Like a Rolling Stone
It’s midday and there are a handful of customers around. Not enough to get in my way but enough so the employees won’t notice me. I need to eat. The cigarettes I stole a few days ago only fill my stomach for so long. It’s gotten to the point now where I swallow the smoke down and dry heave it back up.
I keep my jacket clean so I can cover myself and look presentable. I turn it inside out before lying down to sleep. I am very careful. I stopped going to school because the other kids started to notice that I haven’t changed my clothes, and I think I’m starting to smell sour. A different kind of smell than just dirty or sweaty.
I washed myself at the Shell station as best as I could. My neck twisted under the small faucet, rinsing that watery green gas station soap out of my hair. When I finally came out of the ladies room, the guy behind the counter looked at me then looked away. I disgusted him. Or he couldn’t stand to look at me. Or he was afraid of me. He knew what I was doing and he pitied me. He knew I was ashamed, and he looked away out of respect. Maybe he wanted to let me keep some shred of dignity. He noticed my wet collar and was embarrassed for me.
I went to the hospital this morning, slipped into the fifth floor nurses’ lounge and checked my mother’s schedule. I stared at it unblinking, willing it to burn itself onto my retinas so I wouldn’t forget, wouldn’t make another wasted trip. She works 12-hour shifts. She’s only there three days a week. I don’t want to get my hopes up for nothing.
In the grocery store, I let a small plastic basket swing from my hand as I stroll the aisles. I am just like a regular customer. Except I am too hungry to be calm. My skin jitters. I feel my hunger in the tips of my fingers, in the ends of my hair. I will myself invisible. I am invisible. When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You’re invisible now; you got no secrets to conceal. How does it feel? This is what it feels like: My bones ache from sleeping on concrete. I am 15 years old but I wake up crippled. In the mornings I am an old man, crawling, dragging myself to my feet. It rains every day and every day I get wet. My feet haven’t been dry in a week. Every step I take is agony, but there’s nothing I can do about the pain, so I just let it be. It reminds me that I am alive. I haven’t yet decided if that’s okay with me. I don’t have a safe place to take my shoes off, but I took them off anyway, last night. The skin on the bottoms of my feet is grayish-white and peels off in chunks, the blood welling to the surface like the inside of a bruise. A container of peach yogurt finds its way up my sleeve, rests against the elastic cuff of my sweatshirt. I put a cold roll of cookie dough in my basket, just like a real customer.
My mother works again on Tuesday, January 14th. If I get to the hospital near her break time, she will buy me something. A hamburger or something. My senses respond to the hamburger, to the idea of it. My fingers curl to its soft warm bun, my saliva glands respond to the sweet tang of ketchup and my lips burn from the salt on the fries but I am still in the grocery store, waiting for the woman in blue sweatpants, hair rolled and pinned out of her face, to steer her full buggy down the next aisle so I can slide this packet of bologna past the waistband of my jeans.
When I see my mother again, on January 14th, a Tuesday, I will talk to her about Ken. This time she will hear me. I won’t raise my voice and I won’t make any demands. I won’t even beg. She knows. She knows I should be the one living with her. She knows her daughter is more important than her lover. I don’t need to tell her any of those things. I’ll remind her what it was like when we first left my father, when we first moved into the little apartment on 10th Avenue. It was the two of us against the world, and I liked it that way. We liked it that way. In the Personal Care aisle I slit open a box of tampons with my fingernail and slide a few out. I don’t need them right now, but I’m making a little stockpile just in case.
I might go back to the hospital tonight anyway. I might go to the emergency room. I haven’t decided yet. There is a soft, spongy spot on the back of my head that, when pressed, makes sparkles dance in my vision. My head feels cracked, like an egg that’s been boiled too long, like the inside is bigger than the out. My mother doesn’t think Ken threw me out. She thinks I left, but she doesn’t say I can come home. She doesn’t say it’s safe to come home. There is nothing in the cracker and cookie section that is small enough to take. Nothing. Tears blur my vision and I hold my breath.
