From The Relic (A Sea Story), by Jeff Lowe

Chapter 1

     The old man slumped deep in the armchair that sat in the middle of the common room in the Safe Haven homeless shelter.  An ancient pea coat, big enough to fit a man twice his size, draped like a tent over the dry twigs of his frame, and an old sea captain’s hat covered his bald head with the brim settled on the bridge of his nose.  His snores mixed with the sounds coming from two television sets on the wall, one tuned to a news channel, the other to cartoons, and he did not notice the snaggle-toothed woman creep toward him. 

     She wore layers upon layers of ragged, mismatched clothes that swished and chafed as she moved.  Her clodhopper boots had no laces, the tongues flopped out and the soles scraped and clomped, and with every footfall the wooden floor squeaked, and yet no one turned to look at her, other than a ten-year-old girl who had been watching the cartoons.  Nor did the snaggle-toothed woman look at them.  Her eyes fixed on the pink envelope lying on the slumbering old man’s chest. 

     Standing over him, she glanced at his face.  His eyes twitched under the lids and his lips and Adam’s apple jerked as if he was trying to call for help or maybe he was drowning.  She thought he could wake up pretty quick from a dream like that, so she pinched the envelope and made for the Christmas tree in the back corner of the room.

     In her glee she cackled with laughter and tripped over a chair, and everyone except the old man turned to look at her as she crashed to the floor.  The girl started yelling, “Miss Bernice!  Miss Bernice!  Miss Bernice!  Sissy’s stealing Chick’s gift!  Miss Bernice!”

     A middle-aged woman in overalls flung the swinging door open and entered the common room from the kitchen.  “What’s all the racket about?” she said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.  “Why are you yelling, Monica?”

     Monica was hopping up and down and pointing at the thief, who was now trying to squeeze behind the Christmas tree in the corner of the room.  “Miss Bernice, Sissy’s stealing Chick’s Christmas present!  Go see!  Go see!”

     The Christmas tree fell over with a shush of plastic needles and the tiny, high-pitched crash of shattering ornaments, leaving Sissy standing there with her hands behind her back crying out, “I ain’t stole nothing, you little liar!”

     The commotion jerked the old man from his sleep and he lurched out of his chair and stood there with his feet spread and his arms up like a woozy boxer, blinking and wheezing, “What?  What’s going on?” as he struggled to orient himself in the world beyond his dreams. 

     Miss Bernice put her fists on her hips and scowled at the thief.  “Sissy!  Remember what we talked about?  You can’t stay at Safe Haven if you steal people’s things.  Now hand it over.”

     Sissy jerked the envelope from behind her back and clutched it against her shoulder.  “No, it’s mine!”

     “It’s not yours, Sissy, it’s Chick’s,” Monica said.  “You stole it.  I saw you.”

     “Nuh-uh, I didn’t steal it, Chick give it to me.  He said I could have it as a Christmas present.  Chick and me are lovers like Adam and Eve, like Rodeo and Joliet, like… like Sodom and Gomorrah!  We share!”

     Miss Bernice turned to the old man.  “Chick?” 

     “You know it’s not true, Miss Bernice,” Monica said.  “Chick can’t stand Sissy, can you, Chick?”

     The old man shuffled his feet to keep his balance and shook his head as if he had water in his ears.  “What the hell is going on?” he muttered.

     “All right,” Miss Bernice said and stepped toward Sissy.  “Hand it over.”  The woman clutched the envelope tighter by her ear and pushed back against the wall.  “Sissy!” Miss Bernice barked.  “Do you want to stay here or not?  It’s cold outside, you know, but I will not hesitate putting you out on the street again.”

     Sissy pouted, then smiled and with a little hula wave of her hips said, “I’ll give it to Chick if Chick comes and gives me a kiss under the mistletoe.”

     The old man shuddered and made a face like a baby that had just sucked on a lemon.

     “Aw, come on, Chick,” Sissy said, “You got a long white beard like Santa.  I’ll bet it tickles when you kiss—hmmmmwaa…”  Her lips moved like worms as she beckoned him with kisses.

     “I wouldn’t kiss you with Stanley’s slimy lips,” Chick said, frowning.

     A man watching the TV with the news program on it twisted around and said, “Hey! To hell with you, you old fascist!”  One side of his face drooped and spittle foamed in the turned-down corner of his mouth.

