It’s seeing the spider-web fractals of light coming in, through his busted windshield, to wake him up for another day. Turning the key to check gas gauge but then shutting the car back off, hearing a brief interval of morning radio show before it all goes quiet again. He’s gone a distance of about 800 miles now, he realizes. Not all at once but piecemeal, day after day, parking somewhere farther than where he came from, putting it all together like a quilt he’d watch his grandma make way back when. He’s thinking of the nature of being homeless, and the myriad “Home is…” decorations that he’d find in the suburban homes of friends and girlfriends growing up, thinking then even when he had a house that he didn’t exactly find home there, but he didn’t see an alternative then, any sort of way out. He was just staying there till he was old enough to legally leave. He remembered looking up emancipated minor laws as he was studying for finals his freshman year, and the chaos that was his living situation: a house filled with mildew and garbage , with no utilities and barely any food, a mother monster who would berate him even as he shaped himself to be a model student and son. The old words and moments come back, but only just now. They’re hazy around the edges, indistinct. He’s remembering the lapses of good, back before the divorce, when his parents’ mental states were fragile but still intact. When they’d do things like shoot home movies on a clunky old camcorder and go down to a park or a pumpkin patch, depending on the season, an old Wolverine action figure in his hand, something from the dollar store, and they’d put off fighting for a bit, at least until the shot was over, and he learned to live in these moments of focused attention, these comings and goings of surface-level normalcy. He remembers more and more of these good times now, and he doesn’t know whether that’s a side effect of his current condition or just a side effect of getting older. He doesn’t really care either way.
He keeps his feet bramble-beat, mud-puddle sheen, elastic waistband stretched past use and hanging, sagging really, on hips left to mottle in the sun, worn down from it, but he’s not worn, no sir, and can’t you see that smile on his face meant to tell you as much? If you’ll give him a dollar for some food then that’s your prerogative, but he understands if you can’t, if you need it for yourself, etc.
He’s been out on the street long enough to know the prognosis of the city. He studies its lungs as they choke for air in the twilight hours, its murmuring heart as it wakes up for another day. It susurrates to itself, leaves as whispered self-encouragement, until the rain sticks the words to the ground like haphazard tattoos from the city’s younger days.
They call him York, because that’s where he’s from, NYC, but the way it comes out his mouth when he’s been cold all day and he’s got brain fog and his tongue is stuck in a slow-mo movie, it comes out like Yorick, and that’s fine too, if people call him that, he figures, because it’s only a name. Just poor Yorick out here on the streets, trying to make every dollar count and stretch.
And he’s here, stretching too, under this melange of sunrise sky, these oranges, reds, purples in places, it’s beautiful if you notice it, if you really stop and see it and pay attention to the design of it, like a massive oil painting in appearance, but this one’s been done in photons.
He thinks he’s lucky, he says as much when people ask him, and he’s past worrying much beyond the next six hours or so. Anything further is beyond his immediate control, doesn’t exist, and so doesn’t matter just yet. It can’t matter.
Weightless dreams when sleep comes easy, which is rare, but these dreams are like glimpses of heaven when they come to Yorick, dreams not so much of flying as floating as a feather would, on the breeze, without sore ankles and tired eyes, dreams where he sees his kids again, and they’re safe, and happy, and the same age that they were back when he last saw them, when he could see them, when they called out to him in their sing-song voices and hugged his legs that were to them the size of tree stumps.
He isn’t hard on himself the way he used to be. Doesn’t curse fate, or God, or any other unseen force that might’ve put him where he is right now. He gets up with the light and goes to sleep with the darkness, fixing himself to the firmament because that’s the only thing he can count on most days, and that’s just fine by him.
He’s got a person over at the library who’s helping him with the internet and the computers and the websites. He was on the street long before the dot-com boom, and this librarian has been kind enough to show him how it all works, why it matters, what it can do.
Yorick’s got pages of research now, the librarian lets him print for free within reason, and he keeps it in his back pocket and reviews the data by the light of a streetlamp near where he usually sleeps for the night. Pages and pages of entries, permutations and possibilities of where his kids might be, separated by cities and states, their names common enough to give him scores of results, dozens of possible addresses and email addresses and phone numbers.
At night, he pores over these pages and eliminates the dead ends and the false starts, writes notes in the margins when he thinks he might be onto something. By day, the kind librarian helps him draft emails, encourages him to get even more use out of the library, and checks out books for him under her card, because you need a permanent address to get a library card, and Yorick hasn’t had one of those for the better part of 30 years.
