All Stories, General Fiction

The Conscience Test by Harrison Kim

On his morning walk along a secluded trail in Brunette River park, Jackson noticed a pair of fluffy blue slippered feet attached to bare legs sticking halfway out into the path.  He stepped closer and there lay an old man on his side, dressed in a white nightgown and holding two crutches.

“Taking a rest,” the ancient one said, grey hair flopped down over his white-as-death face. “Do you have a spare cigarette?”

Jackson stared at the patient identification bracelet wrapped round the man’s skinny wrist.  He leaned forward, trying to read it, and caught an odour of disinfectant.  “Are you from the hospital?” Jackson asked.

“Could be,” said the old man, raising his arm and examining the I. D. himself.  “It says Carleton Frattura.”  He looked up. “How about that smoke?”

“I don’t have a cigarette, but I can call an ambulance,” Jackson said.

“ I’m fine,” Carleton breathed in deep, then coughed. “No problems at all.  I shouldn’t smoke anyway.” 

“Can you get up?” Jackson asked.

“I don’t want to get up.”  Carleton grinned, showing mostly gums.  “Love this fresh air.  Can you hear the birds?”  He motioned behind him.  “They’d sound even better if I had some pot.”

A wren hopped around on the twigs.

“I like the way its feet tap on the fallen leaves,” said Carleton.  “It’s very relaxing.” He turned his head to look directly at Jackson. “Really, I’m feeling fine here.”

It was Jackson’s day off.  He’d driven down to the river in his van, parked not too far away, for a quiet walk.  Jackson lived in the van to save money and because human connection irritated him.  It involved feelings and these could take up a lot of his time.

“You’re too sensitive,” his sister said.  “You need counselling.”

“I think I have a workable strategy,” he told her.

“You’re cutting yourself off,” she said.

“Does that make me a bad person?” Jackson asked.

“Just an unknown one,” she told him.

It was sometimes difficult to live in the van.  He couldn’t get completely away from the world. He had to work, buy groceries, use community centres to clean up.  Other personalities penetrated his, on connection. They tangled his boundaries and then he either spiralled deeper into their lives or wrenched himself away. The old man reminded Jackson of his Grandad.  He couldn’t walk by someone like that.  That was the trouble with people. You got stuck to them.

“I should take you back to the hospital,” Jackson stated.

“I’m glad you stopped,” said Carleton.  “You have a well developed conscience.“ He grinned.  “You know, I earned a big wad of money in the Klondike Gold Rush. Sold my claim for fifty thousand dollars.”  He gave a small sigh.  “Spent it all in two months in San Francisco.”  He showed Jackson a lopsided grin. “Easy come, easy go.  I had a wild time though.  Poker, women, and roulette.  No regrets.”

Jackson thought about the story.  He was interested in history.  “You’d have to be at least 140 years of age to be in the Klondike Gold Rush,” he said.

Carleton lay with one hand holding up his head and nodded.  “Yeah, that was a story an old guy told me about his grandad forty years ago when I was as old as you.”

Jackson nodded back.

“So what did you really do?” he asked.
“I was in a rockabilly punk band,” Carleton told him.  “We played all over Canada.  Opened for “The Clash” on their 1982 tour.”

“The Clash?” asked Jackson.

“Yeah, it was a good time, man.   I played the drums.”

“Let me take you somewhere,” Jackson said. “I can’t leave you lying on this path.”

“We could go to my house,” Carleton said.

“Yes, that would be good,” Jackson stood and stretched his legs.  Things were looking up.  The old guy had a home.

“You’ll have to help me.” Carleton announced. 

“How can I do that?” Jackson asked.

The old man rolled over onto his stomach, pushed his crutches away and propped himself forward on his elbows.  “I never married,” he told Jackson. “How about you?”

“No,” said Jackson.  He wondered if he should grab Carleton’s shoulders and pull him up. “I tend to avoid women.”

“On their deathbeds, people regret what they didn’t do,” said Carleton, still looking forward at the wren, hopping through the twigs quite a distance away now.

