The old man sat crumpled on the ground and sipped something potent from a paper-bagged bottle in his hand. His eyes scanned the dimly lit street. “I tell you, none of us know who she is. But that girl comes around, you know? When the moon is full and there’s a ring around it.” He paused. “Like tonight.” He closed his eyes and licked his lips. The lips moved, R’s rolling like gentle waves when he spoke. His voice came from a place deep within, hard to pinpoint.
“Florence. That’s what I call her. She’s a saint. The Virgin Mary herself, maybe.” He laughed gruffly. “She walks like a cat. Never hear a thing until she’s right up close to you. Right here, see?” He pointed to his scarred chin. “One night, a few years ago, I was settling down over there at the bus stop bench right across from Tony’s old food stand. You remember it? Before the police closed it down? I was trying to get some sleep. It was November, really cold then. I was shivering so much I couldn’t lie still, but I was too tired to move. From nowhere, from the darkness, she carried an old blanket. It was gray, thin wool, the kind you get from the army. But warm, you see? Warm. She gave it to me, put it right on me. Then she lit a candle, a plain white candle. Dripped some wax onto the sidewalk and stuck the candle there. She saved my life that night. That was the first time I ever saw her.”
He pulled the gray, wool blanket close around his brittle neck and shoulders.
“The others, they’ve seen her, too. Everybody who’s seen her on the street says she’s got a different face. Tito, he says she has a mole, right here on her left cheek. Says she’s fair-skinned. Hah! He likes his women pale.” He laughed. “Ya-hoo-hoo! White like a ghost!” The laugh became a cough. “Boy says she has long, straight, black hair,” he continued. “A skinny girl, not too bad-looking. But you know, he’s young. Sees what he wants to see.”
I looked up and down the street. “And you, what do you see?” I asked.
He put down his paper-bagged bottle and rubbed his stubbled face, like two pieces of sandpaper scraping together. His eyes watered slightly as he looked up into the moon. “An angel. An angel with my wife’s face. Ileana. So… beautiful. Not outside, no. Inside. She left me, you know? A long time ago. Took our children. Guess she’d had enough. Enough yelling. Enough losing money on the horses. I was a good man once, you know? But not good enough. She left when I hit her.” His dry hand moved across his stubble. “I would’ve left, too, if I’d been her.”
He was quiet then, his bottle hidden in the soiled, worn bag on the ground. I took it out in plain view. Whiskey, shimmering like coins in the moonlight. I took a turn and watched the moths dance around the streetlights. There were no churches, temples or synagogues. But something tangible electrified the air. Looking down into the dark, littered backalleys, I saw a point of light on the ground, tiny flames. Small trails of candle wax reflected moonlight and disappeared into doorways along the lengths of the buildings.
I eyed my friend, as he sat withering in his remorse, and pointed. “Florence?” I asked tentatively.
The old man looked up, shook his head. “No. That’s us. When there’s a ring around the full moon we light candles where we’ve seen her.” He took a deep, slow breath. “But she only visits the new men now. I’ve been told you only see her once, but I think I was lucky. Maybe she likes me.” He coughed again, tried to sit up.
“One night, I saw her again. The lights were on in a factory a few streets over. Very late. You know what they did there? The company that owns it is big. It has other stores all over. They always hire women: old, young, Filipino, Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, all kinds of illegal’s. But never men. Those women, they work all day. I used to watch them sometimes. They’d be really tired when they came out. Hungry, too. Well, that night I saw an ambulance pull up. A woman was bleeding. She was pregnant and started bleeding. And the supervisor didn’t let her go until it was too late. After the ambulance took her away, he sent the other women home and stood there at the doorway, smoking. For a long time nothing happened. He looked like a dragon, smoke coming out of his nose and mouth. He finished a whole pack just standing there. And then I saw her, Florence, dressed in a nurse’s white uniform, the old fashioned kind with the pointy cap. She walked up to him and she spit in his face, something red. She lit her candle and left it there in that spot. Then she disappeared into the alley. There are no exits. It’s a dead end by that factory wall. That supervisor, he didn’t come back to work the next day, or the next. And eventually, the factory closed.
“That was the last time I saw our saint.”