Down By the River, fiction by Sarah Einstein

Daniel walked through the clus­ters of drunk­en col­lege stu­dents as they stum­bled out of the clos­ing bars, his black wool cap pulled low and his face tucked down into the col­lar of the olive drab par­ka he’d picked up that after­noon at Chris­t­ian Help. The clock on the bank blinked 1:27 and then 24°-the time was fine but if the tem­per­a­ture dropped four more degrees the police would start round­ing up the riv­er folk and forc­ing them into the night shel­ter at Bartlett House, which would ruin his whole plan. He quick­ened his step, push­ing past a gag­gle of girls tee­ter­ing on high-heeled, open-toed san­dals stand­ing out­side The Lazy Lizard. He sup­posed they were too drunk to feel the cold. He heard one say, Holy shit, did you see that? That guy almost knocked me down and then gig­gle, but no call-out from a boyfriend look­ing to chase him down, so he hur­ried on.

Daniel was fol­low­ing a girl he'd seen limp­ing out of Bent Willies, a cast on her leg, a crutch under each arm, and no date. She was mov­ing slow, too slow for him to fol­low her direct­ly with­out being noticed, so he was weav­ing his way in and out of the crowds along High Street, guess­ing her path and only cross­ing down to Chest­nut to check her posi­tion. Track­ing, he thought. He liked the sound of that. It made him feel like a hunter. It made her sound like prey.

She was a fat girl with stringy blond hair and too much make-up. Daniel fig­ured her for about twen­ty-four. A town­ie hang­ing out in the col­lege bars. But he didn't care that she wasn't pret­ty. It wasn't her face that caught his eye. It was her leg.

She hob­bled into the park­ing garage, mak­ing things easy. Daniel had been afraid she'd parked on the street, or in one of the lots behind a busy club that would be filled with knots of boys and girls involved in the final nego­ti­a­tions of who would be going home with whom. But she had passed all those places and walked into the one part of down­town that stayed qui­et at night. He fol­lowed her down the long con­crete ramp to a deck emp­ty except for one pick-up. Nicer than he'd expect­ed, new with a cus­tom paint job. There might be a bonus in this.

He stepped out of the shad­ows, no longer wor­ried that she would notice him fol­low­ing her, and start­ed to run. He slammed her against the side of the truck before she could get the door open, pinned her against it and grabbed her hair. With a grunt, he pulled her head back as hard as he could. "Just shut the fuck up, bitch, and give me your purse," he said, punch­ing her fore­head against the window.

She dropped her purse and pissed her pants at the same time. This always struck him as fun­ny and even though it hap­pened pret­ty much every time he strong-armed a woman, he couldn't keep him­self from laugh­ing. "Stu­pid cow," he said. Daniel kicked her cast­ed leg out from under her and then tossed the crutch­es over the rail­ing onto the deck below so that he could get good and gone before she had any way to get to help.

He cut through the alley behind the Monon­galia Arts Cen­ter and jogged toward River­front Park, head­ed for Cecil’s camp under the West­over Bridge. When it was cold like this, every­one stayed near Cecil because the cops wouldn’t both­er him, the old drunk so sick his liv­er now hung over the top of his jeans, a flab­by sack of tumor and cir­rho­sis. Cecil said the only good thing about dying was that the cops couldn’t keep him in jail—they had to stick him in the prison hos­pi­tal instead—and it was so much damned trou­ble that they just left him alone.

Those that had tents pitched them along side Cecil’s, those that didn’t climbed into the Big Agnes Fly­ing Dia­mond Eight tent that some do-good­er had bought him. When nec­es­sary, that eight man tent would hold ten, twelve, some­times even thir­teen peo­ple easy, just so long as they were drunk enough not to mind each other’s stink. Cecil no longer cared what com­pa­ny he kept. Hell, most nights he was long passed out before any­one else had even start­ed on the night’s drink­ing. Ever since the can­cer, Cecil couldn’t hold his liquor.

