Category Archives: Stories
I’m usually smiling these days. Yesterday was no exception. I finished work at eight and punched out. I smiled at the thought of her waiting for me to arrive so we could have dinner together. I smiled as I walked outside and saw that the sun was still out. I smiled at the early June air, still wearing my apron and chef’s hat, and made my way up the stairs, out of Mel Lastman Square and onto Yonge Street. I lit a cigarette and walked north. I smiled, knowing that I lived only a few minutes away. I smiled, unaware that I was heading into hate.
Seconds later, in front of North York Center Station, I saw an Iranian man and his son exiting the building. The man was a monstrous figure, a mountain from every angle. His son, a chubby four or five year old, followed behind him. He looked tired and might have been crying. Before I fully passed them on the sidewalk, the man turned a halfway glance to his son and said in Farsi, “Keep moaning and I’ll bloody up your mouth, you hear?”
I’m not sure if I heard anything else after that; not the street or the thoughts in my head…It was gravity that I felt, gravity freezing my tracks and turning my head. Gravity, clenching my fist…I looked back at them, but kept walking. I didn’t unleash the army of Persian curses tied to my tongue. I did nothing and I’ll forever regret that. I only looked back and saw the boy’s eyes. It was a look I knew all too well. I remembered a distant speck of childhood, looking in his eyes. I remembered the first time I met the back of my father’s hand. I was around the same age.
Dear mountain, dear unknown father, thank you for taking my smile away. Thank you for reminding me that some hate is worth having. I will forever regret not burning you with every ember of rage inside me, but your son will hate you and that hate will change him; it will never go away, and that is hell enough… Thank you for reminding me how fast my insides can crumble. Thank you for resurrecting the far corners of my childhood. I hope I see you again, you piece of shit.
A couple of crows laughed back and forth. I got up and left my tent. It was around six in the morning. After brushing my teeth and taking a leak, I stood for a moment and looked around our campsite. I could hear Jon snoring up a storm. The shy, early morning light peeked through the trees. This was our second trip to Killarney Provincial Park. I was getting married in a month. In reality, this was my bachelor party, a week-long getaway with my friends. I thought about the adventures we’d had in this park, the trails and the various lakes that had washed my weariness. I thought about the fact that our week-long getaway was nearing its end. We were to pack up and head home to Toronto the next morning. Mulling these thoughts over, while the shy, early morning light caressed my face, I decided to start drinking and smoke a joint. The crows had moved further away, but were laughing still.
I started a fire and boiled some water and made myself an Irish coffee. “Final day,” I thought, sitting back in my camping chair and rolling a joint. I knew that my friends would be asleep for a while. I knew that I’d be good and drunk by the time they rose to start the day. It didn’t take long for my veins to buzz with life. Alcohol had long ago formed a river inside me. I lit the joint and exhaled my first drag toward the treetops. The smoke hovered and danced to the symphony of crackling firewood and laughing crows. I drank and smoked and stared into the fire. “I’m getting married,” I thought and closed my eyes.
From time to time, out in the wilderness, nature forces us to reflect, to look back and retrace our steps. I’d done this many times before. So many times, I’d seen the scattered stories of my life in different fire pits, or stared at a distant memory in the view of some valley. Now, in my early morning high, I thought about Katie. I thought about starting our life together. I thought about us exchanging vows in front of our families and friends. I downed my coffee and pictured Katie asleep at home, our two cats cuddled up against her feet. “Wedding in a month,” I thought.
I made another Irish coffee. “Why not..?” I thought. Everything was changing. These lightheaded moments were all fading. Soon, I’d be married. There’d be no time after this for week-long excursions into the woods. There’d be no room for Irish anything or idle cigarettes and marijuana mornings. I thought about all this as I took the heaviest drags I could off the remainder of the joint and tossed it into the fire. The smoke filled my chest and I coughed. “I will roll another one,” I thought, “Why the fuck not…?”
By the time Samir woke up and came out of his tent, I was drinking my third cup of coffee and smoking my second joint. Jon was still snoring in his tent. Samir walked over and stood next to the fire. We exchanged nods. He yawned.
“Some water left,” I said and pointed at the thermos on the bench in our mesh gazebo tent. I offered him the joint, but he shook his head.
“Too early,” he said. I leaned back and continued to smoke. “I’ll have a shot, though,” he added.
“Let’s,” I said, getting up and stretching my back. We walked to our gazebo tent. We sat down and I poured two shots of whiskey.
“Cheers,” said Samir.
“Good morning,” I replied.
The shot burned its way down. It splashed into my already drunken gut.
“So,” said Samir, staring at me.
“Last day in Killarney,” he sighed.
“Yup,” I said, clearing my throat and reaching again for the bottle.
“Going all out, eh Ben?” said Samir, a subtle smile curving the corners of his lips.
“Last day,” I said.
We nodded and drank. He drummed with his thumb against the bench.
“What do you wanna do?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and tilted my head.
