“Me? You want me to talk?” he asked.
“I want to learn about the world,” she said. “I want to learn about your part of it.”
“How old are you?”
“Nine and a half,” she said. “Our teacher said the best way to learn about the world is to ask people what they think.”
He took a deep drag, coughed, then snickered. “You sure about that? You seem kind of…young, to hear my story.”
“Please,” she said.
“Okay then. Well, I’m a city kid,” he said, his voice deep and husky. “Born and raised, right here. Lived around these streets my whole life. Hardly ever traveled, didn’t like to leave the city. I’m the only one my mama ever had. Maybe she knew how much trouble I’d be and thought she’d stop while she was ahead,” he laughed. “I had a dog once. Name was Tilly. She was a fine girl. I learned how much love could hurt from that dog. When she passed…I knew I’d never really be the same again. You know what I mean? Once you’re heart is broken, it can’t ever be put right. So, I was cautious. When my friends were falling in and out of love, I stayed back. They kidded me about that, but I remembered how losing Tilly made me feel and I thought…I’d rather not go through that again.
“But life doesn’t really care what you want, does it,” he chuckled, squinting as the smoke stung his eyes. “No it does not. So there she was. Sweet looking woman, in a pink dress with matching shoes. She didn’t have to say a word. I was already in love with her.” He smiled and closed his eyes. “Prettiest one I ever did see. I walked up to her and said, ‘You are the prettiest woman I ever did see,’ and she said, “Does that line work on anyone?”
“I laughed so hard I almost fell over. I kissed her hand and asked her to marry me right then and there. She said she’d think about it. We were married six months later. My mama was happy, I can tell you that. A lot of mamas think a woman will settle their sons down. That’s a lot of pressure to put on any woman, don’t you think?’
“She said she liked my blue eyes. Said no one should have eyes like that, eyes that drew you in and kept you there. I told her it was my mama’s fault and to take it up with her.” He laughed again and coughed some more. “She never did, of course. We were happy. I pushed Tilly to the back of my mind. I thought love could last. I was a fool, but love can make fools out of anyone. You should remember that. In fact, you should write that down, so you never forget it.
“Anyway, I had been in trouble when I was young. Nothing big, joy riding, running numbers for Thumbs Marcassi, the usual stuff. Like I said, nothing big. My mama kept an eye on me and when she found about about Marcassi, she went to his place of business and when she left, I needed a new job.
“After I met the love of my life, I went straight, so maybe my mama was right after all,” he snickered. “We had a little apartment in a three story walk up and everything was perfect until…. Until, a drunk driver hit her. He didn’t even stop. Someone got his plate number and they caught him, but what good was that? She died later that night. Just like my Tilly. Love was ripped away from me. That’s what life is, you know. It gives you what you want and then it laughs and takes it from you, leaving you bleeding until it’s your turn to leave.
“After that, I knew that I had been right all along. It’s better to never love at all. That way you can kick life in the teeth and walk away free. People will tell you that love is worth it. They say that love is worth anything, and maybe it is for some folks, but for others, it’s a slow death. I’m guessing that’s not what you wanted to hear, but that’s the truth of it. My mama’s gone too. I don’t know why I’m still here. I can’t figure that part out. I see people in love and I think…just wait until your heart is ripped out. No one escapes.
“I’m old now. Been on the street a good long time. It’s not a good place to be. Winter’s coming on and things will get bad. Some will die. Freeze to death and all. Shelters are dangerous and some are religious, preaching all that trash, like it matters to any of us. No one should have to listen to their lies just to get a bowl of soup. Sometimes people hand out food, sometimes we wait until restaurants close and get the food they don’t need anymore. It’s not that bad. But it’s horrible for women. Violence and…well, it’s bad for them to be on the street. That’s something for you to remember too. You never want to end up out here. Write that down.
“And here I am. Sitting in the park, smoking, telling a complete stranger, my entire life story.”
“Can I ask you something?” she said, softly.
“Is it better to have been in front of a warm fire once, and to know how it felt, or is it better to have been cold for your entire life?”
“He grinned. “See, that’s the thing. People have to learn how to be enough for themselves, before they can be enough for anyone else. If you’re enough for yourself, you can be alone, or without the fire for others, forever. Once you can be alone, you can do anything. And some people handle pain better than others. There is that.”
“So, you let love break you?”
“I did,” he said
“And you knew you were doing it?”
“I knew I was doing something, but I didn’t care. That’s what some people don’t understand. You see, when you don’t care, nothing matters. Nothing makes any difference in your life, when pain is all you feel.”
“I have a hamster named, Ted. Will I be like you when he dies?” she asked, pulling on her sleeve.
“No. You’re a lot braver than I ever was,” he said, truthfully. “You stopped to talk to me and you weren’t even afraid to do it.”
“Why should I have been afraid?”
“I’m a stranger and I live rough,” he said. “People don’t stop and talk to me. And there are a lot of people in the world who would hurt you, so I don’t think you should talk to a stranger again.”
“But you’re nice.”
“Not everyone is like me.”
“How can I tell who’s nice and who isn’t?”
“You can’t tell, that’s why you can’t talk to anyone.”
“Okay,” she said. “I won’t.”
“Yes,” she said, holding out her little finger. “Pinky swear.”
He held out his finger.
“So you’ll never love anyone again?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Never again.”
“Is it okay if someone loves you?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s not.”
“Even a little?”
“Not even a little.”
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you for talking to me.”
“You better go straight home,” he said. “It will be dark soon.”
“I know. I have to be home before the streetlights go on.”
“That’s a good rule,” he said.
She nodded. “Maybe I’ll see you again some time. You won’t be a stranger, so I can talk to you.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“Well, bye,” she said, waiving a little.
He watched her walk away and thought, You have the same trusting brown eyes as Tilly. Then he got up and shuffled away, knowing he couldn’t come back to that corner again. He couldn’t be friends with her. He couldn’t be friends with anyone. Not anymore.
Picture: Marco Zuppone