The Ballad of Seamus and River

In the crumbling East Oakland public schools he attended as a child, Seamus had been a pariah. He was invariably the only white kid in his class. He had never learned proper hygiene from his depressive unkempt mother or his mostly-absentee drunk father. He was not funny, or smart, or in any way talented. If you had been standing on the corner back in ’96 as Seamus walked by, slump-shouldered, his pimply face with the too-long jaw lowered so as not to make eye contact, you probably would have heard someone say “Stupid retard”, someone answer “Man, that’s just sad”, and someone else laugh.
One day when he was 15, Seamus stood for about five minutes looking at a bottle his father had left on the coffee-table, looking at the overflowing ashtray beside it, hearing police sirens wailing, looking at the T.V where the A’s were down three in the 8th inning. Then he picked up the bottle and got his first taste of whiskey. The burn travelling down his throat and into his gut was almost the only pleasure and was the only relief he had ever felt.
Seamus stopped going to school. His mother kicked him out saying he was a piece of shit like his dad. Four years after that, he had become a fixture on Telegraph Avenue. He sat alone, cross-legged on a ragged blanket in front of Amoeba Records, a crumpled paper cup before him, a water bottle full of cheap vodka beside him, his forearms crossed over his belly, rocking slowly forwards and back, occasionally mumbling “spare change”. He wore dirt-encrusted blue jeans and a ragged army-surplus jacket. His dull brown hair was long and hung down over his downcast eyes, and his beard was long and scraggly. The tight community of street people avoided him.
It was a bright, clear September day when a young traveler came striding, long-legged and curiously peering up and around him through his brown eyes, down Telegraph. He had a pack on his back with a bedroll, and carried a cheap, battered little guitar, on the body of which someone he had written with a sharpie, in unself-conscious imitation of Woody Guthrie, “this machine kills fascists”. He sat down beside Seamus. “Hey, man”, he said, “I’m River. What’s your name?”
On the day they met, River had just gotten a ride over the bridge from San Francisco, where he had been sleeping in Golden Gate Park with some meth-heads who he said were too negative for him. He said he grew up in New Jersey. He got hooked on heroin when he was a teenager, and his mom had sent him to Washington State to stay with his dad, who she hoped would beat some sense into him. Instead, they started doing heroin together, which was great, because his dad was a former army medic, and could always find a vein. Eventually, River had hopped a freight to Portland. He was pretty sure it was there, sharing needles with hobo kids in the train-yard, that he’d been infected with HIV. He didn’t figure it out until months later, when he got a cold and instead of getting better he began to waste away, so he went to the E.R. They told him he had AIDS. After he found out his status, he couldn’t see any of the people he’d been hanging out with in Portland without wondering if they had infected him, or if he had infected them, so he came south, thinking it would be warmer in the Bay, easier to stay healthy. At first it was. Through September and October River went to the methadone clinic, he and Seamus spare-changed and often got enough for Chinese food or pizza, and they slept up on a hill above campus where nobody bothered them and they could look out at the twinkling East Bay and San Francisco and the Golden Gate beyond. One warm night as they lay there just a little bit drunk gazing out on the constellations of streetlights down in the flats River said, “Hey man, Isn’t this amazing? Aren’t we lucky? We’re the kings of all this.”
But then, after almost five years of drought, the sky opened and day after day and night after night of freezing cold rain came down. The blanket and the sleeping bag and all their clothes were soaked. There was almost no foot traffic on Telegraph, and after buying vodka at 7-11 there was no money left over for food. There was no shelter on the hill, so they stayed, huddled together and constantly drunk, under the awning on the sidewalk. River started to get sick. At first he had a little wheezing cough. Then as the rain continued, He coughed harder. Fever set in. He lost weight so quickly it would have alarmed Seamus if he’d been sober. Then one day Seamus woke to see his friend’s face a whitish-blue beside him, and if River hadn’t been shaking so hard, Seamus would have thought he was dead. He didn’t know what to do, so he lay on top of River to try to warm him up. He lay his head on River’s chest, heard his heart beating faintly.
A girl on her way to work at the herbal apothecary saw them, and noting the blue tint of River’s face, decided to call 911. The ambulance arrived and several uniformed, efficient EMTs jumped out. They pulled Seamus off of River, whose unconscious body they lifted and strapped to a stretcher. As they loaded River into the ambulance, Seamus sat cross-legged, rocking himself, eyes downcast. A ponytailed, scrubbed-clean female EMT bent from the waist, and barely heard Seamus mumble, “That’s my best friend, man. He’s dying.”
“What’s his name? He doesn’t have any I.D on him”
“River.”
“Is River his legal name? What’s his last name?”
Seamus seemed to shut off, drift away. The woman seemed impatient.
“I don’t know”, he mumbled at the ground, finally.
The ponytail straightened up, and scoffed to a male EMT who had joined her,
“That’s his best friend he says, but he doesn’t even know his name.”

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