Within the Pines
The rousters come out with the autumn sunlight, kicking feet and pulling off the sleeping bags.
It’s the same every morning. We have to get away from the shops before the real people show up for work.
Most mornings, they’re a little rough; kicking folks in the head and stuff. But this morning they’re pretty nice.
Aaron gave ‘em grief, though, like he always does. He kicked back and got himself a clout on the head for his effort.
Mary keeps telling him he ain’t got no sense fighting back with the cops like that. But he’ll never change.
The rest of us get up and begin packing up our stuff. The women go pee behind the bushes while the men make busy.
It’s kinda funny how folks do that here. Not like under the bridges where everybody’s in everybody’s business.
The young kid wanders off to get a jug of water for washing, and the rest of us help the old ones get their shit together.
Jimmy’s shit got robbed again, so we help him load what’s left of it back in his cart.
It ain’t like we got to go nowhere today, so most of us are waiting for the kid to come back with the wash water.
I go check on Jesse. He was screaming again in the night and he looks like hell this morning. The boy is not healthy.
His eyes are red as hell, and he’s still pretty shaky, but he shrugs off my help and staggers over to the trees to piss.
He’s smoking when he comes back, and every time he takes a pull he goes into a coughing fit that doubles him over.
I done told him once he’s gonna cough his lungs out, but he don’t really seem to care. Understandable, I guess.
The kid comes back and we all reach out for a handful of water for washing our face.
What’s left over we give to the women for their personal needs.
When we’re as clean as we’re gonna get, we peel off to our usual places – looking to make a little money before supper.
Jesse follows me as usual. He ain’t been on the street but a few weeks and he’s still pretty scared.
The dumb kid is still carrying razor blades in his pockets, even though I told him he’s more likely to just cut himself.
We make our way to the train station and set up close to the ticket machines. Jesse lost his sign again, so we share mine.
We sit for a couple of hours, not really hoping to get anything seeing as how its a holiday. But it’s warmer on the grates.
Jesse keeps wanting to talk about things, but I ignore him cause it ain’t gonna do him any good.
He gets too mad all the time, always cussing his momma for throwing him out. But it ain’t like she’s gonna take him back.
Besides. All his fussing does is drive people away thinking he’s one of the crazies. I just tell him to shut up and stare.
About noon, we pack up our shit and head for the shelter. This may be the one day we actually get to eat right for a change.
There’s a line in the lot already, so we take a place and chat with some of the others.
The preacher is wandering around asking if we’re all OK and if anyone wants to talk to the doc again.
I look at Jesse, but he just ignores the preacher and keeps to himself. I can’t make him go if he don’t want to.
Mary and Aaron come in. She’s holding onto his arm like the Queen of the May, and poor Aaron looks mighty embarrassed.
The kid comes in after them, wearing a fancy pair of glasses he must have had hidden away for God knows how long.
We all stand together in the line, wondering whether Jimmy will show or not. He’s still pissed at the preacher so…
But sure enough, here he comes just as we’re about to get in the door, bitching about leaving that damn cart outside again.
We finally get inside and grab a table closest to the heater on account of Mary being so skinny.
There’s a lot more people here this year, on both sides of the serving line. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not.
The preacher gets up in front of the TV news people and makes another one of his speeches about charity and mercy and all.
It’s pretty much the same as last year, but Jesse wasn’t here for that so he’s listening like it’s gospel.
Finally, the food comes. It’s a lot, but better yet, it’s hot.
As we eat we start telling the stories once again.
Aaron gets his part all wrong, and Mary laughs and gives him a kiss, and we all laugh to see him flinch away.
Jimmy and the kid are picking at each other’s plate, each trying to figure out if the other got better food.
Jesse just eats and watches, laughing along and coughing into his handkerchief occasionally.
He like to had a fit when I told the story about how I had my britches stolen when I lived under the bridge.
Everybody was eating and laughing. It was really nice.
But after a while, they came to take the plates away and hand out the tickets for the raffle for the beds.
Jesse sat up straight in his chair as if being tall was gonna give him a better shot at being picked.
