Lumpy is a no-show for work. Not uncommon with the temps we hire at Front Street Packaging. Most are from the scrap heap; bums from local Native American tribes: Skagit, Shoshoni, Quinault. After cleaning up this shit-hole, they smarten-up, realize working at a fish-packaging warehouse isn't what it's cracked up to be. They grab a bottle and never show their dirty faces here again.
But Lumpy is different. On the surface, he's an old white hobo. Honky, as they say. Over the weeks, he's proven there's more than eating out of trash bins and substance abuse. He's currently on Front Street's permanent payroll. He needs us, and, little did I know, we need him. The afternoon rush is a disaster but we make do.
Next day, after another no-show, I get a phone call.
I notice an inquisitiveness purebred in cops.
"Speaking." Standing in my office, the day's invoices tucked deep into the nook of my armpit.
"Daniel Devore from the Seattle Police Department."
Daniel's voice is sympathetic, soft, like his wife made him quit the pool league on Tuesdays. Dismal now that he has to spend more time with his seven-year old boy. Ice cream stains, petting zoos, hoof and mouth.
"What can I do for you Mr. Devore?"
I act nervous, make him work. That's what cops want. It's a game. Fluttering the pages on my desk, scrambling. Even as the shipping manager of this warehouse—the most responsible position in my 42 years—I've had brushes with the law all my life. I'm on the wrong side of the law for a reason.
Devore gets right down to biz.
"You employ a Charles Rogers?"
"Charles Rogers?" I pause. "You mean Lumpy?"
To my delight, the detective gets confused, irritated.
"Does Charles Rogers work there or not?"
"Charles is on sabbatical."
Sigh into the holes of the receiver. That hump could be anywhere. Haven't seen him in two days, but it's a natural instinct to cover for guys in my trench. That's the way I work. I imagine Lumpy's unshaven mug, next to me in that foxhole, the sting of napalm in the eyes, battling trench foot, asking me to lead the bastards astray.
He might do the same for me.
"Is there a problem?"
"Charles Rogers jumped off the Bremerton ferry yesterday morning. Found a Front Street Packaging check in his wallet."
This hits hard, my stomach reacting like I choked down a handful of walnuts, shell and all. Get a grasp on Lumpy floating in the Sound; a bloated porpoise, lips soaked blue like he was sucking on toilet bowl cleaner.
"Is Charles dead?"
Make myself distant. Pretend I have nothing to do with Charles' death. Not so sure that I didn't. Thought this phone call would have me picking him up from the drunk tank, his breath like rotted leaves, tossing up rotgut wine onto the cement outside my car door.
Devore explains: The ferry was full of early-morning commuters, one of which saw a man—presumably Lumpy—dive headfirst into the icy, black pond. Before anyone could toss him a life preserver, he disappeared into the early morning fog, swallowed whole.
"Hypothermia. Puget Sound Coast Guard fished him out a few hours ago."
"Poor son of a bitch," I say, suddenly dyspeptic.
I tell my story to Devore: Month ago, I found Lumpy sleeping out on Front Street's back dock one morning like a discarded bag of garbage, gnats swarming. We gave him a job. He was homeless, camping on the back dock three or four nights a week. Guy was a hard worker, and Katherine, the owner of Front Street, has a soft spot for hiring men on the rebound.
"Think you could come down and identify the body?"
"Everyone he knows is dead, in jail, or in a mental facility."
I draw a blank, an empty register.
"You were his manager. Probably closest thing to family he's got."
After a long drone of static, both of us uncomfortable, I concede. It's the least I can do, and I'm accustomed to doing the least.
"Medical examiner on First Hill. Meet me there in an hour."
Before heading out, I call and awaken Katherine at home, tell her about Lumpy.
"You're kidding me?" she growls like a bathroom sink clogged with muck. Not much empathy in her voice, but she's wounded. I picture her entwined in silk sheets, a sleep blindfold pushed up around her head, hair matted, grizzly.
Katherine is a dwarfish woman and looks like she should be spreading make-up on old ladies at a trashy mall; a heavy perfume squirter. She runs a sweatshop next door to the fish-packaging warehouse. Overall, a good soul. Katherine only hires from a distinct crew of foreigners, misfits, cretins and ex-cons like myself. We're a cheap labor force.
The Chinese people she "employs" in her sweatshop put together cardboard partitions and work for $5 an hour, sometimes more, sometimes less. Mostly less. The Chinese speak no English, cram ten family members into a one-bedroom apartment in China Town and smell like weird fish.
