When you are a competent old man who lives alone, you can eat what you want for breakfast. This morning I had noodles, or rather noodle soup, a favorite of mine for colder weather. Broth with ... [+]
"I'll stretch it. You know I'll stretch it," he'd say, as though money were twine—rope he could throw into some other life and climb out.
"A little moolah for the cash hole jester / So his day won't completely fester," he said when I gave him a few dollars once.
I'd gotten used to his lingering presence, but some others said it was uncomfortable, having him make conversation while they were typing in their codes, taking out reams of money that surely Knox noticed. Wanted. His questions varied depending on his mood, but they were always directed out. He didn't want to talk about himself. Better to ask about you.
When he was in a good mood, he'd ask people about their past. When he was down, the questions tended to be more about your plans, which I took to mean: how are you gonna use that money in your hand? I figured it was a quick hit of someone else's good fortune, like he was so close to them, their dreams could be his, too.
He was the "mayor" of 8th street. Sometimes he had a broom and he'd sweep. He had a rag to spit-shine the ATM screens, like a squeegee man who specialized. Knox enjoyed giving financial advice, pontificating on what to invest in. I'd overheard him pushing razors. Schick.
"Even if the world ends," he said, "people gotta shave. Nice to feel smooth."
He knew enough jargon like derivatives and risk tolerance and Sharpe rations that I wondered if he'd worked in finance. I wondered who he'd been before he was this. As far as begging went, he did okay for himself. Sometimes people got their denominations in lower amounts so they could give him a ten. Other times, though, people yelled at him when they didn't feel like chatting or when they perceived him as aggressive. He didn't ever yell back that I heard. Sometimes he'd bow in an elaborate manner that I understood to be his version of flipping the bird.
He called me Captain. First, Yellow Cap, then just Cap, then Captain. No one would mistake me for a leader in my work life, so it amused me. When I was more depressed than usual, I'd go to the ATM on the way home just to experience the Knox routine, to have someone inquire about me.
"How you doin' today, Captain? You gonna buy yourself a meal to remember?"
Sure, I'd tell him. Caviar and champagne, you know me. But I was just going home to whatever sad scramble I could scrounge from the fridge.
We were buddies. I told people about Knox. Something to talk about when I had nothing to say. He was interesting, and he made me seem interesting.
But there was a seasonality to my fortunes that didn't exist for Knox. The upper limit to his luck was low, an extra bill in his mug. Things got better for me; I started dating Delia, finally got promoted, and Max, an old pal, moved nearby. Meanwhile, customers at the new "speakeasy" bar next door complained about the creepy ATM dude. He was a "transient," even though he was almost always there. A manager called the cops twice in a week.
Knox told me what happened, and just like that, it was time to go. He said he needed help.
"I'm blowin' the horn," were his exact words.
We were alone on the street and it had begun to get dark. There were fewer pedestrians now.
"Can I crash with you for a week or so? I need to figure out where I'm gonna go."
Obviously not, I thought. My mind was crowded with unflattering, cold calculations. Was it really such a big deal for him to switch spots? The shelter, or wherever he slept, was still the shelter. I stammered as I tried to think of a way to save face.
"Someone helped you when you lost that job after college, did they not?" he said.
I stepped backward.
"How do you know that?" I said, stupidly, to buy time.
I didn't remember telling him that, but I knew I'd told him lots of things over the years. It was true an uncle had swooped in and covered my rent while I found my footing. He started reciting years' worth of small talk, all saved in some mental bank account. It was surreal, even shocking. It was like he was reciting a ballad of my life, trips I'd taken, minor successes, how hard it was to find a good barber. Had I really told him so much? My tiff with the neighbor, how much I hated work, that I'd once met Jerry Rice in a pizzeria. I was unnerved, rapt. Was this all a threat or just a display? Proof of something?
"You're a generous man, Captain. Volunteering all the time. Basically ladling soup all weekend long."
I brightened and stood a little taller, as though I was receiving a favorable review. I often felt under thanked. Maybe I should let him in, give him the couch for a bit, do my part. But who knows what he'd do if he got inside. What if he never left? Then, in his ramble, he mentioned my drinking.
"You've made mistakes," he said, changing tone, like a biographer flipping to a different, darker chapter.
I clutched my wallet tightly, panicked. God knows what I'd told him. I hadn't had a drink in ten years and tried not to think about before. I couldn't believe I'd confided so much, the reek of my loneliness across a full decade. Of course I couldn't let him into my house. Delia would never go for it. I went to the ATM, inserted my card, and felt the whir of bills, deposited in my hand so fast.
"This is 500 dollars," I told him.
He went quiet and took what I offered him.
"Goodbye, David," he said, and drifted down 8th street, his home for the last decade, until he was out of sight.