Homeless

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.

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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.

Lucy’s Temple

Not all temples are made of stone. Lucy’s temple, the one she prayed and sacrificed in, was made of a few stout and sturdy cardboard boxes that she’d pulled apart and made into walls that surrounded her shrine. The shrine itself was a dirty old plastic milk crate that someone had drawn a few rude pictures on. But Lucy thought that made it rather more authentic. After all, the old Greek and Roman gods were always naked and rather naughty, weren’t they?
The best thing about her temple was that it was moveable. She could pack it into her rickety shopping cart whenever she decided to move her camp to somewhere else. The cart was filled with the other essentials of her life – some extra clothing for the colder weather, a few emergency Twinkies that she kept for the worst nights when she hadn’t managed to get any money for food, and, of course, her box of treasures and sacrifices.
The box held her most prized possessions besides the temple and shrine. She never showed anyone what was in there, not even Dumbo, the large-eared man who she encountered on most days, feebly playing his trumpet for the passersby. He was her best friend on the street, and they would often share things with each other – their food, their drugs, and occasionally, when the mood struck them, their bodies as well.
When Lucy woke up on this Sunday morning, she realized that she hadn’t seen Dumbo in a while. Not since she’d constructed her shrine and her temple. She wanted to share them with him, because she thought that he would understand and that he would see exactly what it was that she was worshiping. Other people had laughed at her, and she ignored them easily enough – living on the street was an education in ignoring and being ignored – but she wanted to show someone the magic she’d discovered and cultivated in her collapsible temple.
She decided that, since it was sunny and warm, she should go and look for him. She didn’t find him in any of the usual spots – he wasn’t at any of the subway stops that he frequented, nor was he in the parks that were friendly to the homeless population of the city. The last place she looked was at the soup kitchen that neither one of them went to very often, but he wasn’t there either. The proprietress of the place tried to wave Lucy in and yelled out a few times for her to join the line and get some food, but Lucy smiled her semi-toothed smile and shook her head. She didn’t like being somewhere with so many people.
When the sun began to set and she still hadn’t found Dumbo, Lucy realized with a jolt what she had to do. She took her shopping cart back to the alleyway she’d spent her nights in over the last week and began to set up her shrine and the temple. She opened her box of treasures and ran her fingers around it, feeling the bits and pieces of her favorite things as they seemed to nuzzle against her, almost sentient. It was as if they were assuring her that she was loved by them and that they appreciated her taking as good care of them as she did.
She pulled out a piece of red string and held it up to the light that came from the lamp-post at the far end of the alleyway. It was still clean and shiny. She pulled a small pack of matches from her pocket and placed the string on her shrine. Lighting it on fire, she watched the smoke curl into the air of the temple and she began to pray. She prayed to the gods to find Dumbo and bring him to her, but she also prayed to them to keep him safe even if he didn’t come to find her.
She could feel them responding to her. She could feel Dumbo coming closer to her. She could smell him getting closer to her. Sure enough, as her lips finished mumbling the last words of her prayer, Dumbo ducked under the walls of temple and caused them to sway precariously. He knelt beside Lucy and watched her curiously. His long dreadlocks were tied in a tight knot at the nap of his neck and his beard was scraggly and dirtier than ever.
Lucy moved a little so that he could be more comfortable. “This is my shrine,” she said. Dumbo nodded. “I know,” he said. “I could tell.” He closed his eyes, put his hands together, and they began to pray together. Lucy was pleased. She knew that Dumbo would understand.

Homeless with a Hamster

High Priest Jonas, son of Azekial, of the long-standing Levi line, looked exactly like any other homeless man wandering about the streets of the capital city. Unlike them, however, he carried in his heart the knowledge of his noble lineage.

