You love your work. You’re thankful every day that you get paid, even though the donations trickle in slowly and the funding gets cut year after year. You still have a salary and you’re still doing something important. Something you care about. Something that moves people. You are in the very kernel of life, eighty-thousand leagues below the sea and down deep to the center of the earth. You have two children and a partner and you love them all. There are good days and bad days, because life isn’t perfect. But when your fortieth birthday rolled around, you were happier than you’d ever been in and you wondered whether people could see it on you, on your lined face and in your tired eyes. Happiness, joy, you’ve come to realize, are quiet things for you, and you experience them in the pit of your belly and the tips of your fingers and in the peace that falls on you when your head hits the pillow and you smell the familiar body of the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with stirring beside you.
Two weeks after you turn forty, you get the assignment. You accept it, because you’ve never turned one down before. You will do your best, but you’re not sure how to begin. You make the usual phone calls. You do the necessary research. You watch the episodes of the better TV shows that involve these people whose lives you’re supposed to start showcasing. You get lots of help. But when you walk to the metro that whole first week you’re more aware than you’ve ever been before. Your eyes have been opened. You see them everywhere, lurking, smoking, talking, even laughing. You see them going into stores and buying things. You notice that they have cellphones. You see them near churches. You see them rummaging in their bags and baskets.
You don’t approach them on your own. You’re too scared. Too nervous. You feel superstitious about them. They are your black cats and ladders and umbrellas inside the house. They threaten to shake you out of your joy. They’ve already begun, without knowing it.
The couple you speak to, the pair of them, have been handed to you on a silver plate by a charity who wanted to help you. You’re grateful to the charity, to their contribution, which feels strange since normally it is the other way around with charities. They’re grateful to you, usually. The couple they’ve supplied are perfect for your story. They’re around your age but look like your parents, they have health problems, they are coherent and can be recorded. You go with them everywhere, that first day. You took with you a wad of five dollar bills in your pocket, anticipating the need to get them to cooperate with you. You’re surprised. They talk to you as if you’re a tourist to their world. They’re eager to show you around, share their complaints, explain their situation, but they don’t ask for a thing in return. It’s another upside-down situation – you’re the tourist, but they’re asking you to take the sound-bite photograph of them. They trust you with their lives. The man lets you hear him begin to cry in the soup kitchen as he worries about his partner’s health, and you wonder if you would feel the same responsibility in his place, caring for this woman with no teeth. The woman looks at the man, concerned at his expression of emotions, so rare and untried, and you wonder whether you would worry about another man’s feelings if your legs hurt all the time as much as hers do.
You are brought into reality by them, and it is painful, a red-hot poker to your guts. When you fall into bed that night, your partner rolls away from you and mutters that you smell of smoke. You sniff. You showered, but didn’t bother washing your hair. You were too tired. You imagine the couple, stretched out on the sofa bed in your living room, piled under duvets and heads resting on clean pillows. They aren’t there, of course. They’re in their tent underneath the highway overpass, where you left them earlier. You left them where you left the job, somewhere else, to be resumed and returned to tomorrow, when you’re ready to leave your home again.
This story was inspired by this news story on NPR’s All Things Considered. It is entirely invented and bears no real relation (besides that imagined) to the reporter or the subjects of the story.