I wake up with the shakes, my throat dry as sandpaper, my tongue pasty tasting. Kicking out of my sleeping bag all kinds of jittery, I reach for my plastic jug with one hand, uncap it and tip it over my other hand. Water spills down my chest. My blue pants feel like weights on my legs.
A few suits on Clay Street walk past my alley. Well, not mine. The police remind me of that at least once a week when they tell me to move. Last month, they said I could stay but I couldn’t keep my tent. They put on plastic gloves, broke it down and threw it in the back of a pick up. I got to keep my blanket and sleeping bag. That’s enough, I guess. I put the blanket inside the sleeping bag and some cardboard beneath the bag so I don’t get chilled from the pavement. It gives me a little cushion but not much. I’m pretty stiff when I wake up.
I roll my neck, hear the muscles make cracking sounds. Squeezing my arms against my sides I feel a chill run through me. The suits don’t spare me a glance. I hear cell phones go off, voices raised but not clear enough for me to understand what they’re saying. I make out only a few words. Some of the suits pause to look up as if they worry it might rain but only a thinning layer of fog lingers above all of us. We share the weather. We have that much in common. I watch pigeons flutter to get out of the way of guys from other camps pushing shopping carts loaded with blankets maneuvering around the suits. They, too, don’t look my way. I know some of them but I won’t share my site with them. They’ll want what I have. I don’t know what they’ll take when I nod out.
Twisting the cap back on my jug, I stash it, my sleeping bag, blanket and a baggy with a spoon and a can opener beneath a dumpster across from the back door of an Italian restaurant. One of the cooks comes out with an aluminum wrapped sandwich and offers it to me. His schedule changes every week. I never know when he’ll be on but when he is he always gives me food. I unwrap the aluminum. A meatball sandwich. Probably left over from yesterday. A little hard on the stomach this early in the morning especially the way I’m feeling.. I can’t imagine eating it. The thought turns my stomach. I need a bottle. I wrap it back up.
I feel bloated, woozy, and still thirsty. My heart races. My body telling me it needs wine but I have no money. I sit down, put my head between my knees. The shakes jolt through me and I grip my knees. Maybe I drank more than two bottles. I don’t think so. I close my eyes. A wind blows. I feel the dampness of my shirt against my skin.
Footsteps. The sound of someone walking toward me. I don’t look up. They stop. I feel them near me. I feel them looking down at me. I wait but they don’t speak. Maybe they think I’m passed out. I wait to be nudged, told to move. If it’s the cops, they might put me in a paddy wagon this time, take me to the Bryant Street station or drop me off at Fresh Start. I’d get in a detox program there. At Bryant, I’d probably be held for the day in the drunk tank.
I wait. Nothing. Finally, I raise my head and open my eyes to a woman staring down into my face. She has on sunglasses and I can’t see her eyes. A yellow sweater hangs off her shoulders, inflates from a breeze that stirs trash and plastic bags ensnared on a wire fence behind the dumpster. She wears dark slacks with sharp creases and heels. We both cover our faces until the wind stops and the dust settles. Maybe this woman’s an outreach worker for some agency and is handing out food and bottles of water. She’s dressed pretty nice for that.
“Excuse me,” she says. “I’ve just been going around to people I see, you know, people like you, and I saw you here, and I wanted to ask if, well, have you, I mean, have you seen this man.”
She removes a paper from her purse and gives it to me. I look at her pale fingers, nails polished red and reach for it, embarrassed by my quivering hands. I hold it against my knees and read: Missing. Brian Shelley. Five feet, ten inches tall. Twenty-eight years old. Last seen on Haight and Masonic. A photo of a young man stares out at me from below the words. He has blond hair and a lean face. The veins in his neck show. A thin smile, dull brown eyes.
“Do you recognize him?” she asks me.
“No,” I say. The first word of the day. It croaks out of my mouth. I clear my throat, want to spit but not in front of her. Swallow instead, a slimy wafer, and I cough and end up spitting it out anyway. She doesn’t react, doesn’t move. Taking off her glasses, the woman pinches the top of her nose like she has a headache. I don’t tell her but I think she looks like this Brian Shelley dude a little bit.
“Sorry,” I say. “Is he on the street?”
“How does this happen?” she asks.
A group of pigeons rise, wings flapping noisily, and they soar above us, blinkering the pale sunlight. The restaurant door opens. A woman in a red-stained apron leans out and heaves a trash bag. It arches in the air and falls with a clatter of breaking glass into the dumpster. She notices me and then the woman and hesitates before she turns and shuts the door.
“I don’t know. It just does,” I tell her.
