Short Story — “The Beggar”

The Eye-Dancers, it’s my hope, tackles, among other things, the very concept of what we term “reality.”  What does “real” mean?  And is the line that separates “reality” from our perceptions and dreams and nightmares truly as distinct as we might imagine?  What other worlds and universes exist, and how can two strangers, so far apart it’s nearly impossible to imagine the distance, share a psychic connection, a cosmic bond, with one another?

Of course, there are many ways a story can question our perceptions and our views of reality.  Over ten years ago, I wrote a short story titled “The Beggar,”  in which the protagonist  is confronted by something, and someone, who ultimately contradicts some of his long-held assumptions and challenges the way he looks at the world.

I hope you enjoy “The Beggar.”

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“The Beggar”

Copyright 2014 Michael S. Fedison

*****************

Looking through the bus window, Mark saw the beggar. The old man was standing in front of a middle-aged blonde woman, no doubt asking, pleading, for money, just a dollar, just a quarter, anything to help out. Mark knew the routine. He’d been on the receiving end of it more than once.

“Look at that old loser,” Mark’s seatmate, a prematurely graying accountant named Harold Gardener, said. The bus slowly lumbered on, and the beggar disappeared, as if by magic. A Winchell’s Donuts, a Burger King, and the entire assortment of suburban paraphernalia came into view and then slipped past in a never-ending display of sprawl. “I’ve seen that freeloader way too many times. Why don’t they arrest him? Or shoot ‘im.”

Mark said nothing. He sat with Gardener several times a week—the accountant worked four blocks north of Mark’s office and never said good-bye when Mark got up to leave, so Mark had stopped saying good-bye, too—but he’d learned early on that they disagreed on most issues, the beggar among them. Gardener seemed to hate him, eyeing him as he would the carrier of some soul-infesting disease. But Mark could sympathize with the old man. Even the word beggar sounded distasteful to him. Maybe the guy was all right. Maybe he’d even been successful once.

“Filth, that’s what bums like that are,” Gardener continued. He glanced at Mark, as though awaiting a reaction. When he didn’t get one, he said, “I didn’t move my family out here to deal with filth like that. Know what I mean?” With that, Gardener faced forward, looking at the brown hair of a businesswoman seated in front of him.

Mark looked at Gardener. “I think you’re too hard on him. I mean, c’mon, filth?”

Gardener snorted. It was the kind of sound a man makes when in the presence of unspeakable stupidity. “I see enough of those bums in the city. Down by Coors and the train station. I don’t need to see them here.”

Mark thought of pursuing the conversation, but he didn’t. He knew Gardener’s view of the old man was set in granite, and it was just too early for an argument. Better to let it rest. Hopefully, they wouldn’t see the beggar again. The bus rarely passed him.

But Mark had seen the old man several times, never knowing when or where he’d turn up. The beggar seemed as unpredictable as the weather. The first time Mark encountered him, in fact, he had been walking down the litter-free streets of an upscale neighborhood.

It had been a chilly day in mid-October, with a perfect Colorado blue sky and a tang in the air that felt so pure and fresh, Mark wanted to take a bite out of it. He was enjoying his daily lunch stroll, walking through the neighborhood behind his office. He rarely failed to take a walk at lunchtime, even during winter cold spells or spring snowstorms or summer rain showers. It was a running joke at the office. They said, rain or sleet or snow, Mark will take his walk, even more reliable than the postal service! You could set your clock to it. But he didn’t mind the teasing. At least he stood out for something. Besides, it was good to get away from the cubicles and the people and the stress. It was—

A gaunt old man with a full, gray beard and a tattered wool hat turned the corner at the nearest stop sign. He was heading toward Mark.

Mark did a double-take. The man’s appearance did not fit in with the affluent surroundings of the neighborhood. Most of the lawns were large and well-tended, and the houses—sleek, new ranches with attached garages and gigantic western-facing windows—all looked shiny and polished, as if they had just been given a coat of varnish.

Not wishing to judge a book by its cover but unable to avoid it, Mark quickly deduced the man was a vagrant. Trying to appear indifferent, acting as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Mark slowly crossed the street, wanting to avoid the man without making it look so obvious. He whistled a tune as he did, giving the performance an air of nonchalance it otherwise might have lacked. He focused his attention to the west. Over the rooftops of the ranches, the distant snowcapped peaks of the Front Range sparkled like sunlit diamonds.

“Pardon me, young man? Young man?”