     “Don’t you call my man names, Stanley… not-so-hot-to-Trotsky, you drooling old communist!” Sissy said.  “I wouldn’t kiss you either, not with… not with… not with a dead cat’s lips, not for a million billion bucks.”

     Stanley stood and jabbed his finger in the air.  “You damn capitalist pigs and your greed!  You think about nothing but money!  You see that child standing there?  No child should be in a place like this!  It is a crime for any child to starve or to live on the street!  A crime against humanity!  Socialism is the only way!  Now you morons be quiet.  We educated people want to watch the news.”  Stanley's stroke made it hard for him to say his “s” and “f” sounds without slobbering and gumming up the sounds of his favorite words, and a young man on the other side of the room mocked him with a steady stream of farting and slurping noises.  Stanley flipped him the bird as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve, then turned and plopped back into his chair.

     “All right, that’s enough,” Miss Bernice said.  She held her hand toward Sissy.  “Hand it over or hit the bricks.  Now.”

     Sissy sighed and rolled her eyes, then slapped the envelope into Miss Bernice’s hand and slid down the wall to sit on the floor in a limp, sobbing puddle. 

     Miss Bernice studied the writing on the envelope.  “Where did this come from?” she said.

     “Santa brought them early this morning when everybody was asleep but me,” Monica said.  “I was up.  He gave them to me to hand out.  Everybody got one.  I got twenty dollars in mine.  Look.”  She waved the bill in the air.  When the others saw that, they rushed to find and tear open their envelopes. 

     “Monica,” Miss Bernice said, “this isn’t your handwriting…”

     “Oh no, Miss Bernice, it’s Santa’s.  He had already put everybody’s name on them.  He just gave me the stack and asked me to hand them out.”

     Miss Bernice rubbed her forehead and sighed.  “Look, Monica, this is very nice, but you know you’re not supposed to be letting anyone in without my permission.  It could be very dangerous, dear.”

     “Oh, I didn’t let him in,” Monica said.  “He just opened the door and walked right in.”

     “But… I’m sure I locked that door last night.  No one else has a key.”

     Monica laughed.  “Santa doesn’t need a key, Miss Bernice, you silly goose!”

     “Monica, what did this man look like?”

     The girl frowned comically.  “Everybody knows what Santa looks like,” she said.  “He’s got a long white beard and white hair, kinda like Chick, but he’s really big, and Chick’s not.  Chick’s kinda scrawny.  Everybody was asleep but me, I was writing my letter to Santa, so I gave it to him after he gave me the gifts.  Wasn’t that nice?”

     “But… how did he know everybody’s name?” Miss Bernice said.  “How did he know all these people were here?”

     “Gosh, Miss Bernice!  You don’t know much about Santa Claus!”

     The woman studied the envelope in her hands and peered at the old man.  “Chick, does anybody know you’re here?  I mean, anybody who knows you well, from your past, maybe?”

     The old man shrugged.  “I’m a nobody.  A bum.  Nobody knows where I am or cares what I do, ‘specially one that has money to hand out.”

     She showed him the front of the envelope.  “Is this your full name?” 

     “I don’t have my reading glasses,” he said. 

     “It says Chickamauga Antietam Charles.” 

     The old man stared at her with his mouth open. 

     “I knew it had to be Chick,” Monica said.  “There was Chick and there was Charles, and I took the middle stuff out and there it was: Chick Charles.  I’m good at being a detective.  I put it on his chest when he was sleeping.”

     “All right,” Miss Bernice said.  “This isn’t the first time an anonymous benefactor has passed out Christmas gifts here.  I just wish they’d come to me first.  Here, Chick, you may as well get your twenty bucks.”

     “Sure,” he said, “I’ll just rip it right open.  Better yet I’ll chew it open.  Lemme just put in my choppers.”

     “Oh, can I do it for you?” Monica said, and she took the envelope from Miss Bernice and carefully opened it along the seal.  “Hey, look.  Chick didn’t get money.  He got this.”  She held up the colorful strip of paper.

     A young man in a white wife-beater undershirt with tattoos on his shoulders and neck, the one who had mocked Stanley, stood up and yelled, “Hey!  That ain’t fair!  How come that old fart gets a lottery ticket, and we just get twenty bucks?”

