Moondance star
Thoughts of Another

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John Gardiner

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Reclining Figure, Anjali Arora
"Reclining Figure"
By Anjali Arora

Each time he heard of another person whom life had injured, he wanted to gather them up, put his arms around them, and tell them it would be all right. Which, of course, it wouldn't. As sad as it was, it would never be all right. That's just the way it is. Life's not fair. How many times had he heard it? And he knew it for sure.

Even now, as he huddled disconsolately under the bridge, seeming to try to shield himself not merely from the bitter, harshness of the early winter blasts, but also from the bitter winds of life, he wondered how things had come to this. Children dying in the streets. People living in despair and poverty. Want even when there was plenty. Where everything looked like nothing. It seemed like it could be the death of life.

He had come to his place in life honestly enough, so had little complaint about his lot. Had never quite had the knack for coping. Could never understand. Had tried to live the life. Smiled the smiles and laughed the laughs. But he could not adjust. He got so he couldn't watch the news on TV or read the newspaper. It bothered him too much. This couldn't be life. Even though it had to be. Once upon a time, it had cost him his everything.

A figure suddenly appeared beneath the bridge, apparently coming from the street above.

"Hey man, mind if I share your digs?" a voice said to him.

It was one of the street kids -- a young girl.

She came under the bridge, hunching over as she came toward him. He could see the toughness of the street in her even in the near-darkness of the place. But, just for a brief moment, he also saw another.

"Christ, is it cold out," she said, as she squatted down near him. "I missed last call at the shelter, so I guess I'm stuck out in this shit for the night. Didn't know you'd be here. Thought everybody'd be inside tonight."

He just sat silently and regarded her. Said nothing. Didn't tell her that this was his life. And he didn't just play the game, he lived the life. She was so young, he thought. She could yet rescue herself from this -- reach out and be pulled back. He was already drifting deep below the surface, lost from sight, all hope abandoned. But he still felt for this child. She should not be here, for while she might yet escape, she also might not. What had brought her to this? Surely she had not tried.

But he could not help but see the other. Even though he struggled to push the thought of her away, so painful was its memory. He remembered back to that other time when he'd had what people might call a life. Working, eating, sleeping. And loving. That was what he had done all those years ago. Lived and loved. First a woman, and then their child. He'd loved them both. But they had been taken from him. He could not cope and so was shattered.

"You're quiet," the girl said, blowing into her hands in a vain attempt to warm them. "You want I should leave you alone. At least you look harmless." There was a certain harsh sarcasm to her tone when she made the last comment.

And he was harmless. He meant no harm to others. And that had perhaps been one of his problems in the time before. Most others could not claim to be harmless, so it was that he had been the victim of their harm, when even an ill-chosen bit of conversation could mete out a malevolence that it seemed only he could feel. And after the conversation, there had been discussion. And after the discussion, argument. And he had been cast out. And they had left.

The girl went up to the other corner of the structure, trying to escape, as much as was possible, the icy fingers of wind that reached in from the world outside.

He continued to sit quietly. But as he sat, he could not help but glance in the direction of the girl, and as he looked upon her, and saw her miserable frame squatting there, and shivering and shaking in the cold, he was somehow moved -- perhaps again seeing the other. So, he gathered up his ragged, old, plaid blanket, the one he had had wrapped around him, and went to the girl, placing it over her shoulders.

She looked up at him, and for just an instant, the rough surface of her life was shed, and he saw her only as a young girl, alone and frightened, far from home. The truth of her existence. He could often see inside others in like fashion.

"Thanks," she said, offering him a type of smile, and there was almost a softness to it.

And he went off to the corner of the place to be with himself. He burrowed deep into his jacket, almost as if he was trying to hide away from the inhospitable weather, or even perhaps from some of the other inconveniences of this place.

They would not freeze, but they were cold. He had almost frozen some winters back, felt the deepness of the sleep coming over him and overcoming him; the sleep that he knew could spell an ending. But on this night, it was a hurtful cold that snapped at the toes and fingers, and would not let him fall into a proper sort of sleep, so that for most of the night, he existed just beneath the surface of consciousness, falling away, but always sensing the reality. He hoped the girl was all right.

She was. The gray sky was finally filled with an early-morning half-light, and he pulled himself upright and looked over to see that she was just starting to stir under the ragged, old blanket.

"Hey, pops, sleep well?" she asked, and the harsh sarcasm had returned to her voice. She sat upright, giving a brief yawn, and gathered the blanket up, tossing it over toward him.

