Ian Davis was an orderly man. His closets; length and style-organized on color-coded hangers with pleasing symmetry. His refrigerator; logically structured by height and food type, anything with pending expiration dates moved weekly to the front. He scrubbed his kitchen within minutes of use, and robotically made his bed every morning—always before showering—with military-tight corners. His work-day uniform rotated between identical pressed Banana Republic chinos and blue denim shirts, topped by a cotton sweater or navy blazer on cooler mornings. Weekday breakfasts always consisted of Kashi vanilla oats, adorned with four ounces of Greek yogurt and a handful of blackberries, consumed while listening to Morning Edition.
Monday through Friday at 7:15 a.m., prompted by his iPhone alarm, he religiously commenced the twenty-minute walk to work, first filling his NPR travel mug with French press coffee, then buckling up the Tumi shoulder bag that housed his laptop, water bottle, and two Granny Smith apples. He kept a tiny copy of The Twelve Steps buried in the front flap, but thankfully hadn’t needed to pull it out for several months. Navigating the steep stairs from his apartment onto Cardinal Lane, he traversed the freeway bridge, dropped down into the park that wound through the Portland State University campus, finally arriving at the downtown home of Jazz Technology, twenty-five minutes before he was officially required to be there. Ian found great satisfaction in being prompt.
He was well-acquainted with the homeless population that roamed the downtown corridor, and for the last four years since moving to the city, he’d navigated the collision of have and have-nots with few issues. He subscribed to the city’s recommendation not to give change to panhandlers, but instead donated $100 per year to a shelter he passed on his walk. While most of the street-dwellers were harmless, he learned to avoid the weed-whiffing thugs perched on skateboards congregated across the street from the Art Museum, and stayed clear of anyone openly consuming drugs or alcohol, or engaged in angry conversations with fictional friends.
But on a July morning, as he passed a vacant lot bordering the bridge spanning the 405 freeway and the University, an enormous form sprang from chest-high grass, jolting Ian and forcing him to jump off the curb. Wrapped in a tatty wool blanket—Indian-chief style—the huge man was wearing faded gray swimming trunks and a Steely Dan concert T-shirt promoting their 1980 Gaucho tour. His feet, dirt-stained gray, were encased in bright pink flip-flops that looked a size too small.
“Where’s my Egg McMuffin?” he screamed.
Sensing potential violence, Ian checked traffic to make sure he could dart across the street. It appeared the man had slept in the field, his blanket mud-caked, strings of hay protruding like knitting needles from his long blond hair. “Do you have my Egg McMuffin?” He jabbed a filthy finger at Ian.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Ian tried to respond calmly to avoid exciting him. “I’m just walking by.” And with that he rushed across the street, heading towards a group of students congregated in front of a food cart.
“Wait a minute. I want my goddamn Egg McMuffin,” the man hollered, giving chase.
Ian didn’t want to embarrass himself by breaking into full sprint, and instead accelerated to a loping speed-walk into the park. The man, flip-flops clicking, stayed on his heels, yelling “Give me my Egg McMuffin, you selfish dick. I want breakfast, you faggot dwarf.”
Ian breathed a sigh of relief when he spied a group of construction workers near a nearly completed building, and crossed the street in their direction. The man’s threats were growing more volatile. “You give me my Egg McMuffin, or I will shit down your pie hole.”
“Hey, Gary, calm the fuck down,” a burly, hard-hatted man yelled. “Leave the guy alone.”
Ian sidled up to the workers, and the homeless man stopped ten feet back in the middle of the street. “He owes the toll. One Egg McMuffin.”
“I was walking down the street and the guy started hassling me,” Ian countered.
“You crossed my bridge, and I charge a toll. One Egg McMuffin,” the man screamed, arms waving in windmill. “I’m the troll of the 405 bridge,” he blubbered, then screwed his face into a frightening mask, screaming, “Aghhhh. Give me my breakfast, you pathetic little Nordstrom’s yuppie, or you will face my wrath.”
