The beggar on Dublin bridge.
"A fool,' I said. "That's what I am.'
"Why?' asked my wife. "What for?'
I brooded by our third-floor hotel window. On the Dublin street below a man passed, his face to the lamplight. "Him,' I muttered. "Two days ago----'
Two days ago as I was walking along, someone had "hissed' me from the hotel alley. "Sir, it's important! Sir!'
I turned into the shadow. This little man in the direct tones said, "I've a job in Belfast if I just had a pound for the train fare!'
"A most important job!' he went on swiftly. "Pays well! I'll--I'll mail you back the loan! Just give me your name and hotel----'
He knew me for a tourist. But it was too late; his promise to pay had moved me. The pound note crackled in my hand, being worked free from several others.
The man's eye skimmed like a shadowing hawk. "If I had two pounds, I could eat on the way----'
I uncrumpled two bills.
"And three pounds would bring the wife----'
I unleafed a third.
"Ah, hell!' cried the man. "Five, just five poor pounds, would find us a hotel in that brutal city and let me get to the job, for sure!'
What a dancing fighter he was, light on his toes, weaving, tapping with his hands, flicking with his eyes, smiling with his mouth, jabbing with his tongue.
"Lord thank you, bless you, sir!'
He ran, my five pounds with him. I was half in the hotel before I realized that, for all his vows, he had not recoreded my name. "Gah!' I cried then.
"Gah!' I cried now at the window. For there, passing below, was the very fellow who should have been in Belfast two nights ago.
"Oh, I know him,' said my wife. "He stopped me this noon. Wanted train fare to Galway.'
"Did you give it to him?'
"No,' said my wife simply.
Then the worst thing happened. The demon glanced up, saw us and darned if he didn't wave!
I had to stop myself from waving back. A sickly grin played on my lips. "It's got so I hate to leave the hotel,' I said.
"It's cold out, all right.'
"No,' I said. "Not the cold. Them.'
And we looked again from the window. There was the cobbled Dublin street with the night wind blowing in a fine soot along one way to Trinity College, another to St. Stephen's Green. Across by the sweet shop two men stood mummified in the shadows. Farther up in a doorway was a bundle of old newspapers that would stir like a pack of mice and wish you the time of evening if you walked by. Below, by the hotel entrance, stood a feverish hothouse rose of a woman with a bundle.
"Oh, the beggars,' said my wife.
"No, not just "oh, the beggars,'' I said. "But, oh, the people in the streets, who somehow became beggars.'
My wife peered at me. "You're not afraid of them?'
"Yes, no. Hell. It's that woman with the bundle who's worst. She's a force of nature, she is. Assaults you with her poverty. As for the others-- well, it's a big chess game for me now. We've been in Dublin--what?--eight weeks? Eight weeks I've sat up here with my typewriter, and studied their off hours and on. When they take a coffee break, I take one, run for the sweet shop, the bookstore, the Olympia Theatre. If I time it right, there's no handout, no my wanting to trot them into the barbershop or the kitchen.'
"Lord,' said my wife, "you sound driven.'
"I am. But most of all by that beggar on O'Connell Bridge!'
"Which one, indeed! He's a wonder, a terror. I hate him, I love him. To see is to disbelieve him. Come on.'
On the way down in the elevator my wife said, "If you held your face right, the beggars wouldn't bother you.'
"My face,' I explained patiently, "is my face. It's from Apple Dumpling, Wisconsin, Sarsaparilla, Maine. KIND TO DOGS is writ on my brow for all to read. Let the street be empty-- then let me step out and there's a strikers' march of freeloaders leaping out of manholes for miles around.'
"If,' my wife went on, "you could just learn to look over, around or through those people, state them down.' She mused, "Shall I show you how to handle them?'
"All right, show me! We're here!'
We advanced through the Royal Hibernian Hotel lobby to squint out at the sooty night. "Good Lord, come and get me,' I murmured. "There they are, their heads up, their eyes on fire.'
"Meet me down by the bookstore in two minutes,' said my wife. "Watch.'
"Wait!' I cried.
But she was out the door and down the steps. I watched, nose pressed to the glass pane. The beggars leaned toward my wife. Their eyes glowed.
My wife looked calmly at them all for a long moment. The beggars hesitated, creaking, I was sure, in their shoes. Then their mouths collapsed. Their eyes snuffed out. Their heads sank down.
With a tat-tat like a small drum, my wife's shoes went briskly away, fading.
