We first saw the homeless man while stopped at an intersection on the way to Waffle House. Chet and Tadd—two of McCoy’s fraternity brothers—sat in the bed of the truck, already buzzed and anxious to officially start the bachelor weekend festivities.
“Chet’s got a history with this sort of thing,” McCoy said.
“With what?” I asked. “People with cardboard signs?”
“He comes across as a dick, but he’s a good dude, deep down.”
McCoy rolled down his window, one hand on the steering wheel. He’d taken off his shirt for the drive, his skin pasty-white. I could still see the scar on his chest from when we’d jumped a fence in middle school.
I watched the traffic light, hoping it would turn. I’d never given money to people on the side of the road, though not from lack of sympathy. Instead, I bought them meals or dropped off sandwiches, knowing money often went to other, less nutritional stuff.
“Twenty bucks says you’re not really homeless,” Chet said.
The man turned and smiled, which was an odd response, especially since it seemed genuine. The man didn’t have a beard, and his hair was cropped short and presentable. He wore faded blue jeans, rolled near his ankles. And I figured these were often the people who needed help the most—people who hoped a clean appearance would encourage someone to stop. The scammers pushed the boundary between needy and offensive, dirtying their clothes after nights in motels, ruffling their hair, walking with fake limps. This guy did none of that.
“Twenty bucks, huh?” the man said.
“Sure, you could buy a big bottle of gin with that,” Chet said.
Tadd laughed in the truck bed, a booming laugh that rippled his muscles. He was shirtless and tan, a vein running across one shoulder. He finished another beer and then dropped the empty can in the corner of the truck bed. I was too embarrassed to say anything. I looked over to McCoy, hoping he’d tell his friends to leave the homeless man alone. But he didn’t.
“You know, son,” the man said. “There’s a difference between sign-flying and homelessness.”
“I know that very well,” Chet said.
The man leaned on the edge of the truck. “Let me guess why you’re so cynical,” he said. “You helped a sign-flyer once, maybe bought him food—maybe for a few weeks in a row?—and then one day you found out where he lived. A nice, two-story house.”
“One story,” Chet said. “With a nice SUV parked out front. Maybe you’re friends with him? Used to work the intersection at Rocky Road and Forest Lawn, near downtown Spartanburg.”
The man laughed. “It’ll happen, kid. Where you boys headed?”
The light turned green, and Tadd tossed an unopened beer to the man, who caught it and waved, looking amused. It bothered me leaving him there—I didn’t know at the time we’d see him on the beach a few hours later—but I didn’t mention anything to McCoy. We’d quit talking about stuff like that. We’d quit talking about most things after he’d left for Clemson, leaving me to study humanities at UNC-Greensboro while he pursued marketing and joined a fraternity at a college in a different state.
I’d arrived after a five-hour drive from Greensboro, while McCoy, Chet, and Tadd had ridden together from Clemson. There was another groomsman for the wedding—another of
McCoy’s fraternity brothers—but he couldn’t make the beach trip. Which meant it was just me McCoy, Chet, and Tadd for the weekend.
After Waffle House, and after a couple of games of beer pong on the beach, I loosened up, thinking maybe the weekend would be fun, after all. I’d even taken off my shirt, though I tried to make my chest look less doughy by hunching forward. I missed another shot after a gust of wind pushed the ping pong ball a few feet toward the ocean.
“You don’t play much beer pong at Greensboro, do you?” McCoy asked.
“Loser pays for the hooker,” Tadd said.
I looked at McCoy. “You’re hiring a hooker?”
“He’s joking,” McCoy said. “Don’t worry.” His smile was generous then, and I wanted to feel for him what we’d felt for each other in middle school—best friends who grew up together, who kept each other company at recess and shared bottles of deodorant in the bathroom to mask the smell of pubescent sweat. There on the beach, it almost felt like the old days again.
“Watch this,” McCoy said. “Tadd’s going to get pissed.” And then he threw the ping pong ball toward our hotel on the other side of the dunes, high, high, high, and the wind brought it back and splashed it down in the middle of the triangle of beer-filled solo cups with a satisfying whoosh.
