“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” –Oscar Wilde
He’s fumbling with a flashlight.
I’m drunk tonight, stumbling home.
I shouldn’t stop.
He’s fumbling with the batteries, his movements erratic. One into the slot with the spring (these fucking springs, he says) and then another but it slips and flies and it’s on the ground next to me.
I’m sitting on the ground next to him. He’s beautiful, really. Hairy, muscular, his face the sort one would wish to smile upon each morning.
He smells of piss and shit. “You heard of dialysis?” he asks.
I nod, I light a cigarette, I give him one.
“I’ll need it when I’m 40,” he says. “The heroin does that. I can’t piss.” And then he’s crawling on the ground looking for a battery.
“How old are you?,” I ask, trying to light his cigarette again.
“35,” he says, dropping his cigarette, twitching. “I use everyday, but this shit’s bad, man.”
It is. He shouldn’t be twitching on heroin like this.
He shouldn’t have the energy of thirty suns and the focus of a child if it was what he though he was shooting.
“I think they cut it. If I pass out–“(and here the batteries fly across the concrete),“– I don’t know, man.”
I went looking for something tonight, or someone.
Brân, actually. Pulled 40 feathers out from a squirrel-gnawed stag vertebrae found near the Pagan Wall of Mont St. Odile. Hid the feathers from my host’s cats, unwrapped the crow’s foot found at the foot of a Buddha.
Everything smelled of death, everything smelled of Brân, and I’m on the pavement near a busy intersection, sitting cross-legged, gathering batteries.
“It’s not like this usually,” he says. His name is Mike. I gave him my name first. We’d met before, he was certain. He was right, I suspected.
“I usually just crawl into bed when I shoot up.”
For the first time tonight, I’m relieved. He’s got a bed, somewhere safe, somewhere besides this asphalt.
“Where’s home?” I ask. “I can help you get there.”
Mike took awhile to answer. He’d spent the last 20 minutes trying to put batteries into a flashlight, a stolen LED wand. Four AAA batteries, tiny, miniscule in his muscular but swollen hands.
I didn’t press. I picked up the batteries again, handing them back to him one at a time.”
“It’s just receipts, man! It’s great. Clean. I just gotta get outta there by 7 in the morning. I even wrote ’em a thank-you card.”
Years of social work and decades of reading taught me to wait for the unraveling of a story. You don’t push or prod or pull. The words come in their time. We are our own best narrators, even when jacked-up on bad heroin.
Mike and I jolted together at a sudden noise. A taxi pulled up feet away, a man stepped out. Bold, clean, well-dressed, young. Probably another Amazon worker, or maybe Google. All privilege and wealth and bliss. Never a bad heroin trip.
The man sneered at us, likely 15 years our junior. He was staring at a heroin-addict fumbling with a flashlight smelling of piss, and a punk sitting next to him on the pavement, smoking a cigarette. We were trash on the street, nothing more. Loathing and disgust lined his face as he turned from us.
Mike fumbled with the batteries some more. I’d offered a few times, and he refused. His hands were the size of my face, he couldn’t bend his fingers. Fluid retention, bad liver probably, bad kidneys definitely.
“You remember when you could just put batteries in?” he asked. We were friends, it seemed. Or comrades. I’m honored by this, though I’ve had it easier than him.
“Yeah–” I start to answer, but the batteries fall out again, his oafish fingers failing to grip. “Mike?” I asked, slightly impatient. “Can I help?”
He finally handed the thing to me. He stood up, adjusting his jacket several times. I slipped the third and fourth battery into the slots, replaced the cover, and turned it on. Bright light-emitting diodes near-blinded me. I handed it back to him, fingering the gnawed bone in my pocket.
“The dumpster’s soft with all the receipts,” he replied, apropos of our earlier conversation. “I need this to see in there.”
I looked to where he pointed, a blue recycling dumpster. “You sleep there?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, his spasms starting to slow. “Fucking bad heroin. I think there’s meth in it or something.”
As if on cue, an emergency vehicle drove by, run by the county. ‘Sobering Van,’ we call them.
It stopped, turned on its lights, and the guy in the passenger seat stepped out, his hands already gloved.
“Hey, Mike?“ he asked, walking towards us. “You okay?”
Mike backed away, visibly composing himself, patting down his clothes and squaring his shoulders. “I’m fine. They’re gonna put a catheter in me, I’m not going. You ever had one of those stuck up your cock?”
The responder signed, shaking his head. “Just checking you’re okay,” and then he looked at me.
I told him what I could, what I’d gathered. I identified myself as a social worker, told the man about the bad heroin.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “That’s not just heroin there.”
We both looked at Mike together, the terrified, beautiful man shaking involuntarily, his arms flailing.
“I’ll check up on him in an hour,” he told me, returning to the van. He thanked me, though I’d done nothing.
Nothing at all.
