HOW DID I BECOME THE BEGGAR
“Lady, lady, stop ignoring me.” The loud voice from the wheelchair reverberates against the walls, overriding the chatter of people walking the mall.
“If I don’t look at him, I could claim I didn’t know he was shouting at me,” I mutter as if I was on trial for neglecting an old man, yet the only judge resides in my head.
“Please, lady, I am a respectable vet. I am not looking for a handout, simply a hand. Did your grandpa serve in the war? It would be like helping his brother.”
The peddler is masterful at his persistence. Why me, though? So many other people walk by. Why not one of them? Maybe he has tried, and all of us cold-hearted Americans have already turned him down. Perhaps a secret camera is filming me, waiting to exploit my reaction on YouTube. But the grandpa bit embedded into my heart, like a tick nestling in for sustenance.
I look at the man. I expected a bum-wearing rags with most of his teeth missing. He looks respectable with his wrinkle-free yellow polo and khaki slacks. A silky blue scarf neatly fastened around his neck displays his veteran pins. He has a clean-shaven face with well-groomed hair. I had judged harshly.
“Come here, come here.” He shakes his bony finger at me, and I notice his manicured nails. I relax a little as I approach the side of his wheelchair. He looks too affluent to be begging for money.
“You should always help someone in need,” I recall my mom’s life lessons, but my dad overrides her. “No, you should never trust someone who approaches you for help. If you want to serve, go to a soup kitchen or volunteer at a shelter. You just can’t trust someone who approaches you.” I tighten my jaw as I wonder which of my parent’s teachings I should succumb to.
“Oh man, lady. I never thought that I would get your attention. I am not a vagrant; I am just tired. I have been shopping for half of the day for my sick wife, bless her soul. They are going to move her out of the hospital tomorrow into a nursing home, and she is beside herself. She doesn’t want to go, and I can’t blame her. I want to do something really nice for her to take away the sting. Anyways, my arms are exhausted from rolling the wheels for the last four hours. If you could just push me to the curbside, then I could hail a cab. That is all I am asking. See, that isn’t asking too much, now, is it?”
Whoa, information dump.
“Um, no, I guess I could help you.” I shift my computer bag and shopping bags from my right hand to my left. He intently stares at me. I look at my watch. The mall is going to close soon. This better be quick.
“We have been married for forty years. Can you believe that? No one stays married that long anymore. I doubt you are still married, but you look like you might have been once.”
I gasp at his blunt assessment. “Well, you are right. I am divorced, but what made you think that?”
“Your left ring finger is bare, but it appears thinner than your right ring finger, suggesting years of ring wear.”
Hmm. He seems observant.
“All right, I have unlocked my wheels. Take me to the North End, and I will hail a cab.”
“We are closer to the South End. You can hail a cab from there as well.” A beggar shouldn’t call the shots.
“Now, are you disrespecting your elders? The North End is where we need to go.”
Listen, Grandpa; beggars can’t be choosers.
“Snap snap. Let’s get going.”
The audacity of this man. Why did I agree to help? I should walk away, but the thought of a secret cameraman compels me to help. I don’t want them to blast me all over the internet as the woman who turned her back to an elderly man in need.
I place my hands on the wheelchair and push Mr. Veteran towards the North End, tempted to ignore his demand and take him to the South End. He can hail a cab just as easily there. I push his chair and realize how tired going to the North End will make me.
”You are the nicest lady in this whole mall. You should get a reward for your valor. And don’t forget, you are the prettiest lady here. You should be proud of your good heart.”
He mentions reward. Maybe he will slip me a fifty for my services.
It doesn’t take long for my arms to scream at me. This is more work than I had imagined. As I push the vet, my bags keep slipping down my side. Eventually, my bag with the new dress drops to the ground, and I run it over with the wheelchair.
“That isn’t good. Seems like you have more than you can handle,” Mr. Veteran says. -his voice suddenly bubbly. “Go ahead, put your stuff in my lap. I can hold it while you push me.”
Black skid marks cover the bag, but thankfully, the garment inside isn’t soiled, only extra wrinkly. I put my shopping bags in his lap.
“Don’t forget that bulky bag,” he says, pointing to my computer bag.
I don’t want to part with my computer. It is my life. What if he dropped it or accidentally put it down? I need to keep my bag on me.
He seems to read my mind. “Don’t worry, I am not going to drop it or accidentally set it down.”
I look at the vet and watch his left eye twitch. What happened to him in the war, and what war was he in? As I contemplate asking him, he grabs my bag, and I relinquish it.
“Safe and sound,” he says. “Mildred, my wife, she reminds me of you, or rather you remind me of her.”
My ears perk at his wife’s name, Mildred, the same as my mom’s.
I continue pushing toward the North End. With my hands free, I can move faster, which I do, wanting to be done with this controlling old man. Something about him rubs me wrong, as if he is sending off flags that I can’t discern. Perhaps I am just hard-hearted and don’t like helping people.
Warm air welcomes us outside, and I push the vet to the curb.
