Aim for the Stars
by Tom Pendergrass
I can usually tell within seconds which of the homeless men are going to be
trouble. The ones with the fruity smell of alcoholism or the missing teeth and
cracked gums of meth addiction are easy. Sometimes you can tell by the way they
look at you when you talk; some ignore you and some hold on to your words only
to spit them back at you. But John Truro was different. He didn't scare me, at
least not in the way that some of the men do. But he made me fear for my life
more than anyone I have ever known.
He came in one brutally cold night, when the police emptied the tent city under the
interstate. I didn't notice him at first; there was soup to serve and a scuffle
between one of the lifers and a newcomer. It wasn't until time for lights out in the
men's dorm that I met him.
He came to me clutching a fresh blanket in one hand and a long tube, like
architects use to hold blueprints, in the other. He was thin, with a full gray-streaked beard; but his hair was trimmed, and he didn't smell of the street.
Cleanliness is a good sign and it put me at ease.
"Do you keep a guard at night?"
That question usually leads to a threat or a pulled knife. I guess he saw my
"I have this," he said, holding up the aluminum tube. Dents and scratches marked
its surface, but it was still shiny, as if he polished it every day. "I need to protect
"I don't have a safe or anything." He didn't seem dangerous. I usually have a
good sense for these things, so I thought he was telling the truth. I wondered what
was in the tube. No telling with my clientele; they have nothing, and can become
attached to the oddest things. I guessed he had picked it up on the street
somewhere, or out of a trash bin, and imagined it was Excalibur.
He nodded like he understood me and handed me the Rescue Mission blanket. He
headed for the door.
"Wait, you can't go out there. It's below zero tonight." I reached and touched his
shoulder and could feel the protruding bones through his army surplus jacket.
He said, "There are some rough characters in here tonight. They'll try to take it."
I couldn't let him go back outside and I didn't have time to talk him down. But he
was right. When the cops roust the streets on cold nights, we get plenty of
"I can lock it in my office."
He clutched the tube tighter to his chest and shook his head. "I have to stay with
I wasn't about to let a man fresh off the street spend the night in my office. I'd
made that mistake once and it took days to clean up.
"You can stay in the pantry, I keep that locked . . . It's not comfortable."
He followed me into the room where we keep all of our food supplies, most of
them donated by overstocked grocery stores. He settled in by a case of canned
jalapenos. I handed him the blanket.
"So what's in the tube anyway?"
He thought for a second, seeming to struggle with himself. "The stars," he said.