This is Precious Metals, a short story I ran across in one of my storage boxes, published in Blonde On Blonde Magazine almost a hundred years ago, in July 1988.
Slim was in pain. The affected area was roughly the same as a batter's strike zone, from the knees to the shoulders, along the spine, down in his stomach and within the chest. Late in the days, the ache knew no confinement. Slim was weary, and he did not exaggerate by saying he hurt all over. He knew the cause. It was sleeping on pavement, hardly eating, and drinking. And constantly moving. Slim was on his feet for a good part of the day, stepping off the mites of concrete. Catching his reflected image in a pane of glass, he was reminded of Lazarus. He looked like someone raised from the dead, and worse, he felt like one as well.
At nightfall, Slim decided against sleeping at the mission. He wouldn't have minded some company, but not sixty beds en en either side of him, bedded down among the hallucinators, among the ones grasping at the cross of Jesus, among his peers. Someone had told him that a guy Slim knew was sleeping beneath a bridge on the north edge of downtown. "Which bridge?" Slim had asked. "Which street?"
"Don't remember. One of 'em. It's Lefty. He's fixed him a place there. You know Lefty."
Slim moved on down the pavement. He walked through the warehouse district, and cut back to the foot of Main Street. That was the highest bridge over Buffalo Bayou, and from there, Slim could see a few blocks upstream or down. He leaned out over the railing, looking back down at the water below his feet. It was the color of chocolate milk, its only movement some slow swirls here and there. He didn't see anything of Lefty. Before vacating the area, Slim squeezed past the bridge railing and pushed into the undergrowth. From the bank of the bayou, he looked overhead at the bridge's girders for any sign of a man tucked away in the steel. San Jacinto Street was three blocks downstream. Slim climbed up to the cross street once again, and walked in that direction.
At the foot of the second bridge, Slim could smell trash burning nearby. He slipped down beneath the structure. Across the bayou, on the north side of the bridge, he located the source of the smoke. He thought he could make out some movement in the fading light as well, and he walked the length of the bridge in that direction. As he left the pavement once again, Slim was certain to make some noise. Whether it was Lefty in there or not, he didn't want to sneak into the man's encampment unannounced. He kicked at some brush. He coughed, taking deliberate steps while keeping his eyes peeled.
He found the fire. A shelf from a refrigerator was set on bricks above the smoldering cardboard and paper. Back up under the bridge he saw a grocery cart with somebody's goods in it. He took a seat upwind from the smoke. He was sitting there when Lefty walked up from the water's edge. Lefty's pants were wet to the knees. In one hand he was carrying a pocketknife, the blade closed. From the other, Lefty dangled a fish that was three feet in length. Slim got to his feet.
"Say, what you got there?"
Lefty didn't break his stride. He passed Slim and draped the fish onto the metal grill, squinting into the smoke and heat, and wiping his hands on the seat of his pants. "I saw you poking around up there," he said.' 'You hungry for fish? There's plenty here if you don't mind gar."
"I might eat some," Slim said. "My stomach's getting real bad, though. I have trouble keeping food down."
Lefty nodded his head. He slipped a short two by four onto the burning cardboard and sat on the ground. Slim rested his feet as well. He crossed one leg over the other and lit a cigarette. "How'd you catch him?" he asked.
" I was up here watching the water, and saw him flip-flopping around," Lefty said. "I could see that something was the matter with it, thrashing around on the surface that way. Anyway, I whacked him a time or two with a stick, and pulled him in. The fish had a plastic ring around his head, a six-pack holder, you know? The
plastic was wrapped up in its gills. I figure it
was choking. I don't like to start fires down
here. They draw attention." „. -
plastic was wrapped up in its gills. I figure it
was choking. I don't like to start fires down
here. They draw attention." „. -
"I heard gars wasn't good to eat."
