by Arthur Davis
The man most called Tubby Stover sat on the street corner counting his toes. It was his third attempt and, try as he might, he couldn’t make sense out of the number of filthy buds protruding from the top of his feet. There couldn’t be eleven he reasoned, and tried once more. Eleven again, he counted and gave himself up to the ebb and flow of those who passed by refusing to acknowledge the fat man sitting on the curb wearing a stained blue work shirt and plaid boxer underwear even though the summer had vanished from the parched streets of Westvale, California, months ago.
Merchants stood guard over the wares they displayed on tables in front of their shops. Drug dealers dealt their toxic temptation on street corners as mothers held their children close at hand. Many young men and women wandered the streets aware of the fact that they hadn’t known a moment of peace or promise and probably never would.
Westvale was the model of urbanized, industrialized, divided America. A small blue-collar city with an overworked police force, a complex, unresolved, ethnic and racial mix, an educational system that acted merely as a holding pen for its future wards, and a social service network that had long ago given up on any pretense of meaningful support.
Ricardo Figueroa watched Tubby from the seclusion of his second story office above Fifth & Royal. He fidgeted with his silk tie and adjusted his cordovan alligator belt buckle as he had done since he was old enough to wear a suit and thereby separate himself from those around him. First, dealing drugs in the neighborhood schoolyards gave him a taste of the good life, then pimping brought color to his naturally cautious demeanor and, with some luck and a growing gift for melodrama and deceit, he had become one of the most successful businessmen in the crowded, working class community.
He had the money to move out; to relocate south to Los Angeles and buy a large house in one of the swankier communities and furnish it with expensive antiques and surround it with a rose garden and grand pool; or further south to where most of his relatives had immigrated from. But he liked the action in Westvale. Nowhere else in California was the sweet smell of possibilities quite so intoxicating than in the enterprise war zone that was called Westvale; a city once devoted to making fuselages for World War II bombers and where, by the end of the conflict, the city had tripled in size to nearly a half a million people.
He grinned as another bus crammed with Japanese tourists slowly moved across Royal Street, the mile long central nerve of the community, eager to visit the many ornate churches, the hundred-year-old jazz clubs along Edison Street which drew musicians from all over the country during the annual Westvale JazzFest, and the craft shops filled with merchandise he helped import from the sweatshops of South Korea and Taiwan. He turned from the window and decided that Tubby Stover, his onetime boyhood friend, was the solution to his problem.
He switched off his heavy brass desk lamp, a gift from his banker, and made his way down the stairs and out onto the street. People moved about without realizing how many of them, in their least noble acts, were responsible for putting money in his pockets. He had “agreements,” as he liked to call them, with the local utilities to supply them with unskilled, non-union immigrant day-workers who, in turn for the drudgery, were eager to kick back part of their salary to him through one of his other business enterprises.
Through his efforts, a dozen cars a day stolen from the streets of cities in southern California found there way to chop shops outside Westvale geared to disassemble their parts then sell them to repair shops in Oregon and Washington that paid dearly for the illegal components. He controlled two of the largest messenger and delivery services in the city through which drugs were easily distributed. Ricardo Figueroa had his hand in several of the most contentious drug distribution routes in the city. They were a prime, immutable, moneymaker, however his goal in life was to expand the network that first brought him financial credibility and wash those revenues through legitimate businesses.
That left Tubby Stover who was rocking back and forth on the curb in front of him. Ricardo bent to his old classmate’s side. He hadn’t been so close to the tall, foul smelling creature in almost two decades.
“Hey, Tubby,” he asked, making sure not to frighten the man whose sensibilities were known to be as unpredictable as his fits of anger. “It’s me.”
The big man turned sharply and pulled away. “Who?”
“It’s Ricardo. We went to school together,” he offered, and was met with dark, fearful, and frightened eyes. Eyes that probably hadn’t, in spite of the many programs in the state designed to help the indigent, experienced the sight of genuine concern in years. Ricardo looked down at the man who used to be a fine baseball player, a student of history who prided himself on his knowledge of the Civil War and, if memory served, even acted in one of the school plays. The years had been unkind to Tubby in many ways. Ricardo knew of his mental breakdown, of the car accident that killed his beloved golden retriever years back, of his being arrested for drug possession and petty crimes. That began a slow spiral down until he literally hit the pavement with nowhere to go except to wait for the elements, or a speeding truck or some kid’s prank to push him across the threshold of one last and final humiliation.
Tubby smelled the man’s cologne and reacted as if he had been offered a plate of poison. He shifted about as the strange man hovered about him. He tightened his grip on his threadbare shorts and brought his feet up under his buttocks. Now he would never know how many toes he had, and demanded with a resounding, “Go away.”
