Miranda's Dance

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Chapter Eleven

You’re probably wondering about the charmer back there. That’s Officer Hoekstra. I don’t know his first name. It’s probably Satan or something. He’s a real prince, don’t you think? Yeah, the Prince of Darkness! Unfortunately, that just scratches the surface. Hoekstra is without a doubt the worst cop out here. He’s a fucking sadist, through and through. He’s the reason people out here fear the police. Well, him and all of the other cops just like him. Everyone out here knows him. Most of us have the bruises and scars and nightmares to prove it. Shit, some people even have the bullet holes to prove it. He’s definitely trigger-happy. He’s also the most vicious fucking asshole I’ve ever met. Well, except for Ricky. I can’t believe Hoekstra’s a cop. He reminds me of a serial killer. Hell, he probably is a serial killer! He’s the worst cop I’ve ever seen, and he hates the homeless with a fucking passion. He loves to fuck with us, and over the years, I’ve been one of his favorite victims. Maybe he’s got a thing for torturing women? Probably. Usually he’s satisfied with just humiliating me, but there have been more than a few occasions where he wanted a pound of flesh. He got it. He’s beaten the crap out of me more times than I can count. I think hearing me scream turns him on. Sometimes he gets creative. How’s that, you say? Well, one time Hoekstra and some of his buddies made me run an old-fashioned gauntlet. They just grabbed me off the street, cuffed me and drove me to a place near the warehouses. For a second there, I actually thought they were going to gang rape me. But then they started pulling a bunch of junkies out of the other cars. They lined up in two lines and made us run between them while they hit us with flashlights. Those things are worse than nightsticks. I was the last one in line. I swear, it was one of the worst beatings I’ve ever taken, and that’s saying something. I had bruises from head to toe. I think I had a broken a rib, and Hoekstra made a point of cracking me square on the back of my head. I probably got a concussion from that one, but at least it wasn’t a fucking kill shot. That’s where they hit you so hard, your brain ends up hanging out of the back of your head. Unfortunately, you might survive and be brain-damaged for life. Anyway, I could hear them laughing the whole time. It’s a wonder they didn’t kill me. I actually blacked out for a few seconds. I couldn’t breathe. I really thought they were going to kill me. Think about that: I thought the cops were going to murder me for the fun of it, and it wasn’t just me being paranoid. That says a lot about this fucking place.

The next thing I remember was Hoekstra and another cop kicking me and screaming at me to get up. I didn’t even remember falling down. I just sort of came to on the ground. Jesus, I couldn’t stand up to save my life – which is exactly what I was trying to do. I remember my nose was bleeding and I couldn’t see straight. Every time I tried to stand up, I fell down. They weren’t even hitting me anymore, but I couldn’t stand up. I was so dizzy. I felt like I was going to puke, and I tried not to because I was afraid I’d choke on it. They probably would’ve made me lick it up if I did. I could barely breathe because they hit me in the stomach so many times. They also made a point of hitting me on my tits and kicking me right in the cunt. Yeah, it’s great to be a woman out here, isn’t it? God, those fucking flashlights! Have you ever been hit with a police flashlight? Of course not. Trust me, you don’t know what you’re missing. Imagine getting hit with a solid lead pipe that’s about an inch-and-a-half thick and you’ve got the idea. Now imagine getting hit about fifty times with that lead pipe over every inch of your body and you’ve really got the idea. Anyway, I couldn’t stand up no matter how hard I tried. I remember I was crying and shaking and I just kept begging them to please stop and let me go. I swore I wouldn’t tell anyone. Just please let me go. Yeah, right! They just laughed. In the end, they were satisfied with having me crawl onto the sidewalk while they kicked me. Then they got in their cars and drove away like nothing happened. They just left me and the other guys there. Some of them weren’t moving. I didn’t know if they were unconscious or dead. I didn’t care, either. I just knew I had to get out of there before they came back and finished the job. Somehow, I got back up here. I don’t know how long it took or even how I did it. I think I had amnesia or something. A lot of it is still a blur. I remember this horrible burning feeling in my stomach like I was bleeding internally. Maybe I was? Of course, I vividly remember the next morning when I tried to sit up and I started puking my guts out. I must have puked up a gallon of vomit all over myself. They say that’s a sure sign of a concussion. That’s just what I fucking needed! As if my head wasn’t broken enough already! God, I wanted to find those motherfuckers and kill every last one of them! I fantasized about killing them. I prayed that God would kill them for me. Of course, there was no way that was going to happen. That’s how it is out here. The cops get away with everything. They always do.

I’m pretty sure Hoekstra is assigned to the night shift because even the cops know he’s a fucking psychopath. For some reason, they won’t fire him and clearly they can’t put him anywhere else. I mean, holy shit! Can you imagine if they turned him loose in the Emerald City? Jesus fucking Christ! He’d probably end up killing someone just for looking at him cross-eyed or something. Then they’d get sued and it would be a big deal and shit. They can’t have that, can they? Of course not. So they dumped him out here with the rest of the garbage. A garbage cop to fuck with garbage people. People like me. I guess they don’t care what he does to us. After all, we’re nothing but a bunch of thieving dope addicts who live like pigs. As far as they’re concerned, we’re less than human. We’re less than cockroaches. We’re fair game. You think the cops care if one of us lodges a complaint? Hell, no! They don’t care if we live or die, so why would they care if one of their own kicks the shit out of us just so he can get his fucking rocks off? They don’t. The fact that he’s still out here proves that. And he’s not the only one.

