Chapter Three – They Ain’t What They Seem

On the drive back to Mac’s, Jeff’s thoughts were consumed with all things homeless. Men and women banding together to stay alive, seeking the only shelter available to them under a bridge. It was out of the way of pedestrians, which he could understand being of benefit. It lessened the likelihood of hassling, but the more oblique purpose might be the avoidance of what they once were; the busy lives of others reminding them of an existence in a world in which they no longer fit.  The idea unnerved him, and he couldn’t shake it.

Mac left the outside lights on. Although his attempts to comfort and console were recognized, Jeff’s heart was not at rest. Mac’s home was not his home, nor could it ever be. His preferences in life would never be Jeff’s, and Jeff yearned for his farm and his pets. It was difficult to foresee a future so overshadowed by the past. Without a sufficient and steady income, that wasn’t going to happen for a long time because money equals independence and no money equals no control over anything, especially life. And as much as Mac might hope, Charlie’s Diner would not be Jeff’s salvation.

“Hey, Mac. You home?” Jeff walked into the dimly lit house to the dulcet sounds of the television.

“Hey. How’d it go?” Mac turned the sound down.

“It went. Not something I ever thought I’d be doing, but it will pay my car insurance and maybe help out some here.”

“Listen, I’m not asking you for anything. Just try to get back on your feet… that’s all.” Mac was already retired and in his way, wanted Jeff to feel his peace.

“There was a guy, a homeless guy, outside the diner when I first got there. Turns out, he has a Ph.D. and was at one time a History Professor.”

“You don’t say.” Mac looked disinterested.

“I don’t know why, but I’m drawn to this… I don’t know… this rip in people’s lives. It’s like I need to do something.”

“How, Jeff? You can’t even take care of yourself right now. What could you possibly do?” The lack of confidence conveyed by his brother, not to mention the reminder of his circumstances stung a bit.

“I don’t know. I just… I don’t know. Uh, I’m gonna turn in now.”

“Hey, Jeff. Aren’t you hungry? There’s dinner left over in the fridge. Just heat it up in the microwave.”

“No… uh, no thanks… not hungry.” Jeff sped towards his room. Tears surfaced as he shut the door behind him.

“Jeff, come on. Eat something.”

Jeff left Mac bewildered outside a locked door. The silence answered in such a profound way screaming the obvious. He needed to be left alone to deal with his ghosts. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate everything he had that the viaduct villagers did not have. For that Jeff’s behavior left him contrite. The hole was just so deep. His existence meant nothing.

Guilt plagued him when he thought about his pets. They depended upon him to keep them safe and to take care of them. No doubt to others, this state of grief over the loss of animals may seem like nothing, but to him it was a betrayal of their blind faith in him as their owner. Their attachment to him was severed by force and they now had to form a new attachment, rely on another human to assure their safety. Jeff missed them, and he worried about them, too.

The ceiling traced spider-like cracks. Lying on the bed, he stared up at them while searching for direction. If there was a god, what is the meaning of this loss on the heels of another major loss? What could be a possible reason? Exhaustion from the drive from Connecticut, the beginning of a new job that was nothing like what he was used to, and now the embattled haunting, dark memories gyrating his brain overpowered him. They just stayed right there, churning and turning his stomach into mincemeat. Jeff wasn’t hungry. He wondered if he would ever be hungry again. This, like so many nights to come, settled into a forced sleep where nobody wins and rest was just out of reach.

Depression lingered in the wake of a new day. Mac was banging pots, pans and dishes in the kitchen where he was making breakfast. Now, Jeff had to face him. As he walked into the kitchen he realized that a night of self-pity had dawned into a morning of regret, and it was his duty to confess his ungrateful behavior to a most gracious benefactor.

“Mac, listen… I don’t know what got into me last night. I, uh…”

“Hey, don’t. There’s no need. Hell, if I ever had to go through what you have, I don’t know how I would react to things. Nobody knows how they’re going to react until they are faced with the downside of life. So, don’t apologize to me. I get it.” Mac looked at Jeff with those all-knowing eyes. “But I will be pissed as hell if you don’t sit down and have some breakfast with me.”

“Thanks.” Jeff breathed a sigh of relief.

“So, do you work today?”

“No, not until tomorrow. I thought I’d take a look around town. You want to come with me?”

“I can’t. I promised Ted I’d help him finish putting up his shed before the winter sets in. Maybe another day?”

“Sure.”