He walked through the alleyways of stone and dirt every day, and watched the washing hung out to dry between the windows of the buildings on either side of him. He counted socks, shirts and pants and tried to figure out how many people lived in each apartment. Sometimes he sat under a washing line and let the water from badly wrung clothing drip onto his dirty green coat and his matted and tangled brown hair. He liked that, because it meant he walked around for the rest of the day with the smell of laundry detergent mixed in with the alcohol, body odor and bad breath that surrounded him.

He couldn’t clearly remember where he’d been before the street. He thought that there was a home, maybe a job and a family as well. He distinctly remembered there being a lot of wine. Much more wine than he was able to put his hands on these days.

The problem with Jonas, the other homeless agreed, was that he thought himself superior. None of the others were strangers to madness – they’d all had brushes with the crazies or else had gone through insane phases themselves, but none of them tried to pretend that they were better than anyone else. But Jonas turned his nose up at them. He’d tried, at first, to teach them, to collect followers, but once they told him to go away, using nasty vocabulary, he decided that they weren’t worth his time.

Jonas didn’t see things this way. In his opinion, the ones who shared the city-streets with him had hurt his pride and mocked him, and for that he would never forgive them. Maybe one day, if they would deign to apologize, he would acknowledge them and help them to salvation.

Meanwhile, however, he’d found himself a different companion. Bobo, a hamster in a green cage, was beside him day and night. He was a stalwart friend – his nose quivered in anticipation whenever Jonas gave him food and he would emit high-pitched squeaks of satisfaction when the man tickled his stomach. Jonas was pleased with him.

One evening in October, the High Priest took Bobo to one of his favorite haunts. It was one of the coffee-shop chains that filled the city streets, but unlike many others, there weren’t waiters. Instead, people ordered their coffee inside and then took their mugs to the outdoor seating area when the weather was nice or if they were smokers. The staff rarely came outside to collect the dirty dishes, so Jonas could sit at a table all evening without being shooed off the premises.

“Look, Bobo,” he grinned, broken teeth bared. “This is a nice table, right? A nice table.” He put the cage down and sat on a red plastic chair. His coat was bulky and uncomfortable and the table rocked as he hit it with his knee. Instinctively, he shot out an arm to hold the cage steady. Bobo sniffed his thanks, directing his tiny nose at Jonas’ hand.

He scoped out the area around him. There was a bar behind him, small and tucked into a crevice of the little complex. In front of him were other tables and chairs like his, with people sitting at them. He saw that none of his enemies were there and breathed a sigh of relief. He could work in peace. He crooned once at Bobo before taking out paper and a stubby bit of pencil.

He leaned forward and began to write. The people who sat around him watched him warily, like they watched all homeless men and women who came too close to their comfy worlds. Jonas didn’t mind – he knew that they watched him merely because they were drawn to his nobility. Even if they didn’t know it, they were dimly aware of the majesty that was in his tall, wide frame. He pretended not to notice their staring and continued writing, working as always on his lists and his plans.

“Mommy, mommy, there’s a homeless man with a hamster!” a little boy’s voice rang out.

“Shh!” the boy’s father picked him up and carried him away, glancing back fearfully to make sure that the boy’s yell hadn’t angered the man.

Jonas frowned sadly, but the boy’s father couldn’t see the expression through his wild, tangled beard.

“Yes, I have a hamster,” Jonas said quietly, looking down at Bobo. “He is my friend.”

 

Arrived

Los Angeles is one of the most special cities in the world. Even when the weather forecast announces that it’s going to be overcast with possible showers, you can still feel the presence of a bright yellow sun behind the clouds, and within hours the sky clears and that bright orb makes its appearance just in time for a last walk in the sunlight before dusk falls.

Beautiful as it still is and will always be to me, there are things that have changed. Nothing that’s unique to LA, but rather things that have changed across the United States. Melrose, the hip-happening street of fashion, food and fun, has now more FOR LEASE signs that it ever has before. Shutters are drawn across the empty store fronts, and the glass looks dusty, as if it’s been waiting for a new tenant for longer than it’s used to.

