Michael Fowler

When I turned eighteen my parents, in despair over my mood swings and secret agendas and all-day dozes and the stockpiles of beer and cocaine and porn in my room, tossed me and two suitcases full of my belongings in the car and drove me to one heck of a good shelter in the woods for homeless men. It was about noon when we arrived and I was still so much asleep I didn’t realize where we’d come. My recollection was that all of a sudden my father slowed the car and my mother pushed me and my two suitcases out the rear door onto a grassy lawn before the car came to a complete stop. I thought I heard her say, “Good luck, dear,” and my father say, “So long, son,” and my seventeen-year-old sister, who was along for the ride, say, “Hang in there, bro,” and then the suitcases and I did a somersault in the grass as the car picked up speed and left in a cloud of exhaust.

An old man with a long stick that looked hand-carved gazed down at me where I’d rolled to rest on my back. “Nice car,” he said. “Those your parents?”

“If you can call them that,” I said, not moving. I stared up at the blue sky.

“That your sister too?” he went on.

“Yeah,” I said, “we like to do things as a family.”

“The office is in there,” said the old man. He pointed with his stick in some direction, but I didn’t budge. After waiting a while he said, “I’ll tell Keith you’re here so he can log you in,” and walked away.

In a minute Keith arrived in the grass beside me, a huge black man in a baseball cap and neatly pressed clothes of dark earth tones. I didn’t want to meet his stare, but I noticed he wore an employee ID. “Hey, you!” he shouted down at me. “Get up! You have to come to the office if you’re a visitor here! And we don’t allow naps on the grass!”

“He’s here to stay, Keith,” said the old man with a stick, who returned to join us. “His parents just dropped him off.”

“They threw me out of their moving car,” I corrected him.

“I saw that!” Keith called out. “Are you injured?” I noticed that Keith kept speaking to me at high volume. Why?

”I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“You need to get up now and come to the office!” Keith demanded. “That’s our policy at Shelter in the Oaks. If you want a bed, come to the office!”

Keith turned to go, and I screamed, “I’m not getting up! I refuse to leave this spot! You can keep your bed!” And I began bawling like a brat in its bassinet because, well, I was hostile toward the world.

Keith strode back over to me at once. Looking down on me as I blubbered and twitched and pounded my fists on the grass, he shook his head at the pathetic sight I made. “Get up!” he suddenly urged me. “Get up! Be a man! It’s time to be a man, you!”

I was so embarrassed to be thought unmanly that I got to my feet, grabbed my two suitcases, and tagged after Keith across the yard to the office, a small cabin-like structure nestled in some trees.

“Where am I?” I sobbed. “What’s Shelter in the Oaks?”

Keith halted, then turned and stared at me. “Your parents didn’t tell you?” he bellowed. “This is a homeless shelter for men!” He turned again and continued walking to the office.

I followed him in and sat in the chair he nodded to while he sat at an old metal desk in front of me, a desk without a single modern convenience, like an old barge. The most up-to-date appliance on it was a dial phone. Keith collapsed into a swivel chair with a weighty grunt and the metal swivel screamed.

“First thing!” his voice towered above the swivel. “No fighting, no drinking, no drugs! Got it?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He then raced through some paperwork, got me to put my name on a form, gave me a bed assignment, and told me a social worker would talk to me later. He pointed out that he, Keith, was head of the staff, and if he told me to do something, I better do it or he’d cold-cock me.

I sensed Keith wasn’t as stern as he made out, that he was just trying to impress me, so I said, eyeing the rusty desk with its old-fashioned phone, “A dial phone? Where’s your touch-tone model? And what kind of a shelter doesn’t have a computer? I think we’re technologically backward here.”

“Pipe down, you!” he warned. “We don’t need you to tell us how to run things!” Then he ordered me to stow my bags in the dorm and head on down to the chow hall for lunch.

The dorm was a short way down a tree-lined lane from the office and looked like an old unpainted barn. In it were two rows of identical hospital-style beds, mine #50, right by the door and a ventilation fan. The fan blasted my hairdo with an oily wind and seemed to stir up bad smells. Besides a bed, I had only a rickety wardrobe and a small night stand, and the doors of both were falling off their hinges. I laid my bags on the floor by my bed with no hope of ever seeing them again, then followed an army of more or less decrepit souls farther down the lane to the chow hall. I didn’t really want lunch, in fact the thought of food disgusted me, but I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I thought that perhaps if I went in and drank enough coffee I could commit suicide. But I couldn’t get to the coffee or the food either since the other homeless guys, all fifty of them it seemed, kept pushing me to the end of the serving line.