Mark turned his head. The drifter was there, staring at him. He berated himself. While he had been carelessly enjoying the view, the old-timer must have snuck up on him.

“Do you live here?” The beggar had no teeth that Mark could see. His face was covered in a scraggly forest of white hair. His wool hat had holes in it. It looked nearly as old as the man who wore it.

“Uh, no, no, I just work here.” Mark was looking for an out. He could have simply walked away—he knew most guys would—but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His wife had always told him how much she appreciated his sensitivity. Right now, he wished he could be as bottom-line oriented and callous as Gardener. “I work over on East Hampden. I’m just taking a walk.”

The old man nodded, then said, “It’s good that you have a job. I had a job once. A whole bunch of them. But I don’t have one now. What do you say, my young friend? Can you help a fella out? I didn’t eat any breakfast this morning, and my stomach’s groaning.”

Mark couldn’t believe how fast the man had launched into his sales pitch. He started to walk away.

“Hey, wait!” the old man said, following Mark. “Even a dollar would help! Even a quarter.”

Mark kept walking, but the man had caught up with him. “Why are you in this neighborhood, mister?” Mark asked. He picked up his pace. So did the beggar. “You might get arrested just for hanging around here. You shouldn’t be here.”

“Oh, I know,” the man said. He was huffing now, struggling to keep up with Mark. “People here are much too good to even look at me. But I wanted to do something different today. Is that so bad?”

“No, it’s just—”

“And then you came along, and I thought—‘well, what a break. That nice young fella will help me buy some lunch. Thank the Lord for his kindness’. That’s what I thought, yessir. Now, how about it, fella? Give an old man a break, huh? Just a few bucks. A few measly bucks. What’s it to you?”

They walked past a white ranch with skylights and a privacy fence to the rear and sides. A young woman in a ponytail was working in her flower garden, preparing it for winter. She eyed Mark and the beggar with suspicion. What is that grungy old man doing on my street? her look said. We don’t have people like that on my street. Mark shot her a disapproving look right back, and suddenly felt a strong impulse to give the man some money.

Turning a corner, walking past more polished, white ranches, Mark stopped. The beggar stopped, too, then bent over and gasped as if he had just sprinted five miles and needed to get his wind back.

“You walk too fast, young man,” the drifter said once he had sufficiently recovered. “Give an old guy a break.”

Mark took out his wallet, fished inside, then handed the man a ten dollar bill—and imagined how fiercely his wife would protest. He had been stopped by beggars before, and he almost always gave them something. One time, two summers ago, she let him have it after he had given some guy a twenty.

“What’s the point?” she had said. “All they do is go spend it on booze. They’re better off without it.”

“But he said he wanted to buy something for his daughter. He said—”

His wife rolled her eyes. “Oh, please, Mark. Spare me.”

“I thought you liked my sensitivity,” he said, a pout on his face. He fought to remove it. Pouting never worked with his wife.

“There’s a fine line sometimes,” she said, frowning, “between sensitivity and stupidity. Giving a beggar a twenty and thinking he’s gonna spend it on something other than booze? That, I’m afraid, crosses the line.”

That ended the discussion. He thought about pressing his case—the man’s eyes had looked so honest, so needy—but he admitted to himself that his wife was probably right. Still, what could he do about it? She’d told him before he had a face that attracted beggars.

“What?” he’d protested. “How so?”

“Because,” she’d replied. “They can see you’re a softie.”

Last year, they’d moved out of Denver and headed southeast. They now lived in a brick ranch several miles outside the city. Their neighborhood was quiet, even dull, but peaceful. And there were no beggars. He worked in Aurora, and for a while he hadn’t had to deal with any beggars there, either. But the old man in the wool cap changed all of that.

Handing the ten dollar bill to the man, Mark resolved not to tell his wife about it.

“Bless you, son, bless you!” the man gushed. He seemed like a kid on a treasure hunt who has just discovered the coveted prize. It made Mark uncomfortable. The man’s ridiculous display, his outright begging—he had no pride, no dignity. That’s what bothered Mark the most, and that’s what made him think he could never beg for money himself. “You don’t know how grateful I am!” the old man said.

“It’s okay, really,” Mark said. “Just go get something good to eat. No big deal.” He looked around at the white ranches. No one was outside. But that didn’t mean someone wasn’t watching this spectacle from behind a window. He told the old man he needed to get back to the office.

“Bless you, young man,” the beggar repeated when Mark started to walk away. “I’ll never forget this.”

