by D. Susan Rutz
The carpet was soft under Claire’s bare feet. With each step she pushed her toes into the fibers, and hurried, although she was not sure why the need to hurry. It is merely the phone ringing that disturbs sleep. Her large right toe slams into the chair leg, and pain shoots to the brain. Claire was trying to make it to the phone with closed eyes. Stumbling on tiptoes and bare carpet to cease that horrid racket invading her sleep and for a reward she stumped her toe on a solid, hard object.
Did I really deserve that?
As she reached for the phone, the noise ceased. She picked up the receiver anyway.
Why? Why is this happening to me? I just want to sleep. Is that really too much to ask? Just to rest my weary body in a soft bed, folded by clean crisp sheets and a warm blanket of quilting?
Hey, Jimmie, that’s pretty good,’ Two Fingers bobbed his head. ‘You write real good.’
‘The guy’s hiding in her apartment, isn’t he?’ Maggie asked.
Jimmie grinned. He closed the spiral notebook, carefully tucking the pen inside.
‘Hey, don’t stop reading on my account,’ Bubba joined the group. He groaned as he squatted to meet an empty log. ‘I get here and you stop reading? That ain’t neighborly.’
‘It’s your breath,’ Two Fingers grinned. ‘Jimmie told me last night, he can’t stand your breath.’
Bubba shot Jimmie a concerned look. ‘Two Fingers,’ Bubba cried, realizing the man was joshing him. ‘You better watch yourself.’ Bubba pointed his half-gloved hand at the man. ‘I’ll tell them not to give you any more peanut butter.’
Two Fingers squinted back at Bubba. ‘Don’t mess with my peanut butter,’ he warned.
‘Both of you stop it,’ Jimmie jumped in. ‘I always have to settle arguments with you two. I stopped reading, Bubba, because that’s all there is – so far. I haven’t written anymore of the story, yet.’
‘When are you going to finish it, Jimmie?’ Maggie asked.
Jimmie shrugged. ‘Soon.’
Two Fingers was sitting on an old bus seat. He had a stick that he occasionally poked the fire with; stirring the ashes and making them spark upwards into an arch of brilliant flames. ‘Just like a thousand fireflies.’
‘You ought to write a book about us, Jimmie,’ Bubba offered.
Maggie blew her opinion of disgust at his suggestion. ‘What?’ Phew. ‘Who would want to read a book about us? Hell, most people don’t even want to believe we exist, much less read about us.’
‘She’s got a point there, Bubba.’ Jimmie agreed.
‘If you did,’ Two Fingers inquired. ‘What kind of a character would I be?’
Jimmie looked around the fire at his friends’ faces. What kind of characters indeed?
‘Well, Two Fingers, you toothless, grinning son-of-a-bitch, you’d be a warthog.’
Two Fingers liked that. He laughed and poked his elbow into Maggie’s ribs. ‘A warthog,’ he repeated and snorted with the word hog.
‘Yeah, you’re a warthog all right,’ Maggie agreed. ‘What would I be, Jimmie? What would I be?’
Jimmie studied Maggie. The fire illuminated her face, showing the deep lines and crevices of age. Each crevices held its own stain of dirt, still Jimmie was sure that at one time Maggie was a looker. She carried herself well, and she wasn’t a drinker like Bubba. He never really understood why Maggie was there. She didn’t really fit in, but if she weren’t there, they would never survive without her.
‘No question, you’d be Wendy from Peter Pan. Taking care of your boys and trying to keep Bubba out of jail, and Two Fingers from freezing to death, and me – always taking care of me.’ Jimmie smiled at her.
Maggie dipped her head.
‘You blushing? You old, hard woman, are you blushing?’ Bubba teased. ‘I need a drink on that one. Never thought I’d see the day, old Maggie go blushing.’
Maggie shot him an angry look. ‘Say what you want, Bubba. Take your black ass down to Third Street begging for change to buy your wine. You ain’t gonna mess it up for me, none, ya hear. I like what Jimmie said. I like that I could be Wendy, taking care of all you homeless bums, that no body else wants, so you go ahead and say what you want.’
Maggie hurried away from the fire. She climbed into her carton and pulled the curtain taut. Inside she had three rocks lying on the hem of the curtain to keep the wind from blowing it during the night. It helped her to sleep to think that the rats couldn’t push the curtain open either. That probably wasn’t true, but it helped her to sleep to think it might be.
‘Look at what you gone and done,’ Two Fingers chided. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself Bubba Man.’
The old man rose, waving his half-gloved hand at the fire and trudged away into the night. Jimmie and Two Fingers stared into the fire for some time. After a while, Jimmie took out his notebook and his pen, and Two Fingers slid further down on his old bus seat to sleep. The night sky was clear with stars, but the air had a piercing coldness. Jimmie wrote on his story for an hour or more before Bubba stumbled back to his home. The old man tried to sit down on his log, but missed and nearly fell into the fire.
