Go stare at someone else, you lout! I yelled silently at the hobo slumped on the opposite bench who hadn’t taken his eyes off me for the past several minutes. I looked around me for another seat but didn’t find any. The botanical gardens teemed with visitors catching the first blooms of the spring. I wished Walter had suggested a different spot to meet; even the bus station would have fewer bums on the benches. At the thought of my long-lost friend, my irritation vanished and excitement took over. I wondered how many millions and honors he had earned since we last met. I wondered if he had fulfilled his dream of running a marathon in every country. I tried to imagine which designer outfit he’d be wearing and which of his attractive girlfriends I’d get to admire.
The two elderly women sitting near me finished their sandwiches and moved away. A moment later, the staring hobo shuffled across and sat next to me. From close quarters he was an even more revolting object. Filthy and unshaven, he sported a beer gut that stretched his sweat-stained shirt to the ripping point. Matted armpit hair poked through holes in his sleeves. A stench of stale smoke assailed my nostrils.
I sprang up, but before I could step away, he grabbed my sleeve.
I gasped. “How do you know my name?”
“Don’t you recognize me?” He smiled, revealing a row of discolored teeth. His breath reeked of liquor, not the single-malt kind but the type that comes in unlabeled bottles.
I frowned. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“It’s me, Walter.”
My jaw dropped. How could this revolting object be my elegant friend? Yet, observing him, I couldn’t deny certain points of resemblance: a trick of squinting while speaking, now exaggerated into a grimace; those full, attractive lips that now appeared grossly sensual; those overlong canines that used to look charmingly wolfish but now seemed repulsively vampiric.
“Recognize me now?”
“Maybe.” I spoke with reluctance.
“A bit of a shock to you to see me as I am now?”
I didn’t know what to say. “Shock” was too mild a word; disgust was what I felt. “You are … somewhat changed from when I last saw you,” I stammered.
The man who used to be Walter guffawed. “For Pete’s sake, man, don’t be so delicate. I know I’m a slob.”
I wanted to deny it. I desperately tried to find something redeeming about his appearance but failed. If ever a human had let himself go, it was Walter. I’ve known healthy people turn into living skeletons when afflicted with cancer. I’ve seen people disfigured by violent trauma. I once saw a before-and-after picture of a lovely smiling blonde transformed by heroin into a hideous hairless harpy. But in all those cases the decay had a clear cause. Walter, though, underneath the flab and the grime, seemed healthy enough. That somehow made his appearance more loathsome.
“Well, it is a bit of a shock to see you like this.”
“Good. Now that you’ve got that off your chest, will you shake hands?”
I gazed at him for a moment, then something moved inside me and I found myself near tears. I gripped his hand. “It’s good to see you, Walter.”
“You too, Alan. Tell me about yourself. How’s life treating you?”
* * *
Walter and I could have been brothers. We grew up in the same part of the rural South, where we helped our parents pick melons and cart them to the market. We both started our education in schools converted from barns, where the same teacher taught every subject and grade and knew every parent by name. Diligence at school and politeness at home were enforced by regular whipping based on this hurts me more than it hurts you and you’ll thank me for this someday principles. When Walter and I met in college — two yokels in a town full of sophisticates — we became good friends.
After graduation, though, our paths diverged. Unable to get a job, I returned to my hometown to run my parents’ struggling café. Walter, on the other hand, got into a startup at a time when the concept barely existed. The first few years were a slog, but then came the boom economy and his business soared. He acquired a lifestyle I could only dream of. During my monthly visits to the city to order supplies, I gatecrashed the dinner parties he gave in his elegant apartment overlooking the embankment. Walter invited a colorful mix of guests and made sure everyone had a good time. He encouraged the shy, appreciated the clever, and calmed the belligerent. He listened, laughed, and offered excellent food and wine. He was the perfect host.
I admired him with the secret pride of an insignificant man for an attractive and successful friend.
His wealth, looks, and charisma brought Walter the kind of social life normally reserved for celebrities. He went to theater openings, movie premieres, museum galas, and boxing matches. He attended A-list parties. He presented awards. He wrote a motivational book, Inspiractions. He spoke to schoolkids, self-employed women, handicapped persons, and prisoners. He was everywhere.
But one day he surprised everyone by giving most of his wealth away and moving to a small town up north.
