The guy didn’t ask to get into my car. He just got in. He was huge, almost 250 pounds, and he barely fit in the passenger seat. He slammed the door shut before I could say anything, squeezing his legs over my backpack.
I had just been pulling away from the gas pump when the guy shouted at me from outside. I’d stopped. I could see him in the rearview mirror, shuffling as fast as he could, and then he was at the passenger door, opening it, muttering indiscernibly, getting in. “Just gotta get a few miles down the road,” he said, “and you’re going the same way.” It was hard to understand his slurred speech. He might’ve been drunk or high. He might’ve had a mental illness. Maybe all three. Still, he got his point across: we were both heading north, and I had a car with room to spare, while he had the hat on his head, a torn leather coat, and the delicate grocery bag filled with cheap packaged foods. Point taken. I moved my suitcase to the backseat so his legs had some room.
His name was Kelly.
Ten minutes before, I was filling up the gas tank when he first came over to ask for money, for a bus ticket home.
“Excuse me, sir?” I heard.“Sir?”
Shit, I thought, turning to see who it was. The guy was black, probably in his forties. When he got close I saw that the whites of his eyes were stained reddish brown. It was cold out, and he wasn’t wearing enough to be warm. The gas station was an isolated island in a confluence of highways, a sort of no-man’s-land limbo, and he was looking for a way to move on, a bus ticket out of there, because his feet weren’t good enough to take him. That’s what he said.
There are plenty of conditioned social scripts designed for interactions like this one, and I could feel them tugging at me like a powerful undertow as he stood there asking for help. Sorry, I’m in a rush and I’ve gotta run. I can’t help you, man, not today. I don’t have any cash on me. I’ve used them all before, many times. The primary purpose of these scripts isn’t to protect my money, but to sever me like a guillotine from the shared presence. I use them to escape, to keep myself from connecting, which is the purpose of every conditioned social script. They stop you from slowing down long enough to see what’s actually there. Because when you’re willing to see what’s actually there, it’s quite likely you’ll see suffering of some sort. And after you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it, and it’s much harder to think of yourself as somehow separate or removed, which was a delusion to begin with. After seeing it, you begin to realize that you’re not innocent, that you’re implicated in this suffering, that you’ve always been a part of it, and now you’re a knowing witness, too. Shit. So what do you do with that. What’s your next move?
Giving away a few dollars won’t help. That’s just another script, a dismissal to end the interaction as quickly as possible. Because what was Kelly really asking for? He’d probably say cash, but I think there was something else at stake, too. One human being was asking to be seen by another. To be heard, and actually listened to for once. To be affirmed as worthy of even just a small measure of attention and assistance, worthy of existing among all the other existers, worthy of being connected. Yes or no? Love or nothing? Us or no one?
I thought of my year on the road. I’d had to ask for help quite often. Can I please pitch my tent on your property, just for the night? When people said no, it felt bad. I knew, at an intellectual level, that their answer had no bearing whatsoever on my worthiness as a living human being, but somewhere beyond reason all I heard was: You don’t deserve to be helped, which, in the unconscious mind surreptitiously became, You are nothing more than a petty nuisance. You are not worthy of being here, on my doorstep, in this town, in this country, in this world. Get out. I don’t care what happens to you because you don’t matter. I got used to it, eventually, all the no’s. They bothered me less as the months and miles went by, but that doesn’t mean they were any less hurtful in their nature. You can build up an immunity to certain poisons by ingesting small doses over time, but that immunity doesn’t change the fact that the poison is poison.
I told him I’d buy him some food or a drink inside. He didn’t want it. He wanted the money. I insisted.
“I’m sorry, man, I’m not going to give you money.”
He asked if I would take him to Wal-Mart and buy him some blankets. I said I didn’t have time, which was true because I had a long way to go until Massachusetts and night was falling fast, but it wasn’t true, because night wasn’t falling that fast, and no one was waiting for me in Massachusetts. I had all the time in the world.
I convinced him to come into the gas station with me. There were gloves and hats. He didn’t want any. He spent a long time looking at the medicine shelf, stocked with the basics – Tylenol, aspirin, Mucinex. He would pick up one bottle, mumble something, put it down. I heard him say, “No, that’s too expensive,” about the NyQuil. He was looking and looking, but he couldn’t find what he was looking for. Probably because what he was looking for couldn’t be purchased for $5.99 at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Or he just knew that aspirin wouldn’t come close to treating whatever pain he was feeling in his body, his mind, his heart. So, he didn’t bother. He moved on, didn’t take anything.
“I guess I’ll get some food,” he said.
I followed him over to the covered grill, and he looked at the sweating hot dogs and the ambiguous fried globs. He looked for a long time, and said nothing. Then, he walked away, back to the center of the store. I wouldn’t have eaten any of it either.
There were a bunch of gift cards at the cash register. I offered to get him a $25 card to Applebee’s. He nodded, said that’d be good. I slid it across the counter, but the cashier said the machine was broken, so he couldn’t sell any gift cards.
“Are you serious?” I said, clicking my tongue with annoyance. “You can’t do anything about it?”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
I looked back at Kelly. “I don’t know what else to do,” I said. “That’s all I got.”
“That’s alright, man,” he mumbled. “That’s alright.”
I shook his hand, and touched him on the back, and said good luck and God bless and a few other paltry consolations that would do absolutely nothing to feed him or heal him or keep him warm. I hoped the effort, the words, the touch, I hoped all of it was better than nothing. But who knows, maybe it was worse.
I got in my car to drive away, and that’s when he shouted at me, and came shuffling up, and got inside. We drove onto the highway and through the outskirts of a nondescript town, passing strip malls and fast food joints. He rolled the window down, so the airstream whistled by us, and he didn’t take my advice about the seatbelt, so the alarm was ringing. I tried to have a conversation, to listen, but I couldn’t understand any of it. I know he said something about the Pope. I know he called me his “pale brother.” That’s about all I got. After just a few minutes I dropped him off by the Pep Boys, right before the ramp to I-95, and then I drove on, ripping through reality at 75 miles an hour again, too fast to care too much about anything other than my own little self.
I don’t know the end to this story. There is no end, I suppose, because the story is still telling itself right now. What does that mean? For me, it means writing late into the night at my kitchen table about how Kelly is probably still in Maryland somewhere, cold. For Kelly, it probably means the cold itself, beyond every word and concept. Just cold. Dark, winter, clear-sharp cold.