Daniel fol­lowed the trail until he passed the boat ramp and then jumped the bar­ri­er. Crouched behind the con­crete embank­ment, he dug through the purse to see what he'd got­ten. He pushed the wal­let aside; what­ev­er mon­ey was in there wouldn't do him any good till morn­ing and it wasn't what he want­ed, any­how. He was glad to see the cell phone—it meant she couldn’t call the cops—and set it on the con­crete. He stomped on it until it was bro­ken into a hand­ful of pieces. He knew that if he kept it, it would lead the cops right to him. There was a big, zip­pered bag inside and he root­ed around in it, toss­ing mas­cara and lip gloss into the snow until he found what he had been after… the plas­tic bot­tle with the child­proof lid he'd known would be in there.

He held the bot­tle up to catch what light he could from the moon. Oxy­Con­tin 80s. Damn, he mut­tered to him­self, I hit the fuck­ing jack­pot. He rat­tled the bot­tle. It was full. He knew that cast looked fresh. Hard­ly any dirt, the plas­ter around the toes not yet start­ing to crum­ble. He count­ed two out into his hand and ground them between his teeth. Cur­so­ri­ly, he took the mon­ey out of the wal­let. Almost six hun­dred dol­lars. Shit, bitch must have just got­ten paid he said to him­self, chuck­ling and stick­ing the bills and the pill bot­tle into his pock­et before toss­ing the purse and every­thing else that was in it into the riv­er. He felt clever for know­ing not to car­ry the thing around with him; he felt like an accom­plished thief.

The front flap of the tent was open and he could smell the stench of the tan­gle of bod­ies from out­side; sweat and piss mixed with the sick­en­ing­ly sweet odors of Cecil’s can­cer and fruit-fla­vored Mad­Dog. He crawled over some emp­ty bot­tles and then closed the flap behind him.

The men stood in a knot along the walk­way behind the Gar­low Build­ing. Friend­ship Room, the day shel­ter on the sec­ond floor, wouldn’t open until eight and Abi­gail, the woman who ran the place, didn’t care that it was cold, she wouldn’t open the door fif­teen min­utes ear­ly or let them wait in the warm hall­way. But the only oth­er place in town that would give a guy a cup of cof­fee and maybe some stale cook­ies for break­fast was the Mis­sion down on Pleas­ant, and the preach­er there was the hard-shell kind of Bap­tist. Wouldn’t let in the guys who smelled like they’d been drink­ing the night before, made a fel­low pray over every lit­tle cup of cof­fee or stale donut, and didn’t allow any card play­ing in the place. The only peo­ple who went there were the men who’d got­ten them­selves sanc­tioned from the Friend­ship Room for drink­ing or sell­ing drugs and the women who thought any minute now Jesus was going to find them a Sec­tion Eight apart­ment and a dis­abil­i­ty check.

Daniel didn’t want to be here; he want­ed to be back in the tent, smok­ing up the pills he’d scored while every­one else was here get­ting warm, but he knew bet­ter than to dis­ap­pear the morn­ing after rob­bing a girl. The guy who wasn’t where he was sup­posed to be was the first guy every­one would sus­pect. Besides, it was Fri­day, the day the Hos­pice nurse came to check on Cecil, and she always brought a few dozen eggs and some sausage for Papa Russ to cook up so they could have a real break­fast. Since it was cold, Abi­gail would prob­a­bly break out the com­mod­i­ty pow­dered milk and flour and make them bis­cuits. Bet­ter to get a full bel­ly, he knew, because once he start­ed to smoke he had enough to keep him going for a few days. He’d nev­er learned to pace him­self. Daniel reached into the pock­et of his jeans and felt the ban­dana filled with pills to reas­sure him­self they were still there.

He’d slipped the pre­scrip­tion bot­tle, six pills, and forty dol­lars of the girl’s mon­ey into the pock­et of Cecil’s coat back at camp; a coat that looked exact­ly like the one he’d thrown into the dump­ster behind Chico’s Fat on his way up the hill this morn­ing. Some group had donat­ed about forty of them to the cloth­ing pantry. There were three oth­er guys milling around in the exact same par­ka. That was the great thing about Chris­t­ian Help; every­thing was free and they didn’t care how many times a guy came in and got new clothes. Daniel would head over after break­fast and tell them some­body took the par­ka and they’d give him anoth­er one. This time, he’d ask for one of the used wool over­coats hung along the back wall. When the cops came look­ing for a guy in a par­ka, he want­ed to be sure he didn’t have one.

