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message 1: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Pearl Hi, Everyone. This is a short story I wrote recently. Let me know what you think. It's about 5,000 and has some profanity, in case either of those are deterrants for you. Thanks!

Bum


He's there every day now. Every fucking day. Saying the same words over and over again. Not just the same street, the same side of the same street. At the same time. Every day. And I've never made it on a green light, oh no, that would be too easy. I've hit the red every time at that corner and had to watch him pass by my car, saying those same words, rattling that same cup. The clothes change and, oddly, so does the sign. But it's not the things that change that matter. What matters is the things that don't. Every day, the “Drive save, God bless.” He doesn't just say it to every car, he repeats it constantly, to no one in particular, hitting some cars twice, some none at all, and random spots in between cars more often than not. If he had any amount of intelligence he'd either switch sides of the road or go to a different street. We're all commuters. He's hitting up the same goddamned people every day. Sometimes I picture myself getting out of the car and lecturing him on intelligent business practices. Or stealing the jacket he keeps draped across the wrought iron gate on the corner, which is probably private property anyway.

Construction is supposed to last for ten weeks and so far five have gone by. This is the best detour I have around it to get home. Week one, I came to the street the first time and I stopped at the light and I was just surprised to see him there. He's older and skinny and has these thin lips that wrap around his teeth. Come to think he's probably just toothless. When I saw him with his handwritten, “homeless please help” sign and heard him telling everyone to drive safe and asking the Lord to bless them, I was intrigued. He didn't look like a typical bum and he didn't sound like one. His clothes were cheap but clean and he spoke kindly to everyone, even those who didn't give him money. He waved at us as we approached from the previous light, like a shop owner from a 1950s sitcom, welcoming us to his corner.

He surprised me again the second day I took the new route. I shouldn't have been shocked, though, I thought. This is probably a lucrative place and time with all these commuters. He passed by me, and, without looking in my car, told me to drive safely and asked for God to bless me. The light turned green and I drove on, thinking the next time I saw him I'd have to give him some change. I always have some rolling around in my car from drive-thru runs, and while I like to save them up until I have enough to purchase a shake, I didn't need them nearly as badly as him.

He's there the next day, saying the same thing. This man must be a great human being, I thought. In three days, I hadn't seen anyone give him a penny and still he managed to wish us all well. Here is what we should all aspire too. Here is the good humankind is capable of, the love we can show each other when we care enough to. I couldn't do what he does. I can't forgive a person who cuts me off in my lane or runs over my foot with their shopping cart. But this man is forgiving hundreds of people every day who pass him by with barely an awkward glance, completely apathetic to his suffering. It's astounding. We should be taught by men like these, who everyday go to menial work where they are constantly degraded by people like us in our cars but who still show a sunny face and a belief in the general good of man. I see in people only the opposite, the times where they can't fix the electricity for three days or cut me in line at the check-out counter. And here this man, I thought, beat down by this world to the lowest and most humiliating of positions, wishes us not only his blessings but the blessings of God. Where I probably tell more strangers silently to go to hell, he hopes out loud they all will find safety and happiness on earth.

Ashamed of myself, I decided to be more like him than the rest of these scumbags who have ignored him. I rolled down the window and held out a dollar bill and some change in my hand. He limped by and took it from me and said, “Thank you, thank you, God bless.” I nodded my head, magnanimous, and the light has turned green and so I drove on. I had a few more blocks to drive before I was home, and I'm humming along to the radio all the way there. I won't forget the lesson this man has shown me. I kissed Tina when I got home and both the kids and she is exasperated already because work was horrible and the kids have done something horrible, but nothing can bring my mood down. I went into their rooms and kissed them both at their computers and neither of them looked up at me. Then I went back downstairs and Tina is angry because I didn't punish them for whatever they did and we sat down to dinner then I watched TV while they used their computers and Tina cleaned up and I ignored the loud bangs she made with the dishes because she was acting like a child, wanting my help but refusing to ask for it. Then we all went to bed and they all left for work and school and then I left a few minutes later.


