Gina, bored with Ma and her rheumatism, bored with housework and chickens, had taken the bus into Mapleton. Now she sat in a corner of the coffee shop watching a red-haired man shovel pie into his mouth. She wished something interesting would happen.
“Coffee?” asked the waitress, pausing beside her.
“Please,” said Gina, “and a donut.”
“Haven’t come in yet – there’s apple pie.”
“Is it fresh?”
“No thanks then.”
“One coffee coming up.”
“It’s good pie,” the man called.
Gina frowned at him.
He grinned broadly revealing broken teeth. His hair grew to a widow’s peak high on his long thin face; he had sun-lines round up-turned green eyes.
“Would you like to join me?”
“Are you sure?”
“I can always use company,” he replied.
The waitress slopped a coffee onto the table in front of Gina.
The word ‘company’ caught her attention.
“I’m with you on that one,” she said, willing to be friendly but not wanting to seem an easy pick-up.
“Bring your coffee over,” the man said.
Gina got up slowly, unsure of him.
“I only eat people for breakfast,” he said smiling. His eyes twinkled like sunlight on deep water.
Gina laughed, relaxed, and sat down opposite him.
“What kind of people do you eat?”
“Only the ones that fire me.”
Gina nodded. “That’s the way to treat them.”
“I’m not kidding,” the man said.
Gina shifted in her seat. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Ford. What’s yours?”
Ford ate another mouthful of pie and Gina noticed black grease embedded round and under his nails.
“You’re a mechanic?” she asked.
“I can fix anything, anywhere,” Ford said.
“Who fired you?”
Ford nodded to the garage across the street. “Dumb bastard.”
“Not enough work for a mechanic?”
“Too much fire at night for the boss,” Ford said.
“Booze?” Gina asked.
“Dancing on chimney pots.”
What did that mean? Gina wondered as she sipped a mouthful of lukewarm coffee.
“What’re you going to do today?” Ford asked.
“Wander … look in store windows … ” Gina hesitated.
“Want to go on an adventure?”
“What kind?” Gina hoped he wasn’t implying she should jump into bed with him.
“Anywhere in the world and beyond,” Ford said, wiping ice-cream from his plate with the last of the pie.
“What do you mean?” Gina put her cup down.
“I’m also a travel-guide, ready to take you to the other side of beyond.”
“What on earth does that mean?”
“I’ll show you.” Ford looked her in the eye and stood up. Gina got to her feet slowly, mesmerized by Ford’s green eyes. She was taller than him by six inches.
“Come on.” He caught her hand and pulled her towards the door.
“Hey, you’ve not paid,” the waitress called.
Gina pulled a dollar from her pocket and put it on the counter as she passed. Ford tossed a fiver towards the waitress. He pulled the door open.
Gina felt a quiver of fear and tried to free her hand from Ford’s, but he held her tighter and said, “Adventures come to those who go through the door.”
She followed him onto the street. A rickshaw brushed past. Three cyclists dodged her. Horns blared, people shouted. She cowered against the wall, pulling Ford back beside her.
“Where are we?” she asked, dazzled by colour and sound, the smell of spices, lilies, jasmine, and an undercurrent of perfume that she couldn’t name. Signs in Chinese, tiled roofs, narrow store-fronts, neon lights, everything she saw and heard bewildered her.
“Where … am … I?” Gina asked.
Ford laughed. “China. Where else?”
“But how? How did we get here?” Gina glanced over her shoulder. The open door behind led into a dark, cramped room with ledges along the walls, some occupied. She turned back to the street and saw a Chinese child dart through the parade of legs and wheels. He disappeared down a side-street, a dog hard on his heels.
“Adventure, is how,” Ford said.
“But … I don’t understand.”
“I can’t say I do but it’s dangerous and it’s fun.” Ford released her hand. Gina reached for him, terrified of being alone in this strange place. She caught his arm.
“Tea,” she said, “that’s what I can smell … a different kind of tea.”
“Do you want some?”
“Not now,” Gina said, afraid and confused. Ford took her hand from his arm, held it, and Gina felt a strong surge of delight, a burst of courage, run through her from his touch.
“Let’s explore,” said Ford. He laughed and swung her hand.
“Have you been here before?”
“Don’t think so.” Ford headed for the side-street that had swallowed the child. It was a narrow alley with square paving stones underfoot. Ancient bicycles leaned against cramped house fronts. Gina wanted to stop and look through open doors: she caught a glimpse of a woman cooking, another sewing under the light from the single window.
She decided she was asleep and dreaming. The dream excited her, fulfilled her longing to break out of everyday routines.
Ford pulled her into a maze of alleys. During the next hours, Gina saw trishaw men, silk robes, smelled opium, heard the chime of Buddhist monastery bells, and peeked into private tea-gardens. She ate pickled octopus from one street stall and fried sardines from another. Ford bought her a tiny corsage that she pinned to her jacket.
How had she come to this place? Gina wondered. If it was a dream, it was the best she’d ever had.
Gina reached for Ford’s hand, swung him towards her and asked, “Who are you? Tell me the truth.”
“I’m the one who guides people into the reality of dream,” Ford said.
Gina shook her head: that didn’t make sense.
“And where are we exactly?” she asked.
Ford shrugged. “Beijing I think.”
“How will we get home?”
“Go back through the door.”
“Was it that particular door, of the coffee shop?” Gina rubbed the bamboo wall beside her, liking the smoothness.
“You’ll find it, don’t worry,” Ford said.
“But how, when we’re in another country?” Gina doubted that she wanted to go back, everything here appealed: the exotic, exciting.
“It’s here, somewhere unexpected.” He turned and went down the street. Gina noticed how his pointed ears poked through his unruly hair. For a few moments his head gleamed bright red amongst the dark-haired throng. Then he disappeared: he was there, then simply not there.
Gina ran, thrusting her way through, to catch up: he had vanished. She scurried, terrified, darting this way and that down side-streets, tiny lanes, into a vast covered market. She dashed along aisles, wanting to stop and look at ivory Buddhas, glass beads, embroidered bags, but needing to find Ford. She rushed on. She peered into faces, searching for his brilliant green eyes and creased mouth.
“Ford! Ford!” She ran. She shouted. She ran.
She got caught in a mass of people all going one way. They chanted. They sang. Gina‘s bewilderment fed the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. Dream had become nightmare, if it was indeed a dream.
She asked a bespectacled girl, “What’s happening?”
“We protest,” the girl said, “not enough speech.”
“Where are you going?”
“To make protest, be heard,” the girl replied. “Not happy with silence. We protest.”
Gina stayed close to the girl who paid her no more attention. The crowd streamed along the streets, gathering people as it went. Long white banners surged above them with characters drawn in purple or gold paint.
Gina tried to understand, then gave up. She was with people who knew what they were doing even if she didn’t. She was afraid to stay with the crowd, more afraid to leave and be alone in the alien streets.
The crowd marched and chanted into a vast open space. There were grey government-style buildings with soldiers on roofs. It was too much to take in. Gina sat down on a stone step in front of a building, leaned forward and wept. Then she looked up at the darkening sky.
“I don’t know where I am,” she whispered. “Perhaps I don’t know who I am. And I don’t know how to get home.”
A voice within her said, Go through the door.
Gina stood up, angry. “And I’m fed up with someone, Ford, whoever it is, saying ‘go through the door’. What damn door? Which damn door?”
Ford had said, “You’ll find it,” not “We’ll find it.”
How would she find it?
Someone pulled at her sleeve. She turned round. A man said, “No English. Is better no English.”
“But that’s all I know.” Gina’s fear doubled. She flung her hands wide in desperation.
“No speak English,” the man said. “English get jail.”
“Jail?” Gina was astonished. “Don’t be silly.” They wouldn’t put her in jail because she spoke English.
