I was eleven years old, living in a brown and beige two-bedroom apartment with my mother when I saw the homeless man sitting on a park bench. His clothes were wrinkled and dirty and his hair was greasy and matted in the back. He had a shopping cart full of stuff.
When I passed, he nodded at me.
After that, I saw him everywhere: Standing on the sidewalk across from the school. Pushing his cart down Main Street. Loitering at the gas station. Leaning up against the Dollar General, eating giant pickles.
Once I got in a fight with my mom and ran out of the apartment and rode my bike through the field behind our building down a path into some trees, and there was the homeless man, sitting on the ground outside a tent.
“Want a pickle?” he asked me.
“No thanks,” I said.
I walked toward him and dug my hand into my jeans pocket and held out a wad of money.
“What is it?” he asked.
“The rest of my allowance,” I said.
“Keep your money,” he said. “I’ve got enough.”
“But you’re homeless,” I said.
And he didn’t say anything.
“Well, I guess I’ll go home,” I said, and I turned around and began to walk my bike out through the trees.
I came back the next day, and he told me about monarch butterflies.
“For three generations,” he said, “the monarch butterfly has its normal life cycle. The egg hatches, out comes a caterpillar. It crawls around, goes into a cocoon, comes out a butterfly. Migrates north a little ways, stops and lays its eggs, dies. This goes on for three generations.
“Then, out comes the super generation. The eggs hatch, out come the caterpillars. They crawl around and eat. They get in their cocoons and change into butterflies. But these guys fly south. They fly all the way back to where the first generation started.”
“Oh,” I said.
“How do they know where to go? No one knows,” he said. “They’re just destined to do it. It’s who they are. And you know what? I’m like those monarchs. I’m part of the super generation. All my folks three generations back were born and raised and married and had jobs and kids in the same town. But me, I didn’t get married. Didn’t get a job. Didn’t have kids. That’s because I’m destined to take a journey.”
“Where are you going to go?” I asked.
“I don’t know yet. But I feel my destiny inside me, telling me when to go, telling when to stay. Telling me when
to turn right, when to turn left.”
“So did your destiny tell you to come here?” I asked him.
“Yep. And I’m waiting,” he said
“Waiting for what?”
“Waiting for my destiny to tell me to move on.”
“So…like… a voice in your head…or what?”
He turned away and looked at the trees.
“I plead the fifth,” he said. “Do you know what that means?”
“What are they teaching kids in school these days?” he said.
“’I plead the fifth’ means you don’t answer a question because it could incriminate you. Do you know what ‘incriminate’ means?”
I said yes, though I didn’t really know what it meant.
I came back the next day after school and told him all about my class and a big science project I had to do and all the different lunch tables and about the arguments I had with my mom.
The next day I came back again and told him all about where we used to live—in a two-story house on a cul-de-sac with an aboveground pool—and how I had a father and a brother named Matthew who lived four hours away—and how I’d only seen them twice in the past six months.
A few days later I came back and told him about my dad’s new girlfriend, and how he made me talk to her on the phone, and about how my science project was due the next day and I hadn’t even started on it.
He nodded his head and said, “Mmhmm, that’s just the sort of thing I’m trying to get away from. All of society’s expectations. I wasn’t going to tell you this,” he continued, “but I’m leaving tomorrow morning at dawn. I saw the monarchs flying south, and it was the sign I’ve been waiting for.”
I didn’t say anything, but I knew what I was going to do. I packed a bag that night. Two changes of clothes. My stash of snacks. All the money I had. A water bottle. My house key, just in case. I set my alarm for 6 am, half hour before my mom would wake up. I got up and crept out of the house with my backpack. Walked down the trail into the woods. Saw the man there, packing up his tent.
“Destiny is speaking to me too. I’m part of the super generation, too,” I told him.
We didn’t get far. By midmorning, we were discovered by police in a park in a park in the next town, sitting on a bench, eating pickles.
They arrested the man right there.
They put me in the back seat of a police car and drove me to the station.
Then I saw my mom and she was crying.
For months, I asked my mom about the homeless man—whether he was ok—whether he’d gotten in trouble—and insisted on his innocence. She would say, “Could we please just forget about that sick man?”
But I never forgot about him. Every year when I see the monarchs flying south, I think of him and cry, and pray that his destiny has led him to a safe place.
BIO: Jessamyn is a writer and musician living with her husband and four children in Walden, Tennessee.