S h o r t   F i c t i o n  /  E s s a y s


"Yes, I told my kids.  The one who looks like Albert Einstein.  You know, the wild gray hair going every which way--the mad scientist look?  He's coming to stay with us for a while."  We'd met him several months earlier through friends.  Now he was living out of his car.

That was the way it started, just a dip into the unknown.  Barry, the one you knew wanted to talk--wanted to say something, though you weren't always quite sure what it was, or that he was quite sure what it was, and he made you uncomfortable while he stood there trying to get it out.  But we had the extra room, and more than that, we knew homelessness.  We'd lived for two years in a barn--not just M and I, but all six of us.  So Barry came.

Barry was quiet and not much trouble.  The gray turned out to be premature; he was not quite forty.  He blossomed around the kids.  Finally, here was a real human being, not the shadow that haunted the edges of groups of adults at church.  Barry could fix electronic things.  He could stare at you unselfconsciously until you wondered what in the world he was thinking about you.  (Maybe better that you didn't know.)  He could jump rope faster than anyone any of us had ever seen.

Barry could play classical music on the harmonica--well. He'd taught himself painstakingly from tapes he'd made off Public Radio.  He sang in the shower.  Occasionally he'd get carried away with play worse than the four-year-old and make you furious.  (He should have known better.) Barry toyed with suicide.

Barry was always down on his luck, lonely and aching, and if he were one of your children you would have picked him up and rocked him.  He brought refrigerator boxes for the kids to make houses from.  We'd stay up late talking about all sorts of things, but parts of Barry's mind had been drug-fried long ago, starting during the year he spent in Saigon during the war.  I wish I'd known what had been there before it was gone.

Barry was gentle with the smile of the slightly deranged.  I fixed his comforter, one of the few things he owned.  Barry was the wonder of childhood and he was like someone who's slept through his time to grow up and then discovers it's too late: the door's been locked, the lights turned out.

After some months Barry got a job as a night watchman and moved to a nearby town.  When I was passing through, I stopped by to see him.  The watchman job was a dead end, he said, and he was applying for electronics jobs all the time.  He had the background, but he never did fit the mold; he could tell by the way the interviewers looked at him while they talked.  They never called back.

We got hungry and went out in search of food.  Barry took me to one of his favorite places, the local hospital cafeteria where, he proudly said, you could get a good meal for two dollars plus change and company to enjoy while you were eating.  We sat with an elderly woman who had just had cataract surgery.  For many years she'd been a music teacher, and eventually she and Barry warmed up and the talk turned to classical music.  He hummed tunes for her, though he didn't take the ever-present harmonica out of his pocket.  As we were leaving she invited him to join the community chorus she and her husband directed.  Maybe he would, he said, though I suspected this was form, or wishful thinking.  He'd go through these social periods with people and then return home to live behind an invisible wall he didn't seem to quite understand the makeup of.

Not long afterward, I saw his mother.  She thanked me profusely for what we'd done for him.  Our meetings always seemed to start this way; it was a form of apology, I think.  She couldn't have him herself.  Her Social Security barely covered her expenses as it was, and besides, Barry had gotten violent once and she'd had to get a restraining order.

I told her I'd seen him recently and that he was applying for more jobs.  She only shook her head.  She hoped, she said, but I could see the hopes weren't very strong.  After so many years, hope fades.  She said her middle son had a good, steady job at the military base, and that when Barry visited his youngest brother, the Ph.D., he'd stayed so long his brother finally had to throw him out.  (He has house payments to meet, too, she said.  I think Barry was just lonely, I replied.)  She shook her head.  The air between us filled with emptiness.  I took my leave, smiled and said goodbye.

As I drove away, the question welled up, quickly threatening to drown me with its growing insistence.  What's the use? I asked myself.  Where's the point in a life like this?  And why do I worry about him at all when seems perfectly obvious to everyone else that he's just litter along the shoulder of life's highway?

Perhaps, the thought came, people like Barry exist as a litmus test of our own humanity.


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