NO ONE CAN SEE ME
“Bummy! Come here!” Seventh Avenue Mohan was at the door of his shop, urging him in.
Charlie limped over slowly, dodging the lunchtime crowds. He felt tired and his gimpy leg was dragging more than usual. “Yeah, Mohan?” He went one step into the shop. A customer scratching a lotto card wrinkled up his nose and muttered, “Fucking reek.”
Mohan didn’t seem to notice Charlie’s odor. He said, “I have this important delivery to First Avenue Mohan. You know where that is?”
“First and 50th.” Charlie had made many deliveries there.
“This one is for $20 – ten I give you now, Mohan will give you the rest when you arrive there.”
Charlie smiled gratefully as he pocketed the ten. He could afford to get a good meal, maybe at McDonalds. Enough for two days. He wondered how much First Avenue Mohan would give him.
“Sure! Right away!”
Mohan wheeled out a supermarket cart from the back room. It was filled with something that was well covered in black plastic. “Cigarettes?”
Mohan looked nervous. “Ssh! Bummy, don’t breathe a word to no one. Do you understand?”
Charlie understood. Mohan opened the door and watched as Charlie limped with painful slowness to the curb. The cargo was secured, at least, no matter what happened to the fool.
Charlie concentrated on what was before him. A deep crack in the sidewalk and an adjustment of his direction. Bulkheads open to rat-filled cellars. Some homeless person who took up too much of the sidewalk under the dark scaffolding of a vacant building. He hated them – they took up too much sidewalk and they always wanted more than you had. “I never begged my whole life. Whyncha get a job?” he called. The homeless woman, covered with grime, grinned at him with no teeth in her head.
The going got easier at Sixth Avenue. The 50th Street sidewalks were as narrow, but in better shape. It was shady here, and Charlie was glad. He’d been sweating himself through to his coat. “It’s October, why ain’t it cool?” He stopped to wipe his brow with his sleeve, and he checked the load he was carrying for the fifth time in a couple of blocks.
He was starting to feel better by the time he reached Fifth Avenue. Maybe it was seeing all the pretty women and the nice clothes. All the funny tourists. He squeezed past them saying, “You ain’t from here, are ya? Move, move, move!” Some man speaking some funny language took a picture of him and Charlie shouted out of the side of his mouth, “Send me one, will yas?”
When he hit Park Avenue, Charlie suddenly felt very tired, and weak. He could barely push along the shopping cart. His bum leg was dragging something fierce. Panting, he took a break before crossing the avenue. Then he thought to take out his length of plastic cord. He used it to pull the cart whenever the loads got too hard to steer. He tied it to the metal of the cart and wrapped a good deal of it around his stronger hand. He pulled it, slowly and with much sweating discomfort, across Park and to Lexington. At least that block was a little downhill. He was out of breath and felt a little swimmy as he tied the cord around his other hand. He smiled. Only a few more avenues to go. He saw an image of First Avenue Mohan handing him his pay. He thought it would be ten dollars, but he was hoping he made a mistake and it would be more.
It was when he was at Park he felt the people were paying the most attention to him. A few looked nice, but most of them looked angry or laughed. An old lady in beautiful clothes covered her nose and said, “How disgusting.”
Charlie smelled his armpit and didn’t smell anything too bad. Maybe he didn’t live in a dark closet he’d be able to take a bath all the time.
He thought about when he was a little boy in Canarsie, how his mother was always bugging him to take a bath – every Sunday, before the school week. “My poor baby,” she’d say, “if you can’t be smart, you can be clean and nice to everybody. If you’re nice and clean and kind, people will help you always.”
He passed a high-class restaurant where the boss was standing outside smoking. He was wearing a monkey suit, that’s what they called it in Canarsie, and Fouad greeted him kindly. “Hello, Bummy, long time no see! Oh God, Bum, are you all right? Maybe I should call 911.” He stepped closer to inspect Charlie, shaking his head. “Here, let me call you the ambulance.” Charlie shook his head adamantly. He held onto the cart protectively. “All right, Bummy, have it your way,” Fouad worried. He stuck a five in Charlie’s coat pocket.
Charlie would have said thank you like he was supposed to but he had no breath to spare.
Charlie was smiling as he crossed Third Avenue: only two more big blocks to go. A New Jersey driver ran the light and almost hit him and the cargo he was pulling. A big Dominican man pushed him and the cart out of the way. Charlie fell on the street and the man helped him up. “That crazy fucker! He almost ran you down, man. You okay?” He was leading Charlie to the sidewalk. Charlie was feeling a little out of it and said, “I think so. I didn’t lose my cart?”
The man looked at him curiously. He tugged at the cord. “Yeah, man, it’s all there. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Charlie thanked him and said, gasping for breath, “I’m doin’ okay. I gotta make it to First Ave. I got an important load here. Very important. That’s all. Then I’m done for the day.”
The man said, “Are you sure? I’ll go with you.”
Fearful, Charlie started pulling the cart. “I’m good. I’m good. Thank you. Thank you for your aid and assistance. Thank you. Thank you.” He kept tugging hard at the cart. The man shrugged and went away.
Halfway along the block he stopped. He felt like he was going to throw up. Terrible pains were shooting down his side and making his bum leg drag so much he could hardly walk. He could see Second Avenue. He could make it that far. There was a little bit of an uphill slope to get to First. He’d rest first. He’d rest at Second. He thought maybe he’d even take a nap to get back his strength to finish the job.
