Late for work like that frigging rabbit, except he was late for the Queen’s garden party—off with his head—and wouldn’t that solve some of her problems except decapitation was neither viable nor amusing. People would object, and her heart grieved for the poor men who had been beheaded in Iraq insofar as she could grieve at all for total strangers. She hadn’t cried when Princess Diana perished in a car crash and certainly hadn’t offered so much as a tear when Michael Jackson or Robin Williams died. We all died, and it was enough to deal with her own family and friends without phony lamentations over public figures, as if she had any attachment to them. Why did television commentators assume a mournful air and cobble together a hagiography of lies when a celebrity died? She had watched the spectacle of public grieving often enough on television, thousands delighting in sorrow of questionable purpose. Don’t get her on the subject of Facebook friends who wanted to inform everyone about each and every operation and pain and demise of their pets and parents. She had often been tempted to post notice of her own death just to see what the hundreds of total stranger-friends would say and who would delete her profile from their list of stranger-friends. It was about time she cancelled Facebook altogether as she had ceased caring one whit for postings or statuses. She hadn’t even bothered to log on this past month. Really! Could this train go any slower? And it was beginning to smell of passengers packed—no, she wouldn’t resort to the proverbial sardine analogy—she quite liked sardine and onion sandwiches with a bit of pickle; although, she’d never take them to work for lunch. One’s breath, after all, and no one she knew ate sardines and onions, at least not in public, not in a world of salads, sushi, and Mediterranean fusion.
Late, late, late: her supervisor had advised, advised was the word he used, that her lateness aroused concern in the office. Whose concern? Was it anyone else’s business except her employer’s that she was late? Last week it was indeed three days: ten minutes on the first day, and a half hour on the two other days, and neither bit of tardiness could be attributed to the subway train, not like today. And it wouldn’t have been much faster driving all the way downtown to work, getting choked in highway traffic and paying exorbitant parking fees. The kids had been especially difficult getting ready for school on the first day. She had misplaced her car keys on the second day, and had rushed up and down the stairs three times searching for them. In the Toronto Transit parking lot she had driven between dozens of rows of cars on the third day until she eventually found a spot, the farthest distance from the subway entrance, and then broke a heel as she scurried through the doors. Damn! She bought a cheap pair of shoes—if $100 could be considered cheap—during her lunch hour from which she was late returning to work, inducing a scowl from her boss, a man who had once wanted to date her years ago, and even now; although, it couldn’t really be called harassment, by look and occasional shoulder touch intimated possibilities if she was keen—a forty year old mother of two raucous pubescent boys—a husband often conveniently away on business trips—convenient for him because where was he when she needed help—if she was keen, indeed. She did her work well, but chronic lateness affected attitudes and led to consequences. If she were to die suddenly on the spot, wouldn’t that interfere with her boss’s plans of seduction? She had half a mind…well, keep to the sunny side of the street except she was underground and still breathing.
She had lost five minutes this morning waiting for the train at her station because it was running late, and then there had been a delay of several minutes a few stations down the line, and now this! Exiting from the tunnel and entering the station, the train had braked fiercely like some kind of rampaging dragon who at the last moment had changed its mind and wanted to reverse direction. Adam, her younger boy of twelve, spent hours on some sort of computer dragon game, which she should really stop because there were other things in life besides stupid games, but it kept him occupied, and somehow, although she didn’t check, the homework got done. The doors didn’t immediately slide open and she could see the crowd on the platform turning its collective head and surging en masse towards one end of the platform rather than push forward to the yet unopened doors of the train. Then the announcement blared forth: the train could not proceed. Passengers would have to disembark and take a shuttle bus to another station because a personal injury had occurred.
Everyone knew what that meant. She heard a groan rumble through the densely packed car like some kind of subterranean creature stirring in the bowels of the earth. Where on earth did she get these analogies? Rabbits and dragons and bowels: her sons watched Lord of the Rings repeatedly. She had tried to, but wizards and elves, however cute, failed to maintain her interest for long. The orcs always reminded her that she needed to take out the garbage or scour the toilet bowls. God forbid Jason, who at thirteen knew how to make a mess, should volunteer to do the laundry. She issued commands to the heedless, then entered into a verbal fray, winning in the end, but her brain had twisted itself into knots. Why would he fight her so? They didn’t act that way with their father, when he was home, less and less it seemed, and if she didn’t know better, she’d suspect him of having a bit on the side, delaying his return by, say, someone like Jasmine in her office, a pretty thing who never wore the same shade of nail polish two days in a row. Nonsense, of course, she trusted her husband, and anyway, what she didn’t know didn’t hurt. But she could use help with the boys and the garbage, and a cleaning woman cost too much, and all the frigging fairies and elves in the world were not about to offer assistance. She knew some women who paid for domestic help, but she couldn’t abide the thought of a stranger in her house when she wasn’t there. Better to live in chaos than risk privacy. Well, what did she have to hide aside from unused sexual gizmos in her night table and a couple of porn discs her husband had brought home from Germany during which she had fallen asleep while watching?
