The Back Alley

The air in the early evening had grown cold and unfriendly, it being late November, and the roads were wet and mush. Towards the end of the slushy, gravel lined roads, stood a small party of laughing men and women conversing loudly and stumbling from drunkenness. At the old church the night porter had lit the outside torches, and holding a lantern in his hand looked distrustfully out into the night, turned, and locked the heavy mahogany doors. The midnight bells had rung, and many of the townspeople were filing out of the night club with swagger. Singing songs and stumbling over one another heading back to their flats. Up against a mud-stained and gritty cement wall, of a particularly lively after hours spot, lay an exceptionally old man nodded over, almost asleep, holding tightly to an old guitar.

In the silence, after the laughing died out, you could hear faintly the notes as the wind passed over it. He was poorly dressed in all but tattered rags and dirty linen, muddy boots, and an old tailored vest with several missing buttons. The top of his head was bald completely, though above his ears he had a small puff of grey and brown, and considerably tangled hair. He lay there still, fast holding onto his guitar with his meager frame and thin arms wrapped around it lovingly. As the door opened for a minute, and the sound of shouting and laughter poured out of the club, along with the smell of drink and smoke, he opened his eyes and stared straight; nothing was there but old street lanterns, with moths fluttering around it, waving in front of an abandoned warehouse. He simply stared, without blinking, as though he was genuinely lost.

Staggering out of the club, with a steadfast and resolute walk, a younger man, dressed in the finest clothes with grey wrinkle free slacks and a black vest, holding his coat over his shoulder. He dropped some coins in the eager hands of the mustached valet and walked out into the street. He stood for a second, as if deciding what to do or where to go, lit a cigarette, and turned to walk down the street. A lantern down the street had cast a pale grey hue on the road, and in it could be seen the small slanting lines of the light rainfall. Before he had passed into the glowing shadows of the lanterns throwing his shadow into the road, beside which stood two barren November trees, from behind him he heard the low melody of the old beggar’s guitar and his low humming. “No signs from heaven come today, to add to what the heart doth say.”

He stopped under the streetlight, took a long draw from his Turkish cigarette, exhaled, flicked the butt out in the street, and walked casually towards the old man. Beside the old man on the ground sat an old mason jar which was dirty and had a faded yellow strip of tape. on it. There were a few coins and a bill inside the jar. “Play me a song old man.” Said the stranger, digging into his pocket for some coins. Still looking straight in front of him, his bushy eyebrows arched and his black eyes glassed over, and the old man said meekly, “I will play you a song, but you can keep your coins. I bare my soul for a piece of bread, maybe some water, but I am no performing animal.” – he strummed a chord and began picking individual notes, “I bare my soul!” he screamed as though no one had talked to him in days, years even, though his eyes did not waver or flinch, “I bare my soul for a piece of bread and some water. There is enough now, I don’t need any more money. You can put your coins away, sir, I will play a song for you.”

Taken aback by the low sullen voice of the old man, said the stranger with his hands in his pockets, “You have money enough for bread, why do you still play? Why sit out here in the cold and the rain?” Strumming out a few notes in a low melody, moving his fragile, and swollen hands quickly, said the old man in a wispy sort of whisper, “I am no educated man, though I was born into mud I am not a worm. Here, you see me; you see me in the mud still. My children, my little smiling ones that run around barefoot on our hard and dirty floor, twins you see, run and play still with no shoes on their little feet. Their mother tries to educate them, she came from a well to do family in the north, and tell them of the world and science so that they might crawl up out of the mud. They’re terribly bright young girls, twins! They wear the same dresses that their mother wore as a child; they are dirty rags, but this does not make them frown. They are so pretty in them. Pale blue handmaidens dresses. They walk around and hold each others hands. Such questions they ask! ‘Papa’, they say with their eyes so curious, ‘we drew you a picture.’ And they smile like they understand the whole world. They don’t know, bless them, that everyday is a day of three temptations. We enter the world with empty hands and leave likewise. Yes, perhaps I am no poet. Or maybe I talk of nothing at all. But my man, I lay my dignity at your feet. At the foot of all their boots and twisted laughing faces, masks really, that stand and throw copper in my mason jar out of their pity. It is a shame that man cannot survive by pity alone. Yes, I may be pretentious; every man is pretentious when he speaks with feeling. So, let it be so.

