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Fiction

Beggars Banquet

G. Murray Thomas

Friday, Sept. 18, 6:45 pm

We don’t even notice him at first. Just another businessman staring out the window as we pass, the jar of change heavy in my hand. I understand. No one wants to look at our humiliation, reduced to begging for a funeral.

You always wonder, can it get any worse? Clarise, our darling, lying broken in the street, and the driver doesn’t even slow down. Latoya and I, standing on the curb, watching it all.... What can be worse than that?

But it gets worse, right away. It sure does. Like life wants to rub your nose in it. The last thing you’re thinking about is money, what’s money compared to the loss of your Clarise? But it’s the first thing they’re thinking about, and it’s their way of extending the torment, making it worse, making it humiliating as well as painful.

It starts with the ambulance, they make you put her in it, even though you know she’s dead. And then they charge you for it. Then, now that they’ve taken your baby away, they charge you to get her back.

Then comes the funeral. Of course you need the best for your baby. She needs the best coffin, all in white, with the gold trim, and the purple satin lining. You don’t even think about what it might cost. Until they show you a figure. But it’s too late, you can’t take any of that away from her.

So here we are, on the train, Latoya and I, in our best clothes, with our prettiest pictures of Clarise pasted on cardboard, and a jar of change, sharing our grief with the world just so we can pay for it all. Most of them see that pain, see we’re not just common beggars, and give generously. But some of them don’t want to see it, and turn away.

Can you blame them? We try to meet their eyes, but sometimes it’s too hard. Even a smile of sympathy can trigger the tears, remind us of what we’ve lost. So we look down, and instead hold out the pictures, trembling in LaToya’s hands.

We move slowly. Our feet drag, but we have to do this. The train jostles our every step. The setting sun glares in our eyes. We move on, up the aisle to the end of the car, and then back again, in case anyone changed their mind.

As we move back towards the front of the car, he catches my eye, then looks quickly away. But he’s got a thoughtful look on his face, like he’s thinking of giving. That’s why I notice him. And judging by his dress, all neat and prim, from his suitcoat down to his shoes, not more expensive than the other businessmen on the train, just more careful, I guess he could give generously if he wants.

But if that’s what he’s thinking, he gives no clue, makes no move. He stares at the floor now, still deep in thought, but doing nothing.

Then, as I’m distracted by him, the jar slips, falls from my hand. Change scatters across the train floor. One more humiliation. We bend down to regather our collection, plucking coins from the litter and slime of the floor, reaching under the seats, between their legs. Most of the passengers help, hand us coins, maybe add a little something. The businessman plucks some quarters from beneath his feet, hands them over, but still doesn’t look at us. I’m sure we’ve lost more than we collected in this car. It has all been a total waste.

We get off at the next stop. We’ve gotten all we can from this car, time to move on. We’re exhausted, humiliated, defeated, but we can’t stop now.     He follows us off. Gets up and bolts out the door behind us. He holds out a bill, neatly folded, drops it in. Then he walks away purposefully, as if this was his stop, as if he’s not going down to the end of the platform to catch the next train.

I look into the jar. His bill is starting to unfold on top of the coins. It’s a C-note.


Monday, Sept. 14, 8:53 am

I know them by their shoes.

They say you should always look your clients in the eye, that’s the way to make a sale. Eye contact. But sometimes it’s just too much effort. I’m down here in my wheelchair, and they’re up there, walking by, intent on the office. Sometimes it’s just easier to hold out my cup, and watch their shoes.

Even if I try to make eye contact, they avoid it. Even then ones who donate, they don’t want to look at the smelly, raggedy man with no legs. They don’t want to see that.

Not at the start of their workday. Not when they’re about to step into that marble and glass and make all that money. They don’t want to think for a minute that they might not deserve it. That’s what my presence tells them, maybe they don’t deserve it all.

So I learn their shoes. Let me tell you, that can take more effort than faces. So many shoes, so many the same. So many running shoes. And mostly on women too. Do they work in those shoes? Do they sit behind a desk all day, so no on sees what they have on their feet? Nah, they got another pair in that office, a good-looking one. But it does look strange, to see some fine looking legs, wrapped in black nylon, or colored cotton, shaped so nice, and then Reeboks on the bottom.

