I started this story a while back, when I accepted an odd sort of a challenge. A friend of mine came up with three random things, and I had to incorporate them into a story. Also, there couldn't be any dead kittens. I originally came up with this one, but I realized pretty quick that there was no way I was going to meet the deadline, so I scrapped it and started a different one.
I finally decided to dust this one off and give it another try, and sure enough, it grew to an almost unmanageable size. Because I'm a helluva a guy, I broke it down into chapters with clickable links that may or may not work.
I heard the pebbles rattle against my window. Not one or two, but a handful. She was a lot of things, but subtle wasn’t one of them. I jumped from my bed and tiptoed to the window as quickly as possible. Another thing she wasn’t was a good aim, and I didn’t want her hitting my parents’ window, directly below mine.
I clicked the flashlight on and waved it around a bit so she’d know I was awake, and then I got dressed. As I left the room, I grabbed my backpack and a plastic bag full of toiletries, clothes, and books. I crept down the hallway and into the kitchen, and cringed as the refrigerator motor kicked on. I knew my parents were both heavy sleepers, but I always felt way exposed when I snuck out. Because if you get caught in the kitchen at two a.m., fully dressed and carrying a bag of clothes and sandwiches, there’s really no way to talk your way out of it.
I pulled out the bottom drawer, reached behind the wilting celery and the onion—which was sprouting despite the fact that it was sealed inside a plastic baggie—to the plastic grocery bag crammed at the back.
I didn’t always pack food for us, but I generally tried to, as it was impossible to tell when she last had a chance to eat food that wasn’t out of a trashcan.
Because I felt like living on the edge, I also filled up my Gatorade bottle with wine from the box my mom kept pushed back on the middle shelf.
Once I was out of the kitchen, I was pretty much home free—down the back hall and out the door.
I didn’t see her at first, and wondered if she had gotten tired of waiting, and ventured out into the night on her own.
“I thought you had gotten busted,” she said from the shadows behind the tool shed. “It took you a while.”
“I had to fix my hair just right so I’d be pretty for you.”
“Sorry, champ, I think being pretty is out of your range, no matter what you do with your hair.”
“Ouch, my feelings.”
“Yeah, yeah. So what’s with the bag?”
“It’s a bindle. I figured since you’re a hobo and all, you should have one.”
She cocked her head and rolled her eyes, unimpressed with my humor.
“It’s just some stuff. I don’t know if you can use it or not, but-”
“I don’t need your charity, Jones, I thought I made that clear.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. I sighed with frustration and prepared for battle.
“It isn’t charity if we’re friends, how many times do I have to explain this to you?”
“And how many times do I have to explain to you that yes it is?”
“If you’re gonna get all loud about things, we should go elsewhere.”
She didn’t say anything, just turned and stomped away. I suppressed my laughter and followed her.
“Why do you have to do this?” she asked when we were a couple blocks from my house.
“Okay, quit making it sound like I’m constantly trying to push stuff off on you. I bring food when we go out. It’s like a picnic, man. What’s so bad about that?”
She motioned with her chin at the bag I was carrying. “Sandwiches?”
“Don’t call me that.”
She inhaled deeply, then blew out the air. “Fine. Sorry.”
“We’re friends, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Don’t pull that ‘I guess,’ crap. Do you think we’re friends?” I didn’t need to ask. There was no denying that we were friends. From the day we met, we’d been friends. It was almost like it wasn’t our choice at all, but rather a cosmic decision that couldn’t be helped.
“Yeah, Jonesy, we’re friends.”
“You’re my best friend, Suze. Which means I care about you.” I was blushing, but I forced myself to continue. “I mean, I love you, you know? And it hurts me to see you…living like you do.”
“I want your pity even less than I want your bindle, or whatever you called it.”
“It’s not pity, you jerk. It’s concern. It’s love. Geez, how many times are you gonna make me say that word?”
“Tell me one more time and I’ll take your stupid bag.”
“I love you,” I said.
It was supposed to come out much more playful, much less serious. Instead, it sounded monumental. And I was suddenly uncomfortable.
“You know what?” I said. “Forget it. I’m sure I can trade this stuff for some crack or something.”
She reached over and took my hand. I looked up at her and there were tears in her eyes. “Thanks, Jonesy. I mean, not for the stuff, but for…”
“Shut up. And take this stupid bindle—I’m tired of carrying it.”
We weren’t lovers, so don’t get that idea. We were best friends. We were the same person split in two, completely opposite, but completely the same.
It’s hard to be best friends with a member of the opposite sex, especially when you’re a teenage boy who is suddenly wondering what pretty much every female in the world looks like under her clothes.
But Suzie and I, we walked that line. Because what we had, it was more important than getting her tongue in my mouth or my hand in her pants. I’d be lying if I said I never had wet dreams about it, but heck, I was 17—I had wet dreams about pretty much everything.
The fact that I met her at all is pretty amazing. But all things in life are pretty amazing, when you get right down to it. I have forgotten most of the lessons I learned that summer, but that’s one I still remember.
Have you ever been standing in line at the grocery store, and you glance up just in time to see a baby smile? Or the cashier drop a thing of eggs? Or a guy scratch his nuts?
Because that is amazing.
Maybe it just seems stupid at first, but when you think about how much preparation went into making that moment, it’s pretty mind-blowing. Not just that you glanced up at that moment, but that you stopped shopping when you did, deciding that you didn’t need frozen fish sticks; or maybe deciding that you did need frozen fish sticks. Stopping to check a price, or read nutritional information. Waking up that morning, after hitting the snooze button. Going to bed when you did last night so that you’d wake up like you did that morning.
It seems stupid—something that a pothead would think up, maybe. But every moment you live is a moment that has taken a lifetime of preparation. More than a single lifetime, actually, but I’m not going to get into it. Either you understand my point, or you don’t.
I saw her and the world snapped. I couldn’t turn away, and I stepped on a dog. One of those little bitty dogs, I don’t even know what kind. I yelped and the dog yelped and the owner freaked out, squealing about how her baby was going to need therapy.
“The baby loves the dog that much?” I asked.
“When she says baby,” a voice said from behind me, “She means the dog.”
I turned around and looked at the homeless girl. “The dog? I don’t…what?”
“The dog is her baby.”
