The old man’s old grizzled hands moved slowly through the green dumpster. His hands poked diligently, but speed was not required to find the treasure he sought. It was necessity which brought him here. The boy was sickly, and his mother was shaking from the cold and hunger. He would need to hurry back to them because cold, hunger, and sickness did not mesh well together in the savage environment of the homeless and lost.
They needed food. From behind him he could hear the song of the city. In the distance, a siren screamed begging to swim in the shark infested water of some unknown emergency. It was an entity he knew well of, however. He had his own to handle. He smelled fuel. This was normal because the city always carried an underlying tint of manufactured destruction. In front of him he could see the fog of his breath laboriously breathing the ice of cold. It had been a colder winter than he had felt in a life forever lost to the way of living for a man without a home to go to.
His hands were long marred and arthritic from years of abuse of a life lived hard. These were hands which had not tasted work in the years since the war. He had once been a hero; he was never accepted as such to society. He had been thrown to the curb like trash. Humanity only wished he could be hid and maybe washed free from existence. No matter, society was not his concern.
His fingers hung out of beat up old gloves. He had been given them from a shelter a few years back; it had been a more giving year. Nonetheless, the gloves had seen better days. Much of his wardrobe had seen better days, to be honest. Scars and callouses coated his fingers as he expertly moved through the trash seeking anything of use. He found a bag of paper plates. His fingers tore the plastic expertly dreaming for something better. He found nothing was salvageable in this area. It was the remnants of an office pizza party. He could smell the stale smell of old soda emanating a sour aroma from the trash bag. He continued to dig slowly. Time was of the essence, but his body was too worn to search faster. However, he knew the tortoise always won the race, and he knew the best treasures could be found with careful attentiveness. He continued to dig. He found an old pair of sneakers. It looked to be the boy’s size. He moved them to the side. He reached further and saw movement. It was just an old rat. It scurried off as it glared at him. He saw a piece of black fabric. He grabbed it, but he soon discovered it was a pair of black thongs. He wondered if this had been the understory to the office party. He chuckled. It was only a brief distracted daydream. Years ago, he would have cared to know more. He threw them back into the dumpster.
He suddenly spied green. He moved some boxes pinning the color in. Green was often useful, and it would be this time. It was a head of lettuce. It would need some outer leaves peeled off, but it felt cold and firm in his skilled hands. He dug further. He hoped he might find a tomato. He had no such luck. He did, however, find a loaf of sliced bread. He opened the bag it was in and discovered it had some mold in spots. He judiciously pulled out each slice and inspected it for mold. It was truly a lucky day. He found enough for the boy, his mother, and even a couple of slices for himself. They could have a small sandwich to fill their stomachs shrunk to malnutrition of pained life. He would have to observe them and ensure they ate gradually.
He felt a cough come on. The coughing was becoming more persistent these days. He saw small splatters of blood hit the snow in the dirty shadow of the dumpster. His concern was not for himself. He had the boy and his mother to think of at present.
It appeared as if his search was now over as he dug further. He saw cardboard too wet to be of use. He found a brown shirt covered in vomit. He decided it was time to return to the small family in need. Luck wouldn’t visit again this day, he felt. He turned to leave but as he did, he spied a tiny sparkle in the mid-winter sun. He reached down quickly with some excitement. He picked it up flinching from arthritic pain, but he did so with energy.
He had found a true treasure. As he brought it close to his vision, he saw he had found a chocolate bar. An insignificant piece had been taken, but it was mostly there with gold foil wrap still protecting the treasure within. He had something to smile for. He headed back to his family in need. He felt a youthful bounce in his step as he tried to rush back to the alley. He would have to remind his body that his heart still clung to the memory of a man he had once been. For now, he needed tosustain lifeto another. He moved back to them at a swift pace. His now belonged to a greater need.
He arrived back at the alleyway about twenty minutes later. A drunken wino was stumbling around the entrance way, but he did not appear to be a threat. The old man chased him off. Wine had no place with a boy.
