Charlotte Ashlock

Small Victories

March 16, 2011 My Fiction Writing 7

So I’ve been working on some little short stories set in Rochester.   They all connect with one another, and I’m thinking of weaving them into a longer narrative.   This story is about a homeless bum with supernatural powers, although you won’t find out about his powers until later stories.   This is my first fiction post– tell me what you think!

SMALL VICTORIES

Gabriel’s fingers ached from playing the guitar so long and so hard. Nobody had stopped to listen except for the children, and their stressed-out moms yanked them along by their little arms before they could hear anything. But Gabriel always played whether anybody was listening or not. After all, they might start listening. He let his notes fly into the wind and they blew away like autumn leaves. The wind whistled through the holes in his clothes and his old joints ached. He looked at the handful of change scattered inside his guitar case, and thought, “That’s not nearly enough yet.”

A young man with rumpled jet-black hair came out of a tall office building, wearing an expensive suit and striding determinedly forward with the brisk self-importance of all young men in suits. Gabriel watched him with a weary compassion. It’s like he can only see what’s in front of him, he thought. His neck is iron, no way of turning it to either side. Gabriel opened his mouth and sang in a baritone surprisingly resonant and clear for one of his advanced age. “Are you going to Scarborough fair?” he sang. “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Remember me to one who lives there. She— once was— a true love of mine.”

The young businessman was charging past, but at the words, “true love of mine,” something inside him faltered. He hesitated, looked up at the sky. Fingered the tender new leaves of a bush trembling in the cold March wind. His eyes wandered into Gabriel’s, who stopped singing and smiled. “Aren’t those lyrics strange?” said Gabriel. “She— once was— a true love of mine. You’d think that if someone was once your true love, she’d always be your true love.” Gabriel never knew if he was saying the right thing to the right person. But he had to speak up just the same.

The businessman’s lip curled in disdain, like, “Why is this ragged old panhandler talking to me? And making such personal comments!” He looked at Gabriel nervously, clearly wondering if he was crazy, but Gabriel just smiled affably, ducked his head, and began strumming again. The businessman turned as if to leave, but something seemed to root him to the spot. Something inside him was bursting to get out, battling with his fear of talking to a ragged bum.

Love is always true when you’re in the middle of it,” he says. “Love is always true from the inside. From the outside, things don’t look so clear anymore.” Then he frowned ferociously and shuffled his feet, as if he couldn’t believe he was having this conversation.

Gabriel smiled, “There’s a song about that too. By Nada Surf. Have you heard it?” He began playing and singing again, “I want to know what it’s like / on the inside of love,”

I’m standing at the gates / I see the beauty above,” the businessman whispered, completing the song lyric, and then he blushed. His face was different now, younger somehow. With a little bit of imagination, you could picture what he must have been like as a kid: a nerdy little guy with his hair sticking up, playing with lego transformers and plastic dinosaurs. Probably snubbed by the girl living down the street. You just had to ignore the suit, and squint a little, and you could see it almost, the person he might’ve been.

Gabriel’s face softened and opened in a glorious smile. His face was brown and shriveled like an old nut, but his teeth shone white like the first rays of the rising sun. And every single wrinkle was kind. “So you do know the song,” he said, pleased.

Might have heard it when I was younger. Don’t have time for that kind of junk anymore,” he said. And then Gabriel expected him to go, but instead he moved restlessly from foot to foot, glancing at his watch. “Are you late for something?” asked Gabriel.

Do you, like, have a warm place to sleep and stuff?”said the businessman abruptly.

The people at the Salvation Army are very kind,” Gabriel replied.

The homeless shelter? Man, that’s rough,” he muttered, seeming to avoid Gabriel’s eyes. “Here, take this twenty.” He shoved a bill into Gabriel’s hand and scurried down the street as fast as he could, as if anxious to avoid further contact.

Not as rough as a life without music,” Gabriel replied, but the man was too far away to hear. Gabriel watched him go down the street, resuming his complacent stride, shoulders squaring with self-satisfaction. The man would doubtless spend the day congratulating himself for what he had done. It would never occur to him that Gabriel had done HIM a favor. For just a moment, he had turned aside, broken his routine, remembered something forgotten— you couldn’t put a price on that.

You couldn’t put a price on memory, but Gabriel was damn grateful for the twenty dollars. It was enough for what he had in mind. So he packed up his guitar and got on the bus for Wegman’s, the finest grocery store in New York. The other customers edged away from him uneasily, with his battered clothes and unkempt hair, but he smiled dazzlingly at all of them and made his way straight for the beer. He picked up a six-pack of Great Lakes and then meandered over to the pastries. The baker, a thin young lady in a crisp white apron, frowned at him like he was a stray dog off the street, sniffing around her cakes. He turned the full force of his charming smile on her.

Tell me, young lady,” he said, “Which one of these cakes is the most delicious?”

I don’t know,” she said curtly, but something about his smile caught her eye and she found herself smiling back.

“What, you bake these cakes all day and you haven’t tasted a single one of them?” said Gabriel, feigning great astonishment. He chuckled a little and the baker found herself chuckling reluctantly along with him.

“Sometimes I take home a little piece,” she conceded, primping up her mouth and smoothing her apron with unnecessary vigor. “But not too much. I’m trying to watch my weight.”

A beautiful angel like you doesn’t need to watch her weight,” said Gabriel, and she rolled her eyes, but seemed a little pleased. “Do you have a less diet-conscious colleague who could advise me in my pastry choices?”

Well,” she huffed, “If you really want to know, I’d say you can’t go wrong with chocolate.”

Chocolate! Excellent. Now we’re getting somewhere. I see you have a chocolate cake with a football painted on the top with icing. Is that a popular choice?”