Ricardo peeled off a ten-dollar note from a roll of bills that was as thick as his fist. “Here, go buy yourself a decent meal,” he said, surprised that there was no odor of alcohol on the man, only the stench of a body that hadn’t been cared for in a long time.
Tubby snatched it away before realizing what it was. When he examined it closely, he wondered why anybody would be so foolish as to waste money on him. “Go away,” he said and turned away.
“You don’t remember me?”
Tubby clutched at his legs as if they were in danger of being cut off by a passing car and refused to acknowledge the harassment. His life was simple; get up, scrounge for food, then try and hold onto the rest of the day while dodging the demons that had cursed him with a thirst for alcohol and crack cocaine. In his own way, he had reasoned and mastered his way out of his darkest addictions. The effort had taken half a decade and left him fragile, tentative, and enervated. And he recognized that his success was too recent to boast about. “Go away,” he said, finally sheltering the bill in his large hand.
“Would you like a meal and a safe, clean place to sleep tonight?”
Tubby was alarmed. He recalled, in his dim and distant past, that he had been offered something similar and when he accepted he had been horribly hurt in places he knew were only meant for his own hands. Those men smelled almost as bad as he did now. There was a primal maliciousness about them, and he was as eager for a night’s peace then as he was accepting of, if not wanting, punishment for his spiritual weaknesses. This man was different and gnawingly familiar.
Ricardo noticed Tubby staring at the money in his hand. “I have more if you want it? You can have as much as you need,” Ricardo said, suddenly uncomfortable that so many passersby were taking an interest in the interaction he was having with this fixture of filth. Ricardo knew he should have sent out one of the men who worked for him, or even a stiff from his services to get Tubby’s attention. He also recognized that if he was going to get the bull of a man to kill someone, he was probably going to have to arrange for the accident himself.
Tubby was confused. He didn’t want to give back the money and he didn’t want to go with the man, which he believed was the intent behind the gift. His brain searched vainly for an answer. It was just the kind of thing that he was ill equipped to reason through. He knew there was a term, a phrase or string of words, to describe how he was feeling. People in hospitals always told him what he was feeling was called. He couldn’t remember. It wasn’t important. Not being hurt was. He handed the money back to the man and returned his attention back to his toes.
Ricardo waved it off. “Tubby, it’s Ricardo. Ricardo Figueroa. We went to school together. Remember? We played ball and had a history class together? Ms. Jacobson, the nasty old bitch? You wrote a great paper on the Civil War? Come on. You remember.”
The words struck at Tubby like a hammer. They were at once distant and powerful. They evoked memories, images, and faces that were different than most, remotely friendly, yet uncertain. Maybe counting his toes could wait. Maybe this man wasn’t going to hurt him. The man stood, handed him a small white card, turned and walked into a building across the street. Tubby scanned the card. Bryant Avenue Men’s Shelter it read. Under the printed address, the man had written his name and a time. Tubby watched the doorway into which the man had disappeared for some time before he got to his feet and ambled up and down the street clutching the card and his newfound wealth.
He was angry, although he couldn’t identify at what. He had eaten from scraps he had found earlier in the day and, thanks to his knowledge of the labyrinth of alleys behind Westvale’s many unregulated restaurants, he always had a meal, as his girth could attest. Still, he was angry, though not rageful, at something. The man who had spoken to him made him feel uncomfortable. Anxious. Tubby didn’t like the man, his voice, or what he said regardless of the fact that he hadn’t been threatened.
People moved along the street, going out of their way to avoid passing too close, always too fearful that they might be asked for a handout or the man some knew from the neighborhood would rage in their face. They gave him a wide berth and, in doing so, only isolated his soul even more in the middle of the busy, churning business district of Westvale.
Tubby found a tattered pair of pants in the garbage that fit as if they were originally his. They might well have been. He threw his away some time ago and couldn’t recall why or where and knew that once off, no one else, no matter how desperate, was going to put them on.
What to do with the ten dollars consumed the uncertainties of Tubby Stover’s mind. He could buy so many things, though for the life of him he couldn’t remember what he actually needed or in fact wanted. He knew a clean shirt would be welcomed. The weather had changed, was changing and, unlike himself who was going backward, the seasons moved forward and if you didn’t protect yourself from their wrath you would surely die.
He knew the appearance of the man and the money was an omen. It could be for the best, though he suspected, like most, it was a harbinger of suffering as was the loss of his black cap, the one his mother had given him, when it disappeared into the streets. Then his shoes vanished one frosty March night. Then, sometime in June he guessed, his pants were pulled from his legs by unseen forces. Soon he would be naked then jailed and taken to a place where they kept crazies which they would surely judge him to be. That frightened him most of all. Incarcerated simply because you could no longer maintain the expectations society demanded. Thrown into a cell with a hundred men who would think nothing of slitting your throat or your balls or beating you into a life of senseless submission.
