Two Men on a Bench by the Water Looking East

“No time to be homeless, is it?”

“No, sir.”

“Not a good time at all. There’s good times and good places, but not here and not now.”

“No sir.”

“Richard.”

“Jack.”

“Nice to meet you, Jack.”

“You too, Richard.”

“You got it? A lot of people do, you know. You gotta watch out. Be careful as shit.”

“Don’t believe so.”

“Me neither. You never know, though. They say you could have it and not feel sick.”

“I heard that.”

“A lot of guys, they have it, don’t tell anyone, then get a bed for the night some place and next thing you know everybody else has it. Better to be out on your own, like us, I say. The only safe place, you know. You sure about not having it?”

“Yes, pretty sure, mostly.”

“I’ll sit over here, though. Keep a stretch of the bench between us. Keep looking out at the water. I don’t mean to cast no aspersions, you know. Just being sure, you know. I don’t mean no offense.”

“I understand. None taken.”

“Where you from, Jack?”

“Boston.”

“Why’d you come out to this winter shithole? Nights get cold as a dead man’s dick here. Not cold as Albany, for sure. That’s where I’m from. Albany. Why’d you come here, again?”

“No place else to go. Got some family here. I took the train out.”

“They won’t take you in?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“I got ya. Any kids, Jack?”

“No.”

“Three for me. Old. Out on their own. A long time since I seen them. Like to some time. ‘Fore I die, I like to say. What’s in the bag?”

“Water bottle. Sliced cheese. Wipes. Phone. Charger. Earbuds. A book. Two. A loaf of bread I scqunched down flat. Pair of socks. Toothbrush. Twizzlers. That’s pretty much it.”

“Shit, Jack. That’s a well-planned stash. I shouda had you pack one for me. Not that I need anything I can’t find on my own. You got a place to sleep? Me, I got a few places. Regular ones. You look around. See who’s home. Who’s not.”

“Don’t know yet. Shelter, maybe.”

“The shelter? Fuck, no. Find a place by yourself. Get off the Boulevard. Cops looking. Wherever you go, scoot if somebody else shows up. Keep your pack on you. Some guys aren’t so friendly. But find a place out of the wind. Wind’s the killer. Reminds me, you ever read Ironweed? William Kennedy? Great book. About Albany. A guy named Phelan. Francis, I think. Kennedy nails him. Bum like me. Thinks a lot. Drinks a lot. Has a friend, name of Helen. Freezes to death one night. They find her the next day in a doorway. Breaks Francis up. Won a Pulitzer. Albany’s no place to be in the winter.”

“Never read it. It sounds grim.”

“What’s not grim now, Jack?”

“Some things. The water’s nice out there. The sun out there on the water. The way the gray waves curl over, white on top, that light-blue-green underneath.”

“I’ll give you that. The waves. The sound they make. Nice. You ever been out to L.A., Jack?”

“Once.”

“Those waves. Out there. The way they swell up like a soufflé rising and like when you open the oven door, they fold over all of a sudden and you can feel the thudding in your chest like your own heart was a drum. Damn! You can sit on the beach there all night. See the sun go down all red and pink and purple and stars come out and the sky gets so dark it grabs the light right out of your eyes and pulls it away from you like a warm gust of wind pulls the breath out of your lungs. God, I wish I was there.”

“Me too.”

“Nights like that. Make you think about all the things you don’t know and won’t ever. Nobody will. All the thoughts people had once, like Jesus, and Einstein, and your grandmother, and her grandmother, and how all their electrical brain energy might’ve got caught up in like an asteroid belt circling over us all the time. And maybe some lose a little energy and get caught in the gravity and get attached to the rain and fall down on all of us like random. Like when you sit sometimes in the rain and you think things you never thought before.”

“I never thought about it like that so much.”

“Times like these make you think things like that. Like all the people dying now, their brains firing away a mile a minute and hundreds of thousands, millions, of thoughts and wishes, and things. And all the fear washing away from them and they have that last peaceful thought when they pass, the air is filled with all of them and moving through walls and trees and into us. Each of us thinking Chinese thoughts and Italian thoughts, old man thoughts, little baby thoughts. Thoughts we need to pay attention to. Open our brains to, you know.”

“I guess.”

“Look at me, Jack. I don’t know you from a hole in a ham sandwich, but you seem like a fish out of a tank here, and you know what happens to them. I seen guys like you and I’m telling you straight. They don’t make it. You have options. Maybe I do, but this is my life now. I may not make it either, but this is all’s I know, and I’m not changing. So, call your wife or your mother, or whoever. Tell them the truth. Tell yourself the truth. They’ll set you up, man. Guaranteed. They’re family. This ain’t the answer. They are.

“I don’t know.”

“I do. All’s I’m sayin’ is give yourself a chance, man, while you still got one.”

“…”

“Now, listen up Jack, hear those voices. Do what’s right for you and everyone else. Take this mask I got here, put it on your face and take your fucking Halloween bag there and get the fuck off my fucking bench.

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