Regis Wright placed his scarred and calloused right hand down on a wet piece of dirt while trying to get a firm foothold on the damp river bank. He was heading for home, a darkened area beneath the bridge that carried Highway 43 across the King's River about a mile north of Hanford.
There was a light summer rain falling and he wanted out of it. He had a little place carved out in the gap between the bridge and the small flat place before the ground broke down at a sixty degree angle toward the water below. There was enough room for his sleeping bag and a chair made out of a blue milk crate.
The place even had a place in the bank carved out that fit him like a easy chair and let him stretch out his legs and sit in upright position reading his books. The books were stacked neatly in red milk crate that sat between his bed and the chair space.
The only thing he didn't like about the place was that there was no place for his shopping cart. He had to hide it in some trees. The area was close to Hanford, but far enough away from town for him to be alone, that is if you didn't count the cars whizzing by over his head.
The shopping cart was his pride and joy; he had painted it jet black with a can of spray paint he found on his garbage run, and somewhere he had managed to dig up a rainbow umbrella that he was able to adjust so that the sun hardly ever had a chance to cook on his head.
He decided to take advantage of this time away from scrounging for a living to wash his pants, socks and underwear. He kept a small bottle of dish soap in his backpack for the occasion. After donning a pair of track shorts, he took the clothes and laid them on a small bush that was getting some sunlight yet was far enough under the bridge to be out of rain.
Then he hunched his way over to the chair and pulled a dogeared copy of Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem out of the red milk crate. He got out a box of matches and lit the candles on the ledge by his head. The left lens of his glasses were scratched, but he was used to it.
He liked Didion's writing style and had studied it in college. At one point in his life, he had wanted to be a writer. There was a dirty envelope he carried in his camouflage backpack that contained a story he had written for a creative writing class at Fresno State.
The professor had read it in front of the class and praised its 'heartfelt sincerity and emotional description'. It was his most valuable possession, and he would have grieved less over the loss of his shopping cart than the loss of the ruffled pieces of paper stuffed into the large envelope.
After a few pages, he loss sight of the Didion essay he was reading and thought about an incident that occurred about an hour before at the Pollo Loco out by the Walmart store. He always hated going there because some of the other homeless people were so aggressive and rude; he had to map out his path to avoid all the taken corners in order to avoid a fight.
He was rummaging through a trash can looking for plastic when a dirty, scrawny looking female had walked out of the chicken place in a hurry. She took a few steps off the curb, turned around, and started hurling obscenities back toward the building. She placed her drink down in the parking lot and flipped the people looking out the window two big fingers.
"Cocksucking, mothafucking, shit eating assholes! Fuck all of you greedy bastards!" She facially mugged them a bit, picked up her soda which Regis noticed was in a Taco Bell cup, glanced at Regis, turned and walked on talking to herself the whole time.
About a minute later, an assistant manager came out and started in on Regis.
" You people need to stay out of the restaurant if you're not going to buy anything!" That's all he said. Regis didn't bother trying to explain that he hadn't gone in the restaurant in the first place knowing it would only create another such reprimand by the overweight, bespectacled assistant.
He felt pity for such people as he had managed a fast food place in grad school and knew that all the hoop jumping made them act crazy. Instead of responding, Regis lowered his eyes toward his own feet thinking of the time he had ran a smelly bum out the restroom and the bum had started crying.
The memory made him cry. The assistant manager started to say something, thought better, adjusted his glasses then turned and walked away.
For some reason that memory made him think of his mother before the dementia came and ravished their relationship. He remembered how meticulous she had been and how many hours of his youth had been spent scrubbing the floors and cleaning the bathrooms at their childhood home. He felt that him and his brother Prince were always trying to erase any and all presence of their father even down to his fingerprints and lost hair. The only problem was that he and Prince had their daddy's DNA. To him, this explained their mother's insane emphasis on cleanliness. She didn't just wash them when they were young, she scrubbed them with stiff brushes.
The cleanliness also applied to their inner world. She read Bible to them at breakfast, at lunch, and at dinner. The brothers both fell in love with school because it allowed them time away from their mother's sermons and rules.
A diesel roared by overhead with its horn blasting. It had to be Clemmie, Regis thought. Clemmie was a truck driver who knew that Regis lived beneath the bridge. She always honked her horn when passing, and if she saw Regis around when she ate at Denny's or Black Bear Diner, she would horse collar him and treat him to a meal.
"Regis," she would laugh, "You're so pitiful looking, you break my fucking heart." Clemmie was the only person since that day in writing class who had read Regis's story. They were sitting in a back booth at Ryan's, and she had tried to say something, but couldn't.
Eventually, tears ran down her mahogany cheeks, and she wiped them off with her coffee stained napkin. "That's so fucking beautiful, man. Damn, I can't quit crying. She had to get up and go to the ladies' room, and when she returned, she bent down and placed a kiss on the only clean spot on his red, bald head.
Regis fell asleep, and when he awoke, the summer rain was over. He felt his clothes, and they were still damp, but he put them on anyway. He had an appointment to keep; there was still enough light in the sky for him to keep it.
Once a week, he found his way across town out to 10th avenue where the cemetery was. On the way, he would use the alleys near the big houses near the north end of Douty and steal a flower or two, or three.
He'd usually get to the cemetery at dusk when the western horizon turned a glorious pastel pink with large bands of reds and yellows around it. He thought that sunset was the nicest thing about life in the Central Valley.
He remembered seeing a Monet sunrise once at a museum in Paris and had thought to himself how poorly it fared against the sunsets on the west side of the valley. If he got home in time in the spring and summer, he would stand out there by the side of the river basking in the glory of the dying sun until it had completely dipped below the horizon. He often wondered what the passengers in the passing cars must have thought.
In the comforting shade, he would sit by their graves and read bits of whatever book he had on him, Sometimes it was Joan Didion, sometimes the Bible, and sometimes something else.
Sometimes he just sat there humming.