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David James Duncan on Drunks

The Brothers K (Bantam Books: July 1996), p. 22.

I’d never seen anybody drink except the bums down in Portland. But once you saw the bums you never forgot. They had eyes like mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup all stirred together; the skin of their faces was like Soap Mahoney’s hands; their teeth were bashed in or caramel-colored, if they had any, and their mouths dribbled tobacco or blood at the corners; they wore pieces of dead people’s old suits, wore greasy overcoats that flapped like mangled wings, wore sores instead of socks on their ankles; and after they’d drink a while they’d just sit or lie down right on the sidewalk, letting real people walk over them while they argued with people who weren’t even there. Once, while we were walking over some, Peter said to Everett that the bums had to listen to a whole sermon just to get a bowl of free soup at the Harbor Light Mission. Everett spat and said no wonder they stayed drunk. Then mama scared the hell out of us, and out of some bum too, by hauling off and slapping Everet so hard he almost fell down on a fat old Indian passed out against the wall there. Yet it was Everett who instantly said, “I’m sorry.” Because he knew, we all knew, that she didn’t hit him for any weird religious reason, or for spitting on sidewalks, or even out of nervousness at having to step around bums. She hit him because her father was a drunk. A mean one too. Died before any of us ever met him, but Mama still has dreams about him. And even dead he was the reason why drinking terrified her.