“So she’s telling me that the dog needs therapy?”
The woman was still screaming and wailing and crying, but she was background noise.
“Yeah,” the homeless girl told me.
“Well that’s stupid.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Not really, no.”
“Your sign says you are.”
She glanced down at the piece of cardboard in her hand. It read, “Hungry. Anything helps.”
“Ah,” she said. “So I guess I am hungry.”
“I was about to go to McDonalds for a Sausage McMuffin. You want to come?”
She scoffed. “Look, man, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but I actually found this on the ground and was planning on making a chess board out of it.” She flipped the cardboard over, and sure enough, there was a grid drawn with the appropriate squares filled in with marker scribble.
“I love chess,” I told her.
“I don’t want your charity.”
“Don’t be an idiot—nobody passes up a Sausage McMuffin.”
She reached out, grabbed my hand, and looked at my watch. “They stop serving in eight minutes.”
“Then we should get a move on.”
She smiled. “Race ya.”
And then she was running, and I was running after her, and the woman was still carrying on about her baby, because people with dogs are morons.
Although we made it in record time, the jerkholes at McDonalds had stopped serving breakfast five minutes early, so we had to get cheeseburgers and McNuggets. Frankly, I feel like the moment that our friendship solidified would have been even more beautiful if it could have happened over delicious breakfast sandwiches, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get.
We ate our junk food and discussed what she was going to use as chess pieces. She had been molding scraps of aluminum foil into pieces, but it was crap she had pulled out of the trash, and most of it was crudded up with food. Or worse.
“Nobody’s gonna want to play with you if you’re using skanky pieces.”
“Honestly, I don’t want anyone to play with me. I figure I can sit there in the park, playing a game of chess all by myself, and when people get close enough, I’ll let a tear slide out or something, and I’ll be like, ‘I miss you, Dad.’ That’s gotta be good for at least a dollar, right?”
“It certainly tugs the heartstrings.”
“But it also seems a little overboard. I mean, you’re like the Bond villain of homeless people.”
“Please don’t call me homeless, Bert—the world is my home. I prefer the term, ‘hobo.’”
“Yes. It sounds cooler.”
“Ah. Well don’t call me Bert, then. I go by my last name, mostly. And back to the point—you’re like the Bond villain of hobos, then. Like all kinds of thought and preparation, when you could get the same result by being direct and to the point. Like why didn’t any of those villains just shoot James Bond in the face?”
“So you’re suggesting instead of a chess board ploy, I just shoot people in the face? Because that’s not very good advice.”
“I’m not saying shoot people in the face, I’m just saying-”
“What if I have a gun, and they’re going to rape me and then blow up the world?”
“Is this is a situation you find yourself in often?”
“Not so far, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.”
“Okay, in that case, I suggest you shoot them.”
“In the face?”
“I don’t know about in the face. Maybe in the leg?”
“They’re trying to blow up the world, Jones! Geez!”
“And rape you.”
“Yes, and rape me.”
“Probably shoot them in the face, then.”
“Okay. I’m glad we got that settled.”
“Me too,” I told her, but I was actually a little confused about what to do with the conversation next.
She looked down at her piece of cardboard. “You’re probably right about the chessboard thing. You see a trashcan? I should throw this away.”
“You should sell it.”
“Why not? There’s some tourists over there, I bet you could get five bucks for it—a real-life sign from a real-life homeless person. If you can’t get at least five bucks for it, you’re no hobo at all.”
“You make a fine point.”
She walked over to the group of tourists, chatted them up for a few minutes, and then traded her sign for a bill. She held it up and waved it at me as she approached me. “Ten dollas, baby! Who’s the hobo now?”
“I can’t hear you!”
“You are. You’re the hobo now.”
“Damn straight.” She brandished the ten dollar bill at me once more before tucking it away into her back pocket.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked her.
“Either buy a crack rock or some rotgut whiskey.”
“I’d go with the whiskey—you don’t see many hobos with crack.”
“I think once you make that transition to crack, you become a crackhead rather than a hobo.”
“Stands to reason. So the whiskey’s for sure the way to go.”
“Or—and this is crazy, but bear with me—I could get a new pair of socks and some stuff for peanut butter sandwiches.”
“Well, there is a Walgreens over there, but I don’t know. That isn’t exactly hobo behavior, is it?”
“Are you saying you’d rat me out?”
“Would you think less of me as a hobo?”
“No you’ll always be a hobo to me.”
“Okay. I think that’s what I’ll do, then.”
We walked to the drug store together, and although the clerk looked at Suzie suspiciously, he seemed to think that if I was with her, she was okay. Of course, we were still punk kids, so he watched us close all the same.
Suzie gathered a couple loaves of bread and a jar of peanut butter. She searched through the bin of seasonal socks until she found a pair she liked—baby ducks and bunnies, as it was just after Easter—and then she went to the aisle with first aid stuff. She got a little bottle of hand sanitizer and a tube of Neosporin.
“You can get into a lot of funky shit when you’re rummaging through trashcans,” she explained. “You get cut while you’re doing it, you gotta be careful. That stuff gets infected, you can wind up with gangrene. Not pretty.”
And that’s when it really hit me. This girl wasn’t playing around. Despite that we had been joking about it for most of the afternoon, she was homeless. She dug her food out of trashcans, and she worried about stuff like gangrene. I felt tears fill my eyes, and I turned around quickly and pretended to inspect pantyhose.
“You plannin’ on robbing a bank, or what?” Suzie asked.
I laughed and shook my head. As I did, I reached up and subtly wiped my eyes. “I always wonder where they come up with these colors. I mean, you’ve got your tan here, your dark brown, and I get stuff like that. But then you have this weird orange color. Who wants their legs to be this color? It’s weird.”
“Sorry, champ, not my forte.”
I stood up and followed her to the counter. The clerk rang up her items and the total came out to seven thirty-six.
“Whoo-hoo!” Suzie cried. “I might still have enough left over for a crack rock!”
The clerk gaped. “She’s from Canada,” I said, as if it explained everything. The clerk nodded wisely and then counted back Suzie’s change.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked as we left the store.
“You just did.”
“Touché. I meant something else.”
“I know what you meant, Jonesy. And the answer to your question is because there were no other options.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask.”
