“There’s a homeless guy in your parking lot.”
I looked up as the customer sauntered past the counter and lifted his thumb in the direction he’d just entered from.
“Just thought I’d let you know.”
Of all the things I’d been warned about when accepting that Assistant Manager promotion, Homeless Guy Duty wasn’t one of them. “Thanks,” I answered, feeling anything but gratitude for the new predicament. It was a first.
I stopped what I was doing and looked out the storefront windows. Nothing. I scanned the shop for the customer who had just entered and saw him walking around the inside edge of the store. I lost him behind a shelf and went back to work.
The front door opened again to the sound of another man cursing over his shoulder. He looked at me, shook his head, and finished his tirade with, “Some people!”
“Is there someone outside?” I asked.
“Just a homeless bum harrassing people.” He followed the same path as the last customer, straight to the wall of new releases.
I sighed. Homeless Guy Duty. No, I didn’t sign up for that.
I finished scanning a pile of returns to collect my wits and cautiously walked to the door. I cracked it open as another customer pulled into the parking lot. Just as the car turned into a vacant spot, a shadow slid across the ground from a blind spot between a pair of large storefront windows. So that was his hiding place.
“Excuse me, sir, would you like me to wash your car while you’re inside?”
The only response the newcomer gave was a shake of the head. I stepped outside and held the door for my new disgruntled customer.
And then the shadow became flesh. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll be leaving now.”
I watched as he quickly bent over and lifted a box to his chest. “Wait.”
He turned his face but didn’t look at me. I saw his hat- probably red in the distant past, now faded to an ugly shade of pink. His denim jacket was also faded, but tight and smeared with oil or mud. Maybe it was both. He tilted his head a little more. Our eyes met.
“Mine is the red truck. I’ll wait for you inside.”
I walked the streets in another life. Buildings from generations past were at my left, the barely used street on my right. It was snowing but I didn’t care- my oversized navy blue coat was made for Siberian winters. I was warm. I removed the glove on my right hand and reached for a handful of coins in my pocket. It wouldn’t take many- it was 1992 and the streets I walked were Ukrainian.
“Spaciba!” The words didn’t come from my lips, but from the woman lifting an ice cream cone from a freezer and into my hands.
I removed the paper around the cone and looked for the nearest trash can. I was American and Americans didn’t litter, even if the whole sidewalk was covered in garbage. I took a step, then another, and stopped dead in my tracks when he looked up at me from behind a waist-high metal bin.
I was thirteen years old. I wanted to scream.
He rolled himself from behind the trash can with both hands. There were no legs, just a torso with arms and a head. He was balanced on a crude, homemade skateboard and looked like an old, war-torn, weathered, dirty Santa Claus. I tossed the paper into the can beside him and kept walking.
But then I stopped. I was nervous and unsure, but I reached into my pocket with my still-gloveless right hand. I pulled out 200 Ukrainian coupons, the standard currency in those days. It was a decent amount of money for anyone, homeless or not. I stuck the two bills out, afraid that he would touch me.
“Spaciba!” he stammered, incredulty in his voice and kindness in his eyes.
“No,” I answered in Russian. “Thank you.”
I didn’t know why I said that.
The door came to a close and I looked outside. My truck seemed to sparkle in the sun. “Looks good. How much do I owe you?” He shrugged. I looked in my wallet. “Ten bucks okay?”
“Anything helps.” He reached out for the bill and I saw his dirty, calloused hands smear a new color across the green money.
I looked around the store, saw nothing but candy, sweets, and unpopped popcorn. My gaze stopped on the freezer next to the candy. “Do you like ice cream?”
I opened the freezer and pulled out my favorite one. “I’m Robert,” I said as I handed the cone to him. He removed the paper from the cone and looked for a trash can.
“Thank you, Robert. My name is John.”
I looked up from the counter and saw him standing there with his box. “Hi.” It was Thursday.
“Mind if I use your restroom?”
“Of course not.”
He set his box on the countertop and walked to the back of the store. My eyes dropped to the box he’d left behind. Inside were rags, bottles, soap, and a bag of leftovers from McDonald’s.
“Thank you, sir,” I heard a couple minutes later as he returned to get his box. “Been a long day.”
