Now!

Now!

A Story by Ron Sanders
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a down-and-dirty existential romp

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            The first gob was like any other:  warm, well-aimed, expressed with certitude and contempt.

            The second hit his cheek, just shy of the clogged broken nose. Numbers three and four were almost on top of each other--pat, pat--on his eyelid and beard. Pat, pat, patapat. Pat. Patapata. Pat-pat. Patapatapatapata, and the rain came down for real.

            He rolled his swollen eyes--once to the left, once to the right. The lids were so damaged he could manage only a periscopic slice.

            He was in a field, on his back, becoming drenched even as his senses became desaturated. The sky was black, gray, and heaving. It had to be winter; late December or early January. Rainwater made him gag, but he was too logy to turn away. The pain was vicious. His mouth had been kicked in:  several teeth were missing; the gums clotted and bleeding, the jaw a rusty mangled trap.

            He sat up and nearly passed out. But he recognized the signs, and didn’t dare:  he’d drown in the rain--croak tonight, half-buried in mud, a foul pocket of steam for Starbucks’ horizon-searching crossword solvers. Before dawn the rats and possums would come for him, attracted by the blood. Once the field had dried out, the ants would get busy. The gulls and pelicans would show off the harbor, followed by crows and buzzards. A flesh hill for flies; big ones, marsh jumpers, relentless in their work. The machine would break into full gear at this one sunken, miscellaneous spot, spreading its operation like a rank growing pool, horror to horror. And the flesh would dissolve in mandible and jaw, and the raggedy clothes would gradually fall away, and the innards would rot in the warm California sun until the unrecognizable pile stank so badly someone called a low-level emergency number. Too big to be a dog or cat. Smells something awful.

            He lurched to his feet and stood swaying, pressing all available energy into the one vital effort of remaining vertical. His left side hurt so wildly he had to lean right. The giddily revolving field made him stagger, until his skewed equilibrium got him stumbling along, into holes, over roots, down and up the swirling polluted ditch, toward the fence…the fence--that collapsed border between the world of crawling, sucking nature and the world of paramedics and dumpster dinners…the fence, leaning in the leaning rain, snagging in his old coat, tearing a forearm, giving way that he might pitch over and crawl through the curbside growth, off the curb and into the road.

            Cars braked and swerved needlessly, drivers hammered on horn plates, screamed obscenities, hurled miscellaneous refuse. He scrambled across the road and into the mall’s parking lot, but the moment he hit the ground he was socked in by pain; he had to keep moving. He stumbled alongside a few storefronts until he reached a facing pair of cast iron benches. One seated a tiny old woman, so white and wizened she looked like she’d just been fished from the harbor. She watched him lilting there, hands clamped on the opposing bench.

            “You’re a dirty man. A dirty, dirty man.”

            Footsteps on wet cement; a splat and clacking.

A new voice demanded, “What are you doing here, buddy? Are you bothering this woman?”

            A chubby security guard stepped between them, his expression and posture flat-out confrontational.

            “Call the police,” the woman said.

            “Is he bothering you, ma’am?”

            Call the police!”

            The guard squirmed. “Well, there’s no reason to do anything that radical, ma’am. I’ll just escort him off-property. You’ll be fine.”

            The old woman’s jaw fell. “Officer. Did you just hear me? I don’t feel safe. He could come back. Now call the police!”

            “I…ee-yuh…ma’am, to be honest, this isn’t really an emergency situation. But I’ll make absolutely sure that he doesn’t--”

            Officer! I said to call the police! Where is your employer, officer? Do I need to talk to him?”

            The good arm began to tremble, the knees gave way, and he collapsed supine on the bench; a pile of rags and refuse.

            “I-ee-uh…oboy.” The guard fumbled out his walkie-talkie. “Yeah, Gopher, it’s Buddy. I’m over here in front of Dimple’s. We got some derelict wandered in off the street, and now he’s all flopped out on one of the benches. Right. Well, there’s a woman here who doesn’t feel safe and she wants we should call a cop…I copy that, man, but like I’m just passing it along, okay? What do you want we should do? No, don’t roust Al! It’s not that important, and anyway he said we got to, y’know, use our own initiative. I dunno. I can’t move him, and that’s lawsuit-type action, man; you know that. Whatever you want to do. I guess. Then it ain’t on me, man. Okay. Ten-four.” He stuffed the walkie-talkie in a coat pocket, knocking out a handful of corn chips.

            “The police will be here in a scratch, ma’am. I’ll be right beside you all the time, so you don’t have to worry about anything.”

            “He’s disgusting.”