Anyway, after God only knows how many beatings over the years, I’ve learned to avoid him like the plague and kiss his ass whenever I can’t. He hasn’t hit me for a couple of months now, but I’m not stupid enough to believe he’s undergone a change of heart. Besides, it could be a lot worse. I know people out here that he’s wailed on worse than me. I’ve seen some of them carted away in an ambulance – what was left of them. I saw him beat a guy half to death and then he threw him in the trunk of his car and drove away. I don’t know if he took him to jail or if he took him down to the railroad tracks and put a fucking bullet in his head. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter. Hoekstra is pure fucking evil. I’ll bet he’s killed a few people. I know he’s shot a bunch. I saw two of them go down. He’s definitely got a shitload of notches in his gun. But I’m talking about murder. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he’s actually murdered people out here. Like I said, he’s a fucking sadist. He’s a fucking sadist with a badge and a gun and a nightstick and a license to kill, and I’m his favorite victim. And no one cares. That’s what it’s like to be me.


Charlie’s got to have parked his fat ass somewhere for the night by now. No way is he still wandering about after nine o’clock. If I don’t find him over here somewhere, I think I’m going to start a fucking fire somewhere to get his attention. And then I’m going to kick his ass when I find him for making me worry about him! He knows how I freak out when I can’t find him. He knows it’s not a good thing to put me through that shit.

“Ow! Son of a bitch! What the hell?”

That was a brick! Someone just threw a fucking brick at me! Who the fuck…oh, shit!

“Get out, you fucking bitch! Get out of my house, bitch! Get the fuck out!”

“What the fuck?”

God damn it! It’s a fucking psycho! Jesus! He’s right on top of me! Cover up! Don’t let him hit me in my face!

“Get out of my house! Get out, you bitch! Get out! Get out! Get out!”

“Crazy motherfucker! Look around you! There’s no house! We’re in the middle of the fucking street!”

Fuck! He’s got me! Now it’s a fight!

“Get the fuck off me!”

“It’s mine! It’s mine! My house! You get out! It’s mine!”

God damn it! I can’t shake him off of me! He’s got me in a fucking bear hug!

“Fucking asshole! Get off me!”

What the fuck is with this guy? We’re in the middle of the fucking street! Shit! Get the fuck off me!

“You can’t be here! It’s mine! Mine! Fucking bitch! Get out! Get out!”

Son of a bitch! The motherfucker’s trying to claw my fucking eyes out! God, get this fucking lunatic off me!

“Let go of me!”

“It’s my house! Mine! Mine! Mine!”

Oh, fuck this shit! OK, motherfucker! See how you like this! You think I don’t know how to fight? If they grab you like this, go straight for the fucking nose!

“Get…the…fuck…away! Fuck you!”

“Aaaagghhh! Goddamned bitch!”

Shit! That punch didn’t stop him! It hurt him, but he’s still hanging on! I’ve got to get loose! OK, motherfucker! How about a fucking kick in the goddamned nuts!

“Fuck you, motherfucker!”

Got him! That dropped him! But he’s not out of it yet! Christ, am I going to have to kill this piece of shit? Kick him again! Yes! Got him! Right in the fucking gut!

“Fuck! You goddamned bitch!”

“Hurts, doesn’t it? You fucking asshole! Get the fuck off me!”

I’m loose! Shit! He’s going for that brick again! He’ll cave my fucking head in if he gets it! Run, Miranda! Run like hell! Run, goddamn it!

“Get out! Get out of my house! Get out, you fucking bitch! It’s mine! It’s mine! It’s mine!”

“Fuck you, you fucking asshole!”

And be thankful I didn’t kill your fucking ass! Because the next person you fuck with probably will!


God damn it! Fucking tinfoil hat asshole! He damn near clawed my fucking face off! OK, Miranda. It’s over. Just breathe. He won’t chase me. That much is certain. That’s one thing about these fucking maniacs out here: they usually won’t chase you more than about a hundred feet. That crazy fucker’s not going to want to leave his “house.” Fucking psycho! If he wants to call something a house, why the fuck doesn’t he get a cardboard box like everyone else out here? Fuck! I didn’t even see him! Where the hell did he come from? God damn it! He nailed me right in the back with that fucking brick! God damn! That fucking hurt! I hate these fucking lunatics! They’re all over the goddamned place! Fucking tinfoil hat brigade! They go off on you for no fucking reason at all! God damn it! Why don’t they put those psychos in a fucking padded cell where they belong? Yeah, that’s another occupational hazard of living out here: the place is full of these total fucking nut cases! They’re out here foaming at the mouth and living on some planet only they know about! Compared to them, I’m dead normal. Those motherfuckers scare the crap out of me. They’re everywhere and nowhere out here. They get into places you wouldn’t think a human being could fit into. You wouldn’t believe some of the places I’ve found them in. They must have learned that shit from roaches or something. You don’t know they’re there until they’re clawing at your face, trying to gouge your fucking eyes out!

