By: L.W. Smolen
Heck hit the street on their 30th Wedding Anniversary critical-mass disgusted – and not just with Seattle.
He headed out his hotel front door onto Western Avenue, passed-up Eno’s – skipped his breakfast – his wine flip – just flat skipped it. Shame shoved at his back pockets. He just kept walking, way the hell up through what-do-you-call greater downtown – to where he last saw his wife Bonnie.
Up at 6th and Seneca, he walked over onto the I-5 off-ramp. About fifty feet back from the off-ramp stop line, he leaned against the railing and just watched. What happened, was pretty much what he expected. The far-side light at 6th Avenue went red. The cars stacked up on the off-ramp. One at a time, he studied the side profiles of the masked-up drivers. He was invisible. None of them knew. Nobody did.
Heck opened his eyes on their 30th Anniversary ready for breakfast at Eno’s. He was doing really pretty good, too, until he clumped down all six flights to the emptiness of the dusty lobby and the TV news. He was doing really pretty good until, suddenly, he heard Bonnie’s voice seemed like from right inside the cigarette vending machine to his left. The shock of hearing her voice again spun him around. He stared at the machine; it wasn’t even plugged in, but he knew what he heard. Matter-of-factly, her voice reminded Heck, “I think you could.”
Both of them just out of High School, Heck found out – that he could – be a Golden-Gloves, good-as-they-get, fighter. In one purring utterance, when he told her what Mr. Estrada said, Bonnie changed Heck’s entire view of himself with her simple “I think you could.” Maybe at 6th & Seneca nobody remembered Bonnie, but Heck sure did and the shame of what he hadn’t done with what she gave him back then smacked him like the canvas deck of a boxing ring did only once – flew up and slammed his face. That year, the year Bonnie first said that, Heck would’ve taken the Bantam-Weight Title, too – no question – but he just never – he just didn’t – show up for his Title Fight.
But hearing Bonnie’s voice again after so long, so weirdly, from inside that cigarette machine, Heck wanted to. Standing up at 6th & Seneca again, for a change, he wanted to show up. He suddenly wanted to be back in the ring where he was somebody, with Bonnie watching him. Half the crowd watching her.
At 6th & Seneca, Heck felt the old defeat again, though. He felt Seattle’s, too; it was in the air everywhere. The enclaves of tented homeless. The plywooded businesses. The missing, seething river of human-touch-expectant tourists. Yes. The tourists. Tourists used to jostle and bump and pretend to avoid each other at the historic Pike Place Market – just hoping to get a whiff of the old-timey, salt-water Seattle.
Standing there at 6th & Seneca, though, just as suddenly as he’d flooded with gumption, Heck felt his old despair crush down across his shoulders like a hod loaded with bricks. The morning sun glowered at him. The pavement cooked. But without his customary wine flip wake-up, he felt too weak to walk back down to lower Bell Town where he lived.
He thought of Eno’s Blue Circle. He wanted his breakfast. He started down home.
Long time now, people’d been tediously grim over politics. But then, when Boeing tanked besides and the Covid hit, and the nouveaux-unemployed argued they didn’t have to mask-up and the protests about the police flared-up – man! it was like Seattle hitting the wall in the race of life. The blank faces of people passing – why, Seattle was the land of crash dummy hostages now, mask-muted by nothing but a stinking microbe.
It’s true – the bluest skies are in Seattle, but it no longer made much difference. With the sneaking contagion of the bug and the social distancing thing going on, even beautiful, cloudless skies and the brickyard-hot Puget Sound Summer sun didn’t lift the lead-grey fog of the sparse downtown sidewalks.
But dragging himself along 3rd Avenue in his filthy rags, thinking of a nice, cool wine flip at Eno’s, Heck heard again her cigarette machine reminder, “I think you could.” “Could what?” Heck wondered on the morning of their 30th Anniversary, “I can’t hardly even walk.” He saw himself in a window. His left foot trailed a ten-foot-long white streamer of toilet paper. It was too much work to bend over and yank it off. He just left it. Watching habitually for dropped coins, he kept his eyes on the sidewalk and tried to keep moving.
The loaded hod across his shoulders mashed him. He needed a short-cut bad. Suddenly, on his right, an alley-way connecting Lenora Street over to Blanchard opened its mouth and inhaled him. One lane narrow, the ancient red brick pavement sloped from the alley’s sides and formed a shallow trough down the center. Shadows reached from under monster dumpsters. Gloom slept it off between huge, teetering stacks of knocked-down cardboard boxes. Recessed steel doors hid in black caves carved into the ancient stone foundations of the endless alley walls.
