I got the call while I was putting new TP in an office toilet, halfway through my rounds: he had died again.
A bad batch going around was catching a lot of people, according to the news.
Eighteen years ago I'd found him, blonde haired in a Baton Rouge shooting gallery, layered in dirt and a little downy fur of dust and insulation fibers, looking sort of like those newborns interrupted in some proto-human stage: ontogeny repeats phylogeny--the bumper sticker from my undergraduate evo-devo class.
He was four, alone, in a dirty striped shirt and underwear, with his fist in his mouth. I swept him up and he didn't make a sound--other species would freak at being picked up by a stranger but not this one; he just looked at me. Old enough to talk but no words. Framed by the one window that wasn't covered with plywood or aluminum foil because it faced a blank brick wall high as the sky from inside looking out, he had an aura, a cloud around his head; which was fleas. I brushed him off a little, held him, holding my breath, feeling submerged.
But he didn't take the fist out of his mouth for an hour; not while I worked my way out through the maze, stepping over dried coils of shit a couple of times, although junkies don't keep pets, and not in the sun finally, which made him duck. And not in the car, as I watched him in the mirror, already hearing Katrina screaming at me about fleas in the carpet that you can't ever get out, ever. What the fuck were you thinking, one of her increasingly frequent questions, as I guess I was becoming a real mystery. When she found out she'd scream about the money, too; what I spent to spend a week going door to door in that hot city 1,000 miles from us, looking for my sister's kid. I had begun to find it easier to stop telling the truth. Fuck tangled webs--everything for me was a straight line because of lying; clean and uncomplicated, until the line snapped and knotted up, sort of looking like a flower, if you used your imagination.
Which was what I was doing, going on forty-eight hours without sleep and living on energy drinks. Colors were getting pretty washed out and people's heads got bigger. I was tired, looking at the little rescue in the back seat of the van. But I had him. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Now it was DSS and attorney time, and time for more screaming and emptying accounts and filling calendar pages and unpaid leave. But I couldn't not do it. That was, is, my fatal flaw. I'm a fucking idiot.
What am I doing? What am I doing. Everyone says the same thing: sink or swim, it's up to him at this point. They've never watched someone drown, though.
Maybe this should be a poem. I don't know what else to do with this story that seems increasingly like something coiled around my neck, his neck. That's called parataxis, I remember from English classes. I want to say paralysis but that isn't quite right. Because we're both still twitching.
Okay. I finished up the bathroom, and grabbed the trash bags, hauled ass down and out of that sixth-floor law firm and pushed out into the cold dark--no clouds and Jupiter up there in the elliptical where it's supposed to be, not only the sun and moon follow the same path but the planets do also, and if you know where to look you can see them, moving on their rails, one of my colleagues told me; another adjunct, in the geology department, where astronomy lives, which seems funny for some reason, or maybe I'm just looking for any excuse to see something as humorous--I inhaled so hard it hurt, and I coughed. On to County. It's 11:19 p.m.
"See here? He's lucky. The surgeons won't touch it if it's any closer to the femoral artery but it's in the muscle so we'll get it out."
The sonogram showed a little hyphen of broken needle in his thigh, and the nurse smiled for a minute. "Happy ending."
"Well, the boy's got a horseshoe up his ass, I think." I laugh but not really. Rub my eyes, just tired.
"I see third time in ten days?"
She shook her head. "You can tell from the bruises. If it's the same EMTs they get pissed and punch a little harder than they need to to get the Narcan in."
He's snoring a little.
At least Max came by it honestly. His mother was a crack addict, and so the genes must be in me, too. Crystal always needed more: "it's not enough," my sister told me once, meaning everything. "I'm sorry," she said. I hugged her then, a long time ago. Now I don't have a current address for her, but I have her son. I think she's in Maine.
In my ABEC research on zoo stereotypies, I documented the same thing in other species: thanks to the "enclosure" and all the things taken away from them; space, foraging or hunting, running away, mating and raising offspring. So they pace, or chew themselves, rub against a wall until they're raw, rock back and forth.
Katrina was calling me as I sat watching him sleep, an angry dipteran buzzing in my pocket. She thought I was a failure, because I was still adjuncting. I wasn't pulling my weight, or pulled but not hard enough, or pulled the wrong thing--I'd lost track of the ways I was stupid. She knew about him but only the outline of the story since she kicked him out; and not because I didn't want her in on the fact that he wasn't managing, at all; but because of what she'd call me.
She coded, and so she'd always been on faster tracks, even teaching for a while but she just didn't need it; she staffed, then evolved to hiring out project to project; she had an agent for a while, even. She had been a software star, but that ended and now she's scuffling, too, another person speared like a fish by the gig economy.
We have our own kid, bless her heart. She's an A student runner and soccer player and I follow her everywhere for tournaments and meets. Katrina generally doesn't go anymore; mostly now for work reasons, but by the time Ariel hit adolescence it was me Katrina was ducking out on.
Now Katrina and I interacted at parties and in passing along information about general operations: insurance, taxes, groceries and medicine, school meetings, schedules. And money.
To meet my half of the nut, I cleaned offices at night for under-table cash from a friend needing reliability for his business, taught classes during the day, ran a shade tree dog training operation via word of mouth. I even had "Your Dog and You," a 20-minute call-in local public radio thing on Saturday mornings. Couldn't think of a better title, but it was all the advertising I needed.
In Max's apartment, past the kicked-out front door panel from a girlfriend, he'd said, was an AK-47-shaped hookah and a big scorch mark like a black feather on the living room wall, and in the warm refrigerator, a pizza box with one mold-flowery slice, blue as Ajax, the powdered cleanser, not the hero.
This is his sixteenth ER visit.
This is my seventeenth ER visit. Once, Ariel cut her chin on the kitchen floor and, worried about scarring, Katrina hustled her in.
I can't do this anymore.
"I'm scared, Uncle Greg."
"You should be." Nothing else to say. Or yell, or cry, or plead, or whisper.
"I didn't, you know, do all of it."
Okay, so there's evidence. Right. "No charges, I talked to the cops. Is that all that scares you?"
His feet were swelling: edema. Kidneys. His previous trip had been after using a needle in his nose, but only squirting. His veins were gone, even the groin. The needles broke now because of scar tissue.
"I'm scared of not being able to sleep."
"No, really. I need something."
"Alright, honey, I'll talk to the nurse." She stared, said you must be kidding.
"Then can you meet this dude for me?" he asks.
"You've got to be kidding."
"Seriously, just meet him in the cafeteria and give him this." A twenty; probably the one I'd given him two days ago.
"Max, I'm not going to do that."
"I hate this, really. I'm ready. But I need something to get me there. Please, Uncle Greg."
I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes.
I'm watching my daughter running, running, long hair braided behind her, tongue between her teeth like it has been when she concentrates since she was little--the coach tries to get her to not do that, afraid she'll bite it off in a fall or when she heads the ball--the long muscles in her legs, her legs her mother's legs, her face like my sister and I think Crystal, selling the sword our father brought back from Korea and willed to me, and selling our great-great-grandfather's Civil War sword, willed to me, and selling our great-great-grandfather's Civil War hospital steward jacket, willed to me, and selling our father's medical texts, and selling my first laptop, and selling our mother's real jewelry, then the costume jewelry, and my Italian hiking boots, and all the old eyeglass frames in my kitchen drawer, and winter clothes from my hall closet; and Ariel's small at the other end of the field, passing, and somebody scores, apparently, because the parents around me erupt, but I missed it; she's a beautiful successful fucking success and my eyes are wet on the field, looking away and thinking about Max and his mother and my daughter's here right in front of me, right now, a bright flash.
And I think of explosions, 2 a.m. calls from ERs and police, and him, frantic trips and medical bills. I wave at Ariel, remembering I need to pay Max's rent today.
How did he happen?
3. transportation problems
4. getting fired
5. wrong friends
6. the planets
I look at the list. What else should be on there.
The real question is how does it not happen. I start a list for me.
In the soft kitchen light people laugh, leaning against the central island where the covered dishes are, and Max slumps in a corner, limply shaking hands with everyone I introduce him to, with me hoping a taste of this will let him know he's still human. He's got dried blood on his forehead, near the scalp line, so not obvious.
No one really knows his story. They already tell me I'm a fool and they only know the safe clean version--they know he's a good kid and aware and trying and I'm helping him.
The older people just think he's drunk. It is Thanksgiving, and that's normal and healthy. In the TV room beyond the dining room table, the younger kids are on the Xbox. I'm trying to finish a beer but talking too much, hearing Katrina's voice among the other sounds, just at that frequency, complaining about me forgetting something, or not doing something.
I am getting stuff for people, filling drink orders at the refrigerator, and I look up and Max has disappeared.
Sink or swim. Sink or swim. Up to him. He will die. It's up to him. I can't. If he dies. I would-- It's up to you-- too
At my annual physical, my doctor looked up from bloodwork results.
"Are you feeling any stress? Greg?" He was trying.
"So it seems."
"Do you have hobbies? Any way to let off steam?"
"Get one. Learn an instrument. You ever play anything?"
"Trumpet, in high school."
"So play the trumpet. Take some lessons. Throw pots. Whatever. A lot of people find writing to be useful."
"Yes. Write about your day, how you feel about it."
"What do you do?"
He flashed a business smile. "Cross-country skiing."
"What about the rest of the year?"
"Whatever. I walk the dog, play doubles."
"I'm going to write this down."
He laughs, for real. Then gets up, wanting this to be enough, looking at his watch. He still wears a watch, but he's not old.
"Great. See you in a year."
I wake up.
There are crow calls flung by wind across the sky outside the hospital. We are near the big cemetery where they roost, by the thousands, to stay warm. It's what crows do as they've adapted to urban areas: you can see them at sunup and sundown leaving their rookeries like something's burning, big clouds of them flaring up and snaking apart.
In this morning there is an echo in those bird voices, like they're testing the sky. It's weird, like the air's not reliable, as if morning isn't a new start but just the same old con.
I guess I'm still tired.
Max stands beside the bed, pale and bent, looping a red scarf around and around, winding; then, unwinding and beginning again.
I should stay with him, sleep over there for a while, the one thing I haven't tried. When he first moved in with us, I slept in his room, on the floor, next to the small mattress. I put on Batman sheets. Katrina will freak. I have already missed my classes today, again. Just told the department secretary I didn't feel well.
I'd cleaned his apartment for him, got some groceries in. I'll drop him and then figure out what I can manage, get away with, put off, ignore, tolerate for the next 24. One day at a time.
"I'll pick you up out front, okay? I'll get the car."
He was looking at his phone, texting. "Sure. Thanks."
In the parking garage, somebody's loose fan belt screams. I let the van warm up, but it makes no difference--it's fifteen years old and the ice on the inside never really goes away, just melts enough for clear patches like portholes I have to bend to see through. I stop, get the pad I'd stuck in the glove compartment, hold the pen over it, but nothing happens.
So rising, up the ramp and out, vision blurred, but still clear enough to make out, after idling a while, then stopping the engine, then getting out, then going in, then asking; Max's found someone else to give him a lift.
Back in the car, I sit watching my breath, then take the pen and pad from the passenger seat and stab the pen into the pad until the pen breaks.
Then I turn the key and drive slowly off, past security at the curb and an ambulance arriving, and merge onto the beltway, a vein that feeds people to the city--and on a narrow grass strip on the cliff about twenty feet or so above morning rush hour because the road is cut down into the body of the ground, are three deer: a doe and a yearling; and a buck, rare anywhere near humans. They just stare, with a chain-link fence running behind them sealing off a beat-up park; like a refugee family at some border going from frying pan to fire. I look at the broken pen.
Good luck, I think. Then I strain to speed up into the already old gun-colored day, back to normal--and I remember now where that is, where I live--back to my country, my homeland, the frying pan and the fire. Back, I guess, to my junk, my habit.