Mike was an ogre or at least, looked like one. He was stooped with a barrel chest and protruding belly, precariously balanced on a pair of twisted, spindly legs. His scarred face was surrounded by a mat of uncombable dark hair and matching beard. We lived in the same apartment building for several years, until he passed away. I got to know him pretty well. I think I was the only person in the building who’d talk to him. I admit that I hadn’t wanted to talk to him at first either, but he lived across the hall, and was difficult to avoid. After a while we became friends. He had no family and was alone except for me, and the women.
There must have been six or eight of them during the time that I knew him. None stayed for very long. He talked about his girlfriends, as he called them, on occasion. It was usually after they’d left, and something was missing. The stealing didn’t seem to bother him. It only made him sad. I suspect he would’ve given them anything he had, if they’d asked.
They were always coming and going. Desperate women who’d been down a hard road, with nowhere else to go. They only stayed until their prospects improved. I talked to some of them, and not one had anything bad to say about Mike. I don’t know where he found them. Wherever nocturnal creatures and lost children congregate, I suppose. I’m sure there are plenty to be found if you know where to look.
The last woman’s name was Marla something. She found his body. After rifling through the apartment and emptying his wallet, she called 911. Then she disappeared. It was heart failure the coroner said. Mike was forty-seven.
Those who died with little or no money, and whose body wasn’t claimed, were buried in a pauper’s grave. There isn’t a service or a monument, just a dirt covered hole, and a small marker with a number on it. That’s what they do with the flotsam that washes ashore in the city. Mike told me once that he wanted to be cremated. I don’t know why he mentioned it. Maybe he knew the end was near.
I don’t know if he was a good man, or a bad one. A hero, or a villain. Or maybe just another victim. I like to believe there was more good than bad about him. That whatever those women gave of themselves to him was more from gratitude than obligation, and that inside the distorted body was a beautiful heart. Mike was an ogre or at least, looked like one, but we all know that looks can be deceiving. I think of him sometimes, whenever I go to my bookshelf, and see the urn containing his ashes.
Steve Bates is retired from the newspaper business and lives in rural Missouri.