Short Fiction: “NO CAMPING”

        I remember when I was a kid, me and my friend Liz from down the road would sit there on the porch fenced in by the broken screens and columns covered in chipped white paint, waiting for the mosquitoes to land on our arms. Liz taught me this one trick where you’d wait for a mosquito to land on you, let it bite, then tense up the part of your arm it was biting as hard as you possibly could. You had to flex that part of your body as soon as it bit into you, and keep it tight. The bug would stay there for a while, drinking you in, until it was time to go. When it finished the mosquito would try to fly away, but your muscle was tense, and its needle-shaped sucker would be trapped between the fibers of your muscle. It would try to fly off of your arm, and if you looked carefully you could see the bug moving around its legs, looking for a better angle it could use to pull itself free. But try and try, the poor, helpless little mosquito just couldn’t get away. Eventually, instead of tiring itself out, it would rip its own head off.

        Me and Lizzie just sat there for hours every day each summer on that porch,  year after year, letting the mosquitoes land on us then flexing as hard as we could when they bit into our skin, watching the bugs pull their own heads off, guts and all. There’s something about a mosquito’s white, pulpy guts coming out of its own volition that we both found deeply satisfying. It was one thing to catch it while it bit you, then crush it in your hands and look at your blood mixed with its white guts, all mashed together in a mushy paste on the tips of your thumb and forefinger, but it was a whole different ball of wax forcing this dumb bug to basically kill itself when there were plenty of other, equally dumb animals out there to feast on. A dog only has its tail to swat the bugs away, but people can be much more creative, and cruel.

        Years later, after Lizzie moved away and they tore that house down, I got a job and saved up for an apartment. I didn’t really have anything to do that day, since it was a Saturday and I’d worked all week. I decided to walk down to this local cafe I liked on Elm Street. I could have driven there, but when you live in a city with rent so high, you start finding yourself looking for any excuse to have fun on a budget, and taking the long walk down to the cafe and getting some breakfast instead of going out and doing something which would definitely cost a lot more seemed like a good option. I could have stayed at home and made myself some egg whites and toast, in fact I probably should have: my car payment was due the next week, and I didn’t see any way of avoiding them shutting off my cable, at least not until the end of the month, but I had so much food in the apartment, and a little bit of extra cash in my checking account, so I figured ‘fuck it’. I was trying to lose weight, but there’s only so long you can live on bread. Man needs a little bit of vino from time to time, and a sandwich with a bag of chips and the sugariest, most cream laden coffee you’ve ever seen was my little treat to myself for doing so good on my diet: Over the last month I’d lost 15 pounds!

        The walk down to Elm Street from my place can feel pretty long sometimes, especially when you’re alone and there’s nothing to do. The way there is littered with ‘NO CAMPING’ signs, and long lines of trash on the waist high walls designed to hold the hills at bay from the road, which must have been cut right through the earth.

        I kept walking down Elm Street, which had basically become skid row in our town over the last four or five years. They say the recession ended, but any city in America is just rife with bums nowadays. They’re everywhere, and most of the time I wish they’d just fuck off or die.

        The bums stank, but only a few of them had the gall to stretch their arms all the way out when they begged me for money. I guess ‘beg’ isn’t the right word. It’s more like a certain pressure, the kind I guess you’d apply to a bug you you were trying to catch with your fingertips without killing the thing.

        “Hey do you think I could have a dollar?” Some toothless old woman asked me, and I remember she had really long, greasy gray hair. Her hair looked brittle, but no less brittle than the other woman wearing a grey pantsuit, walking past me and the homeless one on the street. The other woman had high heels on and her nails were done. Her hair looked equally dry and brittle, even though she wasn’t homeless. The pantsuit woman’s hair was jet black, and it was obvious she dyed it, although it was a lot shorter that the homeless woman’s hair. There’s a bunch of offices and big businesses all around so she was probably a lawyer or somebody important.

        I was wearing my $200 sunglasses and some new sneakers, so I said: “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me.” Anyone could tell I had at least some money, more than this homeless woman did, anyway. She was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans, and a windbreaker in the middle of July.

        I finally got to the cafe and sure enough, the place was full of bums. They’d been giving out expired bread that had expired a day ago, so it was still edible, but too old to serve to paying customers. I guess it’s good that somebody’s doing something about the problem, making these people’s lives easier, but why did they have to ruin my favorite spot to do it? I bet if anybody heard me saying this they’d come at me with some sanctimonious ‘Oh yeah, well the only thing separating you from them is one bad day’, but I think only real reason people give to charity is they know nothing’s going to change, and its the charitable who are at the root of it.

