The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta. Zero Mile is a series of sometimes fictionalized and sometimes real stories based on life in Atlanta, Georgia.
By Nicki Salcedo, contributor
Mandy had trained her eyes not to look. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She did. She cared about the orphan babies in Somalia. She cared about the war-ravaged places in Syria. She donated to Planned Parenthood and dog rescue groups and environmental organizations. She wanted to save the world. That was her problem.
She was farsighted. She couldn’t see things up close. At her feet, she stepped over a discarded chicken wing. The bone held too much meat. The handy work of a child or an unhungry person. A grown person or someone starving would have left behind a fossil.
Mandy ignored the skeletons in her path and noticed the sky. Crystal blue after the rain. A moment when the air was free of pollen. She could see the moon hanging in the middle of the daylight sky. Beautiful Atlanta. If you looked up. If you looked far away.
She walked toward Piedmont Park. She walked along the trail into Freedom Park. She never walked toward the bridge. There was a world her eyes couldn’t see.
She could try to save the world while ignoring her neighborhood. There were orphan babies much closer than Somalia and Syria. On Spring Street.
There was a man on Monroe who needed everything. Food or money were the least of his needs. He needed a better history and another gene pool and different addictions.
Mandy was addicted to Target’s clearance rack and Facebook games. She loved Words with Friends and Travel Scrabble and coupons to DSW. She was addicted to her boyfriend Chuck. His goodness was infectious and soothing when her emotions turned to rage. She refused to think about those people near her, a block away. People starving and hurting.
The man under the bridge was addicted to rage and hunger. He was addicted to twilight places the drugs created in his mind. The drugs silenced his hunger and rage. The drugs brought the moon closer. He could touch it. Not many people could.
Mandy couldn’t touch the moon. She liked the distance it kept.
The man under the bridge liked fire. It cooked food, brought fellowship, and forced other creatures of the night away. He was invisible. Mandy worried about whales, but not the man under the bridge across the street from where she lived.
It was easier to think of places far away. Made it easier to sleep.
The man under the bridge slept during the day and woke up in the afternoon.
Mandy tried. She sometimes bought fast food for a woman who panhandled near the university. Some people would always be homeless. Not everyone could be re-housed or wanted a house. Mandy heard this from a friend who was a lawyer.
“Some homeless people are transitionally homeless. They are without a home, but they want and need a home. They were kicked out or went bankrupt and aren’t meant for the streets. Other people are always going to be homeless. You can give them four walls, but they won’t be contained. Either the drugs or mental health issues interfere with them being housed permanently.”
Mandy wanted to believe that every broken thing could be fixed.
The man under the bridge fixed things. He fixed his shopping cart. He had a bin for cooking. He had a bucket for everything else. He carried bags filled with things to be traded or used. He had more than he needed because he never knew what he might need on any given binge or night. He carried his life everywhere. Bridges were the best part. Shelter from rain and sun and eyes. He fixed his life into a shopping cart. He could set a fire easily. Nature isn’t always away from the city. Nature was anywhere outside. Even under the highway. An urban cave filled with wildlife. Rodents of unusual size.
Mandy loved “The Princess Bride” and movies with fairy tale endings.
The man under the bridge had happiness. It wasn’t fair to think his life bad, because the masses couldn’t understand it. He knew jokes. He could laugh. His life was always some hazy variation of its current form. There wasn’t a specific moment when everything changed. He’d been guided since his youth by fire. Cigarette smoke, barbeque pits, and laced joints. He gravitated toward heat.
He lived in a city defined by fire. His Atlanta. He didn’t like the heat, fire, or smoke. But he was used to the ash.
She had never noticed the flames before. Until this week.
Mandy watched the fire burning beneath I-85. She couldn’t look away. The smoke signaled to her. She was drawn to it. Her life lacked heat some days. She watched ash fall from the sky like charred snowflakes. As the smoke cleared so did her vision. There was the man. There were others like him. It was wrong to ignore them.
In the Ozarks. In Appalachia. In the cities. In suburbs watching their kids play baseball. Under bridges.
She had turned her eyes away, but now the smoke brought her back. She gazed over the city. There were bridges everywhere. She tried to squint to get a better view.
Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the backroads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. Zero Mile stories will appear on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.