literarymagicarchives.gif

The Man in the Snow

Archives Home
Literary Magic: Current Issue
Articles on Words and Language
Short Stories and Plays
Poems
Book Reviews
Writer Spotlights
Literary Humor
Grammar
Linguistics
Essays
Letters
Editor's Notes
Contest Winners

  The Man in the Snow

               By Joan Kaplan

 

"I'm freezing!" Sara shouted out loud, hugging herself and stamping her feet to keep warm. She stood alone on the corner of what was usually a busy intersection, huddled against windblasts that gusted over the barren park like blades of invisible ice, slicing into her with a solid force that made her shiver uncontrollably. It had begun to snow again and she couldn't remember ever feeling this cold. Walking was already dangerous; she'd been slipping on the wet icy pavement, grateful not to have fallen but irritated that she couldn't move faster. Already late for her class, impatient to cross the street, she was furious at the red light that refused to change.

The city was strangely quiet and empty. Thickening snow fell steadily, buffeted by the wind as it swirled silently around lampposts in explosions of delicate crystals that danced in the dim halos of smothered light. New York seemed suspended in one of those rare ethereal moments when a massive winter storm begins to shut down the city, obliterating noise and motion, transforming the bustling energy of a great urban metropolis into the gentle languor of a Currier and Ives landscape. Sara took a deep breath, exhaling frustration and discomfort. Bundled in a heavy sweater, woolen slacks and a long fur coat, with a cashmere scarf wrapped tight around her neck and matching gloves that managed to keep her fingers from freezing, she was still so cold she thought that even the short walk to school might be impossible. The light finally changed and as she carefully crossed the street, determined not to miss this last seminar of the semester, she noticed a solitary figure turning the corner, walking on ahead of her. He looked so odd she couldn't help staring at him.

The man wore no hat or scarf; his short torn jacket was open and fit him badly, draping back over one shoulder of a thin tee shirt as if it were about to fall off, the sleeves of the jacket reaching down to cover his hands. His neck and shoulder were exposed. He wore thin, patched old-fashioned blue jeans with wide turned-up cuffs and untied sneakers with no socks. Sara thought he must be terribly cold.

He walked very slowly, moving with great caution but tipping unsteadily to his right whenever he took a step, balancing himself with his arms stretched out either straight above his head or held stiffly perpendicular to his body. His head bobbed loosely from side to side in whimsical counterpoint to his efforts to move forward. There was something comical about his clown-like parody of walking – arms searching for a non-existent bar above his head to hold onto, or suddenly outstretched, testing the sideways space that protected him from falling into the holiday display windows of the stores he brushed past. Sara was walking carefully as well, but more quickly than the man in the snow. When she was no more than a few paces behind him, he turned abruptly and stood facing her. He was agitated, his eyes wild and accusatory; they burned with an outrage ignited by her coming so close to him. She stopped, frightened by his stare, suddenly overcome by the rancid smell of someone who had soiled himself and hadn't washed mixing with the unmistakable odor of stale perspiration, acrid tobacco and cheap alcohol. It wasn't a smell; it was the stench of filth and excrement, strong and solid and claiming its own space on the street. Sara held her breath, circling around and past him as quickly as she could. As she moved away from him, her eyes averted, he turned and screamed after her.

"Help me! I'm cold. I'm hungry. Help me!" She started to run, desperate to escape his stare, his smell, the desperate sound of his screaming – and what he was saying.

That night's seminar was a double session; it was almost ten o'clock when it ended. Because of the storm none of the students stayed after class to talk with one another as they usually did; everyone was anxious to get home. Sara was the last to gather her notes, retrieve her coat and bundle up against the weather. Her professor – a youngish, round, lovable man with shining calm eyes that shone with the rare intelligence that sees deeply into the meaning of things – walked out of the classroom with her and asked with concern, "Anything the matter? You seemed distracted tonight. That's not like you."

"No, no. Everything's fine. I'm sorry; I guess I was a bit preoccupied. I apologize."

"No apologies. No need."

He was the school's favorite teacher, a brilliant writer and philosopher genuinely adored by his students. Each of them agreed that his classes, animated by his insight and careful provocation, challenged them to examine their assumptions and conclusions about human action and reaction in totally new and exciting ways. His seminars on the most profound, and difficult, issues were galvanizing. He understood the history and complexities of moral aspiration and the limitations of societal self-protections better than anyone she had ever studied with. Even the famous scholars at Yale, with whom she had been honored to study, had no deeper or more penetrating understanding of the timeless universal questions that preoccupied them and their students than this humble, soft spoken but passionate man.

