I took asylum in her heart.
—SIX WORDS (4/12/14)
Jesus, what is she doing? What is she doing? Jesus. I sipped my coffee quickly to make it look like I was doing something. It was cold and bitter like the weather. The first sip singed a small portion of my tongue about an hour before, and I spent time since running my teeth along it, trying to identify flakes of flesh. It’s a busy morning like any Monday morning, and people are running so fast, faster than normal, to the point where it is actually running and not jogging or fast-walking. This happens often in this small window of time between 7:50 and 8:00, and you can feel the panic of the city as folks desperately try to make it the office on time. I’m not going to work today, though. It’s cold and I just haven’t been feeling well. I wouldn’t say I’m sick but I’ve just been lingering in that state between sickness and wellness, where exhaustion taints every movement but fever isn’t quite there. And how can I work today anyway with this girl out here. She’s too young to be doing this. I’m just standing on the corner of 1st and Broadway, and she’s over on the other side of the street right by a Payless shoe store. She’s just sitting there with her new sign. It usually just says ‘Anything Helps’ but I see something more now, a few more words, and I don’t know how I feel about it.
I ran my hand over my beard and to my surprise it was much longer than I expected, and much sharper. Not the grey hairs – must be the grey hairs. The sharp hairs are the grey hairs and Jesus this feels way too sharp. What am I doing? I can’t just stand here sipping coffee because the coffee is cold and it feels weird to pretend to do something the wrong way. So I went around the corner to a 711 and I picked up a pack of Cigarettes. I figured coffee and a cigarette sounds nice. It’s a common enough action. I bought a small blue lighter and walked back outside to the corner of the street. I tore off the wrapper and opened the carton and took out the second cigarette in the third row and I brought it too my lips but remember that I didn’t pack them. I looked around to see if anyone was noticing that I was about to put the cigarette back into the carton to pack it and I thought this one guy was watching to my left because he turned around far too fast when I looked over. And so I thought that maybe he didn’t notice that I didn’t pack them and so I just decided to smoke the cigarette, and finally filled my lungs after a few failed attempts to strike a flame with the lighter.
This girl, though. She’s always over there on the other side of the road under this Payless shoe store. She’s more reliable than most women I’ve met and I’ve never met her. She’s pretty, too. Not in the traditional sense that she has long silky hair and striking features or that she bathes regularly. No, not quite like those girls you see in magazines or hair parlors or Range Rovers.
But still I just don’t get why she changed the sign. So I crossed the street and stood by the light pole about ten feet away from her. She was looking down at the gum stained pavement, her finger tracing a particular stain that looked like a mountain range. Her fingers are slendor and petite, but a collage of dirt leaves them as a patchy brown pigment. I got a better look at the sign now. It read, “Anything helps. God Bless.” And I kept staring at this sign and my hands started sweating as I watched people pass this girl without giving her anything and I thought that maybe she didn’t know why.
So I walked up to her.
“Why’d you change your sign? It was fine the way it was.”
Her head rose and her eyes met mine. They shined like turquoise beads amongst the sticky dirt collected on her face. Her hair was raggedy and dreaded in a cluster of brown and blonde shades, not sure if by choice or nature of her existence – the dreads looked pretty well kept, at least as well kept as dreads could look. Her lips were a soft, light pink. She had a few freckles under her nose that slightly moved up and down as she blinked or squinted as she now did as a few beams of sun momentarily tore through the clouds and shined down from behind me.
“What?” She said.
“Hi, sorry. I’m uh, my name is Caleb. So listen, I walk by you often and um… Well listen I’m in advertising, I work in that big brick building with the long windows over on 5th, you know? You know. And listen, I just think you’re going about this all wrong. The sign, the idea,” I said.
“Well, what do you mean?” She said.
“Well, I mean. OK, so when people walk by and they read your sign I mean…well you added the God bless. It used to just say ‘Anything Helps.’ I respected that, you know, it was honest.All homeless people do the God Bless. I see the God blessing all over the goddamn city. I think you’re better than that,” I said.
“What’s wrong with the God Bless?” She said.
“You want people to want to give you money, right? I mean why guilt them. It’s like you’re trying to remind them that God’s watching so they better not be assholes. I mean people don’t need you God Blessing them. Why receive money by guilt? Be real, you know? Be real,” I said.
“You seem very stressed. Why are you sweating so much?”
“I’m just a bit out of it. And I’m drinking coffee. Coffee makes me sweat, you know, it’s hot,” I said.
