Model Student

“Half Truths and Whole Lies”

English 1101/12:30

Number of words: 1787

I walked to the torrid car as the sun beat mercilessly down on its faded blue metal, creating a steamy greenhouse effect inside. The lock made a tired mechanical whine that made me wince as I twisted the key. I sat down and strapped on a seat belt that scorched my neck and arms.
            "Empty," the fuel meter read. I looked in my wallet and saw a few worn dollar bills and some spare change. Gas or food, I thought to myself, and my stomach growled. Somewhere cheap and maybe I’ll have a dollar or two to get me to where I needed to go...too bad it wasn't where I belonged. I’m a wanderer like I was raised, keeping my head low where I go. Doin’ what I gotta do to survive. I cranked the worn car; it reluctantly started. I tried my luck with the air conditioner and turned the dial hopefully; no such luck. I shrugged my shoulders and rolled my window down. I pulled up into a fast food restaurant where my money would go far and I could sit in the cool conditioned air. It would be a nice break from the sauna in my car that the mid-summer Georgia heat had created.

As I walked toward the door, I was stopped by a rough looking old man. He was sweaty and sun burnt; his clothes were loose and hanging off but his face bore an earnest look. He opened his mouth to speak, and I flinched in anticipation...I knew what was coming next.
            “’Scuse me, Miss…. Do you have a few dollars I could use to buy a meal and a cold drink?”    
            “I… Uh…” the question made me squirm, and his face ashened. You’d think he’d be used to the rejection by now. I felt a brick suddenly land in my stomach. My heart ached for him. I’d seen him around riding his bicycle; he lived in a small shed downtown. In that moment, I knew what I had to do. It wasn't easy but I couldn't help but put myself in his shoes. I don't know what came over me, but I looked at him, smiled and asked, “I’d love to buy you lunch, if you would keep me company for a while.”
            He looked up in surprise. “Yes ma’am. Thank you,” he said humbly as he opened the door for me and I walked in.
            I could feel the strange judgmental stares darting across the room at me, making me feel as if I did something wrong. As my face began to redden from embarrassment I began to think about what I had just gotten myself into. My embarrassment quickly turned to pity for the poor old beggar. I put my head up, walked to the counter and allowed him to order. I pulled out my last few dollars and tossed them onto the counter. Only in America can you set down money and have food in hand as soon as it hits the register. Money talks.
            I sat down with him at a booth. My skin was red and my toes stuck together from the humidity. The chilled plastic sent a shiver through my body because I was used to the heat of my blazing hundred degree car. Looking at the cheep Formica covered tables, I thought about my last few dollars. Like always, I was obsessing over money and the fact that I needed to get a call back from the jobs that I’d been applying for earlier that day. I, for a moment, considered a career in the fast food business. I sighed silently, but then I looked up and saw a man who had it worse off. He hungrily ate his cheap, mass produced hamburger as if it were something special. It made me feel good inside, and for a moment, I was able to forget my own problems.
            “So, how did you become homeless?” It was abrupt I know, but a filter between my thoughts and mouth was never developed, and besides…I was curious.
            “My step daddy was an alcoholic, hit me every chance he got.” He wasted no time. “My momma didn't do any thing ’bout it, she was as scared as I was. ’Till one day he was raisin’ his hand to me, and she caught it ’fore he could hit me. I tried to stop him...but he wouldn't stop.” His voice quivered a bit as he looked straight forward as if he was watching it happen all over again. “He was too big for me to handle, so I ran away and called the police, but it was too late, he done went too far. It seemed like an eternity, but the ambulance finally came an’ my momma passed away on the way to the hospital…which left me with him. Over the years, I got used to the abuse ok, but at fifteen I couldn't take it anymore. I’d dropped out of high school and ran away to join the army. I lied to ’em, told ’em I was twenty. So, they sent me to Vietnam.” He’d been dying for an ear to hear his story. “For I while I was stationed in Japan with the army, I was with security forces. I loved my job and I laid my life on the line for good ol’ Uncle Sam. To this day, I have never once forgiven myself for running away.”         
            He stopped and wiped the ketchup on his hands on the wrinkled paper napkin. He thought for a second, and then continued. “When I got home from my third tour, things weren’t the same. I caught my wife cheating on me with another man. I’d gotten married after my first tour. A girl I met one night in Columbus during boot camp, no older ’n me. And now she’d also convinced my kids,” his tone raised as he became enraged, “that I left her for another woman. Things just weren’t the same after that. Livin’ in a small, Bible belt town where everyone talked, no one wanted a deadbeat dad to tarnish their good name. Life got hard and I lost everything. It’s just,” he sighed. “Nothing turned out the way I expected. I guess it was all just a downward spiral from there.”
            I could relate. It made me think about the bills that had mounted on the table. Every day had become a constant struggle over the almighty dollar, and despite the cost of living…living was still popular.

