Tag Archives: homelessness

Times Are Hard All Over

Henry and Frank sat on an upturned newspaper vendor and split a bag of sunflower seeds. They faced a sign that had been bright once, and welcoming. Now the blue had faded into yellow, the yellow was white, and the name of the town it advertized was practically invisible.

“That town.” Frank motioned with his chin. The wrinkled skin of his muzzled dipped in around his remaining teeth. “That town got mean hearts. You couldn’t pay me to go there.”

Henry took a swig of water. He’d filled it at the library hours ago, before they’d kicked him out. “No choice. Alameda’s gotten meaner. The hell else am I gonna go? Times are hard all over.”

Frank was lost in a reverie of another time. Despite the winter coat over his bare torso, he still looked chilled. “Jill went in there a while ago. Haven’t heard back from her. I’m gonna hit the highway, see if someone won’t take pity on me.”

“That’s a lot of walking at your age,” Henry said, not without concern.

Frank just looked at the sign, shaking his head.

“Couldn’t pay me to go there,” he repeated, “not money or honey to go in that town.”

Frank unlocked the brakes of his cart and wheeled it off along the road. There were no shade trees on either side, so the old man dwindled in a shimmer of heat. Just the sight of it made sweat break out on Henry’s neck. He looked up at the sign.

Beneath the town name, there were three diagonal slash-marks. Old hobo signs. Henry wished he knew what they meant.

He hitched up his bag and started walking.

 

The grass to either side of the road was a broad yellow that seemed to absorb the sun and give it back in equal measure. His water was gone before he’d traveled a mile.

Here and there you could see remnants of citrus orchards that had been cleared out for construction of housing. He could tell by the shape of the land that much more had been planned out than the little snakebite that unfolded beneath him. Roads that were more crack than concrete. Houses that lay in sunfaded fifties colors. A rusted pump station where he filled his aluminum bottle at an old tap that tasted like chlorine.

The place set off his hackles well before he came to the little main street. There was no one out, not even to lounge in the doorway of a shop and goggle at passerby. There were no franchises. He saw signs for places like “Bob’s BBQ” or “Village Antiques.” No Mc-anything, not even a hotdog cart.

When the police cruiser glided down the street behind him, Henry had already broken into a cold sweat. Two carrier bags automatically marked him as homeless, no matter how clean he kept himself.

The car cruised to a slow roll beside him.

“Where you going, young man?”

Henry kept his eyes on the road before him. “Just passing through,” he said automatically. He’d pass right through if they let him.

“No need to rush on our account. We like visitors, don’t we Ben?” An answering laugh from the passenger side.

Henry kept mum. In his experience with police, if they had a mind to harass you there was nothing you could say or do to put it off.

“Stop, son.” This came from the passenger side, and it meant business.

Henry stopped, eyes neutrally on the distance beyond the cruiser. The car doors opened.

The driver was a weaselly thin white guy with very little chin and a smile that didn’t help things. The passenger was a black guy with the body of an athlete and the face of an enthusiastic little boy. He took his sunglasses off and nodded at Henry’s bags.

“What you got in there?” he asked casually.

Henry shrugged. “Little things. A towel.”

The white cop reacted like he’d just told the funniest gut-buster of all time, pounding the roof of the cruiser.

“Towel?” he gasped. “You going swimming?”

Henry kept his eyes on the other cop. This one was dissecting Henry with his eyes, weighing him with an air Henry didn’t particularly care for. Finally, the cop nodded.

“Get in the back.”

Henry felt his skin prickle. “Have I done something?”

“You ain’t in trouble. We’re just giving you a ride.” The white cop leered.

“I’ll be out of here,” Henry promised, “I can be out of town by nightfall.”

“Well, we’ll help you along with that.”

Beaten, Henry slid into the backseat of the cruiser.

The white cop kept up the chatter in the car. “We don’t get many visitors here, nope. It’s a shame, because we’re downright hospitable. Aren’t we, Officer Baggs?”

“That is affirmative, Officer Corlin. We love all people, especially people just passing through.” Officer Baggs laughed, and it was an infectious laugh.

“Yesiree. The outside world may’ve written you off, but we in town believe you can still make a contribution.”

The car swung a right, traveling deeper into town. Henry’s grip on his bags tightened.

“Know what we do with you?” Corlin made eye contact in the rearview mirror. “We keep you on ice. You can stay here as long as you last.”

“Shut up, Cor,” Baggs said affectionately.

They passed several shuttered restaurants. Henry blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “I have to go to the bathroom!”

Corlin squinted. “Like hell you do.”

“I been holding it in for hours,” Henry promised, “I can give this seat a real good shower if you want.”