Daniel shuf­fled to keep warm, care­ful nev­er to get too close to Cecil or the old men who stood around him. All the old men from down on the river­bank had tak­en to walk­ing up with Cecil on Fri­days just to make sure he kept the appoint­ment with the nurse. Men who wouldn’t nor­mal­ly have any­thing to do with a place like Friend­ship Room because it made them feel claus­tro­pho­bic. There was Papa Russ, an old Marine who was an alright guy until he got some whiskey in him and then he’d pace up and down the side­walk, call­ing every woman who walked by a god-damned whore and try­ing to take a swing at any man who met his gaze. He held Cecil’s elbow like a prom date, keep­ing him steady on his feet. Dol­lar Bill leaned up against a wall, Cecil’s back­pack thrown over his shoul­der with his own. He was a tiny man, couldn’t have been more than five foot three, and qui­et most of the time. Not even much of a drinker. But if he lost his meds—or some­one took them, as Daniel had done a time or two—he start­ed to ram­ble. Scary talk about lov­ing his baby grand­daugh­ter with her clothes off and what busi­ness was that of any­body else’s? Two years ago, they’d tossed him out of the Clarks­burg Mis­sion for sneak­ing a can of beer in under his jack­et and he’d burnt the place to the ground. Hadn’t been inside a shel­ter or day pro­gram since, not until word got out that Cecil was going to die. A cou­ple of the oth­er old-timers, men who’d spent decades liv­ing out of doors, stood around rolling cig­a­rettes and stomp­ing the cold out of their toes.

Daniel didn’t under­stand the loy­al­ty of the old men. On any giv­en night, with enough liquor and almost no provo­ca­tion, they could be found beat­ing each oth­er bloody over the dregs of a bot­tle down by the riv­er. In their world, there wasn’t any right, no good, only suc­cess. Get­ting away with some­thing, out­smart­ing some­one, that was the mea­sure of a man’s worth. He couldn’t fig­ure out what angle these old men were work­ing, and it made him nervous.

When Friend­ship Room final­ly opened, Daniel filed in, got a cup of cof­fee and sat down on the thread­bare brown couch in front of the tele­vi­sion. Sesame Street was on. Kids weren’t allowed in here, but the orga­ni­za­tion that ran the place wouldn’t spring for cable and all they could pick up with rab­bit ears was pub­lic tele­vi­sion. He watched Big Bird explain shar­ing to some kid and tried not to squirm, but after about three min­utes he couldn’t take it any longer and bolt­ed for the bath­room. The door didn’t lock—in places like this, they nev­er do—so he tied one end of the draw­string from his sweat­shirt around the door­knob and the oth­er around the cold-water tap to keep it shut. He pulled the ban­dana full of pills, his pock­etknife, a square of tin­foil, a cut up piece of straw, and a lighter out of his pock­et. Using the back of the toi­let as a table, he cut one of the pills into quar­ters. One by one, Daniel placed the pill quar­ters onto the cen­ter of the tin­foil, held the lighter pills under­neath, and sucked the smoke up through the straw. Chas­ing the drag­on. It wasn’t as effec­tive as a pipe, but eas­i­er to ditch if nec­es­sary and the tin­foil cooled down fast enough that he could shove it into a pock­et with­out being burned if he was about to get caught. This morn­ing, though, no one both­ered him. He fin­ished the first pill and broke up anoth­er. Two quar­ters in to the sec­ond, he felt the famil­iar warmth and knew he was in dan­ger of nod­ding out. Shov­ing every­thing into the front pock­et of his jeans, he untied the draw­string and stum­bled out into the main room, falling into an old yel­low arm­chair just as he start­ed to drift away.

