Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Homeless Old Man

The old man jerked his bicycle toward the curb. Clearly, I had startled him. I drove my car across the street and rolled slowly alongside him before making a diagonal stop to cut off his path. I was a few feet in front of him when I first called out to the old man.

Apprehension was written in the old man’s cowardly body language. There was no mistaking his uncertainty of my actions.

He stole a glance before looking down in an effort to hide his face. Unsure of my intentions, he turned and started to drag and pull at the bike. Although a snail could move at a faster pace, the old man was trying valiantly to get away.

“Sir, it’s okay.” I felt guilty for approaching him. I was sorry for scaring him. Didn’t the old man know I was fearful too?

I didn’t understand the fear his actions were demonstrating. I assumed, he would be excited by the prospect of receiving free money.

His distrust of me increased my determination to see this through. I had to; it was the only way to quell my own fears.

The handlebars lacked the rubber grips to cushion his weathered hands. Grasping the ends appeared dangerous, as if bits of corroded iron and rusty flakes would puncture his frail fingers that tightly wound around the ancient metal.

“Please, sir would you give me a moment of your time?”

Old, gray eyes, sad and tired, lifted momentarily to take in the vehicle that blocked his path to the street as if to say he felt cornered. I got the feeling he was bracing himself for a verbal scorning as if he expected me to hurt or belittle him.

The tightness of his clamped jaws continued to hold his pale, chapped lips in a crooked slash mark, serving only to contort the bottom of his face. The resistant, shabby, old man was making it very difficult for me to be altruistic.

It was dusk. The sun was hanging low on the horizon. Bright rays found their reflective targets, bouncing like lasers on mirrors within that perfect range of points that made visibility disappear. I had driven across to the wrong side of the street in order to intercept the old man. The decision to ignore traffic laws was quickly being second-guessed as an oncoming car was cementing my careless judgement. I held my breath hoping the other driver would see me and compensate for my awkward position in the middle of their lane.

The passing car allowed me a chance to look the old man over. His age was hard to judge. He looked worse close up. He was emaciated. Bones poked at the skin that barely covered them, and his frame, once tall had stooped and become hunched. Scars etched criss-cross patterns and lined every facet of his face, exposing evidence of destitution, the naked proof of a rough life. Although you could smell the effect of malnutrition oozing from his pores, a bath and a new set of clothes would help remove the acrid smell emanating from the old man. His clothes, almost indistinguishable from the filth concealing his skin appeared ragged and torn, smeared with layers of dirt and stains from personal soiling.

The sight of him shocked my sensibilities. I choked on a gasp of air. My reactions were an embarrassment, and I hoped the old man had not heard.

I stretched my left arm farther, extending the folded bill so that it was plainly visible to him. “Sir please, it’s okay. I just wanted you to have this.”

He shifted his weight and shuffled sideways. His balance wobbled with indecision. His eyes were veiled by a milky film, and revealed dull reflections of grief, pain, and agony before he stole a brief glance to my hand then averted quickly back to my face.

Realizing his fright had eased somewhat I tried again, “Sir, if you would, please take this from me. Don’t be afraid, it’s okay, you can take it.”

He stared openly, reminding me of a wounded old dog just before they surrender to a pat or two of affection. The initial anxiety and relentless tension of a few moments earlier was now waning. The sun was setting lower, its angle perfectly aligned within his line of sight. Tilting his head, he shielded the blinding rays as he hobbled closer, dragging the floundering fear with him.

His silence spoke loudly as the old man’s shoes scratched across the concrete, inching the bicycle another step. Its wire baskets clanking back and forth, the grinding of rotten tires on the street, the hollowness of the moment: I would never forget these sounds. The lack of hope was thick making it difficult to breathe, similar to a dense fog hanging in the golden silhouettes of sunset illuminating the layers of his despondency and sorrow. My own fears were suffocating, dying as I silently willed this old man closer to my hand, closer to the money.

My heart was breaking. I had no idea that our little town had homeless people. I didn’t know how poor poverty could be. I was uncomfortable. Desperation wasn’t pretty. Tears threatened my composure as my ego-centered reality broke under self-scrutiny. Facing the petty selfishness that governed my life hurt immensely.

Still, I could not stop thinking how this old man had changed my life. I wanted this to be finished, and yet I knew in my heart, it was just the beginning. Was that the bottom line here, the real reason for my uneasiness?

He stopped inches from relieving me of my burden. Confused, I searched his appearance to find an answer as to why he hesitated.

I felt guilt that made no sense. I sat at a loss for the next move. Should I just say “forget it, I tried,” and move on? No, that was not the answer.

Within the time span of a few short minutes, the sun dropped lower and the shadows disappeared along with my naïveté. In less than an hour, my world had changed. Snatched away were the shady corners that blocked my view of innocence, of homelessness.

I sat quietly waiting on the old man to take the offered gift. I counted and reviewed the steps that brought me to him. I perceived a shifting in my soul; I was different now. Somehow changed, humbled by his unfortunate circumstances.

