Below I will publish the entire first chapter of my book, The Mad Ventures of Bindlestiff Cliff, which is currently available on Amazon. Check it out and enjoy the excerpt.
In an alley behind the most prestigious convenience store known to man, stood Cliff, a bindlestiff, who looked more than a little out of his element in that part of the city. You could argue that the entire alley was out of place because it was as clean and orderly as the day the store opened. The dumpster, concrete, and recycling carts were all apparently maintained to an uncommonly high standard for any place of business. Therefore, it was little surprise that one as crafty as Cliff would choose such a location to soldier on in the endless scavenger hunt that was his life.
Cliff looked around to see if anybody was watching him before he rooted through what was perhaps the cleanest dumpster in the world. Once upon a time, he would do that because he was embarrassed or ashamed but, as a veteran hobo, he did it simply because people just do not like it when you go through their trash. He did not know why they would get so angry, but he had a theory. The theory is that even though they threw the stuff in the trash, it is still their stuff until the garbage man hauls it away.
Cliff was larger than life in a way such that he seemed like real life cartoon character. Where he lived, it was cold much of the year, so he very often ventured forth wearing a robust brown overcoat and rarely went without his favorite green scarf. He was tall and lanky, had wild fiery red hair and beard, and he was always just a little dirtier than most folks can comfortably tolerate. Despite that, he had a way about him. He had a captivating smile, a surprisingly beautiful set of teeth, considering, and emerald green eyes. Unsurprisingly, he was often mistaken for Irish descent. His fondness for potato soup, fisticuffs, and free whiskey complicated that preconception, but, in his circle, any man lacking a fondness for anything free, especially whiskey, was the worst kind of fool.
Cliff looted some aluminum cans, half a package of Pilgrim’s Hearth oatmeal cookies, and some batteries from the dumpster behind Thriftington’s Gaseteria, a choice location for scavenging. Thriftington’s was more than well known in the hobo community because of its proximity to wealthy neighborhoods, likelihood to produce another man’s treasure, and exclusive line of Pilgrim’s Hearth products, which are highly coveted.
Cliff decided to do what only the boldest of hobo dare. He went inside Thriftington’s to attempt to lure the store clerk into giving him, begrudgingly, a parting gift. This technique involves, quite simply, annoying the clerk until he makes it worth your while to leave.
Cliff nonchalantly entered the store while the clerk was finishing with his customer. He began to saunter about as if browsing when his eyes locked with the clerk. A menacing track of cowboy showdown music played in his head as neither of them was willing to avert their eyes and end the absurdly intense game of psychological chicken. A second patron walked around the backside of Cliff seemingly afraid to cross the stream emitted by their collective stare. As the other patron cautiously approached the counter, two things happened. First, the clerk disengaged his gaze to focus on the paying customer and, second, Cliff noticed the patron was purchasing something rather special indeed.
Suddenly, Cliff’s heart began to race, and his mouth stayed just open enough to be noticeable. He turned around, and what stood before him was the Fall line of Pilgrim’s Hearth snack cakes and, perhaps the most revered of all, the Plymouthy Pilgrim Pumpkin Roll that contains the only cream cheese known to require zero refrigeration and carries the honor of having the Plymouthy Pilgrim mascot on the label. Unsurprisingly, among the various treats on display were plush toys of Plymouthy, tee shirts, coffee mugs, and even coloring books for the kids.
While the snack treats mesmerized Cliff, another customer came inside the store, rushed very quickly to the counter, and slammed down a twenty-dollar bill. “I need a pack of cigarettes. I don’t care which one just make it fast,” he said, as he tapped his foot nervously on the ground and glanced all around as if to make sure nobody was watching him.
“Well, we’ve got a special on our store brand, Pilgrim’s Puff. Right now, you can buy three packs for twenty dollars, tax included, and you get a complimentary lottery ticket,” the clerk, dressed in ridiculous pilgrim garb, cheerfully explained but still managed to find a moment to shoot Cliff a dirty look.
“That’s fine just ring it up already,” the man said, with steadily increasing impatience in his tone. As soon as the cash register popped open, he promptly pulled a gun from his pocket. “Give me money. Do it quickly and quietly, and you won’t have to deal with my friend here,” he said, calmer than he was before, and made sure to emphasize his friend was the gun in his hand.
The clerk’s hands were shaking as he clumsily filled up a brown paper sack with the money while he whimpered much like a puppy, only it was not cute at all. Cliff watched the clerk and enjoyed his suffering as if the store’s infamous uniform was not shame enough.
“I love that they still use paper sacks in this joint,” said the robber, with a quirky smile on his face.
“The liquor store down on Third Street has the best paper sacks,” Cliff mentioned, raising his voice just over a whisper. Despite that, he could be heard easily for the gravity of the situation seemed to be sucking all of the sound from the room like a sonic black hole.
“Are you talking about Moody’s? Oh, man I love that place. I used to have a girlfriend that worked there,” he said, lighting up a cigarette. He continued ignoring the distraught clerk who had been trying to hand him the bag full of cash for seemingly an eternity. The robber finally took the bag. “Thanks, do you guys want a cigarette?” he asked, gesturing to the clerk and then to Cliff.
“Sure, I’ll take one,” said Cliff and he walked gently over to the robber hoping not to do anything to alter his hospitable mood. He shared a cigarette with the robber, maintaining his policy of never turning down anything free, during which the clerk kept his hands up and looked as if he could burst into tears at any moment.
