THE MAN BY THE RIVER • by Quinn Baker

I used to wash dishes at an upscale restaurant. The type of place where the help was supposed to stay hidden from the customers in case our existence would offend them.

The restaurant resided next to a river that was deep enough so that you couldn’t cross it. Kids would sometimes fall in during the winter and would be taken by the current and then by the cold. The sound of rushing water could be heard in the restaurant, and guests would often walk along the river’s shore after paying their bill.

The garbage bin where we dumped all of the food that went uneaten was next to the river and south of the restaurant. I used to hitch a trailer to an old, beat-up lawnmower, and drive the trash to it at the end of my shift, usually around two or three a.m. when the last drunk patron had finally paid their bill and left.

I wasn’t the bravest kid, and these nighttime trash runs filled me with dread. Even with the sound of the lawnmower engine, I would hear owls, coyotes and all sorts of nefarious nocturnal animals. The chef even gave me a shovel to fight off raccoons.

One summer night, as I unloaded garbage that reeked of expensive, half-eaten fish, I noticed a man sitting by a tree, not ten feet away from myself. I grabbed the shovel and told him to stay back. The man laughed and told me not to worry. Said he was just a wanderer. By the state of his clothes, I guessed that wanderer also meant homeless, and though my gut told me to leave immediately, I took pity on him.

We got to talking, me with a shovel in hand and him with hands in tattered pockets. He told me about how he loved to walk up and down the river bank and how he had sworn off worldly possessions, which he claimed was the best decision he ever made.

I asked the man if he was hungry. He asked me if I had any liver to spare, something he said he’d been craving for far too long. I told him I didn’t have any. It wasn’t on our menu since it was seen as a poor man’s meal. I promised to bring him something the next night if he was still there.

The wanderer was still there the next night, and I gave him some chicken and buttered bread, which he thanked me for.

He asked me why I was working such long hours for such snooty people and such little pay. I explained that I had to pay for college next year. He sighed and seemed disappointed in me, and I, for some reason, felt disappointed in myself. He didn’t want me to turn into them, he said, and his voice was filled with contempt.

I promised I wouldn’t, but his eyes appeared sad, and his demeanour looked resigned.

Every night when I drove the lawnmower south of the restaurant and along the river, I would see the wanderer. For weeks, I brought him food, and he always seemed grateful, but every night he would ask if liver was on the menu. It was the only food that made him feel full, he explained. Every night I apologized and told him it wasn’t on the menu but that I would keep checking. The wanderer never got angry at this, and he never seemed surprised by my answer.

As the summer season came to a close, the chef pulled me aside and asked why I was taking so long every night with the trash. He wasn’t paying me to take cigarette breaks or whatever it was I doing. I needed the job, so I apologized and said I would do my best to be faster. I knew better than to argue.

I made sure to keep my conversations with the wanderer short, sometimes even leaving in the middle of one of his rants. He wished people would just enjoy the simple things in life, like liver.

On the night of my last shift, a woman asked me if I’d seen her boyfriend. She was mad because he’d gone wandering off drunk, saying he wanted to check out the river. I told her I hadn’t seen him, and the woman left in her car, saying her boyfriend could take a cab for all she cared. Apparently, he had done this sort of thing before.

I drove the lawnmower out to the garbage. I was able to get a steak for the wanderer, and since it was my last night, I wasn’t afraid of being fired for taking it.

As I drove, I saw a shape floating down the river. It was too dark to see what it was, and I soon forgot about it.

When I saw the wanderer, he was in unusually good spirits. He smiled at me and didn’t even go into one of his usual speeches.

I offered the wanderer the steak, saying this would sadly be the last meal he got from me. To my surprise, he declined. He had never turned down a meal before. I insisted, but he told me he was simply too full. I wanted to ask him what he had had for dinner instead, but I held my tongue.

Before I left, he offered me his hand. He told me it had been a pleasure talking to me, and he hoped I wouldn’t turn out like them. I took his hand and shook it, and in the darkness, I couldn’t be sure, but to this day, I swear his hand had flecks of blood on it.

It wasn’t until weeks later that a thought occurred to me when I was sitting in a diner studying for my first college midterm. The wanderer, who had never failed to ask if liver was on the menu, hadn’t so much as mentioned it that last night.

Quinn Baker is a Canadian writer from the Greater Toronto Area. He studied English and History at the University of Guelph and has previously written articles for The Ontarion, The Artifice, and The Fulcrum. He is currently working on multiple pieces, such as short stories in various genres and his fantasy series.

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