Sunday, February 13, 2011

On My Way Home

It was the weekend when she came; I was taken completely by surprise. I never got visitors—especially not this early in the day—and generally spent my weekends alone reading or watching movies. I opened the door anxiously and found a short young woman standing in front of me. I didn’t know her, but she looked very familiar, I had seen her eyes before. She started saying something; I wasn’t paying attention really, just trying to figure out how it was I could possibly know her, where it was exactly that I knew those eyes from.

“You knew…righ…man wi…beat up box?” The box? She knew him?


I met him on the bus. No, that isn’t right. He met me on the bus. He was all at once hard to miss and easy to ignore. Always wore the same outfit, a faded out t-shirt of some band I’d never heard of, a pair of worn out, stained jeans, and a light tan overcoat that looked slightly too big. He looked older than I think he was. There was a certain level of youth in his expression, but his face was wrinkled and covered in blemishes that I had always associated with old age. He also had these tremors, sometimes violent, that would rock him back and forth. Honestly first time I saw him I remember the deep amount of scorn surge through me as I walked past him and found a seat as far away as possible on the bus. He was just another worthless bum.

As much as I hated seeing him in all his homeless filth, he was still useful to me; he was useful as a timepiece. He always rode that exact same bus at that exact same time each and every day. He became my measure of whether I would get back home on time or late—but for what was I late? It was the only comfort I got from his presence. In the first month that I had seen him I missed the bus only once. I remember how I felt as though my entire world was thrown upside down. I suppose there was something comforting in seeing a familiar face—even one that horrified me—amongst the mass of mindless drones that occupied the bus, sitting there in their own little bubbles trying to consciously forget the passage of time. Why was I so insistent on encroaching upon his?

It was two months later when he first spoke to me. I should have realized something was amiss when I got onto the bus and he was not in his usual seat. I assumed he would not be on the bus, but I didn’t even make sure. I looked to his seat, noticed he wasn’t in it but not whether someone else had replaced him, someone had simply gotten the seat earlier, or even if it was empty; I only noticed that he wasn’t there. I felt anxiety creep over me. Did I miss my bus? Did something happen to him? Was I on the right bus? I sat down in my usual seat and attempted to calm my nerves by closing my eyes. Maybe if I slept I could forget that he wasn’t there.

“Those…those are s-s-some nice shoes you got.” He spoke. He spoke to me. He sat right there, right in front of me and I completely missed him and all I could think about is why. Not ‘why did I miss him?’ but ‘why did he sit across from me?’ ‘why did he break his routine?’ ‘why did he interfere with the way things were supposed to happen? and most of all ‘why did he talk to me?’. I sat there staring back incredulously, incapable of speech. We had a pact, an unspoken code and this creature had dared to break it. Who was he to intrude upon my space, my bubble? I was brimming with anger but kept my composure. I refused to answer or acknowledge him; instead I closed my eyes again and slept. I was woken up later by the bus driver. We reached the last stop and everyone had departed, including that thing.

When I arrived home I found myself completely distracted, unable to finish even one sentence of the book sitting in my lap. I was too busy thinking of him. My thoughts always ended up drifting back towards him. I would conjure up his image, starting with his face, that old wrinkled, spotted face. Then I would work my way down to his slouched shoulders and torso covered by that overcoat, as if hiding some sort of secret. Then I would get to his hands. I always stopped at his hands. In those hands was the item that would come to fascinate me the most, a box.

I don’t remember when I first noticed the box—it certainly wasn’t instantly—but to think about it now, this man I called a creature had always had that box with him, sitting in his lap, enclosed by his hands. For a week after he spoke to me he created a new routine, sitting across from me, staring at me. He didn’t say anything else to me, but he stared at me, and I stared at his lap. As much as he convulsed, there was one part of him that was in total control, his hands. The box they held looked just like he did, older than it probably was and very beat up. It had some kind of faint pattern on it that had faded out. He had a firm grasp on it, not as though he were afraid someone would take it, but as though he were afraid that if he let go it would leave him and he would never get it back. The box absolutely fascinated me. I wanted to lie in wait, a lion ready to spring upon its prey, and snatch the box from his hands. I couldn’t stop thinking about what was in the box. My initial guess was drugs, what with his shaking, and that stutter when he spoke to me. I began to justify it, and infer from the drugs that he wore the overcoat to cover arms lined with needle marks. Deep down though, I knew I was wrong. Deep down I knew that he held the wealth of a world in that box.


