Joseph E Bird

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empty bench 2

He used to come by every couple of weeks.

My office has a back door to the alley, and every so often I’d hear the thump, thump, thump, and I knew it was Keith because no one else ever knocked on the door.  He lives in a high-rise in Dunbar, a couple of towns over.  He takes the bus to St. Albans, sometimes to Charleston.  You used to see him everywhere.  He’d show up at church on Sunday mornings, but never went inside to hear the sermon.  He’d stay out in the narthex with the ushers.  I sensed he never felt comfortable among the Sunday best.

When he’d show up during the week, I’d go to the back door when I heard his knock and we’d catch up for a couple of minutes.  He’d tell me about his daughter, who like him, battled addiction.  We’d talk about his counselor, Lisa, who seemed to be very good to him.  Helped him get through the everyday tasks of life, like keeping groceries in his apartment and making sure he had a good coat for the winter.

“What are you up to today?” I’d ask.

“I guess I’ll go back to Serenity Club,” was a common answer.  The Serenity Club, I gathered, was a safe place for those battling addiction to go and hang out.  Back near his high-rise.

I’d give him a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee and off he’d go.

Halfway down the alley he’d turn and yell, “Thank you, Joe.”  He was appreciative.

But he’s been missing.

I didn’t seem him through last winter.  Probably just staying in, I told myself.  Then spring became summer and I realized that I hadn’t heard his knock on the door for some time.  I began asking around.  Nobody had seen him.  He has relatives who go to our church but no one knew anything about him.

A few weeks ago I drove to Dunbar.  I knew where the Serenity Club was so I drove around the neighborhood looking for him.  Nothing.

This past Tuesday my wife and I were in Dunbar visiting an old neighbor in the nursing home.  We drove by the Serenity Club.  A man and a woman sat on a bench in the alley.  I parked the car and approached them.

“Is the Serenity Club around here?”  I asked, even though I was pretty sure of its location.

“You’re looking at it,” he answered as he thumbed to the building behind him.

“I’m looking for a friend who used to come here.  Keith.”  I told him his last name.

“Never heard of him.  What’s he look like?”

“In his 70s, I think.  Not too tall.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.  How long ago was he here?”

I didn’t really know.  I told him I thought he had been coming for years.  Keith is not the kind of guy you easily forget.

We drove to the high-rise.  A half dozen people sat outside under the entry canopy.  I asked the same question.  I got puzzled looks in response.  Nobody knew Keith.  As if he had never existed.

I got back in the car and circled the lot.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a man walking down the sidewalk beside the high-rise.

“There he is!”

I stopped.  My wife got out.

“Keith!  Where have you been?” she says.

He stops.  He looks confused.  “Who are you?”

I’m thinking this isn’t a good sign.

“It’s Joe and Gloria.”

“Oh.  Hey.  What are you doing here?”  Turns out it was just the sun in his eyes keeping him from recognizing us.

I tell him the story.  That we’ve been looking for him.  Been missing him.  Told him I stopped by the Serenity Club but nobody knew Keith.

“Nobody knows me as Keith.  They know me as Harry.”


“Keith is my middle name.  I go by Harry.”

All these years, I’ve called him Keith.  Everyone I know who knows him calls him Keith.  He’s never corrected us.  Even his relatives call him Keith.  And then I realize that those who really know him, those who live with him, those with whom he spends his days, call him Harry.

So we spend a few minutes catching up.  He fell sometime in the last year and busted his knee cap.  He seems to be completely recovered but he doesn’t travel around like he used to.  Just stays around the high-rise and the Serenity Club.

His daughter died.  I didn’t ask how, just assumed she finally lost her battle.  Keith is still winning his.  Twenty-three years coming up in a week or so.  His anniversary date is also his birthday.

He’s had a hard life.  The roller coaster, as he says.  It’s worn on him.  You can see it in his eyes.  But if you look closer, you can see the warmth, too.  There’s a kindness about him.

He introduces us to some of his friends at the high-rise.  Friends from church, he calls us.  We all have a laugh about the Keith-Harry confusion.  It’s clear they like Harry.  He seems happy and content.

We give him a few dollars to celebrate his upcoming anniversary/birthday.  We promise to come back and see him.  As we leave, Keith gives us a wave.  But he’s Harry now, back among those who know him best.


Red is real.  I don’t know his name, though I did at one time.

When I first saw him, he was probably 15. Maybe older. It was hard to tell because he was big for his age. He was a least six feet tall then, but I knew he was young because his face was youthful. He rode a bike. One of those BMX-type bikes that kids that age ride. Yeah, and a blazing shock of red hair. He had the kind of unconventional good looks that could have landed him movie or television roles. In another life.

I live in a very small town, population around 10,000. Maybe less. I work downtown, such as it is. Downtown encompasses a few blocks. My office faces an alley that’s on the route from the soup kitchen at St. Mark’s to points elsewhere, like the GoMart a block away. Across the alley is a house that’s been converted into a duplex. Renters come and go. There have been good people living in the house, some just starting out, trying to save money and build a better life. There have been others not so well intentioned. Over the years, the police have been called to the house many times.

It was when the house was occupied by others that I first saw Red. He would cruise in on his bike, have some contact with people in the house, then ride away. I sort of knew what was going on, but I had hoped that this kid was just sowing oats, that maybe he would mature and take a different path. There was life in his eyes and something told me there was pontential for great things.

Then I didn’t seem him for a while. Months. Maybe a year or two.

Then his picture in the paper. Busted for something, I don’t remember what. I know it was drug related, but it was more than just possession. It was obvious to me that he hadn’t taken a different path and that he was doing what he had to do to feed his addictions.

I started seeing him on the street again. No bike, just walking. He seemed ok. I wondered if he had gotten help. Maybe he was turning his life around.

Then last night I made a trip to the store. It was raining hard. I sat in my car listening to Ben Sollee on Mountain Stage before going inside. When I came out, Red was walking along the drive in front of the store. He was oblivious to the rain. Then he stopped. He started circling his left wrist with his right hand. Back and forth. I thought maybe he was trying to get something off his arm. Then I saw there was nothing there. He was muttering to himself. He had that look. Frustration. Anger. Fear. In his world, not ours.

Then he started walking again. The look was gone, and he was just a guy walking in the rain.

We see people like this all the time. Seemingly too far gone to help so we just drive by.  Like I did. I look back and wonder if I should have offered him a ride, but I know that wouldn’t have been very smart. He was obviously unstable and given his past, even talking to him might have been a mistake.

But I can’t help wondering what life is like for him. That’s the point of the story. He’s tragically broken.

But he’s still a person.

Every now and then we all need shelter from the storm.



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