Red Light: Part 1
I tightened my coat around my torso and crossed my arms over my chest, hunching away from the cold, the wind biting at my unprotected face. My feet carried me swiftly along the sidewalk and the neon signs from the nearby bar blinded me as I reached the street corner.
Approaching the crosswalk, a downtrodden man caught my attention. He huddled on the ground with his knees to his chest, leaning against the pub wall. His black hair and beard were unruly and the disheveled attire didn’t seem to be very effective against the cool night. He avoided eye contact and I am ashamed of the fact that I acted the same.
Set on my task and pretending not to notice the poor soul, I hurried to the start of the crosswalk, but the red light forced me to stop. The inevitable lingering at the corner manifested an awkward tension within the distance of myself and the vagrant. The longer I remained close, the more my sympathy and guilt tugged me toward him and away from my prior engagement. I bounced in place, using the motion to fight off the chill of the wind as well as my own stone-hearted coldness.
By the time the stoplight changed in my favor, my feet refused to move onward. The only direction they wanted to go was back. Suddenly, offering kindness to this man was not a choice, but a necessity. My sadness for the stranger on the street churned in my stomach. Perhaps the red light had been a sign. With uneasy hesitation, I spun back around to face him.
After rummaging in my pocket a moment, my hand returned to the frigid air with a wad of bills. I forewent checking to see how much I was holding. I stretched the handful of money towards him.
He glanced up at me and immediately donned an expression of disgust. “I don’t need your charity.”
I paused a second, too stunned to speak. “I’m trying to help,” I finally retorted, perhaps a little too defensively.
A chuckle burst through a small space in his beard. “Aren’t we all,” he stated cynically.
I froze. For some reason I felt personally attacked by his pessimism. Despite this, I swallowed my pride and remained polite. I stuffed the money back in my pocket but I would still help this vagabond. The fate of the stoplight had told me so.
“Is there anything else I can do for you? I can buy you something to eat or a blanket.”
“You can piss off, that’s what you can do,” he spat grumpily.
I was uncomfortable with the conflict, but I nervously straightened up and stood my ground. “Sir, I insist. At least take the money.” I returned the change to my palm and forced it toward him.
He used the wall to pull himself up and stand before me. His stance was extremely confrontational and my instincts immediately begged me to back down. I could not. A drive within compelled me to stay put. No matter how scared I was of this man, my sympathy for him was stronger.
Looming before me, his eyes darted to my trembling hand full of cash and back up to meet my gaze. “Why?”
“Does there have to be a reason?”
I swallowed, apprehension shivering through me. “Would you believe me if I told you I don’t know why? I only know I have to do this.”
He relaxed, sniggered, and slumped back down against the wall. “What, are you on some mission from God? Please don’t tell me you're on a mission from God.”
Uncomfortable with the subject, I retorted, “No, I’m actually atheist.”
“Of course you are.”
“What is your problem?” I finally snapped. “What kind of homeless man living on the streets of New York City doesn’t want money from people?”
“The kind that has accepted their fate,” he put forward glumly. “And the kind that doesn’t want to indulge self righteous rich people trying to meet their personal charity quota.”
“How dare you?” I exploded. “Dammit, you try to do one good deed and it blows up in your face.”
“That’s generally how it goes.”
“Well, not this time,” I barked and tossed the money at his feet.
Heated and ready to move on, I stomped back to the crosswalk where the light had returned to a red state. I huffed at the edge of the curb, eager for the green stick man to give me the go. I wanted to be out of the proximity of this ungrateful bastard, but the same, unpleasant tension clung between the two of us as I waited.
The man cleared his throat and addressed me with a more cordial tone, “Hey, buddy.”
Begrudging, I only peeked over my shoulder in answer. The bills remained scattered on the ground in front of him. I spotted a twenty and regretted my wasteful decision.
He reached a hand toward me in question. “If you’re feeling generous, could I bum one from you?”
My hand reflexively concealed the pocket of my coat, paranoid, and I scoffed, “I don’t smoke.”
“You do,” he insisted, unshaken and unjudging.
