I ain’t got any reason to lie to you, detective. I killed those guys. They were my friends but it wouldn’t be right to let them carry on the way they were. But that ain’t good enough for you, is it? You want to know the hows and whys, right?
Here’s the thing, us street folk are desperate. And Hank, Billy, Freddie, those guys became the embodiment of desperate. You can’t know the meaning of that word until you’ve been in this life, watched the cold blacken your skin or had your belly try to eat its way out of you. All we want are three square and a warm bed, but it seems like you people do everything to make sure that doesn’t happen. We find a place we were can eek out an existence approaching human, and then badges, you, come along to rip it away. Nevermind that we weren’t bothering a single soul. Like when you bricked up the old steam-tunnels under downtown. Or the camp off the river. No one gave a damn about that place, it was overgrown trees and grass, till we set up there. I was there when you came with your clubs and torches, put our tents to the fire. Did the community a great service that day, didn’t you?
So, winter comes and us guys just want a half-decent meal in our stomachs, a warm place to put our heads. But oh yeah, just get my ass to a shelter, right? What shelter? Developers pressured the old one to close, then before the new one can open, all the bleeding-hearts who whine and gritch and moan about charity and helping the needy turn around, crying, “Not in my neighborhood!” Them assholes only care about folk like me when it’ll help them look good in front of their friends. I hope their Sunday brunches at the trendy restaurants built on the grave of the old shelter helps them sleep at night. No, I don’t. I shouldn’t lie like that. What I really want is for them to choke on the overpriced food.
One time, this hag is feeding pigeons and the river-gulls at the Waterfront. I ain’t calling her a hag to disrespect her as a woman. My parents raised me better than that. I’m calling her a hag cause that’s what she is. Done up real pretty, in a smart suit. Maybe she should eat some of that make-up caking her face, then she’d be pretty on the inside too. All I want is some change, maybe if I can get enough I can get a cheeseburger that day. And this hag just sneers at me, all sorts of hate and disgust about her as she tells me to go away. Ain’t that something? This woman would rather feed a bunch of diseased birds than help out a fellow human being. No one walks away from that not feeling less than human.
When was the last time someone looked you in the eye, detective? Hell, it was probably right before you walked in this room, and a thousand damned times before that. I don’t know when the last time it happened for me. Dirt’s the only thing holding my clothes together, I haven’t a hot shower since last year and this ain’t perfume clogging up your nostrils. I know all this. But I am still a human being.
Not that you care. You just want my story.
Anyways, some guys get so damned desperate for three square and a warm bed, they swing on the badges or put teeth to them. That’ll earn you a couple of good nights. Some of those guys win the lottery, get sent before a hard-ass judge and get put in LaGrange for a couple of years. But others just get clubbed about the head and dumped in an alley, given the business so bad they can’t recognize themselves in the mirror. And the real unlucky ones…well, isn’t it real funny how many homeless men end up getting pulled from the locks down river, all water-logged and fish-eaten? Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m getting at. Must be an epidemic of spontaneous winter time skinny-dipping, right?
Like I said, Hank, Billy, Freddie, those guys got real desperate. And like I said, they were my friends. In this life those are hard to come by. Hell, it’s hard to come by someone who isn’t trying to shove his prick in your every unguarded hole, or wanting to beat you cause the drugs, drink or his own bat-shit crazy brain is telling him to. A friend is someone who won’t run you off for trying to build a nest in the same place, who saves you a spot at their fire, and will share whatever scraps they liberated from the dumpsters that day.
Them three were those kinda guys.
I’d been stuck in the tank for three days on a P.I. charge. You guys kicked me out at night, coldest one of the winter so far. I’m thinking you hoped the weather’d take care of your burden. Anyways, I find the guys at our spot, in the alley behind the…ah, hell, you know where it is, that’s where you picked me up. And they got a weak fire going in a garbage can. There was more dark than light in the alley that night. Their hoods were up, I couldn’t see their faces for the shadows. Each was cooking a skewer of meat over the fire. Damn, it smelt so good. Makes me want to upchuck now.
I ask them if they caught a rabbit or squirrel. Naw, they say, better. Then they start telling me this story. The night I went in the tank, air got for real cold. So, they crawl their asses down in the sewer. That’s desperate, gents. That kind of stink sets up residence in your nose for days, but it’s warm. Not that night, though. All the steaming shit in the city couldn’t hold back a cold like that. Deeper and deeper they go, looking to get away from the chill, until they are so deep, in a place beneath the sewers. There’s a church down there. The Old Church they call it. There before the white folk came here, and probably before the Natives too. Tribes were scared of this part of Kentucky. If I had anything to bet you, I’d wager the Old Church is a reason why.
The preacher man welcomes them, promises the guys a place safe from the worst of the snows and sun and people, where their bellies will always be filled. And he feeds them sacraments, the sweetest meat, lets them gorge. They all say they haven’t ate like the since before the life. Then the preacher says they must go back to the streets, says they aren’t ready to join the Old Church, not yet. But if they sought out the sacraments and ate of them, they soon would be. They guys asked how he’ll know. The preacher man says he’ll know, then he’ll come and retrieve them from the cold and the starvation and the hate, to live among his congregation until the last days. With that, he casts them back to the terrible world above.
There are others, like us, down there. Or they were once like us. Street folks, mostly. But those who heard the preacher man’s sermons in their dreams, too. Some sewer workers who lost their way. All are welcome. None are turned away. They protect one another. And the preacher man protects them all. Beneath our feet, there is a place of love.
The guys ask me if I want in. Do I want to forget the feeling of a hollow belly? Do I want a home, a real honest-to-the-gospels home? A place where no god-damned drunk-on-money frat-boy, looking to kill so he can get a hard-on, would dare go? Down so deep not even the badges can reach? Of course I did!
And one of them, I can’t remember who, doesn’t matter, hands me a skewer of long, fatty meat. The night is so dark and the meat so blackened, I can’t tell what it is. I was slobbering the meat smelt so good. Not that I cared. Eat they say, take the sacrament, then preacher man’ll take you down to the Old Church too. As I bring it up to my mouth to take a bite, I see what I am about to eat. Hanging off the end of the skewer, a tiny, clinched fist.
Living this life, the things we see, it ain’t a wonder why half the street folk are crazy. Like this one time, my buddy was killed in a hit-and-run, the contents of his skull emptied on the pavement. It’s more yellow than you’d expect.
But this, I’d never seen anything like this. I dropped the skewer and upchucked. Out came everything from my stomach down to my toes. And this wailing scream starts up from me. I couldn’t help it.
The guys start shouting some nonsense about sacrilege. And for the first time, I see their faces, the weak firelight catching them just right. I tell you, boys, what I saw wasn’t Hank, Billy and Freddie no more. No. It was Desperation. With a big “D”. They’d gotten so desperate that it took up residence in them, had its hand up their collective asses, moving them like puppets. Desperation has teeth like needles, and big black desolate eyes full of want.
So, I ran. Screaming and coughing up more of my belly with each step. What was I supposed to do? I hid in some bushes, damn near pissing myself from fright, trying to stop myself from crying, in case they were looking for me. I prayed for God to let the cold take me before the guys found me. But I’m guessing they weren’t looking, after all. If they had been, you’d be picking up the leftovers instead of having this conversation.
Daylight comes, bringing with it a bit more sense. See, I get me a plan. I wait outside an office building, watching the stiffs walk in, looking for the right mark. I ain’t one bit ashamed to admit I’ve snatched a few purses in my day, so I know how to pick the right victim. Hurried, distracted, purse held in one hand or hanging loose on one shoulder. Low and behold, that hag I told you about, the one from the park, comes walking up, another smart suit on, yammering into her phone. She don’t recognize me, any more than she’d recognize any of the individual pigeons or squirrels. Why would she? I’m just part of the urban wildlife.
It’d be a surprise if she even saw me before I knocked her down and yanked her purse. You can charge me with battery and theft by robbery too. Please, I’m begging you. Charge me.
Anyways, I take the money from her purse, dump it in a garbage can. With the money, I buy two quarts of motor oil from that gas-station on 1st and Liberty. As luck would have it, the hag was a smoker. No one at the gas-station was going to be asking me uncomfortable questions.
I go back to the spot, where I last saw the guys. See, when it got real cold, like it did last night, we’d crawl in the dumpsters together to sleep. Get that stupid look off your face. When you’re trying not to die of the cold, people thinking you’re into funny business is the last thing you worry about. I risked a peek in the dumpster, and they were in there. I looked just long enough to see how bad the desperation was. Their skin had gone a pale. Bald patches pock-marked their beards.
I dumped in the motor oil and dropped in a match.
And here we are.
I know it sounds like a bunch of nonsense. No way in Hell you’re going to be crawling down in the sewers looking for the Old Church and the preacher man. An autopsy won’t be done because they’re just street folk. No one gives a damn how they die. There may be a baby or two missing but you’ll just dismiss that as me having heard about it on the TV or in the papers. Right?
Thing is, I couldn’t care less if you believe my story or not. Either way, what you are left with is the fact I killed three men. Send me to LaGrange or put me in loony farm at Central State. I don’t care. Everyday now until my last, I’m getting three square and a warm bed.
By Bruce Priddy