“Hi, how are you.”
“I just saw you sitting here, thought I’d ask if I could get you anything?”
“You have a cigarette on you?”
“No, I don’t smoke.”
“You have ten dollars so I can go buy cigarettes?’
I hate when they take you for a sucker, thinking you don’t have the guts to say, “No,” because you were kind enough to offer. I pat my pockets like I always do when I don’t have cash, as if it helps ease the blow when you learn you’re not getting anything from me. Many folks will say they don’t give to the homeless because they’ll just spend the money on booze and drugs. I know smoking kills, and as I learned from the tragic death of my friend, Dwayne, so does alcohol, but I’ve consumed nicotine and drugs for far weaker excuses than sitting on the side of the road, invisible and ignored, with holes in my clothes and dirt on my face, the relentless summer sun of LA beating down on my back, and no place to privately have a bowel movement.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say, “I’ve got somewhere to be right now, but on my way back through here I’ll stop by the store and pick you up a pack of smokes.”
“Marlboro 100’s, please.”
That the homeless have the nerve to be picky no longer shocks me. They are human, after all.
“And some coffee cake. Some coffee cake would be real good.” Sucker. She takes a bite of the strawberry pop tart in her hand, then offers it to me.
“No thanks, I just ate lunch.”
She laughs. “More for me then.”
I’ll tell her I’ll be back in two hours. She asks for my name.
“Max. I’m Beverly.”
“Nice to meet you, Beverly.”
“If you’re not here when I get back, I’ll just leave…”
“Oh, I’ll be here, son.” Beverly sits back on her couch, spreads her arms over the back. Someone dumped a stained love seat on the side of the road across from the DMV. It smells of mildew and piss. Beverly has covered it with a blue sleeping bag and sheets. Later she will say she lucked out, just found a sofa sitting there on the side of the road like it was meant for her. She spins a tale about needing a new ID, but the DMV sent it to the wrong address so she’s just waiting out there until they fix the problem.
When I return, Beverly is right where I left her. Though now she is smoking a Black & Mild, and releasing a soggy cough into a bit of crumpled newspaper. I hesitate, rethinking the cigarettes like I might save her life, only to picture a man on the battlefield worn out from war. He is dirty, tired, and uncertain if he will live through this. So he turns to the stranger fighting next to him and asks for a smoke, a fragment of the life he used to know.
“Max. I thought you’d never return.”
“Sorry you had to wait so long.”
“I ain’t got nothing better to do.”
I show her everything in the bag I’ve brought with me, including the Marlboro 100’s and matches. I invite myself to have one with her. She’s indifferent. I kneel down, light, inhale, cough. I don’t make it look glamorous. “How long have you been out here?” I ask.
“A few weeks now.”
“That’s not long.” Assuming it’s only been two or three weeks since she left whatever nook of safety she had elsewhere and arrived in Hollywood, I ask, “A few weeks of being right here or do you mean…”
Beverly won’t look me in the eyes. She just watches the road so I ask instead, “How long have you been in LA?”
“I don’t know. What about you? Where you from?”
“I’m from Ohio. Youngstown, OH. You ever hear of Youngstown?”
She nods, but I doubt it. “Why’d you come to California?”
“I thought I was something I’m not.”
She likes this answer. “So then how do you like Hollywood?”
“It’s okay. I meet a lot of nice people like yourself.”
“Well I just moved to the area,” she says and believes it more than I do. “Trying to get situated.”
Beverly is too proud to admit her situation. At least aloud to me. I can tell she is still trying to hang on to the idea that she’s in control and can fix this. I try to tell her I know what it’s like to be homeless, but it doesn’t help. I never had to sleep on the street. She can see that. A man who’s been forced to sleep on concrete carries with him a hardness that’s difficult to miss. I’m soft and she knows it. We understand each other in this moment. She doesn’t want to talk and I should move on. I stand.
“They do things a little different here,” she says as I grind my cigarette beneath my shoe.
“Where were you before this?”
