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"Whachoo got there, ol' man?"

He looked up into the bloodshot eyes of the lanky guy on the neighboring cot
who had spoken. Another junkie. Like all the young ones. He didn't reply.

"Hey, didnchoo hear me, ol' man? Whachoo lookin' at?"
 
He kept his head down this time and concentrated on sifting through the
tattered newspaper clippings he had emptied from an envelope onto the
coarse, military-green blanket of the rescue mission.

"Donchoo got no manners?"
 
He ignored the question and rubbed the brittle newsprint between his
fingertips. The headlines and the masthead were easy to read: "The News,
Paterson", "N.J. Arson blaze kills three." "Mayor faces corruption scandal."

He strained to discern the byline that he knew was there, that was him
before his hair grew white and his whiskers into a matted beard. It was
fuzzy, but he could decipher it: By Mario O' Grady. Puckering his bristled
brow, he reached into his memory for the who, what, when, where of the
stories, but those details were far out of grasp.

A pink-palmed hand darted in front of his, diving into the pile of paper and
closing a fist around it. He reached out to break its grip but was too slow.
The brown fist hovered out of reach. Needle tracks ran down the ropy
forearm.

"Gotta learn some manners, ol' man. Gotta learn to speak when spoken to"
The junkie's voice curdled in the air.
 
"Give me that!" He lunged for the junkie's upheld hand, but his muscles were
rusted and the younger man edged back smartly. The old man felt as if he
were about to burst.
 
"Give them back"

They stood glowering at each other. The old man's stomach turned to
hamburger meat in his ribcage.

"Okay, ol' man." The junkie's face folded into a smile-less grin. "Heeere
they come!"

Holding the pile of paper between both hands, the junkie ripped it and
hurled the pieces at the ceiling. The old man watched the remnants of his
life arc up and flutter down. For a moment, he stood 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 of outstretched fingers. He caught a few pieces and as others
plummeted, he whirled and snatched until his lungs ached. He eyed where the
pieces landed and propelled himself to grab them from the beds, the
windowsill, the floor, before someone else could get them first.

He crawled across a cot to reach the sill and in the windowpane he caught
the reflection of the other men observing him. He saw what they saw - a gray
old man chasing flitting scraps of paper like a mangy dog chasing its tail.

He shuffled back to his cot, stuffed the torn papers into the envelope and
packed his bag.

                                                *****

Dusk was falling. For the first time he could remember, fatigue weighed his
legs. The morning's exertion had exhausted him. The banshee wind flapped the
corner of his woolen coat, a gift from the rescue mission, and coiled itself
around his waist as if reinforcing the cracked leather belt. The gust
compelled him toward a stretch of abandoned rowhouses ahead. The wind never
steered him wrong.

His feet crunched on glass shards as he poked a path through the knee-high
weeds crowding the side of the end house. He spotted a loose board on a back
window and mustering his strength, he pried it off with his hands. The musty
stillness inside masked the life of a soul-less building. Rats scurried, an
unhinged plank heaved by the wind protested. But no humans, no junkies.

His eyes adapted to the dark and he hunted around for bits of wood and trash
to make a fire. When the flames' heat unknotted his fingers, he foraged in
his bag and found the bananas he had sneaked out from the shelter that
morning when Mrs. Bruce had turned her back.

He had told her he wasn't coming back. She smiled and wished him luck and
went on to the next in line. He had wanted to tell her why, to give her an
explanation. He hadn't given an explanation to anyone in years. But she
didn't demand one and he swallowed the urge. He scuffed his way into the
deceiving sunshine and shivered. He spent the rest of the day wandering
about the streets, invisible as always.

The fire was fading. He nourished it with the rest of the rubbish he had
collected. In a while, he would have to gather more.

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. The sharpness of the fortified wine bit his nostrils as he raised
the half-full pint to his mouth and gulped. The liquor raced through his
veins. He licked his lips and felt smooth again. The wind yelped outside
like a guard dog.

He took out the manila envelope from his sack. Corners of the torn articles
crumbled as he picked them up. He tried to fit the pieces together like a
jigsaw, managing only to join the pieces of his byline. "Mario" and "O'Grady"
were common enough Italian and Irish names, but not side by side.
He got called "half-breed" when he started as a copyboy, a name he didn't
much like but chose not to fight and soon enough he earned its
disappearance.

He kept everything he wrote that bore his byline and over the years, the
manila envelopes grew into stacks in a closet. He would stagger home after
last call at the Shamrock & Shillelagh, open the closet and stare at the
envelopes. They proved that he never let himself be defeated despite his
drunken father's fists.

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!" The wind agreed with an encouraging gust that
buffeted the building. He shook a handful of torn pieces in the air to show
the wind. It sighed in sympathy and fell silent as if it could find no more
to say.

Fingers of cold burrowed into his flesh. He shook the last drops of
Thunderbird onto his tongue and chucked the bottle aside. It clattered onto
the floorboards.

The fire was ebbing. He loosened his grip on the wad of paper and let it
fall in his lap, hoping to lose himself in the coziness of remembrance as he
often did. 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.

"Sonsabitches, what'd you ever have! You took all I had, you robbed me!" His
voice trailed off but the wind took up his refrain with a whistle that bent
the walls.

The junkie had made him feel raw, just like his father used to until he got
the copyboy job. Then he found he could punch back and his father turned to
kicking the dog instead.

"No one's gonna get anything more from me, he mumbled."
 
He knew he'd have to return to the rescue mission soon. It would get 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 fire had waned 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.

"Never again, not gonna let 'em." He shook his head. "No way."

He paused, then took the top scrap of paper and fed it to the embers, taking
a last look at the rent byline as it flared into a scant flame that massaged
his fingers. One by one, he burned the pieces, leaning over the fire to
inhale the acrid smell of charred paper.

After the last letter of his byline had melted into a cinder, he slid his
eyelids shut and waited.

                                                ****

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.


Christina Hoag is a reporter with The Associated Press in Los Angeles. A former staff writer for the Miami
Herald, she was a correspondent in Latin America writing for Time, Business Week, The New York Times,
Financial Times and Houston Chronicle. Her fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry have been published in
The Oddville Press,  StraitJackets, Liquid Silver eBooks, Clever, Hackwriters, Bent Pin, ExPatLit, Irish's Story
Playhouse, Sex and Murder,  The Smoking Poet and The Horror Zine.




I originally wrote this story 18 years ago for a creative writing class and despite having positive feedback from the professor, I put it away and completely forgot about it. I stumbled upon it as I was going through old material recently so I blew the dust off and got out the polishing rag.

The story is set in Paterson, New Jersey, where I had my first full-time journalism job at the now defunct Paterson News. Paterson was a great, gritty news town and I covered killings, courts and corruption, loving every minute of it as a 22-year-old reporter. The old man's character was vaguely inspired by a grizzled old compositor at the paper. He kept his layout ruler in one back pocket and a flask of liquor in the other, swigging as he pasted up the pages.

It's funny how themes are recurrent in one's life. I rediscovered this story at a time when I'm covering homeless issues as a journalist now in Los Angeles, in an era where newspapers are largely passe, and after becoming much more aware of alcoholics and alcoholism in society. So perhaps this story has more meaning for me today than in 1991 and that's why it sat untouched for 18 years.

 


  


Copyright 2009