Poor soul, sad, tsk, tsk, there goes another one, she heard various comments as passengers crushed their way off the train and up the stairs to the shuttle bus. She didn’t know who the soul was—that information wouldn’t be immediately available, and she wasn’t a vulture gawking over the edge at whatever bloody remains remained—or whether the person suffering the personal injury was poor or wealthy or even had a soul. She never gave the question of soul much consideration and didn’t know what people meant when they talked soul or spirit, but their smarmy self-congratulations set her teeth on edge. Look, I have a soul, I am spiritual, don’t you know? And why should people really care about a total stranger? It made no sense. Everyone and her sister clucked their tongues over catastrophes and decapitations and offered, as the saying went, “thoughts and prayers.” She gave a passing thought, but no prayer: prayer to what, for what, to what purpose? As far as she knew prayer never changed the weather or made the world run on time. What on earth could it do to save a man’s head? She had seen nothing of the incident, felt nothing, knew nothing. Except someone’s personal injury had exacerbated her mood and lengthened her delays and she could have screamed.
Why did people make such public nuisances of themselves if they were miserable enough to jump in front of a subway or any other train? Was she heartless? Had she no care? No compassion? She had as much compassion as the next person, donating money to a shelter for the homeless every Christmas, and joining the anti-Cancer walkathons in her hundred and fifty dollar jogging shoes. She had allowed a friend to stay at her place for an entire week while finalizing her divorce papers, too upset to live in the cramped condo on the lakeshore alone. Who wouldn’t be upset, living alone in 500 square foot space with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, eighteen floors above a polluted lake and a congested thoroughfare? She, for one, would have leaped off the balcony, and fortunately she didn’t have a balcony because temptation always, well, tempted. Who would care? Her sons no doubt would put on glum faces like Hallowe’en masks and walk behind her coffin the way Princess Diana’s sons had impressively walked in their mother’s cortege. Her husband, yes, yes, they still loved each other, and she admitted that she missed his presence in bed even though he could learn to undertake household chores with something approximating—she almost said soul but chose the word willingness instead. Some friends would also grieve, friends whose lives were as choked up with busyness and children and computer games and work as hers. Where was the time to sit back and read a book, the one she tried to read every night in bed when Boris wasn’t home, a prize winner, won a lot of money, so it had to be worth one’s time, everyone said so, although boredom soon crept in as she tried to get involved in a convoluted plot and endless analysis about nothing in particular and she began dozing off after fifteen pages, and she had three hundred more of them to wade through.
Already late, extracting herself from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, she decided to walk as her office was just minutes away from the museum, a ten walk stroll from the St. George station out of which she emerged in a blast of cool September sunlight like Persephone getting up from the underground bed she had shared with Hades, that dark, alluring lover, and climbing to the surface for a bit of fresh air. If she remembered correctly from her university days—and the university campus spread across the street—it was hardly a love affair, since the girl had been carried off against her will. How closely related the words rape, rapture, and enraptured, the rape of Proserpina or Persephone, whatever her name. Did they all come from the same source? She’d have to investigate, and who would do a better job than she because research and fact verification was her job at the professional editing business where she clicked at three computers searching the world wide web simultaneously while she also flipped through pages of encyclopedia and answered phone calls and verified the work of her colleagues who were not quite her equal—her office depended upon her expertise. She decided to find the origin of all three words that moment as she waited on the corner of Bloor and Avenue road for the light to change, directly across from the monumentally angular glass addition to the museum, and remembered a painting she had seen in art class. The word rape meant “seized” and “carried off” as much as it did sexual violation, an obvious consequence of Sabine women being carried off by Roman soldiers on horseback who had more than mere canters and companionship in mind. When she had mentioned such a likelihood in class, her art professor had sniffed that her speculation lay outside the realm of the canvas, and proceeded to expound on the remarkable, diagonal muscularity of horses and arms and other compositional glories. She could have violated the professor then and there, smacking the side of his condescension with her hefty Jansen’s History of Art.
