What Was Done
Year of the Snake Contest entry for June 2013. 500 words. For AL.
I was running the vacuum cleaner when someone knocked on the door. We have a solid steel ring for a knocker; the noise it makes can cut through anything. I had a sudden sick feeling someone was going to try to sell me something. Encyclopedias, pots and pans, knives, maybe even a vacuum cleaner.
The first time he said whatever it was he was trying to say, I couldn’t understand him above the vacuum’s motor. I could see he was no salesman. I gestured that I was going to turn it off and closed the door on him.
As I opened the door again, I thought I recognized him. He reminded me of an uncle I’d not seen in many years. He was on crutches and wore a well-worn Army jacket with several old patches slapped on against the weather and over wear.
When he spoke in the now silence, a slow, stuttered speech, I found I was right. It was my uncle Alan. He asked if my mom and dad were at home. I said that they were abroad, as they always were at this time of year, visiting my sister in Europe. He wondered if he could borrow a couple of dollars. I said sure, closed the door on him again, and went for my wallet.
At the time, I don't know why, I didn’t invite him to come in to sit down. There was something foreign about him. Something I did not want to have invading the house.
He’d always been a very good uncle to me and my sister when we were young. Every year he’d bring us a giant cardboard box for Christmas. The inside would be stuffed with crumpled up newspaper. Buried in this rubbish, we’d find cans of spam and Vienna sausages, little dolls and stuffed animals and toys, candy and crack seed – all of it balled up in newspaper so that we were on a kind of miniature treasure hunt.
He asked if I could spare a sandwich. I said I thought that we had the makings for peanut butter and jelly. Again, instead of inviting him to step inside and sit, something you would think I’d do for a relative, I closed the door and went downstairs, hurriedly made the sandwich, then brought it quickly back to him. He stood there, leaning on his crutches, wolfing it down. I was afraid he’d ask for something to drink, that I’d have to close the door on him again in order to get a glass of water.
But the sandwich was his last request. He thanked me for the food and the five dollars, asked me to give his regards to my parents, turned and hobbled off down the road.
He lived, I’m told, on the beach at Nanakuli. I have no idea how or when he became homeless. At his funeral, I thought about all his kindnesses to me when I was young, and the guilt swept over me in nauseating waves.