When you walk down the street and pass by a “bum,” with his hand out, do you give him a wide birth? Totally ignore him? Maybe you feel annoyed: a little guilty, maybe. lazy tramp! Why doesn’t he just get a job and get off the street? I hope this story will change your opinion of bums!
“Andy Baudy, you’re nothing but a drunk! A confirmed, hopeless, incurable, worthless alcoholic!” The Constable towered over Andy, spitting down his disgust on him.
“Yes, sir.” Andy replied humbly, fearing the worst. He removed his worn fur cap from his balding head and clutched it tightly to his chest. Experience had taught him that, removing one’s cap when in the presence of the law, was a sign of respect. Sometimes it got him out of being hauled to jail, sometimes it didn’t. Also, intuition told him that if he stood really still and made himself look really small and pathetic, he could avoid another weekend in jail.
“What’s the matter with you, Andy?” the Constable continued.
“Maybe I’m jus’ stupid?”
“Every day I see you bumming on this street. Look at you. You have no friends, no job. Yes, I agree, you are just a stupid, shiftless tramp!” The Constable paused, weighing his options. Should he haul him in again and charge him with vagrancy—a seemingly unproductive venture, or should he just let him go? His voice softened, his face screwed itself into an expression of disgust. “Aw, what the heck, another weekend in jail isn’t going to help you anyway. Get out of my sight, and consider yourself lucky I didn’t find a bottle on you today.”
Those were the words Andy was hoping to hear.
Later, as he aimlessly shuffled down Eighth Avenue, his dejection mounted to the point of near-tears.
“Why does everything go so wrong for me? I don’t ask for much.” He mumbled to himself. “I ask fer a handout only when I’m hungry. I don’t bother nobody. Can’t even get a smile—” but even this was becoming harder and harder to find in Calgary.
Maybe Calgary was becoming too big a city. Maybe it was time to move on … But, he remembered …
“No!” he stubbornly stomped his foot. “I do have friends!” The Constable was wrong! There was Charlie who lived in the McNeil Block who would buy him an occasional beer, and once in a while even give him a dollar along with the beer. Then there was that fat little lady at the Sally Anne who gave him the old fur hat he was wearing—
He remembered that he hadn’t put the cap back on after leaving the Constable’s presence. He turned it over in his hands and examined it. A lot of the fur had worn off, but that was fine. It was cooler in the summer that way—
But, with fall coming, he should visit that nice lady again for a warmer hat.
Andy’s aimless sauntering took him to the front of the Queen’s Hotel that also served as the entrance to the beer parlour. He paused. Should he dare enter? With all the bad luck he was having today, he’d probably run into rude ol’ waiter at the door and get turfed out even before he had a chance to ask someone for a beer.
The smell of stale beer and noisy conversation teased him: tempted him.
“Shucks, why not?” He shrugged, and gingerly entered. Fortunately, Charlie was sitting at the very first table, and saw him as soon as he entered. The waiter was about to come between him and Charlie, but Charlie objected.
“No –!” Charlie raised a hand. “Andy’s my friend. I’ll take care of him.” Reluctantly, the waiter moved on to other tables. Charlie shoved two beers towards Andy, along with: “Here’s a fiver. After you’ve finished your beer, go buy yourself something.”
“Two beers and a five dollar bill!” Gosh, Charlie, you’re the best friend I ever had!” Andy was thirsty and quickly drank the beer, then wiped his wet lips on his dirty shirt. He was feeling much better now. As soon as he finished the beer, he had a strong urge to leave and run out to buy himself a bottle of wine with the five dollars, but that would be rude, so he sat quietly, listening to the conversations between Charlie and his other friends. Andy offered no small talk of his own to the conversation. Charlie’s aunt had died on Sunday and left him an inheritance. So that’s why he was so generous today: he was loaded in cash! Finally, Andy could stand it no longer.
“Gotta go, Charlie.” He excused himself and slipped out of the hotel and into the bright sunlight. The liquor store was only a block west of the hotel.
Now, with his bottle tucked out of sight inside his jacket, Andy ducked cautiously through allies, moving southward, avoiding any contact with people.
