01 Feb Stuck
When I first saw him standing out there on the sidewalk, I thought nothing of it. I certainly didn’t think he’d still be out there come September. I lingered at the window for just a moment, decided that the night-bound silhouette across the street was just some guy out for a walk, and went to my room and hit the hay.
As I stood blearily over the coffee maker the next morning, my eyes strayed up to the window over the sink, and a little shock of adrenaline removed the need for caffeine. He was still there, and still standing on the opposite sidewalk looking at my house. My roommates had all gone to work long ago, so I waited for my coffee, got dressed, and then approached the front door and peered through the peephole.
He was still there.
I took a deep breath, readied myself for whatever nonsense this was going to entail, and opened the door.
His gaze shifted to me as soon as I stepped out onto the porch, and he watched me as I walked across the grass. He tensed when I stepped onto my sidewalk, but then looked relieved when I crossed it and reached the curb. Stopping there, I kept the pavement between us. I didn’t know exactly how to ask him what the hell he was doing. “Hey, uh, what’s up?”
He looked a little bit nervous. “Nothing. Just hanging out.”
From where I was standing, he didn’t appear to be homeless or crazy. He was a man of about forty dressed in a dark blue robe, and I vaguely recognized him. “Don’t you live in that house?” I pointed up the driveway behind him.
He nodded. “Yep, that’s mine. Just came out to get the newspaper.”
I glanced down at his hand, where he held an orange bag with the newspaper rolled up inside it. “Well, looks like you got it.” I paused. Another orange bag was lying further up the driveway, as if the one he was holding was actually yesterday’s.
He didn’t say anything. He just stood there with a masked nervous expression.
“Did I see you out here last night, too?” I asked.
“Yep, that was me.”
I looked down further, and saw that his feet were bare. “You weren’t out here all night, were you?”
I expected him to laugh off the idea, but instead he replied, “I was.”
“You’ve been out here all night in bare feet?”
Panic was oozing out from under his mask of calm politeness in a dozen different ways. “Yes.”
Now I was starting to feel more than a little weird. “Are you going to stand out here all day, too?”
“I—” He strained to speak, but then seemed to change his reply. “I might. It’s beautiful weather out.”
Well, that much was true. It was a warm summer day, bright and beautiful. “Well, could you at least not stare at my house then?”
He began to give an apologetic shrug, but stopped halfway through the motion and tried to turn. His bare feet never lifted from the sidewalk; the attempted turn was more of a twist from the thighs up. That, too, stopped rather quickly, and then he said, “Um.” His gaze moved in a circle before he finally looked directly at me. “Your house is nice. I like looking at it.”
By then I was getting rather annoyed. “What’s your name?”
“Russ? Nice to meet you.” I shook my head. I’d never had to do this before. “If you don’t stop being weird and staring at our house, I’m going to call the police.”
His eyes lit up. “Yes, please do that.”
That was a weird enough reaction that I actually got out my phone. I’d been raised to never involve the police for any reason, but this was abnormal enough that I felt I had to. I told the dispatcher we had a strange man standing outside our house and that he’d been there literally all night—yes, all night. She said two officers would be with us shortly.
Russ and I didn’t talk much while waiting for them. He just stood there looking at me at random times and around the neighborhood otherwise. Ours was a quiet street populated by nice people who kept mostly to themselves; we’d never even had cause to really meet each other. If we had, I might have known more about Russ, but as things were he was just some man acting strangely. Although—his aura of masked nervousness calmed as a squad car turned down the lane and approached us.
Two uniformed officers climbed out and approached us with tired stances. One asked dismissively, “What seems to be the issue, gentlemen?”
Russ looked to me hopefully.
I told them, “This guy has been standing out here staring at our house all night long.”
The second cop rolled his eyes, but he did ask Russ, “That true, sir?”
Russ gulped and stated, “Yes.”
Both cops straightened at the unexpected answer. The first one asked, “Seriously?”
The second cop looked at each of us for a moment and then said, “Well, move it along then.”
Russ tensed and stood a little taller. “No.”
“I said no.” As the pair began walking toward him, he added, “Sir.”
As one got out handcuffs, the other sneered and said, “Listen, asshole—”
But he stopped about two feet from Russ. His partner froze as well.
“Come on,” Russ urged them. “What are you waiting for? Come on!”
The two men looked at each other with haunted expressions, then began to back away. The handcuffs were returned to their belt.
