Sampson did not know how the world would end — that was a misconception for which the media was at fault. At least, that was, he did not know with the kind of knowledge that translated into words and logical conclusions.
Sampson was not to be confused with Jericho, the dusty faced, curly haired beggar who sat on Fulcrum Boulevard and Twenty-Ninth, slumped within a squalid combination of blankets — even in the summertime — his body one big puddle slowly seeping into the bricks.
Jericho held beside him a cardboard sign bearing badly transcribed passages from Revelations. That was because Jericho was a fake.
Anybody who dropped a dollar in his moldy metal can — that had once housed baked beans — to hear him rant was overpaying by a dollar, even if the purchase was made solely in the interests of perverse entertainment.
Sampson may have had a few things in common with Jericho socio-economically, but even the shallowest, most accidental explorations into the respective personalities of the two men made it seem preposterous that they should fall under the same classification. Sampson did not make signs, and moreover, he abhorred sitting on busy sidewalks.
Sampson remembered turning forty, and he was pretty sure he was younger than fifty. He wore a plaid jacket and two pairs of jeans, different sizes, one slid snugly over the other. He found ways to cut his hair, and liked to keep it short, but allowed his beard to grow freely, even as it grayed. He stood just under six feet tall, and had a bad ankle.
Prophetic Oddities of Odious Perspicacity was the newspaper headline that made Sampson famous for a week. Fame was like the flu; it came to town, spread, lived and died a quiet death, death being the mere condition of finding no hosts. Nobody pointed out that the first letters of the title spelled POOP. Sampson took amusement in that.
He did not beg for change. He evidenced his need for it and graciously accepted it when it was proffered. There was a difference between what Sampson did and begging, plain as the difference between pissing on someone’s lawn and pissing in a storm drain.
Percy, Sampson’s only friend, brought his fame to his attention on a rainy day, sitting on the wooden green bench under the freeway overpass, listening to the collective hiss of cars. It sounded like a single sick animal.
Percy stood roughly the height of a pubescent boy and wore his aborted height in his shoulders, which were massive like stale balloons beneath his clothing. His hooded poncho hid his ears from the wind, regardless of the presence or absence of rain. Wind made Percy sick. The growths on his ears looked like tiny little brains in disagreement with each other. His face had the quality of a spherical ball of mucus, his eyes, nose and mouth doughy indentations where some of the mucus bled out apologetically. His hunched posture was a consequence of his voice, which always sped up toward the end of a sentence. Most sentences he spoke contained coughing fits in place of punctuation.
Percy owned a Swiss army knife, although owned was probably not the most accurate word. Sampson could not fathom how the knife came into Percy’s possession, and whenever he asked, Percy only smiled and ignored the question. It was Percy’s favorite — and only — toy, and he was always gesturing with the blade when he talked, which annoyed Sampson. “It is a known fact,” Percy read from the rumpled newspaper (entire sections of which had already been torn off and used as toilet paper) while picking at his teeth with the Swiss army knife, “that if you defecate in the sunlight, and construct a housing to isolate it from flies and critters, and give it ample time to dry out, it becomes moldable like clay, and loses its repugnant quality.”
Sampson shook his head and tensed his calves. He still could not feel the substance of the bench beneath him, but he wanted to get some circulating sensation in his legs before the policemen arrived, which was usually at the time of day when the sun shone through the sliver between the branching freeway onramps above them. Sampson ran his hand over the bench; once it felt hot, that would be the twenty-minute warning. Every day.
Percy folded up his knife and returned it to the elastic band of his pants. At the same time, his tongue jogged a slow lap around the inside of his teeth. Excited, foamy saliva poked through the gaps in his teeth, beckoning his audience of one. “Guano from bats is widely used as a building material in many African cultures. Human excrement, given the proper diet, can be equally suitable for crafts.” Percy paused with his mouth closed. “Given it has no value as manure to be returned to the soil, it is sensible — and, one could say, God’s intention — for modern man to use it for this purpose.” Percy slowly, deliberately folded the text and slid it back inside his shirt; Sampson understood then what the sickly yellow stains on the page were — sweat.
Sampson shook his head and spit in all directions. “I never said any of that. They made it up. Bastards.”
Sampson was an artist. He made crafts. Figurines, specifically: brown. He had tools. His tools were all fashioned out of old, discarded coat hangers bent (using carefully selected rocks as anvils and dyes) into shapes that served as sculpting spoons, tongs and chisels. The most important tool in his lab was a dome-shaped screen made out of a rectangular window screen he had found in a dumpster, manually folded in a radial pattern with the edges rolled up and smashed with a stone to create a circular lip around the dome. With a stick, he would etch an indentation into the ground — surrounding his bowel movement — and place the dome carefully in the circle. Once securely in place, he would pack in more dirt over the metal lip, and finally tack it down with several stout pebbles to prevent it from blowing away.
For the first six hours, he would stand vigil and shoo away any small animals that stalked near. In the instance that he was lucky enough to find a white sheet or a painted white square of cardboard in a junk heap, he would position it — propped up with sticks and other tools made from found coat hangers — to bounce natural sunlight onto his collected stool to accelerate the drying process. Once the material was ready for use, he worked quickly, forming the basic shapes with his coat hanger tongs, chipping away to create the finer details, working directly from his imagination. He did not create figurines as individual pieces, and he did not create them one at a time.
