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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

In Birmingham
by M. Blake

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Simmer didn't get out on a ticket the next morning, and he spent the day hanging around the parks and in the big downtown library. One of the parks had statues that commemorated people who suffered during the civil rights movements in the city in the sixties. One statue showed a child being attacked by a German Shepard; another showed a man being menaced by a cop with a club. You wouldn't know it on this quiet, sunny morning, but this park was the site of violence and mayhem at one time, and only a few blocks away was the site of the church (now rebuilt) that was bombed, killing four little girls. Yes, there was some sad history here (and in his lifetime) as a building just down the street attested to: headquarters for the African-American civil rights organization. Simmer had seen some men sitting in chairs outside the place and standing in the doorway. It was a fight that didn't, by any means, end in the sixties, Simmer thought. These people couldn't afford to let it die.

And further along, on a lighter note, was a small park honoring an Alabama native, a songwriting member of the Temptations music group. There was a statue of the man along with other group members, in mid dance step and smiling, forever frozen in performance and a symbol of good musical times. A soundtrack of Temptations songs ran continuously in the park and Simmer sat on one of the benches and listened for a while.

That day he went to a couple different churches to be fed, following groups of street people when they moved out of the parks. "If you go hungry in Birmingham, it's your own fault," one woman said to him. She was in the food line with Simmer. For it wasn't just homeless people coming to eat; there were old people, crippled people, young mothers with their children, and young people who didn't look old enough to be out of high school; people from all over the city who apparently didn't have enough money for food. Though Simmer knew that not all of these people were broke; it's just that they had something else to do with the little money they had. He would see some of them drinking beer and wine in the parks later on, or going off to smoke somewhere. Simmer knew all about the lifestyle, for he had been a part of it a year and a half earlier in San Diego, and before that in Houston. Going from food line to food line, getting free clothes from the church groups, and collecting cans for his drink money; and then at night sleeping in the parks.

The thing of it was, Simmer preferred to work rather than spend his days in the food lines, which quickly became depressing. He got tired of standing in lines with the same people two or three times a day, hearing the same complaints and stories, seeing the same frustrated anger surfacing in ranting and raving, smelling unwashed bodies, and, on occasion, being silenced and frightened by some outburst of true madness or the sight of some soul who had truly gone over the edge and would never get back. That kind of life, though seemingly "free", weighed on you after a while, there was a price to pay that went deeper than money, and you sure had the time to dwell on it too.

But Simmer wasn't going to get into that rut in Birmingham, no, he was here temporarily to earn some cash before continuing on. He had gotten a tip from one guy on the street about another labor pool in the downtown area, a place that supposedly sent more people out than the others, didn't have you filling out long applications, and didn't give breath tests. Simmer was told that he should go to this labor pool Ready Labor if he really wanted work; he'd go out every day.

So that's what Simmer did. He walked the few extra blocks to Ready Labor, which was located in the beginnings of a poor residential area. He had been warned to watch himself around the place; there were plenty of unscrupulous characters about. Yet Simmer had seen plenty of places like it (some even worse, in fact).

He went into the one big room with the many rows of aluminum chairs in it and a large color TV playing in one corner. The room was about half full when he got there. He wrote his name down on the sign-in sheet and then asked for the application. It was only two pages, and part of it was his tax form.

Simmer had just passed the form in when the dispatcher called for ten men. He jumped into line and within minutes had a ticket. Was he ever glad he had come to this place.

He was given a hard hat, safety goggles, gloves and steel-toed rubber boots, the typical gear for construction site work. He knew he was going to earn his pay this day, but that was all right. A few days of this and he might have enough for a bus ticket to Houston.

The job site was located on a small college campus just outside of downtown Birmingham. The campus had a fence around it and a security guard at the entrance to check all incoming vehicles.