        So I ordered my sandwich, and the cashier took my money. She asked me if I’d like to donate a dollar to help one of their employees. There was a picture of him on the counter, and I said “No, thanks.” In the picture he was white, and his emaciated body looked like a skeleton, or one of those Jews in the holocaust, but I guess that’s what most people look like when they have cancer. I bet they wouldn’t have a sign with a tin cup full of dollars if it was for the family of a black guy who’d been shot by the cops. Some people who’ve hit a patch of bad luck are more important than others. You could say that’s part of their luck, but we all know that’s bullshit. We make our own fortune, and some people’s luck is defective by design.

        I was there to meet my friend Kyle. Well I guess ‘friend’ is a bit of a stretch. We’d met at a party once where I was trying to get with some chick who was way out of my league, and she had a boyfriend anyway. The thing about women is that they’d like to think they’re not whores, but they all share the same quality: you need money to get with them. Now if that’s not the textbook definition of a whore, I don’t know what is.

        Anyway, it was 11:30, and Kyle said he was meeting me at one, so I had a little bit of time to enjoy my breakfast, sit around in the café, and read the news on my phone. I was really jonesing. You can’t actually be addicted to weed, but I really wanted to get high, so I was already distracted when I was looking around at the news on my phone. The thing about news nowadays is that it’s a lot more like popcorn than it used to be. I’m not too interested in what actually happens, or any of the outcomes, because They’ll do what They want, and it’s not like you have any real say or input anyway, but sometimes it’s fun to watch the circus.

        I guess in retrospect my idea about fixing the bum situation is pointless, because They clearly don’t want the bums gone, so the situation will probably never change. But sometimes I get naive and stupid when I’m jonesing. If they ever got off their ass and did something about it, I mean really did something about it, we’d probably fix the problem in a couple decades. I’m not saying it would go away overnight, but a real, sustained effort to fight homelessness would make an actual difference, not this ‘five cents from the change from my coffee in a tin can at the register’ bullshit.

        They called out the sandwich I ordered, so I walked over to the counter, got my food, and sat back down. As soon as I took my seat I realized I was sitting right next to a bum. He looked almost clean, so I opened up my sandwich and took a bite. The warm chicken with the hot, fresh melted cheese, spinach, and onions was delicious. It had this chipotle sauce which was par excellence, except for the stench of fermented sweat wafting up my nostrils from the bum. He was wearing a dirty parka on in the dead of July, just like the rest of the bums. His unwashed stench had compounded itself internally, over and over trapped between ballsweat-laden skin, and layers of long underwear long crusty with piss and vomit. It was like you’d trapped B.O. in a sealed container, letting the stink of it rot.

        I stifled a wretch, but the bum didn’t seem to notice. Either he didn’t care, or he pretended not to notice. He had close shaved buzz cut of white hair, but somehow he didn’t seem that old. The bum’s eyes were dead set, looking forward, but also into nothing. His expression looked like that of a corpse, or what you’d imagine a fractured shell of a man might look like under all those layers of sweaters and a parka. I realized he might just be so far gone that he didn’t even know I was there, or who he was, or what a human was or could be anymore. He carried everything he owned in an old plastic bag from the bookstore chain down the street, it’s handles stretched out and sides wrinkled from months of continuous use.

        I remembered that I had seen this particular bum around town a few times before, but I’d never been this close to him, and when I’d gotten right up next to him, and felt the warm sandwich in my hands, I realized he stank. I don’t know why I was so surprised, because all the times I’d seen him before I just imagine he had no smell, because he looked like a corpse which had already rotten off the bones, so that there was no organic matter left: just a hulking mass of shambling calcium, propped up by the naked drives of some base animal.

        I gathered up my hot sandwich, the bag of chips, and my large iced coffee. Clutching the food and drink in my hands, I went over to the spot where you leave your trays and dropped mine off and grabbed a fistful of napkins on the way outside. I sat down on a bench they’d put on the sidewalk since they tore up Elm Street, only to be greeted by the scores of the lonely and the wretched: more beggars clambered all around me. The limit of their obscene demands stopped just short of prying the hot meal right from my own fucking hands! It’s not like I didn’t work for the fucking thing! Oh wait: I did. And yeah, I know what I said about making things fair for the bums before, but sometimes I just don’t give a fuck. Sometimes I just want to have what’s mine, and to enjoy it without the buckets of human shit being thrown in my face, stinging my eyes, shooting up my nose, and running down the back of my throat.

