Portland, Oregon, September 1989
He looks around the nearly-bare apartment and does not feel at home there.
The feeling isn’t new to him. He hasn’t felt at home anywhere, in more years than he can count on both hands. Not since leaving Skye, with her mists and green mountains, her rocky moors. The blue vault of heaven overhead. There was room for him, on Skye. He could disappear for days at a time, lose himself, let the wild places swallow him up. It seemed like days, anyway. More likely, it had been hours. Mam never would have stood for days.
But since the move, especially since the year of his illness, he has not felt at home. Oregon is all right. It’s green enough, at least. There are mountains, if not the right mountains. The overcast and the soft rains of winter are familiar to him. And there are trees. More trees than on Skye, which is one good thing. Portland is a fine city, as far as cities go, which is not far, in his opinion. Better than many places he’s been, especially in the last six years.
Still, it isn’t home.
“Home is an idea,” Mitch, his teacher, a Tlingit shaman, has told him more than once. “You carry it here.” Pointing to his head. “And here.” Pointing to his heart. “Find it there, and you will never lose it.”
And he’s tried. All the gods must know he’s tried, so hard. Yet he can’t seem to reach that place. His center is far, far away. Lost in mist, lost in time. Lost in a vision he does not want to think about. A vision of Skye.
Someday he’ll go back there, he knows. He’s seen it. Someday when he’s older. Twenty years from now, perhaps more. If he lives so long. He does not really expect to live so long. There are still times, more times than he lets anyone know, that he doesn’t wish to.
He thinks he should make an attempt at settling in, so he looks around again, taking inventory. Taking stock. His own place. His own walls, his own table. His own dismal chairs. His own ugly sofa that folds out into a bed. Not his own, not really; they came with the apartment. But his own for now, which is all he’s ever had. The board and brick bookshelves are not his own; the last tenant left them. An inheritance, of a sort. Perhaps he should start by claiming them, by unpacking his own few books and aligning them in rows.
He wanders over to one of the boxes on the floor and stares at it. Wanting answers, wanting something. Wanting to fill the vast, aching hollow of his heart. If his heart were a box, he could find something to put in it. Something to fit the shape of the emptiness at his core. But there is nothing, ever. Or if there is, he hasn’t found it. Sometimes he plays with that possibility, that what he wants, what he needs, does exist and waits for him in some future he cannot imagine. That he’ll find it. Stumble upon it, perhaps, when he least expects it. And then he’ll be whole.
Most days, though, he doesn’t believe that. Most days, he believes he’ll feel this emptiness, this poverty of soul, forever. Or as long as he can stand to live with it, which amounts to the same thing.
Had he ever, truly, thought things could be better? Perhaps. Three years ago, when Mitch showed up at the abandoned warehouse in LA where he slept those days, when Mitch dragged him out of his narcotic stupor and back to Portland, perhaps he did believe. He’d been young enough, still, to want rescue and naïve enough, in spite of everything, to cling to the idea that someone else could save him. Or perhaps he’d simply run out of room, run out of time, run out of places to hide. Easier, then, to give in, to go along.
If Mitch hadn’t shown up, he’d have been dead, perhaps within weeks. From drugs, from hardship, from sorrow, from simply ceasing to care. Three years on the streets, three years of caring had worn him out. Three years of impotent rage at the world he couldn’t change. It didn’t take him six months, after he left home, after he left his mother’s house, to discover that junk helped. Helped calm the storm inside him. Helped him not care.
Three years on junk was a lifetime. Lots of kids didn’t make it half that long.
So, he’d gone with Mitch, and Mitch had cleaned him up, and now he is here. Here in this one-room flat that does not fit him. Because Mitch said it was time.
“College!” The idea horrifies him. “I dinna want tae go tae college!”
He’s hung around colleges. Kids do, even the ones with homes. There are three in Portland, alone. The Catholic college. His brother started there last year, and he has no intention of ever setting foot in the place. PSU. Reed, which everyone knows is where you go to buy drugs. And he’s seen plenty of others. They’re good places to panhandle, if you can spot the right mark. Not the ones with perfect teeth and fancy clothes, the poster kids. They’d just as soon kick you. The ones who look a bit harried, a bit different. Art students with restaurant jobs. They consider themselves sensitive, empathetic, and they’re always good for spare change, a few bucks, perhaps even a meal if you catch them on the right day. Sometimes more than that. The girls always fall for his charm, for his smile.
