The whole house shook. At first I thought that someone was doing construction in the basement. The first few times it happened, we were able to write it off as being something uncomfortable, an annoyance, something that would go away. After a while though, I knew that there had to be another reason for the way the house shook. I went down the stairway from our second story flat to the front foyer. Looking out of glass, coated on one side with silver to make it a one-way view, I saw a man on our front porch. He leaned over, staggered a little to one side, looking out on 7 Mile. He fell like a tree in slow motion, inching his way to the floor of our front porch. He curled up onto one side and closed his eyes.
Running upstairs, I told a community member that I was going out of the gate, the barrier between our safe JV house and the hood of 7 Mile. I grabbed my keys, phone, and clicker, and walked up to the front porch steps. He was still there, slumped over like a man sleeping on his side. A dining glass held a pale liquid inside on the landing; a cigarette pack and vodka bottle in a brown paper bag dropped carelessly next to it. I asked him if he was okay. At first he didn’t pay me much attention, he groaned a little and waved me on. I asked again if he was all right. He leaned himself up and looked at me. His face was tattooed in burned scar tissue. His knuckles were a deep red from the wounds, bits of burning skin that painted themselves on his arms, legs, neck, and forehead. The back of his head had a large wound on it, a scab of some kind.
I asked if I could sit with him and talk with him for a while. He looked so surprised, so shocked that I would take a moment to spend with him. He said that he was a Vietnam veteran, shot in the foot and in the chest. The first shot took off part of his toe. The other wound broke ribs and left a scar on his sternum. He keeled over in pain, reliving the war or experiencing the lingering pain, I don’t know. He beat his chest in a way that I’ve seen other men at the homeless shower program where I work sometimes. Was it a way to gain more strength? More encouragement? I asked if he had a place to stay. I don’t know why I asked that question since I was actually afraid of the answer. If he didn’t, I didn’t know any numbers to any shelter. I couldn’t invite him into my home since I share it with others… and I still didn’t know why he had shown up on our doorstep. He looked off for a long moment. He turned back to me and said yes… he had a place to stay. I don’t believe him. He claimed the place was over on Warrington, a place a few blocks away where I have run many times.
He stared out at me with blue eyes just like mine.Then he went on to describe the fire. How his memory is etched with the image of the fireball coming right at his face. How he held up his hands to cover his eyes. How the fire licked away at his face, scalp, and rest of his body. I still don’t know what caused the fire. I doubt I will ever find out. All I know is that his body was covered in the scars; the pain was his constant guest, permanent torment. One eye was hurt from the fire; he didn’t cover it well enough.
Why did he survive, he asked. A miracle of God, surely. But why did God leave him here, with this mangled body and a mind that doesn’t function well anymore? How did he get left like this? I imagined him when he must have been my age. The scars peeled away. The dent/scab on his head gone. His mind able to remember his own address clearly, instead of stammering and pounding his head as he strained to remember. Repetitions like a broken record, skipping over the same tracks.
I asked of his family. His sister was up near Traverse City, married to a doctor. He lives with an 70-year-old veteran of the Vietnam war and a woman with breasts that sag to the waist. She was there before he was. But he says he owns the house, paid cash for it. Another disconnect in the story. His 3,000 dollars from Uncle Sam go straight to the Vodka bottle. Why, I asked? He has no goal or purpose. God hasn’t made it clear yet why he is still alive. What can he do? The Vicodin pills come from the VA Hospital, enrolled him in a pain study, and try to let him get on with life. I bet that they just give him pills to help them sleep at night. This isn’t our fault, the government and society will say. He did his time, served his country, but this has fallen to him alone. Are we meant to be his keeper?
He remarked how he didn’t think that the world made men like me. That was the biggest compliment I have gotten all year. It also is the saddest thing I’ve heard. I want society- no, society is too vague a word… I want people to realize that we need to help. We need to step out of our comfort level and sit with the forgotten. If we don’t then who do we expect to help? Government? NGOs? Churches? I hope that this year has at least taught us that these remedies are limited. The most effective treatment of homelessness, mental illness, is to be present with them. To take a personal responsibility for something that is far too big and vague to be shuffled directly to us. Make this fight ours.
I hope I see him again. I hope he does actually have that house on Warrington. I hope there are more people in this neighborhood that will help him and others like him. He told me his name was Kenneth at the start of the conversation. At the end, he said he though my name was Kenneth. Maybe it was. Maybe it still is. He is my brother, my father, my family.