Steam was rising from the streets, slowly crawling skyward in the chilled morning. The only sound came from the fall of his boots upon the pavement, echoing loudly off the tin walls of the empty warehouses that lined the narrow streets.
A voice called out behind him. “Jerry! Hey man, where you been?” The voice emanated from around a corner, a thin greasy face sliding into the light. One eye was looking toward the ground, the other glinting happily, a bright vibrant green. The effect was a little unsettling, and made the man look very sick.
“Hey, George,” Jerry replied. “Things have been a bit busy lately.”
“We’ve missed you around here. You always bring nice things.” George chuckled nervously. This was how it always was with George, he always asked for things. Jerry didn’t mind though, it made him feel good to give. He reached into his coat, and gingerly handed George a Rubik’s cube. Eyes bugging out, George quickly snatched it from the outstretched hand. He ran ahead to join the rest of the ragtag group of homeless men, sheltered at the end of the alley.
Jerry had spent a lot of time with this group over the years, even after he had put his life back together. Looking at the seven bedraggled men before him, hands held to a fire, he was reminded of those times.
After he’d lost his wife, he’d given up on pretty much everything. He’s stopped paying bills, stopped cleaning the house, and stopped eating for a while, too. For a long time, his job was all that kept him going, but after a few weeks, he quit going; tired of breezing through the days like a zombie, trying to pretend that he was living a normal life.
He quit his job and sold the house to the first interested buyer for much less than it was worth. He set out, without a home, with no specific destination. He lived on motels for the better part of a year, until the money from the house and his savings ran out. After that, he wandered the streets of Milwaukee, doing some odds-and-ends jobs to pay for his dinner each night; until he stumbled upon this group.
Most of them were mentally handicapped, except for old Frank, a grizzled and bitter old man. He wouldn’t talk too much about his past, or why he lived with the group of retarded figures, but he had a kind heart, and took good care of the others, making sure everyone received a fair share of food.
When Jerry arrived on the scene, it took him awhile to understand why these people lived on the street. Apparently, about a year before, they had all lived in the same mental health clinic, but were forced out when it burned to the ground. Frank had been one of the caretakers at the home, and because of the fire, the patients had no documentation, and no one else would take them in.
Frank couldn’t let them wander around helplessly, so he stayed with them, making sure they were okay. During the day, Frank worked at a nearby restaurant, and at night, brought back food scraps for them all to eat.
All this Jerry learned one night when Frank was quite drunk. He spoke of the events with both sadness and hatred, the latter seemingly smoldering in his eyes. Frank’s faith in society had been shattered the night of the fire, he explained.
As Jerry approached the group now, he realized Frank was telling a story, everyone rapt in attention, sitting quietly listening to his gravelly voice, as he rambled on about the injustice of the justice system. The same old story, repeated endlessly. They were a good audience, and he was a good storyteller.
Once Frank finished, the others started looking around, taking notice of Jerry standing stoically, waiting for the end of Frank’s story. They jumped up excitedly, rushing to surround Jerry, all eagerly awaiting his gift. George was already showing off his Rubik’s cube to Frank, who was nodding his approval.
Gifts all delivered, everyone moved off to their normal spots, never very far from the fire, especially during the cold winter. They began playing, some giggling loudly, delighted by the different combinations of color, revealed with each turn of the cube.
Jerry sidled up next to Frank. “I figured you could use a break from these guys. Those cubes should keep them busy for a while.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it,” he said, smiling. He glanced at Jerry and asked, “How you been?”
“Good,” Jerry said. “I’m working for the Fire Department now.” He winced, knowing Frank’s dislike of firemen in general, considering.
Surprising Jerry, Frank exclaimed, “Good!” and clapped an arm over Jerry’s shoulder and added cheerfully, “It’s about time we got a fireman who cares!”
It warmed Jerry’s heart to hear Frank happy about something; even better to see him smiling.
“I’ve got something for you, too.” Jerry reached into his coat pocket once more, pulling out a set of keys. He jiggled them, eliciting a tiny tinkling of the metal.
“What’s this?” Frank asked, surprise evident on his face.
“The keys to a new home,” Jerry replied. He smiled and placed the keys into the hand of a very surprised Frank. “I’ve been working on getting the State to fund a new home for these guys for the past year. Fortunately, one of my old buddies from back before–well, you know–still owed me a favor. He spoke with all the right people and now, they rebuilt the old place, right on the same spot. And they want you to run it,” Jerry told him.
Frank’s eyes welled up with tears, and he wrapped Jerry up into a big bear hug. “That’s the greatest news I’ve ever heard, boy.” Jerry watched as his face turned from delight to consternation. “But, why would you work so hard on this for us? I mean, you got back on your feet. You have a good job now. Why bother helping us?”
“I had to, Frank. You guys took me in when I had nowhere else to go. I can’t just turn my back on that.” Jerry looked around, admiring the childlike concentration on the faces of these poor souls. “Besides, how could I let these guys continue to live out here?” He turned to Frank now, the smile replaced with a determined expression. “You helped me, so I’m helping you.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
They shook hands, and Frank tossed the keys into the air, looking at them with newfound amazement. It was easy to see Frank’s mind churning behind those eyes, memories spilling back into his brain as he remembered the times from those earlier years. He sniffled a bit, and an uncomfortable silence descended on the two men, as they stood there, watching the others playing with their new toys.
“Well,” Jerry said, “a van is going to be here soon to take you all over there.”
Frank turned and shook his hand again. “You’ll stop by?”
“You bet,” Jerry replied.
As Jerry walked away, back down the alley and onto the street, the van he had promised arrived, and Frank and two others began herding the rest of the group into the vehicle. George waved to him, excited that he was taking a trip.
A last look from Frank, and a small nod loosened the lump in Jerry’s throat, filling him with a blooming joy, and he felt like he was lighter than air.
After such a long time of thinking about no one else, especially his wife, he found it fulfilling to be taking care of someone again.