Four last night. They trickled into the church
before the cold solidified. My wife and I signed them in,
made them empty pockets, checked for drugs and weapons,
went over the copious medications they carried,
then let them graze on free coffee, oranges, bread,
crackers, peanut butter, even a large bag
of Kentucky Fried wings a parishioner
brought by—gifts and leftovers of our middle class.
Once a month or so in the winter, my wife and I
volunteer to open the doors and sleep on the floor
with whoever needs to come in out of the cold,
mostly castaways of the state that cuts costs by
closing down the mental hospitals. Again last night
we felt the shock of fitting their lives into ours.
How normal everyone appeared at first, and then,
inexorably, their oddnesses leaked out.
Karen—articulate, well educated—talked about
Exodus, then waved her hand suddenly to reveal five
angels that help her communicate with her children,
taken away years back: trouble with the Feds over her politics.
Off in the corner, Ed, who had a pocketful of meds, said
he’d married a deaf and dumb woman who played around.
When he hit her, hard,she moved to Florida.
Ed never sleeps, afraid he’ll dream of her, whom he loves
more than my life. Jim—alcoholic, depressed, unstable—
is trying to get to Florida (their crazy bond), where his father
is dying, but he doesn’t know what town. And Deanna?
She came just to help out, she said, though it’s clear
this group is her only family. And then what needed to be told
was told, and what could not be told moved back into
the confusion of their minds. As if they’d just remembered
no one would tell them, “It will be all right, all right,”
everyone went utterly quiet, retreating to what they do
by rote—gather blankets, wash, pee, divide themselves
into the rooms for women and men. So we slept,
heat at the center, the oil burner droning out the dream talk,
the groaning and shifting of weight. Near dawn, I saw Ed
sitting up, then leaning back on his arms as if he was caught
in a contradiction he couldn’t resolve, waiting for
the morning, and wishing it would never come.
It came, the sun a disc of white in the steel-colored sky.
My wife and I locked the church, and warmed up our car.
Our group of night visitors bunched up against the wall.
They could have been the brunt of God’s joke
about the last who shall be first. No biblical edge
of the field left to glean, for them it’s storefront
encampments, and the shuffling in and out of the cold
according to the goodwill and shame of the owners.