Admittedly, as kids we never knew how cruel we were to you. We called you Limpo; I guess it was because of the limp in your walk, but I never took the time to find out. Everyone called you Limpo. Your nappy hair covered by settled dust as you dragged your carcass feet over the feeder roads and watched through the corner of your bruised eye as trucks thundered past you. The scent of decaying flesh from your unwashed body dotted with boils; the contrast of the ashy, sun-dried callouses on your dark skin; the faded and stained, dirty, baggy shirt, with holes that we called bullet wounds. Even your dark jeans pants bore the scars of your daily struggle as your left hand reached down to keep it from falling off exposing the what no imagination or doctor ever dared to explore.
We were kids; we didn’t know we were being cruel when we referenced you in our conversation as we sat on the picnic table at the market. You lay lonely and invisible, sprawled in drunken stupor beside the trashcans as the hustle and bustle of the rushing commuters and workers kept the garbage in constant overflow. You think he’s dead?, one of us asked. No, he might be sleeping, said another. I dare you to go poke him with a stick, I told one of the kids. We laughed at your sudden jolt when a plastic Coke bottle fell off the top of the pile of garbage and landed on your face. You’re going to be like that when you grow up, one of us said to another. Yeah, that’s your uncle, I said to someone. No, it’s not. He’s not even in my family, replied the person. Yes, he is your uncle, and you will be like him when you grow up. And someone else chimed in, You’re going to marry a female version of that.
Don’t call him Limpo, said my sister one day. We had arrived early for church and saw you digging through the garbage outside for food or plastic bottles or whatever other treasure that kept you alive. His name is Glen. Glen Zelaya, she explained. His sister and I went to high school together. He wasn’t always like that, you know. He used to be a soldier. He was a captain or a lieutenant, a very high-ranking person. It was incomprehensible for me to grasp at your previous life. I stared at your humped back and your slow but strained movements and could not see a soldier. Somewhere in your memory there was the echo of a former successful life, but you hid it behind the vile creature I saw you for. So how did he get to be like that? I asked my sister. It was drugs, she said, it ruined his life. And it will ruin your life too, no matter how successful you become, she replied.
One Sunday night, my dad took my older brother and I to church. Barely anyone ever attended Sunday night service, but we still took at seat at the back. As we stood singing hymns (or rather I was trying to keep up with the confusing lines), you came in and sat two pews in front of us. My brother and I looked at each other and started giggling. We found it amusing that you would contaminate this holy, white-walled sanctuary. After a little while, you must have thought it disrespectful to sit while everyone else was standing because you stood up and clapped out of rhythm to the song. Your clap didn’t make any noise, and your sway was barely noticeable, but it didn’t make you any less obvious. We saw that your pants had twine in place of a belt and it wasn’t doing its job because your butt-crack was showing. My brother and I could not stop giggling and we tried to control ourselves, but you made it worse when you reached to the back and scratched; I can’t remember how we survived without making a scene, but my dad shot us glances that kept us in check.
One Sunday afternoon just after church, while sitting outside on a picnic table with a friend from our youth group, I saw you walk past the gate and head for the church door. Everyone was still mingling inside, but the pastor came out and told you something. From his hand gestures, I could tell that he was asking you to leave. You turned around and walked back toward the gate; then you lost it! You began cursing, You motherfucking motherfucker! Fuck all of you! And you continued until you were out of sight.
That was all you could articulate, but I knew exactly what you meant.
You were always in the neighborhood, somewhere, and everywhere. It seemed that for years you were a part of the neighborhood, like the tall tree next to the park that we all thought was haunted, or the hill behind the primary school that was our hangout. You would always be seen digging into garbage or walking with an unrelenting odor that isolated you from everyone. I saw you as I walked to school, or when I rode to a friend’s house, or on some errand or the other.
You eventually fell into obscurity, years later when we were all entering adulthood and living in our own tormented realities. No one noticed that you were gone and the neighborhood soon gathered its own string of drunkards and drug addicts. Out with the old, and in with the new, as they say. I finally asked a friend one day, Hey, so what happened to Limpo? I’m not sure why my curiosity was piqued that day, but it was. It could be that I saw some other homeless guy scrounging around; or maybe it was the smell of a garbage truck passing. I heard he went missing, and that maybe he’s dead.That was all.
In my mid-twenties, something sparked my curiousity again and I decided I’d google your name. Sure enough, in the online archives of a local news station, there was a report dated September 13, 2006. It said that you went missing from a mental institution from July 26 of that year, and your family was appealing to the public for assistance. They asked your sister what her biggest fear was, she replied, I just hope that he’s still alive.
I’m sure everyone has shrugged their shoulders and felt at least a tinge of regret for the cruelty we issued as we grew up. However, one childhood memory still plays in my head.
One day during the summer while five or six of us were riding our bikes around the walkway, we decided that it would be fun to see your reaction if we frightened you. You were walking to a destination that we couldn’t care any less for, and you kept a steady pace while minding your own business, but you couldn’t escape us making you our business. We rode up behind you and all yelled at the same time causing you to fall on the ground with a loud thud and then shake with fear as we rode off. I remember one kid stopping and taking a look back at you, lost in the transition from bullying to pity. I can’t imagine what he saw; maybe it’s the look of pain and loneliness on your face, spelled out so clearly that just us blind kids could not see. I wish I were the boy who looked back. He made his peace that day.