"You don't look good, Chuck."
He is fifty-one, but looks ten years older. His name is Charles, but no one calls him that. When he is a fast rising air force officer and physicist, Chuck helps design a particle accelerator at the local university and has a wife, two kids, and his own home.
"Nathan?" He is slumping against a concrete wall and smells of urine and vodka.
"Yeah, man, it's Nathan. You alright?"
"No, man, I'm not too good. I ain't done any good in a long time."
A coiling, red snake inside is suffocating him. He rises in rank, but it means nothing. His knowledge builds bombs. He sees his children as gaping mouths and nothing more. He does not know how to love his them. He marries a woman who says yes and he hates her for it. When he leaves walks out on a wet August morning, a blurring light floods the house.
"Where you going?"
"I need a bottle before I go to 9th Street Park." Chuck says.
"Let me help you, Chuck. I'll get your bottle and get you to the park."
Chuck sighs. "Don't bother. If I don't make it, 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."
Nathan waves his hand. "Come on, man, get the fuck up." Nathan drapes his arm around his shoulder pulls him up. Chuck sways and weaves, his eyes blinking.
"Come on, man."
Chuck starts walking, one foot following another like a man walking on ice. Downtown is blazing in the hot heart of summer and the Midwestern heat stirs a sour brew of eighty proof sweat and urine. Nathan glances at passing cars looking for police. Why am I helping this guy? I'm gonna get locked up. He is drunk, he wants another bottle, but there is more. From the moment they meet, Nathan wants to know why Chuck drinks. Chuck is dying, his sinking eyes small puddles of yellow clay.
Nathan sits him outside the liquor store entrance and, when he returns, finds Chuck sprawling in the flower planter near the doors. Nathan shakes his shoulders.
"Chuck, man, get the fuck up! They'll call the law!"
Chuck slurs and hisses when he pulls himself up. He does not recognize Nathan. "Who the fuck are you?"
Nathan sighs. "You know me, man. It's Nathan."
"Oh. You got something to drink?"
"Yeah, man. Let's get outta here."
They cross College Avenue. Chuck breaks both ankles in two years, never sees a doctor, shuffling instead of walking, fraying clothes hanging loose from the thin black rope of his body.
"Eatin' much, Chuck?"
He shrugs. "Sometimes."
"You gotta take better care of yourself."
He squints and his face tightens. "Why?"
"You don't have to die. You're a tough motherfucker, you could live a long time."
He laughs. "I don't want a long life."
"A real man is good and I'm no man."
After blowing up his life, Chuck moves north. His family and friends search, but he is a faceless and homeless in a large city. There is no address or phone number. He drinks every day, passes out in parks, wakes up in jail, and feeds himself to the snake within.
"Aw, come on, man. I think you oughta forgive and forget."
"Forgive and forget? No one forgets or forgives anything. People 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."
When Chuck trips over the uneven railroad tracks, his body sprays out like a falling man. Nathan stands over him. "This is no fuckin' good, man. You've gotta get up."
He turns his head from side to side in the gravel. "I can't."
"Yeah, you can. Just get up slow and lean on me as you're gettin' up."
Chuck frowns, grabs Nathan's belt and pulls himself up. Both men fall to the ground, Nathan hitting the gravel hard and scraping his hand." Fuck!" Nathan climbs to his feet. "I'm going to get help. Let's get you off the tracks."
When Nathan is dragging him across the gravel, Chuck stares at the sun, his jaw stabbing towards the light, slamming his hands onto the rocks. It's obvious why he drinks, he wants to die, Nathan thinks. He sees two police officers walking towards them. A thin man with a long nose and narrow eyes walks behind.
"Stop it, damnit! Chuck, the fuckin' cops are here! I told ya! We're both going to jail."
Chuck closes his eyes and shakes his head. "Sorry..."
One officer is in his early twenties with a crew cut, smooth face, and dark suntan. The second is older, bald, and his round body teeters as he walks. The younger one talks first. "Looks like you guys have some problems."
Nathan holds his palms out, pleading. "My friend's drunk and I'm tryin' to get him home."
"Where's he live?"
The older officer cocks his head. "How old are you? Have you been drinking?"
"I'm 21. Yeah, I've had some to drink."
The older officer looks at Chuck. "What's your name?"
Chuck raises his head and opens his mouth. His tongue slides out and slithers across his purple lips. The younger officer snorts. "I'm pretty sure I know where he's going."
The thin man points at Nathan. "I saw him trying to pull the black guy off the tracks."
"Where do you live?" the older officer says.
"436 South Pierce."
"How much have you drank?"
"Not much. I drank some whiskey earlier."
Pockmarks dot the older officer's red face. "Do you think you can make it home?"
Nathan puckers his lips and widens his eyes. "Yeah, sure. I'm not that drunk."
"I strongly suggest you go there. If we see you out again, we'll take you straight to jail."
Nathan nods. "Of course, no problem. I'll go home and stay there."
The older officer jerks his head. "Get out of here then. Your friend's going to jail."
That'll never happen to me. Nathan pats the vodka bottle hidden in his waistband and hears talking as he walks. "When I saw them, the black one couldn't stand up. I had to call."
"It's good you did. If a train came through, it would have been a mess."
The younger officer laughs. "No loss. Damnit, I need gloves, he's covered in piss!"