The scene of a small, crowded classroom came to mind. He was sitting in a row of desks hunched over a test he had studied for and from which he would reap both knowledge and pride. It would be the first of many such rewarding experiences that, regrettably, he was unable to parlay into a normal life.
The half-mile walk to the Bryant Street Shelter took the better part of the afternoon. Tubby drifted by storefronts, like a child would right before Christmas, fantasizing what treasures his parents were going to hide under the tree that he would discover in the morning. Except Tubby knew he never had a real family, not in the conventional sense anyway. His father, and he had no image or recall of a photo of the man, had left his mother when he was only five. He believed he had a sister but could no longer be certain. He was only sure that he had to be very careful of the shelter he was heading towards. Terrible things happened to people in places like that. He had heard stories of abuse and perversion, of being held for days and weeks against your will where no one would turn a head in your direction and certainly not lend a hand in your aid.
“No officer, I had no idea what he was going to do. How could I? I spotted him sitting on the curb, remembered how great a guy he was and in a moment of weakness, that looking back now was a mistake, I gave him ten dollars and a card from a shelter which I had some direction in creating and told him to get himself together. He gave me a hard time. I’d never done anything like that before and, after what he did, will probably mind my own business next time,” Ricardo Figueroa said over and over until he had refined his speech to the police so that he would be comfortable with it when he was questioned. “Of course I had no idea.” No, too strong he corrected. “I was only trying to help the guy out. That’s where I went wrong.” Just right. A perfect blend of sympathy and indifference, he concluded and made two phone calls that he hoped would seal the fate of one of his most pernicious enemies.
Tubby stood across the street and watched two men enter the shelter. He half expected them to come running out with their hair on fire being chased by a band of pitchfork wielding dwarfs. His most recent dream left no room for escape. Victims in these midnight horrors were constantly being burned, devoured, cut in pieces, and carted away in small brown bags by even smaller and more hideously murderous creatures. Mostly men—it was invariably men—were being hunted down and tortured, mutilated and the flesh torn from their faces so their true identity would be impossible to recognize.
Another man entered the shelter, a renovated combination of what he guessed were once four, four-story walk-ups. Tubby pulled up his pants, he was now certain they really were his, and crossed the street. A guard twisted his face, eyed him suspiciously, and let him enter. He was asked to sign in, given a towel, a cake of soap, and asked to leave his clothes in a metal basket. They would be returned to him by the time he finished bathing. At first, he was reluctant. He had never been in a shelter like this one before, and he had been in many since his downfall.
However, this one was different. Very different. The first sense you got was that there were no dark spots where you could be attacked, beaten, or sexually assaulted. The facility was brightly lit and the bathing area was open, with only low stall partitions ensuring both safety and privacy. He took off his clothing, oddly reluctant and delighted, hoping he might get back a better outfit, then he left and walked into a remote stall. Three other men were bathing. All were taking their time as the steaming hot water cascaded down on their worn, rank frames.
Tubby suddenly became conscious of his girth. He wanted to explain to the other men that he wasn’t always this heavy. At one point in his life, he had actually played ball, even if he wouldn’t recall whether it was baseball or basketball. He was different now, having actually managed to work himself free from the grip of drugs though he couldn’t imagine what it would take to lift him out of the gutter and a pointless life from which there seemed no escape.
He took his time with the shower then rinsed off quickly when he realized he had left the ten-dollar bill in his pants pocket.
“You’re new here,” one of the guards said when Tubby asked for his basket back. The basket came with a small mesh bag in which residents could keep their valuable possessions and hang them on a hook directly next to the showerhead that provided peace of mind to those who rarely had it.
The guard handed him the basket filled with his warm, freshly washed clothing. His pants, shirt, and plaid underwear looked entirely different. They looked new, though in a used, tattered way. He slipped them on, jammed his hand into his warm pants pocket, and retrieved the damp, crumpled ten-dollar bill. When the guard asked him if he knew Ricardo Figueroa, Tubby shook his head. He actually didn’t recall the name and knew better than to admit to knowing anybody. Most associations could be dangerous. When you live on the street the only name you had to remember was your own, and even volunteering that piece of information could cause you a world of hurt.
He was given a tray with a bowl of soup and tasty meat sandwich and cup of coffee, which he took his time finishing. He counted himself fortunate to have gotten this far without encountering an incident directed upon either him or another man. The other men in the small cafeteria kept to themselves. Tubby held the money in one hand and a wrinkled business card with the printed name and address of the shelter and a name written across the back of the little piece of paper in the other. He was certain it was the name the guard had asked about. Even he was not that dumb not to recognize the similarity. There was an address and time written under the name. The letters were neat and upright. Exactly as he had learned to trace out in school, so many hypodermics filled with heroin, lines of cocaine, and bottles of gin, ago.