How should I know?” she said.

I’ll get the football one,” said Gabriel, suddenly wearied by his attempt to wring human interaction out of this baker. She handed him the cake suspiciously, and watched him narrowly all the way to the cash register, seeming surprised when he had money to pay for his groceries.

Gabriel tried to use a bus pass he had picked up out of the dirt for the way home, but the machine next to the driver only gave him the electronic fart of rejection. “You’ll have to get off the bus, sir,” said the driver, looking down her nose at him. Gabriel smiled quietly and was turning to leave when the lady behind him shouted, “That ain’t expired, just a little dirty!” She pushed her way onto the bus, effectively blocking Gabriel’s exit with ten shopping bags and a two-baby stroller. She started a shouting match with the driver and Gabriel was trapped inbetween them trying to calm them down. Meanwhile, the bus was rolling down the block trying to keep it’s schedule. By the time the driver had won the argument, they were already downtown, Gabriel’s destination. Gabriel hobbled off the bus, muttering embarrassed thanks to the lady who had taken his part.

They done that to me twice,” she explained. “You put up with that nonsense, let people walk all over you— what will they be doing next? Stealing your wallet?” She snorted and gave him a friendly wink. “Take my advice— don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Gabriel meekly nodded and helped her dangle her grocery bags off the edges of her baby carriage. Then she charged off down the street. People made way for her stroller as if it was a war chariot. “I’m not sure how I feel about her,” muttered Gabriel, and then he dashed off for his destination. He was going to be late.

He reached the abandoned subway near the river and grimaced. He didn’t mind making the long drop for himself so much, but he was afraid for his cake. So he put his head into the dank entrance and hollered. After a long time of hollering, another bum emerged from the darkness, looking like he had just been woken up from a nap. He made horrible faces at Gabriel. “You crazy or what?”

I wanna visit Jared,” said Gabriel.

Yeah, so what?”

Can you catch a six-pack?”

You got a six-pack?” The bum brightened up considerably.

“If you don’t break it when I drop it into this hole. There ain’t no stairs down to the subway any more.”

His friend laughed as if he had just made a hilarious joke. “There ain’t no stairs down to the subway any more,” he repeated. He disappeared into the darkness and came back dragging some sofa cushions with the stuffing leaking out. One by one, they gracefully soared and alighted on the cushions— first the six-pack, then the cake, then Gabriel. Then they walked together down the long dark corridor where trains rumbled no more.

Is this new graffiti?” said Gabriel, stopping to peer at the wall. He clicked his keychain flashlight on and off, casting sparkles of light on the swirls of brilliant color.

Who cares,” grumbled his friend.

You livin’ in an art museum and you don’t take no time to appreciate it,” Gabriel lightly rebuked his friend, who once again burst out laughing as if Gabriel was the world’s most talented comedian.

They turned a corner and picked their way around some debris. And there they were: a group of man in tattered jackets sitting around a candle, playing cards. Gabriel’s face lit up with joy when he saw Jared. “Happy birthday, my friend,” he said. He put the birthday cake down on top of the playing cards, then took the beers out the six pack and arranged them in a happy circle around the cake. There was a moment of breathless silence, and then pandemonium.

Stop cheering like I just hit a home run or something,” said Gabriel, embarassed. “It’s only a cake.”

Touchdown, man!” said Jared, giving Gabriel a high five. Even Gabriel had to chuckle at that one, looking down at the football on the cake. “Have a beer.”

“No thanks,” said Gabriel. “I don’t drink. You folks enjoy.”

Nobody has celebrated my birthday in twenty years,” said Jared.

I know,” replied Gabriel.

***

Okay folks…. writing is hard, so I need lots of encouragement!  Please tell me if you liked this story.

 

7 Responses

  1. Gretchen says:

    Charlotte, that was lovely. I look forward to the further adventures…

  2. Galaxian says:

    Para. 2-4 “The young man…”, “The young businessman…”, “The businessman’s lip…” uses the words young and businessman twice each and also invokes Simon & Garfunkel, today not really saleable outside a relatively narrow audience.

    Development that follows (Para. 5-22) is a let down after promising start. Suggest that money exchange and avoidance of dirty transient themes are overly stereotypical treatment of homeless against which foil of revelation of supernatural powers will grate in almost comical way. This guy should be a bit elliptic from the get-go, as he begins to be about para. 24 when jumping down to his buddy.

    Para. 24-32 “Gabriel tried…” to “His friend laughed…” appear to be considerably stronger. With editing, story line, which possesses potential originality if supernatural aspect is handled well, can be made to perform.

    Writing fiction about homeless entails researching them, probably including in person, which I recommend if you are wanting to go to a book.

    You have skill with poetry. Finding a way this can be eased into the story line, as lyrics etc. not belonging to extant pop culture, might bring intrigue.

    Best of luck.

  3. Peter says:

    This was super-awesome. I can’t wait to hear the stories about the woman with the stroller and the baker-lady.

  4. Wendy says:

    I liked your description of the Rochester subway — one of my favorite sites in Rochester.

  5. The supernatural power is so subtle as to be equivalent to a high level of empathy; I like the story quite a lot. It speaks to the way people live in little boxes – your protagonist does the same thing I try to do with my gaming group. Strengthen the ties that bind us together in the face of our civilization’s attempts to pull us apart.

    It occurs to me that if you can linking the songs on itunes or yourtube would be a good idea. I also have pictures of Rochester subway graffiti – should I send some samples? Can you add pictures to one of these blogs?

    Cheers!

  6. Rina says:

    I enjoyed this and I look forward to reading more. You really have a way of grabbing your readers and pulling them right into the story. Some major talent here.

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