The little family was exhausted when it got on the metro at the airport to take back to their car in North Atlanta. The flight itself from Florida had not been that tiresome, but the mini vacation they had just disembarked from had proven more tiring than any should have expected. Due to constraints of time and the current economy their beach trip had been hindered. Instead of staying a week in a larger house near the shore as was usual; they had only had a few days’ time, cramped together in a motel resort. The brother and sister, not having shared a room since they were very young, had grated on each others nerves living once again in such close proximity to each other. The mother, not good at diffusing these situations, and somewhat inept at organizing such endeavors had done little to improve things. Indeed her haphazard way of going about the vacation had only served to make things more chaotic and heightened the strain of the experience. In all these factors, combined with the family’s inability to let go and forget the everyday problems they had with each other, had rendered the whole experience something of a failure.
So, close to home at last, they collapsed on the train, tired and demoralized with each other and ready to be back and get some space from one another. The mother sat with her bags, far more than the boy or girl, reading a newspaper. Her daughter was beside her, contenting herself to gaze out the window at the finally familiar scenery. The boy, her brother, sat across from her in a side seat facing perpendicular to them, away from the window reading the latest Harry Potter book.
This scene perpetuated itself for several stops along the line until it was interrupted by the intrusion of one of the city’s more derelict denizens. The perpetrator, a thin grizzled black man, apparently wearing all of his earthly possessions, shuffled into the car and cautiously moved up the isle toward the mother from behind and around her shoulder. The boy was the only one to observe his approach and watched with curiosity though he continued to appear reading. When the man finally reached the front of his mother’s shoulder he suddenly turned and addressed her.
“Excuse me Ma’am,” he spoke with a kind of urban southern twang that was not uncommon within the inner boundaries of metro Atlanta, “Would you happen to have “sefenty fi cens” on you for some bus fair?”
His mother’s response could not have been more sad or comical. Her eyes grew wide with a mysterious degree of fear and without even checking began to shake her head in an almost panicked fashion.
“No.” she responded hastily. “I’m sorry no; I don’t have any change on me.” All this, she said and did while gripping her newspaper and carryon luggage tightly to her chest as if to protect them and at the same time ward off a stabbing attack to her sternum.
This exchange, with his mother’s response was not entirely unexpected by the boy. Though he loved his mother dearly, he considered her sadly limited by the timing and geography of her upbringing. The older gentleman seemed harmless enough but she could not bring herself to see past what she had been raised to expect. The boy wondered at times why he saw things so differently.
“That’s all right ma’am.” The man responded courteously. “No need to worry about it.” And shifting slightly he addressed the boys younger sister who was around the age of 16 at the time though looked older.
“And you young lady, would you happen to have “sefenty fi cens” on you?” he repeated.
His sister’s reply was as equally expected by the boy as his mothers. With a kind look and a smile she sadly informed him “I’m sorry, I don’t have any on me.” And this the boy believed.
“Well that’s all right young lady” the man said, possibly with a wink. “You have a good day.” And turning he approached the boy at last who expecting the same solicitation peered up from his book and was afforded his first real look at the homeless man.
The man may not have been as old as he appeared but his face was lined with expressive wrinkles like roads on a map. His appearance was made more bizarre by his tufty hair that went up in a fly away fashion and a lazy eye that turned drastically left from where his gaze originally settled. Perhaps, the boy thought, his mother’s response was a little more understandable now but the man surprised him when he did not ask for change as the boy thought he would.
“Excuse me young man” the old guy addressed the boy with the same amount of respect he had the rest of his family, “but may I ask what it is you’re reading there?”
“This?” the boy responded with some surprise. “Oh it’s the newest Harry Potter book”
“Oh, yea I heard of them. Heard they good.”
“Yea, I love them.”
“You read a lot of other things too?”
“A fair amount. More than some I guess.”
“That’s good young man, real good. I love to read myself.”
“Oh yea?” The boy said trying not to sound incredulous.
“Yeah, I once saw a list of Time Magazines rating of the ten greatest novels ever written. Turned out I’d read six or seven outta ten of em”
Their conversation continued in this vain for several stops, the man telling the boy about "Ulysses" and "Atlas Shrugged", heavier works that the boy had not even cracked
while the boy discussed some of his favorites like Tolkien and Kessey.
Their talk progressed for about ten minutes, with his sister smiling and his mother looking disconcerted, until they reached the Lindberg stop. At this the man broke off and announced that this was where he got off. As he began to hobble off he turned to the boy one last time and said “Keep readin kid, keep readin.”
“Yea, I will. Thanks.”
The boys eyes, filled with wry amusement at the source of these words that contained such simple wisdom watched as the old beggar limped off the metro. The doors closed behind him and as the train continued north the boy realized he had forgotten to give the man some change.