"Well, you heard wrong," Lefty told him. "They're real bony, and they have that great big head that takes up a good portion of the body. But there's a flank of solid white meat along the backbone that's as good as catfish. The meat on this one looked real good when I cleaned it. No tumors or nothing. Gars is about the only fish left in this dirty old stream. Now, pigeon, sometimes you find one so stringy that a cat wouldn't eat it. A pigeon can live to twelve or thirteen in the city. You get one that old, and your work is cut out for you."
Slim couldn't recall the last time he had an appetite. He didn't think much about eating anymore, but he had to admit that Lefty's fish was beginning to sound like a luxury.
"How are you going to flip him when that side's done?"
I got a second grill over there. We can lay it over the fish, then turn the whole thing, grills and all. There's a bag of potato chips we can open when the fish is cooked."
"You're a lucky man, Lefty."
"How do you mean that?"
"Finding supper like you did."
"Man, luck doesn't enter the picture. You just have to take what is presented to you, and the Good Lord will provide, if you don't set your sights too high What was it the Bible says about the lilies of the field and birds and stuff like that? The world is full of riches, and all you have to do is reach out and grab what's there. For free. Without stealing."
"Yeah, the streets are paved with gold," Slim said.
Lefty stood up and placed the second refrigerator shelf over the fish. He seized both shelves, insulating his hand with torn cardboard, turning the fish over. "Maybe not gold, but there are resources if you know how to look. Some metals aren't so precious, but that don't mean they're worthless."
The two men ate the fish and potato chips in the dark. Lefty served the meal up on sections of newspaper. He sliced an onion for accompaniment. While it wasn't the feast that Lefty had led Slim to expect. Slim managed to keep the meal down. He ate his fill, which wasn't much, and pulled the half-pint bottle from his pocket. He took a pull from it and put it away again. Lefty did not drink liquor.
"That's the reason your stomach's giving you fits," Lefty said.
"No kidding,” Lefty answered.
"You know, it all comes down to hunger, really," Lefty said. "If you have enough to eat whether it's there to reach out and take like the fish, or if you have oil wells in your back yard as income. As long as food is on the table, yon ought to be happy with your lot in life. You fixed up for the morning? You got plans?"
"Yeah, I usually rest up in the library a few hours when it opens. Maybe do the labor pool the day after that. Pass out circulars for half a day."
"That's a hard way to live, Slim."
"Maybe I don't have your ambition."
"It's like I said earlier. Like finding the fish. All kinds of opportunities are available to the man who knows how to spot them. Maybe you just don't have the eye for it. But a man carrying circulars door to door isn't lazy. I know that."
"So how do you do it, Lefty?" Slim asked "What's the secret, if I wanted to get back or my feet again fast?"
"It's no secret," Lefty said. "I'll show you in the morning, if you like. Right now, I'm going to turn in. I don't care for sitting on the bayou a night. Go ahead and stay here. I'll be heading out early."
"Thanks, Lefty. You got a nice place here.”
Slim rolled up his newspaper plate and slipped it into the smoldering fire. When the paper flared up, he could just see Lefty hanging a hammock up in the girders at the foot of the bridge. In a way, he was kidding Lefty about the territory he had marked off as his own. There certainly weren't any doors or fences out there beneath the city sky. And anyone could come by and bust up the place and do all kinds of harm. Still, as Slim broke down a cardboard box out into a flat sheet, he did feel like a guest. The bridge was Lefty's place, and Slim curled up in a corner of it. Occasionally, a car crossed the roof in the night. And as he nodded off, the sound transformed itself into waves breaking on the seashore.
Lefty tapped on the soles of Slim's shoes to awaken him in the morning. "If you're coming, come on." he said. "I'm going."
Slim was balled up on the cardboard, and he unfolded his arms and legs. He had been lying on the hip where he carried his bottle, and he felt as stiff and sore as if he'd been hit by a car. He removed the bottle from his pocket. While he unscrewed the cap, he watched Lefty struggling with the grocery cart, working it around the bridge abutment onto the street. He drained the last of the liquor and followed Lefty.
