Sarah used to wonder why a trek to the Walgreen’s for a bottle of Claritin a quarter mile across and a quarter mile up took me 90 minutes. I’d patiently explain that the stockboy’d gotten dumped by text the night previous, the cashier was struggling with her master’s thesis on social context in Elizabethan lit, and the chip vendor had never even heard of Only Murders or Detroiters, and she’d volunteer to pick up her own allergy meds the next time and ask had she put Midnight Taco Doritos on my list. It never failed to amuse.
Point is, I once overhead Mom tell one of my many bogus “aunts” that Dad never met a stranger. I was first-grade stupid at the time, focused almost exclusively on an espionage or cowboy career track, and wondered how he’d managed that neat little trick when since kindergarten, I’d been virtually bombarded with bossy, intrusive, cooing, impertinent strangers who thought I was growing daily at an exponential rate or yakking too much during coloring time. I began to assemble context clues over the next several years as Dad hauled me to Saturday stamp shows at the senior center, for quarter hotdogs and Pepsi at the new Chevy dealership, or to the mall for batteries, all the while making new friends and charming if not influencing people.
Often, the weekend itinerary was all of the above, and Mom would receive us with a lopsided smile and a skillet of round steak and gravy and an open sleeve of thrift store Colonial as the sun crossed over whatever Hoosier equivalent to a yardarm. Get Smart was at 8 (7 Central), so it wasn’t until the Norman Lear Era that I grasped the art of aggression through passivity and understood Mom hadn’t been bragging up Dad’s love of humanity with “Aunt Virginia.” If that’s who she really was…
Upshot is, I probably never shared Dad’s fascination with the human parade, but I idolized the way with a simple smile and a throwaway compliment or moment of commiseration or corny one-liner, he seemed to chip the permafrost from the most glacial bystander. I live in Jerry Maguire times, but I can still occasionally whip up a bit of the old John Dodge magic with a compliment on the Kroger bagger’s ink or a recipe swap in the Walmart line or just an empathetic moment at the DMV or waiting room.
So with Sarah occupied at the Olive Garden with the “girls” — a collection of tenuously connected former office colleagues periodically reassembled like gossipy, plaintive Avengers, one could only imagine the camaraderie I might wreak in downtown Millington on a Wednesday afternoon. Main slices through five blocks of boutiques, bars, bakeries, bars, artisan galleries and small-plate bistros, bars, law firms, bars, a historical museum, a lowly Blimpie’s, bars, and enough craft-roasted fair-trade coffee to drown a school of Seattle mermaids. I downed a trio of pork tacos with lime crema that looked like the fiesta platter at an American Girl tea, tutored the octogenarian volunteer at the global gift shop in safely accessing and utilizing her Netflix, traded streaming picks with the young woman selling crystals and Frida Kahlo coin purses and artfully wrought bongs, and practiced politics with the not-too-angry young man at the Books and ‘Bots before settling on and reluctantly reshelving a jacketed Chandler.
I did some pre-order, post-dessert small-talk calculus, and decided to cap off my Ferris Bueller-lite frolic with a run through the ginormous antique/thrift store that had replaced tobacco and magazines, Fannie Mae bon-bons, and multigenerational menswear 20-plus years ago. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and a vape shop, scone foundry, and custom T-shirt printer had sprouted across the street from the Garden of Deals like Gen-Z new growth.
Midpoint between Coffee Dawg and Java Jones, I traded a grin and nod with a cadaverous dude somewhere between 25 and 137 whose Grateful Dead dancing bears tee might have fetched a pretty eBay penny save the accumulated residue of a few hundred curbside/shelter meals and the fact that two of the high-stepping bruins were now scabbed and limbless and the green one practically zombified.
The woman in the fatigue jacket and the broken-billed Cards cap shuffled past me with a wide-eyed half-smile, bearing a small, steaming recycled content cup with a canine logo. A piece of bling on her red Christmas sweatshirt caught the midday sun, but I blinked and returned her shy greeting.
Three steps later, I stopped dead, and turned. She’d pulled up short, as well, and for a second, we faced off in a High Noon standoff before bursting into mutual laughter. A dirty, calloused finger wavered toward the vintage design T-shirt I’d scored at Old Navy, and I confirmed the source of the sunburst. Black-and-yellow logo, gray background, blank masked eyes above a scowl designed to strike terror in the heart of lavishly themed evildoers. Its twin reposed in a repurposed cigar box in my basement cabinet, atop the July ’47 Life with my dad watching Dorothy Maguire cut the rug at the Stage Door Canteen and a best-of collection of Michael Dodge’s clips, 1978-1990.
“BAT-MAAAAAANNNN!!!” we sang in unison, no doubt dishonoring Neal Hefti. The wispily bearded hipster caught in our crossfire nearly wrecked himself on a street side recycling station, while his brindle pit grunted and capered, clearly up for the party. He studiously refused to glare as he tugged his existential support animal away from the distinctly banal freak show.
I wasn’t sure where to take the conversation next, but she closed the distance at a measured pace to inspect my variation of the ’66 Batman logo. “I met him one time,” she proclaimed.
I smiled, uncertain whether she meant Adam West, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, the Twilight kid, or maybe Bruce Wayne hisself in or out of bat-drag.
”I missed meeting the Penguin.” She frowned momentarily, and I deduced it had been West. “No, seriously. I skipped my college graduation, and I found out a few years later Burgess Meredith gave the commencement speech. Now I’d wish I’d went. It was my favorite show growing up.”
“Mr. West was a real gentleman, didn’t try to feel me up like the other one,” she murmured. “Mr. Carter talked at my school, but he was a Southern boy, and I couldn’t make out half what he said. I was more of a Cesar Romero gal – you know he wouldn’t shave off his mustache for the bastards – put the makeup right on top of it. Now, that phony skunk Reagan gave the speech a few years after I graduated. Mr. Carter, that was a gentleman, like Mr. Wayne.”
I unbraided the dual conversational threads, interpolating Bruce rather than John, whose Oscar reaction to Sasheen Littlefeather had gone viral with her recent death. I’d met a number of the local homeless through community projects, church drop-ins (often for a couple of bucks or a hot cup or even a warm pew near the back), and encounters like now on the street. Sometimes, an astonishing backstory would emerge through a mire of snarled memories, perceptions, and/or paranoia – a glimpse of a life before something or someone broke or broke them. The Boomer homeless, the millennial homeless, the kids who’d been chased into the street by homophobia or abuse or trafficking or drugs. I just simply looked for a rhythm that made mutual sense and let them lead. Sometimes there was no rhythm – just cacophony or white noise – and a couple bills was all my personal toolbox offered.
Now she handed me a small, square, once-cream-colored book. “There he is,” the woman with the Batman button said shyly, flipping it open.
“To Jenny – my greatest Bat-fan! A. West,” he’d scrawled. I beamed up. She gestured for me to go on. “Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams -- Jimmy Crater.” Former President “Crater”s penmanship was identical to Mr. West’s. As was Johnny Carson’s “Hi-oy!,” Leonard Nimoy’s admonition to “Live long and propser!,” and B. Obama’s scrawled “To Jen -- Dream big dreams!”
I closed the album reverently and returned it with an appreciative nod. “Wow.” Jen tucked it back into her Army jacket with a blush of pride.
“Well,” she said, beginning to turn back on her path. Jen stopped again, looked back, now tentative. “I hate to bother you and all, but is there any chance you could maybe loan me a few bucks? Forgot to eat breakfast or lunch, and I got a horrible headache…”
“Glad you reminded me,” I smiled. “I’m getting pretty hungry myself.” I found a five spooning with my taco receipt, then remembered we were still in the post-COVID “supply chain” “recession,” and located the other member of the three-way, Mr. Washington, along with a few coins. Jen bowed her head slightly as she accepted the cash.
“God love you,” she said.
