An Introduction of Sorts
I’m not even sure if there will be a chapter two or three or…..but I played it safe and put “chapter one” up there just in case.
The writing exercises continue.
My wife says I do dark well. I laugh when she says it. I’m not sure that’s the legacy I want. LOL
Where does it come from? Having Ted Bundy as our paperboy really set me on a contemplative path regarding good vs evil. Having parents who were compassionate and adamant in their teachings that everyone matters, no matter if it is a CEO of a major corporation or the homeless guy in the gutter. In fact, it was my father who first made me take a very close look at a “bum” in downtown Tacoma one afternoon. I was about eight or nine at the time, and he explained that the man in front of me was considered a bum by many, but what he really was…..was a human being who was dealt a very tough hand, a World War 2 vet who saw far too much in the Pacific Theater and came home less than he once was, a man who once laughed and played with his children, a man who had dreams and hopes….until the day his best friend stepped on a mine and disappeared in front of his very eyes, spraying him with blood and tissue, and well, son, some men are not meant to see those things.
So I try to be true to those lessons. Bums are not merely bums. Hookers are human beings. Druggies once believed in Santa Claus.
So there you have the introduction to my latest short story…..I hope you find it, at the very least, thought-provoking. Hopefully there will be a little visceral mixed in for good measure.
A Cold Night
I feel them in the night, crawling over my sleeping bag, occasionally their tails brush against my cheek, gutter rats on the hunt, the nocturnal ritual that plays out on the streets of my city after the “good folks” go home. For the most part they mean no harm. The rats, not the good folks. They’re just looking to hang on one more night, like all of us, and a scrap or two, discarded among the broken vials and crack spoons, is all they’ll need. They don’t bite me, sensing the living, not the dead, so I’m safe enough. Besides, it’s the predators with two legs I have to worry about.
It was a cold mofo last night and that’s for damned sure. Winter in Pittsburgh, man, icicles on blue collars, colder than a witches tit, and that cold radiates off the concrete and invades your bones at night, no stopping it, no slowin’ it, just acceptin’ it as the way it is for five long-assed months. Some of us survive. Others, like that guy the other night down by the docks, don’t.
The black turns to battleship gray overhead. In Pittsburgh, for the un-chosen, the sun never truly rises. Somewhere a siren announces the dawn. Somewhere a garbage truck makes its rounds, but not here, not this alley, this being Tuesday and dumpsters remain undisturbed here until Friday.
I roll up my bag, tie it off, stomp my feet some to wake them up, to warm them up, like we used to do on sentry duty outside of Kabul, Operation Enduring Freedom, only ten years ago, see how far I’ve come, rah, rah, God bless America. A couple pages from a newspaper blow by. I grab them, stuff them in my coat, extra lining to stave off a cold that never seems to go away, not for all those ten years.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I came out of the desert in one piece. Forget about the potholes since I’ve been back in the States. I came back in one piece, more than can be said for three in my platoon back in o-six.
Where shall we dine this morning?
I blow the river stench from my nostrils and move on.
The Constant Search
There are rules, just like in the Army, and if you abide by them you can pretty much count on getting through a day without the hassle of cops. Don’t approach the tourists or upstanding locals. Don’t beg out in the open where the cameras are always rolling and news at eleven just might find interest in the underbelly, God forbid. In other words, don’t rock the boat, the good ship Pittsburgh, poster child for the revitalization of the Rust Belt, the shining symbol of hope for those stuck in an economy of the past, city fathers damned proud of the work they’ve done, but I can tell you, gospel, my friend, that trickle-down economics don’t trickle this far down, you get my drift?
Shuffle down South Water Street, feeling older than I should, head down, never make eye contact, never seem threatening, just part of the landscape, no danger, no reason to be alarmed and call the Man, turn at Riverfront Park, they don’t like us in the park, heaven forbid, find East Carson and take it to Station Square, home of the upscale bakeries and cafes, early morning cookin’ with scraps out the back doors, a first come basis, be on time you eat, be late you go hungry, simple as that, and I’m on time at Sunshine Bistro, first at the door, two croissants for the effort, Charlie the busboy fist-bumping me in greeting, and I appreciate the gesture, an acknowledgement, one being to another, saying I am you and you are me, sing it, lads, sing it.
