Long Gone

Published: July 31, 2015

Sam flinched as a rivulet of rainwater soaked through the tarpaulin roof of his cardboard shack and inched its way down his neck. He tipped the pint of whiskey and waited in vain for a drop of warmth to land on his tongue. One dry thing in the place, and it had to be his bottle. The ground shuddered, or was he unsteady? He decided to visit the strip mall and find a place to hole up until the storm passed.

A year ago, Sam had stumbled upon this spot — a copse of trees thick enough to hide his shack from prying eyes, yet close to stores and dumpsters. After winters up north, Florida seemed like paradise. But now they were clearing his woods, breaking ground for condos. He was still hidden from the mall, but visible from the construction site on the opposite side.

By the time Sam reached the mall, rain streamed from his clothes. His fingers gripped a soggy $5 bill. As he pushed open the door to the liquor store, a buzzer sounded. The owner glared. “Show me your money.” Sam held up the grungy five spot. “Get your bottle and leave. You smell like the Swamp Thing.”

Sam grabbed a quart of Red Bird wine, resisting the temptation to twist off the cap and have a swig. The owner snatched the grubby five from his fingers, thought better of putting it in the cash drawer, and dropped it on the counter. He gave Sam a few cents change and said, “Now beat it.”

Sam kept his eyes down. “Could I stay a while? There’s no other customers.”

“You’re stinking up the store. Go back to that palace of yours.”

“The ground’s shaking.”

“Look, old timer, you’re the one shaking. Drink your wine and go to sleep. Maybe when you wake up the sun will be out.”

Sam slid the bottle into the pocket of his sweat pants and returned to the rain. The pizza joint was lit up, so he sloshed down the sidewalk. A gust of wind rattled the glass door and propelled him into the store. Setting down a cell phone, the pie man said, “If it isn’t Sodden Sam. Make it quick, the boss just told me to close up.”

“Any pizza left?” Sam asked, staring at a platter with two slices on it.

“Any money?”

Sam rummaged in his pockets and let his few coins rattle on the counter. “What will that buy me?”

“A piece of bubble gum, if I sold it.”

The wind howled and a bang came from the kitchen. “That damn back door will tear right off its hinges some day,” the counterman said. “Be gone when I get back.” He tipped the slices into the trash and moved through the swinging door into the kitchen.

Sam opened the front door, banged it closed, but didn’t leave. Instead, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled behind the counter, below the sight line of the single window in the kitchen door. He eased open the trash and pulled out the slices of pizza. When he reached for a napkin, he spotted the cell phone. Sam slid it into a pocket, and crawled for the door, his meal clutched in one hand.

Back in his hut, Sam felt much better. Alternating mouthfuls of pizza with gulps of Big Red he could almost forget how wet he was. Licking the last of the tomato sauce from his grimy fingers, he pulled out the cell phone. He ran his finger across the words “slide to unlock.” The screen filled with colorful badges. He flipped the phone over. There was the picture of an apple he was looking for. Benny had shown him one like this and promised $50 for every one he brought him. And the pie man deserved it, throwing food away rather than giving it to a hungry man.

Drowsy, Sam lay back on his cot. He found a picture of a flashlight on the phone and tapped it with his finger. A beam lit up his leaky roof. Amazing. This would come in handy as he needed to tap a kidney.

Sam was nearly done watering a tree when the ground gave a violent lurch. He pointed the phone at his camp just in time to see his worldly possessions disappear into the earth with a great, sucking whoosh. He waved his arms in disbelief and the phone shot from his hand. It landed no more than five feet in front of him, quivered, and was lost in the rapidly expanding hole.

Half crawling, half running, Sam stumbled through the woods, low branches whipping his face and arms. Gasping for air, he burst into the service alley behind the strip mall. Rain pummeled him, drops smashing into the pavement and bouncing past his knees. Where could he find shelter?

He ran blindly, until he smacked his head on the lift bar of the liquor store’s dumpster. He raised the lid. Unlike the pizza parlor’s, there was no rotted food in this one. And it was almost watertight. If he stayed near the center, he would be dry. Sam climbed in and lowered the lid after himself. Thanks to the wine, he slept, his dreams a tumult of sirens and voices booming through megaphones.

The Florida sun heated the dumpster and woke Sam early. The morning was as beautiful as the night had been ugly. Climbing out, he was amazed to see that the strip mall had been turned into a staging area for emergency vehicles. Every type of fire truck, ambulance, and police car was parked, many with lights flashing. Sam did what he usually did when confronted with authority. He skulked away.

His feet carried him toward the town doughnut shop, even though he had been barred from the place. The smell of hot coffee and sugary grease had him salivating by the time he reached it. A sign on the glass door read, “Under New Management.” Maybe his luck was changing.

Sam slithered inside and hunched his shoulders, ready to be challenged. But everyone, customers and workers alike, were standing at the counter, staring at the television mounted on the wall. Sam was more hungry than curious. He darted from table to abandoned table, scooping pastries from trays and stuffing them into his pants. Grabbing the biggest container of coffee he could find, he eased toward the exit. A wallet sitting in an open purse hopped into his pocket. He stopped to take a newspaper and that was nearly his undoing. A uniformed policeman opened the door just as Sam reached it. To Sam’s surprise, he stepped aside and waved for him to pass. “Hurry up, Bud. My unit’s been up all night and they’re jonesing for coffee.”

Sam ducked under the officer’s arm and scuttled down the street. He flopped onto a park bench where he inhaled a croissant and a scone, washing them down with liberal jolts of black coffee. Then he turned to the newspaper. The front page made him spill what was left of his drink. “Mega Sinkhole Swallows Site — Homeless Man Feared Dead.”

Sam wondered if he were dead, and that was why no one had seen him filch his breakfast. Then he remembered the door-holding policeman. Reading more, he learned that there was a massive rescue operation underway. The pie man, whose name turned out to be Gino Barretti, said that he had activated the Find My Phone app on his home computer. When he gave the police the coordinates, they realized the phone and presumably Sam were in the sinkhole. Gino reported that he had given Sam a free meal and was surprised that he had taken his phone.

The liquor store owner commented on how friendly Sam was. He said he had offered to drive him to a shelter, but Sam had refused. Others, people Sam had never heard of, were quoted as having conversations with him on a daily basis. Everyone agreed that he was a wonderful person, temporarily down on his luck.

Sam knew he should turn himself in, save the community the expense of trying to find his remains. But he liked being spoken of so fondly. Maybe some of these clowns would be nicer to the next down-and-outer they ran into.

He used the newspaper to conceal the wallet from nosy eyes. The billfold held three 20s, and there was a fourth hidden behind the owner’s drivers license. Sam pocketed the money, crumpled the wallet inside the newspaper, and deposited it in the nearest trash bin. Then he headed for the bus station. Before the authorities reached the bottom of that sinkhole, he would be long gone.

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  • Joan E. Bintliff

    Great story & I fear only too true.