Despite the efforts of both Latoya and Kipp to encourage Cliff and Winona to visit the shelter, they opted to make their way back to the streets of northwest Seattle.
Winona waved to Amaya as the SUV pulled out of the driveway and sped down the street toward the Aurora bridge.
They thanked Kipp profusely, shaking his hand and promising to come back at 4pm on Sunday. He gave them each a tall bottle of water, a ham and cheese sandwich and the rest of his box of cookies.
They walked down the hill, being sure to avoid the area near the underpass. They walked toward the water, along Canal Street and cut through a park along the channel between fresh water Lake Washington and salt water Elliot Bay. Large fishing boats navigated through a series of locks that moved the water up and down to account for the difference in elevation between the two bodies of water.
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” Winona said, as the cool breeze from the water splashed her face.
“She’s with her parents now,” Cliff said. “She’s back where she belongs.”
“It was nice having her around,” Winona said. “You know, having someone who needs you; someone to take care of.”
“I can see you must’ve been a great mother,” Cliff said as he sat next to her on the park bench.
“Was…” she mumbled wistfully.
“You should be happy with yourself.”
“I’m happy for her,” Winona smiled.
They sat in silence for some time, watching seagulls compete for scraps of bread in the garbage cans. They ate their ham sandwiches. Winona handed him the last cookie from the box that Kipp gave them.
“I come here and watch the boats,” Winona said, perking and changing the subject from Amaya. “I know some of the owners. They give me their cans.”
“You’re a can collector?” Cliff asked, leaning against a metal railing.
“Beats getting guys off in the backs of their cars,” she smiled. “I done that and got my share of beatings. Half the assholes don’t even pay anyway.”
“You know you’re supposed to collect up front?” Cliff said.
“Like they can’t just take it back at the end,” she snapped. “Anyway, collecting cans is a lot safer. I trade them for cash at the community market over that hill.”
“Washington doesn’t have a can deposit law,” Cliff said. “Who gives you money for them?”
“The organic market by the locks,” she said. “They give me five cents for them. They take them down to Portland and sell them for a profit.”
They walked along the canal to the back of a corporate headquarters building and cut through a gap in the fence. Fishing boats sped by, spraying cool mist into the air.
“You don’t strike me as a thief,” Winona mused as she walked alongside him. “You must’a had some other way of making a buck for yourself?”
“I tried not to steal from people, especially homeless,” Cliff answered. “I’m a storyteller.”
“No kidding? You got a whole spiel and everything? Let me hear it.”
“You don’t want to hear me babble on.”
“Dude, you ain’t taken a shower in months. You ain’t embarrassed about that? But, you’re a pussy about telling your story.”
“I have a couple different versions,” Cliff relented. “Sometimes I tell them about how I was a successful husband and father of a beautiful six-year-old daughter. I tell them about her little pig tails and her freckled nose and how much I loved her and she loved me.”
“Tell it like you really do.”
“One day, my amazing bride was riding down the street with my beautiful little Rindy in the back seat. She was struck and killed by a drunk driver. I had nothing left. My wife, my baby girl, were suddenly ripped from me, leaving me alone and depressed. I turned to alcohol and drugs and fell into homelessness. I’ve lived on the street for the past 12 years. But, now, I have a new reason to live; a beautiful new fiancé, who I love more than life itself, and who loves me back for the first time since I lost my wife and daughter. And, I want to provide for her, put a roof over her head and give her the kind of safety and security that all you lucky people have. Just twenty-five dollars will get us a room at a hostel for the night where we can clean ourselves up and get a good night’s sleep so I can go out and keep looking for an honest paying job. We’re just trying to take it one day at a time, pay our dues and make a good life for ourselves. All I ask is for a dollar, or even just some spare change to help us out. Thank you for your lifesaving kindness and may God bless your soul.”
Winona looked at him expressionlessly at first, and then broke out in laughter. Cliff nodded his head and smirked.
“It’s good, right?”
