It’s funny, really.
How we stare from our balconies at the ants scurrying below. How we pass them on the streets—the wanting eyes, the starving mouths, the empty hands. Hair stiff as wire, clothing an amalgam of layered coats and scarves, mismatched socks, worn-out sandals.
We pass them, and we think.
That could never be me.
Look at here. Look at now. In this moment, I’m all set. We get so acclimated to small comforts that our minds can’t even meet them halfway down. We can’t see ourselves in their shoes. Our imaginations just aren’t that big.
I used to think like that. Before the divorce and the alimony, before the recession, before the unemployment and fire and the insurance company refusing to compensate because I didn’t insure every blade of grass in my yard or knick-knack in my study.
I downsized to a trailer. But welfare cut my benefits again five months ago, and just like that I was another ghost at the panhandle. It all happened so slow. It all happened so fast.
And time don’t wait. They say it moves quicker as you get older. All I know is, as a starry-eyed grad student, I never pictured it would end up like this. I never pictured myself as a middle-aged loner sleeping with the rats under blankets of corrugated tin. This isn’t the life I went three-hundred-grand in the hole to build.
But where did I go wrong?
One minute, everything was falling into place. The next it was falling to pieces, and as hard as I tried to preserve it, the decay was just too persistent. It spread too fast, and overtook my future.
Everything’s decayed now.
Even my memories are starting to rust.
There’s a lady out here I used to pass by on my way to work, every day. I used to avert my gaze, never locking with her hungry, pothole eyes. Her chessboard teeth. Her gnarled, swollen hands and yellowed, untrimmed nails. They would reach. And I would walk. And she would call. And I would walk. And she would say “God bless you” anyway. And smile.
And I would walk.
Silent. Distracted. Too consumed by dizzying fantasies of the trophy wife who left me. Our future children that we never had. A bigger house, twice the size of the meager three-bedroom apartment we shared. I always wanted bigger, I guess. Now I have nothing. Now I’d settle for what we wanted to leave behind in a heartbeat.
I met that lady again just the other day. Apparently she’d found a shelter uptown a few months back and they’d helped her get her life in order. She got on as a dishwasher at this little diner. She looked a lot cleaner. Not fancy, by far. But she looked...ever-so-slightly like I used to. It was a sobering reversal, watching her hands.
They reached. And I couldn’t walk anymore. And she called, and from my teary eyes I could make out that her hands were no longer empty. They didn’t ask; they offered.
At the end of the day, I never had the heart to take her money.
But I learned her name.
It was Lila. Lila McPherson.
She had a name.
They all did.
Oh, and one more little bit of information I left out. The last doctor visit I could afford didn’t go so good. Not that it mattered. At this point I’d give anything just to get out.
Another year at most I’ve got to rot in this place.
I could look for the shelter that rehabilitated Lila. But why? I’d be getting polished up just to die. Anything from hereon out is an exercise in futility.
So now all I can do is find my reflection in passing. Wait for a bus window or puddle or mirror. Find myself, and try to recognize. Find myself, and try to remember. Still, it seems every newest version of myself I find, he’s so far removed from the man I knew. And there’s no strength left to change him.
All I can do is remind him, reassure him.
He has a name too.