“I saw you standing on the corner for a while. There’s no way that coffee’s still warm,” she said.
“You saw me?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I always see you walk by. Your hair’s not slicked back like it usual is. I like the beard, though,” she said.
“Yea I need to shave,” I said.
“Why aren’t you at work?” She said.
“I just don’t feel well,” I said, “I’m not sick but I just don’t feel well.”
“I know what you mean,” she said.
I kept staring at her. She wore faded army cargo pants with a white tank top and a blue jean-like flannel shirt that was stained with dirt and possibly blood. She smelled of stale mustard and sweat. In a way her clothes smelled of life, as if she’d been all over the world collecting odors to permanently reside in them. She raised her hand to shake mine. “Dakota,” she said. I hesitated only for a second until I saw her eyes, inquisitive and honest – they made me nervous. I took her hand in mine and noticed that her nails were actually quite short and groomed, and her sleeve slightly fell down and I saw a word, a tattoo, on her wrist that read, “unconditional.” I didn’t know what this meant and I started feeling strange about the situation of me here talking to this girl on the side of the road, especially with the way she looked at me- that look like she has nothing to lose. I handed her a hundred and told her to get some soap and water and whatever else she needed. She looked at it, confused, and I turned and continued down Broadway.
I had another stop to make and so I took the trolley down to 10th , getting off at the stop with this huge pine tree where I first met Molly. She was all stressed out and on the phone kind of walking in circles and she began screaming and cursing the small device in her hand as it began to die. I walked over and told her she could use mine. She was talking with her boyfriend and he was breaking up with her. And when she hung up she looked at me and placed my phone back in my hand and hugged me. She just kind of grabbed me, right there under the pine tree. My arms were briefly glued to my sides and then I slowly brought them up and around her. She said we should get a drink. I said she was crazy, but crazy in that good way to be crazy. She asked me again if I wanted to get a drink, and then I never said yes so easily to anything in my life.
The needles of the tree aren’t as abundant as they used to be. A few crunched under my feet as I made my way down the sidewalk. Fog drifts and floats between the tall buildings. The city is grey, making any distinct color hard to determine. The sun is gone. I saw her work building though and so I walked over and I checked the parking garage. Black Honda civic, black Honda civic. No Honda civic. I walked around the garage and up and down the three levels and there’s no car. I figured.
So I realized then that I had one more stop to make as much as I didn’t want to but I figured she must be there. So I got back on the trolley and the red machine went forth into the haze. I got off at 12th and made my way down the street, passing the soccer field and small coffee shop on the corner. I turned onto Merryway and there was her car in all its significance, parked firmly in front of his place. It looked like it was cleaned. It’s never clean. I remember a dinner party her work put on about a year ago. It was here at Steve’s. If she was going to do this I just can’t believe she would do it with Steve. Not even her boss or something. Steve’s this goofy guy with a big nose and a mole under his right nostril. He’s kind of losing his hair in that way that he hasn’t accepted it yet. Fucking Steve. He took care of her that night at the dinner party when she had one too many Jell-O shots that I warned her not to take. But she did of course and I was in the middle of a round of poker with her boss and some other colleagues and I was winning – I was playing the best goddamn poker of my life and Steve comes in and tells me about Molly and I can’t help but look at his mole move up and down when he spoke. I told him that I would be there in a second. And so he went back and tended to her as her hair hung down in the toilet water and her arms draped over the seat. Molly was so beautiful that it scared me when she looked so ugly, so helpless. I made it into the bathroom after the round of poker and found her sitting in Steve’s arms, asleep. I stared for a few seconds, and Steve looked up at me without expression. He closed his arms tighter around her, and her head rested on his chin, right below the mole. I didn’t know what to do so I slowly closed the door and went back to the poker table.
I wondered if this could have possibly been going on this whole time. Did it start after that night? I thought about knocking on the door and really scaring the shit out of them. I would love to see his face. I would love to see her face, too. I would love to see her big brown eyes grow even larger as she saw me, at the door, in the middle of the affair. So I looked at the house for a while, hoping that maybe she would come out. I never minded waiting for her in the past because with just one short smile and an apology through a tiny giggle under her breath followed by a gentle kiss on my cheek from her smooth lips was always enough to never make me mind waiting for her. This waiting was a little different, though, and it felt weird, maybe even wrong. I turned and walked back to the trolley.
