Clean Currents, Avian Skeleton


The man, or the silhouette or illustration of that verisimilitude, had come in from the foul weather. An unwelcoming day, it had been decidedly opaque and an underfoot of alloy ice grew strong across the travel avenues. The Cherry Creek glazed over. Cars crossing in front of the bar crept slowly, the back end of the vehicles stole sideways with the gestures of pie-eyed mammoths, glinted eyes, raving and reeling, tentative navigators making over-corrections to their courses as the unheeled machines grumbled and kicked up desaturated chunkings.

Without exception, each traveler seemed awkwardly delinquent in the process of vacating the streets. They were annoyed. The bikes disappeared first. Then everything took on a meta-voyeuristic hue. Behind reflective windshields, beneath the scarves, were eyes, were furrows of pink skin bending into expressions of embarrassment and care and liability. The buildings flinched and people peered out, finger-slitting the blinds, hugging the curtain margins, eyes like naked oranges, tongue tips privately delighting in the definitions of their housings. There were tight frowns and lips attempting a bloodless displacement of teeth. Careful progress. Luminance sprang from the street poles starting up yellow diffractions in the pregnant grey overhead. The world galvanized. New winds brought crystals of snow and the gales sung everything.

Someone was smoking a cigarette, tending the outside portal of the bar in a hunched condition, blowing away a heated vapor that was undiscerned from the tobacco smoke. There was a soft glow tracing his face from the cherry of the thing. All else was tungsten. A practical person, and gentleman of convenience, the smoker grinned at the man and heel-cocked the door as he pushed through.

The man had wheels. And his treads were dressed in a fat track of snow which left a damply amebic wake as the ice delaminated. Pushing himself up to the center of the bar, the man removed his ski gloves and set them in his lap. His bare hands were bulky around the joints and he rubbed them together for the friction.

The bartender frowned, leaned low, talked with him, and then made him a drink.

—What’s it about him? There’s something . . .

—He shouldn’t be out in a storm like this.

—He looks homeless, where’s he supposed to go from here?

—How does he get home then? Someone should take care of this, s’wat I’m saying.

—I looked down the sidewalk, and he took his wheelchair all the way. There’s his lines in the snow. All the way down the block. And further than that, it goes far as I can see.

—That’s not very far.

—I hate cocaine, but I love the smell of it.

—This is serious. Quit talking like that.

—It’s snowing kilos, and I’ll talk whatever the damn fuck ass way I want to. Fuck him. Fuck him. He ain’t hurting anyone.

The man pulled his rucksack from around his shoulders and set it between his knees. It was an awkward radial motion for him: he had to unsaddle the backpack, which was pinched between his body and his wheelchair. It took some time. He was careful with it. Finally he retrieved something from inside his bag, then he was eating pills from miniature orange bottles. One bottle then another. Pharmacy legerdemain. There was a Busch pint aside him on a round table, the same place where he had deposited his ski gloves, and intermittently the man utilized the flat suds to wash caplets down: green, pale blue, off-yellow, ivory, all different sizes from mouse to elephant. After a while, he wheeled up for another pint, then, later, another.

After he fell down, a crowd gathered around him. They tried to pick him up, but it was a constipated effort. No one wanted to hurt the man; no one wanted to leave him on the floor. The man had fallen asleep on his contraption and, by the inch, had nodded towards the ground until he collapsed onto it. People pulled and pawed at him; the man wouldn’t wake up. There was an acrid smell: his fluids had soaked into the many layers of clothes. You could smell it awhile away.

—This isn’t good for you.

—If a cop comes in, or someone calls a cop, that’s gonna be on you.

—They come in all the time. For any reason, for no reason. They’ve got me several times like that.

—Pick him up. No one’s a’supposed to sleep in here.

—Free drinks for the people who get him up at least. Free well drinks or draws. You get two markers.

—I’ll get him up.

—It’ll take more than one person. He ain’t skinny too. I got you, I got you.

—I love marry-jew-wanna, but I forgot why.

There was drool. The man was drooling and the puddle was half glistening on the side of his cheek and half an inky ameba shape on the carpet. Two people levied him up by the shoulders and settled him into his chair, propped so his head tilted backwards and his jaw hung at the hinges.

—Let’s see what’s in his bag.

—You can’t take his pills, man.

—I mean for an I.D. Maybe there’s someone we can call.

—You can’t take his pills. They might be life pills.

—I.D.? For a phone number? The hell kinda logic is that. I.D. don’t tell you everything.

—Leave him be there. Leave him alone. He’ll wake up sometime.

—This fucker isn’t going to have an I.D.. Look at him for Christ.

—Did you get his I.D.? I got nothing but morons on my team. I said, did you see his identification? Did you see that?

—He didn’t have an I.D.. Look at him though. What? Am I supposed to kick him out in that?

—He’s breathing. Fuck him. Fuck him. Let’s do some drinks.

—I’m going to look in his bag.

—You ain’t looking in shit. Stop fucking with the bag.

The crowd forgot about him. The juke went on and off. People leaned over each other at the bar and talked. There was the tender noise of laughter that happens in a warm interior under poor weather. After all, the snow was general and all over Denver—it had brought a heavy overlay that made responsibility seem thin and company a necessity. It was merry and sentimental. Glasses were used and washed. The man woke up after a while. No one noticed him opening his eyes, but mysteriously he was rolling down to the bar for another Busch.

—You can’t pass out in here.

—I was taking a minute. Nothing wrong with taking a minute.

—You can’t do it in here. No minutes in here, got it?

—You heard of micro breaks? That Sistine Chapel guy? He was into those.

—Not in here.