“Should I wake Jon?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I replied while I lit the remainder of the joint and got up and left the gazebo tent. He followed after me. Not sure what time it was, but I was drunk; drunk enough that I felt like dancing. I stood in the middle of our campsite, my arms stretched out to my sides, caressing the air around me, as I began to sway from side to side. I danced slowly to the beat of some secret melody. When drinking, you should stand to see how drunk you are. Once you know, you should dance.
“Practicing for the wedding?” said Samir.
I smiled, but said nothing. I was dancing with the forest, with the granite cliffs of Killarney. Soon, I’d be on my way, back to the city, back to work. Soon, I’d be married. Soon, a father…A new chapter awaited my arrival. I knew that such a dance would never possess me again. I was well on my way to being a different Ben. I danced with the forest one last drunken time and listened to the crows in the distance, whose laughter would outlive us all.
Spring arrived and rivers flowed in the sewers under the city. The rats emerged from their frozen hideouts. We sat around, like we always did, at the Boiler, our neighborhood pub. It was a run-down joint with dim lighting and a wide variety of villains passing through. The place reeked of rotten beer and rotten souls. We were all criminals in one way or another, with nothing to be proud of, but spring had arrived and that was reason enough to celebrate.
Johnny was sitting across from me, taking silent sips from his beer. Al was sitting beside him, drumming with his thumb against the table. The sun outside had called it a day and the nighttime vultures were peeking their heads into the Boiler. Grime of all kinds; dealers, junkies, thugs and thieves…The Boiler was a den of criminal activity, full of cowboys looking for anything heavy. Every beer was a new scheme, every smile a farce.
“Yo, Ace,” said Johnny and added in a whisper, “You packin?”
I turned in my seat, but said nothing.
Johnny nodded his head and went on, “Down to run a grab?”
“What do you got in mind?” I said.
Johnny smiled and leaned forward, “Junior,” he whispered.
“We’re gonna rob Junior,” said Al, his voice cracking every which way.
“Keep your fucking voice down, you imbecile!” Johnny exclaimed.
I looked down the bar. Junior was sitting where he usually sat, at the table by the door. He was a giant human being, a mountain from every angle. We’d seen him around the neighborhood and in the Boiler for quite some time. He was always alone; a massive man, empty of words…I looked at him and the blankness in his eyes. I’d often wondered what his story was. None of us really knew, but we were all intimidated by him, by his size. Deep down inside, I knew he wasn’t a gangster. I knew he wasn’t hard, but I had no intention of being the one to test him. I was curious more than anything else. Also, I always tried not to mess with people from the neighborhood. I didn’t like to run into people I’d ripped off.
“We’re gonna need another five guys, at least,” I grinned.
“We can take him,” said Johnny, tapping the side of his leather jacket.
“Take him for what? He ain’t loaded,” I interrupted.
“How do you know?” said Al.
“C’mon,” I sighed, “You ever seen him with money?”
“I heard he’s an old school gangster, sleeping on a bed of cash,” said Al and continued, “I heard whoever he was working for retired him ‘cause Junior got a bit bent in the head.”
“Nice story,” I muttered, “You and your sewing circle sure are imaginative, Al.”
“So you ain’t down?” said Johnny.
“Hell no,” I replied, “You’re outta your mind. That guy will crush us…Are you gonna shoot him?”
“If I have to,” Johnny whispered and reached for his beer.
“Man, think of this moment when they send you up the river,” I said.
“Whoa!” he burst, “Who said anything about going away? Nobody’s going anywhere.”
“You’re talking about robbing a dude from the neighborhood,” I said, lowering my tone, my fingers spread and palms pressed on top of the table, “The man is ten times your size. You think he’s just gonna roll over and give it up? Are you gonna fight him, Mr. Poundforpound? He will eat you in an instant. You’re gonna have to shoot him. And then what?”
“At least I’m thinking,” said Johnny, “When was the last time we ran a grab? At least I’m brainstorming things…”
“Things..?” I chuckled, “You’re trying to get us all pinched.”
“You think he’s connected?” said Al.
“I don’t know,” I sighed, “Just leave the man alone.” I turned and cast my eyes down the bar again. I stared at Junior. He was holding something and running his thumb across it while he rocked back and forth in his seat. I couldn’t stop staring at him and I tried to see exactly what he was holding, but couldn’t tell. In front of him, on the table, there stood a tall, half-empty glass of what appeared to be milk. I laughed and turned to my beer. “You two are a rare breed of idiot,” I laughed and added, “How long have we been coming here?” I shrugged my shoulders and tilted my head, “You geniuses are talking about robbing a guy we’ve seen coming here for months now…You haven’t bothered to check him out, but you got your stories.” I turned back to Junior and continued, “I look at him and see someone who ain’t all there. I see a man who looks like he’s survived a hell of a lot more than me. He ain’t got anything I want.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” said Johnny.
“The man is drinking milk!” I exclaimed, “Why do you think we call him Junior?”
“Because he drinks milk..?”
“Yes, Al,” I cleared my throat, “Because he drinks milk, and he’s so fucking big.” Al laughed and snorted. “Yes, it’s funny.” I looked over at Johnny, “He’s got nothing, not even a real name,” I sighed.
