Strange Encounter

Some people who know me know that I am fascinated by the homeless. There was a good reason for it once, I think, but that reason is lost to me now; like someone who cannot explain why he woke up somewhere other than where he fell asleep — yet is still, you know, sort of fine with it. All that’s left to me when I pass one with his shoppingcarts piled high with cans, or peeking out of a cardboard box, or holding a conversation with a tree, or tucked like a pile of rags under the eaves of an overpass, is this peculiar sense that the streets and buildings he and I see are not the same.

Is there a beautiful core to their miserable experience? Is their inability to conform consequence of an unrelenting grasp on naked reality? Would they have been sages and heroes in different times? I doubt it. But who ever feels compelled to ask these questions about the fellow at the gas station, or a store clerk, or a school guidance counsellor?

Over the years I have had a good many encounters and collected quite a few anecdotes. What follows is a story that details one of my more recent and stranger encounters: since, as it turns out in Florida, not all the homeless live in alleys and doorways: some live in the water.

When I grow bored of my house I drive to a nearby park and do what I would do at home: read lame stories or write lamer ones. It isn’t really a park, just a place on the river for launching boats, but it has a good pavilion surrounded by slash-pines and palmettos where I like to sit. From there I have a good view of the water.

Across the river are the marinas with the huge, polished boats of the wealthy. Near my side of the shore however, where the river bends into a kind of lagoon, are anchored a bunch of pitiful wreaks. Apparently boats — their paint is peeling; riggings are rotting; sails are moldy; barnacles are inching up the hulls and sea roaches scurry between them; the windows are milked over with brine. Most would consider them disjecta from the hurricanes, but people live inside — because of a law permitting perpetually free mooring in public waters.

Bored of boredom even, I gave up reading and stared dumbly across the river. Movement on one of the boats caught my eye. It was the very worst one out there. It looked like a painted milk-crate glued to a tin pan. The smallest wake rocked it violently. The man on it was tossing things into a smaller rowboat, then taking them out, then tossing other things in, then taking those out, then stomping his feet and cursing loud enough for me to hear him a hundred yards away.

Eventually he got into the rowboat himself and began paddling for shore. He had an odd paddle: huge and unwieldy. As he got closer I saw what it was: an old yellow yield-sign still on its metal pole. He told me later his wooden one had got stolen and this was the best he could do. With each stroke of the paddle I could hear him yell out “damn!” “hell!” “shite!” and so on.

When he got to shore he was still cursing. Getting out of the rowboat he almost stumbled into the water. He then started dragging it onto the sand, then onto the dirt, then onto the gravel, and finally onto the parking lot as well. He seemed very old and was having a hard time of it, kicking at things and going, “ah Christ you God damned son of a stinking whore’s motherfucking cowshit with rotten onions growing up from the pits of hell! . .” His cursing was actually quite impressive, Shakespearean almost. Intrigued, I went over and asked if he needed help.

“I want to chain my boat to a tree,” he said.

“Sure, that sounds completely normal,” I said. “May I help?”

He studied me for a bit, maybe to decide whether or not I was an hallucination. So I studied him, and without a doubt he ranked somewhere in the stratosphere of Most Curiously Ugly People I Have Ever Met. I couldn’t stop staring. His eyes were a mile apart, and bulging; he had no forehead, as if his eyebrows merged with his hair; his bottom jaw protruded so badly his upper lip hid behind the bottom one as if it were shy; he had gaping nostrils with like tufts of grass growing from them; a stiff beard jutted almost horizontally from his chin. It was like his head got smashed flat from above and below. He looked like a frog, but hairier.

“Yeah, you can help,” he said after a while. “Watch my boat so I don’t have to drag it no more.”

“Why, where are you going?” I asked.

“I gotta buy groceries. You know, beans, bread, beer.”

“Of course, the essentials. How long will you be gone?” I asked, a little sorry now that I had offered to help.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Fine,” I agreed. “I can do that.”

He began walking off without a further comment or question, stamping his feet with each step like he was angry at the earth. I quickly realized something and called after him:

“Wait, so we are just leaving the rowboat in the middle of the parking lot?”

Barely turning around he dismissed me with a wave of his hand, muttering more obscenities. I watched him go down to the road. At a certain point he started looking around cautiously, as if to check if anyone was watching. I thought to myself, I’m watching. Then he ducked into the trees and underbrush, which shook violently like he was wrestling a feral pig in there. A minute later he came out calmly pushing a bicycle by the handlebars. He pulled a vine out of the spokes, hopped on it and disappeared down the road, sort of wobbling.

I was now responsible for a rowboat lying smack in the center of a parking lot.

I pulled at it. It was heavy. I probably could have dragged it off to the side, but that was more trouble than I wanted. Instead, I retrieved my things from the pavilion and sat in the rowboat.

