Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

There Go I

Sucking a last breath of office air, Frank pushed open the door and smacked into the city heat. He fixed his gaze on the corner walk light and strode past the ragged man sitting on the sidewalk. He reached the end of the block while loosening his tie, sweating.

The light changed, and he crossed in a business-clad throng, well, except for the old woman shuffling behind a shopping cart. He tried to edge his way around her, to no avail. Why did she have to be out at rush hour? If he could only cross the street, a martini and a cool apartment were a short subway ride away.

If only.

When she finally reached the median, the light changed.

Frank placed himself between the shopping cart and a planter, determined to cross in front of her. Whose idea was it to spend taxpayer money putting flowers on a city median? Like anyone could relax on one of the benches, listening to buses and breathing hot fumes. And yet a man sat, wild-eyed, dirty. Worn. Frank looked deeper. Not old. Decent shape. Clean him up and he could earn a living. And dignity. What was wrong with people?

Shopping cart woman reached beneath a pile of junk and pulled out a bottle of water, which she handed to the seated man. He set down his book and nodded his thanks.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves,” Frank muttered.

“That’s not in the Bible, you know,” the ragged man said. The light changed, and Frank leapt out in front of shopping cart woman.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged,” she called after him as he ran down the subway steps.

“Crazy people.” Frank dashed onto his train and grabbed a handstrap, staring into nothing, keeping up his guard until he was in his building’s lobby, the world safely on the other side of a door.

Finally home upstairs, he drank the cool air. Changed into a tee shirt and old sweats. Fixed himself a martini. Helping himself.

That’s not in the Bible. The bench man’s utterance niggled at him while he sank into the cold leather couch and flipped through channels.

“Of course it is,” he said. “Where else do people talk about the Lord?”

He stopped flipping when a news story caught his attention. Protesters. Rich kids thinking they’re saving the world. Except Sara had been an activist. She even got him to haul food from farmers markets to food pantries. And it had been fun, riding with her peppy optimism in a rickety pickup loaded with overripe melons. But then came graduation and adulthood.

“Grow up,” he said to the TV.

Judge not.

Why was shopping cart lady still in his head? Surely, she got wherever she was going by now, trudging with a buggy full of junk and handing out water to screwed up people.

That’s not in the Bible.

“Oh yes it is, dammit.” Frank fixed himself another drink and pulled up Netflix. It had been a trying day, and it wasn’t over yet. His ad campaign had flopped. Hard. He was going to have to rescue it before they lost an important client. But first, a movie. A hardworking man deserved a break.

That’s not in the . . .

“Shut up!” He turned up the volume.

By the third drink, he began searching the Bible Grandma Ellen gave him when he graduated. Sermon on the Mount? John?

The movie ended, unnoticed.

Matthew 7:1 yielded the shopping cart lady’s words. Judge not, that ye be not judged. He reread the passage twice, trying to make sense of the old english. Of anything.

It was past midnight. The gin bottle was nearly empty. But it hadn’t been full when he started, had it? The Lord helps those who help themselves.

He closed his eyes, picturing Sunday school. Was the quote displayed on the wall? All he saw was Sara dressed in pretty church clothes while coloring Jesus pictures, her pigtails tied with ribbons. He recalled his feet squeezed into stupid shiny loafers when he wanted to be wearing sneakers and climbing trees with the Jewish neighbor kids.

Jews. Old Testament, that was it. The words of a wrathful God.

Fresh air and a fresh perspective. Frank carried his Bible to a nearby coffee shop. It wasn’t until he ordered a double espresso, that he remembered he was wearing old sweats. No pockets, no wallet.

“I can give you a suspended coffee,” the pretty barista offered. She reminded him of Sara, who had joined Americorps while Frank was in grad school.

“A what?”

“Some people pay extra so needy people can get a cup of coffee even if they can’t pay.” She poured a small coffee and handed it to him with a sweet smile.

“But, but I’m not needy,” he said.

“You’re at a coffeehouse in the middle of the night with only a Bible. Here, really. Take this. It’s okay.”

Mumbling thanks, he added cream and sugar even though he had sworn off sugar, and settled into an armchair beneath a lamp.

Beginning with only darkness, Frank read through Moses leading the Jews from slavery, saw how they created an idol even after the parting of the Red Sea. They witnessed miracles and they still turned away.

He read on. By the time he decided Ezekiel was doing hallucinogens, his eyes burned, unable to focus. Outside the window of the coffeehouse, parked cars grayed in the early dawn. He rose stiffly and walked to the counter.

“Refill?” asked the barista.

He shook his head. “My, my phone is at home. Can you look up something for me? There’s this quote, the Lord helps those who help themselves. I’ve been trying to find it, and I should have just googled –”

She looked past him, to the next customer in line. “Good morning, Dr. Steinberg. Maybe you can answer this gentleman’s question.” She began making a cappuccino without waiting for him to order.

“Add a suspended coffee.” The professor handed the barista his credit card and turned to Frank. “Ancient Greece, son.” With a nod, he turned and carried his cappuccino into the new day.

Frank sat, dazed, while three baristas replaced the overnight one. He watched her leave, weaving her way through the work-clothed men and women pushing through the door. He wanted to go after her, to thank her, but he was afraid. He heard “suspended coffee” added to some of the orders. The few who glanced at him turned away as though they hadn’t seen him.

He knew he should go shower and drag himself to the office. But he needed to find the shopping cart lady. He would let her know he understood now. He was sorry, even if he wasn’t clear what he was sorry for. If only he could think. He picked up his Bible and left the shop.

A bus roared by. Taxi’s honked. The jumble of voices filled his head as he stumbled through the throngs. He saw a man with a Navy tattoo sleeping on the steps of a church, and vowed to buy him breakfast as soon as he had a wallet again. Except there were suspended coffees, from people who instinctively knew what it had taken him all night to learn.

The light changed before he was through crossing the broad boulevard. Exhausted, he sat on one of the benches in the median while traffic crept by, resting his stubbly face in his hands.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

Frank looked up to see a designer-suited man staring at him from beyond the planter of orange and yellow daisies. “That’s not in the Bible,” he said.

“Of course it is.”

The light changed and the crowd crossed, all except the old woman next to him, the one pushing a shopping cart. She reached beneath her pile of junk and handed Frank a bottle of water.

“It’s a Greek quote,” he continued, twisting off the cap. “Won’t you sit down with me and enjoy these wonderful flowers?”

“Later, dear. There’s a man I need to catch up with.” Without waiting for the light, she pushed her shopping cart out into the morning traffic. The cars parted for her like the Red Sea.

Frank sipped the water and the world grew bright.

Nina Fortmeyer is a pastry chef, enamelist and writer from Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband, a slightly peculiar dog and a passel of scenic chickens. Her writing has appeared in Nashville Noir, Everyday Fiction, 101 Words, and Origami Journal. She’s a contest reader for the Claymore Dagger Award and a volunteer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.