AUTHOR’S NOTE: It was seven (Wow!) years ago that I stumbled across the old Monday Flash Fics Facebook group and wrote a quickie story and posted it. Then I decided to do a story for the next week’s prompt pic just to see if I could and I was off and running! The group switched to Friday Flash Fics a few years later and I’m now the moderator (I gotta be out of my mind!)
I figure I’ve written about 48 stories a year for these prompt pic sites (we take a little time off around Thanksgiving and Christmas) and at least one or two other flash fiction stories every month or so, adding up to at least 52 stories a year, probably more. I should hit a total of 365 such stories written in a few weeks.
This week’s story, featuring my wandering teenage Gay runaway Bryce Going, incorporates some of the experience my late husband Darryl had decades ago when he was homeless for about a year. Darryl and I made a home together and he encouraged my writing and was proud of what I accomplished.
So this anniversary story is for Darryl. And y’know what? They’re all for Darryl. —–jeff baker
Tenting Tonight On the Old Camp Ground
by Jeff Baker
I was cold and dead tired when I saw the tent. I’d had my watch stolen earlier that week so I wasn’t sure how late it was, just that it was dark and I guessed after ten as most of the shops downtown had closed up.
I’d walked west from downtown, hoping to find something to eat (I was out of money) and turned behind one of those new convenience stores to find a gravel lot and the tent leaning against a tall wooden fence, about as tall as I was; 5’11”.
The tent almost looked like it had been built into the fence; it was almost domed and made of a tent you’d take camping, extended by towels, rags and even old newspaper wrapped around it for insulation. There was a cold wind blowing the trash in the lot around and it wasn’t very well lit as the streetlight behind the store was broken and I caught the glint of broken glass underneath it. I could barely see the outline of a tree at the edge of the lot.
It was 1975. I was fifteen, Gay and on my own. Nobody guessed I was Gay but the on my own part was pretty obvious from my dirty jacket and worn sneakers. I was shivering. I thought I smelled food but that may have been from the store.
The hell with it. I walked over and patted the side of the tent.
“Go ‘way!” came the raspy voice from inside the folds of towel and paper.
“I’m cold.” I said, shivering.
“I said go away!” the voice rasped again.
“I got no place to go,” I said. “No place to go…” My voice broke for a moment. I’d run away months ago not wanting to go to a Boy’s Home after my Mom had bailed on me. Didn’t know where my Father was. I was halfway across the country from Philly. So far I hadn’t cried.
I heard a rustling in the tent. Then a flap opened, not where I thought it would and the voice told me to get in. I saw a glimmer of light inside which surprised me, I hadn’t seen it through the tent.
“Get in, quick. And take off your damn shoes.”
The inside of the tent was a little bigger than one of those bug cars I’d been in a couple of times, but I had to bend over so I didn’t hit my head on the top. There were a couple of flashlights leaning against a small duffel bag to one side that aimed enough light that it somehow lit up the tent. I hadn’t noticed the light from outside, so the tent was better covered than I thought. It must have been well-insulated as it wasn’t exactly warm but we were cut off from the breeze.
“Sid down,” the man said when he finished sealing the tent flap with a towel. He looked old and wrinkled with a fringe of grey hair surrounding a bald head. He was wearing a winter coat over several layers of flannel shirts. His jeans were old and smudged and I bet he had something like long johns on under them. He snatched a stocking cap off the floor and jammed it on his head.
I sat down and found a place that didn’t feel like gravel under the tent floor.
“Thanks for letting me in,” I started to say.
The man held up his hand.
“It isn’t permanent,” he said. “It’s just cold out there and you’re too damn young. I heard you start to cry. That did it, I was always too soft a touch. That’s probably how I wound up here.”
I nodded. He glared at me again.
“Well? Aren’t you going to introduce yourself? I’m R. J. by the way.”
“I’m Bryce Going,” I said. That was the name I’d been using and I was somehow getting a lot more comfortable with it.
“Well, Bryce Going,” R. J. said reaching into the duffel bag. “I’d better show you some hospitality.” He tossed me what looked like a couple of wrapped candy bars. “Those are Food Bars. They’re supposed to be nutritious.”
“Thanks,” I managed to say. I hadn’t eaten since the day before. I gobbled down the first bar.
“Not so fast!” R. J. snapped. “I don’t want you getting sick all over my tent. Here.” He poured out some lukewarm coffee into the lid that served as a cup and I savored every drop.
A few minutes later, I was slowly eating the second bar, again savoring every bite. I finished and managed another thank-you.
“We’d better get to sleep soon. I don’t have another pillow,” he said, gesturing at the duffel bag.
“That’s okay,” I said.
We sat in silence and then he turned off the lights and I heard him stretch out and rasp out a “good night.”
I lay down on the other side of the tent and wondered if I’d have to fend him off in the middle of the night, even though I hadn’t told him I was Gay. I’d been really lucky so far nobody had tried anything like that.
I heard him snore and I was asleep a few minutes later.
It was warmer the next morning, so I thanked R. J. and wandered off looking for a discreet place to pee.
About an hour later I lucked out wandering down a side street past the backs of old brick buildings. A man in an apron asked me if I belonged in school. I told him I was 22 (I wasn’t) and that I’d arrived in the city and somebody had stolen my wallet. (I hadn’t had a wallet.) The man asked me if I’d like to make some money. I was leery about that, but he explained the guys he’d hired hadn’t shown up and he needed somebody to unload a truck that morning. I nodded and spent that day unloading the trucks that backed into the dock and all but swallowed whole the ham sandwich he offered me.
But a few hours later I was sitting there at the desk eating another sandwich and drinking a soda (“Think of it as worker benefits, kid,” my new boss had said) when the noon news came on the little black and white TV playing there in the back room.
No mistake. The picture they showed on the TV was probably from his old driver’s license. The video showed police removing a figure wrapped in a blanket from the tent we’d spent the night in; R. J.
The newscaster said they had raided the “homeless encampment” (one tent) and found the man dead in the tent.
Near as they could tell, he had been dead about three days.