Jagged ice crystals, embedded in pavement, scraped at the derelict's unshaven cheek. In a chilling way, it felt good. It meant he was still alive; still breathing; spared to endure yet another day of hunger and despair. With a low moan, he pulled his legs up tighter to his body. The homeless man lay on his side, covered in newspapers and rags. The sleet that slashed between the city's buildings, like a jackhammer splitting concrete, clung to brick and mortar, metal and steel, and the tip of Jack Moser's nose. "Get up, Jack. You can't stay here." The husky voice trickled from his ears into his mind. Or, perhaps there was no voice at all--only a feeling--or a half-remembered echo from yesterday. Or was it the day before? "Move it, Jack. Get out of here." Get out of where? Where's "here"? "Jack . . . ." The voice had changed. Now it was female; soft; provocative, but no less demanding. "Jack? Can you hear me? You've got to go." It was Sarah's voice . . . but Sarah had died five years ago . . . ten years ago . . . twenty years ago, but then, what did it matter? She was dead, and the pain burned in Jack's brain like the tip of a cigarette, a red hot inner glow shadowed by a bitter dawn. He wanted to quit. Give up. Cash in, check out, and end it all. But they wouldn't let him. God damn do-gooders, he thought. They get what they want. Everybody gets what they want, even if they have to hustle an old man to do it. But what do I get? Cast off clothes. A buck here or there. Cheap booze. A hot meal now and then, and for what? So they can get their good Samaritan "fix"? As he pushed himself up from the pavement, he stuffed his rags and papers into a nearby window well, brushed his forehead with the back of his hand, and struggled to remember who "they" were. The folks at the city mission? With his back to a fire escape, he relieved himself against a garbage dumpster. Nah, it ain't them. Those preachy old hags smell good, but all they talk about is Jesus. Jack zipped his fly and hiked up his threadbare trousers. Maybe it's them fellas from the city's homeless task force? Hell, no. Not them! They ain't shovin' Jesus in my face, but they're sayin' 'bout the same thing: Get off the booze and get a job. As he staggered out of the alley into the arbitrary light of day, it came to him: It's aliens! That's it . . . it's them aliens. He flinched as he looked up at the sky. Good. Snow's thick enough, they can't see me. And probably can't hear me, neither. Jack pulled his stocking cap down over his ears, belched, and staggered, left to right, forward and back, the two blocks down to Commerce and Main streets. With a groan, he lowered his bony frame to the concrete slab below a grocer's corner window. He reached into one capacious pocket, withdrew a ragged cigar box, and placed it in front of him, lid open. The grocer stepped out through his front door with a broom in one hand and a bucket of rock salt in the other. As he brushed the night's snowfall from the sidewalk, he nodded to the beggar beneath his window. Jack nodded back. In more than four years the grocer had never spoken to Jack; never waved; never smiled; but neither had he ever chased Jack away. And, while the homeless man sat beneath the grocer's window, no one else had ever asked him to move along, either. Strange. Damned strange. Especially since it was a good spot. Numerous well dressed commuters passed by all day long: to work, to lunch, from work, from shopping. Jack saw them all, and even knew a few by name. And the cops who walked by never said a word. Act like they don't even see a bum like me. Guess no one does. I may 'swell be invisible. Another thought crowded into Jack's numb mind: Shit! Maybe I am! His mind spun in a slow spiral as he folded his long legs under him for warmth. He reflected that some folks, when they tossed a coin into his cigar box, said "God bless you", even if they refused to look him in the eye. Nah, that proves it. They can see me. It's themselves they can't see--all dressed up, warm, rich and handsome on the outside, but hollow, like a garbage can after the truck's been by. Yeah--that's a good word--hollow. They don't know what it's really like. Three hours later, Jack leaned forward and stared into his box. One paper dollar and enough coins to equal another buck or two . . . maybe. He tilted his head back and spoke to the lowering winter sky: "Whatd'ya think? Not bad for a morning. Is it enough?" Car horns honked and the wind chased snow in puffs and gusts around the edge of the building, but Jack heard no other sound. Well, answer me! Think I want to sit