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Those Who Walk During the Day

Catherine Brady

“Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.”—John 11:9

Because of the rain, Timothy unlocks the church doors a few minutes early, keys chiming on the huge ring he takes from his pocket. The men enter single file to check in for the night, each of them burdened like a mule with his worldly goods, some humped beneath heavy backpacks, others struggling to compress their possessions into the span of their arms. Dripping from the rain, they bring with them an awakened cloud of dismay, the rank smell of unwashed bodies, the remnant odors of liquor, cigarettes, stale piss. Stink accompanies them like an insinuation, like something Timothy might train himself not to register. He waits for his body’s objection to subside.

At the check-in table the men hand over social-service chits to the staff and open their bags for inspection. The shelter has only three rules: no drugs, no weapons, no pets. But despite their latex gloves, the church workers get nervous about poking into the filthy mess inside the bags. In the nights when he is locked in the church basement with the men, Timothy has seen them use on each other paring knives whetted to a razor sharpness, bottle openers that can churn through skin, belt buckles filed to a point. Some of them can’t face the twelve hours without a fix.

Timothy doesn’t hesitate to poke a bare hand into a duffel bag or answer a protest with a clap on the back. These men are his vocation. He foundered, but he discovered it. For eight years now he has worked to be ready to receive the goodness in them. Like cautiously cupping your hands over a moth that’s got into the house, feeling the astonishingly faint tremor of its wings before you release it outside. He has thought often of Paul’s promise in the letter to the Romans: “And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Timothy spots Michael in the line, his nylon sleeping bag rolled up bunchily and held awkwardly under one arm. Only the slightest quivering betrays the contraband wrapped inside.

Timothy moves to where Michael waits, careful not to block his path. Timothy is barely 5’9” and wiry in a way that anticipates the spry old man he’ll be in another ten or twelve years, but he avoids even a remote hint of physical threat in the same way that he stops himself from testifying to these men, who can only be drawn to Jesus by the mute attentiveness of deeds.

He says, “You know it’s against the rules.”

“Bud’s too sick to make any trouble,” Michael says. “He can’t even stand.”

The dog has been dying for weeks. The tumor that protrudes from beneath his ribs is as large as a fist; his eyes are gauzed by pus; he suffers seizures that leave him snarling and snapping. Michael carries him everywhere now, thirty pounds or more of dead weight, and feeds him watered-down baby formula with an eyedropper, and keeps trying to sneak him into the shelter for the night, only to end up on the street with him.

The dog’s snout emerges from the bag, and when Michael cups its muzzle in his hand, the dog shudders with worshipful pleasure. Michael grins. “He don’t know beautiful from ugly.”

Timothy can’t allow Michael even to tie up the dog in the church’s interior courtyard. They’d have almost as many dogs here as men if he did that.

“You could leave him under the bushes out front,” Timothy says. “If you don’t mind drying out the bag after, he’d be all right wrapped up like that.”

“You mess with me,” Michael says, “and I’ll make you sorry.”

Michael is one of the ones who wake up at three in the morning and curl their bodies into a fist, waiting for dawn and release, looking as if it’s blood and not drugs that has been draining out of their systems all night.

To an addict, kindness is a weakness. Timothy says, “Those are the rules.”

The man standing behind Michael prods him. “Quit holding up the line.”

Timothy’s wife has taught him a little trick about saying no to people who can’t bear to hear it. As a nurse, Martha has had plenty of practice dealing with people in extremis. And she says you never say no outright but offer them a choice, let them come up with an answer even when only one is possible.

“You can step out of line to think it over,” Timothy says.

He ought to wait—if Michael decides to leave, someone has to make sure the doors are locked again behind him—but he also has to check on the kitchen. Responsibility for buying the food and cooking the dinners rotates among a number of congregations in San Francisco, in two-week shifts, and every night Timothy supervises volunteers who have to be taught the intricacies of the church’s unreliable ovens and shown how to stir cornbread mix in metal bowls the size of bushel baskets. Every night, he starts over with a new crew that doesn’t understand why he is fussy about how they set the tables or the way they slice the home-made desserts they have brought with them. (Portions must be equal, or men will agonize over which to choose. They crave sugar, especially the addicts.)

The volunteers in the kitchen are rosy cheeked and sweat slick from the heat of the ovens and the steam rising from the cooking pots. Timothy goes over the checklist with the woman who’s heading up the crew, and he curtly rejects her notion of setting tangerines and leaves on each table as a centerpiece. It’s only human for the volunteers to be so eager to please the men and so inclined to mistake this impulse for generosity. And still he is annoyed by the way this woman ticks off the items on her fingers, by the blond highlights in her hair and the bib apron she has brought from home.

