Short Story - Living on the Street

How close to the edge will you come, to know something you really want to know…? a short story by Christina Carson

It was one of those gorgeous fall days. Leaves were beginning to mottle the grass still green from fall rains. The ones still attached to the park trees rattled in the now cool breeze sounding like old bones clacking together. Sadie lifted her face toward the sun as she walked idly along the cement path that mimicked the lake’s curves. The sun’s heat was no longer scorching and now felt soft on her skin.  Her hands, clasped behind her back, hung onto a small brown paper bag, her lunch. She had brought it to the park to eat away from all the noise and endless drama in the corporate scene where she worked. She often ate in this park and was fond of a particular bench under a clump of crepe myrtle trees just up from the lapping water. The spot felt like a natural shelter and at this point in her life, shelter was something Sadie sought in many forms.

As she rounded the last curve at the far end of the lake, she stopped, dismayed. Someone was sitting on her bench. She stood still for a moment fretting. She wanted to be alone, but she also wanted the comfort of her special spot. She studied the man who now occupied one end of the bench. He was sitting almost statue-like. A few pigeons had come up to see if he had any bread for them. He stared down at them and appeared to say something she was too far away to hear. His hands were folded in his lap, his long legs stretched out in front of him. The pigeons seemed to enjoy his presence for even without food, they pecked around his boots and stopped to rest in his shade. That helped Sadie with her decision. If the pigeons thought he was safe, perhaps he was, and she could share the bench with him.

As she got closer, she could see he looked a tad tattered. Street person, she thought. Hope he’s not schizophrenic or drugged up. She grimaced a moment as she noticed how much she’d changed. Years back she’d never have thought about that and it wasn't just changing times that brought up those concerns. She could feel how hard her heart had become, how pinched off from life she was. For christsake, she thought, I’m not the only 45 year-old whose husband ran off with a younger woman. But no matter how rational she tried to be, whenever her mind began to rummage through that heart-rending year, the pain of betrayal owned her before her next breath.

Still eyeing the man on the bench, she wondered, who was he? She huffed her breath out her nose as she realized what she had just thought, Was; who was he? Who was she for that matter, for she certainly felt more was than is.

She had been approaching slowly, but something about that last thought brought a resolute pace to her walk. Not wanting to scatter the pigeons, she walked behind the bench to the other end and looked at the man as she asked, “Mind if I share the bench with you?  I like this end of the lake best.”

He said nothing, nor did he look at her. She began to feel uncomfortable. About to excuse herself, she said, “I’m sorry…”  Still staring straight ahead, he raised his hand slightly. Then he patted the bench seat. She lowered herself onto the far end of the bench, offered him a quick little bob of her head and said softly, “Thank you.”

She followed his lead, stretched her trousered legs out in front of her and leaned back. She laid her lunch bag in her lap and began to quiet herself, since that tiny hint of rejection that had gone through her when he didn't reply had already started her heart thumping. The pigeons didn't come under her legs. She guessed she didn't feel very sheltering to them. What a basket case I am. If I think this behavior is so stupid, why can’t I stop it?

She scanned the lake, near tears, and attempted to get her attention on the mallards that were slightly off shore. “It will pass,” he said. The kindness in his voice made it almost impossible for her not to begin sobbing. “Don’t hold your tears in. Let them wash you clean.”

Her emotions were so conflicted now; she hardly knew what to do next. She studied him out of the corner of her eye. He had several days’ growth of beard reminiscent of the young lions’ in her corporate scene in their  attempts to create an image they never quite achieved with their smooth skin and unweathered lives. Underneath the ashy pallor of the man, there sat, nonetheless, someone who felt solid. His fingernails were dirty, his clothing worn and a bit dingy, his hair wild from too few cuts and too many mornings uncombed, but still he appeared unapologetic. No, that wasn't quite it. He appeared to feel comfortable with himself. She wondered how that could be? How did he get to that place from where he was?

