Folks call me Rags. I don’t remember my real name an’ don’t care to. An’ I dunno exactly how old I am either. Maybe somewheres in my fifties or so, but some days I feel way older’n that. Gettin’ old is easy. Bein’ old ain’t no rainbow.
I used to be a rodeo clown. Me ‘n my buddy, Arnie was his name, we worked the circuit. It was dangerous sometimes, but we was young ‘n tough ‘n didn’t think too much ‘bout things. Took our fair shares’a lumps ‘n bruises we did, but it come with the job. Got paid pretty good ‘n we had our fair shares’a women who’d liked to get near us, ya know what I’m sayin’?
Anyways, one day Arnie got kicked in the head by a mean-spirited bull an’ he died before they got ‘im to a hospital. Losin’ someone like that… well, it kind’a puts out the fire inside ya. So, I drifted ‘round for a long while, doin’ odd jobs ‘n a whole lotta drinkin’ till no one would hire me no more cuz I weren’t reliable. An’ then I was on the streets, livin’ rough, drinkin’ anything that’d give me a buzz, an’ more or less waitin’ to die, most likely alone somewhere. It’s what I deserved.
What saved me, from myself I’m sayin’, was when I met Gunner. He was an ol’
artillery guy who got busted up in the war an’ was livin’ on a small army pension with others at a ol’ warehouse. He give me a place to stay an’ got me off the booze. An’ we was doin’ okay, figurin’ that was the way life was gonna be for us. But then things got all changed. But here’s the thing… this here story ain’t all about me or Gunner or Edith. Yer gonna meet Gunner right away an’ Edith later. Edith was the one who found an ol’ librarian friend who was a writer to write up this here story.
The story ‘bout all of us… and the kid.
On a day that started like any other, Rags and Gunner made it to their favorite street corner early and settled in for another day of panhandling for spare change and watching the world go by, not expecting much in the way of excitement or change, nor aware that their lives were about to be altered.
Under Rags’ usual growth of beard stubble, one could see the wrinkles that premature aging had added to his face and the scars that life had given him along the way. His hair was gray with only a hint that it used to be blond. He was small and slim but gave an impression of being wiry and tough if pushed the wrong way. His clothes were tattered and old and hence his name, but they were as clean as the limited washing facilities at The Brickbox would allow. He favored blue jeans, collarless shirts, buttoned vests, and an old pair of work boots with broken laces. Inside the boots were mismatched socks, a habit that stretched back to when Rags was a rodeo clown. When he spoke, his voice sounded like a low-pitched, raspy whisper. “Ya feelin’ it’s gonna be a good day fer coin?” he asked his friend sitting beside him.
Gunner was a tall black man in his late forties who walked with a slight stoop. He had salt and pepper hair, a soul patch under his lower lip, and a scar that ran along his jaw from the right ear to his chin—a reminder of a fight with a pimp who had been beating on one of his hookers before Gunner stepped in. As always, Gunner wore an old army combat jacket over a white T-shirt, faded chino pants, and a well-worn khaki slouch hat. Sitting beside a beat-up saxophone that rested on a battered case, Gunner gave Rags’ question some thought. Finally, he answered, “Could be.”
Rags squinted at his friend. “Gave that a lot of thought, did ya?”
“Yup.” Gunner reached down and began to scratch his scrotum with some vigor. When he was done, he leaned his head back, looked upward, and sighed.
Rags looked at his friend’s crotch. “Ya find the one ya still got?” he asked.
“I’m thinking it isn’t the one I got that itches so much,” said Gunner.
Rags nodded, and then a new thought occurred to him. “Ya remember to bring a sign?”
“What’s it sayin’ today?”
Gunner reached over to a shopping bag and pulled out a square piece of cardboard. Written on it in black felt tip pen were the words: I AM ONE-TENTH APACHE. WILL ATTACK SETTLERS FOR MONEY. (DISCOUNTS ON IRISH CATHOLICS).
Rags looked at it and nodded his approval. “Ya should get Chalkie to draw sumthin to go with the words. Maybe an Indian on a horse.”
“Are we allowed to say Indian anymore?”
“What kinda horse?”
“Chestnut. Maybe Appaloosa.”
“Male or female?”
“Thinkin’ female. Ya don’t wanna have some kid’s parent get all over ya by havin’ Chalkie draw a horse with a big pecker.”
“Might get sued?”
“Might have to listen to some soccer mammy gobbin’ at ya fer five minutes, tellin’ ya how offended she is an’ how y’oughta be ashamed of yerself an’ how ya shouldn’t be pollutin’ this here street corner by bein’ here.”
“So, maybe I could get Chalkie to draw a chuck wagon instead.”
“A chuck wagon on fire, with some arrows stickin’ out.”
“Where’d the fire come from?”
“The microwave exploded inside the chuck wagon.”
“I’m thinkin’ sumthin offshore. Maybe Korea.”
“With a good warranty.”
Rags pulled out the stub of a cigar from a vest pocket and put it in his mouth, but he didn’t light it. Beside him, Gunner put his saxophone to his lips and took a deep breath. Just as he was about to blow into the instrument, Rags nudged him and pointed his finger.
“This could be interestin’,” he said.
On the other side of the street was a park with trees and a bench. A man and a woman smiled at one another as they walked along the sidewalk. Both had a group of leashed dogs in front of them. As they drew opposite Rags and Gunner, they moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. After tying the dogs to a couple of trees and moving to the bench, they began to make out. The dogs yapped and nipped at one another in play, except for one pair who began sniffing and then engaged in a dry hump behind the unaware dog walkers. Rags and Gunner took this in, nodding their approval of the dogs’ efforts.
“Them mutts got the right idea,” said Rags. “Know what ya want and git to it.”
“Yeah,” replied Gunner.” And those two young-uns on the bench are gonna get themselves all worked up and sweaty, and then what?”
“We could offer to mind the dogs for ‘em while they disappeared in the trees.”
“They’d probably want us to sign a waiver or something.”
“An’ we might lose our place on the corner here.”
“Ya bring any books with ya?”
Gunner reached into an old khaki-colored canvas pack and pulled out a couple of paperbacks.” I got a Zane Grey and a Robert B. Parker.”
“I’ll take the Western one,” said Rags.” Gimme horses ‘n cowboys any day.”
“You’re easy to please.”
“An’ you just watched a couple’s dogs humpin’ in the park.”
“See your point.”
While Rags and Gunner sat on their corner that morning, Jude Zander got off a highway cruiser at the downtown bus station. She had no idea where she was or where she was going. Never having been in a city before, the size and mass of everything overwhelmed her, as did the smells and noise. And the people. She had seen pictures in magazines and online and had watched videos and television. Still, no one in her hometown was anything but white-skinned, of Anglo-Saxon heritage, and vocally mid-Atlantic. And now, in the whirlpool of humanity all around her, she saw black people, Asian people, women with scarves covering their heads, and men with black hats that pushed long curls out around their ears.
Is this what the world really looks like? she thought