Beyond the Western
Through the window I saw the barrel picker again; I figured it was the third or fourth time I'd seen him working my street. It wasn't that he was disturbing or thrusting things into harm's way, but moreover a state of being more unknown than he really looked, a lost, wretched soul alone in the whole damned universe, and in my little town sitting beside a river that Father Atlantic feeds twice a day every day.
I tried to imagine circumstances about me that most likely were about him, in a similar form or condition, at least on a few points. But no circumstances made way upon my imaginative other-self. This man was hairy, unshaved, haggard to say the least in his clothes, ragged at some ends, rented at others as though ripped by silent arms with stubborn fingers, the tears through both his shirt and pants exposing the thinness of his body, the dents of malnutrition, the daily hunger assailing him, the rib bones stretching the skin of his chest, as prominent as staves in a working umbrella.
He made me shiver as I tried to place him in some atmosphere, some location, some situation that carried an odor with it, a host of companions even if they were similarly equipped for life, the thinnest hope of survival crammed into the sparest space possible, loss hanging by tatters and strings, life at a mere illusion or at a stand-still.
Truth says the situation for him could be worse, but not by much unless death, en route, had slipped an opener into the deck dealt for him at the beginning.
The trash bag, a dark green plastic, was stronger than it looked, bulging at odd places with known shapes of bottles still adorned with brand names, bottle ends, neck ends, projectile roundness of the missile silhouette. When he tossed the clumsy bag, with measurable effort, over one shoulder, his lack of decent strength was noticeable. The bag and its contents made minor noises, more thumps and wumps when it hit his backside.
At a nickel apiece, the returnable containers he had scrounged might not even buy a loaf of bread.
But it might be his lunch counter, I thought, his meal ticket, dining at any and all odds, one more day in the galley, as a cook or chef might mutter under duress.
Inside me, down where it counts, aside my soul, a shudder began its assault, climbing past comfort, goods, the last fond meal with remnants still scattered on the kitchen table I knew would now bother me at disposition; the barrel, the dump, next food for the Earth.
At that point I saw, due to his clumsiness, two barrels overturn, debris spill on the sidewalk and on a portion of the street, and a police car come to a soft, unwary halt beside the curbing, an officer, upright and stiff at the steering wheel staring over his hands still clasped in guidance, taking in all aspects of the mess ... the doer, the done, a law of some order broken for sure.
Overhead the sun was poking through a gathering of gray clouds scattered by winds, a soft breath of it whispered at the back of my neck from an open window, a scent of May announcing its arrival, not the kind of day bringing other than odd pleasantries, a sense of comfort in my chair beside a wide window revealing more than the town itself.
Realization hit me that my original sense of comfort for the day was at interruption, that two lots of the town were about to meet, make acquaintance, exact demands of a certain kind. The officer slid out of his vehicle lean as a meat hunter, the long, left leg of blue trousers moving with the message of authority's arrival at the scene of a private citizen's trash barrels upended in the street by a forager, not his usual eye out for crime or criminals or miscreants, at undue damage from the hands of a likely vagrant.
Hands spread on his hips of blue, a message being sent without the first word uttered, the way a teacher admonishes a child in class; the litter was blowing with the aid of the wind into a wider disturbance.
Without an appropriate response, I knew the officer would himself be in trouble... some neighbors were weighing the confrontation, taking sides, dotting the Is, crossing the Ts, filing away future thanks, complaints, commendations, the hours spent accumulating their own trash or returnable containers for disposal.
I tried my best to put the two of them back into earlier circumstances, where here they were at dominance and absolute submission, the cop and the vagrant, the bottle picker, the bag man.
The cop was easy: I saw him as a local athlete in sports gear, heroic, a headliner through high school, prep school, maybe a smattering through college until he was injured, a knee hobbled during a big game loaded with odds, his wanting still a share of headlines, the bright lights, like the color of a cop's uniform, the stand-up blue in command of social order.
The other participant, the near waif of him, a string bean of a man, possibly a farmer now lost to drought, deep thought, remembrances of his own good times ... or his bad times, pushed off his land, his family gone, wife on the run, no kids to work for. I could see the baggy clothes on him as he looked at the insidiously dry sky in its hot season baring only the sun for inhuman days on top of days, the earth under his feet, accountable, measureable, becoming dryer every minute of every day, the litter of his undoing at its own disorder.
Pity rose up in me like a fountain let loose.
I wanted to hear their conversation, the Qs & As of the day, so I ambled with my cane onto the porch, leaving my chair, my own comfort zone to find nothing but trouble, for sure. Something was pulling me and it was not an idle curiosity at work at my vanity, my sense of good self, or just a plain old itch to see fair play and justice reach a satisfactory outcome.
Doubts came up with the fountain of pity.
"Sir," the cop said, a detectable tone in his voice as he stood upright in blue, his head tipped to one side, eyeing the litter working with the silent breeze on the avenue, as though it had come from out of town and wanted to get back there without alarm, "do you know you have tipped these two barrels over and the litter is all over the street? Who's going to clean this up or do I have to write you up or put you under arrest?"
