Chapter Three: You’s Gotta Go
“It’s another restless night without you / And if I fall asleep I’ll prob’ly dream about you / I never dream of anybody else / You’re the only ghost inside this haunted house.”
— Kenny Wayne, “Haunted”
My last drunk was a three-week drunk, a bender. I got sick detoxing in Lewiston, but not like I’d anticipated. Possibly because I only drank for six weeks, and only heavily the last three, but probably because I weaned myself off with the last bottle. In Logan Place I was drinking a half gallon a day. The final bottle lasted more than five.
I had Wi-Fi in Lewiston, so I’d 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 been insisting I stay with him when I returned to Portland. I had intended to go right back to sleeping in doorways and such. It’s hard to live outside in Maine in January, especially sober, but I’d come to accept it as an unfortunate reality. He was persistent, though, so I took him up on it.
I’d been staying there about a month when he had a young woman move in with him. After a few days of discomfort, having become the third wheel in Wheels’ new living arrangement, I decided to return to the Great Outdoors. It was the middle of February, and I remained hopeful the freeze would give way soon. I didn’t investigate what happened in Punxsutawney with Phil, the groundhog. I didn’t want my hopes crushed. I left Ronnie’s with a faith based on that Hope.
In March it was colder than it had been most of the winter. Jeremy and I were playing and sleeping in Arctic temperatures more often than not. We slept closely, side by side, to survive. It was absolutely brutal. I’d played in colder weather, but once the temperature drops below 15 degrees the guitar begins to crack. While playing, you’ll hear a noise, and if you examine the instrument closely, you’ll discover hairline fractures in its finish.
This night in particular it was 9 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve played in as low as zero, but in that zero-to-9 range you’re a rugged individual if you can make it through an entire song before having to warm your hands. This is the cold that kills. People unprepared — whether homeless or civilians — can freeze to death.
Ronnie’d said earlier that he didn’t want me sleeping outside and I should go to his place after busking. He thought we were crazy to try at all. I hadn’t planned on taking him up on it, but it was 9 degrees. Jeremy and I had been sleeping outside for weeks in similar circumstances, but tonight we’d made a little money. We could do something in the morning for Ronnie’s place: purchase food, or booze, or cleaning products… something. We wouldn’t be freeloaders, which was a major concern for Jeremy. Wheels receives only two-thirds of his meager disability check, the base pay of Social Security, so he can usually use a little help by the middle of the month. I convinced Jeremy we should walk over.
By the time we got there it was after two in the morning, probably closer to three. Ronnie was drunker than a barrel full of monkeys, practically catatonic, but he buzzed us in. When we got upstairs Jeremy collapsed on the floor. Not in an exhausted or uncoordinated fashion, more like a folding lawn chair. He has this way of dropping from a fully upright stance into the lotus position. He’s a half-breed Passamaquoddy Scotsman (although he flies a sign that reads “IRISH AND THIRSTY”) and I always figured his ability to perform this feat must stem from his Native American heritage. We smoked a peace pipe and he went right to sleep. I decided to take advantage of the indoor internet connection and catch up on my Facebook notifications.
After a little while, Ronnie Wheels came rolling around the corner in his chair and made an announcement in his North Shore Boston accent: “She don’t want you’s here. You’s gotta go.”
Jeremy, in a single, fast and flowing motion, went from lying on his back into the lotus position, and with an unfolding that was the reversal of his previous folding, rose directly to his feet. I also stood up, though not as gracefully, and grabbed my bag. Without speaking, we left. It was about four in the morning.
It had been 9 degrees Fahrenheit. It was now even colder and the wind had picked up. The wind really changes things, especially in wet weather or extreme cold. We needed to get out of that wind and the nearest spot I was familiar with was Blackstones. In those days there was a wall partially enclosing the doorway of the club that formed a nook that mostly blocked the breeze. If you sleep outside you tend to discover spots like that. The longer you’re outside, the more adept you become at this, often keeping your eyes peeled for such places even in warmer, daylight hours. You don’t want to be wanting for refuge while you’re literally freezing to death.
I’d slept in this doorway before, but it was pretty unlikely I’d sleep any more this night. It would be Beer Time soon and that meant Jeremy would need a drink. It also meant the ferry terminal would be open. We’d head there as soon as Cumberland Farms unlocked its coolers and he had his morning beer. I could get coffee once we got to the Old Port. I was obviously going to need it — if not to stay awake, just to warm up. Besides, I was now addicted to caffeine. Coffee had simply replaced booze. I was at the coffee shop before it opened every day, just as I’d done at the liquor store, and most of the money I made busking was spent there.
Maybe I’d see Joanne. Every morning, she’d be at Starbucks on Commercial Street at five o’clock or so. I don’t know what her Thing is, but if we were there she’d buy Joe Blaze a coffee and give us five dollars. I wouldn’t drink coffee while I was drinking gin. She knew that. But I was hooked on caffeine again. And it’s always good to start the day with a cup of Joanne. Plus, five dollars before the sun shines seems a good omen, a light to brighten the dark Maine morning.
Occasionally Blaze and I would be across the street, sleeping under an overhang because of the weather. On days like that, Joanne would either walk over to us or send another homeless person with Joe’s coffee, as Commercial Street is inundated with us at five o’clock in the morning.
She’s a photographer of some sort, maybe just amateur, but she’d take our pictures sometimes. On a couple of mornings she walked with us, and even went into the Cut to get shots of us in our natural habitat. I didn’t mind. We were halfway to the next bottle every time we saw her. I wonder what she did with the pictures.
Later in the day I ran into Wheels and his new roomie, all of us being blown about by the brutal wind. They were on Congress Street heading into the post office and he invited me over to his place.
“You don’t remember telling us we had to go at four this morning?” I asked.
He told me he didn’t and I could see he meant it, but I didn’t feel confident something similar wouldn’t happen again, so I declined his offer. I wasn’t angry. It’s just better to remain outside and deal with it than to have to suddenly acclimate, as we’d done earlier. Acclimating to single-digit temperatures is harder than remaining in the cold, once you’re adjusted. Like Sam said, “It’s easier to stay out than it is to get out.” I chose to stay on the street, sober.
As I continued walking down Congress Street I bumped into Ryan. He was by himself and volunteered to spin a beer with me. I thanked him kindly, but declined his offer, too. He looked really down. I didn’t want bad news, but I asked about Kristen anyway.
“She’s not good,” he said. “Her liver is done. They’re keeping her doped up, but … she’s dying.”
That’s why I didn’t want to ask. I knew I’d have no response. There was no way to console him; I had nothing to offer. I just said I was sorry and walked away.
The next time I saw him it was two days later and she was dead, and he seemed different. It was as if when Kristen died, so had he. All the bold and bitter power that had defined his personality had been rendered meek. I saw Ryan a few more times over the next couple weeks and he was like an empty shell. Kristen had been the Life and he had been their hard, protective Shell. I guess he’d felt like he had to be hard, had to keep her safe in the streets. Now he had no life to protect. He was a walking haunted house. Her ghost seemed to fill his empty eyes, but not his hollow heart.