Lonnie Donaldson

This story is one from Volume II of the Inn Situ stories. I consider it to be a bit further along than a rough draft, but not quite what I would consider finished. Here is Lonnie Donaldson: Against the Wind.

Against The Wind

The noise from the traffic on the Rosecrans Street Bridge was soothing. Soothing in that it was steady and relatively normal in volume. Unlike other nights where the cars passed so infrequently that they only served as interruptions and forcibly converted attempts to sleep into fitful dozing, the steady hum of the tires on concrete this night, punctuated by a staccato THUMP-THWUMP as they crossed the expansion joints built into the surface of the roadway offered a monotonous enough background of repetition that it soon became easy enough to ignore their passing.

The bridge itself was typical of most bridges found in every city in the country where freeways and tollways and state highways meet up with city streets and county roads and the whole mishmash gets concatenated into a warren of asphalt roadways bound together with concrete overpasses, skewered with inadequately announced turnoffs and bedizened by chaotic traffic control signals. These conjunctions are then populated by the vehicles of the local inhabitants and wandering out-of-town visitors. All typical. Except that this particular expanse of skyway was in San Diego. It transcended the Pacific Highway in one of the few locations that allowed access to all San Diego has to offer, or egress from California’s sweet spot to travel weary visitors or those driving out of town for business or pleasure. Although why anyone who had visited this particular city would ever want to go anywhere else is one of those inexplicable mysteries in the world that mere mortals are not permitted to understand.

San Diego. Clean, affluent, and the jewel of southern California. All that was part of the attraction that had drawn him here from Sedona, Arizona three years ago. Three years that often felt like thirty when he allowed himself to think about it. [Author’s Note: I just discovered a discrepancy in the time frames discussed in this story. My sincerest apologies. It will be fixed before this piece moves on to a final version.]

Lonnie Donaldson grew up in Sedona. He traversed from grade school to junior high to high school all from the same house that sat at the end of a steep, gravel driveway connected to a narrow dirt road, hardly wider than a driveway itself, that ran southeast off Apache Trail. It never really had a name of its own. Everybody simply called it Apache Trail South.

His first realjob, other than mowing lawns and raking leaves, was at the Heartline Cafe busing tables. He learned to drive on the winding roads in and around town and from navigating the steep grades and the treacherous curves of State Route 89A. He learned from his older brother that the “A” designation on the state highways originally stood for Arizona. But, with all the idiots on the road now, his brother had arbitrarily changed it to assholes. He later learned that his brother was completely misinformed on the original “A” designation. He was, however, spot on with his somewhat more colorful, personal designation.

He bought his first car in Sedona. Got his first speeding ticket, his first kiss, and got laid for the first time—all in the same night—during his junior year at Sedona High. That was also the night he wrecked his car for the first time, though he made a valiant effort to forget that part.

He fell in and out of love a couple of times and, though completely unrequited, fell in love again in Sedona. When he was old enough, he made his first appearance at the Inn Situ. It was a rite of passage for freshly minted twenty-one-year-olds in the red-rock town. The place had been there so long under the same name and under management by the same family, most of the parents of those freshly-minted twenty-one year-olds had made the same journey of discovery when they reached legal drinking age.

Although the quintessence of the quirky little bar on the west end of town did not achieve universal appeal, those that did find it engaging became quite enamored with it, making frequent appearances and defending its reputation and existence often to their friends, encouraging them to visit again. The phrase, “yeah, but the place kinda grows on you” was not uncommon in these discussions. Lonnie quickly became one of the Inn’s devotees. The atmosphere of the place, not quite cozy, a tad shy of comfortable, shadowily foreboding and always unpredictable touched something deep within him. His overall assessment of the bar was marginally reflective of his own self-examination.

