An excerpt from the forthcoming novel, The Sun Collective
He’d been having those dreams again.
That night, Brettigan lay awake once more, broken open by the same antique visions in which he stood accused of murder, his soul drenched with the blood of his victims. Maybe his unconscious needed a vacation. In the dreams, he felt pride for the slaughter he had committed, standard dream-slaughter, but as soon as he awakened, he came homeward to his habitual self and tried not to be undone by what he had cooked up while asleep. He thought of his daughter, his son-in-law, and his two grandchildren and of how he loved them, believing himself to be, outside of the kingdom of nightmare, an ordinary, decent guy. He tried not to think of his son or of Alma, his wife; he didn’t want to contaminate them by thinking about them. Still trying to calm himself, he observed the shadows on the ceiling cast by the streetlight outside the bedroom window. The shadows, like Brettigan himself, were, for the moment, harmless. Down the block, a dog barked. Brettigan did his best not to move so that he wouldn’t disturb his wife. The scotch ebbed in his bloodstream; he could still feel its effects.
With great stealth, he rose from the bed, checking the bedside clock: 2:04. In the dark, he put on yesterday’s clothes hanging on a chair, and he descended the stairs, avoiding the squeaky step five steps from the bottom. In the kitchen, after drinking a glass of water to fortify himself, he still wasn’t sure where he was about to go. But he had a feeling that the dying were instructing him to take a walk of some kind, an excursion: outside, tonight, he was meant to be a witness. The dying wanted him to be awake.
The dog padded into the kitchen to observe him. The animal seemed noncommittal about the nocturnal walk Brettigan was planning to take, though he did lick Brettigan’s hand in greeting before returning to the living room, where the dog’s bed was located close to where the cat typically slept curled up next to the dog. For the most part, the cat was indifferent to Brettigan’s daytime or nighttime projects and rarely got up to greet him; Alma had reported that the cat believed that Brettigan was not long for this world anyway and therefore did not want to be emotionally attached to him, or, for that matter, to anybody, people usually being more troublesome to the cat than they were worth.
Outside, the late summer air was still warm, and the night winds blew almost soundlessly through the maple trees lining the block. Here and there, lights were still on in the upstairs windows of the neighboring houses, probably for the sake of the insomnia-ridden homeowners who were reading long novels or watching late movies or hatching plans for tomorrow’s business day. The crickets were making a racket from the bushes, almost as if they were on fire.
Brettigan glanced up as he walked. Through one upstairs window two blocks from his own house, he saw a woman in a dressing gown standing between side curtains as she gazed toward the sidewalk in an attitude of watchful attention. Standing there, she was the very picture of loneliness. He didn’t recognize the woman—she presented only a dark outline like someone’s mother standing in a nursery doorway—and he didn’t know who lived in that particular house, which, like most of them in this Minneapolis neighborhood, had been constructed around the turn of the century, and would be drafty in winter and difficult to heat, with large screened front porches. Seeing Brettigan passing by on the sidewalk, the woman raised her hand to wave but then seemed to think better of the gesture and lowered her arm to her side.
Brettigan waved at her, a gesture the woman did not acknowledge, though she did lower the window shade, and then he continued on.
The street curved slightly to the left as it descended into a flat area with few trees and no wind, before the street and the sidewalks rose in the distance to a hill, and as Brettigan made his way toward it, he thought of the street fondly: on this very incline, he had watched Timothy accelerate and jump over curbs on his skateboard. How long ago was that? Another era. In this same street, where it flattened out, he had taught both his children how to ride their bicycles. Before that, his daughter had made her unsteady way down these sidewalks on her pink-laced roller skates. Several years ago after a snowstorm, his son had pulled his sled up this hill on his way to Kenwood Park, all the streets blocked with snow, the city having gone silent except for the distant occasional noise of trucks plowing the freeways. Both the street and the hill had a comforting domesticity for Brettigan; although they were public spaces, he felt that they belonged to his family and to the neighbors and to no one else. He owned part of this street; he was a shareholder. No, more than a shareholder: the sole proprietor, the lamplighter, the night watchman, the one who calls out to anyone who will listen that it’s two a.m., and all’s well.
At that moment Brettigan felt so weighed down with the past and its memories that the present had almost dried up and disappeared on him. Everywhere he looked, he saw spectral remnants, his own and his family’s. He brought so much of the past to what he saw, he could hardly see anymore what was actually there.
He heard footsteps behind him. When he turned around, he saw a mangy dog following him with some sort of intention, but when the dog saw Brettigan observing him, the dog stopped and peed nonchalantly on a fire hydrant.
