In the pre-dawn hours of a brisk December day, Harry walked the streets of Brooklyn, New York. He traveled light, for he owned nothing but the tattered clothes he wore, the eight cents in his pocket and a package carried in a plastic bag. Ordinarily he would have been snoring in Grand Central Station at this hour, or on the 2 train if insomnia necessitated that he be rocked to sleep. But not today. Though quite weary, Harry chose to put sweet dreams off for awhile longer. He wanted to behold the world with clarity, see beyond the veil that keeps truth hidden from all but the wisest of men, before the next time his eyes were closed.
Alley cats hollered songs of love from the confines of a vacant lot that served in alternating shifts as a playground, bathroom and brothel. Harry was familiar with its utilitarian layout, for his footsteps had led him to the neighborhood of his childhood.
Those long ago days had been spent fighting a half dozen siblings over the insufficient room, nutrition and love provided for them. Their fathers were each different men just passing through. In exchange for either drugs or money to purchase drugs with, their mother gave what she had to give, a body she was poisoning one high at a time.
By the age of thirteen, Harry had developed a taste of his own for altered states of mind. He needed to escape the wretchedness of his surroundings and nothing got him further away than crack cocaine. It transported him to a world filled with light and beauty, devoid of suffering.
The last time Harry saw his mother, she lay huddled on the kitchen floor. For once her eyes did not reflect longing for the pipe of crystals she clutched onto, but for help. There was not enough time to get her that help had he tried. But Harry didn't try. It was plain that the drugs were finally accomplishing what they were meant to do. His mother's anguish was coming to a merciless end. Harry simply waited to collect his inheritance from the palm of her hand.
A year later he met Julie. She was a battered angel, sexually abused by her stepfather, as hooked on heroin as on oxygen. Yet in some impossible to put a finger on way, a part of her remained untouched by the evil that men do. When she learned she was pregnant, Julie decided to cleanse her body for the sake of the new life within her. She begged Harry to do the same, but he vigilantly remained a lost cause.
Rather than hanging around until he wreaked havoc in their lives, Julie vanished. Perhaps she said goodbye the last time he saw her, but Harry was in no condition to take notice. For a long while he expected her to return, but eventually realized that she was gone for good. He had blown what was likely his last chance at love. He would never meet his child. As usual, he was able to smoke his blues away.
Not long after Julie's departure, Harry became an official resident of the streets. Too weak of body and mild of disposition to take money from others, he was left little choice but to beg for it. The purest scores of smack failed to ease the crushing weight of his degradation. For each coin placed in Harry's palm, a chunk of his ride was handed over. He was pawning his soul piece by piece at bargain basement rates.
Harry did not fare well as a beggar, for he sung no songs, told no jokes, nor had so much as a decent hard luck speech. Rather than attempting to entertain or to elicit sympathy, he would merely stand before subway passengers, hold out his coffee cup, and await donations. They came few and far between, barely sufficient to keep him alive, if not exactly living.
His current tour was not undertaken for nostalgia's sake, but to reaffirm that his decision was the right one. A single joyful memory may have shattered his esolution. None came. The years of his life blended in recall into a single interminable day spent wondering where his next high or meal, in that order of preference, would come from.
Harry picked up a piece of glass that was reflecting light from a nearby street lamp. He sat on a curb and held the makeshift dagger over his wrist. All was settled. He would dispatch of an existence no longer worth the effort to preserve. This was not the first time such a fatalistic decision had been reached by him. But unlike the other occasions when it was no more than a vague concept rolled around his mind like a pair of dice, Harry was now determined to act upon it.
Three months earlier, his friend Rico had been stabbed while negotiating a freebie from a prostitute on tainted acid. The murder gave Harry a permanent distaste for blood spill, and also for forming attachments. Other homeless people were three dimensional reflections of everything that had gone wrong. When his only companions were artificially enhanced thoughts, it was possible to imagine that his misfortunes were only temporary. But the passage of time discarded rather than spent made this illusion increasingly difficult to conjure. Drugs could still elevate his consciousness, but no longer transported him high enough to reach the plane where hope resided.
Rather than hope, what Harry sought was an ultimate form of amnesia. He wanted to erase all knowledge of who he was, who he had been, and what would undoubtedly become of him.
He flung the glass away. Cutting his wrist would be painful, messy and time consuming. He might be found and saved by someone who didn't know better. There had to be a better way.
Harry rose and continued on his journey. He wanted to be dead before sunrise, for the birth of a new day would needlessly delay the execution of his decision. Daylight brought with it too many distractions. The instinct for survival overpowered self-pity when the sun's rays were in effect. It was only natural that his desire for ultimate sleep bloomed under the cover of night.
A car roared past at well over the speed limit, inspiring a plan. The Brooklyn Bridge wasn't very far away. He would walk halfway across and jump in front of the first car to come by.
Pleased with this resolution, Harry picked up his pace and was at the bridge in ten minutes. He positioned himself and waited for the vehicle of his demise to arrive. The Subaru which came first left Harry safe and sound. It wasn't going fast enough, he reasoned. The same went for the Oldsmobile, wood-paneled station wagon, and Volkswagen which drove by after. The Mercedes would certainly have done the job, but Harry missed out because he was tightening his shoelaces as it passed. Finally a truck came rumbling over the bridge like a stampede of elephants. There would be no valid excuse to let this one go. He waited until exactly the right moment, then jumped.