Baggs laid an arm across the seat and looked back. “Just let him,” he said breezily, “it’s not like he can do anything.”

They stopped at an old drug store. From the decor, Henry figured it had closed in the fifties. Soda fountains lay untouched by time under layers of dust. Officer Corlin encouraged him out of the back seat with a truncheon. He didn’t see Henry as enough of a threat for a gun. Good.

Baggs leaned against the side of the cruiser with his arms folded, looking innocently up at the cloudless sky.

Corlin led Henry to a bathroom with a broken door. In the heat it smelled like a busted port-o-john. He nudged Henry with the stick. “Go on. Don’t make a day of it.”

Henry took two steps like he was going in. Baggs had his holster unclipped, but his hands were tucked into his elbows. Corlin was twirling the truncheon like a baton. Henry stopped at the door.

He mumbled something. Corlin drew closer.

“What?”

Henry let swing with his leg. The cop may have been expecting the blow, but he hadn’t anticipated the aluminum of Henry’s prosthetic leg. It made a nice ringing sound. Henry dropped his bag and ran for it while the cop writhed in pain. Baggs shouted and peeled away from the car. Too late, too late.

Henry ran in-between stores and under fences. He was probably screwed. The cops lived here, they could probably hear him fumble through the labyrinth of sheet metal and wood.

Someone opened a door and Henry got a flash—dark cloth, white collar, bald head. Gesturing.

“In here, my son!”

Henry ran gladly into the waiting darkness. The priest closed the door, which only had a handle on the inside, and shut out the sun.

“Sorry for the cliche,” he said, laughing a little, “it’s the best attention-getter I can think of.”

He had a little brownish red hair in a horseshoe all around his head, and a smile that awkwardly tried to look nonthreatening. Good. Henry had had enough of people who smiled too easily.

“I can repay you with labor,” he said carefully, “I had some cash but it was in my bag…”

The priest waved it away. “I couldn’t possibly expect to ask for payment. Not for such a thing. Do you have any idea what they wanted with you?”

Henry shook his head. He had an inkling of an idea, something horrible that he pushed down because he didn’t want it to be true.

The other man shook his head. “Good. That talk isn’t for daylight hours. Please follow me.”

The shelter had a shower cubicle and donated clothes several sizes too large for Henry. The priest waved away his repeated thanks and brought a bowl of hominy soup thin as water. Henry had eaten a sandwich only hours ago and the run had done his appetite no favors, but he choked down the bowl anyway. The priest watched approvingly.

“Times are hard all over,” he said, “but that is no reason to let savagery triumph. The men you saw today have been made desperate by hardship, but they are by no means bad men.”

Henry swallowed his disagreement with a gulp of iced tea.

“We all have needs,” the priest said. He was looking at the wood of the table now, wood that was marked by many generations of initials. “But what they don’t realize is that you can reap a far greater harvest with gentleness than with force. Don’t you agree?”

Henry nodded. The bowl was empty. The priest came back to the present.

“Wonderful,” he said, “I knew you’d be hungry. Everyone here is. Now you probably want to rest, right?”

Agreement had gotten him this far, so Henry nodded. The priest led him down a long hall with many identical municipal doors.

“This used to be a school. So many things in this town used to be something else.”

The priest opened a door identical to the ones around it. “I’m sure you’ll be comfortable.”

Henry stepped into the room. There was a cot with a jailhouse mattress, an end table with a plastic jug of water. It was twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the building. As Henry was studying the lay of the land, the door closed behind him with a bang. He turned and found that there was no handle on this side of the door. He drew close and pounded on it, as cold air hissed through the vents.

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The Bus God

Friday night, Victor’s dad told him he wasn’t giving him a lift home from school anymore, so he took the 75 line that ran past his school. That was how he met the bus god.

There wasn’t anybody on the bus but the two of them, not even the late shift crowd: janitors and mall cops, women in hoodies with sleeping toddlers. In the disabled seating area sat a man that wore layers of clothes worn to the point of brownness. It was impossible to tell what color his skin was, and he wore a knit cap to cover his hair and UFO-catcher sunglasses that swallowed half his face. From the time Victor boarded the bus stop to the very end, he never stopped grinning.

Victor, obeying the natural laws of public transit, took a seat all the way in the back. Around the stop for the light rail, the man pulled the cord and shuffled off, grinning back at Victor. That was all.

Next week dad chuckled at his reluctance and told him public transit built character.

“Or maybe it’ll teach you initiative to get off your ass and get a job, so you can buy your own car,” he grunted.

Victor said nothing. Once dad was in one of his moods, there was no talking him out of it.

The bus was crowded that night, and the only empty seat was near the man. He seemed to recognize Victor, his grin only got wider and he patted the seat. Victor opted to stand, but the next stop lurched so badly he fell down.  The driver hollered at him to sit, and Victor obeyed drivers.

