Heart is Home
The headbangers had staked out a fishing spot thirty feet down from us. They had been there for hours. Not as long as my brother and I, but nearly. They had drunk themselves sober and were now arguing over whether or not they should begin using M-80s on whatever fish they caught. M-80s were a little expensive to be using on catfish. One of them said they should just drag their catch from the bumper of their car. The lone female, and there is always a lonely girl hanging out with zit-encrusted headbangers, said they should take their fish home, scale them and eat them. Like normal people. She was ignored. The girl is always ignored. Until around midnight or so. Or until the men have had their fill of arguing with one another. At that time, the girl always becomes the focus.
My brother pointed out that we knew them. These were the Emmanuels. Joe, Carrie and Teddy. They occupied a house where we grew up, and were widely regarded for their capacity for alcohol and pain. Their dogs ruled the neighborhood streets after dark. These were lonely animals, proud and dangerous. They were little balls of matted fur and starved, bitter anger. I had been attacked once by a tag-team made up of the collie and the terrier. The bite marks on my legs and the claw marks on my lower back drew laughter from the owners. They pointed at me from their screened-in front porch and suggested that I run faster next time.
Joe was old, something like 35. Carrie and Teddy were twins around the age of 18. They had a common mom but different fathers. Joe was missing digits from his left hand. He had been too slow to toss a lit firecracker and it popped while he held it. It was late at night. All of us had been celebrating our country's birthday over kegs of beer and gallon jugs of vodka. I was twelve then. From what I understood, Joe was still angry about how everyone seemed more focused on the beer they had spilled because of the out-of-nowhere screaming than the blood that gushed from his smoldering wounds.
Carrie was the girl no one would get high with. She had a habit of sealing the joint by rolling it up and down the inside of her sweaty forearm. If you spoke in opposition, you would get no weed. Simple as that. Carrie had the best smokes. Everybody knew that. So we smoked her damp numbers and kept our mouths shut about the salt that coated our lips.
Teddy, no one really knew. He stayed in his room and played Nintendo all day, blasting hippie bands punctuated by the occasional weekend block of Willie Nelson. He was a Bud drinker, preferably from the can. A garbage bag of empties would sit outside his room for days as he tried to beat Legend of Zelda. He watched the afternoon soaps with his mother and was regarded as a decent cook, chili being a specialty. These are superficial characteristics, nothing that serves to illuminate the personality of Teddy Emmanuel. But it is more than I know about most people.
The arguing went on long enough to drive me and my brother back to my car where we reclined in our seats and smoked cigarettes. We could hear that the two brothers had begun to focus on Carrie. They called her names and insulted her intelligence, each and every comment being one that could have been directed toward the two men. They probably knew this. They were dumb and ugly. They were losers. Joe and Teddy actually criticized Carrie for still living at home even though her bedroom was right down the hall from their own.
This is the way an entire class of people fail. Entire generations drunk on the ugliness of their loved ones. Simple projection, never learning anything from the image in the mirror.
We dine on the hearts of our own people.
They were there. We were hungry. We felt like fighting.
They were there.
The breeze swept across the river, bringing to our noses a mixture of car exhaust and damp soil. The beer that we had finished was feeling like a friend I hadn't seen in a while. There was a distributor just up the street and a twenty dollar bill in my wallet. It was already near sundown. But there was still time to properly waste the entire day, putting it to rest with alcohol and sloth. It was a plan. Or maybe it was something less than that.
The Emmanuels had parked their Toyota pickup almost directly under the High Level Bridge, on a spot of earth that was burnt forever black by the fires teenagers sparked during weekend beer blasts. The wreck was barely able to stand, its frame being cannibalized by rust. The ancient truck had no tailgate. In each corner of the bed was a stake that had been welded for those occasions when the family took their dogs along with them. The dogs would be chained to these stakes. The dogs were able to reach the edge of the bed where at each and every stop light they would snarl at the driver who happened to be idling behind their owner. Or they would claw at one another. Out of hunger. Out of malice. Out of boredom. I had witnessed this. It was like an organized dogfight on wheels.
My brother said - Have you ever looked at Carrie Emmanuel? I mean really looked at her?
- No. I try not to.
- She doesn't look like any of them. She looks almost normal. Clean her up a bit and I'd say she was pretty fine. Not model fine. But at least decent. A seven maybe. She has a nice face.
- She hasn't been to school since eighth grade.
I can remember Carrie Emmanuel loading up her purse with rocks then stalking boys on the playground. Those were the boys she liked.
- She can't help it. Being raised by wolves would've been better.
We bought another case of beer from the distributor and a hamburger dinner from Wendy's. My wallet was water-logged. My cash, my photographs of the high school girlfriend who died too young, my bus pass, everything had been smeared and made limp. The cash I would take home and lay out to dry. The ID was the ID. I needed that regardless of its condition. The rest, I dropped into a dumpster outside the distributor. My brother claimed that I had dropped my wallet into a stagnant puddle near our fishing spot. But I had no recollection of that ever happening. I would have remembered doing something that stupid, that significant. Or maybe not, my tendency in those days being to block out memories of events that would lower my sense of self-worth. The ego had to be protected at all times. This is the duck and cover instinct. The burn and bury instinct.
Hours had passed since we had first cast our lines into the river. The sky had darkened. The water level had risen, swallowing the thin strip of beach where we had staked out our spot. The sandbar that sat fifty feet offshore was gone. It was cold now. A breeze swept into us as we stood on the dock with a few old men who refused to call it a day.
My brother stood next to one of them and said - Catch anything?
