By: Ted Downum
At the model train shop south of downtown, the salesmen sometimes let Stringer stand outside and look in through the windows, as long as he didn’t bother anybody. He liked to gaze at the store’s many shelves of model locomotives, boxcars, and tank cars, model buildings and tiny model people. He liked to look in and watch a model train run on the store’s big HO-scale layout, past miniature water towers and over tiny bridges that spanned blue acrylic rivers.
Today, after the long walk down Broadway to the store, Stringer felt so shaky that he couldn’t stand up straight at the window. He had let himself run short of vodka, and now he had the jerks and the squirming worms. His head felt hollow and fragile. The cold light of the November morning showed him a dim reflection of himself in the glass of the train shop window: the coat loose on his bony frame, the frame swaying, a tangled beard brushing the glass, his forehead striking the glass with a soft thump.
A salesman came outside, wearing an old-fashioned pinstriped denim engineer’s cap. “Sorry, man,” he said. “The manager says you have to go.”
Stringer nodded. It made him dizzy. He bent and groped for his backpack.
The salesman stood and watched, waiting for him to leave. Another salesman—paisley neckerchief, Burlington Northern cap—glowered at Stringer from inside the window. Still nodding, Stringer began to shuffle back up Broadway, back toward the center of Denver. He went a few dozen steps, stopped, and looked back. The engineer hat had gone back inside the store. Burlington Northern flicked his fingers at Stringer, brushing the air, shooing him: go on.
With the squirms and the jerks, Stringer didn’t think he could walk the way back downtown. His head had started to pound. His body heat flowed out into the day’s dry cold through the chafed skin of his cheeks and nose, the skin his beard didn’t protect.
He cut a block over to Lincoln and found a stop for the city bus, the northbound zero. He leaned on the pole that held up the bus-stop sign.
While he waited, after he had checked for cop cars, he slipped his vodka half-pint out of a coat pocket. The bottle only held about a shot’s worth, so Stringer only took a tiny nip, barely enough to taste.
It would slow the worms down for a couple of minutes, at best.
Up came the zero. Stringer climbed on and fed the fare box two-fifty from his inner coat pocket, his panhandling money: two crumpled ones, two quarters. He sat in an empty seat behind a young man and an old woman, a puffy orange Broncos jacket and a ratty felt coat.
The bus began to roll. It had gone about a block up Lincoln before the young man in the Broncos jacket turned around and asked Stringer, “Do you know how bad you smell?”
“Eric,” said the old woman. “Don’t be rude.”
“Do you know how bad you smell? Jesus, it’s making my eyes water. Do you know how bad you smell? When’s the last time you took a bath?”
“Eric, be quiet. Stop bothering him.”
“I can’t believe my mother has to smell you,” said Eric, his voice rising. “Go sit somewhere else. Get up and go, right now, before I make you move.”
“Eric, stop bothering him.”
“He smells like fucking dirty socks, Mom, can’t you smell it? He smells like shitty underpants!”
Stringer, looking straight ahead, saw the driver’s dark face tilt up into the rear-view mirror. “Please watch your language, sir,” the driver called back. “I don’t tolerate that kind of language on my bus, sir.”
“But you tolerate having this filthy bum on your bus? He’s a health hazard!”
Stringer groped for the stop cord.
“Good,” Eric said. “Get off. This is the highlight of my day, you getting off.”
Eric’s mother had begun to cry. “Eric,” she sobbed, “you’re embarrassing me.”
Stringer climbed slowly back down into the cold.
“Take a bath,” Eric yelled at his back. “Take a bath, bum!”
A sign-flyer stood on the corner of Lincoln and 6th. He held up his sign for drivers of northbound cars to see, shaky red marker letters on pizza-box cardboard: DISABLED HOMELESS VET, PLEASE HELP. He didn’t look disabled to Stringer. He looked strong and mean and tattooed all the way up his neck and down to his fingers, and his teeth looked pointed and sharp when he bared them at Stringer.
Stringer kept going.
Ahead of him, Speer cut across Lincoln at an angle, parallel to the creek and the bike path that ran below street level. On the far side of Speer, past the tall glass block of the Blue Cross building, Lincoln went up a steep hill. The thought of climbing that slope filled Stringer with sadness. The worms of his thirst frolicked in his chest and his groin. They wiggled under the skin of his back.
