Short Story: Alfred

and how he saved my work, purpose, and sanity.

Photo by Angelo SARTORI on Unsplash

Every country I set foot in told me that fear is my right. That as a lone young woman, fear is the logical response to most things. So when a frail old man stumbled out of the taxi and hit the ground I did not jump to help. I crouched in fear.

The stillness of the German village Heimsheim jumps at outsiders. Especially if you come from a bustling country with a billion people, like me. Impeccable homes stand quietly, the lights in the windows not matching the absence of sounds.

Alfred rudely interrupted my daydreams by crashing face-down onto the road 100 meters from me. I stopped and tried to camouflage. Then I saw that he needed help.

“Ugh! If I had just got off work 3 minutes sooner, I could have just walked on and finished my presentation in peace!”

Having started in my full-time job 5 years ago, I was just grasping the permanence of the hamster wheel. Ambition burned hot when I first set foot in this country. Now I wondered if a bigger job title, and putting down the downpayment on my dream home would get me closer to myself or farther away.

“Why I am doing any of this?” The question floated to the top of my mind no matter how much I drowned it in work. My family was far away in India, friends were mostly on Instagram. Why do we emigrate? For whom?

“Wait, am I unhappy!?” That would be just arrogant. If there was a German dream for immigrants, I was living it.

Photo by ERROR 420 📷 on Unsplash

I scrolled aimlessly on my phone at the hospital lounge, waiting to check in on my good deed from last night.

“Do you feel better?”, I asked Alfred when I saw him. They had put his arm in a cast. He had been drunk and couldn’t remember how he got there.

“Fit as a horse”, he smiled.

Bless public healthcare! The poor guy seemed like a nice fellow. I talked to him for a while and called him a taxi home. I went with him, just in case.

From then on, I visited Alfred everyday at his home on my way back from work. It had become a ritual. He was alone, 68, and unemployed. He had the most honest smile I’ve ever seen.

At first, I was being polite, asking about his health. But day after day, I grew attached to Alfred. His witty comebacks reminded me of my mom. I wonder who is listening to her anecdotes back at home.

It was hard to watch him readily submit to every form of alcohol he could afford with the welfare he received from the state. Part of me wondered what I would be doing with my life if I were Alfred — without friends or family, without the need for a sane face at work.

The evenings with Alfred gave a sense of meaning to my days. 8 hours a day, I made my employer his money. But for one hour at Alfred’s, I felt like I really mattered.

Summer came, I was one rung higher up at the work ladder. With new responsibilities, I worked overtime nearly every day. My visits to Alfred became less frequent. I could not answer his drunken calls late in the evenings.

Three months had passed and I hadn’t seen him. It then struck me that he hasn’t called in a week. This was unusual. I was worried. And guilty.

Fearing the worst, I drove the familiar road to his home. I hoped to find him on the porch that bright summer evening, sulking because I hadn’t called back. As I rolled closer to his gate, his frail figure did not emerge as I imagined it would. I felt a chill pass down my chest.

I peered inside the window and saw him huddled under many blankets with the TV running. “Alfred!” I called out twice. I saw him move, but he did not respond. He was clearly drunk out of his depth.

In his time, Alfred was a door-to-door salesman. Gradually, the world had become too fast for him to catch up. Friends and family moved on, old lovers passed.

Alfred stopped trying and found solace the only way he could. He kept his doors open to strangers like me, both to enter and leave as they liked.

After more than an hour of prodding and begging, he let me in. He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything that wasn’t alcohol, perhaps in many days.

I whipped up a quick dinner and forced him to eat a few bites. I got him to drink some water and sat down by his bed. Alfred did not die but he came really close.

“Why do you do this!?”. I was exasperated.

“Little lady, I have seen a lot of life till today. Since I was mostly drunk, I saw most of it twice, isn’t that great!”, came his usual witty comeback. I giggled.

That moment, I was immensely grateful that I could see him and his honest smile again. I promised myself that I’d keep it alive every day I could.

He did not reproach me for not coming. He didn’t ask why. I doubt that he knows how I felt when I imagined the worst. I wish he knew.

“Don’t you have work to do?”, He asked, only superficially interested.

“I do. Please get some rest”.

That day on, I noticed that my mind did not struggle to find meaning.

I noticed that people look forward to more than their screens at work. That they like to notice others and be noticed. I saw how after work, people called their loved ones from the car though they were headed home to them anyway.

I noticed that Alfred did not drink himself unconscious anymore.

Perhaps I found my why, perhaps I made it up. For a moment, I felt less alone in Germany.



Sruthi Korlakunta
Life has meaning — Short stories for those seeking purpose.

I write on tech, books, and lifestyle. | Data analyst | Made human by all the people who love me.