He asked for another cup of coffee, which he was given without question. The nice young girl behind the counter apologized for the fact that they had no cake left. Apparently, so many of the men had asked for seconds they were cleaned out right after lunch. One of the screening administrators asked him if he wanted a place to sleep. Tubby was anxious to get back to the street, said yes and was given a card with a number on it and told he had to be inside the shelter to claim his berth by nine or he would lose it to another man. He was under no obligation to return. However, if the beds were as clean and safe as the rest of the new facility then he might find a few nights of peace before, for whatever reason, he was forced to return to his life on the street.
Ricardo Figueroa kept looking down Royal Street for the vision of Tubby Stover, knowing that there was an excellent chance the man of his youth would not show up. He knew Stover had been at the shelter. The guard, whom he had alerted, confirmed the man by name and description moments after Stover registered at the front desk. The structure and systems set up to ensure quality service for those so unable or unwilling made the Bryant Street Shelter a model for the state of California. Figueroa was eager and especially helpful to the congressman who was the inspiration of the newest and prohibitively expensive shelter. It was because Ricardo was instrumental in assembling the four buildings that were demolished to create the shelter and could guarantee that the unions would work without interruption and personally hand-picked the staff that the congressmen was so indebted to him.
While helping the congressman, and garnering praise and invaluable contacts in the process was easy to a man with Ricardo Figueroa’s connections, what made him think that Tubby Stover, an emotional cripple, would accept the task at hand was unclear at first, even to Ricardo. Maybe it was coincidence that, when he was trying to resolve how to do away with Billy John Johnson—the one man who could beat him out of a lucrative hotel laundry service contract in Southern California, the very paragon of business prudence and ethics who twice had urged the United States District Attorney for Southern California to investigate Ricardo Figueroa’s many government contracts—he noticed the figure of a man who had nothing to lose.
Johnson was a man who commanded great respect and admiration, and whose superior character was held hostage in a body so crippled and compromised by time and a string of uncommon ailments that Ricardo Figueroa guessed all it would take to bring it to a state of absolute failure was a small, well-placed shock.
John Stover left the same men’s shelter Tubby Stover entered two hours earlier. The day seemed brighter, filled with a sense of promise and contentment he hadn’t experienced in a long time. A hot shower, where you weren’t afraid to protect your back, your clothing, or your life combined with a hot meal, being treated like a human being instead of street scum could do that to a man, John concluded. He even stood up straighter. His belly was still there. Nothing was going to hide that beast. It’s not difficult to gain weight when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from and you have to believe the one you’re consuming may be the last for a very long time.
By the time he arrived in front of the two-story building that housed a dry cleaner and bodega on the first floor and a suite of offices on the second, John Stover was more in command of himself and understood where he had come from than he had been in some time. He knew where he had gone wrong and grieved to the point of burning anguish for those he offended, physically abused, and abandoned, for the opportunities he had squandered, the life he had wasted, and most of all angered by how sorry he felt for himself, caring so little for those who sacrificed so much so long ago trying to keep him from becoming what he now was.
The transformation was apparent even in the most secret compartments of his soul. And he was no longer angry, and for lifting the shadow that clung to his spirit, John was already grateful to the man who had given him momentary relief from who he had become.
That didn’t wholly explain who Ricardo Figueroa was, or what he wanted, John questioned as he walked up each step anticipating the worst. What could a stranger ask in return for a hot shower, a good meal, a few words of respect, and the promise of a clean bed? A warm, clean, safe bed. No man offers a hand without expecting an arm in return. He had learned that much so long ago he believed little else. The one flight up felt unnaturally long. With each step came greater clarification of who he was and where he had come from. The story sounded like so many he had heard.
His mother died. He was left with cousins who themselves had so little socializing and parenting they succumbed to the rule of the gangs and by the time John graduated high school, a remarkable feat in itself, he too was lost to the streets. He liked school. He actually scored well in some subjects. English and history were his favorites. However, the lure of quick money and willing women was too tempting an invitation, especially when he couldn’t reach within and find greater benefits from what society and his community had to offer. From there, the next dozen or so years was a shiftless blackness of two steps ahead and three backwards until he had stepped off the last rung of the ladder and begun life as a recluse sitting on the curb of life trying to remember his name and the number of toes God had given him.
The sign read, Ricardo J. Figueroa, Investment Advisor. What did that mean? He wanted this part of the deal to be over with as quickly as possible. He knew it was going to cost; it was just a matter if he was up to the task, of any task. Or of taking responsibility for the rest of his life.
“There you are,” Ricardo said coming around to the front of his desk as John closed the door behind him.
