e pushed his cart to the end of the benches and left it sitting there. The benches were empty, snow heaped on them. He watched his breath form on the wind and felt the cold seeping down in his fingers and wished he was smart like some of the folks he knew that left Queens when winter started coming and hopped trains down to places like Florida.
He wondered if people down in Florida were any nicer than they were up here, and figured it was probably about the same no matter where you went. He saw lots of Florida license plates these days, more than he ever did 15 years ago. They all belonged to rich folk that could afford two houses, one up here and one down there. They’d drive all over creation trying to avoid the snow and cold.
The thought made him smile. All that migrating from one place to the next didn’t make the rich folk that much different from his kind of people.
He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jacket and pushed his fingers through the holes that had formed there, feeling the stitching inside, going all the way through til he touched his pants. He checked the trash can for anything good and then went up the steps to the library, careful to avoid the clumps of snow clinging to them.
A mother with her two kids walked out as he walked in. She pulled the kids a little closer and one of them pinched his nose as they passed.
He knew he probably smelled but there wasn’t much he could do about it, especially when it was snowy and cold out and all the shelters were full. You had to be good at getting into the shelters, smart about it. Prompt and punctual. He wasn’t any of those things.
“Herbert,” Debra said when he walked in.
He liked Debra. She was nice to him, patient with him when all the other librarians wanted him to leave. You could see it on their faces. She probably wanted him gone too, but at least she pretended to like him. That was better than nothing.
Debra was black like he was– the only black librarian he’d ever seen. He felt more comfortable around black people, a little more accepted.
Him being black scared a lot of people. He knew it. Add that with everything else and it made people really good at walking right past him like he wasn’t even there.
“Hi, Debra,” he said.
“What are you doing out there with it this cold?” she said.
He shrugged. “Not really anywhere else to go. All the shelters are full. If it gets any colder– if that storm comes like the paper says– then they got to take me in. Give me some place to sleep. There’s a name for it. I read it but I can’t remember.”
“Code Blue,” she said.
He snapped his fingers at her. “That’s it. Code Blue.”
“What do you need today, Herbert?”
He looked around a moment before speaking. “How much is it to use one of those computers?”
“I can type things too? Print them out?”
“Printing is 10 cents a page.”
He dug into his pants pockets and felt the little cluster of change there. The weather outside had turned the coins cold like tiny bits of ice. He held them spread out in his palm for Debra to inspect.
“Which one?” he said.
“Well–” she picked around at the change and took two little silver coins into her hand. “That makes 10. One page is all you need to print?”
He nodded. “Just the one. Can you do lamination here too?”
“You can, but it’s another 25 cents.”
“How much do I got?”
“You only have 17 cents. For the printing and lamination you’d need another–” she looked over the change in his hand again “–18 cents. You could still print today, though.”
“No,” he said. “I should wait.”
She dropped the two coins she’d taken back into his palm. He closed his hand around the change and slipped it back into his pocket.
“I guess I’ll come back when I get enough.”
“What are trying to do anyway?”
“I want to make something. For Richard.”
Her eyes cut away.
“You heard about him?”
“Yes,” she said. “I was here the morning they found him. Are you doing okay?”
“I just want to make something for him.”
He walked back outside and rearranged the bags on his cart. He was getting ready to start pushing down the sidewalk when a cat walked past him. It brushed against his leg and crawled underneath the bench and sat there meowing at him, its sharp eyes flicking back and forth in rhythm with its tail.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he told it. “It’s too cold. He ain’t coming back here. He’s gone.”
The cat meowed again. He pushed the cart and it watched him go.
A bell tied to the door announced his entrance when he walked into the store. An indian man was sitting behind the counter watching something on his phone.
Everyone had a phone now and everyone was always watching something on it or listening to something. They liked to plug in those little earphones and walk real fast, pretending like they couldn’t hear or see anything.
The indian man eyed him suspiciously but didn’t say anything. Herbert pointed to a can on a shelf behind the counter. It was blue and had an orange cat printed on the label.
“How much is that?” he said.
“This? The cat food?”
The indian man pulled the can down from the shelf and inspected the sticker on it.