“No!” Russ shouted at them. “Do it, you pricks! You pigs! Ugly bastards! Come on, beat me up! Teach me a lesson! Knock me down!“
The first cop’s face was pale. “You’re fine, sir. You’re absolutely right, we’re pigs. Just do what you like; stand there as long as you want. You’re on your property, technically, so this is none of our business.” The second glanced at me with apologetic terror; both jumped in their car and peeled away.
Russ screamed incoherently after them, but did not move from his spot on the sidewalk.
I called the station a second time to ask what had happened, but after taking my address the dispatcher told me never to call again and hung up. The anger faded out of Russ as he saw me lower the phone, and I stood there awkwardly as the grown man across the street began to outright cry.
I’d never seen a forty-year-old man blubber from sheer hopeless terror. “Russ, what’s going on?”
He couldn’t answer past his tears.
Looking left and right first, I finally stepped onto the street and got near him. I had the strangest notion, but I couldn’t articulate it. The words simply wouldn’t come to mind. An instinctual awareness was the most I could manage.
I did reach the opposite curb right in front of him, and I was intent on pushing him back off of his spot on the sidewalk, but I changed my mind about two feet away from him. It would have been weird to touch a crying grown man.
I stepped back to the street. Confused, I tried a second time. At two feet away from him—literally within arm’s reach—I changed my mind again. He could do what he liked; who was I to interfere if he wanted to stand outside on a beautiful day?
Each time I got close and then changed my mind, his tears and terror deepened.
I remember murmuring, “Alright, screw this,” and I backed up to the middle of the street to get space for a running start. I couldn’t articulate what I was doing, but I guessed that a leaping tackle might work. I braced myself and then launched forward, ready to spring up at the proper distance.
But as I went to jump at him, I changed my mind. There was nothing wrong and I was being silly. Who cared about any of this? I slowed and curved away.
His sobbing became a river.
Despite an overwhelming sense that something was very wrong, I turned and slowly went back inside. I could still see him through the kitchen window, and I began going about the business of my day with a muted horror that I could not acknowledge gnawing at my heart. Each time I looked, I would hope against hope that he had moved—but he was always still there, shaking, crying, and looking around for help.
That was June.
A pall hung over our neighborhood. Where once my roommates and I had held board game parties and had a dozen people over, now we ate meager meals in silence. Whenever one of us would think to talk about something that had happened at work or perhaps an event we were looking forward to, we would get out half a sentence and then be overwhelmed by a sense of hollowness. Who could care about a concert or a trip to a water park at a time like this? We would stop our sentence midway through and glance out the kitchen window as a group.
Always, always, Russ was still standing there.
He successfully avoided dangerous sunburns by lifting his robe over his head during the brightest hours, and he had a few nearby trees to shade him at other times. His bare feet took the worst of it, and were red and boiled over after a week.
During that second week, we gathered daily as a neighborhood. It was impossible not to have noticed him standing out there by then, and all the various residents of our street wandered out to speak to him and to one another about various polite topics with strained undertones.
“Terrible weather,” a neighbor would say, her eyes fearful.
The weather was gorgeous and beautiful.
“Absolutely terrible weather,” another of us would say. “Horrifying in fact. What the hell is happening with the weather?”
I remember the oldest of us, a woman who had lived through the Great Depression and was normally tough as nails, then cried openly and sobbed, “Why is the weather doing this?”
Russ stood through all of this, visibly hopeful and terrified.
The old woman screamed at him, “Why don’t you just go inside?”
He could only shrug and shakily tell her, “I don’t want to go inside. I like sunburns on my feet.”
She approached with both hands up to throttle him, but changed her mind as she came within reach. “You’re a man, you can take it. I shouldn’t interrupt your enjoyment of nature.” She hobbled away in tears, trembling violently.
Another of our neighbors stepped forward. “At least take these clothes.” He held a folded shirt and a pair of jeans forward, but turned away before getting close enough to hand them over. “Eh, you probably don’t want my old hand-me-downs.”
“Right,” Russ replied hopelessly. “I’m fine. Thanks though.”
It was the rainy season in our parts, and it began to drizzle on our heads, so we retreated to our homes to gaze out the window and watch Russ thirstily hold open his mouth to the sky. Once the torrent was heavy enough, he could also lean down and scoop water from the flow running along the curb. That gave us an idea.
As a neighborhood, we began to wash our cars more often. The runoff from the hoses would flow past Russ, allowing him to drink and stay alive, but only for as long as was normal for washing one’s car. None of us mentioned it to one another—we just saw others doing it, so we did it too.