Thinking comes more easily now that my belly is full. I no longer feel the rush of impending tears every time I exhale. I don’t know when I last spoke to someone, when I last heard my own voice. I have to gear myself up for it.
The Emergency Room is on the first floor, tucked around back to allow the ambulances easy access, and to keep the emergencies away from public view. I stand out there, back from the door, smoking cigarettes and watching the entrance for maybe an hour before I go in and walk straight up to the intake counter.
“I’ve been living on the streets for about a month. There’s something wrong with my feet. And my head. I don’t have any insurance.”
“You’ll have to speak to the billing office about a payment plan. They’ll open again at 9:00am.”
They don’t ask me how old I am. They don’t ask for identification. I could give them any name I wanted to. I give them my real name.
“Am I going to have to wait until 9:00 to see the doctor?”
“Take a seat. You have to see Triage first.”
Triage is a nurse. She asks what’s wrong with you and rank-orders your health. She’s the one who decides how long you wait. I don’t mind waiting. I have a bona fide reason to be inside.
The doctor’s hair is shot with grey, but his eyes are young, blue and kind.
“So let me see those feet. What’s going on with them, now?”
“I’ve been living on the streets for about a month. They started getting like this after about a week.”
It’s getting easier to say now, because I never say homeless.
Taking off shoes and socks is painful, laborious. My socks feel like they are loaded with tiny shards of glass. I am careful not to cut myself, removing them.
“Hmm, all this rain. Where’s your family?”
He takes each foot in his hands, one at a time, runs his fingers between and underneath the toes. My legs tremble from the effort it takes to not pull away.
“Here. In Tallahassee.”
“You know how, when you sit in the bathtub too long, your fingertips get all wrinkled? That’s all this is. Well. Times ten is what this is. Your skin is so full of water that it tears easily. The tearing is a function of the water, not something else.”
“So is this what they mean by jungle rot?”
“Sort of. Jungle rot is this times ten. There’s actual rot involved. You’re not rotting. Yet.” He twinkles his eyes at me for a moment then looks down at my feet again.
“Do your parents know where you are? “
“Yeah. I mean. Not right this second.”
“Your head is fine. It’s these feet I’m concerned about. Let’s see what I can do.”
He leaves the room and after a few minutes, a nurse comes in with a big steaming pan of water and a stack of towels. She wets one of the towels, squirts some liquid soap onto it, hands it to me, and walks out without so much as a ‘here you go.’ The police will arrive any minute now. They will take me away to wherever they take the kids that no one wants.
I wash my feet slowly, carefully, scrubbing up my ankles and around each nail, lightly stroking the thick, grey-white, tender skin on the bottoms, patting the soap lightly around the split-open parts. I toss the used towel into the sink and lower my feet into the hot water.
The heat shoots tingles up into my legs, but before I can even ahh the pleasure of the warmth has turned sharply to the pain of my waterlogged feet sitting in water again. The doctor returns while I hold my feet above the pan, allowing water to drip before drying off. He takes a towel from the stack and helps me dry them, not rubbing or even patting but gently, firmly pressing my feet between his warm hands.
“I’m going to leave you in here for a little bit. Go ahead and lay back.”
He’s buying time. I don’t care anymore. I am tired. I am tired of all of it. I do as he says. He shakes out the last of the dry towels and gently packs them around my feet. He pulls two thin blankets out of a drawer beneath the examining table and spreads them over me. He shakes out my socks and drapes them over the heater. He turns my shoes upside down and places them next to the socks. He turns out the light and shuts the door behind him.
I don’t know how much time had passed when the door opens again. I hear the doctor say, “uh-uh, that room’s in use,” and all becomes dark again.
It is full daylight when the doctor wakes me up.
“My shift’s over. They need this room now.”
My socks and shoes are dry. I put them on and leave the hospital. I have nowhere to go. There is no place I am expected to be.