"Hey, you okay?"
No response from the guy. If anything he was even quieter than before.
"Hey, buddy." John moved forward, worried at the man's silence and his continued shivering. "Are you okay?"
Still no response.
"Jesus, son, do you think he's okay? He frigging shaking to death and you're asking him if he's okay? Let him alone. Just get out of here."
John ignored his father's raspy comments and trying to move the dumpster enough to get to the man. The thing was on wheels, but they felt like they'd been welding tight by decades of rust. How the guy had squeezed behind there he couldn't figure out…
It took a very determined push to get the thing to move, and when it did it let out a loud screech. John's ear echoed with the sound, and so did Rocky's judging from the loud groan. Shakily, the man's hands rose to cover his ears. Unfortunately, he still seemed to expect to be wedged against the dumpster and the movement made his roll over.
John jumped forward to catch him, his nose wrinkling with the pungency of the man's clothes.
"You okay, Rocky? Rocky?"
The man didn't answer; he just continued to cover his ears and moan.
John shook him, trying to get an answer and then realized that he may be going about this all wrong. He'd been calling him the name that the papers had given him: not the name he went by. He wracked him brain, trying to remember the guy's name. He was sure he'd heard it… what the hell was it? Finally he remembered the TV news report interview with that other bum who said he knew the singing hobo. So he tried it.
"Hunh?" The guy turned slightly towards the sound of his name.
At last! Getting somewhere.
"Messy? Are you okay?"
"I was going to ask you that," John replied. He stood, pulling the other man with him. He stepped back and then forward again as Messy started to slide down. He leaned the man against the dumpster and took a step back to get a good look at the man.
To say he was a mess would be an understatement. His multiple layers of clothes looked like they'd been slept in for far too many nights and the smell was overpowering. His hair sprouted out in all sorts of directions. John tried to figure out what colour it was but gave up. It was just - as the name said - messy.
The man shuffled nervously under his scrutiny and John looked away awkwardly. "Look, I didn't want to disturb you, but you didn't seem well…" his voice drifted off.
"Not well." Messy replied gruffly. "Not for long time."
"Tell me something I don't know! Boy, he's standing upright so he's okay. Now get your ass away from him before you get some sort of disease."
"Shut up, Dad," John muttered.
"Hunh?" The street person looked at him blearily.
"Sorry. Reflex action."
The hobo nodded, and the action caused him to lose balance. He slid down the side of the dumpster to land in a small puddle. His weight broke the fragile layer of ice covering it and John could see the water start to soak into the other man's clothes.
"Hey! You better get up."
The man made no effort to move, and that was when John realized he had passed out. Swearing up his breath, he bent down and shook the man. He came to with a wild lurch that had John stumbling back and landing on his ass as well. The two men sat there staring at each other in surprise and then John laughed.
"Well, this is getting us nowhere." He picked himself up slowly, wiping the dirt off his butt and held out a hand to the other man. "Come on, let's get you something to eat."
The guy ignored John's outstretched hand and carefully got up. He took a few steps forward, then almost collapsed against John. John pulled him close, ignoring the smell, and helped him walk into the bar. He placed him in a chair at the nearest table and then reached behind the bar for a mug and pulled the carafe of coffee from the heater.
"I was saving this. Probably really strong and a little stale, but better than nothing, right? Besides, it's warm."
Messy nodded his thanks and took the coffee in shaking hands. He leaned across the table and pulled about five sugar packets from the bowl and dumped them all in the cup.
"Hey, man. I was serious," John said. "I'll get you some food. No need to stock up on the sugars." He'd seen enough of his borderline customers do the same and knew it was more from a need for the energy the sweet substance provided than for any real taste for it. "Just sit right there. I'll be right back."
He went to the kitchen and checked the stove. The soup he'd put there to heat up while he did his chores was more than a little warm and he swore as he burnt his fingertips on the metal handle.
"You know he's just gonna run away."
"He's in no state to run."
"He'll just take all the cash in the register then."
"Nice try. I already put it in the safe. Nothing there to take."
"You left a drunk in the middle of an empty bar. You nuts, boy?"
"He is not…" John broke off. If there was one thing he knew after years of running the bar it was the smell of alcohol. And while the guy had stunk to high heaven John couldn't remember smelling alcohol on him. Not even faintly. "He is not a drunk," he told his father confidently. "And I'm gonna help him no matter what you say, you old windbag. Now roll over in your coffin and leave me be."
