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Birch, painting by Margo McCafferty

The Homeless Schedule

by Nathaniel Tower


"What the hell are you doing here?" a bushy-bearded man shouted, fists raised above his head, at the chubby woman in yellow strolling in his direction. A few cars whizzed by just inches from the couple.

"What do you mean what am I doing here? What are you doing here?" The woman raised her fists above her head, dropping a cardboard sign in the process, and the two stood on the corner like apes before a honking car horn caused the man to scream a string of obscenities.

When the car was far enough away, the man turned back to the woman and waved a filthy finger. "This is my corner. I get this corner every Friday during the morning rush. I've had it for four years now." The dirty finger continued to wag even after he finished speaking.

"That's all good and well," the woman in yellow responded, "but you forgot to sign up this week."

"I don't have to sign up," the bearded man said as he stooped to retrieve his fallen cardboard placard.

The woman slapped at the sign and kicked over a large metal cylinder near the man's rotting boots.

"New year, new rules," she said as she watched the few coins spill onto the sidewalk.

"You can shove your rules," the man replied, scrambling to pick up his coins before they could roll into the street. The woman retrieved her sign and stood in front of the man. He stopped grabbing for the coins and bit her right ankle through a tattered beige nylon.

The woman yelped in pain and leapt forward, her toes landing over the curb. She dropped her sign into the street and flailed her arms like a pigeon readying for flight. The motion kept her from plunging into the street. She turned and swung her sneaker at the man, but he had crawled out of reach looking for more coins.

"What the hell's the matter with you?" the woman shrieked.

"I'm just trying to do my job." The man stood, his metal container jangling as he rose. "It's hard enough making a decent living out here alone. It'd be impossible with an amateur like you on the scene."

"Amateur," the woman laughed, her head jolting back. "Look at your cup. How long you been out here this morning anyway?"

"Less than an hour," the man lied.

"I woulda made three times that in half the time."

"Look, lady," the man began, his dirty finger jabbing her brown-shawled shoulder, "I hold the all-time record for this corner, and I hold the all-time record for an hour."

"You think you're such a legend. Who are you anyway?" The woman grabbed her sign again and waved it frantically at a silver Jaguar that roared past.

"I'm offended that you even have to ask," the man said, chuckling at her failure to get the Jag's attention. "I woulda had five dollars from that car."

"I woulda had ten if you weren't here screwing up my mojo."

"Lady, I know you think you're something with your nylons and your shawl, but this ain't just a street corner you're working here. This takes real tactics. I have tactics. If you wanna learn, stand over at the bus stop and watch a master. Otherwise, just get outta here."

The woman pulled off her shawl and whipped the man with it. "How dare you insult me! I'm no hooker. I've got better tactics and class than you'll ever have." She picked up his sign from the concrete and laughed. "Vietnam Vet. Ha. That's the oldest trick in the book. No one cares about vets anymore."

"I invented this trick," he replied, pulling the sign away from her and holding it up at a Cadillac that rolled slowly by. The driver in the Cadillac paused at the corner before making a right turn. He seemed to eye the odd pair. They watched him carefully, the bearded man still waving his sign. Slowly, the window began to descend. The bearded man approached, holding out his stubby hand. Just as the man was to the car, the Cadillac sped off, its window still down as it drove away.

"So how much did he give you?" the woman asked.

"Go to hell. He woulda given me plenty if he hadn't been scared off by an ugly old hag like you." The man watched the Cadillac until it was out of sight.

"Old? I'm young enough to be your granddaughter. You look like a World War II vet. My father was a Vietnam vet."

"Do you put that on your sign?" He turned toward her and let out a bark. She backed away, but he pursued her, eyeing her up and down. "You're a liar. Tell me your name so I can report you."

The woman backed away even more. "Now there's no need to do that." She hesitated for a moment. "How's about we make a little deal?"

"The only deal I'll make with you is you leave and I stay."

"That's not much of a deal."

"It's all you're gettin', toots."

"Hmm. That's what I thought." The woman put the shawl around her shoulders again. She played the part much better with it on. She tucked her sign underneath her arm and said, "I'm going back to the sign up bench and I'm gonna sign up for this spot for the rest of the month."

