Volume 23, Number 1

The Panhandler

Ryan Mohr

The boy was ten when he first saw him up close. The man had become a fixture in the city’s square that reminded the boy of the marble statue across the street of the old war general clutching his musket atop a horse. Yet the man was smaller, alive, a body made not of stone, but of wrinkled flesh, pulsing blood, brittle bones. The boy’s father wrapped his arm around him as they began to cross the street in the falling snow. “Son, I want you to watch me when I get across the street. I want you to see how we treat those who are less fortunate than we are. Understand?”

The boy nodded and struggled to keep pace with the pull of his father’s long strides. When they got close, the boy looked at the man he had only seen from a distance. The man was hunched down in his chair, coughing. They were slow, rumbling coughs that seemed to tremble from somewhere deep inside. The man’s face was gaunt and wind-burnt; jagged lines of dirt lay in the creases of his skin, which reminded the boy of his mother’s hands after she had been pulling weeds in her flower beds on bright summer mornings. The boy felt a little scared because one of the man’s legs was missing from the hip, and his body slouched to one side in his rusted chair. He wondered why the man’s camouflaged clothes were frayed and filthy, a sour smell of old sweat hanging in the air.

The conflict had ended just before the boy was born, but the man was a relic the boy didn’t fully understand. His jacket said Parks, but his father told him most people called him Troop because of the man’s days in the cavalry. The father told the boy the man never outright asked for money, as if he already knew his frail body and the tiny flag duct-taped to his chair were enough to make some change or a few bills pass from a stranger’s hand into his tin can.

For years, the man had wheeled himself down the sidewalks from the apartment building checkered with windows boarded shut and crumbling bricks to set up outside the courthouse holding a weathered cardboard sign with a single word scribbled in black ink. He was there seven days a week, from dawn till late afternoon, barring only an oncoming blizzard or heavy rain.

The wind picked up and blew the man’s long, graying, dirty hair in front of his stubbled face. The boy turned back to his father and kept his eyes on him just like he had been told. He watched as his father reached into his wallet and pulled out a five-dollar bill; the same amount he’d receive after washing dishes and cleaning his room twice a week. The man didn’t seem to look at them, at least that the boy could tell, but he reached out and pulled the bill slowly toward him with a shivering right hand. The boy looked back to the strange man. He watched his sunken face quiver, his lips part, and he heard a whispered, “thank you” in a soft, raspy voice, a bitter tinge of the previous night’s alcohol on his breath. The father gave a slight nod. “Take care, Troop.” Then he took the boy’s hand in his, and they walked off. The boy glanced behind to see the man start to wheel himself down the sidewalk. He wondered where the man was going now with all those bills and piles of change in his can.

* * *

The brisk Midwestern air only added to the freezing pain growing in his gut. He could feel the tremors starting up again like little chunks of ice melting, spilling themselves out. He lifted his head and saw a man walking at the crosswalk. He recognized the man, had seen him more times than he could remember, a lawyer or something, who worked here at the courthouse. He had watched as the man strolled in and out of court during the week, decked out in tailored suits and fine leather shoes, how the bounce in the man’s steps made his feet seem as if they never touched the ground. It was the one thing he hated about him. But the lawyer always gave him money, usually a five or a few ones. He grew anxious as he watched. He could feel his throat drying, the shoulder muscles beginning to tighten because he now knew for sure he’d have enough cash and change to buy a bottle of whiskey, maybe even a six-pack as well, at the liquor store down the block. All he wanted was a drink. To feel the warmth of the liquid blanketing the cold aches that lived inside.

The aches came from the cirrhosis. But he already knew that. Months ago, a police officer at the courthouse had driven him to the V.A. hospital after seeing him hurled over in his chair vomiting trickling pools of blood onto the concrete. He’d spent the entire ride sprawled out in the backseat of the cruiser with his eyes closed, groaning, sputtering slurred curses about the pain, about where his wheelchair and tin can went, over the officer’s driving. Inside, the doctor had told him that if he kept drinking he would die. Told him if he’d sober up he could get his life back together. It was as simple as that. But he was no longer afraid to die. Not anymore. In truth, he now felt almost one with death, a close bond that had formed years ago after watching it hover above the thick jungle and the men in his unit, from watching it hover over the girls and boys running around the tiny villages, the skin, blackened and charred, hanging off their thin bodies like ragged clothing, after watching it rise from the burning flames of thatched huts. To him, death had been everywhere; it had blown in the muggy air, sat in spacious rice-paddy fields, and hid behind every blade of grass and mound of dirt.

When the man got close he put his head down because of the boy. Not from shame, but from a sad reminder of his own youth when there was still a future spread out flat before him like that big, blue ocean he’d flown across. When the lawyer handed him the money and told him to take care he said thanks because he sensed compassion and truthfulness in the deep, articulate tone of the man’s voice. Then he waited for the soft shuffle of the boy’s sneakers to disappear, lifted the can off the ground, balanced it on his lap, and wheeled himself down the sidewalk.

* * *

Any second enemy soldiers would leap out from behind a maple tree, or spring from a hole dug in the dirt and start shooting. His left hand slid underneath the sleek plastic of the barrel, his rifle resting at the hip, right index finger tense on the trigger. He walked in boots, shorts, and tee shirt, slow and steady through the woods, knees bent, back hunched. The boy paused to take a drink of water from the canteen hooked to his brown belt, then crept further.

