"Brother V" and I have been collaborating on a story for several years now. To my knowledge I've never posted an excerpt for feedback. This is a rough draft of Chapter One. Fire away...
The cantaloupe is the color of bruises, blue babies and death.
I wonder why Brennon went to the trouble of stealing food when all he takes is what no one else would want anyway.
Moral ambiguity about stealing, perhaps? Not me. Not with food, anyway. I rarely have to resort to stealing, though. There's enough throwaway food to go around. Canned goods, fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables, candy, choice unused portions of prime rib, veal cutlet, uneaten pizza two hours cold— it’s all about knowing which places only serve the best and throw out what the rest of us would deem edible.
There are plenty of hardships being homeless but going hungry? No way.
I debate tossing the wretched fruit in the trash but fear it will upset Brennon. In his mind, he has gone through a lot of trouble to acquire our "lunch." Poor bastard isn’t used to street life yet. He still thinks people are watching him; he doesn’t realize that no one gives a damn anymore. He’s just another vagrant like me, one more soul whose eyes would never be met by a passing stranger.
We're hit by stray bullets, killed by drunk drivers, tortured by bored adolescents.
We are cellophane.
I toss the cantaloupe aside and attempt to ignore the gnawing in my gut.
It’s said that the list of truly important people would fit easily on one page, typed and double-spaced. The rest, according to Nietzsche, are the "bungled and the botched".
For Brennon, being botched and bungled sure takes up a lot of time.
I stand and gather up my few belongings: a tattered patchwork quilt that had belonged to my grandmother, a copy of Billy Budd, my one change of clothes, and a small Gideon Bible. The latter was a gift from one of the "suited men,” the ones who walk around the street handing out little testaments as if reading them would fill our stomachs and put shelter over our heads. I actually read it once. Well, parts of it. I use pages out of it from time to time as makeshift rolling papers for when I lift a bag of pot off of a sleeping stoner in Overton Park.
I fold my blanket around these articles and stuff them in a plastic Wal-Mart bag. I step out of the alley and meander toward Union Avenue.
The heat monkeys from car exhaust and sun-baked pavement are already climbing through the air. It’s not even noon yet.
It can be exhilarating, the living energy of the continual human activity. I often watch television in doctors’ offices for a few hours before they figure out I’m not a patient and throw me out. I’m partial to the Discovery Channel. I especially love the insect specials, the swarm of manic activity that takes a termite hive from a few inches to 10 or 20 feet. Very impressive.
I wasn't always homeless. Sometimes, though, in a sick way, I wish it had happened sooner. The insight it has given me is nothing short of remarkable. Want to be a fly on the wall? Want to truly observe without being observed? Lose your job and your home and your family. Any true anthropologist studying the highest primate on the planet would give his eyeteeth to have seen what I've seen.
I move with the flow, finding the rhythm and the pace. I can tell what time it is without a watch. I can smell the midmorning coffee and the Tic-tacs. I can see the toothpicks flicking in the greasy lips of the overfed. I can feel the mild food frenzy. Lunch. Early. 11:00, maybe 11:15.
Friday. You can feel that weekend anticipation in the air.
I addle up next to a suit. Good-looking guy with a trim, lean look. Killer lawyer. I have to ask him the time since his coat sleeves come past his wrists. "It's about 11:15," he says, smiling slightly.
We stand in the warm wind of June, waiting for the crosswalk light to change. I know I smell a little like rotten apples and he’s downwind.
Killer Lawyer, Rumpled Vagrant. Leather valise, plastic bag. Armani, Salvation Army.
There is acceptance, alignment, a feeling of place.
Yeah, right. This guy is scared right down to his Ivy League bones that he is one slick deal, one bad case, one trip downtown to score some cheap ass away from smelling like rotten apples.
The light changes and he quickly manages to lose himself in the lunchtime crowd. Most likely I’m already forgotten; but knowing that for a moment, just for a moment he thought, What if? brings me a sick sense of satisfaction. I mean, it's not that I wish my life on anyone. Regardless of the insight I’ve received, spending the night on a bench sure as hell ain't no comparison to a suite at the Peabody.
