Mike Feeney threw a lighted match into the rusted half-barrel of firewood he had scrounged from nearby abandoned buildings and watched as the flames grew. He settled beneath the concrete bridge that had become home, and tightened a tattered blanket around his emaciated frame. He knew the fire would attract other hapless vagrants, but he didn’t mind. Numbers brought safety, company and conversation.
They could share a bottle of whiskey or the stale bread he had pulled from a dumpster earlier that day. With any luck somebody would have a gram or two of cut cocaine, enough to fight the withdrawal symptoms that had begun to gnaw at him and make him shiver. With New York temperatures set to plummet to minus five this Christmas Eve, Mike needed all the help he could muster to make it to Christmas Day.
Twenty minutes later, as darkness fell, an old African American gentleman approached. “Mind if I share?” he said, pointing at the fire. “I won’t be no trouble, no trouble at all, sir.”
“Be my guest,” Mike replied, gesturing to a spot beside him.
The old man dropped his two stuffed trash bags and held his hands over the flames. He shuddered, tightened the rope securing his ragged coat and looked to where Mike sat. “Gonna be a cold one, my friend.”
“Sure is. Don’t suppose you have anything could warm us up? I’ve a bit of bread and a whack of cheese myself. Maybe we could share?”
“Cheese! Now there’s a delicacy I haven’t tasted in a while. I’ve a drop of watered-down whiskey. I reckon we could have ourselves a right good dinner after a while.”
“Sure could,” Mike said, stretching out his hand. “I’m Mike, Mike Feeney.”
“John, John Thompson.”
The old man clutched Mike’s hand and stared down at him. “Mike Feeney, Mike Feeney, why does that name sound familiar?”
“God knows. Seems to me everyone’s name sounds familiar when you’re living on the street. It’s not like we have loads of guests coming and going or heaps of names to remember.”
John pulled a grey pillow and a worn blanket from one of his bags. He shook his head. “I get that, but mind you, I got me a good eye for detail and a memory for names. I don’t function like I used to, but something tells me I know you. Goddamn memory, used to be sharp as a razor. It’ll come to me though. It’ll come to me. Always does.”
He proceeded to roll out his blanket and adjust his pillow. He lay down, snuggled up and for a while studied the algae covered underbelly of the bridge. He rolled over and looked at Mike. “What brought you to these depths, my friend?”
Mike shrugged. “You know how it is. One thing leads to another. One day you have money, a wife, a business, the next it’s all gone.”
“How does that happen?”
“You take things for granted. You get fond of the good life.”
“What kinda good life?”
“Parties, drugs, women. You allow others to run your business; next thing you know your accountants have embezzled you and your lawyers fucked you. You’re bankrupt and your ex-wives are demanding a fortune.”
John sat up and let his blanket flop to his waist. “God damn it, I got it. I got it now. I knew it would come to me. The accent. You’re the Irish guy. You’re . . . you’re Mike Feeney of Feeney Construction. Ain’t that right, Mr. Feeney, sir?”
Mike nodded. “That’s right, I’m that Mike Feeney.”
“Yeah, used to have that thing going for sick children, too. Your commercials . . . all over the television at a time. Sort of a hole in the wall gang thing.”
Mike laughed. “Well that’s someone much more famous than me. I believe that’s Paul Newman, but yeah, something along those lines. We funded operations for sick children whose parents couldn’t afford the treatment.”
“Damn right you did, and had soup kitchens down on 69th street.”
“That’s right, we did.” Mike lay down and closed his eyes. “Seems like a long time ago . . . a very long time ago.” He clasped his shoulders to control his shivering and drifted off to sleep.
Loud voices woke him. He rubbed his eyes, caught the smell of a smouldering fire and looked to where John lay. Three youths had surrounded him, tossed him from his blanket and had begun to burn his few belongings. They jeered and kicked him as they threatened to strip him and burn everything he owned. They had already removed his jacket and as two held him down the third tugged at his ragged pants.
Mike struggled to his feet and staggered before gaining composure. “Enough,” he shouted. “That’s enough.”
The three youths turned and stared. “Jesus Christ,” one with a shaven head said. “I’m looking at a fucking zombie. “Don’t worry, homie, you won’t feel left out. We’ll get to you next.” His friends laughed, and went back to removing John’s pants as he pleaded for mercy.
“Homie!” Mike shouted. “Homie! Homie, my fucking hole. I’ll give you Homie, you baldy bastard.”
He pulled a double action, semi-automatic Walther from his belt and fired a shot. The youth with the shaven head fell to the ground clutching his foot. His friends looked up and watched as he rolled back and forth screaming. “Jesus Christ, you mad bastard,” he roared at Mike. “You’ve blown my fucking foot off.”
“Yeah? I must be getting rusty,” Mike said, standing with the gun pointed at the other two. “I was aiming for your head, but I’m steady now. I won’t miss these two.”