“I don’t know about regrets,” Jackson said.  “I haven’t been to many deathbeds.”

“I could use a coffee,” Carleton added.

He rose up on all fours, grabbed hold of the tree beside him and lifted his way up.

He stood leaning against the trunk fixing his robe, his long grey and white hair hanging in front of his face.

“My van’s just down the way,” Jackson said. He picked up the crutches, held them forward.  “Can you manage?”

“I can indeed,” said Carleton, “You and your conscience give me motivation.”  He pulled his hair back, shoved a crutch under each armpit and hobbled forward.

“You know, we take it for granted we can walk,” Carleton said.  “And when we can’t, we know the grant’s run out.”

They moved along the isolated path.   Carleton kept chatting as he pulled himself along.  Jackson glanced up at the cottonwood trees.  He thought about resting on the ground himself and watching the view towards heaven. 

“How long were you lying there?” he asked.  “And how did you arrive in the first place?”

“Those are fact-based questions,” said Carleton., stopping for a rest, and coughing a bit.  “I’m not that good on facts.”

Jackson opened his van door; Carleton couldn’t swing his leg around.  Jackson said “Put your hand on my shoulder and push up,” and Carleton did, pulling himself into the van.  Jackson felt the man’s weight and grip.  There wasn’t much of either.

“You’ve got your home well organized,” Carleton said.  “I lived in a van back in my tree planting days.”

Jackson started the engine.  “What’s your address?” he asked.

“What address?” said Carleton.

“Your house, you know, the one you said you had.”

“Oh, yeah,” the old man said. He sat a moment, staring out the window.  “It’s at the top of the hill.”

Jackson drove slowly up the hill.  Carleton looked around.  “Lots of nice places here. 

It’d be great to live in one.”

“Which one?” asked Jackson. 

He wanted to continue his morning walk, in fact, he wished to go on a long hike.  The more time he spent with Carleton, the more twitchy and jumpy his legs felt.  He couldn’t keep them still, tapping his foot up and down on the brake pedal.

“That could be it,” said Carleton.

He pointed out an older brown two storey house, the only one with a porch.

Jackson drove up beside the building and opened the van door for Carleton.

“Not sure if it’s the right one,” Carleton said.  “Could be my Uncle’s place.  Can you check for me?”

He wrapped his robe tighter.

“I guess I can,” Jackson said. 

He opened his door and jumped out, jogged up onto the porch and rang the doorbell.  He stepped up and down in place to ease the stress in his legs.

A frizzy haired blonde woman pulled the door back a few inches.  A heavy chain stopped further movement.  “Do you know an older guy named Carleton?” Jackson said.  “He says he lives here.”

The woman looked out at Jackson stepping up and down, and the long haired man in the van, sitting sideways in his hospital robe, bare legs sticking out.

“Don’t think so,” she said.  She paused. “Maybe a long time ago.”  She looked at Jackson.  “Could be he’s confused.  Maybe he should see a doctor.”

“You have a point,’ said Jackson.  “Thanks.”

He returned to the van, sat in the driver’s seat and gazed out.  He saw the woman in her front window, staring back at him.

“Did you truly believe you lived there?” he asked Carleton.

The old guy shrugged.  “I could’ve sworn I lived in a place like that.”  He turned to Jackson. “I know I’m being a pain in the ass, but could you get me a coffee with milk only? I’m missing my caffeine.” 
“Okay,” Jackson said.  He put the van in reverse.  “I’ll get you a coffee, then we’ll drive over to the hospital.”

Carleton held up his bracelet.  “I was there all night,” he said.  “And three days I think.”  He examined his chest.  “I think I might have been there for a heart operation.”

Jackson drove them towards the commercial area.  “You don’t have any scars,” he said.  “Maybe it was some other issue.”

Carleton looked over at him.  He smiled. “You could be my son,” he said.  “My son looks just like you, with that short hair and glasses, about the same age.  Did you play softball in Burnaby?”

“I didn’t like team sports” said Jackson.

