I knew the events and order of occurrence as if it were a play I scripted myself. Oh how I wished it were only a bad scene—that if I watched long enough a second act would see things turn around. But these actors and their complicated predicaments were real, and the stage, regrettably an ugly slice of life served stone-cold. Despite being out of town on business and physically a thousand miles away, I could not separate myself from the troubling vision of what I’d seen a hundred times over.
The lesser of the two men would begrudgingly acknowledge the ‘No Loitering’ sign. The store manager would hover over him, tapping his foot as if it would speed the process. The soiled man would gather his bed-roll, hang his head, and trudge toward the property line. The grassy median between the convenience store parking lot and the street was neutral ground. Both of them knew he would sit cross-legged, watching cars pass until business picked up enough to disguise his trespass, then he would return. He preferred to sit at the corner of the building speaking to patrons as they came and went. I suppose it made him feel more a part of the world spinning around him. When foot traffic became scarce he would make his way around back to dig through the dumpster searching for dinner or simply collecting aluminum cans. This homeless man was as much a fixture of the mini-mart as the dilapidated structure itself.
With the manager returning to his post a young woman appeared from nowhere. With heels clicking and skirt swishing she rushed to catch up with the homeless man.
“Stop chasing me. I’m going already! Just leave me be.”
“Sir, I’m not with store. Will you stop for just a minute? I want to talk to you—I need to talk to you.”
Perhaps the female voice caused him to pause, but he wasn’t about to turn and acknowledge her. She took the opportunity to scoot around in front of him and extend her hand.
“My name’s Pamela…nice to meet you.”
He lifted his head but a wall of greasy chin-length gray blocked his vision. A swift front-to-back jerk of his neck revealed a pair of steely gray eyes, like an oasis hiding in a desert of lifeless sand. He studied her from head to toe, and although his eyes lingered in regions that make a decent woman uncomfortable, she still maintained a smile.
Surely his lips moved but they were hidden beneath an unkempt beard. The only discernible difference between silence and speech was a slight twitching of it.
“Pretty girl Pam…much too sophisticated for this side of town. The truth is you’d rather not dirty your hand with mine. Put it back to your side!”
The agitation in his tone demanded compliance. She withdrew the offering quickly and hoped to change the direction of the conversation.
“Well it’s nice to see you—I mean meet you. How about breakfast somewhere, Mr. umm….I didn’t catch your name.”
“That’s because I didn’t give it to you. Those who are homeless have no need for a name”, he snapped.
Despite the layering of tattered clothes his body language telegraphed a distinct posture of defense. The woman’s palms grew sweaty. She couldn’t afford to mess this up. If she revealed too much too early she might scare him off, but it had to be enough to pique his interest.
“What if I told you that you didn’t provide your name because you can’t recall it—that I understand how frustrating it must be to sort through the mystery of how you came to be here and come up empty—that I know it eats a little more of your soul every day. How is a man to move forward until he’s certain its ground he’s not already covered?”
He stared blankly at her face as if he recognized a bit of truth in her words and perhaps it might be enough to chew on. The look was only a brief flash before returning to what he knew for certain.
“You’re another damn social worker, ain’t ya? Well I’m not going back to hospital. Don’t you people understand I’m too broken to be fixed?”
As she watched him turn and shuffle toward the median her heart felt as though it split in two all over again. Amidst a stream of bitter tears she cried out in frustration.
“I know all about you. You’re name is Glenn. You used to work at this store!”
It wasn’t a matter of hearing her, people walking two blocks away turned and stared. Perhaps she had not yet earned his trust. She would try again tomorrow.
The woman sat in her car for another hour, watching him from a distance, adding notes as to their conversation and his reactions. Flipping through a hundred pages or more of what looked to be carbon-copies was beginning to take a toll. She closed the binder to answer her ringing phone.
“So how did things go this morning?” I asked.
I heard a familiar, heavy sigh of frustration.
“More of the same” she answered.
“Listen, my flight out of Atlanta leaves in ten minutes. I’ll pick you up Monday morning and we’ll try again. That’s all we can do. I love you.”
As an older brother I instinctively want to provide her protection and comfort—somehow to reverse things neither of us had control of from the beginning. I pray for a breakthrough that might put this cyclical nightmare to bed.
I explain that Glenn willingly took on a second job as the midnight supervisor at the mini-mart—that it was important to him for her to finish the degree. That a nervous breakdown was simply an unexpected and unpredictable twist in life. I reassure her that matters of the brain are never an exact science and not even the experts anticipated the shock treatment would have erased his memory completely. I remind her she is doing a fine job raising two young boys on her own and that Glenn will turn a corner soon.
My desire to see her shattered life patched back together surpasses logical reason and extends deep into the realm of miracles. I am ashamed that I encourage her to believe in outcomes I no longer see as feasible. Yet I fear if I turn loose of hope, she will as well, and that would be a greater loss than living with the realization I am fraud. All in all, the only things I am certain of, is that I will drive her there on Monday.