Deep down, Jeff was grateful that Mac had somewhere else to be. The underpass beckoned and he had a need to visit and talk to the inhabitants. What did one of the gatekeepers say… if he wanted to help bring food and water? Money was definitely an issue, but he had a few bucks from the tips he made the day before, so he drove to a market near the viaduct.

Those who have steady incomes can’t understand the penetrating need to find food at the lowest price possible. It’s not like trying to stretch your budget; rather, it’s if you don’t find something for less than a dollar you won’t eat, a fact that was emphasized as Jeff walked through the store with the intent to purchase. It proved to be an impossible task. He picked up a case of water.

“Is there anything I can help you find, sir?” A man who looked like a manager hurled the question while he whizzed by.

“Say, listen. Are you familiar with the folks living under the viaduct a couple streets over?”

The question stopped his speedy getaway. “Yeah, I am. Pretty sad sight.”

“I was wondering. Does this store have a program that might help these people with some food, or even water?”

“Huh, well, we could, I suppose, give the bread that is going to get thrown away at the end of the day.”

“Is it bad? I mean is it edible?”

“Yeah, it’s good. It’s just that we can’t keep it longer than a couple days. Why do you ask?”

“Hi, my name is Jeff Townsend.”

“Ben Cruz. I’m the manager.”

“What would be the problem with me picking up the bread every day?”

“Keep in mind that this is our own bakery bread. The other kinds can’t go out of the store because the manufacturers are afraid of lawsuits.”

“That’s okay. Your bread is fine.”

“You can also take all of the rolls and cakes.”

“Wow. Thanks. Let me get set up and I’ll get back with you later today.”

“As far as bottled water goes… let me think on that.” Ben took off down the grocery aisle.

Lost in thought, Jeff’s aching arm reminded him of the case of water he still had to buy. A plan started to take shape for the distribution of the bread, but there was more information needed than delivering food to an area where homeless people gathered. There had to be more to it than that.

Parked on the street near the underpass and with his meager offering of water, Jeff approached the area under the bridge with caution. No one was there. Not a single soul. Some remnants of charred wood from cooking, but nothing else remained. Lugging the water back from the site, and as he rounded the corner of the building from last evening’s encounter, he came face to face with one of his assailants.

“You again. What the hell do you want?”

“Listen, I, uh… heard what you said. I brought some water and have an idea, but I need to talk with someone about it.” Jeff’s eyes searched the man’s for a hint that the intention was accepted as truth. His soul interrogated Jeff’s for sincerity.

After a long minute there was a breakthrough. “Well, here’s the thing. We get up at the crack of dawn and skedaddle out of here before the cops come around. The city doesn’t like it when we stay in one place too long.”

“So, where do you all go then?”

“Everywhere… anywhere that we can find peace. See here, brother, people like me… they don’t want to be seen. Hell, they don’t even use their real names most of the time. That’s why we have nicknames like ‘Professor’, or like me, ‘Trace’. None of us are proud of our circumstances.”

“Look, Trace. Can I call you that?” Trace gave me an assured nod. “I only want to find a way to help if you’ll let me.”

“Don’t know how. Many people have tried to help us, but there never seems to be one who sticks around long enough to make any kind of difference. It’s a churning hell on a roundabout of mixed needs. Everyone’s got a story, and each story is hard and depressing and complicated.”

“Can I buy you breakfast and we can sit and talk?” There was no way around it. Trace had information Jeff needed. Waiting for a response, he could tell it was a contest between this poor man’s hunger and his pride. It was an emotional struggle where the decision was based upon Jeff’s ability to respect him. “Trace, I’m asking you to help me with a plan that could get food to people who need it.”

“Why? What’s in it for you?”

Surprised by his cynicism, Jeff unburdened himself. “Because… I could be you.”

With an understanding nod of his head, Trace said, “Where to?”

It was important, to Jeff anyway, that they avoid Charlie’s Diner. Charlie was a fine boss, but Jeff didn’t trust that he understood the underlying social difficulties of homelessness. They ended up at a MacDonald’s a couple blocks away. After getting their food, they found a corner booth.

Amid the chewing of an Egg McMuffin, Trace said, “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”

“No problem. Wish it could have been something better, but my budget won’t allow it.”

“At least you have a budget. I pray for the day I can say that. Besides, when we are finished here, and since I’m a customer, I can use the facilities and wash up.”

Trace was a little ripe, but that’s to be expected if you don’t have a place to attend to hygiene. “If it’s not too difficult, can I ask what happened to you?”

“How about we share stories? I’m betting you have one of your own.”

