A story about desperation and hope
Looking back on his life, Michael could see the mistakes that led him to the street, but knowing them did nothing to change his fate. The world was a hard, cold place, nothing but concrete and glass. Living things struggled for space to breathe, to stretch their arms toward each other, to feel that connection of emotions changing places like osmosis before the starvation withered their limbs. The lucky ones worked their way under its surface, like water freezing in the cracks of a sidewalk to let the weeds through, but the majority were just rain drops pelted against the rock, to be recycled by the sun, whether they lived in houses or not. His hands were numb, despite the fingerless gloves he wore, and the breath he repeatedly blew into his cupped fists. He couldn’t remember the last time he had showered. His beard was a tangled mass of grays and browns, a thicket of coarse hair where bits of dust and grime clung. The strands of his mustache tickled the corners of his mouth and his upper lip. His face was a wildfire of itching dryness, bleached by the cold. In spite all this, he found himself at peace.
The underpass kept him out of the rain, sheltered his fire from the wind. The thunder of traffic overhead was a strange comfort, a reminder that the world moved. He wasn’t the only one who lived beneath it, but he was one of the few that didn’t seek cover elsewhere during the hard months. He found he enjoyed the struggle, the loneliness of the survival instinct. Daylight hours would be spent foraging for fuel and loose change, picking up debris that would burn in the iron barrels, or that he could sell to recycling plants. Sometimes, he would have moments of serendipity, where strangers would just walk up and hand him a five or a twenty, and he would eat fast food with enough left over for a cheap bottle of whiskey. Nights were spent watching the tips of flames dance above the lip of the barrel, shooting sparks up into the black where they died. He scribbled poems into a notebook by the glow of the fire, cherishing the warmth in his guts where the whiskey bloomed, if he had any. Someday, he imagined his body would be found, curled up on the stone of the city, and he hoped his poems would be published as a testament to the life he lived, if anyone even bothered to read them before tossing him in an unmarked grave.
There was a new kid he noticed the day before, who had taken up residence on the opposite wall. His clothes were still clean. He wore a jacket as bright red as the stripes of the American flag. His eyes gleamed with tears that threatened to fall, not yet acclimated to the chill of the breeze, or the uncertainty of day to day living. They were full of fear that bordered on hopelessness. The others ignored him, as they often would those they assumed wouldn’t make it. Michael knew the look in that kid’s eyes. He remembered it. The shock of losing it all and knowing desperately that there was no way to get it back. Bracing himself with one hand against the gritty concrete of the wall, Michael pushed himself to his feet. He warmed his hands for a moment over the fire, then picked up his knapsack and walked over to where the kid sat.
“It doesn’t get easier,” he said, standing over the kid, who looked up at the sound of his voice. Michael crouched, making his knees pop like green sticks. The junk in his knapsack jostled noisily.
“What’s the nearest tall building then?”
He wasn’t as much of a kid as Michael thought, just younger, maybe in his early thirties. The mention of suicide made Michael smile. He remembered those days too.
“If you like hell, you might as well keep living. My name’s Michael Green, what’s yours?”
He stretched out his hand to the boy, who looked at it for a moment with a hint of revulsion, then seemed to realize his rudeness and shook it.
“I’m Gary. Gary Shaw.”
“What brings you to the street, Gary? I’m an alcoholic myself.”
“It’s that simple is it?”
“Well, I guess my gambling addiction would be the simple answer then.”
“I see. Mind if I sit here?”
Gary shook his head, so Michael unshouldered his pack and clambered over beside him. The ground chilled his buttocks and the backs of his legs. He let out a deep sigh and watched the cloud of his breath dematerialize before him.
“How long’s it been since you ate, Gary?”
Gary looked at him with an expression that seemed to match the sigh he had just exhaled. His eyes filled with emotions that seemed to fade away like vaporized breath in the winter air.
“Three days now, I think.”
“That’s too long. I was about to have some breakfast if you would like to share mine.”
“Why would you share anything with me? You just met me. I hope you’re not expecting some kind of sexual favor or something. I’d rather starve.”
Michael laughed, a deep bellied laugh that made him clutch his guts and filled his chest with tingles, before it turned into a cough that doubled him over until it subsided. He spat a bloody gob of phlegm onto the grey creviced stone and wiped his mouth.
