WARNING - adult content, not suitable for children
VOICE BEHIND THE BENCH
a short story by Mark Kolke
August 1, 2011
What I need, at my age and stage in life – I have come to this conclusion – is that each experience in life has multi-layers and that there is much more than the whirl we hide within.
It doesn’t counterbalance the crap of our lives, but compared to non-vital lives of so many people who think they are having a happy life, I’ll take mine.
Don’t get me wrong, there are days so depressing I can scarcely propel myself out of bed to pee, having often laid there in the morning, vacillating between thoughts of my bladder exploding inside me and figuring out how I could patent a bed with a pee-hole in it, so I could just roll over, pee into a reservoir that would then siphon down to drain into the downstairs plumbing. I could then remain snug under my duvet without the need to introduce my warm night feet to the cold floor reality of morning.
My reality check. Time to get up, go to work and make it through another dreary drizzly November day. Noreen Rosenbloom - spinster, as they used to call women like me, lonely, lives alone with an anti-social cat named Felix, left behind by the last tenant of my apartment.The tag said Felix which I thought, at first, was his name but later realized that he was really a she and that Felix was the brand name of her collar. Felix it is.
My life, to the extent I have a personal life, is solitary and lonely by most people’s standards. I’m not unhappy with it: perhaps resigned as much as anything.Lately I’ve been lifting my spirits from the depressing nature of my work to see some blue sky, if only figuratively in my mind.
There is, I’m told, exquisite joy of grief that some people feel when they’ve gotten over a loss; when it is behind them – or maybe before that, when the acceptance of reality is sublime.I ignore that mostly, because I can. I deal with the suicidal. I deal with keeping them alive, but not with their death or the loss their loved ones feel.I don’t know how to do that.I never learned.I never dealt with my parents’ deaths. I loved my father and despised my mother.I was an only child.When they were gone, I never had to deal with loss again.My thinking was that my work, this type of work, would help me exorcize my demons and hopefully help the most desperate among us rethink and save their own lives so their families – hopefully families who love them and care for them – won’t have to deal with the loss.
Recently, adventures of my colleague Belinda Cohn have been enlightening and, at moments, inspiring.We work shifts. We meet no men, meet no expectations and share the gloom of the season’s gloomiest people – it is our job.
It is our calling, to be there, when suicidal people are calling. It is rarely the best of times but, when it is, it is because we saved a life or, at least postponed an inevitability. Victories are small, but often spectacular experiences.
We don’t work together all the time, but usually find ourselves sitting at the hotline desks together two or three shifts a week.Some nights, especially on weekends, it is crazy busy so there is no time to talk, but Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings are sometimes so quiet that we phone in to ourselves, just to verify that the lines are working.
Words fail to explain despair of endless sunless warmth-less days separated by nights of solitary bleak.Rootless and solitary as I am, I found enjoyment and comfort in my friend Belinda. We shared everything that seatmates at the King County Crisis Clinic - taking suicide hotline calls – could share. We talk about our work, the calls. Between calls we remember pasts we both wish we had, partners we wished we had in our lives and empathize with our own brand of anguish acquired by dealing with depressed and depressing people in our occupation at the time of year when most callers are a half-step from ending their lives, their marriages or both.We are counselors in literally dead-end jobs in an organization not offering a career path of any kind; functionaries in keeping desperate people alive.If Nietzsche was alive today, we would probably reason that we, and they, would be better off if they committed suicide and the cost of our service could be better spent on other things of greater value to society.Good thing he is dead.
It seems that each time a funder or politician wants to make everyone feel good, they say our service is an investment in the quality of life in our community.But the reality, when they cut back on funding, is that it is an expense for cutting, a cost that is not very high on society’s pecking order.We can only measure that, I suppose, one saved life at a time.
Seattle this time of year holds little joy for me – even less so now that Christmas is over, but for a while things were looking pretty interesting.
I never met Darryl, but I felt I got to know him on the installment plan each time Belinda came to work with a new story of their peculiar relationship. Each time they talked I would get a debrief.Some of it was depressing – so much like our work, but there were good reasons and considerable benefits in listening intently.
The first, the glow on Belinda’s face, the new gleam in her eyes. The shades of happy she blew my way when she came into a room.
Something she saw in my empathetic listening was interpreted as transference – as if I was judging her relationship with Darryl in some clinical way.As much as his circumstances seemed so dreary to me, the explanations Belinda offered were uplifting to me and offered me hope, that there was hope, and that seemed fitting for a season when so many people who are feeling down seek to end their lives in despair because they aren’t as happy as they think they ought to be, or because their marriage isn’t as joyous as they once believed it would become.