But they’re all the same, those places. The kids with their bright eyes, their hope. They’re too clean. Their outfits look contrived, like costumes, like uniforms, marking this one as a geek, this one as a punk, this one as a cheerleader. And even the older ones, the ones who’ve been there years, look young to him. They haven’t seen the things he’s seen.
“You’re a smart young man, Timber,” says Mitch. “Brilliant, some say.”
Brilliant, is it? Although the praise is good to him, he tries hard to keep his face blank. Not show his pleasure, his curiosity. He wants to know who said such a thing. But he won’t be drawn in that way.
“I’ve kept you almost three years,” Mitch goes on when he refuses to take the bait. “You need more, now.”
“Your own place. Your own path. Your own life.”
He snorts, contemptuous. “I dinna think a college will provide those.”
“Many people find things at college that they did not expect,” says the old man with infuriating serenity.
“So ye think I need tae find myself, then?” He hates the concept. He’s watched people, he’s always watched people. He’s seen the ones who claim to be “finding themselves.” The constant Seekers. Always searching with no wish of finding at all. Flitting from one thing to the next with no more intent than butterflies. Less, for butterflies at least know which flowers will satisfy them. They feed, and then they change. But Seekers never change. And he’s seen the way they treat people. Thoughtless. Self-Centered. Hypocrites.
“I did not say so,” Mitch replies.
They stare at each other across the table in Mitch’s kitchen. The table where they’ve sat so often. And he knows, he already knows, that he’s going to lose this fight. Not only because Mitch is his teacher, and the habit of obedience is strong in him now. But because the old man is right. He’s a man now, not a child. He needs to leave this temporary safety, to branch out, to grow.
He badly wants a beer. He knows there’s beer in the fridge, and he could get up and grab one. He doesn’t need to ask permission. But he doesn’t get up.
“There are things I cannot teach you,” Mitch says.
“How to be the man you are in the world you live in.”
Again, he snorts. “I dinna think college will teach me that, either.”
Mitch just looks at him.
“I canna pay for college,” he says after a time.
“There is a tribal elder on the board of PSU,” Mitch tells him. “She will help, if I ask.”
He thinks about it. Not long.
So it was settled, and now he’s here, in this badly-fitting student apartment, trying to unpack a box. It gives in to him at last, as things do, and he puts his books on one of the shelves. Not many, not now. But he supposes he’ll collect more.
He doesn’t own much else. The clothes on his back. A few household goods his mother gave him, delighted for him to be “making something of himself” at last. The drums. The old bodhrán, the new bodhrán, and the spirit drum he made himself. The old bodhrán is beat to shit; he’d had it when he ran away the first time. He’s replaced the head twice already, but now the frame is cracked and he doesn’t know if he can fix it. He’s not sure he wants to. That’s the drum he was busking with when the drunks set on him.
He’d been only fourteen, then, hadn’t got his full growth. Tall but gawky, still figuring out how to inhabit his body. So, he’d been busking outside a bar in Seattle, in a bad part of town, he’d learned later, although he’d come to know worse. And the drunks had smelt his inexperience and his fear and his fury, got hopped up on it like cocaine. He honestly can’t remember the details; he took a few blows to the head that night. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to remember. Anyway, they’d forced him to play the same song over and over, and it wasn’t because they liked it. It was a threat and a torture. And in between, they’d beat him up. Maybe a dozen times before he wasn’t fun anymore. And it’s too bad, because he did like that song. But now he can’t bear to hear it. Except sometimes it pops out of him, when he’s in trouble or upset. He can’t help it. It just happens.
So he doesn’t think he’ll fix that drum. Not now. Maybe not ever.
He enrolls in classes. He attends them and enjoys them rather more than he expects to, although he finds the required coursework basic. Funny the things you pick up living on the streets. Not information, so much, but how to process it. How to think. If you don’t think, you don’t survive.