“One dollar fifteen,” he said.
“One dollar fifteen cents.” He mouthed the price over again in an attempt to commit it to memory. He looked up at the indian man.
“I’ll have to come back.”
The indian man shook his head and set the can back on the shelf. Herbert thought back to the conversation he’d had with Debra at the library.
“What’s one dollar fifteen cents plus eighteen cents?” he said.
“One dollar fifteen cents plus eighteen cents is how much?”
The indian man stared at him a moment before answering. “One dollar thirty-three.”
“One dollar thirty-three cents?”
“That’s how much I need.”
It was summer when he first met Richard. He was doing what he liked to do, sitting outside on the bench in front of the library, watching all the people and cars go by. He’d ask some of them for change to maybe go over and get something from the deli, but he didn’t make a routine of it. He just liked to sit.
He was sitting with a man named John Con. Everyone called him that because they said he’d try and take anything from you if you weren’t paying attention. He didn’t much care for John Con’s company but you couldn’t really keep company away.
John Con saw Richard first.
“You see this son of a bitch? What the hell’s he doing?”
Richard was coming down the sidewalk carrying a milk crate, mumbling something to himself. He had long white hair that bounced out from the cap he wore and little bristles on his face that matched. He kept on mumbling as he passed them, his eyes set somewhere else– somewhere only he could see.
“Hey, where you going?” John Con called.
Richard turned and looked at them, his eyes still whirling in his head.
“What you got in that box?” John Con said.
Richard raised the milk crate. “This?”
“You wanna see?”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
Richard set the crate down and reached inside. He brought out a little turtle, its legs flapping as he raised it up. Its tiny head drew back inside its shell.
Herbert leaned closer. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen a turtle in real life before.
“Can I touch it?”
Richard shrugged. “I guess so.”
Herbert reached out and slid his fingers along the turtle’s shell. He didn’t like the way it felt, all slimy and wet. He drew his hand back and wiped it on his pants.
“Hell, you could kill that thing and cook it,” John Con said.
“You can’t cook a turtle,” Herbert said.
“Sure as hell can.”
Richard pulled the turtle away and set it back in the crate. He picked the crate up and wrapped his arms around it.
“Ain’t eating it,” he said. “I gotta take it some place else.”
“Where’d you find it?”
“Just sitting near a sewer.”
“You better take it back to that sewer,” John Con said.
“Turtles ain’t safe in a sewer.”
“Jamaica Bay then.”
“Jamaica Bay’s too far,” Hebert said. “How’s he going to make it all the way over there with a turtle and probably no metro card?”
“Cook it, then.”
“I ain’t cooking it!”
Richard’s face started to turn pink. He looked mad in his eyes, big blue veins pushing out from his neck.
“You could take it to the park,” Herbert said. “There’s a little pond over there. I don’t know if it’s good for no turtle.”
John Con followed Herbert and Richard to the park. Herbert led them through trees til they came up on the pond.
Richard set the crate on the soft ground and took the turtle out and set it in the water. Its head peeked out from its shell and its little arms followed. It shot through the water and disappeared beneath the black surface.
Richard turned around and stared at them.
“You got a place to sleep for the night?” Herbert said.
Richard shook his head.
“Come on. I’ll show you where we stay.”
The park looked strange on winter nights. All the leaves had left the trees and their naked branches looked like black veins pressed against the sky. It was hard to get around when it was this dark.
He saw firelight surging down by the old tracks and followed it, voices growing in the dark as he approached. There were a few people huddled around a trash can with flames lapping out of it, their hands held above the fire like some kind of devious prayer circle.
Eyes followed him as he came down the slope, luminous in the firelight like tiny balls of swamp gas hovering there in the dark. Little clouds of white vapor circled around their mouths.
“Aw shit, is that Herbert?”
“Come on over, Herb.”
“Herb, you holding?”
“I got nothing,” he said.
He stretched his hands over the fire and closed his eyes as the cold absolved from his fingers.
“Can you believe some cops came down here two days ago?” someone said.
He stayed quiet and listened to them talk.
“Yeah? What’d they say?”