Two or three times dur­ing the next few hours, Daniel felt him­self shak­en awake, heard Abi­gail tell him to wake up because Friend­ship Room didn’t allow sleep­ing dur­ing peer sup­port group, knew he was being threat­ened with a sanc­tion. He didn’t care. He was always get­ting tossed out of places, and he would rather stay in this chair for now and wor­ry about what to do lat­er when lat­er came. Fuck you he man­aged to mut­ter the third time a hand grabbed his shoul­der and tried to force him out of the com­fort of his haze. Fuck you to death.

What did you say, boy?” A man’s deep voice pen­e­trat­ed the fog. He thought it sound­ed famil­iar. Daniel tried to rouse himself.

Boy, I asked you what you said, and I told you to wake up.” The voice didn’t sound angry, just cer­tain. “If you can’t wake up, I’m going to have to start won­der­ing why exact­ly that would be.”

Offi­cer Booth. Daniel sat up and tried to feel enough pan­ic to keep him­self from slip­ping back into that bet­ter place. “I’m awake, sir. Just not feel­ing well today. Took some Nyquil ear­li­er, must of knocked me out. Sir.”

Daniel looked around the room. There were four offi­cers, two of whom he didn’t rec­og­nize. One was the lady cop they only brought along when there was going to be a body search. Daniel had to strug­gle to keep his own hands out of his pock­et. He knew that would be a dead give-away.

Get out on the hall with every­body else. We’re bring­ing the dog in. If you got a coat or a back­pack, just leave it be.” Offi­cer Booth point­ed toward the door. “But don’t go any­where, we want to talk to every­body. Won’t be but a few min­utes, and you can get back to your napping.”

Daniel fol­lowed the line of peo­ple out into the hall­way. He saw Dol­lar Bill, and a few of the guys he knew were prob­a­bly hold­ing, sneak down the steps and out the High Street exit. He want­ed to go with them, not because he was afraid of get­ting caught—he knew the cops couldn’t put the dog on them, just their stuff, and he hadn’t had a coat or pack to leave behind—but because stand­ing in the cramped hall­way was tak­ing the edge off his buzz. But he need­ed to stick around to make sure the dog sniffed out the bot­tle in the inside pock­et of Cecil’s par­ka, need­ed to know what they’d do next.

It was a fast search. In five min­utes, they were all back in the room, lined up along the walls with the offi­cers in the mid­dle, like they were play­ing some children’s game. Papa Russ was angry, maybe a lit­tle drunk, and yelling at the director.

They ain’t got no right to search us, or our stuff, with­out a war­rant.” He puffed out his chest. “I served my coun­try for four years and I know my rights.”

Abi­gail moved to the mid­dle of the room beside Offi­cer Booth. “They have my per­mis­sion, which is all they need.”

Why the fuck did you go and tell them it was alright?” Papa Russ punched his hand into the wall. “What are you, some kind of Nazi? Don’t think a man has any rights just because he’s down on his luck?”

Abi­gail just shook her head. “Cecil, the police need to speak to you. The rest of you can head down to the Red Door church for lunch. I’m clos­ing the room for an hour while this all gets straight­ened out.” She ush­ered every­one but Cecil, his nurse, and the offi­cers out of the room and locked the door.

Daniel wasn’t hungry—he was nev­er hun­gry when he was using—but he knew bet­ter than to sep­a­rate him­self from the crowd, so he fol­lowed every­one up to the soup kitchen. He real­ized that if there had been eggs and bacon that morn­ing, he’d missed them and so forced down a bowl of spice­less chili and a cou­ple day-old cheese­s­ticks from Giant Eagle. Every­one was up in arms about the search, and then again about being thrown out of the room for an hour though, truth be told, they all knew that the room emp­tied out for the hour the soup kitchen was open, anyway.

Proud Mary, who Daniel fig­ured had to be at least sev­en­ty and quite pos­si­bly the per­son who had lived the longest on the river­bank, was wax­ing philo­soph­i­cal. “That bitch got no right. She thinks that just cause she got the keys, she’s some­thing spe­cial. But noth­ing them cops found today will do them any good in court, because she don’t have the author­i­ty to tell them that they can search our things.”

