Ok, there you have it. This blog is public once again. You’re not allowed to read any of the things I previously posted when this blog was private by the way.
There’s so many things I’d like to write about from the past couple weeks, but I forgot all of them. So instead, here’s my unfinished short story about a homeless guy that I started writing a few months ago. I can’t be bothered to edit it. So if there are part in there that don’t make any sense, let me know and I’ll change them. Enjoy. Or don’t. It’s actually written to make you “un-joy.”
Long Short story:
A leaf sprouted from a tree in late winter. Or maybe it was early spring. The tree didn’t care, and neither did the leaf. The leaf was just happy to finally enter the world. It was an elm leaf, from an elm tree. Elms are hardy trees, able to grow on street sides and meridian parking lots, places that don’t typically exist in nature. Elms, possibly not by their own choice, thrived with the coming of human-dominated nature. Although, in the eye’s of elms, it could be the other way around with humans unknowingly doing the bidding of the elms. Watering, planting, fertilizing. None of this is important though.
The leaf got its first taste of photovoltaic energy early in its life and it liked it. Of course all the energy (or ingredients for energy) it produced were diverted throughout the tree and combined with water and minerals, so what the leaf tasted wasn’t solely a product of its own doing.
The leaf got to taste little of the sweet nectar that it felt it was producing, and at times it felt it wasn’t being awarded its fair share. But the leaf was content enough to work with the other leaves, roots, branches, and trunk for the overall well being of the community. It received protection and other benefits in return for its work. It was held high up above the ground away from deer (not that there were any where this particular tree was living, which was ironically on 3rd and Elm st. in a large city somewhere). The leaf could collect all the sun energy it could consume, but it couldn’t suck water or nitrogen from the soil. And sunlight alone was pretty worthless. The leaf didn’t fully realize this though. All in all, the leaf realized it needed the rest of the tree and pulled its own weight in payment.
By early summer, half way into the leaf’s life span, it had blossomed into a thick, wide, healthy frock of green cellulose. A fine looking leaf by anyone’s standard. Other leaves wanted to be it, and other branches wanted to be with it. It was the envy of the east side of the tree. It worked a heavy schedule of 15 hours a day, seven days a week and aspired to be everything it could be for the tree and for its community. Life was good. Not great. Not tremendously exciting, although a gray squirrel had brushed by it a few weeks ago. That had caused quite a stir among the neighboring leaves. But aside from the occasional squirrel, not much happened. Not many bad things happened either. A bug or two had taken a few tiny chomps a while back, and a bird took a shit on it at one point. But nothing too serious. The leaf could take a little splattered shit if it had to. It lived on. And it planned on living on for another half year to finish off its decent life.
But one day it got sick. That, or the tree became slightly dehydrated. Either way, the leaf became a hazard to keep around. Seeing it as a waste of water and recourses, the tree decided to cut off its ties with the leaf and within a few days, the petiole (the stem of the leaf) was hanging by one slender thread. The leaf had browned and decayed rapidly and hadn’t tasted water in days. Its dry mesophyll longed for just a sip. It did not get a sip. The tree was unrelenting and denied its former citizen one single drop. Instead, the tree turned a blind eye as a stiff wind finished off the deed and the leaf was blown to the ground, where it further dried and was crunched underfoot by a small, oblivious child. The tree lived on and it and the rest of the leaves immediately forgot about the leaf. In fact, they’d forgotten long before.
A man drove his black SUV along a not very quiet country road in the fall. He drove it at a rapid speed, at least compared with walking. The car slithered along with one hundred other cars all packed into a tight, single file line forming a dark, deadly snake of metal grinding away on cement. A line not un-similar to a single file line many people first learn about in kindergarten or preschool. In such a line there would be no cutting, not talking, no bumping into one another, no laughing, no deviation from the person in front of you. Obedience training necessary for life in a highly populated society. The line of cars abided by the double yellow lines and, despite an entire open lane to the left, they stayed to the right side of the road trailing bumper to bumper at 38 mph when they could be going much faster, since each car was capable of 100 mph or greater.
None of the cars noticed the bright colored trees they were passing. The reds, yellows, oranges, and even the purples and pinks, were missed by the drivers of the cars as well. It was morning. The drivers of the cars were still sleepy, and they were in a hurry to get somewhere.
The man in the black SUV—there were many men who looked like this man and there were many black SUVs that looked like this SUV, so more specifics are needed to identify him. The man in the black SUV named Carl Scheffer was not drinking coffee like some of the other drivers. He had already drank his coffee during breakfast after waking up. He’d possibly drink some more when he got to his office. Or maybe something from the vending machine. Anything to wake him up a bit more, but mainly something to do, something to occupy a little more of his time before he had to sit at his desk and begin work.
Carl’s job did not call for a super-human effort of brainwork, or physical labor. So therefore he needed some extra stimulation to keep his eyes open and staring at his computer screen, where he would start the day out by checking his email, checking facebook, checking up on whatever sports teams he followed at that time of year, checking up on a news website or two–mainly to keep up with office talk, and then he would spend another hour or so just wasting time on youtube or some other website. He didn’t work extremely hard. This isn’t to say he was lazy, though. Not by any means. He actually accomplished just as much as his average co-worker. Average might not seem like something to brag about, but Carl knew that most people were average, and being like most people wasn’t half bad.
Back to the commuting progress: the stream of fast ants, which the cars looked like from 1,000 ft up, made steady progress to the city on back roads, which eventually lead to a freeway clogged with an ant traffic jam, possibly caused by some cruel giant that had put a small stone in the ant’s path. This was not the case though.
Each ant had its own secret back route for getting from the suburbs to the city when traffic was especially bad. This was one of those mornings when the freeway was backed up beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Every morning was. On this specific morning, some idiot had crashed into some other idiot on the freeway and the left lane was shut. One person had died, the other was uninjured. Her SUV was larger than his.
