Fiction

Story: The Homeless Man & The Stranger

By: Travis Lee

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The homeless man spent his days on the street corner outside Wal-Mart, two messages on cardboard in front of him. One message identified his plight, the other explained who he had been in another, normal life.

Each day he brought a book. It was the only book he owned. Each day he read it from cover to cover.

He had just started his book when the stranger walked up.

“Is it any good?”

The homeless man looked up from his book. The stranger was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. The shirt was tucked neatly in his jeans, and it looked like he had just bought both.

“Pretty good.”

“Looks like you’ve had it for a while.”

“Yeah,” the homeless man said, running his finger along the creases, “cover here’s just about to give out.”

The stranger nodded, put his hands in his pockets. He looked to his left, where traffic waited for the lights to change. He looked to his right, where more traffic came to join them. Then he looked at the ground.

“Mind if I hang out here with you?”

“Well,” the homeless man said, “it ain’t like there’s a line.”

The stranger laughed. The sort of forced laughter the homeless man had heard in another, normal life. In his many months here, no one had spoken to him. A few had given him money — they’d do that. But speaking?

He thought of telling this to the stranger, and decided not to. If the stranger wasn’t going to give him money, then what did he want?

“How long have you been here?” the stranger asked, not taking his hands from his pockets.

“I’d say . . . several months now.”

“Are you from around here?”

“I am. I am from around here.”

“What happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, to make you homeless. Can I ask that? Can I ask how you ended up this way?”

The homeless man pointed to the messages.

“That’s interesting,” the stranger said.

“Interesting.”

“Yes. I mean, I knew people had it tough, but man, I had no clue.”

“What do you want?”

It seemed a fair question. Because if the stranger didn’t plan on giving him change, then that meant he wanted something. And the homeless man didn’t have much to give.

“I got some news yesterday.” The stranger took one hand out of his pocket and laid it atop the other. “I’m dying this Friday.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m dying this Friday.” He sighed. “There’s one good thing. The more you say it, the easier it is to say.” He let out another sigh, then, “I’m dying this Friday.”

“How come? Are you sick?”

The stranger shook his head.

“Then what is it?”

“The machine told me so.”

Now the homeless man realized it didn’t matter what the stranger wanted. He probably didn’t want anything. He was a loon, a step or two from being right here beside the homeless man himself. But at least the homeless man had his book. This guy though, he’d be one of those types ranting to an invisible audience in a language not even he could understand.

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

“I didn’t say that,” the homeless man said.

“Do you want to hear about it?”

The homeless man looked to his right. A new group of traffic was waiting for the lights to change. As he turned to his left, the glare from a bumper flashed across his eyes, leaving a long purple lump that turned green when he blinked.

“Well,” the homeless man said. He lowered his book, but did not let it go. “I got me some time. You said something about a machine?”

“It’s a very peculiar machine,” the stranger said. “I saw it the other day.”

“Why?”

“I was at the doctor’s office, getting a routine check-up, when the doctor asked me if I wanted to be a test subject for this new machine. What it does is, it takes a blood sample, and then tells you the day you’re going to die.”

The homeless man watched one of the stranger’s hands tap the other.

“They plan on rolling it out next month to twenty select cities. Later, they will introduce it for mass market consumption.”

“You in business?”

The stranger laughed that same forced laugh. “That I am, my friend, that I am. How could you tell? The stick up my ass?”

The homeless man smiled a bit. He smiled often to what happened in the book — in there was plenty to smile about. Out here though . . .

“I got an ear for you sort of people.”

“You spend long enough in my field, you can’t hear like a normal person anymore.” The stranger looked off somewhere, shaking his head. “Anyhow, this machine. I told the doctor yes, I’d love to. They were offering one hundred dollars. Did I mention that?”

The homeless man shook his head.

“One hundred dollars. I clear that times a thousand annually.” He pulled his other hand out of his pocket and started rubbing it. “God. What the hell was I thinking?”

