SHORT STORY

Downtown Crossing
by Charles R. Sterbakov

     The bagpipe wailed loud and joyous, the tune familiar but not quite recognizable.  Across the walkway a line stood patiently at the taco stand, while further down the street three men were waiting at the ice cream counter, their business suits and ties defying the bright sun and mid-nineties temperature.  A man in a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap walked back and forth across the street, arguing vociferously to somebody walking by his side, not visible to anyone but himself.  The sweet smell of incense mixed in the air with the roasted nuts, flowers, hot dogs and egg rolls from the multitude of vendors clustered near the corner.

      George Wilmont walked up the street made into a walkway, toward the circus that was Washington and Summer.  He stopped for a minute and, on impulse, took a dollar bill from his pocket and placed it in the cup of a beggar sitting in the sidewalk.  He had a personal rule against giving this way—there were so many of them, he felt that if he gave one, he would feel guilty about them all.  Today was different, though—maybe he understood them a bit more.

      Not that George had any money problems.  His financial status was secure and protected.  But, even so, George felt suddenly homeless.  It wasn’t fair.  He had given them everything, night and day, changing them from a struggling company always on the verge of bankruptcy to one of the most successful small businesses in Boston.  Ironically, it was this very success that had doomed him.  Three weeks ago, Berway Electronic Systems was bought by one of the super conglomerates and this morning he was released.  They did it nicely, of course, with a lucrative buy-out package and a lavish letter of recommendation.  Even with the letter, he had no illusions that he could find another position easily—companies weren’t beating the bushes for a sixty-year-old executive.  Besides, he didn’t think he could handle starting over again with another company.

      In front of him a man stood at an easel drawing circles trying to explain how Jesus was coming soon to save the Earth.  A group of schoolgirls giggled as they crossed from Filene’s to Jordan Marsh’s, comparing the spending limits of their parent’s charge cards.  It was such a beautiful day; so much happiness surrounding him that it only depressed him more.  What would he do now?  How could he justify his own existence?  My God, why would he want to wake up in the morning?  He turned down Winter Street, with no particular destination.  He just could not face his empty apartment.

      As he prepared to cross Tremont to the Commons, he heard a familiar voice.  Sitting at the corner was a heavyset woman with dirty blonde hair and a guitar on her lap.  He was surprised to see her here.  At times, instead of driving, he rode the commuter line and he had seen her many times in the subway at South Station, singing in a surprisingly beautiful voice.  Last Christmas he had placed a five dollar bill in her cup—it was not like the beggars in the Crossing.  She was singing carols so well that he was paying for the enjoyment, not giving charity.  Many times he had wondered how she had ended up playing for alms in a grimy subway.

      The Commons was no different then Washington Street, maybe even worse (or better, depending on your mood).  A young man practicing juggling on the grass; a clown trying to get people to join a tour group; a group of college students playing Frisbee with a large cocker spaniel; and more vendors, tourists and, of course, the ever present beggars.  George was beginning to feel a little dizzy, the impact of what had happened to him just setting in.  He sat on a bench, out of the sun.

      Across the way another man about his age was also sitting on a bench, with a younger couple beside him.  He was playing with a young child, a girl about three years old.  They were both giggling and all four of them reflected the happiness of life as it should be.  Bitterness began to run through him.  He was jealous and angry.  This is what he had given up for that company and now, what did he have to show for it?  He had been married once, to a pretty woman that he guessed he must have loved in a way, but she was no competition for his job.  When she left, taking the two children with her, it was almost a relief.  No more distractions from his true love—the adding machine and balance sheet.  He had not spoken to his wife in more than twelve years, and only had contact with his son and daughter, now grown with children of their own, at holidays and birthdays.  He stood up and walked toward the duck pond.

      His life, for all practical purposes, was over.  He could either play out the string, watching himself grow old and feeble, feeling the oppressiveness of uselessness slowly destroying his mind or, play it like he did at Foxwoods—quit while he was ahead.  He was determined that he would not become like some of the old vegetables that frequented the park, nothing to occupy their day but mindless meanderings in the small confines of the Boston Commons.  There really was no choice, except the method.

      First, he had some cleaning up to do.  Just as he had left his desk spotless with all work caught up, he could not leave loose ends of his life.  Sitting on a bench by the pond, he removed his address book and cellular phone from his bookcase.  To his chagrin, he had to think for a minute to come up with his daughter’s married name.  She would be home now; she had given birth to a boy just three weeks before.

      "Hi—it’s me," he said, after she answered.

      "Me who?"

      "Me, your father, who."  He knew she had known who he was.  She was just being sarcastic.

