From Chapter 3, Raggedy Man
After last night, there was plenty of reason to stay clear of the police. He was uncertain about what exactly had transpired the night before, and his usually confused sense of time and cause and effect did not help. But he remembered enough to know that this would involve more than simply talking to some jaded desk sergeant. This would mean the Central Precinct with its cage on the fourth floor, its perpetually lit enclosed spaces, and its dispiriting atmosphere glossed over with a shiny officialdom. This would also mean the courthouse building with its confused jostling of hardcore losers huddling in the hallways with overdressed lawyers, clerks carrying papers up and down the broad staircases, and jurors wandering in packs as they searched for courtrooms. It would mean some asshole public defender with a new law degree telling Jere he needed to share everything, tell everything. Jere Burnside didnít talk to no one about nothing, goddammit. No, he was not looking for a hook back into that world any time soon.
Even so, he had witnessed events that led to a murder. He knew that much. But he didnít want to think about it, and not just because it would put him in the hands of the law. His new friend was dead. It was bad, very bad, that anyone should have to die like that, but it was made worse by how nice the kid had been to Jere. No one was ever nice to Jere, and even though he had only known the guy for a week, Jere had begun to dare to hope that he had found a real friend. Now Ben was gone and Jere just wanted to put the whole thing out of his mind. He had learned long ago that it was better to turn his back on emotional pain and let the black hole in his psyche suck it into the void.
But today his pain was greater than any he had felt in years, almost equal to the pleasure he had experienced in knowing Ben. Jere had been sitting on a bench in the North Park Blocks on Sunday the week before when a scruffy young man with a blond beard and hair had eased himself down at the other end, sliding his pack off his shoulders. Nothing unusual there. Ragged, unkempt men, young and old, were regular features in the neglected park on the less fashionable north side of Burnside Street. But there was that dog. Homeless guys sometimes had mutts, often of the pit bull variety. This dog, however, was tall and graceful, sleek and clean, a red setter with head and tail held erect, actively taking an interest in everything around it. Jere never saw Ben without the animal that week. That first day, Ben unfastened the leash and watched as the dog toured the trees nearby. This surprised Jere. Considering the steady traffic on the bordering streets, locals seldom let their pets roam free. Jere had been struck by his friendís confidence that the animal wouldnít endanger itself or be a nuisance to others.
"Now thereís a helluva dog if I ever seen one," Jere said. Relaxed and basking in a rare moment of warm sunshine and affected by the beauty of the dog, he broke his policy of never speaking to anyone except to stammer solicitations for money. Jere liked dogs. He had given them as Christmas presents to his kids when he had been with his family. He had hunted with them, slept with them as a child, and found in their companionship the only non-judgmental interaction with another living being he had ever experienced. It made him feel good to offer a compliment to this stranger about his dog. He felt it was the right thing to say.
Ben looked him straight in the eyeónot at his filthy, torn clothes, not at his stringy, greasy hair, not at some vague point over his shoulder or at the groundóbut right at him. "Thanks," Ben had said. "His nameís Walt. Would you like to meet him?" With the sun on his body, with these words and the young manís smile, Jere felt the fog clearing from his brain. He said, "Yeah, sure." Then he had added, "So whaddya think? Is there more good dogs than bad dogs, more tail-waggers than biters?" Benís smile at this remark was so frank, so unaffected and so whole-hearted that for the first time in years, Jere felt good in the presence of another human being.
Emboldened, Jere asked Ben if he had a cigarette. Ben said, "Cigarette? No, not me." Then he grinned even wider and raised a hand. "But wait." He rose from the bench and went across the street to the MiniMart on the corner, whistling to the dog to come with him. He wasnít in the store for longóthe dog sitting patiently on the sidewalkójust long enough for Jere to eye the expensive-looking bulging pack on the bench next to him and wonder how the young man could be so naÔve as to trust the likes of him, Jere Burnside, with the prospect of such loot. When Ben returned, he tossed a pack of Camels to Jere, followed by a book of matches. "Animal lovers, thatís you and me," he said. He had winked and pointed at the picture on the pack.
Jere was no fool when opportunity came knocking. He quickly talked Ben into ten bucks for a six pack of Oly and a sandwich, then shuffled across to the same store. When he came back to the bench, he cracked open one of the gold-colored cylinders of beer and offered it to Ben, which the young man accepted. They sat quietly in the sun and watched the dog move over the grass in widening circles, nose to the ground. Then Ben began chatting, mostly pointless pleasantries. His voice was quiet, relaxed. There was no urgency, no agenda. Just two guys maybe talking in a bar, something Jere had not done in a very long time.
After a couple of beers, Jere began to loosen up. Out it came. The goddamn pitiful story of his goddamn pitiful life. He hadnít shared so much with anybody in twenty years, not since the jungle nightmares and the drink and the fatigue and the laziness and the self-absorption had driven him away from his job, his home, his wife and children into the confines of the V.A. hospital in Portland, followed by a term in the state mental hospital in Salem. Budget cuts to the system and a doctorís diagnosis that Jere was a threat neither to himself nor to others forced his release to a life on the streets. For a time he stayed connected to out-patient mental health services until even deeper budget cuts increased client load on counselors and made it nearly impossible for them to remember from visit to visit who Jere Burnside was, much less provide any therapy for him. His remaining thread of hope for a reconstructed life frayed to the breaking point, and Jere found himself adrift and disconnected, wandering in a maze of years, months, weeks, and days that repeated themselves pointlessly.