“Hopefully a good one, though?”
He smiled and made for the door. “Any day the cops aren’t called is a good day!”
I watched as he disappeared around the block. Just a guy and his box.
I showed up the next day a little before 5:00pm for an evening shift. As soon as I walked in the door, my manager flagged me over. He looked irritated. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“There was a homeless guy looking for you today. What’s that all about?”
I clocked in and laughed. Nervously, I might add. “I don’t know. He’s been by twice this week.”
“He asked for you by name.” I chanced a glance at my boss. Yeah, he was looking at me. “How did he know your name?”
Up a creek. “Well, I let him wash my car a couple days ago. I was just trying to help him out.”
My manager nodded. “Okay. I don’t want him around here anymore. Understand? He makes customers nervous. I told him not to come back, so if he does…you know what to do.” He was pointing at the phone.
Why did his words stab me so? “Yeah,” was all I could muster.
I spent the rest of that shift looking out the windows and listening to customers as they came in from the outside world. Did my boss have the same talk with the other employees? If John showed up, would they call the cops before I even knew what was going on? If they didn’t tell me what’s going on, wouldn’t that be insubordination? I stopped myself. Why was I so concerned, anyway? He wasn’t going to come back, he’d already been warned. I went back to work after another glance outside.
At midnight I locked the door and divided closing duties between the three of us still at work. “Take the drawers to the office and count the cash,” I told one coworker. I looked at the other. “If you can mop up, I’ll take out the trash.”
I grabbed the two bags of garbage and unlocked the front door. The dumpster was around back, so I made a sharp left and let the cold night air envelop me. It was nice to have a bit of quiet after a long Saturday night. The dumpster appeared, I swung the first then the second bag. Both flew straight through the smaller side hole, one right after the other.
My shoes pulled on the sticky ground as I turned to leave. I looked down and something weird caught my eye. “Huh?” It was dark and unlighted around back but I could see something there. No, not one thing. Many things. I leaned down and didn’t understand. There were items on the ground beside and behind the dumpster. Regular items. Items so regular they were grossly out of place. Each had a white price tag dangling from a string on them. I reached for one and nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw a figure move from behind the far side of the dumpster.
“It’s just me,” he whispered. “John.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, my heart pounding a million miles per minute.
“I set up a shop back here. I hope you don’t mind.”
I looked down at the ground again, knelt even lower, and crawled forward. My hands were now sticky and smelled like rotten, sugary popcorn soda. “Can I look?”
He knelt in the grime next to me. “Sure.”
My eyes began to adjust to the darkness as I picked up item after item. I turned them in my hands and studied the price he’d marked on each one. They must have been items he’d found in trash cans and dumpsters around town. “Why did you bring them here? Who do you sell them to?”
He shrugged. His hand reached for the tallest item – an olive green blender from what appeared to be the horrid 1970’s – and picked it up. He held it in his hands for another moment and turned his face to mine. It was so dark and he was so dirty, but I could see the whites of his eyes just inches from mine. “I want to give this to you. For being so kind to me.”
Was my heart inside that blender? His words pierced me so as I accepted the gift.
I walked from darkness into light with the blender under my arm, opened the door to the store, and locked it behind me.
“What took you so long?” my coworker with the mop asked. She lowered her eyes to the blender. “Where’d you get that?”
“From a friend.”
She looked at me like I was crazy.
Over the next month or so we became friends. John was smart- he never stopped by the store when my boss was around. We’d talk about God, trains, jail, and a former life that included a house. I saw him arrested once outside of a Burger King while on my way to work. I could spot that faded pink hat and jacket from anywhere. Even from the back of a police car.
February arrived and with it came the unwelcome Texas cold. One night, John showed up at the store just after midnight. He was hobbling around on one crutch and waiting outside the store for me. He held his box in his free arm. “Twisted my ankle today,” he told me as I pushed myself out the door, dropped a couple of trash bags, and locked the doors behind me.
“What can I do to help?” I asked as I turned to face him.
“Well,” he said, “I have a friend who’s saving a place for me to stay tonight. I just don’t know if I can make it there on one bad foot. Do you mind…?” he trailed off, embarrassed for the first time since I’d met him.
