By Mrs Fringe
Today is right, Tom Kelley can feel it. He’s going to find her. The girl, the one they’re all talking about. She’s going to save him. He stretches his bones against the granite stair. Muddy Jim is two steps above him, sleeping in the corner against the unused front door. He has to be careful here, quiet, or the old fool will follow him the way he sometimes tries to. The weather is good. That has to mean something, right?
A cool breeze feels clean against his scalp, but it’s a reminder that winter is coming. Where’s his cap? He fumbles one hand against the stone, relaxes when he feels the rolled wool between his fingers. Needles of hot shocks travel from his toes to his fingers, taking extra time to knit a stiff sheath of pain up his back. He spent a lot of his summer in Brooklyn, by the water, near where he used to work, live, where he grew up. But those bay winds are a bitch by November, without a warm house to duck into at the end of the day.
So he mostly stays here in Manhattan, another wino unnoticed.
Mostly, what he feels is her. She’s out there, pulling him. Tugging all of them, if he was one to listen to the whispers. Which he isn’t. Usually. The whispers have sprung up on the streets like the tales of merrows his ma used to tell him. Irish mermaids, beyond beautiful, they sing to attract human fishermen, because the males of their own kind are hideous. Never mind that spotting one usually means a disastrous storm is coming. If you catch the merrow she makes a perfect wife on land–if you hide her cape well enough. Once she finds it, she’ll go back to the sea and leave you behind.
Not for nothing but, he’s going to get to her first.
“Are you going to find her today, Tommy? I’ll go with you. Wouldn’t mind kissing a princess myself.” Jim interrupts his thoughts.
Shit. He was supposed to leave while Muddy Jim was still sleeping. Damn garbage trucks were here late last night, and construction on the next block had jackhammers going until well– until late, so he overslept. Jim’s face can barely be seen in his pile of blankets, streaked with mud from his pilgrimages to Riverside Park where he searches for edible plants and forgotten cookies. What he finds are empty crack vials.
Tommy pats his most valuable possession. Joseph had a coat of many colors, he has a coat of many pockets. He pulls a tall boy out of one front pocket and pulls the tab back. He drains half and then looks around. Crap, he forgot to check for the priest. Father Bill doesn’t mind them sleeping in front of the little red church, he even brings food once in a while, but if he catches you drinking on his steps you’re gone.
He ignores Jim’s question and asks, “Where’s the Father?”
“He ain’t come out yet. I won’t tell him if you give me one. I’ll give you back the empty, promise. “
God bless the powers that be for starting the bottle program, so he could collect empties and return them for five cents apiece. Been four, five, six years maybe since it started. He may not have a television to watch, but he reads the papers, plenty left behind on the steps down to the subway. The President says he’s giving the country a trickle down economy. Drips and trickles of soda and beer form a permanent layer over his skin and clothes. Martin, the preacher-pimp who lives on 43rd Street, says they did it so they wouldn’t have to feed the homeless. Tim, his ex-friend and old boss on the boat, says now the bums like him will never get jobs. Tommy’s just glad for the nickel. Cash money, no wood.
“Beautiful day, God bless you!” Jim calls to a woman who paused in front of the steps to light a smoke.
She startles. Probably surprised to hear a clear request from the rag bundles on the church steps. The shoulder pads on her jacket could make Tommy a whole damned mattress.
Jim speaks again before she can move forward, “Got an extra cigarette?”
She steps out from the shadow of the scaffolding, barely shakes her head as she walks on, one lethal red pump skips over a used condom on the sidewalk.
The whole damned city’s gone to shit in the last twenty-five years. A war torn country without the war, just the empty refugees.
“You have a blessed day now!” Muddy Jim sings, “fucking bitch,” into his blanket.
“For fuck’s sake, shaddup, ya mope! Are you trying to bring the Father out here and get me busted?” Tommy hisses through the gaps in his teeth.