The man gave her a strange look and disappeared into the crowd. No one round Gina spoke English. Everyone moved away, leaving space round her. Where was Ford? Why and how had he left her?
Gina tried to become part of the crowd again but it seemed that she had a disease. She remained isolated until four soldiers parted the crowd as if it didn’t exist. Two of them grabbed her arms and frog-marched her away. Gina struggled, churned her shoulders, pulled, kicked, tried to bite, wept and screamed, “Let me go. I’ve done nothing.”
“You come,” one said.
It had to be a dream. They dragged her to a grey van and tossed her in as if she were garbage. She landed on other bodies. Someone kicked her off his, or her, legs. She could smell urine. Before the doors were slammed shut she saw five or six faces. Then the van moved off.
“Where’s the door?” Gina yelled.
“For God’s sake,” a man said. “You came in through the door, didn’t you?”
“Who are you?” Gina asked, struggling over the bodies until she could lean against a side wall.
“A poor misbegotten tourist from England, name of Mike.”
“I’m Gina … Does everyone in here speak English?”
“Why are you here?” Gina asked.
“Because I spoke English in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“That’s silly … people don’t get jailed because they speak English.”
“They do if they get caught in a pro-democratic protest around Tiananmen Square.”
“And those soldiers are carrying guns.”
“They won’t shoot unarmed people.” Gina was horrified.
Terror clenched her stomach. She wanted to be sick, wanted to pee. She desperately wanted to go home.
Gina wriggled onto her hands and knees against the sway of the van. She leaned on and bumped into the bodies around her. Someone swore, a hand grabbed and held her until she tore away, leaving her jacket. Someone else groaned as, shivering, she crawled to the back. She clawed and pushed herself to her feet and banged on the doors.
“Let me out. Let me out,” she yelled.
“That’ll do no good,” Mike sneered.
Gina put her hands flat against one door and leaned against it, drained of hope, tears falling unheeded.
“I want to go home,” she wailed.
She found the door-handle. She grasped and turned it. The door opened. She stepped into the Mapleton café. The waitress was wiping tables with a dirty cloth.
Gina looked behind her and, through the glass door, saw the empty street. She stared, baffled, then turned round.
A red-haired man sat at a table, shoveling pie into his mouth. His hair grew to a widow’s peak high on his long thin face.
“Ford?” she asked uncertainly.
He smiled, showing broken teeth. He had sun-lines round up-turned green eyes.
“Oh my God,” Gina said.
“Coffee?” the waitress said.
The man Gina knew as Ford said, “Try the pie, it’s good.”
“No. Not you. Not you again.”
Gina stepped back. Who was the man? Who was Ford? She didn’t want to know.
She was afraid to open the door, afraid of where she would be, or what would happen. But she thrust her shoulder against the door and walked out, terrified that the man would speak to her, would take her outside her safe, ordinary life. She wanted Ma.
JOANNA M. WESTON. Married; has two cats, multiple spiders, a herd of deer, and two derelict hen-houses. Her middle-reader, ‘Those Blue Shoes', published by Clarity House Press; and poetry, ‘A Summer Father’, published by Frontenac House of Calgary. Her eBooks found at her blog: http://www.1960willowtree.wordpress.com/
I noticed it each time I visited her apartment, the copy of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda that I lent her, supporting a potted plant on her window sill. Occasionally I would walk over and tend to the plant expecting her to notice the connection by hint of the proximity between my book and body – she added water. A potted plant being watered plopped on a paperback – Natasha was like that – careless in a way you find charming, if you, like me, worry that a competence for the mundane indicates the absence of creativity. She wore loose fitting clothes that sagged about her as if their main function was to prevent her body from gathering dust, but whereas some women dress like that to conceal their bodies, on Natasha the fabric caught against her curves and drew your attention to the tangent point.
Natasha often disappeared. She returned with food: pirozhki, blini, and aged asiago. At first I worried that she had an Italian ex in addition to a loving babushka. Was I ever jealous? Sometimes I would see her with male friends, leaning in to leave a smudge of lipstick on their cheek, and at once, everything save for the two of us, pulled apart and sped away in particles; then she would turn toward me and smile and the universe was restored. Don’t be sceptical, that’s exactly what it felt like. I never asked her about her absences; they lasted a day to three. At first I didn’t want to appear needy and then I realised that I had set a precedent and thus created a rule.
I met Natasha while I was enrolled in an MA program in international affairs (course work only) a few years into my career at DFAIT/DFATD (the names and acronyms change). I had a friend named Binyamin from my undergrad days who was a PhD student during that time. I would often stop in before or after a seminar to chat about our fantasy football teams in that never ending pursuit of vicarious athletic achievement. Natasha’s office was two doors down. She was studying for an MA in history (with thesis), but had a teaching assistantship related to Russian history or literature – I can’t remember – as part of her scholarship. Yes, she was seven years younger than me, but age had nothing to do with it. I assure you I have “Maggie Mae” on my Ipod. Anyway, I walked past her office one day and took a seeming incidental peek through the open door. I was curious because she seemed to be the only TA who had undergrads – almost all male and nervous – visiting during the lonely time for TAs between exams and paper deadlines. She was beautiful. I walked in and sat down across from her, it was the kind of gesture you attribute to automatism – like I’d regressed to a toddler like state in which I might wander over and grab a handful of boob - rather than sheer boldness. I spoke first:
- Zrdajvsvoite .......Hello?
- Hi..........Do you want to get a coffee?
Much later , when were in that phase when a couple is in the midst of trying to discover something magical , fated about their relationship – you know that what I’m talking about; how when even an improbable connection confirms how it was destined to be – I asked her why she had agreed to go for coffee. You looked catatonic, she said. I thought I’d have to lock you in if I didn’t take you with me.
Natasha would sometimes speak to me in Russian, which I had studied to satisfy a foreign language requirement in grad school. I really didn’t understand a word. Wait, let me try. Ja ne ponimau russkomo horosho. (I hope I used the correct case) She would smile and scratch the top of my head like she did for her Dachshund when it barked at the full length mirror.
Of course I wrote poetry. I didn’t read very much though. I admit I was in love with Ana Akhmatova. My love for literary Russian women began with Natahsa Rostova. It was only later that it progressed from fiction to real albeit dead women. As I was saying, for me the point of poetry was self expression not passive appreciation. Think about it, why does anyone care about the local arts scene, it’s generally mediocre, in the sense that the artists have talent but their work isn’t the kind that makes you want to evangelise, like a pimply long haired virgin who just discovered a new band. I think what we want is to be around the creation of art, the process itself; feeling like we’re part of it, and the final product is irrelevant.
I know I sound pretentious but I’m trying to be honest. For example, I don’t smoke because these days that’s just not done. However, when travelling in parts of Europe I keep a lighter next to my cup of espresso as a conversation starter and to be useful for any smoker at nearby table caught without a light. I can’t resist the urge to carry a small notebook to write in. In my younger days I liked to withdraw from the general conversation at a table, having being interrupted by the muse’s visit, and scrawl a poem out on a napkin. It’s embarrassing when I’m recognised as a civil servant.
Most of my days are spent trying to cultivate the favour of men dressed in ill fitting beige pants and navy blazers. Somewhere along the way, regardless of family background, the Canadian foreign service adopted as its model the aristocratic bearing of the 18th Century. Nothing, no matter how shocking , dangerous or otherwise, discomforting , is greeted with anything other than indulgent smile or the sigh of one who’s lived this life once before. The normal means of social interaction is a hand extended to your shoulder to draw you in as if to exchange an important intimacy. I am sure that there is someone in a psyche ward, somewhere, furiously scratching out pictures on the floor with a blunt utensil, of Canadian diplomats being bludgeoned with a stapler. I have observed that a certain level of composure in some people drives others insane.
