Back Peek

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Flash Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
From Stranger Things Happen, my book of 76 overlapping flash fiction stories inspired by original street photography. Available on Amazon in all global markets.

Submitted: February 12, 2016

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Submitted: February 12, 2016

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“I got what you would call an addictive personality,” I told the young lady when she asked if I was almost ready. I was still arranging things just so. I wasn’t even sure I was going to participate. I hate when these white women come in with their little projects to help the homeless by “shedding light on us.” That’s what they always say.

But I’ve liked Gandhi for a long time and she showed that picture of his possessions near the end of his life when he owned like ten things. Those glasses. Sandals. A watch. A bowl for eating. She said she sees homeless people walking around after the shelters kick them out for the day and she was curious about what was in their backpacks, and what that might be able to tell us about the common human experience as well as the individual journey. High-falutin psycho shit. But kind of cool.

She calls her project Back Peek. She’s taking still-life photos of the contents of backpacks belonging to homeless men. She had already pitched it as a photo essay to some magazine. She said we’d be anonymous so we didn’t need to worry about privacy. I’m not stupid. I know that means we get no money for participating. But she did have bags of food, and I could use that, although I wouldn’t mind my name, Calvert Powers, being on something.

So I worked on my layout for a good long time. Like I said, I got an addictive personality and I had to arrange things just so. Some people just dumped their shit out. Others only took out a few things because they had something to hide. I didn’t have that much, and I didn’t mind showing her everything, and I wanted the photo to be great, like the Gandhi photo.

When she got to me, she looked over my arrangement. The toothbrush and raisins — I love raisins — and the scarf I wrap around my head, covering my eyes, so I can sleep even if I’m someplace where the lights are on. The flip flops in case my shoes get wet and I need to wait for them to dry. A couple of extra shirts that I can layer when it’s cold. I folded them and stacked them neatly. The deodorant. You need that. I never know how long it will be until I can shower again, and you’ll get thrown out of places faster than you can say Content of Your Character if you smell.

She looked at my belongings sort of oddly.

She said. “Don’t you have any other pants besides what you’re wearing?”

“Like I said, I have an addictive personality,” I replied, “and right now I’m addicted to these here street shorts. I wear my legs bare when it’s hot and with leggings when it’s cold, but I wear my street shorts every day. They have good pockets, and I can count on them.”

She had already moved on. She was eyeing everything, not touching anything. I’m not stupid. I know she didn’t want to catch any diseases; that’s why she had us do our own arrangements.

“And what about this photo right in the middle?” she asked, pointing, not touching. “Is that your most valuable possession?”

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but, yes, I guess you could say it was.

“This is my mother,” I said, picking it up, showing it to her. “That’s me, and my sister.” We were all looking at a mural at the Martin Luther King Center, and my mother was pointing at a woman in it.

“That’s my grandmother, right there in the mural,” I said. “She marched on Washington with Dr. King. But, I tell ya’, it didn’t work out the way she hoped. The end of segregation damn ruined black communities. Destroyed our businesses. Tore apart our neighborhoods. And then highways got built and split us more. And the only ones who benefited from the Equal Rights Amendment were women . . . “

You benefited, bitch; I didn’t, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

“So why do you carry that photo?” she asked. She was pesty, I decided.

“Because when I look at it, I remember a time when I actually believed that shit. Being judged by the ‘content of my character rather than the color of my skin.’ Thinking I could ‘be the change I wanted to see’ — did you know Dr. King was inspired by Gandhi? There’s a statue of him at the MLK Center. And you can stand in the actual footprints of famous Black Americans, and imagine yourself being one of them one day. They used the actual shoes to make the prints right there in the concrete.”

She looked down at my shoes then, maybe without thinking, but I saw her. My shoes were too big for me.

“I don’t make the right footprints for me,” I said. “I’m not really myself just yet.”

“Why not?” she asked. Nosy broad.

I thought of not answering her. Who did she think she was? Pushy know-it-all. But then I realized I couldn’t just let a question hang there in the air like that. I didn’t need to tell her about the drugs or the alcohol. The crime. The same story as everyone else. That wasn’t who I was. That was just what did me in. There was more to me than that.

“Like I said,” I answered, “I got an addictive personality.”


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