“Yes I do. You were going to ask how I ended up on the streets. You were going to ask why I live like this. And the answer is because there were no other options.”
“Seems like there would always be other options.”
She shrugged. “Yep, seems like.”
“Not the case?”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Not at all. And I’d appreciate it if you’d let this topic die a quick death.”
“Is it me, or has the quality of those white powdered donuts really gone downhill over the past few years?”
“Dude! I know! They used to be so delicious, and now it’s like compacted sawdust covered in slightly sweetened flour. What’s going on with that?”
“I think there’s this organization, right? This top secret organization, and their agenda is to make us healthy by making all junk food taste like shit.”
“How would you explain McMuffins, then?”
“Well, there’s always two sides of a coin, right? So there’s also an organization that wants food to taste delicious.”
“So which one would be the evil organization?”
“Well, probably the people who want us healthy.”
“But aren’t they trying to save us?”
“Yes,” I explained, “But at the cost of our freedom of choice. I mean, yeah, we’ll be healthy, but we don’t get any say in the matter. And when you begin taking away our choices—even choices to make bad decisions—you’re limiting us as a people.”
She thought it over. “On the other hand, fat people aren’t nearly as fun to look at.”
“You make a valid point.” I glanced at my watch. “Shit. Listen, I have to go home.”
“Okay,” she said.
I stood there, looking at her. Wondering what I would say next. I didn’t want her out of my life, that was the thing. I also didn’t want to sound all creepy by explaining how important she had become to me in a single afternoon.
“So are you going to teleport?”
“Well, you said you had to go, yet you’re just standing there. So I’m assuming you’re waiting to be beamed up or something?”
“Not exactly. I was wondering if I’ll see you again.”
“You might. The world’s a funny place.”
“Is there any way to increase the odds that I’ll see you again?”
“Wow, Jones. How desperate are you when you have to try to pick up a hobo?”
“No, it isn’t like that.”
“What, I’m not good enough to date?” The side of her mouth twitched and I realized she was screwing with me.
I rolled my eyes. “Well, you’re pretty enough, but your attitude sucks. Plus, your taste in socks is terrible.”
“You think I’m pretty?”
“Don’t get excited—I have horrible taste in women. Plus low standards. And I’m legally blind.”
“Seriously, though—can we hang out again sometime?”
She shrugged, and looked a little sad. “I move around a lot, you know? You kind of have to when you’re a young girl on the streets. You stay in one place long enough, the street trash decides to pay a visit, and they aren’t nearly as polite as you are.”
She shrugged again. “It’s just the way things go. If you really want to hang out again, you can find me in Johnson Park this weekend. They’re having a concert, which means there will be people passing out free water and maybe some promotional snacks. It’s indie rock, so the vendors won’t be able to tell me apart from the real concert goers.”
“So Johnson Park. Anywhere in particular?”
“I like it by the fountain.”
“All right. I’ll see you then, hopefully.”
“Dare to dream.”
I thought about giving her a few bucks before I left, but something inside of me said that would be a bad idea. So I just gave her a goofy wave and made my way to the bus stop.
“So where are we going?” I asked her.
“You’ll find out when we get there,” she said, rummaging through the plastic bag as we walked. “This is a pretty crappy bindle, Jonesy.”
“Wow. Is there any way you could more fully encompass the phrase about how beggars can’t be choosers?”
“Suck it. Aren’t bindles made out of cloth? And don’t I even get a stick?”
“It’s a modern-day bindle. Recyclable plastic instead of cloth. If it starts raining, your stuff won’t get wet. And I was going to get you a broomstick out of the tool shed, but you started pissing and moaning as soon as I saw you. So you have no one to blame for your sad little bindle except yourself.”
“Yep. So where are we going?”
“Relax. You’ll find out when we get there. Hey, are these cheese crackers? I love these!”
I found her, obviously. At the fountain, just like she'd said. I worried about it all week, and I dreamed about her, and I obsessed like only a teenage boy can. At that point, I didn’t realize what our relationship was, how important it was. I thought she was a hot girl that I could save. A damsel in distress, and I was her knight in shining armor.
She was there on the lip of the fountain, and even though she was wearing the same grimy pair of jeans and the same stained Army surplus shirt, she looked like a princess to me. She spotted me as I approached and she laughed and she shook her head just a bit.
I didn’t understand her reaction, and for a moment, I thought she was being malicious. But there was happiness in her laugh and in her face, and even in her posture as she shook her head. She hopped down from the edge of the fountain and met me.
“Hi,” I said.
“The music sucks, and the hipsters are driving me mad,” she said. “We should exit stage left or whatever.”
“But I barely got to see any horn-rimmed glasses.”
“Maybe next time, dear.”
I followed her out of the park and down a side street, and the roaring murmur of the crowd and the high-pitched screech of the guitar faded. The beat of the bass followed us, a reminder of things we could not escape.
“Ew,” I said.
“I just had a poetic thought.”
She laughed. “Do tell.”
“‘The beat of the bass followed us, a reminder of things we could not escape.’”
She laughed again, and it made my toes tingle, I shit you not. And you know what I thought? I thought Her laughter is what rainbows feel like when they fall on you. I didn’t tell her that, though, because she and I made fun of things like that, and I didn’t want to make fun of that one. Her laughter was clean and colorful and brilliant and full of life.
“Well, you’re right about the things we can’t escape. I’d say shit instead of things, though.”
“Of course you would. That’s because you’re a savage.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“You eat yet?” I asked. I realized the error of my choice of words as they dropped from my mouth.
Her mood changed immediately. Instead of light-hearted and joking, she was serious and almost angry.
“Don’t do that charity shit on me, Jones.”
I was blushing, and my embarrassment seemed palpable—to me, anyway. “Okay, wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“Just shut the hell up and wait. Wait for me to figure this out. So like, whatever I say, just shut up, okay? Stay quiet and let me blunder through this. When I’m done, you can tear me apart where you need to. But let me get through it.”