“Who’s this kid now,” said a smelly codger with an enormous bush of a beard as he elbowed his way in front of me before I could even pick up a tray and some utensils. “You’re after me, sonny,” he added with an evil side-glance as he took the last napkin out of the serving box.

“Are you Gabby Hays?” I asked, but I didn’t shove the guy or try to start a fight. I knew Keith would be on me like hair on a mole if I did that, and that was the last thing I wanted, so I let Gabby go on. I picked up a tray and was about to get in line behind him when a group of four other guys pushed in ahead of me.

“Hey!” I said.

“Grownup men have seniority here, kid,” one of them said to me. He had real thick eyebrows like a Russian, and drooping flesh under his red eyes like wet tea bags. He walked all hunched over, too, as though he’d just crawled out of a small box.

“Don’t I get any consideration at all?” I whined to him and anyone else in earshot. “Just because I’m younger than you old wrecks doesn’t mean I should be mistreated.”

I finally got in line and a man got in behind me who wore the liners of boots for shoes and had raised scars on his face. “Who you talkin’ to, boy?” he said. “You see us old soldiers? We’re the men here. You youngsters come in here and think you run the place. Well, you don’t.”

“Your breath smells like a commode,” I told him, since that was true, and although he didn’t push me out of line, he gave me a look as cold as a knife blade. Finally I got a plate of spaghetti and cup of coffee and sat at a table whose two occupants looked like sci fi zombies, figuring they’d be harmless. One of them spoke nonsensically to the table with a bowed head, and the other had one eye sealed shut. Both were ancient with whitish hair, and as I looked around I saw that lots of guys were gray or going bald, and only a smaller group of what looked like middle-aged guys had real hair color, so that probably I was the youngest person there. For all I knew, though, these guys’ lives had been so hard and depraved that they were gray or bald or middle-aged at eighteen. But I suspected not. In fact the one-eyed guy had on a bow tie that was at least eighteen. To have something to talk about, I asked him if there were any more young people like me around.

He rubbed his stubbly chin with one hand. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I would imagine so, but I don’t know. I don’t know your age. Most of the men who come here I wouldn’t call young, not anymore, though of course they were young at an earlier time. What is your age?”

“Skip it, Pops,” I said getting up to leave. The food was as revolting as the conversation, and I was done with that, too. But a guy with a big belly and wearing an apron came up to me and said, “Not so fast, bud. You got dishes to wash.”

“Yeah, right,” I snarled. “Pick on the new kid some more. “ But then I saw Keith, sitting alone at a table by the door that must have been reserved for staff, since it was apart from the other tables and no one sat with him, lift his eyes from the huge platter of pasta before him and glare at me. His look said I was dead if he had to interrupt his meal over me, so I went back in the dish room and sprayed stacks of greasy dishes in a metal sink, then loaded them into a dishwasher. When I turned on the washer and started to go outside, the same big-bellied guy handed me a mop and told me to go over the kitchen floor. When I finally finished mopping and got out of there, Keith was waiting for me in the driver’s seat of a van parked right outside the chow hall. Three other guys were in with him and the motor was running.

“Keith says get in,” one of the guys said to me through the open passenger window that faced me.

I stopped in my tracks. “Why?”

“Hey!” I heard Keith cry from the other side of the van. “Get in, you!”

“I want to know why!” I exclaimed.

“Tell him,” roared Keith,”that we’re taking a run to the bakery for day-old bread, and I picked him to help out!”

It was too much. I threw myself face down on the ground and, as though electrodes had been attached to my body, jerked my limbs and beat the turf with my clenched fists while chanting, “No, no, no!” I kept that up for a minute, then lay without moving, my eyes closed and my breathing heavy.

I heard the van door open and close. I was aware that a man had walked up to me. Then I heard Keith holler directly over my head. “Not again! Get up, you! Be a man! That’s enough of that!”

“Leave me alone!” I whimpered. The grass tickled my lips.

“Be a man and get up,” yelled Keith,”or I’ll work you so hard you won’t be able to get up!”

The other guys in the van, irritated that they were still sitting there, now took up Keith’s refrain. “Get up!” they exhorted me through the windows. “Come on, you! Let’s get going! What kind of a man are you?”