Now there’s something you’d actually expect to find on skid row: complete nutcases. The tinfoil hat brigade is what we call the lunatics that are total basket cases. They’re out on fucking Pluto or something. Most of the time, they just stand there and babble to themselves. It’s like you don’t even exist to them. Then out of nowhere, they just fucking explode. I can’t tell you how many times those assholes have beaten the crap out of me. I’d be sitting around or walking past them and they’d jump on me like a fucking monkey on PCP. They claw at you and bite you and hit you with shit, and that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, they smash your head into a million pieces with a cinder block or just walk up to you and stick a knife in your gut. One time I was asleep on the sidewalk and I woke up to one of them kicking me in the face. The son of a bitch nearly knocked out one of my fucking teeth! Damn, I was fucking sleeping! What the fuck did I do to him? Well, that’s a stupid question. You don’t have to do anything to them. They’re living in a fucking dream world. God only knows what’s going on in there. They’re totally delusional so they don’t need a reason to try to kill you. They just do it. I’ll bet even they don’t know why.

Oh, and since they’re completely out of control, they’re usually as strong as hell. That’s what makes them really dangerous. If they get a hold on you, you have to break loose fast or they’ll fuck you up bad. I know. About six months after I got here, one of them dislocated my arm. He was a big guy, and he threw me up against a wall and started wailing on me. Then he knocked me down and pulled my arm behind my back until it popped. Do you have any idea what that feels like? Christ, it hurt like a motherfucker! And then it hurt ten times worse when the doctor at the clinic pushed it back in. I don’t even like thinking about it! The doctor said he’d give me some painkillers until the pain went away. Painkillers my ass! I felt every fucking second of it! I couldn’t so much as lift a soda can for about three days after that! Charlie had to feed me. I’m serious. He really did. I couldn’t raise my arm high enough to eat. That was the first time I got my arm dislocated, but it wasn’t the last. And now this shit? On the last night of my life, I’ve got to deal with one of those motherfuckers? God, that guy scared the living shit out of me! How the fuck did I miss seeing him? That’s what I get for wandering around with my head up my ass! That asshole tried to jam his thumbs in my fucking eyes! It figures. They always go for your eyes. It must have something to do with being a complete barking-at-the-moon nut case. God damn it! Am I bleeding? I don’t see any blood on my hands. My face hurts, though. The son of a bitch must have scratched me pretty good. I’ll try to find a mirror or look in a window and see how bad it is. Oh, to hell with my face! My fucking back feels like I got hit by a truck! Shit! That fucking brick hurt like a motherfucker! That guy’s got a hell of a throwing arm. I guess he missed his calling. He should’ve been a pitcher. God, how I hate those fucking assholes! Why the fuck do they let them roam the streets? Don’t they know how dangerous they are? Of course they do. They just don’t give a shit. Why should they? As long as they only kill people like me, who gives a shit? Damn! I hate those psycho motherfuckers!


Sorry about the ranting. I do that sometimes. You know what the strangest thing is? In a way, I envy those assholes. They’re a hell of a lot luckier than me in some respects. With people like that, there’s no doubt that they’re fucking crazy. It’s like a girl in a wheelchair: nobody doubts she’s disabled. With me, it’s different. I’m a fucking nutcase, but it’s not so obvious just by looking at me. How can that be? As messed up as I am, how can there be no visible evidence of it? How can someone be born with a broken brain and there’s no evidence of it except that they’re crazy? God knows I’ve looked for some sort of proof. I’ve had x-rays and PET scans and all kinds of shit like that since I was a teenager and they never saw a single thing wrong. I think that only made it worse. It sure as hell made it worse for me. You can’t imagine how frustrating it was. How frustrating it is. You see, when people can’t see that something’s wrong with you, they automatically assume that there really isn’t anything wrong with you. You’re either faking it or you’re overreacting or you’re just being a fucking asshole. That’s when they start lecturing you. Snap out of it, kid. You’re just being emotional. You’re just being a drama queen. Don’t be such a crybaby. Don’t be a little bitch. Get your act together. Grow up. And once you hit your teens, you start getting the inevitable “Oh, she’s a girl so it must be that time of the month” routine. Oh, yeah. PMS. That explains everything.

After a while, they start in with the “simple but friendly advice.” Come on, honey. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Take charge of your life. Put it behind you. Embrace today. Harness your positive power. Make this a new beginning. Jesus Christ! Did you ever notice how many fucking clichés they have for making the impossible sound so easy? People used to tell me those things so many times that I just wanted to start screaming and maybe even start shooting them! Since I didn’t have a gun, I had to settle for screaming. I did it a few times. I thought maybe it would convince people that I wasn’t kidding. It didn’t work. When a teenage girl starts screaming at the top of her head, most people just figure she’s having a temper tantrum. They just ignored me. Then I did it a few times in my twenties. That’s when at least some people began to accept the idea that there was something seriously wrong with me. Some people thought I was a stark raving lunatic like that asshole back there. Others thought I was just peculiar or “troubled.” I hated when they said, “Oh, she’s just troubled,” or “she’s got some issues.” It made it sound like I was just having a bad day. Of course, then they told me I needed to snap out of it and pick myself up by my own bootstraps. Talk about a vicious circle!