“I have friends. Not a lot of them, but enough. When we hang out, that’s the question that comes up: You eat yet? Because that’s a good thing to do when you have the ability to attain it, right? Plus, it’s an easy thing to do. Again, if you have the ability to attain it. You eat yet? You wanna see a movie? These are things you ask. These are the kinds of questions I’m used to asking. And if it offends you because of the ‘I don’t want your charity’ bullshit? Well…screw you, I guess. If I offer to buy a friend lunch, most of my friends won’t get angry. Most of them will say something like, ‘Okay, but I got it next time.’ Maybe they’ll have it next time, maybe they won’t. It doesn’t matter, because you’re friends, and if you buy a friend lunch, it’s no big thing. So we’re at a crossroads here. Either I can constantly watch what I say, in case you misconstrue it as an attempt at charity, or you can relax about it all and we can just be regular friends.”
She looked at me, thinking. Nodded. “I’m sorry, man. I shouldn’t have wigged. It’s just that…well, when I’m around you, I feel like a normal person. Not a homeless person, just a person. I just don’t want to be your pet charity case, is all.”
“What about sex slave?”
“Rats. If you won’t be my pet charity case or my sex slave, I guess we’re stuck being friends.”
She smiled. “Guess so.”
“Hey, I got you a present.”
“Gee whiz, Jonesy, it’s like you totally ignored the entire conversation we just got through having.”
“No, wait.” I opened my backpack and brought out a battered tin cup. “It’s a hobo cup.”
She took the cup from my hand and examined it. “Wow. This is strangely…nice.”
“I found it when I was a kid. Like nine or ten. There was this old jail a ways from my house, out in the middle of nowhere. They used it back in the thirties, until it burned down. I used to ride my bike out there and explore. I found that and brought it home. My mom let me use her silverware polish to clean it up, and it’s been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. It seemed like something you would need.”
“A hobo cup.”
“I do need a hobo cup, Jonesy. Thanks.”
“No sweat. So can we get something to eat, or what? I’m hungry.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Are you serious?” She asked.
“Dude, I love Arby’s.”
“That’s so gross. I don’t even think that stuff counts as real roast beef.”
“It’s twice as awesome as real roast beef.”
“And that cheese stuff? It look like glue.”
“Delicious glue. Come on, you can get like a turkey sandwich or something.”
“You realize that if you have to talk a hobo into going somewhere to eat, you probably shouldn’t eat there, right?”
“I realize that I need to start hanging with a better class of hobo.”
“Sweetie, they don’t get any better than me.”
“I see. Come on.”
“You have crumbs on your face,” I tell her. I touch my chin, just under my lips and a little to the left. “Here.”
She wipes the spot, and for a moment, we’re both touching our faces in exactly the same spot, and I feel like there’s something there, some weird lesson I should learn, or some moment I should cherish, but it passes, and I store the image away for later.
“Thanks, bud,” Suzie says. “I hate when I walk around with shit on me. And nobody mentions it, what’s with that?”
“I think it’s because they don’t want to embarrass you.”
“Yeah. Look, pretend we’re real people, okay?”
I scrunched up my face. “Pretending initiated…now.”
“You see me, in Target or whatever. I have something on my face.”
“Is it semen?”
“No, you pervert. It’s a crumb or whatever. Like just now.”
“This would be a much better story if it was semen.”
“You say this like it’s a new thing. Go on with the story.”
“Are you still imagining my face with semen on it?”
“Well stop it.”
“Absolutely not,” I tell her.
“Fine. Hey, give me some of those crackers.”
“Get outta town, man—those are in my bindle.”
“You don’t even like that bindle.”
She rolls her eyes and sighs. “Fine.” She counts out three crackers and hands them to me. “So I have something on my face—a crumb or something, not semen—and you see me. I look like an idiot with crumbs on my face. You don’t tell me because you think I’ll be embarrassed about it. But if you tell me about it, it’s a problem that can be fixed. If you don’t tell me about it, I go and talk to twenty other people, and I have this crumb on my face the entire time. So by trying to save me the embarrassment, you’ve actually made it to where I have so much more when I get home. Plus, I’m going to obsess about how long the crumb has been there. Since breakfast? Since lunch? How many people have seen me with food hanging off of my face?”
“Man,” I tell her, “What a huge asshole I am.”
“You really are.”
“All because I was trying to spare your feelings.”
“All because society is entirely too polite for its own good these days.”
“Well, you’ve opened my eyes. So I feel I should tell you—your clothes stink like sewage and you look like a homeless person.”
She feigns surprise. “But I just bought this outfit at Saks today.”
“Hobo sheik. Very ‘in’ these days.”
“Are you missing the point of the story?”
“I’m thinking it over, but with semen again. Seriously, if you decide to teach this lesson to someone else, you should use semen instead of cracker crumbs.”
“What is your obsession with semen on people’s faces?”
“Not everybody’s face—just yours.”
“Hey, I filled up that Gatorade bottle with wine—you got your hobo cup?”
So we became friends.
At first, I went downtown to see her, which meant only weekends. But one night she rode the bus out to my neck of the woods.
“You know, I wouldn’t mind exploring this area,” She said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Nah, it’d save me all kinds of bus fare—it could go to the Save The Hobo Foundation.”
Save The Hobo Foundation was…well, I don’t know what it was, really. Not quite a joke. An idea that was based on a joke. We had been in a convenience store one night, I got a hand full of change that I didn’t want to carry around, and passed it to her, stating that I wanted to donate to the Save The Hobo Foundation. She nodded, took the change, and tucked it away in one of her many pockets. Then she took out a notebook and wrote something down. “I’m the treasurer of that foundation,” she had said.
Any time I had extra change, I’d do the same thing—it was a way to get her to take money without getting pissed off. She’d write it in her book every time. I never asked her about it, and she never volunteered information.
“Seriously, man—I don’t want to be getting in your space. I know you have a life outside of hanging with a hobo.”
“Yeah, but it isn’t nearly as important as the hanging out with the hobo part.”
She smiled. “So you don’t mind?”
“If it was up to me, you’d move into my house. Enroll in school, suffer through real life with me.”
“Screw that. Tried real life once, and it was enough for me.”
We still hadn’t talked about what drove her to the streets. I figured she would volunteer the information when she was ready.
“Yeah, well, the offer’s there. Seriously. Until then, feel free to hang out in my ‘hood.”
“Thank you, Godfather.”
“You want to crash in my garage or something? Just for tonight, until you can look around?” She had explained to me that hanging in the city was much easier than in the ‘burbs—a homeless person in the city is expected, but when they start showing up in the outer neighborhoods, that’s when people call the cops. She had also told me several stories about her experiences with it. None of them were pleasant.