The evening dragged on and the Boiler grew louder. I found myself outside, beer-buzzed and smiling, my lungs welcoming the mixture of light spring air and dense Du Maurier. I was tired. I knew they were probably conjuring up another scheme or cursing me to hell and making their own plans. I was tired of their voices. For a moment, I pondered where I would go. Could I find another home…? Live another life…? I tried to think of at least one place I could go to get away from it all. None came to mind.
All of a sudden, Junior emerged from inside the Boiler, like a rhinoceros, like some mysterious beast full of milk. He stood for a moment in front of the pub, scraping the soles of his shoes on the sidewalk. He kicked a pebble and laughed and started walking down the street. I watched him and wondered what jungle had been his home, what mountain he’d escaped from. He walked slowly, almost wobbling from side to side. I wondered if too much milk had something to do with that. I wondered who he really was and why he never spoke. He was about to disappear around the corner onto Doris Avenue, when I flicked my cigarette to the street and followed after him. I had nothing else going on, and I guess the beer in me nursed my curiosity.
I followed him down Doris Avenue, keeping my distance, and through the park, to a worn and withered white house on Horsham Drive. From afar, I watched his giant figure walking around the side of the house. By the time I got there, he was already inside. I stood on the sidewalk and lit another smoke.
Uneasy waves in my gut could’ve been hunger, could’ve been nerves…I clenched my fist a couple of times, my fingers sticking together in the clammy swamp of my palms. “What am I doing?” I thought, but the night was beyond such questions. I dropped the cigarette and reached to my back and pulled out the .38 caliber pistol I had tucked under my belt. I walked around the side of the house, my heavy breaths guiding me to the door. A couple of lights were on in the basement, but the rest of the house was dark. I walked to the back and crouched down by one of the lit basement windows. My heart rattled my rib cage and I tightened my grip around the pistol in my left hand. It was a simple precaution. I wasn’t there to rob him, or kill him. I guess I was just there to get to know him. I stared into the lit up room, which consisted of a mattress on the floor and a whole bunch of children’s toys scattered about. Junior barged in. He was wearing a giant diaper and nothing else. I watched him drop himself on the mattress as he picked up a toy from the floor that looked like some sort of rattle. He shook it and laughed. I was more than ever confused and curious. Who was he…? What was wrong with him…? I wondered to whom this humongous child belonged and how he’d found his way into the Boiler. I watched him for a while, fascinated by his infantile gaze. This was the monster we were all so intimidated of. This was Al’s ‘old school gangster, sleeping on a bed of cash…’ I wanted to laugh. I had so many questions, and I knew that for the most part, they would remain unanswered. I felt sorry for him and thought, “I will talk to you next time. I promise to protect you from the likes of me.”
I spent most of that night staring into the fire I’d built. The wind was picking up, feeding my flames. It took a while for my muscles to relax and my clothes to dry; a lot of silence on my part…My shivering shame demanded silence. I also tried to tune out my friends. They kept resurrecting the incident from that afternoon. Every camping trip had its stories, its jokes and injuries. Every summer, we marked a campsite in one of Ontario’s provincial parks with our gear and our booze. That’s all we needed to call it home for a week. We were at Bon Echo Provincial Park that year, and I knew with a jagged certainty that the incident would follow us for years to come. I could see myself in the flames, embarrassed evermore. I wanted to be alone.
Earlier that afternoon, after a few shots of whiskey, we’d decided to get on the water and canoe to the cliffs across Mazinaw Lake. Truth be told, it was Samir’s decision. Looking back on it now, I feel as if he nagged us into it, the annoying outdoorsman that he was. Regardless, we walked to the lake and carried our canoe to the water. Samir got in the front, as he always did. Jon, the heaviest of us all, sat in the middle, the sun beaming off his bald head and into my eyes as I sat in the back. Our friend, Chris, stood on the shore, the only witness to our sudden failure. I got to paddle once before we capsized, in about three feet of water. I paddled once on my left and next thing I knew we were tipping to the right and into the lake, our canoe upside down in an instant. I heard Chris scream and laugh before we were submerged. His laughter continued for quite some time after that. I wanted to knock his teeth out.
“That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Chris, once we were all out of the water and had carried our canoe back to the patch of grass where it’d been moments before. We looked at each other, drenched and disappointed. Both Samir and Jon had their phones in their pockets. Jon also had a full pack of cigarettes, soaked through and through. My pockets were empty, but the lake struck me in my gut, waves rippled under my skin….Chris kept laughing. I turned and marched back to our campsite. I marched to the squeaking shame of my flip flops. They followed behind me. I could hear Samir and Jon kissing their teeth and sighing for their phones. “Idiots,” I thought.
I changed as fast as I could and started a fire right away. In my mind, I was already assigning blame. “Stupid Samir,” I thought, “Let’s get on the water, let’s get on the water,” he kept saying all day. “Fat ass Jon,” I thought, “Tipped us all over.” I was angry beyond belief and Chris kept laughing. Deeper in my mind, deeper under my skin, where those waves had rippled to, my childhood emerged to remind me of how dangerous water could be. I saw the two year old me in the murky madness of a lake, kicking and screaming and sinking under. I shook my head and lit a cigarette. “Some memories never drown,” I thought.
