This is my first attempt at fiction, it's a short story.
“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
George Bernard Shaw
I didn’t like the way he looked at me from across the desk. We sat in silence as he clicked his pen again and again, occasionally putting it between his teeth and spinning it in his hand. My boss of 5 years was staring straight at the papers in front of him as he casually flipped through them. He was avoiding eye contact and trying to reassure me that this wasn’t personal. When he would glance at me it felt more like relief than sympathy. I tried my best to give him a confident smile; like I knew what was next after this conversation was over.
“Okay, that about does it. Jim, look, I’m really sorry but we’ll recommend you wherever you go, this just isn’t the place for you. It’s a rough time for us and we’ve had to let a lot of people go who’ve done nothing wrong. You’re one of them.”
“Well, I learned a lot being here. Is that it?”
“That’s it.” We shook hands, still avoiding eye contact, and I walked out of the building, got in my car and headed home. My confident smile was gone.
I knew my family would understand. My two-year-old daughter wouldn’t know the difference between today and any other day. My wife would probably tell me it wasn’t my fault and that I would come across a job that would be “better.” I wasn’t worried about their approval; I was worried about failing.
My thoughts distracted me from the road; I didn’t remember a thing from the drive home until the stoplight on Highway 74, where it crosses the street to my neighborhood. The large strip mall, with a Wal-Mart, scattered restaurants, and a large parking lot attracted a lot of local business. I undid my tie as I waited for the light to change. There was a homeless man on the corner, right outside my passenger window. He was staring straight at me and the sun came through my windshield, so there was nowhere to hide. I had nothing to give.
He looked exactly as I do in the morning before I shower. His expression matched mine. As he looked in my eyes, I finally understood the cardboard sign he held down by his knee, sideways, like he’d given up for the day. “Homeless,” for once I understood what that phrase meant. No home wants to take a man with no job, a man who has failed to meet expectations. I didn’t pity the man with nothing; maybe it would be nice not to have a home for today. Maybe I didn’t want to go home, that way I could delay breaking the news to my family: no insurance, no income, no eating out, and if this lasted long enough we would have to sell our house. I would be just like that poor homeless man, taking my family down with me, holding signs to survive.
Suddenly, the man on the corner signaled for me to roll down my window. There was something familiar about those tired eyes. The light turned green as I started to roll it down. This had better be fast, I thought. I leaned across the emergency brake to listen. “Go home Jim,” he yelled. “Don’t let the fear of being inadequate make you so.” His smile, after he said that, was slow and confident; but it wasn’t forced like the smile I’d given my boss earlier.
I’m not sure how long I sat there just staring into space. The cars behind me started to honk, and I drove away with my eyebrows furrowed and mouth slightly open, in a daze, towards home. My mind raced with questions. How did he know my name? How did he know anything at all? Why did he look at me like he knew me, like he cared about what I did?
I should have spoken to him. I should have invited him to get in my car and tell me more. I should have pulled over. I figured I could still turn around, so I did. I signaled, moved into the left turn lane and waited for an opening. When I got back to the corner the homeless man was no longer there. I saw him further down the street, walking quickly with his toes pointed outward, his heels skipping on the ground as a prelude to every step. It was a friendly walk.
As I approached him I noticed that he no longer held the sign. He was looking at the ground mouthing something over and over again. It looked like he was holding back laughter.
I stopped and rolled down my window.
“Didn’t I tell you to go home?” said the man.
“Why would I listen to you?” I asked.
“Apparently you value my opinion, you’re back here for a reason. You know you’re in trouble when you start listening to a homeless man,” he paused and smiled for a moment. “But I must have said something true since you turned around, why does truth surprise you? It must be the source. I’m not cute or rich, so I would be surprised too. Those cute rich people seem to dominate the market on truth.” He laughed quietly.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?” I asked.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, my mommy said before I left not to talk to strangers. You know I think she also forgot to pack my lunch, you got anything good in there?”
“No, but I can take you to eat.”
“I guess my beautiful cardboard sign from earlier didn’t cut it, it seems like you’ll only feed me in exchange for information.” he smiled. “I’m disappointed, Jim. People these days only care about themselves.”
“You think you’re pretty funny, huh? What’s your name?”
“Jim” he laughed. “I am the ghost of your future. Now you can be certain you are losing your mind.”
“Alright, enough jokes.”
“I think I saw you smile after that one, plus there are never enough jokes. You’ve really got nothing to lose with a joke.” He paused again. “On a more serious note, I know why you turned around, it’s because you are in desperate need of encouragement. I know failure when I see it, I’m pretty experienced with that.”
“How long have you been homeless? I’m sorry to see a likeable guy like you living on the street.”
