Thursday, January 01, 2009

What a Shame

Futurefic angst
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: These characters belong to the CW and DC Comics, not to me.
The music is "What a Shame," by Shinedown.

I watched it all up close
I knew him more than most
I saw a side of him he never showed
Full of sympathy for a world that
Wouldn't let him be

"I was Superman."

I remember the first time I met him, and the odd words he spoke. His voice was cracked with age, his back bent, his eyes rheumy. He must have been over eighty, yet as old as he was, he had no place to call home. His hand shook as he reached out to accept the dollar I offered.

"I flew," he muttered, his eyes vague, his words halting. "Once upon a time... I flew."

I looked more closely at the old man. Despite the ravages of time that had etched his face with creases, he looked as if he could have been Superman, once upon a time. High cheekbones, a square jaw, faded green eyes. In his youth, he could have been the famous superhero.

But Superman had disappeared forty years ago and was presumed long dead. This poor old guy was just delusional. Of course he wasn't Superman.

"I believe you," I assured him, politely and utterly untruthfully, and walked on.

That's the man he was
Have you heard enough?

The next time I saw him, a much younger man had him up against a brick wall, one hand squeezing his throat, his other hand balled into a fist. The old man was trembling with terror, his eyes wide.

"Hey!" I ran forward, doing my best to look dangerous-- not easy for an accountant. But despite my nerdy profession, I was a pretty big guy, and I sure as hell wasn't going to quietly stand back and let some poor old homeless man suffer a beating.

The young man turned his head and looked at me. "He tried to take my whiskey," he growled.

I guessed in a cold, empty life, whiskey was something men might fight to the death for. "He's just an old guy," I said. "He's a little confused, that's all. Let him go."

The young man glared at me for a moment, then threw the old man back against the wall with contempt and stalked off, bending to reclaim his bottle. The old man leaned against the wall, wheezing and rubbing his throat.

"You should be more careful," I said gently. "I know you wanted the whiskey, but he could have killed you."

He shook his head, still gasping for breath.

"I didn't want it," he muttered. "I wanted him... to stop drinking. He's addicted. He needs help."

I frowned at the old guy, wondering if he was for real. Probably not, I figured. Probably he'd just wanted the whiskey for himself.

But maybe not. There was a sheen of sincerity in the tired old eyes that made me think twice. Suddenly I found myself strangely certain that he had truly been trying to help, that he'd risked a beating in an effort to help the other man.

This old man, I thought with an odd feeling of admiration, had guts.

"Be more careful," I told him, and walked on.

What a shame, what a shame,
To judge a life that you can't change
The choir sings, the church bells ring
So won't you give this man his wings?
What a shame to have to beg you to
See we're not all the same
What a shame

"Superman" seemed to live on a bench not far from my office, and I found myself noticing him more and more often. Sometimes he was merely sitting on a corner, waiting patiently for handouts. But often I saw him doing other things, too. Giving a piece of bread he surely couldn't spare to another man. Pulling weeds from flowerbeds in the park. Stopping arguments between two quarrelling men with halting, soft words.

I was ashamed to realize that at first I'd thought of him as merely a homeless beggar, almost subhuman. But the more I saw him, the more I began to realize he was a man. Just a man, like any other. Perhaps better than most.

He and I weren't the same. I was a young man, working a professional job in a plush office, my whole life ahead of me. He was ancient, homeless, the best years of his life long behind him.

And yet... he was still a man. It shamed me to realize I'd ever thought of him, or of anyone, as somehow less than human.

I passed him one day on the street, and handed him a five. He'd been standing there mumbling to himself, muttering strange, disjointed words that didn't make much sense, but he accepted the bill and smiled, showing teeth that were discolored with age.

"Tell me something," I said, spurred by a sudden curiosity. "How did you wind up on the streets?"

He blinked at me a moment, as if no one had ever asked him that question before. Maybe no one had ever expressed an interest in him before. God knew I'd barely exchanged five words with him, in all the time I'd been passing him. I'd given him money, but I'd never really bothered to speak with him.

"My father," he said in his slow, jerky sentences. "I wouldn't walk the path... he chose for me. He tolerated it for a while, but eventually he... stripped me of everything... and sentenced me to live... here. Among the lowest of humans, he said."

Something about the way he said the words sent a shiver down my spine, and suddenly I could imagine Superman being stripped of his powers, like a god banished from Mount Olympus, cast down to Earth and forced to live out his days among mortals...

I shook myself mentally, reminding myself that this wasn't Superman, just an old, deluded man.

"I'm sorry," I said, and meant it. "How long have you lived this way?"

The corners of his mouth turned up in a mirthless smile. "Like Moses," he said, "I've wandered... in this wasteland... for forty years."

Forty years. Forty years of an aimless, hungry, homeless existence. I gave an involuntary shiver, and thanked God for my well-appointed apartment and the food I ate every day.

I wondered if, like Moses, this old man would get a glimpse of the Promised Land before he died, or if he'd die in the desert, never having seen a glimmer of anything better.

I shook his hand, wished him well, and walked on.

There's a hard life for every silver spoon
There's a touch of grey for every shade
Of blue

I began working in the local soup kitchen, ladeling out soup three nights a week. Sometimes I saw the old man there. Sometimes he was there to eat, but more often he was there to help. People called him Clark, but I had no way of knowing if that was his real name or not. As old and confused as he was, he himself might not know his real name.

I'd never given much thought to the homeless in Metropolis, even though I passed them every day on my way to the office. But I started making donations to the soup kitchen, and the local homeless shelter, too. This time of the year, in late summer, the shelter was fairly empty, but I was told it would fill up in the winter, and that my donations would be much appreciated then.

