Those Are His Toiletries, Ma’am.

A short story about a man on a park bench.

Robert Cormack
ILLUMINATION
8 min readJun 20, 2024

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When I hear somebody sigh, ‘Life is tough,’ I’m tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?’” Sydney J. Harris

He’d been there two days in a row, sitting on the same bench. One woman mentioned it to her husband. He went by later that night, finding the guy still there. “Seems harmless enough,” he told his wife. “He’ll move on eventually.” But the next day, she saw the man sitting on the same bench again, wearing the same old gym shorts, faded t-shirt, and flip-flops.

“I think he slept there,” she told her husband when he came home. She’d said the same thing to the other mothers that day in the park. They’d stared at the man. He didn’t look homeless. He was too pale. Maybe he was experiencing a financial loss or mental breakdown. They still didn’t like the idea of where he was sitting. The bench was right behind the swings. They had their children to think about.

They waited until he got up and crossed the street to a small pub on the corner. He had a plastic bag with him.

“Maybe we should take a picture,” one mother said. They all had their phones. It wouldn’t be hard snapping something. They waited until he got up and crossed the street to a small pub on the corner. He had a plastic bag with him.

“Probably his dope” another mother said.

They sent the pictures off to the police, and a squad car came by shortly after. Two officers approached the man, talked to him, took notes. On their way back to the cruiser, the mothers approached them. “What are you going to do about him?” they asked, and the officers said they had some contact information. “We’ll let you know when we have something,” the officers replied.

“Can’t you arrest him for vagrancy?” one mother asked.

“We have no proof he slept here last night.”

“Did you check that plastic bag he’s carrying?”

“Those are his toiletries, ma’am.”

“Who is he?”

“He lives in the area. We’re contacting a friend of his.”

She gave his full name, but said there was no address.

Later, the police were back in the park, this time with a woman. She went over and sat on the bench next to the man. She wore a faded linen dress and a bunch of bangles, her gray hair pulled up in a twisted scarf. They talked, then the woman told the police she’d be responsible for him. She gave his full name, but said there was no address.

“His apartment’s been padlocked,” she said.

She went back to the man and he stood up. He grabbed his plastic bag and the two of them went across to the pub.

The officers spoke to two of the mothers still sitting there.

“His friend’s taking him home with her,” one officer said. “He’s had some financial issues. He’s not dangerous.”

“What if he comes back?” one woman asked.

“There’s no law saying he can’t sit here,” the officer said. “It’s only vagrancy when the subject remains overnight.”

“If he shows up here again,” the first officer said, “you can let us know. I don’t think he will, though. His friend seems like a responsible person. This should be the end of it.”

The officers left and the mothers talked.

“That’s what happens when you lose your money,” one mother said. “Probably gambling or something.”

“He didn’t look like a gambler,” another mother said.

“I can’t imagine losing everything, can you?”

The man and the woman were still there, sitting by the window.

They kept talking until it was time to take the kids home. They eyed the pub as they went out the park gate. The man and the woman were still there, sitting by the window.

In the pub, the bartender was half-listening to the man and woman talking. They were the only two patrons outside of a couple of regulars down at the other end.

It was three o’clock on a summer afternoon.

“What are you going to do?” the woman asked the man.

“No idea,” he replied. “It happened so fast. I went to the drugstore for toothpaste and aspirin. When I came back, the Sheriff’s Department was there.”

“How much back rent did you owe?”

“Four months.”

“What about your store?”

“I closed it in March.”

“Didn’t you have a girl working there?”

“Sophia,” he said. “She left.”

He rubbed his head, trying to focus. He squinted up at the neon Pabst sign, then rubbed his head again. “I’m getting headaches every day. It’s like clockwork.”

“How serious?” she asked.

“Bloody serious.”

“Migraines, probably. You should see a doctor, Dixon.”

“I don’t have a doctor.”

“I’ll check with mine,” she said. “C’mon, let’s get you back to my place. Don’t forget your toiletries.”

“That couple?” he said to them. “The guy’s been living on a park bench across the street for three days or so.”

She opened her big straw purse, paid for the drinks, then got Dixon off his stool. They went out the door. The bartender put the money in the till, then went over to where the two regulars were sitting. They were men in their fifties, worn suits, hair in need of a cut. They were drinking beer.

“That couple?” he said to them. “The guy’s been living on a park bench across the street for three days or so.”

“Why?” one of them asked.

“They padlocked his place.”

“I remember him. Used to come here quite a bit. Owned a video store or something. I thought he was doing well.”

“Not now, obviously.”

“Dixon, isn’t it?” the other regular said. “We talked occasionally. She used to come in, too. What’s her name?”

