On a brisk spring day, Jack Crowley, looking his normally bedraggled self, opened the door to his rooming house on Oak Street and headed down to Sassy Sue's Diner for his mid-morning meal. A little sustenance before he made his way to The Dead End for his first drink of the day. Wondering whether Johnny would have the clam chowder on yet. Just thinking about that first spoonful, Jack's stomach growled in anticipation. He shook his head, grumbling to himself -- no, the clam chowder was usually pretty good at Sue's, but maybe today he'd try something a little more solid -- a grilled tuna with melted cheese. Now, that sounded good. He moved a little quicker down the sidewalk, his stomach doing somersaults by now, but stopped cold when he heard a whistle that sounded like it came from above. Looking up, to his surprise, he saw a tiny man with a green hat sitting on a branch, whittling a piece of wood with a pocket knife.
"What's the matter, you don't have the common courtesy to say G'day?"
Jack folded his arms in front of him for a moment, then scratched his head.
"What the hell are you lookin' at?" said the little green man.
"You're a ... a ... leprechaun, ain't ya'?"
"Leprechaun, nah, I'm the friggin' Jolly Green Giant. Gee Willikers, what in heaven's name do you think I am? I'm an angel. Don't you know it? Use your head, man."
Jack closed his eyes for a moment, counted to ten, then opened them again. The little green man was still there. He'd heard of the DTs causing guys to see little bugs and even rodents crawling all over the place, but never little green men who claimed to be angels.
"You're an angel. Where's your wings then? I thought angels had wings."
"Ahh, you humans are so limited, I tell ya'. Why would I need actual wings to get here supernaturally? It's not like angels really fly. At least we're not limited by the basic earthly requirements of aerodynamics and physics and such. Wings -- hah! -- that's just a human invention. Some of us just put them on to satisfy the humans, know what I mean? Meet your expectations. Don't want to let the kiddies down."
Jack didn't know what to make of the little green guy. "If you're an angel, why do you look like an elf or a leprechaun?"
"We appear the way you want us to appear. As an elf or a leprechaun or what have you." Jack was shaking his head. The green man sighed. "Okay, let me ask you this. Do you believe in angels?"
Jack hesitated a moment, then said, "No."
"Well, then. There you have it. If you don't believe in angels, how can I appear the way you people ordinarily view angels? All soft, white, frilly, and feathery. You wouldn't believe it, anyway! But leprechauns, hah, you do believe, don't ya'? Come on. Don't be shy. Admit it!" The green man started to laugh, then, after a few moments, Jack started up, until both of them were laughing hysterically on the sidewalk and a tree branch on Oak Street.
When the laughter died down the green man said, "Hold out your hands."
"Your hands. Come on, are you hard of hearing? Just do what I say."
Jack turned his hands palms upright, looking at them, then stretched them toward the little green man.
"Okay, I could say some magic words if that would thrill you -- Alacazam or some such nonsense -- but the truth is that's all a load of crap. You have been blessed. Don't thank me. You now have magic hands."
"Yeah, that's it. Blessed. But like I said ... don't thank me."
"Oh my ... what did I just say? And you went and did it anyway."
For an angel, weird as it sounded, he sure had a hellish temper.
"All right, all right, you're welcome. Not that you believe me anyway. You probably think I'm some sort of friggin' hallucination, illusion, or something you're recuperating from -- could it be that one Jack Daniels too many you imbibed on last night?"
"Well ..." Jack said, but wondered how the little guy knew about the Daniels.
"Okay, okay, show's about to begin. Let's see, let's see ..." he said, rubbing his hands together, sitting cross-legged on his branch. "How about that scar, the one over your eye? Hocus pocus hee hee hee. Rub that scar with your hand and watch what happens. Shazam!"
Jack hesitated, then moved his left hand slowly, shakily, to the long prominent scar over his left eye that he'd had since he was a kid. He'd been about two years old. His father hadn't seen Jack standing there behind him in their garden and, while digging a hole in the dirt with a small shovel, on a backstroke, had smashed Jack's forehead with the sharp point, coming close to gouging out his eye. Jack carefully felt the scar with his fingers, running his index finger all along its raised surface as he'd done habitually for years. He removed the hand then, and looked at the elf/angel.