I looked at Mike. I looked at the dumpster. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the gnawed bone which has held feathers for Brân on my altar this last year. Bone from a dead deer on a temple mountain in Alsace, feathers from crows from everywhere, and a man, shaking, destroyed in this modern city, sleeping in a dumpster.
I stared. I’d gone looking for my gods tonight, somewhere out on the streets, away from their altar.
And there was Brighid, there in that dumpster, the man’s hearth.
And here was Brân, here in that bad heroin, Mike’s confrontation with death, here with one of his bards despairing at his mediocre efforts.
I’m honored to serve gods small enough to care about the heroin-addict in the dumpster.
I hope I am always small enough to care, too.
15 thoughts on “Brighid in the Dumpster, Brân in the Bad Heroin”
What you did is as beautiful as it is powerful.
The warmth between you and Mike is seeping through the lines.
And how you sang his song…his story… this sad, dark song.
To truly see someone who is hanging in the balance and guiding him if only for a short while is something I am also thankful for, even if it’s only as a silent reader.
Absolutely gorgeous, I have read this three times now and I cry a little more each time. Thank you Rhyd, you help this aging punk with Welsh heritage find connection with the Ancestors. Thank you for reminding me.
That is beautiful. Gods bless.
This is something I have read, and reread, through tears. Thank you.
This, I think, is one of the most powerful pieces you’ve shared. My stomach’s churning from reading it. Bless your big heart, Rhyd.
this is partially why I still work at the soup kitchen more than 20 years passed…to keep contact with the worlds that are far less comfortable than my own, knowing that what is sacred, dwells there too.
Thank you so much for this, both the words and the actions.
Reblogged this on Ashley Nicole Hunter and commented:
In the eyes of the Thousand Gods, every bit of life is sacred.
I appreciate that Mike is so human in your piece (keeps it from being slum dog porn). I do wish you had stayed with the Gods a moment longer. Having been in those places it might be easy to find them, but it is hard to appreciate the Gods from there. But still, thank you for this piece.
This is compassionate, sobering and written from a place of deep devotion to the gods and humanity. I was gutted when I heard Mike’s bed was the dumpster. I sincerely hope he finds a way through his struggles.
Hey Rhyd, just commenting here because wondering if my email to you may have gotten lost – I have your copy of Dwelling on the Threshold from my fundraiser, but no address to send it to! Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The important thing you gave to me in this article was to sit patiently and wait for that person to ask for help, or to accept it in his own internal time. His writing a thank-you note for sleeping there was astonishing to me, but right.
The Snob in the taxi has no understanding that he is not immune to bad fortune or choices. He has no manners, either.
One’s smile and acknowledgement of a person can do more than we realise some days. Sometimes I give to others because *I* need to do it, or because I can. I remember in the late 80’s in a parking lot in Pasadena getting into my 74 VW Squareback (Elizabeth TwoDoor) when a woman who looked batterred by life approached me. She said, Please don’t hit/hurt me. I’m not a drinker, I don’t smoke, I need a place for the night. If you’ve got some money to spare to help me to a motel, I’d appreciate it. That she began with “please don’t hit/hurt me” turned my blood cold and rsulted in a hard knot in my gut. I gave her some smaller bill–$5? $10?–and wished her well. I started the car and realized that I could be her very easily. I drove after her and gave her my remaining $20, because I felt selfish not doing so.
I think it was in Diane Duane’s Door into Fire where I was exposed (in the 70’s) to the idea that deities walks abroad in disguise. Be aware that, depending on your religion, you may be helping an angel, a prophet, a deity, a bodhisattva…in disguise as a person in need.
I have also had that don’t stop/must stop dichotomy. Usually Someone is pushing on the latter option, and I listen and obey.
These days, there’s a homeless man with something that keeps him from straightening up much. I learned that he’s on the streets due to bad choices in his youth–basically self-medicating against a world that couldn’t keep up with the speed of his brain, and tended to reject him. He says that he smokes weed and drinks only enough to take the edge of dealing with the world these days, and I think that’s when he’s where he rests.
His favorite drink is carrot juice, he loves sausages, cheeses, and likes to cook when he has access to facilities. Sometimes I’ve been able to take him grocery shopping, sometimes all I can do is get him some carrot juice. He always shares what food he takes with him with his buds.
He is very bright–brain is working just fine–and I understand the issue of others not thinking/concluding as fast as I can. He says he needs to stay out of bookstores and libraries, because he’ll just want everything there, so I bring him books I’m not keeping. I should make him aware, if he isn’t already, of some “free library” stands in the neighbourhood.
I forget which title I gave him that led him into a lengthly discourse on Stranger in a Strange Land. He’s working at a recycling center at night at present. The other day he wanted to buy me a coffee drink. I had to get a lemonade due to my sensitivity to caffeine, but I think I would have hurt his feelings if I had refused: I recognized that he was returning my hospitality.
I think he lives in a homeless camp at present, and doesn’t have to worry about living in a dumpster.