Authors: Scott Abbott
atrick rode the subway in his green-checkered pizza shirt and white bow tie. He'd been too tired after his last double shift to change back into his street clothes. He wasn't fatigued from working too hard, but from standing over a section of tables surrounded by empty chairs. It had been a particularly bad night, and his apron still hung about his waist with less than ten dollars in it.
“Hello, earthlings!” shouted a voice from the other end of the car. Patrick looked up to see a man wearing a wool cap with two antennae sticking up from it that sported two aluminum-foil-covered balls at their tops.
“I hail from the Planet Neptune, and my spaceship has crashed upon your fair orb. I am in need of only a small sum of money to fix my craft and be on my way. If you wish to make a donation to my journey back home, I promise to take Donald Trump with me!”
A scattering of chuckles brought out a few handfuls of coins and dollar bills dropped into the coffee can the alien carried. He walked the car's length, nodding his thanks for each donation. Patrick watched in admiration as the man worked the crowd.
“A five-spot from the lady in blue! For that generous donation I promise to do my best to take Gary Busey too!”
The alien finally stood before Patrick, who could ill afford to give anything away, especially to a man holding a plastic jug in his outstretched hands brimming with bills.
“And you, sir, the gentleman in green. Will you assist a humble space creature in finding his way back home for Christmas?”
Patrick couldn't help but ask. “They have Christmas on Neptune?”
“It's the farthest planet away from the sun, good sir. That's where they need it the most.”
Patrick smiled at the thoughtful answer, reached inside his apron, and pulled out a dollar bill. “Have a safe journey home.”
nd that was how it came to be that Patrick arrived home that evening through the cold winds that blew down his block, and the cold winds that blew through his wallet, with a smile on his face. As he headed up the stairwell of his non-elevator building, he couldn't help but replay the alien's performance in his head.
“Hello, earthlings!” Patrick said to himself as he turned the corner down the hallway to his nearby door, where he came face-to-face with a young woman wearing a serious expression and carrying a serious leather satchel over her shoulder.
“Hello,” she said with an inscrutable face. “And may I ask what planet you're just now returning from?”
Patrick stood embarrassed and speechless for a second before trying to muster up the semblance of an explanation. “Excuse me. I just saw a very funny beggar on the subwayÂ .Â .Â . and I didn't realize you were standing there, andÂ .Â .Â . can I help you?”
“My name is Rebecca Brody,” she said as she pulled out what looked like an official notice of some kind.
“Ms. Brody, if you're from Con Ed, I'm on the verge of paying that bill in two days' time.”
Rebecca's face showed the first sign of any kind of true emotion, and it was ripe curiosity. “I'm not from Con Ed. Why would I be from Con Ed?”
“I don't know. I'm guessing you're not from the phone company or building management, either.”
“No, Mr. Guthrie,” Rebecca said. “You are Patrick Guthrie, the father of Braden?”
Patrick could only nod as Rebecca fixed her eyes on his face, which was paling with an inner dread rising up through his frame. She put the notice in his hands. “I am from Children's Protective Services.”
A SACRED REALITY
re these all you?” Rebecca asked as she studied the wall of Patrick's apartment covered with photographs of himself in different roles, not only in Shakespearean plays, but musical theater and Off-Broadway shoestring productions; there was even a photograph of a TV screen where he played the role of a Mafia courier in a reenactment scenario for a network gossip show.
“They're all me. The roles of a lifetime,” Patrick said, and waited for her to get to the reason for her being there.
“I would think your role of a lifetime would be that of a father.”
It was the warning shot he'd be waiting for, the one that told him he was in for some kind of fight, but who or what could have sent her to his door? “I don't consider that a role. My being a father is a sacred reality.”
Rebecca pointed to the lone photograph not on the wall, but sitting on a side table next to the couch, framed in a frieze of gold. “Is this your wife?”
Patrick looked at his beautiful Linda. There she was, smiling at the camera from under a wide-brimmed hat she was pulling down over her forehead in the clownish way she used to get past her discomfort with being photographed. “That's my wife.”
“Who's been deceased now for three years?”
“Clearly you're not asking these questions, Ms. Brody, but letting me know you already know all there is to know about me.”
