Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a series, following The Drifting Dark.
“It’s about the only thing I got. ’Cause I’ve sinned, man. Damn, have I sinned. And been sinned against.”
It’s been a year since I last wrote about “V,” the homeless woman I met outside my K Street office. I used to buy her lunch, keep her company with idle chat. When I found out she was suffering abuse from the man she was staying with, I pushed her to take action. But she wasn’t interested in shelters or police, and I was bankrupt of solutions.
After some months, V disappeared. She didn’t panhandle outside my office. Her special hiding place was empty, with no trace of her belongings. I asked about her in places where homeless people gathered, but no one knew her.
For a while afterward, I’d walk in a pattern around my building before entering the office. I toured storefronts and corners and back-alleys. I saw more misery, but none was hers. Whatever hope I’d begun with eroded each day.
At some point, though the first moments elude me, my walks weren’t about finding her anymore; they were out of habit. My spirit had gone about its own mission: learning to live with never knowing.
I got used to dragging along her memory. I put my head down and accepted my station, and saw to its function with purposeful avoidance. My savage wonder at whether she was dead or alive was pushed deep down inside me.
But I still couldn’t sleep.
I’ve got this habit of letting loose paper and 5-Hour Energies pile up in my office. When critiques have worn me down enough, I’ll do a little cleaning.
In the spring, I was sifting through some old grant files when a strip of gray paper popped out from between two folders and floated to the floor. I was about to toss it in the garbage when I saw some sloppy cursive writing.
On one line, there was a phone number beside the words: “V (Tim’s Cell).” On the other was an address.
I felt the blood leave my face. My breath caught in my throat. I reread the words again and again, and tried to match them to a memory. I’d given her my number a dozen times, jotted down on the back of a business card, and chided her each time not to lose it again. But I couldn’t remember ever receiving hers.
I set the paper on my desk and paced through the office. Hands shaking at my sides, I stepped out to the bathroom to avoid scrutiny.
I splashed some water on my face and stared in the mirror. Despair, and then hope, flooded through me in equal measure.
I wiped my face on my sleeve and leaned on the sink.
“I have no idea where it came from,” I said, chomping violently on my gum. “It’s like it fell out of the sky.”
My friend nodded sympathetically. She leaned forward on her forearms and asked: “Did you try calling?”
“Yeah. Number’s disconnected. I paid some website to run a trace, but nothing came up.”
“What about the address?”
“Took a look on Google Earth. Saw what the building looks like.” I let out a low grunt, glancing out the window. A cold weight settled on my shoulders.
“I’ve never been closer. I’ve never had this much information,” I said, before sighing sharply. “But I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve got no idea what good it is.”
Her mouth pinched down at the corners. She was more watching me than listening. I shook my head and grasped uselessly for some courageous platitude. All I managed was a shaky breath.
“It’s not your fault,” she said quietly.
I glanced off, eyes unfocusing, and V spun through my head in grainy frames like a psychic microfiche. All the times I helped her, and all the times I didn’t, flickered in my brain.
It’s kind of sweet the way a friend will lie to you.
I got a list of every service provider within five miles of the address and called them one by one, while a colleague of mine contacted the shelters near our office. They all politely told us that they could neither confirm nor deny they knew anyone fitting V’s description. It’s sound policy, of course; I’m sure abusers call after their victims often.
It was a longshot anyway, given her distrust of institutions.
I read the address off the paper and typed it into Google again. The building, dull and brown with a beat-up awning, filled my screen.
I pictured her face, creased in fear, as she walked inside.
I put my head in my hands.
“You know, we ain’t ever talked about the good book,” she said, taking a sip of her Coke.
I smiled slightly, shielding myself from the sunlight as it bounced off her greasy hair. “Bring it.”
“You believe in God? You must—you’re a good guy.”
“Of course I do,” she said irritably. “Why the hell else would I call it the ‘good book?’”
I laughed silently, unfolding my legs to lean back against the wall. I tracked V’s eyes, which had a dreamy quality, to some far-off point. She looked deathly serious.
“It’s about the only thing I got,” she said. “’Cause I’ve sinned, man. Damn, have I sinned. And been sinned against. And Jesus says that everything’s forgiven. No matter how far you fall, he puts his hand out.”
“It’s a nice idea.”
“You done bad things?” she asked. I shifted uncomfortably, before nodding slightly. She continued, “You should read the good book. Explains things—explains why we’re here. Makes me feel better.”
