by Katherine Steblen 

“Kids are back,” said Jerry, wiping gummy residue from his eyes. Leaves were mashed against his face from where he’d passed out the night before in a whiskey haze, marks of stems tattooed across his ruddy cheeks. “Ross, the kids!” he repeated louder, pushing the reclined figure next to him, his street-buddy wrapped up in a blanket.

Ross rolled over and looked up into a pleasing silhouette, backlit by the morning sun—an hourglass shape of a girl. For three days in a row she’d shown up at Buena Vista Park, bringing sandwiches. She was accompanied by a couple of other kids who looked to be her age, each of them wading through the humped forms of sleeping men, rousing them and offering food. Ross guessed she was in her late teens, early twenties.

The girl towered above him, dangling a brown paper bag aloft.

“Breakfast?” she asked, swinging the bag to and fro, a starburst in her blue eyes. She made a pretty picture with her lovely wide mouth and cascade of beige freckles across her nose. A doll of a girl, thought Ross, someone he imagined had a pretty name like “Rosie.”

“Lay it on me,” he said, his voice sounding like gravel shaken-up in a can.

He was a big man. Most days he woke up with a storm of hunger thundering across his belly. A chef by trade, he was used to three squares a day and then some, but after several months of living in the park, his robust girth shrank. He still appeared big, but his belly was now concave.

“Much obliged,” said Ross, tipping an imaginary hat. He looked at the shining face of his benefactor. She appeared pleased, almost grateful, to have him accept the bag. He smiled broadly in a show of large teeth, yellowed at the edges. He hurriedly opened the bag and wolfed down everything inside it—a sandwich of peanut butter and jelly spread thick on grainy bread, a shiny apple, and a bag of Cheeto’s. There was even a tiny bottle of vodka, the kind people drank on airplanes to take the edge off. Ross took a sip, hiding the rest for later.

In a dainty gesture, the girl scooped her gauzy skirt around herself and sat down. Ross knew she expected conversation in exchange for the food. He didn’t mind; he missed the company of women. Maybe she was doing research on the homeless in San Francisco. There’d been others coming around asking questions, but none of them brought food and they weren’t worth his time. Rosie was different somehow—not here as a voyeur, it didn’t seem so; she looked him straight in the eyes.

When she’d first strolled into their midst, Ross felt a flicker of protective caution. It’s not the old men he feared might hurt her, but the younger ones, like Jupiter. Most of those boys were sleeping it off in the am. but sometimes Jupiter was still tweaking. No amount of liquor quelled his craziness, spouting random phrases that sounded like hammers striking metal. Ross heard one of the research-kids call it “word-salad.” Jupiter looked wild sometimes, his pupils expanding to fill his eyes so that the blue looked black. Ross knew to be alert when Jupiter’s eyes become a solar eclipse. He’d growl at Ross, The fuck they want with me? He said it even when no one else was around, only the two of them under a tree, sharing a joint.

Ross guessed that people thought all the homeless were like Jupiter, but it wasn’t like that. Some just had a bad turn and no place else to go.

“How long you been living outdoors?” asked the girl.

Ross laughed. “You mean homeless? How long I been homeless? It’s okay to say it.” He tapped his chest. “Home’s in here now. I got tossed off that gerbil wheel with no regrets. Should’a jumped off long ago.”    

“What’d you do before… this?” She gestured to the demolished blankets and battered duffle bags, empty bottles and paper wrappers scattered in disarray.

Ross leveled his gaze and thrust his neck forward so that his face nearly touched her nose. She didn’t flinch. “I was a bum!” he said, emphasizing the last word. His eyebrows looked unruly, with sprouts of white curling this way and that. Once he’d been vain enough to pluck those long hairs, but now he let them be. All of his features were large—his eyes, his mouth, his nose.

The girl laughed uncomfortably, shook her head and squinted at him. “Aren’t you a bum now? Don’t you think that sleeping outside makes people think you’re a bum? That’s sort-of the definition of one, isn’t it?”

Ross clarified: “I don’t mean that kind of a bum, sleeping on the ground and what not. I mean I was an asshole to people, a complete asshole.” He hadn’t expected to be living outdoors, but the motorcycle accident had left his right arm paralyzed. He could no longer slice, chop, or dice; could no longer smack people in the head, or play pool; couldn’t make a living doing what he knew how to do. “I once thought the world owed me something. If it wasn’t handed to me, I’d steal it; screwed friends over and didn’t give a shit; fucked women I didn’t care about; busted-up faces in bars after too many shots of Tequila.” He exhaled loudly, as if in regret, or maybe just tired after stringing so many words together first thing in the morning.

The girl nodded. “What’d it feel like?” she asked.

“What’d you mean?” said Ross. “What’d what feel like? Busting heads?”

“No, I mean, what’d it feel like to be a bum, on the inside? I heard you say what it looks like, but what’d it feel like?”

Ross sat back. No one had ever asked him a question like that before. He took a deep breath. “I once found an old can of Planter’s Peanuts. You ever see their logo—spiffy dude in a top hat, holding a cane?  That was me—good looking, buff, drove a Harley, always had cash, a big roll of it; pissed it away every weekend. Anyways, I opened that can of nuts ready to cram a handful into my mouth and the thing was crawling with worms; I mean cocoons, moths hatching out, just everything alive in there; all that shit living down in the dark. That was me, on the inside.” He looked at Rosie’s slender leg, imagined running his sandpaper palm up the inside of her pale thigh; but no, he wouldn’t let himself do that to Rosie.

