Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Carolyn Summers
Every day she saw him sitting outside on the street in his dirty jeans and ripped and torn coat with the stuffing hanging out at the elbow. He never approached anyone for a hand out. He never called to those walking down the street for food or for money. All he did was sit and watch the traffic as it passed along the street. He reminded her of someone who’d been thrown away. She knew what people looked like who had been thrown away. All she had to do was look in the mirror and that was the face she saw.
She still ached from the experience and since then had never ventured into any other relationships. She didn’t think she could take rejection again-ever-in her life. So, she’d stuck to raising her family and helping others in the job she’d chosen to do. At the very least the pain she experienced wasn’t her own.
These days, people married and divorced so easily. She’d often heard her friends say, “Well if it doesn’t work out I’ll just divorce him and find me another one.” She’d never desired to be ‘another one. ‘So, in time, she was happy with her decision to withdraw from the game. Alone was better than pain.
Life hadn’t been all that easy for her as the years passed. She’d had to struggle to pay bills. Her son had been nothing but trouble while he was in school and had cost her more than money. She was happy when he graduated from high school.
He had somehow turned out right with the world and was a practicing minister three towns away now. He had a wife and they were expecting a child in about a month. To this day she was amazed that he’d gone to the church and not to the dogs. She had little faith in God, but because he’d saved her son from certain death she always remembered to give thanks to the savior, and donations in his name, no matter her faith. She felt she had to believe in something good and God was good, or at least that’s what everyone told her.
Her two children had always been the sunshine in her life. She had slaved away at work trying to keep them fed, clothed and a roof over their heads for more years then she was married. Still, she always felt as if she’d done them dirty by not always being with them to celebrate all the special moments in their lives.
Life felt like a punishment to her most of the time and she found she was inpatient for its ending, but would not prompt it to happen. Killing one’s self was the markings of a weak person and she’d always been strong and able to face up to the sorrows and misfortunes in her life with a positive smile.
She’d always been forgiving even when she had nothing to forgive. Still, rejection was her weakness. If not for this small unwanted condition in her make -up she would have already sat down beside the poor man and made friends with him. But if he rejected it she wasn’t sure she could stand it. So, she simply did nothing but watch.
She looked at the man again. Perhaps, he was like her and had just given up on life rather than fight the good fight to survive. In some ways she admired him. He had achieved what she could never bring herself to achieve. He had his freedom, and his world consisted of a few blocks of city streets. Her world was global and always disturbing to both the mind and the body. She cared too much about the things around her and what might happen if she should give up.
There was no one who truly cared about her, and she knew in her heart there never would be anyone to truly care about her in the way that she needed to be cared for. Perhaps, the same was true of this man. She wondered what his story was. She took another bite from her sandwich and checked the time. This was her lunch hour and time seemed to be slipping by quickly.
She glanced at several people as they walked down the street. They stopped to purchase hotdogs and sodas from the vendor just a few yards away from her seat. The bum didn’t even look at them. Instead he leaned his back against the light post beside him and continued to watch the cars passing on the street.
A few moments passed and a group of young adults came yelling and screaming down the street carrying a big bag of potato chips between them.
“It’s my turn to carry the bag!” One of them shouted and tried to grab the bag from the one holding it. They struggled with the bag and most of the chips fell to the ground just behind the bum. He didn’t look at them. He didn’t even move.
They kept fighting until the bag ripped and its contents fell on the street and blew away into the oncoming traffic. The kids scattered after that and disappeared around the next turn in the road still yelling and screaming at each other.
She sighed. Children were always so wasteful. Lunch was over. It was time for her to get back to work. She pitched the empty sack her lunch had been into the open bin beside the bench she’d been sitting on and stood. It was time to return to work.
The wind picked up and a cool breeze blew her hair around on her shoulders. She shivered and dug into the bag she’d brought with her to find her rain-cap which she put on before she started walking. While she’d been eating the sky had clouded over and rain looked to be hiding in the sky.
She glanced back over her shoulder just as she reached a curve in the sidewalk. She wanted to have one last look at the bum before she went back to work. She was astonished by what she saw. The bum had moved to the bench where she’d been sitting and was gobbling up the reminder of her sandwich and eating chips the teen-agers had dropped. Again she wondered what his story was. Quietly she walked away just as the first drops of rain began to fall.
The next day she found herself sitting on the same bench eating her lunch. On the street in front of her sat the same bum with the same jeans on with the same ripped and torn coat covering his back. She was positive they had to have something in common. She envied him, and found that strange.
If it wasn’t for her job she felt as if she’d be sitting on that corner too. Waiting for food to be thrown in the trash or dropped on the street. She had a few dollars in the bank, just to keep the account open. She was lusting for payday which was still a week away. She figured she’d be walking to work tomorrow rather than taking the train, just so she could save the money. In her purse she had perhaps a dollar. She wondered did he also have a dollar to his name or was his pockets as empty as most people’s brains.