What could they want with old Cecil, any­way?” Dol­lar Bill tore a slice of bread into tiny pieces. “I mean, he ain’t a dop­er. Hell, if he was, all he’d have to do is go stay in that Hos­pice and they’d give him one of those mor­phine pumps. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Back­pack Jack sat down across from Daniel and tossed a copy of the Domin­ion Post in front of him.

You see this?” Jack asked, point­ing to a sto­ry on the front page about the mug­ging. “You do this?”

Daniel feigned igno­rance and picked up the paper. It said the girl, Kim­ber­ly Atkins, was in guard­ed con­di­tion at Ruby Memo­r­i­al with frost­bite and a con­cus­sion, that she’d been stuck in the garage until some­one found her at six that morn­ing. There was a descrip­tion; a man, medi­um build, in a black stock­ing cap and an olive drab par­ka. Could have been anyone.

Me?” He tossed the paper back toward Jack. “No, man, that wasn’t me. I don’t do that shit any more.”

Since when?” Jack pulled a bot­tle of hot sauce out of his back­pack and doused the chili, then offered it to Daniel. “I thought this was your thing.”

Not any more. I got my thir­ty day chip. Work­ing the pro­gram. One day at a time.” Daniel had learned the hard way not to brag. Used to be, he’d lay claim even when he wasn’t the one who’d roughed up some local late at night. Thought it made him look tough. But every­one was out for him­self and peo­ple trad­ed what they knew about his busi­ness for ways to get out of their own troubles.

Well, bet­ter hope it don’t fall on you.” Jack point­ed his spoon at Daniel. “Lot of peo­ple going to be real pissed off if you brought the cops down on us today with some­thing stu­pid like this.”

Daniel felt his stom­ach turn. “Why you want to go and say some­thing like that? I told you it wasn’t me.”

Jack shook his head. “I’m just say­ing. Descrip­tion in the paper could be any­one. Hell, half the guys in here are wear­ing those parkas from Chris­t­ian Help today.” He looked at Daniel’s jack­et. “Didn’t you get one?”

No. Meant to, but didn’t make it over before they were all gone.”

Not smart, man. You got­ta keep warm and take care of your feet. That’s the secret to mak­ing it out of doors in the win­ter. A good coat and warm socks.”

Daniel just nod­ded and let Jack ram­ble on about gear. Jack was one of those guys who got a healthy dis­abil­i­ty check every month and could live indoors if he want­ed to, but pre­ferred the road. He prob­a­bly had four, five thou­sand dol­lars worth of camp­ing equip­ment in that pack of his; a good tent, a four sea­son bag, Gore-tex socks. He had too much stuff to sleep down by the riv­er with every­one else—it wasn’t done, this hav­ing and not sharing—so he slept up behind the Giant Eagle on Green­bag Road. Made him an out­sider. Daniel fig­ured if it came to it, his word was bet­ter than Jack’s. After all, he didn’t hold him­self above any­body. He was down there in it with them.

Well, be cool,” Jack said, get­ting up. “Don’t mat­ter to me, I’m most like­ly head­ed out of town in the morning.”

Daniel just smiled and nod­ded. Jack said this every day. Some­times he real­ly went, oth­er times he just said he was going and then hung around for months. He watched Jack hitch his pack over his shoul­der and, when he was sure the man was good and gone, gath­ered his own things and head­ed outside.

Daniel fin­gered the mon­ey in his pock­et.. He had over five hun­dred dol­lars. If Jack hadn’t of spooked him, he’d have got­ten him­self a room for the week at the Air­port Motel, stayed some­place warm and dry while he smoked up the pills. But if peo­ple were look­ing at him for this, it was too risky. Still, sure­ly he’d earned him­self some sort of reward for all his hard work. He thought about Jack’s bag—about how nice it would be to sleep warm for a change—and walked down to Adventure’s Edge.

The woman in the store smiled and pre­tend­ed to believe him when he said he was look­ing to do some win­ter camp­ing, but it was clear she knew from the get-go that he was real­ly liv­ing out. She steered him away from the three hun­dred dol­lar Sier­ra Designs bag he was fin­ger­ing and showed him a Kel­ty that was just under seventy.

