A Homeless Tragicomedy
by Tyler Gambill
The morning light filters through the upturned blinds—giving the white-walled room a cloud-shaded feel. A couple of her stray hairs—blonde but auburn at the roots—dance in the breeze of the box fan and tickle right below my right eye, as I kiss her sleeping lips. She smiles: “Good morning,” while her eyes are still closed. Then they open—with a couple of those slow-half blinks associated with breaking through the sandman’s sand—and are a kinda green-blue like meadow intermingling with sky on the horizon—one color in the eyes of the onlooker. Yet so much closer: her face probably only six inches away and statuette-like as it embosses itself on my vision with the aid of the natural light—eyes and freckles so vivid as to make the background blatantly out of focus. All I see is eyes and freckles and two-tone hair.
She holds my stare until my eyes cross and even the eyes and freckles become blurry. I close my eyes and press my face between her left shoulder and neck as I roll over onto her, wrapping my right arm over her right shoulder and my left arm under her left armpit, then—using my right hand to grip my left forearm—I pull her as close as she can get. I squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until my arms are suddenly pressing against my chest—right crossed over the left, much like a vampire or corpse inside a coffin. I open my eyes, and everything is black.
I wake up and shoot straight off of the concrete or grass or sheet, darting directly towards my right as if I’m late and about to jump in the shower before work then realize that I don’t have a job or a shower, and that it’s pretty much impossible for me to be late nowadays. Then I get a helping of irony after I come to a little more—through the sound of cars scooting down the road or birds chirping in a tree overhead—and realize that I’m not just having issues with managing the cognitive transition between sleep and wake (as would be the case if I was actually dreaming about getting ready for work), but also unconscious problems with the associative properties of dreams: as in since I’m associating these freckles and eyes with the feeling of working a 7-3:30, I’m waking up as if I were dreaming about being late for work instead of about lying in bed with some girl who only symbolizes the feelings of consistency and stability associated with a job.
At this point in my day, I know it’s time for a drink: thinking these sorts of thoughts constantly is much more exhausting than blue-collar work, and I think it goes without saying that I’m not homeless because I have an affinity for working hard. Now the reader may be thinking “but hey, why is this guy homeless anyways? He seems kinda smart.” To which I reply: no. That’s a hard no. You’re getting ahead of yourself, reader. Just cause I can half-ass articulate a problem I experience does not make me “smart.” Remember, I’m drinking to negate those “smarts,” so how smart can I be?
Maybe still smart, who knows. Who cares, really. All of those standards are relative to something or another so who can objectively judge? I knew a guy that was damn near a textbook on law after a pint of vodka. In fact, he only practiced law after his pint. So was he smart? I’m not sure, but I think it added to his flare: the idea of an alcoholic-homeless-lawyer is pretty satisfying. I can’t remember his real name, or if he even told me it, but I remember him as Lawman.
The first day we met he was drunk. The day before I’d had a pretty good kick back from the folks exiting off HWY 64 at Utica/Peoria (I say “kick back” because my begging provided an opportunity for them to feel good about themselves and, simultaneously, elicited my reward or “kick back”). My work ended that day about 8:30 when a guy in a Beamer gave me a twenty and we exchanged “god blesses.” Then in a flush of near ecstasy, I rushed right down to the gas station and caught a real bit of luck when I hit for seventy-seven bucks on a Lucky 7’s lotto ticket.
I lit a freshly purchased smoke, left the gas station parking lot, crossed Utica, and strutted straight down Cherry Street—an artsy part of town where the affluent mosey around with shopping bags full of name-brand clothes— with my right hand in my pocket rubbing the crisp bills together, almost hearing that gritty-papery sound even with all the cars driving past. I had my chin tilted unnaturally up, and my eyes straight ahead to meet the eyes of every well-to-do person I could, smiling in a smug way that must have seemed menacing based on the reaction of the women I passed (possibly confidence coming from an obviously homeless man as a perceptually disturbing contradiction). I felt like a gritty-crisp hundred dollar bill.
Normally I would have just bought a bottle for myself, but because I hit so lucky I thought I might have a go in a bar—it’d been awhile. So I turned left off the street and into a little nook bar that was just a bar with one table in the back. Almost John Wayne like, I swaggered up to the bar.