Grabbing a pot holder from the sideboard John picked up the pot and poured the soup into a bowl. The remainder he poured in another mug. Then he grabbed a bag of sliced bread and, balancing all of this precariously, returned to the bar. As he expected the man hadn't moved from his spot. Frankly, he looked like he couldn't even muster up the energy to walk out if he wanted to. John's heart went out to him. He'd seen that kind of exhaustion before and it hurt like hell to see it again.
"Here you go. Some for both of us." He dropped the bread on the table and placed the bowl in from of the man. "That oughta make us all better, hunh?"
Messy looked at him blearily and then down at the soup in front of him. It was almost as if he didn't know where it had come from. Heck, it was almost as if he hadn't seen food in so long he couldn't recognize it.
John was determined not to make him uncomfortable though. "Oops, forgot the spoon." He grabbed one from the stack behind the bar. "Guess that'd help, hunh? Don't know where my head is some days."
Messy gingerly picked up the soup and took a small sip of the soup, keeping a wary eye on John, almost as if he expected him to grab the bowl back.
"Horrible weather, isn't it? You probably see more of it than I do, but still it is pretty crappy." John was off, babbling incessantly, trying hard not to notice how much the other man's hands shook as he slowly spooned the soup into his mouth. He studiously ignored it when Messy broke his slice of bread into minute pieces, knowing that he was doing it because his stomach could not handle any large pieces of food. And he continued to talk about absolutely nothing as he replenished the soup in the bowl with the dregs in his mug. He only stopped when the other man carefully placed the spoon in the now empty bowl and then looked expectantly at him.
That was when he finally had nothing he could think of to say.
It was Messy who finally broke the silence. "Thank you."
"It was nothing."
"No," the other man replied. Then more firmly, "no, it was something. Thank you. I'll go now."
John hadn't really thought of what would happen after he got food into the man but having him push the chair back and stand up caught him by surprise. "Wait! Where you going?"
"Out." The man said it like it was obvious.
"You can't go out there. It's too damn cold. You'll catch your death."
The man looked at him like he was an idiot and John suddenly got the impression that it was exactly what the man wanted: to catch his death.
"Forget it. Look, I know you don't want my help, but you are gonna get it anyway. It's fucking cold out there and you don't look like you can handle much more of that. 'Sides, I am not going to let my good cooking go to waste on you like that. You're staying in here tonight."
He grabbed the man's arm and pulled him towards the back stairs. John flicked on the lights and gestured to Messy, telling him to go on down the stairs. The hobo hesitated for a moment and then slowly made his way down the stairs. John directed him down the hall where he opened a small door.
"See?" John said proudly. "I got this little room down here. Sometimes I just don't have the energy to go home, you know? So I figured I'd set this up. It's a little cool, 'cause it's in the basement, but it's got a bed and look," John gestured to the curtain hanging against the far wall. He pulled it back to reveal a small bathroom complete with a shower. "Cool, hunh."
The look of raw desire in Messy's face as he looked at the shower was obviously the only answer the man was going to give him.
"Why don't you go ahead and take a quick shower - it'll warm you up. I'll go get you a towel."
John left, heading down the basement's narrow hallway to the small washer/dryer duo set up in the back. He opened the washer and pushed the damp blue tablecloths into the dryer. They were now more gray than blue, with age, and John wondered again at his need for them. Still, old habits died hard and he just turned the dryer on, letting them start to tumble. He picked up a large towel from the small collection he left there for his use and waited until he could hear the shower running before returning to the room. He glanced at the pile of old, smelly clothes on the floor as he reached around the curtain and placed the towel on the sink.
"Those'll stink up the place. And no telling how many lice they already brought in."
For once John agreed with his father and he picked up the pile and returned to the laundry area He almost dropped the whole pile in without checking anything, but decided that even a homeless guy had some things he probably kept close to his heart - or at least close to his person. If your body was your home then you tended to carry all you owned on it. He picked up rubber gloves from the sink and then cleared all the assorted papers and other detritus he could find in the pockets of the three pairs of pants, four sweatshirts and thin jacket that the man had been wearing. Only one thing really caught his attention: with all the crap and small coins he had in his pockets, what the hell was the guy doing with a thin silver chain with a ring and the letters "SB" hanging on it? Both the ring and the letters were of high quality, though the letters hung awkwardly, giving him the impression that at least one other letter had once been part of the design.
