You know a Joe. Lots of us do.
My Joe, well, he’s got it bad. Back in the day, my Joe was kinda livin’ the Dream. With a nice young wife, a good job that he liked, and, with it all, a beautiful little daughter growing up fast. A bit too fast. Young, impressionable, sullied by the sordidness of high school cliques, she lost respect for her doting parents. Emotional scenes at home, exasperation over her rebellion, lost nights of worry over her increasing absence.
Joe drank a little too much. His wife Mary had a health scare, and they decided to get life insurance. Over two hundred bucks a month it was, but they kept it up. Joe was working sixty hours a week, and thought he was a lucky guy to get it. A few more drinks when that blessed weekend came. He deserved to relax. Their girl left home at seventeen, and went God knows where. Mary’s diabetes medication was getting expensive, and secretly she stopped taking it. Joe was getting depressed and anxious, and got some sort of under-the-tongue pills from the Doc. They levelled him out pretty good. A month shy of two years of her insurance payments, Mary went to coma and died. The insurance company would not pay out the policy.
Broken now, Joe began to bumble through his job, but always made sure he had enough of those funny pills and something to wash them down with. When he forgot to pay the rent for a while, and made too many mistakes at work, his fate was sealed. Now my Joe sits under a bridge. He’s got the goddamn shakes ’cause there’s no more booze. He pats the pocket of his smelly jacket, and yeah, that plastic pill bottle’s still there, the last of his three months’ supply he begged from the Doc. Just to check, he shakes it. Oh please, God. Oh please. Two left. Fall is in the air. My Joe rises, takes his grocery bag, and in the city twilight, walks his well-worn path to McDonald’s dark dumpster.
She saw this mincing figure doing a comic amble toward her, stumbling as if drunk. Couldn’t have been, though, ’cause that silver platter he was balancing never tilted an inch from level. In dirty tweed and tacked-on tails, our Joe, with a toothy grin under several hats, presented Ella with the finds from his daily dumpster dive. Cups of Coke or root beer (half empty or half full), some straggly fries, uneaten nuggets, questionable lettuce. Fine fuel for tonight’s stomach ache. With a flourish, he set down his garbage can lid and cozied up beside her, doing a quick study of her person.
Ella of the red-rimmed eyes, the broken nose, the several teeth. But, most of all, Ella of the Mona Lisa Smile. She had been gone these recent days, and Joe had feared for her. He said nothing, but returned her smile, then stood up to stretch and scratch. “Garçon! A bottle of your best house wine!” says she. This cheered him some, seeing her old sardonic sarcasm, but he did not laugh. The winds of late October papered them with leaves in crispy flight, and he felt the chill.
Bumping hips, as if to shove her off the broken bench, Joe tried to be playful, to coax some more of that smile, but Ella hung her head and looked away. He gathered her to him, cradling her head, angling her shadowed face up to his. Ella, that hard-bitten girl, that leader of the old rat pack, was giving up. With her face bathed in grudging tears and runny nose, she bade him “Get away. Just get away!” They were two of the same. Finding only ugly hurt in their lives, they did not know how to accept love.
It would not be long for old Ella, Joe thought.
Slumping, with hunched shoulders, she rocked gently on the hard bench. With her only warm garment being a bright red scarf, she averted her eyes from him, hummed a broken tune, and shuffled her feet in an effort to outrun the cold.
Joe said to her “I’ll be gone for about half an hour, Ella, but I will come back with something to keep us warm.” Used to empty promises, she chuckled sardonically and idly waved him away. Joe was hoping the last dumpster he had seen on his travels had not been emptied yet.
True to his promise, he returned with a sheet of dirty foam rubber and a discarded reel of wire. These he spread out on the sidewalk. “Ella, I want you to lay down here. I’m gonna keep you warm for the night.” “You crazy?” she said, but, before she could protest further, he picked her up, laid her down on the foam sheet, and rolled her up as neat as you please, her scarlet scarf visibly entwined between the layers. With the wire, he tied up the package in two places, just below her feet and around her shoulders. “There you are, the human Jelly Roll! Or….or….a winter cocoon, soon to be a summer butterfly! You warm now?” Her sad eyes said a thank you, and there was a thin-lipped smile. She made as if to sleep.
Joe boxed himself in the thick old appliance carton he carried as a backpack, did up the buttons that still remained on his jacket, and tried to settle in for the night. Within ten minutes, he knew it was no good. The wind had picked up, and fingers or toes would be frostbitten by the morning. He got up and went hunting down the steep slope of the ravine not far from them. As Heaven would have it, someone had ignored the NO DUMPING sign and he found a green garbage bag full of discarded clothing. It was his turn for a wan smile, and, before long, he was snoring in his own cocoon.
Our curtain now closes on the darkling scene: A sleeping jellyroll dozing on the park bench, grateful for the warmth. A crude igloo of cardboard beside her, all hands on deck, all blinds drawn. If one peered into the waning light, one would see, through glittery snowflakes filtering down, the word REFRIGERATEUR on his side door, shown out by the fizzling beam of a faulty streetlight.