        The wind kicked up halfway through, and my bag of chips went all over the sidewalk. ‘First-world problems’ doesn’t even begin to cover it! I remember back in high school whenever I’d complain about my problems to the school therapist she’d say “You know some people in other parts of the world have it much worse than that, and you should count yourself lucky for the things you do have.” Jesus Christ. What a dumb cunt.

        So I finished my sandwich, gusts of wind kicking up at random intervals every so often: just often enough to be insanely obnoxious, but not so often that you got used to it. That would have been better, actually, because you could just tune it out after a while, but just when you thought the wind had finally died down for good, another gust would come, and I’d have to hold my sandwich and chips down from the wind. I had my headphones on, but the bums kept pestering me anyway. I kind of figured the headphones were the international signal of ‘don’t talk to me; you’re not a human being and I’m not interested in human interaction anyway’, but these pieces of shit don’t care about anyone except themselves.

        After a few more shitty intervals of the intermittent gusts of wind, I finished my sandwich and chips, sucked down one last big gulp of coffee, and stuffed the sandwich wrapper and chip bag into the cup. I care about the environment too, and I’m assuming we don’t have unlimited landfill space, since we’re always pumping out so much trash, bums included.

        Kyle sold weed, and I’d bought from him a few times. It was pretty good, but around here you feel like you’re rolling the dice with every bag you get. It’s still illegal, so you can’t just light up a joint and smoke it anywhere, and you’d better not get stopped by the cops, because they’ll probably smell it on you, and that’s probable cause, so right there you’re fucked. So I walked down to the corner of Elm Street and Orchard and made the trek over to the old abandoned lot. Sometimes cops stopped around, but Kyle was going to meet me there and take me up to his apartment.

        Nobody ever gets shot or stabbed, or even mugged in this town. I used to go to the community college, and one time a friend of mine had his window smashed and all his dad’s coin collection stolen out of the backseat, but that was like the only real crime that wasn’t a traffic violation I’d ever heard of happening around here. Well, unless you count the city ordinance against begging. They passed that a few years ago, but nobody really gave a shit, I think because the bums were so dirty that the cops didn’t want to put them in the cruisers, and let them stink up the cars, which the cops basically live out of. Some people live out of their cars and make fifty thousand dollars a year, and other people live in their car begging on the street, getting arrested by the ones with all the money, and living in the cops home away from home, just for a little while at least. That’s kind of funny, don’t you think?

        So I got to the abandoned lot and just waited for Kyle. The lot was just a fenced in strip of dirt littered with crabgrass and big wheels, and other  toys like the kind you’d leave in a monkey’s cage. One time I saw a show on public television about the history of zoos, and this place reminded me of the cages they used to keep chimps in: more cement and steel than plants and living things, except this cage was for the human zoo. So I stood there leaning up against the fence, and I almost fell back asswards through the thing because the fence had been torn loose from the posts by a snow plow or something. Then I tried leaning up against the fence-post, only that was torn out of the ground and I didn’t want to make a scene for destroying public property, so I just stood there on my own, waiting for Kyle.

        When he showed up I almost didn’t recognize him. Kyle looked like he hadn’t been eating, and smelled like he hadn’t bathed in days, or weeks. The stench coming up off of him wasn’t just B.O. It was also like burned plastic, or something chemical and foul. “I got some really good stuff, man.” Kyle said. I followed him out of the park, and around the corner, down the alley. The pavement was smashed up and blown out. There were all these chunks of asphalt broken out of the ground. Tommy stood there fumbling with the key to unlock the front door of his apartment building. He was really jittery, and the lock had all these scratches around the keyhole. While I waited, I picked up a big piece of asphalt and dropped it onto the ground. It smashed all over the curb, shooting fragments of black rock with white flecks all through it everywhere.  “Jesus Christ, man!”  Kyle jolted around and snapped at me.

        “Sorry…” Was all I said.

        He fumbled with the lock a bit more and finally opened the door. Kyle stepped through the door frame and said: “You got the money?”

        “Sure.” I said, and I reached for my wallet.

       “Not here!” He interrupted me before I could reach into my wallet. “Upstairs.”

        So we walked upstairs and went into his apartment, then I pulled out my wallet and handed him six crisp twenties, fresh from the ATM, with only a light fold in the middle from sitting in my wallet for a few hours.

        “Here you go bro.” Kyle said. I held the bag up in my hand, testing the heft of it in my hand. “It’s all there bro.” He said, and I could hear him grinding his teeth. Beads of sweat started covering his forehead.

