by Christina Hoag
“Whachoo got there, ol’ man?”
He raised his head and met the bloodshot eyes of the skinny guy on the neighboring cot who had just spoken. Another junkie. Or tweaker. Or crackhead. Same difference. Like all the young ones in the shelter. He looked back down at the tattered newspaper clippings he had spilled from an envelope onto the cot.
“Hey. Didnchoo hear me, ol’ man?”
He kept his head down this time and concentrated on sifting through the pieces of paper, brittle and jaundiced with age.
“Donchoo got no manners?”
He peered at the newsprint. The headlines and the masthead were easy to read: “The News, Paterson, N.J.” “Arson blaze kills three.” “Mayor faces corruption scandal.”
But the smaller font of the text was fuzzy. He strained to discern the byline that he knew was there, that was him before his hair and whiskers had turned into feathers of snow. No matter. He knew what it said anyway. Of course, he did. By Mario O’ Grady. Puckering his bristled brow, he reached into his memory for the who, what, when, where, how and why of the stories, but those details were far out of his grasp now.
A hand suddenly dove into the pile of paper and closed long fingers around it like crab legs. He reached out to stop it but was too slow. The hand shot into the air, out of his reach. Needle tracks and bruises peppered the ropy forearm like fruit gone bad.
“Gotta learn some manners, ol’ man. Gotta learn it’s polite to speak when spoken to.” The junkie’s voice curdled the air.
“Give me that!” He lunged at the junkie’s fist, but his muscles were rusted, and the younger man edged away smartly. “Give them back!” The old man’s stomach turned to hamburger meat.
“Okay, ol’ man.” The junkie’s face cracked into a smile-less grin. “Heeere they coome!”
In a deft move, the junkie ripped the papers and hurled the pieces into the air. The old man watched his life arc up and flutter down. For a moment, he was still, accepting the mock honor of the confetti, but as the pieces fell lower, it became urgent that he save them.
He moved as fast as his thick limbs allowed, swiping the air with wild scrapes. He caught a few pieces and as others plummeted, he whirled and snatched until his lungs burned. He grabbed them from the beds, the windowsill, the floor, so no one could get them and hold them beyond his reach again.
In the windowpane, he caught the reflection of the other men observing him, and he saw what they saw – an old man chasing his life like a kid catching snow. He shuffled back to his cot, stuffed the torn articles into the envelope and packed his rucksack.
* * *
Dusk was falling. Fatigue weighed his legs. The banshee wind flapped the corner of his woollen coat and coiled itself around his waist like a rope, compelling him toward a stretch of abandoned rowhouses ahead.
His feet crunched on glass shards as he poked a path through the knee-high weeds. He spotted a loose board on a back window and mustering some strength, pried it off. Rats scuttled. An unhinged plank protested. But no humans, no junkies.
His eyes adapted to the dark and he hunted around for trash to make a fire. When the flames unknotted his fingers, he foraged in his bag for the extra apple he had sneaked out from the shelter that morning when Mrs. Bruce had turned her back.
He had told her he wasn’t returning. She wished him luck and went on to the next in line. He had wanted to tell her why, to give her an explanation. More than that, a justification. He hadn’t justified his actions to anyone in years. But she didn’t demand either and he swallowed the urge. He scuffed his way into the sunshine and shivered in its deceptive rays. He spent the rest of the day wandering about the streets, panhandling, invisible as always.
He rummaged in his bag again. His hand clamped onto the welcoming cold of a glass bottle – the Thunderbird he had bought that afternoon with panhandled change, enough for a pint. He raised the bottle to his mouth and gulped a good draught. The liquor raced through his veins, making him smooth and warm again. The wind yelped outside like a guard dog.
He took the manila envelope from his rucksack and shook out the torn stories of his life. By firelight, he tried to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw, managing only to join the bits of his byline by the size of the words. “Mario” with “O’Grady.”
He had kept everything he wrote that bore his byline and over the years, the envelopes grew into stacks in a closet. He would stagger home after last call at the Shamrock & Shillelagh, open the closet and stare at them. They proved that he never let himself be defeated despite his drunken father’s fists long ago.
After he was booted by a new editor who didn’t put up with fifths of bourbon stashed in desk drawers, the pile of envelopes diminished, lost in moves from place to place. Only this envelope remained. After all these years, all that it took to destroy it was a childish tantrum.
“Goddamn that sonofabitch!” he shouted. The wind showed its sympathy with a gust that buffeted the building. He shook a handful of torn pieces in the air to show the wind. It sighed in commiseration and fell silent as if it could find no more to say.
Crone’s fingers of cold burrowed into his flesh. He shook the last drops of Thunderbird onto his tongue and chucked the bottle. It clattered onto the floorboards.
The fire ebbed. He nourished it with the rest of the rubbish he had collected. In a while, he would have to gather more. He leaned back, hoping to lose himself in the coziness of remembrance. But all he could see was the derision in the junkie’s eyes and mouth, the baleful stares of the other men, and himself performing like a street corner clown.
“You took all I had. You robbed me!” The wind took up his refrain with a whistle that bent the walls.
He’d have to return to the rescue mission soon. It was too cold to sleep rough. But that junkie would be there. Or another one. The wind gusted. A door banged, but the old man didn’t startle.
The flames ebbed to a smolder. He tried to shift his legs, but they had stiffened into leaden stilts. His eyes settled on his torn life in his lap.
He took a scrap of paper and fed it to the embers. The flame flared barely enough to warm his fingers. One by one, he burned the pieces, leaning over the fire to inhale the smell of charred paper. He saved the bits with his byline til last. When the final one had melted into a cinder, his eyelids slid shut.
* * *
Transient Found Dead, The News, Paterson, N.J., page B14.
A homeless man was found yesterday frozen to death in an abandoned rowhouse in Paterson, police said. The man, in his late 60s, died approximately 10 days ago. Police request anyone with information that may lead to his identification to come forward.
© 2021 Christina Hoag All rights reserved.