By Kenneth Stepp
The other day I was walking through the historic part of a quaint southern town. As I came to an intersection I noticed an old man. He was just sitting on the sidewalk and leaning against the building. He was a big man, like me. Something in his eyes made me stop. I walked over to him and said, how are you today? He looked up at me with a look that could kill. I realized that today was probably like every other day for him. Survival was what woke him every morning and motivated him to beg for money from passers by. After the look, I started to walk off. I’d given him a smile. I did what I could, I thought. Was it guilt or something else that compelled me to go back to him? Who knows. All I knew is there was something inside me that made me want to help this filthy old man. Yep. That’s the sentence that came to mind. I dug into my pocket and handed him three one dollar bills. Thank you, he said, and gave me a smile. He was missing a couple of teeth in front. But his smile was genuine.
So, have you lived around here long? He looked at me and said, I moved here decades ago. It was Summer. If you don’t mind me asking. Why did you stick around if things were so rough for you here? I can’t leave, he explained. Everything I love is right here in this little town. I could see a sparkle in his eye now. Have you ever lost anything important to you son, he asked. Of course, everyone has losses. He glared at me this time with fearless eyes that felt he could see through me. Losses are numbers on a balance sheet boy. I’m talking about losing something that matters. Losing someone very dear to you. Family son. The only thing that truly matters at the end of the day. Do you have any kids boy? As a matter of fact I do, I have a daughter, she’s two. Do you love her? Deeply I exclaimed. More than life itself. I’d lay my life down for her. He looked at me with a face that commanded my attention. How about living for her instead of dying for her? Life will be better that way. And that love you have for her. It never goes away. Your heart can’t live without her. Hers can without you. It’s the way life works.
I married a few years after moving here, he explained. I was a small business owner. We had it all back in the day. Or at least it seemed that way. My wife and I wanted to raise a family. We had two children. A girl and a boy. They were amazing kids. Smart, good looking, and instilled with a great work ethic. The recession hit and wiped us out. Everything changed. We went from having it all to losing everything. While we scrambled to make ends meet and recover. My wife and I became distant. A few years later, we divorced. We just gave up. The kids were out of high school by then and creating lives of their own. Wonderful lives. My ex works several jobs to get by. I left out on my own. The constant struggle of keeping a roof over my head led me to a state of constant stress. To break free, if only temporarily, I hit the bottle. It didn’t take long to fall to where I am today. I receive $300.00 retirement now. It feeds me but not much else. Not much of a life really. I know I could end it all any time I want. And that’s a question I face every day. Is today the day….
So what’s next for you, I asked. Next… For guys like me, next is just a dream. A dream that will never come true. For me, there is no next. Do you know many of these people walking through town? I know them. But they don’t know me. Or they don’t recognize me. The man they knew wore clean fresh clothes and didn’t have this long gray beard. You mentioned everything you love is in this town. What does that mean? When we were an intact family, every Saturday we had breakfast across the street at the old diner. My kids still meet there most Saturdays. It’s a good day when I can watch them from here. I handed him a $20.00 bill as I was walking away. I turned and asked. May I have your name? He looked at me with those broken eyes and said, you already know my name son. Kenneth, he said with a smile. Hey man, that’s my name. As I walked away, he yelled to me, “your wife is with child, his name is Samuel”, I turned around to wave goodbye, and he was gone… Like he was never there at all. One word echoed through my mind… Choices.
“In this world of memories, there’s no need for strangers”
― Nobuhiro Watsuki