SHORT STORY
The Philanthropist
James H. Duncan

Graziano slammed the telephone against the receiver three times and threw it aside, letting it swing from its metallic cord. He left the booth and stalked through the gas station lot to cross Houston Street, heading up Broadway in a silent fit of rage, shoulders up against the wind, dodging groups of drunk college kids and late night tourists crowding along the Manhattan sidewalks.

Bratigan—that asshole. He should have known he’d never get all his money from that prick. He could still see Bratigan’s smile when he accepted the roll of bills—almost fifteen hundred bucks—that Bratigan handed across the table after the first part of the deal went down, the bastard telling him to enjoy himself, hold tight for four or five days, and once the stolen pharmaceuticals passed hands and the confirmation call came in, he’d get the rest of his cut, a sweet fifteen grand.

But two weeks and two dozen phone calls later all he got was Bratigan’s goddamn voicemail, and now only an out-of-service message.

Fifteen grand, shot.     

And only two hundred bucks left of the roll. It wasn’t much, the money went faster than he expected, but he felt lucky now to have that. He intended to blow it all over a weekend, knowing so much more was headed his way in just a few days, but something nagged at him, told him to stick to well drinks and the per-hour motels downtown, to not go crazy just yet.   

Well, now he really felt like going crazy, but he had as much chance of finding Bratigan as he did Jimmy Hoffa’s grinning corpse. The walk was doing him some good, though. The cold air soothed the headache pounding in his temples. God damn that Bratigan. Tightening the jacket around his scarecrow frame, Graziano continued up Broadway toward Union Square. It was a long walk but nights ran late in New York and he had little else to do now and no real desire to return to his usual per-hour joint down in the Meatpacking district, the one with vibrating beds and mirrors on the ceiling. Screw that shit. But what now? Two hundred bucks and a whole life ahead of him was a raw deal. He didn’t have any answers, so he just kept walking.

The clouds above threatened a wounding sort of rain, icy and sharp, and they hung low, weaving through the buildings like aimless, tattered ghosts with nowhere left to haunt. Soon he came upon a young women sitting against a building in a frayed purple hoodie, hiding behind a cardboard sign asking passersby for loose change. She said nothing as he passed. Someone had placed a few coins and a dollar bill in her McDonalds cup and he felt the wad of bills in his jacket’s inside breast pocket. He didn’t slow down, although her youth and the feminine curl of her eyes gave him mental pause. He was well aware that the primitive hunt for sex that rattled around in the basement of his soul was the only impetus behind his sudden consideration to give her money. This disgusted him and he continued north.

Apoplectic hip-pop blared from nearby shop doors and neon lights splayed across cobbled streets. Discount DVDs, overpriced t-shirts, cheap fedora hats, neon yellow sunglasses, coffee, pizza, more DVDs, a bodega. No one seemed to go in or out of these shops and yet they somehow stayed open despite being located on perhaps the most expensive island in the world. This always perplexed him. How did they accomplish this? How could they sell crap all day and survive when he was breaking into pharmaceutical warehouses at night, hijacking some of the most expensive medications on the planet, and selling them at cutthroat rates, and yet he was the street urchin barely getting by? It disgusted him, and something about the injustice of it all made him think of the girl panhandling silently on the block he’d just left.

He couldn’t properly explain why, but he stopped and headed back. The money in his pocket was making him sick, a reminder of his idiocy, and when he saw her again he would kneel down and pull the whole goddamn wad of bills from his pocket so she could see how much he was giving her, not just change but two hundred dollars. He wondered if she would say anything at all, if she would buy food or drugs or if any spark of humanity would cross her face as he slipped the money into her cup. If she would smile, even.

But she wasn’t there. He walked up and down the block where he had seen her and found no sign of her—no hoodie, no eyelashes, no McDonalds cup. He hoped someone had given her enough change so she could leave and get a decent meal, although it was just as likely that some shop owner had shooed her away. The remaining wad of Bratigan’s rube money now felt like a burden, already designated for someone else, no longer his, never his to begin with maybe, and it was a reminder that everything he did since he tucked it into his pocket felt like a series of landmines exploding beneath his life, whether he felt them or not, one after the other. Goddamn fool. He decided to get the hell out of there.

Instead of continuing on to Union Square, he entered the 8th Street N/R subway station, taking the stairs down into the stink of the public transportation system. Graziano decided to head to Queens. He knew a guy who owed him a few bucks, and maybe a night on his couch and a joint or two would make them square. But as he waited, he still felt as if he had failed in some great task, not so much the acquisition of his cut from Bratigan but in getting rid of the shameful wad of bill in his pocket, a reminder that he was just another rat hording a scrap of rotten cheese casually cast aside from an even bigger rat. He hated himself for not seeing it coming, hated himself for clinging to the money like slowly deflating raft out at sea. He should have passed it on to someone worthy. He should have saved himself when he had the chance. But he didn’t.