With children’s activities, shopping for groceries, a fridge crammed with condiments like mango-peach chutneys and tamari sauce or truffle flavoured Dijon mustard, half of which she threw out anyway, charity walks, commuting to and from work, housekeeping because someone had to sort out the mess which challenged even her own laissez faire attitude, visiting poor mom with galloping dementia in the nursing home, precious little time remained for art. She couldn’t remember her last visit to the Ontario gallery, even when she wanted to see a special exhibit, because her life from day to day didn’t allow it. Boris had promised to take her to New York for a weekend when they could find someone to stay with the kids for that period, one of the casualties of moving away from parents. Boris’s parents and her dad all engaged in being active seniors on the go, which seemed to entail snow birding in RV’s to Texas or wearing baseball caps and pastels on a golf course like her father, ignoring their grandchildren except for the fussy and formal Christmas visits. And don’t let her get started about Christmas when she had Thanksgiving to survive yet. They all expected dinner at her place. Except for poor mom, of course, who might as well be dead as her brain had effectively turned to stone, or some such thing. Last night, after the boys reluctantly kissed their grandmother’s cheek then resorted to the lounge where they blocked themselves off from the boring world with their digital devices waiting for their mom to finish her visit, she had spent a half hour holding the old woman’s hand, trying to feed her soup, wiping up the mess on her chin, and talking as if her mother understood—everyone said of course she understood—yes, well, really?
Stepping off the curb, her eyes riveted on the piercing glint of the glass building jutting out from the corner, she was startled by the car horn. Did it matter that pedestrians enjoyed the right of way. What cab driver gave that a moment’s thought in his frenzy to make a right hand turn, almost running over her toes? She should have worn steel-toed boots, had chosen open toe heels instead, a bit cool, given the weather, but the morning sun had suggested a light touch in her general wardrobe, and she had selected a print cotton dress, belted, with a matching sweater. Sunlight streaked across the glass museum addition and she remembered the controversy about how inappropriate the design was for the exhibits inside exposed to the ravages of light, so they mounted specially designed blinds to block it out as if the dinosaur bones would melt under the glass. The last time she had visited the museum, her boys had scurried about the corridors and exhibits like demented gremlins, and she even lost them for fifteen minutes as the small-headed brontosaurus caught her fancy: such a big body and minuscule brain, great lumbering, grass-eating sweetheart. Traffic, traffic, and people pushing into her, even though several apologized, because in all their furious rushing they hadn’t forgotten common courtesy, not all, but some had, and she begged one’s pardon if she happened to jostle a stranger. Was there such a thing as sidewalk rage? In her neighbourhood, she could walk three blocks without greeting a single person, just lawns and trees, as if the population had been sucked up and vaporized in space. She didn’t mind that at all. What was not to like about sauntering down the street without bumping into bodies? Without having to dodge cars? Without risk of personal injury?
She was late and her boss sat on her desk, the three monitors each bright with their individual screen savers, the orange and blue phosphorescent fish glinting and swerving being her favourite, his arms crossed over his pink Italian silk tie. The man bought his clothes in Bloor Street and Yorkville boutiques, the kind that did not display the price tags in the window, and she was certain that he dyed his hair because what man over the age of fifty wouldn’t be either balding or greying? Had he ever really forgiven her for rejecting his advances: not that they amounted to harassment or snatching in any Roman sense of the word, but his flirtations had been laced with expectations and assumptions, and heavily perfumed with a belief in his own irresistibility. And she couldn’t imagine any rapture as a consequence of submitting, but men didn’t take refusals lightly, did they? She’d have to consult a magazine or website to verify that generalization. The other workers all ceased doing whatever they were doing as soon as she entered, and they stared. Sweet Jasmine with lime green nail polish had stopped preening herself in the computer monitor, turned her swivel chair, and fixed her eyes like a statue in a temple alcove.