John stood transfixed in his new surroundings. The offices were small and luxuriously appointed. That was the word. Luxurious. There were two enormous leather couches, two smaller black leather chairs in front of the desk that were also quite opulent. There was a fake mantle along one wall on which rested over a dozen gold and silver sports trophies. The opposing wall was covered with what John could only estimate were a hundred or so awards for community work, placards and photos of the man he was visiting shaking hands with prosperous and obviously politically connected people. John felt a seismic, fearful shift deep within his gut. He had no idea how his value could ever measure up to the needs of such an influential stranger.
“Sit right here,” Figueroa said, pointing to one of the large chairs arranged in front of his desk.
John stepped forward cautiously, almost afraid to sit down in something so grand and unblemished. He touched the leather with his fingertips as if it would vanish as soon as it realized who was about to contaminate it. He couldn’t recall when he had felt something so rich, far too rich for him to get himself used to. Finally, after his brain insisted, if only out of awkwardness, he sat his large frame into deep leather comfort.
“Well, how are you feeling?”
“I’m okay,” John answered, now captivated by the three gold and diamond rings on the man’s long, manicured fingers and thick gold bracelet and watch that peeked out from under his heavy gold cuff-linked shirtsleeves. He guessed the man to be much younger than he was. Figueroa’s black hair was cut short. His cheeks were fattened by rich food and fine wines. A man leading a life John could only imagine. People like this, he had learned long ago, did few favors for anyone unless they could recoup many times over for themselves. He was already trying to concoct a reason for not being able to do whatever it was that was going to be asked of him. His stomach churned with dread. His mind panicked knowing that it was going to be asked to perform the task of trying to outwit somebody, anybody—a skill it had given up long ago.
“That shelter is an amazing place, isn’t it?”
It was. John wanted to go back and sleep there this very night but was too afraid to ask, regardless of the fact that he was given a slip of paper that was supposed to guarantee him a bed if he got back before nine. “It’s new?”
“And cost a fucking fortune, I can tell you. I had to convince half the people in this district to accept such a facility. Then I worked with the developers and contractors and those filthy, bloodsucking politicians for two years to get the thing up,” he said moving to the wall of memorabilia. “And, as you can see here,” he said, pointing to a photo of eight men standing in front of the shelter cutting a blue ribbon dedicating the facility, “I finally managed to get it built.”
“Thank you,” John finally said, praying that courtesy was all that was required of him.
Ricardo was hesitant to draw the man back to his school days, when they had known each other. He had already ventured down that road and there had been no response from the man he knew as a youth. It wasn’t necessary for the job he had set out for this pathetic soul, though it might be interesting to explore at a later date if Tubby Stover proved more receptive than he currently appeared. The large man was clearly impressed. Who wouldn’t be? Ricardo shifted his body back to the front of the desk and looked down. There was no point in presenting Tubby with his usual litany of who he knew in California government; the names he could rattle off in the United States Senate and Congress as though they had been his brothers from the hood.
It just didn’t seem to matter here. In a way that was unfortunate. For some reason Ricardo wanted this man to understand, not simply the breadth of his power, though much was a geometric fabrication grown from a small grain of truth which was the only way one could survive, but his generosity, how he had already reached out to those less fortunate, and made a contribution to society. He wanted this man to understand and even appreciate his deep morality and devotion to the community, and common heritage they shared.
“I asked you back to my offices to ask you for a favor,” Ricardo said, turning away from Stover and walking over to the floor-to-ceiling window that faced down onto Royal Street. “Come over here,” he motioned.
John didn’t want to get up. He had already positioned himself in the chair so that his big butt was perfectly cradled and cushioned and caressed by the tender leather boundaries. He was also afraid that once he got up, he would never get a chance to return to the relief he so terribly needed. In a strange way, and for the first time, he was proud of his size. The grandness of the chair housed his three hundred-thirty pound frame as though it were half that size. His bulk was thoughtfully embraced in a way that made him feel wanted, believed, trusted. Then he forced himself out from the love of this wondrous convenience and walked to the side of the man who claimed to be so much.
“Look at them,” Ricardo said. “Hundreds and hundreds of people moving about, doing their daily chores, going to work, buying food, longing for a drink if they had the money. Every day a hard-won victory just to stay alive. It’s not easy. I know you know that.”
John knew that and the fact that there was something strange and vaguely familiar about the man standing next to him. The silk suit wasn’t an issue. It probably cost more than John had been able to scrounge from the streets in the last year. It wasn’t the voice, though there was something faintly familiar about that, too. As the man spoke, John turned and caught a glimpse of Ricardo Figueroa’s profile and was suddenly jolted back two decades to his ninth grade history class and the nasty, lying kid that sat next to him and cheated on his tests and took great pleasure in turning child against child by deception and manipulation. Ricardo Figueroa. My God, John gasped to himself as the muscles in his body froze in fear. If only the man knew to whom he had given a few hours respite from the streets.
