Every week day morning, George rises from bed at 6am. He listens to VPR in the bathroom, showering and shaving while he contemplates the world’s challenges. He reminds himself how lucky he is that he lives in a safe part of the world, where he isn’t worried about bombs falling on his home, or gunmen invading government buildings. He knows it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security in Vermont, where his biggest obstacle will be dealing with the snow and ice on the roads as he drives to his office in downtown Burlington.
George is a finance manager; he handles large accounts for major Vermont businesses across the state. It is a far cry from what he hoped to be when he was a struggling student in Business School. Back when he was going to save the world, fight for human rights, by helping non-profits develop better business models and appeal to the deep pockets of the wealthy.
The problem was, those non-profit agencies couldn’t offer him the salary and benefits package that Smyth Financial could. And his student loans loomed large over his head. What kind of successful business student was he, if he didn’t take the position that would responsibly pay back his student loan debt? Afterwards, he convinced himself, he would quit the corporate world and go back to his ideals. Smyth Financial would be a temporary detour, one that was now rounding out ten years, postgraduate school. His loans were paid off, and yet, he didn’t dust off his resume and go searching for that non-profit agency that would feed his soul. Instead, he succumbed to the pressures that commercialism places on young professionals, the drive to own everything, to have the latest technology, the best shoes, the classiest car. George drives a BMW.
Most days he is able to stay in his little bubble, stepping from warm garage to dry shoveled pavement without a thought to the community he lives in. But over the past few months he has encountered Alice.
Alice is homeless. She lives in the parking garage off Cherry Street where George parks his car. He sees her pull her belongings in a wheelie bag, which is torn on one side. She seems to wear every piece of clothing that she owns. Her snowy hair is twisted into a bun, with wiry sprays poking out at random angles. From a distance you might think she is a large person, but George suspects that if you peeled off the layers of clothes and coats that she uses to stay warm, underneath you would find a frail, body, with the typical sagging body parts of a middle-aged person.
On the winter solstice George was hurrying from a lunch meeting on Church Street to get back to his office on Bank Street. He was reading his email on his iPhone, not really paying attention to the bustling shopping crowd as he began to cross the street. One moment he was reading a message from his manager, and the next moment he was face down on the sidewalk, his phone flung from his hand, a scream of “Watch out!” echoing in his ear.
The whole world stopped for a moment as George lay there, snow, and dirt and wetness seeping through his dress pants. And then the smell of sweat, and dampness filled his nostrils, and he felt the weight of something or someone over his legs.
“What are you doing?” he yelled in shock and anger, wondering why this pile of rags had taken him down. Was he being mugged? The person within the rags rolled off him and looked up at the bus that was whizzing past, inches from where they lay on the sidewalk.
At the sight of the bus, George’s mind reengaged. He looked at the person and took in her presence – the white hair, the ragged clothes, and the opal blue eyes. It was Alice, the homeless woman that sat on Church Street every day, with her torn suitcase. She saved him from being oatmeal mush under a bus. He pushed himself up into a sitting position and looked into her face, but instead of relief, he saw pain.
“Thank you!” he said, and noticed that a small crowd was gathering, asking questions about their condition. “Are you hurt?” he asked, and she nodded and held her leg. He looked up at a woman in a wool coat, who was on her cell phone.
“Call 911” he ordered, and then wrapped his arm around Alice to protect her from the snow and wind bearing down on them.
Alice uttered not a word. George kept asking her if she was okay, and as the medics lifted her into the ambulance he said, “I’ll see you at the hospital.” Alice just blinked at him in silence. He recovered his phone, found her wheelie bag, and carried it to his car. He texted his boss that he would be out for the day, then headed to Fletcher Allen.
He was shaky in the car. The medics had checked him out, and physically he was fine, but the shock of what happened began to sink in. If this woman had not risked her life, he would not be here. He thought of all of the times he passed her on the street, all of the times he nodded, said hello, said, “I have no cash,” when in fact he had several twenties in his wallet, but never a small enough bill to put into her bag. Small enough… what did that mean? The brick in his stomach sent a chill through him. Occasionally he would toss a $5 bill into her suitcase to ease his conscience, and he felt generous when he did this. It felt insignificant now.
The emergency room buzzed with activity, children crying, chairs filled with people waiting to be seen or heard. George hated hospitals. It reminded him of his mother, of her cancer, and the hours he spent sitting by her bed, praying the tubes carrying fluids in and out of her would work magic. He couldn’t think of that now.