Tadd lost it. “What the fuck.” He kicked the nearest leg of the table, and the wood snapped and sent all the cups splashing onto the sand. I jumped out of the way. But apparently this was normal—neither Chet nor McCoy seemed concerned. “God, what a shot,” Tadd said, now laughing.
I wondered if this was what their fraternity parties were like: drinking and joking about hookers and smashing things and laughing about it. When I’d met Tadd for the first time, during Fall Break our sophomore year, as soon as I mentioned I’d joined a service fraternity, he laughed, saying those weren’t real fraternities since they didn’t have houses and didn’t host parties. And then minutes later, he bragged about the thirty-eight-year-old mom he’d had sex with the other night.
“Nice work,” Chet said. “You just broke our table.” His voice whipped through the air. “Wait a second,” he said. “Look by the water.”
The man waved and walked toward us, climbing the small hill marking the high tide line. He seemed so comfortable on the beach, walking toward us, so calm and at peace. If I hadn’t seen him with a cardboard sign a few hours ago, I wouldn’t have suspected him of being anything but a guy taking a walk on the beach—though his jeans were a little out of place for the middle of the day.
“What’re you doing here?” Chet asked.
“What are you doing here?” the man said.
“I asked you a goddam question.”
“Easy, Chet,” McCoy said.
We were all buzzed at this point.
“I’m just saying hello,” the man said. “It’s a public beach.”
Desperation could drive people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Not everybody understood that. The man on the beach looked down, kicking sand. I’d taken a psychology class and knew trauma victims often erected barriers to give the appearance of control. I found my shirt and put it back on before talking to him.
“Do you need help?” I asked.
“Nah, I just sit around with a cardboard sign for enjoyment.”
“I gave you a beer,” Tadd said.
“You did, thank you. It was hot out there today. You boys playing a drinking game?”
“Beer pong,” I said.
Chet looked at me as if to ask: Whose side are you on, Lawrence?
The man studied our broken table, one hand cupping his chin. I wondered what circumstances had brought him to resorting to a cardboard sign for help. I imagined his lifestyle: choosing a location for the day, fighting for a spot on the sidewalk. Maybe sometimes he broke away for a walk on the beach to clear his mind.
“Looks like your table’s broken,” he said.
“Jesus,” Chet said. “Is this why you’re living on the street? Because of your incredible insight?”
“Living on the street?” The man coiled back. “Like I said, kid, there’s a difference between sign-flying and living on the street.”
The man slipped his backpack from his shoulders and unzipped one of the pockets. My first thought was a gun. Now a senior, and a month from graduating, I wasn’t naïve about people’s desperation. I wanted to help—and for the most part I believed in good intentions—but outcasts of society didn’t always follow society’s rules. The man pulled out a roll of duct tape, though, and while he fitted the two broken pieces of the table’s legs together, McCoy looked at me and shrugged.
“Who carries duct tape around?” Chet asked. But his voice wasn’t as angry or skeptical as before. For the first time in the presence of this man, he seemed to relax.
The man smiled. “Want to hear a story? I have a house—not much of one, not nice, you see—but my wife won’t let me inside. Every time I try, she pumps a shotgun from the kitchen window. Going on three weeks now. And don’t ask me how she got the gun. Twelve years of marriage, and I’ve never seen it.”
“You don’t have friends you could stay with?” I asked.
This was what most of us from private-school backgrounds didn’t understand: What if you lost your job without any family or friends to offer you a couch? What if medical bills drowned you out of your apartment? Our support systems were like underground anthills, complex and deep. Somebody would help us if enough bad luck came our way. But the same wasn’t true for everybody.
“After twelve years of marriage,” the man said, “you lose touch with all your friends.” He put an arm around McCoy. “I’ll give you some advice. Don’t every get married.”
McCoy pushed him off. “And I’ll give you some advice. Don’t ever touch me again.”
