Papa Jack paused and looked at the backs of the buildings through leafless trees. He didn’t want to go into town. It wasn’t his home, and the people and the cops didn’t like him, but he was out of food. It was winter, when Murielle would offer him hot meals or even clothes and a floor to sleep on. Now his stomach was empty, a day and a half, and the nausea and headache were beginning. He turned left off the asphalt-paved trail, walked along the creek, and entered town through the back of a parking lot.
Papa Jack’s home was the trail along the river that ran from the city, through the towns, and then farther north than Papa Jack had ever walked. When he was younger, he dreamed of walking all the way up north to the hills, but it was years since he took that seriously. He lived along the trail wherever he wanted, sleeping in the woods, wastes, and abandoned places. In the warm months it didn’t matter where he slept, wrapped in a sheet to keep the mosquitoes off him. There was a wooded strip between the river and the trail, between fifty feet and half a mile wide, along the entire length. Papa saw deer, possums, geese, and raccoons in the woods close to the river, but it was usually muddy near the water, with too many mosquitoes, so he didn’t sleep there. At least he could fill his plastic jug for free along the riverbank, though someone once told him he shouldn’t drink it, even though he first let it sit to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom.
The more interesting places were on the other side of the trail: city parks, cemeteries, woods, farms, houses, train tracks, and high-tension lines. In summer and fall, Papa Jack got his food from the farms north of town, picking corn, peppers, and cabbages at night if they hadn’t been sprayed that day. And in an old stand of trees, on the far side of an electrical substation, was his winter shelter. It was a large, hollow concrete block that Papa thought was somehow related to sewers or drainage, because it had holes for pipes. It was surrounded by briars and clearly forgotten, so he put his blankets and sofa cushions inside it. There was enough room to sleep and still make a fire in the corner. The smoke went out through a hole in the top, though he covered that with a piece of plywood when it rained. He was warm enough inside in the winter, and was hidden from passersby on the trail.
While he liked the trail, sooner or later he had to return to town. There was hot food there and people to talk to. He could go days without talking to anyone, not even himself, and most times he preferred it that way, but eventually he couldn’t take it anymore and had to go back to town. He knew it well. There were churches and government places where he might get cans of soup he could heat in his shelter. Murielle gave him bowls of homemade stew, the best thing he’d ever tasted, even better than Christmas dinner in the church basement, but she’d want to pray first. He’d take off his hat like she’d told him and stand very still and quiet, head bowed, while she recited the prayer. He didn’t dare move or speak because he couldn’t afford to upset her. Anyway the prayers were fairly interesting, full of grandiose phrases, provided she didn’t rattle them off so quickly that they lost all their feeling.
Papa Jack also knew a part of town hidden from most, or maybe just ignored. When it passed between the river and the town, the trail showed Papa the backs of the buildings, the secret and forgotten places no one cared about. There were storage yards full of trailers, surrounded by rusted fences and tall weeds; stands of gnarled old trees and nettles, and piles of trash where people had pitched everything they didn’t want into a place where they never went. Papa Jack had found a lot of useful things there, like seat cushions, plywood, unbroken glass jars, rope, and even bicycles, and he made a life from what other people discarded. The fronts of the buildings were all fresh paint and neon signs, parking lots and traffic lights. The people in their new clothes walked quickly from the shops to their cars. They always looked like they were on their way to something more important. But behind the buildings, along the trail, was the back of the world, with bare concrete walls, barrels of grease, and rotting pallets on gravel, tangled with weeds. Papa wondered if one of the reasons why he liked the back of the world so much was that no one cared about it.
Sometimes the people from the front of the world came back to the trail, mostly on bicycles. Papa, walking down the trail, could hear the hiss of tires on the asphalt behind him and would step aside. The ones who rode alone were the worst. They wore special clothes and sunglasses and helmets, bent low over the handlebars and going very fast, stony-faced, never looking around, just as when they were in the parking lots. When they rode in pairs they usually talked to each other a little breathlessly. When he heard them talking, Papa was sometimes surprised to hear female voices because, in their cycling clothes, they looked exactly like men, except a little smaller. Mickey told him that a lot of those people came from Meriden Arms. Papa found that hard to believe. The people in the advertising posters for Meriden Arms looked so happy and satisfied that Papa couldn’t believe that the cyclists he saw really lived there. Sometimes he saw a mother on a bike with a child in a seat on the back, or else the child rode alongside on a small bike, wearing a colorful helmet. That looked more like Meriden Arms.
Papa couldn’t remember when Meriden Arms was built. It must have been some years ago, but he hadn’t noticed it at the time. He first saw it in winter, when the leaves didn’t hide it. He was walking down the trail one evening at twilight, looked up at the hillside above the river, and saw it. The face of the townhouse was lit by street lamps and looked like a castle above him. Papa Jack stopped, turned his body squarely towards the townhouse, and stared. There was a golden light coming from the windows, some dressed with lace curtains. He could see inside a few, and maybe a shadow moved across the ceiling. It was the most beautiful building Papa had ever seen. City Hall in town was imposing, but it was cold. People lived in Meriden Arms. Somebody actually lived there.
Papa soon saw more of Meriden Arms on posters in the train station in town. He couldn’t read all of the writing but he recognized the buildings in the ads. The pictures showed young families, white and Latino and black, engaged in various activities, bicycling and kayaking, or just eating together at the table. They were always smiling in the photos like they were having the best day of their lives. The photos also showed Papa the inside of the townhouses. No one he knew lived in a place like that. The furniture and décor were luxurious and the parlors sported the biggest TVs he’d ever seen. The people in the photos all looked so happy that Papa smiled, but also felt a little sad. They seemed very far away.
