November 24, 2012

The Man in the Brown Tweed Suit

From our window we watched him, the man in the brown tweed suit, as he made his way cautiously down the street. His hair was long and grey, whipping about his face with each new gust of wind. His back was stooped, made more evident as he pulled his coat tight against his body. He clung to a wheeled basket which he dragged behind him, overfilled with unknown items tied up in Glad Bags, and stopped at each crack in the sidewalk to hoist it over. He stepped into the fast food restaurant where we were eating and tottered towards the counter. We Wish You a Merry Christmas blared over the intercom.
“Just a ten-cent coffee,” the man said, fishing around in his trouser pocket for some change. “I’ve already eaten too much today.” He patted his belly and smiled at the lady who passed him a small, Styrofoam cup. He made his way towards a booth in the corner, dragging his belongings behind him, nodding at me and my daughter as he passed. He drank slowly, cuffing both hands around his coffee to draw out its warmth. His coat looked thin and I wondered if he had any clothing beneath it.
“That looks like grandpa.” My daughter whispered to me.
 I nibbled on the end of a french fry, wondering how she remembered her grandfather. He had passed away four years ago when she was barely out of diapers. “Yes, honey, he does.” I agreed, watching as the man closed his eyes and seemed to settle into an uncomfortable sleep.
"Is he homeless?" She asked.
 I shrugged, unsure. He was wearing sneakers with his suit, small holes where his toes peeked out. But he seemed clean.  "I doubt it," I said. My daughter was still at the age where she believed that life was fair. That if you worked hard and did what you were supposed to you were guaranteed a happily ever after. Time would take this away from her. I could not. “He looks too kept."
"But he could be, right? He could be without a home."
Memories of my dad flooded me. My father, ashamed by the pantry full of nothing but canned beans in his kitchen. My father, who had lost so much weight because he wouldn’t accept food stamps, that he didn’t have one pair of pants that fit him. My father, who would only go out to lunch with me on the day he received his social security check so he wouldn’t have to ask his daughter to pay.
I took the last bit of my burger and wadded up the wrapper. I should go to this man, I thought. Find out his story. Wake him up and ask, “Excuse me, sir, do you have a home?” Then maybe he would rouse, looking up at me with clouded blue eyes. "I used to," he’d say, "a long time ago." And then his eyes would be somewhere else. Lost in a place with people he loved and home cooked meals and grandchildren crawling on his knee. Or maybe, if the world really was the magical place my daughter believed it was, he would rise, square his jaw, furrow his brow, and say "Here! Here! I am no beggar. I have land, and cattle, and a castle! How dare you mistake me for a vagabond." And he would wheel his cart away.
But I didn’t move. As much as I wanted to prove to my daughter that men who looked like grandfathers all had a warm, safe place to sleep every night, I was afraid. Because if I was wrong I would have to dig through my purse until I found five dollars and clumsily shove it at him so that he could get something in his stomach besides a senior citizen coffee. Or he might look at me in that way my father did. Shamed, accusing eyes that told me I had no business in his affairs.
“I’m sure he’s fine.” I said, driving my daughter home in our brand new Suburban. The back seat was filled with packages we would put under our tree.
“Are you sure, mommy?” She looked at me with wide eyes and upturned nose. In a few days she would be covered in wrappings and ribbons and the man would be forgotten. "Are you really sure?"
“Yes, baby," I said, pulling into our driveway. "I’m sure.”

(by April Aasheim, originally published in Welcome to Wherever,  2012)

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