Derek van Dassen
An Unfilled Emptiness
His eyes fell on the black-framed announcement in the paper. That name, they both had the same name; this CEO, and he, homeless and surrounded by hunger and thirst, roaming the city in search of survival. For more than twenty years he had no longer used or acknowledged this name as a part of his existence. Everyone called him Cruddy the Vagabond and that was OK.
Overcome by panic he tore the page out of the paper, crumpled it up and stuck it in the inside pocket of his old trench coat. No, he was not going to let himself go crazy over some dead person and a name that hadn’t fit into his life for a long time. He liked his life here in the big city, with no memories of an identity.
He folded the rest of the paper in half and threw the food he’d picked up that afternoon into it. One by one he began putting the cold fries into his mouth, as if he wanted to savour them and in so doing keep the turmoil out of his thoughts. But with each piece it seemed time raised up the past and held a mirror in front of him.
Once again he became the little boy crying as he walked along holding on to his mother’s hand because he wasn’t allowed to have any fries; the little boy who in an uncontrollable screaming fit broke loose and stamping his feet protested against his mother’s words until she lost her patience and, to emphasize her seriousness, addressed him by his full name: “Charles Ascot Moresan!” she cried. As they passed the chip truck his mouth was watering, but he followed her submissively without saying a word. She loved him and wanted the best for him. He understood that. But his life had gone a different way, and now he ate fries every day, mostly thrown-out leftovers, salvaged from garbage bins. Was that what he wanted? He looked up at the sky as the last rays of sunlight reflected a magical spell of reddish fullness.
“It’s not so bad, Mamma,” he said quietly. “And I’m never sick.”
The clouds, overwhelmed by twilight, appeared to be dancing in front of his tear-filled eyes. He was barely eight when his mother died and left him behind in his loneliness. But it wasn’t her fault and neither could it be her fault that the loneliness had never let go of him. A warm feeling surged through him as the sunlight reappeared from behind the clouds and it was as if he could again hear his mother saying: “I love you, Charley, with all my heart.” It’s what she would say when she put him to bed, or if she just wanted to let him know he was special. “Because you were born out of my heart.”
She was always there. But why could he not remember anything about his father? There was a time when he knew he had a father and that he missed him and that there was whispering. But eventually all the memories were gone.
The cold October wind blew in his face telling him he still had to find a protected place to sleep for the night; he didn’t want to freeze to death here in the park. Quickly he shoved the last few fries in his mouth, stuffed the remaining papers under and in between the many layers of clothes he had on, and set off.
In the small courtyard near Jenny’s Bistro he found a spot where, in the corner behind a dumpster, he could dig himself in. A gift from heaven? Because it remained unnoticed by others. In the evenings, when it became quiet on the street, he went there, and then in the mornings, returned to the park. It was his heroic stance against the fast-approaching winter. He would overcome it.
But what did fate have in mind for him when, the next morning, he woke up with severe pains? His stomach was constricted, and shadowy colours spun like whirlpools in front of his eyes. Would he be embraced by death and die here in all his loneliness, disappearing forever in anonymity? Because after all, who knew him?
As a child he cried for his mother, for her comfort and her warm hands which in the past could make all his pains go away. But wasn’t she standing there? She had come. Overwhelmed with joy he tried to get up, but it was as if his body was being swallowed up by the pain. He moaned.
“Who’s there?” Jenny Sartago, the owner of the restaurant, came closer to the dumpster.
“Is someone there?” she called again.
He wanted to answer: “Mamma, it’s me.” But only a moan came out of his mouth, and everything went hazy in front of his eyes. The startled bar owner quickly pulled the boxes out of the corner and saw him lying there.
“Cruddy?” she asked. “Are you Cruddy? What’s the matter? Are you in pain? Your stomach?”
She hadn’t seen him for a few months and barely recognized him. Often she had invited him to come and eat something. And when he came, when it was quiet in the bar, he clearly delighted in the attention. He didn’t say much, but the contact between them was special and she would notice a sparkle in his eyes. But now there was only a glassy expression to be seen.