He kept going.
As he crossed Speer, someone screeched his name. Startled, he froze in the crosswalk. The screech sounded real, and there it came again, and Stringer saw a small, pale figure on the triangle of winter-burned grass to his left, a tiny park with a sculpture of faceless people and a battered concrete picnic bench. Stringer knew the screaming, waving person in the shiny white parka: Pebbles. It was Pebbles, a real person, beckoning him over.
Stringer and Pebbles sat together at the concrete picnic bench. Pebbles raised his bumpy face to the clouds. He said, “I met these kids.”
Stringer looked around for cop cars. He took another careful nip from his half-pint and slid it back into his jacket, one careful nip emptier.
“Gutter punks,” said Pebbles. “Seven. Seven or eight…or nine little gutter punk kids. I met them at the mall. They said let’s party. They said let’s get a motel room. It sounded…they wanted to drink. They’re like, do you drink? Buy us liquor? So I…went with them. I went with them, Stringer, to sleep in a motel room, I thought…sure, it was…you know. It was cold. It was cold.”
People called Pebbles “Pebbles” because of his bumps, hundreds of hard little round bumps on his skin, like warts, but not warts. Pebbles said they had something to do with his nerves, with his body’s nerves and fibers. He had the bumps all over his face and on his neck and on the backs of his hands. His clothes hid the rest of him, dirty brown work pants and his white ski parka fresh from the Channel 9 winter coat giveaway, but Stringer figured Pebbles must have the bumps all over his body.
The bumps cast many tiny, curved shadows on Pebbles’ face. He went everywhere wrapped in a ragged sheet of nighttime, all those dark little crescents.
“We got this rum,” said Pebbles. He patted the backpack beside him. “We made rum and Coke drinks. Place had a…Coke machine, and…ice machine.”
Stringer stared at Pebbles’ backpack. He saw bottle tops nudging the top flap open.
“At first it was fun, Stringer. At first, we had some drinks. Two, three of…gutter punks, two of them were girls.”
“Mm,” said Stringer.
“Not like nasty little gutter punk kids,” Pebbles said. “They just wanted to drink, so I bought liquor. I told them I like dope, I…dope, but I can drink, you know…do drink. We drank on this rum bottle. And…but this one girl says it’s too hot in the room, and takes off…she just had her underwear on. Everything all kind of…like boom, like right there.”
He turned to Stringer, his bumpy face working. “Lustful, it…Stringer, I had lustful thoughts. She, I did…sinful thoughts, Stringer. And I can’t, I can’t have lustful, girls, they don’t…lustful, that’s all just, I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.”
Pebbles tipped sideways, bent to grapple with his pack. He unclipped the top flap. He took out a big plastic liquor bottle, a gallon jug. The label had an angry pirate on it, cutlass and hook-hand and black crossbones hat: Old Marauder’s Rum. Three-quarters empty, but still one-quarter full: the sight of it made drool seethe in Stringer’s mouth.
He set the rum bottle on the grass at their feet. Stringer looked around for cop cars. While he did, Pebbles took out two smaller bottles, a half-pint of whiskey and a half-pint of vodka. The neck of the vodka bottle still had the cellophane seal around its cap.
“You drink, Stringer, right? You drink, right?”
“Oh,” said Stringer. “Yeah, I drink.”
“Take these. Take them. I don’t want them. This morning, the gutter punks, I…still sleeping, I didn’t…I just took off. I took it all. Those fuckers…” His bumpy lips drew back from his teeth.
Stringer tried to shove the bottles into his own backpack and watch for cop cars at the same time. His trembling made it hard to handle the bottles. But it was okay, all okay. Pebbles had just solved his biggest problem in the world.
Amazing, he thought.
He had to ditch things from his pack to make room for the rum bottle. He took out a ragged sweatshirt and some socks. He tossed his only warm-weather hat, a dirty bucket hat. He shoved the rum jug down, wedged the little bottles to either side of it, and zipped the zipper. Finally, he hefted the pack, put it in his lap, and wrapped his arms around it, and held it tight, pressing the bottles into his chest.
