There’s blood in the water.  (I don’t know what I’m saying.)  There’s blood in the water and you should really take a look at that.

“There’s blood in the water all over the place around here,” Clem says to me.  He says it in a way as to not discount my statement but rather in a way that’s almost daring me to say more, almost mocking the cheapness of my claim.

There’s blood in the water where the outfall tumbles into the deeps, is what I tell him.  And then my head starts hurting.

There’s a spot where the university’s steam plant sends its freshly condensed water into a flood out of an 8-foot-diameter pipe into a fat little thumb off the river.  The river flows endlessly.  I’ve known that since a kid.  Since I’d see it sparkling in the summer and moving even in the winter between narrow walls of ice.

I’d walk down there as a kid and think about fish and frogs and gremlins and bones of all of the eaten and dead things.  I’d throw wads of paper and watch them contort as the wet invaded the parched folds and they’d move down with the current, flattening, moving as if a creature exposed to a chemical violence.  I’d wonder at that.  All things like water, I’d say.  Water is life, I’d say.  But so, too, is sunshiny air necessary.  And creatures brought from the deep explode inside of themselves when exposed to our sunshiny air.  So, too, do human divers crumple under the weight of nitrogen bubbles in the blood when they rise to the surface too fast.

The wads of paper contorted, crumpled, deconstructed, until they lay nearly flat and dead, carried by the current around the bend that led under the bridge at Water and State.

There’s blood in the water there, I’d told Clem and Clem just laughed.  Mocked.  Dared.  Whatever.

Clem’s a busy man.  They got a new initiative coming from City Hall.  Clean the Gutters they call it.  Don’t they got streetsweepers for that? I asked.  Clem pulled out a glossy pamphlet that bulleted some items that City Hall felt I should know:

  • the rate of violent crime in areas of high homelessness versus areas of relative financial security
  • the correlation between drug use and recidivism
  • the lack of the previous administration’s adherence to facts (especially bulleted facts)

“You’re not packin’ unregistered heat, are you?” Clem smirked.  Then he grabbed my arm, yanked up the sleeve.  “No track marks, brother!  Great job stayin’ off the smack.”

Bulleted items that he checks for.  Bullets line his belt.  He wears one of those old-fashioned types of belts that I saw all the time in the ‘80’s when lawmen still carried revolvers and needed extra rounds in a line on the belt – a line of bullets that, with grubby and well-trained fingers, they could pop one by one from the leather and push into the cylinder of a still-smoking .38 Special.

Clem has a mustache and a goatee.  He wears a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.  And he smiles at bulleted items, bullets, and bullish mayors.  He’s a man of action.

There’s blood in the water.

I’ve seen it since the third day that I began living down there, just down the bluff from the Burgmeister Café.  Quiet neighborhood there by the Burgmeister.  That’s why I like it.  Poetry readings on Wednesdays; neighborhood bands on Thursdays; Fridays are kind of a free-for-all between comics, political speeches, and literary gatherings.

I mostly stay out back, listen to the sound of car tires on pavement or students walking back from the library or just the noise of water at the bottom of the bluff.  The outfall makes a constant sound of water returning to water – life returning to life.  There’s a plaque situated at the top of that 8-foot-diameter pipe that commemorates its placement there in 1964 – an achievement in the university’s self-sufficiency and dedication to student housing.  There are bars around the top of the piping so that an interested individual can walk out to read the plaque, protected by the bars from falling in, from getting pulled under in the swirling weight of thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons of water returning to the quiet flood of the river, plummeting down and down and down where, over the decades, the weight has carved a deep place at the fat little thumb that leads back in to the river.

There’s a place there, behind the rusty and corroded bars meant to safeguard any interested individual from the constant plummeting of life into the deeps, beyond the plaque, where life calls to life and death calls even deeper.

“There’s blood in the water all over the place around here,” Clem told me.  He’s not interested.  I tried to tell him.  My fingers were shaking on the high-topped counter between us when I said it to him, but he didn’t notice cuz my fingers shake, my shoulders shake, my knees shake all the time.

“Get yourself back to your church,” he’s told me.  “Find a way to help your community,” he told me.  “Or I’m gonna find a way to throw you into the clink,” he told me.

Then he went back to work.  And I went back to listening for students walking back from the library, the sound of life returning to life.

from the collection of: p. botte