Muttering to indifferent pedestrians, “Spare a dollar for a coffee?” Sitting huddled over a crushed ball cap with scattered coins, looking up and muttering to indifferent pedestrians, “Spare a dollar for a coffee?”. Rubbing his hands, fingers protruding through soiled woolen gloves, while counting the loose change he adjusted a cardboard sign that read “Joe needs joe, God Bless those who help”.
The crowd continued sweeping past him, on their way to work, on their way elsewhere. Countless denizens marching between indifference and intention; bridging the gap between transit and their office, but past Joe ignoring him as they would fractured concrete.
Speaking without investment, staring down at the cold concrete, “Hey brother, spare a dollar for a coffee? God bless.”
“Why coffee,” a soft hollow voice asked?
Startled, Joe paused and said, “Huh?”
“Coffee,” the voice repeated, hissing along with the winter air. “Why coffee?”
“Spare a dollar, sir? Just for coffee, I’m cold.”
“Why coffee? Why not food or a smoke? Do you smoke Joe?” The voice rising with a natural inflection, then falling to where Joe was staring at the pavement.
Joe looked up at the figure casting a shadow, absorbing the weak winter sun. Details of the man lost in the back-lit contrast of the moment. The man’s hood absorbing Joe’s gaze, tempting Joe to focus his bleary, watery eyes. Unable to focus, Joe tried to remember the last time he rose to a challenge, knowing he couldn’t recall the last time he succeeded. Shuddering, Joe said, “I don—how do you know my name? Do I know you?”
“Your sign says ‘Joe’, aren’t you Joe?”
“I’m cold. A hot coffee will warm me; people don’t give money for smokes no more. The government taxes tobacco, you know taxes for programs. But still no programs for guys like us, guys like me. Just tax, just social control.”
“Social control Joe?” the shadow spoke like rushing air. “Are you being controlled by the government?”
“The man— I’m just cold.”
“Steamed milk will warm you, Joe. It’ll soothe you too. No jitters or paranoia that comes with caffeine.”
“Coffee costs less. Any spare change would help mister. I’m just cold.” Joe could feel the cold in his bones, the thin cardboard separating him from the sidewalk failing to insulate, promise of support that always yielded to a lie. There was something cold about the tall stranger. People rarely spoke to Joe, whereas he used to desire conversation, he’d covet the few words said to him during a day, savoring the warmth for hours. “Good luck pal” or “Get yourself a sandwich, take care” any infrequent phrase from a pedestrian that might roam by him during the week from a well-meaning indifferent stranger. Today was different, he was being asked, communicated with not merely spoke to. Joe’s stomach gurgled and then clenched, feeling the mingling of warm hunger and cold discomfort, without wanting to, he replied, “If I buy a cup of coffee, I get refills for the day. They let me use the toilet. I can be warm.”
“My girl,” Joe replied nodding his head towards the end of the street. “Starbucks, she’s good to me.”
“Why not tea? It’s warmer, you could use the bag over. Only Starbucks that refills your cup?”
“Starbucks is just there,” Joe said motioning again towards ubiquitous green and white awning at the corner. “They’re good to me.”
“Why not tea?”
“Tea crops exploit the farmers and degrade the soil,” Joe said with a sudden strident flourish.
Coughing, Joe pulled the soiled sleeping bag closer, shivering as cold air found an exposed chink. Shaking his head, he just adjusted his weight and looked away from the stranger. As a soft odor of decay played around Joe’s nostrils, he looked at his stained pants and then around himself. Sniffing at his hands and arms, finally Joe shrugged and tried to look past the man towards the pedestrians again.
“Are you an ecologist, or just parroting something you heard at Star—a coffee shop?”
Stealing a look up at the figure and then staring at the hat between them, Joe rubbed his arms. “It’s the economy,” Joe said holding out his hands, fingers waxy with filth, stubby past the frayed wool gloves, soiled to the point of being unrecognizable from their original condition. “With enough coffee I could start over.”
