Monday, June 8, 2020

The Giant Worm by Frank Beyer

Frank Beyer's glimpse into the life of a vagrant.

Don't sleep much, it's the first cool night of the year. I get up because it's light, drink a glass of hot water at the corner and check out ulcer on my leg; foul, and walking it rubs against my rough trousers. Will catch the bus down to the plaza later, I can't walk it. With time to kill, I sit on the curb and people watch, the beautiful are not up at this time of the morning. Not sure how today will be, the hunger pangs are no problem yet.

I live under the giant worm, our name for a stretch of elevated highway not far from downtown. There are two colonies below the worm, the first sleeps opposite the subway stop, they recycle rubbish and their worst habit is drinking rum. The police don't bother these poor souls, once functioning members of society - every night they pass under the worm, the chances of them functioning again diminishes. The second group, the crackheads, reside a few blocks on. The police operation at their old stomping ground by the train station drove them here. At night they are a force to be reckoned with, by day they are like dug-up rotting bodies. Blankets are their only possessions: they love them for the warmth, and hate them for the smell. I've been a member of both camps in my time.

I hobble away from my spot to the bus stop and let a few buses go by, straining to see if the conductor is a woman, kind of hard to make anything out. Get on a bus at random and no surprise, I don't have the coins to pay so slide flat on my back to get under the turnstile. The conductor, a fat woman, gives no trouble and I find an empty seat near the back. Due to my appearance and smell nobody comes next to me. Fine, not ready for company. The city becomes sunlit through the window. Relaxed now, things are going to turn out.

I get off at the plaza and painfully climb steps to the church, enter, rest. An hour later I go back down. Around fifty men are standing around, waiting too, looking like me. What a crew. The sermon is delivered, usual evangelical stuff; I really couldn't say anything about it, enthusiastic, drab. Not sure what they hope to achieve, but that's a wasted thought. No energy to waste today... yet.

No complaints about the plate of food after, worth the sermon: chicken legs, juicy, two each. Plenty of pasta, plenty of sauce. I'm stronger now. Then, as usual with so many of my type about, somebody produces rum. Spend a few nice hours together drinking, mocking the preachers who shout the word of the Lord round the plaza. Homeless preachers whose delivery is as disjointed as it is passionate. Bearded Daniel wearing a heavy coat jumps, sweats so much that his rotten scent fills the air. His interpretation of The Bible is so strange some brave the stench to watch and listen for thirty seconds - quite an achievement to attract so much attention. He's oblivious to all, sermons aimed at those only he can see and hear. He won't stop for anything, his battery is always fully charged.

Catch the bus back, under the turnstile again. No trouble, a happy ride. I sit by the subway entrance under the worm and hope somebody has rum. Sure enough, there are a few guys happy to share. Met them before, but can't remember their names or stories. Rough voices sing songs and talk ignoring the commuters rushing by. We make a collection of coins and get another bottle. Fun will continue a bit yet... just a little while... It gets dark, the mood changes, quarrels start - not for me, I stay out of it. Suddenly everyone leaves, the rain has come and they scuttle to check their stuff: cardboard, blankets, cans and newspapers. Alone again, sometimes this still shocks.

My mind is addled from the cheap rum, body strong from food - thin but powerful. People coming out of the subway station wear shirts and leather shoes, look at watches, phones. Why even have a watch? Phones tell the time. Hate is welling up in me. I try for an image or idea of laughter or joy, the sermons in the plaza, the food, but can't do it - traffic, rubbish and concrete fill my head. People hurrying to get away. Foul feeling, must calm down.

Later, the crowds have gone, it's quiet. Then one guy comes out of the subway, I don't like the distant look on his face; the short sleeve shirt, trendy glasses and immaculate pants. I get in front of him and ask for a coin. Doesn't respond, he glares disdain on his face, wrinkled up nose. I know - I smell.

My punches are effective, hit him twice and he goes down, doesn't fight back, just gropes around on the ground for his glasses. I put my hand on his throat and he gives me his wallet. Fifty note inside. Nobody around who cares, but best to leave. Run several blocks, chest burning, legs on fire, didn't know I could still run at all.

Soon after I regret doing it, a small violence, worse has happened to me - but still don't know what came over me - the excuse many criminals give. Sober now, smoke crack or eat steak? No, I know what to do - get under my blanket and hope sleep comes. Want to dream about a long bus ride up north. Stepping off the bus hot dry air enters my throat as I take in the uncluttered horizon. A Different place, a different feeling - that could save me.

I remember a time when I was scared of those who didn't pay on the bus. Once, not long after I'd arrived in the city from the north, I was on a bus to the outskirts late at night. Two young guys got on, looked at the conductor threateningly and then went under the turnstile. When the bus moved off, they began to fight about a girl or something; they were high. One hit the other in the head and his 'friend' just fell down in a heap. Must have been strong to deliver a punch like that! Had some natural ability. Then puncher began stomping on the other's head as he lay prone on the ground by the back door. He stomped and stomped and nobody did anything, frozen with fear and indifference. It felt like the sound of the blows was changing and you could hear the skull of the boy weakening as if about to crack. With the victim's brain close to bursting out onto the floor, I grabbed the aggressor and pulled him back. He was small and wiry, must have been only fifteen or so. Anyway, a good deed, good karma - gone now.

I wake up under the giant worm, my head hurts, my leg ulcer burns. Not hungry yet and I have money to eat like a king today.

10 comments:

  1. Very descriptive and absorbing story that tells it like it is for this street person and does not sentimentalize. The protagonist is basically alone with his demons, full of resentment at the lucky people who did not succumb to addiction, later regretting giving in to aggression. He is still not completely lost but close to it. I like how its hinted at how was before he became a street person.

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  2. Good job of inhabiting the character. Very believable... and sad.

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  3. Wow! Powerful - "with fear and indifference." This is a thoughtful look inside homelessness. Thank you, Frank, for crafting a superb, thought-provoking portrait.

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  4. Tough way to live. The character is approaching a point of no return in his struggle of survival vs. decency...hanging on by a thread. And, sadly, it would seem he's one of the luckier ones.

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  5. Eat. Stink. Drink. I like the metered voice, the voice of pain. Seems he has a ways to go to really hit bottom yet. Has a vaguely dystopian or near-future feel, but probably society has already crumbled this far.

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    1. Certainly there could be more of this in the future. But the descent into solitude, desperation, addiction and/or despair have been with us since caveman days. I do have some hope that this character can get on his feet again.

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  6. Really convincing character. I'm curious how you were able to summon him up. Been on the street yourself, or just an observer?

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    1. I based this character on what I saw of the homeless in Sao Paulo, Brazil some years back. The worst I've come to is sleeping in my car for about ten nights. From talking to people, and again observation, a big thing about being homeless is how constantly uncomfortable it is. I used some personal issues with guilt to round the character out somewhat. I also wanted to give the impression that this guy could be a good person or a bad person - maybe his flexibility in this puts him more towards the bad?

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  7. So much conveyed is such a short story. Very nicely done.

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  8. So evocative for all the senses. Nice job!

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