The Rug Cutters – Prologue & Chapter One

I already mentioned somewhere that I am working on my first novel. It’s called The Rug Cutters and it’s a weird one. I’ll probably post at least the first few chapters here in the upcoming days and I’d appreciate any feedback you’ve got (feel free to use the contact form if you’d prefer not to leave comments on the blog). It’s my first serious attempt at writing a full manuscript rather than shorts or video game scripts, so it’s both an exciting and worrisome process. I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book and pushing right along to get it finished, then the real fun begins. Keep in mind this is first draft material that will likely be revised:

PROLOGUE

It was a middle finger, all right. A fat one. The crooked “O” tattooed in blue above the swollen knuckle clearly marked it as Chop’s left saluter. Together, his clenched fists had had once spelled out Rock and Roll, but somebody had made some rough edits. Chop had loved waving the thing when he was alive so it made sense that it was all he’d left behind. A final fuck you very much, I’m outta here.

The finger curled around the top of a chain link fence; the rest of its body taken. It looked like something had plucked Chop right off the wire, ending what must have been a desperate scramble for escape. Any trace of blood had been removed from the crime scene and replaced with a foul, black spatter. We’d seen the same bubbling goop puddles on our way up, belching out fumes that smelled like cheese-covered rust. The stink of it should have incited a feeding frenzy, but there were no bugs around, not even the gang of flies that had roughed us up for the past couple of miles.  We understood why. We’d felt this before–the presence of something otherworldly.

We stood there staring at the rogue digit for a good minute before anyone had the balls to comment. Not due to any sympathy for the poor bastard, not even due to the shock of the scene—and it was shocking—but because our guts were prophesying. We were being hunted.

CHAPTER ONE: IMMIGRATION

My name is Shit. I’m sorry if that’s abrasive for you to read, but Downlucks stink at nicknames. Downlucks is what we call ourselves because it has the truest ring to it. The folks I run with aren’t big on the booze, so it’s unfair to call us winos. Tramp, hobo, rapscallion—these are names that evoke dirty clowns shoulder-slinging sticks with checkered sacks at the ends, what we call bum luggage. We’re not that quaint.

Most people tend to call us beggars, but they only see what we want them to see. We’re performers, the best of them. I like to think when somebody gives me a buck, it’s a tip. You’re welcome to think of it however you want, but I know I earn my money. Contrary to what we want you to believe, we’re not all drunks, loonies, or handicapped. Most of us are sharper now than we were when we slept in beds and did the old nine-ta-five. We have to be. The minute you believe I’m capable of “getting a damn job,” it’s over. I’m not getting anything from you. So your job is to try to pretend you don’t see me, or justify why you don’t have to acknowledge me, and my job is to force you to see me, to interrupt your thought process before you can say no. Unfortunately for you, I’m pretty good at it.

I choose my targets carefully. Most single guys … forget it. They’ve got nothing to gain. Single women have an innate ability to blur me out, even when I’m right up in their blinkers. Couples … well, that’s risky. I have to judge the woman before I can predict the man. If she’s a “dirty girl,” he’s going to be working hard to tame her. Most times he’ll throw me a bone just to morally one-up his lady. If she’s a “nice girl,” things get risky. Eleven times out of ten her beau’s going to be showing off. If I’m lucky, he’ll tell me what a worthless shit I am and move on. Sometimes they spit and sometimes that’s getting off easy.

Tourists. Don’t we all love tourists? Big tips. Problem is, they enter our city as moving targets and they’ve got all guns aimed at them. They learn the game real fast. I’d say tourists give an average of two handouts before it all turns to frowns and “sorries.” That’s why you’ll find a lot of the newer guys working near the bus station. They think they can get it while it’s hot. You have to put extra work into your signs, too, if you want to hook these fish. If you get a laugh out of them, they’re going to stop. Personally, I don’t go for the tearjerkers–I have better luck with “Like Obama, I want change too,” than “Lung cancer, can’t afford surgery.”

Older Downlucks know that there’s more to be made with the slow and steady income than the risky big scores. You get your repeat customers each day on their trudge to work and you’ve got it made. If the handouts stop, disappear for a few days. Make them wonder. When you show up again, you may be surprised to find some extra guilt-gratuity.

So where do I look for the rare bird that’s going to flash me some plumage? I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I look for the weak, the nervous. Those who don’t want to make a scene or are afraid I’m going to touch them. These days it’s too easy for people to live in their own little bubble and they’re often willing to part with their coins to keep you out of it. I know how to spot them because I was once one of them.

The day I snapped and made the biggest change of my life, I didn’t bring along any bum luggage; if I had, it would have been wrapped up in a cashmere sweater tied to the end of a 3-iron. I showed up fresh from the grind, tie still dangling like a severed noose, pants uncreased, hair swept sharp over the expanding barrens on top of my head.  I had been a salesmen and damn good with people in general, so my first plan of action was to get out there and meet my new neighbors.

I wasn’t picky. I found my first pack of Downlucks tucked into an alley alcove right in the heart of downtown. A haphazard wind, smelling sharp with incense, elbowed its way between two buildings and hit me square in the face. I sought out the source. The passages were overrun with garbage and alley vermin had gutted most of the plastic bags, spilling their rotten entrails onto the pavement. I ignored the crunches and pops beneath my polished work shoes—out here, it probably was worse than it sounded. Ahead, an orange glow fussed. I crept forward.

Three men sat cross-legged around a pile of burning boxes and beneath them the alley floor was covered wall to wall with a collage of colorful rectangles. Some were rugs tattooed with complex, spiraling designs but most were simple, puffy swatches of ugly house carpet. Though their clothes marked them as homeless, these men seemed more important—magicians. Shamans, maybe.

“Jesus, Tongue! Where didya find these? My nose is burning,” said a miniscule man whose enormous glasses dwarfed any other features. He pinched his nose with one grubby, olive hand and waved P.U. with the other.

“I acquired this delicious incense at the New Age store near Dobson. We are now experiencing the new ‘Fen Whisper’ incense. Boxes of it just tossed out the back—I can’t imagine why!” Tongue curtsied. “Apparently it didn’t tickle anybody’s fancy there, so I, in my infinite generosity, have returned with the silent swampy smells to celebrate the birth of another evening.”

“Death of another day.”  Glasses again.

“It stinks, T.” The third man said. All three of them needed to shave, but this man’s beard was the longest and winter-white. He wore too much clothing for the humid summer—a tank top over a t-shirt, over long underwear, hiding even more layers beneath, all restrained by oversized overalls.

“I try to do my best for you, gentlemen, but your expectations are too high.”

“We don’t expect nothing. It’s you who’s always trying to be all fancy,” said the old man.

“At least I’m not overdressed for the occasion.”

“Hey, you know I–”

“Not you … him.” Tongue faced me and became a stick-man silhouette before the fragrant blaze.

I put my hands up, palms forward. “Listen, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, I just…”

Glasses was on his feet. He waddled over to me and squinted through his impressive lenses. “What is this? You a cop?”

“No, I–”

“Reporter?”

“What? I just–”

“Too slow to be a reporter. You lost?”

“Heh … maybe. Do you mean physically or mentally?”

“Easy, Beamer. He’s done nothing wrong yet.” Tongue flashed a smile at me. “You’ll have to forgive my bespectacled friend; we’ve never had a guest before.”

“Listen, I know it doesn’t look like it, but I’m one of you now.”

All three of them laughed.

“Is Candid Camera still around? This feels like Candid Camera,” said the old man.

“No. I’m serious. I’m done with that,” I swept my arm out to indicate the city, “Out there. Everything. I don’t want to be a part of it … at least for a while.”

“You have money?” asked Beamer.

“No, well … technically, yes … but I don’t want it anymore.”

“Can we have it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Listen. I disappeared. If I show up at an ATM and take out my money, I didn’t disappear–I ran. I need to be gone. Untraceable.”

“Can we crash at your place?”

“You want to be arrested? Investigated for my disappearance?”

