Grit and Balloon made their way back to the camp after a morning of panhandling at the corner of the service road of I-10 and Huebner. Grit, especially, liked this corner and often fought to defend his territory. It was a prime area for panhandling; the motorists were good for about $30 before 2:00 P.M. This was quitting time and Grit never deviated from his God-given right to panhandle until 2:00 and then drink himself silly the rest of the day.
It was all different now, though. Grit had recently become the leader of the camp, the man they all went to for advice or to settle a dispute. The old king was dead.
“I reckon we got enough for four bottles. A good day,” Balloon enthused. He could enthuse because he was still young and unencumbered by the ravages that would descend on him should he continue the homeless lifestyle.
“Mmm,” Grit grumbled. He grumbled because he would be faced with acolytes coming to him for advice as soon as he sat down. All he wanted to do was to get an early start on his drinking and then pass out for the night. It’s not a lot to ask, he mused.
“Why don’t them people look at us?”
Grit gave Balloon a look of weary irritation. Newbies. Always asking stupid shit.
“They just do,” Grit said. He lit a cigarette and shared it with Balloon.
“Tell me. I know you know ‘cause I know you talked to Prof all the time.”
The discomfort that Grit felt in his belly wasn’t because of hunger but because Balloon mentioned Prof. His comrade. Everyone’s friend, really. He missed him like hell but he wasn’t about to show it.
“They’re ashamed that they can’t make us go away. We’re such a big problem that they get overwhelmed with it and just ignore us.”
Balloon thought about this for about seven seconds, which was about six seconds longer than he was comfortable with. Grit didn’t much care for Balloon, or so he told himself, but Balloon was big and that made him good at warding off the poachers that tried to steal his panhandling corner.
“That don’t make no sense,” Balloon offered.
“Then shut up about it,” Grit offered right back.
The duo returned to the camp after purchasing four bottles of wine. Grit stashed them away until he got through the bevy of those who wanted his wisdom for their petty disputes. Today was a big day for personal property disputes. They’re also fucking petty. Get a life, people.
The day dragged on. The early summer days did that in this part of the country, and Grit breathed a sigh of relief when the last group left him. Now he and Balloon could get down to some serious drinking.
Balloon cleared his throat, which, Grit knew, he always did preparatory to informing Grit about something that Grit didn’t want to hear. Balloon was irritating but Grit, oddly enough, was starting to like him. Not right now, though. Not after he cleared his throat.
“Juice is comin’ over later.”
Grit gave an irritated grunt and downed a good portion of the first bottle. He wasn’t a fan of Juice. She used her body to get what she wanted, and that just wasn’t right. Grit didn’t realize that he used Balloon to get what he wanted, but then again, no one in camp could claim to be a master of understanding the ironic subtleties of human nature.
“Why? I don’t want my drinkin’ time interrupted, Balloon. Did you invite that slut over here?”
Balloon grinned and nodded.
“She says she’ll fuck you if you do somethin’ for her.”
“Mmm. Juice fucks everyone that does somethin’ for her. She’d even fuck you if the price was right.”
Balloon giggled, causing Grit to look at him sharply. So. It had already happened. Fuck!
“Okay,” Grit sighed, “what did you do for her?”
Balloon looked at Grit and winked. He leaned in and told him, in a low voice.
“She wanted a pack of cigarettes. I got her a pack of Winston Reds. She stayed with me all damn night, Grit.”
“Did she?” Grit was aggressively uninterested in any further conversation on the matter. He did wonder, though, what she wanted from him.
“She told me the next time it would cost me two packs because I was a disgusting, fat fuck. Do you think I’m fat?”
Balloon looked at Grit with wide, innocent eyes. Balloon wanted to feel sorry for Balloon. He was mentally handicapped and the powers that be did everything in their power to not help him. Balloon found himself out on the streets and wondering how he was going to live, all at the tender age of twenty-three.
“Yeah, you’re a little fat. But you’re losing weight, so that’s good,” Grit said. He lit a cigarette and smoked it, wondering what could be so amazing about them that a pack would cause a woman to willingly subject herself to intimacies with Balloon.
“We don’t eat much, Grit. Why don’t we spend some money on food?”
“Shut up,” Grit responded.
He hated it when Balloon brought up the subject of food. They had enough to eat, in his opinion. They didn’t ever have enough for Balloon’s gluttonous appetite.
Juice sauntered in at this moment, taking an unoffered seat and lighting a cigarette. She gave Balloon a wink and blew him a kiss. Balloon took this opportunity to turn red and leave. Juice turned her attention to Grit. He eyed her warily, not trusting her motives in anything.
“Hey Grit. Good to see you. You wanna fuck?”
“No. What do you want?”
Juice looked at Grit quizzically. No one had ever said ‘no’ to her when she made this offer.
“Oh! I get it. You probably want some of that sweet lovin’ from Sally. Well I got news for you. She don’t spread her legs for nobody,” Juice sat back blowing smoke out of her nose.