I got on and sat down next to a large black man who looked friendly enough. I stared straight out the window across from me – out at the fog. We passed by faint outlines of trees and busy people. Everyone always looks like they have somewhere else to be. I took out another cigarette and put it to my lips only to have my large friend remind me that you can’t smoke on the trolley. I looked at him and smiled and took out my lighter and lit the cigarette. I patted him on the back with my free hand as I took a drag. He shook his head and slowly got up and made his way to another section of seats.
I rested my head back on the seat and closed my eyes and tried to think about nothing. So I just thought about how I was trying to think about nothing. And then I thought about that damn sign again – and the tattoo. What was unconditional and why? And how were her eyes so striking? A perfect blend of blue and green. So I decided I’d make one more stop back at first. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and I didn’t want to go anywhere else.
I made my way back to Broadway and saw her packing her few belongings in her little bag. She was slow and methodical, fitting in an extra sweatshirt and a canteen with precision. Her sign was still in her hand. She looked up in my direction and her eyes grew wide and the sides of her lips began to curl up into an instinctive smile. Her eyelashes flickered, as they were naturally quite long. She waived her arms and made her way towards me, more jogging than fast-walking.
“I’m glad I saw you!” She said.
She reached out and took my hand and placed almost half the money I gave her into it.
“I don’t need any more money,” she said. “I only needed enough for some travelling.”
“No, no, seriously take it. You need this more than me. I mean can we be honest, here. You’re homeless. Take the goddamn money,” I said, and put it back in her hand. My hands started to sweat again and my head was a bit dizzy from the cigarette. I could feel the blood pumping in my ears, my pulse steadily increasing.
“I’m not homeless,” she said, and she put the money back in my hand.
I looked at her rotten backpack and her crusty chunks of hair and her weathered sign. The G of God had bled down slowly onto the B of Bless. Her fingers were slightly stained with the black ink.
“You’re not homeless?” I said.
“No,” she said.
“Well do you have a home?”
“No,” she said. “I’m a crusty.”
“You’re very crusty I know, I can see and smell it,” I said.
“No, I AM A CRUSTY. We travel up and down the coast by train.”
I just stared at her, and then down at her sign. I took out another cigarette and lit it, turning around to exhale to avoid her face.
“It’s just me and the pack on my back. As soon as I get enough cash to buy my next ticket, I put the sign away. I’m not a charity case,” she said, and looked me straight in the eyes, and her hand gently glided from her side over to the cigarette in my hand, snatching it, and bringing it back to her soft lips. She took a deep drag, and smiled as smoke flowed down out of her nostrils. She brought the cigarette back up to her lips and I noticed the tattoo once again.
“What is unconditional?” I asked, and pointed at her wrist.
She looked down at her dirty wrist and turned it over to fully reveal the tattoo.
“Love, unconditional love,” she said.
“How old are you?” I said.
“You’ll have that removed by the time you’re my age,” I said.
“No, I won’t,” she said.
“It just doesn’t exist, I’m sorry. I mean at least for me, you know. I mean my parents died. I was an only child. Unconditional love just doesn’t exist all the time. You gotta grow up,” I said, and plucked my cigarette back out of her fingers.
“Why do you need people to love you?” I had to ask.
“I don’t need people to love me,” she said, “what I always liked about unconditional love was not so much that I was sure to be loved but that I was sure I could love…I have never loved anyone. But I think if this unconditional love is out there, like part of the human experience, then I think I still have a chance to let myself love someone, unconditionally.”
I looked down and laughed a bit to myself. My eyes felt dry and itchy. I hadn’t blinked in some time.
“Do you love anyone?” She said.
“No, not really,” I said.
“That’s too bad,” she said.
“Are you leaving?”
“My train leaves tomorrow,” she said.
“Where are you going?”
“North,” she said and took a long band out of her bag and wrapped it around her dreads, pulling them back out of her face.
“Where are you staying tonight?” I asked.
“There’s a few good spots around the city. There’s a bridge on 3rd with a view of the sunset. I slept under it last night after I saw all the colors. Reds and pinks. It was beautiful. Did you see it? The sunset? Did you see all the colors?”
“Have you eaten today?” I asked.
“I had some bread and a granola bar.”
“Come with me,” I said. “You need to eat.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What? I’m offering a free meal here,” I said. My hands were sweating again.
“How do I know you’re not a murderer or something?”
“Jesus Christ, I’m the one inviting a homeless person into my house! Forget it then.” I said.
“I’m not homeless!”
I turned around shaking my head and made my way back towards the trolley.
“Wait!…What are you making?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “There’s not much but it’s more than you have.”
“I’ll come,” she said, “I’m hungry.”
