So, I’m in a bit of a sticky situation.
Some quick, basic background information to help you along and then we’ll get started with the problem - Four months ago I moved to the west from the northeast, mainly because I hate the cold, but also because the city happened to house the college of my dreams. This means that my family currently lives literally across the country from my tiny, underfurnished apartment. My roommate Kate likes to stay out all night and drink. She pays half the rent and respects the tradition of pajama/movie night Thursday, though, so I keep her around.
Anyway, about two weeks into my new life, I finally found a decent coffee shop to invest my time in. Seriously. Perfect. Not a big business, not over-busy in the morning, not so hot that it scalds my tongue every goddamn sip… It’s the perfect cup of joe, alright?
Not kidding - the next day, while I am still riding the high of this glorious discovery, I find out a homeless tramp lives in the adjacent alleyway.
And he takes a liking to me.
It’s not terrible at first. I’m not usually one to strike up a conversation with strangers. I mean, I’m a thin, seriously lanky, pale dude, with about as much muscle as you would expect a small kitten to have. And I respect the whole “teach people not to attack instead of teaching someone to defend themself” ideology but there was still no way I wasn’t considering self defense.
Turns out I didn’t need it. Although he looked off-putting, the vagrant who introduces himself to me and asks what my favorite book is (The Once and Future King, T.H. White) seems like a totally harmless, if not mildly touched, old man.
I don’t remember much about our first meeting, but something sticks about him telling me I looked lost, an awkward laugh on my part, and him then going on to proclaim that my hair was “too light” (I’m a natural blond) and “styled weird” (meaning messy). Despite this, he miraculously grew on me pretty quickly. In fact, more often than not, I would buy him a coffee in the morning too, and he would walk with me to my bus stop. The first few times I was slightly worried about him taking note of this crucial location to my life, but he never once made a fuss when it was time for him to leave. We had some pretty great conversations on our block-walks.
We’ll call him Al, because even though I’ve tried, no matter what, I still can’t bear to leave him nameless.
Al and I talked about a lot of things. We had a lot of similar views about the world. He said that he liked to go to the center of town and listen to the music young people played there. He said he liked to go to bookstores with the change he saved up. The only time I ever asked him why, he said, “This world, well- it’s a shitty one, son. No two ways about it. But in a bookstore, there’s millions of worlds that are slightly less shitty, or where it’s equally shitty, but the characters get better hands that I never got. So I like to share that time with them.” Hearing him talk about the things he loved was one of the greatest pleasures of my life. His playful eyes lit up and he got a small smile on his partially-hidden-by-beard lips. He looked away to the left as he spoke slightly softer.
"What’s your all-time favorite book, Al?" I asked him after that.
He looked at me from the side of his eyes and smiled beneath that long, mangy beard of his. “It hasn’t been written yet,” he confessed. “But I’ll know when I find it.”
"Okay, well then, what’s your favorite, er, experience you’ve ever shared so far?"
He turned to face me full on, then. He looked me dead in the eyes and said softly, “This one.” It was the first moment I was sure beyond a doubt that I liked Al. I don’t know why I never invited him back to my house for a shower and a sandwich or something. I know Kate wouldn’t have minded. I think, at the time, I convinced myself that it was because of all my schoolwork, or that my budget was too low to care for him the way he needed it. I was selfish, but Al was nice. He never asked or imposed or even insinuated that he would like to see where I lived or use my phone.
And then, a month and a half later, out of the blue he stops showing up. I ventured as far into his alleyway as I dared the day it happened, but his treasured sleeping mat and plastic bag of books were nowhere to be found. I bought him a coffee and left it at the mouth of the alley just in case I had missed him, and I took my walk to the bus stop. It felt pretty weird to be alone. The bus regulars whom I had never spoken to actually asked me where Al was.
The next day the coffee was still there. I checked - the cup was full and cold. So, being a college kid in America and battling serious budget issues already, I couldn’t buy a coffee to waste again. I did check around the city’s homeless shelters, food pantries, and even the local emergency room as soon as I got a chance, though. Nobody had ever heard of anybody remotely like Al.
So, eventually, I let it go.