I look at the paper again as if somehow a second look will help me recognize this guy. I don’t. I wish feel so on-the-spot. I didn’t have the shakes. I wish I had some wine. I can’t move. Shaking too bad.
“Are you all right,” she asks me.
I nod. I must look like I’m vibrating to pieces. Feels like it.
“I don’t know him,” I say.
“I’ve been handing out his picture to people, you know, to people in, well, your situation. What I imagine is your situation. Like you, they haven’t seen him.”
Still staring at the paper, I think of how sometimes, at Fresh Start, I ask one of the social workers if I can use a computer to look up a job. I don’t think anyone believes me but they set me up. I get on and go to Facebook and find people I knew long ago, like in high school, but none of their pictures match my memory of them. Of course they’re older, I get that, but still. I’ve even looked up my mother, Susan Johns. Not my mother, her name. She died from a stroke because of high blood pressure probably from drinking so I can’t look her up for real. Instead, I check out other women with the same name. There’re a lot of Susan Johns. None of them look like her and many are younger than she would be now if she was alive but it’s like she’s not gone when I see her name, and I read what a particular Susan Johns posted as if she was my mother. It’s something to do when I get to feeling a certain way but their posts don’t make any sense. They talk about people I don’t know. One Susan Johns said she was going to the Grand Canyon next month. My mother would have had no interest in the Grand Canyon. Deserts weren’t her thing.
“You can call me if you see him,” the woman says.
She points to the bottom of the page at a phone number.
“You probably don’t have a phone, do you? Maybe you know somebody who does?”
“Fresh Start lets me use their phones,” I say.
Sometimes, I find a magazine with a subscription insert. I call the 800 number on it and when someone answers, I pretend I’m interested in subscribing. I’ll go, How much a month does it cost? How often will I get the magazine? How long is the subscription? I try to loosen them up and get them talking. Where’s your office? I’ll say. What’s the weather like where you are? Are you having a busy day? Sometimes they sound like they’re from another country. I spoke to one guy who was in India. I asked him what it was like there and he got to talking all about Mumbai. You should visit, he said. Oh, I will, I said. I plan too. On my next vacation. After a while, he got back to business and asked me for my credit card number. I apologized, told him I didn’t have it with me but that I’d call him right back. You won’t get me, you’ll get somebody else. That’s OK, I said. I didn’t call back. He didn’t expect me to, I think. Maybe he knew. I don’t know. I just wanted to talk.
I look at this Brian guy’s photo again. If he’s a drinker I might run into him. Drugs, no. I don’t hang with tweekers. I know one guy, he’s a drinker now, but back in the day he used heroin. He got on methadone to kick it. He tells me he doesn’t understand why younger people use meth. Crazy shit, he said. Back in his day, it was just smack. We’re old, Walter, he tells me. A different generation, you and me.
“I checked with the police, but he’s not there,” she says.
Squinting, she looks past me her eyes tearing. I look away. She takes Kleenex from her purse and dabs her nose. Then she points at his name on the paper as if I haven’t noticed it.
“His name is Brian Shelly. This isn’t anything any of us ever expected.”
“Have you tried the homeless shelters?”
Traffic picks up on Clay. Buses stop two deep, letting people off. Cars beep and more and more people hurry along the sidewalk. Long shadows creep up the sides of buildings. I should get up, I think. Go to the detox at Fresh Start. These shakes. Fuck that. I need a bottle.
“Thank you,” she says again.
She offers me five dollars. I look at it. There’s my morning wine. The bill flutters between us. I feel better, my heart not hammering my chest so hard. I’ve been delivered.
“Call that number if you see him, even if you’re not sure it’s him,” she says.
“I will,” I say.
I take the five. She turns around and walks toward Clay. Pausing, she looks back at me.
I watch her leave, hear the sharp sound of her shoes against the pavement. At the end of the alley, she turns right and disappears. I rest my head between my knees and close my eyes. In a minute, I’ll walk around to the drop-in center at Fresh Start and ask guys, You seen this dude? Do you recognize him? I’ll call her and say, I’ve not found him but I’m working on it. Or, I got a lead, someone who looks just like him. Maybe we’ll meet somewhere and go over what I’ve pieced together. Maybe. Maybe not. Not. I’ll get a bottle is what I’ll do. Need to do.
Wrapping my arms around my knees a little harder, I rock back and forth, back and forth, trying to summon the control to stop shaking long enough to stand and make it to a liquor store. The flier drifts from my fingers and falls by my feet, gets picked up by a breeze. I shiver, watch it dance in the air, bobbing and weaving like nothing else matters, Brian’s face hovering above me until it gets plastered to the fence with other garbage.