Keep an Eye on Your Shoes
The soles of his feet burned on asphalt that was far warmer than it ought to have been in early October. A scruffy beard the color of clay hung down the sides of his face in the same forlorn way that his backpack sagged across his shoulders. The balls of his feet burned a bit more with each step; his shoes had been taken when, in a fit of poor judgment, he’d left them out to dry after walking in a creek. It hadn’t always been this way.
– – –
Caedmon Grant was unused to being without a home. New to the life of a vagrant; new to showering at Salvation Army shelters and sometimes washing in creeks; new to having his movements confined by how far he could walk in a day or the whim of a stranger’s car; new to the peculiar camaraderie of those who drift from place to place, a camaraderie that allows both a deep sense of friendship and a certain amount of “finders’ keepers” mentality to coexist within that group. He mused, as the tops of his feet browned and the soles turned the color of grapefruit, thinking that perhaps it was possible he had even met the man – or woman – who had run off with his hiking boots, which had been one of his few remaining ties to life as an established graduate student. Whoever had taken them must have known they belonged – if not to him – then to somebody who needed them.
Caedmon turned off the alley that ran parallel to Main Street and into a small enclave set up to look like a garden between the downtown buildings. Grateful for a bench on which to rest his sore soles, he sat Indian-style, facing crepe myrtles and a small parking garage. Pulling a wrinkled green apple and a bottle of water – both given to him by a dimpled girl at a roadside farmer’s stand – out of the folds of his backpack, he stared blankly at what might be his only meal that day.
“Hey mister, can I have a light?” It took Caedmon a moment to process that the voice was directed at him, and he looked up to find a wiry black head protruding out from behind one of the concrete pillars that held up the second deck of the parking garage. The kid pushed his body off the ground, walking towards the bench. “I said, ‘can I have a light?’”
“All I have is matches, but I don’t mind if you use them.” He fished in the depths of one of the smaller pockets of his pack and watched as the kid lit his Newport with a practiced hand. He couldn’t have been more than eleven years old, with knees poking out of worn cargo shorts in the way that boys’ do when they’re constantly growing. Caedmon remembered being that age, and being dragged to the store every month or so to buy new clothes when his mother threw a fit because his no longer fit properly.
“Hey man, where’s your shoes?”
Caedmon just looked at the scrawny boy, who held his gaze for a moment before beginning to blow smoke rings.
“Name’s Tyler, Tyler Hollifield,” the boy offered. “My friends call me Ty.”
“Ain’t heard that one before.”
“Well, you hadn’t met me before, had you?” The boy looked unfazed by Caedmon’s short reply. Impressed by the kid’s persistence, he softened. “It’s Irish, the first part.”
“So what’s the last part?”
Caedmon swallowed a chunk of his apple, washing it down with the lukewarm water. “English, I guess. Like, across-the-pond-English.”
The boy’s brows furrowed and a darker line appeared on his forehead. “What pond?”
Caedmon was surprised to find that he let out a chuckle. “It’s slang for the ocean, like the Atlantic Ocean. My family’s from the United Kingdom.”
“Well, where are they now?”
Dead, uninterested, or hell-if-I-know, Caedmon thought. He merely said, “That’s a very good question.”
Tyler tapped his little finger on the end of his cigarette, flicking the column of ash to the ground. “Man, I hate it when adults say that. All it means is they ain’t answering your question.”
“I’m a private sort of person. Where’s yours?”
The boy shrugged. “They’re around. Ma’s been gone for a coupla’ days but she usually turns up – longest she’s been gone’s a week. Don’t have a daddy but this guy she sees likes to act like he’s one. Mostly live with my Gran up in Hillside.”
Caedmon recognized the name of the biggest public housing development in Clayton. “I tried to move in there a few months back,” he said. “Except it turns out that you kind of need kids to be eligible to live there.”
“Something like that. At least, a single guy like me didn’t really qualify.”
He was glad when the boy was silent for several minutes. Time to leave, Caedmon thought. Standing up and tossing the core of his apple onto the mulch under the crepe myrtles, he shouldered his backpack. “I’ll be leaving now,” he said to the boy.