“How about a drink, cowboy.”
“How about an ID, tumbleweed.”
The bartender was fifty-ish with jazz-musician-like slicked-back greyish hair. Patrons were smoking inside. There were no windows. I liked the place already.
In my state of god-blessedness I’d left my proof-of-self—along with all the rest of my stuff—on the other side of the overpass where I was working. For a moment I stood there unable to think straight because of the panic of losing my stuff combined with my unsatisfied—and worsening—desire to drink. Then, once my brain kicked back on, I strolled out of the bar without a word—seeming calm as possible—and power-walked back down Cherry Street as fast as I could, my eyes never leaving the sidewalk, my feet barely shuffling above it.
I got back to the office around 9 and my stuff was still there. I rummaged through my old Jansport backpack probably fifteen times before remembering that I’d just bought cigarettes at the gas station. A sudden flash of memory hit me: “A pack of cowboy killers.” “ID please.” A folded twenty-dollar bill sitting on top of my ID and them both sliding across the counter. “How about one of those lucky 7’s too.” Scratching the lotto ticket with my lucky 1969 penny. Tipping the cashier a dollar. Pocketing the rest of the money, my ID still sitting on the counter, and the door chiming as I walk out.
I slung my bag on and sprinted under the overpass back to the store. A sign on the door said they had closed early: “sorry for any inconvenience.” Sorry for any inconvenience! Sorry for any inconvenience. Winded to the point of lightheadedness, I sat on the curb and lit a smoke. I really needed a drink and a wallet and a drink.
The liquor stores in Oklahoma close at 9 so I decided I’d do something about the wallet situation. I wanted my proof-of-self to have a safe resting place when I retrieved it the next day.
The feel of the sidewalk beneath my feet seemed a half-second delayed as I walked down Utica towards the Family Dollar on 11th. There was a high frequency ringing in my ears, and each whoosh of a car driving past—also a half-second delayed—produced a low pitch “wom” that made my right eye twitch and my head nod forward-then-back as if I were fighting sleep. By the time I was passing the hospital my vision was filling with those cigarette-burn type film-reel spots that flicker on the screen, and a couple of nurses on a smoke break seemed not so interested in my health (or their own, I guess), so I looked at the sidewalk instead.
I was still looking at the sidewalk when I started to cross 11th and the sudden roar of a car horn and blast of headlights spiked every nerve in my body—producing an instant of pain I imagine is the equivalent of being hit by a train.
“Watch where you’re walking you fuckin’ idiot!”
I tried to flip them off, but when I raised my left hand, all that came up was a contorted claw-like gesture, as if were reverting back to the animal ways and saying “grrrrrr, I’ll claw you.” I hobbled across the street with a half-rock gait, my angry claw still raised. They beeped their horn a few more times as they drove off: “fuckin’ loon!”
I made it to Family Dollar.
“We’ll be closing in ten minutes sir,” the clerk said as I walked in.
“Mhmm.” Both eyes were taking turns twitching now, and my left leg felt about six inches too long.
I grabbed a fake-leather wallet. The fluorescent lights made me feel like I was in a nuthouse. The store would be closed in eight minutes. Family dollar sold beer now. I had to think fast: did I want to try and buy without my proof-of-self? Nope, I didn’t like asking for favors or rejection, plus I had a backup plan: a big bottle of Listerine original flavor and a bottle of off-brand cough and cold syrup, grape flavored.
“Well that was a close one,” The clerk said as she beeped my three items.
“What’re-you-talking-about?” My words scatted out like ants flooded from home by a sadistic five-year old.
“We close in a minute. You just barely made it, hun,” she looked about fifty with long-suffering dark eyes and a close-lipped-slight-curl-at-the-corners smile that somehow matched the “Jesus Saves” gold-cross pen on her collared work shirt.
“Yeah-thank-god,” I pointed at her pen with my eyes and nodded my head back-and-forth, smiling.
She smiled. “I’ll pray for you,” she said as she handed me my change.
