I’d seen him standing on the corner before — checking out the line of cars at the stoplight — but today was different. Today, I checked him out.
As his eyes scanned the vehicles, I could tell he didn’t really see individuals inside them, and it didn’t appear as though he cared if they saw him. It was as if he felt the inanimate object, the car, was his target and not its occupants. It was almost calculated indifference.
Odd, especially since his purpose and condition were stated in such eloquent brevity on the sign draped over the front of his faded green army jacket… which had the right sleeve pinned up.
As for the rest of his appearance, his unkempt gray hair sprouted randomly from beneath a tattered John Deere baseball cap pulled low on his head, but his weathered face was shiny and freshly shaven. Clothes, while raggedy, looked clean. Somehow, it all said, “I may be down on my luck, but I’m not an axe murderer.”
A quick decision.
As the light changed and the traffic inched forward, I flung open the passenger door. “Hop in,” I said.
He didn’t argue, didn’t ask why or what I wanted, didn’t even acknowledge the comment; he just climbed aboard. Surprisingly, the faint odor of aftershave followed him in.
“Hungry?” I asked, nodding at a coffee shop on the opposite corner.
He patted at his jacket. “No. Woman gave me a couple of donuts and a cup-a-joe this morning, kept one of the sweets for later.” He didn’t go on.
I followed the traffic as it picked up speed. “If you can do it, I need someone to help me pack boxes at my house. I could feed you and pay, say, ten bucks an hour for four hours this afternoon and again tomorrow morning. Interested?”
“Sure. I can do as much as most two-armed people,” he said.
“Deal,” I said. We drove in silence for a few minutes. “Do you have a place to sleep tonight?” I asked.
“Wherever God and the night sees fit to put me.”
“No family then?”
He turned his head, studying me. “Orphan. Never had none ‘cept the Army. And then I got this.” He nodded at his empty sleeve. “So, I couldn’t do that no more.”
“Doesn’t the VA help people like you?”
“Warriors don’t need no mothers,” he scoffed and turned away. “Listen, I’ll work for your food and money, but that doesn’t buy you any more of my life history. Okay.”
I felt my face burn.
Five minutes later, I turned off the main street and wound the car through the cozy neighborhoods — only they didn’t feel so cozy anymore, they wouldn’t, not now.
“You moving?” the man asked.
“What? Oh yeah, the packing boxes,” I said. “Yes I am.”
I felt the familiar knot in my throat; it had been a month. Would it ever go away? “Sandra, my wife. She took her own– I…I just can’t live there anymore.”
Pulling into the drive of the two-story we’d called home for the last ten years, I turned off the engine and stared at the house. God, I didn’t want to go back in there again.
He opened the door to get out, then turned and looked me in the eyes. “Don’t take this wrong, mister,” he said. “But, I’m glad I’m not you.”
James C.G. Shirk lives between the Cascades and the Olympic mountain ranges, in the beautiful Great Northwest, where he writes various genre short stories that tend to get published and labors on novels that satisfy him (if no one else).