(Sixth in the Senator Leland Series) “If you call this a sheltered campsite, I’d hate to see one that’s exposed.” The man called Shep pulled down his knit cap and flapped both arms across his grimy parka, hoping to coax some circulation.
The man called Art blew his nose with one finger and flashed a gap-toothed grin. “It’s sheltered except when it’s not,” he said through a rasping cough.
“There’s almost never a south wind like tonight. Bridge blocks the other three directions sweet as can be, right, Shorty?”
The road decking thundered overhead as a semi sped out of the city toward West Hamilton. A lanky man with uneven stubble on his bronze face – mixed race of some kind, Shep thought, hard to tell in the dim light – dug a phone out of the pocket of his shoe-length woolen duster.
“Weather app says it’s only getting down to about 20 tonight, Mr. Shep, Miss Cat. Art and I will get you through to morning, no sweat.”
He poked at the campfire with the toe of a tattered Nike and chuckled at his own joke. “No sweat at all on this winter night, no sir. Not even a little ladylike perspiration.”
The woman called Cat scooted her milk crate out of the smoke and looked away from the moonlit river toward downtown. ‘It’s nice your city fathers here in Hamilton will do the red and green floodlights on the Capitol dome in December. In Sacramento where I’m from, the no-God vigilantes will have none of that. ‘Corrupts the youth,’ you know. Mustn’t do that.”
“Heavens no,” jibed the man called Art. “Keep those kiddies safely glued to their screens with violent video games and porn sites.” He began spreading his bedroll on a large flat of cardboard, motioning the two newcomers to do the same.
“Also marijuana gummies and lots of sexting,” added the man called Shorty, rummaging for his overnight gear in a laden shopping cart.
“Come off it, Walter Long,” Art shot back. “You know as much about sexting as I know about quantum physics.”
The tall man took a wounded tone, winking at Shep: “I know my mama taught our sisters to set a high value on themselves, and my daddy taught my brother and me to keep it in our pants – sorry, Miss Cat, ‘scuse me – which is more than a lot of these little savages seem to have been taught any more.”
Shep and Cat
Ten minutes later, as the bell tower on Christ Episcopal Cathedral a block away was chiming 11:30, they had banked the fire, shared a Clif bar and a bottle of Circle K water from Shep’s backpack, and settled down for the night.
“Jab me in the ribs if I snore,” said Shorty. “But how about let’s talk a little before we drift off.? Guess I should have had decaf with that pumpkin pie over at the mission.”
So as midnight neared and the rumble of bridge traffic above them lessened, Art rambled on about where the out-of-town arrivals could get coats or bus tokens or foot care or a hot meal – with Zion House, where they had eaten earlier, deemed the best chow among Hamilton’s homeless.
Walter, tagged on the street years ago as Shorty because he stood 6’8”, enthused about the Zion House chaplain, Pastor Bruce, whose singing sermons and no-bull Bible studies you had to hear to believe.
But how, he asked, did this man and woman he’d only met that afternoon come by their street names?
Shep explained he’d been a pastor – “Shepherd, get it?” – in Florida before a fling with the choir director and a drinking problem blew up his marriage and set him adrift across eight states, finally ending up here where a cousin might (or might not) take him in after New Year’s.
Cat told of being in and out of mental hospitals, on and off her meds, cuffed around by a series of men, until California became a hell to her and she caught a Greyhound to the Midwest, “somewhere with fewer bad memories and more good Catholics like me – well, good part of the time anyway.”
“Crazy, isn’t it,” she mused, “right there up the street under that big dome, state government with all that power, all those billions, and here we are practically in their shadow, just trying not to freeze before sunrise. Doesn’t anybody in that Capitol give a damn? They talk so much about caring.”
Shorty sighed, his bass voice dropping even lower. “Newspapers are full of how much they supposedly care, Miss Cat the Catholic. But the proof is, shall we say, lacking. Damn papers are only good to cover yourself with for a night’s rest, assuming they’re not swiped or blown away in the wee hours.”
Out of the 100 legislators elected down there, he added, only two seemed really determined to help the homeless in a meaningful way – a couple of senators in the minority party, conservatives of all things, one named Jill Green, the other named George Leland
Art hadn’t spoken for several minutes. Shep thought he had dozed off. But now his awful cough broke the silence, lasting for what seemed a full minute, and he took up Shorty’s narrative.
Voters in the recent 2018 election, he said bitterly, had brushed off the homeless issue when Sen. Green raised it in her losing campaign for governor – and Sen. Leland had barely won reelection for what should have been a safe Covenant Party seat in the affluent west suburbs.
