Encounter

I sat on a bench on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach early Wednesday morning and talked to a man at the next bench who had a sign tucked into his backpack. I could see the words “food” and “work” and “less,” this last one I assumed was the second half of “home.” I asked if he was a vet and he was, and I asked if he was from the Beach, and he wasn’t—he’s from Pennsylvania originally, but he stayed in the area after leaving the military since he had received care here at the clinic off of Shore Drive along the Bay. Until he didn’t. He managed a HVAC company for a while, but his bills outpaced his contracts, his medical conditions outpaced his insurance and money, and his constant stumbling got the best of him. He borrowed from family, from friends, he took jobs until he couldn’t concentrate and had to leave, he sold whatever he could to try and keep it going. No one wanted to help him anymore. But I get that, he said. Just look at me. At some point they said they’ve helped me all they can. I’d have stopped too, he said. He hadn’t shaved in a while, but he had clean clothes and had showered. He told me the church at 19th Street helped him out. He said he’s really running out of options. He added that several friends of his he served with in Afghanistan had killed themselves and they weren’t even homeless, as if they missed a step—they should have had to go through homelessness to get to death was his implication.

I asked what keeps him going. Something good might happen to me, he said. Not today, though, he added and laughed. But something good gonna happen. I got a friend with an apartment gets my mail for me. I keep hoping someone will send me some money, get me back on my feet. I asked what happened all the other times they sent him money; why didn’t that get him back on his feet, thinking about the times I’ve stumbled, thinking about the times I felt lost.

He shrugged. People don’t know what it costs to get out of a foxhole, man. I don’t know what it costs. I wish I did; then I could have said I need this amount and I’ll be fine. But I don’t know. More than what I got. More than what I had. Maybe this week I’ll have enough to get my ass straight again. Probably not. Anyway, that’s why I’m not dead. Something good will happen. Not today though.

I told him I was on my way to meet a friend of mine who received some bad news recently. We were quiet for a few minutes, I said something about how calm the water was. He nodded but stayed in his head.

Friend of mine…I said, and I told him what was going on. See, he said, this is what I’m talking about. Things ain’t so bad for me. You and me sitting here watching how calm the water is. Things ain’t so bad really. I could use a little more help, but not really. You know?

I knew exactly what he meant. I only had five dollars with me but I gave it to him, which he refused at first but then took. He didn’t do it hesitantly. He took it the second time and said, Yeah, thanks, I really could use it. I hate begging.

I asked if he ever hears from family. They stopped answering him. And this year he’ll be thirty, he said. He looked mid-forties at least. Thirty. I asked what he thought it would take to get things right again.

I just gotta decide to do it, he said. You know? I knew.

I told him I’d see him again, but I won’t, and I left wondering exactly who helped who.

Really incredible how calm the water was. Like glass. Like a mirror.  

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