An elderly man, his clothes threadbare and dirty, sat next to a rusty shopping cart parked to the left of the door. It was heaped with miscellaneous detritus and several small plastic bags filled with aluminum cans were tied to the outside. “Hey, kid. Got any spare change? Help a Vet get his mornin’ cup?”
Josh looked over and studied the man for a beat. He pulled his pockets inside out. “Sorry. Broke myself.”
“Well, why don’t you go inside,” the old man said, thumbing towards the door. “Get me something?”
“How do you know what’s inside?”
“Takes one to know one, kid. I did my time. Or tried. I couldn’t stop that need to chase away the demons that haunted my nightmares.”
Josh opened his mouth to ask another question when a dark-haired woman passed between them. She walked quickly, despite her tight skirt and high-heeled shoes. Her knuckles were white from the grasp she had on the large black purse that hung on her shoulder. The old man hollered, his voice rough and gravelly. “Hey! You got any money?”
The woman jumped and stopped. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“I asked if you got any money? Just some spare change?” He held out a hand and gave her a crooked smile.
“Oh. I…” she pulled the bag off her shoulder and unzipped the top. “I might have …” she mumbled inaudibly as she rummaged the contents. She pulled out a bulging smaller bag and unclasped the top. A kid on a scooter zipped by too closely and bumped her in the back. The small bag fell from her hands. Coins and a few bills scattered across the sidewalk. The old man licked his lips and started to rise up from his perch on the window ledge.
Josh held his hand up to the old man and dropped to the ground to help her pick up the lost money. A few people stopped picking up a coin or two, pocketing them before moving on.
After gathering all the money he could see, Josh walked up to the woman, dumping the coins back into the small bag she held out for him. She swiped a few strands of hair from her face with the back of her hand. “Thank you. You are too kind.” She looked around the ground. “I think we got most of it. At least what other people didn’t steal. She rolled her eyes, and then smiled, laughing just a little. She walked over the old man, dropping a handful of change into his outstretched hand. “Have a nice day.”
“Bless you, angel.” The old man dropped the money into the pocket on his shirt and tipped his hat.
“Hey, thanks again,” the woman said before tossing her bag back on her shoulder and taking off again. Josh turned back towards the building when something in his peripheral caught his attention. Just a few feet from the old man’s shopping cart, a wrinkled bill was caught on a fast food bag. He dove to grab it. He glanced down at his hand holding the hundred dollar bill. He yelled and started to run off in the direction of the woman. After a few yards, he turned back and tucked it in his front pocket before walking into the building.
The old man hollered, “Did ya at least get one for me?”
Josh tried to concentrate on the speakers, to emphasize with their struggles in the past week. He took a sip of his coffee, long past its prime and too cool, it was bitter on his tongue. He felt a familiar tingle on the back of his neck. The money felt hot in his pocket. It throbbed in time with his heartbeat. The whispers started. You don’t know who she is. You can’t give it back. She probably won’t even miss it.
You know you want one. Just one and it will make you feel better. She’ll never know.
Spend it. When’s the last time you had this kind of money not earmarked for something else?
Come on. Man up. Do what you want! What’s one lousy drink? You can stop at one.
Josh shook his head and attempted to focus. The crowd stood and chairs scraped the floor. Murmurs of conversation grew in intensity. Josh took the opportunity and dart out of the door before his sponsor could catch up to him. As he bounded down the stairs, he said aloud, “If the old man is there, I’ll just give him the money.”
The bar was dark and uncomfortably smoky. Only a couple of the few tables were occupied. A man sat at the other end of the bar watching the ancient TV broadcasting a baseball game.
Josh sat on a worn barstool on the opposite end. A woman leaned on the bar, more interested in her phone, chomping on gum. She walked over to him and slapped down a paper coaster.
“Whadya havin’?” She blew a large purple bubble, and it popped, the remnants sticking to her lips.
“Got any Bud on tap?”
She sneered. “Yeah. Of course.” She slinked away, grabbed a frosty mug from somewhere below the bar, and hastily filled it up. She slapped it down the coaster. There was more foam than actual beer. “Need a tab? Otherwise it’s $4.50.”
