Have you ever been walking down the street, minding your own business, in a hurry to get wherever you’re going, maybe to an appointment with your tax man, or maybe just to meet an old friend for coffee, when you happen to meet one of those people’s eyes? Homeless people, or as my old man’d called them–bums. And did you ever get the feeling that until you looked at them, met their eyes, they didn’t truly exist? As people, that is. Kind of like window dressing. Or a street light. There but not there.
Last night I looked. And now I can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t do nothing but think about those eyes.
I’d come out of Delmonico’s feeling fine, belly full of prime rib, a good-looking woman on my arm, and the night still young. All through dinner Veronica’d been playing footsie under the table and batting those mile-long eyelashes at me. I’d known what dessert was going to be, and it was going to be good.
Downtown Centerton hopped and popped on Saturday nights so I’d had to park a couple of blocks away. And as lovely Veronica and I were strolling along the yellow-lit sidewalk, I saw the old lady ahead, pushing her rattling shopping cart full of lord-knew-what toward us. I’d learned early in life to recognize a possible threat, and the bag-of-rags coming our way was of no consequence. I nudged Veronica to one side and stepped around the old woman as we passed, thinking no more of her than if she were a pile of trash.
Cold circled my arm. “Billy?” The whisper of my name.
And I stopped. I shouldn’t have, should have shaken off the icy fingers and been on my way. But I didn’t. The old lady knowing my name had stopped me. And then I did another thing I shouldn’t have: I looked into her eyes. Eyes filled with longing and loneliness and sadness. Eyes that grabbed my heart, twisted it, ripped it, tore it to shreds. Eyes the color of my ma’s: the greenish-gray of the Atlantic before a storm blew in. And something about the face–hidden in a crosshatch of wrinkles and covered in layers of grime–reminded me of Ma too.
But Ma was dead. Had been for almost five years now. A heart attack had felled her in a clean swoop. One second she was laughing while she washed the dinner dishes following Sunday Mass, the next she was flat on her back on the kitchen floor, her skin a purplish-red and her eyes blank, black pits.
“Billy,” the bag lady said–and I remembered that only Ma had called me Billy, to everyone else I was Bill–“Why haven’t you been praying for me? It’s cold, and I’m hungry all the time. I don’t like it here.”
“W–who are you?” My heart thudded against my ribs. “What do you want?”
Veronica tugged on my other arm. “She wants money. Give her a couple of bucks….hell, give her five. Be generous.”
I couldn’t move; all I could do was look into those miserable eyes.
“You haven’t been a good son, Billy,” the old woman said. “You haven’t said a single prayer, lit a single candle. You’ve left me here.” A tear trickled down her cheek. “I want to go home.”
“Who the hell are you?” I asked, my voice a strangled whisper.
Rustling on my other side. Veronica’s voice. “Here.”
The sad eyes dropped their gaze. Mine dropped also, to Veronica’s tanned arm that had reached around me. She held a ten-dollar bill between two, red-tipped fingers. “Get something to eat,” Veronica said, her voice soft and husky.
The old woman’s dirty, gnarled hand fell away from my arm. She took the offering. “Thank you, miss.” Then she continued on her way, her shopping cart clack-clack-clacking over the uneven sidewalk. I watched her retreating back until the night swallowed her.
I don’t remember when I last went to work. I spend my days at Saint Anthony’s. I have no idea how many candles I’ve lit, how many hours I’ve spent on my knees praying, beseeching the Blessed Virgin, God, the saints and angels, to lift Ma out of Purgatory and up into Heaven. And the others who hunker in doorways, and sleep in the park and bus station, I pray for them too.
Their eyes haunt me–now that I’ve seen them. All those eyes, all those lost souls with no one to pray them into Heaven. So many. So many…
Photo from Morguefile