He never felt as if he had fully achieved his desired ends, always believing that something, though he could not identify what, had been neglected along the way. Critical of his own efforts, continually contemplating other courses of action that might have been pursued, Lonnie identified with the personality of the bar on levels that the average patron never realized the existence of. The Inn, with its smoke occluded visibility, it’s thirty-year-old furnishings, its diverse patronage, resonated in harmony with his view of self. If he had been forced to sum that view into a single word, that word could only be “Almost”. It was also the sum total and the most accurate description of his entire life. Almost content. Almost happy. Almost successful in his endeavors. Almost…

Three years ago , on what seemed at first, to be a typical Friday night at the Inn Situ, he had met a man that had changed his life. It was early October and Lonnie had just been told his hours were being cut from 40+ a week to 12 or so. He’d been expecting it. He’d received the same notice from the company he worked for each of the last five years, though it was a month earlier this year. There just wasn’t enough construction going on in Sedona from November to February to keep everybody on the crew busy. Since Lonnie had the lowest seniority, he was always the one who had his hours cut.

Lonnie was on his second beer of the night. The regulars were there: Simmons with his stories, Marano with his demons, Johannson with his boasting and overbearing personality and of course, Cindee. She worked every Friday night. She also appeared to be wholeheartedly uninterested in returning his interest in her.

Two stools to his left, a man who called himself Greg, someone he had never seen before, was talking about passing through town on his way back to San Diego. Said he owned a construction company. Lonnie’s interest piqued.

“You looking for any help through the winter?” Lonnie asked, expecting to be told effectually “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Instead, Greg had asked what kind of experience Lonnie had in the construction industry.

“I’ve been bendin’ nails for a handful of years now,” he said. “Pretty familiar with the whole process from blueprints to roof sheathing and shingles.

“I started out doing punch-out, but got moved onto the regular crew after my first month. Guess the boss liked the job I did with the little stuff and the grunt work. That, and the fact that I never missed a day even if I had to make emergency transportation arrangements.

“I just wish he had enough work to keep me busy all winter instead of laying me off every year. Just got notice today for this year; about a month before I expected it.”

“Damn, son,” Greg said. “You need to come to San Diego. No such thing as winter there. We build all year round. And I can use the help. Got a commercial project starting in about a month. I expect it to run until July of next year. Maybe longer.”

“I’m looking to expand the business to run three crews instead of just the one I’m currently able to field. No promises, but there could be a supervisor’s position waiting for you at the end of it if you’re interested and if your skills are up to it. But, I’ve definitely got the opening for new people I can depend on.”

“Can I think about it for a couple of days?” Lonnie asked. “I never thought much about leaving here before.” Now, faced with the possibility, he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to.

“Sure,” Greg said. “Not much reason I can see to stick around if you get laid off every winter. Unless there’s someone else involved in the decision?”

Lonnie shook his head. “Just me,” his words said. Always just me, his heart said.

“Good. Here’s my card. Call my cell when you’ve made a decision. But don’t wait too long. I’m trying to get the crew together early enough so that I can concentrate on other matters pertaining to this job.”

With that, Greg drained his beer and headed for the door. He stopped long enough to wave, mimed “Call me” to Lonnie and exited.

Lonnie sipped his beer until it was empty and ordered another, contemplating the recent encounter. It sounded like a potentially lucrative opportunity. At the same time, there were numerous, readily identifiable hazards. He didn’t know Greg from Adam. He also didn’t know a soul in San Diego. Maybe his skills didn’t measure up. Maybe his perfect attendance record was the best thing he had going for him. There could be any of a myriad of reasons that could make a move to San Diego a bad decision.

But, there was also the potential that it could be just what he was looking for. Though he enjoyed working for Red Rock Construction and his boss, Rob Portman, was decent as bosses went, he knew there was probably not much chance for advancement as long as he stayed. Rob was content to have one job lined up to start when the current one finished, but did not appear interested in growing beyond that limited capability. In addition to that, Rob’s brother and nephew made up the balance of the crew. With neither of them going anywhere anytime soon, Lonnie knew he would most likely be “the new guy” for a long time yet to come. Too long.

Phoenix was closer, and not as prone to a slow down in the winter months as Sedona, but the same reasons not to go to San Diego held true for Phoenix. He didn’t know anybody in Phoenix. He would still be low man on the totem pole, which meant he’d still be standing behind everybody else in front of him. Besides, he didn’t have the offer of a job waiting for him in Phoenix.

