Jack Coey is a grandfather & cashier who writes for love which is reward in and of itself.
It was when Miriam broke up with him that did it, and he removed the screen from his first-floor bedroom and crawled through, and walked to the highway, where he hitched a ride to Keene. It was after one in the morning when he got picked up by a guy, same age as him, who put his hand on Jude’s knee twice and Jude came close to hitting him but got him to stop by not doing anything. That is until the guy stopped the car in Keene and said,
“How about a blow job?”
Jude laughed in his face and jumped out of the car and walked back down the street where he saw the town common. He managed to doze some before the sun came up on an August morning. Cars were going around and round. Right away, he felt Keene was busier than the town he came from. He thought about his parents and felt guilty about the pain his mother would feel, and not so much, at the anger his father would feel, when they figured out, he ran away. He relished the feeling of hurting Miriam. A man in raggedy, dirty pants and torn shirt walked over to him.
“Come on, I’ll buy you breakfast,” he said.
Jude looked him up and down. He had long scraggily dirty brown hair and a full beard with glowing blue eyes that communicated serenity.
“You’re new. I’ll show you how to live on the street.”
He was a young man who appeared older. Jude slowly got up and wordlessly followed the man to the community kitchen where there was a line.
“Takes about twenty minutes.”
Other people said good morning to the man whose name was Joseph. Everybody seemed to know him so Jude felt more comfortable. When they got inside, Joseph said,
“Later, I’ll show you the shelter so you won’t have to sleep outside.”
Jude felt less anxious. Then he thought about his experience in the car. He told himself to be wary. People will help you with the real intent of exploiting you. He’d been on his own for less than twenty-four hours and he’d already learned that. The people in the kitchen treated Joseph with respect that bordered on reverence. There were about twenty to thirty people and they were all dirty and smelly. There were about ten women from teenagers to middle-aged. Some had gaps in their teeth. As Jude ate, he heard in hushed tones something about The Gathering that took place in the common in the early afternoon. Jude figured he’d better look for a job. After breakfast, Joseph took Jude to a men’s shelter on Dunbar Street and introduced him to Sal. Sal said he had a room available and said no women, no alcohol, and no drugs. Shared clean-up of bathroom and kitchen area to be posted weekly. Failure to follow rules cause for expulsion from shelter. No fighting. Any disagreements to be brought before Sal for judgement. Sal’s decisions are binding. Jude said that sounded fine to him and Sal showed him the room. Nothing was to be hung from the ceiling or walls. Sal gave him the password to get in the door.
As they were standing in the parking lot, Jude told Joseph he was going to look for a job. Jude wandered down streets until he came upon a supermarket with a Help Wanted sign. He went inside and asked a man wearing an apron who sent him to the service desk. He spoke to a woman who told him she needed cashiers. She wasn’t thrilled when he told her he had no experience as a cashier. Jude told her he wanted to try; that he thought he could learn it. She reluctantly agreed and told him to come back at six in the morning. Jude felt he could make a new life for himself, but he had to admit, he got help from Joseph. He walked back to the shelter, forgot the password, and banged on the window until someone let him in.
He explored the halls of the shelter and found the kitchen where three men were sitting around the table, drinking coffee. The men glanced at him and said nothing. One of the men was telling a story about a fire on Wheelock Street.
“The men from the woods done it,” he told the other two.
“Sure,” agreed one of the men.
The men ignored Jude and kept talking about the fire and the men in the woods. The men’s attitude towards the men in the woods was condescending. As far as Jude could make out, the men in the shelter looked down on the men in the woods because they were using and the men the in shelter were sober.
“The men in the woods begs for their money,” informed one man who was called Jo Jo.
“Well, I can’t say I’ve never done it,” said the third man, “when I was as high as a 747,” he grinned.
“Sure,” said another, “but you forsook your evil ways.”
“Had no choice – had no choice, be six feet under if I didn’t.”
“Ya,” said Jo Jo. He looked at Jude.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Jo Jo, this here’s JJ, and that’s Smithy.”
Jude raised his left hand.
The three men answered him like a chorus.
“You must be in 2B,” said Jo Jo.
“Ain’t that a shame about Matthew,” said Smithy.
There was a pause. Jude was curious so he asked,
“What did he do?”
The three men looked at each other trying to guess who would answer. After several beats, Smithy spoke,
“He got mixed up with a broad that messed with his head. We tried to warn him but it done no good. He fell off the wagon and came in drunk one night and punched Sal.” Smithy shook his head.
