by Tess Arrighi
The man awoke to sunlight pounding upon his eyelids as a child would pound his fists in an impassioned tantrum. Slowly he rubbed sleep from his eyes and sat up, so as to inspect his surroundings. The sunlight that had woken him on that particular morning was of the peculiar and inexplicable variety that filters through the thick gray clouds, losing none of its intensity and is seemingly made more luminous by the cloud cover, which strips it of its yellow hue to produce a sterilized white light. It could not have been earlier than ten o’clock, and observation from which the man concluded that it was a Sunday. On any other day of the week, the hustle and bustle of the city with its hundreds of thousands of people would have woken him around eight o’clock, but Sundays were different. While the man found it difficult to believe that there could be religion in the city, it certainly seemed that the day was still one for rest. This pattern was important to the man. He found a great deal of comfort knowing that he had a system to keep track of the days. On the street, they had a way of running together in a way that he found alarming, so every morning, one of the first things he did was to seek out a newspaper. He knew that the date, or the weather, or the situation in some foreign country was of supreme unimportance to someone in his condition, but nevertheless, it made him feel better. It gave him a sense of connection to the world into which he had been unceremoniously dumper.
The man’s musings on the day were rudely interrupted by a ferocious rumbling that seemed to echo not only from his stomach, but from his entire midsection. He had been unable to solicit any offerings, monetary or culinary, the previous day, and his body was understandably displeased. A little unsteadily, the man stood, employing the assistance of the lamp pole around which he had curled up to sleep. Another thing that always struck the man was the difference that night and day could make. Whenever he settled down somewhere new for the night, he found himself utterly disoriented when he awoke. The night cloaked the world in darkness, allowing him to romanticize his surroundings, filling in the shadows and blurred edges in whatever way his imagination so desired. The daytime, though, brought a heavy hand down on his delicate imaginings, revealing to the man the precise color and shape and edge of his world. The contrast was always quite impressive and, until he could determine his precise location, confusing. Understandably, the man preferred the night. It was the cheapest from of escapism, he thought. The darkness heralded a strange metamorphosis, transforming anything it touched into whatever it wanted to be. Under the cover of night, the man reinvented himself. Walking down the street, only a shadow and a whisper, he was a thief, a lover, a chimneysweep, whatever struck his fancy, and buildings would shift obligingly to suit the circumstances. It was the time at which he often found himself the happiest.
The man stretched a little and, feeling fully awake now, made his way down the sidewalk. It was not just a yellow hue that the clouds stripped from the sun, but warmth, and an added breeze made the morning rather chilly. The man pulled his ragged old jacket tighter around him. He loved his army jacket, though he kept his medal in his bag, to make sure it could not be stolen and subsequently pawned. It was not the warmest coat, but it reminded him of his friends from the service, with whom he had sadly lost touch. War, in every aspect, he found, was something not easily forgotten. Though he had served ten years ago, he still found that he jumped terribly at unexpected noises, every nerve alert and, of course, he could never go a day without thinking of the men from his unit, their faces tattooed in his mind’s eye as if they had come home yesterday. He missed them.
As the man passed an abandoned storefront, he paused to inspect his reflection. In the service, he had grown used to seeing little of his own reflection, and consequently, to being surprised by what he saw. Today was no different. The man rubbed his hand over his jaw, eyeing the substantial scruff. He ran his fingers through his slightly greasy hair, trying to tousle it in a way that looked intentional. He could use a shower. What he noted more than anything was how tired his eyes looked as they squinted back at him, underlined by dark bags. The man, never particularly one for vanity, moved on.
There were not many people on the street, and the man took full advantage of the rare opportunity to walk right in the middle of the sidewalk. Usually he walked close to one edge or the other. The people in the middle tended to be the perpetually hurried, pushing past everyone else in their frenzied migration, a practice that the man found to be terribly rude. Besides, with his limp he likely could not have kept up. Still, it frustrated him a great deal when he watched people shoulder their way through the crowd like some horde of briefcase-swinging bulldozers. It startled him to see how much they were missing.
The man stopped on the corner with his hands in his pockets and waited for the signal to change. He glanced up at the street sign, which informed him that he was at the intersection of 17th Street and E Street. The man eyed the trash can for a moment before swiftly reaching in and plucking out that day’s newspaper. It was in fine shape, and according to the headline, the massive fires that had been raging for nearly two weeks in the southern part of the state had finally been put out. The man smiled to himself. He considered it a good omen when the front page story was good news. It often wasn’t. At that moment, the signal changed, so the man tucked the paper under his arm and hurried across the street.
