Today’s story comes from a different time. A time that may yet come again. One of simplicity and calm. A piece of fiction (or is it?) holding my reality together. An anchor, if you will…
Thanks for listening!
The Raggedy Beggar
Perhaps back then, in the blissful days of our fleeting youth, our story might have begun something like this:
“My two friends and I walked down a familiar street of the backwater piece of paradise we called our home…”.
Looking back now, for better or worse, the above would be inaccurate, to say the least. Not because we no longer consider the small provincial town a home. It has been the catalyst for many of our stories. I doubt that will ever change, regardless of where we end up in years to come. Rather, we could no longer be defined by just the vague notion of friendship. We have each, in turn, expanded beyond that simple spectrum and into a different role — a mother, a husband, an adult.
The three of us made our way through the myriad of streets, across the empty plaza, and into the old marketplace. A lone pastry shop stood open, defiant against the encroaching dusk. Being in the mood for a quick snack, we decided to stop and see what was on the shelves at this hour. The woman working the sugar-dough was more than happy to oblige by presenting us with a variety of cakes, sweets and all manner of mouthwatering goodness.
She did so in an earnest, pushy way — the kind you would expect from a stock broker looking to close — interspersed with genuine enthusiasm at the prospect of someone appreciating her creations.
We each grabbed a soda can along with a sweet snack of choice. His was a standard chocolate-coated waffle. She decided on a pack of sour-sugar gummy bears, while I settled for the strawberry-filled croissant.
My two companions sat down on the creaking boards which marked the remnants of a bench. Cross-legged and at an awkward distance from each other. Not quite apart, but in no case as close as they had used to either. I rested my back against the street lamp pole and casually glanced over the surrounding streets.
As we munched on, engrossed in reminiscing about the paths we’ve went down, the choices we’ve made, a calming sense of peace began to descend upon the few square meters of sidewalk around the pastry-shop. This dome of sheer tranquility was no unfamiliar phenomenon. Many a time we have taken shelter within its timeless enclosure. It is never large — nothing grandiose — nor does it persist for more than a few brief moments. Somehow, these qualities never seemed to bother those who were lucky enough to find themselves beneath it. We never complained. We took what we could, for as long as it lasted, and then went back to the ordeals of the world which lay without.
The breeze from across the river had picked up and was steadily turning into a slicing howl. She shivered, ever so slightly. He undid his jacket, without a second though, and with one gentle, fluid motion, placed it around her shoulders.
“There we go,” he said. “Wouldn’t want you catching a cold in this dreadful weather now, would we? Besides, your mum will have our heads if we brought you home sick after just one stroll.”
“Thank you.” she replied, the beginnings of a smile visible upon her dimpled cheeks. She closed her eyes and pulled the jacket a little tighter around her.
“It is getting rather chilly,” I joined in. “Reckon we should head home before it gets worse?”
They looked at each other and nodded agreement. She jumped off the bench with renewed vigor while I offered my friend a hand.
“Shall we dance?”
“I thought you’d never ask, darling.” he replied with a grin, grabbing hold of my arm and pulling himself up to his feet.
We turned to leave the marketplace when the woman from the shop stepped out through the door with a small plastic box in her hands and made her way to our bench.
“You seem like a fine lot, the way you smile when you look at each other,” she remarked. “Here, have this little something for dessert. On the house!”
She handed us a fruit cake, blanketed in whipped cream and topped with transparent jell-o, under which were all the fruits you would expect and even some we could not name.
As we began to thank the shop-lady for her gift, a raggedy old man turned the corner and stopped by one of the nearby waste bins. He stood there for a moment, hand on the rim of the bin, then began to shamble in our direction.
“Don’t mind him, kids.” said the woman dismissively.. “He’s just a crazy, homeless, old owl. Always prowling around the trash, looking for scraps.”
“Does he cause any trouble?” my friend asked.
“Not that I know of… He does scare some of the customers away just by his looks. You kids take care, alright?” After which she turned and went back into the shop.
Once the old man got close enough, we saw what made the woman so uncomfortable about him being here. The clothes on his back bore the stains of gutter filth. A once white shirt now had more resemblance to a used floor mop. His ripped jeans — soiled; With mismatched shoes, he stopped a few feet from us without saying a word. Shoulders rolled down and his entire frame slack, as if suspended by some invisible puppeteer’s strings. His tangled mess of dreadlocks indistinguishable from his matted beard. The only thing darker than the man’s hands were his fingernails — pitch black from all the shit and dirt he was undoubtedly forced to dig through every single day.
Most disturbing of all, however, were the beggar’s eyes. Those blue pools, hidden beneath a low brow. There was no sign of lunacy in those pristine sapphires. In the final steps of his approach he seemed to be looking straight through us.
It took us by surprise to realize that the man was indeed not focused on us at all. His gaze had been on the box the shop-lady had given us all along.
This raggedy man appeared to sense our newfound understanding, for he lifted his head, up to the point where his sight was in line with ours. And then, he smiled.
“Here you go sir, have some, please!” she said.
“Yes mister, there’s plenty.” my friend and I added.
The old man reached out, hesitantly at first, and then slowly took the box in his hands, accepting the gift, looking down at it as if it were a child.
We decided that this was our cue and turned, once again, toward the marketplace’s exit. That is when we heard a low, rumbling laugh coming from behind.
“You know kids,” coughed the raggedy beggar. “I might be a little mad, you see, but I know I am as happy as I ever was…”
We turned to face the old man as he continued his confession, his eyes gleaming: “… because in my world, there are no half-truths. No masks. I see people for what they truly are. The good and the bad. Those who depart, and those with…”
He fell silent and lowered his head, still smiling, as his hand touched his chest.
The dome lifted.