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From the bestselling author of Soldier's Joy and Waiting for the End of the World comes a novel about the perils of living an unexamined life that "scratches the underbelly of America's dispossessed" The Detroit News, as two men living on the fringes of society come to grips with who they are and their chances for survival.
Macrae and Charlie met each other in Battery Park by finding out neither one of them had spare change. "Hey there, friend," Charlie called out sharply, when he was still about ten steps away, and Macrae chimed in with "Got a quarter ...?" like he meant to join in the singing of some familiar tune. But they both stopped there and circled each other like two strange dogs. It was late, after ten at least, and turning cold, turning into the first cold days of fall. The wind was blowing in off the bay in fits and starts; the fits had a whiplash sting to them. There was nobody in the park except for Charlie and Macrae and, thirty or forty yards from them, a boy and girl standing against the pipe railing, twined around each other like they thought they might be posing for a postcard.
Charlie stepped around Macrae, turning to put his back to the wind, which reached over his shoulder and knocked Macrae's hair up off his forehead. Thick, black, tangled hair, uncombed and uncut for a long time. His big bony face was not bad looking, even with his nose running slightly from the cold. He held the collar of his raincoat shut with a blue-knuckled hand, stooping, letting the wind bow the middle of his body backward. When the gust subsided, he straightened back up. Charlie saw that he was young, youngish anyway, probably not over thirty. His other hand held the raincoat closed around his navel, where another button was missing. The raincoat was pale and grubby and fell almost to his ankles and Charlie thought he didn't have much on under it. Not that he was a twirler or anything like that, he just appeared not to have enough clothes for the weather.
"What about a dime, then?" Charlie said. "A nickel? Hell, you look like you hadn't got anything in your pocket but a hole."
"That's about the size of it," Macrae said. Not so long ago he himself had had a military sweater like the one Charlie was wearing, heavy olive drab wool with green cloth patches on the shoulders. Over it he wore one of those trick silvery jackets, no thicker than a sheet of paper, that were supposed to be magic for holding the heat. Macrae was wondering if the jacket worked as well as it was cracked up to.
"Yeah, I'm in about the same shape," Charlie said. "The question is, what are we planning to do about this situation?"
Macrae lifted his shoulders and let them fall. Charlie laid one finger on the side of his nose and looked over at the couple that was standing beside the rail. The boy's hand held the girl's hair flattened into the curve of the nape of her neck. She drew herself up inside his jacket, which he'd opened to let her in.
"They aren't going to give you anything," Macrae said.
"Look at that jacket," Charlie said. "That's two, three hundred dollars right there, a nice leather jacket like that. You can't tell me he don't have a quarter."
The girl's arms were snugged away up under the skirts of the jacket; Macrae saw her turn her head to the side and lay her cheek flat against the boy's breastbone. The wind flared and Macrae's eyes began to tear. He ducked away, flipping up his collar, feeling the thread of another loose button twist over his thumb.
"He's not thinking about giving it to you."
"He's not thinking at all," Charlie said. "Did, he wouldn't be out here at this time of night. This park gets dangerous, this late." He started moving toward the couple, feet slapping down loudly, shoulders square, nothing like a panhandler's usual apologetic shuffle. Of course there were some who traded on boldness, but Macrae had never mastered this method because the whole process of panhandling left him rigid and miserable with shame.
"Hurry up," Charlie said over his shoulder. "Don't want to get left, do you?"
Macrae's knees bent under him and he was following, not really meaning to. He had no real interest in seeing the other man fail. Charlie put his hand on the railing and sidled toward the couple, the pipe just grazing the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger. His right hand was in the pocket of the silver jacket.
"Excuse me," Charlie said. "We're in need of a little money, me and my friend."
The boy's head came languidly up. His hair was moussed and teased forward into a little flip over his brow. Macrae would have taken him for almost his own age except that the self-satisfied blankness of his expression made him look younger.
"Sorry," he said. "I don't have it tonight."
"You don't understand," Charlie said.
"Hey, look, man, I already told you—" The boy lifted his hands, palms wide, and the girl rolled out from under his arm and stood a space away from him, still connected by one finger hooked in the waistband of his jeans.
"I'm not asking you," Charlie said, and reached across and grabbed the boy's wrist with his left hand and yanked him sharply around and crowded him over with his belly against the railing. The girl's finger came loose from his jeans and she stood holding her arm extended, like there was still something to support it, while Charlie's right hand, through his jacket pocket, gouged into the boy's kidney.
"I'm telling you," Charlie said. He pushed harder, and the boy doubled over the railing, the flip of moussed hair reaching down toward the muted gleam of water below the embankment.
"Feel that?" Charlie said. "Do you? I'd blow a hole in you." With a quick turn and jerk, he pointed the mound in his pocket toward the girl. Light flickered off the silver crinkles in the fabric.