* * *
After that I lost touch with him. He lived too far away for me to visit. I could have written, but he and I had never exchanged more than the briefest note before. Nor had our phone conversations gone beyond the briefest of pleasantries. We didn’t have that kind of relationship; my way of interacting with him was to bask in his presence. You might suspect I envied his elegance and glamour, but not so; they reconciled me to my shabbiness. His success soothed my lack of it.
And I needed that comfort, because nothing much was going my way. Business at the café was slow. An S-press-O had appeared a few blocks away, followed a couple of years later by a Cafay Italia just down the road. We tried to keep up by offering a remodeled interior, lower prices, and fancier beverages. It was a losing battle. While our older customers remained loyal, the younger crowd drifted way. Friends advised me to sell the shop and find another line of work. But who would employ me? I had no special skills. I could have gone back to school to get an MBA or something but couldn’t afford it. Most of the income from the cafe went to pay my parents’ medical bills. And I had no siblings to share the burden. As for my wife, she had lost patience with me. I couldn’t blame her. It was a dead-end situation for everyone.
But my second-hand experience of success and fulfillment via Walter made me, if not contented with my life, at least resigned to it. Once he vanished, however, I lost that emotional crutch. One day I woke up dispirited for the first time ever. The feeling grew over the next few years as things went downhill. Business at the café slowed further. I had to let my staff go one by one until it was down to just me and a waitress; my parents were too frail to work and my wife only laughed when I sought her help. Then the coffee crop in Costa Rica failed. Our costs rose and our earnings dipped further. Despite that we kept our heads above water until my dad had a stroke. The only way we could pay for his treatment was by mortgaging the café. He died within a year; just when we were getting our heads above water my mother fell in her bath and broke her hip. She lingered on for eight excruciating months. And then I was left with dead parents and a medical bill that refused to die. There was but one comfort: mom and dad had escaped seeing their beloved café foreclosed and their son go bankrupt while his marriage failed.
When I finished telling Walter my story, he looked at me in silence for a long moment and then sighed. “Losing your parents, your wife, and your livelihood, all at once. Life’s cruel, isn’t it?”
* * *
People swirled around us, looking for a seat, but no one sat next to Walter. Perhaps sensing this, he suggested moving to another spot away from the crowd. As we strolled off, I noticed he limped. His brow was soon damp and a wet stain formed on his shirt under his arms and behind his back. When we reached the other end of the gardens and found an empty bench, he collapsed on it. He wheezed for a few moments and then pulled out a thick black cigar from his shirt pocket. His hands shook so much I had to light it for him. He drew a long puff.
I waited until he stopped coughing. “So much for me, Walter. What about you? What’s your story?”
Given his appearance, I didn’t want to know. But it would have been rude not to ask.
His rheumy eyes twinkled and his lips parted in a brown-toothed grin. “You want to know how I turned into a bum?”
I avoided his eye. “If you want to put it that way.”
He took another puff and turned his head to blow the smoke away from me. Then he surprised me with a question: “You used to look up to me, right?”
I could only nod. Had my hero-worship been so obvious?
“Can I ask why, Alan?”
“You ought to know.”
“Tell me anyway.”
A male cardinal perched on a low branch across from us and preened itself, a living poem in scarlet and black. I admired it for a moment and turned back to Walter. “Well, for starters, you were handsome, successful, and popular. You were trim and fit. You dressed like a model. Your social life was glamour-page caliber.”
“And you thought I was happy?”
A young couple walked past us, holding hands. The girl gave us a quick glance and said something to her companion, who hurried her along. Walter didn’t seem to notice them. He continued to puff away, ignoring the ash that fell on him. “Alan, I don’t want to minimize your struggles. Your life evidently hasn’t been pleasant. But you’re wrong if you think mine was.”
What could not be pleasant about wealth, health, charm, and fame? My expression must have betrayed my incredulity.
“I see you don’t believe me.”
“It’s hard to.”
Walter sighed. “You observed me from the outside. You saw only my wealth and looks and status. But you never knew my inner struggle.”
I snorted. “Oh, come on, Walter. Try running a café with zero customers while coping with dying parents and an angry wife. You call your life a struggle?”
“I assure you it was.” He mused for a space and then went on in a meditative tone. “You see, my natural tendency is to goof off. That’s my temperament. But I didn’t indulge it. Instead, I held a gun to my head all those years.”