She knew what was coming. Well, in her defense she could have recited any number of reasons why, not least the incident of personal injury in the subway, some miserable soul had flung or leaped or fallen into the way of the oncoming train. Surely her boss must have experienced such an event himself; he’d understand the ensuing delays. Even he used public transit for all his designer labels. But what was the point? Someone please tell her, what was the frigging point? Why had her life evolved in such a way that regardless of her abilities and desires to do something utterly remarkable—no, not bring joy to people’s lives or discover the formula for world peace, she never desired to be a beauty queen spouting inanities from a glitzy stage—but to be more than a fact checker, a glorified reference librarian in an editorial house that corrected other people’s work and even signed ghost writing contracts for athletes and quasi-moronic celebrities who actually took themselves seriously as artists—everyone was an artist these days—and they sounded off, being all of twenty-three and ready to publish a first biography. What on earth did they know about anything except hotel suites, drugs, and camera angles?
She left without clearing out her desk: photos of the boys, a package of spearmint gum, a gold compact, a little teak box in which she kept stamps and paperclips, a paperback copy of Jane Eyre, which she had read a dozen times since high school. She admired Jane who at least had the courage to find her own way, poor child, and suffer the consequences, and who also recoiled from sacrificing her passion on the altar of the sanctimonious missionary, St. John Rivers, smart girl, and she had always thrilled to the story of the madwoman in the attic and the house catching fire and all that money dropping like a deus ex machina to improve everyone’s life.
Even though she had lived a good life, no money manna had fallen on her head. She refused to buy lottery tickets. They lived beyond their means, oversized house, vacations, activities for the boys, and restaurants when Boris bothered to take her, and her own wages barely covered weekly groceries and subway tokens. Boris’s income, larger of course, still did not meet all their expenses. Sure, they’d managed well enough on credit cards and juggling of payments. They could cut back on their monthly cell phone and cable television bill, they weren’t about to be thrown out on the streets, and she still dropped loonies in the hats of beggars in the subway, being no where near their state of poverty. With her expertise and experience, she’d find another job, but she could feel blood rise in her cheeks as she quietly shut the office door behind her, regretting that she hadn’t at least taken the picture and the teak box, a memento from a trip somewhere—where on earth had she bought it?—What were the chances of being rehired? Even if she promised never to be late again—well, promised to try not to be late very often—because after all life did not run on a boss’s office schedule, did it? No, it damn well didn’t. Sometimes the train had to stop in its tracks unexpectedly
The metaphor rumbling through her head as she crossed the intersection reminded her of the subway this morning, the cause of her dismissal. Perhaps not the sole cause, but if she hadn’t been late this morning, she would not have been fired. The personal injury of a total stranger had an impact on her life, or was that impacted her life? She always believed that “impacted” had something to do with dental work and remembered the cost of braces for her boys because perfectly straight teeth as white as polished pearls seemed to be some sort of universal law she had to obey. It cost a fortune to meet the beauty standards of advertising and she wished she had not been so susceptible because, really, what did it all amount to? Everyone would rot in their grave sooner or later: to this favour, you will come, if she remembered Hamlet’s words correctly, even if you paint an inch thick. She applied her own cosmetics with a light hand because she wanted to appear as attractive as the next woman, and how on earth would she get a decent job if her looks failed her?
Digging out her last token from a purse that had cost more than she gave to charity, she inserted it in the slot and pushed through the turnstile of the Museum station relieved that the cause of this morning’s delay had been removed, and everything had returned to schedule. At the bottom of the stairs, she flipped a few loonies into the yellow margarine tub of a beggar who seemed to be dressed in two or three of everything, as if he spent the day wearing his entire wardrobe, no single piece of which, given her eye for detail and fashion, blended or matched with another. She hated the oily lankness of his hair, but presumably beggars did not have immediate access to daily showers, and his smile revealed the need for dental work. She didn’t care if he was a con artist or not; he could well be suffering from chronic alcoholism or drug addiction or mental problems, for all she knew. He could have been kicked out of an institution that had closed because of government cut backs, or perhaps he had lost everything of value in his life for one compelling reason or another, including a supportive family if ever he had one, and he was doing what she herself was doing, trying to get by. Begging was work as much as tapping computer keys or pushing products no one needed, and in all probability he was no more manipulative or dishonest than bankers and brokers and advertisers, all with their hands in her purse in one way or another. She didn’t envy him, whether mendicant or mendacious, standing or sitting for hours in a subway station, depending on hurried and harried throngs of people for a few coins. Hardly a wise career choice, not a very profitable use of one’s time if he was scamming, which she didn’t believe he was, so his options were limited.