“Gary, leave him alone, and get out of here.” The construction worker made an exaggerated burst forward, and Gary jumped back, then tried to save face by pantomiming an old-timey boxing stance.
“OK, but tomorrow you will owe two Egg McMuffins, and I will collect, you chiseling mini-man.” Gary punched an air jab, then shook a fist at Ian. “I’ve seen you around. I know where you live, you human skid mark, and I will get my breakfast,” he yelled over his shoulder, as they watched him hustle through the trees.
“Thanks for your help,” Ian mumbled to the worker.
“No problem. We call him Homeless Gary Busey, ’cause he looks so much like that actor, doesn’t he? Maybe it is him. Haven’t seen him in a movie lately.” The man smiled and motioned at the blanketed form halfway across the block. “Don’t know his real name, but he’s been hanging out a few weeks. Crazy, but I think he’s harmless. Just makes a lot of noise.”
“Well, I appreciate your help.” Ian started down the sidewalk.
“No problem, little fella,” one of the other workers yelled with a laugh. “Just come see us if any of those nasty folks in the park bother you.”
Ian winced at the “little fella”. At five foot three, and 125 pounds, he was sensitive about size, and his fear of Homeless Gary Busey was replaced with anger. Anger at being hassled for no reason. Anger at being ridiculed by big, clueless men wearing steel-toed boots. He walked a few feet, stopped, and took a deep breath. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, he chanted to himself. He needed to keep “Bad Ian” in check, and allowing silly anger to surface could only summon buried demons.
That night, too exhausted to face the prospect of encountering Gary, he decided to Uber home. At times like this he had a strong craving for alcohol, but since he’d been sober for the last four years, he opted instead to splash a little cranberry juice over club soda in a tall glass, pretending it was something stronger. He was sitting on his tiny deck firing up his hibachi when he heard the commotion.
“I see you,” Homeless Gary yelled from the street. “I told you I know where you live. I hope you plan on bringing me my Egg McMuffins tomorrow, or I guarantee, there will be hell to pay. Nobody crosses the 405 troll.”
“Get out of here,” Ian screamed down. “I’ll call the police.”
“The police,” Homeless Gary said sarcastically. “You think that scares me?” He rolled his arms up, striking a monster pose. “I’m the goddamn 405 troll. The cops have no power over me. I own this neighborhood, and you better listen up, you Starbucks-loving anal wart. Tomorrow morning I want two Egg McMuffins. Nice and hot, too. If I don’t get them, I’m going to drag you to my cave, chain you to a wall, and skin you alive. Maybe skull-fuck your tiny head.” Gary dropped his hands to his crotch and made an obscene gesture. “You understand me?”
Ian rushed into his apartment and slammed the patio door. He called 911, and a few minutes later met the police car circling the area, but there was no sign of Homeless Gary.
“Not much we can do about it,” one of the officers told him. “Some of these guys are pretty whacked out, but they’re usually harmless. If he shows up again give us a call.”
The next morning Ian took Uber to work, deciding it wasn’t worth the risk of an encounter. It put him in a foul mood for the day. It’s ridiculous I can’t use a city street for fear of an insane homeless man, he kept ruminating, which conjured up old angry emotions. On his lunch break he walked four blocks to the police station, and met with a detective to discuss the situation. Once again, the official position was no position. “A crazy guy yelling a few threats would be impossible to prosecute,” the detective told him. “We’d have to put half of Portland in jail.”
“A guy threatens to drag me to a cave, remove my skin, and have sex with my skull,” Ian said, “and the police can’t do anything about it?”
The detective shrugged and smiled. “Let me know if he actually does any of those things. That would make for a good case.”
“Funny guy,” Ian said in disgust. “How about getting him help? He’s obviously got mental issues. He shouldn’t be on the street. He needs treatment.”
“He and a thousand others living out there,” the detective said. “There’s no budget for those folks. You can look around, but we don’t have anywhere to send them.”