“Said we had to– shit, what’s the word? V something?”
“Vacate,” he said.
“That’s it. Vacate the premises.”
“Said these were live tracks.”
A chorus of laughter.
“Hell, these tracks haven’t been live in twenty years.”
“That’s what I told them.”
“Who do they think they lying to?”
“Here, Herb. Take a sip of this.”
“What is it?”
“Good is what it is. Take a sip.”
He uncapped the bottle and drank. The liquid burned his tongue and continued down his throat til his whole belly was alight with a special kind of heat. He coughed and passed the bottle.
“Vodka?” he said, wiping his lips.
“Mmhmm. Raspberry flavor, the bottle says. You taste it?”
“I taste something.”
“Herb, you heard anything about Richard?”
The chortles tapered off and they all got quiet. The fire crackled.
He shrugged. “I guess they’re probably trying to find his family if he’s got any.”
“He ever mention anybody?”
He thought about it. “No.”
“Anybody seen John Con?”
“Don’t go bringing up all that,” one of them said.
“I need to make some money,” he said.
“Don’t we all.”
“Hear about that storm coming?”
“Those shelters ain’t gonna be able to turn no one away. That’s what I heard.”
“Piss on that. I’d rather stay here.”
“You’ll freeze to death. End up like Richard.”
“Where you from, Richard?” John Con said.
“Louisiana? How the hell you end up here in Queens?”
Richard shrugged and took the bottle John Con was handing him.
“One way or another,” he said.
“You like it down there?”
“It’s all right.”
“They eat turtles down there, don’t they?”
Herbert was watching Richard, studying the way his body was locking up. He could tell he was getting mad. He seemed that way from the moment they met him, an explosion waiting to happen.
“That how come you found that turtle?” John Con said. “People from Louisiana can smell them out? You were thinking about cooking it?”
“I already said I don’t eat no fucking turtles.”
Richard stood up. He towered over John Con, his shoulders raised and his hands bound into fists. Some of the others in the camp were watching, waiting to see how it was going to play out.
“You gonna hit me, Richard?” John Con said.
“Leave him alone, John,” Herbert called.
Their heads snapped toward Herbert like they’d forgotten he was there.
“He hasn’t done anything to you. Stop harassing him.”
Herbert watched Richard’s fists relax, blood flowing back into the whitened digits. His shoulders drooped a little and he took a step back.
John Con smiled, laughed a little, and took a drink from his bottle. “Well shit, Herbert. Why don’t you go on and suck his dick while you’re at it?”
The bottle broke and John Con yelped. Richard was on top of him, swinging like some deranged ape, grunting and swearing, strands of spit hanging from his mouth like a rabid dog.
The entire camp watched, letting it play out for a while til John Con went quiet. Somebody stood up and dragged Richard away. He kept thrashing and screaming.
“I’ll fucking kill that son of a bitch! I’ll fucking kill him! Dumb fucking nig–”
He went quiet as his eyes fell on Herbert. Herbert watched the rage in his eyes die, the black pupils shrinking as a vacuum of silence opened between them.
“Go on,” Herbert said. “Say it.”
They all watched Richard go into the night, branches cracking in his wake and shadows absorbing him. John Con moaned from where he lay.
He heard the change clatter in the little paper cup next to him. He looked at the man walking past and shouted ‘thank you’ at him.
He picked the cup up and inspected the coins inside. He wished he was good at counting them. Maybe he already had enough for printing and lamination and didn’t know it. He thought about asking somebody to count it for him but then they could just run off with it.
The sky was gray, the kind of gray it turns when the clouds get heavy with snow. Cars were chugging past, trails of exhaust pumping from their tail pipes like meager ghosts in tow.
The snow was coming and he wasn’t sure where he was going to go.
He looked down at his shoes and saw a hole in the bottom of one. He stuck his finger into the hole and felt his toes wriggling inside his sock. He cursed and picked up the cup and emptied the coins into his pocket.
He set the cup in his cart and started pushing down the sidewalk, the cart’s rubber wheels dragging against the snow. He looked across the street and saw the cat watching. He muttered something under his breath and kept going.