Pebbles kept telling his story, his face scrunched into a bumpy mask of grief. “And the underwear girl, she’s like let me touch your face. I’m like no, but she’s like come on, I want to see what those feel like.”
Stringer grunted. He wanted to get away, to start drinking. Be polite, he thought, Pebbles just gave you bottles, three bottles.
“And this other…dreadlocks white boy, he’s like don’t disrespect Savannah, dog, and he grabs my arms…and this girl…with her fingers.” Pebbles put his hands on his face, groped it to demonstrate. “She’s like does it hurt, does it hurt? She squeezes my mouth”—Pebbles clamped on his cheeks, made a fish-face—“and she’s…like do these things hurt, can you feel this?”
He dropped his hands and started to cry.
“Ashamed,” he sobbed.
“Okay,” Stringer said. He patted Pebbles stiffly on the knee. “It’s okay.”
“Not yet! Stringer, not yet…Stringer, do you smoke dope, Stringer? Crystal? Do you smoke that? I need some dope, Stringer, are you holding? Meth, Stringer, do you smoke that?”
As he shook his head, Stringer stood up. “I drink,” he said. “Thanks, Pebbles.”
Pebbles moved his hands over his face, wiping away liquids, tears, snot.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t even…if fucking…gutter punks wake up, no rum and Coke. Don’t even care, Stringer, as long as they can’t…goddamn kids can’t drink it.” He started to cry again, really crying. “She can’t drink it,” Pebbles sobbed, moving his hands over his face, over a thousand bumps on his skin, little man in white parka with empty pack, rocking on the concrete bench, smaller and smaller as Stringer moved away.
He went back to Speer where it followed Cherry Creek and down the stairs to the bike path and found a hiding place under one of the side-street bridges. He took out the rum jug and went to work and drank it with care and concentration, long deep hits on the bottle, deep as he dared, and after a few minutes, he had finished the bottle off, and his stomach felt like a sweet pool of lava, of warmth and goodness.
Stringer leaned back against a cold concrete bridge pillar. A great, spicy rum belch roiled up out of him.
With his face turned up toward the bottom of the bridge, Stringer sat smiling on the concrete. The warm rum spread through his body, out into his hands and his gnarled feet, and it chased out all the small pains in his toes, his soles and heels. His feet felt sound again, good muscle and healthy flesh.
After a few minutes, he opened his eyes. He didn’t want to open his eyes, he didn’t want to move, but if he fell asleep by the bike path, he would wake up in detox or in County, without bottles, with no bottles at all.
He knew a much better spot. He knew a spot north of downtown, near the old coliseum, where he could sit under the freeway and look down into the Union Pacific railyards. In that spot, on the north side near the old coliseum, Stringer could sit up all night and watch the locomotives. He could study the boxcars and tank cars and coal cars lined up on the tracks, each one with its purpose, all connected, all lined up to go somewhere.
Stringer had loved trains all his life, but now he loved them even more because they went places. He had to follow the same course. He looped around and around the middle of Denver, from one end of 16th Street to the other, or up and down Colfax, up and down, back and forth, east to Colorado, west to Federal, again and again and again. He followed the same course, like a model train.
Real trains went everywhere. They went all over the continent, from ocean to ocean, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, across the plains and over the mountains. They could take anything anywhere, almost.
A certain city bus would take him through downtown, to the north, and drop him where he would have an easy walk to his train-watching spot. That bus had a one-digit route number, possibly five or eight. He couldn’t remember the number, but he knew where to catch the bus: the beautiful hotel, he thought. Not too far away, back downtown. He could walk it.
Powered by rum, he could walk it fast.
Stringer walked north while the day darkened, gray to blue to purple. He walked past the civic center. He did not look for faces he knew among the people clustered on the lawns and slumped at the bases of the statues. He passed the capitol building and did not stop to admire the gilded dome.
He wondered where Pebbles had gone.
Pebbles had probably gone looking for dope, unless he had gone to the Triangle, to the missions and shelters. Pebbles might be trying to get a bed for the night at the Samaritan House or the Jesus Saves.
