the bare survival minimum

A— pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and took a seat inside the plastic enclosure next to the bus stop. Through sheets of rain, a man appeared and busily sat himself down on the bench next to A—, and absently went on tussling his hair, removing his frock coat, airing it out, flapping it and wringing it, inconsiderately shaking the wet from his body like a dog. A loud honk of a sneeze, clearing of the throat, a general boorishness. A— scooted over as far as possible and pretended to look at something in the distance.

 

“It’s a wet one,” the slob of a man let out suddenly. An older guy. Poorly dressed, mismatched socks, slacks an inch or an inch and a half too short…beaten up looking face. Like a retired boxer’s face. But not a prizefighter. Not a contender. A punching bag, rather. A jobber. A man who’s spent his life and career taking shots to the face and nose and jaw and not seen a dime or a single win for all his efforts. His face was that beaten. Like he could’ve spent a lifetime getting beaten…and for nothing, in the end. “Cats an’ dogs, huh?” the beaten old man said pleasantly, rubbing his wrinkly, prune-like hands together. Beaten and exploited, but pleasant; pleasant, and not down. Only god knows why, A— thought, but you could give him that much—he’s not down. The admirable still-standing beaten thing went on about something or other following that profound observation of the rain, cats and dogs-like, but A— was intent on staring through the veil of fog directly ahead, staring inscrutably at that particular little nothing.

 

“Mmm.” A— examined the imaginary little nothing harder now.

 

“You went to ___ University.” Referring to A—‘s hooded sweatshirt. The beaten old fighter leered, smiling pleasantly at the university logo on A—‘s shirt. Crooked, genuine smile revealing three or four missing upper teeth.,.two barely noticeable, off to the side…one a canine, quite noticeable, front and center. Had it been knocked out by a left jab or an uppercut? Had he fought to lose that tooth? Or had it fallen out due to abnormally poor oral hygiene? The way in which one loses a tooth can say a lot about a man, A— mused…

 

“…No,” he answered finally, after a quite prolonged silence. Not thinking. “Yes.” Pausing, pregnantly. Then saying nothing.

 

“Ah, well. My daughter went there.” Crooked smile revealing missing canine. A genuine smile.

 

Both men sat silently. The rain beating the little plastic box harder now. Waiting on a bus. Sky gray and cold between the raindrops. Fog shrouding the men as if to constrict—to ensnare the both of them—force them uncomfortably close and closer, like two animals in a cage. Two uncomfortable animals in one little plastic cage. Or, one uncomfortable animal, perhaps. The little plastic box like a Siberian outpost, a no man’s land…zero visibility for miles around for the fog and rain. A— began to legitimately examine that imaginary little nothing in the distance…staring at it inscrutably, soaked through to his bones. In this moment, he almost started to believe there was something to be examined; something out there…not just a means of distancing himself from the wet dog of a man to his left; the beaten fighter with the missing canine. Hypnotized by the pounding rain, the rattling of the plastic enclosure. The man to his left broke the trance with a hacking cough, a blowing of his nose into a soaked handkerchief. Sputtering little bits of mucus and saliva, he began to start up again…

 

“This was immediately after my wife passed…what I’m telling you now; I spent at least four weeks in my house, living off potato chips, dry cereal, plain white bread…like that…and after a certain point I said to myself, you need to get out and get groceries at least. You can’t just stop eating…or live off crumbs you know…pretty much all I had left at that point. So I build myself up you know, and I decide yes, I have to go out and go grocery shopping. Bare survival minimum type stuff.

 

“I’d been walking around my house with just my boxer shorts and a stained white t-shirt on you know…and I had no clean laundry. What I did was I took a shower…which I hadn’t done in at least a week by the way…and turned my boxer shorts and t-shirt inside out. Minimize the odor. I had no detergent you see. For the washing machine. So I couldn’t do the laundry and get myself right, put on a clean pair of pants and shirt you see. I’d run out of everything you know. Put my sweatpants and jacket on and I left the house. Wasn’t easy….let me tell you. The sun hurt. The sun hurts like that when you haven’t seen it in so long. I get in the car, right, and I feel like I can barely remember how to drive. Like I forgot everything… just like riding a bike. But I got out onto the road and managed…found my way to the store. I never did the grocery shopping you know. My wife did that. Couldn’t remember the last time I went grocery shopping by myself…….I felt like a lost little boy. I….” he paused. Maybe lost his train of thought. This bizarre non-sequitur, on pause, the beaten fighter with the missing canine grinding the remainder of his teeth anxiously now, perhaps laboring to recall something or other. A— was now looking in this man’s direction. Yes…..he exists. And before the thought of what the hell is this old man babbling about entered his mind, a genuine curiosity at the strangeness and the abruptness of it all came first. Now, if nothing else, he thought….this is entertainment.

 