Jimmie put his notebook and pen away. He had a backpack, found at the city dump two months ago that he kept his writings in; it also made a good pillow. Jimmie leaned across the edge of the fire and pushed Bubba’s arm away from the coals and then he settled down for the night. Jimmie was lucky. He had a blanket. It was a quilt his mother made when he went off to college. On the first day in the camp, Jimmie ripped the quilt in half and gave his other half to Maggie.
He threw the last log on the fire and closed his eyes. Tomorrow he needed to find more wood. Winter was coming too fast.
The morning began with surprising warmth. The sun was brilliant with heat. Maggie was gone before they woke. Jimmie Two Fingers left Bubba to sleep it off.
‘You go down by the shelter and see what you can get for food,’ Jimmie instructed. Two Fingers nodded. ‘I’m going to head over the neighborhood and see about some more wood.’
‘Taking the cart?’
‘Not this time. It draws too much attention.’
Two Fingers nodded and headed south toward the St. Mary’s Shelter. Jimmie turned west onto Elm and walked the alleys behind the big houses.
‘Now that one has to be a doctor’s house,’ Jimmie said.
He pushed on the back gate. It opened easily and he slipped inside. In the corner of the yard was a shed and beside it a stack of wood. He eyed the house and carefully slipped between the trees, shrubs, and play equipment toward the woodpile. He stuck several pieces into the large pockets of his coat and then carried another three pieces in his arms. He carried his bounty home and stacked it next to the bus seat. The embers of the previous night’s fire were cold. That reminded him, he needed to get more matches.
Bubba was still snoring. Jimmie hung his blanket over the back of the bus seat to dry out in the sun and left for work again. This time he headed east towards town and the restaurants. At the corner of Center and Lockhurst was a diner.
‘Morning, Cindy,’ Jimmie announced as the diner’s doorbell tinkled.
The waitress smiled at him, pivoted to the coffee machine grabbing the pot and turning a cup up on the counter – all in one fluid motion.
‘Morning, Jimmie.’ She poured him a cup of coffee. ‘Mike’s out back with the delivery man, so make it quick.’ She took a plate of ham and eggs, and toast from the kitchen window and slid it in front of him.
Jimmie placed the ham and eggs between the toasted bread, and with a knife cut it in four pieces. Then he wrapped it in a napkin and stuck it in his pocket. Cindy returned to scoop up the evidence. Jimmie caught her wrist.
‘I need matches real bad,’ he winked at her.
Cindy smiled, ‘Sure.’ She reached under the counter and produced a handful of matches, which he shoved into the other pocket of his coat. He also helped himself to sugar packets, and a salt and peppershaker. ‘You been taking good care of yourself, Jimmie?’ Cindy asked as she slid a bottle of ketchup down the counter to him. Jimmie caught the bottle and stuck it in a pocket.
He finished the coffee as the owner, Mike, came through the kitchen’s back door. He mouthed the words, “Thank You” at Cindy and scurried out the front door.
He walked further east, toward the library, stopping at the corner flower market to pick up several broken flowers lying by the entrance.
‘Hey, Jimmie,’ Maggie called to him. She was on the corner, across the street, in front of the hardware store. Jimmie smiled at her and laid the flower in her shopping cart. Maggie blushed.
‘It is a beautiful day, isn’t it? Oh, here, I got you some breakfast.’ Jimmie fished out the sandwich and gave her a portion.
‘Ummm, good. I am getting really hungry. Look at what I found over at the supermarket.’ Maggie indicated the discarded produce in her cart. ‘Going to make you boys some stew tonight.’
‘Sounds good, I’ll see if I can scare up some meat.’ He turned to leave her.
‘Oh, wait,’ Maggie called him back. ‘There’s a guy on the next street over with his radio blasting and I heard that there’s a big storm moving in tonight.’
Jimmie looked up at the blaring sun. ‘Are you sure about that, Maggie? What kind of a storm?’
‘I can’t quite remember,’ Maggie tilted her head as though the memory could actually be jogged. ‘Something about snow, ice, oh, I remember a nor’easter. That’s what they called it, blizzard like conditions.’
‘All right Maggie, I want you to come back to camp by three o’clock this afternoon, you hear?’ Jimmie’s tone was serious.
‘I will,’ Maggie promised.
‘And, if you see Two Fingers, you tell him to head on back right now. I’m going to hit the alleys and see about fortifying.’ Jimmie ducked down the first ally he came to, the library would have to wait another day. He was looking for discarded cardboard, plywood, even old furniture that could be broken up and formed into walls. Whenever he found something worthy of use he drug it home and then headed out again to find more. Each time he made it back to camp, Bubba was still sleeping.