The sidewalk was broken and pointed in different directions because of the tree roots. His hand was bleeding from where the plastic cord was tearing the flesh. He tugged hard and got the cart over this part and got to Second Avenue sweating heavily. He felt light-headed and sick to his stomach. His breath was heaving. He rested on the west side of the street for a while, then pushed the cart across.
There was construction going on there, more fancy apartments for rich people, and there was no place to sit or rest but Charlie sat down anyway. He felt both hot and cold, and he was afraid he’d throw up and disgrace himself.
He wobbled a couple of steps and fell down beside the cart. He got covered in gray dust. People had to step around him, and some of them cursed him out. “Why don’t you get out of the way?”
“Go home and die. Jesus.”
“You got no kindness,” Charlie mumbled from the ground. “You oughta help a person up when they’re down!”
A couple of big-bellied men wearing hard hats glanced at each other and helped Charlie to his feet. “You okay, buddy? You wanna go to the hospital?”
Charlie shook his head violently. “No! Just help me get over there.”
One of them held Charlie up and the other pushed the cart across the street, where it was cleaner and out of the dust. There was a large restaurant there, and nicely dressed people came and went. It had garage doors for windows and walls, and they were open to the warm afternoon. The construction workers propped Charlie up against the masonry at the corner of the building. Some people started yelling immediately to move the bum away. One of the servers, an overweight young woman in black pants and apron over a white blouse said, “I’ll take care of this.”
She stepped outside and gently asked Charlie to move himself and his cart just around the corner. She offered to help him. He said no, but he smiled at her, and his watery blue eyes filled with tears. With the back of her hand she felt his forehead. “Oh!” She took out her phone and dialed 911, speaking tersely with the dispatcher.
Charlie struggled up and dragged himself and the cart to the place she pointed out. “I don’t want no ambulance,” he muttered. He was out of breath, but he didn’t feel so bad now. Just tired. He wished he could sleep all day.
Maybe he did fall asleep. The next thing he knew the sun was angling down behind the taller buildings, and there were fewer people passing by. The young woman from the restaurant was holding a glass of water in front of him. “Maybe this’ll help,” she was saying. He took the glass and gulped the water until he coughed. He thanked her and asked her name. She spoke but a fire engine came by. “Could you eat something?”
Charlie shook his head. He felt too sick to eat. He got up. He tied the cord around his less damaged hand. He tugged at the cart but it wouldn’t move. He turned to see what the problem was. He fell down on his side.
He was looking up when Rajan appeared looking scared. He was First Avenue Mohan’s son. He took out his phone and said, “Daddy. Bummy’s here. Second by the Smith. I don’t know, Daddy, he fell down, he looks sick. No, he isn’t drunk. He’s going to die, I think. Right.” The little boy put two tattered five dollar bills back in his pocket and cut the cord that connected Charlie to the cart and pushed it eastward, looking back at Charlie. His chest was heaving when he stopped and looked back down the block. “Goodbye, Bummy.”
Charlie curled up in himself and shut his eyes gratefully. He’d be glad to die if this is all it was. He thought, I’ll go where no one can see me. No one can see me. It made him smile. It would be a relief. He closed his eyes tighter to disappear faster.
The heavy waitress with the thick glasses ran away and came back with another glass of water from The Smith. “Sir, drink. It will make you feel better. ”
He tried to oblige but coughed and rested his head on the sidewalk again.
“For Chrissakes, someone oughta just cart this old bum away.”
“You can tell the poor man’s in a lot of pain. He’s sick.”
“Bullshit. He’s a piece of garbage.”
Charlie lay there, hearing and not hearing, fading in and out. Someone said, “I hear an ambulance.”
“This Friday afternoon traffic’s worse than usual.”
“Sucking at the public tit all his life. Well, one less public charge to pay for now.” The man nudged Charlie with his shoe. “Hey! Why the fuck don’t you crawl away and die elsewhere? You’re bad for property values.” He laughed and looked around as if for approval. The onlookers hurried away. The waitress with the water tossed the rest of the glassful in his face and he marched off cursing her out, tearing at where the Charlie water had touched his skin. Scattered applause and jeering followed the man away.
Those angry words were the last Charlie heard, growing dimmer as he slid softly to his end. His leg was feeling better and the pain down his side was gone. He felt like he was speeding backwards in a taxi, going to Canarsie and his ma’s waiting there with her arms out with that look of worry and love, Ma, why you always so worried about me? Cholly, honey, I guess it’s my job, and then she kisses him and holds him and whispers in his good ear, I’ll never let go, honey, I’ll always look over you even from Heaven. He smiles.
A large young man with a dozen ear piercings, who had stopped at the sound of the shouting, said, “I hope someone will miss him.” He leaned over Charlie and felt his wrist. Eyes fixed on the man’s tattered coat sleeve, he looked at the girl and said, “He’s gone.” She wiped her eyes with her apron.
The ambulance arrived a minute later. A new knot of onlookers saw the body loaded onto the gurney and into the ambulance. Charlie’s body was covered and it left without urgency. “What happened?” “Some homeless guy kicked off.” “Oh,” as in “Oh, is that all?”
“What’s wrong with you people? A person has died.” the young woman said. She was crying. “Didn’t your mother teach you compassion?” She got down on her knees and put out her hands in the orans position. She mumbled a prayer. She made the sign of the cross awkwardly, like someone unused to it. Everyone had walked away but the man with the ear piercings, who watched her with tears in his eyes, and the people who passed by now steered clear as if she were mentally ill, a threat.