Carl pushed his over flowing grocery cart down the rain slick sidewalk. Turning down an alley his cart bumped and skidded along the dirt and debris that covered ground. Carl often felt like an alley. No one paid any attention to them. They were the recipient of all the unwanted refuse. Only the rain washed it and sometimes it made the alleyway even worse. That was Carl.
He leaned into the cart pushing against the resistance of the rocks and gravel hindering his way. The cart stopped. It refused to move no matter how hard he pushed. He moved around the cart and saw a pair of ragged boots lodged against the front.
“Hey old man. What’s ya got in here?” The young man began tearing at the tarp covering the bulging cart.
“Stop that!” Carl ordered, pawing at the man’s hands to stop him.
“What are you hiding?”
“Nothing. What do you want?” Carl pushed the young man back.
The young man wasn’t small by any means, he outweighed Carl by a good twenty pounds or more, but Carl recognized his expression. He was a bully.
Carl straightened his frame to its full height. He looked down at the spiky-haired man by an inch or two. “You going to steal from me?”
“What do you have?” The kid coughed a dry hacking sound.
“Nothing you’d want.” Carl’s voice hardened. “I’m in the same boat you are. I have to eat at the mission, I sleep wherever I can find a place out of the rain. You want to steal from me, then have at it. It’s been done before and I’ll make do until I can find things to replace it.”
The young man looked at the cart then at Carl and shook his head. “You’re just a dirty old tramp. You don’t have nothin’ I want.” He whirled on a broken heel and walked away.
Carl didn’t feel relief. He felt angry and bitter. It wasn’t his fault he was here. He’d lost his job, then his apartment, then the shelter’s kicked him out. No one wanted a Vet with PTSD. He didn’t drink except when it got too cold and he needed to warm the inside.
He walked the streets like a ghost in the crowd. He was shoved aside, had trash thrown at him and every so often some do-gooder handed him a bill or some change. When he went to the camps, church groups came and distributed little sacks of food and hygiene products. Not one ever stopped and really talked to him.
He hated them all. He just wanted to die. He gave the cart a hard push in anger. It rolled into a dumpster under the familiar overhang, home.
That night as he huddled under the tarp, the rain came down in a steady mist. Before getting into his sleeping quarters he looked around the alley. He was alone. Steam rose from the ground. Thank goodness there wasn’t any wind tonight. He shivered and took off his boots, placing them in a bag between to his body and the building wall, so they couldn’t be stolen.
He’d begun to get warm in his bag when he heard a dry cough. Peeking out between the flaps of his tarp, he saw it was the same kid that harassed him earlier. He watched the skinny kid with a black plastic garbage bag tied around his shoulders, rut though a dumpster. Another cough and Carl could tell he was shivering. These kids needed to go home. There were places that took kids in, shelters. He ducked back inside his sleeping bag.
Carl was warm and at least reasonably dry. He had a new sleeping bag he’d stolen from a thrift shop. Why charge people for things that were donated. That always made him angry when he thought about it.
The cough interrupted his thoughts. “Go away!” he shouted from his cocoon.
The sound of steps shuffling away gave him relief. Then the sound of coughing. Not a couple of hacks but the deep cough of a chest infection. Carl should know, he’d been a medic in the service. Too bad. The kid might be dead by morning.
He closed his eyes and snuggled deeper into the warmth of the bag. A flash of thought interrupted his attempt to sleep. A picture of the first aid kit buried at the bottom of his cart. It was under his old sleeping bag. There were cough drops in it and some cough syrup he’d stolen when he’d had a cold a few months ago.
He grunted and ignored the memory.The kid was a menace. He was going to steal from him. There was no way he was getting out of his warm bag, digging through his cart for the old bag and the kit. Nope he wasn’t going to do it.
Silence fell around him and he relaxed. The rain stopped. An occasional drip from the overhang plunked on his tarp and Carl drifted off to sleep. A sound disturbed his sleep. It came again. He pulled his hat around his ears. There is was again. Why had woken him?
It was the cough. The repeated muffled cough.
Carl swore. Why hadn’t the kid gone away? Why did he have to be somewhere the sound penetrated Carl’s sleep. It came again. No matter how hard Carl tried to ignore the sound, the memory of the kit and sleeping bag hammered his thoughts.
“Okay!” He unzipped the bag, and fought his way out of his tent. Walking around to the middle of the alley he waited for the sound to come again. His breath formed vapor as he waited. The cough came again and Carl followed the sound. He couldn’t find the kid lying anywhere next to the wall.
The sound was muffled and movement of plastic bags. Carl moved to the nearest dumpster and lifted the lid to peek inside. The clouds parted for a moment and the moon shone on the occupant of the dumpster. It was the kid. He didn’t open his eyes. He lay in the fetal position his fists clutched his jacket.
“Kid. Get out of there.”
The kid’s eyes slowly opened and he peered up. “What do you want? Leave me alone.”
“Come on. I have an old sleeping bag and some cough syrup.”
