UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The two cops just walked in. That's what I wanted, why I came in off the street. I've gone and sat myself at the bar, back in the dark corner where I can watch them.
I won't dick around. I'll tell them: I know who killed my amigo Oscar.
I've seen the two talking to the jornaleros -- day laborers -- who, hoping for work, crowd those four dingy corners of SE Sixth and Ankeny, which is damn near Portland's actual center on a map. The two wearing Levis and fleece jackets like any contractors looking for extra hands on the cheap. But they weren't hiring. They were wanting the word on the junkies and wannabe pimp dealers who've been slithering into our little cut-rate labor sale, using us for cover.
I'm in My Father's Place and it's genuine Eastside in here. The blue-collar, the lost souls, happy campers and the beaucoup sketchy, keno, video poker, vinyl booths the color of sewage. Smells like fryer grease that needs changing and cigarette smoke blown out lungs soaked in shitty whisky. They got a diner out front, a cop haunt. I watch the two undercovers snag a table there and joke with the waitress young enough to be their daughter but looking like their New Wave girlfriend about 1982. Afternoon's half gone. Soon the kids will be in to play lowbrow loser with their raggedy-ass beards and factory-faded caps, but if they really knew what losing meant they'd run right out into the cold fall rain and keep on going, right for that sweet Iowa girl and the ad agency job they been dodging too long.
Dodge too long and you'll be living in a crappy little tent like me. I'm down to ten bucks, total. I'm only splurging on Widmer Hefe because it might be my last. All I got left is the bone-dry truth Oscar gave me.
Which makes me think -- what if those undercovers over by the window already know what went down, and they don't want a guy like me to know?
I twist at my empty pint with both hands, wishing I smoked because it sure would help me think. I said I wouldn't dick around, but now I'm stalling. Going back over it all again. How in the hell I got this far, this low-down.
It's never like people guess it is. No, I don't have Tourette's or hear aliens (who make me yell at you), I don't pass out and piss myself in doorways and my face isn't that fried from all the sun and cold and wind. In movies and TV there's always something clear-cut that puts you on the street -- war or disease, some priest or cult, disability, abuse. Those'll do the trick, sure. But homelessness can also just happen. When I first came downtown, about fifteen years ago, I ran with a dumbass drug crowd and got caught in a chickenshit robbery. Did a year. Never broke laws again. Only thing worse than the street is a small stuffy cell, I tell myself. Before that I thought I owned the city. Ever since the city has owned me. Every job I had seemed to end up in Central Eastside -- pulling auto parts, powder coating, dishwasher, humping furniture and pallets. Nothing lasted -- business was down, I was always first to go. I got back spasms but had no insurance, who does? Sleeping on the hard stuff can't help but I tell myself I'm lucky to have the tent -- most are getting by with cardboard and blue tarp.
I know what people think. Suck it up, dude, and get a job -- you're only 37. But, poverty's not that simple. Same way the rich guy gets richer because he's got the money and the strings, the chances for a guy like me sink faster than a stone in the Willamette River. As best I could, in the spring and summer at least, I'd try to leave the shelters and handouts for the worse off. Usually I camped out under the Morrison Bridge onramp, on that old cobblestone stretch of Belmont between the train tracks and river, the bridge above dripping the size of baseballs when it rained. I got by. I'd collect cans and get paperbacks from the big Goodwill down south on Mill St, sometimes splurge on a trip to the Slammer, or the Speakeasy, Sassy's strip club when I could get cleaned up enough. I was going inside to feel human, and drinking only to kill time.
I always had some hope. I was sharing my tent with Amy, when she came around. Amy is just a little thing with a delicate face and big eyes. She'd come find me when the tricks, drugs and rotgut got up on top of her. I'd get her cleaned up. Sometimes we'd move it to big bushes along the river, farther down past the OMSI museum was best, just stay in there the whole day. I could see Amy cleaned up for good. I told her it would happen. She was still young, her body strong despite the scabs and bruises and red veins in her eyes.
Last spring, I met Oscar in My Father's Place. We played Golden Tee, the golf video game. Oscar knew how it was for a guy like me -- as if he himself grew up in a Canby trailer park and not Guatemala like he did. Oscar looked about 20 but was 32 and going on a wise old 100 years in his head. It was like he had this power tool for digging out the truth, fucking reality. Oscar was a jornalero. Day laborers weren't all Mexicans, he told me -- they're Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, Honduran, even a few gringos. Oscar said I should give it a shot. We could help each other -- I had the English and white face while he had skills better than most subcontractors. He even gave me his old work gloves.
