Sgt. Peppers bleading hearts club band
by Teresa Reichman
Nearly every day when I drive my daughter to preschool, we pass a couple of pedestrian “regulars.” The father who sits on the curb with his toddler-aged daughter and waits for the bus to bring him his son, the sharp-looking woman who takes her pug for a brisk walk, and the old man with the hunched back.
Something about this old man makes the bleeding heart inside of me pitter patter a little faster. I find myself wondering about him. Almost every day I see him shuffling along the gravel edge of Route 313, his head bent toward the ground, unable to straighten his back and stand tall. Some days he carries a newspaper, other days just an umbrella, and often a plastic bag. Where does he go? Is he a man of little money and impeccable work ethic? Walking the miles to punch the clock, even though his retirement days have long been upon him? Is he in love? Perhaps he’s visiting a girlfriend who is even less agile than he. I imagine him reading her the newspaper, pulling a box of chocolates from his plastic bag, a true knight in shining armor, even as his bones become brittle.
One day, after passing him, I was musing out loud to my husband about this man, and my bleeding heart yelped out loud, “Maybe we should give him a ride… It’s starting to rain.”
Scot shot me a look. “Theresa, the only thing down this stretch of road is that old biker bar. He’s probably a drunk.”
And suddenly my mind went back to a time when I was wrong about someone. Very, very wrong. When I was fourteen-years-old, I worked on a farm cleaning out horse stalls. On November 9, 2001, I wrote this in my journal:
…His name’s Ray. He reminds me of one of the old wise, worldly, noble grandfathers. Don’t ask me why. He’s just so peaceful and mysterious … I think I really like Ray. The one day I was cleaning stalls [alone at the barn] and it was eerily silent and I thought I heard a slow song being hummed. When I looked out, Ray was standing with his back toward me watching the sunset and humming. The neat thing is, he was still there a half hour later when I went to leave. I don’t know why, but I felt I should just write about him…
About a year and a half later, I came down stairs for breakfast the morning after my 16th birthday to find my parents with solemn looks on their faces. They slid the newspaper over to my seat.
“Do you recognize this man?” they asked. There was a mug shot of a black man in an orange jump suit. The man was Ray.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the night before, Raymond E. Webb had raped and attempted to murder a woman. Some newspaper carriers saw suspicious activity along a ditch on the side of a desolate road, and notified the police. The officers arrived as Ray dragged the woman into the woods by a belt tied around her neck.
Ray had a record. In 1971, Raymond E. Webb was convicted of rape and double homicide. He was released on parole in 1988.
And in 2001, I was alone with Ray on a farm, cleaning stalls and thinking he was such a “wise”, “noble”, and “peaceful” guy. No one ever suspected the monster inside of this man, the monster who is now sentenced to life without parole.
So now when I pass the old man with the hunched back, my bleeding heart takes a moment and utters a prayer. I send some good vibrations. And I keep on driving. I’ve realized: Sometimes the people who need our compassion most are already with us. I tilt my rearview mirror to gaze at the little girls in the back seat, smiling at me, trusting me. And I know I’ve done something good.