by Joni Bour
It was a horrible, sideways rain day, seen only on the Oregon coast. I remember that day, because I remember him. He was quaking like an aspen tree, dripping, trying unsuccessfully not to fling water everywhere. He just stood there, not quite making eye contact and barely speaking above a whisper, not an uncommon act in a homeless shelter. Some of my clients had no human contact for days on end, and would often show great anxiety when asked questions, as if they had forgotten words, but really it was that they had no voice.
Maybe that is why I thought he was just one of many in the hard luck line, I was pleasantly surprised then, when most of my clients seemed reluctant to shake my hand, he accepted mine as I reached out to greet him, and led him to my office and a cup of warm tea. If truth be known, though like my other clients, he too had been nearly broken, and had not recently been acquainted with another’s kindness, or Vitamin C, or soap, he was not like the others.
“I’m going to die, and nobody’s even going to know,” he whispered in a pebbly voice, and his tea splashed all over the warming blanket he was draped in, when he was unable to steady his grip from the cold in his bones. I patted his arm and said, “Let’s talk about dying after you get warmed up,” and handed him a bag of dry clothes and donated toiletries, before pointing him towards the restroom. I turned up the heat, and hung my sweater on the back of my chair, pleased that this was one of few offices in town where my Bob Marley shirt was office appropriate. I ran over to the other side of the building and grabbed an old backpack from a pile of donations, and stuffed in as much food from the pantry as I could and carefully slid along the dark, musty hallway, avoiding our nosey, fiscally responsible director and her prying questions. It was close to 80 degrees when Coleman sat back down, scrubbed, and combed, and wearing someone else’s unwanted J-Crews. He was 60 he told me, his beard and hair mostly gray and scruffy, and his brown eyes hurt me with their truth. I would have guessed him older.
Over tea and oranges, Coleman told me his life had once been like everyone else’s – a family, a job, a front door. He fumbled absently with the magnetic paperclip dispenser on my desk and scooped up the massive spill of first the paper clips, then the pencil holder. He had been drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he had earned a Purple Heart for the wounds that healed, and a life full of destruction for the wounds that never did. When Coleman first returned home, he had troubles with authority, running water, and alcohol. His family was killed in a terrible car accident while he was away working on an oilrig, and after that, he had done many things that might have ended his life in any number of ways. For his efforts, Coleman ended up in a medium security prison in Texas, was stabbed in the gall bladder by an inmate with a sharpened toothbrush, had gotten right with God and drugs, but not himself. When he got out, Coleman headed west and he walked as much as a man can walk in boots held together with duct tape.
In his travels, Coleman had met people who had given him peanut butter sandwiches and rides in their minivans. Once he played his guitar for a couple who gave him a winter coat, and another time in front of a coffee shop someone bought him coffee and a cup of soup and gave him a tiny orange bible. He had been spit on, robbed, and arrested, bitten by dogs, chiggers, and ants. He had been lonesome and scared, and been unsettling company to himself. He carried his only possessions in a bright green, White Stag backpack with a broken zipper. He was more skilled in the study of unsafe foods than any health inspector, and performed his research in dumpsters and trashcans from Texas to Oregon. He knew all about other people’s cigarette butts, and how to use newspaper, as a pillow, a plate, kindling, and even insulation in his pants.
It was at the end of his two-year journey across our country, on a day when he dragged himself out of a wind-ravaged tent, and a soggy sleeping bag, when he couldn’t even light a water-logged cigarette, that he cursed the wind and the rain, and Oregon, and the day he was born. He kicked the plastic mayonnaise jar that held the only dry possessions he owned – a cell phone without minutes, a worn photo of a forgotten life, and my business card. He slogged towards a tiny bit of hope and ultimately my office, sloshing, and coughing and nearer to death than heroin, or war, or prison life had ever taken him.
He’d been in my office for probably two hours, and I had given him a voucher for a hotel room and the backpack of food, but the need for human connection caused him to linger as he asked about the town, my family, and the news. He liked similar music and commented when my iPod switched from Bob Marley to Johnny Cash, and he was surprised when he mentioned his southern roots, that we came from similar backgrounds. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, what it was about him but I liked him. I suppose it is corny to say and many would not understand this, but we shared a common thread, be it our similar backgrounds, be it his need for help and my need to give it, or be it something else. All I know is I really wanted to help him. I was praying for a miracle when I asked him to return the next day.
I made phone calls all day, hoping the universe that owed me no favors would grant me just one, and she did when I found a seedy trailer in a slightly seedier park. The very next day, I stood outside Coleman’s 18-foot home as he giggled, then delightedly went inside. He soon returned, grinning with the few teeth he had, pleased with the welcome gift of a crockpot and the gift card we’d left for him the night before. It had been years, he said, as he quickly wiped a tear on his sleeve, since his front door wasn’t iron bars or a tent flap, or that his toilet wasn’t in public or subject to weekly searches. I drove away while Coleman sat happily on his steps waving to his neighbors.