He then walked across town to find Meriden Arms, and discovered it on a county road to the north, just east of the trail. The front of Meriden Arms had a big sign with gold letters, and two driveways for the cars coming and going. From here, Papa could see that the complex was composed of many townhouses, all identical. It wasn’t just the one he could see from the trail. The thick grass was green as a crayon and perfectly manicured, with poplars and Japanese maples here and there. But there was a high stone wall around it, and the only way through was the gate, and at the gate was a guardhouse with a man who looked like a cop. Papa stood across the street and looked at Meriden Arms – looked at it piece-by-piece and looked at it all at once. It was beautiful, perfect, but somehow unreal, like he was looking at a painting. It was the finest thing he’d ever seen, the front of the front of the world.
A black Mercedes pulled off the highway and stopped at the gate. The car was shiny, even the tires, without any dents or rust. At the guardhouse, the driver spoke with the cop, and the iron gate opened smoothly, closing again after the car passed. Papa Jack looked hard at the gate and the guardhouse that stood between him and Meriden Arms. And then the cop was looking hard back at him, unmoving and unblinking, and Papa knew that soon someone would come and tell him to move along, like they always did, so he turned and walked back to town.
Sometimes Papa walked to the bar at the corner of Lexington and Mercer because Happy Mickey would be sitting alone at the empty bar. Mickey was the one person who could provide something better than Murielle’s cooking. Sometimes he gave Papa a bottle of booze, booze that smelled like cough syrup but quickly took him where it was going. Papa was never clear about why Mickey helped him or even talked to him. Mickey swore and complained more than anyone Papa knew. Papa figured he must get lonely sitting on that stool all day and just wanted to talk to someone, and the words he said really had nothing to do with it. And Happy Mickey would call Papa a half-wit, bum, and good-for-nothing, then give Papa a bottle of something or a five-dollar bill. Papa was already used to the language and didn’t complain. It was like standing still for Murielle.
Two days before Christmas, after looking at the posters in the train station, Papa asked Happy Mickey about Meriden Arms.
“What you wanna know ‘bout that for?” mumbled Mickey, staring straight ahead.
“Saw some pictures of it at the train station,” said Papa.
“That for rich people.”
“There rich people in this town?”
“Are now,” said Mickey. “They live there and take the train to the city for work.”
“I wanna see it,” said Papa.
Mickey laughed. “You retard!”
“Don’t wanna do no harm,” said Papa. “Just wanna see.”
“They won’t let you in there.”
“I can climb the hill out backada place. Up from the trail. Ain’t no fence there.”
“Damn, you dumb! The cops whup you good for that. Throw yer ass in jail!”
“Cops don’t bother me,” said Papa. “Don’t wanna throw me in jail. Said I smell too bad.”
“Well, they beat you bad you go up there,” warned Mickey. “They’ll beat you like a dawg.”
And Mickey gave Papa a bottle of Night Train and Papa forgot the idea.
That evening, Papa Jack was walking back to his shelter on the trail. It had been just above freezing during the day and would be well below at night. A dusting of powdery snow lingered in the shadows and ice drifted down the river towards the city. Papa was warm enough in his shelter at night.
He stopped at the bottom of the hill below Meriden Arms as he had planned and sat down in the leaves, leaning back against a tree, facing the townhouse above. He took out the bottle Happy Mickey had given him, twisted off the red plastic cap with a crack, and took a sip. It burned all the way down and he could feel it smoldering in his empty stomach. The ground was hard and cold beneath him.
He looked up at the townhouse. There was a warm glow in the windows and he could see the blinking colored lights of Christmas trees reflected on white ceilings through some of the higher windows. Some of the windows had twinkling lights along the borders, or an evergreen wreath with a large red ribbon turning grey in the fading light.
He sipped the liquor, closed his eyes, and relaxed. He knew it would make him sick if he drank it too quickly so he took his time. Soon it began to warm or at least numb him, until he might as well be laying in a bed. In twenty minutes he could barely feel the cold. Now freed from his body, his imagination penetrated the walls of Meriden Arms and he was finally inside. What he saw was similar to the posters he’d seen in the train station. A family gathered in a dining room for Christmas dinner. A huge TV was on in the parlor but the sound was turned down, replaced by Christmas music. Parents and grandparents chatted happily, wine glasses in hand, well-dressed as if just back from church. Their children played with new toys, laughing and swapping toys for candy canes. The table was covered in hors d’oeuvre that Papa had seen at Christmas dinner at the church, or at Murielle’s, or on TV: slices of ham and cheese on crackers, fresh vegetables and dips, bowls of colorful salads, and plates of marinated ribs and shrimp cocktails.
Now he had a china plate loaded with roast chicken and potato salad which he could taste as he slowly chewed and followed with good wine. The adults talked with him in confidence, as an intimate, and the children laughed and played with him, calling him Papa and bringing him chocolates. He was dressed in the clean and tasteful clothes he saw in the front of the world, clothes that were not made to fend off the cold, and his hair and fingernails were clean like when he was young.
Then everyone sat down to dinner, the table full of marvelous things that Papa imagined with great clarity: a huge turkey with stuffing and gravy, cranberries, mashed potatoes, roast vegetables, and hot bread and butter. He couldn’t feel his body but he could smell the food, especially the bread. In his mind he ate slowly and deliberately, enjoying the moment with everyone as the music swelled. As his mind became too cloudy for images, he could still hear the music and smell the bread, and finally he could only feel, and he felt good. Papa Jack fell asleep and dreamt of the other side of everything. Two cross-country skiers from Meriden Arms found him the next morning and called the police. The paramedics drove Papa’s cold bones to the morgue. It was ironic that he’d died, one of the skiers told the police, so close to the warmth and safety of Meriden Arms.