"Christ," she complained, stretching. "What a night. Just about froze my ass off." She paused.. "Thanks for the blanket, though," she added, and her tone softened somewhat.

She climbed to her feet, standing in the hunched sort of way that was required under the bridge.

"Well, I'm heading for the kitchen," she said. "You want to try for some breakfast?" She looked over at him as she asked the question.

"Sure," he answered. It was the first word he had spoken for some time.

He gathered the blanket up and bound it with a piece of twine, slinging it over his shoulder, and followed her up and out from under the bridge. A rush of early morning traffic greeted them as they arrived on the street.

They walked silently along the streets to the kitchen, a place where the transient could usually find a bite to eat. But she was on his mind. She might have been of an age that she could have walked beside him even now. Yet how could this girl, the one at his side, have come to be in this place and in this condition? And there were so many others like her. And each time he came upon one, it was the same. Thoughts of her and what she might have become. And thoughts that he had not been allowed to be there for her, so that she too might have come to this.

Finally, they arrived where they were going. The place was open, but there were few about, since it was early, and the shelters had not yet opened their doors to turn out their ill-begotten victims. He followed the girl up to the counter where they were meted out some of the repast intended for people of the street. And they found the corner of one of the long tables that filled the place, and sat to enjoy the meal, such as it was.

"Man, this stuff tastes like shit," the girl exclaimed, almost before the first spoonful had reached her lips.

He looked up, but seemed to pay her only scant attention.

"You sure are quiet," she continued, poking her spoon into the porridge-like material in her bowl.

"Most of the time there doesn't seem to be much to say," he answered flatly, between mouthfuls.

"So, you can talk," she said.

"Oh, yea, I can talk," he answered. "It's one of the many talents I have in this life." He added his own touch of sarcasm.

The girl returned briefly to the food, as did he to his.

"You an alcky?" she finally asked.

"No," he answered. "I've never seen much point to it."

"Then, what are you doing sleeping under bridges and living like this?" she asked. "Most of the old guys I see around here are drinkers. You're not a drinker?"

"Nope," he answered, "but I'm the one who should be asking you what you're doing sleeping under bridges and living like this."

"Hey, my parents are tyrants," she answered with a tone of defiance in her voice. "They were ogres. Real bastards. I had to get out."

He looked toward her while she spoke, and he could sense that the defiance, and the rebelliousness that she now seemed to exhibit, were nothing more than bravado; a false front she cast up to keep others away.

They sat for a moment in silence, she toying once more with the remains of her food, he finishing his.

"I have a hard time believing it could be this bad," he finally said, initiating the conversation for the first time.

"It was bad," she answered without looking up.

"Sometimes parents are just misunderstood and sometimes they don't understand themselves," he said, wondering as he spoke the words just why he had said them, and with what authority.

She looked up and the expression on her face made him think she was asking herself the same question.

"Sorry," he said. "That just sort of slipped out. I don't really know what I'm talking about. Never had any experience at it." He lied.

They sat for another moment in silence, having pretty much finished the food.

"Well, I'm going to get going," she said. "I can meet up with a few friends uptown. Maybe we can do some panhandling, so I don't have to eat here tonight."

They walked back to the front of the place, returned their dishes, then headed back out into the outside.

"A pleasure for your company," he said, as they turned to part.

"Yea, thanks," she said, and she gave him another of those smiles, like the one she had given him last night under the bridge, when she had seemed to lower her guard and the exterior street toughness was shed, just for an instant.

And so he walked off and in the opposite direction to her. He would make for the library. He would read away this cold, early-winter day, lost among the stacks of forgiving literature, where those who resided cared not who you might be, or what you had become.

A few days later, he was uptown, having been fortunate enough to have found some brief work loading trucks, so that he had a small amount of money and was searching out a commodity he might purchase to make his life a little easier. He walked along the storefronts, gazing within, and found that even one such as he could be almost intoxicated by the desire to consume. He found there were material things that he would like to have, even though he had no place for them. Mainly they were things he had once known. But his mission was for a necessity -- a coat -- not one of the frills.

He was standing off to the edge of the sidewalk, pondering his options, when he heard her voice.

"Hey, pops," she said. "What are you doing up at this end of town?"

He looked and saw the girl. He smiled, but thought she looked unwell.

"I'm doing some shopping," he answered. "How's the panhandling?"