I hope you do, was all Mark thought.

The bus did not pass by the beggar again for a long while. And Mark himself had been spared dealing with the old man, too. After that first encounter, he’d been flagged down by the beggar a handful of other times—and he always gave the man a dollar or two, never again a full ten—but it now had been months since their paths had crossed. That was okay with Mark. He suspected his wife’s harsh view applied to this beggar as much as it did to any other—though he never recalled having smelled alcohol on the man’s breath.

As more time passed and he didn’t see the beggar, Mark wondered if maybe the old man had moved on to another section of town, or even died. It certainly was possible. He had to have been at least seventy, and, with his vagabond lifestyle, he couldn’t have been in good health. The possibility of the man’s death had no effect on Mark. It did not sadden him. What was an old drifter to him? Nor did it please him. He was positive the beggar’s death would please Gardener, though.

But the old man was not dead.

“I swear, if he ever tries that with me again, I’ll punch ‘im, tear ‘im in half!” Gardener raged. “Old freeloading . . . ”

“Where’d you see him?” Mark asked.

“Right outside my office! Can you believe it? The nerve of those people!” The bus worked its way through streets still soaked from on overnight thundershower. But the sky was brightening by the minute, and warm spring sunshine filtered through the window, striking Gardener on the side of his face.

“I thought he might be dead. I hadn’t seen him in a while,” Mark said.

“Well, he’ll wish he was dead if he ever asks me for money again! Old piece of—”

Mark tapped Gardener on the elbow and nodded imperceptibly (he hoped) across the aisle. Gardener glanced in that direction, at the people seated across from him and Mark. An old woman with a floral dress sat next to a little girl with pigtailed blonde hair. The woman was glaring at Gardener—and Mark—and the girl was gaping at them with wide-eyed delight, as though she were hoping to hear a forbidden word. Mark had never seen either of them before, and he doubted he’d see them again.

Gardener clenched his teeth and whispered, “Great. Now I can’t even talk about it.”

“That’s why a wife is good,” Mark offered. “Great sounding board.”

Gardener shook his head. He’d said before he wasn’t the marrying kind.

“What did you say to him?” Mark asked. He didn’t understand why he cared, but for some reason, he did.

“I told ‘im—” Gardener said, his voice loud again, and Mark nudged him. Stealing a quick glance across the aisle, Mark was sure that if the old woman’s eyes could shoot laser beams, both he and Gardener would be vaporized by now. The pigtailed girl was still smiling. From the back of the bus, there was laughter. From the front, a few muffled words, but mainly silence, save for the drone of the bus’s engine and the swoosh of the tires as they sloshed through the rain-drenched street.

“I told ‘im to get his filthy, lice-infested self out of there,” Gardener said quietly, obviously fighting to keep his temper in check. “I told ‘im to go beg somewhere else, or go stand in front of the next garbage truck he sees. Then they could run ‘im over, pick ‘im up, and take ‘im to the dump with the rest of the trash.”

Mark said, “Man, you really hate that guy, don’t you?”

“Yup,” Gardener said. “Like I hate fleas, or roaches. Pests. Like I hate pests.”

That day on his lunchtime walk, Mark crossed paths with the beggar. It had been so long since he’d seen him, it caught him by surprise. He was walking through a different neighborhood today, several blocks away from the office. The houses in here were not as polished, not as large, and several For Sale signs dotted the bottoms of lawns. He liked this neighborhood, in part because it did not feel so suffocating, in part because it had a lot of trees—primarily maple, Russian Olive, and spruce, but there were also a few aspen and dogwood. He also liked it that no one else from his office ever walked through this area. Some of the others strolled through the upper-class neighborhood close by, but no one came this far out. Any time he really needed to get away from it all, he came here.

He had been thinking of what to get his wife on their wedding anniversary in August. It would mark their eighth year together, which amazed him. It seemed just yesterday that they had exchanged their vows. He wanted to surprise her this time, really come up with something original. But before he could construct a mental list of potential possibilities, he spotted the beggar.

He had just turned a corner and was walking toward Mark, briskly, with a purpose, as if he’d known Mark would be walking down these streets today. Mark brushed that idea aside as sheer foolishness. Just a coincidence, that’s all, and not a very appealing one. He didn’t want to deal with the old-timer today. He hated the begging, the loss of all self-respect. If the drifter was not embarrassed at his own behavior, Mark was embarrassed for him. Instinctively, he felt for the bulge in his pants pocket—his wallet. He was pretty sure he had a few singles in there.

