Friday, January 28, 2011

COST OF LIVING (first part of a fiction)

After the war, the three of us left alive from our regiment decided to split the cost of living by renting an apartment together in downtown Toronto. It was a one bedroom, one bathroom, one kitchen, one everything. I volunteered to sleep on the floor. Nobody else objected, but after the first couple of nights, when they awoke in the morning to my nude sprawl on the rug, they suddenly gained a quick case of propriety. Terrence said that we could alternate – he’d get the bed Mondays, I’d get it Tuesdays, Martin on Wednesdays, or we could switch the order all up if some night one of us brought a broad home. (They still had enough of the military ethic in them to believe that a system of some sort could solve almost anything. This, despite what they'd lived through for themselves for the past three desperate years. Proof enough, for me, that the army squeezes the good stuff right out of you. Injects its own stream of self-serving poison, that racket does, and all too eagerly.)

I finally told them: Fuck it. Just give me the floor

Harsh cold and discomfort: my bedfellows of choice. I had spent a good many months sleeping on dirt and all of its natural cousins, and I had grown to enjoy, even require, hard rocks as my pillows. Could cracked kitchen tiles be any worse? Even the gouges those stones made on your neck and your ears offered their own form of love. The rain made you wet, the snow made you shiver, the sun’s rosemary heat burned you quite red, but those stones, at night, nicked you with edges that snapped you awake; compared to the weather, they at least served some sort of purpose. I couldn't find much else that did.

The pain from those nights spent scrunched up on granite didn’t even feel all that bad. Almost desirable, even. I grew to relish the sudden jolt out of dreams that shot me straight up out of my sleep and awake into the night. It reminded me that I hadn’t bought it just yet. I often thought of those stones’ sudden scratches with every shift of my neck as akin to own girl’s lengthy red nails back home in Fort Erie, sharpened to talons just to test my soft skin. Made sense. She could get rough sometimes, and needed to see how much I could take from what she might give. The rocks weren’t any different. Smelled better, too.

Two years, off and on, of sleeping like this made white sheets and warm blankets an affront to my manhood. Give me a stray spot on the floor beside our small fridge, I told them. You pussies can have all the rest. They accused me of trying to play the tough guy. The war’s over, they said. You can relax now. At least take the couch. I told them to fuck off and let me sleep where I wanted. If 'playing the tough guy' was my one secret ploy, it wouldn't be enacted by arguing over who got the goddamn bed. The fridge’s dumb hum every night was bad enough; I didn’t need their daytime preaching in my ears, too.

For the first few weeks after returning to Canada, we all just kind of moped around. We were not unlike kids that had just been yanked inside from our recess five minutes too soon. We ate, boozed, screwed around, almost by rote. As much as my roommates insisted that they were ecstatic to be free from the army’s tight grip, I sensed a different truth from the stares they would suddenly put on like cheap masks from the five and dime store back home.

One afternoon I woke up from a nap and saw Martin staring out of our tiny kitchen window, looking up at the snow that had steadily been falling since breakfast, a wide ruffled blanket extended like cotton. Giant, white flakes. We’d seen a lot of that stuff up in the moutains in Europe, and it had always reminded us of home. Now we were here and it didn't remind us of anything. It just was. Cold and wet and ugly.

I could tell by his gaze that his mind was already back there. He had a half-mournful, half-pitying face, but grotesque in its pose, exaggerated and false. I’d never seen anything like it. Almost as if he was imitating what somebody sad was supposed to look like. Something that looked so blatantly false must surely be real.

“Tell me this,” I said. I leaned up off the floor and swiped some solid sleep from my eyes. I was so hungry that it actually looked almost edible. Army food will do that to you. “Ain’t you the one who told me to get over it? You aren’t going to find anything out here that we left behind over there.”

He turned around and took a look at me head-on. I could see the one-quarter Metis in his face from that angle. Depended on the light, usually, but I spotted it this morning clear enough. A kind of natural cloak to his face that matched his black hair. I was going to make a crack about him scalping me, my usual jibe, but I shut my mouth before the words sneaked out. I sensed a shadow or two.

“I’m just looking at the snow, boss ,” he said. “Watching it fall.”

“Is that what you’re doing?” I said. Already thinking about how I could get the hell out of here for good and somehow make him feel better. I was too exhausted and indifferent to offer advice. “Looked like you were getting ready to jump out and start some other kind of life, depending on how the drop went. This is only four stories, you know. There's a chance you might actually live. You telling me you survived Hitler and Hirohito in order to break a leg on Yonge Street?”

That made him smile, but Martin’s smile had never done much for anybody, let alone himself. One of those half-hearted grins that made the other person wonder what lay underneath all that forced joviality. Anybody who forces a smile once too often can never truly look real ever again. Something else I picked up overseas.


-- Continued from 'Unibrow'. (Scroll down for the first installment.) A small-town 7-11 has been robbed, and an employee, Travis, was shot and killed. Employees are being questioned. Stories aren't jibing.)