He didn’t see Richard for a few weeks after he beat on John Con. He figured he skipped off to somewhere else.
He was sitting on the benches outside the library when Richard came hobbling down the sidewalk, holding a big case of Budweiser. He stopped and looked at Herbert, hesitating for a few quiet seconds.
He set the case down. “You want one?”
“Where’d you find that?”
“Shit, it was the craziest thing. I was walking up by Union Turnpike and there’s this big old beer truck coming down the road– and I ain’t kidding– them doors on the back just flew open and beer went flying everywhere. I mean everywhere. All over the street. Cracked a car’s windshield. Most of it busted open and I swear the air smelled like beer. Shit, you could of got a buzz just by standing there.
“So I run out into the street. Cars coming this way, that way. Damn near died grabbing this case. One of them guys in the truck, he hops out and starts screaming at me. Yelling to put it down. I kept on running.”
A smile worked its way across Herbert’s face. “That really true? The air smelled like beer?”
Richard raised his right hand. “I swear it.”
Herbert shook his head, laughing. “Well, we can’t drink it here.”
Richard looked around. “How come?”
Richard was about to pick up the case when the cat came bouncing across the street. It slowed its approach as it neared, stretching its body out and slinking across the pavement in slow, studied steps.
Richard knelt down and held his hand out to the cat. It eased itself closer, brushing its head against Richard’s hand. It licked his knuckles with its pink tongue.
“You seen this cat before?”
“It comes around all the time,” Herbert said.
Richard slid his arm underneath the cat and scooped it into his arms. It mewed a little but didn’t protest.
“Think I should name her?”
“What do you think its name is?”
“I don’t know,” Herbert said. “Cat?”
Richard held the cat out to him. “Hold her. I’ll be right back.”
Herbert shrank back, the cat meowing and watching him with its yellow eyes. “I’m not holding no cat.”
Richard sighed and set the cat down.
“Make sure she doesn’t run off,” he said.
He went stumbling down the sidewalk. Hebert and the cat watched him go and then watched each other. Herbert was thinking about the beer, hoping a cop wouldn’t come driving by and stop and ask him where he got it.
The cat meowed again and he figured it was trying to communicate with him in some way but he’d never been very good at understanding animals.
A few minutes later Richard came running back with a can of cat food in his hand.
“You bought it some food?”
Richard sat down next to Herbert. “I said she was hungry.”
“Could of bought me some food. I’m hungry.”
Richard pulled the tab on the can and a rank stench came spewing out. Herbert plugged his nose and coughed a little. The cat purred and came closer.
Richard emptied the can on the sidewalk. Clumps of unidentifiable brown stuff plopped against the pavement. The cat started eating.
“See that?” Richard said. “She ain’t got no home. Just like you and me. She’s a nomad. Ain’t you?”
They took the beer down to a place on the tracks behind a bunch of expensive old homes. They found a rusted out car set in a copse of trees, bound with leaves and vines. Its wheels were gone and its windshield had been shattered a lifetime ago.
They sat in the torn and molded seats sipping at their cans with the case resting between them, staring at a big wall running parallel to the tracks that was marked with decades of vibrant graffiti all lathered on top of each other.
The beer was getting warm but Herbert didn’t mind. Richard didn’t seem to care either.
“I didn’t mean what I said the other night,” Richard said. His throat pumped up and down like an oil rig when he drank.
“What’s that?” Herbert said.
“Shit. Don’t make me say it. You know. The other night. When I beat on that guy.”
“John Con,” Herbert said.
“That’s him. You know what I almost called him.”
“A nigger,” Herbert said.
Richard frowned like the word hurt him more than it ever did Herbert.
“Yeah. I don’t talk like that. Not all the time. I just get so mad. Something sets me off and that’s it. I go to swinging and I can’t focus. I feel like I gotta break something. Hurt somebody. Scream til it all comes out of me. You know what I’m saying? I end up doing things I don’t want to do. I say things I don’t mean. That’s why I try and stay away from people. I like animals better. Cats, turtles, all of ’em. They never make me mad.”
