Dispatches From Next Door: The pale glow of a brighter day

Published November 27 2013
Updated November 29 2013

PINE ISLAND — He squatted between a bleeding air mattress and a coffeemaker perched on a blue cooler. It was still dark in his new home, around 7 a.m. A lamp cast a web of shadows over the creases around his tired green eyes. Fred Bellet stood, and at 5 feet 6, his head nearly touched the ceiling. Behind him, two dry cleaner tickets were pinned to the lampshade. They told him that soon everything would work out. Fred then peeled open the Velcro flap and, on his 10th day living in a tent, he stepped out into the dawn.

Sunlight leaked through mangroves and revealed the stilt house before him. It was sea foam green and had a deck that overlooked the Hernando County coast. For 17 years, until his world came apart, it was home. Fred, 59, slouched into a lawn chair and plucked a blade of Bahia grass. He glanced toward the tent at a do-not-disturb sign from his honeymoon: "Don't go away mad. Just go away." His voice quavered: "I miss her."

The Tampa Tribune hired Fred as a photographer in 1985. He loved nothing more than his job, until one night 16 years ago when he met a platinum blond named Deborah. She called this place her "dream home" and insisted they buy it. Fred thought he was the luckiest man alive, until the day he wasn't. In May 2008, doctors found a tumor on Deborah's ovary. He watched her hair fall out, her face bloat. Deborah got a Shih Tzu mix, Zeke, for therapy. On their 10th anniversary, as they held hands, she said sorry. He wheeled her into hospice, but never stopped doting. Fred got her a kiddie pool so she could take hot baths. He brought all of her favorite flavors of Italian ice. Just before she left him, Deborah told Fred he might lose the house, too.

He went back to work, his only remaining love, two weeks after. It sustained him, until 2011 when he got laid off. Determined to return, he spent his severance on camera gear instead of his mortgage. Friends implored him to at least shoot weddings. "I'm a newspaper guy," he said. Things would work out. Then his father died, and Fred inherited responsibility for his younger sister, who has lupus and schizophrenia. He cashed in his 401(k). Zeke became his therapy dog. In October, the bank auctioned Fred's house. Neighbors offered him the tent.

On that recent morning, Fred heated water in the coffeemaker and dipped in a razor. Leftover grounds swirled like flakes in a snow globe. He shaved and talked of the upcoming Florida Press Club banquet. A former president, he was sure he'd meet an editor who needed him. Soon, he would exchange the dry cleaner tickets for a pressed, navy blue suit. Things would work out. "No one," he said, "will ever know that I'm homeless."

A few days later, his last inside the tent, he emerged to the squeal of buzz saws — contractors dismantling his former home.

As Fred folded the American flag that had been draped over the tent, a young woman pulled up in a white Ford Expedition. His home's new owner talked on her cellphone and wore sunglasses as big as sand dollars. Fred told himself he had no hard feelings. He was optimistic, even excited. And so before he went to the banquet, before he ate filet mignon and handed out business cards, before no one called, before he moved into his sister's 600-square-foot Tampa apartment near a liquor store, before he hung six of his old awards on the wall, before he fell asleep on a stained couch to the drone of a police helicopter, Fred packed his navy blue suit and said he was sure everything would work out.