“There’s Tom again,” she sighed as the bum walked by. “He always tries to convince me that we become clouds when we die and he wants his face to burn from the floating ice drops while he flies through them.”
I looked up as I walked along the sidewalk and saw the man zigzagging around the street. He brushed past me and his torn jacket smelled so bitter it was nearly sweet. It was a very human smell—every material the body produces, all bundled together and simmered beneath an old Broncos jacket for months.
Tom needed a shower.
He turned and ran diagonally across the street away from us, screaming, “There’s too much sky! There’s too much sky!”
It called to mind something Sandra Cisneros once wrote: “You can never have too much sky.”
Apparently Tom can.
My new girlfriend, Cindy, and I were making our way along 16th Street Mall in Denver a summer was finally beginning to concede to fall and the day was picturesque. Problem was, Cindy didn’t like homeless people. They creeped her out and made her nervous. She saw them less as people and more as stray dogs which probably wanted to bite her. It was a little flag for me, but as someone who didn’t do much about homeless people to begin with, I could overlook her insensitivity.
Tom had circled back now and was bearing straight up the sidewalk toward us. He was screaming at the sky, so he was looking up and not where he was going. The distance between us was closing—20 feet, then 15. Cindy and I slowed down and her fingers clenched harder onto mine.
“The mooooon,” Tom yelled. “Why are you out now? It’s still light out! Go back to bed!” and then he proceeded to curse the moon at the top of his lungs. Several parents bent down and covered their children’s ears, or pulled their little hands in the opposite direction of Tom.
He was now right in front of us. He managed to look down and stop his screaming two feet in front of us. He seemed shocked to see two humans before him, on a public crowded sidewalk in the afternoon.
He stared into Cindy’s eyes for several seconds, white gunk resting on his lower lip as he caught his breath from screaming. As he stood, he swayed closer to her, then further away, then closer.
Cindy squeezed my hand so hard I grunted.
“They’re in the th—th—ckllggg,” Tom muttered to her with his blue eyes staring straight into hers. He drunkenly leaned toward her again, caught himself.
“What?” whispered Cindy, coiled into a standing ball. Her left hand held mine and her right was tucked around her head, but she couldn’t take her eyes off of Tom.
“They’re in th-th-thhh,” his speech turned into blowing raspberries through his lips, spraying saliva and white gunk everywhere. I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling come over me. It was not pity or sorrow for this man, but an actual interest in what he was trying to say. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, he seemed to have an important message for us—or the world—but no one gave him the time of day.
Cindy tugged my hand, “Let’s go. Come on.”
Now it was I who couldn’t take my eyes away from the sidewalk messenger.
“What?” I asked him.
He yanked his gaze away from Cindy and narrowed in on me. Then it was as if he suddenly sobered up and spoke several complete sentences, directly to me: “They live in the moon and they have told me,” he wheezed, coughed, and continued. “When we die, we become clouds. NO! We fly through the clouds and feel the frozen water particles stinging our face.”
“Okay…” I replied. I didn’t really know what to say. I never talk to homeless people. I wanted to know why this mattered, because Tom made it seem like it really did.
“Have you seen the cartoons?” he asked.
“The cartoons?” I responded. “Which cartoons?” By this time Cindy was adamantly yanking on my arm with both hands, but I had to hear what Tom said.
“The cartoons with angels on clouds? The people in heaven. The line outside the golden gates.” Then his voice lowered a full octave and finished with, “All of the departed live in a silent country in the clouds. You don’t see me as I am, you see me as you are.”
Suddenly, as if a rope was around his neck, he yanked himself away and ran down the sidewalk away from us, still shaking his fists at the sky and taking swings at the low tree branches.
& & &
That night I could not shake what Tom had yelled into my face through his rancid breath and remaining teeth. I assumed most of the talk about clouds and sky and the moon was the substances talking, but what about how I saw him? How did he know?
Cindy and I had retreated back into an alleyway and ascended back into the clouds. I sat pensively on the edge of some mammatus formations when Cindy flew over to me.
“How did he figure it out, do you think?” she asked.
“I honestly have no idea. I thought we were doing a great job of blending in.”
“Well,” she said as she reclined next to me on the cool surface, “at least everyone thinks he’s crazy.”
“Yup,” I said and I smiled as we watched the lightning dance over the badlands, illuminated by a beautiful autumn sunset.