When I was a kid, you could count the bums of this town on one hand.
On the West Side there was an old man in a ragged gray suit we called The Wizard. He’d rant and rave and shake his fists at the sidewalks when the mood hit him. Said he could control the weather with empty packs of cigarettes, and who knows, maybe he could. Weather always was pretty bad, and no one could predict it worth a damn.
The East Side had the Mall Man, a short guy with stubby legs and thick, crooked glasses. He’d ride the buses and waddle around the mall all day, confused, like he was looking for something he could never find—I figured maybe the pharmacy and his meds. We saw him the most because we hung out at the mall, too, mainly for the video arcade and the shoplifting.
Another bum had a solid mass of tangled hair straight down to his ass that looked like a beaver tail. We couldn’t pin Beaver Tail down as strictly an East Side or a West Side bum since he got around both on an old rusted bicycle with wire baskets on the front, back, and sides, all packed with worthless junk.
And there were some younger guys who weren’t exactly bums but were trending in that direction, like Paperboy. He wasn’t a boy anymore, but had started delivering papers young and just kept at it until his beard and hair were so long he looked like a caveman. I once saw him smoke pot through an apple he’d carved into a bong and then proudly eat it. Rumor was he lived in a tent in his parents’ basement.
Slim was another one. He had spiked hair, a leather jacket, and a disease that was eating away at him, making him thinner and meaner every day. He’d haunt the record stores and harass young “poseurs” he said had no business listening to the Dead Kennedys, then have his bigger friend Smash push them around some until they got the message. If that didn’t work a head butt usually did.
To kill time in study hall we gave these guys their nicknames, drew cartoons about them, passed them around. Tried to see who would lose it first and laugh out loud. One day the study hall monitor got fed up with it and tried to separate us, so I made a paper airplane out of my latest masterpiece and threw it across the room to a buddy.
I got caught in the act and ordered to go to the principal’s office. Tried to talk my way out of it. When that failed, I flipped my desk over and stormed out, shaking like a racecar engine. Not sure what got into me. Maybe it was the roids. The principal said if it wasn’t for the wrestling team I’d be nothing. Just another loser.
“Now get out of my office, champ.”
Next semester I got thrown off the team for fighting with the captain and dropped out of school to join the Marines. It wasn’t a good fit, and they threw me out too. I ended up getting a security job at the mall. By that time the Mall Man had vanished, and I saw the The Wizard in Hardee’s one day having lunch with a social worker, all cleaned up and looking like any other tired, old man. The weather was nice out for a change.
The mall job didn’t work out, and neither did the next one or any others. My old friends moved on, and the new ones I made weren’t any good. One night we huffed gas for fun and it messed us up pretty bad. A buddy and I figured Jesus could help so we wandered down to the mouth of the river by the factories, waded in, and baptized each other in the deep, dark water.
I came out feeling pretty good about it, but my friend never came out at all. They dredged his body up two days and a few thousand tax dollars later.
Things went downhill fast after that. My step-dad threw me out and my mom put me in a halfway home, but I’d drift around day and night, crashing at buddies’ places and begging for change at bus stops. Started to get pretty ripe and ragged.
By that time Paperboy had won some city award and was still delivering papers, and Slim froze to death one night after his motorized wheelchair ran out of juice in an alley. The only bum left by then was Beaver Tail. I was crossing the Main Street Bridge one night in the dead of winter when I heard his bicycle creaking along up behind me. I turned around and waited, then waved at him to stop.
“Hey, man,” I said. “We’ve never met. I’m Greg.”
“I know who you are,” he said, kind of rudely.
“All them times you and your buddies used to point and laugh at me. I remember.” He tapped his forehead like some all-seeing study hall monitor.
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry about that,” I said.
“Yeah. So am I, champ. Now get out of my way.”
That really pissed me off, so I pushed him off his bike and threw it over the bridge, then ran off as he shouted after me. A few days later I heard from an old buddy that Beaver Tail had drowned. As best the cops could tell, he’d crawled out on the ice to get his bike and fell through. How his bike got there to begin with no one seemed to care. I don’t know if I laughed or cried when I heard it. Maybe both. All I remember is my buddy asking if I was okay, and then me screaming, and then him backing away. Never saw him again.
So that’s it, friend. All the bums of this town are gone now. It’s just me.
A military veteran and resident of Northern Virginia, Eric Atkisson writes speeches for a living and fiction for fun. You can follow him on Twitter at @ENAtkisson.