a place for the homeless
I stop at the curb. My brakes are puppies.
“Want to live with me?” I call out the window.
The graybeard lowers his cardboard classified ad.
“I know you’ll work for food, but I want to know if you’ll just live with me instead. I’ll still feed you.”
He looks confused. I don’t blame him. I drive a Taurus.
He saunters over.
“What kind of house do you have?”
It’s a three-bedroom apartment and I live there alone because my wife left me for an editing job in San Francisco. I tell him so.
He pops the door, falls in, street-smell flaring off his denim jacket. His face is brighter than it looked outside. His eyes are blue and his cheeks, though half-whiskered, are still vibrant and pink.
“This is very nice of you,” he says.
“Don’t mention it.”
We drive by brick buildings downtown, pass the university where I work. It’s fall and everyone’s in school-color hoodies except me and the homeless man. “I’m Mac,” I say.
I jump, twist the steering wheel and hit the curb. We land with a thud. “The writer?”
“I don’t write.”
“I used to,” I say. Then I get an idea. “You have to start writing to live with me. A page a day. Deal?”
“Let’s see your place first,” he says.
I show George Saunders my apartment: the 1980’s oven, the nineteen-inch television, my papered office while my wife’s old one is all cleaned out. I follow him as he strolls over the wall-to-wall gray-blue carpet, scarred by cigarettes from the previous owner. No wonder she left. George is polite and doesn’t say anything, just walks around sniffing with his red bulbous Santa Claus nose.
“Can I have the empty office?”
“Can I have a credit card?”
He smiles with khaki teeth and I give him the night to shower and settle in.
George and I get along alright. We eat boxed Salisbury steak on my futon while we watch NBC, laughing at the inappropriate parts. During commercials, George tells me all about himself. He’s the oldest of nine children and one of his great great uncles tried to run for President. He said he’s met Alec Baldwin and they once had coffee and bashed Bush for hours. He was an assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins back when they still had Dan Marino and he even started a church called The Seventh Assembly of Postmodern Baptists. He was born in Texas and used to be a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, but he doesn’t have an accent or speak any Spanish. He’s a very talkative guy.
“I’m an assistant manager at Starbucks,” I try to tell him once, but it doesn’t seem to register. He never asks about my wife and, after a week, I decide to get someone else. College towns are in no short supply of homeless. It’s sadly convenient for me.
A few blocks from where I picked up George, I spy another older man, this one sickly skinny. He’s knotted one of his pant-legs because his leg is cut-off at the knee. He stole George’s sign and now he’s holding it upside down. I get him in the car and he tells me he’s a Vietnam vet from Oklahoma. His name’s Bret.
“Thank you so much. God bless you,” he says.
“It’s no problem,” I try to tell him, but he won’t stop.
“Bless you. May you be blessed.”
“Please,” I say.
When I bring Brett home, George looks worried. He asks if he’s being replaced, but I tell him no.
“Well, he can’t have my room,” George says.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I say.
I show Bret the rest of the apartment and mistakenly tell him he can sleep anywhere he wants. He chooses my bed. It’s a pretty despicable thing to go back on your word, so I let him have it. I clutch a pillow under my arm and plop it on the futon.
On nights I can’t sleep, I watch crime thrillers and listen to Al Pacino scream at me in my half-conscious stupor. The TV flashes like a war zone and I think about all the things I want to do but haven’t. Have a child. Poach elephants illegally. Take a soapy bath in the Amazon. Publish a novel. Squat in an old English castle, complete with moat and drawbridge. After an hour or so, I start to hate these things and convince myself they’re the reason Becky left me, even though I never said any of them aloud. Then I start to think she left because I never admitted these things I wanted, and I hate myself. Sometimes, not often, I cry. George and Bret the Vet watch me from the hall. They’re very good about not saying anything on those nights. It’d just make us all feel worse.
George Saunders’ writing is awful.
He sticks to our deal, writes a page a day, but honestly I think I’m getting ripped off. He misspells words like “ment” and “sity” and starts sentences with lowercase letters. They’re all stories about his experiences or what he thinks about people and what’s wrong with the world but they don’t make any sense. I’m a much better writer than George Saunders, I realize, and I consider writing a story to show him, but that’d be pretty rude. I just read them with hm’s and ah’s and file them in my office with my scattered paper piles.
