The homeless man was lurched forward again, hands-to-feet, chin-to-knees, asleep. He sat 3 ft off the wall of a diner. Opposite him was a parking garage; cars eased down the one-way street to enter or pass it. On either side of the street, pedestrians ambled, oblivious to me and the sleeping buffoon. Despite his earth brown skin and dark clothes, from a distance, he chucked light like a comet. His ability perturbed me, for I was unsure of just what was blinding me. Was it the torn, overturned, Styrofoam containers, glistening white in the city morning? His pale, disfigured Nikes and mismatched socks? The orange-green substance usually beside or in front of him that hopefully wasn’t what I thought it was?
I could never look right at him. Why would you stare at the sun? But I thought about him a lot in the brief moments our bodies shared the sidewalk. Never the big Why? or the accusations—Faker, Drug Addict, Dealt a Wrong Hand. I wanted to know, What’s Next? Obviously his dreams held some answers—for the realm of unconsciousness unsheathed spiteful swords and unmasked adorned desires—but not the full picture. Only with temperate meditation could his latent aspirations be sussed out. He had nothing but time. Surely I could rouse him into ponderance.
With one hand shielding my eyes from his glow, I used my other and yanked my cheeseburger wrap out my backpack. It was a day old, and I could always buy another. I dropped it on his back. When he continued snoring I sighed and, begrudgingly, deigned to shake him.
“Gub daye,” he said. His head rolled slowly upwards til its aim found my face. Jesus, what makes druggies talk like that?
“Hey man,” I said. I squatted to his level. “What’s up?”
Like a zombie he unraveled into a sitting position. Torso exposed, his radiance had reduced. He was just a normal man now.
“’Scuse me, do you haf a few dollars? I need sum bus monie.”
“Listen, uh… sir. I have five dollars. And this cheeseburger wrap. All yours if you could answer a couple questions for me.”
He sipped on a breeze. Belly full, he smacked his chapped lips, as if assessing the air’s taste. Then he let out a long, sputtering wheeze, like a car choking on gas. I jumped back, shielding my face. I thought I’d see smoke flying around us. After a few coughs, he looked prepared to respond.
“Why, tank you. I appreceete that.” He held out his palm. The cheeseburger wrap was lying beside him. Untouched.
I ignored his hand and began my investigation.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years? Or five years. Five days?”
He blinked, his mouth agape. Before he could start, I persisted.
“Will you still be on this sidewalk? Will you find blankets? What’ll you do once the 15th street church gets shutdown? Where will you crash for the night? What are your goals? What are your hobbies? What hobbies do you want to learn? What do you want to do?”
He blinked a few more times. It wasn’t until his silence that I realized I had been shouting. While cars cruised by, passersby opposite my sidewalk stopped to gawk at me. Facing the homeless man, I flicked my eyes toward them. I did my best to keep my composure, but my fingers grew tremulous. To keep them steady I gripped my thighs. Heat waved over my face and forearms. Hairs stood on end as cold sweat splotched my underarms.
Today was Tuesday and Gary, my boss, was expecting me ten minutes ago. At Gary’s office I’d be holed up in a den with a sock on the table, dirty dishes in the clean cabinets, faucets that were caked with grime, and a wall of books so packed they were actually spilling off the shelves. The bronze floor was eclipsed by dust and muck. To this office I came every week, applying for grants on Gary’s behalf or chasing reluctant business partners. As ecstatic as I was to pick up the weekly grind, some issues dogged my plans. A bitter gathering of nuisances.
I had never missed a class, not even on those occasions Professor emailed in advance, ‘class not mandatory, attend at your own risk.’ There hadn’t been a single club meeting I skipped: not the research collaborative, not the programs board, not the wellness center’s indulgent sex and drug seminars. I was a consistent talker in class, quick to correct the mosaics professor when he confused teleology with destiny, or the sustainabilities T.A. when she said ecocentrism would better humanity. My efforts notwithstanding, not a soul thanked me for throwing myself over the line, exerting energy from my body to better their lives.
Sweat trickled down my forehead and into my eyes. The wet bits of sodium stung my sclera. I was still bent forward, facing the homeless man, but the strangers watching me lost interest and continued walking. My shaking fingers began to calm, so I let go of my thighs. I eyed the ground below me. The tiny orange and black and red dots of the off-white sidewalk. Minerals incased in concrete? What was their purpose? How did they get there?
“Mah mom told me, ‘don’t talk to strangers,’” The homeless man said. “But you look like you need a friend.”
A droplet rolled into my eye. I looked at him. He was standing now.
“Ahm Jerold. And you are?”
“I’m… a student.”
* * *
A white glare shot down from the sky and penetrated my eyelids. Closed, I saw red, and open, I saw burning white. My chest heaved with each step I made walking down 13th Street, annoyed by the May heatwave. Ironic. My furrowed brow only exacerbated the heat. And my shorts and short-sleeved shirt hardly cooled me off. Once I reached the corner of 13th and Sansom, by the fashion boutique right next to Gary’s office, which I quit, I looked down Sansom Street. At the far end of the block was the TD Bank I passed whenever I headed to work. Then there was that stretch of road cars traversed, the parking lot, the dry cleaners next to it, some back alleys, the diner across the street. Absent was Jerold. In the months since our introduction, black paint from the nearby street sign was clawed off—done I assumed by another homeless man—people gave a bag of oranges or croissants to us when they saw me against the wall, next to him, and we shared drinks while I was on my lunchbreaks.
