The Other Side of the Hill
The city bus trip home felt more like a rollercoaster ride to the seventy-one-year-old woman, as the packed transport traversed the rolling hills of downtown Columbia. She was returning from her first trip to Food Lion, an unavoidable consequence that she now had to endure weekly. Her neighborhood Save A Lot had recently closed, forcing her to choose another store and another route. She lived on the other side of the hill, near the bottom, and the now-abandoned market was within walking distance. She looked out of the window and into the memories of those pleasant walks, smiling.
Those recollections watered the seeds of bittersweet nostalgia, which sprouted, blossoming into visions of her deceased husband, and their only daughter, who now resided across the country. She recounted the earlier years, when the family of three would stroll the sidewalks of their community, holding hands, absorbing the comforting familiarity of their environment. She longed for those days, the sights and sounds, all encapsulated within an aromatic breath which nature, at that time had provided.
As her remembrances faded, she returned to reality and the inescapable void in her heart caused by her lifelong mate’s absence, nearly a decade prior.
I love you, dear. I miss you dearly, she thought, with her eyes closed. They were the same words that she communicated to her daughter on the telephone before ending their regular weekly phone conversations. Her daughter consistently prodded her with requests that the woman come live with her and her family. The woman was grateful and appreciative for such a blessed offer, but that was not her path. She chose to remain within the attachments of sentimental comfort until her journey in this life was complete. She opened her eyes, sighing. Her stop was approaching. She rubbed her knees to alleviate the arthritic pain which afflicted them, hoping she could make it up the hill.
It was another hot and humid summer day as the sixty-five-year-old man sat at the bus stop. He wasn’t waiting for the bus, but instead taking a break from his travels throughout the downtown area. The heat and humidity reminded him of several locations around the world where he was stationed during his younger years when serving in the military. He knew that proper hydration was essential when enduring the sweltering heat and always kept a full container of water with him.
He looked at his weathered and scratched Seiko watch, groaning, shaking his head in frustration. His preferred method for obtaining income was collecting and crushing aluminum cans, but he’d only accumulated a few of them after foraging for hours. It wasn’t enough to cash into the recyclers, which meant that he might not eat tonight. His other option was to report to one of the many daily labor companies peppered around the city, but that was his last option. His experiences working with strangers daily, along with their perceived view of his inferiority as a homeless man, made him apprehensive. In his opinion, he wasn’t homeless at all, having the opportunity to live with multiple family members who left standing proposals for him to share their homes. He was appreciative, but his pride, disguised as a cloak of freedom and self-sufficiency, dissuaded him from crossing that threshold. He cared for them all, but this was his life, his path, and his choice.
At least I don’t beg and hustle on street corners to earn my wages, he told himself. I’m not a bum!
The city bus approached, and he stood up, shouldering his backpack before checking the time. The brakes of the bus squeaked as it slowed, and a lone passenger exited. The elderly woman carried her plastic grocery bags around her wrists while gripping the handrails, carefully navigating each step. She hobbled onto the sidewalk, past the man, to begin the arduous climb upward.
She stopped for a moment to rest before limping onward.
“Ma’am,” he said as she walked away, oblivious to his attention. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
She halted and glanced around. “Yes, sir?”
“Would you like some help?”
She hung her head, nodding. “Please, if you don’t mind. I live on the other side of the hill, and my knees feel like they’re about to give out.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He tottered over to her, and she handed him two of the bags.
“I can manage with these two,” she said.
He shook his head while reaching for the other two. “No, ma’am, I can easily carry the full load.” He smiled, and they began the trek upward.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Edward. My name is Anne. I can’t thank you enough for helping me. You’re a true gentleman.”
“I’m glad to help.”
“Had I believed the weatherman, I wouldn’t have dared to go grocery shopping on a hot day like this. The humidity is smothering.” She chuckled. “You’d think that after living in South Carolina for my entire life, that I would have known better.”
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. The weather forecasters can be hit or miss on the best of days. But you’re right. You shouldn’t be out here in this heat.”
“I should have gone shopping this morning when it was cooler. Do you live in this area?”
He squinted. “Not exactly. I’m in transition at the moment, but I do frequent this area quite a bit.”
Her instinctual wisdom, and his reply, caused her to believe that he was homeless. He appeared groomed to some degree, but he was unshaven, and his dirty clothes gave credence to his apparent status.
They continued closing the distance to the summit while the pain in her knees steadily increased. She stopped walking, grimacing from the pain.
He turned around. “Are you alright?”
She panted, patting her forehead with a handkerchief. “Yes. We’re almost there. It will be much easier once we get to the top, thank the Lord, and it’s downhill from there.
“I would tell you to take as much time as you need, but if you stand still for too long, you’ll burn up in the sun.” He looked around the area for a shade tree close by, but the hill was barren. “I have some water.”
She shook her head and pressed onward. “No, but thank you, I’ll be fine.”
They continued walking, past the top of the hill and downward, finally arriving at her small brick house. He helped her up the front steps as she clutched the wobbly black metal handrail and waited as she unlocked the door. He handed her the bags, and she set them on the floor inside as a small terrier darted from the kitchen to greet her.
“Thank you so much, sir. Please, wait here. I’ll be right back.” She left, returning shortly after, holding a jar of coins.
“I know that there is at least five dollars’ worth of change in this jar. I want you to have it,” she smiled.
He frowned and stepped backward. “I’m not a bum,” he said. “Save your coins for those who are begging in the streets.”
