by Arthur Mackeown
“Come up and see me some time,” the woman said to Lover Boy, and laughed, for she knew as well as he that there were no lifts here in Carton City, and no stairs, either. She was a pretty woman, despite being fifty years old if she was a day, with short, greying blond hair under a red baseball cap, and the ancient overcoat she wore did little to conceal a full, rounded figure.
None of this cut any ice with Lover Boy, however. He simply ignored her. Good-looking or no, women’s chit-chat made his head ache, and this one always said that very same dumb thing every evening as he passed her pitch on his way back from a long day’s panhandling. By now she must have known she wouldn’t get an answer, but that didn’t stop her; she just kept right on saying it.
Now, I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Carton City. The name doesn’t appear on any map but if, in your travels around this great metropolis of ours, you have observed little clusters of lean-to’s, cardboard shacks and other makeshift dwellings scattered here and there, you’ll know it’s real enough for all that. Carton City is where you go when there’s no place else to go, the home of drunks, addicts, runaways, thieves and whores, and even some of the most ordinary, everyday people you can imagine, people who could once have been you and me.
Carton City was home to Lover Boy, as well, who had come by his odd nickname because of his habit of mooning endlessly over the photograph of a woman he’d found in somebody’s wallet. Nobody on the street knew his real name, or where he came from, or why he was there in the first place. These were things he kept to himself. In fact, drunk or sober, it was difficult to get a word out of him on any subject, whatsoever. Nevertheless, you have to call a man something, so Lover Boy it was.
His particular bit of Carton City stood among the columns of the over-pass that led to the automobile plant. It was a good location, with a couple of greasy spoons with over-flowing trash cans just down the road, and even a soup kitchen, if you could take the hassle that came with it.
Best of all, he had a roof of sorts over his head: an enormous packing case, skillfully water-proofed with sheets of transparent plastic, and furnished with a sagging armchair from a dump, a rickety table, and an old mattress. On the table was a tin box in which he kept the photograph. On the lid of the box he had printed a misspelled but graphic warning as to what he would do to anyone who touched it.
* * *
Lover Boy had found the wallet containing the aforesaid photograph in the back pocket of an elderly gentleman he’d bumped into in the park. Being far too streetwise to open it on the spot — too many thieves about, ha! — he resisted temptation until he was safely back in his packing case. By that time it was already dark, and he lit a candle and sat down to examine his prize.
He was not pleased when he found only a single dollar bill inside: that, and a faded black and white photograph. Lover Boy was about to throw it away, when he saw it was the picture of a woman. From her forties-style clothing and hair-do she was probably old enough by now to be his mother, yet here she had been beautiful, tall and slim, with long, wavy dark hair and dark eyes, and she seemed to be smiling right at him. When he turned the photograph over he found something written on the back: Madeline at forty. Forever young.
“Well, waddya know,” he said, remembering that today was his own fortieth birthday. He hadn’t even thought about it until that moment, but he decided he ought to have a drink in honor of the big event now that he had, so he got out a bottle of beer and a chipped glass. As a rule he never bothered with a glass, but tonight he had company.
“Here’s lookin’ at you, lady,” he said, and emptied the glass in one go. Afterwards he took the photograph and gazed at it for a while. “Madeline,” he said. “That’s a pretty name.” Then he propped it up on the table, and drew the candle close so he could see it from his armchair. He liked the way it looked there, so he did the same thing the next night, and every night after that.
At first Lover Boy was content to simply admire the photo, wondering what it would be like to have a woman like that to come home to. Before long, however, he began talking to it, as well, flopping down into his armchair of an evening, and saying, “You ain’t gonna believe what happened to me today...”
Then he would regale an imaginary Madeline with the details of everything that had happened to him since he got up that morning, like how much he’d made pan-handling uptown, or the way he’d been thrown out into the street by some lousy bartender just because he’d tried to pay with a pile of quarters.
Sometimes he explained tricks of the trade to her, such as how to identify a soft touch before any of his brother hoboes spotted him, or showed her some of the strange objects he salvaged from trash cans. When he was drunk he told her things he’d never told anyone. He even told her about his time in jail, and why he’d ended up on the street.
This one-sided little love affair might have gone on indefinitely had Lover Boy been a little more careful. One night, however, after his usual chat with Madeline, he drank a little too much and fell asleep without blowing the candle out. He awoke to the smell of something burning and found the candle had toppled over onto the photograph, which was now nothing but a pile of ash.
For a while he kept on with the conversations as if the photograph was still there, but he found it more and more difficult to keep Madeline’s image in his mind as time passed. Not only that, he began to feel foolish talking to the empty air even though there was no-one there to hear him. And so, things just went back to the way they were before.
* * *
The park where Lover had liberated the wallet was one of his favorite hunting-grounds, and it was there, some weeks after the loss of the photograph, that he found the twenty-dollar bill. The money wasn’t in anyone’s pocket this time, but simply lying there, as if waiting for him to discover it. Before picking it up, Lover Boy looked round cautiously, and sighed with relief when he saw there was no-one else around. Unlucky for some, he thought, slipped the money quickly into the pocket of his tattered overcoat, and headed for the nearest bar.
When Lover Boy reached the bar he found a boy of about twelve standing in the street outside. The kid had a black eye and he was bawling his head off, while people walked past him as if he wasn’t even there.
“Hey, Mister,” he said to Lover Boy, “hey, Mister, have you seen five dollars? Pa’s beer money? If I don’t find it, he’ll...”
“Life’s tough, sonny,” Lover Boy answered, and tried to push past him, but the kid caught hold of his sleeve and held on for dear life. As he did so, Madeline’s face, not smiling this time, suddenly popped into Lover Boy’s head.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he said. Then he pulled the money from his pocket, shoved it into the kid’s hand, and shambled off, cursing himself so loudly for his own stupidity that well-dressed citizens shook their heads, and stepped hurriedly out of his way.
* * *
Back in Carton City the blonde woman was seated at her usual spot. She had a fire going in an oil drum, and was boiling something in a battered kettle. As Lover Boy stormed past her she looked up and nodded to him, but didn’t say anything for once.
Lover Boy didn’t say anything either, just went on by and into his packing case, where he lit a candle and sat down with the tin box in his hands. Then he opened the box and looked in at the empty space. Then he sighed, closed the box, and wandered outside and down to where the woman was still sitting. By now several other people had joined her. When she saw him standing there she held out a cup. “Tea,” she said.
Lover Boy took the cup from her and sat down on a crate close to the fire. For several minutes he just silently sipped his tea and watched the flames. Finally, he looked up and shook his head slowly. “You ain’t gonna believe what happened to me today...”
Copyright © 2013 by Arthur Mackeown