“Let me tell you something, man.” He’s leaning forward as he speaks, shuffling his feet, grabbing at the ends of his sleeves – a man in perpetual motion.
A streetlight lengthens his shadow, illuminating the threadbare coat that hangs across his crooked shoulders – like forgotten laundry on the clothesline. He’s grinning, sunken eyes alight with something brighter than the gray stars drowning in the distant city glow. “Never seen anything like it in my life, man.” He shakes his head, teeth gleaming. “Never.”
You realize that he’s younger than he seems, his voice revealing a youthful enthusiasm not yet dampened by decades of pain. You try to listen, but you can’t keep your eyes still, scanning his figure – trying to understand. You force yourself to meet his gaze and be still. “The room went dark, man,” he’s saying, breathless. “Dark, and then there was a light… and then came the music.”
There’s something in his voice, a sort of honest awe, that leaves you unable to look away. You step closer, shoving your hands into your pockets. “Yeah?”
He nods quietly, letting the silence hang for a moment. “It started slow,” he murmurs, low and reverent. “Slow and easy – like the beginning of a story.”
You realize that he’s a born storyteller. He leans into the role, soaking up your rapt expression as he uses the foggy air as a canvas for his words.
“It caught me, man. I was sixteen.” He tugs at his thin sleeves, shivering as a passing car catches you both in a spray of icy water. “I forgot it all – the fear, the cold, everything that’s too far away. I wasn’t nobody, just a soul in that dark room, alive. Listening.”
It’s how you feel – a soul on the dark street corner, listening. You’ve forgotten where you came from and where you were supposed to be. You breathe deep, the fog from your breath catching the light and painting his face in an otherworldly glow.
“I could have been anybody, man,” he whispers. He’s looking past you now, staring at something invisible in the dark. “Anyone at all.”
You feel as if you’ve lost your grip on the universe. There was something urgent, but now it feels like the least important thing in the world. There is only this, his lost expression in the dark, cold water seeping into your shoes as something a thousand times colder edges into your heart.
Any difference between the two of you has been stripped away, leaving you feeling as if you’re the one lost in the shadows.
You open your mouth, hesitating, any possible words that come to mind feeling heavy and wrong. You just breathe, waiting, shivering.
His eyes come into focus as he tears his gaze painfully from the darkness. He stares at his feet, shaking his head. “Anyway, man,” he mutters, sounding decades older as he pulls his hands from his pockets. “Got any change?”
You stare at his open fingers for a moment before dropping a wrinkled twenty from your jacket pocket into his outstretched palm. You turn away and cross the street, suddenly remembering who’s waiting for you at home, the little red car in the driveway, the Christmas tree waiting to be decorated by the living room table – your life.
For a moment, none of it seemed to matter. It scares you a little.
You glance back when you stop at the crosswalk. His silhouette seems small from a distance, unmoving as he stares at his hands. Someone once told you never to give money to the homeless. You decide that they might have been wrong, or maybe you’re still naive.
You decide that you don’t care.
His voice, haunting and edged with awe, follows you home. You pause outside the front door, keys in hand, listening to his words echo in your head.
I could have been anybody, man.
You step inside, greeted by warm arms, the weight of someone else’s world heavy on your shoulders.
Anyone at all.