message 2: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Pearl I am in my early forties, and for nearly ten years I've been commuting to work in or from a city every morning and night. I've wrecked two cars while commuting and I've gotten in close calls because of other drivers probably hundreds of times. Every time these near accidents happen, I tell myself not to care. When someone cuts me off or tries to get around me using the shoulder, I grip the steering wheel harder and I follow them closely – too closely – for a few miles before it dies down and I realize I'm exactly the same as the rest of these highway people, who go home and tell their spouses about that idiot on the highway, then immediately forget about it once it is said out loud because no spouse could possibly feign that much interest in something, and we can see it on their faces that they don't care, that they're only listening because we happen to be talking, not because of any desire to hear. Tina usually nods and then tells me about her day and her own idiot on the highway. Then I help with dinner and think about all the other thousands of people who came home and talked about the same thing, and I tell myself next time I won't care about that idiot because he's not worth my time, and probably forgot the incident as soon as it was over. Which leaves me feeling like a girl who's been promised a phone call that will never come. Nothing can make you feel more like a drop, speck, sheep than waiting in traffic as a commuter.

For a few days, I leave work late and he is not there. But when I stopped at the corner his cups are there, upside down on top of the spikes of the wrought iron fence that borders the sidewalk. He has two cups, one from McDonald's and one from Wendy's. A McDonald's bag sits on the grass, underneath the fence. His sign is inside, which now reads “have a nice day please help.” He must get off at 6 or so, because it was 6:30 both nights and he was already gone. I wander what's to stop other bums from taking his things. I suppose empty cups and cardboard signs are not hot items, even in the homeless community. Probably anyone can get them. Still, I feel like I would be careful with them, if they were my only possessions.

Another guy is there later in the evening. I don't know if they have agreed upon their shifts, but he isn't nearly as friendly. He stood right at the corner and didn't move. I don't know how he expects to make money this way, only the person who stops right at the light would be able to give him anything. His sign was offensive, too. It said, “Jesus pennies please. No centos por favor.” Nonsense. He had neither the business acumen nor the universal friendliness of the other bum. And, based on that ridiculous sign, he didn't accept change. Like he was in a position to refuse anything. My first late night I was the second car back from the stoplight, so I didn't even get the chance to give him anything. The second night I was first, but still I gave him nothing.

Over the next week though, I saw my usual bum there every night, but I didn't have anything less than a five in my wallet, so I didn't give him anything. I even saw him over the weekend once, because I went into the city with my family. We'd come from the city, where we'd gone to the children's museum and a craft festival my wife wanted to go to. She's started making lamps and selling them online. People can send in pictures of their pets and she'll put them in the glass shades of the lamps that function as picture frames. She wanted to see how other sellers presented their items. I guess she thought she could do better than anyone we had seen, because she was in a good mood in the car and had spent the entire ride criticizing the other craft sellers. Truthfully, her lamps are some of the ugliest things I've ever seen and I think people want them are either A) crazy, B) getting them because they are niche, or C) buying them as joke gifts for unwitting family members and coworkers.

My wife saw him and said, “Oh, that's so sad. Don't give him anything. He'll only spend it on drinks.” I didn't think he would. He'd never given off the impression of being intoxicated, but I guess I've never gotten really close enough to tell. When I had given him the money he didn't bend over, so he was an arm's length away from me and higher up. He could be wasted for all I know. I didn't say anything, and I didn't give him any money. The kids didn't look up at him. They have tinted windows and they're too busy watching a movie in the back to notice anything else. So I didn't say anything about the bum, though I doubted she was right, and I judged her for having so little compassion. But when you're married there's no use picking a fight that could be over in a few minutes or last a few days, luck of the draw. I said nothing and stared straight ahead, pretending he wasn't there asking God to bless us.

“Oh, it's so nice. I just don't think the way to help them is by giving them money.”

For the next couple days I didn't have any money at all. I saw him everyday and most times my window was down because the weather was nice and he walked right by me. He knew I could hear him but he never stopped or tried to heckle me or anyone else individually. He just walked down the line of cars. No one was singled out, no one frowned at for ignoring him. This bum might be the first one I've ever encountered who doesn't seem bitter towards the people who ignore him.

