Last updated on March 26th, 2019 at 07:01 am

Eric Bentley stared at his face in the McDonald’s bathroom mirror. Due to the wrinkling of that face, and the thin layer of dirt which covered it, he looked much older than his 28 years. Who could blame him for that? He’d been homeless, living in the streets for nine years—things like that tend to age a person. When he reflected deeply upon his situation, Eric realized that he should take at least part of the blame for his own problems, but he usually tried not to think too much about the past. Mainly, he was concerned with getting through each day. He spent nearly all of his days sitting outside the Rideau Street McDonald’s, old baseball cap in hand. At night, he slept at The Ottawa Mission homeless shelter, but he wasn’t allowed to stay inside the building all day. Many of his fellow homeless men spent their days hanging out outside the building instead, but Eric didn’t enjoy their company very much. He liked to think he was, if not a bit better than them, at least a bit different. So he spent hours in solitary confinement in front of the McDonald’s. It was solitary—though many people walked by him, few gave him a second glance. The most attention he got was in the form of a few silver or gold coins (usually, silver) clinking together in his old baseball cap. Once he got enough money, Eric would enter the McDonald’s to buy a coffee and do his business in the washroom. He would try to ignore the employees’ stares, which consisted of  mixtures of pity and disgust, as he slunk in and out of the building.

The first half of Eric’s life had been nothing like the life he lived now. He’d grown up in an upper-middle class family in London, Ontario. One of the downsides to being from an upper-middle class family is that your parents often have certain expectations as to what you will do as a career. Ever since Eric was 12 years old, and showed a slight interest in science (really, he had just watched Bill Nye when he was bored), Eric’s father had decided that his son was going to be a doctor.

All Eric heard about while he was in high school was how he was going to attend the University of Ottawa for a Bachelor of Science and then enter medical school there. However, by the time Eric had reached Grade 11, he had a major secret to keep. He had discovered that he had little mathematical aptitude, and of course, to study science, you need to be good at math. So he wouldn’t endure his father’s wrath, which he had to endure whenever he got a B instead of an A, and started paying other students to complete the assignments he was given in his advanced-level math courses. When he graduated second in his class and walked across the stage to accept his award with his father looking on proudly (although he did make the snide comment, “Couldn’t you have just scored a point higher to beat the other guy?”), he felt like a complete fraud. He still felt this way in August as he packed up his room and prepared to go to the U of O, which had given him an entrance scholarship to put toward his biochemistry degree.

Eric’s first semester had ended up being a disaster. Just before the final exam period started, he’d been caught cheating. Just like in high school, he’d been paying other students to complete some of his assignments and a professor had finally caught on. Eric was informed that he could not return to university the following semester and that he must have all his stuff moved out of his dorm room by the beginning of Christmas break.

Eric had returned home for Christmas, acting as if everything at school was going swimmingly. What else could he have done? He just couldn’t have endured the shame that would have been heaped upon him had he admitted what had really happened. His father would have called him a loser, a failure, a fake and a disgrace to the family.

After New Year’s, Eric had reluctantly headed back to Ottawa. Luckily, an off-campus friend had let him move in with him for awhile, so he wasn’t on the streets yet, but after seeing his friend living a normal life and excelling in his courses, depression began to take its toll. Eric applied for a job at a nearby Subway, but was fired after two weeks. Due to the academic grooming he’d been forced to undergo since the age of 12, he had never worked a day in his life, and just wasn’t able to pick up the routine of cashiering and sandwich-making quickly enough. Devastated that he couldn’t do a simple minimum-wage job, he turned to drugs and alcohol for relief, burning through the refund he had received from the university for his dorm room quite quickly. Eventually, his friend couldn’t stand him stumbling around in a stupor any longer and kicked him out of the apartment. That’s when Eric originally found his usual place in front of the McDonald’s. However, he didn’t stay there for long the first time; five days after leaving his friend’s, and after using up the remainder of his stash, Eric brutally beat another man in front of a nightclub and was arrested. Or, at least that’s what the plaintiff’s lawyer said he did at his trial—Eric couldn’t remember a thing about that night. He was sentenced to two years in jail and served them rather quietly. Now, he could barely remember most of the ins and outs of his days in prison. His whole stay seemed like a big blur, except for one significant part.

The one thing he vividly remembered about jail was that he had discovered his interest in writing. After all, what else is a guy to do while living in a little grey cell the size of a bathroom? Eric found that writing was the only thing that made him feel like he was still alive, still at all connected to the world. He often wrote about his upbringing, his psychological state, his drug problems, and how all three had, in combination, led him to the very cell he was in. When he was incredibly bored, he wrote fiction stories, imagining he was part of the characters’ adventures instead of being all alone in a hostile place.