Herbert took a pull on his beer and burped. He chucked the can through the open windshield and heard it clink against the tracks.
“You keep bringing me beer like this and I might forgive you for it,” he said, looking over at Richard.
Richard gave him a kind of weird look and then smiled when Herbert smiled. They laughed together and cracked open two more beers.
“You seen that guy I beat up?”
“John Con? He’s around. Hasn’t shown his face too much. I think you scared him off for a little while. No one really likes him anyway.”
Richard nodded and took another drink from his beer. Herbert studied him against the failing daylight, his shirtsleeves and the old, faded needle marks scattered up and down his arms.
“Does it get cold down in Louisiana?” he said.
Richard shook his head. “Not really.”
“It gets cold up here. Real cold. The kind of cold that acts like you did something to it and it’s trying to get back at you. You better find yourself a coat. All of a sudden it’s cold and you’re wondering where the summer went.”
“I ain’t looking forward to the snow.”
“None of us are,” Herbert said.
The sun was starting to sink behind the apartment buildings, turning the sky a weird blend of gray and blue that looked thick and milky above the city. Christmas lights winked on in the windows of stores and apartments. You could look all the way up to the 6th or 7th story of some buildings and see a Christmas tree shining up there in the window.
He liked Christmas and the feeling it brought, like everything was going to be all right if just for a little while. All those colorful lights made the night seem a little less dangerous and the cold a little more warm.
He left his cart hidden in the park and followed strings of lights down the sidewalk to the shelter. There were a bunch of guys lined up outside waiting to get in, coughing and talking. Some of them talking to each other and some of them talking to themselves. Their breaths hovered on the air around them like their ragged spirits attempting escape.
He saw John Con standing in the line. There was a fresh scar across his face that started under his eye and ended on his nose.
He cursed under his breath and turned and went back the way he came.
He went to the benches outside the library and sat, the air pulsing with the cold electricity that comes before snow. The cat came over from across the street and licked at his fingers.
“There’s a storm coming,” he told it. “A bad one.”
It ran its head against his hand.
“I don’t got anything for you. I told you. Richard’s gone.”
He turned his head. Debra was standing there, dressed up in her winter clothes. She was shivering a little. He raised his hand to her. The cat sat down by his feet.
“You can’t be out here,” she said. “It’s freezing.”
“I got nowhere to go.”
“The shelters can’t turn you away tonight. You should go. The snow’s supposed to start in a few hours.”
“I can’t go to the shelter. There’s somebody there that doesn’t like me.”
“Herbert, it’s not safe.” She dug through her purse and took out her car key. “Come on. Let me drive you to a different one.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a car. Probably some time back when he was a boy.
He watched her as she drove, lights from the city falling against her face and coloring her skin red and green and white. Then everything would go dark when they passed beneath the elevated tracks.
He could tell she was trying to not act repulsed. It was a type of face he saw all the time, like when he rode the train. People tried to pretend to not be nervous or scared. They tried to act like he didn’t smell even though they pressed their noses into their shoulders and hands when he got close.
She was doing that now, cracking the window and letting the cold air in like she enjoyed being chilly.
“You celebrate Christmas?” he said.
“Not really. My family is all in St. Louis. It’s too expensive to get down there every year.”
“You’re not married?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“I’d celebrate Christmas with you.”
He regretted it the moment he said it, watching her smile in a nervous kind of way.
“I need gas,” she said.
He stayed quiet the rest of the way. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable, like he should have never agreed to her giving him a ride. He could see how uneasy it made her and he couldn’t blame her. She was better at sympathizing from behind the desk in the library and he didn’t want to ruin that. He liked going in there and talking to her.
They pulled into the gas station and he watched her dig through her purse and find her wallet. She opened it up and took out a credit card and smiled at him.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
She left her purse sitting on the seat. It was tipped over a little and he could see the contents inside showing. The wallet was right there, split open with the green edges of bills sticking out at him. He saw some ones, a five, what looked like a ten.
She trusted him, he thought. Otherwise she would have never left her purse and money just laying there. Sometimes people would pass him on the street and they’d clutch their bags a little tighter like he was going to rob them right there in broad daylight.