Once I was taking the subway to a baseball game and I got stuck waiting for about 13 minutes for the next train. I had come in just as the previous one was leaving. There was a street performer there that day, and I was walking towards him to get to where the middle of the train would stop. Usually I enjoy hearing performers down in the stops. I love the sound of echoing music. It sounds more beautiful and ghostly when it comes back to you the second time. Fuller. Not so sharp. As I got closer, the lyrics of his song became clearer. He was singing about us, the people waiting for the train. How we heard him but refused to meet his eye, because we didn't want to give him money. He felt sorry for us, the people who felt so uncomfortable, so ashamed by their own decision to ignore him. The song had a spotlight effect on all of us; whoever was closest to him was singled out and watched by the others on the platform. None of them had given him money, and they all watched carefully to make sure no one else did either. I walked by him and looked at everything else – bricks, baggage on the ground, a place where someone had spit – anything so I didn't have to look him in the eye as I passed without leaving any money. He was right. And I'm sure he made very little money for it. I went and stood with the others, far away from him. Probably when he saw bums he passed them just like we all did. He was probably no different than us, we knew, and certainly not better. We train people all took collective solace in that fact.

Friday was a long day. One of the kids was sick the night before and my wife had me stay up checking temperatures and cleaning up vomit and giving medicine because she had a craft show the next day for which she was unprepared. I was tired all day and my boss brought me into his office and told me he thought I had been slacking at my job. He gave me a list of all the mistakes I had made in the past month to review and pin near my desk as a reminder. I'm not sure if this was supposed to fear me into improvement, but it didn't. I spent the rest of the day at my computer, pretending my eyes were open when they really weren't and looking at celebrity gossip and pictures of the sexiest women alive.

When I got the stoplight, I was third in line. He started coming towards me, limping and bending over slightly, which made him seem all the more sympathetic. He had a kind face that looked like he had some sort of mental disability. He wore a hat that made him look like a cabbie.

The persistence this took, to come everyday and smile. Almost arrogance. I didn't want a blessing today, I just wanted to go home. I started to tense up as he passed the second car and came my way. I cranked up the radio station. I gave him some money reluctantly, mostly because I had extra change and I thought it might shut him up saying those same stupid words. He doesn't even know me, and he doesn't recognize me though I drive by him almost every night. When I handed the money out the window, palm down like an aged princess expecting a kiss on my jewels, he said “thank you thank you God bless.” and then asked me if I had a cold water bottle. What kind of question was that? No, given that I was on my way home from work, I did not. The light turned green and I silently begged the cars in front of me to peal out so I too could escape. I know it was a hot day and he must get parched, but what did he expect? That I keep a cooler of water bottles in my car in case of just such an emergency? At work I use a plastic bottle that I bring home each night and wash. If that had been cold would he have expected a sip and handed it back to me? No offense meant, but I don't want a homeless man drinking from my reusable bottle. Or really anyone save family members for that matter.

Over the weekend I had a respite from work and the drive. We didn't go into the city, only to church and a friend's house to watch a game I didn't care in the least about. They had a cookout and my wife tried to sell them a lamp while we were watching the game. I yelled at the screen so they would be distracted from her embarrassingly timed salesmanship. My wife likes to talk about how involved I get in sports. She says it with affection, even as she roles her eyes. Sometimes I think I only like them because it's a great way of getting her to shut up.


message 3: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Pearl I got to work on Monday and had a better day. For several hours I got out of the office to tour a new building we were planning on buying. I love to get out of the office. I'm getting older and sitting for nine hours a day has become too comfortable. At twenty I would have gone stir crazy, at forty I never want to leave the chair. It's good for me to get out and walking around.

I forgot about him until I turned off the highway onto the street where he did his business. It's a few blocks from the exit to where he begs for money, and I have to be in the left lane at his light – he stands on the left side of the street – because I turn at that corner to get to our house. I didn't exactly dread seeing him, but irritation started to rise in me. I could feel it start in the back of my mind and flood to the front. Why did he have to bother the same people every day? All of us are commuters on our way home, and most of us leave the office at the same time each day. So he's hustling the same people evening after evening. I'd never seen anyone but myself give him money that one time. It's an idiotic business plan. He should be reaching as many people as possible, not restricting himself to the same ones every day. A more intelligent man would have three or four locations and hit them each in a rotating pattern. This is just stupid.

