GM - Story #7

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Chapter 13

Cliff had no idea how long he spent apart from Winona. His legs ached as he climbed the hill to the church in Wallingford. His booted foot dragged behind him as his breathing labored. He searched the sky, but couldn’t find the bright moon that had smiled at him throughout much of the night. It had either ducked behind the gathering clouds or dipped below the horizon to give way to the morning sun.

Slipping through the manicured lawn of the church, Cliff approached the door to the shelter like a dark shadow in the night. He tugged lightly on the handle, but it didn’t budge. He yanked it harder and rattled it loudly. The metal on rusty metal sound echoed across the still playground behind the church parking lot. But nobody came to the door.

A sense of dread crossed Cliff’s mind, picturing Winona alone on her cot pining for him, feeling disappointed that he abandoned her after promising to return. He circled the building to the back window and peered into the space below, trying to make out the silhouette of her curly-haired head. He could discern about two dozen beds, all filled with bodies partially hidden under gray and brown wool blankets.

Some movement among the stillness of the night caught his eye. He peered closely, but the darkness blocked his ability to determine any recognizable features. He circled to another window around the far side of the church to see if the light above the trash area might spill into the room and give him a better view of Winona in her bed. He tugged, unsuccessfully, at a few of the windows to test if they might be unlocked.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. But he could clearly make out Winona’s distinctive round curly head. She bobbed in and out of the light that permeated a small portion of the basement floor. He could see her come into the light and then disappear in a rhythmic pattern. Moving slowly from one window to the next, his vantage point improved. The light from above the dumpster illuminated her bare chest. The wool blanket covered part of her back. She arched and closed her eyes, her hair waving with the upward motion of her body.

Cliff peered intently, trying to make sense of what he saw, which included four pairs of legs, intertwined and a pair of hands running up Winona’s bare back. The wool blanket slipped down her exposed ass and Cliff watched as her hips meshed with some fat hairy legs and stomach that thrust into her like the pistons of a car.

Cliff’s head banged the window, startling Winona. As he darted away, he saw her look nervously up toward the light above the trash area. But he didn’t stay long enough to make eye contact with her. Hurriedly, he hobbled back into the street in search of a quiet hole in which to spend the rest of the night.

After walking briskly for 10-15 minutes, he found a wedge of space between a green metal dumpster and a brick wall to a locksmith shop. He fished two thick carboard boxes from the bin and made himself a makeshift bed. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, Cliff awoke to the piercing shriek of a garbage truck reversing through his alley toward the dumpster. A hefty man in an orange vest and oversized work gloves clung to the side of the vehicle, which blotted the sunlight in the alley.

“Get the hell out of the way, yo!”

The garbage truck lifted the thousand-pound dumpster like a child’s toy, emptied it of its contents and dropped it next to Cliff with a loud metallic thud. The truck exited the alley, vibrating the canyon walls and kicking dust into the air. The morning sun flooded the narrow channel between the buildings, diffusing the haze. Cliff dropped his pants to relieve himself against the bright red brick as a young couple passed the entrance pushing a baby stroller. They scoffed, quickened their pace and disappeared down the hill.

Glancing at the empty garbage bin and the cardboard bed he constructed next to it, he reminded himself of his plan to claw his way off the streets.

“That’s the first step,” he told himself. “Remind myself of my most important goal every morning as soon as I wake up. I need to make enough money to live today and save a couple bucks for tomorrow.”

He looked for an empty trash bag in the alley and across the street. He found a half-finished bottle of beer resting on top of a front porch step. After drinking the remnants, he stashed the bottle in his coat pocket and foraged for cans in the trash bins along Lindon and Fremont Avenues. He found a solid plastic container with bits of rice and broccoli clinging to the edge of the black plastic. With the cuff of his jacket, he wiped the container clean and stuffed it into loosely inside the flap of his overcoat.

A sign for the Woodland Park Zoo along 50th street caught his eye. He pulled the glass bottle out of his pocket, stared at it briefly and then shattered it against the side of an apartment building.

“She can waste her time collecting five cent bottles and cans,” he said to himself. “I’m a storyteller.”