“Yes, and for precisely that reason I want her. What do you want?”
Juice, unfortunately, couldn’t understand why Grit wanted something that he couldn’t have, despite the fact that her lust for married men (her ex-husband’s friends, by the way) is what got her kicked out of her house and onto the streets. She was welcomed into the camp because she was not violent and she had nowhere else to go. Grit didn’t like her but he didn’t want her to leave. He was the new leader, after all, and he felt compelled to help those in need, just as Prof taught him.
“I wanna look at The Book.”
The Book. The beginning of the end for Prof. Grit glanced at the tattered backpack that contained The Book and felt his heart constrict just a little. 1200 pages. A man’s life snuffed out too soon because of 1200 pages. And to think, it all started with a startling discovery that the world laughed at.
Jarrod Cochrane had a multitude of doctorates by the age of twenty-three and was hailed as the next great scientist, being likened to Newton and Einstein. And he produced some stellar achievements in just a few years. He made important contributions to recombinant human growth hormones, his discoveries in quantum physics led to validation of the existence of black holes, and had created a fourth type of DNA sequencing that revolutionized the field. What would be next? The scientific world wanted to know. When he produced his next work, the scientific community was shocked.
“I have laid bare the secrets of the universe, and it showed me the face of God,” he proudly proclaimed when submitting his 1200-page magnum opus. He was now thirty-one years old and had worked on his latest discovery, and only on his latest discovery, for five years. It was destined to be the greatest work of science since Newton’s ‘Principia,’ he claimed.
Only it wasn’t.
The scientific community, while admitting to some sparkling discoveries within, roundly rejected the massive tome as a whole. To claim to have proven God’s existence, they said, is madness and foolhardy bombast. Dr. Cochrane was ridiculed and demonized and otherwise told that his work was not welcome.
As W.B. Yeats had once penned and Chinua Achebe echoed, things fall apart. In Dr. Cochrane’s case, things sort of exploded from the core of his being instead of merely falling apart. The university (and the universe) took little time in letting him go, and he was not able to procure another position in the halls of academia. His wife divorced him; she had no problem procuring another husband. He found solace with his liquid friends Jack Daniels and a guy named Jameson. When he ran out of money he looked around, shrugged, and walked aimlessly down the streets looking for a place to die. That’s all he wanted now.
He stumbled in to the camp with a ragged backpack and an expensive watch. He gave up the watch for acceptance into the camp. Dr. Cochrane’s new life had begun.
Balloon stumbled back to where Grit and Juice were. The tension was heavy but it blithely ignored Balloon.
“So, what do ya’ want?” Juice stared at Grit intently. The Book was holy to her because she had never ever had a look inside. She had to see inside.
“A pack of Winston Reds,” Grit said flatly. He knew that Juice would have to have sex with Balloon to get them.
Juice grimaced before turning to Balloon.
“Wanna fuck? Two packs, buddy.”
Balloon and Juice exited to make their exchange, leaving Grit to drink. He drank a lot more nowadays. To get Prof’s words outta my head. It hasn’t worked so well lately, dammit! The fucker just won’t leave me in peace.
“Do you remember that anti-littering commercial from the 70’s? The one where someone tosses trash by the side of the highway and a Native American sees it? He turns to the camera and there’s a tear in his eye,” Prof said to him a couple of years ago.
“Yeah. Sure. Stupid commercial,” Grit said.
“Did you know that the man playing the role of the Native American was actually Italian?” Prof was staring at the fire as he spoke, his words thoughtful and slow, almost as if he were speaking to himself.
“Interesting,” Grit said uninterestedly.
Prof looked up and stared at Grit intently, causing Grit to shift uncomfortably. Prof had a way of making a man feel less than.
“That commercial tells you everything you need to know about America.”
Grit didn’t get it, though he did ruminate on the words. So what? Fuck the Italians.
Despite it all, whenever Prof spoke, it all sounded deep and meaningful, even if he couldn’t figure it out. If anyone else had said the same words, he would assume that they were high or drunk or just plain stupid.
Grit had once asked him why he was here instead of being a scientist anymore.
“A prophet is without honor amongst his own people,” Prof responded.
His name had been ‘Proph,’ short for ‘Prophet.’ Now it was ‘Prof.’ short for ‘Professor.’ Sounded the same, but it hurt less, at least for Grit. The camp’s current king was also the camp’s prophet, and everyone, including him, believed everything Prof said. Grit stood out because Prof made him start believing in God again.
“Always trust the Irish, Grit. Always. They drink heavily, write beautifully, and fight gloriously. God must love them very much.” Prof would say this from time to time.
Grit didn’t understand why drunken, fighting fools would be looked upon favorably by God, but Grit tended to believe it. Prof seemed to understand God better than most.