He rotated in the seat and looked out the back window. She was pumping the gas with a worried look on her face, shivering a little against the cold. He tried to keep his eyes off the money but it kept drawing him back like a magnet.
He wondered which bill someone wouldn’t miss if it disappeared. Tens were high. People probably wouldn’t care much if a few ones were unaccounted for. But the five seemed like it could solve a lot of problems without being too big. Maybe it was all in the weight, too. Maybe she’d be less likely to notice if only one bill went missing, no matter the amount. You took three or four bills, the weight would feel off and somebody would start to get suspicious.
No matter what, it was stealing. He didn’t want to steal from her. But he needed a dollar thirty-three and he didn’t know how else he was going to get it. If he took it he couldn’t go back to the library. He wouldn’t be able to look at her again. He didn’t know where else he could go to get something printed and laminated. Probably another library. But he liked sitting at those benches, watching the world go by.
He looked out the window again. She looked like she was finishing up. He closed his eyes, sighed, and when he opened them he reached for the purse, the edges of the bills shining at him like jewels.
The door popped open and he snatched his hand back into his lap. She picked up the purse and got in, smiling at him again. She set the purse in the back seat. He watched the wallet sink back inside it, the edges of the bills disappearing.
The car started and they were driving again. Buildings and cars and lightpoles and buses filled with people slipped by in the window. He was too afraid to look at her. He felt like she knew. She saw him differently now, like he was just some kind of pathetic thief.
“Do you miss him?” she said.
He turned and looked at her. The car stopped at a red light and when she turned to face him he cut his eyes to the floorboard.
“Richard,” she said.
He hesitated a moment. “I guess so. He felt like my friend.”
The car started moving again. He looked up through the windshield at the world of lights hurling toward him.
“It’s weird sitting at those benches now. It’s kind of like he’s there. But kind of like he’s not.”
The car stopped next to the curb. Further on up he could see the shelter. She turned the hazard lights on.
“Listen,” she said. She reached into the backseat and grabbed her purse. She took out her wallet and from it took out the five and handed it to him. “The library’s closed tomorrow because of the storm. But come in on Wednesday and use this to make whatever it is for Richard. Okay?”
He took the five from her and studied it, the way it crinkled in his hands, the way one corner on the backside sparkled if he turned it the right way in the light.
She nodded. “For real.”
He smiled and folded the bill and slipped it into his pocket. “Thank you.”
He opened the car door and got out and walked into the cold.
They offered two options for dinner that night: peanut butter and jelly or tuna. He took the tuna and after he ate it he took a shower. He kept his clothes close to him everywhere he went, knowing that if he didn’t guard that money it would disappear in a second.
All the bunks were filled so they gave him a sleeping mat. He wedged it between two guys on the floor and laid down in the fresh clothes they had given him with his old clothes nestled into the crook of his arm.
“I need some more space,” the guy to his left said. “You need to move. I need to stretch out this leg. You hear me? Hey. You hear me? I said you need to move.”
“Quiet!” someone else screamed.
They turned the lights out and the room went dark but it didn’t go quiet. There wasn’t much talking but there was plenty of snoring, moaning, farting, the sound of people having bad dreams, all intertwined like some midnight jungle procession.
A light from the hallway leaked into the room and spread across portions of the tile floor that weren’t covered by sleeping mats and their occupants. He dug his fingers into the pocket of his old pants and took out the five. He felt it in his hand a moment, studying its crispness, the places it was beginning to wear.
He held the bill to the weak light and turned it, the bearded man on the front watching him with some kind of admonition. A pair of white eyes opened in the dark and focused on him. He palmed the bill and folded his arms over his chest.
“Hey. Hey. Let me get that. Come on. I’ll trade you. I got cigarettes. Many as you need. Come on. I know you’re awake.”
He tightened his fist, feeling the bill crumple in his palm, and closed his eyes. The voice kept on talking. He tried to ignore it.
It was cold the last time he saw Richard. Christmas lights were just starting to show up. Snow was on its way that night. It was the middle of the day with the temperature dropping when Richard came stumbling down the sidewalk like he did, carrying a plastic bag. He still didn’t have a coat.