One of the big brick buildings stood out from the others in the fact that it had been gutted and partly demolished on the inside. Gaping windows looked down on them, and there were two large dumpsters positioned under them. The work area was fenced off from the rest of the campus, and men in yellow and white hardhats walked in and out of the building. The ground around the building had been marked by the tread of heavy equipment. On one side of the building, scaffolding had been erected. There was the sound of banging from inside the building, as the labor pool temps walked up to the front entrance to greet the site supervisor, or one of them anyway.

He was an elderly man who looked like he was at the end of a career in this business, still showing the rugged shoulders and muscled arms, but not carrying the weight he used to and sagging a little in places. He looked weary of life in general, and construction sites in particular. It turned out that he was a quiet man who, as long as he saw that you were busy, didn't "crack the whip", as they say. He made sure that the workers got their breaks, including a long lunch. He seemed to understand that the temps from the labor pool weren't getting paid much for the work they were asked to do, which was rare in Simmer's experience. Too often, you had some gung ho asshole standing over you, urging you to pick up the pace, or yelling at you if you paused for a breather. It seemed they couldn't get enough out of you for the minimum wage you received.

Still, even with a fair-minded boss, the crew (or most of it) got a workout, physically. It was hard, dirty work and there was plenty of it to do.

Simmer's first task involved knocking a wall down with a crow bar, while another guy swung a small sledgehammer. He banged holes in the sheetrock, pulled pieces away, kicked portions down with his oversized rubber boots. He and his partner went at it with early morning vigor and the boss man seemed to be impressed, for he assigned them to the same job in the adjoining room.

Simmer moved too fast for his own good and caught his little finger with the crow bar. It hurt of course, but he didn't let on, though technically he was supposed to inform the supervisor. He didn't want to be sent home and make no money, and so he just hoped that the finger wasn't broken.

It got numb, and then it throbbed, and by the afternoon it had turned a greenish-blue. Still, he was able to work all right, except when he picked up a sledgehammer and couldn't get the grip he wanted. He left the hammering to some of the others and stayed busy with his shovel and wheelbarrow, for there was plenty of debris on the floors to keep them busy all afternoon. They had to fill up the two big dumpsters before they called it quits, and that meant a lot of trips back and forth with the wheelbarrows. He had a mask for all the dust in the air, but Simmer found that it hindered his breathing more than anything and he took it off. It wasn't a wise move for an asthmatic, but he figured he could put up with it for a couple of days.

And it would be a couple days of work at least; the crew already knew that by early afternoon. The boss man had mentioned it after the lunch break; he would need all of them back the next day.

This had some of the men grumbling, for they knew that some of the guys on the crew were slacking on the job every chance they could get, disappearing down to the lower levels of the building, or walking off to other areas of the campus. There were two guys in particular whom everybody was mad at: a pair of slackers who appeared to be buddies, a big fat man and his skinny sidekick, whom the others called "the Hyena" for his constant, snickering laugh. The two moved from room to room together, and soon disappeared together too. More than once, the supervisor asked Simmer if he had seen the "big man" anywhere, and Simmer just shrugged. He wouldn't have been surprised if the two of them were off getting high somewhere, for both men had stoned red eyes that morning.

"I'm gonna go upside that fat boy's head if he keeps running his mouth," one worker said. "He's always talking, but he ain't done shit all day."

"He moves so fuckin' slow I'm surprised he can get out of his own way," another said.

The fat guy was a talker. In the van on the way to the job, and continuing on while he "worked". He had a one-man audience at least in the Hyena, who found the big man highly amusing, it seemed.

"That boss man's a good man and they're taking advantage of him," one man commented.

"I just hope he remembers who's doing the work," another said.

Simmer hoped so too, for he had done his share. By mid afternoon he felt it, having used muscles in a way they hadn't been used in a long time. However, he was in good shape from all the walking he did, and he held up better than some of the others whose pace slowed noticeably after two o' clock. They went home at five.