I looked out at the sundry mass of people, each individual ensconced in their own affairs. Some were talking on the phone; others had their head down. A few were talking to each other. I smiled self-consciously.
“I think everyone’s wired to look for the point of things—for some reason,” I said. “ And maybe it’s that. Or maybe it’s all just bones and leaves.”
V took one of those long sips where you can tell that the can is actually empty. Her eyes dulled. I watched her mood lower through the black like a well bucket.
She set her Coke down and looked at her hands. Then she looked out at the street, and at the sidewalk. Her eyes took in everything but me.
“I think he’s gonna do something, Andy.”
It was a few days before I found the resolve to review an online archive of violent crimes reported near the address. The descriptions were vague—just street corners and the type of incident. There were at least 15 that could have fit.
I called up a friend at a local newspaper and asked him to check my incident list against the paper’s old crime sections. I was able to rule out most of them, leaving me with three about which I had no information.
I wrote down the case numbers on a post-it note.
The setup was sort of strange, I thought. The record office was in the middle of a long, thin corridor. There was a waiting area with about five seats, and a glass window with a small depression at the bottom for the exchange of paper and money.
I waited in line, nervously flipping the post-it in my hands. The floor creaked as I tapped the rhythm to Born to Run.
I smiled awkwardly, sliding the post-it under the glass to the clerk. He looked utterly disinterested when he asked: “Are these your records?”
“Um—well…” I stammered, trailing off helplessly.
He rolled his eyes at me. “I’m not gonna arrest you. Just tell me why you want them.”
I looked down in embarrassment. Then I took a calming breath, rubbing my forehead, and said: “I’m just worried about a friend.”
It was another hour before I’d actually receive the records. For someone who spends as much time in their own head as I do, it might as well have been a century.
When they finally called my number, I sprang up out of my chair and ripped the papers from his hand.
I walked to the far wall, only slightly aware of my heart hammering against my ribs. My eyes darted up and down to find the descriptions of each victim.
One by one, I confirmed that none of them were V.
And I was disappointed to realize that it brought me no relief.
“That’s not going to help her. If you do that, it has nothing to do with her. It’s about you—and your guilt.”
Having exhausted my other options, and driven by some primitive, inconsolable anger, I thought about showing up at his door. In the part of the brain that controls logic and not satisfaction, I knew it was pointless—and that it could make things worse. But for days, it was almost all I thought about. I pictured the moment in vivid detail. I created sounds and smells and manufactured a blissful confrontation.
And that was all about me.
I remember standing over the shredder, directions to the building in hand. And after a long moment, my shoulders slumped and I dropped them in.
I’ve always liked the idea of handwritten letters. There’s so much meaning lost when something’s typed out. I’m grateful for e-mail; there’s a lot of relationships I’d have lost but for its invention. And yet sometimes I feel so distant from people.
I must have gone through ten drafts before I settled on a tone.
I told her I was looking for her, and that I hoped she was okay. I wrote that she should call me, so we could reminisce and speak of the good book. And I was there for her—ready to help however I could. I was sorry if I hadn’t helped enough.
I sealed it in an envelope labeled:
I set out from the office to find her special place. It was early evening, and the first shadows were cast over everyone as the sun petered out.
About five blocks from the semi-trailer where she used to keep her belongings, a man in his forties, with a long beard that was more gray than black, stepped into my path.
“Yo, my man—you got a minute?”
I nodded, and he moved to one side. “Here, I’ll walk with you,” he said, matching my gait. “I’m not trying to hold you up; I just got a favor to ask.”
“What do you need?”
“Look, I’m not some deadbeat, and I know you don’t owe me nothing. I’m not gonna mug you or anything.”
I grinned a little. “I’m glad.”
The man repeated his assurance, then told me a long story about how he’d done things he wasn’t proud of—things that put him in prison. He’d been out a couple weeks now, but he didn’t have any money and he needed to get back to Philadelphia with his girlfriend and her daughter.
“I’m just trying to do things right,” he said. “I’m not a deadbeat. My friend in Philly says there’s a job for me, but I gotta get us there. I gotta get us on a bus.” He held his hands up and showed me his palms, covered in coarse white lines from a life spent striving. “God as my witness, whatever your reasons, I’m just asking for a little help. And if you don’t want to—it’s cool, I understand. But I’m asking you. Man to man.”
