Homeless in Heaven by Deirdre O'Dare
This is not my favorite cover and does not represent the two men in my story but it gives the feeling and mood very well. Merl might have been bigger and burlier and rougher looking and Nate was not dressed in a suit nor the 'high and mighty' one yet the feeling is there--a man with everything and one with nothing but his pride and dignity....
Homeless for over two years, Merl has hunkered down to endure a second winter in Eden, Colorado. He has lost the ability to trust or accept kindness as anything but a sneaky attempt to weaken for an attack. He sells aluminum cans and other trash to survive, knowing he should attempt to get back into the mainstream but he lacks the will to try.
Nate has led a sheltered and privileged life as the only child of wealthy older parents, now deceased. He is working on a photo journalism piece about the homeless people in Eden when he first encounters Merl. The big man impresses him so much that when an early blizzard hits, he goes back to the camps try to bring Merl and others to shelter in his own home.
Can he win Merl’s trust and cooperation in an effort to provide positive long term help to other homeless people in the area? Even more important, can he forge a real partnership with the suspicious older man?
Excerpt: (Meet Merl and Nate)
Merl Weishart hefted the lumpy black bag and settled it on his shoulder. About thirty pounds. Even at the current prices for aluminum, oughta be enough for a hot meal.
He'd collected soda cans for over a week to fill the bag. With the bite of the north wind ahead of an approaching cold front, a hot meal would be good, almost necessary.
Smartest thing would be to buy the food and fix it himself. Still, it would be nice to sit inside at a table to eat for a change. The makeshift stove in his camp cooked, but not very well, and he had no table, much less a chair. Juggling a tin plate on his knees made mealtime awkward. The tent and tarps he'd rigged for his shelter cut the wind some, but from now until spring, warmth was going to be a stranger to him.
Since this would be his second winter in the homeless camp straggling along Goldrush Creek, he knew what to expect: cold and more cold. There would be lots of days when all he could do was huddle in his old army sleeping bag and wait for the snow to stop and the blizzard winds to die down. Cold was bad, but wind and getting wet made it worse. A man could freeze. Some did. Several had died in the camp last year. Although he wasn't sure why, he chose to survive if there was any way he could. Surrender, quitting, giving up, and death were not options.
Damned if I know what I'm living for, but life still feels better than death. Maybe someday I'll figure out why.
He settled the bag into an easy balance and started off at a brisk pace. The recycle place down on VanAlwyn Street was a good two miles away, so no use poking along. The sooner he got there, the sooner he'd have a few dollars in his pocket and the means to get that meal.
* * * *
Nathan Bloom turned the fuzzy collar of his down parka up around his neck against the biting wind.
I'm certifiable, coming out when I could be home in a cozy house. But the light today with these broken clouds is perfect. It'll set off the starkness of the camp and the pathos of the situation. I ought to be able to get some great photos.
He shifted the classic Nikon and the Canon digital cameras that hung around his neck, gloved hands a bit clumsy in the effort. To actually use the cameras the gloves would have to come off, but he'd wait until he was ready to shoot before he removed them. Otherwise, his hands would be too stiff to operate the controls.
Looking ahead, his gaze probed down the path meandering along the creek under disordered platoons of towering trees, now leafless. The stark, barren shapes added to the bleak mood. He snapped a couple of fast shots in hopes of capturing the feeling. When he looked back at the path, he checked the stride he was about to make.
His gut clenched with brief anxiety at the sight of the man who approached him. The fellow looked like a grizzly bear or a gorilla in mismatched cold weather clothes. The first item was a hugely bulky parka, mostly red with patches of other colors scattered here and there. The pants might once have been blue, but now were a dull gray-brown, as if coated with grease and soot. A ragged wool cap striped in red and dirty white topped his head. Twigs and wisps of rich brown hair poked out from under it, hair that matched the tangled beard hiding most of the man's face. He carried a bulging bag on one shoulder, probably one of those heavy-duty black construction-weight trash bags.
On second thought, the man really did not look threatening, just rough and very big. Nate drew his gloves off and readied a camera. When the man drew close enough, he spoke a greeting.
"Hello. Not the greatest day, is it? Would it be all right if I take your picture?"
The big man halted, a quizzical expression crossing the visible part of his face. "Me? Why would you want a picture of me?"
"I'm working on a photo-journalism piece about our local homeless camps and the people in them. You look like a unique member of the camp residents, maybe a leader? Not many of them display the vitality or size you carry."
The big man shrugged. "Nope, hardly a leader. Kind of a loner, I guess. Oh, I'll try and help if somebody's being bullied by other campers or hassled by the cops, but mostly I keep to myself. But if you want a picture, I don't care."
Nate raised the Nikon and snapped a couple of pictures, centering the man's bulk against the glowering clouds piling up to the north. Then he got a couple of shots with the digital.
"What's your name?" he asked, more to buy a few more minutes than from an actual desire to know.
The man shrugged again. "That's all there is of it anymore. Used to have two names and even a title of sorts in front of them, but that was in another life. How about you?"
"My name's Nate Bloom. I live here in Eden, about a mile to the west." He held out a hand before he put his gloves back on. The big man wasn't wearing gloves. He shifted the bag to his left shoulder and met Nate's offered clasp.
