Burton

Burton — they call him Burd at home for short — is dressed in a black stocking cap and a dark canvas coat.  That’s not what you notice about him at first.  What you notice about Burton is the white beard wrapped around his gaunt face.  It fits with his tall, thin frame, slightly stooped.  The beard isn’t combed, but it is well-groomed.  Burton has a face filled with character and hardship.  By his appearance, you’d think him more at home on a fishing vessel than where he actually is.

When he speaks to you — and he wants to speak to you — you notice his sparkling blue eyes.

Yet what’s most noticeable when you stop to speak to Burton — and you can’t help but stop — is the overwhelming odor of stale urine around him.  When you live on the street, finding a public bathroom isn’t always your top priority, and even then, not everyone is willing to let you do what you’ve got to do.  Things happen.

“Do you think I can make it in this program?,” he asks me.  He is looking for some reassurance. 

Burd and I are both in the cafeteria of a homeless shelter, each for entirely different reasons.  I can’t answer his questions, and I apologize for not being the person that can help.  That doesn’t bother him any more than the odor does.

“I’m not from here either,” he says, looking me in the eye over the top of his cup of coffee, two spoons of powdered creamer. “I’m from way up north.”

That information fits better with his appearance.  How far north?  New York?  Maine?  Canada?

“Ever hear of Dahlonega?”

I have.  In fact, my daughter is in school there now, I tell him.  Just 60 miles away from Atlanta, it’s not very far north at all, unless you’re walking.  I tell him I used to live in Cumming, a half hour south of his hometown.  At this, he decides we are practically neighbors.

“I lost everything in 2015,” he volunteers.  “My wife left me.  She took our kids and our house.  She took everything.  I’ve been on my own since then.  I was a mean drunk.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I tell him, and I am.  I know the pain of divorce too well.  Does anybody ever really recover?

“I’ve never taken any drugs,” he feels compelled to tell me.  “I’m not an addict.”

That’s good, I tell him.  I’m not sure what else to say.  In truth, it matters not if I say anything.  This is a man that needs to be heard, acknowledged.

“I haven’t been here too long, but I’ve already seen more drug stuff than I think I should have to see.” 

It’s apparent that he doesn’t much care for addicts.

“Alcohol though, that was my problem.  I started drinking in 1990.  In 2015 my wife told me she’d had enough, and that was all.”

“I was a mean drunk,” he repeats to no one in particular.

He was a truck-driver by trade he tells me, and that’s what led to his downfall in a round-about way.

“I was smoking marijuana,” he says.  “Then, in 1990, they started doing random drug tests for truck drivers.  I had to quit smoking pot if I wanted to keep my job, so I started drinkin’.  I never missed marijuana after that.”

He drove a concrete truck, for a while. 

“After three years they discovered I had the wrong class of license, so they made me drive a tractor-trailer instead.  That wasn’t as much fun, because I was going to the same place and back day after day.  There and back, day after day.  I did that for 17 years.  But drivin’ ready-mix, I was always goin’ someplace new.”

He has aspirations.  There’s life in those eyes, an energy, a pride that remains unbowed.  Hope.

“I’d like to get Social Security,” he says. 

He has injured a leg, and walking can be difficult.

“I’m hoping to get disability payments.  That’s why I’m here in Atlanta.  I think I’ve worked enough.”

The Social Security Administration is three blocks away.

“I’m 58,” he tells me.  He looks 10 years older, easy.  Life and the booze have both been hard.

“I hear they’ll let you draw Social Security, and still work some.  That’s what I’d like to do.”

I don’t think you can be both substantially disabled enough for Social Security and yet gainfully employed, but it’s not my place to tell him that.  I wonder aloud what he’d like to do.

“Truck drivin’,” he says.  “I’m still a truck driver.  I need to get my license back this year because it expires next year, and I’d have to start over and take the test again.”  If he could get his disability payment it would give him the margin needed to get his license back.

I’m called away for a moment, and there’s disappointment in his eyes.  “I’ll be back in a minute,” I tell him.  “Hang tight.”

He does, and when I return his face lights up again.  I’ve offered him really nothing more than my attention.  I’ve had very little to say, and no answers for any of his occasional questions.

Nevertheless “I’m glad you’re back,” he says.  “I was enjoying our conversation.”

