18 October 2013

Things Lost Under Bridges

[Found in the tattered back half of a Far Edge magazine.  Fiction?  Biography?  I have no idea.]


      For as far back as he could remember, he woke up shattered, understanding flitting away with scraps of dreams.

     The sun woke him long after dawn, nasty brightness streaming under the bridge and through the scrubby weeds that almost hid him from the path along the river.  He woke up on a sandy patch of bare dirt that smelled only faintly of old vomit and fresh urine, shuddering, slammed back into the here and now, groping for eyeglasses he hadn't had since-- when?  Lost the thought.  Of long habit, he sat as soon as he realized he was really awake, jerking upright and, after a breath, to his feet, standing quickly before the pains got his notice.  If the sun could find you, anyone could.

     Coughing, he stumbled to the water's edge and dashed a quick handful over his face and head with dirty hands.  Some remnant of vanity had him smooth his thinning hair without realizing he had.


     He first learned about it standing outside the TV shop, staring from too close through the wavery old glass at the fuzzy, overly-colorful screens, trying to blink sense into the scrolling words under the earnest, blankly-young faces.  Did they say everyone would have to sign up?

     Later: It was everyone.  He puzzled the meaning from a week-old newspaper left on a park bench, shaking finger wavering along the line.  Him, too, him and Slippery John and Jenny Cats and the kids who slept, furtively, in the stubbed-off storm drain, thinking themselves unobserved.  And the Mexedes-driving bastard floating past who threw half a cup of coffee on him, the newspaper and the park bench.  He started to shout, "You, too," but the "ooou" turned into a hacking cough.


     They said you could sign up at the book-and-thinkmachine hall, but he was turned away at the door.  Not. You. That's what the lady said, lips compressing shut on every word, glancing from him to the poster of faces under the word PROHIBITED stuck to the wall just inside. He stood there remembering the unfortunate day a week or a month or a year ago, when either the dolefood or the dumpster gleanings had waged a horrible war in his gut while he looked at the screen, searching, searching frantically for something he'd since forgot, when the chair turned to sticky, damp heat and he'd moved down to the next.  And the next.  And the next, until a burly guard grabbed his arm, Hey, you!  Filthy bum! Out, out! Holding up something that clicked once, twice, on the way to the door.


     The billboards said you could get a form at Postal-Serv and mail it in.  The sign said NO BUMS and the green-uniformed kid holding a strange-looking black rifle spared him a wary eye every step of the long stairway until he reached the top, then stopped him with a short, slow back-and-forth of helmeted head.


     It was a long way back to the bottom.

     Slippery John and the kids didn't have any better luck.


     It was Jennie Cats finally got them all forms.  She cleaned up well enough, especially if no one got too close and she remembered not to smile too broadly.  And the booktenders and think-machine tenders liked her, a little, on her best days.  He had to save out grubby coins for a week — "Print copies are not free, dearie."  Crumpled, a little, and a jelly stain on pages eleven and twelve but it wasn't a bad one; most of the sticky was rubbed off.

     The printing was too small to read under a street light.  It was almost too small at noon.


     The pencil stubs were too skinny.  They slipped away from his grasp like the smallest coins.  He had a fatter one but it got too short to sharpen again before he'd gotten any farther than NAME and REG. NUMBER and was puzzling over EMPLOYMENT HISTORY.

     Years earlier: "Here's my essay, professor Jones.  And the lab results."
     "The deadline was yesterday, Miss Howart."
     She smiled.
     He didn't.

     Now: He finally found a fat blue crayon he could hold.  He scrubbed a point on it any place there was concrete.  The workshop man at back of the TV store helped him some with the HISTORY.
      "Geez,  you're really him, hunh?"
     He shrugged.  Words came and went.  They were elsewhere today.
     "I was never sure, you always looked so different-- Man, what happened?"
     He had no idea.
     "My old man, he says you won us the war.  You know that?"
     He tries to remember.  Can't.  So, there was a war?

     Years earlier: "Here are the parameters, professor Jones."
     "I quit yesterday."
     "You can't."
     He couldn't.

     Now: "Doc, I guess that's it.   This place right here was the last reg'lar work you had, I think, back when I started.  There wasn't nothing you couldn't fix back then.  Um, when you was sober.  No offense."

      He takes the forms and mumbles something.  Thanks?  Yes, thanks.


    The posters had been warning about a deadline for weeks while he struggled past MOTHER'S MAIDEN NAME and LIST LIVING GRANDPARENTS.  He was almost sure that one only meant his but he listed a few other grandparents he knew about just to make sure.

    He'd lost track of the date.  One morning under the bridge was much like any other, unless the kid gangs had gone whooping along the river-ditch in the dark and he'd had to get out fast before they found him.  Flashing warnings on the TV screens told him, but the shop was locked up.  The Postal-Serve's doors were chained shut and a different young man behind them pointed a rifle at him and waved him away.  He stared for a second, befuddled at the shiny, reflecting patch at the end pointed at him, shiny where he had somehow expected a menacing black void. The man just yelled louder until he turned away.


     There were pigeons in a coop on top of the TV-store building. Six floors up.  He'd seen them, scrounging.

    Same rooftop, sometime later: he tapes the forms to the stolen bird.   Kisses it on sudden impulse, kisses it and tosses it into the air, murmuring "Fly. Fly free."  His eye tears up and, embarrassed, he turns away immediately.

     The form was much too heavy anyway, but it's a pity he'd taped the bird's wings down.


    He never even woke when it happened.  Later that day, the sun found an empty patch of dirt under the bridge that smelled only slightly of vomit and spilled blood.  There was a darker, damper patch at the center of it.

     Leadership held a press conference in time for the evening pundits.  Everyone was registered now.  It was the start of a new future, they said.   

     There was a glow in the sky.