Sunday, November 07, 2010

Eighteen

One, two, three...

...sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.

She finished counting the wooden slats on the bench and was satisfied with the results. Today's number would be "18".  Difficult, yes, but the easy numbered days left her feeling defeated, not in control, no big accomplishment.

Layered ill-fitted clothing from the Mission made her sexuality indeterminate; only her hands revealed any indication of femininity. With an uneven gait, she made her way to a corner trash receptacle.  Smiling with her good fortune, she shook out the remains of a Sunday paper complete with coupons.  She folded the paper neatly and placed it in a black plastic bag. Later she would carefully snip out each coupon with a pair of tiny cuticle scissors and tuck it into the proper envelope for safekeeping.  Coupons were important, their value immeasurable. Mission workers were more often the lucky recipients, but occasionally she graced a stranger with some odd money-saver. Her jacket pockets were already filled with today's handouts, the found paper would replenish her stash.  Often these special slips were scribbled with a remembered poem or even a once favored recipe from her "normal" past.

Currency from the heart; redemption in the form of a fifty-cents off coupon for a can of dog food ...and Jesus was a Capricorn. Eighteen floors in that building. Parking meters on this block...eighteen. A glance upwards was rewarded with a find of eighteen mirrored windows.  She looked away quickly, the sun's bounced rays into her eyes creating a temporary splotchy blindness and an unease with the knowledge of staring faces behind those panes.

Once she had long wavy blonde hair and went to art class.  She loved panda bears and would sign her homework papers as such instead of her real name.  The teachers weren't very fond of that, though.  Neither was her father, who after a really bad disagreement over her choice of friends, threw her out of the house.  Her spiral traced downward from there: bad trips, the loss of parental rights to her young child, the frustration of trying to conform to society's expectations, a mother many years confined with mental illness...all contributed to her homelessness. A life that once held promise, a near completion of a college degree, a very nice house with three cats in the yard....life used to be not so hard.

Though the day was warming to a high of 80 degrees, she shivered from an inner coldness that never abated even with heavy flannel shirts and woolen caps.  A heart condition she was told; the county caseworker wanted to take her to the clinic for testing.  Doctors and social workers never  spoke the truth and it was an obvious trick to lock her away, she wasn't stupid.  Her camp in a little patch of hackberry trees beneath a high overpass and near the old cannery was safe as long as she didn't let them get too near.  Must always be careful to never take a direct path from the Mission to your hiding place; the DG's (do-gooders) were deceptively sly in their attacks.

The lunch hour crowd was beginning to spill out from the buildings. She had explored many blocks now, the rule for the number of the day becoming less easily appeased. Looking down at her feet (the over-sized  running shoes were broken down and rounded over on the outside edges) , she just knew with a shorter stride she could easily make it eighteen steps to cross the intersection....

The city bus driver didn't stop screaming for a full five minutes, didn't realize the wheels still crushed down on the unfortunate victim.  Beat cops on bicycles kept back the crowd and employed shaken bystanders to help hold up tarps blocking the scene until the body could be removed.  One officer recognized the dead woman, often spoke to her over at the Mission, and had received his share of her special coupons.  The homeless female loner was sort of rare in his experience. 

A representative from the Transportation Department had arrived on the scene and was trying to get information from the passengers as the still hysterical driver was being attended to by paramedics.  He sighed when he took note of the painted number near the lighted destination banner above the windshield; sad that the old bag lady had to get hit, but City Bus No. 18 had just been totally refurbished with a new engine and a new paint job. It would be weeks, maybe months before it could be returned to the fleet and they were very short on in-service buses already. 

Soon the wreck was cleared, the body bagged and headed for the county morgue. As the ambulance pulled slowly away, a gust of wind tunneled around and between the buildings sweeping up several neatly cut slips of paper that lay scattered upon the crosswalk. Some clung stubbornly to shoe bottoms as the crowd thinned out and went about their way back to their cubicles and desks; a few sailed high into the air, twirling like multi-colored kite tails in the bright sunlight.

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