“I can see the bacteria on your hand,” the beggar said as he staggered up to me.
“No you can’t.” I reached into my wallet to fish out the right amount.
“Are you calling me a liar?” His eyes danced over my wrist into the fold of leather.
“I just don’t believe it. That’s all.”
“So, because you can’t, you think I can’t.” His breath carried sour grapes rotting in the noon sun. Have to get out of here quick. Ten should do it.
“People can’t see bacteria, they’re too small. You need a microscope.”
“So you think everyone is exactly the same as you?” A crusted brown hand punished by life on the streets, reached out little by little.
“No, people are different, but we have limitations.”
His hand jittered with expectation as he asked, “So people are different, but our limitations are exactly the same?”
Did I release the ten, or did he tug on it first? Better watch out for him. “What? No. We have different limitations, too.” The guy seemed smarter than he looked. Sure knew double-talk.
“Thank you, sir.” His head bobbed under his ragged green ball cap as a jumbled row of scabby teeth parted a cloud of dirty grey whiskers.
“You’re welcome.” I took a step away, wallet back in place, safe from a pick-pocket.
“No bacteria on me at all,” he said.
This guy is nuts. Everyone has––
“Bacteria?” He finished my thought with a voice that begged me to stay. I knew he wanted to work me for more money. That’s what they always want.
“Look, I have to go.” I adjusted my sunglasses. “God bless you.”
“Can you see bacteria on me?”
This was dumb. I shook my head.
“Then, how do you know if they’re here?” Stubby brownish fingers wiggled toward me, palms up, my ten jammed between the fingers of his left hand.
“Because they are.”
“But you can’t see them, can you?” His weaving got worse. Would he topple over?
“If I had a microscope I could show you.”
“I’ll wait.” He staggered backward, sat on the concrete barrier and folded flanneled arms across his chest.
“No. No, I have to go.” Maybe he had all day. I didn’t.
“No faith, huh?”
“You don’t have enough faith that you’re right, and I’m wrong.” His thumb made a pass at his chest.
I shook my head, numb lips peeled apart to force my reply. “I have faith, just no time. Gotta go.”
“Maybe bacteria isn’t real, ‘cause you’re the one who can’t see ’em.” He studied the back of his hand.
“They’re real. Like I said, a microscope.”
He closed his eyes, and propped his grimy hands down to either side to keep his torso from leaning over too far. “God’s real, too.”
God? “No, God’s just a belief. Bacteria, real. God, not real.”
His eyelids fluttered. “I can see God, too.”
“No you can’t. No one can.”
“So everyone is the same?” He wiped at his nose and ran his tongue down across his bottom lip. Drool.
“God’s not real. That’s all.”
“Yep. That’s what they used to say about bacteria––not real. Surgeons didn’t wash their hands––argued about it all the time.” His right hand flew upward then made a loose dismissive wave as it settled back onto the wall.
“Well, now they know more. With the microscope, there’s proof. Now they can get a good look.”
“So the bacteria were there the whole time they were arguing about it?”
I nodded. “Of course they were.”
He stood erect and steady, approached me and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder, the way I imagined my father might have done. Had he stayed.
“Bacteria were there … the whole time?” The beggar’s face moved closer. Somehow he no longer seemed tipsy.
“Of course,” I said.
“Even while they were arguing about whether the bacteria existed or not?”
“They invented the microscope, then they could see.” Why couldn’t he get this?
“Son, maybe you need to invent a Godscope. Then, you’ll get a better look at someone who’s been here the whole time, too.”
Eyebrows rose above his wink, followed by a smile that broke forth like sunshine after a storm. His hand fell from my shoulder as he turned with a brisk soldier’s spin, then walked away with lengthy well-timed strides past the grocery on the corner and out of sight.
Funny how someone so drunk could get completely sober… just like that.