“Sir, you forgot to take your twenty dollars,” the clerk said, conjuring up the nerve to address his temporary adversary. The twenty dollars in question was the money the robber used to pay for the cigarettes.
“No, no that money is for the cigarettes. You keep it. I mean the store should keep it not you,” the robber explained.
“Aren’t you going to try to escape?” Cliff asked as he was now leaning up against the counter smoking with the mysterious armed robber. The two had oddly become chummy in the matter of a few moments. Cliff had often found, throughout his life, that he easily made friends. His problem, however, was keeping them.
“You know what? I like you, pal. I’ll tell you what; you take a pack of cigarettes for yourself. I’m not going to need them,” he said, ignoring the question as he handed a pack of cigarettes to Cliff. “Hey, wasn’t I supposed to get a lotto ticket? I did buy three packs.”
“Yes, sir,” the clerk nervously confirmed and reached out his arm, ticket in hand, towards the robber. He snatched the ticket from the clerk’s hand with the reflexes of a ninja jackrabbit and examined it rather carefully as if to authenticate it somehow.
Finally, the sound of sirens resonated faintly in the distance. Cliff walked casually over to the window and looked. “You’ve got about two minutes I’d say. They can’t be farther south than maybe Seventh Street by the sound of it,” he said, with the unwarranted confidence of a television crime scene investigator.
“How can you tell that just from listening to the sirens?” the robber asked. He apparently lacked faith in Cliff’s conclusion.
“This store calls the cops on me and my friends all of the time. One of my friends used to time them so we’d know when to leave,” Cliff explained. The robber disapprovingly looked at the store clerk as he shrugged his shoulders and frowned, confirming Cliff’s accusation.
The robber calmly walked over to Cliff. “You seem like a good guy. I have a gut feeling about you, and I tend to go with my gut. I want you to take the rest of these cigarettes for yourself. I don’t know if you smoke much, but there’s something about you that I like, and I’m sure you can find some use for them,” he said, as he handed the cigarettes to Cliff. He got the sense that refusing them would offend him, and it was free, so Cliff promptly accepted.
“It’s the beard,” Cliff said, seemingly out of nowhere.
“What?” The robber was confused and slightly amused by his randomness.
“You said there was something about me that you liked. You called it a gut feeling, but it’s not that. It’s the beard. Well, maybe it is a gut feeling but, if it is, the beard caused it. My friend, the one that timed the police, did a study once during which I asked for spare change. I got quadruple the amount of change when I had the beard compared to the time when I had shaved it off,” Cliff explained and was enjoying himself since he rarely had many conversations with outsiders. “So, keeping the beard is not only classy but also a wise business decision. People tell me it gives me something of an executive hobo look,” he continued, rubbing his beard.
The robber had a smile on his face and something of a twinkle in his eye, as he seemed to marvel at Cliff’s eccentricity. “My name’s Vince, by the way,” he said, paused, and gave Cliff the look people give after they introduce themselves and expect the other person to reciprocate.
Cliff was astonished and, at that moment, he thought about how long it had been since someone made an introduction to him. However, the realization that he was making a new friend in the middle of a robbery, and it happened to be the person carrying out said robbery, thwarted his revelation. “My name is Cliff, but my friends often call me Bindlestiff Cliff. Well, by often, I mean rarely. I think they like it because it rhymes. People like things that rhyme almost as much as they like the beard,” he said and felt the need to massage his beard for emphasis.
As soon as Cliff finished talking, several police cars exploded into the parking lot and put on a light show that rivaled a rock concert. The cars screeched to a halt, and the officers systematically exited them and positioned themselves around the entrance to the convenience store. “Lay down your weapon, and come outside with your hands up,” announced one of the police officers with a convincing level of authority.
“You need me to be a hostage? I’ll do it since you were willing to part with the three packs of Pilgrim’s Puff,” Cliff offered, while the clerk looked on in disbelief.
The idea puzzled Vince, although he appreciated it on some bizarre level. “That won’t be necessary, Cliff. This robbery was never about the money or getting away,” he said, as he tossed his gun aside and put up his hands. Cliff was confused and could only stand back and watch the event unfold.
“Now turn around, lace your fingers behind your head, and drop down to your knees,” the officer gave further instructions. Vince complied with each one willingly. As soon as Vince hit his knees, three police officers rushed into the store and cuffed him. One officer swiftly secured the gun, and a second officer walked Vince outside while a third read him his rights. The situation was noticeably intense for all parties except Vince, who did not seem the least bit surprised by the outcome, and Cliff who was quite simply used to strange things popping in and out of his life.
Cliff stood outside and watched as the police loaded Vince into the patrol car while, in the background, the police were trying to calm the clerk down enough to get a statement from him. “The homeless guy tried to help him! He was encouraging him to escape and even offered himself up as a hostage,” the clerk frantically explained, while pointing his finger, literally, in Cliff’s general direction. Cliff’s eyes grew big, and his heart began to race. He noticed that the police in the store were starting to throw some interesting and unfriendly looks his way. Despite this, he decided to stay put and see how it went. After all, it is hard to appear innocent while running away.
Eventually a police officer approached Cliff with a slightly too determined look on his face and, unfortunately for Cliff, pulled out some handcuffs at the last second. “Sir, I need you to raise your hands above your head, and turn around,” he said.
“Hey Bob, what’s this all about?” Cliff asked. Since the police arrested him numerous times in the past, it made sense that he knew the police officer by name.