"He's the perfect person to tell about what had happened with the man in the snow," Sara thought. He could explain why she rushed away from someone who needed help so

badly, show her how to understand why she let revulsion destroy compassion. He would explore morality, responsibility, our obligations to other human beings; dissect the fragility of dignity when one is helped by a stranger. They would debate the responsibility of the weak to help themselves. She would argue that the man in the snow should have found a warm safe place and should never have been outside in this weather dressed as he was. Her professor might remind her that perhaps these were his only clothes; perhaps he didn't know where to go. Perhaps he was too cold and frightened, too hungry and desperate to think clearly.

"But what should he have done for himself?" she would have asked, the questions tumbling out furious with the frustration of knowing she had failed herself, and him. "Shouldn't I have helped? What could I have done? But what would he have done if I had given him some money? Would a restaurant have let him come in and stay inside where it was warm? Would they have given him a table and served him food when he smelled so terrible and seemed so unstable? And if they called the police, would he have fought against going to a hospital or a shelter?"

Sara sacrificed whatever insight her professor would have shared with her, too ashamed of her behavior to confess it to him, too embarrassed at feeling that she had done something unforgivable by doing nothing. She had fled from a desperate man and ignored him. She had heard his calls for help and refused to listen.

They caught up to the knot of classmates waiting for the elevator, everyone preoccupied with the storm, trying to figure out the best way to get home. The prospect of walking home made her uncomfortable: What would she do if that man were still on the street? Would she stop to help him this time? And if she saw him and stopped, what would he do?

"I miss the guys I used to see on my corner," her friend Phyl had said over a glass

of red wine and a steaming bowl of spaghetti only a week before the storm blanketed the city. They were sitting in a small West Side café, warmed by the fire in a rare working fireplace, enjoying a long-overdue dinner together.

"Miss them?" Sara asked, genuinely surprised. "That's insane. Now they're off the street. Safe. Warm. Fed. The crazy ones are finally being taken care of. How can you say you miss them?"

It was true; there were far fewer homeless people on the streets than there had been for years. The police were implementing the mayor's new aggressive policy to get them to shelters or hospitals with great success. The few "crazies" who refused to go with them voluntarily either hid where the police couldn't find them or finally succumbed, hysterical and helpless, to the uniformed authority. Sara had never seen anyone sleeping on the streets or begging for handouts in her upscale neighborhood and most of the people she knew didn't give them much thought – their problems didn't exist for those who saw nothing, whose daily comings and goings the homeless did not inconvenience. Friends living in less affluent parts of the city still saw an occasional street person, but those few appeared to have made panhandling a profession: they weren't badly dressed, weren't really hungry and disappeared when the weather was bad. Neither she or her friends had ever debated whether the homeless who were not ill, who simply chose to live on the streets, had the right to do so. They never considered that choice as a personal freedom that should not be denied; they simply never considered the issue at all.

"Most of them weren't crazy people," Phyl insisted, "more like neighborhood fixtures, kind of like friends. Everybody knew them; they stayed on their own corner for years. They seemed all right. I think some of them chose that life. Now I wonder where they are, I wonder if they're really okay."

"You're amazing, " Sara shrugged. "I can't think of anyone who would agree with you. Why would anyone choose being homeless?"

"Maybe they had no choice. Maybe they lost their job, ran out of money, just couldn't do anything else. You can't judge people just from how they look. Maybe being on the street was better for them than being in a shelter where they felt even more at risk. You know," her friend added thoughtfully, "sometimes the homeless make me think of the Tzaddikim."

"Never heard of them," Sara replied, trying to sound casual. Her grandfather had told her about the Just Men, but she knew that if she pretended to know nothing about them Phyl would launch happily into one of the long religious expositions she enjoyed delivering to anyone who would listen. Sara looked at her friend affectionately and said nothing more as she twirled her spaghetti into neat little balls, making a great game of trying not to drop any sauce on her blouse as her fork found its way safely into her mouth, her momentary silence succeeding in encouraging her friend to continue.

"The Tzadikkim are the Lamed Vov," Phyl explained with enthusiasm, "thirty-six righteous souls. Sometimes they don't even know they're one of them and neither does anybody else! The legend says that the Lamed Vov appear when they are needed, that one of them might be the Messiah and through him the world will be redeemed. They come at times of great peril, called out of their anonymity and humility by the necessity to save the world because they can – and because we need them"

Sara had loved hearing her grandfather's stories about ancient Jewish legends and traditions. She remembered his poignant retelling of the thirty-six Just Men – indistinguishable from simple mortals, unaware that they were the hearts of the world multiplied – into whom, as into one receptacle, pour all of mankind's grief. The Lamed Vov, he had explained, ensure the safety and survival of the world through their pure selflessness. They shoulder the burden of all our sorrows; they are the reason God allows the world to continue. If even one generation lacked its Lamed Vov, the sufferings of mankind would destroy itself with the poison of its own evil. And when the last of the Lamed Vov dies, all the suffering in the would die as well, extinguished from the world forever.

