secret burdens

31 Mar

A man shuffles through the door with a bundle on his back. He stoops so low his nose whispers to his knees as he bends one knee

after the other

after the other. He drags his way to the front desk, where the concierge’s eyes skim his baggy sweater, his muddied jeans and his hole-riddled sneakers. With a sigh of relief, barely audible, the man gingerly slides his pack to the floor.

thud.

The concierge sneers in disgust as the straightening man involuntarily releases cracks and pops reminiscent of crepitus. Nearby, a woman in a satin dress covers her child’s ears, squints at the man pointedly, then turns her face away. Within moments, the lively hotel lobby turns silent. Nobody dares to face the filthy man in rags.

“A room, please, sir.”

“We’re booked.”

The man cocks his head, and the concierge notices a few crumbs falling from his beard. Perhaps they were the crumbs of stolen bread. Will he be sorry that they’re gone?

His eyes, a soft brown, search the concierge for truth. “What,” he asks, “every single room in the hotel is booked?” As he speaks, a tall man in a fashionable suit strolls up behind and joins the line. The concierge squeezes his thin, pale lips together, perhaps in the attempt to squeeze an idea out of them. A moment later, he gives up, shaking his head and eyeing the ceiling.

“No, SIR, I was mistaken. We do have a few rooms left. But I’m afraid they’re rather out of your…” he glances down at the ill-fitting outfit in front of him one more time before completing his thought. “They’re quite out of your budget.”

The man with the warm brown eyes smiles, sending a shiver down the concierge’s back. “I’m quite sure it isn’t, actually.” The homeless man bends over slowly, deliberately, to rummage through his bag. The satin-clad woman in the plush chair nearby peers at the man out of the corner of her eye. Her head snaps in his direction and her jaw drops as he rises, grunting softly.

The concierge’s eyes bulge at the sight of so much cash. He balks, silent. Then he talks too much and too fast as he tries to cover his tracks with false apologies. The man nods slowly and asks for his keys.

“Please, allow me to take your bags–er, bag– up to your room. Just wait here, sir!” says the concierge, fleeing into the elevator with the man’s giant burden. The man watches him go, and the corners of his mouth curl upwards. He sits in a small wooden chair a little way from the woman and her child.

“Don’t stare at the rich man,” she scolds her boy. “It’s impolite.” She smiles affectedly at the man until she realizes that he isn’t paying attention. Not to her, anyway. She addresses the man, “What do you think of my little Charlie? He’s an ugly kid, to be sure. But he behaves well enough, I suppose.”

The man’s smile fades as he looks up from the child. His brow creases. “How could you say that about your own boy? I may not be much to look at, but at least my mother loved me. Does his father allow you to demean your offspring so?”

The woman looks at the cracks in the floorboards. She says nothing for a long time. The man eventually closes his eyes and rests.

“It’s not my fault,” comes a small and shaking voice. The woman continues to study the floor as if she had not said a thing. “I didn’t want… how can I love an abomination? I’ve tried, he knows I’ve tried.”

Gently, the man asks the question he knows he shouldn’t. “Why can’t you?”

A salty drop hits the floor below the woman’s face. “My child’s father is mine as well.” The man opens his mouth as if he’s about to speak just as the elevator door opens and the concierge beckons. As the man stands, he puts a callused hand on the lady’s shoulder. They look into each other’s eyes for no more than a second before he starts toward the elevator. Silently they part ways, each contemplating the mysteries of the other’s burden.

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