His family lived on five forested acres, and he liked to walk in the woods, watching birds, insects and squirrels. Some days he’d bring his toy rifle and imagine he was hunting a big buck or a black bear, tracking the paw prints in the soft dirt and mud. Tonight he was recreating scenes from the war movie he’d seen on television the night before.

As daylight waned, the slim shadows of the trunks and branches from the budding trees grew faint. The boy raised his arm, motioning his men to advance. They were capturing the neighbor’s house, which also served as enemy headquarters. One of his men, the one with a boyish grin just like his, pointed a finger, Lieutenant, over there. Behind that tree. The boy hurried ahead, firing his rifle, the hollow snapping noise shooting out from the plastic barrel and echoing off the bark of the tall trees. You got him, Lieutenant. You got him. The boy finished climbing the hill, his pale, skinny legs burning, and stepped into the flat backyard grass of his neighbor’s yard. He pretended to hoist a big, flowing flag with the help of his men, just like the soldiers in the movie had done. He pictured having his own statue someday, one standing tall downtown or in a big park built just in his honor. There would be a baseball diamond, trees and a giant playground. Maybe some walking trails that veered off into a wood. Instead of a statue with a horse, he’d stand atop a big tank, manning the machine gun in the hatch, or pose triumphantly on the wing of a fighter jet, his arms raised in victory. He imagined families smiling as they read the bronze plaque stating how he helped save the country. For a moment, the boy thought of the strange man and the tiny flag taped to his chair. He wondered what Troop had seen, what it was he’d fought for. Behind him, he heard the cracking of twigs, then a small animal shuffling in the high weeds. He turned to look and noticed the growing darkness in the woods around him. A little scared, he dashed back down the hill, elbows flared, his boots kicking up dirt, the rifle bobbing up and down in his hand. He found his way back to the trail and ran for home as the moon peaked through the tops of the trees in the early evening sky.

* * *

“What do you know about war, son?” his father asked him in the car.

“Well, it’s bad, right? I mean, killing people is wrong, isn’t it?”

“It is wrong. That’s right. But it isn’t as simple as that. You see, son, sometimes wars start for reasons that might seem correct at the time, but it turns out that those reasons weren’t right after all. Understand?”

“Sort of, Dad. But why wouldn’t people know from the beginning?” The boy turned his head from the window where he had been straining to see the statue in the square to look to his father.

The father wasn’t exactly sure how to explain the complexity of war and human nature to him. “Well, when people are living in an age when many things are changing at once, it can be hard to separate good ideas from bad ones. Change brings a lot of good, but it can also bring much uncertainty and fear. When someone is caught in the middle of the entire situation, making all the right decisions can be difficult. Does this make sense?”

The father parked the car in the lot adjacent to the courthouse and unbuckled his seatbelt.

“So, is the man one of the good guys or one of the bad guys, Dad? I mean, did he have bad ideas, too?”

The father shut his car door and waited for his son to come around to meet him. When the boy got close he continued. “He’s one of the good guys. He fought for our country, did what was asked of him. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes he didn’t think or do things that were sometimes bad. But we shouldn’t blame him, Son, because those things weren’t really his fault. Understand?”

“Yeah, I kind of understand, Dad.”

More than anything the father just wanted to show his son an act of altruism. To teach him to respect and help those who were having trouble keeping afloat in life’s dark waters. The father remembered his times as an anti-war activist, when he was in law school. He was angry, just like so many others. Angry at the government, the conflict, and for a time, he was angry at the soldiers who were fighting. He remembered how some of his fellow SDS members spit and threw empty cups at the soldiers who had just returned. But it’s not their fault, he remembered thinking. It’s not their fault they were fighting for something that no one believed in any longer.

Why are we angry at them?

As the two of them reached the traffic light, the father brought his arm around his son’s shoulders. “His name is Troop, son. And he’s having a hard time dealing with the past, all the things he’s seen and lived through.”

“Is that why we’re going to give him some money?”

“Yes, that’s why”.

“Why does he sit in front of the courthouse?”

“I think it’s his quiet way of asking for someone to take some accountability, son, for all the things that have happened to him.”

* * *

Outside, the clouds parted and the spring sun appeared, casting its light across the boy’s bedroom and settling on his face. He could feel the heat from behind his eyelids and rolled over on his side. From downstairs, he could hear the clanking of pots and pans as his mother made breakfast. He felt his stomach growl and decided to get out of bed. He eased himself down the steps in his pajamas, yawning, rubbing his eyes with his fists. He sat down in a chair in front of the newspaper at the kitchen table. His father had left it open when he went to work in the morning, and the boy saw the obituary as he sat waiting while his mother cooked pancakes before he went to school. The gray photograph was fuzzy and only three sentences long, Troop’s life now something that could be cut out, folded, and rolled up between the tips of your thumb and forefinger. As he ate, the boy imagined that Troop lost that leg saving a buddy’s life, dragging him through dark, unruly jungle, the hot air heavy and scratchy like wet wool, as bullets tore and ripped through the flesh of his thigh. He kept going until he heard the sounds of gunfire grow faint and he had found a hiding spot, where he now laid down his gun, took off his jacket and undershirt, and knelt down on one knee under the waking sun. He imagined that Troop ripped a long strip from the shirt to wrap in a tight knot around his mangled leg and bunched the rest up against his buddy’s shoulder blade to stem the flow of blood. The boy imagined Troop said everything would be fine and that they had reached a place where they could lie down and wait, watching as a breeze began to whisk away the smoke, safe from harm, but now alone underneath the opening blue of the sky.