That night Ian Uber-ed home again. Just after 7 p.m. he was cleaning his kitchen when he heard a loud thump on the patio door, a jagged crack spiraling up from the bottom. Assuming a wayward bird had slammed into the glass, he rushed out onto the patio. A stone whizzed above his head. “Where the fuck are my Egg McMuffins?” Homeless Gary was standing fifteen feet below, a bright fuchsia women’s bathrobe pulled tight around his shoulders like a cape. He was wearing sweatpants, a T-shirt promoting the 1983 ZZ Top “Sharp Dressed Man” tour, and a filthy cream fedora, an eagle feather spouting out the top. His flip-flops had been replaced by huge unlaced work boots, and his fists bulged with rocks. “I warned you, but you just don’t listen, you half-pint J.Crew scumbag. Now you will pay the price. And the toll has risen. Tomorrow I want three Egg McMuffins, and two Big Macs. Breakfast and lunch. First thing in the morning. And if I don’t get them, I promise I will drag you to the cave, cut off your dick and ears, and feed them to you. Might even spit roast you. I’m not kidding.” Ian dove to the deck as more rocks struck the door. When he peeked over the side of the patio Gary had disappeared.
Terrified, Ian slumped back into the apartment, carefully double-locking the patio slider, dropping the shade, then rushing to the front door to make sure it was secure. He combed through his medicine chest until the found the Xanax he’d squirrelled away several years earlier—for an emergency. Ignoring the long-past expiration date, he threw two in his mouth and bent down to drink from the faucet. Returning to the kitchen, he reached into a corner cabinet to retrieve a bottle of Merlot, dubbed “Jazz Wine” on the label, a company Christmas gift he’d hidden after the holiday party—just in case he made a friend. Uncorking the bottle, Ian hesitated for a second to consider his hard-won years of sobriety, but hands shaking, decided this was a dire situation that required medication—and this was really just medicine, he told himself—pouring a tall glass. Grabbing an aluminum softball bat out of the closet, he sat at the kitchen table for the next hour and consumed the entire bottle, waiting for Homeless Gary’s next move.
The next morning he awoke on his couch to the chirping of his iPhone alarm. Head throbbing, with serious Mojave-mouth, Ian was suddenly racked with guilt as the previous evening came into focus. How could he have thrown away all those years of progress? Dread washed over him as he recalled many mornings like this; waking up sick, sometimes in a pool of his own spew, attempting to piece together the previous night and assess the damage he’d done. The awful realizations; that his drunken antics had cost him a job, or perhaps another friend or family member. He’d been sure those days were over, his fresh start in Portland a way to exorcise himself of “cruel drunken Ian.” But now, Bad Ian was back. He’d somehow lost control. And all because some crazy homeless fuck had chosen him to harass.
For the first time since he’d started working at Jazz, he called in to tell them he’d be late. He showered and dressed slowly, carefully considering his next steps. Bad Ian had to be put back in his box. Homeless Gary Busey needed to be ejected from his life, though it occurred to Ian that he and Gary might not be so different. Four years ago if Ian hadn’t found the courage to change, to leave Minneapolis and reinvent himself in Portland, to live the program and pursue a virtuous life, he might have ended up on the street too. So he certainly needed compassion. But he also couldn’t allow Gary to destroy all he’d built. The program had taught him that sometimes people needed to be removed from your life in order to survive.
Feeling better, he considered this might be some kind of sign; an opportunity to redeem himself while developing more strength. He decided he’d make an attempt to help Homeless Gary, while also making it clear he did not want him in his life. Head still pounding, he showered and dressed, and before leaving the apartment pocketed the pepper spray he kept in the bedside table—just in case.