“The good stuff?” His hopeful expression irritated Carl.
“No. Get out of there.” Carl marched back to his cart not waiting to see if the kid followed. He dug down and pulled out the sleeping bag in its plastic protector and the kit. He frowned as another plastic bag fell from the cart. Carl picked it up to find clothes inside. A pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. A new set of thermal underwear completed the contents. Where had this come from? He didn’t remember getting this bag from the mission. He shrugged as a cough sounded behind him.
“Here,” He thrust the plastic bag of clothes at the kid. Go between those dumpsters and change into the dry clothes. I don’t know if they’ll fit.” The kid stood there. He stared at the bag Carl held. “Go on. Take it before I change my mind.”
The bag almost took his fingers off as it was grabbed from his hand. The kid disappeared.
Carl shook his head. What was he doing? Giving his own stuff away to a kid who wouldn’t appreciate it. He pushed the kit back in the cart and tossed the sleeping bag in the direction the kid. “Here’s a sleeping bag. Its stopped raining so you won’t need a tarp.”
Carl wiped off his boots and put them back under his tarp. Before he could get into his own bag the kid was standing there beside him holding the rolled up bag. The clothes seem to fit him as if they were his exact size. Carl frowned. That couldn’t be.
“What do you want now?”
“Nothing from you old man.” The kid shifted from one foot to the other. He adjusted teh bag under his arm for a better grip. “You said you had some cough syrup.” His tone wasn’t belligerent but respectful. It was a change.
“Yeah. You said you didn’t need anything.”
The kid coughed again and the sound grated on Carl’s senses. “Here.” He reached in the cart and tossed the kit to the kid. Not wanting any more conversation, he pulled the cart back to its protective position and crawled into his sleeping bag under the tarp. He didn’t hear anything more from the kid.
The sound of voices woke Carl the next morning. Peeking through the edges of the tarp he saw two squad cars pulled into the end of the alley and a cop gripped the kid in handcuffs. Another cop looked through the sleeping bag and held up the first aid kit. After a quick check, he threw both back on the ground and followed his partner. They left and once again it was silent. Carl sighed and closed his eyes. Sometimes you can’t get a break with a helping hand.
Two weeks later Carl stood in a line waiting for food. The doors would open soon and he’d get his first hot meal of the day. The mission let the homeless park their carts while they ate. They had to exit the building if they didn’t have a bed ticket.
The room quieted and Carl looked up to see two men looking at the assembly with great interest. Carl hid his eyes and concentrated on his food. When the man sitting next to him stood up to see what was going on, Carl grabbed his dinner roll and stuffed it in his pocket. After a brief search for the missing roll the man gave up and ate the rest of his food.
When Carl finished he pitched his plate into the bin and pulled out the metal flask. Holding it out to the woman with the bored expression, she glared at him. “What do you want?”
“Coffee?” He asked softly and the woman whirled to speak to another worker who accompanied the woman back to where he stood. “I’m sorry we can’t fill your container. We need to have enough coffee for everyone.” She smiled with apology.
Carl jerked the container back without comment and walked toward the door.
“That’s him. That’s the guy.” A voice followed him. Soon his arms were grabbed on each side by two men in suits and he was marched around a corner into a room and the door shut.
“What’s going on guys? I haven’t done anything wrong. Let me go.” Carl demanded.
A man stepped into the room and stood looking at Carl. He wasn’t smiling. “You don’t recognize me.”
Carl didn’t bother looking at him.
“You gave me clothes and a sleeping bag.” The man stated.
Carl looked at the man from the new shoes and slacks, on up to the thick wool dress coat, leather gloves and a red scarf around his neck. Standing next to him was an old man with white hair poking below a wool Stetson hat. He didn’t recognize either man but he remembered the kid with the cough and gave a nod.
“You were the only one who ever gave me anything. I know I was rude. I’m sorry. You could have left me to die, but you didn’t. I want to thank you for that.”
“Forget it kid. Looks like you clean up good. Go do some good deeds somewhere and leave me alone.” He started for the door, but the guard grabbed his arm. “Hold on there. The kid wants to do something for you. Let him do it.”
“What’s it to you rent-a-cop? Leave me alone.” He jerked his arm away from the man’s grasp.
“Look, if you don’t want what I have to offer, you’re free to walk out of here. I turned my back on all I had. I thought I knew it all and could figure it out. That night you gave your stuff to me I realized I needed help. I called home and my parents came and got me. I’m going to do better. All I want to do is give you a helping hand. Whatever you need, I’ll help you get it.”
He stood there with an expression Carl hadn’t seen in a long while. He didn’t show pity, He didn’t feel sorry either. He offered Carl help. Carl didn’t realize his feet moved until he stood in front of the kid. “Okay. if it makes you feel better, I accept.”
The kid’s face broke into a grin and he looked at the man beside him. “Let’s get him home.”
That was four years ago. Today Carl works at half way house for Vets. His medic background and classes rewarded him with a CNA license and he is a caregiver. Life has a way of changing you when you least expect it.