See, I’m sort of a moral traffic light. I’m someone a smart parent would use to scare the hell out of his underachieving smartass kid. Look where you’re headed. Wanna end up like him? It ain’t hard to look at me and see what I was once.
Sometimes I think I have it better than all the other bums I come in contact with. They've never been able to walk into a tailor and be fitted for a suit. They've never sat down in a five-star restaurant and ordered a $200 bottle of wine. Hell, some of them haven't slept in a bed in 20 or 30 years unless they intentionally got caught lifting something so they could spend a night in a jail cell. And forget about bathing. When you're on the street, a warm shower is a luxury. Hell, sometimes a cold one feels like heaven.
No, all they've known is shelter food, hand me downs, sleeping in the rain, and the occasional charity of a passing stranger.
Then again, perhaps they have the advantage. Unlike me, they don't know what they're missing.
I get lot of grief from my fellow vagrants. I’m a bit of novelty, you could say. That bit about old habits dying hard? Completely true. Nothing big, just little things. Like when I get up off of the ground and dust my pants. Doesn't do much good when they haven't seen soap and water for two weeks but it's just the natural thing to do. And manners. Excusing myself after a burp is the equivalent of performing standup. Encore! Say that ‘excuse me’ shit again!
It’s the ghosts of my past life. An echo of the person I used to be.
Survival. That’s all these guys care about. Manners and hygiene become a much lesser priority when you’re sleeping under a newspaper.
"Hey, watch where you're going, dipshit!"
Of course it's my fault. No one would ever get close enough to accidentally run into me. I look over my shoulder in the direction of the offended party. Our eyes meet.
SUV. Black, sleek, snarling metal monster with an asshole staring out of it at me. An asshole I know. I never forget an asshole.
Old life. Lunches, trips to Vegas, this asshole and me downing Tequila sunrises and banging cocktail waitresses in the elevator.
"Move, you fucking junkie, you’re making me late!” He shakes his 11:00 cheeseburger at me with every syllable.
I suddenly don’t feel so good. Bob. Bob puking and turning all sick and blue on me in a pool at the Marriott.
I'm pointing, questioning, looking and not believing.
"Hey, Bob," I say like we're in an elevator.
He lays on the horn and I know the cops are coming. “Hey, Bob,” the blast from the horn drowns my own screaming voice just before I pass out. “Man…you’re dead…”
Warm blood. Mine. On my lips. Must have busted my nose on the asphalt.
"Where am I?" I ask. It's what you're supposed to say when you come around. It's a tradition of bad screenplays and TV scripts. Even in my state of confusion, I cringe at the cliché.
Police officer, holding my head in his hands and looking bored and pissed.
“Side of the street,” he replies. “Home sweet home, buddy.” Cliché. Cringe.
I can stand.
Am I okay? Yeah.
Get moving? Sure. Got a busy schedule.
I meet the eyes of those around me, a talent that does not come easily. It is something I have slowly acquired. They are still staring.
A woman in a blue suit purses her lips and slightly squints her left eye. Disgust, perhaps?
A young mother attempts in vain to hush her small son as he inquires as to if I’m one of those bad men who asks daddy for money.
A man close to my age stands on his toes at the back of the crowd. The red light on his digital recorder pointed at my face.
Channel Voyeur. Jerk.
I pick up my belongings and begin to make my way from the middle of the crowd. It sickens me that they have more interest in the possibility that I am dead than they ever would if they saw me walking down the street. I brush by two teenagers. One complains about the way I smell. It doesn't bother me. Can't think about that now. Like I said, schedule to keep.