“It sucks,” she said between gasps. “All bullshit.”
“Most of it’s true,”
“All, except how you lost your wife and daughter.”
“Whatever,” Cliff snapped as memories of the hag on the train flooded his mind. “It works.”
“And, who’s this love of your life?” Winona continued to tease him. “Don’t be looking at me.”
Cliff walked ahead, hobbling unevenly on his plastic boot, thinking about how his picture of Rindy used to help authenticate his story and earn him added sympathy from his marks. He rounded the corner of the office building and walked along an open glass window that faced the channel.
“Look at these poor saps,” Winona changed the subject. “Stuck indoors all day. Just sitting there doing nothing. Watching their computer screens. Looks totally boring.”
“That’s what I used to do,” Cliff said.
“Well, you’re way better off now,” Winona smiled. “Especially since you met the love of your life.”
A breeze whipped past them. Cliff thought of the cruel wind that yanked his daughter’s picture out of his hands. Winona sat on a bench facing the channel and overlooking the Seattle skyline with her feet slung on top of the railing. The breeze teased the thin, loose bottom of her dress like a flag in the wind. Cliff sat next to her and inhaled the fresh salt air. The bell atop a nearby tower bellowed, indicating that the water from the lock would drain from the fresh water side into the salt-water of Elliot Bay. Erns flew overhead, filling the sky with their soothing high-pitched chirping and squawking.
“Your son doesn’t go to school?” Cliff asked.
“Naw,” she replied, finishing the last sip of her water bottle and stuffing it into Cliff’s pocket. “It’s too dangerous there. He lives with some guys who take good care of him.”
“Guys,” she replied. “Guys who’re pretty capable of taking care of themselves.”
“And that’s safer than going to school?”
“Where he was going to school?” she asked. “Damn right. Nobody messes with Alex or his guys. But now I’m worried about them and what they might be doing. We gotta go back and talk to Alex.”
A security guard in a smart car approached them from the parking lot. After a brief, tense exchange, Winona took Cliff by the hand and helped him hobble back through the gap in the fence into the park. The last rays of the sun descended below the trendy neighborhood nestled along the hill across the channel. Winona led Cliff to a pair of benches obscured by some trees.
“I like to sleep here on the warm nights,” she said. “I love the smell of the coneflowers and geraniums. In the evenings, the butterflies come and flap their wings. It’s way better than living in some hole like all those losers in that office over there.”
Cliff lay on the bench across from Winona. He watched her stare at the flowers, looking for butterflies.
“Looks like they ain’t around tonight,” she frowned. “Maybe in the morning.”
Winona laid on her bench parallel to Cliff, about five feet across the cement walkway. She curled her denim jacket into a ball and stuffed it under her head as a pillow. Cliff lay on his back and stared at the stars that poked through the Sapphire sky.
“You give any more thought about getting off the streets?” Cliff asked as the darkness intensified around them.
“I could live in the park full time,” Winona laughed heartily. “That’s the closest we’ll ever come to getting off the street.”
“You know,” Cliff pressed, “Like Kipp was saying, there are people out there willing to help us.”
“Sure, dude,” she replied. “Maybe when Jackson wins the lottery and shares some of it with us.”
“Dude makes ten or twelve bucks a day holding out that veteran’s cap. Spends two or three on food. Buys just enough weed to get high and still affords another lottery ticket every day.”
“Seriously?” Cliff asked. “How does he eat on two bucks a day. Even on the dollar menu, you barely get enough to fill your stomach. I spend at least eight.”
“I get by on about five. But my son gets me beers and leftover slices, so I’m covered five nights a week.”
“When’s the last time you lived with a roof over your head?”
“Five years ago. I was dancing. Alex was in Middle School,” Winona replied. “You got any idea how expensive it is? Even making a couple hundred bucks a week, I couldn’t afford it.”
“Would you want to go back to that life if you could?” Cliff asked.
Winona rolled over and muttered something about a “jackass.”
“12 years is long enough,” Cliff said to her. “In one year, I’m going to clean myself up, get off the street and work my way back to my daughter, a new man.”
Winona muttered something into her denim jacket along the lines of “whatever dude.”
Cliff gazed into the sky. An image of the Fremont troll looked down on him from the center of the full moon. The twisted, one-eyed face morphed into the old hag from the train. The old woman’s grey, wrinkled face smiled at him. Her yellow rotted teeth filled his mind. Cliff closed his eyes and tried to conjure the image of Rindy’s freckled face. But, as he drifted, the hag dominated his dreams.
Disoriented and staring into the pitch black, he felt a hand run up his shirt and along his stomach. Still groggy from his sleep, he opened his eyes and pictured the legless hag on top of him, kissing him with her foul mouth. He felt blood rush between his legs and a weight pressed against his chest.
As if jolted by lightning, he opened his eyes. He felt the zipper to his jeans separate. The stars disappeared, obscured by Winona’s curly-haired head bearing down on him, kissing his neck. He could feel her hand running down into his pants and grasping him firmly, and slowly.
She lifted his shirt and kissed his chest slowly moving downward. Cliff’s nerves exploded from between his legs, up his chest and into his head. He moved, instinctively, back and forth in her grip and rested his hands on the top of her curly hair.
But, as amazing as she made him feel, he stopped her. Gently pulling her face back up to his, he looked quizzically into her eyes.
“Not that I mind too much,” he said. “But what’re you doing? I didn’t ask for this.”
“You don’t gotta ask hon,” she answered in a breathy voice with her chest heaving. “Just let it happen, babe.”
At that, Winona climbed on top of him and guided them into each other. She rocked back and forth with her head looking upward and outward at some north star along the horizon. Quick, but intense, Cliff seized. Winona moaned. The moment lasted longer than Cliff expected and he clutched the small of her back, guiding her in and out as she squealed in pleasure with her hands pushing roughly against his sore rib cage.
Finished and satisfied, Winona collapsed on top of Cliff. His chest buckled and pain shot through him from his cracked rib, but he managed to ignore it. Her rapid heartbeat matched his. Still, half naked on bottom, they fell back asleep, meshed together on the bench, her with her head on his chest and he with his arms wrapped around her back.
The darkness enveloped them both, surrounded by the aroma of the abundant coneflowers and geraniums.
The morning sun glistened off the rusty galvanized steel walls of the locks as they moved across the water to seal the entrance to the lake. Rattling chains and loud horns awoke both Cliff and Winona from their slumber.
A butterfly warbled through the air, just above them and landed on the bench across the walk. Winona smiled at the creature with her ear pressed against Cliff's heart.
“Come on,” Winona said to Cliff, as she straightened her panties and flattened the sundress Kipp had given her. “The ships leave their empties in the garbage can by the lock. They sit there filling up all night and the city don’t collect til ten in the morning. So, we got breakfast waiting for us right there. Let’s go, dude.”
Cliff sat and stretched his sore back.
“What was all that last night?” he asked her.
Winona shrugged and walked toward the locks.
“Just something to do, I guess,” she said. “Let’s eat, I’m hungry.”
Winona removed the round top of the recycling bin and pulled out the clear plastic bag. Dozens of cans, plastic and glass bottles clanked against each other. She handed it to Cliff and returned the top of the bin. They walked across the train tracks and through an alley between a barber shop and a pawn shop to the market that had just opened for the morning. The staff greeted Winona by name and took the bag from Cliff.
“Who’s your friend?” asked a clerk named Gertrude.
“He’s Lucky,” she replied.
“He is now that he met me,” she said.
“Well, I don’t doubt that,” Gertrude said with a smile as she handed Winona five dollars. “Not bad. 97 today. Must’ve been a busy night on the lock.”
“Sure was,” Winona winked. “Lucky, here, can carry more cans than I can.”