“Start over?” The man now squatting on his haunches asked, “What did you do before.”
“I had plans,” Joe said looking up. Joe strained seeking to locate the man’s eyes. The man wore a deep hood casting a shadow on his face, revealing gaunt sallow cheekbones and a bony chin protruding below bleach white teeth.
“Plans or dreams Joe? Were you an ecologist?”
A stillness passed though Joe causing him to shudder again, not caused by the cold now, but responding to the stillness only found in isolation. A place where honesty remains unhidden, the confluence of fear and truth in one’s soul is always bare. Joe raised his hands to his face and blew on them, looking into the shadow cast by the stranger. “I’m just cold.”
The clink of loose changing falling into Joe’s ball cap, punctuated the momentary silence. Joe muttered “thanks” to the passing shoes, wishing for the sun to banish the shadow man.
“Did you have plans or dreams Joe?” the man asked exhaling a sound like wind tearing at a closed door. “Dreams are something you wake from, plans are, well plans are something else aren’t they? You didn’t plan to end up here, did you.”
“You know?” Joe asked adjusting the tattered sleeping bag around his shoulders again, trying to ward off the questions as much as the cold. “Do you know me? Did you work at the firm?”
“The firm? No, Joe, we’ve never worked together. Not yet, anyway. But what would you do with coffee? What are your plans? Surely, something more than just pissing in a warm Starbucks toilet? Letting your reek thaw so that people shrink away from you in disgust, is there more to your plan?”
“I could get a job?”
“There’s a center, they can let me sleep there and,” gesturing at himself, “clean up and you know, better clothes.”
“Clothes make the man.”
“No, the Man keeps the taxes.”
Pausing in his breath, the figure breathed out, “So this is a plan not a just dream.” Raising his hands to the top of his hooded head, and vigorously rubbing them as though his skull was itchy. Joe watched the man arching his back into a long curve, and then crouch back down, “why do you need coffee first?” the man hissed.
“I’m—I’m just need a dollar.” Resignation eroding his voice, “I’m cold, coffee will help me stand up.”
A translucent hand, with knobby bony knuckles moved in an arching blur before Joe’s eyes, scooping up the loose change into a clinched fist. “Help with what Joe?”
“Please. . .” Joe looked around him, towards the shadow, and then back to the empty cap. “That’s—that’s all I have.”
“That—the money; what’s in your hand.”
“How do you feel?”
“Cold. I just want to be warm.”
The shadow man filled his empty hand with Joe’s shoulder, applying steady firm pressure. Even through the sleeping bag and thick coat draped over Joe, the skeletal fingers seemed to join Joe’s bone. A shuddering chill passing through Joe’s body into the man’s arm causing him to smile. Exhaling, “I mean how do you feel?”
“Scared? You’re not scared. You’ve quit. I knew a woman once, who knew the terror of desperation. She didn’t have a Starbucks to piss in. She brandished an AK-47 whenever she heard someone at the door. I saw her frequently, it was always the same, cursing at me in Armenian, spitting at the floor to sanctify the threshold of her hovel, barring my access.
“I first started visiting her when she was ninety-eight. It was cold, it was always cold, in the mountains. Do you feel the cold Joe? The cold never bothers me, it brings me closer to people. I like that, you know like today—with you. But this woman was always the same, just like the cold. When I say it was always the same, I mean she was always the same, her desperation. Sometimes the embers in her hearth were barely warm enough to light dry grass, but that was OK; she had less than a handful of grain to cook. Other times she huddled towards the feeble fire, guarding broth as thin as her translucent skin. A soup totally devoid of vegetables. For flavor, she blotted it with roots that looked like the lesions and scars that she wore. I could see her. But every time I called upon her she spat her curses through her toothless mouth, brandishing a weapon containing fifteen bullets that she had saved a lifetime for. Fifteen! One bullet could have provided meat for two days, but she wouldn’t trade a bullet for a week’s worth!