Carleton nodded. “Luke was a pitcher, a pretty good one.  They made the provincials one year.  Your name isn’t Luke, is it?”

“I know some Lukes,” Jackson said.  “But I’m not one.”

He bought Carlton a large coffee from a Local Tim’s.

“Do you have any I. D. at all besides that hospital bracelet?”  he asked.

Carleton searched his robe.  Jackson smelled a mushroom odor.  “You must’ve been lying on the ground a while,” he said.

“Yeah,” Carleton told him. He chuckled. “Waiting for someone to pick me up.”

Jackson nodded. “I thought you liked lying there.  The birds and all.”

“The world’s always better with company,” Carleton said.  “I thank you once again for stopping.”

“We’re going to the hospital,” Jackson said.  “It’s the only option.”

He drummed his fingers along the steering wheel.

“I don’t think that’s where I belong,” said Carleton.  “But I’m at your mercy.”

He took a sip of the coffee.  “This is good. You’re the best, man.  You like this van?”

“It’s my getaway from everything.” said Jackson.  “I don’t like being around people much.”

“A fellow like you needs friends,” said Carleton.  “You should have an apartment.”

He leaned over.  “Look, you’re young, you’re fit, you’ve got a conscience.  You should be happy.”

“I’m not unhappy,” said Jackson.

He drove into the hospital parking lot and parked the van in the last available spot.

“That’s lucky,” he said. 

“Maybe your luck is starting to change,” Carleton told him.

Jackson wanted to drop Carleton off and drive away, but the old guy sat there weakly fumbling with the door handle.  Jackson walked around to the passenger side and opened the door.  He grasped Carlton’s wrists with his. “I’ve got you,” he said.

Carleton let himself drop into the young man’s arms.

 They stepped across to the emergency ward. The old man moved one small step at a time, using his crutches.

“Nothing wrong with my legs,” he said.  “Thanks for carrying the coffee.”

At the triage entrance, Jackson told the nurse “I found this guy lying on the ground with his hospital bracelet.”

“Take this number, we’ll call you,” she said.

Then she looked closer at Carleton.  “Let’s see that bracelet.”

Carleton held his I. D. up to the light.

The nurse put the number into the computer.

“O. K. Mr. Frattura,” she said.  “Sit over there.”

“You wait” said Jackson.  “I have to go now.”

Carleton stood swaying on his crutches.

“Tell me you won’t run away again,” Jackson said.

“I didn’t run away,” said Carleton.

Jackson took the old man’s elbow and moved him over to the chairs.  The two of them sat.

Jackson moved his legs up and down, he couldn’t stop.

“Could you refrain from doing that?” asked a portly lady with a band aid over her face.

“I’m sorry, I’m going!” Jackson stood up.

“See you, Carleton.”

“See you, kind stranger,” Carleton told him.

He took another sip of coffee.

Jackson stepped out of the emergency room, ran across to his van, and jumped in.  He started it up and drove up Burnaby Mountain.  He spent a few hours hiking around the trails there, letting thoughts about the Carleton incident whirl and pass through his mind.  He lay down in his vehicle and tried to get a few hours of sleep before his midnight work shift.

Jackson worked in a salad factory, on an assembly line putting together pre-made salads.  It was pretty noisy, so he didn’t have to talk with anyone.  He mostly worked on the cabbage and tomatoes.  That night, he stood in the line and put salads together.  Across from him laboured a fellow worker he knew as Mary.

He tried not to look at her, but every time he glanced up, she appeared to be gazing in his direction.

“I better focus on the salad mix,” he thought.

At the break, Mary came and sat at his table.

“Everywhere else is taken,” she said.

Jackson took another swallow of his lukewarm vending machine coffee.

 “Forget your lunch?” she asked.

“Um, well, I don’t like to eat that much at night,” Carleton answered. 
Mary pulled out some food from her lunch bag.

“Did you have a rough day?”

Carleton looked at her.  She had big eyes.  Her mouth was obscured by a sandwich.