Stringer hated the shelters, but he hoped Pebbles got a bed. He felt bad about Pebbles. He felt bad because Pebbles had just given him all his liquor. He had simply handed his liquor over. Stringer thought he should have haggled, because Stringer would have paid him. Stringer would have given Pebbles all the money he had, money Pebbles could trade for dope.
Not that he could really complain. Now he had Pebbles’ liquor and a few dollars in his inner coat pocket. He had everything he needed but the railyard.
He kept walking until he reached the bus stop on 15th Street between California and Welton, across from the Hyatt hotel.
A dozen people stood waiting at the bus stop. Many more walked up and down 15th, busy moving from jobs to houses. All ignored him. He sidled into the pay-park lot behind the bus stop and took out his pint of vodka, the one he’d been nipping on before he ran into Pebbles. He unscrewed the cap and dropped it.
With his head tipped back to drink, he found himself looking straight up the side of the Hyatt. It towered against the purple sky, so pretty, cream stone slabs and a thousand squares of green crystal window, so clean and solid, and as Stringer watched the flat side of the building bulged outward in silence, the steel-and-stone structure stretching like thin latex. The green windows changed their shape, bursting their own corners, swelling from squares to circles with a cartoony pop. The building grew strange angles and planes, a nose and a chin, massive granite eyes, the face of Pebbles forty stories high, the hotel windows now his bumps, the bumps now glass bubbles lit up brilliant green.
Pebbles’ high voice, amplified ten thousand times, warbled across the city and into the earth beneath it. Stringer…fine, it said. Manhole covers rattled in their rims, cars skidded and crashed into each other. I’m fine, and…and enjoy the liquor, Stringer. Enjoy the liquor. Watch out for little…gutter punks, said Pebbles the building, and the face folded inward, and the hotel resolved itself back into a rectangle.
Awed, Stringer listened to the echoes of Pebbles’ voice diminish. The other people waiting at the bus stop kept playing on their cell phones. They hadn’t heard it.
Sweat broke beneath Stringer’s beard, prickled beneath his clothes in the hollows of his thin body, but he wheezed out a laugh. Sometimes he saw strange stuff, but rarely anything that awesome.
He felt lucky that he had seen it, felt lucky to be hanging around at the right bus stop at the right moment. He wondered why he was there; vodka and rum had left him pleasantly foggy.
A bus rolled up. The electronic sign above its windshield, a black slot full of yellow dots, had the number 6, plus a personal message: GET ON, STRINGER!
Why not, Stringer thought. It asked for me.
15th and California, 15th and Larimer, 15th and Blake and Wynkoop and Delgany and Little Raven, the city rolled past, the bus headed north.
Stringer hugged his pack, his two precious bottles, and leaned his head against the plastic window. He thought about the hotel, the gigantic Pebbles face. He thought of Pebbles’ regular human face. He recalled Pebbles’ bumpy face, wet with tears of shame. A gutter punk had made him feel ashamed and lustful.
Lustful thoughts: Stringer had forgotten about those.
He could remember an episode in his old life, his life before he got stuck on his model-train loop. He had met a woman, Pam, in rehab. He thought she might have been tall and skinny, with short blond hair. Once they had partied for several days in a house: not in a motel like Pebbles and the gutter punks, but an actual house that belonged to some friend of hers. The friend had gone out of the country on vacation and left Pam to housesit with a full liquor cabinet. Pam and Stringer had drunk their way through that liquor cabinet, bottle by bottle: Wild Turkey and Johnnie Walker Red and Cointreau and Kahlua and Grand Marnier and Gordon’s and Stolichnaya.
And rum, like the rum he could still taste in his mouth, rum he could still taste on a throbbing tooth where the rum’s sugar had stung the raw cavities. Not Old Marauder rum, but Bacardi rum, he and Pam had drunk Bacardi rum, expensive rum. But the Old Marauder was good, pooled in his stomach, working in his blood, lulling him along with the vibration of the bus tires on the pavement, the warmth of the bus’s heaters, the voices of other passengers, some speaking English, some Spanish.
When he popped awake, he saw old houses set in a row, close together, passing outside the window. They gave way suddenly to a big old red-brick church, a Catholic church with a statue in front of it, a saint or the Virgin Mary. He had never seen the church before.
