by Steven Carr
Artist: Elaine Mayes
&&&&Jeremiah sits on the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets. In front of him, feathery wisps of smoke from a burning stick of cinnamon incense jabbed into the bottom of an overturned Styrofoam cup curls upward and drifts away in the heat. He has his legs crossed beneath his ankle length tie-dyed robe that also cover the sandals he wears on his dirty feet. His naturally wavy snow white hair cascades down to his shoulders. His full beard comes to a scraggly point at his sternum. With his arms outstretched and his hands held palms up, he emits through his parched lips a monotone, “Ohmmmmmm.” Most of the time his eyes are closed.
&&&&Some passersby put coins or dollar bills in the cigar box sitting on the sidewalk next to the incense. Most hurry by him, glancing at him furtively. Tourists snap pictures of him with their iphones before getting on the streetcar heading to Market Street. Those who pass him as they go into the neighborhood coffee shop nearby regard him with same disinterest as they do any of the fixtures on the streets. But inside while they sip they their coffee, they talk about him.
&&&&“He’s been sitting there every day since 1972.”
&&&&“I heard he’s some kind of guru.”
&&&&“I think he did a little too much LSD when he was young.”
&&&&“Putting money in his cigar box will bring you good luck.”
&&&&“I’ve never talked to him. Have you?”
&&&&When Jeremiah has his eyes open he lowers his arms and places his folded hands in his lap. He nods congenially at those who gaze at him with curiosity and at the tourists polite enough to ask if they can take his picture. He has a bundle of sticks of incense that he keeps in a small canvas pouch that he has placed behind him. They are different aromas. He had a brass incense holder, but it was stolen while he had his eyes shut.
&&&&At noon each day Maggie Albright brings him lunch. She lives alone nearby in a large Victorian home painted a brilliant sky blue. Like Jeremiah, her hair is white. Her face is a topographic map of wrinkles. She brings his lunch on a paper plate covered with aluminum foil. She sits down next to him and crosses her legs as he eats from the plate placed in his lap.
&&&&“Too many people are complacent,” she says. “Back in our day people really spoke up.”
&&&&“The process of change is very slow,” he says as he puts a forkful of food in his mouth.
&&&&“People wake up to the problems in the world, then go back to sleep for a while, then wake up again.”
&&&&Maggie carries a wallet in the pocket of her skirt. In the wallet are photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. She frequently flips through the photographs. She lovingly runs her long, slender, pale fingers over their faces.
&&&&“You live too much in the past,” Jeremiah says.
&&&&“There’s no one to look up to anymore except you,” she says.
&&&&After he’s eaten he folds the aluminum foil and places it in the middle of the plate and hands it to her.
&&&&“You nourish my body and soul,” he says.
&&&&In late afternoon when the pastel colored sunlight blankets the streets and buildings, Jeremiah stretches and bends while in his seated position. Aging has brought with it sore muscles. The high school has let out and most of the teenagers go by him seemingly unaware that he is there. Their voices linger in the air like discordant music. Occasionally one will talk to him.
&&&&“Why do you sit here?”
&&&&“This is the spot I feel most spiritually centered.”
&&&&“Are you some kind of preacher?”
&&&&“I hope not.”
&&&&He breaks off the end of the burning incense stick and puts the remaining piece in the pouch. He closes the cigar box and stands up, with it, the cup, and the pouch carried in one arm. He then he rolls up the ornately sewn prayer rug that he sits on and tucks it under his other arm. He leans back against the brick building, feeling the blood coursing through his cramped legs. With her schoolbooks in her arms, Angela walks up to Jeremiah. Her eyes are deep blue and piercing, like his. Her face is luminescent.
&&&&“Are you ready to go home, Grandpa,” she says.
&&&&“Yes dear,” he says as he steps away from the building and places his hand on her shoulder. Together they walk across the intersection.
&&&&“How was school today?” he says.
&&&&“Boring,” she says.
&&&&“It will be more interesting in hindsight,” he says.
&&&&Jeremiah throws the cup in a trash can. At the food bank he goes in and empties the money in the cigar box into a large glass jar with “donations” written on a piece of paper taped to it. On the street where they live, Angela says, “Did anyone ask for your advice today, Grandpa?”
&&&&Jeremiah shakes his head. “That doesn’t happen much anymore.”
&&&&In the house, Jeremiah goes into his bedroom and puts the pouch and cigar box on the top of his dresser. He takes off his robe and hangs it on a hook on his closet door. In his boxers and t-shirt he sits on the edge of his bed and takes off his sandals. He goes into his bathroom and turns on the faucet in the bathtub.
&&&&He sits on the edge of the tub and puts his feet under the flowing water and watches the dirt swirl around before disappearing down the drain. He turns off the water, dries his feet, and puts on his terry cloth bathrobe and slippers. He goes to the living room and sits in his rocking chair and turns on the television.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 330 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.