The apron reminds him of Jan, that’s why. It’s because Jan called today. He smiles at the woman, relieved to absolve her of responsibility.

Jan is neat, trim, tasteful, everything you could want in a corporate wife, which she was, to him, until he abandoned her. Every time she calls him—and in twelve years, and with the three kids between them, that averages roughly twice a month—he is ashamed, as if he’s only just struck the blow she has never understood. She doesn’t throw it up to him—that wouldn’t be nice—but she treats him as if he is mildly deranged. Well, he woke up one day and quit his entire life. Gave her the money and the house and the kids and kept a car so he could pack a few things and drive to the coast and start over. Because he couldn’t go on like that, sixty-hour work weeks and expense lunches and bleary business trips, salesman of the year three years running, and coming home to the kids sprawled in front of the TV, not even looking up to register his arrival, and spending an entire Saturday with Jan choosing tile for the kitchen they were remodeling again because they had to do something with their money. It wasn’t a life most people would have run from, but the profound emptiness Timothy felt—either you put a gun in your mouth or you accepted Jesus into your life.

Jan called today about their daughter. Susan is getting married. To that nice boy she brought out to meet her father last summer. Timothy was pleased for Susan. Pleased for Jan, who was looking forward to planning the wedding. But it was, like all Jan’s phone calls, another reminder. If he were a normal father, his daughter would have called him herself with this news. His ex-wife would not have to sound him out with that skittish caution it was necessary to apply to crazy people: would he be willing to come, or would he want Jan to let Susan down gently; would it be all right with him so long as it was some kind of church wedding; would he be uncomfortable if they served alcohol, maybe only wine.

“How much can you chip in?” Jan said.

“What does a wedding cost these days?” he said.

“I know you don’t have much. But even a simple wedding will run upwards of eight thousand dollars.”

He didn’t have any savings. He’d meant to foreswear the burden of accumulation when he left everything to Jan twelve years ago; he’d never expected that he would marry again, risk another failure. But Martha didn’t mind that he made so little money running the shelter, and she was an elder in the church, like him. He’d started a small pension account, and he supposed he could scavenge from that.

He told Jan he could give four thousand. He didn’t tell Jan where the money would come from. He didn’t tell her, either, how much it bothered him to hear her talk about the price of a wedding gown and how important it was to serve a sit-down meal and do the flowers right. She was happy, and he hadn’t heard her sound happy since their middle son was killed in a car accident, three years after Timothy left his family.

Timothy helps carry food out to the dining room, where men already wait in line. The volunteers ladle beef stew onto the paper plates the men hold out, scoop salad in amounts Timothy was careful to specify. The men thank the servers, or ask for more potatoes and less meat in their portion of stew, or murmur that the food sure smells good, their courtesy eliciting smiles, questions, a joke or two. Not all of them and not any of them all of the time can do this, but this is how they approach grace.

Timothy moves among the tables, stopping to talk to men he knows or to introduce himself to those he doesn’t. They talk about basketball (Timothy culls tidbits from the sports page every day), the weather, the food tonight and how it is or isn’t like a meal they remember having somewhere else, and sometimes Timothy shares another tale of Martha’s sorry efforts to make a meal, roasting a lamb till the meat fell off the bone or forgetting to dip the chicken pieces in beaten egg before she rolled them in bread crumbs. Martha would not mind.

Timothy is surprised to see Michael at a table, can’t help imagining the man weighing his own hunger against the dog’s misery, concluding he could do nothing for him anyway.

When Timothy squeezes his shoulder, Michael balls his hands into fists. His knuckles are scarred by scratch marks and scabbed-over puncture wounds left by the dog’s teeth. He says, “Your charity ain’t worth shit.”

Timothy removes his hand from Michael’s shoulder. Grace is not the same thing as ease. Those first few years after he left his family, consciousness of having sinned against them was like a brute physical suffering, accompanied by tremors, migraines, a weak stomach. He shook in the presence of his children when they came for a court-ordered visit. God had granted him a new language, and yet he did not even make his children say grace at the table, flinched at forcing on them this new reason for his absence from their lives. When Timothy got the call from Jan, he made her repeat every detail of the car accident—who Nicky was with, where they were going, what the other driver said when the police arrived. None of this was information he needed. He lay down in bed, still gripping the phone, listening to Jan and thinking that his body was seeking the shape of his son’s. Nicky had lain in this bed all day on his last visit, curled in the blankets, saying he was too bored to get up. Timothy had let him stay in bed, afraid to pry, ashamed to inflict his longing on his son. His consciousness of sin had itself been a sin. The sin of despair.

