J O R G E C A S U S O
The arrival of an abandoned ship with a single crate on board leads to a homeless murder.
It was a big rusted freighter, and it came gliding in under the full moon, and the first thing Gus and Ernest noticed was that there were not the usual tug boats, one trailing, the other pulling the big ship along. Gus expected it to rip a chunk out of a yacht or yank a hitching post from the marina, but it just glided slowly by and docked at the Haitian export company across the river from the knoll on the bank where Gus and Ernest hitched their dinghy.
The next thing they noticed was the cats. They usually took small nervous steps back when a boat pulled up, but held their ground, waited and watched. But this time, they bolted and disappeared into the brush, as if the ship carried some kind of deadly plague. Ernest and Gus waited for the crew to disembark or for a longshoreman to board, but nothing happened, and the ship just sat there empty but for a large metal crate sitting in the middle of the deck.
"There's no one in the cabin," said Gus.
"Maybe they're sleeping," said Ernest, and as soon as he said it, he was aware of how absurd that sounded.
Gus and Ernest had watched plenty of ships sail in since moving to the river from skid row. Their lives had started to change when a newspaper in town profiled them in a story about the homeless. The others became envious when they didn’t see their faces in the paper and refused to sleep under the issue with the article. But Gus and Ernest didn't care, especially Gus, who saw it as a new beginning.
For one thing, the reporter had not identified them as "homeless," a term Gus always felt was too official sounding, like a statistic, and it didn't call them "bums" or "transients," either. Instead, the article referred to them as "hobos."
"I ain't no homo," Ernest had said when Gus read him the article.
"Not homo," Gus said, “hobo. You know, like the fellows that rode the freight trains."
From that moment, Gus felt that his life had changed. He googled "hobo slang" on his cell phone —his was the only one on skid row with internet capabilities— and began studying the lingo. A dollar bill became an ace spot, his overcoat a benny. He drank black strap instead of coffee in the morning, and if they had any booze left over after an all-night binge, they took an eye opener when they awoke.
It had been Gus' idea to move to the river.
"Skid row doesn't cut it," he told Ernest. "We need a water view."
So Gus spent two weeks collecting extra cans and cutting down on his drinking, though Ernest seemed to make up for it, the bottles being emptied as quickly as before.
Gus also managed to get up earlier to play his guitar for the morning commuters, and he quickly changed his repertoire. Instead of folk-rock, he became a Jimmie Rodgers man, singing about the plight of hobos hopping freight trains and, instead of solos, yodeling during a break in the verses.
By fall, Gus had saved enough to buy a beat-up dinghy and move to the river. He was no longer just a homeless bum, he was a sea stiff now, a sailor tramp. For the first time since he could remember, Gus had a goal in life.
But the transition hadn't been so easy for Ernest, who had some status with the old crowd under the bridge. He was drinking harder now, and growing mighty tired of all the hobo talk and the stupid yodeling Gus would break into, though he had to admit it was kind of pretty when the moon was shining on the water and he'd had plenty to drink. He even got teary eyed when Gus sang about the hobo getting kicked out of the boxcar in heaven. Maybe being a sea stiff wasn't such a bad thing.
But as soon as that freighter glided in and docked across the river, both Gus and Ernest knew everything was about to change.
Read full story in Spork Press.
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