            “We get them from time to time, ma’am. They come dragging in off the beach or harbor. This one looks like he sleeps in the garbage. But I’ve never heard of ’em actually hurting anybody, you know, biting people or stuff like that. No reason at all to be scared. I carry pepper spray in case one should go off on somebody or something, and the station’s just down the street, so you can count on the police showing up real quick if you need them, ma’am.” Even as the words were leaving his mouth, red and blue roof lights showed at the drive. “And here they are now. See what I mean? No worries at all.”
            The car pulled up beside them. A spotlight played for a few seconds. The lone cop stepped around the car. “Who called in the emergency?”

            The guard tossed his head. “That would’ve been Gopher, over in the shack by Sauer Dog. I think the situation’s pretty much contained. This guy don’t want to move. I don’t know if he’s wasted or what. This lady here complained about him.”

            “I don’t like him. I don’t like him at all. He smells bad and he looks dangerous. He’s a dirty man; a very dirty man.”

            “Like I said.”

            The cop turned to the other bench. “Sit up.”

            He forced himself into a seated slump.

            “What’s your name?”

            “Lsr.”

            “Loser? What happened to you, sir?” He passed a light eye to eye, gave the mouth a visual once-over. “How’s the other guy? You do some damage?” The eyes flickered. “Do you feel you need medical assistance, sir? Are you having trouble breathing or swallowing?” He tucked the flashlight under an arm and extracted a sterile glove from a pouch on his belt. “Hold still.” He used the gloved hand to examine the ears, mouth, and throat. “Stay put. Don’t move unless I tell you to.” He walked over to the security guard, now huddling beneath an overhang.

            “What’s your name, Security?”

            “Ernie. But around here I just go by ‘Buddy.’ Sometimes we like to--”

            “Security?”

            “It’s Ernest William Budd, sir.”

            “Do we have an understanding, Security?”

            “Look, I didn’t mean to come off--”

            “Security. I didn’t ask you if you liked me, I asked you if we understood each other.”

            “I was just doin’ my--”

            “Security. Are you carrying your guard card? It’s required, you know, on this shift, on this property, on my time.”

            “Yeah, well of course I--”

            “Present it to me please. Remove it from the wallet; take it out of the little window. Thank you. This card is not well kept, Security. I need to be able to read these characters on the moment, not squint through thumbprints and cookie crumbs. I’d like you to clean, smooth, and file this little paper card very carefully; that’s if you ever get a free minute. Take a good look at it. Now take a real long look at this shiny thing on my chest. See the difference? Thank you. So what am I?”

            “You’re a police officer, sir.”

            “And what are you?”

            “I’m a security guard, sir.”

            “Now we’re going to have us an understanding, Security.”

            “Sir?”

            “Security:  I like my coffee with one cream and two sugars. Not the other way around.” He grimaced. “Makes me think of mama. But not hot. And definitely not cold. There’s a crazy li’l just right in there somewhere, and I’m sure we’ll get it just right sooner or later. Right?

            “Sir!”

            “Security? Don’t you have work to do? Patrol the premises, maybe do a little detex here and there so your boss knows you’re not too comfortable? Somebody could be in dire need right now, Security. Maybe some skateboarder’s running amok, maybe the supermarket’s short a boxboy. Or maybe that poor dumb son of a b***h back there needs counseling more than badgering. Maybe you could call the police when someone needs the police, instead of dragging me off my f*****g lunch break to take down some homeless stiff who only needs a push in the right direction, instead of a bench in the rain. Get him off the property.”

            “Sir.”

            “I have your name and card number. Get him off the property.”

            “Sir!”

            “Security?”

            “Sir?”

            “How many creams?”

            “Just the one, sir.”

            “Just the one.” The cop stepped back behind the wheel, killed his emergency lights, and cruised away.

            The guard came back clenching and unclenching his hands, his eyes on fire. When he reached the old lady he forced himself to relax. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I…I…”

            “Don’t be too gentle with him, officer.” She raised the umbrella to cover her eyes. “Not on my account.”

            “Get the hell out of here! If I see you on my lot again I won’t need a cop, you hear me? I’ll kick your a--excuse me, ma’am--I will eject you with any means at my disposal. Now Go!

            He wobbled up and careened the way he’d come, swung left at the sidewalk and staggered to the corner. The rain picked up momentarily, but he was too dazed to worry about shelter. It was all he could do to remain standing.

            A man was melting out of the drizzle, crossing the street slowly but purposefully; bent face hidden beneath a rubberized rain cap, slight frame bundled in a trench coat under a clear plastic protector. He skipped a couple of puddles, keeping his head down, his hands clenched in the coat’s pockets. The last few steps were taken with care, that he not appear the aggressor.

