Full Meal Ordeal
Seeing him light up when I returned made me feel so incredibly happy. Then I realized he was just happy to see the food and not me. Through the burning sting of rejection, I found comfort in not being like other addicts. I was a man of my word – kind of. To prove it I offered him the tray of pop as a sign of trust. He took it and grimaced. “Don’t worry, there’s food to go with that. D’you know where we can eat?” ‘I thought you were gonna buy me some food?’ he accused in an I-knew-you-were-gonna-let-me-down tone of voice. “Don’t worry, I’ve got your food,” I reassured, opening the bag for him to see. ‘Then give it to me,’ he ordered, unsuccessfully snatching it from me. “I can’t, not here.” “Hmmph!” he snorted, nostrils flaring, eyes stabbing. “My food’s in here too. Let’s go somewhere.” ‘Don’t want to.’ “You don’t wanna eat?” I snapped back. ‘It’s up to you.’ “Look, I just wanna eat, that’s it. If you don’t wanna, just say so and I can give it to somebody else.” He was silent. “That’s it, I’m outta here!” I screamed, fed up with his games. The public tuned in, but I was past caring. He pointed towards the alley. “Yeah what about it?” I asked. He pointed again more insistently.
Hoping he was joking, I mentally traversed the length of the alley to check if it’d been cleaned up over the past couple of days. It hadn’t. Dumpsters full of restaurant scraps, flies and maggots rotted in the sun. Doorways reeking of urine and other bodily wastes impaled the senses. People, if that was what they could be called beneath the rags, dirt and stench, huddled in doorways cold, lonely and shunned. The pain, loss and sorrow of their plight were indescribable. Welcome to Gehenna, table for two?
Sure my value system had taken a beating over the years, but not to that extent. Not yet, not ever – not if I had anything to do with it. He grew angry, but I stood my ground. He looked like a regular addict: skinny, dressed in rebellious conformity, hungry and in need. Yet, somehow being able to afford a meal made me the enemy. As far as I was concerned, my still being there proved I’d gone beyond the call of duty in trying to be civilized. I hadn’t said or done anything any Good Samaritan wouldn’t have done. No longer caring what he thought of me, all I saw was a broken and damaged man who’d built so many walls to keep people out he’d unwittingly walled himself in. He was just like me!
“I know a small park we can go to…”not wanting to end up a statistic in some filthy alley. ‘…Don’t wanna go to some stupid park…’ he cut in. ‘There’s too many people around.’ I bit my tongue at the hundreds of passers-by. “…If you like…?” ‘Look! I don’t like. Don’t ask me again,’ he screamed. “Okay, find a clean spot and I’ll go,” I said, resigning to play the game his way.
We walked down the alley, the bag tucked under my jacket ‘lest the fumes contaminate the goodness therein.’ Unusually silent, I noticed how he kept his distance between us. “Are you ashamed of walking with me or something?” surprised by my courage. ‘No.’ “Then why are you all the way over there?” If anything it should’ve been me keeping my distance. ’Cause I wanna be.’ “Look! The food’s yours, no strings attached. I’m not judging you or questioning your lifestyle, character or nothing, but I ain’t gonna eat with someone who doesn’t want me around, no matter what. Got it!” He looked like a deer caught in headlights.
All I was doing was trying to treat him with respect and dignity like any human being. Thinking he might be one of those irreparable people NA talked about, there was something strangely familiar about him too. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. A shadow fell and I prayed for both of us. Handing him the bag, I told him to keep my food and turned to leave. ‘No, don’t leave! I’ll find a place that’s clean,’ he screamed. “Is there one – here?” I motioned to the hellhole around. ‘Yes, I’ll find one; I mean there’s one further up.’ Expecting and wanting him to fail, I handed him the food. ‘I don’t want to eat alone!’ he screamed. Our eyes met. In his was such profound loneliness I almost cried. I smiled gently in silent recognition.
We unpacked and ate at a loading dock that amazingly was clean. Yet something still didn’t feel right. Although we ate quietly, I was trembling. A wave of energy spasmed through me. I looked up to see a hurt, damaged, shell of a man lost in a world of drugs and God only knew what else. I gasped, stopped breathing and nearly choked. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want him to see me seeing it, but couldn’t stop it. There before the grace of God went I.
The burger, now devoid of all flavor, tumbled in my mouth like rocks in a dryer.
© Michael J. Varma, The Gong Show, 2011 –
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