I got a text from my wife that there was some drunken homeless person in our alley. She had called the police but they were too busy to send anyone out. I didn’t notice the message until I was almost done with my shift. I figured everything was fine. It was one of those rare days when I was happy to be a mailman because winter was definitely over and for the foreseeable future I was going to get paid to walk around outside wearing shorts. Everything seemed perfect: the sky and the wind through the trees, the fact that it was Saturday and I didn’t have to work the next day. I felt a twinge of nervousness about the vagrant. We kept our backdoor open most of the time. I thought about the kids in the yard and this rough beast who had crawled out from whatever rock. It was probably just someone who had tied one at the park in celebration of the first true day of Spring. But you always had to be careful with drunks like that. They’re brain damaged a lot of them and get pretty crazy. I rode in the car with my arm out the window. The trails were abuzz with bikers and joggers. Minnehaha Falls Park was crowded and the line was out the door at the Dairy Queen. No wonder the police were busy, I thought. It was a holiday, the first warm day of the year in Minnesota.
The house was locked up and empty when I got home. Emily was off getting her hair cut and the kids were with the neighbors as we had discussed. I went downstairs and showered before going next door. I could see my youngest son enjoying the novelty of someone else’s toys. I gave the glass a soft rap and entered. My children hardly noticed me. Kate greeted me warmly and assured me how well the kids were doing. I took a seat and watched them. I could never help noting that my five-year-old always played with Mary Ann so much better on her turf than his own. He has always been more than a little uptight about his possessions. It was remarkable the strides he had made in making room for his brother in his life. When Theo first came into our world, he couldn’t so much as play with his own toys let alone play with Miles’. Now Miles allowed him to play with almost anything. They still fought as brothers do. They could have the whole shoreline of the Mississippi River to themselves and both insist on digging in exactly the same spot. It was comforting to watch them at play totally engaged in what they were doing and asking nothing in the way of attention from me.
“So,” I said at last, “I heard you had a visitor today.”
Kate’s face perked up behind her glasses at the mention of the vagrant. “Oh, yes,” she said, “we certainly did. He was really having a hard time. He could barely stand. We got the kids inside right away. He ended up going to sleep in the raspberry bushes by your trashcans.”
I chuckled at this. It was all rather exciting, so little happened in our little corner of the world–the occasional late-night garage burglary and not much else. We had chosen our home carefully, placing ourselves as close to the parks as possible and as far from crime and poverty as we could while still being in the city. We prided ourselves at not living in Eagan, but we really weren’t far from it.
“I went out to check on him to make sure he didn’t need an ambulance,” she continued. “He seemed fine, just snoring away. The 911 operator said the police couldn’t come if it wasn’t at least a property crime. I guess they were busy today.”
“The park was packed,” I commented
“Yeah, I suppose.” she said. “It is a gorgeous day.”
“Oh, my God! What a day!” I gushed, totally sincere in my admiration of such a simple thing as the weather.
“Oh, that’s right. You got to work in it,” she said. “That must have been nice.”
Just at that moment Kate’s husband, Will, entered the door. His daughter ran to him and jumped into his arms. He greeted me and the whole scenario of the vagrant was reiterated even though it sounded as if he has been texted updates on the situation just as I had.
I launched into a story about how when Emily and I lived in Uptown this drunk had been screaming and carrying on late into the night. The police wouldn’t come then either. I had been very close to going out there and assaulting this asshole myself–he was on the hood of someone else’s car singing with a whiskey bottle in his hand at three in the morning for God’s sake–and I was very close to communicating this threat to the operator in the hope that it might prompt some sort of return on my taxpayer dollar. I finished this anecdote, one of my favorites, with everyone grinning and me wondering if I had somehow made an ass of myself. Will turned to his wife and said, “So, how is our friend doing?”
“Oh, he was fine last time I checked.” she answered.
“Wait a minute!” I cried in astonishment. “You mean he’s still out there!?”
It was as if my entire worldview had been flipped upside down. The conversation went on without me. I withdrew into myself, focusing entirely on this irritant that had disrupted the perfect world that I had worked so assiduously to create. The scene of our children playing no longer seemed so idyllic.
Why were they inside on the most beautiful day of the year? Were we cowards?
I looked out the window. It was a hot day and, suddenly, I felt a measure of concern for the drunkard.
“I want to have a look at this guy,” I said to Will.
“You’re going out there?” he asked, a little taken aback it seemed.
“We should make sure he’s all right,” I said.
I stepped out the back door. I could not see him from the porch, so close to where I had parked my car never knowing he was there. The air seemed dry and still. I felt a bit nervous as I approached the described location of his slumber, much as I would if I were approaching the lair of some large creature. I saw a shape. I stepped around the raspberry patch– the desiccated reddish stalks that had yet to even bud. He was a large man. I was taken aback by his largeness and he was not so old as I had imagined. In fact, he seemed exactly the same age as me. He was out, breathing heavily. He wore jeans, what looked like a snowmobile coat and heavy boots. His hands were very large–dirty pickle-sized fingers. The sun was lowering. He had chosen a spot with a bit of shade. He had flattened the area much as a deer would and seemed altogether peaceful. I was fearful of his waking. I considered it my right to wake him and demand his exit. I longed for a bat to prod him and defend myself if need be. I realized there was one in the garage but I didn’t go for it. I thought of my father and how he would react to this situation. I turned my head toward Will’s home and thought of our children inside. It was not worth making a scene for man who I cared as little for as the dirt underneath my fingernails.
I quietly went back inside my neighbor’s house. The children were clamoring to go outside.
“Is he still there?” asked Will.
“Yeah, he’s out there sleeping.” I said. “He had really big hands.”
Will nodded. The children renewed their protests.
“I can go out there with them,” I said to Kate. They were all looking at me–expectant and joyous that they were getting what they wanted as they so often did.
I stood guard as they played, aware of how loud they were, how their play sounded so much like combat. I could not stop thinking of my father. I was sure the sleeping man was a veteran. His black cap had the word, RANGER, stitched into it in yellow. I heard a groaning noise from the raspberries, like a bear awakened from a deep hibernation. The branches shook and the groaning grew louder. I turned my eyes to the children who were not even aware of his presence. The man rose out of the bushes. His hair was akimbo and bits of dead grass stuck to his coat. He gathered himself and staggered southbound down the alley. I was tempted to say something but I thought it best to remain silent. I was sure the sounds of playing children were humiliation enough. When I was sure some distance had been placed between us, I stepped into the alley to make sure he was on his way. I stood there, defender of my territory. He seemed sure of step, as if the nap had done him good. He hesitated upon reaching the street. He paused for a moment and then took a left, disappearing out of sight.
I looked down. The raspberry stalks were decidedly trampled. There, in the nest he had made for himself, was his black cap. RANGER stitched in yellow. A veteran. The same age as me. Probably there for the first Gulf War. God knows what after. I gingerly picked up the cap between thumb and index finger. I dropped it into my garbage can. I thought of my father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and closed the lid. My wife stepped out of the garage. We smiled at each other as I contemplated dinner.