Traffic was always bad. Carl was used to it. His blood pressure raised slightly every time he sat motionless in the long line, but he patiently waited it out until he reached his destination. So far, that had worked 100% of the time, since he had always arrived at his destination at some point. Wait long enough, and he’d be where he set out to be. It had never failed. If only he had been heading somewhere he wanted to go.
Half an hour later, Carl strolled into a medium-sized office building. He took the stairs, on recommendation from his doctor to get more exercise. Taking the stairs took precisely 39 seconds. 39 seconds of exercise a day was all that Carl got. This was 39 more seconds than half of his colleagues. The other half walked down the stairs as well, so they got more exercise than Carl. Carl was right in the middle once again.
Carl entered the office wearing a collared shirt and slacks, as mentioned before. His shirt was tucked in tightly, revealing a soft mid section accumulated from years of leading an average life. At 40 years of age, Carl still had half of his hair left, which he made no attempt to comb over. A comb over was in bad taste, according to Carl’s sense of style. He preferred to do nothing about his baldness. He was not bad looking, after all. Just, as you may have guessed, pretty normal looking.
As he walked through the large office flat to his desk, he gave little nods and hellos and good mornings with a little smile to the people he passed. He made his way to the coffee pot in the break room. He poured a hot cup, took a sip and, out of the corner of his eye, noticed a donation jar to some good cause in Africa to help out with some famin or something. He dropped a five dollar bill in. Carl wasn’t greedy. He liked the idea of helping people.
Now, seated comfortably at his desk, he chatted with his neighbor, Cynthia, who sat in the cubicle to Carl’s left. He took his time getting to work, checking his email and carrying out the small distractions on the Internet mentioned earlier. What Carl did for work isn’t important, neither to the story, nor to society. Not to say he toiled away the years doing a completely pointless task, but if his company didn’t exist, the world might still turn. The exact case for anyone’s job.
Seven hours later Carl left for home.
It was raining. The fall in the northern part of the northern hemisphere was cold and wet. Carl made a dash to the parking structure his car was parked in, a few rain droplets had gotten him, but in the process he had exercised an additional 13 seconds. His daily total was now up to… something greater than 39 seconds. The addition of 13 and 39 is unimportant and would take too long for the author to figure out. Once he was in the parking structure, he walked to his car. Millions of years of evolution had taught him to conserve energy whenever possible. For lunch, he had eaten a hamburger, potato chips, and soda. The total number of calories in his lunch was 1,270. It had cost $5.69 (0.448 cents per calorie). This was pocket change to Carl. He made more than this in 15 minutes. Hell, he made more than this in ten minutes, which was about the amount of time it took to eat the food. He wasn’t rich, but he did pull in over 100K a year, which was pretty good for not doing all that much. This was one area where Carl exceeded the national average by quite a bit.
The screech of tires on slick cement echoed throughout the parking structure as Carl’s black SUV lumbered down the grey, concrete parking structure. When he reached the exit, Carl did not notice that the sky was a similar dark grey, prematurely darkened by cloud cover. The rain came down harder. He sat at a red light, stepped on the accelerator and got the 4,500 pounds of metal up to 30 mph, then slammed on the brakes for the next stop light. The city traffic was slow right now since everyone thought they’d leave work just 20 minutes early to avoid the rush. Unfortunately, since most people thought exactly the same way, this great idea was too ordinary to be a success.
A homeless woman stood at the side of the road before the onramp to the freeway. She was holding a soggy cardboard sign asking for help. She looked old and weathered, wet from the rain, miserable from lack a lack of any important processions. For half a second, Carl imagined giving her a buck or two, since it was raining. He thought better of it, remembering a local news report stating that on average, these beggars made over $100 a day by sitting there with a sign, contributing nothing to society. She would probably waste it on boos anyways. He avoided eye contact as he waited for the onramp light to turn green. If anyone was going to waste money on boos with his hard earned money, it would be him.
The first thing Carl did when he got home was open the door and walk in. Duh. The second thing he did was greet his family. He had a wife and three kids. The third thing he did was grab a can of beer from the fridge.
Later, Carl’s kids and his wife sat down to dinner. Carl said a prayer. He was brought up as a Christian and it was something he thought was important to pass down to his children. The family grasped hands and bowed their heads as Carl rapidly spat out a prayer he had said 7,000 times before.
In one breath he let out, “Dear heavenly father, we thank you for this food that you have provided for us let it nourish our bodies and minds so that we may be strong and healthy and have the strength to do our best thank you for letting us be together under a sturdy roof and share this food as a family amen.”
“Amen,” the family lazily echoed.
The usual conversation took place after the prayer and throughout dinner. Carl took mild interest in his wife’s day and his children’s days at school. One of his children, Christie, who was eight years old, had gone on a class field trip to a local park. It was all very interesting stuff, but Carl’s mind frequently lapsed and wandered while his eight year-old excitedly told the story about finding a dead mouse carcass. It’s hard to say what was on Carl’s mind. Possibly the football game that he was going to watch later that evening. Probably not though, because Carl wasn’t really that interested in football. He just watched it because beer commercials and other advertisements told him to. He might have been thinking of work, but that was equally unlikely. Carl wasn’t one to obsess about work while he wasn’t at work. In fact, Carl rarely thought about work while he was at work. It was more likely that Carl’s senses were just turned to mute and his brain was on pause. It took quite a bit of stimulation to get a spark going sometimes. Especially when food was present. He nodded along politely while he ate, as his eight-year old made wild gestures and spilled food on the floor in her excitement. The dog ate the food off the ground, pleased that things had gone his way for once.
