Summer of 2021. A slither of beaming light is rising in the east, fighting its way against the darkness of the night. The smell of freshly baked bread is making my stomach growl. It must be around 6:30am now. The chirping sounds of the crickets have faded overnight. I want to sleep a little longer, but my stomach disagrees. Last time I ate something was yesterday around noon. How much sleep can you really get on an empty stomach? Pam, the owner of Tony's Bakery, is good to me. She leaves a bag of onion bagels every morning with my name on it. Sometimes she will add a small packet of cream cheese to go with. Maybe she feels good about herself doing something nice. Maybe she takes pity on me. Or maybe I remind her of someone. Is it Tony, I wonder?
The bench I am laying down on has a rusty nail that sticks out. It pinches on the back of my neck and makes it uncomfortable to sleep. I sit up and stare in the distance to the “OPEN” sign on the bakery door. The sun is rising. The whole town is asleep. The ticking sound of the flashing light on the four way intersection is the next loudest thing besides my stomach. The bench I have been using for the past few months is hidden away from the main road. There are a few more benches strategically placed in this little park, but I like this one. Few small shrubs on the edge of the park hide the bench from the entrance way. You will miss the bench if you are not intentionally looking for it; it gives me the privacy I need at night to get some shut eyes. I gather my belongings and get up off the bench just to sit right back down. My spinning head reminded me how hungry I was. The headache from yesterday is coming back. They say a good night's sleep cures all headaches. I should have slept a little longer. The slight tickle on top of my nose tells me that I'm bleeding again. My ribcage is starting to hurt. I pulled the bloody napkin out of my pocket that I previously used to clean up my wounds. Those guys didn't have to rough me up. I hadn’t done anything to them yet I got my ass kicked. I should go to the hospital; or maybe visit the police station and file a complaint. What’s the point, I didn't know who they were. They didn't know me either. I was an easy target to them who didn’t fight back. Maybe they were looking for a new way to release their pent-up angers and found me. No one will come to rescue a homeless man in a fight, no matter how cruel that seems. What's done is done. I have got to get out of here; get out of this town altogether. The question is, how far can you go when you have nothing in your pocket, when you are a piece of trash in this society, when you are worth nothing.
I opened the door and poked my head inside. Pam is behind the counter boxing up the freshly baked cookies that had just come out of the oven. The beautiful smell of her baking made my stomach growl even louder. Pam smiled at me. Did she hear the growl?
I smiled back. "Good morning."
"Morning Josh!" Pam responds. "You are an early riser."
Long look at my face and her smile went away instantly. "The fuck happened? Did you get into a fight?" She asks.
"It's nothing. You should've seen the other guy." Trying to keep my smile alive.
"No, seriously, who did this to you?" Pam is serious.
"Some kids near the bridge downtown thought I needed some lessons." Tried assuring her that it's all good. "No biggie. I am ok."
"Did you go to the police?" She asks. "You need to go to the hospital."
"I am alright Pam." Paused for a bit and looked around for that familiar bag. I know she has it somewhere. She won't let me down. "Getting out of here today." Trying to change the subject.
Pam pulled out a brown lunch bag from behind the counter that has a smiley face next to my name. She is so good to me!
"Oh yeah?" She asks. "Where to?"
"Maybe South." I replied. "I hear Carolina is nice. Friendly people. I can cross the street without looking over my shoulder. I can get a job at a farmhouse."
"Good for you. That's really good." She smiles. "First things first. Go see a doctor. Get that nose fixed and then you can leave town."
"I will miss your bagels." The sound of my voice is sincere. Pam knows how grateful I am for the things she has done for me. "One day I will pay you back."
"I am sure you will." Her eyes catch the door. The bell hanging from above rings as it opens. An elderly man in a suit walked in. Her first customer of the day.
"Can I use your restroom Pam? Need to clean up a bit before I head out.”
"Sure thing." She waves to the location where the restrooms are.