Had the man in fact been a fighter? Surely, if he had, he never won a single bout. But then, A— thought, I’ve never even been in a bout, let alone won or lost one. His eyes darted away into the mist then, thinking on that. Whatever this wet dog of a man is…a poor old slob, a roguish nobody with a moth flying out of his pocket…his face, at least, gave the distinct impression of a man who’d spent his life taking hits and likely giving few or none back. Fighter or not, he had been beaten well and good. By something. And what have I been beaten by? A— wondered. The beaten old man, fighter or not, started up again. “I had to learn to cook for myself. At first it was microwave this, microwave that. Ramen noodles. The like. Flashback to the bachelor days you know. But I said to myself I don’t want to live like a 23 year old bachelor, you know, I want to live like a grown man, who cooks and cleans and takes care of his business the way a man ought to take care of his business you see. So…you know what I took a cooking class. I felt silly. But lemme tell ya, you know, I learned a thing or two. And I learned more than cooking…” he paused again. This time clasping his meaty, paw-like hands together and looking off into the distance, through the veil of fog…almost as if he’d spotted A—‘s mysterious, imaginary little nothing. “…yeah you know, I learned if you wanna meet women, hey fella, take a cooking class.” He grimaced slightly, absent canine presenting again, prominently through the crooked smile and his curled lips. “I wasn’t ready for that though. She uh, she…the one I met there she, you know, well it didn’t work out you know. Just wasn’t meant to be. Was just too soon. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I’d ruined a good thing. Never could settle on that one. Huh.” He grinned sincerely, looked right at A—. “Huh, I’m really going on aren’t I. Why didn’t you stop me, fella? I’m chewin’ off your ear aren’t I? You don’t want to hear about this…” A—, at this point, absolutely did want to hear about this. He was thoroughly intrigued and entertained. “Wow. Don’t know how I got into all that. Really came outta nowhere I guess. How’d I even get on that?” Scratching his temple. “Oh right…your sweatshirt, fella. My daughter went to ___ University. That’s how.” He became very quiet all of a sudden. Almost sullen. A— felt compelled to speak now. Not quite sure what to say or why. Where at first he would just as soon not acknowledge the old dog as a man, an equal, now that impulse had changed. To what exactly, he wasn’t sure. The beaten old dog was also now less an object of entertainment. With his closing words, that voyeuristic curiosity had become dampened, and verging on something else entirely.

 

“I just got out of jail,” A— said. “…I didn’t go to college.” He looked straight ahead as he spoke, but not at the imaginary nothing in the distance. Simply into the veil of fog. Straight to the heart of the storm. “I got this shirt at a flea market, on my way out of jail. Only 99 cents. I was cold, see. When I went in, it was Springtime. Now it’s Fall. Walked out the front doors with just the shirt off my back. That and a few bucks. A few bucks sitting in my wallet for four and a half months. Heh.” A— cracked a nervous smile. All his teeth were accounted for.

 

“Well,” the old dog picked up, “everyone makes mistakes you know.”

 

“No,” A— said. “It wasn’t a mistake. I knew what I was doing. A mistake’s when you drop a glass of water on the kitchen floor. Broken glass. You didn’t mean to do it. Gotta clean it up. But it’s a mistake, you know?” A— stared ahead, through the mist. Unsure what might be hidden out there in the shroud of fog. “I knew what I was doing. I did it anyways.”

 

“That’s still a mistake, fella. You did something wrong I see, that much I got. Whatever it was though, you see, ya fouled up…see, I’ll bet, sittin’ here, now, thinkin’ about it, you could probably definitely say to yourself you wouldn’t do it again whatever it was. You learn. That’s what a mistake is.”

 

A— paused, pursing his lips tentatively. “…mistake or not. It’s something I did. Yeah I guess, you got a point there…I definitely wouldn’t do it again. Don’t think I would. Hope not. I’m not a criminal though. This thing…it was a one-time thing. A fluke. Something happened shouldn’t have happened.”

 

“Shit happens,” the old man said, honestly. And A— supposed that was about right. Shit does happen. It’s not a cliché. Shit happens all the time. Life is full of shit. And of happenings. “I worked as an engineer for 50 years,” the old fighter said, “and I didn’t accomplish a damn thing. I got a nice pension for my time and efforts but that’s about it, I didn’t split the atom, didn’t do anything important, not a damn thing important…just…a lotta shit. Then your wife dies. Suppose that’s shit happening right there. What’s the point I guess. Guess the point’s, maybe your mistake got ya sent to jail for a few months…gotta be rough, sure…but what about my mistake? 50 years wasting my talent. I wanted to be a painter, you see. I did a little bit here and there along the way, sure, but my life is defined by that 50 years doing not a god damned thing instead. Had to provide. You gotta provide. Maybe it’s a mistake maybe not. Feels like one. I dunno.”

 

“Painting. That’s cool,” A— said. “You know…you could be painting now. You’re retired right? What’s stopping you?”

 

“Ahh..” the old dog snapped his wrist dismissively. “That ship’s sailed. Starting out in the evening…not for me I don’t think.” His disposition seemed to have soured in that moment. “But you, you got plenty of time, fella. A minor setback that’s all. Jail, so what. Obviously wasn’t a capital crime, now. So you got time an’ opportunity still.”

 

“I don’t know about that.”

 

“Don’t waste your time. Take that from me, now.”

 

The veil of fog had begun to lift, slightly. The pounding rain decreased in intensity only marginally. But enough to notice. “Still think you oughtta be painting. You’re not dead, right? So you got time.”

 

“Maybe some time. Not time enough I think, though.” Through the fog a screeching of gears and metal on metal sounded. The bus squealed to a halt; barely visible through the mist, even seven or eight feet from the plastic enclosure. “Never enough time,” the beaten old man added as he prepared to stand. “Whatever you do, never think that…you know…that you got enough time.”

 

He stood, rubbing his meaty paws together for warmth. “Never enough time.”

 

A— remained in his seat. Only giving a half-hearted nod to the old fighter as he climbed aboard the bus. He’d planned to take it to a place he probably should not be, especially having just been released from jail. He supposed he still might take the next one there. Either that or wait till the rain lets up and simply keep walking.

 

He might walk to his destination. That, he thought, or he might just walk. And keep walking. The bus pulled away. A— was left alone. The rain had picked back up. Even harder than before. Alone, he thought only of walking. And eventually, of eating. And after that, of shelter. Alone, and with all the time in the world. Bare survival minimum-type stuff…

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