The kids ran around the house after dinner for an hour or two. Carl didn’t budge from the Xbox. He might have been 40 years old, but video games still entertained him just as well as they entertained his kids, who weren’t allowed to play the video games because they were too violent. His wife got the kids into bed at around 9 pm, at which point Carl turned on the DVR’d football game. He watched the second half of the game in mild boredom while his wife watched TV upstairs. They went to bed at 11 pm, and Monday was over.
The next day was the same. And so was the day after that. The following day though, Wednesday…was actually also the same. Thursday and Friday were identical. Saturday, Carl and his family met some friends and their kids and went to an indoor water park. Sunday was church day. His kids hated going to church because they felt like it was a waste of a perfectly good day. It was always an argument the night before when the kids were getting to bed. It was an argument they knew they’d lose, but they argued anyways.
The family woke at 6 am and was uncomfortably seated in church at 7:30, wearing their best attire to sit and listen to the pries read stories to them for two hours while they forced their sleepy eyes to remain open. Carl fell asleep for 15 minutes accidentally, but no one noticed. They were all too busy trying to keep their eyes open as well.
After church, Carl and his wife talked to some church friends for ten minutes in the parking lot outside, exaggerated smiles and laughs were present. Carl’s kids ran around with the other kids, exploding with pent up energy from the last two hours of deadly, staggering boredom. The family went to breakfast afterwards at a nice pancake restaurant. Carl got angry with one of his children, Jason, when he crawled under the table while they were eating. Jason was only seven. He began to cry and didn’t stop until they got home at around noon, which was just in time for Carl to watch football. Volume high.
This was a typical week for Carl. He was normal, and aspired to be nothing more than normal. Life was comfortable. He had it very good by most people’s standards in the world. If he wanted food, he bought whatever he wanted. If he wanted a new car, he could get one. His house was large and he lived in a tidy suburb only 45 minutes from work, depending on rush hour. His job was of moderate pressure, enough to keep him busy but not enough to make him pull his hair out. Enough to make him feel like an integral part of society. His loved his family, though it was hard to see at times. Carl was 40, right about half way into his life and he looked forward to the second half, which was something Carl’s brother had not been fortunate enough to have. At the very young age of 19, Carl’s brother had joined the military. It had been a good career for him. A great career, for a while. The pay was good, the work kept him interested in life and he had a great group of close friends. He got to travel, he moved up in the ranks. He stayed in excellent physical shape and it provided him with a real sense of self-worth. Above all he was part of a strong team. The winning team, even. Carl’s brother was killed in Iraq three years ago at the age of 32. He had died bravely, the family was told, fighting off insurgents under heavy fire. This was not true. He died in a car collision when two Hummvies went off the road in a fast-paced convoy. But whether the military’s story was true or not didn’t matter to the family. Though extremely saddened for a year or two, Carl and the family were deeply honored by what his brother had done for the country. They were not bitter that he had died and now his wife was husbandless and his four year-old would grow up fatherless. Carl had bumper stickers on his SUV for Bush in 2000 and 2004 because of his pro-family values. These had been taken off in more recent years and replaced with a yellow bumper sticker in the shape of a ribbon that said “Support Our Troops.” There was also a sticker for McCain left over from 2008. Carl had liked him because of the politician’s pro-veteran ideals. Carl was not resentful that his brother had died for God and his country. Some would call this a case of successful nationalization. And brainwashing.
Carl did become resentful when there was another death in his family. An old man, a man in his 80’s, was driving a mid-sized sedan to the grocery store on a Friday afternoon. He needed canned soup and canned chili. He did not know how to cook, that had been his wife’s expertise. She had died two years ago. The old man’s life was a quiet one. He woke up early every morning, ate toast and eggs for breakfast, and set out on a brisk two-mile walk. On Saturdays, and occasional Sundays, he met with a hiking group of people his own age and typically covered five to eight miles. He was in excellent shape for a former smoker in his 80’s. He still didn’t need glasses and even had a good patch of white hair on his head. But his reflexes were still slow. He didn’t spot Andrew, Carl’s other son, in the cross walk until he was rolling over the hood of the car, up over the windshield, across the hood, and lifelessly falling limply to the ground on the other side. There was nothing the old man could do and nothing the paramedics could do when the arrived five minutes later.
Carl and his wife did not take the death of their child well, as expected. Carl began drinking, his wife became anorexic. Their other children became silent, empty shells. But the family recovered, somewhat. Six months passed and Carl stopped drinking and his wife started eating. Six more months passed and the two remaining kids started smiling again. Six more months and Carl’s wife was back to square one. Carl stayed strong for her. Six more months and the family was finally on somewhat solid ground. And that’s where they stayed. Life returned to normal, or as normal as it could ever possibly get. Carl kept up at work, his wife found a new job after having quit her old one. The kids had trouble remembering what their sibling had looked like.
The days passed by. The weeks vanished. Nothing changed. Nothing changed until one day there was trouble at the office. Carl arrived one morning to hear rumors that the company was bankrupt. He worried for a couple days, and soon forgot about it. Pushed the thought deep in, far away. It seemed to work as nothing more was said about it for weeks. Carl and his co-workers continued to pump out pages of lawn mower ads for gardening magazines, beer ads for Sports Illustrated, and car adds for every magazine. The work went on like normal, until it stopped. Abruptly. On a Friday, an announcement was made. The entire office was about to become unemployed within two weeks. Carl drank at a bar that evening after work with some of his colleagues. He drove home drunk. Barley over the limit. He was not pulled over.
That weekend was an unhappy one. His children were in a school play on Saturday night, but Carl didn’t attend. Instead, he stayed at home and watched a World War II movie. The Americans were brave and died gloriously, violent, gory deaths. The Japanese died cowardly, violent, gory deaths. Carl drank.
The last two weeks of office life were gloomy and unproductive. Nothing was accomplished. Carl began sending out resumes to other ad agencies and PR firms until it was the last Friday. Now Carl was out of a job. He drove home in a miserable sleet. The homeless woman by the on ramp went unnoticed by Carl as he drove in a depressed daze. He would drink again tonight. Something stronger.