"Oh great," she answered, a little more quickly than might be expected. "What are you shopping for?" she asked.

He told her of his expedition for a coat, explaining that old guys like him felt the cold more than youngsters like her.

But, just as he finished, he saw the colour fade from her face, and her knees seemed to buckle, and he found himself holding her to keep her from falling onto the sidewalk.

He gently lowered her to the ground. Some people started to gather. Her eyelids fluttered open.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"I'll be all right," she said.

"You're starvin'", he said, helping her as she got back to her feet.

"I'm all right," she repeated.

The small crowd dispersed when they saw the girl regain her feet. He guessed he didn't look like her ideal companion, but her own appearance told of life in the street, so there was probably little concern for her.

"You sure don't look all right," he said to her. "You look awful pale. When was the last time you ate?"

"I had some day old donuts yesterday," she said.

"I mean something decent," he said.

She looked up at him with a kind of sheepish look on her face. "Come on," he said, taking her by the arm. And the coat was forgotten.

They walked up the street a short distance to where a restaurant was located, one that would admit those such as they, and soon they were sitting over steaming bowls of hot soup and waiting for the main course.

"What about your coat?" she asked, as she crushed some crackers into her soup.

"There'll always be another coat," he answered. "You I'm not so sure about."

And he watched as she eagerly started in on the soup, and again the toughness of the street was gone from her, and he could see who she really was. And, again, he was reminded of another, and could almost feel her soft gentleness bathing him in luxurious comfort. It was like she somehow glowed and it surrounded him.

"You know you never did tell me how you came to be living like you do," she said, pushing aside the soup bowl.

"It's kind of a long story," he answered.

"And one you'd rather not tell," she commented.

"Oh, I've no secrets," he said softly.

The main course arrived, and the waitress interrupted them. They sat waiting for her to deliver the food.

"Well," the girl said, when it had been accomplished.

He looked over at her as he salted his food.

"You know this stuff's not good for you," he said, indicating the salt, "and I'm not good for life."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I used to be sort of normal," he answered. "Whatever that means. But I've just sort of given up on the whole thing.........Or maybe it's sort of given up on me."

There was a little pause in the conversation, as he let his last comment hang, and she seemed not to know what to say.

"You have any family?" she finally asked, not letting it rest.

"Somewhere," he answered, not looking up from his plate.

"Kids?" she asked, persisting.

"One," he answered, still not looking up.

There was another pause, this one more awkward and difficult than the last one had been.

"A girl," he finally continued, now looking up and meeting her gaze. "Probably about your age." His voice was quiet and even. No emotion.

She looked back at him and there was a thoughtfulness to her expression. "How long since you've seen her?" she asked.

"When she was about this high," he said, indicating the height of a small child, his voice remaining flat and even.

"It must be hard," she said, and there was sincerity in her voice.

A pause. The voice flat and even, the outside calm, but the inside weeping.

"And what about your parents?" he asked, using the conversation's moment of vulnerability to turn it about on her.

"What about them?" she said, and her face turned harder, and with it her voice.

"It must be hard for them," he answered. "How long since they've seen you?"

"Hey, they had their chance," she said defiantly. "They blew it." She paused, before adding, "let's drop it."

"You should think about them," he said.

She shot a fierce look in his direction.

"It's dropped," he said, trying to look innocent, as if he'd meant no harm.

And it was dropped, but he hoped the point had been made.

They finished the meal, and he paid the bill, leaving a generous tip. They headed back out into the outdoors, and the hustle and bustle of the street. And she helped him shop for a new hat and gloves, because that was all he had money for after the impromptu meal. And as they walked from store to store, and she walked by his side, he was reminded that Christmas was approaching, and many others were out and about buying this and that for the special people in their lives. It was a season he had not celebrated for all these many years, having no special people in his life.

But he felt good as he walked with the girl, and at one point, he slipped away from her. Forgoing a purchase for himself, he bought her a white, puffy-soft pair of earmuffs. He grinned from ear to ear as he pulled them from behind his back and presented them to her.

She laughed and he smiled as she tried them on, and modeled them for him. He felt alive; filled with life.

Finally, though, after buying himself some headgear appropriate to the winter season, the day was drawing to a close. He knew he'd have to get out of the city centre for the night.

"You should get to the shelter," he said.

"I hate that place," she answered.

"It's better than the street," he said. "And it's safer."

"Now you sound like my Dad," she accused, but not angrily.

"Sorry," he answered. "But it's true."