“She was scared. She was desperate. Yet she had a plan, she would defend her cracked earthenware and timid fire with the last of her resolve.”
Listening to the stranger, Joe fell into a trance staring at the empty ball cap. Rubbing his hands and shifting his weight, he tried to look past the dark figure, feeling consumed by the shadow the figure was casting. Longing for the return of the collection of silver held in a fist that had been withdrawn into a gloomy sleeve. Down the street the Starbucks siren was calling to him, promising him warmth and that stirring excitement of caffeine, with her flowing hair and promise of sanctuary.
“She never left home. I tried to take her but she just spat her curses, brandishing the Kalashnikov. One by one her family left with me, but she refused until she was one hundred and nine. A hundred and nine! Can you imagine, squatting on a clay floor, just brittle bones and skin stretched over fear? She was splendid! We did this dance many times over those eleven years; yet she never relented until the end.”
“But that was all she had.”
“Her family and her broth. The fire to keep her warm, she had nothing else. That’s all I need, I’m so cold, a coffee would help. Maybe a quarter extra?” Joe said, a flicker of hope that the man would return the rest of his change. Sometimes the high school kids would come for a laugh, take his money, or his sign, or just taunt him. Eventually that would pass too, maybe they’d feel bad, or a cabbie would shout something, but Joe would be left to indifference and restored to his original state. “I’ll have enough for coffee.”
“Joe,” a conspiratorial tone over took their conversation as the man leaned towards Joe again, “It was never about the fire; she was desperate that she wouldn’t finish what she started. You’re not finishing anything, you just want an easy out, don’t you? Say it.”
“No. . . no, with coffee I would be warm, I’d finish my plan.”
“But you won’t. It’s more than that, or you’d be on your way. You’d be at the shelter. You need coffee to stand up, to excite your dreams into plans.” The man leaned towards Joe as though he was going to whisper something but paused. No, he thought, no I don’t survive on those with plans. I need you hopeless, despondent, ready to relinquish your soul. I need you to disavow everything you’ve ever held dear.
Joe began feeling something. Something defying explanation, as though the cold was leaving him, or maybe it was settling in further. Could he become so cold that he’d stop feeling? As his attention drifted, he recalled hearing stories from surfers he knew in university of how they would feel on the cusp of drowning. The transition of panic to calm and then finally a warm tranquility would settle in before they became completely overcome by the weight of water or rescued by their ultimate savior. Then just as suddenly he sensed a tension starting in his spine but somehow connected to the stranger. A feeling settled through him like an increasing mass, a weight that could only be surrendered to. As though, as though he was—
“I’ll give you a job. You won’t have to cower in shadows. All you have to do is to release what you’re clutching to. I’ll make you important; you’ll have power and respect! Come work for me, you’ll—”
As the hissing voice cut short, Joe felt a warming, a change in the wind. Looking around the street there was a broad shouldered man approaching with thick black sideburns, sunglasses pushed up onto his jet black hair. The man was aggressively chewing something and squinting as though he was looking through an opaque window.
“Hey, fella,” a thick southern accent fell across the street like a spring breeze, “you know that ain’t right.”
“This doesn’t concern you. There’s no right or wrong here, just what is.”
“You know that preying on a man who’s down ain’t right. Never been; ain’t never gonna be.”
A wave of nausea overpowered the debilitating cold that gripped through Joe’s bones, and the sidewalk felt like it was listing away from him. Motion blurred around him and it appeared as though the hooded man recoiled away from the southerner’s voice and hissed like a fractured pipe.
The hooded stranger suddenly stiffened and stood to his full height, returning the weak winter sun to Joe.
“This fella here just wants to be warm, you’ve got no business here.”
“My business is—what do you know about my business. I’m offering him a future.”
“I know you. I’ve seen your business over the years. I know you ain’t no saint. Any job you got ain’t no good. Ain’t no one worth trusting if all they deal in is desperation and death.”
“I just want to be warm,” Joe whispered. “I want to start again—I’ve got—.”
