Last year I lived in Jacksonville, Fla., and at the corner store near our home there was a man who regularly sat hunched beneath a pay phone. I saw him a lot while coming home from work. He was terribly thin and always in tattered clothing. It would be O.K. to call him homeless.
One evening not long after Thanksgiving, when my wife and I had a refrigerator full of leftovers, I decided while driving home that if that man was there, I would ask if he wanted to ride home with me and get a bite to eat. He was there and I made the offer.
Without hesitating, he said, “That would be good.” He introduced himself as Mike.
Our home was a few blocks away. When we got there and were walking to the front door, something must have come over Mike because he paused, looked into my eyes and said, “You aren’t going to kill me, are you?” I told him I wasn’t and suddenly felt how many worlds away from each other we were as people. Facing him at dusk in my lawn, I said, “Do you like ham?”
That diffused the awkwardness.
My wife met us at the door.
“This is Mike,” I said. “He’s going to eat supper with us.”
My wife is the more rational side of our union. I could tell Mike made her nervous. He had on an unclean military-green, waist-length coat and the knit cap on his head was pulled low, nearly hiding his eyes. It would not be fair to call how he looked menacing. It would be fair to call how he looked unpredictable.
I had planned on setting him a place at our table. Instead, sensing my wife’s unspoken wishes, I told him to wait on the porch and I would bring him a plate.
“It’s too cold to eat outside,” he said.
This caught me. Florida rarely gets too cold to eat outside and it wasn’t. I responded, “Well, you aren’t coming in my house.” He shook his head and sat down.
I heated a plate of sliced ham, green beans and mashed potatoes topped with bacon and cheese. After I gave it to Mike, I went to fetch him a knife. By the time I returned he had pulled one out of his pocket. Laughing, I said I didn’t know he had come armed.
“I keep one,” he said, and my wife pressed her lips together.
This is what he told me in between bites: He slept in an abandoned home. He was sick with stomach problems and in pain a lot. He had family in Tampa and was thinking of going down there to see a doctor. He had been given a room at some sort of shelter but would not stay sober, which was a rule, and lost it.
About halfway through the food, he pulled a pint of rum from his coat and took a swallow. Then he told me to re-heat his plate and give him some more ham. I did both. My wife shook her head.
When Mike was nearly through the food, he looked at my wife and said, “I guess these potatoes are all right, for not having any gravy.”
She laughed and apologized with sarcasm and I said, “We like our potatoes that way, Mike.”
He didn’t respond. But finished his plate.
After he had a few more pulls of rum, I told Mike I would take him anywhere in the city he wanted to go. He asked that I take him back to the corner store.
When we got there he said he needed a few dollar bills. I gave him the change in my cup holder. He counted it before getting out, thanked me for dinner, shut my truck door and settled beneath that pay phone.
Driving home alone I felt surprised at the way Mike had acted. But I let it go. My wife and I even laughed about it over leftovers.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.