June 12, 2020
“Oh, Peter, don’t be afraid, walk out on the water, don’t be afraid”. The song echoing in his ear always pierced his heart.
John would wake up in the same place, across the street from the sanctified church. He wished those holy rollers didn’t have to be so loud with their tambourines, drums, and organ playing. John got up, saw the empty bottle lying on the ground at his feet, and kicked it as he walked out of the alley into the street. The night was bitter cold.
“All the shelters are full,” he mumbled as he looked at the clock in the liquor store window at the corner. The only place to go now was down under the bridge for the night. He would need some scraps to put in the barrel to help keep the fire burning all night. The bridge was home to about six men, but anyone could stay there.
John normally stayed in the overnight shelter, except for the times he got drunk and fell asleep in the alley. You had to be in the shelter by 10:00 p.m. before they locked the doors. At the corner of the next alley, John saw a small wooden crate and picked it up for firewood. He is about eight city blocks from the bridge. The wind was pushing him, making the walk to the bridge go quick.
He clenched his coat together because no buttons were on it, his bare hands numb because they were so cold. He kept his face down to shield it from the cold night. John looked up long enough and was about to cross the street, when he saw a group of teenagers coming towards him. This group beat the homeless for fun. John was too close to them to turn around or cross the street.
“Hey, old man, see you got your body guard tonight, huh?” one teen said as they walked pass John.
“That’s all right old man, there will be other nights,” another one sneered at him as they went down the street laughing.
“Those kids must be high,” John thought. “What bodyguard?”
He broke up the wooden crate as he approached the bridge. There were no walls or doors, but this was home for many. They knew anyone who came there had nowhere else to go. John found a spot for the night and a man came over and handed him a blanket.
Someone had to be up at all times to keep the fire burning during the night. Two or three men would stay up at a time throughout the night, to ensure that the fire did not go out. Over the course of two winters they had lost about five men, because the men keeping watch over the fire had fallen asleep. John felt uneasy about the night, but he shook off the feeling as he wrapped up in the blanket. His watch over the fire would be from 4:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.
When John woke up, he was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. His heart raced when he realized it was daytime. It was morning, and no one had awakened him for his watch. Sitting up and looking around, he saw the fire was out in the barrel. Someone let out a loud cry. The ones who had been responsible for keeping the fire going had fallen asleep on their watch. Everyone started getting up and moving around the camp, except for two of the men. Just as someone was walking over to one man, a police car pulled up. Everyone in the camp started moving away from the site.
John headed for the shelter that served hot oatmeal in the mornings to the homeless. After walking about five blocks, an ambulance passed him going in the bridge's direction. The heaviness he felt in his heart slowed him down and his walk to the shelter took him twice as long.
With her warm smile, Eleanor waited at the door greeting everyone coming in from the cold. “Good morning, come on in and get warm. The oatmeal is ready and hot, just waiting for you.”
She directed those who appeared to have slept on the streets that night to sit closer to the heater. No one knew where Eleanor came from; she just showed up one morning and had been there every morning since.
What John wanted was a drink to calm the noise down in his head. Unaware how long he had been sitting and staring into space, he heard someone saying that they found two bodies under the bridge this morning and one was a teenager. John remembered how uneasy he had felt before going to sleep; he had dismissed the feeling, thinking it was the liquor. John heard the words of the song he had heard when he woke up in the alley last night.
“Oh, Peter, don’t be afraid, walk out on the water, don’t be afraid.” The song got louder. “Walk out on the water, don’t be afraid.” This had been his wife’s favorite song. John jumped up and ran out of the shelter into the street. Car wheels shrieked as John landed on the sidewalk. Eleanor screamed as she ran towards him.
“John! What is wrong with you? You were almost hit if that man had not jerked you back on the curb.”
“No one jerked me anywhere!” John yelled, shaking.
