I wrote this story a few years ago after re-watching one of my favorite movies. As winter has descended rather bitterly over Winnipeg, and the stores are now inundating us with non-stop Christmas Muzak, I thought I’d share it here in the spirit of the season. – K. George Godwin
It was a knockout blow. Just three weeks before Christmas, Andy O’Faolin staggered into the street like a punch-drunk palooka, too stunned to know who he was, where he was, or where he was going. A thin drizzle mixed with hints of snow oiled the air of lower Manhattan, slicking the streets and making the tires of the traffic hiss like a million snakes.
Standing on the corner, his back to the grimy face of the old building where Harper Enterprises had an office on the fourth floor, he tried to take stock.
What the hell could he tell Fay? She’d be back at their third floor walk-up by now, stiff and sore at the tag end of a week standing behind the counter at the five-and-dime, struggling to put together some kind of meal for the two of them from whatever scraps were left in the kitchen. He couldn’t face her, not yet anyway.
He pulled up the collar of his threadbare overcoat and tugged his battered derby down low over his forehead. Hunching his shoulders against the rain, he started to walk.
Andy wandered the streets, scarcely aware of the people and traffic around him. Horns blew and raised voices swore as cabs swerved to miss him when he stepped blindly into intersections. He was bumped and jostled by pedestrians. But none of it mattered as he struggled to grasp the full scale of his personal disaster. It was impossible; he couldn’t get his mind around it.
He had gone five or six blocks towards uptown when he found the sidewalk blocked. There were at least two dozen of them, men and women – though with some it was hard to tell the difference – standing in front of a doorway flanked by windows so filthy it was not possible to see more than a vague glow from inside. They were huddled in on themselves, yet none of them seemed to seek warmth or comfort in the closeness of the others. Their dull, shadowed eyes moved restlessly, betraying the bruised minds which lurked behind them.
As he stepped down into the gutter to pass, the door opened and they shuffled forward with a mindless eagerness, pressing into the pallid warmth of the soup kitchen. He stared, imagining the atmosphere inside, the smell of hand-me-down food and the steam rising from filthy clothes. It was like standing on a high roof, looking down into the chasm of the street below, feeling the pull of gravity on his mind, urging him to fall to oblivion …
He tore himself away and hurried on.
Andy had lived in New York all his life, born in the Bronx just before the World War, but he no longer loved the city. It had proved too harsh to be loved.
How, he asked himself over and over again, how could it have come to this? He’d had plans, ideals. In ’28, everything was skating along, the future unfolding before him. He and Fay were engaged, his father’s small import business was turning a tidy profit, and Andy had started teacher college. It was a good time, energy and wealth flowing with no inkling that it could ever be any other way. He would get his certificate and enter a career guaranteed to take him all the way to retirement, when he and Fay would settle back and enjoy their final years basking in the light of their children and grandchildren.
But all that had been shattered a mere year later when the Depression swept through the country like a tidal wave. His father’s business was wiped out and with it any chance of Andy finishing college. Newly married, he and Fay were suddenly faced with the urgent necessity of somehow making ends meet.
The crowds grew more dense as he approached Times Square. The traffic moved in jerks and starts and the people on foot were a mix of the poor and the wealthy. He saw big cars pull over to the curb to discharge men in smart suits and women dressed in furs; he saw them being watched by others, sharp-eyed predators on the prowl for easy prey.
As he shouldered his way through the crowds, he could smell the rich aromas drifting from the fancy restaurants; he could see the glitter of jewels in the light cast by the marquees of the big theatres. He could hear snatches of music and peals of careless laughter.
The next two years were a nightmare and there were times when Andy didn’t think they would make it. The fights, the accusations, the anger and guilt were too much to bear. And yet they had stuck together through it all, scrabbling for any little job they could find, living from hand to mouth and, as often as not, foregoing the mouth altogether.
It was late ’31 when things began to turn around for them. His father was dead by then, having never recovered from the shock of his loss. Andy and Fay were on their own. That was when he landed his job at the head office of Harper Enterprises. It was an outfit that sold whatever you might want direct to the home through travelling agents. Can’t afford it, ma’am? At these terms you can’t afford not to have it … For just pennies a week, people all down the eastern seaboard could have whatever they needed. The only catch was that, if they couldn’t find the pennies this week, their purchases were repossessed.
Beyond Times Square, he wandered from the main thoroughfares and found himself in a narrower, darker street where there were fewer cars and the pedestrians wore an aura of danger. He heard an angry yell ahead and the brief, sharp sound of running footsteps.
When he drew level with the mouth of a dark alley, he could hear the dull, muffled thuds of fists striking flesh. In the shadows, two figures struggled against the soot-ingrained wall. One of them slumped slowly to the ground, while the second rifled his jacket pockets. The victor turned from his victim and Andy could see the billfold in his hand. And the bright glint of the man’s eyes as they spotted him there at the alley’s mouth.