Belinda, and Darryl, brought me a vicarious lift I’ll never forget or fully understand – but it got me through the toughest times this fall with a smile on my face.
Knowing that Belinda found happiness in those meetings – knowing she found joy in talking with Darryl and that she took something out of it for her was inspirational.
It was not romance or love, but a form of companionship you wouldn’t expect to find with most people, least of all a street person.
She told me how it started . . .
“Buddy, can you spare a dime?” came Darryl’s request from within his near-collapsing makeshift corrugated cardboard shelter – a remnant of a refrigerator carton cantilevered between shrubs and that park bench on the approach to the Church of Scientology on West Harrison. It was a cold day in early October – wet and windy. His ask was directed at everyone who passed by that bench. He called it out once for each passer-by, based on their estimated pace when he heard approaching footsteps, so his question would leap out from his makeshift lodging as the owner of those shoes was right in front of the bench.It was efficient. He stayed protected from the cold, economized by saying it once only to each pedestrian. Mostly, he avoided their looks – the disdainful indignation, or their dreadful pity. He wasn’t into being judged.He was poor, homeless and a beggar who makes his meager ends meet while living on the street in all kinds of weather and overcomes a lot of obstacles and threats.
Darryl’s question reached Belinda’s ears as she cut through the park on her way to the Shanty’s Cafe to have some lunch before her shift started.
A grimy somewhat typical looking street person – he was hunched, bunched, squatting really, amongst his sleeping roll, bags of bottles and cans set to be wheeled away in – strung to it actually – his Cadillac of shopping carts, the new one, liberated stray from Safeway’s parking lot one Thursday at the supper hour rush.Its only flaw, one wobbly front wheel, was easy to tolerate.
Darryl doesn’t push anything very fast since he slipped last fall, when he injured his knee. From under that shroud, Darryl had one eye constantly scanning the sight line to his donation hat, perched strategically on the seat of the bus-stop bench next to his makeshift sign reading ‘please make a donation to help a homeless guy, get back on his feet and get home to spend Christmas with his sick mother for Christmas. Thank you, Darryl Shemway, Pensacola, which, combined, left no space for anyone to sit comfortably on the bench. Exactly. That was his intent.
Pensacola was a long way from these damp streets of downtown Seattle in dreary October drizzle. Home would be warmer, better, easier panhandling for sure, but going back was no option worth considering.
“I’m not your buddy, but, if you want to have a conversation, I believe I can spare the dime if you can spare the time. Do you have time for a cup of coffee and a sandwich?I’m just on my way to get lunch. I wouldn’t mind the company if you are interested.Are you interested?” Darryl answered Belinda’s question, but he answered it with a question.
“Well, I wasn’t doing much this morning, but what will I do with all my stuff? I don’t want someone to steal it.”
“What’s your name?”
“Darryl . . . Darryl Shemway,” came his hesitant reply from under the cardboard.Darryl then pulled his folded angular 6’3” frame out of his home. Drizzle dripping off his baseball cap brim, his hoodie had its better days on a much smaller man for whom it would have been right sized.
His body hung on his skeleton like a cheap ill-fitting suit. He looked filthy, reeked like a wet shaggy dog.
Belinda saw this man, who once had the physique of a linebacker, but whose condition mimicked the stretched scrawniness of third-world hunger. He wasn’t one of those, because he ate dinner and breakfast most mornings at a shelter. His loss of flesh, muscle tone and robustness had a single cause, his drug of choice – cheap rum, self-administered daily over a long term.
His massive hand, timidly extended was taken – grasped firmly by Belinda’s tiny paw, and then his long fingers loosely curled around and effectively tickled the back of her hand and she would have laughed if it were not for the lack of self-confidence his handshake attempt demonstrated.
She looked up, he looked down at her, and the conversation began. Belinda suggested they talk as they walked to Shanty’s in an effort to avoid getting any wetter than they would otherwise be.
Darryl ran a long chain through the struts of his shopping cart, around the legs of the bench and fastened the chain to itself with a lock. It was a rusty and ancient looking bicycle lock, the kind with a key that looks like an Ikea furniture assembling wrench.
The rain was cold, and whipped by a seasonal-grade squall; it blew into their faces as much as it fell on them.
Conversation was all about him; she asked, he answered typical questions of “where are you from?, how long have you been in Seattle?, what kind of work have you done?, do you have a family?” These were the questions that first occurred to Belinda, and much resembled small-talk with strangers at a cocktail party.
Darryl answered these questions as quickly, and as briefly as he could: “Pensacola, three years, many things, had … just my mother.”
