Come in from the cold
On a frigid early afternoon in February, Kipper and I stood in the unfinished dining room of his soon-to-be-open restaurant, looking out the giant windows at Eastport’s front street, making fun of the occasional passersby. A young man with a frozen gait entered the picture. He tried the door to the crumbling art museum but, per usual, it was closed and locked. We both noticed something strange about the kid. He was soaked from his feet to his waist — not dripping, though, because the cold temps had started to turn his pants to ice.
“Did he fall off a wharf?” Kipper asked, dashing to the door and opening it wide. “Hey kid!” he yelled. “Come over here!”
The fella did as he was told and began warming up by the gas fireplace Kipper had just installed. It took him a couple minutes to share his story as his teeth gradually stopped chattering.
Jimmy had been living in a rooming house, on the north end of the island, owned by a slacker from Portland who moved here after inheriting the house from his dead mom. I knew the slacker landlord and the building because Eastport is a very small town. Another tenant also lived there: a day-trader in his mid-30s who sold stocks and swindles online while sitting in a parlor with views of the Canadian islands. He had been teaching the landlord the tricks of the trade until he suddenly lost tons of cash, hit the bottle hard, face-planted in the parking lot of the lunch bar and fled town.
Following the hasty departure of his instructor, the landlord decided to close the house and head south for the rest of the winter. So that morning, he evicted Jimmy. Without notice. Told him to get out, immediately. Shut off the furnace and water.
Problem was, Jimmy had nowhere to go. His only kin was a grandfather who’d already thrown him out. That’s why he’d been staying in the rooming house. Pay by the week. No questions asked. Nobody was the boss of him, dictating when he could play his video games.
“That doesn’t explain your wet pants,” Kipper said. “How did that happen?”
The kid – he was probably 18 or 19 – didn’t answer.
“C’mon,” Kipper prodded. A caring and sensitive gentleman, born and raised in Eastport, he was kinder than most. “Why are your pants wet?”
The kid made a face. A deep frown, filled with despair. A couple tears leaked from his sad eyes.
“I was gonna kill myself,” he said, slowly. “But the water was too cold.”
Kipper and I exchanged looks. I could barely put my hand into the harbor, let alone wade in to my waist.
“But I’m OK now.” The kid stood up straight. “I’m OK now.”
“Are your pants dry?” Kipper asked. “Where you gonna go?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “I dunno. Somewhere. Thanks for letting me warm up.” He headed for the door.
For a second, I considered delivering the kid to the Mad Scientist. But then I changed my mind. Two crazy dudes living in that deteriorating 100-room compound was a recipe for tragedy.
Kipper and I looked at each other again. Nothing we could do. Neither of us could bring Jimmy home. Our wives didn’t need any additional burdens. Winter in Washington County during a recession was depressing enough. Taking in a troubled teen would only make it worse.
Not even an hour later Kipper and I were in his truck, running a fool’s errand, when we caught a glimpse of the kid standing at the top of the boat ramp that sloped into the lower basin of the harbor.
“Uh-oh,” Kipper said, slamming on the brakes and pulling a U-turn. “Did you see that?”
By the time we got to the landing and jumped out of the truck, Jimmy was in the water up to his waist. He stopped.
“Hey, Jimmy! What the heck are you doing out there?” Kipper yelled good-naturedly. “C’mon, Jimmy. You don’t wanna do this.”
Jimmy didn’t listen. He took three more steps. The sea lapped at his belly button and reached for his chest. Then he kept walking, stopping when the rising tide kissed his chin.
“Dude,” I said to Kipper. “Get the Coasties and I’ll talk to Jimmy.”
The Coast Guard station was only about 200 feet away. Kipper turned and ran, then stopped to flag down a passing police cruiser. That meant an ambulance would soon follow.
“Jimmy,” I said to the kid. “How you doing?”
He didn’t say a word, because he was empty and tired. I recognized all too well what he was trying to do. Dull the pain. Banish the ache in his brain. Silence the voice that filled his being with doubt.
What did he want? Did he want to die or did he just want a new home in a padded cell? Maybe a medicine to stop the hurt. What would work? A pill to zombify him? A bottle to turn him into a drunken lout? A joint of sweet ganja delivering temporary bliss?
Or was it a hug? Someone to tell him he was loved, no matter how nuts he was?
“Jimmy, we can get you help. We can get you warm. Something to eat …” My words trailed off. I knew why he was doing this, what it’s like when it seems nothing can ease the intense suffering and you can’t remember any taste of joy or any pride or satisfaction or love. Nothing would help. Except, perhaps, a nap. “Maybe,” I finally said, “we could find you a place to sleep.”
He might have whimpered. Or it could have been the cry of a cold gull. Then Kipper returned, out of breath. “The Coasties are coming,” he said. “How’s he doing?”
“Not very well. He might be in shock.”
“Fuck.” He shook his head. “Whaddya want to do?”
“Do you think we should drag him out?” I asked. It would take both of us, if not more. I’ve wrestled hostile lunatics before. They can tap into a reserve of superhuman strength. They never go down easy. Luckily, Frankie the Cop was walking down the landing, carrying a blanket.
Then we heard an outboard motor. One of the fish farmers rounded the breakwater in a skiff. Frankie sprinted to the end of a float and waved him down. As the skiff approached the ramp, the sound of the engine seemed to wake Jimmy from his trance. The demons in his head released him. He turned and slowly trudged through the sea, back up the ramp, just as the ambulance arrived.
“C’mon, Jimmy,” Kipper said. “Let’s get you dry, then we’ll get a burger down at the diner.”
“What do you wanna do, kill him?” Frankie joked, wrapping the blanket around the kid’s shoulders.
We all laughed. Except Jimmy. He was quaking. The sea had been bath water compared to the frigid air. Jimmy was put in the ambulance, where they stripped off his clothes and wrapped him in more blankets. Then the fat city manager arrived, ready to take charge. Kipper and I headed for the truck. Our job was done.
We were at the truck when the gate to the Coast Guard’s fortress swung open. The boat team emerged and jogged toward their 47-foot search-and-war vessel. Four sailors were wearing mustang suits and gun belts. The fifth was a scrawny lad encased in a red dry suit— the rescue swimmer.
“Just in the nick of time,” Kipper said. “Homeland security at work.”
“Hey, Coast Guard!” I yelled and waved. As an ex-Coastie, I’d take pleasure in telling them they were too late. I turned to Kipper. “Why did they bring their pistols?”
“I dunno.” He shook his head. “Maybe they planned to shoot him out of the water.”
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