And the fires are seeing, hearing, touching
Dreaming, thinking . . . .
Or is he the breath of God?”
--“Have You Prayed” by Li – Young Lee
Breath fogging the window I asked “Who’s that?” and pointed at a man whose stride disguised an inebriated state I knew nothing about. He didn’t move fast, but his rolling gait made it appear as if he walked down a steep hill despite being on a level sidewalk.
My mother glanced out the car window as we drove up Main Street in the late morning traffic. Spring turned the thick grass of the park beside us a vibrant emerald. “His name is Calvin. Be sure you stay away from him.”
“Why?” Ten year old eyes sharpening, I watched the man more keenly. Hair stuck out in greasy spikes of charcoal and ash, his matted beard a spill of salt across his jowls.
“Because I said” my mother replied in her usual way.
Some weeks later I asked Dad who this man was. His response was equally mysterious. “He’s a hobo. A junkie. You stay away from him, do you hear?” It was the same sort of instruction I got for most things my parents thought were bad for me. Curiosity poured contempt on such answers, gasoline on my burning desire to understand.
A few years later I was on my paper delivery route and heard some stories about Calvin. “He’s crazy! Huffs glue every day. It’s a wonder he’s got a brain in his head. He’s a drifter, moves from town to town the heads south for the winter. Never know where he’s been or where he’s goin.”
Hanging around the 7-11 downtown there were rumors about the time Calvin spent in AMHI, an asylum spoken of in whispers and the serious tones of boys trying to scare one another. As if such a place were full of damned beings unfit for normal conversation and abandoned by God like some expelled breath in a twisted dream. One kid told me Calvin killed a man for pocket change and spend a bunch of time in Thomaston, the state’s only maximum security prison in the 70s. Others said the police couldn’t prove Calvin did it because the hobo had no fingerprints, having burned them off handing cans of food straight from the fire. Some said he slept under the trestle bridge, but when I went to investigate there were only broken bottles, cigarette butts and rocks. No hobos.
I took to walking the tracks. There were a convenient short cut from the high school through to the center of downtown and beyond. All of it was a hiccup to the dreams that lay in the stretch of wood ties and steel rails into the horizon, but for now the hiccup was my world and somewhere within existed Calvin.
Sometimes I looked for him, totally ignoring the things I heard, but also seeking the man in spite of them. The harder it grew to find Calvin the more I wanted to meet the mysterious figure who vanished at will and made others avoid the tracks. I enjoyed my treks among the crushed granite, discovering the edges of a forbidden world, one that swallowed my older sister and made her go to that thing called “rehab”. I picked up and looked at anything to catch my eye, like my sisters and I did at the beach, searching tidal pools for the creepy crawly things of the sea. Instead of hermit crabs I found empty plastic lighters, half-smoked cigars and empty wine bottles. Once I dared opening a full can of beer that had been lost amongst the weeds. Smelling first as if it might have spoiled, it made me sneeze. I sipped and immediately sputtered, dropping the can and wishing for a drink of water. Once I found a smashed nickel, the date distorted into an elongated 1978, the year of my birth. I put it in my pocket.
It was in this way I finally met Calvin.
He jounced down the tracks several hundred feet in front of me, oblivious that it was more fun to walk between the rails than beside them. He clutched a crooked cigarette to his face, hallowing cheeks and exhaling pale exhaust. He saw me then and held up a hand. I mirrored him and stood waiting, watching before he left the tracks and disappeared into the woods.
The next time we met, a plastic shopping bag sprouted from his face, then deflated as he huffed in the contents. Legs jiggling, he watched me watch him, finished with the bag and stuffed it in a pocket. Calvin looked through me for a long moment. “Can ya’ spahre some change, brother?” His breath came in fits and gasps, voice hoarse and full of phlegm.
Wary of the twitching blue-eyed man, I gave him the coins in my pocket and waited for the arcade to light up. He smiled a bit and shook my hand. “Thank ya, brother. Brother.” I like to imagine it was the charity of my Catholic upbringing shining through that moment, but in reality I liked how he called me brother. Like Hulk Hogan. I didn’t follow Calvin as he staggered off, instead watching him mutter and run grubby fingers through wild hair, the duct tape on his boots tapping the sidewalk as he went.
During the winter months Calvin was nowhere to be seen. He usually vanished in October and reappeared around May, sitting on a park bench, shouting at cars or crossing the street in his rolling gait. One time, as a Boy Scout function, we delivered canned goods to the Tedford Shelter, the only homeless shelter in town. Expecting to see Calvin I put aside some cans in a bag just for him – beans and franks, ravioli—but was disappointed to learn he rarely stayed there. I later discovered he survived long winters by getting arrested and thrown in jail for some petty offense, or headed south like some migrant gull searching for warmer waters.
I didn’t realize it then but Calvin’s lifestyle had a significant impact on how I chose to respond to the rigors of adolescence. Rather than try to make the right choices all the time I allowed events to dictate my response – or lack thereof. Generally, I leaned toward less responsibility and fewer ties to people because it was easier than trying, and what was failure if not another dirt road in life, one with broken bottles, cigarette butts and discarded condoms?