“No worries, pal, you’re not my type. You’re a bit flat chested. Not to mention homeless. I just know how it is when you first hit rock bottom. You’re convinced every hand outstretched to you is only there to push you further down the black hole. But some hands want to pull you up.”
“Okay. What have you got?”
“Well, it’s not a five course meal or anything, but let me see.”
Michael pulled his knapsack over between his legs and unclasped the plastic buckle that held its cloth flap in place. He rummaged through the contents, which clinked and clattered with various pitches of noise due to different hard surfaces knocking against one another, amid the heaps of what appeared to be clothing and useless garbage to Gary. He pulled a can from the bottom of the bag.
“There’s pork and beans,” he set it aside and pulled out another, “pork and beans,” he set that beside the other can on the ground, “or one can of shoplifted ravioli I’ve been saving for a special occasion.”
Michael looked at Gary and smiled, turning the can of ravioli this way and that in his hand, watching the hunger display itself shamelessly on his face like it would a stray animal’s.
Isn’t that what we are? Stray animals?
He licked his lips.
“Hell, I suppose making new friends is a special occasion. Let’s eat ravioli. Never you mind that shoplifting part, every man that’s hungry enough does it. The stomach has no moral convictions.”
Gary snorted his agreement, watching attentively as Michael peeled back the pop-top and licked the sauce from its tin inside. He tossed the lid onto the ground, and reached into his pack again, this time pulling out a plate and two plastic forks. He poured about half of the can of ravioli onto the plate and handed it over to Gary, one of the plastic forks sticking straight up from the food.
“Be careful now, that plate is very special to me.”
Gary nodded, and took the plate of food, his hands quivering with weakness. He wasted no time in shoving a bite of the ravioli into his mouth, relishing the flavor of the sweet tomato sauce, the salty cold beef in the noodles. He chewed fast and swallowed hard. Nothing had ever tasted as good as this stolen meal, this cheap can of preservative-ridden starches offered up from a stranger. Michael enjoyed his as well, chewing thoughtfully as he fished his own bites from the can. When all the morsels of ravioli were gone from the plate, Gary raised it to his face with both hands and licked it clean. After he had finished, he could not believe what he was looking at, or that it took his so long to notice.
It must be a fake, he thought.
“Something wrong?” Michael asked, letting his plastic fork drop into the empty can, where it rattled thinly.
“Where did you get this plate?”
“That’s a long story. Why do you ask?”
Gary held the plate very gingerly, turning it slow in his hands to examine every edge of it. In its center was a decorative painting of a coat of arms, one he recognized as that of British descent, maybe even a king’s. The surface of its white glass was covered with fine cracks that revealed its age. He turned it over, and saw a date stamped into its back, beneath a painted signature that was nearly gone. The date was 1415.
“Holy shit, do you know what this is? You shouldn’t be here, man. This is like the antique equivalent of Charlie’s golden ticket.”
Gary looked up from the plate with a dumbfounded expression. Michael was smiling at him. He reached out and plucked the plate from Gary’s hands and began wiping it clean with a white rag.
“What makes you so knowledgeable about dinnerware?”
“Nothing specifically about dinnerware, but before I lost everything I owned, I ran my own antiques business. What you have in your hands could buy you a whole new life. It’s worth at least…”
“Shhhh. Let’s not alert the natives shall we?”
“Are you telling me you know?”
Gary glanced around, wary of the eyes of others, as Michael wrapped the plate in the cloth and shoved it back into his pack. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. Someone coughed, and kicked an empty beer bottle in the distance. An old woman started pushing a shopping cart up the hill. A heavy truck thundered overhead, sending a shopping bag flying over the side of the bridge, where the wind grabbed it.
“I know only what the previous owner told me. He said that plate once belonged to King Henry V. It had been handed down for generations, and it should never be sold, because it was important to remember, any man could eat off the plate of a king.”
“Sounds like an interesting man, but what good is philosophy when you’re living like this?”
“Try living without it.”
“Look, I get that the thing is important to you, but we are talking about your life here. I’ve got connections to several auctioneers and auctioning houses. For a percentage, I could arrange the sale for you, and we could both get off these streets.”
“Well, that would certainly work out for you wouldn’t it? But how long would it take us to fuck everything up again? Some people just can’t make it in the world. We’ve had our chances.”
