Here is a little piece of fiction I wrote for author Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge.
Word Count: 1728 I hope you enjoy!
The Goblet of Lost Chicago
No orange glow flickered across the aged brick walls of the alley. No cracked fingers protruded from the tattered remnants of worn gloves. Only hoarse coughs and muffled sniffles spoke of life in the allies of Chicago during the winter. The warmth of fires only burned in the barrels of allies from movie sets. In the real world, the police demanded such fire hazards be snuffed out. Too many loose layers covering dirt-caked hands hovered around the fires for the comfort of the law. A fire among the piles of refuse in the alley outweighed the comfort of heat for the lost ones of the Windy City.
“Hey,” the scratchy voice of Shoeshine Joe called out in the darkness. “Anyone seen King Hell today?”
Shoeshine Joe earned his name from the wingtip Oxfords that always graced his mangled feet. The ebony stains on his fingertips were testament to the high shine he worked tirelessly to keep on his favorite footwear. The remaining aspects of his wardrobe was the normal fare for street dwellers; an oversized winter coat with patches of white stuffing peering through tears and split seams, dingy jeans with soup and alcohol stains, and a thick wool hat pulled low over his bushy brow.
“I think he be at the shelter over on South Canal Street.” The voice of Jackie filtered from beneath the layers of cardboard she piled on herself to keep the brutal elements at bay was muffled. Joe knew she didn’t bother to even poke her head from the blanket and cardboard shelter she fashioned next to the rusty green garbage bin. He didn’t care, not many of the lost were awake at three hours past midnight.
The city itself was embraced in a hibernation during these wee hours. The late-night partiers and drug entrepreneurs avoided the bitter winds that rolled in from the lake. Those late night endeavors waited for warmer climates. As did the panhandlers; the ones that rolled in dirt and muck after they rolled out of the shiny new sedans. They sat in train stations and outside big buildings begging for change, collecting greedily until the sun began to set marking the time to roll back into their sedans destined for the suburbs and their bed. No, the only poor souls on the streets of Chicago in January were the truly homeless. Too slow, injured, or impaired to land a bed at a shelter, they simply did what they could to stay warm in a nameless alley.
A hacking cough echoed down the quiet alley. Once it subsided a deep bellow erupted from a pile of blankets across the alley from Joe, “Why you lookin’ fer that asshole?” The large frame of Big Cal emerged from his tattered bulwark. His cracked and swollen hands, large enough to encase the head of a grown man, casually scraped the fresh snow from an old green blanket that had U.S. Army printed along the edge. A deep, crackling cough burst from his chapped lips as he glowered at Shoeshine Joe.
“I wanted to know ‘bout his magical goblet,” Joe replied simply.
“Ain’t no magic in dat cup,” Big Cal said after spitting the phlegm from his mouth.
“He told me he can predict the future with it. He said it was a family heirloom that went back to the times of knights and such.”
“And you is stupid enough to believe King Hell?”
Joe stared at Big Cal. Calvin was a former college football star destined for the pros, until his love for heroin led him to a life on the streets. Now he was clean of the smack, but with no family to turn to he still loved among the homeless.
“He once drank some blackberry brandy from it. Went into some convulsions, then told me he was gonna eat good that night.” Shoeshine Joe paused and glanced up at the softly falling flakes, “Then, sure enough, one of them college do-gooders bought him a big-ass meal not long after.” Joe’s eyes grew wide as he remembered watching the self-proclaimed King of the Streets being led away by well-dressed kids, intent on fixing the world. “It’s magic I tell ya!”
“Yer stupid Joe,” Big Cal proclaimed. His proclamations generally went unchallenged.
“Naw man. I swear.”
From the darkness of Big Cal’s heap of blankets, cardboard, and refuse erupted a deep and hearty laughter. “King Hell is stuck in an acid trip from the 70’s. He don’t know what the hell he’s talking ‘bout!” Big Cal began rummaging beneath his snow and dirt covered pile he called a bed. Finally his gigantic hands found the source of his search. A small tin cup, aged and scarred from a life of abuse. Big Cal’s sausage sized finger barely fit between the cold, tarnished tin and the bent handle. Holding it aloft he asked, “Dis what you talkin’ about?”