I asked how much he needed, and gave him that amount.
He stared at the bills, smiling, and shook his head. Then he slipped the money in his pocket. I laughed nervously when he put his arms around me. It lasted just a moment, as men’s embraces do.
“Thank you. Whatever…” He shook his head again. “God bless.”
I glanced down the street. The alley was in view now. He followed my eyes and asked: “You in a hurry somewhere?”
“I’m looking for someone—a friend. I lost her a while back. She’s homeless.”
“You ain’t seen her?”
“Not in a while.”
A weariless smile tugged at his lips, warping his beard so that it looked like a fake one you’d use to play Santa Claus. He hummed under his breath.
“I bet you’re gonna find her,” he said happily, nodding to himself. “I can picture it. Her face is gonna light up, and she’s gonna give you a big hug. Gonna be so happy to see you. I can see it in my head.”
I could see it too. His vision entered my brain through some osmosis.
He wished me luck, told me to keep my head up. I asked him to do the same.
Nothing had changed about the alley, or about the narrow passage between the building wall and the semi-trailer where V had taken solace.
I used my phone as a flashlight, sliding through the opening until I felt the far wall. I squatted down gingerly and shined the light underneath the trailer.
There was no coat, no sleeping bag, no food. There was no beat-up Walkman, or a woman to play it. Empty pavement sprawled out before me.
I slid down the brick wall, and put my head on my knees.
I dropped the envelope beside me.
The sun disappeared.
After a long, uneven winter, I met the next spring eagerly. I don’t think we’re built for long nights and short days. They say the seasons affect our brains, that winter depresses us, but I think it’s something deeper—something science can’t address.
It was the first day I’d seen the sun in weeks. The air was that perfect kind of cool.
At lunch time, I rode the elevator down with a colleague. We headed outside, chatting about something trivial. We were a few feet down the sidewalk when a familiar voice cut through the air.
V leaned on the wall, cup in hand, and gave me a gummy smile. It only widened at my paralysis. I stared dumbly, numb down to my bones.
“I been lookin’ for you,” she said brightly. “I been asking. And here you are.”
I took a cautious step toward her, my heart falling into my guts and bouncing back. I placed a palm on my forehead and let out a breathy laugh.
“Oh my God. It’s—God, it’s so good to see you! I’ve—I’ve been looking for you,” I rambled. “Where have you been? I’ve—I was so worried about you.”
There was such life in her eyes. They roamed down her own body, as if to point out her clean clothes. “I been staying somewhere across town,” she said.
“The guy you were with—”
“I left him,” she said proudly, smiling again. “Ain’t had nothin’ to do with him. Been staying with someone else—a nice guy. Been with him since November and things have been great. Still can’t get a job, but things are great. Things are so great. I even put some weight on, haven’t I?”
I blinked something back, glancing down to hide it.
“It’s so good to see you,” I repeated softly.
“I couldn’t forget you, Andy. Not if I tried. Hopefully we’ll be seeing each other now.”
My colleague offered me a pen, and I took out a business card to jot my number on the back. I had a kind of nostalgic feeling as I smiled and handed it to her. “Try not to lose this one, would you?”
“I won’t,” she said—just as she always did. “You’ll be hearin’ from me.”
I nodded skeptically, studying her again—her clarity and cleanness, the spark in her eyes—and I thought back on what she’d been through, and what I’d been through, and about how human life, all of it, is inseparably connected.
I leaned down and held her.
I walked out of a meeting with a colleague, and settled back at my desk.
My phone showed a missed call and a voice mail. It was a D.C. number, but I didn’t recognize it. I looked through some work e-mails while I held the phone to my ear.
“Hi, Andy,” a warm voice said. “I know you’re gonna be even more surprised hearing me on the phone. Told you I wouldn’t lose it!” She laughed softly. “I wish I had a camera to take a picture of your face when you saw me. Wasn’t that a good meeting?” She paused, taking a long, calm breath. “I’m gonna get back with you. Maybe next time I’ll hear your voice. I love you, my brother.”
I leaned back in my chair, a stupid grin on my face.
My chest filled with peace.
- Andy Beres, Development & Communications Coordinator
Nicely written Andy. Heartfelt and real.
I’ve been there — on both sides. There’s an urgent need to protect housing right now. Please consider singing this petition I initiated:
You are brilliant. Excellently written. Beautiful story.