Faux wool blanket, knitted winter cap, puffer jacket, oversized hoodie, denim jeans, long underwear, a pair of high-top sneakers, two pairs of socks, a pair of oven mitts: layers swathing me in merciful warmth. It was January in Chicago, and this was my protection from the skin-cracking, blood-freezing, soul-suspending cold.

It was an abandoned house on the West Side. Dirty needles, spoons blotted with burn stains, and empty pocket bottles were strewn about. Urine stains and graffiti decorated the drywall. An empty rat trap lay in a corner. I had taken a cardboard box from an alley dumpster and flattened it for a mattress, laid it on the vinyl floor of the gutted kitchen. There I lay with hands upon my chest, like a corpse before a ritual burial, as dawn seeped into my textile cocoon.

I had dreamt of college, and images still lingered in my consciousness. Images not of friends or girlfriends or parties or classes, but of this homeless man my friends and I called “Moses” for his long white beard. He would shelter in the public libraries and read, occasionally rounding to upend chair cushions in search of lost change, diligently putting them back in their right place. He always wore a black winter jacket, even in summer, and reeked of cheap cigarettes. The old man never said a word, never interacted with students, never asked anyone for anything. But he was always around, like a vagrant ghost.

Something about Moses revealed a trace of dignity, I realized as I lay on my cardboard. His methods were nonviolent, innocuous, inoffensive. My life, having devolved into a cycle of blurry highs and nauseating withdrawals, was devoid of any such self-respect. I guzzled hand sanitizer to get drunk, sold my body to get high, became a criminal, destroyed friendships, abandoned my family. Now I had no money, no oxys, no alcohol, no food, no home. A slave to the cravings, I was subhuman, revering nothing.

Remembering Moses, it seemed I had fallen as far below him as he was below me before I dropped out of college, when his presence disgusted and angered me. I never imagined I’d find myself on the other side of that vast social chasm, neck-deep in a sea of degradation.

I took off the blanket and all the precious heat built up throughout the night vanished in a breath. The cold was needles in my fingertips, clamps on the joints. Gusts howled menacingly through broken windows. When the wind chill dropped to -30 or -40 (and it always did at some point in winter) I knew it could be me next. It would only take minutes before the cells in my fingers and seven remaining toes would freeze and rupture, turn necrotic black.

It reminded me of this guy I knew who got hypothermia so bad he started to undress on the street, mumbling to himself and fumbling around. When spring came his body was found deep under a porch, the rot setting in. He had burrowed there to die. Maybe the cold was the universe trying to kill me too, was going to finish the job that crushed oxys couldn’t do.

Hunger pains encroached, so I decided to leave and face the suppressing cold. I donned my N95 to shield my nose and cheeks and replaced my oven mitts with latex dish gloves, then rode my bike to Little Italy. There was a university there and to the west a medical center. Maybe surviving like Moses was my way out of the abyss.



 David Gershan


David works as a clinical psychologist in Chicago. When not at his day job, he can be found spending time with his wife and son and indulging in his love for creative writing. David has published short fiction and poetry in various literary magazines. He has also written articles for an award-winning mental health blog.



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