by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3 4
That night the missions and flophouses were filled, and Chance shuffled along the cold, deserted streets hoping to find refuge in a church. He gazed wistfully into the warmly lit windows of the townhouses he passed and imagined the happy people within, contentedly observing the small domestic joys of cheerful conversation, regular meals, and sleeping safely and soundly in their own beds — simple delights banished perhaps forever from his life.
Walking by an alley, he heard a moan. Slumped against the wall was the elderly hobo Billy Bones, who’d grown too infirm to ride the rails in search of work and had taken up residence on the Bowery streets. Though he’d seen many dead and dying men and had become inured to the sight, Chance’s conscience won out.
With his remaining strength, he carried Billy the five blocks down Avenue D to Strangers Hospital for Vagrants. Chance staggered into the hospital, the hobo exhaled a last, rattling breath, and Chance collapsed in exhaustion. Attendants wheeled away Billy’s remains and revived Chance, only to return him to the streets. He walked all night to stave off freezing, his thoughts returning again and again to Billy’s sad end and Wolfe’s offer.
The following day, a famished and nearly frozen Chance entered the pawnshop. Wolfe took no notice of him as he wended his way toward the back of the room.
“See what I acquired yesterday afternoon?” Wolfe said without looking up. He reached under the counter and produced two light-skinned shrunken heads, each about the size of a large orange, one with short curly black hair, the other with long, wavy red hair.
“Allow me to introduce Professor Cecil Wickfield-Philpott, a botanist, and his wife Philomena, a lepidopterist. This adventurous British couple met their fates collecting specimens in the New Guinea jungles.”
Wolfe inched the heads closer together and frowned. “I don’t think I should sell them separately, do you?”
“No, probably not,” said Chance, cringing at the grotesque sight.
Wolfe stopped fiddling with the Wickfield-Philpotts and regarded Chance in mock surprise. “Why, if it isn’t... Reconsidered, have we?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Wolfe.”
Wolfe’s demeanor brightened as he examined the beaten man before him. He disappeared behind a curtain and returned with a steaming mug of coffee and a sweet roll. The shop’s seductive warmth restored the feeling to Chance’s fingers and toes while he devoured the simple meal.
“So, what’s on your mind?” said Wolfe.
“I don’t understand why you’d be interested in my soul at all. I’m of no value to anyone.”
“Perhaps,” Wolfe said his expression softening, “but perhaps not. Yes, you have sinned in the eyes of God but, by my lights, your soul has retained much of its essential innocence. In fact, I can see it quite clearly. You have a very nice soul indeed.”
Wolfe paused and, with his fingernails, nipped off the end of a black cigar and lit it from the gas jet. He puffed vigorously and disappeared into a cloud of foul smoke, only the fiery tip visible through the haze.
“Chance, I can provide your soul with the material advantages it requires to once again flourish. Few of my customers have been more deserving of a change in fortune than you. For instance, during the war, you comforted the dying whether friend or foe, and fought for a noble cause with selfless bravery.
“But for your good deeds and heroism, you received only a few gold-plated medals and the empty thanks of a forgetful nation. You spent what little you had to nurse Con back to life. Even your recent attempt at crime evoked the generosity and goodwill of the man you tried to rob. You’ve brought more good fortune to others than they’ve ever brought to you.”
“How do you know all this?” Chance stammered.
“I hear things,” said Wolfe shrugging. “As I say, you have a fine soul, but it’s been of little benefit to you. With your permission, I will change that.”
In his youth, Chance had heard cautionary tales about men who sold their souls to the devil and their ensuing downfall. He reasoned that pawning his soul would at least give him the opportunity to reclaim it and said so to Wolfe.
“You’ll do better if you sell,” Wolfe said. “How about I throw in a suite in the Plaza Hotel for a month or two? A summer in Newport? An evening with Lily Langtry? I guarantee she will find you irresistible.” Wolfe held up a stereopticon card of the Jersey Lily in full décolletage.
Such temptations meant little to Chance, and he politely declined Wolfe’s offers.
“I’ve only ever wanted enough to get by,” Chance said. “A clean warm room and two meals a day would be more than I’ve had in a long time.”
“You see, Chance, that’s what’s so beautiful about you,” said Wolfe. “You still retain some integrity, a virtue that’s usually terrible for my business. I’m touched you want so little when the rest of my customers want so much more than they’re worth. Let’s see what I can do for you.”
They agreed that in exchange for pawning his soul, Chance would receive a wallet from which he could withdraw thirty dollars every Monday morning, a sum far exceeding a month’s wages for many New Yorkers. If, at any time during the next three years he wished to redeem his soul, he had to repay an amount equal to the total cash advanced, plus two percent interest, and five certified, substantial, virtuous acts.
“And by that I don’t mean helping an old lady across the street,” Wolfe added.
“But Con only had do three good deeds.”
“Rules of the game, my friend, and I didn’t make them,” said Wolfe sucking on his teeth. “When you do business with the likes of me, a certain amount of expiation is required to return you to a state of grace. In your case, it’s five, not three. The farther the fall, the steeper the climb.”