As the bus passed, the statue turned its head and smiled.
Stringer felt a flash of fear, and the fear cooled to annoyance. He sat up straight and looked out the windows for anything familiar.
Off the street of little houses, the bus made a right turn onto a street of shops. It approached a stoplight, slowed, eased into the left-turn lane, and stopped with a long squeal of brake hydraulics.
A convenience store, a 7-11, stood at one corner of the intersection where the bus had stopped. Its windows showed Stringer shelves of snacks, coolers full of colorful drinks. A pale shape resolved itself off to one side of the 7-11, a woman leaning against the blank brick wall at the far end of the building. She wore a fuzzy white bathrobe and nothing on her feet; she stood barefoot on the asphalt. Her hair, short and pale and messy, glistened like it was wet, but a swarm of shadows hid her face. A long, clear bottle hung from her right hand. Stringer watched as she lifted it and drank.
The light changed, and the bus began to move. As it made its turn, the woman blew Stringer a kiss.
An old man climbed aboard the bus at the next stop: Stringer’s dad. Stringer hadn’t seen him for years. His dad looked a little like Stringer’s grandfather, and a lot like old men Stringer had seen wandering the mall or sleeping on the civic-center grass. His thin white hair stood straight up from his wrinkled forehead, tendrils floating like the fronds of an underwater plant. He sat in the disabled-passenger seats at the front of the bus and stared straight into the aisle, scowling.
Stringer didn’t go up to talk to him. His father wouldn’t have anything nice to say to him.
A few stops later, a big fat guy got on, his gut stuffed into a tight tan sweater vest. He had dark slicked-back hair and a pointed, satanic beard. Stringer couldn’t remember his name, but the guy had been his counselor in rehab, in one of his rehabs, or maybe the guy had been his doctor. Stringer tried to catch his attention as he came down the aisle. The big man went right past him, breathing out the odor of spoiled food, and sat in the back.
The bus slowed to yet another stop. With a slow clatter, somebody began to lock a bike into the rack on the front of the bus. It seemed that the bike rider didn’t know how to work the rack. Stringer saw the bus driver pointing through the windshield, miming directions. Stringer’s dad looked annoyed, up on the disabled seats. Maybe he had to be somewhere, and the bike rider was slowing him down.
When the bike rider finally got onto the bus, Stringer thought that he didn’t recognize him, at first: a kid, a mangled kid, with gnarled limbs and a zigzag spine, his t-shirt striped brown and black with road grit and tire rubber. As he wobbled up the aisle, suddenly Stringer did recognize him: his friend Barry from grade school, years ago. Barry and his bike had gotten hit one summer by a car. Stringer and his parents and his sister had been in California at the time, at Disneyland. Ever since that vacation, whenever Stringer saw Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, he pictured the character dead in the middle of a street that went past Cherry Knolls Park in Littleton.
“Hey, Barry,” Stringer said.
The mangled kid stopped beside Stringer’s seat. His lower jaw had sprung loose from its hinge on the left side of his skull, leaving his mouth jammed open, lopsided. He stared at Stringer, not blinking. Hemorrhage had turned the whites of his eyes a bright red. He kept staring, and Stringer realized that his old friend must not recognize him. He had known Stringer as a boy of nine or ten. He had never seen Stringer grown up, with a long, crazy beard; never seen him drunk.
“Barry, it’s me, Ken,” said Stringer.
The crooked jaw tried to flex. Stringer heard a tiny voice come from the oblong mouth. He could barely hear it over the grumble of the bus engine. It was hard to get my bike on there. It’s bent up bad from the accident.
“Hey,” said Stringer, “you’re alive again. When did you come back to life?”
Tears welled in Barry’s red eyes. Stringer heard sobs like a tiny cricket chirping inside his ear: No, Ken, I’m dead. I’m dead and you’re alive and look at how you are.
Barry dragged himself past Stringer’s seat, going back to sit with the others.