When we ate lunch today, a dark-haired, scruffy, tall homeless man walked over to the table behind us and took the tip that was left there for the waitress. We saw it, as did a woman inside the restaurant, and none of us did anything. It seemed to happen so fast. We all were sure he was going to take some item of food, but then he was gone and so was the waitress’ tip. What do you even do in a situation like this?

I’ve been taking photos. Too many, and probably mostly bad ones, but I’m finally going to try to catch some of the essence of this bizarre half-city-half-suburb in more than words.

I’m jet-lagged and exhausted and our trip took more than twenty-four hours. I think now is the time to sleep.

Wizard Mathews [A Short Story That Isn’t Really About Magic]

The Great Wizard Mathews, sat down and wrapped his cloak around himself. He thought, for the hundredth time that day, that his experiment had gone horribly wrong. He shivered a bit and flinched away from the noisy road, burrowing himself further in his cloak, and closed his eyes.

The Great Wizard was an expert of his field and an important man, where he came from anyway. His expertise was crystal balls, the kind that look backwards and forwards and over the world. They were simple things, really, crystal balls. It was all just an easy matter of tweaking with the chemicals and dimensions that made up time and space and then confining the tweaked bits in glass orbs. All quite easy stuff really, as wizarding went.

Mathews sniffled and then sneezed. The smoke down in his little corner was even worse than it had been walking around all day. He was quite sure he saw some poisenous matter drifting from the strange little gate in the ground. He pressed his old, wrinkled and once-respectful face against the dirty stone and tried with all his might to disappear from the place. What a fool he had been! He was so angered with himself that he bit his hand and beat his head against the wall a few times.

The trouble with Mathews was, he got bored quickly. He had been in the crystal ball business for some fifty odd years, a short time indeed for a wizard, and he grew so bored with fiddling and confining things in orbs that he decided to fiddle with time and space a bit more, only this time outside of orbs, and see what would happen. His first experiments were exhilerating – Mathews passed through time and worlds quickly, colors and sounds flashing by him until his head fair spun with it and his body felt invigorated and new with the energy of it.

Today though – Had it really all just begun this morning? – Mathews had thrown himself into the process with so much gusto, that he had gotten stuck. Stuck in one place, a place so different from his own world that he wanted to weep at its ugliness. The worst thing was that his powers seemed to be drained. He had decided that an evil spell must be on this place. He knew it in his bones. He saw other abandonned or lost wizards like him around the noisy, dangerous and smelly place he was in, also bereft of their powers. He knew them as his brethren because of their wizened faces, their cloaks and capes of all manner, their weariness at this world and most of all, their constant mutterings – stuff he reckoned must be spells. Well, would be spells if they’d worked- it seemed all the others had lost their powers as well.

Mathews tried to speak to the others, but most were so deep in dispair at their lost powers that they didn’t answer him. Some spoke in code it seemed, muttering low, but Mathews did not understand their code and alas, knew not how to go about cracking it.

So it had gone all day, and Mathews was now tired. Bone weary, even. He glanced up and saw a child look at him, from far away. He sighed, tried to smile at the little boy, and then lay his head back against the wall and slept.

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“Robbie, come here! Stop staring at that old vagrant!” A woman murmured urgently, tugging at her young son’s coat, as the boy tried to go over to the wizard.

“But Mommy, Mommy, he’s a wizard! I saw a crystal ball in his pocket! I want him to teach me magic,” the little Robbie screamed in protest. His mother pulled him away, still screaming, and tried to explain about homeless men and vagrants and promised to buy him some ice cream. When Robbie wouldn’t stop screaming about the wizard, his mother dispaired and bought him a glittery plastic magic wand from the toy-store.

Robbie was content then, and agreed to go home without a fuss. But when he was tucked into bed that night, he wondered about the wizard and knew, for one clear moment before he fell into the deep sleep of children, that he was the only one in this world who would ever know that that man was a Great Wizard.