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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.'"
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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?"
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?'"
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