The old man said hello to me as I started the walk back to my car from the Senior Opportunity Center, where I and a bunch of other people gave food to elders on Wednesday mornings, high-end packaged salads from grocery stores couldn’t afford to shop at, artisan breads packed into black garbage bags, crumb-dusted pastries, and dented cans of soups, expiring cereal.
He fell into step beside me, walking down the hill and talking about traffic on the I-26, and the accident he almost saw on Patton Avenue. “I was just standing there on the sidewalk, watching these two cars, and I was like, ‘This is crazy!”
“It sounds like you were paying attention.”
The man, tall and stooped around the shoulders, still handsome in the set of his cheeks and architecture of nose, the son of slaves and people who lived here long before I did, had the laboratory smell of a few straight days of drinking, the smell of old alcohol poorly metabolized.
He sat down on the small wall outside of the unemployment office and I sat down beside him. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, sister, I was paying attention. I pay attention.”
We sat there in the companionable silence of strangers, feeling the warm sun and paying attention.
He shifted toward me, leaned like he was about to invite me into a secret, and I understood that he would ask me for money, and I was okay with that.
He began his request, and I didn’t need him to go on about what he was looking for, held my hand up for him to stop speaking. There was no need for him to beg, to spin a story, to make an appeal. He did not have to charm me or convince me.
I opened up my bag, “Let me see if I have any paper money.”
I knew that I did. A crumple of two singles, and a secret 10 dollar bill. I pulled out the two dollars and pressed it into his hand.
The man nodded, almost solemn, squeezed my hand. “Thank you, my sister.”
I felt like God was watching us, sitting there on that wall. The woman wearing all black and the old man in the sun.
There was a pause, and I plucked the ten dollar bill out of the small zippered pocket inside of my bag, grasped the man’s hand, transferred the money.
His whooping surprised me, his jumping up and slapping his leg, pulling his hand into a fist that beat against his chest, solidly, once, twice. “My sister! Oh, yes, my sister!”
I stood up, pulling my bag back onto my shoulder.
He grabbed me, pulled me to him, his sweat and alcohol smell around me, his arms strong and knotted like wood across my back. I didn’t feel scared. I have hugged a lot strangers in my life and, besides, I have a social naivete that makes me almost oblivious to the possibility that some stranger will do me harm. The only people who have ever harmed me were people I know. I wasn’t scared of them at first, either.
He kissed my head, up by my hairline, and hugged me like I really was his sister that he hadn’t seen in a long time.
He began to utter the words, quiet, like a prayer, then broke away from me and shouted them, hollering them out to the street like he was calling down gods, exclaiming to the universe. He turned to me, and put his fist on his chest. “My sister…”
He stepped forward to embrace me again. “I love you, I love you…you, you are blessed person.”
He stepped back, took my hands in his, and nodded to me, then turned and started walking back up toward town, still saying those words, louder and then quiet, a chanting rise and fall. I watched him walk, and listened, said the words to myself, trying not to forget them.
He was almost back to where we’d begun walking together when I caught up to him. “Excuse me, sir, those words? What are those words?”
He put his face close to mine and repeated the words, whispering.
I said them back.
He corrected my pronunciation of the last syllable, and said it with me until I said it clearly, with some conviction.
“It means peace, and goodness, salvation.”
Walking back to my car, I said the phrase over and over again. In my car, I wrote down how I thought the sounds might be spelled, but I still don’t know what the words are, or where they came from.
I tried to Google what I thought the words sounded like, spelled out phonetically, with hyphens between the syllables, to remind myself of the intonation, the rhythm of the sounds.
I learned a little about Hebrew suffixes, and checked out an old Busta Rhymes song, Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check.