The traffic light shone green, inviting me to escape the irksome situation. I was prepared to sprint across the pavement and reach the sanctuary of the adjacent sidewalk. Yet, once again, my body stayed put, stubborn as ever. This beggar asked a favor of me and my conscience wouldn’t allow me to abandon him. This time, I was bitter about my goodwill.
Letting out a groan so he was aware of the inconvenience he caused, I stalked back and fetched the pack from my pocket, offering him one.
“My hero,” he snarked good naturedly.
“You’re welcome,” I muttered.
“Got a light?”
I tossed my lighter into his lap, my ire made clear. “Keep it.”
After the cinders of his cigarette glowed red, he gave it back. “Don’t need it.”
As his arm rose and his threadbare jacket shifted aside, the inside pocket opened up to visibility and the grip of a small pistol gleamed out. I recoiled in alarm without accepting my lighter back and his eyes followed mine to the weapon.
“I’m not planning to use it on you,” he vowed. “I didn’t want your money and you gave me a free smoke. You have nothing to worry about.”
“Then why do you have it?”
“It might come in handy to use on someone,” he muttered with his expression drawn down.
“Fine,” I retorted. “You have everything you need now, so I’m gonna go.”
“Yep,” he grumbled.
Unable to restrain myself, since my fear subsided, I berated before stepping away, “You realize that you could have taken this money and bought yourself a pack, if that’s what you wanted.”
“Only wanted the one,” he replied. “Been meaning to quit.”
“You’re doing a bad job of it, then."
“You lied about smoking,” he jabbed. “Sounds like you have more shame than me. You quitting too?”
I cleared my throat and adjusted my coat, embarrassed to admit, “No, it’s just that my girlfriend doesn’t approve.”
He imitated the sound of a cracking whip and then cackled at his own, crude joke. “Been there. That’s tough, man.”
“It’s not like that at all,” I argued. “She makes me better.”
“You're not better. She made you into a liar. First you were just a smoker, now you’re a liar and a smoker.”
“Don’t talk to me like you know anything about my life.”
“I knew you were lying and I knew you smoked,” he pointed out.
My curiosity dragging me further into the conversation than I liked, I yielded to his cryptic baiting and asked, “How did you know?”
Grinning, he goaded, “Maybe I’m able to recognize a kindred soul. Or maybe I just noticed the burns on your fingers and the stench rolling off you.”
I caught myself chuckling at his good humor, despite my cross disposition. Joining in, I teased, “You’re complaining about my smell?”
“I don’t have a shower. What’s your excuse?”
I glanced at my watch and the urgency returned to me. “I don’t have time to shower, because I have somewhere to be. Enjoy your last smoke.”
“I’ll try to,” he murmured absentmindedly.
The red hand halted me again and cars whizzed by the crosswalk. Exasperated, I punched at the pedestrian button in the hopes of altering the lights. The seconds ticked on and a groan grew in my chest. I never expected such a holdup. I was going to be late.
“You know those switches aren’t hooked up to anything,” he hollered at me.
I turned and gave him a curt nod. “I’ve heard that before, but just in case it’s not true, I’ll keep trying.”
The stream of vehicles continued with no hint of stopping. My foot tapped impatiently, moving of its own free will.
“I don’t think the traffic wants you to leave,” he added.
“I can see that.”
After a moment, he randomly posed, “What’s her name?”
“What?” I asked. “Who?”
“The overbearing girlfriend.”
“She’s not overbearing,” I defended, “and why does it matter to you anyway?”
“Just wondering,” he asserted casually, “since you’re keeping her ring in your pocket next to the cigs she hates so much. How would she feel about that?”
My fingers reflexively curled around the small box in my coat to which he was referring. “You’re very observant,” I noted with chagrin.
“It passes the time,” he mused. “What’s the name of your soon-to-be Missus, then?”
I lowered my face as my cheeks flushed. “Gwen.”
“Congrats in advance. When are you popping the question?”
I peeked back across the street. The cars laid in wait and the traffic signal gave me the right of way. I could flee. I could jog and make up for lost time. I could get back on schedule. Yet I remained planted. My stomach sank as I ran out of justifications for delaying.
Petrified, I confessed, “In about five minutes.”
To be concluded in Red Light: Part 2...
© 2020 by Kelsey Garber