Befogged by sleep and melancholia, Brettigan was startled from his personal reveries and from his curiosity about the dog to discover that someone a block away was approaching him on the sidewalk—a man wearing trousers too large for him, the pants’ cuffs flapping back and forth above the spindly exposed ankles, the trousers themselves held up by what seemed to be a necktie in a pattern of polka dots. The man wore scuffed saddle shoes with no socks. He was clearly not of this place—he shambled like a tourist-vagrant with no particular destination in mind. The man’s t-shirt had sentences on it that Brettigan couldn’t make out, though he could discern a faded M. The other letters had washed out, as had the man’s face in the half-lit dark. As they approached each other, Brettigan tried to see the markers of identity, but the man’s face had the unfinished quality of someone whose birth had been incomplete and who had never loved anyone who could love him back, and whose face, as a result, had no emotion in it except dismay when he gazed at an inhospitable locale, this particular Earth to which he had been consigned. He had probably staggered through life in solitary confinement and was still staggering. The guy had several day’s growth of beard and eyes emerging out of the darkness that fixed on Brettigan with a kind of melancholy indifference.
The guy stopped in front of Brettigan, blocking his way. Looking off in no particular direction, and almost frail, he was not physically imposing, though he also seemed to feel no obligation to step aside, and Brettigan felt no particular alarm for himself, just an idle nighttime curiosity. The man gave off a smell of burnt wiring and dirty motor oil, creating around himself an entire atmospheric zone of rancid chemical odors. He swayed as if pummeled by a strong wind, but here there wasn’t a breath of air.
“Hey,” the man said, still being careful not to look directly at Brettigan.
“You got a menthol cigarette?” the man asked.
“I don’t smoke. Sorry.”
“How about a buck for a beer?”
“The bars are closed,” Brettigan told him.
“But not the all-night groceries,” the man said. His voice had the distant inflection of someone who isn’t thinking about what he’s saying, and whose sentences come out of the mouth without anything behind them.
“I’ll give you a dollar,” Brettigan said, “but not for a beer.”
“You from A.A.?” the man asked.
They stood together on the sidewalk, neither one moving. A stranger, seeing them from a distance, might have thought that they knew each other and had met here by arrangement. Still trying to see the man’s face, which seemed both broken and inhospitable, and noting that the man didn’t appear to be headed anywhere, Brettigan decided to engage the guy in conversation. Behind him, the dog trotted away.
“How come you’re still up this late at night?” Brettigan asked.
“I don’t like the homeless shelters,” the guy said, shaking his head. “So here I am.”
“How come you don’t like the shelters?”
“There are bad people in there. Besides, they don’t let me in, usually.”
“Because I’m a drunk.” The guy breathed out: an impressive sensory blare of shouting brutal wine, whiskey, and other industrial fluids. “You show up at the door drunk, they don’t let you in.”
“Why don’t you quit drinking?” Brettigan asked.
“I can’t,” the man said, firmly.
“Because I’m crazy.”
“Oh. Well, that’s too bad. What did you say your name was?”
What an odd name for a panhandler! “Albert, where do you sleep at night?”
“I don’t sleep at night. I walk around. Like this here. And then during the day, I get on the Light Rail and I go to sleep there. Or I sleep on the benches outside the library. Could you please give me a dollar?”
“Why don’t you sleep at night?”
“You sure have plenty of questions. At night I got to stay alert, because of the Anns. They’ll come and get you and kill you. I’ve seen them. Didn’t you say that you would give me a dollar? I’d like that now, if you please.”
“The Anns?” Brettigan reached into his wallet and in the streetlight’s dim illumination tried to see what was in there, but the only bill he had was for five dollars, which was too much money to give away to an uncompliant stranger. Shrugging to himself, he pulled it out and handed it to the man anyway.
“Thank you,” Albert said. “God bless you. Have a nice day.” He said it mechanically, as if he didn’t really mean to invoke God but was required to do so by convention.
“Could I ask you a question? How’d you get here?”
“I walked,” the man said.
“No, I didn’t mean that. I mean, how did you get to be a person who has to walk up and down the streets all night and who lives the way you do? What did you do? What happened to you?” Brettigan waited. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me.” After another moment’s wait, he added, “But I did just give you ten dollars. What’s your story?”
“Me? I didn’t do nothin’ ever in my life. My daddy, he used to drunk himself up and beat on me, broke my arm once. So I dropped out of school before I graduated and then got myself into the Army. Even went to Afghanistan. I wasn’t always a shadow like I am now. I was a warrior, twice my size back then. The Army turned me loose but I didn’t care for Afghanistan and you could say I lost my mind over there after I killed this guy in hand-to-hand combat when his sweat fell into my mouth, which poisoned me, and also saw my best buddy die, shot through the head, so they had to discharge me because I got so lunatic. I came home to nothin’ and nobody. I’ve got no skills except warfare. You want a guy who’s got no skills, you’re looking at him.”
Brettigan realized from this little outburst that the man was young, though he didn’t look it. Youthfulness had drained right out of him. “You could learn.”
“Learn what? No, I can’t.”
“What about the V.A.?” When the man looked puzzled, Brettigan said, “The Veterans Administration?”
“I tell you what: they ain’t no good to nobody. They just boiling up the red tape over there in a vat, making more of it. They tried to mend me. They couldn’t. I’m too busted up to fix.”