Two Fingers joined him by noon and the two of them piled quite a wall of junk around their camp.
“You think that will hold her?”
“I hope so, Two Fingers, I hope so. Ever been in a nor’easter before?”
Two Fingers scratched his head. “Can’t say that I have. Is it bad?”
Jimmy looked at the sky. The sun was failing fast behind clouds and the warmth of the day faded.
“It’s bad enough. You up to some more wood?”
“You betcha, Jimmie. Let’s take the cart this time.”
Jimmie nodded. “Here comes Maggie now.”
“I’ll get started on that stew right away.”
“Two Fingers got some chicken nuggets at the shelter this morning,” Jimmie told her. “It’s wrapped in that napkin there.” He pointed to a bundle lying on the bus seat. “The other one is Bubba’s breakfast if he ever wakes up.”
As if on cue, Bubba snored even louder.
“I’ll wake him up,” Maggie threatened.
“Best not,” Jimmie cautioned. “We’ll need him to stay awake tonight to keep the fire going. What do you think of our shelter?”
Maggie inspected the pile of boards; couch cushions, tires and old broom handles propping up the sides.
“Oh that will be fine against the wind,” Maggie agreed. “Welp got to get dinner started.”
By four o’clock that afternoon clouds shielded the sun, and the sky looked white and gray at the same time. The wind was picking up, and the cold became noticeable.
Bubba stretched, and yawned himself awake. He blinked as he surveyed the new surroundings. Maggie was stirring a pot of steaming stew.
“How long have I been out?”
“Ten days,” Maggie answered without regard to the lie. “There’s a storm blowing in, and we’ve been fortifying. Want some food?”
“Hell yes,” Bubba sat up. His bones ached from the cold, the ground, and his age. “What kind of a storm we got coming?” Bubba accepted a bowl of stew.
It started as rain, cold and drenching, threatening to douse their fire. Jimmie and Two Fingers returned to camp dragging an old tarp.
“Let’s get this thing across that pile there, and pull it over to there and tie it off with this,” Jimmie instructed.
The four of them stretched the tarp forming a lean-to between the pile of junk and a nearby tree. The tarp was old, had holes in it in some spots, and stunk like a skunk, but it kept the rain rolling down and away from their fire.
“Well, that’s the best I can do.” Jimmie rubbed his hands together. “We’ll just have to see what Mother Nature has in store for us tonight. That stew smells good, Maggie.”
The four of them sat huddled under the tarp, eating their dinner and discussing their plans to take turns keeping the fire going and the tarp free from the weight of the water. The rain changed to ice. By five p.m. the ice pelted their shelter like shards of glass falling from the clouds. It bounced off Maggie’s cardboard hut with little ping sounds and quickly coated the walls with a layer of glaze.
“Sorry I couldn’t get your hut under here, Maggie,” Jimmie said.
“Oh that’s okay, been thinking about remodeling anyway.”
The ice continued for an hour and the tarp became heavy. Jimmie chipped away the chunks with his bare hands and then warmed them by the fire.
When it switched over to snow it was hardly noticed because the mixture was so wet. Eventually the mixture gave way to just snow.
The wind blew the snow in all directions.
“Man, I sure could use a drink,” Bubba moaned.
‘You have to stay in tonight, Bubba. No one is going to be out to give you any change, and you are bound to get lost out there.’ Jimmie lay on the outside edge of the four, with Maggie next to him, and Two Fingers next to her.
“We should of went to the shelter, Jimmie.” Two Fingers added.
“You know I can’t go to the shelter,” Maggie screamed. “Not after what happened to me last spring. No way. I ain’t going to no shelter!”
“We’ll protect you, Maggie,” Two Fingers offered. “We’ll sleep right next to you and protect you. Won’t nobody bother you with us there.”
Maggie looked at Jimmie with fear.
“We’ll stay right here,” Jimmie announced. “The shelters will all be filled by now anyway. You can’t see your hand in front of your face now anyway. Bubba, it’s your turn to knock the snow off the tarp.”
Bubba grumbled as he climbed out from their barricade and swept the snow off the tarp.
“Throw another piece of wood on the fire too,” Jimmie instructed.
Bubba did as he was told and then hurried back under the tarp. His head and shoulders were covered in snow. Jimmie noticed how quickly he was covered and how much snow there was. It worried him.
“Are we going to make it, Jimmie?” Two Fingers asked.
Jimmie patted his friend’s arm. “Let me tell you the rest of my story.”
He made the story up as he went along. He strained to talk above the wind. Swirls of snow-filled gusts danced in front of their tarp threatening the fire.
“My feet are so cold, Jimmie,” Maggie said.
