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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gary Fulsom

No matter what she did that night, she couldn't get warm. December in Cleveland was a bad time to be temporarily homeless. Being only nineteen, she knew better than to go over to the crowd of men huddled around a garbage can fire. There was no friendship waiting there;only problems.

So she pulled her knees in closer to her chest and tucked her arms under the thin sleeves of her shirt and looked longingly at the bright flames and the bits of food the men were passing amongst themselves. She had no extra clothing, no coat. Those had been kept in a fit of temper when her ex-roommate kicked her out because she didn't want to go farther than being a roommate.

She saw the aged man coming towards her and tried to make herself invisible behind the dumpster. It didn't work.

"Hey Blondie. Why ya hidin' back there? Scareda us gents over there? Well, you should be. We're a nasty lot of lost souls." He smiled at her showing a mouth full of broken teeth and sat down near her, waving a hand and telling her to sit back down when she arose and looked frantically around for the help she knew wasn't there.

Sitting back down as far away as the limited space behind the dumpster she had been calling home for the last week allowed, she waited quietly thinking if she just let him ramble, he might leave sooner.

"Frightening looking old shit, ain't I?" He spread his arms wide as if to show himself off. He wore a faded Army uniform with tattered old sneakers. His hair was halfway down his back and looked like it hadn't seen a brush or shampoo in weeks. His right arm hung strangely and he favored the left, using the right only to cradle the bottle he periodically swallowed from.

He gave a snorting laugh and smiled at her. Something in his smile eased her fears a little though she still kept silent. "I wasn't always this bum you see now, sweetheart. I'll betcha didn't know I was a vet huh? The uniform ain't just for looks honey. I served three tours in Nam. Had me a good life going until I got hit. Had me a wife and a couple of kids waiting at home." He took a long drink and was quiet for a long while. She thought he was finished and started to doze lightly, comforted by the presence of someone older. She awoke with a start when he began to talk again. "When I got hit, she couldn't take it cause I ain't a whole man no more. She took the kids. Got herself remarried. I lost touch with the kids 'bout 10 years ago. They'd be pretty much grown now."

"VA didn't help me much. The arms never worked too good since then; can't really feel much in it. The rest... well, ain't much they could do to make me a man again ya know?" She didn't answer, knowing it wasn't expected. She just sat with her head on her knees, listening and trying to keep warm.

Suddenly he looked at her as if really seeing her for the first time. "Shit honey, ain't you freezing?" He walked away towards the rest of the men. She heard some low toned words being exchanged and he came back with a dirty woolen blanket. He tossed it at her along with a sack of cold burgers that she knew had probably come from a dumpster behind the local fast food joint.

Grabbing both, she wrapped up and started to eat, hungry enough after three days with no food to not care where it came from. He nodded, looking pleased to see her eat and continued talking.

"I like it out here ya know? Lotsa us out here. Nam... well, it fucked us up pretty good. You don't forget; you can't. No way to forget it when you see a pretty VC woman kill off your buddies like they was so many roaches. Can't forget it when you watch a little boy blow hisself up in the middle of a crowd because someone paid his family ten bucks to let them wire him up." He took another drink and offered her the bottle which she refused with a shake of her head. "That's ok honey. More for me," he said with another snorting laugh.

Suddenly he started digging in his pants pocket. "Honey, you got a family somewhere?" She nodded. "Can't get back to them, can ya? Hmmpphh, know what that's like. You don't need to be in this place honey. It ain't safe for you. Pretty girl like you. You're sure quiet but I can see smart in yer eyes. You need to go home." He pulled out a wad of grimy bills and thrust them at her.

That's when she spoke up."I can't take your money. Thank you... but I can't. I don't have any way of paying you back."

"Yeah you do honey." Seeing the fear light up in her eyes again, he laughed. "Not that; told you... I ain't whole... and anyway, you're 'bout the age my daughter would be. I wouldn't want her out here. Take the money honey. Go home. Get back to yer people before you lose your soul here. You can't live this way and keep it or your mind. Go home. You can do something for me by keeping me in yer head. It'll be nice to know that somewhere out there somebody remembers me. My name is Gary. Gary Fulsom. Remember that ok?"

She thrust the bills down into her pocket and got up. "Thank you. I don't know why you're doing this but thank you...Gary. My name is Janet. Again... thank you." She turned to go, leaving the blanket lying next to him.

When she was a few yards away, she heard him call out to her. She walked back and waited as he fumbled out of his coat. He looked down at it, looked up at her, then back at the coat. "Take this; it's fucking cold out here. I got the fire. You need a jacket. Now get the fuck outta here before I change my mind. Get your ass to the Greyhound station and get the hell outta this place. Go!" He pushed the coat at her and turned away. She held the coat for a second, knowing he had had it since the days when he had had a better life, when he had had love; a family.

"Gary!?", she called out and ran after him. "Thank you... for everything." On a feeling, she reached out and wrapped her arms around his waist for a second. He didn't respond at first, then she felt his hand rest softly on her hair.

He started to speak and cleared his throat when his voice broke. "G'wan. Get outta here. You can prolly get a bus out tonight. Just remember ol' Gary k?".

I still do.

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