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Authors: Jerome Charyn

Bitter Bronx (17 page)

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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“You wear the dress,” he screamed at Jacob Faust.

“What?”

“Wear the dress.”

Jacob Faust put the dress on over his shirt and pants. The Constables started to titter. Jacob walked out of the shelter and never returned. But Harrington couldn't take his place. The Constables wouldn't approach some crazy man who'd shot a chandelier. Harrington was outside whatever quilted community had formed at the shelter. He ate breakfast alone, and he couldn't afford to sleep. The Constables would have smothered him with pillows or stabbed him with their knives. He had to lie like a stone man in his bed at night, listen to every noise, clutch the Colt Commander in his fist. He would think of Charlotte and his children, of Scooter with blood leaking out the side of his belly, of that woman at the processing center with scars on her face. The scars had lent her a curious beauty . . . and a curious light. Why hadn't he asked the woman her name?

But he wouldn't have survived the shelter very long. He dozed once, dreamt of the woman—she was dancing at the center, taking off her clothes—and the Constables were upon him with their pillows. He had to shoot out one of the windows, or they wouldn't have gone back to bed.

Harrington had to laugh. He was always attracted to damaged goods. Crippled toads, women with scars on their faces. He stole out of the armory in the middle of the night with his Colt Commander. He had no cash. He crossed two bridges and reached the processing center as the sun was rising. But the woman wasn't there. . . . He asked the other officials about her.

“You know. The nice lady . . . with the scar.”

“Ah, Princess Hannah. She doesn't work for Human Resources. She's only a volunteer. She comes and goes.”

“But what's her real name?”

“Hannah. We started calling her the princess, because she's kind to all the crapheads . . .”

“Does she have a Social Security number?”

“Don't start getting personal.”

“But where can I find her?

“In the streets, looking for scumbags to save.”

Harrington searched the streets; he couldn't find Princess Hannah. He was only one more bum in an army of bums, and that army seemed to have expanded while Harrington had spent two nights in a public shelter. He belonged to a planet of homeless men. Still, Harrington had a Colt in his pants. He could sleep under a pile of newspapers, and if anybody disturbed him, he'd pull out his gun.

H
arrington was always hungry. It didn't matter how many bottles he stole off the milk trucks. Milk was never enough. He scavenged, like other homeless men, learned about the little depots where bakers dumped their spoiled goods, but how many loaves of bread could he eat with rotten blue marks in the middle? He began using his Colt. At first he robbed homeless men who had a little more plunder than he did, and then he picked off people coming out of the subway on winter nights. They never seemed to have much cash on them, and he couldn't get rich during those raids; when one of the women swooned with Harrington's gun in her face, he felt guilty and fetched her a glass of water.

“Please, I won't harm you. I'm a homeless man.”

The woman blinked at Harrington, who ran back into the winter haze without her wallet. But he had to do something about his hunger pains. His clothes started to rot. He couldn't enter a restaurant or sit in the library to keep out of the cold. He was too ashamed of his shabbiness. He smashed the window of a men's clothing shop in the midst of his fury. He didn't enter the shop. He reached into the window and plucked some clothes off the mannequins' backs. It was the first bit of fun he'd had in weeks. The mannequins didn't cry; none of them was burdened with a silly human heart.

He went around like a gigolo in spring colors and Italian shirts and shoes. The shoes didn't fit, and Harrington limped along, had bunions to deal with. But now he could go into the library, examine a couple of the books that Charlotte adored. He couldn't get beyond the first paragraph. His concentration was shot. He'd become a creature of the wilderness.

He ate lots of sandwiches and fat pizza pies. He continued with his holdups. But he wouldn't prey on women. Soon his Italian clothes were ragged and he was more of a werewolf than ever. He considered blowing his brains out.

And then he saw a figure in a snowstorm, a limping man dressed in the finest clothes, and the man was strangely familiar. Harrington had trouble with sentences, but he wouldn't forget a face. Ghosts were wandering around in that storm, and Scooter's ghost was among them.

Harrington nudged the ghost with his gun. “Gimme all you got.” The ghost glared at him. “With a toy gun?”

Harrington shot a hole into the crown of the ghost's hat.

“You son of a bitch,” the ghost said. “You left me there to die. Didn't even call an ambulance.”

“But you were dead,” Harrington muttered. “I listened to your heart.”

“You a doctor all of a sudden? You a specialist? Where'd you get that gun?”

“I took it off a bad guy. . . . Scooter, is it me who's dead? Or did you dance out of the fucking snow?”

“Dance?” the ghost said. “I'm a cripple because of you . . . the neighbors found me, ran me over to the hospital. It was touch-and-go. I had to drink that liquid shit, the slop that drips into your veins. I lost my appetite, and I'll never get it back.”

“But why are you limping?”

“I had a blood clot,” the ghost said. “It turned into phlebitis.”

“Did the cops ask you questions, Scooter?”

“I didn't snitch. I told 'em a robber came in through the window. They had to believe me. Who would invent such a story? I gave up my apartment. Fuck all the landlords. I'm living in a convalescent home. A lady looks after us.”

“What kind of lady?”

“A lady,” Scooter said. “But she's different. She suffered.”