The man knew that he was too late to line up for any of the dining rooms, but he also knew that some of the busiest restaurants were just a few blocks away, on 21st Street. As he made his way down the sidewalk, he spotted an old stray poking around the base of a tree , sniffing excitedly. The dog’s fur was matted and grey, flecked with mud, and its eyes were clouded over, but evidently there was no problem with Its hearing, for it pricked up its ears as he passed by and looked right at him. The man had always been quite fond of dogs, so he stopped to greet it. He had had a dog as a child. It was big, with a beautiful silky coat. He could remember when he was very small leaning up against her and burying himself in her fur. Her name had been Charity. The stray teetered over unsteadily, taking small, stiff steps. Old age, it seemed, was not treating him well. The man scratched the dog fondly behind the ears, which it seemed to take as an invitation to roll over onto its back in anticipation of further affection. Unable to resist, the man kneeled down and stroked the old stray for the part of five minutes. The dog held his eyes closed in rapture, one hind leg twitching with delight. It always struck the man, the joy with which dogs regarded even the smallest of things. It was just one of the qualities that he felt made them far kinder creatures than people. The man straightened up to leave, but had only walked a few feet when he discovered that his new friend was quite inclined to follow him. There was nothing to do but slow his pace obligingly and continue on.
When the man reached 21th Street, it was as busy as he had anticipated. It was the eleven o’clock rush of people trying to beat the noontime rush. This was good news. He ducked into an alleyway behind an overpriced deli and peered into the dumpster. To his delight, he saw several items that looked perfectly edible: the better half of a croissant, a hardly nibbled-upon ham-and-cheese sandwich, and, after peeling it off an old fashion magazine, a hot dog. He settled down on the ground, leaning back against the dumpster, and started to eat. The food was remarkably fresh, more so than on most days, and although he surrendered part of his sandwich to the dog when it started to whimper, he felt pleasantly full. Satisfied, he opened up his newspaper. He always read the paper cover to cover. It bothered him to think that any part of the paper was being wasted, so he made sure to read every word, including the tedious advertisements. As a result, he often felt a bit melancholy after he was done, since the vast majority of news, he found, was of the negative variety. Indeed, the day’s issue was peppered with corruption, killing, and scandal. It occurred to him that scandal was becoming so common, it could hardly be described as scandalous. Unsure whether the revelation was amusing, disheartening, or somewhere in between the two, he flipped it over and scanned the projected weather for the week. Storms were coming in, or so it was predicted, starting with a chance of showers for the day.
The meal had left the man feeling quite refreshed, and he opened the paper up to the crossword. He rarely attempted them, as so many references were made to things that he knew little about: technology, film, and the like. However, it was a fine day, and he was feeling particularly ambitious. He dug around in his bag for a pen. The man kept everything in that bag. Treasured possessions, like his medal and the faded old picture of his family, were hidden at the bottom, wrapped in a plastic bag to make sure they never got wet. In a separate bag he kept money. Sometimes he found it on the street, and sometimes people would give him some, but both instances were very much the exception rather than the rule. Soliciting money was hard for anyone, but unlike street performers, the man had no marketable talents. He had played the trumpet in high school, but that was a long time ago. Currently he had about twenty dollars, but he hated to spend money unless he absolutely had to. The other items in his bag were miscellaneous junk: pens found on the street, gum, a pair of sunglasses he had chanced upon last year in the gutter. The man’s fumbling fingers found a pen, and he commenced his puzzle.
An hour later, feeling just a little dejected, having finished only half of the crossword, the man stood up. Even though the gray clouds had grown thicker and darker, it had warmed a little and the breeze had died down. Soon, it began to drizzle. Quickly, the man stashed his bag and jacket under an awning and stepped out into the quickening rain, which was neither cold nor warm and sticky, but a good balance of the two. Across the street, a woman and her husband poked their heads out of the doorway of the drugstore, their noses wrinkling with distaste. The man watched as they fumbled with an umbrella, finally forcing it open and hurrying their way down the sidewalk, pressed uncomfortably close underneath it in a unfortunate attempt to share the small space. Out of the corner of his eye, the man saw the dog wander stiffly out of the alleyway and over to the gutter, hastily lapping up the gathering rainwater. Smiling, the man raised his face to the sky.