He went by my car with the same pathetic limp, the same overdone words. He didn't even look in my car. The words are meaningless if you say them to everyone who passes you. And to no one, because really he just yells them aimlessly. He doesn't turn his head in the direction of any car, just blasts them down the sidewalk, at nobody in particular. I sped off as soon as the light turned green and I was able to go. He didn't invoke sympathy in me any longer, just annoyance. Why should I have to be made to feel this way every day on my way home from work? He should go bother some other people for their money. A man could go poor feeding this same bum with cash.

I saw him Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday. Every time I reached the corner I would tense up in my seat. It's like torture. I knew he was coming and I yearned for a day when he wouldn't be there. At the same time, I wanted him there, just so I could feel my anger justified again and again.

When I was younger, my father had a habit of brushing his hair every time he got into or out of the car. He kept his hair long then and had dyed it a disgusting bleached yellow color. He kept a brush in the middle console, and he would run it through his coarse hair even to get out and pump gas. I couldn't stand to see him do it. Each time we would get close to stopping or starting, I could feel the pressure building in my body. I wanted to slap the brush out of his hand. I wanted to jump out of the car. Anything to make him stop. Yet I wanted it to happen. It would drive me crazy waiting for him to pick up that brush sometimes. Each time he pulled it through his hair it made my hatred for him more certain, more secure. I was right.

I need the bum to be there, because each time he is I get to hate him more and more. If he was only there every few days, probably I would still come to hate him but I would be nowhere near as justified in it.


message 4: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Pearl There are other ways a man can get money, especially if he has a mental handicap like this man so clearly does. The government has programs. There are nonprofits that could help him. He has no real reason to be begging the same people for their hard-earned dollars. He couldn't possibly expect us commuters to start giving him money every day he's there. Better to give my money to charities that will spread it out to many people than just this one man. And I do. I give a sizable amount each week to the offering plate at church. Our church has a food pantry. It's close by. He can go reap the rewards of my generosity there rather than on this street corner.

So two weeks ago I hatched my plan. I have pretty well memorized his schedule at this point, and I know that if I leave the office at 5:45 and get to the intersection at around 6:25 he'll be gone and his replacement -- the much more manageable bum – will be there. My wife starts to question why I'm working late so much of the time, and I tell her I'm working on a big project. After a few days, I even escape the torture of the unknown. I don't have to long for his presence or his absence if I know he'll be absent.

I've started keeping a countdown on my calendar of when construction is scheduled to end I figure I can make it another threeish weeks. But then Tuesday afternoon, about 17 days before it would finish, a woman at the office asks if I can give her a ride home. We know we live near each other because we've talked about the area and our kids' schools before. She's a nice woman, if a little dull, and she peaks her head into my office at five, ready to leave. I try to stall by saying I have too much work to go, but she shakes her head. “I have a sitter with Luke, and she's only available until six. I hate to ask to leave sooner than you'd like, but would you mind? He's just too young to be by himself, so I want to get there before the sitter has to go.”

There's not much choice left for me there. I get up and we go. The drive back is unpleasant. I'm angry with her and she keeps talking about Luke and his various problems and triumphs at school. When we get to the corner I grip the steering wheel harder. We're fourth in line to turn left, and I can see and hear him coming towards us already. I stare at the light and pray for it to turn green. This fucking light has never been green for me. I can see him coming out of the corner of my eye, getting closer with each limping step that I can feel reverberating in my chest.

Through the invisible cloud of meaningless babble that has come out of the mouth of the women in my car, I hear her say something about the bum.

“Oh, this poor man. I see him every evening and I try to give him change whenever I get the chance. I just think he's so sweet, not bitter at all when so many people just ignore him. What a nice guy. I've been seeing him here for about two months now and he just gives me a smile every day I see him.”

“Really,” I say, turning towards her, glad to have a real reason not to look at him as he goes by. “I just think what a foolish way to do things this is. He'd make more money if he would broaden his coverage area. People go all different directions to get home when they exit the highway here. He should be rotating each day to different popular areas. That way he'd hit more people, not just the same ones everyday. Repetition is his enemy here.”