But I learn them all. I learn to tell the Reeboks from the Addidas from the K-Mart knock-offs. Learn to tell Thom McCan from Rockports from Prada. And I learn the legs too, who’s got nice legs and who’s got cankles. What color skirts the women wear, if they wear skirts, and how long. What color slacks the men wear. Who irons their slacks, and who doesn’t.

Then I know when to rattle my cup, when to lift my sign. When to take the chance and look up, searching for the right eyes. I know who might give, who might look at me, who might even smile. Might, that’s the operative word here. Might. You never really know.

Take Mr. Black Ferragamos. Now, you know he’s got class because he wears black shoes to work every day. Most people save their blacks for the evening, for dinner, for those fancy parties these people go to. This guy, he wears them to work. (Irons his slacks too, or has it done for him.)

So he’s got class, and he’s usually good for a couple of bucks. Or at least the change in his pockets. But he’s moody. If he’s in a good mood, he’ll look me in the eye, and smile as he hands me a bill or two. Other days, he’ll just drop some change in as he shuffles by. Or, if he’s in a real bad mood, he’ll do the full avoid, enter by the far door so he doesn’t even have to look at me.

Today he was good for a smile and two bucks. Good way to start the day.

Or take Miss Pink Reeboks. Don’t even look up when she walks by. She’ll give you a look that’ll ruin your whole day. A look which says, “Say out of my sight, scum of the earth, how dare you even exist in my world, my oh so perfect world, don’t remind me there’s anything ugly in it.” Sometimes I think I’m lucky she doesn’t kick me.

But today I don’t even see her. Guess it is going to be a good day.

Tuesday, Sept. 15, 10:45 am

“Hey, Charlie, you busy?”

“Not too busy. Just researching some prospects.”

Charlie’s slick. He always looks busy. No playing solitaire for him, or reading The Onion, or anything obvious. Whatever’s on his screen could be researching prospects, although it probably is not. No need for a quick switch of screens, just a slow shut down, which says, “I’m turning this off to give you all my attention,” but still manages to whisk the offending site away, before you can see what it really is.

“As you know, Steve is leaving at the end of the week.”

Good, he’s already pulling out his wallet. “So what are we getting him?”

“I hear there’s good fishing in Wisconsin, so we’re thinking of a new fishing rod.”

The wallet is open, but his other hand is still. I assume he’s trying to decide how  much to give. How much can he afford? How much does he really like Steve?

“Of course, what we get depends on how much we collect.”

“Of course.” But his hand still hovers there. Then it drops. “Tell me, Marie...”

Uh-oh.

“... if these layoffs go through, like they’re saying they will, are you going to be collecting for everyone who gets laid off?”

“It would be nice gesture...”

“A nice gesture... yeah. And those of us left, by the time we’ve chipped in for a parting gift for everyone, we’ll be feeling like we might be better off if we’d been on the list...”

“You know that’s not true.”

“I’m just saying...”

“Saying what, Charlie?”

He pauses, no doubt considering how to say this. “I don’t want to end up like that bum in the wheelchair who greets us in the morning.”

He smiles; he’s not really worried about ending up a bum. But then he frowns again, to tell me he is worried about something. I wonder which expression to believe.

“Whatever happens, you know there aren’t going to be any raises this year,” he finally says.

The rest of us assume there won’t be any raises this year. He says he knows.

“You sound pretty confident you’re not on the list.”

“I gotta think like that. Otherwise, why bother coming to work?”

I consider that. If anyone’s gonna know, it’s Charlie Thompson. “So you don’t know?”

“I don’t know.”

I have to believe him. Just like I have to believe that website was really research. Just like I believe his suit, and his shoes.

“So?”

“Yes.” He finally reaches into the wallet. “Ten?”

“Twenty’d be nice.”

“Yeah, it would, wouldn’t it?”

He hands me the ten. I don’t argue. I move on to the next cubicle.
    
Wednesday, Sept. 16, 7:30 pm

 “Hello?”

“May I speak with Mr. Charles Thompson please?”

“Speaking. Who is calling?”

“This is Mark from the Legal Defense Fund. How are you today?”

“I’m okay...”