When I dropped out of high school consequences were the furthest thing from my mind—so too the lessons of D.A.R.E. and my oldest sister’s struggles with addiction. Huffing seemed a natural choice when other drugs or even alcohol were unavailable. My world shrank to the pinpoint of each enjoyable moment without a single thought for homelessness or mental illness. Walking the tracks after I ran away from home became the one familiar path in my life that made sense of everything beyond my understanding. The next time I saw Calvin he wasn’t strange, pitiful or any of the things rumor warned against. We sat under a bridge and hot-boxed a joint before going our separate ways.
There were no profound conversations between us, very little talk at all. He didn’t relegate me with stories of a misspent youth as I poured mine out between the crushed rocks of the tracks. A word of thanks here and there and that familiar greeting “Brother. Brother. Can ya spahre some change?” If I couldn’t I gave him cigarettes or smoked a joint, or we shared the poison destroying our thoughts—him glue, me aerosols. Alcohol was a rarity, but when I had a few dollars I’d trust him long enough to get us both 40 oz of the god awfulest malt liquor.
The last time I saw Calvin was the night my parents kicked me out of the house in October of ’96. Dad picked me up from the paper plant after eight hours of stacking inserts and adjusting the conveyor belt coming from the press. Though I washed up there were still ink stains on my neck and ear from errant itches. He dropped me at the curb of the 7-11 with everything I owned stuffed into a backpack. I knew this was coming and Dad’s action was just, but my sense of wonder didn’t lessen when he gave me a quarter, told me to call a friend and sped off in the family station wagon. I shrugged and lit a Camel, already moving on.
Calvin staggered around the corner and stumbled to a halt next to me. “Can ya spahre some change, brother. Brother.”
I gave him a cigarette. “I ain’t got but some change. My dad kicked me out. “
“That’s a shame, that it. That is. Young fella like you ain’t hurt hairs on a fly’s ass.” He surprised me with a bit of advice. “Ya could go to the Tedfahd Shelta before it closes at midnight.” I nodded and thanked him, then handed over a few cigarettes and hurried to get a bed for the night.
Most people shied away from Calvin. A few shouted at or harassed him. Cops always stopped to chase him out of the park if he fell asleep. I didn’t mind him so much. There was something about him that spoke to this otherness in me too difficult to define at that point in my life. I found it hard not to like a man who cared nothing for what people thought even when they were right. He seemed to be saying stubborn people learn hard lessons, but if you ignore it all and give them the finger it hardly matters. By the time I began sharing things with Calvin – walking the tracks, huffing, homelessness, time in and out of various institutions – it was too late to give any thought to negative influences and poor role models. He was neither and both.
I was lucky up to that point in my experiences. Running away from home and spending time in the Maine Youth Center were things I could recover from and laugh off, moving on to whatever reckless activity jumped into my impulsive mind. Was the mistake heading south for the winter, or in staying too long in North Carolina? It’s hard to judge which mistake was the pivotal moment in a life full of them, especially when you sit on death row. The easy answer should be whatever action caused me to be in this place, and while that is true most of the time, I believe there were plenty of exits prior to the end of this particular road.
While my life at nineteen was little different from life at sixteen, there was a subtle erosion—whether from drugs, alcohol, huffing or a combination of the circumstances—in my ability to respond and cope. The beginning of the end for me occurred when my girlfriend and I agreed she should have an abortion. It affected me more deeply than I could have anticipated. I took to self-mutilating—a behavior that had been absent from my life for nearly three years. Where before the novelty of cutting and burning my arms was enough to shock me out of whatever emotionless vacuum I seemed to be in, this time nothing pierced the fog.
I was hospitalized, drugged and diagnosed, but this did nothing other than stir my hatred of institutions. There had already been too many at this point and they were a driving force behind why I felt at home on the road always moving. Walking away from responsibility and the rest of the world. This first hospitalization slid into an extended stay at Broughton Hospital after experiencing a psychotic break. I knew at this point I was not okay. Things were never going to be “just fine”.
Maybe this is where I grew to dislike that meaningless complex question “How are you?” What does that even mean? Suddenly my world went from the undiluted freedom of an open road—with my only concerns being food, a few cigarettes, and a drink—to this place with constricting jackets and four-point restraints. Screaming ninnies streaked the hallway as burly orderlies wrestled their naked bodies into the shower. A man-child crouched on the floor, alone as he calloused scalp with palsied fingers, the obvious path of his illness an animal trail parting hair.
There’s no making sense of crazy. “Mental illness” was not a word back then any more than Arab Spring or iPhone. Well, at least not in common vernacular. I “stabilized” in the hospital because this is their purpose. They pumped me full of drugs, stood me on my feet, spun me around three times, and pushed me back out into the world. A place that was too bright and shiny for my darkened eyes. Words were thrown at me—personality disorder, major depression, schizo-affective, red-flags and more—but they meant absolutely nothing in the face of my one driving thought. I had to hit the road. Get moving. Out of this place where the mind clarified into an ocean of pain and rage, regret and sorrow. Hit the road and find a place where it would be cool in the summer and tolerable in the winter. With a bottle to dull sharp thoughts and a can to shatter the rest. Everything I could possibly need or want on my back and only the future to stop me. Would that I had given Calvin a thought then, he might have saved us all.