Everybody was on the repeat ticket. The Big Man talked about how he knew how to work it on the job, and his sidekick laughed along with him, looking and sounding stoned.

"You must have found some good hiding spot," one of the crew said. "The boss man was looking for you all day."

The Big Man laughed.

"I know he didn't find me, unless I wanted him to," he said. "I wasn't gonna be up there doin' all that work you guys were doin'." He grinned at the Hyena, who shook his head with amusement.

A couple of the guys grumbled, but they were too tired now to start anything. Everybody just wanted to get home, get paid, and forget about the labor pool and the job for a few hours.

"What can I say?" the Big Man said. "Some of us got it and some of us don't."

The Hyena responded.

The pay was good for one day out of the labor pool sixty bucks. More than Simmer or anybody else anticipated. Seven dollars an hour. As one man said for them all: I can live with that.

Simmer was dust covered and dirty, but he didn't want to spend the night at the mission, even for a shower. He was in the mood to drink, and sixty bucks said that he could eat and drink well that night.

Like the rest of the crew he worked with, Simmer cashed his check at a gas station-market just down the street from the labor pool. And as on previous days, he went for the specials on hotdogs and malt liquor. He found his usual seat outside the unused carwash building, next to a dirt alley that ran between buildings further along. Few cars used this alley, but he would see people walking by to and from the store, and he'd nod and smile in a friendly way as those first couple beers loosened him up.

"You better be careful in that alley," the friendly woman behind the counter told him when Simmer bought his second round of beer. "People get mugged in that alley every week. They know you just got paid."

Simmer didn't doubt her word, yet he didn't know where else to go around there to drink. There were plenty of businesses and restaurants around, and plenty of traffic on the streets, including the law. After dark it wouldn't be difficult to find a place in the shadows, but that was an hour and a half off anyway.

And then he thought about the railroad tracks that divided the north and south sides of town. He had seen some forgotten about places along the tracks, hidden by bushes, old boxcars and huge piles of rubble. Forgotten by your average citizen that is, but temporary places of refuge for the man on the street who wanted a drink in peace. He just had to be careful hanging around the tracks because he had seen cardboard bedding on the ground, along with plenty of empty bottles and food cans, fast food bags and old clothes. You never knew who you would meet up with in one of those hidden, refuse strewn spots.

Simmer walked through a short tunnel underneath the tracks to the south side of town. He passed two guys getting high by a concrete pillar, with their eyes going both ways for the law. One man smiled at him and said "all right". Simmer nodded and smiled, glad he had put the beer in his bag.

Just out of the tunnel on the other side, he passed a man and a woman standing close together like lovers. They had been talking to each other, but when Simmer walked by, the man a tall black guy dressed in a long coat and cowboy boots flashed him a smile and greeted him. He wanted to know if Simmer had a cigarette. The same guy had asked him the same thing the day before. In fact, Simmer recognized him and the pimply-faced, skinny white woman from food lines he'd been in.

Simmer shrugged and told the man he didn't smoke. The other tilted his head and raised his eyebrows as if to say, c'mon, man, just one smoke. The woman quickly asked him if he had any change, and Simmer shrugged and smiled again. He would have given them some change if he had it, but he wasn't going to hand out bills, particularly in this area. And if he did that once, this couple would remember him, an easy touch.

He continued on past a couple of rusting boxcars that he figured were used as shelters by some of the street people. Past some rusted barrels and metal scraps to where the edges of the pavement crumbled, and he was hidden in a small wooded area where the undergrowth was thick. Here there were more signs of tramp camps: black fire spots, bottles and cans, smashed glass, clothes and cardboard.

Simmer glanced around in all directions and then took a seat on a fallen tree. He figured the law wouldn't come in here anyway; there was nothing they had to protect.

From where he sat, Simmer could see the train tracks raised up on a bed of crushed stone. He wondered if, technically, he was on railroad property and if any railroad employees ever walked by here. Railroad bulls looking for train riders.