By the time he’d finished his next beer, he had made his decision. He called Greg first thing Monday morning.

“Sure thing,” Greg responded when asked if the job offer from the weekend still stood. “How soon can you get here?”

“Well,” Lonnie said. “I have a couple of other questions first.”

“Fire away.”

The discussion continued for another twenty minutes covering topics ranging from starting salary, which turned out to be a ten percent increase over what Lonnie was currently making, to the price of gas that was at least fifty cents more per gallon than in Sedona.

“I’m in,” Lonnie said when he’d run out of questions. “Give me a day or two to hammer out some final details here and I should be there by the end of the week.”

The following three days were a headlong rush to make preparations to completely uproot life as he knew it. He sold nearly everything he owned apart from his tools and his truck. What he didn’t sell, he donated to Goodwill. He hoped the truck was up for the 400 mile trip from Sedona to the Left Coast. Even with the whirlwind of activities, and after a last minute oil change because he couldn’t remember how long it had been since the last one and did not want to take a chance, he was on the road before ten on Friday morning.

The bridge was actually the overpass for Interstate 5 where it crossed the Pacific Highway. Lonnie, however, could only think of it as the Rosecrans bridge.

Upon first arriving in San Diego, just slightly before dark, he had passed under this overpass multiple times in both directions attempting to follow the directions Greg had provided him with on finding his new boss’ house. A strange city, directions with no familiar reference points and daylight slipping to twilight shadows and then street light lit darkness made success of that venture unattainable.

He pulled off the coast highway and called Greg.

“I don’t know. I’m near the Rosecrans Street Bridge. Heading east. I think.”

“The what bridge? Not sure where you mean, Lonnie. There is no Rosecrans Street Bridge. At least as far as I know.”

“Sorry. What I meant was, the overpass I keep driving under has a sign on it… at least I think it’s on it… that says Rosecrans Street. It might say Rosecrans Street Exit 1 mile, but I’m not sure on that part. All I remember for sure is the Rosecrans Street.”

“Ahh! Now I know where you are. You’re on the Pacific Highway near where I5 passes over it. Okay, you’re close.”

Greg proceeded to supply Lonnie with specific directions that lead him from the corner lot he was parked in directly to Greg’s driveway. Although, from that night forward, The Rosecrans Street Bridge was a moniker etched in stone in Lonnie’s mind.

Finally, after converting a 5 hour trip into almost eight, he found Greg’s house. After a brief bit of visiting and small talk, Greg showed him to the guest bedroom. He was asleep almost instantly. Saturday, he and Greg went apartment hunting to find him a place to live. Greg offered to cover the deposit and the first month’s rent as a payroll advance and told Lonnie that he could pay it back over the next few months.

He spent the first couple of weeks on his new job as those first couple of weeks are always spent on every new job: tyring not to get fired, determining the quirks and preferences of his new boss, convincing himself that he had made the right decision. Added to these universal truths were the necessity of learning his way around a new city and denying the severity of the homesickness he was suffering from. As is usually the case, the vagaries of the job grew easier after a few successful days. The homesickness was not so easily dismissed, however.

Through the course of conversations during lunch breaks and while toting 4×12 sheets of sheetrock through garages or bundles of shingles up a ladder, Lonnie learned that Greg had been in business about ten years. He had leased a newer, more expensive vehicle every two years, and purchased a bigger, higher resale value house every four. He discovered that Greg’s first wife was still listed as an owner on the business filings with the city, but that she was content to receive her rather generous alimony check and leave the business operations to Greg. As long as he didn’t fuck up her biannual “pay raise”, anyway.

The homesickness eventually faded. Lonnie began to feel almost at home. He was making better money than he ever had, work was steady through the winter with no let up for the foreseeable future. He received his promotion to superintendent in March, just five months after taking the job Greg had offered. They celebrated the promotion in Greg’s office over a couple of cold Coor’s Lights—something Greg would never drink in public, but he had admitted to Lonnie early on that it had been the first beer he’d ever tasted and he still held a fondness for it when circumstances permitted.

