It was shortly before one o’clock on Sunday afternoon. I was sipping a cold cup of coffee while reading the news on Facebook, a habit I find pleasurable despite the incessant reports of violence and corruption. The daily phantasmagoria reminds me that, while the world might be losing its way, at least my moral compass still points north. I’ve also become rather addicted to iced coffee.
My wife was busy chopping bell peppers for lunch, and I was doing my best to ignore her, when she suddenly yelped.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked, not looking up from my iPhone.
“Nothing,” she said in a labored voice. I heard a clink as she set down the knife, and I looked up to see her grimacing as she rubbed her left hip. “It’s just this sciatica pain. It’s bad this time.”
This will be my wife’s fourth and final child. Her previous pregnancies were uneventful, besides the giving birth, of course, and even that was over and done with in one push. But this time my wife has had every pregnancy related malady in the book. (There is a book, by the way: What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Spoiler: Don’t expect anything good.) I’m not sure if it’s her way of cashing in on all the sympathy she missed out on the first three pregnancies or if she really is experiencing chronic discomfort, but she does seem to experience it most often while I’m relaxing.
I took a slow sip of coffee, returning to the news. “Why don’t you take some ibuprofen?”
“I can’t. If we had Tylenol, I would take it, but we keep forgetting to pick some up. It’s really bothering me, though.”
She meant I keep forgetting. She also meant that she would like for me to stop what I was doing and go purchase some Tylenol for her right now. But she’s been terribly oblique and moody this pregnancy, so I didn’t push it. I sighed, took one last drink of coffee, and pushed back from the kitchen table.
“I’ll go pick some up for you,” I said resolutely.
She protested, but only halfheartedly, and soon I was lacing up my shoes. She thanked me and kissed my cheek, which helped relieve my annoyance. But it was Sunday, after all, and I didn’t really have anything else to do. Anyway, I was hungry, and the idea of choking down another bell pepper salad made my stomach clench.
A few minutes later, I pulled into the Smith’s parking lot. I took out my phone and texted my wife:
Let me know if you need anything else while I’m here
The sidewalk leading to the Smith’s entrance was filled with outdoor swings and hundreds of clay pots in a Southwestern style. When the pots were first set out a month ago, they were ridiculously overpriced at forty dollars a piece, but now each one boasted a 70% OFF sticker, making them only completely overpriced. They aren’t worth half of what they’re asking. It’s just another marketing scheme, another greedy company looking to shake down the American people, another compass pointing south.
When I reached the point on the sidewalk where the pots and outdoor swings forced foot traffic into the street, I became delayed behind an old woman with diaphanous white hair, bent nearly double, pushing a walker with tennis balls on the feet, moving at negative speed. I couldn’t pass her by way of the street because of an enormous pickup that was slowly cruising through the pedestrian crossing.
That’s why you don’t go out when you’re this old, I thought. Doesn’t she have family or a caretaker to run her errands?
After what seemed like an hour, the truck passed, and I skipped around the woman, muttering a sarcastic apology.
As I rounded the last of the outdoor goods, I saw a collection of images that triggered an instant understanding in my mind. A greasy sign made from the side of a discarded cardboard box; deeply tanned skin under filthy, nondescript clothing; a rusty coffee tin set out on the floor with a scrap of paper taped around it — taken together, I knew I was about to encounter one of life’s more pathetic constituents: the homeless beggar.
There were two of them, a young mother and her daughter, who couldn’t have been more than ten. They were both too thin, and the little girl wore a vacant expression that made my stomach feel cold and hollow, the way I imagined the inside of one of those overpriced pots felt.
I reached for my wallet, knowing I had a few dollars on me that I was willing to part with, but then I removed my hand. I waited until I passed in front of them, until they saw me, until the mother said:
“Please, sir. We are hungry.”
Then, I made a show of it. I took out my wallet, grabbing all the bills without looking, and handed over my money with a most saint-like expression on my face.
“God bless you, sir,” the woman said in an accent I couldn’t place. It might have belonged to any of those far eastern countries that no native-born American could identify on a map with confidence. It was an exotic, dangerous accent, and I suddenly felt like I understood everything about this tragic pair’s life.
God bless me indeed, I thought. I don’t believe in God (how can I, the way the world is headed), but it must be uplifting for two degenerates to encounter a man who just wants to help. I replaced my wallet and strutted off without a second glance at them.
