From Essence bestselling author Curtis Bunn comes a moving novel about a down and out corporate executive whose unexpected encounter with a stranger inspires her to reinvent her life.
Brenda Harris, a former corporate executive in Atlanta, has endured two years of personal tragedies and professional disappointments, and believes the world owes her a break.
One day, she encounters a homeless man who encourages her to look at life differently. She regularly sees this man at one of her daily stops. But she does not realize that he has been closely observing her and, despite his mental illness, is able to forge a deep connection with her in ways that both surprise and inspire her.
She realizes there is a whole world out there for her to experience, and Rodney Bridges, the homeless man, helps her begin her journey of self-discovery by challenging her on their daily walks. The path is difficult, but her time with Rodney opens her up to a new world, a world she had dismissed when she lost her job, her husband left her, and her dear sister died.
Part of her journey moves her to help Rodney. Through meaningful conversation and dedication, she is able to penetrate the emotional wall Rodney built after his own tragic circumstances sent him onto the streets. They become an unlikely duo—encouraging each other to overcome each of their own obstacles...and slowly a new world emerges.
A moving and powerful story about how inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest places, Welcome to My World also reaffirms that the simplest things in life—a conversation with a stranger—can lead to life-changing results.
Welcome to My World CHAPTER ONE: ME BRENDA I used to think the world owed me something, you know? I mean, seriously. If there really was something to that karma thing, then something good was due to come my way. And I was not talking about money. And I damn sure was not talking about a man. I could have used both—I wasn’t stupid—but for the first time in my life, I realized neither of them could have saved me.
I had been in a place of . . . dissatisfaction and discontent and . . . displeasure. Very little pleased me. I received satisfaction in . . . well, very little. Except eating. I ate because my heart was discontent, and had been that way for far too long.
Worst of all, I never saw that for myself. As a kid, I was fun and lively and laughed all the time and made people laugh. My sister often used to say, “Brenda, you’re so silly” in her high-pitched voice that I used to believe could break glass if she tried.
Last time I remembered her saying anything was several months ago. It was the last time I saw my dear big sister Theresa awake and able. We were at a cookout at Stone Mountain Park outside of Atlanta with family and friends celebrating her son’s graduation from college. My nephew, Donnie, was a disappointment. A small, young man with small dreams, as it sadly turned out.
Anyway, Theresa was carrying a cake from the car to the area we had sectioned off near the foot of the mountain. The go-go music—that’s a Washington, D.C. thing, where I’m from—played from somebody’s device. She bobbed her head to the beat, and I came up from behind her and tickled her.
She dropped the cake—and I burst into laughter as it splattered onto the grass. Theresa couldn’t be mad. Doing something like that brought us back to our youth, which, truth be told, was the best time of our lives.
Not too long after that, her son was busted for conspiracy to commit murder of his girlfriend’s husband. Yes, that’s what I said. Broke Theresa’s heart. She’d put so much into this kid—the best schools, ultimate devotion, relentless love. Seeing him in jail took something out of her. She wasn’t the same. And I believe that’s what caused the stroke she suffered a little while later that rendered her lifeless in the hospital.
I visited her on most days. But I wondered if I should continue going. I couldn’t bring her any cheer. I didn’t have anything inspiring to talk about because nothing good was happening in my life. But I went and I talked about our upbringing in Southeast D.C. We were a family then, kids who only cared about the next opportunity to play.
It was sad, though, to reminisce about those times when I was living in a personal dungeon. It was dark inside me, empty. I needed something to brighten my life, to feed me the nourishment that I knew came with a fulfilling life.
I tried the church. Couldn’t go wrong with the church, right? Well, at my church, the pastor was caught dating women and men. I had never put my faith in man, but, boy, did that turn me away from church. And it disappointed me so much because if so-called anointed men of God couldn’t do right, what chance did the rest of us have?
It added to my broken spirit and helped accelerate my descent into this emotional abyss. I liked words, and sometimes I would humor myself—if you can call it that—with literary flights of fancy like “descent into this emotional abyss.” It was sad that it became a way for me to generate fun in my life.
Besides my sister falling into a coma, my nephew getting arrested and my pastor cheating with both sexes . . . my best and only real friend took a job in London, my job of sixteen years laid me off, I gained so much weight that I did not resemble the “super fine” Brenda of my younger days . . . and my husband left me.