“C’mon, gimme one. I know you got more, I seen you buy ‘em last night. I won’t even tell him you called him Father. He ain’t a priest you know. He told you thousand times already,” Jim says.
“Father, Brother, Crazy Uncle Mickey, whatever. Later, I’ll give you one later tonight.” He would, if he wasn’t gonna be back home in Brooklyn by then. He points his chin towards Benita’s shopping cart, tucked between the scaffolding and the bottom stair, her body rolled around it. Her dirty braid looks like a pet across her shoulder. If he gives a beer to Muddy Jim, he’ll have to give one to Benita, and then before you know it he’ll have none. Don’t take a math genius to know that.
Tommy wants to get moving, be off the steps before the high school kids come up the block, making noise and trouble. Get downtown before she’s gone. He’s just waiting for his body to wake up, so’s he can walk without falling. Right now it feels like someone tied a bitchin net around his calves. Pricks and sly pinches chase across his legs, teasing him with reminders of how strong those calves used to be. Not like his arms, built from hauling full nets, but strong enough to keep him upright in a storm.
It’s just the three of them on the steps now, but it was crowded last night. Everyone comes around on Tuesdays, sandwich night. He could go for a hot plate of fresh cooked fluke right now. The thought brings his tongue to a molar, finds a wedged tuna fish flake.
Saving it for later. He laughs into his beer can, remembers his son singing that line when his mother made something he didn’t like for dinner. “I save it for later.” A long time ago, when his son was sweet and little, and his wife was sweet and warm. Oh, Colleen, what a girl she was, til she hated him. A lush life in that drafty little house, he didn’t even know it.
The church steps were buzzing last night for sure. Chris, the blond kid who didn’t know well enough to stay home with his parents, had come to join them. Just got out of the nuthouse, in for thirty days. Part of the clean up the streets the city’s doing now. They’re sweeping us up along with the trash. Garbage to the dump, homeless to the hospitals for a bath, bed, and a month’s worth of pills. Those fuckers are trying to pretty everything. Too bad. They caught him once already, reeled him in last winter. Not so bad at first, warm room, warm shower, cute young social worker pretending she understood his life and would get him back to the old neighborhood.
After seventy-two hours they sent him back out, not crazy enough to hold him, no bed in Brooklyn. He tried taking those Haldol pills, but they left his head more fucked than he was without ‘em, and left his body looking like Quasimodo, shoulder pulled up above his eyebrows, leg twisting and popping on its own. He took himself back to the ER. They told him he ate too many pills, gave him Benadryl and an appointment for the following month. He took the Benadryl.
“I’m not crazy. I got bad luck, but I ain’t crazy. Give me my fucking job back, and a cold six pack, I don’t need any pills!”
“Shut the fuck up!” Benita squints in his direction. “You got beer there?”
“No, just an empty I’m sniffing, go back to sleep.” He rattles the can and pulls his body further away from hers. Someone told him she gave them crabs. No woman is better’n a dirty one, if you ask him.
Tommy rolls and unrolls the brim of his hat. Time to go.
“What makes you think she’s going to let a smelly old leprechaun kiss her?” Benita scoffs. “She’s gonna want a woman to take care of her, a mother. They took my babies, you know.”
She’s fifty, at best. They took her babies thirty years ago.
“Better a leprechaun than a rotten old cunt,” Muddy Jim says.
“You aren’t coming, Jim,” Tommy reminds him.
“I knew it! You are going to find the girl! Bring her uptown once you’re all fixed up, will ya, Tommy?”
“You don’t know nothing. Go back to sleep.”
Whether he finds her or not, whether it works or not, no way he can come back here tonight. Everyone is still too fired up about this bullshit, this mystery girl who can heal. Has to be bullshit. Chris said she takes away pain. The mental kind. And everyone knows most physical pain is from the mental kind. No pain, no problems. He can be strong again, working. His son will speak to him. Invite him in for Friday dinner. Maybe he’d even let his old dad sleep on the couch until he got a room. An apartment.
