Lance Huffmeister sat on his flea ridden mattress, the morning sun deluging the sparse premises of his tent with neither a knock or a warning, and it took all the strength he was able to muster to apply the hook to the two canvas flaps he held accountable for welcoming the unwanted intruder. Somewhere outside a girl was bawling with the force of a bursting dam, her voice mitigated and finally rendered silent the moment she realized that the credulity of her parents bore no reliability that morning, if indeed they were even awake. Lance shook his head in the darkness. Too many people were crying wolf these days.
Suddenly a stir rustling on the mattress next to his. The equanimity of his partner veritably palpable, Lance resisted the intrinsic urge to step outside and leave the flaps open just to evoke an objection, anything from that lame excuse of what could have passed for a man in any other civil society. But indolence again prevailed, leaving him to endeavor with his mouth what his feet could no longer induce.
"You hear that, Colin?" he said. "I think that was a girl crying."
"I didn't hear it," Colin replied through the fragments of a yawn. "Go back to sleep."
"Poor thing," Lance persisted. "I think she may be looking for her mom. What do you think, Col?"
"Turn off the freakin' television," said Colin, rolling back into a prone position.
"Christ, Col," said Lance, "the next thing you'll tell me is the gas you just released was a deflated balloon. I say we help the girl."
The answer to his suggestion was a long mock snore that pervaded the tent and further aggravated Lance's headache. How funny was the notion that not only had the times changed but how they had changed. Just how he could have possibly conjured up a headache of that magnitude without the assistance of a single drop of liquor was as perplexing as his roommate (in this case tentmate since the day they had been served the eviction notice) sleeping all day. What had the ancient Greeks coined as a hero? An individual with the choice of two paths, both leading to catastrophe? It clearly had his name written all over it. Given the choice between spending the entire day in darkness with a slug too lazy to breathe these days and venturing out on his quest for something edible, he chose the latter, albeit with a heart heavier than the feet that he sometimes swore had foregone conventional creation and had obstinately decided to mold themselves out of cement.
Brushing the dust off his pants he hadn't washed in weeks, Lance felt vindicated in his belief that here, in this prototypical shantytown, with its tents and shacks with corrugated tin roofs, people cared as much about fashion statements as the dirt they slept on. Unlike here, the people in the apartment complex they had recently vacated would glare at you rapaciously, like a piranha waiting for the first drop of blood to invoke their feeding frenzy, with minor slips like a spot on your shirt or a hole in your pants sufficient to qualify for the whispering voices in the halls and the elevator. By comparison, the squatters here were herbivores. Worse yet, in his mind they had already been devoured and were now ready to claim the lowest rung in the food chain that placed you a rank below the insects. The upside to this newly acquired status was that the predators would now leave you alone, unless they stepped into you amidst a flurry of cusses leveled at the crap adorning the soles of their shoes. Bearing this in mind, Lance smiled as he passed the last of the metal shacks at the edge of Shantytown, his destination the huge dumpster behind the two star hotel Splendid, which offered a laminated menu compared to the occasional trashcan around here, carrying everything from soiled diapers to rotting food only the flies considered useful for their survival. Nonchalantly passing the wall dividing the civilized world from the supposed human rejects, Lance stopped and looked for people, maybe hotel guests or the concierge, before making his move. Finding nobody, he slipped through the crack in the wall and quickly advanced to the dumpster that conveniently screened him from any potential guests who may have decided to enjoy the vista on their balconies, however sordid a picture it presented. He had to work quickly now. Combing through the dumpster's contents, he cheerfully snapped his fingers upon finding, in short order, two impeccably preserved half loaves of baguette, two miniature plastic containers of butter and jelly, and one shiny red apple that bore neither a bruise nor a dent. And that's why people starve in the world, he thought, filling the items into an old brown bag that had just harbored an empty bottle of Cutty Sark he now removed and tossed back into the dumpster. People. They just didn't get it. What Lance never saw was the hand grabbing his cuff and violently throwing him to the ground like a sack of Sunday's trash. He dropped the paper bag on the ground, where it now lay between him and the guard he now recognized as Drew, a guy he had already had his sweet run-ins with, none of them pleasant. Lance rubbed his head after it had involuntarily met the concrete and now saw from the corner of his eye a couple on one of the hotel balconies, cheering on the guard to inflict further damage on the bum intent on stealing their waste.