That decision satisfied me. Mostly because I am a nosy person and the rowboat was full of stuff to rummage through. Besides the yield-sign there was other normal boat stuff, like a bucket, a fishing pole, tackle box, gas-can for the non-existent motor, and a handle of Gordon’s Vodka. But in the back was a sort of wooden compartment with a lid, which I opened. A car honked angrily and drove around me, but I didn’t look up. I had found too much stuff to poke through. There were old clothes, a box full of seashells, a harmonica, flashlight, rusty knifes, rusty axe-head, rope, rolls of duct tape, a flaregun, a jar that looked like it was full of fish eyeballs and a dog collar with the name “Pazzo” on the tag. For a moment it all seemed really cool because none of it was mine. But soon enough I realized it was really all just crap. I got bored and wanted to go home.

Cars kept driving around me and honking. I read my book in order to ignore them better. But they kept honking and some rolled their windows down to yell at me — I ended up reading the same page over and over.

So I decided to play with them. For the next car that came past I held up the yield-sign. I am happy to report that the first few cars actually slowed for this trick, before speeding off again in a huff. It made me smile to wonder what they must be thinking, happening upon a ratty rowboat leaning aslant on the asphalt with fellow sitting inside holding up a road sign. Rene Magritte should commit that image to canvas, if he hadn’t died.

And then a Ford F-350 with a light-rack and huge tires towing a Nitro fishing boat came suddenly roaring around the corner. Like lightening I help up the yield-sign, as much to play the trick as to keep the thing from running me over. It slammed on its breaks and a fellow as big as the truck hopped out, pointing at me. That was foolish, I thought, now I am going to die. He came over yelling:

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy? Parked in the middle of the road?”

“It’s a parking lot,” I said. “And you shouldn’t have been speeding.”

“I ain’t wasn’t speeding,” he said. “And even if I was, that don’t make it alright fer your dumb ass to be settin’ where people gotta drive. What are you doing there?”

I thought for a while, making him wait, then said very matter-of-factly: “I don’t know.”

He seemed shocked.

“Just exactly how stupid are you, boy? How’n hell could you not know?”

I like how it is always the most conspicuously stupid people who grow immediately outraged by someone else’s stupidity.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to be here, if that helps.” He still seemed puzzled, so I went on. “I keep trying to flag people down but no one is helping me. My boat was in the water over there and I was taking a nap in it, I like it how the waves come and the boat rocks. Then I woke up and here I am. Some assholes must be playing a trick on me. The boat is too heavy for me to move alone.”

He seemed very conciliatory after that and said, with great thoughtfulness, as though he were imparting a piece of eternal wisdom:

“Yup, there is assholes in the world.”

“Will you help me move my boat?” I asked.

“I better have to,” he said, “seein’ as that you’re in my way.”

We both took hold of the rowboat, he the bow and I the stern. When he started pulling towards the river I said:

“No, the other way.”

“Away from the water?” he said. “You really are dumb.”

“Whatever,” I said. “At least it will be out of the parking road, I mean the driving lot.”

The boat could easily be seen in the river. But I wanted it out of the way so that when the frogish-looking fellow came back on his unsteady bicycle he would think it had been stolen.

I passed the next fifteen minutes lying supine in the rowboat, staring at the sky, pretending I was adrift in the vast ocean and wondering how long — were I to ever find myself in that situation — would I wait before killing myself. Then I wondered a little how I would go about it: drowning? the rusty knife? self-strangulation with the rope? septic shock by swallowing the whole jar of rotting fisheyes? — I was getting up to look at the jar of fisheyes again when I saw frogman through the palmetto fronds wobbling along on his bike. I prepared myself for his hopefully explosive reaction.

I watched him stash his bike, then come back out of the underbrush carrying two canvas grocery bags and a case of beer. I watched him realize the boat was gone. The bags and beer fell from his hands. For a moment he stood on the spot where the boat had been, looking all around, puzzled. And then, to my embarrassment, he somehow saw me watching him through the trees.

“Hey, how’d my boat get over there?” he asked, without a trace of panic in his voice.

I thought for a while, then said, very matter-of-factly; “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” he said. “That sounds completely normal.”

“I fell asleep,” I said. “And I woke up here. Some assholes must be playing a trick on me.” It worked last time, I thought it would work again.

“I know those assholes,” he said. “Just last week they were hiding in those bushes over there shooting at my home with a potato gun.”

“No, I think these were different assholes,” I said. “Anyhow, you need help getting this rowboat back in the water?”

So we took it down to the water and as he was readying his yield-sign to push off from shore and I was readying to grab my stuff and go home, he said:

“You wanna come have a beer?”

