Cheating a Homeless Man at Go Fish
We all have things in our life that we struggle to live down. For Blake, it’s cheating a homeless man at Go Fish. I should back up a bit, though. Sometime in 2011, the date is a blur in my memory, Adam looked at me and said, “I feel like I’m supposed to make some sandwiches and take them and some Bibles downtown.”
“What kind of sandwiches?” I asked.
“What do we have?”
And thus began Adam’s days as the Bible and Sandwich Guy of downtown St. Louis. We both knew what he was doing was dangerous, but we also both believe that if there is something you feel like you’re supposed to do, you do it. So I made him sandwiches and rounded up Bibles and the kids and I would pray over him before he’d leave. (Amusingly, the kids got so used to praying over their dad when he walked out the door that when I asked him to attend a parent meeting for me and he quipped about me sending him to deal with the other moms because I didn’t want to, Blake prayed over him: Lord, please send the Lion of Judah to protect my father… the kiddo was serious too. I felt a little bad for giggling over that one.)
His time downtown and the stories he brought home changed us all. My eyes were opened to a dark world that existed so close to my own little bubble, and yet I’d been completely oblivious to it. Many of the stories would eventually find their way onto the pages of the Vance Davis Dossier. I know that we, as a society, will never be able to truly eradicate homelessness. But what’s happening now isn’t okay. There has to be more we can do.
That year, I did my part to combat it by making sandwiches and rounding up supplies when Adam said he needed them. Whether it was a particular food, a certain shoe size, or pots and pans for a new apartment. He'd bring the orders home and we'd set about finding what was needed. By and large, what happened there, the things he saw and did, are his story to tell. But there were three people whose lives intersected with our family’s, and they left an indelible mark on all of us.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at a half-empty page, knowing I needed to let the words spill out but somehow afraid to start. I tell myself I’m busy. I tell myself I have writer’s block. But I know it has nothing to do with either. Blake’s story was hard to live and relive, but I can hear his laughter in the next room. Knowing it turned out okay makes it easier somehow to sort through those memories.
I first met Shelley, JR, and Dave when Adam asked if I would be willing to take the kids to a hot dog roast at a homeless camp. He’d grown especially fond of these three people, and they’d asked if he’d bring his family to a bonfire and hot dog roast at their “home.” They’d set up camp across outside of the city, in a somewhat remote area away from the crowds. Every so often, a group from a nearby church would stop by and bring the supplies to roast hot dogs with them. I seem to recall that they sang songs and stuff, too, but that’s honestly a little hazy.
I could tell it was important to Adam, so after asking him multiple times if he was sure it was safe, I agreed. Shelley and JR lived on an old concrete platform. They’d constructed a rather ingenious tent out of whatever they could get their hands on. JR had even gathered rocks and built a heart-shaped fire pit in preparation for the evening. As simple as it was, I could tell they were both thrilled and nervous to be having company over for dinner. I looked at Shelley and could see myself, flitting about with last minute preparations as my own guests arrived for a party. There are some things that are universal to a woman, I guess.
Dave didn’t live with Shelley and JR, he had built himself a rather nice home in the woods, or so I’d heard. He kept the location of his place pretty hush-hush, which was smart. It kept his home safe.
The thing I adore most about my children is that it took them about two seconds flat to make friends with everyone there. They were completely unaffected by the strangeness of the situation. Shelley and I had settled into chatting while the boys got a game of Go Fish started.
“But I don’t know how to play Go Fish,” Dave had protested.
“That’s okay; we’ll teach you,” they assured him.
I surfaced from my conversation at one point to realize that Blake was, in fact, preying upon Dave’s lack of knowledge and was blatantly cheating.
As much as we harass the poor kid about it, I think he can actually be credited with effectively melting away any residual awkwardness. We all laughed—really laughed, like the kind that comes from your belly and almost hurts a little—over his antics and in that, the friendship was sealed.
It came up that I was a writer, and both Shelley and Dave were fascinated. They asked questions, I did my best to answer, and I eventually went back to my car to see what books I had copies of. I left them with a few titles, which they read and loved. Every time they’d finish a book, I’d give them a new one. They were some of my biggest fans, and that meant a lot to me. Sometimes my books take a hit because they talk about dark things but they aren’t gritty.
Throwaway, especially, gets hammered because my main character is a prostitute but she seems so “normal.” I did that on purpose—because prostitutes are humans. Beneath all the things that might make her different from me, there is a common thread of humanity that makes us the same. No person is a throwaway. And, not surprisingly, that was a message that resonated with my new friends. I would take their approval a thousand times over the approval of a critic, any day.
It became a fairly regular occurrence that Adam would bring Shelley and JR home with him for dinner. No matter how broke we were, I tried to make their visits special. I brought out my A-game with the cooking. Sometimes, my mom and sister would come, too. There was a festive air to those dinners.
Our guests would quietly slip away to shower when they first arrived. After the first dinner, they stopped feeling so out of place and started to relax. Sometimes I would cut or style Shelley’s hair. Being the youngest sister and not having daughters, I am probably the most ill-equipped person on the planet to fix another woman’s hair, but I managed.
Once, I bought Shelley tinted lip gloss on a whim. I never saw her without it on after that. Sometimes, I buy myself a tube of that exact brand and color just because it makes me think of her. It's not a particularly flattering shade on me, but it keeps her memory alive.
In so many ways, she was probably one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. If I listed off my dearest female friends on one hand, she would be on the list. We talked about anything and everything. I would take her to Wal-Mart to get her essentials and we’d just chatter the whole way. Sometimes conversation was light. Sometimes it was not.