Lonnie smiled slightly as he raised the silver can to his lips. It appeared that the particulates of life had finally settled out of suspension dramatically in his favor. Greg was truly a good guy to work for.

Unknown to Lonnie, Greg had a coke habit. In addition, he had a tax evasion habit.

Lonnie began to suspect that something was wrong as April slipped into May. A project was cancelled. Greg started complaining about having to keep client meetings. Closed door phone conversations morphed into shouting sessions. Another project was cancelled. There were rumors that the company was facing bankruptcy.

Screwing up his courage, Lonnie voiced his concerns to Greg. His boss threatened to fire him on the spot for sticking his nose in where it did not belong. Lonnie apologized and went home and thought deeply about moving back to Sedona. But, there was nothing left for him there. No job, no real friends, no real draw of any kind.

Two weeks later, Greg was arrested on charges of income tax evasion. The liquid assets of the company were seized, all outstanding contracts were cancelled, the crews released. Lonnie tried desperately to find another job. But, the slow down in the economy, and his close association with the now tarnished name of his former boss combined to establish road blocks too difficult to move. He was able to draw unemployment for six months, but that served only to foster a metastasizing bout of self-loathing. He was smart, talented, and damn good at what he did in the construction industry, but entirely unable to find a job in his field.

A few days prior to his unemployment running out, he took a pizza delivery job, simply to shore up his lagging self confidence and try again to earn some money to pay his own way. But, the money he made from his wages and tips went mostly for gas in the tank to cover the increased driving that was inherent in the job. He quit after two weeks.

His life began to spiral completely out of control. Because he had taken the pizza delivery job, his unemployment amount had been cut in half by the state because he was working part time. Two weeks later when he quit, precisely because he quit, it was cut off entirely.

He managed to stay in the apartment for two more months before the land lady finally asked him to leave because he had not paid rent in four months. He couldn’t blame her. She had been more than patient, but his inability to pay should not preclude her from her rightful income and could not entice her to not lease the property to someone who could pay.

Thanking her for being so patient, he threw all of his belongings in the back of his truck. Not entirely sure where to go, he found himself out front of the home of one of his friends from the construction company.

After hearing Lonnie’s story, Steve invited him in and told him he could sleep on the couch for a couple of nights. After almost a week, Steve told him it was time to move on. He spent the next month availing himself of the couches of various friends and acquaintances for two and three days at a time. By the end of that month, he’d run out of people to turn to. He had lost all desire to even go looking for work, falling into the vicious cycle of feeling sorry for himself, complaining about his plight to the point of making the feeling sorry for himself worse, hating himself for turning into a mooch, which made the complaining about his plight louder, longer, and his presence less and less accepted even for a day or two and regarded more and more as an intrusion, an inconvenience and an interesting exercise in how many ways there are to say “I’m sorry, but no.”

When his friends ran out, he moved into the cab of his truck, finding a parking lot open 24 hours, large enough and busy enough not to attract an overt amount of attention to a white, Ford F-150 parked there all night two or three times a week. He hoped that by jumping between two or three lots, his might appear as an employee’s vehicle and thus, draw little or no notice. His plan worked for three weeks. Finally, he was forced to sell the truck because he could no longer afford to continue to put gas in it. He moved into a room that he rented by the week in the Day’s Inn. Eventually, with nothing coming in to replace them, his funds from the sale of his truck ran out like his friends before them.

He found a soup kitchen that would allow him to eat one meal a day, and get a bed — if there were any available — one night a week. Soon, he decided it was easier just to take up residence on the street. He found himself wandering in the direction of the Rosecrans Street bridge, looking for some small touchstone of familiarity of the life he had known. He was amazed to find a small community of other folk already living there. A toothless old man sat by a small fire watching as he approached.

The gatekeeper, Lonnie’s tired mind thought. The Guard of the Grime.

“Is there room for one more here?” Lonnie asked.

“Yep”, the old man said. “The more the merrier.” He cackled at the irony of his joke.