The green man started laughing in a high-pitched twitter. "So, feel there again!"
Jack moved his hand to his forehead and ran his index finger all along the line which he knew so well, but now there was nothing there. Only smooth skin. He was beside himself. But he wouldn't believe it until he saw it.
The green man was still twittering, obviously pleased with himself, and, as if reading Jack's mind, tossed down -- from where Jack did not know -- a little white pocket mirror. Jack grabbed the mirror with one hand and focused on the space just above his left eyebrow. The scar had vanished. It looked like it had never existed.
"Holy shit, it's a miracle!" Jack said.
"Now, now, let's have none of that. The Father doesn't take kindly to such language, especially with the 'Holy' attached to it. Anyway, there sure isn't anything holy about that. It's just a necessity, a natural bodily function."
"Sorry," Jack said. He didn't know what was going on. Talking to little green spirit-angels.
"Not really a miracle, my friend. Just a little taste of the power of the Father. Think of it as a gift. Why He chose such a sorry specimen as you to give it to is beyond me, really. But these kinds of decisions are never left up to me," he said, and sighed. "Let's just say it's up to you what you do with it."
"Thank you, thank you."
"Don't thank me! Mercy, I told ya' that already! Anyway, if you're gonna thank anyone, thank Him." Jack was staring at his hands and was just about to say something else to the little green guy, but when he looked up the branch was empty.
Jack forgot all about being hungry and galloped down the street, in his stumbling way, to The Dead End.
A young mother was walking with her kid, a rail thin little boy with straight blond bangs. He must have been five or six. Jack stopped, smiled widely at the woman and her son, and said, "Good morning!" The woman smiled thinly back at him.
"Excuse me, Missus, can I ask you a question?"
"What?" the woman asked, eyeing him with suspicion.
"Has anybody ever pulled a dollar out of your son's ear?"
"What?" Then without further explanation, Jack reached over toward the little boy (the woman bending protectively toward her son), cupped his hand over the boy's ear, opened it and a ten dollar bill appeared. The boy giggled, and the woman smiled, despite herself. Jack handed the boy the bill, saying, "Here you go, Son. It was in your ear, after all." The boy's eyes grew wide as he grabbed the bill and examined it closely. "Wow, Mommy. This was in my ear!"
The mother looked nervous. "We can't take your money, Mister. Really."
"It's like your son -- what's your name, little boy?"
"It's like Billy here said. It was in his ear. Guess that means it's his."
"And here's something else," Jack said. He took his hand and, to the woman's apparent horror, rubbed his backside to make it appear that he was pulling from his ass a small snow white bunny, which he placed in the wide-eyed boy's hands.
"Gosh!" said the boy. The woman gasped.
Jack said, "Have a nice day," whistled an old Duke Ellington number, and continued on down the street.
When he walked in the door of the tavern, Joe and Chink were the lone customers, leaning over the bar, slowly sipping their beers. When they saw Jack, looking wild-eyed, they barely flinched.
"Gawd, ya bums," Jack said, "I never thought I'd see the day when you'd be pacified by beer, the way you two is suckin' on them two like mama's own left and right titties." He laughed in a high-pitched sort of whine until, from beneath those heavy black eyebrows, big Chink stared at him. "You got something better in mind?"
Jack just grinned.
Joe gave Chink the elbow hard into his side. "Looks like the Crow mighta gone around the bend for good this time."
"Naw, naw," Jack answered. "It's nothing like that. I just found me somethin' hot. Found me a gold mine."
"Yeah?" Chink looked back up from his beer. "What is it?"
"Oh, no, no, you don't. This one I'm gonna cash in on alone. Maybe I'll come in some time and buy you guys drinks if I'm in the neighborhood."
"C'mon," whined Chink, for he was a man with few ideas of his own and the owner of a short memory, who had to be reminded by red-haired Wiley Joe about Jack's past get-rich-quick schemes.
"What was it last time, Crow, panning for diamonds in the Seneca River? Remember Chink, it was somethin' the Crow'd heard about that photographic chemicals they put in the water from the film plant did somethin' when combined with the treated sewage ... that only got us accommodations at the Bum's Hilton for three days, wasn't it?"
