This room stinks. It’s a musty, mildewy smell that gets worse when it rains, and despite living in a coastal desert city where only drought-resistant plants thrive, it’s been raining constantly for over a week now. Maybe it doesn’t matter; I’ll most likely be evicted sometime within the next couple of weeks anyway. I’m already two weeks late on the rent and there isn’t much demand for day laborers like myself during periods of foul weather. Eviction is nothing new to me; I’ve been through it four times in the last two years. I usually just wave goodbye to the manager, we wish each other well, and I say I’ll be back as soon as I can scare up some new work. But two of these downtown flophouses have put me on their banned list, not allowing me to return even if I have enough money for a deposit. And one of them I never tried to rent from again; they kicked me out at point of Louisville Slugger. However, the manager here at St. John’s seems to like me; that’s why I’m still here after missing two payments. Of course, he has bosses to answer to, and when it’s time, he’ll let me know. I hope the rain has stopped by then.

I’m sinking in a pit of shit, but it isn’t the threat of eviction that’s standing on my head and pushing me down. It’s the goddamn loneliness. I’m in here with 30 other men, each living alone in a room not much bigger than a jail cell, but they all seem to have embraced loneliness, whether by being solitary by nature or having it thrust upon them because they’re assholes who’ve been rejected by society. Nearly all of them are safe and secure; their Social Security and disability checks cover the rent, canned food, and cheap wine—all that’s left is to wait for the coroner to send the van that picks up the stinking bodies left behind after a solitary life. But that’s not how I ended up here; in fact, in my more desperate moments, I silently scream to myself I don’t belong here! like a newly convicted inmate on his first night in prison.

Instead of this Single Room Occupancy, I should have been in a University of Kentucky dormitory, living with students with a future, not these semi-bums laying on bug-infested mattresses waiting to die. My grades and SAT score qualified me for a full-tuition scholarship, but three months prior to high school graduation, my father’s left ventricle seized from thrombosis and his wife of three years—my stepmother—made it clear she wasn’t going to support a freeloader, as she called me. “As soon as you turn 18, your ass is outta here!” she would scream. “And you can forget about that damn college, too. I ain’t paying for your books and board.” My father hadn’t been in the ground a week when I was awakened in the middle of the night by noises out in the living room; stumbling around, my stepmother shushing the guest she’d brought home from the bar, ice clinking into glasses, vodka gurgling over cubes, muffled giggling, and finally, bedsprings squeaking.

I didn’t wait for my 18th birthday. I packed a knapsack and was out of there that next morning. The line between runaway and reject is a blurry one, and I wasn’t sure on which side I belonged. But with no relatives to take me in, it didn’t matter what my classification was; I had to find a place to stay. That first day was spent listening to my friends tell me that their parents wished they could let me stay with them, but… Most of the next day was spent sitting in Kathy’s Roadside Diner (after I had slept behind it the previous night), sipping a cherry Coke and planning my next move. Surely someone was coming to the rescue: my friends by now must have all told each other about me showing up at their doors looking for a place to stay and noticed I was absent from school that morning. And certainly they must have notified a caring teacher or adult. Nope. And the day after that, while I was sitting in the same diner, Kathy, the proprietor and head waitress, told me that if I didn’t leave, she would call the truant officer. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.

Sitting outside the diner on the shady side of the building, I decided that I would go to school the next morning and tell my homeroom teacher what had happened and ask for help. Rehearsing what I would say brought enough humiliation and embarrassment to start tears running down my face. Then the sound of an Econoline van pulling into the parking lot prompted me to wipe them away. “It’ll get better, don’t worry about it,” said the woman who had gotten out of the passenger side. She and the man driving the van went into the diner and I just sat there, recomposing myself. Minutes later, they came out carrying bags of cheeseburgers and the man told me that the woman in there had been on the phone calling the cops on me. “Need a ride somewhere?” he asked.