The man was giggling. His lips were very red and very wet and he still had the gleam of drool on the side of his cheek caught up in the dull light. He gently retrieved his beer and rolled back to his corner as the bar din went on without him in it.

Later:

—He wants to talk to you.

—Everyone wants to talk to me.

—Well, shit, ain’t you cooler than the other side of a pillow? It’s your friend with the wheelchair.

The bartender went down to see him, the man grinning feverishly with a half-open mouth, pins of sweat on the caps of his attentive cheeks.

—What is it?

—I gotta get me an ambulance. My shoulder, it’s hurting. It’s hurt before.

The man was holding his shoulder in the cup of his hand. He was wearing a thick down-jacket and his indented claw looked oddly suspended for the insulation of the coat. The arm of the shoulder in question was bending and opening slow, like it was sore in the elbow or the socket and he was being sensitive with it.

—I don’t like to call the bus. You’ll end up in detox. You have to know that.

—I’m not drunk. I might die.

—Are you serious? Anyone know this guy? Is he serious?

—I don’t know him.

—No one fucking knows him. Fuck him. Fuck him.

—If you don’t call me an ambulance, I may die. May really and truly die here. I have many conditions. I have me a lot of conditions, really, Man. They always say so. Last time my shoulder hurt it was grim.

—Alright boss. You’re a real fucking winner here.

The ambulance came. The paramedics were cold and breathing heavily when they entered. Each of the medical team had ruddy skin and cheeks blasted by the wind were dappled with white.

—Where is he?

—He’s the guy in the corner.

—That guy’s in the chair?

—Yes, that’s him.

—They got Carlette. Fred, shit, they got Carlette. Hey Carlette, how you doing?

—Is that his real name?

—Why wouldn’t it be?

—He’s in a wheelchair.

—So?

Everyone started looking at the man in the wheelchair, Carlette. Carlette’s eyes bulged, the brown-yellow stains at the edges of his corneas showing nakedly, raw eggs succumbing to gravity but holding flimsy to a surface tension. His jaw cranked into a maw and he took on the look of brain-vacancy. Then came the screams, wild but adhering to a pattern of outbursts and in-bursts. A small fistula at the indention of his cheek stretched into a black spot. The sudden appearance of the hole, as well as the guttural exclamations coming out of him, made the man seem in possession of a second mouth, a miniscule aper that had gone mutinous.

—Ah, shit. C’mon, shut that up already.

The paramedics forcibly rolled him out, pressing him into his wheelchair with their own weight on his shoulders. The screams dopplered off behind the door and then vanished completely under the din. After a while, one of the paramedics came back in to speak with the bartender.

—How is he?

—How is he? He’s fine. They’re calming him down. He’s getting a hit in the arm as we speak. He’s fine. Gimme a…Gimmie a double Crown. That’ll be it. No rocks. Please, make it quick.

The bartender poured out a high helping and the paramedic moved to pay before the bartender waved his money back to him.

—Thanks. Thanks. Don’t let that guy back in here. Just take it as advice. Shit, that guy ain’t nuttin’ but a problem.

—What’s the matter with him?

—What’s a’matter with any of us? Who knows? He does this shtick all the fucking time. Sometimes he’ll call when the weather’s poor, like it is. Shit it’s cold. And other times he calls when he’s drifted too far away from his house. It’s not like he has a destination. He just goes, wheels along, I don’t know. How he does it, how he always get somewhere he can’t get back from, I don’t know. Pour me another, will you? It’s so damn cold I can’t tell you. I gotta get back out in it.

—So he’s not sick? He said he was dying. He’s not dying?

—He’s sick. Shit, he’s sick as shit. No, he’s not dying. Not in an imminent sense. We’ll give him a ride home. Does this shtick all’a the time. Don’t let him back in here.

—How does it make a difference? We got all kinds who aren’t welcome anywhere else. He paid for his drinks.

—Oh, it won’t. It won’t make a bit. Not an iota. Hey, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an asshat. It’s easy to have a soft spot for ‘im. But he’ll pull the same gag at a shop, a boutique, a florist, a grocery, you know. It might make a difference to you. I don’t know, call it a neighborly warning.

—I work here. I don’t live here.

—Same difference, same difference. Me too. Anyway, I gotta go.

The paramedic inserted some gum in his mouth and left.

—What the fuck is that?

—What the fuck is that?

—That’s what I’m saying.

—Yassir, me too.

The snow kept falling in a swooshy silence, coming down well enough.

And when the bartender closed and had embayed the establishment behind metal-sheeted doors, he noticed that the ground snow had become dense. The white layer was now crusty, leaning stacked and bulbous off the curbsides, the sills, the eaves. Everything looked and smelled clean, untouched, and the ozone was there on the ground. The bartender had killed most of the lights and the neons alone made soft green and pink colors through the grated windows.

It was a surreal trek. The storm was finally moving out and the stars were guttering in the brittle atmosphere; stark clouds on the horizon line, but a clear black window above. His footfalls were sticky on the sidewalk and the buildup covered the bartender’s ankles. Snow dipped into the space of his shoe collars. And as the bartender walked to his vehicle he registered that the accumulation counteracted the ice from being so slick. There was a good grip to his step and later to his tires as he scudded through streets at three in the morning that were empty and pure. Watching him go, if there was anyone to mark the event, was the sight of a bleared formation, a V of pulverized crystals with an indistinct figure leading the flight, fingers red with the grip, jutting shoulders, canted neck, blank eyes and a mad mouth, pushing through turns, occasionally using curbsides for bowling bumpers, going somewhere. He traversed a bridge. Underneath the Cherry Creek had gone steel. He could have been anyone, really. There were clean currents all about.  

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