She told me about being raped in a port-a-potty during an event downtown. Some man, drunk and downtown to celebrate a sporting event, had cornered her in the chaos. There was nothing I could say to make it better, but I could tell she just needed to say the words. She needed another human to know what had happened and to care.
JR, on the other hand, was an overgrown child. I’m sure that, at least in part, contributed to his homeless state. But it also gave him a rather delightful innocence. He loved to play video games with my boys. He could for hours on end. My boys unanimously agree that he was terrible at said video games, but they also agree that they loved those times. It didn’t matter that he was bad; his joy was contagious.
That Christmas Eve, we celebrated at my sister’s house. It was a big, scrumptious meal and we left with our bellies and hearts full. We also left with a trunk full of carefully packed leftovers for our friends. My sister had, I’d noticed, started cooking more than we could possibly eat so there were always leftovers to take to our friends.
We didn’t have long to stay at the camp; the sun was setting as we arrived and I didn’t like having the kids downtown after dark. But Shelley and Dave insisted I stay long enough to open my gifts. Somehow, they’d each managed to get presents for us. Shelley gave me a watch with interchangeable bands. It didn’t fit or work, but I gushed over it and I meant it. I treasured that gift and I still do. Dave gave me the softest gloves I’ve ever owned.
One of the things Adam did during his time as the Sandwich and Bible Guy was try to work with the homeless people he’d befriended to get whatever they needed to get out of homelessness. He’d spent a lot of time talking with JR about what it would take to get himself on the right track again, and it was decided JR would study for his GED.
I feel like I should pause my story here to say that Blake, who had been released from rehab in September of 2011, got it in his head to try Irish dance because a friend of ours owned a studio in town. We got approval from his doctor and decided to let him give it a whirl. He was actually pretty darned good at it, and by November of that year, he was in Chicago for a national competition, where he placed 17th.
I had also pulled the boys at the beginning of the year to homeschool, each for different reasons. With Blake, it was because his teacher assured me he was excelling at school even though he admitted to me he was struggling because when he tried to read, the words would move around the page.
So, to fully paint the picture, I was homeschooling three children, one of which had to re-learn EVERYTHING he’d been taught during the first half of his elementary school education. I had a son in Irish dance. I couldn’t bring myself to deny him, but it was a skosh expensive and time consuming. My books we being polished and re-published, and I was suddenly expected to actually market them. We were trying desperately to hang on to Dylan’s horse and dealing with that drama. My youngest was slipping further and further into an anger I couldn’t understand or seem to help. My kids and I were desperately longing to leave suburbia and return home to the Ozarks. Medical bills were piling up, and the house was becoming ever-more of a millstone around my neck. And in the midst of all of this, we had our homeless friends coming to visit. It was an odd year, to say the least.
If there is one thing you can count on in a homeless camp, it’s that there will usually be a bit of drama happening. Another man moved into the camp for a while. Sometimes JR would put Shelley in danger with his choices. Sometimes she put herself there. She disappeared for a while, and I worried about her while she was gone. When she returned, I went to visit her at the camp. The moment she heard me coming, she came running.
“I found him!” Her face was positively glowing.
“Who did you find?”
“Jesus! I know what you were talking about now.”
“You found Jesus?” I clarified.
“Yes, while I was in jail. I found him!”
“Wait… what? When were you in jail? You had better start from the beginning.”
She filled me in on a rather convoluted story that involved visiting family, having a falling out with family (there was a long line of dysfunction and brokenness in her world), and somehow ending up in jail. One of the women she met there had talked to her about the Bible, and something in what she said made it click—all of the things I’d been trying to tell Shelley, about God loving her enough to send his son to reconcile her to him, about what Jesus meant to me, how he had impacted my life—it all clicked into place in her talks with a fellow inmate in a jail somewhere in Illinois.
And when she’d gotten out, she’d gotten on a bus and come straight to St. Louis because she wanted so badly to tell me she understood, and she had peace.
I could see it, too. She was still homeless. Her life still royally sucked and most of the people in it would continue to let her down. But I could tell by the joy I saw in her face that night that she would never be alone again. Whatever life would do to her, she had someone a whole lot more competent than me in her corner now.
I don’t begin to understand how God can love someone as deeply as I know he loves us and allow us to go through the things we do. But I am sure he is there, and he loves us, and I believe him when he promises that somehow, some way, he will work even the worst of it for our good in the long run. There are times I cling to that promise because I feel like it’s all I have left.
By the time spring of 2012 rolled around, what we had suspected would happen was rapidly becoming a reality: we were losing our home. I became so embroiled in trying to figure out how to keep my own family from winding up in a tent next to Shelley and JR that I didn’t put up much of a fuss when they dropped off the radar again. They’d done it before, more than once. I was sure they would turn up again. I just hoped it was before we left the area. I remembered worrying about what would happen to them when we were gone.
As it turned out, I would not hear from them. When JR did turn up, it was his body. Shelley was never seen or heard from again. Maybe she found her way out and is living a happy life somewhere in this great big, wide world. I have seen enough of this world to doubt that, though.
Most days, I keep her memory tucked away safely. Sometimes I come across the watch she gave me or I wear her favorite lip gloss and it resurfaces. There are times the memory is something pleasant and passing, like a summer breeze. There are times when it chokes me, the weight of it bears down like an anvil on my chest.
I don’t know if there is more I could have or should have done. I try not to dwell there. I prefer to remember the laughter, how bad JR was at video games, how much Shelley loved that stupid Chapstick or the haircut I gave her. And I remember her smile the day she told me she’d found Jesus, and I tell myself that I will see her again someday, even if it’s on the flip-side of life.
to be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.