I explain the situation to Ray, my assistant at Front Street. He'll be in charge of the warehouse for the afternoon, which doesn't entail much: poker with the day laborers, chatting up the truckers, feigning interest. All in a good day's work.
"Got some bad news about Lumpy."
"Uh-oh." Stops scribbling on a PO order.
Unlike my light skin and frumpy body, Ray is tall and oddly stained, like Orson Welles when he played Othello. Same silly beard, same painted-on blackness, except that Ray is born-again; a Moor with the passion of Christ.
We stand near the truck bays, errant delivery drivers waiting for their trucks to be unloaded, forklift fumes coughing out, staining the concrete walls.
"Shame Charles couldn't find God." Tsks his tongue between his thin teeth.
"Shame Lumpy couldn't find anybody, Ray."
Remind myself, in the guise of outward respect, his real name is Charles Rogers. Ray and I called him Lumpy because he had a cyst on the crown of his forehead the size of a newborn's knotted hand. We never asked, but had our theories.
"He's a hydrocephalic. Water on the brain."
"I think he got stung by a hornet," Ray would counter over the din of forklifts. We parked next to each other when things got slow. "Must've gotten infected and never healed properly. I have a cousin in Olympia who's got the same problem."
The knot—depending on Lumpy's mood or time of day—fluctuated, breathed like the gills of a fish. Sometimes the bugger was small, calm. When he got angry it bulged out like a swollen beet.
"Maybe he got it in jail?"
Ray would harrumph. "Maybe."
We'd simmer into silence the rest of the afternoon.
Ray, too, has spent time in jail. Armed robbery. Drugs. The works. He's got a real family now, kids scurrying around in pajamas, tucking them into bed, a wife that makes him pot roast. Ray doesn't talk about the pen much, but his eyes are a dead giveaway. Brown and greasy like timid mice, the only characteristic that will never leave him.
We all have stains only ex-cons notice. Me, I'm missing my right pinky finger. Lost it during a work program while serving time for involuntary manslaughter in the Hamtramck Correctional Facility in Detroit. Who knew a simple fistfight would wind up with the other guy bleeding to death in a ditch? Not me, bet on that.
We'd been refurbishing abandoned houses that afternoon. It was good to be outside doing work like real men instead of squabbling around in a hot laundry room like scullery maids. Lost my concentration and that coping saw got the best of me: Rusty blade, infection, amputation. When I go to bed, I can see that dead finger sitting in a cup of ice, bone sticking out like a mangled worm. Docs couldn't save him.
After my second stint in jail—a fertilizer bomb test gone completely awry—I left what little family I had and hoofed it out to the farthest corner of the world. When I stepped foot in Seward Park—a 120 acre patch of forest land on the Bailey Peninsula—I felt I was at the end of the earth, hidden in one of its many nooks and crannies. I finally had a home.
Wheeling over to the King County Medical Examiner, I try to convince myself that Lumpy was an upstanding citizen, a man of virtue, morals, all that jazz. This proves difficult. I hardly knew him. I have, however, been told that people are good deep down, no matter how damaged we are on the outside. I delude myself, make the sentiment stick.
Lumpy moved on from the odd jobs Katherine gave him—cleaning up the back dock, sweeping the warehouse, stacking pallets—and began driving a forklift for the Chinese next door. He was still temporary. Still drunk. And still sleeping on the back dock. But his experience working as a longshoreman in Long Beach made him valuable. I went to the back dock and kicked his feet every morning for work.
From underneath a blanket of cardboard, Lumpy'd lurch forward and glare at me with red, gluey eyes. Caress his misshapen head, mumble, and clean up in the bathroom, punching in with a pasty yawn.
Because Ray and I were so busy with the "legitimate" side of Katherine's operations, we didn't have much contact with the Chinese. Lumpy'd fill us in when business was slow, tell us stories, his cyst bristling.
"Those guys are crazy." He'd have a steaming cigarette, a cup of gashouse coffee. Lumpy was a chain-smoker, flipping one cigarette into his mouth after another, the good tarry ones.
"Know that little fucker Lin Yong?"
"Which one is that?"
"The one that looks like the rest," he'd say, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
"What about him?"
"Bastard was arrested for shooting squirrels in the middle of the God damned city."
"He's been to jail twice for shooting squirrels!"
He'd laugh with a hoarse death rattle, choking on his damaged lungs until tears came to his eyes. Even the Chinese immigrants Katherine hired were tough-luck cases.
"Suppose they eat them things. Or maybe just having fun. Hell, I've eaten squirrel before."
