Old Johnny Watson was sitting on the curb, hand outstretched, as the businessman in the Armani suit walked by. “Hey, buddy, could you spare a dime for a fella that’s down on his luck?”
The man sneered and averted his gaze. “Sorry, I’ve got nothing…”
Johnny had been there, on that curb, for four hours. So far, he had only managed to acquire $4.28 in loose change. It wasn’t the best day that he’d had. And he was feeling pretty down, more so than usual. He really needed a bottle. At the rate he was going, he’d be lucky if he could get the cheapest bottle of rotgut shit over at the liquor store on 42nd Street.
He looked up and down the sidewalk in either direction. The flow of foot traffic had stopped.
Johnny sighed to himself. He stood, his 53-year-old joints creaking, and crossed the middle of the street. His pace was slow and cars were forced to break to avoid hitting him, honking. He grunted and raised his hand in the direction of traffic as if to say “it’s all right”.
Halfway across, he noticed something that he should have before. Walking down the other side of the street was a cop on his way back to his squad car, carrying a bucket of fried chicken. Johnny grimaced, lowered his head, and kept going. Maybe the cop would be too preoccupied with his chicken to notice him.
The cop finally looked up, slowing in his stride, getting a strange look of recognition on his face. He seemed to smile at seeing Johnny’s dirty face and soiled, stinking clothes.
As Johnny reached the sidewalk, the cop was sitting his bucket of chicken down on the hood of a parked car.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Johnny almost didn’t look up, but the cop was standing directly in his way, at the curb’s edge. As his eyes finally rose, he found he was staring directly into the cop’s glaring eyes.
“I said, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Johnny wheezed as he breathed in and out hard. No words came immediately to his mind and his lips just quivered in place, parted and gasping for air.
“Fucker, are you listening to me? I asked what the fuck you think you’re doing.”
Johnny’s old and tattered voice finally came in small spurts. “Um… well, I… I was crossing… crossing the street here.”
“So you were,” the cop loudly piped in. “So you were.” He smiled and started to finger the handle of his auto-baton. “But we have a little something in this town referred to as ‘crosswalks’… You might have heard of them.”
Johnny attempted a smile and coughed, trying to attempt an innocent chuckle. “Hgh… I think… um, I know… about those.”
The cop, whose name Johnny could finally see on his brassy nameplate was ‘Ralt’, seemed to lose his sense of humor. “Well, then, why the fuck aren’t you using them?”
Johnny crumpled. His lips trembled, spitting out what words he could find. “I was just… just…”
“Just crossing the fucking road, blocking fucking traffic, to panhandle, you piece of shit?”
Johnny broke under Officer Ralt’s words. “I never… I never meant…”
“I don’t fucking care what you meant to do. I care about your worthless, sorry fucking lazy jobless ass walking across my road… We have a crime called ‘jaywalking’ that you seem to be committing…”
“Please, I… I only wanted…”
“What you fucking wanted was to fucking panhandle on my sidewalks for other people’s hard-earned money, you fuck. I’d ticket you right now… but if you don’t pay, how would I find your worthless fucking homeless ass?”
Johnny was near tears.
“But I have a better fucking idea…”
Ralt dragged Johnny violently into the alley, throwing him down onto the pavement next to a dumpster. “We can just forego the ticket this time…” Ralt drew his auto-baton, snapping it out to its full length.
Ralt took a few quick swings back and forth to test the feel of the baton. The air whistled as the metal bar cut through it.
Johnny had started to sit up onto his elbows, scooting back as far as he could into the dumpster’s side.
Ralt was above him and, with a smile, the metal rod swung down into his gut.
With a squeal, Johnny crumpled and tried to curl into the fetal position. He didn’t quite make it in time, as the baton cracked down into his chest with a pop that caused him to let out a scream. Then, he was balled up, sobbing.
The blows came for a while. None were quite as bad as the one in the rib cage. Several smashed into his shoulders, his back, his thighs… The tears ran and he cried out for help.
People occasionally passed by, barely caring. They glanced over at the officer swinging away at Johnny’s dirty, crumpled form. And they walked on.