A picture of authority he was, the stand-up blue, a dump master at his pile. I imagined Melvyn Douglas or Slim Pickens dressed-down in an old B&W movie.
Again, the vagrant, the bottle seeker, made no reply.
The cop was more officious in his demand, his stance changing, his head tipping further to one side, like punctuation, "What is your name, sir?" The book was in his hand stiff as a threat, his voice the heavier of threats.
No answer came from the thin man.
"I said, what is your name?" His voice had deepened, a bit guttural, as though he already had a prisoner in hand, tagged and bagged and in the wagon.
The wretched one only shook his head, the look in his eyes had not changed one bit, had not advanced to true humility or acute stupidity, no sign of feeling except deep concern for an untouchable expression of speech, some clarity to pose in defense, some kind of awareness not within his reach.
Exasperation came quickly, evidence of the law being ignored. "Your name, sir, for the last time."
The pen was in his other hand.
"I don't know," said the barrel tipper in faint delivery, with the bag still riding on his shoulder, the loaf of bread almost in hand, a cold beer, a donut. The tongue in his mouth sat exposed on his lower lip where whiskers seemed to support that lip.
That response made me feel limp, helpless.
"You don't know your name or you're not going to tell me? You are defying the law, sir. I might have to run you in."
Neighbors, from their front steps or porches, were watching the one-sided confrontation, the sound catching their attention more than the litter. One of my better friends, Chalkie from the house across the street, had been shaking his head at the morning scenario, and I knew he had his own interpretation at work.
"What is your name?" The policeman's face turned red when he saw me clumsily coming down the front stairs of my porch.
The answer was nearly pathetic, faint as earlier noted, but loaded with honesty. "I don't know. I don't know. I wish I did. If you find out, tell me." It was almost a cry.
I heard a load of anguish in his voice, but not dispute or anger or denial. Plain anguish, I was sure.
"Well, that does it. You'll have to pick up this mess before we go to the station, you hear me on that account?" His foot started to kick debris into a single pile, which was an illusion, even for upright blue.
I waved my cane at the pair of them. "I'll get it, sir," I said, with the authority of the offended party, a kindness intended, a recess for the discussion.
"Hell, no, sir," the cop said. "He did it, he can fix it. Serves him right, and he's taking state money at the same time." The charges had widened, had become in an instant more official, more serious.
"No," I shot back at him, "can't you see he's confused, starving, almost bare to the bone. Have some pity on him."
"Trying to tell me how to do my job, are you?" The book waved in his hand, the pen as threatening as a miniature rapier.
"My God, the poor man's starving, lost, not in control, but he doesn't belong in jail. I think the wind blew my barrels over. I'll pick up the trash."
"You're walking with a cane. I can't let you do that."
"Now you're telling me my job." I added a "sir" to make it polite and conciliatory. Chalkie shook his head with a sudden vigor and started across the street before the situation hit another level. Once, for your information, we had shared some serious time in team huddles, and he probably remembered some of my outbursts at ineptness.
A kind of light passed onto the policeman's face, the way dawn comes for the needy on glorious days, quick and urgent and with a sudden glow.
Yet it was hard for him to let go."I saw him from way down the street knock over your barrels. I saw him."
"Now you see him up close. You have any idea of what he is, what he's like, where he's coming from?"
Chalkie said, "Hell, you guys, I'll take him home and make breakfast for him before he falls down dead and that'd be a bigger mess, I can guarantee that." He added, "You guys take care of the trash and I'll take care of him. That ought to be a square deal all the way around."
The bottle picker still was unaware of what was going on around him, in the middle of a street, three people in unsettled confusion.
Then all the possibilities of the wretch's past flew at me from my over-working imagination, and one of the possibilities of his past just grabbed me like a hook, yanking it wildly from my mind. I had imagined enough scenarios for this thin specimen of life, the haggard survivor of serious or life-saving consequences finally hitting me with a sudden awareness.
I looked at the personification of destitution and saw that something else standing beside me.
Chalkie clapped his hands joyously, the policeman almost broke down his whole stance in blue, and the vagrant snapped-to in a known transition, when I waved my cane in the air and yelled at my loudest in an imperial tone, "Sergeant!"
I looked into the old eyes and saw something the officer most likely had not yet seen but Chalkie had, a vagrant in front of us, but a veteran, a sergeant once in the ranks, a scrounger by experience; I guess the past might have come along with him in some fashion, like a hangover not letting go.
"Sir," the decrepit vagrant said in response to my salute of a sort, snapping-to in trained military recognition and respect, a veteran, perhaps of two or three of our impossible wars, coming to light, coming to attention, coming back from his wherever.
Four of us picked up the trash, the policeman drove off, Chalkie cooked the old sergeant a feast of a breakfast, and I just looked on in a new comfort zone.