Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records
The Princess and the Hobo: A Portland Fable
by Skinner and Sinner
I wondered whether flesh was under the fabric of the two forms approaching as I slumped against Skidmore fountain. In a way, they were angels completing our circle of protection.
“Dan, how’s Sarge?” asked Hank, rubbing between furry ears.
Sarge’s steel collar tinkled like a music box over the bubbling fountain. His tongue lagged out too big for his mouth.
Pat revealed a bottle inside his jacket.
“It must be payday, we’re all filling up tonight,” he said.
I tipped my bottle finishing the last swallow, then placed my palms on either side and stuck my tongue through the opening tasting the gin and the breeze evaporating it. Pat gifted me a new bottle.
Pat perched next to me, his smell mixing with mine. His fingers overlapped like feathers with his hands nested in his lap. He leaned into me, his eyes like planets. He couldn’t be a ghost. His orbit was off. He kept leaning. I stood and tilted over the fountain. Hank scooted on the edge next to me.
“Where did you go?” I asked.
“Uptown ramp,” Hank said.
“Trouble there?” I asked.
“Easy fishing,” he said.
A trout sprayed up from the fountain. I reached out, it flew. Then at the bottom, my fingers were magnified with an eye on each tip. My damp beard wet my shirt. They were laughing.
“You almost went swimming, Dan,” said Hank.
His arm surrounded my shoulder. He held something in his free hand.
“Look at this, somebody threw it out. It’s the ‘Chinese Millionaires’,” said Hank.
He held out a black vinyl disc encrusted with faded paper. Beneath the name, the four band members stood side by side in silhouette, feet apart.
“I’ve never seen this one before,” said Hank, “hold onto it for me, will you?”
Hank was a snowbird. He never took valuables to get dope. I put the record inside my pocket.
“Hank, you got so many records but nothing to play them on,” said Pat, “like collecting books when you don’t know how to read.”
“Shut up, Pat, you son of a bitch,” said Hank.
We lined up butts on the concrete back to the fountain, Sarge dreaming at our feet, tipping our bottles in Morse code as we rotated away from the sun.
The fountain never stopped pouring so the place where the water comes from must be bottomless. It’s deep and dark like alleys where I seek a crevice for my head when the lights go out. Sarge’s chain rattled on the ground. The scratches in the metal mean that microscopic pieces flake off with each collision, to a flea, an avalanche. The space between flakes on the way to the ground is the sound of sirens. A warming light like fire. Hank and Pat are round-backed beetles creeping away. I blink too long. They are gone. Sarge followed, jangling and the colored lights like Christmas. Now I am under the microscope.
“Sir, do you know it is illegal to loiter here?”
My lips move then later a sound tumbles out. I chase after because I want to know what I said.
“Sir, do you have any identification?”
Picked up by a conveyor and loaded into a compartment. What does this machine do? I am flattened against it, waiting to be compressed. Then from left and right there are stripes flying because we are in the flow of water that feeds the fountain.
“Why is he all wet? Oh geez, he pissed himself,” a cop said.
His rank preceded him as he was escorted in handcuffs. Sally, the clerk, knew the policeman with the smelly man. Paul had been kind to her during her years as a clerk, even sticking up for her during a recent row with the higher ups.
“Hey Paul, what do we got here?”
“Drunk and disorderly, Sally, and don’t get too close,” he said, grimacing. “Doesn’t want to talk to us either.”
“You should go get a coffee Paul, it’ll be about ten minutes,” Sally said.
“Thanks Sally. You’re a peach,” Paul said and made his way down the hall towards the vending machines. Sally hated being called a fruit, as if she were a supplement to everybody’s diet. Sally was always trying to look after everyone.
“Name please.” Sally opened a file.
“Sir?” she said, addressing the hobo. The hobo was looking at her desk photo of her with her recently divorced husband and 18-year old son, now at college. In the photo, Sally was wearing a pink sweater.
“Name please sir,” she said sharply.
“Sir, you have been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. My job is to fill out the arrest report. We can do this together or I can get another officer to assist us,” she said to the hobo who was still looking at her photo.
“Why?” the hobo asked.
“Why what, sir?” Sally asked the hobo.
“Why do you want my name? Just throw me in the tank. My name doesn’t matter.”“Sir, can you please just answer the questions and we can get through this.”
“Fine, but you have to answer a question first,” the hobo said.
“That’s not how it works around here sir, I ask and you answer. Name please.”
“Okay, my name is Dan.”
“Okay, Dan. What is your last name?”
“First, my question. What harm did I do you?”
The question took Sally by surprise. She was used to routine, the patronizing comments from Paul and his peers, condescending remarks from bosses and the feedback from those being arrested. She had once been spit on. A question like this made her pause.
“Last name?” she asked without looking at him. She perched in her chair.
“Fine, my name is Dan Pascal. I have been homeless for 10 years since my wife left. My favorite booze is Gin, neat. I spend my days with my dog looking for money to buy booze and yes, I pissed myself, but what harm did I do you?”