            “Please don’t be alarmed. I need only a minute of your time. If you’d like a clean bed and some dry clothes, a hot meal and a storage locker, I’m the guy to see. There’s showers and basic stuff; you know, radio and TV…nothing fancy. I can even put a few bucks in your pocket…here and there.” One eye showed as he skewed his head. Very old, in his seventies. Angular face. Lots of acne scars. A fair Caucasian, midwest accent. He very slowly removed a cheap pop-up umbrella from under his coat, thumbed it open, and gently tucked the handle behind the filthy coat’s lapel, creating a hood against the rain. The umbrella cut out the back-glare of floods and neon, allowing the wasted mug to show in bleak humps and hollows. Deep compassion ran over the stranger’s face like passing headlight beams. He breathed, “Oh, my,” and squinted up at the heaving mist. “What else? I.D., if you’ve lost yours. There’s a phone to call home…” He looked inward, at a bruise too deep to display, and sighed, “What’s your name, son?”

            “Lr.”

            “Larry?”

            “Ltr.”

            “Later? Lothar? Luthor?”

            “Lsr. Ltr.”

            “Lester. I have a two-point proposition for you, Lester. Option One is you can come along with us now, and we’ll get you all fixed up.” He pointed across the street, at a white van idling in anticipation, a long exhaust plume marking its tail. He pulled a business card from a coat pocket. “Option Two is you can dial the number at the bottom of this card and ask for ‘Mr. D’. It’s a toll-free number; won’t cost you a thing. The boys’ll drive out straightaway, and pick you up whenever you’re ready. I like to throw out this option in case someone is, understandably, trepidatious about the whole affair. But there’s no reason to be nervous.” Mr. D now cupped both Lester’s hands in his. He squeezed those mangled hands with sympathy, with necessity, with poetry. “Look down at our hands, Lester. Look down at our hands.” Pinched against the business card was a meticulously folded twenty dollar bill. “Many establishments simply will not serve the homeless; there are hygiene laws and all that. But this money, if used in a timely manner, may help preserve your vital existence--if only for a space. I do not dole out such a sum willy-nilly. But I find a certain potential in you, son; one that has surely gone unnoticed.” Mr. D looked down with a kind of jaded embarrassment, pearls dripping from his brim. “There’s always that Third, unspoken Option, Lester. We can turn about, go our separate ways, and this little slice of magic will have never occurred. You may keep the twenty. But I would urge you most emphatically to hang onto that card.”

            Lester’s arms worked their way up, out of his control, until the squashed bill and card were nested in his palms. Again Mr. D cupped cupped Lester’s hands, his eyes all but welling.

            “Bless you, son. They are yours to keep. Come with me.” He gently led Lester across the street to the van.

            Inside were a large, strapping black man behind the wheel, and a small, scrawny white man in the back. They were dressed in hand-me-downs. The black man wore a leather flyer’s cap, the white man a rainbow stocking hat. The small man slid open the cargo door. Mr. D helped Lester climb in.

            “Lester,” he said, motioning to the black man, “this is DeeWayne.” DeeWayne grinned chummily. “And this is Andrew.” The little white man nodded and gave an arcing wave of the hand. “Boys, this is Lester. He’s agreed to come along and get cleaned up. He’d like to enjoy our company, and I know we’ll enjoy his.”

            “Welcome aboard, Les!” said DeeWayne.

            Andrew smiled like a zoning chipmunk. “Good to know you, big guy. Great to have you with us.”

            Mr. D folded himself onto an upturned milk crate. Most of the van was taken up by bags and boxes. There was a smell of rain and overripe apples. “I apologize for the inconvenience, Lester, but we use this van more for the transporting of food and material than persons. Please make yourself as comfortable as the circumstances will permit. You are free to leave at any time, but I so want you to see what the compound has to offer. If for any reason you are dissatisfied with our accomodations, we will cheerfully return you to this very spot. But that would be a true tragedy.” He drummed his palms on his thighs. “Now. I need to have a word with the owner of this convenience store. I promise you I shall be but a minute.”

            DeeWayne’s smile lit up the interior. “Okey-dokey, Mr. D! I’ll keep ’er revving!”

            Mr. D smiled back and hopped out. He sidestepped puddles, flashing that tender grin at everyone he passed. Lester had just time to see him handing a bill to a panhandler before Andrew eased shut the door, leaving a crack to peer out.

            DeeWayne spun in his seat. “Listen, b***h! I’m telling you once, and once alone, so you clean that f*****g s**t out of your ears and listen! You best not be holding any needles or bringing in any drugs. You got me? You best not be having any outstanding warrants, you best not be having any bugs on you. No sex-communicating diseases, no weapons, and no outlandish f*****g mental problems. Do we understand each other? Are you f*****g deaf, too? That’s a good man just walked into the store; that’s a holy-a*s righteous m**********r, and he saved me, and he saved a whole lot of other sorry a******s who didn’t have a prayer or a dollar. I love that man, you hear me, m**********r? And I’ll whip the s**t out of any stand-out son of a b***h who don’t have the grits to do whatever he says, whenever he says it, for no other good’n’goddamn reason except because he says it. I will make him come out right--if I have to violate parole to do it. You got me?