Surviving on the streets is all about timing. A mere fifteen minutes can make the difference between eating good and eating shit. Hell, if you're good enough, you can score some decent fare sometimes. Like this little Russian joint not far from where I sleep. They throw out buckets of food every day, leftovers from people who ordered something that sounded cool and then ate two bites. It's just knowing when to get there and then arriving before all the other vultures. Last week I had mango pork for dinner. It wasn't warm and I had to fish it out of the dumpster, but it can't be any less sanitary than some of those Chinese places I used to eat at back when I was still a functional part of society.
My head hurts. It reminds me of the blood I tasted earlier. Probably dried on my face by now. I look around for a fountain, puddle, anything. Nothing. Suppose I’ll have to go inside somewhere. There's a burger joint not far ahead. Probably my best bet. Nothing too fancy in a place where they allow the patrons to write on the walls.
I can tell I must be in quite a state of disarray by the faces of passing pedestrians. Well,
in a worse state than usual. I quicken my step and am careful not to bump into anyone. My courtesy is unnecessary, though. People are keeping more of a distance than even I’m used to.
I walk up the two steps to the front door, carefully opening it with out touching the glass. Old habits again.
The burst of cold air and the smell of burgers frying are at the same time heavenly and sickening. I look around for the bathroom. The restaurant is busy; the pace, hurried. Only a few at the front notice my entrance. I see the sign at the back: Men. As I make my way back, a waitress taps me on the shoulder.
“Sir, smoking or…”
She stops when I glance over my shoulder. I wait for her to gasp, to scream, to possibly call for a manager. Surprisingly, she says nothing. She looks nervously around and nods her head toward the bathroom.
I have found it is the little things we must be thankful for in this life, even if it’s only a waitress who silently agrees to turn a blind eye to a blood-encrusted homeless guy.
As I make my way to the back, a four-year-old kid shoots a toothpick at me from his straw. I give him a little smirk which his mother sees. Not knowing what has prompted me, she turns him around in his seat and shoots me a scathing look.
I enter the bathroom and look around. More writing on the wall. Literally. Phone numbers. Professions of love. He was here. She was here. It seems everyone but my grandmother has been in this bathroom at some point, Jesus included.
I check out the stalls. Empty. I walk to the sink and look in the mirror. My nose is indeed busted. Blood is caked around my left nostril and has run all the way down to my upper lip and the corner of my mouth. There is also a fairly deep gash above my left eye. It has already started swelling.
I turn the knobs and adjust the water temperature until it is lukewarm. I should probably clean my hands before I touch my face. Infection is a real bitch when you have no health insurance.
I pull the lever on the soap dispenser, hoping the slippery substance will smell like the flowery stuff my wife used to buy for our bathroom. It smells like a hospital.
This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands...
The song comes from nowhere, and it takes me a moment to recognize it.
...this is the way we was our hands, so early in the morning
Hannah's face flashes in my mind, her little hands engulfed by mine as we sing our silly song.
I wash the soap off and cup my hands. The water stings as it washes across the lacerations on my face. Sharply, I inhale.
I bend farther into the sink and allow the stream to run over my entire head. I pray that the water will wash away the blood and dirt. And the ghost of a little curly-haired girl..
I stand up and shake my head. I push my hair back from my eyes. For a moment, I can see the old me. Hair slicked back, my normally olive skin even darker from the sun. Bob used to say that I looked like an extra out of a Scorsese movie.
The black SUV roars back into my mind, complete with asshole. There’s no possible way it could be Bob. Bob’s been dead for—nine years? Ten? Time flies when you’re having fun.
It couldn’t have been Bob. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the possibility. I saw him die. I went to his funeral. I consoled his wife. I visited his grave to curse the day I met him.
My buddy, my pal.
And the guy who conveniently offed himself and left me to deal with the shit storm our lives became.
There has to be an explanation. They say everyone has a twin. Maybe this guy just looked like Bob.
Maybe I’m cracking up. It’s a small wonder that I’ve held up as long as I have. Maybe I’m heading toward “crazy homeless” as opposed to “regular homeless.”
Or maybe Bob isn’t dead.
I dry my face, wiping away any lingering traces of blood and my old life.