Next stop the Mission on Eighth, always good for an egg or two, but those eggs come at a cost, a half-hour of salvation sermon from Reverend Micah, origin unknown but a refugee for sure with that accent, hard to understand at times but the message is universal, spoken at ten thousand missions across the country, love Jesus and be saved. I’d be happy if Jesus would just turn up the heat a bit, so cold this morning, the kind of cold that no heat can warm, down to the depths, it is, forty years in the making, wrong turns and good intentions, right turns and bad intentions, all leading to gulls overhead, surveying the whitecaps on the Ohio, with more freedom than yours truly.
I gotta remember to get out to the Veterans’ Hospital this afternoon. Therapy at three, back to reality by four, but it took me three years to get into the program and I’m not about to miss it no matter how futile it all seems. You show up, you get your Zoloft, and that’s the real of it. Tranquility in a pill, better living through chemistry, and I’m all for better living any way I can get it.
There’s me and five more like me listening to the Good Book recitation. I recognize two of them. Tommy Eight Toes, so named after he mistimed a jump and a rail car detached two digits, leaving him with a permanent limp and the screaming banshees in his dreams, and Princess Kate, her ever-present crown atop her wild, blazing red hair, her eyes more alive than mine, leaving me wondering what secret she knows that I need to know.
Princess Kate and I leave together. It sometimes works like that on the streets, an unspoken alliance for the day, safety in twos or threes, the warmth a friendly voice can provide, it all adds up to making it through another day.
I know a little of her story, classic, really, runner-up in the Miss Allegheny beauty contest at seventeen, abused by her step-father, ran away, her life changing in the blink of an eye, takin’ to the streets and learning on the fly. Beat a meth habit at twenty-five, paired up with a couple bikers over the years for security, a little hookin’ when desperation sets in, maybe a couple B and E’s to pay for the basics, her Victoria Secret lace panties now soiled in a way she never envisioned while she walked that pageant runway in Philadelphia.
She’s a good looking woman, or at least she once was, twenty years ago, before the endless nights and discount booze to keep her warm and blot out the memories. Scrub her clean she just might be okay still, like so many of us, but what are the chances? She might be mid-thirties, hard to tell, that fiery hair a beacon on the streets, as much a part of her persona as the chipped front tooth and the Louisville Slugger she carries in her left hand for protection. And the crown. Always the crown. Not sure why she wears it, it’s possible she’s one beer short of a six-pack, but just as likely it represents better days, and why completely let go of those?
I tried to picture her before her innocence was smothered by male lust, sweaty loins, and the smell of Southern Comfort.
Couldn’t do it.
She trusts me. Not sure why but I appreciate it.
“How ya doing this morning, Kate?”
She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. Maybe too close to the truth for comfort. What a stupid-ass question, but she’s too kind to call me on it.
“It’s all good, Max. It’s all good. Spent the night under the I-Three-Eighty. Won’t do that again. Got rousted twice by the cops and once by some frat boys lickered up and feeling privileged. If you don’t mind, soldier, I’m going to walk with you for a spell. I’m too damned tired to watch my back today. Okay by you, hon?”
I told her it was fine with me. The company wouldn’t hurt either of us. We decided to head down to the waterfront, find a trash can, start a fire to warm up, although the wind off the river makes it six of one half dozen of the other. It’s always fifty-fifty on the streets.
And so we spent the day doing what we do, avoiding Charon as he works the River Styx, staying out of the wind, one eye to the sky, expecting the first flakes of winter, knowing the first one signals millions afterwards, and wondering if this will be the winter we don’t make it, don’t summon up the will to rise above the stench, rise above the screw it, and just surrender to the inevitable.
Thanks for Dropping By
I appreciate you taking the time to read my little writing exercise. Let’s do it again soon, all right?
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc) #greatestunknownauthor