News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Transience

Chapters 14 and 15 from Book IV of an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

by | Jul 10, 2022

illustrations/Katy Finch

Chapter Fourteen: Dr. Larry 

“As it is I perceive behind them only the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and pitilessness of men.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

When I first visited Greater Portland Health there was a young doctor who would see me. He had me write out a list of my ailments, which he found to be somewhat extensive. He recommended I decide what I was suffering from most, and we would focus on one problem at a time. This seems reasonable, but isn’t very comforting to the patient with innumerable afflictions. He had the luxury of not feeling my pain.

While meeting with him, I never felt that my needs were being met, but he was all I had. I also didn’t make it there very often, between being in jail, trying to mostly avoid the Block, and having no way to know what day it was most of the time, let alone what time of day.

After I got sober — on my own, on the Block —​ I was committed to try to get the rest of my health issues addressed. So I went back to the health center. I discovered the young doctor had moved to California. They assigned another, older physician to work with me. They told me I would be seeing Dr. Larry.

I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, and having watched ​Three’s Company​ as much as I had, when told I’d be seen by Dr. Larry I envisioned Chrissy and Janet performing a knee-slapping physical-comedy bit. But there was nothing funny about this guy. He seemed more like Dr. Dick than Dr. Larry.

The first thing Dr. Larry did was inform me he wouldn’t be renewing my prescription for the muscle relaxer or even my prescription for ibuprofen. Neither of those medications has any psychotropic effect or street value, of course. They simply relieve pain, primarily through anti-inflammatory processes.

He handed me a sheet of paper with some diagrams depicting a very fit-looking, illustrated man under 30, ​with a perfect haircut and baby-smooth face, performing various exercises. “I’m not refilling your prescription for the muscle relaxer,” said Dr. Larry. “I want you to do these stretches instead. I know you won’t be able to do them living at the shelter, but…”

But? “But” what, Dr. Dick? The sentence was never completed. 

“Also,” he went on, “I want you to walk at least thirty minutes a day, continuously.”

I was pretty pissed off at this point and decided to end the visit. But I also decided to propose for him a scenario from the life of a non-cartoon character twice the age of his yoga-pants-wearing calisthenics model, a character who didn’t “live at the shelter,” but on the sidewalk. No one lives in the shelter. Some people sleep there. It closes at seven in the morning.

“So, you want me to walk less?” I asked. “Because I walk more than 30 minutes a day. The homeless don’t walk for ​minutes​ continuously. We simply walk, continuously​. I also do it with a forty-pound bag on and a guitar slung over my shoulder, both on my left side because my right shoulder doesn’t work anymore.”

“Well, that’s no good,” observed Dr. Dickhead.

“What would you have me do?” I asked. “Leave it all on the sidewalk with a sign saying, ​‘Back in thirty minutes’​?”

Chapter Fifteen: Babes in the Woods 

“By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected.” 
— Remarque, ​All Quiet on the Western Front

Ashlea had given me a phone. She actually traded it to me for a cigarette, but when was the last time you bought a phone for a dime? So it was a gift.

The first thing I did was download a free text app. The second thing was to text my “elder” child, Rachel, who happened to be with my “younger” child (more accurately, my middle child) in Old Orchard Beach. That’s not 200 miles away, like Bangor. That’s two towns away, or somewhere between Biddeford and Purgatory. So we made arrangements to meet. 

It had been awhile. I hadn’t seen Rachel since ​she had to go,​ and I hadn’t seen Bowman since the weekend I lost my last wallet and found myself in jail instead of Heaven. I was waiting for them in Monument Square across from the library, using the public Wi-Fi. I was listening to Hank Williams and wondering how my dad was doing. I was wondering about a lot of things, the sorts of things normal people​ don’t seem to wonder about at all. I wasn’t worrying about anything, which also seems to distinguish me from ​normal people.​ Maybe that’s a misconception, but I seem to see people experiencing a lot more worry than wonder most places I go.

“Dad!”

It was Rachel. She was approaching from across the square with her brother and her boyfriend. I waved to them, and Bowman waved back. He can’t get too excited about seeing his father. He’s a teenaged boy, a young man. He has to be cool. I can relate. Being cool made me what I’d become: the Beast on a bench with nowhere to go.

“What’s going on?” he drawled in the nonchalant manner of Kool Kids of America. He’d waited to speak until he’d gotten close enough to not have to yell. Kool Kids only yell at concerts and cops. But an ear-to-ear grin was fastened to his blushing face. He kept his cool, but just barely. He was excited to see me. I was happy to see him, but it was happiness hoisted from a deep well of regret, like a bucket hanging clear to Hell, drawing the last drops of Joy. 

I got up and hugged them both and shook Rachel’s boyfriend’s hand. I’m not much for hugging. It’s difficult to embrace anyone, even my children. I’ve always felt like that. My mother never hugged me that I can recall, and my father mostly only did so to apologize for beating me beyond the reasonable level of discipline. I figure that’s how most tough guys are made. Lord knows, my father was tough. The Lord also knows my father was beaten often as a child, well beyond any reasonable level of discipline. I’ve never hit Rachel. I spanked Bowman once, but it hurt me more than it did him. I’m not just voicing an old cliché. I spanked him once. I could never have done it again.

“We brought you this,” her boyfriend said, handing me a pizza box.

