A warm breeze swept along the water as the old lady and her hulking adult son wheeled the food cart onto the river path. A puff of steam rose from the cauldron as the old woman removed a sweaty lid and stirred the broth. Her gigantic son set up a folding table, and carefully organized several rows of empty paper cups. She ladled the hot soup into the small receptacles, and said a prayer.
The homeless men and women along the shoreline of the San Lorenzo crawled from their tattered sleeping bags atop cardboard, and stretched their tired and sore limbs. Longing for warm beds, hot coffee, and a high strong enough to numb the pain, the transients slowly made their way toward the old soup lady’s cart.
A loud bang from the riverbank cut Happy from a dream about his mother. He didn’t want to look in the casket, but an uncle grabbed him by the scruff, and made him. His mother’s expression was peaceful. Happy had never seen her so content in life. Her eyes opened. She sat up, vomiting blood and pointing at Happy as the booming sound cracked across the sky, rousing him from sleep. He rubbed the sweat off his face, stretched his arms, and pulled his wavy red hair back into a ponytail.
Gristle sat next to him with a backpack over his shoulder, stabbing a syringe into a grapefruit sized abscess on his right thigh, filling the needle with pus, and squirting the bloody suppuration into an empty Coke can.
“You were talking in your sleep,” Gristle said. “Screaming mommy.”
“Shit,” Happy said with a yawn. “Gonna get some soup.”
“You see Rip Off Ronny there, tell him I want my forty bucks,” Gristle said, jabbing the syringe back into his festering leg.
Happy crossed the bridge, and made his way to the soup line. Spider and Nancy cued up behind him. Spider’s head was shaved and covered with faded blue tattoos. Various metal studs pierced his face. Nancy wore a skimpy red skirt and a stained white tank top. Her makeup was smudged, and her bleached blonde hair was tangled in frizzy knots. Spider kept looking over his shoulder with shifty eyes.
“Seen Ronny?” Happy asked.
“Not for a couple days,” Spider said nervously, lifting his shirt, and flashing a handgun tucked into his waistband. “But when I do, gonna fuck him up bad. Owes me a hundo.”
“Try Heady. He’s always hanging with Ronny,” Nancy said, and Spider gave her a savage glare.
“Got any daytime?” Spider asked.
“Know where to get some,” Happy said. “Got money?”
“Got something better,” Nancy said, grabbing her breasts.
“When you feed others, you feed Christ,” the old lady said, and her ogre son handed each of them a cup of warm nourishment.
Spider and Nancy sipped from their paper cups, and followed Happy over the bridge to Gristle’s encampment. Gristle climbed to his feet, and licked his lips as Nancy helped him into the brush down by the river. Happy and Spider sat on a dirty piece of cardboard, snorting Happy’s meth. Spider rambled on about what he would do to Rip Off Ronny if somebody else didn’t find him first. Happy’s mother walked out of the bushes, holding the right side of her face.
“She likes it rough,” Gristle said, limping to the cardboard.
“Bastard hit me,” Nancy said.
Spider grabbed the barrel of his gun, and smashed the butt against Gristle’s head. Gristle dropped like a grubby bowling ball. Nancy yanked Gristle’s backpack off his shoulder, and kicked him in the face. Gristle flopped on the ground like a fish out of water, foaming at the mouth like a mangy dog.
“I’ll kill him,” Spider said, pointing the gun at Gristle, and bouncing from foot to foot.
“Do it,” Happy’s mother said. “He beats women.”
“Mom,” Happy said.
“Fuck is wrong with you?” Spider asked, pressing the gun to Happy’s forehead. “She ain’t your momma, but I’ll be your daddy.”
Nancy looked inside the backpack, and her eyes filled her face.
“Spider honey, we hit the jackpot,” Nancy said. “Ronny wasn’t full of shit for once.”
“Don’t come looking for us,” Spider said backing away from the encampment with Nancy. “Or I’ll shoot your ass.”
“You okay?” Happy asked Gristle when his wits returned.
“Spider’s a dead man,” Gristle said, holding his head as blood dripped down his face.
“Gristle,” Happy said with a shiver. “I’m getting sick.”
“Me too,” Gristle said, retrieving a crowbar and a brown paper bag from the bushes.
Happy helped Gristle trek to a green metal needle disposal bin near the river path. Gristle slid the crowbar through the padlock, and torqued until the steel snapped. The door popped open, and Gristle reached into the large receptacle, removing a handful of bloody gauze and used syringes. Happy held open the brown bag, and Gristle placed the needles in the paper sack.
