While I sat on a bench at Oak Park, an older man shuffled his walker toward me. “Do you mind if I share the sunlight with you?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
“No worries,” I smiled, welcoming the company.
I’ve learned to say no worries a lot. It’s a mindset here in Santa Barbara. If you say no worries, it seems like your problems disappear or get minimized no matter what ugly situation you face.
The man was eager to talk, and I thought it would be a friendly distraction from the negative thoughts that ran through my mind like a ticker tape.
“My name is Logan,” he said and extended his frail, bony hand with yellowing fingernails.
“Aaron,” I responded, wrapping his cold hand in mine for a moment.
Logan wore outdated Madras Shorts revealing a pair of spindly, hairless legs. The veins of his arms protruded like bluish snakes. His mouth was dry and lips cracked, and he kept wetting his lips with his tongue with each raspy inhale.
My gut told me that he was not long for this earth. His face and body were wasting away, and his breathing was so labored that tears formed in his eyes. He seemed to be hanging on by a thread.
Despite his difficulty in breathing, he still wanted to engage in conversation. He told me he came out of Cottage Hospital a few days ago, recovering from double pneumonia. His doctor told him to get plenty of sunshine and fresh air so his compromised lungs could heal faster. I told Logan that I was in the park to heal also. But it wasn’t my body I was trying to restore, but my soul.
“Please,” he said, “I want to apologize beforehand for my embarrassing coughing spells. They’re disgusting, I know, but I can’t help it.”
Again, I said, “No worries.” Almost as a reflex to other people’s pain.
He took out a colored hanky and coughed into it. It was a wet, deep cough that rattled his frail bones and made his head tremble.
“Go ahead and do what you have to do,” I said. “It doesn’t bother me. When I was a college student, I worked in a nursing home for a summer and saw all kinds of stuff.”
“You know you have a problem when you see the red smudge in your tissue,” he shared. “It hits you like a bullet to the gut.”
I nodded my head, indicating that I knew what he meant. My wife left me a few years ago, and I thought I’d never recover. Our marriage wasn’t great, but she didn’t tell me it was over until I found her closet empty after work. She left me a note and said she had met somebody else and apologized for the abruptness.
“You could deny many things in life, but when you’re coughing up blood, you can’t deny something that serious.”
“You’ll get better,” I said while the California sunshine warmed our faces.
I looked up at an agitated crow cawing wildly. I heard the Spanish voices in the distance. There was laughter.
“Beautiful day,” I turned to the elderly man.
He nodded. “Every day is beautiful here.”
“I wish it would rain, though,” I added. “With the drought and everything being so dry, the Santa Ana winds could kick up and start a big wildfire.”
He sympathized with my concern and coughed some more. The last cough appeared to be particularly excruciating, shaking his arms violently to the point of falling off the bench and landing on a knee. I helped him back up and moved his walker close to him.
“If you cough again, hang on to this, so you don’t fall.”
“When something takes over an important organ of your body,” he said, “you have no choice but to succumb to it. Sometimes medications don’t work no matter how many you take. The disease I have is too powerful for my immune system. I have no choice but to let things happen as they will.”
I felt old, too, not in years but in worry. I was barely thirty-eight and had nothing physically wrong with me. The months I spent in Santa Barbara seemed to have aged me quicker than people staying in the sun too long.
I looked up at the bright yellow sphere in the cloudless, blue sky. Despite being unemployed, I was happy to be in California, where the weather was temperate and, most days, picture-perfect. I still hoped I could make it here, but my money was slowly dwindling. To say that being broke and homeless scared the hell out of me, would be a gross understatement.
“How long have you lived in Santa Barbara?” Logan asked.
“Nine months,” I said.
When I told him I was from Pittsburgh, he smiled.
“I know Pittsburgh well. A wonderful old steel town with plenty of down-to-earth people and yummy comfort food. I used to consult with a publishing company downtown twice a year. I enjoyed the music and the culture on those trips and got to see a couple of Steeler games as well.”
The man seemed to have more energy, more animation in his movements when he spoke of his visits to Pittsburgh. Thinking of the city, and a beer called Iron City, seemed to take him back to a happier time when he was a robust young man.