By late December, Carl had made no progress finding a job. He had sent out countless resumes (29) and had gotten no better response than emails saying, “Thank you for your interest in (insert company name)_______ , Mr. Scheffer. We’ll keep your file on record and we’ll call back if we have any questions.”
Home life deteriorated. The kids were always loud. His wife was always busy with her job and Carl’s new responsibilities as house dad were wearing on him. He didn’t like doing housework. He didn’t know how to cook, which his wife continued to do. He began sleeping in, despite it being his job to get the kids to school on time. He and his wife fought. Carl got drunk. He continued going to church, and dragging the rest of the family along with him.
Months passed until it was summer. Carl, now an alcoholic, was not going to any AA meetings. The idea that he had a problem was not brought to his attention. At least not seriously enough. His wife brought up his constant drinking infrequently, but he ignored the nagging–as he thought of it. Months continued to pass by quickly. His kids had birthdays. He was somewhat sober for one party, drunk for the other. Summer became fall, which suddenly became winter. Carl continued to do nothing with his life, other than drink.
A neighbor of Carl’s, whom Carl had never met, died in a car accident one Thursday morning. There was an entire 40-second news clip about him. He had been a fireman. Had been a hero fireman who had recently saved three children while their house burnt down. The parents had died, but the kids had survived because of him. He was a young man and had left a young widow and two young kids. Younger than Carl’s. The solemn news anchor said that he had been an environmental activist and lead school field trips for elementary and middle school classes as volunteer work when he wasn’t on duty. He lead trips to the recycling center, parks, the coal power plant that powered the city, and a local national forest. Carl’s daughter had been on one of these field trips. The dead fireman had been a star soccer player in high school and junior college, and had continued to play at a high club level until the time of his death. He had been killed when a semi-truck overturned on the freeway. The truck driver walked away from the accident. He was in a bigger truck.
Carl was on his way home from a bar, late on a freezing February night. The roads were icy and Carl was drunk. He would have hit the oncoming Jeep whether the roads were slick or not. The passenger was a young woman on her way home from bar tending. It was one of the bars Carl frequently drank at, although tonight he went to a different place. The woman, named Carla, had been serving Carl liquor and beer for months, often only refusing to serve him when he could no longer hold his head up above the buckets of peanuts on the bar table. She knew he drove home drunk, by himself. Tonight was not her lucky night. Carl’s body, which had built up a tolerance by now, had been polluted by 20 drinks that night. Enough to knock most people out. But Carl had trained his body well, and was still functioning. Just not very well. He ran straight into Carla’s Jeep and demolished it. And Carla. She would never serve alcohol again. Because she would never walk again. Carl was hurt too. He severely fractured a thumb, a forefinger, and broke his nose. None would be straight again. His Hummer, unfortunately, was wrecked.
But it wouldn’t have mattered if his Hummer had still been functioning, the lawsuit would have gobbled it up anyways. Carl’s house and life savings would be gone within a year. His wife’s too. She divorced him after the lawsuit, but not without taking a huge financial blow herself. She won the divorce and took what was left of the family’s belongings and savings with her. Along with the children. Carl was left with a bent nose and a fused thumb and forefinger. If he had had a check to sign, he wouldn’t have been able to with his right hand.
But none of that happened just yet. Amazingly, due to the state’s apparent indifferent stance against drunk driving, Carl did not go to jail. He did, however, have to attend AA meetings and do community service. The community service was the most meaningful thing Carl had done with his life since getting fired. Maybe even before that. He was sentenced to pick up trash on the side of the freeway for 100 hours.
During those 100 hours, the lawsuit hadn’t purchased his house yet so he still had a roof over his head, –during those 150 hours Carl was buzzed by thousands of cars. The constant roar of traffic never faded away; he never got used to it and it was impossible to tune out. Horns were both angrily and jokingly honked at him and the rest of the DUI clean up crew. Bottles and trash were thrown at him. An unusually wet spring kept a steady beat of rain and hail throughout the days. But it was over pretty quickly. In a little over a month his time was up and he was a free man, having fairly paid his debt to society.
Now that Carl no longer had a car, and the fact that his license had been revoked for 12 months, he had to rely on getting rides from his wife and public transportation. Carl was too out of shape to ride a bike and the suburb he lived in was miles from any store or bar. Getting around proved to be a big challenge, since his wife refused to drive him to bars, refused to buy alcohol for him, and the closest bus stop was a mile’s walk away. This meant that Carl was forced to drink less and walk more, a trend that was soon going to become much more a part of Carl’s life.
After a long and drawn out legal battle, Carla (the paralyzed former bar tender, the former college student, and the former dancer), was awarded $450,000. Her lawyers were awarded $180,000 for their hard work. Carl’s lawyers were awarded $90,000 for their hard work. This money came from various sources. Mainly the bank’s selling of Carl’s house.