            Andrew laughed musically. “Sound down, Dee. Come on, man. We’re all good here; we’re cool.” He peeked out the crack. “He’s coming back. He’s carrying some stuff. Here he comes. Everybody mellow out.” Andrew slid open the door just as Mr. D reached the van. The drizzle was tapering nicely, but he kept his stuffed arms down. He hopped back inside, planting his butt on that same upturned milk crate.

            “Merry Christmas, gentlemen!” In his arms were bags of chips, nuts, and jerky. He passed the treats around. “I want you guys to put out the good word on Markey’s Quik-Stop. The franchise owner’s a scholar and a gentleman. He was at another outlet, but he left these goodies just for us. What a prince!” He turned to Lester with misting eyes. “Eat up, son! Let this be a reminder:  the world is full of good, wise, and humane men and women. Nobody has to go hurting.” He raised a trembling hand. “Markey’s!”

            DeeWayne and Andrew lifted their hands as one, called out “Markey’s,” and slapped their palms against that delicate raised hand. Mr. D shook up and down, grabbed Lester’s free hand and kissed it over and over, his breath bubbling in his throat.

            “Markey’s!” DeeWayne cried, and put the van in gear.

            “Markey’s.”

 

            Mr. D’s compound was right alongside the freeway; the offramp was their overlook. It wasn’t all that big:  half an acre of bare dirt surrounded by caving chain link. They could see a big old warehouse with a broad level roof, positioned forward on the lot and flanked by a number of broken-down office trailers. Behind the warehouse were dusty cars and vans, a few sagging motor homes, an antique converted school bus.

            DeeWayne whipped the van off the ramp onto a parallel dirt road. It was an adroit move, but a dangerous one. He said quickly, “I know, Mr. D, I know. I done it again. But did you see that semi bearing down on the left? He was trying to beat me out on the bottleneck. Can you believe it?”

            Mr. D hauled himself back up with the hanging end of the passenger-side’s broken shoulder strap. He’d been expecting as much. “Last time,” he said, “I believe it was a runaway house trailer.” He smiled warmly at Lester. “We kid each other sometimes. These boys are like my own sons.”

            Andrew leaned forward, embraced Mr. D, and kissed him smack on the cheek. “Papa!”

            DeeWayne laughed and whacked Andrew upside the head.

            “No matter how many times you disown ’em,” Mr. D concluded.

            The front gate was open on a permanent basis:  a smashed-in skeleton made fast by twisted-round coat hangers. DeeWayne turned in with exaggerated care, winking at Mr. D all the while. Andrew slid open the cargo door and they all piled out. DeeWayne and Andrew walked in through the solid front’s little side door, while Mr. D vigilantly accompanied the hobbling newcomer.

            It was all beds and bunks and sofas and mattresses. A single row of high windows on either side provided plenty of daylight. Ranks of ceiling lights were blazing against the weather. Kitchen, showers, and office were in the rear.

            Sixty-seven pairs of eyes coldly watched Lester pass. These were hungry faces, molded by years of guerrila survival in the streets, penitentiaries, and halfway houses; life streams that serve only as spawning grounds for miscreants. Mr. D, genially greeting his charges all the way, led Lester to an old steel motel bed with a scratchy khaki military blanket.

            “This is yours, son. This is yours, Lester.” The crowd pressed in. A lanky tattooed man on an adjacent bed watched Lester like a snake. Mr. D patted the blanket. “Go ahead, son. Give ’er a test run.”

            Lester carefully stretched out on his back. It was feathers and clouds. It was new-mown grass. The smell of chili con carne wafted from the kitchen, with an undercurrent of baking bread and hot cocoa. For a silken moment Lester’s whole body relaxed; his blood seemed to warm, his eyelids to shiver. The moment passed.

            Mr. D was delighted. “And you’ll have your own locker, with a combination known only to you! There are games and magazines…TV and radio…lots of stuff. But let me give you the grand tour first. You can rest in a bit. Boys!” Only Andrew accompanied Mr. D and Lester to the back; DeeWayne was hanging with some of the rougher-looking tenants. Lester peripherally watched them huddle and glare.

            “Here’s the kitchen; we’ll get some real chow in you in a minute. These are the showers, and I’m afraid I’ll have to insist you give yourself a good hot scrubbing, Les. We’ve had our share of problems with vermin; nobody’s fult, life can be rough. But transcommunication’s a terrible thing, and I would be derelict as head of this household were I to not lay down some ground rules for the good of all. This is my office. Andrew, allow me a minute or two alone with Lester, please. The formalities.”

