"Homeless people," Y_ says to a woman siting on a lap pull-down machine, "it's a choice."
Across the exercise room, I stretch on a mat and listen to Y_ chronicle the history of homelessness starting with President Ronald Reagen's closure of mental hospitals. He is stocky in his gray shorts, t-shirt and sneakers. His baseball cap hides a receding hair line. He adjusts his black framed glasses as he cites the example of the "homeless guy who became a fireman", proof that homelessness is a lifestyle of choice.
I wonder what formative experience shaped Y_'s opinion. That and I want to punch him in the nose. Since I write about the teen and middle grade experience, I will confine my hypothetical scenarios to twenty to thirty years ago.
The cot is hard on Y_'s back. He covers his nose with a frayed, itchy blanket against the stink of stale beer, dried vomit and damp cigarettes. His mother's bruised hands rattle her rosary; she prays for God's Mercy and His Deliverance. Y_ imagines the sweet taste of a hot fudge sundae with icy scoops of vanilla and bubble-gum, topped with a smooth mountain of whipped cream. The crunch of almonds. The pluck of the stem off the bright red cherry. He licks his dry lips, parched from too much salt in the canned pea soup. He sees shapes behind the long curtain separating the men's side from the women's side. In the dim light he unfolds the crinkled page of a vacation ad for the Grand Canyon. "Mom," Y_ shows her the ad, "why can't we go this year?"
Y_ glances at C_, his girlfriend, caressing the plush leather upholstery of the Jaguar. His whole body trembles from the growling motor, the power, the mastery of the road. He drives with one hand, windows open, hot wind blasting in their faces. The yellow street dividers flick by like dots. Y_ and his girlfriend scream the lyrics blasting out of the disc player. "Cancun this year again?" The girlfriend sighs, "There's this club in Vegas where you can drink as long as your 16." If I'm going to Vegas, Y_ thinks, I don't want her with with me. He feels in his pocket for Uncle M_'s the card credit with a $50,000 limit. Yesss, he gloats. I'll buy me a shitload of hookers from Fantasia Escort Service.
The spring of the screen door squeaks. Watching unseen from the kitchen doorway, Y_ hears his mother speak in a hushed voice to a stooped woman who fidgets in and out of the dim porch light. Angry rashes and scabs cover her face, neck and arms. Y_'s mother offers a plastic bag of clothes to replace the woman's greasy jeans, torn blouse and dirty jacket, and leftover stir-fried vegetables, a loaf of bread and six pack of Dr. Pepper to feed her. Y_ covers his nose and mouth at the stink of the unwashed woman. She takes the bag without looking at it, but doesn't leave. Y_'s mother rummages through her purse. The crinkle of cash sounds like nails on a chalkboard to Y_. His fingers dig into the wooden door frame. That thing at the door is not his sister banished from house two long years ago.
I finish stretching, take a shower and drive home.
I don't know what formed Y_'s opinion.
As a writer, it's my job to pause and wonder and write it down.