Wait. Cameron said that? What a tool. Complete, Canadian Tire, power drill, tool. First of all, I wasn't the one that told him about Travis getting shot. I dont talk to Cameron if I can help it. Cameron, like, invents these conversations between us: "I was talking to Corrine, and she told me... Blah, blah, whatever. He thinks we have this, I don't know, bond. Our shifts usually don't even overlap all that much, maybe twice a month, but I know for a fact that he tells everybody at the store all the time that we were talking about whatever it is that pops into his whacked little brain. He just says shit.

Did Cameron tell you that we used to go out together? Or that we were even, like, friends? Jesus, what a knob. I've known him since, like, Grade Four, and I dare you to find one, single, person in the entire town that would tell you we went out for, like, as long as a day. An afternoon, even. We had some of the same classes together, sure. Chemistry, Math in Grade 11. Maybe Canadian Studies, I don't know. It's been awhile. He might have been there. I didn't, like, keep track of his presence. He wasn't on my radar, basically. I don't think he was ever on anybody's radar.

Wait. Who told you that? Kimberly? Oh my god. I know she was the one that told you that story. I know it was her. Not many people know it to begin with, so it has to be her. She hasn't liked me, since, I'm not even joking, Grade Three. I can't believe she told you. Like that little fact has anything to do with Travis, like, dying.

Well. I'm not going to lie to you now, because first of all, I don't lie. Like, to anyone. Let alone cops. Second of all, it doesn't mean anything, so whatever. You know already, obviously. I gave Cameron a handjob, like, three or four times, max, okay? Big. Effing. Deal. If he thinks that, like, constitutes a relationship, and if Kimberly does too, they, are, lunatics. I barely even remember it at all. Not because I'm, like, a slut, like I've had a hundred guys or anything, not because of that, but because, like, he's not the kind of guy you'd really want to remember. For a thing like that. Nothing special in that, like, genetic category. I think you get what I'm saying.

And it was, what, like seven years ago? We used to go watch the football team play. I think it was, when was it, fall of Grade Ten, maybe? I was supposed to be cheerleading, but I, like, twisted my ankle in practice, so I was out for a month. It still hurts when I stand on it for too long at the store. Anyway, I went to the games, just to see how all the other girls did on the sidelines. Cameron tried out for the team, and was cut, like, I'm not even kidding, the first hour. That's what he told me. So I ended up sitting beside him on the top of the bleachers a couple of times. I think he, like, manoeuvred himself beside me. We started talking and stuff, whatever. Like I said, I've known him since we were, like, nine. It's not like I could just ignore the dude. And it gets freaking cold in November, especially with the wind whipping all around the bleachers, and he wasn't as bad looking then as he is now, so, whatever. Stuff happens. It was all, like, discreet. I mean, hardly anybody ever came to our football games to begin with. I never saw any of you guys there. And it's not like we filmed it. And God, we were fifteen. And it's not like I even blew him, and if Kimberly says I did, she, is, mental, because that, never, happened. Probably in Cameron's dreams, it did. His dreams, my nightmares, right? Maybe in her dreams too, for all I know.

I only heard about it later, when I came in for my shift after the shooting. Vincent said that Cameron said that I was the one who told him that Travis was shot in the face. Yeah, in the unibrow. I totally didn't tell him that, because first of all, I didn't talk to Cameron at all after Travis was shot, not once, and second of all, Travis didn't even have a unibrow, so why would I, like, explain it that way? I guess Cameron is telling everybody that Travis looked like Bert from Sesame Street, which is ridiculous. I'm not saying Travis was getting ready to apply to be on The Bachelor or anything, but the dude did not have a megabrow on his forehead, and he was sure as hell better looking than Cameron himself.

Who, by the way, was constantly putting Travis down, telling him he was dumb and shit. He did the same thing to me whenever I saw him. I was reading one of the Twilight books at the till when he came in for his shift one night, maybe the third one in the series, I can't remember, and he was all, "ugh." I'm like, "fuck you Cameron!" I never see him reading anything. He just wanders around town with the stories he makes up in his head. That guy's still stuck in the past on the bleachers with me. That's his little fantasy, and he's making fun of me for actually reading a book?

Anyways, I don't want to talk about it anymore. Any of it. I just don't. You work with a guy for six, seven months, and he gets shot in the face, it just, I don't know, it makes you all sick inside. Then you add on top of that, the fact that people you've known for years are making stuff up about you, telling people you told them shit that you didn't, it just makes me even more, like, ugh. Bad enough we have to work in the same store where our co-worker, like, died.

And I don't see what any of this has to do with the fact that Travis is dead, and that the guy who did it is still out there bopping around. I don't know if you think some of us are bullshitting you, for whatever reason, but I told you already, I don't lie. Ask anyone. And if Kimberly was the one who told you I slept with Cameron, I will do more than bitch-slap her. I know you're the police, whoop-de-do, and I shouldn't be saying that, but I'm serious. She thinks that because I work in a convenience store, and because she went to college in Kingston, or wherever, she's, like, a better person than me? Please.

Oh, oh, oh, here's a tip: Why don't you haul her bony little ass back in here and ask her about Cameron again, alright? Ask her about what those two did in high school. All's I'm saying is, I'm not the only one who was good with her hands. Word gets around. Despite what she might think, I know stuff too.