Tobias smelled of vodka; it seemed to excrete from his pores. The two kids inching up on his safe haven under the oak tree could smell it. They didn’t know what it was, but they contorted their faces in disgust as they now hovered over him. Tobias had his camouflaged army jacket draped over his body; his long legs not able to stay under. Didn’t matter, as the lining was insignificant and this late October weather was the type of crisp, frigid coldness that seemed to make your bones ache.
But, under this oak tree in this cemetery, Tobias had called “home” for the last two weeks. Every day he would dredge his withered body through the streets, numb, indifferent, hungry, mostly hungry, but really, mostly cold, and then as the sun began to depart from the sky, he’d return to his tree. The tree was large enough to circumvent the blistering wind in part, so it was something at least.
Next to his jacket, Tobias had a black leather wallet filled with different pictures he had amassed in his time on the streets. Pictures he had taken of other homeless people he encountered; the mother and daughter, the bipolar middle-aged women pushing her shopping cart, immigrants that didn’t speak any English and abandoned pets. His prized possession was his Polaroid camera discarded from a bygone era near a dumpster. The lens was cracked, but he was good with his hands. And the streets were the best place to replace damaged parts. No money, no credit cards, no checks, not even loose change; just pictures that seemed out of place in the digital realm, of people and things that bubbled beneath America’s bustling cities and warm, suburban homes.
He remembered the mother and especially the daughter with a tender fondness. The daughter, maybe aged eight or nine, wore the same jacket, a size too small for her and blue jeans every day, along with her stuffed Kangaroo she called Tommy. Tommy went everywhere with her, slept with her, posed in the Polaroid picture of her and stayed in remarkably good shape, considering, until one day, the daughter came across another child, also homeless, without anything. She gave Tommy to the little girl. She didn’t cry or at least, Tobias didn’t see her cry. On the coldest of nights, he held on to that memory especially tight, as if it would warm his chest and tingling toes.
That night in particular, Tobias hadn’t been drinking. Not the vodka that he reeked of. He was scouring through a trash bag left outside an apartment complex in an alley a few miles from his oak tree when another man, also wearing an army jacket, but in better condition than his, came stumbling toward him with a bottle of cheap Vodka – the kind big chain stores sell for less than ten dollars and dilute, so the vodka tastes like rubbing alcohol.
“H-h-hey, man, what…what are y-y-y-you doing….t-t-t-that’s my trash…b-b-bag,” the vodka man said. This wasn’t the mutterings of a drunken man, even though he was drunk. This was the offerings of a stuttering man, perhaps too poor or too uneducated to seek help for his impediment.
“I’ll leave,” Tobias said, backing away from the trash bag, only after securing one of those thicker rubber bands he thought may be a suitable makeshift adjustable strap for his Polaroid.
“W-w-w-what’d, w-w-w-what’d y-y-you, w-w-w-what’d y-y-you take, m-m-mister,” he said, as he moved closer to Tobias. He tried to grab for Tobias, but Tobias, even if old, still moved with surprising agility to avoid the drunken man, not that it took much agility at this point. But in falling, the drunken man tipped the vodka bottle all down the shirt Tobias had under his army jacket. A smattering actually got on the jacket, but the jacket had been through rounds of blood, spit, puke, semen, liquefied trash, and other indecencies in the last decade; this was an improvement.
Tobias didn’t get angry. There was no reason to. He helped the man to his feet, even picked up the bottle, which hadn’t cracked and still had a few sips of the distilled rubbing alcohol left and exited the alleyway with his thick rubber band tucked into his back pocket.
After he reached the oak tree, he slumped against the stump and looked over the only picture he had taken that day. It was of a brunette woman; he had learned her name was Raven, dark complexion, wearing bright red lipstick with unknown origin, sitting on a park bench. There was a roughness to her features, as if the streets had molded her once beautiful high-cheek bones into something duller, grittier, and turned her once idealistic eyes into a bottomed pit. But there was beauty in the grime and Tobias couldn’t take his eyes away from her. He made sure not to touch the photograph to avoid smudges. He opened his wallet and placed her picture in the front left pocket.
He drifted to sleep imagining what Raven’s life would be like had she not fallen prey to the streets. Maybe she would be gliding down catwalks beguiling onlookers with her confidence and assuredness. Maybe she’d be at the head of a boardroom directing her underlings to increase the bottom line. Maybe she’d be walking with her daughter in the park instead of being a park bench fixture. Maybe.
The two kids came from across the street of the cemetery, not with any intention of robbing Tobias, but Tobias was there, the wallet was there, nobody else was and the situation seemed easy to their adolescent minds. Only ten minutes prior, they had been sitting at stools at the kitchen counter as Jordan’s dad regaled them with a series of his dad jokes. Jordan’s dad pointed out the window in the direction of the cemetery and said, “Guys, why is there such a long line at the cemetery?” To which Jordan and Derek said, “Why, dad?” despite having heard the joke not even a week prior.
“Because everyone is dying to get in!” And he proceeded to slap his knee and heehaw like a donkey, and he snorted out his nose and then raised his hands in victory. But it did give Jordan and Derek the impetus to wade into the cemetery. It was their spot. Usually they just made fun of the weird names engraved on the tombstones. Names like Buford and Dock and Dewey and Non and so on. But there was Tobias, asleep, vulnerable, an easy, open target.
