I heard him yelling as I ate breakfast.
“Help! Won’t anyone come out and help me?” I looked out the window and saw a tall man with feathered blonde hair and large sunglasses standing on the sidewalk across the street. He reached out, trying to find something, anything, to guide him.
I wish that I went outside without thinking twice—that my kneejerk reaction wasn’t skepticism. I’d moved to Fresno and into this house two years earlier. The small, sprawling city lies at the heart of California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. With high rates of unemployment, homelessness, and drug use, Fresno is a hotbed for theft and violence.
I’d come here for graduate school. Within two months in Fresno, a thief smashed the lock on my backyard shed and stole my bicycle, jolting my girlfriend and me awake. One year after that, someone shot the house while we were watching TV in the living room. We heard a gun shot and then found a 9mm slug lodged in the kitchen wall—about 15 feet from where we’d been sitting. I woke up one morning a week or so later to find a large kitchen knife with a chipped blade on my doorstep, menacingly pointed at the front door.
During the year following these incidents, I’d secluded myself, hiding behind the electronic net of a home security system and rarely talking to anyone in my neighborhood. When I heard the man yelling on this summer morning, I debated about whether or not I should help him, which I now feel ashamed to admit. I’d become cynical enough to actually entertain the idea that this man might be pretending to be blind and in need of help just to rob someone. But I quickly dismissed this thought by telling myself that I was being a paranoid asshole. I locked the deadbolt on my door and walked over to him.
“Hey,” I said. “You need some help?”
“Where are you?” He reached toward my voice.
“Right here.” I put my hand on his shoulder. He wore a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt and faded carpenter jeans. When he grabbed my bicep, the softness of his hand surprised me.
“My girlfriend got pissed and left me here. I just need someone to walk me to the store for a beer. Can you take me to the store?” he said, lightly squeezing my arm.
We walked down the sidewalk holding hands, past houses with chain-link fences and alarm systems, past the rundown apartment building in the middle of the block, and past a few decaying palm trees. Every so often, I’d say, “There’s a telephone pole coming up,” or, “Watch out for that fence,” pulling the man toward me.
He told me that he’d been living in this neighborhood for over 30 years. “It’s a shame—a lot of people don’t talk to each other anymore because they’re afraid.” Though it was only mid-morning, the heat was already becoming oppressive. He let go of my hand to wipe a bead of sweat from his brow with his forearm. “Everyone around here used to be a lot more friendly.”
He’d lost his sight 20 years earlier. On his way to work one day, someone in a green Cadillac had pulled up, fired a shotgun at him, and then drove away. “Lucky for me, they missed, aside from a few stray pellets.” He pushed his sunglasses down to the end of his nose, running his index finger over several small, circular scars peppered around his eyes. “I’m still not sure who it was, or why they did it. I probably just got mistaken for someone else.”
When we reached the end of the block, I stopped and said, “Hold on. There’s some cars coming.” He held my arm with both of his hands.
After we crossed the street, a woman wearing leopard-print leggings and a purple camisole walked past us. “Who’s your friend, Paul?” she asked, smiling at me.
“I’ll talk to you later, Alicia,” Paul said. Speaking under his breath, he told me what Alicia would do for $50.
Two white men, both wearing tattered, dirt-encrusted coats, stood outside the liquor store, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. One of them asked Paul if he wanted to buy anything today.
“That shit you gave me last week kept me up for three days,” Paul said, chuckling. “My buddy might want some, though.”
I told the man that I didn’t want anything as I led Paul inside, still holding his hand. The electronic sensor beeped, and the clerk, a middle-aged Hmong man wearing a baseball cap, said, “You again?” to Paul. The clerk looked at me and rolled his eyes.
Paul let go of my hand, patted my shoulder, and I told him to have a good day, wondering if I’d see him again. He said that he really appreciated the help, that I should say ‘hi’ if I saw him around, and walked toward the beer cooler. “I got it from here. Those guys outside will help me get home.”
J.J. Anselmi’s first book, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, Drugs, BMX, and Heavy Fucking Music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in January 2016.
Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Thomas Hawk