“Sorry Cliff, but I’m going to have to take you down to the station for questioning at the very least. If it makes you feel any better, it’s going to be a cold night tonight so try to look at the bright side,” Bob said, as he arrested him and went through the routine that ended with Cliff in the back of his squad car. Cliff did not put up a fuss for Bob because he always liked him. Bob treated him much better than most of the other police officers and even invited Cliff to his kids’ hockey games on occasion. He typically paid for the ticket and even sprung for concession stand treats for him most times. Whether he knew it or not, Bob was probably his best friend.
Bob was once a marine, and he remained physically fit even though his honorable discharge happened over a decade ago. He was tall, about six foot two, and slender but quite muscular, likely stronger than most men his size. He had sandy blonde hair, blue eyes, and enough freckles to categorize him as freckled, though his complexion was medium. Additionally, he had a well-chiseled jawline and chin rendering him handsome enough that other men felt comfortable describing him as such. His nose and brow rounded out a satisfyingly symmetrically visage. Furthermore, his time in the military showed scars in the form of a bullet wound on his forearm, road rash mostly on his left leg, and small shrapnel wounds in his back. Many stories were claiming that he sustained more injuries, but nobody ever saw them. Overall, he considered his injuries minor and felt lucky to have completed his service intact.
Cliff sat in the back of the car for quite a long time while the officers wrapped up the ordeal. He never could get used to the confinement of having his hands cuffed behind him and being behind that divider that separated the front and back seats. Finally, Bob got into the car and began to drive across town to the police station. He expected him to say something halfway comforting but received a greeting of silence.
“You don’t believe the pilgrim guy, do you? How many times has he called you guys over there for practically no reason?” Cliff was trying to plead his case, but so far, Bob ignored his words. The only sound was the occasional cryptic chatter of the police radio. “Aren’t your boys getting ready to play in another hockey game soon?”
“Listen, don’t do that. I know that clerk seems to have it out for you, but this time, it’s serious. We’re friends; you know that, but this time let’s just leave my personal life out of it,” Bob explained the situation in the nicest way possible under the circumstances.
Cliff took a deep breath and exhaled which seemed to push out the tiniest bit of anxiety. The ride to the station seemed much longer than it had on previous occasions, and the tension in the air was thick enough to reach out, grab a big piece, and fold it like a blanket. Cliff’s only defense mechanism was to attempt to lighten the mood.
“Did I mention the guy was a pilgrim? Do you remember what they did to the Native Americans? Come on; you know that man can’t be trusted,” he said, with a look on his face that suggested the need for a pat on the back. “You know, I grew up with a kid named Bob, well Bobby, and he was a Navajo, I think, and his family didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Well, I don’t believe they did, but we were good friends for years, and he never invited me over for Thanksgiving.”
“I know what you’re trying to do, and it’s just not going to cut it,” Bob said, and Cliff’s attempts to win him over were having an opposite, agitating effect. The two remained silent for a few moments until Bob noticed he was fidgeting in the back seat. “What’s going on back there?”
“Does that cut it enough for you?” Cliff asked mischievously.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Bob asked. Suddenly, the car filled with a hot stench most unnatural yet regrettably natural. “Are you kidding me? You are disgusting. Do you know that? That’s a classic dick move.”
“How do you suppose the Native Americans felt when the pilgrims were dicks? Talk about a classic dick move,” he said. He somehow, in his twisted mind, felt that justified the air assault.
“That’s enough with the pilgrims already! I’m not above using a Taser on a guy in handcuffs. I’ve done it about fifty times so once more isn’t going to wreck my karma,” he yelled. These situations with Cliff were, regrettably, a common occurrence. Bob chalked it up as the cost of doing business when it came to being Cliff’s friend.
“After the stink behemoth I just unleashed, I wouldn’t fire a Taser in here. You’ll kill us both, and destroy city property,” he said, simply to further antagonize Bob. “In the unlikely event you survive, they’d probably arrest you and disbar you to set an example,” he added.
Bob gritted his teeth and clenched his fists while letting out an uncharacteristic scream of primal rage. Cliff did not speak for a few minutes, giving him some time to calm down, but unfortunately, Bob could not leave well enough alone. “They don’t disbar cops. You’re thinking about lawyers. I’m just saying.”
“They should’ve disbarred the pilgrims is what they should’ve done,” Cliff remarked, starting up again. Bob braced himself to be sucked further into his trademark style of insanity.
“Seriously, the pilgrim thing is getting old. You don’t even care about what the pilgrims did, and I happen to know how much you love a certain brand of snack treats, so give it up already,” he said, making some valid points that even a stubborn ass of a man such as Cliff couldn’t ignore.
“Let me just say one more thing. Think about how you’d feel if you provided a nice meal for someone, and then all they do is let you down in every possible way,” he said, in a somber yet less than genuine manner.
Bob scoffed at the statement. “I am thinking about it, and I see your point,” he said matter-of-factly. Cliff seemed pleased that Bob had finally come around. “You are the pilgrim!” Bob exclaimed, in the style of a cheesy courtroom accusation. “I bought you a pretzel at the game last week, and you repay me by ending up in the back of my squad car! How’s that for letting someone down?”
“Are you serious?” Cliff asked. He sat in awe of the audacity of such an accusation. “Are you going to compare a pretzel to the epic grandeur that is and always will be Thanksgiving?” Cliff stared long and hard into the rearview mirror as if trying to impart the reverence of that special day into Bob’s mind through a miracle of reflective science. Thanksgiving is, after all, the Super Bowl, Christmas, and a birthday party all rolled into one, as far as Cliff was concerned.