Jere related the rise, decline, and fall of his life until his voice was raw, his throat sore. He realized, later, that for the first time in years he had been lucid about something that mattered. Ben listened attentively. Every now and then he asked a question, but none that passed judgment or suggested reproval. Jere fell under a spell as he told his story, feeling it rise from places deep inside himself he hadnít known existed.
That was last week. That was before last night. Now all that was left of Ben was an old book of poetry and a mottled black and white composition book packed on every page with Benís writing and sketches and doodles. Jere felt the solid presence of these volumes under his Army jacket now as he turned the corner at Park Avenue. A jolt of confused uncertainty passed through him. Ben had given him the notebook and the book in trust. A confidence in Jere was implied, and this troubled him. What was he supposed to do with these things now?
Shaking his head slowly and blinking rapidly, he stopped abruptly on the sidewalk, causing a middle-aged couple to nearly collide with him. The woman took her husbandís arm and was at the point of saying something to Jere but looked away when she caught the full effect of the rank odors of sweat and dirty clothes and the sight of his dirty fingernails and red-rimmed eyes. As the couple hurried past, they heard him muttering, "Poor kid. Poor bastard. Told me to keep it for him. What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? He told me it mattered. Poor bastard." He stood unmoving on the sidewalk while the morning drizzle fell around him. A young woman approaching from the other direction caught a glimpse of the ragged old man standing motionless, muttering to himself, and stepped into the street to pass him. Jere ignored her. He was revisiting again the horrors of the night before.
Around midnight, Jere had spotted Ben across the street walking along Fourth Avenue in Old Town. He was wearing his pack across his shoulders, and the big red dog trotted obediently at his side. It was late Sunday night, the streets nearly empty of traffic. Ben slowed when he saw Jere, smiled and crossed to the corner where Jere stood in the lighted entry to a jazz club. But Benís smile froze as he looked past Jere up the street. Jere glanced over his shoulder and saw nothing to alarm him, just two guys standing under a streetlight. One of them was idly looking in their direction. He was short but stocky, dressed in a shiny gray suit with no tie, his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest. Jere thought this odd, considering the cold weather, but this was Old Town. It took all sorts. Standing next to this man and talking energetically was another guy who was vaguely familiar to Jere. He was lanky, all arms and legs, and his black, kinky hair was partly held back with a scarf tied around his head. He wore a jeans jacket and black pants with motorcycle boots. Jimi Hendrix, is what Jere thought. That guy looks like Jimi Hendrix. He had a cigarette in his mouth that jiggered up and down like a fishing bob as he spoke to the other man, who, Jere now noticed, was completely bald. The bald man was paying minimal attention to the freak, which was how Jere understood the dark-haired man to be: a drug freak for sure.
Jere saw a frown cross Benís features. The other pair was a block away, and then Jere knew, when he looked at them again, that the stocky manís stare was not idle. He was looking intently at Ben, then at Jere, then back at Ben. Even though Jereís eyes had long ago gone bad, he saw a broad, exaggerated smile break out on the manís face.
What followed happened very fast. Ben took Jereís elbow firmly and led him around the corner. He slung his pack off his shoulders and swiftly removed the marbled-cover notebook and the old, green hardback that were now tucked into the inner pockets of his coat.
"Here," he said, pressing them into Jereís hands. "Take these and keep them. Donít lose them. Iíll find you tomorrow at the Mission." He gave him a gentle push back up the street in the direction of downtown. "Now go, please. Do it now. Donít ask me anything, just go."
Jere stood looking dumbly at him. "Huh?"
"Iím your friend, right, Jere? Friends ask favors. Hereís mine. Take these books and get away from me. Right now."
Jere nodded, then turned and walked back the way he had come. He looked over his shoulder once to see Ben and the dog quickly crossing the street and moving away from the two men down the block.
It was the last he saw of Ben and Walt until hours later, just before the dawn struggled to break up a darkly clouded sky over Portland. Benís body lay on the grass by the river. Walt was keeping watch, anxiously turning his head in the direction of every sound that reached his ears. Jere had taken one look, and his entire being convulsed with horror. Frozen in fear and anguish, he gaped at the body, while Walt looked up at him hopefully, the tip of his tail beating a slow tattoo on the grass. Overwhelmed with confusion giving way to grief, Jere turned back to the city, moving quickly but erratically in hopeless desperation, not knowing what he was hoping for.
Benís living face, his words and his kindness haunted Jere following his abandonment of his friendís lifeless body in the cold dawn. For a few sunny days, Ben had been a kind of holy spirit that moved in and pushed aside the phantoms that had haunted Jereís life. All he had now were these two items, an old volume of poetry and a notebook full of handwriting and odd decorative design work. He had glanced into the notebook shortly after reaching the relative safety of downtown, away from the river front and the dark alleys of Old Town. It was, after all, an extension of Ben. But he had been unable to make any sense of what was in it. If he had been able to understand it and learn from it who the young man actually was, maybe he would have overcome his aversion to the police and taken it straight to Central Precinct and suffered the consequences.
Now he wasnít so sure that maybe he shouldnít have done exactly that. As unease and regret grew in him, he knew he had to do something. When he reached the shelter of the church overhang, he sank onto the concrete bench and opened the sandwich he had retrieved from Portlandís cornucopia of castoffs. He ate, looking dully out at the dripping branches of the bare elms across the street, keeping his elbows tight against the treasures under his coat, and tried to think, think about what to do.