“He called her Marie.”

“That’s right, Marie. Talked to her, too, sometimes. Nice woman. Been a while, though, hasn’t it? Couple of years.”

“Must be that,” the first regular said.

“Nice of her to help out,” the other regular said.

“You two okay for drinks?” the bartender said.

“Bring me another, Joe,” the first regular said. “You want another, Thomas?” he said to the other man.

“Thanks, Sid,” he said. “Just a half.”

Joe went and poured two more beers.

“I was just saying,” Sid said when Joe came back, “we could all end up in that park. Thomas thinks I’m crazy.”

“Hell of a way to end up,” Joe said, leaning on the bar, folding his big hands. “That plastic bag he was carrying? It contained his toiletries. She told him not to forget it when they left. That’s all he had to his name.”

“How do you know that?” Sid asked.

“He told her that’s all he had.”

“My, my,” Sid said.

She sat near the window again, ordered a beer, then took a postcard out of her purse.

A few months after that, Marie came back in the bar. She sat near the window again, ordered a beer, then took a postcard out of her purse. After looking at it for a minute, she set it down on the bar. Joe brought over the beer. He saw the postcard, saw a picture of a mansion, a big white thing.

“What’s the story with your friend Dixon?” he asked.

“He’s back in England,” Marie replied

“What’s he doing there?”

“Living with his parents.”

“Really? Dixon’s gotta be — what? — late fifties?”

“Something like that,” Marie said, pushing the postcard towards him. “I just picked this up at the post office. That’s their mansion. It’s on one of those heritage tours.”

Helluva place,” Joe said. “How many rooms you figure?”

“God knows,” Marie said.

“Parents must be ancient.”

“Eighties, I think,” she said. “Dixon says they sit in front of the fireplace all day — even in the summer. Gobs of money, apparently. The whole property is on a big coal deposit.”

“Why’s he over there?”

“Brain tumor,” she said. “I sent him to see my doctor. They did some scans and told him the tumor’s inoperable. Too widespread or something.

Joe looked down at the postcard again. Then he motioned to Sid and Thomas sitting there at the other end of the bar.

“Hey, lads,” he said, “come and see this.”

They came over with their drinks.

Joe handed them the postcard.

“What’re we looking at?” Sid asked.

“That’s Dixon’s parents’ place,” Joe said. “Over in England. He’s been there these past two months.”

“He living back there now? Sid asked.

“Dixon’s got a brain tumor,” Joe said.

“Can’t they operate?”

“Too far along,” Marie said.

“I saw deer today. They came right out on the lawn.”

She took the postcard back, turned it over, and started to read. “My room overlooks what’s left of the forest,” she said. “I saw deer today. They came right out on the lawn.”

“Sounds nice enough,” Sid said.

“Better than sleeping on benches,” Marie said.

“And you arranged everything?”

“His parents sent the airfare.”

“You’re a good friend, I must say.”

“I didn’t have much choice.”

“How long have you two known each other?”

“I hadn’t seen or heard from Dixon in years,” Marie said. “Until the cops called. Imagine that.”

“No family here?” Thomas said.

“He divorced years ago.”

“Wife take everything?”

“There wasn’t anything to take. Dixon put everything into that video store. Then Blockbuster came along. He held out as long as he could, but he couldn’t compete.”

“No, I imagine he couldn’t,” Sid said. “But to leave things until the Sherriff’s officers came along — “

“He’s lucky his parents took him back,” Thomas said.

“They were as shocked as I was,” Marie said.

“I can imagine,” Sid said, pointing out the window to the park. “It could happen to anyone, though, couldn’t it?”

“Speak for yourself,” Thomas said.

“Maybe I’m getting morbid in my old age.”

Sid told her to keep them informed. She didn’t think she’d hear from Dixon again.

They sat quietly after that. Marie finally got up to leave. She put the postcard back in her purse, saying goodbye. Sid told her to keep them informed. She didn’t think she’d hear from Dixon again. On her way home, she tried to imagine what it was like, Dixon sitting by his window, the parents in front of the fireplace, the coal pit growing bigger and bigger each day.

Finally, a letter arrived saying Dixon had passed away. The writing was small, done by a shaking hand. He’d died peacefully, it said. He was fifty-nine. No service planned.

Marie took it to the bar the next day. They read the same thing she did. They said it was a shame. “At least he died with family.” Sid said. “That’s something, I guess.”

They were looking across at the park. Kids were playing, their mothers watching them. Life went on, games got played, swings got swung. Sid said they should drink to that.

“What are we drinking to exactly?” Thomas asked.

“Life, I guess,” Sid said.

So they drank to that.

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Robert Cormack
ILLUMINATION

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.