            Mr. D led Lester into his little office. Andrew closed the door behind them. “Please sit here, son.” Lester took the indicated chair across the desk from his host. Mr. D removed his rain cap and wiped his forehead with tissue from a desktop box. His wispy scalp was spotted and creased, his hair so white it was all but transparent. He sniffed, wiped his narrow nose, and donned a pair of bifocals. A clipboard came from an upper drawer, a felt pen from his shirt pocket. He tilted back his head.

            “There are certain preliminaries involved, Lester. No organization can long exist without careful planning and the meticulous keeping of records.” He raised his eyes. “You look like you’ve been roughed up. I’ll need to have you examined by a physician. Doctor Glover is a fine man and a good friend. He actually lives quite nearby, and volunteers his services readily. He will be by as soon as I give him a call.” Mr. D winked. “Doesn’t look all that shabby on his résumé, either.” He looked back down. “We’ll get you some fresh clothes from the Hamper. I don’t think you’ll wow the ladies, but you’ll be clean anyway. And it’s our policy all furnished clothing be washed a minimum of twice a week. Machines are in an enclosure out back. I’d like you to shave and have a haircut, at least once. Injuries and infections can go unnoticed under a man’s beard and locks. If Doctor Glover prescribes medication, you are required to follow the prescription. We are well-connected with the wonderful people at Roosevelt Clinic. And I’ve found vitamins to be just as important as good food and exercise. Once we get your health back up, you will be requested, but not required, to assist in food runs, basic cleanup around the property, light errands; you know, stuff like that. Let’s see now. Am I forgetting anything…”

            “Ahr…arru…are you Jesus?”

            Mr. D’s head cocked. His mouth twisted about:  he was uncertain whether to smile or frown. Half a minute later his expression was dead-serious.

            “Lester. My name is Mr. Dreir. Mr. Carl Dreir. I made a lot of money over the Internet, both in the stock market and on ebay. These are similar to stores; they’re virtual workplaces you can manipulate through your computer. If you’re a pretty savvy guy, and have a knack for getting in on ground floors--and I’ll be perfectly immodest here:  I am and did--you can make a lot of money, very fast and very surreptitiously. I used to be, believe it or not, a terribly poor fellow. I flipped burgers, washed windshields, walked dogs. Then I ran into some people who showed me how a man, with just a computer, a modem, a little luck and a lot of chutzpah, can buy, sell, jump in, back off--well, you get the picture. I was quite wealthy before I knew it. I bought property, I bought titles, I  bought on common sense rather than impulse…this may sound unreal to you; it sounds unreal to me even now as I speak it--but in the space of three short years I went from near-penury to a state of wealth I’d never dreamed of.”

            Mr. Dreir rapped a knuckle on the desk. “Funny thing. All that money had no effect on my ego. Zilch. Instead of feeling more successful, all I felt was guiltier. I started seeing people--people who were hurting--as an investment in something bigger than myself. One day I gave some poor lady a roof and a future, the next day it was a whole little tribe living under an overpass. I bought this compound and some vans, made friends with a couple of store managers--” Mr. Dreir did something that struck Lester as strange:  he turned and stared with brimming eyes and a bizarre grin. There were lots of things going on in that smile--confusion, pride, awe, fear. “And you know what, Lester? It felt good; real good. I felt good. I was growing in ways that luxury and status can never provide.”

            Mr. Dreir now reached across the desk and clasped Lester’s hands in his own. He seemed to be caressing every scar and blister as though they were nubs of exquisite worth. Lester was surprised to see that Mr. Dreir was weeping--not overtly, not shamefully, not with effeminacy. With dignity.