Timothy gets himself a plate of food and sits down with a pair of men who are talking in too-loud voices about the harmonics of jazz. It’s taken as insult if he hushes them or fails to understand their speech, when Timothy’s Idaho-bred ears have so much trouble with the rolling vowels of the old black men and the smacked consonants of the Asian immigrants. Rarely do the men talk during the meal about the life they live now, not even to complain of their accumulation of ailments, the arthritic knees so many of the junkies get from jumping out windows time and again (impulse that seems to govern their drug euphoria the way that flying recurs in everyone’s dreams), the swollen, gangrenous feet of the diabetics, the dry mouth that is a side-effect of lithium. Later in the evening someone might confide to Timothy about a lost family or a stint in prison, but even these confidences are churned up like so much flotsam. It’s not possible for most of them to tell a whole story and not necessary: all of them have ruin behind them. Like him.

He wakes in the morning to marvel at the elation of loving Jesus. Yet sometimes he still feels as if he is walking in a dark house, bumping into things that seem to loom at him out of the pitch black, things whose positions he ought to have memorized. Things that seem to be bumping into him: Nicky filling an empty beer bottle with vinegar and baking soda and snapping a balloon over the mouth of the bottle so the mysterious gases would make it expand, a magic trick, a miracle. Susan crying on the first day of her first visit to him after the divorce and refusing to say why and finally whispering that she’d gotten her period and needed him to take her to the drugstore. Trevor pulling the two younger ones in a red wagon, though maybe it was a photograph Timothy remembered and not the actual event. Jan putting on lipstick in the car on their way to some party, shimmery smear, and she always did it without the aid of a mirror and puckered her lips as if for a kiss when she finished. Jan doing the same thing in the church vestibule before they went in, side by side, to sit through Nicky’s funeral service.

When the volunteers bring out dessert and coffee, the men line up again, offering compliments (home-cooked food, and no other shelter in the city that offers it), meekly taking one or two of the sugar packets that are guarded like gold. After dessert, the men have another hour before they have to bed down. A few of them gather at a table where a man plays chess with a teenage volunteer, offering teasing advice to the girl, who grins and blushes as if they’re flirting with her. She can have no idea how experimental, how risky, this must feel to them. And Jesus said, be like the little children.

The smell of smoke filters in through the door to the enclosed courtyard, where men huddle under the shallow overhang so their cigarettes won’t be extinguished by the rain. Timothy will harass the guys only if they fail to pick up their butts. Michael stands among the men outside, both hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders squared as if he is enjoying the bracing effect of that cold rain splattering from the overhang. Slowly he moves out into the rain to peer into the bushes that flank one wall of the courtyard and then duck back to shelter.

He must have smuggled in the dog. Someone must have helped him. To evict Michael, Timothy would have to call a cop. A procedural caution that should be taken only when all other options have been exhausted. If Timothy avoids confirming his suspicion, no future harm can come from this infraction.

He checks on the volunteers in the kitchen—their enthusiasm wanes when it comes time to scrub the huge, blackened pots. Next he checks the washrooms. The parishioners have proven tolerant when it comes to the wear and tear on the building, the occasional thefts from the kitchen, but they rebel at discovering in the washrooms evidence of their night tenants—a crust of vomit on the sink or filthy rags or toilets flecked with piss. And every night someone tries to sneak the chance to wash up. In the women’s room Timothy finds a young man, stripped to his BVDs, foot up on the rim of the sink as he shaves his lathered leg. He is barely more than a boy, scrawny-chested, his eyes rimmed with eyeliner.

“Put your pants on,” Timothy says. Later he’ll have to come back and clean the sink of soap scum and clotted hairs.

The man yanks his pants from the floor but keeps the razor in his fist.

For the razor too Timothy should call a cop. Then this kid would have to go out and earn himself a place to sleep with those velvet-rimmed eyes, those sleek legs.

“If you let me have that razor,” Timothy says, “I’ll give it back to you in the morning.”

Timothy holds still. The man sets the razor on the rim of the sink, flecks soap from his leg, and steps into his pants, both hands practically occupied, so that Timothy can pocket the razor. Cautiously, Timothy backs out the door.

