Wheezy, a short story
I was sitting underneath the bridge when Skinny Charlie told me that his brother Paul Z had been arrested the day before.
I knew right away it was for being drunk in public.
We called him Paul Z because after he got sent to Alcoholics Anonymous, someone told him that they don’t use last names. So he told everybody he was Paul Z . And some idiot figured out Paul Z sounded like palsy and Charlie had cerebral palsy so people started laughing at Paul about his name.
Skinny Charlie would crouch down and scream “He’s going to kill you” when anyone started laughing at Paul Z . People didn’t know Paul spent 3 years in jail for beating up a guy after he made fun of the way Charlie walked. With Paul Z waving his arms wildly toward them and Charlie all hunkered down and screaming, most folks figured out they should just run away and the name wasn’t so funny after all.
Skinny Charlie told me that it was $10,000 bail for Paul Z this time because there was a warrant Paul picked up for a fight with somebody. We had to make 10% of bail which was $1000. I doubted any of us had that, not even Wheezy, our most enterprising homeless friend.
Wheezy didn’t sleep on the street like the rest of us, but in a warehouse. She crawled in at night through a window and had never been caught. Both these things fascinated Charlie, Paul and me for a while, since Wheezy weighed over 300 pounds and wore bright red muumuus that could be spotted blocks away. She would always tell us “Well I don’t have glow paint on me” when we asked her how she could sneak into the warehouse at night. But we found out there was a reason.
Wheezy also ran a business out of a shopping cart selling junk she picked up and calling it antiques. Wheezy always said that she only sold stuff that looked classy and it had to either glitter, shine or be art. That was what people wanted to see when they were going to work, she told me. Not just bling, either, but stuff that had substance to it.
She picked a corner by the train station and set up shop twice a day during commuting hours and we found out that the cops let her do it in exchange for her giving them tips on drug dealers. Truth was, lots of people were buying drugs on their commute into the city and Wheezy saw it all. That was also how she pulled off sleeping in a warehouse. She had connections.
So Skinny Charlie and I walked three blocks to the train station. There was Wheezy, holding up a brass lamp with an orange lampshade. Sure enough, a woman in an Ann Klein suit was forking over what she’d pay in Macy’s because Wheezy insisted it was an antique. I leaned against the graffiti covered wall, pushing my wheelchair as close as possible to it so people could walk in front of me on the sidewalk. Wheezy waved at me and screamed “Hey Skinny Charlie, hey Rocket!” Rocket – that’s my street name because I go so fast in my wheelchair. I liked it better than my real name, Felicia. I waved back to Wheezy. Skinny Charlie was jumping up and down, saying “We gotta hurry” but I ignored him because the more business Wheezy did, the more chance we’d have the money for Pau Z’s bail.
It was forty five minutes before the crowds thinned and I gave Skinny Charlie the go-ahead to talk to Wheezy. He made his way across the street, picking his way through the traffic on his crutch and then he leaned against her shopping cart , talking to her. I rolled slowly, letting him handle it.
“I ain’t got a thousand bucks,” she was saying to him when I got there.
My heart fell. We couldn’t leave Paul Z in jail. He always told us that if he ever got locked up again he would kill someone. I believed him. Besides, it would drive Skinny Charlie crazy to have his brother in jail.
“How much you got?” I asked Wheezy.
“700. But I might have a buyer for this painting.” She reached behind her and pointed to an oil painting that showed a bridge under a moon. A shiny moon. “Wait here.”
So Skinny Charlie and I watched Wheezy’s cart while she carried the painting down the block, puffing. We saw her pass a cop , pause briefly, then go on her way.
“She knows everybody,” Skinny Charlie said, sitting down on the curb. “I’m hungry.”
“Have some cookies,” I said. “Wheezy won’t mind.”
She kept a stash of Oreos -the real kind, never the fake imitation from the dollar store- at the bottom of her cart. Oreos were like her drugs. She’d kill most street people if they ever touched them but not Charlie.
Skinny Charlie went over to the cart and rummaged around. He offered me some cookies, but I was good. I had dinner the night before when I met my old band friend Bruce, from the days before I was homeless, before my accident. He called me Felicia, which I hadn’t heard in years on the streets. Bruce also told me that I could get out of “the unfortunate situation I found myself in” as he put it, if I tried harder. I was tempted to shout “Lemony Snicket rocks!” at the top of my voice in the restaurant, but sat staring at my plate.
I had tried hard. After my accident, I got an apartment that my wheelchair could get into with rent I could afford, but the landlord died and I couldn’t find another place. That was when I first went to the shelter. Things went downhill from there. I couldn’t find a job because I had no permanent address. I was mugged. Someone stole my guitar and then I had no way to make money. And the shelter kept steering me toward social workers who talked about nursing homes, so I hid by living on the streets.
I didn’t tell Bruce any of that. All I kept thinking as we sat there was about how he didn’t understand that it would hurt more to get off the streets and get forced into a nursing home .
There was no sense explaining, so I told him I had an appointment and had to go. Bruce gave me a funny look, paid the check and walked outside with me.
“Felicia,” he said, in one last attempt, “I can’t do it for you. You’ve got to get yourself off the streets, get a life back.”
“I got a life,” I said. “It may not be one you understand, that’s all. “
“Wait here,” Bruce said. He walked over to his car and came back with a guitar which he handed to me. I opened the case and saw it was a Martin acoustic, a pretty decent one. “You can have that, but you got to earn it by showing up to the coffee shop every Friday night at eight to play with our band.”
“Can’t do that,” I said after a minute, handing the guitar back.
“Felicia, please. Think about it.”