“How are you gonna die?”

“It said naked. Isn’t that weird? The only other real information I have is the date I will die, which is this Friday.”

“What day is it now?”

“Tuesday, no, Monday. I think.” He was quiet for a moment. “No, Monday. It’s Monday. Do you think so?”

“Yeah.”

“Me too.”

“Monday’s got a certain feel to them.”

“They do, they do.”

“Friday’s too.”

“You got that right, partner. You know, I live very close by. I come to this Wal-Mart all the time, but I never really noticed you until today and I figured, what the hell, why not talk to the bum? See what it’s like. I mean, I’m dying anyway, right? So why the hell not?”

He laughed his forced laughter.

“Funny. I was thinkin you were gonna give me some money.”

“You were thinking that?”

“I was, I was. Course, that tends to be why most people come up to me.”

“How much do you make in one day?”

“Sometimes none, sometimes a little.”

“Yes, but what is the most you have ever received in one day?”

“A little.”

The stranger’s forced laughter sounded weaker than before. Each time he laughed, his face never lost that serious look. As if he had been doing this so long, it had become second nature.

“How do you feel right now?” the homeless man asked.

“Other than hot, I actually feel pretty good. How about you?”

“Can’t complain. Been here awhile, ain’t nobody run me off yet.”

“Yes.” His hands returned to his pockets. Behind him, a dual-exhaust truck went rumbling down the road and took the turn without slowing. “So, how about family? Do you even have family?”

“I had a brother.”

“Had? What happened?”

“He died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not.”

The stranger’s face readied for that forced laughter and at the last second he met the homeless man’s eyes and his laughter sputtered off, dying before it could begin.

“Any kids?” the stranger asked.

“Nope. Never wanted em.”

“Wife?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, I see. Never wanted one, huh?”

The homeless man stared at him.

“That was supposed to be a joke. I — oh, I’m sorry.”

The homeless man shrugged. He lifted his book a little ways.

“You see, I have kids. Had kids. One kid. A son.”

The book tilted. “A son?”

“Yessir. One son.”

“And what happened to this one son of yours?”

“He’s out there somewhere. Last I heard, he was in college. That was five years ago.”

“Last you heard,” the homeless man said. Unable to help himself, he asked, “You talk to him?”

“I do not.”

“When’s the last time you talked to him?”

“When he was a baby. Does that count?”

“No, it don’t count. Babies can’t talk back.”

“Yeah,” the stranger said, sliding one foot back and forth. “I didn’t think so either.”

The homeless man dog-eared the page and laid the book in his lap.

“How come you don’t see him?”

“Well, when he was a baby, his mother left me. Took him with her, and they’ve sort of been gone ever since.”

“You don’t know where they went to?”

“No clue.”

“You never tried to track them down or somethin?”

“Hey, I had to work,” the stranger said, pulling both hands from his pockets. “My job is very important. Without me, that company would fail. I’m the fucking lynchpin, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Jesus, it’s just not that easy.”

“Do you smoke?”

The stranger scrambled around, like he’d just been sprayed with a hose. “Excuse me?”

“Do you smoke? You look like the kinda guy who does. No offense.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes, I mean. I have one occasionally.”

“Well do you have one now?”

“Not on me.”

“Well why don’t you go on to the gas station right there and buy us a pack and then come back here and we can talk some more.”

The gas station was the little pavilion common to all Wal-Marts, formerly exclusive to Super Wal-Marts, until Super Wal-Mart became just a regular Wal-Mart. The homeless man remembered when this Wal-Mart had been Super, in another, normal life.

The stranger returned with a carton of Marlboro Reds. Not the brand the homeless man had smoked in another, normal life, but it would have to do.

The stranger struggled to open the carton, and struggled even more to open the pack.

“You can tell that I don’t do this often.”