“What you got in that bag?”
“Some presents,” Richard said. He reached into the bag and pulled out two big bottles of beer. He passed one to Herbert and reached into the bag again and took out a can of cat food. He pried it open and set it down on the sidewalk.
“Where you get the money to buy all this?”
Richard shrugged. “One way or another. Go on. Drink up.”
“I told you. We can’t drink here.”
“You keep on saying that but I ain’t never seen a cop drive by.”
“You must be blind then.”
The cat appeared like it always did, hurrying across the street and then slinking slow until it reached the food. Richard dumped the can on the pavement and the cat started nibbling. Richard crouched down next to it and watched it with the same concern and fascination a parent has with their child.
“We still ain’t named her,” he said. He twisted the cap off his beer and took a drink.
Herbert watched Richard’s hand as it stroked the cat. He studied his skin, the way it prickled and purpled in some spots.
Richard looked up at him. “I’m all right.”
“Supposed to snow tonight. You need a coat.”
Richard raised his finger. “Who’s that?”
Herbert turned and looked at the figure coming down the sidewalk, arms spread wide and staggering like some feral creature that had been caged up for years and now let loose on civilization.
“Hell,” Herbert said. “That’s John Con. What’s he got in his hand?”
He came up on the two of them and raised his hands high and Herbert saw what it was. A turtle tucked inside its shell.
“This your turtle, motherfucker,” John Con snarled. “I found it.”
Richard rose and made a barrier between him and the cat. “Put that down.”
“You love this thing. Don’t you?”
“John,” Herbert called. “Put that thing down.”
“This motherfucker’s gonna pay for beating on me.”
The cat hissed and ran off. Herbert shielded his eyes with his arm as John Con’s hands came down. He heard the turtle’s shell crack against the pavement. He lowered his arm and saw John Con’s foot coming down on it. He looked away again and heard more cracking and splintering.
Richard shrieked. He stepped over the pink, frothy mass left on the sidewalk and swung the bottle of beer. It exploded across John Con’s face as a police car turned onto the block, beer and glass raining through the cold air.
“Richard! Richard!” Herbert screamed. “The cops!”
John Con stood holding his face. Richard was turning pink, the big veins in his neck bulging. He held the bottle by its lip. Beer trickled from the jagged ends and spattered against the pavement.
Herbert stood. Behind Richard and John Con blue and red lights erupted and strobed against the gray sky. The car’s doors opened and two cops came running out.
Richard lunged forward, screaming something no one could understand. John Con howled as the glass went through his face, pushing in under his eye and exiting through his nose. He crumpled to the pavement and lay there shaking with his arms spread and blood pumping over his face.
One of the cops tackled Richard and he went down shouting and thrashing. Herbert stepped toward them and the other cop came and pushed him back. The cop shouted things at Herbert but he couldn’t understand him. He couldn’t understand anything. The world felt like it was spinning. John Con lay twitching. Richard kept screaming and the blue and red lights went on turning.
He left the shelter Wednesday morning. It had snowed so much he couldn’t see the sidewalk, just a thick blanket of soft white formed in mounds like alabaster mountains, and he was a giant looking down on it all.
He started walking in the direction of the library. His legs sank through the snow and he stumbled. He struggled to right himself and stumbled again, feeling cold water collect in his shoes.
It was the same voice that had spoken to him the other night when he was trying to sleep, the one that offered him cigarettes in exchange for his money. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a man wobbling through the snow the same way he was.
“Hey! I’m talking to you. Can’t you hear me? Where you going with that money?”
Herbert kept his hands in the pockets of his new coat, feeling the five dollar bill where it was folded up.
“Why don’t you let me get some? Hey!”
The voice was getting closer now. Herbert kept moving.
“Why you ignoring me?”
He turned to look again and the man was upon him. He balled Herbert’s coat into his fists and pushed him into the snow. The cold found his skin immediately, burning him in the places he didn’t have covered up. He started screeching as the man fell down on him, sharp and broken nails digging at his skin and tearing his cheeks open.
