Friday, January 17th, 2014

The wooden walls of the small shotgun house did nothing to alleviate the sharp wind of that January night. Nor did they hold out the noises that surrounded him through the darkness: tiny clawed feet scurrying across the slats, groaning mufflers on decades-old trucks passing by outside, voices so loud they stayed audible from down the road. They all passed through the rotted and brittle wood like a song.

The man sighed in the darkness, sitting up from the makeshift mattress of leaves and discarded blankets stashed from donation centers along his migration. He leaned against the rough wooden boards, his eyes closed and deep breaths drawn in through his nostrils and released slowly through his lips.

The man had no name; or, at least, none that he remembered. No one had referred to him by name in close to ten years. Hardly anyone had even glanced at him, much less spoken to him. He clutched a threadbare jacket about his torso, rubbing his hands together to create friction, the most superficial source of warmth and yet the only one he could muster. For nearly fifteen days he had slept in the shotgun house. Two weeks alone had instilled within his mind a silence to combat the noise around him.

He had stumbled upon the row of shotgun houses - once brightly individuated in shades of yellow, blue, green, and purple but now faded from years in the sun - in the early afternoon of a chilly day. The whole set sat isolated from the other houses in the neighborhood, situated in a grassy lot and framed by a growth of thin trees.

Finding the empty homes had felt like salvation as his teeth chattered and his fingers fell numb. The wind whipped through his layers of clothing and tinted his cheeks red and made his nose run. Checking over each shoulder and at the houses in the middle distance, he slipped into one of the obviously neglected and forgotten abodes, thankful for the relief from the harsh air, even if it was miniscule.

The vibrations of his rumbling stomach never left him; so long had he felt that tautness in his middle that he no longer noticed its pain. He sometimes found a place in lines at shelters, where he'd receive a helping of chicken and rice, perhaps broccoli or pie. Always served with a smile meant to be supportive, but more often some combination of pity and relief that the wearer was on the other side of the table holding the ladle.

Other times, he scavenged the neighborhood trash bins. Most foodstuffs were too rotted or ruined by other garbage for even him to eat. Every third bin or so, there would be a half-full bag of chips past the expiration but still edible. Or maybe a loaf of bread with a few good pieces still left. On the better days, he'd find a pizza box not quite empty. On the best, he'd find the box before the rats did.

He'd thought about trying to slip into some of the homes, check pantries for more food, amass a stockpile to keep any more ribs from showing. No breaking, no seeing people. Just quickly gathering a bag of cookies, a container of fruit, a jar of peanut butter. No one would notice a missing grocery item here or there. They would just ride over to the Wal-Mart down the way and get some more. Simple as that. For ten years and countless cities and towns, he had imagined how it would happen, how stealthy he'd watch for a family to leave, how he'd know where the spare key was hidden. He wouldn't take jewelry or money. Just food. For ten years. He never could bring himself to do it, though. They had their domains, and for the time being, he had his. He hadn't starved yet. He would continue on.

He snapped back to the present, to a dark so thick he couldn't see the other side of the empty room. He laid back down, tucking his knees into his chest and craning his neck down to meet them. He breathed in. He breathed out. The dust tickled his nose but he didn't sneeze. He breathed in. Then out. Before three more breaths had cycled, he drifted to sleep.

He woke up hours later. Through the cracks and holes in the boards, he could see light. One window was blocked by trees growing close on the outside, the other by the wooden side of the next house only three feet away.

The stiffness of his bed left him pained and tired. His bones ached more than normal, and his legs did not want to hold him as he stood, ready to search for his meal that day. As he tried to make his way to the exit, his hipbones protested and he felt sharp stabs in his tailbone. After only a handful of steps, he sat beside the front door with a sigh, his back hitting the wall in a thud of defeat. He pressed his eye to a large hole in the wall and watched the street.

The road was only gravel and crunched under any vehicle that passed over. A large bed of grass separated him from the road. The sky above was a grayish blue. Thin clouds covered the sun, creating a dimmer light than usual. There was a crop of small white flowers growing in that grass, the kind that schoolchildren made crowns and necklaces and bracelets from.