I picked up my book bag and walked through the corridor. The bag is filled with essentials: a few pairs of clothes, a towel, toothpaste, a toothbrush, a bar soap, an empty plastic bottle for my water, a white envelope and a picture frame. I try my best to freshen up and look a little presentable. Not many people care what a homeless man looks like, but I do. I may not have much, but have conscience, and a sense of responsibility. It's bad enough that society has to see a man like me walking around the street ugly, dirty, and rotting away in the alleyway; no need for them to tolerate my smells. I changed my clothes, washed my face, and tossed the bloody shirt in the trash. Something caught my eye on the bottom of the trashcan when I opened the lid. A crumpled up five dollar bill on the bottom with the smudge of brown human waste. I looked around the stall. The tissue holder is empty. Some rich schmuck used the bill after taking care of their business. Maybe I would have done the same if I was in his shoes. Or maybe I would have used my socks to clean up instead. Some people just don't think like I do. The question is: should I ignore it? Should I pick it up, clean it and be a rich man for a day? Five dollar bill is a lot for a man like me. Have I stooped down so low?
Few cars are driving aimlessly on the quiet streets of Waterbury. The sun is shining too bright for such an early morning hour. It’s going to be a hot and humid day. Maybe it will rain a little. I need to go as far away as I can before the sun becomes intolerable. Walking in scorching hot weather will dehydrate you faster and make your tongue dry. On a typical day like today I would have to find a shelter at the nearest train station. Maybe find an abandoned building-house somewhere, but not today. I am a man on a mission. No more wandering on the streets of the Dirty-Water. No more digging through the dumpsters for half-eaten sandwiches or the pizza crusts. No more dirty looks from the owner of the Texaco gas station when walking by his precious pumps. No more begging for anything.
Locals call this city “Dirty-Water.” There are more skuzzy and homeless people living here than any normal folks. “Normal!” makes me chuckle. I was normal once. Look where I am now. Being normal in this abnormal world isn’t more rewarding than what I am today. Before leaving Tony’s Bakery I picked up a thumbtack from Pams’ community board. Pam didn’t notice. I am sure she would have been okay with me taking a lousy tack. I pinned the wet five dollar bill into the front pocket of my book bag before hitting the road. I am sure it will dry out fast in no time. I grabbed a bagel out of the bag and turned the corner from the bakery as I gulped it down. Oh how delicious you are, my sweet bagel! My stomach thanks you.
Ten miles north from here is the CT transit station. The little convenient store near the station sells bus tickets among other things. If I want to reach Penn station by tomorrow I will need to hustle and get to Bridgeport by dawn. From Bridgeport to Penn will take an hour or two; and from there straight to South. Now that I have cash for a bus ticket to Bridgeport, how will I get to the Penn station from there? Thought of leaving town finally hit me. Will I have the courage to leave this rotten place finally? Why did I wait so long? I have nothing here to hold back. Not anymore.
By the time I reached the convenient store near the transit, the bright sky dimmed its light and covered the wavy clouds in dark shades. Tiny flicker of lights on the horizon assure me that it is coming. I give the five dollar bill to the attendant in exchange for a bus ticket that costs three dollars. Without any hesitation, the attendant placed the cash into the drawer. I smirked.
“Anything else?” he asks with an accent.
“I will take a Mega Millions. Quick pick” I respond, "feeling lucky today."
No reaction on his face. I peaked at the numbers.
13 24 33 45 56 and the mega ball is 13
How lucky can it be when 13 appears twice. I could have used the cash for food. Maybe saved for the train ticket. I would still need to come up with sixty more dollars. Tickets are expensive. It is highly unlikely that I will accumulate sixty dollars by tomorrow. If I can sneak onto the train I can easily find a hiding place without being spotted by the conductor. It is not an ideal way to travel cross country but I have done it before. The thought of the train ride out of this town brought a smile to my face. I can picture the roads and trees whooshing by, as the train passes through Richmond to farther South. I can smell the natural aroma of an open field, untainted by the city’s toxic wastes. I can feel the warmth of a Southerner that melts your heart and makes you feel welcomed. My face hurts when I smile. The broken ribs ache on a small touch. Salty tastes in my mouth tell me that it is not the after taste of a bagel but is blood. Hope I don’t have internal bleeding.