The rest of the ride was awkwardly quiet as if each of them were purposely being quiet only to spite the other one. Cliff took advantage of the peace watching the scenery as it blurred by with only the tiniest bits of imagery registering in his mind, much like during a dream. It was very much like a dream. He saw couples walking together holding hands, a small boy chasing a puppy as his dad watched and laughed, and people eating lunch in a sidewalk café enjoying the triviality of small talk. He saw all of this and thought about what he did not have and maybe never would. Also, he realized that none of those people would know that he watched them and wished that he could insert himself into their lives. To him, that was a dream.
They pulled into the parking lot of the station, a scenario that was almost as familiar to Cliff as it was to Bob, and Bob quickly retrieved Cliff from the backseat. He gave Cliff a few playful yet forceful shoves, much like an older brother giving his younger brother the business.
The inside of the police station differed drastically from the typical movie cliché. There were no prostitutes, prisoners getting rowdy, police officers running by, undoubtedly, to subdue a previously mentioned prisoner, or rebellious teenagers sitting on a bench waiting for their parents arrive. There appeared to be only one officer in sight, and he was sitting at the front desk clipping coupons and listening to passionate political talk radio. “Hey fellas, how’s it going?” he asked and did not even bother to abandon his task.
“I just got back from the robbery down at Thriftington’s. Cliff got mixed up in it somehow as he often does when any given situation calls for mischief,” Bob explained while giving Cliff a whack to the back of the head.
“Oh, wow! Should we book him?” the officer asked, with a well-rested dose of enthusiasm.
“No, we’re going to keep him off the books unless he turns out to be useful or culpable,” he said, deflating his colleague’s momentary excitement. Bob marched him down the hall to an older part of the station, the part that looked like the last painters wore bell-bottoms and used paint that children cannot safely eat. They seemingly arrived at the end of a maze, which ended with Cliff looking through the unhappy side of his very own jail cell. “I almost forgot,” Bob said, raising his finger in the air in triumph like people do when they remember not to forget something, “I need you to sign this form,” he continued, as he pulled a battered clipboard from the drawer of a similarly battered old desk.
“What is it?” Cliff asked, genuinely curious.
“It’s new. This waiver says I told you that this building might or might not contain harmful levels of asbestos and, unless your stay here exceeds thirty days, you release this establishment from all claims relating to any injury sustained therein. A little something the city council cooked up I suspect. You don’t have to sign it; no one ever does,” he said, lending little credibility to the whole idea.
The thought of signing the document intrigued him perhaps if only to feel normal. After all, the last time anyone asked him to sign anything Cliff ended up in a strange group of fellows that wanted him to drink some weird fruity drink. “Sure, I’ll sign your papers,” Cliff said, as he took the clipboard and signed on the line where Bob showed him. Cliff’s regal penmanship was a pleasant surprise. “Does that mean I’m going to be here for more than thirty days, Bob?” he asked, as Bob left without a word. The thought occurred to him that the nature of his stay in jail would be different this time, not in a good way.
Out of nowhere, a voice rang out and alarmed Cliff, lost amidst his thoughts. “Cliff, is that you?” He did not answer back at first because he was not sure whom it was trying to get his attention. “Cliff, is that you? Hey, it’s Vince. It’s funny how we keep meeting like this,” he joked, but the silence swiftly swept away his smile.
“What’s funny about it? How are we meeting exactly?” Cliff asked. His tone suggested it was merely a statement in the form of a question and carried with it a slight hint of irritability. The realization that he might have been rude hit him immediately; the silence in the cellblock seemed to confirm his suspicion.
“I guess I don’t blame you for being upset. I’m sorry I got you into this mess. It wasn’t the plan,” Vince explained. He did not expect his apology to be much of a consolation prize.
“Did you have a plan?” Cliff asked. Soon, the two would-be crooks filled the sad little jail with laughter. Afterward, when the laughter faded, he went over the robbery repeatedly in his head but could not make sense of it. From a logical point of view, now made possible without the impairment of adrenaline, Vince’s handling of the robbery was nothing short of ridiculous. “I’m going to have to ask that again, Vince. What was your plan? You didn’t even try to escape. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think that you wanted to get caught,” he said, unintentionally ushering in a silence shrouded in deafening anticipation.
Finally, Vince cleared his throat and blew out a few sighs that seemed to drop straight to the floor like little anvils of air. “Well, no offense, but you don’t know any better. You are right; I didn’t have an escape plan. My plan worked like a charm. I am in jail; I will get a crappy public defender, and be in prison soon enough. You know what, I’m going to plead guilty, so I think I’ll just defend myself like people do on television sometimes,” he smirked. He tried to make light of the situation, but it exploded into existence like a territorial gorilla.
Cliff was shocked, to say the least, and did not know how to respond. Eventually, he just said the first thing that popped in his mind. “None taken,” he said and decided, in an instant, to stand behind his blurt.
“I’m not following you, pal,” Vince responded, bewildered, and began to get more than a feeling that Cliff was a little off.
“Well, you said no offense, so that’s what you say after someone says that. That way you know the person didn’t take offense because they still can if they want to. I used it on a friend of mine three times in one day. The third time he took offense,” he explained. Cliff had a knack for complicating the simplest of things.
