Thursday, May 30, 2019

Variations on a Concussion - a short story

By Jason Hillenburg

Variations on a Concussion

Someone or something is always hitting Robbie in the head.

He is a skillful sketch artist and reads a lot on when I first meet him. Sometimes he sings Uriah Heep’s “Stealin’” in a cracking tenor croon. I am eighteen and he is thirty five hitchhiking around the country. He talks often over the years about the cities he sees but never mentions much about the rides. He lives homeless by choice and his thirst for vodka is double-barreled. Red label Dark Eyes vodka eighty proof is his drink of choice. Robbie, however, relishes days when he has a few extra dollars for its 100 proof blue label counterpart. I never drink vodka until we are hanging out. It tears us both down over time.

He stops drawing by his forty second birthday and doesn’t read much. We are still drinking together after a near decade of him spending more time in county jail than out, but seven years of losses leave notches on our lives we cannot remove. It is the summer his head takes the first of many blows I hear about or see.

I am not there when it happens. I’m walking downtown to meet him and by the time I get there local high school kids, weed smoking skaters, tell me “your buddy took a spill, man”. Our main meeting place is a downtown park, no bigger than a convenience store parking lot, and a downtown outdoor mall sits caddy corner from its borders. The mall has two levels and one of its marquee attractions is a college bar above a Taco Bell. The designers placed a tall limestone pillar at the mall’s entrance and flanking the sidewalk. Over the years I see countless college kids tossing spare change from the bar’s small elevated outdoor balcony. The kids tell me about Robbie climbing the pillar today look for liquor money.

I remember how high they are. One roars with wide-eyed wonder about how Robbie managed to scale the pillar twice before he pushes his luck over the edge. Another says Robbie climbs the pillar the third time, but easing himself back down goes wrong quick. He misses the fourth step down and falls several feet to the concrete below. He takes the bulk of the blow to his back and side, but his skull snaps against the ground on landing. I picture then and now the change spilling from his pockets like air rushing from a balloon puncture.

The fall bruises him black but does not break his back. He spends a week in the hospital with a Grade 3 concussion before he is free to drink and never climbs the pillar again.

The worst is still to come. I spend some extra money I pocket from selling weed on two hits of blotter acid. Robbie declines my offer of a hit. I buy us a half gallon of vodka after recalling a winter night years ago when I ingest four hits of LSD and drink two quarts of tequila without ever feeling it. We trek across the city, through a far flung city park, and plant ourselves on the rocks of a nearby railroad line. I learn early on in my drinking that railroad tracks and surrounding woods are good spots for drinking in public. You never see a cop if you stay smart. We drink thousands of times in this area without incident.

It changes when we hear an oncoming train. We hear its shrill whistle long before the engine car reaches our field of vision. Robbie says he is going to place a penny on the tracks; passing trains flatten them into thin copper ovals. He grins and rewrites his plan. He will not just put a penny on the steel rail, he will do it while the train is moving past them. Even humming from a rising LSD high it makes no sense to me and I say so. He grins again and calls me pussy.

I tell him I can live with that. I do not believe him. He convinces me when the train engine is a few hundred feet away. Robbie fishes a penny from his pocket and starts sliding across the rock towards the rail line. I tell him he is a stupid fuck and he needs to calm the fuck down, but he calls me pussy again and says he will be fine.

I cannot turn away. I watch him timing moving as much as he can and gasp when I see he leans and lands the penny on the rail. Backing out with the same timing does not happen. The train is moving fifteen to twenty miles a hour in the city. It is fast enough for the corner of a service ladder to hit him in the head and close my eyes when I see it coming. It sounds like a battering ram blasting open a locked steel door.

I keep my eyes closed and listen to the train pass. I know he is dead. I am going to open my eyes and see skull splatter covering nearby rocks. I decide on keeping my eyes shut and crawling off so I never have to see his remains. Police are in my future. This may even make the newspaper.
He calls out my name. His voice is weak, but clear. I open my eyes and see him pulling himself along the rocks towards where I sit and his skull is intact. I see no blood. My heart rate explodes and I scamper over to him. He sits up on the rocks and I tell him I cannot believe he is alive.

Robbie nods, looks at me, and blood starts streaming from the crown of his head down the left side of his face. I gasp and take off my shirt. I twist into a near rope and wrap it around Robbie’s head above his eyebrows and tighten it in a thick knot. He bleeds a little more but it soon stops. I do not look at its source. Those handful of minutes are among the most frightening in my life.
I tell him he should go to the hospital and I’ll walk with him. It is not far. He says no, however. He says he needs a drink.

Two of our mutual street drunk friends with a sleeping room give Robbie somewhere to crash when they hear about his injury. He sleeps for four days on their floor, only moving to use the bathroom, and hits the streets collecting aluminum again five days later. We are drinking together again and not far from those railroad tracks. That night we are sitting around a small homeless camp fire in the nearby woods drinking with a few other men. One is a middle aged Harvard graduate everyone calls Professor. He smiles when he hears the nickname, takes gulping shots from any bottle, and exudes a melancholic glow. Another man, Dale, is someone I know for years. He is small and wiry, always looks twenty pounds underweight, and bald across the top of his head. I remember him talking about an army stint ending when they boot him out for dealing cigarettes during basic training.

The last man is Kevin. Kevin is black, a lot older than me, but a few years younger than the other men. Everyone knows him a few years at this point. He pops up selling weed downtown after moving from Indianapolis and builds a lot of quick connections in the city. He loses his job washing dishes at a downtown restaurant and invites himself to sleep in the camp. No one objects. Tonight Robbie objects.

It is all fine for hours. I help kill a fifth of vodka when me and Robbie first walk into the camp and we are deep into a half gallon. It is a hour or so past sundown when I first see how Robbie leers at Kevin anytime he talks. Kevin mixes jokes about pussy and fat girls with brief rants about how no dumbass downtown punks are going to fuck him around. It is a jolt when Robbie says shut the fuck up nigger. No one laughs. I look at Robbie with wide eyes and a slack jaw and glances at me before looking back at Kevin.

Kevin tells him he better keep his mouth shut with that shit. Robbie flutters his lips and says whatever nigger just getting tired of hearing you talk all the time. I glare at Robbie. My stomach tightens with anger, but it feels wrong now. There is not a single day when potential self-harm doesn’t color my choices. I heap punishment upon myself with a spatula. Robbie is far from his right mind even removing his latest head trauma from the record and I cannot judge him for that now. I hate him then.

I hate him because he cannot be normal. I hate him laying a blanket over my buzz. Kevin snaps to his feet, grabs a folded steel chair from the ground, and belts Robbie across the side of his head. The blow slams into the opposite side of his train injury and knocks him onto the ground. I hate him enough to decide he deserves a few shots. Fuck his dumb shit, let him take a couple of belts. He stands over Robbie and wallops him on the top of the head, but the steel chair is not heavy and the second blow glances more than Kevin intends. I am sure. He wants to know what Robbie wants to say now and screams it again and again. Robbie does not answer.

I stop Kevin when he swings back for a third blast. He glares at me when I clutch the chair mid air and tell him no more. His mood passes quick and he nods. He asks me if he is right for beating Robbie’s ass and I nod, say hell yes, and Kevin sits back down. The four of us still upright are drinking again while Robbie moves slow on the ground. He groans for a minute or so before passing out. The Professor says we better make sure he’s breathing and I see his chest rising and falling in rhythm. He starts snoring. Kevin says Robbie is lucky.

Luck has nothing to do with it. He absorbs these blows and more to come. He lives to drink another day. One day I stop drinking with him and treat anyone else the same. I close those days down and move on in many ways, but mingle along the edges of Robbie’s life, keeping tabs, driving him places sometimes, taking his mail from an assortment of county jails and, more than a decade later, a Texas state prison. The last time I see him sweat blurs his red face and tears swell from his eyes. He tells me he is going to die soon. I say that’s defeatist bullshit.

He dies a few weeks after his fiftieth birthday. Some of the local homeless sit on street corner benches across the street from the county library’s rear parking lot. It has an unusual design with a high cobblestone beaded walling squaring around the wooden benches. The downtown drunks call it “The Office”. Robbie stumbles up one day and sits next to an unnamed man who says they talk. He says Robbie falls asleep a few minutes after sitting and slumps over a half hour later. The man sees his sort of thing before and knows Robbie is dead.

I hear someone uses his head for a punching bag two days before he dies. Someone is still hitting him in the head. Robbie goes to the hospital and they perform no scans. They keep him for observation overnight instead, notice nothing wrong, and release him the next day. Nothing is ever off the table for us. Blind chance shapes his life and his days are like variations of a concussion. Luck has nothing to do with it.