Slowly, he moved into the alley dim. Heck needed an Eno’s flip so bad he felt his left foot drag. He staggered. He tried to follow the tiny, straight river of offal flowing down the center of the alley, but it seemed to weave. His head spun.
Suddenly seeing that cigarette laying there, though, all by its pure-white clean self on the filthy brick pavement was just like spotting a unicorn.
Heck was so dizzy, he was afraid to bend over and pick it up, but the thought of a smoke was such an oasis, he dropped down on his right knee. Between thumb and forefinger, he lifted the factory-perfect fag and stared at it close-up like it was some kind of awesome Klondike nugget – until he realized he had no way to light it.
Anger and frustration tore Heck’s windfall cig in half. He threw the shreds down hard. That’s exactly when he spotted the green plastic lighter. Clean and new as the cig had been, it was laying there on the pavement maybe just ten feet past where he found the cig. Rash. That was Heck. He knew that about himself – from a lo-o-ng time ago. He cursed himself bitterly and kicked the lighter off left. When he did, his weak left leg crumpled and he fell leftways and splatted in whatever was flowing down the center of the alley.
When he fell, the left side of his grey-haired old 8-Ball banked hard off the ancient brick pavement and he blacked-out.
Conscious again, he found out his left arm was pinned by his own inert mass. He felt the cold alley ooze start to soak through the sleeve of his hoodie; it stunk of puke and gasoline and whizz. He felt the fetid liquid chilling the bare skin of his arm. Stabs of pain shot up his left arm and into his shoulder, but then got jammed back down his arm by the explosion inside his skull. It felt like he’d shot himself in the head with a pneumatic framing nailer. He didn’t know if he could get up. A little, he tried, but it was easier to just accept. He found himself wondering, “Why should I?” He couldn’t think of a single good reason. The heartbreak of beautiful, pregnant Bonnie’s gruesome death shot through him fresh as the day the giant cop carried him. He felt a tear from his right eye dribble across his nose. He felt he was going to die. He felt he should. He felt he could. Also, he realized with a weird, detached feeling that he could see two other smokes – clean and fresh as the one he’d shredded.
But beyond the pavement that reached eternally away from his face, the stone foundation of the alley wall became the view from his grave – became his grey, alley-way wall headstone graffitied just for him. He tried to focus his eyes on what the graffiti said. For some reason, he wanted to know what the red, green and yellow boxcar-size words said.
He tried. He really tried, but laying side-wise on his left arm, the effort of comprehending the stylized lettering wore him out completely and he got even sadder and Heck gave up.
Well, felt like death anyhow. For a few seconds. He would’ve died, really, except he found himself aggravated as hell by the outlandish graffiti on the wall. But curious now, he doubled his legs and rocked himself off his numbing arm and elbowed himself up onto his left hip. His vision cart-wheeled.
Years ago, in the Interbay Hump Yard, he’d seen kids spray-painting graffiti on boxcars in semi-darkness. Realizing now what his alley-wall epitaph said, Heck remembered the lithe excitement of the minnow-like speed of their running-away when they saw him coming. Now Heck’s feeble decrepitude cut him, and he resented their freshman youth and their vibrant, wasting lives and he stood up and wobbled and he yelled and kicked violently at the grafittied grey wall. Defying his own death-wish, he yelled, “I don’t take shit. I don’t give a shit. I’m not in the shit business!”
Heck stood there, facing the silent, smart-ass wall. He panted and heaved, but his head was strangely clear. He picked up the two cigarettes he’d spotted and he searched and found his kicked-away green lighter. Squarely on his feet, he lit up and inhaled the poisonous, unfiltered smoke proudly and cussing up a blue streak, he stomped all the rest of the way back down home to the Millionaire’s Club. Instead of wine flips at Eno’s, he ate a hot “Open Sack Lunch” breakfast.
Heck was so damn mad at himself, like a runny sunny-side-up egg, his heart broke all over his corned beef hash.
Sitting, crying alone in his corner, his miserable little shoulders shaking in sobs, Heck was down for the count and he knew it. He was face first on the mat and he didn’t know if he could get up.
