Issue No. 11 – March 2016
Morning, there’s a woman in front of my shack.
Mangled earlobe, a fat mole sprouting multiple black hairs on her neck. She says they’re giving away free food, first come first serve, up at Gray Park. She has a trim figure, seductive curves to her. She squats like a dog and then lets her back down against the tin wall of my shack.
I’ve never seen her before.
She cranes her chin toward me. “Spare a buck so I can go down and get a rock?”
Another mole on the top of her breast is jagged, reddish, huge, maybe cancer.
“I’ve seen you work,” she says. “Spare something, yeah?” She frowns and nods. “Spare a rock maybe?”
I say to her, “Smoked all I had yesterday.”
She doesn’t believe me.
Grendel, my cat, whines, meowing at the wall. The woman acknowledges the noise with just her eyes and for only for a second.
She rests her head against the wall and plays with something in her pocket.
“Food at Gray Park,” she says, “sounds nice today.”
She stays sitting there with the scratching and whining at her back—scratching and whining for me—and I go.
The man who lives in the shack in front of mine—a nicer shack, a house I guess, a shitty house, but it’s got a basement which is important in Wichita, Kansas—is Fred. Fred sells things in the parking lot on the corner. I find the things to sell.
Up an alley, down another, maybe a mile’s walk through cool air under a hot sun, kind of sun that warms your bones, kind of air that gives you goose bumps in a breeze, I find a block of shit: a row of squat brick apartments set in gravel lots, abandoned. Gleaming blue dumpsters occupy the parking spaces. Across the street, behind the buildings, is an undeveloped field. Even seeing so far, there’s nothing to see but the sky, its own kind of wall.
A kid, a teenager I guess, carries an armload of bed-pillows and chucks them over the wall of the dumpster next to me.
“I’m just gonna take a look,” I say to him.
He avoids my eyes as he turns and walks back to the building. Smart kid, I guess. Don’t give a dude like me an ounce of attention. If you give a bum a cookie, right? It’s a waste of time, and you’re risking God knows what. Bums can be fucking assholes.
I jump and prop myself on the wall of the dumpster with my forearms. It’s all cushions, bed and couch, blankets, a mattress or two, and in the far corner a short pile of teddy bears. The metal begins to cook my arms. I fall back on my heels on hard dirt. The kid is already back, hugging a big, broken rollie chair, and he’s staring at me. His eyes give my nerves one firm shake. He heaves the chair over. He seems to wait for it to crash, but of course it doesn’t. He walks casually away, concealing apprehension. The dirt, after a minute, cooks my feet.
I find the ladder around the backside of the dumpster and climb in. Struggling to stand tall on the cushions, taking stock of the outside world, I see more kids hauling shit out of the buildings. They march. They hollow, gut, dislodge, and they take fixtures, pipes, wall hangings, papers, documents, files, photos, all value-items in a pile by the dumpsters. The kid who’s already seen me is back again. He tosses one end-table and then another end-table into the opposite side of the dumpster. As he walks away this time, he takes a cell phone from his pocket and seems to dial a number.
My legs sink as I walk. I climb over the chair which floats on the cushions like a capsized boat in water. I wade past the end-tables. I dig into the stuffed animals. The pile’s deep. It goes below the surface of cushions and all the way to the bottom.
I fill a garbage bag which I’ve brought along tucked in the waist of my shorts.
The kid’s coming back; I hear him.
There’s a knock on the dumpster with a polite, chipper beat, like, can Jason come out to play?
I toss the bag over, listen to it plop on the hot dirt, and then climb after it. The kid is standing a ways off. There’s a man waiting for me. He wears Dickies boots and Dickies pants and a plaid button down, tucked. He’s got a square shape to him.
“You looking for work, guy,” he asks.
I don’t know what to say. I never know what to say. The kids have all stopped in their tracks and are now watching this conversation. I try to just stare at my feet.
“I’d pay you 25 for the day. Normal’s 30, but I can give you all of 25,” he says.