The only thing I know for sure is that I’ve been like this for most of my life. I was normal enough when I was little, but I think I really became aware that something wasn’t right in my early teens – as in thirteen and one day. That’s when my parents sent me to my first shrink. That’s a hell of a way to turn thirteen, isn’t it? About the only thing the shrink was sure of was that there was something wrong with me. Uh, no shit, Sherlock! Can you be a bit more specific? But of course, he couldn’t. None of them could. Since then, I’ve had more shrinks than I can remember tell me there’s something wrong with me. They can’t agree on what it is, but they all pretty much agree I’m seriously fucked up. It’s amazing when you think about it: they’ve got a million names for what ails you: mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, clinically depressed, schizophrenic, paranoid delusional, chemically imbalanced, anti-social, psychopath, sociopath, bi-polar, north polar, south polar – whatever. They may know what to call it, but they never know what to do about it. They can’t even explain it. Basically, they just tell you, “Thou art fucked in the head” and leave it at that. Please pay the bill on your way out the door. Then again, maybe it really is that simple? When all is said and done, all I’m left with is that my brain just doesn’t work right. It’s like a defective product with no factory recall and no way to fix it. I’m stuck with it. The only thing to do is to throw the defective one in the trash and get a new one that works. I guess that kind of explains why I’m here. This place is one giant trash heap for defective people who can’t be fixed. Like I said, it’s nobody’s fault. Luck of the draw, I guess. Bad luck. Everyone gets a brain and most of them work just fine, but some of them don’t. Most people turned out OK and I turned out fucked up. So they’re wherever they are and I’m here and that’s the way it is. There wasn’t anything anyone could’ve done to prevent it. It was just meant to be. I spent most of my life asking why until I finally realized that there is no explanation. Not in this life, anyway. I’m hoping that when I’m dead, God will explain it to me. Lord, I hope so. I’d like to think I’ve earned it.

The truth is, I’m jealous of normal people. I’m fucking green-eyed with envy over the ones who aren’t crazy. I always have been. It’s funny: growing up, I was never really jealous of people who were smarter than me or prettier or more popular or anything. I was jealous of them because they weren’t crazy and they fit in so well. I never wanted to be the most popular girl. I never wanted to be a princess or a movie star or the president of anything. I just wanted to be a normal girl. I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to belong. But I never did. No matter what I did or how hard I tried, I just didn’t fit in. I tried and I tried, but I just couldn’t connect. I was different and nobody knew exactly how or why, but it didn’t matter. I was different and everyone knew it and that was enough. People didn’t like me. They didn’t know what to make of me. I was different and trying didn’t count for anything and they didn’t like me, so I was always on the outside looking in. That was my lot in life and it was going to be that way until the day I died. I had friends, but I was never really close to them. There was always something in between us. They didn’t know what, but they knew it was there. And the older I got, the more I drifted away from people. It got to the point where I just wasn’t comfortable around anyone. That set me up perfectly for winding up out here when everything finally went to shit. When it happened, it didn’t have any friends to turn to for help. I don’t know if anyone could have helped me at that point – I was pretty far gone – but it didn’t matter because I was so far out on my own that there just wasn’t anyone there for me to reach out to. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame anyone else for that. I did it to myself. I did it because I had to. It was the only way.

And none of that changed when I got out here. Even though I definitely fit in better with these motherfuckers, I never fit in completely. I was homeless just like everyone else and I was down and out and addicted and crazy and even then, I still stood out like a sore thumb. There are a lot of reasons for that. For one thing, this is a man’s world and being a mentally defective woman is an invitation to disaster. So once again, I failed miserably. And even if I could have fit in perfectly with everyone around me, this is one place where you definitely don’t want to fit in. No fucking way, my friend. John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” Believe me, the people out here at night are the people he was talking about. That includes me, by the way. I’m certainly no better than any of them. The truth is, we’re the people you don’t want to know about. Most of the world has forgotten about us and the rest of it is trying to forget. Maybe it could if we’d stop turning up on the fucking news? That must drive the normal people crazy. The truth is, I don’t resent people for hating us. I don’t resent them for hating me. If I weren’t one of these people, I wouldn’t want to know about them, either. Shit, I am one of these people and I don’t want to know about them! The only people who seem to want to know about us are the do-gooders of the world. We make for a great cause, or so they tell me. The do-gooders just can’t get enough of us. Look at these poor, wretched souls, they say. They need your help, they need your sympathy, they need your donations – that sort of thing. Especially the donations. I guess we’re good for raising money, but I’ll be damned if I ever saw any of it. No one ever said to me, “We took in umpteen thousand dollars this year. Here’s your cut, Miranda.” Maybe somebody knows where it all goes, but I sure don’t.