"How was I to know walkin' in the river was disturbin' somebody's peace?"
"Cause you oughta' know by now, Crow, whenever you show up anywhere you disturb somebody." Joe pinched his nose with his index finger and thumb, and turned away in mock disgust. "When's the last time you had a bath, ya' bum?" Jack ignored him.
"What's it this time, Crow?," Chink asked. "You got another race track scheme?"
"Naw, nothin' like that." He looked at his hand and clenched it into a fist. "You believe in angels? Little green angels?"
A smile crept onto Chink's face as he glanced over at Joe. "Jesus, Joe, this bum's finally gone off the deep end for sure." Then the two of them burst out laughing even harder, looking at Jack in a peculiar manner.
And the thing was, now that he'd said it out loud, it did sound ridiculous. Maybe he had finally gone over the edge, all these years of drinking having caught up with him. What had it been? A hallucination? And the tricks with the kid. Had those been hallucinations, too? "Sure could use a strong one just about now," he murmured under his breath. But all he had in his pocket was fifteen lousy cents. What was he going to do? Damn! There was nothing worse than a drunk going into a bar for a drink knowing he didn't have enough to put down for one unless he could con the bartender.
"Hey, Freddy!" he yelled down to the other end of the bar where the bartender was wiping glasses and watching the ballgame. He was a husky man with a neat, trim mustache that didn't look like it belonged in a place like this. But, for that matter, few things here did belong -- especially not most of the bums who sat on the stools day and night. "What'll it be, Jack?" the bartender asked.
"Hey, Freddy, listen. You known me a long time. I'm good for it, ain't I? How about a shot? I'll get back to you tomorrow."
"Sorry, Crow, can't do it. Perkins is getting on me for bein' too easy with you guys, tellin' me he ain't in business for his health and what not. You know if I could I would, but it's my job, you understand?" The bartender turned his back, rag in hand, and headed back to the glasses and the Yankees game.
"Just a lousy shot, Freddy. What's it, gonna kill Perkins?" Jack asked. But the bartender didn't seem to hear him. Jack's nerves were rattling together inside. "Goddamn," he whispered to himself, looking down at his shaking hands on the counter, "if I could just have one lousy drink." And when Jack Crowley shoved his hand into his pocket one more time he felt something in there. Paper. Probably just some old scrap he'd scrawled on, he thought. But when he pulled it out of his pocket he found, to his amazement, that he held a hundred dollar bill between his fingers. Joe, who had turned his attention away from Jack, was, again, jabbing Chink in the ribs, pointing at Jack and his newfound friend.
"Whaddya do, get lucky at the track?" Chink asked. Suddenly Jack found himself shaking and mumbling, staring at the bill. "I don't know. I really don't know." He remembered what he'd thought he'd seen that morning and, feeling for where his scar had been, said to himself, "It happened. It was true!"
"Hey, Freddy," he said. "Gimme a Jack Daniels straight up."
The bartender came over with a smirk on his face, towel over his shoulder, staring at Jack. "What? Come on, Jack already, how many times ..."
Jack smacked the hundred down on the counter, stopping the bartender from wagging his tongue, and wiping the smirk off his face. The bartender stood there for a second, staring at the bill, then picked it up and lifted it toward the window, examining it with one eye closed. "This thing real, Crowley?"
It was a good question. What was and what wasn't real anymore? Jack wondered, but he said, "Damn right it's real. And there's a lot more where that came from." The bartender shrugged and went to grab the bottle.
"And while you're at it, give each of my good friends here a shot as well."
Chink and Joe looked at Jack with a new appreciation, smiling at him, putting their arms around his shoulders.
"What the hell'd you do this time, Crowley? Pull a job, like the old days?"
Jack just smiled back at him "Never you mind about that. I have a feeling, though, that things are going to be different from now on."
But as the bartender set the glass of whiskey down on the bar, and Jack Crowley lifted the glass to his lips and felt the smooth comforting burn of the liquid ease down his gullet, he remembered the words of the little green man about the gift he'd been given: "It's up to you what you do with it."
The next few days, Jack Crowley lived the life, buying himself new threads, a big screen TV, a new stereo. Hell, if he hadn't been barred from driving he would've bought himself a new car. He still hung out with Chink and Joe at The Dead End, but after a few days wondered if maybe with his newfound luck he deserved to treat himself better.
