“What A Quarter Can Buy”

Short Fiction by Liam Slade / Posted Apr 24, 2020

Stephen sat where he normally did, against the wall by the city bus station. This was his usual spot for the past several months, all through the spring, amidst a ratty collection of canvas sacks that contained his entire life. He knew that at any moment he might have to grab everything and hurry away, whether because of the weather, the police, the company, or the need to scrounge a meal from any available resource. Until then, though, all he could do was sit still next to his cardboard sign, which read simply “Anything Helps,” written in deceptively crisp Sharpie on cardboard, with an old paper cup used to collect change.

He was ragged, with long greasy already-greying hair and shaggy beard, grime splotching his face. He wore an old parka that was coming apart at the seams, despite the warming weather of early spring, he dared not shed it. Beneath it, his body baked as the days grew hotter, producing a heady b.o. that he was no longer aware of, although he did notice several well-meaning passersby reacting strongly or holding their breath – as they avoided eye contact and strode on.

Stephen was quiet and Zenlike in his presence. He didn’t beg, he didn’t dance for coins. If there was enough kindness in anyone’s heart for him, he was glad to accept it, but he was too proud to cry or perform, and too kind to raise any kind of a fuss. The story of how he wound up in this situation was his and his alone, rarely to be shared even if asked. Part of it was a string of bad luck, part of it was society just not having a place for him, and part of it, he often thought on his worst, coldest, most lonely nights, was that this was the life he deserved. He never spoke about it, even with pedestrians who asked. They didn’t really want to know, and he didn’t really want to share. The how and why didn’t really change anything, so why dwell on it?

When he first hit the streets, he was more active, asking everyone who passed to spare what they could, but as the years wore on, he grew tired and more resigned, quiet – perhaps defeated. This was his life now, and he made do, sleeping on the pavement and getting by on sometimes less than a few dollars per day.

After a few weeks at this spot, Stephen gained a neighbor. He was older, with an imposingly thicker, huskier trunk for a body, a grizzled grey beard and wool skullcap that made him look like a longshoreman. They never spoke, but this new person obviously had a different approach from Stephen – aggressively approaching pedestrians and pleading for assistance, and when they had nothing to give, angrily cussing them out. Privately, Stephen nicknamed him Angry Bob.

Keeping to his silence, Stephen was careful not to judge Angry Bob too quickly. Everyone is different, everyone has been through what they have been through and will react differently. Maybe he was mentally ill. Maybe the world had treated him even more unfairly than Stephen.

But that understanding had a limit. Stephen didn’t like Angry Bob, and he definitely didn’t appreciate having to share a space with him. He wished Bob would move on somewhere else, but day after day Bob was there, harassing and scaring people off. Before Bob’s arrival, people were in general kinder to Stephen. Now they were afraid to give him any money… and he felt worse about taking it.

One night, Stephen went to sleep thinking, if Bob is still here tomorrow, I’ll have to leave and find another place. It was unfortunate, but part of this lifestyle. You never know what you will be up against.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Stephen was awakened by a familiar sound, Bob’s voice. This was irritating, since usually there was nobody around at this hour to harass.

“GIMME SOME MONEY YOU FUCKIN BITCH!” Bob’s hoarse rasp echoed around the building. The clack-clack of a pair of heels against the sidewalk hastened toward Stephen’s direction. “I MEAN IT! I’m HUNGRY! GIVE IT!”

The footsteps stopped. A woman’s voice cried out, “Go away! Please! Help! HELP!”

“SHADDAP CUNT!” Angry Bob’s voice barked.

Stephen gritted his teeth. There were some things that just weren’t done, not if you want to keep living this life. Not minding your own business was one, but attacking innocent people was another. As frustrated as Stephen himself could get at the treatment he got from the straight population, and as happy as he was to turn a blind eye to Angry Bob’s aggression, something about this situation seemed to cross a line. He knew that if he looked, he would see something horrific, and have no choice but to take action – putting himself at risk in a way he was not accustomed to. Normally, that was how he survived.

He stood.

Around the corner, he saw Angry Bob holding a woman against the exterior brick wall of the bus station with one hand, pulling for her purse with the other.

“No, no, please!” the woman cried out.