I wished there was more I could for the old man, and all the others like him, living on the streets without enough food and without proper shelter, but I didn't know what else to do for them. As far as I could tell, no one else really knew what to do for them, either.

With a pang, I remembered what Jesus had said, two thousand years ago: You will always have the poor with you.

Two millennia later, it was still true.

That's the way that I see life
If there was nothing wrong
Then there'd be nothing right

The fire had blazed up in an old abandoned building, only a block from my office. Like everyone else in the office, I walked down the street, curious to see the flames. The fire department was already there, struggling to put out an inferno that couldn't be extinguished. The old building was clearly not going to be saved. And really, there was no reason it should be. Like so many things in the city, it had outlived its usefulness.

For some reason, that thought made my mind turn to the old man. I glanced around, wondering where he was.

And then, as if I'd conjured him up, I saw him staggering out of the smoke and flames, dragging another man with all his pitiful strength.

I stared, wondering if he'd gone into the building to save the man, or if they'd both been trapped inside. Either way, it must have been a fearful effort for his ancient body to drag out the other man. He was lucky to have made it out alive.

The firefighters rushed toward him.

But before they reached him, he collapsed.

And for this working man they say could
Barely stand
There's gotta be a better place to land
Some kind of remedy for a world that
Wouldn't let him be
That's the man he was
Have you heard enough?

"They tell me you went into that building to save the other man," I said. His eyes were closed, and I doubted he could hear me, but I wanted to speak, to grant him the sound of another human voice. "Maybe you really are Superman."

His eyelids didn't flicker. He had suffered burns in the fire, but the greater problem was smoke inhalation, which had badly damaged his lungs. He was on oxygen, and they'd told me he almost certainly wasn't going to survive.

He'd walked straight into a burning building to save a man-- a homeless man whom society judged just as valueless as he was, a man whose cigarette had started the blaze in the first place-- and in the process, he'd given his life, freely and without fear.

I very much doubted I'd have the courage to do the same now, let alone when I was eighty.

I patted the old, liver-spotted hand awkwardly. This man barely knew me, and yet I was the only person in the world who seemed to care enough to sit a vigil at his bedside. And I hadn't cared nearly enough. I'd passed him on the street, saying hello, handing him a few dollars I could easily spare. I'd served him a few bowls of soup. I wondered now what else I could have done for him.

I wondered now, when it was too late.

What a shame, what a shame,
To judge a life that you can't change
The choir sings, the church bells ring
So won't you give this man his wings?
What a shame to have to beg you to
See we're not all the same
What a shame

Sometime during the night, his slow, labored breathing stopped, and he faded quietly out of life. The hospital chaplain had arrived an hour or so ago, and had been sitting with me. We both straightened up, staring at the old man's body, and the chaplain placed a hand on my shoulder.

"I'm sorry for your loss," he said gently.

I didn't bother to explain it wasn't my loss, not really. It was no one's loss. Or it was the world's loss. I wasn't sure, and couldn't explain the confused grief that rioted inside me.

I knew next to nothing about this old man.

And yet I knew enough to know that he'd earned his place with the angels.

God forgive the hands that laid you down
They never knew how, but your broken
Heart can break the sound
And change the season
Now the leaves are falling faster,
Happily ever after
You gave me hope through your endeavors
And now you will live forever

Outside, the sun rode high in a crystal blue sky, and red and gold leaves drifted down from the trees. The sunlight shone through the stained glass, illuminating the casket at the front of the church in red and blue and yellow light.

I sat in the front row, my head bowed, and listened to the pastor intoning words of comfort and hope.

I sat alone.

Of all the people the old man had helped, all the lives he had touched, all the souls he'd known in his long lifetime-- none of them came for his funeral. Aside from the pastor and the choir, I was the only person there.

I'd wanted the old man to have a decent funeral. I'd paid for the casket and the burial plot; I'd asked the pastor for songs and Biblical passages I felt were appropriate. But it did little to assuage my guilt. Once again I felt the bitterness of having done something for the old man in death, when I could have done so much more for him in life.

I lifted my head and looked at the casket, glowing with red and blue and yellow light. Not for the first time, I wondered if perhaps he hadn't been merely a confused old man, if perhaps he'd really been Superman.

And not for the first time, I wondered why it should matter to me. Who was I, to judge this man? What did it matter if he'd been an anonymous, homeless man, or the world's greatest superhero?

He'd been a man.

In the end, that was all that mattered.

What a shame, what a shame,
To judge a life that you can't change
The choir sings, the church bells ring
So won't you give this man his wings?

-The End-

9 comments:

DeeDee said...

Elly, this is so sad and haunting. I feel like crying - it's easy to imagine that Superman could so easily end up this way at the hands of his crazy AI father, and that's scary. The fact that he still devotes his life to saving others...so touching.

Brilliantly written - your first fic of 2009! Yay!

Thanks, Elly - you rock!

Regards,
Dee.

twinsarein said...

I agree with Deedee. That was powerful and moving.

CT said...

That was a very moving story, Elly. It really touched me :) Thanks for writing and sharing with us.

MonicaOP said...

Wow, this was deep, I loved it, deeply sad but it also makes you humble.

I think you are growing as a writer everyday, hugs!!! Monica

Anonymous said...

This is a very inspiring story.

So touching, so real, I love the song choice as well.

Brilliant as always.

rtm321 said...

Poignant.
Even with 10M words posted, your well still hasn't run dry.

Anonymous said...

wow this gives me alot to think about...

Elizabeth said...

WOW Elly this was fantastic. I have tears streaming down my face and a knot in my throat. Hauntingly beautiful. LOVED IT!!

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