What could I do but give in to a chorus of four angry men yammering at me to be a man? I climbed to my feet and got in the van, my chest still pumping out sobs.

Keith took off like a rocket, and since I hadn’t had time to belt myself in, I fell to the floor.

“Get back in your seat and quit fooling around,” Keith ordered, scowling at me in the rearview,”or I’ll throw you out like your parents did, without stopping!” Keith chuckled at that, as did the others, and as I got back in my seat I heard one say, “They didn’t even slow down!” and another, “Nice car, too!” I had a certain renown already, it appeared.

I decided to keep quiet, but the man sitting beside me on the long seat I occupied, who had a shaved head and wore ragged shorts with dirty gauze bandages wrapped around both exposed legs and bedroom slippers, peered at me with curiosity.

“Let me ask you something, young man,” he said to me. “What’s your name?”

“Dick Tracy.”

“Glad to meet you, Dick Tracy. You can call me 33 1/3.”

“Why should I call you that?”

“Because everyone does. Now let me ask you something, Dick Tracy. How many times do you think a woman can hit you with a wire brush in a minute?”


“I’ll tell you why I ask. I know a woman, see, a rich and beautiful woman, who will be yours and buy you everything you want if you just let her beat you senseless one time with a wire brush.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t take too long, because guys are standing in line. All you have to do is let her beat you the one time, because after that she knows you’ll be faithful. The fear of getting beat again is so strong that you won’t stray. But you have to go through that first beating, and that hurts so much she has to tape your mouth shut so her neighbors don’t think she’s killing you.”

“Somebody else want to talk to this guy?”

We got back to the shelter in about an hour with the van loaded with brown paper sacks of doughnuts and rolls that a bakery across town had piled up outside by its dumpster. I was hungry enough that I ate some of this trash while loading it and on the return trip, as did the others except Keith, who seemed disgusted by it, and 33 1/3 who was diabetic and didn’t even help load the stuff but just sat around telling jokes. I was plastered with sweat, icing, and flour, and I still had to help stockpile the pastry in the chow hall. When I finished up I headed off to the dorm to check out the shower and then my bunk.

“Hey, you! Come here!” It was Keith again. I couldn’t believe it.

I went up to him and said, “Keith, my name is Stan. I told you that when I signed in, didn’t I? Aren’t we on a first name basis yet?”

“No!” barked Keith. “We’re not! Tomorrow morning, right after breakfast, come on up to the office, get you a lawnmower, and cut the grass around the dorm and chow hall.”

“Right,” I said. “Can I go shower now?”

“Shower up!” he commanded me. “Chow’s at five!”

“Were you ever in the army, Keith?”

“Five sharp! You’re five minutes late, you miss it!” He turned and left me.

I went down to the dorm. My suitcases of course were gone, so I had no change of clothes, and to make it worse the bed next to mine was occupied by 33 1/3, who sat up reading a magazine, his legs in their dirty bandages crossed at the ankles. I wasn’t too surprised to see that he wore a pair of headphones, connected to a portable cassette player that hooked onto his belt, and that these looked exactly like my player and phones from home. My parents or maybe my sister must have thought of them, since I didn’t do any of the packing, but they were mine all right. On seeing me, he smiled as though in welcome and pulled the headphones a little way off his ears.

“Hey there, son!” he said. “Change your mind about that woman with the wire brush? I been expecting you to.”

“Never mind,” I said. “Didn’t happen to see two suitcases by this bed, did you?”

“Oh no, no,” he said unconvincingly. “I sure hasn’t seen two suitcases there. Say, did you let them give you that bed? You’ll be sorry. That’s the haunted bed.”

“What? Listen, I gotta find a towel and a change of clothes. And that looks like my cassette player that you’re listening to.”

“Naw, naw, I had this a long time now.”

“It’s the same make and everything. Come on, man. Give it back.”

“It’s mine, I tell you. My daughter bought it for me. Tell you what. Since I feel sorry that someone took your things, I’ll give you a clean towel and a change of clothes so you can at least shower.”

He put down his magazine and swung his legs over the side of his bed, then opened his wardrobe and began rummaging in it. I craned my neck, trying to see if my clothes were in there too, but it didn’t look like it. Meekly, I accepted the frayed towel and the pair of glittering green polyester slacks and faded Tweety Bird T-shirt he offered me.

“Someone must have donated these to you,” I said.

“You right about that,” he said.

“Sure wish I knew who took my things,” I said.

