How long have I known Steve? I first noticed him when he stopped without warning in the middle of the sidewalk and I nearly doused him with my almond-milk cappuccino. He was barefoot, wearing tattered jeans and a grimy oversized winter coat.
He was clearly a tramp, a bum, a vagrant, a hobo. Yes I know the PC police would no doubt frown at my description and insist I use ‘unhoused person’ or some such nonsense. Anyway, he was doubled over, staring intently at something on the ground. A piece of food perhaps, or a cast-way cigarette butt probably, but I didn’t stop to look, I was hurrying to secure a spot on an empty park bench.
I was sitting there sipping my coffee when he walked by, palm outstretched and resting on it, a small brown creature, an insect of some sort. He was looking at it with an odd reverence. Like it was something special, delicate, and his sole job was to protect it.
Later than day I ran into him again. He was leaning against a metal railing along the river and called out, You’re gorgeous, when I walked by. I didn’t say anything back, I suspected he had some mental health issues.
How long ago was that? Well, it’s November now. Four months ago I suppose. I kept running into him, nearly every day I’d see him wandering along the sidewalk, or meandering along the tow path.
The first time I saw him on this bend of the river, he was shuffling along, cupping something in his hands. He looked up as I passed, and said, This one’s Herman.
No, I didn’t stop to look, I didn’t want to get sucked into some strange conversation with a homeless man, who’d probably ask for money.
How do I know his name? He told me. After I asked him. He said, Stephen or maybe Stevie. Then he curled his fingers into a fist, holding it out, waiting for me to bump it with my knuckles. Which I did, but I disinfected my hands with anti-bac gel at the coffee shop as soon as possible. You never know what diseases they could be carrying.
I saw him again in early August. He was leaning over a short brick wall to someone’s back garden. I thought maybe he was casing the place. When I got closer, I could see he was letting a snail crawl from his hand to a branch in the yard. He just stood there, waiting for the creature to inch off his finger to the tree, as he if had all the time in the world.
He gave me a goofy grin and said, Snails are good for gardens. My Momma told me that. They eat the bad insects. This one’s Dave.
A lady in her sixties came out of the house and I thought she was going to yell at Steve but she just waved and waddled over to the back fence, which isn’t much a fence, it’s only a few feet high and wide enough for people to sit on. Ooh, that’s big ‘un, she’d said, when she saw the snail.
Should someone tell her about Steve? I know where she lives. Her name's Louise and she's got a ground floor apartment on Redriff Road.
No, I don't know her last name. I got to know her a bit better in September. That was the day I locked myself out of my house without my phone or wallet. I was really freaked out. I couldn’t even call a locksmith, or take the bus to a friend’s house. I headed to the coffee shop, thinking that I could use their phone to call a locksmith, but when I got there, it was closed. It was a holiday weekend and most people had already left.
I was sitting outside the café trying to figure out what to do next when Steve moseyed by. I told him what happened and he offered me a half-eaten sandwich. I declined of course, who knows how long that was hanging out in his dirty pocket. But he said maybe Louise could help.
So we went to her house, and she let me use her phone to call a locksmith. While I waited for him to show up, we sat in the back garden, drinking tea and nibbling stale shortbread cookies. Steve wandered over to a corner in the yard, bent down and picked something up. When he returned, he was crying. He opened his hand to reveal a fat slug.
What you crying for? Louise asked him. And he said, The snail lost his home.
The last time I saw him? That would be a few days ago. The weather's changing, it's getting colder at night and he was carrying a filthy sleeping bag, rolled up in a tight coil, and slung over his back with a strap. I asked if he knew where the shelters were, and he laughed, said it wasn’t cold enough to be locked up all night.
The sleeping bag? I suppose I’d recognise it.
Yeah, that looks like it, I guess. It’s pretty wet. How long was it floating in the river?
I don’t know if he had any family. He only mentioned his mother, but I don’t know her name, or if she’s even still living.
Hey, watch your step! There’s a snail, just there. Near your boot.
Look, I never saw Steve take any drugs, so I don’t know. I hardly knew him, really. When I saw the police tape and the coast guard boat on the river, I was just curious, okay? But the way you described what you found, it sounds like Steve. And that’s his sleeping bag, so…
No, I don’t need a Kleenex. If we're done here, I’m just going to pick the little guy up. Bit late in the season for snails.
Wonder if he’s hungry. I know a perfect place where he can stay.