SPOTLIGHT: Tent City by Chris Cascio

Tent City

Spooner was at it again, having arranged traffic cones he’d taken from God-knows-where to block off the main drive aisle in the parking lot so he could draw his enormous chalk eagles. Sprawled on the searing pavement and whipping his tangled blonde mane back from in front of his face, he spat at drivers who honked and shouted at him, administering emphatic fuck yous flanked by dual one-finger salutes.

People liked to say that one of the few things they were sure about when it came to Spooner was that he didn’t give a shit, but I witnessed otherwise one day when he dropped trou right there in front of the dollar store entrance and produced a hot loaf while Bobbi stood screaming on the other side of the glass.

Well, come to think of it, maybe they were right, but only within the scope of the idiom. Concrete, on the other hand, is—well, concrete, and wrong is wrong.

The eagles, in all fairness, were gorgeous. Massive wingspans and regal features. Fierce, foreshortened talons. Sky-soaring hellions highlighted in shades of lavender and tropical pink, all rendered to a stunning effect, like a modern Monet—and all done with large, sidewalk-style chalk. The kind the kids use.

I watched all this from my parking spot. The plan was to hit the liquor store down at the end of the strip while Mom finished up her shift at the dollar store, but the Spooner show was just too good to pass up. Amid the din of furious strip-mall patrons, the vagabond’s focus was impregnable. Like some spidery and maddened old G.I. in his drab, heavyweight M-65 field jacket—long, lanky, and gangly as Mom would say, and how could he possibly be comfortable in that thing in mid-July? Spooner’s electric gaze lifted only when he deemed appropriate to grace protesting motorists with his fingers and choice verbiage before returning to the work at hand.

This probably went on for a good ten minutes, just from the time I arrived, before Bobbi stormed out with the push broom, jabbed at Spooner till he crawled off on all fours and then swept the eagles from existence, each stroke heaving a cloud of chalk dust into the air.

            Spooner lay on his belly and hissed. Then he screamed: “You son of a bitch!”

            Bobbi raised the broom above her head like a broadsword and then slammed it down onto the pavement. “I ain’t nobody’s son, you dirty asshole.”

            The next day Spooner shit outside the door while Bobbi was setting the back-to-school storefront display.

On the drive home, I caught Mom watching me out of my periphery. Her hands were folded and shaking a little. Her Parkinson’s was showing more, but I pretended not to notice. “Alright,” I said. “Out with it.” 

“I was just thinking about Bobbi out there just now, giving Gary hell.” She always called Spooner by his first name. Everyone else just treated him like the town crazy, which in fairness he was. I mean he showed up everywhere, had been around forever, and had always been exactly the same. Everyone either knew him or knew of him, and so there was this mystique. But she felt for him, ever since she first met him and learned he was living back there behind Fresh Foods in Tent City. People called him the mayor. He was just a guy trying to deal, though. I could tell that much. And I would say hi or nod when I passed, if we made eye contact, but she talked with him whenever she saw him. No matter what. Really talked with him, too. Not like everybody else. Not like anybody else that I’d seen. She actually cared.

“So why you staring all goofy at me while thinking it?” I said.

“Well, I just thought she was doing it for you.”

Lunacy, but I knew what Mom was up to. “I’m pretty sure she was doing it to get Spooner the hell out of there.”

She just stared at me. With that look. That I know something that you don’t look.

“Okay. Why would she do that for me?”

“I dunno,” she said with an up-pitch lilt. “People like to make themselves visible sometimes, especially if it makes them look strong.”

Well, that she had done. Look strong that is. She was strong. And that wrath was no joke. I’d felt it firsthand. Earned it, too. Every bit of it.

A long moment passed.

“You know he was never in the military.”

“Who?” I said, shaking off the fog.

“Gary. He was never in. People think he’s a Nam vet because of how he looks and acts and because of the coat, but he’s not. He just fits the bill. He’s just sick. And it’s just a coat.”

She had this earnest look, all long-faced and round-eyed.

“Is that so?”

She nodded. “Mhm.”

“Interesting. And he just goes along with it?”