The man managed to flag down a Chevy Tahoe while she spoke. His eyes lit up at the sound of the new coins dropping onto the old coins.

"Ya know, that money is rightfully mine," the woman shouted. She pulled off her shawl again and snapped it at the bearded man. The fabric stung as it connected with his cold hand, and the cup slipped to the curb. The two dove on the ground to save the coins. The woman managed to scoop up about half of them before the man tried to bite her again. She sprang back to her feet and backed away.

"Gimme my money," the man yelled, spit sticking to his beard on the way out. Down on all fours, he looked like a rabid mutt.

"It's my money. You want the money, then sign up for the spot."

"It's my spot. It's always been my spot." He crawled to her, his jaws snapping at her ankles. She kicked him hard in the ear and his body crumpled into the street. A bus approached but stopped at the bus stop a few yards away.

"You almost killed me! Gimme my money!" The man's beard was ravaged with spit. He looked more like a foamy shore than a man.

"I'll make you a deal," the woman said, eyeing the bus as she spoke.

"Okay, I'm listening."

The woman continued to stare down the bus. "We each get this corner for thirty minutes. Whoever gets the most gets the corner and all of the money. The loser has to walk back to the bench and take their name off the list permanently."

"Don't you think that's a bit over-the-top?"

The bus finally drove away, the driver staring at the couple, mouthing something to them about not standing so close to a bus stop next time.

"I knew you wouldn't want to do it. You know I'm better than you," the woman said as she watched the bus drive away.

"You're not in the same league as me," he replied. He wiped some of the spit out of his beard.

"Whatever you say. You go first."

The woman walked over to the bus stop and took a seat. The man grasped his sign firmly and composed himself. For the next thirty minutes, he stood pathetically on the corner, jingling his cup and waving his sign. Most cars drove right by him without even slowing. A few people threw small objects at him: cigarettes, empty soda cans, water bottles, and even a rock. The old man didn't understand why someone would drive around with a rock in their car. Only five cars actually stopped, and one of them was to ask directions to the hospital.

With only three minutes left, the man grew desperate. He got down on his knees and really tried to sell that he was begging. Nobody stopped.

"Time's up," the woman squealed as she strode over to the corner with her sign. "What did ya make?"

He looked into his nearly empty cup and counted about three dollars. "I'm not telling you. You'll have to wait to find out until you're finished. I don't want you cheating."

He marched over to the bus stop and sat with his arms crossed over his chest. He hoped another bus would arrive before her half hour expired so he could avoid the embarrassment of defeat. Surely she would make more than three bucks. Maybe he could get over to the sign up bench and put his name down for the rest of the week.

He watched the woman closely for the next thirty minutes. She didn't seem to do anything special. There was a slight smile on her face the whole time. She almost gave off the impression that she enjoyed what she was doing. Her movements were subtle, and it was tough to tell how many people were really dropping money into her container. At one point, he thought he saw her hand something to one of the passengers, but he figured it was just her reaching for some more money. 

 After twenty-nine minutes, he rose from the bench and ran over to her. "So, how'd ya do?" he asked immediately.

"I still have another minute," she said as she eyed a pickup truck approaching.

"Like it'll do you any good." He tried to peak into her cup as she walked to the pickup, but she held her hand tightly over the top.

When she walked back to him, a wide smile spread across her face.

"Ready to face defeat?" she asked.

"Let's see what you have."

She looked into the container and did a quick count. "About fifty dollars," she said happily.

"No way!" The man reached for the cup to verify.

"You can't really expect me to fall for that," she replied as she jerked the cup away from him.

"At least tell me your secret."

She showed him.

"I should've known. The old homeless pregnant trick. That's awfully cheap."

"Yeah, well it works."

The old man looked at her disgustedly, but really he was disgusted with himself. He knew his time as a beggar had come and gone. There was nothing left but to crawl into an alley and die. Maybe someone would come by and kill him so he didn't have to suffer for too long.

As the man thought about his washed up life, a car honked its horn from the corner. He turned to let out a scream, but he stopped himself when he saw a well-dressed woman step out.

"You poor, poor people," she said as she handed them a twenty dollar bill. "A pregnant woman and her father living on the streets. What is this world coming to?" the chic woman said before getting back into her vehicle.