“God is a Republican by nature because he doesn’t mind killing a few motherfuckers when the need arises. His son, though, is a Democrat. Wants to help everyone out whether they deserve it or not. I wonder how they get along at dinnertime, don’t you?” Prof would smile and chuckle gently at the thought.
Grit never wondered about this scenario because he didn’t understand even the barest rudiments of American politics. He tried to wrap his head around it but his head was not large enough to accommodate such thoughts.
“I’ve had a good life so far, Grit. Oh, don’t look at me like that! Listen. I was happiest when I was working on this,” Prof held up the thick sheaf of papers, “and it did me in. Sort of. I lost my career, my wife, my house. But I found God. He’s right here. Plus, I found you. That’s a pretty good exacta, my friend.” Prof smiled and clapped Grit on the back.
A week later, Prof was dead. He had been beaten to death by a group of thugs who had not been identified. They never would be caught for this particular crime.
Grit sighed and drained the second bottle of wine. He eyed Balloon’s two bottles and drank them as well. He shouldn’t have left them here, the stupid fuck.
Grit went to sleep that night and never woke up.
Juice sat on a tree stump and spoke to the crowd at the camp. Two dozen packs of Winston Reds lay by her feet, and more were being offered.
“One pack will get you a look inside The Book. Pay to play, boys and girls. The king is dead.”
Everyone knelt down at this proclamation.
“Long live the queen,” everyone intoned, just as they had been taught.
Juice had assumed command of the camp because she now had The Book. It was Juice who had found Grit’s dead, cold body. It was Juice whose first thought was to steal his cigarettes and leg it out of there. Then she spied the ragged backpack and took that as well. The Book meant power. The Book made her something that she could never have hoped to be, would never deserve, but would be used to her advantage.
No one understood The Book, but they still wanted to see it, to touch it and caress it and breathe in its musky odor. One pack of Winston Reds was small price to pay to be in the presence of The Book.
Balloon stole The Book a year later and set it on fire. Juice screamed at the injustice of it all and attacked Balloon with a knife. Unfortunately for her, she fell on the knife during the struggle and expired on the grass in the park, her blood seeping into the thirsty summer ground. Balloon was charged with manslaughter and was housed at Huntsville State Prison to serve a ten-year sentence.
Miraculously, The Book did not burn. The edges were charred and the front cover had indeed burned, but it largely remained intact. Celibate Sally had saved it and became the new queen.
As the years passed, kings and queens came and went. The holder of The Book ruled the camp, and this lead to murder, treachery, and all sorts of bad things, all in the name of acquiring The Book.
The last person to possess the book was D’Mitri Sarkov, a Russian national who was on the run from the law for a string of burglaries across town. He fell drunkenly into a river and drowned, taking The Book down with him. After that, the camp disbanded and the denizens sought brave new worlds elsewhere.
In later years, The Book would be resurrected from time to time by earnest grad students casting around for thesis material. The prevailing thought about The Book by the cognoscenti of these modern times is that it is nothing more than a beautifully written curiosity from a bygone era. The man who had penned these words was forgotten, and his words no longer echoed in the brains of his subjects.
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I'm hung-up on his statement, "Get a life." This is one of those stories that will have to roll around in my head until I figure out why that line, how that line, is so pivotable. But I think the answer would not be the same for everyone.
Well-spotted, Eileen. The point, I think, is in the interpretation. The definition of 'life' will determine what he means by that thought. Thanks for the insight, Eileen. It is much appreciated.
What a curious story! Good characterization, a sad veneer, but it feels like there's something extra going on under the good. Did Prof truly find God (and if so, which god :), or was this just a man who had a break with reality? The latter is what we assume, as prophets are a dime a dozen, but from his conversations it's clear he found God for himself at least - which is something. But then, The Book is surprisingly resilient. Perhaps supernaturally so - so maybe there's more to this. As a grand metaphor, we have a wise man who records his...
"As a grand metaphor, we have a wise man who records his words in The Book. His words forever go unread, and his followers war over The Book itself. That could be a stand in for any religion, where the adherents are more interested in the cult rituals other than the underlying meaning of it all. Go through the motions, not the understanding. Worship the idol, not the message." You captured what I was attempting to say in this paragraph. Michal. Your analysis of this story is truly amazing, as is your analysis in all of my stories that you c...
Absolutely brilliant spin, and like The Book in the story, I couldn't put it down! Personal fave: "God is a Republican by nature because he doesn’t mind killing a few motherfuckers when the need arises. His son, though, is a Democrat. Wants to help everyone out whether they deserve it or not." Never thought of that before, but you're right, and what a great analogy! ;)
Wendy, I just loooove your reviews of my work. I'm really pleased that you liked the quoted passage. It was one of my personal faves as well. It just kind of wrote itself. I like it when that happens because I don't have to do much. LOL Thanks again, Wendy. I am truly appreciative of your praise.
haha :) My pleasure, whatever ensures that you keep writing so I can continue to be this amused (for free, no less! :).