thinking? He looked over at the desk and saw the writing paper. There was one promise he could keep. He addressed the envelope, taking the information from Billy Anderson’s card.
New Year’s Eve, American style
Well, you were right. Everyone here was so happy to see me. My mother is overjoyed. How can I ever repay you for the generosity you have shown me, my friend? I think I’ll be staying with her for a while, until I get my feet on the ground. It feels great to be in my old room again.
They tell me the economy here has turned up; there might even be a spot for someone like me. Imagine that!
Don’t be concerned if you don’t hear from me for a while, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
With great affection and eternal thanks,
Alfie (aka Henry)
P.S. Happy New Year!!!!
He folded the letter, put it in the envelope and placed it carefully in his breast pocket. He considered fedexing it; but, what was the rush, he’d wait till the post office opened after the holiday.
It was bitter cold. The sun succumbed to the flurries – small white furies that swirled in the shifting wind. He walked for a while, north on Flatbush, towards Greenwood Cemetery – a revolutionary site and part of a vibrant swath of green that cut through Brooklyn, along with the Botanical Garden and Prospect Park. A visitor might find it surprising to see such gorgeous old trees- Pin Oaks, some over 100 feet tall, Birch, Elm and Ash – that had bypassed the city’s wrecking ball. When he was in middle school, he had come with charcoals and a pad, hopping the graveyard fence, sometimes spending all day, sketching the native flora.
“The kid’s gonna be a fairy – what with the art classes and all. What’s next? Ballet? Well, he’s your problem now. Remember THAT when he comes home with AIDS,” his father often warned. His mom would ignore the comment and hum. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . .” His father would leave the room and the topic – exasperated, but checked.
By the time Alfie reached the ornate entrance, he was exhausted. The walk had warmed him; but he was clammy from the fever that had come roaring back. It was late afternoon and the cemetery was getting ready to close its enormous wrought iron gates. He hurried through as unobtrusively as possible. It took him fifteen minutes to find the plot.
He remembered coming here with his mother every Easter as she planted new tulips and tidied up the gravesite. Often, the winter would heave the earth up and partially obscure the bottom inscription on the marble stone. She would use her hand shovel to move the dirt away. Then she would get down on her knees and pray.
He couldn’t bear to look, to find her name above his grandparents’, but that was why he had come.
Loving mother, wife and daughter
Greta Emily Lang Blaylock
5/1/1937 – 12/5/2017
He had never held much stock in prayer, at least not since his time as an alter boy. But he had an unshakeable faith in his mother – and he never doubted the simple fervor of her prayers. And so, out of respect, he knelt on the frozen ground and blessed himself.
“Hail Mary, full of grace . . .” He tried dozens of ways to apologize to her, to explain what had happened. But he couldn’t because he didn’t understand himself. He assumed his beggar’s pose, and for the first time since Julie left, he cried inconsolably.
It had gotten dark hours ago. He was afraid that if he left he might never come back again. His body ached, and his mind was unfocused. But something had happened. He had experienced a kind of lightness, an ephemeral glimmer of something new. He couldn’t put his finger on it. But it was real.
Alfie stood with great difficulty. Everything was locked up so he climbed the fence on the high ground – the same spot he snuck over so many years before. He headed towards the church where, he had learned, Father Torres had been reassigned. Was he seeking absolution or answers? He didn’t know.
It was ten o’clock, two hours before the New Year, when he finally reached the church steps. As he expected, both the rectory and the church were closed. The doors would open in an hour or so for midnight mass.
There was a cafe, adorned in holiday lights, just across the square where he could go and warm up. But he was just so tired. He couldn’t walk anymore. He stretched out on the stone steps.
* * *
“Here’s another one, didn’t even make it to midnight,” Officer Beneto said to his partner.
“He’s out cold. Amateur night for the drinking crowd,” Officer Mendez replied. Beneto reached over and shook him.
“This guy is more than out cold; I think he’s dead. Maybe he froze to death. A well-dressed guy like this? It’s not like he’s a bum. You think he’d have some place to be tonight.”
Mendez called for an ambulance. “Check his pulse.”
“I just did. I can’t find one.”
The ambulance arrived five minutes later. The cops were relieved to resume their beat. It was too cold to stand around.
“He’s all yours,” said Mendez. “Still, it’s a shame, to cash it in on the church steps, on New Year’s Eve no less.”
The paramedic nodded and checked for vitals. She detected a faint pulse.
“This guy is still with us. Get a move on!” she said to the driver as she put the oxygen mask over his mouth.
* * *
The flu had been especially virulent this season. In Alfie’s case, it had turned into pneumonia.
Three days and no one’s called or come looking, grumbled the ICU charge nurse under her breath.
John Doe was still unconscious; they were losing him.
She checked the notes to be sure – no ID on him when he came in – just a wallet with four twenty-dollar bills tucked into his back pocket. Not that it’s my job but someone should give a damn. She went down to search his clothes for herself. Nothing in the pants’ pockets; nothing in the jacket; the coat pockets, no. She reached for the jacket again and checked inside; there was a breast pocket. She felt something and pulled it out – a letter addressed to some guy in England.
King’s County had been a madhouse – the holidays, the drunks, the flu, the cold. And everyone was pulling double duty, understaffed and overworked. This week the docs, the social workers were the “B-team”. The “A’s” were enjoying their vacation.
It really isn’t my job! She wasn’t about to call the U. K. on her own dime, but somebody had to do something. This patient needs to hear a friendly voice if he’s ever gonna make it. The fundraising office was closed until next week. But she knew they could place a call to the moon if it meant tracking down some donors.
Oh, what the hell . . . she let herself in and reached for the phone.
Billie Anderson asked the nurse to open the letter; at his request, she read it to him twice. He thanked her profusely.
“Any issues with payment, or if they try to move him out of there, please call me. And if the worse should happen, well, I’ll take care of that too.”
Billy’s brother had come through for him again. There really was no privacy anymore. Within the space of a single afternoon, he had found out that she had divorced four years before, and recently moved to California to be near her son – an art student at USC.
She lived alone with her Maltese puppy, Franklin, who had his own Facebook page. She was free-lancing as a feature film digital artist. He had her cell number, e-mail and street address.
The situation was urgent he knew; but he felt a written text would be less startling, and maybe easier to process – and consider – than an intrusive call. These days, it was the most immediate way to communicate anyway.
“Dear Julie, . . .” he began.
About the Author:
Maureen Grace has been writing stories and poems all her life but has only recently begun to send them out for publication. She has a master’s in literature and had won numerous awards for her writing in television, film and print advertising.