Stars in Your Soup

by Zack Kopp, originally published in Glowjob

Joey Buster was a tramp based in Denver. He spent one hour a day from noon to one outside McDonald’s at the outdoor mall downtown, smiling sweetly at the people flowing past in suits and skirts and accepting whatever they threw in his outstretched ballcap. He just kept smiling, all the waves and waves of people breaking over him, repeating, “Please sir . . . God bless you . . . oh, yes, ma’am . . . God bless you . . . yes . . .”  Doing that usually paid for his bed at the flophouse and gave him pocket change to fill his stomach and his flask and buy toothpaste and sundries. Lately people had been chasing him off from the best spare changing spots, other bums, or store owners, but it hadn’t happened so far today.

Because being a tramp is about a lot more than bum luck, Joey thought to himself as he started walking away from the mall toward the train yards just northwest of LoDo. The Old Greenshoe knew that. He was more than just some clown for the children’s amusement. You bet he knew! The Old Greenshoe had lived out all sorts of amazing adventures in Denver before his disappearance, often running afoul of gangs of unruly children who failed to perceive the true importance of his mission as a tramp, and Joey loved thinking about them. Every day he passed many locations that figured prominently—like Denver Drug & Liquor, where the Greenshoe had a big seizure once and smashed open the vending machine, or Confluence Park, where the Old Greenshoe helped a lost cat come down from a tree. 

It was dark but the streetlights were on, so the air was bright yellow. Joey heard the long, low horn song of a train on his left. He was getting near the train yards now, formerly a magical kingdom of bearded saints and heaps of holy junk.Of course, everything changed when they built the new stadium. Bars opened with names like the Endzone and Points. There were riots when teams won or lost. For a while, all the displaced tramps had set up camp in the overpasses all along the Cherry Creek bike trail, which ran through the train yards, until little green fences were builtt up there no one could fit through. Nowadays, there was an “outdoor camping” ban, the cops were doing homeless sweeps and tearing down the tiny houses and putting the homeless in jail. The only things left in the train yards these days were the train tracks themselves, the dry land, and a checkpoint where people who knew where it was sometimes went to jump freights. When Joey got there, Elmer Lucas was wearing his green raincoat and holding his backpack in one hand, a few grocery sacks full of clothes and canned food at his feet.

He bumbled over. “That hurricane was pretty bad,” he said, smiling hard. “Are you still going back there?” Elmer Lucas had been possessed by the desire to return to his hurricane-ravaged hometown in the South for a long time.

The teen’s eyes were wild and red in his sharp, bony face. “Deed—I been up for 36 hours so far, deed . . . I been through my whole list of names, said all my goodbyes to everyone . . . it’s time to go, deed. Those people need my help down there.”

“Well, you know that guy the Old Greenshoe I told you about?” Joey started hopefully, “you know . . . from whom we all sprang . . .  the Very First Hobo . . . from whom we all might learn a thing or two . . .  if only we’d open our eyes! . . . well, he used to live down in Nawlins himself, if you wanted to know. Took part in the Great Mardi Gras!”

Elmer Lucas scoffed good-naturedly. “Huh.”

“Bet it’s gonna be hard to get that stuff you need down there.”

“Deed—there ain’t nowhere in this country where you can’t get meth or just make some yourself,” Elmer Lucas sneered knowingly, his red nose a blade coming out of his head. “It’s the strongest drug-addiction epidemic ever, deed—a sure sign of how rotten this country is now. It’s just shit you can make in your own bathroom using household cleaners, deed, it’s ever-present . . . all around us in these times.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that’s what it was,” smiled Joey Buster, digging one of his heels in the gray dust. “I guess you like that stuff a lot.” 

“Deed, I LOVE it,” said Elmer Lucas with a grin. “People call it the ‘hillbilly heroin,’ though, since we make it out of mini-thins and roach spray or whatever. But I say it’s the only sane response to such a fucked-up world, you know, deed? And it just proves how fucked-up all this shit we’re surrounded by already naturally is in a way—if you cook it up right! I have some in my backpack right now if you wanna see. All the natural ingredients, deed!” Elmer Lucas held up his gray backpack with one scrawny arm.

“No thanks.” Joey smiled. “I’m more of a drinker myself.” He got the flask out of his pocket and took a satisfying snort. “The world is fucked-up,” he agreed with a hard smile.

“Deed,” agreed Elmer Lucas, “I heard this from a preacher on the radio, deed . . . he said the guy who goes crazy and just starts killing is really the voice of God objecting to all this evil we have in America right now, deed, you know? Like some part of his soul knows how evil it is so he just goes crazy and kills everyone, ‘cause they’re bad! But I’m better than him since I’m roastin’ my own lungs and brain out, deed. God is on my SIDE here, deed.”

The moon was big and yellow and full and the two men were standing behind a low wall in a tiny wasteland of dark weeds right beside the Platte River. Joey knew this kid was probably wrong about what it all meant, he would probably burn himself out in no time with that fire of a drug, but Joey didn’t know what it meant himself anyway.