"All right," she said, "I'll go to the shelter."

They parted company for the second time. He felt some sorrow as he glanced back over his shoulder to see her disappearing into the Christmas crowds. He felt there was a goodness to her, and that she should not be in the street, and that she could be quickly overmatched by its guileful ways. But he let her go. And he hoped she'd think about her home and her parents.

It got bitterly cold, as might be expected for the middle of December, after his meeting with the girl, and he often thought of her and wondered what she might be up to. And, of course, he hoped for her well-being, wanting her to find her way in life.

So it was that nearly two weeks passed, and, in fact, he reckoned that Christmas was tomorrow as he walked along the darkened streets in the early evening. He had been pursuing the favourite pastime of his sedentary lifestyle, reading at one of the neighbourhood libraries, when he spotted two figures up under a streetlight at the end of the block. One figure seemed to be tugging at the other. The figure who was being tugged suddenly fell to the ground and the one that remained standing reached up as if to strike it.

It was at that instant he recognized that the scene was of a young man and a girl, with the girl on her knees, and the man about to strike. He thought he knew her."Hold on!" he shouted. The boy hesitated, and glared at him. "What do you want, old man?" he barked.

"Leave the girl alone," he said evenly, but firmly.

"Or what?" the thug asked brutishly. He again threatened the girl with his raised hand.

"You'll have me to deal with," the old man said, as coldly and icily as was possible.

The two stood stalk still. Silent. White clouds of vaporous breath filled the air about them. The girl sat silent. Confrontation. Tension. Anxiety. He could feel the sweat trickling down his spine even in the coldness of the evening.

"Ah, Christ," the thug suddenly hissed. "She's not worth it. The little tramp." He kicked snow up on the girl and turned to go. He turned back for a moment and warned, "Don't piss me off, Gramps."

But Gramps continued to stand statuesque under the streetlight. He said nothing. Felt he must look tough. Must not flinch. Must not show weakness.

The kid turned and was gone from the circle of light cast by the lamp. He looked toward her. "You all right?" he asked, helping her to her feet.

"Yeah," she answered, brushing the snow off, "but I might not have been if you hadn't come along."

"Great company you keep," he said.

"I can usually take care of myself," she countered, and her usual toughness started to return.

"It sure looked like it," he replied.

She looked at him and the expression on her face showed disapproval at his remark.

A moment passed when neither seemed to know what to say. "Want to go for a coffee?" he suddenly asked.

"You got money?" she asked, her eyebrows arched.

"A couple of bucks," he answered. "Enough for coffee."

"I don't know how you do it," she said, "but I'd be glad to have a coffee. It's the best offer I've had all day."

"Somehow I don't doubt that," he said.

They walked off into the night in search of a coffee shop. But they had not walked far, when he heard the sound of sobbing coming from her. He stopped, pulling her to a stop also.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

She looked toward him and her face was one of misery and wretchedness, tear-streaked and dirty. She fell into him, putting her arms around him, her body now wracked with the weeping.

"God," she cried, "I just want to die. I hate this. It's Christmas Eve."

The words tumbled out of her, but they found themselves a place deep within him. He held her tight, trying to offer her strength and comfort, but he felt emotion well up in him, and tears come to his eyes.

They stood for a silent moment. Finally, the sobs subsided somewhat, and she relaxed her embrace of him, so that he did the same.

"What about your friends?" he asked. "The ones you panhandle with."

"That was my boyfriend," she moaned, using her coat sleeve to wipe away the remnants of the tears. "He and I were going to be together on Christmas....."

"Even the best laid plans," he answered, reaching out and brushing her hair back and out of her face.

"I'm sorry about this," she said.

"It's okay," he answered. "I understand."

She smiled at him and he returned her offering.

"What about the coffee?" she asked.

"Come on," he said, reaching out and pulling her by the elbow as he went.

So they started again to search for a coffee shop that would be open on Christmas Eve.

They came upon one directly, people not being quite as religious about Christmas as they once had been, and were soon sitting, hands cradling mugs of steaming coffee.

"There's one thing I don't understand, though," he said, picking up the conversation from where he had ended it out on the street.

"What's that?" she asked.

"What you did to deserve this," he said, looking straight and even at her.

"What do you mean?" she asked, a look of suspicion on her face.

"You must have been an awfully rotten kid for your parents to throw you out and make you live in the streets," he said.

"They were the rotten ones," she answered. "They drove me out."

"How?" he asked. "What did they do that was so bad?"

