THE HOMELESS MAN
Wandering aimlessly down busy Race Street, I enjoy the fingers of light as they reach through the bare branches and touch the street. Looking at nothing in particular I gaze into the shop windows and overhear sound bites as people drift by. My view shifts to the street and something ahead catches my attention: it is a homeless person in a wheelchair half a block up on the other side of the street. My heart jumps as I ask deep in my unconscious, “Could it be him?”
Homeless men of a certain age, somewhere between graying adult and elderly, catch my attention. I know it is mostly impossible for any of them to be my brother, but my mind plays tricks on me. I’ll see him out of the corner of my eye: a characteristic angular, jerky walk, or hair the color of dirty dishwater, or something I can’t quite put my finger on. There are definitely times when his shadow plays upon the light of my day.
A blaring car horn jars me out of my thoughts and brings me back to Race Street. I am hungry. A Latin restaurant on my left advertising fish tacos grabs my attention. It’s clean and cheap, my two prerequisites for any good restaurant. I take a booth and place my order for two fish street tacos.
I can now see the person in the rickety old wheelchair is a man. He’s hunched over and wrapped in a bulky dirty jacket, wheeling across the street. He struggles to open the restaurant door. His dark eyes peek above a tangled dirty brown mess of a beard that masks his face. His eyes fidget as he grasps the evasive door handle, masterfully maneuvering his chair over the threshold.
A friendly waitress, Pearl, welcomes him, “How are you doin’ tonight? Come on in. Would you like a menu?” He mumbles something and glides toward a table. He expertly moves aside a lime green chair, which allows room for his wheelchair to pull up to a table near the entrance. Although I can only see the shadow side of his face, his hands are black with filth, as are his clothes. Strands of grey streak the golden brown mass escaping from under his well-worn grey hat, giving him the appearance of an old lion surveying the savanna. I watch him, wondering if he had light brown hair in his youth.
There is something about this particular bedraggled man that holds my attention, or perhaps it is the kindness of the waitress who smiles sweetly as she again gently offers him a menu. I watch as he fumbles with a few dirty, torn and dog eared green bills. He peels off one, two, three crinkled bills from the feeble wad in his hand. He puts the remainder back in his pocket, but immediately pulls the stack out again and peels off one more bill. “What do you have to drink?” he manages. Pearl lists off the many beers they have on tap and as soon as she says “Coors Light” his eyes light up and he points to her as if he’s won the lottery.
He appears unable to read the menu and stammers something about shrimp. Pearl patiently categorizes all the menu items that have shrimp. In a dialog right out of Forrest Gump she lists off, “shrimp tacos, grilled shrimp, shrimp skewers, shrimp cocktail…” As soon as the words “shrimp cocktail” leave Pearl’s mouth the man smiles. He decides on shrimp cocktail and a Coors Light.
My tacos arrive but I realize I am fixed on the man in the wheelchair. As I watch him, an ancient memory floats into my mind. It was my 14th birthday, 44 years ago, when my older brother, 16 then, and I rode our horses down to the nearby creek together. The morning was still cold from the freeze the night before. Steve was being uncharacteristically nice to me that morning as his light brown hair tossed in the wind. Perhaps it was for my birthday, or maybe he was bored, but we put our childhood dislike of each other aside and rode together that morning: a rare event.
Our horses scared up a pair of mallards who flew off, quacking noisily. As we surveyed the water we suddenly saw a duckling pop up from under the water. One, two, three... they popped up… five, six, seven ducklings in all appeared. The babies had been hiding underwater, but could stay submerged only so long. We watched them paddle fast into the reeds along the shore to hide until their parents returned. Steve and I had smiled at each other in a moment of rare comradery both of us enjoying this little slice of the natural world.
As Pearl brings the man an ice cold Coors Light in a sweating brown bottle along with a large goblet of bright pink shrimp, a lively Latin song comes across the restaurant speakers. He looks intensely at the array of shrimp, interviewing each one. He makes a selection and pops it in his mouth as a slight smile slowly creeps onto his face and he closes his eyes.
Steve’s alcohol problem had made a sudden entrance shortly after his divorce. He was 28 then. Christmas Eve night that year when his girlfriend had asked to drive them home after he had been drinking, his words painted the living room with green vitriol. That’s when his chemical use became his flag of independence. He was often drunk and argumentative and had become an uncomfortable person to be around: Someone prone to vomit in all the wrong places. He pulled his addictions tight around him like a cape, warding off intruding glances of others and protecting himself from the world’s judgment.
The last time I saw Steve was 22 years ago in a crowded courtroom. He was before the judge denying any responsibility for a car accident that he had been in. As he left the courthouse angry that day, I had tried to approach him, but he was too quick. I trailed him as he snaked his way through the crowd. I was gaining on him when a police officer interrupted my progress and approached him. I slowed my pace in anticipation of what was bound to follow. He argued, as usual, and when the officer reached out to take his arm, he let out a scream that sounded like a cat being dipped in ice water.
I could not bear to watch the scuffle that was sure to ensue between my frightened brother and the officer. I had turned quickly on my heel, ducked around the corner, and headed for home. That scream was the last memory I had of Steve.
A slamming door brings my focus back to the restaurant. As I finish my meal I realize time has elapsed and the place has become full of diners. Friendly faces and warm smiles greet one another as soothing Latin music serenade the patrons. It is time to pay my bill and I watch the homeless man still grappling with his meager bills. I shyly call the waitress over and whisper, “Please add his bill to mine.”
Pearl looks touched and replies, “Thank you. That is so kind of you.”
“Just cover whatever he wants. Leave it anonymous.”
“Of course,” says the waitress.
I pay the check and gather my belongings. I feel an undeniable draw toward this homeless man sitting at the table. I must look closer. What if? Maybe this time. What if I look closely and see the green eyes of my long lost brother gazing back at me? As I head toward the door, I slow as I approach him. I reach out and softly put my hand on his dirty sleeve. Looking directly into his face I say, “Please have a good evening, Sir”. He looks up and our eyes meet for an instant. I see in that moment that this man has brown eyes. No, this man is not my brother. Not this time.