Henry bled. His eyelids were vanishing into his head. He felt the whites of his eyes, huge and sticky, rolling loosely in their sockets. He still wasn’t quite sure what had happened to him. One moment he’d been sitting there, in the Wilson’s Mercantile doorway, blowing on his fingertips, watching the tourists walk down to the bright lights of Beale Street. The next moment a kid was in his face, bending over him with sour breath and knotty hair. The kid’s right hand was pulled back into his sleeve. He’d reached down with his left hand and snatched Henry’s hat. There wasn’t much in it yet; just a few quarters and a couple of wrinkled dollar bills. Henry had sucked his breath in but stayed quiet. The kid could have left then. He could have taken the three dollars and seventy-five cents and walked away. Instead he thrust his right sleeve at Henry like a viper and Henry felt a sickening bite in his side.
“Dumb ass,” the kid grunted, pushing. He swayed, looking like he might fall into Henry’s lap, then righted himself, pulled his arm back with a swift jerk and ran. He took the money and left the hat.
Henry looked at his hat now, lying upside down between his feet. It was a broad battered fishing hat, once dark green, that he’d found abandoned at the Mission Shelter years ago. It was not the hat that he used to keep his head warm. For that he had a black wool beanie which he was wearing now, pulled down over his ears. He was still cold. Even in Memphis, January was no time to be sitting on the sidewalk.
He shifted slightly. The pain in his side sliced through him, all the way to his backbone. He shuddered, his lips trembling. He reached across his body with his right arm and pressed his hand against the spot. There was an inch of fabric between him and his wound. Dark blue thermal underwear, full of holes, was his first defense against the cold, followed by two t-shirts, a bulky sweater and his long drab army coat. His big hands, knotted and crusty, had melded with his fraying fingerless gloves. In the summer he would hide all this in a place he knew but in the winter he wore it constantly. Long ago he had stopped smelling the odors that rose from the layers.
He felt with his fingertips, holding the rest of himself still. His long fingernails picked at the fabric of his coat, searching until they found the thin slit he had hoped would not be there. Sweat beaded on his face despite the chill. He tried to push a finger into the slit. It wasn’t wide enough.
Breathing carefully, he undid the top three buttons of his coat. He slid his arm inside. The pain was cruel. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut, running his fingers slowly over the rough fabric of his sweater. He found the wet spot. Panic blazed in his head. He pressed his fingers into the center of the wet spot, wincing. He withdrew his hand. In the glow of the streetlamp, his fingers were red. His glove was red. Blood trickled from his fingertips as he held them to his face. Henry sucked in breath in a big loud gasp and the pain flared like something inside him twisting and quickly he made his breath small again and sat motionless.
The shock is what kills you. The words came unbidden to his mind, floating up through forty years of muck. He latched onto them. They came from a class he’d taken. They had all taken it. It was a class they sent soldiers to before they shipped them off to war. He hadn’t wanted to go to the class or to the war but he’d had no choice.
The shock is what kills you. He tried to settle down. Keep the shock away. He closed his eyes again. He could almost see the teacher from that faraway class in his mind, hazy around the edges, just out of focus. All of his memories were like that, watery, blurry. As if he was looking through a wet piece of glass.
What else had the teacher said? There had to be more to it than that. Henry sifted through the debris in his memory. Apply pressure to a bleeding wound. Yes, that was something they’d been taught. The featureless face in his mind floated at the front of a bare white room, mouthing the words at him. Apply pressure. He remembered the big squares of gauze they’d kept in their medical kits. Or at least they’d seemed big, and comforting too, until the first time he saw a kid with half his leg blown off. Then he’d realized that a five inch square of gauze was pretty inadequate.
He didn’t have any gauze anyway. He had a plastic shopping bag tucked behind his back and in it were all his worldly possessions – a tin cup, a bible, an empty beer bottle and a big box of matches. None of those could be used for applying pressure.
He took off his beanie, immediately feeling colder. A chill damp breeze blew in from the Mississippi. He heard snatches of music drifting up from Beale Street, occasional shouts, peals of laughter. The tram clanked in the distance. It was all happening in some other world. Here, in this world, Henry bled and shivered and eased his folded beanie under his coat. He found the wet spot again and pushed the beanie against it. Apply pressure.
He heard high heels clacking down the street. He shrank into his doorway. Only his dusty boots stuck out on the sidewalk, the left one tied onto his foot with string. The brim of the fishing hat quivered between his feet as if it might latch onto the breeze and blow away. He should have put the bible in it like he usually did. Maybe the kid with the knife would have thought twice then.
The high heels marched briskly towards him and now he could hear the cheerful voice that went with them, prattling on about catfish at B.B. King’s. They were headed to Beale. Then the monologue slammed to a halt mid-sentence. She must have seen his boots. He breathed quietly, hoping she’d take pity and toss him some change. If he had a few bucks he could go down to West Shore Liquors for a pint of whiskey and that would save him from the Shock. It would ease the pain, at least.
“Oh, give him a dollar, honey. He looks so cold.”
