The shower animates my body, dull layers of chapped skin peeling beneath patches of straight black hair and red spots of which I neither understand the origin nor the longevity. Wrinkles and age spots overwhelm my face, stretching like rows of unplanted dirt in the oval mirror. A toothbrush and toothpaste do little to remove the brown coating across my teeth, nor relieve the pain of gum loss receding to an upper lip. I have not been kind to myself. And it shows. People, including nuns, wince at my appearance: a trailing beard with four braids tied off with red rubber bands; green eyes that have darkened brown; fingernails bitten to the cuticle; a distended belly on account of sodium-laden shelter food, cheap, stolen beer from affluent trashcans, and reused syringes from the ghettos of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. I was fresh once. And spoiled. For two years: 1981-1983. Twenty to twenty-two years of age. A time when plenty filled in the skeletons of a cracked past; when want replaced need; when fitting in tempted me to overestimate the power of permanence. My parents told me that lavishness was beyond their, and my, grasp. And they were right.
The bath towel smells of the lakefront summer mornings when I lived with Hammond Anderson during 1981-1983. Nineteen years my senior, Hammond was a financial consultant for Citibank with retirement funds revealed on a second date, after a rodeo, when I asked him why a man needs two cars, two estates, two retirement funds, two horses, two cats.
“Did you grow up poor?” he asked.
“I grew up understanding confines.”
“That sounds terrible.”
“Life is a series of limitations.”
“What if I could change that?’
“I live in a friend’s garage and ride a bike to work,” I said.
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“I don’t wish for things beyond my grasp.”
He pointed to the total column on one of the retirement funds: $703, 231.00 “How does seeing this make you feel?”
“Is that a real amount?”
“Feel a little less poor now?”
“It’s not mine.”
He smiled. “You’re young and hung. You’ve got it all.”
Fists banging on the bathroom door turn attention back to my over-sunned face and coffee breath fogging the mirror.
“Hurry up in there, I ain’t got all day,” a voice yells.
I stuff the baby-sized toiletries in a plastic bag, pant and sleeve a sweat suit, tie shoelaces, and open the door.
“About time,” a younger man says, bumping my shoulder as he takes the bathroom, slamming the door. “Fucking queer.”
“Hi, Mister Eloc,” Hunter, the volunteer coordinator, says, holding a clipboard. “You smell good today.”
“Peach body wash and ocean scent lotion.”
“You gonna be here for dinner tonight?”
“Got a new volunteer team from a bank coming in to serve and I was hoping you might tour ‘em.”
“Cool.” He smiles. Bright teeth. Symmetrical and soothing. “They’re coming in to prepare about four o’clock. Maybe you can meet them before dinner if there’s time.”
I nod, identifying a seat at a small table in the left corner of the room, the place where those who shower sit and read or stare at their own hands. A homeless shelter is like high school; there are lots of cliques that keep to themselves and lots of opinions that don’t.
“This table’s full,” Ed the Sniffler says, scooting with a barefoot a chair into the table.
Sandra the Overcoat laughs, and sings, “Table’s full. Table’s full. Tables, tables, table’s full.”
Jacob the Dead Eyes slaps shut a book and yells, “This is the silent area. Be quiet or get the hell out.”
“Quiet area. Quiet area. Quiet, quiet, quiet area.”
“Sssssssshhhhhh.” Jacob turns his back on Ed and Sandra and opens the book. “Jesus.”
