People will wonder from states away what happened to Tom. He has friends and family who have grown up to find jobs, start families, move out, and experience life. People who reminisce in a circle of chairs that care about Tom. His mother. His best friend. People who wondered where Tom was.
* * *
There was a blank gaze held by Tom. He was waking up again, almost tortuously, to the real world. He already had a headache. He already had a hangover. He already had problems. His bloodshot eyes fixated on the tarp ceiling of his tent.
The canvas once smelled clean and new like it was just bought from a sporting goods store. Now it smelled sinister and dirty, cluttered with nondescript grime on the walls from months of binging and otherwise illegal activities.
His body ached as he reached over and unzipped the door and let burdening sunlight in. The rest of a week old tent city was visible, with dozens upon dozens of other dirty tents staked in dirt underneath a patch of trees. Somewhere in the distance the late morning commuters drove on the freeway, and their sound crawled over the hills to Tom’s tent.
Cigarette burns on his arm sang as blisters, drinking in the sunlight to become drunk and sore again. Their friends, the needle punctures, ran red like a woman’s monthly cycle, and they cowered to see the hard glare of the sun rays.
Tom laid back in his nest of various sleeping bags and blankets. His worn pillow gave easily to his head like a willing one night stand did to the promise of the next fix. The next fix Tom could always manage to afford somehow. By stealing money, by swindling and panhandling on the off-ramps to the freeway, or by lying and cheating. Tom always found a way to weasel his way and his habits.
* * *
Somewhere in the high desert near Temecula, California existed a community. A twisted, incestuous hive that wandered from hillside to hillside and shelter to shelter beneath trees or wherever they could find. The marks of their civilization could be seen in the jungles they constructed within hours on the sides of the road, and in quaint, out-of-the-way places not seen by the average person. Whether in the woods, or in the desert, this kind of rock bottomer crawled the depths of their addictions in the company of like minded businessmen and ripe consumers. Bolt-cut chain link fences were tell tale signs to their migrations. Graffiti from the local gangs burned on concrete walls loomed over the defenseless people.
The people of the tents were defenseless until provoked, but they didn’t operate on high levels of collective know-how or intelligence. A crafty group of assailants could easily take advantage of the simple and goal-driven community. The bottomers were homeless, addicted, lost, alienated, hopeless, and victimized. They were crazy, and survived because they had to.
* * *
Tom pushed empty syringes and bottles of tequila off of a pair of pants he had been wearing the night before, taking out a wallet and a ring of keys from a front pocket. The bottles clanked and rattled, and the keys jingled in resonance to answer. He pulled the blankets off of his fully clothed body (shoes and all) and stumbled out of his tent, getting his face caught on the top portion of the inside as he went. Not glamorous. Now his short tangled hair and tight off-white once white tank top were visible, and his beige cargo shorts were slick with build-up of grease and heroin residue.
He wandered over to a nearby tree where his mountain bike was chained to, with a small padlock keeping it in place to unlock it. Anyone would be willing to sell it for any amount of money. A dimebag of cocaine could certainly be worth going to the trouble to liberate it while no one was looking. He wrapped the chain around the handlebars and kicked off with his bare feet, bound for the city.
Tom’s teeth were thin and brittle, nearly giving to the pressure of his tongue when he tried to clean the plaque off during the ride. A mouthguard would be a good investment if he kept riding into town like this, on oppressive dirt roads with bumps and branches all along the route. It was a few mile ride until he got to concrete roads, having endured the searing heat of the sun on his pale, skinny arms.
People on the sidewalks gave him crooked looks of instant distrust when they noted his sunken eye sockets and pronounced cheekbones. They gripped tight their smartphones and purses and checked to make sure their wallets hadn’t disappeared.
Tom pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald’s, getting off his bike and locking it in a bike rack by itself. He walked inside and sat down at a booth trying to draw no attention to his being barefoot, and spread the contents of his pockets on the table. A lighter, his keys, his wallet, a flower pot he used as a pipe, a phone, a charging cable and plug, and a small saran wrap bag of indistinguishable white powder.
He plugged his phone in and let it charge while he reached into his wallet to check for any loose cash that might be lying within. There was a five dollar bill and three copper pennies. Enough for a modest breakfast.
Tom urged himself to leave his net worth unattended for a moment while he went to the register to order food. A wide-eyed and bushy-tailed high school student off for the summer happily took his order of a Big Mac and coffee. Tom was paranoid enough to check the booth every other second to make sure a ghostly customer hadn’t snatched his stuff, for there was no one else in the store on a late Tuesday morning.
The high schooler called his order number five, and delivered a tray of calories to Tom for him to take back to his things on the booth. He sat there for a number of minutes watching the charge on his phone slowly trickle back to life, monotonously pushing food into his mouth and chewing. Waiting.
His step dad’s silver car appeared in the parking lot, and when he locked eyes with Tom he seemed to sigh. Tom didn’t focus on him for longer than a moment before looking at his battery level on his phone again and then cramming everything he owned back into his pockets.
The bell for the door rang, and his step dad came walking toward him, dressed in a company polo like he came straight from the office. Tom finished scarfing down the last of his meal and disposed of the tray, then looked at the man approaching him.
“Danny.” He greeted. A well-travelled and not often spoken voice breached from the depths.
“Hey, Tom.” Danny’s tone acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation. “Your mother says ‘hi’.” But no words would defuse the odd tension that lay in the air for a moment. After a moment of silence and no answer, Danny said, “Let’s go ahead outside.” Tom tentatively unhooked his phone and looked at the battery level. A measly 15% was gotten in the short time he was here. It was enough for the day. He slid the device and its charger into his pocket, next to his bag of whatever he was smoking that week. Belly full, he proudly followed Danny out to his silver Chevy sedan to see what all the fuss was about and why they were meeting. “Here.” Danny unlocked the back hatch of his car, revealing a few bags of groceries. They were filled with essentials like bread, canned goods, and the odd package of lunch meat.
“What’s this for?” Tom was pensive already.
“Just thought you could use a hand.” Danny began picking up bags and handing them to Tom. “We’re worried about you.”
“I don’t need your help.” Said the unself-aware Tom, standing in stained clothes at a McDonald’s parking lot in Temecula and having paid for groceries shoved into his hands. “I’ve been doing fine.”
“I’m sure you have. But take these.” Danny had no part in this, other than he was a human being who had a good bone in his body. Going out of his own volition to spend a hundred dollars on groceries for his addict stepson.
“Thanks.” And without another word, Tom turned around and loaded up his bicycle. Danny stood standing at the rear of his car watching the haggard twenty-five-year-old load up a mountain bike and unlock it from the rack before kicking off with his bare feet to parts unknown.
Off again to wander the high desert and be with the drug people of rock bottom.
(PDF version, finalized on 7/6/16: Exhibition)