“Nah, it’s cool. I can find a park or something.”
“Stay away from the one on Oakwood. Cops hang out there to bust kids smoking pot, and they’d probably hassle you from the get-go.”
“Any more words of wisdom?”
“That 7-11 on Harrison, if you go in after midnight, the clerk’s stoned, so you could probably bum a free soda or two. Also, the dollar store throws all their old shit away on Wednesday night, so you can get all kinds of chips and candy from their Dumpster.”
“Damn, Jonesy, you’re pretty good at this hobo stuff.”
“See right there?” I pointed out the window. “There’s a creek down there, a bunch of little alcoves and stuff, you could probably crash there tonight without being disturbed.”
“What about mosquitoes?”
“Still too cool for them. You might get cold, too, though.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“Can I tell you something?”
“Not if you have to ask about it first.”
“I really wish you’d come home with me tonight,” I told her.
“I bet your parents would love that.”
“They’re always telling me I should help my fellow man.”
“I’m a girl, though.”
“Seriously, Suze. I’m not going to bug you about it, but if you want to…I don’t know. If you want a home and stuff…”
“Thanks, Jones. Really. But no. I can’t explain it to you—I would if I could—but I don’t trust homes anymore, you know?”
The bus pulled to a stop and I looked out the window. “Shit! This is us.”
“Dude—you’re civilized. Civilized people don’t get to use a hobo cup.”
“Are you serious? You wouldn’t even have that cup if it wasn’t for me.”
“Be that as it may, if you drank from it now, it’d kill you. You don’t have the immune system to withstand a drink from the hobo cup.”
I leaned over and licked her face. It didn’t taste good at all, and I grimaced. She flinched away and screamed.
“That’s disgusting!” She shrieked.
I continued to scrunch up my face. “Geez, it really was. You taste like a beef jerky that got peed on and trampled.”
“Yeah, a little of that, too. Do you ever wash your face?”
“I live on a park bench, you dick!”
“Still, you could wash up in a water fountain or something, couldn’t you? Gah!” I pulled the Gatorade from my bag. “Hand me the hobo cup, I need to wash the taste of you out of my mouth with cheap wine.”
“Did anyone ever tell you what a smooth talker you are?”
“They never will, either, because you’re a dick.”
“Yeah, yeah, hand me the hobo cup.”
She sighed and dug around in her ragged backpack until she found the cup. She also brought out a bottle of water and used it to rinse out the tin cup.
“Wow, you’re washing the dishes? I’m touched.”
“Shut up,” she growled. “I can’t believe you licked me.”
“Admittedly, not one of my better decisions. But I had to build up my immunity, right?”
“You’re probably going to be throwing up for the next week.” She handed me the cup and I sloshed wine into it.
“If I had known I was going to need to be killing germs, I would have brought something stronger than wine.”
“Why couldn’t we just drink it out of the Gatorade bottle?” She asked.
“That’s ridiculous. You don’t drink cheap wine out of a Gatorade bottle. You drink it out of a cheap plastic wine glass or a jelly glass or a hobo cup.”
She laughed and took a drink. “You’re an idiot, you know that, right?”
“I’ve heard rumors.”
She laughed again and took another drink, and then she wasn’t laughing. She was looking serious, and I knew that whatever she said next was going to suck.
I jumped to my feet. “Well, it’s been fun, but-”
But she was ready, too. We knew each other so well. I knew she was going to tell me something I didn’t want to hear, and she knew I’d try to run to get away from it.
She grabbed my arm and jerked me back down. I hit the ground with a solid thump, and pain shot up my tailbone.
“Shit, Suze, if you’re gonna rape me, you can at least be a little more gentle.”
She didn’t laugh at that, didn’t even smile. She looked me in the eyes, grabbing my chin when I tried to turn away and bringing my face back around.
“It’s time for me to go, Jonesy.”
Once we were neighbors, my life became much more interesting. Having her in my world made it better. Not just because I enjoyed her company, not just because had fun when we were together.
While I was at school all day, she was exploring my neighborhood. She wasn’t bound by social graces, and didn’t concern herself as to whether or not the land by the creek belonged to anyone—she just explored it. She wasn’t plagued by the rumors of a small town (because that’s really what the suburbs are, is just a small town growing on the edge of a big town), so she didn’t mind talking to the creepy guy at the bus stop or checking out the haunted house on the hill.
While I was learning algebra and grammar, she was learning about the place where I had grown up. And when I was released from school each day, my education began.
At first, I was a little worried—I didn’t want her to be discovered and banished—but then I was only amazed. She knew more about my world than I did, and she knew it much more intimately.
Sometimes, she’d be waiting for me after school—she’d call me out as I walked home from school, after making sure I was alone. Other times, she’d come to my window. Those nights were usually pre-arranged, and they weren’t nearly as common, because she didn’t want me to be too tired for school the next day.
I never knew what to expect, but I knew to expect her.
“Not funny.” I could think of anything else to say. Because it had to be a joke, even though I knew it wasn’t.
“Not supposed to be,” Suzie said. “I’m sorry, Jonesy.”
“Don’t be sorry, just knock it off. Just knock it the fuck off, Suze.”
She shook her head. Sad. Not smiling, not laughing, not telling me she sure got me that time. Serious.
“No,” I told her, and it sounded a lot like begging. Pleading. “No.”
I looked at the Gatorade bottle in my hand and felt foolish. Wine? Really? I had been planning a night of goofy fun, she had been planning a night of abandoning me.
I was suddenly enraged. I hurled the bottle out into the night, yanked my arm away from her, and stood up. “Fuck it, though, right? I mean, whatever. Had to happen sometime, didn’t it?”
She stood up, still looking sad. For some reason, that pissed me off. “I’m sorry, Jones.”
“Save your sorry, I don’t need it. And I don’t need you.”
“Well that’s a little dramatic, isn’t it?”
“Fuck you, Suzie. Really.”
With that, I stomped off into the night.
I’m not sure how Surprise Night started, but I’m positive it was her idea. Surprise Night was every Friday, and it was something I looked forward to all week. I’ve said that we knew each other eerily well, but she always managed to surprise me on Surprise Night.
