The homeless man outside Michael’s car window interfered with a rule of his: to not make eye contact, whenever possible, with homeless people. When he did, they were suddenly human and not just fixtures of the landscape, not just a bush with a cardboard sign propped in its branches or a mailbox with a too-big hoodie draped over it. When they became human, Michael started wondering all sorts of pointless things, like where did they use the bathroom? and where did they get all those layers of clothing? and where did they sleep? Surely it wasn’t always on a park bench wrapped in a newspaper, like Michael’s imagination insisted. Then he started thinking about what would happen if he were homeless, if he and Alice and their Joey somehow ended up on the streets, and how would he provide for any of them, when providing was hard enough to do now? Always a messy thought process, and an upsetting one. Better just to stare straight ahead, give them the profile.
But the left-turn light refused to change, and this man was testing Michael’s patience. He blotted Michael’s vision like a bug, and Michael could swear that a faint dirty smell was coming from the man, seeping through the cracks of the car and into the upholstery. Finally he turned, unable to transform the man into a streetlamp, ready to shake his head at him, meaning, no, sorry, I don’t have any spare change, and even if I did I can’t always be giving away my spare change, but he took one look at the man’s face and flinched in his seat. The seatbelt drove him back down, locking him into place.
It was the eyes. The man had these fantastically blue eyes, almost unnaturally blue, the same color of those vivid new headlights Michael had seen on some cars. In their glare, Michael was frozen. He was reminded uncannily of a boy he had known in middle school, an older boy who lived down the street—surely, this wasn’t Charlie! He and Charlie had been decent friends, despite the age difference of a few years, but more than that, they had done things—just silly boy things, really, nothing out of the ordinary, but still nothing he would tell Alice.
Michael peered through the car window, not bothering to be subtle, and the man stared back at him. The eyes did look remarkably like Charlie’s, but Michael couldn’t remember any other details of the boy to compare him with the filthy person standing in the median. Middle school was a decades-old haze, and each sensation could pair with half a dozen memories. Shame, for instance, a creep of heat in his cheeks, was easy to recall, but did it belong to the memory of him passing gas in the cafeteria or his being picked second-to-last in a dodgeball game? The searing sense of pleasure that still, Michael would admit, made him tingle to recall—did it stem from one of the days of early self-experimentation, alone in the house for the hour between school letting out and his mother coming home? Or was it attached to the few times he and Charlie had fooled around—because that’s really all it was, fooling around, just two kids finding out what felt good and what didn’t?
Michael’s eyes strayed to the sign that maybe-Charlie was holding.
Hungry and tired
Family to support please
Give what you can God bless.
The words were stacked haphazardly, sliding around the cardboard in a poorly assembled tower. Were these things Charlie would write? Were these his grimy hands clutching the sign? It was impossible to say, but Michael looked back into the face and felt something extra and unusual, both harder and more intimate than such an interaction warranted, pass between them.
And then the blare of a horn was tearing its way through the back of Michael’s car, and he remembered that he was in the turn lane still, that he had to get home to Alice and Joey, that dinner was probably already on the table. He jerked around in his seat and pushed his car after the line of receding bumpers, maybe-Charlie’s image shrinking in his rearview mirror until he turned and the man flew out of range of the mirror’s rectangle.
Later that night in bed, Alice asked him where his mind was. She had a knack for reading her husband, and she said she could see he was far away. He fumbled for his words and finally muttered that he had seen an old friend today, keeping his eyes on the open book in his lap. Alice immediately responded that, oh, seeing old pals was always fun and she hoped it was good to see him again. She liked this answer; it enabled her to disregard whatever depths she mistakenly thought she had seen in her husband’s eyes. Michael was often quiet, but his quietness this night seemed somehow differently weighted to Alice, as though he were hiding money problems or an affair. Relieved, she started to discuss her day in more detail, relaying a less-than-pleasant interaction she had had with Joey’s preschool teacher. Michael’s mention of his friend shrank quickly into the horizon of their conversation.
Michael tried to keep track of what his wife said, but in his mind he and Charlie were at the Landmark, its vertical sign glowing in his memory like a lighthouse. They bought tickets for Frogs but snuck into A Clockwork Orange instead because of all the nasty things they had heard, sitting near the back and sinking low in their seats when the flashlight of the ticket-checker swept through the aisles below them. They watched the movie for a while, giggling at the characters’ crazy makeup and lingo, but they both knew sneaking into the theater wasn’t the real transgression. Within minutes, Charlie’s hand was under Michael’s shirt, sliding against the panel of his chest, his fingers cold enough to make Michael’s heart stretch skin and bone. Horrifying images started to flash onscreen, so Michael closed his eyes and focused on Charlie’s breath tickling his ear, saying: We’re droogs aren’t we? We’re droogs.