It was hot when we found the homeless man, I can remember that much. July was in full swing, and Finn and I were making the daily trip to the general store to seek out popsicles. His favorite was strawberry, mine was grape. As we tottered on unstable legs down the street, I suddenly head a grunting noise from behind a hedge.
‘It’s a pig!’ exclaimed Finn excitedly, but I wasn’t convinced.
‘It can’t be a pig, stupid. Pigs only live on /farms/.’ I said matter-of-factly.
‘What if it’s an escaped pig? Gram says her pigs break loose of the pen all the time. She knows best, she lives in /Michigan/.’
‘Well, we’re not in Michigan, are we? Chicago doesn’t have any escaped pigs. Mom wouldn’t allow it. I bet you don’t even know where Michigan is…’
Finn tried to protest (‘I do too know where Michigan is! It’s really far away, almost as far away as the Moon! It’s you that-‘) but he was interrupted by the grunting noise.
‘Well, pig or not, I’m going to have a look.’ I said, making for the gap in the hedge.
What I found was not an escaped pig, but something even more interesting, at least to my six-year-old mind. It was a den of sorts, a little like the ones I made out of blankets in the living room on rainy days, except instead of being clean and smelling of washing soda, these ones reeked of age and staleness. There were objects scattered around the blankets. They were like the needles the doctor used when I had to have my shots. There was a rustling from the back of the den, and a hand reached out and grabbed one.
‘Excuse me, sir’ I said, more timidly than usual, ‘Are you a doctor?’
The figure under the blankets mumbled something like ‘I used to be’. Finn tugged at my sleeve. ‘Cal, I think we should go. Mom told me never to speak to strange men. I don’t like it here.’
‘Oh, stop being such a fraidy-cat,’ I hissed. ‘He’s not going to hurt us. Even if he did, I think we could beat him. Look, he can’t even get out of those blankets!’
The figure had managed to get himself tied up in the ragged quilts, and was shuffling about trying to get himself free. Finally one of the blankets ripped, and a face emerged.
I’d never seen a face like it. All the men in my life so far (my Dad, Mr Bradbury, and Grampa) were clean shaven with neatly parted hair, big smiles and a kindly demeanor. This man was anything but. His dirty hair clung to his face with grease, and he seemed to be growing a scraggly beard. His skin was pale and clamming, and dark circles surrounded his eyes. The needle was plunged into his arm, and I could see little dots winding their way up, like one of those things in my coloring books. He was shivering.
‘Excuse me, Mister, but are you a murderer? It’s just that in stories the murderer always has to go into hiding.’ I said.
‘Nah, kid, I ain’t a murderer. I tried to cure people. They just died anyway…the blood, there was so much blood…’ his eyes widened, and the shaking worsened. I was scared.
‘Mister, where’s the blood?’ I asked puzzledly.
He sighed. ‘It was twenty years back now. Vietnam. Hell, kid, you can’t be older than seven. Do you know about Vietnam?’
I shook my head no. This ‘Vietnam’, whatever it was, sounded terrifying. Maybe it was a monster, but I thought grown-ups weren’t supposed to believe in monsters. The man continued talking:
‘Years ago, when your mommies and daddies were in school, America was in big trouble. Vietnam is a country that had some very bad people in it. I was a doctor, so they sent me out there to try and make all the sick people better. I worked with both sides. There were kids your age who had been got by napalm. Can you imagine having all your skin burned off in one go?’ He must have seen Finn and mine’s shocked faces, because he then said ‘But don’t think about that, it’s not nice. Anyway, I tried to help, but it didn’t do any good.’
‘But Mister,’ interjected Finn, ‘We’re not in trouble with this Viet-Vietnam any more, are we? You got rid of the baddies, right, just like in the movies?’
‘We tried, son, but in the end they got rid of us. I sometimes wonder what we were doing there at all. I was lifted out in ’73. That’s 1973, in case you young folks don’t know.’
I was astounded. ‘And you’ve been living in this hedge for all the time since?’
He shook his head and laughed. It was a harsh laugh, more like a bark. ‘Nah, kid. When I came back from Vietnam I had a wife and a little daughter not much younger than your good self there. When she realized what the war had done to me, Selma left and took little Evie with her. Said it wouldn’t do her good to grow up with a broken father. That and I suspected she’d been seeing the mailman while I was away. Anyway, within a very short space of time I found myself with no family, no money, and no prospects. I’ve been traveling around ever since, trying to see the most of this great country before I finally die.’
‘But sir, you can’t die yet!’ I said. ‘The only dead person I know is great-uncle George, and he was 97. You’re old, but you’re not half as old as him.’
The man was about to speak, but Finn interrupted him. ‘You can too die before you’re 97, Cal. My turtle died last winter, and he was only two!’
‘Shut up Finn, this man’s no turtle. He can’t die before he gets to at least 90, I think.’
The man smiled wearily again. ‘No, the boy’s right. I ain’t no turtle, but I ain’t going to live til 97 neither. You die when your body’s tired.’
I protested. ‘But I get tired every night at about 7 o’clock! I don’t die, or at least I don’t think I do.’
‘It’s more of a metaphorical meaning, boy. As I was saying, I’ve been taking refuge in nice neighborhoods. Never had two such nosey kids sneak up on me before though. The name’s O’Malley. What are yours?’
I shifted from foot to foot. It didn’t seem right to give out a name to a perfect stranger, but he’d already heard it from Finn. This was a proper introduction after all.
‘Callum Corrigan, Mister.’
‘Ah, Corrigan!’ His thin face contorted into a smile, ‘Good strong name, from the old country. And what be yours, lad?’
I could tell Finn was as anxious as me, but he replied ‘Finn Bradbury, sir.’
‘And I take it you two are the terror of the neighborhood?’
I puffed out my chest. ‘/I/ am, but Finn’s new around here. He hasn’t gotten himself a reputation yet.’ Finn kicked me sharply in the ankles, but it was too dark for O’Malley to see. ‘I /do/ have a reputation!’ he hissed, but I waved it off.
O’Malley sighed as he finally removed the needle from his arm.
‘Why’ve you got that, sir?’ Finn asked curiously. ‘Are you sick? Can doctors give themselves shots?’
The old man’s face fell again. ‘Boy, this ain’t good medicine. This is the stuff you take when nothing else helps. Now, didn’t you two have somewhere to go? I heard something about grape popsicles. Off with you, your parents must me worried sick.’
I had a vague sensation that O’Malley wasn’t telling Finn and I the entire truth, but I didn’t press the matter. I remembered Dad telling me that sometimes grown-ups have things that they don’t want to talk about with kids. I figured this was one of those times.