The driver pretended he was talking on the phone turning away from him. Jerry tried to let it go even though he felt anger bubbling up. Panhandling dipped into the well of hate Jerry felt toward his family. The begging only gave him a squirrel stomach reminding him of his father’s glare. His earnest eyes met ears and bald spots as the drivers sat in their cars pretended to play with the radio, or do other things, to avoid talking to him. The constant rejection on the freeway off-ramp provoked anger, shame, regret, and disgust. He was lucky to clear $30 a day; sometimes more and often less. Jerry hated panhandling worse than living under the cloak of indifference he ran away from.
He tried selling small bags of marijuana or the oxy he pinched from his Aunt Margaret’s medicine cabinet. For this job, he sat in a dark alley waiting for the locals to walk up like spies certain their cover was blown. Every sale was exciting and dangerous, yet he left each encounter sick. The money was quick, but the customers were a bit intense, especially when they needed a fix. Everyone seemed so sad and he kicked himself for feeding their sickness. Plus, the stealing from Margaret stopped when she found out her pills were missing every time he came over. Soon he felt eyes watching him and he suspected everybody was a cop. Paranoia added to the shame and he didn’t like this feeling either.
Jerry walked away from the freeway toward The Strip carrying a grocery sack filled with two hot water bottles. They were colder earlier when he refiled them from a water fountain inside Bellagio. As cars sped by above him, he eyed a billboard promising gamblers Looser Slots; deep down Jerry felt like a loser too.
The setting sun bore into him as it neared the top of Red Rock and he rounded the neon lights of The Strip into a dark corner behind a casino parking garage. His t-shirt stuck to his back from the afternoon sweat. He headed to the place where he liked to sleep behind a dumpster off Koval where he stashed a trash bag of clothes, a sleeping bag, and a cracked leather horn case containing a ventriloquist dummy named Fredrico. He looked up as the High Roller inched around and the alternating glow of red then blue of The Strip flashed through the shadows.
He hung his wet t-shirt on the edge of the dark green dumpster, fished out a dry one, and slipped into his sleeping bag under the can. He pulled boxes around his head to camouflage his sleep to make it look like someone failed to throw them away. He had learned it was the best way to blend in with the rest of the alley trash. He stared at the cobwebs on the bottom of the dumpster and at the dirt on the brick wall. He tried to ignore his hunger by taking a drink of water. It was no use; he still felt hungry. Today’s take had been less than $10 and he had spent it much earlier on a $6 sandwich and a $3 Coke. He reached into his pocket to feel his change. He wished it was a ten; he wanted another sandwich.
He talked to himself by practicing to throw his voice beyond the cement pillars. He carried on this conversation with himself until it bored him. He always expected his talent for bending his voice would land him an instant job in a Las Vegas showroom. The first week he was here he went around to the casinos looking for a job. The show runners subtly let him know they despised those fools who even tried to land an unsolicited audition. These days he rarely took Fredrico out of his case.
The hypnotic flashing of blue, then red, and yellow lured him to sleep. He woke with a start 20 minutes later. Jerry never got a full nights sleep. The honks of the taxi horns, the random shouting of the drunks, and anyone looking to kick a bum kept Jerry awake. The sounds of the city faded as they reached his alley, but it was not enough to help him feel safe. You could hear the buzzing of the power lines, the trash bags inflating in the wind, and the clanking of the dumpster bin lids. Yet, even as the darkness made his spot farthest from the party, he still had to keep the encroaching city from overtaking him. He turned over and a trash bag slipped off his head.
“Look, there’s one,” said a male voice in an excited whisper.
“That melon looks good enough to kick,” a girl said.
“You know you want to,” a guy said. Jerry retreated deeper into his sleeping bag. He stared up at the dumpster and listened. He heard at least four people standing by the metal can inches from his face. He froze and waited.
“I’m sick of these goddamn homeless lining up,” a third squeaky male voice said. “If they’re not begging, they’re shitting.”
“Do it, Charlie,” the girl said.
Jerry took a deep breath, scrunched up his face, opened his mouth and sent a voice across the alley.
“What are you doing?” the voice asked in a deep snarl.
Jerry listened as the crowd moved away toward his imagined voice.
“Come out bastard,” Charlie said.
“Why don’t you come over here and make me,” the voice said.
“You homeless son-of-a-bitch,” Charlie shouted. “Come out so I can kick your ass.”
The gang moved toward the other side of the alley. Jerry slowly got up. He pushed his sleeping bag under the dumpster next to Rodrigo’s case and crouched down. He began to inch away from the crowd. Charlie crawled into the shadow across from Jerry. He pushed aside some boxes looking for the voice.
“Why don’t you come over here and make me,” the voice threatened. Charlie looked behind a stack of pallets and found nothing. Jerry’s tonsils twisted as he started to mouth another retort. He tried to swallow, but coughed instead. The strangers turned back toward him. Charlie smiled as Jerry ducked behind the dumpster.
“We got us a trickster,” Charlie said.. “He thinks he can play me a fool.”
Charlie sprinted across the alley and jumped on Jerry. He punched him in the face, then crouched into a fighting stance. Jerry lay on the ground and Charlie started kicking. Jerry took five kicks in the stomach. He let out a cry and covered his head.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” Charlie said. “Someone hold him up while I beat some sense into him.”
A guy and a girl pulled Jerry up and held his arms back. He wiggled free from the girl and pulled away from the guy.
“Hold him still,” shouted Charlie.
Jerry struggled despite the weight of both girls on his chest. The second guy landed punches on Jerry’s head as Charlie landed a few more kicks to his stomach. In the fight, Charlies managed to hit one of the girls in the face.
“You bastard,” she said.
Charlie backed away and the girls stepped away from Jerry. He lay there trying to breathe. Charlie reached down and offered a hand. Jerry waved it away. Charlie pulled him up off the ground anyway.
Jerry tried to pull away as Charlie whispered into his ear. When Charlie finished, he turned to the rest of the group.
“You can take a beating all right,” Charlie said. “But this is no way to live.”
Jerry looked at Charlie’s broken nose and acne scars. He looked like he had been on the streets for while. He considered Charlie’s offer and then agreed.
“I’ll give it a try,” Jerry said.
And that is how Jerry ended up in the tunnels.