Trippers and Askers

She curses when the light turns from green to yellow, then red. He doesn’t look homeless, not like the usual scruffy, grim-faced older men she is used to seeing here. A tattered black and gray checked blanket hangs from his shoulders, though it is warm enough outside; she has the windows down, which she now regrets. Her blaring music says, Look at me, my life is better than yours. Yet there he is on the corner holding a sign and she has to stop because the light is red, and to turn down the music would be an obvious gesture, like staring straight ahead or pretending to fiddle with something on the passenger’s seat.

There is always someone at the corner with a sign, holding out a hand, looking through you with hard eyes. She always stares ahead, her face burning, reasoning her way out of her own discomfort, willing the light to change. The car idling, she reads the black scrawl on the rectangle of cardboard, Hungry, Please Help. He doesn’t look homeless, she thinks again. Has to be about her age, maybe a few years younger, certainly capable of landing a job. Landscaping, washing dishes. His eyes are blue and sad and turned down at the corners. Under the checked blanket which he holds closed at his throat with one hand, he wears a red and black flannel that reminds her of her father, reminds her of camping for weeks straight and coming home smelling of pine. The cars line up behind her, their drivers and passengers commenting on this young man standing on the curb at a city interchange with no shame whatsoever. He’s on drugs, he’s all strung out. Can’t hold a job, pissing his money away. It’s the liquor. Gambling too, I’ll bet. Definitely drugs, would you just look at him.

But his eyes are bright. It’s not money for drugs he’s after. He wants to be saved. He looks at her and raises his eyebrows.

"I’ll take you to dinner," falls from her mouth. He tilts his head toward her car, hitching the blanket up. What was that? I’ll take you to dinner, she repeats, looking over the rims of her sunglasses. Perhaps she should have taken them off. People like to see your eyes when you’re talking to them. The light turns green. The honking starts. She waits, her breath stalled, while he saunters around the front of the car and climbs into the passenger seat.

Behind her, they must wonder if she knows him. They hope so, and they hope not. They are headline readers and churchgoers; they are already saved.

She wants to ask him how he ended up on the corner, how old he is, does he like to read? Has he come from the mountains? He has probably come from the mountains. She imagines a stack of weather-worn paperbacks: Plato, Schopenhauer, of course Walden. Whitman, Song of Myself. She will quit her job and hitchhike across the country with him, love him beneath the pines. But first, she wants to feed him.

"What kind of food do you like?"

"Anything is fine," he says, and continues to look out the window.

She may turn the radio down now. They drive in silence that is loaded for her, but silence for him. She can smell him, not like pine, but dirty hair and wet leather.

"Is Chinese okay?" It is right down the street. It is quite and dark, a buffet. She’ll buy him a beer. No, he probably prefers wine. Anything is fine, he had said.

"I really appreciate this." The way he says it makes her self-conscious, like she has gone too far. It makes her think she is always going too far. She feels she is losing control.

"You look so young," she says, glancing at him, at his blanket and sign. She asks as casually as she can, like he has just come to her with a scraped knee, "What happened?"

"I just moved up here. I got a job lined up but it hasn’t started yet."

She realizes she is leaning forward. She remembers her first Confession, leaning forward to hear the quiet words of the priest forgiving her after spilling her worst secrets: stealing a pack of cigarettes, lying to her parents. Leaving the church, her heart felt open and light. The doors swung open to an overcast day. By the time she reached home she was frowning.

He brings his blanket and sign into the restaurant. She walks several steps behind him, wonders if the others can smell him. He was living in the mountains, she tells herself like she is the others. For a moment, she considers offering him her shower, then imagines him in it, dirt rolling off him in brown rivers, his feet on her clean floor, his blanket draped over her toilet. The waiter brings them each a glass of water and a plate, and they rise without speaking.

She squirms, watching him eat, fork to mouth and fork to plate and over and over again, head bent in concentration, not tasting, just swallowing. That is hunger, she tries to think lightly, and takes a sip of water. "Slow down," she laughs, "you can always go back for more."

It is a dark feeling rising from her belly, the beginnings of doubt that he has a job lined up at all. She watches his wrists. On the right is a frayed hemp bracelet. On the left, the beginnings of a tattoo which snakes up his forearm. His wrists are too skinny; his hands, too veiny. Drugs, she lets herself think. Look at him quiver.

When he is finished he leans back against the red vinyl and rests his hands on his stomach. "Oooh," is all he says. He shuts his eyes for a long time while she digs in her bag for her wallet. There are six empty plates on the table. One of them is hers.

"Have you been to the mountains?" she asks, finally, blurting it out in an exhale.

He opens his eyes. "What mountains."

"Are you on drugs?"

He doesn’t answer. Just looks straight ahead and frowns, fiddles with the bracelet. Shakes slightly. The whole booth shakes with him. Ice bumps around in the glass.

She slides out of the booth and he follows. "Don’t forget your sign," she says, jangling her keys. "Do you want a ride back to the corner, or do you have somewhere to stay?"

"Actually…" he pushes the greasy brown fringe of hair from his forehead. He can tell by her face he shouldn’t bother asking.

She is the first one to the intersection, grateful that the light is red. He looks over at her and shrugs, mumbles Thanks. When he opens the door, the sign falls onto the street. He leaves it there, walks around the back of the car and stands like a monument at his corner. He looks at her when the light turns green. His eyes are blue, emotionless. Turned down at the corners.

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