As I drove up, Rob stood on the tavern deck,
with an armload of artifacts--driftwood, metal shards, and a buoy or two--that
he found on the beach, under the bridge where he lived with his dog, or rather,
Starz's dog. His bald head, brown from sun, rose above the railing. There was
no sign of her; not unusual; sometimes she would disappear for days, then show
up, thick blonde hair, with or without Rob.
"Beachcombing?" I turned the deadbolt. The alarm beeped inside.
"Yeah"--Rob gave a wry grin and held something. "Kinda looks like--" He left the words hanging, suspended by some indisputable physical reality, with no need to state the obvious. Just look--He smiled a missing tooth mystery.
"Jesus." I stated the obvious, and took the emaciated, palm-size likeness of our crucified savior that Rob had rescued from the Columbia River. It was a striking maritime manifestation, a floating miracle and divine blessing, fraught with meandering meaning. Jesus had returned from the dead in the form of...Ginger root?...Prickly pear?...or some pockmarked Klickitat tuber washed downstream from radioactive Hanford...I could not tell. Technically, I figured Jesus lived in a heavenly paradise, and might just be visiting, not literally returning from the dead; but if you think about it, people in heaven, at least from an earthly perspective, are clinically dead. Why would Jesus pick a homeless guy from my tavern?
I noticed Rob held a driftwood stick and piece of rusted beam. "How's Rover?" I could see Starz's mutt in the back of his black SUV. A previous metal worker and property manager, Rob lived on his thousand dollar Social Security check, and once owned a bar, himself, before he went belly up. His scavenged gifts were a way of payback for free coffee I provided. After spending last winter in his car, he was trying to find an affordable apartment.
"Fine. Dog had his swim. You seen Starz?"
"A couple days ago," I said "With some guy. She won a few bucks on the poker machine."
Exactly how Rob ended up with Starz's dog, I don't know. A soft touch, I suppose, when she became homeless. They were an unlikely and itinerant odd couple. When Rob did not show, she would harangue him with cell phone calls..."Rob!" she would rail..."Get off your ass, and get over here!"
"What's he doing?" I brought out sugar and cream.
"Nothing!" she snarled with a force that belied her slight frame. "He's a worthless petty punk! Sits on the beach all day! Not doing one thing to improve his life!"
I nodded. Pretty soon, I knew Starz would ask to borrow three bucks...or seven...and if she won on the poker machine, would offer to pay back maybe ten dollars on the forty-five she already owed me. Her debts ambled along like a stiff on life support...a little up, a little down...and eventually she would pay, and start the whole cycle over. As a bar owner, I have to admit, the presence of her fit body offered some compensation, even if she qualified more as an attractive nuisance than a star attraction.
Our neighborhood falls on the south side of the street, just off the strip joint fringe, where 747's pass before they hit the tarmac, a broken corral of Hispanics, blacks, Koreans, and Caucasian cowboys. I never asked Starz exactly what she did for a living, but after a while, like they all do, she told me. It was during an NBA game on TV. A familiar Hollywood actor was preening in front of the bench. "That guy never misses," I said. "A game, that is."
Over a glucose-saturated cup of mud, she blinked once. "Game, my ass," she said with no expression. "I met him once."
"Really?" My ears perked up. "My hero? You're kidding!"