by Mitchell Dahlhoff
Homeless Bob is in the passenger seat. We’ve been driving for two hours. Maybe. I met Homeless Bob back in college. This was back before photo IDs and automatic locks on doors, so Homeless Bob would crawl in at night and sleep in stairwells. He became a bit of a mascot for our dorm, to the point where we would give him six packs and whiskey and maybe even slip him some drugs if we were in a particularly generous mood. We would take him to parties and maybe we were patronizing him a bit, sure, but hell he wasn’t complaining. We all had a good time and I really liked Homeless Bob. Looking back I consider him my only real friend from those years. Every other relationship I had fell out eventually. But after a while the joke got old and Homeless Bob started breaking into girls’ rooms and fondling them in their sleep, and well, that kind of cemented it that he had to go and some kind of authority was notified and Homeless Bob just stopped coming around. I hadn’t seen him since until earlier tonight. Right now he’s rocking back and forth in the passenger seat. He’s either on drugs or coming off them. Either way it’s not a beautiful sight. I’d say he’s pretty f-u-c-k-e-d.
The lights have been in the rearview for around twenty minutes. They showed up right when we hit Exit 213-B, which has taken us out into bugfuck nowhere. They light up the whole night behind us. I flick the dial back and forth across static. The sirens are boring. Just the same two tones over and over. Ee-oo ee-oo. I ask Homeless Bob what he wants to listen to. He just makes this long moahhh sound like he’s some kind of a dying animal. YOU A DYING GOAT? I shout. He just moahhhs.
There’s a song I like on the radio. I crank. TINY DANCER I shout. I LOVE THIS SONG I shout. Homeless Bob doesn’t respond so I keep shouting. IT’S OVERPLAYED BUT DAMN IT I STILL LOVE IT. The inside of my throat has started to itch. FUCKING GREAT. FUCKING ELTON JOHN.
I wiggle my fingers on the wheel like I’m playing the piano along with the song. I should’ve played the piano. I would have been great. I don’t shout that, but I think it. The thought really overpowers me. I would have been great at so many things. Then the steel guitar kicks in and washes back and forth on the song and I’m too drawn in to think anymore. At least I think it’s steel guitar. NEVER COULD TELL THE DIFFERENCE I shout to Homeless Bob. He’s scratching furiously at his beard now and his hands are dark and wet and I’m pretty sure he’s drawn blood.
There’s a stop sign at the intersection up ahead but I blow through it and all the lights behind me follow right when the drums kick in on the song. MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER – SO UNDERRATED. Back in the city, after I tucked Homeless Bob in my car we ran through a couple of reds before the lights started following us. DEFINITELY MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF HIS, THOUGH. Homeless Bob’s hands are in his lap and his moahhhs are gone. ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?
Homeless Bob was in Vietnam and they sprayed him with some kind of chemical weapon and it totally fucked his nervous system. They didn’t mean to spray him, they meant to spray Charlie but Homeless Bob had deserted the army and had joined the Vietcong so I guess they did mean to spray him. What I mean to say is I don’t think they meant to do it to a white guy. At least I think Homeless Bob is white, never could tell for sure, how dark he is. But they sprayed him one way or another and it made it so he couldn’t feel pain. In college we broke bottles over his head and drove nails in his feet and he just sat there and we would laugh and laugh and the more we hurt him the harder we laughed and the harder he sat there. He’s not moving.
No. Homeless Bob was never in Vietnam. He had bummed around India in the 70’s and studied transcendental meditation with a guru. He had gained such mental control he didn’t feel pain. He could also stop his heart for minutes only for it to start back up. We would take him to the hospital and have the doctors declare him dead only for him to wake up. We’d steal morphine on the way out. He was pretty far up on the ladder of what you could accomplish with meditation. All that was left to learn was flight and then immortality. His guru could fly. He would sit cross-legged and fly around the monastery in figure eights as he taught Homeless Bob his techniques. But the guru hadn’t conquered death and died before Homeless Bob could learn to fly. That’s life.
THE MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER.
Or. Homeless Bob had been a successful pillar of the community – owned a business, trophy wife, the whole shebang. But you know how it is with success, it’s never enough. That’s for sure. So he tried to kill himself by jumping out a window. Only it wasn’t high enough to kill him but he landed on his neck and it fractured his spine in a bunch of places. They put it back together with metal pins and screws. Spared his motor functions but his nerve endings were all disconnected. When he slept at night we’d roll up the back of his shirt and see all the scars from his surgeries. It took all his money just to pay for it and he lost everything. Maybe that was what he really wanted all along. Maybe.
IT WAS NIXON. THE MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER – IT MEANT NIXON.
The lights are multiplying. It’s like a god-damned supernova back there. Red and blue and white plumes of superheated plasma. The song slows then they hit the chorus and I punch Homeless Bob in the arm as a show of fraternal love for all the good times we had but he doesn’t flinch. His sleeve is rolled up and there’s an empty syringe in his hand. Shit. I got to get this shit together.
I couldn’t believe it when I met him tonight. Blew me away. I was pacing downtown when I met him. HOMELESS BOB I shouted. I hugged him and yeah, I even cried a little bit. It meant that much to me to see him. I even sobbed into his shoulder for a while. He reeked. I took him and turned him around and walked him to my car. I was going to take him out with me. We were going to celebrate, celebrate the cosmic confluence that had brought us back together after all these years. Things at home and work the way they were I hadn’t had much to celebrate lately and I was just so damn happy to see him, I really was. Even thought about taking him home with me. Letting him live with me, rename him just Bob, tell my wife he was my long lost father even though she had met my real father multiple times before he died. I’d have smoothed that out somehow. That and everything else. Nothing is un-smoothable. Unless you’re Nixon.
No smoothing it out now. My ears are hot. My brain feels a little overcooked. Homeless Bob’s sunk down in the seat. I reach over and run my hand across his forehead. I brush his hair out of his face. Shit. This isn’t Homeless Bob.
SHIT! I shout over the music and the sirens and everything else.
But then the song quiets down back to just the piano for a moment and who cares if this is my Homeless Bob or not. Actually now that I think about it one of my old college buddies phoned me that Homeless Bob had died, that was a few years ago. They found him face down in a park fountain. There weren’t a lot of homeless in town so it was big news. Oh well. He died without pain. That’s more than can be said for most of us. My old memories fit this new Homeless Bob just as well and that’s good enough for me. YOU’RE GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME. I reach down and brush the syringe away and take his hand in mine.
They’ve formed a line up ahead across the highway. What would Nixon do? I suppose I could take the ditch but I keep the wheel straight, my foot flat. The chorus comes up for the last time and I’m singing along. Homeless Bob squeezes my hand and sits up and he’s singing along, and his voice is so strong, so pure. HOLD ME CLOSER. I can see the cars. The lights along the highway. Homeless Bob’s hand in mine, thick, solid. He feels no pain.