Lost in the options, hanging out back of a Taco Bell, a stained and worn strip of cardboard sitting on the concrete next to us, blasting some Reggie Watts off of a smartphone, shaking a can of spray paint that’s half out, and Sammy’s rendering a Renaissance mural on the wall, a bloodmapped mattress off at the end of the alley, from some old motel, a seedy place next to the exact replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the only tourist trap and place of note in this small Illinois town, small relative to the size of Chicago, though infested by denizens of same, with driveby shootings in the middle of Touhy Avenue, civilians caught in the crossfire, never able to react to the light as it turns green, and we passed by the art park on our bike ride over here, the one with anything and everything on display, modern art, experimental, abstract, the homeless people on the side of the street, next to the canal, shooting heroin in between bouts of panhandling, the software designer from Florida among them, the guy I talked to, the guy I walked past on my way home from MMA one night, soaking wet with sweat, asking him about his life, finding out the details, offering to draft up an interview, maybe a series, online, hashing out the social media details, getting his story out to an audience so the world could understand what it’s like, what the experience of homelessness is, always seeing it through the lens of passive news viewer or vaguely worried passerby, not knowing when to make eye contact if at all, all of us wanting to ignore the fact that we can all be at this place at any time, are always one paycheck, one decision away from having nothing, and I knew this from the time I was a boy, before even my mom became homeless, when I could see it firsthand, could see the way that life had melted her, shaped her into someone she wasn’t, always a respectable member of society until you aren’t, until people have a reason and excuse to cast you aside, and I’m thinking about these things while Sammy is doing his work on the Taco Bell wall, an ethereal representation of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities quickly turning to ash, burning, eating themselves, with a figure of the Madonna in the foreground, with the baby Messiah suckling at her breast, looking content, peaceful, maybe with no idea what’s going on behind her, just pausing in this moment to have her likeness captured, and we’re talking about childhood books that were read to us when we were little, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, thinking back to a time when things weren’t fucked up, or not quite as fucked up as they are now, a time before responsibility and accountability, and there are sirens in the distance, Skokie cops, and Sammy has to get the last details right before we go, has to get it just right, because there’s no way we can come back here again, not even once, because once we’ve tagged a place we’re gone from there for good, so he finishes, and we take our last swigs of the wine we bought and brought, and we run away to the next street where we can ride off in peace.
In combat, for him it was nothing more than picking targets. He’d look bored while hitting the bag, send a right hook to where his opponent’s head would be, then a left to the body, right elbow coming across that would erase consciousness if it hit a human head. It was the same with words.
There was a time when he’d be excited to fight. A chance to paint on canvas, whether to see his words or punches land, it didn’t matter. To see his opponent’s hurt show through no matter how hard they tried to hide it. He knew better now, but there was a time when he was fueled by the fight. Bruises hidden under shirt sleeves, bloody noses washed under kitchen sinks in dirty light. Cutting knuckles on teeth and throwing punches as wild fingers grasped at him and nails cut flesh on neck. Blood kept him going.
He’d been out of that way of thinking for a while now, but he could still pick targets. Still strike with surgical precision, identify his opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them as efficiently as possible. If someone hits you, you rip out their throat with your teeth. He knew what to do.
That acid can’t be contained, not for long, and when it burnt from its container and spilled out, it couldn’t be stopped. There’s a calm breath that comes, a quiet certainty as you move your body where it needs to go, allow the words to come out in just the right sequence. There’s an art to destroying a person.
Back when it used to consume him, when the rage controlled him, he always had an internal barometer. Would know when he’d gone too far, had been too extreme in his words or actions. But not now. Now he was picking targets, attacking his abuser with a focus and a clinical technicality. Exposing him for his cowardice, his artifice, tearing apart his idea of who he was as a man until he could watch the paper man crumble. And when it was done, and he was left on read for days, and his target had nothing to say, no comeback after years of always having to get the last word, he nodded, smiled, and carried on.
I sat on the stairs while my father pinned my mother’s wrists to the bed to stop her from slapping him. He had a store-bought card for some anniversary that he “had had all along,” but she wasn’t buying it. I remember there was a dartboard he got because he smoked a certain number of cigarettes. In the aquarium downstairs there was a fish called the ghost fish. It had a single fin under its body that undulated and propelled it where it needed to go. It spent most of its time hiding in the hollowed-out half coconut my dad sunk. Underneath the tank there was a flashlight Drew left so I could look at the snails whenever I wanted to, not just when they accidentally got sucked up whenever Dad cleaned the tank. The snails were tiny and numerous, dotting the glass under the aquarium’s rock bedding like chickenpox. We never bought them; they must have hitched a ride somewhere, somehow. Each of them so tiny, but they had these shells that fractaled into multicolored singularities, and the light of the flashlight glinted off where the spirals ended so you could never be sure just how far they went.
On the TV there was a story about Steve Fossett sailing away in a balloon, and I remember considering how unfair it was that these snails were born as snails, unable to float over drifting cumulonimbus, to see the way the clouds absorb the sun and turn it into something it’s not. There was an empty twenty-four pack of MGD in the kitchen, empties either crushed to wafers or waiting for me to kick them. My father spaced them out: one for each hour, if an hour was ten minutes.
One of the things to do was play N64 with Drew, to turn up the volume till the yelling went away. Drew wagered it’d take till 26. I said at least 32. The background music of Doom 64 at 36 was enough to erase the fight. I asked Drew what I won and he insisted it was just a friendly wager. Nothing at stake.
The numbers I was supposed to dial if Mom really started screaming were 9-1-1, but if I wanted information it’d be 4-1-1. So would I call 411 to find out if aliens are real? It doesn’t work like that, Drew said. What if I wanted to learn Spanish? 411? Nope, again, that’s not how it works. So I’d call them whenever Dad leaves and we don’t know where he’s gone to, when he’s coming back? But Drew didn’t answer that one.
The thing was that Dad wouldn’t leave without his shoes, so Drew would stuff them in the fridge, next to the government cheese. The government cheese was pale and flaky but the shoes were not. The shoes were holy and worn.
Dad swayed in the light coming through the window, where there were tiny planets of dust orbiting some force we could not see. Dad was smoking for a tent. The month before he was smoking for a cooler. Month before that it was for a collector’s mug. Nowadays he’s smoking for a polyp, but these were simpler times.
The people on the TV were arguing over whether Steve would be found this time, as he was lost. I thought of how he could be lost to himself but not us, and vice versa.
Dad found the shoes next to the government cheese, and there were a few people crying. One of those people was Drew, and we had an unspoken pact that if he cried, I cried.
Mom tried to stop Dad in the driveway, but he was practiced. He left her kicking up gravel behind him, sparks trailing down the street from where he scraped car after parked car. When he was gone and the gravel dust was all that was left, Drew took me inside to watch the snails and Mom cooked us up some pizza puffs, a cigarette dangling from her bottom lip. On the TV, the people were still talking about Steve Fossett. They still didn’t know if and when he’d turn up again.