junkmail oracle

featured poets & artists


Andrew Rice

Andrew Rice is a 20-year-old Emory University student. His poem "Conrad's Cult," was featured in the first edition of deep cleveland junkmail oracle in July 2000. arice3@LearnLink.Emory.Edu


A Bum Rests Before Dusk

I paced back and forth for about ten minutes, holding an unlit cigarette between my first and middle fingers, waiting for the old man to leave the bench so that I could sit down and peaceably enjoy my smoke-away, away from conversation. I was so sick of conversation-and recaps began to play through my head: first my teacher speaking ". . . really not putting forth enough effort, and, in light of your class attendance, I'm afraid I'll have to fail you unless you pull off an A on this next exam. . ." to my mom bitching some more about my dad ". . . hasn't been home in three days . . . not on business, I talked to his secretary . . . we're not going to be able to make your tuition payment this semester . . ." to my roomates ". . . refuse to let you borrow anymore money, not with the amount you spend on . . ." I ignored the list of substances they continually dictated, accusing me of using their money on them.

          The bum was not moving and my cigarette was certainly not smoking itself. Who knew how long he'd been sitting there? As far as I knew, he could have already been there for weeks. I hardly ever went outside to smoke, preferring just to have a cigarette in the apartment. But like I said, I could not handle anymore conversations with anyone. So I went outside for some peace and solitude. But here was this bum. He was an old black guy, head not quite gray yet but showing a few spots of age- I had him pegged at about fifty or so. He could have been older or younger, it really depended on how long he'd been living on benches and front steps. He had a loose, brown t-shirt draped over his torso, white jeans pulled over his slim legs. The ensemble was complete with a long broomstick he was resting against his leg; it had a sign taped to it- one I could not make out from my angle. I imagined he was sitting there to solicit change, but he hadn't spoken to anyone the entire time I'd been watching him on the bench. I finally gave up on the chance of him moving, so I lit my cigarette and stepped up to take a seat on the curb. But then I felt foolish- he'd think I was scared to sit next to him, scared his stink, whatever it was that reduced him to his hobbled state on the rusty bench, might seep into my clothes, make me stink, leave me on a shitty bench with a broomstick and a paper bag full of clothes to be layered on in winter.

          So I moved back and sat down next to him; he didn't shift or anything, just sat there continuing to passively grip his broom stick, resting his head on his empty left hand. I let out a long drag into the gray sky, one of those cold-looking gray skies that remind me of Lake Erie winters- muted light, biting wind, and just plain gray, the air smelled gray, everything looked more gray, my skin became an ashy sort of pale, bright red cars were coated with a film that paled their color to a dull rust. The sky depressed me. I coughed and the old man grunted next to me as if he was clearing his throat to speak. I already had my line all worked out:

          'I'm sorry sir, I wish I could help, but I just spent my last two dollars and thirteen cents on this pack of splendidly blended Doral Lights. I'd be glad to bum you a cigarette, but I don't have anything to give you otherwise.' Internally: Should I say 'bum'? Is that offensive to him? 'Loan' a cigarette, that's what I'll say.

          I was being mostly honest- I really couldn't spare any money, but at the same time, I knew that there were always things to give to people, even if those things weren't a regulated currency. Fortunately, he opted not to say anything- just studied my shoes. I followed his gaze, turning my feet back and forth to get a look at the overall design that went into them- simple really, they were one of the most simple pairs of shoes widely in circulation: off-white Chuck Taylors, grime and dirt ground into the laces, the soles, the fabric, ground in so that my socks came out black and smelling of rain water when I removed them- like I had stepped into a mud puddle. They needed a good bleaching, but who has time to bleach their shoes these days? I noted that the silence between us was not one of those mutual silences, those silences taking place on the bus or the train or even in the line at the grocery store where no one talks or even feels obligated to. It was one of those silences that felt like I was slighting him by not talking to him. Dreading the conversation that could ensue if I asked him how his day was, but slightly curious nonetheless, I finally spoke half-way through my cigarette.