By the time Slim was on the sidewalk, Lefty was already a block away. Slim fought his clothing, hiking up his pants and tucking in his shirt at the same time. He ran his hand through his hair. He could still see Lefty ahead of him, widening the distance. Maybe he had overestimated the man. It could be that Lefty was as crazy as a bedbug. Barely daylight and there he was at the handlebar of a grocery cart in some kind of damn race. Slim halted for a moment. He was about to let Lefty go, to see whether he might disappear without even looking back. Then, he saw Lefty turn his cart into an alley off the sidewalk, vanishing from sight. Slim took his time reaching that point, and when he did, he found Lefty going through a couple of garbage cans.
“Man, I thought you had something special up your sleeve.” Slim said.
Lefty flipped a couple of beer cans into his metal cart. He moved to a trash dumpster at the rear of the building, sliding open the side door. He reached in with a stick and raked through the debris within the container. He pulled out more aluminum.
“Old Red Jackson got himself caught in the dumpster last winter,” Lefty said. “The trash drivers, they bounce it a time or two to wake up a man if he’s sleeping away a cold night inside. Red didn’t get out in time. He was half in and half out when the dumpster was raised into the air. Took off his right leg clean as a whistle. I saw Red about a month ago. The county got him a wooden leg, but someone stole it, so he's a cripple now. I know, you're supposed to call them disabled or handicapped. But in my day, a one-legged man was a cripple. About a month ago, I found some coils of air conditioning duct in here. Weight was about thirty pounds. I got over nine dollars for it. They're paying a little less right now, though."
Slim stuck his head into the dumpster. The container was about half full of paper and boxes. Still, it had an awful smell to it. Lefty had managed to fish out six aluminum cans. Slim walked around to the rear of it and took a leak on the ground. Lefty waited on him this time before hitting the sidewalk.
"So this is what you do?" Slim asked as they walked. "You're a scavenger?"
"I just pick up what people throw away," Lefty said. "It's worthless to them, but it's money in the street."
' 'Well, the labor pool is bound to pay better.''
"That's right," Lefty said. "It does. But you got the bosses there riding you every minute. And they cheat you when they can."
"So how many pounds do you find a day?"
"I call it quits at eight to ten pounds, get my two and a half, three dollars at the recycling center, and head back in. I'm back at the bridge by two in the afternoon."
"Why bother with just aluminum?"
"What do you mean?"
"To hear you talk, you could melt down the silver lining in every cloud."
"I'm just pointing out an option you might not have considered," Lefty said. "Whether you act on it or not, that's your choice."
Slim walked along with a hand on Lefty's grocery cart. He had heard worse propositions. "How about if I work that side of the street?" he suggested. "Come quitting time, we split the money."
"Any way you want to work it," Lefty answered.
They moved parallel to each other on their way out of the downtown area. At times, Lefty took the lead. Then Slim might leapfrog ahead of him. Whenever Slim had as much as he wanted to carry in the paper sack he had retrieved, he would empty his pickings into Lefty's cart. They followed the street through an inner city neighborhood, and the aluminum was scarce. Lefty pointed out that the residents there hardly let anything slip by. But once the two men moved out of the more impoverished area, they could count on a couple of cans on each block. Slim was accustomed to walking a number of miles each day, but his legs ached nonetheless, as always. He found an upright beer can that wasn't empty, and looked at the contents through the opening as he sloshed it around. It looked fairly clean to him, and he drank down the last of the stale beer before saving the can.
At a Safeway parking lot, Lefty and Slim teamed up to examine a large dumpster. Lefty pulled out three cans, and studied a plastic garbage bag. He ripped it open.
"Cheese, " Lefty said. "Look, it's still cold. They must have just brought it out."
"Man, it's covered with mold," Slim said.