“From now on,” said Chris, “I’m gonna call y’all the capsize crew!” and he laughed and he gasped. I got up and gathered more wood.
“Man,” said Samir, “I had so many pictures on my phone,” he sighed.
Jon shook his head. I said nothing and just went on breaking branches over my right thigh.
“Fuck! That was so hilarious!” Chris exclaimed, as he unleashed a platoon of giggles around the campfire. Samir and Jon laughed too, but they laughed quieter laughs, defeated laughs, stupid idiots… “So hilarious,” Chris repeated and continued, “I wish I’d gotten it on tape.”
“My phone,” muttered Samir.
I let out a sigh. It seemed as if hundreds of curse words were tied to my tongue and trapped in my throat. There were rants in my chest, confined and breathless under the weight of a black lake inside me. I said nothing and turned instead to my fire, to my cigarettes. I knew at that point that I would stay awake all night and share my shame with the blackness around me.
Samir was the first one to retire. He rose and cleared his throat, “Callin it a night.”
Chris rose next. “Me too,” he said and walked off, following Samir and his flashlight.
Jon and I decided to share a cigarette. Four minutes later he was gone, too…Must’ve been late. I was tired, but alone now. That’s what I’d wanted all along. Not sure how long I sat there, watching my fire going out. It was colder now, pitch black. I felt around for my flashlight on the ground and picked it up as I stood. Somewhat detached and shivering from the cold, I lit the ground below me and started walking down the path through the bush, toward the lake. My breaths got heavier with each step. I tried to exhale my memories. I tried to calm myself by whispering things like, “You can do this! Nothing in there that can hurt you…You’re a great swimmer,” but instead, all of my words came out as unpleasant sighs, groans and grunts. I was walking faster now, almost jogging. I stripped off my clothes, still groaning and grunting like a madman, and ran in up to my waist and slowed to a stop. I watched the rippling waves circle around me in the black water. I held my beating heart in my hands. The moon was out, witness to my redemption…And the outline of the cliffs across the lake, watching me…
“Fuck it,” I said as I closed my eyes and submerged myself in the blackness.
There was a knock at the door. Charlie groaned a couple of times, lying on his back, sweating profusely on the leather couch in his living room. The ceiling fan was playing its usual soundtrack in the summer heat, whizzing and clicking every two turns, all day and night. Knock at the door. Charlie groaned again and got up.
He unlocked the door and flung it open.
“Sam,” he said.
“Hey, buddy,” said Sam, lifting a six pack of beer, “Did I wake you?”
Charlie turned around and walked back to the couch, muttering, “Piece of shit…”
Sam walked in and closed the door. “Beautiful day!” he said.
“Is it?” said Charlie, rubbing his eyes, clearing his throat.
“Smells like death in here,” said Sam, dropping himself on the couch, cracking a beer and offering it to Charlie. “Did you lose your phone or something?”
Charlie took the beer and chugged about half of it. He burped, “What do you want, Sam?”
“I have the day off,” said Sam, sipping his beer, crossing his left leg over his right. “Called you a bunch of times,” he added.
“Everything’s dead,” said Charlie as he chugged the rest of his beer and let out a violent burp.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Charlie.
“Has something happened?” Sam looked around the living room. Charlie said nothing. “You know what we should do?” he said, turning on the couch and facing Charlie, “We should go play some pool. You know, for old time’s sake,” he added.
“Old times,” Charlie muttered, shaking his head.
“It’ll do you good,” said Sam, “You know, to get outta this shithole.”
“Do me good,” said Charlie, holding his hand out, asking for another beer.
Sam handed him another bottle. “I don’t get it,” he said, “What’s the point of staying in like this? People go crazy, all cooped up.”
“To each their own,” said Charlie, closing his eyes and sipping his beer.
“Listen, buddy,” said Sam, leaning forward, putting his beer down on the coffee table, “I’m not sure what’s going on, but you need to focus on yourself. You know what I’m saying?”
“I love her,” Charlie whispered, “I really love her.”
“I get that,” said Sam, “You love her. Great; what has it done for you, though? This love…I mean, every once in a while we all have to go back. We have to let go and forget, you know?”
Charlie lay down again, this time in the fetal position. “Beth is seeing someone,” he said.
“Well, that’s not surprising,” said Sam, “I’m sorry to tell you, but I never trusted her. A whore will be a whore.”
“She hasn’t come home in three days,” Charlie whispered, closing his eyes.
“I just want to know where she is,” said Charlie.
“Does it matter?”
“I just wanna know!”
Sam sighed, running his fingers through his hair. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, “None of it matters.”
“You don’t give a shit about anything. You don’t understand. Just fuck off…”
“The world doesn’t care!” Sam exclaimed, taking a breath and yelling, “I’m here, aren’t I? How long have we known each other? You think it’s easy seeing you like this? It’s exhausting. Some people just can’t be together,” he said, shouting still, “You’re an idiot if you think she loves you. Jesus, you’ll move on,” he sighed, “You’ll find someone else. Exactly what I told her…”
“Told her what?” said Charlie, opening his eyes and sitting up. Sam leaned back, looking away. “You motherfucker!” Charlie shouted as he got up in one swift motion, grabbing his beer bottle and lunging at Sam.
