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Chapter Twelve

I am in this mission.[1] I lie up on top of this bunk. It is a high bunk. It is a three-decker. If I should turn over on my stomach in my sleep, I would fall out and break my neck. This is a big room. There are a thousand here besides myself. I lie up here and listen to the snores of a thousand men. It is not funny. I lie here and listen to them snore, and I cannot sleep for thinking. I look at the rafters overhead and the shadows that play across them. I think of vultures hovering in the sky, waiting. They dart across the rafters and onto the walls. I see them swooping down on their prey that lie sweating in the licefilled bunks. Their prey is a thousand men that lie and groan and toss. I lie here and listen to them groan and toss, and I try to figure it out.

"There is no God," I say. "If there is a God, why is such as this? What have these men done that they live like rats in a garbage heap? Why does He make them live like rats in a garbage heap?"

It is all dark in here. Dark save for the light and the shadows that come from the electric sign outside. It is a big sign. It hangs from wires in front of this mission. "Jesus Saves," it says. I can hear the shuffle of stiffs as they slouch in front of the door outside. They lean up against the sides and sprawl on the curb. They are waiting for nothing. There will be no flop in this joint for them tonight. They are too late. There are plenty of beds left in here, but they are too late. You have to come early and listen to the sermon if you want a flop in this joint. They are too late. I lie here and wonder since when did Jesus Christ start keeping office hours?

There are gas hounds[2] out there, too. I can hear them. They snore and groan in the doorway. They do not care where they flop. They do not care if they flop at all. They do not have a care in the world. I do not blame these guys for being gas hounds. They do not know what it is to be hungry. They never have to eat. What's the use of blowing a good ten-cent piece on a feed? You can blow it on a can of heat and forget you are hungry. You can forget a lot of other things besides.

I turn my eyes to the stiff in the bunk next to mine. Through the shadows I can see him lying there. His face is pasty white. The bones almost stick out of his skin. All you can see is the whites of his eyes as he rolls them back and forth. They are big eyes. Big eyes set in a skull with only a little meat still left. And they are all white. That's what gives me the willies when he rolls them about like that. There is no color in them. They are all white. I turn my head away from him, but still I can hear him groan. It is a hollow groan. It comes from a hollow chest. I cannot keep my eyes away from him. I cannot help looking at him. His hands are like claws lying there on the dirty blankets. He does not breathe. He only rattles. Why don't someone do something for this poor bastard? Do something! That is a good joke. When he rattles to death on top of this lousy bunk, it will only be one less to swill down their lousy carrot slop. God damn them. Some day they will pay for this.

"For Christ sake, what is the matter with that stiff?" says this stiff in the next bunk.

"He is croaking up here in his lousy bunk, that's what's the matter with him," I say.

"Does he have to make that much racket to croak?" he says. "I see plenty of stiffs croak, but I never see one make that much racket at it."

"I guess a stiff has got a right to make as much noise as he wants to when he is croaking," I say. "Why should he care if a bunch of stiffs get their sleep or not? Nobody is worrying their heads off about him."

"Give him a swig of heat or knock him in the head," this stiff says. "They are kickin' me out of this joint tomorrow. I got to get me some sleep so I can ride the rattlers. A guy can't be ridin' the rattlers if he needs sleep."

I lie up here and think. Here is a stiff who has lived his life, and now he is dying under these lousy blankets in a mission. Who is there to care whether he lives or dies? If all this stiff needed was a glass of water to save his life, he would croak anyway. Nobody in this mission would give him a drink of water. This stiff is dying, and this other stiff in the next bunk is raising hell because the rattles from his hollow chest keep him from sleeping. This stiff has not always been a stiff. Somewhere, some time, this stiff has had a home. Maybe he had a family. Where are they now? I do not know. The chances are he does not know himself. He is alone. The fritz has made him alone. He will die alone. He will die cooped up in a mission with a thousand stiffs who snore through the night, but he will die alone. The electric light outside will go on and off in the dark, "Jesus Saves," but that will not help this stiff. He will die alone.

I yell to this mission stiff who is the night man.

"What the hell are you yellin' about?" he says. "Don't you know you will wake these other stiffs up?"

"There is a man dying up here in this lousy bunk, and you ask me why am I yelling?" I say. "Are you going to let this poor bastard suffer all night?"

"What do you think I am goin' to do with him?" he says. "I am no wet-nurse for a bunch of lousy stiffs."

"You are a God-damn mission stiff," I say, "and mission stiffs are sons of bitches."

"You can't talk like that to me," he says. "I'll have you kicked out of the mission. Tomorrow I'll have you kicked out of the mission."

"You call an ambulance for this stiff," I say, "or I will call it myself, and beat the hell out of you besides."

"I will call the ambulance," he says, "but you will not be here tomorrow. I'll see that you are not here tomorrow."

He cusses and goes out to the office to call the ambulance.

Pretty soon the doctor is here. There are two guys with him. They are dressed in white. They carry a stretcher between them. This croaker climbs up on this three-decker bunk and looks at this guy. He feels his pulse and times it with his watch. He sticks a thermometer in his mouth. When he pulls it out, he shakes his head. He pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil.

"What is your name?" he says to this guy.

This stiff does not answer. He cannot answer. This stiff will soon be finished. There will be no more mission swill for this stiff. He walls his eyes and gurgles in his throat. He moves his claw-like hands. He wants to talk, but can't.