Back at camp, Gristle and Happy disassembled the syringes, and gathered the leftover blood and heroin from each needle until they had enough to shoot. The effect of the leftovers was weak, but it quelled the withdrawal symptoms. Happy lay on his back with his hands behind his neck, looking up at his mother’s head floating along with the clouds. Her curly red hair slithered like snakes. Gristle nudged the dreamer, and the matriarchal skull in the sky popped like a balloon.
“Come on mama’s boy,” Gristle said. “Time we see Howie.”
“Fuck that guy.”
Several months ago, Howie savagely beat Happy with a wrench when Happy’s meth money came up short. Since the incident, Happy avoided the drug dealer, but managed to stay high on Howie’s supply by befriending Howie’s only other pusher, Gristle.
Blood coagulated in Gristle’s greasy hair. He stopped every few blocks to rub his decrepit leg, and complain about the pain. Pedestrians crossed the street to avoid him. At an old rundown, blue paint-chipped, two-story Victorian house near the high school, Gristle and Happy entered the backyard through a warped wooden gate. Rusty metal junk piles and weeds gone to seed suffocated the ground.
“Fuck happened to you?” A tiny shirtless albino hunchback with tattooed sleeves and bleached blonde dreadlocks asked Gristle in a high-pitched voice at the garage door.
“I need a gun Howie,” Gristle said.
“Where’s my money?” Howie asked. “And don’t give me any bullshit. If you ain’t got it, I want my shit back.”
“Spider got it.”
“All of it?” Howie asked.
“That piece of shit Rip Off Ronny tipped him off that I was holding. Give me the gun, and I’ll get it back,” Gristle said.
Howie grabbed a wrench from a disorganized toolbox, and hurled it at Gristle’s head. The wrench missed Gristle, but hit Happy in the sternum. Happy bent over crossing his arms over his chest, and gasped for air. Gristle stumbled into the albino hunchback, shoving him into a corner. Howie raised his hands, pleading not to be hurt.
“The Gun Howie,” Gristle said.
Howie cussed under his breath, waddling to a desk cluttered with plastic bottles filled with his piss. He dug around in a drawer, tossing pornography magazines on the floor until he found the weapon.
“I shouldn’t lend it to you,” Howie said. “I should shoot you with it for losing my product.”
In Howie’s hand, the snub-nose .38 looked massive, but in Gristle’s hand, it looked small. Gristle opened the chamber, and checked for bullets.
“You all right Happy?” Gristle asked. “Gonna be hard getting around without you.”
“Give me a minute,” Happy said, and vomited on the floor.
“Better get my stuff back,” Howie said. “You know what that shit’s cut with.”
Gristle and Happy returned to the river path. Sweat dripped from Gristle’s stubbly chin as he dragged along his infected leg. Happy’s chest ached as he labored for breath. Behind a fenced off city generator near the river path, they sat in the dirt, and snorted the last of Happy’s meth. A coffin floated on the river. Happy rubbed his eyes, and the sarcophagus turned into a log drifting downstream.
Near a yoga studio on Front Street, a congregation of transients sat in a drum circle, beating bongos out of time while hippies danced topless. Gristle limped through the cacophony, and grabbed a percussive street urchin named Heady by the hood of his dirty black sweater.
“What the fuck?” Heady asked against the anti-rhythmic beats.
“Where’s Spider?” Gristle asked, flashing the .38.
“This about Ronny?” Heady asked. “You got somewhere else we can go?”
Heady followed Gristle and Happy. The drumming sound carried along the breeze as the homeless men crossed the bridge over the San Lorenzo to Gristle’s encampment. Heady spastically played his bongo along with the distant circle.
“Start talking,” Gristle said, pointing the pistol at Heady.
“You hear that gunshot this morning down by the river? ” Heady asked.
“I heard it,” Gristle said.
“Spider shot Ronny,” Heady said. “I seen the body.”
“Where?” Gristle asked, and they followed Heady into the brush.
Near a sandy inlet on the river’s edge, Heady pointed to some bushes. Matted weeds and bloodstains dotted the shoreline, but Ronny’s corpse was nowhere to be found.
“Ronny’s body was here this morning,” Heady said.
“Maybe the cops found it,” Happy said.
“This place would be closed off, and swarming with pigs,” Gristle said. “You’re full of shit Heady. Where’s Spider?”
