The sun seared the black T-shirt Randall Becks wore into his sweat stained pectorals. He glanced at a digital meter above Fourth Street.
"Ninety-two degrees and only four hours into the day, God help us!"
He stroked the thick black night shadow that riddled his jagged jaw line, as he eyed a torn New York Times in the trash. He looked cautiously side to side and snatched it without reservation. He snapped it open and walked away, as if it had been there all along. The light at Fourth Street appeared before he could even locate the date. He crossed MacDougal.
Friday August 31st 1992, what's in store for me, today?
He walked in the shadows of the soot faced buildings on the street's West Side. A slight breeze blew the stench of baked tar and trash to his nose. Jackhammers pounded the potholed street and kicked up waves of heat that blew concentric circles of dust down the main avenue. He pried a large piece of plywood, anchored on a commercial steel nail, to the side and entered a condemned East Village apartment building. A candle flickered from the depths of the corridor. Randall approached the railroad lantern and examined the drippings which formed a small stalagmite from the floor. He pressed it to the floor with his foot, examined the wick of the one inch candle that remained, and replaced it with a fresh candle that he neatly piled earlier inside the dusty rails of the staircase. He climbed it to the third floor, where he pulled a large ring of keys from his tight blue jeans. Seven keys released the deadbolts of a large oak door. Once inside, he plopped himself into a well-worn living room couch. A plume of dust rose as he nestled into the corner. He opened The Times to the classifieds. His eyes scanned the auction page.
Randall, you got to be on your game. Look at the small ads, the large ones are for the rich, besides they attract too many. Too big a crowd, too little profit; too many people, too damn competitive! His finger slid down the paper. It stopped.
"The estate of Donald Racer." He paused in thought. "I won a thousand bucks off a horse close to that name a few months ago, what the hell was it? Duces Racer, yeah, an exacta with odds of ten to one. That name's gotta be lucky." He circled the ad with a black marker. "Sounds like a Formula One driver. Ladies and gentlemen, please come forward to view the collections from top Formula One race car driver, Donald Racer! Fresh from his glorious estate." His finger continued down the paper until he reached the name Henry Hillerman. I know that name.
Large Victorian Cherry DR Table with 8 Chairs, One pair of Victorian Marble TopSide Tables, Late 1800's Cherry Hutch, Morris Chair with Carved Griffins, 19th Century Grandfather clock, Victorian Armoire, Mahogany Slant Front-Desk, Wulitzer Spinet Piano w/Ivory Keys, Antique Swiss Music box w/floral inlay, Victrola Phonograph, French Brass Mantle clock, Neoclassical Bronze & Marble Candelabra, Large Pair of Cloisonne Vases, 6 pc. Mahogany BR set, 18th Century Violin, Cast-Iron Stagecoach Doorstop, Antique German Cuckoo Clock, Degas Ballerina painting, bird prints, Goebel & Hummel Figurines Royal Doulton Toby Mugs, Limoges, Sterling Flatware Set, Bronze Lion Bookends, Asst. Old Books, Depression glass, decorative China & Porcelain, Cigarette Cards, WWII medals, pocketknives, Pocketwatches, asst. 14k jewelry and Antique Quilts. Terms: Cash or Check (w/ID) only. Geller & Associates
"Interesting, close-by and worth a shot. Shit, I can walk to it from here!" He placed a large star next to the auction, then put the paper down. Why do us truly creative entrepreneurial types have to live by our wits? Fleamarkets, shouldn't be the only thing I have to do for a living, other's should do this for me! He took a long drag on his cigarette, looked at the brown paint-cracked ceiling, and laid his head back on a pale green cushion. Four years in this fuckin' place! God, it'd be wonderful to get out of here. He closed his eyes, and two minutes later he drifted into a sound sleep.
"Honey, would you pull the Viper into the garage?" asked Randall. "I think it's going to rain."
"The sixth or seventh garage, hon," asked Charlene in a soft sensual voice.
"The seventh, six is unlucky for me. That's not a problem is it?"
"Not at all, hon." She disappeared.
Randall's body shifted on the couch beneath his dreamy skies.
