A Can of Beans
by Jeffrey Greene
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Sitting in a collapsed heap on the top step, her back against the door, was a young woman buried in a man’s overcoat buttoned to the chin. She had the brilliant, ferocious look of the Sickness in its middle stages, her face suffused with blood, vividly emphasizing the chalk-white blotches on her neck and forehead, her eyes fierce, watery, inflamed, her breathing a labored rasp through her open mouth. In twelve hours she would be prostrate and delirious; convulsions and death would follow before the next sunrise. His shoulders sagged as he stared at her with a useless pity that she saw and with weak defiance threw back at him.
“That’s right,” she gasped with a bitter smile, hefting the precious can. “I won’t be needing this tomorrow. Shame, really, ’cause I sure as hell worked for it. Was walking by a quarantined house yesterday, and I hear this old woman’s voice calling over and over, ‘Food for water,’ and I hadn’t eaten in three days, you know? So I put on my mask, filled a beer can with rainwater and crawled through the window.” Her head fell back against the door and she hugged the can to her breast. He watched her throat swallowing and swallowing.
“Whole dead family in there: mother, father, brother and sister. The old lady was in the back bedroom. Pretty nearly gone, but I gave her the water and she pointed to a loose board in the floor. Should have left right then, but I stayed, fetching water, going in and out of that pesthole until she quit. Stupid.” She closed her eyes, her chest heaving.
“I’ll work for it, too,” he said. “You want some water?”
“No.” Her red eyes opened wide and fixed him with a dilated stare. “You want this?” She held out the can, and he nodded slowly, keeping his distance. “You can have half of it. The other half’s for my daughter. She’s five years old, mister, and as clean as you are. I’ve been staying away since I started feeling bad. I swear to God I haven’t been near her.” Her face twisted, a gloved hand came up to cover her eyes and her shoulders shook with sobs.
Mooney stepped back a few paces, untied his mask and relit the cigarette, trying not to look at her while he smoked. His gaze traveled from his shoes to the blank gray sky, darted nervously up and down the street, and as a hunger pang clawed at his insides, fastened on the dented can of beans in her hand. His mouth began to water.
“I’ve been sitting here for hours,” she said. “Thinking about her in that basement, scared to death, probably, thinking that I’ve abandoned her, that I’m dead.”
“You said you’d give me half,” he said, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice. “But I’ll need to know where she is.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“You have my word she’ll get half,” he said. “That’s the best I can do. But if you don’t give me the address she’ll go hungry.” His upper lip drew back from his teeth in self-disgust but he went on: “Doesn’t she have a right to know what happened to her mother?”
Her bloodshot gaze held him for a long moment before she said: “710 Northwest 39th Avenue. Burned-up brownstone house. She’s in the basement. Call her by name and tell her I sent you. It’s Amy.”
She opened her hand and the can rolled off her lap and down the steps, coming to rest in the gutter. Tying on his mask and taking out the matches, he knelt down, and holding the lit match at arm’s length, ran a flame over every inch of the can’s surface, burning off the label in the process. When it was cool enough to touch, he put it in his pocket and turned to the sick woman. She’d been taken by chills in the last few moments and was shuddering uncontrollably.
“710 Northwest 39th Avenue,” he repeated. “And her name is Amy. Anything you want me to tell her?”
“The truth.” She hugged herself, her breath whistling through her teeth. “Tell her I’m not coming back.” She turned her face to the wall.
He nodded, then turned and walked slowly away. At the end of the block, he heard her coughing and quickened his pace. He was walking faster and faster, the can banging against his hip. He crossed the street whenever he saw another scavenger, ducking his head to avoid eye contact or nodding curtly if someone spoke to him. His mouth was filling up with water; he had to swallow to get rid of it, and he thought of the way the woman’s throat worked as she swallowed.
When he reached the alley that was one of his regular sleeping spots, he broke and ran to his place behind the dumpster. He went down on his knees and arranged the can, his knife, and the open cigarette case in a neat row on the gravel. He stayed like that for a moment, on his knees with his eyes closed, then grabbed the knife and, bracing the can between his knees, punched a hole in the rim and cut off the lid. As he licked the blade clean, the reproving gaze of the woman in the picture held him fast.
“Did you think I was going to hit her over the head and take it?” he asked. He picked up the can and used his fingers to scoop a mass of beans into his mouth, chewing and swallowing with ravenous haste but never taking his eyes off the picture. “You did think that, didn’t you? I gave you reason enough to hate me, God knows, but what’s that got to do with this?”
When the can was half-empty he stopped eating and, with an enormous effort of will, set the can down on the gravel. Pressing the lid down on the remaining beans, he replaced it carefully in his pocket. Before closing the cigarette case, he said: “Just this once, don’t judge me.”
A pale sun appeared briefly over the blackened cliff of apartment buildings on 39th Avenue before a muddy curtain of clouds and smoke closed over it. Mooney stood uncertainly on the front porch of Number 710, peering into the scorched and ransacked interior of what once might have been a beautiful home.
He entered with exaggerated caution, testing each footstep, and everywhere he looked he saw broken glass, obscenities scrawled in charcoal on the walls, greasy bedrolls torn open and stuffing strewn about the room, cobwebs strung with cigarette filters and curlicues of ash.
He searched through a deeper gloom until he found the staircase. He lit a third match to guide his way to a low door set in the bare concrete wall of the basement. He knocked lightly and waited with his ear to the wood. He thought he could hear someone moving about behind the door, but he couldn’t be sure. He tested the knob and found it locked.
“Amy?” He waited, but there was no answer. “Amy, if you’re in there, don’t be afraid, just listen. My name is Mooney, Francis Mooney. I met your mother this morning, and she asked me to bring you some food. I have it right here. She’s sorry for staying away so long, and she wanted me to tell you why she couldn’t come herself. I’d like to tell you face to face. Who likes talking through a door? And I’m not sick, if that’s what you’re thinking.
“So what I’m going to do is put this can of pork and beans right here on the floor and leave. I won’t go far, just to the front steps outside. When you finish eating, if you want to talk, call me and I’ll come to the top of the stairs. We can talk from there. Okay? I’m putting it down now.”
He set the can down with a clunk and stamped as loudly as possible up the stairs. He sat down on the cool stone steps and looked down the street at nothing at all, his fingers fumbling for an imaginary cigarette butt and finding only his pockets’ familiar tenants.
“We must starve together, Amy, or we’ll starve separately,” he muttered with a sour smile.
At his feet a line of ants trooped to and from the iridescent carcass of a mud dauber. They’re eating better than we are, he thought. It’s the Golden Age of Insects. He closed his eyes and summoned a familiar image: himself striking out across a lush pasture toward a quiet lake, the rotten fangs of the city miles behind him. But this time there was a child walking beside him.
He heard a door open and slam shut behind him. He scrambled to his feet and groped his way to the top of the stairs. The silence stretched into minutes. Then there was the faintest click of a doorknob and the stealthy creak of a door opening. He waited, then in a tremulous whisper so low he might have imagined it, he heard his name spoken. He lit his last match, its feeble light playing on the smoke-blackened walls.
“Here I am,” he said, and stood at the top of the stairs, waiting.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene