"You don't look good, Chuck."
He is a black man in his early fifties who looks ten years older. His name is Charles, but no one calls him that. As a fast rising air officer, Chuck helps build the second Cyclotron at nearby Indiana University. The Cyclotron is a particle accelerator that performs nuclear experiments and it brings both the school and Chuck considerable recognition. He is married, a father of two kids, and owns his own home. However, something is terribly wrong.
"Jericho?" He is confused and smells of urine and vodka.
"Yeah, man, it's Jericho. You alright?"
"No, man, I'm not too good. I ain't done any good in a long time."
There is a creature in his body that has been there since his birth. It is a coiled, red snake that swallows him whole. He is a successful military officer, but it means nothing. His learning helps build better bombs. He is a father that sees his children as gaping mouths and nothing more. His lack of feeling for them fills him with shame. He marries a woman who gives up so much until his contempt is total. He leaves his job and family on a rainy August morning and always remembers the light coming through the curtains as he left. The living room is a funeral home to him.
"Where ya goin?" Jericho asks.
"I need a bottle before I go to 9th Street Park."
"Lemme help ya, Chuck. I'll get your bottle at Big Red and help you to the park."
Chuck sighs. "Don't bother. If I don't make it, then fuck it."
"Fuck that. You could fall and break a leg or go to jail."
"If I do, I do. Who cares? I sure don't. Maybe I'll get lucky and break my neck."
Jericho waves his hand at him. "Come on, man, get the fuck up."
Jericho grabs Chuck's right arm with his own and pulls his limp frame up a few inches. He puts his arm around his shoulder and gets Chuck upright. Chuck does not protest and weaves while struggling to keep his balance.
"Come on, man."
Chuck nods and they walk slowly away. Chuck places one foot in front of another like a man walking on ice and Jericho watches closely for any sign of collapse. They are in the hot heart of the summer and downtown Bloomington is busy. The Midwestern heat stirs a sour brew of eighty proof sweat and urine into a dizzying smell. Jericho wonders why he is helping Chuck. He is drunk and the idea of another bottle is appealing, but there is something more. From the moment they meet, Jericho wants to understand why Chuck drinks like he does. He is dying and his eyes are sunken, blood-streaked puddles of yellow clay.
Jericho leaves him sitting outside the liquor store entrance. When he returns, he finds Chuck lying in the flower planter near the doors. Jericho shakes him by the shoulder.
"Chuck, man, get the fuck up! They'll call the law!"
Chuck moves around and mumbles angry, half-formed words. He pulls himself upright and looks at Jericho but does not recognize him.
"Who the fuck are you?" he slurs.
Jericho sighs. "You know me, man. It's Jericho."
"Oh. You got something to drink?"
"Yeah, man. Let's get outta here."
They are crossing College Avenue. One of Bloomington's busiest streets, the liquor store, county jail, and a low rent motel are within three blocks of each other. Chuck cannot run and they wait until the traffic passes. Because of his drunkenness, Jericho wants to reach the nearby railroad tracks leading to 9th Street Park to lower the chances of being arrested. They are only a block away.
Chuck is a broken puppet. He often collapses due to his drinking and two of the falls break both ankles. He fails to seek treatment and walks on the broken bones. Over a short time, the steady stride of a healthy man turns into the inconsistent shuffle of a wayward old man. He is half slumped over and his ratty clothes hang loosely from the frayed black rope of his body.
"Eatin' much, Chuck?"
He shrugs. "Sometimes."
"You gotta take better care of yourself."
His face tightens at the suggestion. "Why?"
"I don't wanna see you die. You're a tough motherfucker and if you took care of yourself, you'd have a long life."
He laughs. "I don't want a long life."
"A man is good and I'm no man."
After leaving his family, Chuck moves to Indianapolis. His family and friends search, but he is another faceless homeless man in a large city. There is no mailing address or phone number to help find him. His drinking takes complete control. He sleeps in parks, spends time in jail, and feeds himself to the creature within. He searches through dumpsters for food and discovers a baby once. Wrapped in a thick layer of newspaper, the baby cries softly as he takes it out of the dumpster. It is a girl. He thinks of his kids and cries, but the tears do not last long. He lives for his shame alone.
"Aw, come on, man. I think you oughta forgive and forget."
"Forgive and forget? I can't forget and there's no forgiveness in this world. The best we do is bury things and get by."
"I have faith I'll turn out alright."
"You won't lose it either. You'll give it away, just like me."
The railroad tracks are a whole new challenge. The old and uneven creosote crossties make it a risky walk and needs reflexes that Chuck does not have. It does not take long for Chuck to fall down. His body blows outward like he fell from high above. Jericho stands over him.
"This ain't no fuckin' good, man. You've gotta get up."
He slowly shakes his head. "I can't."
"Yeah, you can. Just get up slow and lean on me as you're gettin' up."
Chuck nods and reaches for him. He grabs Jericho's belt to pull himself up and both men fall to the ground. Jericho hits the gravel hard and skins his hand.
Jericho gets up and stands over Chuck again. He thinks about the other homeless who spend time in 9th Street Park and hopes he can find someone to help him move Chuck before the police see him.
"Come on, we have to get you off the tracks."
Jericho takes a deep breath and drags him across the gravel with great effort. Chuck strikes the air in mute objection. When Jericho hears voices nearby, he looks and sees two Bloomington police officers coming towards them. A fat, middle-aged man follows closely behind.
"Chuck, the fuckin' cops are here! I told ya! Now we're both going to jail."
Chuck closes his eyes and shakes his head. "Sorry."
The officers reach them. One has a crew-cut, a clean-shaven face and a dark suntan. He is in his early twenties. The second officer is bulky and middle-aged. His face is swollen and his eyes are larger than normal.
The younger one speaks first. "Looks like you two are having some problems."
Jericho frowns and shrugs his shoulders. "My friend's been drinking and I'm tryin' to get him home."
"Where's he live?"
The older officer speaks. "And you? Have you been drinking?"
The officers think Jericho is older. If they take him to jail, it will be for public drunkenness and when he gets to the jail, they will find out his age and arrest him for underage drinking as well.
Jericho shrugs again. "Yeah, I've had some to drink."
The older officer looks at Chuck. "What's your name?"
Chuck raises his head a little and opens his mouth to speak. His tongue creeps out from between his purple lips and rolls around. His mouth moves but makes no sound.
The younger officer snorts. "I'm pretty sure I know where he's going."
The fat man walks up behind the older officer and points at Jericho. "I saw this one trying to pull the black guy off the railroad tracks."
"Where do you live?" the older officer asks.
"436 South Pierce."
"How much have you drank?"
"Not much. I drank some whiskey earlier."
The older officer takes a long look at him. His puffy, freckled face is secrecy and high blood pressure. His giant eyes do not blink and his body is tense and still.
"Do you think you can make it home?" he asks Jericho.
Jericho nods. "Yeah, sure. I'm not that drunk."
"Then I strongly suggest you go there. If we see you out again, we'll take you straight to jail."
Jericho nods repeatedly. "Of course, no problem. I'll go home and stay there."
The older officer nods. "Get out of here then. Your friend's going to jail."
Jericho turns and walks westward on the railroad tracks. He checks the fifth of vodka hidden in the waistline of his pants. He hears the fat man speaking.
"I saw the two of them and the black one couldn't stand up, so I figured they were a couple of drunks. I had to call."
"We're glad you did. If they'd been here when a train came through, it would've been a real mess for us." the older officer says.
Jericho hears the younger officer laugh. "Wouldn't have been much of a loss. Motherfucker! This drunk fuck pissed all over himself. Let me get my gloves on."