“GIVE IT! YOU DON’T NEED THIS SHIT!” Bob growled.

“Hey!” Stephen found himself yelling sharply, to his own surprise – he had hardly said a word out loud in weeks, let alone raised his voice. “Let her go.”

“Get outta here,” Bob growled. “She’s mine!”

“She’s nobody’s,” Stephen said, approaching – confidently, but cautiously.

Bob turned toward Stephen. The woman slipped away into the night, clutching the straps of her purse.

Bob reached into his jacket, perhaps for a weapon. Stephen’s body seemed to be running on instinct at this time. Before he could do the sensible thing and run away, he rushed Bob and took him to the ground. The two struggled for a moment, with Stephen planting hard elbow strikes to Bob’s face.

Eventually, Bob wriggled free and ran off on hobbled legs. He howled a pained “FUCK YOU!” into the night as he wandered into the distance and disappeared around a corner.

He was someone else’s problem now, Stephen hoped.

Stephen sat back down against the wall. He was short of breath. That was the most moving he had done in months. As the adrenaline wore off, everything blurred, and he had a hard time regaining his wind. He didn’t have a lot of gas left in the tank and wondered if maybe his body was just going to give out.

Suddenly, he heard a meek tak-tak-tak of women’s shoes against the pavement. The woman was returning.

Exasperated, Stephen turned to her and huffed, “You should go.”

“I wanted to thank you…” she said quietly.

Stephen looked her up and down. He had expected to see a prostitute, the most common female figure in this time of night in this part of the city. But she looked clean and well-put together, perhaps even affluent with a dressy leather skirt under a bolero jacket, glittering top with a low neckline, and extremely impractical strappy heeled shoes. Around her neck was a shimmering gold necklace, and matching earrings dangling from her lobes. She was young and beautiful, too, resembling the famous reality TV women he often saw on the tabloids, with dark raven-colored hair framing a flawlessly made-up face with long eyelashes under fashionably-pained eyebrows. No wonder Bob had targeted her so aggressively. She might as well have painted a bullseye on her back.

“What the fuck are you doing around here, lady?” Stephen said, still gasping. He suppressed his aggravation and corrected himself, “Uh, ‘scuse my language.”

The woman batted her eyes in embarrassment. “I… got lost looking for some friends.”

“No kiddin’,” Stephen said with a pained chuckle.

With pity in her voice, “I want to give you something, but… I don’t have much.”

Stephen eyed her diamonds – they could feed him for a year.

“It’s okay, you don’t need to,” he said, practicing the modesty that usually worked well for him.

She gave a shy smile and reached into her purse. She seemed to dig deep looking for something in particular. Stephen watched with interest.

Then, after a moment of rooting around, the woman pulled out…

A shiny quarter.

Stephen tried to hide the dismay on his face as best he could.

Feigning embarrassment, she said, “I… don’t really carry change anymore.”

Stephen shrugged, “Yeah, I get that a lot.”

Stephen didn’t budge. The gesture was almost mockingly hollow, but he took a moment to gaze at her some more. Her eyes wore a big, warm, sincere look that begged him to take it. She pressed it into his hand and he accepted it – in the words of his sign, anything helps, but feeling like that was all this woman was prepared to give when he had basically saved her life was a letdown to say the least. And this was coming from a man who had long since ceased expecting anything from anybody.

She stood up and smoothed out her skirt. “Have a good night,” she said awkwardly – straights never knew what was appropriate to say to aman like Stephen.

“You too,” he said, unable to reverse his frown.

She walked off in one direction and he went the other, back to his makeshift bed. But he couldn’t settle down. There was a vending machine around the corner, accessible all night, where he could get a bag of pretzels, and he was suddenly craving. Between this quarter and what he had left in his cup, he had enough.

So he went and slid the coins in one by one.

25 cents.

50.

75.

A dollar.

And, with that last quarter from his “generous donor,” 1.25. he thought he saw it glint unusually in the light as he pressed it in.

Item A3.

Once he pushed the button, the machine started to rattle and glow. Stephen thought he was hallucinating, or maybe dying – maybe his heart was giving out, maybe Angry Bob had come back and stabbed him. Suddenly everything flashed white.

Stephen blinked twice.