“Here.” The homeless man took the pack and removed the wrapping with his teeth. He put one in his mouth and handed one to the stranger. “How about a light?”

The stranger did have a light. A gold lighter with a diamond in the middle. A nice piece for all those fancy meetings, to impress whoever kept track of such things. The homeless man figured it was expensive. It’d fetch a high price, to the right asshole.

The stranger lit their cigarettes and blew a smoke cloud at the new set of traffic waiting at the lights.

“God. Where were we?”

“Somethin about a son.”

“Yeah. My son.”

“You even know his name?”

“Of course I know his name. What sort of question is that?”

“No need to get all wound up. You’ve not seen him since he was a baby, so it’s a normal question to be askin.”

“Yes, I do know his name, thank you very much. Things aren’t that bad.”

“He know yours?”

The stranger took a long drag.

“I don’t know what his mother’s told him,” the stranger said. “God only knows what he thinks about me.”

“You think she’s the bitter type?”

“She is the bitter type. She’s a straight-up bitch, one of the big reasons I could not stay married to her.”

“That the reason you couldn’t see your kid?”

“No, I . . . it’s just hard, you know?”

“You ever known anything about him?”

“Didn’t I tell you this already?” The stranger finished his cigarette, stomped out the butt. He quickly lit another. “Last I heard, he was in college. There. Anything else?”

“How’d you hear he was in college?”

“From my mother.”

The homeless man took a long drag, the flame burning halfway down. The stranger was about done with his second cigarette, his other hand priming the third.

“Your mother talks to him?”

“No. Not exactly.”

The homeless man waited until the stranger had lit his third cigarette. Then he asked, “So what happened?”

The stranger let out a large smoke cloud, his words right behind it. “That ex-wife of mine went to my mother. She dropped by one day, completely unannounced, and told my mother things about my son. Showed her a picture, went on about how perfect he is, and all that shit.” He flicked his ashes. “And . . . we talked.”

“You were there for it?”

“On the phone.”

“Oh,” the homeless man said. Money or not, loon or not, this was shaping up to be interesting. And when each and every day was a slow day, any company was welcome, even that of men like the stranger.

“My mother explained what was going on, I told my wife how I feel, and we . . . we had a disagreement.”

“About what?”

“About everything. We always disagreed on everything. She could never shut up, that was one thing about her. All she ever did was go on and on, never shutting up about anything.” He finished this cigarette, held number four but did not light it. “Actually though . . . ” He locked eyes with the homeless man. “I’m dying in a few days, so what does it matter? Do you want to know the truth?

“Truth is, my ex-wife did not say a word to me. As soon as she picked up the phone, I let her know how I feel. I told her, I said, ‘I didn’t know him then, I don’t know him now, and even if I wanted to get to know him, I don’t have time to get to know him’.”

They were both quiet for a moment.

“At some point,” the stranger said, “she hung up on me.”

The homeless man stomped out his cigarette.

“So,” the stranger said, “she may not have heard the whole thing.”

The stranger lit another cigarette.

#

“Yeah,” the stranger said after a few minutes. “There it is.”

The homeless man had not lit another cigarette. He kept it between his thumbs, stroking one side at a time. He doubted seriously that the stranger was going to give him any money. The stranger was a loon, that was beyond question, but what else did the homeless man have to do? Nothing had interested him this much since the book.

“What’d you tell her that for?” the homeless man asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Yes.” He made some hollow sound, like failed laughter. “I’m just so busy these days. My company really needs me.”

“What’s that got to do with your son?”

“It would take a lot of time to know the son you have never met,” the stranger said. “I like to look at it this way: he is a stranger, a stranger who just happens to share some DNA with me.”

“So you don’t want to meet him?”

“It’s not quite that either,” the stranger said, finishing this cigarette and lighting another. Counting the dead cigarette butts around his feet, that made five. The homeless man still hadn’t started his second one.