Sally looked at Dan and asked her own question.
“Who are the ‘Chinese Millionaires’?” she asked.
“Who?” Dan said.
“The ‘Chinese Millionaires’,” Sally said.
“Is this a trick, how would I know about ‘Chinese Millionaires’?”
“It was on you when you were picked up. Do you collect records?”
“Oh, that is Hank’s,” he said and laughed about Hank and his collection of silent, never- played records.
A week later, Sally was invited to an office party before Halloween. She knew the real Halloween parties were the ones she would not be invited to. As she dressed, she drudged up past parties, their conversations, food, and outcome. After leaving her apartment, she decided to walk past the fountain where Dan had been arrested. She wanted to see Dan in his natural habitat. She often walked in this area. She felt fear, not of her actions, but of her motivation.
She sat on a bench near the fountain, hidden from view of what looked like a hobo convention. She saw Dan and his colleagues among other groups. They were passing around a brown bag and each taking a good swallow.
Sally moved closer to hear if they were speaking in the language of bugs, cicadas came to mind. She could almost imagine each hobo rubbing his legs together to make a unique chirp.
“Bull Hank, you have no idea what it is like,” she heard. “It only makes you sick if you drink too much of it.”
“No, it kills your mind. Huff gas if you want to be a bird brain,” said Hank, swinging his arms.
“Calm down, Hank,” said Dan, taking the bottle from him. “You’re spilling your seed. No one said rubbing alcohol was healthy, they was just saying it could make you drunk.”
“I know what I heard,” said Hank, his arm flapping toward the bottle.
Then Hank heard someone say, “Hey lady, you got a dollar?”
All the hobos looked at her.
“Hey Sally,” Dan waved.
Sally turned and walked away.
“Sally,” Dan called, hustling after her with bottle in hand.
He caught up to her.
“Sally, don’t worry about those bums. We’re just looking for a laugh. What are you doing here?”
She looked at him, breathing quickly, her hand covering her heart.
“Don’t,” she said.
“Don’t? Don’t what? Why are you scared? I won’t tell that you talked to me. Hell, I don’t think anybody would care except maybe your cop boyfriends,” said Dan.
“Thanks,” said Sally, not knowing why she was thanking him. “I am going to a party and I thought I would walk past the fountain first.”
“Good, it is a nice night. I am sorry we are scary.”
“No, I am sorry. I don’t know why I am scared, maybe because I am doing something strange.”
“Don’t worry, we are just as boring as everybody else,” said Dan.
“Maybe,” said Sally.
“Do you want a swallow of my favorite gin?” he said, holding out his bottle.
“No, thanks, I think I will just go to the party,” said Sally.
“Okay, but you will miss Hank and his record collection.”
Sally paused, remembering the ‘Chinese Millionaires.’
“He has other records? Can he play them?” she asked.
Sally and Dan turned and walked toward the group.
“No, he has never listened to any of the records,” said Dan. As they approached the group, he said, “Hank, this lady is Sally. She wants your records.”
Hank sprang from the ground and retrieved a creaky shopping cart from behind the fountain. It was stuffed with plastic bags, blankets and a row of records.
“She can look. She can’t touch them,” Hank said.
Sally approached Hank and his cart. She stood a few feet away, and Hank raised each record, flashed her the front and the back, then replaced it. Dan stood next to her, his smells part of the magic show. Dan moved closer, peering at the records. His arm brushed against Sally’s and then pressed into it. She was surprised that it was solid, and that she did not recoil. Being close made her think about her own body, freshly showered and wrapped in clean perfumed cloth. Dan tilted his head toward her. She face reddened.
A strange dog scampered into the hobo group. Sarge lifted his head and sniffed, got up on all four feet and pattered over. Sally and the hobos watched. The pair sniffed snouts. Sarge nosed the bitch’s rear then mounted. He thrusted, his knot tightening until his bulbous glandis tied inside the bitch’s vagina, locking them together.
“Hey,” yelled Pat.
Pat snatched a record from Hank’s hand and hurled it at the pair. The black disc spun and wavered as it made its way towards the target. Mid-flight, Sally imagined that the vinyl became a decorative bird that flew over the fountain. She didn’t know whether the bird was flying towards or away. Sally was taken aback when the record thumped Sarge in the head. It bounced on the concrete and landed at the dog’s feet. Sarge whimpered, but he was stuck.
“Damn it, Pat, that was valuable,” said Hank.
“Who cares about your records?” said Dan.
Hank grabbed Pat by the shoulders and shoved him. Pat fell backwards to his butt then his back. Like a beetle, he rocked until he was able to get on his hands and knees.
Helping Pat up, Dan said “Leave my dog alone. What harm did he do?”
Other hobos converged on the row.
Sally walked away to the party and the din of the hobos reverted to the sound of cicadas.
© 2012 Christa Helms and Kevin Nusser