It was still early in the afternoon when he finally reached Princess Island. With the kids still in school, the island park was almost deserted. At least the kids wouldn’t be bothering him for a few hours. Actually, he didn’t mind the kids so much as some of the adults who constantly swore at him and kicked him. A few of the kids were even nice to him. Some kids did laugh at him, mostly teasing him for always talking to himself. In the past, Andy tried to explain to the kids that he wasn’t talking to himself, but was talking to his friends that he met whenever he came here to the river, but the kids only laughed at him even more, telling him that he was crazy.
True, he admitted, he saw his friends only after he had a few drinks, but they were very real, even if only he, and no one else, could see them.
Andy searched out his usual secluded spot next to the river’s edge underneath some willows that helped hide him from any passersby. He broke the seal on his wine bottle and took several long, satisfying swallows.
“Ah … that feels good!” He let the wine warm his stomach. Using his shirt sleeve again, he wiped away the few drops of wine remaining on his lips. He untied his shoes, the original shoe laces having long ago been replaced by heavy white store string, and let his bare toes wiggle refreshingly through the warm sand.
Winter would be coming in a couple months. He made a mental note that he should go see that nice fat lady at the Sally Anne again. Maybe she would give him a pair of warmer socks for the winter. Maybe even a new pair of pants. He looked down at his pants. One leg had a tear, almost from top to bottom. “Uh, that stupid dog! Look what he did to my pants!”
Andy took another sip from his bottle. The sun was warm, the sand was warm, and he felt warm and happy all over. He drank a toast to the warm – no, make it two toasts – to the warm summer sun, then he let his feet slide forward until they were submerged up to his ankles in the cold water. The sudden coldness of the water, in contrast the warm sun, reminded him of something he had promised to do when he got to Princess Island. He reached into his coat pocket and drew out a folded, soiled piece of paper. Last night, when he had bunked down in a south end garage where the owner had left the door open – and before that same, mean old guy had kicked him out, he decided to write a poem to the river.
“Little Bow flowing by,
Little Bow so blue.
Little river how I sigh
And wish that I was you!”
As a final gesture, Andy brought the bottle to his lips and drank a third toast to the river, then a toast to his own creative genius for having composed such a thoughtful and beautiful poem.
The bottle was empty. He threw it into the river and watched it for a moment as it floated down stream before it filled with water and sank.
“I heard that poem, Andy Baudy!” a child-like voice interrupted.
Andy turned his head, a little too quickly, for he almost fell flat on his face. His head reeled and he had to blink hard several times to bring his eyes back into focus. It was then that he spotted his dear friend, Lipstick, a white paper doll about a foot high, seated on a clump of grass just to his right.
“H’llo, Lipshtick, d’jya like my poem?”
“Gorgeous! Simply gorgeous!” Lipstick wrapped her paper arms around herself in a display of ecstasy.
“Make way for the mad dog! Make way for the mad dog!” Another voice, this one a deep, masculine voice that sounded very much like the voice of an old school principal he remembered from his high school days, broke into their conversation. Andy turned to his left, a little more cautiously this time, and saw his other dear friend, the gingerbread man, coming towards him. The gingerbread man was shorter than Lipstick by about three inches. Ginger didn’t show up every time Andy came to Princes Island. Mostly, he came only after Andy hadn’t eaten for a while and was hungry.
“Ginger! How’dja know I got chased by a dog?”
“Look at your pants,” Ginger pointed to Andy’s torn jeans.
“Uh – yeah.” Andy tried to cover the worst of the tears.
“Tut, tut, tut!” Ginger shook his head. “You shouldn’t have crossed that lady’s lawn this morning. You should have walked around, and used the sidewalk, like everyone else does.”
“He should not have!” Lipstick shot back in Andy’s defence. “Andy is like me. He likes only the beautiful things in life. He wants to … um, — uh, yes. He wanted to admire the lady’s flowers. Isn’t that right, Andy?”
“He did not! He was just lazy and took a short cut!”
“He was not lazy!”
“Shtop! Shtop right now!” Andy raised a blurry hand in objection. “I feel too – uh, oooh, my head!” He clutched his head with both hands. “I feel so mishrable right now.”
