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Summer Stories: ‘Move Along’

Aug. 14, 2022 Updated Sun., Aug. 14, 2022 at 8:49 a.m.

Mac heard the news on a hot day in July. He’d woken up down by the river in a nice spot he’d found a month back, shaded and near a little pool. Most days he’d stay there for a few hours waking up slowly and watching the light dance on the water. But that day was a scorcher and he decided to try to find some air conditioning, so he’d walked up and out of the river valley and to the bus plaza, which is where he heard the news from Jamie.

“George got shanked,” Jamie said, half slumped in an uncomfortable looking metal chair. “Found his body yesterday off Hamilton.”

Mac remembered when chairs at the plaza were comfortable. But that was a long time ago. Now everything was chrome and hard. The modern aesthetic.

“Skewered like a turkey,” Jamie said. “Right in the ticker.”

The news settled slowly, and they sat in silence until one of the rent-a-cops, Landon, came by and told them to move along.

“No way,” Jamie said. “This here is a public place. I’m part owner of this joint.”

He slapped the metal chair, to emphasize his ownership, and winced in pain. Landon was a big fleshy man with a deep and slow voice, but kind as far as rent-a-cops went.

“Owner,” he said, “How you figure?”

“Taxes baby,” Jamie replied. Landon nearly choked laughing, shaking his head in mirth.

“I used to be an architect, I paid into this.”

Jamie maintained he’d been a hotshot architect back before. Hard to know if that was true, Jamie talked fast and said a lot of things that sounded like bull. But he did know an awful lot about buildings.

“Come on Jamie,” Landon said, wiping tears from his eyes and smacking his baton on the chair. “You gotta go. I’m just doing my job.”

Stepping outside the heat slapped Mac, pinpricks of sweat beading on his face. They walked slowly toward the park. It was Tuesday and the working stiffs poured out of the offices looking overfed and uncomfortable, their collared shirts and suits plastered to their bodies, faces flushing already from the heat. The main downtown streets were all blocked off, police barricades and officers redirecting traffic. Everyone looked a little frustrated. “Wonder what that’s all about,” Mac asked. Jamie didn’t know.

Mac and Jamie headed toward the fountain. Maybe if there weren’t too many people out, they’d cool off or at least catch some spray before park cops drove them away. Mac thought about George. He hadn’t known him well, but he was one of the old-school bums, a classic wino. Not one of the new faces who showed up every week from Seattle or California. He’d been on the street nearly as long as Mac which led to a certain closeness and he’d always been a nice guy, willing to share a swig or a sleeping spot.

“Why George,” Mac asked. Jamie didn’t know. Just knew that a citizen found him near the quickie mart on Hamilton the morning before.

They arrived at the fountain but it was full of kids and parents on summer break and so they stayed away. Instead they sat under a tree while traffic backed up behind the police barricades. There weren’t a lot of perks to living on the street but watching frustrated drivers rushing to work or fighting to get a sandwich during a 30-minute lunch break always brought Mac some joy.

A drowsy and hazy mood settled on Mac and he thought about the $25 he’d hidden back at camp and what he could score, a mental ticker tape showing him what was up and down on the ever-shifting market. No day trader knew his craft so well. But he couldn’t get George out of his mind. So, he pulled out his phone and checked Facebook to see if anyone knew anything. Nobody did.

“We gotta figure out what happened to George,” Mac said. Jamie nodded noncommittedly and was about to say something but then they heard a rattling and Starla – a skinny pockmarked tweaker from the east side – strolled out of the alley dragging a bicycle by a thick metal chain.

“Whatcha got there,” Jamie asked.

“Bike,” Starla said, barely looking at the two as she walked by.

“Hey babe, you hear about George?” Mac yelled over the racket. Starla stopped, the bike’s anguished screeches echoing off the brick walls. “Yeah,” she replied. “Sad.”

“You know what happened?”

“Got stabbed,” she said. “Right in the ticker.”

“Damn, well how do we find out more?”

“How about the newspaper,” Starla said. “Isn’t that what that’s for?”

She picked the chain back up and started off again.

“Great idea,” Jamie yelled after her. “I’ll just run home and grab one off the front porch.”

But Mac did think it was a good idea and so they looked for paper boxes but couldn’t find any, Jamie muttering something about a broken business model as they headed south a few blocks to the newspaper’s office across from the federal building where there was still a box. They’d hoped they could read the news through the window but a sticker advertising sofas covered the top of the front page so they scrounged $2 to buy the thing. Underneath the sticker the headline across the top yelled: “DOWNTOWN” and then beneath “Grammy-winning rapper filming music video in Spokane.”

They flipped through the paper. Three pages on the Seattle rapper and how he’d bought downtown for the weekend to make a music video. Another story about county taxes. Something about pickleball and a new shelter both men knew they’d never be allowed in to and then, on page A6: “Stabbing suspected in man’s death”

“A man died following an apparent knife attack early Monday in Spokane, according to police.

Detectives said the man was found dead outside a vacant home on Hamilton Street between Ermina and Baldwin avenues. Police were called after someone found the body. Investigators are reviewing security camera footage from a nearby convenience store for potential leads and are asking for any witnesses to come forward with information related to the death.”

The story listed a number to call.

