The Homeless Man [Short Fiction]

A short piece this week. Some thoughts. I cannot guarantee that they are worthwhile thoughts, but they are thoughts nonetheless and I present them here for those who don’t mind thinking. Inspired by an occurrence a week or two ago. There are plenty of such people who scratch in bins in the suburbs. Nobody pays much attention to them.


The Homeless Man by Imran Lorgat

He had ragged hands, ragged jeans, he scratched in the bins. He was methodical: he lifted each ghastly item from the refuse box and inspected it with a yellowed eye. A packet of crisps half-eaten he might keep. A discarded plastic fork may come in handy later. The damp cardboard tissue box was of no use to anyone. As I watched him pick through the black bin’s contents with practiced precision, I sighted a bandaged hand. From beneath the gaps in the filthy once-white rags, boils peeked out; sores on his knuckles. I didn’t want to examine him further. I stopped myself from noticing the dirty clothes or the cracked skin. I reached into my bag, drew out a sandwich. I hadn’t eaten it. Earlier when I’d contemplated a mediocre meal of leftovers on bread I’d turned up my nose and went to buy food instead. The broken man wouldn’t care. I walked over to him. “Are you hungry?”. He nodded. I passed on the sandwich. Thanks may have been mumbled but I bowed my head, skulked away. My older brother gripped my wrist and thrust me into the car.
     “What’s wrong with you?” he interrogated me as we sped down the highway five minutes later.
     “Did I not just tell you what happened to Micky and Sam last week?” my brother kicked in the accelerator; frustration, “A beggar knocked on the window, Mick reached into his wallet and ten seconds later there was a Goddamn gun in his face. They took his damn car. They were lucky to get away with their lives.”
     “This one didn’t ask me for anything,” a feeble defence.
     “Don’t be stupid,” my brother spat, “You know that was irresponsible. He could have had a knife, a fork, something sharp. You know how crime is in the country. You want me to be Mr Hero? How heroic do you think you’d be with a knife pointing at you?”
     In all fairness, the man looked as though he could barely stand.
     “I don’t know,” I said.
     “I mean what were you thinking?” the roaring engine echoed his anger.
     “I just thought-”
     “You didn’t think. You don’t think. You know sometimes I worry about you. You’re too damn naïve. And-”
     “I just-”
     “-And I’ve got this sick feeling that one day when I’m not around you’re going to try to do something stupid for some random stranger and while you’re reaching into your wallet, he’s going to stick a knife in your ribs.”
     “Don’t say that.”
     “I need to say that,” my brother attacked, “I need you to see that what you did was stupid. And if you keep doing things like that then one day you’re going to sorely regret it. It’s just not worth it. I mean: it doesn’t even help half the time. You give these guys money and they blow it on booze or cigarettes. I mean how many times don’t you see some dirty hobo on the side of the road, looks like he’s half-dead from hunger, but he’s smoking a damn cigarette?”
     I didn’t give him money.
     “I just thought-”
     “And giving them food or money doesn’t even fix the problem. Tomorrow he’ll be back in the same place, scratching in the same bin. How much of food and supplies doesn’t the government hand out and there’s still so much poverty. They don’t need handouts, they need jobs, they need income. All that-”
     “I just-”
     “All that you accomplish by giving them handouts is that you create a dependence, you encourage them. You teach them that begging is the answer. Have you heard about what happened in Zaakir’s area? He thought he’d be nice: when beggars knocked on his door he gave them bread once or twice. Now those beggars come by at least four, five times a week. Different ones even, they know it’s a house that gives handouts. They knock and they knock and you can’t get rid of them until you give them something.”
     “I just-”
     “And it’s not our responsibility to take care of them. We’ve got our own lives and our own problems; we can’t go around trying to fix everyone else’s damn problems for them. And there’s nothing we can do in any case. Poverty is a macroeconomic issue. Let those corrupt government lackeys with their million-rand salaries fix it. It’s their problem.”
     “I just thought-”
      “You just thought what?” my brother glared.
     “I just thought, when I gave the sandwich to that man.”
     “That in a different life, in a different time: he’s me.”


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