They stood near his boots, blocking the light from the streetlamp. He raised his eyes to the woman. She hovered behind her husband’s arm, peering at Henry.
“God bless you, ma’am,” he said. His voice scratched in his throat.
The man dug in his wallet.
“All I’ve got is a ten.”
“Let him have it, honey.”
“God bless you both,” Henry said more earnestly.
The man flicked the folded ten into his hat, not looking too thrilled about it.
“Thank you sir, thank you.”
Henry looked at the ten dollar bill. His face glistened. Clutching the beanie against his side, he heaved forward, sucking air sharply between his teeth. He grabbed the hat and then rolled onto the sidewalk, crying out as the pain ripped through him in a thousand directions at once. He retched. The beanie fell into the depths of his coat. Shaking, he lay on his side, holding on to the fishing hat. He saw the ten dollar bill whisk down the sidewalk. There went his pint. There went his salvation. He allowed a sob to shudder up through his chest. Maybe he could catch it. Slowly, carefully, he got to his knees and then stood up, reeling. His guts churned like they would spill out of his side. He panted, staring. Where did it go? The breeze blew his tangled hair into his face. He staggered forward a few steps and then gave up. It hurt too much. He couldn’t take it.
He lowered himself to the ground and leaned against the building, the dark brick of Wilson’s Mercantile cold against his back. He could feel his wet clothing plastered to his side. For the first time the thought of death clawed into his mind. After all he’d been through, after he’d survived the war and lived through so many winters out here on the street, surely it wouldn’t end like this -- a stupid death, a sober death, sitting here all alone by Wilson’s Merc? Tears welled in his eyes. If only he could make it to the overpass. His buddy Barney would be there by now and Barney would know what to do. They’d light a fire and he could get some warmth back in his bones. He didn’t want to die. Not cold. Not sober. Not like this.
Henry sobbed suddenly, his chest heaving. His nose ran. He didn’t want to die. Life wasn’t much but it was all he had. A pint of whiskey, a fire in the winter, and a secret place to sleep; that was all he asked for. Why did that kid have to do it? He could have taken the lousy three dollars and just walked away.
Saxophones wailed on Beale Street, plaintive in the night. He drew his knees up and rested his head on his arms. The tears dried on his face. Exhaustion descended on him slowly, like a thick blanket settling over his head. Fragments of memory, old voices, forgotten places drifted through his mind. He remembered himself as a young Henry, just home from the war, sitting outside his parents’ house like this. They had told him that his sister Ginny was dead. Mama wailed out from the past. We couldn’t tell you while you were over there! We couldn’t, Henry!
Heels clacked on the sidewalk again. He was too tired to look up.
“Sir? Sir, are you awake?”
He could smell BBQ ribs. The sweet red smell of the meat sickened him. He rolled his head back. It was the same people who’d given him the ten dollar bill.
“We brought you some dinner,” the woman said, smiling nervously. She held a greasy paper bag in her arms. “Are you OK?”
“Helen, just give him the ribs please and let’s go. It’s freezing out here.”
The woman stared at Henry. “Do you want some ribs?”
Henry shook his head slowly. It was getting foggy. The woman ebbed away from him, blurred around the edges.
“Oh,” she said. She looked hurt. Her face grew large again and hung in front of him. Her eyes were round and colorless. She looked away. “What’s this all over the sidewalk here? “ Clack-clack, the heels. “Honey, is this blood? Is it blood?” Her voice ran up into a shriek.
Henry’s jaw sagged. He felt spittle run off his chin. The cold gnawed at his face, his fingertips. He didn’t want to die cold. He shivered and his chest filled up with sobs again.
The woman leaned in front of him.
“Sir? Sir? Sir, are you hurt?”
“I’m calling the police, Helen.”
“Sir, can you hear me?”
Henry forced his eyes to stay open. Her pink face was so close he could smell her skin.
“Cold,” he said and one of the sobs escaped, shaking his body. His teeth chattered. The woman stood up, unbuttoning her long black coat.
“Helen, what are you doing?”
“Just hush, Frank!”
She leaned over him again, holding the coat out, laying it carefully over him like a blanket. She shivered in her thin silk shirt. The coat was warm from her body and the sweet smell of cherry blossoms rose from the lining. Henry inhaled it deeply.
“There’s an ambulance coming.” The man stepped forward, holding his own coat in his arms. He laid it over the first one, tucking it behind Henry’s neck. “Take it easy, buddy.”
They squatted in front of him, peering into his face. The bag of ribs lay forgotten on the sidewalk.
“Can you tell me your name, sir?”
“Henry,” he said. “I’m Henry. It’s OK, I’m warm now.”
There was a quick flash, as if someone had taken a picture, and the two faces blinking at him grew suddenly still and the saxophones down on Beale Street stopped in mid-wail. Henry’s head lolled back on his neck but a faint smile lingered on his face and because of that it was several minutes before anyone knew he was dead.
Yvette Whitaker lives in the Rocky Mountains, although she has lived in North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, where this story is set. She has a flash fiction piece forthcoming in A Long Story Short.