Beginning in the Middle
Happy endings are for flower dancers in banquet halls or deep sea divers in search of ancient wreckage. Happy beginnings arrive even less often. So rare are they that when they knock, we often groan and pretend to be out of town. We even treat such false starts as maudlin acts of deceit, things to scorn rather than to embrace. As to the middle? En medias res goes back all the way to Homer, so it should be good enough for our purposes.
From inside the fetid comfort of my sleeping bag I felt a nudge against my shoulder. Wanting sleep to continue protecting me from whatever might be crawling along that basin, my mind mumbled and I turned away from it. Before long came another nudge, this one a bit more harsh. I reacted against this intrusion into my sanctuary with a sharp slap of the fist against the inside of my zipped up comforter. The final kick came hard. My ribs screamed. The cold hunger I'd been repressing yawned from my stomach to my elbows. Before I could free myself to see what was attacking me, strong arms hoisted me up and tore the sleeping bag down to my shins.
Cops. Two big white and blue police officers dispatched to ease the consciences of the twinkling Christmas tree homes, homes with their fireplaces blazing, their stereos clanging, and their occupants peeking down the embankment where I stood with two of the Valley's finest specimens prodding me with questions and night sticks.
The strong arm of lunacy had been nursing my head and shoulders with its graveyard touch for weeks as I wandered from beneath bridges to atop office buildings, from the stenches of man-made shelters to the dank operations of hospital waiting rooms. Over the previous months, I'd found myself standing or sitting or lying in all those places and others, never quite allowing myself to gain a clear picture of my condition. To see myself right would have been like that horrible scene in The Elephant Man where the captain brings in the ladies and gentlemen in all their finery to gaze upon the poor wretch, the final act of maddened cruelty being to shove a mirror under Merrick's nose so the deformed beast had to look upon himself in horror.
I had been avoiding mirrors for some time.
The cops tore through my pockets while pretending to frisk. Out fell my battered wallet, down went half the bagel I'd grabbed from a hotel lobby. The worn razor I used for dry shaving bounced off a stone. I'd not removed my glasses when I retired, so they went down with the rest of my meager belongings.
"Mind telling us what you're doing here?" said the bigger of the cops as his comrade continued to pat me down.
"Sleeping," I said. "Or I was."
"We can see that," said the junior partner. "What we want to know is why here?"
"And don't tell us you're homeless," said the bigger man. "Or we'll lock you up, sure at shit."
I had no interest in being locked up, sure as shit or otherwise. I said, "Just on my way home. Address is on my licence, if I can pick it up."
"We'll tell you when you can pick it up," said one of them. "We had a complaint that there was a dead guy in a sleeping bag down here. Know anything about that, bub?"
I shook my head.
"Probably this guy."
"Yeah, probably. Look, pick your stuff up and get out of here. It's Christmas morning, for God's sake. And clean yourself up. You got an odor, bub."
They stood back and waited with folded arms while I gathered everything I owned into my sleeping bag. I rolled the bag into a canvas carrier, strapped that over my back and across my shoulders, and lumbered up the embankment, cutting through a green winter lawn. When I turned around, the cops were walking back to their patrol car.
I could easily have gone back down into that damp but not wet basin and resumed my slumbers, but my habits at that time were to keep moving at all costs. Unless I was eating, sleeping or smoking--the latter always with what I hoped was an air of purpose--I was moving. My feet tramping on inside my too-tight black slip-ons, getting me on my way to elsewhere, that was what felt right, that was what kept my mind from imploding, what kept the jokers from jumping out of the card deck and dancing all over my face.
My watch band had broken weeks earlier, but the face of it still kept time. It was just after eight in the morning. A nearby hospital had a coffee machine that gave out free cups, cups which were intended for the people waiting for treatment or the friends of the same. I'd benefitted from the services of that coffee machine several times over the previous weeks and even though I suspected the gruel was decaffeinated, it would still be warm and that would feel normal for a change. I also intended to make use of their restroom. I had acquired a travel bottle of shampoo and body wash and, it being Christmas, I had a personal obligation to better myself. The only risk in any of this was the slim chance that a certain security guard there--a fellow who did as much of his job as possible from behind the wheel of his golf cart--might hassle me, but I was empty and the coffee would soften the crust of that half bagel I'd been saving.
I walked through the front doors and nodded to the chaplain who sat behind the service desk. The chaplain and I had developed some sort of understanding. He would always pretend to believe I had some valid reason for being there and I always went along with that theory. "Have yourself a cup before you go up, sir. Merry Christmas to ya."
I smiled back at him and walked down the hallway toward my real friend the coffee maker. I filled the eight-ounce cup with black joe and beelined for the men's room.
Once inside I dropped my pack to the floor. With every passing day, the straps of my pack cut deeper into my skin, just as every day the pack felt heavier, just as I felt more depleted. My standard weight is 160. I didn't hop on the hospital scales, but I calculated that I had slipped to just below one hundred. To gain weight, one must take in more calories than one burns off. To lose weight requires the opposite. On that Christmas morning I had been on the bum's diet for four-and-a-half months.
I made a point of not looking in the mirror as I dipped my head beneath the sink's faucet and let the cool water gush over my hair and head. I even managed what felt like a smile as the cool water trickled down my face and neck. I uncapped the small shampoo bottle with one hand and grabbed a stack of paper towels with the other. I had a fair lather going when I heard two voices move by the other side of the closed door. I'd already moved the "wet floor" sign outside the door to discourage visitors. It was one thing to sneak in a cup of coffee while trying to look normal. It was quite another to be caught taking a whore's bath in the hospital men's room. The voices faded and I went back to my duty.
My own dread of being discovered invariably outweighed my impulse to luxuriate with the glorious feeling of getting clean, so I ducked my head down again under the faucet, worked the suds out of my hair, used the paper towels to dry the strands as fast as I could, and even allowed myself a quick glance of admiration. The bags under my eyes weren't quite as heavy as my own pack. I was going to need a fresh razor soon. And I could see--in the two seconds I permitted myself--that I was going to need to eat that bagel very soon.
I ran my small black comb through my hair three quick yanks, hoisted my bags back over my aching shoulders, snatched the coffee off the marble deck, and turned to leave. As I put my shoulder against the door, it pressed hard against me. I didn't quite fall, but I staggered back a pair of steps, somehow not losing a drop.
I heard the voice before I saw the man who owned it. "What the hell you doing here, boy?"
The security guard knew he had me. In his heart, in his head, in his inner voice that wondered why he had to work Christmas Day while others cleaned themselves in public restrooms, in all these places and others, he knew he had me.
I had not come all this way to be "had" by anyone. I said, "What I'm doing here is visiting a friend of mine. Barbara Caldwell. She's in room 2319."
"Naw, she ain't. Ain't nobody by that name in this hospital."
"There's one person with that name, you moron. Unless you're pretty damned sure of yourself--and you don't look as if you are--you'd better check it out before you do something else stupid. Well, go on, dumb ass."
"What you say that name was?"
"Ah, for Christ sake. Get out of my way."
I pushed by him with all the strength I could muster, which was not much at all. He slipped out of the way just in case I might have been one of those eccentric millionaires who dresses like a hobo just to throw everybody off. Since I had no idea who was really in room 2319, I turned down the hall, nodded goodbye to the chaplain, and stepped back outside just as a warm December rain exploded over the parking lot. The half-smoked cigarettes in the outdoor ashtray were going to get soaked.