On the subway platform, standing between pillars designed to look like Egyptian pharaohs, she could have cried from utter exhaustion over being who she was and what the rest of the week, month, and year could possibly be like. It loomed large—she loved the phrase—it loomed large, the future, like a putrid Orc hovering over a bridge she needed to cross. Her boss didn’t even have the courtesy of firing her in private but made a public example of her tardiness.
Remembering that she had to drive her sons in the family van to their soccer game after supper of frozen lasagne heated in the microwave filled her with such instant and ravishing horror that she stepped to the edge of the platform, and stared down at the brassy and black tracks, trying to think of alternatives. Images of Anna Karenina at a wintry train station in Russia gathered together like a computer game of building blocks, not the novel which she hadn’t read, but the movie versions: first Greta Garbo, whining for Count Vronsky’s love for whom she had renounced respectability and her child, and who had clearly grown bored with her, the prick; then Vivien Leigh playing the same role a decade later, and just last year Keira Knightley’s rendition of the lady’s struggle to live a life of passion rather than mere convention and numbness. In the end, confronted with betrayal and desertion, the utter dissolution of what she had sacrificed so much for, Anna heard the train approach as if in a dream, just as the wind blew out of the subway tunnel as it always did and the subway train rumbled into the light and the tracks glowed like bars of fire glinting in Anna’s eyes as she fell.
Electrocution would not have been an issue on the 19th century Russian tracks. Times had changed. Wasn’t the entire world electrified these days? If she flung her body to hit the tracks, would it jolt and jerk as electrical charges sparked through her muscles and exploded her veins? She knew so little about how things worked. The shock would be momentary, an evanescence consumed by the ravaging train and ensuing darkness. Maybe it was mere fancy of the moment or the force of the wind blasting out of the tunnel, but she saw herself, the sole audience of her private drama, she saw herself just drop down, not even expending the energy to fling or leap or jump, just drop down and end all the shocks which flesh was heir to. Taking a deep breath the way she had learned in her Yoga classes, she checked her wristwatch out of habit, its clock face surrounded by miniature zircons. Jostled, she begged someone’s pardon, and stepped aside to let passengers out before she entered the almost empty car and the door slid shut.
Although he had occupied his begging post, as he privately called it, since early morning, he hadn’t witnessed the plunge over the edge or noticed anything amiss. He rarely raised his eyes above knee level and he liked to huddle as if wrapped up in a kind of invisible cloak with his own thoughts to keep him company. The thickening and thinning of crowds, the brush of bags and briefcases against his shoulders, the heady combination of scents and sweat, the infinite variety of boots and shoes: all these concentrated his view. Besides, that little girl had stood and stared in front of him, her running shoes glittering with pink and green lights when she moved, until her mother yanked her aside with the words, “stay away from that man.” The train’s shuddering to a stop and the doors not immediately opening didn’t break into his comfort zone until he heard the official announcement about a personal injury. The double doors parted to release a collective gasp and he looked up. Another one, he thought. Who could tell which of the passers-by, which of the hundreds and thousands of commuters had chosen this moment, this place, or if it had been someone who had first dropped a coin in his tub before tipping over the edge?
He lowered his eyes again because what did it have to do with him? He had enough troubles and he had learned through experience and a fist in the jaw that eye contact could provoke an attack. Suffering a bloody nose and broken incisor the last time, and robbed three or four times in the past couple of years, he had not been recently assautled. A few people emerging from the train paused long enough to flip coins in the tub, so that was okay. When the police and transit authorities arrived at the scene of the personal injury, he decided it was best to decamp. Two officers first stood over him and asked him questions, but he convinced them that he knew nothing, had seen nothing, and they let him go.
Climbing the stairs, his back slightly hunched, he could smell his own body odour like old cabbage with a hint of curry, probably the residual aroma from last night’s curried cabbage at the kitchen where he had also eaten mashed potatoes, lumpy gravy and leathery liver, not his favourite food, but, hey, beggars couldn’t be choosers. He should have stayed long enough to shower, but there had been a line up, and he had showered four days ago. Well, maybe his clothes reeked a bit of the St. Vincent de Paul bins, that, and body sweat because he found it more convenient to wear his three shirts and two pairs of shapeless wrinkled khakis and two suit jackets, the outer one brown with the shiny elbows two sizes larger than the snug inner tweedy one with frayed cuffs. The September mornings could be cool, and this way, he didn’t have to cart a shopping bag full of old clothes, although he admitted a bag of some sort would be convenient like any of those black cases or satchels so many train passengers carried. He could stuff all sorts of useful items in it, but it would be an item to watch over and maybe arouse unfriendly curiosity.
