CHAPTER ONE: He’s a Friend, Fool
Horace Long came over and sat down on the stained and splintered floor beside Blair Vaughn. Dropping a worn, cloth carry sack between his legs, Horace watched the crowd around him with an exceptional alertness as his hands dangled over his knees. Homeless people from all over the city were either sitting at makeshift tables covered by ragged, white linens, or standing in line and begging for leftovers. Blair had an appetite, too, but it had nothing to do with food. Gin was his drink of choice, but at times like these anything with an eighty-proof label would do.
“You gonna clean up around Matt’s tonight, Sheepskin?” Horace asked him, pausing to use the long, nicotine-stained fingernail on his pinky as a toothpick.
“I hadn’t planned on it,” Blair said, rubbing his temples.
“Come on, man. They talkin’ ‘bout how trashy the parking lot is. I bet there’s five bucks in empty pop cans right outside the front do’.”
“I’m sick, Horace. I won’t be able to clean up tonight.”
“Best explain it to Johnny ’cause he’s the one lookin’ for you.”
“Johnny DeMario and I go back a long way. He makes up stuff for me to do so that he can give me things and not have to call it charity.”
“He’s a friend, fool, and you oughta be glad you got one. Now if you won’t earn your keep, you best go over to the table and get your share befo’ it’s all gone. Forget about them shakes and take care a business.”
Blair glared at Horace’s indignant, black face; he’d only come inside the church to get out of the rain, and now he felt as if he would’ve been better off wet. “No, I think I’ll pass.”
“But they servin’ honey dip chicken! There’s meat over there, steada some dumb ass stuff wit meat sauce.” Horace shook his head. “Man, you graduated from dental school, but you still don’t know enough to eat!”
It was only mid-June, but Detroit’s homeless were being served a meal usually reserved for Thanksgiving or Christmas: chicken, peas, baked beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, soup, and biscuits. Dirty faces and even dirtier hands didn’t dissuade anyone from eating as folks collected in droves in the large church recreation room. Macomb County’s population was roughly three quarters of a million with an estimated four thousand homeless. Literally hundreds had come and with good reason; word of good news and generosity always spread fast.
A small boy was sitting on the floor on the opposite side of the breezeway. His face was so grimy, the contrast made his blue eyes seem even bluer. Around his mouth were traces of the vegetable soup he’d eaten. An abrasion dulled one of his cheeks, and the cut above it was fresh. Matted blond hair hung wild about his head, and his pants were generously frayed at the knees.
“They make me sick the way they mark your hand to make sure you don’t get no mo’,” Horace complained, referring to the church volunteers. Rubbing his wrist for emphasis, he exposed a drying crest of gravy on one of his sleeves. As he glanced over at Blair’s trembling hands, he managed to break into a smile. “You ain’t got none, do you?”
“Haven’t got what?” Blair said impatiently, his stomach churning. Couldn’t Horace see how much he was hurting?
The bags under Horace’s big, brown eyes settled into deep, restful arcs. His kinky black hair was peppered with graying locks and lint. “A mark on your hand. You ain’t got none ’cause you ain’t had no chow.” Pausing, he put his arm around Blair. “Do me a favor. Go get some food and then give it to me. If you don’t want it, I might as well get my fill.”
“I wouldn’t be able to stand the smell, Horace,” Blair said, staring at a plastic fork with two tines missing on the floor. When Horace took his arm away, Blair felt better, less stifled; he never liked being close to anyone when his body was at war with itself.
“But your lady friend is workin’ tonight,” Horace said, so Blair looked over at the volunteers.
“Yes, yes. Miss Mercedes. And she’s lookin’ mighty fine this evening.”
Blair leaned away from the wall so that he would have a better view of the servers. Mercedes was among them, and her ivory complexion looked pretty in the lights hanging from the ceiling. Her long, brown hair had a brilliant sheen to it; it must’ve been a wonder to touch. She was a newcomer to his propensity toward self-destruction, having been a volunteer at the church for only a couple of weeks, but she seemed to understand him well. His staring drew her attention, so she smiled and waved her hand. Blair waved back, leaning so far forward that he almost fell on his face.
“That’s it!” Horace told him. “Go over and say how-de-do!”
As Blair got on his feet, he tried to smooth down the lapels of the old, chalk-stripe jacket he was wearing. Standing up so quickly made him feel dizzy. Every move he made was slow and ungainly, as if he were much older than his thirty years. First he combed his thinning hair with his fingers and then measured the size of his whiskers with one nervous sweep of his hand.
