I haven’t seen Manuel in a few months now. I’m glad. I thought he’d gone the first time he left, but no more than a month later he was back. This time I think he’s gone for good. I hope so.
Manuel’s in his mid-fifties. He’s a broad-shouldered, average-sized man, and sturdy, built of aging muscle. His slackening skin’s brown, and the last time I saw him his pepper-grey hair was shaved close to his head at the sides and back, the top of his head bald, and he had a pepper-grey mustache to match. He has big, dry hands, with white cracks that fill the tops of them. He has unfilled, black outlined tattoos on the outsides of his forearms, though of what I can’t recall. They aren’t exactly black, though, but faded to a kind of grey-black.
I first met Manuel early one summer Sunday morning at the wooden, rib-high front desk of the homeless shelter I work at. He wore a white t-shirt, blue jean shorts, and choked white sneakers. A duffel bag’s black strap was slung over his left shoulder. It was his first time at the shelter. I told him he didn’t need anything to get food. I gave him a blue, hand-numbered meal ticket, told him when the meal would be served, and that there was coffee, cream, sugar and plastic cups in the back of the long, narrow, warmly-lit room.
A long line of plastic tables, covered by multi-colored cloths and bordered by black and red imitation leather chairs, runs down the middle of the room.
Manuel came back with a cup of coffee in between his hands. He leaned his left elbow, also dry and cracked, on the desk. “You don’t mind if I stand here?” “No,” I replied. We talked. He told me about his life: a wife and kids in northern New Mexico, a good job, lost, a head swollen “like a balloon” after being hit by a car, drunk, years back, now on the streets of Albuquerque “because of myself,” still able to get back to his life before it broke, if only he could make the quiet daily choices to do so. I told Manuel about my life too, the choices I’d made, and how they’d had an effect on my life up to that morning with him.
The shelter opens at seven-fifteen on Sundays and there’s usually a line of people right outside of the scratched, shoe-kick-imprinted, loose double doors, waiting to get inside for a myriad of reasons.
One morning, as I walked past a line of people toward the 2009 white Chevy Silverado in the middle of the shelter’s gravel lot, which I drove to pick up food donations all around town, Manuel stepped out of the near-back of the line, and stopped me in the sun that’d just risen over the Sandia Mountains. We talked again. “It’s OK if we talk sometimes? Just like this. I like to talk. It helps.” After that, we checked in with each other nearly every morning, or whenever we saw each other around.
Not long after he’d come back, while at a red light on Third and Mountain, headed to pick up food donations from a grocery store, I saw Manuel walking the other way on the sidewalk, the same clothes on. He didn’t see me. His duffel bag’s black strap rested on his left shoulder, and he had a twelve pack of grape soda in his right hand. His neck and back were straight, and his face and eyes were sharp with focus, as though he was determined to reach something ahead.
The other morning, as I headed toward the mountains to a grocery store to pick up food donations, I listened to an audiobook–David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words, a collection of stories, essays, and speeches read by the author. Wallace speaks of how it’s “not automatic, how it’s a matter of choice to be a human being.” The street I was on was fairly empty, so it wasn’t hard to concentrate: “When all the, like, props and stage-settings that let you just go around smugly assuming you’re not a thing are ripped away and broken.”
After I’d pulled into the back of a grocery store in the Northeast Heights, backed up to the loading dock and parked, I rewound that particular section, and listened again: “It’s up to you, you’re the only one that can decide if you’re more.” I sat for a moment and looked at the cloudless blue sky beyond the black asphalt, wooden and metal fences, and the tops of bushes and roofs. I wished Manuel could hear that stuff with me, but then I remembered the last time I saw him on the sidewalk, the straightness of his neck and back, his eyes, the soda. I stopped the audiobook, got out of the truck, locked it, put on my black work gloves, and walked in the back door of the grocery store.
George Christopher Moreno lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His fiction has appeared in Two Hawks Quarterly and Conceptions Southwest. His theatrical work for HDDT’s The Groundskeepers was called “beautifully moody, elegiac….Beckettian” by Victoria Looseleaf of the LA Times, and his “real-time, first-person story, ‘An Encounter,’ calls to mind a less abstract James Joyce,” said Weekly Alibi’s Geoffrey Plant. He is a Staff Reader for Blue Mesa Review.