"What gives, Drew?" Lance meekly protested. "This ain't Fort Knox. You're acting like I was going after your family in there."
"And I told you," said Drew, "that you have no business being on the premises here, several fucking times. You're lucky I don't have your sorry ass just taken in. Now hit the road, Shitbird."
"You know what I'm looking for," Lance replied, slowly rising to his feet. "You know I never set a foot in that goddamn hotel. What's wrong with a bunch of trash feeding the homeless?"
"Nothing," said Drew, "except that I lose my job if I let people like you so much as look at this place. You knew the rules. You got caught. Happens to the best of us. And oh, we got cameras too."
"Fuck you," said Lance, picking up the brown bag.
"You were looking for trash just the same."
"Nope," Lance retorted, "I was looking at it."
"Didn't know you had a mirror with you on duty," said Lance and headed for the front exit of the premises.
"Dumb ass," said Drew, pointing with his stick to the wall. "That's where you came from. That's where you leave. We're gonna have the whole freakin' hotel check out if they see you leaving out front."
"Whatever," said Lance and waved to the couple on the balcony before heading for the crack in the wall.
"The bag stays here," Drew ordered.
"I don't think so," said Lance and made a run for the wall with the guard in hot pursuit. He barely managed to slip through the crack when he felt the club connect with his arm, sending waves of brute pain shooting up his shoulder. He clutched the brown paper bag and rubbed his sore arm. What a price to pay for eating breakfast. Inflation sure had taken on absurd proportions these days.
Only after he had almost reached the tent did he notice that the bottom of the bag had fallen out owing to the sticky wet residue of the whisky bottle, taking with it everything but the apple. Shit. For a moment he considered returning to the dumpster to have Drew arrest him and have him thrown into jail, where at least he could treat himself to food without having to loiter for it. But then he imagined warding off prison inmates, possible rapists and crack addicts drawing a bead on his ass, and grimaced at the prospect of defending himself with one good arm. He shook his head and stuffed the paper bag into the nearest trashcan, keeping the apple for himself, rubbing it off his shirt before taking a bite out of it, making sure to finish it off before re-entering the tent. Inside, it smelled like weed.
"Fucking pot head," Lance murmured, opening the flaps. "Plenty of vitamins and nutrients. Hell, you smoke enough of that and that pudding between your ears might convince you that you'll never have to go hungry again. Where did you get it from, anyway?"
"It's just a roach," Colin replied, taking a deep drag. "Want some?"
"Keep it," said Lance, "put it on your freakin' toast, for all I care."
"Not a bad idea," Colin replied, "what's wrong with your arm? Looks you were playing tennis out there, and you were the fuckin' ball."
A short glance at his arm re-enforced what Lance already knew, and he gently ran his fingertips over the bruise, now the size and color off an eggplant, although not even remotely as edible. Visiting the doctor was out of the question. With no address or identification handy, he could just as easily have passed for a dying fly having just crept out from underneath the swatter and begging for help. But then he realized that crap didn't speak. It only smelled.
"I'll get by," Lance replied, "it can't be a fracture, that's for sure. I'll just have my healthcare plan take care of it."
"You ain't got none," said Colin, stuffing out the roach.
"Sure I do," said Lance. "It's called time, and I've got plenty of it. And I never paid a premium for it in my life."
Their conversation was interrupted by a scuffle outside, and Lance heard the rancid voices of two Hispanics accompanying each shove and swing with a reference to their mothers, the supposed tainted sexual preference of each of the men, and animalistic grunts that could have just as easily been issued from a pigsty, which was not too far removed from the truth. A crowd of people gathered around the fray, with one part cheering on José, the other encouraging Pedro to land the knockout punch.
"What's the big deal?" asked Colin. "Are they in this for the workout?"
"Nah," Lance replied, shaking his head. "I think Jose stole Pedro's space, from the look of things."
"Barbarians," Colin quipped. "Have them fight it out in court. I'm sure the judge will settle this to everybody's liking."