“I feel that way too,” she said. “Like people see me all sparkly but there’s nothing in here but shadows.” She put her hand to her chest.

“How can that be, darling?” laughed Ross. “Shadows? What’d you ever do to anybody?”

“I don’t know.” She drew her knees up and wove her arms in a loop around her legs. “I just feel that way all the time.” Her voice caught raspy, mid-sentence.

“Look at what you do for people. I’d ‘a woke up hungry if it weren’t for you,” said Ross. “Why you bringing us food? You’re good to do it.”

“I do it,” she said, “to feel worthy.”

“Worthy?” Ross pulled a rubber band off his wrist and tied back his long hair into a ponytail. He’d adjusted to using only one hand for everything and was about as proud of that as he’d been about anything he’d mastered his whole life. His hair used to be a deep chestnut brown, but after the wreck, his head was shaved and it had grown back in slate-gray. He remembered the vanity of it, combing out that thick mane in front of the mirror each day. Now he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his own reflection. “Why you don’t feel worthy, girl?” he asked, looking her way, seeing how she seemed to shrink into herself.

The girl shrugged her shoulders despairingly. “I just, I guess—I don’t know why.” Her voice strangled, choking out the sentence. She turned to face him, looking startled, lost.

He longed to cradle her head against his chest but knew enough not to touch a girl like Rosie. He hoped she’d grow up lucky enough to have men know when not to touch her. He tried to make his voice into an embrace, to hug her with words, but all that came out was, “Yeah, yup, it’s okay; you’re okay, honey.”

A silence settled over them. Ross tried again. “You know, I think some folks just come out feeling like they’re not good enough. They spend their lives trying to resurrect themselves when, all along, they’re the good ones; the best ones, really. Other folks come out and strut around like cocky roosters, but they ain’t worth shit. You care about people, Rosie.”  
She startled at the name that wasn’t hers, but didn’t correct him. Maybe he thought she was someone else, a girl from his past, somebody better than the person she felt herself to be. She liked the name; the way it rolled out on his tongue, rich and round– it made her feel beloved.

Ross went on: “What’s life anyway, than just our thoughts strung together ‘til the day we die? I knew guys who had it all: money, families, houses, and they were all a bunch of sorry-ass sons of bitches, always moaning about something. I was the same way.” He thought about how things had been for him. Who the hell did he think he was at 49 years old, swooping around those loopy turns on highway one? What pissed him off that night and every night before it? He’d been saying F-you to life for years, daring it to take him, then finally his bike careened out of control. He was lucky to be alive, and now, living hand to mouth, he was more content than in those restless, bile-fueled days when he’d had rolls of cash. How could that be? How could sleeping out here on the ground be better?  He used to smolder, remembering a bunch of shitty things threaded together by a strand of “what ifs”—what if he’d stayed in school? What if he’d never taken that first drink? What if his old man hadn’t been such a flaming asshole? Now his thoughts were strung together like white lights. He wanted Rosie to feel like she mattered. In the old days, he’d have run his hands up and down her body like mallets tenderizing a slab of meat. But it wasn’t like that now—he saw people in new ways, he listened to them; he belonged to a community; they helped each other. He remembered when Gerry stole a roll of hotdogs and Robby snatched a hibachi from someone’s back porch, and they’d had an impromptu cookout. Everyday brought new gifts. He was grateful for warm nights, sweatshirts, and food; nothing was taken for granted.

His head began to ache, the gnawing for nicotine starting to grind. He looked around for butts on the ground but found none.

“You wouldn’t have a cigarette on you, dear, would you?” asked Ross, half-joking. To his surprise, Rosie produced a pack from somewhere inside her embroidered bag. She lit one for him, and then one for herself, tiny brown sticks that smelled like cloves. They sat for a while, puffing companionably, neither one needing to speak.

“Rosie, look over there,” said Ross in a hushed, reverent tone. He pointed to a tree about twenty feet away. “Look! It’s moving. See all the life going on in that tree?”

“Yeah, uh-huh,” she murmured. Ross saw her expression and laughed out loud. She was humoring him. He realized he sounded like Jupiter, hallucinating.

“No. Look closer, Rosie. See it?”

She squinted at the tree, reaching into her bag for a pair of glasses. Without them, she was practically blind, couldn’t see further than five feet in front of her. He was right, the tree was moving! Butterflies and bees lit on peach-colored blossoms. Dozens of humming birds zipped and hovered among the branches, so rapidly they were hard to see unless someone stood there for awhile, looking. How could she have passed by this spot so often and never noticed?

They stared at the tree and the birds, feeling the sun’s heat edged with the coolness of a breeze, letting the day’s gifts wash over them.

About the Author:

Katherine Steblen is a mother, artist and counselor who has always been interested in learning about people’s lives. Writing fiction has been a way to explore the many facets of the human psyche. Kathy’s work has been published in “Everyday Fiction,” and “100 Word Story.”