Once Upon A Time
Dana Quell

Early January saw many things. It saw snowflakes fall on a house where a newly married couple had just celebrated Christmas. It saw children sledding down a fairly steep hill, shouting and chasing each other with laughter. It saw snowball fights, snowmen, and snow angels. It saw many other things that most January's see, but this January saw a lonely man at dusk, huddled next to a building, trying to keep warm.

This man was fairly new to the streets, having been evicted from his apartment in Hell's Kitchen only a few weeks ago. Since then, he had been living on his wits, trying to stay alive in the bitter cold. This night, he briefly wondered about his family, and what they would say about him if they could see him. Thankfully, they were in Florida now and could not see him like this.

A passing man in a business suit glanced down and scowled at him before going on his way. The man next to the building scowled back. He hated people like that, though he shouldn't really. He had been a person like that once. Once.

It seemed so long ago, but it was only before the Christmas season. He could remember the ache he had felt, watching from his spot on the pavement as young families shopped for Christmas presents, to be distributed from the name of Santa. He had remembered the presents he had given to his children, and he had remembered the joy they had felt then. This Christmas, there was none of it. Only the ache for what was past, and the loneliness of the present.

He felt that loneliness every time someone gave him a dirty look. Someone who had a home, a family, and maybe even a dog to come home to in the night. He had nothing. Just the clothes on his back and the cold wind for his blanket.

"Get out of my corner, punk! This here's mine, and I won't have the likes of you polluting it up!" someone shouted nearby. The man paid it no mind. New people to the streets always had a hard time finding corners and niches that would shield them from the wind. Oftentimes, the places were occupied by some other street person. The man himself had trouble with this same problem at first.

From out of the little alley came another man, tumbling. The man gave him a passing once-over, then did a double take. The tumbling man was dirtier than he, if that was possible, and older too. He had only the last remaining shocks of matted white hair clinging to his scalp, and his face was more wrinkled than a bull-dog's. When he stood, he was hunched over.

The second man noticed his stare and walked over to him. "Do you have a problem with something you see, boy?"

The man scoffed at being called boy. He was forty-two years old, and he had thought he had outgrown the supposed term of endearment. "Perhaps I do, old man. These streets are dangerous. You-"

"Shouldn't be out here by myself?" The old man laughed, bitterly, and sat down. "Mind if I have a seat? Now, where am I supposed to go?"

The man shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe you've got family or something. A son or daughter? Grandchildren?"

"Oh no, they've all passed on," the old man said, smiling sadly, apparently remembering.

"Great grandchildren?"

"Gone." The old man shook his head. "All gone."

"Oh," the first man replied, not knowing what else to say. It was an uncomfortable situation, as it always was meeting another street person. It was just another reason why he didn't often interact with those who were considered to be in the same social standing as he. "What do you plan to do now?"

"Now?" The old man laughed, a loud, abrasive laugh. "Why, I've been wandering the streets for an eternity; not just the streets of Manhattan, but the streets of Nawlins, DC, Vegas, LA, and Paris, London, Madrid, and Bonn before that. I suspect I'll continue to do so until the day I die. I'll be moving onto a new city come tomorrow, but for now do you mind if I stayed with you?"

"Why not? I'm Riley Haslett," the man introduced himself. It felt odd after so many weeks to be using his name. On the streets, you were just another hobo, another nameless statistic to be pitied and clucked at with sympathy, but never remembered for long.

"Manney Riordan."

"What city will you be heading off to next?"

Manny inhaled deeply, then let the air out slowly. "Dunno. I always did want to see Bern."

"Bern? Bern, Switzerland? How will you get the money?"

"Same as I always do. Hard work and perseverance."

Riley sighed. If only making money were that easy... but no, it wasn't. But he'd humour the old man anyway. If only for the company he'd keep by doing so. "What's in Bern?"

"Swiss people, I suppose," Manny replied with a hearty laugh. "Nothing special. Europe is my birthplace, though, and I've been away so long... It'll be nice to get back to it. Perhaps there is where I shall die."

"What the hell's your story?" Riley blurted out, not thinking. Instantly, he regretted doing so.

But Manny did not seem phased. "My story? Well, I was born, and now I live. And I will continue to live until I die. I've travelled, and I'll continue to travel."

"Oh." It was more of a story than he would have gotten from any other street person, since it was an unspoken rule that your old life would stay out of your street life and any reminders of it were unwelcome, but still, he had been hoping for something more, something he couldn't figure out, from this old man.

"What about you, Riley Haslett? What is your story?"

Riley blinked. He hadn't expected this man to ask about his old life; perhaps he should have. "Well, once upon a time, I was married. I had two point five beautiful children with my beautiful wife, and we were very happy. Something terrible happened, though, and we drifted apart. I guess we didn't really care anymore. The children by that time were gone, and my wife and I didn't care. She moved down to Florida to be near her children, and I stayed up here, only to watch my life fall to ruins when the company downsized. I couldn't find another job. Everybody wanted somebody with computer skills, and that's something working twenty two long years managing a store didn't teach me beyond the basics. And so, a few weeks ago, I lost my house."

"This is all you have left." Not a question, not an accusation, just a statement.

Riley sighed. "Yes, the clothes on my back."

"Once upon a time, very interesting choice of words," Manny mused.

"I suppose so."

A pause. Then, "Once upon a time, I knew a man like you."

"Oh? What happened to him?" Riley wanted to know.

"The English would say, 'He lived happily ever after'. But the true ending is, 'If he did not die, then he still lives'." Such a cryptical man, this Manny Riordan.

Riley asked him what he meant, but he would not explain it. He gave the excuse that he was tired and would have liked to rest at this time. Riley decided that it wasn't worth it if he had to force the information out of the old man, and so agreed that it was time to turn in.

Sleep was a long time coming for him. He was too busy trying to figure out what the man had meant by his second story. Manny, however, fell easily into the dreamworld; he was snoring softly next to Riley.

The man wasn't sure exactly how late it was that he fell asleep; his watch had stopped working days ago, and now he measured time by how many people passed through the sidewalks. It was only when he woke in the morning that he realized he had fallen asleep.

Glancing around in the daylight, Manny was nowhere to be seen. Judging by the throng of the people around, it was about nine am. If Manny had gone at first dawn, he had a pretty good headstart. Riley had hoped that his new found friend would have waited to say goodbye, or at least woken him up, but he realized it wasn't Manny's style.

Dealing with his day to day worries, though, soon made Riley forget about the other street man and his vague stories, and both he and Manny drifted back into the statistics that nobody truly cared about. But once upon a time, Riley would remember the man who shared his cryptical intimacies. In all the days he lived, which, it so happened, wasn't many, Riley never met another man who would tell of the past. As for Manny? If he did not die, then he still lives.