There are no rooms, no houses, no neighborhoods or cities to which you can escape. The lack is in the mind and it can’t be filled. The third-floor apartment underneath the 4th Avenue flyover overlooking the man asleep in the alley, is the same as the Upper West Side apartment, is the same as the four-bedroom ranch-style in Houston. It is an ugly world, and the only love to be found comes from stumbling backward into some.
This is a story about hope.
Bathrobes are for widows and sexual predators. This bathrobe is standing in my doorway, shuffling worn slippers on the third-floor carpet. She gives me a red velvet cupcake baked by her granddaughter whom she raises when her daughter cannot. She is not beautiful, in age or in defeat. She is not worried or broken. She is a woman who has lived a life and found herself in a Bridgeland apartment underneath the flyover to downtown.
“My granddaughter loves to bake. I told her we were baking for you today. It’s red velvet.”
The absence of her top two teeth is marked by a few vertical creases from her upper lip to her nostrils. We are friends because I hold the door for her when she comes back from the gas station with milk.
She leans to the left, looks into my apartment, down the hallway. “My friend lived in there for 15 years, you know. She got too sick to take care of herself. She’s in a home in Bowness now.”
“Thank you,” I say. I can’t remember her name so I ask what red velvet is.
“I don’t really know,” she says. “My granddaughter is in grade four.”
“I take care of her now and then.”
“I hope she likes it.” I mean both grade four and being cared for.
The conversation evaporates, turns into the dust, becomes grime in the grout between the cinderblocks.
“Well, thank you again,” I say and slowly close the door on her. She leans her head in pace with my slow closing, chasing the longest possible look down my hall.
I have moved in defeat and fear so often and so quickly there is nothing left. The apartment is empty. There is a twin bed and a desk in a bedroom. Though I am capable of great affectation, this is just an empty life. I don’t have it in me to hold onto objects. My head though–I count the bumps in the textured bedroom ceiling to fall asleep. It is the least harmful way to collapse.
There are two girls, my daughters, in a condo up by Nosehill, an ugly park with an ugly name – a blank mound of prairie above the important parts of Calgary. It is nature’s ugly, but the subdivisions crushed up to and surrounding it are the city’s brand of one-upmanship, a competition between Calgary and God for oblivion.
In Houston, in a bed, I woke in the night, dog, cat, first baby, wife in a king-size bed I could never to seem to afford new sheets for, afraid that I could not save anything wrapped in those sheets.
What needed saving? Another daughter born, a relationship that wasn’t even comfort, just a destructive distraction from the general terror. So many years later, I am thankful to her for leaving because I did not have the guts to do it myself. What’s worse, learning the evil you’re capable of or learning the misery you’re willing to receive?
But there are two girls. What to say, that I love them, that I seek to protect? That they bring joy, make me smile, that I like to watch them watch the world? That I can imagine future heartbreaks and disappointment and that it hurts me? There are no new ways to say I am thankful for their living in this world and also fear the possibilities of those lives.
Red velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. The forks and spoons are in the drawer with the checkbook and the junk mail. The man asleep in the alley hasn’t moved since my first cigarette. Red Velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Take a shower, get ready.
In time, my girls will ask me questions about what I did and didn’t do and why: life, divorce, moves and money. I make most choices today based on those coming questions. But the money is gone, the career is gone – too many moves. Can I say it? Would they believe me? Is it true? I followed them as far as I could: to Calgary, and when they moved to Edmonton, I simply could not go. To live for anyone else is bankruptcy – moral, emotional, financial. So the girls are in Edmonton and I am in Bridgeland.
They have visited. Spent the night on the floor between comforters left over from previous moves. Hearts and circles on one, birds on the other. We woke and walked to Luke’s Drugmart. They found a $35 candle. I told them to put it back. They have been to dozens of Broadway shows; their playground was all of Central Park. In Bridgeland, the candles cost too much.
The apartment is empty, but the mirrored medicine cabinet is newly full. Toothbrushes, Scope, Crest 3D Whitening, baking soda. The fight against coffee, nicotine, age, and poverty rages. What does my mouth smell like? What does it taste like? I’m too old to taste like candy, and did I ever? After the first tooth brushing, floss, then mouthwash, then the electric toothbrush. It is an extravagance, scrub the tongue, reveal the flesh under the cigarette film. Rooftop Reds are really American Marlboroughs, they tell me. If it is a lie, it is one I am still willing to believe. Mouthwash again. Exeunt.
I walk to the living room window naked, but the nearest neighbor’s window is across an alley and a parking lot. A bottle picker pushes his cart down the alley, past the sleeping man. I think to bag the empties and toss them to him from the balcony, but I am naked and so instead take a few steps back from the window. Your innocence is intact! Bottle picker! You have been saved! At what cost?! Cans!
I contemplate the phone, study the man asleep under the power pole. I mark the location of his socked foot, stripes, against a stain on the fence. He may not have moved in four hours. If you aren’t moving by 6 PM, I will save or bury you. There was a time when I didn’t understand people who drank alone, and then suddenly there was a time when I did.
The Starbucks down the alley across Edmonton Trail is filled with the men that eventually turn into bottle pickers and alley sleepers. They come from the Drop-In and Rehab Centre across the river, across Langevin Bridge, but they still own something that connects to free wifi.
If you tell a lover you cannot offer anything other than what is already known, they won’t believe you. That’s just how love works, it is the lie of possibilities.
The shopping cart rests in front of the dumpster in the alley. The bottle picker has strung a blanket between the dumpster and the fence leaning around it. He stands behind the blanket. His naked arms stretch above to the sky, not a sun or a moon, just all of it. The arms descend below the blanket. The hands return, one splays and stretches, feeling its limit, and the hand holding the shirt flicks the cloth carelessly over the fence into the alley. This scene is not possible without a Chinook coming warm off the Rockies. A car will pass soon to press the shirt into the dirty pavement, and Edmonton Trail does not end in Edmonton, but only a few more miles down the road in an industrial park on McKnight Boulevard.
I have seen that free form of undressing before. A younger body in a northern California mountain stream. Skinny-dipping! Goddamned skinny-dipping. There are free moments in life – but night kept coming and it gets cold in the mountains. It’s 5 PM, the bottle picker and I making moves. But I am the only one with a cupcake.
Oh, but it wasn’t a promise to the girls, just a hint of one. Does that make breaking it the larger sin?
Attack the hair – a hair attack! Run clippers with a #1 comb across the scalp, #2 for the mustache, a smaller machine for the ears, nose, and the wisps that big brother didn’t remove on the shiny runway down the middle of my skull. Not a lot of gray here, but not a lot of hair either. It is possible that I have more hair on my ass than on my head.
I take off my glasses to shave my head, am blind and so just close my eyes and run the machine erratically. Like life, the only method is the sheer amount of time spent on the endeavor. If you run a machine across your scalp for ten minutes, what could possibly remain? If you live too long, what is there left to believe in? Black hairs collect on the vanity and in the basin, they stick to toothpaste stuck beside the faucet.
I believe that I have unnaturally dirty ears.
Zits and fingers. The hunt for blackheads, white heads. Running a finger over little hills not yet discolored topography. Fewer now at 43 than 16. Though, not quite as loud as then, they still sing to me. You’re a little bit ugly. In the mirror, I hum back. Keep on the sunny side always on the sunny side. Fuck you, zits.
“You have questions. I have answers. You may not like them, and they may not be right. But I want to try and answer them,” I’d proclaim in the car just after pickup on visitation Saturdays. In those first Saturday morning minutes, I am false confidence, a lecturing adult cloaked in certainty because to show them what I don’t know is also a form of abuse, perhaps. Do I drive them to an empty apartment and point out the living room window? See that man asleep in the alley? I don’t know how not to become him. My father died a homeless alcoholic at 53. There is no strong reason to believe that I will become homeless. But if I can make it to 53 indoors and sober, that may be a simple, beautiful win. I can’t imagine they need to hear that.
