by Sue Babcock
Shivering from arctic winds that left icicles dangling from his nose, he sat in his booth on the corner of 6th and Market hoping the woman would come by today. The old rag wrapped around his neck and a stained Carhartt jacket he found on the street kept the frigid wind at bay. Probably too cold for her. She’s probably up in the office high above, a warm office full of nice people, people like her. Still, he wished she’d come by.
Piles of newspapers and magazines hid him from passersby, which suited him just fine. It made up for the gelid temperatures and the hours of boredom because, back behind the Wall Street Journals, the Esquires, the Times and the Daily Gossips, he could pretend he was normal. No prying eyes could peer at him then be averted in an instant. No questions asking him if he was okay. Of course he was okay. Would he be out here if he wasn’t? And no mother treating him like something fragile, like a battered kitten wandering into a wolf’s cage. He may be bent, but he wasn’t broken, and he was tired of people assuming he was. Here he earned a decent wage, even on days like this. It made him feel good.
A man came by, left a dollar in the jar and carried off a newspaper. That was the way it always was, his regulars putting money in the jar without a word.
He hated to think about his body. His mother made sure he knew what his limitations were, though. She hung a mirror in the hallway where he passed it every morning on his way out the door. Yes, he could look away, yes, he could bypass it if he went through the kitchen where he would be told to sit down and eat, where she would hover over him with a teapot, counting every calorie he swallowed. At thirty four, he didn’t want to be watched and studied like some science project, so he limped past the mirror, taking a hard look with his one good eye to assure himself that he was real, and walked out the door.
A long ago fire had turned him into only half a person. Half his face gone, one leg amputated, hideous scars covering his body, his manhood damaged beyond repair. He was an Eunuch, or may have well have been one. Loneliness caught him unawares. He huddled deeper into his nest of blankets and rubbed his eyes with his mittened hands. No use dwelling on the past or the future. All he had was the present.
“Hey, Champ.” A soft voice startled him from his thoughts.
“Hey, you came today.” He kept his head buried in the hood of his coat, not wanting to scare her away.
“I always stop by, don’t I?”
“Sure. I should call you Champ.” He tried to smile. His stiff lips twisted into something he hoped conveyed his happiness at seeing her. Such a pretty girl. All natural brown curls, mostly covered today with a hat and scarf, and bright brown eyes. He could stare at those eyes forever.
“Here are some muffins I thought you’d like.” She held out a paper bag.
His heart seized, aching with doubt. To accept the muffins meant he had to get close to her, had to struggle to his feet and limp the two steps to the counter, had to expose his face to daylight. He shivered. If he didn’t accept them, maybe she would never come again.
“What’s up with the muffins?” It sounded surlier than he meant it to. “I mean, I’m pretty well fed, you know,” he added all in a rush to soften his words, patting his stomach.
She laughed. He had never heard her laugh before. “Just ‘cause you’re well fed doesn’t mean you can’t have a muffin.” She held the bag out to him again. When he didn’t move, she lowered her arm. “What’s the matter? Most people beg me for my muffins. I made them myself.”
“You made them?” Hidden deep within his hood, his eye opened wide. His mother always bought muffins. They tasted of chemicals and sugar and not much else.
She nodded. “Apple, brown sugar and cinnamon. I’ll leave them here.” Even as she laid them on the booth counter, on top of the pile of Esquires, and turned to go, he knew she’d never be back.
She turned back to look at him in his dark corner, camouflaged with a black hooded coat. She raised her eyebrows.
He shook his head and stared at his crooked leg sprawled out at an awkward angle in front of him. He heard the crunch of ice as she walked away. Just as well, he told himself.