The two youths held up their hands as Mike pointed to their clothes. “We’ll be needing those. They began to strip. As they threw their clothes to where Mike stood he motioned to the guy on the ground. “I grazed your ankle, you goddamn pussy, nothing more. I had a mind to blow your fucking balls off. Now strip and get the fuck outta here before I lose my temper.”
The guy let go of his foot and began to follow Mike’s instructions. As the three of them stood wearing nothing but their underwear, Mike pointed the gun towards their groins. “We’ll be needing those to kindle our fire.”
Without a word they pulled off their boxers and threw them over. As they stood clutching their testicles Mike pointed to John. “Now before you go, shrivelled dicks, an apology to my friend.” They turned to where John sat clutching his pants. “We’re sorry, man. It was just a bit of fun.”
“Next time you want fun,” Mike said, “come to me. I’ll give you all the fun you can handle. Now get the hell outta here before I put a bullet that far up your asses your mothers will feel it.”
The three youths, bent, and covering their manhood, scurried off, the one with the shaven head limping behind the others. Mike stuck his handgun into the belt of his pants, and knelt down beside his friend. “You okay?” John wiped the tears from his face and mumbled. “Yes, sir, Mr. Feeney. I’m fine. Thank you. Thank you for saving my life.”
“Just a few punks, that’s all. Come on, get dressed, we’ll have that dinner we talked about.” Mike pulled an old strapless wristwatch from his jacket and checked the time. “10:30 pm. Yeah, it’s dinner time. I must be leaving in about an hour.”
“You got somewhere to go?”
“Where? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I’m going to midnight mass.”
“You go to church?”
“I’m going tonight.”
“Can I come? I won’t be no trouble. It’s warm in the church, right?”
“Yeah, it’s warm in the church, but I travel alone, my friend.”
John nodded with the wisdom accrued from years on the street. “I understand. Then let’s get this dinner going.”
They sat by the fire and shared their meagre rations savouring each morsel of bread as if it was their last. “What church you going to?” John asked, taking a slug of the watered-down whiskey.
“Holy Rosary over on Adee Avenue.”
“You been there before?”
“A few times, when I first came to the States.”
“So what takes you back tonight.”
“What kind of business? You asking God to get you off the streets?”
Mike spilled the whiskey down his chin as he tried to take a drink. He clutched the bottle with an iron grip and stared at it as he spoke. “Have you ever experienced runny eyes, a runny nose, diarrhoea, dehydration, complete lack of appetite, overwhelming nausea, and pain in every part of your body, all at once?”
“Like the flu?”
“Like the flu, multiplied by ten.”
“Can’t say, I’ve ever had it that bad.”
“Those, my friend, are addiction withdrawal symptoms, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before.”
“I get it,” John said, nodding. “You’re going to get help for your addiction.”
Mike grinned and handed John the bottle. “Yes, I guess you could say that.” He checked his watch, bundled up his belongings and stretched out his hand. “I wish you all the best my friend. Take care.”
He left without looking back and made his way to Adee Avenue where the church of the Holy Rosary loomed like a lighthouse through the bleak Bronx darkness. At five minutes to twelve, he slipped inside and knelt unobtrusively in the back pew. A good crowd attended. He hadn't been part of a congregation for so long, he could hardly remember the format. He hoped the collection still took place after the homily.
Nothing had changed. After a sermon, when the priest ranted on about goodwill, and losing Christmas to commercialism, six men weaved through the pews to collect the Christmas offering before bringing baskets brimming with cash to the altar.
Mike felt his mouth salivate and his pulse race at the thought of a fix. He moved fast, closed and barred the double doors, pulled his ski mask down over his face and fired two quick rounds into the ceiling. People screeched and screamed. Parents pulled their children close and shielded their eyes. He fired another round into the air and ran to the altar. Grabbing the priest, he held the gun to his head. The crowd settled.
“No one's going to get hurt. Do as I say and I'll be out of here in five minutes.”
He pulled a garbage bag from his pocket and threw it to an old man in the front row.
“Empty the baskets,” he shouted.
The man looked at the priest. The priest nodded. “Do as he says.”
The congregation remained quiet and still. “May God have mercy on you this Christmas, my friend,” the priest announced for all to hear.
“Shut up,” Mike replied. He pointed his gun at the old man. “And you . . . hurry it up there.”
“Not a local accent,” the priest said, after a few moments.
“Never you mind about accents.”
“Lapsed, I assume,” the priest continued, undeterred.
“What did I just tell you?” Mike said, tightening his grip on the priest's vestments. He pointed to the man again. “Would you hurry it along, pops.”
The old man looked up, let go of the bag and sat down on the steps. “I'm sorry, Father, I can't do this. I've fought for my country in two wars and I'll be damned if I'm going to take orders from some cowardly punk pointing a gun at defenceless women and children in a church. So go ahead, shoot me, you two-bit son of a bitch.”