“Cruddy!” she shouted and pulled at him. Despite her effort, he sank further down and fell into a deep sleep.
A large coat had been wrapped around him when he came to in a small backroom of the restaurant. It was not his old, grey trench coat, but another, brown one, that kept him warm, without him being stuffed with all sorts of junk and he felt quite in tune. It smelled of the sweet aroma of pipe tobacco and reminded him of his tender childhood years. The completeness unnerved him. Had he died and landed in heaven? The pains, the dreams... they were gone. And his mother?
“You OK?” Jenny Sartago’s voice made him look up, bewildered.
“The doctor said everything will be fine. Apparently you ate some strange mushrooms.” Yes, he had found a small bag, just lying in the street, and he’d eaten it all in one go. He pulled at the big coat. He wanted nothing more than to hide under it.
“Oh, and the coat,” she continued, “that’s been hanging here in the bar forever. I’d put it away for the Salvation Army. But as you can see... I thought... but boy, am I ever glad to see you again.”
She was clearly happy to see him again and in his heart he wanted to thank her with a hug, but the shame he felt toward her stopped him from doing it, as well as his shyness. He was ashamed of himself, which was why he had not let himself be seen for a while: she was too good for him and he abused her goodness, not really deliberately, but it was that longing for attention. She reminded him of his mother.
“Do something with your life, Charles,” his mother would say. “It’s not too late.” And he could read the same thing in the eyes of Jenny Sartago: “Do something with your life, Cruddy. It’s not too late. I’ll help you.” And she had once even asked him to come and sweep up in the bar, for pay. Was it easier to be a vagabond? To remain anonymous and roam around until you were unsociable? Why did he let his name be buried in a homeless existence?
“Some soup,” Jenny Sartago said, and she left the room. “The doctor said...” He didn’t hear her last words, but felt tears rolling down his cheeks. The tears, he wanted to let them go free, at last, but still he grabbed one of the sleeves of the coat to quickly wipe them away. Between the tears he noticed a small label with a name, on the inside of the sleeve. It was tiny stitching, but clear: Moresan.
There, showing up out of nowhere was that name again that had already once before, like a suddenly rising wave, seemed determined to lead him through the gaps in the breakers of his now washed-out past. He’d forgotten about the notice he’d ripped out of the paper earlier. Why had he saved it? Did it serve as proof of his own survival? He was the living one and the other the dead one? Even the given names were the same. Was this a sign that soon death would still come to get him too?
He was tired, too tired to panic. Thoughts of his mother on her deathbed came over him; she wasn’t afraid of death, but she was sad because she wasn’t able to keep living for him.
“Your mother, Charley, don’t be angry with your mother,” she had said as she embraced him with her remaining strength. Her death had left behind a large emptiness in his life, an emptiness that swallowed him up. He had no one anymore. At a young age he had begun to wander, to find his father? He didn’t know. To eventually become nameless and to flee from everything that wanted to give him a name. For his mother he wanted to keep living, survive. He had a name.
Jenny Sartago came back into the room and put a bowl of steaming soup in front of him.
“A little pick-me-up,” she said. “It’ll do you good.”
He looked at her with tears in his eyes.
“Do you actually know my name?” She looked at him curiously. She had asked him this question once before, but the answer had stayed hanging in a strained silence. She sat down and listened.
At the end of this miserable winter his life took a completely different turn when he heard that for some time he was being looked for, not only by the notary public who wanted to inform him of his part of an inheritance, but also by family whose existence he had not been aware of.
The truth was no longer buried, the secret no longer untold: he had not one but two mothers, and two fathers who had shirked their fatherly duties. Remorseful letters and a left-behind coat told of a search that was started for him.
Sitting on an old bench in the park, he took the announcement out of the inner pocket of the big, brown coat. The notice was now barely readable, but it told him he had to make something of his life, now also for Jenny Sartago, who, as an unmarried teen mother, was forced to give up her son at birth.
In the unfilled emptiness of their lives they found each other again. No, he could not be angry with his mother.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Derek van Dassen.
Published on e-Stories.org on 08/07/2011.