by Daniel W. Thompson
I just need to avoid eye contact for twenty seconds, though the day’s heat makes things worse. Not for me. For him. He’s wearing the same clothes I suspect he’d wear in the winter. Baggy camouflage pants, multiple pairs of socks, and a weathered tan coat. Not weathered like the wood on my back deck. Not smoothed over, turning light and gray. Weathered like the aluminum siding on my parents’ house, the side that doesn’t dry out. The side that’s streaky green.
The intersection gives him continuous access. With a cardboard sign that reads Hungry and Sick — God Bless You, he works the side stopped for the red light, and when the light turns green, he rotates to the other side. He’s here every day, which is the way I drive home for lunch. Typically I stay in the left lane to avoid this predicament but not today. Today I was distracted. Today, I was told I had two weeks left at my job. It’s the economy, they said. It wasn’t me. I was a great employee. No, it’s just the reality of things now. But good luck, they said.
I stare at the waves in the air just above the hot asphalt and think the guy at the corner always looked deserving. That he’d earned his plight because he smoked crack or stole a car or drank too much vodka. That he put himself on the streets. And I figured the streets would do their job. They’d collect him with the storm water and cigarette butts and the dog shit and sweep all of it into the oceans, but they didn’t collect him. No, the streets didn’t filter him out to sea, and there he stood, anything but biodegradable.
I turn to his rusty face and he hunches over in a plundering stoop. I try to pretend he was never someone’s son or never promised a woman the American dream.
The cars behind me honk and I realize I don’t know how long they’ve been doing so.
The light is green and my twenty seconds are up, but I can’t press the gas. My foot hovers over empty air.
I look into his eyes. They’re a pale, almost hollow. An emptiness with no end, and I shudder at this thought. Am I him? Is that the truth? Am I the one standing in the blazing sun, begging for an act of kindness that could change my life?
I look back to the stoplight and watch it turn red. The horns blow.
Daniel W. Thompson’s work has appeared recently or is forthcoming at publications like Bartleby Snopes, decomP, WhiskeyPaper, Wyvern Lit, Third Point Press and Cheap Pop. He works as a city planner and lives in downtown Richmond, Virginia, with his wife and daughters, cleaning up diapers and dog fur.