We got jobs. Some jornaleros let us have it, mostly in Spanish but I got the gist: Who the fuck Oscar think he was, bringing in a gringo when it was hard enough? Oscar saying, doesn't matter where we're from, we're stronger all working together. Summer came and jobs kept coming. I wanted to quit a few, the way we were treated, but Oscar told me to focus on the upshot. I had enough to hit Goodwill more and the Laundromat. I saw us getting on regular with some contractor. Oscar had almost played pro soccer back in Guatemala, he told me. One bad knee wrecked it and the knee hurt on some jobs but he never felt sorry, not like I did. When my back wanted to spasm out he told me how to stretch it, take care of it, manage that pain.
For Oscar, everything had a solution. That's why he started confronting the drug types coming in and using us for cover. Most jornaleros stayed clear, let the dumbfucks have one corner of the four but Oscar got in the druggies' faces, urging them to get help, stop making it worse on jornaleros by spooking businesses and bringing the cops around.
I had stayed clear. Amy knew them. Oscar got out his power tool. He said -- I was not helping Amy by cleaning her up, only to let her go back out. I was only prolonging her suffering, like you'd feed and massage a bull for the next bullfight.
Oscar had gotten me -- and me Amy -- to fall. It was reaching late October, just before the real cold. Everyone getting tense because jobs would be fewer. But Oscar and I were on this good job that was supposed to keep going. Then, two days ago, Oscar went and disappeared.
We had worked the day before on the good job and were meeting that morning at Sixth and Ankeny for the usual pickup. I asked jornaleros in my shitty Spanish, "Donde Oscar? Tu ve' Oscar?" "Non," no no, they said, no one seen Oscar, and they talked about it to each other, eyeing me. Then they were asking me. Of course I hadn't seen him, I said -- that's why I'm asking you. Oscar lived in apartments way out East Powell, but no one would tell me where.
By ten the job wasn't happening either -- no one came to pick us up. Weird. And all the more reason for Oscar to be here. I stomped off and headed out down Grand Ave, all the cars and trucks revving and squealing, the first good wind of fall whipping at my cheeks and neck and I had to pull on my hood tight.
Across Grand I saw a big black Cadillac SUV pickup, like a Hummer with more chrome, parked outside another new cafe where a coffee probably cost as much as soup and I have to say smelled worth it. I did a Frogger across Grand and onto the sidewalk, coming up from behind. Driver's window was down. It was him, all right -- the contractor for our good job. The main man. He was talking to air with one of those blue-flashing earphones like some kind of cyborg robot. Vacation tan, white teeth and thick black hair. Name of Gerald, I remembered. Gerald's job supers had us doing the demo for a commercial site nearby -- for yet another restaurant coming in here instead of the yuppie Pearl District. Central Eastside had more "character," I read somewhere. Oscar said that mostly means it's still cheaper over this side. The work was rough. They gave me a ripping bar to tear apart rusty, grimy metal cabinets and built-ins, clear out the cellar, all kinds of ancient heavy equipment down there, pitted and jagged like boilers from some old ship. Oscar was so good the supers asked him for advice and Oscar used their tools, even a welding torch. He stayed after everyone else left -- was staying after again the last time I saw him, I remembered. Gerald always came end of the day, arguing with his supers and meeting people in ironed jeans or suits, off in far corners. Oscar had told me our job had a real tight schedule.
I stepped closer. Gerald had gone quiet, staring ahead as if driving. He had on one of those Adidas sweat tops like in the Salvation Army bins but probably cost more than my tent brand-new. I had on my same Starter jacket, Green Bay Packers. I pulled the hood down.
"You still on the phone?" I said.
Gerald turned, shot me a look. "Don't have any money," he said, barking it loud as if I might be retarded.
Of course Gerald had no idea who I was. Why would he? Day laborers just spontaneously appeared, as if formed right from this wet sidewalk.
"Wasn't asking for any," I said.
"What, want work? Not today," Gerald said. Still not recognizing me. He'd played sports, you could tell by the way his neck muscles stretched, but he also had something desperate about him, around the eyes. Stressed. Guys like this had their own types of pressure -- cards and car loans and mortgages maxed out, taking on too many jobs to keep it all going, his wife and kids never seeing him. Economy tanking. Gerald seemed all right. He'd given us work and wasn't one of those scumbags who tried not to pay the cash at the end.
Before I could say a thing Gerald was talking at air again, but peering at me as if trying to decipher some assembly manual. He held up a finger like I should wait, then told someone on the phone he had to go.
He showed me a big grin. "Hey, you're that guy with Oscar."
I nodded, yep. "You seen him?"
"He work for you today?"