“Dr. Vaughn,” Mercedes said as he staggered closer. Her tranquil voice calmed him, and her gaze didn’t show an ounce of condemnation. “Would you like something to eat?”
“Yes, please,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. It always made him uncomfortable to have others know that he was a doctor of anything. “Call me Blair,” he said, pulling his shirt collar up when he noticed a middle-aged hobo giving him a once-over.
“All right.” She filled a tray with chicken. “Would you like some beans?”
“Sure,” he said, considering her lovely face with sincere appreciation before remembering how awful he must have looked.
Steam rose from the baked beans in the hot plate as she gave him a great portion. Smelling the food nauseated him. For no reason, Mercedes glanced up at him, a concentrated pout on her full lips. The pout soon relaxed into the coziest smile he’d ever seen. When she handed him the tray, she didn’t even mark his hand. Too incoherent to appreciate her trust, he reached for the tray and almost dropped it.
“Here,” she said, her voice as warm as the glow from the lights above them, “let me help you with that.” She took the tray back and stepped around the serving counter. Then she carried it over to an empty table and pulled out one of the chairs for him.
“Thank you,” he said, sliding the chair closer to the table. As she leaned over him, he noticed that she was wearing an amethyst necklace. Siberian quartz around that lovely neck was like seeing every hope a man ever had flickering in one impetuous rush of beautifully transmitted light.
“You’re so pale,” Mercedes said gently. “You should eat.”
Even though he didn’t mean to, he nodded just to make her happy.
Mercedes glanced over and found others waiting to be served. “Well, I’d better get back,” she said. “Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“No,” he said, at first resting his hands next to the tray; they were trembling, so he put them under the table. “I’m all set. Thanks.”
“All right, then,” she said, and then walked away.
Despite his delicate state, Blair studied every curve of her body under the modest, copper-colored dress she was wearing with the enthusiasm of a teenager. Experiencing the onset of delirium tremens often mortified him in front of her, but he found her unconditional acceptance of him so alluring.
“Sheepskin!” Horace exclaimed, sauntering over with a big grin on his cracked lips. As he sat down next to Blair, he threw his carry sack into the next chair over. “Look at that! The food you have is a thing of beauty.” Horace hesitated, staring at him. “Are you gonna give it to me, or you gonna keep it?”
When Blair pushed the tray in front of Horace, his smile grew.
“Well, well, well!” Horace said, picking up the chicken breast and using his teeth to rip off a large piece. “We should do this more often.” Some of the food flew out of his mouth as he spoke, so he picked it up and then stuffed it back in. “That woman gave you prime pickins here. She must like you, too!”
“You got any money?” Blair asked him, letting him know that he expected something in return.
“What I got’s better than money,” he said, lifting a flask of whiskey from his coat pocket. Blair snatched it away from him, unscrewed the top, and took several swallows. “Whoa, boy! Only half of that is yourn.”
Blair stood up, holding the bottle close to his chest. Nothing was coming between him and that bottle of spirits. “I’ll owe you,” Blair said, taking the biscuit off the tray and then heading for the door. Before leaving, he stopped in the breezeway and handed the bread to the boy with the cut on his cheek.
“What do I have to do for that?” the boy asked, having every right to be suspicious.
“Don’t grow up too fast,” Blair said.
The boy snickered. “Too late.”
“Well, take it anyway.”
Blair guzzled the Five Star as he went along and finished it before reaching the end of the block. Discovering the bottle empty made him angry, so he tossed it away and it shattered against the sidewalk. Once his attention focused on the streets, he mellowed in their familiarity. The homeless had shopping carts lining the boulevard with kids guarding them. Candy and cigarettes would satisfy the debt owed to these children when the adults came back outside.
Beads of rain glistened on parked cars and puddles were everywhere, but the skies had cleared. The rain had managed to bring back light breezes, making the weather more of a friend tonight. Traffic passed by in steady streams from both directions.
The pockets and collar of the striped, black-label Armani suit Blair still insisted on wearing were soiled by the oils of his hands and from sweating. The jacket was threadbare and had a button missing. But the suit still clung to his body with such irrepressible style, that just wearing it reminded him that good times hadn’t been that long ago.
His fingers brushed against something in his pocket, so he reached in and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. Having the money surprised him; those blackouts he’d been having were a bitch! He would lose things and then get things and never remember how it happened.
Blair held the twenty close to his face and then ran his fingers over it to make sure it was real. Convinced that it was, he smiled and held it tight. He couldn’t wait to get to a liquor store and buy a bottle to fill both of his fists.