I didn’t answer him, just rolled away. I didn’t even look back. I guess part of it was I wanted no part of being anywhere in a certain time in a certain place. I also didn’t want to see people I used to know.
But mostly it was because when I sat there holding a guitar after all those years it felt empty.
I saw Wheezy coming back down the street still carrying the oil painting. Her face was as red as her dress and she was muttering.
“Cisco gave me a hundred on a loan,” she said, slamming the painting down on the pavement. “But the guy is not there who wants to buy this.”
Cisco was a drug dealer who she protected because he gave Wheezy money when she needed it. I knew she was mad because he wouldn’t give her 300 dollars, but she didn’t say that in front of Skinny Charlie, who was picking open an Oreo cookie and licking the icing off.
“What are we going to do, Wheezy?” Skinny Charlie asked.
“Let me think,” she said. She sat down on her lawn chair and it creaked. “Give me an Oreo.”
Charlie handed her a cookie and sat down by the curb. All three of us thought hard.
“Which precinct is Paul Z at?” Wheezy asked.
“98th,” Charlie said. Then he started to cry.
“We got to get him out,” Wheezy said and stood up. “I’ll go talk to the cops. Watch my stuff.”
Skinny Charlie and I were there most of the day, sitting by the shopping cart, wondering how long it would take. At about three o’clock, Wheezy appeared at the end of the block with Paul Z. Charlie headed down the street, hopping and whooping. The two brothers hugged as Wheezy came over to me. She sat down in a lawn chair , fanning herself with a newspaper.
“Done,” she said. “Give me a cookie.”
I gave her two. I watched as Charlie and Paul Z walked away from us toward the park.
“Did you see your friend last night?” Wheezy asked.
“I don’t think I could see anyone from my old life. They’re probably all dead anyway, mostly crackheads. But here I am, clean and living on the streets. When I was an addict I had my own place. Go figure.”
“Until you got arrested.”.
“I don’t think I’ll see Bruce again,” I said.
“He lectured you, I bet.”
“He told you that you were wasting your life. And that if you just tried harder, you could be like him. A regular person again.”
“Gave me a guitar.”
“Where is it?”
“I gave it back. Strings attached.”
“Always strings on a guitar.”
“A different kind of strings.”
“I hear that. “ She paused. “You didn’t want it – the guitar?”
“Then you did the right thing giving it back. I can get you one if you ever want. Just ask.”
I remembered the empty feeling I had when I held the guitar and shook my head. “ I don’t think so.”
“My uncle Troy was a musician too before he went away to the Army, ever tell you that? He used to play piano and sing every day in my grandmother’s parlor. He came back with some fingers missing. He still played. He figured out a way to get the keys down and change the music around. Didn’t matter to him.”
I didn’t see where the story had anything to do with me, but I nodded. My legs were paralyzed, not my arms.
“Then one day he was at the bank and this guy walked in to rob the place. He started to hold a gun to this old ladies’ head and Troy stepped between them and got shot. Killed him right there. “
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Point is he did what he wanted to until the day he died. That’s what matters. Just because you can play guitar doesn’t mean you have to. And just because people thought he couldn’t play piano anymore doesn’t mean he had to stop.”
I just listened. I didn’t think she was done. Wheezy was the biggest story teller I’d ever met.
“I was 14 years old when my uncle Troy died, living with my grandma because my mom was in jail. My grandmother cried for two years solid, wouldn’t even go to the funeral so I went with my aunt and took the American flag they give to veterans’ families. I brought it back home and gave it to my grandma and she put that flag in a glass case and hung in the living room over the piano. Nobody ever played that piano again. Couple of days later I started using drugs. My grandma didn’t even ask where I was for two years, until I got busted for cocaine in my locker at school and expelled. I thought that was the end of my education, but my grandma marched me down the block to a Catholic school and handed me over, paying the tuition with some of Uncle Troy’s insurance money. Hated the place and I used to skip classes all the time, but those nuns wouldn’t expel me just for spite. They kept my name on the school rolls for a whole year until I was 17. So I told my grandma I was going to drop out and she said if you leave school I’ll kick you out. And she did. I never saw her again, not until her funeral six years later. My heart was too hard back then.”
She gestured and I handed her two more cookies. The box was empty, so I tossed it into the shopping cart.
“For a skinny guy, Charlie sure eats a lot of Oreos,” she said, jamming one in her mouth. “My point is you can’t go back, Rocket. People die. You change, they change. Nothing and nobody is ever the same when you’ve been on the streets awhile.” Wheezy closed her eyes. “I still remember Troy banging on that piano. My grandmother had the most beautiful smile on her face when he played. She was so proud of him. I wanted to make her proud of me, but -I guess I couldn’t pull it off. If he hadn’t been shot , maybe things would have been different .“ She looked around the corner. “Well I better stand up and start doing business. The commuters are starting to show up.”
“Need any help?”
“No thanks, Rocket.”
I rolled down the block. I turned to look back when I reached the next corner and saw Wheezy setting up her cart, arranging the items on the ground around it, checking her cash box for change. I wondered if she had any cash left or had given all she had to get Paul Z out of jail.
As I rolled towards the park, I thought about how maybe the feeling that I had nothing left because I was on the streets was just a lie, just like it would be wrong to say anyone had nothing left when they spent their last dime getting a friend out of a jam.
I saw Charlie and Paul z sitting at a picnic table eating pizza. Charlie waved at me and gave me a thumbs up. I gave him one back, grabbed the roll from a leftover sandwich in a garbage can and pushed myself over to feed the ducks.
Copyright 2009 Ruth Harrigan