We’re also good to study. People do study us, you know. We’re not exactly lab rats. We’re more like beasts in the wild. Shrinks and sociologists come here sometimes for a skid row safari. Personally, I’d rather go to Africa and look at the elephants. I’ve actually seen some of those assholes out here conducting their “studies.” They’re pretty hard to miss. Every time I see one of them, I run and hide. I don’t want to be part of their research. Since I’m not part of it, I don’t actually know what it is they’re doing. I just know they’re studying us. They’re observing us. I guess they take pictures of us and write captions like “Asshole in his natural environment.” Why anyone would shell out good money to study the scum of the fucking earth is beyond me, but they do. Maybe the irony appeals to them? Shrinks and social workers like to write papers about us and send them to colleges and universities that wouldn’t let us in the front door and guarantee them jobs that’ll make sure they never end up like us. That’s ironic, don’t you think?

Do-gooders, shrinks, missionaries, social workers – they all say they care, but most of the time, they don’t. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I mean, why the fuck should they care? We’re not worth caring about. And I know they believe in what they’re doing. That’s especially true of the missionaries and the people like Reverend Ehlers. They’re true believers, all right. No, what I mean is, we’re not even real people to a lot of them. It’s hard to explain. We mean something to them as a group, but individually, we don’t even exist. It’s like we’re a phenomenon. To the do-gooders, we’re a cause. To the missionaries, we’re a crusade. To the shrinks, we’re an experiment. To everyone else, we’re a plague. We’re anything but people. We’re never just people. Then again, we don’t think of ourselves as people, so why should anyone else? Maybe I’m being too general? Some of us are people. Some of us are animals. Some of us are fucking cockroaches. Most of us are somewhere in between. But none of us are worth a damn. I’m afraid there’s no getting around that one. We’re parasites. It’s true. Think about it: we consume without producing. That’s a parasite, right? We feed off the detritus of the daytime world. We eat the food they won’t eat, we wear the clothes they won’t wear, and we search through their trash hoping to find something useful. Something we can use. That’s the key: use. We don’t build. We use. We’re the ultimate users. Yeah, we’re fucking parasites, all right. No wonder everyone hates us. No wonder we hate ourselves.

Sometimes you hear someone talking about us. You know, talking about what we want. They’re speaking rhetorically, of course. But whenever I hear someone talking about what it is we want, I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up or just kick them in the fucking nuts. I mean, what do we want? Give me a fucking break! For starters, who’s this we? Some idiots think we’re all out here with our fists in the air, demanding our rights. Bullshit! We don’t have any rights. Well, not many. We forfeited most of them a long time ago. People like us don’t deserve them. You want proof? We spend half of our time depriving each other of what few rights we have left. The rest of the time we spend abusing the shit out of whatever’s left. But what I really mean is, we aren’t some tight-knit group with a common purpose. We’re not unified. We’re not a tribe or a community or anything. We’re pretty much a nebulous group bound by nothing more than the fact that we’re losers and we’re stuck here, and that’s it. Whenever you talk about rights or human dignity or any other shit like that out here, you have to understand that there is no we. There’s only me. At that level, each of us is a universe of one. One fucking person in the whole universe. Fuck the rest of them; what do I want? That’s the philosophy out here. So what do I want? I don’t know. In my case, maybe that’s the wrong question. It’s not what I want; it’s what I don’t want. What don’t I want? I don’t want to be crazy anymore. I don’t want to be miserable anymore. I don’t want to hurt anymore. I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I don’t want to know the things I know anymore. I don’t want to be here and I sure as hell don’t want to belong here. I don’t want to hate myself the way I do. I don’t want to be someone who’s clearly better off dead than alive. How’s that? I guess there are a few things that I still want. I want to feel good instead of bad. I want to live like a normal human being and like it. I want to belong in the real world instead of this one. I want to be someone with a wonderful life who never knew about this place or the people in it. I want to have a future. I want to wake up and discover that my whole life was just a horrible dream and that in reality, everything’s fine. I want to be someone my parents can be proud of. I want to be someone who doesn’t want to kill herself. I want to want to live. To sum it up, I guess I just want to be normal. I want to be normal, even though I’m not sure I know what that is. But none of that is ever going to happen. I know that. I accept it. Wishing for it won’t make it come true. I mean, wishes are free and you get what you pay for, right? In that respect, I’m like a lot of people. I want something I can’t have. Maybe that’s the most normal thing about me. Does that count for something? So in the end, I guess I don’t want anything except to die. Quick and painless. Yeah, that’s the only thing I really want anymore. I just want it to be over. And that’s important, because it’s the only thing I want that I can actually have.


OK, here we are. The Tables. Charlie had better fucking be here. I’m getting sick of looking for him. That place across the street is called the tables. Charlie spends a lot of time here. A lot of the old-timers do. The tables are this little green area just north of the center of skid row. When I say green area, I mean it’s this sorry-assed excuse for a park. It’s about half the size of the backyard of the house I grew up in, and it’s such a fucked-up place that to call it a park would be an insult to real parks everywhere. It’s the only little patch of ground on skid row that for whatever reason, they never paved over it. Maybe a hundred years ago this was a nice part of town and that was a place next to a shop or a factory or something and people would go and sit outside and eat their lunches there. There are a bunch of picnic tables here, which is why we call it the Tables. Like I said, even we can’t bring ourselves to call this ridiculous piece of shit a park – even though it’s the only place with more than fifty blades of grass within a mile radius of here.