“John now, please. Do as he says,” the priest urged. “We don't want any trouble.”
Mike pulled at the ski mask irritating his neck. “Jesus Christ. Of all the churches I choose to rob, I end up in the middle of a fucking Oprah show with a war hero.”
He pointed his gun to another man in the front row. “You. I suppose you've some hero's cause too.”
The man stood and looked up. “No, no, not me, Michael. I've no cause worth dying for. Well, I'm thinking it’s Michael,” he said, straining his neck.
An old lady coughed and Mike pointed the gun at her. The crowd gasped. “I'm warning you now. The next one to move gets it.” He turned to the man standing. “What are you on about? My name's not Michael.”
“I know, Mike,” he replied.
The overpowering heat in the church began to agitate Mike. He scratched his crotch with the gun, then, pointed it back at the priest's head. He looked down to where the trash bag lay, with only one basket emptied.
“Okay, fill it,” he said.
As the man began to fill the bag, Mike became curious. “You think you know me?”
Without raising his head the man responded. “I do know you. You're Mike Feeney. How could I forget? I used to work for you. You helped me out. Four years ago you paid for my little girl’s open-heart surgery on Christmas Day. Remember?”
Mike eased his grip on the priest's garments and leaned on the altar. The man continued. “You're the Irish Santa.” He turned to a little blue-eyed girl wearing a hooded sweatshirt sitting in the front pew. “Roisin, that's the Irish Santa.”
The little girl fought off her mother's attempt to restrain her and climbed the steps to the altar. She walked to where Mike stood and raised her arms to hug him. “Go away now, child, before you get hurt,” he said, in a hesitant gruff voice. “Your dad's got me mixed up.”
“No, he hasn't,” the child replied. “You must remember me.” She pulled up her top and showed Mike the scar running from her neck to her naval. “You saved my life. I have your photo on my dresser. I pray for you every night.”
“Like hell you do. You're only a kid. You couldn't be praying for me or I wouldn't be here. No, no. Go on back to your mom now.” He pointed the gun at the congregation again. The child pulled her top down, but refused to move. She grabbed his trousers and pleaded.
“Can I see your face?”
“Stop with your nonsense now.” Mike signalled to her father. “How we doing there?
“Good. A few more minutes. It wouldn't hurt you know.”
“What wouldn't hurt?”
“To show her your face.”
Mike thought for a second. “Are you crazy?”
“Look at it this way,” the girl's father said. “You're not going to shoot anyone. We know who you are, so why not grant the child her Christmas wish? Do you know how often she has asked to meet you? Only for you and your generosity, she wouldn't be here today.”
Mike released the priest and looked at the child. The little girl held up her arms again. He scanned the congregation and waved the gun. “Don't anyone try anything funny now.” He turned. “Just a quick hug.”
He bent down and the little girl flung her arms around him. He shivered, a cold sweat broke on his brow and an uncontrollable tremor seized him.
“You're sick, Santa,” the child said, drawing back. “You've got the flu. Come home with us. Mom will give you Calpol to make you better.”
Mike straightened, stared at the sea of eyes before him and glanced at the priest by his side. “We can get you help, you know,” the priest said. “We have good programmes right here in the parish.”
Roisin's father threw the bag full of cash into the centre aisle. Mike stared at it. The girl tugged at his leg.
“Come on, Santa, we'll help you, like you helped me. I'll share my turkey with you. Please?”
Mike paused and tried to steady his shaking hands. He set the gun down rested his arms on the altar and looked into the priest’s eyes. “You can help me?”
“Definitely. That's my business – redemption. Take off the mask and take part in the service.”
“You can have my seat, Santa. I'll sit on your lap,” the child said.
“And you'll share your turkey?” Mike asked.
“Sure. You can have it all.”
He looked around the crowded church. “Jesus. I can’t even get a simple robbery right.” He grabbed his ski mask, rolled it up his face and shook his head.
“You are the Irish Santa!” Roisin exclaimed.
Mike tousled the child’s hair and knelt down beside her. Tears streamed down his face as he held her close. “I’m so happy for you my little friend. I’m so happy you made it. Maybe . . . just maybe, you could help me make it.”
“Sure, Irish Santa. Sure I will.” She grabbed his hand as he straightened and bent over the microphone.
“I’m so sorry everyone, so sorry. I didn’t mean to cause you any harm. Please forgive me. Pray for me.”
Silence ensued. An old lady stood and began to clap. Others joined in. The priest turned and hugged Mike. People continued to applaud as they rose to their feet. Roisin led Mike to the front pew where she sat on his lap until the end of mass.
Clean for three years now, doing well in his small construction company, Mike Feeney keeps a picture on his desk. It shows him sitting with a seven year-old girl. Both of them are smiling. The caption reads:
To Mike the Irish Santa
I’m so glad the judge listened and
God gave us both a second chance