“Well, we got you bathed and some fresh clothing and a good meal, I know because I was responsible for making sure that our brothers got first class food in spite of what those clowns down at city hall wanted to dole out,” Ricardo said.
He had been influential in the beginning of the project and through guile and cajoling and so much sucking up and ass-kissing he could tell the foul smelling buttocks of most of the state legislatures in the dark, he was able to steer several of the shelter’s service contracts to friends of his who were more than willing to provide second class service for inflated prices and kick back a hefty portion of the fees through his investment practice. Sweet, sweet, sweet was Ricardo Figueroa’s motto. Now all that was in jeopardy.
“John, have you ever heard of a man called Billy John Johnson?”
John was reliving an incident that happened at the beginning of his ninth grade year. Ricky Figueroa was sitting next to him and had a brand new three-ring binder on his desk. John envied it because his was already two years old and falling apart at the seams. Ricky’s binder was filled with hundreds of sheets of fresh white paper complete with brightly colored subject separators. At first, John thought that this boy must come from wealthy parents. Most of the class thought that of the boy who was new to the school as well as the neighborhood.
They were wrong. Before the day was over John learned that a binder answering the description of Ricky’s was found to have been stolen from an eighth grader. When confronted by the assistant principal, Ricardo insisted his father had bought it for him a week before school began. John was near him when the teacher asked him about the binder. Ricky was not only poised, he was annoyed at the implications of the questioning. From that day on, every kid in the school respected Ricky Figueroa, not for his academic achievements, but for the confident defiance he exuded in the face of the obvious.
“I never heard of him.”
“Well, I seem to have gotten myself in a bind and I thought—and you should know that you don’t have to do this for me—you might be able to help me out.”
John pulled away and girded himself for the obvious. “Is that why you sent me over to the shelter?” he asked.
Ricardo was surprised at the man’s confidence. “My God, no! I genuinely thought you could use a hand. From up here, I’m far away from the realities of the street. That doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to those whose lives are a daily challenge. My helping to build the shelter should tell you that.”
John wondered what it would be like to wear such an expensive suit. It probably cost a thousand, maybe twice that. It was beautifully tailored. Too flashy, but elegant nonetheless. “What do you want me to do?”
“I’m willing to pay you a hundred dollars to steal Billy John Johnson’s briefcase.”
A briefcase? John asked himself incredulously. What was in such a briefcase? Cash? Important documents? Government secrets? And why him? “I’m not a criminal.”
“Johnson has something that belongs to me, is in fact very near and dear to me, and I have no way to get it back except to take it from him. I know it sounds questionable John, but I have no other way and quite frankly, that first edition of Huckleberry Finn is very important to me. You may not consider a book so valuable, but I do. I loaned it to him months ago and he has refused every call and overture to return it. The last time I called, he said I never gave it to him. I’ve called my attorney who warned me that with all the community projects I’m sponsoring, I don’t need adverse publicity by taking the law into my own hands.”
“I don’t expect you to know about it, but it’s a rare and precious book.”
The visage of a bent old man wearing a white suit and white, wide-brimmed hat and chomping on a long black cigar while looking out over the wide expanse of the Mississippi from the bridge of a riverboat returned John Stover to a time when he read and thought and even took pride in the movement of his mind. “Yes, I wouldn’t know about such things.”
“Johnson is also a collector of rare editions.”
“A book,” Ricardo answered, trying to contain his contempt. “A very special book.”
Figueroa waved down to two women dressed in flashy tight-fitting leather skirts that left nothing to the imagination. John noticed them too. He knew who they were, the nature of their business, and how much each charged for a blowjob. You don’t spend so many years on the streets without getting to know who lived off the streets and who used them as a route to get to their home and their God.
Ricardo flipped open a file that was sitting on his desk. “Let me see here,” he said tracing a line down the page with his finger. “You were convicted of petty theft once, twice, no three times. The last time was last November. Overwhelming evidence on all counts. The police questioned you about your involvement in a burglary last year and in a stolen car up in Lawranceville two years earlier. You have a long record of alcohol and drug addiction that, quite admirably I must admit, you seem to have overcome. But you know it would be misleading to say you never crossed the line of the law.”
A book. A favor. A threat. A safe, clean place to sleep.
The last time John Stover had been so angered, so fulminatingly furious, was after he had been beaten up by a gang of kids in high school. Three boys jumped him in the corridor during lunch break and stole everything he had, including his books, which were later found in the trash. His mother cursed him for ruining his pants that were badly torn from the fight. The principal did nothing; not even bothering to question the three whom John had identified and were known to have assaulted other children. It took John a year, six inches and eighty pounds growth before he was able to gain retribution.
