In the bottom of the can was a small red button. It could have been from a child’s sweater.
Jake picked it up, his arthritic hand trembling. The red button fell to the sidewalk and rolled under a nearby basement window grate. Worthless, he thought.
Vodka. He needed something to drink. It was past noon and so far he found nothing he could trade for booze.
Jake pulled at his denim jacket, itched his left armpit, and peered up and down the empty street. It was bone cold out here, he thought, but warmer than last night. Too cold for his fifty year old bones. The weather didn’t matter, the time of year didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whether it was President’s Day, Father’s Day or Flag Day. He still had to find something to trade.
Something good, like a coat someone threw away or a painting that was worth more than a few bucks. It had to look like it could be sold for at least twenty or there was no sense bothering. Otherwise, he might as well go back to the cardboard box by the bridge and get ready for the shakes.
He needed vodka.
Jake walked down the street toward the elementary school, hearing the sounds of the kids on the playground. He could see their colorful coats as they ran around, climbed the monkey bars- did they still call them that, he wondered – and played tag. As he got closer, he started to think something. It was pretty low, he told himself, but it would work. And what harm could come from just taking advantage of a kid being careless, a kid putting his coat down on the play ground for a minute, just leaving it there because he was running around and was too hot, trusting that it would be there when he wanted it because that kid lived in a house, not on the streets, where you had to hold onto everything you owned with both hands. What harm could come from it?
He stopped by the iron fence, pushed his Yankees cap far back on his head, not caring that his bald head showed. It didn’t matter. It used to bother him, when he was younger, even five years ago but not now. Now he had bigger problems, like his right foot turning from its normal white to purple and no socks to put on it. Like not being able to feel it sometimes and other times every step he took hurting like he was walking on nails.
It was then he saw the kid who was going to learn a lesson that day, a brown haired little white boy who was about eight years old, sitting on a bench by himself, his jacket off, his little chest heaving up and down from running, away from the other kids, just taking a break by himself.
Jake wished the bell would ring and the kid would just leave his coat. It was a beautiful coat, a red down jacket, fluffy and new, not a spot on it. Could probably trade it for enough booze for a few days, which would give him a day off.
He smiled at that thought. A day off, just like everyone else. Tomorrow was Saturday so yes he deserved a weekend off.
The kid glanced over at him, then away, scrunching his face up which made Jake decide to spit.
Think I’m disgusting? Watch this. Jake spat through the fence, landing one a good two or three feet away. Almost a whole yard.
The kid grinned.
Jake knew he was going about this the wrong way. He was supposed to just take the kid’s coat, sidle over there and grab it without anyone noticing, not play games and make friends with him. But it was fun. He liked kids and usually they didn’t look at him, much less grin at him because he was an old homeless man their parents taught to ignore so they could grow up and walk by him every day, swinging their brief cases and listening to their iPods as he sat on the side of the street, staring into space. Invisible and empty. Worth nothing in their world of rushing around.
But this kid was really looking at him , the same way Jake was really eyeing the kid’s coat. If nothing else, he thought, it would distract the kid.
So he gathered up his spittle again and let loose another one, trying to hit the side of a swing set about four feet away. He missed.
The kid shrugged, then smiled. He was missing a tooth up front.
Jake smiled back.
The bell rang and the kid, predictably, ran off, leaving his red coat on the bench. Jake watched, waiting while the playground emptied, looking to see if one of the monitors would come over and take the coat, hoping that this would all work out so he could get his booze for two days, maybe three.
He looked up at the side of the school. St. Ambrose. Yes, indeed, he thought, looking at the cross. It’s time to pray.
No one noticed the red coat on the bench. The kids were herded inside, the adults followed, the doors were closed, locked, bolted.
There sat the red billowy coat, a thing of beauty. Jake pushed open the creaky iron gate and ambled over to the bench, looking around a bit. Then swiftly he grabbed the coat, stuffed it under his arm and half-ran, half-walked out of the playground.
He was on the sidewalk in seconds, hugging the coat, thinking yes sir that kid will learn to take care of his things after this, telling himself he was performing a valuable service by taking his coat, just like someone taught little Jake not to leave his things laying around when his mother dragged him to a shelter when he was six and he left his teddy bear, Mr. Fribbs, on the cot when he went to eat. No more Mr. Fribbs for little Jake when he got back to go to sleep that night. No more Mr. Fribbs ever again.
“It’s your own fault,” his mother told him. “You got to learn to take care of your things.”
Yes sir, that’s what that little boy should have been thinking of, about his nice warm coat his parents worked so hard to buy, not grinning and smiling at a spitting homeless man.
Jake traded the coat . He had a choice: five bottles of cheap wine or one bottle of vodka. He felt gypped by those terms but he took the deal because it was the only one going. Wanting a day off, he said he liked the wine and drank one bottle on the spot, then put the others away in his hiding spot, a hole he buried in the field near the bridge, so no one took them.
And then he took a nap because it was warm enough to sleep with the sun out and it wouldn’t be later.
The wine lasted him all day Friday, Saturday and up until noon on Sunday because Jake found a trinket worth something on Saturday that he traded for a bottle of vodka and he ran into Tiny who shared some of his beer with him Friday night.
It was a good weekend. At least until Sunday.
On Sunday he went back to the same street by the school. There were people all over because St. Ambrose had a church there too. Jake didn’t know who St. Ambrose was, but he was pretty well off, that’s for sure, having a school and a church. He looked over at the bench as he passed by , but it was empty and he shuffled along down the street.
