All of the sudden. He’s right there. Behind my shoulder. Asking if it’s fine to sit down. I give him a look from head to toe. Shabby clothes. Dirty beard. A couple of plastic bags. Completely unwanted. Classic bum. Fine by me. I got the whole table to myself.
And no one else has asked.
He’s sincere when he thanks me. Which is nice. All I’ve caught today is dirty looks. So I smile. Drink my beer. And watch him struggle onto the seat. Grunting like a giant hog. Stiffly swinging his short legs over the bench. And I hope I don’t live to get old.
Once he’s over. He gives himself up to gravity. Not a big man. He comes down like a ton of bricks though. The table rattles. It shakes. Reminiscent of mechanical rides at county fairs. I let out a hoot. And hang on for dear life.
The table settles. I drain my can. Tossing it with the others. The sound of the aluminum clinking gets his attention. Like a hawk spotting a mouse in the tall grass below. He knows the sound of his prey.
But his gaze doesn’t linger. Bigger fish to fry. Like the plastic bag in front of him. Which without warning. Or hesitation. He tears apart with his fat fingers. I’ve seen raccoons have better luck with trash bags. It’s quite a spectacle. So I lean back.
The plastic bag becomes ribbons. Exposing a white styrofoam container. Ah. The old devil scrounged enough for a meal. Good for him. A man has to eat, poor or not. Then, after such a whirlwind, he employs a fine touch. Delicately unhooking the latch. Slowly lifting the lid.
I have another sip. Narrow my eyes. Lean in to inspect. Watch a cloud of steam escape. Holy shit. The old beast has some hunger. A half chicken from one of the Portuguese joints close by. Slathered in piri piri. Served with coleslaw. A mountain of french fries.
My stomach grumbles. No surprise. The sight of all that food. The aroma wafting my way. Damn it! I’m drooling now. Wipe it off on the back of my hand. It was a long walk here. When was the last time I ate?
I doubt the old bum remembers I’m here. His eyes are fixed. As occupied with the heaping mound of hot chicken as I am. And now that the lid is off, he leans closer. Tosses the plastic cutlery to the side. No need. Unnecessary. Left to men with higher standards.
He wastes no time diving in.
Which is something to see. And I feel a little blessed sitting there. Watching him tear into the bird carcass with glee. Shredding the meat with his stubby digits. Stuffing it in his mouth. Saliva and grease and piri piri combining. Running down his knuckles. Ecstasy in his eyes.
With his other hand. He grabs the fries by the handful. They stick out between his tightly clenched fingers. An interesting technique. Mashing the potatoes into his mouth. Like a god damned animal. I wait for him to choke. It’s fantastic.
Then with a grunt. He pauses his feeding frenzy. Turns towards me. Rivulets of sweat on his face. Old eyes on me. Cold blue. Intense. I’m locked in. No turning away. And then in his heavy Slavic accent. Through a mouthful of food. After ripping off a handful of juicy chicken. He says here, you eat, very good.
He pumps the meat towards me a couple of times. I stare at it. Not moving. Stomach growling like an engine. Mouth watering. Knowing that no matter how much I want it. How good the juicy meat in his dirty hand looks. There’s not a chance in hell I’ll accept his delicious handout.
Why? I don’t know. Something about a line I won’t cross. And strength. Never show your weakness. Act hard. Power through things. Eat later. When no one is watching. So instead of holding out my hand. I say no thanks. And take a drink of beer.
No no, is good, he tries again. But I’m not giving in. I just ate. I couldn’t take another bite, I tell him. And to prove it. I rest one hand on my stomach. The international gesture of I’m stuffed. He nods up and down. Although the look of suspicion is still in his eyes.
But quick he forgets me. Resuming his bout of manic eating. Little bits of chicken. Gnashed potato. They fall out of his mouth. Down his chin and rest upon the top of his gut. Glistening greasily in the afternoon sun. I feel lightheaded. I know I should’ve taken his handout.
So instead of begging. Because I know my chance is lost. I gulp back my beer. Chuck the can on the pile. A seagull swoops down from the clouds. Starts squawking a meter above the ground. Screeching as it settles. A high pitched mooch. For it’s share of the old bums food.
And he’s obliging. A karmic attitude as he tosses out a handful of fries. The bird goes nuts. Eating them with hysteria. Nearly choking itself. Others swarm in. The old bum tosses another offering. Then looks at me. I take a sip.
Everyone hates these things, he says, but not me. They’re beautiful.
I raise one brow. Eye up the birds. Their dirty looking feathers. The sound of their begging. The hate they have for each other. And that’s when I get it. The two of us. We’re looking in a mirror.