A Cradle Song, written by Mark Zubro and illustrated by W.S. Reed, debuts in the Windy City Times as the new holiday classic. Filled with travail and woe, warmth and great joy, it is a story for the ages. It will appear in ten installments from October 17 to December 19 and will also be available for gift giving as an e-book and as a paperback. For the true joy and meaning of the season, this is the book you want to read.
Today A Cradle Song: Part Four.
Chapter Four: Matthew
Over time, he refined his routine.
His favorite corner was near the train station. The intersection was always trapped in the shadows of the hovering majesty of the turrets and walls of the train station. Traffic flew by, back and forth in front of him.
Sometimes on the corner, there were people making music. Some had guitars, or clarinets, or harmonicas, others a recorder, one had bells she played. Matthew often stopped and listened. He wished he could play, but he couldn't afford any kind of instrument, and he had no one to teach him.
He envied the mounds of coins they collected. He could live for a long time on what looked to him like a fortune.
One day, one of the guitar players noticed Matthew and smiled at him.
He was a tall, thin man with a guitar. Matthew enjoyed hearing his music. Sometimes a tall, slender woman with a violin joined him. Matthew would crouch on a nearby bench and listen. It was a mystical moment, childhood wrapped in warm memories. He knew he loved his mom and dad, but if they were gone, he wished this couple would adopt him. They always smiled at each other. Matthew liked it best when they played soft, sad songs.
Once in a while, one or the other would put their instrument aside and they would sing while accompanied by the other. Matthew thought it was altogether a magical sound.
Most of the people who passed by the musicians smiled. On warmer days, sometimes passersby would stop. They got more donations on warm days. As it got colder, each of the musicians dressed in more layers of clothes.
A few of the people who passed by were mean. Matthew didn't understand this. They were so beautiful together. One man stood and yelled at them to get jobs.
The guitar playing man had smiled and said, "That's the best advice I ever got."
But the horrible man kept screaming almost like it was a chant. Matthew knew there was something wrong with the man, but he didn't know what to do. That day, the couple walked away early. The screaming man had then noticed Matthew and begun to advance on him. Matthew ran. It was a few days before he went back, but the singers had returned.
The man and the woman noticed him over time. They both smiled at him. Matthew feared being noticed, so he didn't come around much after that. But late one day, Matthew had gone back, and another awful person kicked the man's guitar case. Matthew had rushed to keep some of their coins from falling into a sewer drain. He'd gathered them and brought them back.
The guitar man had stooped down so he could be at Matthew's eye level. He thought the man had the most deep blue eyes and a kindly smile. That time, he'd handed Matthew a quarter and said, "Thank you."
Matthew had given him a brief smile.
The man had said, "We're glad that you come listen to our music. Do you sing or play an instrument?"
Matthew had shaken his head and hurried away. It took a week before he had gone back again. He'd found several quarters on his bench that day, and every day after. He thought maybe they were leaving them for him. However, as it got even colder, they came less often. He hadn't seen them in a while. He guessed they had moved somewhere warmer.
To the vast majority of passersby, Matthew was just an invisible hopeless bum. Few paid attention to his size or age. Most avoided eye contact and didn't want to see him.
At emergency shelters and warming centers, they asked too many questions.
He saw police take people away. The police were most often rough and unsympathetic. They tried to get the homeless to move along. Or at least go to part of the park or the street where they wouldn't be noticed quite as much. He knew when the police on the beat made their rounds. He knew when to be out of the way or to be gone long before they came by with their swagger, their solid-wood batons, and guns attached to thick black belts.
One day while he'd waited at a corner, a wheelchair scrunched on the pavement behind him. A service dog, who wore a harness and leash, walked along next to it. The animal stopped. So did the wheelchair. The boy glanced at its occupant. It was a huddled old man with white hair sprouting from random spots on his ears, dangling from his nostrils, and jutting out from his eyebrows. His rheumy eyes watered. The man gave him a brief smile.
Matthew hung his head. He felt a tear at the corner of his eye. He tried to sniff it back and shake it away. He knew little boys weren't supposed to cry. Not if they wanted to be men.
The beautiful golden retriever dog put his muzzle on the boy's shoulder. His nose nuzzled the boy's chest and chin. The little boy could feel the warmth of the canine. He wanted to put his arms around the golden retriever and bury his face in that thick fur.
The boy let fall one tear. He couldn't help himself.
The tear landed in the center of the dog's nose. The animal looked him in the eye.
The light changed. The man spoke in a soft voice, "Tawny, cross." The dog and the wheelchair moved forward. Matthew hung back.
Matthew only saw the dog, Tawny, and the man with the wheelchair about once a week. Most often at a distance. Right after his most important wishes to have his dad, mom, and sister back, he hoped someday that he'd have a dog that beautiful and gentle.
Too often, strange dogs snarled and yipped at him. Luckily, he'd never been bitten.
As Matthew searched for his mom and sister, hunger and thirst ruled his days.
He began to know particular dumpsters behind restaurants, the best times of the day to go to certain ones. Matthew discovered that certain dumpsters behind particular restaurants were treasure troves, but others had learned the same. He had to be quick and clever to get some of the merest scraps.
He watched, observed, and took great care. Still, he got chased away. Sometimes by people from the restaurants themselves. Other times by people scrabbling for the same remnants.
