He said his name was Preston as he shook my hand.
We found ourselves sitting next to each other on a bench in a Catholic Charities office in a small mountain town. I was there to ask for a gas voucher so I could leave, and he was there to…I wasn’t quite sure why he was there.
He was repacking his bag, a stylish piece of carry-on luggage, when I arrived. I didn’t want to crowd him, but seating was limited, so I took the spot next to him.
He opened the conversation by asking me if I wanted some lotion. I bought myself some man lotion, he told me proudly while showing me the grey tube. Do you want this one they gave me? He offered me a pink tube. I politely declined, while wondering who “they” were.
He turned around and offered the lady lotion to the woman sitting in the row behind us. She too politely declined. Ok, I’ll just keep it, he said with certainty.
He and the woman behind him were having a conversation about something she said was going to get bigger. They talked as if the creature in question was in the room with us.
I had one, the woman said. I worked at a pet store when I was younger. It was six feet long, not including the tail.
What in the world? I wondered as I furtively looked over to see if he had a snake (is a specific part of a snake considered its tail?) or (Heaven forbid!) a rat. I understood the conversation was about an animal, but where was the animal? I turned almost all the way around in my seat and saw the woman was holding a beautiful, colorful, nearly iridescent lizard. The lizard, it turned out, belonged to Preston.
He’d recently bought the lizard from Pet Smart, he said. The lizard’s name was Horus. Preston said he had a cat too. The cat’s name was Isis. If he were to have a child one day, Preston said, he would name the child Zeus.
I said Zeus would be a pretty serious name to give a child. Those would be mighty big shoes to fill, I said.
Preston told me he did believe in the gods of Mount Olympus. He believed in all the gods. Some people would tell us, he said, that there was only one god, but I shouldn’t believe them because it wasn’t true.
I thought maybe he shouldn’t say such things while we sat in the lobby of the Catholic Charities office. It was true I hadn’t been Catholic in a long time, but I was pretty sure the Catholic faith was still holding on to the “one God” idea. I let the guy talk, however. It wasn’t my place to shush him.
We didn’t know who made us, Preston continued. We were all different. We were all made of different soil.
He didn’t seem to want my conversational input, so mostly I just listened.
The gentleman doing the screenings for travelers’ aid came out of the office and summoned the couple which included the woman who was holding Horus the lizard. She took the two steps necessary to hand the lizard to Preston.
Just put him on my back, Preston said, and she did.
So here I was, in the lobby of the Catholic Charities office, sitting next to a middle age African-American man wearing a baby blue Western shirt with ornate black decorative stitching over a grey t-shirt and carrying a fairly large lizard on his back. What an extraordinary world we live in!
Preston told his story in bits and pieces.
He’d been living on a nearby mountain, but his camp had been discovered by a very polite ranger. The ranger thought Preston’s camp of two tents (one for sleeping—he had a foldable futon mattress—and one for storage) was nicely done, but he said Preston had to move. Preston was going to move into the forest, and he said he was going to go far back into the trees where no one would ever find him.
It seemed like maybe this was where the Catholic Charities came into Preston’s life. Maybe someone from the organization was going to give him a ride to his new camping spot. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the Catholic Charities, he said, but he didn’t anyone to know where he was staying.
I told him it was supposed to get cold in two days, highs only in the mid-40s with a 70% chance of rain and possibly snow. (I’d seen the weather forecast, and this impending storm was the reason I wanted to leave not just my camping spot but the whole town.)
Preston wasn’t worried. He said camping among the trees would be a lot warmer than where he was currently set up on the mountain. The trees warmed the air, he said. Being under the trees was particularly warm, he said. He thought the fibers in the needles and leaves warmed the air. In the old days, he told me, before there were blankets, people covered themselves with leaves or hay to stay warm. He didn’t know exactly how it worked, but that’s what people did before blankets.
I said I thought the leaves or hay or needles held in a person own body heat to keep the person warm, and Preston allowed that might be the case.
I was most concerned for Horus the lizard. Even if it was warmer under the trees, the mid-40s was pretty cold for a lizard. How was he going to stay warm in a tent if the temperature dropped?
Preston’s biggest concern seemed to be the fact that the ranger had told him he could not have a charcoal fire. Preston’s plan for dinner had involved frying ham over hot coals. Now that plan was out, and I could tell he was disappointed. He had a plan B, however, which involved a can of tuna fish he’d been given.
He’d also been give bus passes, and he was going to ride the bus today, although he hated the bus. People talked too loud on the bus, he said. (Preston himself had a booming voice that rang against the walls of the drab waiting room.) People on the bus cursed for no reason, he said. Of course, he admitted, he cursed too, but not like the people on the bus who cursed for no reason. He was sorry if he had offended me with his cursing, he said. Did you curse? I asked. I didn’t even notice, which was the truth.
People on the bus also laughed for no reason, Preston told me. They’d start laughing and would just keep going and going. Maybe the laughers were on drugs, he allowed. He smoked some weed, he admitted, but it didn’t make him laugh like the people on the bus did.
It’s better to laugh than to cry, I interjected.
No! Preston said with conviction. It’s better to cry! Crying released emotion, he said and that made the person crying feel better.
He didn’t like the bus, he continued, but today he was going to take the bus because he was tired. He had to break camp in the next couple of days. It was going to be easier to carry his belongings down the mountain than it had been to haul them up, but it was still going to be a lot of work. Before he left, he had to scatter the rocks he’d used to demarcate his camp because the ranger had told him to make the area look like he’d never been there. He was going to haul the rocks to the edge of the hill, then push them over the edge so they could roll to the bottom.
The gentleman doing the screening for travelers’ aid came out of the office, and it was my turn to go in. I said good-bye to Preston, and we wished each other well. Horus the lizard was still clinging to Preston’s back.
What an extraordinary world we live in!