An excerpt from a work in progress. Enjoy!!!
There’s a homeless man who lives in a tunnel under the street – the underpass you use to get to the train station. You see him everyday on your way to work. You walk through the tunnel at 6:30 in the morning and see him standing at a junction, using burning garbage to boil water for his breakfast, all of his belongings strapped in heaps onto his bicycle.
He pauses as he hears the echo of your footsteps and he glances up at you. You approach him warily. Though you sense no danger, his gaze is disarming.
He asks if you have spare change, sometimes; sometimes he does not. Sometimes he just stares at you for a moment then returns to the burning garbage and boiling water.
You wonder about who this man was and how he came to be where he is now. And you wonder what he thinks of you. Or if he even thinks of you at all.
He is always there, visible from the time you enter the tunnel. As soon as you see him you start formulating answers, creating excuses, coming up with reasons. By the time you reach him you are so flustered that you cannot think of what to say. You make eye contact for a brief moment, then look away as you walk past, feeling guilty. But it’s more than that; it’s more than just guilt. You feel responsible. As if his plight was your fault. As if, somehow due to your negligence or inaction, this man has ended up living on the streets. Your complicity in the American Dream has led to his misery.
It becomes more than you can bear.
One morning, you decide that you have to speak to him.
* * *
You feel an odd sensation as you walk down the ramp towards the tunnel, more than nervousness yet less than nausea. You’re suddenly glad that you didn’t eat breakfast before you left the house. You slow down as you approach the mouth of the tunnel and steel yourself. You turn left and enter the tunnel.
You see nothing.
He’s not there.
You stand at the entrance to the tunnel, shocked, unsure of what to do. The man is not there. Yet, he’s always there. He’s never not been there. You take a tentative step forward into the tunnel. Perhaps he is around the corner of the junction, hiding from you. But that’s ridiculous! Why would he hide from you? You’ve never done anything to him, never harmed him!
You waver between anger and concern. Anger that he would feel threatened by you – threatened enough to leave his “home” at any rate – and concern that something might have happened to him.
You hear the traffic from the street above: honking horns, screeching tires. The noises jerk you back to yourself. You realize that while you stand around wondering what to do, your train will be pulling into the station in ten minutes. It will not wonder where you are. It will wait the required number of minutes and then leave. You start moving quickly, surprised that you allowed yourself to get distracted by something so trivial.
You make it halfway through the tunnel – to the junction where he always sits cooking his breakfast – and you stop again. You breathe in deeply and you smell something. There are faint traces of smoke and burnt garbage. He’s here! At least, he had been here recently. You search the ground for physical proof and almost immediately spot fresh ashes. You exhale heavily in relief, which causes you to start in shock. Why do you care so much about this homeless man?
You glance at your watch and see that you’ve missed your train. Cursing – at the homeless man for his thoughtlessness and at yourself for stupidity – you rush out of the tunnel and on towards the station, all the while searching frantically for both your cell phone and a good excuse.
It’s not until you’re sitting on the train – reading “The Metamorphosis” – that you realize you’ve already decided to get up an hour earlier tomorrow.
* * *
The sun is barely over the horizon when your alarm sounds. You shut it off and sit up, stretching your arms over your head and yawning. Oddly, you’re not tired. You feel nervous – nervous and excited. You skip your morning exercises and go straight to the bathroom to get ready. Within minutes you’re dressed and running out the door. You almost forget your keys.
You make it to the tunnel in half the normal time and stop just outside the entrance, tense and unsure of what to expect. Then the smell of the burning garbage hits you and you sigh; your body relaxes. You smile and walk forward confidently, ready to face him. In fact you are so confident and so ready, that you are almost upon his junction before you notice.
He’s not there.
The realization hits like a slap in the face. You stand there completely flabbergasted, not knowing what to do. You start to hyperventilate. How can he not be here? Where the hell can he be? You lean forward – hand against the tunnel wall, head down – trying to catch your breath, trying simply to breathe. You need to figure out what to do. Nothing comes to you.
* * *
You don’t know if your supervisor believes you and you don’t care. You have sick-leave available, how you use it is not his concern. Anyway, after this morning’s debacle in the tunnel, there’s no way you can face a day at work. You spend the day planning and you go to bed right after sundown. You have to; you’re getting up in a few hours.
* * *
You can’t remember a time when you were out on the streets so early. It’s so dark and quiet. It’s perfect! He won’t get away from you this time!
Your feet barely make any noise as you move down the ramp. You approach cautiously, silently creeping up on the tunnel. You’re sure to catch him this time! You hear no sounds and smell nothing burning. It’s a moment before you remember what time it is. Even better! He’ll be sleeping!
There is enough ambient light for you to make out indistinct shapes as you look into the tunnel. You know he’s there, you can practically sense him. You forge your way inside, intent on finding him and making him face you.
Five steps in and the light is gone. You can only see a few feet behind you and nothing in front. You put your hands out: one reaching ahead, the other held back to protect your face. You advance slowly.
Your hand touches something – something soft. You quickly realize that it’s a face. You start to recoil then stop. It has to be him. You reach out again. The face is still there. Success, at last! You are still touching the face. You begin to trace its contours, first with one hand, then with both. Your hands see what your eyes cannot: the matted, wiry embankment of the hairline; the craggy overhang of the oily forehead; the crusted eyelashes protecting bloodshot eyes; the bulbous pitted nose, nostrils flaring; the chapped cracked lips, desiccated from months – maybe years – of neglect. You are only peripherally aware of your growing erection.
He says nothing.
Your hands continue their exploration, sliding past either side of his mouth, through his dense but short beard, to meet under his chin. They touch briefly then part, sweeping upwards and back, along his jaw line, fingertips stroking his earlobes, hands moving to cup his ears. Your fingers extend, stretching along his scalp and into his greasy unkempt hair. You run them through a few times, savoring the sensation of the clotted strands tickling the webbing between your fingers.
Still he says nothing.
You lean closer, bringing your face nearer to his. Your hands move back to his mouth, thumbs caressing his lips. You part them gently (he allows this), pull his jaw open and stroke his tongue with your finger.
At last he ‘speaks’: his tongue embraces your finger.
You are now fully erect. You only realize this as you feel his hand stroking you. You lean in further and take your finger out of his mouth. And replace it with your tongue.
You jerk awake as your alarm sounds.
* * *
Your back – your whole body – is wet; you have been sweating so profusely that your bedclothes are soggy. You get up, change your sheets and head to the bathroom to take a shower. You switch on the light and look into the mirror. A ghoulish face stares back at you. You leap back in terror, but then stop – hand over your face, embarrassed, laughing – as you realize it’s your own reflection. You look back up and smile, the face in the mirror does not. A hand drops on your shoulder.
You shriek, spinning to see who’s behind you.
There’s no one there.
Heart pounding, you walk over to the toilet, drop the lid and sit down heavily. The hand falls off your shoulder and lands upside-down, between your feet on the rug, fingers quivering and twitching weakly.
Time seems to slow down. You become aware of every single movement your body makes as you lean forward, over the hand, and vomit into the bathtub. The convulsions seem to last an eternity, but in truth only three minutes pass.
You pull yourself back to your seat on the toilet lid and look down at your feet. The hand is gone. Your eyes roll back and you feel yourself sliding onto the floor as you pass out.