        “You OK, man?” I asked him. He didn’t look good. Actually, he looked like he was just about to throw up.

        “Yeah man,” He said, peering through the shades over his window. “I just gotta get ready to go to a party, so…” He started darting his eyes around the room.

        “Ok. I’m gonna bounce.” I said. Jeez, real hospitality. Oh well, at least he wasn’t one of those dealers who sells you a bag, then wants to smoke a bowl out of your stash for free. But I got the feeling he was smoking something else, besides weed.

        I walked out of his apartment and heard the lock on his door click shut behind me. Then I went downstairs and peered through the window next to the buildings front door, just to be sure there weren’t any cops. I felt like an idiot, because for the life of me I couldn’t remember if the smell of weed was probable cause, so I decided I’d just play it cool and head straight home, as fast as I could.

        I stepped out of the alley and back onto Elm Street, walking down skid row through the bums strumming their guitars and hobos laying up against walls, sitting on their cardboard like yoga mats for some sort of societal transcendence. Just then I thought, All I do is work-work-work. Maybe these guys have the right idea. “Hey can I have a dollar? You got any cash?” One of the bums stepped out in front of me, assailing me with his beggary.

        “Sorry, I don’t have any cash.” I said, and took a step around him. Only he wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He stepped backwards and to the side, blocking me from a quick escape. This bum was a fighter: unlike most people who’ve been trampled by life, he didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

        “Aww come on!” He said, with a potent blend of sadness and anger. It was working too, until I started to reach for my wallet, and a cop cruiser pulled over, with a quick flash of its sirens. ‘God damned fucking cunt-bum!’ I thought. The second I heard the siren, my back shot up straight with fear and I realized I must reek of fucking weed, or at least the bag of dank shit in my pocket was strong enough for anybody to smell.

        The cop strolled right up next to me. It was a woman. Oh, great: ‘Now we’re all fucked’ I thought. The thing about a woman cop is that ‘cuz of what’s between her legs she’s always got something to prove. Her uniform, badge, and gun are basically any woman-cop’s penis. I remember in high school psychology my teacher talked about ‘penis-envy’, and a woman cop is penis-envy incarnate.

        “Sir, is did this man just ask you for money?” She said, pointing at the bum with her nightstick.

        I decided this might be a case of live and let live, so I tried and spare the poor bastard. “Uh, no officer. Actually, I was asking him for directions.”

        I watched as her nostrils flared open, and she took a deep breath through her nose. “Sir, are you carrying any marijuana?” Oh Shit.

        “Uh, no, I don’t do drungs.” I said. The tense-back feeling at this point was replaced by a combination of a ‘pins and needles on the bottom of my feet’ feeling, combined with the sensation that everything in my bowels was about to immediately evacuate itself through my asshole, and I was going to shit myself, filling up the back of my underwear with the biggest, hottest, most wet shit you’d ever seen or smelt in your entire life. ‘DRUNGS!?’ I thought to myself. ‘DRUNGS!? Oh I’m so fucked! I’m-so-fucked! I’m-so-’

        And just then, like the clouds parting and a bolt of lightning shooting forth from the heavens, that bum from the cafe: the thin, wasted, emaciated skeleton of a man with his crinkled plastic bag and the stink that could kill a deadset mule came up behind the woman cop with a wild hair up her cunt and the bum undid his pants, and started honest to god pissing on her leg!

        She stepped out from underneath his hot stream and screamed at him: “SIR, PUT YOUR PENIS AWAY!” Only that was when me, her, and the bum who she’d stopped for: the bum who’d trapped me in this nightmare scenario to begin with, saw that the pissing bum did put his penis away, except he didn’t stop pissing. It was really hard to stifle a my laughter, but I did it anyway, because I saw this as my golden opportunity. I ran for it, and I never looked back. I stopped running about a few hundred yards after I turned around the corner, because I figured if people see you running in a small city like this, someone’s bound to call the cops.

        The thing about a woman-cop is, you gotta play them real smooth. That’s because of their penis-envy. If you challenge their dyke-like sense of authority, they’re just like any woman: they’ll lose their mind completely, and just go off on you. But lucky for the three of us (me, the first bum, and the new piece of shit hobo who got all of us into this mess), the woman cop probably just cuffed the pissing bum from the cafe and hauled him off to god knows where. Hopefully some place with a warm meal and a hot shower. I got home, locked the door behind me, packed my bong, and took a fat rip off of it, in honor of the stinking, skinny, woman-cop-pissing bum from the cafe.

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