Lefty removed one of the packs of cheese and carved into it with his pocketknife. He sliced off a wedge and popped it into his mouth. He cut off a second piece for him. Slim took it reluctantly, examining it before putting it in his mouth. He swallowed it down. He hiccupped once.
"You just cut off the mold, and it's fine," Lefty said. "Say, you can cure those hiccups real easy. You want to know how? Press your thumb up against the soft part in the roof of your mouth."
Unquestioning, Slim was nearly gagging on his thumb when a bread man came out of the rear of the store with a rack of loaves. He began to pull his order from the back of his parked truck, and noticed Lefty and Slim sitting on the shady side of the dumpster. He walked over and gave them a loaf off the truck. "Thanks, mister," Lefty said.
"That guy know you?" Slim asked, rolling a piece of bread around some cheese." It seemed his hiccups had vanished.
"Never seen him before," Lefty said. “These fellows in the trucks are generally pretty nice, though. See, their goods are dated, and they have to throw it away after a certain time, I get just about all the bread and milk and chips I want. Sometimes you have to ask. The worst that's ever happened is they said no. They're all right, these food guys. I'm thinking about moving out here to the suburbs, to be closer to the stores."
As they rested there, a limousine swung up to the curb at the side of the store, parking well away from the other vehicles. A big driver opened the door and stepped out. Lefty and Slim watched him as they held the cheese sandwiches in their hands. The chauffeur was a huge man. He was well dressed in a dark suit. They could see gold chains around the driver's neck, and an expensive watch shined from his wrist in the daylight. He stepped around the corner into the Safeway.
"That's a strapping big fellow," Lefty said. "He could probably go out to California and work in the movies, a man his size. Most movie stars are pretty tiny, five foot three, five-four. There are exceptions, of course. John Wayne, he was about five-seven, I believe."
"All right," Slim said. "Enough of this aluminum shit. Here's what we do. He comes out, we knock him over the head, grab the gold around his neck, and run like hell in opposite directions. If we both get away, we meet up at the bridge tonight. He grabs one of us, that's too bad."
"He would grab us both," Lefty said. "He's a young man in peak condition. He'd squash us like bugs. And besides, you hit a man over the noggin, if you don't knock him out, he gets mad as a hornet."
“So you're against it?"
"Count me out," Lefty said. "I spent two months on a chain gang once, and the experience taught me the difference between right and wrong."
“It's wrong for men to have to live like we do, like vultures," Slim said. "And, it's a two-man job to hit this guy. He has the size, but we have the numbers."
"It's a two stupid man job, Slim. You're overlooking the fact that you and I operate on a low energy level. That driver would explode like a prize fighter. It's just not feasible, and I'm no that desperate."
Slim looked down at the pavement between his feet as he finished eating all he could. He didn't even look up at the chauffeur when he returned to the limo. They were on their feet once again in a short while, and in the early afternoon the two men split nearly four dollars a the recycling center. They parted on the sidewalk, and went their separate ways.
One evening about two weeks later Lefty had some visitors at the bridge. It was Doc and Smitty, a couple of old acquaintances. They asked Lefty whether he had heard what had happened to Slim. He told them he hadn't.
"He's in the hospital," Smitty informed him. "He got beat up pretty good. Slim and some other fellow assaulted a man, and got the tables turned. They tried to rob him, from what I hear. The guy grabbed Slim and dislocated his shoulder in the struggle. Broke his collarbone too. What do you suppose got into Slim to pull such a stunt?"
Lefty shook his head. "Hard to say what he was thinking," he said. "Sometimes a man living by his wits overlooks the danger if he’s desperate enough. It's too bad, though. I like Slim."
Doc and Smitty agreed. They were seated on a pair of milk crates Lefty had salvaged, and they rested. The three men looked down at the dark water flowing in the slow-moving bayou. The skyscrapers of the city made the horizon sharp and vertical. Lights within the buildings were beginning to illuminate the twilight, but the muddy, chocolate water reflected nothing. They had made it through another day.