“Sir, I thought no such thing,” she said. “I’m sorry, I don’t have paper money now, but if that’s the issue, then come back tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have five dollars for you. I never meant to—”
“Have a nice day, ma’am,” he barked, waving her off.
She watched him disappear over the hilltop, saddened by the misunderstanding, but felt grateful to have made it home safely. She limped inside and closed the door.
A few days later, while walking her dog for his nightly bathroom break, she noticed flashing blue lights at the top of the hill. Being curious, she walked in that direction and came upon two police officers detaining a man. As she approached, she recognized the handcuffed man leaning against the police car. It was Edward. Surprised, she drew closer.
One officer noticed and walked over to her. “Good evening, ma’am. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Good evening, officer. That man. What did he do?”
“Ma’am, I’m not at liberty to discuss that information with you. But I can assure you, everything is alright. There’s nothing to see here. It would be best for you to move on, please.”
“Officer, has he committed a crime? You can at least tell me that. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for decades and would like to know.”
The officer huffed, adjusting his utility belt. “Ma’am, he hasn’t committed a crime that we know of, but we’re questioning him. Hopefully, it will deter him and the other transients from roaming these neighborhoods. They don’t belong around here. You can rest assured, we are serving and protecting the community.”
Edward looked over to notice Anne speaking with the officer and lowered his head. He couldn’t hear the conversation, but imagined that their conversation was about him, unflattering and disparaging. A minute later, he watched Anne walk away, and the first officer walk back to the patrol car.
“Cut him loose,” he told his partner.
“Just do it. She knows him. She said he helps her carry her groceries home. Anyway, we have more important things to do. Let’s go.”
They released Edward from handcuffs and returned his backpack to him before driving away.
He stood in the middle of the road for a moment, before walking down the other side of the hill toward the bus stop. When he arrived, he sat down on the bench, breathed a sigh of relief, and rested. He was troubled by the unlawful detainment, but thankful he didn’t have to spend the night in jail. He walked away to a secluded area and bedded down for the night.
A week had passed since the day that Edward and Anne first met, and during that time, they often thought of each other. To each, their chance meeting held significance, but the reasons why, remained a mystery. Their brief interactions within a short period of time had many of the hallmarks of their individual lives, beholding the good, the bad, and the honest.
As Anne arrived at her stop, she massaged her knees one last time, preparing for the journey ahead, and picked up her grocery bags. Today, she was late getting home, and the sun was beginning to set. She exited the bus, stepping onto the scorching asphalt, before tottering to the cooler sidewalk. When she looked up, Edward was standing there. Her eyes widened. “Hello, Edward.”
“Hello, Anne. Would you like some help?”
“Yes, please. If you don’t mind.”
He took her grocery bags, and they began the trek upward. There was no tension between the two of them or thoughts of past events. Instead, they shared the same determination to climb the hill. Together, they crested the top and continued to their destination. When Anne was inside and set down her last grocery bag on the floor, she turned around to see that Edward was gone, walking back up the hill.
She bent down and riffled through her handbag before setting out after him. He was nearly at the top when she called out to him, but he didn’t hear. She hobbled behind him with a sense of urgency, panting and sweating. His silhouette disappeared, but she persevered, disregarding her throbbing knees until she reached the top and saw him. “Edward!”
He stopped and turned around.
“Anne!” He shuffled back upward, meeting her at the top of the hill. “What are you doing? You’re going to hurt yourself.” He noticed that she was nearly out of breath and supported her by the arm. She held up her hand.
“Never mind that,” she huffed. “You just walked away and didn’t even give me a chance to thank you or say goodbye. Why did you do that?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t need to be thanked for helping you. I wanted to do it. It was my pleasure. I should have said goodbye, though. I apologize.”
“There’s no need to apologize. Now, let me do something that I want to do.” She presented him a ten-dollar bill. “I want to thank you for helping me today. And last week. Please, take this.”
“No, ma’am, I can’t do that. It’s not right to get paid for being friendly.”
“Friendly? So, are we to be friends now?”
“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be.” He blushed and looked down, doodling on the sidewalk with the tip of his shoe.
“Good. Now, as your friend, I want you to take this, so that I can feel good. Like you said, it’s my pleasure,” she grinned, quickly stuffing the money into his shirt’s front pocket.
His nostrils flared. “Okay, thank you. But this is the last time I accept money from you.”
“We can talk about that another time,” she said.
At that moment, standing together at the top of the hill, supporting each other in different ways, they noticed that the setting sun transformed the entire landscape below into a potpourri of radiance, while various shades of red, orange, yellow and purple, illuminated the horizon with majestic brilliance.
“I never noticed the beautiful view from the top of this hill,” she said, laying a hand to her heart.
“Time changes. People change, but the beauty of the sun remains the same.” They stood together in awe, watching the sun disappear beyond the horizon.
“I remember a time when you and I wouldn’t have been standing this close to each other,” he said.
“I remember, too,” she said. “It wasn’t that long ago.”
C.J. Heigelmann: “I am an emerging author of Contemporary and Historical Fiction who has published three novels, An Uncommon Folk Rhapsody, Crooked Fences, and Can't Hide What's Inside. I am a member of the South Carolina Writers Association, The Authors Guild, and the Historical Novel Society. I also work on the managerial staff for The University of South Carolina. I learned to negotiate the changing fabric of race relations within the United States while experiencing different nuances of racial interconnection, and social class ideologies from California to Connecticut, the Deep South, and during military service in the United States Air Force. I combine these unique experiences with my knowledge of the humanities, an empathetic heart, and a belief in world peace, to produce literature focusing on the human condition.”