Martha is right. You must always leave a desperate person room in which to move. Three days and three nights he spent with Jan when he came home for Nicky’s funeral. He had to call on Jesus to help him through every minute of it and he could not console her with that truth. What she needed from him was to pretend to absorb with his body what wracked hers: to hold her while she wept, to endure it when she pounded his arms and chest in rage, to force himself to stay awake those nights she could not sleep, to grind his jaw in order to keep silent when she accused him. Three years was all we had left with him, and you had to have your Jesus. By the day of the funeral his neck and arms ached so much that he winced when she leaned on him at the cemetery, dug her nails into his arms as if her pain could be relieved in this transference. Her grief was rooted as deep down in her body as that persistent unthinking habit of applying her lipstick, and who was he to promise her that she too could stand in the light?

Timothy returns to the kitchen to dismiss the volunteers—to check their victorious sense of exhaustion by reminding them to wipe the steel counters with bleach or replace the condiment baskets in the correct cupboard. Then he has to go out into the rain and tell the smokers to finish their last cigarette and come inside so he can lock the door. He is patient, and in return, they swallow resentment, tap the keys on his ring on their way inside and ask him which one is the key to the kingdom of heaven.

After he locks the door to the courtyard, Timothy stands at the top of the basement stairs to wave the guys down, making sure that Malcolm, who always wants to go first so he can have a cot by the heating vent, is granted this privilege before he starts a fight. Malcolm is in his sixties and has been coming here for years, and he is quietly cooperative in all else.

They have another hour before lights out. The men choose cots, testing mattresses with expert haste, and unspool their things from the bags that passed the search at the door. Timothy takes his place at his desk near the entrance. He empties his pockets first, slaps the ring of keys on the desk and drops the razor he confiscated into the drawer. Then he opens the filing cabinet with its row of neatly labeled manila folders: Social Security Administration, Veterans’ Administration, methadone clinics, AIDS treatment programs, mental health clinics, halfway houses. Every night men sit down to fill in a form or to hunch beside Timothy as they dictate information. Every night at least some of them decide they will seek assistance or get off the street, and every morning after they have gone, a janitor fishes forgotten forms from beneath the cots.

For Anton, Timothy fills in a disability form for the third time and discusses what to do about the return address Anton is required to supply. Brian keeps wetting the pencil with his tongue as he fills out the application for the AIDS treatment program, which rejects homeless men unless they’re living in detox or shelters. They don’t take all their pills when they’re on the street, and if they skip doses, the virus becomes more resistant. Smitty just wants a stamp so he can write a letter to his sister in Denver, and Timothy peels one from the wrinkled sheet in his wallet and sneaks it to him across the desk. The church can’t afford to supply stamps, and Timothy’s own budget will stretch only to one sheet of stamps a week. Six dollars and change, and the phone bill is never more than thirty dollars a month, and he and Martha wear long underwear to bed so they can keep the utility bill down in winter, and that four-thousand-dollar check he must write to Jan is beyond the scale of his economies.

Jerome takes his place in the chair beside Timothy’s desk and says he needs to reapply for disability. He holds up his right hand, missing the last two fingers. “I ever tell you how this happened? I used to be a commercial fisherman up there in Alaska. Man, that was some life. When the fish were running, you’d go out and set nets and haul forty-eight hours straight without sleeping. And it’s light just about twenty-four hours a day, and every time you pull in a net, you got these big fish thrashing, and their scales flake off on the deck like glitter. Caught my hand in the gear wheel when we were pulling in a net, and no one could hear me over the motor. And the guy owned the boat, I thought he was my friend, but he claimed I was drunk when I got my hand caught, and I couldn’t collect workmen’s comp.”

Timothy knows exactly how long to listen, so that the line won’t stall and so that Jerome will get his chance to tell somebody. Just as he knows not to hope and not to be disappointed. Jesus exists in the now. When Paul wrote to remind his converts of the sweet aroma of Christ, he was naming something witnesses had measured with their senses, the sweet scent of a body that did not decay. A recent, literal event.

Jerome pulls a kinked bit of twine from his pocket so he can demonstrate how to tie a nautical knot, and Timothy thinks, teach me again.

When there is no longer a line before his desk, Timothy tucks away all the paperwork. If he has time later he will start a letter to his daughter, telling her how proud he is that she has arrived at this beautiful moment of her life. But the bills must come first. He and Martha have ordered their days carefully because they have to: her shift is from 3 to 11 P.M. at the hospital, his is from 6 P.M. to 4 A.M. here, and even their sleep overlaps by only a few hours. Martha cleans house before he gets up and he runs errands after he walks her to work and does the bills here. If he sleeps no more than seven hours, they can have lunch together, a tiny bit of private time. Enough.

