Harold had not returned home to New York City in more than twenty years. Now he was back, exploring an alley off Central Park. A winter wind swept graffiti covered walls and ripped a lid from an overstuffed garbage can. Harold pulled his dirt-spattered coat close around his neck and began digging in the topless can. He found a few wilted carrots and some thrown-off lettuce leaves in the first layers of trash. He cast them aside, hearing his mother’s grating admonition.
“Now, eat your vegetables, Harold.”
“Yeah, yeah” Harold muttered. He dug deeper between the bent sides of the aluminum container. The treasure he sought was a quarter of the way down. A leftover piece of roast beef was still unfrozen. A dinner roll with only one bite removed was there too. Harold hunched behind the sheltered side of the can and finished someone’s leftovers. The cold night wind scattered cans and scraps of paper, sending them leapfrogging through the alley in front of a predicted snowstorm.
Harold sensed he was somewhere near the upscale apartment where his mother had moved after his father’s death. He wondered if she was still there. She would be nearly ninety now. That is if she had not died during the years he had been wandering after his release from the state hospital.
It didn’t matter. It was so long ago. His memories were foggy and their time periods chronologically distorted. New York seemed different too, more confusing. Earlier years were now hopelessly jumbled with events that had taken place in forgotten towns and cluttered alleys. Images of vicious dogs and moldy garbage constantly intermingled with his mother’s ever-present voice.
“Not so fast, Harold! Chew your food thoroughly!”
This time, the voice rang with the more familiar scolding tone. Coax and scold; come and stay away. Closeness and cold indifference – they were all mixed up in his mind. Harold wondered when he had first left home to escape the constant attention of that critical voice. He thought it must have been some time before he went to that place where all the crazy people stayed. He was thirty then. Even there, he constantly heard his mother’s voice. Finally, though, he kept quiet about it. He was then declared improved, and released. He never went home again after his release.
“Shut Up.” Harold’s habitual utterance was nearly inaudible between the ragged pieces of half-chewed beef in his mouth. The words escaped in a hiss between decaying yellow teeth and were blown away into the darkness.
When no more edibles could be found in the can, Harold shuffled off toward Central Park to take a crap hidden by bushes. Inside, the burning pain began again. It always did that after he ate or drank something but the past several months it had become worse. He had begun to cough and gag too, and that made the fire roar in his belly. While he squatted in the park, snow flurries began to hit him. He knew he needed to find some kind of protection from the wind and snow.
“Why don’t you just stay here, Harold?” The questions were always the same. They were part of the conversation burned into the memory record of the homeless man.
“I know what is best for you. I know how to take care of you. I’ve done it since you were born. Why don’t you just stay here, Harold?”
“Yeah, yeah” he muttered.
A row of apartment condominiums faced the park. Harold tried to remember if one of these had been the place from which he had often stormed in anger decades ago. The buildings all looked alike to him now as he stared at one window that offered a yellow glow of both physical warmth and a mother’s smothering coldness
“Why don’t you just stay here, Harold?” The window seemed to be coaxing him out of the wind gusts to a place that would quell the fire in his racked body.
“I can take care of myself!” he shouted. His ragged voice went unheard through the glass panes where homelessness was rarely visible.
After he had finished his necessary chore, Harold went to the edge of a nearby pond and stomped a worn boot into the milky white skim ice. It broke under the kick. Harold splashed his hands in the freezing water and rubbed them against his coat. Then he bent down to drink from the same spot. The numbing liquid set off another bloody coughing frenzy.
“You don’t need a home of your own. You’re sick. Why don’t you just stay here, Harold?”
The voice sounded more distant than usual. Harold wondered if it was coming from the apartment he had seen across the street. Was that where his mother had moved? Or, was she still just in his head? It was always so confusing, he thought.
A large cardboard packing box that some kids had used as a fort had been left on a slope. Harold noted that even the lid was intact. He pulled the container into a windbreak between two trees surrounded by a clump of shrubbery. Good enough for tonight, he thought.
Harold crawled into the box and hugged his overcoat against the pain and cold. Somewhere on the edge of sleep, he heard a new voice, gentle and kind. It crept into the cardboard shelter on the wings of the cold and relentless wind.
“I know how to take care of you. I’ve been doing it since you were born.” The voice sounded less critical now– even comforting– until his mother’s voice interrupted.
“Why don’t you just stay here, Harold?”
“I have a home” the dying man muttered in his sleep.
Her caretaker fetched the paper from outside the apartment door and carried it to the table where the frail woman was drinking her morning tea. “Another body was found last night across the way in Central Park,” said the caretaker.
“They really should do something about those homeless people,” croaked the old woman.