From below in the buttery I heard music and laughter. I'll run down, I thought, and slug me a quick one. Then, bravery resurgent----No, I thought, and I swung the door wide. The effect was much as if someone had struck a great Mongolian steel gong, once.
I thought I heard a tremendous insuck of breath. Then I heard hobnailed shoes flinting the cobbles in sparks. The man came running. I saw hands waving; mouths opened on smiles like old pianos.
Far down the street at the book shop my wife waited, her back turned. But that third eye in the back of her head must have caught the scene: Columbus greeted by Indians; Saint Francis amid his squirrel friends with a handful of crumbs.
I was not half down the steps when the woman charged up, thrusting the unwrapped bundle at me.
"Ah, see the poor child!' she wailed.
I stared at the baby. The baby stared back. God in heaven, did or did not the shrewd thing wink at me? I've gone mad, I thought; the babe's eyes are shut. She's filled it with beer to keep it warm and on display.
My hand, my coins, blurred among them.
"The child thanks you, sir!'
"Ah, sure. There's only a few of us left!'
I broke through them and beyond, running. My wife, without turning, saw my reflection in the book-shop window and nodded.
I stood getting my breath and brooded at my own image: the summer eyes, the ebullient and defenseless mouth. "All right, say it,' I signed. "It's the way I hold my face.'
"I love the way you hold your face.' She took my arm. "I wish I could do it too.'
I looked back as one of the beggars strolled off in the blowing dark with my shillings.
""There's only a few of us left.'' I said aloud. "What did he mean, saying that?'
""There's only a few of us left.'' My wife stared into the shadows. "Is that what he said?'
"It's something to think about. A few of what? Left where?' The street was empty now. It was starting to rain. "Well,' I said at last. "Let me show you the even bigger mystery, the man who provokes me to strange wild rages, then calms me to delight. Solve him and you solve all the beggars that ever were.'
"On O'Connell Bridge?' asked my wife.
"On O'Connell Bridge,' I said.
And we walked on down in the gently misting rain.
Halfway to the bridge, as we were examining some fine Irish crystal in a window, a woman with a shawl over her head plucked at my elbow.
"Destroyed!' the woman sobbed. "My poor sister. Cancer, the doctor said; her dead in a month! And me with mouths to feed! Ah, if you had just a penny!'
I felt my wife's arm tighten to mine. I looked at the woman, split as always, one half saying: A penny is all she asks! The other half doubting: Clever woman, she knows that by underasking you'll overpay! I hated myself for the battle of halves.
I gasped. "You're----'
"I'm what, sir?'
Why, I thought, you're the woman who was just by the hotel with the baby!
"I'm sick!' She drew back in shadow. "Sick with crying for the half-dead!'
You've stashed the baby somewhere, I thought, and put on a green instead of a gray shawl and run the long way around to head us off here----
My wife cut across my thoughts. "Beg pardon, but aren't you the same woman we just met at our hotel?'
The woman and I were both shocked at this rank insubordination. It wasn't done!
The woman's face crumpled. I peered close. And yes, it was a different face. I could not but admire her. She knew, sensed, had learned-- that by thrusting, yelling, all fiery-lipped arrogance one moment you are one character; and by sinking, giving way, crumpling the mouth and eyes in pitiful collapse, you are another. The same woman, yes; but the same face and role? Quite obviously no.
She gave me a last blow beneath the belt. "Cancer.'
I flinched. It was a brief tussle then, a kind of disengagement from one woman and an engagement with the other. The wife lost my arm, and the woman found my cash. As if she were on roller skates, she whisked around the corner and sobbed.
"Lord----' In awe I watched her go. "She's studied Stanislavsky. In one book he says that squinting one eye and twitching one lip to the side will disguise you. I wonder if she's nerve enough to be at the hotel later.'
"I wonder,' said my wife, "when my husband will stop admiring and start criticizing such acting as that?'
"But what if it were true? Everything she said? And she's lived with it so long, she can't cry any more, and so has to playact in order to survive? What if?'
"It can't be true,' said my wife slowly. "I just won't believe it. Now, here's where we turn for O'Connell Bridge, isn't it?'
That corner was probably empty in the falling rain for a long time after we were gone.
There stood the gray-stone bridge bearing the great O'Connell's name, and there the River Liffey rolling cold, gray waters under, and even from a block off I heard faint singing. My mind spun back to December.