“Plans,” the southern stranger asked? “We all got plans, you just need to get yerself right. You’ll get there Joe, you just need faith. Faith and to get rid of this here fella.” Turning away from Joe the man continued, “Joe here, he ain’t gone and quit yet, so you gonna move along.”
The shadow hissed at the newcomer, “Joe’s got free choice; I can stay as I please. Joe, can chose,” facing down at Joe again, “can’t you Joe? Why don’t you come with me? You’ll be warm, you can work with me.”
The odor of decay wafted around Joe, again he thought. But again it was different, a low-tied fragrance mixing the sickly sweet aroma of decay among flowers. A bouquet that was at once repulsive and alluring.
“I—I just want—”
“—does this have to become somethin’ between youse and me?” the southerner pierced the shadow with his eyes.
Coughing into his sleeve, the shadowed man breathed, “I’ll see you later,” directing a boney finger towards Joe’s face. “I’ll see you again.”
“Everyone has their time, just not today. That’s right, now you best mind yer manners and move along.” Reaching a hand down towards Joe, the interloper said, “Joe, ya doing alright?”
“Me? Do you know me?”
“I know things Joe.”
“Things about me?”
“Did we work together at the firm?”
“The firm? No sir, I’ve ain’t never been much for no office job.”
“But you said—”
“Your sign says ‘Joe’, that’s your name ain’t it?” Crouching down to the street, the southerner put his hand on Joe’s arm and continued, “You know, I see what I see; I know what I know. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll get you squared away?”
A warmth began welling from within causing Joe to look up and meet the new man’s eyes. He swam in warmth and compassion that he found in the grip of the man’s hand. “You look like Elvis, just older.”
“Older than what?”
“I guess the last time I saw him.”
“Well I’d have to be wouldn’t I?”
“Are you Elvis?”
“Some folks call me that.”
Laughing the southern man said, “No. No I ain’t. I’m popular, but 50 million fans still ain’t even half as good as twelve apostles. I’m just here to help, and keep that other feller away from you.
“So you are Elvis, the Elvis?”
“Shhhh, don’t tell a soul,” the man said nodding, holding an index finger to his lips.
“What should I call you then?”
“Call me brother.”
“What is all this about?”
“That fella wants you to help him reap.”
“Souls. Death hates Starbucks. You had it right, coffee helps you to your feet. Emboldens your purpose. If you have coffee, you can change the world. His business thrives upon surrender.”
Blinking, Joe stared into the kind eyes before him, waiting for comprehension to join the words hanging in the air.
“Don’t worry about the accent, I only use that when I’m Elvis, but, as you know, Elvis has left the building.” The man said, laughing softly after his joke.
“Well, I suppose I couldn’t be Elvis anymore. At least not that Elvis; the one everyone else wanted me to be. That part of me—well, I needed something else. We all get that to point, just like you—like you today.”
“I mean, why me?”
“Because you need something different. That’s what called Death and I here today.”
“You mean because I might give up?”
“No Joe, because you won’t. Death called upon you because you were close; I came because I knew you weren’t.”
Joe just looked at the empty cap that once held promise of a coffee and warmth. A promise that had been stolen by Death and left bare. “I don’t know,” he said shaking his head slowly.
“I’m like you, I see things. I’ve got a job for you.”
“But he had a job too. Why should I trust you and not him?” Joe began adjusting his sign again to see if he could catch someone’s attention and extricate himself to the refuge beyond the green and white sign.
“Listen to your heart, but you’ll either work with me, or for him. You see things, you see things differently than other people do. We could use someone with your talents. You could do some good just by helping people along. Make sure those who are lost find their way back. Nudging them along here and there, keeping the good ones on track, you know?”
“I’m not on track. I just want to be warm—I just want a coffee.”
“Come on Joe, you’ll be fine.”
“What do I have to do?”
“The same as we all have to do; just do right.”
This is an independently published complimentary copy.
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All rights reserved by Duncan Milne