“Chuck, man, you don’t look so good.”
He was a black man in his early fifties who looked ten years older. His real name was Charles, but no one ever addressed him as anything other than Chuck. A fast rising Air Force officer, Chuck had been a part of the project that had constructed the second Cyclotron at Indiana University. The Cyclotron was a particle accelerator used to perform nuclear physics experiments and its presence had brought the university some national recognition. He was married, had just become a father for the second time, and owned his own home. However, something was terribly wrong with it all.
“Jericho?” He seemed unsure about who was standing next to him. He reeked of urine and vodka.
“Yeah, man, it’s Jericho. You alright?”
“No, man, I’m not doin’ so good. I ain’t done no good in a long time.”
Despair dogged him still, as it had when he was younger. A gnawing, growing sense of dissatisfaction had born holes into his stomach and destroyed his commitment to both family and country. He was a successful black military officer in an era when such inroads were earth-shattering achievements. Despite facts such this, he had no faith that his life had any real meaning.
“Where ya goin’?” Jericho asked.
“Well, I need to get another bottle and then go to 9th Street Park.”
Jericho worried that if Chuck went into the liquor store, he would end up in jail. He was in such a state that some horrified clerk would likely call the police. Furthermore, if Chuck tried to make the trip to 9th Street Park unassisted, he was going to hurt himself. He would fall down again.
“Lemme help ya, Chuck. I’ll get yer bottle at Big Red and make sure you get to the park.”
“Don’t bother, man. If I don’t make it there, then fuck it.”
“What if ya fall again and break a leg or somethin’?”
“If I do, I do. Who gives a fuck? I sure don’t. Maybe I might get lucky and break my neck.”
“Aw, come on, man, don’t say that. I like ya, you’re a damn good guy.”
Chuck smirked. “Yeah, I bet ya do.”
“Listen, man, I’m gonna help ya, that’s all there is to it. I’ll go in and get the bottle and make sure you get to the park.”
Chuck shrugged. “If you wanna.”
The two men walked together and Jericho stayed close to help ensure that he remained upright. Why did Jericho bother when so many would not? He wished he knew what happened to Chuck that drove him to this end and perhaps he saw in him hints of his own possible demise. He wanted a glimpse of what dark forces swam in the bilge-like depths of Chuck’s brain so that he might better understand the phantoms of loss that threatened to darken his life.
From his earliest days, he had no faith whatsoever in his enduring worth as an individual. It was true that he was a successful black military officer and his involvement in the Cyclotron project was a feather in his professional cap. However, what purpose did his work serve? To build a better bomb? He was a father and a husband, but to what? Two gaping maws that sought to devour him whole on their journey to the abyss and a bleached, deadened shell of a wife who grew increasingly remote as time went on. His despair had been total.
Jericho left him sitting outside the entrance to the liquor store while he went inside. When he returned, Jericho saw that Chuck had tipped over and was lying in a flower planter outside the entrance. Though he had lain like that for only a few minutes at the most, he was already snoring. Jericho shook him harshly by the shoulder.
“Chuck, man, get the fuck up! This place’ll call the law on you in a second!”
Chuck stirred and mumbled angry, incoherent words whose meaning Jericho could not discern. He slowly pulled himself upright. When he looked at Jericho, there was no recognition in his eyes.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“It’s me, Jericho, man, you know me.”
“Oh. You got my bottle?”
“Yeah, man. Let’s get outta here before we get busted.”
Chuck began to rise and Jericho gripped his arm to help support him. Chuck leaned heavily against him and, once he reached his feet, they began walking again. Crossing College Avenue, one of Bloomington’s busiest streets, was a thankfully simple journey. After that, it was just a matter of reaching the railroad tracks.
Chuck could barely walk. Because of his deteriorating condition and drinking, he had begun to frequently collapse and two of those falls had been traumatic enough to fracture both of his ankles. However, he failed to seek treatment and continued to walk on the fractured bones. Consequently, he had lost the steady stride of a healthy adult male and now had the inconsistent shuffle of a wayward old man. Likewise, his health was failing. He walked around half slumped over and his ratty clothes did not fit his emaciated frame. His eyes were yellow, a sign of hepatitis.
“Chuck, you been eatin’ much?”
He shrugged. “Here and there.”
“Man, you gotta take better care of yourself.”
“Why?” He sounded contemptuous of the idea.
“Chuck, I don’t wanna see you die. You’re a tough bastard, and if you just took a little bit better care of yourself, you could probably go another twenty years.”
He laughed loudly. “I don’t wanna go another twenty minutes, let alone fuckin’ years. I ain’t gonna make it much longer. Can’t.”
Though his voice was little more than a drunken slur, Jericho heard a horrific clarity in his words that chilled him to the bone.
“Man, why so dark?”
“I gotta pay. I betrayed everythin’ and there ain’t no gettin’ round it.”