"They have their self-respect,' I said, walking with my wife, "I'm glad this first man here strums a guitar, the next one a fiddle. And there now--in the very center of the bridge!'
"The man we're looking for?'
"That's him. Squeezing the concertina. It's all right to look. Or I think it is.'
"What do you mean, you think it is? He's blind, isn't he?'
These raw words shocked me, as if my wife had said somethink indecent. "That's the trouble,' I said at last. "I don't know.'
And we both in passing looked at the man standing there in the very middle of O'Connell Bridge.
He was a man of no great height, a bandy statue swiped from some country garden perhaps, and his clothes like the clothes of most in Ireland too often laundered by the weather, and his hair too often grayed by the smoking air, and his cheeks sooted with beard, and a nest or two of witless hair in each cupped ear, and the blushing cheeks of a man who has stood too long in the cold and drunk too much in the pub so as to stand too long in the cold again. Dark glasses covered his eyes and there was no telling what lay behind. I had begun to wonder, weeks back, if his sight prowled me along, damning my guilty speed, or if only his ears caught the passing of a harried conscience. There was that awful itch to seize in passing the glasses from his nose. But I feared the abyss I might find, into which my senses in one terrible roar might tumble. Best not to know if civet's orb or interstellar space gaped behind the smoked panes.
But even more, there was a special reason I could not let the man be.
In the rain and wind and snow for two solid months I had seen him standing with no cap or hat on his head. He was the only man in all Dublin I saw in the downpours and drizzles who stood by the hour alone with the drench mizzling his ears, threading his ash-red hair, plastering it over his skull, rivuleting his eyebrows and purling over his glasses. Down through the cracks of his cheeks, the lines about his mouth and off his chin the weather ran. His sharp chin shot the drizzle in a steady fauceting into the air, down his tweed scarf and locomotive-colored coat.
"Why doesn't he wear a hat?' I said suddenly.
"Why,' said my wife, "maybe he hasn't got one.'
"He must have one,' I said.
"Keep your voice down.'
"He's got to have one,' I said, more quietly.
"Maybe he can't afford one. Maybe he has bills to pay, someone sick.'
"But to stand out for weeks, months in the rain and not so much as flinch, ignoring the rain--it's beyond understanding.' I shook my head. "I can only think it's a trick. That must be it. Like the others, this is his way of getting sympathy, of making you cold and miserable as himself, so you'll give him more.'
"I bet you're sorry you said that already,' said my wife.
"I am. I am.' For even under my cap the rain was running off my nose. "Sweet God in heaven, what's the answer?'
"Why don't you ask him?'
"No.' I was even more afraid of that.
Then the last thing happened, the thing that went with his standing bareheaded in the cold rain. For a moment, while we had been talking at some distance, he had been silent. Now, he gave his concertina a great mash. From the folding, unfolding, snakelike box he squeezed a series of asthmatic notes, which were no preparation for what followed.
He opened his mouth. He sang. The sweet, clear, baritone voice that rang over O'Connell Bridge, steady and sure, was beautifully shaped and controlled, not a quaver, not a flaw anywhere in it. The man just opened his mouth. He did not sing so much as let his soul free.
"Oh,' said my wife, "how lovely.'
"Lovely.' I nodded.
We listened while he sang the full irony of "Dublin's Fair City' (where it rains 12 inches a month the winter through), followed by the white-wine clarity of "Kathleen Mavourneen, Macushlo,' and all the other tired lads, lasses, lakes, hills, past glories, present miseries--but all somehow revived and moving about, young and freshly painted in the light spring and suddenly not-winter rain.
"Why,' said my wife, "he could be on the stage.'
"Maybe he was once.'
"Oh, he's too good to be standing here.'
"I've thought that--often.'
My wife fumbled with her purse. I looked from her to the singing man, the rain falling on his bare head, streaming through his shellacked hair, trembling on his ear lobes. My wife had her purse open.
And then the strange perversity. Before my wife could move toward him, I took her elbow and led her down the other side of the bridge. She pulled back for a moment and gave me a look, then came along.
As we went away along the banks of the Liffey he started a new song, one we had heard often in Ireland. Glancing back I saw him, head proud, black glasses taking the pour, mouth open and the fine voice clear:
I'll be glad when you're dead in your grave, old man,
Be glad when you're dead in your grave, old man.
Be glad when you're dead,
Flowers over your head,
And then I'll marry the journeyman . . ..