"They're rats of a different name!"
"Ain't too bad. Little gamey, but not bad."
Later in the rainy afternoons, staring out the front bay doors, the boggy streets in front of the warehouse, Lumpy'd get more serious, sentimental. Wanted to feel the plight of the Chinese. They were heroic to him. They'd survived dissolute poverty, the long voyage across the sea.
"Those chinks will do anything to get out of that country, Sean. You know half those guys were shipped over in a container illegally?"
We knew. Last year, the port of Seattle found a container at Terminal 18 with a slew of illegal immigrants from Hong Kong inside. Three were dead and had deteriorated like rotten peaches. Illegal immigration in this port was a big problem. INS would show up once in a while, snoop around, ask the Chinese questions through an interpreter, scribbling in black handbooks. Never amounted to much, but we employed a lot of these stow-aways.
Lumpy finally got back on his feet and stopped drinking. Rented an apartment over in Bremerton, a shitty little Naval town on the other side of Puget Sound. He took the ferry into Seattle, fed the seagulls that hovered around the deck, throwing crumbs of stale bread into the air from a brown paper bag.
We were all on track, a one-way ticket to respect. We recited and preached each other's stories. Lumpy'd lost his mother and grandmother a year ago, then his brother in a car crash out in the Sierra's.
"We were pheasant hunting and drank a lot that day. Next thing I know, the truck is face down in the ravine and my brother isn't in the cab of the truck." He'd whistled, made a motion with his hand like it was his brother's body shooting through the window. "Right through the windshield."
Lumpy spent the next few months hitching his way up to Seattle, stopping in every boon-dock town, drinking until his face grew yellow. Instead of the Betty Ford clinic or the nut ward, he flopped on our back dock, waited for me to kick him in the boots.
"Crash where you land. That was my motto."
"Ever consider the Lord's help?" Ray had once asked.
Unlike most born-agains, Ray isn't too pushy about his beliefs. His preachings of the Lord are like a helpful hand he holds out in case someone needs it. Did the same with me. Key is to stop the courtship early. Tell him God didn't make the cut.
"Can't say I trust the Lord right now, Ray."
"Jesus is always there if you need him, Charles."
No one wanted to push.
After proving his salt, Katherine placed Lumpy on payroll. Same path all of us took. She was building a competent fleet of defectives and wanted only a few commitments: stop drinking, stop sleeping on the back dock, show up to work on time. Simple. Lumpy had been straight for three weeks. Eyes no longer hazy or jaundiced.
He waited patiently for his chance. Bursting the day Katherine let him in on the good news, eyes aflame like he'd won the lottery. "Ever since that accident in the Sierra's, not one soul has given me such an opportunity." Lumpy looked at Ray and said, "No one. Not even God."
This made Katherine look pretty good. Lumpy, too. God, on the other hand, well, let's say his jumper had been catching lots of iron.
Then things changed. Lumpy was constantly moping and difficult, pissy. Two nights ago, I locked up the warehouse and slapped him on the back.
"You're doing a great job. Keep up the good work."
I hated to play the bit of caring manager. But Katherine asked me to boost the guy's self-esteem, inflate his morale. She's been to seminars on this stuff.
Lumpy grinned as we parted, his gums like clay.
"Yeah, things look pretty good from down here."
I was surprised to see him and his girlfriend an hour later in a broken-down bar I visit after work on occasion. I'd cleaned up my life after my stints in jail, but never stopped huffing the sauce. Never a problem for me. Kept a mellow buzz, avoided trouble. When I beat that man to death, I wasn't drunk, and I didn't start it. Just finished it.
I'd spotted Lumpy's hobbled body from across the dark room, eyes sickened with drink. "We're celebrating!" Raised his foamy glass.
Grabbing me around the shoulder, he pulled himself closer. "I'm celebrating my sobriety." Breath boozy and warm, his nose grazing my cheek. He took a swig, his mouth smacking, savoring the taste. "Whooee! Been weeks since I've had a drink!"
A pint and a shot of rail whisky arrived in front of me. I strangled the shot glass, hoisted it into the air, the cool contents sloshing onto my fingers.
"Cheers!" Slammed back, felt the liquor spread into my tummy like warm moss growing on the side of a wall.
We drank together for an hour, trading quips about jail.
"The rice was slimy and had bugs in it."
"I couldn't sleep on those beds."
"I lost twenty pounds when I went in."
"Me too." He slapped his belly. "The sex is good, though." Lumpy nudged my elbow and said, "Just kidding, buddy."