“Didn’t even print his name,” Mac said. He flipped through the paper one more time to make sure he hadn’t missed anything then ripped out the page and folded it neatly, tucking it away carefully in his pants pocket. They sat on the steps of the paper’s lobby mostly in silence, other than Jamie muttering something about Romanesque Revival being overdone, until a security guard came out of the brick building.

“Get a move on,” he said, lazily.

“Na man,” Jamie said. “I bought a paper; I got a right to sit here.”

“Sorry man,” the guard said lighting a cigarette. “Not how that works.”

They walked. Jamie’s face paling with each step. He started scratching. “Maybe we should just go up to Mike’s and see if he’ll front us.”

That sounded nice to Mac and he felt that familiar desire, a hot need searing through the fog in his head, but he couldn’t stop thinking about George.

“We gotta remember George somehow,” Mac said, trying to find the word for it, floating in the haze of 15 years on the street. “We should have a …. memorial, or something.”

Jamie laughed.

“For a drunk,” he said skeptically, but then after a minute, nodded. “Yeah, with flowers.”

They found a shaded corner and Mac posted on Facebook. He didn’t know George’s last name, so he just wrote “Memory for George, tomorrow morning at 9,” including the address the paper had printed and left it at that. Then his phone died. They split up, Jamie going to his usual corner under the freeway and Mac making the long trek back to camp by the river. He got there as dusk came on and fell asleep fast before the craving got too strong. He’d fight it one more day.

By 5 a.m. he was up and digging. He’d buried that $25 by the river a few weeks ago, money he’d snagged from an unlocked car. Burying it, he’d figured, would keep it safe, from other junkies and himself.

An hour later he was walking, the rising sun bruising the sky and already heating up the empty streets. That was one thing that always bothered Mac. Everyone said people like him were lazy. Bums who didn’t know how to work. But any given morning who was up first?

He found Jamie at his corner half-awake and the two walked north crossing the river on one of the five bridges that spanned the canyon. Jamie paused, leaned over the railing the river rushing far below, and pointed to the nearest bridge about 100 yards away.

“See that space there,” he said, pointing beneath the deck of the structure. “That’s called the spandrel.”

On the way they stopped at a grocery store and Mac went in nervously, but no one bothered him that early in the morning and he bought the nicest bouquet, a perky arrangement of white, purple and red flowers that tugged on ancient memories of his mother. The cashier looked at him funny but said nothing. Twenty-two dollars on something already dead but then again it was still cheaper than most highs, and healthier too probably.

He shielded the flowers from the sun and Jamie sprinkled water on them every few minutes but, 20 minutes later, when they arrived at the cross street listed in the paper the flowers were noticeably limper.

They had no problem finding the spot, police tape still wrapped around the weed-infested yard, fluttering in a languid breeze. A trampled patch in the chest-high grass showed where George had died.

“Goddam,” Jamie said, and Mac looked to where he was pointing about 20 feet away. There 10 other men and women from the life stood shuffling and looking nervous. Mac hadn’t been able to check Facebook since he posted but he hadn’t really expected anyone to show up.

He approached the mangy group. “Are you here for George.”

“Yeah,” said a familiar voice and Starla stepped forward. “Saw the post.”

“Goddamn,” Jamie said again.

No one was sure how to proceed but someone googled “what to do at memorials” and they figured out there should be a speech and some flowers. Mac was the only one who had brought any, so he divvied them up among the little crowd and then, when no one else volunteered, he stepped forward to speak.

“Mmmm,” he said, clearing his throat. “Well, I didn’t know George very well but uhhh, he was always around and always seemed like a good guy.” He stopped. Stuck with not much more to say than that which felt like maybe he shouldn’t have said anything. “Mmmm,” he had a flashback to a talk he’d given in middle school and started sweating more if that was possible. “Well, this one time, George and I were down by the business bureau…”

The crowd perked up. “Miss that place,” someone said. The business bureau had been a legendary spot for a bit. A tall, elegant building with an inner courtyard full of trees and a koi pond protected by a 12-foot steel fence covered in ornamental barbwire. But, for a solid month three of the steel bars had been pried open, just wide enough for a skinny junky to get through and those who knew slept peaceful, listening to the gurgling of the pond.

“…. anyways we were down there, and he told me about this house he once had down in Peaceful Valley. Told me about waking up in the mornings and looking at the river …”

“No way he could afford waterfront,” Jamie interjected.

“… and just how, uh, nice that was to sit there and drink some coffee and watch the water and how he’d always think about that spot when it was cold or hot out and well …” Mac had run out of steam. Everyone was looking at him. A few started to drift away, trying to sneak out the proverbial back. “… well, uhhh, I don’t know what happened to George and I don’t know what happens next, but I hope he finds something like that, whatever is next,” Mac finished in an awkward rush.

Everyone clapped which seemed strange considering and they filed forward in a haphazard line and placed their flowers just inside the police tape near the base of the mailbox. That’s when a black-and-white squad car rolled up and a young clean-shaven cop jumped out. The young ones were the worst, hadn’t learned the yin and yang of policing, either all anger or all sympathy. Either way not professional, in Mac’s opinion.

“What are you junkies doing here,” the kid bellowed, but the mourners had dispersed in 10 different directions and Mac was left standing with a wilting flower. He bent down placing it on top of the little pile, “leaving flowers for George,” he told the young cop and then Mac moved along.

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