My parents were pretty chill about letting me do what I wanted with my Saturdays—letting me waste the day playing video games or sleeping or working on my computer—so as long as I was back before they woke up, I could do whatever I wanted with my Friday nights. I guess I should clarify—as long as they never knew I was sneaking out, I could do whatever I wanted.
Every Friday night, I would wait in my bed for the pebbles to pepper my window, and then I’d creep down to find out what was in store for me.
I don’t know exactly when Surprise Night started, but I know when it cemented itself as a ritual.
She was waiting for me in the usual spot in the shadows behind the shed. But instead of walking around the corner of the house like we usually did, she led me back into the brush behind my house.
It wasn’t exactly a forest behind my house, but it was a heavily-wooded area, and although I had explored all of it when I was a kid, I hadn’t ventured back there much since puberty. Couple of secluded spots where I could take girls or go to drink a couple beers that I swiped from the fridge, but aside from that, I didn’t have much interest in the woods.
But that’s where she was leading me.
“Dude, are you finally gonna take me out and have your way with me?” I asked.
“Yep. But having my way with you isn’t anything like you’re wishing, so expel those thoughts, you filthy pervert.”
“Expel, or save for later, when I’m having a little alone time?”
“Masturbation jokes? Really? We’re already at that point in this friendship?”
“Although I do consider you a friend, I should tell you that it doesn’t take much of a relationship for me to start making masturbation jokes.”
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“I’m not gonna tell you that. It’s Surprise Night.”
“According to the rules of Surprise Night, if I guess what we’re doing within the first two minutes, you have to have sex with me.”
“I know the rules, Jonesy.”
“I just wanted to remind you. Because if you’re declaring Surprise Night, I’m going to start guessing.”
“I’m declaring. And you’ll never guess.”
She stopped walking and turned to me. “No. But it’s incredible how close you got with that guess.”
“Really? That was my idiot guess.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t get much better than idiot level, apparently.” She started walking again.
“So…sailing.” It was tricky, because we were in the middle of the woods, and it’s difficult to figure out how sailing can be close to anything you can do in the woods. “Kites?”
“Are we going to fly kites?”
“I’ve been sewing in Home Ec., did I tell you that?”
“Really? What are you making?”
“Right now, a pair of shorts. I don’t think they’re going to fit, though. Also, I think I might have accidentally swapped the fly and the right pocket.”
“So the right pocket is in your crotch and your zipper is over where the right pocket should be?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Shit, Jonesy, that’s genius.”
“Shut up. Next project, I’m making something for you, so beware.”
“What, like a bra with zippers where my nipples go?”
“I just got a little hard right now thinking about that.”
“Please don’t make my boner feel ashamed. What happens later in life, Suze? When every time I try to get an erection, for perfectly respectable, reproductive reasons, I can’t because of the shame you’ve instilled.”
“I should get a Nobel Peace Prize for killing your hard-on when you’re trying to reproduce.”
“Wow, you’re a bitch.”
“And you’re a walking hard-on.”
“Speaking of walking, are we going to the dump?”
“I’m not answering that question.”
“So we are. But what does that have to do with sailing? Are we going garbage sailing? Is this some weird hobo thing?”
“No, but it should be. I bet it was, back before you had all the syringes and leaking batteries in the landfills.”
“Probably the hoboes gathered atop mountainous piles of garbage and boated down, collecting broken toys and discarded pornography as they made their way to the bottom.”
“That would be amazing.”
“So are we doing that?” I asked.
“Sadly, no. Also, your two minutes are up.”
“So what are we doing?”
“Not telling,” She said, ducking through a hole in the chain-link fence. I followed her into the junkyard.
“Don’t you have to tell?”
“Nope. That would ruin the surprise.”
“The question is, what makes for a ruined surprise? Because all surprises must end, correct?”
“Correct. But when they end before they’re supposed to, that’s what ruins them.”
“And how does one know?”
“One must know about surprises,” She said. “Obviously.”
“Obviously. And obviously, I don’t.”
“Obviously. Help me grab this.” She pointed down to a busted-ass kayak.
“This is like sailing?”
“This is Surprise Night,” Suzie said, bending down for her end of the kayak. “So grab that shit and get ready for your surprise.”
I grabbed my end of the kayak and she led us out of the junk yard.
“I hate to burst your bubble, but there’s no way this thing is going to float.”
“It’s not supposed to float,” she said. She was looking up at the sky as we walked. “We need to get a move on.”
I looked up, trying to figure out why we were suddenly in such a hurry. All I saw were rain clouds. “If you’re trying to beat the rain, this better be a short Surprise Night.”
“You talk a lot.”
“I try to use it to disguise my insecurities.”
She laughed. “You idiot.”
“Are you gonna tell me what we’re doing, or what?”
“Just keep walking.”
I kept walking, and felt the first tiny drops of rain patter against my face. We filled each other in on our days as we walked, and I realized how much I had come to rely on her as a friend. She asked about the chemistry test I had been studying for, and suggested a book for my next Literature report. I asked her about the cop who had been hanging out by the creek for the last couple of days.
It struck me how different our lives were. Some days, it seemed like we were just a couple of kids, enjoying the freedoms that come with youth. Other times, it seemed like we were from completely different worlds. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to crawl up in the eaves of an overpass and go to sleep. Or to dig through trash for food.
I tried to make her life as easy as I could—as easy as she would let me, anyway—by bringing her food so she didn’t have to dig through trash nearly as often, and sometimes taking her clothes home to wash. Stuff like that, whatever I could get away with and not piss her off.
“Here we are,” she said.
I looked around. “We aren’t anywhere.” Everything around us was bare. To one side was nothing but unkempt brush. On the other side, there was a sharp drop from the road. The road in front of us—clearly marked with a faded “No Trespassing” sign—wound down to an abandoned construction site. There were piles of dirt everywhere and the ground had been scalped of grass. There were a few stacks of rock chunks, and a bundle of steel rods at the far end of the site.
“Of course we are.” She put her end of kayak down and walked over to a pile of rubbish. She picked out two lengths of PVC pipe and brought them over.
“What are those for?”
“You’ll see.” Once again, she looked up at the sky.
“Hey,” I said,” I just noticed that you don’t have your pack.”