“I’ve never heard him correct anyone. I mean, what would you say? Who knows, maybe he likes it. Maybe it makes him feel more accepted that way, you know? Maybe it makes him feel safe. Nobody wants to go messin’ with a crazy Vietnam veteran, am I right?”

She had a point. “So what about the dope? Is that all bogus, too? Is he actually just clean and ill?”

“Not sure, but who knows? I’ve seen him at both ends, lucid and looney, but I couldn’t tell you if he was on something.”

“And what about the fires?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “That’s real.” She adjusted herself in her seat and faced forward. “That’s all real. I’ve never asked him about it directly, but the last time he showed up after being away for a while, I asked him where he’d been, and he hung his head and said they had just let him out after doing it again. And I mean he hung his head.”

I lacked the gumption is what Bobbi had argued. I flashed, sure, but never turned the corner, never really became. Instead, she said, I found reasons and made excuses to remain idle, to let things go. To her I just hid behind an idea that things would work out the way they’re supposed to and used that as a rationale not to act. Not to mention that my hiding place was usually somewhere deep inside a bottle. Unrelated habits in my opinion. And if you ask me it was just because I didn’t want to fight every guy in every bar that came onto her—specifically when Big Raab got all shined up and decided it was the right night for him to take Bobbi away from me. I mean he’s a big guy, big heroin-dealing goon, but on that night the goon was shnoggered. A strong gust could’ve knocked him over. And he and his boys had their little laugh, but I saw his face when she left with me, regardless if she was angry or not. He felt rejected, and he had been, and that was all that I had needed. I didn’t need to fight him or make some grand display. All I needed was her, and for her to know that her heart was all that mattered. But she saw it differently, and her needs were different.

She basically diagnosed me, had the nerve to diagnose me, said I had a commitment issue, but that it wasn’t simply commitment to her, it was to anything because I was afraid of rejection and failure and afraid to stand up for what I believe. Well, I believe that the truth will show itself with time, and I don’t have to go forcing it out with my fists or by acting like some goddamned hero. Like, there’s a virtue in it, in just staying cool and letting things play out, because it usually plays out properly. Deep down, though, I don’t think she questioned if I could or if I wanted to fight for what was right. I think she just wanted to see me fight for her. Wanted somebody to. Probably why she was always fighting for herself. Was probably dead tired of it. That’s—well that’s tough. But that’s what she needed, and I wasn’t the person to give that to her. And that’s just the truth of it. See? Truth shows itself.

The next night we were eating soup and sandwiches at our little metal drop-leaf kitchen table when Mom told me that a house garage out near Weatherly had caught fire early in the evening. Said a girl had been burned pretty bad. “So what do you think she was up to?” I said. “Start-up meth lab, or partying with a few friends and the horseplay went awry? Then they run and she tries to go in and stop it before it gets out of control?”

“Doesn’t look that way, not neither. That’s not what people are saying at least.”

            “What are they saying?”

            “That it looked like arson. That it was Gary.”

            “You gotta be kidding. The guy was over here emptying his bowels not six hours ago. What, he leaves and goes all the way out to Weatherly to light up some garage?”

            “You never know. And we haven’t seen him since then.”

“Would you come back around after that? I’m sure Bobbi called the cops.”

“Oh yeah she did. Three of ‘em stood around that turd for a good five minutes taking her statement and then deciding who would get rid of it. I thought they were gonna do rock-paper-scissors.”

We laughed with our mouths full and then Mom went and brought up Bobbi again, but I shut it down. She didn’t push, she never did, she just wanted to give it a nudge. She understood well enough that we had been good together when things were good, but we had never loved each other. She just wanted to see me happy, to see me start a family and get out. Not that she didn’t like having me there or need me there, for that matter. Beyond needing a steady hand in the house she just needed somebody there. She was probably just thinking the same for me. But getting out, really getting out, just wasn’t something that seemed reasonable. Nobody really did it anyway, not unless after high school they got into State, finished, and then got a job out of state. And none of that was me. Truth is I had never been much of anything. Never stood out, wasn’t great or terrible at anything. Definitely no kind of hero, which I think is what ticked me off most about how Bobbi judged me. It was like she was holding me to some standard that I didn’t want and didn’t apply to me. Mom understood, though. She still tried for her own good reason, but she understood.

