I had wandered aimlessly for about an hour before I finally realized the general vicinity of where I was. The quality of neighborhood I was in was given away by the alarming amount of bail-bonds offices in the immediate vicinity. Oh and the school bus home facility. The cool, dry morning air was starting to give way to the hot, dry day air that desert dwellers enjoy. No doubt I would have something resembling a cold after this. All I was wearing was a blue t-shirt, slightly baggy machine faded pants and tennis shoes. The sudden change in climate between cold morning and warm mid day would wreak its havoc and I had no protection from it. Great.
I found a main street – an artery of the city of you will. Tyrone Avenue, which later split into Hardy Avenue, ran straight from one end of the city to the next. Right now, I was on the wrong end of my city. By my estimation I stood about five miles from my apartment complex, and the wind was beginning to pick up something fierce. In between stood the worse part of Los Soledad; the Dregs, as I called it. Hookers and drug dealers came out at night in the residential areas, throngs of unruly punks and wanna-be gangsters came and went and mongrel dogs festooned the streets. By my reckoning, I had five miles of chilly air, chile factories and chilly people before I reached my apartment.
It felt like a walk of shame. Someone dressed like me coming from the area I was coming from could only be walking away from one place, jail. I didn’t bother to look, but I could feel the eyes of the passing cars judging me. Every engine that roared by me was a laugh, every honking horn an invitation to share in the jest. Even the birds over-head sang their song of my recent disgrace. Or at least it seemed in my mind’s eye.
The going was slow. My legs and back ached from the concrete I had slept on. The limp in my left leg had returned ever so slightly and every bump or depression in the poorly maintained side-walk sent daggers straight into my lower back. Yes, I was not getting any younger, that much was for certain. And maybe that’s what it was. I should’ve had a Bachelor’s degree by now. I should’ve had a stable career, a budding happy family, a nice house with a two car garage, an SUV and a Golden Retriever with some stupidly cute yet cliched name.
But that wasn’t the case. The only thing I had to show for being an adult was a felony record – which would probably be growing soon – a massive amount of nearly unexplainable debt and a child born to a mother who absolutely hated me, down to the shit that came out of my ass. Four years ago it would’ve been easy to turn things around – less debt, no child or wife. But then my stupidity had gotten the better of me…
Anyways, back to the road. I wound my way past the Peanut Processing plant. They were hiring. Might be a good place to look here soon. No! No, can’t think like that anymore. A part-time job to help pay bills. But college…I needed college. Right, anyways. Pass the railroad tracks lay a small industrial complex – a few food processing plants, the rail freight station, a chili packaging plant and a mobile homes plant. It was loud and smelly and oddly comfortable. I probably could have walked into any of those places and gotten a job on the spot. Most of them hired plenty of migrant workers, felons, sex offenders and dead beat parents. I would fit right in.
Rounding another curve I came near what I call the “Shady” side of town; used car lots, salvage yards, towing companies, pawn shops and more than a few payday loan establishments. Only they preferred to be called “Cash Advance” companies. Luckily, I had never gotten involved with those sharks. A friend of mine once had, feeling an irresistible urge to get a mobile home that very day. He took out a $10,000 loan and is still paying on the $25,000 balance. That was 3 years ago. Poor old sod.
Two blocks before a stop light, I caught the menacing sight. There on the sidewalk were two of the meanest, most abused, most ferocious looking mastiffs I had ever seen. At present they were picking apart the dead carcass of a recently deceased cat, and I say ‘recently’ with a relatively liberal application of the term. Immediately beside them, the road had grown very busy – mostly trucks barreling down the road with their haul. I couldn’t risk crossing the road to avoid them- shit just standing there waiting for a safe moment might prompt them to attack. Obviously going right through them was out of the question, as their hungry eyes were now locked onto me. The only option was to take a detour. The next left was too close to them, so I’d have to turn around and take the road immediately behind me, then a right and three blocks up to the other main road, Mesa Avenue. It would take more time, but it was far more favorable to being attacked by rabid dogs.
Remembering everything I had learned about feral and wild animals, I backed away slowly for a few feet, still facing the fuckers, then calmly turned around and made my way. Sandwiched in between the Industrial District and the Shady District were about two blocks of bakers, carnecerias, taxmen and an oddly placed funeral home. The business I made my turn by was an abandoned VCR repair shop with graffiti on its boarded up windows. I made a right next to a beautifully fragrant bakery and was almost tempted to spend my five dollars there just to get something to eat. But discretion got the better of me and I continued my detour.
I could hear the panting from a half a block down and by the time I saw the two mangy mutts, it was too late. The larger of the two sprang at me while the smaller one growled and barked in support. I managed to throw the first one off after it had scratched up my face something fierce, only to fall into the jowls of the smaller one, who ripped a nice sized hole in my shirt. The first one pounced on me and began snapping at my face, which was only protected by my scrawny arms. The drool from their mouths felt like acid on my face and the term “wet dog” could only be used to describe their smell. I managed a slight round hooked jab into the first ones rib cage, distracting it enough for me to push it off. I stood up for a moment before the second one sank its teeth into my meaty calves. Not much damage, but it fuckin’ hurt. I kicked it away with a grunt while it yelped. Looking around, I spied an old piece of PVC pipe that would serve well in my canine war. I snatched it up as my two adversaries growled and circled around me. A few times they took a daring snap or lunge at me, only to be met with my weapons strike on their head.