Stringer had tears in his own eyes. After a while, he turned backward to see where Barry had gone. He didn’t see Barry or the fat guy. He saw at least a dozen other people staring straight back at him, people he hadn’t noticed getting on. A few of the faces seemed familiar. A woman wearing glasses rolled her eyes at him. An older man, dark-skinned and white-haired, shook his head, fed up. Stringer smiled. The older man didn’t smile back. None of them smiled back.
Just leave them alone, Stringer thought, just leave them alone and mind your own business. He twisted back around to face the front of the bus. Leave them alone. Pretend nobody is back there at all.
From wherever he had gone, Barry spoke to him with the ear-cricket voice. Look at you, Ken, he said again. Look at how you are.
Shut up, Barry, thought Stringer.
I got hit by a car, you didn’t, but all you did was you got wasted, Ken. And look at how you are.
“Shut up,” Stringer said. He stuck his left pinkie into his left ear, put it in as far as it would go. “Shut up,” he growled, “shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up,” and he put his right forefinger into his other ear. “SHUT UP,” he shouted, as he dug in both ears for the cricket that he couldn’t find, the source of the tiny voice that mocked him and mocked him and just got louder: look at how you are, Ken, look at how wasted you are.
The driver told him to get off at the next stop, or she would call the cops on her bus radio and have him arrested.
Stringer got off.
He stood at the bus stop, teetering, and watched the bus roll away, up the busy avenue where it had left him. Its taillights dwindled to dim red dots and disappeared over a hill.
Cars rushed past Stringer on the avenue. Headlights prodded him and hurt his eyes. He shuffled away from the traffic, toward the bus-stop bench. His pack dangled from his right hand, and his left hand dangled from his ear, the pinkie still wedged inside.
He sat. The hard bench, particle board on concrete, chilled him through his clothes. The night air had hardened to a frosty cold; Stringer’s breath came out in clouds. Through the clouds, he tried to get his bearings.
The bus stop lay at the intersection of the busy avenue and a narrower street. The street cut through an avenue of old ranch houses, low flat shapes with warm yellow windows. Across the narrow street from the bus stop, on the same side of the avenue, stood a small gas station, two pump islands and a car wash and a mini-mart. A sign above the mini-mart door said Sherrelwood Fuel-N-Go.
“Sherrelwood,” Stringer said. Sherrelwood: he had never heard of it, but he had ended up in Sherrelwood.
He fished in his pack for the whiskey bottle. He glanced at the road for cop cars. He couldn’t really see the oncoming cars with their headlights coming straight at him. It didn’t matter; he had to drink, so he drank. When he swallowed, the warmth of the liquor displaced his mind upward for a moment, and he saw himself on the bench, pack between his feet. He saw his grubby jeans, his coat, his beard spilling from the coat’s raised hood. He wondered when he had pulled up the hood. He saw his whiskey breath billow out of his beard.
To his left, down the long slope of the boulevard, past where a freeway went over it, far beyond the lights of shops and more gas stations and restaurants and more houses, the downtown skyscrapers sparkled, red lights blinking on top of them slowly. It scared Stringer to see them so far away, and he took another drink to burn off the fright.
The whiskey and the cold had cleared his head, calmed him down a little, once the stoplight at the intersection had changed a few times, after a few waves of cars had passed him. He hadn’t seen anyone he recognized since getting off the bus—he hadn’t seen anyone he didn’t recognize. He had not seen another human being in Sherrelwood except for the heads in the passing cars.
Stringer knew that he could take the same bus back, catch the same bus across the street, the same bus going the other way. He could get back to the skyscrapers and the civic center, back to the Triangle and 16th Street, back to Colfax. He did not have to stay in Sherrelwood. He could easily get back onto his loop.
After another drink, another couple of drinks, he could check his pockets. He took a bigger slug of the whiskey; he held it in his mouth, let it bathe his sore gums and numb them out.
He had to pee. The rum had started to work its way through his system, through his kidneys. Before any more bus trips, he had to find a place to pee. He had one more drink, snugged the whiskey bottle away—a few shots left, no need to break the seal on that vodka anytime soon—and braced himself to stand.
As Stringer stood at the intersection, waiting to cross the avenue, the urge to pee a little painful now, a voice called out from the Fuel-N-Go behind him, and he turned and saw half a dozen chalky-faced teenaged kids gathered by the gas pumps. Street kids, gutter punks: ragged clothes, spiky hair and tattoos.
