Arnold’s Last Stand in the City of Glass and Light [Excerpt of a Short Story]

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[[[this is the beginning to a longer piece]]]

The crowd pulses from the doors of the Port Authority in the rhythm of an arterial glug. The row of double doors is splayed wide open, their door closers and dashpots fully extended above the heads of the recently released commuters from New Jersey. They surge forward as a solid mass, one body indistinguishable from another. The shrill banshee cry of an ambulance cuts through a cloud of steam and finds the spaces in between the bodies drowning out the garbled curses of those who collide as they cross paths. A few wide-eyed tourists cling to the walls watching it all. It’s not their city and they know it.

Arnold stands out in the midst of the surge, straddling the sidewalk grate just before the curb and in his hands, he holds a single cord of fishing line which dips in between the iron rails beneath his feet. In three days, he will have been homeless for exactly one year. The crowd splits around him as fluidly as a river wrapping around a stone. They shuffle and side step. Toes clip heels. Shoulders brush other shoulders. A hundred first-of-the-morning cigarettes. A thousand puddles of urine. A million bags of fermenting trash bursting at the seams. And an unending cloud of steam that radiates from the very streets themselves and carries all of these aromas into every set of lungs. But Arnold doesn’t notice. He keeps his eyes cast downward completely unaware of the churning stream of bodies. They flow around him and he stands motionless, as stubborn as plaque in an artery. Sharp bursts of wind hit him from every direction the bodies do not. The crowd thins and individuals spread out like errant droplets across the sidewalk, their hands buried deep in pockets, dispersing toward their wide and varied places of work. The lull between arriving buses leaves Arnold alone on his grate.

His hands move calmly, methodically pulling up the line. One hand under the other in a steady motion that defies the chaos around him. They are bare and low beneath his knees, skin just a shade darker than cherry wood and lined with ashy crevices deep as dry riverbeds. He is unstirred by the whooping bellows of a cop car racing up the street. His hair, a matted auburn helmet, falls onto his shoulders in kinked knots. The clothing he wears is layered against the late autumn chill. None of it matches and the outermost layer, a faded and greasy green parka is wearing through in some spots.

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The end of the line comes through the grate but instead of a hook there is a stack of three quarters bound together by epoxy glue and wrapped in a clear-brown strip of fly glue. You have to have money to make money, he always says, because money attracts more money. He adjusts his footing slightly, moving a half-step over to the right, and peers back down into the darkbeneath him. Maybe a thirty-foot straight drop from the surface to the floor below. Just barely visible, half-embedded in the muck, is a coin casting off a glint like some distant grainy star in a clear night sky. How long it had lay there with its ridges slowly sinking deeper into the sludge is impossible to know. Arnold is the only one who fishes this far down to find these coins. He has already collected many. Almost all of them. The ones that matter anyway. It is hard to say how he knows. How he knows which one is just a coin and which one is a real coin.

He taps the fly glue with his finger to make sure it is still sticky before lining up another drop. This design is the only one that has worked in and out, time and again. Any more quarters in the stack and it will not fit through the grate. Any less and the stack will not have the weight necessary to make the coin stick. Cannot use a magnet. The good ones are not attracted to them. Drop a magnet on a line down there and something was sure to come up, but not a coin.

[[[more to follow]]]


Michael Plunkett is a writer from Long Island. He served in the United States Marine Corps and after working in the financial industry for Fidelity Investments and Morgan Stanley for several years began pursuing fiction writing full time. He currently lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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