A red pickup driven by no one he knew or ever would know came around the corner and swerved into his lane. The motorcycle slipped out from under him on the dirt shoulder. He flew forward, rolling a hundred yards and taking out a picket fence, stood up, ripped the split helmet off his head, and sprinted two miles down the road until he ran into an old lady checking for mail at the end of her driveway. He fell, bleeding, at her feet. When the paramedics asked, he couldn’t tell them his name. Dan, they said, looking at his license.
Before that, he was up on grand theft, and before that, a skate punk with white hair, and before that, at age twelve, he would lose control of his own hands and try to strangle himself (the doctors didn’t believe it, and neither did I until I saw for myself. Before that, he heard voices from the walls of his bedroom, saying he was going to Hell, while a different voice told him he was Jesus. Before that, he saw visions of Hell: bodies and pieces of bodies swirling and screaming in pools of blood and fire. “Exactly,” he later said when Roy came to live with us in a brick rowhouse on Pine Street, “what you’d expect from Hell.”
Before Roy moved to Pine Street, he lived in Manhattan and worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street. There was a time, he said to us, when he did days of eight balls without sleeping and retreated to his apartment to sit in the chair in front of the television. He thought about reaching for the remote but didn’t because the police would burst through the door and think he was going for a gun, and because he was black—and naked—they would shoot him. He almost stood up to turn on the TV but didn’t because they would think he was trying to escape, and they’d shoot him. He eventually approached the door and looked through the peephole to see if they were about to burst in and shoot him. He wanted to explain that even though he was standing there naked, he’d gone to Dartmouth and was a descendent of a US Senator from New York. So please don’t shoot. He stood there for twenty hours before going into the kitchen to prepare another needle and make a break for his car.
The police started to chase him through West Chester County, three patrol cars pursuing him in a Volkswagen Bug, moving as slowly uphill as a funeral procession. In court, he made a deal by repenting and humbling himself. He agreed to attend rehab in Portland, Maine, then moved into a halfway house, and finally, having nowhere else to go, lived with us in a condemned brick Victorian relic row house on Pine Street. In better days, it had been someone’s mansion. He couldn’t remember exactly, he said, looking out the back window of his new bedroom, but he knew there’d been a time before all this. Outside his window, there was a funeral home in a former ship captain’s house that reduced flesh into ash and smoke.
Before I lived at on Pine Street, I lived with my mother and her cat, and before that, I’d been a college student for a few years. Now I was someone who lived at on Pine Street. Beyond that, I was uncertain. I lived on the third floor with Dan and Roy, two of the only people I spoke to, in addition to my AA sponsor, who I talked to every day. Dan and I had only been sober a couple of months, Roy more than a year. We were friends, but we were also inmates who’d washed up here and couldn’t afford to be anywhere else.
Our building was next to The Treasure Chest sex shop and a gay bar called Blackstones and faced a place called the Nu Body Health Spa, into which people unsatisfied by glory holes passed for a more intimate touch. As they lay on their backs, we lay on ours and stared as the roof leaked through the cracked and flaking ceiling into a bucket on our floor. Above the roof the clouds, and above the clouds the sky. Below us, the floor, painted brown before brown-gray or gray-red, and below the floor another floor where Andy and Bo threatened each other with raised fists, and below them another floor where the landlord sat beneath the weight of the old things in his failed interior decorating business—stuffed birds and fish, 1952 Boy Scout tackle, Republican memorabilia—and beneath the weight of the possibility his wife might show up and find him masturbating in the back room.
My mother lived in an apartment ten blocks away, but I rarely saw her or called her. I knew she was dating a guy who took her on dates to the beach. He cooked chicken on the way by wrapping it in tinfoil and resting it on the engine. We didn’t have cell phones or internet; we shared a landline with Andy and Bo on the second floor. My mother didn’t call me, and I didn’t call her. My father lived across town with my stepmother and sister, but I hadn’t seen them for almost a year. They all belonged to a life before this.