As you might have suspected I have a problem with romantic relationships. Eventually it becomes unavoidably clear that the woman I am with is no longer the person I wanted her to be. With Natasha, I caught her watching soap operas. Spanish language and streamed on the internet. She was crying. I had to pour myself a scotch. It was like finding myself on someone else’s Facebook page captured in a photograph taken from an unflattering angle. Other men walk in to find a woman, naked in the midst of a scenario they may otherwise watch on the internet and jerk off to. Me? Soap operas! Not even the chance to act out a crime of passion. I couldn’t bring myself to shoot her lap top, we waited three hours (was it from 5am?) before the electronics store opened up for the Boxing Day sale. If you don’t understand the Ottawa winter, let me just say that for people with other options, it’s deemed uninhabitable.
Look, I know that people change, but when we say that what we usually mean is that someone has become: a drunk, lost a job or gained a lot of weight. Personality defects were always evident but were deemed tolerable. Okay, I was being a little dramatic about the soap opera but you need a turning point to explain what comes next. Her tendency to omit the definite article when she spoke quickly started to bother me. This was a woman who was earning her rent payment as a professional translator. Please. But really, the omissions weren’t just grammatical, everything else seemed lost in translation, her smile came at the wrong moments, somewhere between idiotic and mocking. Did I mention how she patted my head?
All relationships are an implicit negotiation, indeed the things that aren’t verbalised but communicated by gestures, and the incongruities between tone and words or tone and facial expressions – to say nothing of extended silence - are how we bargain these things out. I was competent, proficient in both official languages and able to navigate public sector databases (trust me, this can inspire awe). Hell I even have a navy blazer – where men once kept a shield or sword – hanging on a hook in my office for those emergencies when I need to burst into the scene of meeting that was called behind my manager’s back. In the end you could say that Natasha was supposed to be opening up new vistas not extending the tunnel I was looking through.
Believe it or not I tend to form relationships easily with women. I don’t mean I’m a Casanova, rather I mean that women seem to like talking to me. In fact my best friend is a woman, which I recognise does not make me immune to charges of sexism. Nadja, was born in Croatia, but doesn’t remember it nor does she understand Russian or the Cyrillic alphabet. We met in high school and have stayed in touch since. She had made unfortunate hairstyle choices between the tenth and twelfth grade and I didn’t fit in anywhere other than student government. Our first conversation occurred in the library. There is something of a physical resemblance between Nadija and Natasha but now that Nadja has cut her hair short she looks less like Natasha. I was once comforted by how similar they were yet distinct, opening up of two different yet familiar future possibilities.
Whenever I have a problem I discuss it with Nadja. She listens to me peeking over a mug of green tea, with her eyes that sometimes are a sky that promises to go on forever and other times are clouded. Her smile is the sun against her eyes and when the corners of her mouth are soft and rounded, on those grey days, it’s the sparkle behind the clouds. It took me a while to come with that.
Nadja’s boyfriend, Anthony, travels a lot. He works for a humanitarian aid NGO and is overseas depending on where the latest catastrophe is. (Some women find negotiating with war lords for the safe passage of aid convoys sexy. Derring-do, with a heart of gold. Spare me!) He also hikes and canoes, and even does some kayaking. To be fair, I don’t think he can keep up with me in a spin class. Anthony once told me that a lot of things in life are likely Harley Davidson: some people want to live the life others just want to own the merchandise. I suspect there was an insult in that.
Needless to say, Nadja often finds herself with a lot of time for me. She likes to cook and sometimes sends me a link to a recipe with a dinner invitation attached. Have I alone noticed that relationships became complicated once women started wearing yoga pants everywhere? I don’t want to say that Nadja can be critical but she often leaves me wondering why we’re friends. Nadja buys organic fruits and “ethical meat” (WTF!), she writes papers for academic journals that get her invited to conferences around the world and gets emails from hopeful department heads with vacancies in the offing. I admit that she’s smarter than me. She does yoga and she has decided to have children. I mean she’s looked at her future teaching advising and service obligations and blocked off time for pregnancy. I swear I’ve had nightmares in which I die and am told I’m going to come back to life as a woman and when I look in the mirror it’s Nadja.
Of course I once kissed Nadja. Okay, I put my hands on her breasts as well. She let the kiss finish naturally enough, and then drew her hands up my body to my chest, casually, so as to part my arms. Sit down she said, fixing her eyes in the direction of my usual spot on the couch. She went to make tea and returned with her bowl with a handle and resumed a story she had been telling me earlier in the day over the phone.
Finally after a period of suffering in silence, like I was keeping a toothache to myself, I went to see Nadja to explain the situation. Nadja, I am sure, was one of those children of penetrating intelligence who saw through the curtain and spoiled the Wizard of Oz for the rest her friends. I was hoping she would help me understand what had gone wrong though, if I may say, she wouldn’t always be tactful about it.
Nadja answered the door, her brows lustrous, red and puffy. I gaped.
- What happened to you?
I must say that other than high heels which are indefensible from any perspective there are many things that we as men must thank women for doing to look pretty.
I moved to the couch while she returned to the washroom, leaving the door open. She leaned forward toward the mirror leaving her bottom half visible in profile. I picked up a photo book from her coffee table; a collection of portraits by a Bosnian friend of hers, who smoked a pack a day and owned a Doberman, listened to bad music and didn’t like me judging by the fact that she called me an asshole three – no – four times. (It’s a long story but I’m still bitter)
- What’s wrong?
I tried looking at her innocently as she dabbed a small hand towel about her face.
- Why do you ask?
- Normally, when you don’t think I notice, you stare at my ass
- Don’t make fun of me. And stop sticking out your tongue. It’s obscene.
- Really what’s wrong?
She came out of the bathroom and dropped into the corner of couch. I’ve never met anyone who could look so relaxed.
- Do you remember Rebecca?
- Ah, yes. Your blonde ambition phase. What about her?
- It wasn’t like that
Najda finds that the fact that I may have dated a woman for her looks solely a continual source of merriment.
- Anyway, she once told me that she avoided dating guys more into going to the gym than her...something about being made to feel about not doing enough.
- Well, the other day Natasha says to me: Why are you looking at me like that? Like what, I say.
And she says something about me reminding myself that I have to get a new washer for the faucet.
(Reader, it was a complicated feeling; at once it was penetrating and alluring. I mean it had literary merit.)
- There`s nothing wrong with Natasha
I thought on this for a moment.
- Why don`t you like her?
- That’s not true. I do like her
- But nothing. You’re my friend, not her. I see her with you. That’s it. So, tell me. What’s wrong?
Her tone, as she said that, was reminiscent of my mother trying to tell my sister and I what a wonderful time we were having.
- Just feeling unsettled. Like I’m watching home movies of my life.
Now she was my mother teaching me to count.
- Why do you come here?
- You know why?
- Remind me.
- I feel comfortable here. I can relax and talk... and you’re a good cook.
- If you’re comfortable with me then why aren’t you comfortable with yourself?
I didn’t stay very long thereafter. Nadja was sometimes unhelpful but clearly had a future post-retirement as a motivational speaker.
So what was wrong? I mentioned the soap opera, but there was more. You know the look, when our eyes widen then refocus. It’s the surprise of being presented with the unexpected. Natasha inspired those looks among my friends and colleagues. She’s one of those people who do things with the kind of grace that makes everyone think: I should try, it doesn’t look that hard. People love being put at ease, especially by someone they’re prepared to hate. In time she became less a name added on to an invitation out of courtesy but someone my friends’ girlfriends had on speed dial.
