Joe lived in a rural community and had turned his backyard into a massive garden with many vegetables, trees, flowers, cactus, and other miscellaneous plants. Because he lived in the north where winters could be harsh and lengthy, he made it an annual chore to collect fallen leaves to insulate all his plants—so they had a chance to survive the winter.
As such, Joe would seek out neighbors or anyone in the community trying to get rid of their leaves. Most people raked or blew their leaves into a pile, and he would show up and bag them, but there were some folks that weren’t able to rake or blow their leaves into a pile, so occasionally he would take the time to do it himself.
There was only one four-way stop in the community—the main intersection—with one gas station that doubled as a convenience store, ice cream parlor, and sandwich shop—and a small hair cutting place just across the intersection. There was also a dollar store, a furniture store, an optometrist, and a chiropractor—and the pizza joint and pharmacy were one community over.
One particular Sunday, as Joe was gathering leaves from a house located within sight of the intersection, he had glanced in that direction and couldn’t help noticing a guy sitting at the corner just outside the hair cutting place—near the intersection. There were always local school students promoting car washes in support of their local clubs and sports, but the guy seemed to have a different agenda.
From a distance, it seemed to Joe the guy was homeless, but it was odd to see a homeless person in the community let alone at the intersection. In fact, he couldn’t remember a time when he’d seen a homeless person and he’d lived in the community some forty years.
As Joe finished up, he decided to drive to the gas station—he needed gas and some miscellaneous items anyway. He pulled in the lot and started pumping gas. While waiting, he looked across the street and could see a small cardboard sign that read, “Will work for food.” He was taken aback and began wondering what would cause someone to be in that position. The gas pump clicked off and he drove home—he had many leaves to unload before dark.
Into his evening rituals, Joe contemplated if anyone had stopped for the guy to offer any assistance. He also wondered if anyone would really provide the guy work—he seemed feeble.
The next day Joe returned to the same house and finished removing all the leaves. As he left the home, he made a drive by the intersection and didn’t see the guy anywhere. So, he looped around and through the gas station to get home. He thought the guy may have been a vagrant and was just passing through.
About a week later, Joe went to the gas station to get some lunch when he noticed the guy was back. Without hesitation, Joe ordered two sandwiches and two coffees. He paid and asked the cashier if she knew anything about the guy, but she had no information other than it’s the first she’d seen him.
Joe pulled out of the gas station and drove directly across the street and into the parking lot of the hair cutting place. He left his truck running and exited with the sandwich in one hand and the coffee in the other.
“Excuse me, sir,” Joe blurted out.
The guy turned his head and gave a half wave with his right hand.
“Sir? I don’t know what your situation is, but I’d like to offer you this sandwich.”
Joe walked right up to the guy, but the guy never stood. Although, he never broke eye contact with Joe.
“I’m not looking for handouts,” the guy said in a feeble voice.
“I understand, but please take it. I also have a coffee. Do you like coffee?”
“Yes, thank you, but it’s not...”
“You’re welcome. Hey, if I know of anyone looking for help, I’ll let them know you’re looking for work.”
The man nodded his head.
Joe drove off hoping he’d feel good about his deed, but he didn’t feel right about the encounter. Nonetheless, he never looked back. He didn’t sleep much that night and promised himself he’d do more for the guy the next time he saw him.
Another week had passed and again Joe hadn’t seen any sign of the guy at the intersection. He stopped at the gas station and got a sandwich. The same cashier was working, and he asked, “Have you seen the homeless guy since last week? I mean, I assume he’s homeless. Perhaps he’s just struggling a bit. Anyway, have you seen him?”
“I’m sorry, no. Do you know him?” she replied.
“No…I guess I’m just curious.”
“There was some chatter about someone getting hit by a car the other day, but no one knew who it was. My husband is an EMT, but all he said was that it was an older gentleman.”
“Does he know the guy’s name?”
“He didn’t say. I’ll ask him, but I’m fairly certain he’s not allowed to say.”
“Do you know where they took him?”
“To the local hospital, but he’s probably been moved to another area hospital. That’s if he’s still alive. He was injured pretty bad.”
“Oh, good lord. Please let me know if you hear anything. Here’s my number.”
With that Joe returned home. He wasn’t feeling good about himself and spent a great deal of the remainder of the day calling local police and hospitals—and people he knew. It was a difficult task considering he didn’t know the guy’s name or anything about him for that matter.
Weeks went by and there was no call from the cashier and still no sign of the guy at or around the intersection. December had arrived and the weather had taken a slide. The days were cold, and nights were colder. Joe wondered if the guy had shelter, assuming he was alive. He followed the local news closely by habit, but he never heard anything about the guy or any similar story. It’s like the guy vanished. There wasn’t even a whisper of a writeup in the local paper. He found it hard to believe no one knew of the guy or what had happened.
December turned into January, turned into February, turned in March, turned into April.
Joe often thought of the guy but had mostly given up his pursuit of ever finding him. He’d begun his spring chores keeping him busy getting his garden and plants ready for the spring season. All along, he couldn’t help feeling guilty because he thought that had he hired the guy to rake and gather leaves he wouldn’t have been hit by a car, which weighed heavy.
As May arrived, and the weather broke, Joe was returning from a trip to the nearest city where he purchased newly propagated plants. He had just turned to cross the bridge over the local creek and head up the hill to his house when he noticed someone walking on the bridge. The person was walking with a single crutch. He felt the person was a man, but he couldn’t be sure. He slowed a tick and stared in his rear-view mirror, but he just couldn't be sure if it was the guy. What if that’s him? How would I know?
Joe continued home.
The very next day Joe received a phone call from the gas station cashier stating, “The guy is back. You told me to call you.”
Joe jumped in his truck and raced to the intersection. He dove into the parking lot of the hair cutting place sliding his tires on the loose gravel and could tell right away it was the guy. With dust flying, he leaped from his truck yelling, “You’re the guy, you’re the guy.”
The guy turned and looked at Joe running at him and threw his arms up over his head, as if to protect himself.
“You’re the guy,” Joe repeated.
Startled, the guy replied, “What guy? Do I know you?”
“Yes, yes, we met before. Well, we never officially met, but I bought you a sandwich and a coffee. We met at this very spot some six months ago. You don’t remember?”
“Oh, yes. I did thank you, right?”
“Yes…that’s not why I’m here.”
“I heard you were hit by a car, and I was concerned. You okay? I see you’re using a crutch. Is there anything I can do? What do you need?”
“Whoa, slowdown chief…it’s true I was hit by a car, yes, but I’m doing fine.”
“Do you live around here? Can I help with anything?”
“Again, whoa. I’ve hit a rough patch in my life, but I’m going to be fine. I just need some work, but now that seems more of a challenge than ever before. I’m still able to work though, I think. You got something?”
“Yeah, I got something. I do odd jobs to supplement my retirement and could use some help. You interested?”
“Sure, I’m listening.”
“How about we go somewhere to talk?”
“Like my house. I live right down the street.”
“I don’t know…”
“No, it’s fine. C’mon, you can get cleaned up and we’ll have some dinner.”
“I’m not comfortable…”
“It’s really fine, c’mon.”
“Okay, but you’ll need to drop me back here well before dark or I can walk. Whatever suits.”
With that, they both crawled into Joe’s truck and drove down the street to Joe’s house. They pulled in the driveway and Joe led the way into the house, up the small set of stairs, and into the living area/kitchen.
“Have a seat,” Joe pointed. “By the way, my name is Joe.”
“I’m Duffy, they call me Duffy.”
“Pleasure to meet you, officially.”
“Same. Listen all this isn’t necessary. I can take care of myself…I just need some work.”
“No, no, that’s fine. I just thought you could use some…”
“I’m fine. What kind of work do you have?”
“Just odd jobs like collecting leaves in the fall, removing the leaves in the spring, planting new plants, making sure the garden boxes and beds are maintained, and building new garden beds. Things like that. You interested?”
“It’s only part time but you could parlay that into a more permanent job at the local produce and fruit farm.”
“Yeah, to raise the stakes for something potentially better.”
“I’ll take it.”
Joe and Duffy had a simple dinner and exchanged personal stories about their lives. Joe learned that Duffy was a widower. His wife had died of cancer a couple years earlier and he was a veteran and was never really the same since his wife’s death. His wife’s benefits had run out and while he was able maintain their home for a few months, he quickly got behind on taxes and eventually lost the home about six months to a year ago. Joe also learned that the medical bills were piling up because of Duffy’s recent hospital stay.
Joe felt the need to ask, “Where have you been staying since you lost your home?”
“Well, prior to my accident I was living down by the river?” Duffy shyly disclosed.
“Down by the river? What river?”
“Down the hill from the gas station. There’s a road to the left at the bottom. I’m not sure whose property it is, but there’s an abandoned mine just up the hill from the river.”
“That’s like three or four miles. You walk that?”
“Where’d you stay after your accident?”
“I was in the hospital for a month and then after my release I made my way to the local city rescue mission. That’s where I spent the winter. I tried to keep up with physical therapy, but it became too difficult to get back and forth. Hence the crutch.”
“So, where you stayin now?”
“As of yesterday, back down by the river.”
“Okay, you can’t stay there,” Joe pleaded.
“It’s just temporary.”
“I don’t know how you do it. Your life is terrible.”
“I don’t see it that way. Maybe I make it sound worse than it is.”
“No, not really.”
“I’m fine, really.”
“How did you ever pass the time down by the river.”
“I like to make up stories about how things will turn out. I also like to make up stories in general. You know, if there’s a day I see kayakers on the river, I like to imagine where they came from, where they’re going, and what their lives must be like.”
“Have you ever written them down?”
Duffy, pointing to his temple, “They’re all up here.”
Joe offered, “I’ll tell you what. You can stay here with me until you get things squared away then we’ll find you an apartment.”
“That’s okay, you’ve done enough offering some work. I’ll manage.”
“No, I insist. You’re putting yourself at too much risk. You’re staying here.”
The following day, Joe put Duffy to work in his back yard while he went off for the morning to line up other work. He returned with lunch, clothes for Duffy, and a box of tablets and pencils. He offered Duffy the gifts and informed him that he knew someone who had an apartment coming available in a couple weeks and that they offered for him to stay for three months, rent free. Duffy was taken aback but offered his thanks.
They spent the summer caring for Joe’s plants and harvesting the crops. Duffy even learned how to preserve food for the winter months—he’d never canned food before. He learned some very valuable skills that summer.
Joe and Duffy developed a friendship over the course of that year. Duffy was working part-time for the local produce farmer, was able to keep his apartment, and had begun to pay down his medical debt. He was also working diligently putting his stories to paper. Joe was feeling much better about himself, given the recovery and successes of Duffy.
Duffy never fully understood why Joe felt so obligated to help him, but he eventually came to the realization that his life may have been worse if not for Joe. He never forgot his decision, and the courage it took, to walk back to the intersection that first day. His perpetual limp was his daily reminder.
My name is Duffy, and this is my first penned story.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
A touching story! Simple and effective, it reminds me of a kind of fireside fable told to remind people to be kind to strangers
Thank you for your kind words.
I really like your treatment of this prompt, Douglas, and what a sharp ending! Loved it!
Thank you for your comment. I struggled at first to write to this prompt, but it just came to me after a few days.