“Yes he did,” Eleanor said, trying to regain her composure. “John, he pulled you back. It was the same man that came in with you this morning.”
“Where is he?” John demanded.
Eleanor looked around. “I don’t see him now. What made you run out like that, anyway?”
“I don’t know. I was trying to get rid of the noise in my head.”
“Come on, John. Let’s go back into the shelter.” She grabbed John’s arm as they walked back. After seating John near the heat, Eleanor went back to the door with her warm smile greeting everyone.
“Good morning, come on in and get warm. The oatmeal is ready and hot, just waiting for you.”
One morning John over-heard one worker saying Eleanor had two sons, and that one of her sons left the house one evening and never returned. Her youngest son was out in front of their home when some guys drove by and opened fire shooting, leaving Eleanor’s son and a man both dead lying in a puddle of water. When friends went to tell Eleanor, they found her lying on the floor by the window, hardly breathing, and her body almost lifeless. Since then they had seen her walking up and down the banks of the river on the other side of town. No one knew where she lived, she just showed up at the shelter each morning.
John sat in the corner, not realizing that the entire morning had passed until someone put a bowl of soup and a piece of bread in his hands. John finished his soup and was getting ready to leave when one worker called to him.
“John, I have a coat for you with all the buttons and some gloves.”
John was thankful. He thought about going to the shelter at the end of town where he could take a shower. He abandoned the idea because he did not trust leaving his coat and gloves unattended and shouted at a passer-by.
“Hey, mister, can you give me fifty cents to help me out?”
“Go get a job!”
“Hey, can you give me fifty cents to help me out?” John continued, not disturbed by any negative responses.
He finally had enough money to go to the liquor store, pick up his usual and pay the store owner.
“Hey man, it will be almost zero tonight. Be careful out there,” the owner cautioned.
John promised himself that he would not get drunk. He would make it to the shelter before the doors closed. He turned down the alley and sat on the back steps of a store. He settled down, took a drink, and stuffed the bottle inside his coat. His thoughts went back to his wife.
“John, I can’t go through life like this, not knowing if you will get hurt or killed in the war,” his wife kept saying.
“It’s my duty,” John responded as he packed to go.
“This is no joke, John. I will not be here when you get back.”
“OK, I promise you I will be my last tour.”
John felt that being a part of the military had made him a man. It taught him responsibility and gave him benefits that made it possible for him to support his family. He fought for his country and protected people of other countries, yet when he returned home, many times he felt treated as a second-class citizen.
John had only been away for five months when called in by his commander. His wife had been in an accident and was in intensive care. They had made immediate arrangements for him to return home. They gave no further information.
John knew things would be better once he got home. He and his wife had been childhood sweethearts and had got married one week before he left for the military. He moved his family onto the base with him after they had their son. His wife soon tired of the military lifestyle and went back to the States to live with her mother.
John got a cab and went straight to the hospital. When he asked to see his wife, they escorted him to a small sitting room and the hospital chaplain came in and told him that his wife had died that morning in surgery. His son, John Jr., had been in the car, and died at the scene of the accident. John walked out of the hospital into the cold of the night. They stamped his military file, as a Mental Discharge.
John felt someone shaking him. He looked around, but he did not see anyone. He walked to the end of the alley and looked at the clock in the Liquor store window, knowing he would make it to the shelter in time. As John passed the liquor store, the owner was locking up for the night. He nodded at John and started to his car.
“John,” he called out, “It will be almost zero tonight and I have an extra room. Come home with me.” John, somewhat perplexed by the offer, accepted.
“Thank you,” he said, getting in the car.
“Good your friend was not with you tonight because I only had room for one and he is a big guy.”
As he pulled off, the store owner saw the man usually with John standing on the steps of the church. He smiled at the store owner as he drove by. Looking in his rear-view mirror, John did not see anyone. John sat silently looking out the window at the sky, realizing that this must have been an angel. He smiled to himself, thankful for what felt like a new beginning.