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To Play the Fool

Laurie R. King


Brother Fire

The fog lay close over San Francisco the morning the homeless gathered in the park to cremate Theophilus.

Brother Erasmus had chosen the site, the small baseball diamond in the western half of Golden Gate Park. Only one or two of the men and women who came together recognized the macabre irony in the site’s location, which adjoined the barbecue pits, and wondered if Brother Erasmus had done it deliberately. It was his style, to be sure.

The first of the park’s residents to wake that gray and dripping January morning was Harry. His awakening was abrupt as always, more a matter of being launched from sleep by the ghosts in his head than it was a true waking up. One moment he was snoring peacefully,- the next he snorted, and then there was a brief struggle with the terrifying confines of the bedroll before he flung it off and scrambled heavily upright to crash in blind panic through the shrubs. After half a dozen steps his brain began to make its connections, and after three more he stopped, bent over double to cough for a while, and then turned back to his bed beneath the rhododendrons. He methodically loaded his duffel bag with the possessions too valuable to risk leaving behind—the photograph of his wife and their long-dead son taken in 1959, one small worn book, a rosary, the warm woolen blanket some kind person had left (he was certain) for him, folded on their front steps—and began to close the duffel bag, then stopped, pulled it open again, and worked a hand far, far down into it. Eventually his fingers closed on the texture they sought, and he pulled out a necktie, a wadded length of grubby silk with an eye-bruising pattern that had been popular in the sixties. He draped it around the back of his neck, adjusted the ends in front, and began the tricky loop-and-through knot with hands composed of ten thumbs. The third time the slippery fabric escaped his grasp, he cursed, then looked around guiltily. Putting an expression of improbable piety onto his face, he returned to the long-unused motions. The fifth try did it. He pulled the tie snug against the outside collars of the two shirts he wore, then after a moment of thought bent again to the duffel bag. This time he did not have to dig any farther than his forearm before encountering the comb, as orange as the tie and almost as old. He ran the uneven teeth through his thin hair, smoothed the result down with spit-wet palms, straightened his wrinkled tie with the panache of an investment banker, and pulled the top of the duffel bag shut.

Harry took a final look around his cavelike shelter beneath the shrubbery, swung the bag over his right shoulder, and pushed his way back out into the clearing. He paused only to pick up the three dead branches he had leaned against the tree the night before,- then, branches upraised in his left hand, he turned west, deeper into the park.

Scotty was awake now, too, thanks to Harry’s convulsive coughing fit 150 feet away. Scotty was not an early riser. He lay for some time, listening through a stupor of sleep and booze to the preparations of his neighbor. Finally Harry left, and the silence of dripping fog and cars on Fulton Street lulled him back toward sleep.

But Theophilus was your friend, he told himself in disgust; the least you can do is say good-bye to him. His hand in its fingerless glove crept out from the layers of cardboard and cloth he was swaddled in, closed on the neck of the bottle that lay beside his head, and drew it back in. The mound that was Scotty writhed about for a moment; gurgles were followed by silence,- finally came a great weary sigh. Scotty evolved from the mound, scratched his scalp and beard thoroughly, drank the last of the cheap wine against the chill of the morning, and then with a great heaving and crashing hauled his grocery cart out of the undergrowth.

Scotty did not bother with self-beautification, just set his weight against what had once been a Safeway trolley and headed west. However, he walked with his eyes on the ground, occasionally stopping and bending down stiffly to pick up pieces of wood, which he then arranged on top of his other possessions. He seemed to prefer small pieces, but he had a sizable armful by the time he reached the baseball diamond.

As he went under the Nineteenth Avenue overpass, which was already humming with the early bridge traffic, Scotty was joined by Hat. Hat did not greet him—not aloud, at any rate— but nodded in his amiable way and fell in at Scotty’s side. Hat almost never spoke,- in fact, he had received his name only because of the headgear he always wore. Brother Erasmus might know his real name—Harry had once said that he’d seen the two men in deep conversation—but no one else did. Hat migrated about the city. For the last few weeks, he had taken to sleeping near the Stow Lake boathouse. Today’s hat was a jaunty tweed number complete with feather, rescued from a bin outside a health-food store,- it was marred only by three small moth holes and a scorch mark along the back brim. He also wore a Vietnam-era army backpack slung over his shoulder. In his right hand he held a red nylon gym bag that he’d found one night in an alley. (He had discarded most of the burglary tools it contained as being too heavy, though the cash it held had been useful.) In his left hand he clutched the pale splintery slats of a broken-up fruit crate. His waist-length white beard had been neatly brushed and he wore a cheery yellow primrose, liberated from a park flowerbed the previous afternoon, in his lapel.

From across the park the homeless came, moved by a force most of them could neither have understood nor articulated. Had you asked, as the police later did, they could have said only that they came together because Brother Erasmus had asked them to. That good gentleman, though, despite appearing both lucid and palpably willing to help, proved as impossible to communicate with as if he had spoken a New Guinean dialect.

And so, despite their lack of understanding, they came: Sondra from the Haight, wearing her best velvet,- Ellis from Potrero Street, muttering and shaking his head (an indication more of synapse damage than of disapproval),- Wilhemena from her habitual residence near the Queen Wilhemena Tulip Garden, her neighbor Doc from the southern windmill, the newly-weds Tomas and Esmerelda from their home beneath the bridge near the tennis court. Through the cultivated wilderness of John McLaren’s park they came, to the baseball diamond where Brother Erasmus, John, and the late, lamented Theophilus awaited them. Each one carried some twigs or branches or scraps of wood,- all of them tried to assemble before the sky grudgingly lightened into morning,- the entire congregation came, each adding his or her wood to the pile Brother Erasmus had made beneath the stiff corpse, and then standing back to await the match.

Of course, there were other people in the park that morning. Cars passed through on Nineteenth Avenue, on Transverse Drive, on JFK Drive, but if they even noticed the park residents drifting through the fog, they thought nothing about it.

Other early users, however, did notice. The spandex-and-Nike-clad runners from the neighboring Richmond and Sunset districts had begun to trickle into the park at first light. Committed runners these, men and women who knew the value of sweat, unlike the mere joggers who would appear later in the day. They thudded along roads and paths, keeping a wary, if automatic, eye out for unsavory types who might beg, or mug, or certainly embarrass. It was actually relatively rare to see one of the homeless up and around at this hour, though they were often to be glimpsed, huddled among their possessions in the undergrowth or, occasionally, upright but apparently comatose.

This morning, though, the natives were restless. Several runners glanced at their chronographs to check that it was indeed their usual time, two or three of them wondered irritably if they were going to have to change where they ran, and some saw the sticks the tatterdemalion figures carried and abruptly shied away to the other side of the road.