He’s quiet, listening a great deal more than he talks, but when called upon he speaks his mind. The Profs like him. The other students seem to like him. He expected no less from the girls. Girls always like him, whether they know him or not. He sleeps with a few of them because he can, no attachments, no hard feelings. It’s all right. They seem pleased. None of them makes a scene. He thinks perhaps he frightens them as much as he attracts them. He thinks perhaps they’re relieved when he goes.
The blokes, though. That surprises him. That he can get along with blokes. Since he got his size, it’s always been one way or the other with blokes. Some try to make up to him. Some try to take him down. Dogs sniffing around another dog, trying to figure out the order of things. Figure out who’s the alpha. He doesn’t care whether or not it’s him, except inasmuch as being the alpha makes the odds for survival better. For him and for the ones who always seem to be under his wing. It’s been years since anyone’s been able to take him down.
But the college blokes are different. Not too much different; blokes are blokes, after all. Still, they get on well enough. Sometimes he goes out for a beer, a game of pool. Not often. Enough to keep up the pretense that he’s one of them, although he’s not. In their way, they respect him. For his GPA, which is a new thing, and seems to him slightly ridiculous. For his size. For his prowess with the pool cue and his success with the girls. Which are not new things at all.
Still, there is no one among them he can really call a friend. He’s too different. He’s older than the other freshman, not just in years. He’s seen too much. Too much none of them will ever, ever see.
And it begins to get to him more and more, as the leaves fall, as autumn passes into winter. This difference. It seems to follow him everywhere, showing him as too old, too big, too knowing. His classmates seem like dwarfs or children. He towers over them, not just in stature; their conversations are meaningless, chatter, less than the calls of migrating birds. The classrooms bind him, even, or perhaps especially, the cavernous lecture hall with the miniscule desks that scarce have room for a sheet of paper, so that he often chooses to stand in the back. Apart and silent. The whole campus cannot contain him. Nothing seems to fit. The weather draws in around the walls of his flat, and the walls of his flat close him in, and his shirts are too tight; he destroys them in tearing them off and has to buy more.
And then he starts to dream. Of Her. Of the girl. The red-haired girl with eyes like the shifting sea of Skye. Of Home.
He never dreamed of her when he was fucked up, when he was on the streets. Only after, when Mitch had brought him back to Portland and cleaned him up. Then she came to him. Mostly when things were bad. When he was at odds with himself, or at loose ends. When there was a space in Mitch’s training. She came to fill it, then.
She never comes when he’s busy, when his mind is full and active. When he’s as close as he can come to content. Only in the dark times. And, although he knows it to be wrong, he sometimes finds himself wishing for the dark, so he might see her.
He’s never told Mitch about Her. He’s never told anyone.
So, he dreams of her now. And she’s no longer a girl, but a woman, beautiful and strong. He last saw her in a smallish town, a college town not so different from Portland. She’s in a city now, a city with a subway; he sees the fringe on her leather jacket swing as she runs for the train. He hears the patter of her boots on the stairs of a walk-up flat, the click of a key unlocking a bolt, the lifting of a latch.
She turns to him with a smile, dazzling, enchanting, kind. Her kindness fills him. He’s no longer lost, unsure, apart. He’s no longer strange. When they join, they fit together, he and this red-haired girl, and the feeling is like nothing else he has ever felt, so fine. So right. How can she come from darkness if this is so right?
He wakes, crying out, spilling his seed, shaken. This has not happened in a long time. It’s a fever in him, a sickness he cannot throw. He wants the dream woman with a fierce hunger. The sensation of filling and being filled. The longing adds to his restlessness, making it impossible to bear. He needs an escape. Any escape.
He tries fucking a couple of the girls from his Ethnography seminar. It’s the first thing that occurs to him, and they’ve both been eyeing him for weeks. It lasts, with one or the other, until the end of the semester, when both of them head for homes out of state. No heartbreak, nothing serious. It’s never serious with him. He can’t give a woman a hollow heart. But it’s a respite. For a while.
When classes are over, and they go, he’s at loose ends. Again, he has too much space to fill. Too much time. He still sees Mitch, of course, but the old man has backed off him, called a halt to his training while he gets established at school. Not that training would be a good idea, with the state he’s in. He’s put his own drum away.