Andy hesitated a moment. If he rushed the man, maybe he could wrest the spoils from him before he could react …
But the moment passed, and now he knew he was in danger himself. He wasn’t a fighter, never had been.
He turned and ran.
Andy spent long hours in the cramped, dimly lit office keeping track of the books for Mr. Douglas, the manager. That job had seemed so secure that at first he had been reluctant to believe what he thought he might be seeing in the accounts. He was not one who went looking for trouble, and if trouble decided to come searching for him, Andy would like as not look the other way. But it was a small office and there was nowhere else to look. But who should he tell? Mr. Douglas? It was the obvious thing to do, except Mr. Douglas was one of the few who had access to the accounts, which meant he was one of the few who had the opportunity to alter the books. Old man Harper himself? But Andy had only seen him a couple of times in two years and certainly wasn’t on speaking terms with him. So he delayed. He didn’t say anything.
He stopped at last at a backstreet dive. Poorly lit, the air clogged with stale smoke and the stench of cheap liquor. The denizens looked as empty-eyed and hopeless as the bums waiting outside the soup kitchen. How close he had been living to the border with this world! What a fool he had been to think that, when life had turned so grim for so many, he had found a way to stay afloat. He was as damned as the rest of them!
The booze was harsh and foul, burning its way down his throat to eat at his belly. After the first glassful, he couldn’t taste it. After the third, his watery eyes no longer focussed on the bleak surroundings. After the fifth, he didn’t care that he was spending what might be the last money he’d see for a long while.
And now, this afternoon, he had been called into the inner office and found himself facing both Mr. Douglas and old man Harper across the manager’s desk. The accounts were laid out before them and their eyes were cold, hard steel as they pinned him to the floor with their silence.
He had no viable explanation. The false entries were too glaringly visible. He couldn’t plausibly deny knowing about them. And they wouldn’t accept any explanation as to why he had not reported them. He looked as guilty to them as Al Capone did to Elliot Ness.
Which was why he was wandering the streets of Manhattan on a rainy Friday evening in 1933 with the threat of the police hanging over him while his wife was at home waiting supper for him.
A fight broke out at the back of the bar, ugly slurred voices yelling viciously crude insults, punctuated by the crack of knuckles against teeth. Andy dragged his head up from the table and looked blearily around as somebody dropped heavily across the next table, smashing the cheap wood as it went over.
His mouth tasted foul and his brain churned as sickeningly as his belly.
The man dragged himself up by catching hold of the leg of Andy’s chair. As he pulled himself to his feet, he glared red-eyed and took a swing, the blow glancing off Andy’s temple.
Andy shoved the man away and staggered to his feet.
This was no place for him. He belonged back home, back with Fay. They should be together, facing this thing the way they had faced everything else life had thrown at them in the past four years, arm in arm, giving each other the strength to go on …
The damp night air slapped him across the face and he fell against the wall as he left the bar. There were tears in his eyes, fogging his vision. But he could see inside as clearly as he ever had; he was disgusted at his own weakness. If he was a failure, whose fault was it but his own?
Pushing himself upright, he dragged one foot in front of the other, moving more quickly now, silently repeating Fay’s name over and over. Of course she would understand! They loved each other despite everything. How could he have faltered so badly in his trust? How the hell could he excuse what he’d done with that last bit of money?
Despair faded into sheepishness as he caught the El heading back downtown. His head throbbed and pulsed like an irritated teacher rapping him with a ruler to drum home an awareness of his stupidity. He began to wonder how convinced Fay would be by his explanations when he staggered in stinking of drink. He was innocent of any wrongdoing at the office; they had been unjustified in sacking him … but did it look that way now?
He was pondering this dilemma when the train suddenly lurched, the brakes shrieking like a pack of animals trapped in a fire. Around him, other passengers screamed as they were thrown from their seats. He held on as best he could, but the front of the train was plunging downwards and the car was twisting over to the right.
A man came flying across the aisle, limbs flailing, and smashed into Andy, sending his head crashing against the window. The glass shattered and he felt the warm flow of blood rushing down the side of his face. Blinking to clear his vision, he saw the street below, pale faces staring up at him in horror as the car rocked unsteadily above them. At this rate, there was no telling when he would get home, though an accident should gain him Fay’s sympathy.
Then the train lurched again and this time, crazily, the car started to rise, rolling back to the left. The man tumbled off him and Andy tried to stand, holding tightly to the seat back.
An ear-splitting tearing sound cut through the screams and cries of pain and he looked up to see the roof of the car being ripped open and he thought crazily that this must be what it’s like inside a sardine can when someone peels off the lid. A not inappropriate image, he realized, as a huge hand reached in and massive fingers probed and searched and finally gripped him. He felt ribs grinding against each other and then splintering, cutting off his breath.
As for finding some convincing explanation to offer Fay, the problem became moot as he was lifted high above the Manhattan streets and into the jaws of a giant ape.