Next came the divorce. His wife’s asking for a divorce did not surprise Carl. He could see it coming well before the drunk driving accident. That only sped it up. What did surprise him was the numbness he felt while it was happening. He seemed to be watching someone else go through the divorce and lawsuit. He felt like he was watching the whole thing on TV. Just lazily flipping through the channels on a Sunday afternoon, where he stopped on this depressing and slightly boring movie for a few minutes before switching back to Man Vs. Food during the commercial break. It was the kind of movie that always gets played on TV. The one that you’ve seen multiple times, but never all the way through. It was also one of those movies that you finish watching and realize, with a sigh of relief, that you are not one of the characters and that, by comparison, your life seems pretty good. Really good actually. Carl tried to change the channel during the commercial break, and realized that it was not a movie on TV that he was watching from his couch. He did not own a couch anymore. He didn’t own a TV anymore. Carl owned four large bags of clothes, the food in the mini fridge at the motel he was staying in, and $1,214 in his bank account. He looked around and saw, practically for the first time, that he was in a cheap, beige-colored hotel room with the shades pulled tightly closed. The wall paint was chipped and pealing, his bed was sagging and springy. The carpet matched the drapes, which were brown and dirty. The room smelled of booze and molding everything, which was because of the empty beer and liquor bottles, and because of the molding everything. Carl cautiously rose from the bed and walked to the window to figure out what time of year it was. The sunlight blinded him. He grimaced and squinted through his puffy eyelids and calculated, by the color of the leaves on the trees, that it was early fall. It was sunny out. Soon, he found himself standing outside. He felt like going on a long walk, so he did. He was staying on the outskirts of the city, within a short bus ride of the court house, for practical purposes. The scenery was dominated by heavy, late afternoon traffic, Burger Kings, Jiffy Lubes, and parking lots. Carl turned left when he got to the main street, which was only a hundred feet from his hotel room. Left seemed like a good choice. He didn’t know why, but left certainly had a good appeal to it. If there was one thing that was going right for Carl, it would be deciding to take a left instead of a right. Something deep down in his gut made the decision. Redemption, salvation, the Answer…they were all going to reveal themselves and Carl was on the right path. A warm breeze blew in Carl’s face, the last warm breeze of the year. He breathed it in through his mouth and let it out heavily through his bent nose. He felt rejuvenated, ready for something good to finally happen. He picked up the pace and scanned the horizon, in search of whatever he was looking for. A few more steps and he felt something squish beneath his foot. He looked down and saw that he had just stepped in a huge pile of dog shit. At least he thought it was dog shit. What he didn’t know was that it was actually human shit. It was his own shit.
“Fuck.” That was all he could say. He said it once. That was it. He stood there, trembling as tears rolled down his face. A minute or two passed before he took another step and drug his foot across the sidewalk to get the shit off. When he was done, he looked up and saw where he was. Right in front of a shitty little bar where he had drunk himself to shit the night before. Literally. He hesitated. Then, knowing defeat when he saw it, knowing he was not a strong man, a smart man, or a brave man, knowing that he was just an ordinary man, he went in.
Carl had relied on magic for years of his life. Magic had been able to get him almost anything he wanted. Many years ago, Carl had acquired some magic plastic tokens from an old sorceress. He was assured that by taking the magic plastic, all his life’s problems would dissolve. He’d live in ease and happiness, and with the magic plastic, he would probably live forever. Anything he desired would be taken care of by the magic plastic. If he wanted food, ipods, or cars, the plastic could get it. It was a cherished power that Carl came to depend on. And now that his credit cards had all been maxed out, he was screwed. He went to live with his cousin, his closest living relative aside from his mother, who was living in a retirement home and unable to even look after herself. Carl moved in with his brother’s widow, but that hadn’t worked out either. He had a few other relatives who were willing to help him out, despite his driving accident and spectacular fall into the pit of despair and alcoholism. What they didn’t see was that it was no longer a fall. Carl had been lowering himself down into the dark chasm voluntarily. Carl didn’t know how to climb, so lowering himself further was his only option. And he had a long way to go before he reached the bottom.
He moved around from friends and relative’s houses for months. Or, more accurately, he was kicked out of friends and relative’s houses for months. His drinking, lack of motivation, and mooching drained on his hosts very quickly. His family began to abandon what was left of him, as did his friends. All those times he helped others, either financially or otherwise, had been forgotten by now. He had found jobs at his company for two of his family members years ago, but the favor had clearly been paid back, as both asked him to move out of their homes, even calling a cab to pick him up and take him somewhere to be someone else’s problem. A few members of his church group had attempted to pick him up and get him straightened out. He had even become sober after they paid for him to attend a rehab center. His soberness solved nothing. It only revealed that he was the problem, not the alcohol, which was only an over-the-counter painkiller. Carl found out, one late fall morning that he had been thrown out of his last bed. He called, begged, and cried to everyone he knew to give him one last chance. They had all heard it before, and it had worked the first and even second times. But sympathy had run dry among Carl’s circle. He was on his own.
Carl carried two large duffle bags of belongings with him as he walked to the local park, where he found a bench and sat down.
“What now?” No one answered. He had a similar response when asking the same question a few months back.
Sarah and her husband Abe were housing Carl at the time. They were two kindly people from the church. They didn’t really know Carl, but they took the bourdon of housing this poor fellow as a challenge and proof of their good faith in humankind. They believed themselves to be good Christians and here was their chance to prove it. Where others had failed, they would succeed. They would help turn Carl’s life back around. At this pointing Carl’s recovery process, he had already become sober, his last host family had bought him a couple new suits and ties to wear at job interviews, which they had personally set up and driven him to. Carl had even been temporarily hired for a few weeks as a low-salaried temp. The job had been going well and Carl seemed to have taken a turn towards the right direction, that is until the company filed for bankruptcy and Carl was quickly kicked to the curb. Luck did not seem to be on his side and this latest failure set him back even further.
But back to the present past, Carl had moved in with Sarah and Abe. He was sleeping in their 12 year-old daughter’s bedroom, who was now sharing a bed with her nine year-old and three year-old brothers. It was a small house, made smaller by the increased space Carl and his ever-increasing gloom consumed. Sarah and Abe were big believers in the power of prayer and the importance of accepting Jesus into one’s heart. No one quite knows what this means, but Carl was as close as anyone could get. Despite his previous years of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (who died for our sins) and Carl’s religious attendance when it came to Sunday church and prayer before dinner, it seemed as though God still decided to give him the shaft for some reason. Sarah said God was testing him, pushing him to his limits to see if he would give in. Now was the time to be strong, realize that this was part of God’s plan, and have faith that everything would turn out for the better if he kept his head up and prayed every day. Carl tried this. He tried harder than he had at any other time in his life to truly believe in Jesus the Almighty. Some of his church group members had said something like this to him when his son had died. He had shrugged the insensitive insult off. But now it seemed to be his last option.
