by Bob Ferguson
I would attack them from a hiding place in plain sight. They would never expect an assault from a pariah of society. I planned to steal enough of their money to skip to Portugal or South America and live comfortably for life. Except—I had no life. They took it when they hooked Jess, my son on drugs—and he overdosed.
Drugs are every parent’s nightmare. At our wits end, we used the tough-love technique espoused by the current psycho-gurus and kicked Jess out of the house the day he turned eighteen. Through teary eyes at his funeral my wife, Jenny said “We drove him straight into their ripping claws.” She was right. The guilt, self-hate was intolerable. Ten days after his service Jenny found the easy way out—sleeping pills.
There was no celebration of life, no service, and no obituary for either of them. I buried each with a simple marker in the family plot where I had expected to be the first to rest. I headed home after the burial. No purpose. No feeling. No reason to live. On the two-lane road back down the hill it would be easy to give the wheel a quick jerk to the left into the path of an on-coming semi-truck. Swift. Quick. Sure. But with every passing second, like an infectious fever, hate began permeating the cells of my numb body. As a driving force, hate seemed more dominant than love. Vile loathing was giving me an insidious purpose for living—to seek retribution. They would pay dearly for what they had taken from me.
Parks had always been a pleasant place to while away a few hours with the family. Birds liked the high canopies of the tall oaks and centuries of adaptation had superbly equipped the squirrels for climbing trees more nimbly than Olga Korbut on the balance beam. I had no one to enjoy it with. I was wretchedly alone. The sounds and sights held no joy.
The park was further degraded, by the scum of humanity scattered about in old quilts, filthy sleeping bags and the rags on their backs like a human garbage dump. They reminded me of the dregs of the second wine bottle I was devouring. As disgusting as these human vermin were, they would be good camouflage for me to carry out my vengeance in the place where I knew Jess first began using drugs—the Park Blocks.
My .38 snub nosed service revolver that I had carried in Vietnam gave me a feeling of protection. It was stuffed into the field jacket that I had picked up at a surplus store. My gray hair was matted and matched my five days of stubble. The black stocking cap made me indistinguishable from the other homeless people who were in various stages of reverie induced by booze or drugs. I had become Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” Life was imitating art.
It always surprised me that buying drugs was so easy. I wondered why a prosecutor simply didn’t grant amnesty to the guy at the lowest level if he ratted on his supplier. Then that supplier gets amnesty if he finks on his source, right on up to the top. I would prove my own theory. I would wait for the mule, the delivery man, the creep that made it possible to get my son hooked. It would be easy to follow him to his connection and follow that link to the next guy in the chain of command. I couldn’t offer amnesty, but a .38 in his face would be even a more convincing argument to become a stoolie. After I killed a few, they would know that Portland is no place for pushers.
“I’m Joe,” I said to a guy on a park bench as I screwed off the top of a fresh bottle of vintage MD 20/20 and handed it to him. “My wife was Jenny, my son was Jess. We called ourselves the “J” family,” I continued trying to be friendly.
“They call me Riff, I used to play the guitar on stage,” he said before he took a deep swig like it was the elixir of youth and he wanted to be a teenager again.
“I’d like to score a little Mary Jane,” I said trying to sound like an entrenched user.
“Haven’t heard that term in a while. If you mean pot, just watch that corner down there and you’ll see a guy who seems to talk to everybody. I’m tapped out or I’d give you some.”
It was a generous offer from a guy who seemed to be on his last legs.
“Keep that bottle of Mad Dog, I appreciate your info,” I said sauntering off toward a bench that had just become available with a better view of the corner.
His pants hung so low I wondered what held them up. A black baseball cap with a flat bill was stuffed sideways on a thick head of black hair. He was, it pained me to admit it, a handsome Latino. Even under his baggy hoodie you could tell he had a powerful build. Long silver chains draped down his sides and seemed to have no purpose other than decoration. He had mastered the art of smoking and talking incessantly on a cell phone at the same time.
It was a week day and he was busy. It was a quick reach into his fanny pack, a simple handshake, hug or short huddle and that was it. Money, pot, and short greetings were exchanged. It surprised me how many people dressed in suits and ties shook his hand. A bank of gray clouds created a sun screen that added an even darker mood to the nefarious activities taking place right in front of me.
He periodically got into a white, souped up Honda with dark tinted windows. He would be gone for a little while and then reappear on the same corner after stepping off the light rail stop just across the street.
The day was getting away from me. The Charles Bronson in me wanted action, but if I was careless it would be dangerous, maybe fatal. I feigned sleeping, reading the newspaper and if a stranger walked by I would even ask for spare change just to blend in with the vagrants.
The mark I had selected for my wrath would not be easy. He appeared to work alone, but there were always a few guys that looked just like him standing nearby. “His homies in hoodies,” I chortled to myself. It had been a long time since I had chortled, but it was not the good kind. I decided those stupid chains must be some sort of Ninja weapon. Even if they weren’t, he might be carrying and getting him alone would take some doing. They were wary, always looking for cops, rival gangs, and whatever other threats druggies face. They looked at me, but only saw the lowest of all life forms sitting on the park bench. Hiding in plain sight was perfect.