This time, Mark did not pretend he wanted to cross the street. He walked straight for the old man. The best thing to do, he figured, was to get this over with, give the man some small bills, then cut short the “bless you, young man” performance that would undoubtedly follow.

They approached each other. Mark looked down at the pavement. If the beggar wanted to stop him, he would. If not, Mark would keep right on walking. No reason to offer money unasked.

“Young man, young man.”

Why am I not surprised? Mark thought. He noticed the beggar was still wearing his wool hat, despite the heat of the day.

“Hey, slow down, and give an old guy a break, huh?” the man said. “Don’t make me run after you again.”

Mark came to a stop. He and the beggar stood on a sidewalk in front of a beige ranch with a roof that looked like it needed repairing. Mark thought that roof must have leaked last night, during the rain storm. A tall maple tree, its leaves still wet and glistening in the sun, provided the two of them with welcome shade.

“You remember me,” Mark said.

“Of course I remember you. Ten dollars last fall. Made me have a heart attack almost, chasing after you that way. And whenever I’ve seen you since, you’ve been generous.”

Mark winced. Generous? What was a dollar or two? He wondered if most people responded to the old man the way Gardener did. If so, it was easy to see how his pittance had seemed generous to the man. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and took out a five dollar bill.

“Here you go, mister.”

The beggar just looked at the bill, then at Mark. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled out into the tangled, gnarled beard that covered his cheeks. Then he shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not today.” He reached into his own pants pocket, and for a moment, Mark worried that the old man was going to pull out a gun. But all he had was a one dollar bill. “I know it isn’t much,” he said. “But take it, and please know I’d give more if I could.”

Mark stood there, and he felt his jaw drop open. He didn’t know if he should feel honored or insulted. What exactly was going on here? In the distance, from somebody’s backyard, he could hear the giggling of a little girl.

“Look,” Mark said, “just take this, okay?” He thrust the five dollar bill out further. “Go buy lunch with it.”

The beggar shook his head fiercely. “No! Take my dollar! I’m giving it to you. Don’t you see? I’m giving it to you! I don’t want your money today. Please take it.” The man’s hand was trembling, and the dollar fell to the ground. Mark snatched it up. “Keep it,” the old man said, then started to walk away.

Mark easily caught up with him. “Wait!” he said. “I don’t need your money, mister. Take it back, and take the five, too.”

The beggar brushed past Mark. He continued walking. Shaking his head even harder, he said, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand.” Then he reached the next intersection and turned the corner.

Mark just stood there on the sidewalk, feeling stupid and sad. He folded his five and the beggar’s one and stuffed them into his wallet.

“Thanks for the dollar, old man,” he said.

In the distance, he heard the little girl giggle again.

Gardener wasn’t on the bus today. He was probably in bed with the flu. A nasty bug was going around. It was September, and a cold snap had come in strong and bitter, blowing down from the mountains and reminding everyone that winter was not far off. Mark heard that the people of Vail had awakened to nine inches of snow that morning. But that just made him smile, as he thought of the anniversary gift he had bought for his wife last month—a weekend stay at her favorite ski lodge the second weekend of December. He had everything reserved, right down to the privacy booth in the restaurant she liked. All he needed now was for the mountain weather to cooperate. With nine inches of snow already, things were headed in the right direction.

Mark sat by the window. People on the sidewalk were bundled in winter coats and scarves. They were shivering, not used to the below-freezing temperatures. Just last week, it had been in the eighties.

“Whew, it’s freezing out there,” Mark heard someone say. A young woman with flushed cheeks sat down beside him. “Feels like February.” She took off her hat and scarf and placed them in her lap. Long black hair fell over the puffed bulk of her winter coat. She looked familiar to Mark, but he had never sat next to her before.

“Yeah,” he said. “Good weather for sleeping in, huh?”

“Tell me about it,” she said. “I wish I could. But, duty calls, y’know?”

He just smiled. The bus slowly worked through its rounds. Three stops before he would get off, Mark spotted the beggar. He had his coat wrapped tightly around himself, and he was talking to a young blond-haired man on the sidewalk. Mark saw the blond man hand the beggar a bill. He couldn’t tell what denomination, but he saw the old drifter smile and nod, almost bow, and he could read the lips: “Bless you, son, bless you.”

The bus pulled away from the curb.

“I don’t think I could ever do that, could you?” the woman next to Mark said.