      "Yeah, hi.  How come you’re calling?"  Before, this would not have bothered him—today it hurt.

      "Well, called to see how the baby was.  How you are.  And Richard."

      "Very good!  You remembered our names!"

      "Ha, ha.  Funny.  Look, I thought I might pop down and visit you; see my new grandkid."  His daughter lived in Atlanta.  In the background, he heard a baby start to cry.  The sound made him smile.

      "Sure.  Maybe Thanksgiving.  Or Christmas.  Or, if you can’t make that, next summer.  Or, at the very least, by his high school graduation.  Why did you really call?"

      He started to protest, to tell her that he needed to see her, to make sure that she was all right, that he was leaving no messes behind.  Instead, he said, “Look, I’m not in the mood for any of this bullshit.  I’ll call you later.”  He hung up.  He was stunned to find that, for the first time since childhood, he was starting to cry.  He took a couple of deep breaths, forcing himself back to composure.  Then, he dialed another number from his book.

      "Allen Wilmont Designs.  Himself speaking."

      "Hi, Bob. It’s me, Dad."  Somehow, as a child, Allen had earned the nickname Bob; now only his family called him that.

      "Hey, Dad!  How’s it .... Hang on—OK?  I have a call on another line."  He heard the click and the nothingness that told him he was on hold.  He got along better with his son, because Allen was just like him.  Hard working, driven, and on the verge of a divorce.

      When he got back on the line, George got right to the point.  "Bob, I need a break and Green Bay sounds great this time of year.  I’m going to come up and visit you for a few days."

      "Gee, Dad—I just got a new contract for a food court in a shopping mall.  I’m over my head, living in the office.  Can you make it later, maybe in a couple months?"

      Before he could answer, George felt a sudden swell of anger, rage at what had become of his life.  And fear that his son was indeed following in his own footsteps.  For the first time in his life, he shouted at his son.

      "God damn it!  Of course you have a new contract and, before you finish that one, the next will be ready to start.  And you’ll go on and on like that, night and day, night and day, over and over till suddenly you’re sitting alone in a park wondering what the hell happened!  So you’ve got two little kids at home who probably don’t even know what is a daddy and if you keep up, pretty soon, they kick you out on your ass and you have nothing!  What for!  A sonovabitch food court?"

      "Jesus Christ!  Dad, are you all right?  What happened?"

      "I’m catching a plane tonight and I’m coming there.  And you will take the time off.  And you, and Betsy and little Bob, and me, we, all of us are going to the park, visit animals in the zoo, go fishing, do any damn thing we like except work.  And if you give me any trouble, so help me, I’ll firebomb your office!"  He hung up, breathing heavy.  But somehow, feeling better.  Better than he had all day.

      He started walking back toward Tremont, stopping to watch a clown doing magic tricks for a group of young children.  One little girl, with blonde hair and a fantastic smile, reminded him of his daughter.  In the background, he heard the voice of a man standing on a park bench, railing against the Internal Revenue Service to a small crowd of onlookers.  An elderly woman was walking a small dog (a Pekinese?) through the park, carrying a pooper-scooper.

      He dialed the phone again, waiting for an answer.

      "It’s me again.  Now, listen.  I’m catching a plane tonight to Green Bay, visiting your brother for I don’t know how long, but after, I’m going to come down to visit you and I’m dragging Bob with me, so get ready for some visitors.  Now, maybe you’re pissed at me and maybe you’re also pissed at your brother, but right now we both need you.  Only Bob doesn’t know it yet.  But he will.  And we’re still family.  And when family needs help, family answers."

      "Wow!  OK, you come then I’ll believe it."

      "We will, don’t worry about that.  One more thing."

      "Yeah?"

      "I love you, Jenny."  There was a long silence.

      "Me too."  The phone went dead.

      An old man was coming toward him, playing the violin.  George recognized the tune, but couldn’t remember the title.  He started to hum along with it.  He was walking slowly—no need to hurry on such a sunny day.  He started making plans for his trip.  After Bob and Jenny, maybe he ought to visit California?  He had a brother there that he hadn’t spoken to in over twenty years.  Can’t leave that hanging.  It’s about time that they made up.  And maybe—he had been to Bermuda once on business.  It looked great but he had worked the whole time.  Maybe he could go again and just lay on the pink sands watching young girls in string bikinis?  There really were a lot of loose ends in his life that he had to set right.

      After he crossed Tremont again, he saw the same singer that he had recognized from the subway.  He put a twenty dollar bill in her hat and said, "You have a beautiful voice.  You’re a lot better off here in the sun than in the dark subway."

      She smiled at him.  "Aren’t we all?"

 END

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