     “What is wrong with you fools!” Stanley shouted.  “The lottery is just another scam the capitalist system uses to keep the working man in chains.  It’s the new religion, an opiate of the masses.  You may as well believe in Santa Claus.  Fools, I say.  That ticket isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

     “The hell it’s not,” the young man said.  “That’s a pick-six.  That thing’s worth thousands, man, probably five grand!  Hey old man, tell you what, I’ll buy that ticket from you.  Trade you my twenty, straight up.  Come on, that’s a two-dollar ticket, and you didn’t spend a dime on it.”

     “And what would you do with five thousand dollars, Paulie?” Miss Bernice said to the young man.

     “I could do a damn sight better than the methadone I been doing,” he said.  “It’s like Stanley said, man, masses of opiates!  Come on, Chick-a-chuck, twenty bucks for your pick six.”

     “Don’t do it, Chick,” Monica said.  “Santa gave you that ticket.  You’ll win.  The lottery comes on the cartoon channel, I see it every morning.  Look, here it is!”

     She pointed to the TV and everyone but Stanley turned to look.  “You morons keep your foolishness to yourselves, and be quiet while I watch the news,” he said.  “We educated people would rather… Oh, and wouldn’t you know it!  Speaking of opiates of the masses!  Look at this so-called documentary on the so-called news station!  Fascist Christians on a pilgrimage to a fascist church in Bolonia, which by the way is in fascist Spain, which by the way is still ruled by the ghost of the fascist dictator Franco, and look at them!  Just look at them!  What is it with Catholics and their relics?  Praying to a bunch of bones, for God’s sake!  Fools!  Superstitious fools, just like all of you and your Merry Christmases and your Santa Clauses and your lottery tickets.  Look at them, believing that the fossils of some old so-called saint will cure them of their cleft palates and their spina bifida and God-knows-what-else.   They should be forming a picket line to drum all these spiritual hucksters out of town, but no, no, no, no, instead they’re lining up like Paulie and his friends at the methadone clinic to pray to a box of dust in the… the what?... ah, the Church of the Santo Remero!  Hah!  What a crock!”  He wiped a prodigious amount of drool from his chin.

     The old man shuddered and turned to look at the TV that Stanley was watching.  “Santo Remero,” he whispered.

     “The first number’s a one!” Monica yelled.  “You got that one, Chick!”

     The old man stared bug-eyed at the TV screen.  The reporter was interviewing the priest and a classy-looking older woman on the steps of the church.  They were surrounded by pilgrims.  The priest was in his vestments and the woman wore a brilliant royal blue dress.  Her hair, auburn with streaks of gray, shone in the sun.  The woman had a dignified air, somehow both proud and humble, and when she smiled and spoke in broken English, the old man trembled and whispered, “Maria.”

     “The second one’s a two!  The second one’s a two!” Monica shouted.  “You got the first two, Chick!” 

     The documentary cut to a clip of a doctor treating patients—poor people in shacks and hovels, some in streets and alleys and vacant lots.  The doctor’s name appeared on the bottom of the screen: Doctor Jack Smith Montoya.  The camera returned to the woman, Maria, who smiled and said, “The people call him Doctor Jack.  My son.”  The old man’s knees began to buckle.

     “Oh wow, Chick, you got the third number!” Monica squealed.  It’s a two!  It’s a two!  Look, one-two-two!”

     On the TV, Maria and the priest led the reporter into the church, down the aisle, and into the sacristy near the back.  In that small room there was a table and on the table was a box.  Music could be heard.  The camera panned to where a young man was standing, playing a guitar.  Maria said the young man’s name was Emilio Santiago.

     The old man sucked in a wheezing breath and pointed to the screen.  “That’s… That’s my… That’s my…” He shook his head and blinked when he realized the young man was playing a Spanish flavored version of the old Gene Autry tune, “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

     “It’s a five! It’s a five!  Everybody, it’s a five!  Chick, that’s four in a row!  Only two left!”  Monica was bouncing up and down on her toes.