Wasn't so sure that he was.
I did know, however, that he was getting trashed. Whiskey had him frayed at the edges. He bounced between friendliness and downright meanness. Flipping the bird to patrons for no reason, tossing pretzels on the ground, stomping them into a mealy paste, calling the bartender a phony.
I was uncomfortable.
After taking a spill from his barstool, landing on the floor with a thud and a giggle, Lumpy screamed at me when I asked him to calm down.
"I will not calm down!"
I didn't know why he was yelling.
But he wouldn't let it go. "What is the matter with you?" He hopped back on his stool like a rodeo cowboy. "Just having some fun."
This sudden bitterness turned the switch, and I simply decided not to care anymore. "Never mind." I gave him a flit of my hand. "Carry on."
Sloppy drinkers like Lumpy were part of the reason I left my hometown. I was good at pretending nothing was wrong. Ask the family and friends I left back in Detroit. They'll tell you I was the best.
After we played a game of pool—and after I bought rounds for him and his shack-job, Veronica—Lumpy found his humor again. Watered up like a fruit, became chummy, and invited me to his side of the Sound.
"Let's grab a bottle, take the ferry and hit the bars over in Bremerton?" He retched. The man was seething at this point. "They got Pai Gow Poker. Place called The Mermaid. Right off the boat!"
I was a loner myself. Been in this port for over three years now and still found it tough to make friends and meet women. Lumpy recognized me, wanted to cling. None of us, Ray included, ever talked about the magnetic pull that Front Street had. But I think we realized how far we had come just to work at this fish-packaging warehouse in Seattle.
There was obviously no solace with Veronica. She was just a bar hag. Worried about the next drink, a stiff lay, a real brute in the morning.
"Veronica works there. We'll have a few, finish off the night at my place."
Though it would have been ridiculous and fun, something I could never again conjure in a million years, going back to his place was what scared me most. If I went, I would stay. And I couldn't stay.
"Nah, I don't need a couple of drunken losers to put me back in the slammer." Soon as I said it, I felt guilty. Never been one to preach. People can only help themselves.
Lumpy's face sagged like a bloodhound. Pulled me aside and said, "Don't worry about anything. I got it all set up." Made a motion over to the pool table behind him, gave a sly wink with the eye just below the cyst. I peeked at his girl bending over the next shot, deliberately showing me handfuls of droopy cleavage. She smiled, her lips curling around teeth that resembled tree bark. Things had gotten out of hand.
"Come on! Celebrate with us." He waved to the bartender, signaled for another. The bartender was fed-up. "I've got a job. A girl. My own apartment. I have stability in my life."
He put his arm around my shoulder again, squeezed. I noticed his blackened fingernails, the knobby bones. With his free hand he reached over and tried to tickle my stomach. I doubled over. "Don't make me beg. Come join us."
I looked him square in the eyes. Looked past the despondency, the desperation. "Can't do it. I gotta get back up the hill," I said over the snap of pool sticks, clicking balls. I imagined the lonely but satisfying walk home in the spitting Seattle rain, stopping at the porno booths for a quick stroke.
Lumpy's warm arm fell from my shoulder, pushing me away.
"Suit yourself then sailor!"
He said the 'sailor' with a lisp, insinuating I was queer or weak, I couldn't tell which. He sat at the bar, downed another shot. I could see the dark, dreary place these drinks were sending him.
This was my cue.
Put on my coat, put my hand on his shoulder, tightened my grip and said, "You should slow down on that stuff, Charles."
He looked at my reflection through the bar mirror and nodded, as if he understood. "Fuck it," he said and switched to bravado, signaling the barkeep for another. "Crash where you land. That's my motto."
I finished my drink and left. From the street, I gave a friendly wave through the front window, saw a distant look in his eyes. He gave me the finger, smiled sarcastically, mouthed the words 'Fuck you' and laughed. Not sure what he had in mind with him, Veronica, and me, but I wasn't into it.
I wasn't going to say anything to Katherine, either. I didn't want Lumpy to get into trouble on my account. He'd been showing up to work on time and doing his job. That's all that mattered to me.
Unfortunately, the poor sot never showed up at Front Street after that night.
I arrive at the King County Medical Examiner on First Hill in the late afternoon. Cut my wheels by a man sitting on the steep marble steps, smoking a cigarette. By the way he watches me, I know this is the detective.
Last year, I'd read a story in the newspaper about this facility. They'd lost an infant's remains. Big news in Seattle. People were upset. Presumably, the body was either stolen or misplaced, but the child was never found again. Over the past nineteen years, this morgue had permanently or temporarily lost a total of five bodies, three of which were from the Green River serial murders in 1984.
