A short story which reminds readers that sometimes the most valuable of insights can be found in the most mundane of places…
by: Tina Schroeder
The rainfall was a record that New Year’s weekend. It turned the dirt heaps of the dump yard into landslides. The workers had off for the holiday. They were home, dry. The piled up filth of the world was no longer their concern. Rats slipped about the brown streams, unconcerned of the overseers of the world, for they knew the cat was away. In the cab of one of the garbage trucks, there was a sign of movement. Out of a row of thirty trucks, two men had found a dry respite inside an unlocked truck. Trust a tramp to find the open doors and broken locks of this world. On the seventh attempt, boots squelching mud, they found the one handle that turned. One man blessed luck, the other rightly accused man’s forgetfulness. The day before had been a hot and trying one for the driver; he didn’t understand why owners would go to the trouble of putting a “beware of dog” sign up but not bother to put the dog in question on a leash. His wife of little over a year now would be home, trying to make his grandmother’s New Year’s cookies, although she would probably burn them. As he climbed out of the truck for the evening he had smiled at the prospect of Chinese takeout and her vexed expression that’d made him fall for her in the first place. Can you blame the man for failing to remember he hadn’t locked the door behind him?
Inside the truck cab, the two tramps celebrated the end of another year in silence. The truck stank of mildew and rotting banana peels, but the nose of a tramp learns to be blind to the smell of filth. An empty bottle lay at the older homeless man’s feet, dry as a bone. This man’s face was gouged and twisted, years of scars from the fights he’s seen. He fingered two wallet-sized pictures. The edges were curled and torn, stained with rum, mud, and tears. An innocent girl of about five shimmered through the folded creases and dirt, while the other, a boy of ten, looked somberly on. His eyes spoke of a burden that only grownups should carry. In his drunken state, the old fighter’s eyes misted over as he gazed into these two pieces of photo paper as if they were windows into a different life.
The other man stared straight out the window, at the pouring rain. He would’ve been a handsome man — someone of respect and authority if it hadn’t been for his rags. Even his rags showed signs of being nice, once upon a time. He knew nothing of the scarred faced man, but the shared desire for a dry place to rest had made them companions for the moment.
“Funny how even though they’re the reason you’re here, they’re also the only ones you end up missing.” The old fighter’s face twitched in a grimace that could almost be called a rueful smile. He thought about her face as she stood in the doorway. The little girl in her arms kept crying for her daddy to come back…but the woman’s face was hard; that swelling black eye still watched him in his sleep.
“Who’s that?” The second man asked.
“Family, that’s who. Ain’t your old woman the reason you’re here too?” The scarred man slipped the two pictures back into his empty wallet.
His companion shook his head. Her voice came through the pay phone, static filled and yet clear; I’ll be waiting. How she’d known it was him, he couldn’t guess. His gaze drifted to somewhere distant – somewhere beyond the trash heaps; “She didn’t drive me awa—”
“I’m not talking about being forced out, man! I’m talking about run’in.”
“I’m here because of me.” The second man looked down at his empty hands. The rain kept a pounding, accusing rhythm overhead.
“I’ve been roaming these streets long enough to figure out there’s only three kind a’ tramps; the fighters, whose thirst for violence and restless souls made them realize the best way to protect their family was to leave them; there’s the crazies, who aren’t smart enough to remember if they even have a home and family to go back to; and then there’s the seekers who can’t return home till them find some meaning to their questions. Those men who would grab hold of God by the collar and demand answers — if only they could find out where he lived.” The fighter’s breath reeked of alcohol and wisdom.
The other man didn’t respond. He’s looking at the blood on the cement of his garage. There was no way he or his friend could’ve known the jack stand was going to give out the moment it did.
“So, which one are you?” the fighter asked.
The smashed sinews of the arm hang open as the paramedics take their time gathering the body from beneath the car. The mechanic turns, sick. He retches into the garbage.
“I’m just a tramp spending New Year’s Eve in a dump truck,” he finally replied, empty hands closing into fists.
The man with scars laughed, a harsh, mirthless agreement; “I’ll drink to that, brother,” as the beaten tramp pulled out another flask from his coat pocket.
Tina Schroeder writes from a small farming town in Minnesota, where the long winters and slow days make for the perfect place to get lost in words and stories. When she’s not snowed into her house, she’s most likely out taking a long walk, practicing true sight with which to see the world.