"No. Nope. Yesterday he did -- with you, right?"
I nodded. "If you see him, can you tell him I been looking for him? My name's Jess."
"Sure, man. Sure."
"Thanks. Have a good one."
"No work right now," Gerald added. "Waiting for codes and shit. Fucking city."
Cussing for my "street" benefit had always rubbed me wrong. "Okay," I grunted.
"Don't know where he went. Man, I hope Oscar's not doing drugs or something," Gerald went on.
"He's not, no way," I said, done with this. I started off, pulled my hood over.
"Good, well, I'll tell him if I see him. Later," Gerald said to my back.
Always with the drugs -- as if they're all addicts, all of Latin America just junkies. Or did Gerald really mean me, like I was the bad seed? As if Oscar would somehow be here if it wasn't for me? I rammed my hands deep in my pockets, all fists, my knuckles banging together. I passed Tribune and Willamette Week paper boxes and wanted to kick them, knock them right on out into traffic. I hadn't felt this way in a long time, and I was glad Oscar couldn't see it.
I bounded back across Grand, screw Frogger, screw the honks and shouts at me. Back toward Sixth and Ankeny. A woman came around the corner of Ash, tugging along a little boy. They were Hispanic. They were heading right for me. The woman pointed. The boy puffed out his little chest. He had a little soccer jersey on under his coat. The woman kept him behind her. She was stout, with a tough round pockmarked face.
"You Jess. When you see Oscar last? When?" she was saying, planting her feet far apart.
"What? Yesterday, afternoon. You seen him?"
They shook their heads. "I his sister. Sister."
The little boy was tearing up. The sister muttered in Spanish, stroking his head. I reached out for the little guy --
The sister yanked the boy away and turned back, eyeing me over her shoulder like I was going to come after them with a bat or something.
I stood there, hands hanging out in the cold, my old high tops glued to the pavement. Screw them. You try to help, this is what happens? I won't even tell them when I find Oscar.
I needed to be alone, get my thoughts straight. I headed on down to the river, down past the skateboard park under the Burnside and across the train tracks, on through below Interstate 5. I found a spot near the water looking out on the black skeleton of the Steel Bridge and the floating Eastside Esplanade with its happy bouncing joggers and bicyclers. I'd grabbed an Oregonian from a recycling bin. Reading often helped me, the calmness of it. The paper was today's. I often read the Metro section, especially the short parts inside.
BODY OF MAN RECOVERED FROM RIVER IN CENTRAL CITY
Police are investigating a body recovered last night from the Willamette River between the Morrison and Burnside bridges. The man has been identified as Oscar Morales, 32, of Portland and Guatemala. No cause of death has been determined. A police spokesman said the body had not been in the water for long. No details were immediately available. The investigation is continuing.
I read it twice. Third time. I couldn't look up. My face ached, hot behind the eyeballs.
They'd found Oscar not far from here, I then realized. So I looked up, eyes wide open to keep them dry, but all I saw was the hovering, hulking underbelly of the Interstate overpasses rising high above, a low, leaden sky of sooty concrete, pillars and ironwork. At my feet, all around me, was just slimy boulders, gnarly wood flotsam, and mangy river crows with their frantic pecking beaks.
My heart was thumping so damn fast I felt like I was falling, like I'd jumped off one of the bridges but couldn't hit water. The rants and raves colliding in my brain. That's what you get for working. That's what you get for helping. What you get in this goddamn world here where it's every man for himself.
I found my feet. I ended up back on Grand, outside the quickie market at the Burnside light. I sat down along the side of the building, letting the bricks dig into my back, the wet sidewalk soaking through my jeans. It was raining out, fucking pouring. Busses stopped, traffic rushed, idled. A garbage can stood next to me. People threw shit in the garbage can, not even seeing me. I don't know how long I sat there, but it helped me focus. I needed to think. Oscar would want me thinking.
Gerald had given me a clue, I realized. Around the block to Sixth and Ankeny, I went. The rain had stopped. It was now about three. Most jornaleros had got work or given up. Only the users were left, passed out against walls as if lined up and shot, mouths open, heads rolling around. In a doorway a gang of four had a shopping cart and a radio blaring. I stood across Sixth, eyeing them, my hood up over my head.
Amy ran with guys like this. These were her crew? Her fucking pimps?
The four were passing around a forty in a bag. One crawled into the cart and they twirled him around, howling, hopping up and down.
When Amy wasn't tricking she was giving these rejects blowjobs behind dumpsters, in the same place they pissed? These losers were plunging their grubby hands down her pants?