“Sal seems like a nice guy.”
“He has to be to take care of bums like us,” said Smithy and the three men laughed.
“He’ll go back to the men in the woods,” said JJ.
“Well, Matthew’s trouble opened a room for you,” said Jo Jo.
“Too bad it’s got to be that way,” said Jude.
“Who brought you to the shelter?” asked Jo Jo.
The men looked at each other. The men reacted and Jude couldn’t tell if it was positive or negative. Smithy spoke,
“If you want to get along here, you have to mind your own business, and not bother other clients. We each have our problems otherwise we wouldn’t be here and messing with others will get you in trouble fast.”
“Okay. Thank-you,” said Jude.
“Come to us if you’re not sure.”
Jude didn’t know what time it was when he was at the door of the supermarket. He stood before it like a statue – not knowing what to do. He’d pushed it and it was locked until a cart boy came and pulled on it and let him in. He felt like a numbskull. Inside he froze as he didn’t see or hear anybody and he didn’t know where to go. After several minutes, he heard voices from the back of the store which eventually made their way to the front. It was the woman he talked to yesterday.
“You made it,” she said.
“Come with me.”
She led him up a flight of stairs to a break room with appliances.
“Help yourself to coffee until I come for you.”
After about ten minutes, she came back, and took him down to the checkout lanes. Her name badge read Edna. After the store opened, she checked out customers talking to him all the while until she said,
He gave her a panicked look.
“I’m right here to talk you through.”
The line backed up quickly.
“All right,” she said and took back the register. He couldn’t believe how fast she was. He watched and saw there were several men who were dirty and smelly buying beer. They had a campfire smell and Jude realized they were the men in the woods. One of them paid in coins and Edna was unfazed. When there was a break in the customers, she said,
“You deal with all kinds of people and you’re respectful of everyone – even those who are unattractive for whatever reason,” she said.
“There are men who drink beer at six in the morning?”
“Every morning,” she said, “I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trade places with them.”
“I’m trying not to.”
“Then learn how to run this register so I can keep you on.”
Jude vowed to learn.
It was touch and go for the first couple of weeks: several times Jude thought he was a goner. There was a young cashier named Shasha who helped him out when she could. During breaks, she would test him on produce codes and coach him on Food Stamp items. One time, she mentioned how she was going to The Gathering in the common after she got out of work. Jude said how Joseph helped him out with the shelter and Shasha said that Joseph helped a lot of people on the street. Some thought he was a holy man.
“Yeah, like, The Gathering is really cool cause he tells stories like and they all have a meaning somehow and he’s trying to help people live better with each other. It’s pretty awesome.”
Jude thought he might check it out sometime.
He learned at the shelter the men randomly gathered in the kitchen, it seemed like, to talk. Jude happened to walk in on them. A window of a business on Main Street was smashed overnight and the Keene police had talked to Sal about if any of the men were missing from the shelter. The men were indignant the police thought of them this way. Street people knew it was the men from the woods.
Jude knew that if it hadn’t been for Shasha he wouldn’t have kept his job. To show his appreciation, he told her he would go with her to The Gathering the following afternoon. She was pleased and told him to meet her at the store at two.
There was fifteen or so street people in a group by the bandstand in the common. From the other side of the common, came Joseph with a group of men from the woods. There were twelve men with Joseph. Twelve men from the woods. Joseph stopped and waited until he had attention.
“I greet you this day with men who have vowed to spread the word, and promote wherever they can, peace and harmony among people. I have spoken with each of them, and each has told me, he has seen the sinfulness of his life, and wants to transform his life to better ways. They have pledged their lives to me and are my followers: the twelve followers.”
Jude glanced at Shasha and she was transfixed. Joseph held his arms out in front of him as a signal for the followers to mingle with his audience. Shasha was in a trance. Jude stayed right by her elbow as she talked with the Twelve Followers. One of the Followers talked with her about cleansing her soul. He said he would take her to the river and wade with her in the water to cleanse her soul. He told Shasha if she would enter the water naked, she would purify her soul. He wasn’t fooling Jude; Jude pulled her away.
“Stop! I want to go with him,” yelled Shasha.
“Shasha, he has bad intentions,” said Jude.
“He is going to purify me.”
Jude pulled her further away from the group. She struggled even harder and broke away from Jude. She ran back to The Follower. Jude felt sad as he watched Shasha walk away with The Follower. He felt even sadder the following morning when she didn’t show up for work.