Derek, the bigger of the two, with red hair, but only a small spattering of freckles across his arms, made the move. He reached down for the wallet and clinched his fingers around the edge; the leather felt worn, cold. As he began to pull it up, Tobias’ withered hand emerged from under his jacket and grasped Derek around the wrist. Not hard, but enough to divulge his intentions. His eyes were still prying his lids open, but it was enough to make both boys fall backward in fear.
They ran off before Tobias could offer any words to calm them down. He wasn’t going to attack them. There was no reason to; they’re just kids.
He was a kid once, many, many cold nights ago. The last time he was jolted awake like that, it was from his buddy, Roderick, in a place much different than under the oak tree.
“Merry fucking Christmas, Toby,” he said. “Time to go blast some gooks, as my old man liked to say.”
“Your old man didn’t even fight in Korea,” Tobias said, as he grabbed his gun and wobbled to his feet.
It was December, 1965; Christmas in a blistering tent in South Vietnam. Tobias wasn’t drafted. You were a Marine because you wanted to be a Marine. Or at least, Tobias’ father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Marines, so he was one, too, by birth, “Hoorah,” right on out his mother’s vagina.
The Marines, all twenty thousand of them, were stationed in South Vietnam with orders to use a defensive strategy from the guys at the top. They weren’t used to a defensive strategy; their strategy was always offensive: scare motherfuckers and fuck shit up. Not here, not now. Morale was low. Three kids with baby faces and bewildered looks deserted last night. Roderick didn’t let it get to him.
“I gotta gift for them fuckin’ gooks, Toby, wanna hear it?” Roderick said. Both men were cleaning the barrels of their M-16 rifles.
“I take it it’s not of those Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots? Before I was deployed, my little brother was begging my poor mom to get him one of those. Way too fucking expensive for a small-time waitress,” Tobias said.
“Yeah, motherfucker, I’m gonna load up this here rifle with a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot and blast the fuckers away. Goddamn Christmas in this shithole, right. Might as well give ‘em gooks a stocking full of lead,” Roderick said.
Now, sitting under the oak tree, Tobias craved that blistering tent and Roderick, a friend. He hadn’t had a friend in the same way since. Sure, there was Taryn at Haley House; she made a killer tuna noodle casserole. Always smiling, laughing, and joking with the line of people every day. She made them feel normal or at least, as normal as they could feel under the circumstances. She in particular, seemed to take a liking to Tobias. Maybe it was because Tobias resembled her grandfather. Maybe it was because Tobias kept to himself and didn’t start trouble like the others. Maybe.
He lost touch with her, though, after she had her baby, Reid. Someone had passed along a baby photo. The little guy had a head that looked like it might roll right off her shoulders.
Tobias flipped through the pictures in his black leather wallet until he found the one he was looking for. It was one of Roderick, standing outside that same tent wearing nothing but green pants. His sturdy chest supported a USMC tattoo written in block text. He got it on Day 1 of being a Marine. That’s where the North Vietnamese’s 7.62mm round from a Soviet-manufactured AK-47 or the “peasant rifle” made its home on goddamn Christmas.
Rain came next. Even the thick oak tree couldn’t keep Tobias dry. He stuffed the picture and then the wallet into his pocket, flipped his army jacket over his head and half-walked, half-jogged down the hill. Beyond the cemetery, there was a small, black and white awning that extended out from Roy’s Café; it would have to do.
Once settled with his jacket underneath his ass and the rain out of his eyes, Tobias looked in through the café’s window. Teenagers, boys and girls alike, were on laptops, tablets and smartphones, chatting with each other and chatting with those far away in the digital world. Some were laughing, some were smiling, and some were hugging, holding hands, kissing. It looked warm, inviting. A sharp shiver ran down Tobias’ spine and he rubbed his hands harder, as if that would help.
“Pretentious, anyway,” Tobias heard someone to his right say. Their voice drifted amidst the rain, ghostlike, faint.
It was Raven, the park bench fixture. She had a newspaper under her ass and her hair was wet, dripping down onto her shoulders.
“You mean…,” Tobias started, with a look back at the café.
“Look at them. They’re surrounded by friends, yet their minds are lost in a digital vortex. Close together, but so far away,” she said.
“I suppose,” Tobias said.
“Eh, sorry, when my hair gets wet, I get cranky,” she said. “I…just…you know, I had one of those once, a smartphone. It was like I had the Library of Alexandria in my pocket. I thought I was a modern day Nefertiti. Stupid, I know.”
“Not stupid,” Tobias said.
“Now, what I wouldn’t give for just a freaking mug of hot chocolate and a warm bath. Is there an app for that?” she said. She tugged at the strands of her hair out and water polled by her feet.
“I understand,” Tobias said.
“Do you only speak two words at a time?” Raven said, prodding Tobias with her fist playfully.
“Sometimes,” he said. He couldn’t conceal his smile, though.
“I guess it could be worse, you know?”
“How do you figure?”
“We could be drinking their awful coffee,” she said.
And then it started in his stomach and spilled out of his mouth; Tobias was laughing and uncontrollably so. It was the first time he could recall laughing in years. It was the first time something had penetrated the dense fog in his head. He didn’t understand what was so funny, but his sides ached with laughter, unbridled, carefree laughter. Raven joined in now, infectious it was, and laughed with Tobias.
They laughed and laughed under Roy’s Café awning, as the rain continued its descent and the teenagers behind them added more digital footprints.