She frowns, trying to look cute. “I suppose. But it might be hard for him to get anywhere much further than this. And he clearly has some mental issues. He just seems nice to me, not a drunk or vagrant like some others, and I like that he's here every day. It's a small miracle, to see someone so happy about a life most people would do anything to escape.”

“Well I just think moving every now and then would be smart.”

She looks away from me, out her passenger window. “Perhaps,” she says. She's silent the rest of the way to her house, where she thanks me and leaves.

When I think about it, as I pull out of her drive way. His fucking smile, his unbeatable optimism is more a slap in the face than that rapper's song ever was. The rapper confronted us, made us feel small but also united us against him. This bum fools us with a sweet face and nice catchphrase into believing in this world. The blessings are lies. He's out to twist our guilt, shove in our faces that he is better than us, kinder and more accepting, though he is nothing but a bum. I doubt he's thought through it this much, but that's what it is. A disgusting deception, a false sense of superiority put on display for all of us too see and hopefully never recognize.

I'm home a few minutes later, and I could use a drink. I had imagined that we commuters moved as one in our opinion on this man. I can't believe her. She's trying to make herself sound like a saint, when underneath she is one of us. She's just too cowardly to admit it. The rest of us know what we are.

I go into the kitchen and there is my wife, arms crossed and standing with her back to the sink. She gives me a dirty look and says,

“I saw you,” through slitted eyes and lips.

I'm tired. “Saw what?”

“I saw you with that woman in your car just now. I ran to the store to pick something up for dinner and I saw you at the corner with a woman in your car. What were you doing with that woman? She lives close to here? I just knew it would be someone near work, in the city.”

“Hon, that was Shelly, from the office. You've met her before. She lives a few blocks away. I drove her home from work, her car is in the shop. You've met her husband and son too.”

“You're sleeping with her. Admit it. How else do you explain all your late nights?” Her eyes flash and she's almost smiling, more happy to have figured out the puzzle than mad at what the answer could mean.

“First of all, my nights have been later by 45 minutes. A very quick affair that would be. Second, why would I be driving my mistress around after work? Wouldn't I just go straight to her place and then come home alone? I've been working slightly late. This tale you've concocted makes no sense.”

She can see I'm right, but she doesn't want to lose face. She's quiet and brooding over dinner and speaks sickly-sweet to the kids and ignores me. At night she turns from me in bed and continues to refuse to speak to me. I go and sleep on the couch.

The next few nights I stay at a hotel in the city, more as protest than out of anger. On Friday, I figure she's been punished enough and decide to drive home at 5 p.m. I'll tell her I'm sorry for working late, and I'm sorry I made her think I was having an affair. She'll forgive me and things will go back to normal.

Thinking these thoughts, especially of how my evening will hopefully go once we've made up, I've forgotten about him until I get to the corner and there he is. I'm second in line. I barely have time to see him before he starts saying it, over and over: “Drive safe, God bless, Drive safe, God bless, Drive safe, God bless.” More than annoyed, I feel rage. I don't deserve this torture, this daily bother in my life after I've just put in a solid day of work. I have a right not to be assaulted with another man's problems evening after evening, not to be reminded of the imperfections that exist in this world that occur outside of my life. I put my hand on the door to get out and silence him. Then the light turns green and I drive on.

Construction finishes ahead of schedule the next morning. I drive my usual route home instead of the detour. I don't think of him as I drive home.


message 5: by Gareth (new)

Gareth (garethjardine) | 4 comments Hi Elizabeth.

I skim-read (sorry!) your story and definitely think you've got something to work with there.

I love your opening and ending.

I think you need to slow the build-up of his anger and rage in every sub-story. His anger is fierce, but it doesn't die quickly. You'll struggle to communicate this effectively, but, if you slow the build-up down, the reader can begin to feel the same anger and understand where he's coming from.

That being said, I really like the way you've kept the anger up throughout the story, how it blinds him to things that are obvious to the reader, and how it just disappears in the last sentence.

So focus on providing more empathy and do some editing and I think you'll have a really good story :)


message 6: by Brady (new)

Brady Longmore | 46 comments I really enjoyed it. I thought he was going to kill the bum by the end. I liked how the story points out that something so insignifigant as a detour or a change of a traffic light could mean the difference between life and death or the destruction of a marriage. Very thought provoking. Good job!


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