It was like the wind changed directions—the sense of peace disrupted—and Chet and Tadd stood beside their fraternity brother, taller now, it seemed. And I imagined them at a bar at Clemson, ready to defend each other with bloody fists at the slightest threat. I didn’t have those kinds of friendships with my service fraternity brothers and sisters back in Greensboro, living at home with my parents. McCoy had been the closest thing to my brother, years ago.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” the man said. And then he zipped his backpack and walked away with the same calmness with which he’d arrived, disappearing among all the vacationers on the beach—but not before walking to the edge of the water and allowing the waves to lap at his feet, each one cresting just above his ankles, almost reaching the roll of his jeans.
Despite the heat of late spring, the other guys changed into starched button-down shirts with khaki pants—their hair lightly gelled and pushed in the same direction—while I wore shorts and a black T-shirt I’d strategically chosen. I’d never considered myself fat, but being around McCoy and his friends, their muscled bodies, made me more self-conscious than usual. We were sitting in the hotel room now, sipping Red Bulls, fighting the beer-induced sleepiness from a day on the beach. The energy drinks reminded me of middle-school evenings with McCoy, when we pretended to be WWE wrestlers after clearing a ring in my living room. Back then, McCoy would’ve flinched at the idea of going to a strip club, but now, around his fraternity brothers, the idea didn’t faze him.
I pushed aside one of the curtains to look at the ocean. I hadn’t been to the beach in over a year, and after losing countless games of beer pong, I was drunk enough to speak my mind. The shower didn’t do much to sober me up. “This hotel’s great,” I said. “Look at the colors from the sunset.” McCoy and I had been to Myrtle together before, but years ago, back when we would play putt-putt with his parents.
“What? It’s not like Myrtle’s anything to look at,” Chet said. He settled into one of the beds, next to Tadd’s suitcase. I was still waiting for him to grow on me like McCoy had promised.
“Don’t get comfortable there,” Tadd said.
“Yeah, right,” Chet said. “I’ll bet you twenty bucks you won’t get laid tonight.”
My buzz had lifted a weight from my shoulders, like someone had loosened my shackles underwater, leaving me to float to the surface. It wasn’t hard to see why people on the streets sought refuge in alcohol.
“What are we doing for dinner?” I asked.
“Pizza,” McCoy said.
After Friday night football games in high school, we went to Cici’s for the buffet and competed for the most slices eaten. I didn’t know who had changed more since then, me or McCoy. If we went now and tried to compete, I’d probably complain about us wasting food instead of donating it to the men’s shelter, and McCoy would probably roll his eyes after his second slice, already bored.
In truth, he’d surprised me by asking me to be a groomsman. I’d expected a wedding invite—and maybe even a request to usher—but I wondered if his parents had encouraged the groomsman thing, trying to get our friendship back together. I’d never even met his fiancée, only knew her first name—Iris—and that he’d proposed six months into their relationship.
Chet tapped his almost-empty Red Bull against the dresser, and each clink reminded me of how quiet the room remained if nobody talked. “Really? That’s it?” he said. “It’s your big bachelor party dinner, and you want pizza?”
“That’s what he said, isn’t it?”
Chet and Tadd looked at me as if my voice had startled them, as if I were a stuffed animal who wasn’t supposed to speak.
“Who the fuck you think you are?” Chet said. “Maybe we should all hold hands in a circle on the beach and talk about the injustices of an unregulated economy.”
“Come on, guys,” McCoy said, clapping his hands. “We’re not talking about the economy tonight. I want to laugh at my bachelor party.” And then he went into story mode, sanding away the tension. “Remember that lineup we had freshman year? When all the older brothers got drunk?” He turned to me. “I was the pledge class president, and the upperclassmen were real drunk that night. One of the seniors decided—”
“Oh, this story,” Chet said, leaning forward, excited.
“This senior decided I needed to learn responsibility for my pledge brothers,” McCoy said, “and he handed me the water bottle he’d been using as his spitter all night. I’m telling you, it was at least half full. I can still see that tobacco spit—darker than mud. Anyway, he said if I didn’t finish it, then all nine of us would get our own bottles to chug.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
“But Chet here didn’t hesitate. He was standing beside me on the wall, and he grabbed the bottle from the senior’s hand, called him an idiot, and chugged the whole damn thing without thinking.”
