“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” How many times have we watched Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and thought “Really? How sad.” The truth is that at one time or another, we have more than likely done the same. We just don’t make it a mantra or a way of life. And, we’ve been on the giving end as well as the receiving end. Think of the last time you did something as simple as leave your glasses or iPhone or debit card on a counter and the clerk called you back to retrieve them. Or the last time you helped someone pick up a dropped bag or held a door open for someone older or in a wheelchair. A moment out of time that makes your day, or that of another person, somewhat better or brighter. If you want to be politically correct, you can opt for Random Acts of Kindness. Whatever we call it , it is the simple act of being helpful. Oh yes, there are those who channel Blanche whenever possible but there are also those who believe we were created with compassion and a willingness to be there for others. And it feels good to be in that second camp.
Of course you know this leads us back to Mae McEwan. She not only watches out for her brother Drummond, she adopts the people around her as her own, be they ‘wee ones’ or the day workers she sees on her travels around the homeless area. She knows not many look out for those who can’t look out for themselves or so it seems, so it’s simply a part of her nature. She’s good at it too.
Not one to make a bother of myself, I stopped watchin’ the police and went about my business, stoppin’ in at Fr’er Andy’s church to see if some day work for me was on the books. The young priest said he’d send word if someone needed chores or cleaning done. That and what Drum managed to earn by doing yard work kept us in the necessities from the thrift shop, when he don’t take a tumble with the whisky. My final stop on the way to me own place happened to be the makeshift tent city on the corner near where Nestor meets the railroad tracks. I take care of the wee ones who live there sometimes. I heard lots of talk about Alf and worry too. Mothers kept their own close and fretted about the men gathering around the oil-drum fires. After dark the neighborhood takes on the smells and mists off the river and there are shadows and noises not heard during the daylight.
Drum came by my crib for the evening meal, both of us wanting a bit different than the stew. I pressed him to stay the night and, bless him, he did. And maybe saved his own life, for we heard sirens in the night and the sound of heavy engines down the street.
* * *
I never sleep in, a trait I’ve had since I was a child. The dawn found me up and dressed in my usual street garb. While Drum slept the sleep of the innocent, I took myself over to McGinty’s to get the news, and a good cuppa strong coffee. Sometimes it starts the day better than the brew.
I knew something wasna right when I walked through the door. Intuition, Scottish second sight, or maybe it was that Detective Morales from yesterday stood at the counter. McGinty looked at me, his usually cheerful ruddy face pinched in sadness.
“Ah, Mae. The detective just told me. Another one died last night.”
“Ma’am.” Today he was in jeans and jacket, but still fine was this detective. “I need to ask you a favor. Mr. McGinty here tells me you know most of the people of this area. The man we found has no identification. Would you…”
“Would I come and do your job for ye? Why not McGinty here?”
“I can’t leave the store, Mae. And it’s down past the tents.”
“Well, then I suppose,” I answered, looking at Morales, “just to be nice.” He nodded at me and headed for the back entry. “Ah McGinty, would you be gettin’ me a cup of coffee to take with?” He moved to the old pot near the register and poured me a mug. I held it in both hands as I stepped toward the back entry and into the vacant lot where Morales waited for me.
“Mae what?” was his first question. I took a brief drink of the hot bitter liquid before I answered.
“Mae McEwan. And no I’m not from around here. You?”
“Alejandro Morales. Alex to my friends. Not from here either.” We walked through the alley next to the crumbling brick of the deserted buildings. “This one’s young. And I checked. The three before Bannerman were older. And smokers. Autopsies showed heart and lung damage. Nothing to suggest murder.”
“Did they have shoes?” I could smell the river as we got closer to the old docks and the tents. Across from the drooping canvas squares were an ambulance, some blue-clad men, and the gaudy yellow tape the coppers use to keep people out of the way.
“Shoes? What in the hell do shoes have to do with it?” He panted as I quickened my pace and he had to jog to keep up. “This isn’t a 5 K run, you know.”
Morales signaled to a uniform as we got to the tape. The man lifted it, giving me a curious glance. We continued toward what appeared to be a lump of dirt, but turned out to be the victim, hidden by black water-repellent fabric. At Morales’ nod, one of the men lifted the edge of the covering. My mug dropped out of my hands, landing with a soft thud on the wet weeds. I could feel the water forming in my eyes as I faced the detective.
“Felix Fuentes, “I managed. “Pull that sheet back further.” I stared at his poor wasted body, curled in the fetal position. No shoes. I bent over and saw a rash on his neck, motioning to Morales to come closer. “Do ye think this looks familiar?”
“Nicotine patch? So? Just like the others, he was trying to quit.”