The pair looked at each other and said in unison, "Should we go sign up for this spot for the rest of the year?"


Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online lit magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has appeared in more than 100 online and print magazines and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His story "The Oaten Hands" was named one of 190 notable stories by Story South's Million Writers Award in 2009. His first novel, A Reason To Kill, was released in July 2011 through MuseItUp Publishing. 


Historical Corner 72, print by Margo McCafferty and Tom Rudd

Earth’s Last Best Hope

by Matthew Sideman


The end was coming to the Earth. That was abundantly clear to everyone, except the humans of course. Great tidal waves would crash unto coastal cities, drowning thousands. But by this point only the unimportant poor and vulnerable lived on the coast. That was okay. No one cared about them.

The waves dragged the dead bodies, decayed buildings, and destroyed dreams, depositing them on the miles and miles of plastic-covered dead zones.

There were Coke and Pepsi bottles as far as the eye could see. The terrorists were crazy. They thought they could destroy America. Well, over a hundred million tons of garbage proved them wrong! God bless America! Mixed in amongst the floating red, white, and blue glories of Anglo-American capitalism were bloating corpses. They'd finished off such oxygenic oceanic phytoplankton as had managed to survive the dead zone while at the same time feeding methane and other noxious gases to the dreaded red, green, and vilely hot-pink bubblegum tides.

As the multicolored tides floated away from the safety of American shores they brought forth new nations of more oceanic dead zones which built up, curled up, and got bottled up by the currents into gigantic tidal waves that crashed upon other shores, drowning more of the poor, fulfilling Ebenezer Scrooge’s dream of reducing surplus populations.

Before the population reached zero somebody had to save the Earth. A nice, recent college graduate, a gray named XXX Plargmcobberlacort 6—"X" for short—was just the one to do it!

X had fled home because he would not, could not, follow in the family harem administration business for Mangor the Monstrous. 

“What’s wrong with your father’s job?” X’s mother would often ask. “He makes a nice living.”

A nice living as a glorified pimp. Unfortunately for X, X didn’t make a living at all. He had had the misfortune to graduate when the subspace prime asteroid futures market had crashed, causing the economy to go down the zero-grav toilet. This was no time to get a galaxy-saving job. In fact, X couldn’t get a job at all. He was working for an NGO as an unpaid intern.

“An intern? You work as an intern?”

“But Mom, I have a chance to save worlds.”

“Yeah, well, I have the chance to act like a flightless nugget bird with its head cut off, but I won’t take it.”

“Look, Mom, you don’t have to pay for it. I have some money saved. (X was his school’s distributor of antenna-cleaning Asteroidway products.)

“Good. Your father and I won’t. But what happens when your internship becomes permanent?”

“It won’t. The economy will pick up.”

But it hadn’t and it didn’t look like it was going to any time soon. Infinite space can have infinite financial problems. X might be able to hold out for several months if, for every meal, he ate emergency marooned-astronaut powder (just add recycled urine and voila). Blah! Several months of culinary delight--then what? There were no jobs out there, not unless you know someone, like, oh … a harem administrator.

If he didn’t get a job in several months he'd have to study up on which slink worms excrete which aphrodisiacs which taste like which berry and paralyzes which species’ breasts (but the breasts are there for Mangor’s enjoyment, not that of the harem inmates--oops!  I mean "willing partners," so that’s okay). This was something X, really, really, did not want to do. In fact, he'd rather cut his own shnorg off.

X had one way of avoiding employment hell. His internship had gone on so long that he'd been given more and more responsibility:  from logging mail, to answering subspace squawkers, to working on lost causes. The lost causes were doomed planets. They had nothing to sell grant providers. They had no useful minerals, no rare or exotic fruits useful in diet pills, no aphrodisiac-spewing slink worms. They didn’t have cute sentients that Solidified Slithers, the actress, could make you feel guilty about through annoying infomercials during planetary sleep periods: 

“This is Vangor. She's starving because interstellar hose-beasts are eating her planet dry. But for just credits a day you can make sure she and her planet get food, clean water and sociopathic mercenaries to turn the hose-beasts into cheap rugs for tourists. Look at that face. How can you tell those eyestalks you don’t care? You can’t, so call now.”

