Laura noticed him as she approached the ducks. He didn’t belong here in the fashion-conscious business district. His pink polyester shirt and worn pants would have clashed anywhere. His pants were at least one size too large, while his large arms stretched the fabric of his shirt sleeves. But he wasn’t homeless, or at least she didn’t think so: he was clean. Although he could use a hair cut and beard trim.
The other picnic tables were all crowded. He was sitting alone; she sat across from him. She considered going elsewhere, but it was rare that she got to eat outside the office. For once, her clients weren’t demanding her attention, so she’d grabbed a falafel sandwich at the Greek deli and headed to the ducks. No, not a duck pond, but statues near a set of picnic tables in a tiny park. None of the mess of actual ducks, but a pleasant retreat from her normal bustle.
It was even warm enough to eat outside. That was unusual for December, although perhaps not as unusual as when she was growing up. Snow was not likely this far south, but she remembered waking up to frosty Christmas mornings as a child. At least, she was warm enough in her sweater. The man must be uncomfortable in just his shirt.
Laura approached the table and asked “Mind if I join?” He shook his head. She sat and began eating.
She felt awkward sitting there without talking and said, “Hi. I’m Laura. We’re being awfully quiet.”
“Who are you?”
“I am so glad to have escaped from the office. It’s rare that I make it out into the fresh air. Isn’t it nice here?”
He frowned as if he might disagree, paused with his brow creased, then said, “Yes! You’re right. It is nice to be out here in the fresh air.”
She grinned and with her voice slightly lowered said, “So, you can tell me. Where are you escaping from?”
He stiffened and glared. “I didn’t escape. They released me!” He stood to leave.
Laura was confused. “Wait! I just meant what would you be doing if you weren’t out in the fresh air? I’d be at a desk helping people manage their money.”
Ralph continued to glare. “This morning I was in a medium security prison. I was released today.”
Laura spluttered, “Oh God! I’m so sorry. My friends say I have a gift for sticking my foot in my mouth. I had no idea; please don’t leave.”
“I thought you guessed from the clothes.”
“I noticed them, but no. And here I’ve pried into what isn’t my business. Is that what you wore inside?”
Ralph sat down, although he was wound tight as if he might spring up at any moment. “No. They give you whatever they have on-hand when you are released. They must get donations from a thrift store or something.”
“So what are your plans? Where are you going to live? To work?”
“Damn, lady, you’re good with that foot. I guess that was an accidental barb too?”
“Oh! I’m sorry. I just thought you would have some plans. Is there something safer to talk about?”
He laughed bitterly. “Ah, hell, might as well tell someone. It’s not like I’ll ever see you again. I thought I had it all worked out. My friend was going to give me a place to stay. He’d give me a reference, and we had even lined up a few places I could apply for work.”
“Well, what he didn’t tell me is that he hadn’t asked his girlfriend,” Ralph said. “The first I heard of that was a couple of months ago when he said that he was running into trouble convincing her I’d be a good house guest.”
“Did he win her over?”
“Not as you’d notice. He wrote me a week ago to let me know that she insisted he drop all contact with me. She didn’t want to worry about someone unsafe in his life. He was sure I could work something out because he knew I was resourceful and dedicated.”
Laura gulped. What do you say to something like that? she thought. She had no idea how she should feel, but wanted to show concern and interest. “That’s horrible. How do you feel?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“That’s big. I have no idea how I’d feel if that was dropped on me. I mean I know I wouldn’t be happy, but...”
“Yeah, I don’t know either. It’s just another thing. Just another way I don’t matter.”
“Of course you matter!” she said.
“To who? You?”
“Yeah! You didn’t know I even existed before you sat down. An hour from now you’ll have forgotten me.”
Laura didn’t have anything to say to that. He was right that she just met him. She had heard that life after prison was challenging, but hadn’t thought about why before now. “Would it help to talk over options and see if you can find something? Perhaps you can show your friend that yes, you are resourceful.”
Ralph laughed again. “No, it won’t help, but we can try.”
“So, can you live at a halfway house?”
“They all have months-long waiting lists. Not like they are safe or clean either.”
“I know it isn’t great, but what about looking into the homeless shelters until you find a job?”
“I’ll do what I have to do. It won’t look good for my parole officer to find out I’m homeless.”
Laura continued to propose options. She was pleased he genuinely wanted to find a solution. She was disappointed that they didn’t find anything particularly useful before she needed to return to work.
As she collected her trash to leave, Ralph looked at her with curiosity. “You didn’t even ask if I did it!”
“Did what?” Laura asked in confusion.
“If I was guilty.”
Laura turned back from the trash can to face him. “It never crossed my mind. It’s not supposed to matter once you’re done, is it?”
Ralph shook his head in bewilderment.
Laura spent the afternoon thinking about her encounter over lunch. She wanted to tell someone. Her opportunity came when she wondered past the break room and spotted Paul from her department. As she entered, her friend Linda came into sight by the coffee pot.
Laura had just finished her description of the events at the ducks. “The thing that frustrates me most,” Laura said, “is how powerless I was.”
“What do you mean?” Paul asked.
“There was nothing I could do to help him. You’re supposed to do your time and get a second chance. It’s like he’s come out and all they will sell him is bad debt. Even though both of us knew what was going on, we couldn’t fix it!”
“Yeah, the prison system is broken,” Linda said. “There’s nothing one person can do against something that big.”
“But I couldn’t even help him. Ignore the bigger problem. I can’t even help one man!”
“You talked with him like he mattered,” Linda said. “That probably helped.”
“There should be more.”
“Laura, it’s not like you could just take him home,” Paul said.
Laura blinked. “You know ... I didn’t even think of that.”
“Because that would be crazy!”
“It could end badly.”
Laura raised her hands against the onslaught. “Relax. I’m not saying I would. I just didn’t even think—” She took a deep breath. “Although, seriously. It’s risky. But if I took up sky diving, you’d think I was brave and eccentric.”
“I don’t know about eccentric. I think that would be kind of cool,” Paul said.
“OK, fine. You wouldn’t think I was crazy. Why would bringing Ralph to my house for a few days be so unthinkable?”
“Your reputation matters,” Linda said. “People would think you were impulsive and emotional. You need to appear steady and rational. It would undermine your credibility.”
“What Linda said. You might get killed and raped,” Paul said.
“I’m not sure I like having my life decided by what other people think of me,” Laura said.
“It’s the world we live in,” Linda responded.
Laura wasn’t so sure she’d accept such a world, although it wasn’t as if she’d actually done anything to fight it.
Beyond the incident itself, she couldn’t get Ralph out of her mind. He was so strong, but closed off in a defensive shell. Most of his words had been barbs designed to drive people away. She didn’t think he rejected people so much as feared their judgments. She wondered what he’d be like if she could crack his shell—what he’d be like if his inner strength could break through that defensive perimeter.
Morbidly, she researched his chances that evening. She realized that if she wanted to see him again, she knew where to look: around 80% of convicts ended up in prison again within six months. Though, there were probably a lot of Ralphs in the state system, if that was his real name. The only good news, if it could be called that, is that she doubted his parole officer would care much if he ended up in a shelter. If anything, the officer would probably be surprised if he didn’t.
.... There is more of this story ...