He cleaned himself up, shaved the stubble off his chin and cheeks, and got himself a decent haircut for a change. He bought himself a five hundred dollar suit, some new shoes, leather jobs, and a sharp tie. Then he caught a cab going uptown and made his way to the old bar where he used to play when he was younger.
When he walked into the place and sat at the long mahogany bar, it was almost like he'd taken thirty years right off of his life. It was just like the old days.
Then the bartender came up. Not old bald-headed, cheerful Lou, but a young woman with a cold stare.
"What'll ya' have?"
"Chivas, straight up."
When she returned and he paid up, he asked, "Miss, can you tell me what happened to Lou?" She gave him a puzzled look and gazed at the other customers lining the bar.
"Don't know who you're talkin' about," she said, snapping her gum, her braided black pony tail flapping behind her as she started to move away from him.
"Lou, he used to work here ..."
She paused for a moment and stared at him blankly. "Sorry," she said. "That must've been a long long time ago."
Thanks, he wanted to say, as she walked away then with her thin figure and her destructive swagger of youthful good looks. Right then something in Crowley died. And there was the realization -- he was an old drunk. Nothing more. Old and lonely and what had he done with his life? Anything good? An ex-wife (Mimi) he never talked to, had mistreated, and two kids who didn't even want to know him anymore, who had written him off. With families and grandchildren he would never know.
He heard the tinkling of piano keys and glanced over at the sleek black baby grand in the corner. A young man with lots of curly dark hair, in a tuxedo, sitting in the seat Jack used to occupy was starting to play a tune. "Moonlight Serenade." The old Benny Goodman number.
It wasn't his place anymore. He didn't have a place, really, only a place with misfits, the misspent old men like Chink and Joe whose dreams had long since dried up like dust and blown away with the wind. Dreams of fortune and fame and happiness. But what had he been? A piano player, half good, never that hot. And after that a petty crook for a while, until he'd served time, gotten out, and gone straight. Then he'd tried to be a regular guy, getting hitched to Mimi, having a couple of kids. Working his way through life anonymously, in a warehouse, until the drinking had increased, he'd lost the wife, the family, and the job, too. A faceless man with no life, who'd done nobody any good at all.
He picked up his glass and poured the remaining liquid down his throat, then threw a five on the counter and headed for the door.
When he walked in the door of The Dead End and saw Chink and Joe at the bar, his heart sank even further.
"Oh, my God, look what the cat dragged in." Chink said, almost falling off his chair when he saw Jack.
"Jesus H. Christ," said Joe, staring at Jack with wide eyes. "What the hell is that? Make way for the prince!"
Jack sat down at his usual stool, ordered up a Jack Daniels, as the guys chattered beside him, and he told them where he'd been.
"Shit, Jack, don't let it get you down. You can't go back, you can never go back, you know that."
"Them goddamned uptown crowd's got their noses in the air anyway. Think they're too good for the likes of us, huh, buddy?" Chink said, putting his arm around Jack. "This is where you belong, pal. Right here with the likes of us."
And while it should have made him feel better, somehow it didn't. The bartender set his drink in front of him and he stared down into the brownish liquid, thinking, I don't belong there, but I don't belong here anymore either. Something's changed, he thought. He closed his eyes for a moment and saw the green man and the miracle of the hands. Then he opened his eyes, picked up his glass, swirled its contents, and took a drink. Yes, something had changed, but the problem was he just had no idea what to do about it.
The next morning he woke up hung over, put on some coffee, and made his way to the bathroom. Standing there in his shorts and sleeveless T-shirt, staring at his old, worn out baggy face. The pouches under his eyes. A worthless sack of flesh. Scowling, he grabbed the sagging skin under his eyes and pulled it till it hurt. Then he filled the sink with water, got out his blade and started scraping the stubble off his face. But, thinking about the little green man, he placed his open palm on his cheek and rubbed the hand all around his face. The stubble vanished.
When he was finished, he carefully placed the unused blade back in the medicine cabinet, closed the mirror, and smiled at himself. Today was going to be different, he thought, picturing the little green man in the tree. He'd show him.