“Neither of us have had a chance like this!”
“That’s enough. Glad to make your acquaintance, son, but I won’t change my mind about this. I trust that you will keep this knowledge to yourself. If not, no one ever misses a homeless man, if you take my meaning.”
Gary and he stared intensely at each other for several moments. A brisk gust of wind shot through the underpass, rifling Michael’s long hair that hung out beneath his toboggan. Gary noticed that he had his right hand concealed beneath his right leg, possibly holding a knife.
“Will you at least tell me why it’s so special to you?”
“Will you listen?”
Gary nodded. He noticed Michael seem to loosen up a bit, the tension draining from his shoulders, his jaw unclenching.
“All right. I’ll tell this story, but then I’m walking away from you, and you’re going to forget we ever spoke. Remember what I said before, about being at the bottom, and thinking every hand reached out is one trying to shove you down? I’ve been there. I know that feeling. When my wife first threw me out of the house, after I got drunk and killed her pet cat, I had no place to go. I had lost my job two weeks earlier, and had drained my bank account on liquor. She wouldn’t let me take the car. I stayed with a friend a couple of nights, but eventually he couldn’t handle me either. I was self-destructing, you know? I was a drowning man, and I wanted to take everything down with me. Those first few nights on the street were the worst. I stayed drunk, having borrowed some cash from my friend, so I didn’t care how chilly the nights were, but the sun piercing my eyes in the morning was a bitter reminder that I was still alive. Everything I brought with me when I left, was everything I owned, because I would be damned if I would ever see my wife again. The third night, four thugs jumped me, beat me pretty bad. They stole my guitar, and my wallet, which had nothing in it by then anyway. I woke up at the hospital with a fractured skull, and no one waiting to see if I would wake up. That was what hurt the worst. I left the hospital after two nights, sooner than they wanted me to, but I signed some bullshit name to their forms so they’d let me out. I was craving a drink worse than I ever had my entire life. It’s sad, but the morphine they were giving me there just wasn’t cutting it. I got thirty dollars that day at a plasma clinic, and bought three fifths of cheap whiskey. The next four nights were a blur.
When I came out of that blackout, I was in jail for a PI offense. I couldn’t believe it. How could it get any worse? They released me with a payment plan on a fine that I couldn’t afford. I decided I had to end it. I had to find the tallest bridge or the tallest building possible and see if religious people had any clue about the after life. On my way to kill myself, a man stopped me at the bottom of the jailhouse steps, and he asked if I needed help. His name was Jeremiah Stone, and I will never forget him. A slender, bifocal wearing saint, he said his yard crew was needing extra hands, and he would pay me 20 dollars a day to work for him, plus a meal fit for a king. I couldn’t turn him down.
The first day of yard work was hard, but it was good to sweat under the sun, to earn something again. My ears rang from the constant noise of the weedeater and the mowers, but I was thankful for the ringing, thankful for the sweat. That day, at lunch, he let us drink beer. And it was the first time I saw the plate. The food was piled on the table like something out of a Tolkien novel. Jeremiah told me since it was my first time with them, I could sit at the head of the table. During the meal, he told me I was eating off the plate once owned by Henry V. He said such an item should belong in a museum, but as long as his family could, they would own it and use it, because any man should be able to eat from the same plate as a king. He told us all that the only thing separating the kings of the world from the peasants were a string of circumstances that could change at any moment. He was a great man. Any person he brought into his home, he let eat from the plate, just as I allowed you to. It’s a statement of principle. We are all equal. We are all born to be dust.
It was a good time in my life, but like all good times, it wasn’t meant to last. I was working in the garden the day Jeremiah passed on. I heard his wife screaming and I ran to the house to see what was wrong. They had been preparing lunch, and he had fallen to the floor, where he died of a massive heart attack. His wife had never liked me, or any of the other homeless workers her husband had employed, and as soon as she saw me enter the house, she started screaming for me to leave, and to never come back. I begged her to let me help, and tried to get closer to the old man, only to have her smack me and shove me away. As I backed off, shaken from the blow, I saw the plate already set on the table, along with some of the dishes of food. I suddenly knew that left in her care, this woman would not honor Jeremiah’s tradition, and she would probably sell the plate, donate it to a museum, or worse, so in a moment of panic, I grabbed it, and I ran from their house, never looking back. She probably never even noticed it was gone, at least not until well after the fact, and by then I was well into the heart of the city, lost as ever. But I vowed that if I could, I would keep Jeremiah’s spirit alive, by sharing the gift he had given me. And that, is how I met you today.”