Brett likes to sit on things. Kitchen counter. Table. Waist-high bookshelf. Most days I come home, he’s planted somewhere with one leg dangling, reading some of George’s incoherent nonsense while George paces and waits for approval. They both wear my clothes, smell like my body wash, but they’ve kept their beards. When I ask them why, they tell me the hair has stuck with them through hard times when no one else did. I like how that sounds and start to grow my own beard, but it itches after six days and I cut it off.
“I couldn’t put up with it,” I told them.
“You don’t have any tolerance,” says Bret. “It needs time to soften. Give it time.”
My apartment starts to smell like rotting smoke, especially the bathroom. I douse it in vanilla-scented air freshener but it doesn’t help. I ask George what to do about it but he just says it reminds him of his times in Mexico. Bret says try 409 or something so I do, but there’s no change.
“I think that smell’s been here,” they both tell me.
“I think it needs a woman’s touch,” I say.
I spend the next four afternoons driving around town, searching the streets. I finally find a homeless brunette woman named Amelia. When I ask her to live with me, she’s very suspicious.
“I have a knife,” she says.
I say I don’t want to hurt her, I just want to give her a place to stay. She tells me she doesn’t want a home, that she’ll call the cops if I come any closer. I try to tell her about George and Bret to make her feel better, but that makes her even more nervous. Finally, I dig in my pocket and find a twenty to offer. But when I look up, pinching the dry money, she’s gone. Evaporated. Like she was never even there at all.
They’re with me another three weeks. Bret the Vet starts fattening and George Saunders’ writing gets a little better.
“I’m doing fifty pushups a day,” says Bret.
“I started reading Faust,” says George.
Everything for me stays the same and it doesn’t seem right so I start complaining. I whine about pigheaded customers at work and talk bad about my wife even when no one mentions her. I even admit that I hope terrible things are happening to her, like she’s fired or homeless or dead.
One day after work, Bret and George say we need to talk. They sit me down at the kitchen table. George rustles his papers away, stacks them neatly in the corner. Bret scoots his butt on the table, lets his leg hang.
“You can’t keep saying this garbage,” Bret tells me. “It’s not good for you.”
“She hurt you, man, but you gotta move on,” George says.
Honestly, I don’t really listen to what they’re saying. I just keep sniffing the same burnt rot smell wafting from the bathroom. It’s like black banana peels, like orange sidewalk puke.
“I hope she’s paralyzed from the neck down,” I say. “I hope they’re force-feeding her applesauce. She hated apples.”
“Why did you bring us here?” asks George.
“I hope she’s choking on applesauce.”
Bret sighs, says he’ll be praying for me. George is quiet, gets paper and a pen, starts writing. I leave them at the table, nuke some Swedish meatballs and watch NBC alone. That night, I can’t sleep. All I can hear are the echoes of Bret’s mumbled intercessions and George’s scribbled insights, long after they’re asleep. So I watch more Pacino. And I think about applesauce.
I come home and they’re both gone. I’ve lost track of how long it’s been, but they were courteous enough to leave me a note, a flat white explanation on the kitchen table.
It’s in George’s handwriting. It says Bret went to live with an elder from the nondenominational church he’s been attending, and George won a scholarship to a six-week writer’s colony. They’re not coming back. But it says they’re both grateful for me taking them in, that they don’t know why I did it, but that they’re thankful. It says they just couldn’t stay any longer, that they didn’t belong here, and they hope I’ll be alright. I feel like an emptied womb, sore and dirty and used.
I go to the bathroom and the rotting smell is stronger than ever, so thick it stings my eyes like a fog. I can’t stand it any longer. I leave, get in my Taurus and drive in circles around and through the city. The air is cold and hardening into ice. On the sidewalks lay shadows and I peer at them, stare at trees and bushes, mailboxes and street signs. I look for Amelia, try to see if she’s still around. I look for her because I can still smell the rot and the burning and I don’t know where it’s coming from. She could make it go away. But she’s gone.
joe celizic received his MFA from Bowling Green State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Redivider, PANK, Southpaw Journal, On The Premises, Fiction Weekly and others. He currently teaches in Ohio.