“Alan, I went through hell to maintain the lifestyle you admired. I love to slump on my couch and watch TV and guzzle beer, but instead I worked twelve-hour days and sweated every evening with a gym trainer who came straight from the Gestapo. All I ever wanted to wear was a pair of jeans and an old shirt, but I forced myself into stuffy suits and fancy threads to keep up appearances. And you mentioned my social life. You never knew how much I loathed socializing! But in the old days I had to throw endless parties for tedious morons and prima donnas I wanted to massacre, not entertain.”
I gazed at him with a mix of perplexity and dawning comprehension. “But if you hated it all so much, why did you do it?”
“I fell for the old cliché!” Walter gave a hoarse chuckle and then explained: “I wanted to prove myself. Excel. Succeed. Be admired. Be a pillar of society.”
“Well, you certainly nailed all that.”
Walter smiled, and a trace of his erstwhile charm showed through. “I’m vain enough to think so, too.”
“You employed hundreds. You inspired thousands. You helped them all achieve their dreams.”
“Yes, it felt good.”
“Then why did you stop?”
I expected Walter to pause for reflection, but his answer was prompt: “In two words, attained ambition.” Seeing my baffled look, he explained with a touch of impatience: “I’d achieved what I set out to do. I had nothing left to prove. That’s why I quit.”
I digested this in silence. The male cardinal issued a musical challenge to another who had just flown in; a drab female perched on a nearby branch eyed the two rivals in an agony of indecision.
“And now?” I asked Walter.
“Now I live as I’ve always wanted to. And I’m much happier.”
Walter’s voice turned earnest. “Alan, those days I was putting on an act. I did it well, but it was still an act. It wasn’t the real me. Now I live exactly as I want. I sleep when I like, get up if I want to, eat what I crave. I drink and smoke. I light a joint if I’m in the mood.” He took a moment to catch his breath and continued: “The woman I live with is just as easy-going. We live in a trailer park. No ties, no responsibilities. Just living for the moment. What more could I ask?”
I stared at him. “You can’t be serious. Don’t you miss your old life? The glamour? The respect? The honor?”
“No. And I don’t miss the work, the stress, or the scrutiny either.”
“But you used to be so fit, Walter! And now look at you now, you must be packing an extra fifty pounds and change.” My voice grew shrill. “Don’t you even care about your health?”
Walter shrugged. “If it means restricting what I eat or drink or forcing myself to exercise, then no.”
His words repelled me. But though I rejected them, I couldn’t deny their crazy logic. To ignore one’s duties, forget the future, not care about appearances, and do exactly what one wants … the notion had a certain base appeal. I felt a twinge of envy, and a long, deep sigh escaped me. “I can’t say I approve of your choices, Walter, but I see where you’re coming from.”
“Ha. I knew you’d come around.”
I chuckled. “I started off feeling sorry for you, but now —”
“— but now you realize it’s you who deserves the pity. Look at how hard you’ve worked over the years, and for what? No family, no money, nothing to show for it.”
“True.” My gaze fell. A pair of squirrels raced across the turf and then scurried up a tree, their movements effortless. I returned my attention to my friend.
Walter’s eye twinkled. “Don’t you ever fantasize about a carefree life?”
I stifled a sigh; I’d indulged in enough self-pity. “I do it all the time. I’d like nothing better than to sit in the park all day and read. Read anything—novels, poetry, magazines. And maybe write something, just for fun.”
“Why don’t you go for it?”
I laughed without mirth. “Well, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Money, or the lack of it. I’m flat broke. So it’s work or starve.”
Walter shook his head. “No, Alan, no,” he pleaded. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Let me help you.”
* * *
On my way home I kicked myself for rejecting Walter’s offer. But my conscience wouldn’t let me sponge off a friend. I went back to job-hunting. I took the only offer I got — to clean the same S-press-O that had driven me out of business. To pay off my debts faster, I moonlighted as a security guard at a school. I worked long hours and had no energy left to even dream of a life of leisure. I soon forgot about Walter.
But Walter didn’t forget me. Four years and three months later he died of heart failure, leaving me half his wealth — enough to support me in modest comfort for the rest of my life. I’d never need to work again.
Best of all, he left me a set of keys to his trailer home …
Chandra Shekhar writes novels, flash fiction, and poetry. His first novel, “Mock My Words,” was published last July. He is finishing up two other novels and an illustrated collection of flash stories.