“Don’t fucking let me see you on my streets again…” Ralt said, pushing the baton’s rounded tip against the brick wall, forcing its telescoping length back down into the handle.
Ralt’s radio burst into a chaotic mess of voices and static. He muttered under his breath and he hurried back to his squad car.
Johnny sat up slowly, nursing his horribly bruised, welt-covered flesh. He spat blood-laced saliva onto the pavement, his hand slowly grasping the dumpster’s side, his arms struggling vainly to help pull him upright. He fell back several times before gaining enough leverage to pull himself up.
Limping slowly back toward the street, Johnny used his tattered sleeve to wipe the blood running down his face from his bloodied nose and split lips. People went out of their way to avoid being too close to him as he walked out on the sidewalk. It was always that way, even when he wasn’t bloodied.
There was a pain in his side and he gripped his ribcage. A rib must have cracked during the beating. He whimpered with every movement.
He made his way to the street’s edge and collapsed onto the bumper of a parked car. Johnny breathed heavily, unable to catch his breath through all the pain.
When he finally looked up, there was the bucket of chicken, still sitting on the trunk of the car opposite to him.
Johnny attempted a smile.
Fed and cleaned up as much as dirty cloth and spit would allow, Johnny had moved to a nearby less-traveled street to avoid Officer Ralt, in case he happened to return. He sat on the sidewalk, leaned against a building, waiting for people to pass by.
“Got any change?” he would ask as people walked by. And they would ignore him, not even making eye contact.
“Could you help a guy out?” he would say.
He understood why people ignored him. He had always ignored bums, vagrants… That’s what he was now: a bum, a fucking wino. He had done the same thing in his time, when he was young, when he didn’t want for anything.
He couldn’t blame them… He had done the same thing himself once.
It was a fruitless day.
“I just need a little change…” He must’ve said that a hundred times today. Only $6.74. It’d take more than that to get anything worthwhile, to get something to fuck him up, make him forget.
It was getting dark. It would probably be another cold night without a bottle.
“Are you okay, sir?” Johnny looked up at the floral-skirted middle-aged woman standing over him. He began to smile at her, then felt the pain in his mouth. He realized that he must look like hell, bruised and beaten, swollen.
“Um… A little cold… and hungry.” He hated the lie. That was the worst part. It was a simple dishonesty, one that everyone in his position told. “Hungry,” he thought. Not after that bucket of chicken. He hadn’t eaten like that in a long time. But he didn’t have the brazen discourtesy to come out and tell someone that he needed a bottle of something shitty to make him stinking drunk. Because he didn’t like to face up to that himself, much less announce it to people. And to beg people for liquor money… He couldn’t handle being that dirty. But he had to do it. He had to.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked, smiling. It was such an innocent, naïve smile, almost as if she didn’t know better.
“Well, I could use a couple… um, a couple…” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. He knew that he couldn’t ask her. Because he knew she’d believe him. So, Johnny stopped and smiled meekly.
He started to look away, ashamed, but she began to rummage through her purse. “Here,” she said, pressing a folded bill into his hand.
He stared up blankly, looking back and forth between his hand and her face, unable to quite grasp why she gave him money. He wanted to give it back, but she laid her hand on his shoulder, sending pain down his arm. He tried not to wince.
She looked at him with kind eyes, turned, and walked away.
He finally looked at the bill and saw the ‘20’ inscribed on it. Tears welled up in his eyes.
Johnny walked toward the liquor store. It was dark on the streets and he had trouble keeping good footing on the dimly-lit, uneven, cracked pavement.
He was still having trouble moving from his “punishment” earlier. His ribs ached, his bruises throbbed, and he was having a painful time walking.
He rifled through his pocket again and pulled out the $20 bill. He looked at it under a streetlamp with a mix of guilt and desperation.
Johnny didn’t really want to use the money… it still didn’t seem right. He felt so dirty. He felt like some crack addict, some junkie.
But he started walking toward the 42nd Street Package Store again.
Johnny never saw the young man coming out of the alleyway; he couldn’t see anything as he crossed its dark mouth. The man was dressed in dark clothing, his shifty eyes looking out of the shadows, searching for a victim.