"Where do you live?" this croaker says.

This stiff does not answer him. He cannot tell him, but I can tell him. He lives wherever he can find a hole to get in out of the rain. He lives wherever he can find a couple of burlap sacks to cover up his bones. He cannot tell him this, because he is dying. I have seen a lot of old stiffs die. I can tell. His bloodless lips pull back over his yellow teeth. It looks as though this stiff is grinning at this croaker who asks him where he lives. I shiver in my blankets. This stiff is a ghost. A ghost of skin and bones. A bloodless ghost. I try not to look at him. A dead man's grin is a terrible thing. A mocking, shivery thing.

This  croaker climbs down off the bunk.

"This guy has not got a chance," he says. "I can't do anything for this guy. He is starved to death. He is skin and bones. He will be dead in an hour."

"What'll we do with him?" this mission stiff says.

This bastardly mission stiff does not want to be bothered with an old stiff who will be dead in an hour. He is afraid he might have to help carry him downstairs. All mission stiffs are the same. They are all bastards.

"Load him up," this croaker says to the guys with the stretcher; "we'll take him with us."

They load him on the stretcher and take him out. He does not move his face. Only the whites of his eyes show as he walls them around in his head. Only the sound of the rattle comes from his hollow chest.

There are not a thousand snores through the night now. There are none. These stiffs in the bunks raise up on their elbows and watch these two guys in white carry this stiff out. These stiffs know what they are watching. They are watching a funeral. This stiff is not dead yet, but they are watching a funeral. He will not come back. You will see them carry out plenty of stiffs in a mission on these stretchers. You will never see them again after they carry them out. We know that we are watching a funeral. When they carry you out of a mission, you are dead.

They thump down the stairs with this stiff. I lie up here and listen to them thump. These other stiffs lie back in their bunks. Some of them pull the covers up tight around their chins. They are cold. It is not so cold in this room. They are not cold because they are cold, but because they are afraid. I know what they are thinking. They think that that stiff on the stretcher they hear thumping down the stairs is not the stiff that is on it, but themselves. They can see themselves lying on this stretcher. They see the whiteness of their eyes walling through the darkness of the night. They hear the rattle that comes from a hollow chest. That is the way they will land up. They know that that is the way. You cannot forever be eating slop and freezing to death at night. Some night you will not be able to get your breath for the rattle, and they will come and carry you out on a stretcher. There is no snoring now. We stare wide-eyed at the shadows that play across the ceiling. We watch the flickerings of the sign outside that says: "Jesus Saves."

Underneath me is this itch and crawl. I tell myself it is the stickiness of the dirty blankets. But it is not that. I know what it is. It is lice that itch and crawl beneath me. I lie here and feel them crawl. I do not scratch. It does no good to scratch. I lie here and grit my teeth until I can stand it no longer. I pull these blankets off me and strike a match. I cannot see them. They are too small to see. I brush these blankets off with my hands. I take these newspapers out of my pants pocket and spread them over the bed. I leave some of the paper hang over the sides. Maybe if they try to crawl out to the edge to get me, they will fall to the floor and break their necks. I lie back down and spread the rest of these papers over me.

It is better now. There is no itch to make me lie and grit my teeth. It is better to freeze to death than to be eaten alive by lice. The stiff under me snores again and scratches. The stiff under him snores and scratches. I lie here and try to think back. I try to think back over the years that I have lived. But I cannot think of years any more. I can think only of the drags I have rode, of the bulls that have sapped up on me, and the mission slop I have swilled. People I have known, I remember no more. They are gone. They are out of my life. I cannot remember them at all. Even my family, my mother, is dimmed by the strings of drags with their strings of cars that are always with me in my mind through the long, cold nights. Whatever is gone before is gone. I lie here and I think, and I know that whatever is before is the same as that which is gone. My life is spent before it is started. I peer into the blackness of the ceiling, and in its blackness I try to find the riddle of why I lie here on top of this three-decker bunk with the snores of a thousand men around me.

I look over at this stiff's empty bunk. Dead in an hour. I shiver. Great Christ, I think, is this the way I will go out, too? It is hard enough to pass out in a nice feather bed with all your family gathered around and crying. It is no snap to die like that. But this way. Lying up on top of a three-decker bunk. No mattress under you. Only a dirty blanket. Lie here and rattle and groan. Lie here and feel the lice crawling all over you and under you. Lie here with only the whites of your eyes gleaming through the dark. To feel the bones sticking out of your skin. It will get me, too, like it got this guy. It is getting me. I can feel it. Twenty years before my time I will be like this guy. Maybe it will be in a mission like this, and they will come and carry me out on a stretcher. Maybe I will be lying in the corner of a box car with the roar of the wheels underneath me. Maybe it will come quick while I am shivering in a soup-line, a soup-line that stretches for a block and never starts moving. I lie up here on my three-decker bunk and shiver. I am not cold. I am afraid. What is a man to do? I know well enough what he can do. All he can do is to try to keep his belly full of enough slop so that he won't rattle when he breathes. All he can do is to try and find himself a lousy flop at night. Day after day, week after week, year after year, always the same — thre

[1] Mission: “A place in which homeless people could reside for a night” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

[2] Gas Hound: “a drinker of wood alcohol, ether, and similar intoxicating, if poss. poisonous, stimulants” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web); referring to a person who drinks gasoline for the alcohol content.

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