Fire Water River Run

The sky was a low-hanging grey veil thrown haphazard over downtown. The river snaked its way as it usually did, ignoring the threat of rain that rolled through the chill of Northwestern autumn. Jared stood with his back to the river on the waterfront, staring at the clouds hanging over Naito Parkway and the streets beyond. Three months in the city and he was still looking for a permanent place to stay. He had managed to acquire a series of friends who offered up an equal number of couches in whose homes he’d worn out his welcome until winding up on the riverfront. He had been carrying his things all day long. The breeze and the cold metal under his fingers took the bite out of the sweat that had caked itself on his brow and made exertion almost unbearable. His feet ached; his shoes were worn through.

He would walk all night rather than spend it like the gutter punk kids did downtown. Sleeping in an awning in the Pearl or further west, using a collection of Mercury or Willamette Weekly newspapers as a form of secondary shelter from the rain. Jared knew that most of his stuff would be gone by the time he woke up – gone, or he would get fucked up by some drunk assholes who stumbled through the city after its bars closed their doors.  The city breathed in the river water and struggled with waterlogged lungs. It spat out the excess past the Ross Island Bridge and sucked in the air from the east. Jared walked along the waterfront; his eyes were focused down on the water as it flowed past.

Some music fell out of the open window of a car that drove past not more than a hundred feet away. That late at night, there was little else to block out the sound. It was generic music, something created and composed on a computer and pushed out to the public. Jared stared after the driver and began to make his way back towards the city. He stopped halfway in the grass, clutching the green military medic’s bag that hung off of his right shoulder. Finding shelter in the city was like an indeterminate flight or fight mechanism. He knew that he needed to stay out of downtown proper, but also knew he could not make it to the suburbs to find himself a decent place to sleep. He would have to settle for a park and take a chance on the police.

Lights winked out in a building that overlooked Naito Parkway. There was a giant needle piercing upwards towards the clouds that almost perpetually covered the city that time of year; as he watched it, he found himself in thought. There had been a girl when he first moved to the city. He came from the deep, sultry south. His original home was the kind of place where the wind blew down hard against the flat plains and spread heat over the pavement, washing everyone and everything in sweat-slicked humidity. The Pacific Northwest was as far as he could get from that – and literally, the furthest he could get from where he lived. There was a plan behind that.

More than that, there was a girl.

Jared moved to Oregon after he had met a red-haired girl on a trip into the deep woods; he spent four days at a house by a lake, drenched in wine and sex. It was because of this that he had punched a hole through the American West and tattooed his trail down along the highways and dark passages of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and his final destination: Oregon. What had been a dream that he would arrive at a place where he would be swept up in a swirling mass of debauchery led to his current predicament. He found the sex, briefly. He found drugs and alcohol a much more compliant and wanton mistress. By then, he hadn’t the willpower to perform for the former.

There were fourteen bridges in Portland. Jared managed to burn down each one with the fumbling eagerness of a teenager getting his first fuck and with the practiced ease of a sailor’s whore. He had not eaten in three days; he had, however, managed to score two tablets of oxycontin and a fifth of whiskey. The whiskey bottle clinked against the rusted, old knife that he kept in his bag as he slung his body over the railing separating the waterfront from the river proper.

His feet slapped down hard against the cement underneath. He dipped himself low to take some of the pressure off of his legs, but collapsed to the ground with his effort; he laid there for some time, waiting for the feeling in his calves to return. As Jared lifted himself up to his feet, he noticed that his ankle had twisted in the fall. He rummaged in his pocket and slid one of his opiates under his tongue and held it there.

As the pill began to dissolve, he walked. There was a small alcove carved out near where the water line was. Assuming he could find it, he could find a safe shelter for the evening. The drugs worked quicker when he took them sublingually. His tongue felt numb and his body began to tingle, his skin burning with an opiate itch. He chased the remaining fragments of pill and the chalky taste of it with the whiskey, washing out his mouth and swallowing the remnant.