Tyler tilted his head back, cupping his free hand over his eyes to better look at Caedmon’s face in the sunlight. “A’ight man. Thanks for the light.”
– – –
Eating at the soup kitchen the next night, Caedmon saw a woman with a son who reminded him of the boy he’d met. This kid had a similar head of wiry black hair, but his nose already featured a prominent bump indicating its recent encounter with a fist or a wall. The woman just looked tired.
Rain pounded the roof above his head. Glad to be sleeping on one of the shelter’s cots for the night, Caedmon considered his earlier plan to hitchhike to the neighboring county, where he’d heard that several farmers were paying cash for help around their land, preparing for winter and planting vegetables suited to cold weather. The darkening clouds that evening had made his choice clear: spend the night drenched, or sleep at the shelter. If he had decided to keep travelling, he wouldn’t have been able to get a salve for his feet from the shelter doctor, which he now planned to do in the morning, though the pain of his reddish soles had considerably subsided. As lightning cracked angrily, he determined that his earlier decision to stay in Clayton had been a smart one. Though it’d been a little more than three months since he’d lost the house in which he grew up, he still considered the small North Carolina town home. Since he began living on back roads and in homeless shelters, Caedmon had hitchhiked over two hundred miles in every direction, but he kept coming back to Clayton.
He smiled into his creamed corn, remembering an entertaining, cheerful group of hobos headed to Nashville with their banjos by way of west I-40, who he’d spent several days with before turning around and making his way back to Clayton. He’d also met his fair share of the countless young men and women his age strung out on drugs – or who had, like him, had a run of just plain bad luck – in nearly every city, and even a very polite, very pregnant woman outside of a pizza parlor in Asheville, who sang scat in a voice that sounded like Ella Fitzgerald. Caedmon found these people interesting because many of them seemed utterly indifferent to their situation – that is, their lack of permanent housing – but, after a few days of traveling, he would begin to miss Clayton and the seventies-style brick ranch in which he grew up. So he’d make his way back, thumbing his way down the interstates and highways and staying in halfway houses until he found himself back in the town that he called home, always stopping first by his old house, which now had new renters since the bank had foreclosed on it.
When morning came and Caedmon was kicked out of the shelter’s cots along with the rest of that night’s inhabitants, he headed back to the crepe myrtle enclave. He hadn’t been harassed by the cops for busking lately and thought of the pile of singles that the banjo playing hobos would sometimes amass when they played on downtown streets. He did need a new pair of shoes. Pulling a battered ukulele out of his pack, traded in exchange for an extra pair of socks with the oldest of the homeless musicians, Caedmon fingered his way into “Over the Rainbow.”
“Caed, would you turn off that infernal movie!” His mother used to yell when he watched a black and white Dorothy break into song for the thirteenth time in one week. He was young; children often latch onto certain movies or television shows, and his movie was The Wizard of Oz. Caedmon had loved the way Oz was full of color while Dorothy’s boring farm life was dull and gray. He’d loved the escape to a new world, but never understood why Dorothy wanted to go back home so badly. Home was boring and mothers – or aunts – were always telling you what to do and how to dress and to sit up straighter, young man, or I’ll stick a coat hanger down your shirt. Oz sounded exciting, with talking lions and flying monkeys and evil witches to kill. Home was a mother with antiquated notions of civility and manners, who didn’t fit in with the other mothers at school because she had no husband and a funny accent. Home was a pain.
At least she’d been around, even as neurotic as she was, he thought when Tyler came walking up to his bench that afternoon. The boy had seemed so cavalier when they’d met, when he said that his mom would disappear for days at a time. Caedmon’s mother had been the opposite; by the time she reached forty, her neuroses had progressed into full blown social phobia and she barely left the house. In the year before her death, Caedmon found himself forced to move back in with her so that there was someone around to go grocery shopping and fix appliances. He fell behind on his thesis that year, cutting classes to work odd jobs to pay the mortgage and the other bills that quickly mounted.