When she met him that day, Darryl was in a foul mood. His leg was hurting, panhandling picken’s had been poor, and two homeless guys pushed him to the ground and took off with his bags of bottles and cans just two blocks from the recycling depot the other day. His projected cash position and timing for his trip to Pensacola were colliding, and not favorably.He wasn’t going to make it.He would be $150 short.
It was noon but he ordered breakfast – as he would every time they met.He said it was for the butter.At the shelter, when he stays there, toast is either cold, or dry or slathered in margarine.At Shanty’s they use real butter on the toast and it arrives hot. He loved that. He ordered fruit. Fresh fruit rarely shows up on the shelter menu.Belinda’s offer to buy him something more substantial that might stick to his ribs – a steak, a pork chop or a stack of pancakes was always declined in favor of buttered toast, a bowl of fresh fruit and black coffee.Shanty’s was no Starbucks, but their brew was strong and fresh.
At Shanty’s that day, that first day, Darryl’s breakfast was quickly scarfed down. Belinda offered to order him a second plate. He declined but kept draining his coffee cup each time a server came by to refill it.Then, while Belinda ate, Darryl talked. Slowly at first, and then he paused. Sobbing, he told – or rather, he poured out his story in a trickle that soon became a flood.
His story and the tears were not a sympathy plea, but in response to someone who looked him in the eye, called him by name and wanted to listen.
He was a member of a combat infantry unit that suffered significant personnel losses.
Darryl had been discharged after his second tour of duty in Iraq with the rank of Infantry Senior Sergeant. He came home to resume normal life with his wife Tamara and their six-year-old daughter Lilly.Everything was fine, at first, but his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) soon became a nightmare of behaviors that caused Tamara to leave him.
She had family in Portland. Pursuit of her – his reason for coming to the north-west – proved to be a waste.His efforts found her family members, but she was not there.She had gone into hiding somewhere else in order to protect Lilly and herself from the volatility and violence of Darryl’s behavior.
Darryl drank and wandered – soon broke and depressed, he became another aimless nameless face - and homeless in Seattle.His attempts to find help through a Veteran’s AdministrationHospital became an exercise in futility. Being drugged into submission and warehoused in a decaying facility was not working for him.He would rather be free on the street and medicate with his drug of choice, rum of any kind or booze of any kind if it was available. He didn’t use drugs – never had, and after his PTSD experiences in hospital, he’d had way more than his share of mind control in pill or syringe form.
In subsequent visits – breakfasts or lunches over the ensuing three months, Darryl never revealed more than he had that first day. Belinda concluded that he had overstepped his own comfort level that first day – and then retreated. He seemed, to her, to be coming out of his shell, but ever so gradually.
Darryl was bright. He had graduated top of his class in high school. College plans were dashed when his alcoholic father passed on, leaving a small life insurance policy and a mountain of debt.His mother sold their house, used the proceeds to pay the debts, leaving her a meager amount she used to take a housewives-returning-to-workforce course where she learned enough about accounting software to get a clerical job to support herself and Darryl while he finished high school.The chance to get an education while in service of his country was an appealing alternative for Darryl.
Before he enlisted, he married Tamara, his high school squeeze and soon she became pregnant with Lilly.Everything was great, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Soon thereafter, his education was put on hold when he was sent on his first tour.He returned unscratched and outwardly unaffected.Inwardly, he had seen horror, seen buddies from his unit blown to bits or – in his view – worse, ones with a limb blown off.Worse yet, in his view were the ones who looked great on the outside, but who were seriously damaged goods on the inside.He didn’t volunteer for a second tour so quickly out of patriotism, but out of a misguided belief that a speedy conclusion to the war would be better achieved by returning guys than by sending more fresh ones for baptism by fire.His first tour went by quickly.The second tour, just as long, seemed to last forever. Fighting Iraqi insurgency was tougher by far in terms of losses suffered in his unit, but in terms of the psychological fight in his head every day, trying to keep it together so he could get home in one piece.
His body made it home, but his spirit was broken and left behind in Baghdad.
For Belinda to get Darryl talking, turned out to be a hit and miss affair.
There was no consistency in his mood, willingness to talk about anything, least of all his PTSD and the nightmares.
Belinda reported her progress with Darryl after each meeting, but this time it was with great sadness in her voice.It was December 8th, the last time she saw him.
He talked that day about writing his thoughts down.He’d been doing it for quite a while, apparently.He had a backpack with him that day. Ugly, soiled and torn – it looked like a dumpster-dive find.Darryl pulled a pad from the pack. Belinda could see there were several more just like it in the pack – all ratty and soiled at the corners, and jammed into the rear compartment of the bag.
