Message from The Heartland

Short Story by Willard Manus

“Spare some change?”

The question was asked by someone standing in a doorway holding a cardboard sign: “Afghan Vet Needs Help.” Beside him sat an ancient leather briefcase held together with strings.

Toby reached in his pocket and felt around for loose coins. As he approached the raggedly-dressed, unshaven man, he stared hard at him, struck by the thought that he looked familiar.

“Here,” he said, handing over the coins. “Hope this helps.”

“God bless,” the man said. He stared back at Toby, his eyes watery and bloodshot.

Finally, Toby decided to take a chance.

“Eugene Bohardt,” he said tentatively. “Is that really you?”

The man hesitated before replying. “Who’s asking?”

Toby told him his name. “Do you remember me?”

“Not really.”

“We were in Nate Friedman’s writing class together. City College. About twenty years ago.”

The man reacted visibly; his head jerked back, his lips parted, revealing several missing teeth.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered. “Well, I’ll be goddamned.”

* * *

They went to a nearby coffee shop and sat down in a booth. Eugene smelled of soiled clothing and halitosis.

“Order whatever you want,” Toby said. “You look as if you haven’t eaten in a week.”

He watched as Eugene dug into a stack of pancakes, pouring nearly half a tumbler of syrup over them. He also drank three cups of heavily-sweetened coffee. Every once in a while he checked to make sure his briefcase was still by his side.

“Talk to me,” Toby said. “Tell me how you ended up like this.”

“Long story.”

“I’d like to hear it.”

Eugene talked non-stop for the next half hour, in rambling, disconnected fashion. Toby listened hard, trying to make sense of it. Some highlights emerged: graduating from City College, trying and failing to write a novel. Then joining the army and being sent to Afghanistan, where he spent two years fighting the Taliban. Injured badly in a skirmish near the Pakistan border, he was sent home to recover. After being discharged he came down with a wicked case of PTSD. Tried to cure himself with street drugs: meth. It eventually hooked him, cost him most of his health.

Then he met a woman, a fellow meth-head. Began living with her and her ten-year-old daughter. She soon fell apart, couldn’t cope. Hanged herself. He cut her down, looked into her cold, lifeless eyes. Still saw them in his dreams.

Toby sat trying to process all this.

Then, finally, he asked, “Are you homeless?”

“I’ve got a room in a shelter. It’s okay but you need to be in bed by nine pm or they lock you out.”

“And the child? What of her?”

“With a foster family. I’ve lost track of her.”


“Your turn now. Catch me up.”

“Compared to yours, my story is trivial and dull.”


Toby took a deep breath.

“I started writing professionally after graduating Professor Friedman’s class.”

“You’ve been able to make a living all these years?”

“A scratch living.”

“How’d you manage to do it?”

“I met an agent, asked her advice. She said the only sure way was to write either romance novels, science fiction or mysteries.”

“Which one did you pick?”


“You’re okay with that? You were the one who wanted to write the Great American Novel.”

“I also wanted to play shortstop for the New York Yankees.”

Eugene managed a little smile. Then, “You were the best writer in Friedman’s class. You had the most promise. How’s it feel to give up on your dream?”

“Lousy, but I had no choice. I had to pay the rent.”

“Why didn’t you support yourself by teaching?”

“I tried to land an academic job, but the competition was too fierce. So I survived by becoming a hack writer.”


“I shouldn’t complain. I’ve been able to lead a reasonably comfortable life, thanks to my ability to crank out two paperbacks a year.”

“Jesus. You’re a writing machine.”

“Tell me about it.”

The waitress came over and gave them a look which suggested it was time to surrender their booth to the lunch crowd. Toby paid up and they walked outside together. Eugene began limping and gasping for wind.

They found a bench and sat down. Eugene doubled over and moaned with pain. But then the spasms stopped and he was able to straighten up and eye Toby again. “I need money,” he muttered.

“I’m aware of that.”

“I’m not asking for a handout, not from you anyway.”

“What then?”

“Why don’t you buy some of my poems?”

Eugene untied his briefcase and dug into it for a manuscript, which was held together with a rusty clip.

Toby examined the pages. They were photocopies of poems, the paper old and wrinkled. He recognized the title of the first poem: “Message From the Heartland.” Eugene had read it in Professor Friedman’s class many years back.

“How much do you want for these?”

“Twenty bucks.”

Toby reached for his wallet. “Here. Let’s make it fifty.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to.”

“Thanks, man. ‘Preciate it.”

Eugene got up and started off, beat-up briefcase under his arm. He walked with slow, shaky steps, on the verge of collapse again. Toby watched him go. Then he glanced at the poems and began to read them, page by painful page.