Found a small seat on the back of the bus away from the crowd where no one wants to go. It will give me some privacy; keep me away from everyone else. I tried my hardest to be invisible. After taking a window seat I tilted my head against it and dosed off. By the time we reached Bridgeport the sun had gone down. The loud thunder made me jump out of my seat. Few passengers are still on the bus, gathering their belongings for departure. I jumped off when the bus stopped at the station. Need to find a dry place to crash, and I need to find out how far I am from the train station too, but no need to worry about this late at night. I can figure all of that out in the morning. First thing first: find a parked bus behind the station, be undetected from the guards, and get on it.
It was pitch black; not hard to find where the buses were kept in the back of the station. After failed attempts to get in several locked buses, one showed mercy. The locking mechanism was broken on this raggedy looking bus that could easily belong to a junkyard. The roof leaks from a corner. I pull the plastic bottle out of my bag and place it directly under the leaking roof. I found a dry seat in the middle of the bus and lay there. I pull the towel out of my bag to use as a blanket and then the bag as a pillow. I am in a much better place today than I was yesterday. The thunder is getting louder. The drizzled rain turned into a gush in a matter of minutes. The sound of the rain reminded me of a time when the world was a magical place. I open the book bag again and pull out the white envelope. In it was a letter addressed to my son. I must have read it a thousand times. Every word in this letter pierces through my heart but yet I read it again.
June 12th, 2011
It’s hard to believe you are almost two now. It seems like just the other day I held you in my arms for the first time, and shed tears of joy. You are the most precious thing in my life and no one can ever take that away from me. One day you will be able to read and understand things. I want you to know that I love you and that you are my everything.
I wish things could have been different and we could have spent more time together; but you can’t always have what you wish for. You will know that one day and you will hate it. But that’s life, my son. One thing you will never have to worry about is not finding your dad. I am here with you and will always be here.
So this Father’s Day, I celebrate you. You came into my life when I needed you the most and I thank you for that. Because of you my son, I can get through these days without going insane. Because of you, I wake up every morning and put a smile on my face. Because of you, I am still here. I love you with all of my heart and will never stop loving you.
"And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me,
Shine until tomorrow,
Let it be."
Nothing is more annoying than a buzzing fly wandering over your head. The rain stopped for a bit but the clouds were still angry. I slept better last night than I had in months. The plastic bottle is full. At least now I don’t have to worry about finding drinking water. Need to head out and find the train station. The stomach is growling again. Déjà vu! I gathered my belongings and stepped out of the bus. I have never been in this part of the town before. Came here once or twice when I was someone; but that was long ago. The town doesn’t appear as bad as some will describe it. Hell of a lot better than the Dirty-Water that’s for sure. I can always ask someone for the directions to the train station. After walking a few miles north of the bus station I stumbled into a small little bodega, a mom-and-pop store. Not much crowd here in the early morning. An old man was walking his dog, stopped behind the convenience store for a moment and then continued. I walked into the store and immediately heard a loud voice coming from behind the barricaded counter, “No restroom here. Get the fuck out.”
“I am not here for the restroom. Just need directions to the train station.” I didn’t want to anger the man.
Something in my voice made the man take a second look at me. Did I not sound like a homeless person? He gave me directions, told me to turn right on Main Street and go a few blocks straight. I thanked him, asked if I could have a print out of last nights’ lottery ticket results that were sitting on the counter. The man did not seem to care. After walking out of the store I headed in the direction he suggested.
The sky is cloudy again. Mother Nature is not letting us off the hook easily. Small water drops on my head started to drip a little faster. I glimpsed at the lottery ticket numbers on the print out. Mega Million numbers were on top, followed by the Cash five and then the others. The lucky number 13 appeared twice on the list. I chuckled for a second and then stopped moving all together. The rest of the numbers on the list seem very familiar.
The pouring rain on the street is washing away the dirt from the sidewalk. I am standing frozen on the street, with no desire to move. I pull the lottery ticket out of my pocket and hold it side by side. The numbers on my ticket are identical to the one on the list. What a cruel joke nature is playing with me! There are more deserving people in this world who need it more than I do. Why me? Why now?
Getting dizzy. World around me shrunk as I stood in the middle of the street holding the ticket. Soaked in the pouring rain I watched the ink disappear from a piece of paper that was worth nothing to me. All I could think of was the letter in my bag and the little mans’ face staring at me, smiling.