“Oh no!” he yells, and I jump. What did I do wrong? Is he now realizing he wanted the South End?
“Your what?” I walk to his side.
“My scarf. It was a present from my wife, Mable, and it means the world to me. It must have slipped off me.”
“Your wife, Mable? I thought you said, Mildred.”
His hand covers his mouth for a moment, then moves to his twitching left eye. “Yes, Mildred is my wife now, but Mable was my first wife. She died from diabetes soon after we married.”
He doesn’t make sense.
“Please, can we go back and find the scarf?”
I have no desire to push him anymore. I turn and look through the glass doors we had just come out of. I see something blue, perhaps fifty feet inside the mall.
“Oh, Mable, I am sorry. Please forgive me for losing your scarf and having no one to help me find it. I know it is the last thing I own from you.”
I look back at the vet, and he has tears running down his cheeks. My fists bawl up. Next time someone asks for my help, I will pretend I don’t hear them, YouTube videos or not.
“I think I see it. I’ll just run back quick,” I say.
“Oh, I knew you were a saint, an angel really, the most beautiful angel here.”
My shoulders tighten to his unwanted adoration. “I will be right back,” I say as I run into the mall. Down the corridor, a small child picks up the scarf.
“Hey, don’t touch that. It is mine,” I yell and sprint toward the child with his mother. He doesn’t hear me as he shoves it into his pocket as the two keep walking.
“Hey, lady,” I yell to the mother. I sound like the vet when he tried to get my attention. She keeps walking, and I tap her on the shoulder. Out of breath, I say, “Hey, your child has my scarf.”
She looks at her child’s empty hands, then turns her back to me.
“I am sorry to bother you, lady, but your child put my scarf in his pocket.”
She grabs her child and pulls him close to her legs as if I planned to eat his brains. Her eyes widen.
“I am sorry, your child picked up my scarf and I need it back. It is very important.”
“Grant?” The mother says to her child.
He kicks his left leg behind his right leg and looks at the floor.
“I think you are mistaken,” the mother says. Thankfully, a piece of blue silk hangs out of Grant’s pocket.
“There,” I say, pointing to it.” I should just grab the scarf, but I wait for the mother, and she pulls it out.
Her face softens as she hands it to me. “I am sorry about that.”
“No problem,” I take the scarf and rush back toward the vet as I hear the mother chastise her son.
I get outside and see the vet’s chair, but he isn’t in it. I scratch my head as I look around. A great distance down the sidewalk, I see a very abled man in a yellow polo and khaki pants speed walking.
What? He didn’t need my help. I look at my watch and see that I lost almost half an hour on that man. The mall is about to close, and I still have one more shop I want to go into. What a jerk.
Suddenly my stomach swallows my heart and pushes against my lungs. My computer! My purchases! They aren’t in the wheelchair.
“Hey, come back here,” I yell at him, but he keeps walking. Despite being tired from my previous run, I dash toward the old man. “Hey guy, Mildred’s husband, stop!”
He keeps going. Does he hear me, or is he ignoring me?
“Mister, please stop. I have your scarf, and you have my computer.”
When I almost catch him, he looks behind his shoulder and spots me. Instantly, the noncrippled con artist takes off in a run, sprinting faster than an Olympic gold medalist. I keep running after him, but I cannot compensate the distance he puts between us. A taxi passes me and pulls up to the old man, and he quickly hops in.
“No! Taxi driver, don’t go yet. That man has stolen from me.” I reach the side of the taxi just as the passenger door closes. I take my fist and pound it into the car, but it pulls away with the old man and my computer.
“No!” I scream with an intensity that burns my throat. “Come back. That man has stolen my computer!”
I drop to my knees and howl!
My life is on that computer.
I look around, hoping a team of cameramen will show up, laugh at me, then return my computer, but no such thing exists.
I hate that the man took advantage of my sympathies. I guess I should have listened to my dad. There is no way that I will tell him what happened.
“Oh no!” I shout as I realize my wallet and phone are in the computer bag. How am I going to order a Lift home? I will have to call my parents to pick me up. But how?
I pace back and forth on the sidewalk. A whirlwind of fear, shame, and sickness flows inside. My face burns as I heat up.
“Hey, can I use someone’s phone?” I call out. People continue to walk by me without responding.
“Can I borrow someone’s phone, please, anyone?”
-no response. -no sympathy.
I’ll go talk to security. I pull at the mall doors, but they don’t budge. The mall has closed. I look at my watch and realize it will be getting dark soon. I don’t want to be out here all alone.
I spot a lady walking toward me. She looks kind.
“Hey, can I borrow your phone?” I ask, but she refuses to look at me. I know she hears me. A car alarm blares in the distance, reminding me I am not in the best part of town.
She hastily walks past me, and the only ones left on the sidewalk are a gang of teens. She is my only hope.
I chase after her, “Lady, lady, stop ignoring me.”
And now I have become the beggar.
Stephanie Daich opens readers’ minds as she weaves the human experience into her writing. Publications include Making Connections, Youth Imaginations, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kindness Matters, and others.