He got dressed, went to the kitchen and opened the door to the cabinet under the sink where he stashed all his bottles. For a moment he was tempted to take a hit of the brown liquid dregs on the bottom of one bottle, a little of the hair of the dog that bit ya'. But no, he thought, today was different. A new day. He gathered the bottles up, dumped the empties in the trash, and poured the contents of the only bottle with any remaining whiskey down the sink. Then he bagged up his garbage, tied the bag shut, went out the door, and headed to the trash can. He opened the lid and dumped the sealed bag, with a crash, into the can. Then, he walked down the street. Feeling the air, breathing it in deep, filling his lungs. Walking past the point where he'd seen that weird green angel man. The tree where he'd sat that day was empty.
He was just taking a stroll. It was Easter Sunday, not that that made a difference one way or another to Jack. He was walking, with no specific place in mind. Agitated, mind rambling, his thoughts all a jumble. Not knowing which way to go. Walking, just walking, searching for something. For what? An answer? But what was the question? Some guidance, that was what he needed. Where was that friggin' angel when he needed him?
As he walked onward, towards the town, he heard a terrible screeching and a crash up ahead. He stepped up his pace to see what had happened.
He turned the corner, heading toward the sound. A crowd had formed at the corner of Elm Street and Monticello Boulevard. As he got closer, peering through the crowd, he saw an old pink Cadillac stopped in the middle of the street. Standing next to the vehicle, being held by an officer, was an elderly woman sobbing. And, as Jack got closer, he saw that a young boy was lying on the ground, a bike with newspapers in its baskets, laying, in a tangle of metal, on the grass about ten feet beside the scene. There was a mess of lights flashing and people standing as if in still life relief in a semi-circle around the boy, his Yankees cap somewhat crooked, but still setting on his head, against the hard gray pavement. There wasn't a drop of blood and it seemed unreal, all these people just standing there, like a moment in which time had stopped. There were murmurs, detached assessments of the scene flying through the air, but nobody was doing a thing.
Jack grew agitated and worked his way through the elbows jutting from hands buried in pockets: "The boy just ran from out of nowhere," said one spectator, "there was no way Belinda could have seen him." "He was a good kid and all, never late a day with the paper, but it was his fault." "A tragedy nonetheless," said another. And as he walked further on he heard a woman's voice say, as he struggled through the bodies of the bystanders, "I knew some day that old drunk would do something like this. Tommy was so young... " There was something about the way they talked that struck Jack Crowley and made him burn inside -- maybe it was the way they were all so quick to pin the blame on one of the victims, or maybe it was that they were all so quick to pronounce the young boy dead so they could back to their lawnmowers and Ladies' Home Journals.
When he got up to the front of the crowd two paramedics had gotten to the boy and were bending over him, shaking their heads, as if signaling that their jobs were done. The driver overlooked the scene in horror, her body trembling. The sight of the child overwhelmed Jack, a child so young that it seemed hardly possible that he had lived at all, and Jack ran to the sight of the prone body, ranting uncontrollably to the heavens, overcome by emotion.
The paramedics, caught by surprise, couldn't stop him as he ran to the boy's side, stroked his forehead furiously and howled in a crackling voice, "God, let him live, let him live!" Then, as two police officers approached Jack Crowley, who had fallen on the ground beside this boy, mourning for the tragedy that had befallen not only the carrier in his loss of life, but also Jack over time, he heard a cough, a stirring in the crowd, and then a cry of pain. And, looking up through blurred eyes, Jack observed the miracle of miracles -- the paper boy had returned to life.
Jack got back up on his feet, making his way through the crowd, aware of the eyes staring at him in awe. But he didn't want their looks or their questions.
He walked quickly, as the murmur of the crowd fled from him. He walked back to his rooming house, his head filled with thoughts of what he would do. He would pack a bag. He would take a trip, a pilgrimage of sorts, around the country. Maybe have a reunion with his children and his grandchildren. And he would help people, do good. Something he'd never done. Learn what it was like to be unselfish for once. He couldn't do much to help himself anymore, but, dammit, he could make a difference in other people's lives now before it was all over. He'd been given this gift. He would make that damned green angel choke on his words. He would make that damned angel proud.
Article © Mitchell Waldman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-04-11