The voice caught him off guard. He thought it was in his head at first. “Hey.” Jared cut slower in his tracks. “Hey,” the voice insisted. He turned to look in the direction of it. An older man was sitting underneath a slight overhang from the waterfront. His clothing reminded Jared of those old specials his father would always watch about the Egyptian kings and queens that were bound up in cloth for burial. The old man’s hands were kept in cotton gloves with the fingers half torn out. He reached a hand out towards Jared.

“I don’t have anything at all,” Jared responded. It made him feel like shit. He had been told the same thing probably over a hundred times that same day. He gripped the strap of his messenger bag tight in his hands. The torn sneakers on his feet flexed slightly as he prepared to bolt. He watched the old man with a silent, glum guilt mixed with the salt taste of fear.

The old man stood up to his feet. He was shaky and his fingers were curled down corpse-like. They were sick with arthritis, which likely ran rampant through the rest of his body. “I don’t doubt you got nothing to spare,” the man muttered as he took a step towards Jared. “I sure as shit doubt you got nothing. Young kid like you,” the old man paused to lick his filthy, cracked teeth, visible in the glare of the halogen lights that spread out above them.

Jared shoved his hand into his bag. “I got some whiskey,” but his hand was reaching for that rusty knife. “How long’ve you been out here?” He had always been good at thinking on his feet; it was best to keep the old man talking.

Nonetheless, the old man kept up his pace, crossing the distance between them within the span of a minute, inching closer and closer like he was coming at a wild, angry dog. “Kept this space for two months. Been on the street for a few years now. I lost my house when the market crashed.” He paused. “Whiskey’d be good. Just something to warm me up.”

The old man reached out for the bag on Jared’s shoulder. Jared ripped the knife out from the bag and shoved it into the man’s gut. It was a dirty, horrible wound. People do not bleed clean and easy like they do in the movies. The blood began to well out of the man’s body in a sudden torrent preceded by a quick, short spray.

The old man began to scream.

Without much thought, he knocked the old man to the ground with his shoulder and kicked with frantic movements at the older bum’s jaw. The old man’s teeth clamped shut and severed all but a thin strand of sinew of his tongue. Jared’s foot came down again and again. By the time the man’s head was a rough, grisly paste, he had started to sob.

He stood in silence for several minutes; he stilled his sobs and waited, held his breath. He listened. When he was sure that no one had heard the struggle, he rifled the old man’s pockets and found an ancient, crumbled wallet with a driver’s license and about nine dollars. He searched through the old man’s belongings and found a blanket and a dog food bowl. There was no dog, but it smelled like cheap wet food, like the kind at the dollar store. Either the old man had eaten it, or there was a dog somewhere out there coming back to his master. Jared stared at the empty bowl for the eternal span of a minute when time dilates due to the gravity and horror of a situation.

Killing the old homeless man took less than thirty seconds. He found a scavenged piece of plastic – likely a rain guard – and rolled the man up into it. With labored movements, he pushed the corpse into the water and ducked into the shadows the old man had occupied. Once more, Jared waited and listened. He threw his knife into the water after the old man.

Jared collected the remainder of the man’s belongings, he stuffed it all into an ancient hemp backpack that had likely been stolen from one of the hippie shops around town. He slung the backpack over his shoulder and, with the remainder of his strength, pushed away from the wall and started to walk. Jared began the search for that alcove anew, laden with blankets, backpacks and dented, dumpstered cans that the old man had collected.

As he walked, he flipped through the wallet, staring at the name on the license. There was a time when this old man had dressed up in a dress shirt and tie to get his picture taken at the DMV. His name was Eric Collette. Jared surmised that the address listed on the license was the one the old man had mentioned – that house that the bank had grabbed up as quick as a dog grabbing table scraps. He slung the license over the railing and into the water.

Everything that the old man had been – body, life and soul – now belonged to the Willamette. He took his other oxycontin tablet, dry swallowed it and ducked his head down to ignore the sad beats of rain that the sullen clouds began to weep. A sob caught itself in Jared’s throat as he stepped on a loose board. He no longer had the knife to pry them up, but he knew what lay beneath. His alcove was directly underneath.

He reached down and began to dig at the wood. His fingers reached to slip between the planks. The fingernail on his left index finger splintered and snapped off. He gritted his teeth against the pain and managed to yank the board up. He maneuvered his thin body down between the planks and pulled the board down after him. He stood in the little alcove, shaking the board back and forth until he found the holes where the nails had been. He pulled down hard and drew the board back into place.

The place smelled like death. The corpse of an ancient rat sat rotten and fat with water at the far end. Maggots crawled out of the empty eye sockets and made a white bridge between the eyes and the open mouth of the rat. Jared kicked it towards the river in disgust. He was at a lower point, nearly close to the water’s edge. The rain began to hammer harder, wolves at the door. The river ran with a rush that ate slowly away at the cement that made up the waterfront.

He wrapped one of the rags he’d pulled off the old man around the broken fingernail and slumped into a corner. Jared took out the fifth of whiskey and twisted the cap. He was never a fan of cheap bourbon like this, but he could never afford the kind of whiskey he liked anymore, not even with a profitable day of busking and hustling down town. He had earned the liquor with the sweat of his brow and the gratuity of passing strangers.

The drugs were different. There was an old hotel room, one of those kind that are set up for extended stays. He met a woman in the lobby when he had made his way through the lobby to get himself a soda from the machine. After ten minutes of talking, he discovered she had serious back problems and stayed in the hotel on account of it being cheaper than a regular apartment, paid by social security and disability. She was forty-nine years old and had sixty oxycontin in her hotel room medicine cabinet.

Jared had found himself on his knees next to the bed with her naked thighs rested on his shoulder. After she came, he went into the bathroom and threw up as quiet as he could. He brought her pills to her and she gave him two for his services. The same two that led to his lack of concern for the old man, the same two he’d taken within an hour of one another. He took another swallow of his whiskey and rested his head back against his new backpack. He slung his messenger medic bag to the side and pulled the blanket he pilfered from the dead up over his body, wrapping himself up tight in it. His arms were almost immobile by the tight, scratchy woolen thing.

The fifth of Wild Turkey lay empty next to his head. His mind drifted. He fell back to dry, raspy sobs followed by thick, wet coughs. His body twisted hard into the blanket as he turned to rest on his side, faced towards the wall with his back to the mouth of the little cavern-like alcove. The rain began to pick up harder; it battered against the wooden planks through which he’d escaped. Sleep came heavy and fast.

Throughout the night, the rain continued to increase until it was a near torrential downpour that washed dirt, blood and vomit from the waterfront where the old man had died; it washed away the stale scent of acrid, spilled beer from the patios outside of the bars of Portland; it ran like quicksilver through the streets and met to pool.

That night, the rain water caused the river to rise. Jared never turned over, his face pushed down near the cement floor of his newfound home, just short of the Steel Bridge. As the water came through, it lapped up against his face and clothing. He shivered uncontrollably as the blanket was covered in the chilly Willamette run-off.

When the water levels rose higher, almost eight inches higher than it had been before, the corpse of the rat washed up against Jared’s feet. The water filled his nose and mouth as he slept unconscious from mixing pills and alcohol.

Jared had burned through every bridge he could to sleep beneath one in the worst rainfall the city had seen in several years.

When the clouds began to illuminate from the grey, sulking light of morning, his body had already begun to wash out towards the river.

In that moment, he and the homeless man named Eric Collette were one and the same. All that Eric had once been had become an arthritic barge floating down the Willamette. He was joined by Jared two days later when both of them had washed up onto the banks of the river.

 

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