“Don’t you worry about it. You’ll never see ’em again, whoever got ’em. You need to worry about that bed, now. Last man who slept in it went mad. The story is, years ago a crazy fireman slept in it. The mattress absorbed all his memories, and whoever sleeps in it now dreams of terrible fires. If I was you I’d go right back up to the office and tell Keith to switch your bed.”

“That man wouldn’t let me off a sinking ship,” I said. I started to remove the clothes I had on, then thought better of it. They’d probably be missing when I got back. That meant I had to take everything I still owned, but especially my wallet and my watch, into the shower with me.

“Then welcome to insanity,” said 33 1/3, laboriously positioning his legs in his bed again and slipping my headphones back over his ears. “You’ll wake up at two in the morning yelling ‘Fire! Fire!’ and think you really are burning. Somebody will knock you in the head, too, for waking them up. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

33 1/3 was gone when I emerged from the shower in his ill-fitting and deafeningly loud clothes, but another guy in the dorm told me Keith wanted to see me right away. I looked at my watch, still with me since I wrapped it and my wallet safely in 33 1/3’s towel while I showered, and saw that it was about 3:30. I told the guy, “Christ, here we go again with the chores. He probably wants me to start cooking dinner for the whole shelter.”

“We’re expected to pitch in,” the guy told me. He was wasted like a drug addict, with skin like paste squeezed out of a tube and body odor bad as Darth Vader’s breath.

We’re expected to pitch in, I thought. What a line!

”Listen up!” Keith snapped when I entered the office. Two other men, who looked like shelter residents but who were clearly comfortable with Keith, sat with him. They were sprawled out in their chairs like they owned the place and seemed to be just killing time. “Your sister came by and she dropped off some more of your things!”

“Tangie?” I said. “Is she still here?” I wanted her to drive me out of there to anywhere, it didn’t matter where.

“His people didn’t even slow the car when they put him out the first time,” one of the residents said. The other looked at him in a laid-back way.

“For real?” he said. “That’s cold.”

“Enough about that,” I said to them both. “My family’s affairs are none of your business.”

“She’s gone!” blurted Keith. “But she left you some more clothes in this bag!” Keith indicated a green plastic garbage bag on the floor, not a full one, either. “Hope you got something stylish in there!” he cracked, and he and the two others began chortling at my outlandish pants and shirt.

“My clothes and everything I came in with were stolen!” I wailed, taking the bag by the neck and scooting it between my feet.

“Can’t help that!” Keith shot back. “The shelter’s not responsible for lost or stolen articles!”

“What about a change of bed, then?” I said. “I hear there’s something funny about the one you gave me, and I don’t like the guy next to me.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers!” Keith flung at me.

“When do I get to speak to a social worker?” I tried.

“Later!” Keith erupted. “Here’s a couple letters for you your sister brought with the clothes!” He nodded at two envelopes that lay in the corner of his chipped metal desk, and I reached for them. “She also had a message to you from your father,” he continued, “so pay attention! Your father says he thought the car was stopped when the family put you out!”

“Yeah, right,” I said examining my letters. “Sure he did.”

The first letter was from my music club and I pitched it right in the office waste basket without opening it. “No money for tapes these days, and nothing to play them on since my tape player was stolen!” I protested for Keith’s benefit. Keith sniffed but said nothing. The second I opened out of curiosity. It was from a college I applied to some months ago when my future looked rosier.

“I’ve been accepted at Remorse Junior College with a partial scholarship. What do you know.”

“You need to go!” pressed Keith.

“Huh?” I said.

“You hear me?” he boomed. “This is your chance to get out of the shelter and make something of your life! Grab the opportunity while it’s there!”

I was overwhelmed. Keith brought back memories of my pushy parents and my dictator of a high school guidance counselor. Reduced to childish stratagems, I threw myself on the office floor right beside Keith’s desk and curled up in a fetal ball.

“I’m not going to college, I’m not!” I sniveled. “You can’t make me, mom, dad, Keith!”

Keith jumped to his feet. “You’re not doing that in here!” he rebuked me. “Get up! Get up right now! Be a man for once in your life! You’re not doing that again, hear me?”

“I’m not going!” I bawled, remaining motionless on the floor.

“Act like a man, I tell you! You’re disgraceful! Get up, I have something for you! Get up and I’ll show you!”

Intrigued, I got up after an interval and followed Keith to the rear of the office. There he handed me a pair of new sweat socks and a pocket calendar.

“What’s this?” I said.

