I was peeling my tongue off the bedroom floor Saturday morning when I heard my wife scream from out in the backyard. She was setting up for a “Grammie Shower,” some new version of a baby shower but for first-time grandmothers. In other words: a good reason to dress up and drink some wine.
Her screech went right through me. This was no spider scream, no oven fire scream, no exploding dishwasher kind of scream. This was a deep howl, the kind that coats your veins in black ice, shortens your breath and signals: “Shit just got real.”
I hustled out the backdoor and into the yard. My wife was pointing into the small woods behind my house with a terrified look on her face. “There’s someone back there just sitting there!” The “woods” are really just an overgrown plot of trees covered in old leaves and wild vine. Even if I don’t own that parcel of land (which I don’t), it’s still woods enough for me.
Maybe 10 yards into the tree line laying beside a fallen tree sat Frank – lost, tired and confused. Frank, as I later learned his name to be, was, is, and likely will always be a homeless person. Worse than homeless, Frank is also touched in the head, not quite all there.
I walked toward the man, checked him out from a distance and noticed he wasn’t moving much, not even trying to stand up. “What are you doing, man?” I said. “You can’t be back here.”
Frank looked to be in his late 60s with long gray hair, a gray beard, thick bifocals and wearing a white ripped golf shirt that was sprinkled with blood marks from a meaty gash on his forearm. He had on black pants, black shoes, a ball cap and he was a straight-up mess. And not the kind of mess you’re assuming. He didn’t appear to be drunk or on drugs. He was just confused, exhausted and had no place to go. And if he did, he wasn’t sure where that was.
I got Frank to his feet by having him grab onto a broom handle that was laying against the shed. Things were going okay between me and Frank so far, but I still didn’t know for sure if this guy would start throwing a nutty. As Sun Tzu says in the Art of War, “The wise warrior avoids the battle.”
Not so much walking, Frank shuffled his way out of the woods, whispering for me to grab his bag of frozen pizzas he’d been carrying when he decided to spend the night in my backyard. I’m guessing the pies came from the back coolers at the Dollar Tree down the road. A favorite eatery of mine, too.
Struggling to step over the smallest of garden rocks, I broke down and offered Frank my elbow. “Nice and slow, big guy. I drank too many beers last night. No sense us both falling down.”
We made our way out of the yard and toward the back of my truck. Still quietly mumbling more than speaking, I managed to get out of Frank that yes, he did spend the night in the woods when he got lost. He didn’t sleep at all. Just sat in the leaves in the dark all night long, waiting for whatever new round of misery the morning would bring.
At some point in the night Frank found himself walking up Smyth Road near the VA Hospital. Disoriented or just too damn tired to walk anymore, he must have seen the woods through the homes that surround the area. A dark and quiet place to catch his breath. Not a bad call, Frank.
I put the tailgate down and positioned Frank to take a seat. He wasn’t saying much still, just being quiet, very, very quiet. My wife tossed me out a can of seltzer water and I popped it for Frank, then I watched him dump half the drink down his chest, trying to find the sip hole. Oh, Frank.
I called the police and waited with Frank, concerned knowing that a mob of hopped-up grannies with some time to kill would be parading into the yard soon enough, ready to celebrate. Then I finally just said, “You know where you live, Frank?”
“Where on Pine Street, Frank?”
Frank told me, then I helped him into the front seat of my truck. Frank needed to go home and I needed a cup of coffee and a reset on the morning. Time to roll. Hilarious at times during the ride, whenever I would hook a left-hand turn, Frank would fall into my shoulder on the bench seats. Wedging my arm against his shoulder most of ride, I wasn’t certain Frank knew where we were going. But Pine Street is where we’d start.
We reached the destination and lo-and-behold, the number matched what he said. Looked like a boarding house or low-income housing. I had no clue. Looked good enough to me. Then my phone rang and it was the Manchester Police wondering where the hell I went. They were at my house.
“Me and Frank are down on Pine Street.”
“Yeah. Where on Pine Street?”
Minutes later, the police arrived and two officers got out of their cruisers and took over. They know the drill. This is what they do. They help the homeless. Any way they can. And it appeared that Frank didn’t actually lived there, but they offered him a trip to the hospital to get checked out, concerned for his well being.
Then I was off, heading into a wild den of giddy grandmothers rejoicing in the birth of a child, in the presence of each other, eager to dive into platters of pastry and cured meats and sip on fancy drinks with smiles filling all corners of the backyard in abundance.
And then I thought of Frank and how cruel the world can be.
Rob Azevedo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “Notes From The Last Breath Farm: A Music Junkies Quest To Be Heard” is available at the Bookery on Elm Street and Amazon.