“I was too,” I assure him.

We talk just a minute or two more about what kind of a truck driving job he could get, but then roll call for the program attendees starts, and he needs to talk to the leader.  We say our goodbyes and I tell him I hope to see him again soon.  He excuses himself and limps to the front of the room.  As I look back over my shoulder I see him remove his stocking cap and bunch it up in his hands as he approaches the man with whom he needs to speak, a sign of his nervousness.  It’s the last I see of him.

A week later, I’m in that cafeteria again.  I look for Burd.  I’d like to know how he’s doing.

I’ll never know.  Burd isn’t there.  He’s not there the week after, or even the week after that.  He never returns.  Nobody knows where he went or why he didn’t come back.

When you live on the street, you do what you’ve got to do. Things happen. 

Ghosts of a Christmas Past

CLARKESVILLE, GA – We are on the way to somewhere larger when we reach the outskirts of this sleepy little southern town, my wife and I.  We are city folk with big plans tonight and a schedule to keep.

The December sun has set just half an hour ago, and already it is dark and cold.  Christmas lights occasionally dot the landscape, outlining a farmhouse, giving a twinkling whimsy to the front porch of a trailer, but they are the only signs of life of the 1200 residents who call this tiny county seat their home.  There is no other movement, no traffic, no sound.

We round a corner and suddenly everything changes.  Downtown Clarkesville appears out of the darkness, a glowing wonderland!  Like a scene from a Frank Capra movie, Christmas lights are everywhere: wrapped around every tree branch, outlining windows, climbing lamp posts.  And the people!  Families hold hands as they walk along the sidewalks.  A friendly police officer directs traffic, helping kids cross the street.  There’s music too; over the sound of the car’s heater, we hear in the distance brass notes of Christmas carols playing on the square.  “Oh come,” they beckon us.  “Come ye … oh co-me ye …”

Everything looks delightfully old-fashioned and inviting.  It is as if the entire town and its residents have been transported 60 years out of the past.  The sights evoke a sweetness, an innocence, a sense of community from a time long ago.  We cannot resit.  We find a place to leave the car, and we step out into the cold.

Holding hands, we walk towards the center of town.  The brass band’s carols echo around the square, rising above the laughter of children and the occasional scolding of parents.  A line stretches past the town’s War Memorial and makes its way to a gazebo.  Inside, talking with children, sits old Chris Kringle himself.   Outside, there is hot chocolate and a warm campfire waiting.

We are silent; we are in awe of what we see.  It is foreign to us, this place, these people, and yet it is so very strangely familiar.  We speak little, and we watch carefully.

A man carries his little girl on his back, a stick in hand.  He sets her down near the campfire, and produces a marshmallow out of his pocket.  He skewers it on the stick and kneels beside her, one knee raised for her to sit upon as he holds her.

“You want to toast the marshmallow,” he asks?

Of course she does.  Her pigtails and her polka-dot coat reek of cuteness.

The wind blows smoke into her face, and just like that, she is done.  “It’s smoky,” she declares as she hands him the stick.  The attention span of the four-year-old has reached its limit, but Dad continues.

“It’s not done yet,” he encourages her, but there is no arguing with a woman, certainly not with one who is four.  “Let’s finish toasting it.”  I recognize this conversation already and know how it will end.

“Uh uh.”  Her attention lost, she looks back towards Santa.

He continues half-heartedly to try to raise her interest, but he can’t win.  She tries to climb on his back for another ride.  In short order, he declares the marshmallow — still bright white — to be done.  He offers her some, and she takes the entire thing.  He raises her on his back and turns toward the crowd.

“Okay, let’s go find Mama,” he says.

I smile at the moment, filled with a strong sense I’d lived it all before.

We walk on.

As we walk and watch, the band’s carols seem to flow through me, and I begin to lightly sing along.  Silent night.

A mother bends over to look her boy in the eye.

“Yes, we are going to see Santa Claus,” she says sternly, a frustrated edge to her voice.  It is apparently not the first time she has answered the question tonight.  Without a touch of irony, she says “Billy, you have GOT to learn to be patient.”

This time it is my wife who smiles knowingly.

We walk on.  “Peace on earth, and mercy mi-ld,” I sing under my breath.  We keep to ourselves, watching the events around us.