The bar was getting packed. I kept looking at every new face stumbling in from the cold. Katie was sitting across from me, smiling. Christmas was right around the corner. We had just gotten engaged.
“Strange to be back here,” I said, reaching for my pint and sighing, “Ah, the Duke of Kent.” This was where we’d met, a few years back. This was where I’d learned the ins and outs of being an alcoholic. This was where she’d gotten her fourth job as a bartender.
“Can I just say,” she said, smiling still, “I just wanna say that I’m really proud of you.”
“What do you mean?” I muttered, while my eyes were probably saying, ‘Please, go on. Tell me how much you love me. Tell me I’m the best!’
“When we first met, I was sure something terrible was bound to happen to you. I mean, you were a drug dealer, for god’s sake!”
I looked around us, leaning forward. “No, no,” I said, clearing my throat and whispering, “I never made any money. I just helped people out.”
“You were a mule for a drug dealer.”
“At times,” I replied.
“You were high all the time, too.”
“For the most part…”
For the most part, I often stopped myself from remembering these things. I knew who I’d been. I knew the things I’d done. I was proud of myself, too, for changing, but I still tried not to remember. Katie would remind me every once in a while and I was fine with that. How could I not be?
“They all told me to break up with you,” she said.
“Who are they?” I exclaimed, downing the rest of my pint and slamming the glass on the table.
“Friends,” she sighed, “No one thought it was gonna work between us. You sure showed them.”
“Fuck ‘em,” I muttered, turning in my seat, looking for our waitress.
“I just keep remembering things,” she said, “You’re right; it’s really strange being back here. Everything’s changed…”
“Beer tastes the same, though,” I said.
The place was really packed now. People were squirming by one another, trying to get to the bar. Amongst the crowd, I recognized a familiar face. We made eye contact, but I couldn’t remember her name. I turned to Katie, signalling her to look. By the time I turned back, the girl was already at our booth.
“Chelsea!” Katie shouted, getting up. I looked around for our waitress while they hugged; high school friends reunited…They sat down and the waitress came over and I ordered another round of pints. Chelsea was drinking a gin and tonic. She was a chubby girl with sympathetic eyes. I had met her once before.
It didn’t take long for us to move past the small talk; she congratulated us on our engagement, we shared our Christmas plans…Our beers arrived.
Chelsea said, “I’m in somewhat of a predicament.” Katie and I both leaned in. “It’s embarrassing,” she said, “My brother’s here right now.”
“Nick’s here?” Katie exclaimed, “I haven’t seen him in ages!”
“He’s not in the best shape,” said Chelsea, running her fingers across her forehead, sucking her teeth. For a second, I thought I saw a tear roll down her cheek. Her eyes looked like they were full of tears. “Nick isn’t well,” she said, letting out a deep sigh, her eyes low, her fingers spread on top of the table. “He’s in the washroom right now, doing god knows what.” She started to cry. Katie looked at me, shaking her head. Chelsea went on to say, “I don’t know what do, Katie. He’s a drug addict. He’s depressed. I fear for him.” She grabbed her drink with her right hand and wiped her face with her left, shaking her head, and all of sudden, she added in a different tone, as if trying to rid herself of the brick of sorrow in her throat, causing her to stutter, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, guys.” She laughed, or tried to anyways.
“Why doesn’t Benny talk to him?” said Katie, pointing at me with her eyes. I leaned back, squinting at her, confused.
I said, “I don’t know if that’s…”
“Benny can relate,” Katie interrupted. “He’s been there.”
“You were an addict?” said Chelsea.
“Once an addict, always an addict,” I said, sipping my beer and shrugging my shoulders like an idiot, still squinting at Katie. “I’ve been clean for a while, though,” I laughed, raising my pint, “Except for the booze!”
“Would you mind talking to him?”
“You know, people need to realize things on their own,” I said.
“Babe,” said Katie, tilting her head.
“I really don’t know what to say.”
“Can you at least go check on him?” said Katie.
“Are you serious? You want me to go to the bathroom and see what he’s up to?”
They said nothing. I felt like arguing some more. To be honest, I had no idea what was happening. Before I knew it, I was walking down the stairs to the washrooms in the basement. I entered the men’s restroom, which consisted of two stalls and two urinals.
“Hey, Nick?” I said, clearing my throat and peeking under the stall doors. He was sitting on the ground behind the toilet. He said nothing. “I’m friends with your sister. My name is Benny,” I added, not sure what else to say. I went into the empty stall. “Listen, Nick, they asked me to come and check on you. Really didn’t want to,” I said, leaning back, crossing my arms, waiting for him to say something. He didn’t. “Man,” I sighed, “I remember this one time, in this very washroom, I got so high…” I laughed, looking down at my feet and noticing a tiny bag of white powder on the floor. My thoughts scurried away all at once. I stared at it for a moment before I picked it up. I opened the bag and dabbed my pinky finger inside and had a little taste. Crappy coke, I thought, but I had a second taste just to be sure.