The walk-light had changed and he had almost missed it, and now the countdown had begun, numbers counting down beside the orange don’t-walk hand, eight, seven, six; Stringer went as fast as he could across the intersection, through the headlights, breathing hard, cold night air mixed with exhaust fumes.
He got to the other side without falling. He had to lean on the stoplight pole to catch his breath, hot hooks of pain curled between his ribs, their barbs in his lungs.
Back across the avenue, at the Fuel-N-Go, the punks kept watching him. Stringer noticed that one was a skinny girl with purple hair. A jolt of fear shook Stringer, banging his shoulder against the stoplight pole. If those are the same punks Pebbles met, he thought, what if they’re looking for me? Do they want their liquor back? Why else would they be in Sherrelwood?
He heard the girl’s voice—not like Barry’s, not a cricket-in-his-ear voice, but a bird voice twittering straight into the back of his head. Hey, Stringer, it said: come party with us. Bring your liquor and come party. I’ll dance around in my underwear. I’ll pull on your beard and ask if it hurts.
Stringer turned his back on the intersection and shuffled a few yards into the ranch-house neighborhood. It’s mine now, he thought back at her. This liquor is mine, and I already drank some of it. You can’t have it. This liquor is mine.
Don’t be like that, Stringer.
I am like that.
Give us our liquor, you alcoholic. Give us our liquor back, you fucking bum.
Stringer stopped and looked back. He couldn’t tell if the gutter punks were still there. He thought they might still be gathered in front of the Mini-Mart, a knot of shadows with a pale streak in the front, a curvy streak, like the curve of a skinny girl’s body, a girl in her underwear.
Give us back the liquor, you drunk piece of shit.
“Here’s your liquor,” said Stringer, gritting his loose teeth, and after he looked around for cop cars, he peed on the nearest lawn, right out in the open in Sherrelwood, a long stream of steaming sugary rum piss, and as soon as he finished, he shuffled away as fast as he could at a slow jog, trying to zip up his jeans as he went.
The streets of Sherrelwood, like the streets of the suburb where Stringer had grown up, all looked the same, especially at night, especially to a guy who had never been there before. Away from the intersection and the puddle of urine, he had made a left and a right and a left and that got him lost. He tried to retrace his steps and ended up on a dead-end street lined with more houses, more parked cars, more little lawns.
“This is what happens,” Stringer mumbled, “when you go somewhere different.”
He got out his whiskey bottle and took a shot. The whiskey stopped an ominous fluttering in the center of his chest. He pocketed the bottle and kept going. He passed various windows shaded by curtains and blinds, lamp glow and watery TV light playing behind them, sometimes shadows that flexed and stretched, suggesting people.
He had still not seen another human being in Sherrelwood, except for the gutter punks, and the longer he walked without hearing them running behind him with clubs and knives and bike chains, the more Stringer thought they had never been there at all.
Once again, he turned right. Maybe, he thought, enough right turns would take him back to the avenue, to the bus stop. He saw a house ahead with light pouring out of it, shining across the front lawn. The frosty grass glittered green and silver.
Curious, Stringer shuffled ahead.
The house had a big picture window across its front—no curtains or blinds on this window; the light blazed freely through the glass. A man and a woman sat near the window with drinks in their hands, having a fun conversation. They smiled between sips of their drinks. Stringer couldn’t tell much about them, dazzled by the glow of their lamps. He couldn’t tell their age or their skin colors or hair colors or what kind of clothes they wore. He saw only smiles and bright glasses, liquor on the rocks.
Stringer stood on the sidewalk and watched the couple as they drank and laughed together. Their conversation went on and on. They never seemed to notice him standing outside.
He had begun to feel frozen in place, his legs and knee joints stiffening up in the cold as he stood there, watching the people in the window, when he heard a noise from far away, a noise he knew well: a train’s horn, a big locomotive sounding off as it began to move.
The wail of the train horn, thin with distance, sounded again, and Stringer moved, up the sidewalk, slowly at first but picking up a little speed, pulling his shadow out of the light behind him.