There’s nothing that’ll inspire a dog to break his verbal leash like the smell of meat on a barbecue.
“Tawny! Come! COME!” I yelled. It was futile. My dog flew from the trail we were walking. He dashed a hundred or so yards across the park toward fragrant smoke arising from a barbecue grill. I chased after him, mentally rehearsing the profound apologies I would utter to the guy at the grill. By the time I got there, the chef was ready for me, waving a hotdog on the end of his fork.
“Is it okay to give it to him?” he asked eagerly.
“Only a small part,” I answered. “He has a delicate digestive system.”
The barbecuer, clean-cut, middle-aged, was by now petting and scratching Tawny as I surveyed the picnic area: two tables covered with all the right stuff from pickles to potato chips, but no one else around. The grill was loaded with hotdogs, chicken, ribs. A package of hamburger waited its turn. I wondered if he was preparing the feast for the high school baseball team practicing at the far end of the park.
“Who’re you cooking for?” I asked.
“Homeless people,” he said, looking me directly in the eye as he offered a paper plate with a chicken thigh, drenched in barbecue sauce.
I declined the plate but said, “My name’s Mary,” as I sat down at one of the tables. I needed to learn more. “Brandon,” he responded.
“We have something in common,” I tried as a conversation starter. “I cook for the homeless shelter in Okanogan a couple times a week when it’s open in winter.” He was neither interested nor impressed.
Our conversation took off in other directions, mostly odd and circuitous. At one point Brandon insisted we switch places because the barbecue smoke was blowing in my face. Ultimately I learned that he’d been released from jail that morning. He’d spent a couple hundred bucks on the picnic fare. I saw no vehicle nearby and wondered how he carted all that food — plus charcoal briquets — from the grocery store, a half-mile away on the other side of the river.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Wherever I am.” Okayyyyy.
“How are homeless people going to know you have all this food for them?”
“It worked last year.”
By this time Brandon was indeed getting worried that people weren’t showing up. I accepted the chicken thigh.
“Got any napkins?” as I licked my sauce-covered fingers. That’s the one item Brandon hadn’t thought of. He raced off to the porta potties around the corner in search of paper towels, but came back empty-handed. I wiped my fingers on the back of the paper plate, which he then took from me and neatly tossed into the garbage can. He started filling a grocery bag with a jar of pickles, an orange, the package of hamburger meat — a doggy bag, so to speak, for me to take home. I demurred; he pleaded.
“I don’t want to waste this!” he said, waving his arm at the cornucopia of food.
“Look. You can take all the stuff you haven’t opened yet to the food bank — the pickles, the potato chips, the can of cashew nuts …”
“Naw. I’ve been drinking. I don’t drink and drive,” he said solemnly. I hadn’t smelled alcohol (who could with all the barbecue aroma?) but noted a case of beer on the other table.
“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” He shrugged in a way that said it wasn’t an issue.
As I stood to leave, we compromised. I accepted an orange and a rib for Tawny — to eat later. In a sense, I brought Brandon home with me, too. He was on my mind all that evening. I remembered the many times I’ve witnessed how kind and generous people who are homeless can be with each other. I’m not suggesting that privation leads to saintliness. Yet there’s that basic human need for community, for connection. We meet that need by sharing.
The next day I checked the picnic area. It was cleaned up. No sign of Brandon or his feast — other than one dried-up chicken thigh forgotten on the barbecue. Wherever Brandon is, I guess he’s home.