Dan walked with his chin lowered. He looked out of the top of his eye sockets. When he looked over at me, I was supposed to speak. We spent hours like that on the third floor. One night, I dreamt the city of Portland was uprooted and reduced to the size of a hat on top of his head. We discussed the importance of this dream one morning while leaning over the kerosene heater with our blankets pulled over our shoulders. He kept getting up and going over to the tape deck to push rewind and play the same song again. I can’t remember what song it was.
Andy, who lived on the floor below with Bo and his psychotic Afghan hound, Paris, had lost his father to a trigger, we heard, over and over, as if he kept forgetting and needed to remind himself. He was Filipino, an artist so ambitious he never unfurrowed his brow. He had the acne of a twelve-year-old boy and had been sober longer than the rest of us, maybe five years. Every weekend Andy took all his belongings to the curb to see what people would offer. He huddled on the granite steps in a condensed version of his room and eyeballed passersby.
When Bo didn’t come home at night (Bo was not sober), Andy baked brownies. The sweet smell traveled up the staircase to our floor, and we knew Bo was out there with his Tennessee accent and ashen cheeks, his cigarette held high in the air, his lips and warm breath inches from some man’s ear. Bo said he was from an old Tennessee tobacco family; his eyes were always puffy, and his jaw looked recently punched. He drove the longest rusty Mercedes we’d ever seen and had somehow become an expert in estate jewelry. He also explained the art of tying off your nuts to unleash a bigger load into some guy’s ass.
“Is that the way they do it in the South?” Dan cooed.
“Only the gentlemen, Danny boy. Only the gentlemen.”
Andy painted one crucifix after another using charcoals, oils, pastels, and objects found on the street; the second-floor walls were covered with crosses, the maroon carpets like Christ’s blood flowing back to his room where he and Bo screamed at each other after Bo came home drunk smelling of another man or woman.
The landlord sat all day, every day, among his old things. At two in the afternoon, he’d walk down to the post office and back. In the garage, he had two Audis, both without engines, and in the cellar, sails for a boat he no longer owned. We peeked through the warped glass window one time and saw him sitting at his desk, all six feet seven inches, a lean gray patrician in his tweed coat and strange, wide-brimmed hat.
Inside his floor, at the very back, where the building almost touched the funeral home, was an old kitchen where none of the appliances worked, and the air was absolutely still. I often went there at night to sit in the dark.
Dan had a ten-year-old motorcycle, and I had a VW Rabbit Dan spun off the highway when he hit black ice on route 295 while blasting “Centerfold” by John Cougar Mellencamp. Though the car rolled three times, in the snow, down a hill, and into the woods, none of the windows broke, and John Cougar did not stop singing. Dan hung upside down by his seat belt, his nose bleeding and his hands on the steering wheel.
My car still worked after the accident, though all the doors except the hatchback doors were bent shut, and one of the front wheels was warped in such a way against the brake disc that the wheel started smoking after fifteen minutes. When the motorcycle was down, we had to use the car, carrying a couple of jugs of water in the back to dump on the wheel. We drove the motorcycle right through December by wearing ski masks and orange fishing gloves. Our job in our AA home group was to bring the food each week. Usually, we brought something from the day-old section of the Shop N Save bakery. I carried the cake or pie or box of cookies under one arm and wrapped my other arm around Dan’s waist as we darted the fifteen miles up route 95 to the meeting, where people hugged and greeted us as if we’d just crossed enemy lines to deliver critical medical supplies.
Once inside the meeting, we were safe for an hour. It was as if we’d been lifted into the canopy of a forest; only those with hollow bones lived among the branches. One guy (even he was loved) offered only the observation that somewhere out there, someone was fucking a chicken—that was the human condition, as he saw it. No one disagreed. If Dan started gripping the edges of his chair, it meant the room was shrinking or telescoping, or there were people in the room who were not in the room. Or it meant people in the room were saying things to Dan they were not actually saying. Or it meant the ceiling had suddenly opened up for him and the room filled with fire, in which case I told him just to keep his mouth shut and sit where he was sitting and keep his hands still and his feet still and not under any circumstances to believe anything.
One day Roy and I drove to the grocery store in his girlfriend’s truck. On the way, we saw my mother standing on the curb a block from her apartment. I knew my mother wasn’t doing well in much the same way as I wasn’t doing well. I was afraid if I even spoke to her, I would no longer know my own name. I wouldn’t know how to find my way back to where we lived. I knew so few things at this point—our address, my sponsor’s phone number, the names and faces of my two friends—that I couldn’t afford to lose them.
Roy had met my mother before–when she had stopped by our house–so he pulled over, stepped out of the truck, and put his arm on her shoulder.
She came over to Pine Street the next day. She said she wanted to say hello, so I sat with her on the front steps. I knew she was trying to get sober too, but I didn’t want to hear about it. “I don’t want to come inside,” she said. “I just came by to say I’m going away for a while. I’m taking your sister with me.” I knew she wasn’t going anywhere; my sister lived with my father. Dan came out the front door in his suede jacket and stood far above us. He was as tall as the building. He was handsome as a movie star and carried his face like a hammer, like he was watching himself play a character much like himself in a movie. I almost didn’t recognize him because of the way my mother looked at him, so I stood up and walked inside our building without saying goodbye to her.
One morning, I found a strange guy lying on the floor outside the kitchen next to a bike. His mouth was open, his chest rising and falling.
“I let him in to use the phone,” Dan said from over by the toaster oven, “and now I can’t wake him up.”
I clapped my hands, but he didn’t stir.
By afternoon he was awake, eating the bread Dan brought home from the restaurant where he worked.
“I thought you needed to use the phone,” Dan said.
“I did. Thanks, man. I did use the phone. Early this morning.” He blinked on the syllables.
He announced he was biking up to Canada from Kentucky. Before he left, he planted a marijuana seed in the dirt next to the driveway. He had to move on. The weather was shutting down. He had seeds to plant all along the way.
By winter, we were sober for maybe four or five months. In the mornings, a pasty haze hung over the kerosene heater. The radiator knocked as if someone in the room was banging on the pipes, but no heat came out.
Andy’s brother Manny stayed downstairs for a while. Everyone loved him, a singer in a rock band, tall, just signed a contract. One day he was talking about the curative powers of a good enema, and the next day he was gone. And then it started to rain instead of snow.
The day after the Nu Body Health Spa burned down, I began to write poetry, one line at a time, while looking out the front room window at the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the square where evangelists had taken up residence. People—mostly the “overflow” from the psyche ward one block in the other direction at Mercy Hospital—who’d been living at night in shelters and outside during the day, hung at the feet of the granite patriarch like ragged kelp from the waterline of a tanker. They ate too much wheat. Their skin seemed to be rising. Because I needed absolute quiet to write, I started working in the closet where a white bulb hung from a leather wire.
Roy scrubbed his skin smooth every day. He repeatedly brushed his hands down his high cheekbones and over his wide flat nose to his mouth as if to make sure he was still there. It was his eyes, like silk, that startled. When he blinked, it was as if he was hatched from a chrysalis, seeing you for the first time. Roy was five feet, ten inches tall. He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. He had long thin hands that hung at the ends of his arms like misplaced wings. He moved as slowly as the clouds. His relations had been a white senator, Black slaves, Cherokee Indians, Dutch settlers, all the way back, he said, and all the way forward, to Roy. I am the Black prince, he said with his eyes closed. He was gorgeous, miraculous, aristocratic. I didn’t want to have sex with him, I didn’t think so, but I thought I might be in love with him.
Andy’s brother Manny, the rock star, showed up again. He had a tattoo around his belly button of a flower. Not a rose. And Roy’s sometimes girlfriend, Andrea, with a head of flowing red hair—she was with us, too. All these people—Roy, Andrea, and Manny—would be dead in a few years, at different times. Even though I didn’t know that then, there was still something about them that made me want to shut my eyes. Andrea’s face was as blank and white as a sheet of paper, her pupils black in the dim winter light. Roy had told us they liked to drive out to the beach on windy days. They would find a hidden spot in the dunes, and he would give her oral sex while she stood facing the ocean and screaming into the wind. Once, they were arguing as they drove through a snowstorm in the White Mountains when she stopped the truck in the middle of nowhere and told him to get out. He did, and when she drove away, he watched her red taillights vanish and the darkness close in. He expected her to turn round, but she didn’t.
One night, Dan and I were walking home from a meeting downtown. Two guys driving by in a van passed us, turned around, drove onto the curb, and jumped out with the motor still running. The first one ran right by me and slammed his body into Dan, while the other guy grabbed me and pushed me against a brick wall. I held his jacket and pushed back, his clenched teeth inches from my nose. I could smell onions and beer and feel his heart beating under my fist; his knee jammed into my thigh. Air hissed from between a gap in his front teeth as if from a bicycle tire. I was afraid to let go, afraid not to let go. For a second, my vision went black, and I threw the guy back into the street.
He was much shorter than I thought. He took one step forward and stopped. We stared at each other’s chests. Dan and the other guy were pressed up against the van. I could hear Dan growling as he did in fights. Neither of them could free a fist to swing. After a minute, they disengaged. The guy lunged at Dan—he was wiry, not tall, a vein pounding in his pale neck—and spat on the ground. In moments they were gone, and we were left opening and closing our fists under the hypnotic buzz of the street lamps, both of us turning in circles as if other attackers might start flying at us from all sides. A cop car rolled by, stopped, and the two officers threw us against the wall to search us.
“Two guys just jumped us,” I said.
“Shut the fuck up, faggots,” the cop said.
Back at the apartment, our hands and feet wouldn’t stop rattling against the floor and in our laps.
Our old drinking friend showed up, waving as he climbed the stairs. We hadn’t let him in. He said the front door was wide open. We hadn’t seen him in a year or more. Dan and I had stolen a TV set from the basement of his apartment building only to find out it didn’t work.
“I came for my sleeping bag,” he said, though we didn’t have his sleeping bag.
Then he went on to tell us that we really should not have stopped drinking and doing drugs. He had a friend—a guy we didn’t know—who barked like a dog when he drank, getting down on all fours and growling. It wasn’t an act at all. That man should stop, he said. Then he asked to use our bathroom, where he stuffed all four rolls of our toilet paper into the cargo pockets of his army pants and said he had to go.
My mother showed up at the front door with her winter coat pulled over her flannel nightgown. Her rusty old car idled at the curb, steam chugging into the air from the tailpipe.
“I had a dream,” she said, “that a man with a red beard robbed my mother in New York. I dreamt his face, his eyes, where he lives, across town in a one-level yellow house.”
When I called my mother later, she said that the police caught up with the man at exactly the spot she had identified, at his yellow house, locked in his kitchen with my grandmother’s rings wrapped in his fist.
Roy and I signed up to be part of a clinical drug trial. For one week, you swallow their pills, watch TV, and they pay you a grand. Roy was rejected because of his blood test, but I stayed on taking the pills from a nurse, which she said were harmless. I slept on a cot next to other people, all of them too ashamed to speak to one another, and twice a day jogged on a treadmill so my heart could be monitored. We all wore yellow robes. The whole experiment took place in the industrial part of town, near the waterfront, not far from B&M Beans and the fish processing centers. As I stood up to go to the bathroom, I looked at the other “volunteers” lying on their backs in their cots. A few read from paperbacks, one man watched TV in the corner, but most of the people just stared at the ceiling and waited for one of the researchers to come in for a blood, urine, or saliva sample or to ask us to swallow another pill, which we did, no questions asked.
I returned from the drug trial to discover that Roy had gone out and bought new yellow running shoes. He was wearing them and sitting in the living room watching Oprah.
“I’m going running now,” he announced. He ran up Pine Street, past the Pine Variety, Auntie Leonie’s Pizza, and by the federal mansions on his way to the Western Prom. Four months later, he would disappear, back on the streets in Harlem, living in crack houses, we heard, and then out to a program in Arizona, paid for by his mother.
I ran into him years later, standing on a corner in Cambridge and listening to a group of Harvard students play their violins under the awning of a closed bank. He’d lost most of his hair, and he must’ve weighed a hundred pounds. We went to an ice cream store, and I bought him a frozen yogurt. He licked off the top of the cone as the rest melted down over his hand. Then he stopped eating halfway through and just held the cone over the ground in front of him. “I’m dying,” he said, and I told him I knew. That’s why he’d been rejected from the drug trial years before. They’d screened us for HIV.
Before he left Pine Street, Roy kept his chin raised, his legs crossed, and his hands neatly folded, like a man whose descent from greatness would have no bearing on the essence of his being. He had no medical insurance, no car, and no definite plans, but one day without warning he bought a second pair of shoes. Two-hundred-dollar dress shoes. He started washing his face several times a day with the most expensive soap available. He spent hours in the back room listening to Bach with his legs crossed and eyes closed. It seemed as if his blood must have been luminescent, the way he glowed, his skin stretched tightly across his face with no signs of age as if he was not only thirty-five but also fourteen. The skin of his face was as smooth as a bowling ball. He sat in the steam of the bathtub like a king, and we talked about Hegel. We’d both read Hegel, but he’d understood Hegel. I had not. He told me it was important to have someone to hate, and if I needed someone, I could start with Hegel. I asked him if it wasn’t important to have someone to love.
“There are plenty of people to love,” he said, his eyes closed as he waved his hand through the air.
He stopped going out. He became convinced the building itself—the germs in the sink catch, the cold drafts and must and mold and dust—was killing him, but he still wouldn’t go out. He told none of us about his illness. Maybe I loved him because of what I didn’t know.
A week before he left, I found him sitting on the end of his bed in the cold room, hands on his knees.
“I’m tired,” he said.
Roy left in May. One night in June, past two in the morning, I woke to a door slamming. I ran into the long hall and watched as the door to the front room briefly caught the moonlight and slapped shut. Naked, Dan came out of his room and stood with his fists balled. We waited for the building to speak again. A blue flame arced out of one wall socket and into another as someone in the alley between us and Blackstones bar let out a coyote cry. Dan opened the window and told them to get the fuck away from us. The muscles on both sides of his spine pulled tight in the blue light of another electrical arc from the socket. Two men stood in the alley, one with his fly down and his dick hanging out, the other raising his fist and repeatedly swinging a chain over his head to beat the pavement.
Headed for the cellar to shut off the electricity, I rushed down through the dark halls and pushed open the doors on my way. Passing through the landlord’s rooms, I stopped in front of the shadow of someone sitting behind the old desk where the landlord pretended to conduct business. It was Roy. He rubbed his hand over the top of his head.
“I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen out there,” he said.
I rushed to pull out the fuses. When I walked back through the landlord’s rooms, Roy wasn’t there; I knew he’d never been there. Nothing in the building, not even the wiring, had changed in a hundred years. For those of us who lived here, time seemed to move in a circle. The building was leaking and about to catch fire, but it never would fall or burn down.
I sat on the other side of the desk from where I’d seen Roy, in the seat where someone who wanted to have their house decorated would sit if this were the office of a real interior decorating business, and I asked Roy how long he thought he would live here. He raised his head and gazed out the window at the guys from the bar who’d moved from the alley to the street to yell at each other. I knew what he was going to say before he said it.
“I’ve always been here,” he said.
Jason Brown grew up in Maine and was a Stegner Fellow and Truman Capote Fellow at Stanford University, where he taught as a Jones Lecturer. He now teaches in the MFA program at the University of Oregon. He is the author of three collections of short stories. His stories and essays have won several awards and appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Sewanee Review, Missouri Review, and other magazines and anthologies. Several of his stories have been performed as part of NPR’s Selected Shorts and appeared in the Best American and Pushcart anthologies.