It was something Simmer had never done, though he had listened with interest to stories of riding the rails. There had been a guy at the mission the night before talking about taking trains all over the country.

"The thing is," he told Simmer, "you want to find out where those trains are going, or you never know where you'll end up. I've hopped off trains thinking I was in one town, and found out I was in another." He chuckled. "But then again, I really didn't care. The only thing with riding trains is you don't get money from people like you do hitching."

He was right about that, Simmer thought, as he drank his beer. He certainly had benefited from people's generosity on the way here. It was as if they knew, despite what he told them, that there was more to his story, something that Simmer had withheld about himself, something that didn't match his upbeat manner. He was making a good show of it, but still he was out here on the side of the road with his thumb out. And he was quite skinny; it looked as if he'd been missing meals.

Well, someone had told him long ago to never turn down help of any kind that came his way on the road. There was enough against you without refusing aid when it was offered.

Yet he never asked people for money, whether riding in a car or standing on the street. If it was offered, that was one thing, but he was no panhandler. He laughed to himself, thinking about the men he had known who had tried to get him to panhandle. Some of them couldn't believe he had never done it. Some of them tried to give him instruction on it, and Simmer humored them, knowing he would never go through with it.

Once in a while he would give someone money, if he didn't suspect them of putting on an act. And there were plenty of those characters around. Men his age and younger, and just as healthy as he was, only too lazy to do anything. They spent whole days working the passers-by on city street corners, and then you'd see them fucked up on something that night and just not giving a shit.

Simmer, though he had been a wicked drunk at times and experienced his periods of depression, still believed that you had to give a shit about something. It was part of existence and calling yourself a man. It always seemed to Simmer that the real users and moochers of the world, the people who used everything they came in contact with for their own personal gain and lacked consideration for anyone else, lacked identity also. It was as if they had traded their individual personalities in for an all-consuming appetite, and thereby had rendered themselves so commonplace and unattractive as to be avoided.

Yes, no matter how bad things got, Simmer had always been able to care about something. And just knowing that was something to help sustain him.

He loved drinking and thinking like this. His nerves were soothed now after the long day, and he laughed and drooled beer down his chin. You fucking lush, he kidded himself, as he got to his feet. He had decided that he needed something stronger than beer, for it was going to be a chilly night outdoors.

He slept behind a building that night, or rested anyway, for it was the coldest night for him so far in Birmingham, and what Simmer had in his pack for clothes didn't keep him comfortable. He covered up with everything he had, but still the chill got to him and he found himself changing positions on his cardboard bed every half hour or so, just to move. Of course, he had his pint of vodka with him and nipped on that throughout the night. He didn't have to worry about a breath test at Ready Labor. As long as he could stand upright and not slur his words.

This night convinced Simmer that he would have to move on soon; it got down to freezing here, he'd been told. Houston would be a little warmer. A couple more days of work and then he could take a bus out of town if he wanted to. Or, he could continue on by thumb and save his money for when he got to Houston.

Outside the labor pool that morning, Simmer ran into Big Man and the Hyena standing behind some trees, out of sight of the entrance. They were smoking what looked like a small cigar, but Simmer smelled what type of tobacco was burning. He really didn't have to smell it; he could see the redness of their eyes and the stoned smiles.

"Hey," the Hyena called to him, waving him over. He held out the cigarette that was only half burned.

Simmer had enough vodka in him to feel daring. It was only his second day on the job for this place and he knew how potent the smoke would be for him who hardly touched it, yet he couldn't resist the friendly smiles. Hell, if these two could do it, he could. After all, it wasn't as if the work required great thought.

They urged him to take some big hits, and so when he entered the building a short time later Simmer was very stoned. He quickly found a seat and focused his attention on the large TV screen. It was the morning news program, but Simmer didn't care what it was; it was something to look at as he slumped in his seat. Watching the screen he was able to forget about the rest of the big room, the noise and activity going on around him. He wondered if the weed was treated in some way for he hadn't been this stoned in years. He looked over at Big Man and the Hyena and it looked like they were in trances, watching the TV. Finally, the Hyena glanced over at Simmer with half closed red eyes and showed him his lazy, insolent smile.

