Memories of a Beggar

By Kitty Jarman

With tiny fists we tapped, tapped, tapped on his door, whispering, “Gustof.” The door would crack open a little as he peeked out like a caged criminal.

“What?” he would ask in a low gruff voice, glancing around behind us.

“We’re hungry.” One of us answered. He always let us in.

We were there begging for money. It’s what we did; along with returning empty beer bottles for their deposits. We were a ragamuffin gang of kids from six to nine years old, living in poverty; running unsupervised on the streets. The streets of a little beach town in Hawaii. It was 1962.

Gustof looked like Boris Karloff and lived alone in a dilapidated shack behind the old theater. It was an area that was off limits even for adults; bad guys lived there.

“Never go alone,” we agreed among ourselves, after watching local cops drive off with one of Gustof’s neighbors in the car.

The alley always had the stink of decay, but Gustof’s place smelled of the earth, of eucalyptus. One wall was covered with old movie posters. “Say One for Me” had a picture of a friendly priest and “Angels with Dirty Faces” had James Cagney’s leering eyes. He always had the same thing to eat — brown rice, chicken and soy sauce — but he shared it with us as he read from the newspaper. None of our parents, those who had parents, ever read the newspaper.

That day he read about Bobby. Bobby was the runt of our pack with a bad leg. We looked out for him when we could, but hadn’t seen him in a few days. No one even knew where he lived. Gustof read how the police found Bobby’s body under the bridge not far from the theater. He’d been sodomized and stabbed. His drunken stepfather was arrested. Not one of us four kids knew what sodomy meant, and we didn’t ask. Our friend was seven years old and he was dead. I remember looking at Gustof.

“How can that happen?” I asked, so confused. “How can a kid be killed by his family?”

He didn’t speak, but put a $5 bill in my hand. He always gave one of us a couple of dollars, enough to buy pop to share. We all hooted as we walked away. That was enough money to buy our pop and my mom some smokes. She always had us looking for cigarette butts.

“Where did you kids get these from,” she asked, grabbing for the pack of Camels. We said nothing. Blowing a ring of smoke towards us, her eyes narrowed. “You watch out for each other.”

That’s the last day I remember seeing Gustof. Today, I’m sure psychological profiles would label him a pedophile. I want to think he was an angel with a dirty face. But, of course, my memories are scratchy, fleeting and unreliable.

Kitty Jarman is a poet and writer of short stories. A previous member of the St. Charles Writers Group for many years, she is one of eighteen authors who wrote the group novel, “Don’t Die Mr. Opal, Oklahoma Needs You,” published in 2006. Her poem, Dead Orchids, was selected in 2013 for ART IN YOUR EYE’s Drawn With Words; a publication by the Fine Arts Counsel. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Kitty has four children, six grandchildren and a great granddaughter.

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