You are reading Fiddleblack #14
Among those of us who scavenged our meals and rested our scraped-clean bones in the cindered earth of the tent-city or sometimes ventured up to the grimy-eyed bayside bars that’d have us, Gary was best known as Twink on account of what I’ll assume were a variety of obvious or maybe ironic reasons. A pretty robust guy always dressed in a tight striped sweater or else a tighter white tank top, Twink had somehow gotten a hold of one of those little white sailor caps that don’t seem to really exist anywhere outside of those early Technicolor orgasms that always starred Shirley Temple and some fucking puppy. Yet one did exist. On top of Twink’s perfect buzz-cut. You’d see him strutting along the waterfront with a girl on each arm or a boy on each arm or sometimes one of each—there was no way he could possibly care—and if ever anyone said something fucked up to or near him, have faith in this and this alone: Twink would bludgeon the life and personality directly from that doomed flapping mouth.
It was by means of one such occasion that Twink and I became friends. We each had our backs leaned against the mirrored wall of some harbor bar with pounded-smooth floorboards creaking underfoot and electronic beats stomping out through the rackety sound-system, and it wasn’t like we were a couple or anything but certainly we were standing within a proximity, each of us just watching the dance floor though likely with very different intentions. It was the sort of night where the beer and the sweat seemed to be striking some treaty or accord and each body in the house was the table of negotiation, and seeing us standing so close, some dude must have assumed Twink and I were together because he made some unflattering commentary that resulted in his nose getting manually reworked into some glorious and spouting red fountain. It was a real bonding moment for Twink and I. We’ve been pretty tight ever since.
The shit-talker, as it were, became my sort of friend, too. He and I (his name was Joel) found our separate paths crossed again and again like two marbles rattling around in a shoebox, though never by any purpose or design that I could decipher, so we eventually forged some grim alliance, the kind of friendship that can only exist because each knows the other has a gun pointed at him from under the table. We shared a miserable apartment one winter, selling pills and sometimes stripping the copper out of summer homes, but during one blizzard-blue night there was some ugliness involving an incident with a train and that put a swift end to that. I finished out the winter in the bed of Joel’s sister, Sally—all fetor and sleep and the occasional score—then drifted out on the allure of spring into the tent-city where the old harbor front once burned down and was never rebuilt, so now there’s nothing but new-growth birch and crumbling black relics and guys just like me. Sometimes Sally and I still visit, but mostly I keep to our waterside reclamation. I adventure some with this Canadian guy named Jack or Jacque, as well as some queer kids who like to stowaway rides on trains around the country. Which I guess brings me back to Twink and everything else I started out to say.
It was one of those May or June days where it only rained when the sun came out, then the rain would stop and the clouds would gather in to elbow out the light. A clutch of us were roosting under a patched-up blue tarp strung among the trees, smoking and drinking tin-can coffee and wondering if and when the day would finally decide what it ultimately wanted to be. Also: we were waiting for Jack or Jacque or whatever to get back from the agency liquor store with a communal payload of fortified drink. But instead of 20/20 and Colt .45, what the Canadian brought us was this little weak-wristed kid in a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt who we all knew as the Mule, and the Mule was a sobbing mess.
“He was wandering out ‘mong them trees there,” the Canadian explained, pointing over his shoulder at exactly nothing.
“Did you get the booze?” anyone or everyone begged.
“Nah, like I said, I got the kid here. He was making like a stuck doe with his commoting.”
You’d think men as low as us would be accustomed disappointment. But on this account, our Canadian was an artist. It was like it’d been rehearsed, how everyone slouched and sighed.
It was known that this kid had been trying for a while to get something steady going with Twink, but Twink—not being a man to pin down—wouldn’t have it. Yet the kid persisted, following Twink like a puppy up and down the waterfront and into all the bars. The end result of which was that the kid got to be a part of most any action that Twink scraped up. So maybe, in a way, the Mule was getting exactly what he wanted.