Finally I spotted a weakness in their defense. The bigger one, obviously the alpha, had been making steady circles around me. The smaller one would dart back and forth occasionally. At one point the two were separated by only a few feet, leaving me room on the other side to run across the street. Making my dash, it never occurred to me to look both ways before I crossed. I was fortunate in two aspects: First, it was only a small Honda Accord, lime green with small wheels; second, it was driving the speed limit. It honked its horn at me long enough to scare away my assailants, but by then all I could manage was a slight hop to avoid having my legs broken. I rolled into the glass windshield, breaking it slightly, before being flipped diagonally across the roof and landing flat on my already achy back.
As I laid there, I could heard the mongrels barking at each other as they ran off along with the screeching tires and revving engine of my savior as it drove away. Decades seemed to pass as I lay there wondering if I was dying. I looked up and saw no more blood than was normal from a dog bite and decided I should be okay. Standing up taught me otherwise. The pain in my legs made me stumble as I felt a throbbing in my side. It was quite possible a rib or two had been broken. Too bad I didn’t have my cell phone on me when they had arrested me or else I would’ve called for an ambulance.
With medical assistance being out of the question, my quest for a cigarette burned in my mind. If I didn’t need the nicotine before, I definitely needed it now. I checked my pockets; luckily my wallet with the Visa in hadn’t been lost. My pant leg had been ripped by something on the car, while my skinny stomach was partially exposed thanks to the tailoring of the small mutt. My keys were still there, useless as they were, and I could still manage a striding limp, as the bite was to my already impaired left leg. Basically, as good as new.
I was near tears. My life was already fuckin’ ruined and this had to happen. Some cruel joke from God or Allah or the Great Spaghetti Monster or whoever the fuck was in charge up there. The want to cry gave way to the want to scream and pound my fists into the pavement. Then, just at the right moment, a blessed memory came to mind.
Four months back, just after my daughter-sweet Roxanne- had celebrated her first birthday, we had visited a petting zoo. It was our first day in the new city, and Agatha and I had made promises not to fight any more, that we loved each other, and that things were going to change. All the same bullshit that had been said before. In any case, we had been near a goat stable, my daughter lifted up in Agatha’s arms, nervously petting one of the baby goats. The one I had been petting turned out to be a Jezebel, luring me into a false sense of security before needlessly biting my hand. I had cursed, taken a step backwards and tripped over the leg of a fat Asian tourist who had rudely placed himself right behind me. Putting my hands out to catch my fall, I had twisted them and in all truth probably sprained them. That moment I had felt a lot like I did in the one I currently described to you: angry, embarrassed, shamed.
Only then my sweet Roxanne had done it. She laughed her beautiful, high-pitched squeal. Daddy had made a funny and everything in her life was right for once. In an instant my pain and anger had faded away to the absolute joy of my daughters laughter. I thought back to some Adam Sandler movie I had seen and began making pratfalls and funny faces, each one eliciting a squeal of absolute joy from my sweet daughter. Despite the pain in my hands and wrists, I didn’t want that moment to end. It wasn’t until her mother, my beloved ball and chain, had realized that, at that moment, Roxanne loved me more than her, giving me an incendiary look and making me stop. She said I was embarrassing them. But for a precious few minutes, my daughters laughter had filled my ears and stopped my pain.
That memory kept me going. I had to see my daughter, and soon. I had to convince her mother, that arrogant ape Agatha- to lift the restraining order. After all, she had attacked me. We were done, this much I was certain of. But I had a small glimmer of hope that we could be civilized people about it. That we could agree it was in Roxanne’s best interest for us to behave ourselves around each other. That it was important that both of us lead happy, fulfilling lives to give Roxanne an example for. Maybe, just maybe I could convince her.
I pressed on. It was two more agonizing blocks until Mesa Avenue screamed at me. The harshness of the mid-morning air formed a cooling waterfall, and all of my fucks were washed away. I suddenly didn’t care anymore about what the people driving by thought of me. It was a wave of relief. They could, honestly, go fuck themselves. Their approval was not necessary to me, and I felt I stood in judgement over them. How many of them, in my predicament, could have the strong desire to press on and make themselves better? How many would give up and sink into a tar pit of self-pity and despair?
With this new-found confidence I strode out between the traffic, crossing the busy road with little to no problem. Greeting me as I crossed was a small used car lot, showing a surprisingly impressive array of vehicles to choose from. As I walked back toward the stop light that connected Mesa and Tyrone Avenue, I made a mental not as to what kind of car I will drive once my life improves. Something sturdy, maybe? A display of my masculinity, my mastery of all of lives devils? Maybe, or perhaps something cooler, more sophisticated. Something to show that no matter what my feathers were never ruffled.