He walked at half-speed, head swiveling as he approached the 405 bridge, in the hope he might see another commuter. He was halfway past the vacant lot when he heard bellowing from underneath the bridge. “I hope you brought my food.” Gary was crawling up the incline, one hand grasping at thick weeds to hoist himself. He’d abandoned the women’s robe for his blanket, and the fedora had been replaced with an ancient steel army helmet with a ripped Bob Marley sticker on the front. He was carrying a toy plastic lightsaber. “You know, you look like a man, only smaller,” he chortled, then his face grew serious. “Now show me my fucking Egg McMuffins, or face the consequences. I can easily decapitate you with this thing,” nodding at the Star Wars sword.
Standing on the edge of the sidewalk, Ian couldn’t decide whether to laugh or run. “Listen Gary, or whatever your name is. Let’s stop this. I’ll get you food, and do more. I can help you get a safe place to stay, and find someone to help you. There are a couple clinics downtown. Walk with me. I’ll take you by McDonald’s, then we’ll find someone you can talk to.”
“Are you insane?” Gary puffed large, eyes rolling. “I’m the 405 troll, you ignorant crackhead, and I live down there in my palace cave.” He motioned underneath the bridge. “The most luxurious home in the world: hot tub and premium cable, a king-sized Serta Perfect Sleeper.” He waved his arms. “I would never leave my kingdom, and I’m not going anywhere with you. I bet you just want to lure me out of my kingdom so evil Balthazar can take over. Is that it?” Gary plunged forward, poking at Ian with the toy. “Are you one of Balthazar’s agents?”
Ian jumped back, but misjudged Gary’s speed, and on his second swing the plastic sword caught him squarely on the jaw with a stinging blow.
“Goddamn it. Knock it off.” But Gary swung the toy with a backhanded flip, striking Ian hard on the opposite check and splitting his lip. The drip of blood on his tongue both terrified and enraged Ian. He crouched, protected his head with his left arm, reached into his pocket with his right, pulling out the pepper spray, fooled with the latched top, and sprayed blindly in Gary’s direction. He raised his eyes when he heard a pained scream. He’d hit Gary squarely in the face with the spray. The big man was clawing at his eyes.
“Aagh, you fuck! I’ll remove your midget head and put it on a stick.” Gary stumbled backwards. “I’m going to…” And then, with an even more sickening yelp, Homeless Gary backed hard into the bridge railing, catapulting into a reverse flip over the side.
“No,” Ian yelled, cringing as Gary disappeared, then at the accompanying thud, followed by the sounds of horns and locked brakes. He rushed to the bridge railing. On the freeway forty feet below a Volkswagen had skidded sideways across two lanes when Gary crash-landed on the hood. Another car clipped the rear quarter panel jutting into their lane, sending the Volkswagen spiraling. Gary’s unconscious body flew into oncoming traffic: first pinned to the grill of a Dodge Ram pickup, then thrown ten feet in the air into the windshield of a speeding Audi, which crashed into a Toyota Tercel, as Gary ricocheted between vehicles like a bloody pinball.
“Holy shit.” Ian looked to his left at two college students, one who was filming the entire spectacle with his phone. “Dude,” the wide-eyed kid blurted. “What did you spray him with? You blew that guy away.”
Ian waved his arms in panic. “I was protecting myself. He’d been after me, and I…” He looked down at the pepper spray, and flung it over the bridge as he collapsed to his knees. “Jesus. He just fell.”
“Protect yourself? Dude, the guy had a toy sword. He couldn’t have hurt you. We saw it all. I filmed it. You just blew that guy away.”
“I didn’t,” Ian pleaded. “You don’t understand. He’d been threatening me. He said he was going to…” Ian swiveled his head when he heard sirens. The kid was holding the camera at arm’s length, recording Ian as if he were some kind of science experiment. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I was going to help,” he protested as he rose, and began sprinting back across the bridge. By the time he crossed, flashing lights were coming from both sides of the freeway.
Ian ran two blocks to his apartment, bolted the door behind him, and rushed into the bathroom to down the remaining Xanax. This has to be some kind of bad dream, he told himself. I must still be drunk and having nightmares. He sat on the edge of his bed, gulping deep breaths and waiting for the drugs to kick in, as he listened to more sirens in the distance. Thirty minutes later he turned on the television. A reporter was on the bridge near the spot Ian had stood. At least a dozen policemen wandered behind her stringing crime scene tape, as another man photographed the scene.
“This is the spot where a homeless man was allegedly thrown to his death off this bridge,” the intensely coiffed woman said. “And in fact, this is also the bridge where KGW News has a traffic cam, so we have the entire horrible incident on video. I must warn you, even though we have edited the footage, this is disturbing and not appropriate for young children.”
Ian watched as Gary’s body flew by the camera mounted on the lip of the bridge, one flailing hand striking the lens. The footage had the grainy sepia hue of a low-budget horror film, and had been slowed down so you could clearly see Gary flipping in mid-air before slamming onto the car hood and bouncing between lanes.
“According to police, two college students filmed the entire altercation that led to the man’s death, and authorities are currently interviewing witnesses and reviewing the video. Back to you, Sheila and Ed,” the reporter signed off.
“What a horrible, horrible thing,” Sheila the news anchor turned to her sidekick. “Unbelievable,” Ed said, shaking his puffy Botox-enhanced head. “Sometimes in this job you see such unbelievable inhumanity. And now, Les McCord reports on KGW’s search for the best barista in Portland.”
Ian flipped off the television and began to sob.
Twenty minutes later he opened the door to a gaggle of policemen, many with drawn weapons, led by the detective he’d consulted the previous day. “I guess you decided to take care of the homeless guy on your own,” he said, pushing Ian back into the room as he flipped him around to handcuff him. “Bad idea. Ian Davis, you’re under arrest for murder.”
Ian floated in a Xanax high for the next few hours as he was transported to the station and led into an interrogation room. He did have the presence of mind to request an attorney, and as he was sipping bad coffee, emerging from his drug haze, a gray-haired man in a decades-old seersucker suit sat down in front of him. “I’m Jeff Merrick, your lawyer,” he said holding out an age-spotted hand.
He looked pleasantly familiar. “You look like Matlock,” Ian muttered.
“Let’s just hope I’m as good as him,” he smiled. “You’ve got a big mess here. You’ve been charged with second-degree murder. They have video clearly showing you dousing the homeless man with pepper spray, forcing him over the bridge. They found the container with your fingerprints. They have testimony from a detective that you complained of altercations with the deceased. They have testimony from a group of construction workers that witnessed you arguing with him.”
Ian, suddenly feeling very sober, interrupted to explain the last few days. His attorney listened thoughtfully as Ian became increasingly distraught. “Listen, I don’t doubt a word of what you’re saying,” Merrick said. “I’m sure you were afraid and it was self-defense. Our problem now is perception. The videos have gone viral. They’re all over the place, even the national news. And the victim, the guy you call Homeless Gary Busey. It turns out his name is Brian Parker. Former Marine. Some kind of hero in the first Gulf War. He suffered from PTSD, and was in treatment, but then his wife was killed in the World Trade Center. He eventually spiraled out of control. He’s been living on the streets for years, just moving around getting crazier and crazier. Given his background people have a lot of empathy for him, and they want your head. The DA can see in those videos that Gary was swinging at you, but he can’t let you off easy. Too much political pressure. There are protesters outside right now amped up like some kind of lynch mob. Congratulations, you’re the national bogeyman in the homeless debate. Get ready. Things are going to get ugly.
Ian learned ugly was an understatement. For the next few months he watched his life get degraded, debated, distorted, dissected, ridiculed, and very occasionally, championed. The videos were edited, played, and replayed to make him appear even more the monster. For weeks, until he was knocked off the charts by a man who attacked a school bus with a machete and a Glock 37, he was the most hated man in America, as various homeless organizations, veterans’ groups, human rights advocates, liberal politicians—and even Oprah—vilified him. His rare supporters were a sketchy group; noisy right-wingers, white supremacists, Ted Nugent, and a southern senator best known for calling women “baby vessels” and advocating the use of nuclear weapons on almost everyone.