"Charlene? You've been in there an awfully long time! Where are you?" He got up from his comfortable black leather recliner and opened the living room door to the garage. Randall's eyes pierced the rope strung neck of his girlfriend as she swung lifeless from the ceiling girders. "No! Don't leave me! He raced into the garage, grabbed a machete from his tool bench, and swung it with all his might into the rope that held her. The last threads of the rope snapped under her body weight. Her body slammed into his arms. He laid her quickly down then slammed her chest. "Live dammit, live!"
Randall's body jumped to its side. His head buried itself in the velvet of a once plush chair.
He bent down again and again, relentlessly. She remained motionless. He broke into a sorrowful cry. He ripped a note from her dead chest.
"Darling, forgive me. I couldn't kick it. The coke addiction strung me like a beautiful ornament on the tree of Rockefeller Center every Christmas since I was fifteen. I can't hide my head in the sand any more. I know you tried, but I've secretly swam in the darkness for months.
When I sobered up you filled my needs, helped me with my self-esteem, but when you left, even for a few hours, honey white would weasel her way back in and convince me I was her soul mate. The fixes grew and grew. I hid it away until I stole any thing, I prostituted myself for her, while you waited for me. I can't face you or myself any more. I'm nothing but a burden and you're better off without me. I love you. Charlene."
Garbled sounds rolled from Randall's mouth. His body jolted from its fetal position until he forced himself from the reoccurring nightmare. Covered in perspiration, his body came to attention, "God damn you, Charlene! Why wouldn't you listen to me? I loved you!" He paced the floor. You were too weak, too indecisive. You weren't supposed to make the call! You were supposed to talk to me. You know I'll never find another woman the way I found you! When you died, you killed me too! I'll never touch love again, do you hear?
Short Story: Emily
"Come on sweetheart. It's time we changed those pants of yours." Norman Dowlen softly said. "Oh, nooo. You have a small hole in these others, but if you lay there patiently, I'll thread my needle and fix it in no time at all."
He took the needle and thread from his half- torn pocket and began to sew the hole. She remained motionless.
"Be careful now sweetie. Don't worry about passing strangers." He interrupted his own tender words, "Hey buddy get your eyes off my daughter! How'd you like a mouth full of fist?"
"Get yourself a job, you bum," the man shouted.
"Never mind him, Daddy's almost done." Norman said in a fragile tone. He sewed like mad. "Ahhhh, all fixed. Now, let me get you out of those" He moved his ear closer to her lips, "What'd you say?"
"That's OK, I know you're hungry. Daddy's hungry too. Let me grab a paper. Now don't move." He said. He placed her carefully on the lid of the trash can. He moaned when he stretched for the paper, halfway down the recycling bin. "I got it. I feel it's going to be a good day!"
"You Goddamn weirdo!" said another passerby.
"Up yours!" said Norm. He flicked the woman the bird. "I think we should find a bench. I'll sing and you sit beside me and look pretty. I know we'll be able to earn enough for some breakfast. Come on."
The two went outside the train station to a small crevice in an open square. It contained a small fountain. He pushed the button and caressed the water up and down hi filthy arms. The dirt clogged the drain.
Cheerfully he spouted, "OK hon, sit here and watch the expert at work." He placed his hat down in front of a stone bench and began to dance. His crazy smirk gazed on people as he bounced up and down with his index finger on his head. He spun and sang, "Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam and the antelope play all day." He looked at his daughter.
She sat and smiled.
"Maybe one day Daddy will be able to buy you all the prettiest things in the world, give you the best food, a beautiful home, and the best doctors. It's going to take some time at this rate little girl, but we'll get by. Mmmmmmm Mmmmmmm, can you smell that wonderful food?" His stomach turned into knots. He leaned over then moaned. "Don't worry about me, sweet. You know sometimes it hurts, but it's only hunger." His mouth salivated. "Let's get that bagel." Norm said. He approached a nearby food cart.
"Get the hell outta here, you filthy bum!" yelled the vendor.
"Don't you see I need a bagel for my daughter," he said. He pointed at her.
The vendor laughed. "You're pitiful, but you got my sympathy vote. Here." The vendor shook his head in disbelief.
"Don't listen to a thing he said hon, I love you. People don't understand us. Let's go to Bryant Park and find a quiet place to sleep after breakfast." He ripped a portion of bagel from his plate and handed it to his daughter.
She sat and smiled.