I hear the hesitation in his voice, so I charge ahead. “We’d like to thank you for your support in the past. We hope you can continue to support our efforts to provide capable defense attorneys for those who cannot afford them.”

He doesn’t say anything. Not a good sign.

“Now, I see that you participate in our Membership Club...” I glance down at his history on the computer screen in front of me. I see he started with a $10 monthly pledge, and has upped it almost every year. He is currently paying $50 a month. I start to feel good again. The main question is how much more can I get him to pledge.

“Remind what you do again,” he says. Another bad sign.

“We provide defense attorneys for the indigent...”

“Isn’t that what public defenders are for?”

“Don’t get me wrong. We have the greatest respect for our public defenders. In fact, we work closely with the P.D.’s office in choosing our cases and, if necessary, with the actual case work. But the public defender’s office is stretched beyond its capabilities. We fill in the gaps where they do not have sufficient personnel to adequately defend their cases.”

“Hmm...”

“So Mr. Thompson, I see that your current pledge is $50 a month...”

“Yeah, we’re gonna have to do something about that.”

“A pledge of $75 a month would allow us --”

“That’s not what I meant,” he interrupts. “You see, they’re talking pay cuts at my work. Maybe even layoffs.”

I curse silently. The old, ‘It’s not me, it’s the economy’ excuse. Everyone’s pulling that one out these days. Of course, I have had a couple people recognize that the economy is hurting those we help even worse than themselves. But those are rare; there aren’t nearly enough of them to make up for guys like this one, who just use it as an excuse to cut back.

“So,” he goes on, “I’m going to have to reduce my pledge until things settle down. Just to be on the safe side.”

“I’m sorry to hear that sir. I’m sure you understand that, in times like these, our work is doubly important.”

“Yeah, so’s my bank account!”

I pull back. “Forty dollars a month would still help us.”

“How about thirty?”

“Forty would enable us to do so much more.”

“Let’s make it thirty. Until, like I say, things settle down.”

I figure I should get out before he goes any lower. “Mr. Thompson, we thank you for your continued assistance.” At least he didn’t drop his pledge entirely. “We do hope you will resume your previous level as soon as possible.”

But he has already hung up.

Thursday, Sept. 17, 8:18 am

The suits all turn away, look out the window. Like there’s somethin’ out there to look at. Ain’t nothin’ out there. I know. I live there.

Maybe they lookin’ at my home. Piece of tin leanin’ ‘gainst a wall. Yeah, they lookin’ at that! Don’ even know it be a home. Keeps me dry, that it do. And hides my stuff. You thinkin’ I don’ look like I got stuff, but I do. I got important stuff.

Stuff – stuff is easy. People jus’ leave it for me, everywhere, in the alley, in the park, by the train tracks. These people, these suits, these housewives, these train people, they throw out more stuff than I could ever collect. So I gotta be picky, I jus’ pick out the best bits. Stuff I can use, stuff that’ll pretty up my home. I thank them for it.

But I can’t eat stuff. Sure, I can cash in some cans, sell a homemade bracelet or two, but that’s never enough. And the really good stuff, no one wants. No one but me.

So here I am on the train, with my sign. Today it just says “Hungry. Please Help.” Sometimes I try to be clever, but I dunno, I guess my clever is not their clever. Cuz then they stare at me, and sometimes laugh, but not a good laugh. Not a laugh that comes with money.

So they’re all lookin’ out the window. I know that trick. If they don’ look at me, I go away. I use it on the cops all the time. Just don’ look, and it all be okay.

But I know some tricks myself. So I pick one, the best dressed suit in here. And I put my own mojo on him. I stand by him. I don’ say nuthin’, I just stare him down, stare into the back of his head.
 
I see him twitch. He wants to tell me to get lost. But he don’ want to look at me, so he don’t. I can outlast him. I got nothin’ to do. He got all sortsa worries. So he gonna look.

But I’m too late. It’s his stop. He pushes past, still don’t look. Don’t see me, don’t see me at all.

But he just pretendin’. Cause he know I’m there. He just tryin’ too hard not to know it. Tryin’ way too hard.

Friday, Sept. 18, 8:55 am

Location, location, location, that’’s what they say. When you get a good spot, work it. Repeat customers are the best.