Big Cal’s tree trunk of an arm was long enough to hold the chalice high enough so the single street light struck it. Snow drifted about the cup, each flake danced in the air but avoided connecting with the magical cup of tin and booze. The tarnished gray metal glowed in the dim streetlight; framed by the backdrop of drunken snowflakes.
“That’s it! But how?”
“Dat idiot traded this cup to me for two smokes yesterday.”
“Use it Cal! Tell me my future.”
“Yep. You are dumb as shit.” Calvin rummaged through his home again before producing a small bottle of gin. He erupted from the powder-covered blankets with a quickness that belied his enormous figure. The motion caused another round of coughing fits to overtake him. After the fit passed, he gingerly poured enough gin into the simple tin cup to empty a quarter of his beloved bottle. Raising his arms high he made a second proclamation for all to hear, “Cause Shoeshine Joe woke me from a good nap, I’m gonna tell his future.”
With a swift motion, he emptied the tin cup of its contents with a single gulp. A broad smile crossed his bearded face; yellow teeth grinned mischievously towards Joe.
“I’m gonna tell yer future.” He pretended to sway as if ancient spirits were commanding him. As loud as he could, he proclaimed, “Tonight Joe, good fortune shall visit yer dumbass and you will spread your wealth to all of us!”
His booming voice caused the four other lost Chicagoans to wake from their slumber and stare at the sight of six and a half feet of prophetic declarations.
Their glares were replaced with fear, as a loud crash of crunching metal roared down the alley. The glow of the streetlight, which seconds before had cast a spotlight on Big Cal the Seer, raced erratically across the brick walls and trash of the alley. A hiss of steam and cries of agony and tears removed the shock from the homeless congregation.
The car had been racing too fast for the slick, snow and ice covered streets to maintain traction. Unable to correct his trajectory, the driver crashed into the streetlight that previously provided light for Big Cal and his onlookers.
Visions of future wealth left the thoughts of Shoeshine Joe as he raced towards the accident. Those many years as an Army medic overtook his common sense desire for self-preservation. Images of dead friends lying on distant battlefields assaulted him as he ran towards the mangled car. As he grew closer, their cries of help rang loud in his ears. He had saved as many as he could, yet more died than his rough healing hands could save. The car, wrapped around the bent light pole, reminded him of the scraps of HUMVEE left over from an IED. The cries of the driver and passenger sounded like his friends begging to be helped.
For the next painful fifteen minutes, Shoeshine Joe fought back images of severed limbs and dead friends. He pulled the unconscious driver from the car and using ten years of field training experience determined he had some head trauma but no life threatening injuries. Joe also sifted through the empty beer cans in the passenger seat to help the hysterical woman onto the curb. He used his best bedside manner to calm her and have her call 911. He created a makeshift bandage and sling from a hooded sweatshirt he saw in the backseat. After helping her broken arm into a secure position he began to slowly shuffle back to his alley home.
The others were packing their possessions, casting confused and accusatory glances at Joe. The flashing lights of cops and EMTs would soon bath the alley in red and blue hues. The homeless knew they would be told to vacate the area. Usually a blind eye was turned towards vagrancy but the accident brought attention to their temporary home. Now they must find a new home, in a new alley among new-old refuse.
“Why in da hell did you go and get involved in that Joe?” asked Big Cal.
“I don’t know,” Joe said, looking into the narrowed eyes of the giant. “Just felt like the right thing to do.”
“You are a saint,” replied Calvin as sarcastically as he could muster. “So much for your magical cup and my job as a fortune teller.”
Shoeshine Joe smiled broadly. “Oh I don’t know Cal.” He shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out a wad of twenties and tens. Holding the cash for all to see, he waved it around like a prize. “I made sure I got paid for my good deed by lifting the driver’s wallet.”
Big Cal’s eyes widened. His stunned look was slowly replaced by an enormous grin. His yellow teeth and gin breath turned from Joe’s cash to the small tin cup he still held in his hand. The snow still lazily fell from the sky, landing among the throng of lost souls in an alley in the Chicago winter. Not a flake hit the magical goblet King Hell swore could tell the future.
“Seeing as how we are all up,” Shoeshine Joe said looking at the faces of his fellow homeless, “want to go grab some breakfast? My treat.”
Sirens in the distance drown out the cries of the woman with a sweatshirt sling and the laughs from a blanket-covered group shuffling away.