He put the pad on the table at Shanty’s that day, turned it around and pushed it toward Belinda. He said it was his most recent writing – and he thought he should share it with Belinda. He explained – that it was likely no other person would understand and, in the event he got rolled again, his backpack might be taken.
He offered the pad to Belinda – to read, and to keep for him.
It was yellow, lined and tattered at the corners from flipping the pages many times.The first few pages were a mass of doodles and poor quality sketches. Darryl flipped to a clean page, near the back of the pad and showed what he’d written to Belinda:
Wounds are mended, healed and sometimes extended – by life. Death fixes nothing. Death is the final arbiter of our troubles, settler of all accounts.Don’t worry if you are behind on your work, behind on your bills, behind on laundry or housework, the simple solution is to just die and leave all those things not done.
I wonder if there is satisfaction – in that, in leaving things we dread, avoid and postpone – when we die.One would have to believe in an afterlife that lets you look, watch and spy on your affairs after you are gone.
Clearly, our society is not ready for that.That is why physicians say ‘you should get your affairs in order’ to patients who might die.That’s bogus.It might appease the conscience of the doctor, not having to anguish over the notion that some poor bugger who came in for a routine checkup, only to die the following week without knowing days were numbered.
My days are numbered.It is cold.I won’t get home for Christmas, or ever. I’ll die here, one of these days – or more likely one of these nights.The cold will get me or someone will roll me for my cash or because they think I have a stash somewhere.It will be quick, I know it.I hope it will. I don’t want to die but I’ve been so tired and cold lately that I don’t know what to do.
There is time for everything until we run out of time and then there is no solution for us. We are society’s unwanted waste, the trash that has to be gathered and gotten rid of.
Soon, I will be alone, I will be free.
It wasn’t long after that, as he had predicted, that Darryl wasn’t there in the park when Belinda went by looking for him – anxious to take him for another lunch of breakfast food, another chance to enhance their connection.
She checked with all the Seattle and Tacoma area shelters.Nobody had seen him since late November.His box had fallen down, soggy and destroyed by rain.
His cart had no doubt been appropriated by some other bottle-picker, his bench had resumed its role as a resting spot for people waiting for the bus.
With Christmas approaching, Belinda booked some time off to take a trip.There isn’t much to do for old-maid Jewish girls without a family this time of year, least of all in Seattle. Belinda’s parents were gone, but she had brothers and cousins in New York, so that is where I expected she would be going.
She surprised me, and then – as I thought it through, there was no real surprise to it. It was what she wanted to do, what she needed to do.
She booked a flight to Pensacola.Before she left, she called Lillian Shemway to ask if it was OK to visit, that she had met her son Darryl in Seattle and, after hearing so many stories, she wanted to meet Lillian and learn more about Darryl.Lillian reported that she heard, from time to time, from people in various parts of the country about meeting her son.She hadn’t heard from him since he split up with Tamara.And, no, she hadn’t seen him this Christmas.
Belinda explained his bench sign, his target of getting together enough cash to go home for Christmas.They talked for hours. Belinda re-told all the stories she had told me and inquired about every detail she could extract from Lillian. It seemed to me that Belinda was obsessing, but who am I to judge?I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to spend time with over the holidays. And it would be so nice in Florida . . .
Belinda got back the other day. She was downcast. Odd for a well tanned returnee from a Florida vacation, I thought.She told of going to the Shemway home. It was, according to Belinda, exactly as Darryl had described, and his mother was as sweet as he had portrayed her.As they sat in that Pensacola kitchen, Belinda saw a picture – a group of soldiers in camouflage – posing in front of a tank in the desert.As Belinda noticed Darryl, and as she pointed to him saying, “Wow he looks so strong, healthy and muscular in that photo”, Lillian responded with surprise to say, “No dear, that’s not Darryl. That’s Darryl’s buddy Fred Stenmar. They trained together at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and they served together in Iraq during Darryl’s first tour. I wonder what happened to Fred. I heard that he suffered from PTSD and had been hospitalized at the VA MedicalCenter in Miami. He was undergoing treatment for severe psychotic behavior. He was diagnosed as being schizophrenic. He was having hallucinations and delusional behavior. For a while they had him on a suicide watch. But he escaped from the lock-up unit of the hospital. No one has seen him since.”
Belinda was stunned, obviously. She didn’t have the heart to tell Lillian Shemway that her son hadn’t been seen, and more horrific to tell her that Fred Stenmar is wandering around somewhere telling people he is Darryl Shemway, or maybe he is dead.
Who will ever know?
Maybe, somewhere, there is a voice coming out from behind a park bench, from a makeshift home of a cardboard box roof, a dirt floor and shrubs for walls.
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