“It’s weird. When that machine told me I am going to die this Friday, time seemed to stop. It was like I was standing in front of a table, with everything I’ve ever done laid out on it.” He took a long drag. “It was not a pretty sight. I mean, I’ve done a lot of good things in my life, don’t get me wrong. Did you know that I was the Master Bread Winner for Madison County, three years in a row?”

“What the hell’s that?”

“Master Bread Winner,” the stranger said, like it was self-explanatory. “Master. Bread Winner.” He gave up with a short sigh. “I made the most sales.”

“So you were the top seller then.”

“Sure, if you’d like.”

“Then why not just say top seller?”

“Because that’s not what it says on my plaque.”

The homeless man lifted his cigarette to his lips with his thumbs. He caught the lighter, lit and then threw it back to the stranger, who was just about done with number five.

“Knowing you’re going to die though,” the stranger said. “As our President says, it’s a game-changer.” The forced laughter came, it went. The homeless man didn’t even crack a smile. It was so hard to smile if you didn’t feel like it, especially when someone else wanted you to.

“Might that machine be wrong?”

“Don’t you think I’ve thought of that already? I don’t think it’s wrong.”

“Why? You said it’s some kind of an experiment.”

“I . . . it’s not wrong. I die this Friday. I know that.”

“You do,” the homeless man said. He took a puff. Cigarettes were good, but chew was better. “Do you ever — “

“Do you think I should contact my son?”

The stranger’s question plowed over the homeless man’s own. He left the pieces alone for a moment, and said, “Sure. What can it hurt?”

“But I’ve never talked to him before.”

“You gotta start somewhere. Now, do you ever — “

“Gotta start somewhere,” the stranger said, shaking his head. “Oh yes. Start somewhere. Hi son, fuck you Dad. Is that a good starting place? What do you think?”

He took one last drag, crushed the butt and fished out number six.

“You’re going to die on Friday,” the homeless man said.

The stranger was lighting a new cigarette. “True, I’m a dead man come Friday.”

“So why don’t you just pick up the phone and give him a call?”

“I don’t know his number.”

“Well, there’s gotta be other ways of contactin people. Think about it while you go get me some chew.”

The stranger gave him a confused look. “Chew?”

“Chew. Chewin tobacco. You know what that is, don’t you?”

“Yes, but I don’t see why I must go buy it for you.”

The homeless man turned to look at the gas pavilion. Always a bunch of cars, always a line. “They been lettin me set here for a while now. I’m thinkin they pretend not to notice me. I’m also thinkin if I go over there, then they will, and that ain’t good.”

“Fine,” the stranger said, starting off.

“Hang on.”

“What?”

“What about your smoke?”

“What about it?”

“You can’t go over to the gas tanks with a cigarette in your hand. Jesus son.”

The stranger exchanged glances between the cigarette and the gas pavilion. “But I’m not even halfway done with this.”

“Then finish the damn thing, then go.”

The stranger took a few more puffs, and then crushed the butt and went to the pavilion. When he returned, he had a box of Skoal.

“I hope you like it,” the stranger said. “The clerk said it is the most superior brand.”

The stranger kept his distance as he handed the box to the homeless man. The homeless man had never seen a man’s arm stretch so far before. He set the box aside.

“Okay, now back to this son of yours.”

“Son I’ve never met.”

“Son you never met. Let me ask a question here. Do you know your father?”

The stranger was quiet for a while. Then he grabbed a fresh cigarette and said, “No.”

“Did you ever meet him?”

“Once.”

“Yeah? And what was that like?”

The stranger was trying to light his cigarette. No flame erupted from the lighter. He flung his arms up, rubbing his thumb along his pants.

“It was bad, okay? Very bad.”

“You think it’ll be bad with your son?”

“You know,” the stranger said, trying to light the cigarette again, “it won’t exactly be a warm reunion. You know what I mean?”

At last, he got the cigarette lit.