Up until that morning, Jeff discussed his situation with people who already knew it. It had never occurred to him to share the details with someone else. These personal troubles wanted to remain hidden from prying creatures whose only purpose was gossip. “Yeah, I do. Not too many people I like to share it with, though. It hurts to remember.”

“Me, too, brother. Me, too.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not a nosy person…”

“About eight years ago, life was good. I wished I realized that at the time. I worked at an auto assembly plant. We had a union, an effective one, too, and things seemed good, but, my wife… she couldn’t get pregnant and it upset her… a lot. On top of that, she suffered from bi-polar disorder. Have you ever known anyone with manic-depression?”

I shook my head in the negative.

“It was awful.” Trace took a big sip of his coffee. “I never knew what I was going to find when I got home. Now, don’t get me wrong. If she stayed on her meds, life couldn’t be better, but that was the problem. Sometimes, she believed she was better and she’d stop taking her medication. Then life was a sci-fie film. She’d go out and buy whatever; run up our charge cards and sometimes just max ‘em out. I spent hours returning items purchased the day before. She’d get wild and then she’d crash into deep depression. I had to admit her into the hospital more times than I care to remember, and the bills just kept stacking up because my insurance didn’t cover parts of her therapy.”

“Mm-hum, I get it.” Jeff got flashes of Madeleine’s cancer.

“Then, at the height of her illness, the plant was threatening to close its doors if the unions didn’t back off. Most of us were happy with our jobs, and we knew we made a good living, but our union just wanted to keep pushing for more. Well, they pushed too hard and the plant had to close down. I’m sure the economy had a hand in it, but just the same, I was out of a job with a sick wife, and credit card and medical bills out the wazoo.”

“Where is your wife, now?”

“Well, that’s the thing, and here’s where that man died and this one took his place. One night, I went out to hide from my problems at a local bar, using money I shouldn’t have, but when you’re drowning in debt that doesn’t seem relevant anymore. My buddies and I really tied one on and I stayed out later than I should’ve… cuz, you know, she needed me.” Trace paused to arrest a choke and swallow. “When I came home, I opened the door to the smell of blood. Did you ever smell blood, Jeff? It has a sickening, tinny scent… sticky after it sits a while… and what follows is… I found her; blood was everywhere!” Trace found it difficult to draw breath through the wave of emotion conjured by his horrific memory. “She slit her wrists and then tried to drag herself to her phone for help. I swear, when I close my eyes some nights, all I can see are puddles and puddles of Siobhan’s blood. She was wrestling with her demons that night and I wasn’t there to fight them alongside her.”

Reticence ended the conversation. He revealed too much of himself to a perfect stranger. Trace’s pain was still fresh and probably always would be, and Jeff realized that there was no escaping that kind of loss. The hell is ever-present no matter what. Efforts to break out are futile, because its vestige is an indelible and open wound embedded in the spirit. And here Jeff was, trading food supposed to nourish, in exchange for a retelling of the nightmare that tormented Trace’s soul. God, Jeff felt like a bastard.

Trace stopped eating. Jeff stuttered, “Man, I’m… wow.”

“Say, Jeff, um… I’m going to just go now. Thanks for the food.” Trace high-tailed it out swinging the restaurant door open with a strength of purpose that assisted the escape of his crippling recollection. There would be no stopping into the restroom as planned.

Goddammit, Jeff. For the want of an explanation, not even his explanation, he just sent a man away with a half-filled stomach, and the revival of his torment. However long it took him to replace traumatic visions with paltry enjoyable memories, Jeff managed to drain them over a half-eaten Egg McMuffin and a cup of black coffee.

It was important Jeff seal a deal with Ben Cruz, so he went back to the store and agreed to start the bread pickups the following week. This heralded the poignant beginning of the most fulfilling and purposive accomplishment of Jeff’s lifetime.

Meanwhile, he noted his accomplishments for the day.

Fruits of labor today:

1) bread and bakery items are to be had if I pick them up every day,

2) the demolition of a man’s heart.

The conversation with Trace left Jeff sick with remorse, and he learned a most valuable lesson embarking on the next chapter of his life. Never take for granted the depth of another’s pain. No one can ever know another, or assume they understand a life lived. Induction into the homeless club requires only breathing, and survival can be cruel and unforeseen while profound and private. For some, especially those with no outside help, society can crush choices others believe so ready and available. It is never as easy as it seems, and from now on, Jeff vowed to be careful where he tread when approaching fragile souls filled with stories of trouble and loss. His attempted goal was now passive acceptance.

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