“Hey, thanks,” I said. I kept my cool, but I was ecstatic on the inside. I was famished and felt fortunate for the leftovers. 

“I have something for you, too,” I added. “Check this out.” I picked a ​Bollard​ up from the bench beside me. The Bollard is a local rag distributed monthly. It was the first issue to feature Handsome Bob’s cartoon version of the Crew, ​The Pirate Ship.​ Bowman loved it. He hasn’t really gotten to know me, except through rumors of my misdeeds. I think he thought of the comic as a way to learn more about his father. The comic does depict the world in which we live with a certain degree of accuracy, especially in its first issue. But being a comic, it doesn’t really capture the depth of the characters in any realistic manner. Still, it’s a representation of something real.

“Dad,” Rachel said, “your voice, your eyes, are very clear.” 

“Yeah, I’m not drinking,” I explained. 

“I can tell,” she said. 

“Kenny Wayne!” It was Gavin, approaching fast. He was handing me a fruity. 

“No, I’m still not drinking,” I told him. 

Still?” Gavin said with amazement. 

“Still,” I confirmed. “Over two months sober.” 

“I’m really proud of you, Dad,” said Rachel. I think she felt the need to combat any temptation I may have been feeling with some positive reinforcement. I don’t find strength in that. I was grateful for her words, but I wasn’t proud of myself. I know from experience that pride causes the fall it’s said to precede. Besides, the pride she was saying she felt was really a sense of gratefulness or relief that I was not behaving as badly as was expected. It’s not much of an accomplishment to simply not behave badly.

“Gavin, these are my kids, Rachel and Bo. And this is Rachel’s beau, Chris.”

I’ve never seen siblings with a greater bond as that between Rachel and Bo. She’s been there for him since his first breath. Before he was born, she’d already developed a selfless nature. Four years old and on the playground, she worried about other kids, warning them, “Be careful!” 

When Rachel was about three years old we had a Maine coon cat named Alistair. He was a hunter and a serious scrapper. He killed pretty much everything in the yard aside from us and our other cat. And I never saw him lose a fight, even against dogs and coons. 

One night, just about bedtime for my little princess, I heard scratching at the door, and when I opened it to let Alistair in he raced frantically through the living room toward the kitchen. Blood was spraying and splattering the walls and furniture, right up to the ceiling. Whatever he’d gotten into it with had chewed off half his tail. What remained was just vertebra. 

I tried to handle the situation myself. I managed to bandage his tail but he just tore off the wrapping, losing more blood. So we brought him to the vet, who promised us he’d seen worse and said we shouldn’t worry. We could pick Alistair up in the morning and he’d be fine.

A couple hours later, probably around midnight, the phone rang. It was the veterinarian. He told me Alistair had reacted badly to the anesthesia. He was dead.

Alistair was with me five years. He was a stray cat who’d followed me home from a birthday party at the VFW where my buddy’s band was playing. He was just a tiny kitten and it was two in the morning. He was obviously homeless, so I took him inside. I loved that cat. But that didn’t cause me as much grief as the responsibility now at hand. I had to tell Rachel. This would be her introduction to Death. Never before had she contemplated the permanence of passing or the transience of mortality. She’d never known someone who had ceased to be. Television shows, story books, they had endings. But people always remained.

When I broke the news the next morning, Rachel wanted to know why Alistair had to die, why anyone has to die. I didn’t know what to say. I told her we die to give someone else a chance to live. I told her we all have to die eventually, and that we should live our lives with this awareness: We live and die for other people. 

She was sitting on a stoop in the kitchen with her little knees drawn up to her chin and her little arms folded around her little knees, staring at the linoleum. Her expression was extraordinarily intense and mournful. 

Suddenly she shifted from sorrow to dismay. Something had registered alarm. “Daddy,” she said, “are you gonna die?”

She didn’t ask if she was going to die, just her daddy. That’s the sort of selflessness with which Rachel has treated Bowman since his first breath.

“Rae’ ’n’ Bo, this is Gavin,” I said. They all shook hands. Gavin bummed two dollars off me and headed off to get the next fruity.

“Can we give you a ride somewhere?” Rachel asked me.

“Yeah,” I said, realizing the visit was concluded. “I’m sleeping in Deering Oaks tonight.”

They drove me there and dropped me off, and I went to sleep in the park.

I’m no better than God. I know no better than God. I never abandoned my kids. When they were babies, I clothed them and fed them and taught them right from wrong as I see it. But God is no better than me. In fact, God, the Cosmos, is a lot like me, and like humankind in general, Life overall. With no obvious rationale, God decided to make babies. We rationalize this compulsory behavior in nature as the organism’s instinctive desire to reproduce, to continue the species of which it is a member. You cannot rationalize this behavior. It makes no practical sense. You have to provide for and protect your offspring. This can only have a motive beyond the individual’s needs, and it is the only explanation for compassion, for Love. The Cosmos wants to live and is alive in all of Life. Life itself wants to reproduce and evolve, to become and to be. But God is no better than I. He left us naked in the Garden, hungry and uneducated, to fend for ourselves. And we make wrong choices. It was only natural that we would. We have no compass, no balance, no blueprints, no map. We’re all just babes in the woods trying to find a path back to the Garden.

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Chapters 11 and 12 from Book IV of an epic memoir about homeless existence in Maine

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