He walked down the energy with most of his burst of energy gone. They were at the end of an alleyway hidden in an old factory box crate. It had once housed a state of the art manufacturing machine during a long forgotten shipment to some dusty factory. It now was his home. It had provided shelter for him for over a year, and it presently was providing this lost family an out from the frigid elements. It was safe from society here. He had chosen this spot because it was between two abandoned buildings in which the city found no urgency to demolish. He had a blanket in the front opening of the crate preventing nothing more than the frosty air from entering. It could be quite cozy on a cold evening because it contained body heat well. He knew it would keep this mother and her child safe in their darkest hour.
He moved the blanket to the side and there they were cuddled together trapping a mother’s heat with her boy. She looked up at him grimly. Her eyes were worn from worry.
“I brought you and him some food,” his voice croaked from years of minimal communication as he nodded to the boy. “It will do, I reckon,” he followed up with.
She smiled grateful. “I thank you,” she responded. She seemed embarrassed to have need, but she seemed genuinely appreciative.
He knew at this moment her thoughts would be on nutrition as a mother, so he could barely contain the surprise he held in his jacket’s right pocket. He could not wait to see their expression when he presented this rich, sweet gift. It would make a wonderful desert for them. It was the taste of the gods; it was a taste worth living for.
He laboriously sat down inside the crate which had enough room for now. He was not a big man because he was frail with age. They were all thin from lack of food with substance. However, he would reserve the shelter for them tonight as they slept. The cold had no place for a woman with child. He had slept more than once outside. Tonight would be no different. The stars carried sacred beauty to the dark world surrounding him. He would miss the closed in comfort of the crate, but he would be content knowing this family was safe. The stars always seemed to glow brighter in the cold, anyhow. The comfort he would feel inside for simply giving would at least warm his heart, and he felt this put the world warm in his hands. A man could live with far less riches.
He looked into the woman’s eyes. They were pale blue, but he could read gentleness in her soul. A man could always see so much in another’s eyes. She was old enough to have lived a hard life, but she was young enough to still show a beauty he could not explain. Before the war…he had been younger then…he would have found her soft lips still a worthy kiss. That was so long ago. He suddenly felt mortified for his indiscretion of thought. The streets held no place for an indecent thought from an old man. She looked back at him optimistically. Her eyes still hoped.
He had carried the lettuce and the bread to them in a dirty old back pack he had found during a prior dumpster dive some years ago. He pulled out his discoveries and her eyes began to shine brightly for a moment, but the star went back out. She suddenly looked down uncomfortably looking at small hands still soft and feminine…even in hardship. He saw a small teardrop flow from her right eye.
“Shhh, my lady…,” he said in a comforting voice. “Even the richest of men suffer hard times, we all do no matter what the world says,” he continued.
“I am sorry, I am so damned sorry,” she burst out tearfully.
He moved his hands painfully forward, and he touched her shoulder softly. For a moment, he allowed her to gather her thoughts. Every person needs a moment sometimes, he privately thought. He gave her as much time as she needed. After a few moments, her trembling slowed, and her tears slackened to the sound of time. Time was all a person had when lost to the streets. It only hurt if you remembered it was there.
“He is sick...” she stated open ended.
“He will live, but if he does not…it is not our choice to stop, but I believe he will live,” he stated honestly. He knew the truth could hurt, but he knew this needed to be said. He had seen death in his life, and death could not be stopped if it came. A man could not live his life in fear of the inevitable. We all die eventually. Life is a fact and so is death. He did believe if the boy ate, he would live.
She reached forward and slapped him on his cheek. It took him back for a moment. Her eyes looked back down. She again looked ashamed. He was not angry with her. He couldn’t. If he stood in her shoes with a sick child and no hope, he might be angry as well.
“I-I a-am so sorry,” she stammered. “I-I do not know what overcame me…it is not our choice to stop death, but it was my choices which brought him here,” she finished and looked back at the ground. The old man lifted his hand to her in a gentle stopping motion.
“It is going to be alright,” he whispered to her calmly. Perhaps, it was a mother who brought this boy here, but it was a mother’s love which kept her by his side.
He began to separate the lettuce leaves, and he meticulously place the leafy layers between slices of bread. He told her to wake the boy. He would need to eat soon to survive. She complied with his request, and the little boy looked and gave him a faint smile of recognition. He placed the sandwiches to the side.