Vince laughed a laugh that was somewhere between genuine and a courtesy laugh. “I could see how that might be a problem,” he humored him. For some reason, he thought to himself; he liked Cliff from the second he first met him. He trusted him. “You seem like good people. I’m going to be straight with you,” he said, beginning to confide in him. He had lived a rough life and had to grow up much faster than many others do. Perhaps that is why he felt something similar to kinship with Cliff because he, of course, has had a life full of challenges.
“I can keep a secret,” Cliff said curiously. “More than once people have referred to this as the beard of trust,” he said, as he, once again, emphatically stroked his beard.
Any doubt Vince had about confiding in him peeled away. “I have cancer, Cliff, and it’s bad but not terminal so long as I get treatment. You know, my life sucks, but that doesn’t mean I want to die. At least not before I can maybe do something worth something,” he explained, and his eyes became increasingly riddled with sadness the more he talked.
The level of trust Cliff received touched him so much that it conjured goosebumps. “So you just wanted to rob a store before you got too sick? You didn’t seem to want to the money that bad or you would’ve tried harder. I’m sorry about you being sick, but I still don’t understand why you gave up.”
“Honestly? I gave up because I am not giving up. What I mean to say is I saw this thing on television. Well, you know, I had given up I guess. I went to see my mom and tell her about my cancer and that I might die. She loves me, but I have put her through an awful lot over the years. We weren’t dirt poor, but we weren’t far from it. We still are,” he rambled on, seemingly wrestling with his emotions.
“Focus on the beard,” Cliff said, smiling just a tiny bit in the hopes to help Vince get through his story. Vince laughed, but he also shed a tear.
“I hadn’t been to see her in about a year. She still made a huge fuss about me being there, and she wouldn’t stop cleaning up, she made me lunch, offered me coffee, and kept on commenting about how she wished she had dressed herself up better. All that time, I failed to work in the cancer conversation. I felt guilty somehow. Then it just hit me. This documentary came on the television about prison health care and how they have it better than many regular folks that didn’t break the law. I watched it with her, and it was as if I was supposed to see it. I couldn’t remotely begin to afford my treatment, and now I had my answer,” he said, with conviction in his words and a spark of hope in his eyes.
“You robbed that store for free health care?” The news his ears had just transmitted to his brain stunned him, and he practically yelled.
“I know, stupid, huh?” Vince replied. He seemed deflated by the reaction he received because he had convinced himself it was his only option.
“That’s sheer genius! The worst case scenario would be an idiot savant, maybe but I think it’s positively brilliant,” Cliff excitedly said, which revitalized Vince’s mood. “Sometimes I loiter in Thriftington’s, so they’ll call the cops. Then I mix it up a bit. Sometimes I’ll knock stuff off the counter, and once I even pulled my pants down.”
“Why would you do that?” Vince asked hesitantly and braced himself for the answer.
“Same as you, I wanted to get caught. A warm night in jail is better than a cold night outside. So, I guess I understand what you did on some level,” Cliff explained. There was a look of content on Vince’s face now that was not there before.
“I guess that explains why the clerk seemed to have a bad attitude towards you,” Vince said, keeping the conversation flowing. In jail, the conversation is the leading way to pass the time.
“I can’t blame him. I made myself a bad reputation with them. After a while, Bob would let me sleep in the jail on some of the more brutal winter nights without the theatrics and nuisance arrests. He is just about the nicest person I know, no offense,” he added, clarifying the history he had carved out.
“None taken,” he replied jokingly. After that, the two sat and absorbed the heft of the conversation they just shared. Apparently, they both seemed to assume that the other one did not feel like talking anymore, and they were both right. It is very hard to follow up some things with small talk.
Suddenly, the main cell door opened, and Bob emerged. “We had pizza, so I brought you two some leftovers,” he said, as he handed each man a slice and a bottle of water. Bob started to say something but locked the cell instead.
“I guess you were right about Bob. I certainly didn’t think I’d be eating pizza at this point. You don’t exactly need a trial to know that I robbed the store,” he said, while he enjoyed his unexpected meal.
Cliff raised his head as if a paranoid squirrel eating a nut. “Allegedly,” he mumbled, just over the cacophony of odd and slightly bothersome gobbling noises.
“It’s ok,” laughed Vince, “I know what I did and so do you. We were both there, so there’s no reason to say otherwise,” he continued.
Cliff gave Vince a puzzled look complimented with a partially tilted head and raised eyebrows that suggested he found something amiss. “This is still America, isn’t it? Do you know how I know that?” Cliff asked, staring at him as if he could instill some wisdom with his gaze. “I know that because I, for maybe the thousandth time, successfully rummaged through someone else’s garbage, and I’m still whole. In most countries, they chop off your hands for that. Even in more civilized countries, like England and France, you need a permit to look through people’s trash. In fact, I’ve got a buddy that has a permit to dig in dumpsters in five different languages,” he ranted on but failed to make any sense.
“I’m probably going to wish I didn’t ask but what’s your point besides the fact that we are in America. That part I knew,” he sarcastically replied.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty. You have to be careful about what you say in here. For all you know, the cops could plant a snitch in here to try to strengthen their case against you,” he whispered loudly. His paranoia was completely misplaced.
“First of all, I’m pleading guilty, so I don’t see how a theoretical snitch matters to me. Secondly, you are the only one here, and you know everything already. Also, you don’t strike me as the type of guy that turns on his friends,” he said, hoping to get through to him by way of flattery.
“You want to be my friend?” Cliff asked, surprised.
“Sure why not? I don’t have too many of those right now. I’ve never been very good at keeping friends,” he explained.
