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May 20, 2024

The Duke of Broad Street

By Mitchell Waldman

Since Julius Wolsey had arrived in Rochester he'd slept under the Broad Street Bridge. It had been over twenty years since he'd set foot in this town.

As a boy he'd come with his father to this bridge to fish every Sunday afternoon. He'd stick his hand right into the cool dirt and grab the wriggling worm, threading the strange rubbery life up the hook till he could push it no more, then throw his line with the bobber and little round lead shot weights down to the gray water until it landed so far below with the slightest of splashes, barely making a noise. And he would huddle up next to his father wearing the scratchy red and black plaid jacket, the rich woody smell of his pipe tobacco surrounding him, to gain a little bit of fatherly warmth. Now, years later, so many years after the old man had died, so many lives removed from his youth it seemed, he slept under the bridge for lack of anywhere else to go, hugging himself through the night to stay warm.

No matter where he was, he always liked to have a place, even such a dirty, dank place as this one, to call his own. On some days, his better days, he would get lucky and find an open door to an apartment building and would sneak in and hole up in a place where he couldn't easily be found. There he'd fall asleep indoors for a change, at least until he was thrown out. Sometimes he'd be lucky enough to find a building with access to a boiler room or furnace area, or even a heated basement, though those were far and few between. Sure, he could always sleep at one of the flophouses, the mission houses where they would give you a bed for the night if you were a good boy and said your prayers and showed your appreciation and didn't bring in any booze, drugs, or women. But that wasn't for Julius. He didn't like anyone telling him what to do, especially not those self-righteous types. Pray to what God? he would ask them, and laugh. And they, with their white collars, would feed him the company line, telling him that Jesus had died for his sins and that he could be saved and guarantee his reservation in much more luxurious accommodations after this life if only he believed this and said that, to which Julius would laugh some more, wondering aloud if this God of theirs, this savior of saviors, was so good and so fair and so sympathetic and loving, if He cared so much, why would He wait until Julius was dead to give him the good life? Wasn't that just a little bit sadistic when all he really wanted was a warm place to sleep, a place to shit, food on the table and a hot shower once in a while? Was that too much for any loving parent to provide to his child? But that conversation, of course, would get him nowhere and would not only raise their tempers but his as well, watching their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and mock shock when he would open his mouth and yell profanities at Him, at their God (because he sure as hell wasn't any God of Julius's!). And, in the end, he would just wind up out the door and back on the streets anyway, one way or another. So why go through all the trouble and humiliation? For what? They had nothing to offer him, nothing at all.

On this particular day, Julius had slept under the bridge and was, in fact, just pulling himself up off the canvas bags he'd placed on the cement floor that was covered with broken glass, discarded food, and newspapers. He hadn't seen or heard a rat all night. Maybe that was a good sign. He'd hardly noticed the pains during the night either, and had, in fact, slept almost straight through the night. Standing in the empty doorway to his private room, he watched the gray river emerge from the blackness, beer cans, bits of wood, styrofoam cups, and ducks all floating under the bridge, his bridge, and disappearing from his sight like they'd never even existed. And then he stepped forward onto the pavement to greet another day.

* * *

Natalie was talking with her friend, Rona, over their cups of cappuccino and latte at the Starbucks where they met every morning. They were recent college graduates, former roommates who had been unleashed on the world. That's how they liked to put it.

Rona was talking about her latest clothing acquisitions and her new Lincoln SUV. She sipped her double mocha cappuccino, smiling across the table at her friend, Natalie. Natalie was drinking a light raspberry cream latte without the cream and was nibbling on a croissant. She needed a new car, but couldn't afford one. Unlike Natalie, Rona didn't know squat about struggling -- she'd had everything handed to her by her daddy on a platinum platter since she was a toddler. And for some reason they got talking about fathers. It started when Rona said she'd like to go somewhere, Paris maybe. She'd never been there.

"Paris?" Natalie said. "I'll never get to Paris."

"Hey girl, maybe I can get Daddy to finance the two of us for a trip there." Rona said, taking a nibble from the corner of her scone and setting it back down on her napkin quickly.

"And how are you going to do that?"

Rona smiled wide and twirled a yellow ringlet of her hair with her index finger. "Oh, I have my ways."

"Your ways?"

"It's like I know certain things about him that he doesn't want other people to know."

"Like who?"

"Like who? Like my mom for one."

"Oh, those kinds of secrets. He's got a girlfriend?"

"A girlfriend? If he had only one it wouldn't be too bad."

"And your mom knows nothing about it?"

"She just doesn't want to know."

"So why would your knowing about it be any threat to him?"