It’s months of this, searching, hunting, crossing out, scribbling on the pages, checking the email inbox that the librarian set up for him, day in and day out, watching the sun rise and fall, his hopes with it, all of it, changing in the way that you only can with age, by the force of time, until that one day, with a simple reply, just the one word at first, but that’s all Yorick will need for now, because a simple “hi” from his daughter is worth more than hundreds of kind words from the mouths of strangers out on the street.
Either you were a civilian, or you were a veteran. There was no in between for Karen. Never knew where the next meal was coming from as a kid? Beer bottles made brown explosions on the wall during fights between M & D? Veteran. Got the crusts cut off from the lunches your mom made you every morning? Taken on annual summer vacations that you complained about for being “lame”? Civilian.
While most people would consider being adopted as qualifying you for veteran status, Karen felt like she still hadn’t earned it. So she started going on undercover missions. Did shit like mess up her hair, forego makeup, wear her crappiest clothes, and panhandle. On the missions when she was homeless like this, she’d talk with the actual homeless, level with them as one of their own. When her mission was complete, she’d divvy up her earnings amongst the people who actually needed it and head back home. When she did this enough times in her hometown, she’d take the Amtrak to other cities, other states, so as not to arouse suspicion.
She’d watched Titicut Follies. While she assumed that the treatment of those who’d found themselves in the psych ward had no doubt improved since then, she still needed to know what it was like. So she stopped at the 7-Eleven that was a block down from the nearest hospital and bought three of their strongest energy drinks. Chugged them, one after the other, to induce a “manic state.” Left her ID at home so they couldn’t alert M & D. It was during the summer, so Karen was even able to tell her parents that she’d be staying the week at a friend’s. Waited a half hour or so for the energy drinks to take effect. Figured it was time to check in once her vision got hazy and her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest.
She’d psyched herself up beforehand, thought she’d need to to make it convincing. Thing is, once she got into that reception area and the lights were too bright and she met the bland indifference of the receptionist and felt like she might pass out, she didn’t need to act. Could barely get out that she’d been having suicidal thoughts, constant panic attacks on top of that. And then she was made to wait, for how long she didn’t know. And then she was led to a concrete hole of a room, a room with nothing more than a metal slab that you were meant to lie on and a smattering of cameras. The kind with a door that locked once it closed.
For some reason, they put her in the wing that housed those who were prone to violence. At least, that’s what Karen assumed once she’d witnessed two fights within a half hour of being there. Most of the people in this wing had done things you’d usually be arrested for, but had done them in a way that freaked out the cops involved to the point where they didn’t want to deal with them. Stuff like resisting arrest by biting. Taking off their shirt before getting in a fight, then dropping their pants too. These people gave the rest of the patients a bad name, Karen decided.
Maybe she’d been placed there because of her high anxiety. Who knows. But they eventually realized their mistake and placed her in a wing with other suicidals, mostly quiet types who either ate too much at meals or not enough. Who had to excuse themselves from groups because of crying spells. Who stayed in bed for days at a time. Who sported thousand yard stares and took a few seconds to respond when you called their name.
These were people who would sit down next to you and strike up a convo if they sensed that you needed one. And that’s the funny thing about veterans of that kind of shit: They could always sense that you needed one. Once you’ve been to the depths and back, you become acutely aware of others’ internal states. Sensitive to their inner sufferings.
They kept her longer than anyone else. It wasn’t because she hammed it up or anything. She ditched the act after day four, but apparently they saw something that she didn’t and decided to keep her there longer.
It’s the silent moments you have to reflect that get to you. One after another, her new friends left, slipping her their number scrawled on the backs of group therapy schedules, scratched in with the nubs of pencils.
She was encouraged to share in group, and she did. She went in with a whole character bio and story ready, but all of that fell away after she made her friends. Making it all up didn’t seem right when they were letting everything out. So she talked. About finding out she was adopted as a kid. About collecting everything she could carry in a backpack and running away. About getting picked up by a cop and brought home three days later. About not being able to talk for another three days after that, memory wiped. All of it.
Karen left with a prescription for an SSRI she’d never take, a hospital wristband she’d keep in a lockbox with the numbers after she’d put them into her phone. They gave her fare for the bus, the card for a therapist who accepted Medicaid. She hadn’t planned on riding the bus till its final destination, but that’s what happened. She got off at the end, caught a bus going back home, and looked out the window. Watched the way that dusk played with the sky, purple segueing into black.