The Tables are a pretty important place out here. They’re packed with people every day and night unless it rains. It’s not a good place to hang out in a thunderstorm. There’s nothing to keep the rain off of you and the ground turns to mud. We’re dirty enough as it is. Anyway, the picnic tables are what draw people here. On skid row, a decent place to sit down is worth its weight in gold. A decent place to sit down and a table to rest your elbows on are worth their weight in fucking platinum. Platinum is more expensive than gold, right? That’s what I was trying to say. There are even a few chairs here. I guess people stole them and dragged them here. People who walk as much as we do can definitely appreciate a good place to sit down. Even if you can’t get a seat, it’s a pretty good place to kill some time. There’s always something here to catch your attention for a while. Charlie says it’s a lot like a prison yard. That stands to reason, seeing as almost everyone here has done time at least once. Some of the cops call it Parolee Park because of that. That’s weird when you think about it, because this is one of the safer places out here. Well, at least until after midnight. Then it can get pretty dicey. They drag a body out of here about two or three times a year. That’s my idea of a safe place: one corpse every four to six months. What does that tell you about me? People like this place because it’s about the only place other than the lunch tables at the missions where people behave in a civilized manner. That’s when they aren’t killing each other, I mean. Civilized behavior on skid row? Hard to believe, I know. But it’s true.

People come here to drink and talk about shit and lie down on the grass and play games. That’s right: we play games out here. Hey, it’s not like we’ve got anything better to do, unless you count stealing shit or looking for dope. The old timers like to play dominoes; especially the black guys. Some people play cards. They play gin and poker and shit like that. They’re not always friendly games. To play poker, you have to play for something, right? You have to gamble. I mean, how else would you raise or call or bluff the other guy? Well, no one’s got any money out here, so they play for rocks. You heard me: rocks. I don’t mean rocks as in pieces of crack cocaine, either. I mean rocks as in The Flintstones kind of rocks. And they’re serious about it, too. Can you believe people get worked up over losing a pile of tiny little rocks? It’s true. I’ve seen guys start a fucking knock-down/drag-out over a pile of those rocks. Hell, just watching them play for rocks is a fucking trip. It’s even better when you’re stoned. It heightens the sense of utter disbelief. These guys gather up a bunch of little rocks and give them each a value and that’s what they use for poker chips. And they call me crazy! Jesus, how do they even tell them apart? It’s not like there are a lot of different kinds of little rocks out here. And how do they decide which ones are the most valuable? I know some rocks are naturally worth more than others, but I don’t know which is which and I’ll bet they don’t, either. I’m pretty sure there aren’t a lot of geologists out here. And how do you bluff someone over a pile of rocks? Bluffing is a big part of poker. How do they do it? I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just a pile of fucking rocks! Do they just figure something like, “I’ll see your slate and raise you a limestone? Hey buddy, you’d better fold. If you lose, you lose that nice little gray one there. Oh, no! Not my granite!” See what I mean? Call me dense, but I just don’t get it. Shit, I didn’t get it even when I was stoned.

The next most popular game out here is probably checkers. Wherever people gather out here, you see a lot of checkerboards. Some of them are store-bought, but a lot of them are homemade. Uh, maybe I should have said homeless made? Hey, if the shoe fits, right? Anyway, it’s not like making your own checkers set is some major undertaking. I mean, how hard is it to draw a checkerboard on the back of a pizza box? Shit, I’ll bet even I could do that. About the only hard part is getting the right number of squares. Some people overdo it and that leads to some pretty unusual checkers games. To get over this monumental obstacle, someone carved a few checkerboards into the picnic tables with a knife. That makes sense. It’s easier when you don’t need a board in the first place, and assuming that the artist knew what the fuck he was doing, you know there’s the right number of squares. Of course, out here, that’s a pretty big assumption.

You can use anything for checkers – bottle caps, pieces of paper, nuts and bolts, pieces of candy – you name it. If you use something that you can’t stack, you just turn it upside down to make it a king. A couple of the old-timers have real checkers. I guess they play often enough to justify the expense. Don’t laugh. When you’re homeless and broke, blowing ten bucks on a set of checkers is a big deal. You really have to love the game to do that. Checkers is popular out here because it’s such a simple game. Anyone can learn it in two minutes and you can play just fine if you’re drunk, stoned, stupid, or crazy. You may not be very good at it, but you can play and that’s all that matters. It’s something to do. It’s a way to pass the time, and for most of us out here, all we’ve got is time. Remember what I said about Waiting for Godot? There you go. The hardest thing about checkers is remembering that the kings can move backwards. That may not seem like much to you, but take it from me: trying to comprehend the concept of forward and reverse on a diagonal when your brain is drowning in a sea of Cisco and mind-altering drugs ain’t easy.

