V is for Vagabond…

…which he preferred to the label of run-away. While it was true, he ran not out of malice or injustices done to him, but because he sought adventure, something new, something never tried before. He was his own man.

Jonathan Tyler had not planned to run away the first time he did. Rollo, his best and only true friend suggested his closet as a life raft, reacting to Jonathan’s anxiety over another activity forced upon him by his mother and hovering stepfather, Phillip. Jon jumped on, or rather in, never once considering the current of distress that would wash away the trusting love of his family. After four days of freedom, Rollo’s father caught him.

Phillip had no problem soundly paddling his fourteen-year-old stepson. Then he grounded him, piling on a mountain of chores and more extracurricular activities as a deterrent for wayward thinking.

Jon endured it with grim satisfaction, feeling like a vindicated Tom Sawyer.

That was six months ago.

He dumped his allowance onto his bedspread and counted it. A ticket to Sacramento would cost him the whole thing. He’d been to Sacramento twice, was pretty sure he could find his way around. Tomorrow he’d go to school, but by evening he would be on a bus. He stuffed the money into the backpack he’d hidden behind the clothes in his closet and leaped onto his bed. The mattress bounced twice. It was stupid to go without extra money, but he could not stand another day either cooped up like a trapped bird or toiling like a child laborer. He stared at the walls around him, seeing nothing, but soaking in every detail at the same time.

Most of the posters on his wall depicted mixed martial arts. On the top of his bookshelf were two trophies. One was for most improved fighter; the other was for first place as a team in a tournament. There were multiple pictures of him sparring in various events. One showed the gym in the garage that Phillip had set up. He and Phillip sparred there two or three times a week. Was he willing to give up on all of this?

He sighed. Mind made up, he went to bed.

The next evening, he stood on the corner across from the bus station in Sacramento. The view before him was nothing like he envisioned. Behind him was a parking lot. There were office buildings on the next block and a few shops across the street, all closed for the night. On the next corner was a restaurant, but he had no money for that. He could stay by the river, but there was a chilled breeze wafting off it. He could stay in the bus stop. He took a step to cross the avenue to do just that. Then he stopped. That would definitely scream run-away to anyone keeping eyes on a stray kid. He hadn’t thought this through long enough. What did he expect, arriving penniless, dumped into an urban wilderness? He walked west until he came across a police station. Then, he turned abruptly and walked the other way.

Night fell swiftly, and with it the temperature. He put his head down and paced, two blocks, three blocks, four…he lost count. It felt like he’d walked an eternity, but ahead of him a light signaled hope. A neon sign lit his way to a small apartment complex, like a green affirmation that he would be okay. A three-foot chain link fence surrounded the little group of buildings. Most were curtained and dark, but a soft night light shined in the larger building, which was, no doubt, the main lobby. He tried the doors.

Locked. Why did he expect anything else?

He explored until he found a sheltered wall between the lighted office building and a laundry facility. Hunkering between the two buildings, he spent the first night fitfully shivering in the cold.

As the sun rose and before traffic picked up, he hopped back over the fence and walked south, toward downtown where he hoped to find the Capital Mall. Along the way, he passed several restaurants before it dawned on him to check the back alleys for garbage bins. He might get lucky and find some fresh pickings. A small pub across the street was open. People entered and left with regularity. It seemed a likely place to scrounge for leftovers. He raced across the damp pavement and crept around to alley behind it.  Furtively, he looked over his shoulder. Was it illegal to steal garbage? He’d heard it was, but he didn’t know if that law applied here. However, he sure didn’t want someone turning him in because he looked young and truant.

To his delight, he found that the pub threw away their leftover food in a separate bin from the trash. Beyond the street behind the pub, across an expanse of public parking, there was a small park. Had he found his stomping grounds? Maybe. The park would be the perfect place to stake out a bench or at the very least the base of a tree. The back door latch jiggled. He grabbed a couple of rolls and ran. Heart pounding, he raced across the parking area and sprinted into the park. The he feigned calm, hoping he looked as if he was taking a morning stroll to school.

He spent the morning day dreaming and following the arc of the sun so he was always in the light. His bones started to warm up and it felt good to sit and observe, to have no responsibilities, no worries. He watched a couple, dressed as if they were homeless, raid the pub’s food dump. After observing that they came back a second time for the lunch hour, he surmised that perhaps the establishment put the food there on purpose.

Testing his theory, he crept to the bin and found half of a roast beef sandwich and some carrot sticks. He laughed when he got back to the park. He crept under the bush he’d staked out. He was eating a better lunch on the street than he was at school any day, hands down.

The pub closed at midnight, and he salivated as a final dumping of leftovers was put into the bin. Jon ran to get his share, as other homeless people were bound to take advantage of it. He skidded to a stop because a stooped older man, with very long, very gray hair and beard, wearing multiple layers of soiled clothes, stepped in front of him. The man used a walking stick and wore athletic socks over his hands. He hit the pavement with the end of the stick.

Jon yelped and backed up.

The man glared at him.

“No, of course, you first,” said Jon, bowing slightly.

The man didn’t smile, nor did he stop glaring, but he nodded and reached into the bin. He pulled out a loaf of bread, some browned apple slices, and a couple of thick pieces of ham. These he handed to Jon. Then he reached into the bin again and pulled out a half bottle of white wine. “Sometimes they leave it, sometimes they don’t,” he said. His voice was whispery, but underneath the breathiness was a lilt. “Remember to be thankful.” He winked at Jon. “Now, where are you staying? Let’s go there to eat.”

Jon said, “Uh, sure. Over there in the park. I made a nest under some bushes.”

“Sounds like a picnic to me,” said the man.

They walked across the parking lot to the little park. Jon led the man to his shelter of sorts.

They sat down. The man took the food, and divided it between them.

Jon said, “Are you sure?” The man had given him a sizable portion of the bread.

“I have all I need,” said the man.

They ate in silence. Jon furtively watched the man as he ate. He seemed thoughtful. He seemed happy. Jon was struggling with his decision to leave a warm home, a loving family. What kind of person did that?

“Why did you run?” said the man, as if he could read Jon’s mind.

“Who says I’m running?”

“What are you, fourteen, fifteen? You’re runnin’ from somethin’.”

“Maybe I am running toward something.”

The man laughed, a deep belly roar that shook his whole body. “Yeah. Well, I hope you find it. My name’s Tim. Folks call me Sailboat Tim.”

“That’s an odd name.”

“And yours is better?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s Jon, spelled J-O-N.”

“For Jonathan, like the Bible, gift of God. And so it is more important.”

“I-I-I only meant that I was curious about why they added the Sailboat to Tim,” said Jon.

“Guess folks like to tease. I’ve always wanted a sailboat, talked about it a lot in the early days of…,” he swept his arm wide as if gathering the expanse of the park in his sweep, “…this.”

Jon asked, “How long have you been doing this?”

“Long enough to know this isn’t a good place to stay the night. Vigilantes come through and run people out of the parks. We’re a safety hazard to the good folks that live in those houses and apartment buildings right over there.” He pointed to a beautifully landscaped two story building with multiple terraces. Then he pointed to a block of well-appointed office buildings. “We might break in. One never knows about vagrant folks.”

“You’re just being facetious now, right?”

“No.” Tim grimaced. “Come on. Finish eating. I know where we can sleep safely.”

They huddled together on the porch of an empty Victorian in the Oak Park region. Tim shared the only blanket he carried with him, a ratty, flea-filled wool of tatters and holes. He told Jon heartbreaking stories. Some gang banger knifed a crippled army vet while he slept under a tree in the park. The cops didn’t even investigate. A crazy old coot froze to death just a winter ago on the steps of the library downtown. Word was, he shouldn’t have been sleeping there. Tim, himself, had ended up in jail twice for raiding the garbage behind a Safeway for scraps of food. Who knew it was illegal to take food from a garbage bin behind a Safeway? Sailboat Tim had fond memories of the food he ate while he stayed in jail, though. And, he appreciated the nice blankets on the sturdy cots and the warm cells. At least while he was in the slammer, he didn’t have to worry about getting knifed or “froze to death.”

Jon smiled.

Tim’s toothless grin was kind, and his eyes were gentle.

Before dawn, a clatter of footsteps on the porch of the house awakened them.

A helmeted policeman with a bat, grabbed him by the arm. Another grabbed Tim. Together, the policemen hauled them down the steps and hoisted them into the back of a waiting van, where several other homeless people cowered on the benches. A young girl at the end was silently sobbing, the rest sat stoically, eyes averted, awaiting the trip to jail.

Jon whispered to Tim. “What now?”

“Now we sit in a cage until a lawyer secures our freedom. It will be okay. The food is great, the cots are firm and the blankets are clean and warm. Oh, and the commode is clean. That’s a big plus. They give us coffee if we want it.”

Jon must have looked horrified because Tim bumped his shoulder and said, “It’ll be okay. You’re lucky. They will call your parents. Then, you can go home where it’s safe and warm.”

Jon curled up on himself after that and hid his face.

As Tim said, the police sent Jon home to Stockton. Jail would have been preferable to his parents’ house of strict rules, scheduled time, and proper attitude. Jon had acquired a yen for freedom that no amount of discomfort could alter. Third time’s a charm, he’d always heard.

It was time to plan his next adventure.

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