“Even here in the dark, Shep, you and me can see each other. But to them, we’re invisible in plain sight. All four of us. All the homeless in Hamilton, hundreds, thousands.” He spat in disgust.
“Walter Long thinks them politicians should join us out here for a sleepover and get woke.” The mahogany voice was dripping with sadness and scorn.
“Art Davis thinks Brother Long best not hold his breath.” Shep noticed he wheezed between phrases even when not coughing.
The moon went under and snow began to fall. Sirens ripped through the frigid air. One, two, three police cars and a paramedic, tearing north on Front Street and veering onto East Capitol.
“A shooting and a stabbing already this week,” Art said. “Wonder which one this is. It’s a war zone out here, Cat. Don’t you go for no stroll an hour from now, hear me? Stay near us.”
Coughing, wheezing, hocking phlegm from his scrawny throat. “Help them, God, please. Whoever’s hurt, whoever’s on scene, whoever’s afraid they might be next.”
A gust of wind splashed snow across the four bedrolls. Shorty began to snore. Cat pulled the drawstring on her hoodie and drew her knees up to her elbows under the mound of tarps and blankets. She could no longer feel her toes.
“You said Davis, right? Art Davis? Forgive me. None of my business. Street manners desert me sometimes. It hasn’t been that long. This time last year I had a job and an apartment.”
“No worries, ma’am. A friendly lady like you will hear no complaints from me. I did say Davis. Arthur L. Davis Jr., born March 25, 1950 in Wichita, Kansas. Raised with the faith of the Lord Jesus, my mother’s love of the piano, and my father’s love of the bottle.
“Art Sr., rest his soul, a railroad man all his life. Bad lungs killed him, and they’ll probably kill me too. But no matter, Miss Cat the Catholic. Like you, I know where I’m going. Like him too, the shepherd man. Drunks and bipolars are God’s children too, just as much as the clergy in their collars and the senators under their dome, right?”
“Are you taking something for that cough? Have you had it looked at? A free clinic over there at Zion House or something?”
“I tested negative for tuberculosis, if that’s what you’re asking. And Pastor Bruce sent me for a few days in the hospital. It gets better, then it comes back. I’ll be okay. Too ornery to die, not any time soon.
“But it’s very kind of you to ask, ma’am. Most people don’t. Maybe just pray me off to sleep, if you would. Me and my kid sister Bonnie, back in Wichita. Holidays always make me miss her. She worries about me a lot, just like my mom used to do. Sending you a card tonight through God’s post office, Bonnie girl. Sending you love from little Artie.”
The woman called Cat couldn’t push words past the lump in her throat. Davis’s wheezing subsided. His breaths became steady and even. She put a mittened hand softly on where Shep’s shoulder should be. He laid his own hand over it for a moment. Then they all four were asleep.
The man called Shep opened his eyes in the gray half-light that comes before a winter dawn. He sensed, more than saw, someone moving toward the cold concrete bridge abutment where they all lay huddled.
He put a finger to his lips. Nodding, Mike Loomis from the legislative staff bent down and whispered, “Senator, good morning. Time to go home. The family’s waiting. It’s Christmas.”
“Get in the car,” George Leland whispered back. “I’ll wake Jill. Don’t blow our cover.”
Leland ached with icy stiffness in every bone. Easing out of his bedroll, he turned toward the woman called Cat – Senator Jill Green – and saw she was already awake. They were ten yards from the campsite, out under the gradually yellowing sky, backs turned, planning a stealthy getaway, when Walter Long’s stricken cry, like a trapped animal, spun them around.
“Art, no. Come back, man. Oh please, Art, no!” He was shaking his friend, shouting at him, forehead to forehead. “Shep, quick, do you know CPR? Miss Cat, can you give him last rites? No, it’s too late. He’s gone. Died in the night. Art’s gone.”
The commotion had brought Mike Loomis running. He and the senators shrugged at each other; never mind the ruse now; a man was dead; a homeless child of God had gone home.
George Leland’s face was ashen, his body shivering, but he spoke with quiet command. Mike was to call 911: fatality under the Columbus Bridge. Walter was to ring Zion House and get Pastor Bruce over here. Jill was to get on Google and look for a Bonnie Davis in Wichita.
They went to their tasks. A cop car with lights and sirens approached on Front Street, then raced by, headed to someone else’s tragedy. Gulls swooped toward the water’s edge, and a barge horn sounded from the river. The church tower chimed 6:30.
The man called Shep – Senator Leland – put his knit cap over his heart, ran a hand through his hair, blinked back tears, and knelt beside the unmoving bedroll to send off Arthur L. Davis Jr. with a silent Christmas prayer.