The visions that necessitated his artwork always came to him as scenes between two, three, sometimes four people, always in motion, usually engaged in combat. Sampson’s sculptures were believed by his admirers to be more informative than the bible, in as far as prognosticating how the world would end. The reason was that Sampson lived in close proximity to train tracks, a circumstance that allowed him never more than an hour and a half of uninterrupted sleep. His environs suited him because he had access to a dumpster behind the Quick Needs convenience store where he could always find sandwiches that hadn’t been opened, and occasionally a bag of potato chips.
Sampson used to wander and sleep in a different region of the city every night — preferring in locales he did not recognize — because he was addicted to unrelenting albeit slow mobility. In those days he was so hungry he thought he would die; it was the hunger that first made him see the visions. For days he was not sure if he was dead (after the panic and the outbursts of crying, cursing and lobbing glass bottles against cracked concrete staircases, when one runs out of breath and becomes instantly calm and inwardly smiling). He could never remember his visions because he was too hungry and could not spare any calories for the act of remembering a thing. That he found to be problematic.
Nowadays, when he situated himself under the bridge with food aplenty, it was due to him being involuntarily awake that he saw the visions. He no longer wandered because he needed the consistent food supply so that he could continue to pass raw materials through his bowels yielding a renewable medium with which to articulate the visions.
Percy coughed red, brownish sludge onto the concrete and said, as an afterthought to the release of phlegm, “Jericho’s dead.”
People who failed to express their visions went insane; even legitimate, employed people who had money and lived in houses with heaters and mattresses and refrigerators. Sampson would not go insane because Sampson was an artist. Sampson was smart.
“How do you know?” Sampson was beginning to hate Percy.
“They found him on his face,” said Percy. “He’s gone.”
Stinging eyeball juice seeped over Sampson’s nostrils as the sun shone through.
“Are you lying?” Sampson looked at the neck of Percy’s poncho to get his answer. Percy never responded to that question, but in the case that he was lying, his poncho would become animated and crease from side to side. It was as though the poncho caught a whiff of Percy’s stench and puckered in search of better air to breathe.
Percy was bent too far forward. Sampson could not determine if Percy was fighting back tears of mourning or playing housekeeper with the yellowy globs in his lungs.
Jericho could not have just keeled over and died. It was impossible. Jericho had a responsibility to sit on the corner of Fulcrum and Twenty-Ninth. Every day. There was no such thing as retirement. A tree did not one day plop over on its face and decide it was finished. Not even small animals had the audacity to lazily expire like that — they either got hit by cars, got eaten by predators or kept going. Posters on benches did not peel off and lie face down on the pavement.
It did not matter what disease or diseases with which Jericho had been afflicted; he could not do that. The only thing more contradictory than the manner in which he died was the manner in which he lived, sitting on the sidewalk collecting the fruits of disgust.
A fizzy, expansive feeling rose in Sampson’s throat. He saw the vision that would be birthed in his next sculpture piece; it was a scene of Jericho slouched cross-legged on his corner, and around him a pack of hunters perched like tigers, seething, ready to lunge and claw his throat. The attackers were all humans who merely thought they were beasts.
There could be no tribute to Jericho more appropriate than for his physical likeness to be reconstituted in the form of excrement, baked to immortality in sunlight, forever waiting for the violence promised in the half-crazed eyes of statues. In the vision, Jericho held no sign — it would be impossible to sculpt a cardboard Revelations placard anyway.
Percy was playing with his Swiss army knife again, doing something to the ground.
Percy used a dead raccoon as bait for sympathy. Everyone called the little weasel Percy as if it were his first name, even though it was more likely his last name, if it was his name at all. Percy laid the raccoon corpse out on the sidewalk so that anybody walking by would have to slow down to sidestep it. The act of slowing down made people statistically more likely to reach into their pocket and toss him some change. People assumed the raccoon was intended to inspire a mixture of revulsion and pity, and Percy wanted them to think that, to distract them from his true motive, which was, simply, to make them slow down. One day Percy would slow down, and he would die on his face, just like old Jericho.
When the friendly young man in the jean jacket had interviewed Sampson for the newspaper, one of his first questions was where Sampson actually lived.
Sampson had replied: “Under the bridge there’s a fence and a couple squares of concrete. The dirt slopes down into bushes that drop off steep down onto some train tracks, then the river right off side the tracks. That train makes a racket, I don’t really sleep when I think I’m sleeping, and sometimes I feel like I’m on the train, going away somewhere, when I’m not really asleep, and I don’t know. There’s a telephone pole right there under the bridge, and beside it, a green old tree that’s leaning to the left, like the two of ‘em are neighbors, both about as tall as my belly when I’m standing up to piss, I can see over the tops of ‘em, because they start- I mean, the roots start down at the train tracks, ‘xcept they don’t look too far away…bout how far…if you took a bicycle with a flat tire and pushed it forward with nobody on it, to see how far it would roll before it fell over, about that distance. That’s how steep it is if you go to the edge of the dirt. And in the other direction, where the concrete starts, there’s a cement wall, the start of the bridge, and it’s painted white — not painted all the way to top and bottom. Over the white paint there’s big, fluffy black letters that spell GHOST.”
The newspaper had printed: “Sampson works in a secret studio in an undisclosed location. His works are not available for purchase. If you should happen to meet him, he requests that you leave him in peace, that, in his own words, you regard him as you would a ghost.”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED