The day I saw Brice again it was the end of September, long after he’d been shipped down to Green River Recovery Center in Southern California. I had been sitting in the corner of a coffee shop on Southeast Main and Grand at the time, waiting for my boyfriend to finish up at work and come meet me. This song that I loved was playing—one that I sometimes just sat and wrote the lyrics to over and over and over again, just to comfort myself. The table I was sitting at was an antique drill-bit machine, one with the metallic table ripped out and replaced with a grainy slab of bamboo wood.
5:45 p.m. Dirty haze over Portland—nothing like our fall days are supposed to be. I tapped my feet in time to the music and I noticed my knocking at a pedal on the drill-bit machine labeled “Off” and “On.” The singer beguiled that some woman love him again, this time rightly. I watched the old squat buildings’ paint gain in redness. The broken-down men crawling from the river to a shelter up the street for the night had a bit of rose in their cheeks, their ears, and at the backs of their necks.
And one that passed by the coffee shop looked like the imitation of Brice, back when he was lowliest. His face was always golden, even in the low times, and on this day he appeared so young that it startled me. I heard a few things from my boyfriend about the family he came from: something along the lines of innocence being ripped away early on. A grim father devoted to enforcing God’s laws. Brice had taken shelter in music. He could play the guitar, drums, flute, piano, all exceptionally well. It sounds hard to believe, I know, but his family would gather around the piano and sing and pray together every night. The kids’ were easily captivated until, one by one, they crept away.
Shadows lengthened under the pull of the gold and rose colors. My boyfriend would be back any minute and his arrival changed the landscape so that I forgot that I’d even seen someone who resembled our old friend.
And then, Brice was next to me on the Steel Bridge one morning later that week. A tugboat was pushing a barge our direction, but we had a long time to wait before it went under the bridge. Our path across the river was currently raised fifty feet above us. Brice, this bettered version of our friend, had been walking with a fluffy Husky dog. Brice looked robust and eager to begin his day. His hair was blonder, maybe from the sun down there in Green Valley.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Great,” I said. “Are you, how are you?”
He patted the dog. “I’m excellent. I’m in a really positive place.” He nudged the toes of his shoes into the barricade and half-heartedly climbed it.
“I’m actually moving back up here in a bit,” he said. “I want to take some classes at the university and finish up my degree.”
“Oh, great,” I said. “What are you going for? Um, do you think you should not do that?” I asked. “Climbing that thing?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, as if he’d only just thought of it. He descended.
A MAX train rolled over the top arc of the bridge and rattled every nut and bolt around us. I was glad both our feet were far from the edge. The water looked cold today in late September.
“Are you still looking for work?” I asked.
“Oh sure. I’m going downtown right now to check back at a few places.”
I looked at the panting dog at Brice’s side. I wondered what role the dog played in seeking work.
“I’d really like to be able to make music full time, the thing is,” he said. “The guys from my band are still around, so, you know.”
I heard a falcon screeching above us. I guess it was nesting somewhere up in the iron beams. I knew what falcon it was the moment I heard its call. Peregrines have this screech that narrows towards the end in a contrived-sounding fade-out.
“I really hope you can do that, Brice. You know, without getting dragged down by those guys.”
“Aw, no. They’re OK.”
I often do not understand what makes a kid fall from safety, but with Brice it seemed to have been different. Music gave him a way of escape, but for the past five years, the life that had accompanied music had almost killed him. My boyfriend says that you can’t make things easy on the addict; you can’t give them excuses because they’ll take advantage every time.
“Check it out,” Brice said to me. He was watching the tugboat pushing itself under the trusses and concrete beams of the Steel Bridge. One rotund man was up in the boat’s cabin, his hands in his pockets. The tug must operate on very gradual, minute changes. Brice began to tell me a bit about the machine that makes the functions of tugboats possible. I remembered that Brice had studied engineering before his first lapse.
The pedestrian bridge started lowering back down. Brice asked me to tell my boyfriend to call him so that the two could go out and catch up. I said, “Sure,” waved goodbye as I rode off on my bike, neglecting to inform Brice of where I was going, where I worked, or where my boyfriend and I now lived. My sighting of our friend while I was at the coffee shop was just an apparition. Some trick of the sunset the other night had recolored Brice’s face when he passed by because that day on the bridge, Brice left me looking as cold and gray as the river water the tugboat had churned up below us.