X handled loser planets because the NGO’s charter stated they saved doomed planets. The NGO must therefore be seen to work on them. What are they not paying taxes for? You don’t want Mangor’s auditors to question your nonprofit status:  “If only you knew the power of the Fiduciary Side! Oh wait. You will. Screaming will get you nowhere, but it will make a good present for my kids, so scream away. Let the audit begin!”

Because these planets were galactic losers no one expected anything to come from them. They were just a way for the NGO to save its collective epidermis from the auditors. That’s why the NGO gave them, with little support, to interns.

X was working on one such loser, Earth, and its obnoxious, stupid, and self-centered “dominant species,” the humans. X knew, just knew, that if he managed to save it with such meager resources as he was provided, then the NGO would see he was a gray going places. Then it should give him a paying job, saving him from harem hell.

But there was so much to do. In the vernacular of his home planet:  Oy vey! Humans still hadn’t admitted to themselves that if you put a couple of centuries of carbon exhaust into an atmosphere while chopping down all the trees, then you get global warming. And that was just one of the problems of the stupid live humans. The dead ones at least knew enough to collect onto the Coke bottle piles in the dead zones.

Help. X needed help. The humans certainly weren’t going to provide it. A species that never worked out a successful form of birth control would be of no help. By the stars, they'd never worked out that they were dying! The NGO would be no help either. The staff that worked on the non-loser planets got ships, matter converters and vid crews to document the whole process so they could sell vid crystals on the rescue of “cute little aliens.” ("Only $29.95, Sentients!") Just because the NGO was a nonprofit didn’t mean it couldn’t make gobs of money off vid sales.

Since X worked on a loser planet, he'd gotten some old equipment from a closet at the NGO’s headquarters. Arriving on Earth, he loaded it into a secondhand VW Beetle that he used as his office and living quarters.

While X had illusion-casting software, he didn’t want to waste battery power. Instead, he drove wearing a rubber human mask. If he didn't go above the speed limit no cop would call him on it. 

So X, observing speed limits, drove to Seattle, Washington. He'd start at the top with arguably the most important man on the planet:  philanthropist and software mogul Bob Doors. Doors was the creator of the Doors Operating System. This was the operating system that ran the majority of Earth's computers.

If X could get Doors to program into his software a fifty-point Times New Roman typeface message on the order of “The Earth is dying! Stop using all fossil fuels now or, or… your head will explode!” –if X could do that, then he might stand a chance.

X looked up at the giant steel fortress that was Doors’ house. Much of the original structure had been destroyed by flooding. Increasing global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps would cause storms with a lot more water. Who knew? To protect himself from the riots that periodically flared up in Seattle (I lost my house, dreams, and family. Why should you keep yours?), Doors had reinforced his little cottage of sixty-two rooms until it was as impregnable as his ego.

Doors would be a tough nut to crack. While the sight of a gray coming through your walls might scare the living daylights out of the average human, well, Doors wasn’t average. He'd survived the cutthroat world of the software industry--so much worse than that of Mangor the Monstrous. He didn’t scare easily. Furthermore, he was smart. If X didn’t scare him enough, then Doors might notice that a gray’s head, owing to the lesser gravity of his home planet, is large in relation to its neck. One swift punch could shatter X’s neck, killing him instantly and then Doors could sell X’s body to the tabloids for millions. Even Bob Doors needed pocket change.

This guy was dangerous, not just to X’s mission, but to his life. X wanted to get in, convince Doors he wasn’t just some intern but a “high official of the galactic empire” (Scary!) who'd come to announce that humans had better cut out fossil fuels or else, and then get out. Or else? Or else what? Or else Daddy gets a new assistant in the running of the harem. Gag!

X checked his time-space distorter for the thousandth time. It was old. The NGO had used it on the planet Garth when they saved the Garthoids. That was eight vids ago! Since then there were sequels like “A Garthoid Out of Glorfax: Now that the Garthoids live on a civilized planet can they figure it out without pissing off the cops? Wacky hijinks occur;” and, “Garthoid Girls Gone Wild,” and the laugh-a-minute “The Alien Couple: Can a Carnivorian from Alpha Centauri and a Garthoid live together in the same apartment without driving each other crazy?”

