fiction by Javy Gwaltney

October 23, 2011

You are driving to the local grocery store in order to pick up some milk for your mother.  You find a parking spot near the front of the store and take it. Approaching the entrance of the store, you see him huddled in a corner near a soda dispenser.

He’s dressed in a tattered denim coat that houses a coffee-stained undershirt.  His tennis shoes have no laces nor does he seem to be wearing socks. The only decent piece of clothing he seems to have on him is his jeans—they have no stains or creases.  The few teeth he has hang in his mouth like buttery stalagmites, and the remaining strands of unkempt brown and white hair clinging to his otherwise bald head blow fiercely in the cold breeze as though they wish to take flight.

Less than a second after you’ve sighted him he looks up and notices you. You try to brush off the already emerging sensation of pity as he stands up and begins his routine. But it isn’t that easy is it? No, because it’s not like the movies where the man comically stumbles toward you with red, drunk eyes and whiskey on his breath. No, this one limps over to you and dons an expression of self-disgust and shame, while trying his best to cover it up with a toothless grin. He doesn’t lean too close or whisper the classic “Hey buddy, can you spare some change?”  No, it’s “Excuse me, sir. I’m a veteran that’s down on his luck.…” He goes on, but you’re trying your best to tune him out, trying to tell yourself that he’s just a bum who would spend the money on booze or crack or whatever your parents told you bums spend charity money on.

However, you can’t help but notice how polite this man is; he has a practiced eloquent quality about him, keeping a respectable distance and making sure not to extend his hand toward you as though he’s confident his story will win you over.  You realize sadly, as you lie to him and say you don’t have any change, that he doesn’t want to be here anymore than you do. You walk past him into the store as he descends back into his cold, dark corner.

You wander the aisles trying to forget the homeless man, but you see the food on all the shelves, and it reminds you of his thinness.  You grab some groceries off the shelves and make your way to the cash register where you pay seven dollars and twenty-nine cents with a ten. The change weighs in your pants’ pocket like heavy stones.

Outside you see him huddled next to the soda machine trying in vain to pull his denim jacket over his head for warmth.

“Excuse me, sir,” you say.

He looks up at you as you hand a bag of chips, a small Cherry Coke, and two dollars.  The man accepts them and begins blubbering his gratitude.

“You have a good one,” is all you say as you walk off quickly with your own little bag of groceries.

“Have a merry Christmas,” he shouts. “God bless you!”

You feel like a saint as you get inside your car and begin to make the short drive home. The euphoria of your deed soon passes by and is replaced by the sincere hope that the man uses the money to take care of himself. But after that thought squeezes its way through the passageways of your brain, some tune that you’re familiar with comes on the radio, and you start singing along and drumming the steering wheel with your gloved fingers.  You manage to push the entire ordeal out of your mind until you get home and, cursing silently to yourself, realize that you forgot the milk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *