GM - Story #7

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Chapter 3

Cliff opened his eyes. His body lay still. He saw only darkness. Death felt different than he expected.

He moved his arm, twitched his fingers. He blinked.

The darkness brightened. A splotch of light separated from the blackness. He saw a shape, an arch, curving overhead. Tall pillars rose fifty feet in the air and attached to a dark platform that covered him like a massive umbrella. The steel structure around him contrasted against the shine of the moon that peaked from the hills beyond the bridge.

Cliff opened his mouth to speak. His long hair, freed from his lost bucket hat, fell across his face. His voice failed him at first. He took a deeper breath. Pain shot through his rib cage. He pushed the words out from his stomach.

“Where am I?” he asked the air above him. “Am I dead?”

He heard cars whoosh by. The twisted beams above his head rattled and reverberated with each passing vehicle.

Cliff tried to move. His arms flailed. His legs had no strength. His midsection burned with pain and forced him to remain on his back, staring aimlessly at the bottom of the bridge.

“I didn’t die?” he asked. “Damn it. Am I still alive?”

“Yes, dumbass,” a female voice answered him from a short distance away. “You jumped off the wrong part of the bridge, stupid.”

Cliff strained to turn his head. His vision, still blurry, revealed a short, stocky young woman, maybe in her thirties, dressed in tattered jeans and scoop-neck long-sleeve shirt, with a faded jean jacket hanging loosely over her shoulders. Her long, frizzy hair protruded from a Seattle Mariners baseball cap.

“You hit the tree,” she said with a casual laugh. “You bounced off the branches and landed on top of that beat-up old car over there at the bottom of the hill.”

Cliff regarded a grey dented sedan with cracked windshield and sunroof, parked under a tree a couple blocks down the street under the Aurora bridge. Yellow tape surrounded the vehicle, including three police cars and a half-dozen officers.

“Did I make that dent in the roof?” Cliff asked.

“Sure did,” answered the woman. “Craziest fall I ever seen. Rattled around the tree. Landed sideways on the bullseye.”

Red and blue lights filled the cavernous space below the span and pelted the rafters with alternating blasts of color. Streaks of light skimmed the black water and illuminated the boats parked along the side of the canal.

The ground next to Cliff rustled. A wild-haired head emerged from under a dirt-colored blanket, which blended so well into the sandy floor of the underpass that Cliff didn’t notice it from only a few feet away.

“Jumper’s awake?” asked the man with thick hair extending in all directions from his head. “Lordy, you got some strong bones, man. How’d you go livin’ after droppin’ offa suicide bridge now? That just ain’t right.”

Cliff closed his eyes and processed his situation.

“So, I survived?” he asked.

“This sure ain’t heaven,” the man said, sitting up to reveal a filthy sleeveless ribbed t-shirt drooping far down his hairy chest. “And it’s too frickin’ cold to be hell.”

“You’re under the Aurora with us,” said the woman in the ball cap. “Jackson and I helped get you up here. Duff carried the girl. Oh, and I and fixed your leg – you’re welcome.”

“Girl?” Cliff asked. “What girl?”

“The girl from the trunk,” she said, dimming her voice. “But, don’t go talkin’ bout that til we know who she is and why she was locked in the trunk of that car.”

“Girl? … Trunk?” Cliff’s mind swirled. “You fixed my leg?”

Cliff looked at his left leg. A broken broom handle rested against his shin secured by strips of cloth and wet, brown tube socks. He stared at the makeshift splint as if it might move.

“You was half-cocked,” she continued. “When we got you on your feet, you couldn’t stand on that leg. I don’t know if it’s broke or nothin’ but, I figured it couldn’t hurt.”

Another figure, laying further down the incline of the embankment, stirred. A mop of bright white hair slid out of a sleeping bag.

“That’s Jackson,” said the woman. “He did most of the work to drag you up here.”

“Cops woulda grabbed you if we didn’t,” Duff added.

“They came by about five minutes after we carried you up the hill,” the woman continued. “Big freakin’ deal. Look at ‘em all, shinin’ flashlights everywhere. You’re better off up here than with them cocksuckers.”

“Duff?” Cliff muttered.

“That’s me,” said the wild haired man in the tank top. “That’s Jackson down there. We wrapped you good in the sleeping bag and hid the little girl under that ratty old tarp under your legs. She’s so small; like a little rat. They didn’t see her down there. Just looked like part of the dirt. We figured they’da grabbed you, but they was lookin’ for someone with short hair and you got crazy hair like us. They was pissed off about losing the little Jap girl.”

“Jap girl?” Cliff muttered. “What girl?”