One by one, he met them in the streets, in a parking lot and, with a small baseball bat, savaged each until all three were hospitalized by an unknown assailant. This time John benefited from the failure of the system as the police willingly looked the other way. Three of the most foul the neighborhood had produced had, through some miracle of injustice, been given a dose of their own viciousness.
“Now this is very simple,” Ricardo began, knowing that any sudden incident would probably kill Johnson, the eighty-three year old “saint-of-the-city,” as the newspapers liked to call him. Johnson had beaten off a robber some years back and boasted to the police that he would have, “made a citizen’s arrest of the bastard” if the police sirens hadn’t scared him away. Now, with his well-publicized congestive heart disease, Ricardo sensed the old man just needed a helping hand on his way to the grave.
“Every Friday, Billy John Johnson leaves his home at exactly at 6:15 in the morning and walks the twelve blocks to his office at 333 Federal Plaza. I’ve been told he takes the book to work every day and reads a few chapters at lunch. You come up behind him, I think around Blakeley and Grove, and grab his briefcase. He’s a nasty bastard who would think nothing of spitting in your face. Don’t let him do that. He’s done it to others. I don’t want him to do that to you, so be careful. You’re free to bounce him once or twice on the head if he gives you a hard time. I owe him at least that. For a man with your strength it should be a piece of cake. You get your hundred and I get back my first edition.”
“Why don’t you ask one of your friends to do it?”
“I could. Absolutely. I could ask anybody. But I’m trying to help you,”
John couldn’t recall the last time anyone tried to help him, or he, someone else. The flipside of his dark side was that he had given back so little in his brief life, he was a poor role model for his own reform.
Figueroa sensed his mounting impatience, questioning his own judgement by bringing in Stover to assault Johnson, or his need to demonstrate, once again, his primative dominance over the less fortunate. He wanted this man out of his office almost as much as he wanted Johnson out of his life. “You don’t have to do a damn thing, Tubby, though you shouldn’t be so quick to turn down a favor, especially since it is coming from a man who could do you a world of good.”
A flashy suit, a plush office, sweet cologne, slicked-back hair, and the glorified pimp thinks he can get you to strangle your own mother and be grateful for the opportunity? And as for the theft, my God, he had stolen so many purses and briefcases John Stover was no longer curious to find out what was in them after he had run away. The fact was, he was not a criminal in the true, pathological sense of the word. He didn’t like to take what wasn’t his, injure another, or do anything he knew was morally wrong. And he had done appreciably more than Figueroa was even aware of. But it was not ingrained in his character to break the law because he actually believed in the importance of the law, if not to protect him, than to protect society from itself.
The founders of this country knew the importance of laws. Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote of the decency of man and spoke to it in both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. “We are a nation of laws,” his history teacher would drone over and over, “and that above all makes this country morally and spiritually unique.”
John Stover knew he broke the law because he was a weak man, not a morally corrupt man and never, except for those three boys, ever hurt one human spirit. He was also a realist. What difference did it make in this case? Another briefcase was another briefcase. Who cared who it belonged to? John knew he would agree to the request, but the words of acceptance hadn’t left his mouth when Ricardo suggested that he might not be able to get back into the shelter if he didn’t cooperate.
“Now, frankly, if you can’t do this simple thing for me I might be persuaded that you’re not a man to be trusted; not a man I would want back in my shelter.”
John backed away from the window and the glass framed picture of Ricardo Figueroa’s world and how the man looked down on those below him as if their sole purpose were to service his needs and revere the noble station to which he assumed he had risen.
Vague and distant recollections of past encounters with this pernicious player drifted in and out of John’s stressed brain like biting cold waves lapping against the shore. And with each successive wave came a greater glimmer of what the man was like as their paths and interests diverged in school. By the time they graduated, Ricardo Figueroa was a known criminal while John Stover, who had not yet succumbed to drugs and alcohol, was still a tall, strapping youth with acknowledged promise.
“You were going to give me a hundred dollars?”
Ricardo reached into his pocket, pulled out the coil of bills, peeled off a hundred dollar bill, and stuffed it into John’s shirt pocket. “Whatever you do, don’t damage the book. He takes it to work every day. I’m told he reads aloud from my book during his lunch.”
And if I don’t you wouldn’t let me back to the shelter? John could feel the crumpled up hundred dollar bill scratch against his flesh though the well-worn shirt as if it were tearing the flesh from his heart, and for the first time in his life considered taking the life from another. He was a head taller and easily a hundred-fifty pounds heavier than the polished Ricardo Figueroa. And he was strong; immensely strong since his youth when he had taken on men twice Figueroa’s size until winning no longer mattered. He could easily lift the little weasel up and throw him through the plate glass window.
