Homeless people aren’t supposed to exist. Much like veterans of unpopular or obscure wars, we’re the equivalent of flatulence after a good meal. Expected, logical, organic but to some people, we’re an embarrassment. We shouldn’t exist because we remind others of frailty and mortality. It’s why there are more movies about military power than sacrifice.
Women in combat, too. So forgive me if I suffer from a little bit of a complex about it. If I were to look at it from a positive perspective, it taught me to value what good things came my way. They were seldom in coming, but I knew enough to hold them close until they left.
Which they did.
Sometimes, they were taken from me.
We were both living at Camp Bravo. We had been there when it was on tribal land, held on when it got moved. Now, you might think that we were talking about being on deployment, which we sort of were. Camp Bravo was just off the freeway near Mesa. We stood firm against the ADOT when they tried to move us as well. It was home, for us, sure it was canvas tents but it was better than trying to huddle under cardboard or in a dumpster. Zeke had been infantry, did two tours in Iraq and came home to a ‘Dear John’ letter armed with a headful of fears and trauma that meant he liked to be where it was quiet. He was gentle, had a kind word for everyone he met and turned every cheek he had. He had been my guide when I got there, six months testing the good will of my friends to breaking point and with a headful of my own shit to fling around like an ape at the zoo.
Zeke took me under his wing. Two broken birds, only one of whom still believed that they could fly. He helped me get clean, staying up with me as I wretched and shuddered my way through withdrawal, wiping the junkie sweat from my head and telling me that I would make it. He reminded me of my strength again. There was a quote from Ernest Hemingway that he would say to me when I lost my way and started to think that everything was going to be shit forever.
“If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
He remembered it word for word. Spoke it like a psalm, and I remembered it too.
He would pause before saying ‘no special hurry’ and smile to himself.
It wasn’t all gutter philosophy and stoicism. He showed me what were good dumpsters, which restaurants threw away the best food. It was not a good life he showed me, but an existence that didn’t want to kill me any faster than life would. When he helped me sort out a tent, it was the first roof I had slept under and not spent the night worrying if I would be asked to leave. My night terrors were absorbed by the open sky, and in time, they faded to a soaked sleeping bag once in a while.
It was Zeke and I, then Donnie who’d lost a leg in Kandahar started to hang with us and he brought Paulo with him. We would play cards, help newcomers and work with the agencies who started offering help. We wangled a food truck to stop by, medical check ups and although it wasn’t perfect, it was a small series of bright reminders that the world wasn’t always at war, strung together like christmas lights.
Until Zeke got caught in the wrong part of the town.
We weren’t informed of what happened in the direct, considerate way that you would learn if you were a relative. The police did not tell us, until a pair of detectives came out to the camp, bemused and surprised by how organised we were.
They cut him. They beat him. They burned him.
They did not know who had done it. The why did not matter. Zeke was a homeless man, someone to avoid eye contact with, to be embarrassed about. His death barely made the paper, but for the three of us, it was a world ending and we mourned him around the fire, shivering and speaking bitterness.
‘We have to find out.’ I said.
Donnie narrowed his eyes, scratched his whiskered chin and drunk his coffee. Paulo glanced between the two of us and nodded in agreement.
We stopped thinking like victims.
We remembered our training.
A principle of guerilla warfare, insurrection is that you make your weaknesses your strengths. If you are limited in numbers, then you are small and are able to react faster than a larger standing force. If you don’t have a lot of equipment, then you steal what the other guys have and use it against them.
No one wanted to see us, so we played that up. We found where they burned Zeke, walked around, asked questions of the street people who were there, part of the environment but not acknowledged.
Someone always sees. If it’s not a CCTV camera, it’s a pair of eyes. We learned that the latter was always better.
College kids. Bright, happy murderers.
A person with a little faith in human kindness might see this as a horrible incident, an act that would manifest in ulcers and nightmares, therapy sessions that end up in tearful confessions without any true justice applied to it.
We knew that the world didn’t work that way. They would go on to graduate, work good careers, raise children and die in their beds without a single care that they took the life of a man who gave his body and mind defending their right to be sociopathic assholes.
They liked to bar hop. When they were soaked in liquor, they would rough someone up. Three of them to one guy and Zeke had served as an escalation of the adventure. A plateau reached, and we all figured out that once was not going to be enough.
We knew that much ourselves. Not that we enjoyed killing. A good shot was one that meant you got to go home, or you kept your buddies from being shot. These guys were the ones who had learned a taste for it. We ran recon into the city, at night and keeping watch on the places near where they would drink. It was a fortnight before we saw them. They did not start anything, but they had that hungry, ugly need growing in them. Their throats rising and falling with the inability to keep it reined inside them.
We were ready by then.
One fact about America is that it’s easier to get a gun than it is to vote or get a driving license. We needed three of them. Handguns. Revolvers because they were easy to pick up casings. Simpler and less likely to jam. A pack of band-aids on the handle to avoid leaving fingerprints. Disposable too.
They could not help themselves. They chased down a young girl for two blocks. Donnie laid in wait at the end of the alley, on account of his prosthetic but Paulo and I, followed close and when Donnie stepped out from behind the dumpster, we had them in a perfect triangle.
One of them, a blonde corn fed fuck machine wannabe who would have caught my eye in better times laughed at him until Donnie pulled the gun from his coat. The other, with a braying laugh and a gawky overbite turned white when we saw us slip in behind them. It was the third one, shorter than the other two but with the smile that a shark would show before it bit into you. He was the one to worry about.
I shot him first. Paulo drew down on the kid with the overbite and Donnie limped forward, emptied all six rounds into the blonde kid until he was pulling the trigger.
Click. Click. Click.
Our ears would have been ringing with the volume in such proximity but we had all worn foam earplugs. A lot of the clubs handed them out at shows and they floated in puddles outside. It was quite something to see what people threw away.
Countries did much the same thing.
We tossed the guns down a storm drain. Made it back to the camp before dawn.
The tragic deaths of three young men with bright futures made the news. Three young people who took and took until they took too much mourned with a fervour that made the three of us feel angry and sick with it.
It was a good trade.
Redemption was not easy in coming for the three of us. To wipe a slate clean seldom removes the stain.
Then we saw the girl who had run from the three of them turn up in camp. Her name was Raine. She didn’t recognise us but we all knew who she was. She didn’t say much, but seeing her made things easier to bear.
She would come and sit with us by the fire. We told her stories, about the wars, the boredom, the things that we lost along the way.
The things that we found to replace them.
(inspired by this http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/mesa/2016/12/21/arizona-officials-camp-north-mesa-homeless-veterans-can-stay/95671828/)