When I entered the store, I found a woman engaged in a desperate struggle to separate two small shopping carts, which had become entangled together. She became so agitated that she actually lifted both carts several inches off the ground and brought them back down with a metallic crash. This obscene gesture gained her nothing except a few turned heads from passersby. I shook my own head at the display. Some people just don’t know how to act in public.
I had watched this battle for several seconds, patting my thighs and willing for this woman to either triumph over the carts or to give up so I could collect my own cart, when a young couple, who had just finished their shopping, came up behind me to return their cart.
“I’ll take that, thanks,” I said, grabbing the cart and directing it toward the sanitation stand.
I pulled out several wipes and cleaned the handle bar. I placed the other wipes in my basket, just it case (it truly is disgusting what people do when they think no one is looking). Then I went on my way, leaving that silly woman and her struggle behind.
As I ambled up and down the aisles, I couldn’t stop thinking about the beggars. I wanted to congratulate myself on my benevolence, but now that didn’t seem right. My initial sense of complete comprehension regarding their lives had faded, replaced by an uncomfortable doubt.
Were they really so desperate, or did they make more money at begging than I did at web development? Was it all a scam? Had I been a fool to give them money?
My mind was so distracted with these thoughts that I spent a half-hour touring the store with nothing in my cart to show for it. This won’t do at all, I thought at last. And so I decided that their authenticity didn’t matter. Should I avoid every good deed because of doubt? That kind of attitude is exactly what’s wrong with this country. Who was I to judge? If they were gypsies, so be it. If they were truly in need, then all the better. Anyway, it was only three dollars.
My thoughts turned to my stomach as I spotted some yogurt on the shelf. I lifted a large tub of Chobani to read the label, but the tub was slick, and it slipped from my hands before I could catch it. The top burst open when it landed, and thick globs of yogurt spewed onto the floor.
I glanced around, hoping no one had seen my accident, but saw that I was alone in the aisle. I quickly picked up the tub, replaced the lid, wiped away the excess yogurt from it, and placed it back on the shelf with the others. Then I decided I wasn’t in the mood for yogurt and moved on.
After a few more rounds through the store, I settled on a large baked chicken and a cold soda. I began checking out at one of the self-service kiosks and found myself wondering if my three dollars would actually help that mother and her little girl. I would hope, if it were my wife and daughter, that someone would be as generous as I had been — more generous, in fact. After all, was three dollars really enough? How many people stopped to give them money?
I felt that disturbing, pot-like chill in my stomach again as I fed the machine my money and took my receipt. I left the change (don’t you hate the feeling of change in your pocket?), grabbed my bags, and headed for the exit, leaving my cart abandoned near the kiosk. But before I left the store, I saw the mother and daughter through the sliding glass doors, still standing there with their sign, and I stopped.
As I watched, three people walked by without so much as a turn of their heads to acknowledge them. I felt an uncomfortable heat replace the chill in my belly. I really am too optimistic about the human race, to think that anyone would stop and help.
I remembered the hot chicken in my bag. I could give it to them, give them a warm meal to go with the money. But no. What if they didn’t eat chicken? (Can a beggar afford to be a vegetarian?) And, also, what would I eat? I looked back into the store, considering. It’s only six dollars for a whole chicken, and it wouldn’t take me long to get it. But as I looked, I saw that old woman, the one with the walker who had blocked my path, standing at one of the registers, making a horrible face and lifting her hands out of her reusable shopping bag with a look of bewilderment.
Her hands were covered in white goo. A phlegmy moan rattled in her throat as she complained in a trembling voice that the yogurt she had just purchased spilled all over a greeting card she had bought for her daughter. The cashier rolled her eyes. She picked up the bag with two fingers, holding it at arms length, and picked up the phone to call a manager. The people in line behind the old woman groaned and rolled their eyes, too.
On second thought, I didn’t need to go back for a chicken. Beggars do alright, otherwise they wouldn’t be begging. I gave them a lot of money — three dollars is a lot to someone with nothing. Yes, there was no need to worry any more about it. All that was left to do was to smile and nod at them as I left, reminding them that there were still some good people in the world. Maybe their gratitude would help ease my mind about the whole thing.
But as I left the store, the mother, in that same slimy accent, said:
“Please, sir. We are hungry.”
I stopped. A man, who had followed me outside a little too closely and had to yank on his cart to stop from colliding with me, sighed his annoyance as he pushed his cart passed. At first I thought the beggar woman must have been addressing him. I stared at her, wanting that to be true, wanting some gratitude in return for my good deed. But in her face, there was none. She was… holding out her hands… to me, looking me straight in the face without a hint of recognition.
