by Conor O’Brian Barnes

A noble life is of no account, Gustavo Bustamante thought to himself. Death is a vulture feeding on jackals and lions the same. He lay dying on the street in the Skid Row section of L.A., swaddled in soiled blankets in the shadow of the 110. I’m part jackal and part lion but the vulture will have all of me soon. He knew his death was his own doing. He’d been sucking on a bottle at the bottom of the world for decades. I’ll be glad to be done with life when life’s done with me.
 He lifted himself up and leaned his back against the rusted fence to see what his protector, Leon the Preacher, was doing. Leon, who always slept beside him on the pavement, was in one of his trances muttering to himself what he always muttered to himself, Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want…”
The human refuse stretched all around Gustavo on the filthy street, huddling in swarms under cardboard boxes and in tattered tents. Howls of madness would often rent the air, sometimes as tormented screams, sometimes as diabolical laughter. Gustavo was used to it. He was used to the madness and the sadness and the constant stench of piss and shit. He was used to it and he’d be used to it until the end. The dying and the dead, that’s all there is.
He put his head down and thought of Emmanuel, his only begotten son. Emmanuel had Down Syndrome. He died at seventeen of congenital heart failure. Gustavo found him slouched over in his Lazy-Boy chair. Emmanuel had the heart of an angel, at least until his angel’s heart gave out, or was taken back by the seraphim who’d lent it to him.
Gustavo was only twenty-four when Emmanuel was born. Carmen, the boy’s mother, was forty-two. She was pimply and porky and pushy and crass, but over the years he learned to love her. She left Gustavo when Emmanuel was three, and moved with her new amour out of the country.
Leon lifted from the pavement, still in his trance, and stretched his ragged hands above his bald, black head, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want!” the giant man shouted. “He makes me lie down in green pastures! He leads me beside still waters! He restores my soul!”
“I know preacher man, I know,” Gustavo said lifting his head, “but I’d prefer that you’d whisper your wisdom rather than shouting it so loud!”
Leon dropped his hands and sat down again. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…” he quietly recited.
Gustavo’s chosen means of suicide was the vodka bottle, but his liver proved to be a valiant little hero. He abused it almost daily while on the streets, but it took more than twenty years before it finally crapped out on him. He wished it had crapped out sooner.
If a man can get used to the grime and filth, he can get used to the streets. Between the state, the churches, and the various private charities, a man can usually find his three-square meals a day, and by cleaning churches and soup kitchens, panhandling, and collecting aluminum cans, he can scrounge up enough money to stay at the Cecil or the King Edward or the Continental and hunker down with a bottle for at least a little while. In the two decades Gustavo had been without a home, he spent about half of that time in flophouses drinking his vodka alone.
In the last few months the social services had been trying to get a hold of him to dry him out and put him in a hospice–his liver was finally surrendering to cirrhosis–but he’d avoided the authorities by blending into the shantytown of cardboard boxes and tattered tents in the shadow of the 110. No one could get near him anymore because Leon the Preacher scared off every interloper. 
            Leon attached himself to Gustavo shortly after he found his final sleeping spot on the greasy pavement. When Scroggins and Pitt, the occupants of the tent to Gustavo’s left, took the blankets off his back as he slept one chilly night, Leon appeared out of the darkness and tore open their tent, roaring with such fury that Scroggins and Pitt thought they’d angered a lion. They never tried to steal Gustavo’s meager possessions from that night on and even guarded his blankets and bag of toiletries when Gustavo and Leon were gone, but Gustavo hadn’t left his spot for days, and he wouldn’t leave it again, at least not as a living man.
            “Hey Gus, you sleepin?” Scroggins called to Gustavo sticking his head out of his tent. “If you’re up, we got that bottle we owe you.”
            “You got my bottle?” Gustavo said wearily.
            “We got it,” Pitt said leaning out of the little tent next to Scroggins and handing the bottle to Gustavo.
            Though he still had two 750-milliliter Smirnoffs under his pile of soiled blankets, Gustavo didn’t want to open them yet, and was happy to take the 375-milliliter bottle from Pitt. He cracked open the top and poured the clear liquid down his throat. The melancholy weight that had clung to his heart all day lifted, and he felt a giddy buoyancy in his spirit. Perhaps there’s no heaven or hell and eternity is nothing at all he thought smiling his drunken smile as Leon the Preacher continued muttering his favorite psalm, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever… The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”