Both are rat­ed to zero degrees, and the Sier­ra won’t hold up any bet­ter under reg­u­lar use than the Kel­ty,” she said. “The only real ben­e­fit is that it’s lighter. If you’re not plan­ning on doing a lot of hik­ing, that’s not worth the more than two hun­dred dol­lars extra you’ll have to pay.”

He liked being talked to like this, like a reg­u­lar per­son. He liked that the woman was upfront about things and wasn’t try­ing to sell him on some­thing he didn’t need. He thought of him­self as the sort of per­son who told it straight and admired that trait in oth­ers. In fact, he felt so damned good he asked her out for a beer. She laughed and point­ed to a man arrang­ing ski jack­ets on a rack at the back of the store.

I don’t think my hus­band would like it,” she said. But then she’d whis­pered. “He won’t like this, either, but I’ll give you ten per­cent off on the bag.” Daniel didn’t know why, but the dis­count pissed him off, though he didn’t mind that she’d turned down his offer for a beer. A mar­ried woman should.

Fuck that. I got mon­ey. I’ll pay what any­body else would pay,” he said and pulled the fat roll of twen­ties out his pock­et. The woman gave him a deflat­ed, con­fused look, but took four of the twen­ties and gave him back his change.

Well, stay warm,” she said and then walked back to stand beside her hus­band, her eyes on Daniel till he was out the door.

Daniel car­ried his bag up to Chris­t­ian Help, where the lady gave him an old pea coat and a child’s book bag. He stuffed the sleep­ing bag down into it—it wouldn’t do to show up with a new sleep­ing bag on the day after some girl got mugged—and head­ed back to Friend­ship Room.

The place was full, which meant trou­ble. Usu­al­ly only a few folk would strag­gle back after lunch. The after­noons were full of craft class­es and self-advo­ca­cy groups, and the peo­ple who didn’t attend had to sit silent­ly on the couches—reading or napping—while the meet­ings went on. Today was Wednes­day, when the crazy bead lady came and tried to get them to make neck­laces to sell at the Unit­ed Way garage sale to raise mon­ey for the place. Some of the women did it, and once in a while one of the new guys who didn’t yet know it would get him called “pussy” by the reg­u­lars. But, today, she was sit­ting alone with her bags of beads while every­one was milling around, talk­ing all at once.

Dol­lar Bill was sit­ting on the arm of the couch, just tak­ing it all in. Daniel sidled over to him.

What’s going on?”

You ain’t heard? The cops found a pill bot­tle belong­ing to that girl that got mugged last night in the pock­et of Cecil’s jack­et.” Bill looked at Daniel through nar­rowed eyes. “Took him away.”

The cops took Cecil to jail?” Daniel was shocked. He was sure the cops would leave Cecil alone even after they found the pill bot­tle. They had to know that Cecil hadn’t, couldn’t have, done it.

No. Told him that he had two choic­es. He could go to jail, or he could go stay at the Hos­pice.” Bill shook his head. “Either one’ll kill the old boy. He can’t abide stay­ing indoors, and they won’t let him have his beer even though the nurse said he was too weak to stand up to the DTs.”

How could the cops force him into Hos­pice?” This didn’t sound right to Daniel.

Didn’t so much force him as tell him that if he was there, they’d con­sid­er him arrest­ed and put a police­man out­side his room and he wouldn’t have to go Dod­dridge. Said they knew it wasn’t him, but until they fig­ured out who did do it, they had to hold him.”

Daniel looked for some sign that Dol­lar Bill was ask­ing a ques­tion, but the old man seemed to just be shar­ing the news. He looked quick­ly around the room, relieved that Jack wasn’t there.

That fuck­ing sucks, man.” Daniel worked on build­ing up some right­eous indig­na­tion, told him­self the cops had no right until he’d almost for­got­ten that he was the one that put the pills in Cecil’s pock­et. “God damned man got no rights at all in this coun­try if he’s poor.”

