Ulan Mohammed licked his parched lips and shooed away the gaggle of dogs, rats, and other animals skulking around his tent flap door, wanting to sniff his butt, a worsening problem. He stuck his tongue tip into a decaying molar and clutched his throbbing black face. Ulan unzipped, poked his matted dreadlocks through the slit, and shielded his eyes as midsummer’s sun glinted off shards of glass intermingled with funky, hollowed-out food cans to the north.
A driverless transport hovercraft carrying kilos of water, Vienna sausages, fruit cups, and meal replacement bars had wrecked spectacularly, spilling its cargo from the bridge overpass on the edge of downtown L.A.
Ulan scratched scabies in his armpits and body lice on his groin. Packaged food tumbled down the slanting side of the concrete channel canyon, spreading over the dry riverbed like manna from heaven. Ulan recalled how Jesus had fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Only now, at least twice that number of once essential workers and bankrupt business owners lived as he did in the camp huts concentrated on the barrier along the L.A. River.
The locals moved quickly to beat the arrival of police drones and cop bots with their yellow perimeter control tape, pepper spray, loudspeakers, and the insurance underwriter robots seeking to salvage what they could for overseas markets.
Thirty meters south of Ulan, red and white lights flashed while one blue-smocked paramedic bot tinkered with X-ray and heart monitor settings inside the rear doors of their expandable Smart Pod mobile emergency room. Two other artificial intelligence rescue bots bent their black fiberglass waists; one crouched, while another two kneeled on dirt in amber over-sized trousers, vigorously pumping Robert’s chest—an agonal gasp. A few more cardiac compressions and the shiny-faced bot abruptly stopped. Robert, a camp newbie who had dry-coughed and cried throughout the night, was dead.
Ulan approached just as a mist seemed to ascend from Robert’s corpse. The kneeling bot lifted the clear plastic mask attached to the micro resuscitator, leaving a triangular red bruise indented above Robert’s hawk nose, along his milk-white cheeks and chin, his cornflower-blue eyes wide as if in shock, mouth gaping, buck, and missing teeth in plain view. His soiled L.A. Dodgers cap lay crumpled beyond his ratty chestnut hair. Had someone, anyone, cared or taken action sooner, maybe Robert would’ve lived. Perhaps Ulan might have shown him the ropes, how to live on the streets, how to scavenge and salvage, had he kept breathing. Robert died before Ulan could explain how he’d survived, how he held fast during the 2033 Recession when he lost his public school food service job, his home, and his wife. Ulan remained unfazed by the warm, cunning, devilish mental depression the pandemic visited upon most people, causing some to hallucinate conspiracy theories.
As they snacked on kibbles and bits, Robert had seemed to listen for a moment before he checked out. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said before he waved off Ulan and moved on. “My generation handles our shit differently. Me and you tryna sleep in the same mess, man—people hollerin’ and screamin’ all night. What can you tell me?” Robert glanced at an upturned shopping cart. “I’m waiting for the signal from S.K.—biding my time.”
Ulan felt his face scrunch, question marks flashing like neon signs.
“Swamp King,” Robert said. “He’s somewhere in the Florida Everglades. We’re all waiting for his message.”
Ulan never got a chance to work with Robert to introduce him to Sanctuary’s social workers, who periodically scoured the campsite offering assistance and promising housing in some distant future. Social workers like Sonora Hollingsworth, whom Ulan had met while overloading a shopping cart with wood pallets. Just thinking of her gave him a boner. Robert didn’t meet the pesky recovering alcohol and other drug users convinced that total abstinence was the golden road to salvation, or, at least, sobriety. In their brief encounters, Robert’s movements had been jerky. He slurred when he said, “Rich people suck off our money, pile it up, and stash it away for them. They forget about people like us—motherfuckers.”
A coroner bot flung Robert into the body bag like groceries chucked onto a market conveyor. Ulan poured a libation from his water bottle onto Robert’s Dodgers cap and hummed “Amazing Grace” as he always had when feeling helpless. He turned and then joined the procession racing for food. Fuck it. He’d fill his backpack with enough food to share with the next Robert, who’d inevitably wander into the unsheltered camp Ulan called Sanctuary.
Among the fray, Ulan stuffed his backpack and scanned camp shanties concentrated on swaths of tussock in skyscraper shadows above the baked riverbed. Police air cruisers like a flock of crows approached fast, sirens wailing louder each second.
A steel-gray air taxi, propeller pods upward, swirled arid dust clouds onto the untidy lives below, slowed, and landed. Ulan hitched his breath and braced himself for the LAPD rousting, another botheration. Its vertical electric motors attached perpendicular to wingtips, folded, and disappeared into its carbon-fiber body. Scissor doors rotated. Out buzzed a silvery, metallic, cockroach-shaped aerial drone. Next, two tan alligator cowboy boots crunched denuded sandy soil.