"Christ, they wouldn't give me any freedom," she responded, and there was a trace of anger in her voice. "They wouldn't let me grow up. They treated me like a little kid." Her hands became animated to punctuate the words.

"This is better?" he asked, gesturing around.

Her anger seemed to turn to sorrow. He could see tears welling up again in her eyes, and her face crunched up into a mournful look. She covered her face with her hands, perhaps to hide from him, perhaps to hide from the world.

"Don't do this to me," she said, her voice barely a whisper.

"Go home," he said to her.

"They'd never want me back," she said.

"I think you're wrong," he answered. "I'd want you back. So will they."

She sat for a moment, looking down toward the surface of the table. There was silence.

"They'd never take me back," she finally said, her voice soft and quiet but firm, almost as if she was trying to convince herself.

"You should try," he said. "They can't even find you to try. You're the one who's got to make the first move. You should try," he repeated.

"How?" she asked.

"Do they live in the city?"

"Yeah," she answered. "They do."

"Is it far?" he asked.

"It's a ways," she said, "but not that far."

"I'll walk you," he said.

She sat for a moment, first playing with her fingers, then fiddling with the spoon from her coffee. "What if it doesn't work?" she finally asked.

"At least you tried," he answered. "If it doesn't work at home and you still want to get straightened out, we'll just have to find another way. You don't have to live like this."

Another moment of silence, her anxiety filling the air between them so he thought he could feel it. He reached out and put his hand on hers, trying to offer what solace he could. But he said nothing more.

More silence.

"I'll try," she finally said, nodding her head slowly and deliberately.

"Good," he answered, giving her hand a tight little squeeze.

They walked through darkened streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares and taking the sidestreets, and enjoying the Christmas decorations as they walked.

"Do you think they'll have a Christmas tree up?" the girl asked at one point.

"I'm sure they will," he answered.

But, for the most part, other than some polite banter about the decorations, they were quiet. After some time, she started to lead the way, knowing where their destination lay.

And, finally, she stopped.

"There it is," she said, gesturing to a split-level structure, tastefully bedecked for the season. In the same instant, she turned her back to it, and leaned her head on his chest. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"I don't know about this," she said. "It's got to be on my terms."

"You've got to talk," he answered. "It's got to be on both your terms. You've got to talk."

"I don't know," she said.

"You've nothing to lose?" he said.

Silence. He could feel the tension in her.

"You're right," she finally answered, stepping back from him, and turning toward the house.

Then she turned back toward him. "What about you?" she asked.

He smiled. "I'll be fine."

"You'll be alone at Christmas," she said.

"I'm meeting some guys at the shelter. We're going to the mission for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings tomorrow. They put on a real good feed," he answered.

"You sure?"

"Don't worry about me," he said. "Just go and give your parents a big Christmas present." He gestured toward the house.

She stepped forward and gave him a quick little kiss on the cheek. "Thanks," she whispered in his ear, stepping back.

"Make it work," he said.

And she was gone, walking up the sidewalk toward the house. There seemed to be some bounce in her step. She looked back once, waved and smiled.

He walked a short distance from where they'd stood. Then he turned back for one more look. He could see the girl standing on the porch to the house, and two other figures were with her, and the three were joined in embrace. Perhaps it would work out, he thought. Perhaps it would.

But as he resumed his walk, a tear gently trickled down his well-worn face, as he thought of another girl; one he had not seen for many years. He hoped she was well and happy at Christmas.

He stayed under the bridge that night. And it was cold, but not so cold that you would freeze. The next day, he lit a small fire in the ravine near the bridge, and heated a can of vegetable soup over it for his repast. But he felt at peace. That he had been able to reach out and put his arms around even one had been something. Maybe it couldn't always be all right. But sometimes it could. Maybe life wasn't fair. But sometimes if you tried hard enough, and got the breaks, it almost seemed so.

He never saw the girl again. But that was best.


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John Gardiner is a Canadian short story writer who has been published in Richmond Review, Southern Ocean Review, Oyster Boy Review, Treeline and many other publications. He has self-published four chapbooks of his work, writes a regular newspaper column and has been a frequent freelance contributor to magazines and newspapers. He has also appeared on CBC-Radio (national public radio in Canada) and has been featured on a variety of other radio and television programs to discuss his work. John is always looking for feedback on his fiction and invites readers to contact him at: gardiner@kent.net

 

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| Behind the Kroger Store
Thoughts of Another
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