Dol­lar Bill just nod­ded, then point­ed to where Papa Russ stood, red-faced. “Now, there’s a man about to get him­self in trou­ble. Russ done got him­self a bot­tle at lunch and has been sneak­ing sips on it ever since. Any minute now, he’s going to start swing­ing. You mark my words.”

Daniel watched, hope­ful. If Russ did hit some­one, then the cops would have no choice but take him down to the region­al jail in Dod­dridge Coun­ty. And Russ was a can­ny old man. If any­one was going to sniff out that this was all Daniel’s doing, he fig­ured that’s who it would be. He’d rest a lot eas­i­er tonight if Papa Russ was sleep­ing off a drunk and dis­or­der­ly more than an hour’s dri­ve away.

Every­where, peo­ple were stand­ing around in clumps argu­ing about what the police had done, whether or not it was legal, mak­ing guess­es as to how the pills had got­ten in Cecil’s pock­et, and insist­ing they knew who real­ly strong-armed that girl. Here and there, Daniel heard his name men­tioned, but he heard five or six oth­ers at least as often. The clock on the wall said it was just after three… half an hour more and the room would close down. Daniel decid­ed he had learned every­thing he could and asked the direc­tor for a bus token. Told her he had an appoint­ment out at Val­ley with his drug coun­selor in the morn­ing. He didn’t, of course, and he sure as hell didn’t need to save the sev­en­ty-five cents a token would have cost him, not today… but he liked that she knew he was lying and had to give him the token any­way because she had no way to check. It made him feel smarter than she was, pow­er­ful in some small way.

Mor­gan­town used to be full of places where a guy could hole up for a few hours, catch a buzz, not get noticed. But the last three or four years, it seemed all the old hous­es were either get­ting torn down or slapped back togeth­er for stu­dent apart­ments. Daniel decid­ed to treat him­self to a movie and took the West­over bus out to the mall. He stood for a while in front of the movie posters, try­ing to decide what to go see even though he knew he’d prob­a­bly sleep through at least two show­ings of what­ev­er it was. He was torn between Zom­bieland and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. In the end, he decid­ed on the zom­bie film because the movie poster for the oth­er had Based on the Best-Sell­ing Book of the Same Name by Tuck­er Max along the bot­tom, which Daniel ranked up there with sub­ti­tles for being proof that a movie was going to be dull as hell.

He bought his tick­et and then wan­dered into the theater’s bath­room. It was still a half an hour till the first mat­inée, and the place was pret­ty much emp­ty except for the kid sell­ing tick­ets and anoth­er mak­ing pop­corn. Daniel pulled out the tin­foil, lighter, straw, and two quar­ters of a pill he had left from that morn­ing and smoked them. Then, before the buzz had time to real­ly set­tle in, he took anoth­er three pills out of the ban­dana, cut them up, and wrapped them in toi­let paper before stick­ing them into his oth­er pock­et. If he was lucky, no one else would be in the the­ater at all, but even if they were, as long as he sat in the back, he knew he could get away with smok­ing dur­ing the film. The pills didn’t smell when they burned, and the sound sys­tem would drown out the flick of his lighter as long as he made sure he only fired up when some­thing noisy was going on, like gun­shots or an explosion.

Daniel found a seat in the back row and watched the triv­ia game that ran before the movie pre­views. What actor won his first Acad­e­my Award for his por­tray­al of Ver­bal Kint in The Usu­al Sus­pects? _ev_n S_a_e_ Hell, even stoned, Daniel knew that one. What sort of idiots were these ques­tions writ­ten for? He smoked up three more chunks of pill and set­tled in.

When Daniel woke up, Woody Har­rel­son and some kid were shoot­ing up what looked like the coun­ty fair while zom­bies tried to climb up one of those free-fall rides to get at two girls with what he assumed were emp­ty guns. Daniel had worked a few car­ni­vals in his time, and he thought the zom­bies looked pret­ty much like the reg­u­lar crowd on a Sat­ur­day night.