“That’s him,” said the six-legged, walnut-sized drone in chirpy, androgynous lip smacks. The jowly, pink-faced boots guy stretched his hand and pushed Ulan his business card. “I’m Rhinehard, PharmaBrothers, CEO,” he said. “Our DNA samples traced the X factor to you; your saliva, hair roots—your arrest record, all match. We’ll pay you well.” He swiped away sweat.
Ulan’s thoughts froze. He considered Rhinehard’s expensive suit and platinum Rolex watch. Rhinehard wasn’t police but was clearly among the one percent controlling them. “Pay me for what?”
Rhinehard squeezed on hand sanitizer. “Your feces, Mr. Mohammed.”
“Oh, snap—my shit?” He’d seen the old Punk’d and Crank Yankers videos where people were victims of pranks. Did this crusty white guy think he could game Ulan Mohammed, who’d resisted post-election funk millions fell into a generation before?
Rhinehard explained how medical indications improved among Ulan’s campsite neighbors, the reason traceable to Ulan.
It occurred to Ulan why stray animals always followed him around—even the wild coyotes seemed to defer to him—and how the area surrounding his tent was usually spiffy no matter how often he relieved himself just beyond it. After all, there are no toilets in homeless camps. People like Rhinehard never visit among the unsheltered, who mostly seem invisible to the likes of folks like him. Invisible, except for the predators or those living double lives, leaving at home their wives and children and appearing regularly to sexually exploit the homeless, especially to victimize young people like Robert. Street living is terrible enough for older folks, and young folks have no future and little chance of getting out whole. Given more time, Ulan might’ve connected Robert with Sonora or another social worker.
Then there are the drug dealers who assume the risk of making cash off people least likely to have it, although many homeless do beg, borrow, and steal to maintain habits. They cop drugs formulated by a street alchemist, cut with who knows what. The juice is not worth the squeeze. Was Rhinehard’s proposal a scam? Was this a trick to chew up Ulan and spit him out like a fast-food worker? Just talking to Rhinehard was risky as his unhoused neighbors might consider Ulan a snitch or a spy, making him vulnerable to attack, making sleeping with one eye open even worse.
On the other hand, selling his turds to Rhinehard sounded easy enough to do. How often do white people take an interest in a Black person’s shit or much else about them? Except for several camp homies like Robert, Ulan’s circles of white friends were few.
He replayed Robert’s ascending soul, his tortured death expression, and the dirty baseball cap. Maybe in some way, Ulan could help improve the situation for himself and the next Robert. Ulan scratched his itchy skin. He’d play along and use his street smarts on the old bastard. “Bam! How much?”
The buzzing drone swooped within inches of his eyeballs. “Fuck,” Ulan said, his heartbeat racing. Unable to resist, Ulan stood catatonic as the thing flickered a blue laser into each eye.
“I’m sure my people and your people can negotiate something mutually beneficial,” Rhinehard said. The sun seared, and Rhinehard turned redder and redder like a chili pepper, hot and spicy. He seemed to hold his breath, but Ulan was acclimated to the ever-present campsite piss-and-shit stench that he sometimes tasted when he inhaled deeply. “Maybe a price based on volume or weight,” Rhinehard said, stretching on gray nitrite gloves before reaching to fist bump Ulan. Ulan’s belly fluttered when Rhinehard advanced him cryptocurrency. PharmaBrothers bought the rights to his shit.
The next day, Ulan signed the nondisclosure agreement Rhinehard’s drone offered to him. He never would’ve believed salvation happened when homeless people laced their food with his shit, and their dispositions improved. Too bad Robert hadn’t yet sampled it.
Three months later, Ulan warmed his butt on a gold-plated toilet seat and ran his tongue into the empty hole left by his wisdom tooth extraction. His skin feeling itchier than usual, he drifted in and out of a virtual magazine about vegan diets. Despite his much-improved eating habits, Ulan carried a sinking feeling in his stomach.
His expansive, air-conditioned, fortieth-floor office apartment felt like jail despite its accoutrements, piped-in white noise, cherry wood-topped desk, and a semi-firm mattress. He replayed Robert’s dying in his mind, the overturned hovercraft, the barren riverbed below Sanctuary.
Ulan gazed from his semi-private toilet and bidet enclave to the rooftop sky ports below him, westward to the L.A. River campsite, and to the south, the behemoth Compton Courthouse dominating that city’s skyline; all from a collaborative workspace occupied by him and nosy personal assistant Alex XXV, Rhinehard’s AI drone.
Alex whizzed low, landed on Ulan’s naked thigh, and said, “Did you sleep well last night, Ulan?” Alex flew without human intervention and often rubbed its hands together like it had a tic. Alex could morph into holographic images like Mr. Olympia, Ms. Universe, or, as Alex considered itself, someone nonbinary with a range of facial options. Ulan’s skin tingled.
“I noticed last night your REM sleep was of an eighty-year-old.” Ulan was forty-nine. “My electrooculography monitor detected, as usual, you became sexually aroused, but your erection lasted for a considerably shorter period. What did you dream? Can I assist you?”
Fuckin’ freak. Last night’s sleep was indeed difficult. After all, sleeping with one eye open is a hard habit to break. That he benefited from corporate-manufactured solutions to the blues wasn’t enough, even though Alex had morphed into Sonora Hollingsworth. Her hologram image and the silicone pocket pussy he used to pleasure himself.
“Was I good, my nigga?” Alex said.
Jaw muscles tight, Ulan said, “Hmph, I ain’t your nigga, muthafucka.” The N-word had been programmed into artificial intelligence even though people received assistance from a Black man’s poop. He’d spent years living in Sanctuary, inhabited by so many different ethnicities, genders, and skin shades, the N-word had lost some, but not all, of its sting. To the folks living there, everyone was a nigger to many outsiders. Of course, now he was an outsider, and Alex’s programmed words rocked Ulan to his core. No matter how far he’d come up, the N-word managed to follow him like assistance claim investigators barging into homes and poring over applicant toothbrushes and underwear. He backhanded Alex from his leg, slamming the indestructible, pesky drone against the ceramic wall tile.
Ulan scrolled product advertisements. MacGillivray had developed Gutpo, bacteria formed from healthy people’s intestinal tracts, for patients showing irritable bowel, stomach flu, or other gut distress. Skinnypoop was feces from scraggy rats, which helped takers lose weight. ChemPee, an older product that, when dissolved, turned urine into drinkable water. All were decent products but had terrible side effects like causing people to embrace fake conspiracy theories or walk backward.
The full-page ad showed a shirtless, shoulder-length blond, blue-eyed white man. His scruffy beard reminded Ulan of old Jesus Christ pictures he’d once seen in Baptist churches. PharmaBrothers believed it more profitable to claim their antidepressant came from the ass of a white guy standing in a sunshine nimbus.
Whoosh! The floor beneath him vibrated, electromechanical pulleys groaned, and toothed wheel gears grated like boisterous roisters when Ulan flushed the toilet. His business sucked down and processed into Afixa™, the most popular and powerful antidepressant ever. He straightened himself, expanded his lungs, and took deep, satisfying breaths.
Ulan slid onto the bidet. Swish! He motioned, and a stream of warm, recycled water splashed into his butt crack. Swish! Again he waved over the sensor. Swish!
Ulan checked his Rolex. In an hour, he’d meet Sonora for lunch at an upscale vegan restaurant in Redondo Beach. His ascent from homelessness had been mind-boggling, and he recalled how his former makeshift homes eventually turned to garbage: abandoned tents, torn mattresses, used needles scattered about, a baby doll, a pile of yams, gas cans, marine batteries, and tons of detritus removed by hazard teams. There was hostile architecture like gapped awnings at bus stops and corporate buildings, curved benches sectioned off by “armrests,” and even artificial foliage to keep people experiencing homelessness from finding shelter there, criminalized for trying to exist—shopping carts with anti-theft brakes.
What would his former neighbors think of him now? Like Robert had said, some might see him as a money sucker, stashing away cryptocurrency, hoarding it, and forgetting about the thousands moving like living ghosts through the city’s nooks and crevices. At the same time, the camp stench stuck in Ulan’s nose. Vienna sausage tastes seemed trapped at the back of his tongue, and the deathly voice of anguished people never left his dreams. His overheated apartment reminded him of nights spent huddled in blanket scraps, the wind blowing through holes in his tent. Rain.
After lunch with Sonora, he delivered trash cans and Papa John’s to his Sanctuary neighbors. Ulan rented for them Porta Potties, tiny houses, and showers. He asked the city for waste-hauling services and paramedics to transform their Smart Pod into a medical clinic. He hired off-duty cops to massage the feet of homeless people and ordered portable hand-washing stations from Love Beyond Walls. Ulan offered the unhoused free Afixa™.
Ron L. Dowell‘s short stories have appeared in Oyster River Pages, Moon Magazine, Unlikely Stories, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine #11, Watermelanin Magazine, The Fear of Monkeys, Writers Resist, Baby Boomers Plus 2018, The Hamilton Stone Review, Tulip Tree Review, Perceptions Magazine, Pennsylvania English, and The Bombay Review. He was a 2020 Big Moose Prize finalist and a Tulip Tree Merit Prize winner. He holds an MS in criminal justice and an MS in emergency services. Now retired from a forty-year career in public service, Ron enjoys golf and running.