Handel’s Messiah crackles from a plastic radio, enough
to mask the comings and goings of anonymous neighbours
or drugged-out strangers across the hall. Time doesn’t matter
after midnight or later. Single mattress, scratchy blanket
stained with sweat and sorrow. Always alone. Humble room
in a derelict Eastside hotel; a symbol of how
something once full of purpose can go so desperately
wrong. It is not home, but it will have to do.
Sleeping as often as he wakes, to sirens, gunshots
and screams, a drunk or delusional singing White Christmas
to everyone awake or anyone who cares.
Mental illness wanders the Eastside; feeble minds and hard lives
part of the landscape. It is never white around here, always
grey and ugly. Rarely does he see the mountains. Day
by day. Meetings most mornings, if only for the free coffee.
Hot meals at the mission fill his stomach and his time.
Not much else to do but wait for welfare, another Wednesday,
or a day without rain. When the waiting is done, he will wait
again, watching what’s left of this society walk on by. He
no longer feels a part of it, and is not sure if
he ever did. Always on the outside. Passed by. Beneath
the streaky window, alley littered with bottles sniffed
dry, orphaned needles, spent condoms,
crack whores and men like him, or worse.
He no longer plays guitar like he did, or at all. Gnarled knuckles,
arthritis deep within his fingers, and knees. And conscience.
The instrument collects dust in the corner, a depiction of both
something he once could do and something of value. He owns
so little and has even less. Three years sober and friends are
no longer convenient. What else to do when
you no longer drink, and who else wants to do nothing
with somebody else. One day at a time.
Waiting. He can’t call it healthy. He can’t even call it
living, but existing will do. For now. Nights are a constant
battle. It is always dark, and wet. Rain into sleet. Winter months
are difficult for those on the street. He is more fortunate,
having found some sort of salvation. He does have something
to be thankful for. It is safer in this room, sheltered from the
violence, reading yesterday’s news and the only book he owns,
listening to talk radio and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
Ashtray overflowing, Bible opened on the table, blurry snapshot
taped to the wall. A boy on Santa’s knee, smile reflecting the
spirit of the season. Decades ago. He was hardly a father. It is
hard to regret what you can’t remember. It’s harder not to know
what it would feel like. Family. Who knows where anybody lives
now. Who would know he is here. Time doesn’t matter.
Christmas is only a word on the Eastside.
There aren’t enough hallelujahs to go around.
©2016 j.g. lewis
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