I had just about given up leaving messages. Some days, his mailbox was simply full. Did he know on those days that I had tried again to call for the zillionth-plus time?
“Have you heard from Kevin?” everyone, from the bell hops to the room service staff, would ask me every day.
“No, not yet,” I’d shrug.
“That’s too bad,” everyone agreed.
Yes, yes it was too bad. Very bad.
Every afternoon after I work, I take a nap. I have never been a napper, ever, until I started my a.m. serving job that starts at 5 a.m. six days out of seven. And when I say nap, I don’t mean a 15-minute power snooze. I’m talking about a three-stage, deep sleep, complete with vivid dreams and an agonizing reawakening that takes hours to shake off. Don’t bother trying to call me during my naps. I put my phone on silent until I can cope with the land of the living again. Even then, the chances of my returning your call are slim. I am pretty much a groggy mess until I give in and call it a night for good.
On this day, I did not turn off my phone. And on this day, Kevin called me.
“Kevin!” I shouted into the phone, my voice still raspy from sleep.
“How’d you know it was me?” he asked, his deep voice sounding a very long distance away over a very good connection.
“Oh, well, you know, caller ID. Saw your name. But forget that. How the heck are you? I’ve been so worried.” My sleepy raspy voice now sounded uneven, breathless. My heart pounded a little. I was so happy to hear from him, and yet I was so nervous about what to say and how to say it right.
“I’ve got some demons to battle,” he said. “I’m working on it. But listen, I just have something I want to tell you.” He sounded tired.
“I apologize for leaving you, all of you, like I did. But I really feel bad about leaving you.”
“Oh, Kevin, it’s okay,” I started to say.
“No, let me finish. I really regret that. But I want you to know that you get it. You get what it takes to do the job well, and everyone knows that. So please, hang in there.”
“Well, um, thank you. That’s incredibly nice of you to say, but…”
“Look, my phone’s about to die. Call me back tonight or tomorrow, or just when you can. I know your schedule is crazy, so whenever is fine.” He almost laughed when he mentioned my schedule. His used to be so much crazier, peppered always with three or four doubles in a row and rare, if any, days off. He preferred it that way, he always used to say.
I didn’t call him back that night. I didn’t call him back the next, either. My quiet life was suddenly busy with concert tickets and comedy club reservations, and on one night a stint in the casino that garnered me a $105 win.
I called him back three days later. The call went straight to voicemail. I kicked myself for not calling back sooner, then I left a long message, apologizing for getting back to him so late, begging him to not let our friendship go away the way so many work relationships do when work is no longer a common denominator. “Whatever it is I can help you with, you know I am there,” I ended the message.
I never expected to hear from him again. Until he called a few days later, on a day I decided to give up a nap in favor of getting a little more of a life, and instead embarked on a journey through the hazy nether land of one who has lost his home, his income, and most, if not all, of his very life’s identity.
I met him at the Burger King on this side of the ‘hood. He was nervous. I answered his nerves with a stand-up comedian side of me that comes out when I am very much on the edge of succumbing to my own demons that bear no relation to his.
I bought him a lunch he wouldn’t eat. “I’ll save it for later,” he said, because, seeing me, as great as it was, had prompted the perpetual knot in his stomach to pull tighter with the realization of how much he had thrown away. I asked him if he minded if I ate my bun-less Double Whopper with Cheese with the chain’s flimsy plastic fork and knife. He smiled the smile I coveted every day we worked together. “You enjoy that burger,” he said.
As I ate the burger I did not enjoy, Kevin told me only a little about his depression that he couldn’t address because his efforts to help himself were necessarily punctuated, nay overwhelmed, by the pressing, constant need of seeking “shelter and food.”
I swallowed the last bit of my burger and felt sick. My current life of wallowing in my own misery of a broken bank account verging on bankruptcy, a dumb job serving expensive eggs, a cute house run amok with big bugs, and a great guy I never see who tolerates this–the life I spent napping away on my Pottery Barn sofa because I was wallowing just that much on a daily basis–seemed extraordinarily perfect. And I, I now knew, was nothing more than a spoiled brat.
“But a friend of mine says the restaurant where he works has an opening and will hire me if I can come in on Tuesday and meet with the manager.”
I looked at Kevin’s thin face, his coal black skin as smooth and beautiful as I wish my sun-damaged tanned face could look. I watched him hug his tote bag close to him on the orange plastic booth seat. I wondered where he had washed his electric blue aloha shirt that perfectly complemented his coloring. I wondered how it was that I was blessed enough to know this man.
“Look,” I said, “I won a little money the other night.”
Kevin laughed. When we worked together, he loved to hear my stories about making more in ten minutes at my “second job” playing casino slots than I had in two days at the egg-slinging hotel.
