The man wasn't sure how he'd become Fritz' caretaker. He'd only known him a short while. They'd met in a group of mutual friends only a month or two ago, and started hanging out on Rittenhouse Square and in coffee shops around Center City Philadelphia.
“C'mon, Fritz,” the man coaxed. “That food's not gonna do you any good moving around on your plate. At least take a small bite of those potatoes.”
Fritz looked up from pushing egg whites around in yellow goo with his fork. He looked up at his friend with sad, sunken eyes—eyes that screamed, Screw you! but his lips said dejectedly, “I'm doing the best I can. I'm really not hungry.”
The man had been jealous of Fritz from the first time he'd heard his story. Fritz had lived in Amsterdam before hitting bottom, partying hard, drinking harder. One of the beautiful people. He'd cruised Europe on a motorcycle holding on to the naked torso of his muscular Italian boyfriend, Bruno. The friend was jealous—his own story paled in comparison.
They weren't friends for long before Fritz disappeared. Three weeks later, he finally answered his phone. He agreed to go for coffee.
Late the next morning, the friend cringed at the specter answering Fritz' door. “My god, Fritz, what happened to you? You look like a scarecrow!”
Fritz shrugged bony shoulders and wordlessly waved in his friend.
The man marveled at the one-room flat. A battered cafe table sat under a dirty window that looked out on the black brick wall of an air shaft. One lonely chair, its tan vinyl seat cover stained and cracked, leaned by the table. In one corner of the bleak room lay a bare thin mattress on the floorboards against a wall, with a wrinkled gray sheet balled up in the middle. Brown mold streaked the walls of cracked and pealing once-white paint where rain had leaked in.
In the galley kitchen, yellowed white cabinets with glass-paned doors—some of the panes broken out—offered a feast of emptiness.
The friend scrutinized Fritz' skeletal frame. Once skinny but sinewy arms now looked like thin tubes covered in pale leather. His cheeks sucked inward, eyes sunken into a Halloween mask.
“Where's your food?” he asked Fritz, panicked now, brashly opening a few empty cabinets and refrigerator.
He shrugged. “I really don't eat much.”
“Fritz, you've wasted away to nothing literally in weeks!” the man yelled. “You look like an ad for a death camp!”
“You're right, you're right.” Fritz smiled meekly, the skin on his face drawn so taut over bone it might shred.
“C'mon, we're getting you something to eat,” said the friend, his voice husky with fear.
“I don't have money to go out to eat,” Fritz whined.
“I'm not going to let you starve yourself to death, Fritz. I'm buying you some groceries.”
Fritz looked like a man hearing his death sentence.
“You don't have money for that,” Fritz balked. “You don't need to do that.”
“We'll go to Reading Terminal Market. I can afford to buy a few things there. Let's go,” the friend commanded.
Slowly, reluctantly, Fritz grabbed his keys and they walked out the door.
Fritz walked in the wrong direction. “Where are you going?” the friend asked.
“I always go this way.”
“Well, it's more direct this way.”
Fritz hesitated, then slumped his shoulders and followed, his legs jutting from his shorts like sallow stilts cut off at the knees.
“We'll take Ridge Avenue, it's more direct,” the man told Fritz. Fritz followed.
They walked silently, Fritz's iciness penetrating the already warm summer morning air. They passed a wasteland of abandoned houses, trash blowing across bare dirt carpeting the landscape between broken concrete and cracked macadam. Idled factories wilted in the heat of the August sun, guarded by broken fences topped by rusted barbed wire, roofs and walls caving into lifeless parking lots where little heaps of broken green and white glass grew like weeds.
“Don't walk on that glass, Fritz!” the man yelled. Fritz dutifully skirted the sharp shards on the sidewalk.
The market bustled with people. Amish farmers in wide-brimmed straw hats sold produce from booths side-by-side with more urbane vendors hawking scented candles and herbal teas. Brown bushel baskets heaping with red and green peppers, yellow, white and red onions, tomatoes of every shape and stripe, purple eggplants, yellow and green squash filled the market.
Corpulent carcasses of pigs, cadavers of sheep, ghosts of ducks and geese hung from the ceiling in the butcher stalls. Fritz winced. “I won't eat meat. I'm a vegan,” he said firmly as they passed glass cases full of dead slabs of beef, pork and chicken
That's when the friend pushed Fritz into a small diner tucked into a corner of the market. “You're going to eat something now!” he'd commanded.
Fritz had refused to order from the waitress. “He'll have two eggs over easy,” the friend told the waitress. “No toast!” Fritz said, asserting himself with all his waning strength.
In the market after brunch, Fritz fought off every attempt to buy food for his pantry. “I won't eat beets. I won't eat cauliflower,” he argued. The man filled two large brown sacks with healthy vegetables and fruits.
“Now promise me you'll take these home and eat them,” the man said.
Fritz smiled sweetly and said, “I promise. I'll make myself a nice salad for lunch.”
That night the friend called Fritz to make sure he'd followed orders.
“Oh, you're going to kill me,” Fritz said joyously. “On my way home from the market, I met a homeless man who was very hungry—and I gave the food to him.”
The man never heard from Fritz again.