This Christmas, morning begins at seven with a trip to the Methodist Hospital over at Stone Oak.
[material I probably shouldn't repeat on the internet omitted]
We are back at the hospital in the afternoon. Entering the lobby, we notice the man we saw earlier. It was about eight and he was sat in a wheelchair at the main door with a couple of bags across his knees, presumably containing his clothes. He's black, about my age, and with the kind of mutant dreads you associate with homeless people, matted flaps of hair jutting out from the back of his head. He didn't look too happy, but nevertheless muttered a Merry Christmas as we left because it was Christmas morning.
That was seven hours ago. He's still here in the lobby and it's now three. He's stood by the phone, no longer in the wheelchair, and I recall my own checkout from a hospital a couple of years ago. They sat me in a wheelchair and wheeled me to the door. I could have walked but it was something to do with insurance, fear of patients tripping and braining themselves whilst still in the care of the hospital.
[more stuff excised]
Back in the lobby, Charlie is still there. He never gets around to telling us his name so I'm calling him Charlie.
'We can't leave him here,' I suggest. 'It's definitely the same guy.'
Bess can see no member of staff, no-one we might ask about Charlie or what's going on with him. Christmas has transformed the hospital into a ghost town.
We approach him with caution. He wears a military shirt and is almost certainly a veteran. His eyes are a bit wild, but it's to be expected after such a length of time spent in the lobby, presumably waiting for a lift home. His stomach hangs from the lower part of his military t-shirt, a weird slab of flesh, a flap draped like a curtain with a really unsettling central crease, something you don't want to see. It's as though a mad scientist has grafted an extra bum onto his front. For me at least, it rules out the possibility of asking what's wrong. I probably don't want to know, and he probably wouldn't take much pleasure in telling anyone. He has teeth missing and speaks softly with a brutal lisp, just muttered words - something about a taxi or a phone not working. That's why he's still here.
'What are you doing at the hospital?' Bess asks, and he mumbles something about pain killers.
We deduce that he's from the eastside. That's where he would go were a taxi available or if the phone were working.
'You want a ride?'
He shuffles after us. He isn't so quick on his feet.
'Maybe you should drive the car around,' I suggest, and Bess goes off across the parking lot as Will and myself wait with Charlie. It's hard not to wonder whether or not this is such a great idea, but the fact remains that the guy is clearly in a bad way and we're able to help, so that's what we have to do. Bess pulls up to the kerb, and I open the front passenger door.
'You're going to have to give us directions, so you probably need to be up front,' I tell our man, and he silently folds himself into the seat, which takes about a minute. We have his bags of clothing, and Will and I get in the back. Charlie pongs a bit, nothing specific, just the bouquet of not having washed in a while.
'So where do you need to go?' asks Bess.
'Rigsby,' he tells us.
'That's the eastside?' I ask.
'It's a bit of a way,' says Bess, 'but not too far, I guess.'
We drive in silence.
'Are you from San Antonio?'
'Yes,' he says.
We pass the Cornerstone Church, then take a left heading back towards the city. We're presently on the northside, I remember.
'Where does Sid live? Isn't he on the eastside?'
'West,' Will tells me.
'Oh that's right, over by Hollywood… er Holly —what's the name, you know that lake out there?'
'Woodlawn Lake,' Bess says.
'He used to run all around that every morning,' says Will. 'You remember that?'
We talk about Sid and his running for a couple of miles, and how we need to go over and see him because it's been a while.
'You know I spoke to him the other night?' Bess says.
'How is he?'
'He's good. He was asking about my mom.'
'Going into a bit too much detail,' I remind her.
Bess laughs. 'You know, old people stuff…'
'He was asking about MI5 and Scotland Yard.'
'He asks me every time. I suppose it's because I'm from England. He asks me about MI5 and Scotland Yard. I don't know what he wants me to say, or why he thinks I'll know anything.'
'Well, it has to be better than asking about the Royal family.' Will laughs. He has a fine laugh, soft and high like the cooing of birds, and very genuine. There's a gentle, Carl Sagan quality to him and he laughs a lot. He has a bone dry sense of humour and apparently not an ounce of malice in him.
We drive on, attempts to draw Charlie out of himself, even to put him at ease falling flat, so we talk amongst ourselves. We pass Fort Sam. Will indicates the opposite side of the road. 'We used to live there. There was an apartment complex before.'
'I thought it was—'
Will laughs. 'We did. We lived everywhere. We used to move around so much.'
'You were in the army,' Bess tries. 'Were you at Fort Sam?'
Charlie makes a noise in the affirmative but nothing further.
We turn left onto South New Braunfels.
'It's some way yet?' I wonder out loud.
'Rigsby is over there. Still a ways to go.' Bess asks Charlie where he went to school, then mentions her own schooling. She knows the area east of the city. She's trying to put him at ease because the silence is getting weird.
We cross a major bridge, one that I recognise.
'Stephen has his garden - like his allotment thing, here some place,' I say.
'What's that?' asks Will.
'Our neighbour, Stephen,' says Bess. 'He runs some garden.'
'He teaches kids, that sort of thing,' I say casually, and in my head I'm leaning forward to explain, Stephen is our friend, and he's a black man like you. That's because we're nice white people, not like those others. The situation is getting weird and awkward, and my imagination has turned Charlie into the grim-faced black dude in a Robert Crumb cartoon, just waiting for the ordeal to be over. He probably thinks we're going to take him somewhere, fuck him and eat him. I seem to recall reports of racist attacks made by random white yahoos emboldened by the thought of one of their own presently stinking up the White House. Maybe that's why he's so quiet.
'Left here,' Charlie says, which is confusing because Rigsby is straight ahead another couple of miles; but Bess makes the turn.
'Pull over,' he suggests, then almost barks, 'Stop right here!'
I get out.
He gets out.
I hand him his bags and he stumbles off without a word, back the way we came rather than towards Rigsby.
'Take care,' I suggest, somewhat redundantly. 'Happy Christmas.' I get back in the car.
Bess turns us around and we head back towards our own neighbourhood.
'Well that was something,' I suggest. 'He didn't even say thanks.'
'Rigsby's in that direction,' Will chuckles as he points. 'You think maybe he had enough of us?'
'Perhaps he thought we were abducting him,' I say. 'Tonight we'll turn on the news and see his photograph during a report on three white people now wanted for questioning.'
'Did you hear him?' Bess deepens her voice for the impersonation. 'Stop right here!'
'Maybe he didn't want us to know where he lives. I still can't believe he didn't even thank you.'
Bess laughs rhetorically. 'Oh I'm sorry - did I just drive your ass twenty miles out of my way across town for free?'
'You think he even had money for the taxi?' Will wonders.
'Naaah - that drive would have cost him a bunch.'
We speculate on what Charlie's deal could have been, how come he ended up in a hospital on the other side of the city. We even consider that Charlie could be making his way back to Stone Oak right now, returning like some nutty salmon for another day of hanging around looking like a guy who needs a ride, for reasons only he will ever understand. Maybe he didn't even need a ride. Maybe someone dropped him off and he was just hanging around, unable to communicate his need of medical attention.
'Well,' I say, 'it's certainly been a Christmas to remember...'