"You're not hungry? You have to be hungry. Please eat for me. For Daddy," he said. He watched her.
She said nothing.
He pleaded with her, and then changed his attitude. "Well then, it's up to me. You get nothing! I'll eat for the both of us," he said, then finished the last morsel of bagel. "To the park!" he yelled.
He picked her up gently and coddled her in his arms. Her eyes closed with a gentle click. Poor little thing, I wish she'd eat. I'm tired of surviving.
He dragged his feet across the pavement as he carried her fragile body. He reached the park and found a patch of green grass shaded from the sun. He took off his torn denim jacket, placed it over her body, and fell asleep next to her.
He slept soundly, the first deep sleep in weeks. Two and a half hours later, he woke and stretched his arms.
"Honey? It's time to wake up." He lifted his jacket and she was gone. He yelled at the top of his lungs, "Honey!" The silence was deafening.
A gang of kids looked and laughed from a cold concrete wall that surrounded the park. They pointed at him.
It was them! They did it! He ran over, popping the blisters on his feet. "What'd you do with her!" Norm yelled.
"You're such a waste of life, ole man. You don't deserve her." The boy imitated Norm's voice, "After all, she's beau-ti-ful."
"You fuck! You better tell me!" he said.
"Why? You gonna call the cops, tough guy? Like they'd listen to you!" The boy laughed.
Norm bowed his head in disgrace, and then started again. "Please guys. She's all I got. I can't stand to lose her." A tear rolled down his cheek.
"All right, ole man." He put his arm around Norm's shoulder. "I'm gonna be easy on you. I'll give you till 8pm to scrape up a twenty dollar bill, which gives you four and a half hours. You look resourceful."
"But I have nothing! I don't make that much in a day!" screamed Norm.
"But you have to, to get her back. Meet us on 3rd. and Waverly at 8pm sharp, or else. We can be real mean and you don't want that."
"No! No!" he said calming himself, "I'll be there." God damn kids, I'll get them!
He sat silent on a park bench for half an hour. His mind was blank. How? How can I make $20.00? He spoke to himself, "Let me walk downtown and maybe it'll come to me. It'll distract me from my worries." He walked down Sixth Avenue until he reached a few blocks from Herald square. He heard the loud thumps of distant drumming. His mind worked quickly. Yes, that's it, that's it!!
He went down the next street and found a small alley behind a restaurant. Positioned next to an enormous dumpster, were several white buckets with cats nestled over their tops in heaps. He looked around, saw no one, and then made a dash for the containers. He swatted and kicked the hissing cats from their meat scraps and tossed the contents into the large dumpster. He collected a total of four buckets from large to small. He put them inside each other, found a nearby leaky fire hydrant which had formed a deep puddle before it and sat down. He ripped a torn pocket from his T-shirt, and used it as a rag on the dirty buckets. When he finished, he tossed it aside and followed his ear. He approached the small park in Herald square, where a drummer had set up his drum kit. The drummer belted the drums with the intensity of a machine gun before a large crowd.
"Yea man, yea!" Norm yelled.
The drummer watched Norm play his imaginary drums. He winked. Norm watched until the drummer stopped for a break. The crowd clapped and tossed money into the man's tin can that stood before his drums.
Norm approached the drummer, "That's some good shit. I need to earn a little money for some food. You think I can play in a set?"
"Sure," said the drummer, "I could use a little company."
"Excellent! You won't be sorry," said Norm, "Just one thing."
"Yea?" "Could I borrow a pair of sticks?" asked Norm in a broken voice.
The drummer looked at the buckets and laughed. "Sure friend, sure. This is the stuff being a musician is about."
They sat before their instruments for the next five minutes until the drummer snapped himself from his meditation. He cracked his knuckles and did a Hail Mary.
The drummer took his place behind the drums and began. Norm sat in concentration. His buckets lay out next to the professional. He silently waited, as the crowd gathered. The drummer watched Norm and winked every few minutes until fifteen people congregated. He stood up and pointed to Norman.
"Go baby, go!"
Norm ripped into the large bucket like a bass drum, alternating the sound with his foot. The beat the smaller buckets with intensity and the high pitches that bounced through the air could be heard for blocks. The drummer kicked in and picked up the tempo. Norm's movements followed the drummer precisely and with perfect time.
