A little different post than usual, today. I meant to have this up yesterday for Good Friday, but I spent the whole day working on term papers. Lame.
In JVC orientation, we were taught about a spiritual exercise of writing biblical stories in our own words. So here’s my version of Mark 15:21
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.
Warning: this post contains some language you probably wouldn’t use in front of your grandmother.
“It’s April,” he slurred. “Mother-blastin April. It’s April, and it’s still fucking snowing. Why the hell is that?”
He emphasized each word, as if he was departing some noble truth on me. I took another long drag on my cigarette and replied,
“How the hell am I supposed to know? Geez.”
But he had already forgotten what he had asked. His head slumped forward, and he began to snore softly. We were both leaning against the cold cement wall of a FedEx loading dock. Just another back alley in another past-its-prime city. The wind blew a sheet of newspaper across the way. Some real cowboys we are, I thought, we’ve got the tumble weed and everything.
I looked beside me. The hair spilling out from his soiled army issue cap was matted with dirt and blood and seat. Who knows the last time it was cut, washed, or hell, even combed. The zipper on his jacket was broken, and I couldn’t tell if his jeans had more holes or more stains on them. I wasn’t sure I looked much better, though I at least tried to shower every day.
A pool began to form under him, and trickled down the asphault towards me. I stood up.
“Joe, wake up. Get a hold of yourself.”
I gave him a little shove with my foot. Nothing. A harder one.
“Shit, what the hell was that for Simon?”
He didn’t look up though, and instead began fishing around in his jacket for a brown paper bag. Joe pulled it out, took a long swig, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. The booze dribbled out of the corners of his mouth and down his beard, but he didn’t seem to notice. He stared hard at the bag for a minute, as if he was trying to read some invisible writing, trying to decipher some secret meaning. Deciding whatever the hidden message was wasn’t worth the effort, he closed his eyes and took another swig.
Still not looking up, he lifted the bag up to me and waved it in my general direction. I sighed and just stared back at him. Pathetic. He kept waving it.
“Dammit, you gonna take it or not?” he grumbled.
Exasperated, I grabbed the bag and took a sip. It tasted terrible. At least, I remembered that it tasted terrible. I stopped tasting the stuff a long time ago, sometime after she left me. No idea how that one bad fight, that one bad night, led to this, but it did. I took another sip, not wanting to think about the fighting, the divorce, the kids I haven’t seen in years.
Hell, I still have kids. I have to babysit this idiot, I thought, handing Joe back his bottle. We all take our turns, some sort of informal street code of ethics. Don’t let him die, that was the only rule. We’re all out on our own here, until someone gets this bad. Do unto others, right? Some golden or silver or something rule I vaguely remember from all those Sunday school lessons, another lifetime ago.
I thought about the time Sam had been watching him. Sam went off on a bender, and the next morning we found Joe asleep on the railroad tracks. Lucky son of a bitch, the trains in from North Dakota had gotten stopped by a blizzard up there.
“What seems to be the problem here, officer?” Joe slurred, barely intelligibly.
I turned around to see a cop walking towards us. Joe seemed quite pleased at his little joke, and after several failed attempts, managed to tuck his bottle back in his coat. It was to no avail. The cop grabbed and dumped it out, adding to the puddle next to him.
“Okay, fellas, time to move it along before I cite you both with drunk in public, loitering, and open container,” he said.
How can you cite us both with open container, if there’s only one bottle? I wondered, but thought better of asking the cop this. Joe had already fallen back asleep. I stared back at the cop. He stared back, hands on his hips, eyes narrowed and firm. I knew who was gonna win this, but I was in a fighting mood.
“He can’t walk,” I snapped.
“Well how the fuck is that my problem? He’s one of you, you do something about it, ya piece of shit.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do about it? Where’s he gonna go? Look at him, he’s too drunk to even sit up,” I said, knowing with every word I was getting closer to getting another ticket that I couldn’t pay. I didn’t care though, I was cold and angry that I got stuck babysitting this loser again.
“Look, you move him, or we’re gonna book him and you too if you don’t watch your mouth.”
“He’s not my property. Why do I gotta do something about him?” I didn’t really give a damn about what happened to Joe.
“Oh please, don’t give me that. This bum has been pissing on the streets for years. He’s like your king or something. Yeah, king of the bums. I’m tired of dealing with him. Tired of dealing with all of your kind’s bullshit. You do something about it or I will.”
I weighed my options. I could let the cop take him. He’d get three hots and a cot, and Lord knows he needs a shower. He wouldn’t like it. No one would like me for it, but what the hell am I supposed to do about it?
Joe had slumped over, and was now just laying on the ground. He doesn’t do well in jail, I thought. Plus some young kid had died detoxing in jail a couple weeks ago when the guards refused to give him any medical attention. I could drag his ass somewhere else to drink. I know if I did the second, I’d be leading him to his death. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. No one ever said it, but we all knew it.
If I take him, at least then he can be around people who give (however small) a damn about him.
I hunched over and yelled, “Joe! Wake up already!”
“Dammit Joe, get up!”
Still nothing. Damn drunk.
I grabbed his arm and hoisted it over my shoulder. The guy was tall, he had a good six inches on me. But he was skinny, and I at least still had some muscle left. I thought maybe I could drag him to the end of the alley, and we could just set up a camp behind the Mexican restaurant instead. Maybe get a free burrito if the nice waitress is working, not the bus boy who pretends not to see us when he tosses dirty water out the back door. The guy is a jerk; I’ve gotten drenched one too many times by him.
I shuffled a few yards down the alley and looked over my shoulder. The cop hadn’t moved. He stood there, hands still on his hip, waiting for us to move out of his sight. Waiting for us to just disappear for ever.
“Joe, fuckin’ wake up and walk already.”
Nothing. A different kind of nothing, I thought. His breathing was more shallow, more labored. I began to grow worried, but I kept walking. The cop was still there, still watching. My back ached. How the hell can a guy who never eats even weigh so much? I gave up, and dropped him down like a sack of flour.
“Dammit Joe, I can’t carry you until Kingdom come, ya gotta wake up and walk a little.”
Nothing. I crouched down and gave him a shake. No idea of how many times I’ve seen him in drunken stupors, but this was different. There was no grumble when I tried to wake him, no flailing of the arms to swat me away. Just that painful breathing, which was growing quieter.
I picked him up again and dragged him three blocks to the hospital. It was a busy street we walked down. A mother hurried her children off the sidewalk when we passed. Geez woman, it’s called homelessness, I thought. It’s not contagious. I thought about stealing a cart from the grocery store as we passed, and wheeling him the rest of the way. I thought better of it, realizing that’s a good way to get another cop on my ass.
They told me at the hospital what I already knew. That I wouldn’t see him again, not in this life anyway. I don’t know why it bothered me so much, to be honest. I barely knew the guy. Didn’t even like him much, really. The nurse started to asking me questions about his nearest relative, like I would have a clue. I just turned around and walked right back out the door. Lighting another cigarette, I shuffled back down the street to tell the guys the news.
This was no way to live.