I asked her how she knew him, where she knew him from. She was his granddaughter and he had passed away last weekend. His funeral was tomorrow. I was being invited.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” I said, very matter-of-factly. “How did you find me though? How did you know where I live?”

She laughed at my question. I didn’t see what was so funny. She pointed to the house next door, a house that looked identical to mine—and all the other houses in the neighborhood—other than the fact their driveway had a car. “We live right next door.” I couldn’t believe it. All this time he’s lived so close and I never noticed. All this time I was convinced that he was just some destitute carrying an old decrepit box of pictures, some beggar from the streets that told wild stories, but he lived right next door to me in the middle of suburbia—I wish I knew why that even mattered.

At once things began popping into my head. Did he know I lived here? Is that why he approached mehe saw me walking into my house? Why did he never mention that we were neighbors? And finally it sunk. He was dead. There would be no more bus rides, no more stories. He was gone and I’d been invited to his funeral. I didn’t even know his name.

“Anyway, he’s been talking all about his new best friend for the past few months, said you lived next door. We didn’t believe him.” Her head began to sink as she spoke, her eyes dropping and her general posture beginning to slack. Her voice trembled a bit. I could see the grief. And in that grief I saw fondness.

“We told him he should invite you over for dinner and introduce us. He insisted that he would never want to bother you though; that you guys had some kind of special thing going. Honestly I came over here hoping to confirm that he made it all up, but here you are. I’m sure you could tell, he wasn’t all there in the head. He hadissues; at least that’s all the doctors ever said, they could never figure it out. They told us we could put him on some meds that would help level him out, but he was always so happy that we just let him be. It was when Grandma died that he started carrying around that box. We never could figure out where that box or those pictures came from, but there they were, and there he was full of all these new stories, stories that no one had ever heard before. We still don’t know where he got them from. I’m sure you realized that none of them were true.”

“No.” She looked up at me confused. “You’re wrong.”


“My life is in this box.” He spoke to me again. “My whole life…h-h-here in here.” He gave it a light tap, and smiled affectionately displaying yet another image of repugnance, his horribly mal-aligned teeth, yellow with decay, and bloody gums. I continued to stare, scared to talk to him, scared to acknowledge him or his humanity; but I listened, he must have known I was listening. “Y-yeah, whole life. Lemme tell you, I been p-p-places. L-l-lotsa places. You ever see the aurora borealis? Ever b-b-been to th-th-the top of the Tour Eiffel? I did. I done a-a-all of that. S’all right here in this box too.” He opened the box to reveal photographs, lots of photographs, hundreds of them. His life.

And just like that our bubble dissolved. At first he was apprehensive, showing me only a few pictures, telling me about themsmall stories that never quite made sense to me, but were told in such a way that I could never question. It felt as if each story, each photograph encompassed an entire world. Later he started handing me the pictures; letting me hold them, touch them. He made sure I was careful, very careful. The pictures were in almost perfect condition, there were no smudges, no creases; they weren’t in any way faded. It was hard to believe that someone so unkempt kept such perfect pictures in such a beat up box. And through all of this I never spoke to him, never let him hear my voice, let him know that I was aware of everything he was doing. He poured his humanity into my hands and I let it seep through my fingers, my prejudices shackled to the back of my mind. In my eyes he was just a bum.

I know now how significant this moment must have been, but at the time it happened I had assumed it nothing more than the natural progression of whatever this crazy relationship was. He made a huge gesture, what should have registered as a symbol of his trust in me. He handed me his box. I sat there looking as cool as I usually did and opened the box, sifting through it. I picked up random pictures and let him take over. As soon as he saw the picture a trigger was pulled, a memory recalled, recollected, retold. He told me stories about his attempted climb up the Swiss Alps, his cruise around the Mediterranean Sea, his hike across the Gobi desert. He told me about all the people he met like Dr. King, Sir Elton John, two former United States Presidents, Johnson and someone whose name escapes me. He said he even met her Royal Highness herself once. And for every story there was a picture. They never ended. I felt as though I could spend the next year riding this bus and cover not more than one percent of the pictures in this box. Just before we got off the bus, both of us riding it all the way to the end, I would replace every picture very carefully, hand him the box, and walk off hurriedly without any word. These days I really wish I wasn’t in such a hurry.

