It was baking hot and Johnny immediately made me think of snow.
“Do you remember that kid?”
“Which one?” I said that like I didn’t know exactly which kid Johnny meant. Of all the hundreds of kids I must have seen over the years, including my own, there was only really ever the one that really stayed with me.
“You know damn well which one. On the West Side, near the Village. Around ’47. What did he say to you anyway?”
How could I ever forget?
It was one of those grey New York days where it seemed to be getting dark before it had ever gotten light and where a cruel wind whipped in off the Hudson. My feet were wet through my boots from walking through those damn puddles on every intersection in town. On a day like that, it seems about damn impossible to get warm, especially when your coat is maybe third-hand and was probably meant for a Florida spring, not a New York winter.
Since we’d got back from France, it seemed like we just couldn’t catch a break. One minute you’re a returning hero, and the next you’re just another bum trying to make ends meet. In those days, we took whatever work we could get and considered ourselves lucky. The Teamsters had the whole place stitched up back then. Same as now. If you weren’t part of that, then you were always grubbing around the edges, picking up the scraps all the while hoping that they either didn’t notice or didn’t think it worth having. It’s no way for a man to make a living, that’s for sure.
I likely wouldn’t even have seen him if the other kids hadn’t been there. It was them that caught my eye as we walked past that alleyway. They were shouting and I glanced over as we were walking past. Looked like a fight, with the bigger guys kicking the shit out of someone or something lying on the ground there with the boxes and the trash. Now, like most guys I know, I can’t stand a bully. As soon as I worked out what we were looking at, I couldn’t just stand there and waded straight on into that alleyway without a second thought with Jonny not far behind.
Like most bullies, those kids took one look at the two of us and hightailed. I let them go and carried on down to the little bundle hunched down in the trash. As I crouched down, it didn’t take too long to figure out that it was a boy. I reckon he couldn’t have been much older than ten, but it was hard to tell for sure. Everyone seemed a bit smaller now. Looking down at him brought immediately back flashing, memories of Europe. I’ll have nightmares about those days for the rest of my life and I can’t forget that dreadful smell that permeated everything. I scrubbed myself for weeks and never once felt clean of it. This kid was skinny too.
“You okay, kid?”
He seemed almost half asleep, but he managed to look up at me with a kind of half smile on his face. “Oh. It’s you”.
Johnny and I, we just looked at each other. Maybe he took a kick to the head.
“Did they hurt you? Those kids?” I gestured back down the alley.
“No. I’ll be fine”. He coughed, and for thirty seconds, his whole body shook with the effort. When he was done, he just sat there wheezing, wiped his mouth and then looked back up at me with that strange little smile.
“Do you need something to eat kid? When did you last eat?” I had a sandwich in my pack somewhere, and I shrugged the bag off my shoulders to get it. I was hungry and cold, but this kid looked like he needed it more than me. I found it and pushed it towards him. “Eat this. It’s corned beef. Bread ain’t too old, but it’s good.”
He reached up and took it off me, started shovelling it in like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Maybe he hadn’t.
Johnny touched my shoulder. “Maybe we should get him someplace warmer?”
I nodded. It was dark now and the night was only going to get colder. There was snow in the air now. He was so dirty that it was hard to say for sure, but it looked like the rags he was wearing were so thin as to almost not be there at all. No decent person would just leave him lying there. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do, but it was surely a whole lot better than doing nothing.
“Come on kid, let’s see if we can’t find you some soup”.
He shook his head vigorously at this. He didn’t want to be moved. I looked around: maybe this was all he had. Maybe it was all he knew. The wind gusted off the Hudson and the newspaper in the alley took off for a few seconds before settling back down onto the icy ground. I looked back to the kid and saw that he was beckoning me down with his hand, all the while with that crazy little half smile on his face, like he knew something. I couldn’t help myself, I smiled back and stooped to bring my face down to his face so he could whisper straight into my ear.
What he told me that day will stay with me forever. He told me that nothing could hurt him now because he was already dead; he told me that I would die too, not now, but in 1953. He was weirdly specific about that, but before he let me go, he told me that this would be okay, that everything would be okay. I believed him, too.
“So, do you remember that kid then? The one in the alleyway in ’47?” Johnny was still talking. I guess the whole thing must have stayed with him too. It seems weird to think about the cold when you’re stood in the middle of the longest heatwave anyone in the city can remember, but at that moment, both me and Johnny were standing back in that alleyway five years ago, cold down to our boots even as we waded through the puddles from the open hydrants.
I guess that kid’s strange little half smile will never really leave me, and 1953 ain’t over yet.
I actually did dream this. I woke up in the morning with this story lodged in my head.