"Thing is, he doesn't know that she doesn't want to know. And, besides, if I confront him out loud, in front of her, how is she going to ignore it then?"

"You're vicious, Ro."

"A girl does what she has to do sometimes." Rona picked up her coffee cup and whispered over it, "Ooh, look what just walked in, Nat. I'd do him in a minute. Right on this table."

"Ro, you're so naughty. What would your daddy say?"

"Screw Daddy, I want what I want."

"Well, your father is a good looking man. I never told you, did I, that when we were in school together I had a slight crush on him."


"Well ... what can I say. He's cute!"

"Yeah, but my dad, really. Yuck!"

"At least you have a father to love you."

"Well, sort of. He isn't my real father. He's my stepfather. And he loves me all right. He loves me about as much as one of his sports cars. Like a possession, I mean."

Well, it's better than nothing, better than a dad you never knew." Natalie balled up her napkin and held it tight in her fist. "I guess I must have had a dad. People like me just don't happen out of nothing. But what if? What if I wasn't the product of sexu-all intercourse, but just appeared out of nowhere? By immaculate conception. Like Jesus."

Rona almost coughed up her cappucino. "Yeah, right. You. Little Miss Innocent, immaculately conceived. How ironic that would be."

"I don't see anyone calling you Virgin Mary, either."

"Yeah, but I was never as wild as you were."

"Oh, yeah, right. Who did it in the Ladies' Room at Mario's with Frankie Dugan? While his girlfriend was right there in the other room? It sure as hell wasn't me!"

"I was really really drunk that night. We both were."

"O--kay. Nice try, hon."

"Besides, the thought of possibly getting caught makes me hot."

"I rest my case."

"And what case was that?"

"That you're the wild one."

Rona blew a yellow curl up off her forehead. "Okay, okay. Can we move on, please?"

"Yes, please. Anyway, I've got to get to work. Duty calls."

Rona looked at her watch. "Jesus, I didn't know it was so late. I've got to get going too. It's been loads."

"Yeah, loads," said Natalie, grabbing her purse off the chair beside her, and rushing for the door.

* * *

Julius was sitting on the sidewalk overlooking his bridge, staring at the water below, smoking a butt from his butt collection. He kept all his used butts in a plastic bag in his coat pocket and took one out as needed to get a few puffs in as his addiction required. A mild, but, expensive addiction it was, too. He'd taken more than his normal two puffs and kept going this morning, not caring about preserving anything, a butt much less himself anymore. He smoked the butt down to the nub, then flicked it with his thumb down into the water where it barely disturbed the surface. He pulled his notebook and pen out of his backpack, and flipped open the book, staring at the empty page. Then he looked down at the gray water below, trying to put some thoughts together in his head. The ducks were swimming around in the river like it was their own private cesspool. His mind wandered. He wondered how it would feel to break the surface. Just close his eyes, spread out his arms and fly down to the icy water. He imagined the soothing, numbing feeling, as he hit the water, taking away his current pain -- the physical, as well as the harder, mental pain, accumulated over the years. There were ex-wives he didn't know, and children he knew even less. He had Maggie's phone number, ripped from a phone book, folded neatly in his pocket, but he wasn't quite ready to use it yet. Maybe he wouldn't have the balls after all.

He was, or at least had been a real musician once. A guitar player. There'd been a band, about twenty years before. They'd called themselves The Dukes of Night. There'd even been a record that had gotten air play for a while. But after that, nothing much else. People didn't buy any more of their records and the band split up. There'd been four of them. He'd lost track of them all. Gary Rhodes, the singer, Bobby Simon, the bass player, and Wes Waltrip, the drummer. He stared at the water, wondering about them, thinking, they're all probably respectable now, lawyers, or accountants, or managers of grocery stores, things like that probably, with wives and ex-wives that they actually keep in touch with, and mortgages and cars, and lives.

The ducks down below him swam around in little rows. Thinking how easy it would be if he had a gun. He could pick them off one by one. Thinking about the guys. How easily they'd fallen in line. They'd been like him once, a rebel, with something to say. He stared hard at his empty page, trying to think of the right words to put down, to capture the feeling, the moment. But his hand started shaking and his mind was racing. Maybe he didn't have anything to say either. Not anything anyone wanted to hear anyway. He closed the notebook and put the cap back on his pen, placed them back in the pack and struggled back to his feet.

His stomach growled. His hands were still shaking. The shakes went away sometimes, but they always came back, it seemed, like a loyal, but unwanted dog. He'd retrieve his guitar from that bush down by the railroad tracks and work the corner by the mall for a while, maybe scrape up enough for some food and a bottle of something to stop the shaking.