“Oh, Jim, I’ve never been homeless; the street is my home. I write on the signs to keep myself alive, but I could never be homeless.”
“That’s an interesting way to look at your circumstances. Have you looked for a job? It seems to me you’ve become a self-declared philosopher.”
“Truth is I have a lot of time to think about people, so I guess I am a philosopher now. It was really difficult to adjust after loosing my cleaning job last year, that’s all I knew how to do for most my life. Since then I’ve decided to make the best of what you call my ‘circumstances.’”
“You know when I saw you I thought that I envied you, not a care or burden in the world.”
“Well, Jim, it’s really not the best on your self esteem, living on the street. Did you turn around to ask me if a life on the street is the life for you?”
“I’ve had too many questions since seeing you to know exactly why I’m here. Tell me about yourself and your life on the street. You chose to be homeless? Also, I still don’t know your name.”
“Call me Immanuel. Like I said, I could never be homeless. You are a guest in my home as we speak. Would you like to step out of your car and come into my home?”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this, but sure.” I turned off the car and hopped out. I sat next to Immanuel on the curb as the sun began to set above the snow-capped mountains. A beautiful, spring day was ending.
Immanuel looked very different from when I first saw him on the corner. Maybe it was how I looked at him that had changed. He turned his head, meeting my gaze with bright eyes. His grey hair was tangled and long, his face wrinkled from sun and laughter. Grey whiskers grew from his face in different directions to the length of my index finger. I felt peace in his gaze.
“Look Jim, there is a lot that you aren’t going to know about me by the time we are done talking. But maybe you can find out a bit about yourself. Some encouragement is where this all began, right?”
“I guess so. I really just want to know how you know me, even my name, and what you know about me.”
“Oh, is your name actually Jim? I’ve just been spouting out a name, it gets people’s attention when you use a name even if it’s not theirs. This time it happened to be yours. Now that’s actually pretty funny.”
“You can’t be serious?” We laughed. “That was your best joke of the night.”
“The rest of what I said felt like the right advice for your expression. I’ve met a lot of people who have given up, who have called themselves homeless, so I told you to go home. You looked like you were feeling helpless and inadequate so I shared with you something I’d learned from being helpless and inadequate.”
“That’s it?” I asked with surprise.
“That just doesn’t make sense.” I was puzzled.
“The beauty is, life doesn’t need to make sense: it only needs meaning.” He put his arm on my shoulder as he said that, his smile grew and his eyes were more confident than I’d ever been.
“So how does someone like you end up living on the street, Immanuel?”
“Now that, friend, is a story I’ve long forgotten. I’ve chosen to forget it. There was a time when I felt worthless and inadequate just because I didn’t have a job. Then, I realized that a job only gives you money, worth and meaning have nothing to do with a job.”
“Unless your family relies on you for money. I guess giving up on myself would mean giving up on my family.”
It seemed he didn’t have anything to say to that, so we sat in silence, listening to the cars rush by. The weight of my day seemed to contradict the sky, I felt lighter as the sky got darker. I finally managed to smile. What was I doing on a curb listening to a bum? I let a short, quiet laugh out of my nose as I shook my head. Then it was silent again.
“Have you ever heard the name Immanuel?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“I don’t know, I know it’s not common.”
“I wish it were my name, I only use it because of its meaning.”
“Well I can’t say I’m surprised that it’s not your real name. What does it mean?”
“You seem educated, why don’t you look it up when you get home.”
“Alright you are really good at bothering me.” Then we both laughed together. “I better go, it’s getting dark and I understand less about what’s happened the more we talk.”
“What’s the rush? Neither of us have jobs to get to.” He said this with a smile I could trust.
Laughing, I responded, “Are you sure you don’t need a ride anywhere? Can I get you something to eat?”
“I don’t need a ride anywhere, this is the home I’ve learned to love. Why don’t you just bring me something in the morning, I’ll be around here. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” He stood up and shook my hand. “Now get out of my house and get back to yours.” He turned to continue walking along the sidewalk. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thanks a lot, Immanuel.” I said to his back as he walked away, clicking his feet before every step. He responded by throwing his hand in the air over his shoulder with his thumb up so I could see it.
* * *
When I got home I hugged my beautiful wife.
“You must have had a good day, you haven’t hugged me like that in years,” she said. I had completely forgotten that I lost my job earlier that day.
“You know, it actually was a good day. I’ve got a story you won’t believe.”
“Okay honey, save it for dinner, it will be ready in a few minutes.” She kissed me quickly, with a tempting smile. Then, I quickly went to my computer to look up the meaning of the name Immanuel. I couldn’t stop my smile as the words filled the screen. “God is with us.” Just then, I heard little footsteps down the stairs. My favorite sound welcomed me home,