I park around the corner where he can’t see me. I always do. He has a spot he seems to like- 5th and Colombia right outside the bank. Rain or shine. Mostly rain. He’s one of the people we walk past and don’t notice. Maybe he thinks that someone coming out of the bank will give him a couple of bucks- or change from a pocket that is littered with remnants of past inhabitants, and he’ll go away. But he’s not going anywhere. He looks tired. Really tired. Sometimes I wonder if he’s tired of living or tired of sitting on the sidewalk? No matter- there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.
His sign is almost unoriginal- disabled vet anything helps god bless. He should leave god out of it. Maybe-just maybe- he’s convinced himself that he is a disabled vet. He has a few screws loose that’s for sure. But he’s embossed his sign with his signature logo-two gold stars on a bold gold stripe that intrude on the corners of the cardboard. I must say, it’s a nice touch. Stars and bars. He was always clever.
His jeans are torn and dirty- not like the $160 torn and dirty at Abercrombie’s. More like the ones that someone has thrown away. Garbage for the garbage. He sports a navy ball cap- disabled vet with scrambled eggs on the brim. And that old tee shirt- born in the USA….a long, long time ago. He loves that tee shirt. I gave it to him for his birthday- a long long time ago. When things were good. No-not good. Just maybe a little bit better.
The rain doesn’t matter to either of us. I itch with impatience as I head towards him. Trying to fit in like the other disinterested pedestrians. Not even breaking pace for fear that he will look up and see me. I drop a 100 into his dirty Starbucks cup. It’s a bit tricky you see because I have wrapped a small white piece of paper around it. As I usually do. The same message every week- please call me.
But he never does. He probably just throws the piece of paper away. Or maybe he blows his nose in it- like he did in grade school. I’d thought about writing on the bill. Or just forgetting about the paper. Maybe my feigned indifference would make a difference.
I walk back to the car. When did this all start? I rack my brain trying to figure it out. What did I miss? Could I have helped? Could I have made a difference? Then I remind myself of all the times I tried. Tried really hard. I hadn’t abandoned him. He had abandoned me. And himself. Brother and sister- now strangers. Strangers longer than siblings. Probably strangers forever.
I pay the rent on his tiny apartment. I do that in person every month hoping to get a peek into his other life. The place is small by sidewalk standards. A creaky building that moans and sighs. The man at the front desk is always giving me problems about letting me in. It doesn’t matter that I pay the rent. I don’t live there. Yes, he knows it’s my brother. Doesn’t matter. I don’t live there.
Last time he had a job was about 100 years ago. Got fired. It’s that thin layer of veneer that some mistake for self confidence that got him hired in the first place. Always worked and always eventually failed. You got fired? What happened, I’d asked him? His response was bored. I wasn’t really working, according to my stupidvisor. I told him I was thinking. He told me I don’t get paid to think. I got paid to work. So, I told him what I was thinking. That I’m going to quit-right now. What do you think about that? They do pay you to think, don’t they? And, then I got up and left. Just like that- without even thinking twice.
On Tuesdays he goes to the ferry terminal. He sits along the walkway with the others. Who will be the lucky ones today? How does one passerby know who among them got the last bit of luck? No signs here- just blankets, shopping carts and sadness. A group of men who are equity holders in some privately held homeless corporation. They’ve made a fine art of their tradecraft-perfecting the illusion of hopelessness and madness.
I got into the building on Wednesday. A new person at the front desk. She eyed me suspiciously and asked me questions that really didn’t matter. She’s the protectorate against all things evil- like me. She lets me in the building. Past all those doors with faded and broken numbers. I hear him talking. He opens the door- just enough. The neurotic red walls scream at me through his silence. There’s no one in there. Just him. I know who he’s talking to. His old friend Harry Shorty Peterson. His childhood friend that no one could ever see. Just him. I read someplace that imaginary friends are really guardian angels. They stick around just long enough. Looks like this one came back. Or maybe never left. The place looks pretty neat. But he is that way. Even on the street. No empty pizza boxes, no candy wrappers everywhere.
He looks confused-calm and wild at the same time. Calm that he’s safe here? Wild because he’s safe here? Or is it seeing me? He shuts the door in my face.
I wait in my car. He comes out a while later. He’s cleaned up. I knew he would because the casino is his Wednesday afternoon habit. Maybe he scores a free drink or two if he sits at a machine long enough. He doesn’t gamble. He wanders around the cacophony of slots. All beckoning him like sirens. He always manages to find a few that still have money in them. He’ll cash out the pennies of others. The pennies that nobody wants.
It’s Friday. A police car pulls down the driveway. A loud knock on the door. The policeman. He’s come to tell me that there’s a complaint filed against me. Me? A man says you are harassing him. Following him. All the time. I’m confused. He can see it in my face. He’s my brother, I tell him. He’s mentally ill. He needs help. For god sakes, he tells people he’s an admiral. The policeman stands his ground. Ma’am you need to stop or I will have to arrest you.
I park around the corner where he can’t see me. I always do. He has a spot he seems to like- 5th and Colombia right outside the bank. Rain or shine. Mostly rain. He’s one of the people we walk past and don’t notice. Maybe he thinks that someone coming out of the bank will give him a couple of bucks- or change from a pocket that is littered with remnants of past inhabitants, and he’ll go away. But he’s not going anywhere. Neither am I.
Elisabeth is a researcher and writer in international government affairs for The Rand Corporation. She has a doctorate from the University of Southern California. When she's not writing technical publications, she enjoys creative writing and good coffee. Actually, she enjoys good coffee all the time.
About: I have stretched and fictionalized details about a friend and her relationship with her homeless brother in Seattle. It is a gentle reminder of how people can fall by the wayside if not for the love of another. This piece flowed easily. I could envisage events and craft little details that bring frustration and love to this tiny story. The title is purposefully lower case to mirror the existence of the main character. I chose to ignore quotation marks to blur the events. It's a story that ends at the beginning.