“You gotta learn to forgive yourself.”
“Forgive? Ain’t no forgiveness in this world. The best we do is bury things and go on.”
“I still have faith that everything’s gonna be alright in the end.”
“You ain’t gonna lose it either. You’ll give it away, just like I did.”
When they reached Rogers Street and walked onto the railroad tracks, Jericho knew that they faced a new set of challenges. The crossties connecting the rails were not of uniform height and posed hazards to the clumsy. Walking on the railroad tracks required a certain degree of coordination that Chuck did not possess.
He did not make it far before he collapsed. His body exploded upon impact and his broken limbs lay spread out upon the tracks. If he could have only stayed on his feet a little longer, Jericho thought. A nearby line of trees would have hidden him well. He moved vaguely, hinting at ultimately inconsequently efforts to rise. Jericho rushed to him.
“Man, Chuck, this ain’t no fuckin’ good, man, you gotta get up!”
“Sure you can, just get yourself up slowly. You can lean on me as you’re gettin’ up.”
Chuck nodded and reached for Jericho. He clutched Jericho’s belt line and began his attempt to stand. However, the moment his body rose from the ground, Chuck pulled on Jericho with all of his strength and both men toppled over onto the ground. Jericho hit the gravel especially hard and skinned his hand.
He scrambled to his feet and moved around Chuck’s prone body to face him. “Looks like I’m gonna have to help ya up on my own. I’m gonna try to get you off to the side of the railroad tracks and into the underbrush so I can get some help, alright?”
“Okay.” There was a vacancy in his eyes and voice now, an unmistakable, inebriated weariness.
Jericho put his arms under Chuck’s and wrapped them around his chest. With a sharp intake of breath, Jericho attempted to pull Chuck up to his feet. Even though Chuck was underweight and had a small frame, he was dead weight.
“Come on, Chuck, get your feet under ya! You want me to go to jail with you?”
“No, man, no.” He was semi-conscious, but no closer to regaining his footing than what he was when he first collapsed. His head hung down and slowly lolled from side to side.
“Then you hafta help me, man. I can’t carry ya all by myself. Just one leg at a time and you’ll be able to do it.”
Jericho looked to the right and saw two Bloomington city police officers approaching them. They had parked alongside Rogers Street and another car had parked on the opposite side of the street. Jericho watched as an obese, middle-aged man climbed out of his Chrysler Town Car and followed the officers.
“Shit, Chuck, the cops are here! I told ya! Now we’re both goin’ to jail!”
“I’m gonna sit you back down on the ground, okay?”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s done is done.”
The officers reached them. A physically imposing man in his early twenties, the first officer sported a severe crew cut, a clean-shaven face, and a dark suntan. Bulky and middle-aged, the second officer had a swollen face and large eyes. His entire demeanor appeared much more hospitable than that of his younger peer.
The younger one spoke first. “Looks like you guys are havin’ problems.”
“Yeah, my friend has been drinkin’ and I’m tryin’ to help him home.” Jericho said.
“Where’s he live?”
“How ‘bout you? Have you been drinking?”
“Yeah, I’ve been drinkin’ too.”
The older officer turned towards Chuck. “What’s your name?”
Chuck’s head rose slightly and he looked at the officer’s chest. He slurred something indecipherable before his head lowered again.
The younger officer snorted. “Pretty sure I know where he’s going now.” Behind the officers, the heavy man driving the third vehicle stopped and watched. A small cell phone was in his hand.
The younger officer turned his attention towards Jericho. “What’s your name?”
“Where do you live?”
“436 South Pierce.”
“How much have you had to drink today, Jericho?”
Not enough to be dealin’ with this, he thought. He looked at Chuck. He was still sitting on the rail and his head rested in his lap.
“I helped drink a fifth earlier.” It was not honest, but it was believable. If you wanted to split this eighty proof hair, you could say that he was telling the truth. He had just finished a fifth of cheap whiskey no more than a hour ago downtown. However, the whole truth would have to include that first fifth of whiskey that he finished at ten this morning.
“Jericho, you think you can make it home okay?” the older officer asked.
“Yeah, I can.”
“Then I strongly suggest you go there. And if we see you out again, you’re goin’ to jail too.”
Relief swept over him. “No problem, officers.”
“Okay then, you’re free to go. Your friend’s goin’ to jail.”
Jericho turned away and walked westward on the railroad tracks. He had Chuck’s fifth still held in the waistline of his pants. He heard the men talking behind him.
“I saw these two struggling and the black one couldn’t stand, so I figured they were a couple of drunks. I had to call.” It was the heavy man from the third vehicle.
“We’re glad you did. If they’d been here when a train came though, it would’ve been a disaster.”
Jericho heard the first officer laugh. “Oh well, not much of a loss. Motherfucker! This drunk fuck pissed all over himself. Lemme put my gloves on.”