“I don’t know. I guess I thought of you as a non-consensual acquaintance. Besides, I don’t usually befriend outsiders,” Cliff said. It was obvious he was giving it serious thought or at least the illusion of it.
“Well, lucky for me I don’t see myself being outside of anything anytime soon so maybe we can work it out. What in the world is a non-consensual acquaintance? It makes me sound like some rapist when you say that,” Vince said, mildly disgusted.
“That sounds about right. It just means I didn’t want to make your acquaintance, but you forced yourself into that role during the robbery. I’d say, if anything, that makes you a social rapist,” Cliff explained. His theory made some sense to Vince, which made him feel better and worse simultaneously.
“What do you mean by a social rapist? Get out of here! You’re making this all up as you go along,” Vince replied, slightly agitated, as people very often are when they talk to Cliff, and he let loose a quartet of hand gestures meant to magnify his disagreement.
“Ah, yes but what was a frog before someone came along and named him so? A coin flip at the right point in history could have put the cart before the ox and made it okay. When I was a kid, there were nine planets, and now there are only eight, but they are all still there. How is that so?” Cliff might as well have been speaking in riddles and was creeping Vince out to a noticeable degree.
“You’re an interesting guy and weird too. You didn’t explain how I raped you, though. Now might be a good time to think about that snitch you mentioned. I don’t need the rape charge on top of the robbery,” Vince said, humoring him.
“I’m glad you brought it up. A few examples of social rape are: a man in his 40’s that is very tan and wearing very short cut-offs, people that fart in elevators, people that leave their empty shopping cart in the middle of a parking space, and my personal favorite, people that repeatedly talk during a movie. The list goes on and on,” he explained.
Without warning, the cell door opened, and a couple of detectives filed in along with Bob. Bob opened up Vince’s cell, and the detectives hauled him away hastily. They did not speak a word, and neither did Vince, who seems utterly convinced to follow through with his plan.
Bob lingered. “Which room are they putting him in, and who were those guys? I don’t recognize them,” Cliff asked as if he was a member of the force.
“Those guys are federal. Apparently, Vince has ties to a covert military squad of some kind. They’re here to assess him,” Bob answered and seemed somewhat excited by the break from the mundane.
“Assess him? Why?” Cliff asked.
“I don’t know. I am guessing to make sure he is sane enough that he doesn’t start giving out confidential military info. Well, forget about that, you need to come with me,” he said, as he opened the cell door and motioned for Cliff to follow him.
“You’re supposed to cuff me before you let me out of the cell you know. That’s protocol,” Cliff said, as he stumbled down the hall behind Bob.
“Give me a break, Cliff. You are getting in my face at every turn today. Besides, we’ve done this dozens of times, and I haven’t cuffed you since the first few times after I met you,” he replied. Cliff was determined to be himself even though it often tortured those around him.
“I see what you’re saying but this time is different. I’m at the very least a person of interest if not a suspect,” Cliff said, correcting him at his peril.
“Listen! I know you are on this never-ending crusade to amuse yourself, but this time you should take this seriously! For once in your life just shut up, and go along easy,” Bob exploded at him. He was normally the calmest police officer around and did not let the prisoners get to him. However, he was struggling to keep his cool since he genuinely cared about Cliff, and it worried him how far he would take this simply for the sake of curiosity.
Cliff stayed silent and decided not to keep chipping away at the subject. He did so not because he was taking his friend’s advice but because he was giving Bob a break he had not so subtly asked of him. There was a definite madness to his methods, a fact that he was keenly aware of and entirely comfortable with, but Bob’s friendship meant just enough for him to reign in the madness for a spell.
Bob had escorted Cliff to a small office rather than the interrogation room, which was his assumed destination. The room was spotless despite a significant number of files on the desk and a partially eaten sack lunch. A plaque with the name Detective Bright was at the front of the desk.
“Wait here, and don’t cause any problems,” said Bob, as he moderately forced Cliff into a chair.
“Who’s Detective Bright?” Cliff asked, but Bob disappeared without answering.
Cliff waited for what seemed like an eternity in that small office. Occasionally, someone would walk by the door, but nobody came inside. Cliff switched between tapping his foot obsessively and making strange almost musical noises with his mouth and sighing. He began to wonder if they forgot about him altogether and considered trying to leave. Just when he had bottled up enough courage to try, a man finally walked into the office.
“Hello, I’m Detective Denny Bright,” he said, as he sat behind his desk. Denny wore what seemed like a brand new suit. He was average height and weight but appeared to lean just towards the more physically fit side. He was clean-shaven and had a clean 1950’s look about him. Even his glasses paid tribute to that era.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Cliff,” he said begrudgingly. Detective Bright noticed he made Cliff uncomfortable but, in these situations, the person on the wrong side of the desk is most definitely the uncomfortable one.
“Bob filled me in on you. He’s on your side, Cliff,” he said, hoping his inclusion of Bob in the conversation would break the ice. “We’ve spent some time talking with the suspect in the robbery. I’m sorry you had to wait in here so long, but the federal guys were less than accommodating,” he continued.
“You mean Vince?” Cliff asked. He did not feel the need to pretend not to know his name. However, it did occur to him the danger of appearing too chummy with him. After all, there was a reason he had gotten to know Bob so well, and his leeriness of the law was more than mere paranoia.