“No, really,” I told him. “Let’s get you a place to stay for a couple of nights until the interview.”
I was struck by what Kevin didn’t do at that moment. He didn’t decline my offer knowing he wouldn’t, couldn’t decline it twice. He didn’t say, “I’ll pay you back.” He didn’t thank me in that uncomfortable way we all do when we have to accept desperately needed help.
Instead, he said, “I know a place. It’s in the ‘hood, but it’s only $35 a night.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “Consider the next three nights a gift from the Hard Rock.”
I expected scary. I expected the big bug motel. It was a little of both, but giant live oaks draped in Spanish moss–the likes of which I have not seen outside of South Carolina, much less in SoFla–gave shade to an expansive front yard. A vintage neon sign welcoming visitors with “Color TV by RCA” harked back to a time when Lucy and Ricky and the Mertz’s would have stayed here en route to some whacky SoFla adventure. Okay, then. I gave Kevin all the cash in my wallet.
“Do you have a way to get to the interview?” I asked him.
“Yeah, no problem. My friend is taking me,” he said, almost relaxed now that the “shelter” question mark was answered for three nights.
“Call or text me and let me know for sure,” I said.
“I will,” he smiled.
He reached out to hug me. “Love you.”
I hugged his too-thin frame. “Love you, my friend.”
The next day at the fine-dining egg factory, the biggest bitch I have ever had the displeasure of working with, asked, “Can I give you some advice?”
Can you just shut the hell up and evaporate before my eyes?
“Whatever,” I mumbled as I scooped butter into perfectly round balls into tiny butter-ball-sized dishes.
“Save your money for a new dress for yourself. Or maybe that daughter of yours could use some extra cash.”
Talk about a Conch Telegraph. Talk about a real bitch. Talk about don’t you think I already thought about that and all that goes along with giving money I don’t have to spare to someone I really know nothing about outside of this stupid, stupid, miserable non-paying-but-great-benefits job?
“I mean, I’m just saying,” she continued.
“Gotcha,” I answered in junior-high kind.
“You know, this reminds me of my uncle,” said my great guy as we had a few minutes together before he went to work. “Everyone tried to help, and he just kept doing the same crap.”
Yeah. I know. I know this. I grew up with this. I lived this every single day of my youth and young adulthood. But maybe this is someone who can be okay. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. Yeah, I’m probably an idiot.
Three days and three agonizing shifts later it was Tuesday. I snuck off the floor every half hour to check my phone to see if Kevin had made the interview. Not a word.
By the time I was finally done and walking to my car, my uniform shirt untucked and unbuttoned and the first smoke of the day hanging from my mouth, I called Kevin.
“Hi RG, how was work?” Kevin asked.
“Work sucks here, as you well know. Did you go to the interview?” I asked, impatient.
Silence. Then, “Well, my friend never called. I never got there.”
“Where is this job, exactly?” I asked.
“A little west of here,” Kevin said.
“Okay, I’m coming to get you. I’ll take you.”
A “little west” turned out to be almost an hour north and west. A “little west” turned out to have hired two people in the last few days and didn’t have any openings, but thanks for coming in. A “little west” sucked.
With $45 in my wallet, Kevin in the front seat of my car, and an off-season payday four days away, what the hell to do?
Kevin was four thoughts ahead of me. “There’s a place. They might have a bed.”
Back through the ‘hood. Back out of the ‘hood. Back to the edge of the ‘hood.
“I’ll wait here,” I said. “I’ll be the one chain smoking in front of the “No Smoking” sign.”
Kevin smiled when no one should have been smiling.
He was back within minutes. “No beds for two days. But don’t worry. I have some calls I can make.”
I chose to believe that because I had no choice. And later, when I’d had two glasses of wine while sitting on my Pottery Barn sofa and wondered how and when I could ever write about what was becoming one of the more subtly enveloping yet most life-changing experiences of my spoiled-brat existence, Kevin called.
“Can I dial 911 from my phone?” he asked, sounding frantic.
“Yes, everyone can, but what’s going on? Do you need 911 help? I mean, do you have that kind of emergency” I asked, now thoroughly confused and at the same time trying to figure out which of my credit cards was still good for another night for Kevin someplace.
“There’s gonna be,” he said, angry. And then he hung up and took no more of my calls all night.
I figured the worst. I tried to sleep and dreamt instead about his nightmare. My help, I now knew, had done nothing but prolong the worst of his worst.
I called him the next day after work. Voicemail. Voicemail again and again. I decided to drown my fear in rum and a slot machine and kiss my $45 goodbye in the process. If I won a dime, however, I’d give it to Kevin, if I ever found him again.