The the­ater was emp­ty except for a knot of teenagers mak­ing out in the mid­dle rows, and he had no idea if this was the first or the fourth time he’d sat through the movie. His legs were stiff and his mouth so dry it hurt to breathe, so he fig­ured he’d been there a while. He reached into his pock­et and pulled out the rest of the cut up pills, smok­ing them as quick­ly as he could in case this was the last show­ing and he’d have to start the long walk back to town.

Up on the screen, Woody Har­rel­son held the zom­bies at bay while the nerdy look­ing kid res­cued the girls. Maybe it was fun­ny, but Daniel hadn’t seen enough of the movie to know. To him, it just didn’t make sense. That wimpy kid would nev­er make it on the river­bank, much less in a world full of flesh-eat­ing mon­sters. He knew, because that was the sort of kid he’d been, a long time ago. He gath­ered his new coat and knap­sack and head­ed out the door.

The park­ing lot was emp­ty and the air bit­ter. He must have slept straight through to the end of the nine-fifty show­ing. That would make it around mid­night. Daniel wrapped his coat around him and walked toward down­town, stop­ping every five min­utes or so to fire up again. By the time he got over the bridge and down the embank­ment, he was so stoned that at first he thought he was lost. There were no tents, no fires. Only some burnt up steel garbage cans and a lot of bro­ken bot­tles glim­mer­ing in the moon­light. For a moment, he thought maybe the zom­bies had got­ten every­one, and then he laughed at him­self for being that fucked up. He kicked around the rub­ble try­ing to piece togeth­er what was going on.

He would, he knew, have to head out of town in the morn­ing. Not being caught in the round up would make every­one sus­pi­cious. And while the police didn’t wor­ry Daniel—a lit­tle jail time didn’t both­er him any more, and in the dead of win­ter a few weeks in Dod­deridge might even be pleasant—being called out by Dol­lar Bill, Papa Russ and the rest did. There were laws down here on the river­bank, too, and ret­ri­bu­tion was swifter and more bru­tal than any­thing the courts would do to him. He thought he might head down south to his mother’s place in Alaba­ma. He’d need a six month chip before she’d let him back in the house, but those were easy to come by. Daniel knew he could trade two, at most four, of the remain­ing pills for one at any Nar­cotics Anony­mous meeting.

Chunks of ice float­ed in the Mon, and Daniel knew it was too cold to sleep out. Either the cops would get him or he’d get frost­bit. He fig­ured it to be around 12:30, just the right time to hit the hip­py bar, 123 Pleas­ant Street. The place had had a lot of names over the years—The Under­ground Rail­road, the Nyabinghi Dance Hall—and retired into the infamy of its own address. It wasn’t as live­ly as it used to be, but with mon­ey and drugs he was pret­ty sure he could find some drunk­en hip­py chick to take him home for the night. That was, Daniel thought, the great thing about hip­py chicks… they thought raggedy old clothes and dirty hair were badges of hon­or. He would bed down with one for the night.

He had to stash the sleep­ing bag, though. It was a dead give away that he was dirty for rea­sons that went beyond being hip. There was a con­crete traf­fic bar­ri­er wedged up against the wall of the bridge, and Daniel tried to tuck his new sleep­ing bag behind it. There was some­thing already back there, though. He got out his lighter and flicked on the flame. There, crammed in the tight crack between bridge and bar­ri­er, was the rain­fly from Cecil’s giant, orange tent. Daniel grabbed it and shook it out to its full length. It snapped in the wind like a kite. He took it down to the very edge of the bank, where the wind was strongest, and let it go. It hung for a minute in the air and then fell into the cur­rent. Only after it was gone did Daniel stop and think what a very good ground cloth it would have made. He watched until the cur­rent had car­ried it around the bend, toward the Ohio, and then head­ed up to town.

Sarah Ein­stein is an Asst. Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ten­nessee at Chat­tanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Mem­oir (Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia Press 2015) and Rem­nants of Pas­sion (She­Books 2014). Her work has appeared in PANK, The Sun, Ninth Let­ter, and oth­er jour­nals, and been award­ed a Push­cart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Cre­ative Non­fic­tion. She is also the Spe­cial Projects edi­tor for Brevity.

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