Neal surprised himself as his hands sifted through the mound of trash at the bottom of the bin. In the middle of the day? Where someone could see him? He looked at his hands; calloused, dirty, knobby. Since when had his hands become like this?
His hands had been clean, a heavy watch on his wrist, water flowing through his fingers and washing away the soap as he energetically rubbed them against each other; finally falling into the marbled sink. A voice called; an old friend he’d been close to. The feel of a soft towel as he called back.
That had been his present, that was his present, so what was all this?
At any rate, there might be something useful in here, he thought as he dove his head into the bin once more. No use thinking about useless things.
The pungent smell of rotting matter filled his nose, but Neal kept on working his way through the pile, barely noticing the miasma until he reached the bottom of the large bin. With a great sigh, he pulled out and stretched his sore back in the narrow alleyway.
He looked around. Sunlight and the noise of traffic spilled into the narrow street from one end, while Neal stood in almost complete darkness. The large bin, the trash, and he himself were all in the shadow of two great buildings, so that the light of the main street almost blinded him.
Paradise? Did this look like the gates to paradise? But there was no paradise out there; only people whose eyes passed right through him, as if he were nothing more than a transparent plastic bag. But sometimes they did see him, and make fun of his ragged clothes, or became aggressive.
But he would have to go, wouldn’t he? There would be more trash cans in the park, more still in the business district. And homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. Neal walked towards the city, the light slowly engulfing him until he was all but blinded.
The sun warmed his face, and Neal blinked a few times, and the busy street came into view. Great chromed cars rumbled past the broken concrete sidewalk, where hundreds of people walked, kicking aside empty cans and soggy pieces of cardboard. He kicked one aside himself, just to blend in, to be part of the city.
Neal made his way towards the shops with the big glass windows. They always had bins full of stuff, he thought as he shuffled his feet across the cracked lines of the sidewalk.
But even his strange gait did not attract people’s gazes. His head wobbled from side to side, searching for a gaze in his direction, a glance, anything. There was nothing wrong with him, not really, he thought as he shuffled into an alley near a restaurant. There was enough food to go around, if one knew where to look, and his body felt fine, he thought. Just a bit itchy. His cracked fingernails picked at a rash on his arm.
That urgent, yet firm tone, Neal knew it well. He kept shuffling along.
“Hey! I’m talking to you!”
A young man stepped in front of him, his smooth freckled face creased by stern lines.
“Get the fuck out of here!”
Neal stopped and stared at the young man. The boy was just doing his job. It was perfectly all right, no problem at all. There was no reason to be uncivilized.
“Of course, I understand.”
“We’ve seen you in our bins before. If I see you again, I’m calling the cops on you. You understand, huh?!”
“Yes, yes. It’s all right. Have a good day.”
Neal turned around, and shuffled away, and over the sound of traffic, a hiss reached his ears. Words just barely formed, poisoned with spite.
“All right my ass, piece of shit.”
Neal hobbled away until the sounds of the busy road engulfed him once more. The tall buildings that flanked the road filled with people, all going about their days with a purpose. But Neal had a purpose too, didn’t he? He needed to find something useful, something he could sell for a couple of cents. Later, some food, maybe. Then it was back to the shelter he’d prepared near the park.
His eyes wandered from the cars to the people to the clusters of trees in the distance, out of which fountains of birds erupted and nestled intermittently. The park. It would be good to take a short walk there to relax for a bit.
The large iron gates were just ahead, and Neal stopped at the lights. His mind wandered to the boy at the back of the restaurant, as the lights turned green. Always be calm, always treat people with respect, no matter how they behaved, no matter how There was no reason for Neal to act out just because he had the misfortune of losing his job and home. It was just a temporary setback after all. He’d find something else soon, he was sure.
The gravel path crunched beneath his worn shoes, some of the pebbles flew into the hole at the front, lodging themselves beneath his soles as Neal made his way quickly through the meandering pathways. The bends and turns were familiar to him. Some time ago he had walked here with someone. He could almost smell her sweet perfume, engulfing him as they walked. She had been one of the last to leave, one of the last to close all contact with him; a good friend till the end. Neal stopped near a clearing.
People were sunbathing, some were jogging, others playing on the fields. Neal hardly had any time for these sorts of things anymore as finding food and shelter had become a priority. But today he could make an exception.
He dropped on a bench with a sigh and looked around. A soft breeze stirred the trees, sending ripples of color through the leaves. He looked around, as a couple started to stand up from the bench next to his, their eyes darting over his ragged clothes and shaggy beard. He looked at them.
“I can move over, if you want.”
But the couple did not answer. And quickly moved on, disappearing out of sight behind a bend. Neal slumped in the bench, a bitter taste in his mouth. Maybe he shouldn’t have talked to them. Maybe he should have just ignored the world, just as it ignored his existence.
Neal sat there, watching the sun shine on the trees, on the sunbathing people, on this sordid city he owed nothing to. He kicked a large pebble, watching it bounce across the path and nestle itself between two others. The pebble existed only when it was kicked or it lodged itself in someone’s shoes, bothering them. As soon as it stopped moving, it would disappear in an indifferent background, forgotten and useless to everyone.
If anyone talked to Neal, anyone at all, he would cease to be a pebble. He would be a human again. The next time he was walking down the street, he could try and grab people’s attention by bumping into them, scaring them, shouting. Anything to get rid of this frustrating knot of loneliness that tied up his guts.
As he thought this, his unfocused eyes drifted over the landscape, until something caught his attention. A sudden movement like a flash, made him look at a spot not far from where he was sitting. Someone had fallen over on the gravel path, their walking stick glinting in the sunlight. The fall had been silent, but the person was not getting up.
And what was he supposed to do about it? No one would have done the same for him, no one had in a very long time. Neal watched the man struggle to get up. Someone would come.
But no one seemed to have noticed the man struggling, hidden as he was behind a hedge. It was just him and Neal. He sighed.
Neal got up and made his way towards the man. His walking stick lay forgotten at his side as the elderly man attempted to push himself up from the ground. Neal tapped him on the shoulder.
“Here, grab my hand.”
The man extended his hand and Neal grasped onto it firmly. The man was surprisingly light, and Neal managed to get him back onto his feet with ease. The man swayed, his eyes scrutinizing him. Neal bend down and picked up the walking stick, handing it back to the man.
There were not thanks, no polite conversation. Nothing, if not for the old man’s rigid pose, as if Neal were a rabid animal.
Neal tried to meet the man’s gaze, which like many others, avoided his entirely. The man grasped his stick, his knuckles turning white, and Neal knew it was time for him to leave. He turned around and started walking away. As he did, he muttered.
The man did not answer.
The lesson Neal teaches us is this: no matter what hardships you go through in your life, no matter what the cost, never give up the last inch of yourself that makes you human.