by George Wallace

I knew him as the old man who worked out back in the summertime, tending a little garden in the shadow of the apartment building when the air was fresh enough and warm. Tomato plants. He’d wait patiently for the fruit to ripen, and then share them with his neighbors, leaving little bags of them at people’s doors. Never at my door, actually, I wasn’t friendly with the man, in fact I never saw his face, only the gardening clothes he sometimes left crumpled at his apartment door when he came in from an afternoon’s work. I’d see the little pile of clothes in the evening when I came in, by morning they were always gone.

Like my neighbors, however, I soon learned that he was more than a little pile of garden clothes and an occasional bag of tomatoes. He was of interest to the government. His age, it seems, was uncertain, and more particularly his origin, and a man like that could be a threat to the state, and has to be accounted for. So the authorities began to come around in order to ascertain the circumstances.

‘We are trying to be reasonable about this thing, we just need to establish the facts,’ they explained to the landlord. ‘The rest of your residents are all right.’

They treated it as a routine matter.

But the man couldn’t help them, or wouldn’t. He’d been born, of course, like anyone else. But he had no birth certificate, and his parents had died long ago. Certainly, he said, no one could be expected on their own to remember where or when they were born. He could not rely on the imperfect memory of what he had been told by their parents concerning his birth. And moreover, he had no living family members to refer them to. The answers he gave regarding school, work, and previous residences were similarly inconsistent and frankly unreliable.

The authorities were unimpressed with the man’s response, and commenced interviewing the rest of us in the apartment building. Beginning with the landlord, then the immediate neighbors. Then they began to spread out, apartment by apartment, coming to people’s doors at dinnertime, mainly. They came in pairs, knocking politely, standing at the doorway with their clipboards and suits.

‘It’s a matter of procedure,’ they explained, with their soft voices. ‘We need to account for everyone in the neighborhood. It is a matter of safety and security, his own and the community’s. What if he should attempt to vote, or if he were to fall ill. What if he committed a crime or if he was a terrorist. What if he should die? Be reasonable, help us.’

But we had no knowledge of how he had come to be here.

At first their demeanor was polite and gentle, but with each passing day and as their hope of properly identifying him became dimmer, an ominous tone began to creep into their voices. More demanding, somewhat accusatory. Were we hiding something from the government, and if so, why?

Was there some sort of conspiracy in the building to protect him?

Maybe there was something to hide. Who knows? Was the guy legit? I certainly didn’t know. I certainly didn’t want to be involved. And I began to wonder if maybe some of the neighbors ought not to be trusted.

Some of us went around to talk to him, trying to reason with him, but it was no use.

‘A certificate of birth is a matter for the state, not for a man,’ he said. ‘Surely it is enough that I use my lungs to breathe the air, that I use my legs and feet to walk. Surely it is enough that my eyes, like my back, are still strong. Like any man, my bones and my flesh are brothers to the soil, and require no license or documentation from the government to exist.’

He sat there with his hands knitted in his lap, and just kept saying that a man and the land he lives upon should be considered as one.

‘The raised seal of a nation can no more lay claim to the body of a man than to his soul. I am like any man. In the morning you can find me at the mirror wiping soap from my chin. In the evening you can find me sitting up in bed reading by lamplight.’

It seemed a reasonable point of view to some of us, though others held that it is important for government to know where a man leaves off, and the land begins. When it comes to administration of people and land, someone said, boundaries need to be drawn.

The government, being what it is, could not let the thing go. One night they came for him and took him away. As it turns out I was the one who discovered this—the next morning, I saw that the man’s garden clothes were still in the hallway by his door, and reported this fact to the landlord.

We never heard from the man again or learned what happened to him, but at the end of the month, and before the new tenant moved in, the landlord organized a little ceremony in the garden behind the apartment building, by the tomato plants.

It was something like a funeral for him. We didn’t have his body to mourn, but we had his little pile of clothes.

I was one of the many mourners, I wore a stiff white collar, buttoned all the way up to my neck.

George Wallace is writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, editor of Poetrybay and co-editor of Great Weather for Media. The author of 35 chapbooks of poetry, he travels internationally to present his work and is a recent recipient of the Orpheus Prize (Plovdiv BG), Naim Frasheri Laureateship (Tetova MC), Corono d’oro First Prize (Korca AL) and the Alexander Gold Medal (UNESCO-Piraeus GR).