by Bettye H. Galloway
When I first knew him in the early fifties, my employer, a kindly soul whom I shall call Mr. Bogart, cautioned me that one of my duties would be that of “tolerating” his friends, among them a person by the name of Alfred Patton. Alfred, I soon learned, was an old black man, probably eighty years old or older, whom Mr. Bogart had once befriended and who spent two or three days each month sitting in our office for the sole purpose of being near the man he idolized.
Alfred would wander into the office so excessively laden with paper bags and cardboard boxes that only portions of him were visible. His clothes were a mass of odd-sized items, and his face was hidden under a battered old felt hat that was turned down all around like an old-fashioned cooking pot. The cuffs of his khaki shirt were frayed more often than not, and his hands were rough and crusted from years of farm dirt and field dust. He was a tiny, dwarf-life creature, and even if he could have straightened his deformed back he would have been less than five feet tall. His right leg had been broken at the knee many years before, and, instead of bending forward like a normal leg, it bent backward. He walked with a jack-knife gait, steadying himself after each step with a crudely carved cane. He must have been in almost constant pain—the human body is not designed to withstand such deformities—but he never frowned, never complained.
One of the most startling things about Alfred was his sincere appreciation of the fact that he had been allowed to live a good, long life. Once he had had a wife and a family, but he had outlived them all. He mentioned his family often, and he always spoke fondly of them. For hours he would talk about how considerate and kind people had been to him in his old age—how one person had once given him a job, how another had allowed him to live in a small tenant house, and how yet another had simply said, “I’ve enjoyed talking with you.” As is characteristic of elderly people, Alfred had a tendency to let his mind wander; he could remember quite vividly certain events, but he could not remember where or when he was born or his parents’ names. He had no home, and he had no family. He lived at the mercy of the world and traveled from friend to friend, always carrying everything he owned in the bags and boxes.
I saw Alfred for the last time in April of 1957, the day of Mr. Bogart’s funeral. He had not been notified of Mr. Bogart’s untimely death from a cerebral hemorrhage—he never left a forwarding address—but the news had somehow reached him, and he had come to say farewell to his friend. When I first noticed him, he was standing alone on the crest of a small hill in the cemetery, far away from the funeral crowd. He seemed to have shriveled even smaller in his meager clothing. His hands, clutching the familiar battered old hat, his bowed head, and his stricken face betrayed the sorrow he must have felt. At the end of the service I started up the hill to speak to him, to let him know that we all shared his sorrow. I turned, but then I realized that the knoll on which he had been standing was empty. Having outlived another of his friends, Alfred had disappeared to take up once again his bags and boxes and to continue his lonely travels.
And read another of her stories here: A Christmas I Will Never Forget
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