They were cuddled as closely as the four could get to one another sharing the two-piece quilt, but their feet stuck out from the protection of the tarp and the barricade. Jimmie found it harder and harder to think, the cold bore through his body with an aching chill. His feet ached from the stinging cold, his back hurt from leaning against the planks of wood, and he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. Suddenly, he remembered his backpack and dumped the notebooks out.
“Here, Maggie, stick your feet in here. My turn to check on the tarp.”
Jimmie climbed out from under the tarp. The weight of the snow was making it sag against them now. He scrapped the snow off with his bare hands, pushing the pile down against the barricade’s wall and packing it in for more warmth. He thought: Well, the Eskimos do it – it must work?
With each layer of snow taken off the tarp the wind was able to rip it further. The snow stung as it hit against his bare head and neck. Jimmie tugged at his jacket, occasionally sticking his hands in the pockets for warmth. He could not feel his fingers. Finally, he gave in to the wind and the snow, and returned under the tarp.
‘There’s no use trying to take anymore snow off,’ Jimmie stuck his hands toward the fire. ‘Two Fingers, I couldn’t pick up any wood, my hands are frozen. Grab a log to put on the fire.’
Two Fingers obeyed. But, the wood was absorbing the moisture and as Two Fingers laid it on the fire, smoke filled the area.
Jimmie stared at the smoking fire, the wet wood threatening to put out what coals they had. His mind was so tired. It became harder and harder to think. He struggled with what to do. He had to do something.
‘I know,’ Jimmie said. ‘Two Fingers, Bubba – you too, get the wood and place it in a circle around the fire. Build it so some of the wood is against the fire and will dry out, while the other wood will take on the snow, like a roof.’
Two Fingers frowned, but complied. They circled the wood stacking it around the fire so the inside pieces might dry and be of use. There was no way to save all of the wood, so the remainder was used as a roofing effect to protect the other pieces.
‘That’s it,’ Jimmie assured their efforts.
‘But, what is going to dry off the wood?’
Jimmie reached behind him and picked up his notebooks. One page after another was torn, crumpled, and thrown on the fire. The blaze brought instant warmth and encouragement.
‘Not too many,’ Maggie urged, laying a hand on Jimmie to stop his tearing of the notebooks. ‘Just what you have to. You can’t give up all of you, to save us. Those are your words, your stories’.’
Jimmie smiled weakly at her. Nodded, and laid the notebook aside.
They gathered under the tarp again. The snow piled around them. The wind scattered the snow everywhere, causing drifts to form against the barricade and the tree. Snow from the tree weighted the tree’s branches until, unable to hold the burden, the branches gave way, dropping more snow on the four.
“What’dya got?” Officer Marks asked.
The snow was hard to maneuver in. Marks shuffled his legs, pushing snow that hit him mid-thigh. His pants legs were soaked and he could feel the wet cold against his skin. He was making his way down a slight hill toward a pile of junk barely visible under the snow.
The patrol cop waited for the other man to join him at the site.
“Looks like they tried their best to make it.”
Officer Marks bent down to peer inside the barricade and fallen tarp, now resting over the four.
“Well, let’s get the snow of ’em and see if anyone made it.”
The patrol cop motioned for help, and two other police officers made their way forward to throw the heavy frozen tarp to the side.
‘Damn fool bums,’ Officer Marks lit a cigarette. ‘We are just outside city limits, aren’t we? What shelter is near here?’
‘I’m not sure about that,’ the patrol cop answered.
‘Well find out which one it is and find out why they didn’t pick these people up last night, could you do that, Stevens?’ Marks yelled. He dragged hard on his Marlboro. ‘Damn fool bums.’
“Looks like one of them made it!” The cop yelled.
“Let’s get a EMT in here,” Officer Marks called to his men. The police at the top of the incline motioned for the EMTs to move in. ‘I hate this crap.’ Marks threw his cigarette into a snow bank. ‘I’m getting tired of pulling bodies out of the snow.’ He moved around the campsite, searching for an understanding. ‘Looks like they had a good idea about the fire.’ Marks pointed and the other cop moved closer to investigate.
The EMTs made their way down the hill with their stretcher and equipment.
‘See how they built the fire around in a circle trying to dry the inside wood? Too bad the snow crushed them.’
The others working to clear the snow off of the four, sped up their pace as the EMTs approached.
‘We definitely have a live one here,’ one of the policemen called out. ‘I can hear faint mumblings.’
“Pull her out boys,” Officer Marks ordered.
Maggie was pulled out from under the frozen pile of snow. Her feet were still in Jimmie’s backpack, and she clutched a nearly emptied notebook.
“Let’s get her to County. Take the others to the morgue.” Officer Marks moved out of the way of the EMTs. “Damn fools.”