By Jan Heininger
I’d seen him many times while walking my dog in the same park he called home. I’d only observed him doing two things—sleeping on his blanket in the shade of a tall pine, and trekking to and from the public restrooms at the north end of the park. Osteoporosis had twisted his spine so badly that his head faced the ground as he walked. Hanging like a horse’s mane, his long, gray hair hid his features. He exuded a certain pride. His brown shirt, brown pants, and baggy overcoat were wrinkled, but never dirty. Once my dog barked at him, but he never broke stride as he passed us by.
My next encounter came weeks later when I noticed the sole of one of his shoes was loosely tethered to its upper, slapping loudly as he approached—head hanging, seemingly blind to my existence. I felt I should do something—offer him money for food or a pair of new shoes. I turned to speak, and our eyes briefly met. In that split second, he emanated both defeat and defiance. He returned his gaze to the ground and continued on. I wondered which of life’s cruelties had beset him.
It was early autumn—cool air, warm sun, white clouds scattered across a blue sky. My dog and I followed our route around the park when a red rescue wagon turned, the corner lights flashing, and slowed near the children’s play yard. Worry that a child had gotten hurt caused my jaw to tighten. I recalled my fear and guilt when my daughter had been injured on a playground much like this one. She was left with a scar above her right eyebrow that eventually faded away. Later wounds wouldn’t heal as easily.
The paramedics exited their vehicle, and their relaxed demeanor made it hard to believe they were responding to an emergency. They removed a gurney from the rear of their vehicle and briefly spoke to a parent, who pointed toward a tall tree some sixty yards away.
My gaze shifted toward the giant pine. An overloaded shopping cart and a large bundle rested beneath its branches.
The paramedics set their gear down under the tree and went about their business. I edged closer, my conscience keeping me at a respectful distance even as my dog tugged me toward the scene. They placed blankets on the ground, lowered the gurney, then rolled a body onto the blankets and lifted it onto the stretcher. Before the face was covered, I recognized the old man by his long gray mane.
Joggers, mothers, children, picnickers, lovers, and dog owners all enjoy the lush wooded park in the warm sunlight, but after dark, an unsettling element inhabits its grounds. This was not the first time a body had been discovered in the park—lives halted with heroin, meth, or other abused substances.
Once the paramedics pulled away, I inched toward the abandoned shopping cart—a man’s entire life stuffed into a small metal basket. Glancing over my shoulder, I lifted the plastic tarp, revealing his belongings. There were several plastic bags filled with sundry items—toothbrush and paste, soap, pencils and pens, socks, and seemingly important papers, including a credit card. My opportunity had come to finally learn the identity of the old man, but something else caught my eye—the mottled, black and white cover of a composition booklet. I removed the booklet and discovered more beneath it, their covers frayed and pages worn. Curiosity took over, and I began thumbing through the sheaves, unprepared for what I found inside.
It was poetry—sonnets, odes, pastorals—every form of poem one could imagine—all in a cursive hand as proud and defiant as the old man himself. With every new page, his words pulled at me. He used language in a fashion that avoided the obvious. Insightful, profound phrases that created images in my mind as powerful as any I’d ever read—unlocking suppressed emotions.
Overcome by a need to keep the booklets, I again checked for prying eyes. I became nauseous, shame-filled, and my hands trembled as I stuffed the booklets inside my jacket. I dragged my dog away before the police arrived to secure the area.
We meet Thursday nights at a British pub—a group of old friends gathering over pints to dissect political affairs and to catch up on the week’s events. After a few brown ales, I told my companions about the old man. I timidly presented them with the books, apprehensive as to what they might think of my trespass into another man’s most private domain. But after only a moment’s hesitation, they began leafing through the pages. To my surprise, someone suggested that we read aloud from the books. Turning to randomly selected pages, we each took our turn at giving voice to the old man’s words, raising our glasses to the virtuoso after each reading.
Walking home from the pub, with the old man’s words still lingering in my head, I couldn’t help but wonder if our readings had been the eulogy he would have wanted. Rain began falling a few blocks from my house. Its rhythm reminded me of one of his poems, one that my daughter would have found heartening in its cadence.