The man’s stench was almost solid. “Howdy,” he said.

Victor pretended to read.

The man nodded at the driver’s seat. “I did that.”

Victor nodded politely, avoiding eye contact.

“I kin do what I want,” the man continued, as if they had been having a conversation for hours, “I’m the god of buses.” He laughed like a drain, shoulders shaking with mirth. Victor moved slightly to avoid being touched.

The man leaned forward suddenly, laughter gone. “I made the bus crowded,“ he whispered, “so you would have to sit. I can do that too.”

Victor considered pulling the cord, but the landscape passing by was sketchy and unfamiliar.

The man watched him triumphantly. “I’m telling you son. I can do what I want. You ‘n me? We’re gonna be good friends.”

Someone vacated the seat behind them, and left a load of fast-food wrappers. In the blink of an eye, the man pounced on it, scarfing half-eating fries, sucking at the dregs of ice in the cup. He smacked his lips obscenely and looked and Victor.

“Good,” he said, “gooooood.”

Victor’s stop took too long to arrive. The doors seemed like they didn’t want to wait for him, scraping closed almost before he left. His dad laughed at how he smelled like a cough syrup cocktail.

Victor came to dread Fridays. He couldn’t concentrate in class anymore, but if he dropped it his father would take it as further proof that he had no academic future. He was also beginning to think the man on the bus was invisible to anyone else. Any response besides irritated silence to the man’s rambling was quickly jeered down by the other passengers, as if Victor had been the one pontificating on where the choicest poontang was in old town.

One night he boarded the bus and didn’t see the bus god. Breathing a sigh of relief, he found himself a seat in the back and opened a book. The bus rocked and the lights dimmed and Victor decided to close his eyes, for just a minute.

The smell woke him. He jolted awake, disoriented. For a minute it seemed like nothing had changed, the same passengers were on, looking out the window or at their phones, the same landscape hurrying by. Then he looked at his watch and found it was 4:32 am.

“I did that.” Crusty breath was in his ear.

Victor flinched, and looked everywhere but behind him.

“You gon’ look at me. We gonna talk. Talk a good long time.  You’n me.”

Victor pulled the cord and nothing happened. No ding, no “stop requested” light in the front.

It was past midnight. His dad was probably furious, though that was the least of his problems at the moment. Victor was angry suddenly. At his dad, at the bus god, at everything.

“You gon’ look at me.”

Victor resolutely opened the book in his lap and started to read.

He could hear the dirty man rustle around the seat, could practically feel his stench, but he didn’t look behind him, or even at their reflections in the window. The bus man belched, sang random off-key snatches that were almost songs, and once or twice even laid a hand on Victor.

Victor waited for six a.m. The sun would rise, and turn this all real again. The landscape only looked the same because the dark hid it.

Six came and went. Darkness still. No one got on, no one got off. They never stopped.

The man was making a rhythmic whistling noise, as if snoring. Victor didn’t want to chance that he was only pretending to sleep, and fake-stretched. With one eye on the driver, he snapped his hand behind him and found a throat.

Suddenly he was on the bus god, hands around his throat, thumbs digging into his windpipe. The bus god’s glasses mirrored Victor back at himself, he made a choking sound like a laugh. Victor tried to trap him with his weight, avoid movement that might attract attention. He hated the little man with his whole body, and hated him until he went limp.

The bus slowed to a crawl.

“End of the line,” the driver called out. Victor collected his things and left the body on the seat, not caring if anyone found it. It took three hours to walk home.

His dad opened the door.

“No,” was the first thing out of his mouth.

“Dad I’m—”

“No,” his father said firmly, and shut the door. Victor heard the deadbolt slide into place.

None of their neighbors would let him in. He tried calling friends until his battery died, but they wouldn’t pick up. The door at school was locked now.

Sitting on the bus stop bench, Victor stared at his feet. He couldn’t walk anymore. As if it read his mind, a bus pulled up to the stop. It stood with the door open while he stared at his feet.

“Well,” the driver called, “ain’t you getting on?”

It was the first time someone had acknowledged him in days. Victor almost ran into the bus.

The driver wrinkled his nose and gestured to the back. Victor fitted his body into the very back corner seat and rode the bus. Sometimes it stopped and people got on, sometimes they got off.  He wasn’t asked to leave. Right when his hunger pains became unbearable, someone abandoned half a tray of chicken nuggets and a can of Rockstar with an inch of liquid in the bottom. Victor approached it slowly, looking for anyone to tell him to stop. No one even looked up.

Victor smuggled it back to his seat and ate.

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The Old Grey Man

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.

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