I looked into his sorrowful eyes. He glanced at me and quickly looked away. I think maybe he could feel my pity-filled stare burning a hole through him. It was in that moment I realized one of those things people say you learn with age. It’s not what we have in life, who we are seen as, or even what we pretend to be that makes one a good person. It’s the realization that we are all just people. He was a person; not a bum, a mistake, or bad decision. People, myself included, have become so desensitized to the world around them they forget to treat people like they are humans. I am no better than him, the cashier, or the person mopping the floors. In fact, the bench I was sitting on was probably a better person then I was. Once you come to the realization that you are no better then the earth you step on, you are one step closer to becoming a better person.           
            He chewed silently for a moment and then thought of a question for me. “Where you from?” he asked.  
            “Everywhere,” I simply replied. Like always, I offered no more information then what was required. Besides, if I had I dime for every time someone asked that question….

“Okay.” He set his hamburger down and to take a drink from his perspiring paper cup. “Who are you, and why are you here?”
            I was taken aback by this question. Thinking about it made me tired. My body was young but my soul had grown very old. Like the man sitting across from me, I was living the life that was forced on me. It was almost as if I had been sentenced to live and not been given life. While most people my age were busy riding the coat tails of their parents and having everything handed to them, I was stuck on my own, with nothing but my own intuition and ambition. I learned at an early age that life would never be fair. My proof was sitting right in front of me in worn clothes.
            “I am a college student; I work and go to school.” I avoided the real question.

He just looked at me with sincerity. “You know what I mean, why did you take the day to talk to an old bum like me?”
            “Who am I?” I repeated his question. “Why am I here?” These questions had once turned my dreams into nightmares. I knew what I’ve been told all my life I was, and I knew what other people see me as, but I didn’t really know who I was. I grew up thinking I was worthless, tossed from parents, from one foster care and onto the next. At a young age I was completely self-sufficient. Relying on anyone but me was not an option.
            I took a deep heavy sigh and looked into his tired eyes. I felt unusually trusting towards him. Maybe because I knew I’d never sit down with him again or maybe because he had a trusting face. Either way, I told him the truth. About how I knew what it was like to be looked at like a second class citizen, and how I learned to take a punch that I knew I could never return. How cruel people could really be, and even how people you are supposed to trust had to be watched closely. I knew how possible it was for me, or even anyone, to become what he’d become, and that is why I helped him.
            There was something so unusual about our meeting. You can't plan these things, and they don’t happen by chance, but by divine intervention. I checked the time and decided it was time to get back to the life that was chosen for me. I stood up as he took one last drink from his cup and gathered his trash. We walked out the door back into reality. I turned the key and the lock made its reliable mechanical whine, and it made me smile. I opened the door as I watched him get on his bike and ride away. I never saw him after that day, but I looked for him when ever I was driving in my faded blue car.
            A few years later, as I was looking in the local paper, I saw my friend for one last time. He was riding his bike across a busy intersection and a blind sighted driver stopped short. He didn’t make it. I read the paper again in disbelief. I wanted so bad to see the underdog win. This Veteran, like many others, would soon be forgotten and life would go on as if he never existed. I’ll never forget my friend on that hot summer day when nothing else seemed to go right. I guess chaos and disorder is the one true constant holding my life together. I know I can always rely on people like him to help motivate me to keep pushing forward and always looking at the future, not the past.