Gary wagged his finger, motioning for me to follow him down the creek bank. He was missing a few teeth, stood at least six-foot tall and scrawny. He wore a camouflage baseball hat and blue jeans. It was right in the thick of summer, so the lush foliage completely veiled the creek’s edges. I was walking three dogs, but I still wasn’t following him down that bank.
He said he had planted a tomato plant. He wanted me to see it. The amateur gardener in me wanted to see what he managed to grow along a creek, but the 125-pound pragmatist wasn’t moving off the greenway’s paved trail. I shook my head. He flinched. I didn’t trust him, and it hurt his feelings. I felt a keen sense of guilt, said goodbye as kindly as possible and kept walking.
I’d known Gary for over a year when he asked me to see his plants. When I say “know,” I mean I saw him on the Springfield Greenway where I walked my dogs. The greenway connects three city parks and runs two miles in each direction. There was no way to avoid him because he parked his green Ford pick-up truck, dented bumper and smashed-out taillight, next to the baseball field at Travis Price Park. He pulled it onto the grass between two picnic tables, where a patch of trees offered shade. He stayed in the same spot from morning to night. It didn’t take long to figure out he lived out of his truck.
At some point we had started waving to each other. Then he had introduced himself, and we greeted each other by name, but that was as far as I wanted our relationship to go. Sometimes being too nice to a bum can get a girl in trouble, and I reminded myself about that very fact when I felt guilty about keeping my distance.
But for whatever reason, he wanted my trust, and he wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Multiple times he waited for me next to the trail with a gift in his hands. His body language, shoulders hunched, a shy and hesitant smile on his face, reminded me of the way young dogs get as low to the ground as possible when they greet pack leaders. Gary wanted to convey he wasn’t a threat.
One time he handed me a daisy, a wild one picked from the field across from the steel bridge. It matched the tattoo on my forearm. Another time he gave me tomatoes from his plants, then wild blackberries, then bananas and a marijuana bud wrapped in a cellophane wrapper from a pack of smokes. Close to Thanksgiving, he gave me a ten-pound frozen turkey.
“Where did you get this?” I asked. I’d never been gifted a frozen turkey before, and I really had no idea how to respond.
“From the getting place,” he answered.
Most of the time Gary’s attention made me feel strangely flattered and uncomfortable all at once. But, there were also moments it made me downright uneasy because it bordered on creepy. He knew too much about my movements. He mentioned when I missed days or when I walked three dogs instead of four. Even though I parked almost one mile away from him, he knew the color of my Honda and whether I was running early or late.
Sometimes, I walked through the historic district in town and avoided the greenway altogether because I didn’t want to see Gary. I didn’t want his gifts. I didn’t want him noticing days I missed or how many dogs I walked. And I especially didn’t want to feel guilty about not being nicer to him.
As time went on, more and more people I knew became friends with Gary. He was the kind of person who attracted a crowd. Mr. Dennis, the park’s maintenance man, spent a few minutes on his morning rounds chatting with him, so did a local politician. An avid biker named Barry occasionally ate lunch with him on sunny afternoons. Eventually, I learned Gary sold eight-ounce bags of weed, which explained why he attracted such an eclectic crowd. A pot dealer is everybody’s best friend in a state where it’s still illegal. Even with his popularity, I stood my ground and kept my distance.
But, one day my feelings about Gary changed, and they changed within seconds. He was standing next to the paved path, just like he did when he had a gift. In his hand, his callused, dirt-creased hand, sat an orange longhaired kitten. For the first time since I met him, I walked straight up to him. I didn’t think about the reasons why I shouldn’t. I couldn’t because that adorable kitten overrode all my instincts. Like a beagle on a scent, I couldn’t reason.
“Who is this?” I asked. The kitten’s eyes were emerald green, his nose as pink as a puppy’s tongue.
“This here is Jensen,” he said.
“Jensen,” I repeated.
The name settled comfortably between us.
“Where did you find him?”
“He found me,” he said.
I was standing closer to Gary than I’d ever been before. I smelled the booze on his breath, saw his cloudy, red-rimmed eyes, the broken blood vessels across his cheeks. This man had a disease. He was an alcoholic and had been for years. That’s probably why he lived in his truck and sold drugs at the park. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was Gary had rescued a kitten. It was all the proof I needed about his character.
From that day forward, Jensen never left Gary’s side. He acted more like a dog than a cat and followed Gary to the bathroom, the picnic tables, and even to the creek bank to check on the tomato plants. When Gary was busy with his acquaintances, the kitten played with walnuts and sticks and dandelions. He chased butterflies. He snoozed on the Ford’s hood or in the bed or under a tire during the summer. In the fall and winter, he slept inside the cab. When it was really cold, Gary pulled out of his shady spot so Jensen could sun himself on the dash.
As Jensen grew into a cat, my relationship with Gary grew into a friendship. On the rare occasion when he wasn’t parked by the baseball field, I worried and asked if he was okay as soon as I saw him. He never told me where he went, but he beamed when he heard my concern.
I met his closet friends, like Crazy Lou, Sniffer Johnson, and CB. They were all poor, unemployed, uneducated, and harmless. They all told stories of family drama, legal woes, and disabilities. Yet, they made me feel like a welcome part of a clique I never even knew I wanted to join in the first place. It became a ritual that when I passed them, they would all wave and holler my name. And right there in the middle of it all was Jensen. For the year he lived at the greenway, he became the park mascot.
I saw Gary and Jensen for one of the last times on July 4th. People were gathering at the park for Springfield’s fireworks display. It was early evening. Since it was a holiday, Gary’s crowd was bigger than normal. Like always, the group waved and yelled when they saw me. Either Gary or Crazy Lou or CB offered me a hotdog they were grilling on a hibachi. I passed on their generous offer because I was in a hurry. I wanted to get my pack walked before the fireworks started. Nearby, a group of strangers were setting up lawn chairs.
“Are they bothering you?” they asked.
“Bothering me? They’re my friends,” I said. And I realized it was true. Gary was my friend, and it was all because of Jensen.
Later that week somebody, maybe the people from the July 4th festivities, complained about the rowdy crowd hanging out at Travis Price Park. One afternoon as I crested the berm leading to the baseball field, I saw five Springfield City police cars surrounding Gary’s truck. When I inquired, the cops motioned for me to keep moving. The next day I found Gary’s mugshot online. He had been arrested for public intoxication and possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. I called local shelters, but nobody knew anything about Jensen.
I didn’t hear a word for two weeks. In those two weeks, I looked for Jensen every day, twice a day. Finally, I ran into Crazy Lou. She said Jensen had “done time” in the dog pound while Gary was in the slammer. She said it had been funny as hell to watch those cops wrangle Jensen. It took them hours. Gary and Jensen had finally been released and reunited, but both were banned from the park for “infinity.”
I was thrilled they were together again. After all, they only had each other. But I also felt a keen sense of sadness because I’d never see them again. For me, their relationship was an everyday reminder about the purity of an animal’s love. Animals don’t recognize social class or material wealth. All that matters to them is how good a person is on the inside. I imagine that for Jensen living with a bum in a truck was the best life he’d ever known.
It’s been almost two years since I last saw Gary and Jensen, and I still think about them when I pass their empty parking spot. At first, the park felt so lonely I occasionally walked through town just so I didn’t have to see that empty spot. I often thought about how ironic it was that I used to walk in town to avoid Gary. After Crazy Lou told me about the “infinity” ban, I started checking on Gary’s tomato plants. They thrived for months. Then one week it rained so hard the creek flooded and washed them away.