* * *

Natalie was walking with Douglas Feiffer to the mall for lunch. There was a little sandwich shop there that they frequented. Natalie never ate much. Usually just soup and some crackers, trying to keep that girlish figure girlish.

Douglas had a crush on her, but wouldn't admit it. He would stammer when she was around. It gave her a sense of power which, at first, stunned her. That a man would react this way to her. It was almost comical at first. It hadn't happened to her much in her life. She'd always been overshadowed in the men department by beauties such as Rona, not that she was jealous of her for that. Blondes always seemed to get more attention. And Rona had those big boobs. (She called them Daddy's Christmas presents. When the guys stared at them too long in the bars she would say, point-blank, "So you like my daddy's Christmas presents?") She wondered if guys would look at her more if she had boobs like Rona's.

As they walked toward the mall there was a man playing a beat-up guitar, standing against a wall with his guitar case open. There were some coins thrown in the case, but not many.

She diverted her eyes from the man and moved to the other side of Douglas, away from the man, as they approached the part of the sidewalk that he was occupying. Why did they have to display themselves on the streets like that anyway? It made her so uncomfortable. Why couldn't they just ... go ... someplace! It was very annoying.

And what annoyed her even more was how Douglas pulled her by the hand toward the singer so they were standing right in front of him, and Douglas sneered and laughed at the man right in front of him, while he, with scraggly beard, and hair that flew wildly in every which direction played on, eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to the people watching him and Douglas' antics. The man strummed his guitar, and a surprisingly good, if somewhat raw, voice was singing the words to While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Natalie stood there for a second, staring at the man. For an instant, she saw something familiar in the man's face. His eyes were watery, sad looking. Or was it just the song? He was looking above the flow of people passing, staring at the sky as he strummed his guitar. His jeans were dirty and torn and there were nickel-sized holes in his flannel shirt. Still, there was something about him that transfixed her. The slunk back look, the way his eyes stared out at nothing, at the sky, the way he howled out the words made her think of some sort of animal lost in the woods, something to be feared, yes, but also to feel sympathy for.

But then his gaze went directly from the clouds to her: he was staring without blinking, and a chill ran through her body, but she didn't look away. There was definitely something eerie about his look. He was probably dangerous, living on the edge. But there was something, a soulful, mournfulness in the well of his eyes, too. And, for that brief moment, when their eyes locked, she was drawn to him in a way that she could neither explain nor rationalize. She stepped closer to him, hardly even aware that Douglas was still holding, clinging to her hand now, holding her back. She stood inches from the man, staring at him for a moment, as he opened up his mouth, letting the words spit forth, the grizzly appearance of the hairs on his chin softened by the lucidity of his look, of his voice. Mournful like the cry of a lone wolf, separated from his pack. She opened up her purse and the pocketbook inside of it and pulled out a bill, a twenty dollar bill, and dropped it, watched it float like a fallen leaf, into the man's guitar case.

"Natalie!" Douglas said, and tugged her away from the performer, and, still locking her hand in his, said, "What are you, out of your mind? Giving a guy like that twenty bucks? He know the next place that bill will see is the liquor store."

She tugged her hand out of his grip and stopped walking.

"How do you know that? You don't. Maybe he's just some guy down on his luck. Did you ever think of that?"

He stood there with arms crossed in front of him and shook his head and smiled. "You're more naive than I thought, if you believe, if you really believe that."

"What if it were you, if you lost your job, your wife, your ... family. How would that make you feel? What would you do? What if they laid you off at the only job you'd done for twenty years? What if they closed the plant you worked at and you had nowhere to go? You'd be lost. Wouldn't know what to do. And maybe after a year or two of looking for a job you couldn't find anything outside of working at fast food restaurants and you'd grow tired, real tired of it all. Maybe you'd just give up. Maybe that's what it is. It's not him at all, it's us. Where's our humanity? Maybe he's given up on himself because we've given up on him and others like him."

"Whoa," Douglas said. "Where the hell did all that come from? Who would have guessed that little Natalie was a liberal dressed in conservative's clothing?"

"I care about people, so that makes me a liberal?"

"Hey, I care about people as much as anyone. But you think handing this guy twenty bucks is helping him? Come on, wake up! You think all these people shouldn't try to help themselves, but we should just hand them everything they need? What's that going to teach them? Self-sufficiency? Somehow, I don't think so."

She couldn't stop thinking of the guitar player, the way he'd stared so deeply into her eyes with his mournful gaze. It was like it was etched into her now.