“It’s called Japanese, you outta touch old sack of crap,” Winona scolded Duff.

“The fat one was pissed,” Jackson added. “Asked what we saw. First rule of the streets, when the cops ask questions, you act like you’re whacked on drugs.”

“Me and Jacko don’t gotta act too much,” Duff laughed. “We ain’t seen nothin’ right Winnie?”

“Damn, right,” the woman answered. “We ain’t seen nothin’. We don’t never see nothin’. But they be back. They always come back.”

“And, who’re you?” Cliff asked the woman.

“Winona,” she answered. “Call me Winnie. Winnie Svoboda. How bout you? What’s your name, hon?”

“He’s ‘Lucky’,” said Duff. “Damn Lucky. Freakin’ miracle man. Nobody jumps the Aurora and lives to tell ’bout it. You’re one lucky sonofabitch.”

“Ok,” Winona smiled. “We’ll call you Lucky.”

Cliff licked his lips. His stomach rumbled. The piercing streetlights gave him a headache. He lay back and closed his eyes.

A mound of dirt seemed to vibrate and burst open. A wrinkled face shot into view from under a brown dusty blanket and startled Cliff.

“We ain’t got no severance pay from them union bosses,” he shouted.

His high-pitched voice rattled the beams overhead and echoed off the iron legs of the bridge.

“I went down to the office and told all them guys they were full of shit, takin our dues and ain’t givin’ us our bit.”

“That’s Elmer,” Winona explained. “Old as this bridge. Fought in some secret war back in the 80s or something like that. He’s bat shit crazy.”

“We worked our asses off layin’ the tar and sweatin’ our balls off.” Elmer continued. “Stinks like dead fish. Killed hundreds of them assfuckers. I get all shot up in the arm, in the shoulder, right there in the back of my leg. We get lost in the jungle. Hidin’ out in the rubble of them slummed out cities all bombed out. But they don’t care. They just come by tellin’ us to go screw. We don’t get no money. They don’t give us nothin but a kick in the ass. And after I break my back shoveling that smelly black shit all over the road. Damn government assholes. Corrupt as hell, all of ‘em. Don’t pay us our severance checks; nothin’.”

“You damn right about that, Elmer,” Duff said with a chuckle. “They’s all just as corrupt as hell.”

Winona sauntered over to Cliff, sat close and handed him a warped plastic water bottle.

“Something to drink?” she offered.

Cliff clutched the bottle loudly crinkling the twisted plastic.

“Quiet you don’t wake up the girl,” Winona snapped.

“What girl?” Cliff asked. “Who is this girl you keep talking about?”

“The girl in the trunk,” Winona explained. “Like we said. She’s sleepin’ under that tarp next to you. We saved her.”

“There was a girl in the trunk?” Cliff asked, his brain processing information at a crawl. “Why didn’t you report her to the police? They’re right down the street”

“We was gonna,” Duff started.

“But, the girl, she started crying and look like she seen a ghost,” Winona continued. “She was pointing at them two officers; the fat one and the black guy. They was walking up the hill from the scene, away from all them other cops down there. And the whole time, this girl’s looking terrified, like they’re coming to kill her or something. And she’s saying ‘no’, ‘no’ and then a bunch a blah blah in Japanese or Chinese or something.”

“So, we didn’t tell the cops nothing and just acted all strung out and clueless,” Jackson added with a cackle, which drew a stern look and a “shoosh” from Winona.

“We gotta take her to the cops,” Winona concluded. “But I seen that look on lotta girls’ faces. Hell, I seen that look on my own face. And I knew them cops was bad somehow. I don’t know why, but she was dead afraid of them and we decided we wasn’t gonna turn her in to them.”

Cliff looked down the street at the trio of police cars that crowded the area by the damaged sedan. He wondered why the police seemed so docile, standing casually around the car rather than fanning out to search for the missing girl. He also assumed it would only be a matter of time before they returned with search lights and dogs to sniff out every nook and crevasse under the underpass where the rag-tag group of homeless had taken residence.

“We got water from the canal,” Winona said. “But we ain’t got nothing else. You want something more to eat, you gotta go find it yourself.”

Cliff nodded. He understood how to panhandle for enough petty cash for a burger or some chicken nuggets. His struggle to survive the streets of Seattle for the past dozen years flooded his mind. He reached into his pocket. The picture of Rindy, folded and faded, filled his hand.

“Who’s that,” Winona asked. “Petty little girl.”

“My daughter,” Cliff replied sheepishly.

He braced for the follow-up question everyone always asked.

“Where’s she now?” Winona followed-up as expected.