She tells me a part of town I am unfamiliar with.
I say the word “homeless” and regret it.
“I had a place,” she assures me. “They kicked me out. I needed to leave.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Beverly says it was a home for folks with no income and the mentally challenged. Beneath the two fur coats she wears in July, I notice her ocean blue pants. They look like hospital scrubs. On her feet she wears standard issue croc knockoff sandals.
“I’m a Christian,” she says.
I say nothing. Then I say, “Someone once told me when you have nothing left but God…”
“Only then will you realize God is everything.”
“You’ve heard that before, huh?”
“Like I said, I’m a Christian.”
“Sucks to hear, doesn’t it? Someone once said it to me. Doesn’t make your situation any better.”
“You believe the Lord Jesus Christ is your savior?”
“I do.” I’m always careful about admitting my beliefs to the men and women I meet on the street. They’ve been handed one too many tracts, been told Jesus is the answer and he will provide one too many times. They don’t want to hear another Gospel so they say they believe to get you to shut up, or worse, use your faith against you to get what they want. We’re Brothers in Christ. What do you mean five bucks is all you got, motherfucker? You call yourself a Christian?
“I’d best be on my way, Beverly. Is there anything I can do for you before I go?”
“What are you offering?”
“I’d like to help you if I can, but I don’t know what you need.”
She coughs into the wet newspaper in her hands, spits on the ashes of her cigar. “That house right there is mine. They won’t let me in.”
I follow her gaze and point. “That house right there?”
I’v seen the man who comes and goes from this house. It is not Beverly’s home. Whether she believes it’s really hers or she is saving face in front of me, I can’t be certain.
“Hello, Beverly.” A man in a white t-shirt and jeans approaches, walking the ugliest pitbull in the city, and dragging behind him a large piece of cardboard recently home to a 60-inch flat screen television. “I found this for you.”
“Oh my goodness!” Beverly exclaims. “Thank you. Thank you.” She kisses the air, inches from the hound’s nose. “And how are you? Yes, how are you? So good to see you.” The beast plops himself down on the sidewalk, licks his genitals. His fur is wet, his saliva thick. “I have a biscuit here for you somewhere.” Beverly stands, begins digging through the shopping cart parked next to the couch. “I know it’s here somewhere.”
When she finds the biscuit, she thanks the man – his name is Jose – and feeds the dog who she informs, “Now I finally have a place to go to the bathroom in private. Gonna build me a bathroom.” Beverly pats his head before retiring to the couch. She looks to me, surprised I’m still hanging around. Truth is, I don’t know why I am. I want to go.
“Some dresses,” she says.
“You’re still here. So I wanna tell you I could use some dresses. Some longer dresses. Maybe two or three of them. Do you have any dresses?”
I shake my head. “I don’t have any dresses.”
“That’s okay,” she says. “I just wanted to feel like a woman again.”
The next day I take a walk down the corrupted and corroding stretch of Vine Street between Fountain and Melrose in Hollywood. Here the streets are not paved with gold like television has lead us to believe. The sidewalks are dark with grime, littered with the overflow of never-emptied trashcans. Here the homeless don’t beg, they simply cower back in the corners and wait for death or jail. They occupy bus stops with tarps and sleeping bags. On national holidays, when no cars are on the road, this stretch of neighborhood is post-apocalyptic perfection. And on this street is the closest Goodwill between Beverly and me.
I’ve never purchased clothes for a woman before without her guidance. Raised by my sisters and mother, I know better than to pick something out for the opposite sex without her having seen it, tried it on, and clearly stated the correct size. I browse the aisles, hold things up, place them back on racks, and eventually collect a number of blankets, dresses, and pants. I wait behind a woman in line simultaneously struggling to hold up three mini desktop fans and her pants. I try not to look, and wonder if she even notices. Or cares. When it’s my turn I pay, and sling the bag of Beverly’s new clothes over my shoulder, and make my way back to her couch.
“Hello again, Beverly.”
“Max.” Beverly looks up from digging through her shopping cart. Clouds hang low and loose above us. “It looks like rain,” she says. “Just trying to get my affairs in order so I can stay dry.” Today she’s wearing a red bicycle helmet.
I tell her I brought some clothes. And a new blanket. She looks inside, nods, and asks for cigarettes. A sour anger forms in my gut. Not even a thank you? I imagine snatching the bag back from her dirty hands and giving the clothes to someone else. “Cigarettes? I just bought you cigarettes yesterday. You smoked them all already?”
“Of course I smoked them all already.”
“You gotta learn to ration, Beverly.”
“It was a long night. Can you get me cigarettes or not?”
I let out a deep sigh. I think about my night indoors. I think about going inside to get out of the this rain. “I just bought you these clothes, Beverly. I don’t have any extra money. I’m just an underpaid writer.”
“You bought these?”
“Well I didn’t have any dresses and such just sitting around my house.”
“Bless you, child. Tonight I’m going to pray that Jesus Christ blesses you.”
“I appreciate the prayers, but I don’t need any blessing.”
Beverly makes a show of going back into the bag, holding up each piece of clothing, bringing the blanket close to her face. “So you’re a writer? You any good?” Before she gives me a chance to answer, she tells me she’s a writer too. “Poetry,” she says, but she reminds me everything is still back at her old place. “Maybe you can take me back to where I used to live? I have to get my things. You told me yesterday you drive a cab.”
I shake my head. “That wasn’t me, Beverly. I don’t have a car during the day. My wife takes it to work.”
“Oh, you’re married? How do you like being married?”
“I love it. Are you married?”
“Once… I can give you gas money.”
“You can’t even buy your own cigarettes.”
“Oh. Right. Right. I just need to get back there and get my Bible.”
“Why’d you leave it behind?”
“Because?” Talking to Beverly is like talking to a preschooler already occupied with cartoons and toys. She stops digging and says, “Because I had to go. They wanted things from me that me, as a Christian woman, couldn’t give them. Sexual things.”
I tell Beverly maybe it’s not a good idea to go back there, but she says that’s not an option. She needs her Bible.
I think of the extra Bible I have at home. I found it on the top shelf of the closet after I moved in. I almost threw it away, but when I was ten I killed a spider in my bedroom with my Bible and cried for weeks, sobbing into my mother’s shoulder, “But I killed one of God’s creations with God’s word!” And throwing away a Bible, well, that seemed at least twice as bad as the incident with the arachnid.
I ask Beverly if she wants a new Bible. I tell her I can bring one to her.
“King James? I ain’t readin’ anything but that King James version.”
The next day I don’t go back even though I promised I would. Some days it’s too hard to get myself out of the house and visit with a stranger. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to sit amongst her misfortune and discarded Pop Tart wrappers. I don’t want to smell the piss and the mildew. I don’t want to say, “no,” to another pack of cigarettes or to another ride back to that mysterious house full of the sexually abused and mentally ill. Not today.
So I stay indoors.
And I wait until tomorrow.
And when tomorrow comes, Beverly will be gone. The discarded couch picked up by the city and taken to a dump by two men that will have no idea someone has made it their home. A neighbor will have gotten tired of looking out their window, seeing it and seeing Beverly forced to squat behind it for privacy. When it happens, Beverly will be away, pushing a shopping cart, collecting cans to recycle. She will be in the parking lot of the grocery store asking for cigarettes, or perhaps chatting with Jose and his dog. I will try not to think about her returning to discover her only sense of familiarity gone, then aimlessly shoving along with her cart looking for the next nook or street corner offering shelter.
I will keep the Bible on the top shelf of my closet, waiting for its new owner to cross my path because Los Angeles is a small city, and I am confident Beverly and I will meet again. I will try to take comfort knowing she is clothed and warm. And I will pray some other sucker like me buys her a pack of smokes.
copyright March 2013 Max Andrew Dubinsky, All Rights Reservered