Wayne was 55 years old and had lived in Ann Arbor all of his life, he repeatedly told me and my two friends. His mother used to work at the Michigan Union. He did not have a job right this second, but he was going to do that tomorrow, bright and early. He promised. “I am a good Christian man,” he said as if persuading someone, though I’m not sure whether that someone was us or him.
It was a Friday night. I had attended a poetry event with a few friends, and the words had electrically charged me, as words tend to do. After the reading, I asked the two of my friends who had stayed until the end if they wanted to take a walk; I needed the night air to calm myself down, I explained. We had meandered toward Main Street, walked the straight line and looped back toward campus. Across from the Ann Arbor District Library, he stopped the three of us.
My name is Wayne, he told us again. (I know this is repetitive, but I’m only telling you what happened.) 55. Ann Arbor forever. Mom. Union. Good. Christian. Man.
I never understand why people state their religion after their character. I always thought a person’s nature to be mutually exclusive of their religion.
God Almighty, was he ever happy to see the three of us, because we were his angels. He had just come from the Union, he said, where another angel had bought him a toothbrush, toothpaste and other hygienic products. He took them out to show us, in case we were in disbelief, then safely zipped them back into his black bag.
I don’t have a job right this second, but I will get one. I am a good Christian man.
Did he think he would get a job because he was good? Or because he was Christian? I craved more discrepancy between the two, but one does not tell their cravings to a starving man.
Tonight I am staying there, he pointed at about 60 degrees, his finger projecting straight out into the sky. Please do not be pointing to Heaven, Wayne, I thought to myself. That high rise there, I sent out a silent prayer to whatever it is I believe in nowadays, all I need is 20 dollars from you kind folks. Though my initial assumption may have been dramatic and I still did not know to where he was referring, I was grateful he wasn’t referring to death.
“I’m sorry,” I heard one of my friends say. The other muttered the same. I looked down at my feet.
No listen! Wayne demanded, not harshly but fervently, I only need 20. It’s going to get cold soon, see. I am a good Christian man. (Did he mean to say that, being a Christian man, he was more or less likely to survive the cold?)
I wanted to tell Wayne all the reasons why I couldn’t help him. All I had on my person were my M-card, room key and the paper ticket from the free event we had attended earlier.
Wayne had all avenues covered: There is an ATM down the street. Wayne can wait here.
Payton does not have an ATM card, I wanted to say. Payton is not even a real adult. In typical fashion, I neglected to say anything. Wayne seemed panicked.
“Listen, Wayne …” one of my friends gently attempted to comfort him but also end the conversation, “I can’t give you any more money (she had found a few coins in her jacket pocket), but I can give you a hug.”
He absorbed the hug before she could take it back. There my friend was, hugging a stranger. It was a moment I had many words to describe — compassionate, brave, fragmentary, boundless — but not the right one. As I struggled to find any all-encompassing word, foreign arms stretched around me and instantly I tensed. My thoughts breathed heavily, trying to compose themselves as Wayne let go of me to hug my other friend. I’m apprehensive about hugging those I know; letting this man hug me felt like he had snuck into my heart.
After one freely given and two stolen embraces, Wayne took a step back. Just $20? His glance swept across each of ours; his eyes landed on mine and shook me. She believes me, doesn’t she?
I wished I could hide behind the moon.
She has the Holy Ghost in her eyes. I wondered if he was talking to God.
After a few brimming moments, a car pulled up next to where we stood. “Did anyone call for a ride?” A woman appeared from the fog or bush or nowhere (I really should be more observant) and jumped into the car.
Taking this as our moment to leave, I started to turn. “Good luck, Wayne,” a voice that wasn’t my own wished. The three of us stiffly staggered across the cement in silence. A friend cracked it, asking, “How is everyone?”
“A little broken,” I replied.
When finally I arrived home that night, I went straight to my mirror. As vain as it sounds, I needed to look at my eyes. What did he see? If he was making it up, was it based on anything? If he lied, was there anything in my eyes he missed? I’m not sure how to define whether the Holy Ghost is in someone’s eyes. I don’t think it’s based upon one’s religion, but why do people then hold it against themselves like a passport? Like it entitles or denies the entrance of my compassion?
I believed Wayne when he told us he was a good man, neither because of his religion nor despite it. What that faith was based upon, I’m unsure. It was partly because I am naïve, but there must be another reason, too. Judgment, I do know, shouldn’t be passed because of a title or category. Nor do I believe that good character can always be found in the eyes.
I stepped back from the mirror. The next morning, I awoke heavy from sleep and last night’s emotions. I was pacing around the room to reacquaint my body with the day when my roommate came in.
“How are you?” she asked energetically.
“Weird,” I responded.
It was all I felt that I could immediately give, so I turned the conversation to her.
“How was work?”
“Fairly uneventful, but there was this homeless man.”
My roommate works at the Union late at night. She talked further about “T” whose mother had worked at the Union. “T” a 55-year-old man, an Ann Arbor man all his life, a Christian man. “T” who had showed her his new toothbrush, but also had shown her his sufficiently filled wallet.
She said he had told her he saw the Holy Ghost in her eyes.
Payton Luokkala can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.