“We got donations today of calendars and socks! Those are yours!”

I threw them at a chair back there. “Who wants ’em?” I said. I turned and walked back to the front of the office.

“Then go on and get out of here!” Keith exploded behind me as I snatched up my bag and made for the door. “I got no time for ingrates who won’t accept kind charity!”

I stopped and turned to face him. “When my friends find out I’m here, they’ll break in and rescue me!” I shrieked.

“You’re free to go now!” Keith thundered, coming right up to me. “Nobody’s holding you here! You get in the van right now and I’ll take you out!”

“You’re nothing but a mean old man!” I screeched. I rushed to the door and started out.

“Not leaving, huh?” Keith threw at me as the door closed on my butt. He knew I wouldn’t get on the van, and I had to admit to myself that I was trapped at the shelter with nowhere else to go as yet. The realization made me madder at Keith than I should have been and I shouted an obscenity. Loud.

Keith threw open an office window as I walked down the lane to the dorm. “Wha’d you say?” he hooted. “You say that again, I will take you out!”

I kept on going, silent now, but still angry.

I calmed down a bit after I changed into some of my real clothes from the bag Tangie brought me. 33 1/3’s things, the towel too since sis included one, I tossed on his bed. He wasn’t there, and I figured the chances someone would steal them were small. Besides, if they were supposed to be a gift, or a trade for my cassette player and phones, I sure didn’t accept.

Then I chilled out some more walking up and down the lane and through the trees in the yard. I got hungry but it still wasn’t time for dinner, so I strolled down past the chow hall until I found the rec hall and went in there. Two TV sets against different walls were playing the same basketball game, and in front of each set were about five guys on ratty old sofas. I didn’t care for basketball, so without asking anyone I changed the channel on one of the sets to a program I liked.

“Mind if I watch this?” I said as I sat down on a sofa. A guy up front on a different sofa got up and changed it back. I waited a minute, then got up and changed it back to my show. “They’re watching this game on the other set,” I said as I sat again. About ten seconds passed and then the same guy got up once more and put the game back on. “Change it again and I’ll cut your hands off,” he said as he sat down glowering at me. “I think it’s so groovy now that people are finally workin’ together,” I said. But my irony didn’t kill him and I watched the game until dinnertime.

Nothing earthshaking happened at dinner, except, still seething at the way I was being treated, I refused to speak to anyone and cut in the chow line ahead of a gimp with a cane who wore pajamas and whose greasy dreadlocks looked like the horns of an old goat. I ignored everyone at my table and merely tried to stare down the piece of piggish meat on my plate. I saw my future carved into slices of this meat and set out on a dirty tray in a homeless shelter.

Keith I didn’t see at all, but eating by himself at the staff table was some crewcut guy in wire rims and an ID necklace who must have come on for the night shift. I left after two bites, tossing my practically undisturbed food into the refuse container. I moved fast so the night guy couldn’t stop me to do more kitchen duties and headed for my bed, figuring I’d sleep away the rest of the evening.

Only two or three guys were in the dorm, since it was still dinnertime, and they were sleeping to somebody’s radio turned down low to R & B tunes. Fortunately 33 1/3 wasn’t one of them. He would have got up from a sound sleep just to start something with me. I lay on my narrow bed and thought of blazing fires as I waited for the mad fireman to take me over. Then I dropped off.

When I woke up the dorm lights were out. I heard guys near me talking softly, and I saw the dark shapes of them by the light from the nearby open john. Four or five were planning a trek through the woods to buy some beer. I tried to see my watch, couldn’t, but I knew it was late. Then I sat up and asked to be counted in. One asked if I had any money and I said yes, about twenty dollars. When they started in a group for the door, I pulled on my clothes and shoes and joined them. As I passed closer to the john I saw it was 1:30. At the door, where everyone gathered for a moment while a guy looked out, someone asked me again if I had money. It seemed they all wanted to be sure, so again I said yes.

“I’m not the only one who does, am I?” I asked.

“Naw,” came the answer, “but now we’re sure somebody do.”

We started off through the dark woods on a path they knew well. I kept scraping against trees and moths kept flying into my mouth, but I didn’t complain. The others kept talking about how they hadn’t had any beer or wine since they last had money, weeks ago in some cases. One guy said he hadn’t had any alcohol since his arrival at the shelter a month back. He came from another shelter downtown that, unlike this one, allowed drinking, and although he acknowledged that Shelter in the Oaks was a finer shelter in every other respect, he hated its dry policy with every ounce of his feeling. I myself hadn’t had a drop in over twenty-four hours, and getting drunk tonight sounded good, but I really wanted something more potent.