After convincing the front desk to let him see her, George was led him down a hallway with blue lines to a small room where a Alice lay with her leg casted, blankets wrapped tightly around her. The IV bag attached with tubes made his stomach lurch. George would not have known this was Alice. She looked like a child in the hospital bed, except for the white hair. Her petite frame surprised him, and then he noticed the pile of ragged clothing, and coats that were neatly folded in the corner. Yes, this was Alice. Her eyes were closed, but as he entered the room they popped open and she smiled at him.
“Matthew?” She said, her eyes trying to focus on George’s face. “I hurt my leg,” she whispered and her body shook with a cough.
“My name is George,” he said, sitting down next to the bed and taking in the details of Alice for the first time in his life. She looked exhausted, not from the injury, but from life. The lines across her face were as deep as riverbeds, and her opal eyes watered in the bright fluorescent lights. “I’m the one you saved from being hit by the bus. Do you remember that?” he asked, and she tilted her head down and stared at her casted leg as if trying to recall what happened.
“Matthew” she went on, ignoring George’s question. “I didn’t know how to reach you. I told the nurse I have a son, but she said I needed a number to reach you. It’s been three years since you moved away.” George’s feeling of discomfort grew again. Has she been on the street for three years and who is Matthew? He wondered. She peered at him anxiously, but with hope in her eyes. George didn’t know what to do. Should he pretend to be Matthew? Or should he try to convince her that he was not her son?
“Matthew, you’re a good boy. You always took good care of me. I’m sorry I wouldn’t go to the doctor appointments. I waited for you to come home, but then someone put a lock on my door and I couldn’t get in.”
“Where have you been sleeping Alice?” George asked, deciding against convincing her that he couldn’t be Matthew.
“I found places to sleep downtown, sometimes in an old building.” Alice spoke softly as if wanting to keep her sleeping arrangements a secret. “But I always check back at the house and see if you have come back. I think a new family lives there now. They have little girls.”
“I still don’t understand what made you push me out of the way of that bus.” George said, trying to put the pieces together in his head, avoiding the iv-drip attached to Alice’s arm.
Alice said, “I screamed, “Watch out!” but you didn’t hear me. I couldn’t let my boy get hurt,” she said, urgency in her voice, laboring to breath.
“But I’m not Matthew,” he said quietly, reaching out to take her hand. “I’m George.”
They sat in silence for a long time and he held her hand as she nodded off to sleep. When the nurse came in, George asked about Alice’s condition.
The nurse looked thoughtfully at the young man in a business suit. “She doesn’t have long for this world, she has pneumonia and she’s weak.”
“But she jumped in front of a bus to save my life,” said George, stunned by this news. How could she have done that?”
“Sounds like a miracle.” Said the nurse, finishing her duties and turning to leave. “You don’t need to stay if you have somewhere to be.”
“I don’t,” said George, turning back to Alice.
As George sat in the room while Alice slept he opened the wheelie bag that belonged to Alice, hoping to find some way to contact her Matthew.
He found a picture of a young man, and was surprised to see that Matthew really did look like a long lost brother. The man’s chin was narrow, exactly like George’s chin, and his hair the same dark brown, almost black. He placed the picture on the tray next to Alice, hoping she would wake up to see her son once more. A white envelope poked through a stack of papers in Alice’s bag. He pulled it free, He lifted the flap of the envelope and slowly withdrew a yellowing piece of newspaper. It was an obituary of a young man named Matthew who looked just like George, killed in an car accident three years ago
George placed the envelope back into the bag. He didn’t need to know anymore. He stood up, and left the room. He couldn’t save Alice, but he could take care of her. His spirits lifted, even as he knew it would be a long and difficult night, perhaps the darkest night of his life. But the light would come again, and he had choices to make.
Six months after Alice saved his life, to celebrate, George picked up Alice at the rehab center and drove her to the Matthew’s Kitchen. “What’s the soup du jour?” Alice asked.
“I know, that’s why it’s the soup du jour tonight,” George said.
He led Alice slowly up the stairs and into the bustling soup kitchen, heading straight to the front of the line. No one minds. They know George. And they know Alice. They are why this soup kitchen opened three months ago, giving warm food and hope to the hungry and the homeless.