“What’s this you were saying about the Anns?” Brettigan asked. The man’s reek was intensifying and becoming more emotional somehow, an odor that somehow conveyed an entire lifetime of loss and despondency. Brettigan tried to breathe through his mouth in order to lessen the effect. “I heard they were called the Ands.”
Albert looked up and down the street. “You shouldn’t talk about them. Or say their name either.”
“Because they’re devils,” the man said in a tone just above a whisper. “They come at night in their cars, real stealthy, quiet-like. They creep upon you and kill you for fun, and they take your soul and sell it on the soul market downtown. Like I said, they’re devils. You speak their name, they come for you. You been warned. I gotta go now.”
With one last look at the street, the man—Albert—pocketed the five-dollar bill and shuffled rapidly, getaway-style, down the sidewalk, throwing furtive, guilty glances from side to side as he scurried along until he was absorbed by the darkness. Brettigan, now that he had a moment to think about it, felt that he had met this man somewhere before, but, no: the man—he had to keep reminding himself that the guy had a name, which was “Albert”—was just a standard-issue panhandler, down on his luck, someone in constant contact with misfortune and its delusions and was no one familiar and certainly no one he would ever have to call by name again.
In this genteel neighborhood, you could be arrested for walking around the way Albert was doing, creating a public nuisance by simply being alive.
Maybe he was hoping for jail. After all, they sort of took care of you behind bars, in their own way.
Standing under the streetlight, casting a shadow that seemed thicker than usual, Brettigan heard a car approaching from up the street, a gray Escalade with red clay mud splashed across its fender. As it approached, the car slowed down, and from behind the smoked glass someone seemed to be taking a long gangster-movie appraisal of Brettigan before speeding away. At least no one would mistake him, Harry Brettigan, for a vagrant: his light windbreaker, though slightly soiled at the elbows from gardening, was a product of a famous brand-name haberdashery firm headquartered in New Hampshire, though the clothes it sold were made in China by factory workers, and his beautifully tailored blue chambray shirt and pressed chinos and Ecco shoes constituted an impressive ID card in this or any other American neighborhood. His straw flat-brim hat from Old Navy was merely icing on the cake.
The evening’s stroll had been a successful jaunt thus far—after all, it had cleared his mind of nightmares—but instead of turning around and heading back home, Brettigan set out again down the block before walking east toward the freeway and its overpasses where the homeless, the ones who hadn’t been taken in anywhere, gathered to sleep. He wanted to see them. He felt he had the right.
As he approached the freeway, the residential homes gave way to apartment buildings, including one from which music emerged: something with heavy orchestration: Brahms, maybe, in a terrible mood. From another window, he heard a woman shouting, “Carl, are you over there?” and, in response, a male voice shouted back, “No.” The night air was full of voices. Brettigan heard the increasing background noise of the freeway, and when he looked off to his right, he saw, two floors above a Mom-and-Pop corner grocery store, another figure standing at a window in a thoughtful posture, again a woman, one arm supporting the other at the elbow, the right hand cupping her chin, surveying the street. She seemed to be wearing a wedding dress. When Brettigan looked more closely, however, he saw that this figure wasn’t a human being at all but a mannequin, standing there in front of the window, a fully gowned dressmaker’s dummy sporting a tiara.
Brettigan increased his walking speed. This excursion would be good for his heart. His cardiologist constantly badgered him to drive less and to stroll more. Brettigan reminded himself that the Thundering Herd would be gathering the day after tomorrow at the Mall of America, where he would report on the Anns. Surely the burglar would know who the Anns were; he was acquainted with all the local devils.
Up ahead, on the other side of the street, Brettigan saw a clutch of homeless people, Victims of Capitalism, four or five of them encamped together under the highway. They looked like a ragged platoon that had been through a terrible battle and were now in retreat after having traveled hundreds of miles. They were huddled together for shelter. Some sort of fire guttered nearby inside a barrel, the fire itself invisible though it gave off sparks that shot upward.
Gazing in shadow from across the street at this raggedy human assemblage, Brettigan felt transported to the 1930s and to all the world cities where threadbare castoff men and women gathered under public structures for protection, return-to-sender subterreaneans, these were, the clustered hollow-eyed irregulars who . . . but wait: as he drew closer, he saw that the five individuals were seated on the ground, not crouching, passing around a bottle of what was probably vodka. On the left was a ragged young man wearing a shabby red flannel shirt too heavy for mid-summer, seated next to someone with long, greasy, stringy hair identifiable as neither gender, possibly not gendered at all, this person in turn located next to a young man who was leaning back on his elbows and whose clothes were slightly cleaner than those of the other wasted vagrants, in fact so incongruously clean that he seemed to be in costume, an actor pretending to be a homeless drifter, and as Brettigan drew closer, he saw that the young man was, even at this distance, alert enough to return his gaze, and as Brettigan’s eyes came into focus and his mind cleared, he saw that he was looking at his own son, sitting there like a guard or protector of the others, and Brettigan called out to him, crying his name, before the young man stood up and ran out from under the bridge and down the street toward the sidewalk, disappearing into the distance and the night.