By John Thomas Tuft

She pulls the old minivan into the parking lot of a fading suburban mall. All her earthly possessions are piled into every nook and cranny of the tired vehicle. The sodium vapor lamps cast a ghostly pall over the scene as evening darkens into night. Gertrude is 49 going on 79 as the wear and tear of not having a home wreaks havoc on her looks and health. Her companion, Sparky, an overweight Lhasa Apso of indeterminate age, snuggles in the passenger seat, reigning over the clutter of clothing, fast food wrappers, and the detritus of pride. Gerty checks her surroundings as she claims her spot on the pavement, fishes in a crumpled McDonald’s bag for stray fries, eats two of them herself and gives Sparky the rest. Then she settles into her evening routine: brush Sparky’s dirty tan hair, then her own. Count and recount the 439 pennies in the jar, check the door locks exactly five times to keep the shadow people from coming inside to steal her thoughts, and say the Lord’s prayer…frontwards and backwards because the Devil can get you coming or going.

Hector is 9 going on 29. He traveled with his mother and uncle from Guatemala. The sun seems to burn hotter and the rains never seem to come so the fields cannot produce like they used to. It didn’t help that the US flooded the market with its crops; neither Hector nor his Papa could do anything about that. His father tried to make a go of it, but after he was killed by the local drug gang, it was time to go. They made it into Mexico and found space on the roof of a freight car in a train headed north. Always north. When the ride ended came the nightmare of dealing with the coyotes, smugglers, human traffickers that demanded high payments or face the other dangers on your own. Hector stares dully through the chain link of the border patrol detention center cage. The officers in the green and white trucks took his mother one direction, his uncle another, and Hector is here. He settles into his evening routine: find a space on the floor, spread out the silver mylar blanket, whisper the Lord’s prayer in Spanish and halting English while wondering if there are any stars in the sky tonight.

Jamal is 39 going on forever. When he was 15 his father, a jazz musician at Little E’s and the Muddy Waters clubs, sat him down for ‘the talk’ about how to handle an encounter with the police, especially when he received a driver’s license. Raised in The Hill District of Pittsburgh, he managed to excel at Carrick High School while avoiding the Bloods and the Crips when they were still a force to be reckoned with. By the time he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, two friends had died in police custody and he was truly tired of other well-meaning white friends who told him they were ‘color blind.’ Being a systems analyst for UPMC does not spare him the looks of discomfort and suspicion when he is with them in a theater, or heaven forbid, dares to attend church with any of them. When he takes to the streets with a Black Lives Matter shirt on, he is tear gassed and arrested for disturbing the peace. In his jail cell that night, he pulls the rough blanket around him and begins to sing. It is the jazz notes of the Lord’s Prayer he heard so often from his father’s record of Mahalia Jackson.   

The rag man is as old as the stars, and it shows. Every breath billows white into the summer sky until thunderclouds form, heavy and gray, that bathe the earth in tears.  He sits atop a rock and looks at the few gathered around. “Rag man,” asks a child. “Why am I here? Why does it hurt?”  The rag man sighs, and it is a blanket that envelops them all, one by one. “Human being is a verb. Being human is to feel. Being human is to learn. Being human is to delight. Without these, we are simply noise.” And he lifted up his eyes on the city stretched out below. “Nations rise and fall and are never missed. Fools come and go and are forgotten. The rich beg for mercy as they grind the poor under their heels and their names are despised. Writers write words that build up and tear down. But why we are here never changes.”

“Please, tell us a story of what will be. We are poor, alone, and looked down on,” begged the others, unsure of why they are here. The rag man gazed at them, each one of them, in the eye, and said, “Don’t you know by now? YOU are the story. What will be is up to you. Feeling. Learning. Delight in being. Until everyone knows this, none of us will learn. You have what you need to be here. That is the great why…” And he gathered his rags about him and set off to join the lost.

Words are magic and, writers are wizards.