            Scroggins took out a 200-milliliter Smirnoff bottle of his own and began drinking from it. “Give me some of that,” Pitt said to Scroggins. “We have to share it half and half!”
“Half for you and three quarters for me,” Scroggins said taking a great swig from the bottle before giving it to Pitt and crawling out of the tent. “You don’t look so good, Gus,” he said kneeling next to Gustavo, “your skin’s yellow.”
            “It’s been that way for a while.”
            “It’s more yellow than usual.”
            “What can I say, Scroggins, I’m not long for the world.”
            “Your skin’s yellow and as dry and cracked as the desert earth.”
            “Not much I can do about it, Scroggs. I’m not long for the world, like I said.”
            “Doesn’t look like it, Gus, but at least you’ve got the Preacher by your side,” Scroggins said nodding at Leon who was still whispering his psalm.
            “Yeah, at least I got him.”
            “Better to have the Preacher by you than no one at all.”
            “Yes, Scroggins, that’s true.”
            “Better to have the Preacher by you even though he’s a loon!”
            “True, so true.”
            “Better to have the Preacher by you than to die alone!” Scroggins said as Gustavo took another swig from his vodka bottle… “Listen, Gus, I have a favor to ask…”
            “What is it, Scroggs?”
            “Pitt and I know you’ve got a couple of bottles under your blankets. One rolled over to our tent while you were sleeping last night. We put it back and saw that you have another one. We put it back cuz you and Leon are our friends. We even gave you the bottle we owed you tonight, so you know we’re solid… We were wondering if we could borrow another on credit? Of course, we’ll replace it. Pitt’s getting cash from Western Union soon and we’ll be buying plenty of bottles; we’ll pay you back double.”
            “My sister’s sending cash tomorrow,” Pitt said finishing off the little bottle of Smirnoff, “a couple hundred bucks at least.”
            “You can have one tonight,” Gustavo said reaching under his blankets and retrieving one of the bottles, “but I want two of these Smirnoffs in return for it tomorrow.”
            “Sure thing, Gus. You’ve got it!” Scroggins said seizing the bottle and scurrying past Pitt.
            “You’re one hell of a friend!” Pitt said disappearing behind Scroggins into their tent.
            Gustavo was getting drunk on the vodka and the day was growing late. The shadow of the 110 was lengthening and the sinking sun’s radiance bathed Skid Row in a heavenly glow. Nothing’s softer than the softness of a golden dusk Gustavo thought. I hope beauty is eternal.
Scroggins and Pitt, getting drunk in their tent, roared with laughter as Leon carried on quietly reciting his psalm and Gustavo poured the last of the Smirnoff into his mouth.Closing his eyeshe thought of his only begotten son, Emmanuel.
When he opened his eyes, Gustavo couldn’t see clearly; his heart was racing; he was dizzy.  A tight and crushing sensation gripped his chest; he couldn’t breathe. Leon lifted from the pavement, still in his trance, and stretched his ragged hands over his bald, black head, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want!” he shouted. “He makes me lie down in green pastures! He leads me beside still waters! He restores my soul…”
            Hearing the Preacher shouting his psalm at the top of his lungs, Scroggins and Pitt peaked out of their tent to see what was going on. Gustavo was clutching his chest and writhing in his blankets, gasping for breath. Scroggins went to him and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. When he lifted his back off the blankets, Gustavo thought Scroggs was trying to save him, but when he took the last bottle under the blankets and dropped him back on the pavement, Gustavo knew that saving him had never been his neighbor’s intention.
As Gustavo continued to gasp, Leon stooped down and leaned over him. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me…” the giant shouted with his eyes aflame. Gustavo couldn’t tell by the madman’s contorted visage if he was angry at him or if he was trying to save him with the prayer he continuously shouted, but the blackness of Leon’s bald head soon melded with the blackness that was swallowing Gustavo’s field of vision, and that was the end.

About the Author:

Conor O’Brian Barnes was born in Berkeley and educated at the University of California and St. Andrews University In Scotland. He was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal for his essay “Musings at the End of Modernity.”