His alcohol- and drug-abusing past was detailed on television and in People magazines. People he didn’t remember came forward to detail confrontations with “Bad Ian” and blame him for the various maladies that impacted their lives. Jazz Technology chose to terminate his employment via a voicemail on his cell phone, and even Uber publicly announced his account had been closed. He was evicted from his apartment, and his sister, who’d disowned him seven years earlier after he’d backed over her cat in a Budweiser-haze, sent him a concise email: I’m embarrassed we share the same blood. Rot in hell.
Ian first observed his demise from a cell in the Multnomah County Jail, as he scrambled to raise bail, then watched his final destruction from the shabby confines of a series of cheap motel rooms, most of them located behind truck stops or in crime-infested neighborhoods. It was dangerous to be Ian Davis—death threats were a daily occurrence—and given his dismal financial situation after the enormous legal fees, he could only afford to rotate between budget accommodations where tenants tended to keep low profiles.
Before his trial, which promised to be big national news, Jeff Merrick strongly recommended he take a plea agreement for manslaughter. “But it was self-defense,” Ian protested. “An accident.”
Jeff assured Ian he understood, but feared public opinion would prevail. “The DA understands too, but he needs his pound of flesh. Take the deal. You’ll do eighteen months in a low-security facility. People will forget about all this, and some other poor sap that was at the wrong place at the wrong time will take your place. It will be a cakewalk, and when you get out you can start your life over.”
Ian wouldn’t describe the two years he spent in jail as a “cakewalk”. Many of his fellow inmates had been homeless at one time or another, and his crime elicited a certain fury from them. Plus, a man his size, with such delicate features, drew the wrong kind of attention in prison. Eventually he was filed away in a wing reserved for those accused of similarly ironic and non-threatening crimes, assigned to be cellmates with a check forger, and a man who was incarcerated because he’d flipped out and attempted to defecate on an airline serving cart.
But it was true that Ian was largely forgotten when he was released. Six years earlier when he’d first arrived in Portland from Minneapolis, he’d been filled with determination and enthusiasm to build a new life, anxious to leave Bad Ian behind. But now, stepping off a bus, with all the possessions he’d managed to accumulate in his thirty-nine years hanging around his shoulder in a cheap duffle bag, optimism was a foreign concept. He’d spent many nights lying in his cell, conversing in his head with Bad Ian, angrily lamenting that his attempt to lead a good life had led to this. I was better off when I was stoned and an asshole, he’d think to himself in disgust. And once again he’d arrived in Portland devoid of family or friends. Bad Ian is the only one that stuck with me.
He’d been assigned to live in a release center for the next few weeks, but after walking the four blocks from the bus station into Chinatown, Ian realized his new home, The Golden Arms, was a former fleabag motel that had been condemned, repossessed, and rebranded by the state into a bed bug-infested halfway house. He recalled walking by the place when it was a haven for low-end hookers and meth heads, and it appeared little had changed in the neighborhood. Twitchy drug dealers flanked both corners, and the perimeter of the parking lot across from The Golden Arms was ringed with shopping carts and cardboard houses for the homeless, as two stocky, heavily-inked men of violent ethnicity—one with a vicious-looking dog tethered to his wrist—watched over the area with hooded eyes.
Ian found there were few professional opportunities for people with felony records, even for a man with his coding skills. He soon found himself wrapped in a hairnet, cleaning deep fat chicken fryers in the back of a Chick-fil-A. For the first week he attempted to stay focused and concentrate on logical steps to improve his situation, but Bad Ian was increasingly intervening in his psyche, convincing him there was no upside in the straight and narrow. One night, at Bad Ian’s urging, he stopped for a beer after work. Tiny’s Tavern served a hopeless clientele; dishing up cheap liquor to patrons who purchased their cigarettes one at a time and frequently bathed in the bathroom sink. Ian got very drunk that night, snorted some kind of marching powder he bought for ten dollars, and he and Bad Ian decided they’d had enough of hairnets and halfway houses. After retrieving his few belongings, he never returned to The Golden Arms, or the restaurant.