          "How's it going?" Not too intrusive, a little friendly, but not queer or even showing any concern. 'How's it going?' was a greeting for any occasion. He didn't answer. Feeling uncomfortable, I decided to continue the conversation as if he had answered my question, seeing no harm in a second attempt. I just pretended as if he had posed the same question to me in response. Which is actually rather of a blow-off of a response, if you ask me. Especially when you say to someone "How's it going?" and they say that right back to you without even answering the question: "How's it going?" It's as if they don't even have enough time to waste on you to create an original response.

          "I'm doing okay," I responded to the fabricated question. He continued to look at my shoes. It seemed that the conversation was over and I exhaled another cloud of smoke into the sky. This particular waft of tobacco was snared by the wind and loosed in the old man's face. He waved his hand a number of times to clear the air and finally looked at me. His face either said 'Stop blowing smoke in my face you little shit-I may be homeless but I still have my dignity' or 'Be honest.'

           "Actually, I'm not doing okay," I corrected myself. He nodded this time, grinned and held out his left hand; his first two fingers opened to form a soft V that would house the cigarette he was silently requesting. I complied and fished for my pack while I elaborated. "Shit has been going down lately, man."

          I retrieved two cigarettes and lit them both off of the ember on the one in my mouth. I slipped one into the V of his fingers and cast away the soggy, smoldering piece of tobacco in my mouth, replacing it with the other fresh one. He continued to look at me so I kept talking.

          "Shit has been going down," I said again wistfully, in an almost sing-song voice, trying to be light about it, almost chipper even. "Which would you rather hear about, school problems, family problems, or me problems? Cause there's shit going down in all those areas."

          The old guy shrugged and took a healthy drag on his cigarette, so hard I feared he might suck out the filter. In his silence, I decided that he wanted me to pick the category.

          "School's the easiest I guess," I began, matching his inhale with an exhale of smoke that clouded around the NO PARKING sign a few feet down from our bench. I began to confess. "Basically, I'm failing out of all my classes. We have finals in a week and a half and I didn't even realize I was failing until today because I haven't been to classes since the last time I had a test. I just met with my Philosophy professor and he basically told me he thinks I'm a terrible person who lacks any sense of courtesy, any sort of aspirations, and any trace of will. He told me all of this and ended the conversation with 'And don't bother coming to the final because there is no mathematical way for you to pass my course.'"
            I paused to take a drag from my cigarette and add emphasis to the fact that I was failing a class so miserably. The old man was watching a pigeon descend from a telephone pole onto a crumpled potato chip bag at his feet. He giggled as he watched the bird nose its body into the bag. I continued.

           "I've been trying to decide how to tell my parents that I'm practically failing out of school- I mean, Christ, the only passing grade I have, which happens to be a D+, is in fucking Game Theory- but then I'm talking to my mom the other day, and she tells me that they've been having money troubles and marriage problems and that they can't even make my tuition payment for this semester. So now I have to take extra hours at work, which means I have to devote less time to school because I certainly won't devote less time to going out, and I'll make just barely enough money to pay for the rest of the semester that, in reception of my payment, will formally solidify my failure as a college student."

          I looked at him for a response, but he was still watching the bird peck away at the smudged foil and crumbled potato chips. It seemed as if he wasn't even listening to me. So I decided to stop talking for a moment to see if he would urge me on. I rested my right foot on my left knee, absentmindedly touching the smudges on my shoe that the bum had been eyeing so intently before. I ran my forefinger along the seems, picking at a loose thread until it unwound in my fingers. Meanwhile I stared at the back of his head, following each slight bob as his eyes followed the bird's frantic pecks. Finally after I had watched him for long enough, he seemed to sense my attention- looking at me quickly and nodding, tightening his grip on the broom stick. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and recall what I had been telling the old man.