Josh looked at her for a moment, and then pulled the money from his pocket. “Here.”
The woman never looked up. She went through the motions of making change like a robot. As soon as she dropped the change next to his mug, she turned her back, pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and slid her finger across the front.
The first beer went down slow. He sipped slowly, letting the cold liquid trickle down the back of his throat. Feeling the warmth start spreading over his body. The tingling stopped, but the whispers continued. See? That wasn’t so hard. Doesn’t it feel nice? Cool and refreshing, just like we remembered it. Come on, get another. That first one was only half anyway. One more wouldn’t hurt.
It didn’t take long before he had a row of mugs and matching shot glasses lined up on the bar like brave soldiers. A little flirting had gone a long way to score some free drinks when the money ran out.
“Hey, save my spot. I’m going to hit the restroom,” he said, winking at the bartender.
“Sure, honey. Anything for you.” She giggled and twirled a tendril of hair.
Josh realized in all the time they’d been talking, he didn’t know her name. Not that he’d planned on pursuing anything with her.
When he returned to his stool, the glasses had been cleared and a fresh – and very full – mug sat on a clean coaster. A napkin with the words “It’s on me. – Sheryl” scribbled in pen along with her number. Josh picked up the mug, promising himself this would be the absolute last one. Glancing in the mirror over the bar, he spotted the woman from this morning.
Her hair was disheveled. Her right eye was nearly swollen shut. A line of dried blood left a nasty trail from her bottom lip, split open. Her blouse was dirty and one sleeve had been ripped away. “I don’t have all the money. I thought I did, but he said I was missing a hundred dollars.” She started to cry softly into her hands. Sheryl was sitting with her in the booth, one arm around her shoulder.
All the blood left Josh’s face. He set the mug down, suddenly not thirsty anymore. He tried to eavesdrop on the conversation, but the two women spoke in low tones. Guilt crept in and he slid off the stool, and slunk out of the bar without being seen.
The images started. The memories he could never quiet, but didn’t want to extinguish all together. His father was lying on the hospital bed, his six-foot-five frame emaciated to nothing more than skin and bones. Undiagnosed cirrhosis of the liver had turned to cancer. By the time it was found, the doctors said to just go home and wait. The same hands that used to beat him on a daily basis were too weak to lift the thin cotton sheet.
“Joshua. We all have choices. Day after day. Minute by minute. It’s what we do with those choices that determine what happens next. It’s up to you to make the most of what you are given. I know I was a terrible father, and there is nothing I can do to undo that now. Just know, I did the best I could. I am sorry.”
Josh never attended the funeral. He held his own service days later, alone in the graveyard, a case worth of empty cans lay among the drying flowers. After he finished defiling the tombstone, he urinated on the mound of dirt at the head of the grave. “Thanks for nothing, you sorry son- of- a- bitch,” Josh yelled while tears streamed down his face.
It wasn’t until he was slapped in the face with the consequences of his alcoholism three years prior, Josh understood the words his father spoke the day before his death. Every day had been a battle, and he was tired of fighting. Pulling out his phone to call his sponsor, he noticed a wad a paper fall to the ground. He picked it up surprised it was the napkin Sheryl had left him. He stuffed it back in his pocket. He didn’t remember picking it up, but he took it as a sign. He smiled in spite of himself.
As he finished up his call, he ducked into a Shell station to grab a cup of coffee. A large figure was standing at the counter and jumped when Josh opened the door. There was a flash. Someone screamed. Glass crackled. Tires squealed.
He didn’t feel the bullet hit him. The cashier knelt at his side asking if he was okay. “Hang on, man. Help is coming. Come on, stay with me.” Hands pushed roughly on his chest.
Josh closed his eyes. “Tell her I’m sorry.”
While in college during a mid-life career change, Heather Clift was encouraged by an English professor to seriously pursue writing and went on to be published in three literary anthologies as well as win two awards. The short story, “Here and Now,” has been published by Penny Shorts. Other stories are slated to appear in Calliope Magazine and the Revenge Anthology by Robocup Press. Heather resides in Middle Tennessee with her husband and their teen sons.
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