     “Old man!” Paulie barked. “Twenty five bucks for your ticket!  I got twenty here and I’ll owe you five, swear to God, I’ll pay up tomorrow!  Come on, dude, it ain’t gonna hit the last two, it never does, ain’t that right, Stanley?  Huh?  This is just something to keep the working man down, right Stanley?  Come on, old man… OK, thirty!  Stanley, tell him!  He ain’t gonna win!”

     But even Stanley the socialist had risen from his chair and was intently watching the lottery on the cartoon channel.

     The old man stepped toward the TV with the documentary and paid no attention to the lottery.  The priest said, “The sacrifice of el Santo Remero was responsible for both the amazing surgical prowess of the good Doctor Jack and the miraculous healings experienced by these pilgrims upon contact with the holy relics.  It is the true meaning of the laying on of hands.”  As the priest reached for the latch on the box, the old man’s forearms began to twitch with painful spasms.

     “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God it’s a six!” Monica shrieked.  “Chick!  Chick, you got five in a row!  There’s only one left!  Here it comes!  Hush, everybody!”

     The young guitarist strummed chords in a dramatic crescendo as the priest lifted the lid of the box and the camera zoomed and focused on the relics inside.  The old man’s jaw dropped and a wheezy, gurgly groan escaped from somewhere deep in his chest as he raised his arm and staggered backward into Miss Bernice.

     “Zero! Aaaahhh!  One-two-two-five-six-zero, Chick, you won!”  Monica and the others in the little crowd whooped and clapped, except for Paulie who was glaring at the old man and shaking his head, and Stanley, who was trying to explain to everyone how it was all a scam and how Chick ought to distribute his unearned income equally among the oppressed masses of the Safe Haven homeless shelter.

     Miss Bernice had lowered the old man onto the floor as gently as she could and fanned his face.  “My gosh,” she said.  “He’s fainted.  Who would’ve thought that crusty old sailor would ever get that excited about winning a little money.”

     “It’s not just a little money,” Monica said, pointing to the TV.  “Look.”

     “Well I’ll be,” Miss Bernice said.  “That’s a lot of money.  Wonder what he’ll do with it.”  She extended her hand toward the girl.  “Monica, honey, we need to put that in a safe place, hand it to me and…” 

     With an angry growl, Paulie rushed by and snatched the lottery ticket from Monica’s hand, jumped over the slumped body of the old man, raced for the front door, threw it open and was gone.

     Sissy let out a wail and clomped after him as fast as her floppy boots and mounds of clothes would let her go.  To everyone’s surprise she came shuffling back less than a minute later.  She stood there, eyes wide and mouth agape as if she had seen a ghost.  Then she raised her hand and looked at the lottery ticket she was holding.

     “You got it back!” Monica shouted.  “Yay!”  She ran up and hugged the woman.

     “Oh, thank God,” Miss Bernice said. “Sissy, how’d you do it?  What happened?”

     Sissy worked her jaws until words came out.  “Paulie ran into Santa,” she said.

     “What?” Miss Bernice jogged to the door and looked out.  “I don’t see him.”

     “Santa… told him not to steal Chick’s stuff.  I think maybe somebody should take Paulie to the ‘mergency room.  He don’t look so good.”  Sissy shook her head.  “He used to have such a nice smile, did Paulie.  He just a old snagglepuss like me now.”

     The old man started thrashing about and the others helped him to his feet and clapped him on the back.  “Hey Chick, man, you won the lottery!... Whatcha gonna do with all that cash, dude?... You ain’t gonna forget your friends at the Safe Haven, are you?... How ‘bout spreading the wealth a little, like, you know, it’s Christmas, right?... It’s the season for charity… Hey, remember when I let you have the rest of my soup?... Equal distribution among the people, comrade!... Chick, man, you should be happy!  You look like you seen the devil, you OK, man?... Chick, what’s wrong?”

     The old man stood there with his feet spread and his knees bent as if straining to keep his balance on the deck of a ship tossed by heavy seas.  He pointed at the TV.  He shook.  He wheezed and he grunted and finally the words came tumbling out: “I… I… I got to go… I got to go NOW!”

     “What’re you talking about, Chick?  Where you got to go, man?”

     He glared at Miss Bernice in a strange panic, his face twisting and twitching as if the tectonic plates of his soul were grinding out of their long settled position.  He hissed out a slobbery “S” sound before emitting a long groan of “pain.”

(End of Chapter 1.  Go to Chapter 2.)