When I die, or after I die, I want to look back at my life and see that I ate that cookie, I drank that vodka, I made love to that woman. I did not shy away from living because of the petty fear that death might come sooner. Yes, I got into a fistfight with that bully, and it doesn’t matter so much that I was knocked down — at least I took him on. I didn’t run like a coward. Yes, I did do things wrong, I did plenty wrong. But I lived, man, I lived.”
And at that, the aged man’s speaking quickly degenerated into drunken babble. In a little while, he was asleep in his bedroll. I zipped his sleeping bag a bit snugger and I adjusted his pathetic, smelly, little pillow that had been found in a dumpster somewhere.
I took a swig from the nearly emptied bottle of liquor we’d been sharing, and soon I too was asleep: asleep among the raccoons, opossums, owls and skunks that ruled the night. I had in the back of my mind the ever-present fear that we would be found by a park ranger.
I awoke at first light and shivered in the frigid wind. My belly told me that I needed to go and find food. I checked on Sal to make sure he was okay. He mumbled a few words in his sleep and adjusted his position on the hard ground that was hardly softened by his worn-out sleeping bag.
I draped my blanket on top of him and walked to a spot ten meters away that we had designated for urinating. In the distance I could hear the traffic speeding on the interstate freeway. We were out in the middle of nowhere, and it would be very hard to find any kind of food. We had fled town when cops there had repeatedly bullied and attacked us. In this spot we would probably be left alone, but where was the food going to come from?
The nearest town was a six-mile walk, but I would have to go there. Attempting to kill some animal and cook it for food wasn’t a practicable idea — we had no weapons for hunting or facilities for processing meat.
I reached town after a two-hour walk. I had left a note for Sal not to worry and saying I was coming back with food. The first thing I saw was a Wendy’s. My wallet had ID but was devoid of cash. I approached a large man who was just leaving the restaurant with a giant bag of hamburgers.
“Please sir, if you could spare a dollar…” I begged. The man looked at me with disgust and continued on his way. I asked another, and finally scored enough to buy two hamburgers. I bought my food and started on the way back so that I could give Sal some breakfast. At least I hadn’t had to resort to digging in the trash can for someone’s discarded scraps.
Suddenly, an instinct told me I ought to look over my shoulder. I caught a glimpse of an approaching patrol car at a distance, and I hoped he hadn’t spotted me. I broke into a run and located some shrubbery to hide behind.
It had been a shock to become homeless. I had come from a good family and had been classically educated. And then everything fell apart when I was accused of something I didn’t do. In my trial, I was acquitted, but everyone in my small town was convinced of my guilt. And then, my family turned their backs on me.
When I began to pack up and move, a number of things had gone wrong at once. A criminal had gotten my account numbers and had emptied all of my bank accounts. I tried to go to the police and they wouldn’t raise a finger to help. My bank did not acknowledge that it wasn’t I who had taken the money.
With no money and no means of support, survival was suddenly something I couldn’t take for granted. I resorted to begging by the side of the road. The knot in my stomach and the consciousness of doom weighed heavily upon me, and I felt like it was the end of the world. And it was, as far as I was concerned.
I got back to the encampment and saw that Sal was attempting to start a campfire. With no lighter fluid and no matches, starting a fire would be an impossible feat, unless you had the survival ability of a Neanderthal or an elite soldier.
Sal had done certain things correctly, such as isolating the fire area with rocks. He was trying to get some tiny sticks lit up, and this might have worked had there not been a strong cold wind.
I handed Sal one of the two hamburgers, and we both feasted on the food for a few minutes. The burger barely made a dent in my hunger, as I had barely eaten in the preceding week.
And then, Sal asked me, “What next?”
I replied that I did not know.
Another cold night was approaching. Sal and I had to share a sleeping bag to fend off some of the cold. I could hear coyotes howling in the distance, and the rustling of some nighttime creature nearby. I looked up and I saw the Milky Way.
I wondered if there were homeless people like me and Sal on planets that circled those stars. At that moment, I wished that I could will myself to go to some other planet, one that had kinder people living on it and where there was always enough to eat. Abruptly I realized Sal was awake.
“I can take you there,” said Sal. “I am one of them.”
Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.