When he tells Martha about Susan’s wedding, she will not leap to worry whether or not she should come and how Timothy should greet all those people, in-laws and former acquaintances who will treat him with a wary formality at best. She will not needle him like Jan does. Even after eight years Jan will still sometimes start to cry on the phone, rage with a grief that can’t still be fresh, expect him to stay on the line until she has cried herself out, tempting him to share her despair, as if only some flaw in him could account for his silence.

His hours here are easy, after lights out. He has to do laundry all night, one load of sheets after another, so the crew that arrives in the morning can change the beds. Between trips to the washer and dryer at the end of the hall, he has nothing to do but read the Bible by the light of his desk lamp. It takes him three weeks to read the New Testament, start to finish, and then he might dip into Isaiah or the Psalms before he starts over again. Always he is moved by the humanity of Jesus, who snapped at His mother when she came to Him at the wedding in Canaan, doubted His Father in His final hour, wept with the sisters of Lazarus, grieving for their brother despite His promise that they need not fear death. A faltering Savior, not at all like the God of the Old Testament, whose wrath was inexplicable and unassailable.

When it’s time for lights out, Timothy counts heads: fifty chits collected at the door, so every bed must be occupied. But one bed is empty, which means he must search for whoever is missing. The best guess is, it’s Michael. Hiding in the courtyard with that dog because Timothy forgot to hunt for him before lock-up.

Timothy grabs the ring of keys and heads up the stairs to unlock first that door and then the door to the courtyard. Michael and the dog huddle beneath the overhang, dimly haloed by the single bulb in the light fixture above them.

Timothy slips outside. He shivers, thinks of how cold his house will be when he goes home at the end of the shift and slips into bed beside Martha, sleeping with mittens on, knotted in the blankets so tightly he will have to yank the covers. She will roll over in her sleep and murmur something sweet that counters her body’s hoarding of warmth. She will help him find a way to pay for a good new suit for the wedding, so he won’t shame his daughter yet again, among the flowers and garlands and perfume.

Timothy beckons to Michael. “Come inside. I don’t want to have to evict you.”

Michael folds himself over the dog in his arms. The dog snarls and snaps, and Michael curses him and hammers his muzzle with his fist.

Even in the poor light Timothy can see that the dog’s teeth have scored fresh slashes on Michael’s knuckles.

“He’s a misery to himself,” Timothy says.

“I ain’t worth shit to no one but this dog.”

Michael stubbornly tightens his grip on the dog, and the dog fights its way free and disappears into the bushes, tunneling its way beneath the barrier they provide.

“I got a whole can of Similac in him tonight,” Michael says. “That’s more appetite than he’s had for weeks.”

Michael gets down on all fours to sweep an arm beneath the bushes. Only the rustling of the branches gives away the dog’s determined effort to escape.

Timothy thinks, all right, I give in. He’ll go inside and call for a cop. No hurry, whenever a patrol car is in the vicinity. He’ll contact Animal Control.

He tells Michael, “It will be a mercy to put him down.”

Michael plunges an arm deep into the bushes, locks his fingers on something, and tugs. The bushes shudder furiously, and Michael writhes in pain, adding his howls to those of the dog.

The two of them roll on the ground, and Timothy steps out into the rain to put a stop to this. He reaches into that moving darkness, furious roil, and gets hold of the dog by the back of its neck, but Michael roars “No!” and slams the back of his forearm into Timothy’s face. Timothy loses his grip, and something razor sharp scrapes along his forearm, furrowing skin.

Timothy can’t tell the rake of the dog’s nails from the slash of its teeth on his arms, can’t tell the man’s blows from the dog’s, can’t separate out the sources of the seeping miasma of foul breath and wet fur. He has no choice but to swing his own fists and not care which mark they hit, and he’s in it and of them, a single blundering beast.

Radiant beast, which can devour the instinct to recoil. When Michael and the dog roll away from Timothy, release comes as a shock, abrupt and intolerable severance. The nerves in Timothy’s arms keep firing, transmitting pain long after it has actually been inflicted, as if someone is digging nails into his skin right now.

Michael pins the dog to the concrete, pressing his elbow against its neck until the dog holds still.

The dog whimpers and lifts its head to lick Michael’s hand.

Michael begins to weep in hoarse gasps. “I ain’t worth shit.”

For so long Timothy has steeled himself to listen to someone cry. The slash marks on his arms keep burning, his nerves straining to impart devastating news. He could open his mouth and let the rain pour down his gullet and fill him. He could open his mouth and curse like Michael at the frailty of this vessel.

He could open his mouth. “You’re valuable to God,” he says.

Michael hauls the limp dog into his arms for another merciless embrace.


 Copyright © Catherine Brady

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