A kiss, Chris said. One kiss. A living holy well like the ones back in Ireland, but spit instead of water.
He went to Ireland twice, a lifetime ago. Once as a child, and once as a young man. Drank the water from the holy well in County Kerry, Valley of the Mad. Never felt better than he did then, the goodness brought him all the way back to New York and a young wife.
Tommy reaches inside his jacket, peels off the silver duct tape he found on a bench three days ago and slaps it over the crack on the sole of his left shoe. It’s a long walk for these old feet to the pier down by Hell’s Kitchen. Still, he has it better’n some. Benita’s swollen bare toes sound like claws when they slap down the street.
Last week his toe came off. Not the big one, the one next to it—but it’s longer than his big one. His mother used to say he didn’t need a rabbit’s foot, he had his lucky toe. Yeah, he felt it crunch inside his shoe, thought it was a rock. Pulled the shoe off and there it was, not fish belly white but dusty gray, with long black hairs still attached. Seeing it whole but a little flattened made his stomach feel funny. Like a morning with no beer. So’s he jammed it back into place and wrapped a rag over the whole thing. Went to the clinic the next day.
The doctor there was as stuck up as Tim’s wife, making faces, saying he wasn’t clean. Gave him a blahblahfuckingblah about quitting drinking and sugar. Where did that stupid squid think he was eating bon bons and cakes from? Neuropathy, diabetes. Sugar my ass. It’s miserosion. What happens to a body when life sits on top of your head and she just grinds on down.
Someone brought him a pair of socks while he was there. He put them on after the doctor wrapped his toes, and the three smallest fingers of his right hand.
After he meets her, he’s going to take the train to Brooklyn like everyone else, drop his token in the slot and glide on through the turnstile. In his pocket he can feel the disc, touches the brass and steel metal to assure himself it’s still there. He liked the old tokens better, with the big “Y” cutout in the middle. Maybe he’ll stop for a nip first. His liver knocks and bangs like a radiator at the thought.
Won’t Timmy and the boys be surprised to see him. He hasn’t seen the boys since that day. A shadow of old broken ribs circles round, triggering a phlegm deepened rattle. Fuck Timmy. He told him not to do it, not to put him off the boat, he coulda still fished. Liability my ass. Then saying he couldn’t even clean the fish on the docks anymore, until finally, a storm of fists and work boots beating the message to stay away from the bay completely.
Yeah, he’s going to ride that D train all the way to Sheepshead Bay. Maybe he did muck some things up. He’ll bring a bottle, to apologize. A good one. Johnnie Walker. No, Jameson. Yeah, there’s nothing a bottle of Jameson can’t get right.
Tommy can’t really smell the water, that sense is shot from so many years with his nose caked in salt spray and buried in dead fish, but he can feel it as he gets closer. Even the scum of the Hudson is a balm. He lurches past a group of youngsters. He can’t tell which are the boys and which are the girls, they’ve all got short hair sticking straight up, wide shouldered jackets and dungarees that couldn’t be tighter.
The water makes him young, while the bag of cans rattling in his hand makes him flush.
There she is. He can’t believe it. She’s real, here, and alone on a bench. No porcupine hair, hers is blowing loose in the breeze, waving and curling to call him over. Black Irish, his wife would have called her. As he gets closer he sees her eyes are light, pale freckles dot her face, and she can’t be more than a child. Not even thirteen, the age when all girls seem to get that mmm-hmmm pinch to their lips.
She doesn’t seem to notice Crackety McCrackhead on the bench next to hers, elastic bones pulling in her direction.
If he hadn’t of walked all this way, Tom’d wrap him around his fingers like a rubber band and shoot him so far into the water he wouldn’t be able to reach the rotting pilings. He snarls at the younger man, rearranges the bandage over his hand like a boxer prepping to put his gloves on and step in the ring. A deep cough claws up from his chest, killing his attempt at intimidation. The young thug moves off anyway. Maybe he thinks he’s got TB, maybe he was hoping to catch her alone.
“Here you are, then.”