“Um, He loves you too,” I said, for lack of a dignified or suitable parting line.
Jen paused, turned fully back to me, eyes again large and, I registered with alarm, spilling over. A millisecond later, she had me in a full bear hug. I flatly patted her back with one palm, glared at a gaping shopkeeper, and then squeezing once, firmly, as I awaited release. Jen toweled her face with an olive drab sleeve before flashing an embarrassed grin and stumbling on down the block toward, I assumed, sustenance.
The yoga togs merchant gave me a baleful look, like I’d let the dog shit on her hardwood floor, and I squinted back in a way that according to Sarah didn’t so much project intimidation as latent psychopathy. She straightened the clearance sign and vanished, and I took the win. I sauntered into the thrift store, located the books, brushed my shirtfront, and checked my iPhone wallet.
Bruce Wayne and Batman were a moral dichotomy. So, apparently, was I.
I heard it before I spotted it. I’d been hashing immigration policy with Jace, the dragon-tattooed clerk just inside the open door when somebody young and female shouted for somebody to call 9-1-1. I craned around the doorway to see a socioeconomically diverse cluster hovering over a body. A body cloaked in military green and yuletide red.
I sprinted over to find Jen on her back just outside the yoga shop, eyes wide, mouth and chin and throat covered in blood. As I dropped precariously to one knee, her eyes abruptly fixed on me, and her bloody lips began to move. Nothing came out but a harrowing raspy growl and a burbling scarlet stream.
Her right arm then lifted, as if on its own power, and with a pained grunt, she dug into her jacket. Her Parkinsonian fingers emerged with a small, soiled, once-cream book.
“Jesus, stay still,” I whispered as she flipped it open and ripped a page free with one hand. She locked me with her eyes, and raised her other hand seemingly to wipe her jaw. Then I realized what she was attempting, and held the B side of “Oprah’s” signature for her.
The wet index finger trembled as it descended, and Jen winced as she quickly scrawled three letters, then slumped back to the concrete. The eyes left me, and then the faces above us, and then this existence.
“God,” I said. Yoga Lady reached down and patted my shoulder, cooing platitudes. “No,” I repeated, waving Jen’s final autograph. “G-O-D.”
“Well I doubt that,” Curtis said. “He or she or whatever may operate in mysterious ways, but usually with a little more flash and finesse. Drink up, Mike.”
Detective Mead settled me in at Java Jones while he attended to the scene five doors down, promising not to call Sarah. No texts, no missed calls yet – thankfully, the tiramisu must have been slow. When Curtis returned, he’d called a no-frill order to the counter and plopped into the chair opposite.
“What happened to her?” I demanded. “Looked like she’d hemorrhaged or something.”
“Which I guess would account for the God thing, if you were a finger-pointer. Sorry. But no, the coroner’s guy doesn’t think it was the Spirit in the Sky. He found signs of chemical burns inside your friend’s mouth and throat. Like she drank Drano or something.”
I set my Mexican chocolate down. “Or was given Drano or something. Look, you know how the downtown merchants feel about the homeless.”
“No love,” Curtis shrugged. “Chief’s on his very last nerve us having to come out every time a gallery owner catches some dude taking a piss in the alley out back or the jags at Tapas on Main catch a whiff of a street resident too near their elite diners.”
“I had tacos there today.”
“I stand corrected. But seriously – you think one of these boutiquey-ass merchants exterminated a homeless woman as, what, the first step in some downtown beautification campaign?”
I sighed. “So what’d she mean? When we talked earlier, I made a reference to God loving her…” Curtis’ brow rose. “You had to be there. She got very emotional, even hugged me. Maybe she was making some last-second plea for mercy, for grace.”
I happened to know Curtis was a deacon, but he looked very Thomas-y nonetheless. He held the evidence bag by the edges and examined Jen’s final word.
“Orpah,” I mumbled.
Curtis perked. “Pardon?”
I tapped the obverse side of Jen’s bloody message. “Orpah. You got her autograph book, right?”