Their laughter filled the hotel room. It didn’t seem all that funny, but I broke a smile to fit in, remembering the conversation while we were home on break after our freshman year, the one that revealed the growing gap between our outlooks on life. McCoy believed a good person enjoyed the gift of life by laughing among friends and finding happiness. “There’s more than just that,” I’d said. But he shrugged. And then we’d spiraled against each other, with me arguing for the importance of recognizing the suffering around us and helping those who can’t meet their basic human needs, and he coming back with quips like, “What’s the point if nobody’s happy?”
I lost count: a couple of beers at the pizza place, a few at the first bar, a few at the second bar, a Fireball shot—maybe two?—and then onto a round at the strip club—all after playing beer pong on the beach all day. I’d imagined a strip club as a place where dancers resembled NFL cheerleaders, wearing the same, bright smiles and personalities. But there was no joy here—not even faked—only desperation. The girls looked trapped, like single mothers who could only afford their electricity bills by entertaining the tourist men who visited the Dirty Myrtle. The atmosphere twisted my mood into such a dark maze.
“God, this place sucks,” Tadd said. “Just as shitty as the one in Seneca. Look at this. What kind of strip club has benches?” He lifted one with a single hand, his veiny arm filling with blood. To my surprise, the bench moved.
I was ready to go home. Not just to the hotel room, but home. Flashes of blue light carved triangles onto the otherwise dark stage. At one of the bars earlier, I’d tried asking McCoy about Iris, but Tadd had interrupted and said it was a bachelor party, not a slumber party. And Chet had given me a look suggesting it was pathetic I didn’t know more about her. When they asked what I did on the weekends, I’d lied. “House parties, bars—you know, the usual.” In truth, most weekends in Greensboro I stayed home, ate dinner with my parents Friday nights, went to the youth-inspired Saturday evening church services, maybe volunteered with Habitat for Humanity on Sundays along with some of the folks from my service fraternity. We’d once organized a mission trip to Jacksonville.
“Dude, you okay?” McCoy asked, touching my shoulder. “Thanks for coming.” He looked happier than I’d ever seen him—loose and carefree—and after all, it was his bachelor party, and he deserved to have a good time. Wasn’t that the whole point of the weekend?
“I was just thinking,” I said.
“That’s what’s always gotten you in trouble,” McCoy said. “All that thinking makes you depressed. Come on. Watch the strippers. Finish that beer.”
I lifted the bottle to my lips and swallowed big gulps. Once finished, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, letting out a deep sigh as if the entire night had left me nothing but satisfied. And for a moment, I almost believed it. I could be one of them, hiding within privilege, no longer apologizing during prayer for my inadequacies when it came to solving the world’s problems—no longer feeling morally compromised for being in a strip club.
McCoy wrapped his arm around me, laughing. “Now, don’t you feel better?”
Despite the warnings from a few of my service fraternity friends about not succumbing to the temptations of a bachelor party—about staying true to what mattered most in my life—I went to the bar for another drink.
Chet pointed between the legs of a stripper as if to say I got you. “What’d I tell you?” he said. “Look who’s over there. Look who’s fucking over there.” The homeless man waved at us. He still wore rolled jeans and a plain white T-shirt. And he still looked clean, though no longer himself, no longer sane—possessed, almost, like a puppet dangling from strings.
“Probably tripping acid,” Tadd said.
“Maybe he’s just looking for an escape,” I said. A mindless comment, more like small talk. I didn’t care much about anything anymore. For the last fifteen minutes, all I could think about were chicken quesadillas from Cookout and trying to keep the room from spinning.
“Jesus Christ,” Chet said, his bushy eyebrows coming alive with anger. “You’re like a goddam tape recorder. Look at him! He’s falling over himself! Why are you still sticking up for him? How would you feel knowing that asshole spent your money on drugs and strippers?”
“Huh?” I said.
“Laughter,” McCoy said, slapping our backs. “I want laughter.”