“Yes, maybe he is.” He smiled tenderly this time. Even when Joey was scraping the dregs of his last tin of beans, he’d be smiling about it one way or another.

“People think just because I’m a meth user, deed, that I don’t really have any brains,” said Elmer Lucas. “They think I smoke out all my brains. But I’m goin’ back down there to help out my hometown, deed, and no one can say that’s not right. I hear tell you can’t even go into the court house right now without wearing a hazmat suit.” 

 “Won’t all the roads be closed or something?”

“Deed, that train’ll take me pretty close, then I’ll just hitch hike the rest of the way . . . I’ll get there, deed. There’s ways of getting in. I wanna make my peace with God.”

“Is God at war with you?”

“Deed . . .” Elmer Lucas sawed the air with his hand, unable to think of an answer.

“The Greenshoe would’ve done the same thing, more than likely,” said Joey. He felt he’d been to this same tiny patch of dead earth near the tracks years before, except that time, he thought he’d seen barrels of oil with the hazardous waste symbol on them. “All the best of us follow his footsteps. We are all becoming him always.”

“Hey, can I ask you something, Joey?”

Joey blinked, coming back to himself. “Sure, Elmer Lucas.”

“What the hell are you always smiling for, deed? What’s so funny?”

“Ha ha, well, I just keep smiling. It’s the secret of my success.” He spread his hands. 

“Well uh . . . thanks, deed.” A train was coming and said Elmer Lucas squinted at it, leaning forward with his hands against the low wall.

“Is that one yours?” asked Joey.

“Not yet.”

The train moaned hugely past, making everything vibrate slightly. Joey smiled at him again. “Can you feel it?”

“Yeah,” said Elmer Lucas, “I’m gonna miss you, Joey. You’re one of my heroes, in fact. Kind of a Johnny Cash deed.”

“Johnny Cash the country singer?”

“I respect Cash as a deed who really MEANT what he was saying, deed . . . just wearing all black all the time out of some weird feeling he honestly had. It really wasn’t a publicity stunt or anything. He really FELT that way, deed, for his own strange reasons. Like you with the smiling no matter what happens. You’ve heard that song of his, ‘The Man in Black’?” 

“I think so.”

Elmer Lucas hunched his shoulders as though he was playing guitar and sang part. “I’d love to wear a rainbow every day . . . and tell the world that everything’s okay . . . you know that one? . . . but I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back . . .  you know that song?”

“Oh, I think so.”

Elmer Lucas held up two fingers and made the peace sign. “You and Cash both MEAN WHAT YOU SAY, deed. You and Cash.”

 “Well, thanks.” Joey shrugged his shoulders. “I try not to say much, as it is.”

Wait! Here comes my train . . . okay—no—nosory—false alarm again, deed . . . any minute now, though.”

“The Old Greenshoe met Johnny Cash once!” Joey burst out abruptly. “Did you know about that? This occurred at a place called the Greasy Spoon Diner, which is currently a 24-hour place called Breakfast King. Johnny Cash wrestled a gator . . . and cured the old bartender’s snakebite with secret herbs from a Choctaw Indian pouch . . . after chasing away some outlaws with his six-gun! . . . oh yeah . . . then he pulled out his magic guitar, and launched into an excellent version of ‘I Walk The Line’ . . . just as the young Greenshoe took his own first sip of beer, setting off down the road he would ride all the rest of his days . . .  just puking in trashcans . . . chased by gangs of . . . laughing children, throwing rocks.” 

“Yeah—well—wait a minute, Joey.” Elmer Lucas started jogging over to the tracks, his green raincoat flapping behind him. Joey stayed where he was. “This is it—I  think—Yep—yep—this is it, Joey! I’m out, deed, I’m out, I’m out!” He jogged along beside the train, tossed his backpack and grocery bags into the first open boxcar and jumped in after them.

Joey Buster raised his hand and stood there smiling as the long train rattled off, horn howling. He knew that kid’s desire to go back to his hometown and help all those hurricane victims was really a song from inside him that wanted his body to go somewhere like a faithful servant. It’s just like me following the Greenshoe’s tracks, he calculated, stars bobbing above him like floats on two-zillion trap-lines. He was hooked just like everyone else, no matter how hard he smiled. Later that night at the Rescue Mission, staring into his cup of pea soup, Joey thought he saw stars flash down there for a second too. After he slurped down the last of that potion, he walked outside, bent down to retie his shoes, his ass up in the air for a second as headlights approached. Sometimes he felt so vulnerable.

Joey started away from the purple neon cross, soon outpacing the others because of his long legs. He started heading for the flophouse, one foot after the other. It was springtime right now. It would snow again soon, maybe he should leave town for a while. What is God, after all? he thought solemnly. We all think we’re doing what God wants us to. And maybe we are. Or we’re not. And everyone is always doing something with all of themselves. In the middle of Broadway, with more headlights coming, Joey felt his laces coming loose again. Have mercy on me, God, have mercy on me, he raged silently in his own mind, smiling hard at a curly haired woman in a gray suit crossing towards him with a briefcase in her hand.


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