If Messy had taken either piece to a jeweler he could have gotten lots of cash for them. That or he'd get arrested for stealing. Or have them stolen from him, John thought ruefully. Well, he wasn't going to ask him about them. The man has secrets or he wouldn't be on the streets - not when he had these means to get himself off. Not a choice John could ever see himself making, but then he wasn't in that situation.
"Getting soft on the guy, are you? Frigging softie I got for a son," his father snorted derisively.
John spun around. Messy stood there, towel wrapped around his waist, shivering in the cold of the basement.
"Yeah, my dad. He won't shut up. Been dead almost ten years and still he lectures me." John leaned over and grabbed another towel. "Here, something more for you to put on. I just put your stuff in the washer so it'll be a little while before they are done."
He accepted the towel, wrapping it around his fragile shoulders, and continued to stare at John. Then he glanced at the small pile of things that John had pulled from his pockets.
John smiled as he scooped the pile up. "Here is your stuff. Figured you wouldn't want them all washed away too." He dropped the pile in the man's hand and brushed past him. He pulled some old clothes out of the small bedside table and held them out. "You ain't gonna want to sleep in those towels. Scratchy things and none too warm. Here's some stuff. You can even keep 'em when you leave in the morning."
The man's question hung in the air between them and John used the moment to get a good look at him. Without all the clothes he was much smaller than John's originally thought. His eyes were still bloodshot and edged with dark circles, but now John could definitely see that they were blue in colour. His hair still stood out in clumps, but it was more dirty blonde than dirty now.
"Because you looked like you needed it," John answered simply.
The man was silent for a moment and then said, "you shouldn't have."
John shrugged. "Maybe not. But you could have said no." A slight blush crept up the other man's face and John continued. "I've been down myself - not as far as you've been - but I do know that then all I wanted was, just for one day, to step away from it all and be free. Like, I could forget all the shit I was dealing with for a little while. So I figured you might like that too. You still want to go out and seek out death like you have been you can do that tomorrow. But for tonight you get some good food, a shower and a warm place to sleep." John had surprised himself with his little speech. He rarely revealed any of his inner pain, and certainly not to a complete stranger. It was always something he held deeply wrapped within him.
The man contemplated John's word noiselessly for a moment. Then, "and you dad doesn't mind?"
John's eyes widened as he caught the glimpse of a teasing look in the man's blue eyes and then laughed. "Dad's pissed as all hell, which is why he's lecturing me like crazy." He grinned conspiratorially. "I always ignored him when he was alive, I'm sure not gonna pay any attention to him now he's dead."
John released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Okay then. Your clothes should be ready for the dryer in a little while. Just chuck them on in once the tablecloths are done, okay?" He watched as the man nodded and placed the towel around his shoulder on the bed. John caught a glimpse of a several long white scars on the man's chest and then he'd pulled John's sweatshirt over his head.
"Look, man. What should I call you? I mean, I know the paper called you Rocky. And one of your street buddies said you was called Messy, but, come on. You aren't so messy anymore, you know? So what do I call you?"
"Messy is my name now," was the brusque reply.
John's eyes narrowed. The long day, shock of finding him and the fact that he'd turned over his food, clothes and even spare bed to the other man was getting to him. He'd been nice, but now he was exhausted and not in the mood for any more crap. "Hey man, you are wearing my clothes and sleeping in my bar. Least you can do is gimme a real name. Any real name."
For a moment, watching his body language, John actually thought the guy was going to take the clothes back out of the washer - even soaking wet. Then his shoulders hunched and he sat down on the bed.
"My name's Thomas, then. Thomas, okay?"
Something told him that the man was telling him the truth. Maybe not his first name, probably his last name, but Thomas was who he'd been once. John felt a surge of triumph at being able to crack through the man's shell. Then he remembered that last time he'd crack someone's shell and the feeling of accomplishment bled away, leaving an acidic sensation in his stomach.
"Thomas. Okay then, Thomas it is. Well, you be okay then, Thomas."
"Okay?" There was a dry chuckle. "Never okay. Not ever again."
"I know the feeling," John replied, rubbing his stomach absently.