He takes to walking. Nowhere, anywhere. He has mixed feelings about walking. He enjoys the activity, enjoys letting his long legs eat up the ground. He enjoys the tiredness that comes later, when he’s worked his muscles past exhaustion. Yet, after living on the streets, something about it bothers him. It’s hard to appreciate being out and about when once you had no choice.
One time, on a whim, his pocket full of bills he won at pool, he gets a tattoo. He doesn’t know why. Perhaps he thinks enduring the pain of it will satisfy the pain in his soul. But he can hardly feel it, the processed pain, the oversized mechanism that taps the pigment into his skin. Still, it turns out well. Better than he had any right to expect for a moment’s impulse. He feels good about it. Then he decides to spend Christmas with his family, and his mother sees it, and lays into him for marring his flesh. There’s a row, and he leaves early, worse than ever, a pariah, alien to his own blood.
He buys a bag and smokes it, which he doesn’t like, and which makes him ill, besides. He has never understood where potheads come from; weed does nothing for him. He frequents bars and drinks too much. That helps a little, but it takes a great deal to get him truly drunk, and it doesn’t last, and it takes too long. After New Year’s he picks a fight with a trio of Bikers and lands all four of them in jail. While he’s waiting for Mitch to come bail him out—it’s always Mitch who bails him out; if his mother heard, she’d kill him—he wonders if perhaps he’s belonged in prison all along. It’s funny how, once the doors of the holding tank close, the Bikers treat him with respect, almost fondness. He supposes he’s proven his worth to them. Perhaps it’s the only worth he has.
Mitch shows up about three in the morning and springs him. After he picks up his personal belongings, he thinks he’ll just walk back to his flat, but Mitch makes him get in the truck. They sit in the dark parking lot for almost ten minutes before the old man speaks.
“Anything you want to tell me?”
“No. I dinna think so.”
Mitch drives him to his building and lets him go.
A week into January, he can’t stand it anymore.
No one has to tell him where to go to score, and he doesn’t need to ask. He just knows. You do, after a while. You pick up subliminal messages, read clues other people can’t even see. “The Junky Wireless,” they used to call it. So he goes downtown, talks to someone at the Hmong grocery, who sends him to someone else, and he comes away with a dime bag of Chinese smack. The rig is no problem. It never is in a new town. Pick a pharmacy, any pharmacy, and tell the nice clerk that your mother needs insulin syringes. She believes you; you look like a college student. Because you are a college student. Remember that. She trusts him; she doesn’t ask the name of the medication or the dosage. He doesn’t even have to turn on the charm.
Back at the flat, he cooks a dose on automatic, not caring, not thinking. Because when he gets like this, there’s only one thing to do. And perhaps this time it will kill him, and perhaps not. Either way, the relief will be worth it.
The rush, when it comes, is two minutes of forever, like the best sex he’s ever had, going on and on until he thinks his heart might burst. But it doesn’t, and besides, it isn’t the rush he craves. It’s the nod. And aye, here it is, washing over him like warm milk. The absence of everything. The pain may still be beneath it, waiting. But for now, for now there’s peace.
For the first time in a long time, he relaxes completely. Comfortable, safe and at ease, not caring that he knows it’s all an illusion. After a while, he sleeps, and there is no red-haired girl in his dreams.
There’s nothing at all.
The dime bag lasts a day or two. Then there’s another dime bag, and after that a twenty. And then he doesn’t know; he loses track. It doesn’t take a lot to get him off at first, and then it does, just like he’s never been clean at all. Time stops. Life stops. He exists in a state of suspended animation, surfacing from time to time, after minutes, after hours, to fix again or score again or shoot a game of pool to get the cash to score and fix and score. It’s a closed loop, a cycle that never ends. Sometimes, in brief moments of clarity, he’s awestruck at how fast it got hold of him, like diving into water deeper than he expected. Sometimes he thinks, Where’s all that going? Not in my veins, surely. And then he thinks, Aye, well, perhaps it is. And that’s all right.
And then, one day, someone dumps a bucket of cold water over his head, and he wakes up.
Mitch is in his flat, still holding the bucket.
“You’ve missed two weeks of classes,” the old man says. “That isn’t good.”