And Harrington felt a tingle rush down his spine, as if he had a serpent inside his clothes. “Does she wear a scar on her face?”

Scooter's eyes began to pop. “Harrington, how'd you guess?”

“And her name is Princess Hannah.”

“Shh, it's a state secret. She handpicks us . . . the guys who convalesce. People take advantage of her. She has to raise her own money. The city don't give her shit.”

“I'm going with you, Scooter . . . to Princess Hannah.”

“That's impossible,” Scooter said. “You're not a cripple. Hannah wouldn't let you in.”

I
t was a battered little mansion at the edge of a park, and Harrington felt sorry for the princess, who ran a convalescent home that needed to convalesce. She greeted him at the door, and he was still troubled by the ferocious beauty of her scars.

“Told him not to come,” the Scooter said, jumping up and down on the wooden stairs. “He's certifiable. He put a hole in my hat.”

But Harrington wasn't listening to the Scooter. “Hannah,” he asked, “do you remember me?”

She had pieces of hair over her pale blue eyes. “How could I forget the man without a Social Security number?”

She was Harrington's height, and her blond hair was streaked with silver. The scars seemed to camouflage her age. She could have been a year or two younger than Harrington, or a bit older. He could almost feel her ample body under the dress she wore.

“He can't stay,” the Scooter said. “He ain't crippled. He ain't even sick. And he treats his friends like dirt.”

Hannah smiled. “But he's standing at our door.”

“He tricked me. I didn't mean to bring him.”

“I could use a handyman,” Hannah said. “But I can't pay you a dime . . . just room and board.”

He couldn't take his eyes off Princess Hannah. The wound of his marriage was already gone.

He didn't have to sleep in the dormitory. He had a room of his own. It was barely bigger than a closet, but he could dream without hearing garbled groans. His room was next to Hannah's, and he'd go to bed imagining her body. He had to hide his erection at the dinner table. He'd follow her around, do whatever chore she demanded of him. Hannah wasn't licensed. She didn't even have a doctor in the house. She was nurse and cook and den mother to cripples she'd find in the street. The city could have closed her down. But it didn't care enough about the drifters in Hannah's domain. She was tolerated: Princess Hannah. And Harrington was crazy, crazy in love.

He'd stutter when he talked, but he wouldn't spy on her, peek into her room. The princess slept alone at night. She was a hermit like Harrington and the other refugees in the dormitory. She'd wander out of the mansion, wearing white gloves, and badger different philanthropists to fund her home. But they always refused her. Hannah would mimic them. “ ‘It's brave of you, dear. If only you had a license . . . and a genuine nurse.' ”

Hannah's refugees would come up to her while she sat over her soup. “We'll sell raffle tickets, we'll get you some cash.” They'd stroke her silver-and-blond hair, surround her soup plate. It was only Harrington who held back. He could imagine the relentless electricity if he ever touched her hair.

His door opened one night. He had a visitor. He tried to conjure up Hannah's perfume, but Harrington's visitor hardly had a scent. He still wished it was her. The visitor moved close in the dark, and Harrington's heart pumped and pumped until he caught the unmistakable whiff of laundry soap. “Scooter, what the fuck do you want?”

“Keep quiet. You'll wake the princess.”

Harrington snapped on the light. Scooter's ears were glowing. He looked like a lantern. Harrington could have shot his eyes out and wouldn't have felt a thing.

“We have to take up a collection,” Scooter whispered. “Have our own Salvation Army.”

“How?”

“With your gun.”

Harrington groaned. “Would you like a bullet on the other side of your belly?”

“Won't happen again. We were amateurs, with toy store stuff. Partner, nobody's gonna stop us with that Colt.”

“Stop us, Scooter? Are you a general? It's not so easy to stick up a man. You have to look him in the eye.”

“We'll look . . . can't you tell? The princess is desperate.”

“She could give up the mansion, let us make our own little winter. Why's she so good to us?”

“It ain't goodness. It's stronger than that. Hannah was ruined.”

“What you talking about? She could win a beauty contest.”

“With that face . . . and that body?”

“What does a runt like you know about Hannah's body?”

“Nothing. But I know it was ruined . . . her husband scalded her.”

“Hannah has a husband?”

“She's entitled,” Scooter said. “She wasn't born in a convent. And her husband threw a big pot of boiling water at her. She was in the hospital for months . . . and then she lived out on the street, sucked on a bottle. No one took care of Hannah, so she built a home for people like herself.''

“But why'd Hannah's husband do such a crazy thing?”

“He was jealous.”

“Come on,” Harrington said. “Jealousy doesn't get you to throw a pot of water at your wife.”

“Sure it does. . . . That's the downside of love.”

“And what's the upside?”

“Perfect passion.”

“Some philosopher,” Harrington said. “Did you ever have perfect passion?”

“Once or twice. What about you?”

“Never. I never had it.”

“Then I pity you,” the Scooter said and walked out of Harrington's room.

He couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. He had to deliver himself from his own acute ache. He didn't have the nerve or the talent to confront Hannah, declare his love. He tried his wife's way. With a note. It took him a week to scribble a few stinking lines.

Dear Hannah,

Your handyman loves you. Don't be alarmed.

He wouldn't do something uninvited. But if my message bothers you, I will go.

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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