The driveway was filled with tables covered with trampolines from the weekend yard sale. I had expected Good Will to pick them up while I was at the doctor’s office so seeing them aggravated me because now I had to park at the curb in front of my house where some kid on a bicycle might bump it. I shut off the engine and glanced toward the front porch. Some raggedy looking black man was sitting on the step leaning on a dirty backpack and smoking a cigarette. When he saw me looking, he smiled a wide, upper front teeth-missing smile, lifted the hand holding the cigarette and waved. I didn’t wave back. I only got that much more aggravated and wondered who the vagabond looking man was and why he was acting so familiar with me. I got out of the car and slammed the door.
My day had been long and tiring and I was in no mood to deal with a begging, homeless man, no matter how much I sympathized with his plight. Then he spoke.
“Andy, that’s you isn’t it?”
I looked hard at him. The voice sounded familiar but it was from somewhere in my obscure past.
He went on speaking, “ I thought that was you the other day mowing the grass but I wasn’t sure.”
Then it hit me. I had worked with him several years ago at the water plant. “John?” I questioned.
“Yeah, you didn’t recognize me did you?”
I wasn’t happy to see him. Not that I disliked him but more because he brought back bitter memories of a phase in my life I had tried hard to forget. “Not until I heard your voice. You’ve lost some weight?”
“Yeah, and you grew a beard.”
“Still a rebel, even in my old age.” I was walking towards him and he stood up, stuck out his hand and I shook it. “It’s been awhile.”
“Twenty years almost.” He released his grip and I let go of his hand, which felt oily and warm. “I heard you moved to Georgia.”
I knew eventually he would get around to wanting to talk about the old days I had tried so hard to forget. “I was gone for a few years. Spent a couple on the beach but my health brought me back here.”
“Oh, Man, the beach, sounds like a pretty good life to me, you know.”
"It was.” We sat down on the top step of the porch. “So what’s up with you these days?” I asked.
“Just livin’, Man, you know, just livin’. Eight hours a day, one day to the next. It ain’t life, but it’s livin’. But it’s all good. What about you? Just moved in here, huh?”
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
“I work over there.” He put up his thumb like he was hitching a ride. The thumb pointed to a shopping plaza across the street from my back yard. “Flippin’ burgers, Monday through Friday, sometimes half a day on Saturday.”
“So you live around here?”
“On over the hill, pasted the fairgrounds in Hanks Apartments. Heck of a name, ain’t it, Hank’s?” He laughed. “I just cut through everybody’s yard to make the trip shorter.”
“Well, yeah, that would save a lot of time.”
“Yeah, but, you know, a trashy lookin’ black man, carrying a backpack ain’t always welcome in some folks backyard. But, so far no trouble except for a few dogs wantin’ a taste of me.”
I laughed, “Things don’t change much do they?”
“Only in your head.” He grinned that toothless smile again. To look at him you’d never know he was a college graduate who took a wrong turn early in life.
“Well, other than having a tendency to forget things, my head is in the same place it always was.”
“I like to think mine is on a little straighter than it used to be back then.” I was surprised he did not mention the problems he had at the plant.
“I’m glad to hear that, John.’
“Listen, if I know you, I figure you’d rather not talk about our years at the water plant?”
“Not one of my favorite subjects for sure. I am pretty much over that so you’re right, it is a topic I’d rather not dwell on.”
I figured so. But, you know, Man, I had to stop by for a few minutes.”
“It’s fine, John. We worked together, we were pretty good friends… worked together for a long time. We saw a lot of crap go down.”
“Well, that’s why I stopped by.”
“Yeah, they were so wrong lettin’ you go the way they did. They fired me for a good reason, my own fault, you know. But, you, Man, it was just wrong.”
“We’re both probably better off that they did.”
“I think so, but, like I said, I had to stop by and tell you… well, I’ve known a lot of people in my life, but you’re the most honest one I ever met.”
I felt my face redden.
“You taught me a lot and I don’t mean just about that damn plant. You taught me stuff I didn’t even realize for years after I left.”
I didn’t know what to say. I fumbled for words, “Well, I, well, I don’t know about that, we were just trying to survive. But, I do appreciate you saying it.”
He stood up, swung on the backpack and held out his hand again. “Well, I just wanted to tell you that, Man. I’ve waited a lot of years for the chance.” He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a pack of Marlboro Menthols and lit one up. “Thanks.”
I stood up, shook his hand and said, “You’re welcome, but I figure we taught each other a lot.”
“Gotta get goin’, gonna wash the Big Mac grease off of me and prop up my feet. What a life, huh?” He laughed again.
“Take care, John. Stop by again sometime if you want to.”
I just might do that.” He took a drag on the cigarette, blew out a cloud, turned and walked down my sidewalk. He never looked back.
I didn’t expect to see him again unless he was just walking down the street or though my backyard. I unlocked my front door and went inside.