After Eric left jail, returning to Ottawa and resuming his station in front of the McDonald’s, he continued writing. In the folds of his old jacket, he kept a bunch of dog-eared loose-leaf pages in a worn-out folder. He didn’t have any special place to write—he often did so right there on the street, hanging onto his papers tightly so that they wouldn’t blow away in the wind. Seeing the passers-by often gave him inspiration for a lot of great material, and no one ever asked him what he was doing. He doubted that anyone cared about the scribblings of a homeless man, no matter how good they seemed to that man himself (luckily, jail had managed to cure him of his drug habit, so he could write coherently).

That is, no one noticed what he was doing until one day, about a week after Eric had stared at his aging, dirty face in the McDonald’s bathroom mirror. It was especially windy, and the wind was, as usual, trying to tear Eric’s papers from his hands. With one big gust, he couldn’t grab a hold of them, and the whole folder sailed down the street.

Eric dropped his head into his hands. Of course, given his propensity to encountering bad situations in life (whether self-caused or not), it would make sense that his only precious possession would be taken away from him. He actually hadn’t realized just how precious it was until it was gone. He began to cry silently, keeping his head down so no one would see him. “Oh, look at that pathetic homeless man crying,” he imagined some immature student saying.

About 20 minutes later, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was such a rare occurrence that anyone touched him, that he almost jumped out of his skin. He looked up and saw a young male student, about the same age as he had been when he had been kicked out of school. The student said, “Excuse me, sir, but did you lose this?” He held Eric’s folder in his hand. Surprisingly, the folder was still intact, and it looked as if all, or nearly all of the pieces of paper were still inside.

“Why yes, I did,” Eric said. “How did you know it was mine?”

“Well,” the student replied shyly, “I see you writing in it every time I walk by this McDonald’s. I’ve always wondered what you were writing about… then, suddenly, your entire folder landed right at my feet! It was so strange—there was such a strong wind, but it seemed like none of the papers inside had even moved!”

“Well, I’ll take it back now,” Eric said gruffly, reaching out his hand. “I’ll forgive you if you peeked, so long as you don’t tell anybody what it says.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” the student replied. “I found it all completely brilliant. My uncle works for Hursthouse Publishing over on Bank Street, and I’d like to show it to him.”

Eric hesitated. “I don’t know about that,” he said.

“What have you got to lose?” asked the student. “I’ll take it to him this afternoon. You can just wait right here.”

When Eric pondered the young man’s question, he realized he really had nothing to lose—besides the ancient, reeking clothes on his back, his writing was the only thing of real value that he’d possessed in years. It might not be a terribly bad thing for it to get some exposure, if the odd person was interested in having a look. “All right,” he told the student. “But I don’t expect much to come of it.”

The young man, whose name was Asher, took Eric’s writing to his uncle, as promised. His uncle was blown away by the eloquent, harmonious choice of words on each page. He didn’t even care that Eric was homeless—he wanted to meet him immediately! So, Asher and his uncle headed down to the McDonald’s to talk to their new associate. When they got to the storefront, Eric was there, looking as if he was sleeping. They shook him several times, but he didn’t stir. “It looks like he’s dead,” said another male student who was loitering nearby, with a coffee. “He was holding onto his chest a few minutes ago. I didn’t think anything was seriously wrong until it was too late.”

Funeral - Fiction story Posthumous WriterEric had in fact died. He’d passed while indifferent citizens like the coffee-drinking student had stood by, too absorbed in themselves and their own lives to care about the suffering of anyone as insignificant as a homeless person. However, he lives on within the manuscripts that Hursthouse Publishing decided to compile into a book and immediately release. To put things as romantically as possible, you could say that Eric, in a rather bittersweet way, traded his life to achieve a dream he hadn’t even known that he had, using a talent he wasn’t quite aware he possessed.

Always compassionate, even to near-strangers, Asher and his uncle decided to hold a funeral for the man. None of Eric’s family was present, but the funeral parlour’s seats were filled with new fans of the posthumous writer, now a bestseller (for the record, the profits from his book are being donated to The Ottawa Mission). “I guess it’s true what they say—some of the greatest artists are only appreciated after their death,” Asher said, as he delivered the eulogy.

Activist Ken Butigan reflects on his homeless brother’s life in HOMELESSNESS: An activist’s personal story about why everyone matters>>


image 1: Kerem Tapani (Creative Commons BY-ND); image 2: Jeffrey Beall (Creative Commons BY-ND)