At the end of the alley, a sign signified the route to the Woodlands Park Zoo. Cliff turned right and ambled up the hill following the signs. The apartment buildings shortened and the storefront spaces gave way to trees and park-like gardens built into the well-manicured sidewalks.

Birds chirped from overhead telephone lines. Young parents walked hand-in-hand with their children. An elongated golf cart with several rows of seats ported passengers between the gated entrance of the zoo and the far reaches of the parking lot.

Cliff found his spot under a large, sweeping elm tree near the heavily trafficked walkway between the entrance and the row of rest rooms. He took a seat on a short, flat boulder and dropped the empty black plastic container on the ground in front of his feet. Squinting in the rising sun, he sought to make eye contact with anyone who would dare look his way.

“Excuse me. I may not look like much right now. But I was a successful husband and father of a beautiful little six-year-old daughter,” he said to an older couple who stopped briefly to hear his opening lines.

He worked through more of his story to a middle-aged man, who paid partial attention to the tale while also looking at his phone.

Several young parents scurried their children as if his sedentary posture presented some dire threat. At least one parent scolded their young daughter for stopping to pay attention to the “dangerous stranger.”

After a half hour and a dozen iterations of his story, he earned his first dollar, followed quickly by several handfuls of pocket change that covered the bottom of his plastic bin.

“God bless you and your family,” Cliff said, “Thank you for helping me get my life back.”

Most people scoffed at him or turned their shoulders to ignore him. Occasionally, a small group congregated to listen to his yarn and leave scraps of money in his take-out container. Cliff complimented a young man and his two “little monkeys” after he gave the tiny twin boys a quarter each to contribute to his fund.

One older, slightly disheveled grandfather stopped to ask him questions while his middle-aged son parked the car at the far end of the lot and ushered the grandchildren across the vast sea of pavement. Despite the son’s dirty look, the older man left a five-dollar bill, resting gently atop the pile.

The sun rose higher into the sky. The traffic steadily increased. Between groupings of people, Cliff skimmed from his intake to avoid an impression that he had collected a significant amount of money. He counted at least $20 stuffed into his inner pocket, not counting the $3-$4 in change still resting in the black bin.

A shorter golf cart sped into the shadow beside him. He heard the walkie talkie squawk as a short, heavy-set guard in a blue and yellow vest approached him.

“Can’t be here,” he said with his arms extended from the sides of his chest as if he would either start flapping like a bird or quickly raise his fists in self-defense. Cliff had seen the stance hundreds of times. He had heard the urgent, authoritative tone. The one-sided conversations always ended the same way. He wasn’t sure why he did it, but he always fought the inevitable, maybe on principle or just for sport.

“What harm am I doing, sir?”

“This is private property,” the security guard said. “You can’t solicit here.”

“Isn’t the zoo partially funded by the city,”

“Don’t make this difficult.”

A small crowd gathered. Onlookers slowed along their walk to the gates.

“Don’t my hard-earned taxes contribute to your salary?”

Cliff knew from experience that wiseass cracks like that always caused his tormentors to take that intimidating step forward.

“I don’t want to have to ask you again,” the guard stiffened his tone, glanced at the crowd and stepped closer into Cliff’s personal space. “Are you gonna go peacefully, or do I have to call the police?”

Normally, at mention of the cops, Cliff would not back down, and instead grow into an even more irate and incredulous victim. But, mention of the police reminded him of the local beat-cops and their abusive behavior.

“Fine,” he snapped and spilled his change into the inner pocket with the money he earned earlier in the day. “I’ll go.”

The guard crossed his arms as Cliff pushed himself up from the rock and walked back toward busy 50th street.

“Don’t expect me to contribute to your ‘Save the Zoo’ fund,” he called back over his shoulder as he walked away. “You just lost a big donation.”

Alex wandered up Fremont Ave., feeling the cool morning breeze comb through his wavy black hair. His legs ached from the long night he spent with Rulon, Edeyo, Kimmie and Summer. He clutched the ripped piece of paper upon which Summer had scribbled. As ridiculous as it sounded, he thought he could smell her perfume on the scrap.