Laura Shamburgh and John Partin invited me to stay with them. When I told them I was weeks away from graduating high school, they said I could stay rent-free until then, and afterward they knew where I could find work. It wasn’t their mobile home, wasn’t their land that it was on; in fact, they didn’t know whose it was. There was no electricity or running water. I should have declined their offer. But there was something about squatting in a found mobile home in an Appalachian forest that I found appealing. For somebody who had lived with indoor plumbing for all of his 17 years, having to bathe by scooping water from a creek should have been a huge inconvenience, but it wasn’t. It was a taste of some new kind of freedom that I didn’t even know I had craved. When the time came, I walked across the stage with the rest of the class of 1992. “Not now, maybe later,” was what I said to all the people who asked about my acceptance into the University of Kentucky. Then it was time for me to go to work. I really should have declined their offer.

John drove us the 15 miles to Middlesboro, Laura in the seat beside him, me in the cargo area of the Econoline. Laura said, “Park right over there out of sight of that camera.” John parked and shut the engine off as Laura twisted around in the bucket seat and gave me instructions on what my job duties were.

“Right inside the front door, there’s a display of putt-putt sets. Just walk right in, grab the damn box, and walk right back out. Don’t run; it’ll draw attention to you. Walk fast, and when we see you coming, we’ll open the cargo door and off we go.”

It was a Walmart that I’d been in many times before; my folks used to take me shopping there about once a month. One of my classmates had a part-time job there, as did her father, who was an assistant manager. Except for a piece of Bazooka Joe bubble gum that I’d lifted out of a display bowl on the counter of a general store when I was seven years old, I’d never stolen anything in my life. All this sloshed around in my brain as I sat there speechless.

“Go on,” Laura said. “Don’t just sit there.” The friendly Laura that I’d come to know over the last couple of weeks was gone.

“It’s a piece of cake,” John said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “Don’t worry about a thing. You won’t get caught.”

“Quit sitting there like a fucking bump on a log! Get going!” Laura snapped. “You think you get to stay with us and eat our food for free? Now go! And don’t fuck it up.”

The front sliding doors retracted and there in a pyramid stack were the rectangular mini-golf boxes. They were much too large to carry under my arm. I walked over, hefted a box onto my shoulder, and walked right back out, the doors still in the open position from when I entered. The torrent of adrenaline that had been released was so huge I could taste the vapor in my mouth. Laura opened the cargo door of the van after I came around the corner; I leaned into the van, releasing the box and letting the momentum carry it into the cargo hold. I jumped in and closed the door behind me. Laura told John “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” pointing in the direction she wanted him to drive.

We stopped off at their dope dealer and sold the $39.99 putt-putt set for $10 and a baggie of marijuana. Then we stopped off at the Pineville Nazarene Church of Jesus Christ, where Laura was given a box of canned food. The next stop was at a used car lot alongside US Highway 119. Laura went into the office while John and I waited in the van. A few minutes later, she returned with three half-pint bottles of MD 20/20 wine. By dusk, we were back at the decrepit mobile home in the woods and everyone was all smiles again. Their moods were so buoyant they didn’t even mind when I puked up a stomach-full of 20/20 all over the floor in front of me. “Don’t worry about it,” Laura laughed. “We’re country out here!” We partied like a pirate crew back in port after a successful boarding and ransacking.

They woke me early the next morning; well at ten, anyway, which is early for someone experiencing his first hangover. We had to attend church services to keep the charity coming; not just the canned food, but the Econoline van, too, which was a loaner from the church. It didn’t have to be said that with me as a new “dependent,” the church would be even more doting. It was at that point that I began to wonder if I were a guest or a prisoner. I also began to plot my escape, but there wasn’t any urgency to it. Frankly, this lifestyle of grifting, thieving, and inebriation was a bit of an adventure, damn near exhilarating. I had proven my derring-do at the Walmart, and I vowed to myself that when it came time to pass the bottle around again, I would hold it down like a seasoned boozer. I became as eager to impress Laura and John as I had been to impress my ninth grade algebra teacher.


Henry Slushman was a 70-year-old widower and regular congregant at the church where Laura and John got their handouts. They had earned Mr. Slushman’s confidence, and Mr. Slushman offered Laura a job as a once-a-month housecleaner. On the first Saturday of the month, when Laura started this new job of hers, she drove off in the van to Mr. Slushman’s home, leaving John and I at the trailer. John broke out the weed and whiskey and we enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere that Laura’s absence afforded us. About the time John’s lip loosened up enough to start hinting that he was tired of being bossed around by Laura, she returned in the van and burst in through the front door, breathing as if she’d just run a marathon.

“Come on. Both y’all. Let’s go. Now!”

Her posture and tone let us know she was in no mood to explain or wait. We followed her out to the van and I took my usual place in the cargo area—along with a valise of Mr. Slushman’s rare coins, all five of his rifles, and Mr. Slushman himself—bound and gagged on the floor, his nose wheezing desperately to breathe.

“Drive to the Page Cut Off Bridge,” Laura told John. It was the middle of the night and we were headed for a remote area of Bell County where a single-lane bridge spanned the Cumberland River. Laura occasionally dabbed a tissue to her swelling lip; old and feeble Mr. Slushman had not gone down without a fight. We stopped mid-span on the bridge. I stepped over Mr. Slushman, opened the rear cargo door, and sprinted away as fast as I could while under the influence of all the booze and dope. Laura yelled “Get back here you fucking faggot!” as I made it to the other end of the bridge, down to the riverbank where a huge impromptu trash dump was located, and buried myself beneath the garbage. I heard the splash of Mr. Slushman hitting the river from my hiding spot, and then a few minutes later Laura and John searching for me along the riverbank. Laura repeatedly called out assurances that they were not going to hurt me, imploring me to come back. I stayed under there even after I heard the van drive away, unsure if they had really left or if they were still waiting nearby.

Dawn had already broke when I finally emerged. I walked all the way to Middlesboro to the parking lot of a Druther’s restaurant that was used by truckers as a sort-of truck stop. My stink made everyone reluctant to hear me out, but finally, a trucker bound for Tulsa said I could ride with him. After getting cleaned up there, another sympathetic trucker gave me a ride all the way to the West Coast. That was two years ago.


If it had been a simple matter of hiding from those two lowlifes, these last couple of years would have been easier. But I didn’t know if I was a fugitive from the law as well. Certainly, Mr. Slushman’s body would have been discovered, and when law enforcement tied Laura and John to it, Laura and John would undoubtedly finger me. For all I knew, I was the subject of a nationwide manhunt and there was a warrant out for my arrest. I didn’t dare fill out job applications with my name, and of course, the government mandated tax forms that go along with it. In fact, I can’t even participate in those little drunken get-togethers that flop house residents have every 1st and 15th of the month when the welfare checks go out, lest my tongue loosen up and I accidentally reveal who I am, where I’m from, what I’ve done. I’ve been living a life of anonymous survival outside the conventional world, erasing my very existence.


One of the topics of conversation I sometimes overhear among my fellow flophouse residents is this new Information Superhighway that is supposed to be coming out soon. Supposedly, the whole world will be connected by computers and this information and technology that had always only been available to places like universities and the military would now be available to everyone. During a trip to the public library (I don’t have a library card, another one of those things that fugitives have to learn to live without, so I read my books there and return them to the shelf), I asked the librarian if this so-called Information Superhighway was available there. It was. I was given a 30-minute session on one of their computers, and in no time, I found the Lexington Herald-Leader. I searched its contents and there they were: mugshots of Laura Shamburgh and John Partin. Both had pleaded guilty and agreed to life sentences without the possibility of parole, avoiding a trial and potential death sentences. I’m off the hook.

But what do I do now? How exactly do I embrace this new freedom that I now have? Maybe I’ll start by filling out an employment application at McDonald’s using my real name. I might even ask the University of Kentucky if they still have that scholarship for me.