written by: Chris Morton
I remember the first time I saw him he was passing me in the street and he shouted to me, “Hello, handsome man.”
I liked the way that sounded. It was a compliment and I replied with a smile.
The next time our paths crossed he shouted the same thing.
“Hello, handsome man.”
“Hi,” I replied, walking on.
It took me a while to realise he was a neighbour. Two houses down from mine. One night I saw him go in there, a residence that unlike my own townhouse, was shared by lodgers. Through ground-floor windows I saw abstract art and a faraway television showing the news. Near to the house was a bench I’d begun to settle down on from time to time when the evenings were warm. The street was quiet on those summer nights. I’d enjoy a beer or two there; watch the passing cars and contemplate the meaning of life.
One day, coming home from work I noticed him on the same bench.
“Hello, handsome man,” he’d said.
“Yeah, that’s me. The handsome man.”
“Where are you from?”
“You know, around …”
“A beautiful evening.”
“That it is.”
I carried on walking, got to my door, shoved the key in and turned the lock.
Now and then I’d see him coming out of our local convenience store. Dirty shorts and T-shirt, a satchel round his shoulders and plastic bag swinging by his side. There was something about him. A sadness. Pity. I’d begun to avoid our little exchanges when I could.
Sometimes, however, I was lonely myself. On one such night I spotted him while out for a walk. I’d wander the streets to get out of the house, get away from the computer, the TV, get out into the real world for a half hour or so.
He was there, coming straight for me.
“Handsome man,” he bellowed.
“How’s it going,” I replied.
We talked about the weather, the hot summer we were having. Then somehow or other we got onto the subject of UFOs.
“Up there,” he warned me. “They are watching.”
“They’ve taken me.”
“Before,” he answered, his friendly expression sliding into that of morbid sorrowfulness.
I backed away.
“You be careful,” he warned.
“Sure,” I answered. Then: “So, you’ve seen them?”
“I did,” he replied, looking down at his satchel. “But I have ways. Ways to make them stop.”
By coincidence I wrote sci-fi stories and was working on a collection – I should have been more interested (What had they done to him, what did they look like? Did they have names, these aliens?)
But this was real life, not a game.
Frowning, I asked if he took medicine. A cousin of mine had heard voices. She’d been put on medication. I considered the possibility of helping this man. Reporting him … but to who?
He began to wave a finger at me. “They are watching!,” he shouted. “Watching you. Watching us!”
“You just be careful, handsome man.”
I looked at my watch; reassured him that I’d be okay.
An argument broke out on my street. Unable to resist the temptation to sneak a look at what was going on, I carefully slid open a window.
It was him, shouting at the drivers of two cars that were having trouble passing each other in the narrow road. Parked cars either side, it was a phenomenon not uncommon in the street in which I lived.
Ordering each driver to back up, to move forward, to drive more carefully … his shouts were met with embarrassed politeness. This was not his business, but who were they to argue? Best not get involved.
Inside the convenience store one evening I ran into my boss. We got to talking, an awkward conversation about work.
“Hello, handsome man.”
“My neighbour,” I stated, by way of introduction.
“Ahh, hello, there,” said my boss. “Neighbours, then. And what is it you do?”
“He sees UFOs,” I muttered by way of explanation to this dishevelled figure. To excuse whatever words he might come out with.
“I live two doors down,” he exclaimed happily, while my boss shrank away in horror.
Again I’d pass him. Some days I’d stop to talk, other days I’d just smile. I began to wonder how hard it would be to make friends with this man. I was lonely myself, so why not strike up a partnership of sorts. I’d have to set down rules though. No hassling me every day. It would have to be on my terms. We could wander the streets after dark, take in a beer or two. Or we could become best friends, why not? I’d be doing him a favour. I could change his life.
“Hello handsome man,” he shouted, his satchel clanging by his side.
“Hello,” I’d reply, walking on.
Soon, however, I started to notice a change. There were a set of drunks who’d gather at the park, who’d sit outside the convenience store with their cheap wine and angry banter. I noticed he was sitting with them more often than not. He’d found friends, I was off the hook.
He’d pass me in the street with a plastic bag full of beer cans. Instant noodles. There was a lady who worked at our store who I noticed had begun to chat to him whenever he was in there. Before he’d been served with coldness, a glacial apathy … but he’d become more respectable, acceptable. A local, friendly drunk.
He’d pass me looking worse than ever and I was often the first of us to acknowledge the other.
“Hello,” I’d say.
“Handsome man,” he’d reply with a glazed expression.
And we’d both walk on.
But one time I saw him in the supermarket at a table drinking a coffee and I joined him for a moment, saying I had somewhere to go, someone else to meet. I couldn’t stop, just wanted to say hi. There was a queue and I had a minute to spare.
“My son,” he said. “He lives in America.”
“Oh, so you have a son,” I replied. “That’s nice.”
“He’s a good boy. Very handsome.”
And your wife? I almost asked but didn’t.
“He’s very smart.”
“Of course,” I stumbled. “I mean, he must be.”
The last time I saw him he was with two older men playing chess in the park. He wasn’t playing, just watching. It was nice, I thought, that he was allowed to sit with them. I wondered what his life had been like before. If he really did have a son. What he’d been like as a boy. Sitting with other kids in the classroom, the same as everyone else. From what I knew of my cousin, common forms of schizophrenia and such types of madness could hit in at puberty, other kinds more often than not hit you in later life. But as a child, he’d had a mother and father and friends at school. He’d had hopes and dreams. One day, when he was older …
It must have been over two months when it finally dawned on me that I hadn’t seen him in a while. Where had he gone? Whatever happened to that crazy fellow who always used to call me handsome man? I had a suspicion that he might have died. Either that or moved away. I wondered if he’d been committed. Cured.
“That guy,” I said to my neighbour. A retiree who often stood outside smoking by his front door. “The one who was …” how to put it? “A bit crazy. Haven’t seen him in a while.”
My neighbour peered at me through a cloud of smoke. “Two doors down that way?” he coughed.
“That’s the one.”
“Dead, so I heard.”
“Bad heart. He was young and all.”
Older than me but younger than my neighbour. Must have been in either his forties or fifties, though I decided to not bother with asking for any confirmation over his age.
“His heart?” I said instead.
“Drank, you see.”
“Sure, I guess he did.”
“Not mad. Just drunk.”
“But he was a bit, you know, I think he had mental illness. Maybe that’s what –”
“– No, not mental illness. He was a drunk.” My neighbour spat on the floor. Stubbed out his cigarette.
“At the end he was, sure,” I insisted.
“No, no, always. His satchel. Full of it. Drink like that, it’s bound to get you in the end.”
About a week later I walked up to the woman in the store, the one who’d been nice enough to chat with him from time to time in the last few months of his life. I wanted to tell her, just in case she didn’t know. He’s dead, I wanted to say. The news, I felt a strange need to share it with somebody. I wanted to find out more, about who he’d been. Had there been a funeral? Who, if anyone, had gone?
“Would you like a bag with that?” she asked.
I hesitated, open-mouthed. This woman, I didn’t want to shock her with talk of dead neighbours.
“Sure,” I said instead, handing her the money. Giving her the best smile I could manage, I picked up my stuff, then walked outside.
You be careful, handsome man. They are watching you, watching us!
Grey clouds mixed with emerging stars. The wind blew softly.
- The Stranger - April 1, 2023