The old man stopped in front of Don, but he didn’t face him. He just stood there for a moment, staring straight ahead down Genna Street. When he finally spoke, anyone passing by would have thought he was speaking to the air and that Don was only an innocent bystander.
“They tell me there’s a man on this street who can get things done,” the old man said in a hoarse whisper.
Don chewed on his mustache and itched the point of his chin bone beneath his long, wiry beard. If Don could have done anything different, he would have chosen a house in Virgil that had a front porch. That was pretty much all he would have changed. He liked sitting outside, watching the traffic go by, checking out the girls. He never said anything to them, nothing like that, but he watched them closely as they passed, and they felt it, his gaze, louder than a lewd shout. Women in the area even started avoiding Genna Street. They didn’t know his name. They didn’t know one single, solitary thing about him. They just didn’t like how it felt to walk past that fifty-year-old man with the beard, always bending the brim of his low-lying ball cap and chewing on the sparse hairs of his mustache.
There was plenty Don didn’t mind about his place in Virgil. He didn’t mind the cats, even though they made the breezeway between his house and the next one smell like a litter box. He didn’t mind the honeycomb maze of alleys behind his house. Don didn’t even mind listening to Sheryl and Slim screaming at each other in the apartment above his, something he could hear with digital clarity when he was out front. Slim was the local pot dealer, and Sheryl was known to do a thing or two to make an extra buck. He didn’t mind hearing them shout. Sometimes it made him feel powerful, like he knew something about them that could be used at a later date. In Virgil you never knew what you needed or when you might need it.
But it was the lack of a porch that got him, because that meant if he wanted to sit outside he had to take out his blue lawn chair and sit it on the sidewalk, in the heat of the day, or the snow, or the rain. He didn’t like the weather, and he didn’t like how close everyone came to him when they walked by on the narrow sidewalk.
Don acted like he didn’t hear the old man, so the man cleared his throat and spoke again.
“That’s what they tell me,” the old man said when he didn’t get a response, still looking straight ahead. A few cars went by in the late morning heat, but the street was pretty quiet. It was going to be a hot day.
“People say a lot of things about this city,” Don muttered. His teeth were yellow with large gaps in between them. “I’d only believe about half of what I hear.”
The old man nodded and shuffled his cane as if he was going to walk on. But he didn’t.
“So which half are you?” the old man asked. “The half I should believe in or the half that’s make believe?”
“Depends,” Don said, leaning back in his blue chair.
“Depends on who you’ve been listening to,” Don said, but there was an edge to his voice now, and the phrase somehow turned into a question, as in, Who have you been listening to?
The old man turned and looked at Don for the first time.
“I’m looking for a man named Saul,” the old man said. “You know him?”
Don sighed, then reached up and put his hand over his mouth as if he was thinking real hard. He scratched his beard and he stared across the street to where the huge willow tree grew up out of the sidewalk. It was the only tree left on the block. He liked that tree. It reminded him of himself.
Don looked up at the old man.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Manny,” he said quietly, looking around. “Manny Maude.”
Don sighed, then, as if a switch had been flipped, and he gave Manny a large smile. A rush of nicotine-stained teeth appeared when his lips peeled back. He pulled a pack of Marlboro’s from his pocket, shook it, and slipped a cigarette out. He held it between his lips while rustling a small book of matches from the same pocket. The match popped to life, then sizzled, finally flamed, and he held it against the tip of the cigarette, taking a deep draw.
“Well, here’s the thing,” he said in the tight-lipped manner of someone speaking and smoking. Then he exhaled, and the smoke was a mirage, a cloud, an image inside a dream. There were epic tales in there, and the long lives of kings and the short lives of heroes. The city of Virgil was in there, for a moment, heavy and dark, but then the wind blew it away, and there was nothing but two men in a quiet street, and the heat that gathered, and the willow tree saying “Shhh” in the breeze.
Don started again.
“The thing is, yes, I’m Saul,” Don said, and Manny wasn’t surprised, although he was rather taken aback by the clammy feel of the man’s skin and how the clouds seemed to gather when they shook hands.
This story is part of a series of stories that have to do with the city of Virgil. If you’d like to know a little bit more about what’s going on, you can start with the first installment, titled “Shhh”. Check it out HERE.