Sylvia's Story, Under the Overpass

Paul Perry

We were standing under the overpass, six of us plus Stump, who didn't really count since he's always out of it. Little Chub had scored a dozen or so chicken thighs at Popeye's--he'll go there when they're about to close and pick up the litter from their parking lot then kind of hang around, looking hungry, his sad little face looking sadder than ever, and it usually works if they've got leftovers-- and Loop had bought a couple of three liter bottles of Coke which were on sale at the Seven-Eleven, or at least she said she bought them, so we were enjoying ourselves. Still, though, we were feeling kind of down. It had rained during the afternoon, a chilly rain, giving us all a smell of the winter that was right around the corner, and winter meant standing in line at the shelter, hoping to get a ticket before they ran out of beds, or sleeping on a cardboard mattress in an alley, shivering in spite of wearing everything you owned including garbage bags. So in spite of the chicken and the Coke, we were feeling glum, standing close to the oil drum that served as our fireplace.

Then a strange thing started happening as we stood there in a little circle facing each other. Street people-- don't call us homeless people, we hate that--see, street people don't like to talk about themselves. It's probably because talking about ourselves brings things to mind that we'd rather leave where they are. Also, we figure that what's happened to us in the past is nobody's business but our own. But as we stood there under the overpass, the shadows growing thicker around us, we started talking about ourselves.

At first it was just a thing or two. Luis mentioned that he was illegal, had crossed the river down by Brownsville thirty-two times, usually getting caught right away, never getting farther from Mexico than a few miles from the border. But then he'd decided that he'd been making a mistake by going across with others, sometimes just four or five of them, sometimes a whole gang, then staying with them, so he decided he'd go it alone. This got him as far as Beeville but they picked him up near the highway to San Antonio, so he decided the next time he would just stay in amongst the trees as he worked his way north. It worked; he'd been in San Antonio now for more than a month.

"And I don't try to find work," he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve then taking a swallow of Coke. "I just live on the streets, eat what I can find, what I can steal." He shrugged. "I don't steal that much." He was a lean, dark man with a skimpy beard and a scar on his cheek, making him kind of mean-looking but I'd found out that he was really a nice guy, but a loner. "I got no family in Mexico so I don't got to send money home." He looked around at us then his gaze settled on me. "And I don't have a buddy, don't need no buddy. Better to have no buddy." He threw his chicken bones in our garbage bag--we keep this place clean; it's where we live sometimes, see--then sighed, his shoulders slumping. "In Mexico I was hungry all the time, yes, but so was the others, all but the...the rich ones, so I was just a poor, hungry man, but here I eat Big Mac, Taco Bell, chicken from Popeye's, but it's worse for me than at home because there I was poor man, here I am...." He frowned, trying to think of how to put it.

"No man," I said. "You're no man. You live on the streets so you don't exist. You're invisible. Right?"

Luis smiled a sad smile. "Yes," he said. "Right."

Then I had to tell them about Markie. "Me and my buddy Ben over there, we had this nice place down where Ninety West curves into Thirty-five. It was right up in the space under where the two highways meet, a little noisy but nice and cozy. Well, we find this young guy wandering around one night, half-starved, pretty sick, so we take him back to our place, fix him up a place, give him something to eat, although he don't eat much. He had AIDS I think, something pretty bad. Anyway, Markie liked to sit on the side of the embankment and watch the traffic go by up on Thirty-five, watch the people going to their nice houses. Well, Markey didn't come back to the place for a couple days and me and Gus we figured he was just wandering around because he would do that. Right, buddy?" I looked over at the dark solemn face of my partner, Ben, and he just nodded, saying nothing, as usual. "But after a couple days," I went on, "we go up to this embankment where he likes to sit and watch the traffic, check to see if Markey might be there, and he is. But he's dead. He's sitting there but there's enough flies around and enough smell so we know he's been dead awhile, and all the time he's been sitting there dead, the cars have been passing and nobody's noticed. See," I said, shaking my head, "he was invisible, just like we're all invisible."

Sylvia looked over at me. "So what did you do? Call the cops?"

I looked over at Ben and he just kind of looked away, and I said, "Cops are bad news for me and Ben. That's all I can say about it but we keep away from cops, don't even like to call them."

"So you left this guy Markey just sitting there?" Sylvia asked, sounding kind of disgusted.

"Hell, he's dead, right?" I said, getting a little peeved. "Somebody's going to notice him sooner or later."

"So did they?" Sylvia asked.

I stared over at Sylvia. "There's been nothing in the papers." Then I gave her a grin. "Maybe he’s still sitting there. You want to go check?"