“I stashed it over by your place.”
“It’s too bulky for tonight’s adventures. Plus, it’s supposed to rain. I don’t want all my gear to get wet.”
There was a rumbling of thunder, a quick bolt of lightning splitting the sky, and then the rain began to fall. It wasn’t a gentle shower—it was like that bolt of lightning had been a crack under Heaven’s ocean. The water fell hard and heavy, and within seconds, we were completely soaked.
Suzie faced the sky, screaming and laughing, her arms spread as if she were trying to hug the world.
“Yeah, baby!” She screamed. “How awesome is this?”
I laughed. “You did this for Surprise Night?”
“Of course I did. To show you how special you are.”
“I’m touched,” I said, rolling my eyes sarcastically. But I really was touched, in some weird way. That she would share this moment of obvious joy with me made me feel special. Made me feel loved.
“And now the real fun begins,” She said.
I looked around, still trying to figure out the surprise. Suzie angled the kayak so the front was facing over the side of the road—to the steep drop-off above the construction site.
“Dude,” I said. “No. No way.”
“That’s like straight down, Suze!”
“We’ll kill ourselves.”
“No, we’ll steer this busted-ass kayak down this slope, and we’ll have the time of our lives.”
“If the front hangs up on anything, we’ll flip. We’ll flip and we’ll break our necks.”
“Look at it, Jonesy—the rain’s making all this mud and clay super slippery. We aren’t gonna catch on everything. Now get in.”
“I don’t even know how to kayak.”
“I doubt that knowledge would really help you in this situation. These things were made for the water, you see.”
“Yes, I know that, you jackass! That’s my point!”
“Is it, Jonesy? Is it your point? Because I think you’re just scared.”
“Of course I’m scared! Anyone in their right mind would be scared right now.”
She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. “Then we’re both immune. Now get in the boat.”
I shook my head in resignation and climbed into the back of the kayak. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to fit my legs inside—there didn’t seem to be any room at all—until I saw Suzie curl her legs beneath her. I did the same, trying not to think about how we were certainly going to die.
She leaned over and picked up the two sections of pipe she had brought over earlier. She handed one back to me. “Use this to steer.”
“Are you serious? There’s no way we’re going to be able to steer this thing.”
“Well, the pipes will at least give us the illusion of control.”
“Yes, you are. When I say, three, shove off.”
“This is insane.”
“Seriously, you don’t even have medical insurance.”
“I’m gonna die. I’m gonna fuckin’ die here.”
And despite myself, I shoved off. We teetered on the edge of the world for a split second, and then the front of the kayak dipped, and we were falling. I screamed with fear and excitement and pleasure, and scraped the ground uselessly with my PVC pipe, and I laughed and screamed some more.
Suzie howled like a wolf, and there was laughter mixed in with her howling. She didn’t even try to steer—just held her pipe above her head in triumph, shaking it in time with her howls.
That first ride was the best—it felt like it was eternal, and for that eternity, I thought of nothing but the moment. I didn’t worry about school or grades or my parents or what my peers thought of me. All the stupid things about life were expelled with my screams and washed away in the rain.
There was only this. Life, real life, and my best friend in the world.
Our arrival at the bottom was not a graceful one. The front of the kayak caught in a sinkhole and was jolted sideways. We tipped, sliding on our sides through the mud, choking and laughing as we went.
When we finally slid to a stop, I pulled myself out of the kayak and crawled to her. I tried to ask her if she was okay, but between the laughter and the inability to suck in any breath, I couldn't.
I pulled her out of the kayak and she threw her arms around me. She was still laughing too hard to talk, so we just sat like that: hunched in a mud puddle the color of chocolate milk, both of us laughing like lunatics, our arms wrapped around each other.
“That was awesome,” I said, when I could finally speak. By this time, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and we were both on our backs, soaked to the bone and staring up at the dripping sky.
“Damn right it was.”
“You are the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.”
The hint of a smile faded from her face, and she turned her head to look at me. “That’s not something you should say lightly. You have so many great things in your life.”
I thought about it—not because I had to, but because I wanted to be sure. “Yeah, I do. I have a lot of great things in my life. But the best is you.”
“Gee whiz, Jonesy, you’re gonna make go all soft here.”
I sat up and looked down at her. “You’re my best friend, Suze. You’ve shown me things in the world that I never would have imagined. You’ve taught me to see life in a different way. Because of you, I am a better person, a wiser man. And for those reasons alone, you are the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. I love you, buddy.”
She sat up and hugged me. “I love you, too. You don’t get a speech about it, though.”
“A blowjob will do.”
She laughed. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”
“But I softened you up. I said sweet things.”
“Yeah, but you screwed up—you meant them. Only sweet things muttered in faux honesty will get you blowjobs.”
“I gotta start writing this stuff down.”
“Hey, you wanna go again?”
“Shit yes I do.”
I didn’t go very far. As angry as I was, as hurt as I was, I didn’t dare get far enough away for her to vanish without me.
It wasn’t a game I was playing, it was just that I couldn’t stand to let it end that way. I stopped walking and began kicking a trashcan. That seemed stupid though, so I stopped doing it. I sat down on a bench and stared up at the moon. I heard her approaching footsteps, and I waited.
Surprise Night, and she sure surprised the shit out of me. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
She walked out of the shadows onto the park trail, and approached me slowly.
“You okay?” She asked.
“Nope. Sorry about that. That ‘fuck you’ stuff.”
“The thing is, I do need you. I mean, do you understand that? I said I didn’t but I do, and I feel like it’s important that you know that. You say you have to go, and I don’t understand that. And if I beg you to stay, you’ll probably tell me that if I love you, if I really love you, I’ll understand why you need to go. And I do really love you, and I still don’t.”
“You watch too many movies, Jonesy. I know you love me. And I love you, too. The thing is, even though we both love each other, it’s time for me to move on. You told me once that I was the greatest thing that ever happened to you. The feeling is mutual, and it’s important that you know this. I mean, leaving? It’s killing me, man.”
“I have to, buddy. I mean, I have to. If there was another way, I’d take it. Believe me, I would.”
“I’m a young man in my formative years. You realize that if you leave, you’re fucking me up for life, right?”
She laughed. “Come on, big guy—you would’ve turned out all messed up even if you had never met me.”
