This story is by Jesse Barnett and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
His name was Argyle Fergusen.
And he’d tell you if you asked that was Fergusen not the more common Ferguson. The difference was important to him because he’d once come across an old Medline catalog in the rusty dumpster at the end of the alley he called home. Thumbing through the pages he discovered—ironically–that “Argyle Ferguson” was the brand name of a catheter. And though he didn’t have much pride left, what little he had he would use to defend his name. He owed himself that much.
With a name like that a description is largely unnecessary. But if you stopped to look you’d see Argyle was pretty much like any other homeless man you’ve walked by and tried not to see. He looked anywhere from forty to eighty years old. He wore everything he owned and it wasn’t much. His slacks might have once held a sharp crease. Years of crawling in and out of dumpsters and the abrasiveness of the concrete that he called a bed had long ago taken away that straight line.
In fact, nothing about Argyle was straight. His pants hung crookedly on bony hips. His sweater was a mass of lumps and loose strings. His hair may have once been brown or black, but now it was a wiry mess of steel wool. One thing never changed for him, homeless or not, his hair had a mind of its own and wouldn’t be tamed.
He wasn’t an alcoholic although he easily could have been. Long ago in what seemed like another life he watched an uncle destroy his life with vodka. The potential rewards never seemed worth the risk. So he never picked up a bottle even when he panhandled some loose change.
The day his world changed again was just like the first time. The sun came up. He woke up. He patted down his unruly hair. He took a leak. He felt for the harmonica in his pocket.
Argyle walked in his hunched over, lurching way to the corner of the alley to see what today would bring. He sat down on the concrete with the brick corner of the building at his back. To his left was the alley and to his right was the wide concrete sidewalk that fronted Hawkins Avenue. A few scraps of wet litter clung to the grates of the storm drain at the edge of the street.
Fortunately the businesses on either side of the alley didn’t pay too much attention to Argyle. He was harmless and didn’t bother anyone. Besides they liked to hear the quiet tunes of his harmonica and the soulful voice that didn’t match the exterior. It reminded passers-by that even a tarnished exterior doesn’t have to stop the music from getting out.
Argyle heard the footsteps before he noticed the man.
When life foists its heavy burden on your back you get in the habit of looking down instead of looking up. Argyle felt that burden every day. The shiny cognac colored wingtips click-clacked on the sidewalk before coming to a stop just inside of Argyle’s range of vision. He noticed that the left shoe was tied in a double knot and that the right shoe had a smudge of dirt in one of the holes in the leather that formed the wingtip pattern. The shoes would have swallowed Argyle’s size nine and a half feet. They must have been at least a size thirteen.
The cuffs of the navy pinstripe pants ended crisply at the tops the shoes. Before the man stopped Argyle could see a patterned sock dipping into the shoe. He didn’t look up until the man spoke, “Is your name Argyle Fergusen?” The voice was resonant and deep. Somehow it conveyed both gravitas and compassion at the same time. It was the voice of a nineteen-sixties newsman. Walter Cronkite mixed with Martin Luther King Jr. The timbre of the voice made Argyle look up slowly, but his eyes only made it to the second to the last button on the man’s vest.
“Nobody been asking for Argyle Fergusen for a long time.” Argyle said.
The stranger looked down into craggy face with a twinkling eye and did something unexpected. He sat down on the dirty concrete with a grace that belied his size. He curled himself down into a cross-legged position and managed to reduce his linebacker-sized body into a more accessible and less threatening figure. Even sitting down he still seemed to tower over Argyle.
When Argyle at last looked up he stared into the face of a handsome black man. In spite, or perhaps because of the color of his skin he appeared radiant. He had close cropped hair and a trim beard. Laugh lines creased his face and presented evidence that he was no stranger to a smile. He wore a vest that matched his pants and a crisp white shirt.
As Argyle’s gaze took in the man his gaze froze at the man’s wrists. His shirt was French-cuffed, the kind that TV preachers and politicians wore to look refined. It wasn’t the shirt that held his gaze–it was the cuff links. The cuff links appeared to have been created from a steel nail that had been twisted to make a spiral. It was hammered flat, but you could still see the point in the center of the spiral and the nail head on the outside edge. The diameter was no larger than a nickel.
Argyle was sure he had seen those cuff links before. His daddy had a pair that he used to play with as a child. Surely these couldn’t be the same ones.
The man noticed Argyle staring at the cufflinks.
“Argyle, I’ve got a proposition for you,” said the man. “How’d you like to go back to that night and do it differently this time?”
Argyle stared at the man. He could only be referring to one thing, that decision that had his life changed irrevocably. But how could this stranger know about that?
Life really just boiled down to a series of decisions. You make the right ones and things move in one direction. You make a wrong one and your life may change course. You’ll feel the effects, but ultimately it just shifts the line on the page a little bit. But you make a horrible decision and you blow the whole thing up. All you can do is stare at the mess you’ve made and wonder what happened as the structure of your life crashes and burns around you.
Argyle had spent hours, then days and now years thinking about what he could have done; should have done. Would he like to have that night back? Perhaps. But the past was past. You couldn’t go back.
“Argyle, if you want to go back you just have to say the word,” said the stranger. “I have access to certain,” he paused, “abilities that can take you back to that night.”
“I got these cuff links from a man I once knew. His name was Fergusen too. I was sent to him the night before he died. He gave them to me and asked me to give them to his son.”
“Do you know what I’m talking about, Argyle?”
Argyle slowly moved his head up and down.
“If you want to go back to that night and change your story you just have to take these cuff links and touch them together,” said the man.
“Who are you?” asked Argyle.
“No one of consequence. What is important is who you are and what you do with this decision. You’ve been given a chance to redeem yourself, choose a different path. Not many people are fortunate enough to get to do that.”
Argyle looked down at his worn pants and his broken, dirty fingernails. He pulled his old harmonica out of his pocket and examined it. Back in those days jazz music was a sort of tonic to his soul. He had been good. No, he was better than good. He was going places.
If he went back would she be there? Would he be able to mend the torn fabric of her heart at the same time? Looking back up at the stranger he knew the answer.
“What do I have to do?” he asked.
The man began to remove the cufflinks from his sleeves. He laid them on the ground at Argyle’s feet. The dull gray of the nail’s steel matched the concrete.
“Pick them up, touch the spirals together and think back to that moment,” said the man.
Argyle picked up the cuff links. With trembling hands he touched the spirals together.
In an instant the world around him seemed to dissolve. All of a sudden he could hear the syncopated rhythms of the piano and the soulful sound of her voice singing.
She paused in mid song and stared at him.
“Argyle?” she breathed. “I knew you’d come back.”