Half an hour ago, I had stopped across the street to pay a water bill when I first caught sight of the homeless old guy. Clinically observing and pressing details into memory, filing them away for future use. Thoughtlessly excited over the possible source of fodder to use in some story I had yet to write.

I glanced at the money I had placed on the console, a reminder to pick up a prescription on my way home. Wrestling self-centered needs, I battled with self-interested narcissism.

Giving the old man the money was an uncharacteristic and impulsive urge borne of selfishness on my part. Shamed by repulsive greed, I knew the steps I had to take. In order to retain my self-respect, I would not pick up the medicine, and I could not leave with the ten dollars. There would be no mercy, no forgiveness if I did. Certainly not from God, nor from myself.

From my hiding place in the parking lot of the utility company, I had watched the old man propping a weathered, broken-down bicycle next to the dumpster. Unlike a pack mule, the bike’s cargo looked heavy, out of balance. Wire baskets attached to the front and sides threatened to spill their contents to the pavement.

With a crab-like gait, he half-walked, half-dragged himself to the side window of the dumpster. He pried the metal sleeve back to reveal the square opening and peered in. Shock reverberated into my bones as if the ground had just shaken from an earthquake. I sat spellbound and watched the old man make his next move. He grabbed the sides and slowly pulled his upper body into the dumpster. Tears fell wetting my cheeks, and I wiped at them, never taking my eyes off the old man. I felt like an enemy spy just sitting and monitoring full-blown poverty. The homeless old man disappeared to rummage through the contents of the garbage bin. I was astounded by his ability to choose sustenance over safety and hygiene, fascinated by his resourcefulness.

Prior to this moment, homeless people sat on the street corners begging, or lay in the alleys clutching their liquor bottles. They built fires under bridges next to their cardboard houses. They looked cold and unkempt under their paper blankets; but they never actively searched for food or clothing, an item or some article that could possibly help them survive. They were neither abandoned nor forsaken. Homeless people were not up close and personal to me.

The old man finished his shopping task, loaded up his newfound treasures, and started pushing the rusty bicycle, clattering toward the street.

It was time to leave. I was not ready. I was still struggling with the giving my money away.

And now, less than an hour later, I sat and waited patiently for the old man to take my money. Recounting the recent events of the late afternoon, totally absorbed in remembering every detail, I wondered where the old man slept when the weather wasn’t as pleasant. I became aware of the many blessings I took for granted.

The evening breezes were beginning to form and I was grateful for the sweet smell of honeysuckle floating through the car’s interior, erasing the heavier, more pungent odor. Lost in the moment, contemplating if the old man gazed at stars too, I did not notice his soundless move to take the money. I felt the bill as it slipped from my fingers.

The old, tired face lit up for a moment as he pulled the money closer to his eyes, not sure of what he had been given. A toothless grin hid his cheekbones as he realized the denomination of the bill. Curious, cloudy eyes peered into mine, and in a flash, his lost dignity appeared only to leave just as quickly. Cowering he took an unsteady move to step away. It appeared that shame had taken control of his emotions, as he turned his gaze from mine and dipped his head toward the ground.

In one quick second, I held a glimpse of the former man. I’m not sure the old man knew it, but pride had injured the both of us with its ruthless sting.

The wrinkles on his face held a lifetime of hard work, sunburns and faded smiles. His story was sketched into his leathery brown skin, and without uttering a word, the life he lived, the truth of hardship and the consequences of bad luck were clearly visible in one brief encounter. Too many hungry, cold, unsheltered and unfriendly nights had solidified what he had known for a long time. What I just now understood: he was overlooked on purpose; he was disregarded, forgotten; he was the refuse of our society. He was the old homeless man.

His smile of gratitude, however brief, however slight, touched my heart.

As I nodded a good-bye, and shifted the car into drive, the irony of this chance encounter struck hard, causing tears to once more, slip down my face. A short time ago, I was not ready to give the old man the time of day, much less my last ten dollars. Now, the money firmly in his hands, it was time to leave and return home; and I found, I was not ready to go. I did not want to leave the old man.

I rolled away from him as slowly as a car could possibly move forward. Watching not the road ahead, but the road behind me. I kept the old man in my mirrors, once again watching him with intense curiosity until he finally disappeared into the sheltered alleyway, unnoticed under the cover of darkness.

I drove a few blocks and turned the corner. One more time, I pulled the vehicle slowly to a stop. I sat and cried. This time, I did not try to disown nor hide my emotions.

This time, I let the tears fall freely and bowed my head in prayer.

A Short Story by Terri L Bonney

1 comment:

  1. How beautifully you write. Very poetic. I wrote of something slightly similar, "Close Encounters With . . . A Jar of Honey". Not as poetic, however.

    Chance encounters . . . or are they? According to Andy Andrews, "Everything matters. Every . . . thing."

    I think he is right.