When he went depended on what he could get at the mostly likely times during the day. Some he got to very early in the morning, to get scraps from the breakfast rush.
Trash cans were another possible trove of treasures. He had to be careful though. Other adults shooed him away from spots they considered their own. These homeless people would make regular journeys, as if they were trash picking collectors on a fixed schedule. More than once, he'd gotten shoved out of the way. He took care to study the routes of the people on the streets nearest to him.
Over time, Matthew was able to tell when big adults were approaching. They smelled bad. So he could often get a head start on them.
At times, he wondered if he smelled the same as these people. It was kind of awful. But after a while he didn't notice. He just had to time when he was in the back of which restaurant.
One day, Matthew found a new restaurant that had just opened and that people lined up out front to get into.
From listening to the waitstaff in the alley, he learned that a Mr. Schermerhorn was the owner of the restaurant Too Chic to Eat. He was also the head chef. And he was mean. His food was divine. His employees hated him. Mr. Schermerhorn thought cash was king, and he must make more than anyone else. He believed that everything had to be a competition. Competition between employees, competition between foods, a competition between restaurants. He threw out any food that didn't meet his standards. Matthew heard the employees talking about all this as they smoked cigarettes in the alley behind the restaurant's back door.
The restaurant was on the poshest street in town. The alley behind it was too good to stink. The poor and homeless got shooed away.
Matthew could slip between the shadows. He found some rolls one night that were sweet and wonderful. Thrown away from tables of diners who didn't want to fill up on bread. He figured out if he got there just a minute or so after the restaurant closed, and just after the last busboy threw out the trash, he could sometimes get good morsels.
Sure, he got chased sometimes, but the restaurant employees concentrated on shooing away adults. Matthew waited until they went back inside and the other treasure hunters had been frightened away. Then he'd creep from his shadow.
Matthew had been so hungry one night he'd grabbed some food that was still warm. He couldn't help himself. He was so hungry and grateful for warm food that he began devouring it before he ran away. He'd felt a hand clutch onto his jacket.
Mr. Schermerhorn had caught him. Matthew squirmed and fled at top speed. Mr. Schermerhorn screamed after him that he'd call the police if he caught him again.
After that, Matthew timed his appearances to that alley later and later. He'd about given up even making the attempt, but very late one night he gave it one last try at Schermerhorn's back door. Before he even got there, Matthew had had to hide from a gang of teenage boys and a shouting man who made no sense.
Through the front windows of the restaurant, he watched the last lights flick off. The last of the pot washers left. When Matthew had finally crept around the corner to the alley, he saw a line of sitting and shuffling people. He was surprised at so large a group, but even more startled to see the back door opened. By the light leaking from the interior, he could see Mr. Schermerhorn standing next to a steaming vat.
Matthew joined the line. As he got up close, he saw that each person got some soup in a plastic bowl and a generous hunk of bread. Instead of hustling away with their bounty, most of the people sat on the ground and ate.
When it was Matthew's turn, he saw a mounted police officer turn the corner of the alley. Matthew prepared to run, but he noted the others only looked up and then resumed eating.
Matthew took his bowl and piece of bread. Mr. Schermerhorn gave no sign he recognized him. Matthew thanked the man for the food which was warm and delicious.
Matthew had seen that same policeman shoving at people with his horse, breaking up sleeping spots. Now, the officer just watched. When the line was done, he tied up his horse. He joined Schermerhorn. Policeman and proprietor ate together. They talked softly.
Matthew took a place on the other side of the horse so he would be hidden, but he could still hear their conversation.
They talked about the weather and a possible storm and more snow. The policeman said, "How come you don't let your employees know what you do out here?"
"Same reason you don't shag them away."
The policeman's voice was deep and gruff. "After they eat here, they calm down. The food's good."
Schermerhorn said, "If my employees knew, they'd expect more from me. I can't afford that."
"You can afford this."
"A vat of soup and leftover bread? What difference does that make?"
"To some of these folks a lot."
"But not to me."
Matthew finished and slunk away. His belly felt full and that was rare. He was surprised that Mr. Schermerhorn was actually kindly but didn't want to acknowledge it.
Matthew fell asleep marveling. At least, this night, his belly was warm.
Every day, Matthew passed an old church on a corner. Its sides were old, dirty brick, depressed with age. Down that same street there were three other churches. He knew one was a synagogue, one an Episcopal church, and across from them down at the other end, a mosque.
He could often sneak into them for warmth. He had to be careful because the adults watched their congregations and might ask questions.
When the churches were open but empty, he sat in the last pews of the church. He crouched down. In a couple of them, he saw soft candle lights flickering up front.
In the middle of the block was a blank space amongst all the tall buildings. It had been turned into an urban garden. Many people labored long hours to keep it green and thriving. Then the city had decided to kick people out and to put it under lock and key. The owner who didn't live in the city didn't want people using his land, no matter what their goal or how kindly their work was meant.
The churches had banded together with their shared purpose of feeding the needy. They fought the city. Hoses were gathered to stretch down back alleys to provide water from different churches on different days when there wasn't enough rain. Congregants shared the duties of planting, weeding, and harvesting. Others gave the produce away or toiled in the kitchens to provide meals for those who needed them. This time of the year the garden was sparse so there was little use in Matthew making the dangerous climb over the walls. Some big kids did that and Matthew never went near them anyway, so he avoided the garden.
End of part four. Part five coming next week.