Cliff thought of his standard panhandling story. He typically spun a tale of how he lost his home to foreclosure in the upscale neighborhood of Madrona, leaving him, his wife and his daughter without a roof over their heads. He added that his daughter died of cancer and his wife, distraught and inconsolable, committed suicide, which pushed him over the edge to his homelessness. That tragic part of the story usually earned him a sympathy dollar or two.

The memory of his interaction with the legless woman on the train invaded his consciousness. Cliff could hear her annoying cackle, laughing at his transparent melodrama.

“You can’t bullshit a bullshitter,” she said. “You dropped that little angel and split town on her, didn’t you?”

That’s when she called him the scum of the earth and he spitefully stole her three dollars. The image of her white-haired curls, swiveling as the train exited the station, danced through his head.

“Dude,” Winona spoke louder. “You don’t gotta say nothing. I’m just making small talk, yo.”

“No, sorry, it’s fine,” Cliff replied, formulating a revised story that might paint him in a sympathetic light.

“You left her,” Winona interjected. “Didn’t you? I can always sniff out a deadbeat. And, you’re a big old quitter, ain’t you?”

“She’s in San Fran, with her mother,” Cliff answered accurately. “I had a little bit of a meltdown.”

The relief of honesty washed over him. Something about Winona’s smile encouraged him.

“I left, but I was no good to her and her mom by then,” Cliff continued. “I had a job; a good job. I was in finance, making money, thousands of dollars; money you could never imagine. Then, it all just crashed on me and my whole life turned upside-down, just like that.”

“You still got the money?” Duff asked.

“I got three bucks,” Jackson smiled, toothlessly, perking from under a black trash bag. “Found ’em last night.”

“No,” Cliff continued. “I don’t have any money. I had a suitcase and a shopping cart full of crap like plastic spoons, water bottles, a hair brush, a couple pairs of underwear, socks and an extra pair of shoes. But I left it all on Pike Street when I came here. I’m sure it’s all gone by now.”

“Don’t need no spare underwear to jump off the bridge,” Duff said with a laugh.

“We could climb on up there and get that hat hanging from the side of the railing,” Jackson added. “It still gets cold around here at the night. Be nice to have a bucket hat like that one.”

Cliff noticed the mound of sandy cement at the base of the underpass for the first time. It piled almost to the top of the bridge and obscured half the view of the street below.

“What the hell’s that?” he asked.

“The troll,” Winona answered. “You ain’t never heard of the Fremont Troll?”

“A troll?”

“You gotta see it from the front,” Winona explained. “A bunch a artists made it out of cement 30 years ago.”

“It was supposed to scare us homeless dudes away,” Duff said, “But it just brought more gawkers for us to bum spare change from.”

The 25-foot tall monstrosity cast a wide shadow across the embankment, hiding piles of junk and a row of wet, moldy plastic garbage bags along the overgrown grassy area adjacent to the underpass.

As Cliff inspected the strange sculpture at the base of the incline, his focus shifted down the street at the two officers approaching. He clamored back to his sleeping bag and stuffed his feet into it. A tiny twitch of movement caught his eye and he noticed the pale nose of the tiny Japanese girl laying between some old rotted two-by-fours and a rusty bicycle frame. Out of his peripheral vision, he sensed the approach of the officers and slung his legs over the little girl to continue to shield her from sight.

The officers stood just beyond the sculpture, out of Cliff’s vantage point, but he sensed their presence through the tension in the air.

Every few minutes, the radios affixed to their shoulders buzzed with static, followed by voices spouting rapid-fire updates and instructions. The homeless posse around Cliff perched and watched, like nervous birds in the presence of a predator.

The burly officer turned toward the group and pointed. The leaner officer, whose name badge read “Peters”, shined his flashlight about the area. The improved visibility revealed the dusty tarps, dirty blankets and garbage strewn across the gravel.

The heavier officer walked more intently to the group. Cliff lay in the shadow behind Winona, remaining still to obscure the little girl beneath his legs.

“Yo, all a you bums,” he said, with a sneer. “We know you must’ve seen what happened here? Don’t give me the runaround again. We got a report of a male falling or jumping from the bridge.”

The group looked at him expressionlessly. Jackson nodded his head from side-to-side. Duff shrugged his shoulders. Elmer muttered quietly to himself about no-good cops beating him down in the streets. The two other women laying above him stirred, but didn’t speak.

Officer Peters approached, inspecting each homeless person in the clan.

“Don’t make me lock you all up.”

“On what charges?” Duff asked

“You got a lawyer, dirtbag?”

“No, sir.”

“Then I don’t need cause, do I Hutch?”