"Pleased to meet you, Nate." Although the big man's hand felt cold, a strange sizzle of energy still zipped up Nate's arm from the contact. He noted the other man did not squeeze hard, although the clasp felt firm and positive. Well, you wouldn't expect a limp shake from such a bear of a man, would you?
"I need to be getting along," Merl said. "Gotta get these cans sold down at Kardamian's Recycling today. You be careful, Nate. Most of the folks here are okay, but there are a few rotten apples--they'd shove you in the creek to take your coat, maybe try to rip off those cameras to pawn."
Nate saw what seemed to be genuine concern in the other man's deep-set dark eyes. "I'll be watchful," he said. "I've been down here quite a bit and never had any trouble."
He thought of mentioning he had a permit and carried a small handgun in a concealed holster, but decided against that. It was nobody's business whether or not he could defend himself. Still, the big man's advice and apparent care warmed him. The people he'd met here in the camp never ceased to amaze him, in ways both good and shocking. Few fit the stereotype of folks lacking ambition or education, maybe dragged down by drugs or alcohol. Oh, there were some of them, of course, but the population held great diversity.
Most of them had a story, too. Maybe in time he'd get to know Merl better, enough to learn his tale. He sensed the big man had to have one because he spoke with an educated accent and reflected a quiet dignity, despite the total indignity of his present life.
As Nate continued down the path, he again recognized how fortunate he was.
I'm one of the lucky ones. Mom and Dad left me in good shape--a home and enough money to last my life if I don't get too profligate with it. I'll never be homeless. Maybe that's why I want to tell the world about these people...
Nate sensed it took a strong man, an unusual one, to live as Merl did and still radiate the calm, sure confidence he displayed. He knew he could never do it. He'd been almost a complete stranger to personal hardship. Other than coming out when he was in his late teens and telling his parents he was gay, knowing they would disapprove, he'd lived a protected, near-perfect life. Even that had gone better than he had feared. In time they'd come to accept and tolerate his sexual orientation, so long as he was discreet about it.
And when they died together in a plane crash four years ago, he'd inherited everything with no restrictions or stipulations. Yep, he was one fortunate guy. Maybe he could somehow help those whose luck was not so good. That was his goal for this project, anyway. If more people knew the extent of the problems and saw behind the bum and bag lady images, maybe more help would flow to these unfortunate people.
He walked on, even managed a jaunty step despite the nip of the wind and the bleak surroundings. Now and then he snapped some scenes featuring the tents and rude hovels the campers had created from salvaged junk. He shook his head over most of them--such flimsy and pitiful shelters to rely on in the coming harsh winter. These people lived in a style hardly a notch above folk in the Middle Ages or even prehistoric times, and in some ways even worse since better conditions were all around them. How could modern humans survive like this?
* * * *
Merl compromised. The cans proved to be heavier by a few pounds than he'd estimated, so he wound up with a couple more dollars in his pocket. He went to a hamburger joint and got the largest of the special bonus meals he could order. It might not be a five-star restaurant, but the food was solid and filling. At least he could sit indoors to eat and even linger a while since the midday rush was long over by the time he got there.
Between the food, hot coffee and the indoor warmth, he felt warm through before he got up to leave. He put his parka back on to hold onto as much of the heat as he could.
On his way back to camp, he went by the grocery store he knew to be the most economical within walking distance and spent the rest of his money on a few staples to see him through the next several days. By the time he left the store, snowflakes had started to sift down, swirling like feathers on the wind. They stung when they hit his face. He hunched against the sharp northerly blast and walked fast. Still, by the time he got to his camp, the warmth had long since faded.
He crawled into his shelter, concealed his food under a pile of junk and then wriggled into his sleeping bag. It would be a long night. Times like this he missed having a radio or stereo--something to play some music to help distract him from the constant discomfort. Here in the homeless camps it never seemed to be just right.
Summers were stifling hot, the mosquitoes came in swarms, and the whole area stank. In winter, you were always cold, always seemed to hear the wind, and often felt utterly alone. Everyone tended to den up and keep to themselves in the winter. During the summer, some were more sociable. Then you could get out and go to a park or even listen to some of the open air concerts from the fringes. Was there a spring or fall? If there had been, he must have missed them.
His thoughts turned to the strange man with the cameras. What the hell did the guy think he was doing? From his clothes and manner, he clearly had enough money and a good place to stay, so what brought him out on a cold and miserable day to wander around as if he didn't? Merl sighed.
If I had a home and all that, I sure wouldn't be here. I guess if I really tried I could get a job, gradually find my way out of here. The question is do I want to? Once I had a regular pay check coming in again, some lawyer would probably find me and take half of it. But half of something is a hell of a lot more than all of nothing.
Maybe I should go to the VA or some other agency and ask for help. Some folks do, and I guess some get it. They leave and don't come back.
It's just so easy to tell yourself what's the use and why bother. Still, if you follow that line long enough, you just lie down and die. I've refused to do that for months now, so maybe it's time to turn around. Another winter here is sounding worse every hour.
He drifted off to sleep about then, but his meandering thoughts had taken root. He dreamed about a warm house, a table piled with food and clean clothes, enough of them he could change every day and take a shower every night, too. Compared to the camps, that would seem like heaven...