“Please, sir,” she repeated, gesturing with her upturned palm.
The heat inside me, which rose a moment ago in pity, flared up in anger. I shook my head and smiled mirthlessly. “No, no, you see, I already gave you money.”
At my negative reaction, the woman waved her hand as if to shoo me away, saying something in her own language that sounded vile. As another customer left the store, she looked past me and delivered her same plea to them.
I wagged a finger in her face, forcing her attention back to me. “I gave you money,” I said, my voice unsteady. “You remember? I gave you three dollars.” I demonstrated with three trembling fingers.
She only flashed her black eyes at me, and then she was asking the next passing customer for money.
I repeated myself, stepping closer to her. She spat at my feet.
Something inside me twisted, a polar flip, and I felt my heart pounding in my chest. This ungrateful, stupid woman. No wonder she had to beg for money. No wonder she was dirty and poor. No wonder she subjected her daughter to such a contemptible life. She didn’t even have the sense to remember her benefactor. She was broken — completely broken — just a shell of a woman, no more human than the chicken in my bag.
“You listen to me!” I said, coming within a foot of her, inhaling her stench. “If you won’t be grateful, then I demand my money back!”
She scowled at me. Her daughter did the same, the expression on her young face no longer vacant, but exuding a hate I wouldn’t think possible in a child so young. I held out my hand, mocking the mother’s gesture, and demanded my money again. She slapped my hand away and began spewing a series of unintelligible imprecations at me, waving her arms hysterically.
I was blind to the world around me, to everything but this hateful pair.
“You worthless bitch!” I yelled, reaching for the coffee tin, intending to retrieve my three dollars by force. But before I could touch it, something closed tight around my wrist and tore my hand away.
I turned to see a huge man, his muscles bulging under a dainty shirt, bald, with a thick goatee and tattoos up both arms, looking down on me in disgust.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Leave that mom and her kid alone or I’ll fix you up.”
I wrenched my arm from his steely grip and stumbled back. I felt all the heat that had occupied my belly rush to my face. Tears blurred my vision.
“I—” I started, but I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Then I noticed the small crowd that had stopped to watch me, among them, the old woman with the walker and the woman who had battled the carts. Their arms were crossed, their eyes narrowed as they shook their heads and muttered their disapproval of my behavior. They looked at me like I was the problem, like I was the filth. It was too much to stand. I was so embarrassed and indignant that my mind went blank, and I couldn’t do or say anything to defend myself. All I could manage to do was turn and run.
When I reached my car, I yanked open the passenger door and threw in the groceries. I smacked the window with my hand and cursed. I glanced back at the group. They were still huddled around the beggars, pointing my way, probably wondering how someone could be such a heartless monster. But they didn’t know anything. They were the problem. Not me. They’re just too lost to see it.
Then I noticed a small scrap of paper pinned under one of my windshield wipers. I was enraged by its presence and irrationally attributed it to the beggar woman and her daughter. I tore the note free and read:
Hey, you dropped your phone by your car. Couldn’t find you in the store. Put it on the front passenger tire. Be careful. It’s a nice phone. Have a nice day.
I stared at the note, wiping the tears from my eyes so I could be sure I had read it correctly, confused and somehow more infuriated than ever. I turned it over. There was no name or contact information, just the note.
I checked the tire and there was my iPhone 6 plus, a little dent on one corner, but otherwise unharmed. I gripped the phone so hard that I heard the eighty-dollar case groan. I kicked the tire, painfully tweaking my toe. How dare they touch my stuff! They should have let it be. They had no right! I bet they wanted to steal my phone, but couldn’t crack my password, and now they’re trying to pass off their failure as a good deed.
I dropped into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. I gripped the steering wheel, placing my forehead on it, trying to slow my breathing. Then my phone buzzed in my hand. It was my wife:
Don’t need anything else. Thanks for getting the Tylenol. You’re the best!
I let out an intense scream from my gut that would have sent those beggars and their sympathetic morons running had they heard me. I threw my phone against the passenger window. I beat the wheel with the heels of my hands until they went numb.
I had forgotten the damn Tylenol. But it wasn’t my fault — It was that stupid woman and her stupid little daughter! God damned gypsies! I should call the police on them, I thought, on all of them. I should do something. But what was there to do?
Once someone’s compass is broken, what can be done to fix it?