No, no, he wasn’t going to allow that to happen. He took the stairs back up and continued north on Broadway toward Union Square, determined now to give it all to the very next homeless person he saw, regardless of gender or race or state of decay. Graziano crossed intersections with brazen confidence, disregarding the honks of taxi drivers who would honk regardless, he surmised, and he soon passed the Strand bookshop and then a movie theater with digital preview posters that lit up like New Year’s Eve, and there in the darkness of a recessed doorway sat a man, a white man with ripped blue jeans, layers of sweaters, a cardboard sign, and dirty white generic-brand sneakers that reminded him of his grandfather’s shoes for some reason. The homeless man was asleep with a cup in his hand. Graziano felt the wad in his breast pocket, twenties and tens, and he continued walking north past the beggar. He didn’t know why, he didn’t know why.  

Ahead he saw Union Square across 14th Street. It was getting late but a crowd of former Occupy Wall Street-type protestors were still there listening to someone speak beneath the statue of George Washington. Some held signs that caught the wind, bending, reflecting the occasional taxi headlight. He turned the corner and to his immediate right in the doorway of a bank sat a black man with another cardboard sign, shirtless in the bitter cold, skinny as a Nazi prisoner and calling out for loose change with a rhyming song that was intended for humor but seemed only to draw even more attention to his depressed state.

Graziano ignored the black man as well and descended the stairs at the next subway kiosk, holding his head in his hands. Why couldn’t he do it? Why couldn’t he rid himself of this burden? But why should he? He needed this last shallow reservoir of cash to get him through to the next con, right? No matter how much he hated that wad of cash, did he want to be begging for change in a day or two? Then another thought came to him—what was the use of holding on? What had he done in his thirty-three years that mattered? His next gig should probably be a seven-second flight off the top of the Queensboro Bridge.

When the R train came, he sat next to three women who were clearly aging escorts headed to Queens in blocky, six-inch heels and overtanned hides doused with perfume. Hookers, he thought. They are hookers. And what are you? He thought about how there wasn’t even a name for his brand of lowlife. He was nothing. But on the other hand, he did walk back to give that girl money, and perhaps she needed it more than those two other men needed it. He tried to do what was right, and it must have been fate toying with him, punishing him in a game of chess where he was always one move behind. You don’t belong in this game, he told himself.

The subway began its descent beneath the East River and he watched as people looked at themselves in the windows of the subway car, which served at mirrors with the black background of the tunnel walls behind them. The people preened, groomed, and smirked, adjusted their chins just so, this way and that, and he shook his head at these people. He would not look into the blackness to see himself as they did. He already knew what the reflection dancing in the glass would show him, and he never wanted to see it again. He just wanted to fly. He wanted to sleep. He wanted the end. Two hundred bucks. Fuck all this.

When the train pulled into Queens Plaza, he stood, pulled the wad of cash from his pocket and threw it into the air behind him, sending a flurry of twenties and tens fluttering about like butterflies as he stepped from the subway car, smiling suddenly, unaware that the witnesses to his philanthropy never turned their eyes away from books, magazines, cell phones, or the middle-distance of nothingness. No one had seen his gift, his freedom, his curse trailing after him. The doors closed and the train rattled onward into the night, and once above ground the air froze Graziano’s lungs. But soon it wouldn’t matter. He walked toward the bridge spanning the river, back toward Manhattan, toward the lights and the water. After a few minutes he realized he didn’t know how to get onto the bridge itself. There was no stairway up, no walkway, just the high-speed road full of trucks and cars and he began to lose his resolve about getting out to the middle of the bridge and what he might find there within himself.

Debating the best way up, Graziano turned the next corner and stumbled over the legs of a sleeping homeless man, hidden in the dark recess of a warehouse doorway. The wind whipping off the river and tussling Graziano’s hair had also pulled off the homeless man’s blanket, which had caught itself on a telephone pole a few feet away. He pulled it off the ground, a thin blanket with much less insulation than he expected, and he stood above the homeless man in a half crouch, ready to throw it over him. But Graziano found himself sitting on the step beside the sleeping man instead, now hidden from the street lights, a shadow in a shadow, and he spread the blanket over both of them, feeling the homeless man’s cold body next to his, his own so warm in comparison, empty pockets and all. Graziano pulled the blanket up to his face. It smelled of dirt and greasy food, but he didn’t care. He actually felt himself getting warmer, felt all the shit he’d dealt with over the last few hours, days, weeks fade further away and all he had was the immediacy of the blanket, the body beside him. It wasn’t good but it wasn’t bad. And just as he started to nod off he felt the homeless man shift his body, getting close, and put his head on Graziano’s shoulder.

Then Graziano shifted too and put his arm around the man, who leaned even closer. They huddled in the wind like that, drifting off to sleep, and Graziano almost said it was going to be okay, but he didn’t, because they probably wouldn’t be, and there wasn’t any room for bullshit anymore.    


James H Duncan is the editor of Hobo Camp Review, a former editor with Writer's Digest, and is the author of What Lies In Wait, a collection of short strange fiction. For more, visit www.jameshduncan.com.