Desolation Row


by David Callinan

Desolation Row

In a frozen New York City the countdown had begun to Christmas Eve. White flakes of drifting snow turned grey almost as soon as they hit the ground. In the streets around the East River, there wasn’t much in the way of Christmas spirit. The snowflakes had to concede defeat and turn into grimy, polluted slush. One of the few beacons of light in a bleak cityscape was the Refuge, a converted warehouse near the river, a haven for the poor and the homeless, for the lost souls of the city.

This was desolation row, America’s third world. This was where the spirit of free enterprise lost its soul and dumped its waste product.

Jack Madigan was preparing for his busiest time of the year. Jack was young, only twenty-eight, but he had run the Refuge for over a year and was its chief trustee. Without Jack the Refuge would have closed. Only his faith and driving force had persuaded the City authorities to grant the license renewal.

He was standing in the ramshackle storeroom that passed for his office speaking excitedly into his cellphone.

“Harry, you’re a miracle worker. A million dollars, right?” He paused and listened with a triumphant grin on his face “You know what this insurance policy means to us, don’t you?”

He clenched his left fist and lashed out in celebration. “Exactly. We can keep this place going.” He lowered his voice. “It gives some real security to the homeless and desperate and it meets our license stipulation. Okay, I’ll meet you in your office to sign the paperwork.”

Jack terminated the call and walked out into the main hall of the Refuge. Right now he was preparing for the annual Christmas rush. Although he hated doing it, he would have to turn people away. The queue to get in for a Christmas dinner of turkey and the trimmings and a bed for the night began early. Jack’s own Christmas celebrations usually had to wait a couple of days.

He had a lot of helpers, all volunteers, but he planned to be there on Christmas Day with Kerry.

It was eleven o’clock. Time for Jack to hand over to his night shift. In the semi-darkness, an orchestral cacophony of snoring rose and fell from the sleeping bodies in the four long rows of beds. Some men were crying in their sleep whilst others muttered to themselves in the midst of mind-locked nightmares.

Jack used a couple of ex-boxers as overnight wardens. Marcel ’Golden Boy’ Nixon and Clyde Rydell were big, black and tough, a couple of reformed characters who had learned to trust the ‘honky with heart’ as they called Jack.

“Night, Marcel, night, Clyde,” Jack said in a low voice.

“See you tomorrow, boss,” growled Marcel with a large grin.

“Looks like you’ve had some good news, my man,” whispered Clyde opening his eyes wide.

“All in good time, guys,” said Jack as he headed for the front door.

Jack looked out into the night. Snow was still falling, steam rising. Jack’s car was parked securely behind a heavily reinforced door. He unlocked the makeshift garage, stepped inside and eased the old Studebaker out of its concrete silo, then locked it behind him. Jack took a look around at the streets. A couple of drunks were staggering towards the Refuge. In dark recesses and in doorways, shapes were moving, a match flared. Music throbbed from somewhere.

"Come on, Jack," he muttered to himself, "time to go home."

At that moment a tall, wizened figure shuffled through the flickering street lights, long matted hair dressed with a topping of snowflakes. Like an Old Testament prophet, Abraham was making for the Promised Land. Jack smiled, wound down his window. "Evening, Abraham," he said. "We’ve kept your reservation open as usual."

"Ah! Jack, you startled me," Abraham walked over to the car. "Nearly Christmas and soon you’ll be a father. Such times we live in."

"Three months. I can’t wait. It’s all I seem to think about."

Abraham looked around then glanced at the Refuge where Clyde was waiting for him. "This is no place for a young man like you. You’ve made your point. You’ve built up some good karma, my young friend. Believe me, it has not gone unnoticed by those in higher authority." Abraham raised his eyes into the white night. "I for one have much to thank you for."

"Don’t even mention it. It’s good to have you with us. The guys seem to respect you. You’ve never been mugged; people leave you alone yet they tell you their troubles. You’re a natural psychiatrist, Abe."

"I like to be of service. Give my best to your beautiful wife."

Abraham’s expression suddenly turned serious. "Look after her, Jack, especially now."

Jack glanced at him curiously. "Sure, of course I’ll look after her."

Abraham shuffled through the slush to the door. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Abe," Jack smiled to himself and revved up.

Kerry Madigan stared at the flickering screen, her face clouded. "Shit, what’s the matter with me?" she muttered.

She glanced up and smiled as Bill Sherman came into the office. "Leave it for now," he said, "it’ll come to you tomorrow."

"It’s a damn good story, Bill. We can really nail Mancini this time; an Insight exclusive. We have evidence of chemical dumping he can’t refute. This is going to ruin the bastard."

Bill Sherman, editor of Insight, a radical magazine that hovered on the verge of bankruptcy with every issue, regarded Kerry with the eye of friend and colleague.

"Don’t get so worked up. We’ll get him. He’s not going to get away with poisoning half the Bronx. Listen, Kerry, don’t you think you it’s time you packed up work. Three months to go, that’s all. It’s time you were putting your feet up."

"Maybe you’re right. I know you’re right. I just can’t seem to help myself."

He laughed then. "How are you going to be for money? I pay you a pittance and Jack can’t take home a fortune?"

"We’ll survive. We’ve got some put by. We don’t pay any rent for the apartment in the Village, don’t forget, courtesy of my father. Jack takes a salary from the donations and bequests. He’s done incredibly well you know, Bill, I mean, getting money out of all kinds of people."

"He’s a natural entrepreneur. He’s in the wrong business. If he wanted to make money..."

"But he doesn’t," Kerry interjected, "that’s not what either of us care about," she paused, "but you are right. This little life inside me is more important than the Enrico Mancinis of this world."

She spun round slowly in her chair and caressed her stomach. "It’s fantastic you know, Bill, to think another human life is in there."

Bill watched her. The rest of the staff was packing up for the night. Snowflakes were clinging to the window; each one an individual; each one clinging to life as long as possible; each one succumbing to its fate and dissolving into the sea of creation.

Kerry Petrovich had left Pittsburgh for New York after working at her local paper for a couple of years. From the age of seven she’d known she wanted to be a journalist. Her father and mother had emigrated from Poland. He moved into real estate in a limited way and bought up some rundown properties in Greenwich Village in the fifties. Now they were worth a small fortune.

When Kerry first met Jack it was like lightning striking. He had moved in with her in under a week. But now, with a baby on the way, how would that affect their relationship?

Would sex be the same afterwards? Would there be any sex with late nights, breast-feeding and possible post-natal depression to look forward to. Kerry sighed, glanced up at Bill.

"Come on," he said, "we’re supposed to be meeting Zoe at Mike’s Bar in fifteen minutes. Jack’s coming too, remember?"

This was the usual Friday night ritual. Mike’s Bar was where the real Village got together.

"Right, I’m with you." Kerry looked at her half finished story on screen, shrugged and switched it off.

Next Chapter: Released