Another little girl, this one cannot yet be three, is bundled up tightly in a puffy pink coat, wearing oversized gloves and a pastel stocking cap.  Standing behind her is her father, who is talking to someone else.  She steps forward, and instantly loses her balance.  Her father, vigilantly attentive, bends quickly and grabs her waist with one hand to stop her fall.  She teeters slightly and, top-heavy, continues to fall forward in slow motion.  Dad grabs her with his other hand, but not before her knees and her hands touch the pavement.

For her, it is a tragic injury.  She cries.

He scoops her up and cuddles her immediately, making a big show of taking off her glove and blowing on her hand.  There is no injury, not a scratch.  She is reassured, and ready for her next adventure.  The tears cease.

“Are you okay now,” he asks?

“Down,” she says!  “Downy down!”

The band plays Jingle Bells, and I whistle along.  I’m taken by the thought that we haven’t spoken with anyone, that we are almost in a dream world.  Or a memory.

“Mom, Johnny and I are gonna go find Wayne,” a boy shouts!

“Okay, but be back here in 10 minutes,” his mother calls after him.  “We have to eat dinner.”

“Okay,” he answers, his voice trailing off already as the boys run out of sight.

We come to the corner, and wait to cross the street.  For the first time, I interact with a local.

“You staying warm tonight” I ask the police officer directing traffic?

“Huh?”  It’s almost as if he did’t even see me at first.  “Yeah, I’m tryin’ to,” he says.  “Y’all havin’ a good time?”

“We are,” we smile.  Yes, we are.

“Do you have kids,” I ask him?

He leads us halfway across the road.  “Yeah, I do.  Three of ‘em.  But they’re older, they ain’t out here.”

“That’s too bad,” I remark, thinking how much I’d like to share this night with our own children.

“Yeah,” he says.  “They’d think it was lame.  They ain’t interested.”

I think about that for a while.

This town isn’t anything from the past at all.  Kids grow up.  Families change.  Teenagers become independent.  Young adults marry and have kids and raise families of their own.  That’s just the way it has always worked.

But me, I realize I’m from the future.  I see in these moments between parents and children the past, my past, and my wife with me, hers.  We are not seeing strangers; we are watching ourselves and our children and the way we were, a way we didn’t fully appreciate when we were in these same moments so many years ago.

What a terrible loss, to see these moments and know that they are gone.  What tremendous joy to be able to visit with them again, even for a little while!

I see what these people cannot now see, but will, sometime in their own futures.  I know how their lives will change, how these silly little moments will be treasured gold at some not-so-distant point ahead.  I know how they’ll long for a crying child to seek their comfort someday, how they’ll think back to a time that stresses played on their patience and how it affected their response, how they’ll recall with a tear in their eye a tender moment that has passed. I come from a future of pride in the accomplishments of these children, and a sense of loss in their growing up.

I want to reach out to them, to tell what they’re missing, to tell them to cherish every moment, before it’s too late.  Just now I see the pig-tailed polka-dot marshmallow toaster, and her daddy.  I want to tell them that they’ve made my day, just by watching them together, that they’ve brought back memories of a time long past for me, the man from their future, but I cannot.  Something catches her attention, and off she goes.  Her daddy quickly follows.  “Wait, come back!  Don’t run!”

It is time to go.  My wife and I walk to the car in silence.  We stop behind it, and embrace.  Without a word, we hold one another and sob, thankful for the memories and sad for the losses of time.

Saturday night in Clarkesville, we had a good Christmas, my wife and me, with our kids.

“I do,” I said.

“I do,” I said.

I pledged my love to her, and I was sincere.  I loved her.  I loved her smiling face, her happy heart, and our unlimited potential.

I pledged to cherish, to love, to honor.  Through sickness, I said.  Through hardship and frustration and tough times, even if money wasn’t there.  Through pain, and through uncertainty, through life and through death.

And I meant it.

We were young, and what did we know?   Things change.  I soon found I didn’t like being yelled at.  Apparently, I needed to be yelled at often.  Her smile had faded some, I noticed.

