I never know where the inspiration for a story will come from. I leave all that to my muse. She is much more attentive to such matters.
This story came to me while listening to The Oldies on Amazon radio. “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers came on, and this story was born.
I hope you enjoy it, and thanks for giving it a read.
He blended with his surroundings, a discarded man on a forgotten street corner in a town rapidly sliding down the economic slope. We see them every single day, setting up their one man, or woman, shop, sign in hand, help me, need money, no food, the thousand-yard stare looking through those who pass them by.
Why did I stop? I’ve never stopped before, truth be told, never saw the point in it, one of thousands, tens-of-thousands, every intersection of every city, the unwashed . . . the unwanted. What difference could my couple bucks make, my justification, the Bible According to Peter, as in Peter J. Babcock, VP of Babcock Savings and Loan, fourth generation Babcock raking in the money, sipping martinis at the Chamber of Commerce meetings, estranged wife, two kids who hardly know me, the latest Babcock Golden Boy.
He had no sign. That was the first distinctive feature. No sign, no declaration of need, no plea for assistance. Just sitting there, on the curb, watching life streak by him, figurative and literal, absolutely no chance of him catching up, keeping pace, not even in the race. And he was dressed well, Brooks Brothers well, Versace sneakers well, tailored, well-cut, but dust-covered, a random hole in the fabric to announce his current status among the living, swimming against the current without fins.
Either Goodwill was selling some mighty fine clothing of late or the man, at one time, had spent lavishly.
Sixty, maybe seventy years on this planet, white hair, full beard, nails chewed down the quick, the smell of rotgut booze rising with the heat.
My curiosity was piqued.
I stopped, moved into his line of sight.
“You doing okay, old-timer?” Ignorant question right out of the chute. Of course he wasn’t doing okay.
“Gettin’ by, thanks for asking.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Strange, coming from me. There wasn’t a damned thing I could do for him, not for any of them, my thoughts prior to that encounter. Just move on, Pete, make your escape and don’t get involved.
“It’s what I can do for you, young man. Buy me dinner and I’ll share a story with you. Even swap. We both come out winners. I love me a good story, don’t you?”
There was a diner a block down on Hawthorne. I looked in that direction. Looked back at the figure in front of me. He was smiling, missing two front teeth, smiling nonetheless, a smile which had seen some serious miles of rough road.
What the hell?
“There’s a diner down there.” I pointed. “Mac serves damned fine meatloaf. Follow me. You can tell me your story there.”
He rose, dusted himself off a bit, smiled again.
“Lead on, young man. I also love me some good meatloaf.”
A Story Over Dinner
Stares from the respectable followed us inside the diner. We found a table, sat down, the only thing allowing us to do so was my stature in the community, rank having privilege even when it is rubbing shoulders with the economically-challenged and socially-rejected.
“My name’s Peter. What’s yours, if you don’t mind me asking?
“You’re buying the famous meatloaf, son, so you can ask anything you want. Edgar is the name I was born with, but on the street it’s just Gar.”
The waitress approached with something less than enthusiasm.
“Mister Babcock, welcome back,” but her words didn’t match her facial expression. “What can I get for you and your acquaintance?” She didn’t say friend, but acquaintance, only willing to go so far with the niceties. Her name is Tilly, thrice married, once to a felon while he was in prison. No kids, minor rap sheet herself, and it was obvious Tilly felt herself higher on the social ladder than my dinner guest.
“Two meatloaf dinners, Tilly. And I’ll have Scotch, rocks. Gar, anything to drink?”
“Peter, your drink selection is just fine by me. I love me some Scotch. Make that two!”
Tilly gave us one more look of disapproval and then went about her minimum wage job.
Gar smiled a gap-smile at me.
“Fine clothes, Peter, and the patrons here treat you with a high measure of deference. I’m guessin’ a lawyer, doctor, or banker. Which one be you?”
“You have a good eye, Gar. I’m a banker, fourth-generation. But I’m not here to talk about my profession. You promised me a story, so pay up. You’re wearing some clothes which were once pretty damned expensive. Is that part of the story you’re about to tell me?”
His cough was phlegmy. His eyes sparkled with laughter.
“I was a lawyer once, Peter, had my own firm, Wall Street as a matter of veracity, had fifty subordinates, a home on Long Island, all the rewards for a man of stature. Had me a lovely wife, she herself a lover of nice things, diamonds and such. Had me four cars, vacation home in the Adirondacks, took cruises, full portfolio of investments, two kids, white picket fence . . . “his eyes clouded over. “I had it all, young man, and then I didn’t.”
Tilly had delivered our drinks. He took his first sip, closed his eyes, sighed.
“It’s like the unraveling of a fine sweater. It begins with a single thread, hardly noticeable, you know? You might go weeks and not notice that one loose thread, but unnoticed that thread will grow in length, and it’s connected to others, so the weeks pass, and the months accumulate, and you take a closer look, finally notice the thread, and one has become many, and that high-priced sweater ain’t worth a damn then.” Again, the cough, rattling inside his chest. “A good Scotch is sometimes better than sex, don’t you agree, Young Peter?”
Our meal arrived. For a good ten minutes, no talk, just the savoring of good food.
“The unraveling, it happens quicker than you might think, although truth be told, years from start to the finish you now see. I simply didn’t read the signs properly. Much too busy to read the signs. Too many drinks at power lunches. Missed school functions for the kids. Late to holiday gatherings, too much work to do. An affair or two with personal assistants at work. All the signs were there, but I didn’t notice a one of them. Now I’ve got nothing but time, I read more signs than you can shake a stick at, and I’ve got absolutely nothing to lose. How about you, Peter Babcock the Fourth? Any loose threads?”
Getting Down to It
I ignored his question. Thought of my separation, my wife living with her parents, kids with her. I shook my head, took a sip of the Scotch.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I fumbled with my wallet, my default action, money cures all ills. “I’ve got one-hundred I could give you, tide you over for a few days.” What the hell was I saying? I didn’t know this man. I would never see him again. What difference could one-hundred dollars possibly make for him?
“I don’t love me money, Young Peter. Got no use for it. That train left the station a long time ago. Money is just one more of those threads. Besides, you delivered on your part of the deal, a meal for a story, and I thank you for it. I’ve got cancer, I do, lung cancer, too many Cuban cigars back in the day, and your money won’t be fixing that. If you’ll excuse me, now, I’ve got a game of checkers I’ve got to get to. Old Matthew, in the park, he gets him a bit cranky if I don’t show up for our weekly game.
“You take care, Young Peter. Look after those threads, or I’ll be seeing you in the park, someday, for a game of checkers. And, if you wouldn’t mind, leave a nice tip for Tilly. She’s had a rough row to hoe.”
And with a wave he was gone!
2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)