"Don't you move," he said. "And shut that mouth, why don't you?"
Macrae watched the girl. Gradually her arm settled to her side from the position in the air where it had been left. Her mouth was very small and cherry red and the lips were slightly parted. She was tipped forward onto the balls of her feet, quick frozen there. You look like I feel, Macrae thought. Charlie was thumbing the boy's wallet open.
"Twenty bucks?" he said. He held the wallet up by one corner, like a rotten dead thing, and a plastic card carrier unfolded from it and hung.
"Keep those legs apart," Charlie said. "Put your weight on that rail, son." He twisted to turn the dangle of cards under the streetlight. "New Jersey license," he said. "Don't you bring more money when you come to Manhattan?"
The boy didn't answer. He kept his face turned away from the light.
"Cheap date, huh?" Charlie said. "Going Dutch, maybe? Better have a look at that purse. And you, let's see you turn out your pockets."
A key ring fell on the pavement by the boy's left foot. Macrae was looking at his shoe, two-tone suede with a crepe sole. A handful of coins came jangling down and Charlie swept them over the edge with the side of his foot. A couple of plunks returned from the water.
"I want that folding money," Charlie said. "Come on now, where's that purse?"
Charlie was talking to him, Macrae realized. The wind hit him hard when he moved nearer the girl, but he didn't really feel it; the cold spot was spreading inside him now, from the root of his backbone all through his stomach. The girl wore a tiny fringed disco purse on a strap of rolled leather passed over her shoulder and neck. The strap hung on something when Macrae tried to lift it off, and the girl helped him, stooping to disengage. He passed the purse to Charlie and remained standing with one leg behind the girl, covering her unconsciously, like a guard in a basketball game.
Charlie shook the purse out into his palm: a Chapstick, breath mints, a couple of tissues, a tightly folded ten-dollar bill he tucked into his pocket.
"You all can barely afford the tolls," Charlie said. He detached the card carrier from the wallet and began running it through his hands like a scroll. "Oh, I get it. New York University ... You didn't get your license changed over. Are you a scofflaw, kid?"
"You don't have to if you're a student," the boy said.
"What?" said Charlie, pulling a card loose from the plastic and letting the folder fall.
"If you're a student you don't have to," the boy repeated. It was the first thing he had said since Charlie'd grabbed him. "I don't drive in the city anyway."
"I'm sure that's very wise of you," Charlie said. "Wise and prudent. Keep doing that way and you'll live a long time." He held up the card he had selected, the blue-and-white arrow of Citibank.
"And now we're going to go to the cash machine," Charlie said. "Listen."
The importance of his tone made Macrae lean forward. The wind blew in his face, and he thought he could smell the girl—not perfume, but a warm, clean smell. Something like talcum powder.
"You probably think I'm a real bad guy," Charlie said. "I'm a teddy bear next to my friend here." Over the girl's shoulder he winked at Macrae. "Not that it's his fault or anything, he's just not right in the head. I try my best to take care of him, you know. I have to pretty well keep him away from the women, especially. He's got unnatural tastes that way. Not the same as the rest of us are. I don't even think about that part if I can help it. If I do I get bad dreams."
The girl made a startled movement and brushed against Macrae. His hand slipped down the sleeve of her sweater and closed on her wrist, the touch of her skin striking him with the force of an electric shock. He heard her smother a gasp, and he loosened his grip, curving his fingers over her rigid arm like a bracelet.
"I know we don't want to get into that." Charlie's voice was almost singsong. "No, we don't want to go that road ... Let's us just go to the bank and take out a little bit of money. And let's make sure nothing happens to bother my friend or get him excited. Come on, now..."
The boy turned tentatively away from the railing and looked at Macrae, and then looked at Charlie.
"It'll be all right," Charlie said gently. "You can go on and pick up your stuff."
The boy hunkered down. His hands crawled over the pavement, groping after the wallet and cards and keys. Bits of glass embedded in the asphalt sparkled between his fingers as they moved. He wasn't watching what he was doing. His eyes cut back and forth between Macrae and Charlie, but apart from that, his face had the same vacant pout as before.
"We're set," Charlie said. He climbed a wide set of steps and headed across the grass, away from the water and back toward the street, guiding the boy a half pace ahead of him. Macrae followed and the girl came easily along with him. He left her wrist loose in the ring of his thumb and forefinger. Each small accidental touch of her jolted him. They passed a mound of cannonballs and a flagpole and a squat, low monument on which an Indian and a Dutchman were sculpted in relief. When they reached the edge of the park, Charlie turned back.
"Let her have the purse back, you look silly with it," Charlie said. "And don't hold her that way. Be nice, hold her hand."
