A truck stop. The kind with a sea of big rigs in the parking lot. A place with showers in the back, a greasy cafe in the front, and a gift-shop.
The gift-shop is only a few aisles of stuffed animals, trinkets, and toys. The woman behind the cash register tells me:
“Lotta fellas on the road buy gifts for they kids before they go home.”
There is a basket of imitation Zippo lighters by the register. A John Wayne lighter is calling my name. I don’t smoke, but you never know when you might need a Chinese knock-off Zippo with the Duke’s face on it.
A man is walking from the back restrooms. He’s dressed in rags, his gray beard is thick. He’s carrying tennis shoes in his hand. His hair is wet.
“See ya, Stick,” says the cashier.
Stick walks outside and lights a smoke. He stands next to a jogging stroller, filled with his earthly possessions. There is a dog beside him, wagging its tail.
Stick comes here to shower a few times per week—depending on how much he sweats. His dog’s name is Persimmon. I ask how the dog came by the name.
“My mama used to cut persimmons to predict weather,” he says. “Figured they were magic berries. I can always use some magic.”
He is a veteran. That’s all he has to say about it. And he doesn’t want any money. In fact, he refuses anything I offer.
“I work,” he said. “Feels better earning my money. That’s how I take care of Persimmon and me. How I bought this stroller.”
On the back of the neon yellow jogging stroller is a license plate which dates 1975. It’s the year Stick’s son was born. He still remembers the day.
“I was getting my car registered at the exact moment, my son was being born,” he said. “I saved this plate.”
It’s hard to imagine Stick owning any vehicles. But he did, once. Once, he was a clean-cut man with a kid and a mortgage. He had problems. He doesn’t deny that. They cost him his marriage.
And his boy.
“Haven’t seen my son since he was six,” he says with a puff of smoke exiting his nostrils.
“Homelessness happens fast,” he goes on. “You don’t see it coming, you’re too busy drinking. Then one day, you’re waking up in the woods.”
He drinks. He doesn’t hide that. He drinks all the time. It is starting to take a toll on his body. It’s hard to tell how old he is—he looks fifty years older than his age.
He takes odd jobs wherever he finds them.
One of his favorite jobs was cleaning new-construction, unfinished homes in subdivisions. He did this for peanuts and permission to sleep in the rooms of the construction sites.
We finish talking. He says goodbye and pushes his stroller away, Persimmon follows.
Before he leaves, I ask if he likes John Wayne. He has to think about it.
“John Wayne?” he says.
I hand him a cheaply made, imitation Zippo since he won’t take cash.
“Oh,” he says. “That John Wayne. Hey, thanks. God bless you, sir.”
God. Take extra special care of Stick tonight.