One morning in Church, Carl stayed after the service to pray and think by himself. Or, as he hoped, not by himself but with God present too. He needed advice. He needed courage and strength to use that advice and put it into action. The death of his son, the loss of his job, the years of drinking, the car accident, lawsuit, divorce, left him with more than just a feeling of emptiness. Carl had lost all hope. Praying is all about hope, and Carl certainly hoped praying would help. He asked God to give him a break, just one small break. It hadn’t been the first time he had asked God this. So now he decided to ask another favor, just in case God didn’t like this first request and was waiting for a better one. Carl asked for forgiveness, whatever this meant. Carl wasn’t sure, but he knew he would know if God granted it. He felt no change. So he asked God for a sign, whatever that meant. Carl wasn’t sure about this one either, but it seemed to be a reoccurring theme in movies, so Carl asked for a sign. No response. Carl asked a few more questions in silent prayer. His responses were equally silent. Carl sat in his bench facing the empty alter for another 20 minutes without another prayer, not sure what he was waiting for. He missed his bus while he did so, and because of it he also missed a job interview that the bus was going to take him to. An interview that, in another universe, he did very well at and ended up getting the job. In this other universe, a number of good things happened to Carl by chance, which allowed him to succeed at this new job, giving him some much-needed self-confidence. His newfound self-confidence made him want to succeed even more. He worked hard and slowly moved up in the company, which turned old, dilapidated buildings into re-furbished green buildings, equipped with solar panels or green roofs, rain-catching and storage capabilities, new, low-wattage lighting systems, more efficient insulation, and other green technology. Carl’s hard work helped build the company from a small, six-person operation into one of the most successful businesses in the city. Soon, all new and old buildings and houses in the city were built to the company’s strict environmental standards after a measure was voted on that required it. Other cities in the surrounding area saw the benefits that Carl’s city was benefiting from and the green building movement spread. Carl found a new zest for life and put his former years behind him and looked to the future, which was bright and filled with success and joy. But that wasn’t the Carl of this world. Instead, Carl missed the bus and missed the interview. The company never took off and was bankrupt within a year. Carl sat in the empty church, mumbling pleads with an invisible man. In many other circumstances, Carl would have appeared crazy. Not here though. This was the house of craziness.
Sarah and Abe gave up on Carl, like everyone else. He was a lost cause. A diseased pinky finger that needed to be lopped off before it spread its gangrene to the hand, and then to the forearm, and eventually the body. Attempts had been made to save it, but they had failed and no more energy should be wasted on it when there were still other healthy functioning digits to use. Carl found himself cut off from society, sitting alone on a bench. Fall had passed. It was now winter.
A cold gust of wind made Carl shudder as he sat on the park bench, staring off into the distance with teary eyes. He turned his collar up and buttoned the last button on his jacket, just as a few raindrops landed on his shoulder. The wind knocked the last couple leaves off the tree above Carl and they fell heavily to the ground, having a reduced surface area from being so old and dried out. The sky, moments earlier patchy with a little sun, was now dark grey. The wind increased. Carl’s shudder turned into a shiver, and he was knocked out of his empty gaze from the very basic animal instinct of being cold. A few minutes earlier someone had passed by and asked him directions to somewhere, Carl hadn’t responded and they walked away, shaking their head. But the cold was something that couldn’t be ignored. He needed to find shelter. The rain drops came slowly at first. They were big, and seeped into the fiber of Carl’s black pee-coat with ease. Carl took his bags, one on his back and one in his arms, across the street to a coffee shop. The warm air blew pleasantly in his face as he opened the door and stepped inside, just as the sky opened up and emptied its wrath upon the earth. Carl placed his bags at a table with a comfortable couch. He stepped up to the counter and ordered a large coffee and paid. He had $52 in his wallet and another $80 in one of his bags. Now he had $49 in his wallet. The countdown began.
Carl spent the entire day in the coffee shop, drinking the free refills until it grew dark. He needed a place to sleep that night, and the cheap motel rooms were across town. He went outside and caught a bus that dropped him off at another bus stop, where he waited for another bus, which dropped him off at another bus stop, where he waited, sheltered from the pounding rain under the graffiti-decorated clear plastic bus stop cover. 20 more minutes and his final bus came, taking him to the place where he had stayed during the trial. He paid the woman at the front desk $35 for the night. Without eating dinner, he walked up to his room, and fell asleep. He was down to $91.50 after the bus ticket, coffee, and room. Despite the ensuing streets, coldly calling his name, Carl slept well that night. He didn’t wake until past noon, when the motel manager came pounding on his door.
“Either pay up for another night or get out.”
Carl paid for another night and went back to sleep. He woke at 3 pm, his stomach gurgling in empty discomfort. The best place for cheap calories was a few blocks down the street, so Carl drug himself out of bed, weak from worry and hunger, and walked down the street to McDonalds. His posture, once composed and confident, head held high, chin up, shoulders back, chest out, had been deflating like an old birthday balloon. The party was over now, and for the past couple years Carl’s posture had become hunched with gloom. But even a few days ago, he had still been standing tall, not his former self but at least what most people would call normal. Today, though, it had drastically changed. He hung his head low, hands were buried deep in his jacket pockets, shoulders were rolled up, neck pulled into his torso like that of a turtle. It could have been the cold, drizzly afternoon.
The cheapest things at McDonalds were on the dollar menu. Carl hadn’t eaten at a McDonalds in years. Why would he when he could afford filet mignon, portabellas, and Rothschild wine every night if he wanted it? That might be an exaggeration; he hadn’t been rich, but still, he hadn’t been the type to eat at McDonalds.