After Spooner disappeared his absence itself became a presence. He hadn’t been picked up, at least the paper hadn’t said so, and so everyone figured he was either keeping to the confines of Tent City or had hopped on a bus and moved on to a new town, which just made him look guilty because it was simply abnormal not to see him at least once a day. And if he wasn’t guilty, he was at least aware he was a suspect, which I suppose was smart unless you think that acting normal is the best way to show that you’re innocent. But what would that mean? Taking another crap on the sidewalk or stealing headphones only to try to return them for a refund? I suppose if anyone really wanted to find him they could, but I also suppose nobody really cared to find him.

By this time I had started helping out my buddy Shane with his off-the-books but lucrative handyman jobs. It started when he asked me to help him patch a hole in the ceiling of his living room, right beneath the upstairs bathroom. Water had fully rotted the fiberglass and lath, and now whenever anybody used the toilet up there you could hear everything. The house, like all in that neighborhood, had been built back in the 1940s, and if you worked on them you could tell whenever the builders had fallen short on lumber because the distance between the studs got longer and longer. We sawed the ceiling hole to a neat rectangle, retrofitted a piece of drywall, and spread plaster over it. With how nice it came out he asked me to be his helper, which meant steady work and cash pay. Better than the temp jobs in the industrial park on both counts. It was also flexible, so I was always able to help Mom out when she needed me.

I worked with Shane the rest of that summer and never had a problem except for once when he shook down his uncle for money he owed outside of the job we were doing. We had just finished floating a new set of concrete steps leading up to his kitchen door. Uncle Antoni had handed the cash down to Shane from inside and then thanked him from behind the closed door before retreating into darkness. Shane counted the bills, handed them to me and said “Wait here, Jules. I’ll be right back.” He reached up and pulled the screen door open, stepped over the stairs and into the doorway. A moment later I heard a murmur, followed by the sound of Shane beating the old man. Antoni pleaded and pleaded. Then there was a thud and Shane reappeared at the doorway. He threw the door open and walked down the wet steps with bills wadded in his hand. Then he wiped his feet in the grass, and we got back into his truck and left.

Bobbi called me on Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend to tell me that Mom had just fallen down in the store. No hellos, not that there should have been, just “Julian, Nadine just fell.”

“Is she alright? Did you call an ambulance?”

“No, she just scraped her elbow. I think she’s okay.”

“I’m on my way.”

They had Mom sitting in the back at the table where they all ate their lunches. She had gauze taped to her forearm and this ruckled look to her. She looked more like a child in trouble than a woman being cared for. I sat down beside her and took a tender hold of her arm. “Tell me what happened.”

“I fell.”

“So I heard. What were you doing?”

“Packing out the cat food.”

“Uh huh. And how did you fall?”

“Just lost my balance. Was a little stiff and couldn’t catch myself.”

I patted her hand and then kissed her forehead as I stood and took out my phone.

“Who’re you calling?”

“The hospital.”

“I don’t need the hospital. I could work the rest of my shift if they’d let me.”

“I bet you would,” Bobbi said as she entered the back. “There’s only an hour left before we close anyway. You just need to rest.” Bobbi gave me one of those looks along with a sigh, and she didn’t look good herself. She had these small sores on her chin.

“I don’t need to rest,” Mom said.

“You do, and you need advice,” I said, my phone to my ear. “Well, I need it.”

I was able to get one of the doctors who had seen her before, and she told me to load Mom up on vitamins D and B12 between then and her next visit. It would help with her balance along with optimizing all the other medications she was on.

Bobbi helped Mom to her feet, which Mom didn’t like, but she let her do it because that’s just how she was with Bobbi.

“I’ll take it from here,” I said.

“Sure,” Bobbi said and let her go.

We went straight to the pharmacy at Fresh Foods. I parked and told Mom not to run off.

She gave me a look.

I said I’d be right back.

I bought the vitamins, some ointment, more gauze. Didn’t bother with a bag, just shoved it all into the front pockets of my sweatshirt. The pharmacy was down on one side of the store, and exiting right there put you at the far end of the building.

