On a particularly bleak day, smattered with a drizzling rain and all but consumed by a fruitless search of one too many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the we rain sort of blew me along semi-deserted side street. The noise of the late afternoon crowds faded into the hushed whisper of water on pavement as I made my way farther from the shops and cafes, the warm places where people with money duck on days such as this one. The paper in my pocket nagged at my conscious only barely allowing me this brief respite into a bit of self-indulgent wallowing.
A section of wall, just a few feet down an alley looked rather inviting. A milk crate sat on its side just against said section of wall. The spot was far enough away from the street to be out of the way but not so far down as to be really in the thick of the stink from the dumpsters at the blind end of the alley. Lacking both a destination and the present resolve to decide upon one, I plopped down unceremoniously upon that seat and cursed myself for the twentieth time that week. I’d lost count on the week.
My head tilted back to test on the stucco surface behind me, allowing my eyes to drift upwards. The light rain blotted my face, making me blink more than was probably manly. A pair of pigeons cowered on a window sill half way up the building, fidgeting and cooing, or whatever noise it is that pigeons make. The world seemed to me at that very moment a rather bleak place, and I actually envied the pigeons; they at least had someone with whom to huddle and shake against the cold hand of the world.
Not that the subject is frequently debated, but there isn’t likely a much lowlier position than one in which true envy is felt for pigeons, the rats with wings of modern day civilization. However low I felt in that instant, I was elevated to its corresponding opposite as my gaze fell away from the cloud-blanketed sky and the the pitiable scene across the alleyway from me. There, sprawled in threadbare clothes and a dingy pea coat three sizes too large was a man. His dark hair was cropped short but still managed to be disheveled in its dampened state. His eyes, sunk back in dark, heavy sockets considered his hands, as though there really should be something in them, likely a bottle or can.
Time had not been kind, nor had he been particularly kind to himself in that time. If I had not seen him those few years earlier I would not have known him. The stubble was thicker. The lips were more cracked. The frame was thinner. Only the faintest impression remained of my childhood friend, the one time lover of Lupita.
Some mixture of surprise, relief, revulsion, anticipation and pity caused me to throw up a little in my mouth. Gagging it back down, I braced myself for what was still to come. My heart thumped about in my chest, kicking like a mule at each rib in turn. Funny sensations ran up and down my legs, causing me to curl my toes inside my bots uncomfortably. I licked my lips and took the first step.
A trembling hand made its way inside my pocket, that pocket made sacred by two years of carrying its precious cargo. With care and no small amount of discomfort, nervous fingers retrieved the scrap of newspaper, clipped carefully from a purloined edition, folded just so, and given a modicum of weight with an oversized paperclip. Eyes deadlocked on Frankie in his half stupor, I enclosed the slip in my right hand and extended forward, allowing my weary body to follow, leaning me forward across the narrow span between us.
A sweat managed to break out all over my body, defying the damp already embued by the rain. The contents of my stomach, a fourth of a bagel and the remnents of a flavored coffee, clambored to escape. The end result of a few previous days’ meals made motions to escape from the other end. My brain seemed to swim in an intoxicating sea of nausea and confusion. Thus were the results of fighting the compulsion, trying to violate the rules of the cosmic joke, making my move to send a message from my semi-existence to a regular living soul.
“Just open your hand,” I said out loud to myself, “Don’t think. Just open your hand. It doesn’t matter what falls out. It doesn’t matter. Breathe. Relax. Four little muscles fired. Four little muscles relaxed. Open your hand. Don’t think. Open the hand.”
With great effort, my breathing was bridled into a meditative repetition of in and out. I closed my eyes and let my mind drift away. On a sunny day, back in New York, Lupita was walking along beside me. Her eyes rolled this way and that, mocking my sad attempts at conversation. But there was no animosity and no regret for having said whatever stupid thing I had said. She was there, beautiful and alive, dark eyes shining like chocolate oceans.
A smile more genuine and gentle than I had known during the entirety of my quest graced my lips. Calm washed over me as the rain subsided, and a warmth that could have only been the sun breaking through the clouds kissed my face. The stale city air came easily into my lungs, then exited again just as easily. Four little muscles in my right forearm relaxed. Four little muscles fired ever so gently. My hand opened, releasing its contents into a self-induced oblivion, out of existence for me, out of consideration.
Unfortunately, in my blissful state, I peeked just in time to see the weighted paper land with a quiet thud in the open palm of the destitute Frankie. My whole body shuddered, muscles contracting horribly everwhere. Half falling off of the small crate the dreary city scene whirled about me in a menacing way. My meager meal finally succeeded in its exodus onto the sidewalk. Either very thick tears began coursing down my face, or I was bleeding out of my eyes. A few more dry heaves sent waves through my body, and I was finally able to right myself.
Eyes still rather glazed, Frankie was now holding the newspaper clipping with both hands, gingerly pinching between the thumb and forefinger of each. No emotions registered on his battered face. The eyes barely moved from side to side. The fact that he was already too far gone to appreciate this occurred to me. His lack of reaction only reinforced this possibility.
The glazed look in his eyes began to fade, to shift. They were no longer glazed but laden with tears, tears that shortly erupted onto his face, streaking the grime that had there accumulated. A strong manly chin quivered. Soon he was blubbering like a baby, and I cried right along with him, more than I had as I watched Lupita die, more than I had as I skulked at the edges of her funeral, and more than I had in the days loitering about her street watching her cousins vent their grief on anyone foolish enough to get in their way. As Frankie read and reread the simple obituary I had just dropped into his hands, the few short lines describing the passing of our mutual friend, I finally mourned her passing.
She was gone, and now Frankie knew. Hopefully he realized what he had missed, what he had lost. A glimmer of something in his reddened eyes seemed to indicate that he did. What he did with that realization was up to him, his life to correct or not, his fate to seize or not.