Edited by Dr. M.N. Bruder (Deceased)
As the old fellow came closer, I saw how shabbily dressed he was, shirttail hanging over the side of his pants, leg ends dragging on the ground. The suit coat was either a mismatch to the slacks, or it was so filthy the original colors had long vanished. It was torn in several places with dark spots on the elbows and lapels from a source I could only gag a guess. A pair of dirty tennis shoes, laces untied and dragging the ground, scuffed across the concrete.
I could barely see the spots of age and the stain of dirt on the right hand that gripped the walking cane, which he extended forward before he took each step. With the right foot planted firmly near the cane he dragged his left foot forward near the right foot before he extended the cane again. I had an urge, probably brought on by the respect for old people my parents had instilled in me, to run and help the old geezer.
His left hand, possibly paralyzed, was pressed against the side of the jacket and never moved. A torn straw hat, too big for his head, cast a shadow over the wrinkled face. Gray hair extended from under the hat and hung in loose strings over large ears. He looked like a cartoon that stopped, waved that cane and hollered at a person passing near.
Gazing intently ahead, the old man did not seem to notice me as he drew near. Suddenly, the cane swung up and made a circling motion as the old man cried out in a surprisingly strong and vibrant voice, “Hey, mister.”
I looked toward the building to see a slim young man dressed in a dark suit moving rapidly toward the old man. He was busy talking into a cellular phone held against his head. He did not see the old man until they were only a few steps apart.
As he finished the cellular call the young man stopped walking and watched the old man shuffle closer. The sharp looking Fifth Avenue type tried to escape the encounter with the dirty old man, but the old man stopped and spoke in a loud voice, “Say, mister, you attending that there writer’s conference?” he asked, the dirty right hand waving the cane over his head.
The rounded, stooped shoulders swayed as if in a strong wind. The sour smell of whiskey drifted past me on the light wind. The old fellow was probably drunk. The young man put his hand to his nose and nodded.
The apparently toothless mouth made a clapping noise, “I want to get in there, too. I been traveling all day. You know them buses? Them things would drive a man to drink in a hurry, always stopping and starting. Seems they never get anywhere. Damn thing took me nearly a mile past my stop ‘cause I couldn’t get off the seat in time.”
I watched the young man trying to be respectful, move a little to put himself upwind of the old man. The bulky body turned to continue facing his target. As the clapping lips formed words again, the young man looked at me over the hat bobbing before him. I grinned and shook my head.
“You know, I just can’t afford that hundred and sixty-five dollars they wanted for early registration. You register early?” The old man looked up at the young man sharply, but did not wait for an answer.
The old voice was strong, demanding, “I want to get in there and hear what they say. I been writing all my life and ain’t got nothing published yet. Hell, I got rejection notices stuffed in all the cracks in my bedroom wall. They keep out the cold wind, but shucks, I’d like to get something into print so others can see how good I write.” The old man stopped to take a breath.
The young man opened his mouth to speak. The whip cracking voice cut him off. “Say, young’un, think you could sneak me in there? I won’t make any noise, and they won’t even know I’m there?” the old man stated, cocking his head to one side to look up at the younger man.
The younger man’s emotions were written all over his face--doubt, confusion, frustration, and fear. Quickly, before the old man could begin another tirade, he spoke. “Sir, I cannot sneak you into that conference because they check everyone going in. Everyone has to have a receipt for the fee.”
The young man straightened his tie and took a step away only to be halted by a tanned, spotted hand on his coattail. The strong voice suddenly turned into the whine of a begging child. “Now, see here, young fella, I ain’t asking for no miracle. Just get me in the building.” The dirty hand did not let go of the neat, black suit coat.
“Sir, I apologize. I can’t help you.” The young man pulled his jacket from the old man’s grip.
As the young man turned and quickly stepped away I watched the old man’s back. I saw the straw hat turn toward the building and then back toward the young man. The stooped shoulders shook. He might have been coughing, crying, or laughing; I could not tell.
Suddenly the old man’s shoulders stopped shaking. His body seemed to grow taller as the shoulders came back, and the hatted head rose higher. Tucking the cane under his left arm, which had sprung to life, the old man spun around to face me. Gone were the toothless grin and the demeanor of an old man. Here stood a much younger man, smiling broadly, his left hand holding the cane out to the side.
Removing the straw hat, with the gray hair attached, he bowed toward me. The short dark hair of the young man shocked me; I almost choked on my cigarette.
“How was that performance?” the young man asked, with a deep laugh. Turning, the young adventuresome thespian strode sprightly away. ©Cayce B. Shelton