He stopped showing up on the bus. I remember that anxious feeling returning, like I was about to have a panic attack. I had no idea what to do. My bubble, my protection, had dissolved and I felt as though every single person on the bus was completely aware of me, like they were peering in at me. They saw me as I saw him, and in my state of fear I’m sure I looked quite the same. I had become very aware of each second as it passed. The ride home never quite felt so long. The next day I rushed to the bus station, leaving work early to get there before he would. I waited in a corner for him to appear, watching the clock to make sure it was the right bus. He never showed up. I waited for an hour, watching six buses leave the terminal. He never came. I eventually had to let go and by the end of the week I resumed my rhythm, my bubble returning, normalcy returning, monotony returning.


She laughed again, nervous laughter, still trying to hold back tears. “Maybe you’re right. Who am I to say what is true, huh? Oh…by the way…he never did tell us your name.”

“No…he wouldn’t have.” I took the invitation from her and then I closed the door. I took a seat on the couch and stared at the date contemplating whether I should go. I couldn’t help thinking about his stories. Never once while he told them did the notion of their truthfulness ever cross my mind. He called them his life, were we to suddenly suggest his life was a lie? Maybe they were purely stories, fiction, but they were his reality, and thinking about it really made my own reality seem so drab. He fit his life neatly into a box in pictures; I fit mine neatly into a box called time. No, there was nothing false about his life or his stories. I know now that his was the truest life I have ever encountered.

Then another thought occurred to me, he called me his best friend. I felt a tear slide down my face as I thought about it. What could possibly make him consider me his friend, his best friend? I didn’t deserve his friendship, not the way I thought of him. But that was wrong, even then, even in death, I still couldn’t break the notion that he was beneath me. I don’t think it was until I saw his lifeless body that I could. No, at that moment I was thinking, he wasn’t worthy of calling me a friend. But I did feel a strange pity for him so I went upstairs and spent the day searching my albums for a photograph.

In the end I decided not to go to the funeral. I didn’t want to deal with his family or any other mourners. There was a viewing later on that night though. I waited until the viewing was ending and everyone had left before I went into the funeral parlor. I told the man running it I had gotten there late, that I really wanted to see the deceased. He was very sympathetic and let me through. The room was rather small, not many people could have fit in there. I had a feeling very few people came. The coffin was very simple and plain, and there were flowers everywhere. That mattered little though. I walked over to look at this man whom I had never seen outside of the confines of a bus. He looked so odd to me then, so out of place. I started laughing; it seemed so absurd to see him like this. He was dressed up so nicely, so humanly and yet it felt so fraudulent. He wasn’t meant to dress so nicely, and it was then he transformed in my eyes. It was then I realized how real he was in his dirty clothes, and I suddenly missed him. He lent me his life and I returned it with scorn. I felt then as though he had shared with me more of his life than he did with those who stood alongside him while he lived it. So I cried.

After a moment I was able to regain my composure and complete my mission. I pulled the photograph from my pocket. It was in truth a very bad photo. It was in London at Piccadilly Circus. I remember how disappointed I felt standing there at what was London’s equivalent of Times Square. Still the tourist in me had to get a picture, and so I lined up to get a great shot of the building at the corner lit up with all the lights and advertisements. As soon as I hit the button a big double-decker bus came speeding by. Half of the building was cut out by the blurry back end of the bus. I laughed, took another picture, but was unable to delete the bad one and so I kept it and made a print of it; at the time I didn’t know why. I’m glad I did. In all of his stories and all the places he’d been the one place he lamented on having never once visited was London. He would drone on and on about Buckingham Palace and Big Ben and the Thames and all the things he would love to do while there. I took the picture and began to reach into the coffin to place it in his pocket but changed my mind. I decided to write a message first. If there is anything I am sure of, I am sure of the fact that he got my message. “Welcome to London, Friend.”

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