Anyway, his stomach grumbled. Emerging from the underground, he pushed through the door to the street, then counted his take, nine dollars and fifty-five cents collected in two hours, not bad, and the day was far from over. He began his daily quest for a meal, at least something edible to stave off hunger until the evening. He coughed, spat out a wad of phlegm and wondered if he was coming down with bronchitis again, a recurring problem. He had actually quit smoking a few years ago because of the expense and also because of the chronic coughing. The sun, warm despite the chill in the air, refreshed his lungs, and his legs gained strength as he trudged along Bloor towards Spadina where he enjoyed a good chance of finding food. Behind the back of sympathetic restaurants, he waited for a friendly waiter to dump the kitchen trash in the big cans, often consisting of food left on customer’s dishes. A few restaurants had a hostile policy of chasing him away, a few others sent boxes of the day’s unused food to a couple of shelters for the homeless, but that was at the end of the day and he needed something to eat before then, having missed breakfast. He could have slept at the shelter. There had been an available bed, but he preferred to spend as little time around the Sally Ann soldiers of Christ as possible. Not that he cared one way or the other about Jesus, don’t get him wrong, he just liked to keep to himself in the morning and not be hustled or advised in any way, even if it meant finding a deserted shed or bench or church porch and missing the shelter’s breakfast of hot porridge. Couldn’t remember the last time he had bacon. In winter he’d have to compromise his personal taste because no beggar wanted his balls frozen.
He didn’t hold his tub out on the street and took a dim view of fellow mendicants who approached pedestrians for a hand-out. They always aroused his suspicions in any case, something about their attire, their general look, he couldn’t put a finger on it. Not all of them, because a couple of gals in the shelter said they preferred to work the street rather than station themselves in one spot where the likelihood of being hassled was all the greater. People moved along on the street, whether they stopped to give a coin or brushed past you, and no one had ever given them a hard time on the sidewalk: oh, sure, harsh words now and then and if they paused too long in front of a store, owners harangued them away. That went with the occupation and they all joked about it in the shelter before going out again. A few had been saved by the Sally Ann, cleaned up, instructed, and changed their lives for the better, including former friends who disappeared from his life as if he had never existed, as if they had not flushed the same toilet in the shelter or scraped the bottom of the porridge bowl at the same table. Not one to judge, what right had he in any case? Locating his favourite restaurant where the waiters had been kind in the past and the owner didn’t mind his presence and waited just steps away from the assemblage of trash cans. He used to thread his way among the fruit and vegetable stalls of Kensington market, picking up an apple or orange or even a Jamaican paddy, but he preferred the quiet of the back doors and a fully cooked meal of left overs.
After getting food he’d return to the subway, hoping things had returned to normal although he could choose another station except he didn’t want to tread on a fellow beggar’s toes or invade someone else’s territory. In the tunnel at that station, whoever had sustained a personal injury must have been pretty desperate, he figured, and sympathized because he had imagined how easier life would be if he simply blanked out. Vanished. Feel nothing at all, especially not the ache in his sides after prolonged coughing. He dredged up another gob of yellowish phlegm just as the back door opened and out strode a whistling young waiter in tight black pants and blousy white shirt carrying an orange garbage bag held away from his body as if he didn’t want to come into contact with the contents. The beggar had never seen him before and the waiter ignored him as he dropped the bag in a large dented can, and then went back in. Not so much as a how do you do. He spewed out the phlegm and decided that he had to buy a coffee and bottle of water before returning to this station. Maybe cough drops.
He had been young himself once, and even had a job at the railway yards, and other places, for it had always been difficult to keep a job for more than a few months. A gaggle of sharp-beaked thoughts screeched and beat against his eardrums, or he slipped into a semi-coma from tedium and lost track of his place and purpose, until they fired him. He also had friends who found jobs, their wages not much better than his own weekly earnings, so here he was opening the lid of a garbage can, sorting through the garbage in the orange bag and extracting not only partially eaten, barbecued chicken breasts and legs, but also a soft roll that had been nibbled, a large handful of greasy fries, clumps of vinegary coleslaw, other still edible tidbits on which, as no one was looking, he gorged himself, maybe eating too fast, but one didn’t linger over one’s meal by the garbage can. There had been so many roads and byways, detours taken, dead ends met, hopes deferred, decisions soured, that he wouldn’t have been able to chart the how and why of his journey from the moment he had run away from home at fifteen to this moment here, gnawing on a still useful chicken leg standing above a trash can.