Lonnie thanked him and moved dejectedly past the fire into the darker regions of the fenced in area, past small conglomerations of the other residents, groups of two and three, a family of four, an old man that could have been a twin of the Guard.

Jesus! Is that me in a year, he wondered?

He reached the edge of occupied space and suddenly realized he had no idea what he was supposed to do now. Sit? Sleep? Pray? Sleep could probably wait. He’d been praying for months. Sit, he decided. His belly rumbled its discomfort as he settled his ass on the cold asphalt and stared blankly into the black night.

“You a virgin?” a raspy female voice asked from out of the darkness to his left.

“Excuse me?” What a strange question, he thought.

“First night on the street?”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess so. Just till I get back on my feet, you know?”

“I know exactly what you mean,” the woman said.

Lonnie could not remember ever hearing such wistfulness, such a longing for a change in circumstances as he heard in those six words.

“Does it show that badly?” he asked the dark silhouette of the woman.

“Does what show? That yer a virgin? Yep, sure does. Don’t worry none, hon. We all started out as virgins here. You’ll get used to it. The street has a way o’ doin’ that. You get used to it. Can’t change it. All you can do is get used to it.”

The last thing Lonnie wanted was to get used to it.

Tomorrow, you have got to find a job he told himself. Can’t end up like these destitute people.

“My name’s Lonnie Donaldson,” he said. “What’s yours?”

“Lucy,” she said. “’Round here though, folks call me Lucky Lu”

“Thanks, Lucky Lu.”

“Thanks fer what?”

“For not spreading it around that tonight is my first… that I’m a virgin.”

“I toldja, we’uz all virgins here once upon a time. Besides on top o’ which, weren’t no need to tell ever’body what they likely already knew, anyhow.

“Let me give you a quick piece o’ advice, though, Lonnie Donaldson. When you tell people yer name, jus’ tell ’em Lonnie. Leave off the Donaldson part. Full names like that tend to make street folk uncomfortable. Makes ’em remember where it was that they came from, where it was they was going ‘fore they got sidetracked and ended up here. Know what I mean?”

“Yes. Thank you again.”

“Yer welcome. Night.”

“Night, Lucky Lu.”

Damn! I should have asked her how to sleep out here. He laid down on his side, using his forearm as a pillow for his head. Sleep was long in coming and was only available in short, restless moments when it did. He awoke at sunrise sore, unrested and concerned for his immediate future. All around him, his new community was beginning to stir.

Those that had a change of clothes did so where they sat or stood on their piece of land with no regard to their own nudity or of those around them. Not much dignity left to worry about when you’re living on the streets, he thought. He sat and he watched, gleaning information through observation. Faces began to emerge from the crowd. Lined, prematurely aged, haggard faces. Even the faces of the children of the family he had noticed last night looked old beyond their years.

His chosen spot was about thirty yards from the maintenance building owned by the San Diego Department of Streets and built as part of the southwestern support of the bridge. The front of the building itself formed the abutment and extended about twenty feet into what would normally be a simple, concrete filled embankment. There was a considerable amount of space between the building and the pavement for the freeway…space enough for a dozen trucks and vans. One corner of the triangular shaped plat had been taken over by twenty and sometimes more of San Diego’s most destitute citizens.

Days came and went, yet he found no relief, no respite from the unbearable situation. He made a few new friends, despite the circumstances. Some of the longer term “residents” taught him the rules of survival in the bridge community. Others, through their stories and their experiences taught him the rules of life on the street. How to survive, when and where to hide, how to beg, where to look for edible scraps of food, which restaurants made a point of not throwing away all the scraps left by their patrons.

Days began to merge with other days. He found his major concerns to be finding food and finding a way to stay warm at night. Other facets of his life before quickly distilled to meaningless empty pursuits: music, work, home; anything beyond mere survival were luxuries he could no longer chase. Some of the employees of the San Diego Department of Streets, though not friends, were friendly enough to not attempt to have he and his new friends driven off the property.