Charlie woke from his afternoon nap. A gentle rain was drumming against the window. He was happy to have escaped Toronto. Unemployed and bored, on a whim, he had driven through the night to Ottawa, giving his old friend Kim quite the shock on that gloomy Thursday morning in mid-July, as she was heading out to work. She was pleased to see him though and told him to make himself at home and wait till she got back.
They hadn’t spoken since the funeral, going on three years. Sam, Kim’s late husband and Charlie’s old college roommate, had died in a car accident in 2010. Charlie left the bedroom and walked downstairs.
It was around four when Kim came home.
“Charlie! Wow,” she exclaimed, dropping her purse on the floor, “So good to see you. I’m sorry about this morning,” she continued, taking off her coat, running her right hand through her hair, shaking out the rain, “I was running late.”
“Don’t mention it…I should’ve called.”
“Charlie,” she said, almost in a whisper, “You were meant to be here.” She walked over to him and wrapped her arms around him. “Life is very mysterious.”
“Sure is,” he said, nodding his head, pouting his lips.
“You were meant to be here,” she said again, excited this time. “I’m having company,” she continued, going from one corner of the room to the next, lighting candles. Charlie looked around, noticing candles everywhere.
“I really should’ve called. I’m sorry.”
“No, no,” she said, turning to him, holding a lit candle, “We’ve been in touch, you and me…” She was whispering again.
Charlie cleared his throat, staring at the melting candle in her hand. “I’m not sure I follow.”
The doorbell rang. “There are other forces at play,” she said to him as she walked away. Asides from scratching his head and swaying from side to side in the glow of candles, Charlie was more or less motionless, confused. Out of the hallway, Kim returned, her smile very much the same, turning to Charlie and saying, “I’d like you to meet, Anjelica Swan,” and as if on cue, a tall slender woman emerged from the hallway. She had curious eyes. Charlie walked over to her, offering his hand. He noticed as he got closer that she had cracked leathery skin. He noticed that her eyes were more than just curious. Instead of shaking his hand, the woman grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand forward.
“Uh huh,” she exhaled into his palm.
“Yes, it’s good to meet you, too,” said Charlie, trying to be polite as he pulled his hand back, disgusted.
“Shall we get started?”
“I’m sorry,” said Charlie, “I don’t…”
“Its fine,” said Kim, directing the woman to the dining room table, “Right this way.” She then went on to light some more candles. The entire house was lit by candles at this point.
“Um, Kim, can you please… Maybe, I’ll just get out of your hair,” he said all of a sudden, pointing to the door.
“No!” she exclaimed, “No way! Listen, listen,” she added, lowering her tone and tiptoeing over to him, “Anjelica is my psychic. I see her every Thursday.”
“You see a psychic every Thursday?”
“Yes, for about a year now. She’s gonna help me contact Sam.”
“Sam? You’ve been trying to contact Sam every Thursday?”
“All this talk won’t do,” said Anjelica Swan, sitting at the table, her voice just as parched as her skin.
“Charlie,” whispered Kim, “You were meant to be here.”
“Was I? I’m not even sure what this is.”
“There are things I need to know!”
“Like what? How fast he was going when he crashed, or how slippery the roads were?”
“Let us begin!” Anjelica Swan shouted.
Shaking his head, he surrendered to the candlelit room and took a seat at the table, across from Anjelica Swan. Kim sat to his left.
“We ask for peace,” said the psychic, “We ask that you see us now. We travel with peace.” Her voice was firm. Her eyes were closed, her hands locked together, fingers-crossed, on top of the table. “We ask for peace. We ask you to come forth. We ask you to lead us to light.”
“Wow,” Charlie whispered, turning to Kim, “She’s really jumping into it!” He laughed and turned back to find Anjelica Swan staring at him. She looked like a snake, he thought.
“Many are here,” she smiled, “But none are Sam.” She opened her right hand and sprinkled sand over the table. Almost as if he was trying not to laugh, Charlie looked away, shaking his head and sinking into his chair.
“I don’t understand,” said Kim.
“Sam is not here,” said Anjelica Swan, running her long, cracked leathery fingers over the sand on the table.
“Right,” said Charlie, scratching his chin, “You hear that, Kim? He’s not here.” He crossed his arms and tilted his head, staring at Kim and smiling.
“Did you know, Mr. Charles,” said the psychic, leaning forward, “Did you know that spirits follow us around?”
“Oh yes!” Charlie exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air, “I’ve heard that they are excellent trackers, practically invisible!”
“Another fun fact,” laughed the psychic, “Spirits do not appreciate sarcasm.”
“My apologies,” said Charlie, leaning back in his chair. A few moments passed in silence. Anjelica Swan had closed her eyes again. Charlie let out a sigh.
“What is happening?” said Kim.
“I am sorry,” said the psychic, “Sam is nowhere to be found. However, Alice is here, sitting with us,” she said, pointing with her eyes at the empty chair to the right of Charlie.
“Who the hell is Alice?” said Kim.
