That was a spring night, the air awash with ions. My buddy was in town and we burned eucalyptus in the chiminea, delighting at the sparks rising from the cylinder’s tip and blending with the emergent pinpricks of the sky.
Normally I don’t talk this way. My friend had come to visit, and he was a poet, and I had a contact high. He smelled like he didn’t shower because he didn’t. He shaved just the moustache of his beard and drank only red wine. He recited poems from memory. That night, as we burned sticks, he lifted his stein of merlot and began at the beginning of “The Waste Land.”
My roommates thought this guy was a weirdo, which he was, and they headed to the bar early. My friend and I walked the streets, him still reciting, me feeling like I was inside of a larger and more immediate poem, one that had lots of references to “The Waste Land.” Little eyelids of cherry blossoms dappled the sidewalks like fragrant snow. Man, it was a long poem. He persisted, pausing his recitation only to sip deeply from his stein. The longer he kept at it the more impressed I was that he knew it, or knew it well enough to fake knowing it. But also, you know. It was a little annoying.
We walked past a tree with flowers so ripe they leapt from the branch. I paused to breathe them in. The tree was in the yard of a house and I was trespassing on their lawn, close enough to the open windows to hear the people inside making love. The flowers’ aroma and the sounds of their lovemaking came from the same poem, the big poem I was inside of, and I was good and drunk in the lawn awash in the language of the world, etcetera.
My friend noticed I wasn’t beside him and came back up the sidewalk. “Shantih Shantih Shantih what the hell are you doing?” he said.
I brought a finger to my lips.
“Voyeur.” He grinned, like he knew what it was all about. The couple heard us and stopped. We walked away from their silence in silence. Yet the poem continued.
There was a stanza about nostalgia, as there always is when old friends get together. We weren’t really all that old of friends—we’d only known each other a couple of years, a couple of years prior. Friends from college, where both of us were too old to be undergrads because we’d spent the typical undergrad years fucking off. Both of us had graduated. We spent most of the time in school fucking off, too. And now we were here, back in Portland. But he was just passing through. This place wasn’t his home, he said, and I wanted to say that it could be.
My roommates were already on a pool table when we got to the bar. My buddy left his empty stein behind the propped-open door and drank house red from spotty stemware. We smoked and shot pool and held the table for hours. I found myself defeating the woman who would later become my wife, though I didn’t know it then. It wouldn’t work out—we’d divorce shortly after we married. But that night I was enchanted by her posture and didn’t notice that my friend had left until after he was gone. I asked the woman for her number and went to find him.
Outside the bar I saw him sitting on the curb looking glumly at his empty stein. He knew I was there and said, by way of explanation, “I want to see where the drifters live. The grifters, the lowlifes. I want to see something so true it hurts.” It was beatnik phrasing, like he should have been wearing a turtleneck. He grinned, his teeth blood red, stained darker near the gumline.
“Downtown’s a couple miles.”
We bought a six-pack at Plaid Pantry. I gave three away to strangers on the street, put one in each of my ass pockets and cracked open the last. We talked about writing because that’s what had brought us together in college. We were both from Portland and we were both writers, though our goals in writing had diverged after we graduated: I wanted to climb mountains and scale walls; he wanted to look at the dirt beneath strangers’ fingernails. Neither of us were very good.
“What kind of grifters are you looking for?” I asked. It occurred to me that there were several. Most of them were people I wouldn’t want to meet sober: high and violent people. But I wasn’t sober.
“Show me the saddest sadness in the city.”
We had to cross the river to get downtown and took the Morrison Bridge, planning to walk along the riverfront once we got to the west side. I thought briefly about asking my friend what was wrong, or if he wanted to talk, but I stopped myself. We were already doing what needed to be done. In the middle of the bridge we paused at the signs for suicide prevention and spat into the invisible swirl of heavy water below. The city loomed to our right. Most of the tall buildings were lit just enough to delineate them. The bars were nearly closed. Cars continued to rush past as though it was normal to have places to be.
The end of the bridge resembled an on-ramp. Before connecting with the city grid, we passed a fenced stairway leading to the bridge’s underside. “Twenty bucks says grifters live down there,” he said. A maintenance scaffold, private property, trespassers will be prosecuted. I didn’t take the bet: they were down there. If anything, they were the high and violent ones that scared me. But that’s what he needed, so we climbed the railing and maneuvered around the fence and stepped into the urine-steeped darkness beneath.
I cracked open my second beer and found my friend standing in the center of the walkway looking longingly out over the steel underbelly of the bridge. Crossbeams layered and distanced across the water, more than a hundred feet high in the center. Where we stood, the water was still a ways out. The cement sloped away beneath us, leading to the road, lazy weeds dying in the cracks. Not twenty feet.
My friend was predictable: “Let’s go,” he said, pointing at the dangling platforms. He climbed up onto the rounded railing, his hands outstretched to the underside of the bridge. Cars clack-clacked over the seams. I felt invisible, but not in a good way. I wanted somebody to help me stop my friend because I suddenly felt like I wasn’t helping him after all. I was just enabling. My friend’s foot stretched over the twenty feet of open air toward the lip of the service platform. He’d have to let go of the rafters above him to reach it.
“You’ll never make it,” I said.
