A BOY WATCHES a television program with his mother where the camera follows an elderly lady in a beige pantsuit as she interviews impoverished women on sidewalks. One of the three interviewees screams at Jesus over a husband whose amputated toes were fed by mob hands through a Midtown sewer grate. Another sobs for a tire-ironed brother limp beneath the entrance of a parking garage. The last, a junkie with dime-sized sores on her cheeks, chirps her gratitude when the lady in beige hands her a pair of thick yellow socks for the upcoming winter.

"My husband will love these," the junkie says, holding the socks high.

In his ten years, the boy has not seen his mother cry. But there, on the opposite end of the sofa, she wipes her eyes. There are tears near her collarbone, this same woman who commanded a megaphone in front of thousands at the last neighborhood march, this same woman who as a young girl refused sleep for days after out-jogging ground zero debris.

Are you okay? the boy asks.

Yes, the boy’s mother says. Women can cry happy tears, you know?


The boy walks like a heron toward his mother’s salon. His red stocking cap compresses his shaggy hair, his jug-handle ears. The alleys, he has been warned since the television program, are off limits. He is to never go up them, or down, or across, no matter the time and energy they’d save. But he has been here before, has listened, has walked this sidewalk, thousands of times, has sidestepped passersby, has seen these buildings, has felt small in their shadows. Most days he stymies his curiosity by keeping his eyes on his breath, silver swirls in the cold. But it’s warmer today. His breath has no outline and he has no muse. The boy’s eyes wander, from brick to brick, from skyscraper to sky.

He passes an alley. A barback tosses days old finger foods at the beaks of five or six pigeons. The boy approaches another, in which two whiskered men wearing faded parkas fight in slush over a torn scarf. The smaller man’s chin, the boy sees, is bloodied. And a tooth—yes, a tooth, the boy confirms—is lodged between the larger man’s thumb and index finger. Blood smears to his wrist.

The boy stops. He watches for a moment. And another. He listens, to the grunts, the scuffs, the slurs, the curses.

Hey, the boy says. He says it meekly, quieter than a mouse.

Oblivious to the boy, the whiskered men just tussle, and tussle, and tussle, leaning, heaving, bending as one. When all is over, when the larger one lies unconscious, face shattered, the victor will walk to where alley meets sidewalk and find no boy, but an offering. Into his front pocket the red stocking cap will go. And the boy will in that moment be sprinting, to the embrace of something he’ll fear losing for some time, but deep down knows he’s already lost.

End of article

Author Commentary on “Men of Action”

Peek behind the scenes of "Men of Action" with author Garrett Francis.

Strays Like Us

“Men of Action” is a short story from Strays Like Us, a collection of ten standalone stories exploring life as a kid growing up in America.

An earlier version of “Men of Action” was published by Monkeybicycle.

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