I met him at Advanced Autoparts. I’d bought a brake light, put the new one in, was about to step into my truck. Then I heard a kind of rustling sound just loud enough to make me wonder if someone was talking to me.
I turned and saw him, this old man fifty yards off in a busted wheelchair he’d tell me later he’d won in a fight, talking slowly and softly to me as if I was inches from his soft beard.
He pulled himself with tiny feet, unable to push with the hands he kept in his lap because, he said, his fingers were warped from gout and fights.
He talked louder the closer he got, confused as to what distance does to sound. His voice itself, as I listened and felt its texture, was sharp and smoky and his conversation informal, like we were picking up where we’d left off because we were—had always been—good buddies. He was small, sinewy, his beard was full of soft bits of food.
“You got any spare change?” he asked, and before I could answer he laughed with his eyes, and mouth and then his entire body, a big gassy laugh somehow both keen and outrageous that made his eyes bulge. Like he was in on the joke of himself. Like he knew all about his own bullshit.
I said no, that I was sorry, and shut the door to go.
But then I stopped, opened the door, asked him to look back and tell me if my brake lights were working and promised we’d go to McDonald’s after that. He leaned in, stared intently as I pressed the brake, blinked the signal indicators, and said they worked fine.
He threw his wheelchair in the back, stumbled to the passenger door, and we were on our way. I sensed then there was a grace in his ease, his openness to doing anything other than what he’d been doing before.
He ordered a fish sandwich at McDonald’s and we sat down and he told me tales: he lived with his sister until she ran him over; there are over 150 women in five states currently waiting to have sex with him; he’d died and come back to life three times; and had been, at various stations in life, a preacher, assassin, lawyer, and U.S. air marshal.
“Every now and then,” he said, “the President of the United States calls and gives me secret missions.”
I listened. He spoke either of the epic and impossible saga of who he was—laywer, sex machine, head of the Mafia—or of the humble minutiae of what he needed—a few bucks, a shower, a ride.
I preferred one over the other.
The story of his life was grandiose and strikingly annoying. His strategy for just getting by was charming and reasonable in its pluck and thrift. There was, for him, no apparent contradiction between saying he was a billionaire and asking for a fish sandwich. And there was always, in every breath and pause, a great watchfulness.
There at McDonald’s, after every impossible story, he leaned in, undaunted by the baffled look on my face, pressed his head forward as if to impose his simple will on mine. And said, “Am I right or am I wrong?”
He did it so much I thought it was verbal tick, but he always stopped chewing then, put his drink down, and watched carefully for what my answer would be, whether the world would side with him this time. Him and his fish sandwich. Him and his two grotesque teeth.
I usually said he was absolutely right. Because this was my good deed for the day and the day was almost over.
He asked me to take him home. I was surprised he had one but I drove to his slum apartment and lifted out his broken wheelchair. He sat in it, wheeled himself over the sidewalk, got his chair caught on a long and obvious crack, stood up, lifted the chair carefully over it, and sat back down.
This should’ve made me feel he was a sham. But he had such a doting relationship with that wheelchair. Like it was his small grandfather.
I wanted to leave before it got dark but at the door he stopped and looked back at me.
He said there was black mold in his apartment. He wanted me to come in. He wanted me to smell the black mold with him.
I shook my head. He looked again.
“Will you smell it?”
The mystery of just how earnest he was then, the childlikeness of wanting someone to know. This black mold somehow like a sacrament, a bond between us.
His apartment was filthy. Chinese food, a machete, all manner of receipts scattered everywhere. And through the vent, yes, the terrible, dank, sweet smell of black mold.
“Was I lying?” he said. He looked at me.
“Was I lying?” he said.
He cocked his head, bent over as if I was upside down. No one had gotten close enough to say if it was black mold they smelled. His eyes bulged with a private earnestly-held truth suddenly revealed and bursting forth as fact. He smiled.
I nodded, surprised myself.
“Yes. It’s there,” I said. “That’s black mold.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: John Bryant
John Bryant lives with his newlywed wife in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and is studying to be an Anglican priest.
The above image is by theimpulsivebuy. used by permission of a Creative Commons license.