He stood at the counter, ravenous, telling himself that he needed to spend his remaining dollars wisely until he found a way out of this mess. He ordered a chicken sandwich and a small cheese burger. He waited anxiously for his number to be called, stomach continuing to gurgle while his salivation glands went haywire. The smells of the restaurant were amazing. Minutes earlier, a block away from the restaurant, even before he had it in sight, the smell of French fries being pumped into the outside air had quickened his pace. He could barely wait at this point. Carl hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning, when his friend, also named Carl, had fed him a plate of eggs and toast and sent him on his way. Carl’s abandonment by Carl had been the biggest blow out of all his friends and family’s banishments. Carl had grown up in the same neighborhood as Carl, had been childhood friends, had gone to college with Carl, both majoring in Journalism, and had worked in the same office building as Carl had (a different company and floor, but the same building). Carl still had his job, wife, kids, dog, and house. Carl had been Carl’s best friend for as long as he could remember. Their kids had become friends as well and they often had barbeques at each other’s houses. Despite having the same education, the same economical and social upbringing, the same ambitions in life, and even the same name, Carl was enjoying a lazy afternoon watching Blue Ray movies on his 65 inch TV with his family in his warm living room, while Carl was standing at the McDonalds counter, unshaven and alone with one thing on his mind: burgers.
Finally (a mere 67 seconds after ordering) Carl’s number was called. He grabbed the tray, pumped as much ketchup and mustard on his burgers as possible, and sat down to eat his bounty. They were gone in under two minutes. Carl sat there staring at the empty wrappers, unsatisfied and deeply saddened that there was no more. He went back up to the counter.
He sat back down with a tray loaded. A Number #1, two chicken burgers, a pie, and an extra order of medium fries. It took him a while to eat all of it, but he managed. Food coma took over and his worries disappeared. Whatever problems one may have, fulfilling a deep hunger exterminates them. At least temporarily. He walked back to his hotel and slept. If he had counted his money he would have found that he now had $43.72. Enough money for one more night.
And that’s exactly what Carl did. He repeated the previous day. After paying for the room, he walked to McDonalds and ate, this time without feasting. Then he walked around town, wondering and worrying about what was going to happen tomorrow. As the afternoon wore on and darkness came, he returned to his motel room, aged considerably from the stress of not knowing what the next day would bring. Would this be his last night knowing where he would sleep at night? His last day knowing that he would eat that day? It began raining as Carl walked the last few blocks to the motel. He jogged the rest of the way and got inside right as it began to pour. One thing Carl was certain about was that it would be the last time he’d be dry for a long time. He went to sleep that night with $1.72 in his wallet.
The manager kicked him out at noon and Carl grabbed his duffle bags and awkwardly carried them out into the streets. He was now officially homeless. What did homeless people do? He thought. They begged for money and lived in cardboard boxes underneath overpasses. The lifestyle didn’t sound very appealing to Carl. He was destitute, but he didn’t feel like pan handling or curling up with a 40 and sleeping in an ally-way behind a dumpster.
The manager opened the office door as Carl stood under the awning, “Hey, no loitering, Pal.”
“But it’s raining.”
Apparently Carl’s appearance had already taken resemblance of the homeless. The manager was used to people in Carl’s position. The poor becoming poorer. His motel was a transitioning place, a rest stop on the way to becoming homeless. He was used to people putting off the inevitable. His customers regularly attempted to bargain with him, plead with him for one more night. They’d pay him back of course, they just didn’t have the money right now. Tomorrow though… He’d long since lost his emotion for pity.
“You either leave now or I call the cops.”
Carl put on a thin running windbreaker over his pea coat jacket and stepped out in the rain. He ran to the closest thing with a cover, which was a bus stop. He dug through his duffle bags and found a matching pair of windbreaker pants and put them over his jeans. He found a warm hat and some gloves too and put those on as well. Then he sat down on the bus bench and cried with his face in his hands, bent over with his elbows resting on his knees. He fell asleep that way.
Bus passengers came and went while he sat there, his bags unattended. When he woke a few hours later, both bags were gone. Now he had nothing but the clothes on his back and $1.72 in his wallet. Things were becoming more hopeless by the minute now. At this rate Carl pictured himself in the future face down in the gutter, grey and lifeless. Possibly by tomorrow afternoon. Carl had never been a violent person or even someone to pound his fist against a wall in rage after something really pissed him off. Like most people, Carl didn’t really ever get that pissed off. He became annoyed at times, but there was enough distraction in his life to keep him subdued. Work and family kept him tired and happy. TV, church, and consumerism kept him entertained, fulfilled, and brainwashed. He didn’t have the need for anger. It had been bred out of him. He was a sheep in a flock, controlled by a small dog nipping at its heels. Carl was the ideal sheep. He didn’t complain, he didn’t stand out, he didn’t think for himself. He didn’t get angry. Sheep don’t get angry. Sheep are sheepish.
One would think that the loss of his last few possessions would tip Carl to the breaking point. The point where he would finally feel something other than self-pity and despair. A little anger can go a long way if used properly. But Carl didn’t posses this trait. When he saw that his bags were gone, he seemed to shrink into his non-existent tortoise shell even further, eventually gathering the strength to rise from his cold wooden bench and walk through the afternoon rain to the McDonalds for the one last comfort he knew about. Coffee. He bought a small coffee and refilled it, over and over until the sun began to disappear behind the taller billboards.
Finding shelter in the city was difficult. Carl spent two hours searching for a viable place. He knew he couldn’t sleep under an awning, there would be too many people walking around him and he’d likely get kicked out. He needed someplace dark and quiet. By the time he found the gazebo in a little park, night had found him. The rain hadn’t stopped, so he curled up on the wooden floor of the gazebo, soaked and shivering. His lightweight windbreaker stuck to his soggy wool jacket. His jeans were freezing cold and wet. His shoes were full of dirty puddle water. Carl became very hypothermic that night as he shivered the night away. He never fell asleep.