I turned and looked down 13th Street, by the Wawa and the crochet store. College kids, construction workers, suited men, but no Jerold. I picked at the knots in my hair. Oh well. We had a good thing going. Who else would listen to my musings on cause and effect? On how the minutia of our actions cannonballed into overwhelming changes we couldn’t comprehend later on? And that’s not even mentioning quantum physics. But with the homeless man gone, I would no longer be subjected to his foul stench, which I unfortunately became nose blind to. Imagining the sick particles from his body hovering down my nasal passageways, the invisible aerosols sticking to the little hairs, bacteria of various strains, thousands of each, infecting my healthy bacteria and healthy cells—I shuddered at the totality of it. If I mulled over it long enough I would go mad.
The sun’s rays continued to seize my body. The humidity made my skin feel like sandpaper. For a man like me on a day like this, all that was left was to buy some ice cream. Just up 14th Street was a Dairy Queen. I walked to it.
Mid-step my arms got squeezed to my sides. Try as I might, my foot couldn’t move another inch, and I felt hot breath press against my ear.
A raspy voice, like a taunting phantom, said “Heeey” and I shivered. I broke from his embrace and pushed him back a few feet.
“Hey! Watch your grip. What did I tell you about touching elbows?”
Jerold laughed mischievously.
“Sorey man. My bad.” Without blinking he asked, “What’s fer lunch today?”
I brushed off my shoulders fervently—a vain effort. Whatever sickness traveled with him had long infected my body. By now I was probably immune.
“Today we’re getting Dairy Queen. In the mood for a sandwich?”
He nodded. So we made our way there. People still stared when they saw me with him. Some looks of contempt, some of shock, some of respect, a couple of disgust. But what did it matter? It wasn’t like I did anything wrong. I even left him ten dollars whenever we parted. What he did with that money I didn’t know or care.
We reached the DQ and I waited for him to open the door for me. He smiled dumbly, and I wondered why telepathy couldn’t be a thing, why people required so much prodding to get anything done. I opened it and we walked to the counter. After we placed our orders we took the first booth by the window.
“So,” Jerold started. “Anything new you’re up to?”
I looked up from my folded hands.
“Of course. One always must maintain vigilance. The worlds of knowledge never sleep.”
“How is yor college going?”
Jerold was silent, expecting me to say more. I sighed.
“I’ve a semester left til I get my degree. BA in technical writing. The knowledge bus stops along the way were enjoyable, but nothing would please me more than having the ordeal concluded. Classmates can be quite petulant.”
“But I thought you biked to school?”
“No, Jerold. Knowledge bus stops. It’s a metaphor.”
The store became a bit noisier. I looked toward the front counter. High school kids were gathered there, noisy and lackadaisical like I’d expect. They stared at the homeless man.
“And you, Jerold?” He looked at me, broken from a trance. “What future plans do you have? Have you devised a plan to get a home? A steady income source?”
He shook his head.
“By the way, have any monie? Maby, fifthteen instead of ten? Have a twonie?”
“No, Jerold. You can’t. My fee to you is one of pittance. It’s also incentive to keep you around.”
A woman at the front called out our orders. I walked up, took them, and returned to the booth. We both got hoagies and ice cream. My vanilla scoop with rainbow sprinkles sat in a cup. The push of my tongue against my teeth while saliva secreted from glands left, right, and above… how crass. But I couldn’t help myself. The divots imprinted along the scoop’s bottom, the hard disk hugging its perimeter, its smooth circular top, dotted with bright sprinkles—I lunged with my spoon, a carnivore grin spread from ear-to-ear. So crass. Eating dessert before the main course. Jerold picked at his strawberry scoop, staining his gray beard pink.
“Buht, man. How will I get around? I got-, I got-” His eyes flicked to the ceiling. They ticked left and right. Just as quickly he dropped them on me. “I got ta visit my family!”
Some snickering came from the side of the room. The high school kids were bunched at a table, not even trying to conceal their amusement. Let them laugh.
“You don’t have any family.” I gulped an icy scoop. “And if you do, you still don’t. Not until you get off your bum and work. I gave you suggested readings. Who wouldn’t want to hire a smart man?”
But Jerold still looked antsy. He knew I wouldn’t give him the money, and his face shriveled like he had to pee.
“I hope you’re not going to waste that ice cream,” I said.
He looked around the room and started shivering.
“Jerold, what do you do with the money I give you?”
“Hey old-head!” a snickering voice yelled. “Why you shakin’?”
I looked to side of the room. The high schoolers were becoming brazen.
The boy looked at us and said, “You got a problem? I take yo food if you don’t want it.”
A girl his table responded, “Would you stop that? He obviously don’t wanna be bothered.”
“So? He up in here stinkin’ up the place, and he barely touching his ice cream.” They all chuckled.
“I think he just need to get lit up,” another boy said. “Or get some crack.”
I spooned the last of my ice cream. And with that, I was finished. If Jerold couldn’t help himself or help me, why should I help him? I grabbed my hoagie and got out of the booth. By the time I made it to the door, they were throwing trash at him. The woman at the front and her coworkers scrambled to discipline the miscreants.
I felt cooler thanks to the ice cream. Still, the heat seared my skin within seconds. I resolved to go home and eat my hoagie in comfort. As for henchman, Jerold was a lost cause, but I could always find another.