“That’s what that was?”
I shrugged. “I don’t pretend to know what kind of reality Jen constructed for herself. Personally, I’d guess the Adam West is the real thing – childhood icon, first entry. I also googled up Jimmy Carter — she said he gave her college commencement speech, and she actually used an intricate actual quote from the peanut farmer. Carter did indeed give the ‘79 Notre Dame keynote. And Ronald Reagan —he’s also in the book — gave their address in ‘84. That might be a lead to IDing Jen — maybe a brother or sister went to Notre Dame, maybe she attended herself.
“Point is, though, the ex-prez is listed as Jimmy Crater. There were several errors in her ‘collection’ – Johnny Carson’s ‘Hi-yo!’ catchphrase, Dr. Spock’s ‘Live love and prosper,’ and so on. But they were all the same type of error. Saw a study while back that estimated a third to maybe half of homeless folks have some kind of a cognitive impairment – a traumatic brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or learning disabilities like transposition of letters, dyslexia. And trauma not only may cause dyslexia – it can aggravate it. And what’s more traumatic than knowing you’re dying?”
“So GOD is--?”
As it turned out, he was just outside the coffee shop door, the marbled pit curled at his feet under the sidewalk café table. The bearded man looked up wordlessly from his Earth-friendly cup as the dog’s stubby tail began to twitch. I knelt, and the pit offered me a homely, utterly endearing grin. I scratched its broad, bony head as the hipster practiced his signature boredom.
“Your second cup, Chief?” Curtis inquired, displaying his badge.
“Or did the first one go missing?” I asked.
“How’d you know that?” he said. “And why’s that a police thing?”
“Karst. Jesse Karst.”
“Mr. Karst. You were at Coffee Dawg just a while ago, right?”
The silence this time was far less practiced. “Yeeeaah,” Karst finally said, weakly.
“And you got robbed, right?”
“Well, robbed. I left my phone at the counter, and I left Camus at the table.” I tossed a commiserating grimace at the Plague dog, who grinned back like he was in on the literary nod. “When I came back out, some homeless person was just walking off with my Americano. So, I, ah…”
“Headed off to see you couldn’t confront some old homeless woman and take back what was yours?” Curtis reconstructed.
Karst grimaced. “Yeah, I know. But it was like $4.50, and it was…mine, you know?”
“I didn’t even notice you pass me right after Jen,” I continued. “When we both turned around, you nearly hit the guardrail.”
“You were yelling about Batman or something,” he protested. “I thought you were both fucking psychos. And then I realized just how insane it was to chase down this crazy woman over a lousy cup of coffee. How, I guess, petty. So I just kept going.”
“Except if you’re like me, you started getting caffeine withdrawal, and you and poor Camus eventually circled back for a replacement cup. This time, you ducked into the Java Jones, probably to avoid whatever was going on a few doors down.”
“What was that, anyway?”
“Your coffee. Who’d like to see you dead?”
Crystal’d been polishing the vintage Gaggia Orione Espresso Machine Art Bar Deco the owner’d imported from California when Jesse’d strolled into the Coffee Dawg with the unfortunate Camus. No pets allowed, but you walked in confident enough in this day and age, and nobody much was going to risk a lawsuit or a one-star Yelp.
When they’d split, he’d gotten the “child” in exchange for allowing Crystal to sleep in their shared loft instead of her Prius. Jesse’d also agreed to find his daily grind anywhere else. But here he was again, with the dog she’d adopted, flaunting his victory, his dominance. At that moment, brass cleaner in hand, Jesse’s coffee on the back bar as Dean answered some soccer mom’s endless questions about the organic scones, Jesse chatting up some hot piece of ass by the pastry case, Crystal decided to renegotiate the custody agreement.
“You could have killed someb-…me!" Jesse shrieked as Curtis nodded to a uniform to hook up the manically defiant young woman in the mocha apron. I caught a few contemptuous glances toward Karst as I sought some fresh air. Not enough, though.