"Okay, I'm naive. But I'm human. And if buys a bottle, anyway, so what? If it eases his pain, gets him through the day? Maybe working at the accounting firm, doing books for rich people for ten years has made you lose something of yourself. Well, I'll tell you one thing, Douglas. It's not going to happen to me."

"Natalie, stop this," Douglas said. "We can talk about it over lunch."

"Get your own damned lunch. Douglas. Somehow, I'm not hungry anymore."

He lowered his arms to his side, straightened his back, and raised up his chin. "Fine," he huffed, then turned abruptly and walked toward the mall entrance.

She walked back to the wall where the man was playing his guitar. He was staring up at the sky again, looking like he wasn't there, wasn't anywhere at all. There was something about those eyes, that face. Even the voice held something mysterious but familiar about it. She stood there another minute, during which time he kept looking up to the sky, oblivious to her or the presence of any of the other occasional watchers who would stop for an instant, then decide that they had better things to do. Then she headed back for work, her head spinning, sick. What was wrong with her? She didn't take an interest in those kind of people. "Low-lifes" she'd called them herself, as recently as last week.

It had been one of those late night soirees at her friend Janet's apartment. They'd been drinking wine, too much, not that that was all that unusual. Talking about their lives. How old they seemed all the sudden. And about how different life seemed to have turned out so far than what they had expected when they were younger, even when they'd still been in college. Natalie had said how she'd always imagined she'd get out of college and be handed this big fancy job, with the large office and the oak desk. Not wind up in some cubicle being a glorified secretary, answering calls for her firm's partners.

"Not me," Janet had said. "I always figured some day I'd wind up on some street corner, penniless, with a tin cup or something."

"You mean a low-life."

That's when Jan had ripped into her, asking where she got off calling people that just because they were different from her, asking her why she thought she was so much better. It had ended badly with Natalie walking out in a huff. But the next day she'd started thinking about what Janet had said. Was that how people saw her -- as this insensitive, snotty kid? Who shit on anyone who was different from her?

She left work early that afternoon, telling her boss that she wasn't feeling well. And she wasn't. Something was troubling her and she didn't know exactly what. But she knew it had something to do with that guitar player.

That night she had a date with a man named Geoffrey. She wasn't sure why all the men she was interested in or who were interested in her always used their formal first names. It was her first time out with Geoffrey, who she'd met at the gym where she worked out occasionally (more than occasionally recently as she'd become fixated on attacking the flabbiness of her thighs and arms). He was in an aerobics class with her and had his eye on her the whole time she was enrolled in the five week class, only working up the nerve to ask her out after the class was finally over. They'd had a cup of coffee, but this was their first official date.

They were sitting at Le Cremery, the latest sensation, eating cornish game hens in some sort of orange sauce, having a pleasant conversation, getting to know each other. A movie was planned, something with subtitles, no doubt. Geoffrey wanted her to see this great film -- he actually called it that, a "film" -- from this Italian director named Facciano, or Pacciano, or something like that. And maybe after that, who knew? It depended on how the night went. Natalie was somewhat taken by Geoffrey's blonde hair, muscles, and general good looks. He had a way of combing his hair so that it fell at an angle over his forehead that she liked and had big blue eyes and dimples. He looked like some sort of Swedish god, an icon of health. It was only when he opened his mouth and talked in that mush-mouthed way of his, exhibiting all the falsity and pretentiousness of his wealth -- which, of course, was the real reason her mother liked him -- that she realized she couldn't stand him, not as a person, anyway. Still, it was fun being with him, despite his shallowness, his talk about stocks and bonds -- who gave a flying fuck really, but it was his job, what else did he have to talk about? But why did she feel at twenty-two she had already missed out on something important, something irretrievable, that her life was passing by right before her eyes?

She was walking with Geoffrey, his arm woven through hers, on the way out of the restaurant, when she saw the man again. It was him. She was sure of it. He was not panhandling this time, but just standing in a doorway, smoking a cigarette, watching them as they passed. She looked at him for a moment, then prodded Geoffrey with her elbow. "Let's go," she said, not looking directly at him again. It was eerie. She felt like he'd been standing there waiting for her, like he was following her or something. But that was ridiculous. Why would he be following her? Because she had given him twenty dollars and thought, maybe, that there was a lot more where that came from? No, it had to be a coincidence. She was just being paranoid. How could he have followed her anyway? It was crazy. Still, she shuddered as they walked and wouldn't look back until she was safely inside Geoffrey's car. She looked out the window into the darkness, but there was no one there. No one at all.

Part One of Three

Article © Mitchell Waldman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-17
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