The wooden door to Summer’s sister’s walk-up apartment stood next to the entrance to a darkened Tattoo shop with shaded and barred windows and a grafitti-decorated metal gate rolled down in front of the door. Next to the apartment, a bright fast food chicken restaurant with red and white signage had a big chicken head protruding from above the glass door. He could see Summer peek through the curtains in the upstairs window above the storefront.

The box next to the ringer button squawked at him. He could barely make out her voice asking him to let himself in and make his way up the stairs.

The stairs led to another door, which Summer left partially ajar.

“I’ll be right out,” she called to him from the bathroom. “Glad I decided to stay here last night instead of going back to Edeyo’s.”

“Nice place,” Alex said, fidgeting with a framed picture of two smiling adults, presumably her sister and her boyfriend. He recognized the boyfriend from the neighborhood. He seemed to recall seeing him partying with Julio and Edeyo.

“What does your sister’s boyfriend do?’ he called to Summer.

“No clue,” she replied through the bathroom door above the sound of her pee tinkling into the bowl. “I think he’s like a bouncer or repo guy. Definitely something a little sketchy.”

Alex sat on a sagging, scratchy couch and looked for a television set. But the place didn’t appear to have one. The toilet flushed and he could hear the sounds of Summer wiping with scratchy toilet paper.

“Thanks for coming with me to the airport today,” he called to her.

Summer emerged through the entry in tight jeans and a black concert t-shirt from a band Alex did not recognize. Her hair fit through the opening at the back of her pink New York Yankees ballcap, braided and secured with a little brown elastic hair tie.

He noticed the subtlety with which she applied her make-up as opposed to the previous night where he sat on the swing with her only a couple hours earlier.

“No problem,” she said. “But, don’t be surprised if I fall asleep on the way back.”

“I know it’s a little early.”

“No, it’s fine,” she cut him off. “I had nothing better to do today and I don’t gotta work til later tonight.”

Alex nodded at mention of her work and walked around the apartment.

A pile of unfolded laundry occupied a chair next to the couch. Her pink and black panties sat openly atop a black, lacy bra and several silky teddies and nightgowns. A separate pile of laundry on the floor looked more like what a person from a different profession might have, including pairs of jeans, t-shirts, a hooded sweatshirt and several pairs of soft, grey sweatpants.

“Sorry the place is a mess,” Summer blushed. “I don’t have anywhere to put my stuff. My sister’s only got one bedroom, so I sleep on the couch when I stay here.”

Summer rounded the corner and entered the tiny kitchen, drawing two bottles of water and handing one to Alex.

“My sister cuts hair all day and God knows what Jimmy does,” she said. “Tell me again why we’re taking a train to the airport?”

“We gotta pick up the car down there.”

“Whose car is it?”

“I don’t ask no questions. The less I know, the better.”

“And, then we just leave it at the zoo?”

“That’s right. That’s what they tell me to do, that’s what I do. No questions asked.”

“We’re not going to get busted?” Summer asked. “Much as juvy was a nice place to visit, I can’t go there again.”

“Just picking up a car,” Alex said. “It’s worth a couple hundred bucks. That’s all I need to know.”

“Couple hundred bucks isn’t worth it if you can get busted for it.”

“I could say the same about hooking.”

Summer looked at him. He couldn’t tell if he had offended her. Then her lips parted and she laughed heartily.

“Good point,” she shrugged. “I was going to make some instant oatmeal for breakfast, you want some?”

Cliff ambled down Fremont Ave., riffling his hand through his pockets to estimate the amount of money he had generated throughout the morning. Counting the few larger bills he received, he estimated a haul of at least $22.

“First order of business,” he said to himself. “Underwear and socks.”

He stopped at a store advertising merchandise sold for one dollar, although upon reviewing the items for sale, most ranged closer to $2-$3.

“I thought everything was going to cost a dollar,” Cliff complained to the adolescent clerk at the cash register.

“It’s only called the Dollar Store,” he replied, looking up from his phone.

Cliff selected a package of three underwear and several sets of white socks. As he turned to make his purchase, he spotted a package of white t-shirts and grabbed it as well.

The purchase came to $9.45, which consumed just under half of his earned money. Before handing the clerk his crumbled bills and change, he slid the t-shirts to the side, reducing his costs to $4.20.