Not prone to nostalgia, he nonetheless regretted the loss of a room on Gerrard Street, which had a sink stuck in the wall, a toilet in a closet, a bed, a table and chair and two burner hot plate, within walking distance of a library that had allowed him to sit in the reference room as long as he read a book. That had been no pain at all, because even if he had difficulty focusing on the page and following the sentences from beginning to end, he could pretend for a few hours, and it was a relief from harsh winds and icy temperatures. He couldn’t remember why, but the landlord had evicted him, even though he was sure he had earned enough money to pay the rent, even though it was getting harder and harder to make ends meet until one day it seemed they were so far apart he might as well stop trying. Which reminded him that he had better hurry and get back to work. The more time he spent eating, the less money he collected. Other beggars could steal his place if he stayed away too long. The Sally Ann was well and good, but money improved one’s options. He had enough wit to understand that, and people shouldn’t assume that because he was sometimes confused he was also stupid. He knew how the world worked, fuck, you didn’t live on the street without learning how the world really worked, something he probably knew better than all those thousands of passengers spewing out of the trains every morning. Except Sundays it was quiet and he preferred, weather permitting, to spend time in the parks if the cops didn’t hassle him, buy a bun and coffee from a vendor, and walk and sit for as long as possible before thinking about where to go for a meal and a bed.
It didn’t take much to buy a clean bed at another shelter about a mile from here with no Christ in it, on the other side of the Don River, a kind of half-way house for the homeless. He never understood what half-way meant. He was either in it, or out of it, he didn’t straddle the threshold. He needed a bed all the way, maybe he was missing something here. One old geezer, now dead, said you weren’t supposed to be spending all your time time here, like it was a place only to stop a bit until you found something definite. Definite? He didn’t know about definite. What was definite? He had thought his room on Gerrad Street was definite, even one of his jobs, which one he couldn’t remember, but they had all disappeared anyway. That place on the other side of the river, the one with pots of flowers on the porch, charged a very modest fee to help ends meet, and cooked one mean stew most days. Good people, too. He remembered that he’d have to take a streetcar, although not too certain of which street, but hell he’d find his way if he walked.
Crossing the intersection, he refrained from spitting on the road, ignoring a mail van beeping its horn and another car braking suddenly and also beeping, such fuckin’ ear-crunching noise. Inattentive to the lights, he had crossed on a red, something he didn’t realize until he looked up, then hurried to the other side. Would it have mattered if either vehicle had hit and knocked him flat, maybe crushed his skull? As long as it didn’t hurt. No, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered. People perished by the second and who’d give a fuck for a shabby stranger? Anyway, he reminded himself to pay attention because he didn’t want to die. If he did, why would he bother begging in the first place and trying to gather a few coins to make his day easier? Now that person this morning in the subway would have suffered a similar personal injury and he wondered how much pain a shattering head caused. But such thoughts entered and fled his whirligig of a brain, along with the sounds of brilliantly feathered birds and whispering caterpillars on mulberry leaves and whiskey bottles bursting open because someone had thrown themself against a wall and radio DJ’s nattering like lunatics. At least he wasn’t one of those, for he couldn’t stand too many words at one time, and what the fuck were they talking about anyway? People looked at him like he was crazy. He knew he wasn’t, but life on the streets over the years had compromised his appearance and attention span, and he simply didn’t think anymore like the rest of the world. He wasn’t crazy though, shit no, for he knew what he had to do in this town to get a buck and how quickly it could be taken away. Basic economic facts: he he could survive as long as no one beat the shit out of him and stole the day’s earnings.