As the man came out of the alley, he grabbed Johnny from behind and pushed him forward. Johnny hit the sidewalk hard and the pain shooting from his ribs made it impossible for him to move, to do anything but cry out in abject pain.
The young man didn’t say much. “Thanks, old man” was all he muttered as he snatched the $20 from Johnny outstretched hand. With a last kick to Johnny’s side, he headed off to his dealer’s.
Johnny leaned against the wall, clutching his side. It felt like everything in chest had broken. He was sweating and had to struggle not to vomit.
Then, the realization set in… He did not have his money. There would be no liquor for him today. And he cried.
He eventually straggled into the 42nd Street Package Store some time later and looked around for anything to take him away from this day.
There were aisles of bottles, each one containing some of that sweet liquor that would save him tonight. He walked up and down each aisle, searching desperately for something that would get him smashed for $7.01.
There was nothing good for the amount of money he had, nothing he could drink, nothing that would get him fucked up, nothing to take his mind away from this day.
Feebly, he crept up to the counter where the large, imposing Middle Eastern owner seemed to stare at every customer that entered the store.
Johnny reached into his pocket, drawing out the money and laid it on the counter. The proprietor looked coldly at the money and sneered.
“I… if I could, please… I… I’d like whatever I could get… as much as I can… get for… for this.” Johnny pushed the money forward.
The owner stood, arms crossed, and looked at Johnny with uncontained disdain. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally turned and looked along the bottom of the counter.
He looked for some time, before finally picking up a dusty bottle with a mangled, dirty label. It looked horrid and ancient. Johnny doubted that, whatever it was, he could drink it.
“Don’t come back until you have money,” the owner ordered.
In the alley behind the store, Johnny leaned huddled against a wall, where no one could see him.
The bottle felt strange. It didn’t feel quite like it was filled with liquor. It seemed more like it was filled with honey, a slow heavy motion inside as the bottle moved.
Warily, Johnny drew out the cork stoppering the ancient bottle with a tiny, pitted pocket knife.
A light mist began to spill from the bottle’s lip, growing slowly. It increased quickly into a vaporous cloud. The cloud accumulated into the shape of a man.
It boomed with a deep voice. “You who have awakened the genie, what is your command?”
“What?” Johnny muttered, jaw slack, mind reeling in confusion and pain.
“You who have awakened the genie of the bottle, what is your command?”
“I… I don’t want to command you. Where’s my liquor?”
“There is no liquor in the bottle. I am a genie, trapped in the bottle for all time.”
“But… I need some liquor…” His voice quivered.
“Your wish is my command.” A bottle of liquor appeared before Johnny, hanging in the air.
At first, Johnny didn’t know if any of this was real. Maybe he was hallucinating. It had been a very hard, stressful, painful day. It must all be a delusion from the pain… Everything seemed like a dream.
He finally reached out and touched the bottle. It was cold and real… real enough to feel.
“I…I…” Johnny took the bottle in his hand. He unscrewed the top and sniffed the liquor’s aroma. It smelled real. And good. Just the kind he liked.
He took a chance and took a hard swig. It was just as he had hoped, burning down his throat and warming his belly.
“Thank you…” was all he could think to say.
“Now, master, what is it that you require from me?”
“Um… Nothing, thanks…”
“You must need something else, master. Any task that I can accomplish for you?”
Johnny felt uncomfortable. “No…”
The genie frowned. “There is no service required for the genie of the lamp?”
“Oh… no… I don’t… think…” Johnny muttered.
“Surely there must be more tasks to ask of me, lord?” The genie didn’t seem to believe him.
“I don’t know…” Johnny said, taking a good swig of the smooth liquor.
With a frown, the genie crossed his arms and returned to the bottle in a cloud of mist.
Johnny stood for some time looking at the bottle, occasionally taking swigs from the similar bottle in his hand.
After some time, he picked the bottle up and looked at it more closely. A cold feeling ran down his spine.
He tossed the bottle down the alley. It crashed as it landed, the glass shattering, crashing like an imploding light bulb, and released a shriek like air escaping from a balloon. The mist screamed out and spread into nothing.
Johnny turned and headed out of the alley into the night to find a place to numb himself.