Wheeling from a blow landed to the midsection, José picked a bottle off the ground and flung it at Pedro's head, missing by inches. Stunned by the iniquitous tactics employed by his nemesis, Pedro charged with full force, knocking José flat on his back. A couple more jabs to the face, and the fight was over, leaving José's nose bleeding in the dirt and quickly attracting the flies laying their claims to the spoils at the expense of the loser. People roared their approval over the spectacle as Pedro shook the dirt off his faded jeans. He drew blood from a cut on his lip he was nursing and spat out a tooth that he then picked up and complacently stuffed into his back pocket, to be retrieved and gloated over on demand. Losers buried their knocked out teeth, praying for time to lend its generosity in quickly dissolving the unsolicited souvenir, while the winners would do anything from carrying it around like a rabbit's foot to encasing it and rewarding it with a permanent place on the pallet, the crate, or whatever item would serve as a trophy case. Somewhere in the heavily polluted grounds of Shantytown lay buried two of Lance's teeth, he remembered, and he knew that the odds were greater that the tooth fairy had replaced each of them with a dollar bill than the chance of him ever digging them out again. Some corpses were best left buried.
"Packs quite a punch, doesn't he?" said Colin, whose feet probably still hadn't touched the ground yet that day.
"Yeah," said Lance, "and what did the moron win? Absolutely nothing. A spot closer to the sewer entrance. That'll put him on Time's cover."
"Time to get up," said Colin, still lying flat on his back. "Time to live off other people's money for another day."
"Get me some white bread," said Lance. "And some butter would be nice."
"Sure thing," Colin chuckled and finally rose to his feet, knocking his head against the top tent-pole that somehow remained in place.
"You head-butt the donors out there like that," Lance muttered, "and you won't get the saliva dribbling from their kissers."
"Morning blues," Colin replied, rubbing his head.
"Yeah," said Lance. "At fucking two o'clock in the afternoon. Wish I were that lucky."
"Later, man," said Colin and disappeared behind the entry flaps.
Lance sighed meekly in the dark, wishing now he had taken a drag from the roach to ease the pain, and likened the thump thump thump emanating from his arm to a kettle-drum that nauseatingly drowned out the rest of the chamber orchestra within his body steadfastly trying to pump blood into his brain that stubbornly insisted he was hurting. There was no other option but to take the pain, eat it, knowing it was quite probable that it would be the only thing he would eat all day. At least he had already eaten an apple, reminding himself cynically how people loved that apple-a-day proverb, but the real reason it did manage to keep the doctor away, he thought, was that his goddamn bills were too high.
The pounding in his arm gradually wearing thin in the dark, Lance got up to find dinner. Not having to scavenge for money to pay the rent was one thing, convenient indeed, but leaving the body's demands unfulfilled and denying it the nutritional visitors it needed would eventually condemn it to an excruciating solitary death, he knew. There was still Lincoln Park on Ash and Waverland Avenue, an enticing prospect for picnickers on such a hot day, although he hoped that they had kept the dogs at home since it wasn't a rarity for Rex and Rover to pester human beings that smelled like they did. With eight garbage cans that he had counted there on his last visit, Lincoln Park was easily considered the trusted source for food, not just in the minds of the armies of ants faithfully pillaging the dumps.
His hunch was correct, as blankets strewn throughout the grounds carried dozens of families, some enjoying the remnants of their lunch, others idly frolicking in the sun like tourists on the beach, the trashcans at a safe distance and rarely monitored. Loiterers like him combing through the waste were no anomaly, another one of the reasons picnickers kept the cans at bay besides the putrid smell of their contents. Lance counted three dogs, each one of them pre-occupied with the seemingly arduous task of chasing a Frisbee or a stick, only to have their owners watch them repeat the cycle the moment the dogs had retrieved it and deferentially laid it back at their feet. Good deal. Now if only the little kids could nap for a while, hence sparing him the embarrassment of overhearing questions pertaining to why people fished food out of the trash, then he could collect the food and then quickly get the hell out of Dodge without any regrets.
From his position at the edge of the park, he discovered three of the cans to be overloaded, with several paper plates and cups, which for whatever reason didn't make it into the cylindrical containers, scattered about only inches from the bases. Predictably, the two cans at both ends of the park were nearly empty, save for a newspaper or a Styrofoam cup containing cold coffee already gathering mildew. He made his way to the middle, ignoring the picnickers' distrustful glances that shifted from his morbid figure to where they believed to have stored their purses and wallets. A paper bag, virtually unused, lay at the top of one of the heaps, and Lance, eager not to duplicate the error he had committed that morning, turned it upside down and shook it to rid it of any contents. Finding none, he went about his business, bagging half a bag of chips, two sandwiches missing but a couple of bites, and a container of milk at least half full. Collecting loot like this was rarely this easy, although the process was not completed without a further reminder of how people perceived him, as if their glances at his arrival were not already a firm indication of it.