“Look at it this way,” the homeless man said. “What have you got to lose now?”

“I have looked at it that way,” the stranger said. “And you know what? It’s no help at all.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Let’s say I do meet him, and it goes well. Then what? Then I’m still dead in a few days.”

“But at least you’ll die knowin your son.”

“What if it doesn’t go well though? Have you thought of that? Let’s say I meet him, it goes badly, I mean me and my old man badly, then what? I know, I know, I’ll die knowin my son, knowing that he hates me. That’s . . . I just can’t imagine that. You know?”

The homeless man, who had been fortunate enough to know his old man in another, normal life, kept quiet.

“That’s not the worst part though,” the stranger said.

“What I don’t get,” the homeless man said, finishing his cigarette and taking out another, “is why you think he hates you so much.”

“Isn’t it obvious? I left him.”

“But he was a baby. Your wife might be fillin his head with shit, but . . . there’s somethin you’re not tellin me. I can tell.”

“You’re sharp, I’ll give you that,” the stranger said. He flicked his cigarette. Some ashes fell on his shoe. An expensive, leather shoe. The kind that would fetch a high price.

“So what is it?” the homeless man said, mostly to the stranger’s high-priced shoes.

“I signed away my parental rights to him,” the stranger said. “Or, I gave him up for adoption, however you want to look at it. It amounts to the same thing, I suppose: I abandoned him.” The stranger flinched, pointing with the cigarette at the homeless man. “What? What is it? Don’t give me that. I had no choice in the matter. No choice, do you hear me? That bitch gave me no choice at all. She’d already left me for someone who could pay her fucking rent. I could hardly see him at all, and he was just a baby, so when she called me up with her little idea of letting her new bill-payer give him his last name . . . what the hell was I supposed to do? Keep going like that?”

The homeless man nodded slowly. “I can see your point.”

“I mean, shit, look. It’s not like I didn’t love him. I did. He was my son. But she was keeping me from seeing him. If I hadn’t signed that form on that day, you know what would have happened? I’ll tell you. If I hadn’t signed that form, a day would have come when I couldn’t see him at all, form or no form. She was determined to stop me from seeing him, come hell or high water. So I ask you, I ask you plainly, what the hell was I supposed to do?”

“You can get some water,” the homeless man said.

“What?”

“You’re sweatin. It’s hot out. Go on. Get us some water.”

#

The stranger returned with four bottles of water. He gulped down one, started uncapping another.

“Easy does it,” the homeless man said. “Drink that too fast, you’ll get one hell of a headache.”

“Gee, thanks,” the stranger said, sipping from the second bottle. He returned to his spot. “Aren’t you going to drink any?”

“I will, here in a sec.” He lit another cigarette. He had smoked a pack of these a day, in another, normal life. He blew out a thin cloud. “Am I to take it then that your son’s got a different last name?”

“He has a different name period. I bet they changed his name. Sounds like something she’d do.”

“But I thought you said you know his name.”

“I kind of do.”

“Kind of do? What the hell’s that mean? Either you know his name or you don’t.”

“When she came and visited my mother, she told my mother his first name. I knew the last name of the husband who adopted him — they’re divorced by the way. Did you know that? Of course not. But now you do. They’re divorced.”

The homeless man took a drag.

“Isn’t that great?”

He blew a cloud at the stranger’s leather shoes. Spotless, even out here.

“Yeah, but anyways, so I knew two names, and I kind of put two and two together. Or in this case, one and one together.” He laughed that forced laughter. He sounded like a man who didn’t know how to laugh and was trying to learn.

“You know where he lives?” the homeless man asked.

The stranger shrugged. “Pull out a map of the United States, point somewhere. It’s as good a method as any.”

“Then . . . ” The homeless man hummed. He hadn’t figured on getting so deep into the stranger’s problem. God knew he had enough problems of his own. He hummed again. “Well shit. What do you figure?”