“Hold on,” Chet said. “Is your compassion practical? Does it solve problems? Does it actually make the world a better place—or does it make it easier for outliers to cheat the system?” With each question, he slammed his fist into his open palm harder. He was the most coherent drunk I’d ever seen. “I mean, look at this guy,” he said. “Here’s your proof. And oh—great—look at this: he’s coming over. Maybe you can give him another beer, Tadd? No doubt that’s what he wants.”
The man stumbled through the club, trying to steady himself. He stood beside Tadd and resumed an apparent conversation with the ceiling: “—before that,” the man said, “years before, I was a drummer, and when my wife married me, she thought I’d become a star.” He bit a knuckle. “You ever heard of the band Mismatched? Well, maybe not, but they were mine. We had a big hit back in 1994. Remember the song ‘Burning Water?’ Summer of 1994. You have any idea what—”
“Who the fuck are you talking to?” Chet asked.
“Jesus,” the man said. “Jesus, look who I found. Friends.”
“Not friends,” McCoy said. “What’re you doing here?”
The man’s nose reached the height of McCoy’s collar. “I come here often, pretty boy.” He poked a finger into McCoy’s shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
And then Tadd was on him all of a sudden, behind him, choking him with one of his veiny arms, and the man gasped from surprise, swinging pathetically like a suffocated doll. Tadd kept his arm tight around the man’s neck, exchanging glances with Chet and McCoy. Neither had moved. Whose side are you on, Lawrence? Maybe Chet’s voice? Or McCoy’s? Or maybe I was making it up? The room was spinning now. I looked at the man. My empathy turned into anger. Something snapped. I forgot who I was—and there was so much energy associated with the release. Give me another drink, one more, and I’d smash this guy’s jaw if he touched McCoy again. And I’d never even been in a fist fight before. I’d believed this guy’s stories and smiles and cardboard signs, all with good faith—and here he was, at a strip club, rewarding me with—what? This? He’s the reason people don’t care, I thought. He’s the excuse people use to ignore everyone who actually needs help.
Whose side are you on, Lawrence?
I dropped to the floor dry heaving, which soon turned into vomiting. The music still played, the lights remained dark, but a small circle had formed around us, and as one of the bouncers approached, the homeless man escaped from Tadd’s grasp and ran away, even more jittery than before, but apparently unharmed.
“Dammit, Lawrence,” Chet said. “The fuck’s wrong with you?” He turned to talk to the bouncer, skilled, apparently, at negotiating damage control, and after a little back and forth—during which I threw up again—Chet knelt beside me. “Come on,” he said, with surprising tenderness. “Let’s clean up the puke and go. Either that, or he’s going to call the cops.”
I kept apologizing. Chet said not to worry about it. Tadd laughed, looking like he wanted to give me a high five. It was McCoy who stared at me as if I should keep apologizing, as if I should be ashamed for ruining his night and getting us kicked out. I was about to stand up for you, I thought. I would’ve punched him for you. But I knew, then, our friendship would never be the same. Too much time had passed between middle school and now. Nothing could bandage the gap between us.
Later, I would realize asking me to be a groomsman was nothing more than a nice gesture, a nod to the friendship we once had. We would wake in the morning and complain about headaches, and after piecing together the scattered memories of the night, I would blush from the shame of throwing up in a strip club and leave as soon as possible, as if enough space would help me forget.
But for now, after arriving back at the hotel, I opened the curtains to watch the moon over the ocean, hiccupping, thinking about the strip club, all the men gathered around a stage to whistle at women who looked as if taking off their bras was secretly the last thing in the world they wanted to do. If I ever had enough money, I’d buy the building and burn it down and give each of the women a few thousand dollars to leave and never come back.
Tadd and Chet crawled into the other bed, leaving the space beside McCoy for me.
“Look at this moon,” I said.
But McCoy had already closed his eyes, cocooned in his world, passed out for the night. We slept with our backs to each other, the way two strangers do when they find themselves sharing a mattress: with a line of pillows between us, right down the middle, separating one side from the other.