The next moment, he coughed again. He checked his hanky and looked up. “No blood this time,” he said with a wide grin as if it were a significant achievement. He gave his nose a long blow for good measure.
For a moment, the feeble man looked at me with sadness in his watery eyes. He told me he had cancer, was getting chemo treatments every other week, and had to wear a colostomy bag on top of everything else. I felt like a priest receiving confession.
“It’s hard for me to sleep at night,” he said. “I keep hearing my lungs rattle and feel the phlegm bubble up into my throat, choking my breath. Don’t get old, young man. Old age is absolute torture. Perhaps, God tortures us before the great reprieve in the sky.”
He talked about his ailments like they were people. He didn’t have anything left that he valued in his life except for his house and his favorite park bench in Oak Park.
“My wife died ten years ago with a rare blood disorder that caught her by surprise,” he said. “We never had children, although we were quite happy without them. I don’t have any friends left, either. My brother and sister went caput not too long ago. And the Springer Spaniel I had for twenty years died six months ago.”
Our attention turned to a homeless couple washing up at an outdoor sink. The couple disrobed and scrubbed each other with washcloths, ensuring they got every nook and cranny. They tried to hide their nakedness behind a stone barrier, but I could see their bare backs glistening in the bright sunlight. It seemed odd for me to say how beautiful they looked without clothes, but that’s how I perceived them.
“Life is terrible for everyone,” Logan said, noticing the homeless couple bathe outdoors. “Sometimes, we don’t control how things turn out, despite having good intentions and avoiding trouble as best as we can.”
“That’s true,” I said. “I worked for the same company for over twelve years believing that the legal department would never downsize. I was wrong. Collect your belongings, the supervisor said without compassion, and I was out the door before lunchtime. No warm goodbyes or any suggestions on how to find another job. They thought that giving me severance pay would be all I needed.”
Logan shook his head and patted me on the shoulder. Then he coughed a few more times.
“Do you need help?” I asked
“Pneumonia speaks to me often, Aaron—it has a voice, you know. It tells me to slow down. It tells me to take care of myself or else I won’t have a body left. Life is so temporary, Aaron. It breaks my heart. Our next breath could be our last, so we might as well make the best out of every single moment.”
The homeless couple looked up and caught me staring. I wondered if the couple felt ashamed to be homeless and afraid that I was being judgmental, which would be the last thing I would do.
It could be me bathing there one day, looking paranoid and insecure. I can’t sleep some nights because I have nightmares about being homeless, living on the streets, sleeping in the park, or under a bridge. If I don’t find a job soon, I will be destitute. It’s not cheap here. My bank account keeps shrinking, and I get closer to living on the streets every day.
When I was in Pittsburgh, I never had any doubts. I had a good job, a wife, and security. I never expected to wake up one day alone in a single bed without work. The crows wake me up every morning. I get up, get dressed, look in the newspapers and online for jobs, then come to the park and feel that the world is passing me by.
The homeless couple dried off taking turns combing each other’s hair and wringing out their wet clothes. They spoke in whispers during this entire process. They were attentive to every little detail. They packed their bags slowly in a systematic way that, I’m sure, they’ve done a thousand times. Their lives seemed to be in constant motion, with no time to stand still or relax. Their home was everywhere, and it was constantly changing.
“I don’t know how they can live like that,” I said to Logan.
“They probably used to it. You get used to everything.”
“But how do you get used to living in so much discomfort and humiliation?”
“I don’t know?” and he held up his hands.
“I don’t mean to bum you out, Logan.”
“Don’t worry, Aaron. I just like your company. Say whatever you want. Talking is free.”
I took him up on that offer.
“It’s funny how things work out, Logan. A short time ago, I was in Pittsburgh dreaming of a wonderful life in California. I wanted to start over, recreate myself— forget all the mistakes I made. Here I am now sitting in paradise and still unemployed.”
Logan gave me a knowing grin and promised that things would get better.
The homeless couple loaded their backpacks on their shoulders. Each one made sure that the other’s bag was secure and that they didn’t forget anything before setting off on their arduous journey.