“Well, there is a way to contact him. I guess.”

When the stranger said nothing further, the homeless man said, “Well go on. What is it?”

“It’s not a new way,” the stranger said. “At least not for me. I was the first at my company to adopt it. In truth, I was the first to recognize its importance, its usefulness as a strategic business model.

“My son is on Facebook.”

The name rattled something in the homeless man, something from another, normal life.

“Do you know what that is? Face-book.”

“I know of it,” the homeless man said. “It connects people, or somethin.”

“It’s good for business,” the stranger said dismissively. “Anyways, so he’s on there. I can type his name into Search and see his profile. Profile. Do you know what that is? His picture’s all I can see. To see more I’d have to be friends with him. Friends. Jesus, friends. I haven’t even been his father.”

He warped his mouth like he was going for more of that forced laughter. But his mouth was as dry as the air. He took a long, lingering puff, crushed the butt and set about lighting the next one.

“You can . . . contact him this way?”

“Yessiree,” the stranger said, lighting the new cigarette on his first try. He shuffled his feet around, and the homeless man noticed how the leather caught the sunlight without leaving a messy glare. “I can send him a message.”

“You can. You can send him a message.”

“And he can block me. Then what? Then I die, with my son having blocked me.”

“But at least you contacted him.”

“At least, at least,” the stranger said. “What good is contacting him if it just harms me? If I weren’t dying this Friday, then I might be more open to it.”

“Let me ask you somethin,” the homeless man said, crushing his cigarette butt. “When did you find your son on this face book?”

“A little while ago.”

“How long?”

“I told you. A little while ago.”

“A month, a year? Spit it out.”

The stranger flinched. “About seventh months, something like that.”

“And what did you do when you found him?”

“What do you mean? If I had done something, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. I saw his picture, cried a little bit, remembered what his bitch of a mother did to me, and then I went on with my life and never looked at it again, until yesterday.

“The news that I was going to die this Friday did not fully sink in until I was back home. You should see my house. It’s a big, four-bedroom home, with a basement, garage, everything. I bought it after the first time I was Master Bread Winner, a little treat for myself. Paid cash. Thought maybe I’d start a family again someday. Man my age, starting a family, but anyways, first thing I did was sit on my couch and turn on Fox News. Then I went to my liquor cabinet, got the big handle of Jack that I’ve been working on for the past year, and I started drinking. I drank until I woke up with puke all over my shirt.

“Somewhere in between, I had gone to Facebook. My laptop was sitting right there on the coffee table in the living room, and Firefox was open. It was open to my son’s Facebook page.”

“I like Jack too,” the homeless man said, remembering his own bottles, in another, normal life.

“Like I always say, if you are going to drink something that kills brain cells, why not drink the best?”

“You got that right.”

“Yep. But anyways, there was my son’s Facebook page.”

“What’d you do next?”

“Well I didn’t contact him, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“It ain’t.” Behind the stranger two identical cars passed each other. Out here long enough, all cars began to look the same.

“I took two aspirin with water, had my breakfast, and then I stood out on the back porch, drinking coffee to clear my head. That’s what I did next.”

The homeless man and the stranger finished their cigarettes at the same time. The stranger lit a new one, while the homeless man placed his hands in his lap. He had lost track of how many that made for the stranger. Smoking cigarettes was just one of those things it was so easy to lose track of.

“So, do you think I should reach out to him?”

“You mean contact him?”

“Of course. What else do I mean?”

The homeless man appeared think about it. But what he was really doing was admiring the stranger’s shoes. He had never seen a pair that looked so good. Where’d you get them? Not Wal-Mart, that’s for sure.

“I think,” the homeless man said, “that it won’t hurt nothin.”

The stranger sighed. “I already told you — “

“I know what you told me. I ain’t deaf.”

“Then why do you keep repeating yourself?” The stranger flung his arms out, launching the cigarette several paces away. It landed in the middle of the turn-in, where it lay burning away to ash.