I thought of the rusty knives and axe-head and ropes and duct tape I had seen; I thought of his general seclusion being out on the water; the fact that I didn’t really know him and that he was indeed an odd one; the fact that no one knew where I was; that I had not brought my cellphone with me. Quick images of pain and torture assailed me, like Gordon’s vodka poured into open wounds. All these warnings flashed brilliant in my mind as if he had already fired his flaregun into my ear. I looked at my watch.

“Okay,” I said. “That sounds good.”

I had another hour to kill.

I sat in the bow smirking as he paddled us out to his floating home, yelling, “shite!” “fuck!” “piss!” with every stroke of the yield-sign.

His home had the base of a pontoon boat with a plywood railing built all around. A wooden shack had been constructed and attached to the pontoon base, leaving enough space all around it for someone to walk. He used a bucket of asphalt tar to seal up cracks and spaces in the shack, giving his home a heady petroleum stench.

Inside the shack was a cot covered in a dozen blankets, a bedside table with a flashlight and a few books, a card table with three chairs, a workbench that spanned the length of one wall. Shelves covered most of the walls — lined with opaque jars, newspapers, shoeboxes and other junk — except for a few pictures and the two curtained windows. The curtains were drawn and it was dim inside.

I sat at the card table and he handed me a beer, putting the rest in a cooler on the workbench.

“Well,” I said, looking to begin some innocuous conversation, “how did it all come to this?”

“How did what come to where?” he asked, stacking two dozen cans of beans and spam on the shelves.

“What confluence of coalescing events, I wonder, persuaded you to relocate into this ingenious construction off shore? . . I’m curious.”

“You asking why I live in a boat?”

“Yeah, but with more words.”

“It was more like non-events, buddy. If stuff had happened for me I would be somewhere else. Now drink your beer and be nice.”

I was a little surprised. Most homeless people cower like a beat dog and will accept no end to verbal abuse so long as they get a coin or two out of it. I decided to be more polite.

“It can’t be all that bad,” I said. “You have shelter and food. And a view. People pay a lot of money for waterfront property. You took the game up a level and got frontwater property. It must be nice.”

He didn’t answer. He finished putting his groceries onto the shelves and in various coolers on the workbench. When he finally turned to me I did not like the look on his face. It was the face of someone who could either weep or rage. I glanced quickly out the door to see how tightly the rowboat was tied up.

“Nice? You think it’s nice, living on the water? Let me show you,” he said. He went to the shelf above the cot and took down a medium sized cardboard box. I could hear things rattling and rolling around inside. He set it in front of me on the table. “Look inside,” he said.

I lifted the lid. It was full of dry, graying bones. My heart ceased a long moment, thinking this glimpse of bones might be prelude to something much worse, waiting for a knife to be put against my throat. Then I noticed that the skull sitting atop the pile of bones, like king of the hill, was an animal — not a human — skull.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“My dog.”

“You mean Pazzo? I saw the collar in the rowboat.”

“That’s him,” he said. “I had to kill him.”

“Why, because you live on the water in a boat?”

“Exactly.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, waiting for him to continue. He sat at the card table, and while I finished my beer he told me the following story:

When the last hurricane came he had nowhere to go. So he decided to stay on board and if it came to it, to go down with the ship. He wasn’t too worried because he was well anchored and often boats fare storms better by staying in the water. So he prepared himself, tightening up the shack and spreading tar on everything. The winds started picking up and the waves started swelling, but he and the dog sat comfortably inside. The storm went on for hours. Eventually Pazzo started to get antsy, still being sort of a puppy. So he threw a tennis ball at the wall and had the dog fetch it. The storm was raging pretty fiercely at this point and with every wave he felt like they were lifted and dropped twenty feet. The wind was moaning and screaming and pounding against the shack. He bounced the ball again when suddenly a gust burst the door open and Pazzo chased the ball out the door. A combination of the slippery deck, the wind and a breaking wave sent the dog over board. There was still some light to see by, and keeping an eye on the dog he tied a rope to the boat and then around his waist and dove in.

It took him at least fifteen excruciating minutes of keeping afloat and swimming before he could reach his dog. Afterwards it would be a simple a matter of pulling oneself along by the rope. He grabbed his dog finally and sought to go back.

Who knows why, although doubtless the dog was panicked, but when he took hold of his pet, the dog started attacking him. It latched onto his arm first and, bearing the pain, he tried to talk and sooth the thing. Then, while trying to pry his arm from the dog’s mouth and keeping his head above water, the dog went for his throat. A that point he had no choice. He took a knife he always wears on his belt and stabbed the dog five times in the neck. He hated to hear it yelp.

The man was almost crying when he finished the story.

I thanked him for the beer and made him row me back to shore.

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~ by Peter on January 9, 2008.

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