The more she became part of my official life; the more nostalgic I was for those times when we were just a pair. On the walk to her place, a cosy one bedroom in a refurbished heritage home, it felt like all the packing I was wrapped in peeled off and by the time I got to her second floor door, the real me was uncovered. I never really asked much about her life, I preferred to look at her in bold colours with a strong outline against a blurred landscape. I don’t want you to think I am worried about domesticity. I have a large mortgage that comes with two bedrooms, a balcony and underground parking, plus stainless steel appliances and granite countertops – the final touch – a frighteningly overpriced vacuum. In other words all the essentials to a happy home life.
Natasha usually showed up at my place with her knapsack over her shoulder, inside was what the rest of us keep in a drawer of our desk plus her laptop and a United Nations delegation of chocolate. Invariably she was carrying a tray of coffees which may be the reason she never slept enough. Nadja is also up at all hours and chatty, which means I never get enough sleep. The tragedy of insomnia: No one ever thinks about how it affects the loved ones.
I would buy éclairs that Natasha enjoyed from a shop nearby. I live on the periphery of Yuppieville otherwise known as the Glebe. Everyone’s favourite neighbourhood except the long time residents who worry that it’s losing its authenticity. The best thing about buying Natasha éclairs was that I loved kissing her lips with a trace of custard and chocolate. A quick test of woman’s character is watching her lick melted chocolate off her finger tips. The woman of true grace never loses any of her elegance, the earthy type could be looped before the mind’s eye or in cyberspace, and the other ninety percent of women look like hicks.
The last time I saw her in the capacity of her boyfriend was when she threw a half dozen of those éclairs at me. Thankfully she had too much respect for coffee to use it as a statement of termination. Understand, she wasn’t hysterical, in fact she didn’t say much at all. After throwing the éclairs, she took a deep breath and stared at me in that way women have that goes beyond the leering inquisitiveness that men measure a woman’s body with, this look says something more: I see all of you. Then she spoke: Bastard. She gathered her things and left, leaving me feeling what Eliot said: pinned and wriggling on the wall.
When we break up with women, one of our fears is that they’ll begin to spread rumours about us, namely that we’re bad in bed: obviously false, malicious and desperate. I won’t say I’m not curious about what’s going to be heard in that regard but it’s not my biggest fear. What I really fear is being called ordinary. I like to think that my face (at a flattering angle) stands out in a woman’s memory, or my voice or my touch, whatever she liked most. I hate the idea that I’m going to lose shape and colour and become a blur or a shadow.
It was only a month later that I saw Natasha again. It was a book fair organised by local charity that used the money raised to buy textbooks for a schools in Kenya. One of the organisers was the wife of a former colleague of mine, who was herself employed at our international development agency. A wonderful woman really, one of those people that if you hear a bad word said about, it makes you angry. Natasha was volunteering as a cashier. I watched her take people’s money. Her charity billboard of a t-shirt caught, maybe with static, on her hip and breast. Her hairstyle was as always, light brushed, more about rearranging the natural waves that beckoned for a caress. Her face lively, as if she were watching some wonder unfold on screen, not making chit chat with the civil servants and students who made up the neighbourhood. What could I do? I hid. I had to observe her for a while, if for no other reason to find out if she was dating anyone.
I don’t know what possessed me but my divine punishment was standing behind a shelf of Harlequin romance novels, trying to look occupied by paperbacks featuring buff bare-chested men. Anyhow, I saw him. He snuck up behind her and put his hands on her hips. She peeked back and they kissed. The man was about six feet tall (shorter than me) with short hair and fashionable stubble, wearing khaki Dockers and a red Lacoste polo shirt. I admit he was better looking me. On the bright side he gave off the stench of bureaucracy, strong enough that it wafted all the way over to me. After taking a circuitous route toward the checkout to a cashier as far away from Natasha as possible, I quickly paid, leaving the change, for the kids I said, and hurried home.
Later that evening I knocked on Nadja’s door. Anthony, opened the door. He looked thinner and with eyes reddened from a lack of sleep and with all the bodily slackness of a man who’s just had a burden lifted from his shoulders: no doubt late flights, too much sun and the weariness of saving the suffering children of the world. For some reason I wondered whether Nadja had kept him up. He called out for Nadja, who told us that she was coming, and walked back into the kitchen. I sat on the couch watching Anthony fiddle over the kitchen bar with the kettle. I have a fresh pot of coffee he said. Somehow he always spoke to me from a distance or at odd angles. Nadja eased into the corner like a long limbed feline as Anthony placed a tray on the coffee table then wandered away.
She was waiting for me to speak first.
- I saw Natasha today.
- She’s dating someone.
- Of course.
She said it with a smile that implied previous knowledge.
- She’s ordinary. I said
- Yes, just like me......and just like you.
Now with a bright smile.
- And it never bothered you?
- About me? Being ordinary.
- No, it was always you who couldn’t see me.
Just then Anthony came back in the room. He stopped behind Naja and kissed her on the top of her head. She reached back and drew his arm down over her chest, clutching it in both arms. Her smile shone and her eyes focused on mine. This time they were clear and blue but I didn’t want to look.
I have been employed at various times in the machine tool industry and the federal public service. I blog about politics and public policy at cirovskiv.blogpsot.com. I am a fan of the Henry Kissinger, Manchester United and the Dallas Cowboys, I am not sure which of these represents the greatest moral failure.
Jacob Muscrat is going to hell; in spite of dismissing all of Christianities boasts, that pitiful soulless man is going to hell. We both are. The God fearing are certain of it. They have, that is the saved have, revealed this great smug truth to me, backhandedly of course, by telling me that they are saved and I, Nelson Binkey, am a heathen and must therefore be going elsewhere. They are mistaken. I am not a heathen. I am a godless idolater who is going elsewhere.
Well how is it down there Jacob? We planted him last week, or at least the Knights of Columbus did. I was the one who found him; drank himself to death just as the doctors said he would. He’ll be there by now if the righteous have their way and with all that preservative in him he’ll be the brightest fire in the place and if I know Jacob he’ll be using that distinction to his best advantage…but I’m getting ahead of myself. As the only one who cared at the end, I should do his life justice.
I first met Jacob one winsome starry night on a well beaten path between two houses. Let’s call the one a house of carnal worship and the other a house of chance. The ground over the years had been so well indented by foot traffic that it was impossible for us nocturnal travelers to lose our way. To fall out of that path you had to break Newton’s law of gravity. The problem was that it was only a single path so that when two weaving travelers met…well…
When I met Jacob he was crawling on all fours like the wild beast he would, at times, resemble so it would have been easy to ride up over him like Satan over the damned but, as I said, it was a starry night where one could lay on his back and happily imagine his fate or fortune so neither of us was inclined to pass the other. We lay there talking or at least I lay there talking; expounding on the possibilities of our origins when Jacob, in an instant, jumped up with a vigor I didn’t believe he had and shouted “What are you, some kind of fucking bible salesman?” It was that kind of abrupt humor that made Jacob my instant friend. Jacob reciprocated by befriending my financial resources, when I could lay my hands on them, and although he didn’t know it he taught me how not to get taken advantage of.
Jacob was a coarse man who delighted in acting antisocially intimidating and would attire himself accordingly. I am sure he would have loved to wear a full face of whiskers but his heritage would not accommodate him. A multiple strand of a goats beard dangled from his chin and his long vertical black cape of hair added a vulgar presence to his appearance as it partially masked his face. He, most often, wore a kilt and big black boots he called his ‘shin splitters’ which he would drive sideways down a man’s tibia when beginning a fight. This would give him a considerable advantage and ensure the outcome unless of course he fought someone drunker than himself that could stand the pain that had been thus inflicted.
I was his ‘little fucking fag’ in spite of my heterosexual orientation. Jacob didn’t own a large vocabulary and fag was the word he used to describe anyone who in any way challenged his limited faculties. We were an odd couple Jacob and I, brought together only by a desire for a tippling companion that each of us felt justified in looking down upon. A man living in a degraded sinful manner must still feel superior to someone.