Sylvia just shook her head. Then she said, "Okay, I've heard all these sad stories about why we're invisible, right?" Then she laughed, tossed that thick mane of red hair back, straightened her shoulders in that way she has, showing that she's a good-sized woman and proud of it. "Now I'll tell you my little story." And for the next fifteen minutes or so, she did.

"See," Sylvia said, "I had it all. I had a good job, I was married to this handsome, sexy guy that turned women's heads everywhere he went. We had a nice house with a white picket fence and rose bushes. Yep, I had it all. Then one day, a Monday it was, I went to work and sat down at my desk to start working at my computer. I shuffled through the stack of forms that I'd be working on that day and got them lined up the way I wanted them, made sure my chair was djusted just right, then I turned on my computer and got ready to enter the data, the kind of stuff I'd been working on for more than three years--when my boss Mr. Mackey tapped me on the shoulder. I looked around and he didn't say anything, just motioned for me to go with him, so I turned off my monitor--we were required to do that--and I followed him. At that point I was a little uneasy but not really worried. I didn't much like Mr. Mackey. He was too...too stiff, never smiling, always formal, if you know what I mean, but I'd never had any trouble with him. I was a good worker, always on time, always keeping busy, so I figured it wasn't something I'd done." Sylvia smiled, her teeth gleaming in the flickering glow of the oil drum fire, then she went on. "Well, he didn't even ask me to sit down, just told me I was being let go. 'The company's downsizing,' he told me, "and we're letting some people go.' I was just kind of numb. 'But I've got a high productivity rate, Mr. Mackey,' I said. 'How come I’m being let go?' 'Yes,' he said, 'you've been a fine worker, Mrs. Martin, but we're going strictly according to seniority.' He stretched his thin little lips in a smile and said, 'I'm sorry, but business is business.' Then he walked over and stood by the door. 'You'll need to clean out your desk and leave right away, Mrs. Martin. One of the security guards will help you.'

"Well, I was devastated. I walked out of that office feeling about as low as I'd ever felt. Now I had to think about going home to tell my husband, Foley. See, Foley was a specialist. He specialized in working on the transmissions of classic cars, usually only Rolls Royces. Since there aren't many Rolls Royces in south Texas, or at least not many that need transmission work, Foley spent most of his time at home, watching TV or gabbing with our neighbors, the Sewards. Joe Seward worked nights at some kind of telemarketing job, and Linda Seward didn't do much of anything except run around wearing short shorts and a tube top. That kind of worried me at first. Foley's a big handsome guy, dark hair, dark eyes, strong looking, one of those people who never exercise but look like they do but I figured nothing's going on in the daytime with her old man there, and I was always there at night, so I figured Foley was satisfied with me, even though I'm too tall and too lean and way too plain. Anyway, I went up the steps to this cute little house we were renting, wondering how I was going to break the bad news to Foley. After all, I was the breadwinner and everything we owned we owed money on, including the 35 inch TV that was Foley's pride and joy. Still, I'd managed to put a few hundred dollars in our joint savings account so I figured we could make it until I found another job. After all, I'd waitressed before, I could waitress again. Well, I opened the front door, peered into the living room, expecting to see Foley sitting in his lounger, watching one of his soaps, but the TV was off and the lounger, although reared back in his favorite position, was empty. Then I heard these sounds that sounded all too familiar. Uh-oh, I thought. Something's going on here. And sure enough, it was. When I went into the bedroom I found them, Foley and the Sewards. Yep, both of them. Foley was in his favorite position, lying on his back, and the Sewards, both of them, were busy, busy, busy. And all three of them were stark naked."

Sylvia stopped talking, looked around at all of us, cleared her throat and asked, "Any of that Coke left? my throat's dry."

Somebody handed her the second bottle. It had a couple of inches of Coke left in it and Sylvia turned it up and drank it down. Then she bent and looked in the oil drum. "Fire's going out," and she picked up a broomstick we kept around for that purpose and stirred up the embers, got the fire going a little bit.

"So," I said, not able to hold it back, "you kicked his ass out, right?"

Sylvia looked over at me, gave a little shrug. "Nope. It was the damnedest thing but I ended up apologizing to him."

"What?" old lady Miller said, the first words she'd spoken since we got together. But then she rarely spoke, just scrounged around, slept on a bench behind the shelter most of the time, minded her own business. "I'd have burnt his sorry ass," she said.