Stacked on top of one another, with all that occurring over about eighteen months, and it was an avalanche of a mess.
And then it happened. I met the most unlikely life-changing people. I stopped at McDonald’s on Ponce de Leon Avenue, near downtown Atlanta. I stopped there almost every day on my way to work and on my way home to pick up one miserable thing or another—it was sort of my meal after breakfast and before dinner. That’s how I gained weight; I tried to feed my depression.
For some reason, though, today the homeless man who always asked me for money accepted my counteroffer of a sandwich. He never had in the past. He’d just look at me. So, I almost didn’t hear him when he said, “Quarter Pounder with Cheese.”
Made me feel good when I delivered it to him. I waited for him to say “thank you.” He didn’t.
“Do something different,” he said.
“I beg your pardon.”
“Your life is shit,” he went on.
“Excuse me,” I said, stunned.
“The doctors say I’m bipolar, have some other paranoia disassociation something or other . . . and they might be right,” the man said. “But I ain’t crazy. I’d have to be crazy to look at you go in there and eat that garbage every single day and not know your life is shit.”
I was so . . . so . . . shocked and appalled that I couldn’t even move, much less respond.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” he added. “I’m just trying to make a point so you won’t leave here and say, ‘That bum didn’t know what he was talking about.’ You don’t ever blush. I saw a man tell you that you looked nice and you didn’t even blush.
“Don’t you know that blushing is healthy?”
I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
“You mean smiling?” I asked. “Smiling is healthy?”
“Did I say ‘smiling’?” the man snapped. “I’m talking about blushing. When you blush, that means you care about what others think of you. And when you care about what others think of you, you believe you matter. And if you believe you matter, then you feel like you’re alive . . . You don’t think you matter. That’s why you don’t blush. And that means you don’t feel alive. And if you don’t feel alive, then your life is shit.”
I was shaken by his words. I was shaken because he was right—I didn’t feel like I mattered. I didn’t feel anything about myself. But he made me think. This bipolar, homeless man saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, couldn’t see in myself . . . didn’t want to see in myself. Processing it made me believe I was wrong. The world didn’t owe me anything. I owed it to myself to save myself. I wanted to leave my personal dungeon. I wanted to matter. I wanted to blush.
But I didn’t see a need to stay there and debate with a homeless man, so we stared at each other for a few seconds before I walked off. On the way to the car, I decided I would dismiss what he had said to me. He didn’t know me. He’d only seen me. Why should what he said matter anyway?
I pulled out my two cheeseburgers and ate them as I drove down Ponce to my downtown Decatur apartment, pausing only to sip on my vanilla shake. I turned on the radio, but was disgusted as some conservative talk show host spewed lies and venom about how the Obama administration ruined the country. I quickly turned and found some nonsensical rap music that was silly but distracting.
Finally, I turned off the radio and focused on my food. I was done before I was halfway home. And as much as I tried to ignore that homeless man, his words stayed with me.
As I prepared dinner—fried pork chops, rice and corn—the image of him and the sharpness of his words resounded in my head. I was stumped as to why his words seemed to matter so much.
But my mom used to say, “A hit dog will holla,” meaning if something was true, it would impact you.
I woofed down my dinner and watch a little CNN. Nothing interested me, so I crawled into bed and I lay on my back in total darkness wondering about this man. Who was he? How did he end up on the streets? Why did what he said about me matter? It was true, but so what? He was the least significant person I had encountered.
And yet, I was curious about him. I could not shake him from my mind. Worse, I was not sure how I could face him, what I would say, what I wouldn’t say, if I would say anything at all . . . if I saw him again.
But I wanted that moment to happen. I needed to tell him about himself and about me, and maybe I could get some sleep.
My mother was once so mad at me that she told me, “Shut up and don’t call me until you get your attitude together.”
That really bothered me. But I slept with no problems. And yet after this stranger insulted me, I had to turn on the light and pull out a book to read myself to sleep—all because of the harsh words of some bum I didn’t know?
The reading worked. After about forty minutes, the words began to run together and I got drowsy. My last thoughts before I fell asleep were about that man and how I knew I had to say something to him in the morning.
Curtis Bunn is an Essence magazine #1 bestselling author and has been featured in many publications, including Black Enterprise, Uptown, and Rolling Out. He is the author of seven novels and the founder of the National Book Club Conference, an organization that hosts an annual literary event for African-American readers and authors.