Six months later he was camped in the doorway of an abandoned building in the Pearl District when he heard someone repeating his name.
“Ian, Ian, is that you? Are you OK? Can you hear me?”
Ian blinked awake, suddenly very aware of a sharp pain around his kidneys. He had a faint recollection of a fight. Two men, yes…two big muscular men, fireplugs, slathered with tattoos, laughing as they beat him, and they had a dog, a pit bull…He recalled being thrown across a wide stone garbage can in the park, face smashed into the concrete aggregate, as one of them rifled his pockets while the other pummeled his ribs, the dog clamping onto his ankle, chewing his leg like a chicken bone. His hand traced to a pocket on his skinny ass, and he realized with despair they’d taken his last few dollars and a packet of crystal. He’d worked hard for that little bit of heaven. Five hundred aluminum cans, plucked from filthy trash bins and hauled to the recycling center, all for nothing. He pulled his hand from his backside, suddenly noticing he’d pissed himself. Not unusual, but for a moment he worried it was because of the beating. Maybe they’d broken something important. It’s not safe to be wounded on the street. The weak tend to get hunted down like a lame deer tracked by coyotes. His mind went to the next pain point; his ankle. The dog. He thought about rabies, or at the very least not being able to walk, which could be equally deadly.
“Ian, do you remember me?”
Ian looked through liquid eyes at the man leaning over him. Andy Griffith. He loved Andy Griffith. No, wait, not Sheriff Andy. The other one. Matlock. Matlock was standing in front of him in a rumpled suit. Smiling, with the rosy cheeks of an Irish drunk.
“Ian, its Jeff Merrick. Remember me? I was your lawyer.”
“Yeah. Hi.” Ian felt momentarily happy, but then fear washed over him. The last time he’d seen this man they’d taken him to prison. He didn’t want to go back there. Had he done something wrong that he didn’t remember? He tried to rise to his feet, but his left ankle, the chicken bone, gave in and he fell back to the pavement. His shoe was gone, and a bloody ripped sock appeared grafted to his skin. Then he fell back into a peaceful black.
He awoke in the emergency room on a clean white gurney. Matlock…no, that wasn’t his real name. Merrick. Merrick was standing next to the doctor. “How are you feeling, Ian?’ Jeff looked at him with the only friendly face he’d seen in a long while.
“We sewed up your leg. Nasty bite. You might need surgery on that one. Pumped you full of antibiotics. You took a hell of a beating,” the doctor said. “There doesn’t appear to be any serious damage, but we need to check you out again in a day or two to make sure there’s no internal bleeding. The stitches need to come out in about a week. Also, you’re malnourished, and you have some skin issues that should be treated. Half your teeth are ready to fall out.”
“Ian,” Jeff interjected, “we need to get you some help. You look like hell. I’m going to look into finding you a place…”
“I don’t need help. I have a place,” Ian lied as he rose from the gurney. “But thanks.” He stumbled when his feet hit the ground. The doctor grabbed his shoulder.
“No, Ian…you’re hurt. You need to stay in bed.” Jeff came around the gurney.
“Mr. Merrick, I’m sorry, but unless you’re going to foot the bill Mr. Davis needs to be released. We’ve handled the critical issues, and I don’t have authorization to keep him here any longer. I have a cane we can give him. And he does need to come back. But I’m not allowed to overnight him.”
“Well, no, we can’t just…” Jeff said in panic.
“It’s OK, I’m fine. I want to leave.” Ian took the cane and hobbled towards the door. He couldn’t recall how he knew this Merrick guy, but it had something to do with prison, and he didn’t want to go back there. And thanks to whatever painkiller they’d pumped into him, he felt the best he had in weeks. Jeff continued to protest as they moved to the hospital entrance, as Ian refused any additional assistance. Finally, he allowed Jeff to drive him to a shelter, gladly accepting the sixty dollars the lawyer gave him when they parted.
