Wander (short story)

He’d been walking a long time. Days? Weeks? Years? It no longer mattered what time it was. It was today, always today. He had nowhere particular he had to be. He wore no watch, carried no day planner. His calendar was free.
He walked away from it all some years back and had just kept walking. When would this walk be over? He’d not planned on starting it, so perhaps it would end the same way.
It started suddenly. Just like with spring tulips, it seemingly occurred all at once. Only a careful observer could have seen that change had been coming a long time.
It happened suddenly for him, that was for sure. One day he gathered up a duffel bag’s worth of possessions, put on his shoes and her all-weather coat, and walked outside. He never thought he’d make it past the yard, but he did. Then he thought for sure she’d stop him when he got to the end of the street, but she didn’t. Every step further from that house his fear grew smaller and his excitement grew larger.
The thought of leaving never crossed his mind all those years. Not like he was happy being there, mind you. It was just that he didn’t know he had a choice. It was just like Hagar and the well. She was suffering and all along what she needed was right there and she couldn’t see it.
He walked three blocks fueled on fear and excitement before he started to wonder where he was headed. It was strange to feel so much at the same time after a lifetime of not feeling at all. Perhaps once he had felt something? Surely he had. He couldn’t remember.
At the edge of the neighborhood he decided to try to feel, but not too much. Best to start with something simple, like a direction. Which way? Straight? Right? Left? Turning around and going back was right out, he knew that. Just thinking about that made his stomach get smaller and tighter and fluttery. That felt like “no” most emphatically. This was new to him, this learning that his body was a sense organ, tallying pros and cons and providing the result. It was like learning another language to figure out what it was saying. Why trust his brain to tell him what to do, when he could use his entire body? His stomach loosened when he faced right. Okay, that way.
He didn’t know where that way led, but that was true no matter which way he went. He’d never been allowed out of the house. Never been given a map of the city, or of anywhere for that matter. There was no television in the house either, and certainly not a computer. He had no idea that there was a whole world outside of the house, and that was how she planned it.
He was lucky she’d even spoken to him, or he’d never have picked up the language. She didn’t at first, but he overheard snippets of words and sentences when she’d have her boyfriend of the month over to spend the night. Sometimes one of them would try to talk to him, try to make friends with him as a way of placating her. Perhaps he thought he could stay longer if he turned out to be father material? The way to a woman’s heart is through her child, right? Those that tried could have saved themselves the trouble. Once she realized they just wanted free room and board she cut them loose and changed the locks again.
All these years later, his body told him more than just how he felt. The rain was coming soon. His nose told him this. The hairs on his arm said it was going to be a long quiet soak. His big toe told him the mist he was in would pick up, grow just enough to be annoying and cut down on visibility in about 20 minutes. That was enough time to find a restaurant to wait it out.
Another wanderer had taught him the tricks of the trade. Look for a restaurant that is a little busy, but not overly so. If it wasn’t busy enough he’d stick out. Then the employees or customers would notice. If he was lucky, one of them would gently wake him when he dozed. If not, a cop would be called to do that chore. Sometimes he’d simply be asked to leave. Sometimes he’d be told to never come back. On the other hand, if the restaurant was too busy, a customer might sit too close to him and spot that he didn’t quite fit. Perhaps they’d notice his less-than-fresh aroma, or notice that he only had a soda in front of him, or they’d spot his duffel bag. The goal was not to be noticed.
A soda bought you a table for at least an hour. Keep it refilled and it looked like you just got there. Plus, the sugar and caffeine didn’t hurt. It was great to get refills – you could have a two-liter’s worth of pop for pocket change. If you felt like it you could even take the cup with you for next time. If the restaurant was busy enough they’d never even notice you’d not bought anything from them.
Actual sleeping required some skill and a prop. Find a flip phone on the side of the road or at a local thrift store, hold it open in your hand, and you could slouch down and make it appear you were checking texts while you dozed. People rarely looked long enough to notice your fingers weren’t moving. Most folks had been taught it was rude to stare.
If you were homeless for longer than a month you started to become invisible. People just didn’t want to look at you, to see you. They were afraid you’d catch their eye and say something like “Excuse me sir? Can you spare some change?” They didn’t want to hear whatever story you made up to convince them (or yourself) of your worthiness. It was easier to pretend you didn’t exist. It was a little lie they told themselves.
He was through with lies. They were too hard to keep up with, too hard to justify. They grew and grew, one lie leading to another, becoming a tangle like weeds or rope. Before you knew it you were lost or tripped up. He decided it was best to tell the truth, but not too much of it. Too much talk spoils everything.
He carried as little money as possible, same as everything else. It all weighed him down. Everything took up space, either in his bag or in his head. Traveling light was about more than having an extra pair of socks or a small bottle of shampoo.
The rain was almost over. Time to go.