“Yeah, so do we,” Lipstick let her paper doll chest sag in immediate response to Andy’s feelings. “Wish something beautiful and exciting would happen.”
“Well, aren’t I something beautiful and exciting?” A refreshingly new, yet somewhat familiar feminine voice, asked. She had a light, silky, Southern drawl. All three turned towards the river, the source of the voice. A miniature mermaid lay there in a graceful, sexy sort of a way, on top of a small rock that jutted out of the water.
“Oh, she is beautiful! My wish came true! My wish came true!” Lipstick jumped up and down with excitement.
The dancing sunlight that reflected off the fast moving river caused Andy’s head to spin. He shook his head to clear away the whirling, dizzy lights. When he had regained his composure, he asked, “You new here, huh?”
“Oh, no! I’ve been secretly watching you for a long time, you handsome prince. See, I even know your name. It’s Andy Baudy.”
“Be careful of newcomers, Andy. If you don’t know ‘em, they can lead to trouble!” Ginger cautioned.
“Oh, shut up!” Lipstick retorted. “She is beautiful, and Andy also thinks she’s beautiful, don’t you, Andy? And that’s all that matters! Andy is like me. We both like beautiful things, don’t we?”
“Well – uh, she is boot – er, beautiful. Very … very bootiful!” She had long, thick dark hair that fell in loose curls over her shoulders, half covering her bare, firm breasts.
“Ha, ha!” Her sultry smile was so infectious. He thought for a moment. On impulse, he ventured, “Ish it Alish?—I mean, Alice?” He had known a girl in high school who looked just like this mermaid. At the time, he had been secretly in love with her, but was always too shy to approach her and ask her out on a date. In time, Alice married the school’s basketball star and he ended up thumbing a ride to Calgary.
“Aw, you guessed!” She feigned a syrupy pout.
“I don’t like her, Andy!” Ginger cautioned again, more sternly this time.
“Shut up!” Lipstick screamed at Ginger. “Can’t you see Andy’s enjoying himself?”
Andy paid no attention to either of them.
“Where you live?”
“I live in the river, of course, you big, handsome man. You don’t think I’d ever live in that mean, cruel old world you live in, do you?”
“Well, it doesh get a li’ll rough – ‘speshully in the winter –“
“Then, why not join me, you sexy hulk?”
“But –“Andy protested. “But, I can’t live in the water.”
“All right then, have it your way.” Alice rolled over and turned her back to him. “If you won’t even make an effort –“
Andy tried to stand up, extending an arm towards her. Too dizzy, he wobbled, then fell flat into the water. The sudden cold gave him a moment of soberness that allowed him to stand up without falling over again. He splashed closer to Alice.
“Alish – Alice! Don’t turn away from me! I love you.” He promised himself that this time this wasn’t going to be a repeat of high school days where he let her slip away. He took a couple determined, faltering steps into the water, closing the gap between him and Alice.
“Well, o.k., have it your way.” She rolled over to again face Andy.
Andy tried to balance himself and keep his footing on the slippery rocks on the bottom of the river. The swift moving water was now almost up to his hips. As he came closer, Alice gestured with open arms. “Just remember, I’m a very passionate lady, and I need lots of lovin’.”
“Alish! – I love you!” He stumbled, got up, ever moving deeper to the center of the river.
Finally, the river’s current was too strong for him to remain upright. He slipped, fell – “Alice!” He screamed one last time as he lunged for the rock, and Alice.
… “What a strange world,” Andy thought. Everything seemed so peaceful, without pain. Not even the water was cold anymore. All that mattered was on Alice, now had moved up tight against him and wrapped her soft, lily-white arms around him. In an equally passionate grip – a vice grip, Andy held Alice to his bosom. “Never, never, ever again, will I leave you, Alice!” his heart throbbed as he continued to embrace his Soul Mate in an eternal embrace.
Next morning’s Calgary Herald carried a brief news clip on page three:
“Late afternoon yesterday, police pulled an adult male body from the Bow River, just off Princess Island. The homeless man had no identification on him and cause of drowning is still under investigation, although officials were puzzled by the vice-like grip the deceased man had on a small outcrop of rock near the center of the river.