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Short Stories
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White Willow "Charlie Hinds? Where the Hell did you get a name like that?" Out of a phone book. Who is this jerk? Charlie was slumped against a dirty white concrete pier, a fat rounded thigh arching up into the dark underside of a roadway rumbling about thirty feet above. His backpack was between his legs, protection against sudden disappearance into the night, its scratched buckles flickering just a few feet from the tiny fire. "Huh?" "I just look in your face, you know? I can see it in your eyes. You tell me 'Charlie Hinds' and your pupils get small. Or do they get large? Shit, I don't remember. Anyway, the light's not so good." "What are you talking about? Jesus. I'll go find another piece of concrete that's a little less stupid." "Ahh, there isn't any. Stay here." It had taken about one month short of five years to get from the Interstate rest stop to this leg of concrete on the western edge of Atlanta and he was tired; tired of cold, hunger, dirty looks and prayer meetings. A lifetime of stops, each one dictated by rumor, and only now and then by hope. The hitchhiking was always without a destination, going wherever the next ride took him, usually leaving him surprised by the places he turned up in. Chasing rumor was consistently a mistake, believing the rumor place would be better than wherever he was when he heard the rumor; no such luck. And hope, a big laugh thinking there were good people somewhere willing to take care of you for free. No sir, there's always a price for that bed, hot meal, castoff blanket. Maybe fake it for Jesus, or something back breaking; or worse, or some combination in the same place. Charlie hated the handout life. Five years. He was tired, drained. Enough, he was ready to quit. And this guy was telling him he didn't like his name? "Okay, if you don't like Charlie Hinds, call me anything you want. I don't care. Call me Richard Nixon. Who are you?" "Willy Pepp. That's three P's and an E, you figure it out." "Three Ps? ... Oh, P.E.P.P. Pepp. You that boxer?" "Very good. I bet you have a subscription to Sporting News. But no, I used to be Willem Pepf Junior, Pepf with an F, but that was too Austrian and I don't like Austrians, or one in particular. You must have scored high on your SATs." Charlie remembered something to do with the SAT, but only had a vague idea of what it was about and was silent. "SAT? Stands for Student Attention Testing. My research tells me very few students passed." "I never took the SAT, but you sound like a really smart guy. I'll bet you took it and made a big score." "Two fifty," Pepp said. Charlie whistled softly. "Wow, two fifty. When I was growing up we had a guy who scored two forty and got a job as village idiot. So, what's such a smart guy like you doing in a place like this?" "Waiting for Armageddon." Armageddon; something else Charlie didn't know, but he could push it behind the drapes of a smart comeback. "Oh, is he stopping by?" He heard a chuckle come out of the dark. "Okay, Richard Nixon, why not? And you're down here ducking the little problem you have with Watergate, right?" Pepp said. "Gee, you really are smart." "Well this place was a good choice, Mr. Nixon," Pepp gesturing around him. The night air was smudged into small clumps of heaped clothing curled on a side asleep hugging worldly possessions, or circled in the minor light of a small fire or against other piers, legs a parenthesis around paper and string bags. "We're the invisible people here." "Great. What I always wanted to be, an invisible person." "See, you're lucky. You don't like invisibility, you've still got your president job, or if you're bored with the president crap, there's always back to selling used cars." Pepp wasn't much more than a voice just a few feet away in the gloomy light and so far as Charlie could tell there wasn't much size to him, just a voice and eyes glittering reflections of firelight. But no alarms were going off and there didn't seem to be much energy coming from the mostly inert shapes around them. He figured he was as safe here as any place he'd been recently and decided what he really wanted to do was polish off the burger remains in his pack and snooze off. In a fast food joint he had watched the burger's putative owner leave it when he went to the men's room and Charlie had snatched the unguarded half. He hadn't really been hungry but he always followed the Coachman's advice of nearly five years ago; "Never pass up a chance for food." Columbus, Ohio, a mid-afternoon in his first homeless mid November, walking along the crumbly sidewalk of a blowzy looking street of tired buildings following a covey of three men and a woman pushing a shopping cart piled high with their wardrobe, judging by what they were wearing. Charlie had no reason to follow them except they were there and he was there, no place else to go, nothing else to do so why not. Maybe they would end up at an opportunity. An early encounter with hope. Then one of the men stopped, dropped behind the little group letting it plow on. He waited until Charlie got to him and slowed down to a stop. He looked older, but Charlie had already discovered it didn't take long for life on the streets to accelerate aging. "You following us, son." A statement rather than a question. "Not really," Charlie said. "It just seemed to me your way was as good as any way, and maybe you'd end up somewhere." "Part of the charm of the life. But this time of day, you got to be walking with a purpose. For instance, we're headed for Eustace's place. Father Eustace. It's a mission and mission's got food. Seeing as it's Thursday this mission probably has some meat in the soup. You seem kind of young to me, and according to your teeth and finger nails I say you're new to the life, so what you got to know, the secret to enjoying the life," pausing long enough for a brief ironic smile, "is certain times of the day you walk for a