I crossed Sixth. I grabbed one by the arm barking: "Where's Oscar, man? Oscar? What you do with him?"
Another yanked at my hood, pulling me backward. I swung and missed. My shoulder blades slammed at the pavement. My back cramped and burned with spasms, my head thumping. They were laughing, joking in rapid Spanish. The one said in English: "Who the fuck Oscar, man?" Someone cracked open a can, held it over my mouth. I nodded, what the hell. The beer was cold and shocked me clear. I sat up, letting the gnawing spasms fade. In the doorway they had another paper bag. It reeked like chemicals, stinging my nostrils.
"In pain, man? We fix you up, senór, is cool," one said.
I muttered that I had to go puke first. I stumbled the hell out of there.
That night I set up my tent on Oak near 11th, on the loading area of the old Bressie Electric building, across from the Catholic Charities office and a block from St. Francis parish. I didn't get a faith like theirs, how only their certified holy house and only their approved holy man could tell you what to believe, all paint-by-numbers style, but I couldn't knock how they looked after us day after day, no questions asked, no one making me believe. All the veteran street people circled wagons here, safety in numbers. Their tarps and worn tents surrounded me.
Amy came to my tent soon after dark. She reeked of forties and cigarettes and whatever cancer was in that paper bag.
"Take that coat off. Put it outside to air out," I said.
Amy let her tattered bomber jacket fall off her shoulders. She chucked it out the tent flap. "I'm cold," she said, chattering her little teeth like in a cartoon. She wasn't playing. I felt her nose -- stone cold. I put my Starter around her. A tear rolled down her face. She probably couldn't even feel it.
"They didn't do anything to Oscar," she said.
"I know," I said.
"I asked 'em. I even did it in Spanish. They don't even know what he looks like."
I wanted to spit, just thinking about them with her.
"I did ask, Jess. I speak good Spanish," she said.
"I know. I know."
"They're not mad at you."
"Mad?" I laughed. I could only laugh.
We huddled together a long time, just holding each other. The tent was only a two-man, but with her in there it seemed bigger. She cried again, not out loud, just some shivers and sobs.
"I don't even want that stupid coat any more," she said.
I woke in a sweat that night, trickling cold under my clothes. I had never had a thought so clear. It was more than thought. It was like Oscar, in dying, had given me his fucking power tool.
They'll think I did it. Everyone will. They'll have to. They'll need to. I was expendable. No one knew me. Me doing it gave them some sense to their lives. A guy like me made to pay, it was all they had to keep them warm at night.
After that I headed out, leaving Amy snoring. I'd walked and walked, seeing no one and loving that, the whole east bank to myself. I had ended up back down along the water, facing the sparkling Westside downtown skyline on the other bank. I rarely noticed the other side, quit looking across in wonder long ago. Now, in the spot I was in, all the layers of twinkling lights reminded me of all the people who had no clue they were only a shot of bad luck away from being me. How far would they go to keep that from happening? Would they let a guy die? People?
I'd lowered my eyes and was staring at the black, shifting water, as if waiting for Oscar to rise from the mire like some crazy Jesus of a mermaid-man and tell me exactly who killed his ass.
He didn't have to. Before I had left the riverbank, I thought I'd figured it out.
That's what brought me here to My Father's Place, the next afternoon. I'm still back in the corner. The Widmer Hefe is giving me a deep, grim buzz that's not helping. This building is one of east bank's oldest and Father's walls are decorated with flea market junk, with dusty tarnished sailing wheels and lanterns, rope knots and old photos of pale people, ghostly stuff all around me, crowding me, harassing me. They got windows out front but these dingy red-brick walls make it so dark like a cellar -- like some cell, funny how the words are so similar. Then some poor alky is peaking out next to me, his forehead banging out an SOS on the bar. But who's really sending it? Is it you, Oscar? You speaking for all us still stranded here?
Over at their table the two undercover cops were eating open-faced sandwiches, with gravy I could see steaming. They left a while ago. I let them leave.
I slap my money -- my last dollars on earth -- down on the bar and I'm out.
That night back in the tent, I tell Amy to keep everything I got. It's only the tent and a couple duffels but it will help. I can tell she knows I mean it by the way she faces the corner, away from me, and pokes at the fabric with her finger.
"Cops will be asking around, Ame. It's only a matter of time," I tell her.
Next morning, I walk to Gerald's job site down along Water Avenue between the Morrison and Hawthorne bridges. It's a Sunday. No one's there. I jump a dumpster, score a to-go box of scrambled eggs and potatoes, and find a way through the temporary chain-link. Head on into the two-story building that's half a demoed shell. I hunker down, up on the second floor where there's a mezzanine and I can look down. An hour passes. A couple kid taggers sneak in but I yell like a security guard and they clear out. Some windows are gutted and wind and rain blow through, pinging at the exposed studs and girders, and then it's pouring out, hitting the roof right above me like dump trucks of gravel.
