art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson
When The World Was Full of People
by Patricia Russo
Once, when the world was full of people, I saw a man who looked exactly like my brother: same height, same stringy ponytail, same puffy cheeks, same big gut. Same type of clothes, too--bleach-splattered jeans, faded plaid shirt with cut-off sleeves. I was across the street, and I stopped. I don't remember why I was out that day. Running errands, probably, the sort of thing everybody used to do in those days, going to the post office, paying bills, picking up a few things at the grocery. I stopped, and the other people on the sidewalk moved around me, moved on with their business, moved on with their lives. After a second, I shook my head, and told myself, That cannot be my brother. My brother's beard is gray. That man's beard is brown.
He was loading great blue jugs of purified water into the back of a pickup truck, the kind of jugs they used for water coolers back then, and he was sweating. I could see that even from across the street. The Purified Water Store (it wasn't really called that, but who remembers now?) was on the corner, and he was making one trip after another from the store to the truck. Could have been they were short-handed that day and didn't have a stock boy to help him load up. He'd gotten ten containers in the back of the pickup when I crossed the street.
I wasn't planning to speak to him. I just wanted to get a closer look, completely casually, and then go on my way.
I got tripped up by timing. I had to wait for the light, and then I was momentarily distracted when a jitney bus braked abruptly to avoid hitting a floppy-haired, no-helmet-wearing delivery woman on a silver bicycle. (Funny, isn't it, the details that never leave your mind.) So when I finally made it across, I came face to face with the guy. He was hauling another two jugs of water to the truck, one balanced on his left shoulder, and the other one dragging down his right arm and bumping against his leg as he walked.
He looked straight at me.
"Want to give me a hand?"