I must admit Jacob was quite resourceful when he needed to be. He had a favorite ruse to procure funds in which he would go to a friend of mine, with me waiting elsewhere of course, and tell them he needed money for my bail. It was a believable story to my friends and one that they would have a sympathy for.
It was a wonderful partnership: me with my privileged heritage and Jacob with well…He never admitted to me to having had any parentage or siblings and one night I privately accused him of being conceived in a test tube.
“A fucking test tube?” he replied.
His dispassionate expression corrected me.
“An olive bottle” he said, “it was a fucking olive bottle.”
Jacob had a pride in his monstrous image. He played on it wanting you to believe that there was nothing that could hurt him, physically or otherwise. I was similar only the other way around. I was capable of nastiness and no one suspected.
Jacob had only one ambition. He wished to hide himself away in some ‘big ole’ house where he could ‘get completely weird’. I had told him that it would not be a lengthy trip to which he smiled a devilish smile of delight, called me an asshole and slapped me so hard on the back that I nearly swallowed my dentures.
At the time of his passing Jacob lived a primal existence. He’d stay at my place when I could tolerate him. He ate any kind of shite he would scavenge, and his meager possessions he left in my trust. They included the normal necessities to a middle aged man, toiletries, clothing, not one pair of underwear, my address book that had gone missing shortly after I met him, a collection of broken straight razors and a bundle of letters that dated back many years. All of these fine items were housed in a military type canvas duffle bag. I imagined the significance of these items. Why a man would cherish these amongst all items to tote, to be weighed down by, to rest his head on? At first I was going to throw the lot out, toss them in the dumpsters that, at times, had sustained him. What stopped me was a nagging curiosity, that a man, apparently devoid of sensitivity, saved items that could only have a sentimental value. Maybe everyone has to own something, anything, like a dog with a collection of neighbour’s property but I began to suspect that Jacob’s possessions hinted at a prior life. He had intimated to me, during times of severe inebriation, when his defenses were down, that that may be the case but when I would ask a direct question about his past he would deny any memory of it or simply ignore the question altogether.
The last abode that Jacob and I shared was an apartment, or at least a room with a private bath, right on Younge St. in the uptown quarter of the downtown. We were just north of a clutch of gay bars and our place was above a furrier and it had two windows that looked right out onto Canada’s longest street that was flanked by sidewalk thoroughfares that moved business people in the day and adventurers at night and weekends. It was like living above a persistent party. The threat of trouble there was equal to the threat of fun and the merriment was in perpetual motion. It even came to us in our Italianate style building from the narrow ledge that separated the first and second stories; a knock late one evening, on the window. It was the neighbours and we received them with laughter and libation. In an inebriated state, they had made their way across that ledge from their apartment next door.
I devoutly lived for play. I was born into opportunity and sought to escape nothing but a tedious lofty existence without exuberance. My pedigree breeding had never made any sense to me. I preferred an unbound life. I attired myself outrageously in a great Panama hat and pencil mustache. Jacob would laugh at the way I imitated the homos swagger and used a pretentious vocabulary like my great granddad and his cronies had.
On one occasion the police had cause to interrupt our fun. Jacob had been squirting pee from our window on the passersby below. The police burst through our door without invitation as if we were desperate hoodlums. Jacob, who never acted overly civil to anyone was surprisingly accommodating to the police and when they left he turned his restrained belligerence on me. We fought like lovers might fight, not friends, using blame and insinuation as weaponry and in the final blow Jacob warned “Don’t you ever bring no fucking cops on me!” It was then that I knew that Jacob had an undisclosed relationship with the police.
Jacob got into most of his fights on the dance floor. I got to where I could see it coming.
He wasn’t one of those fellows who would need spirits to assemble his courage. He fought drunk or sober. You could see it in his eyes. There was a frost there that would challenge the fires of hell. I do believe he wore that kilt to antagonize…and those razors in his belongings. I wouldn’t be surprised if he carried one.
He was a dark horse Jacob was. I suspect he was like a cat with many lives and personas. One night he came home with labored breathing, unnerved wide eyes and a torn shirt like he had fled from something deeply startling. ‘Jacob’, I did say, ‘what have you been up to? Not something nefarious I hope?’ He dismissed me saying I had a rich imagination. He added that he doubted I really believed anything sinister about him and if I had, I would not be able to sleep knowing what he might be capable of. I could have said the same about myself.
At the very moment I spotted my address book in Jacob’s things, my memory stubbornly retraced its steps in an attempt to remember why I had lent my book to Jacob. I renounced my next thought. ‘Jacob wouldn’t, property yes, but not that. Taking that would be like…like mocking me.’ I remember laughing a demented laugh and punctuating it with a great ‘hummmpht’. My eyes searched the light, the cabinet, my shoes; everywhere but down in front of me, down there where the truth provoked me and spit at my loyalty, down in that damned bag. The ‘bastard’ I laughed again. It was absurd and I began to laugh, quite out loud. I tapped the book in assurance. I picked it up and opened. Yes. It was mine alright. I kicked at his bag. I laughed at his treachery.
It nagged at me, the next question. Why? Jealousy? You have to care to be jealous. Spite? Jacob would respond with rage not treachery, and then it struck me so profoundly that it made me shriek with laughter. It was a list. A list of marks. Jacob would use them as he needed. My friends, his filth would touch my friends. At that moment I almost decided to toss Jacob’s things in a dumpster. In death, that bastard Jacob, is going where he will finally fit. He will probably make general and have his eye on the boss’s job.
We had shared another place before Younge St. It was when Jacob returned from the west. I don’t know how the buggar found me. We hadn’t been friends very long before he left. He had been in the West for at least two years in some wretched apparition of a real place called Sucker’s Brook or something equally absurd. Jacob told me that when he returned he got a place at the Y and was dislodged for using an obscenity. He did not specify. He then found a room, paid for it in the morning; his landlady returned his funds that afternoon. That was when he found me. I inhabited a bachelor tenement that was encircled by the decrepitude of the old Cabbagetown. My front door was accessed off of a blind alley where I sometimes had to step around sleeping tramps, and cheap ragged common harlots performing their lewd services. Jacob’s vulgar manner suited this environment like a fly on vomit. It was his neglect that caused us to move, a withdrawal that I did not regret.
Our apartment had one window that provided a view of brick walls and filth. Jacob liked to attract the pigeons that were numerous, to that windows sill. This unscreened window also served as our only ventilation and on occasion one of Jacob’s ‘pets’ would trespass into our parlor.
When I was called home for my Aunt Isabella’s funeral I left Jacob by himself and charged him with paying the monthly rent. Well, not only, did he spend our rent money on liquour and an amphetamine binge but he did it elsewhere leaving the window ajar and a large bag of cracked corn open on the kitchen table. I cannot begin to describe the pigeon mess that resulted but I will say that it was easier to vacate our home than to clean it.
He had become an unruly cock walloper, Jacob did, a clever performer who kept me mad with hysteria. He could shock a woman out of her drawers with one of his war whoops and those eyes with the violence of wild fire…
Something from the west had changed him. I realized that Jacob could be changed, that he was not just a brutish psychopath. With a belated guilt I must admit that up until then he had only been, for me, company and entertainment. For Jacob I am sure he saw me as his little fastidious prig. I think our friendship was based on a curiosity. Each of us viewed the other as entities we had been cautioned about and were dying to open and see what came oozing out.