The stranger reached for another, then rubbed his face with both hands.

“I did something else this morning,” he said, his voice a low whisper from beneath his hands. “Do you want to know?”

“Course.”

“Okay.” His hands found his pockets again. “I took my coffee back inside. My laptop was still open to my son’s Facebook page, where all you can see is the picture. First thing I did was check the time: I was late for work. Over an hour late. You don’t understand, I’ve never been late before. I’m always there early. My mother had a saying. She used to tell me that if you’re on time, you’re already ten minutes late. I’m always in that office ten minutes early. Winners are always early.

“Anyways, I was still messed up from the hangover and the death machine, so I decided to just call in. Then I quickly decided not to call in — what’s worse than showing up late? Calling in. On the phone. No, I do my business in person, thank you very much. I decided that tomorrow when I go to work, I’ll explain everything to my boss’s face. He appreciates that.

“So I make that decision, then I click to my profile. Mostly on my wall there’s game requests along with my statuses. I like to put inspirational, growth-oriented quotes on my Facebook profile. I have a list of quotes on my desktop, anyways, as I was looking for a quote to post, I had this weird sort of tingling in my head. I thought, no, surely not. You didn’t do that. You didn’t.

“As the hangover wore off, and my head cleared, I thought yes, I sure did, didn’t I? What a dumbass. I wasn’t entirely sure, so I clicked to my messages, then I clicked to Sent Messages, and sure as shit, there it was.” He shook his head.

The homeless man had trouble following the specifics, but he got the gist of it. Still, he asked, “There what was?”

“A message. Sent last night. To my son.”

The homeless man lit a fresh cigarette. “What kind of message did you send?”

“Like I know. Soon as I saw his name in the recipient box, I closed my laptop, took a shower and then left the house. I just had to get out of there. Being in the same room with that laptop, there’s just no fucking way man.”

“You ain’t been back?”

“No. I got in my car and rode around. Came out here, saw you and figured I’d come over and chat.”

“About your son?”

“About anything. I wasn’t even thinking about my son until we started talking.”

The stranger was quiet, taking small drags from his cigarette. The homeless man spent a good minute admiring his shoes, then sensing his chance, he spoke up.

“How much you gave for them shoes?”

“What? These?” The stranger looked down, shook his head and uttered some of that forced laughter. “Wow. Must’ve just slipped em right back on.”

“How much you give for em?”

“Five hundred bucks,” he said. “Though they can and more often than not do run about a thousand. Luckily, I knew the guy who owned the store. I reached out to him, and he agreed to lower the price.”

The homeless man lifted his cigarette. Five hundred bucks was good. A thousand was better. A thousand was more money than he’d ever seen, except in another, normal life.

“You know,” the stranger said. “It’s kind of funny. If they could see how far I have come, but, you know, they can’t. They don’t know what all I have accomplished.”

“Why don’t you tell him?”

“My son? Like the bitch would let me. God, can you imagine what she’s told him about me?” He lit another cigarette. “Evil man, didn’t want you, that sort of thing. You know what, I bet you that’s exactly how she put it. It’s right up her alley.”

“Maybe you told him in that message.”

“May-be. I don’t know. It’s weird. I can sort of remember sending the message, but writing it, I got nothing. Isn’t that weird?”

The homeless man, who had drunk quite a bit in another, normal life, thought that it was not weird at all but kept this to himself.

“So you could sell them shoes for a thousand?” the homeless man said.

“Sure,” said the stranger. “I take good care of them too. I take good care of all my things, if you must know. My house is always spotless, my car is shiny, my clothes well-pressed. First impressions are everything, especially in my profession, and what is the key component to a sharp first impression?”

The homeless man waited for him to answer.

“A . . . ” The stranger was twirling his hand, trying to raise an answer from the homeless man. “A good . . . make that, a sharp look. You know those people who say looks don’t matter? Well don’t believe them. Because they do matter. I’m living proof.”