reason; food, never pass up the opportunity whether you're hungry or no, then safety. Keep your bowels open; bathe once a week, wear wool or cotton next to the skin and leather on the feet. That's the Coachman's gospel and he's sticking to it." He had turned away and started after his companions, Charlie shuffling along behind, and sure enough it had turned out to be food and a safe place as well. "Ah, a late evening repast, I see," Pepp said as Charlie pulled out the burger half. "Steak Tartar, no doubt." "Just a burger. What's steak tartar?" "What the burger used to be." "Right. You're a fountain of useless information. How about I go to sleep now and we continue this in the morning?" "Very well, Mr. Hinds-Nixon. And how would you like your coffee sir." "What?" "The invisible people serve their guests invisible coffee in the morning." ~~~ # Names. Jesus, why are names so damn important? Hinds, just a label, something temporary for this guy Willy Pepp, three P's and an E. That hitch hike ride away from the rest stop had needed a name and he had labeled himself Charlie Baxter, the first thing that came to mind. Off-books shovel work for a city contractor knew him as Charlie Hubbard, another label out of nowhere. At some point he was standing by a phone booth waiting for something to happen and spied its telephone book. It's where the Hinds label came from. As good as any and he liked it better than the earlier ones. So Charlie Hinds, the Charlie part representing some semblance of continuity, a thread back to a history he was in the process of leaving far, far behind him. Those were his thoughts in the early gray dawn as he joined a small silent group relieving themselves over an embankment that dropped to a murky looking river below. The other side of the small black circle marking last night's fire was empty of any evidence of Willy Pepp or anyone else. Charlie was standing above the dark char of dirt wondering if he had imagined Willy Pepp. Not too far-fetched, given the weirdness of the name and the person, and his own emotional and physical fatigue. "It's meeeee." It was a crooning voice behind him. "Willy Pepp, three P's and an E." Charlie turned and the voice, coming from behind the bridge pier, crooned, "I'm invisible." "No," Charlie said, stepping to the side of the pier, "you're nuts." He had guessed right. Pepp was a good six inches shorter than Charlie's six feet. He had a long oval face with a large chin, small nose, wide set eyes, finger combed light brown hair that looked to be thinning out evenly. Not an attractive person, but with something compelling; the eyes. They radiated an energy ... "Probably true," Pepp allowed, "and I may need to examine that more closely on my next visit to myself. However, the appointment is some distance down my calendar, so let's stick with invisible for the time being." Those eyes, yes, they wanted to pin him in place and he had to move. "Okay, see no Willy, so hear no Willy, and therefore speak no Willy." Charlie signed a small wave and started down a well worn path paralleling the river. "Hey, wait up." Pepp was immediately beside him. "You're pretty noisy for a person I can't see." "Oh no, we're both invisible, Charlie Hinds. But only to all of them out there." He scribbled a large gesture in the air. "And it's not that they can't see us, they don't want to see us. We're their worst nightmare. They could be us." "Right. Look at me." As soon as he said it, Charlie realized he had been walking away from last night's encampment, but not toward anything. Maybe I'm walking away from invisibility. "See. President one day, invisible the next." Charlie stopped on the path. There was a river on his left, a steep, rough looking embankment on the right climbing to a busy roadway. Cars hurried by, the clear morning sky was disinterested, the lazy flow below was doing its own business and indifferent. The only element in nature seemingly with any interest in him whatsoever was this short person, Willy, three Ps and an E, Pepp. ~~~ # There were nine of them scrunched into the narrow seats of a fifteen passenger jitney-like bus. He and Pepp were sitting together, Charlie circling possibilities for their destination. The tire and engine noises produced by the bus were a loud droning and seemed to have draped a silence over all of them. It was certainly a motley group; four blacks, three Latinos and the two of them. The black guys were definitely down and out, in the mud of life, faces immobile, blank, generally gray and a little grizzly. He was pretty sure the Latinos were not Mexican. Their faces seemed much more sharply defined, and conversational shards several hours earlier at the pickup place had been about fruits, farms and Florida and a family in Ponce which somehow didn't sound like Mexico to Charlie. Pepp had taken him to the service yard behind a small shopping center where they joined a group of twelve milling around waiting for what Pepp referred to as a job prince. Looking around him, Charlie figured they were more of Pepp's invisible people. But it was all familiar. Over the past five years he had been in any number of line ups like this. "Looks like some of your constituents, Willy. Ever think of running for office?" "Good idea. Vote for Willy. A can of beans in every bindle. The problem is, you need money to get elected. You can't buy a lot of votes with cans of beans." "You don't like politicians." "Oh I don't mind politicians. Just a different kind of crook. But the world runs on money, Charlie. The golden rule; if you have the gold you get to rule." "That's grim," Charlie said. "It doesn't look good for you and me." "Maybe there's hope. There was a guy with a long Greek name who said something like, rising power challenges ruling power. Of course, he said it in Greek, so it was probably a little more elaborate than that." "Which means?" "Here's my theory." Pepp had moved in closer as if imparting a critical piece of information. "Money rules. When money rules it creates more and more invisible