“Please don’t go. Please.”
She closed her eyes and tears leaked out. And then she did that lip-bite thing that girls do sometimes when they’re trying not to cry. She took a breath through her nose and let it out in a quiet, bitter chuckle. “I’m sorry, Jonesy. I have to.”
“Motherfucker that hurts.”
“Geez, Suzie. You trying to kill me?”
“Nope. Don’t ever think that. If there was a way for me to stay, I would. For you, sure, but even more selfishly, for me. I love being around you. You’re my best friend. If I didn’t absolutely have to go, I wouldn’t.”
“Is this anything we could figure out together?”
“If it was, I would have asked for your help. This is the only way.”
I wiped my eyes. “Man, this sucks. But okay. So…what now?”
“Now, you walk me to the ferry, and I get on, and you stand there at the dock and you watch until you can’t see the lights anymore, and-”
And that’s when she broke down. My tough little hobo, sobbing and stuttering, and there was no nobility about it, no staging—only pure emotion, and my heart broke for her.
I held her and told her it would be okay, but that was such a stupid lie.
When she calmed down some, I walked her to the ferry, both of us trying to be strong, but both of us on the edge of failing.
I tried to talk, but everything I had to say seemed stupid, so I just listened to our footfalls on the wooden planks of the boardwalk.
“Look at that,” she said, pointing.
“Full moon,” I said. The moon hung just above the water, so big that it looked like a special effect in a romance movie.
“I was talking about the water. Red tide, it’s called.”
“My biology teacher mentioned it. It’s what? Algae? Makes the water taste like shit for a couple weeks, I know that.”
“Look at it.”
Because it was her telling me to look, I looked.
The water was black marble veined with red, all of it moving, shifting.
“It’s beautiful,” I told her, “And I’ll always hate it.”
She laughed a little laugh. “Maybe not always.”
“I’ll associate it with the night I lost you.”
“Don’t do that.”
“It’s a shame. Because it really is beautiful.”
“Maybe I’ll come out here and drink sometimes, and think about you, and cry over memories.”
“Good to have a plan.”
“You have one?”
“Nope. Just keep movin’. When it’s safe, I’ll come back here, I’ll put a letter right over there—that dock. I’ll put it in a Dr. Pepper bottle. So you keep checkin’ it, okay? Once a year, on this night.”
We didn’t talk much after that. We were almost there, for one thing. For another thing, I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t summon more tears. I walked her to the turnstile, and just before she walked through, she turned to me, tears washing trails through her hobo-dirty face.
“Thanks for being my friend,” She said.
“I’m going to miss you so much.”
“I know. I’ll miss you, too.”
“Wait. I just remembered.”
I reached into my backpack and pulled out a package wrapped in brown paper. “It was supposed to be a surprise. It’s a new bag. I made it in Home Ec. The middle pocket has plastic lining, so you can put stuff in there to keep it dry. The outer pocket is big enough so you can get a book in there—you bitch way too much about not being able to have an easily-accessible pocket for books in your backpack. The rest is just a backpack. Bindle. Whatever.”
She laughed a laugh corroded with tears.
“Thank you. Thank you, Jonesy. For everything.”
“Thank you for everything, too.”
She kissed me on the cheek and then turned. She rushed away, and I wanted to chase her, but I fought the urge. Instead, I walked to the upper deck, where I could watch the ferry float away. I wished I had brought my flashlight, so I could wave it in the familiar manner and let her know that I would be there until she was out of sight.
I watched until the lights of the ferry could no longer be seen, and then I turned back to the beach.
I walked to the dock she had pointed out earlier, and used the light of the full moon to search for a Dr. Pepper bottle.
It didn’t take long to find it.
Jonesy, the letter read, I know I said to come back and check, but don’t. Live your life, buddy. Asking you to come back isn’t a reasonable request—you know that as well as I do. Of course, I know you’ll be back, and something about that warms my heart. We know each other so well. I know you’ll be back, just like you knew I’d already have a note here. And just like I knew you’d come check.
I love you.
If there was any other way, I would have taken it. It’s important for me that you know that. I don’t want you to think that I’m abandoning you, okay? It’s just…I have to go. Can’t explain it now, but maybe someday.
I will always love you, and I will never forget you. I want to hear all kinds of wonderful stories about your life when we meet again.
I tucked the note into my pocket and walked home. There was no rain, although it felt like there should have been. There wasn’t even any fog. I wanted something from the world. Suzie and I had done so much to acknowledge it, we had paid so much attention to it, I felt that it owed us some kind of recognition.
A church bell tolled once, somewhere out in the night.
One in the morning, that’s what the bell was supposed to signify.
But for me, it meant so much more. One is the loneliest number, right? I began sobbing again, and didn’t stop until I was home, curled up in my blankets, asleep.
And that’s where the story should end. Because in real life, you grow up. You don’t go back and check for some stupid Dr. Pepper bottle in hopes that a girl—a girl you knew so long ago, a girl who probably died years ago—has left you a secret message.
But I never lost it. That little spark of childhood, of believable magic. And in the sixteen years that have passed since that night, I have never once missed an anniversary.
Every year I come to this beach, usually with a flask of whiskey hidden somewhere in my jacket, and a pack of cigarettes, even though I quit smoking years ago.
My wife knows the story, and finds the idea romantic, but I know she also thinks it’s a bit silly. But she loves me, and allows me my silliness.
I check for the Dr. Pepper bottle, and then I make my way to the upper deck, and I sneak drinks from my flask and I smoke my cigarettes. And at one in the morning, when I hear the bell toll, I make my way through the streets. My parents no longer live here, so instead of making my way home, I make my way to a motel, and fall asleep to the buzz of neon and the steady static of highway traffic.
But as you’ve probably figured out, tonight is different. Because tonight, there was a stupid Dr. Pepper bottle. I couldn’t believe it at first, and just stared at it, afraid to try to touch it, afraid that I would destroy the illusion.
But it was real. And the note tucked inside was real, too.
Hey, big guy, sorry it took so long. I’ll be waiting at the Golden Peach Diner. Their pie sucks, but the coffee will give you an extra set of balls. Hope to see you.
I tuck the note into my pocket, alongside the flask of bourbon, and begin walking to the Golden Peach Diner.