Then there are those who say you should strike out for new territory, search out new clients. Don’t want to wear out your welcome in one place, however good it might appear at first.

I try to mix it up. I got my regular locations, but I’m always scouting for something new. I try to settle on three or four spots I can count on. But never more than twice a week in any single one. That way I can get to know my clients, but they don’t get sick of me.

Still, the timing is tricky. Sometimes even twice a week is too much. I’m back here at the office downtown, and it’s feeling like it might be too soon. Everyone ignores me; I’m not pulling in anything.

Miss Pink Reeboks gives the double glare. She wasn’t even here Monday, maybe she’s trying to make up for that.

But it’s Mr. Ferragamos who lets me know I’m no longer welcome here. He doesn’t give, and he doesn’t turn away from me. Today, Mr. Ferragamos, Mr. Generous, also glares at me, with a look of such hatred I’m ready to give up already.

Time to scout out somewhere new.

Friday, Sept. 18, 10:05 am

That’s the ticket, the first 40 of the day. Now I just slide into the morning, cruise along on this buzz. It’d be perfect just to hang here in the park, catch some rays, enjoy it.

But I gotta maintain, so I head back to the liquor store. And I gotta hurry, or some other bum’ll take my spot. That’s a prime spot, I can’t lose it. I’d drink my 40 there if I could. I tried that once... almost spent the night in lockup for it.

I’m back. The spot’s still open. Everything’s beautiful. I got my buzz, so I’m not desperate yet. I’m just, “Spare change... spare change... gotta cig?... spare change?” Nothin’ aggressive, all mellow, just hangin’ with my hand out.

I’m just in time. It’s rush hour, all those office drones rushing to get their own buzz, coffee and cigarettes. They’re usually good for at least a cig or two, even if they don’t drop any change. Which is almost as good. I got plenty of time to save up for the next 40.

So I’m happy. The day’s going great. When suddenly this motherfucker, all pressed suit and shiny shoes, stops in front of me. Glares at me. Then spits on the ground. Spits right next to me.

“God damn it, can’t I even get a cup of coffee without some bum asking me for money. Everywhere I go, everyone has their fucking hands out. Everyone! I’m so tired of it, so fucking tired!”

He looks like he’s going to hit me. I try to scramble back, out of his way, but I’m sittin’ on the ground, I got nowhere to go. He glares down. I tense up, my buzz gone. Hey, if anyone needs a 40, it’s this dude.

Finally he turns away, stomps into the store. Sorry, dude. Sorry if I harshed your buzz. But you just harshed mine, so now we’re even. And now I need that other 40, need it bad. But still I hang back, gotta wait til he’s gone, hope he doesn’t see me when he comes out. Hope he finds someone else to be pissed at.

I pity the next bum he runs into.

Friday, Sept. 18 6:30 pm

I try to relax, slump in my seat, but the plastic is too rigid, the train ride too bumpy. If I stare out the window, I see the dingy warehouses, the bodegas, the beat down houses whose tiny yards are crammed with cheap plastic toys and rusted autos. If I close my eyes, I see that poor bum, startled by my explosion, see him cringe before my anger.

I don’t know what came over me. That’s what I keep telling myself. “Charles Thomspon, what was that about?” But of course I do know. I’m so wrapped up in everything at work -- the paycuts, the layoffs, the tighten your belt bullshit, that I can’t see what’s right in front of me.

Or maybe it would be better to say, I can only see what’s right in front of me. And what’s that? A hundred beggars with their hands out. Like I’m not in danger of losing my own job. Like I’m made of money.

I look at my shoes, my shirt. Yeah, I know. I do look like I’m made of money. But they don’t understand – I have to look like this. It’s all part of the game. I have to look like I got it made if they’re going to trust me with their business. I certainly can’t look like I’m broke myself, or like I’m worried about my job.

But  they... all these hands out for me... they don’t know that. And compared to them...

I should have gone back. Given him enough money to stay drunk all day. Screw that, all week. I can afford that. But I didn’t. I had all day, and I never did. Too late to do anything about it now.

Right now, I just hope I can get home without one more damn beggar. Without one more person asking me to care. But no sooner do I think that than a black couple get on the train. She’s got a poster board with pictures of little girl on it. He’s holding a jar full of change.

I look out the window.

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