When I was two stop lights from the tightest casino in SoFla, Kevin called.
“Can you take me to Powerline?” he asked, like it was a trip to the dry cleaners.
Sure. Powerline and where? Where the hell?
“I just got released from Broward General. I have papers.”
“To get into a place,” he said, reading my mind swirling with seven thousand questions.
“Where are you now?” I asked him, pulling a U-turn that would have made my great guy proud, painfully timid driver that I am.
“Give me 10 minutes.”
Twenty minutes later I saw Kevin waiting patiently on a street corner clutching his tote bag in which he held everything he owned, dressed in yesterday’s wrinkled electric blue aloha shirt.
And, for a brief moment, I considered driving right past him. Because maybe my great guy was right. Maybe the bitch was right. After all, I had never gotten it right before when I’d done all I could.
So, I drove right past him.
And circled the block.
“Did you just pass by here?” Kevin asked.
“No, just got here,” I lied, even though I knew he knew I was lying. Which he completely understood, and knew that I understood, and about which we said nothing more.
“We have three places to try before 2:45,” he said.
“What happens at 2:45?” I asked.
“I have to be at the tree by then,” he said.
Right. Of course. The tree.
It was then that I figured out what my very religious and incredibly wonderful older sister had already figured out. What was meant to be, what He meant it to be, would happen very soon. On this very day.
As Kevin carefully placed his tote bag in my back seat, I said my first prayer in a long time for something and someone other than myself and my kids. I prayed for guidance, for enough gas to get us where the right guidance actually existed, and for proving the bitch and my great guy and all my doubts wrong–that this pathetic, dollar-less effort of mine was, in fact, going to save a life.
The first place wouldn’t open the three gates that kept them safe and us out. We spoke through intercoms and I was referred to as “You” when asked to take him somewhere else called “there.”
“There” also turned us away, as did the other “there.” You could say, as I did say, “Everywhere is nowhere. What the hell?”
All the while, Kevin sat calmly and patiently through the rejection. All the while, I wanted to cry as much as I wanted to be done with it all.
“What time is it?” asked Kevin.
Oh, shit. The tree.
“Oh shit, 2:50,” I said.
“Then let’s get to the tree.”
Which would have been easy enough had Kevin known where the tree was.
“I think it’s over there,” he said, but it wasn’t. “Maybe a block over?” he asked himself while I pulled out in front of every type of traffic to go a block over.
Right, about those prayers.
At 2:55, ten full minutes past the time a van was supposed to be at the tree and a mysterious someone would call the names of the lucky ones on a list for a shelter, I had no van in sight and certainly no tree.
“Maybe we should ask someone,” Kevin said, as calm as if he was asking directions to a movie theater.
I screeched to a halt on a street lined by abandoned lots and a few store fronts. I eyed two scraggly guys sipping from paper bags. Perfect.
“Hey, you!” I screamed at them.
“Yes ma’am?” they answered in unison.
Ma’am? This was good.
“Do you know where the tree is? You know, for the homeless?”
Kevin sat stoically looking straight ahead through my car’s front window.
“Yes ma’am. You need to go three blocks that way, make a right, go two more blocks, and you can’t miss it. The van’s there already.”
Kevin waved thank you to them in my dust.
Three blocks that way and two more blocks, we were there. The tree, it turns out, is a pretty huge, amazing tree. It dwarfed the van and the cop car parked underneath it.
“I’ll get in line, now. You don’t need to wait,” Kevin said, slowly gathering his tote bag. “Thank you so much for this.”
“I don’t need to wait? After all this, I’m just going to leave?” I said, sounding like I was scolding a kid. “You get in line. I don’t leave ’till I get a thumbs up from you.”
An hour later, as I watched lines of women and men continue to swarm the van under the cool shade of the mammoth tree, Kevin emerged from the line.
No. No, no, no. We have no place else to go.
“It’s going to be another hour or so. They’re processing the women first. Go on, go. I’ll call you and let you know how it turns out.”
“Okay, because I can just charge a hotel if you…”
“No, it’ll be fine. I’ll call you. Love you.”
Love you, you pain in my ass that I am so worried about.
I did gamble that early evening, promptly losing $20 of the $45 in my wallet and wondering why I had bothered.
Kevin called me just as I was ready to leave Hard Rock. “I was the second-to-last name called. But I’m in. It’s a good place. Thank you for everything.”
Well, now, that calls for some karma, I decided. I promptly won $95 on a 60 cent slot pull. I swear to God.
Kevin is doing well. He is living and working a program that is as first class as the facility he is calling home for the next few months. I could not believe the change in him when I visited two days ago. He looks fit and healthy. His smile is warm. His eyes are clear. He still worries that I am struggling at work and tells me to hang in there.