She began to open her lunch bag to the cheese sandwich, baby carrots and apple she’d thrown together this morning when she decided to eat at the lake. Absorbed in unrolling the bag’s open edge, he startled her when he said, “Are you comfortable now?” The bag fell out of her lap. She made three quick grabs to reclaim it before it hit the ground but with no luck. She scooped it off the grass imagining how silly she must have looked. “Apparently not,” she replied.

He smiled deeply, the way people often react to the easy comfort honesty brings to any moment. By then she had the bag open, the wax paper off the sandwich and was offering half to him. He took it not like a man who was hungry but a man who was touched.

He bit into the sandwich and asked, “Did you run out of imagination this morning?”

This time she laughed, “It is pretty dull isn’t. I decided at the last moment to eat here, and this, she held the remainder of her half sandwich up before her eyes, was the product of that lack of planning.”

“Are you sure it was a problem of planning?”

That simple question caught her unaware. Vignettes of a year she was trying hard to forget flooded her mind. She sighed deeply. There was something in the way he spoke to her that, even as fragile as this year had left her, she didn't feel the need to run or hide. She confessed to this stranger what she wouldn't even own to herself.

“I spend so much time trying to forget that I don’t care much about things like meals, a neat house, makeup, dressing smartly. I don’t care much about anything actually. It just feels like I’m trying to get through to some other side, if there even is one, and forgetting is the only plan I've come up with.”

“Forgetting isn't the answer. We never truly forget. We deny those memories, override them, attempt to accommodate them, justify, lie about, and stuff them, but we never forget.”

“Oh god,” she whispered. She dropped her few bites of remaining sandwich in her lap, gave the apple to her new friend and chewed on the baby carrots as if they were gum, anything to reduce the tension.

For the first time, Sadie shifted in her seat and stared at this man sitting next to her. In a fit of raw courage, she asked, “Will I end up like you? Is that the only answer?”

Rather than being affronted, he laughed gently. “I’m happy with who I am. I chose this route. I doubt that I will stay in this format for the rest of my life, but right now it serves me well.”

“If I’m not being too intrusive, tell me how that could be possible, before this fear that is coming up around me like an incoming tide washes over my head. I am so afraid of the future. I am so hurt by the past. It doesn't feel like there is any place for me anymore. But, in all honesty, the thought of being seen sitting on a park bench looking like a bag lady for some weird reason frightens me even more.”

With this, he couldn't contain himself. He bent forward and belly-laughed so hard the pigeons jumped up and flew off. “Please know I’m not laughing at you,” he said when he caught his breath. “I’m remembering when my very lucrative business went under, my wife left me, my kids informed me they didn't love me, just the money I provided, and everyone treated me like a pariah except my dog. What made me laugh was when I realized, even with all that was happening around me, that wasn't the sum total of my fears. Sitting like a bum here on this park bench was. I knew there was one level lower I could experience, disease or addiction, something that results in complete incapacitation. That can take you to ground zero. I didn't want to go that low. I didn't want any more games, however, no more lies. I was penniless and without friends, and the closest life choice I saw integral with that was living as a street person. You see, you don’t forget, you start where you are and build anew.”

“You’re scaring me.”

“No I’m not. You’re scaring yourself with all your have’s, must’s, and should’s. Do you feel it, how heavy and overbearing life suddenly feels when those rules and demands, from who knows where, start to organize your life again?”

She sat quietly. She looked at him directly and hard. She realized that not once in their conversation did his appearance lessen him in her eyes. There was something about him that nothing of this world could take away, something he knew she too wanted to know. Finally she said, “What is the most significant thing you've come to know as a street person?”

He looked at her, his eyes smiling. “As long as you don’t stink, most people are kinder to you than your friends and family ever were.”

The irony had them both burst out laughing. Even with the racket they were creating, the pigeons came back and rustled around their feet. When they finally caught their breath, he said, and next time how ‘bout roast beef on rye.”

To read other short stories by Christina Carson, click here
and look in the right column under Short Stories.

To read novels by Christina Carson, click here.

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