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A face, a broad forehead, a flat nose, not attractive except in the eyes. They see life and they laugh. They see people and they rejoice. They see me and love. The memory is a recrimination. I recoil from it, “no,” I say. The people at the next table look over. I can’t go there.
I get up from the table. I cannot mine these memories, that existed beyond the border of the second birth. To remember being human . . .
The Valkyries choose who goes to Valhalla. I didn’t know anything about where the ones I chose went. As far as I know their bodies just went into the ground, but some of them said prayers and stuff as the last of their bubbles eased out the neck holes. When they talked about lights, I didn’t believe them, I thought they were trying to convince themselves.
I’d like to believe some of them went somewhere nice, but their decisions to follow me home spoke otherwise. Half the men had ring marks on their left hand. I used to laugh when I pulled the gold bands out of the pockets. Broken promises, broken necks. Not that I thought I was justice. I was thirst.
They were weak. We were all so weak. It only took a little mistake, a moment of letting the biology ride.
But to remember the time before the second birth. Being human . . .
One drinker said that we were the next step in evolution. That’s bullshit. We aren’t a species because we don’t breed. We don’t copulate. We drink. Without humanity, we wouldn’t be. We aren’t a species. We’re not parasites either. We are temptation. We are thirst.
I left McGlincheys and took a long walk. In a corner of my mind I knew the old one was working through clubs, but I was done with him. No point in hunting drinkers. I went through the alleys northward. Away from the veneer over the flesh, the skin of dead animals that they used to cover the fact that they were animals.
I found some people that lived under a bridge. Their little camp was milk crates, cardboard boxes, a home made from trash. They didn’t have a lot of hope or desire left, so they wouldn’t be that tasty. Not tempting. I found an extra milk crate and squatted down by their barrel fire. The heat radiated, a yellow burnishing of these dusty, crusty people, and it felt bad but I could tolerate it.
The people around the fire looked old, but it could be their life. It takes it out of you, sleeping in boxes insulated with plastic sheets in snow and sleet. It was only the wind that night though, and the fire seemed to be helping them. They stretched out frayed hands, black fingernails, trying to collect some of the warmth. I couldn’t remember how warmth felt good. I wouldn’t remember being human.
I said, “Any of you know how to kill the old one?”
They all turned to an old woman. Older than the others. I thought she was a woman. She was wearing so many layers I couldn’t see one or another shape. She had a red wool cap pulled over most of her head, and all that poked out was a pointy bit of nose and a pointier chin, which had a few hairs on it. She looked at me.
“Trying to kill me? Shouldn’t be hard.” A bunch of croaks sounded. I realize that this was the sound of these street people laughing.
I said, “If I wanted to kill you, it’d be done by now.”
“Ew. Getting touchy, thirsty birdy?”
“I’m not thirsty,” I said. This bitch was annoying me and I was about to start drinking again for just one second.
“You are always thirsty.” She stood up and stepped closer to the fire, her drab eyes suddenly full of its blazing orange. “You thirst for a return to innocence but we are cast far from Eden into the darkness, and there is death. You want to cheat death!”
She seemed to grow, the fire casting a great shadow as its flames licked around her mustard yellow triple patched sweater, and her toothless mouth gapped with the words she spoke. “The old one is not as old as death, and Eden is on the other side.”
“What?” I said.
She grew even taller than, and her voice rounded into the deep buzz of a man, “The earth is lined with the drinkers, and the drunk, and Eden is far from here. Broken, broken are the hearts, the houses, the hopes. Crushed are the children, the chosen, the cut-off. You run, you fight, you drink, and nothing changes, but we are promised death. Death is the only promise.”
She subsided into her seat, and the old man next to her passed her a forty of Steel Reserve. I shook my head. I said, “I know death is older than the old one, but how do I kill him?”
She said, “Eden is on the other side.”
I said, “Is she crazy?”
Another man, this one not as old, but still aged, said, “All the ones who see are.”
They all started croaking again. Laughing. But it was not in their eyes. There was weight in their eyes, and it was not just the burden of tonight and only one forty of Steel Reserve between five old humans who weren’t fit for drinking, and the cold that they would suffer, heaped upon one another, trying to sleep through the night—they had asked the questions, and they had found the answers.
Just homeless. Not worth a drink. Drunks. Heroin users. Shabby dressed tent dwellers.