“‘Ay man, it’s you again. You got a light?” Putting the ukulele down beside him, Caedmon tossed the pack of matches at the boy, whose one-handed catch reflected quick reflexes ingrained by God-only-knows-what in the Hillside development. Several weeks back, one of the older, scraggly-haired men he’d met at the Salvation Army shelter in Clayton had been assaulted while walking through the row of government-issue apartments at five in the afternoon. As per the other day, Tyler began to draw Caedmon into conversation. “So,” he said, “you gonna tell me what’s up with you havin’ no shoes again today?” He plopped down onto the ground beside the bench, stick-thin legs splayed out in front of him.
Caedmon smiled wryly. “Still stuck on that?”
“Yeah, man, it’s weird! Plus, you know, there’s glass and shit in the street.”
“Let’s just say you shouldn’t leave your shoes out around here, even if they’re wet.”
Caedmon shook his head. Why was he telling this kid about his life? He picked up the instrument again and began to strum a few chords at random. “I walked in a creek. With my boots. Sat them out to dry and walked a bit farther into the woods to…you know. When I came back they were gone.”
Ty squinted up at Caedmon, wrinkling his nose. “Seriously, man? And you didn’t chase ‘em down?”
“I didn’t hear anything, man. I’m still kind of new to this whole homeless business. I didn’t expect someone to come sneak up on me and steal my only pair of shoes. Besides,” he paused, remembering, “one of the first guys I met after I lost my house, he’d been on and off the street for seven years or so. He was pretty young, a couple years older than me, and he told me about how he got gangrene last year from not being able to change his shoes, walking in wet socks and whatnot. He came this close to losing his left foot. I figured I didn’t want to end up in the hospital just because I walked in wet shoes.”
“Maybe that dude took your boots, man.”
Caedmon shook his head. “Nah, he left Clayton a while back. Last I heard from him, he was planning to hitchhike down to the coast. Probably it was some other drifter, someone who needed them, too.”
“Well, you oughta keep an eye on your shoes.” Tyler blew a large smoke ring, then a smaller one that floated through the first. “I guess now you know better.”
The kid’s frank honesty brought on a full-bodied laugh. “Yeah,” Caedmon said, wiping his eyes. “But now I have no shoes!”
– – –
Two weeks later, Caedmon realized that he was waiting expectantly for Tyler to get out of school each weekday. He had worked into a routine. He slept at the shelter, or outside if the cots were filled by the time he got to the door, busked downtown during the day – which earned enough money to buy a pair of worn sneakers at a thrift store after the first couple days – and sat in the small enclave with Tyler, who continued to pester him about his life and his family and how he came to be homeless. It became a game, Caedmon telling Ty small pieces of his life’s story each day after the boy got out of school. Tyler listened wide-eyed, his eagerness the only indication of his youth as he lit an endless stream of Newports and smoked them down to the butt, interspersing his sentences with words Caedmon hadn’t even heard of at the boy’s young age.
In the sixties, Caedmon’s mother’s family moved to North Carolina from Brighton, England, where her father had been a history professor at the University of Sussex. They moved to Durham when he obtained a generous research grant, but Emilie Grant began seeing an uneducated Southern boy, the mechanic who was constantly working on Mr. Grant’s 1958 Aston Martin, which didn’t sit well with the professor. When she found out she was pregnant, Emilie moved in with the young redneck before her father could kick her out. He left before Caedmon was born, but Emilie was too stubborn to return to her parents, who by then had made it clear they wanted nothing to do with her or her baby. Tyler could empathize; not with the grandparents, since his grandmother had done most of his raising, but with the lack of a father, certainly.
By the time all the leaves had finished falling, the weather had cooled and it was November, and Tyler began to look like a small, navy marshmallow in his puffy winter coat. Caedmon was still wearing the same clothes, with the addition of his old Chapel Hill sweatshirt, and hoped that the Salvation Army shelter or YMCA would begin passing out donated winter coats before the first real cold front hit. He strummed his ukulele and waited in the enclave, now devoid of crepe myrtle blossoms, for Tyler to walk downtown once he hopped off the school bus. Caedmon wondered what it would be like to spend all day outside when temperatures dropped even lower, and contemplated heading south to Florida or Georgia. That’s what most of those who were young enough to travel did; headed south to escape the winter snow, which happened infrequently enough in the North Carolina town if you had the luxury of four walls, but frequently enough to kill you with pneumonia or hypothermia if you were unfortunately enough to end up outside all night. Caedmon had gotten used to being homeless, but was reluctant to admit his apprehension at spending the winter in Clayton.