people. Which makes us the rising power. And I happen to believe rising power eventually wins out over ruling power." "Of course we'll be dead by then. Meanwhile," Charlie had said, pointing to a new looking pickup truck coming into the yard followed by their bus, "I think this is our job prince." By now he calculated they were getting into hour three of this bus ride. The job prince had told them he was Spearman Becker; "Sounds kinda African and German," he told them in a soft but definitely commanding southern accent. "Y'all can assume I'm the best and worst parts of both of them names together. Which means I can be good you follow the rules, bad you don't. The job is a week, ten days. It's over a hundred miles away, which means we don't come back 'til we're done. Which means we set up a place to sleep and eat and I already done sent a truck ahead with food and tools. Twenty five bucks each man, includes room and board, you buy your own smokes, no weapons, no booze. I'll take all of you want to go. Any questions?" "Okay," it was a pitched stringy voice from the middle of the small crowd; "what time you think we gonna be back tonight?" Two guys standing behind him nodded approval of the question. "We ain't comin' back tonight. But it don't make no difference for you since you ain't goin'. Anybody else got a hearing problem, don't get in the bus." Becker had looked them over slowly and then said, "Okay, let's get in the bus," and the nine of them had loaded up. Toccoa Post Office. Toccoa, that was the town they were riding through now. Then onto a narrow road, and judging by the sun, heading more or less North. They had been North bound the whole trip, and he was wondering if they were still in Georgia when Becker's truck up ahead of them turned into a graveled roadway and past a small, shy looking sign embedded in a fieldstone gatepost that read 'White Willow'. The road ran through a stately grove of willows and out to a wide rolling expanse of beautifully green fields cross hatched by gleaming white three rail fencing and dotted with scattered horses. The scene, pristine and still, looked painted. As they turned left down a side road skimming the bottom of the pastures Charlie reached across Pepp and pointed out his window at an elegant looking mansion topping a rise and overlooking it all. "Yep," Pepp said. "Looks like a ruling power to me." Their bus rolled into shadowed woods just beyond the pasture fencing and in another minute came to a stop in a large, graveled area rounded for a turnabout. They were stopped behind a dump truck standing next to an empty half size flat bed. As they worked stiffened joints out of the bus, Charlie saw what looked like a low barn up ahead. The road they had come in on continued out of the turnabout, through a woody fringe and over a low knoll, just beyond which they could see part of the roof line of what was probably another barn. The nine of them were standing in a loose clump, a small collection of back packs, string bags and paper bags at their feet. Spearman Becker's pickup had pulled off to the side and he was coming toward them. "Now that bunkhouse you're all starin' at is home for the next week or so," he said. " 'Round back there's a small work room and that's for the tools every night. There's a spigot and hose back there and the tools go in clean." Becker took a long moment to look over the nine of them, and then said, "Anyone didn't hear that, raise your hand. "Good. You're all payin' attention. Okay, the tools. They're in that dump truck, so job one is gonna be, get them tools into the work room. Now, they're clean and they're gonna stay that way, right?" Heads nodded. "Good. Job two is help unload that panel truck." Charlie had missed that. It was a large white panel truck backed up to the far side of the bunkhouse front door. It had a ramp hooked onto its back end and he watched a lean, bearded figure in jeans and tee shirt come out of the back carrying what looked like a milk crate stacked high with cellophaned packages. 'Cher-Mack Provisioning Services', was printed across its side along with an address and phone number in Atlanta. Paulo's Cycle Recycle. It was like a message in a bottle washing up on memory beach. The good old days before the rest stop and Jencovitch. It made for a private smile; every now and then, he thought, irony can be entertaining. "It's got the food," Becker was saying, "the dishes and things like that, plus all the bedding stuff plus a big ass cook stove." Becker turned and yelled up to the bunkhouse. "Hey Donny. C'mon down here and meet the crew." After a moment a good sized guy in heavy work boots came out. He had an Irish look about him; pitch black hair, sharp bone features and a small nose that looked like it had been broken once and reset by amateurs. An outdoors person, Charlie thought. The face had seen a lot of sunlight and the hands were big, meaty big. For all his size he came toward them with a light step, swaying shoulders; football player off the field. "This here's Donny Redmon," Becker was saying. "What we're gonna do here is take down a busted wooden bridge that's down that horse path there." He waived an extended thumb over his right shoulder. "Donny will be out there with you on the job. Keep in mind, everything Donny tells you to do is me telling you. Now you all raise a hand if you missed that." Brief scan. Charlie noted that he seemed to look at each face individually. "Okay, then. Tools first and then homemaking. We start on the job tomorrow morning." He turned back to his pickup and Redmon stepped forward, motioning to Charlie and the biggest of the three Latinos. "You two boys climb into the truck and pass out the tools, and the rest of us will get them into the shed." Redmon's voice had a gruff edge to it with a real strength underneath. Charlie knew immediately it was a voice that expected to be heard, understood, and reacted to without conversation or questions. ~~~ Continues on next page
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