Jolene first saw the man when her truck was idling at the drive-thru, foraging through the 99 cent menu. She watched the grey heap of him and chewed her lip as she contemplated miniature tacos. Even in the sticky July heat he seemed to be more cloth than man. He looked like he’d smell. She could tell it’d be a baked-on stink of too much living, plus something more unpleasant underneath. Maybe piss.
The speaker crackled to life, startling her from her thoughts.
“Wel—me to –et Taco, —at w—d y— li— t—day?”
She looked at the man. Then down at her money. She made a decision.
At the pay window, she pulled her extra burrito from the bag and slid over the seat, popping open the passenger side door.
“Here!” she called and scythed the burrito out over the parking lot. The old man, in a surprisingly deft move, caught it in one hand. His left.
She smiled and slid back into her seat. The counter boy, nonplussed, asked her cleavage whether she wanted special sauce.
He was always by the bus stop. That was the intel she gathered the next day. He never got on, didn’t join the city’s homeless population in recycling cans for fare. Sometimes he left the spot, late at night, probably to forage.
He was sitting in the shade of a liquid maple when she found him. Jolene casually threw her leg over a shopping cart and sat sidesaddle. If he noticed this, or anything ever, he gave no indication.
Long, sweaty minutes passed while Jolene got eaten up by flies. The flies didn’t seem to bother him, in fact they kept a good distance away. She realized that he did smell, completely different from the stench she’d anticipated, but just as strong. Like dry rot. She took a few swigs from her water bottle to fortify herself.
From the heap, a gloved hand snaked out, bearing a bent Styrofoam cup.
“Would you mind?” the homeless man said.
Jolene decided to call him Keith, after her sixth grade homeroom teacher. He didn’t know how old he was. He had lived in this area ever since he’d got out, though from where exactly, he would not say. He would not take off his gloves.
Jolene sat there for hours while sweat greased her skin and talked to the old man about the town, his life, the people he met. At no point did she ever see his skin. When she bid him farewell that day, she said, “See you tomorrow.”
And she did.
When she wasn’t out running errands, she sat and talked with the homeless man. Occasionally another bum would walk up, looking for her mercy, but these were isolated incidents. She found that none of the other homeless people liked to be around him for too long.
It was a week before he talked about himself.
“It started with my uncle,” he said, “he was my dad’s younger brother, used to live with us. University student.” He hocked and spat. “He was always picking weird shit up. He’d fill up his little room at the end of the hall, till my dad would yell at him and empty it out again. Guess he was whatchacallit. Touched. Things were fine until he came in one day with this…growth on his hand. Looked like mold. Surprised he didn’t get it sooner, picking up shit like he did.”
Jolene nodded and watched, fascinated, as Keith scratched an invisible itch. The heat was in triple digits, even in the shade, but she saw no sign of dampness on his layers of cloth.
“’Course he never got it checked out, and by the time dad noticed it was too late. Hand damn near rotted off. My uncle died in a whatsit. Sanitarium. Nice name for the funny farm in those days, ‘course there wasn’t nothing funny bout ‘em in those days. I remember the day he had to go out and get his ashes. Thing was, the folks said they never cremated him…” the old man trailed off.
Jolene licked away the crumbs of today’s fishstick meal, studying him. The old man was prone to gesturing with his left hand while he spoke, but never the right. No one could tell her how he got around. He never rose from his heap.
“Anyway, I forget about it till about…’85? ’87? Spots start showing up on my peter. ‘Course, with my time in Da Nang, I think it’s just some kinda jungle rot. Doc gives me some steroid cream or somethin’. Doesn’t go away.”
Jolene noticed the position of the sun and left, promising more food tomorrow. The old man did not reply, did not move.
“It was on my back after a while, too,” he said the next day, after six hotdogs disappeared into the folds of cloth on his head. Thought Jolene strained, she catches no glimpse of a pink mouth.
“Washed with every damn kind of soap known to man, might as well have been sprinkling sugar on it, for all the good it did. Didn’t even think of my uncle, though him and me were pretty thick back in the day.” He stopped to hack at phlegm, a prolonged attack that went on for six minutes. She timed him. When he was done the cloth around his mouth was stained with wet.
Jolene didn’t know why she picked this time to ask it, only that all their interactions had been building up to this question.
She asked, “So why do you keep all covered up?”
The old man fell silent. His left hand flexed once and then stopped, as if even this simple motion taxed him.
His next statement was so quiet the passing cars nearly drowned it out.
“Goddamn doctors couldn’t tell me what the hell was wrong. I bore all their poking and prodding till ‘long about ’93, when I skedaddled out of one of those veteran hospitals. Laid low in case they looked for me. Then after a while I didn’t have any other choice.”
Jolene frowned. “What?”
“I don’t think there was ever anything they coulda done, but I think it spread faster once I got out. I remembered my uncle then, not that it did me any good. It just ate and ate. Got so I was as bad as Hamburger Sue down by the rails, don’t nobody want to give change to someone who looks like the ass end of a nightmare.”
“What’re you saying?”
“Every year I weigh a little less. I think the heat makes it spread faster, but I ain’t gotta choice. I used to be down by the soup kitchen until someone saw me one day. I keep thinkin’ someone will see me and call someone, but I guess I don’t have much of a reason to be scared anymore. Went to piss the other day and my fucking peter broke off. I just keep thinkin’ of my uncle, laying in that hospital bed, whatchacallit. Disintegrating. Terrible way to go.”
Jolene licked the sweat off her upper lip. “I think you’re fulla shit.”
Keith did not seem put off. In fact, he gave no indication of hearing her at all, continuing to speak in a flat cadence.
“Can’t even go down to the soup kitchen anymore, couldn’t take the soup anyway. Can’t move too much so I live off what I can reach from the dumpster.”
“I said,” Jolene pitched her voice louder, “you’re. Full. Of. Shit.”
“—ain’t got no one to help me, ain’t got nowhere to go, ain’t got nothing to do but sit here and—”
There was a powdery, crumbling sound, and then silence. The man seemed to settle.
Jolene realized she’d been squeezing a mustard packet, it had burst in her fingers. She dragged her hand on the seat of her jeans, staring at the heap.
“Mister,” she called. No response.
“Hey mister,” she said, scooting closer. Nothing.
“You alright?” she asked and picked up his knitted cap.
Of course, there was nothing underneath.