Volume 4 Number 4


Autumn 2006

The Old Man

by Mary Pat Mann

The woman sits on the pavement, close to the heating grate. The warmth reminds her of a worn kitchen floor. The oven door is open. Someone yells. She closes her eyes. Footsteps. Some step around her and some brush the edges of her blanket as if she weren't there. Maybe she isn't. She's not sure.

A gnarled hand, old but warm and strong, clasps hers. She opens her eyes. He is smiling at her. Do you have a place to stay tonight, ma'am? Can I walk you to the shelter? She smiles back at him. She goes to sleep then, with no more waking up. He stays with her and shows her where to go.

There is a boy playing in the rubble, alone in the gathering darkness. Maybe he has nowhere to go, but he doesn't think about that right now. There's a cat here, trying to catch at the old string the boy trails across the ground. Maybe the cat has nowhere to go, either. They're having fun together.

A large car waits nearby. Two men have been watching the boy for a while, waiting for it to get dark enough. They open the car doors. Something moves in the rubble that is not the boy. A flash of red eyes. The men close the car doors and speed away.

I never saw the old man while he was alive. I don't take handouts, and don't give them. I work for what I have -- earn every dime. So I like to hold on to what's mine. When I see people begging on the street, I look the other way -- walk right by. Like I say, I never noticed him.

I'd been out with friends. Clouds ran across the moon, and a wet fog made it tricky to find your feet. I'd had a few, and was walking to my car, not too fast and maybe not too straight.

I was fishing keys out of my pocket when I tripped over something. I thought it was a dog, but it turned out to be a leg. He was sitting on the pavement, leaned up against an old Ford Ranger. Black truck, black tires, dirty clothes ... he was invisible until my foot found him.

"Man," I said, "what're you doing down there?"

"Sorry, Mister," he said in a rough voice, "I need help. Can you...?"

I said something rude and walked on. I was opening the car door when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"What the--?" I whipped around. It was the old man, staring at me.

"Mister," he said again, "I need your help."

"Back off, or I'll call the cops," I said. I pushed his arm away and got into the car, shutting the door fast behind me.

Now, maybe I'd had more than a few. But that woke me right up. I swear I was sober as Sunday when I pulled out of that parking spot. But then, just as I put on a little speed, that old man stepped in front of my car, full in the lights. I ran right into him. Then he disappeared.

I slammed on the brakes, breathing hard. I might have hit him. I hadn't felt anything. Maybe this was some kind of scam, but I'm no fool. I flipped the door locks and pulled out my cell phone. I called 911 and said somebody was stalking people in the parking lot.

A few minutes later, a cruiser pulled in, lights going but no siren. I rolled down my window and told the guys what happened. They got out with some huge flashlights and started looking around.

"Hey, Mack," one called from the bushes, "check this out."

I thought he meant me and opened my door, but the other officer told me to stay put and walked over to his partner. They talked, shining flashlights into the bushes, then called it in. Then they asked me to join them in the cruiser.

"We found the old man," one officer said. "He's over in the bushes. Dead."

I felt the blood drain from my face. "I didn't hit him, I swear. Like I told you...."

"Yeah, we know," said the other officer. "That's what's funny. Our man in the bushes has been dead at least twenty-four hours, maybe longer."

Another squad car and an ambulance pulled into the parking lot. People had been coming out of the bar to see what all the lights were for. The police strung up the yellow tape and told everyone to move along. Then they walked me over to the bushes. It was an old guy, all right, lying curled up on his side, one hand stretched out towards us. Not exactly like the old man I'd seen, but close enough. I didn't say a word.

"Old guy said he needed help, right?" the officer said. "Guess you got it for him. Little late, though."

"Yeah, right," I said. We headed back to our cars.

The bushes across from us moved a little, like someone was standing there. I thought maybe I saw a little flash of reddish light. Eyes maybe. I kept walking.