He had boiled a pot of snow earlier which sat on a small makeshift grill. The water was still liquid, but it contained a thin layer of ice on top. It would suffice. He brought the pot to the boy’s lips and commanded him to drink. The boy was feverish, and he needed hydration primarily. The boy opened parched, chapped lips and welcomed the water painfully. He drank slowly, at first. He then recognized what his body needed and began to gulp faster. The old man pulled the pot back. He waited for the boy to rest a moment, and he gave him a little more. He then passed the pot to the mother.
“Drink slowly,” he cautioned, and she complied.
He moved his hands to where he had placed the sandwiches and grabbed one for each of them. The boy began to gorge himself, but the old man raised his finger to the boy and shook him a silent no. The boy seemed to listen to the inaudible gesture and began to slow down. The mother ate her sandwich unhurriedly, and she seemed to savor each bite. She was a woman who had not been taken care of for some time, each bite seemed to remind her of a life she had once had. It reminded her of dignity, perhaps. She seemed to be desperately trying to make this moment last longer like it would be her last. He sat silently watching them eat. He wanted to ensure they would get their fill. He had a third sandwich he would surely not waste, but he wanted them to eat first. He had a lifetime of eating. He felt peaceful watching life return to this family; it was a peaceful quiet. The boy finished his sandwich, and he looked at the old man. He still looked hungry. He gave him the final sandwich. Suddenly, he felt like the richest man in the world. He felt good in this serenity of love. He smiled and dozed for a moment.
He woke sometime later. He did not know how long he had been out, but time was only a chain to bring a man down. Life had more to give than time, and many a man gave their lives away to the clock. He had lived an unfulfilled life to some, but he never lived with the restraint of time ticking his life away. He only knew the sound of ticking could carry bittersweet pain to a man on the street.
The boy was sitting by him, and he had found the old sneakers. They appeared to fit comfortably. The old man thought this was good. When the boy realized the old man had awakened he suddenly lunged forward with a hug. He seemed cooler. His fever must be breaking, the old man thought. This was beneficial. He was taken slightly back by the hug as he had been with the slap earlier, but he welcomed it the same. Everything he was experiencing was about love today. The slap, this hug, and the warm glow of family glowing bright in the darkness of this old crate all reminded him of the greatest aspect of life. Love…true love was hard to find, but the love of a family was real. It held an aura which surrounded an old heart which had long ago thought it had forgotten. He smiled.
“We are sorry if we burden you,” the woman spoke to him breaking the silence.
“Nonsense,’ the old man smiled, ‘because you release the weight off an old man’s heart, and you remind me that this old world has some good in it…you unburden me, you see.”
She smiled. She seemed more relaxed. She seemed to not carry the shame quite the same way she had expressed it earlier. He knew this look from her. It was a woman’s look of acceptance. He was family in her eyes. He had provided, and he had protected.
“I could send the boy on and errand…” she pointed out suddenly looking sad. “…just don’t kiss me…It-it should belong to a man I love, you understand.” She quickly averted her eyes. She appeared embarrassed again.
At first, he was lost to her comment, but he suddenly understood what she meant. He was horrified. He started coughing heavily and he saw drops of blood splatter against the grain of the wood within the crate. When the coughing spell stopped, he suddenly spoke sternly to her.
“I did not bring you here to have my way as a man with you…I saw a need, I saw a boy sick, and I saw a mother who cares…,’ he sounded gruff as he followed firmly, ‘I see love!”
Her eyes dropped back down. She was ashamed again. For a moment, he thought she should. He was young when men were still gentleman. However, he suddenly felt ashamed within the gentle confines of his old heart. He had yelled at her. The boy looked pale and quiet.
“That was bad of me, I am sorry,” he apologetically stated.
She shrugged her shoulder as a symbolic gesture of no skin off her shoulder. It was a desperate world of men, and a woman could never know, really.
He decided it was time for the sweet treat. He reached into his jacket pocket and grabbed the chocolate bar in its foil wrapping. He pulled it out and looked to the mother with a questioning glance. She seemed to understand his question and nodded a yes. He methodically removed the foil and broke off a large piece for the boy. He handed the little man this sweet treat from heaven. The boy greedily plunged his hand forward and grabbed the piece from the old man. His mother suddenly glared as her face blushed. The child suddenly realized his sin of childhood, and looked up at the old man apologetically.