"Daddy," a little girl spoke up, tugging at her father's sleeve. "Who is that man?"
"Don't worry about him, Dear," came the answer from her dad. "That's just the trash collector."
"Daddy, what's a trash collector?"
"People who collect trash, Dearest."
"Why do they collect trash?" the girl persisted. "It's dirty."
"So are they," said her father, his voice as patronizing as a schoolmaster's. "So are they. They collect it so you and Mommy and I can stay clean."
"Uh-huh," the girl replied nodding, her focus undeterred by what her father had just said.
"Stop staring at the man," said her father, jerking his daughter's shoulder around.
Lance bypassed the other two cans stuffed to the brims, uneager about receiving more choice remarks from bored children. Adding to that, the dogs were tiring, their hanging tongues vacillating like defect pendulums requiring repair, a lucid sign that he would be their next likely target the moment they replenished their batteries. Clearly, he had not earned his stripes in the business yet, unlike those hardcore veterans on Broadway who could absorb abuse as easily as a crash test dummy, their shaggy beards and ratty hair complimenting their filthy clothes, only one hint that people were perfectly capable of dropping below the level of resignation.
His pace torpid and deliberate, Lance headed home, ignoring his own desires to flop into the grass and cool off in the shade and maybe enjoy the weekend that had now been perpetuated for months without a Monday in sight. On his way back to the tent he inadvertently tripped over a can of beans lying in his path, sending the owner of the food, a black fellow, people just referred to as Jake, into spasms of fury that could not have been reciprocated by a pitbull.
"You will pay for that," he vowed. "Man, will you ever."
"Ease up, man," said Lance, already wondering what payment the guy had in mind. "I'll pick them up for you."
"Piss off," Jake replied. "Ain't no such thing as beans with dirt as a fucking sidedish."
"Sorry about that," said Lance. "And I mean that."
"We'll fix you up," was Jake's terse reply before he disappeared into his shanty.
Inside the tent, Colin was spreading butter onto a fresh slice of white bread Lance instantly recognized as his favorite brand.
"You devil," said Lance, "what gives? Where did you find the gun to rob people?"
"In my mouth," Colin replied. "Called a tongue. And no gun could ever puke out worse lies than mine. Today my wife happened to kick the bucket."
Before Lance could reveal his relatively meager findings the earth was shook by a long sonic boom that rattled tent-poles and metal panels alike.
"What the hell was that?" Lance snapped.
"Nothing, man," replied Colin, continuing to apply the spread to his bread. "It's just the mailman."
"Shit," Lance replied, "A mailman carrying plastic explosives strapped to his back, more like."
"You worry too much," said Colin.
The word that traveled throughout Shantytown was that a miniature gas tank used for cooking had exploded into the man's face, nearly decapitating him and blinding his roommate. The claim to fill the shanty that had belonged to both men was hotly disputed, resulting in several more scuffles involving four families in all. From inside the tent, Lance watched the spilled beans still lying in the dirt, now garnering massive armies of ants nibbling away at the prized possession for their queen. Lance shook his head, watching another two prospective tenants exchange blows over the rights to the vacated unit. Kind of made you want to work for a living again.
Later that night while lying in bed, Lance felt something excruciatingly hot tugging at his senses, at first mistaking it for the pain in his arm that had not entirely subsided yet. When the heat spread to his legs and feet, he panicked.
"Colin," he said, "wake up."
"What is it?"
"Do you feel anything?"
"Yeah," Colin replied, "kinda hot in here."
Lance turned on the flashlight and scanned the tent. He found an amber circle glowing at one side of the tent, quickly spreading and gnawing through the canvas.
"Get up, Col," Lance barked. "The tent is on fire."
"Go to sleep, man," Colin muttered. "Nothing's on fire."
Lance sat on his bed and sighed. Then, suppressing a curse
underneath his breath, he slowly rose to find water.
© 2002 Andrew Longworth, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This story deals with lethargy that seems to be abundant in society these days, with a major portion of time spent just to search for the bare necessities. Both Colin and Lance exemplify this nonchalance, both barely even startled by a calamity of their own (the fire reaching their tent).