I looked at the ground and walked out and around to the side of the building. I sat down on the concrete against the brick wall and behind the dumpster and downed about a third of the bottle of Listerine. At about 25% alcohol, it’s a little over twice as strong as your average wine. That being said, it’s not as easy to stomach as wine. I gagged a couple times but had the willpower to keep it down. I put my money in the wallet and lit a cigarette.
After about 15 minutes the only thing that felt bad was my stomach. The Listerine was still hard to drink, but I got it about halfway done and stood up to leave. As I was walking towards the front of the building, the clerk came out with the trash. Her steps were slow and her back was rounded like she was carrying her own cross.
“Shit! You scared me!” I was feeling a bit more mentally acute.
“What’re you doing out here? I’ll call the police.” I was about 15 feet away, but she was still on edge, her crooked body arching towards the door.
“Hey, hey, hey, now there’s no need for that. But anyway since you’re here, would you have sold me beer without an ID?” I took two steps towards her.
She cocked her head and the suffering in her eyes shattered like stained glass, judgment a ray of light flooding from inside.
She drudged back inside shaking her head. Then—through the barely cracked open door—she yelled back out at me: “Judgment day is coming. You better get your name in that gold book before it’s too late.”
“I know who I am lady! I don’t need to prove that to you or God or anyone else!” I yelled in the direction of the locked door.
I drank the cough syrup, threw the bottle on the ground, and started walking back towards Cherry Street. The cars and people were a little blurry but not frightening. (Maybe less frightening because they were blurry). My steps were a little stumbly but felt more natural—atleast until the cough syrup started really kicking in: then my legs got real stiff, and I felt like I was walking on stilts. My eyes started widening and everything gained a surreal clarity: the street got bigger—the buildings became imposing—the trees swayed in unison like bowing actors—the people I passed were shadowy caricatures with exaggerated expressions. I needed to get back to the office. My brain was bleeding. I needed to not throw up. I started whispering to myself “I know who I am, I know who I am,” and for some reason this helped with the nausea. I somehow made it to the overpass and somehow wobbled up the incline to the stereotypical-where-us-homeless-people-sleep-flat-top-part. The sounds rumbling overhead combined with the echoes of cars passing under the overpass created a comforting-because-condensing sense of pressure. I laid my head on my Jansport backpack and repeated the identity mantra until I was asleep.
So that was the night before I met Lawman. As it would happen, I fell asleep with my right side facing the street. The astute reader will immediately see the problem here: the dream. The dream is why I never slept under the overpass. The cough syrup is why I forgot I never sleep under the overpass.
The cough syrup made the dream weirder. But it was essentially the same and I woke up the same way: I’m late for work. I fling myself up out of bed and to the right. SMACK, and I was rolling down the concrete incline towards the lunchtime-busy street at a decent speed. BAM, and I was stopped. A car sped by honking about 6 feet away.
A pair of polished black leather shoes was next to my head, and I looked up to see a hand extended towards me. With a helping tug, I stood up and saw a man in front of me wearing a well-tailored-three-piece black suit. He was clean shaven—which amplified the masculinity of his already solid jaw line—and had slicked-back black hair. His irises were nearly black, albeit a strange looking black next to the yellowy whites of his eyes. Basically he looked really familiar, like an Italian lawyer or entrepreneurial millionaire one might see on evening television.
“Well that was close. Technically, if that car had hit you, it would have been jaywalking and you would have been liable for all the damages. That is, assuming you survived.”
I was still stuck in the unconscious-dream-association haze and paused for a good 8 seconds.
“Good to know. Thanks.”
I smelled alcohol on his breath. I started brushing dirt off of myself as if I wasn’t normally covered in it.
“Hey business man, having a drink on your lunch break?”
“Actually, I’m currently unemployed. Unfortunately it’s illegal to drink inside a courthouse.”
“How ‘bout I buy you a drink right now then? Whether I would have died or not, I owe ya.”
“Certainly,” he checked his fancy leather band watch. “I have some time to spare.”
I ran back up the incline and grabbed my bag. On the way back down I noticed he had the same one.