“I gotta eat too,” he said to the kid, who nodded and returned to his phone. “Can I get the bigger-sized plastic bag? That’d come in handy.”

On his way out of the store, he spotted a rack of toothbrushes and toothpaste. Memories of the minty feeling after a good brush flooded his mind. He rustled the change in his pocket and looked back at the inattentive clerk. His fingers tingled with the urge to reach out and steal the dental care products.

A voice invaded his mind. It came from behind him. He turned toward the cash register, but instead of a pimpled high-schooler, the old hag from the SeaTac train sat behind the counter, staring through him with her piercing eyes, accentuated by the rings of sagged, wrinkled skin, like the ripples in a pond when a stone disrupts the stillness.

“That’s right,” she cackled. “Go ahead. Take it. Nobody’s looking. Because, you’re just a no-good, two-bit thief. And, you’ll never leave the streets. Never…”

Cliff blinked her away. The clerk looked up from his phone, surprised at Cliff’s continued presence in the store before returning to his distraction.

Cliff’s stomach rumbled. He left the toothpaste untouched and returned to the streets of north Seattle in search of a place to purchase some cheap chicken nuggets.

“So, what do you think’s in the trunk?” Summer asked Alex, rinsing their oatmeal bowls and wiping her hands with a paper towel. “Probably some good blow or something?”

“No clue,” Alex replied. “Don’t want to know.”

“You never considered…”

“No way,” Alex cut her off. “They’d cut my balls off. You don’t cross Edeyo or Julio. They take good care of me. But they’d kill me dead in a minute if I screwed them.”

Summer giggled.

“It’s not funny, yo,” Alex said. “It’s some serious shit.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s just funny to see you get all hot and worked up.”

Alex clammed at first, but then, in seeing the carefree spirit in Summer’s eyes, managed to crack a smile and laugh with her. Out the window, Alex caught sight of something that distracted his attention.

“What do you know,” he said, mostly to himself. “Come on. I gotta go give this homeless dude a hard time about screwing with my mom.”

Cliff approached the chicken restaurant, fumbling through his pocket to assemble $3.65 to order a half dozen nuggets. After paying the attendant, the cardboard container holding his fresh chicken lunch warmed his hands. He exited the glass door and opened the box, reached for his first bite. He failed to notice the wooden door adjacent to the store as it opened. Alex emerged with Summer close behind. In a single motion, Alex swatted the box of chicken out of Cliff’s hand and pressed him up against the aluminum siding of the building.

“I warned you fucking with my mom,” he snarled at Cliff. “Did I not?”

Cliff glanced at the six golden balls of chicken spilled across the sandy sidewalk before looking back at Alex’s chiseled arms and sculpted face.

“I, I didn’t do anything to your mother,” he stammered.

“Let him go,” Summer pleaded. “He’s just some old, homeless dude.”

“He got with my mom and that’s not ok,”

“I didn’t,” Cliff started. “She…”

At the mention of the pronoun “she”, as if to cast the accountability for their physical contact on her shoulders, Alex raged. His eyes flared and his face shaded red.

“I mean,” Cliff corrected himself. “It wasn’t like that.”

“And how was it like?” Alex asked.

“Ok, we connected,” Cliff said. “But she chose to go off in a different direction and I won’t be seeing her anymore. She’s fine and I’ll be leaving her alone from now on.”

“You better lay off her,” Alex spat as he spoke. “I told you before what I’d do if you hurt my momma and that still stands. I’ll hurt you, old man.”

Cliff squirmed. Alex unhanded him, but stuck a finger into his face inches from the area between his eyes.

“I want you out of town,” he said, revealing a long, serrated knife handle protruding from a leather pouch attached to his belt. “Cross the bridge. Go back to Pike with all the junkies in the city. I see you again and I’ll slice open that pasty, old face of yours. Got it?”

He shoved Cliff and nearly knocked him off his feet. As he turned to walk up the street, Alex stepped on a couple of Cliff’s nuggets. Summer followed closely behind, smacking him in the back.

“That was so mean,” she said in a partially sympathetic voice that also had a playful edge. “You hang out with Edeyo too much.”

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