            “Lester. When I first purchased this place it was nowhere near as orderly as it appears today. Everything has been picked up, patched up, cleaned up--all except for one little spot. That one little spot is a kind of closet we all jocularly refer to as the Confessional. It’s not really a confessional; there’s no confessing, no guy in a robe behind a screen, no religious significance whatsoever. It’s just a room where people can be alone with their thoughts for a spell, and try to figure what they’re really looking for in life. When you ask me these questions about Jesus and whatnot, I feel you’re actually addressing your personal spiritual side. That’s your space, and nobody belongs in there but you. Not me, not some proselytizer--just you. Okay?” Dreir nodded once, with conviction. “As I was saying, after I’d bought the property and everybody was moving in, I sort of locked myself away in that room and asked myself:  Am I crazy? Is what I’m doing making any kind of sense? And I found something in there I’d never found before. And do you know what I found in there, Lester? Do you know what I found?” It looked like internal stress would break Mr. Dreir’s face into moist giving pieces. “I found me in there, Les.” He nodded again. “I found me.” Dreir abruptly released Lester’s hands. His expression became businesslike. “Ever since, I’ve asked newcomers to check it out on arrival. Not an obligation, not a rule; just a suggestion. So give it a shot for ten.” For a moment Dreir appeared at odds with himself. “I’m going to let you in on something, son.” He rapped that gnarly old knuckle rapidly. “The man I bought this place from told me about that little room almost exactly as I am telling you now; sitting across from me at this very desk, looking into my eyes with a depth at that time unfamiliar. And he told me that happiness is only a dream. He said that sentient life, due to its subjective nature, is destined--or, perhaps more accurate, doomed--to pursue the unattainable.” He vaguely waved a hand. “Perhaps his leanings were Buddhist, or he might have been an existentialist. Whatever. The point I am attempting to assay here, Lester--and it was merely his theory, mind you--is that this hypothetical state of happiness cannot be contained, cannot be extended. The machinery of being causes a man to strive, rather than loiter. In an otherwise healthy human, a state of enduring happiness would indicate self-delusion, mental retardation…” Mr. D’s eyes burned into Lester’s. “A sleeping man approaches that state of bliss, embraces it for a heartbeat, and--” he snapped his fingers. Brittle and spindly as those old hands were, the report came, in that hushed little office, like the snap of a whip. “And he is once again in the Here and Now. He wakes to the inevitable torment, to the want, to the soul’s undoing, to the…decay.” Dreir’s whole frame sank into his chair. “In real-time existence, according to that man’s philosophy, a wide-awake individual can undergo a similar process, only so gradually as to be unaware. In other words, he may ride the crest of events, and be washed up on the shore of happiness, so to speak, only to be just as surely sucked back by the undertow. Forward, peak, reverse. Up, tremble, down. Advance, retreat…surrender. As though a man’s life were a series of waves--a tide beyond his control. Oh no no no, Lester:  that undertow does not necessarily contain the precise elements as the breaking wave--the details can be different, but the process is the same…forward and reverse, growth and decay, hope and dismay--the controlling force is the Worm, son, and he is in all things.” Dreir sighed. “Predestination is a difficult concept to accept…which only buttresses that fellow’s assumption of happiness sought in a vacuum. Free will, blind chance, just desserts…forgive me, Lester. I do not mean to bring you disquietude in this loving place. Just an old man rambling at the deaf portal.” He lowered his head, leaned forward, and gripped Lester’s hands with useless passion. “Bless you, son. Bless you, bless you, bless you.” Dreir leaned back. “I wish for you to experience that heartbeat, Lester. In our so-called Confessional.” Mr. D now reached under the desk and came up with a shaggy old dog, its newspaper cushion still gripped in its claws. Dreir carefully removed shreds of paper before gently placing the dog on his desk for Lester’s inspection. The thing was so faded it could hardly stand.

            “This, Lester, is Boy.” He steadied the old dog in the crook of his left arm and used his right hand to wave its forepaw. “Boy, Lester. Lester, Boy.” The dog swayed, dipped, and folded into a mangy pile. Mr. D sighed clear from the grave. “Boy is blind and unable to function healthfully, as he had the misfortune of belonging to a cruel master, who could not appreciate the love of a sweet creature such as this dear and devoted animal. Due to his advanced age he is unable to hear in one ear, slow and prone to crabbiness…nature’s banes…yet, despite his years, he should be able to walk normally, digest properly, sleep in peace…he does not deserve to suffer so… no…not Boy…” Mr. Dreir caressed Lester’s hand and Boy’s curls, his eyes melting in their sockets. “Nevertheless, son, you will encounter so many wonderful souls in this world. In this very compound--you will meet unfortunates as yourself, who are dedicated only to the comfort and succor of their fellow man.” He dropped his head one last time and pushed himself to his feet.

“I’ve a pick-up to handle over at the Ralph’s on Harrison. Andrew will show you the room. See if you can get inside yourself; do a little searching. When I get back maybe we’ll be in a better frame for communicating.” He cracked the door. “Andy, show Lester into the Confessional. There’s somebody in there he’d like to meet.” Mr. Dreir picked up the clipboard. His cell phone rang and he clamped it on an ear. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” He carefully placed Boy on the floor, attached a little leash, and slowly walked him to the door. Decrepitude, high and low, passed from the room without looking back.

            Andrew took Lester’s elbow. “C’mon, Big L. We all gone in, and we all come out none the worse.” He moved his head Lester-wise, but backed off at the smell. “I’ll let you in on the grits right off:  ain’t nothin’ in there but a man’s conscience. Don’t let Mr. D spook you none. Just talk to the Man and c’mon back out.” They halted outside a little door. “I’ll come for you in ten.” He grinned and schoolmarmishly wagged a forefinger. “No sleepin’ now!” Andrew opened the door and switched on the light. Lester shuffled into a room no larger than a motel bathroom. It was as Dreir said:  a blank little cubbyhole, unkempt and unresolved. Andrew closed the door.