I lit a smoke, and we started walking down the street towards the gas station. Once inside the store, the smell of incense burning immediately turned my stomach over, and I went to the bathroom to throw up the grape syrup and the dream and the Listerine. I pulled the nearly empty bottle of Listerine out and chuckled—almost spitting the mouthwash out on the mirror—as I swished it around in my mouth to get rid of the taste of vomit. The cashier gave me back my ID. I put it in my wallet as the door chimed its hello-and-goodbye, and we started heading towards the nook bar.
Cherry Street was busy with people on their lunch breaks. Cars were coming and going and most people were dressed in business-casual-like attire. Relative to them, I looked underdressed and the Lawman looked overdressed. He looked better than them, except his backpack looked a little out of place.
“So what’s up with the backpack? It’s off kilter with the suit.”
“It’s more practical than a leather shoulder bag right now,” he said in a collected, straight manner: his head held upright and level, his eyes calm and steady.
I was a little off balance from the night before. I still smelt the alcohol on him and that made things level. We didn’t talk much the rest of the way.
We got to the bar and the same old jazz guy was working. I showed him my ID: “see, I know who I am.”
He looked at the Lawman and then me in a way that intimated a perceived incongruity.
“What’ll you gents be having?”
Lawman asked for a double well-vodka and tonic. I followed suit then paid the bartender. We moved to the table in the back. The bar was the dark where everyone looks a little pretty. I had about forty-five bucks left.
“No drinking in the courtroom huh? You a lawyer?”
“I was a lawyer. The BAR suspended my license after all that.”
I lit a smoke and offered one to the Lawman. He passed.
“So what’s up with that?”
“Well, it’s kind of a funny story: I specialized in cases involving clients arrested for operating motor vehicles while drinking. Ironically, I was arrested and tried for the same thing.”
“So you were drunk in the courtroom while being tried for a DUI?”
“Actually, I was intoxicated while defending myself on trial for a DUI.”
We both finished our first drinks.
“Shit,” I took a long drag on the smoke, “that is ironic.”
A business-casual dressed couple stood up and walked out of the bar. Sunshine flooded in through the open door and for a moment I could see thousands of dust particles floating around in the air. Lawman went to get the next round, and I went to the pisser. I closed my eyes and let go and felt the sweet release of pressure from my bladder and heard the yellow stream rushing against the urinal. Once I opened my eyes I noticed one of those conveniently-placed-right-above-the-urinal posters, which were there to either make pissing less tedious or make standing by another guy at the urinal less awkward (i.e. prevent the wandering eye). This particular poster was especially well fitted for a bar bathroom: “THE DUI DUDE” it said, with a picture of a handsome Italian-looking lawyer below. The very bottom read: “No suspended license guaranteed or the Dude drops the fee.”
Shit, that is ironic, I thought as I walked back to him. A few steps away, I saw him sitting at the table alone, fidgeting with his right ear. In the dimness he seemed a bit more sullen than confident, like an old oil painting with the darks bleeding into the lights in a way that somehow seems more real than the stark boundaries we see in real life. He could have been the blind sculptor of a tragedy there in the dim light. That or the sculptor’s last statue before fate blinds him. He was staring at his left hand and tapping something metal against his glass. I pulled my lucky penny out of my pocket and set it on the table as I sat down.
“Thanks for the drink. What’s that?”
He looked up at me with his face still pointing down. For a couple seconds he gauged my intentions, my sincerity. I unconsciously slid the penny around in a figure eight pattern on the table.
“A wedding ring,” he said, and saying those words uncorked something inside him. In a very lawyeresque way, he proceeded to tell me about how his wife had left with their six-year old son, their German shepherd, his Porsche and pretty much everything else after the fiasco—leaving only enough money for him to get himself through the court case (he had to get a lawyer after losing his license); about how he had been an alcoholic for years and how it ran in his family (the absence of his father growing up being the reason he chose to become the “DUI Dude” in the first place); about how he really only felt comfortable or competent in the courtroom when drunk; and about the clever ways he masked his intoxication: such as wearing cologne that blurred the smell of alcohol by being somewhat alcohol-like in scent and also just never being sober around any of the court officials so that they could never tell the difference in his personality.
When he told me about choosing to be homeless because he felt too ashamed to contact his friends for help, something cracked in his legalistic manner.
“No one offered a fucking dollar. They know who I am,” he said, the emotion in his voice striking a chord somewhere in me.
We locked into one of those stares where the universe kinda suspends itself for a second and all of the surroundings become the visual equivalent of white noise; it was just me seeing him seeing me seeing him seeing me, etc. An indistinct sound metronomed at an increasing pace until we simultaneously realized—by way of our glasses breaking—that the noise had been his ring and my lucky penny pinging against our glasses. We both looked at the shards and laughed much louder than we probably should have. The old bartender, without any sort of humor, told us to leave immediately. We both tipped him a few bucks as we walked out elbowing each other in the ribs.
“That was different,” I said while my eyes blinked rapidly trying to adjust to the daylight.
“I could have gotten us off on a technicality if that old fucker wanted to take it to the courtroom.” He laughed.
“It’s pretty early still. How about we get some food and a bottle?”
He agreed. We walked down to the liquor store and got a half-gallon of Korsakoff’s then picked up a couple to-go burgers at the Irish restaurant down the road. I insisted on paying for everything and was now broke. The weather was that cool sorta atmospheric temperature where the boundaries between your body and the air blur a little so we walked down to Centennial Park, eating the burgers as we went.
Normally cops don’t mess with the homeless anyway because there’s no money to be gained, but Lawman was in a suit and neither of us really wanted to go to jail. So I pulled the sheet out of my bag and we sat down on it behind some evergreen bushes and beside an auxiliary walkway. A retired-looking woman jogged by in spandex athletic wear and smile-waved at Lawman. I pulled the bottle out and forced it into his hands.
“I bet she thinks you’re out here trying to reel in a lost soul.”
“Ah, the whole Devil is a lawyer joke? Very original.”
“I was thinking more like a Jehovah’s Witness.”
“I’m gonna have to plead the fifth, your honor.”
“I’m gonna have to drink a fifth, of this bottle, if you keep it up with that legal shit.”
I took a couple good gulps and passed him the bottle. A breeze blew soft. I laid back, looking at the sky. A plane smearing a face-shaped cloud across the blue made my heart start spinning.
“Did you know perjury actually…”
“Would you please just shut the fuck up with that legal stuff. You’re not even a lawyer anymore.”
I lit a cigarette and closed my eyes then exhaled a big puff of smoke towards the sky.
“Maybe I’m not. But at least I was something. What are you? Who are you? Nothing, that’s what you are, you fucking bum.”
I glanced at him through the corner of my right eye as he took a drink off the bottle. His eyes were locked on the downtown skyline. I reclosed my eyes and exhaled another puff.
“I’m a homeless man that would rather have been hit by a car than listen to you talk anymore.”
“You’re nothing, that’s who you are.”
I snatched the bottle and started downing it until I couldn’t down it anymore then threw up to my left. The vodka felt like lava coming up with the stomach acid and burgers. I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. As I was fading out, I heard him mumbling something like “great fuck life” or “hate truck wife” or something, before the sound of his feet dragging through the grass dissolved into the distance.
I woke up to ambulance sirens heading East on Sixth street. Up and to the right, I tumbled into the bushes, scraping my faces and arms. I closed my eyes, breathed in the piney scent and became somewhat oriented. Struggling to get up out of the bush, I noticed a wallet on the blanket. Guilt sprung up in my chest and wrung my insides out—I threw up again. The sun was beginning to set. Lawman’s picture was on the wallet’s ID. I slipped the wallet in my back-right pocket.
An anxiety crept across my body as I noticed the sirens had stopped screaming. Instinctively, I grabbed all my stuff up and headed towards where the sound had last come from. My steps felt unnatural, my eyes were twitching again. All I could smell was the vomit on my clothes.
Across Peoria, out front of a coffee shop, I saw skid marks leading up to a truck parked with its hazards on. Ten to twenty people were in the street—gawking around the truck. The paramedics were kneeling in the middle of the circle, beating on a suited man’s chest. A man in hand cuffs was being guided towards the back of a cop car, stumbling side to side. I turned the other direction, bumbling towards downtown as fast as I could.
So I guess that’s why I’m still homeless nowadays