“So you’re a worthless shit.”

“Beamer, please! Let’s not scare the man away.” Tongue wrapped his wiry arm around me and pulled me towards the camp.

I dug out my wallet and thumbed it open. I was able to fish out three bills. “Listen. I’ve got sixty. It’s all yours if you let me crash here.”

“How long?” asked the old man.

Tongue shot up his a wait-a-minute finger. “Does it matter, Crutch?”

“Hell yes it does. Sixty will get him a room at the Slumber Lodge or three nights at one of the red-lights. Our pad ain’t no hotel, but I figure sixty buys him a week, max.”

“Two weeks, but you throw in your credit cards,” suggested Beamer.

“You’re not even listening to me. Here’s what I need to do with these cards…” I fished them out and dumped them into the pyre. I grinned as my debt melted away.

“Well that was a shitty thing to do,” said Crutch.

“Twenty each. How about it? You let me stay a couple of nights and I’ll pull my weight. I promise. A week from now you’ll be begging me to stay.”

“A week from now you’ll still be a worthless shit,” said Beamer, “But money is money. What do you think, Tongue?”

Tongue pounded a boney fist to his forehead, smiled, then reached out his hands. “I say welcome to the Rug Cutters, Worthless Shit.”

“Rug Cutters… I get it.”

“Get what?” asked Crutch.

“Well … all the rugs on the ground … and the pun.”

“What pun?” Several awkward seconds passed. A dog yelped somewhere in the concrete maze.

“You don’t dance?”

Tongue shot me a conspirator’s wink. “We dance, my good man! Not another tribe in the city who can keep up with us.”

“Call it dancing if you want. I call it slobber-knocking.” Crutch punched the palm of his left hand.

“Wait … you guys fight?”

“When we have to. How do you think we got such prime real estate?” asked Beamer.

“Let’s not get into that right now, nobody’s fighting tonight,” said Tongue. “It’s late. We should get WS situated and turn in.”

“You’re loaning me one of these carpets, right?”

“None of mine,” said Crutch. He started to pull on the rugs around him, a massive child hoarding his toys.

“You can get your own tomorrow; we’ll take you to the place. We’re a bit possessive of what little we have, you see.” said Tongue.

“He can sleep in Swarma’s spot,” said Beamer.

“Where’s Swarma?” I asked.

“Dead. Heart finally gave up last month.” Crutch cradled his head in one meaty hand.

“I’m sorry.” I hesitated, struggling to find the right words. “She didn’t die … here … did she?”

“Don’t worry, cops took her away before she went too sour,” said Beamer.

“Fantastic. Well … feet first, I guess. Here.” I passed out the bills.

“Some rules,” said Crutch. “Walk down the alley and turn three times before you piss. Four times if you’re going to pinch one. You hear or see anything suspicious, you wake everyone up. If it’s a dog—a big, black motherfucker, you yell at the top of your lungs. We’ll join you. Jackknife’s a mean cuss, but he scares easily.”

“Alright. I’ll do that.”

My first night on the streets was a rough one. I must have laid there awake on the dead woman’s rug for at least an hour before I finally curled up into a ball and dozed off. As the midnight chill crept over me, I pulled another patch of carpet across my body. It wasn’t the Slumber Lodge, but I managed to make myself comfortable.

In the dead-time, the hours between night owls and early birds, I awoke to fingers teasing my hair. A body slid beneath my makeshift blanket and pushed against my back. Half-awake and horrified, I tried to roll away. An arm claimed me–a woman’s arm with a withered hand at the end of it. I yelped like a startled alley dog.

I broke free and stumbled to my feet, stepping on Beamer and nearly falling on my ass. “Who are you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Swaaarma.” She wheezed.

Seconds later, I was gone. Halfway down the alley and with no plans to even glance back, heavy laughter stopped me. Slowly, head bowed and a genuine grin emerging, I returned to the alcove.

“You’re not dead … are you?” It was a statement.

“Dead? No. You’re a warm one though, shweetheart. Come back to bed.”

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