He looked back at me to defy this assertion, and, not looking at what he was doing, his back foot slid forward off the rounded handrail. He hit his ass once and bounced off, then slipped downward into the dark. I didn’t see him hit the ground, just watched him disappear and then heard the soft smack. A couple seconds later he started screaming, so I looked, and I’ve wished every day of my life since I hadn’t. I wish I just walked away and left him there.
Because of the way he bounced off the railing he’d rotated in the air and hit the ground face-first. Maybe he was still rotating while he collided because he wasn’t dead. His bones seemed to be fine. My friend continued screaming, but I was the only one there to hear it. I had to run away from him, up the stairs and back onto the bridge, down the onramp toward the city, just to get to a place where I could get down to him. I wondered why I didn’t keep running away. Adrenaline, probably. I found a path down the embankment and followed the sounds of his agony until I was by his side, outside my own body, terrified and numb.
I was wrong about his bones. His arms were very broken. Fingers mangled. They’d broken his fall enough that he didn’t smash his skull entirely, just a few fractures, but his brain was severely damaged. It didn’t stop him from writing—he wrote glorious and meaningful nonsense after that. You’ve probably pieced together who he is. This is an origin story, the way he earned his super poet powers. I never knew him as a famous writer, though; I knew him as the sad, wine-drinking, faux beatnik who’d memorized “The Waste Land.” To my knowledge, he never recited it again.
My impulse, in the moment, was to look around for his face, as though it had come away in one piece, a mask I could find intact on a rock or behind a pillar. As though I could put it back on and stop his screaming. The sound drove me nuts. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t remember if the good Samaritan law meant I should help him or if I should leave him alone. I wanted to call 9-1-1, but I couldn’t leave him there screaming, so I hooked my arms under his and lugged him backward up the slope toward where the bridge meets the street. The blood draining from his face left a steady trail. His legs seemed to work fine, and he helped push us backward, as if he couldn’t get away from that place fast enough.
Cell phones were a novelty still. They were around back then, but we sure didn’t have them. I waved my arms at whatever traffic passed but people accelerated when they saw me. He’d at least stopped screaming, though that made me worry he was dead.
“Is he dead?” asked someone from behind. They’d come up the slope same as us, summoned by the screaming and following the bloody trail we’d left. It was a bum, wobbly and mismatched and reeking like the patron saint of piss. “Guy doesn’t have a face,” he observed.
“What do I do?” I asked the bum.
Another car sped past us and I waved frantically at their mirrors. This bum being here didn’t help my cause any.
“Is there a place I can take him? A hospital near here? A payphone?”
The bum stared at my friend. “I can’t tell if he’s dead because his eyes are open. He doesn’t have eyelids.”
“Where do you go when you’re in trouble?” I screamed at him.
Staring at my friend, he pointed over his shoulder with a grimy thumb. “Shelter’s a block away,” he said.
I told the bum I’d give him the beer from my ass pocket if he took me to the shelter, mostly to make sure he didn’t mess with my friend’s body while I used the phone, and told my buddy I’d be back super quick. To just hang in there or whatever, help was on the way. I went inside and people were helpful, jumping into action, but I lost track of the bum. As soon as I’d called 9-1-1 and spat whatever details I could summon, I ran back to make sure the bum wasn’t desecrating my friend. I don’t know why, but I was sure he was doing something, rifling through his pockets or sharpie-ing lewd illustrations on his forehead, even though he didn’t have a forehead. I wasn’t making sense, I knew.
But the bum wasn’t there, just my buddy’s body where I’d left it. I was relieved, but also terrified that he hadn’t moved in the ten minutes I’d been gone. A couple staff from the shelter came along, helpful and curious, and stood awkwardly nearby trying to avert their gaze. An ambulance came and wrapped my friend in gauze and gave him some injection that made him wake up and start screaming again, and then three seconds later the screaming stopped.
I threw up a few more times and ignored all the uniformed people that asked me if I was okay. A police officer forced me to accept a ride home. I removed the beer I’d promised to the bum before sitting in the back of the cruiser and I opened it and drank the whole thing. The cop watched me do it and didn’t say anything.
I knew the name of the hospital where my friend was, and I visited him a couple times, but only when the gauze was still on his face. He was drugged up and unresponsive. Someone had gotten in touch with his family, and on one of my visits they entered the room. Their expressions darkened when I explained that I’d been with him when it happened. “How could you have let this happen?” his sister said. Then a brother said, “Do you understand what you’ve done? You’ve ruined his life. He was brilliant. They say he’ll never be the same.” I understand the impulse to exaggerate in such moments—but he’d never been brilliant. Not yet. And we didn’t know then that his talent would compound after his recovery, that it would evolve and transcend his previous limitations as a writer. All I could do then was accept the blame, shrug under its weight, and carry it out of the hospital room with me.
I carried it for years, one burden among many. I figured, since it was my fault, the least I could do for his family was accept it. What’s the word for a scapegoat who deserves it? Asshole? I’d be their asshole. I still am. Somewhere in this world, a group of people still hold me responsible for the stupid decision my friend made in my presence. But sometimes I wonder, now that he’s published in all the dreamed-about places, receiving all the accolades he’d always wanted, if they hold me responsible for that, too. I wonder if they give me credit for helping usher in his ultimately fulfilled life, or if they’d still trade it all in for what was, objectively speaking, a pretty mediocre face.
ROBERT MARTIN is really getting into Steely Dan.