“I seen Ronny laying there dead as god,” Heady said.
“Fuck is Spider?” Gristle asked, putting the gun to Heady’s head.
“Saw him about an hour ago,” Heady said. “Gave me some shit he owed me to keep quiet.”
“Where. Is. He?”
“Motel in the flats,” Heady said.
“I don’t know,” Heady said, handing Gristle a little baggy. “Take what Spider gave me man. Just leave me alone.”
“Get the fuck out of here,” Gristle said, and Heady took off running.
Gristle and Happy found a little clearing, and set about cooking and shooting Heady’s heroin.
“That’s definitely Howie’s shit,” Gristle said, lying back in the weeds.
“You smell that?” Happy asked, climbing to his feet.
Happy wandered through the brush until he saw a tent hidden in the thicket. Out front, his mother stirred a pot of steaming broth over a fire. He was about to greet her when somebody grabbed him by the shoulder.
“What the fuck,” Gristle said. “Making me follow you with a bum leg through the jungle. Leave that old soup lady alone. She ain’t your mom. Let’s get a move on. I want to find Spider and that double-crosser Ronny before sundown.”
Gristle and Happy stopped at a Seven Eleven, and Happy bought two packs of cigarettes from his mother. He gave one pack to Gristle, and they hobbled to a row of run-down motels near the Little Caesar’s. A young prostitute they didn’t recognize in a miniskirt stood on the corner near a taqueria. Scabs and black eyes riddled her face.
“Got a dollar?” She asked. “Trying to get back to Sacramento.”
“Seen a man with a tattooed face?” Gristle asked, offering her a cigarette and a light.
“Maybe,” she said. “Sure you don’t got a dollar?”
“Where?” Gristle asked.
“Help me out,” she said. “I’m stranded.”
“Where?” Gristle repeated, snatching the lit cigarette from her painted lips, grabbing her by the hair, and holding the burning ember near her swollen eye.
“Stop,” she pleaded.
“He’s an ugly tattooed motherfucker with a bunch of metal shit in his face,” Gristle said, moving the cigarette closer to her pupil. “Tell me where you seen him.”
“There,” she said, pointing to a row of seedy motel rooms. “Asked me if I wanted to party, but his dumb ass bitch got hella pissed.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Let go.”
Gristle threw her to the ground. Happy gave her a dollar, but his mother knocked the money out of his hand into the gutter.
Gristle knocked on the first door, and a fat man in boxers answered.
“Yeah?” He asked.
“Spider in there?” Gristle asked.
“Who?” The fat man asked.
“A Tattooed motherfucker.”
“Sounds like the prick next door. Tell him to turn down his goddamn TV,” the fat man said.
Nobody answered when Gristle knocked, so he shouldered the hollow wooden door until it splintered, and he gained entry. Spider and Nancy lay pale, slack-jawed and motionless on the bed. Syringes dangled from their arms. The television blared a crime show. Happy leaned over Nancy, closed his mother’s eyes, and kissed her cheek.
“Was a baseball this morning,” Gristle said, removing a golf ball of tar from his backpack.
Leaving the flats, Gristle’s infected leg went numb, so he latched onto Happy’s shoulder for support as the long rays of the sunset stretched their shadows across the street.
“You didn’t tell me you had all that nighttime,” Happy said back at Gritsle’s encampment.
“Didn’t want you nagging me,” Gristle said, drawing pus from his abscess with a syringe.
“You gonna see a doctor about your leg?” Happy asked.
Happy shared a needle with Gristle, and drifted into unconsciousness. His mother’s head floated peacefully in the nighttime sky as darkness fluttered in the corners of his vision. Before long there was nothing except the gentle sound of the river flowing by. Happy woke alone with a shiver, as a full moon broke free from a cloud cover, illuminating the brush. The sound of his mother’s voice floated through the air on the cold breeze.
By moonlight, Happy followed her trancelike voice down a brambly trail of matted weeds along the San Lorenzo until he came to a clearing by the shore.
“Mom,” Happy said as he stepped from the brush into the encampment.
“When you feed others, you feed Christ,” the old soup lady said, kneeling in supplication next to a severed and purulent leg as her ogre son stirred a steaming cauldron of soup with a stick.
Bio : Morgan Boyd lives in Santa Cruz California with his wife, cat and carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, and Fried Chicken and Coffee. He also has stories forthcoming at Tough and Yellow Mama.