Detective Bright studied him long enough for the two of them to notice. He seemed to be deciding what approach to take with his interview. After taking into account his previous conversation with Bob, it became apparent to him that Cliff was no stranger to the situation, so the standard approach seemed pointless. He nervously clicked his pen as he continued to think, which annoyed Cliff mildly. Cliff was something of an expert at bothering people, so his tolerance for it was rather impenetrable despite the fact that he was currently the annoyee rather than the annoyer. Denny continued to click his pen, and then he looked as if he was going to say something, but he changed his mind, making a facial expression that seemed to confirm his indecisiveness. He got out of his chair abruptly and walked casually across the room, poured himself a cup of coffee, and then performed his version of the coffee ritual, which typically involves some combination of cream and sugar.
The silence and suspected theatrics had amused Cliff, but he could not wait any longer. “You’re one man short if you’re going to do the typical cop routine on me,” he said, attempting to spark an emotional response.
Detective Bright continued to drink his coffee. “Bob told me to be careful not to let you suck me into a mind game. Apparently, you have quite a knack for irritating the officers around here,” he said and again sat behind his desk. He took another drink of his coffee, and the steam temporarily fogged up his glasses. “That being said, I’m just going to be straightforward with you because it isn’t my style to play games. I have quite a load of work to do as you can see,” he said, as he gestured towards the stacks of files on his desk.
The two shared a brief nugget of mutual understanding. Cliff ceremoniously straightened his coat collar and crossed his legs as if posturing himself in a manner that would allow him to take this matter seriously, as was suggested to him earlier. “I have all the time in the world. However, I’m much more curious to hear what you have to say than to sit here quietly. Mystery is overrated.”
“I suppose I can work with that,” he said. He moved his coffee to one side of his desk and moved some files around. It appeared he, like Cliff, was doing some posturing of his own. “I’ll get straight to it as promised. We talked to the clerk, to the suspect, and reviewed the video of the robbery. Thriftington’s is a nice place, big too, so they also have video outside and in the alley. Obviously, we have a video of you that puts you in the alley before entering the store. As far as we can tell, you never conspired with the suspect, Vince, before the robbery, so the only question we have is in regards to this hostage talk. Honestly, if you can clear that up for me, with the statement Vince already gave me, I’m prepared to let you walk out of here,” he summed it all up.
Cliff appreciated how refreshingly blunt Detective Bright was, his expression echoed this twice over. It seemed only fair to reciprocate. “I’m not sure what you know or what you were told about me. I’m homeless and have been so for so long that it is all I know. I’ve lost friends who have pulled themselves back into society. They get a job, a place to stay, and eventually get back on their feet and assimilate back into the world like a shiny new cog in the big old fancy machine that we call the public. Whatever that means,” he said. As he sulked, he could feel disgust outwardly emanating from his entire being. “Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good thing they make it back to life. Some of them even try to come around and pretend like they can have it both ways but they never can for very long. Then you have the friends you lose to hunger or the cold. I have been at this long enough to lose so much that losing is all I have left to gain. So when you ask me why I’d be a hostage in exchange for a pack of cigarettes, I can only say I’m just trying to put myself one step closer to what I’ve come to call wealth. An extra pack of cigarettes is a windfall. You seem like a smart guy, so I’m just going to assume you’ve caught onto my message here,” he said. Speaking about such pressing matters always made him uncomfortable, no matter how forthcoming his audience was.
“Bob told me you were something else, and I can’t say I disagree,” he said, as he sprung up from his chair and walked over to the door. “You are free to go, but we may need to question you later on so it’d be best if you could keep yourself available to us for the foreseeable future. For now, I appreciate your cooperation,” he went on, as if a diplomat.
“Don’t worry, Denny. He is not much of a flight risk. Besides, he is unlikely to stay off my radar for a whole day. Lucky for me, I just thought of what I can tell my wife to get me for my birthday this year,” Bob said, popping in from nowhere and sprinkling the room with his usual blend of grumpy sarcasm.
Denny patted Bob on the back and began to walk away, to another task undoubtedly. “See him out for me, Bob. Thanks,” he said, as he disappeared.
“I guess you’re coming with me. Hopefully, we can at least make it out to the parking lot before I have to arrest you again,” he said, as he grabbed Cliff and began to pull him along as a mom would an unwilling toddler.
“Did you notice that?”
Bob did not answer him. He stayed on task, continuing to usher him along. Cliff kept looking at Bob, determined to provoke a response.
Bob stopped suddenly and let out a peculiar noise that seemed to be a combination of a grunt, a sigh, and a yell. “What? I didn’t notice anything; I just want to get you out of here and get on with my day. So far, the best thing I can say about today is that I didn’t get peed on.”
“Never mind, I’ll just let it go this time. Like you said, it’s been a long day.”
“Okay then,” Bob replied suspiciously. He lowered his brow as he examined Cliff as if to see if he could hold up his end of the bargain.
The two finally made it outside and instinctively went in opposite directions. Cliff began his rather long walk while Bob headed for his patrol car. As soon as Bob sat down, he groaned in relief. He had not realized how very tired he was until then. For a moment, he tilted his head back and closed his eyes. As he leaned forward and opened his eyes, he noticed it was exactly the time for his shift to end. He smiled and turned on the ignition. The sound of the engine firing up was, to his ears, the sound of freedom.
Down the street, Cliff was walking slowly. The cold was unrelenting. Each time the wind gust, he could feel his bones getting colder. Every step he took echoed, reminding him that he could barely feel his feet at all. He wrapped his arms around himself desperately hoping it could somehow make his coat fit tighter and warmer. He began to despair but carried on still. Suddenly, his eyes began to water, and his face flushed. He grits his teeth to try to stave off his emotions.