“Please still work. Please still work.” X murmured. He and his neck didn’t want to be alone with Doors in a room without his tech.

The bedroom of Doors house:  A mist, an all-encompassing, overpowering purple mist (Garthoids are terrified of the color) was coming through the walls! It engulfed the room, squeezing it, stretching it out to infinity, an infinity of time and space, an infinity of loneliness. There was only this one room in the whole universe. The mist coalesced into a strange gray humanoid. Its head was far too big for its body. Its eyes…its eyes, its pupil-less black eyes seemed to see into your very soul. They saw…A blinding white flash.

The distorter was smoking. “How?” exclaimed X.

“Portable electromagnetic pulse generator,” said Doors. He and his wife were lying on a giant four-poster bed made from an ancient redwood. The bed was shaped like a 5.5" floppy, for it was with those that Doors had made his first fortune. What would have been the disk’s hole was a revolving section designed “for fun time.” From the look on Doors’ face as he held the remote that activated the EMP, fun time was now.

“Well, well, well, ‘Mr. Alien,’” said Doors. “Your special effects are good. I don’t know how you got in here, but now the special effects are dead. Unless you want to join them, go tell your boss Sam Works that nobody, but nobody, breaks into Bob Doors’ house. Furthermore, if he's still upset about me ‘borrowing’ his operating system …”

“I don’t work for the founder of Kumquat Computers,” said X.

“You think you can come in here and threaten my husband, my big, strong Bobby?” asked Mrs. Doors. She slunk over to her husband--just one slunk as she towered over him. She rubbed a finger, slowly, over his head. “Well, you're wrong. No one hurts my Bobby. My Bobby hurts everybody else because my Bobby is the toughest and smartest one there is.”

“Damn right!” agreed Doors as he jumped up and down on the bed, waving the remote at X.

X stared at Mrs. Doors. Humans and grays looked different, had different biologies, evolved on planets with different gravities. So how come their gold diggers were exactly the same?

 “Show him, Bobby. Show him what you do to the competition.”

“Look, I’m not from Kumquat. Okay? I really am an alien. I came to warn you that your planet is doomed if you don’t do something about it,”

“Oh, please! My Bobby-wobby wasn’t born yesterday.”

“No, I wasn’t, and I didn’t get to be the head of…”

“He said ‘head',” giggled Mrs. Doors.

By the Galaxy! Was Doors really buying her act?

“Later, Babe,” said Doors.           

“On the disk drive?” Mrs. Doors asked.           

“You know it, Babe.”           

Apparently he was. “Look. Global warming is killing your planet. At the rate you're going you only have about ten years left before the whole planet crashes. You know about crashes? It will be like a computer crash, but far worse, and permanent.”           

“Which is why my Bobby has spent billions on new alt…alterna…”           

“Alternative energy, Babe.”           

“Right--what he said. And my Bobby is going to make even more money from it."

“'Cause I’m a genius. Sally, throw the bum out.”

X took one look at that towering, angry gold digger and ran. But Sally Doors had a huge reach (usually into Doors’ wallet) and grabbed him before he could get away. She picked him up over her head with one hand and carried him out of the room.

“Listen here, you fraudulent alien, and listen good!” she said. “I didn’t spend a decade blowing my way through Seattle society to get close to that archetypal Napoleon complex just to let anyone jeopardize my marriage. You go tell that delusional sociopathic boss of yours that if he ever tries anything like this again he's going to find himself burning in Hell, a computer shoved up his ass, his balls severed, stretched, and used as a mouse pad for ‘darling Bobby’ in there.

Sally Doors carried X to the servants' entrance (everyone's a servant to Mr. and Mrs. Bob Doors) and, literally, kicked him out of the house.

“That went well,” said X, checking his inviso plastic neckbrace. It’s a good thing he'd used the physical tourist products he'd bought from a rest stop just beyond Pluto instead of his NGO tech for protection or he'd have been dead just like his plan to use Doors was. 

