Everybody knows the Old Man.
An army veteran, hair white as snow turned grey from nights of sleeping on the pavement. One arm extends into a pale hand, turned up towards the sky in a shaky plea. The other arm is a stump. Barely surviving the biting winter, he wears only a grey sweat-stained tank top and ripped-up jeans.
‘Really,’ the women say as they cross the road to avoid him. ‘He could wear something a little more decent, there are children living on this street.’
Yes, they knew the Old Man. And if there ever was a burglary around the neighborhood, it wouldn’t be hard to guess the culprit.
Beside him lies a washed-out pair of boots, a memento from his army days, his glory days. They are too small now for his curled up toes, but he wouldn’t part with them for the world. He sits folded upon an old mattress he found in the neighborhood dump. A stray dog sometimes comes up and lies next to him for a while, but the mattress is so thin that soon it gets back up and limps off to find a more comfortable place to sleep. Even stray dogs need comfort once in a while.
The kids know the Old Man too.
He is the subject of many Boy Scout horror stories, told with an eager smile and a glint in the eyes.
‘And then,’ they hiss, the beam of the flashlight resting on their face, ‘he steals your arm and sticks it where his used to be!’
The boys fall over themselves laughing, partly because they know it’s a joke and partly to hide that deep down, they’re not so sure. Now, when the kids pass the Old Man’s corner, they giggle and run away at full speed.
The kids knew the Old Man. And if they had learned anything from the stories of kidnappings and violence they sometimes heard on the news, it was to stay away from him at all costs.
The Old Man used to have a name, he thinks, but he can’t quite remember what it was. Robert, maybe? No matter. For what is the point of a name if it is never used?
The breadwinners know the Old Man as well.
He is an inconvenience, sure, but no more than an anomaly in their data, a thorn in their side. A pestering flea continually begging at their sides after they come home from a hard day’s work.
‘No, I don’t have any spare change today,’ they say with veiled annoyance, checking their Rolex watches furtively the whole time. Secretly they think ‘my, how lazy the world has gotten. People sit around all day then expect us, hard-working citizens, to buy them a meal? Not on my watch, good friend, not on my watch.’
Yes, they knew the Old Man. And what a lazy no-good he was.
Sometimes it seems that everyone knows the Old Man but he himself.
He has been called so many things in his life, spoken to with so many varying tones of disdain that they have all mixed and mashed and ballooned up in his head, squeezing out the memory of who he actually is.
No, that isn’t right. He is a soldier, an army boy. He had lost his arm in that war. His best friend had died in his arms. So many stories to tell, yet no one to tell them to…
Hunger. He is distracted from his thoughts by acute pain in the depths of his belly. He realizes he hasn’t eaten for a few days. Although he hasn’t seen his reflection in months, the protruding ribs he sees sticking through his shirt as he looks down sets off warning bells in his head. Food, that’s what he needs. He stumbles towards the house across the street, stopping at the doorstep to desperately sniff at the overwhelming smell of ham.
The door opens slightly. Through the little crack in the door appears a mother’s head. When she sees who it is, her smile freezes in place, polite but obviously uncomfortable.
‘Children,’ she calls, ‘go to bed.’
The toddlers run upstairs screaming, for they too have heard the stories.
The Old Man shivers.
‘I was wondering if I could have some food.’
‘Oh. Right, of course.’ The woman makes no sign to open the door. ‘Here, I’ll go get it. You can stay right here, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.’
The mother comes back with a slice of bread on a chipped china plate. The Old Man sighs at the measly portion offered to him, but hell, one slice is better than nothing. He takes the plate from the mother with a quick ‘thank you’, but the woman looks at him, shocked.
‘Where do you think you’re going with my plate? What, you thought you would just come to my door, take my food and run off with my plate, and I wouldn’t notice? And to think I was about to offer you bread. You homeless, you’re all the same. Disgraceful.’
Grabbing back the plate, she slams the door in his face.
The Old Man stands in front of the door, heart pounding. Stealing? Is that how people see him? Is that why the children all run away? Maybe they are right. Maybe he is a thief. Now that he thinks about it, the lady had never explicitly said the plate was his to take… No. He isn’t a thief. He isn’t a thief because he has his boots! His boots he had worn in the army, where he had sacrificed so much to save his country, where he had seen his best friend die… Seen his best friend die…. Die… The Old Man convulses into a heap, still clutching his shoes.
On a cold winter night, the Old Man disappears, leaving no legacy behind but a pair of army boots.
‘It’s a shame about the Old Man, isn’t it?’ A mother says to the pastor’s wife. They are sitting at a coffee table, glancing at each other without ever really looking.
‘Yes, yes, it is. Always a shame when a war hero passes away. I’ll ask Mick to mention him in the sermon tomorrow. What was his name again?’
‘You know,’ the mother stirs her cup of tea thoughtfully, ‘I can’t quite remember. Maybe John? Yes, that was it, John. You know, my brother’s called John too.’
‘Of course, John, how could I forget. Why, he mentioned it to me just the other day. I was giving him some food, you know. I always used to help the man.’
‘You did? Well, of course you did. So did I, now that I think about it.’ The more the mother thought about it, the more she could imagine herself helping the Old Man. And really, imagining was the same as remembering.
‘I’ll get Mick to write him a little something, bless him on his way to heaven and such.’ The pastor’s wife lowers her voice and leans in confidentially. ‘Although I must say I’m the tiniest bit relieved. It wasn’t safe to have him hanging around our children. Homeless people, you never know what they’ll do next.’
‘Well, I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but the other day he did try to steal from me. And from right under my nose too.’
A moment’s pause.
‘You know, they found those shoes of his lying next to the body. They were even more ripped up than I remembered.’
‘What did they do with them?’
‘Why, they threw them away, of course. What else do you do with shoes like that?’
The wife shook her head as if to convince herself of something, though she wasn’t quite sure what. The mother shifted in her chair, wondering why the seat suddenly felt so uncomfortable. Together, as if one mind, they echoed:
‘What else do you do with shoes like that?’
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Beautiful, but sad. Well written, Elsa!
This story really made me think. We all know an Old Man. It's like, "what else can we do for them?" It made my heart break, knowing that the Old Man was trying to remember who he was underneath all the people trying to tell him who he is. I appreciate your perspective. Thank you.
Thank you for this story, it is really moving. Sadly, we can all relate to the two women in the story. We are scared, we fear for our children and don't stop to look at the homeless and listen to their stories. I will definitely smile more and give a little bit more to these homeless people. A big heartfelt thank you.
“And really, imagining was the same as remembering.“ I love this line!! Very powerful message, thank you!
👏 great story, something I always notice when looking at how people treat the homeless