Tyler came sprinting up to Caedmon’s bench and stopped just short of running full tilt into the side of the building behind it. Rubbing his hands together to warm them, he asked the same question that had begun their unlikely friendship without bothering with standard salutations. “‘Ay man, got a light?”
Tossing Ty the matches had become something of a ritual but, when Tyler had proudly informed Caedmon that he turned twelve the week before, Caedmon could not resist the urge to get the boy a present. Though hesitant to spend any of the meager savings he had begun to squirrel away from his busking tips, Caedmon had decided that buying his young friend a gift was well worth the financial loss. He pretended to rummage through his pack as Tyler bounced from one foot to the other, his breath fogging in the chilly November air. “Of course,” Caedmon said, tossing the new lighter to the boy. “Happy late birthday, Ty.”
Tyler caught the Zippo, emblazoned with the Union Jack, and whooped loudly. “No way, man! For real?” he asked as he flicked it open and struck the wheel, watching as a long flame shot up from the chrome lighter.
Caedmon grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “I figured you might need your own sometime, and that’ll last you way longer than any old pack of matches.”
Tyler snapped the lid back and forth for several minutes after he lit his cigarette. “You gotta share it with me, man!” he finally said, handing Caedmon the burning Newport. “This is just too awesome.”
Though he hadn’t smoked since his undergrad years, Caedmon drew a long draft of smoke into his lungs. Tyler promptly busted out laughing as Caedmon’s surprised coughs rocked his body back and forth. “Take it easy,” Caedmon said, still hacking, “It’s been a while since I did this.” The boy continued to crack up intermittently during their discussion that day, though Caedmon stopped coughing after the first several minutes.
“So how’d you get here, man?” Tyler finally asked, lighting a third cigarette. Caedmon had told the boy just about everything else, from his grandparents coming across the Atlantic to studying anthropology at Chapel Hill. “How come you don’t have a place to live?”
Caedmon leaned over, resting his elbows on the worn knees of his jeans. “It’s a long story,” he said quietly. He thought of the dying woman who had been his mother; the bedsores that marked her back after she refused to leave her bed; the funeral on the Monday before Ash Wednesday with the too-bright sun beating down; and the months after that in which funeral costs, creditors, and his student loans mounted up so quickly. He remembered being too startled to feel sad when he was kicked out of his childhood home and the surreal, dreamlike quality with which he regarded the man who hammered a “Foreclosed” sign into the ground beside his mailbox. “After Mom died, I just couldn’t pay for everything,” he said finally. “It seems like everything in life costs money, Ty. I thought I had a handle on it, but I didn’t. I was working a bunch of odd jobs anyway but I wasn’t particularly good at any of them, and before I knew it there were people showing up at my house, telling me I had two weeks to “vacate the premises’- that’s what they said, just like that – and then I was here. I mean, I took the little I had left out of the bank and stayed at cheap motels for a few nights, but that ran out quick. The few friends I’d made in school were all off at different graduate programs, and all poor as field mice anyway – ”
“Just, you know, none of us had all that much money to begin with, being students, and I have a lot of trouble asking people for help. I wasn’t going to bother them with my problems. It was just a lot of bad timing, bad luck, and…circumstances, I guess. So,” he concluded, “here I am.”
“Wow.” Tyler was silent for a while and Caedmon watched him processing, as if he was putting all the fragments of the story, like puzzle pieces, together into one clear picture. “That sucks, man.”
“It’s part of life. Stuff happens. I’ll figure it out.”
Ty’s eyes brightened suddenly. “Hey! Maybe you can come live with me and Gran! I bet she wouldn’t mind and then maybe you could get back on your feet and – ”
Caedmon shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ty. It just wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be fair to you, or your Gran, to impose on you like that.”
“It just wouldn’t be cool, Ty.”
The boy flared up. “Is this one of those ‘trouble asking for help’ things? That’s stupid, man. That’s just fuckin’ stupid.”
