Wednesday, March 17, 2004


Last Thursday, on my way to the ballet, I passed a homeless woman, and, wondering whether to give her money or not, did nothing, but decided to put a dollar or two in my coat pocket to give her upon my leaving The Benedum.  In this way, I would not have to open my purse to her.  By the time the ballet ended, though, she was no longer on the street.  The next day, feeling a vague guilt, I sat down to write my “10-minutes-per-day” and decided instead to make up the homeless woman’s story and write it from third-person point of view, through her eyes.

As to dog-face, from somewhere in my memory, when I sat down to write, came a snatch of phrase (Jo-Jo, The Dog-Faced Boy,) the source of which I am still unable to identify.  Those words refused to let go of my mind, and I felt compelled to somehow fit them into this tale.


Spring is later than usual.  This time last year, she remembers, there were some nights when his arms around her were almost enough, when their ragged quilt, although still needed, was not absolutely essential.  Now it is nearing the end of March, and still the thermometer dips below thirty-two and the winds blow cold.

She is crippled and unable to forage for herself.  What would she do without him to beg for her and bring her food?  He keeps her warm, and shares his cigarettes with her, and shields her from the indifference of passersby.  He knows where to hide the two them when the police conduct clean-up missions.   He softens the humiliation she feels from insensitive passersby.   His name is Joseph.

Long before she met him, he had been enrolled at Penn, where, he once told her with a wry smile, below his picture in The Record, under “sophomores” was written:  “Joe Barnes – looks like a bulldog; drinks like a fish.”  His drinking brought those college days to an early end.    Now she cries when the other street people call out to him, “Hey, dog-face!  How’s it goin’?”  

It has been over two months since his last drink, but she has seen him slip off the wagon so often.  She prays he will stay sober forever this time.  She prays for that, and for many other things.

Tonight, in the dark alcove of an office building a block from Symphony Hall, they huddle together, trying to mitigate the wind’s bite that penetrates their ragged quilt.  A couple stops before them, and the man, wearing a white silk monogrammed scarf casually circled beneath the collar of his open overcoat, his long, black and elegant, cashmere overcoat, spits out words of contempt at them.  As they pass on, Joseph whispers, “Pay him no mind, dear.  It’s only words.”

“Oh, Joseph,” she says, “they just don’t understand!  Why does God create such pitiless people?” 

“Who is this god you talk about who creates people?”  It’s a favorite trick of his, answering her question with one of his own, and almost in anger he adds,

“Define god!”

But who can define God?  She remains silent and thinks, and as she thinks, a familiar anxiety nags at her.  Joseph hardly eats anything anymore and is losing strength.  He says he needs only air and her sweet kiss to survive, but she knows the truth.   Soon he will not even be able to lift her, skin and bones as she is, to carry her from place to place.  Then they will be forced to lie, clinging to each other, starving together – until death releases them.  She is quiet for many minutes.

He breaks the silence at last, and in a softer voice says, “I guess instead of defining god, we should try to define ourselves.  Are we ourselves the cause of what happens to us?”  It’s a rhetorical question.  “Or is our destiny determined from birth, and is it all just a toss of the dice?”

 “You are too deep for me, Joseph!” she says. 

He brushes his hand across her face in swift caress, saying, “The riddle I really can’t define is what you find to love in a dog-face like me!”

“Don’t!” she says.  “I hate that word!  Besides, the true question is how can you love a crippled burden like me!”

“We’re each of us crippled in our own way,” he says, “feeding on each other.”  

“Hardly!  I feed more than you!”   And then with a pang, she is reminded of the growth in his mouth that makes eating painful.



There is a distinct greenish cast to his dear face.  At first she told herself it was her imagination, but now she can’t deny his sickly color any longer.  Timidly she questions him about it, and he says simply, “Jaundice.” 

“Why?” she asks.

 “I don’t know.  Maybe it has spread to the pancreas.” 

“Cancer?”  At last she brings the dreaded word into the light of day.  She hasn’t dared mention it before, hoping that to leave it unspoken might negate its existence.

He nods.  “Cancer.  Yes.”

“The pancreas.  Does that mean  …”  She can’t finish the sentence.

“A death knell?”  His words, clipped, terse, finish the question for her, “A death knell?  Yes.  Not much hope.” 

She sobs quietly, and for one brief moment he stands apart from her, a private bitterness stamped on his countenance, but soon he reaches for her and holds her tight against him.  Gradually, her crying stops, but the words death knell reverberate in her heart.

That evening, the wind kicks up more persistently and scatters street and sidewalk debris in whirling eddies.  The glittering, blinking marquee of The Benedum proclaims that Swan Lake will be danced tonight.   Little girls in party dresses mince along in shiny black patent leather shoes, trotting to keep up with their parents.   Others -- young and old, sweethearts and spouses, friends in groups of twos and threes – hurry along with them, pressing forward to the entrance of the grand hall.  A girl, not more than eight or nine, her velvet cape flowing in the chilly spring air, stops a moment in mid stride and catches her eye.  She looks quickly away, but the child searches the shadows for her face, and smiles.  She opens her purse. 

 “Darcy!” her mother says.  “”Never open your purse around these people!  They would like nothing better than to snatch from you anything that is in it!”

Darcy has already extracted a dollar bill, and extends it toward them.  “For you,” she says.  “Please.”   

The mother and daughter move on, their heels clicking on the sidewalk in hasty retreat as the young girl’s voice floats back to them.  “But, Mother,” they hear,  “the little bit of money I gave her wouldn’t buy all that many drugs anyway.  But if really what they are is hungry, then my dollar will help.”

Joseph murmurs something, and she asks him what he said.

“Nothing.  I was just quoting from the Old Testament – that a little child shall lead them*,” he says.

“You’re quoting Scriptures, Joseph?”  She smiles affectionately.  “And you call yourself an atheist!”

“Define atheist,” he says.

For the first time in many days, she laughs, and suddenly spring seems not quite so long in coming.

Finally the days are hot and long, the nights warm.  Time was when they loved this season – when, without need for quilt, they slept in comfort under the summer sky; but it’s too late for comfort now.  Joseph is in constant, deep pain.  He is hardly able to stand, let alone go in search of food or pocket change.  For what seems an eternity to her now, she has been hungry. 

“We should look for help for you,” he says, speaking so low that she has to press her ear close to hear his words. “You still have life to live.”

“Define life, Joseph,” she says.  “Define life without you.”

“Somehow, it makes me sad,” he whispers, “that there will be no one to miss us or mourn us.  I never thought it would matter, but now, at the end, it does.”

She nods.  After a moment’s pause she says, “Surely there will be someone.  Someone like that little girl, perhaps.  Remember?  Someone with conscience.”   

A feeble smile moves across his lips.  “Define conscience,” he says.


**Isaiah 11:6