This is a story I wrote about me and vinegar and a homeless man and dragons and also owls; it was published originally here, and now it’s here.
I go out at night with the same consistency most people reserve for doing laundry or being disappointed in their children. However, I don’t do it because I want to be alone or because I’m trying to get robbed or because I’m afraid of the unwavering, burning malevolence of the ‘dayball.’ Night is just when I get my shit done. It’s the time for that sort of thing. And I don’t go out for any reason other than to run errands or get groceries–I am inarguably mundane.
However, two things consistently steal the dull from me and replace it with an abiding strangeness that lingers: I sleep very rarely and have strange luck which amounts to being often confused and having odd things happen. I’ve learned there’s a point in sleeplessness which usually strikes around the 50 hour mark when your brain stands up, looks around, and decides the world is pear-shaped and causality ought to run left-wise. Mix the twitching weirdness of sleep deprivation with an innate predilection toward strangeness, and you come out with a cocktail a good bartender would name “Bad Jazz” or “Fuzzy Wizzard.” I went out one night a Fuzzy Wizzard scattered like Bad Jazz, and a man drank my vinegar, and I saw dragons.
I had already been a awake a few days. It might have been the weekend, but days tend to blend together when the sleeping border between them is stolen. My apartment was the kind of trash a 20-year old is supposed to live in, the kind with theoretical walls, a painted-on floor, 2 working outlets, and the kind of heater that doesn’t exists but the management assures you it does and they’ll actually have to charge extra for maintenance on it. The one nice thing I did have was a coffee maker. Mine was the single-serving kind that injects scalding water into a tiny pod–the kind that turtles choke on–of coffee grounds before squirting out a thin stream of wood-flavored potential energy. It broke. I left home to get vinegar to pour through it because that was something I had heard people in control of their life do. I left home; it was one of the single digit AM times, and I could hear the untoward keening of old dragons burrowing through the world.
Outside there were owls like hunched men in coats standing behind bushes and every movement down the street was a skulking murderer. Terrible things lived in the corner of my eyes, and I trudged down the road with my periphery peopled by monsters. Missing sleep for too long is a lot like being insane, and I was strolling down the street with a madman gait on a mission to get vinegar.
I walked by an empty pizza restaurant and felt something feathered and heavy looking at me from the window. I didn’t look; I didn’t want to know it wasn’t there. Away from the pizza place, down a street, I was near an alley with graffiti on the walls in indecipherable glyphs and bubble letters that are similar to what I’d seen kids draw in middle school. Shadows of garbage elongated in the corners of my eyes and took the unobserved form of more owls. I didn’t look directly at them. They’d leave if I tried to look. The owls, like bits of something floating in your eye, disappeared when I tried to look directly at them. I walked to a 24 hour Safeway owls in my eyes barely existing except for when a sleepy head came by to build them.
I bought a gallon of vinegar, and it went as that sort of thing goes: mutely plodding to the wrong aisle, some blinking, finding the right aisle, some avoiding eye contact with the cleaning crew, paying at the register and seeing if the clerk says goodnight or good morning, then leaving having exchanged as many words as a conversation in a public bathroom in a foreign country. Someone with a mop grunted at me as I left which qualifies as a great conversation after midnight.
I threw up in the bushes about 15 minutes after leaving Safeway because I didn’t know that a body can’t replace water with coffee and sleep also with coffee. I’ve never been the type to inspect what comes out of me when I’m sick, but I imagine it was sharp because it hurt coming out and I was still rubbing my throat when a homeless man stumbled up to me. He was wearing a few different layers of shirts, had a amorphous beard, a mound slick hair, and he was smiling which nobody should do when you’ve just stumbled from the bushes with a wrong scent on your breath.
“Hey man [indecipherable] drink of that?” he gurgled–people at a certain time of night gurgle more than they speak; this man was a seasoned gurgler.
“It’s vinegar. I don’t think you want to drink vinegar, man,” I didn’t gurgle because I had just done enough of that in the bushes, but I sounded confused because I was, up to that point, uninitiated into the world of vinegar drinking.
“Yeah [further indecipherable gurgling] me get some of that,” he said, insistent and vaguely gesturing with a few layers of sleeve.
I was tired. I had just thrown up in the bushes. It was late, a man was asking for my vinegar, and I was exactly at that point of exhaustion and whimsy where unicorns are real, but they’re also involved with the KGB: I was very tired and the world was a place of sordid fantasy. I handed the swaying man my gallon of vinegar. He popped the cap professionally, took a huge swig, and immediately started sputtering and a fresh type of gurgling. His gagging lasted a minute, and that’s what it felt like. This wasn’t the type of scene for time to slow down because it didn’t need to. Watch a man gag for a solid minute and you’ll have felt the world age. He shoved the cap on my vinegar, handed it back in a shaky hand, and said “The fuck was that?”
“It’s vinegar,” I said because lying isn’t something you do to someone who has just taken a substantial swig of something you’re going to use to clean later; it’s just not done.
“Shit,” he said, “tastes like shit.”
“Yeah,” I searched the cosmos for an explanation, found one, “it’s vinegar.”
I left. The homeless man presumably did too, but we didn’t talk anymore. Ours was a bond of mutual confusion for the same reason filtered through different people. He seemed confused that my vinegar tasted awful. I was confused he expected anything else. The world is a weird place.
It was late, the owls were out. I didn’t go home. Instead, I went to the train tracks and sat near them by some trees where the lights of cars wouldn’t notice me. I waited with owls in the trees, in the shadows lent from bushes, orbiting me and my vinegar. I sat and waited, and the dragons came again. First one, screeching into the night lit by fire at its head raging by me in a loud tumble of itself. Then another roaring the opposite direction. In either direction they clawed through the sound of the world, and I sat with owls and my vinegar and it was getting early.