Michael looked over at Gary, struggling to keep the tears in his eyes from falling. He had cried enough in his life, it amazed him there could be any tears left in his face. It was as if his eyes held ceaseless wells of sadness.
Gary shook his head, “So, you’re telling me, you won’t part with something that doesn’t even rightfully belong to you?”
“I may have stolen it, but sometimes you have to do what’s wrong, in order to do what’s right. The old man would have rather me had it, than it end up in a museum. Trust me.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Believe what you want. But today, you ate off the plate of a king.”
Michael leaned over and pulled something else out of his pack. He tossed it into Gary’s lap. A bottle of Early Times, half full.
“Have a drink. It’ll make you feel better.”
He fastened the clasp back on his bag, and pushed himself to his feet, slinging the pack over his shoulder. He scratched through the matte of his beard to his chin, where the itching was the worst, and he started back over to his side of the bridge’s shadow. He had taken four steps when Gary charged him from behind, smashing the whiskey bottle into the back of his skull. The world went white with pain, the horizon a swirl of black and green dots, as he fell forward, the familiar weight on his shoulder coming loose as Gary ripped it free.
It happened so fast, Gary couldn’t remember doing it. One moment he was watching the bearded lunatic walk away from him with a priceless artifact in his backpack, and the next that lunatic was on the ground and he was running with the backpack in his hands, his chest full of exhilaration, his feet thrumming on the pavement, the cold air burning his lungs. The man had said it himself, “no one misses a homeless man,” and no one would care that one had been robbed. He had done something wrong in order to do something right. This would buy his life back, would pay off his debts, would allow him to live the life he deserved. If that lunatic didn’t want a life, that was his choice. Gary wasn’t going to live like a ghost.
He ran about fifty feet, and then they closed off the path, a group of about twenty men. They were all homeless, faces unshaven and covered in filth, mouths missing teeth, clothes dingy and miss-matched. One held a crowbar. Others held other items: a broken bottle, a piece of rusted chain, a metal pipe. Gary didn’t even know this many people were down here. He skidded to a halt, kicking tiny pieces of rock from the ends of his shoes as he turned to run another direction, but he realized with growing panic that they had surrounded him.
“Where you going with that?”
“That don’t belong to you, boy.”
“Looks like we got a thief in our midst.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, listen to me, the dude wouldn’t listen to reason. This plate is worth enough we can all be rich. Just let me take it to my auctioneer, and we can all be in houses before the end of winter. Who cares about that guy. He stole this thing to begin with!”
The one with the crowbar stepped forward. He wore a red and black checkered coat that looked like it had once belonged to Paul Bunyan. He pointed at Gary’s chest with the end of the bar, like a magician with a cumbersome wand.
“You’re gonna want to put that down. The plate of the king is not for sale.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you fell for that bullshit too!?”
But he could see in their faces that they had. They looked at him with an unbridled hatred, an animosity that drew the tendons in their necks taught, held their legs coiled like springs, ready to pounce and break his bones. Gary realized things could end badly. He could be staring into the eyes of a murderous mob, people who cared more about their pride than hygiene and comfortable sleeping arrangements. He wasn’t about to let this chance slip away, but the stakes were higher than normal on this bet. This time, he knew he was wagering his life. The fear coursed through him like adrenaline.
“Look, this thing is probably a fake,” he said, fumbling with the clasp on the satchel. He got it open, spilling some dirty socks and a plastic fork from inside as he rummaged with one hand for the plate. He never took his eyes off the man with the crowbar, listening intently for quickening footsteps behind him, which would mean he was being rushed. His fingers locked on the slick thin surface of the plate and he removed it with an upward stroke, the rag that was loosely draped about it fluttering to the ground by his feet. He let the knapsack fall as well, random items skittering from its canvas girth about the concrete.
“If it was fake, you wouldn’t try to take it. I’m warning you, boy, you drop that plate, I’m gonna see what the inside of your head looks like,” the crowbar man had his hands clenched so tight around the steel of his weapon that his knuckles were strained white, despite the dirt caked into his pores.