I made a left at the light and strode down Tyrone, the pain in my left dissipating out of sheer force of will. I smiled at a few homeless people leaving the Gospel Mission for their various pursuits, thankful I wasn’t that far gone. Close, but not quite there yet. I started reasoning my situation logically in my head. Even if the conversation with Agatha went south, the restraining order could not hold up. With everything being in my name, I had rights to it. It was a key in the conversation that I held, and one I was more than willing to use.
“Hey, brother, any chance you could spare some change?” His gruff voice caught me off guard with its sincerity and kindness. Looking at his face, this old codger could have been Santa Clause at some point in his life. He had a light in his eyes, a dignity.
“Um, sorry, all I’ve got is this card.” I said, holding up my esteemed piece of plastic.
“Oh, well that’s okay.” The man nervously bit his lower lip for a second, looking sidelong and down as if contemplating his next move. “Do you know Jesus?”
Here we go. These homeless people were always talking about how Jesus was so great to them and how Jesus saves and this and that and the other. It was really tiresome and I did not have the time for it. The cause for nicotine was picketing my brain and I had to attend to it. “Um, yeah. If you’ll excuse me.” I said, and started to make my way.
“Yeah, me neither.” The old man replied. “Don’t know a lot of people actually. But all of these folks down at the home keep asking if I know Jesus. I thought maybe it’d be a good conversation starter.” His smile was completely disarming. He seemed the type who was everyone’s father. A man with a quiet authority and dignity. It was a dry humor, but it made me laugh none the less.
“Well, no I don’t know Jesus, per se. I know a Jesus.” I responded with a classic southwestern wit that felt meager next to his already.
The man smiled. “Well when you see him, happening on the chance he’s the same guy, tell him I want my soul back. I was supposed to have given it to him fifteen years ago and seems to me he hasn’t done a thing with it.”
I chuckled. “You have an uncommon wit old timer. I’m Tommy, by the way.”
“I’m called Joe. G.I. Joe by some of the younger ones, on account of my Marine years.” He said as a grim nostalgia filled his voice. His was a story told all too often- war vets with no country to take care of them.
“’Nam?” I asked.
“Yeah. Just enough of it to have nightmares, though.”
“It’s funny how little it takes to get that way doesn’t it.”
“Yeah, but not my kind of humor.” Joe surveyed me for a second. “If, uh, if you’re hungry the kitchen’s still open. It’s not the best in the world, but it’s sustenance.”
“Well my thanks. I may have to take you up on that.” Not today, but if dire straits were ahead the Soup Kitchen would be a life saver. “May I ask, if you know that, why are you hustling for money? Wanting some Mickey D’s for a change?”
“No, trying to get some whiskey.” His pride was still there, but it’s constant companion, disgrace, was hidden in the shadows of his face. “No reason to lie to you. Kinda one-a them unspoken things. Most of us are beggin’ for booze money.”
“I certainly won’t judge.” It was the truth. With all I had done wrong, it was not my place. Though I still did it to some people.
“You’re one of the few. Those assholes down at the home, the one’s talkin’ bout Jesus all the damn time, they say I’m givin’ in to the devil.”
“Fuck the devil and fuck them.” I said, really seeing this man for the first time. Life had kicked him in the nuts hard and often. Judging by his genial nature and kind streak, I’d say at one point he had been a father. Probably a hell of a father at that. But something had happened to them. Factoring in his years, they probably would have been around my age. He bore no external marks of war, but all of the internal ones. His eyes sought for something in the distance and he twitched at every loud noise. But it hadn’t deterred him, at least not for a while. The dead give-away was the jacket. Though worthless now, with all of its holes and tatters, sometime in the late eighties or early nineties it had been the height of fashion. This man had been someone important once, or at least was on his way to be that person. But fate, or the gods or whatever, had other plans. “And fuck Jesus too, while we’re at it.”
“Yeah. The devil ain’t in the bottle. That’s how we hide from him. The devil’s in the nightmare’s.”
“And in the silence and the seconds we close our eyes.”
A for a beautiful moment, nothing need be said between the two of us. We stood there, brethren in our burden, enjoying the company of someone who knew our pain.
After a humble smirk, he gestured towards the direction he was heading. “Well, then. I guess I best be off.”
I grabbed him lightly by the coat sleeve. “Joe wait.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the card they had given me. “It’s not much, five bucks and some change, but you get together a little more you should be able to get a quart. Maybe that’ll keep the devil at bay for another night or two. And if it doesn’t,” I offered him my library card “This will. Grab some books and keep the fucker guessing.” So what I would go without nicotine a little while longer. I used to feel bad giving homeless people money when I knew they’d just spend it on booze. With Joe, however, I was doing him a favor.
Joe stood there, near tears, looking down at his treasures. “Thank you, son. And now your quest is filled as well.” He reached into his coat and put in my hand a nearly full pack of Marlboro Black Red One Hundreds. Exactly the kind that I smoked. Next to the pack was a Bic Lighter with the emblem of the constellation Scorpio…my sign.