The Nameless Man At The Forgotten Altar

by: Karl Bahler

A work of fiction that compels one to wonder, how easily it could all slip away…

I was taking my dog on her morning walk when I first saw him. “Look at that bum,” I said to my dog. Then, more loudly, as I passed him by I said “bum” while looking him directly in the eye. This startled the man. He looked as if it was the first time anyone had ever noticed him. He squished his wrinkled dirt streaked face into a quizzical look. I thought he would turn and scurry away like most people in his position do, uncomfortable to be noticed. Instead, he straightened himself and stared back at me with steely gray eyes. He gave me the most menacing gaze he could muster, but the intention fell short of the mark. I laughed in amusement. He spat at the ground by my feet. I laughed again and continued on my walk, thus bringing my first encounter with the man.

He was little, short in stature and thin in frame. I’m about average height and I was almost a full head taller than him. His age was indeterminate, somewhere between early forties and late fifties, layers of grime soiling him making it difficult to tell. The filth was ground into his skin, accentuating his wrinkles and his unshaven face. He had a full head of long greasy hair that would probably be black if it were washed but was closer to gray with the dust and grime it had amassed from his living on the street. The man’s shirt, a long sleeve button down, had once been light blue, but was now stained and discolored. Most of its buttons were missing, allowing for his ribs to stick out from behind the weathered fabric. His dark work pants were held up by a bungee cord in place of a belt. The was barefoot and he reeked of sweat, piss, and booze.

You would think a man dressed this way would stand out, but his outfit somehow worked as a sort of camouflage, blending him into the city’s urban landscape. Even when you looked right at him and tried to see him, the man was barely barely visible.

He had set up residence on the corner, one block from my apartment. This bothered me, so much so that I started carrying a folding knife with a folding knife with a three-inch blade, which was enough to do some damage if it ever came to that.

The man wandered my neighborhood daily and all the while he would peer at me out of the corner of his eyes. It was a comical dance, us staring at each other while pretending not to. He had given himself the job of picking scrap items off the side of the road and placing them in a large sack he carried slung over his shoulder. He took this job most seriously, and could be seen scouring the street all day.

There was an empty lot at the edge of the neighborhood where he would sort out the contents of his sack into different piles. One time while walking my dog, I passed the lot and noticed that he wasn’t there. Glancing around, I walked over to the lot and inspected the various piles. One pile was made up of glass bottles, another of aluminum cans, another of copper wire, and the last one of discarded electronics. When my dog was finished relieving himself, I continued my walk, and I couldn’t get the perfectly sorted piles out of my head.

This man was different from all the others I had seen in the city. He was smart, I could see it in his eyes on that first day we crossed paths. It made me wonder how he had gotten to where he was in life. What had caused him to be where he was? What mistakes may he have made? If I were honest with myself, he wasn’t much different than I. Save for the outcome of a few events in my life, I too could be living in the streets, and, at the core, that is what bothered me about the man. He reminded me too much of myself and the randomness of life.

One morning I took a steaming cup of coffee with me on my walk and left it on the sidewalk a few feet from the man’s camp. Looking back, I’m still not sure why I did it. My ego would say it was out of a sense of compassion. But I knew better. What caused me to do it was fear, or a burgeoning feeling of guilt. That afternoon I found the empty coffee cup sitting where I had placed it that morning, washed thoroughly. The man was nowhere in sight.

The coffee became a morning ritual. I would place the coffee cup in the same spot, while he would sit on his old blanket looking the other way. I began leaving other things for him as well, almost like the offerings to the gods that Brazilians occasionally placed on street corners.

His camp was one door down from an Italian restaurant that I ate at about once a week. I started to ask for part of my meal to be wrapped to go, I would leave it for him in the same spot I left the coffee.

One night I took a pair of pants, a couple shirts, and an old pair of running shoes from the back of my closet and left them on the sidewalk on my way to the bar. On my way back from the bar I noticed the man sitting in his camp. I had a half drank bottle of beer in my hand. I knelt down and placed it on the sidewalk for him. My female companion asked what I was doing. “An offering to the gods” I drunkenly joked. She turned toward his camp, removed and dropped her shirt and flashed her tits. Laughing, we went back to my apartment. Next morning the clothes were gone, while the beer remained untouched.

Over the next few weeks, the man’s attitude began to change. I noticed an alteration in his gait as he walked. He was more erect, more confident. The morning coffee ritual was evolving. At first, he went from ignoring me to staring directly at me while I knelt down and placed the coffee on the sidewalk. Then he began standing and looking down on me while I placed the coffee on the ground. Finally, he stepped forward while I was placing the coffee so that his feet were right next to the coffee. A passerby to the scene would think I was bowing down in worship. That was the last day I brought him coffee.

The next day he relocated his camp to the empty lot and spent all his time building something from the piles of junk. I was uncertain which was more curious, the structure being created, or that nobody else noticed the construction process. The empty lot was on a busy street with cars and buses going by at all hours and people walking past on the sidewalk, but nobody, except for me, even noticed this man or his creation.

The following Saturday was an extremely hot summer-like day, even though it was late August. The sky was clear, and the heat rippled off the sidewalk. You could feel the electricity in the air from a coming storm. At dusk the heat hadn’t lessened when I took my dog for a walk. The lightning and thunder started to rumble in the distant sky. It quickly moved closer and intensified until it was right on top of my neighborhood. I changed direction and jogged back towards my apartment. My dog was scared by the storm and pulled on the leash.

It was dark as I passed by the empty lot. Streaks of lightning lit the sky. I could see the silhouette of the man standing in front of the structure. The bolts of lightning began hitting the ground closer and closer to the structure but he didn’t move, nor did I. I was fascinated by the sheer power of the lightening and the apparent fearlessness of the man. For a moment I wondered if he wanted to die. If he wanted a bolt to hit him and end his life. The bolts were striking the ground all around him until they converged on the structure. Not just a single strike, but bolt after bolt hit the structure in a continuous blaze of electricity. He stood tall before the altar of lightning. He raised his hands, and I heard him yell out to the night sky “I am Raijin, I am Thor, I am Zeus.” He stepped forward and was consumed by the lightning as I stood in shocked silence.

The next morning as I walked my dog, I saw his charred body doubled over in front of the altar, unnoticed by the rush hour traffic.

1 Comment

  • This is a well written commentary on something the Dalai Lama once said: The only true position of compassion is total equality.
    I fought my way back from homelessness. The experience haunts my dreams. I have a recurring nightmare that I’m homeless and have nowhere to go. It’s a horrible feeling! Nice piece by Karl Bahler and astute spotting by Chris Thompson.

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