He heard a child's voice from the house across the way. She wailed. Then the slam of a door cut off the faint cries. No life flickered behind the windows, no other life evident from the outside. The house stood unchanged, but he knew someone was sad or hurt or angry within those solid walls. He sat still.

Only the changing angles of the shadows on the road told him that time was passing. It must have been only a bit after noon by then. No one else had passed or spoken. Until they did.

The navy blue minivan drove by, slowing before stopping between the two houses, out of place in this neighborhood. The man could see the reflection of his yellow house on the shine, but the image was distorted by the curve of the sliding door. The dark windows shone just as brightly with no duct tape or trash bags to cover any of them.

The front driver's door opened, and a middle-aged man stepped out. His belly extended over his pants, his off-white shirt fresh and ironed with a stiff collar. He jogged to the pop-up open trunk of the van, which opened independently of his touch, as if by magic. Bending over, he shuffled about a minute before standing up straight and walking toward the house, toward where the man hunched.

He backed away from his spy-spot. He expected the door to open at any moment. Someone had seen him. They would take him and make him leave. At best leave him at a shelter, at worst just dump him on a street somewhere. No roof from the rain, no place away from the eyes and words of others. No longer away from the world. A shelter would be restful in one sense but exhausting in another. He couldn't converse with anyone there or look at them - they looked at him enough for both. Voices of prayer mingled with adults' footsteps and children's sporadic laughter would choke him, suffocate him. With people, he was lost. Alone, he was no longer himself. He was something else, something less pitiable. No. He wanted to stay in his shotgun house.

When, after a few moments, the door remained closed, the man chanced a peek through the hole. The man outside was moving back and forth from house to house, holding something up to his eye. Camera. A large one, professional looking. He knelt in the grass and snapped some photos, then stood and backed up.

The photographer circled the houses, clicking away. A large, square flashbulb buzzed with light over and over. Birds flew by every so often, a dot of a plane crawled across the sky behind him. The man inside the house could hear the scratching of claws in the room behind him, larger than the ones that had cohabitated in the house during the night. The animals he heard did not approach, and the man in the house kept his eyes on the photography.

Ten minutes went by as the stranger furiously captured the houses on film, and the man watched the photographer in earnest. His eye followed as far across the yard as his peephole would allow, and even when the photographer disappeared he pressed himself firmly against the wood in an effort to bend his vision and see around the corner. Always, though, the photographer returned, and he relaxed as more photos were taken of the front. He wondered if his eye would be visible in the photographs.

Then, as suddenly as he began, the stranger lowered the camera and backed away. He surveyed the houses, as if checking to see if he had forgotten any angles. With a small smile, unconscious by the look of it, he went back to his open trunk and lowered the camera into it. A moment later, he stood. His finger touched a button and the back closed as he walked back to his door. He opened it and stood there, bending to tie his shoe.

He could hear the stranger speaking to someone else, still hidden in the car. The words were lost, but the cadences of the speech was strange. Almost foreign. Irish?  Australian? No, British. It was British, he decided.

A few seconds later, the photographer closed the door, the van roared to life and left. The gravel crunched. He saw pieces of it flying up behind the car. Would the stranger be angry if his van were scratched?

He almost wished the stranger had ventured within for more photos. A wish that he could listen to the rumble of a foreign accent up close, just to observe. Just to know it.

He slouched back away from the hole. The day continued to pass, and he thought of nothing but the photographer circling the cluster of old, rundown shotgun houses. Houses that had long ago been gutted so that only two doors, two windows, and four walls remained. Houses that had weeds growing in the lawn and rats nesting in the corners and rain that fell through holes in the ceiling. What about the houses could hold beauty enough for such attention?

When night fell, the man looked to his bed across the room. The mere thought of moving toward it sent phantoms of the earlier pain through his legs and back. He slept sitting up against the wall of the house, his head tilted back and his arms crossed. The temperatures dropped drastically in the dark, so low that even the animals had sought warmth elsewhere. He couldn't move. He was frozen. Fog escaped his lips with every raspy breath. By the time the sunlight peaked through the tiny crevices, his eyes were closed, and he did not wake.