"See," Sylvia said, "once the Sewards went sneaking out of there, carrying their clothes, somehow looking kind of comical, Foley looked up at me, still lying there naked, not as...well, not as charged up as he had been with the Sewards but not looking the least bit guilty. 'I hope,' he said, 'your being home early like this don't mean you went and lost your job.' Well, that hit me where it hurt because I had lost my job and I was feeling real bad about that so," and Sylvia paused, shook her head, "damned if I didn't feel so bad about it that I ended up apologizing to Foley and damned if he didn't say, 'Well, I hope you'll be going out and looking for a new one right away.' And that's just what I did. I went out early the next morning and started making the rounds, filling out applications, sitting in waiting rooms full of other people sitting and waiting and I was sitting in this waiting room that afternoon and I got to thinking about what had happened, about walking in on Foley and the Sewards, about him not even saying he was sorry, about me saying I was sorry, and the more I thought about it the madder I got. Finally I wadded up these forms I'd filled out and I threw them in a waste basket and I walked out of there and I caught a bus home and I went charging inside." Sylvia paused, looked around at us, grinned one of those tough grins of hers, and said, "Well, Foley was gone, the furniture was gone, all of it sold by Foley, and when I rushed down to the bank to check on our bank account, all of the money was gone. Well, I went back home and I just flopped down on the floor and cried. I cried all that afternoon and on into the night and I finally spread out a couple of blankets—Foley had left them--and I managed to get a little sleep. I woke up the next morning, thinking things had got about as bad as they could get when a knock came at the door. I opened the door and there's the old lady that owns the house. She had this couple with her and when I asked the old lady what she wanted she said, 'I came to show these people the house, hon. Your rent's up day after tomorrow and since your husband came by and got your deposit, said you'd be moving out, I brought these people by to see if they might be interested.' She looked around and said, 'Well, I'm glad to see you got everything moved out, but this place could use some cleaning up.' I just stood there and looked at that woman, not able to think of a thing to say, then I went into the bedroom, bundled up my blankets and walked past her and out the door."

Sylvia looked around at us, all of us hanging on every word, then she said, "Well, I walked down the street and I sat down on the bus stop bench and for a long while I just sat there. Finally I dug in my purse and got out my old billfold and I looked in it and I saw that I had nine dollars and some change and that was it. I had two old blankets and nine dollars and some change and nothing else. No job, no husband, no furniture, no house. And that’s when it hit me. I also didn't have anything to worry about. I didn't have to worry about losing anything because I'd already lost everything. And at that moment I felt more free than I'd ever felt in my life. Then I thought, Now all I got to worry about is how I'm going to stretch this nine dollars and change, so I went down the street to a restaurant and I went in and I told the waitress, 'I want something that's going to cost me about nine dollars, tax and tip included.'"

Sylvia clapped her hands together, grinned around at us. "So you people talking about being bad off having to live out here on the streets. Well, you know you can get whatever you need out here. If you need clothes, you check out Goodwill or the Salvation Army. If you want to sleep inside, you go to one of the shelters. Otherwise, you make yourself a cardboard pallet, sleep under the stars. I pick up a job now and then, make a few bucks, buy myself a good meal, go to a movie maybe. I hang onto my blanket roll; that's my one permanent possession. Otherwise, I don't own anything and don't want to. See," she said, looking at us, "I like being invisible. I like it."

And we all nodded, thinking about what she'd said. Then from behind me I hear this scratchy voice, one I'd never heard before. "She's right," said the voice, and I looked around and damned if it wasn't old Stump, first time I ever heard him say a word, and also the last time because they found him dead not long after that, all snuggled up in his cardboard house, under the overpass.

Well, you probably figure we all became good buddies after that, got to be like a little community. Nope, didn't happen. I stayed with Ben, of course, no change there. But the rest of us just kind of avoided each other after that. Maybe we were embarrassed because we'd opened up too much. Maybe that was it. But we just kept away from each other. As for Sylvia, she just disappeared. Somebody said she'd taken off for Houston, somebody else said she'd headed south, maybe down where the beaches are. Sylvia would do fine on the beaches. Hell, Sylvia would do fine anywhere.

© 2001 Paul Perry

From the book "Street People" by Paul Perry, Pocol Press, ISBN 1-929763-08-5. chrisandtom@erols.com. Available on Amazon.com.

Multiple award-winning author Paul Perry's book "Street People" offers two dozen fictional tales that explore the real issues and life struggles of homeless people. Forget the stereotypes of bag ladies and sprawled-out-in-back-alley winos. "Street People" is an aching, unflinching, stark, and deeply moving tour through the "invisible" underbelly of the United States.