We made our way back to my house and opened the big oak door. I took off my shoes and jacket and showed her where to place her bag. I told her to make herself comfortable. I found a box of spaghetti that was still half full and began to boil some water.
“What’s this?” She said. I looked over and she raised a pamphlet with a title that read, “St. John’s Overnight Journey – Camping for Christ!” Molly had been on a Jesus binge for the past couple years, now. Apparently Steve had shone her the way to the kingdom, along with many other co-workers. I remember this one night after a beautiful dinner with red wine and baked bread and steak. I lit vanilla candles that she always loved. After I carried the plates to the kitchen she cornered me against the counter and wrapped her arms tightly around my waist and pressed her lips to mine and my eyes closed and I raised my hand to her cheek and pulled her face even closer. We made love on the wooden floors, right there in the kitchen. It was one of those times where you just somehow knew it was more than sex. Only a few positions, and my eyes were closed the whole time. That’s always how I know it means something – when I don’t remember any visuals, only sounds and smells. But after we rested there on the floor and for some reason she just had to ask me if I believed in God. We had never discussed religion before which was a main reason I thought I could be with her. It didn’t seem like a big deal and so I just told her, no. She grew quiet.
“What do you mean? I know you don’t go to church but you surely believe in God?” she said, her voice a little shaky but determined.
“No, I mean really. I just don’t,” I said.
“How do you not believe in something greater than yourself?” She said.
“Where is this coming from?” I said.
“You don’t know everything,” She said.
“Fine. Sell it to me,” I said.
“It’s unconditional love, Caleb. I don’t need to sell it to you.” She quickly got up and made her way to the bedroom. She slept facing the wall pretty often after that night, and I’m sure that was not the only reason.
The water started boiling over and I looked back over at Dakota, she was flipping through the pamphlet.
“It’s my wife’s,” I said.
“This is bizarre…They’re telling them to pack all wrong. I’ve slept in these woods. They’re hard to travel through. They don’t wanna be carrying all this stuff,” she said, and put the pamphlet down.
The spaghetti was done, and I found an expired jar of marinara but it looked fine as it always does so I poured it on top. I grabbed two wine glasses and popped open a fresh bottle. It was one Molly’s mother gave to us on our wedding night. I filled both glasses and placed them on the table. I grabbed the food and gave a plate to Dakota. She smiled. I grabbed my fork and began swirling the long strands between the tines. I ate quickly, and I noticed Dakota staring at me.
I looked over and caught her gaze as she focused on me.
“Where is your wife?”
“Gone,” I said.
I body twitched into an instinctive flight as I began to quickly get up for what I told myself was more spaghetti. My right elbow grazed the top of the wine bottle just enough, and I stood and stared, as it rotated around, trying but failing to find its balance. Dakota lunged forward in an attempt to save it but it dropped right out of reach and shattered onto the floor, spraying glass around the kitchen. The wine leaked out from under the broken bottle like blood from a dead body.
“Shit,” I said. I looked down at the broken bottle and up at Dakota. Above her head on the cabinet was a picture of a couple at Disneyland and I had to really focus to notice it was Molly and me. I didn’t really recognize her. Her hair was a different color then but still I felt like I hardly even recognized her face. I almost didn’t recognize me.
“I’m tired, “ I said, “I’m sorry but I just haven’t been feeling well all day. There are blankets in the closet. Any couch is yours.”
“But it’s the afternoon,” she said.
“I just don’t feel well,” and I turned and made my way to the stairs.
The bathroom smelled of her favorite perfume, which was now almost foreign to me. She was here at some point today. I looked in the mirror and lathered my face with shaving cream, and picked up the sharpest razor I could find and began running it down and across my face. Whiskers fell down around the drain in the sink, some black, some grey, but less grey than I thought. I brushed my teeth and made my way to bed and fell asleep pretty quickly.
The next morning I woke up and showered. I put some gel to my hair and it took a second to hold correctly as it had been a while. I was going to go to work, today.
I put on my suit and brushed off a bit of collected dust and lint. I made my way downstairs, ready to accept whatever was stolen. I looked toward the living room and the couches were vacant and blankets were stacked neatly on one of the arms. I made my way into the kitchen and the floor was spotless, a pile of glass and stained paper towels rested gently on the top of the trash. A note on the counter read, “Thank you. By the way, you should take out your trash.” I made my way towards the door and saw her sign on the ground beside the coat rack. It didn’t look forgotten. I picked it up and couldn’t help but think, God Bless her, really, if you’re there God, bless her.