I lifted the bags and nodded. “Of course I’ll give you a ride. Give me just one second, though.”
I got rid of the trash and came back around the corner in about a half-minute. “No, no, no,” I chided as I saw John trying to climb into the bed of my truck. “In the front.” When he began to protest, I added, “How am I supposed to know where to drop you off?” He climbed down as carefully as he could, left the crutch and box in the back, and got in without protest.
We headed out and I listened to his handful of “this way’s” as he showed me which way to go. Three right turns in all. Not much, maybe a mile. “Right here,” he finally pointed and I pulled into a parking lot with a three story office building in front of a line of trees and train tracks.
“Home sweet home.”
I was so confused as I slowed the truck to a crawl and looked around the empty lot and deserted building. “Where exactly?”
“Keep going. A little further.” He motioned to the far side of the building. I kept going.“Okay, right here.” There was nothing. I stopped anyway.
John opened the door and reached into the bed of the truck to grab his crutch and box. He stuck his head back in the door. “See you soon!” he said with a smile. There was a soft grating sound of metal on metal and I saw the side door of a nearby dumpster slide open.
“It’s just me, buddy,” John called over his shoulder to a head sticking out of the dumpster. He turned back to me. “That’s my friend Tim. Anyway…thanks again, Robert.”
My stomach turned to lead as he shut the door and hobbled away on one bad leg and a crutch. I jumped out of my truck and watched as John tossed the crutch then the box into the dumpster. He put his foot on the side of the smelly metal square but couldn’t pull himself up with a bad leg. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. “How….how are you going to get inside?”
John looked back at me and laughed. “Didn’t think about that, I guess.”
I walked to the dumpster, cupped my fingers, and bent slightly at the knees. He put one foot into my hands, grabbed both sides of the opening, and let me push him through the hole of his home for the night. I stuck my head inside, watched as he reached for a long piece of cardboard, and crawled underneath it. He adjusted a pillow beneath his head. It was trash.
“Thanks again, buddy,” he said as his friend Tim slid the tiny doorway shut for the night.
“Goodnight, John.” I could see my breath ascend into the cold night air.
I opened my hands and caught the falling keys to my new store. “Good luck,” my District Manager said in farewell as the door closed slowly in his wake. I walked to the door, watched him get in his shiny black Lexus, and locked the door.
My new store.
It was 8:30am on a Monday morning, just two days after I had dropped John off at the dumpster. I turned around and took it all in. I had learned about my promotion the night before. I was excited, of course, but there was one thing gnawing at my mind:
I never got to say goodbye.
I took a step into my new store. Would someone tell him where I was? Would I ever see him walk through this new door? I so wanted to say goodbye, to tell him thank you. I didn’t even know what for. I just knew I was thankful.
But John was homeless and I was fifteen miles away. Still, I waited. I wished and I hoped. I even prayed. I looked around my new store, saw the candy, popcorn, soda, and the freezer. As soon as he walked in the door, I’d shake his hand and buy him an ice cream. It would be just like old times.
I wish he walked through that door. He never did. Before I knew it, I was transferred to another location even further away. My hope faded like a dream at daybreak.
They began closing stores about a year later. I moved on, much like all the employees at Hollywood Video had to do. There was nothing we could do about it. It was the dual deathblows delivered by Netflix and Redbox. Inevitable, really. I drove to the old store where I was broken into. It was a CareNow clinic. Drove to the location where I’d met John. It was all boarded up. I even drove around back and looked behind the dumpster. Nothing. Not even a stray price tag trampled in the mud.
I pulled into an Auto Zone across the street from that old store. It was as good a place as any to get a pair of windshield wipers for my new car. My old, red truck had been obliterated in an accident a few months before. Such is life. We move on, I suppose.
I got back in my car, set the bag on the seat next to me, and could see my old store in the rearview mirror. Where was he? I hoped that he was alright. Safe. Warm at night. Still alive. I turned the key and rolled the windows down.
I jumped when a head appeared in my passenger side window.
“Need a car wa-”
I could recognize that pink hat and faded jacket from a mile away. My voice caught in my throat and I almost cried. It was okay, because so did he. “Good to see you, John. How have you been?”