We were best when we made irreverent humor out of life’s repugnant gifts like the Jehovah’s Witness converters who made the unfortunate mistake of knocking on our door. Those boys left in such a state that I am sure they went immediately home and denounced their faith. We rarely shared personal information or desires. Paranoids don’t; that is what makes us formidable. One night though, in a particularly transparent mood, Jacob did disclose to me a whole litany of his private self. He started by telling me that he had been a prisoner in one of those residential schools that the government and the church had created for his kind. He told me that they had tried to whip the savage out of him with catechism and mortal sin and the Blessed Virgin Mary. He told me of the impure priests and the victimizing nuns. I believe the free and temperate nature of his words was the result of an amphetamine buzz. He watched my eyes react as he spoke and had armed himself with a large pair of nail clippers, just in case. To keep the flow of information coming I had to ask antagonistic questions at the point of a pause or full stop. ‘Do you believe in their god?’ I asked him, while pulsating the second syllable in believe.
‘Their god?’ he whispered and the words rattled in the back of his throat. ‘Their god is a hammer. Their god is a sharp stick. Why the fuck do you need that god? I’d squish the little fucking worm. I’d peel him.’ I could see his black hole eyes narrowing down.
‘So it is the devil you follow Jacob Muscrat?’
‘The devil is just the other side of the same goddamned thing! I could see he doubted his own words as his voice shrilled through his nose like escaping steam. ‘The devil is His goddamned discount outlet, pretending to be a fucking competitor. It’s like choosing between everlasting boredom and everlasting pain. They both serve the same master and they’re both feeding on your fucking impotence.’ Well I knew Jacob was just spitting venom, that he like all of us, whether agnostic, atheist or warlock define ourselves by the bullying rhetoric from the believers. You can’t be bullied by something you don’t recognize Jacob and I’m sure you have, by now, become persuaded about your beliefs by your new surroundings.
Well it took me years to realize that behind Jacob’s ugly mask of vulgarity was the potential for a capable mind. He acted the beast that he believed of himself and thereby he emerged as. Whatever he had been or could have been was eclipsed by what he had become.
I asked him about the odd way he studied people, how he always appeared to be measuring them as if he were tasting them with his eyes. I could see that he was shocked that I, or anyone, had detected this behavior. I couldn’t have been more surprised at his answer. He said he did not look at people as whole but as their individual component parts. ‘When I look into someone’s eyes I see round white marbles with pupil and iris markings that I know I could pluck with a flick of my baby finger. ‘When I look at their skin I look beyond to muscle and fat and in to the bone where the skeleton lives.’ I asked him why in the world would he do that. ‘It takes the sting out of them’ he confided in me. ‘It creates a distance between me and them that I can live with.’
I doubted he was being forthright. I believed he was getting some addicts high out of stripping their flesh and cannibalizing them like that; after all, this is Jacob Muscrat we are appraising.
The ongoing dilemma I had, was in deciding whether he was concealing a big heart or missing one. I bounced to and fro, on the matter, like a chimp on his digits or a mackerel on a taut line. Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, never long wet, never long dry, that was I. He did perplex me, this crude man, of obvious crude parentage who may disguise gestures of nobility and threaten to malign us all. I would be glad to prove him a beast.
One piece of evidence only served to cloud the matter further. Those letters; those letters bound with a string and smelling like musty hosiery. Those letters addressed to a man not named Jacob Muscrat.
At first I thought my dear Jacob had absconded with someone else’s property just as he stole my address book. I could see that he could have been tempted by the symmetrical feminine penmanship and tender verse they contained but I discovered something while examining those letters, something that caused me to cast a doubt on the very thing that I had longed to know. Letter number nine, I’ll call it that as that was its position in the bundle; letter number nine was worded thus:
‘My dearest Leyland’, that was what she called him in all of the correspondence. The exact date of the letters is unimportant but I will say that they were all some twenty five years old.
‘My dearest Leyland, I wish I could be telling you this in person but expedience has compelled me to deal with this now. I am afraid that I must end what was once beautiful between us for reasons that are so complex that I am not sure that I even understand them. Among those reasons are the obvious, our age difference and your unresolved legal difficulties. I would like to say that we could remain friends but that relationship would be burdened with all the same problems as the other. I have enclosed your last two letters unopened, not as an insensitive gesture of finality but to show you that this is not a whim of mine. I am happy for, and do not regret the time we had and I do wish you all the happiness that you deserve.’
And she signed it, enclosed the letters, which I opened and examined along with all of the other correspondence. She and he did appear to have an engaging Spring/Summer romance which almost brought me to weep in the reading. I was certain that this could not be our Jacob until I opened the returned letters. Jacob’s script has a particularly unrepeatable form that uses a mix of printing, writing and undecipherable chicken scratch and worm trails that leads one to think he is lost or at least conflicted. This was undoubtedly Jacob’s penmanship. How he could have had an intimacy with such a refined and sensitive voice is what genuinely confuses me and his returned letters were conceived by a much gentler mind that the Jacob I knew. It appears probable that my dear Jacob had experienced some kind of transformation. He had morphed himself for reasons only known to him. ‘And no marvel’ Jacob ‘For Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.’ II Corinthians, chapter 11 verse 14. I too had been browbeaten by Christianity, Jacob.
I could have lived with the knowledge of Jacob the beast, the bi-product of that inferno of the wicked dead. After all, that is what had intrigued me about him. I could even learn to surrender to the fact that he was a lesser beast transformed. But that is as generous as I intended to be. If I were to allow him to have been tender, or devoted, even noble… One can’t just go around turning dogs into cats.
I would presume it prudent to clarify a small detail of the story that caused me more than a minor embarrassment and that is that I did know of Jacob’s possession of my property prior to, or should I correctly say, shortly after he left his possessions in my custody. I am as curious as the next man.
Some months before his death Jacob had a brief hospitalization imposed on him. Through the use of amphetamines and frightfully poor nourishment Jacob had become emaciated and prone to delusion. The doctor’s did tell him then, that untreated, it was likely that he would soon die. He argued to me that ‘they spoke of my death as if it were a bad thing.’ He had decided to be a martyr to his perpetual woe and I could not dissuade him and, in fact, I did wish it. My shame is that as well as believing in the mercy of his demise I also still carried an animosity against him and wished to be rid of him.
The night he died I went looking for him with a baggie full of high grade uncut ‘rock’ and a large bottle of Tia Maria, his favorite. I cut his track at what used to be the Canada House. I didn’t try to offer an explanation for my gifts and when I handed them to him he stared at me with an aloof shock and then forgiveness. I left without saying goodbye.
I knew the next morning where I would expect to find him and I did. He still had the needle in his arm and a bag of opened popcorn in his lap that the pigeons had mostly consumed. When I lifted his black locks to gaze at his still face I could see that it had gone peaceful like I had never known it to be. I removed the needle and with a wet finger wiped a small spot of blood. I rolled down his sleeve and buttoned out the morning air. I cradled his cool hand between my palms and patted the lifeless vessel that used to house a friend.
His belongings rode the train home in a mail car to Sucker Creek and I wept for weeks at the loss of my one true secret love.
The experience of a squandered early life became some of the raw material I later created with. I have been a painter and sculptor, a hobbyist luthier, making stringed instruments, none of which I play proficiently and like most writers I collect rejection slips. The irony is, the making of all that art helped facilitate my recovery from those lost years of youthful 'research'. Today I am ecstatic when someone takes note of that work I do.
I spent the better part of last week deciding whether to kill myself or ride up to the new Dollar General store. I sat on the fence about it for a few days, mulled over those coupons they mailed out. Grand Opening! $5 off every $25 spent!! I didn’t have twenty-five dollars to spend but I went anyway. Thought, what the hell. Maybe I’d run into Auby or Hickey. It didn’t much matter to me, just as long as I ran into somebody instead of sitting around the trailer scratching my balls in the heat waiting for the fan to oscillate back in my direction. I couldn’t take much more of Daisydog either, flopped on the linoleum staring up at me with her hungry pitiful eyes. I figured maybe with it being the Grand Opening! and all, I could pick up some kibble cheap. But I wasn’t holding my breath about it.