From down the street sirens sounded. In less than a moment fire trucks raced by and she found herself watching him to see what his reaction to the disturbance might be; there was no reaction. The gentle man remained seated on the curb with his legs withdrawn from the pavement. He had instead stretched them out in front of him on the sidewalk. It was almost as if he knew they’d be coming his way. He must have lived on the streets so long that nothing amazed him anymore she finally decided.
The hotdog vendor, today, had repositioned himself on the busy street and was now directly in front of her. People approached him every few moments for food, drinks and even potato chips as they walked by headed somewhere. Most of the folks who had stopped today were couples holding hands and smiling at each other. She watched in wonder. How many of those folks really loved each other and how many of them were just together so they didn’t have to be alone.
She tossed the reminder of her lunch in the trash bin which was sitting beside her. Suddenly she no longer had any interest in her tuna fish sandwich. It was time to go back to work. The world was slowly sliding downhill from her perspective and what was at the bottom, once reached, she really didn’t wanna know.
Two days passed and the weather turned cooler, the rain turned into soft snowflakes which covered the ground like a whitish silk scarf all shiny on one side. The vendor who sold hotdogs and soda pop, along the street corner where she often sat to eat her lunch, changed to hamburgers and hot chocolate with marshmallows on top.
Three more days passed and the weather turned even colder. The wind picked up and the news forecaster promised more snow was on its way.
Because of the colder weather she had been eating her lunch in the little restaurant just across the street from the bench she normally used. As she ate she found herself watching the street for the bum to reappear. Where could he be she wondered? She’d not seen him for several days. Did he have a place to sleep? Did he have food? Where could he be in such cold weather? She sipped her hot chocolate and watched the kids who had just been released from school walk down the sidewalk in front of the store throwing snow balls at each other. The policeman on the street, directing traffic, smiled at them as he motioned two cars ahead of them to stop and wait for them to cross the street.
Something across the street, along the curb line, caught her attention. Was that the bum? Was he sitting on the curb in all that snow? Without thinking she stood and rushed over to the main window which looked out onto the street just as a big snow plow drove by scrapping up the silky snow.
As the big truck moved along, she could see, between the passing cars, a pair of chewed up black tennis shoes resting on the sidewalk. She kept looking and saw that legs were connected to the shoes and so were pants that had seen better days. The bottoms of the jeans ended in strings which allowed her to see bare, bony, skin which had been stuffed into the gym shoes without socks. Was that the bum? She wondered.
“Lady,” the server from the lunch counter called out to her bringing her attention back into the present. “You gonna pay for this food or are yea just gonna leave it for the next customer?”
She turned back towards the server and pointed towards the man sitting in the snow on the curb. “If I pay you an extra five dollars will you or someone else deliver this food to that poor man sitting in the snow across the street?” She handed him a 20 dollar bill and waited for his reply.
The fat man frowned and pushed the food together in one spot on top of the counter. “Sam!” he yelled, “Delivery!”
She released the bill and picked up her purse. “Oh,” she added as he handed her change, “Don’t tell him who gave it to him.”
“Of course not, Madam,” his answered in a sarcastic voice, “we often deliver a spaghetti dinner with garlic bread and steaming hot tea to bum’s freezing to death on the street. Just for fun,” he added. He smiled and turned to the next customer, and in a sickening, sweet he greeted them, “and how can I help you, Madam?”
Another gentleman stepped up to the desk and started packing her uneaten lunch into a paper bag to be taken across the street to the stranger.
When she looked up he smiled, “God Bless you, Madam.” He said, “Not many would give up their lunch for a bum like that.” He nodded towards the man shivering on the street.
“Perhaps he ain’t a bum,” she remarked as she started towards the door. “but a man with a purpose different than ours who got lost on the way and just needs a bit of a helping hand to get back on the wagon again.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Sam, the waiter, as he dropped one of his arms into the sleeve of his coat. “Then again perhaps it’s we who lost our way, Madam.”
She smiled. “Perhaps,” she agreed. Maybe she’d lost her way all those years ago when she gave up on love. Some lessons were just too damn hard to learn.
Charlie’s face popped into her mind and she smiled. Maybe, she’d better give Charlie a call and see if he still wanted to go out this coming Friday night.
She stepped out into the frosty weather and started the walk back towards work. When she reached the corner she stopped and turned around. The bum, who had been sitting on the sidewalk, was standing and smiling at the bag of food Sam handed him.
They began talking, she kept watching, and it wasn’t long before she saw the pair of them headed back to the restaurant. Sam had his arm around the bum with a big smile on his face and the bum was smiling too.
She started walking again. Perhaps that Sam fellow wasn’t so bad himself. She turned the corner. Nobility sometimes hid in the strangest of places…