So many face-to-face fights, so many phone fights, so many fights in front of the girls. So many accusations – all sprouted from fact. But they grew into a rain forest I couldn’t navigate. Why do I refuse to get a good job, they ask. It’s because I don’t want one, I know they’ve been told. Do I explain the price of a barrel of oil and its impact on a vulnerable economy to a 10 and an 8 year old?
One kind of question at one time so close to being able to be asserted: will you date – will you marry? “Marry” held so long and lifted so high in unison it sounded like “merry.” Little girls and their obsession with pairing off! I gave an honest answer: I couldn’t think of anything more frightening. I still can’t.
And finally, “why won’t you move with us to Edmonton?” But the answer isn’t because I don’t love you, and any conversation that starts from there is as incomprehensible as the world.
Trim the pubic hair? Groom the netherworld? For what? A few gray sons of bitches! Fuck you pubes! I can be cruel to myself, but not that cruel. This may be a cemetery, but I am no groundskeeper. Unruly bush, you remain!
A shower to stop the neck from itching and to soften the fingernails. They grow in spurts, I am certain. I will throw them on a spreadsheet and measure, but how? Day One: Cut. Day Two: Long. Day Three: Longer. Day Four: A little longer. Day ?: Too fucking long. And I disappear in showers. The heat, the water raining down and then steaming up, I am gone for twenty minutes. Not happy, absent. Dry off standing in the tub and then sit on the toilet seat to cut fingernails. In grade ten, a cheerleader told me while I was getting my ankles taped for basketball that I had ugly feet. I have not owned them since.
Sometimes, you don’t get to choose what you’re going to carry. So when you do get to, and if you can, put that shit down. Is that advice or child abuse? And, Jesus Christ, what’s safe to pick up? This life cannot be about avoidance, and it is 6 PM.
Dress. Keys. Finally, a spin around the apartment checking the emptiness for what might be forgotten. Window. The sleeping man is gone. He lives. Good luck, brother. The changing man, the dumpster man, the bottle picker is gone. His cart remains. He has hung a painting on the fence. I threw it in the dumpster yesterday. Left over from the last tenant, it had leaned against my small fridge for four months. Nothing special about it. It was a painting an old woman would have and couldn’t give away or keep when she went to the home in Bowness. The skinny dipper didn’t want it but has found a place for it.
Lock the door, down the steps, into November. Into the Tucson, bought for transporting girls on Saturdays. Down the alley, across Edmonton Trail North to Edmonton Trail South. It is just dark enough that the street lights are on. Right on Memorial, keep it slow under the bluff, no time for the radio. There is no courage there. Red light under the Centre Street Bridge, guarded by lions. There are lions in stories that I have read in pleasure and terror. Sunnyside Bank Park, the war Memorial. Crosses and stars in rows by the road. They are lit by portable flood lights hooked to generators, fenced temporarily in orange plastic netting. A passing wall of ugly, and behind: Cops, soldiers, Girl Guides, families milling.
Right on 5A street. To the end past the rink. Then left on 3rd, row houses, hundred-year old temporary worker’s houses. A bike on the roof of one. Bought cheap in the 70s and 80s, occupied by those who loved the neighbourhood enough not to sell in rising markets. The next block, the south side, an entire block filled with apartment buildings. Someone died, someone sold and the wood-framed houses toppled into brick apartments. But the neighborhood is not yet lost. Past 7th to the even numbered side of the street. Park in a spot for what, the seventh time? Turn off the car, close the door, up the steps. The light is on in the kitchen, candles in the living room. Take the steps quiet enough to prevent the dog from barking. Knock because there isn’t a bell. The dog barks. Waiting for the opening door. Waiting, waiting and then I say, “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”
Mike Jones is a short story writer living in Calgary. He’s working on a new collection of stories, wondering what he learned from trying to write the last collection.