“A sweet old lady,” said Anjelica Swan, “A beautiful soul! All she wants to know is why Charles doesn’t visit her anymore..? She is lonely in her grave.”
Kim gasped, raising her hand to her mouth, “Oh, Charlie!”
“You know what,” he said, jolting upwards and bumping the table with his legs, causing one of the candles to tip over. “I’m fucking outta here.”
Kim dashed to the fallen candle. “Charlie, please!” He didn’t bother looking back.
With her eyes closed and her hands locked on the table, smiling her snake smile, Anjelica Swan called out to him, “You will go, Mr. Charles, and they will follow you everywhere. Go now, go! Be happy for you will never be alone!”
Charlie could hear her laugh as he walked out into the rain.
“You need to laugh more,” she said, while she hovered behind the bar; her long dark hair caressing her back, taunting my sleepless brain. I watched her fill up my pint glass, but said nothing. Despite the emptiness in my gut and the occasional psychedelic waves in my eyes, distorting my sight and further draining me of all words and meaning, I was sure about one thing; she was growing to like me, beautiful bartender Katie.
My eyes wandered around the bar, from the old boys at the far end, the grey-haired regulars, to a couple at a booth, sharing a plate of nachos, leaning into each other’s eyes. The clock behind the bar said it was half past noon. I felt myself sobering up. I was remembering things again; remembering why I was there, my emptiness turning to shame…I remembered the Facebook message I’d gotten some weeks ago, from a courteous fool, which read, “Hey man, just wanted to let you know that Anthony killed himself last night. Fuckin jumped off his balcony!” I remembered holding my head, curling into a ball. I remembered the shivering emptiness, the nauseating flutter of butterflies’ wings in my gut, the disbelief. I remembered drugging those butterflies to sleep, but now, we were all sobering up.
I turned to my pint, my stomach growling, my eyes trying to hide from Katie, all the while remembering that we had kissed a few nights ago; a drunken kiss in the alleyway behind the bar, I remembered. And there we were, playing our roles. There she was, working her shift, pouring pints. There I was, sharing my aches and pains with the bar stool and trying to forget. There she stood, with what had to be love in her eyes, telling me that I should laugh more; and I said nothing…
I never responded to that message on Facebook, but I pictured Anthony, day in and day out, climbing over the railing and letting go. I pictured him falling backwards and staring at the sky. I remembered his laugh. I remembered how he’d offered me a home when I had none. I tried to remember how it all fell apart, how we lost touch…? His eyes in my head told me it was time to go numb. I got up without a word and walked to the single-person handicap washroom at the end of the pub. A part of me hoped that Katie was watching me.
I emerged from the washroom, a few brief moments later, while the few remaining bumps of cocaine in my pocket, clumped together in the sad little baggy of forgetfulness, were now trailing through my nose and dripping into my throat. I emerged from the washroom, thinking about her lips.
“Are you alright?” She asked as I planted myself back on the bar stool. I glanced at her, nodding my head and reaching for my pint. My muscles were awake again, buzzing. My dilated pupils bouncing about; her lips on my mind… “Any plans tonight?” She asked, crossing her arms, scanning the bar and turning back to me.
“Nope,” I muttered.
“Wanna have a drink with me? I get off at five.”
“Sure,” I said, leaning forward, wanting to say something more. I wanted to talk to her, to confide in her. I wanted to leap over the bar and hug her, all the while remembering that dreadful Facebook message; Anthony’s eyes in my head, asking to be sedated again. I felt like crying. So many thoughts, but no words; so much sorrow, but no tears…I wanted to acknowledge her, to acknowledge the affection that I knew was there; the affection staring at me, arms crossed concerned, asking me to laugh more. None of it was fair. She deserved better. I downed the rest of my pint, summoning my strength, letting go like Anthony on his balcony, and said, “Please, don’t fall in love with me.”
“Don’t…fall in love with you..?” She said. The subtle curves of a confused smile emerged at the corners of her lips. Goddamn, she was beautiful! “Why not?” she added in a different tone, playful, teasing, as she collected my empty glass and poured me another pint.
“I’m very lost.”
“I’m all over the place. I’m not…”
“I don’t know,” I sighed, submitting to my emptiness once more. I had nothing to say. I tried to look away. I tried to smile.
Falling backwards, staring at the sky, he must’ve been crying, I thought. I would have cried. Katie’s eyes caught me in midair, her smile offering me an escape. “You really need to laugh more,” she said and walked on down the bar to the old boys.
It wasn’t a sudden crash. It was actually a rather gentle landing. A breath of air…My emptiness turned to shame, my shame to anger and my anger to flames that blew out ever so quick. I saw my sadness, sitting hunched over, under the weight of a thousand sleepless nights. I embraced it, casting my eyes down the bar and finding Katie. I stared at her, smiling. There was beauty in the world; beauty that wanted to see me laugh, beauty that made me want to be a better man…
“Do you ever miss it?”
I tilted my head from side to side, cracking my neck, pouting my lips.
“You must think about it from time to time.”
“Do you miss those days?”
“I wouldn’t say I miss them; those days were a part of me, and sometimes, when I least expect it, I remember things, or dream about them.”