We tried counseling, and things got better for a time.  Soon afterward, children came, and everything was different.  Kids have a way of making you focus on the big things, like where you actually left the children; it turns out you have to keep a close eye on them at all times.  There were new experiences to be had, new lives to share, thousands of toys to be played with, and bedtime songs to be sung.  And we had to keep an eye on those children!  The petty problems seemed petty, and they were soon forgotten.

Kids get older, and as ours grew, they didn’t need as much attention.  They began to make their own way, as they should.  Without the kids to focus on, however, the old problems between us resurfaced.  This time they were more difficult, more persistent, more frequent than before.  They were still petty.  One thing that hadn’t changed: I still didn’t like to be yelled at, and it seemed that she thought I needed to be yelled at more than ever.

We tried counseling again, but it didn’t help this time.  Things seemed to get worse.  We’d traveled this road together for many years, she and I, and we had a lot of time and effort invested.  There were memories.   I didn’t even consider divorce; staying married was the only option.  I noticed though that her happy heart wasn’t so happy anymore.  Neither was mine.  Joy was gone.

In a fit of romantic passion, I asked her to start fresh, to marry me all over again, to renew our vows and re-experience that newly wedded bliss, to begin again.  She declined.  I’m married to a woman for 20 years, and she declines to marry me again.

I was devastated.  The only thing that can possibly be more heartbreaking than the woman you love turning down your marriage proposal is the woman that you are married to rejecting you, saying she didn’t want to do it over.  I hurt like I didn’t know was possible.

Still, I tried to make change happen.  I wasn’t about to give up.  I pleaded.  I argued.  I begged.  I prayed.  I cried.  I sat alone, I slept alone, I hurt alone.   Can we continue to live this life, I asked?  I knew I couldn’t, not for long.

Once again, a last ditch effort, we tried counseling.  This time, the counselor wasn’t encouraging; things might not ever change, he told me.  That unlimited potential we started out with, those happy hearts, those smiles, they were now gone for good.

I needed a change.

It still took months for me to reach the point where I realized that change wasn’t going to come, that I was waiting for something that wouldn’t appear.  I had to become the change I needed, I saw.  It was a hard decision to reach, as it probably should be.

It’s always hardest on the kids, they say, and that’s probably true, but it can’t be any harder on the kids than forcing them to live in turmoil, I figured.  Isn’t it better than teaching them the same pattern of dysfunction to be repeated in their own marriages for their own children to see?

I told her it was time, that I’d finally reached the point where I needed to leave.  “Why?” she wanted to know.  I didn’t want to be yelled at, couldn’t take being interrupted, didn’t want to argue, I explained.  She yelled.  She interrupted.  She argued.  It was the confirmation I needed.

So I became the change I needed.  I left.  Reluctantly, I left.

To take the most productive years of your life and give them to someone else to share, those days when you’re developing a career, making a home, raising children, and finding your place in the world, is an act of genuine love.

To walk away from that investment and those memories, that potential, that is an act of desperation.  You don’t give up so much, unless there’s really nothing left to give.  You don’t allow someone to walk away from those things either, unless there’s nothing to keep.  I left.  She let me go.

Tonight I sit alone, left-over pizza beside me, my watered-down root beer in my hand.  I sit alone and I wonder.  Was there something else I should have done?  Could things have been different?  How are my girls are faring?  Do they miss me?  When will I see them again?  How were their days?  Did they get my last text message?  Was there something else I should have done?  Could things have been different?  How are my girls?  I sit lonely, alone.

There’s nothing more lonely than warm tears and cold pizza.

There are moments when I miss her, when I miss her companionship, miss the years we invested in each other.  Other times, I have to talk to her on the phone for something; invariably, she reminds me why I left, and I’m grateful for that.

And so I am alone, but I’m also at peace.  I can talk to my television, I can talk to the walls, I can talk to myself on and on and on about anything, and never be interrupted.  I’m never  challenged, I never have to argue, and I never have to explain what I meant by that.  I can throw away my own garbage any damn way I please, without having to be corrected over how the cereal box should be flatter.

Am I better off?  Was I right to walk away, to give up, to start life over again?  Do I think the uncertainty and the loneliness are a fair trade for what I left?

I do.

 

 

 

(Written January, 2014)

Hanging With the Ladies

I went away to college, once.  New town.  New people.  New experiences.  New terrors.  I was the skinny, shy kid.  I didn’t make friends easily.