The volunteers rounded up the tickets and carried them up to the preacher and his wife, who dumped them into a pot.
The TV cameras was long gone, so the preacher skipped the speech and reached in and started barking out numbers.
When they called my name instead of his, he looked like he was going to cry.
I felt so bad I offered him my ticket instead, but he said he couldn’t take it and for me to just shutup.
I tried to tell him there was no need for that and if he wanted the ticket to take it, but he just walked away.
Mary told me not to worry and that she and Aaron would keep an eye on him in the night to make sure he was OK.
I was still bothered, but I made my way to the gym to pick a bed and get ready for the evening services.
They ain’t really beds – just cots – but when you’ve been sleeping on rocks, they do just fine.
Once I got settled in, I went back outside for a smoke and found Jesse sitting by the door.
I could tell he’d been crying, so I sat down next to him and passed him the smoke. He took it, the looked up at the sky.
“I’m sorry for how I talked to you back there,” he said. “I just really wanted to sleep inside, you know?”
“You still can, if you want to,” I said. “You need to be indoors more than me anyways. Take my place.”
“I won’t do that,” he said. “You got that ticket fair and square, and you deserve it. I’ll be alright.”
“Deserve ain’t got shit to do with it, Jesse!” I said. “You’re sick as a dog and I’m just dirty. You need this more.”
He stood up like he was mad at something. “I ain’t gonna take it, though.” he said. “You go on.”
Now I was pissed. “Goddammit, Jesse, what the hell is wrong with you? I’m trying to HELP you, you dumbass!”
He turned to me, then pointed at the city around us. “Look at all this,” he said. “All this money…”
He started crying again, and I put an arm around him. At first it was just tears, but then his shoulders started shaking.
I held on to him the whole time.
After a bit, a volunteer came out and told us it was time to close the gates.
Jesse brushed off his eyes and got up to walk away. I offered him my place one last time, but again, he refused.
He shook my hand and told me he’d see me in the morning at the train station. He asked me to save him a breakfast biscuit.
I told him I would and let him go on his way. I felt like a piece of shit, but there was nothing I could have done.
That night, as I lay in the first bed I’d touched in almost four months, I got a real bad feeling about Jesse.
He wasn’t cut out for life on the streets. There was something about him that would never learn the ways of things.
He just didn’t fit the world somehow, and I knew, just knew, something bad was going to happen.
I didn’t hardly get any sleep after all.
When I got up, I grabbed a quick breakfast and stole an extra few biscuits to take to the others.
The sun hadn’t come over the towers yet, so I made my way to the pine grove to catch up with everyone before they split up.
I was about a block away when I saw a bunch of people standing around the grove and looking in.
When I saw the yellow tape, I got sick inside, and started running.
Aaron was standing next to the curb talking calmly to a cop while Mary cried loudly into his shoulders.
When they saw me coming, they pointed and the cop turned to meet me.
“What happened?” I asked. “Is somebody hurt? Who got hurt?”
“Hang on a minute,” said the cop, grabbing me by the arm. “I’m the one asking the questions here.”
That was when I saw Jess sitting glassy eyed on the ground. “Jesse!” I shouted. “What happened here?”
The cop stepped between us and put a hand on my chest. I pushed it away and called to Jesse again.
Jimmy came up behind me and grabbed my arms. “Calm down, dammit,” he said, “Jesse’s alright. Just shook up a bit.”
“WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?!?” I yelled.
“It’s the kid,” said Jimmy. “Somebody came to steal my stuff and the kid tried to fight him.”
I turned to Jimmy like he’d just gone crazy. “What the hell…?”
“The guy had a razor,” said Jimmy. “And he just kept cutting the kid over and over before running off.”
The cop stepped forward again. “Did all y’all know the victim?” he said.
“Did you know what his name was?”
We looked at each other helplessly. Mary and Aaron both shook their heads. Jimmy and I just stared like dummies.
It was Jesse that finally spoke up. His eyes were like nothing I had ever seen.
“We knew him, officer,” he said. But none of us ever knew his name.”