As I walked out I heard a rustling around the corner by the dumpsters. Like a bear or something, or the biggest damn raccoon you could imagine, and that was enough to get me to look. Something to tell Mom about when I got back to the car, something to distract her from her embarrassment. Spray-painted on the wall in bright red were the words MAIL FOR SPOONER with an arrow pointing straight down to the ground. I heard the noise again coming from the far side of the dumpsters, this time accompanied by a grunt. A human grunt. 

I peeked around the corner of the dumpster. Two men, one slim and one heavy, both with buzzcuts, stood over Spooner, who lay fetal on the ground with blood-soaked hair. “You see it’s what happens, right? For what you did?” the heavy one said.

“That’s right, motherfucker,” grunted the slim one, who was rocking from foot to foot. “And you should know you can’t hide from that shit, fucking fire-happy junkhead.” The slim man produced a bottle of lighter fluid. “Karma don’t fuck around, does she now, junkhead.” He looked to his partner. “Pick him up.”

The heavy man reached down, grasped a fistful of Spooner’s hair and started to lift him up. The man readied the bottle. As Spooner got his knees underneath him he thrust a small knife into the heavy man’s thigh, and he held onto it as the man collapsed to the ground and started to howl.

There were three sides to what I was thinking at that moment. First was if this was Spooner’s just comeuppance. If he had set that fire with that girl inside, despite the unsavory nature of these vigilantes—and considering how Spooner was fighting back, it would be hard to argue that he didn’t deserve what he was getting.

Second was if Spooner was actually cleanhanded, and these goons were the culmination of every prejudiced judgment Spooner had ever experienced. If so, this wasn’t going to be a mere beating. They were going to torch him, an innocent. This could end his life. And in my pocket my grip on the bottles of vitamins started to tighten.

Was I serious? What was I going to do with two small bottles of vitamins? No, this was insane. It wasn’t my fight or my place—a reasoning that recentered me and led from the two prior considerations to the imperative third: Mom was waiting in the car. She just fell for God’s sake! She needed me, and she needed me well so I could take care of her. Who knew what would happen if I acted rashly? She was most important, and that was that.

But then something in that bastard’s face as he watched his partner go down, as he started dousing Spooner with lighter fluid….

Spooner pulled the knife from heavy man’s leg and swiped at the slim one, but the guy dodged, and I wasn’t thinking anymore. I charged. Brazen, stupid even, but he had both hands on that bottle of lighter fluid and was off guard. I leapt at him, screaming, and swung my bottle-clenching fists like hammers down onto his head, which didn’t make any sound as they connected. Neither did his body as it crumbled clumsily beneath mine, as though it were a deflating air-filled dummy.

I looked down at his face. He was out. I looked over at Spooner, and he was looking right back at me with a face that didn’t say thank you as much as welcome to my life. The heavy guy had stopped writhing and howling and watched as well. I put my ear to my guy’s nose and immediately realized how stupid that was, but I heard him breathing. I said: “He’s alive.” I put the vitamins back into my pockets and then crawled over to Spooner. His head was split wide, he was soaked with fluid, and he looked tired.

I put Spooner in the back seat of the car and drove him over to St. Joe’s for stiches. At the front desk I handed him off to the nurses, and from there I called the cops. We read the next day that they got the two guys. Weatherly boys, and both had priors. Wouldn’t have to worry about seeing them anytime soon.

On the ride to the hospital, Spooner spoke only to Mom, and I think it helped keep him lucid and helped her get out of the funk she’d been in after her fall. Tending to people was where she really felt whole, got her out of herself and immersed in the act and ritual of care. It wouldn’t be for much longer that she would be able to continue in that role. That day she consoled Spooner, kept him talking. Mostly he kept saying things like “They were gonna set me, Na. They were gonna set me good. Like a damn candle. They were gonna set me good.”

“But they didn’t, Gary,” she said. “They didn’t set you. You’re gonna be okay.”

“Yeah, but man,” he said, and I watched in the rearview as he closed his eyes in what appeared to be reverence. “It would have really been…something.”


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