            Lester came to his knees by degrees, the single dusty bulb shivering from stale displaced air. He blew caked blood onto a sleeve. He could breathe. “Sir…” The effort at cogency was just too much. Lester swung his bowed head left and right. “Sir…” He looked back up. “Sir…please help me. Please. No more. I…I--please. No.” He sobbed for air and hacked, spewing all over his beard and coat. “Sir…I can’t, sir…I can’t.” His face shook and relaxed, shook and relaxed. Lester raised his two mangy paws as abbreviated fists, the deformed digits unable to clench. “If you care, help me,” he managed, “please! I can’t, sir. Please. Show me.” Lester coughed, almost retching. “Please, sir…” he wheezed. “Now. Please.”

            There was a knock and the door creaked open. “You still awake in there?” Andrew smiled. “Come on, man. Let’s go and get you some grub.”

            DeeWayne stopped them in the hallway. His eyes tore into Lester’s. “What’d I tell you? I said if you got any bugs you wasn’t to come in here without a proper delousing.” He swung his head. “Isn’t that what I told him?” Andrew smiled uncertainly.

            DeeWayne pulled out a pair of generic plastic surgical gloves, jammed them on up to the wrists. “C’m’ere!” He grabbed a handful of Lester’s hair and dragged him into the main warehouse. At Lester’s bed he pushed until that smashed red nose was almost buried, like a furious master about to toilet-train a diarrheic puppy.

            There was nothing to see but a faceful of linen.

            “Deaf and blind, huh? Well then, a*****e, let me describe it for you. They’s called lice, and they transport from man to man, you dig? Right now they could be anywhere on these-here premises, ’cause if they’s on this bed they’s anywhere your homeless a*s been. That means in the Confessional, that means in the van, that means in Mr. D’s own personal clothes for all I know.”

            He roared like a lion, grabbed Lester’s hair in both hands, and hurled him crashing into a bedpost. “Stay out of this, Andy, unless you want a piece of me too.” He punched and kicked, savagely, until Lester curled into a shaking fetal ball, then went ballistic; breaking a dustpan, push broom, and waste basket on the forearms and skull. When he ran out of weapons he gave a little shriek and began kicking the face maniacally; slobbering in his passion, falling and whaling from the floor, staggering upright, starting the process all over. Half the compound’s occupants cheered from a growing ring, half scrambled for cover. Lester was battered along like a smashed snake, sobbing with fear as he tried to make his feet. When DeeWayne came after him with a lock and chain, Lester lurched to his knees and scrambled out the door.

“That’s right, b***h, get out of here!” DeeWayne was an immensely strong individual. He now grabbed Andrew in one hand and Lester in the other, dragged them, pumping his arms left and right, clear across the lot to the van. “Open the damn door, Andy.”

Andrew did. DeeWayne kicked Lester inside, then kicked Andrew in behind him. “Close the damn door, Andy. If he moves, brain him.” DeeWayne stomped around to the driver’s side, jumped in and fired up the van. He took off like a lunatic, barely able to control the wheel. Lester and Andrew were hurled into a common lump amidst bags and damaged fruit.

DeeWayne swore as he tore onto the freeway, vilely and repeatedly. He cut off cars, lane-hopped wildly, broke every law in the book. Only the stress-relief caused by time and miles saved Lester from a solid tire iron-whooping. When they reached Markey’s Quik-Stop he screeched to a halt and composed himself.

“Open the damn door, Andy.”

Andrew did. DeeWayne watched Lester in the rear-view mirror. “Get out.”

Lester didn’t need to be told twice. He scrambled out and pitched onto the sidewalk.

“Close the damn door, Andy.”

The door slid shut and the van roared off.

Lester used a bus bench to haul himself up. He collapsed supine on the seat, left arm hanging over the gutter. He could tell at least one rib was broken; he had to force shallow breaths, even as every nerve demanded he savage the air. An eardrum was popped or inflamed, the same-side orbit crushed, the mouth locked up--his stomach was…twisting, he couldn’t hold it, his eyes bulged as he fought against countering life-forces:  those dyed-in-the-demon opposers that won’t let a wracked-and-ready animal die before it has experienced agony’s full measure. Unable to lift his head, Lester puked bloody bile, on his coat, over his face, out and back up his desperately flaring nostrils.

A spotlight made his private hell available to all. An amplified voice snapped, “You on the bench.” A car door opened. A flashlight’s beam fried his eyes.

“Sir. I need you to sit up for me.”

A second voice, farther off:  “Medical?”

The first voice. “Sir, do you need a doctor’s attention?” Something banged his smashed shoulder. “Sit up.”

Lester sat up at an angle, his left arm a straight prop for his shot Pisa-tower frame. He sucked wretched life back up his broken nose. The light moved eye-to-eye. The series of questions were looped sections of the same old nightmare:  Drugs? Alcohol? Identification? Address? Employer? Person to contact? General relief? Medi-Cal?