He was lying on his back, staring out a window. It was bright, blue skies out. He knew in an instant he was not on the street. He was tucked into a warm, soft bed, and somehow it was suddenly morning.

His mouth hung open. An instant ago, he was out in his usual spot, and now…

He felt strange.

He waved a hand over his face. It didn’t wear the fingerless glove he normally did. It wasn’t rough and grimy with dirt under the fingernails either.

No, instead it was pristine, porcelain white, thin and smooth. Dainty even. And those nails were curved, perfectly manicured and polished light blue.

Looking from one to the other, back to front. These were not his hands, nor any hands he recognized.

This had to be a dream.

These hands were a woman’s.

He sat straight up.

He felt long brunette – raven-dark – locks fall to his shoulders. He batted them away and swept the satin blanket off his legs, to reveal a pair of peach-pink, silky-smooth gams, under the hem of a short, lacey pink nightgown.

His heart beat faster and faster. He put his hand to his chest, and met a pair of soft, fleshy breasts.

He stood. In the reflection of the window, he could only see a shady figure of a veritable living doll. His hands ran down this figure, confirming this was him.

Looking beyond that, he could see virtually the entire city laid out before him. Streets where he used to beg, or hide, or get beaten for his property, were now hundreds of feet below him. He was in a towering penthouse apartment. He looked around the room in amazement. It was the biggest bedroom he had ever seen. The bed he had woken up in was a California King, and he’d had it all to himself. To his left, the door was open to a walk-in closet bigger than any place he had lived in years, and next to that, a luxurious spa-like bathroom with a jacuzzi tub big enough for three. Everything was beautifully, tastefully decorated – if a little frilly and feminine.

In the bathroom he saw his reflection again. It was that of the woman he had saved the night before: Wide-eyed, with perfect cheeks and round, soft, kissable lips that hung open in shock. Beautiful. And rich. And now he was her.

For a moment he thought he was trouble, that he would be discovered and thrown out, but then he realized, he was here for a reason.

And all of this, he surmised, belonged to him, his to do what he pleased.

His jaw hung slightly ajar at the possibilities.

He lowered the shoulder straps of the nightie and let it drop to the floor to regard his perfect, smooth female body. No more grimy patchy skin, no more thick, greasy hair – in fact, he was noticing, there was almost not a single hair beneath his eyebrows, as he scanned the rest of his precious new body. No more blisters and bruises, no more wrenched posture. This person, whomever she was, had lived a very different life from Stephen’s. No more aches and tremors. Broken, yellow teeth were replaced with perfectly straight pearly whites. He felt revitalized.

The walls were decorated in arty prints, the furniture pieces all seemed like they had been chosen by someone with taste. This was certainly not the world of someone who lived hand-to-mouth.

He walked across the room in a daze, feeling the feminine sway in his hips with every step, his acceptance of the situation growing with each step, each breath that raised and lowered those perky tits. He certainly didn’t feel like a sweaty, filthy beggar anymore, and with each step could feel the persona of a wealthy, accomplished young woman fill him, finding himself standing more upright and stepping more lightly on his dainty little toes. Before long, it didn’t even feel like he was play-pretending this way. It was really like his life had begun anew.

He ran his hands over his breasts and threw his arms in the air, spinning around and landing on the bed in a celebratory flop – much comfier than asphalt. He looked down at the flat spot in his crotch where his dick used to be, now a flat ledge clad in silk panties. It was a hell of a trade-off. What kind of trouble could he get into with that, he wondered.

Would he ever have wanted this? Asked for it? Of course not. For the past many years, he had never even dreamed of getting a second chance at his own life, let alone one that looked like this, surrounded by pretty things, precious things, dainty things. Being a pretty, precious dainty thing. He lived a rough, ugly life and was happy reflecting that. In his mind he was still gritty, grizzled, and old before his time.

But the weight of the years melted away easily. He felt soft now, and clean and healthy, buzzing with energy and enthuasiasm to explore his new world. Sitting up and letting his hair tumble back down his shoulders and practicing a come-hither expression in the mirror, puckering his sexy new lips and winking playfully, he decided just to take it and not feel guilty or afraid. He had long since learned not to reject good fortune when it came his way. After all, every little bit helps.

Copyright 2020 Liam Slade, All Rights Reserved

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