He hated pan-handlers and their beaten expressions and they stupid signs that begged “Anything helps”. But pan-handling was next for Heck. He knew that, too. He hated it. Miserably, Heck shoved OSL hash in his face. He mushed it with his gums. He swallowed. His shoulders stopped shaking. He stoked in more hash. With his tongue, he mixed it around in his mouth. He even tasted it. He swallowed again. Somebody gave him a cup of coffee. Right through the paper cup, the black stuff burnt his fingers and scalded his mouth, but he gulped it anyhow. He wanted more hash yet. On a vacant table, he saw where somebody hadn’t finished their hash. He got up and grabbed it. The stolen hash free-fell into his happy stomach. He went looking for a second cup of coffee. Feeling stuffed enough to pop a tick off his belly, he sat contentedly sipping coffee and thinking and before the diarrhea he knew was going to set in, Heck had his first idea in twenty years.
* * *
It took Heck a week and four more OSL breakfasts to get his insides past the squirts and in shape for regular food. But all week, Heck had been thinking and he was ready. “Just for the heck of it,” Heck thought, “I think I’ll take my sign and walk on up to 1st and Pike and see what happens.”
Heck crammed his faded watch cap down over his grey brush and headed out into the heating day. He felt like a dare devil. He was kina scared, but he was gonna do it. He was gonna tell Seattle what he thought. He wanted people to feel what he’d read on his alley wall tombstone.
With his sign under his arm, by himself, Heck shuffled up Western Avenue past where all the tents used to be before they filled up the old Battery Street tunnel. Because of Covid-19, competition for a day-labor buck was a lot stiffer than Heck was used to. Now, the easy work he used to get through the Millionaire’s Club was getting grabbed-up by younger people. Last work Heck got through the Millionaire’s Club was pulling stumps for a woman a lot older than even him, out on the Metro 24-Line in Magnolia. She supervised like a hawk. It was killer hard. But she didn’t stiff him. She even tipped.
Job before that, he got sun-thumped gang-loading big, rolled-up carpets into a steel box car. Heck sweated out every ounce of his wine flips by the time they were done. Heck bagged day-labor that day. He retired on the spot. Felt like a knucklehead later, but at the Millionaire’s Club, Heck had yelled at them, “I’m a fool to do your dirty work.” He only took the stump job in Magnolia because the Millionaire’s Club called it “gardening”.
Heck’s real name was Hector, and back in the late 80s in High School, Hector’s ancient name got him nick-named “The Little Trojan”. When the Track Coach, Mr. Estrada, stopped Heck from injuring too many of the Varsity Football Team, he told Heck with a grin, “Debes de boxear de profesión, vato.”
And just before graduation, in the Gym during a school dance – just for the nothing-to-lose heck of it, Hector walked right up to beautiful, blonde Bonnie and smiled and told her his name was Heck. She only had to touch his hand once, and they vowed to each other in the Cathedral.
Pregnant Bonnie got killed, though – on I-5. She and Heck were car-pooling to work. She got killed right downtown – at the north-bound Seneca Street exit. Heck watched her die. A lo-o-ng time ago.
Bonnie’s belief in him made Heck a Golden-Glover. His ring title was “Hector the Vector”. Never lost a fight. Post-Bonnie, though, Heck self-destructed.
But egad! I nearly forgot to tell you what the alley-way wall said! Heck’s graffitied epitaph!
What Heck did was, after his fifth corned beef hash breakfast, for four of his SSI dollars, he bought two, wide marking pens. He made a big cardboard sign. In black, foot-and-a-half high lettering on a red field, Heck’s sign hollered his back-alley wall epitaph, “SMILE ANYHOW!”
For the Heck of it, facing north now, up First Avenue from the south side of the 1st & Pike intersection, Heck stationed himself at the curb just south of the crosswalk. He unfolded his sign. He held it up so the crash dummy faces of the stopped south-bound traffic on the north side of the light could see it.
When the light changed, he stretched his sign high up over his head far as he could; it insisted that the mum drivers “SMILE ANYHOW!” He felt happy. He flashed his pink gums at the cars, but the crash dummies never seemed to notice. For an hour, the light recycled – and recycled – and just recycled. Heck was sweating and his so-to-speak teeth started to float. A couple of drivers pulled-over momentarily and, eyes averted, handed him dollar bills through the passenger-side window. Heck hated it. They seemed to think, with his big SMILE ANYHOW! he was just working them – for cash – that he hadn’t pistol-shot-intended they actually SMILE ANYHOW! Besides, when they stopped for him, the traffic behind them backed-up and plugged the intersection and pedestrians in the north-side crosswalk had to risk it, weaving between the stacked-together cars.
