When Professor Dunleavy suggested it three weeks ago, not one student raised his hand. But extra credit sweetened the deal and William Jackson volunteered.
His parents worried, as parents do. What was this fool professor doing, sending their William to live on the streets of Washington, D.C. for seven days and nights?
William reassured his family: It would be a good experience. He would do well, he reasoned, to live a week on nothing but his wits.
Dunleavy drove him to the depot. “You bring anything?”
“I didn’t bring anything.”
“Good.” Dunleavy gestured to the back seat. “That bag contains everything you’ll need when you get to the city.”
Dunleavy nodded, clicked on the turn signal. “Don’t open it until you get there.”
“Part of the experiment.”
William shrugged. “OK.”
“Here’s your ticket,” Dunleavy said.
William found a seat on the bus and watched Dunleavy drive away. Pretty girls applied lipstick in the gleam of their cell phone screens before smiling coquettishly with perfect red lips.
He slept through all five stops in Connecticut but woke for New York. Passengers watched dully through rain-streaked windows.
He hadn’t considered the weather.
His stomach rumbled.
When Washington finally rolled into sight, he opened Dunleavy’s bag.
It was empty.
He stumbled from the bus. “I’m hungry,” he said to no one in particular.
He wandered through the streets until he found himself in Farragut Square, where he approached a hot dog vendor. “I don’t have any money,” he began, which, of course was a mistake.
He set up shop near The Urban Spoon, leaning against the wall of the building, watching the city stride with purpose through the day.
His stomach rumbled.
It began to rain.
He cursed Dunleavy.
A bearded man wheeled a shopping cart down the street towards him. “Want some company?”
“No.” William turned away.
The man shrugged and took a stiff blanket from his cart, spread it on the sidewalk. He sat and detached his left leg just below the knee. “You look hungry.”
William tried not to breathe the man. “I’m OK.”
“I have crisps.” The man dipped dirty fingers into the bag, extracted a thin and greasy potato chip, held it out towards William.
William’s mouth watered as he took it.
For six days, William passed his time this way, accepting dimes tossed by strangers, digging into trash cans for his lunch, feeling the grime of his clothes and his hair, hating the taste of his breath on his tongue.
“Look at that man,” William said, on the sixth day. “Thinking he’s so smart in that leather coat and that fancy watch. He has so much, too much. He looks at us and in a moment, he has judged us.”
The man looked at William with deep penetrating eyes. “And you do not judge him?”
William blinked. “What do you mean?”
“In this two-second interaction, you have told me that man is a man of wealth, a man of prosperity. What do you know of him?”
“Well, look at him!”
“Look at yourself. Look at me.” William watched as Dunleavy pulled off glasses and hat and ripped a beard from his chin. “That man is homeless.”
“I paid him to dress up in clothes similar to what you and I normally wear.”
William looked into his lap.
Dunleavy strapped on his prosthetic leg. “Ready to head home?”
William boarded the bus, found a seat with Dunleavy. Pretty girls glanced surreptitiously at him, biting their perfect red lips.
This was written for a contest at Write Tribe:
Listen with the ears of tolerance! See through the eyes of compassion! Speak with the language of love! ~ Rumi