The wind whipped across the wide city street, carrying bits of dirty snow in its wake. In the early-morning grey, the huddled forms of New Yorkers were already beginning to move – masked workers on their way home from the night shift, parents and their kids venturing out for one last bit of shopping, even a few remaining tourists taking it all in. Red scarves blossomed on their necks, and in their hands, small plumes of steam drifted upward from coffees and hot chocolates. All except one.
In a shadowed corner, blessed by its builders with an awning that kept out both wind and snow, stood a tattered, weary-looking man. His face, once clean-shaven, was now a thicket of hair and beard, and though he kept himself scrupulously clean, his clothes still bore the marks of homelessness. This was his corner, and so long as he didn’t bother anyone, no one would bother him. He liked it that way.
As he stood, another, even shabbier man approached, hands in the pockets of his old denim jacket. He looked at the corner, then back at its inhabitant, wary.
“Mind if I stand here?” he asked, pointing. “Cops moved me along, got to find a new place.”
The bearded man nodded. “Be my guest,” he said.
“Cheers,” said the newcomer. “Hughes,” he introduced himself, sticking out a hand. The other man did not reach out to shake it, and he let it drop to his side. “Sorry. Old habit.”
“Cole,” said the other. “Or ‘hey, you,’ to our friends in blue,” he said, nodding up the street to a cop on horseback.
“Got them here too, then,” said Hughes.
“Not so bad. But keep your head down, all the same.”
They fell into a shared silence, eyes drifting along the crowd as it moved. Across the street, a Salvation Army trumpeter played his slightly out-of-tune carols, launching into ‘Good King Wenceslas’ for the third time as people dropped coins into the box behind him.
“Doesn’t that drive you nuts?” asked Hughes, after an hour had passed. “Man can’t play to save his life.”
“Nah. I was a music teacher, before all this. Heard worse.”
“Hm.” Hughes stood for a while longer, shifting from foot to foot. “Folks don’t seem to mind – lot of money in that box, by now.”
“Maybe.” Cole frowned. “They’ll need it.”
“That’s for sure.” Another pause. “Mind if I ask you something?”
“What would you do, if you suddenly got hold of some money?”
Cole chuckled. “Get a shave, for a start – can’t stand this thing,” he said, tugging at his beard. “Then find a restaurant that’s still open, get a real lunch for once. Nothing fancy.”
“Think it’ll happen?”
“Ha.” He gestured to the street, and its rows of deserted shop fronts. “I know better.” He turned to Hughes, squinting at him shrewdly. “And what about you?”
“Oh, same as you. Except I’d get out of the city, maybe move back home to Virginia. Someplace it didn’t hit so hard.”
As they pondered, the trumpeter set down his instrument, tucking it out of sight behind the donation box. The music stand followed, and soon the man himself vanished into a nearby shop.
“Nature calls,” said Cole with a chuckle. “Wondered how long it would take him.”
“Yep,” said Hughes. “Say, you want to make that wish list of yours come true?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s left the box unlocked. We could grab it, be out of sight before anyone noticed.”
A pause. Cole shook his head. “Nah. That’s too low, even for me.”
“Oh, come on. It’s for the needy, isn’t it? Who fits that bill more than us?”
For a moment, Cole pictured it. Him grabbing the box’s handle, straining to lift it up. Hughes alongside, helping. The two of them, coattails flapping as they ducked into an alley, out of sight.
“Not that needy,” he said at last.
Hughes harrumphed. “Fine, Mister Moral. Just stand lookout while I do it, then. Split it with you after, fifty-fifty.”
Cole’s eyes narrowed. “You’re awfully eager.”
“Well, aren’t you? C’mon, it’s the best chance we’re gonna’ get!”
Without warning, Cole’s fist shot out, catching Hughes square in the gut. There was an audible oomph as the smaller man crumpled, clutching at his waist. From his coat, something clattered to the sidewalk – a badge.
“Cop,” Cole hissed. “Knew it.”
“Ugh… you can’t…” groaned the other man, straining to catch his breath.
“What’s the matter, huh? Lockup not full enough for you?” Furious, Cole puffed heavily from his nose, great clouds of breath filling the air.
“Just… the way things go,” Hughes managed to say.
“I bet.” People were turning to look, but Cole was past caring. He lashed out with one booted foot, crashing into the cop’s face. Hughes groaned, then spat, mingled blood and saliva falling on the pavement.
“I dug through a dumpster for breakfast today, you know that?” Cole said. “And my hands are still cleaner than yours.”
“So what?” Hughes croaked. “Still lost everything.”
Cole looked down at him, then across the street. Near the shops, the trumpeter was retaking his post, ready for another hour’s work.
“Not everything,” he said. “Not yet.”
Alex Skopic is a graduate student in English Literature from the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, Signal Horizon, and Vastarien, among other places. He hates and fears social media, so please don’t look for him there.