a short story
by Graham Pockett © copyright 1994
All characters in this story are fictitious; and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I was dying, lost and alone.
Only one person could ease that loneliness, but she was more lost than I.
Just because I lived for the cold neck of a bottle and its soul warming fire, I was called an alcoholic. But the booze kept me company, numbed the pain that haunted me, replaced a love that had once filled the void.
I half-lay on the hard bitumen, eyes swimming in and out of focus as I drank perception away, looking for a peace that must exist somewhere.
"Hello Joe. Good to see you again." Startled, I looked up through a drug induced haze at the blue uniform hovering above me. Why couldn't they just leave me in peace with my liquid friend? Why do people always want to interfere? "I'm not bothering you, am I?" He smiled. He had a friendly smile.
"S'alrigh' Barry," I mumbled, for some reason ashamed at being seen in this squalor. It wasn't that he hadn't seen me like this before.
I was propped against a bluestone wall. To my left, the sightless building formed a cul-de-sac, the shuttered mouth of its loading bay long silenced by refuse. To my right, decaying rubbish paved the alley to its end.
Next to me was 'home', a large cardboard box. It was early autumn and my tranquillised consciousness hadn't yet pondered the improbabilities of 'home' surviving the onset of more typical autumn weather, much less winter itself. It was only in the still waters of my subconscious did such thoughts find some measure of light.
"Getting plenty to eat?" The question hung over me, unanswered until the words penetrated the booze.
"Yeh..." I responded, waving the near empty bottle.
"You seem quite chipper today. We haven't had a chat for a while. How about it?"
"S'pose." I lapsed into silence.
Barry took off his maroon-banded cap and squatted beside me, revolving it in his long fingers. Without the cap he seemed more approachable, not just a 'uniform'.
"How long have you been coming to the Mission? Six months?"
"Dunno. Too bloody long "
"Didn't you once say you've just come out of prison? Or am I mistaken?"
"No m'stake. I done time." An embarrassing pause enveloped us.
"Makes no difference to me if you've spent time inside. We don't judge." No, the Salvation Army was good that way. "Would you like to tell me about it? I'd really like that. You never know, I might even be able to help. Why don't you try me?"
I couldn't decide if his interest was personal or professional. Was I just another soul to be saved, another gold star on the path to his Heaven, or did he care about me as an individual, as a real person?
"Too bloody late for 'elp," I said through clenched teeth, indecision confusing me. "Ain't no-one can 'elp me now. Jus' wan' some peace. Jus' wanna sleep, sleep f' ever."
"Please don't talk like that. You're an educated man. Bet you had a good job too, didn't you?"
"Yeh, 'ad a good job before goin' inside. Managed a factory. But that's in the past now, long gone..." I was becoming morose so shut up. Why couldn't people just leave me alone. Leave me to find my own peace in the bottle. Even his motives didn't worry me now. Why wouldn't he just go?
"Ahh, thought so. Thought you must have had a fairly good job. But what led you here?" I'm glad he didn't mention the booze, because deep within I was still feeling the shame. My throat was dry and the words took a long time to form. I took a swig from the bottle, but it wasn't just for lubrication.
"A woman." I stifled a sob. "Wha' else? Jus' a bloody woman." The admission opened a rusty door in my mind, a door Yale-locked for far too long.
Somewhere deep within the recesses of my befuddled brain lay a room full of light and hope. Inside that room a family stood.
The vision haunted me with its unfulfilled promise. The hands that reached for me were cold and empty, the clammy embrace of long dead love.
Stifling a silent scream I fled this apocalyptic nightmare, slamming warm memories behind cold doors of steel within my mind. It was easier not to face the spectre of past love than to revel in its lost warmth.
"In what way did she lead you here, Joe?" Barry probed, dragging me back to unwanted memories.
"She left me, she did. Left me when I was inside. When I needed 'er most she jus' weren't there. When I needed 'er support."
"I understand it's quite common, Joe, for wives to find someone else when their husband is away for a long time. They have problems too, you know. It's not easy for them to suddenly become independent and have to make all the decisions for the family. Did she find someone else?" He paused, but I was incapable of response. "They often do. They need someone to help them," he added. Why did he have to take her side, make excuses for her, justify the unjustifiable?
"Don' think she found someone else. Don' much care now either." The denial rang hollow.
"So, what happened? You were in prison when she left. Did she write a letter, or what?"I coughed once, and then again, but each time it sent barbs of pain into my chest. I wanted to get up, move around a little. As soon as Barry leaves...
"Got one of 'em Dear John letters," I finally replied after the pain had eased a little."Said she couldn't take no more. When I got out weren't no-one there for me."
"What happened then, Joe?" His questions were getting tiresome. Very tiresome. I just wanted to rest.
"Jus' couldn' seem to get me life straight. Started driftin', hit the booze. Nuffin' seemed to matter no more. The booze an' me are mates now. We keep each other company. Y' know the rest "
"Do you keep in touch with her?" he questioned, snooping. I was getting annoyed.
"Me, keep in touch with 'er? Why? The damn fool don' wan' me. Why contact 'er?"
I was having trouble breathing. I started to move to get more comfortable but felt the onset of that terrible pain. Why can't he just leave me in peace?
