For something different, I'm posting my short story "Grace in the Gutter" in two installments. The second part will be posted next week.
Dashing towards her office building, Martha held her jacket closed. She was always rushing, but seldom late. The biting wind had picked up and the night’s rainfall created a slick icy surface beneath her feet. Her purse slipped from her shoulder as she chomped an apple—her meagre breakfast. A few shrivelled leaves, dangling from spindly maple tree branches, clung desperately to their host.
Every morning was the same, a frantic scurry to shower and dress in time to catch the bus and the subway, leaving no time to check the weather report. The one window in her basement apartment was too foggy to provide clues and she was left to guess the forecast. Naturally she’d often get it backwards, wearing her good leather shoes on rainy days or a wool coat when a light jacket would do. Martha had no sense of style, always appearing presentable, but somewhat mismatched.
She scrambled along with one purpose in mind, to get to work on time. Navigating the slippery spots on the sidewalk, people rushed past on their own daily trajectory, sometimes brushing her arm, sometimes smacking into her. She counted the blocks to her building. Four more to go. She’d be a few minutes late today. Damn.
Something unusual caught her attention two blocks ahead. She stepped up her pace to investigate. Others scrambled past with hardly a glance at the motionless figure lying in the gutter. As she approached, the man, a vagrant it seemed, struggled to get up. Not one person stopped to help him.
He wore a tattered jacket and boots with long laces hanging at the sides. His cap had fallen off and his thin gray hair was dishevelled. He was not wearing gloves and his unbuttoned jacket had slipped off his gangly shoulders.
Martha crouched by his side. “Sir, Sir, are you all right? Are you in pain? Is anything broken?”
Her voice startled him and he turned towards her with glazed eyes. Focusing in on her he said, “I’m fine, I’m fine, just took a tumble on the ice.”
“Should I call an ambulance, to be sure?” She rifled through her purse for her cell phone.
“No! I said I was fine,” he growled. “I just need to get up.”
She dropped the phone back into her purse. “Please, let me help.”
He scrutinized her for a second, as if to determine if she was trustworthy, and then grabbed her arm to pull himself up to a sitting position. Martha draped his jacket over his shoulders and handed him his hat. His face was scratched and bruised from the impact on the pavement, and his trousers were torn at the knee, exposing bloodied and bruised skin. He winced when she touched his arm.
“I think it’s broken,” she said.
“Nonsense,” he muttered. He reached out a hand and she slowly helped him to his feet, using both arms to steady him. Martha maintained her grip to keep him from toppling over. She was close enough to smell his breath, a blend of coffee and peppermint.
By now she was late for work, but she didn’t care. Why hadn’t anyone else offered to help? It was like they were invisible, or alone on a deserted road. He looked so straggly and weak that she didn’t have the heart to leave him.
Martha pointed to a coffee shop a few meters away. “How about a cup of coffee?” She picked up a small worn leather bag that he had been carrying; alcohol, she assumed.
He mumbled something indecipherable, which sounded like a protest. Ignoring this, she slowly led him in the direction of the coffee shop. Limping, he struggled to walk the short distance. The morning rush had subsided and Martha found a place to sit away from the draft of the door.
“Coffee or tea?” she asked.
He gave her a dismissive wave, “You can go, I’m sure you have things to do.”
“First let me buy you something to help restore your strength. That was a really nasty fall. Coffee with cream and sugar?”
He nodded. Martha ordered two large coffees and hurried to the restroom to get some moist paper towels for his wounds.
When she returned to the table he was immersed in the newspaper left behind by a previous occupant. She placed the cup in front of him and he continued to read. When she handed him the towels, he took them and carefully dabbed the scratches on his face and hand. Then he brought the drink to his mouth and sipped with eyes closed. After a second sip, he put the cup down and stared at Martha, making her feel like an intruder.
She had done all she could and he obviously didn’t want her there, but something compelled her to stay.
After a few silent, uncomfortable moments, he said, “Don’t you have somewhere to be, somewhere more important than sitting here with a cranky old man?”