The rainy season also brought worms up out of the ground, which he ate, and he learned to stand still long enough for birds to come near. He would grab them and eat them whole. The sidewalk near him became foul with waste until each new rain washed it clean.
One of the men on the street began building a long wood and metal contraption. For the first time in a month, we had something else to see outside our windows, and we watched him for nearly a week before getting a sense of what he was doing: it was a massively long Rube Goldberg machine full of levers, swinging hammers, rolling balls, and other assorted nonsense. From the two-by-fours he’d laid out, he’d planned for it to extend all the way down the street, around the corner, and out of sight.
My roommates and I took a few days off work and wordlessly began helping. The older women in the neighborhood brought out drinks and food for us; Russ looked on while we ate and drank, but he watched especially carefully while we worked. I’d never been one for tools, but I muddled through figuring out how to saw and nail things effectively, and the other men in the neighborhood joined us without a word when they saw how serious we were.
It took six days, but we finally finished the contraption on the eve of a big storm. As the sky was growing dark, we gathered around the corner out of sight of Russ and stared at the button that would activate the machine. If all the levers and hammers and contraptions worked, Russ would be knocked over by a battering-ram mechanism at the very end.
We stared at the button.
A jogger approached, and we stared at her.
She slowed and looked worried that thirty-odd people were watching her.
We backed up and glanced at the button repeatedly.
“You want me to push this?” she asked, cautious but concerned. “Is this for some sort of prank video?”
We looked at each other, and the old woman who had survived the Great Depression shrugged and nodded.
The jogger moved close and hovered her hand over the button—before backing up. “Nah, I’d rather not participate in a prank video.” Her expression was fearful and pained; she jogged on as we stood in despair.
The storm came and destroyed most of the mechanisms; the man who’d started it took it down in grief-stricken silence over the course of the next week.
Russ watched that process with despondent eyes.
A moving truck pulled up one morning, and we gathered on the street to watch his wife begin packing things.
“Russ lost his job because he stopped showing up,” she explained. “And now we can’t afford the place anymore.” She looked over at him with narrowed eyes and said hatefully, “I don’t understand why he’s doing this, but I’m not staying with an unemployed loser who would rather stand around all day than do some honest work.”
“This is honest work,” he called over, crying despite his words. “It’s tough standing here without rest. I do get tired, but someone has to do it.”
We watched her put Russ’ son in the passenger seat and then drive off with most of the contents of his house.
We looked to Russ.
He gulped, wiped his tears away, and gave the flimsiest reasoning I’d yet heard: “It’s more important that I stand here than go after my family. I didn’t value them anyway.”
He seemed to give up after that, letting the sun sear his flesh day after day and not even bothering to eat the worms that followed each storm.
That was July.
The first party our street had seen in months nearly sparked a riot. Our place was one of two on the street designated as off-campus housing, and the other house kicked off a kegger at about seven o’clock one night.
Outrage and anger flowed with us into the foyer of that house. The college guys therein turned down the music and had their friends hang back a second as the entire neighborhood crowded in.
The old woman asked, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Having a party,” one of the guys responded. “What’s the problem? We’re not being loud.”
I was actually the one who spoke next. I remember my righteous anger vividly. “How can you have a party while things are the way they are?”
One of other guys who lived there protested, “So what? We’re supposed to just stop everything and not live our lives because of the way things are?”
The guests looked at us in confusion.
The most painful part about that argument was that the guys were right: we couldn’t just stop our lives because of what was happening on our street. The shouts and yells from each side were more about how we felt than any logical debate, and a fistfight broke out just long enough to knock over the keg and break two glasses.
We held each other back and retreated as a neighborhood, leaving the college guys to their party.
I was bitter, so bitter, and we all felt that bitterness together—until another neighbor had a party two nights later. A week after that, one of my roommates had our friends over for a board game night, and I had to admit that it felt like such a relief to return to normalcy. At the end of the night, I walked the last of our friends out, had one last joke and a laugh, and then waved after them.
Russ was just a silhouette in the darkness; always there, but no longer on our minds all the time.
Of course, the next morning the guilt hit me like a load of bricks as I stood over my coffee maker and studied the boil-covered red scarecrow across the street. His blue robes were growing tattered after months outside, and he looked like a burned corpse. Unfortunately, I had a stressful day ahead, and I couldn’t afford to process my guilt at that moment.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was the one who did it: I closed the blinds over the kitchen window. It was supposed to have been just for that day—just so I could get through the big project at hand—but the blinds never came back up after that. As a house, as a group, we stopped looking out the window.