You ask me, the Dollar General’s prices aren’t good at all. Not like the Buck Hut where everything is just one dollar, believe it or not. Take the toy section. I could go in there, buy Jordie a few things to play with in the bathtub, a couple picture books about animals, a balloon, a pair of socks, a snickers bar, and never spend more than ten bucks. You’d have thought I’d spent a hundred the way Jordie hugged on me whenever I came home from the Buck Hut. I’d been meaning to take him up there to pick something out himself, just never got around to it.
Anyway, I knew if I ran into Hickey I’d have to listen to him jaw on about this or that like he always did. Mainly he’d complain about being in hot water with the Judge for not paying his child support again. Sometimes all his yammering-on aggravated me. Other times it made me feel better about my own life situation. After listening to Hickey I’d think, at least I don’t have all that to worry over. If I was having to find a ride to town every other month to face ol’ Judge Haywood and explain why I hadn’t paid my child support – I believe I would go on and kill myself. No question there.
As it was, me and Mandy weren’t even together anymore so kids weren’t an option. At least not between me and her. She’s got Jordie but he isn’t mine. Tell you the truth, I’m not sure Mandy knows who he belongs to. She doesn’t let on like she knows, just says she doesn’t want to talk about all that. Jordie’s five. Since no guy ever came sniffing around looking for him the whole time Mandy and me were together, I figure it’s nothing to lose sleep about. Whoever he is, he doesn’t care much about Jordie.
When Mandy broke it off with me, I didn’t see it coming. Jordie was sitting there rolling his matchbox truck back and forth on this piece of curled up linoleum in the kitchen, making car noises like usual. I poured Mandy a sweet tea and squeezed some lemon in it like she likes, then I started in on my six-pack. I should’ve known something was up when she didn’t touch her drink. I can be slow to catch on that way.
Looking back on it, she was real quiet that day. She’s always quiet but that day she hardly said a word. She said something like, “I can’t go on like this, Tripp. I have Jordie to think about.” Up to about a month before Mandy said this, I had been finding work every time I turned around. Landing jobs here and there, getting paid decent under the table. So at first when Mandy said she was pulling up stakes, I didn’t get her reasoning. But when I took a step back, saw Jordie pushing that little truck around and seen how Mandy was staring at him like he hung the moon; I could see her point.
With Mandy gone, I didn’t have much reason to bust my ass looking for work. Daisydog could scare up something to eat if she had to and I didn’t have much of an appetite. Especially when I thought about the trailer being empty of the little noises Jordie made, or my bed being empty of Mandy.
The first night after Mandy left I woke up to Jordie crying, calling out, Tripp! Tripp! I ran out to the couch expecting to find him sitting up rubbing tears out of his eyes. My heart was pumping in my throat but my damn legs were still asleep. I about kicked over the coffee table trying to get to him. Empty beer bottles went clanking up against one another. They ended up all over the place, spilling the last bit that never wants to come out. I pawed at the couch trying to grab Jordie up in my arms and came up with nothing but his little blanket. Just some old tattered throw I’d had around that Jordie had claimed as his. It still smelled like him, sweet and sour with little kid sweat.
I stayed there a long while thinking up ways to win Mandy back. Hell I even came up with a plan solid enough that I was able to fall back to sleep. When I woke up a few hours later with a goddamn couch spring pressing into my ribcage, I realized then my grand plan was nothing more than loneliness conspiring with the blackest part of the night. I couldn’t help it, I started crying thinking about how Mandy wouldn’t be sitting on the rocking chair on the porch, sipping on her sweet tea, her hair a mess from tossing around in the bed with me. I hadn’t cried like that in fifteen almost sixteen years. Embarrassing.
That day I drove up to the Dollar General I did run into Hickey. He was haggling with the cashier over how she’d rung his order up wrong. Poor girl. Here it was her first day on the register with live customers and ol’ Hickey’s rattling her chains.
“Jesus, Hickey, give the girl a break already.”
I clapped him on the shoulder to say hello and to snap him out of it. I about broke his scrawny body in half hitting him as hard as I did, but it worked. He jerked around in my direction, stopped staring a hole in that girl as if every problem in the world was her doing. She probably thought he was rabid the way spit was gathering at the corner of his mouth. She couldn’t know that was his usual.
“It’s highway fucking robbery,” Hickey said.
“Well, next time don’t buy anything,” I said. “Ain’t no law that says you’ve got to shop here.”
Hickey fixed his eyes back on that girl, but I know he heard me because he snatched his receipt out of her hand and stuffed it down his pants pocket. Then he clawed his bag off the counter and made for the exit. I went behind him, shaking my head so the girl would see I didn’t agree with the way he was handling the situation. Once we were outside, Hickey let loose about what really had him so tore up.
“I’m fixin’ to go to jail tomorrow because of them people,” he said.
He was chawing on a Milky Way bar like he hadn’t eaten a day in his life, half of it spilling out of his mouth when he talked.
“Them people? You mean your kids?”
“The way Rhonda Sue carries on, I ain’t even sure they are my kids. She acts like she hates my goddamn guts.”
I could tell he’d been thinking about his situation for several hours by the time I ran into him. Once he got on the subject of Rhonda Sue, there was no stopping him. I’d been told she spent a good amount of her time bitching about Hickey. A match made in Heaven.
“Me dropping off Huggies don’t mean a damn thing to Judge. He wouldn’t care if I nursed ‘em at my own tit.” Hickey puffed out his chest and dropped his voice low to do his best impression of Judge. “Just pay your support in full, Mr. Hickey and we won’t have to meet down here at the court house like we have been.”
Hickey went back to slouching, like a kid that’s been hollered at. “He don’t care that Rhonda Sue won’t use that money on the kids, she’ll spend it on herself and laugh all the way to the bank when the next check comes.”
I let Hickey prattle on, knowing he was just blowing off steam. He needed to get all that off his chest before he headed to court. Especially if Rhonda Sue brought Ray-Ray Jr. and Brittany to court with her. Everybody knew it was for effect. Cute little buggers. Blue-eyed and red-headed. No mistaking who they belonged to.
For all the spouting off Hickey was doing outside the Dollar General, I knew he’d play it quiet at the courthouse. He was afraid of Judge just like the rest of us. Hell, Judge knew what trouble you’d wind up in before it even found you. If you didn’t take advantage of ‘the opportunities available to you,’ as he called them, he would throw your ass in jail for a few days to let you marinate on the error of your ways.
“That old son of a bitch thinks he can just tell everybody settin up in that courthouse to get a job,” Hickey said. “Like it’s some easy thing to do in this piss-ant town. I’d like to see him get a job that easy.”
“He’s got a job, Hick. A pretty decent one at that.”
“He acts like I’m settin up here enjoying being broke all the goddamn time. Like I don’t want to work. How’s he know I’m not trying, Tripp? Huh?”
“He knows. Everybody knows. Word gets around.”
The door to the Dollar General opened and closed. Hickey jerked his head to the side and got a dirty look in on the cashier.
“Hey,” I said, “you seen Auby lately?”
“Not if I can help it.” Hickey laughed like it was the first time he’d said this.
Auby is Hickey’s half-stupid cousin. I don’t say it to be mean. He fell out of a tree some years back and landed on his head. He’d scaled up a tulip tree chasing after a cat who didn’t care to be caught. Hickey told me Auby kept on climbing well past the point he ought to, then shimmied out onto a branch where that cat sat swishing her tail at him. The branch broke and Auby fell, the arms on that old tulip tree tried to catch his fat little body but missed. Hickey said he never saw so much blood come out of a person’s head before or since. Auby went stupid after that. Hickey and I have spent more than a few afternoons considering whether that boy wasn’t a bit slow to begin with.
