By Elly Finzer
He smelled like concrete, grease, and old musty clothes from a grandmother’s attic—like all those smells had been tossed into a black garbage bag, shaken up, and poured over the top of his matted gray hair. He gripped a cup of hot coffee, but his hands trembled so violently, the brown liquid ran in rivulets down the side. “Name’s William,” he replied when I introduced myself. “Welcome to my humble abode.” His arm and open palm arced through the air. I searched his face for sarcasm, but a small upturn of his lips told me he was in on his joke.
William crouched under a spindly tree, in a patch of brown grass. The coffee was a gift from The Community Kitchen; the tree and what little shade it offered from the hot Tennessee sun, came courtesy of the city Police Department. “They don’t bother me none. S’long as I don’t make no trouble, they’re nice enough to let me stay a spell.” I was on a journalism assignment for school—my editor at The Communicator wanted an exposé the effect homelessness had on public safety. I liked William and couldn’t shake the feeling that being homeless didn’t deserve such a fearful perception. William’s threadbare coat seemed to carry layers of life in its fibers. He agreed to an interview with a shrug. “I ain’t that interesting, but sure, go ‘head.”
“Well, I’ll start with the obvious question—how did you end up here?” The wistfulness rose up his face like a sunrise: startling, illuminating. He told me about his family and their farm in Illinois; how they barely made it through the recession in the eighties, but as long as he had Betty, they had their Simon, and he had Charlie, (“a lotta mutt, a bit o’ wolf, and all love”)—they believed they could get through it all.
“We always went fer a drive on Sundays and this one was just like the others until I saw that tipsy son-of-a-gun comin’. I shoulda’ swerved left instead, but I didn’t, and he hit us. He hit them, and they were gone. Just. Like. That.” William’s gray eyes finally spilled over the tears they had been collecting, and he let out a raspy whistle. “I couldn’t hold to staring out over them fields, waiting for Betty and Simon to come walkin’ over one day, so I hopped a train and got off when my ticket money ran out. And here I be, living on coffee and the kindness of strangers. We do alright though.” From the back of the turquoise police building, a dusty German shepherd mix bounded around the corner. He joyfully licked William’s face as the man buried his face into the dog’s furry neck. “Charlie’s all I got left now. He keeps them alive—my boy, and my bride. He keeps ‘em real for me.”
(Honorable Mention Winner of the 2015 Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Contest)