That reminded Macrae of something, he couldn't think what. The Wall Street area was deserted, though brighter than the park had been, and quiet except for the gasping and murmuring of machinery inside the buildings. Macrae could hear the buildings breathing like big iron lungs. The girl's hand was cool and small in his and in the glow of the gated shop windows he could see her more plainly, though he didn't like to look at her straight on. A couple of body lengths ahead, Charlie was walking a half step behind the boy, his hand in the silver pocket floating at the small of his back.
"Where's the closest branch?" Charlie said.
"I don't know," the boy said.
"Don't give me that," Charlie said, gouging the boy in the kidney with whatever he held in his pocketed hand.
"I don't know," the boy said, as he sucked in a sharp breath. "We came down on the subway. You think I hang out down here?"
"I don't think about where you hang out," Charlie said. "Which way?" They had come to a corner, and Charlie turned left without waiting to be told. In tiny sidelong glances Macrae examined the girl. She kept her face aimed straight ahead, so he saw her profile against the display windows. It was a natural prettiness; she wore no makeup, or almost none. Her hair was blond with darker currents streaking it, thick and straight, falling just to the join of her neck and shoulders and turning under there. She wore a V-neck sweater of very soft wool and under it a white blouse with a little round collar. Every so often she caught her lower lip in her top teeth and then let it plump free. A nervous habit. Her pleated pants fit her loosely around the hips and nipped in at the waist and at her ankles, above the little white socks, turned over, and the black high-heel shoes. It impressed Macrae how easily she knew how to walk on shoes like that. She was a head and half shorter than he was but she matched his pace without difficulty.
"There it is," Charlie said. They had reached another corner, and off to the left was the blue-and-white awning of Citibank. Macrae could see the silhouettes of all four of them on the glass as they waited for the door to buzz open after Charlie stuck in the card. Inside, he waited with the girl several paces back from the machine, as though they were standing in line. She raised her head and smoothed back her bangs with her free hand and then looked down at the floor where she had been looking before.
Charlie dipped the card into the machine and stood aside so the boy could reach the keypad. "I don't want to see it say it don't recognize your number," he said. "Or there'll be some atrocities take place. Right here and now, do you understand?"
The boy punched on the keypad and waited and punched another button and waited some more. Macrae raised his eyes and met the winking red light of a video camera high in the corner of the cubicle. His hands clenched involuntarily and he felt the girl flinch in response. Twisting away from the camera, he saw her eyes for a second, pale green, but she didn't hold the look. He stood with his head lowered, as hers was. Charlie slapped the boy once across the face, not hard; it was a gesture. Macrae peered up through a lacing of his fingers and saw the light on the camera blink a time or two more and then go out.
"Don't give me that," Charlie said. "Are you trying to pull some trick?"
"It's out of cash," the boy said sullenly. "can't help it. Sometimes they run out. Weekends especially."
"We'll find another one," Charlie said.
At the door he turned back and grabbed a brochure that told the locations of the different bank machines. He walked along behind the boy, frowning down at the paper, then folded it and tucked it into his hip pocket. At the next corner he turned right and Macrae went after him, leading the girl. Two doors down a Blimpy was open and Macrae saw a car pull to the curb in front of it and saw the driver open the door and hoist a leg onto the sidewalk. It was a police car. Macrae's heart stopped with a slam, and he stopped breathing, but he kept on walking at the same rate. It was like an experiment with a dead frog and a battery ... and there again he was reminded of he-couldn't-think-what. The cop heaved himself out of the car, kicked the door to, and gave them an incurious glance, hitching up his belt with a grunt as they passed. From behind him, Macrae heard the cop's belt radio cough and sputter: "Bank Street and cszk-cszk-cszk ..." Unable to stop himself from looking back once, he saw the cop going into the Blimpy.
"We'll take a cab," Charlie said. They had come out of a narrow street onto Broadway, where there was a steady stream of traffic in both directions, though still nobody on the sidewalk. "Taxi!" Charlie called, throwing up his arm. A Checker cab swung to the curb immediately. Charlie and Macrae sandwiched the boy and girl into the middle of the bench seat.
Macrae was embarrassed because his palms were sweating after the cop. He pulled his hand loose from the girl's and rubbed it dry on the knee of his pants. Charlie said an address on Franklin Street and the cab turned to the left. The driver was black and wore a peculiar colored hat and was listening to a foreign-language station Macrae didn't recognize—not Spanish, anyway. He took the girl by the hand again and then realized he didn't need to—neither one of them could go anywhere, squeezed in like they were. Her leg was pressed against him and he could feel her temperature through the two layers of cloth. The veins at his temples were thumping hard enough to start a headache, and he slipped his hand up to her wrist, touching the soft cuff of the sweater again and then turning the ball of his thumb into the warm declivity beside her tendons to find her pulse, which seemed as fast and hard as his. When he concentrated on slowing the beat he thought he could feel her pulse slow also. Then it occurred to him that he was forcing her by touching her this way, and he let go.
Excerpted from Save Me, Joe Louis by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 1993 Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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