In spite of the kid’s anger, Caedmon noticed the watery film gathering over his eyes. “No. No, no. Look, Ty, it’s not that at all.” It was that. It was that, coupled with the way Caedmon was sure a grandmother would react when she learned her grandson wanted a homeless man to move in with them, but he wasn’t about to tell the twelve year old that. Caedmon paused until the boy would meet his gaze. “That’s not it, okay? It just wouldn’t work.”
Ty shrugged his shoulder over his face, swiping it across his nose. “Okay, whatever man,” he said. “I gotta head back to Gran’s anyway, what with it getting dark early and all. I gotta go.” He threw his cigarette, still burning, onto the ground, and Caedmon saw that a good third of it was left. He called after Tyler’s thick, navy figure as it headed towards Main Street, but the boy just hunched his ears tighter into the collar of his coat.
– – –
Caedmon sat, hunkered down against the wind, on the bench two days later, wondering if his rejection of boy’s idea had caused him to stay at home the day before. The clock on the city square had chimed four times and that, coupled with the slanting light of the late afternoon sun, told him that the boy should have showed up downtown already. He had waited so long for Ty to show up the day before that he was too late joining the line that queued up at the door of the shelter. Spending the night sleeping on the ground under a bridge was neither as romantic nor comfortable as the image of doing so had been in Caedmon’s head, back when he’d had hiking boots and enjoyed camping – “roughing it” – with his college roommates. Sleeping under a bridge when the temperatures were below freezing was not an experience he wished to repeat two days in a row. As the clock played half past four, Caedmon pulled himself off of the bench, tucked his ukulele away in his pack, and trudged the twenty minute walk towards the shelter.
Caedmon spent the next morning playing on the square, where Friday shoppers were more likely to see, and therefore tip, him than the little garden bench. Near noon, the sun warmed the air enough for him to peel off the fingerless gloves that he’d acquired in order to keep his hands from numbing in the cold. A city bus rolled to a halt at the bus stop and several passengers stepped off. A middle-aged woman with skin the color of an espresso bean seemed to spot Caedmon sitting cross-legged, leaning up against the large clock, and adjusted her course, angling her path towards him. A single, long dread hung from her kerchief down her back and, as she got closer, Caedmon hoped that the determined way she was squinting had more to do with the sun than his placement on the square or – more likely than both, and possibly the worst-case scenario – anything to do with Tyler. He sat quietly, looking down as he strummed through the chords of “Over the Rainbow” and shrinking smaller in an effort not to draw attention to himself.
“You usually ‘round here?” she said brusquely when she’d gotten close enough for him to hear her without speaking over-loudly. It didn’t sound like a question.
Caedmon looked up. “Yes ma’am. I’m Caedmon Grant. Can I help you?”
She seemed to draw herself up, straightening the curve of her shoulders. “I am not,” she said, “particularly interested in who you are, and I don’t need no help. But if you’ve been letting a little ole boy hang ‘round you here in the street, I’m here to tell you in no uncertain terms that you are not to be seein’ him any longer and he is not to be coming down here without no adult. And if you see him out struttin’ on these streets, you ought tell him to go on back home. He is not to be gallivanting off with the likes of you. Is that clear?” She drew in a large breath, and Caedmon noted that it sounded as though she’d been practicing this small speech all morning.
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
“That all you have to say for yourself?” she seemed surprised by his lack of resistance.
“I doubt there’s anything I could say that might change your mind,” said the young man. “Is he doing alright? The boy, I mean.”
“Oh, he’s just torn to pieces he won’t be coming down here no more to shoot the breeze and smoke, no less, but he’s young yet an’ he’ll bounce back quick enough. Now don’t you be worrying ‘bout him none and just let him ‘lone. You hear?”
With that, the woman Caedmon could only assume was Gran turned on her heel and walked briskly back to the bus stop, where she sat on the bench and glanced back at him from time to time until the next bus came. He watched it lumber down the street and thought about Georgia or Florida. He wondered how many days it would take to make the trek down to Atlanta or Orlando.
– – –
Well, that’s the rough draft, and the reason I haven’t posted pretty much any new stuff lately. I know it’s a bit on the long side for a blog post, but I hope you stuck it out and enjoyed it! Thoughts are very, very much appreciated!
p.s. Lots of thanks to Tim H. for helping me out with details and stories!