The homeless man flicked some ash into the curb. He looked out past it, watching the traffic cross in opposite directions until the lights switched on and another group of traffic turned. It wasn’t his imagination. Long enough out here, and they really all did look the same.

“I bet you’re thinking I’m a real asshole,” the stranger said.

“I’m thinkin about lots of things.”

“Well I’m not, if you are indeed thinking of me as such. I do what I feel is right. I always have, always will. On my tombstone, I want it to read ‘Always did what he thought was right’. Let it serve as an example to others, you know?”

“You planned for that yet?”

“What? An engraving on my tombstone?” He squawked out that fake, empty laughter. “Not in the past sixteen hours, no.”

“I mean your funeral.”

“Well you plan for both at the same time, and no, to answer your question, no, I have not planned for it. Come to think it, I will. Any ideas as to what I should tell the funeral parlor?”

“What you told me’s fine.”

The stranger rocked back and forth in rhythm with his laughs, which were something closer to grunts.

“A machine of death? I cannot begin to fathom what they might say to that.”

“You got some proof?”

The stranger lit up. “I do. I do have some proof.”

“Show em the proof then.”

“Yes, I might. I just might. You know, Friday is not far away.”

“Monday ain’t far either.”

“Right.”

“I think no day’s really far. It just seems that way.”

“We all have to die someday,” the stranger said quietly.

“It ain’t far off.”

“It just seems that way,” the stranger said, dropping the cigarette and stomping it out. “I wonder . . . “

“You ain’t gonna talk to your son, are you?”

“Technically, I already did.”

“Technically, you ain’t done shit. You used a computer to send a message you don’t remember even sending, and then you run from your house. Are you even gonna look at the message?”

“To be honest, I don’t see the point.”

“You could look up his number. Give him a call.”

“I don’t see the point in that either,” the stranger said. “If he were a baby, or if I were younger, or in many different scenarios, I’d . . . I’d definitely consider it.”

“Yeah, I’d do that too.”

“Yes.” The stranger patted his pockets. “Would I go back and do it differently, if I could?”

“You can’t.”

“Yes, but if I could?”

“But you can’t. That’s the point.”

“We’re pretending here,” the stranger said slowly, as if he were talking to a child. “Pretend that I can go back and do it again. Would I do it differently?”

He held onto the question for a while.

“With what I’ve been able to accomplish, why would I? It’s true, I don’t have time to get to know him. I didn’t then, when I was building my company up from the bottom, and I sure don’t now. If I could go back and do it again, man, what a question.”

“You can’t.”

“No,” the stranger said quietly. “I can’t.”

“So what’re you gonna do now?”

“Go ride around some more. Buy some stuff I need, get my car all cleaned up. I don’t want them to find a messy car. A sharp appearance merits a sharp first impression. I defy anyone to tell me different.”

“So that’s it then.”

“Yes, I suppose it is. Could I have a pack of cigarettes?”

The homeless man threw him the carton.

“I said a pack, not . . . ” He shrugged. “Hey, sure. Why not, right? What about the chew?”

“That’s my chew.”

The stranger nodded. “Sure thing.” He held out his hand. “It was good talking to you.”

The homeless man took it briefly.

“Well, goodbye,” the stranger said.

He turned to go.

“Hey hang on a sec.”

“Yes?”

“How about them shoes?”

“My shoes? What about them?”

“Give em to me.”

“My shoes? Give them to you?” He looked down at his shoes, then shrugged. “Hey. Why the fuck not?” He slipped off each shoe and then tossed them to the homeless man.

“There ya go. Have fun, chief.”

The stranger left.

And the homeless man held each shoe close, sniffed them. They smelled clean, like the places he’d known in another, normal life. Ahead of him, traffic filled the turning lane, waited, and then took a short curve onto the new road.

 

THE END

 

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