* * *
“Since it seems my mission for the day is to waste your time while you feed the men, I might as well tell you about the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.
“Twelve years ago I was living in Pittsburgh, working odd jobs, just Kerouac-ing around. I was what you might call a ‘jack of all trades.’ But most people — including myself — would probably just call me a junkie.
“I knew all the street people within a twelve-block radius of my crash pad in South Side — most of them were gutter punks, kids from the suburbs — ‘spangers,’ we used to call them — but I also knew all the real street people, people like the Red Hat Lady and Tank Boy and Vinnie the Vet, people with nowhere to go, nothing to do but stand on bridges and scream their demons out into the shapeless grey sky.
“We used to have a soup kitchen on Forbes, just below the 10th Street Bridge, but the churchies complained about the urine on the sidewalk and had the place killed. Shut down the abortion clinic on Penn Ave. too. Gotta love these ‘new Christians.’ Can’t feed a man in the street, but they sure can tell you what to do with your baby cave.
“So one day I’m coming back to my flat with a cup of coffee and I see this woman sitting on my stoop, an old skunk of a woman with black hair down to her feet and a thick stripe of white down the middle. I’d never seen her before. She had a bad stutter. ‘D-d-d-d-do you h-h-have any p-p-p-pennies?’ she said. Now, I knew I didn’t have any change on me. But I had some paper in my pocket. I took out a five-dollar-bill and stuffed it in the old woman’s dress. ‘Here’s five dollars,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup. It’s going to get pretty cold out tonight.’
“It took her a few seconds to register what was happening. ‘Th-th-th-thank y-y-y-you, th-th-th …’ she started to say, and I made a little wave and turned to enter my apartment; and just as I put the key in the lock, I heard, clearly, these three words: ‘Thank you, Johnny.’
“I heard it clear as anything. The stutter was gone, but there was something else, too. It wasn’t the same voice. It had a deeper register, there was this creepy certainty to it. I turned around to face her. The cataracts had cleared from her eyes. She was looking right at me. And she said it again, in that same lucid voice: ‘Thank … you … Johnny.’
“It was my mother. It was my mother. My goddamn dead mother was speaking to me through this homeless woman who’d appeared on my doorstep out of the blue, and suddenly I was sure of it. The old woman shambled off down the street, but I didn’t go into my building — not then.
“Instead, I took what was left of my coffee and walked twelve blocks — that’s how long it took me to shake off this feeling of dread. And during that mile-long hike through the rougher parts of the city, I tried to reconcile what had just happened with my sense of reason, to make sense of it within the context of objective reality. And what I came up with, in the end, was that the woman had said, ‘Thank you, honey,’ and I’d simply misheard her. Sound travels in funny ways through the fog of human perception, and when you factor in all the interference from microwaves and radio towers and cell phone signals, when you think about all those poor, confused birds and their erratic flight patterns, all the aborted thoughts and miscarried prayers that are floating around up there, taking all of this into account, it’s a wonder we are able to communicate with each other at all.
“Maybe I did hear her right. Johnny’s a pretty common name; maybe she called everyone Johnny. But that doesn’t explain the cleared-up cataracts … or how she lost the stutter … or why her voice changed …
“You know, this other time back in Pittsburgh, I’m at this party tripping on acid and I couldn’t handle it and I went into the basement to drink a beer and be alone. And as I’m sipping on my beer, the basement door opens, and two feet start coming down the stairs. Boots. Patent leather. Laces all the way up the side. And I think to myself: ‘Those are the devil’s shoes …’ And just as I completed the thought, literally as I thought the word shoes, the two feet turned and trotted right back up the stairs. As if the person who was wearing the shoes had heard me. Which of course was impossible, as I hadn’t actually said anything. And when I went back up to the party there were squatters and buskers and spangers and junkies and all manner of pipefitting riffraff, but no one with shoes matching the ones I’d seen clomping down those squealing wooden steps. Not even close, bub.
“I’ve heard it said that every horrible and charitable thing you’ve ever done in your life, you’ve done it to yourself. I don’t really think that is true, but sometimes, when I’m within shouting distance of sober, I can see it.
“But then it goes away. Nothing lasts forever, I guess.
“Thank you for the soup.”