She was a little girl when her grandfather told her about the Lamed Vov for the

first time. The story had touched her deeply even then. She had felt so sorry for these unknown unknowing people, whose lives would be so full of sadness and despair. They were another reason to be kind to everyone, especially strangers, as her grandfather always taught her. As she grew up and studied the Bible with a maturing appreciation for its skein of moral imperatives, she traced the oppression of "others" as it wound its way from Genesis, where Abraham argued with God to spare Sodom if ten righteous individuals could be found, to Exodus and the Israelites' flight from slavery, through the five books of the Tanach. Jews had been strangers in Egypt; they had struggled through centuries of exile and repression, survived exclusion and rejection through their sheer force of will and ultimate faith. Perhaps the Lamed Vov had indeed been sacrificial vessels of pain that allowed the Jews, as a people, to endure and survive.

"Do you really believe in this stuff?" Sara asked, inviting her friend to continue.

"Well, not literally, of course," Phyl replied. "But then again, it's comforting to imagine that there are people in every generation who are here to redeem us, to save the world, and ultimately bring freedom to all of us even if they don't even know it themselves."

"Well, if they're hidden from themselves, hidden from the world, how can we know if they're real? If they actually exist?"

"We don't have to know. It's a matter of faith, faith in the ultimate redemption of mankind through God's love."

Sara had been replaying this week-old conversation during class, angry at herself for being distracted from the seminar discussion and disappointed at her selfish fear of the man in the snow. What if he were one of the thirty-six Lamed Vov of her generation? What if he were not, if he were simply a desperate freezing homeless man who needed her help? She had turned away from him and turned away from the mitzvah of helping another human being in need.

She and her classmates crowded into the oversized elevator, squeezing in against one another so that no one would have to wait for its famously slow journey to the lobby and back up again. They were the last to leave the building; only the solitary guard remained to lock the synagogue's imposing front door behind them. Spilling out into the street, they rushed off into the cold quiet, hurried goodbyes swept away by the swirling snow, now falling even more heavily than it had when they arrived.

Sara hugged her professor, promising to return after the holidays, as expected, for the new semester.

"Give me a call if you'd like to discuss anything we've studied," he offered, hugging back with the generous affection he showed all his students. "I'll be in town if you want to reach me. No problem."

"Actually, I might," Sara replied softly, half hoping that he hadn't heard her.

Waving goodbye, she turned from him and began picking her way down the silent side street with careful steps that disappeared in the drifting snow almost as soon as she made them.

As she finally reached the corner and turned onto the avenue, the screams of a siren blasted through the air. The red moons of police cars whirred through the curtain of snow and a clutch of voices, urgent and intense, shattered the weathered silence. Mixed in with the uniformed policemen, the white-coated shapes of emergency caregivers bent over a lumped form lying on the snowbound pavement. Sara walked faster, rushing as quickly as she could up to the circle of men surrounding the stiffening man on the ground. She slipped between two hefty policemen, beyond whom she saw a twisted leg peaking out from the rough blanket they had laid over the dead body. The man's foot hung limp, bereft of the warmth of a sock, crusted with snow. A sneaker, untied, clung perilously to the foot, threatening to slip off at the slightest provocation.

"Oh my God," Sara's hands flew to her face, "it's that man, the man in the snow!"

"Sorry miss, you have to move on," one of the policemen said, urging her around the EMS team as they pulled a stretcher from the open back of the ambulance.

"What happened?" she managed to ask, her voice quivering with disbelief.

"It looks like one of the homeless got caught in the storm. He must have fallen and just couldn't get up. I guess he was here for a while; not too many people out in this weather so nobody saw him until just a few minutes ago. We got here too late."

"Is there anything I can do, any way I can help?"

"It's too late," the policeman said. "Nothing anyone can do. Poor soul."

"I know this man," she whimpered. "I saw him walking on the street a few hours ago.

He looked so cold, but I was late. I didn't stop to help him."

The policeman hadn't heard her, his attention already returned to the men lifting the body onto the stretcher.

Sara moved outside the cluster of dedicated, disappointed professionals, watched them slip the stretcher with

its frail silent burden into the hollow of the ambulance. Someone slammed its double doors shut, the sharp

metallic clip of its closing a final punctuation to the futile attempt to save a life. The ambulance pulled away,

its crisp white promise of rescue disappearing in the sugared night as it raced to the hospital where a newly

born baby boy cried lustily as he entered the world. The police car sped away, its red moons of whirring light

devoured by the falling snow, the wail of its siren trailing behind, no longer audible on the empty street where

the man in the snow had left this world alone and in silence.

Sara walked home very slowly, tears lacing her face with a freezing map of regret. She quickly changed

into dry clothes, leaving her face unwashed, hurriedly made a cup of steaming tea and dropped down, exhausted,

drained, into the deep cushions of her sofa. She drew in a deep breath and reached for the telephone to call her professor.

 
 
 
 

Copyright 2005--2009 Literary Magic, LiteraryMagic.com.