by Casie Dodd
One year, all of my fathers lived in a soup kitchen. I say that because one of them told me, “wherever you are, you’re home.” I lived upstairs in a bright yellow room as they slept, smoked, and swore in my courtyard. Some of them were homeless, though they pretended not to be. Some wore their street smell with dignity and pride. Some of them had homes but didn’t always make it there. And some just didn’t belong, but we took them because nobody else would.
Blue Eyes came to me first. He liked to play the out-of-tune piano in the corner of the dining hall and talk about Jesus. He said, “God is in the air we breathe and we come from more than atoms.” He told me, “if you love Jesus, you need to blow up your television.” He made up his own music because he “can’t sight-read one bit.”
He used to say, “I don’t really know anything.”
One day, I went to visit him in the park that he called home. We talked about his travels and how finding work was hard. Later, he befriended some vagrants and helped them form a camp behind a Home Depot. He told me about the wildflowers and wide open spaces, unexpected in the midst of endless urban sprawl. Sometimes, he hugged me when I hadn’t seen him in a while. Sometimes, he disappeared because he got gigs at decent clubs. I don’t think we ever got to say goodbye, but before I left I took some pictures of him preaching on church steps and zoomed in on his cracked fingernails. He always wore a cowboy hat wrapped in Mardi Gras beads and adorned with a butterfly pin. Under the brim was a handwritten inscription that somehow never faded: Draw from me.
Wrigley wanted to be my teacher. He talked about baseball and JFK assassination conspiracy theories. He gave me books that he picked up around town and I never asked how he got them. Wrigley always tried to give back more than he took.
One day, we spent almost an hour going through his history. He had a son my age he didn’t see much; we never really talked about him. He told me about his friends and how he likes to think I’m one of them. He used to borrow my scissors to clip his toenails. His drinking was always the secret he kept just below the surface, one he couldn’t hide behind his breath as well as he did behind his teeth.
When it was starting to cool off in Chicago, Wrigley brought me a chilled can of Sprite one afternoon, just “for being so nice.” He waited until it had been in his bag outside long enough to get cold. In January, he brought me a brand-new Bulls cap that had been a gift from someone else, “because I didn’t get you a Christmas card.” About a month later, he needed something to keep his hair under control in the Chicago winter, so I loaned the cap back to him. He promised to return it “good as new,” and he did a few weeks later. I took a picture of him wearing it. He looked a lot less homeless later but this is still how I tend to remember him.
Wrigley was my favorite until he started lying to me. I didn’t understand then how it must feel to need to hide from something inside yourself. He used to stay at our shelter until someone who worked there said that he had been kicked out for keeping a flask under his pillow. When I asked him where he was staying, Wrigley wouldn’t tell me. He just kept saying, “I’ve got to get out of there, I’ve got to get out of there,” like he was trying to pray his way home.
The Rancher told me once, “Won’t be seein’ me around here no more pretty soon.” Then he fell asleep in his sloppy joes, and we had to take care of him a little while longer.
On better days, whenever he saw me, the Rancher said, “Hello, Darlin’.” It sounded exactly how Gus always greeted Lorrie in Lonesome Dove. He told me I’d make a good wife someday because I could cook and clean. The Rancher gave me his clothes to wash but always folded them himself, neatly.
More than many of the others, he knew he could talk to me. One day at lunch, after things were calming down, I went to check on the coffee. As he got a fresh cup I asked how he was doing. Questions often invite answers we don’t expect. The Rancher started explaining how he’d been having seizures. He mentioned paranoid schizophrenia. I creased my forehead. Before I had to go back to work, he added one last thought. “Pray for me.” I didn’t really know how to anymore, but I prayed for him; the drawl in his voice made me want to mean it.
Pretty soon after that—maybe that same night—a teenage volunteer rushed up to me at dinner, his eyes full of so much new experience he hadn’t been counting on as part of his community service. “This guy’s all slumped over on his tray.” The Rancher had done a face-plant into his food, completely unconscious. He went to the hospital, but before long he was back and falling asleep again—once with a chicken leg still upright in his hand.
The Rancher came and went after that, but he returned to take a picture with me before I left. He knew the importance of one more hello. Then he let me walk away because he knew more than most that a lot of things are just out of our control.
Each father deserves a story, though I couldn’t tell them all, or even all of anyone’s. I can only give you three because if I gave any more, I wouldn’t be able to stop. They gave me their stories and I kept them inside me.
They all told me they would think of me after I left. I took pictures of the others who came to say goodbye so I wouldn’t forget them either. When one of my fathers who hardly ever spoke to me saw me holding a camera, he asked if I could take his picture. After I did, he said, “Good: now you remember me,” then walked inside to eat.
Casie Dodd lives in Arkansas with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in The Windhover, Oxford American, Front Porch Republic, and other journals. Based in Fort Smith, she is the founder and publisher of Belle Point Press, a regional small press celebrating the literary culture and community of the American Mid-South.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 9 · February 2023
Header image from Yintinma.