I realize my feet are burning again, so I take a step back into a patch of grass.
“See, the day’s already started, guy,” the man says.
When I look at him now, I think I recognize him, but I can’t say where from. I’m sweating and blushing, and he won’t let this question go. I want so badly to say yes. Pay me. Fuck Fred. Fred can find his own shit. You pay me whatever the fuck you want. But a million little strings seem to be tugging me away, tugging me back down the alleys and away from these eyes.
“I can get you your own pair of boots,” the man says.
“No thank you, sir,” I say.
Before I leave, he puts his hand on my shoulder. He tells me to only take from the dumpsters. He says, long as I do that, there won’t be problems. He lowers his voice. He says, “You hear?” He adjusts his pants, and he says it again, “You hear?”
By Fred’s tent, a car sits half in the street, half in the lot. Is it dead? A man hangs his whole torso out the window. He’s shaking his head. A boy on the sidewalk yells and throws his hands, pointing somewhere. The boy says, “I will see you later.”
I’m talking to Fred as this is happening. I have no idea how it started. I have no idea what it is.
A police car, stuck in the lane behind the scene, blares a crowd horn.
The man retracts his torso, and the car peels off. Traffic begins to creep forward.
“Why’d you call him ‘sir?” Fred says to me.
He wears sweat like an accessory, beads locked in the pores across his cheeks and up his long forehead. He smiles.
His smile reminds me that he is, in fact, a handsome man. I am, in fact, an ugly man.
“Maybe he used to be your sergeant in the war?”
I shake my head.
“Professor in college?” Fred says. “Partner at the law firm?”
I plop myself down in the lawn chair that Fred’s brought for me. I say probably not, and Fred laughs. His laugh is big and obnoxious. It makes me feel good, good enough to stick around today. Grendel can wait to be fed. He’ll meow all day and maybe tear something up, but he’ll still love me when I get home.
Fred adds to his cardboard sign, “Bears, 4 for $1.”
The weather is nice and the traffic for the tent is nicer. Clouds give the sun a rest from time to time. The electronics from my last haul sell, and now the bears are mostly all that’s left.
Fred has a lady, but he smiles and laughs with the women who come by. I hang back. He knows a lot of them and they know him. More people know him than he remembers. When some men give him a knowing handshake and a “take it easy,” he comes back and says to me he didn’t know that dude, didn’t want to know that dude, or he thinks that dude used to run with such and such a crowd back when he was drinking.
I ask Fred how he feels about food at Gray Park. “Some charity must be giving it out,” I say. “How do you feel about that,” I say again.
“Heard it’s rotten,” he says.
He says, yeah, they’re already people sick from it. He says, you know, if it’s the first thing you’ve eaten in a few days, it’s liable to kill you. This doctor, a friend of his—or used to be but he’s a real fucking asshole—he told Fred all about the health hazards of spoiled food on an intermittently used gastrointestinal system.
A bony hand comes down on Fred’s shoulder. He jerks away and spins. The hand belongs to an old woman. Her skin is papery and spotted. Her hair is in a tight, gray fro. Fred greets her with a hug. When he tries to pull away, she holds him. She moves her paper lips to his ear and whispers. Raspy breath pouring from her, she glances at me. Her eyes are yellow.
Fred turns to me. He says he has to pop around the corner for a second. He asks if I can hold down the fort. He tells me I need to sell some shit today. He says money is the life stream, and the stream’s drying.
“Keep your chin up and smile,” he says. “Key to sales, kid, is to sell.”
The street noises wax and wane with flips of the adjacent traffic light. Only cars pass. Easy to forget these metal things are the faces of people, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, young suburban groups of jackass teens. The city fades from dull gray to white hot as clouds cover the sun and then pass.
Wind rattles the dry weeds that sprout from cracks in the parking lot beneath the tent.
A pretty lady, clear skin, a sun dress to her knees, and a little girl come by holding hands. I don’t smile because my smile, I know, is uglier than my face, having recently lost a tooth. Tripped and landed on a bike rack.