“Thank you, sir!” He stated this as if he was unsure he would lose this newly found treasure in his hands.
The old man smiled. He had smiled quite a bit today, he realized. “You are welcome, my young friend,” he replied.
The old man handed the mother a piece as well. She cautiously took it from his hand. He held a small piece in his own hand, but this treat was more for them. He felt as if this one gift could place all the riches of life into the palms of his hands. He watched both of these gentle souls place their pieces in their mouths. The boy did not gorge on the chocolate as he had done with the sandwich, but he sucked on the chocolate. The old man almost chuckled when he saw the mother duplicate this action without knowing. Like mother and like son he thought with the enchantment of life. Both closed their eyes, and they truly seemed to savor the soothing sweetness of the chocolate. They were lost to the finest riches of life. Their faces smiled as the chocolate melted within the warm, fleshy confines of their mouths. He placed his piece in his mouth and tried to peek in their minds as he too closed his eyes. He wondered if they walked a secluded sandy beach on a sunny day. He wondered if they were together on a playground far from the dirt and grime of the perverse city. He slowly sucked on the piece of chocolate in his mouth and remembered a time before the war when he knew what savoring life was like. It was so long ago, but he felt those days long gone inside his heart like it was today. He let the chocolate melt as it melted like a rich waterfall down his throat, and it felt good to sink into the sweetness. He allowed himself to savor the way they were cherishing this guilty pleasure. It felt good to be alive with these thoughts in his mind.
Afterwards, they all sat quiet for a while. It had been a long, yet it had been a worthwhile day. This was the best day he had lived, he felt. If everyday had carried the riches of today, this day still would have been the best. He wished it could last a bit longer, but he was tired. He said goodnight to them and exited the crate with a spare blanket. It was cold, but his heart felt joy. This was all he would ever need.
He found a corner in the alley, and he wrapped himself in the blanket. He had a card he could share with the woman in the morning. He pulled it out and held it close to his heart. Tomorrow would come. For now, he had the sweetness of today to savor. He leaned his head back with the thoughts of the love he had felt today. He was smiling. It was a glow he wanted to taste forever. His eyes closed and his lids began to feel heavy. Sleep came and then forever came.
He passed away sometime in the night still basking in the joy of love he had experienced this day. It had been a fine day…that it had. It was a comfort he had felt in the end.
She did not know what had woke her in the night, but she opened her eyes inside the crate realizing she was not in a bed. It was always this way. She looked over at her son sleeping silently in the gentle tranquility of their shelter. He looked as if he was well beyond the fever now. The generosity of a homeless old man had saved them, perhaps.
She remembered outside was the man who had provided more in a single moment than any other man in her life…especially the boy’s father. He had reminded her generosity of others carried a soul of its own and in that soul, was love. In a world of evil, there was good.
She exited the crate and stretched. Her back was stiff, but her heart was warm. She saw the old man lying over by the wall with a blanket loosely covering his body. However, at second glance she noticed his body was slumped over slightly on an angle without support.
She walked over to him with some concern. Her air was fog in front of her with breath so cold in the winter air. When she came up to him, she realized what she had known before reaching him. He was not breathing. She tapped and pushed his shoulder, but she knew he would not respond deep down. He was dead, but his face still shined a magnificent smile. She hoped that she and her boy had helped him with this last smile somehow. She would need to find a phone soon to call for emergency personnel. She did not want to leave a man who had such a heart left to the environment. He deserved peace in his passing. He deserved a place to call home in his final rest. She would wake the boy soon to find a phone.
She saw that he was clutching something in his hand. She reached down and held it close to her eyes as the moonlight brought the type into clarity for her eyes. It was a card for a women’s shelter only two blocks away. She could easily carry her boy that far…
She bent down and kissed his chilly face. He had taught her how sweet life could be. He gave her at his end a way out of this mess. He had shown that there was good in life, and life was worth living. It was sweet to taste and live, but it had an end. He had cherished life even with limitations, and he had found the benefits were greater than only tasting. He had reminded her to appreciate what was most important in life. He had shown that life was like – it was…
She looked to the sky and thought to the stars for the old man who had helped so much today. She whispered, “Thank you…”
She wiped a tear from her eye and smiled. She looked above to the sky and saw a comet flash the sky above. She had strength for another day.