Being homeless sucks, I thought.
I kicked a pebble further down the train tracks marking the edge of the homeless shelter property. I’d managed to find some weird sense of normalcy in my new street life, but the day I met Kenny, I was feeling especially dejected. Even though it was February, I shrugged out of my plastic black coat. Walking warmed me up and I felt as if I’d crossed the city for my group life skills class at the shelter.
Classes at the homeless shelter were mandatory; this was a weekly group progress class. The case manager, Lindsey, liked to run the group as if it was a therapy session. I grumpily hunched down in my conference chair wanting nothing more than to crawl into my stale bunk and rest, tuning out as the session rolled by.
The door to the conference room opened and a homeless man looking to be roughly in his forties shuffled in. He was clad in a dirty blue winter coat and round belly, topping himself off with a patterned knit hat. His rotund face flushed red shame and defeat. The case manager turned toward him.
“Hi Kenny! I’m glad you found the right room. Have a seat; we’re just talking about our individual progress. You can start us off if you’d like.” Lindsey’s face was inviting in spite of her friendly command.
Kenny pulled a chair away from the table, plopped down and made only a halfhearted attempt to scoot in before quietly stammering.
“Uh, well, I’m Kenny. I just got here.” His voice was wet tissue paper.
“What are some of your goals while here?” Lindsey addressed him gently.
“Well, I suppose I need to find work and a place to live.” I could taste his exhaustion.
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I was a therapist but I don’t have my license anymore.” Kenny whispered the last part into the table.
“So maybe we need to see what we need to do to get it reinstated.” Lindsey tried to encourage him as his head sank lower. He mumbled something.
When the class ended, most of us filed outside to smoke. I managed to schmooze a cigarette from someone and leaned against the low wall encircling the smoking area. Looking to the right, my eye caught a flash of dirty blue. Kenny came up beside me, face to the ground, smoking silently.
“Hey.” I said. “Kenny?”
He looked up, blue eyes connecting with mine. I felt the waves of sadness emanating from his hunched body.
“You’re a therapist?” I was curious.
“I was. I was a pastor, too.” His voice was steadier when talking one-on-one.
“Well then what happened? What’s your story?” As we talked, we had begun to walk back inside.
In the shelter, it was a common question to ask. Kenny opened his mouth and began to answer, then gestured that we ought to continue walking. This was going to take a while.
Kenny was from a small town in southern Michigan. Raised a staunch Baptist, he attended college, fell in love and started a family of three boys with what I pictured as a blonde and beautiful wife. After some time as a therapist, Kenny had decided to up his career and began an organization.
“It was crazy. For twenty years, it was like everything I touched turned to gold. I had everything. Everyone started coming to me for advice. I started a church.” We trudged along the train tracks. I looked at him, but his face shone with bitter nostalgia.
“I thought I knew everything and then one morning I woke up and felt the pressure. Hundreds of people counted on me to keep my life together. When I realized it, I got scared. I lost control. I just… I was overwhelmed and I started to drink.”
“So everything fell apart? What happened?” My young curiosity was ruthless as his face darkened.
“Well, first my boy grew up and wouldn’t talk to me. My wife left and took the other two. People stopped coming to church and…well… I lost my license and now I’m here.” We were already heading back to the shelter.
“That’s it? You just started drinking one day till you got here?” Something seemed off, but I figured older people had more reasons to drink anyways.
“Yeah. I just started drinking one day. No real reason.” His voice lacked conviction. “What about you? What are you going to do?
“I’m going to join the Air Force if I can get all my paperwork fixed.” My voice was equally lacking.
We arrived back at the shelter in a giant loop and parted ways. I had thought that Kenny wanted to walk because he had a long story tell. Now I realize he didn’t want anyone else to hear.
My hand shook so badly I could barely clasp the pen in my hand. This was it: I was signing myself out of the homeless shelter and leaving for basic training. Seizing my wrist with my other hand, I signed the document. I turned and gave my case manager, Lindsey, a hug.
It was an early hour but many of the homeless at the shelter had risen to see me off. Kenny was among them, being one of the first to pull me into a long, warm hug.
Much of the redness in Kenny’s face had faded over the last couple of months; he had stopped drinking. He had managed to start the application process for his license and get a job. Eyes clear and bright with hope, he whispered ‘daughter’ in my ear and released me, smiling broadly in a clean, crisp coat. I found myself wondering if it was acceptable to miss a homeless shelter and the people in it as much as I already did.
I climbed into the waiting car outside and waved out the back window until we rounded the corner. It was the beginning of my life: I was finally leaving to join the Air Force.
It was strange, driving a car again. Finally beginning to feel civilized again, I grinned. I was done with basic training and had just finished my munitions systems course; finally allowed to take leave and go home, I seized the moment to fly back to Michigan. Renting a Patriot, I rolled into my hometown, parking awkwardly in one of the four spaces in front of the shelter. My boots hit the asphalt and I strode into the shelter.
Kenny was gone, they said. He was living in the apartment complex next door. I couldn’t help but notice the tinge of apprehension in the service worker’s voice. Two hours later, I met Kenny.
Many of the people I’d been homeless with had gotten housing vouchers for the new complex next door to the shelter. As I left one apartment, I spotted Kenny. Coat hanging open and filthy, he stumbled around the corner of the building, one of his shoes in hand. His puffy red face streamed sweat as he huffed and puffed with altogether too much effort towards me.
Seizing my shoulder, he wordlessly pulled me to him. As I hugged him, I felt the shock of his cold sweat against my skin. He released me and stepped back, looking me up and down and beaming with pride, still not saying anything. Too surprised and confused to resist, I let him lead me up to his apartment.