It didn’t help that the college I was going to had the previous year only catered to upperclassmen, Juniors and Seniors.  This was the first semester that the school had admitted Freshmen, and I was among them.  There were not many of us.

I was nervous about meeting my new roommate.  I needn’t have worried.  When my parents dropped me off, he wasn’t there.  Gone home to visit relatives for two weeks.  I was a stranger, living with someone else’s things.  If you don’t want a stranger to go through your belongings, you definitely want to be there when they move in.  Before he’d returned to school, I knew my roommate’s favorite music (heavy metal), the medications he was taking (aspirin and muscle relaxers), his last semester’s grades (he was not a great student), and his underwear size (Hanes, 32).  He was 10 years older than me, according to his expired driver’s license.  And balding.

So that first week was a pretty lonely week for me.  Strange place, stranger situation.

“You’ve got to get out more,” I told myself.  “You need to meet some people.”

“Nobody wants to meet me,” I said.  A week alone will make you start talking to yourself.

“You don’t know that,” I countered.  “Besides, if you keep talking to yourself, you’re going to go batty.”

“What will I go do?” I wondered aloud.

“There’s a fraternity rush party,” I answered.  “You saw the signs for it.  There will be a lot of people there, and they’ll definitely want to get to know you if they’re looking for new members.”

“But I don’t know what to say to strangers,” I told myself.  “I’m not good at conversation.”

“You’re doing fine with me,” I said, and I meant it.  “Besides, if you’ll just look them in the eyes and give them a firm handshake, they’ll interpret that as confidence.  Confidence is the key to getting people to like you.”

I had a point.  “Okay, why not,” I agreed.  “I’ll go along and see how it goes.”

Now, I was not a party person.  Never was.  I hadn’t ever been around anyone who drank, much less tasted alcohol.  At 18, I had up until that point led a pretty sheltered existence.  “That needs to change,” I told myself.  “You need to loosen up.  Remember: confidence!”

There was a group of fraternity guys at the party, and a few girls.  I think they’d expected a bigger turnout.  There were five of us that were not fraternity members, me the only Freshman among them.    The fraternity guys made a point, every one of them, of meeting each of us, probing us about our future plans, asking about our drinking habits and other important details relevant to fraternity life.  It was clear we were all under scrutiny.  Still, I followed the advice I’d been given, and shook hands and looked into people’s eyes in as confident and manly a way as possible.  There was alcohol there, but I politely declined.  I was not yet ready to get that loose.

My advice about confidence paid off.  I managed to get through the evening intact, met a lot of new people — even a couple of the girls — and was suddenly feeling pretty good about myself.  I not only had human contact, but I’d done a pretty good job of being conversational.  Just as I was beginning to really get comfortable, the Campus Police showed up, and shut the party down.  There was an 11 o’clock curfew for alcohol on the campus.

“No big deal,” one of the fraternity guys told me.  “That just means it’s time to go to Dickie’s.”  Dickie’s was a bar, conveniently located a short distance from the campus.  “You comin’?”

I was not inclined to go.  “Confidence,” I reminded myself.  “Uh, sure I’ll come,” I answered, and before I knew it, I was in someone else’s car headed down the highway.  Only then did I wonder if the driver was in a good enough condition to drive.  About 20 of us went, including the four potential pledges.

Dickie’s was clearly the spot of choice because of its proximity to the school.  It was a dark, musty place with neon beer signs on the wall and the smell of stale beer throughout, or was that urine?.  There was music, and it was loud.  I could barely hear anything else, except the gentle cries of my eardrums.   There place was filled with other college students.  About 10 of us were pressed together into a large booth, me squarely in the center of the group.

“So I notice you don’t drink much,’ one of the guys screamed to me, over the music.   He was a large man, with a big belly and a thick, full beard.

“No, not at all, really,” I responded, and I was suddenly ashamed not to be a drinker.  “Confidence!” I reminded myself, trying to bolster my own.

“But I don’t mind if you drink,” I said.  “In fact, the less I drink, the more there is for you.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” said the fat man.  “I like this kid.”

Clearly my confidence was paying off.  First the party, then out to a bar, and now they say they like me.  I was turning over a new leaf.

The waitress came to take our orders.  She went down the table one by one, and after each, she asked to see an ID.  When she got to me, I ordered my usual, a Coke.

