The Homeless Guy
The homeless guy walked with his eyes cast toward the sidewalk, enjoying the margaritaceous sheen on the gutter water, created by oil flung by passing cars. The pearly shimmer rode the surface of the water, spilling rainbow lights down into the storm drains.
It was that in-between time of day, not full light, nor yet sunset, but dusk, a time his mother had always said was the most dangerous. At dusk, shadows bumped into each other, swirled around, and created objects that weren’t there, or obscured those that were.
He was old. There was no other word for it, no fancy getting on in years, or spry for his age, or even elderly. Not even senior citizen fit any more. No, he was just plain old. He had come to terms with that fact some years ago, and he wore his age like a comfortable suit, one that no longer pinched at the shoulder, nor clung too tightly.
On his back he carried most of his worldly possessions. There wasn’t much, but then, he didn’t need much. An extra pair of socks, an extra pair of underwear, a towel, a tiny bar of soap given out at the rescue mission, a comb, needle and thread, a can opener, scissors, a lighter, a few plastic lawn-and-leaf bags, his Bible, a faded photograph of his late wife, and a book he borrowed from the local library. He wore all his clothing, layered, and his knit cap covered his thinning hair. He hadn’t trimmed his beard in a few years, and it had grayed as much as the rest of him. He had stashed his sleeping bag in some rocks underneath the bridge where he made his home.
No one spoke to him as he made his way toward the bridge, but he was used to that. He didn’t look at anyone, and the people he saw out of the corner of his eye moved away from him as they passed, as if he were diseased. That was all right with him. It had taken him a little longer to give up on the world than it had for the world to give up on him, but the transition had been complete for some years now.
He had been someone, once. He’d worn a suit and tie, made decisions involving the lives of other people, had a nice house and a fancy car. But, no more. No more. After his company forced retirement on him he’d struggled to live on Social Security. The fancy car turned into riding the bus. After he could no longer afford the house he found himself where he never imagined he would end up, on the streets. So much for the “golden years.”
The sun crept slowly toward the horizon as the homeless guy made his way to the place under the bridge he called home. It would be cold tonight, and he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his capped head. Drizzle pocked the sidewalk, leaving intermittent splashes that promised more to come.
In his hands he carried a take-out box given to him by a man who had gifted him with leftovers from a restaurant meal. He was grateful for the kindness, even though the man handed him the box and quickly left without pausing to speak. It seemed not many people spoke to him these days, and those that did either cursed at him, or told him to move along. He couldn’t remember the last time someone called him by name. Sometimes, he had trouble remembering it himself.
It was peaceful under the bridge. The other homeless people knew this was his place, and respected his choice. He had made a comfortable spot among the rocks, sheltered from the wind. There he stored his sleeping bag and his camping stove, well hidden from the police who came by every so often to “clear out the riffraff.”
He dug into his backpack, retrieved his one good fork, opened the box, and began to eat. The small slice of meatloaf and dollop of mashed potatoes and gravy was especially welcome on such a cold night.
Overhead the traffic went whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, like a mother soothing a child to sleep. The rain began to fall in earnest now, and the traffic slowed a little. It was a pleasant sound, and one the homeless guy had grown to love.
He finished his meal and put the styrofoam box inside a plastic bag to keep it from the ants. He’d throw it away later.
He arranged his sleeping bag to suit him, and fell to musing about life. He often did this, asking questions of himself that seemed to have no answer. He loved words, especially words with “Rs” in them. He liked the feel of words in his mouth, how they twisted his tongue, and how the words themselves changed meaning depending on how it was being used.
But mostly, he liked to ask questions. What was the purpose of underarm hair, for example. And why did women shave it and men didn’t? How many angels could dance on the head of a pin, and why on earth would they want to? Would man ever be able to colonize Mars?
Absentmindedly, he stretched out a hand to stroke the dog that was no longer there. He winced. Sparky had been his companion on the road for years, but when the dog got sick, the homeless guy couldn’t afford the massive vet bills, and he could not stand to see his friend suffer. The local veterinarian, a kind and gentle man, put the old dog down for no charge, and the homeless guy was grateful for that.
Where did dogs go when they died, he mused. Did they get angel wings? Was there really a Rainbow Bridge?
He had almost mused himself to sleep, listening to the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh on the road above him, when suddenly there was a screeching of brakes, an awful soul-jarring crash, and the horrible rending sound of metal-on-metal.
He bolted upright and dashed out from under the bridge. He climbed the hill that led to the highway and was confronted with twisted metal, a smoking engine, and screams from inside the car.
Without thinking he ran for the vehicle, which was resting upside down close to an embankment and appeared ready to fall off the edge. He wrenched the door open, grabbed the driver, and pulled her to safety. Her head was bleeding and she was wailing. She reeked of alcohol and the homeless guy twitched his nose in disgust. Then, the woman fell silent.
Until the end of his days, he could never quite remember what happened next. He knew she needed help, and all he could think of to do was pray.
“Oh God!” he stammered, “Help me help this woman!”
A strange and sudden calm entered him, and as if from a distance, he watched his hands as they staunched the bleeding from the woman’s head, held her neck steady, and spoke to her in soothing tones.
The ambulance came and the paramedics took over.
The medic looked the homeless guy over and asked in disbelief, “Are you a doctor?”
“No, sir,” he answered. “I used to be an accountant.”
“Well, whoever you are, you just saved this woman’s life tonight.”
The homeless guy watched as the ambulance drove away with the woman. He stayed to watch the tow truck take the totaled vehicle away, and then the highway was back to normal.
He climbed back down to his place under the bridge. He was shaking and wished mightily for a cup of coffee, but such a luxury was not to be his tonight. He went to his sleeping bag, lay back and tried to sleep. He was shivering, partly with the cold and partly from the excitement. He wished there was someone to talk to.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
The highway began to lull him to sleep again, when he heard another noise. It sounded very much like a cry of some kind. A whimper. He sat up and looked around, searching for the origin of the noise.
There! Over by the rocks on the other side of the bridge. What was that?
He got up to investigate. Huddled between two boulders was a small dog, shivering in the cold. It had no collar and was very skinny.
“Hey, buddy,” the homeless guy crooned. “Where did you come from?”
The little dog appeared to be a mix of some kind, perhaps Beagle and terrier, maybe six or eight months old. Curiosity overcame the dog’s fear and he wagged his tail.
“Are you hungry?”
The dog’s tail wagged even faster.
“Come on then.”
The homeless guy walked back to his sleeping bag, encouraging the dog to follow. First he fetched the leftover box from the plastic bag, then scrounged around in his backpack until he came up with a bag of dry food left over from Sparky’s last days. He poured some in his hand and held it out.
“Here you go.”
The dog ate quickly and looked for more. He poured a little more into the box and stirred the dog food around in the gravy. The dog ate it all, licked the box clean, and looked expectant.
“Not too much all at once, now,” he said as he put the remainder of the dry food into his backpack. “I don’t need you getting sick.”
He crawled into his sleeping bag, flipped open the top and beckoned. The dog immediately curled up next to him and closed his eyes.
“Well, Buddy,” the homeless guy said, “I guess you’ve got a home now.”
And with the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of tires singing a lullabye overhead, the homeless guy and his new friend drifted off to sleep.