X stayed in Seattle to attend the thirteenth annual Salmon Sci-Fi Convention. Since the top-down approach didn’t work, he'd try it from the bottom up. The attendees claimed to be science fiction fans. They might also be fans of, and believe in, actual science. X looked out from the lectern at the conventioneers. They were huge! Not one was under three hundred pounds. Even the kids were three hundred pounds! Doors may have been a megalomaniac, but at least he was physically healthy. But these people--could you even call them people? They looked more like planetary spheres! They appeared to be evolving from humans into planets--planets rich with the oils oozing out of their abundant flesh. 

They were so unhealthy. If X got them to be true believers, if he got them to spread the word, the very effort of giving out pamphlets might cause them to fall down dead of massive heart attacks. Handing out pamphlets was probably more physical activity than they'd ever done in their entire lives.

“Nice costume,” complimented one of the conventioneers.

“Thank you,” said X. “Now, I am here to talk to you about...”

“It looks just like the gray in the episode ‘What Is it, Mr. Why?’ from two years ago.”

“Oh,” said X.  “Now carbon, even though it is the backbone of life, is causing…”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t as good as the Robot Women revival.”

“Oh, I totally disagree. The Robot Women looked exactly like they did when Tim Cooper was playing Mr. Why.”

“Well, we all have our favorite Mr. Whys,” interjected X, “but can we get back to carbon here?”

“Hey, Tim Cooper was the greatest Mr. Why ever.”

“Oh, he was a total ham.”

“No, he wasn’t!”

“Yes, he was!”

“Oh, you are such a tribble!”

“Well, you’re a nerf herder!”

“Hey, I liked Paul Solomon as Mr. Why,” another fan objected.

“Shut up, newbie,” said the two fans having the argument.

“Will you all shut up about your stupid show?” said X. “Let’s talk about reality here!”

“How dare you?” cried the entire convention in unison.

“Mr. Why is the greatest science fiction program ever!”

“Classic writing!”

“British actors!”

“If you can’t see that, maybe we don’t want to spend time in your reality.”

X rubbed his head with his hands. A migraine was starting. It was going to be a long night.

The long night was over. Dawn was breaking. The people looked around, confused. They remembered something about a secret government project. Something to do with the space program? What…

“What are you doing, maggots?” said the overly large marine drill instructor.

“Who are you?” asked one of the recruits.

“I am Buford T. Pepper, United States Marine Corps! For the next eight weeks I will be your mother, your father, and quite possibly your executioner, you worthless sacks of puss.”

“What are you talking about?” asked another recruit.

“What am I talking about? I told the congressman you fat loads of lard wouldn't be suitable for our special, top secret, deep-space simulation mission. But he said, ‘they're science fiction fans. They get deep space. They'll be perfect.’ I told him that all they're perfect for is drinking their weight in soda, but I was overruled. He said my job wasn’t to question who they recruited. My job was to turn them into deep-space astronauts. Now stand at attention.”

“Uh, okay.”

“'Deep space' you say?”

“How deep?”

The drill instructor snarled, but X, the person under his illusionary frame, smiled.

X had given up. He couldn’t save Earth. Humans were too stupid. So he'd done it the old-fashioned way. He went around the convention with a copy of “The Complete Short Stories of Isaac Asimov” and whacked people over their heads with it. He then rolled the comatose bodies into the hotel gym. Since the Salmon Con attendees were the hotel’s sole guests that week, it would be the one room that would never get used--perfect to hide bodies. When he'd gotten enough he made a deal with a passing freighter. It took all the money he'd saved, but he managed to get the conventioneers into the cargo hold. He then used the freighter’s emergency medical and defense equipment to treat their head injuries and perform mind bleaches, making them susceptible to his story.

X had eight weeks to make them presentable. Then he and his charges would show up at the NGO’s door. Maybe he could convince the NGO to initiate a captive breeding program. Since X was the expert on humans he'd certainly get a job in the program, even if it was low level. It had to work. Didn’t it? I mean, they couldn’t turn the humans away. How could you turn away the humans? They're pathetic. The NGO had to pity them. Didn’t it?


Matthew Sideman is a former English major living in Chicago, Illinois. Like all English majors he has the job that he deserves: office temp. He has temped various jobs from working collections in a hospital to filing the kinky card file in a phone sex parlor. He has had journalism published in The Chicago Reader and fiction in the journals Bust Down The Door And Eat All The Chickens and Dark Reveries.

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