I scan the room for another place to sit. There’s an empty table near the toiletry desk. And for good reason. Anyone who sits there gets badgered by the staff to volunteer. Same reason the table in front of the washer and dryer is empty. As is the table near the clothes closet. Here, for most clients, to give is not better than to receive. I stand to the left of the front door and wait for the bitchy front desk lady to call out and hand out tickets for dinner. I’m usually number one to ten, mostly because I’ve memorized the food schedule but also because Hunter looks out for me, reminding the front desk staff to make sure I get a ticket. I believe he likes me. He acts like he likes me. Perhaps it’s an act, an obligation as an employee to be kind. Or perhaps it’s because I shower and never complain about the thin-trickle water faucets, the ill-lit bathrooms, and the cushionless cot I’m made to sleep on overnight. I’d be fucked if I had a bad back. Or maybe Hunter’s nice because I agree to give tours to new volunteer groups who wear nice clothes with combed hair who look at me as I talk about The Dorothy Day Center as if I’m the most interesting, and most disgusting person in the whole world. Last week, a young girl asked if I was a client or a volunteer.
“I’m a client volunteer,” I said.
“So, you live here day and night.”
“That I do.”
“But it smells bad and there’s no color on the walls.”
I laughed. “I provide the smell and the color because I am the walls.”
Dinner in the cafeteria is another version of lukewarm meatloaf and strawberry Kool-Aid. A few of the volunteers bring stale cookies and brownies to the tables. Some of them smile and squat like they’re taking a shit. Most of them stay behind the serving line, a long row of metal hot plates serving as a barrier between our illness and their health, our folly and their sanity, our collapse and their gain. No one asks for a name, even when I offer it. Which isn’t often. No, I don’t believe in altruism. I believe there are do-gooders who do good in order to hide the bad they don’t want others to see, others like us at The Dorothy Day Center, who because we cannot hide, must be bad, you see.
Hunter comes to the table and squats. “Ready to tour?”
“Excellent.” He stands. “I’ll send them to the conference room in ten or fifteen minutes after the other clients go outside. The room’s unlocked. Make yourself at home until they get there.”
“You’re a gem, Mr. Eloc.” He touches my forearm, a whisper coming in my right ear. He smells of youth and peaches. Wetness enlivens his lips and skin. Blue eyes the stuff of splendor. Hands and ass the size of raging lust. “We’re so lucky to have you.”
Lucky to have me. Yes, dear Hunter, you can. Anytime, I am yours.
The conference room fills with fellow Caucasians chatting about how good they feel in their servanthood and how they wish to do it again. I stand in the front and hold out my hands. Like always, a quick hush overtakes the room. If I hold any power in the universe, it’s in this moment. Oh my God, the old homeless guy is about to speak; best to shut up and listen or else he might pull out a knife from that gross beard and stab us, everyone.
“I hope you enjoyed the volunteer experience.”
They nod and look quizzically at each other as if they’re unsure whether to be astounded by my coherent sentence or confused that I’m able to deliver it without spittle drooling down the side of my mouth. I often wonder the reaction if I spun in circles and rippled a tongue shrill with the roof my mouth. I want to try it, but I fear the action will produce counter-production. I’d be sad if I wasn’t allowed to give tours, and I do not wish to disappoint Hunter.
“Before we go on the tour, does anyone have any questions?”
“Are you a client?”
“I’m a client volunteer.”
“So, you live here, day and night?”
“I do indeed.”
A portly man in a grey suit enters the room, stands in the back, and taps lightly a shiny, black shoe against the wall. The volunteers sitting around the table nod and wave to him. He smiles and gives two thumbs up. Experience tells me he’s either a bigwig who hires and fires or a smallwig who’s making a move to the top in order to hire and fire. Suits don’t serve the meal; suits come in late and write the donation checks to the Development Department. Hunter was the first staffer to clue me in on these facts, on his second day of work, right after I gave him a tour.
“What’s your position in the company?” the portly man asks. He sounds like Hammond Anderson. But he looks like a creampuff midget with scarecrow hair. Not like Hammond at all.
“I’m a client volunteer.”
“A client volunteer.”
‘So you’re served by this place while you serve this place.”
“Are you happy here?”
I stand quietly for a few seconds, staring at my hands. “I am of service here and that brings me a degree of peace and belonging.”
“Well done,” he says. “Please continue.”
“Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, and lived until November 29, 1980,” I say. “She was an American journalist, social activist, and Catholic convert. She initially lived a bohemian lifestyle before gaining fame as a social activist after her conversion. She later became a key figure in the Catholic Worker Movement and earned a national reputation as a political radical, perhaps the most famous radical in American Catholic Church history.”
“I thought we were gonna tour the facility,” the portly man says.
“We will, but I like to start off with a bit about the woman, Dorothy Day.”
“We all have lives to get to, so perhaps we can get to it.”
“Sure.” I walk to and open the French doors. The crowd stands and follows my narration around the facility, stopping in front of The Healthcare for the Homeless Clinic, Direct Services, Employment Assistance, Housing Support, The Food Shelf, The Warehouse, The Upstairs Bunk Bed Area for Women, and The Downstairs Cot Room for Men. Lots of ooh’s and ah’s, wide eyes skimming the contents of the rooms, privileged pupils looking upon things beyond their grasp.
“Thanks for coming to volunteer. Drive safe and please consider volunteering again.”
Most of the crowd departs through the back door. The portly man stays behind, writing in front of Hunter what looks like a check. I stand by the back door, wondering which snack and soda Hunter has waiting for us in the kitchen as payment for my service. He likes Doritos and Coke, so that’s usually the fare.
“What’s the tour guide’s name?” the portly man asks Hunter.
“We’re not allowed to give out that information, but feel free to ask him yourself.” Hunter turns and smiles at me. “He wants to meet you, wants to know your name.”
I walk toward Hunter, longing for his arms, for one embrace, for one moment to soak in loveliness no mirror has ever reflected. He’s young, and I choose to believe he’s hung. His tight shininess makes me question the relationship he has with age and wither, whether he understands how quickly they show up and destroy the fantasy. The portly man has a strong handshake, pulling me toward him as if to inspect damaged goods.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Just call me friend.”
“Do you have a first name?”
“Well, what is it?”
I look at Hunter.
“It’s up to you if you want to tell him.”
I look into the portly man’s eyes. Green like Hammond. Clear like Hammond. Menacing like Hammond. But he can’t be Hammond. Hammond was lean. Hammond was hazel. Hammond was so long ago. Thirty-five years. Two of every season followed by a yellow eviction notice. Go. Get. Leave me alone, you loser. That’s the last time you’re gonna steal my credit card for drugs, you trailer trash, overdosing my niece, you rotten scumbag. I knew better than to get involved with your type of nothingness. A mistake I will correct and never make again. Now get the fuck outta my house.
“I hope you enjoyed the tour, sir.”
“Is that you, Leumas?” he asks.
“You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“It’s you, isn’t it?”
“The name’s Phil.” I lie, still able to recall the numbers on his credit card, a Mastercard, a thousand dollar cash advance. A signature scrawled with highs and lows of which I took advantage and ignored the consequences. I turn and walk toward the kitchen.
“I swear it’s him,” Hammond tells Hunter. “I swear it.”
“I can’t reveal personal information, sir. I’m sorry.”
“But I know him. Knew him. I’m telling you, I know who he is.”
“Thanks for volunteering tonight. Drive safe and please consider volunteering again.”
“You are him,” Hammond yells at my back. “And I will tell him who you are and what it is you did.”
In the kitchen, I lean against the dishwasher, the first job I had at Dorothy Day Center so long ago, before the beard, the wrinkles, the age spots, and Hunter, the same day I told a taxi driver to drop me, and my plastic bag, off at the closest homeless shelter—183 Old Sixth Street Saint Paul, MN 55102.
Samuel E. Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event/development management. He’s a poet, flash fiction geek, and political essayist enthusiast. His work has appeared in many literary journals, and his first poetry collection, Bereft and the Same-Sex Heart, was published in October 2016 by Pski’s Porch Publishing. His second book, Bloodwork, a collection of short stories, was published by Pski’s Porch Publishing in July 2017. His third book, Siren Stitches, a collection of short stories, was published by Three Waters Publishing in October 2017. He is also an award-winning card maker and scrapbooker.