“Do what?”

“Give away money like that guy just did. I mean, I feel bad for someone who doesn’t have a bed to sleep in at night and all, but, I mean, like, what do they do with five bucks? It isn’t gonna really help them get a life or anything.”

“No,” Mark agreed, “but maybe it can buy them a hot meal.”

The woman shrugged. “That’s what the shelters and soup kitchens are for. They can get their meals for free there. It just bothers me, the way they come up to you and just, like, beg. They have no respect, for themselves or anybody else. Being that poor, I guess it makes you self-centered, y’know? Never thinking of anything but your own needs. Always wanting to take.” She shook her head. “I wouldn’t give him a penny.”

At the next stop, she got up.

“Keep warm,” she said, then headed for the door.

Mark nodded and smiled. But he didn’t feel warm at all.

*****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. insearchofitall
    Nov 07, 2014 @ 02:55:04

    I’ve handed out more money than I care to admit but I like it better when I can pay for a meal for someone just sipping a cup of coffee somewhere just to stay inside and keep warm. There are many in my town that have made a very lucrative business out of begging. There are others you know just need a bit of help. I always see them as Angels coming to see where my heart is today. I loved how you wrote that story. I’d rather be the sap that keeps giving than the one with the hard, cold heart.

    Reply

  2. Lyn
    Nov 07, 2014 @ 03:36:45

    A wonderful story, Mike, just wonderful. Marlene sure has it right in her comment, “Id rather be the sap that keeps giving than the one with the hard, cold heart.”

    Reply

  3. chalkdustfairy
    Nov 07, 2014 @ 03:46:19

    Enjoyed your story! I’m trying to write a short story (for the first time) at the moment and found that helpful. I’m wondering if the city picture is possibly of Salt Lake City, Utah (temple at center). Looked familiar, anyway. Thanks again. 🙂

    Reply

  4. kelihasablog
    Nov 08, 2014 @ 01:48:36

    That is a wonderful story Michael 😀 I’ve done that before, but usually the people I’m with think I’m nuts. 😀

    Reply

  5. Sherri
    Nov 08, 2014 @ 10:44:53

    You had me all the way through…how telling the ending. Powerful and profound, beautifully written story this Mike.

    Reply

  6. Francina
    Nov 08, 2014 @ 11:58:15

    excellent story , Mike.. spellbinding.. loved reading this from your pen.
    groetjes, Francina

    Reply

  7. teagan geneviene
    Nov 10, 2014 @ 12:27:58

    Well done, Mike. A feast for thought too. Hugs.

    Reply

  8. jackfrey
    Nov 12, 2014 @ 22:52:05

    Hello Mike. Thanks for connecting me to your blog. There’s a real treasure trove of writing here. I enjoyed the story, both for its message and its writing. You worked some nice details into the portions between dialogue, and the characterization is good. Looking forward to reading more!

    Reply

  9. Carol Balawyder
    Nov 19, 2014 @ 19:32:05

    What a touching story. I love your character, Mark. Also your opening paragraph is very engaging. I like your style of writing and descriptions. Everything flows so smoothly. You have a very special voice. 🙂

    Reply

  10. AGentleandQuietSpirit
    Nov 19, 2014 @ 23:58:56

    very good. I really enjoy your writing! That is all. 😉

    Reply

  11. teagan geneviene
    Nov 20, 2014 @ 11:12:39

    Huh… I read this, simply loved it, put a “like” on it and commented…But it all disappeared into a WordPress black hole.
    It really is a great story, Mike — the kind of well written tale that leaves one thinking. Meaningful work, my friend.

    Reply

  12. stockdalewolfe
    Nov 20, 2014 @ 17:59:06

    Really great story, Mike, no kidding. Had me from the very beginning. The attitudes of the non-givers is why my husband hates the suburbs. Very stirring and a great story for this time of year. Giving thanks and giving. Bravo, Ellen

    Reply

  13. evelyneholingue
    Nov 24, 2014 @ 14:51:57

    So sorry for being so late, Mike. I saw your post and was just too busy to take the needed time. I never click “like” without reading a post, so of course it takes time! I’m sure you get that. The Beggar is a great story filled with conflicted emotions that resonate with all of us, I’m sure. I also like comment #1 very much. Me too, I see some beggars as being here to test my heart. I find it very hard to pass someone in the street without feeling compassion and understanding. There is a human story behind each of us. Beggars included.

    Reply

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