Tell you the truth, I was glad I hadn’t been around to see that mess. A sight like that sticks with me more than it ought to. I got about three things stuck in my mind at all times, depending on what’s going on in my life. Some of them strong enough to make me contemplate not sticking around. The day I went to the Dollar General, I carried with me the repeating image of Mandy asleep next to me in nothing but her panties and a t-shirt, her face mushed up in the pillow. A peaceful sight as far as that goes, until I factored in she’d left me.
Second, and I’m not sure this doesn’t qualify as a bigger deal, was this image of Jordie. His face glowing with a smile so big his eyes disappeared, his little hands holding onto his latest matchbox car. Several times a day since Mandy left I’d hear him call for me to come play with him. And the thing of it was I’d get up from whatever I was doing and look for him until I realized he was gone.
In between Mandy and Jordie popping into my mind were these snippets of my little brother Birdy and me playing catch the day he died. This has been stuck in my mind for going on sixteen years, playing like a picture reel, running all the damn time in the background of my life.
Somewhere in the middle of Hickey complaining about having three kids to take care of, I caught the memory of Birdy the day he died.
It always starts the same. First the scent of leather oil floats on the air and I can hear Birdy plunking a baseball into his new glove. Then, I see myself throwing that final pop fly. The ball goes in the air so high that the sun swallows it up and makes it invisible. I call out, “Go long,” even though it’s baseball we’re playing and not football. Birdy yells, “I got it! I got it!” He ambles backward, squints his freckled face up at the sky. I see every inch of his six year-old face, his long eyelashes catching the sunlight, his little bitty nose flaring with the excitement of doing the thing he loves best. The ball falls from the sky looking like it’s coming straight at me and steals my attention away from Birdy. At first I don’t notice him inching backward toward the kettle of boiling oil on the fire pit behind him.
The ball lands. Birdy’s heels catch on the stones around the fire pit. His face changes from grinning and squinting to wide-eyed surprise. He jerks his arms back to break his fall and lands hard against the pot. The cast iron handle clangs against its potbelly as the whole thing tilts. Oil sizzles against the hot rocks. Then flames whoosh, leaping and engulfing Birdy. The heat from the flames slaps my face. Someone’s screaming, a deafening noise, then silence. My body is numb, immovable. I’m frozen in the sound of my brother being burned alive.
Ma comes tearing across the lawn with the hose in her hand and starts spraying before she even gets to the fire. She’s yelling at me but I can’t hear her, can only see her mouth moving. The vein in her neck bulging. Her slipper in the grass behind her.
Orange and red shapes dance higher and higher into the air. My hands are on Birdy. I pull at him. I lose my grip against his skin, melted into his clothes, crusted and curled, hanging and dripping off the bone. Still bubbling. I squeeze harder as the flames lick my arms and shoot up toward my chest. I hold on until Birdy is out of the fire and in the grass. Ma’s beside me grunting, slapping at the flames with her apron. Birdy’s skin latches onto the apron and stretches in long threads. Then everything around me goes gray. The colors of the flames disappear. The blue of my mother’s eyes are drained and turn ashen. Forever.
I know that this memory is mine to carry. The events of that day belong to me as much as Hickey’s kids belong to him. I’ve got to answer for that day. The difference is I’ve got to face myself, not the Judge. I can’t say who is harder, but I can guess.
Hickey’d been squeezing that Milky Way wrapper in his fist the whole time he was talking, flattening it down to near nothing with his frustration. He looked down at it in his hand, sort of surprised that it was there, and chucked it into the parking lot. The wrapper skittered across the blacktop, catching on a breeze, twisting this way and that way. Made me think; ain’t that life for you? Getting squeezed, thrown and caught on a breeze, never quite sure where you’ll end up. Could be outside the Dollar General, could be worse.
“I best get moving,” I said. I could hardly get the words out. I no more than got my key in the car door when Hickey called out, “Hey, where’s Mandy?”
I eased into my seat, hoping to God he wouldn’t come stand by my window and carry on about Mandy not being with me. He might’ve said something more but I couldn’t hear him over the rub of metal on metal as I yanked the door closed. That old Dodge was about sound proof once the doors were closed and the windows were up. The silence made me deaf for a second, then came Birdy clamping his glove open and shut like he did a thousand times to break it in. I clunked the car into gear and rolled on out of the parking lot. As soon as I hit Highway 50 and got my windows rolled down, I started to feel a little better.
I’d been up and down that stretch of 50 so many times, the car about drove itself. I pulled against the steering wheel when my turn came up just to keep it from driving straight to the trailer. I cruised out along the two-lane highway, just under the speed limit, focusing on little things; the road cut between rocky shale walls. The tiny waterfalls spilling out here and there. The trees gathered up like bunches of broccoli. The clouds thick with the threat of rain.
I was on autopilot, my brain telling my body what to do without me even having to think. I got to wishing it could stay that way, me not having to decide anything, just sit there at the wheel and watch the world go by. But sometimes I didn’t much like what the world slung at me.
Before I knew it, the car took me by Mandy’s Meemaw’s house, where Mandy was staying. I drove by, released the gas so as to roll past without being noticed. Jordie was out in the yard, whacking at the grass with a stick, his little ball cap on backwards. Mandy was watching him from the porch. She had on jean shorts with the front cuffed up. They showed off her tanned legs.
At the sight of the two of them my mind stopped working. I stepped on the brakes, then gunned it, then went back to the brakes hard. All that indecision made it look like the old Dodge couldn’t make up its damn mind what to do. Mandy quick turned her head toward the road and Jordie followed suit. When he realized it was me he waved with all his might. Hell I had no choice but to turn around and pull into Meemaw’s driveway.
Mandy smiled polite at me as I cut the engine off. She raised her eyebrows a little like maybe she was glad to see me? I could hardly get out the door before Jordie ran up to the car, squinting his eyes up at me against the sun coming out. He called my name about a dozen times, Tripp! Tripp! Tripp!
I came out careful not to knock the little fella over with the car door. He latched onto my thigh like he’d always done. Mandy hugged me around the neck quick and stood there as pretty as ever. It about took my legs out from under me when I remembered we weren’t together anymore. I steadied myself against the Dodge and tried to look casual.
“I hope you don’t mind I stopped by,” I said.
“No, it’s fine,” Mandy said. She stared down at Jordie still clinging to my leg. “He’s been missing you.”
The sun dipped behind a stack of white clouds and the air went cool. Before long Mandy said, “Jordie, run on inside and get Tripp a coke. Get yourself one, too.” Jordie didn’t need to be told twice when it came to having a Coca-Cola.
Mandy and me leant against the car, her real close next to me on her own doing. I got the feeling she was waiting for me to say something. But I’m no good in that department so I said nothing. I didn’t have a real plan and anything I’d entertained up to that point didn’t seem to fit the situation. Finally, I decided to reach over take her hand. When I did, she didn’t pull away.
“Well,” I said. Then I just stood there trying to figure out what to do next.
“If you and Jordie want, I thought we could take a ride up to the Buck Hut.”
Just then Jordie came running out the front door with a Coke in each hand. He had them all shook up by the time he got to me.
“Thank you sir,” I said.
The formality of it must’ve tickled him some because he laughed. He held up both his coke and mine and waited on me to open them. I handed him my keychain with the bottle opener on it and said, “You try.” The way he went jumping around in excitement you’d a thought I’d given him the keys to my car and asked him to drive. He tried but he couldn’t get the bottles open so I went on and popped the tops off. He drunk about half his in three swallows.
“Get your shoes on, Jordie,” Mandy said. “Tripp’s taking us up to the store.”
Next thing I know, we’re piled up in the car and I’m steering that old Dodge toward the Buck Hut.
Amber Hart is a recent graduate of The Writer’s Loft, a creative writing program at Middle Tennessee State University. Her short stories have been accepted for publication in Neon Literary Magazine, Storgy, Cheat River Review, and Gravel. Amber lives on a small farm in rural Tennessee with her husband, children and a slew of guinea fowl.