“I need to see your ID, hon,” she demanded.

“I’m just having a Coke,” I said.  “No alcohol.”

“Doesn’t matter, hon,” she said.  “State law says you have to be 21 to be in a bar.  Where’s your ID?”

I was 18.  I knew that.  But still, I pulled out my license anyway, the one that was a special color to help identify minors.  “I’m just here to hang out with my new friends,” I protested.  “I’m not drinking.  I don’t even drink.  I don’t want to drink.”  It hit me that none of the guys present was under 21, and I was clearly the only minor there.

By this time, several other students in the place had noticed what was transpiring, and they were watching intently.  My confidence began to fade.

“Sorry hon,” she said.  “You got to go.”

Except she didn’t just say it.  She shouted it over the music, so she could be heard.  However, just as she called me “hon” for the third time, the band abruptly finished their song, so we were suddenly in a much quieter room, and her shouted announcement of “YOU GOT TO GO” was heard by every student in the place.  All eyes were on me.  So much for confidence.  I wanted to crawl under the table.

“You can’t do that,” I told myself.  “Be cool.  Stay confident.  Go out with your head held high.”

So I got up.  With everyone staring, I got up and started to exit the bar.  That meant making half of our tightly packed group slide out of the booth so I could get past them.  Still, I’d kept reminding myself to be confident all night, and it had largely worked.  I’d made new friends, been new places, had new experiences.  This was no time to quit being confident!  Even if I had to leave, I was going out with style.  Embarrassed, but not defeated, I shouted my goodbyes to the group and said I’d see them at the next party.

“Come back when you’re old enough, little boy,” someone else in the bar shouted, and the table around them broke out in laughter.  I didn’t let it bother me.  I was being confident.

Dickie’s was dark.  Really dark.  When I’d come in, I followed the crowd I was with.  I didn’t really think about which direction the door was in.  I pushed against the heavy wooden door and was in a brightly lit vestibule, another door in front of me.  I didn’t recall two doors.

“Hey, kid, that’s the –” someone behind me shouted, and there was more laughter that suddenly got quieter as the first door swung back closed.

I hadn’t been paying attention.  I had walked into the bathroom, by mistake, and some of the drunker patrons in the bar had gotten a laugh out of it.  I was embarrassed and felt a surge of panic, but I had to have confidence, I reminded myself.  I gathered my wits about me, and thought things through.  “They don’t know I didn’t have to go to the bathroom,” I thought.  “I can take my time, go back outside, and then leave by the right door.  This will be okay.”  I pushed on through the vestibule’s second door, and walked  in to the bathroom.

I washed my hands, and splashed some water on my face, eating up some time.  The sound of the running water made me suddenly realize that I had to pee, and so I shut off the sink, dried my hands, and turned around to find the urinal.

There was no urinal.  Instead, I suddenly noticed that there were only stalls in this bathroom.  There were also odd stainless steel machines on the wall, each of which took quarters, and each of which sold only one thing.  I had no idea what these machines were and wondered why they’d be in the men’s room.  And then it finally hit me.

I was in the ladies’ room.  Not only had I been too young and been thrown out of a bar in front of all of my new friends, and not only had I accidentally taken the wrong door and ended up in the bathroom with the entire joint watching, but I’d ended up in the LADIES’ ROOM.  My heart was in my stomach.  There was no way out.  I briefly considered living there, permanently.

“Okay,” I told myself.  “This is bad.  This is really bad.  You’ve got to get out of here.”

I took a deep breath.

“Maybe no one noticed,” I told myself.  “I just need to walk out, head held high, and head for the exit.  It’s all I’ve got.  Confidence, right?”

I took another deep breath and let it out.  I needed to go, before someone else came in.  “Here goes nothing.”

The moment the door opened, I could hear the applause and the laughter.  The entire joint somehow saw what I’d done.  They knew of my mistake.

“Door’s that way, hon,” the waitress pointed.

“It’s the one under the ‘EXIT’ sign,” the first heckler hollered, to more rounds of laughter from his table.  The fraternity guys I’d come with were pretending not to know me.

I hiked back to the dorms, and for the rest of the evening, went through my roommate’s things.

 

 

(Originally written April, 1990; Revised March, 2013)