“Felix never smoked. He lost a lung sometime back. He wouldn’t say how, but he carried an inhaler. And, his boots are gone. Will ye believe me now?”
Morales asked me a few more questions before I headed back to tell Drum the news. The young man I remembered from the day Alf was found, still with his camera hanging from his neck, tried to talk to me. Wanted my picture, but the coppers shooed him off. ‘Damn nuisance that Fraser’, one of them said as I walked over toward the warehouse. He wasn’t my problem.
That afternoon I wandered over to the free clinic, set on asking the good doctor about whether or not he’d given out any nicotine patches to Alf or the others. Not Felix. Felix didn’t need one, like I told the detective. I opened the door, and there was Morales. Again.
“I see we think alike, Mae,” he said. “The doc here swears he didn’t give out patches to any of the victims. M.E. says the rash is too irregular to be from a patch anyway; more like someone soaked a cloth with nicotine concentrate and a solvent. She found fibers. So, you were right.”
“And now?” I studied his face. “You settin’ a trap?”
“Not your worry, Mae. We’ll find the bastard.” He patted my arm and walked into the street. By the time I made it there myself, he was gone.
We took up a collection at the soup kitchen that night to pay for a plot for Felix. If the police ever released his body. No one had much, sometimes just a bit from their pockets, most likely from day labor. Not everyone knew Felix, but ‘most everyone knew me and agreed on one thing. Homeless or not, rich or poor, death should not be without dignity. Fr’er Andy pledged to hold a memorial once things got sorted out so we could share our memories and speed our friend’s soul on his way. Then he told us we needed to turn the matter over to God and get on with life. Easy to say when you have a home and a job, but we knew what he meant. And we tried.
It wasn’t a day or two later before one of Drum’s kitchen buddies stopped me as I headed to my shift with the wee ones.
“Hate to bother ya, Mae,” he said.
“Ah, no bother ‘tall Petey,” I said, “long as we keep walkin’. The little ones are due for a story and Felicia needs to get to her shift at the kitchen. What do ya need?”
“A million dollars and a pretty woman,” he laughed. “But I thought ya should know. There’s someone squattin’ in your ol’ storage crate over near the edge of the lot. Saw ‘im last night. Wanted to warn ya in case….”
“I’m grateful, Petey. Not that I’m usin’ that crate now but, well, thanks for looking out for me.”
“If we didn’t look out for us, who would?” He loped off before I could answer.
Seein’ as it was still daylight, I decided to check out my squatter. That crate wasn’t big enough to be much of a shelter, but strangers in Townsend-Nestor right now needed to be warned or warned off, depending on who they were. Might as well be me doing the warning.
As I got near my old storage box, I caught sight of somebody bending over what looked to be an old camp stove, intent on whatever was being cooked. Being polite, which I always am, I decided to clear my throat before speaking. Didn’t want him to fall into that old pan on the burner. Didn’t get much of a response, so I changed course a bit.
“Hey! You by the crate! You’re trespassin!” I planted my feet and crossed my arms in front of my sweater and waited.
“Heard ya the first time,” the figure growled as he straightened and gave me a look. “Figured my beans were more important. And who says I’m trespassin’? Don’t see no name anywhere.”
“Don’t need a name. Everyone around here knows it’s me storage stash.”
“Not everyone. Not from around here. Not polite to disturb a man’s meal either. Go away.”
“Not ‘til I say my piece.” Something about this stranger irked me, but he needed to know what I did. “You listen, then I’ll leave.” I didn’t wait for an answer, just plowed in. “People been dyin’ around here these past weeks. I think murdered, not that the police believe me much. Men who sleep out instead of in the shelter.” Not all true, but I wanted him out of my crate. “Better to take your rest at the church or with others. Or just be on your way.”
“Don’t need no kindness from no stranger. I ain’t scared. I got training.”
This one was getting’ on me last nerve much too quick. “I can scare you quick enough, my man,” I said as I headed in the direction of his stove. Almost made it too until he grabbed my pea coat collar.
“Leave it, Mae.”
“Detective,” I said, my voice a bit unsteady. “I knew it were you all the time.”
“Couldn’t let you get too close to my beans.” He dropped the fabric and looked at me, those green eyes searching mine. “What d’you think? Will it work?”
“Long as you let me help. You don’t know the streets here.”
“I only need you to believe I’m a drifter without a home. Get me to the soup kitchen and then walk away.”
“But…” I got no further.
“You keep doing your job, and let me do mine. No argument,” he said before I could open my mouth again.
“Fine,” I said. And I meant it. “But have a care. Helps no one if you’re the next body.”