This is a guest post from Laurie Stone who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is New York. Enjoy.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Manhattan’s Upper West Side was a landscape of violent neglect that was also accommodating of deviance. I had a friend who at the start of each month would dole out $40 to a different homeless person and say, “Look at me, and don’t ask for money again.” It made my friend feel okay not to give the rest of the time. Others donated books and clothes to people they knew. Gardner used to hand off his change at the end of the day.
In 1990 Gardner died of bone marrow cancer, and afterward, in the mornings, I would wake up wanting to talk to him. I was 44. When it was time to walk my dog, I would pack a bag of food to distribute to people on the street. I was volunteering at God’s Love We Deliver, the organization that feeds homebound people with AIDS, and sometimes there were leftovers.
On the first anniversary of Gardner’s death, I ran into Jimmy, who camped outside the Korean market around the corner. He was skeletal with only a couple of teeth, and his hips and shoulders were hitched at different angles, so he walked with a shuffle. When he first showed up, Gardner and I thought he had AIDS and would die soon, but five years later he was still at his post. The previous summer he’d worn a cast over a leg, exposing swollen, scaly toes, but when the plaster was removed, he seemed no worse for the wear. Sometimes he slept indoors. I had seen him shambling toward West End Avenue when the mercury plunged, but mostly, on freezing days and in the heat of August, he was on the sidewalk, extending a grimy hand.
As soon as he’d spot Gardner, he’d leap up and mutter words I couldn’t understand. Gardner would fish in his pockets. Jimmy kept his distance from me, and I remembered a remark Norman Mailer made: “Every meeting with a homeless person is an ugly encounter.” He meant the gap between having a place to live and not having one.
After Gardner died, I gave Jimmy food if he was around. This day he limped toward me, and I gave him a container of pasta salad. As I moved off, he called out, “Miss, I want to ask you something.” I turned. His voice was clear. He said, “Where is your friend?” A cab raced to make a light. I said, “He died.” Jimmy folded in half and stood still, his head working sorrowfully from side to side. Traffic whizzed along. A kid rode his bike fast on the sidewalk. Pedestrians scattered and cursed him. The kid leered at them as if their anger was fueling him. Jimmy’s response looked like a performance. I started to walk off, but I turned to see him still shaking his head, and I thought about the invisible threads that attach us to each other and the meanings we leave behind. Why have I remembered English twin sisters from a transatlantic ship crossing? I was 20. They were fat and generous. They wore feathers and velvet and sang music hall tunes, injecting theater every night into the group of us that had formed. I don’t think we thanked them enough.
The next day Jimmy was sitting on the pavement. I gave him food, and he said, “I really miss my friend.” I said, “So do I.” He said, “I had a dream about him last night.” I said, “What did you dream?” He said, “He was standing over me, tossing quarters, one after the next.” A car door opened, and Sinatra sang “Witchcraft” on the radio. I felt Jimmy was tossing quarters to me.
Laurie Stone is author of three books of fiction and nonfiction. Her recent stories have appeared in Open City, Four Way Review, Memorious, and Nanofiction. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, Flash and Short Fiction by Laurie Stone and My Life as an Animal, a Memoir in Stories.