“Sure don’t,” the heavy officer - “Hutch” - replied. “Now, tell me what you saw and maybe I won’t kick the shit out a you.”

“Dude flew right off the bridge,” Winona said. “I seen him. Guy hit the car and bounced right off. Musta been pretty lit. Didn’t even look like he felt it.”

“You saw him?” the officer asked.

“I wasn’t paying no attention,” Winona continued. “Then I heard the crash and saw some dude land on top of that car down there. Crazy as shit, the dude gets right up and just takes off.”

“Where’d he go?”

“Limped down to the river,” she replied. “Don’t know where he went from there, but I heard a splash. Probably drown, the poor bastard.”

The two officers looked over their shoulders at the river, a couple hundred feet away on the other side of the short road beneath the bridge and along the river.

“Imagine jumping the Aurora and surviving,” she shook her head as Cliff lay still behind her with just his head protruding from his sleeping bag. “That’s gotta screw with your head, right?”

The radio crackled. A voice said something about the other units leaving the scene. A tow truck rumbled to a stop behind the damaged car at the end of the street. Officer Peters nodded and retreated down the hill to greet the tow truck driver. The other officer lingered. His eyes darted from person to person. He looked briefly at Cliff’s sleeping bag.

“Take a picture, dude?” Winona sassed. “It’ll last longer.”

The officer’s eyes beaded and his jaw tightened.

“You work the streets, bitch?”

“Nah,” she answered. “I don’t do that stuff. You gotta get your jollies somewhere else.”

“But I seen you.”

“Doubt it.”

“I seen you,” he repeated. “I know I have.”

“Maybe at a PTA meeting?” she said. “Or the department store. Maybe we go to the same church?”

“Little Darlin’s,” the officer snapped his fingers. “You danced there, a couple years ago?”

“Sure ’bout that?”

“The tattoo on your neck,” the officer snapped and pointed. “That was you at Little Darlin’s. I know it was.”

“Like five years ago,” she said, “Musta been a pretty regular to remember me.”

“You gave me some sexy lap dances back in the day,” he said. “I never forget a good set of tits like yours.”

“You got me officer,” she put her hands up in the air and gave her breasts a shake. “Want my autograph?”

The officer took another step toward her. She met his gaze and pushed her arms across her chest.

“You gave me a lot more than just a little lap dance,” Hutch whispered in her ear. “I remember you. Couldn’t control yourself. Took care of me pretty good.”

“Funny I don’t remember that,” she shrugged her shoulders. “Must not have made much of an impression.”

“You should dance again,” he said. “I liked what you had under there.”

Winona kept her hands tucked under her arms and raised her chin in defiance.

“What’s with them?” he asked, pointing at the other two residents under the Aurora bridge, lying unconscious on a green, rotted mattress.

“Crackheads,” Winona said. “Meth, you name it. They ain’t wakin’ no time soon. They’re up like a couple hours a night. They take off half-cocked and come back totally whacked. Pretty sad.”

Officer Peters called up from the end of the street.

“Hutch,” he shouted. “They’re taking the car now. The other units are moving out. One of us has to follow them back to the station.”

A tall, slightly grey-haired supervisor emerged from his car and walked up the hill toward the troll. He wore a thick white button-down shirt with an insignia on the chest and a Captain’s hat with gold trim. His siren only flashed red and white lights and the side door displayed the word “Supervisor” just above the city’s police decal. A patch on his chest listed his name as “Nichols”.

“We need to get a report filed on this,” he called to his officers. “Come on down to the station. We’ll tow the car and have forensics check it out.”

“Give me a minute, Cap” Hutch shouted back, looking one more time across the underpass at the motley crew of homeless people. The light from his flashlight panned across Cliff’s face. The little girl lying under the tarp beneath his legs - and obscured by his sleeping bag - remained just out of the path.

“Dude,” said Peters, with his back to the captain, walking back toward his partner so he could lower his voice to a whisper. “We gotta get back there when that car shows up in Impound. We gotta know what they find. Nichols wants us to answer questions. You go, I’ll walk the channel and keep looking. Every minute counts.”

“Let’s go boys,” Captain Nichols called. “We got the recovered stolen car. Let’s log it in and see what forensics comes up with.”

“Alright, I’m coming,” Hutch replied, without taking his eyes off Winona. “I’ll be back, babe.”

As he made his way down the incline, he stopped by Jackson’s sleeping bag. The three crumpled dollars lay at his feet. In a fluid motion, officer Hutch snatched them and tucked them into his shirt pocket.

“I’ll take those,” he said. “Probably stolen from some old lady anyway.”

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