Logan saw me staring and removed five dollars from his pocket. “Here, give to this couple before they leave. Hurry! They walk fast.”
Logan was right. They moved quickly, and I had to jog to catch up with them.
“Excuse me. This is from the old man on the bench. He wants you to have it.”
It was like I gave them a million dollars. They were so happy. They couldn’t stop thanking me. “God bless you,” the man said, and the woman smiled.
“Where do you stay?” I asked.
“On the other side of the park,” he said. “Past the dried-up stream.”
“I looked and saw a small homeless encampment beside a park bench.”
“Is that your tent?”
“If it’s none of my business—just say so. But how did you become homeless?”
The woman said she was a school teacher, and one of her students spread lies about her, and she was fired. And her husband had been addicted to drugs and went to prison for drug dealing.
“That’s a shame,” I said. “Did you ever try the homeless shelter?”
“It’s too dirty,” said the man. “And it’s not safe for women. We stayed there for a month and decided it wasn’t for us.”
“My name is Aaron,” I said.
“This is Sally, and I’m Joseph.”
“Okay, Sally and Joseph. Don’t let me keep you. Hope you have a good day.”
“Yeah,” they said. “See you around.”
When I got back, Logan was getting ready to leave. He buttoned his sweater, straightened his baseball cap, and had his hands on the walker.
“I’m getting hungry,” said Logan, feeling his belly growl. “How about some tomato soup and grilled cheese for lunch? I’ve got everything in the cupboard just waiting for us.”
“That sounds great,” I said without hesitation.
I helped Logan up from the bench and got him stabilized with his walker. He pointed to his house, a cute little yellow and white bungalow across from the park.
I stood by his side as he shuffled unsteadily along the narrow walkway to his home. The outside of the bungalow had been neglected with overgrown bushes, fallen tree branches, and scattered piles of leaves and tree nuts.
“I’m glad to be home,” Logan said, opening the squeaky screen door. “I don’t think I would have made it to my house without your strong presence. Give me some time to catch my breath, please.”
He leaned over and took two squirts of his yellow inhaler, paused for a few moments against the door frame, and eventually was able to resume normal breathing.
“Aaron,” he said once in his house. “I have a proposition for you.”
“What’s that?” I asked curiously.
“How would you like to be my assistant? As you can see, I sure could use your help—and since you need a job—whaddya say? It would be temporary, of course. Just until you find something better.”
I smiled, surprised by his kindness and the opportunity.
“Sure,” I said with much gratitude.
“Twenty-five an hour, if that’s okay with you?” Logan smiled. “I made a lot of money in my life so I could afford it.”
“When do I start?” I asked, eagerly.
“You already did,” he said as he began to settle into his brown-leather recliner. He moved the walker to the side of his chair, slipped off his loafers, and propped his old and tired bare feet onto an ottoman. He reached for the remote control on the armrest and switched stations a few times before finally settling on his favorite news station.
I went to the kitchen, which I wasn’t surprised was very disorganized. It took a few minutes to get my bearings straight, then I opened up a can of Progresso tomato soup and poured it into a medium saucepan. I found where the white bread was stored and made a couple of golden-brown grilled cheese sandwiches. I looked out the kitchen window as I let the soup cool a bit and could see our bench at Oak Park from there. The sun was still shining. █
About the Author
Mark Tulin is a published author of humor, short stories, and poetry. He is a Pushcart nominee and Best of Drabble.
He has authored Magical Yogis (Prolific Press, 2017), Awkward Grace (Kelsay Books, 2019), The Asthmatic Kid and Other Stories (Madville Publishing, 2020), Junkyard Souls (Alien Buddha Press, 2021), and Rain on Cabrillo (Cyberwit, 2021). These books are available on Amazon Prime as well as the publishers. Mark has also been featured in Vita Brevis Press, Amethyst Review, Ariel Chart, Fiction on the Web, The Opiate, and many others.
Mark lives in Palm Springs, California with his wife Alice.
His website: https://www.crowonthewire.com
Twitter: @Crow_writer, and Instagram: @Crowonthewire_poetry
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