out here all day? Another pedestrian, someone he'd never seen before, stopped in front of him. The man, dressed in a suit topped by a cashmere coat, reached into his vest pocket, extracted a soft leather wallet, and withdrew a five dollar bill. With eyes lowered, he tossed the currency into the cigar box and strode away, his December good deed checked off his list. Neither concern nor compassion showed in his eyes. Jack again looked into the heavens. How about now? Is it enough now? A skinny dog, dodging through traffic, growled at its counterpart across the street, and two young boys, sliding into a bright, prosperous future atop inline skates, rolled by. Jack had never known the aliens to appear as either dogs or kids. In fact, they'd never appeared--exactly--at all. God damn aliens, Jack thought. Speak up! I got six or seven bucks. Is it enough, or not? Whatd'ya want from me, anyway? As he waited for an answer, he watched a short, bowlegged woman, who looked older than the turn-of-the-century coat she wore, approach him. In one hand she held a ticket of some sort, and in the other a small white card. "Good morning, sir. May I ask your name" Jack looked to the left, and then to the right. As he glanced behind him he said, "You talkin' to me, lady?" The woman, with a slender face and sparrow brown eyes, nodded. "Why, who else but you?" "Yeah. Sure. Whatd'ya want?" The woman crossed her arms across the front of her coat. "Well, I guess I'll start first, then. My name's Annabelle Parish, and I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. . . . Mr. . . . ?" The Commerce Street bum squinted and frowned. "Moser. My name's Jack Moser. And I ain't goin' noplace with you. Got it?" He was sure that the woman before him was just another do-gooder--some kind of new, colorful variety, like that BrocciFlower stuff he saw in the grocer's window sometimes. Ain't hardly nothin's the same as it used to be any more, he thought. These days I'm doin' good to get six or eight bucks by dark. "See, Mr. Moser. That wasn't so bad, was it?" Jack shook his head but withheld words and opinion together as one. "I'm not here to change your life, Mr. Moser. I just want to help." Annabelle held out the ticket. "This is a voucher for ninety days lodging at Harvest House, a half mile south of here on Market Street. They'll help you get cleaned up, and they've got a good kitchen." "I ain't givin' up the booze, so I guess you can just forget it." Jack coughed, spat on the slushy pavement, and turned his head away from the Parish woman. "I didn't ask you to give it up, did I?" When the derelict in front of her didn't answer, she said, "Well, did I, Mr. Moser?" "Nope, you didn't, but there's gotta' be a catch. What do I have to do--pray eight hours a day? Why are you doin' this?" Jack coughed again, a thick, raspy sound, before returning his gaze to Annabelle's face. "I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do. And please, take this." She handed him a crisp, professional business card. "Who's this--some charity pooh-bah I have to suck up to? Sorry, Miz Parish. Old Jack Moser don't suck up to nobody." He narrowed his eyes and tried to read the small lettering. It looked like it said "institute" or something, and contained another address, also on Market Street. "No, Mr. Moser. It's a health clinic. They can help you with that cough of yours, and whatever other problems you may be having. You're not a young man any more, you know." Jack reached out with one long arm, balanced himself on his fingers, and lifted his lean frame so that he stood on his feet. "I ain't givin' up the booze. You understand?" "Yes, Mr. Moser. I understand completely." Jack saw no sign of judgment, deceit, or condescension on his benefactress' face. The homeless man stood for several seconds and stared at Annabelle Parish with the peculiar, focused look that pedestrians Direct toward a walk/don't walk sign. "Is there anything else, Mr. Moser?" Annabelle reached into her pocket and withdrew another ticket and white card. She would hand out several before the afternoon was over. "I said, is there anything else, Mr. Moser?" Jack had been thinking about the aliens. He wondered if they had some way of seeing through the drab, December sky. What'll they think about this? "Uh, no, Mrs. Parish. And, uh . . . well, thanks. Ain't nobody done nothin' for me in so long, other than toss a few coins into my box, I don't really know what to say." "You're welcome, Mr. Moser. Oh--and they're expecting you over on Market Street before dark."
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