After waving goodbye to Gertrude, Winona and Cliff walked to a McDonalds and ordered Egg McMuffins. Winona ordered a coffee and Cliff had a cup of orange juice. They sat on the curb and watched the cars nudge by in the morning commute.
“So, you just bug people on the train?” Winona continued her conversation from the previous evening. “Don’t everyone just hate you for that?”
Cliff looked off and changed the subject.
“We walked a long way from the Aurora,” he said.
Cliff shrugged, looking at the bridge in the distance. In his mind, he heard the troll laughing at him.
“Now, the hard work,” Winona said. “I gotta find another 50 or 60 cans between here and there if I want anything else to eat today. Alex don’t work today or tomorrow. So, I ain’t got no free dinner waiting for me. I want to go see him, but not at his apartment. We’ll deal with him tomorrow.”
Using the plastic bag from the recycle bin, Winona and Cliff checked every garbage can along the Riverwalk between the Ballard Locks and the bridge. The hunt took the whole morning and into the afternoon. As they approached the bridge, their bag filled. Cliff lugged it over his shoulder like a disheveled Santa Claus with a walking boot.
“How’re you gonna do it?” Winona asked, stopping about a block from the bridge.
“How? What?” Cliff asked, struggling to balance the cans on his back.
“How would you get off the streets?” she asked. “Not that I’m interested in your plan. But, how would you do it?”
Cliff dropped the cans to the pavement and paused in thought.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But we have to believe that anything’s possible, or else why’re we even living. I figured that out when I let go of the railing on the Aurora.”
“I didn’t figure you had a plan for real,” she replied.
“But I’m thinking about it now,” Cliff said. “We could think about it together.”
“Well, it don’t hurt to dream,” said Winona. “Me, Jackson and Duff used to talk about what we’d do if he ever won that lottery.”
“What would they do?” Cliff asked.
“Buy more drugs,” she laughed. “Good stuff.”
“I see,” Cliff smiled. “What would you do?”
“I don’t know,” Winona answered, looking out over the water. “I’m not sure what I’d do for myself. But I’d take care of Alex for life. And then, I’d probably buy food and clothes for other homeless people. I like to think I’d do something good.”
At the base of the underpass, the grumpy troll peered at them. Winona noticed movement in Jackson’s sleeping bag. She moved Duff’s blanket to reveal him lying in a fetal position.
“What’s with you two?” she asked. “You hit a jackpot and score enough to stay high all day?”
Duff rolled to his back to reveal a puffy black and blue welt across his left eye.
“What happened?” she asked, as Jackson’s red, blood-smeared face emerged from his sleeping bag.
“You gotta get outa here,” Jackson said. “Fat officer Hutch and his partner came by looking for you two.”
“Says you stole something from them,” Duff added. “What did you guys do? Says they got proof.”
“What proof?” Cliff asked.
“Said they seen you on video.”
“Says we was witnesses,” Jackson added. “Said they’s enough room in the back of that squad car for both of us if we talk to anyone about what we saw. Said they own this beat and they’d be by to check on us every day. Took my money again; all of it this time. Like nine bucks.”
“Knocked out my damn tooth,” Duff said, opening his mouth to reveal the sharp jags of his broken incisor. “I had pretty good ones too. Now, I ain’t never gonna get that tooth back again. Hurts like a bitch and won’t never get any better.”
“I’ll kick them asses, they come down, round here again,” Elmer squawked. “I took a beatin, but kept my hands up. Ain’t nobody quicker than me; lighting fast; lighting fast. I don’t care, two of them, three of them. Nothing like basic. That’s how you get tough. Them boys doing them pushups, ain’t no good. How ya gonna get anywhere with them worthless pushups. Pushups don’t do jack. Gotta hit the bag. Pow. Gotta freakin hit the bag, you know?”
Duff winced as he sat upright. In the sun, they could see the extent of his bruised face, swollen above his eye and cut along the ridge of his eyebrow.
“You guys gotta leave now,” he said. “They be back. They driving round looking for you. They said they gonna come back for you.”