"You all right?" he asked.

Simmer just shook his head and laughed. At this point he didn't know how good he'd be on the job site. Summing up the energy to go to the bathroom seemed like a chore. Still, Simmer wanted another pop of vodka, and to splash some water on his face, so he made the effort. On his return to his seat he bought a soda from the machine, a kind with plenty of caffeine in it.

It was a good thing that his crew wasn't the first to be sent out; he had time to get his head together a little. Enough to stand at the counter and answer when his name was called and tell the equipment man what he needed. Once he was in the van he would feel easier.

Simmer still found it hard to believe that only a few tokes off that one joint had sent him flying like this. He wouldn't mind getting some more of that for after work

Everything went fine. Once out at the college, and after the first hour or so of work, Simmer had come down enough to where he was thinking clearly, and he laughed with Big Man and his sidekick when he saw them in different places around the building. The supervisor wasn't going to let the slackers off easy this day; he kept his eye on the two all morning, and this had the other guys laughing.

"Them boys brought it on themselves," one worker said. "Now the man's gonna have 'em humpin' all day."

And indeed, Big Man and the Hyena weren't laughing and gabbing at lunchtime. Both men dragged their feet and looked like they very much needed a lift of some sort. Apparently, they had something for just this situation, for the easy smiles were back after the lunch break. The smell of reefer on them could just about knock somebody over and Simmer wished that he had gotten in on a little more of that, but only for a moment. The memory of that morning, stoned, at the labor pool was enough to chase that thought away. Besides, he had made himself a strong cocktail at lunch and that would carry him through a good part of the afternoon.

This second day took more out of Simmer because he had to work more with the sledgehammer than on the previous day. There was no way to avoid it; he had to take his turns, sore finger or not (at least he could bend it). Also, there was more walking up and down stairs this day, and with the poorly fitting, heavy boots on, it took its toll. He was genuinely beat when five o'clock rolled around.

It took him less than five minutes to suck down his first two beers. He sat outside the gas station carwash again and by the time a half hour had passed, four beers had gone down. Then he started to feel better; the alcohol dulled the ache in his muscles and, for the moment, he forgot about his bruised and swollen finger.

Simmer would have liked a shower, but here it was almost seven o' clock already the deadline for being at the mission for a bed and he didn't feel like walking ten blocks to get there. It would be another splash bath at one of the fast food joints. After a visit to the liquor store that is. That eighty-proof kick kept calling to him. He thought of how good a taste of it was in the middle of the night to help with the stiffness in his joints and relax him enough so that he could nod off again. If he couldn't sleep, then a nip or two put some color in his thoughts.

Later that night, Simmer found himself in a small park on the north side, talking animatedly to himself. A short time before he had surprised two men sitting at a picnic table when he burst through some bushes while looking for a place to lie down. Simmer couldn't help but laugh, knowing he was drunk. The two black men, on the streets themselves judging by the assortment of shopping bags they had with them, weren't quite sure what to make of this man who had suddenly staggered out at them with a pack slung over his shoulder.

Simmer talked too much. He was aware of that after he wished them a good night and headed off further into the park. He laughed to himself, thinking of what the two men were probably saying to each other then. That white boy's fucked up. That boy's gonna find trouble walking around drunk like that. As long as he don't find it around here.