Kenny was rooming with another fellow I knew named Mike. Mike and I had hit it off at the shelter; he was a veteran who had come across hard times while waiting for disability. As Kenny led me into the apartment, Mike leaped from an armchair in the living room to greet me.
“Skye! You’re back and you didn’t get kicked out yet? Give me a hug.” Mike was warm and gushy until Kenny bumped into a side table behind him, nearly knocking the lamp over.
“God, Kenny; you’re such a fucking drunk. Go to bed or go sit down.” He snapped at Kenny with disgust, who mutely scuttled over to an armchair and settled in.
Mike poured me coffee. His place was spare but immaculate save for the filthy heap that was Kenny by the window. Reclining delicately in his own armchair, Mike gestured for me to sit on the couch.
I was struck by Mike’s poise. He belonged in a mansion more than he did his apartment, I decided as he sipped carefully at his piping hot coffee. Crossing his legs, he asked me to fill him in on my adventures. We talked for an hour or so, then I rinsed my mug and placed it in the drying rack, thanking Mike for the coffee and love. Kenny had crawled back out to the liquor store.
My two weeks of leave rolled by quickly; soon I would have to return to work. Nearing the midpoint of my second week, I visited some friends at the apartment complex. I pulled into the parking lot to find police officers standing outside an ambulance. Immediately, I thought of Kenny. Ditching the Jeep, I ran to the police officers.
“Whoah you’re not the girlfriend, are you?” The officer stopped me, more out of confusion than caution.
“Girlfriend? No. Is it Kenny? Is he ok?” Worried but not yet frantic, I searched the officer’s eyes. I knew how the local police were with drunks.
“Yeah it’s Kenny. We think he busted a rib or something. His girlfriend beat him up something awful. You can drive behind the ambulance to the hospital if you want.”
Kenny had a girlfriend?
I stood rooted in the parking lot as the ambulance pulled out and the police wrapped up in their cruisers. Well, I thought, I ought to talk to Kenny.
It was an hour before I made it to the hospital. I strode into the ER, got Kenny’s room number and walked briskly down the hall. I hadn’t noticed how much the rooms around me had changed until a security officer careened into me.
“You can’t be in this section without an officer!” He sounded alarmed.
I looked around. Suddenly realizing I was in a hallway surrounded by ‘clear’ rooms, I held my palms up in supplication.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. They told me my friend’s room number is 3B and to come down here, that’s all.”
“3B? You’re not the girlfriend, are you?” He seemed even more alarmed at hearing the room number.
Who was this girlfriend? Looking over, I saw Kenny in one of the clear rooms. In a clean gown, he looked even more out of place. He pressed himself against the clear plexiglass wall, seeing me.
“Skye! Skye! Let her in; that’s my daughter!” He finally spoke. His voice was high and cracked, shrill with excitement.
I don’t remember walking past the security officer or the nurse who let me into the secure room. My eyes were fixed on Kenny, horrified at the sounds that he had made. He didn’t even sound like Kenny. We sat on the bed.
“Kenny, why this? Why did you start drinking again? We were going to get better together, remember?” I did my best to mask my sadness for the benefit of the nurse; Kenny was too far gone to notice.
“I dunno. I just…it’s too late for me to get better. I deserve this.” I threw a cautionary look at the nurse, but her face remained stoic as she gestured for me to talk in the hall. I followed her out, understanding the pointlessness of conversation with Kenny in his state.
“Can you give him a ride home? Thankfully his ribs are only bruised.”
“What did this girlfriend do to him?”
“I’m not sure this time.” The nurse sighed, “We’ve gotten him a few times.”
“You know, Kenny really is an amazing guy. He was a therapist once. Has three sons, ran a church. This isn’t him.” I found myself ready to defend Kenny, even against all logic.
“He actually was? We always thought he was just babbling.” The nurse showed genuine surprise.
Kenny was wheeled out to the Patriot still babbling. It was as if once he found his voice, he couldn’t shut it off. The nurse gave him an extra pat on the leg as we loaded him into the car. I tried to ignore him as the SUV rumbled along towards his apartment. Suddenly his voice changed, and I’ll never forget what he told me next.
Suddenly sitting upright and speaking as clearly as a drunk could, Kenny told me his secret.
Kenny had been living in southern Michigan, running his church and his business and living happily when something terrible had happened: a young woman Kenny loved as a daughter was raped by an old friend of Kenny’s and left for dead. She killed herself shortly afterwards and it had sent Kenny into a rage. He drove to Flint, met with a gang and took a hit out on the rapist.
When the hit had been carried out, Kenny hadn’t needed anyone to inform him. As he got to this part of his story, he began to hesitate.
“So he got killed then? Good. I don’t care Kenny.” I searched his face for some reason why he was sharing this story with me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know the rest, but Kenny clearly needed to spit it out. His neck bobbed as if he was choking on something.
“They killed his whole family. All his kids. Raped them all. I couldn’t take the guilt. I deserve this.” His sobs pierced the solid silence of the interior of the Jeep.
Kenny sobbed for the rest of the drive. I led him up to his apartment, handing him off to a very angry Mike as quickly as I could. My mind was beginning to spin: I had to know if it was true.
I had a few dates and years Kenny had given me, so the next morning I went to the library and started searching. I narrowed down the city, year and month, then called the precinct asking about the crime.
The woman on the other end of the line confirmed my fear: Kenny was probably telling the truth. She sounded annoyed as she champed her gum, wondering why some kid would be calling about a crime committed twenty years earlier.
I never saw Kenny again, but I was told he died shortly after that night. Often I’ll catch the sight of a dirty blue coat in the corner of my eye and I think of Kenny, wondering if his strange confession that night brought him the peace he needed.
Even more often, I wonder what Kenny left behind.