I park the car and pray the facility has misplaced Lumpy's body. I didn't want to see remnants of the man laying on a steel gurney with no direction but down, into the earth.
Approach the detective. The sun nuzzles its way through the white cumulus clouds; the orange rays licking our side of the world for a change. The man tosses his butt, blows out a plume of rat-colored smoke. Our hands clamp together like old school mates.
"Sorry about all of this."
We hover awkwardly.
"I know this isn't what you want to be doing on such a sunny afternoon."
He looks up into the sky.
"I'm a good citizen, detective."
Devore steps back, eyes me, beady and beryl. He has a stocky chest, hair tilted to one side. Probably a bad rug-job, though I can't be sure.
He notices something about me. Just like the bums and fellow ex-cons, cops usually recognize us right away. A vicious kinship.
His breath hits me like air from a deflated beach ball.
The metal door behind us slams shut and we're enclosed within a cloud of formaldehyde, cold linoleum. Circle through a maze of hallways. I see nurses with vapid faces, orderlies with jailhouse tattoos, doctors with erections. We're all silent because the dead people want us that way.
We end up in a chilly room. Blue feet hanging out from underneath white sheets. Rows of gurneys neatly divided up like a high school classroom, some empty, some not. Toe tags dangle and flutter. We walk over to the corner. Devore checks the John Doe tag and lifts up the sheet.
Disgusted, I curl at the sight. No time to even brace myself. Lumpy's body, swollen like he'd been filled with a series of saline injections. Patches of purple decorate his chest and torso like a mismatched Easter egg. Check his forehead. The cyst is still there.
"That's him. It's definitely Charles."
"Good. We can put him to rest then."
I think about life's weird circles: I'd discovered Lumpy while he was asleep and I'll leave him the same way. I feel like kicking his foot and waking him. Ask to help me unload a rail car full of salt or sweep the back dock or stack some pallets. Take him back to the warehouse, punch him in to a place both of us will find familiar, accepted.
Devore drops the sheet. I fight the urge to burst with vomit, head to the exit.
After the paper work is signed and filed, we disappear from the scene. No one notices our exit. We don't matter because we're still alive.
Outside, I shake the detective's hand and attempt to leave, rid myself of this clinging mess, get back to my life as a lonely warehouse manager in the middle of Seattle, steer clear of old paths I'd found too easy to travel in Detroit.
But Devore doesn't want me to go just yet.
"Why do you think Charles jumped off that ferry?"
"Wish I knew."
"He say anything that might've given an indication he wanted to die?"
"We all have a death wish. Isn't that what Freud said?"
Like a cop, he wants answers. And like an ex-con, I didn't have answers. I knew little about the guy, but more than I cared to admit.
"Why do you think he jumped?"
"Maybe Charles wanted to change." I shrug. "But maybe he didn't feel it necessary to change, no matter what opportunity had been given to him."
We all need a crutch. Hope, God, a warm woman in the sack. Suffice to say Lumpy's corner of the ring was empty. Nobody was there to throw water on his face between rounds, take that drink away, tell him not to jump off that ferry.
The detective didn't seem phased.
"Well." Lights up a square, the tip turning orange. "Having spent years dealing with suicides, I guess all we have is speculation. Unless they leave a good note."
"A good note helps."
Devore chuckles, looks up into the dark sky. The complexion of the day has changed. The rain is on its way again. Wet and gray.
"This weather doesn't help much, huh?"
I look up.
"It's just rain."
"Rain is why Seattle is the suicide capital of the world."
"What happened to Russia?"
"Never mind Russia."
Devore needles me for another beat. Maybe he senses I'm on the same path. Maybe he senses I'm a little stronger than Lumpy, but maybe the strength I do have won't last very long. It never does.
"Thanks anyway." Devore humps his oafish body into his unmarked squad car, the suspension sagging to one side.
"Sure thing." I doff my imaginary cap and watch him maneuver his black sedan through the parking lot, the tires bald and squeaking. Weaves his way into rush-hour traffic. Maybe I'll see him again some day.
Walking to my car, I choke back the guilt. Try to forgive myself for not reaching out to a soul who might've needed me. Try to forgive myself for being so selfish. Hope that I can find somebody to stop me when I'm ready to jump off that ferry.
None of this changes the fact that the world is full of lonely people. And it's not uncommon for some of those people to end up at places exactly like Front Street Packaging.