After a few hours the white Honda came by and he again got in. I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter to one. In almost exactly a half hour he again hopped off the Max line at the same stop—alone. That was it! I had my first victim in my sights. They had a time schedule for dropping off money and reloading with drugs and it matched the Max train schedule!
In the, invariably out of toilet paper, seedy, and filthy, public restroom, I shaved and washed my face. From my backpack I took out a non-descript jacket. I was ready.
“Riff, I’ll give you five bucks to watch this bundle for me. I’ll give you another ten when I return, is that a deal?” I asked laying the pack next to him.
“You sure you can trust me?” He said.
“Your cap says you’re a Vietnam vet or is that just brag?” I asked.
“No way! I joined the Marines right out of high school,” he said looking me in the eyes seeking a clue for some sense of trust.
“Well, Semper Fi my friend. Once a Marine always a Marine and this ol’ Marine needs your help, if I’m not back by 5:30 this evening, you can have it all,” I said walking away. I knew I had him with the Semper Fi.
Like clockwork, the white Honda came by at 3:45 on their two hour schedule. That meant that my Latino friend would conduct his business with those behind the darkened windshield and according to the Max schedule at his exit stop he would arrive back at almost exactly 4:15 pm., but I had a surprise for him.
I hustled down two blocks where the schedule read the next pickup headed north would be at 4:10 pm. It was in the “Fareless Square” so all I had to do was hop on and take a seat. The train was deserted. He was easy to spot, sitting in the back of the second car with his feet stretched out taking up an entire seat. I took the seat directly across the aisle from him.
“There’s a whole car man, why you got to be right here in my face?” He said in broken English pronouncing “you” like the first syllable of Ju Ju Bean.
“I thought I knew you from somewhere,” I said.
“Now dat you know you don’t know me, I say you should move,” he said bobbing his head in a smart-alec way. I still wondered why the word “you” was such a tongue twister.
Physically, at 60 years old, I was no match for him, but I wanted to slap his silly face. I stood up like I was going to change seats and in a flash I pulled the .38 from my jacket pointed it at his face and said “Don’t move! My little friend here says I know you from the corner by the park, now put your feet down and your hands on the back of the seat in front of you.”
He stopped smiling. I slid into the seat behind him with the pistol pushed into the middle of his back. I wanted to pull the trigger and just leave him sitting there hunched over, but I had a problem. The gun was loaded with ammunition that was over forty years old and the bullets were green tracers. It was meant to be used as a survival pistol in case the F-4, in which I flew as a navigator on photo reconnaissance missions, was ever shot down. The green tracers were used instead of flares to notify the rescue choppers that I was a friendly force. A snub nose is not as accurate as a longer barrel, but there was a chance it could go clean through and ricochet hurting a bystander. I had never fired the pistol. Not even in Vietnam and I wasn’t sure what it would do.
“You, you are a dead man,” he said in anger making the “Y” sound even more like a “J.”
“So are you, if you don’t do exactly as I say.” It was a bluff. “With your left hand, unbuckle that fanny pack and hand it back to me.”
For emphasis, I cocked the gun and pushed it harder into his back.
“It’s got a hair trigger,” I lied.
I took the fanny pack while moving the gun to the back of his head.
“Your buddies will be looking for you as we pass the park and what you need to do to stay alive is to wave to them as we go by.”
As we passed the park he was waving and I was holding up the fanny pack and flipping them the bird. Cute, but it was immensely stupid on my part. He knocked the gun from my hand, grabbed it and pulled the trigger—thank God the ammo was manufactured by the lowest bidder. It didn’t fire. I had a second chance and pulled a lock-back knife with a 5” blade from my pants pocket. He was unimpressed and pulled out a 15” bayonet.
The train jerked to a stop, the doors opened and a passenger jumped on and quickly clubbed my nemesis from behind with a policeman’s night stick.
“Semper Fi,” said Riff. “I saw his amigos scattering when they thought they’d catch hell for losing the money and the pot. Then I saw him knock the gun out of your hand so I ran to the next stop. Lucky for you I always carry this souvenir night-stick for protection. A cop lost in a park scrum a while back.”
The dealer was stirring as we hopped off, ran back to the park, grabbed our gear and hailed a cab. It felt great to strike a blow for the good guys.
We gave the money to a homeless shelter, and the dealer resembled a body that was fished out of the Willamette River a few days later. The police speculated he had stolen some money and drugs from a local gang. Go figure.
Riff needed a place to live. I needed company. He’ll be living with me for a while. He’s a pretty good guitarist. He plays and sings on open mic nights at a few blues joints. We’ve gotten involved in some veteran’s causes and my problems seem no worse than many others who are putting their lives back together.
I suppose life can imitate art, but it’s better to leave the vigilante stuff to the trained professionals. And what became of the pot? We’re Marines, not saints for cryin’ out loud.
© 2010 Bob Ferguson
“Riff Raff” won the 2010 Readers’ Choice Award.