It is only later, looking back, that you see that while you were doing all the other things in your life, working on an article concerning one part of Ireland in your rain-battered hotel, taking your wife to dinner, wandering in the museums, you also had an eye beyond to the street and those who served themselves, who only stood to wait.
The beggars of Dublin--who bothers to wonder on them, look, see, know, understand? Yet the outer shell of the eye sees and the inner shell of the mind records, and you, caught between, ignore the rare service these two halves of a bright sense are up to.
So I did and did not concern myself with beggars. So I did run from them or walk to meet them, by turn. So I heard but did not hear, considered but did not consider: "There's only a few of us left!'
One day I was sure the man taking his daily shower on O'Connell Bridge while he sang was not blind. And the next, his head to me was a cup of darkness.
One afternoon I found myself lingering before a tweed shop near O'Connell Bridge and staring in at a stack of good, thick, burly caps. I did not need another cap, yet in I went to pay out money for a fine, warm, brown-colored cap I turned round and round in my hands, in a strange trance.
"Sir,' said the clerk. "That cap is a seven. I would guess your head, sir, at a seven and one half.'
"This will fit me. This will fit me.' I stuffed the cap in my pocket.
"Let me get you a sack, sir----'
"No!' Hot-cheeked, suddenly suspicious of what I was up to, I fled.
There was the bridge in the soft rain. All I need do now was walk over----
In the middle of the bridge, my singing man was not there. In his place stood an old man and woman cranking a great piano-box hurdy-gurdy that ratcheted and coughted, giving forth no melody but a grand and melancholy sort of iron indigestion.
I waited for the tune, if tune it was, to finish. I kneaded the new tweed cap in my sweaty fist while the hurdygurdy prickled, spanged and thumped.
"Be damned to ya!' the old man and woman, furious with their job, seemed to say, their eyes red-hot in the rain. "Pay us! Listen! But we'll give you no tune! Make up your own!' their mute lips said.
And standing there on the spot where the beggar always sang without his cap, I thought; Why don't they take one-fifth of the money they make each month and have the thing tuned! If I were cranking the box, I'd want a tune, at least for myself! . . . If you were cranking the box, I answered. But you're not. And it's obvious they hate the begging job--who'd blame them?--and want no part of giving back a familiar song as recompense.
How different from my capless friend. My friend?
I blinked with surprise, then stepped forward. "Beg pardon. The man who played the concertina----'
The woman stopped cranking and glared at me.
"The man with no cap in the rain----'
"Ah, him!' snapped the woman.
"He's not here today?'
"Do you see him!' cried the woman.
She started cranking the infernal device. I put a penny in the tin cup. She peered at me as if I'd spit in the cup. I put in another penny. She stopped.
Do you know where he is?'
"Sick in bed. The damn cold! We heard him go off, coughing.'
"Do you know where he lives?'
"Do you know his name?'
"Now who would know that?'
I stood there, feeling directionless, thinking of the man somewhere off in the town, alone. I looked at the new cap foolishly.
The two old people were watching me uneasily. I put a last shilling in the cup. "He'll be all right,' I said, not to them, but to someone--me, I hoped.
The woman heaved the crank. The bucketing machine let loose a fall of glass and junk in its hideous interior.
"The tune,' I said numbly. "What is it?'
"You're deaf!' snapped the woman. "It's the national anthem! Do you mind removing your cap?'
I showed her the new cap in my hand.
She glared up. "Your cap, man, your cap!'
"Oh!' Flushing, I seized the old cap from my head.
Now I had a cap in each hand. The woman cranked. The "music' played. The rain hit my brow, my eyelids, my mouth. On the far side of the bridge I stopped for the hard, the slow decision: Which cap to try on my drenched skull?
During the next week I passed the bridge often, but there was always just the old couple there with their pandemonium device, or no one there at all.
On the last day of our visit my wife started to pack the new tweed cap away in the suitcase.
"Thanks, No.' I took it from her. "Let's keep it out--on the mantel, please. There.'
That night the hotel manager brought a farewell bottle to our room. The talk was long and good, the hour grew late, there was a fire on the hearth, big and lively, and brandy in the glasses, and silence for a moment in the room perhaps because suddenly we found silence falling in great soft flakes past our windows.
The manager, glass in hand, watched the continual lace, then looked down at the midnight street and at last said, under his breath: "There's only a few of us left.'
I glanced at my wife, and she at me.
The manager caught us. "Do you know him, then? Has he said it to you?'