           "So for the last two days, instead of taking care of the situation- ie. going in to work to ask for more hours, studying, and going to the financial aid department to find out what I have to do to declare myself independent- I've holed myself up in my apartment and gone on an anti-social substance binge which I've just snapped out of forty minutes ago. Which leaves me with about a twenty minute grace period before the supreme hangover sets in. So instead of getting anything done, I'm going to go to sleep for two days. Then after that, I'll probably go on a substance binge again. This one will probably focus on amphetemines because I'll be feeling so shitty after sitting around for so many days pondering the fact that all of my current problems are a result of inactivity- the very inactivity I am, at that moment, indulging in." This was a feeling of despair that only a solid dose of speed will remedy.

          I stopped again to study the old man. He was watching me this time, staring intently at my mouth, not looking at my eyes but somehow not seeming to avoid my stare. I wondered if he was even coherent enough for me to have a conversation with him. I waited again to see if he was going to say anything, but he just tapped his broom handle on the sidewalk a couple of times, brushing his discarded cigarette under the bench with his floppy leather boots, careful to make sure the pigeon did not mistake the cigarette for food. He continued to stare at me, suddenly contorting his fingers in sporadic motions in front of his face. I figured that he was probably an ex-mental patient, released some twenty years ago half-cured and broke with no family to take care of him. Hence, the inexplicable behavior. He stopped moving his hands and rested them in his lap, sighing.

          "Do you even understand what I'm saying?" I asked him. He was watching the pigeon again. He didn't turn or say a word so I lit up another cigarette and tapped him on the shoulder. He reacted this time and I repeated myself. "Do you even understand what I'm saying to you?" This time he answered in a nod, still watching my mouth with his weathered, graying eyes. I caught my breath and pressed on.

          "My biggest problem is that I do not, absolutely do not, like to ask anyone for help. And its starting to seem like I really need help now. You probably know all about help . . ." I looked to him for a little sage-like advice like protagonists always seem to get from mystic transients when they come across them in movies. It always comes at a moment like this. The old man listens patiently as the young guy talks, finally interjecting with a metaphorical story from his own life that, in one concise finishing phrase worthy of Bartleby's, sums up every question the young man has ever needed, or will ever need, to find an answer to. But the old man said nothing. He just looked at me and gave a sad shrug, missing his one chance at inspired greatness, exclamating it with a tired shake of the head that I took to mean "I understand what your position is, but, honestly, what can you do about it?"

          "What can I do about it? It's kind of a self-solving problem isn't it? I mean, it's just a matter of subdueing my own stern pride. And what is pride worth anyway- it's a very narrow emotion, isn't it? The problem is, most people confuse pride with dignity. I mean, look at you. You have more to bitch about than me, but you don't need to admonish me for having the audacity to assume that you would care about my problems, you just sit attentively and let me discover my own trite solutions- and you carry yourself well, for a guy who doesn't have anything. Is that rude to say? 'Doesn't have anything?'"

          I stopped babbling for a moment, still trying to give him a chance to interrupt me and offer some Eastern trinkets of meditation and metaphysical revelation, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he watched the pigeon a moment longer, as it finally unburried its head from the bag and skuttled down the sidewalk, watching for another piece of waste. The old man looked me over one more time, squinting in concentration, exposing more wrinkles like grooves of granite on his stripped face. He put his thumb and first finger together, moving them toward his mouth, mimicking a smoker. At the same time he gestured back and forth between me and the invisible cigarette with his free hand and smiled: a silent thank you. His hands shoved his body off from the bench, shakey like an ancient freight straining out of the train station. He tapped his broom handle on the ground twice and smiled once more, nodding and gesturing down the road. As he walked off, I tried to see what the sign taped on his broomstick said, but I couldn't make it out. So I dropped my cigarette on the ground and wiped it out with my sole, grinding it into a crack in the sidewalk. As I watched the old man stumble across the street, oblivious to traffic, a car skidded to a halt mere feet from his tattered legs, blaring its horn during the entire procedure. I watched silently, hoping that the ruckus would not give him a heart attack, make him keel over right in the middle of the crosswalk. But the old guy didn't even flinch, he just kept walking over the curb and down the sidewalk to a precious alcove hidden somewhere over his muted horizon

home page


copyright deep cleveland publishing, all rights reserved
comments: deepcleveland@hotmail.com