There were Tim and Jaimee—the Doobie Brothers, Lonnie called them—who showed up early most mornings, sitting in Jaimee’s old, beat up Chevy Luv to smoke one more joint before reporting to work. Once in awhile, Tim would toss the roach out the window. Lonnie, though it was never enough to fully ease the inner desolation that he felt, availed himself of the free almost-high on those occasions. A couple of puffs served to dull his anguish at the failure he had become but never accomplished much more than that.

His nights were spent remembering. He remembered Sedona. His mouth gushed with saliva when he remembered the taste of a beer at the Inn Situ.

He remembered the time the Mayor of San Diego visited with his TV crew and his handlers and his assistants during his reelection campaign. The mayor had selected a spot not far from where Lonnie slept every night to make his speech. Channeling the former president, John F. Kennedy, the mayor delivered a passionate speech about the plight of the homeless in the city.

“There are some in our city who say we are doing all we can. Let them come to this overpass. They say we have given enough, we have provided enough services for the homeless, enough shelters, enough food banks. Let them come to this location. Let them stand in this spot and gaze upon these people for mere moments. If we have done enough, let them come here where these people live and explain to me how we still have people living under this bridge in this city in these conditions where ‘we have done enough’. Better yet, let them come here to this forgotten enclave of souls and explain to the people who live here, under this bridge, how we have done enough”.

All in all, it was a very good speech. A speech that the mayor was happy to use to get reelected and just as happy to forget in practice. Life returned to normal for Lonnie and the others less than 15 minutes after the mayor and his party left.

Somehow, it was already early November. He had been in San Diego for a year. The night was chilly. He pulled the flattened cardboard box he used as a blanket tighter to him, trying unsuccessfully to generate a bit of insulating warmth and fend off the piercing stabs from the knife-like fingers of the omnipresent wind that blew landward from out over the surface of the nomadic ocean waves..

The passage of cars continued overhead. He tried not to think of the dire circumstances he found himself in; had somehow, somewhen, lost all desire to actively attempt to change those circumstances. Depression set in some time ago, he supposed. Eventually he drifted off to fitful sleep. He died where he lay in the predawn hours.

“Ol’ Lonnie,” Simmons said by way of continuing his story, “seemed like he was always runnin’ up hill, always strivin’ against the wind, you know? Gale force in his case, many times. He was a good kid, just couldn’t buy a break.

“Hell, the night he passed on, even that old jukebox over there wound itself up and didn’t know what to do. It got stuck on Lonnie’s favorite song, Against the Wind. Played it again and again for over an hour before Joe unplugged the damn thing. Had to get somebody to come up the hill from Phoenix to get it fixed. Said it was something to do with the return mechanism on the needle arm. ‘Course, he also said the last time he’d seen a squawker that old was thirty years ago, but he says that every time he’s up here to fix it. Ain’t that right, Joe?” he asked without waiting for an answer.

“Even now, when somebody punches up A23 on that old Wurlitzer, if you watch real close, you may just notice the smoke that normally clings to the ceiling in here will swirl around a bit and kinda hover around that damn jukebox until the song’s over. Just like Lonnie used to do.”

There was a moment of silence from those gathered around the bar listening intently while Simmons spoke. Then, Cindee raised the question nagging at the edges of each cerebellum.

“Far be it from me to question the master storyteller,” Cindee said, “but Lonnie died a couple years ago. How in the hell could you possibly know all of those details?”

Simmons hoisted his mug and drained the last of his Coor’s Light. “Lonnie told me. Last night.”

~ M ~

2 Responses to Lonnie Donaldson

  1. Scott Scherr says:

    Michael,

    That was one hell of an incredible journey you just took me on through Lonnie’s eyes! He could have been any one of us… that’s how real this one felt. Love the surprise at the end. You’d think by now I’d be used to those endings, but I wait for them with anticipation…lol. This is one of my favorites, hands down. Excellent story ­čÖé

    Scott

  2. michael says:

    Thanks, Scott. Difficult one to write… didn’t want to be too heavy handed with it.

    NOTE: For those of you who have read this prior to Friday, April 4th, due to technical difficulties (the author forgot to close an html tag), a small portion of this was missing in the original post. That error has been corrected and the author thoroughly flogged for being so careless.

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