“Well,” he said, “I met this old man lying on a path.”

He told her all about Carleton.  He didn’t want to talk, but then he couldn’t seem to stop.  “He said he used to play drums for the Clash.” he said.

He remembered that wasn’t quite what Carleton told him.

“It doesn’t matter,” he thought.  “It’s the idea that’s important, not the facts.”

“Sounds like he didn’t know who or where he was,” Mary said.  “You did the best you could.”

“At least we know who we are,” Jackson answered.  They smiled at each other.

After work, in the early morning, Jackson drove down along the river to the park where he walked every day.  He liked the routine, it calmed him from the traffic and the work.  He felt exhausted but couldn’t sleep without some physical activity.  Coming around a corner, he saw familiar fluffy blue slippers on a pair of feet sticking out across the pathway.  He moved a few paces back, then stepped forward, arching his neck to look.  He saw the long cream-coloured gown, the bare legs, knees drawn up, a pale face covered by grey-white hair, exactly like Carleton.  Maybe there was a slight difference.  Did Carleton have on a white gown or a blue one?  Jackson couldn’t recall.  He trod carefully around in front of the figure.  He thought he saw the chest moving. He smelled the hospital smell but didn’t see a tag.  Then he looked into the bush.  Several small birds moved around, hopping on the pine needles. 

“Say, is that you, Carleton?” Jackson asked.

The figure opened its eyes. “Who do you think it is?”

“I’ll go get you a coffee,” Jackson answered. 

“Can you also find me a smoke?” asked the old man.

Jackson walked further up the trail to a store on top of the hill and bought some cigarettes and an Americano style coffee.  Then he walked back.

“Where are your crutches?” Jackson asked.

“Somebody stole them” said Carleton.  “They’ll sell them on the black market for medical supplies.”

“I’m calling an ambulance,” said Jackson.

“You’ve passed the conscience test again,” the old man told him.

“I can only do so much, Carleton,” the young man said.

Jackson was tired of a lot of things.  He didn’t want to end up lying outside in a park with fluffy slippers on. 

“I’m not such a bad person,” he thought to himself.  “I’ll visit Carleton in hospital,” although he wondered if this thought was another example of feelings tangling his boundaries.  He pushed the phone buttons for emergency.

“Will it be police, fire, or ambulance?” asked the operator.

“The ambulance,” said Jackson. 

He took several gulps of the Americano coffee.  He looked forward to a hike, then a sleep, and, for a change, getting back to the salad factory.  Before he left, he gave Carleton the pack of cigarettes. 

Harrison Kim

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

9 thoughts on “The Conscience Test by Harrison Kim”

  1. Jackson is humane. 99.9999% of the human race would have kept on walking by the feet in the bushes. This is unresolved because it is honest. You do what can or what you will (if you do at all) and it just keeps going and going, the absurd and predictable, the random and what might mean the mind of God..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very good, thoughtful and engaging story. I think the mysterious Carleton has successfully entangled Jackson with humanity. As James McEwan said, the character change is subtle. That makes it more believable and affecting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Harrison,
    You show your skill time and time again by giving us very believable and vivid characters.
    The self-realisation type of story is done millions of times and for any to stand out, it all depends on the characters. These two are likeable and infectious.
    I think your choice on when to stop was perfect. You could have taken this into tragedy or sentiment country but left that well alone.
    I also liked that the ending didn’t mention him wanting to see Mary although I reckon most folks would consider that. Leaving it with him leaving the old boy the cigarettes was a good place to end.
    All the very best my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you commenters for all your replies. Having the reader totally absorbed in the story is what I strive for. The idea came from an incident I experienced with someone quite like Carleton. As Monika says, kindness is a quality to strive for. Trying to do what you commit to is often difficult, and can be a test of character and one’s humanity as David H. writes. As a teenager, I wrote a song about a girl called Mary. It went “Mary, don’t say goodbye, O Mary don’t say goodbye, cuz when you do, O Mary, I will cry.” I had to use Mary in a story to redeem myself from that song.


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