That’s when Heck realized he was being watched. Heck caught the cop’s reflection in a windshield during a passenger-side dollar-dump. Heck twisted and got a visual. Masked-up, towering in the shade, up close to the building on the corner behind him, was the biggest motorcycle cop Heck remembered ever seeing in his entire life.
The helmeted cop walked over to Heck, and stood, the heel of his left hand resting on the grip of the huge, shining auto pistol on his hip. Demanding wordlessly, he held out his other hand. Heck knew what the cop wanted, so he just surrendered his sign. Even though Heck no longer had teeth to float, he felt a rising tide lifting the roof of his mouth. How long would this take! But Heck decided to SMILE ANYHOW! He just grinned his bare, pink gums up at the cop’s very grey-flecked eyebrows and hoped.
Heck nearly wet his pants. The cop stuffed Heck’s SMILE ANYHOW under one arm, and reached Heck a very refrigerated can of sparkling water. He told Heck, “Dispatch can give us maybe five minutes, Hector. Make it quick.”
Heck followed orders. When he got back up the stairs from the Market restroom, the cop was putting on a regular show – pin-wheeling Heck’s cardboard sign at the passing traffic like he was sidewalk-advertizing discount mattresses. He handed back Heck’s SMILE ANYHOW! He told Heck, “Hector, if in this entire suffering city, if there’s anything that really needs to be said, you’re sign says it – LOUD.” Then, from his jacket pocket, he pulled out a packaged Covid mask. He said “You can have my spare.” Then, he turned away and walked to his bike, started it, and launched off into traffic like he never was.
Heck realized his hands were shaking. He couldn’t move. You hear about cops. You can’t tell what cops saw you do. And he couldn’t really decide what that cop had done either. The water the cop gave him – on his tongue, Heck felt the tingle of actual ice crystals. Heck swigged the sparkling, cold wonderfulness. He started to calm down some. He felt suddenly huge, but then he felt fingered, too. How’d the Seattle Police Department know his name? But he figured that cop, in his around-about way, was giving Heck an order, so he just put the mask on. He wouldn’t be able to smile his pink grin at the traffic now, so he’d just have to jump around and jiggle his big cardboard SMILE ANYHOW! a lot more. But he felt sorta official. Heck’s SMILE ANYHOW! had gotten SPD approval!
Right away a giant, blue semi tractor, that looked exactly like the benevolent movie autobot Optimus Prime, boomed down at Heck and horn-blasted him and bob-tailed past. A car honked, stopped, handed him a fiver. The driver yanked off his covid mask and grinned at Heck. All the before-grudged passenger-side singles turned into five-spots and tens.
You bet Heck went back to 1st and Pike the next day. The cash he was collecting began to be a problem. Heck solved it. He paid his rent in advance, but money made him think about Eno’s, too – he thought about Eno’s Blue Circle real hard. He thought about hundred-bucks-a-bottle whiskey at Eno’s.
Every day, on his 1st & Pike corner, with his big cardboard SMILE ANYHOW!, Heck felt like he was under surveillance, but he never saw the giant cop again.
Every night, though, Heck thought about the cop. He’d called Heck “Hector”. Bonnie and Heck got rear-ended at 6th & Seneca by a big Mercedes four-door coming off the freeway. Heck never even heard the Mercedes hit his brakes. The momentum of the heavy Mercedes stuffed the front of their little tin-can Hi-Lux pick-up under the back end of a stopped flatbed loaded with over-length, sewer-size steel pipe. Heck never even got a scratch.
The fact that to SPD, he was definitely Hector started to worry Heck. Sometimes, Heck thought he knew how the motorcycle cop knew his name. But then, the memory floated away somewhere. Heck wanted his memories back, but they stayed out at the grey edges of his solvented mind.
But every day, with his SMILE ANYHOW! and his very own covid mask, Heck was on official business – working for The City of Seattle – saying – like the giant cop told him, what needed to be said.