The rain finally stopped briefly by midmorning and Carl got up. He was stiff, cold, and tired. Inside him, a battle was being won by a cold virus. The carnage of the battlefield wouldn’t reveal itself for another 12 hours though.
After walking around for half an hour, wondering what to do, Carl came upon a public library. He hadn’t been in one for years. There had been no need. Carl didn’t read books and of course he had owned his own computer. But this seemed like a brilliant place to hang out on a cold, rainy day. He went in and went straight to the bathroom, where he turned the water faucet on hot and soaked his numb hands for five minutes before washing his face. The hot water was amazing. He spent another five minutes soaking his feet, one foot at a time. Luckily no one came in while he was in there.
Carl’s next objective was to find a warm place to sit down and get some sleep. He went upstairs to the books section of the library and found a big yellow couch off in a dark corner. He grabbed a few books to make it look like he was planning on doing some reading and sat down on the couch. He was asleep within a minute. Carl spent the majority of the day dozing on the couch, at last getting mostly dry. His shoes were still damp, but he was finally reaching comfort when a voice over some loudspeakers announced that the library was closing in 15 minutes. In a panic, Carl found a computer that had already been logged onto (since he didn’t have his own library card) and searched the internet for everything he could think of that he would need to know about surviving another couple nights. He needed food and he needed shelter. His search gave him some starting out points that he’d try out tomorrow. Turned out there was a church that did free meals for the homeless on Saturdays, which was in three days. There was a soup kitchen downtown that served lunch, and there were a couple homeless shelters downtown as well.
Carl searched his pockets for extra change as he walked out of the library. He needed to catch a bus downtown, or walk four miles, if he was going to get to the shelter. Cans. He knew homeless people made money by collecting cans and returning them to recycling machines at grocery stores. He had never done this himself, of course.
Carl began jogging around to different trash bins down the street, pulling out cans when he found them. He found a couple plastic bags in the trash bins and pilled the cans in until he had two bag-fulls of them. It took him longer than expected. He head possessions once again. The nearest grocery story Carl knew about was seven blocks away. He had to hurry.
He didn’t make it. By the time he got the cans returned, got to the bus stop, took the bus downtown and found the shelter, it was past the check in time. He’d have to wait until tomorrow. And now, to make things worse, Carl was downtown at night. His gazebo was miles away. He thought it would be better to catch another bus back and sleep under the gazebo than risk a night in the city. It had already been a long day, and this last little bit drug it out even further. By now Carl’s throat had swelled up and his sinuses had begun to shut down. Another cold night under the gazebo, although this time moderately dry, was only going to make things worse.
The rain had found its way into the Gazebo by the time Carl rose to the first sign of daylight. Heavy wind, blowing the rain sideways, kept Carl soaked throughout the night. The floor was a large puddle. He rose stiffly, coughed. Hacked. He couldn’t stop. His body trembling and bent over, he stifled the coughing with his fist. When he was finished, he spit. Dribble remained on his lip and a long line of saliva on a bungie cord slowly dropped to the ground. Carl had a fever. And a headache. His nose was plugged. His throat raw. He shivered as he stood under the gazebo in his wet clothes. There were two options, as he saw it. One was to lie back down. The other was to haul his cans to the grocery store and use the money to get down town to a hot meal and a bed. It took all his willpower to step out into the spitting rain with his cans and head to the Safeway four blocks away.
Carl’s cough echoed down the still-dark streets as his weak body marched in the cold drizzle. The roads and sidewalk in the neighborhood were empty at this hour at this day of the week. Whatever day it was.
The store was open. It opened at 5 am to 1 am, only closing down for four hours a day. Because people need to buy food 20 hours a day. After returning the cans, Carl stepped into the bright, fluorescent store. Generic soft rock elevator music was soothing therapy to Carl. He exchanged his can receipts for $2.15. Instead of heading directly to the bus station, Carl’s hunger made him enter the store aisles. There were other shoppers in the store. In fact, it was almost busy. Carl felt confident that he could get away with a little shoplifting. The worst that could happen? He wasn’t sure, but he knew he didn’t have anything to lose. He carried a basket and went up and down the aisles dropping things in. Apples, crackers, and a jar of peanut butter. The basket of food disguising him as a normal shopper, he pocketed a block of cheese, a couple candy bars, a loaf of bread. His coughing continued though, and he felt like it was drawing attention to him. He was sure the cameras had spotted him, though they hadn’t, and he made a quick getaway. Leaving his basket of food on a shelf of bread next to the exit, he walked out and didn’t look back. Hands in his pockets, fondling the stolen food, he continued to walk to a bus stop to take him downtown. He ate all the food on the bus, except for half the block of cheese. He would save that for a rainy day, or a rainier day if one existed.
The shelter was full. The people there told him the other shelter was full as well. The little bit of strength the food he had eaten and the promise of a warm place to sleep that night vanished with the devastating news. He spent the day riding the bus, dozing until the driver kicked him off. Then he found a new bus. His cough grew worse.
Carl spent his bleak days scavenging for food in dumpsters, stealing small morsels from stores, and searching for shelters from the weather. He didn’t have the strength to even ask how it had gotten this bad. How it was possible that an upper middle class family man had gone from happiness to complete sorrow in a matter of a few short years. He didn’t ponder whether it was a fault of his own or the cruel randomness of the universe. He had no means to question his downfall, and therefore no means to ponder a comeback. Every ounce of strength was spent on surviving the current day. Luck was not on his side, and neither was great mental or physical strength. He did not poses any super-human abilities. His willpower was not above average. And because of it, he would die, like anyone else in his position would.
A month later the sun rose from another cold night. It had snowed. Carl’s frozen body laid in an ally way under cardboard, crumpled and brittle like an old, dried-up leaf.