I just happened to be on that side of Phoenix. I was waiting for a contractor to cut checks and needed to kill some time, so I went to the mall for lunch. This particular mall was my old stomping grounds during high school. Dave and I almost wore a path in the terrazzo floor during our senior year of high school. It was the only indoor mall in town at the time so you could walk around for hours and not sweat so much you looked like you just finished a swim meet. We went there nearly every evening, we had driver’s licenses and Dave had wheels, but we didn’t have jobs and money, so mostly we did stupid high school stuff like stand at the window at Ferrell’s Ice Cream parlor and drool while watching people eat. And we watched people. Mostly girls, actually. But people in general too.
I got a sandwich at the deli and sat down in the mall to watch the people.
And… I saw him again. He was sitting on the edge of one of the red brick planters, like always. He had one arm crossed, resting his useless hand in his lap, the hand that swung on his bony arm like a knot at the end of a rope at his side when he walked. With his index finger of his other hand he traced “figure eights” in the dirt of the planter, like always.
I would swear he wore the same black rimmed glasses with dirty lenses as thick as Fig Newtons. He still wore light blue denim bell bottoms, even though they had been “out” for years, and tennis shoes prematurely worn on one side from his shuffle-walk. His back had become even more hunched on the side of his good arm. When he looked up to watch the passers-by (he always had to tilt his head way back to look up because his body was hunched forward and his glasses had slid down his nose) his head would list to one side and rest on his hump, and his mouth would hang open. I watched him watch people walk by, just as I had seen him do every time I had been to that mall, just as I had seen him do for the first time nearly twenty years before.
Twenty years. I imagined him for twenty years (maybe more, that is only the time I knew of) going to the mall every day for eight or ten hours, shuffling, sitting, then shuffling some more, then sitting a while longer.
I wondered what he thought about while shuffling, sitting, staring for all those years. I wondered what he was capable of thinking about.
I wondered if he was ever jealous of the normal people who could walk upright, sit up straight, and shake hands. I wondered if he was ever angered at his ugliness, or if he perceived that he was “ugly”, that he didn’t fit in with our culture’s love affair with beauty.
I wondered if he ever wanted children to buy toys for, or a wife to watch try on a new dress, or if he had a wife and children maybe before some calamity struck him and them down.
I wondered if he ever stifled the urge to risk saying hello to one of the shoppers, a pretty woman, a toddling child who would wander over to him and stare at him like a strange mannequin, a blue haired widow, a man in a wheelchair. (I’d never heard him speak) Did he ever want to speak just to hear someone speak back to him, even if to shun him.
I wondered if he ever left the mall feeling lonlier than when he arrived, and if so, how much more loneliness upon loneliness could a human being bear after twenty years.
I wondered if God, in His mercy, had short circuited whatever part of his heart and mind that would allow him to know he was so different and so alone.
I wondered too about all the people that passed him every day, if they even see him, if they consider who he might be, or what is going on inside him. I wondered if any of them thank God, their stars, their karma or even blind luck for not being like him.
I wondered what would happen if God in His mercy made each person who passed him to be like him for one day, letting them live in the twisted wreck of flesh he occupied, letting them think his thoughts, letting them feel his accumulated feelings. I wondered how life in the mall would change, how life beyond the mall would change.
I wondered how many people who have passed him in twenty years were Christians. I wondered how many of them have seen him. I wondered how many of them had made any attempt to see if he was hurting, to find out if his heart was broken or if he lived in desperation or in anger at our God. I wondered how many of them know what Jesus said about compassion, the last being first, the outcast being welcomed in, the gospel being preached to the poor in pocket and spirit. I wondered why, if some seventy five percent of our nation claims to be Christian and even more to be “spiritual”, not one of the hundred or more people that passed him by during that hour I sat and ate my lunch, ever stopped to acknowledge his existence, much less even make eye contact with him.
I finished my ruminations. I finished my sandwich. And as I left to go pick up my check, I wondered why I too did not.