The housing program required Coleman to meet with me a few times a month to check his progress in managing life in a world of doors and reintegration programs. He’d applied for disability secondary to cirrhosis and PTSD and had seen a physician for the first time since his prison stabbing. I looked forward to his appointments because I wanted so much for him to make it, and we worked hard together to try and make sure he did; scheduling appointments, meting out medications, and working out ways for him to be completely independent. It was more than that, of course; he was a client, but he was also my friend.
Coleman often invited trailer park friends or strangers to his home, for a meal he had cooked in his crockpot. They’d all share whatever they had, be it food, song, or story. He invited me every week and a few times I showed up and with a pie, or to join the sing along. When he would get restless at night, he told me he would walk our small town and bought a coffee for wanderers like he had once been, and he could never resist offering, food, or tobacco to anyone wearing duct-taped boots.
Coleman had been peacefully living in the little park for a year when he missed a visit. He had been out of my housing program for six months, but he would still stop by, to have a cup of tea or tell me a story. I liked him, and the fact that he wasn’t a client anymore, meant only that I needed to creatively manage my time, so that I could squeeze in his occasional his “stop bys,” which were small blessings in days otherwise filled with the untold sorrows of the broken people who flooded our offices. Some days back then, if not for the few success stories like his, I might have thrown in the towel and taken work as a longshoreman, or librarian. When he didn’t show up, I talked myself out of calling him several times that day, in honor of his right to be free of controlling influences. Still, even in those first moments, I had a sense, something was not right, something was going wrong.
The next week, or maybe the week after that, Coleman sat across from me looking rough, anxious, and unsettled. He wasn’t sleeping well, and he was sure someone was following him. I tried to pursue the conversation, but my friend refused to explain and when he got up to leave, he was tearful, as he thanked me for being his friend. Then I was worried.
Coleman needed help, but would accept none, no matter what I said. He called me on the crisis line late at night, worried that he could see Viet Cong everywhere, and quietly broke the law when he bought first one gun, then another and another. He was drinking, and stopped going to AA. I tried any number of times to help him gain access to the VA, but he lost patience when they offered nothing, not even hope. He began refusing to even enter my office unless I sat across the room from my phone. He went to jail several times for disturbing the peace when the police chose to take him to jail instead of calling me, or taking him for a mental health evaluation.
Coleman stopped visiting me in person, probably to avoid any sort of intervention I might stage and only occasionally called. I had no control over his affairs, had no leverage, and had in fact, only our friendship to try and shield him from his deepening crisis. Eventually, there was a last phone call but of course I didn’t know just how crucial this one moment was, until it had long since passed. That’s the thing with last things, isn’t it? It isn’t until after they happen that we realize we have truly lost something. All I know is, we never spoke again. I waited for a few weeks, asked other clients about him, even asked a police officer I knew. No one had seen or heard from Coleman. When the phone number I had for him went unanswered, I went to his tiny house and a stranger opened the door. I rudely turned away, realizing Coleman was gone for good.
“Joni?” asked the disheveled man loudly, and I nodded, turning back to see his frown soften to a smile when he spoke, “Coleman talked about you all the time. He’d say ‘Michael, you ever need help you go talk to her.’” He was still talking, when I walked away.
It was three years later I found out that Coleman was dead. He hitchhiked to Portland after giving his trailer and crockpot to the disheveled Michael, and killed himself less than a year later, alone in a world whose own wants and needs were so great, that it had no time to care for a man who wanted almost nothing. Coleman didn’t desire to own much, he had little more than a guitar, a crappy backpack, and for a while a trailer, and a crockpot and he gave all of that away. He was a good man. He was a damaged man. He the closest friend I ever had, but he was one of the dearest, in a way I can’t quite explain. He wanted nothing from me, but to exchange a few words, or share cookies, or to talk about the news. People don’t cherish their friendships as much as they should, but he cherished ours, and I struggle with its loss sometimes. Coleman wasn’t the sort of guy who went around telling other people the rights or the wrongs of things. But to be very clear, he could have told us all a lot about the in-between of things, the places where you are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, fed nor hungry, broken nor healed, saved nor lost.
I used to think I knew a lot about life and justice, and hope, and fairness, and I spent most of my time trying to balance those things for those who had no voice, who often had no hope at all. I used to think anything was possible, that eventually good always prevails, but now I see a different truth in that. Now I see a society that often places a higher value on the pursuit and acquisition of power, and things, than it does on humanity, and kindness. I could still spend my time in an office filled with iPod Marley and Johnny Cash tunes, peace posters, and heaters turned up to 80 degrees, trying to save people from the cold and the wet, and the unkindness of this world. But that work has left me desperately trying to save myself most of all; it killed a little bit of me too, as surely as it killed my friend.
I blame society for its inconsideration of so many important things, not the least of which is a semblance of humanity towards others whose suffering is in the in between of things, neither fixable, nor completely broken, neither on the right or the wrong side of the margins. I have learned to embrace that which lies in the in-betweens – and I cherish quiet moments, true friendship, shared cookies, and even duct-taped boots. I miss my friend, and yet I am not sorry he is away from the suffering in a world that is so self-involved that it refused to see what it had done to him.
Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student