"Excuse me, Miss," the black man with the salt and pepper beard directed my way. "Excuse me." He caught my eyes. I knew he'd ask for money. That's how all of these conversations start. And he did.
"I'm a Vietnam Veteran, ma'am," he began. "I hate to beg. That's not like me." He stopped himself before spitting the same rhyme he spews probably a hundred times a day to introduce himself. All good story-tellers use a good pickup line and then brace their listeners with the setup.
"My name is George," the man said as he stuck his right hand out to meet mine.
"I'm Jenny." I said.
"Nice to meet you, Jenny. I'm sorry to do this to you, to hold you up," he said as he inhaled the excretions of a Marlboro Red.
"I'm a veteran," he repeated for impact, dramatization. He curdled his lips around the cigarette. Took another drag. "I served 18 months in 'Nam, ma'am. I hate to do this but can you buy me a sandwich?"
We walked together to Jimmy John's.
"What do you want, George?" I asked the stranger once we were at the counter.
"Ummmm. Hey man," George said to the cashier, "What got the most meat in it?" Obviously, George was going for protein here. Smart. Heard it fuels the body longer. I don't eat it but I'll buy it for him anyway, put my money where his mouth is.
"The Gargantuan has basically all the meat," the young boy told the homeless man.
"Okay, how much does it cost?" George asked.
"Eight ninety-five," the boy in the uniform said.
"Oh," George said as he looked down at the floor and then towards me. "That too much?"
"No," I said pulling out my credit card. "Get what you want."
I tried to make small talk. "You have a good day?" I asked George while the boy split the white bread into halves. I tried to make the situation less awkward by staring at my reflection in the sneeze guard.
"What?" he said. He was good at acting. He pretended he didn't hear the question so that I'd have a chance to think about the question I just posed.
"Shit," I thought. George was probably thinking about how this young white girl is soon-to-be wining and dining at the restaurant down the street. She'll drop $80 easy on a bottle of wine and just enough cheese to feed a small mouse and she's asking me how my damn day was as I proceed to tell her about my life on the street?
I was buzzed on coffee and although I was meeting friends in a fancy restaurant, I was planning on saving my dough and bumming on free water and bread but George didn't know that. "Shit," I thought for the second time and then repeated the question because I didn't know what else to do. This time he knew he'd have to answer. He didn't know what else to do.
"Well," he started. "Not that good. Not that good. So, I'm from Charlotte, right? And the VA told me to come down here and they'd hook me up with this job and help me find a place to stay. So I caught the bus here and man, Wilmington people haven't been nice to me. Shit, I get down to the VA office here and they like, 'Sorry, we don't have you in the system.'"
"What?!" I said as my brows furrowed.
"Yeah," George said. "So that's been my day. I'm trying to figure it out. You got two dollars for a bus ticket?"
"Two dollars?" I ask. "That's how much it costs?" I wouldn't know.
"Yeah," he said. "Well, four dollars. Two here. Two back. But don't worry 'bout the other two. I'll ask somebody else once I get there. "You know the VA office all the way out there by the airport and I live over here. You know where the Burger King is? Off of Third?" I shook my head up and down. "Yeah, that's where I live, back in the woods."
We walked outside. George thanked me. He began to bite down on the meat-filled sandwich but this time he's the one who hesitated. "You know, it's my birthday tomorrow. I shouldn't of asked you for this sandwich 'cause what I really want, I want to celebrate with a beer," he said, his voice getting softer and softer as if he had wished he had kept that thought inside. He hates that he hesitated. He thinks, it must make this girl feel terrible to know that I'm ungrateful.
"How old you think I'm gonna be?" George asked.
"Hmmm. I don't..." but before I could finish George told me he'd be 66 tomorrow.
"I know, right?!" George boasted. "I look good. My mama does too. She 82 and she look younger than me!"
"Damn," I said celebrating momentarily with him over his last supper. "You got those good genes!"
When George had finished his sandwich, the celebratory talk about aging well undid itself. He unzipped his hoodie just enough to reveal a large silver cross. He nailed it. Politics and religion. The perfect way to get more money out of the girl before she runs.
"I got cancer," George told me. His eyes stared into mine. "I got six months. Doc at the VA told me, 'Six months.'"
And now he's hit me with the triple-threat. And there he goes again with the number six. I began to think that maybe six was his favorite number. The repetition makes me think twice about his story. Six-six-six. If George wanted me to believe his story then maybe he should choose a different number for his next descriptive word.
But then I think about how we'd call it an American horror story if the doctor who saved a life went without living a six-figure American Dream but how when we pass George at the Scotchman, who tried to save all of our lives 24-7, 18 months overseas, we'll let him live out his with a six-pack of PBR. Maybe those six cans of red, white and blue downers will get him through the next six months.
"Agent orange," he said.
Okay. Good job, George, I think to myself. Good use of another adjective. The numbers aren't really your strong suit.
"The doc said all that Agent Orange is what did it," George said as he pulled out another Red. "Six months. But that's okay. If I woke up tomorrow morning and they told me to go, I'd still do it. I love my country, man."
Put down the cigarette, George, I think to advise him. You'll really make people wonder if it was the Orange or the Reds that prescribed your body to kill itself.
"All of us were sprayed with that shit," George remembers. But we all know that most of those gassed with Agent Orange weren't pinned with a Purple Heart.
The heart of America is in the streets. The heart of America has a name. "Nice to meet you, George," I said when I shook hands with the man who is at the mercy of a broken system run by a president even though he lives behind the King. Fast food ball and chain. The people inside making minimum wage are too busy pushing out patties to shoo the homeless guy with the cardboard sign away like they do to the crows scavenging the lot for fries.
George brings up the two dollar bus ticket again. I hesitate. Even right as it happened, I hated that I hesitated. It must make George feel terrible to know that I'm on to him.
There's a war in my mind. To reach in my wallet or to walk away. To remember or to never forget.
I take out two one dollar bills even though I'm sure George was just too lazy to get a job so he made up a story, built a lie around himself like a wall. But don't you worry, it was Made in America.
This is a work of fiction only in the sense that I am telling it from my point of view and because this happened in real time, I did not record the conversations for direct quotes. George is a real man who says he is 66 years old today (February 7, today). Happy Birthday, George.