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.

“Don’t, mis­ter.”

“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.