And then he saw it. There was a lock on the gate into the school, a brand new silver lock that wasn’t there before and a sign that read “No Trespassers!” Jake jiggled the gate and the lock held tight. He frowned, thinking that he wouldn’t be able to pull the coat trick again, even though he bragged to Tiny about it, who said “Hey, those kids got all kinds of things you could get. Hats, gloves, mp3 players, stuff that’s worth something. Maybe even a laptop.”
“These kids don’t have laptops.”
“Sure they do.”
“They’re too little,” Jake said.
Tiny shrugged. “No one’s too little to be rich.”
There was no arguing with that.
But there wouldn’t be any more trips into the playground for Jake or anyone else now. St. Ambrose was now a gated community, not open to the public.
“Did you want to go to church?” a voice asked.
A little Hispanic girl around twelve stood there, dressed in her Sunday best. She pointed over at the church which was halfway down the block.
“No,” he said.
“I thought you wanted to get in,” she said. “I saw you the other day too. Friday. When you took Alan’s coat.”
Jake took a step back. “Wasn’t me.”
“It was. You were wearing the same clothes. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anybody. I’m old enough to know that you just steal because you’re poor. Alan can get a new coat.”
She shrugged, then threw her hands into the air. “Okay. It was another guy who was wearing a blue denim jacket and a green sweater and a Yankees cap.” Then she hesitated. “I could tell, you know.”
He stared at her, not saying a word. Then he started to walk away.
“But maybe – maybe if you were to go to Mass, I would forget about all of it.”
“Are you blackmailing me?” he asked her.
“Maybe. I mean, I could forget. “
“What about Alan?”
“Oh, he’s not around. I just saw him leave the 10:30 Mass. C’mon, Mister. It’ll do you good- maybe.”
“I don’t need to go to Mass,” Jake said.
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, alright. But if you don’t I might have to tell people I saw you around here. From out that window there-”she pointed to the school. “I think I was the only one who saw you, but I did see you. And now if I don’t tell, you owe me. One Mass.”
“One Mass. That’s it?”
“Just one. I won’t make you do it again, so don’t be a big baby about it. I have to go every Sunday. C’mon. This way.” She started down the block from where he just came and Jake followed her, toward the end of the crowd that was filing into the church.
He hadn’t been in a church for years, not since his mother died when he was 12. Jake remembered her funeral, her body laid out without much fanfare, with her in a navy blue dress and a pink flower in her hair that his Aunt Ray put up in a bun even though his mother never wore it that way. The preacher taking his hand and hurting it, pressing it so hard saying his momma wasn’t in pain any more from the cancer, that she was with God- whatever that meant – and he had to be a big boy and behave himself for his Aunt Ray so he could see his momma in heaven one day.
His Aunt Ray turned out to be a drug addict, just like his momma, except she took heroin instead of cocaine and Jake ran away within weeks when she beat him for stealing some of her booze.
Twelve, he thought, as he followed the little girl into a pew. Her age. He found himself staring at her, wondering how he could ever have been that young. He never felt that young.
Had he been?
Singing and praying. Praying and singing. The Catholics were just like the Baptists, although not as noisy or maybe noisy in a different way. Jake watched the little girl and her parents say all the right words, kneel, stand, sing, pray, and genuflect again. Then the Gospel and the priest getting up to talk about sin he supposed, to tell them they were all going to go to hell.
Jake knew he was. He’d never see his momma again, he knew that shortly after he started living on the streets and doing what he had to do to survive. Things were better when he was younger, because he was cute. It was later that things fell apart, that the booze became all he lived for and the days, weeks and months just ran together.
But this priest was talking about a football game and people were laughing. It didn’t sound like a sermon at all, just a conversation at first. Later the priest talked about forgiveness and getting through tough times and Jake tried to listen, tried to understand how these people in their thick winter coats with homes to go to and a supper waiting for them would know anything about those things. He felt his fists clench in anger and then saw the little girl was looking at him.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
He nodded. Everyone shook hands, went up for Communion, then came back and sat there, not saying a word. The whole place sounded like a pin could drop except for the babies and the coughing and the shuffling of the feet and boots.
It was warm here, Jake thought. He never came inside before all the years he passed by and St. Ambrose was always here, since he moved to the bridge fifteen years ago after they let him out of the hospital, telling him to take drugs, that he had schizophrenia. He knew that was wrong, he knew what was wrong with him was the booze. So he threw the drugs away and drank.
“Mass is over, go in peace,” the priest said and Jake heard that through his thoughts. People waited for the priest and the altar boys to leave and then suddenly everyone was heading toward the door and the little girl waved at him and turned to give her parents a hug, forgetting him, true to her word.
Jake walked out onto the street and looked up and down, wondering where to go. He needed to find something of worth to sell, so he could get booze and eat. The garbage by the hotel where he usually went was already picked through. He was too late for that. So he decided to walk back the other way toward the bridge and try a dumpster.
It was then he saw Alan, standing with his parents outside the church, wearing a new coat, a navy blue down coat, fluffy and clean. He was talking to the little girl. Alan stared at him and Jake stared back.
Jake didn’t know what to do. He imagined Alan would point at him and his parents would call the cops. Jake moved a foot so he’d be ready to take off. The little girl lied to him, he thought. So much for trusting anyone.
Alan walked away from his parents a few feet, then scrunched his face up and, with a great effort, spit onto the sidewalk. It wasn’t a very good attempt, but he grinned at Jake.
The little girl laughed and she and Alan started to play, running around until their parents told them to stop, to calm down.
Jake knew he was forgotten. Forgiven even.
He shuffled down the street toward the dumpster.
Copyright 2008 Ruth Harrigan