I try to look positive without smiling. It’s in the eyes, I think.
She looks over the whole table, the spots where electronics used to be, but now they’re empty spots with signs advertising iPods for 10, cell phones for 20, non-working laptops for 5, and then she comes to the bears. The little girl watches the traffic move as the light at the corner turns. The lady looks up at me with this giddy, mousy smile and bright eyes.
“My kids would love them,” she says. Then she starts talking.
She’s a teacher. Well she doesn’t get paid like a teacher because she isn’t a full-on teacher with certification or whatever they give you these days. She has a whole class and all that, but still. Anyways, like “certified” teachers get paid crap! So she gets paid very little, obviously, and she just needs these for her kids. They’re kindergarteners, and she is a kindergarten teacher even though she wanted fifth graders. She doesn’t know what kindergarteners like these days, but parents love to see mounds of stuffed animals in their kids’ classroom, right?
The little girl watches the traffic pitch to a stop, that endless moment when no one can go, and then again it creeps forward. A fresh, cool breeze blows her hair back.
“How much for the whole table,” the lady says.
I count the animals. Should be nine dollars, but I don’t say anything.
She says, “You know all of them should be nine, right? Well I only have seven.”
“Sounds about right to me,” I say.
I smile. Immediately, I look at my feet.
When I look back up at her, she’s counting one dollar bills.
I let her use the trash bag I used to carry them earlier. And I’m done selling. Money in my pocket. I could tell Fred she took them for six, but maybe he’d say that’s too low for the lot, and what’s an extra buck for me? Wouldn’t do that to a friend anyways.
As she fills the bag, I tell her I’m thinking about going up to Gray Park for a bite. I ask her if she’s heard anything about that today.
Without stopping (pick, examine, stuff down into the trash bag) she says that actually, she thinks she heard that there was a shooting up there. “Good food, but maybe too good, right?”
She knots the bag and nods. She pulls the girl’s hand, and they’re gone.
Fred comes back with vague eyes not really concentrating on anything. He looks like he’s been crying. After a moment standing, just standing, he says “We get robbed?”
“Sold them all. Cut a lady a deal for seven,” I say.
“Fuck.” He says, “What do we sell now?”
“Shit,” he says.
“I don’t know,” I say, “Nothing.”
“Were there more animals in that trash?”
There were probably twenty I didn’t grab, but I don’t mention it.
He tells me to go back anyways. He tells me to earn my keep. He tells me we need to sell more before the storm rolls through. “Old bitch said it’s gonna be a big one,” he says.
I look up at the clouds while I walk. One direction they’re the kind you’re supposed to guess what they look like with your lady or your kids; the other way’s the kind you sit out late on your porch and watch roll in while your lady strokes your hair. It’s the kind of storm that’ll make a racket against my tin roof all night. Grendel will meow pathetically and curl up tight against me.
At the block of shit, the kids stand around near the buildings drinking beer. The man paying them is there too. Elbows stuck at ninety degrees with the beers in hand, they all watch me. When I start to climb the dumpster and they remember why I’m here, they begin to drink again.
The dumpster is full now. The animals are buried under broken furniture and garbage, rotten food and molded planks of cardboard. It smells like vomit and mayonnaise.
My feet don’t sink. I toe into flat, hard spots, trying to judge if my weight will hold.
My foot breaks through into a sort of crevasse. Pulling it out, something drags against my skin. I can feel flesh unzipping. This’ll need stitches, I know. I’ll have to put glue on it, since I can’t ever seem to stitch too good.
I balance on one foot to look at it.
It’s barely deep enough to turn pink, and so I plod on to the far side of the dumpster.
In the corner where the animals should be, I dig. I throw everything behind me. Shit clangs against the metal walls of the dumpster. I lose myself in the motion, prying shit from shit and throwing it. The clanging becomes a storm.
“Excuse me, man,” someone shouts to me. It’s the well-dressed man’s voice.
I stop and keep my head down.
“Are you going to be long? We have trucks coming to get these, hopefully…hopefully in less than ten minutes.”
