The old man found the newspapers in a restaurant’s recycling bin and folded the pages together just as they came from the print shop. Not that he was neat; they were simply easier to carry that way.
He was known on the street as Crags, due to his deeply lined, sunburned face. It gave him a cragginess that made him look older than he was. He wore a dirty, torn green combat jacket and war surplus desert camouflage trousers. Unruly wisps of gray hair peeked out from beneath a black wool watch cap.
A headline grabbed his attention: “Sixth homeless man found murdered.”
A chill crawled along the old man’s hunched spine. During the past month, six homeless men were found with their bellies slashed open. Shelters opened and expanded to offer vagrants protection during the night. During the day, homeless huddled together in groups for safety.
He wanted none of that. He didn’t trust the homeless any more than he trusted those who ran the shelters. As far as he was concerned, anyone of them might be the killer.
Crags found more discarded papers in another bin. The headline that caught his eye this time drew a deep growl of laughter. “Veterans prone to homelessness,” it read.
“No shit, Sherlock,” he mumbled, folding the papers, and placing them with the rest. “Ain’t had no breaks since I come back from Nam.”
That made him think of Lenny, the gangly kid from some backwater Podunk in Mississippi. Funny kid, always smiling, always ready with a joke. Crags’s best friend back then.
The old man owned no watch, hadn’t owned one in years, but he studied the sky and knew it would soon be dark. He had to didi back to his hootch, away from these streets and lights, and people who preyed on the homeless like him.
He gathered his newspapers and stuffed them into his rucksack next to a cardboard sign scrawled with COMBAT VETERAN. PLEASE HELP. He used it to beg on street corners. On a good day, like today, he could scrounge enough money to buy a cheap bottle of vodka.
Shuffling, he made his way toward the freeway overpass near where he made his hootch. He thought of Lenny again, and that made him remember the jungle, its tangled overgrowth, the thick, damp air that smelled of rot, and the sweat that cascaded off him.
Crags was young then, a big, strapping youth sinewy and muscled from Marine Corps boot camp and infantry training. Confident, invincible, he owned the damn world. The thought made him snicker. What happened to me? he wondered.
But he knew the answer.
What happened was Lenny. Crags was eight months into his tour, already working on his short-timer calendar, when it happened. He’d been walking point for the platoon, the farthest man forward, the eyes and ears for the rest of the unit. Blisters made him limp badly, and when the lieutenant called a break, the corpsman sat Crags down and removed his boot.
The corpsman was still treating Crags’s blisters when the platoon moved out again. Lenny, grinning as always, volunteered to take Crags place on point. A hundred yards down the trail, Lenny tripped a booby trap. A 155mm howitzer shell turned Lenny into a million flecks of blood, bone, and flesh.
Lenny had been his best friend. After he died, Crags didn’t make friends anymore.
Back home, he was no longer the confident, invincible man he was in the jungle. Memories plagued him by day; nightmares tormented him at night. He married once. It didn’t last. He wasn’t sure he remembered his ex-wife’s name. He held a dozen meaningless jobs in as many cities in as many years. His only solace was alcohol and drugs.
That was years ago, more years than he could remember. He’d been on the streets longer than he’d been in Nam, or married, or employed.
The old man stopped and studied the streets the way he’d once scrutinized the jungle. They could have their shelters and their protective groups. What good were they? He had been with an entire platoon—more than a hundred Marines—when Lenny died. Did numbers keep him safe? No. The old man intended to survive now the same way he did for the last months of his jungle tour. Alone. No friends. No one to depend on, and no one depending on him.
It was getting dark now. Crags crossed the freeway overpass, stopped on the far end, and examined the street again. Seeing no one, he climbed over the railing and down a hill toward a copse of trees surrounded by the curl of a freeway off ramp.