Chapter Three: You Gotta Go
“It’s another restless night without you / And if I fall asleep I’ll probably dream of you / I never dream of nobody else / You’re the only ghost inside this haunted house.”
– Kenny Wayne, “Haunted”
My last drunk was a three week old drunk, a bender. I got sick in rehab in Lewiston, but not the way I expected. Maybe because I only drank for six weeks, and only a lot the last three, but probably because I weaned myself off the last bottle. At Logan Place, I drank half a gallon a day. The last bottle lasted over five years.
I had Wi-Fi in Lewiston, so I had been in touch with the virtual world of Facebook (where friends aren’t necessarily friends, or even acquaintances, but computer icons and memes) and Wheels had insisted that I stay with him when I returned to Portland. I was planning on going back to sleeping in doors and such. Living outside in Maine in January is tough, especially sober, but I would have come to accept that as a sad reality. He was persistent, though, so I took it with him.
I had been there for about a month when he had a young woman move in with him. After a few days of discomfort, having become the third wheel of the new Wheels lifestyle, I decided to return to the great outdoors. It was mid-February and I held out hope that the frost would break soon. I haven’t investigated what happened in Punxsutawney with Phil the groundhog. I didn’t want my hopes to be dashed. I left Ronnie’s with a faith based on that hope.
March was colder than most of the winter. Jeremy and I mostly played and slept in arctic temperatures. We slept together, side by side, to survive. It was absolutely brutal. I had been playing in cold weather, but once the temperature drops below 15 degrees the guitar starts to crack. While playing you will hear a noise, and if you examine the instrument closely you will discover hairline fractures in its finish.
That particular night it was 9 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve played as low as zero, but in that zero to 9 range, you’re a tough individual if you can get through an entire song before you have to warm up your hands. It’s the cold that kills. Unprepared people – whether homeless or civilians – can freeze to death.
Ronnie had said earlier that he didn’t want me sleeping outside and that I should go to his house after playing in the street. He thought we were crazy to try. I hadn’t planned to take her there, but it was 9 degrees. Jeremy and I had slept outside for weeks under similar circumstances, but tonight we had made some money. We could do something in the morning for Ronnie’s house: buy food, or alcohol, or cleaning products… Something. We wouldn’t be profiteers, which was a major concern for Jeremy. Wheels only gets two-thirds of his meager disability check, Social Security’s base salary, so he can usually use a little help in the middle of the month. I convinced Jeremy that we should walk.
By the time we arrived it was past two in the morning, probably closer to three. Ronnie was drunker than a barrel full of monkeys, almost catatonic, but he ushered us in. When we got on, Jeremy collapsed on the floor. Not in an exhausted or uncoordinated way, more like a folding garden chair. He has this way of going from a completely upright position to the lotus position. He’s a mixed-race Scottish Passamaquoddy (although he sports a sign that reads “IRISH AND THIRSTY”) and I’ve always felt his ability to accomplish this feat must have come from his Native American heritage. We smoked a pipe and he fell asleep. I decided to take advantage of the indoor internet connection and catch up on my Facebook notifications.
After a while, Ronnie Wheels rolled over to the corner of his chair and made an announcement in his North Shore Boston accent: “She doesn’t want you here. You must go there.
Jeremy, in one swift, fluid motion, rose from a supine position to a lotus position, and with a rollout that was the reversal of his previous bend, rose straight to his feet. I also stood up, but not so gracefully, and grabbed my bag. Without speaking, we left. It was around four in the morning.
It was 9 degrees Fahrenheit. It was now even colder and the wind had picked up. The wind really changes things, especially in wet or very cold weather. We had to protect ourselves from this wind and the closest spot I knew was Blackstones. At that time, there was a wall partially surrounding the door to the club that formed a nook that mostly blocked the breeze. If you sleep outside, you tend to discover places like this. The longer you stay outdoors, the more expert you become at it, often keeping your eyes peeled for such places even during the hottest hours of the day. You don’t want to run out of shelter when you’ve literally frozen to death.
I had slept in front of this door before, but it was unlikely that I would sleep more tonight. It would soon be beer time and that meant Jeremy would need a drink. It also meant that the ferry terminal would be open. We were going there as soon as Cumberland Farms unlocked his coolers and had his morning beer. I could have a coffee once we got to the Old Port. I was obviously going to need it – if not to stay awake, just to keep warm. Also, I was now addicted to caffeine. The coffee had simply replaced the alcohol. I was at the cafe before it opened every day, just like I had been at the liquor store, and most of the money I made on the street was spent there.
Maybe I’ll see Joanne. Every morning she was at Starbucks on Commercial Street at about five o’clock. I don’t know what her thing is, but if we were there, she’d buy Joe Blaze a coffee and give us five bucks. I wouldn’t drink coffee while I was drinking gin. She knew it. But I was addicted to caffeine again. And it’s always good to start the day with a cup of Joanne. Plus, five bucks before the sun shines seems like a good omen, a light to brighten up a gloomy Maine morning.
Occasionally, Blaze and I were across the street, sleeping under an overhang because of the weather. On days like this, Joanne would walk up to us or send another homeless person with Joe’s coffee, because Commercial Street is flooded with us at five in the morning.
She’s kind of a photographer, maybe just an amateur, but sometimes she took our pictures. A few mornings she walked with us and even went into the Cut to take pictures of us in our natural habitat. I didn’t mind. We were halfway to the next bottle each time we saw it. I wonder what she did with the photos.
Later that day I came across Wheels and his new roommate, we all being blown away by the brutal wind. They were on Congress Street towards the post office and he invited me to his house.
“Don’t you remember telling us we had to go at four o’clock this morning?” I asked.
He told me he didn’t and I could see he meant it, but I wasn’t sure something similar wouldn’t happen again, so I declined his offer. I was not angry. It’s just better to stay outside and deal with it rather than having to suddenly acclimatize like we did earlier. Acclimating to single-digit temperatures is more difficult than staying out in the cold, once you’ve adjusted. As Sam said, “It’s easier to stay out than to go out.” I chose to stay on the street, sober.
As I continued walking down Congress Street, I ran into Ryan. He was alone and volunteered to spin a beer with me. I thanked him kindly, but I also declined his offer. He looked really depressed. I didn’t want bad news, but I asked about Kristen anyway.
“She’s no good,” he said. “His liver is cooked. They keep her doped, but… she’s dying.
That’s why I didn’t want to ask. I knew I wouldn’t get an answer. There was no way to console him; I had nothing to offer. I just said I was sorry and left.
The next time I saw him was two days later and she was dead, and he looked different. It was as if Kristen was dead, too. All the bold, bitter power that had defined his personality had been made sweet. I saw Ryan several times over the next two weeks and he was like an empty shell. Kristen had been Life and he had been their hard, protective shell. I guess he felt like he had to be tough, that he had to keep her safe on the streets. Now he had no life to protect. It was a walking haunted house. His ghost seemed to fill his empty eyes, but not his hollow heart.