"Come on, Joe. Aren't you interested in finding out what's happened to her?"
"Damn 'er, damn 'er to 'ell. Jus' let 'er rot. She 'ad plenty o' time to come alookin' for me when I was inside. Too bloody late for me to start worryin' 'bout 'er now."
I was tired. The ache in my chest just wouldn't go away. I up-ended the bottle looking for a pain killer, but it just seemed to make it worse. I must have grimaced with the pain.
"You alright, Joe? You look grey. Best take it easy and lie down." He seemed genuinely concerned, but a pain spasm hit me again and all other thoughts were driven from my addled brain.
I must have laid down on the ground but, in truth, I can't remember. Instead of the pain easing like it had before, it grabbed me again, crushing my chest. For a few seconds until the spasm stopped I couldn't breath. It was agony.
And then it eased.
With the grip temporarily relaxed, and in slightly less pain, I looked up at Barry.
"Got a coupla bucks for 'nother bottle. Think I need one." I tried to smile but another wave of pain rolled in, overwhelming me. The pain was terrible, all consuming in its domination. Barry was talking to me but the words weren't penetrating the barriers of pain and booze.
"...just in your chest, or elsewhere?" I tried to focus on what was being said, something about pain.
"My, my, my left arm, hurts. Like pins and needles, but more, savage," I tried to say, but couldn't be sure he heard the words. I wished the pain would ease.
"...ambulance. Just lie..." His words were receding, slipping away from me. Elusive."...your peace...God?"
I knew Barry was still talking but I could only make out odd words here and there. It was like he was deep inside a cave, his voice echoing as he slid deeper and deeper.
No, I was the one in the cave, receding from everything, receding from life. I tried to call to him but he seemed so far away. I knew I couldn't shout loud enough to be heard. Everything seemed to be hurrying away from me, disappearing into the future. Even the light was going, diminishing to a pinpoint.
No, that pinpoint of light was Barry's head. Was he talking to me? Can't hear anything but I think his mouth was moving. So hard to see.
No... I don't know. Was I dying? Is this what death is like?
I think the pain has gone, there's no feeling. Maybe I should panic, but I can't. Strange.
I'm still receding. The world is rushing away from me. Maybe death doesn't come to you you go to it. For some silly reason the concept made me smile, but I knew the smile wasn't touching my face.
My body seems light, weightless maybe? I feel as if a wind would pass right through me, pausing not to harry my poor carcass but to skip gaily onwards. We could play together, soaring up from the pestilence below.
I feel serene and tranquil, truly happy for the first time in years.
A deep calm is passing over me.
Am I finally at peace?
Joe was dying before my eyes. He wasn't the first man I'd seen die and, while I continued working with the homeless, he wouldn't be the last. Still, it was better to die with someone beside you than to die alone, lost and forsaken, a derelict.
His death was a real loss to me, compounded by all the other losses in my life. I had failed again.
I could feel the wetness around my eyes as past pain intruded, dragging me back to the car accident that claimed my parents and the subsequent horror of childhood in an orphanage.
It was the segregation and loneliness of the orphanage that had ultimately led me to join the Army, trying to help other segregated people in their lone struggle through life.
And with Joe too I'd failed. Even though I was with him, he died alone, living a life of isolation midst the swirling millions of lost souls in this vast city.
"You poor old man," I said to his corpse. "I hope you find your peace in Heaven." At that I prayed to God, asking Him to welcome Joe and grant the peace he coveted.
His death was so fast, I didn't even have a chance to call for help. No hurry now, old Joe wouldn't be going anywhere. I bent down and started going through his pockets. He seemed to get all his money from the Army so doubted I'd find any Social Security papers on him.
I started worrying about the next of kin, about that wife who left him. Not that she'd probably want to take responsibility for his funeral, but maybe there were children who cared. It was a problem with the homeless as they rarely used real names. Unless they carried some form of paperwork, it was often hard to officially identify them.
Bingo! In the back pocket of his old pants was an old screwed up envelope. A message carried in love or hate for an aeon. Now maybe I could trace the old man's family. I took the envelope, not at all worried about imposing on his privacy.
It bore the name James Bundern, care of a prison where, I presumed, the old man had been incarcerated. Joe's real name?
The name struck an odd chord, deep in the recesses of my mind. It was one I'd heard before. But where?
With a hint of autumn in its soul, an idle breeze played with the putrid rubbish as it perfumed Joe's alley. For some unknown reason it reminded me of open fields of green. I squatted beside his still warm corpse, trying to decipher the torn epistle.
"Darling James," it started. "I'm sorry it has come to this, but..." I read the letter slowly, feeling the hurt Joe must have felt as he read the sad missive in the confines of prison, powerless to take control of the situation, powerless to do more than just accept the demise of his marriage. This was his Dear John letter.
If Joe had really loved her and I believe he did the letter would have been more than just a rejection of their marriage, it would have been a rejection of life itself.
I could truly understand. To me as a child, the death of my parents was a similar rejection. Ultimately I chose the path of Jesus he chose another.
But the name haunted me James Bundern. Where had I heard that name before? Had his case been reported in the newspapers? Was he a notorious criminal?
And then it came to me in a flash. An internal memo had been circulated recently.
A woman had been searching for her husband...
Acts 3:19-20 NIV
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