“You dream about drugs?”
“Sometimes,” I said, clearing my throat and leaning my head back, closing my eyes, while flash images of a few old friends scurried through my head.
“Do you ever dream about me?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? Am I ever in your dreams?”
“But we live together,” I muttered, shrugging my shoulders and smiling.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I see you every day,” I exclaimed, my voice inching upwards.
“Well, I guess, there’s just no room in my dreams for you.”
“You never dream about me?”
“I have,” I said, quickly adding, “I do. I dream about you. I just don’t remember them.”
“Oh, but the drugs are crystal clear, huh?”
“Those are more like nightmares. Everybody remembers their nightmares!”
“Seriously though,” I interrupted, squirming into an upright position while drowning in my sweat soaked palms, “I rarely ever remember my dreams.” I turned on the couch, casting my left leg over my right, facing her. She was fiddling with her phone, almost as if she was done with the conversation. I couldn’t tell, so I went on to ramble, to do what I do best. “The thing is, some drugs alter your brain chemistry, you know? Sometimes we’ll be watching a show or a movie, whatever, and some dude is doing drugs, popping pills or snorting lines, and for a moment or two I’ll feel the effects. A few years ago, when I stopped altogether, I would dream about drugs for months. I would snap out of sleep, sweat-soaked and cotton-mouthed, with the taste of some drug on my tongue. I mean, dreams can often be really vivid, but to taste something? It was quite the dilemma back then, as you can imagine; the last thing a recovering addict needs. Anyways, they alter your brain chemistry. They’ll always be there in your head.” I paused, perhaps waiting for her to say something, anything. She only nodded her head and pointed at the air with her lips, still fiddling with her phone. “Those days are behind me,” I continued, “Everything changed once I turned twenty five, as if the clocks sped up and my body came to a halt, you know? Hangovers are two day ordeals now.”
“If drugs change your brain chemistry, what does love do?”
I smiled, turning my head and looking out at our terrace and the snow flakes, like tiny Styrofoam pellets, slithering snakes in the wind… “Love made me a better person.”
“So fucking dream about love then!”
Some places will never leave our bodies, no matter how hard we try, or how far we run. In our travels, we carry the scents and sounds of our hometowns and we remind ourselves every so often, who we are and from where we came. I’ve come to believe that I carry Tehran in my nose, or perhaps, I have a big enough nose to sniff out Tehran, wherever I go. Either or, I’ll keep believing that there are mountains in my genes. I have tried, but there is no escaping some desert horizons, not for me. Surely, we are all haunted by something. The stray cats of Iran will forever snap me out of stupor, the stray cats that I hated as a child, the cats that ruled over every city at dusk; their cries will forever own my nights.
Here in Toronto, we have two cats at home. Here now writing this, I glance over at them and can’t help but wonder if they know…? Can they smell the residue of my past hatred on my fingers when I pet them? I’m sure they know nothing of the sort, but regardless, they show me daily how I’ve changed; cat person out of the blue…It appears that I may have transferred my hatred over to squirrels now. Surely, we all hate something, but maybe, just maybe, it is our scattered specks of hate that will haunt us in the long run.
My neighbor down the hall has a ginger cat. I see him every time I go out for a smoke, always sitting on the windowsill, gazing out into the alleyway behind our building, with such desperation in his eyes. His eyes widen each time we meet and his excitement saddens me, watching him press his face into the screen of the open window, meowing and meowing, desperate to be pet. The window isn’t all that high, and on tiptoes I’ve managed to let him smell my hand and continue pressing his face into the screen, circling the windowsill and crying. During one of our first encounters, I studied him for quite some time, his eagerness to play, the boredom glaze in his marble eyes, and leaning back, finishing my smoke and stroking my beard, I concluded, “This is a neglected animal.” I’ve seen my neighbor a few times in passing, but his cat has kept me company through the window on many smokes, and every time he circles around excitedly, meowing and head butting the screen, while I tiptoe to get closer to him. Fortunately as of yet, I haven’t been caught red handed on my tiptoes, while bonding with my neighbor’s cat through the window, in the alleyway behind our building.
Funny how things work, how tides shift and shifts change… It’s fair to say, I’m rather obsessed with the whole thing. So much so that I’ve even thought about befriending my neighbor, getting to know him, only to find my way into his apartment and become better acquainted with his cat, just so his poor ginger cat can have a friend. Definitely a doable task, but who has time for that? I’ve chosen instead to talk to the cat. I do so every now and again. I tell him that life is unfair, that people are different. I talk to him in tones fit for children. I tell him that he’s beautiful. I tell him that his owner is an ass, but that he should still be grateful, for many cats have it much worse. Leaning back, finishing my smoke and stroking my beard, I realize every time that I’m talking to a cat. What could I possibly expect him to understand?
And then I sigh… And then I think, “Perhaps, karma simply means, growing to love the things we once hated.” Over the years, I’ve come to learn that hate is rather tiresome, but like anything else, it’s there and comes in handy at times. Hell, some of us have more love than we know what to do with, so we waste it. Like it or not, some of us are lucky, some of us aren’t. The same goes for cats.