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A Bit of Heat, A Bit of Light

Winter swept into an April night like a vapor, crawling under doorways and wafting itself into the air, chilling what it touched and numbing those who touched it. April, when daffodils poked their tender heads haltingly toward a nurturing sky and birds hopped from branch to branch, reveling in the simple pleasures of sun and seed and song. When a man’s thoughts might turn to dance and music and love itself.

But on this night winter made a reappearance, a final thrust across a city at once too eager to see it go. Families huddled in their homes and turned their thermostats up. Cabbies drove with their windows rolled up tight, and the windows of buses fogged up with the moisture of artificial heat. Grocers sold hot chocolate and marshmallows.

In Farragut Square, Matthew Cooney hunched on his usual bench. The iron slats ran shanks of cold along the back of his legs, and he arched his shoulders forward under the tatty blanket that had tried to keep him warm for years. Another night at least before he could stuff it into his backpack and pretend that he might never need it again.

Next to him sat one of the other regulars. James, his name was. Never ‘Jim.’ Or, God forbid, ‘Jimmy.’ He would react almost violently if someone called him that “My name’s James, God damn it. James. Jimmy, that’s a boy’s name, or something you sprinkle on ice cream.” Sometimes the teasing would continue, though, the taunts from those younger, and bolder, and stronger. James wore the broken teeth and battered bones with pride that he stood up for something. “I’m a man, Matthew,” he had told Cooney when they had first met. “A man with a man’s name. Don’t ever call me Jim.”

Now James sat with his shoulder against Cooney’s, and the two of them tried to breathe warmth into their hands.

“Ah, Matty. We should be sittin’ someplace warm. Not stuck out in this damn park with nothing but our wits to keep the blood circulating. And pass me a bit of that bottle, would you?”

Cooney obliged, and James took a deep draught of the cheap brandy Cooney had snuck out of a package store around the block. Nasty, it was, but its fire lit the belly.

“Nah, James. Nothing warm for the likes of us. We’re living the pure life.”

“Christ Almighty,” and James took one final swig before passing the bottle back to Cooney. “Think of all the worthless bastards that are sleeping in warm beds tonight and wrapping themselves around their women. And none of ‘em any different than us. Flesh and blood and dreams, just like us.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Jamesy. We’ve the flesh and the blood, but the dreams are gone. Don’t really know what happened to them either. But gone they are, and we’re left with what we’re left with. And tonight that amounts to this bench, and this brandy, and blankets with as many holes in them as our souls.”

“I’d like to get my hands on one of those rich bastards,” James said. “I’d show him what life is really like. Maybe toss him into a trash can and light it on fire, just to keep us warm for a bit.”

“And what would that do, James? You’d show him what life is really like, you said, but what would he learn? We build our own boats, my friend, and it’s those boats we must sail. He sails his, complete with the dreams we’ve lost, and we sail ours.”

James looked hard at Cooney, who continued softly. “I don’t resent those who’ve made it, James. They’re part of the game, don’t you see? Every day we play the game, seeing what we can get away with, seeing what we can take. Seeing how we can kick ourselves up a notch, or maybe knock someone else down. If there were no rich bastards, there’d be no game.”

“Not sure I understand you, Matty.”

Cooney smiled, and sipped from the bottle. “Not sure I understand myself, James. There’s some newspapers under that bench over there. Go grab ‘em up and we’ll see if we can burn up this trash can. A bit of heat and a bit of light. That’s all we need. That’s all anybody needs.”


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