After that, the most popular game out here is chess. You heard right: chess. People out here actually play chess. Apparently, it’s a pretty popular game in prison. I know, I know. It’s a thinking person’s game and it takes some serious intellect to be good at it. But hey, we’re not all complete idiots out here. Some of these guys definitely know their way around a chess board. They don’t win because their opponents are complete morons. Well, a lot of times they are, but that’s not the point. They win because they know what they’re doing and can think twenty moves ahead of you without breaking a sweat. They’ll offer to play you without a rook and the queen and they’ll still kick your ass in about ten minutes. I’ve seen them do it. I think some of them could give a professional chess champion a run for his money. Charlie’s pretty good, but he swears he’s nowhere near as good as the best guys out here. I always kind of liked those guys because they’ll explain things to you and show you good moves to use in different situations. It’s nice to have someone just to talk to who really knows what he’s doing. And they’re great teachers. They’re really nice about it, too. They don’t make you feel like an idiot even if you are one. They’re like these mystical wise men that all the villagers turn to for advice. They’ll teach you as much as you want to learn, but you’ll never be better than them. A couple of them tried to teach me, but it didn’t help. I was using a lot of dope back then and my memory was only good for about thirty seconds. But they were still willing to try. Believe me, when you’re out on the street and living in this fucking hell, a few minutes with someone who doesn’t want to hurt you and doesn’t treat you like a piece of shit is priceless.

There’s also a sort of status that chess brings. Chess is good for your reputation out here because people see you playing and they automatically think you must be really smart. It’s not much, but it’s something. We’re all pretty much failures and the scum of the earth, so if people think highly of you for something, it’s a big deal. If they think you’re really smart, it can do wonders for your self-esteem. Well, it can for most people. A lot of people think I’m smart and it doesn’t do shit for my self-esteem. Anyway, if you’re going to be held in high regard for something out here, chess is better than most things. And there’s definitely a measure of truth to it. Like I said, chess is a thinking person’s game. It requires some degree of intelligence. It requires a certain degree of brain function. As a result, not everyone out here can handle it. They need their few remaining brain cells for things like remembering to breathe and not walking out into oncoming traffic. Hey, priorities, remember?

Chess is a neat game. At least I think so. I don’t like to play chess very much because quite frankly, I suck. I never played it before I wound up out here so I didn’t know anything about it, and I’m not much better at it now. There’s this thing called a fool’s mate that a good player does to someone who sucks – the chess masters did that to me a lot. It’s where they beat you in something like four moves. They did it to me more times than I can remember, so I stopped playing. But I still like to watch sometimes. A lot of people do. Chess is a real spectator sport out here. I mean, it’s not like we have a basketball team or anything. I think I like to watch people play because it forces you to think about the game and so you don’t think about anything else. It takes your mind off of where you are and what’s become of you. You try to anticipate what they’re going to do and you look to see if the players missed something that you saw. It’s probably the best workout your brain can get out here besides lying to the cops. You’d be surprised how many people out here have chess sets. Some of them are pretty fancy, too. I don’t know if they stole them or they just saved up a couple of months’ worth of panhandling to buy them, but they’ve got them. Sometimes they’re missing a piece and so they use a bottle cap or a bolt or something, but they generally take really good care of them. That’s not surprising when you consider how much enjoyment they get out of them – at least when they’re not completely drunk and arguing over whether the rook is called a rook or a castle or whether the knight is called a knight or a horse. I don’t think that one will ever be settled.

Well, it’s packed here, as usual. Where’s Charlie? He always rates a seat in one of the chairs, but I don’t see him. This is definitely not good. God, what if something happened to him? What if I don’t find him tonight? Fuck! Someone here must know where he is. I’ll ask one of the old-timers. There’s Leon. He’ll know.

“Hey, Leon.”

“Hey, Red! How you doin’? Damn, what happened to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You got blood on your face.”

“Where?”

“Right there on your chin. You got a nasty scratch. What? You cut yourself shavin’?”

“Women don’t shave there. No, some fucking lunatic jumped me in the alley a few blocks back.”

“Why’d he do that?”

“Why do those fuckers do anything? The CIA microwaves in his brain probably told him to do it.”

“Oh, one of those, huh? Well, come on over here and sit with me. Here, I got a napkin for you. Ain’t even been used. Go on and wipe your face.”

Leon is one of the old-timers who’ve been out here almost as long as Charlie. He was one of the first people I met out here – well, one of the first people I met who didn’t try to rob me, rape me, or kill me. He and Charlie took me to one of the missions for my first halfway decent meal. They’re old friends. Charlie always said Leon would outlast him because he never got hooked on dope the way we did. Yeah, right! He just drinks like a fucking fish. That’s putting it mildly. You should see him put it away. He could suck down a whole case of Cisco without ever coming up for air. His liver must be fucking petrified.

“Hey, Leon? Have you seen Charlie around?”

“Nope. Not since they took him to the hospital.”

“What?”

“Yeah, that motherfucker’s in the hospital.”

I don’t fucking believe it! How the hell did I not hear about this? What the fuck happened?

“What? Why? What happened? Is he all right?”

“Don’t know. Ambulance took him there.”

“When?”

“Day before yesterday.”

“Why? Was he sick? Did he get hurt?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think he got hurt. I would’ve heard about somethin’ like that. He must’ve got sick again.”

“Fuck! Is it serious?”

“Must be, if they took his ass away in an ambulance. You know how that motherfucker hates hospitals.”

Oh, God! How did I not know this? How did I miss this? This isn’t happening! This isn’t happening! Charlie can’t be in the hospital! Not tonight!

“Hey Red? You all right? You don’t look so good.”

“No. No, I’m not. I need to see Charlie. I need to see him tonight.”