Lost and found

Lost and found1 012816

detail
Lost and found2

Praying the Lord’s Prayer at McDonalds.
A man who was lost/homeless/mentally ill/addicted/blind (any or all)

I went to McDonald’s to get “second breakfast” after attending mandatory substance abuse awareness training for my job (This class has to be taken every 5 years). This man outside the store asked for change.
I find it significant that panhandlers ask for change – not money. Change is what they need, true change.
I gave him money and said “God loves you.” He initiated the prayer. He held out his hand to me. It was grimy – grey/green. We held hands while we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. It was beautiful. I remember my years of struggling with addiction and feeling lost.

Ingredients:

8.5 x 12 inch Strathmore visual journal

Map torn from a book, missing some of the reference points. Paper that reminds me of prison bars. Receipt. Matte medium. Distress ink spray (crushed olive)
Created 1/28/16

Giving money to strangers.

When people asked Jesus for help, they legitimately needed it. They were blind or deaf or possessed by a demon. When he helped them he didn’t have to worry what they were going to do with his help. He didn’t have to worry if they were going to take what he gave them and use it to get alcohol or drugs.

Jesus says that if someone asks us for a coat we’re supposed to give them a cloak as well. At the time he was talking that was everything you had. Those were your two ways of keeping yourself warm and protected from rain. We are supposed to give them what they ask for and more. Jesus says that if somebody asks you to walk a mile with them, then walk two.

It just doesn’t seem logical to do what Jesus said these days. Here we are 2000 years later and people seem to have twisted this for their own benefit. They ask for help, taking advantage of our soft hearts and our indoctrination to do good. They don’t need money, they need counseling and better life choices. Money won’t help, it will hurt instead. It will enable them to stay disabled.

I say, “Jesus, how are we supposed to handle the situation? What if we’re just aiding and abetting a sin? Is this right to hand them what they ask for which is always money, all the while they’re probably going to spend it on something that’s just going to keep them in the same place where they are?”

Jesus says “It is about them, it’s not about you.”
Jesus says “It isn’t about what they do with the money, it’s about what YOU do with it.”
Jesus says “What they do is between them and God. What YOU do is between you and God too.”

And that’s what it all boils down to. If somebody standing in the parking lot, asking for money, holding a baby, telling a story about how they were robbed and they are staying in a hotel room and they just need enough to get back in the room, give them what they asked for. Give them twice as much as you felt like giving. If they abuse it, that’s on them. But if you don’t help them, that’s on you. Pray for them, and wish them well. And then go on your way.

Poem cart/carriage

I saw them, crossing the bridge.
A mother and her baby in a carriage
on the left side of the road
against traffic.

The margin is wide there, plenty of room.

Such a cold day!
All the bundling, all the wraps
the blankets covering.

I smiled a little, but was concerned.
This road isn’t really for pedestrians
and it is very cold out.

This wasn’t a stroll.
There was purpose to this venture.
Perhaps a trip to Target
for detergent or apples?

And then I got closer
and saw
the mother wasn’t
because she
was a he
and there was no baby
and that was no carriage
but a shopping cart
filled with any and sundry
Possessions
worldly and otherwise.

And it all deepened
and went sideways.