Figueroa looked at him with a combination of contempt and pity, as though this was John’s one remaining chance at a happy life and if he didn’t do as he was told like a dog, he would be deprived of every right he ever thought he had including the guarantee of a safe place to hide from the torment of his own weakness.
John began pacing back and forth in front of Figueroa’s desk. Dark, foul images, terrible memories and unrelenting fears rose up and burst through his veneer of strength.
“What’s the matter?”
John clenched his hands behind his back and stooped as though the weight of the world was on his shoulders. He needed a night of peace. He needed to sleep the sleep of a child. He needed to know that no man had such control over his future. He needed to know that no man could call him back from the furthest reaches of the city, his city, and blackmail him into more and more evil. He would choose a life on the curb of life over a moment under the thumbnail of such a threat.
“Listen, Tubby, make up your fucking mind. I haven’t got all day for this crap.”
It was the use of his street name and the contemptuous way it was denounced that propelled John Stover’s six and a half foot frame into action. He removed the hundred-dollar bill from his pocket and tossed it onto the desk. Then, before Figueroa could respond John rushed to the back of the desk where the little man was confidently seated. John watched with relief and approval as his hands reached out for the man’s puny neck and lifted him like a frightened doll from his chair. He watched with great satisfaction as the man thrashed and kicked and tried to squeeze out a curse or threat as John’s fingers tightened their grip around Ricardo Figueroa’s throat.
Figueroa was surprisingly lighter and less aggressive than John expected him to be. He wished he would have given him more of a fight, but he was already so infused with rage and direction he didn’t need a more despicable enemy from which to draw additional purpose. When he saw the man weaken, he lifted him up over his head, a task he was also surprised was less strenuous than he had anticipated, turned and heaved the pale, limp body the half dozen feet into the plate glass window that read so helpfully Ricardo J. Figueroa, Investment Advisor.
John wasn’t sure which excited him the most. The impact of the body against the glass window or the sound it made or the sight of the figure passing through the explosion of crystal shards out and onto the street below. He moved back from the gaping, jagged glass opening. He knew that Figueroa’s jewelry, and whatever else was worth taking, would be picked clean from his body before it rolled to rest. He would have loved to watch the horrified crowd, Ricardo Figueroa’s people, gather below.
Instead, he picked up a paperweight and swung it twice against his right shoulder and, with his eyes closed, slammed it again into the right side of his face. Then he stumbled to the wall and fell against it so that his blood would mark a bright red smear down the white paint. He crawled to the window and called out for help just as the police cruiser pulled up to the crowd.
“I was tired of his threats, and when he wanted me to kill a man, this Billy John Johnson, whoever he is, and said that he would have me raped and beaten if I returned to the shelter without doing as he wanted, I started screaming. He grabbed something and started to hit me and told me that I had no right to live at all and that I was a piece of shit and that I should be glad he was going to give me the chance to make some money and that I didn’t deserve a minute of his time. He got crazy! Wild! I knew he was going to kill me so I grabbed him and then, and then . . . ” John said to a room full of spellbound detectives, “and then, and that’s all I remember.”
John was consumed with a relief he had never experienced. His past, the assaults he endured in fact and in spirit, the looks of disdain and contempt, the feeling of self-loathing and contempt, the sense that his life was over long before it began, the realization that as he sat on the street he was already dead and only living out his own funeral, all vanished as the body of Ricardo Figueroa crashed through the thick glass pane and plummeted to the street below, a final footnote to John Stover’s barren, spiritless past. Of course, this feeling of relief was told to no one, except many years later to a psychiatrist who was helping him deal with his relationship with his young son.
His wounds were bandaged and, after an examination at the hospital, he was taken to the police station and booked. He was brought up before a judge that night and arraigned. A public defender was appointed to his case; a clever little man with thick glasses, a keen knowledge of criminal law and criminal intent, and a sharp tongue who was well connected to Billy John Johnson through whose influence John Stover was eventually released. Within a week he was welcomed in the offices of Billy John Johnson and offered a full-time job at the Bryant Street Shelter and told that if he was threatened by anyone from then on, he was to come back and tell Mr. Johnson about it and that party would suffer. Mr. Johnson’s exact words were, “made aware of your direct connection to me.”
The memory of Ricardo Figueroa was further tarnished by documents found in his office by the police that revealed the extent of his corrupt activities, from paying off state assemblymen to the local precinct captain. Such revelations only further clarified the case of John Stover’s innocence.
John Stover worked at the Bryant Street Shelter for nine years, attending college at night to earn his degree, which eventually allowed him to become manager of the facility and master of his own life.