“That ain’t gonna happen, girl. It’s three busses to the hospital and one of ’em don’t run past eight. Gonna have to wait ’til tomorrow.”

“I can’t wait until tomorrow. I have to see him tonight.”

“What’s so important it can’t wait ’til tomorrow?”

“I can’t…I can’t go into it. I just…I need to talk to Charlie right now.”

“You in trouble, Red?”

“Sort of, yeah.”

“Why don’t you tell me about it?”

“No, I’ve got to talk to Charlie.”

“Come on, Red. I done known you a long time. You can talk to me. What’s goin’ on? What they done put on you? You catch a case?”

He means did I get arrested, or are the police looking for me. It’s skid row-speak.

“No, it’s nothing like that. Look, I’m not blowing you off or anything. Really. I just need to see Charlie. I need…I need to see him tonight.”

“You can’t see him tomorrow?”

“No, it’ll be too late then.”

Shit! Mistake, Miranda! Mistake! Who do you think you’re talking to? Now he’s going to figure it out! Damn!

“What you mean, ‘too late?’ I don’t like the sound of that shit, girl. Look at me. What the fuck’s goin’ on? What kind of trouble you done got yourself into?”

“It’s…it’s not like that.”

“The hell it ain’t! I know you. Somethin’s got you scared good. Come on, give it up. Why you need to see Charlie so bad all of a sudden?”

“Look, I…I just don’t want to drag you into it. That’s all.”

“Oh, girl! You ain’t draggin’ me into nothin’! I want to know what’s up. You can tell me. I’ll help you out if I can. What happened? They put a case on you?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just a personal thing. You know how I get sometimes.”

“Yeah, I do. That screamin’ in the ears gettin’ to you again?”

Screaming in the ears is a street term for being crazy. He’s asking if I’m having another psychotic breakdown. He’s seen me go through them before. Christ, it’s a wonder he still talks to me after he’s seen me like that.

“Yeah, that’s sort of it.”

“And it ain’t gonna do you no good to talk about it?”

“I don’t know. Charlie’s the one I always talk to about it. He’s got a way about him, you know.”

“Yeah, he done got that. Well, you want to get it off your chest, I’m here.”

“I know you are. And you’re right. It can wait until tomorrow. I’ll go see him then.”

“He’ll like that. Charlie always likes seein’ you.”

“I guess that makes him crazier than me.”

“Nah, it ain’t nothin’ like that. Charlie loves you. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You got money for the bus? I got some…”

“No, no. That’s OK. You keep it. I got it.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Thanks, Leon.”

“You ain’t got to thank me. I got nothin’ but love for you, Red. You know that.”

It’s funny. I never really thought about it before. But right now, I believe him.

“Yeah, I do.”

“You gonna be OK?”

Jesus, imagine if I told him the truth about that one! No way am I going to do that.

“I think so.”

“You ain’t gonna tell me what’s goin’ on, are you?”

“No, it’s not important. I’ll tell you tomorrow, OK?”

“You better. I’m gonna come lookin’ for you if you don’t.”

“No, I promise. I’ll fill you in tomorrow.”

“You wanna hang out here for a while?”

“I’d like to, but there’s some things I’ve got to do.”

“You want me to go with you? You don’t look like you ought to be alone right now.”

“No, that’s OK. You sit here. Finish your drink.”

“Who says I’m drinking?”

“I do. I know you, Leon. If you’re awake, you’ve got a drink.”

“It’s that obvious, huh?”

“Well, that and your breath smells like Thunderbird. You’ll understand if I don’t kiss you on the mouth.”

Jesus, that really cracked him up! I’m glad I could make him laugh one more time.

“That bad, huh?”

“Maybe I’ll bring you a stick of gum, OK?”

“You do that.”

More like a box of it! Damn! He’s drinking some nasty shit tonight! Christ, I can’t just leave without saying goodbye. I can’t tell him what I’m going to do, but I owe him too much to just walk out. Now that I think about it, he might actually miss me. I don’t want him being angry with me after I’m gone because I didn’t say a proper goodbye.

“Hey Leon?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks. For everything. I don’t know if I ever thanked you for everything you’ve done for me. You were always really good to me. It means a lot. I know I’ve been nothing but trouble and I don’t know why you and Charlie put up with me, but I owe you. More than I can ever repay.”

“Shit, girl! You don’t owe me a damn thing! You was one of the good ones. Charlie knew it the minute he saw you. I knew it, too. I got nothin’ but love for you. And you don’t owe me a fuckin’ thing. Not one fuckin’ thing! You understand?”

“Yeah. I understand. And thank you. Really. Thank you.”

“You come see me tomorrow. You don’t, I’m gonna come lookin’ for you. You hear?”

“Yeah, I hear. Goodbye Leon.”

“I’ll see you later, Red. You take care. And if you need to talk, I’ll be here ’til late.”

“OK, I’ll remember that.”

Goodbye, Leon. God bless you. And I didn’t lie to you. Tomorrow you’ll know what happened. You’ll understand why I couldn’t tell you. I hope you aren’t too angry with me. I hope you’ll understand that it has to be this way. I owe you, Leon. I owe you a lot. You were a friend. I wish I could buy you a drink, but I can’t. Remember me, OK? But only the good stuff. As little as that may be.

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