It’s been a long time since I’ve slept in an actual bed and eaten a home cooked meal. I’ve been a derelict, a wanderer, living off the land, so to speak, traveling from town to town; a modern age nomad. I try to be all noble about it, but the truth is that I’ve been cast out of society, thrown away, worn out, run down, like an old shoe, a bargain one from a discount store housed in strip mall on the wrong side of the tracks. I used to be one of them, one of the city folk, living in comfort, in the towers of concrete and steel, but now that life is only a faded memory, long forgotten. Ever since the fall of the corporate titans, I’ve been on my own; ever since the outsourcing.
I came back here, to the scene of the crime, a few months ago at the start of spring. You never want to winter in the northwest. It’s not the cold, it’s the wet. That’ll kill you before anything else. I’d been keeping to back streets and alleys as much as I could, but the night was coming on quickly and I needed a place to hole-up. Luckily, I never strayed too far from the rumble of the interstate. Not that I owned a vehicle, it’s just that I could always count on an overpass for a good place to keep out of the rain. When I reached one the sun was just setting. I could make out the light of a fire higher up over the lip of concrete that ran upward from the road surface like a ramp. That was a sure sign that I was not alone.
“Howdy,” I said as I crowned the peak, not knowing who I’d find. Still, it was better to keep things cordial. An old man sat wrapped in give-away blankets, tattered fleece and textile by-product woven into a tight gnarly mass. You find them everywhere these days, at least in the places I keep to, hand-outs from charity minded do-gooders, prowling the streets hoping to find the needy, aiding the poor, the destitute, getting a buzz off the daring romp into the gritty reality of the streets, and then scampering back home to their warm beds and hot meals.
The old man just nodded and grunted. That was enough to tell me I was welcome to stay a while, share the fire, but the site was his alone. I sat down on a concrete block and warmed my hands. I tried to start up a conversation, be he only grunted and kept his gaze on the flames, so eventually I resigned to just sit, to experience the moment and to decide where I’d curl up when the time came to sleep.
I was startled to hear a sound from above. It was the voice of a man, a snarl, a word and then almost laughter. It came from overhead, higher up. There was another shelf about twelve feet higher, almost touching the overpass itself, barely enough room to squeeze into if you laid flat.
“Someone up there?” I said. The old man grunted an affirmative. A chill ran down my spine; another variable. I did not like not knowing. Safety was the most important part of survival, knowing your surrounding, knowing who might be the next one to stick a knife in you back. I needed to see faces, to ascertain character. I needed to see who was up there.
The climb was tricky, but doable given small nubs of rusted rebar jutting out from the wall. When I poked my head over the edge I could not see a thing, it was pitch black darkness. I heard some movement, but nothing lurched out at me. I waited a moment and my eyes adjusted, given only the flicker of light from the fire below. There was a man curled up in a frayed sleeping bag, nestled around a small pile of treasures, old plastic bottles, cups, a cardboard box and some grease pencils, the kind they used to use at supermarkets in the 70's.
“Evening,” I said. “Why are you up here all alone? The fire’s warm.”
The man snickered, but otherwise did not respond.
“Mind if I sit up here a while? I like to be on top of things.” It was a lie, I suppose. I needed to find out more about this guy.
“You want something to eat?” I had half a snickers I’d found in a dumpster. I should have kept it for myself, but right now information was more valuable than a full stomach.
At hearing the offer he perked right up. He shuffled forward in his bag and I could finally see his face. That’s when my heart just sort of stopped. The face was familiar somehow. I’d seen it before. I knew this person. He took the candy from my hand and started gnawing at it.
“Don’t I know you?” I said. “I swear we’ve met before; maybe last year or the one before that. Were you in San Diego last winter, in the squatter camp outside the animal park?”
“That’s funny,” he said, but he did not seem to be answering my question. “That’s the funny one.” He seemed to be talking to himself, spouting nonsense, words barely strung together. That’s when I remembered who he was. I used to work with him, long ago, in that world I had almost forgotten.
“Hey, “I shouted. “I know you. You’re that guy. That guy that used to write that stuff. What was it called?”
He turned to gaze right at me. “Wayward,” he said with a smile.
Yes that was it. He was that software guy who had that bizarre internet site, full of strange posts and knee-jerk fiction.
“I knew it was you!” I said, as pleased as punch, and then it hit me. “How, did you end up here, man? Surely, if anyone could, you would have made it big time. I mean, you were a genius. You can’t outsource that kind of talent.”
He started to laugh manically. For a second I thought he was just kidding, doing that imitation mad scientist bit, but then I realized he really meant it. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder, pulling me closer.
“Chihuahau,” he whispered into my ear.
“Chihuahau,” he screamed. “The funny one. The only funny one. I tried. I really tried. Nothing ever did it. Nothing ever was as funny.”
Then I remembered that one story, long ago, about the man who woke up in the future and found out he was a dog.
“Everyone stopped reading.” The man pulled at his greasy hair. “I wrote anything, everything. I made it good, hard sci-fi, probing, challenging stuff. No one cared. They wanted Chihuahua. Do it again. Make it funny.”
I did not know what to say.
“Don’t you get it? Chihuahau is funny. Nothing else is funny. That was it. After that, I was through, washed up, a has been. I should have packed it in and gone on with my life, but no I kept at it. I stayed up night after night, slaving at that machine, working on my next big draft, but it was all for naught. When readers started leaving, I figured I just needed to spend more time. I stopped going to work. I had ideas. I had to get them out. I had to write.”
Now I could see where he was going. “You gave up your life, your livelyhood, to write stories?” I said. “For a bunch of freeloaders over the web?”
He grabbed me again. “I had to. It was my obsession! There had to be another post. Just one more, and then another. One day I would do it. One day, I would find my next Chihuahua!”
At that he started to drool. I decided it best that I went back down. “Well, yah.” I said. “Nice meeting you again.” I turned away and lowered myself down to the nearest nub of rebar.
“Chihuahua,” he said. “Chihuahua.” He laughed and rolled onto his back, arms wide in the air. “Chihuahua!” he screamed.
I doubled my efforts to move down the wall, but just as my head was about to be lowered past the edge, a light from a car down below lit up the underside of the overpass. For the first time I could see clearly into the small alcove. The sight of it gave me pause. All over the concrete, the tops, sides, bottoms, every square inch of surface was covered in an intricate design; tiny scrawls, like graffiti. There was no doubt in my mind what it was. For a split second, I could actually read some of it, bits of prose, slurs of words and dialogue.
One word was clearer than all the others. “Chihuahua,” it said, bold and black.