"Yes. But what does the phrase mean?'
The manager watched all those figures down there standing in the shadows and sipped his drink. "Once I thought he meant he fought in the Troubles, and there's just a few of the IRA left. But no. Or maybe he means that in a richer world the begging population is melting away. But no to that also. So, maybe, perhaps, he means there aren't many "human beings' left who look, see what they look at and understand well enough for one to ask and one to give. Everyone busy, running here, jumping there, there's no time to study one another.'
He half turned from the window. "So you know There's Only a Few of Us Left, do you?'
My wife and I nodded.
"Then do you know the woman with the baby?'
"Yes,' I said.
"And the one with the cancer?'
"Yes,' said my wife.
And the man who needs train fare to Cork?'
"Belfast,' said I.
"Galway,' said my wife.
The manager smiled sadly and turned back to the window.
"What about the old couple with the piano that plays no tune?'
"Has it ever?' I asked.
"Not since I was a boy.' The manager's face was shadowed now. "Do you know the beggar on O'Connell Bridge?'
"Which one?' I said.
But I knew which one, for I was looking at the cap on the mantel.
"Did you see the paper today?' asked the manager.
"There's just the item, bottom half of page five, Irish Times. It seems he just got tired. And he threw his concertina over into the River Liffey. And he jumped after it.'
He was back then yesterday! I thought. And I didn't pass by!
"The poor beggar.' The manager laughed with a hollow exhalation. "What a funny, horried way to die. That silly concertina--I hate them, don't you? Wheezing on its way down, like a sick cat, and the man falling after. I laughed and I'm ashamed of laughing. Well. They didn't find the body.'
"Oh, Lord!' I cried, getting up. "Oh, damn!'
The manager, surprised at my concern, watched me carefully now. "You couldn't help it.'
"I could! I never gave him a penny, not one, ever! Did you?'
"Come to think of it, no.'
"But you're worse than I am!' I protested. "I've seen you around town, shoveling out pennies hand over fist. Why, why not to him?'
"I guess I thought he was overdoing it.'
"Yes!' I was at the window now too and staring down through the falling snow. "I thought his bare head was a trick to make me feel sorry. After a while you think everything's a trick! I used to pass there winter nights with the rain thick and him there singing, and he made me feel so cold I hated his guts. I wonder how many other people felt cold and hated him because he did that to them? So, instead of getting money, he got nothing in his cup. I lumped him with the rest. But maybe he was one of the legitimate ones, the new poor just starting out this winter--not a beggar ever before; so you hock your clothes to feed a stomach and wind up a man in the rain without a hat.'
The snow was falling fast now, erasing the lamps and the statues in the shadows of the lamps below.
"How do you tell the difference between them?' I asked. "How can you judge which is honest, which isn't?'
"The fact is,' said the manager quietly, "you can't. There's no difference between them. Some have been at it longer than others and have gone shrewd, forgotten how it all started a long time ago. On a Saturday they had food. On a Sunday they didn't. On a Monday they asked for credit. On a Tuesday they borrowed their first match. Thursday a cigarette. And a few Fridays later they found themselves, God knows how, in front of a place called the Royal Hibernian Hotel. They couldn't tell you what happened or why. One thing's sure, though: they're hanging to the cliff by their fingernails. Poor fellow, someone must've stomped on that man's hands on O'Connell Bridge and he just gave up the ghost and went over.
"So what does it prove? You cannot stare them down or look away from them. You cannot run and hide from them. You can only give to them all. If you start drawing lines, someone gets hurt. I'm sorry now I didn't give that blind singer a shilling each time I passed. Well, well. Let us console ourselves and hope it wasn't money but something at home or in his past that did him in. There's no way to find out. The paper lists no name.'
Snow fell silently across our sight. Below, the dark shapes waited. It was hard to tell whether snow was making sheep of the wolves or sheep of the sheep and gently mantling their shoulders, their hats and shawls.
A moment later, going down in the elevator, I found the new tweed cap in my hand. Coatless, in my shirt sleeves, I stepped out into the night. I gave the cap to the first man who came. What money I had in my pockets was soon gone.
Then left alone, shivering, I happened to glance up. I stood, I froze, blinking up through the drift, the drift, the silent drift of blinding snow. I saw the high hotel windows, the lights, the shadows.
What's it like up there? I thought. Are fires lit? Is it warm as breath? Who are all those people? Are they drinking? Are they happy? Do they even know I'm here?
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1985|
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