Short Stories

Short Story: Perception

His spotted hands shook, and his back ached as he bent over the trash bin. He rummaged through the trash to find something to eat or drink. The smell was nauseating. Someone had thrown out something which had spoiled a long time ago. He tried to avoid the bags where the scent was the strongest, but it was no use. The odor had taken over the whole bin. He let his feet drop on the ground and shut the lit.  This was usually a good place to find uneaten or half-eaten food. But today, he wasn’t as lucky. His stomach growled. He lurched out of the alleyway behind a well-to-do building, where people didn’t have to think where their breakfast came from or how much it cost.

He snorted, thinking it wasn’t about money; it was about perception. But not having the breakfast part wasn’t about perception. It was about reality. His stomach ached, meaning he would continue his rounds. He headed to another building, where people were as careless about protecting what they threw away and as loose with their food. It meant he had to walk through the busy city center. The place always made him angry. The yuppies, the old, all of them knew nothing about the world, yet they behaved as they owned it. Then there were the looks he received—an old man with his faded green clothes, which patches hold the garments together. His spotted bald head was no welcomed sight. Nor were his deep wrinkles on his forehead. But at least they couldn’t complain about his trimmed beard. He always kept it sharp, the way his deceased wife had liked it.

He kept his eyes on the ground while making through the crowds. In the past, he had carried his head high and mighty. He had been like those yuppies, thinking he could own the world. Control it to his liking. For a while, he had done that. Been the king, everyone so desperately wanted to be. But back then, he hadn’t been hooked into all the machines. No one whispered statistics, news, gossip, or anything to his ear at twenty-four-seven. No, it had been hard work back then to know what valuable information was and what wasn’t and who was a profitable partner and who would ruin you. He had been too proud and too stubborn, but that was gone now. There was nothing to be proud of as an eighty-year-old man, who could even secure a breakfast.

The city center went by. He barely witnessing the shop front, the closed, and those keeping open. Mostly it was the grocery places, which had survived. People needed to eat. Everything else had moved into those chatting machines. He circled around an apartment building, avoiding a posh lady marching in through the door which slid open as it recognized her. He wondered who would recognize him? Not the doors at least, nor any human being. All gone. His time would come. When his father had gone, his mother had settled to wait for the time to unite with him. Counting the days. But he didn’t believe in the afterlife. He would never see his wife except in pictures. He patted his jacket, finding his wallet in place. Inside would be Lena in her bikini on a beach. That had been a good day. They had danced until dawn—cheek against cheek.

He flipped the trash bin’s lid open. This one smelled slightly less awful. He rummaged through the garbage bags, finding a half-eaten sandwich, which smelled fine. He took a plastic bag out of his pocket and dropped the sandwich there. Next, he found a full carton of juice which expiration date was long gone. He took it as well. There was an apple that had seen better days, a carrot, and cheese with mold. There was stale bread and a sausage packing, which best-by date had gone two days ago. He put them all into his shopping bag. The jackpot was a not so frozen pizza, but it looked fine. The rest was inedible or too far gone. He left them there and headed home.

He ate the half-eaten sandwich after sniffing it once more. It was better than good. The cheese was thick and creamy; the ham was dry and lean; the mayonnaise was sweet and thick, and the cucumber was fresh enough. The worst of the ache went away. He fumbled for his keys when he got to his three-story high house. Its paint had chipped away, and he had nailed the windows shut. The porch creaked as he shifted his weight, and he could hear whining inside. He opened the door carefully, but the dog, Duke, jumped against his leg. The grayed dog wagged its tail as he pushed in.

He scratched Duke under his ear. “I missed you too. I found you something to eat.”

He hadn’t taken the dog with him. Sometimes people pitied him and bought him food when Duke was around. Other times, people wanted to take the dog away, saying things like he would be better off with them. That they could take care of Duke. Then there were the times when he and Duke were chased away from the bins because the pair of them made the residents uncomfortable. He couldn’t let anyone take Duke. They were the only ones left in the world.

He took a flashlight from the hallway with him.

Duke followed the entire way to the kitchen. Sometimes he wondered what was the point of pretending he used the kitchen the way it was meant to be used. Nothing worked when you didn’t have electricity or heat. Luckily, they couldn’t cut his water supply without cutting it from the rest of the neighborhood. Nor could they force him to move. He owned the house and the land it stood on. At least there was that.

He opened the sausage package and smelled them. They were still fresh. Duke whined next to him, but he didn’t jump against the counter. The dog waited patiently for him to finish. He cut the sausage into smaller bites and put them on Lena’s fine china. He patted Duke when he lowered the plate on the floor, then left the dog to eat. He took a flashlight from the kitchen and headed to the living room where he now slept. It was an effort even to keep it warm, but there was a fireplace. He showed light, and next to the fireplace was a tall stack of banknotes. He had stopped feeling queasy about the obsolete money a long time ago. In the past, he would have been rich enough to buy not only his breakfast but breakfast for the entire city. Now, it was digital, the imaginary which mattered, and he was as poor as a church mouse. Everything was about perception.

No shop took his money. No bank wanted to touch it. Museums were willing to buy it for pennies, but firewood cost more than selling it onward. He drew a stack into the fireplace and lit it on fire, pushing in broken pieces of Lena’s dressing table. His were already gone, and now he burned his memories away. He got up and slumped on the couch, feeling like a bag of bones. Duke pushed his muzzle into his open palm and then lowered on the ground next to him. He shut his eyes and dozed off.

Thank you for reading! Have a great day.

P.S. I wrote this piece because yesterday I went to the grocery store, and I had to buy food with cash. The cashier looked at me like I was doing some horrendous thing. I get it. We are living in a COVID-19 world where notes are tainted and shouldn’t be used. But it isn’t that simple. It was all I had to buy food, so I came home feeling lousy about myself and everything. But I can survive. I have credit cards, can use mobile banks, and pay my bills online, but there is a group of people who can’t. The elderly without support systems or anyone to teach them how to use iPads, smartphones, the Internet, and so on. They have been forced in my country to adapt with no one giving much thought about how. You cannot do basic functions in Finland or even apply for governmental aid without an electric bank account identifiers. All our services have been shifted online, even the numbers on how to contact them (not to mention all the closed offices because of efficiency and cost-cutting). And I find it cruel that people suffer from poverty because they don’t know how to ask for help or apply for aid for their situation. We rush in too quickly, thinking modernization is this saving force, and it can be. I don’t argue against mobile banks or electronic currency, but politicians and those in power cannot forget those who cannot keep up and ignore their cries, and at the same time, take away funding from those entities, which could help them.

© K.A. Ashcomb

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