I open the door to the achingly dim fall dawn I’d glimpsed through broken blinds before the mirror, sighing at the abstract thought of shortening sunlit hours only to turn and sough at the concrete colored clouds amassed over Symphony Hall. The season’s retort, cued by my departure from the awning, comes in a windy blast, prying Dunkin’ cups and waterlogged fliers from dingy puddles to flop hop-step up the empty avenue. Cool spittle spills sideways from above, thin but insistent, befuddling my little striped umbrella and leaving those bits of me poked from a faded slicker slimed and stinging. Only my gray wellies galumph indifferent in the relative stillness of this clammy hypnopompic city, making an inexplicably satisfying slosh plunged into oily curb puddles as I head for the T stop.
I smile at the sound. Such an odd, infantile pleasure to bolster my morning. You take what you can get on such days.
Sleeping on such a day in the wet gaping maw at the stops underground entrance is a man I’ve seen many times before; stiffly resting on the more remote park benches, crouching motionless in the reeds at the Muddy River, thin legs drawn to a ropy torso among the exposed roots of a gnarled oak at the border of things. An ashen man in dirt encrusted jeans and green T shirt, slack skin coated in clumps of salt and pepper hair, his sunken eyes dropped and fixed, he carries that overall impression of summed years and unwelcome experience more advanced than his stated age, and carries on mutely, always unobtrusively at the edge of the everydays of others. Beneath the murky puddles still accumulating over a beaten black tarp, he floats in the inert periphery as I start my descent toward the platform stairs.
And then, somewhere between my steady cold plod and the pit-pit of spit rain comes a guttural wailing sob at once piercing and hushed. A scrape, a halting scuttle, and suddenly that familiar faraway man is just before me, gaunt body tense beneath a soaked T shirt, particolored hair soused against flaccid skin, soiled white socks planted flatly on the wet cement where his ever downcast gaze remains. He teeters rigidly just out of reach, his skeletal legs bowed in comical prowess. In a gelid gush of shock I freeze mid-slosh, waveringly transfixed.
It is then that I notice the knife, shiny, wrapped neatly in coarse, hyperpigmented knuckles at his side.
“Please gimme your stuff.”
He’s almost whispered it.
I almost lean in in spite of myself.
“Gimme your stuff,” he repeats, marginally louder this time, still staring at the puddled space between our feet.
I look from that space to his time-darkened lids, mucoid tears oozing at the corners, to that long shiny knife, halting there, and find I’ve dropped my umbrella, am standing with both hands up, palms out before me. I back away a tiny step, extending my left hand to fill the drizzly space as the trembling right lifts my messenger bag over my head and sets it between us.
His gaze shifts to the bag, now sitting in a puddle before us, stippled with rain. He shakes his head.
“No, your stuff.”
He’s looking at my torso now.
I stand dumbly, water dripping down a spine icy with panic as I try to decide if I can outrun him.
As if he’s read my thoughts he draws closer, jabbing the knife up and out to the side.
“Gimme your coat.”
I look down at my shabby emerald jacket – an antiquity that had been my aunt’s, in which I’d weathered auburn falls on a college campus during the week, autumn harvests on my aunts farm on weekends – and the buttons seem foreign, feel viscid as I struggle to draw damp material over them. I’ve no sooner set it on the bag between us than he’s strung his un-knifed arm through the old slicker, holding the hood over his gristled head.
“Boots. Gimme your boots — please.”
I’m startled by the misplaced politeness, realize I’m physically pulsating as I bend to remove my wellies while keeping that blade in full view. The boots make a strange thwocking sound as I strip them off, place them next to my bag.
He immediately tries to step into them, a childlike anticipation on his dripping face, his large feet only collapsing the sides. He cough-sighs, placing the knife in some back pocket of his ripped jeans and throws himself into yanking the too-small boots onto his stocking-ed feet.
Then, my warm coat dwarfing him, his heels protruding at crazy angles over the scuffed soles of my boots, he smiles. I recoil as he reaches for my umbrella, hands pushed defensively before me. But he just turns away, smiling still. He stumps slowly to the wall to retrieve his battered tarp and a plastic bag and begins to climb the stairs toward the street, leaving my rain dappled bag and mauve-toed bare feet to create grey ripples in their shared puddle.
“Thank you,” he throws his quiet voice over his shoulder, seeks my face with cloudy, icteric globes as grasping the rail with rheumatic hand he lumbers the final stair and recedes stiffly into the periphery.
“Sure,” I whisper reflexively.
You take what you can get on such days.
Note: It’s been just under a year since Fall’s tightening grip molded this story. I’ve never again seen the unfortunate gentleman driven to such polished mugging. But last week I did happen upon my good old slicker, begging from an upturned crate along Mass Ave. I left her some spare change coated in lint from a new parka.