Home was a small SUV by the river. Because it was the only place I could park at night without being hassled by the cops. Because the gym with the cheap membership and the shower and the closet stocked with free soap and deodorant were nearby. Because there was nowhere else to go, not east to family lost or estranged, nor west to highways and plains and mountains and the sea I’ve never seen.
I liked the cool smell of the river and the way the fog swallowed my truck like a rolling love. When I was a boy I could swim in the river but later I couldn’t. That’s what my dad said. I was strong but then I wasn’t enough. My dad said that, too, said I was too slow from the fat and the years of eating hot commercial trash and the dense neglect that squeezed my knees and numbed my hands. Watching the flow of the river and the traffic over the bridge, I had a lot of time to think and so I thought about those things until I was too tired to think.
I used to hang out a few blocks from the river behind an eight-unit boarding house where my friend Dave lived. Nightly bonfires by the derelict bus Dave once drove to California and back, and then no more. I liked to wander the edge of the yard, smell the old metal and rotting wood, and think about which streets in America the bus hated the most. On warm nights I slipped off the old shoes my dad gave me and squeezed my toes into the grass and the dirt.
Come get a beer, Zack, Dave called one night after one of the other guys Dave knew, someone I didn’t know, pulled a brown Christmas tree across the yard from his pickup truck. I knew little about making fires so I watched them get it going until it was ready for the Christmas tree. Sparks burst skyward and speared the stars as the fire ripped through the dead pine and the silver holiday garlands. The beer from Dave’s styrofoam cooler chilled my hand.
I don’t think Dayna’s coming, said the other guy.
That sucks, said Dave.
I thought she was going to drive up from Chicopee but then something came up, the other guy said. Then he said, Work or something came up.
I listened to their conversation and paced a circle around the fire. Drank my beer. I didn’t know who Dayna was but something sounded heavy and neglected in the other guy’s voice.
I’m worried she might just ghost me, said the other guy.
What makes you say that? Dave asked.
Just a feeling.
They stopped talking and sipped their beers and I finished my beer, crunched the can, and dropped it on the dirt as I paced.
Then Dave called out, Throw that in the barrel, Zack, Jesus.
Sure, I said.
I took the crunched-up can and tossed it but it fell a few feet short of the barrel. Pain clouded my lower back as I stooped to grab it and rustle it against the other cans in the barrel. Then I went back to the fire and sat in a camping chair too small for me beside Dave.
Don’t break that thing, said Dave.
I won’t, I said.
Saw something real funny at the gas station earlier, said the other guy.
What happened? I asked.
Some guy got really pissed at the pump about the price. I heard him yelling about it while I was filling up. So he goes inside. I follow a minute later to get a soda. There he is at the register asking to get some free smokes because of how goddamn expensive that gas is, and obviously they tell him no, so he grabs this bag of chips by the register, opens it up and starts pouring it all over the counter.
The other guy laughed into his beer can and his laugh bounced against the aluminum.
And like, I’m standing there over by the drink cooler, not doing shit because hey it’s not my business and maybe he’s got a point about the gas, so he opens another bag, and then another bag, and the register lady is just standing there, like, no way am I making enough to deal with this shit.
The other guy laughed again and I laughed as I sat on the edge of my seat and drank every word. I imagined the smell of the chips crumbling as they struck the counter and fell to the floor at the yelling man’s feet.
What kind of chips? I asked.
The chips. What kind were they?
No idea, the other guy said. Dave smiled and reached into his cooler.
Headlights blanketed the yard, then vanished. Doors slammed and two men emerged from the dark. Dave and the other guy rose to shake their hands, and I stood up but stayed by the fire.
This is Zack, said Dave, and I waved to them.
Brennan, said the taller of the two, the tallest man I’d ever seen.
Kyle, the other one said. He held a rubber ball and squeezed it with his thick hands.
Dave opened his cooler and passed a can to everyone. Foam spilled out of mine as I opened it and said Goddamnit and enveloped the opening with my mouth.
How was the job? Dave asked.
Fine, said Brennan. Just white paint on everything. I mean, they gotta fix a lot of shit in those units but they don’t wanna spend any money. So we just paint over the real bad stuff. People are gonna rent ’em anyway.
Yeah, said Dave.
Can I see that ball? I asked Kyle.
Zack, said Dave.
Kyle tossed me the ball. The rubber was hard and smelled of pepper and sweat. The smell of Kyle’s hands, maybe. I wondered what else he smelled like and squeezed the ball and then tossed it in the air and caught it with one hand.
Don’t lose that, said Kyle.
I won’t, I said.
I need another goddamn beer, said Brennan.
Amen, brother, said the other guy.
That chick bail on you? Brennan asked.
Fuckin’ hell, the other guy said.
Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all, said Brennan. Kyle laughed.
Yeah, said Dave.
As they talked I’d moved to the edge of the yard and tossed the ball above me as I walked. It disappeared into the shadow of the tree branches and then plunged back into view. I thought of a dark star under my control. The rubber hurt my hand but it also felt good. Then I wound back and threw it hard as I could. I heard the ball hit a tree limb but didn’t hear it land. I pushed the gathered leaves aside and felt around for the ball with my shoes. I peered into the ruins of the bus. I squatted and pain sprouted in my back and knees, spread through my bones like evil vines. I imagined finding the ball, so perfect, so easy, right there all along, me laughing, yelping almost, as I tossed it once more.
I finished my beer and put the can in my coat pocket and returned to the fire. Everyone watched me as I approached.
Where’s my ball? Kyle asked.
I don’t know, I said.
I can’t find it.
Where did you lose it? asked Dave.
Over there, I said, and pointed to the bus. Then I said, Over there I think.
You think? asked Kyle. You lost my goddamn ball?
Kyle came around the fire and as he approached I stepped back and squeezed the can in my pocket and thought about throwing the can in his face.
That was my ball and you fucking lost it, he said. Kyle shoved me with both hands but I stayed on my feet. You lost my goddamn ball.
I can’t find it, I said. I took the can from my pocket but had no idea what to do with it.
Kyle wrestled me to the ground. I tasted dirt and soul, felt gravity and fear, and babbled as his fists beat at the doors of my skull. Kyle gnawed at my shoulder and a new pain flowed wet from his teeth while he tore at the hood of my jacket. I heard the words Get The Hell Off but I didn’t know if it was Dave or Brennan or me. Then the weight lifted and I staggered to my feet and fought the urge to puke and collapse through the earth. I heard Dave shout Come Back Here as I collided with Brennan’s truck. Pain bloomed in my chest and I bounded for the road. Houses roared past and all I wanted was to be inside my truck even though it was almost out of gas and I was too drunk and afraid to drive.
A strange and silent neighborhood rose around me when I stopped, cloistered by close-packed condos and a wind-shorn Baptist church. I sat on the edge of the road and tugged at my face. For the first time in a long time, I felt the old temptation, the urge to fall to my knees like a dog and sniff out the hot brown muck to melt the pain away. I knew where to get it. I wanted to feel nothing. I wanted to feel nothing so goddamn badly.
A car door barked from the road. I twisted inward and pulled the folds of my coat across my face. Waited for Kyle to kill me at last.
Are you okay? someone asked. It was an older woman, dressed in blue. Someone else sat in her car but it was dark inside and I couldn’t see a face.
I lost it, I said. Then I said, I’m lost.
The woman approached and her face tightened as she came near. I don’t know if it was my wounds that frightened her or just my face as it was, a face of gray, tangle-tooth, skin of stone. I smiled, tasted blood, tasted a hundred filthy meals. I could never be truly clean, and now she knew it, too.
Let me help you. Can I help you? she asked. Her words sounded forced but warm.
Sure, I said.
Come here, she said. It’s okay. Come here. Come.
The woman’s friend, a thin man and just as old, got out of the car and guided me into the back seat. The woman handed me an old T-shirt and told me to press it against the side of my face. She said there were cuts around my ears. I said I didn’t know. The hot air of the car enveloped me. I didn’t know how cold I was before. How cold I was capable of being. My back still ached, the pain unignorable, but I liked the softness of the seat and I felt my muscles relax as if they’d only just remembered how.
When the old woman and the old man got back into the car they whispered to each other. I heard their words but because of all the tangles and the pain in my head, I couldn’t string it all together. It was too much. But I trusted them. The car began to move and the road met another road, and another, and the woman said they would take me to a place for people like me. I told them that was fine. I told them I lived in a truck by the river and the old man said Jesus. I told them what I loved most was when the fog and the river were one. That moment some mornings when the whole world is water. It’s so beautiful, I said. As we passed the river I pointed at my truck, rust-gnawed, hidden by a row of dumpsters. The old woman told me that everything would be alright and the old man turned the car onto the bridge out of town. I knew I’d be back, wherever we went, but I said nothing and pressed my face to the window to watch the bridge-lights shiver on the black-glass water below, the river, my river, home.