“Aye, well,” he says. His mouth tastes like a toilet bowl that hasn’t been scrubbed in a while. “I didna want tae attend college in the first place.”
“I didn’t pull you out of this hole to have you jump back in it the first time things got too hard for you,” Mitch says. “I expected better from you.”
“Perhaps ye should learn not tae expect so much, then.” Why cannot the old man go away and leave him alone?
“You need to choose, Timber. Choose to die, or choose to live. But not this slow wasting.”
For some reason, perhaps because Mitch has spoken his name, or perhaps because he knows the words to be true, this gets to him. He sits up, water dripping from his hair. He feels it, cold on his shoulders. The sofa is drenched.
“Do I have tae decide this instant?” he asks.
“No.” Mitch starts to gather things into a plastic grocery sack. Paraphernalia. Leftovers. The open box of syringes, the baggie with the remains of a gram. Aluminum foil, a lighter, a spoon. “You come see me in a day. If you ask, I’ll give this back to you and we’ll be quits.”
“You know what then. But don’t destroy yourself. Make it clean.” He heads for the door, grocery sack rustling like dead leaves. At the threshold, he pauses. “I hope you won’t ask.”
After his teacher is gone, he cleans up a bit, tries to eat. He’s lost a good deal of weight, but it’s all right. At least for the moment, his clothes don’t chafe. He’ll gain it back soon enough. If he chooses to live.
He thinks he has a few hours before the shakes start, so he decides to walk. There’s nothing but his word to keep him from looking up his contact and scoring again, but he won’t. He won’t get back on that wheel. Mitch is right; he needs to make it clean. A clean break or a clean end.
He walks until he can’t walk anymore, and then he lies on the floor of his flat and sweats, and shakes, and feels sick. He has more of the same to look forward to, if he chooses to live. He supposes he can bear it. It’s what comes after that frightens him. It’s what comes after that he isn’t sure he can bear.
In the evening, he goes over to Mitch’s place. The old man is waiting for him at the kitchen table, the plastic grocery sack in front of him. He, Timber, sits down.
“I’ll live,” he says.
Mitch nods. “Good. You look like Hell. Go to bed.”
He does. He knows by the time he’s up and about, that grocery sack will have vanished, and nothing will ever be said of it again.
Later, in the spring, Mitch tells him,
“You need a discipline.”
“Yes. Something to hold onto when night comes in.”
“College isna enough?”
“No.” The old man pats his knee. “College works your brain. You need something to work your body. And your spirit. Not girls.”
He laughs. Sometimes he thinks it a wonder he can still laugh, after everything.
“You find something,” Mitch says.
So, he’s walking by the river on a Saturday, and the fair is going on. Mostly potters and painters, as usual, but a couple odd vendors as well. One of them is some kind of refugee from a Ren Faire: a tent chock full of cheap knives and such. Kris from India and kukris with brass showing under a thin patina of steel, and potmetal swords. All shite, but he checks it out anyway. Hardly anything there that will take an edge, much less be of any practical use. Except, that far corner of the tent keeps drawing him. He goes over, and there, half buried in flimsy replicas, he finds the single decent thing in the entire collection. A bastard sword, almost four feet long including the hilt. The scabbard’s nothing much, just worn brown leather. But he checks the blade and it’s good steel. The hilt fits his hand as if it had been made for him. And, to his surprise, the touch of it fills an empty space in him. Not the whole of it. Not even most. But enough.
“Make me an offer,” the vendor says. “No one wants that. It’s not pretty.”
“We’ll suit, then,” he says, and the vendor gives him a look. But he isn’t talking about his face. He’s talking about everything else.
He hasn’t got much on him, only a fifty he was planning to spend on food. The blade’s worth more than that. But he offers it, and the vendor takes it.
A discipline, Mitch said. It’s not like he can really study broadsword in this day and age. Not like Japanese technique that you can learn at any reputable dojo. But the notion amuses him. Surely he can find out some things. Talk to this person and that. And it will keep him occupied. A line to hold when night comes in.
Back at the flat, he hangs the sword on the wall. It looks well there.
He can already feel how it’s changed him. How it will continue to change him, in time to come.
He still does not feel at home. Perhaps he never will.
But for now, it’s all right.