Simmer sat for a while at the park's apex, under a gazebo, drinking the last of his beers, feeling good, talking to himself. No one else wanted to listen to him, so why not? He felt as if he was the only one awake and feeling this lit up in the area. The downtown sidewalks had been rolled up hours ago; things seemed too quiet for a city this size. It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn't seen any bars in downtown Birmingham, or none that he could recall. No night spots with music coming out of them. No people swaying down the street, laughing and having a good time. That's what had been missing, and only then had it come to him in that quiet park. Simmer thought of what a man had said to him a couple days before, about this being the Bible Belt and how folks took their Jesus seriously around here; and the thought of him getting his feet washed followed that. Yes, perhaps that was it; the firm, admonishing spirit of Jesus kept things subdued around here at night. No place for rowdy beer joints and rocking music. Be at home studying the Good Book.

Simmer thought that he could probably get away with sleeping right there in the park, but there were too many lights for his liking. The cops might have a nightly patrol to roust any campers.

He left the park and cut across a main street, and then proceeded down a winding side street with fewer lights. He passed what looked like a mill of some sort, with lights on inside. He could hear the sound of machinery running inside. At the rear of the building grass grew higher than his knees, and what looked like discarded junk was scattered around, along with a pile of scrap wood. But what had caught Simmer's eye was an old rusted out hulk of a trailer that looked like it hadn't moved in years. There was no roof on it, but that didn't matter to Simmer; there were sides high enough to form a little "room" for him, and he quickly jumped into the thing. Immediately he saw that he had to step carefully for there were holes rusted through the bottom, and a cut from one of those sharp metal edges would mean a visit to the hospital.

Someone had slept here before: the telltale signs of cardboard, bottles and cans, newspaper, food wrappers, an old pair of shoes. The cardboard was on a wooden pallet and this was good enough for a tired Simmer. There was a spotlight on the back of the old building, but the high sides of the trailer kept the glare off him. As he lay there with his shoes off and nipping at his vodka, Simmer told himself that this would be his resting spot for as long as he was in town. He sensed that it was safe from the law, unless a cop actually saw him jump in; and there wasn't anything here worth anybody's concern, which is what Simmer liked about it.

The next morning, very early, Simmer gave up trying to sleep and started in the direction of the labor pool. He had quite a few blocks to walk and he took his time, looking for an all night store or gas station where he could get a cup of coffee. He spotted one gas station, but there were three or four men hanging around in front of it, sounding loud and fucked up. Which was probably the case as it was no later than four a.m. Upon seeing the men, Simmer turned and headed the other way, not up for loud and obnoxious company at that time of day.

Someone spotted him, and then there was a chorus of shouts and yelling. Hey! Hey! C'mere! Hey you! Where you goin'? I'm talking to you! Hey, asshole! Fuck you!"

Fuck you too, Simmer thought. It was too early for that kind of shit. He was irritable from lack of sleep. He hadn't slept much in the last two nights, though physically he felt drained. He was running on empty and he knew it.

Not only that but he could smell himself. He hadn't showered in days, and though he had done his best to clean himself over a sink, that didn't cut it with the kind of work he was doing. That night he would definitely sleep in the mission, he told himself. Sleep in a bed, clean, with some clean clothes to put on in the morning. He could go into the service with a buzz on.

Back out to the college for the third day, but not before his two buddies turned him on with another cigarette outside the labor pool. Apparently, this was a morning routine with them.

"You stay outside last night, Henry?" the Hyena asked, grinning at him in that insolent way. "You still look drunk."

Simmer was quite drunk this morning. He'd had difficulty finding a place that sold coffee, and thus had nipped at the vodka more than he should have on an empty stomach.

"Did you get any rest at all?" Big Man asked.

"A little," Simmer said, and he laughed. What did he need rest for when he felt this good?

The third day on the job started in a confused way that never stopped in the brief time that Simmer was there. The first thing the men found out (and a disappointment it was) was that the quiet, older man wasn't going to be their boss that day. Instead, there were several younger men walking around with white hats and too much coffee in their systems. They gathered together and pointed here and there at what had to be done, and then assigned men to different jobs: three workers at one level of the building, three or four at another, a couple men outside to clean up around the dumpsters.