It was still a sunny day
it was still cold
the road was still not safe
for walking

but now there wasn’t the hope
of new life,
of young life
but instead the awareness
of something else
in my neighborhood.

Poem – homeless, helpless?

Is being homeless a bad thing?
Like night, like winter
Perhaps it is a phase
A pause.

And then what if we got homes
For all the homeless,
what then?
Do we tackle
drug abuse,
prostitution,
morbid obesity?

How many different ways
can we harm ourselves?

Jesus says that the poor
will always be with us.
But he also says that
whatever
we do to the least of these
we do to Him.

So what do we do?
Do we help?
And if so, how?

Is helping really helping
or is it weakening?
If you carry someone
then they don’t learn how to walk
On their own.

Crazy hair – on poverty.

You know those people that you can look at and tell they are poor? We have several of those in the library. Some seem one month away from homelessness.

There’s a new lady who has started coming in who this describes. I’m going to call her Tommie. She only gets videos, and they are for herself and her husband. She is short and wears leftover clothes and has hair that is wild and stringy. Recently she held out her hands and showed me her French manicure. This was her Christmas present. She was really excited about it.

I was a bit conflicted. It was beautiful work. It was the one beautiful thing she had done for herself. She would have done better if she had gotten her hair treated so it didn’t look so wild. Her hair is a white person’s equivalent of an afro. It isn’t as thick or as tall, but it is very wavy. It looks like she hasn’t put conditioner in it in ever.

Of course, she doesn’t have to. There is nothing saying that people have to manage their hair, exactly the same as people don’t have to wear makeup or shave. But if they don’t do these things, they will get judged as different or as dirty. I understand this all too well. I don’t wear makeup or shave my legs, and I understand the social lines I’m crossing when I do it.

One of my coworkers thinks she and the friend who drives her to the library are both dirty. I don’t think they are. I’ve never noticed a smell coming from them. We have plenty of patrons who smell very badly. Sometimes the smell is best described as a blend of cheap cigarettes, the sweat that comes from lack of showering and a diet of convenience store foods, and ferrets. They too get only DVDs, and the cases come back reeking of this poisonous cocktail.

Then again there are people who are aware of how they smell and they try to cover it up with perfume that is very strong. As much as I dislike strong body odor, I prefer it to the perfume because it doesn’t set off my asthma.

Back to Tommie. I can only imagine what it was like for the tech who did her nails. That is literally hands-on work. Our counters are pretty deep, so we don’t have to touch anybody. We also generally don’t have to deal with them for long. Doing someone’s nails is another thing entirely. Maybe the tech doesn’t even think about this. She does this all day long. This is her normal. But for me to have to hold someone’s hands while working with them would be really strange.

Don’t get me wrong – Tommie is a nice person. Simple, but nice. I just can’t imagine spending a lot of time in close proximity with her.

It was also weird because getting your nails done is a very girly act, and there is nothing girly about Tommie. Sure, she is female. But she doesn’t seem to care about it at all. Maybe I’ll see her in a different light once winter is over and she stops wearing that immense grey puffy jacket. Maybe she will wear something pretty and colorful. I doubt it.

She reminds me a lot of a friend I had in high school. I’ve talked about her before. That friend who I was assigned to for her good, not mine. That friend who had no friends. Perhaps that is why I notice her, and why I’m curious/concerned about her.

I had suggested that she ease up on the constant diet of movies and she assured me that she soon was going to get books because she needed to study for her GED. I wasn’t surprised. This just seems to be such a cliché all around. If you want to stay poor, drop out of school and watch a lot of movies.

Poem – The way home.

In my heart I didn’t know
what to expect
when they were stubborn.

All are not happy
about the fact
that you are going
through my fears
after all these years,

because it isn’t about making them
dependent upon you.

Grief comes from kindness,
regardless.

I’m trying not to mention
the time of year
you are going through.

I’ve heard she has been taught this time.

Never mind that.
Now I’m adrift too many years.

The way home is stuck in my heart.