Even with my head down, I feel everyone staring through the dumpster at me. Everything here is waiting on me. I try to think where I know this man from. I try to think why this is a problem. When the trucks come I will hear them. When I hear them, I can either get out or lie down and go with them.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I say, “I just want these animals.”
He sighs loudly. He says “Look, guy, I can’t just be sitting around here waiting on your ass, not making shit.”
I think his name is Mike. I think he’s a mean son of bitch with a whiny wife and bratty kids. I can picture all this but not where I know him from.
“Well get the fuck out,” he says.
I dig. He bangs on the walls of the dumpster. He yells and bangs and bangs. He calls me a dirty bum, tells me to crawl my ass outta there. Then he stops, and I stop with him. I hear him say something to the drinking kids. A joke, I assume, but no one laughs.
I dig quietly until I get to the animals. Grime now clings to their fur, and some are damp. I don’t have another trash bag.
I take my shirt off and fill it. They’re too wide to fall through the collar or the sleeves. The eye and the ear of a red something sticks out of one of the sleeves. I get maybe eleven.
I don’t know if anyone watches me get out, because I won’t look.
Walking back down the alleys, rain speckles the pavement. Every once in a while, a drop pricks my scalp.
At the tent, Fred isn’t in sight.
I set the bears up without him and wait.
First the gusts whip at the trees. Then the rain comes in sideways. The whole city is darkened and twisted, but the cars still creep forward. I stand at a small dry space at one corner of the tent. Orbs of ice bounce against the pavement and onto my feet. The animals tumble off the table and roll away into the parking lot. When they’re fully soaked, they stick to the pavement. They look dead.
Fred isn’t coming back.
When the big siren wails over the city, I throw my shirt on and jog toward me and Fred’s shacks. I weave through the cars sitting at the light and take to the alleys.
I bang on Fred’s door: no answer. I bang on his back door: no answer. I tap on one of his basement windows. Light gleams out at me. Beside the glare, I can make out Fred’s face. He yells something at me, but I can’t hear over the rain and the hail that washes over my body and beats the side of his house. I go to the back door and bang again and again. I don’t think he’s coming. But the door opens.
Inside, fresh silence surrounds me, and the deep, wet chill in my body finally occurs to me. I wait for Fred to show me to the basement. He looks at me like he wants to say something. His chest heaves. I nod, hello. He tells me to wait. He goes and rummages around in the kitchen, looking for something, probably some valuable to take into the basement. While I shiver and drip all over his floor, I can hear the clanging on the roof of my shack across the way. It rings like an ugly percussion instrument. Maybe while Fred looks for whatever the hell he’s looking for, the hail will break that shack and I won’t care. Fred will have whatever pointless thing he’s looking for, my shack will be leveled, and that’ll be that.
Fred comes back from rummaging with nothing, and we go down into his basement.
We don’t talk for a while. We just sit with the radio. There’s so much static, we can’t hear the weathermen, or maybe Fred never set it to a station. Maybe he wants the white noise to fill the air.
Looking out the basement window, I imagine seeing the woman from this morning. I see her walking by, taking a beating from the rain miserably but triumphantly with a bag of food at her side. And I see her dead at Gray Park, poisoned and shot, waiting for a tornado to carry her away. In any event, I probably won’t ever meet her again.
“Where’s your lady,” I say to Fred.
“Don’t have one,” he says.
The radio pitch wavers. Fred looks up from his lap to me. He just stares for a while. Then he sucks at his teeth.
Looking into my eyes, he says, “What’s your name again?”
My mind stumbles. I think for a while, for too long.
He jumps in before I can answer, “Didn’t you have a cat, man?”
Joe Scott is from Wichita, Kansas, born 1987. He now lives in Seattle. He has edited for the lit mag Bastards and Whores, and reported/edited for the news mag YES! Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Sonora Review, Adroit Journal, Arcadia, and Not One of Us. He makes his money in kitchens—not the fancy kind. He can be found online at JoeScottTheWriter.com.