"Solo baby, solo!" yelled the drummer.
Norman struck those buckets like there was no tomorrow. The people clapped and Norm closed his eyes, lost in an old familiar world he hadn't been to in years. Like riding a bike.
The drummer kicked in, and applause roared through the square. They both watched each other and played off each other as the crowd grew. It turned over again and again as money flowed like water into their buckets. The two men lost track of time, until the sun began to set. The men stood up and bowed to a thunder of loud applause. Norm went teary eyed.
The professional approached Norm after the set, his hand held out. "Man that was beautiful! Your top notch! What the hell happened?" the drummer asked.
He brushed the tears on to a frayed sleeve. "A little drug problem friend," Norm said sarcastically, "Don't do drugs!"
"Hey friend, here's another twenty. That's for making my life better today," said the drummer.
"You're all right," said Norm, "what time is it?"
"Six-thirty," said the drummer.
"Thanks. Gotta go!" He threw his buckets to the side and picked up his pace to the East Village where he'd meet the kidnappers and make the exchange. He arrived forty-five minutes later on edge. Plenty of places where one can hide a child here. Fuckin walls of graffiti, this is gang territory, I shouldn't be here. He saw a large mural with fifteen signatures beneath. "The anarchists, same logo as the ones on those guys vests." God damn punks!
He wandered the area until a few minutes to eight, when he returned to the meeting place. He saw four boys as he turned the corner. They tossed his daughter from side to side.
"Hey, hey, knock it off punks," shouted Norman.
"Lookey here, fellas. Our old friend is back. I hope you can hook us up, big man."
"I got your money. One twenty-dollar bill." Norman said.
"Let's see it. You see, she looks fine. Prettier than any little doll I've ever seen," said the leader. "Hand over the cash."
Norman stepped forward and placed a twenty in his hand.
"Here you go old man." He tossed the doll to him. "I made you a promise and there she is."
Norman hugged his precious doll, "It's OK honey. It's OK. I'm happy to see you too." He turned his back to the kids.
"Old man? We're not through with you. You know it's rude to turn your back to us. I think you need some manners. Norman quickly placed his doll on his inside pocket, two seconds before he felt the stabbing pain in his kidney. Another blow took out his right leg and sent him to the floor. He lay helpless before a barrage of fists and kicks. He curled into in a ball, like a fetus, to protect his doll from breaking. The shower of fury that fell on him seemed to last forever. In the end, the anarchists left Norman unconscious in a heap of piled newspaper, badly beaten and bruised. There he remained for the next seven hours.
"Mister, are you OK? Mister, are you alive?"
Norman shook his head into consciousness and opened the only eye he could. He took a gasping breath at the little girl that stood before him. She was about eight years old with unsightly tangled brown hair. Her eyes were a pale green, identical to the doll.
"Mister, you're bleeding," whispered her soft voice.
"I've had better days, little girl. What's your name?" asked Norman.
"Where are your parents, Emily?" he asked.
"My mother died a few years ago and my Dad died only a few days ago of a drug overdose. We lost our apartment when my Dad lost his job. I've been on the street for the past few months with him. I miss him terribly," she said. She cried.
"Now, now. I'll have none of that." he said in a soothing tone. "Just so happens, I have a present."
"Really?" Emily said with excitement.
"Really," said Norman. He pulled his doll from his top pocket, forgetting how much it really meant to him. "Here, it's for you."
Her eyes lit up at the sight of the doll. They lit his heart.
"Mister, she's beautiful. I love her. Thank you so much!"
"Hey sweetie, you look tired."
"I haven't slept the past two days." she said. She hugged the doll with all her might.
Norman gathered some crumpled newspaper into a pile and pulled a clean T-shirt from beneath his jacket. He formed a makeshift pillow.
"Lie here. I'll protect you, while you sleep. You need your rest."
She lay down and put her head on the pillow. Norman took off his jacket and covered her little body. "Goodnight mister," said Emily.
"Call me Norm, Emily." He put his arm around her and curled his battered body into hers. She nestled into him. "Pleasant dreams, sweetie." Thank god for children.
Norman Dowlen fell asleep that night with the first true smile he'd had in years. It was the first time he felt whole again since he became homeless.