By Antwan Crump
He’s collapsed atop the curve of a grassy bump no higher than the fire hydrant on the curb just three feet away.
Erected beside him, a tilted tree rustles in the wind playing its tune in tandem with the chatter of clanging cans and popping plastic bottles, all warped from over-exposure to the heat and extensive travel.
He’d collected the bottles into a large clear bag and strung them up from the branches with a shoestring noose and a wire hanger. The result looked something like artwork—multicolored and freely floating.
His toes curl into the grass as the rest of him stretches. The kernels of his aching bones crack and cackle with a priggish glee and pale echoes of an isolated avalanche. His head settles onto a sliver of exposed root and wades amongst the shards of discarded bark.
He lies just shy of the sun, beholden to nothing.
He’s a modern-day Huck Finn, if there is such a designation. His sun-burned presentation was even complete with some secondhand jean overalls and a yellowing t-shirt—the former far too small and the latter far too large.
He lives here, for the most part. There’s no rent payable, however—he’s leeched his way into our ecosystem via the convenience of collecting our recyclables.
Once, I’d even seen him make such a profit that he’d taken the risk to steal an extra shopping cart to bolster his load and ease the travel.
He returned it.
We made him.
Few other vagrants have been able to get along as amicably, finding themselves locked at odds with some form of law enforcement for one despicable act, wearied misunderstanding, or another.
He’s our friend beneath the shade. Seeking peace amidst the desert hell-scape. Trying to keep cool. One of us. Just a little lost. Maybe he’s forgotten himself. Maybe he’s trying to forget.
I’d nicknamed him Fred, after Alfred Hitchcock. The resemblance helped the nickname stick. Soon, that became his name altogether.
Fred’s never too concerned with the naysayers or passersby. Neither does he seem paranoid, possessing that certain twitchy aesthetic that so often accompanies the aloof. He just sits beneath his tree occasionally napping and counting new brown spots as they surface on his skin.
A peaceful man.
I’ve wondered about him. Worried, even. Fred has a knack for seamlessly blending in with the world around him—like a bird or wandering litter.
It was that exact talent that made me fear one day discovering that he’d been hurt, overheated, or otherwise incapacitated—just a stone’s throw away from my home—where the air conditioning could blow cool enough to warrant a winter coat and a second pair of socks.
Some days, I’d run it just for fun.
I wouldn’t tell Fred that. I don’t have the nerve.
“Morning,” with the limited exuberance that the situation allows. “How you doing, buddy?”
He stumbles out of his partial sleep and rises. His face unfurls from its layers of leathery wrinkles and settles at a sag—like a pulpy kerchief around his neck. His eyes peel open and crunch closed to blink themselves free of whatever debris had invaded his cornea.
“Meh,” he mutters to a yawn. I’m hit with the distinct odors of dried urine and peanut butter.
“Hey…Uh…” He waves to me, as if I’m not standing three feet in front of him. “…Yyou security?”
“No—” I drag and rethink every life choice that I’ve made up to this point. “…Just a resident.”
I think, just an asshole—seeing your time and thinking it lesser than my own. Your dignity, less than my amusement. My curiosity, superior to your slumber. Part of the problem, I suppose.
“Oh…” He laughs. Relieved, as if he’d just been spared conviction. “Well, that’s good. I’m not bothering you, am I?”
“No, not at all.” My head shakes no without permission for some seconds afterward.
“Oh,” he’s even more relieved, “…that’s real good. I’d hate to move. Not getting much better shade out here than a sycamore.” He speaks as if he’s got a nickel weighing down his tongue. “Nearly died out here yesterday…”
I giggle. Unsure if I’m supposed to.
He lays his back down on the grass—curling his arms behind his neck like an old cartoon, to form a halo of elbows from ear to ear.
I know that this is supposed to be sad but I envy his freedom. I envy his lack of care. I envy his pain. The autonomy of him was near as striking as it was essential.
A primal reminder of what we were.
What we are.
“Hey, kid?” He asks, and I’m engaged again.
“Yes?” I answer, realizing that I’ve been standing in silence for far too long.
“Do you think that you could spare some change?”
I reach a hand into my pocket, without answering, and pray that I’ve got something less than a ten dollar bill. Any more and he might think he owes me something. He’s done enough.
He sits back up in the same Tomb of the Undead style that’s now etched into the deeper rungs of my tepid mind, grunting and groaning. I watch as he prepares his dose of heroin for the evening.
“Don’t mind…do you?”
He asks me as if I’m royalty—all the while boiling down the mixture in a metal bottle cap and blending it by needle point.
I hand him a five-dollar bill.
“No,” I answer, and for some reason, I smile. “…If anything, I’d like to try some.”
He seems disappointed but understanding.
“…S’not worth it. Stick to booze and blow.” Fred laughs and mumbles something that ends with “…God’s children.”
Suddenly, I’m disappointed, too.
I watch him shove the needle into his arm and press down the plunger, frail but steady like a newly blossomed rose.
He was gone.
Off to whatever realm where he’d been king.
“King Fred,” I tell myself. “It’s got a hell of a ring to it.”