“I should be at work, but I don’t think it will hurt anyone if I’m a little late today.”
“What do you do?”
“Administrative stuff. One of the girls can cover for me until I get there.”
“What kind of administrative stuff?”
“Answer phones, take messages, make appointments, word processing and filing. That kind of thing.”
“Like it?” he asked.
“No, not really, but it pays the bills for now.”
“You’ve got plans?” he asked, coughing.
Martha noticed him covering his mouth when he coughed. “I’d like to be a teacher. I’m taking night courses, working towards a degree.” She wondered if the old man had much of an education. Doubtful she thought. A war veteran perhaps.
The weather was deteriorating; the sky had transformed from a hazy gray to an oppressive black rooftop over the city. Best to leave before the downpour, which was sure to begin any minute. But she didn’t budge.
The old man saw her looking outside and said, “Better be on your way.”
The skies suddenly opened and Martha’s decision was made. Not disappointed, she called work to say she’d be delayed.
She ordered two more coffees and a bagel for the old man, forgetting to buy one for herself, despite her hunger.
“I guess we’re both trapped,” the old man said as he nodded thanks for the offering. Martha was pleased to see him devour the bagel. He smiled for the first time, exposing yellowed teeth.
“What’s your story?” he asked, catching her off-guard.
“What do you mean?”
“Your life. Tell me about your life.”
“It’s kind of boring.” She fiddled with her coffee cup. “I’m from a small town way up north. My father left us when I was three and my mom raised my brother and me by herself. I came to the city when I was seventeen to make something of my life. So here I am, five years later.”
The old man continued to ask questions. His queries were short and to the point. Martha found herself blathering on and on, giving more information and detail than she intended. At times she hesitated, embarrassed by her constant chatter, but the old man kept signalling for her to continue. No one had ever expressed such an interest in her life before.
She vaguely noticed the customers coming and going, chairs being pushed and pulled, the pounding rain, and the hum of conversations around her. A few patrons peered amusedly at the scruffy old man sitting with such an unlikely companion. Trying to ignore their stares, Martha continued talking.
She told the man about her childhood. How her mother had struggled to raise two children on a minimum-wage salary after her father left; that she worked two jobs during high school to help her mom out; and after graduating, she’d moved to the city, thinking a whole new, exciting world would open up to her, but not realizing how lonely and difficult it would be. She found a job in a flower shop, rented a room in a sketchy area, and eventually got a job at the bank.
She confessed to feeling sad a lot, almost hopeless sometimes, but she was determined to never let life beat her down. One day she’d get her teaching degree and use it to make a difference in the world. Maybe move to Africa or India to help the children there. The old man seemed to be listening, but she wondered if he could follow her rambling narrative.
When she asked the man about his life he said it was a jumble of good and bad. His biggest disappointment was someone called George, but he didn’t elaborate other than to say, “Never trust a man with a sword in his gaze.” Then he turned the conversation back to her.
Martha checked the time and gasped. “It’s almost noon! I’ve gotta get to work.”
The old man stood up at the table as she gathered her things.
She handed him her umbrella. "Please take this. I'm only a block away from my work and I have another in my desk," she lied.
With a grateful nod, he accepted the gift.
“Will you be all right?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” He extended his arm, wincing. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss—,” to which she responded, “Martha Grange.” Gently shaking his hand, she smiled, suddenly feeling shy. “Nice to meet you too.” She let go of his withered hand and dashed out.
Months passed and winter came. Martha worked days, attended night school, and studied feverishly on weekends. Occasionally, she thought about her encounter with the old man and wondered how he was doing.
On February 27th she received an official document from Goswell Parkins and Dean, Barristers & Solicitors. Was she in trouble with the law? What had she done? Had something happened to her mother? She tore open the envelope, cutting her finger on the paper’s edge. The letter simply asked her to come to the law office at her earliest convenience.
Part 2 of "Grace in the Gutter" will be posted next week. Please stay tuned!