Usually in a shelter he got little sleep, concerned with protecting himself and his few possessions. But still reeling from painkillers, he slept soundly in his cot. The next morning he showered for the first time in weeks, then stopped in a basement storeroom full of donated clothing to pick out a new outfit. Digging through the stacks, he was delighted to find a Hootie & the Blowfish concert T-shirt, promoting their 1994 Cracked Rear View tour. He had a recollection of seeing them in Minneapolis that year, cheering hysterically as he downed beers and snorted coke off the back of his left hand. He also discovered a pair of Jordache jeans in a child’s size that fit, albeit a little loose in the seat, and a Portland Beavers baseball jacket. He completed his outfit with a worn pair of screaming yellow Nikes, and a child’s stocking cap, emblazoned with a Hello Kitty logo, that nicely topped his small skull.
Ian wandered the downtown corridor, careful to avoid Chinatown where he might encounter his attackers. Around noon, leg aching and side pounding, he was able to buy a baggy of heroin for twenty dollars from another homeless man everyone called Slim Pickens. The two crawled between Slim’s shopping cart and a wide maple tree, and sharing a needle, shot up while watching a busload of grade schoolers file off a bus and into the Oregon Historical Society.
His pain now obliterated, Ian traipsed through the Portland State campus, moving like a new man. Peering at his reflection in a Starbucks window, he thought he looked spiffy in his new clothes. The cane not only minimized his limp, it made him powerful, like carrying a pirate’s sword. He waved it in mock-menace at students walking near him. “Aye matey, stay clear or I’ll have yer head,” he yelled in a bad Cockney accent. He was unaware the stitches in his leg had loosened, and everyone gave a wide berth to the crazy man waving a cane, blood dripping over his shoes. As the drugs really kicked in Ian realized he didn’t need to walk, he could actually levitate like some kind of human hovercraft.
At the edge of campus he approached the 405 bridge, suddenly feeling the chill of déjà vu. He’d been here before. There was something important about this place. At the bridge, he entered the vacant lot, high dry weeds poking at his chest. He felt strong and clear, the heroin running like chilled water through his body. Then he fell back on his ass as a pleasure-wave knocked him over.
“Do you have the toll?” A deep voice bellowed from above. Through the weeds he could see an immense black man in a trench coat, pulled back to reveal a ripped Van Halen T-shirt covering a fat-rippled gut. He was wearing sweatpants tucked into cowboy boots, and for some reason, spurs.
“For you, not much,” the big man smiled. “You were very helpful handling Homeless Gary. Got my kingdom back.” He spread his arms widely. “I would take just a touch of what’s left in your little plastic bag. And later, maybe you can treat me to an Egg McMuffin.” The shimmering form extended an arm. “I’m Balthazar,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you. My palace is just over there, under the bridge. The finest palace you’ve ever seen. There’s room for you there.”
Ian flailed for the man’s arm which suddenly disappeared, and he fell backwards. Balthazar was gone, but through the weeds he could see the door to the palace, wedged into a corner below the bridge, right above the freeway. Balthazar appeared again, standing just inside the entrance, motioning Ian in with a happy smile. He pushed up on his cane and stumbled forward, anxious to finally come home.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face – And Other Tales of Men in Pain.
Timothy O’Leary’s award-winning short story collection, Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face – And Other Tales of Men in Pain (Unsolicited Press), was released in February 2017. His stories and essays have been published in dozens of publications, and he’s received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, won the 2015 Aestas Short Story Contest, and has been a finalist for the Mississippi Review Prize, and the Mark Twain House “Royal Nonesuch” Humor Writing Contest. He is also the author of the non-fiction book, Warrior, Workers, Whiners, & Weasels (Xephor). Raised in Montana, he graduated from the University of Montana, and received his MFA from Pacific University. More information can be found at http://timothyolearylit.com.
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