“They are too young now to know they’re in the mud. Too young, and bless them, they don’t see the stink around them. Or the sins we lay like offerings at their dirty little feet. My darling wife, Elise, she -” he switched chords, continued strumming, “she teaches them. She tries to teach them. That is a hard lesson to teach. Teaching someone, especially some lively little bright eyed girls, twins too, how to love-” he broke off, his lips quivering and his eyes still staring straight ahead him, “It is much easier to teach science than it is to teach love. Much harder. Far harder. It is for this very purpose that we are here. Not just me and my insects, us insects here, no; you too. We are here to learn to love. It’s a long lesson, long lesson I say, to learn to love that many learn as they lay on the last bed they’ll ever lay upon. It is harder to teach someone to love than it is to teach them arithmetic. I am no educated man, but that I know. I am a poor man, a very poor man. But for your slacks and fancy cigarettes, I’d never trade the love of my Lizavette and Chance. Nothing worth having can be bought. Perhaps I’m being silly, with the devil holding me by the collar.
“Still I sit out here in the street, and I might sell my soul for a few pieces of change. But every night out here on the street I die, I die inside; I lose all of my nobility as people dodge me, step around me as if I’m a door stop or a worthless bug, I die inside then, sir. I die. My dignity is on the ground like your shadow there. But every night when I bring bread to my little women, they grow far too fast! That’s the problem with life: age. If they only stayed seven years old forever, they’d hold onto their dreams. They’d believe until they died, at age seven, that everything in the world is right. Is as it should be, even; they believe in right and wrong and they sing. They sing, that’s what we do. At night, after we put out the lights, we light a candle and set it on the dining room table – a really meager table all but splintered – and I sit around and play them little songs. And they hum, they hum like I do. They say more with their hums my dear sir, than you are capable of saying with words or education.

“I may be no educated man, my good man, but I feel and have love. And my little girls may run barefoot in our dirty home, in our mud-hole, but they will feel too. We have no fancy clothes or expensive wines, or Turkish cigarettes and fine art. I lie, sir, I lie; we do have fine art. Prettier than any flower is pure expression; the sound of someone speaking of beauty without words. That is pure beauty and the only beauty to be found on earth. We have beautiful art on our cracking walls, stripped of all the yellow paint and varnish long ago by our spiteful landowner, but the wall in our master bedroom has a picture drawn by Chance; it is but a small picture, in crayon, that she drew of the sun and I wouldn’t trade it for the Mona Lisa. I’ll live out in these alleys, these back-streets, haven to madmen and beggars; but sir, I tell you in earnest – we are all but beggars. I’ll live and die in our mud-hole, our little pit, but everyday I wake up and see the sun, or the rain, it doesn’t matter, I think grace for our hole. And you people, I watch you through the cracks in the floor. In poverty there is still feeling; in absolute poverty you may find a man that so willingly throws his soul on you. You can laugh, laugh at me, I am a clown; I know it and I speak like one. Forgive me, some nights I have a bit to drink though it calms me and I never get violent.”

He strummed a different progression, his eyes now closed, his head leaning over. He cleared his throat, “We are all beggars, sir. ” he whispered, almost coughing, “The highest man on earth has an insect inside him too, and the richest man may think the world entire to be but a mud-hole for animals to wallow in. We are these animals; we are the lesser men. Disposable ones, you see. In filth, in sensualist lust and frenzy, and maybe its true. Let it be true, I don’t care. Every day, sir, I think the almighty for our little hole. In poverty, with love, I am a man of much fortune. Perhaps I am a fool. So be it, let me play the fool! You too should pray for the fool. He, the hand, the invisible hand, made the wise man and the fool. With equal intent and purpose; equal due. We are all but beggars; you too, with your silk and fancy cigarettes, are no further from the mud puddle than I. Riches, money, drink, or even women, might blind you – sew a veil over your eyes and hide the puddle from you.

“That is what separates the peasants from the nobles; we know of the real world. Not one king has ever seen the real world. At night, sometimes, do you ever look at your reflection? Down in some muddy puddle, and see yourself sitting on the sidewalk with the stars in your hair? You may be in the puddle with me, too, but the stars! Ah, the stars. If everything was taken away, the earth, every tree that lives and every animal, the stars should be allowed to stay. But sir, kind sir, I’m being a fool now. No need to raise your hand, or speak, I know I am a fool. i ramble, forgive me.” But sir, my good man,” he said quietly, situating his guitar to start up a new song, “I will play you a song. Perhaps I’ll sing a song for you. Feel good of yourself when you see me, or any other man out in the streets that begs; know then-” his voice cracked and he cleared his throat, not missing a note, “know that you may not sit out in the rain and perform like some call girl dancer, but you are certainly in the mud like I. But, yes! I will play you a song. I’ll play it until the morning, until the rain clears, and I’ll be out here tomorrow. Dying and being reborn again every night.

“I will play you a song, that my soul might be worth a penny. I’m dramatic; I am, indeed. Perhaps a bit drunk, and tired too – I’ve not been able to do much but babble senselessly. When you ever happen on a man that’s been out in the rain for five hours with nothing but his mind, you find him quite eager to talk. A man left alone for twenty years will try to show you himself first and speak normally after. He might say anything. I hum, and play, and I am a disposable man. Yes, we are the superfluous ones. The disposable men, to speak. Yes, yes, let him hear me. I speak so that God might hear me in his sleep. He will know that I feel. It has been fifteen hundred years since God last sent signs from heaven. ‘I come quickly,’ he says, but doesn’t show his face. Perhaps he is asleep. Perhaps he’s always been asleep.”

Said the stranger not a word, as the damp air played about the hair on his arms, and he watched simply as the old man played and hummed. More men and women poured out of the club, laughing and singing songs, out into the damp grey alley, taking no notice of the old man or his song at all. “God will hear me in his sleep.” he said, and hunched back over. Not saying a word, the man stared at him for a moment, said nothing, and turned and walked back down the street.

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