“Hey, let’s get some crack,” I said, figuring these old reprobates knew how to get anything under the sun. “Some crack would be great.”

They ignored me. It was clearly a drinking crowd.

We eventually came out of the woods by the side of a road, and just a short way down blazed the lights of an all-night store. The men decided to send me for a case of beer, since the clerk would recognize anyone else to be a shelter resident and maybe get us caught.

“The clerk knows you guys are residents?” I asked.

“Pro’bly would,” said one, and the rest agreed.

“How would he?” I asked.

“Our clothes,” said another.

“Yeah, right,” I said skeptically, even though some of the guys’ shabby clothes might be associated with the nearby shelter. I was glad all over again that I wasn’t wearing 33 1/3’s. “But I’ll go. I got my fake ID. But somebody else needs to chip in, too.”

There was a hurried collection, then someone handed me four dollars and fifty cents.

“I think someone’s holding out,” I said, but I went ahead anyway. In a few minutes I returned with two packs of 24 cans each.

“Is that all you got?” someone said.

“It’s all I could afford,” I said. “And all I could lift.”

We drank both packs on the way back, throwing the empty cans into the trees and talking about how good we felt. I had a decent buzz when I hit my bed and fell asleep at once despite snores, moans, the grind of the ventilation fan, and farts and foot stink strong enough to render the fan futile.

I slept through breakfast the next morning, not because I was hung over after a few beers, but I felt like sleeping in. At lunch my old buddy Keith nailed me. He was eating at the staff table by the entrance to the chow hall.

“You!” he said as I came in. He was still shouting.

“It’s Stan, remember, Keith?” I said as I walked over to him.

“You come up to the office after lunch!” he instructed me.

“What for?” I said.

“Just come up! Now let me eat my lunch!”

After I ate I went up the office and found Keith sitting behind his old boat of a desk.

“Why didn’t you come up after breakfast and get a lawnmower like I told you?” he grilled me.

“I was tired this morning, Keith,” I said. “You worked me to death yesterday.”

“Tired, huh!” he spat out. “I heard you ran off into the woods last night and drank beer!”

“Not me,” I said.

“You were seen returning drunk!” he objected.

“Five other guys went with me!” I said, getting excited.


“How the hell do I know, Keith?”

Keith handed me two bus tokens and told me to get my belongings together. I was leaving. For once I didn’t break down and prostrate myself on the floor. I just walked away, went down to my bed, and packed my few possessions in the plastic bag my sister had brought me: my few clothes, and a pencil sketch some old guy did of me that morning as I sat in my bunk reading a magazine. The sketch gave me a certain dignity. 33 1/3 was there sleeping, and he didn’t have my cassette player and headphones on, but I couldn’t really poke around his bedside looking for them so I decided to forget it. I thought I’d say goodbye to old 33 1/3, though, probably because there was no one else to say it to, so I woke him up. “Hey, I’m leaving,” I said. “Nice knowing you.”

“They putting you out, huh,” he said, first looking at me in alarm as if I might attack him but then taking in the situation at once. He must have known about my drinking episode.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something, Mr. 33 1/3,” I said. “How long have you been at this shelter?”

“Going on three months,” he said, making no move to get out of bed. “I don’t mess up like some do.”

“Jesus,” I said. “Three freakin’ months.” Fingertips to forehead, I saluted 33 1/3 for being a better man than me. Or a bigger slacker, I wasn’t sure which. Then I went outside to wait.

When I just stood by the dorm and didn’t go up to the office, Keith got the message and pulled the van down in about five minutes. I got on, alone, and Keith drove me off the shelter grounds and down the road. He didn’t say squat to me on the way and I clammed up, too. He pulled over at a bus stop and I got out. Before I shut the door I said, “See you, Keith,” but he didn’t respond. When that man got mad he got mad. I closed the door and he shot away. I watched him go, then turned to face my unknown but exhilarating future.

“Just about all the little anecdotes in the story have some basis in truth. Also, since I left the actual shelter where I worked, and on which the story is based, management has introduced a program of surprise searches by drug-sniffing dogs. When I was there, staff were merely expected to ‘sniff’ the residents who were returning from passes to determine if they‘d been drinking. Somehow I never got around to doing that.”

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