“If you rush me, I’ll smash it. I’ll destroy your precious pride,” Gary held the plate high above his head. For a moment he feigned dropping it, relishing the gasps that emitted from the group around him. His eyes stayed locked on crowbar man’s. They were brown, the whites yellowed and murky as if he had cirrhosis of the liver. The lack of gloss did nothing to dilute his intensity. Gary knew that something would have to happen fast, or this was going to get out of control.
“The only thing you’re going to smash, is your hope of living another five minutes.”
The seconds started to feel stretched. Despite the cold, Gary could feel sweat dripping down the back of his neck, making his back slick. He realized there was no way out that included him stealing the plate. He doubted these men would just accept an apology and let him walk. In this case, he had gone all in against the house, and the house had an ace showing.
“All right, have it your way then,” and with that he threw the thing as hard as he could into the air, watching the reactions of the eyes as they widened and followed its trajectory, mouths dropping open like caves lined with sporadic yellow stalagmites. In that split second he found the weakest area of their blockade and ran for it, as others ran into the circle, forgetting about him, and trying to save the fragile relic hanging in the balance.
“NO!” someone yelled.
“I’ve got it!” another breathed.
He was almost through them when the crowbar swung from out of his periphery and smacked him across the teeth. The sound in his head was like that of crunching a mouthful of peanuts, as the pain ignited like a flashbulb of phosphorus in his mind, and his lips disintegrated into fragments of flesh around his shattered teeth and bloodied gums. He fell backward, his eyes full of sky and random faces and hands, his thoughts scattered like loose ashes from a cigarette. When he hit the ground, he heard the clink and tinkle of broken glass, and despite the pain he smiled, steam rising from the blood on his face. The crowbar man stood over him, appearing upside down in Gary’s vision, the look in his eyes one of irrevocable loss, a strange look on the face of one who owns nothing.
“I wahn thuh beth. Yoo losth,” he said.
“Here’s your reward.”
The crowbar sliced through the air. Gary closed his eyes and waited to die.
Michael woke on his pallet, a loose collection of flattened boxes beneath a tattered sleeping bag. Beyond the silhouette of the overpass, a straight line of blackness in his vision, he could see pinpricks of stars. His head felt like it was the size of a basketball that had been stuffed with ants. He grunted and reached up to feel the back of his head, which was sore and stinging. His fingers came back bloody, but the blood looked to be congealing for the most part, from what he could tell in the dim glow of the low burning fire.
“You okay, Mike?” a voice said to his left.
He glanced over and saw a man he knew only as Mars eyeing him from behind a nearby barrel. His red and black checkered flannel coat was still obvious in the shadows that clamored for purchase on his body. Michael tried to read his expression and saw only pity.
“I’ve been better. Did that low-life steal all my whiskey too?”
Mars stood and shuffled over beside him, squatting into a sitting position. He pulled the backpack he carried off his shoulder and placed it in the crook of Mike’s arm.
“I don’t think so, Mike.”
Michael raised an eyebrow and patted the knapsack that he thought would never be seen again.
“And where is the esteemed Gary, now?”
“He won’t be missed.”
“Ah, I see. I owe you my gratitude.”
Michael opened the satchel, aiming to peruse the contents for his last bottle of Early Times, but what he saw froze his hands in place, and drew the lines in his face down hard.
“I’m awful sorry, man. The kid had a death wish.”
He pulled the broken pieces from the pack. Amazingly, it had fractured into three solid sections, two bigger than the last third. He placed them on the ground in front of him, spacing them out, tears falling freely from his eyes. The pain in his head was forgotten. He looked at the broken shards of his heart, remembering the eyes that hid behind the bifocals and the light in them that had seen something worth taking a chance on in his own. He remembered Jeremiah Stone, and the sense of pride he felt all men deserved. With a steady solemnity, he turned the pieces, and found how they fit together, their edges joining smooth except for a couple of missing chips, like the pieces of a child’s puzzle. He looked up at Mars and smiled.
“We need super glue,” he said, “and then, I’m going to give this to you.”
“To me? Why? What are you going to do?”
The look on Mars’ face was that of pure shock. It was worth more than a thousand antique plates once owned by kings.
“I’m going to plant a garden.”
This story first appeared at Scholars & Rogues.