by William Squirrell
His beauty was entirely ruined by the time I met him: a face patched together from old shoe leather, cheeks caved in, eyes deep in their sockets, nose pushed slightly to one side, a gap in his lower teeth were some bigot had hit him with the heel of an ax. The women still came, and some men; hunting him down in his North End rooming house, showing up at the dives he haunted, at his park benches, in the alleys where he sniffed glue and smoked crack. They would hold his shaking hands in theirs; stroke his thinning hair; take him to their hotel rooms to wash his feet with their tears; to pray; beg; weep. They wanted some sort of dispensation from him, some sort of sign, something to give them hope.
“What am I supposed to do with them, Bobby?” he’d ask as we drank draft beer at the Pembina Motor Hotel. “What am I supposed to do?”
At the time of his death most of the press still referred to him as “the angel,” but they did so ironically. The drama of his arrival in the early Nineties—the trauma of it really—had diminished over the years. I had watched it all on the relentless mantric cycle of CNN, as we all had: those first images were seared into the public mind, into the zeitgeist, the spiritus mundi or what have you. In the years that followed we saw them so often we ended up remembering it all as if we had actually been there, in southeastern Idaho, watching that fireball streak across the big sky. We remembered the view from the helicopter as if it was us taking the pictures; as if it was our shaky zoom into the vortex of white hot flame twisting and turning across the rolling ranch land; our hand tightening the focus on the hazy figure striding through the roiling center of that strange furnace. Even now I can hear the reporter’s calm, clipped voice in my ear: “Someone down there, Mitch, walking right in the middle of it. There’s someone there.”
Soon enough the rawness of it, the intensity, the sense of panic and expectation, was polished away by endless discussion, by the rituals of nostalgia, by the documentaries and the retrospectives, the earnest fictionalizations. That one shot though, the first one that captured his likeness, when the flames were already dying down and he turned to the telephoto lens, the three-quarter shot with the sidelong glance, blonde curls falling across the golden brow, that first real glimpse—speaking just for myself, mind you—that one shot where it feels as if he is looking right at you, at you personally, at all that you are and have been and ever will be, I still can’t see that image without feeling everything shift under my feet. But that had nothing to do with the Pembina; nothing to do with those of us that got hammered with the guy; loaned him money; argued hockey with him. Sure, occasionally a new waitress might get giddy when she realized who he was, might spend a week or two with clammy hands and butterflies at her proximity to the sacred, but they always got over it and started treating him right. At the Pembina, he was just another poor bastard there for the cheap beer; the big screen TVs; the air conditioning in the summer; heat in the winter.
The last time I saw him, he was sitting at his usual table. He was watching baseball with the kid who was going to shoot him.
“What’s up,” I said and sat down.
“Oh hey, Bobby,” he said. “This is Trevor, from Houston.”
“Hey, Trevor,” I said.
Trevor said nothing. Skinny; nineteen or twenty; arms crossed. I figured he was angry at me for intruding, they often were.
“Who’s winning?” I asked.
The kid seemed to be making him a bit nervous. At that age they often did. There had been hundreds of women in the early years after all, and he must have put at least a couple past the goalie. So he’d always be looking at them sideways, the kids; wondering; thinking; worrying. But this kid was nobody, just an asshole with a gun and a lot of pent up rage. I was so drunk by the time the after-work crowd started trickling in I got up to go for a piss and never came back. Went home and fell asleep with the TV on.
In the morning, it was all over the headlines, and I was sorry about it. Sorry about it all: sorry he was dead, sorry the last thing I did was stiff him with the bill, even sorry for that stupid kid. The press went nuts like they do, because of his associations with things that had happened earlier, years earlier, associations with something dramatic, something that seemed important but actually wasn’t. They wouldn’t shut up. Not for weeks. In the newspapers, on the TV, the radio, they kept telling us what to think, how to feel. But nothing they said changed the basic facts of the situation, the basic fact that there was nothing to be done; nothing; nothing at all, the moment had passed, it was just us again, and really, it had been for a long time.