His smoke ring memory dogged Heck’s mind, though. Who was that masked cop? Always sober now, he remembered his last I-5 moments with Bonnie – her throat sheared open by the end of a load of big pipe, her dying breaths spraying her own blood out the top of her ripped-open wind pipe.
He’d tried to forget. Did it – some. He’d made a life out of forgetting Bonnie’s sudden death. Now, though, he couldn’t remember anything he really wanted to. It dogged him. He wanted and wanted to remember the cop, but he couldn’t.
Heck’s SMILE ANYHOW! finally wore out and fell in half.
But Heck walked on down to the waterfront and bought fish and chips at Ivar’s. He shared with the seagulls. Their noisy enthusiasm got to him. He came out of retirement.
Remembering Heck’s retirement day rant, the Millionaire’s Club wanted now to know what he was doing back there, but he took the “gardening” gig again. The old lady in Magnolia complained her raspberries were sending runners under her garden paths. Said she couldn’t ask her daughter to come clear back from Montana again and do it. She told Heck, “I don’t know how the heck else I’ll ever stop those runners.” She made him listen to rambling stories about her husband and D-Day and how, “The view of Mt. Rainier is perfect today.”
The flying dreams came back to Heck suddenly. They started while Heck was on his knees following raspberry runners under the ground-cover fabric of the rich old lady’s garden paths.
On I-5, when they got rear-ended, Bonnie was nearly decapitated. Even all the cross-traffic on 6th was stopped dead. Desperate to pull her out, Heck jumped clear over the top of their mashed little Hi-Lux pick-up to the driver’s side. Frantically, he tried to lift the end of the massive pipe load off her chest. Then, he felt a hand start to rub the back of his neck. Heck went nuts. He spun and – right in the face – Pop! Pop! Pop! he Golden-Gloved the cop – three times. But the cop just grabbed him, pinned his arms, held on. Heck was Golden Glove strong. But the cop was giant. The Fire Department swarmed, and the cop carried Heck away like a baby.
That was Heck’s first flying dream. His nose bleeding, the cop carried Heck about a block. Before he disappeared, he air-lifted Heck to a patrol car that couldn’t get near the scene.
Heck remembered a dream where he soared off to Detox once, too. He knew that cop alright. From the Pioneer Hotel night. That night, Heck and a guy called himself Sweeney split a second-floor walk-up flop room flooded by the creepy white of street lights from below. Back then, Heck got all his poison at Tokay Junction, but Sweeney’s was a needle shoved in his arm.
Before that, Heck never saw Sweeney shoot up. After he shot-up, Sweeney pulled a sword out of the sleeve of his rain coat – an actual, Billy-Bones cutlass – and he started to fight devils he screamed were all around him. Sagged drunk on the floor near the door, Heck watched goblins chase Sweeney’s silhouette all around the room. Over his shoulder behind him, in a big, heavy plate-glass mirror, Sweeney saw more demons. He screamed. He head-butted the silvered glass. The whole mirror came loose at the top and exploded off the wall. A long knife-shard of the thick mirror razored Sweeney’s chest open to the bone. Heck saw it plain. He for-real saw Sweeney’s heart beating in there – behind the laid-bare grid of his ribs, but it didn’t slow Sweeney up.
When two paramedics came through the door, Sweeney hollered they were devils, too. He lunged. He yelled about Satan. He parried and thrust at them. With great, reckless, horizontal slashes of his rusty cutlass, he backed them into a corner.
One of the paramedics started to cry. He begged Sweeney for his life. That’s when the biggest cop Heck had ever seen in his entire life showed up. Heck saw the chilly white light from the street below spill through the window and splash all over the giant cop’s motorcycle boots. He saw red neon glint off the slide of a big, silver auto-pistol. He saw the cop take two steps. He saw the flash – and arc – of a night stick. He saw Sweeney fold.
Then the cop walked over to Heck, towered, then crouched and flicked the beam of a flashlight in his face. Last, on one knee beside Heck, the cop shook his head and said, “Look here, Hector. It’s time to let her back in.” Then he air-lifted Heck up into the blue yonder just like up on I-5, just like a lo-o-ng time before, and carrying Heck just like he was a baby again, one last time, they flew away to Detox.
Working for the red-bereted old lady in Magnolia, on his knees in her raspberries, lulled by the proud rambling of the old mother bragging about her eight kids, Heck felt Bonnie suddenly touch him – felt the voltage of her hands teasing up under his shirt. All of it.
And he smiled.