Except today when maybe he got too much and wandered into our camp a weeping wreck. Mascara running and nose all snotty. It was absolutely unclear what his problem was, but somehow we gathered that something was wrong with Twink. I mean: something happened. There were some hard nasal drugs blown off turgid skin by the riverside, and then: the trouble. The Mule kept twitching and between sobs would kind of nod off. I didn’t know whether we should put him to bed or slap the shit out of him. The sun was out and that meant rain but soon that’d be gone and it didn’t matter anyway because something had happened to Twink. I am not always a man motivated by loyalty but sometimes I am, in fact, such a man and on this day my motives were clear to me. Some black evil had found my friend and maybe forced him below the current. I would find him and save him, even if what I saved was a corpse. Leaving the Mule with the others, Joel and I set off to find our friend, be he living and gasping or drowned and fetched on a root.
I guess it’s worth noting that Joel and I had settled our differences, though consequently neither of us could really walk right anymore.
From the little wharf rat we’d gathered this much:
He and Twink and maybe someone else were up where the rail yard runs parallel with the river;
Something sexy and something druggy was definitely going on;
Maybe Twink dived into the river fully clothed or maybe he was pushed.
It was not known whether he surfaced after his swim.
Since the river empties into the bay and our tent-city was essentially where these two great bodies meet, Joel and I kept our course true to the water’s edge, walking under trees and through tangled copses of briar and weed. It’s funny how all this land was developed urbania not too long ago. Dockyards and warehouses. Banks and tailor shops. Every now and then our path would become an old paved street, dandelions webbing the vein-work cracks. An occasional cellar hole or even a whole blackened shell of a house. Sometimes the trees under which we walked were overgrown backyard orchards. Apples and pears. A little green snake now and then ribboned our path, then was gone.
The rail yard meets up with the river about a mile from the tent-city and dogs the water for an overgrown period of maybe a quarter mile or more, but really this is more of a train car graveyard. Where old engines and boxes are sent out to await repairs that will never come, left to rot into rusty stains and hulks. It was probably in the added privacy of some stripped-out box freighter that Twink and the Mule had holed up.
But all that was on the river’s far bank. Joel and I walked on for a while and kept our eyes on the water and finally crossed the river on a derelict rail bridge, headed into the rail yard cemetery. I guess our assumption was that, if he’d managed to pull himself out of the water, he’d return to this place, as it was with a sort of convicted authority that in and among the bombed-out train cars we shouted and snooped but found no trace of Twink, just a couple three crust-punk chicks hunkered down in the shadows inside one boxcar.
“Hey,” I called at them through the rusted-open sliding door, “you girls seen our friend?”
They together made some sound that easily translated to a “no.” They were all tangled together like children hiding under a blanket. All I could see for certain were their eyes.
“He’s a big old faggot,” Joel added in not so terribly cordial a tone. “In a sailor’s cap.” And as if to illustrate, he articulated with one pointed finger an orbit around his head.
Joel was a big man cut of a Northern cloth who was maybe once in his youth rather handsome if in a brutal kind of way. But the frequency with which he opened his mouth was balanced almost perfectly with that of someone shutting it for him by force. The end result being the ghostly wreckage of something distantly fine. A prince turned gladiator with a boxer’s ruined nose.
“His gender,” I said, “is fluid. Twink’s not a faggot.”
“No. His orientation is fluid. His gender is most definitely male. And he likes to fuck other males. Ipso facto, he’s a faggot.”
It was obvious these girls were hungry and frightened and could not care at all about our thoughts and opinions regarding our friend’s sexuality, and really, more than anything else, they wanted us to leave them alone. It’s like they’d found this place on a bum hunch and now, too stubborn to head back the way they’d came, had settled down here for some hazy duration. Battened down in a train car that would never move an inch. I wanted to help them and even offered them a little money, but they’d have none of it. And anyway, Joel had already hoisted himself up into the car.
“Get out of here!”
“Joel, c’mon, man, leave them alone. They’re just kids.”
But to this, Joel just laughed and laughed. He was really messing with them now. A grinning man-beast lording over three tiny starvelings. All dirty fingers and teeth and eyes. I told him he was a dink and set off alone to find our friend.
For a while yet, I continued among the abandoned train cars, calling out Twink’s name and swishing at the tall grass with a stick. Then I re-crossed the rail bridge and pushed along further up our side of the river. I don’t know how much more I walked or if I went very far at all. There wasn’t any sign of Twink. In a deep throat-clenching rush, this whole thing seemed so stupid. How the fuck were we supposed to find him out among all this water? How do we even know he was here? That weak-wrist was so high! None of this might even have happened. I sat down on a cement levee fronting the river and let my legs dangle toward the unthinking water below—let my despair and my poverty have their way with me, bring me low—and it was then, far out on a riffle, that I saw Twink’s hat floating downstream.