The brutality of the cold felt sadly familiar. It reminded Cliff of the night his grandpa passed away. As he continued to walk, he continued to cry, if only a little. He remembered walking, just like now, and being so hopelessly cold. He cried so much and endured the cold so long his tears froze to his face just as the memory froze in his brain. He also remembered the irony of that night. He suffered so much, mentally and physically, but, oddly, it also brought him some measure of comfort. The comfort he found that night was that the reality outside of him synchronized perfectly with his internal misery. He could see the last image of his grandpa in his best suit, laying lifeless in a coffin. Cliff believed that his home, like his grandpa, was dead and buried amidst the cold and darkness.
The sound of a horn frightened Cliff so much that he jumped. He quickly began wiping his face and, hopefully, any evidence that he was upset. As he regained his composure, he could now see that it was Bob.
“Hop in, buddy. It’s too cold to be walking,” he said.
Without hesitation, Cliff got inside of the car. Bob smiled and was about to say something witty but, as he looked at Cliff, he could tell his friend was distressed. Unfortunately, Bob had seen this happen many times before especially on the colder nights. In fact, it was one of the reasons, despite the obvious, that he often did his best to spare Cliff some of these nights when he could. He took a second to look at Cliff, and he felt guilty but not for the reason that one might think. Bob’s guilt was complicated and rooted in the past. The truth of his past was something he had long feared to tell Cliff and long hoped that somehow Cliff already knew and had secretly forgiven him.
Bob turned the heater up to the max and began driving. He was not positive, but he was confident he knew where to take Cliff. After making a few turns, they found themselves at a stop light.
“Yeah, just keep heading up Fifth Avenue here,” Cliff said, finally shattering the awkwardness of the silence.
“So, are we heading to the Community Shelter then?” Bob asked. His question obviously disappointed Cliff. “What?”
“You still refuse to play along don’t you?” Cliff questioned him cryptically, to anyone outside the joke, but knew he would know what he meant.
“My wife often asks me, and this is the friendly version, which one of us is the biggest jerk, and I always tell her that it depends on the day. Well, today is your day, pal.”
“You may be right about today, and, since I have nothing to lose, I’d like you just to say it one time,” Cliff pleaded playfully.
“Not a chance,” Bob replied but failed to hide the fact that he was enjoying himself.
“Okay. I’ll just say it then.”
“Bob, will you please take me to Mel’s Kitchen?” he asked, as he made a hand gesture meant to imitate a peasant bowing before a king. They both began to laugh rather insincerely, and immaturely, and eventually found themselves trying to pretend laugh over one another.
“Why do you and your merry little band always make up dumb names for everything? It’s confusing and never makes any sense?” Bob asked and was clearly agitated.
“How doesn’t it make sense and how is that fair? You can call us a merry little band, but you can’t stand some harmless fun. That doesn’t make sense.”
“I’m probably going to regret this, but how do you make that connection exactly? How does it make sense to call it Mel’s Kitchen? Crack an egg of knowledge on me,” he pleaded.
“It’s easy. Kirk Gibson is the cook at the shelter, and a place in New York is called Hell’s Kitchen, so it just works. It practically named itself that,” he said and chuckled as though it was evident.
Bob’s blood boiled with disgust. “Just shut up. Sometimes I hate you, and this is one of those times.”
“Don’t be like that. If I have to explain it, then it takes something away from it. This is why magicians don’t reveal their secrets,” he added and felt all the cleverer for having done so.
“Yeah, this situation right here and now is why magicians don’t do that. Exactly; it is a philosophical bull’s-eye. Do you know what else a magician doesn’t reveal?” Bob asked, cocked and loaded to reply.
“They don’t reveal their profession, because as soon as they do, the magic is gone, and their dinner date is walking out the door. At that point, the only trick they have left is to make the check disappear,” he said and celebrated as though he was the winner of the conversation.
“That’s kind of funny, Bob. I’ll yield to you a victory in this duel of wits,” he proclaimed, in a rather grand fashion.
“Thanks, I guess. Mel’s Kitchen is just a few blocks up.”
“You’re such a nice guy, Bob. I appreciate you getting in the spirit,” Cliff said, with genuine sincerity in his tone. “I’ve often found it enigmatic how you are so cynical and sarcastic but so nice at the same time. You say mean things, but you do nice things,” he explained, sincerely yet lightheartedly.
“I’ll give you your moment here, but don’t push your luck; it has been a long day. If we can cut back on the shenanigans for thirty seconds, I will even stop the car. I was planning on slowing down just enough for you to safely jump and roll out of the car,” Bob teased him. “You people jump out of trains all the time, so I figured it’d be okay, more or less.”
“You people?” Cliff said and gave Bob a wink as the car stopped in front of the Community Shelter. “Thanks, Bob,” he said, with a grave look in eyes. “You’re alright.”
Bob lightly punched him on the arm. “I’ll come by and check on you in the morning. You’ll be here?”
“I plan to.”
“Okay, see you later, Cliff,” Bob said, as he began to pull away. He then stopped the car again. “You have a point about this place. That has to be the most generic name. It’s as though nobody donated enough money to get their name on the building or something.”
Cliff quietly watched as he finally drove away. He always enjoyed their conversations and imagined that each of them saved up some good jabs for one another. He watched Bob’s car fade from sight before he made his way inside the shelter for some much-needed rest and warmth.
Copyright © 2016 by Adam L. Cobden. All Rights Reserved.