A second later Harry landed in the same spot he had been standing. He couldn't do it. The thought of meeting a fender head on for a goodnight kiss gave him the creeps. His heart and mind were ready to go, but his body possessed its own opinion on the matter.
Harry beheld the twinkling Manhattan skyline and could not deny that the view was breathtakingly beautiful. But life was not nearly so pretty as it appeared from the Brooklyn Bridge at three in the morning. He peered at the jet black water beneath him and realized it could grant bhim a perfect suicide, almost an artistic way to go. Certainly more picturesque than being smashed to scattered pieces. Harry wanted his body in one place when he died. The bottom of the East River was as good a location as any.
He swung a leg over the railing. Hopefully the impact would at least knock him unconscious, if not kill him immediately. He had never learned to swim, and couldn't think of a more horrifying way to perish than by drowning. The helplessness one must feel while sinking into murky depths had haunted him in nightmares since childhood. It still terrified him. This was the justification he gave himself for swinging his leg back to safe ground. The East River would have to do without him for a snack. It would not go completely un-fed, for a nickel and three pennies fell from Harry's pants pocket and spiraled downwards like unanswered prayers.
Harry berated himself for his cowardice as he walked across the bridge. He hated the weakness of his body that made the allure of crack cocaine irresistible. He hated begging for survival. He hated the way he looked, and smelled, and felt. He abhorred when people viewed him with disgust, and even more when they looked through him as if he wasn't there. It infuriated Harry that so much of his misfortunes had been predestined, that he was given only one legitimate opportunity to change the fate allotted to him. Yet he knew that one chance is one more than some people get, so his anger was ultimately eclipsed by regret. He had begged for money and craved for drugs, but when the one thing that could have granted salvation was offered, Harry turned it down. Through the densest clouds of poisonous euphoria he had been able to see that he loved Julie. But love didn't seem all that important at the time. Now he knew better. He had learned that hate and anger could be enough to sustain someone, but regret did nothing but suck a person dry.
The temperature had dropped considerably since his venture got underway and a light snow now fell. By the time he reached the city it was howling about him, transforming the night from black to white. Harry didn't bother to head towards a subway station, for his legs felt as leaden as his spirits. Instead he entered the corpse of what had long ago been a small but lovingly maintained park, and lay in the first place not already claimed by a rat. He used the bag he had been lugging about as a pillow, its contents providing a fair cushion for his head.
Inside of the bag was a rag doll found in a dumpster about nine months earlier. One of her glass eyes was missing and nearly half of the stuffing had escaped from a rip that was now taped shut. The doll was intended as a present for his daughter, in case he managed to find her. His search had not been an active one, but one never knew who might be bumped into on the streets of New York City.
Earlier that day, he had scribbled Julie's name onto a piece of paper and placed it in the bag along with the doll. In the event of the death he was resolved to bring about, Harry hoped his gift might somehow find the way to its intended recipient.
As he always did before going to sleep, Harry tried to envision Julie and their child. Once again he failed, for his daughter he had never seen, and Julie's face he could scarcely remember.
Instead he saw his mother, her body and soul ravaged beyond repair, her eyes containing only a spark of humanity. But sometimes a mere spark can initiate a conflagration. After years of mercilessly pushing herself to a point inches away from death, in his mother's last moments it was apparent that she wanted to redeem herself, to turn around and face the painful familiar rather than risk the unknown. But she didn't have the strength to turn around. More often than not, a spark ignites no more than a millisecond of illumination.
"I hate her, Julie," Harry had once said, back during a time when he had not yet abandoned the desire to make something of his life. "We were nothing more to her than the amount of government assistance she got for each of us. She kept getting pregnant so she could keep getting high. She popped us out and then we had to fend for ourselves."
"You've got to let your anger go, baby."
"Why should I?"
"You're going to be a parent yourself soon. If you don't forgive your mother, you won't be able to care for your child."
"I won't have any trouble taking care of our kid. I love our baby already, because the baby is coming from you."
"I still say you have to clear the hate from your heart to make room for some love."
"I love you and our baby plenty."
"I know you do, Harry. But you must also love yourself. You got to at least try."
"Shit, Julie. Ever since you quit getting high you been talking like a shrink. A shrink who keeps changing the subject. I was talking about my mother, and nothing can fix the way I feel about her."
"But look at all she gave you, honey."
"All she gave me!? Are you out of your friggin' mind? Have you not heard a word I've said?"
"I've heard you, Harry. But nothing you said, nothing she did changes the fact that she gave you life."
"So that means she gave you a chance."
"So use it."
Harry had proven to be a failure at both living and dying. His sole consolation lay in the fact that at least there was always tomorrow. He would have to find either the courage to kill himself, or a reason not to. As long as the sun rose each morning, both remained distinct possibilities. This thought made his sleep a peaceful one as the snow lay a natural blanket over him and he dreamt of days stitched with promise, devoid of pain.
The sun did indeed rise that morning; birds sang, cocks crowed, alarm clocks sounded, and rush hour officially began. None of this disturbed Harry's slumber, though, for the frost had made his dream come true. And though in life he wore the guise of a beggar, in death he was as stately as a king.