Of course later I’d learn that Twink was fine. He’d gone for a swim, the Mule freaked out: end of story. He’d reappear later that night with a brand-new hat and everything would be normal again until the following winter when I’d watch him in a methamphetamine rage gun down two queers. He was screaming and mostly incoherently too while waving a pistol at their streaming faces, all three of them pretty much naked and the queers kneeling on a mattress, crying and holding one another like each was a life-raft and the world was a storm. I remember, from the ceiling: eternity’s dimmest light bulb swung from a bare wire. As for me, I’d just dropped by to score. Whatever this was, it didn’t involve me. I yawned and popped out my fake front teeth and waited while Twink screamed something about his boom box and some money and when the queers couldn’t answer, Twink held their heads together cheek-to-cheek and made something beautiful on the walls with their brains and one bullet.
I remember the queers’ scream. Then I remember the silence. In his letters from prison, Twink referred to his sentence as “sexual tourism.”
But I didn’t know any of that yet. All I knew was that I was alone far from home and my friend’s hat was floating away and soon that, too, was gone. Which reduced the few details of my reality by one and also by a third. Alone by a river.
For a while, it rained. Then the sun went away.
Yet eventually there came a moment when I didn’t want to mope around anymore getting bug-bit and accomplishing nothing, so I got out from under myself and headed further up the river. My thinking was that I’d inevitably come onto a road or bridge and maybe hitch a ride back into town where I could get drunk and maybe sleep in Sally’s bed. Instead, I found this old structure of wood and cement slouching off the riverbank toward the water. It was like the world’s slowest landslide. The bunker quality of the thing made me think of it as some sort of temporary military hospital, and maybe in some ways I was right, because when I went inside to rest for a spell in its cool shade, I found a man and woman sitting side by side on the floor of one dim room with a bloody blanket spread across their laps and something like a baby in the blanket.
The paint was flaking off the walls in great and craterous scales. At the threshold, I just kind of stood there. The man and woman didn’t seem at all alarmed to see me. They couldn’t know how much I’d become like a spider, hanging from the ceiling by a thread.
“I went into labor,” she explained. “The baby couldn’t wait for a train.”
The man nodded in agreement. I pointed to the gory lump laid across their thighs.
“Is that thing it? Is that your boy?”
And still grinning, drugged and traumatized: they nodded.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked but man, how the fuck should they know? I stepped all the way into the room’s dank and gloom—the scent, I remember, was mineral and wet—and knelt by the couple’s outstretched legs, and there I beheld the saddest sight I hope to ever see. This thing they had made was so tiny. All purple and gangly and somehow complete in its disproportions—not even its spindly arms a matching pair—tangled as any netted fish in the web of its stringy afterbirth. It had been programmed like anyone else to be a human being but something had gone wrong along the way and who could say how or why, yet somehow it got this far but no further. I guess it was up to something like breathing. It clearly wouldn’t be for very long.
And here were these two people. Trying to catch a train out of this place, to ride anywhere that was away, prisoners in a world that gave them nothing—all they had was each other and what they had made and soon not even that much—squatting in a shelter sliding dolefully into a river and handcuffed to the eventual end.
I thought about offering them some money—the same ten bucks I’d’ve given those teenage girls if they’d’ve taken it—but I knew that’s not why I was here. I leaned in close and touched these people’s bloody hands. I gazed into their wide and gleaming eyes. We all knew that nothing would ever be okay. I wasn’t going to lie and tell them that it was. The descending cloak was a strangely feminine moment of vulnerability of which we were all mysteriously a part as among us this tiny fetal thing gurgled it’s last complaint, and I told these people in some silent language that I loved them and I was sorry. Everything’s wrong and can’t be taken back. I love you and I’m sorry. It was in this way that we together waited for their child to die.
Douglas W. Milliken is the author of White Horses and occasionally reviews for the Believer. His other work also appears in McSweeney’s, Slice, and MAKE.