The man shook his head, words not being necessary. He had on a security guard uniform and black loafers and he was standing not three feet from an inactive fishing pole. Fishing from the dock would not land anybody a catch worthy of the trouble. One would think that fish would gather around the support pylons below but they did not. The water was empty of anything large and living and was covered in a green film. People would stand next to the safety barrier, stare down into the foam, and become lost in its lifeless filth. Old men would stand up there, smoke, then toss the butts downward, complaining about the mess the river had become in the last few years.
Couches and recliners lined the shore, dewy living room arrangements underneath trees with weak trunks, nature existing in poor conditions. Everything was wet and muddy all the time. No sun hit the soil directly. It was not a pleasure walk by any stretch of the imagination. Gray patches of grass clutched litter and debris. The air stunk of mildew and the smell of the mills that had been closed for years. That smell would never go away. Not unless someone wiped this place clean and buried the spot in concrete.
The Emmanuels were gone. Two small coolers floated where they had been fishing. I could still smell the refer smoke and vomit. The moss on a submerged rock floated in the water like dark blond hair.
My brother said - I love this spot.
My brother and I are four years apart. We had shared a bedroom in my parents' house for nearly a decade. But as children we rarely spoke to one another. The need for intimacy that is present for most brothers, the act of communicating doubts and ambitions, was never present for us. We were so much alike that we could not stand to say one another's name. Even now, after we have become friends, we never call one another by name. It is too personal. Both of us still remember what we were like when we were younger.
I pointed to the moss that waved at us from the submerged rock and said - Ten bucks says you can't hit that.
- Make it a fifth of Old Crow.
I nodded and he picked up a rock. First try, he skipped the rock off the cap of the rock and laughed. The hollow thump that the blow created stayed in my head long after it had left the air.
I said - Who knows what the fuck that is.
- No idea. I'll collect my winnings later this evening, if you don't mind.
- I hate Old Crow. I don't know how you can drink that stuff.
- It's better than a lot of shit out there. There's a lot of shit I wouldn't drink if you paid me.
I watched a pickup truck do doughnuts across the river in the emptiness of the steel mill parking lot. The voices of those inside the truck echoed across the water. They sounded so happy, so pleased to be right there, in that moment.
I said - Do you think that we drink too much?
My brother looked at me as if I was questioning our food intake instead of the amount of alcohol that we consumed.
He said - You can only stop when it becomes a problem. Same with anything else. I don't have a problem. I've never been arrested. Don't have any DUIs. I have a few hundred bucks in the bank. I have credit card debts that won't be paid off for another seven or eight years but that's ok. I'm doing the best I can. Life is moving forward.
He had been staying with me for the last three months. His girlfriend had kicked him out of their apartment after she fell in love with a co-worker. I had always thought that he was too young to be in a committed relationship, let alone be living with a woman. All of his friends still lived with their parents, most of them being jobless and without ambition.
My brother had a vague plan that consisted of moving to Southern California and getting a job selling high-end wheels and rims. I had a feeling that, regardless of the circumstances, one day he would just go. Like so many people, he'd get in his car and leave this city. He would just disappear from the local bar, from the neighborhood, from the riverbanks, from this life.
Over the course of the last few months, my brother's idea of leaving Pittsburgh for California was beginning to strike me as being part of our natural arc, our natural storyline. I knew that I would probably join him. Nothing was holding me back. My job was a crap job with no future and no benefits. The building where I lived had recently been sold to a developer who would likely crush it and put up condominiums. Leaving this city would be the most natural decision. It would also be the single most dangerous act that I had ever committed in my entire life. No safety net. No distant relatives I could call on if times got rough. We would pack up whatever we could fit in the car and drive west. We would drive through Illinois and Iowa and Nebraska and Nevada, the land slowly changing from green fields to yellow fields to dry red earth. A person can do this sort of thing when there is not much to leave behind.
I watched the moss on the rock dance underneath the water, moving with every shift of the current, its color changing from gold to red to mud-colored depending on how the light struck it. Moss the color of Carrie Emmanuel's hair.
I thought of her family and how they might behave behind closed doors.
I used to walk past the Emmanuel house and marvel at the lung power of the mother, the sheer negative force of nature that she was. It never took much. The uncut lawn. The poor grades on the report cards. The untouched dinner. Anything would cause her to explode. Not yelling and screaming. It was a pure explosion of words, a stream of gibberish from somewhere deep inside her dry, knotted heart. Once a week the brothers would fight in the front yard while Carrie smoked cigarettes on the porch. When drunk, they would light up the night by using their massive canon of gutter-language, their shared encyclopedia of profanity.
I would miss them whenever my brother and I left the city. A person tends to miss the events and people that have shocked them out of routine and monotony. Good or not, families fighting are always worth remembering. People who were destroyed early in childhood, fucked forever, are worth remembering. Their beginnings, their end, their lives in between, everything is worth remembering.
Upon departure, I will look down at the riverbank and recall the day I listened to the Emmanuel brothers berate their sister, then flee when the waters rose. Two grown men, willing to rip to shreds their own flesh and blood. Flesh and blood is all that we have. I have learned this. It is a place to live. A city that does not repel but attract. Nothing feels better.
Everybody needs a place to run. Even if the destination is unclear.
Upon departure I will look down at the riverbanks and recall the day my brother stepped into the swollen river, into the dark green water, near a rock covered with flowing moss and said - I don't think that's a rock.
Blood upon blood upon blood. A million cities of refuge.
Blood is the Great Architect.
Blood is the Great Destroyer.