“What happens to my soul if I can’t pay you back?”
Wolfe inhaled deeply on his cigar and exhaled its noxious fumes in little puffs as he spoke.
“When you die, your soul will become one of the pawns in a much larger game — or war, if you prefer. I myself am such a fallen creature and, frankly, I’ve never been happier. You still retain your free will, Chance. No one is forcing you to do anything, least of all me. To paraphrase the poet, ‘To stand or fall, free in thine own arbitrement it lies.’” Wolfe flicked the ash drooping from the end of his cigar onto the floor.
Chance considered his alternatives and decided he had none. He signed the contract and was admonished to keep the details of it to himself. Nevertheless, Wolfe encouraged Chance to send potential customers his way.
“Referrals are my stock-in-trade.”
Chance shook hands with Wolfe, whose hand was cold as a dead haddock. Wolfe gave him the magical wallet into which he slipped a double sawbuck.
“Consider it a gift. And I’ve something else for you.” Wolfe thumped a shining flask onto the counter. “Sterling silver. Heft it.”
Chance did. It was heavy and curiously warm to the touch.
“It’s filled with — say, what do you like to drink?” said Wolfe.
Chance had never been much of a drinker, but once he and another dockworker got drunk on some bourbon.
“Bourbon, I guess.”
“Bourbon it is,” said Wolfe. “Every time you unscrew the top, it will be filled to the brim with the finest bourbon. No extra cost, just a token of my appreciation for your business.”
Chance thanked him and dropped the flask into his coat pocket.
“It’s not in my nature to offer advice,” said Wolfe, “but I like you, Chance, so a word of warning: Money can get you what you want and, at the same time, prevent you from getting what you need.”
Chance returned to the street and headed for a rooming house he could now afford, one that offered private rooms and baths. To celebrate his new state, he took a cautious sip from the flask, the amber liquid suffusing him with a gentle glow, not unlike that supplied by opium. By the time he reached his new lodgings, he’d taken three hearty sips and felt the world was a very fine place indeed, filled with marvelous possibilities, and wasn’t he lucky to be alive on such a lovely day.
* * *
The following year saw many changes in Chance’s life, not all of them salutary. It was true he now ate three meals a day, bathed regularly, and lived in a clean rooming house with no more bedbugs than most New Yorkers. Although his encounter with Wolfe suggested that if there were a hell, there was probably heaven too, but Chance’s youthful godliness had been too battered to reawaken.
At first his habits remained frugal, and he dreamed once again of purchasing a newsstand and tobacco shop, this time to make enough to pay off Wolfe. But his dream was derailed when news of his mysterious new wealth spread among the derelicts fortunate enough to know him. They swarmed upon him like a plague of fleas. So long had Chance been a solitary and rejected figure that the flattery and attentions of his companions overwhelmed his good sense.
At first they were grateful for the meals he bought for them, but then they grew resentful that he didn’t buy them new clothes, rent lodgings for them, and stake them to dinners and endless rounds at Bowery bars. To escape their increasingly strident demands, he secretly moved to a room further uptown.
With a more stylish wardrobe, better address, and a growing taste for good food and drink, Chance frequented finer restaurants and saloons and soon fell in with a more elegant bunch of loafers and ne’er-do-wells. His vanity swelled from their unctuous blandishments, and he joined them for days spent at the racetrack, even traveling up to Saratoga for the summer season.
When he wasn’t smoking cigars, sipping coffee at swank cafés, and occasionally lending money to some fellow with a sure-fire scheme to double or triple his investment, Chance squandered his time and money playing poker or attending freak shows, curiosity museums, and other low entertainments. He’d also become addicted to the comforting stupefaction provided by his always full silver flask.
His friends often cajoled him into accompanying them for an evening’s entertainment, knowing that if one of them bought the first round, they could rely on Chance to pick up the tab for the night’s drinking, dinner, and late-night carousing. The few times his thoughts strayed back to opening his little shop, the roistering jollity of his false friends and the fleeting pleasures of painting the town red rendered the idea of running such a modest business humdrum and dreary by comparison.
As they had on other nights, Chance and his drunken retinue reeled into The Golden Slipper, his favorite Bowery saloon, known for its raucous and racy entertainments. During the floorshow, Chance’s pals pushed him up onto the stage and cheered him on while he staggered drunkenly about, pretending to conduct the small orchestra, lunging clownishly at the dancing girls, and making a fool of himself.
When the Slipper closed, Lil, the proprietress, roused Chance, helped him out to the street, and called a hackney. She’d become friendly with him during his previous unaccompanied visits and had developed a soft spot in her heart for his generosity toward her “wards,” as she called her girls. She liked the look of him, too. But he’d showed up one too many times with his unruly pack of parasites.
“Listen to me, Chance, and listen good,” she said, holding him up by his lapels. “You’re a sweet guy at heart, but when you hang out with those bums you call friends, you’re just another lousy drunk. Show up with them again and you’re banned for good. I love ya, honey, but love has its limits.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle