“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” –Oscar Wilde
He’s fumbling with a flashlight.
I’m drunk tonight, stumbling home.
I shouldn’t stop.
He’s fumbling with the batteries, his movements erratic. One into the slot with the spring (these fucking springs, he says) and then another but it slips and flies and it’s on the ground next to me.
I’m sitting on the ground next to him. He’s beautiful, really. Hairy, muscular, his face the sort one would wish to smile upon each morning.
He smells of piss and shit. “You heard of dialysis?” he asks.
I nod, I light a cigarette, I give him one.
“I’ll need it when I’m 40,” he says. “The heroin does that. I can’t piss.” And then he’s crawling on the ground looking for a battery.
“How old are you?,” I ask, trying to light his cigarette again.
“35,” he says, dropping his cigarette, twitching. “I use everyday, but this shit’s bad, man.”
It is. He shouldn’t be twitching on heroin like this.
He shouldn’t have the energy of thirty suns and the focus of a child if it was what he though he was shooting.
“I think they cut it. If I pass out–“(and here the batteries fly across the concrete),“– I don’t know, man.”
I went looking for something tonight, or someone.
Brân, actually. Pulled 40 feathers out from a squirrel-gnawed stag vertebrae found near the Pagan Wall of Mont St. Odile. Hid the feathers from my host’s cats, unwrapped the crow’s foot found at the foot of a Buddha.
Everything smelled of death, everything smelled of Brân, and I’m on the pavement near a busy intersection, sitting cross-legged, gathering batteries.
“It’s not like this usually,” he says. His name is Mike. I gave him my name first. We’d met before, he was certain. He was right, I suspected.
“I usually just crawl into bed when I shoot up.”
For the first time tonight, I’m relieved. He’s got a bed, somewhere safe, somewhere besides this asphalt.
“Where’s home?” I ask. “I can help you get there.”
Mike took awhile to answer. He’d spent the last 20 minutes trying to put batteries into a flashlight, a stolen LED wand. Four AAA batteries, tiny, miniscule in his muscular but swollen hands.
I didn’t press. I picked up the batteries again, handing them back to him one at a time.”
“It’s just receipts, man! It’s great. Clean. I just gotta get outta there by 7 in the morning. I even wrote ‘em a thank-you card.”
Years of social work and decades of reading taught me to wait for the unraveling of a story. You don’t push or prod or pull. The words come in their time. We are our own best narrators, even when jacked-up on bad heroin.
Mike and I jolted together at a sudden noise. A taxi pulled up feet away, a man stepped out. Bold, clean, well-dressed, young. Probably another Amazon worker, or maybe Google. All privilege and wealth and bliss. Never a bad heroin trip.
The man sneered at us, likely 15 years our junior. He was staring at a heroin-addict fumbling with a flashlight smelling of piss, and a punk sitting next to him on the pavement, smoking a cigarette. We were trash on the street, nothing more. Loathing and disgust lined his face as he turned from us.
Mike fumbled with the batteries some more. I’d offered a few times, and he refused. His hands were the size of my face, he couldn’t bend his fingers. Fluid retention, bad liver probably, bad kidneys definitely.
“You remember when you could just put batteries in?” he asked. We were friends, it seemed. Or comrades. I’m honored by this, though I’ve had it easier than him.
“Yeah–” I start to answer, but the batteries fall out again, his oafish fingers failing to grip. “Mike?” I asked, slightly impatient. “Can I help?”
He finally handed the thing to me. He stood up, adjusting his jacket several times. I slipped the third and fourth battery into the slots, replaced the cover, and turned it on. Bright light-emitting diodes near-blinded me. I handed it back to him, fingering the gnawed bone in my pocket.
“The dumpster’s soft with all the receipts,” he replied, apropos of our earlier conversation. “I need this to see in there.”
I looked to where he pointed, a blue recycling dumpster. “You sleep there?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, his spasms starting to slow. “Fucking bad heroin. I think there’s meth in it or something.”
As if on cue, an emergency vehicle drove by, run by the county. ‘Sobering Van,’ we call them.
It stopped, turned on its lights, and the guy in the passenger seat stepped out, his hands already gloved.
“Hey, Mike?“ he asked, walking towards us. “You okay?”
Mike backed away, visibly composing himself, patting down his clothes and squaring his shoulders. “I’m fine. They’re gonna put a catheter in me, I’m not going. You ever had one of those stuck up your cock?”
The responder signed, shaking his head. “Just checking you’re okay,” and then he looked at me.
I told him what I could, what I’d gathered. I identified myself as a social worker, told the man about the bad heroin.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “That’s not just heroin there.”
We both looked at Mike together, the terrified, beautiful man shaking involuntarily, his arms flailing.
“I’ll check up on him in an hour,” he told me, returning to the van. He thanked me, though I’d done nothing.
Nothing at all.
I looked at Mike. I looked at the dumpster. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the gnawed bone which has held feathers for Brân on my altar this last year. Bone from a dead deer on a temple mountain in Alsace, feathers from crows from everywhere, and a man, shaking, destroyed in this modern city, sleeping in a dumpster.
I stared. I’d gone looking for my gods tonight, somewhere out on the streets, away from their altar.
And there was Brighid, there in that dumpster, the man’s hearth.
And here was Brân, here in that bad heroin, Mike’s confrontation with death, here with one of his bards despairing at his mediocre efforts.
I’m honored to serve gods small enough to care about the heroin-addict in the dumpster.
I hope I am always small enough to care, too.