When the list was completed the light fell away. “Sir, I need you to vacate this bench immediately. Benches are not community property; they are provided for the convenience of persons financially capable of purchasing a seat on one of the lines, though frankly I doubt you’d be permitted to board in your present condition. Do you have bus money?”

Lester squeezed shut his eyes as another wave threatened.

“Then you have the option of walking away or facing arrest.”

That second voice, with feeling:  “Not in my car, Terry. I’m serious.”

“Get up.”

Lester draped his arms over the bench back and rose by walking up his butt. His knees screamed in protest.

“Keep going.” The light swung to his feet. Lester stood in a punch-drunk sway. “Get moving. Stay on the sidewalk. Do not cross the street against traffic. Use the crosswalk like everybody else. Push the button until you see the steady green hand. If you’re halfway across the street and that hand turns red and starts flashing, I want you to turn around and walk back to the curb. I don’t care what the instructions say on the little box. Do it until you get it right. We hit this corner every hour. I don’t want to see you back here again. Do we understand each other?”

“Thnk…” Lester managed. “Thkyu.”

“Get going.”

Lester clung to the pole like a drunk to a rail. He pushed the signal call button with deliberate accuracy and stared at that stern red hand forever. The patrol car cruised off. When the happy hand appeared it took Lester a full thirty seconds to peel himself off the pole, so by the time he was halfway across he was already being warned back. A bitty old lady stood on the island, hanging onto the miniature median call stand with one arm, her purse clutched meaningfully in the other. Her eyes were searing. “Get away from me,” she gnashed, “you filthy animal.” Lester staggered back to the curb. The old lady began a resolute march, against the light, while left-turning traffic waited patiently and drivers farther back, ignorant of the situation, leaned on their horns. It took two entire series, red through green, for the biddy to make the curb, one baby-step at a time, and by then the intersection was in gridlock. The moment she conquered the curb the whole mess blared past.

She stood glaring for the longest time. The walk hand glowed. The old lady raised hers in imitation, waved it in front of Lester’s fractured face. “What are you--dreaming? Wake up! You can go now. Go!” He stumbled off the curb and half-ran, half-staggered across the street.

He had to feel his way along the south wall to reach the mall parking lot. Lester collapsed in a doorwell, gripping his side. There was some serious internal damage; the spleen, perhaps, or a section of gut. His mouth had taken a real booting--teeth, tongue, lips. Lester wheezed away the blood. He opened his coat and gingerly lifted the shirt. His left lower quadrant was one massive bruise; just looking at it made him grind his teeth and squeeze shut his eyes. Gradually his head reclined in a whipped animal nod. Bloody saliva rolled into his beard.

His foot was kicked, then the leg. The bad leg. Lester’s eyes popped open and he snarled.

A skinny brown security guard was looking down on him, his cap tilted aggressively. “Get out of the doorway, a*****e. You ain’t supposed to be on this property, and you know it.” He kicked harder. “Don’t f**k with me, m**********r! I’ll mace your a*s in a hurry.” Lester’s striving hands failed him.

The guard tore out his walkie-talkie. “Peepers? I got a bum down here at SweePea’s. No, but he’s giving me a hard time. He don’t want to leave. Sure I told him, man; first thing out of my mouth. Can I juice him? But he is resisting!” He kicked savagely, just below the bruised quadrant. Lester roared to his knees. “He’s coming at me, Peeps! Didn’t you hear that? I got to protect myself, don’t I? Then how about the stick? But you heard, damn it!”

Lester pulled himself to his feet. The guard shoved the walkie-talkie back in its holster.

“Get your nasty a*s out of here! Snap out of it, punk--go do your sleeping somewheres else.” Lester staggered past. The guard, attempting to kick Lester’s hindquarters, slipped in a puddle and fell on his own. “Go!

Lester stumbled into the road, hugging his screaming side. Braking cars swerved on the wet asphalt. He stumbled into the undergrowth and pitched over a crushed section of fence, pulled himself past the ditch and went kicking through roots and scrub. Something large darted between his flagging feet. Eyes gleamed redly in the brush and scattered; some were not so quick. Lester’s legs gave out and he fell on his back to protect his injured vitals. Something moist slapped his forehead; blood from above. Another hit his cheek, and another, his nose. Half a minute later the rain was coming down for real.

 

ronsandersartofprose@yahoo.com

http://ronsandersatwork.com

© 2010 Ron Sanders


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Added on October 17, 2010
Last Updated on December 9, 2010
Tags: story, homelessness, charity, existentialism, natural law, are you a Mr. BigThinks Man?

Author

Ron Sanders
Ron Sanders

Marina del Rey, CA



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L.A.-based novelist, illustrator, poet, short story writer. more..

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Norm Norm

A Story by Ron Sanders