Rebecca sat down, opened her briefcase, and then remembered herself. “Do you mind if I sit?”
“Not at all. Now will you tell me what this is all about?”
“I'll get straight to the point.”
Patrick sat too, several coins spilling out of his apron and rolling across the floor. Rebecca watched them hit the wall and then spin down to rest in the corner. “As I was about to say, this is about money.”
“What about it?”
“You haven't got any.”
“I'm sorry. Who are you and what do you want?”
“I told you, I'm Rebecca Brody.”
“Who sent you? Why are you here?”
Rebecca laid out several papers before Patrick's eyes, which couldn't focus on the sheets but only the young woman's still inscrutable face.
“Several days ago, you were fired from your teaching position.”
“I was laid off.”
“Let's agree to say you were let go. Let's also agree that you're two months behind on your rent and you've been served a shutoff notice for heat and electricity, though yesterday you did make a payment in person at the phone company, paying in singles and coins.”
“Are you following me?”
“I am not following anyone, Mr. Guthrie.”
Patrick angrily bolted up from his seat. “Well, someone is following me. So who is it?” More coins spilled out of his apron and scattered across the floor.
“Your partial payment for your heat bill is lying at your feet.”
“Listen, I wait tables. I get paid in small bills and coins. That's no crime!”
Rebecca rose with the volume of his voice. “There is no need to shout at me.”
“I'd like you to leave, now.”
“Not before I give you this.” Rebecca took the notice she'd been holding outside in the hallway and shoved it into Patrick's hand.
“You want to tell me what it is?”
“It's an order to appear before a District Family Court in three weeks' time to determine if you are fit to care for your son.”
“That's just before Christmas, and how dare you make such an accusation?”
“I do not make the accusation. The city does.”
Patrick's eyes filled with thought as a wave of realization flooded his face. “And I think I know who put the city up to it.”
“Over the course of the next several weeks, I will be returning to check up on the status of your finances andÂ .Â .Â . your heat and electricity. If I find you sitting here alone in the cold dark, I'll know what to say to the board when I give my report. And when they do meet, you'll need to provide proof of employmentâ”
“I have a job.”
“âand a bank statement showing an account with sufficient funds to care for a child. That's a lot of deep-dish pizzas sold to people who aren't sitting at your tables.”
“What don't you know?”
“How you're going to get that kind of money. But you'd better get it. Beg, borrow, or steal.” Rebecca headed to the door, but then stopped and turned back. “I'm sorry for being brusque. I know most of all that your son's being prepared to have a very serious heart operation, but I can't allow a fragile boy to be brought into an unstable and unsafe environment.”
“No one's going to take away my son.”
Rebecca opened the door to leave, but not before Patrick added one more thing. “And you can tell Ted Cake I said so.”
wide-framed man stood at a large plate-glass window overlooking the East River toward the Manhattan skyline. His figure was outlined by the setting sun, and his hand reaching into his pocket for his ringing cell phone cut across the red rays piercing the high-end apartment.
“So you see he's not fit to care for that child.”
Somewhere in the middle of that city horizon across the river, Rebecca walked down a Midtown street and held her cell phone to her ear against the cold. “That has yet to be determined.”
“What information did you gather at your visit?”
“That is confidential, sir. I'll give my report when the court assembles. Until then, whatever information I gather is private.”
Silence on the other end.
“Sir? Mr. Cake?” Rebecca waited.
“The man is not fit.”
The line went dead. Rebecca put away her cell and crossed the street through the Christmas traffic.
Back on the other side of the East River, Ted Cake stood against the setting sun as if personally overseeing its descent. Then he looked at a piano whose top was littered with framed photographs of a woman in different stages of the same wistful pose, pulling a wide-brimmed hat down over her forehead, shying away from the camera with her hand, grinning uncomfortably at having her picture taken in the first place.
DICKENS KNEW IT
atrick sat at Booth One and pored over the want ads wearing the face of a man in search of a drink in the desert. He was in the same seat where he'd met Linda, but this time sitting across from him was some kid with his whole life ahead of him and enough optimism to be circling every audition ad he could find in an actors' directory.