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The Old Man by the Side of the Road

The Meeting

He was of indeterminate age.

His long, ratted hair shielded his features. His body seemed to shrink into his clothes . . . rags really . . . a mound of filth sitting on the curb. I’m not sure why I noticed him. He was similar to dozens seen daily in Olympia, part of the background of 2018, trees, parked cars, business signage, and the homeless.

He mumbled as I passed; perhaps that’s why I stopped but perhaps not; I don’t remember now. It really doesn’t matter. Stop I did, and asked him what he had said.

“I’ve lost him,” was his reply.

“Lost whom?” I asked, not really caring about the answer, just making my mother proud by being polite to everyone I meet.

“I’ve lost him,” was his reply once more.

Cars passed by. Shoppers, and business people, passed by; seagulls screeched from above, for attention, perhaps, or some primal warning; horns honked, trash can lids clanked, arguments from alleyways, the surround sound of Motown playing a symphony in my town fifty years after it first wailed, the heartbeat of a city too busy to hear those three words.

“I’ve lost him.”

I don’t know to this day what possessed me.

“Let’s go get a cup of coffee, old-timer. My treat!”

I didn’t think he heard me. His features remained blank, his sight set on some far-off scene, but then he slowly rose and followed me to The Spar Restaurant across the street. There Delores met us, the greeter for years, first-name basis and all that, nice woman, a bit confused when she saw my companion.

“Table for two, Bill?” and without waiting for an answer she led us as far away from the regulars as possible. She poured two coffees, nodded at me, took one last long look at my guest, and left.

I took a sip. Good as always, strong, black, the way coffee is meant to be.

“Where did you lose him?” I asked.

I didn’t hear him the first time, asked him to repeat.

“Khe Sahn” was his reply.

Just outside City Hall

Just outside City Hall

Down the Rabbit Hole We Go

The coffee seemed to revitalize him, instant adrenalin, mainlining legally, and the words tumbled out.

“High school quarterback, big-time, you know, had all the colleges after him, this was back in Sixty-five, you know, narrowed down the list to USC and Notre Dame, then the cutback block happened, two-hundred and eighty pounds rolling into a knee, last game of his senior year, parents heard the bone snap up in the stands, end of college career right there, but one year of healing and rehab, he was good as new for Uncle Sam, processed at Fort Lewis, breezed through basics, and by the summer of Sixty-seven he was getting off a transport plane in Saigon, home away from home for the next two years."

Someone dropped a dish in the kitchen. He jumped at the sound.

“What a shithole, man, what a shithole, no other way to describe it, wake up each morning and clench your sphincter, pray to whatever god you pray to that you’ll make it just one more twenty-four hour period, stench mixed with cloying sweetness, smiling faces in your dreams blasting you to pieces, smiling faces in the real blasting you to pieces, never did know who to trust, friend or foe, all looked the same . . . all looked the same. So pretty soon you look for comfort, man, you roll one joint, then another, you take the Black Tar express and wash it all down with Jim Beam rip-offs fortified with Draino or some such shit, and you tiptoe around Bouncing Betty in hopes she won’t embrace you like she has dozens of your friends.

“Friend or foe, all looked the same, no way of telling, enter a village, shoot them all, the only safe way of ensuring your safe departure, stench and cloying sweetness, blood smells like copper, did you know that, but blood in those temps, man, there is no smell like it in the world. And then the day arrives, somehow you made it, climb aboard another transport, head east, back to your home, back to your friends, back to the blonde cheerleader who swore she would be waiting for you, but she was married to some warehouse worker, one kid clenching her hand with another in the oven, and he was always angry, you know, white-hot anger coming out of nowhere, anger so bad, or was it fear, whatever, he slept with a rifle, hoping to shoot just one more of those bastards before they got him permanently and for real in his sleep.”

Dinner?

Dinner?

Deeper Down the Hole

“In and out of treatment, the Army hospital giving it their best with what they had to work with, in and out, a revolving door for the high school football star, the cheerleader raising four kids by that time, the quarterback unable to hold down a job, damned temper, no control of it, voices by that time, voices inside his head, voices telling him to just end it all and say goodbye to the pain, and his parents, man, you could see the pain on their faces, their baby boy, where have you gone, Danny Boy, Danny Boy, Mom praying to Jesus Christ Savior and Dad just getting angrier by the day.

“And I couldn’t help him, you hear what I’m saying? No matter how hard I tried I could not help him, not then, not when he turned to the streets, not when he was arrested for B & E, not when he was arrested on drug charges, and not when he was sent to McNeil for five-to-ten for possession. And that was just another jungle, man, from the steamy shit of Vietnam to the foul stench of death in prison, just one more damned jungle. And I could not help him!

“So, anyways, he finally got out, dried out, burned out, not one damned prospect, back to the streets, one dead-end alley after another, and I tried, man, you know I really tried, but one day, one day I just lost him.”

The watering hole for the homeless

The watering hole for the homeless

Our Goodbye

“Thirty years now he’s been on the streets, man, and I gotta find him. Thanks for the coffee. Time for me to head out. He’s out there, somewhere, I just have to keep lookin’ till I find him, you know?” And with that he got up, hefted his bag and bedroll, and walked out of my life.

I haven’t seen him since. No clue where he might be. No clue whether he found what he was looking for . . . who he was looking for. I still catch myself, from time to time, glancing at the homeless, looking at the faces, wondering if I’ll see him, wondering if I’ll recognize him if I do see him. Has he changed? Is he still breathing in, breathing out? Did he finally find that high school quarterback of long ago, the kid with lofty dreams and the whole world waiting for him with open arms, or is he forever sentenced to a life of aimless searching, searching for something long lost in the steaming ugliness of a war he never understood?

Author’s Note

This is a work of fiction, but damned close to too many realities to count. They are out there right now, on your street, in your city, certified homeless, certified batshit crazy, not playing the system but honest-to-God victims of that system.

I just think they need to be seen, that’s all.

I just think they need to be seen.

© 2018 Bill Holland

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