Herbert rolled onto his belly. Snow spilled into his mouth as he shouted for help to anyone close enough to listen. The man’s hands came down on the back of his head.
“Where is it? Let me get it!”
Herbert stretched out his arm and dug a clump of snow into his hand and dragged himself forward. The man’s fist rocked the side of his head and everything went momentarily blurry. He felt the hands going for his pockets and he screamed again.
He rolled, grabbing the man by the wrists and forcing him off of him. Herbert swung and clubbed the man in the eye. Together they rolled and grappled at each other, screeching and howling like crazed birds in a struggle for dominance, raising from the snow entangled in each other’s arms only to fall back in it in an explosion of white.
Herbert’s bottom lip ruptured in a hot stream of blood and he fell against the snow with his arms spread and blood pumping down his chin. The man’s fists came down on his face and he did nothing to stop the blows, whimpering less with each impact. Molesting hands went frantically through his pockets. He muttered some unintelligible protest and slapped at the man’s arms.
The five dollar bill streaked over his swelling eyes and he sprang forward and caught it. His assailant held the other end and they tugged on it like warring children, kicking at each other and muttering absurd strings of curses through gritted teeth.
The bill tore and they both toppled backward, half of the five still pinched in Herbert’s fingers. He raised up and saw the other half clinging to the snow and flapping in the wind. He dove for it in the same instant the wind carried it away.
He and the man watched it tumble across the road and the man looked at Herbert with a defeated kind of look, panting, the place where Herbert had hit his eye starting to blacken. Herbert scrambled to his feet and went chasing after the bill.
“It’s ruined now!” the man yelled. “Can’t get nothing with torn up money.”
The wind blew the bill to the sidewalk on the other side of the street and Herbert tackled it. He cleared the snow that had splattered in his eyes and looked up at the two pieces in his hands, the segregated eyes of the bearded man still watching him.
Snow lay heaped around him and he was shivering violently against the cold. The wind was beginning to howl and he howled along with it, tears leaking down his face and burning into the scrapes on his cheek.
He wondered if this is what it felt like for Richard that night they released him from the police station, stumbling through the snow with no coat on, the cold searing his skin and settling in his bones. He never seemed to get cold and Herbert hoped it had been the same that night.
Richard had made it all the way to the library before he sat down. Herbert wondered if the cat had been there, if Richard had any company. He wondered what it was like to get killed by the cold, if it hurt as bad as it seemed.
He wondered if while Richard sat there he was able to admire the way snow looks when it first comes down, that easy grace it has when it falls, the way it can cast even a city into a hypnotic type of silence, the way it sparkles as it settles on the ground, Christmas lights shining and burning the uncertainty from the night, Richard’s breath on the wind, ragged and hard, weakening til it was gone, and there he lay, still, face pale and blue as the snow settled on his cheeks and lips.
Herbert stood, crumpling the two halves of the five into his hands, and started forward. He fell again and screamed and pounded his fists into the snow, his tears warm against his skin.
Debra was behind the desk when he walked in. She looked up at him, her smile fading when she saw the bruises and cuts on his face, his lip swollen and speckled with blood.
“Herbert?” she said.
He said nothing and reached into his coat pockets and pulled out the two halves of the torn five. He stared at her with tears welling in his eyes.
She smiled again. “Let’s get you some tape,” she said.
The same indian man was behind the counter when Herbert walked into the store. He went straight to the counter and pointed to the shelf behind the man.
“One dollar fifteen,” the man said.
Herbert stuffed his hand into his pocket and felt the money in there and grinned.
He left the store with the cat food and went to the benches, clearings made from where he’d wiped the snow away. He looked at the sign he’d made, propped in the place where Richard always sat, the laminated surface catching the noon sun as it began to peek out from heavy clouds.
He read it again.
RESERVED FOR RICHARD
He made a clearing in the snow with his shoe and set the can down. He lifted the tab and peeled the top off.
After a while the cat emerged from the snow. It meowed and dipped its head in the can. He reached down and scratched it and it purred.
“Hey there, nomad,” he said.
He stayed there, petting and listening to the cat, a little cold and his face sore.
Together they watched the cars rattle past.