Simmer ended up with three other men in the very lower or underground level of the three-story building where the lighting was dim and the walls hadn't been knocked down yet. There were two sledgehammers for the four of them, and they alternated with them. They worked at that for a short time before Simmer and one of the others was called away to do something else in another room clean-up work with shovels and wheelbarrows.

Besides the labor pool men, there were plenty of Hispanic workers hustling here and there, company employees who looked busy but didn't seem to be doing much of anything. Simmer and his partner emptied wheelbarrow loads into one big heap next to a ramp to the outside.

Then Simmer's partner wandered off somewhere and Simmer never saw him again. Yet another supervisor grabbed him and took him to another room, assigning him to the job of taking down the top half of a wall that hung from the ceiling. He had one big sledgehammer and an unsteady wooden ladder to do it. He needed someone to hold the ladder, but the Hispanic workers hustled back and forth, ignoring him. After almost falling a couple times, Simmer had had enough. He wasn't accomplishing anything, and he damn sure wasn't going to risk his neck for this pay.

He left that room and went and looked for some of the others in his group, but they had been moved somewhere else. This was no surprise, as there were too many supervisors this day. One told you one thing, and another told you something else.

One of the white hats saw him and snapped at him. They didn't need him in here. There was work to be done in another room. Follow me.

By this time (it was still early in the day) Simmer had been moved four times by different bosses and he was sick of it. He was sick of sledgehammer work, and he wasn't going to stand on any rickety ladder with one. He was fed up with not being allowed to finish a job, and he could see this happening all day long, while some members of his crew "got lost" somewhere on the campus.

It was then that fatigue from the last few days hit him, weariness in spirit and body. He listened to the boss give him some quick instructions and nodded his head, but as the man walked off in his clean jeans, with a pencil behind his ear, Simmer knew he was out of there. He wanted to be somewhere where he could see sunlight, and not in this place that seemed like an underground parking garage, where the dust was as thick as smoke.

Simmer walked up a couple levels to the water cooler and drank a couple cups. He saw his sneakers in a bag against the wall and decided to go through with what had entered his mind two floors below.

Walking across the campus, he half expected someone to yell to him, but no one did. At the student union building, Simmer took his boots off (he left the hard hat and goggles at the site). Instead of going through the security checkpoint at the front gate, Simmer hopped a stone wall and started down the street in the direction of downtown. He soon spotted a woman and her baby waiting for a bus, and he sat and waited with them. He felt relieved that he had gotten away from the job and out into some fresh air. It was too nice of a day to be doing that kind of work indoors. He had a shot of vodka to clear the dust from his throat and he felt some energy now. But he would take it easy for the rest of the day, perhaps sit in one of the downtown parks for a few hours. Tomorrow, early, he would start south either by thumb or by bus, depending on the price of a bus ticket.

On the local bus going downtown, Simmer laughed at the thought of the crew's response to his absence. They would just find his hat and goggles. What happened to the little white guy with glasses? Big Man and the Hyena would guess that he was passed out somewhere on the campus, and a few of them would probably keep their eyes open on the lunch break, shaking their heads, laughing, perhaps expecting Simmer to appear with a foolish grin on his face.

Back in town, Simmer bought a coffee and spiked it. He happened to pass by the small park with the Temptations' music playing in it and he sat there again, enjoying his cocktail and singing along with the songs.

"Well, here's to you, Karen," he said in a toast to his friend in Texas. "It shouldn't be too much longer now."

But again, there was that question: did he really want to go to Houston and live with Karen and get into that routine again? Would he be more content there?

Sure, he had started in that direction, just to go somewhere. But when he got further south, in Mobile say, then he still had the option of going east or west. He had put that final decision off for a couple weeks now, but the time would be coming in a day or two. It felt like something hanging over his head, so Simmer got off the park bench and walked again, trying to focus on something else. One day at a time, he told himself. And this day had turned out to be an enjoyable one. He had it all to himself.

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