Just like washing our cars, just like working on that Rube Goldberg machine, and just like our reaction to the party, my neighbors took that as a cue. Within five days, all the blinds on all the windows on the entire street were lowered.
That first night that Russ was completely alone outside in the dark—with all the blinds closed, an absolute guarantee that nobody was looking out for him or at him—I laid in my bed staring at the ceiling and crying quietly. This was not like the other pains on this street, not like the ones that couldn’t be articulated. I knew exactly what I’d done this time, and I could think and say the words since it was my issue and my guilt alone: I was the first one to close the blinds.
I wanted to be the first to raise them again, to look out upon our neighborhood problem and force everyone else to open their eyes and unite again, but I didn’t have the courage. I needed to work; I needed to pay rent. I couldn’t be the one, because raising my blinds would mean acknowledging the problem and I couldn’t afford to be wracked by guilt and confusion and pain any longer. Each night, I prayed that someone else would be the first to raise their blinds. Surely someone would do it! It was the only conscientious path, and someone would definitely feel compelled to do the right thing. Then, we could all do it together.
I’d put the issue out of my thoughts for so long that I was actually startled when I saw Russ healthier than before. With nobody mowing his lawn or trimming his trees, and with an abnormally rainy season, the greenery around him had grown to shade him nearly the entire day. His skin was back to a decent color where crinkled parchment had peeled off, and a large number of crickets and other bugs had taken up residence in his waist-high lawn. On these, he fed, reaching down to grab insects at random and eat them when the urge struck him.
I’d looked because a car had pulled up, and I watched as a real estate lady got out and began pestering him.
“Hey!” I shouted from across the way, defensive over our issue. “You leave Russ alone!”
“This is ridiculous,” she called back. “I need to sell this property, and I’m never going to get a buyer interested in a property with a weathered homeless man standing outside of it.”
“He’s not homeless!” I shouted at her. “That’s his home.”
“Not anymore. His wife got it in the divorce because he failed to show up to the hearings.”
I don’t know why I said it. “I meant the sidewalk!”
Somehow, at some unknown point, I’d accepted it as simply the way things were. The real estate lady glared at me and then at Russ—and then she got in her car and left. I knew what would happen next, and my roommates and I harassed the landscaping crew she sent until they got fed up and left too. If they mowed the lawn and pruned the trees, Russ would be in serious trouble.
We congratulated ourselves for a job well done and went back into our house for board game night.
That was August.
The derisive talk began earlier this month. As the first chill of autumn hit the air, I think people instinctively knew that the worst was yet to come for him. Whenever we happened to glance his way, someone would spit and call him an idiot for standing there like that.
“Why doesn’t he just go inside?” someone would ask.
“Yeah, what a dumbass,” someone else would say.
I just stared at them when they said things like that. I did wish it would stop, that he would stop, but—I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I was prompted to write this and share our situation because I saw it in myself. I saw my feelings turning toward blame and hatred. I asked the same questions: why was he doing this? Why wouldn’t he just go inside?
But that strange dread notion that I could not articulate drove me to go outside and do something no one else had done in weeks: talk to him.
“Hey Russ,” I said by way of opening, since I had no idea what else to say.
His hair was a mane and his beard was wild, but there was still a man under there. He coughed to clear his throat and then managed to say, “Hey.”
There was really no beating around the bush. “You gave up for a little while there, didn’t you?”
He nodded weakly.
“What changed your mind? Why are you eating and drinking again? Why do you fight so hard to survive?” I asked him, my heart full of compassion. I felt like I was such a great person for caring when nobody else did.
I will never forget his bemused angry laugh. He tilted his head and said, “To stick it to you assholes.”
That was the one answer I’d never expected. We’d done so much for him, gone through so much guilt and angst and effort—but I guess I’d never thought about what it was like on the other side of the blinds, standing there night after night knowing the entire neighborhood was avoiding looking at you.
I don’t have an answer. I don’t have any answers. I wanted to tell him good luck, but it would have just sounded hollow. I nodded and went inside; this time, I raised the blinds and stood by the kitchen window. As the first flakes of snow for the season began to fall, I accepted his angry gaze. Would the heat of his hate be enough to keep him warm through the winter? Summer seems impossibly far away, especially without so much as a blanket.
And yet all the people who come over—all my friends and roommates and acquaintances—all just keep asking idly, “Why doesn’t he just go inside?”
If only it were that simple…