For once, the rain is my friend. The rain brings Gerald, alone. He shows up talking on the phone, flapping his arms and pointing things out, this is fucked and that's screwed, pulling tarp tighter over materials and electricals. Then he's standing right below me, surveying his whole mess of a job like a dog just thrown into a cage.
Still talking on the phone. I move forward to listen, but the concrete and patches of tile are slippery and I stumble.
After a silence Gerald shouts: "Who's there? Up there? This is a job site."
The mezzanine I'm on is basically a large balcony. Stretches of railing are ripped out, leaving the floor exposed. I'm down on all fours. I crawl forward, to the edge, and show myself.
Gerald's phone rings. He slaps it off and delivers it to a pocket, keeping his eyes on me. "You want work? Didn't you say so? I got more people coming any second," he says.
The hell he does. His voice is harder, more deliberate, like a patrol cop telling me to clear off the sidewalk, that doorway's private property, you'll frighten the customers.
"You didn't kill him," I say.
"Whoa -- what?" Gerald laughs, looking around like he's got buddies with him. "Who?"
"Your work killed Oscar. This job did."
"But the problem is the work, it's all under the table. That's how it's done. How everyone does it."
Gerald opens his mouth to speak. It hangs open. He looks away a moment, out those gutted windows. "Look, come on down here."
"Then I'm coming up there. All right?"
I nod. I stand but I stay where I am, grasping at the railing. I hear Gerald make his way to the stairs and come up, picking his steps so as not too slip. He joins me at the railing. It's torn away on either side of us. We're looking out, at this carcass of a building with its naked frame and piles of debris, the one wide hole in the floor that shows the ghastly cellar with its ancient machinery. Hard to believe anything good will come of this place.
"What happened?" I say.
Gerald takes a deep breath, sighs. "That hole. He fell through there, right into the cellar. It was late, everyone gone home."
"You were here. The only one."
"Fuck I supposed to do, huh?" His voice sounding like it's cracking.
What's Gerald want me to say? I feel sorry? I'm glaring at him, I'm squeezing at the railing that's left. No back spasms now. The adrenalin's taking over.
"I, I tried to stop the bleeding. Oscar, he wouldn't let me take him in, said had no insurance or nothing. Then he just … went. Fuck was I supposed to do, man?" Gerald was squeezing railing, rocking back and forth. "I mean, what the fuck?"
Did he really expect a response? Yes, you did well -- dumping him in the river was a great call. You're a real self-starter. You deserve a bonus, no better, a kickback.
"No insurance?" Gerald added. "Guy probably had no green card, Social Security, nothing."
"I got no insurance," I say. "Lot of people don't and ones that do barely ..."
"You're not hearing me. We would've gotten a shitstorm. The job -- "
"Holding company. Developers. Investors. You know …" He lets the words trail off. Of course I couldn't know. How could a guy like me?
I'm grasping tighter, gritting my teeth, wanting to rip the railing right out. "It's not 'we,'" I say. "They use you, you dumbshit -- and you let them."
"What the hell you talking about?"
"No one even has to give you orders. You just do it, do it for them, and that's the way they like it."
Gerald laughs. "I see. I'm the big loser. Last thing you want to do is end up like me? Right."
"That's right," I say.
Gerald lunges and grabs at my coat, fisting big wads of it. We're snarling. I smell his warm stale breath, like cheese and wine from hours ago.
"Don't get smart -- go getting all smart," he says.
I'm shaking my head. They'll never believe me. And why should they? No one knew me. No one sees me.
"I can pay you," Gerald says, releasing his grip a little. "We can. Right? Get you off the street. Make a new start -- "
I push off and kick at him, across the knees. He stumbles and crouches, glaring at me, looking for a fast way out but it's too slick up here. I kick again and again, like I'm Oscar in the big game and Gerald's got the ball I got to get and Gerald yelps, clawing at concrete and wet scraps of tile. Keep kicking like this I'm going to make the pros. I kick and lunge, hurling him to the edge, till all I'm kicking is air.Steve Anderson's work appears in Exquisite Corpse, 3AM Magazine, Elimae, a recent anthology of Oregon writers titled Citadel of the Spirit, and many others online and in print. He lives in Portland, Ore. Asphalt Jornalero provides the story guts for Anderson's new screenplay, Trickle Down. [stephenfanderson.com]
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