He strode into a pharmacy to buy Buckley’s cough drops, the only thing that soothed his throat, and as soon as he entered he became aware of being watched. Not by the store mirrors hanging like saucers from the ceiling, or the cameras catching every move in every aisle, but by the cashier, two customers waiting to pay, and a blue-smocked clerk who stopped stocking the shelf when he slipped by in the cold remedy section. The glaring whiteness of the store’s fluorescent lighting system eliminated shadows and shadings, emphasizing facial flaws so customers, regardless of complexion, looked bleached or shell-shocked. He had read in the library reference room that fluroescent lights had been first used in morgues, allowing pathologists a clear view of deathly pallor. The condition of his skin, marked by spidery red filaments and brown splotches, no longer troubled him. What fifty-year old man living on the streets worried about his looks? If he wandered among the shelves too long, he knew he’d arouse suspicions, but he was able to find what he wanted, including a cheap box of tissue, without having to ask for help. They wouldn’t have looked twice at him if he wore a suit of clothes like the ones displayed in Bloor street shop windows, even though he knew as well as anyone the real thieves of the world dressed to kill. He read about them daily in newspapers retrieved from subway trash bins or left on park benches. The clerk scanned the bar codes and announced the total. Consisting of purple and green streaks, her hair reminded him a a bird he saw once at the Riverdale Zoo. Her lips covered in a black glaze parted as if surprised by his five dollar bill, but she dropped the change on the counter and not in his outstretched palm.
Finding his familiar spot in the station, he sat cross-legged, leaning against the wall, wishing he had bought a magazine from the pharmacy and a bag of humbugs, his favourite candy because they lasted. He couldn’t remember the last time he had visited a dentist and, despite brushing at the shelter or rinsing his mouth out several times a day with water from a public fountain, he winced over the: pain cutting through his gums when he least expected it. He was already sucking on a medicinal lozenge, which seemed to suppress his coughing for a time. His reading, though, of a new magazine, put people off. He sensed their disapproval even before they made it: if he read, he was probably educated, a man who could get a job, he was a con artist, or some shit like that. Well, he had a job. As much as anyone on the train: he got up in the morning no matter where he had slept, and found his way to work, and stayed there to acquire sufficient funds for his needs, then went to his home or half-way house, or spent the night in a park, and he returned the next day. No one suffered because of his work. He didn’t lie, cheat, steal or grasp after gold, and was not controlled and shaped by bosses and maybe, if he had been inclined to pursue the thought, he’d even say he enjoyed a kind of freedom on the bottom rung. Sometimes he felt a kind of sympathy for all those other workers who didn’t do what he did, because it must be difficult to get up every morning, knowing you had to do a thousand and one things before stepping out the door, then facing the crush on the trains, scurrying about all day, or, worse, confined to a chair, and now and then have everything come to a halt and your entire day just collapsed in front of your eyes. His day never collapsed because it already lay there at his feet like a crumpled sheet, so with no expectations he experienced no disappointments.
That woman dropped a few loonies in the tub. He had raised his face and smiled a thank you although she probably didn’t see because no one really looked at him, not even if they gave him coins. Hoping for another five dollar bill, as the loonies added up, and so did all the quarters and dimes, he sensed that people weren’t in the giving vein today. That one woman with the open toe shoes seemed to be in a hurry, not bad looking he noticed through carefully raised eyes, and he’d do her if she had given him half a chance, but that wasn’t likely. Couldn’t remember the last time he got laid, but there had been a time, fuck, what time, when, where, who; he hadn’t always been sitting on his haunches or leaning against the tiled subway wall with an empty margarine tub begging for coins. He didn’t always smell of musty clothes and cabbage. Some days the police hustled him out of the station, depending upon their mood, sometimes they left him alone. He didn’t perform like buskers with their nerve-crunching violins or accordions who got official approval to perform. They usually made more money than he, but they weren’t homeless: a couple were music students, so they told him when he struck up a conversation. Seemed friendly enough but they kept their distance as if proximity to a real beggar exposed them to contagion. He didn’t want anyone getting mad at him or causing any kind of hassle and arousing the attention of cops who popped out of commuting crowds when least expected.
He stood up to ease the tension in his legs and then he resumed squatting, for interior positions elicited more generosity than equal stature, which he had learned some people thought presumptuous, and it must be getting late because his stomach growled as it had earlier and he wondered where he should eat. Sardines:his mother used to unwind the lid of four Brunswick sardine cans with a key, remove the fish, roll them on a plate of flour, then quickly fry them. A treat. The last time he had looked for sardines he couldn’t find the tins with a key attached, so he’d need a can opener. For the sake of balanced nutrition, he should buy an apple and banana and a carton of milk, and a whole wheat bun or two. He no longer substituted drugs or booze for food, that was a saving grace. A struggle, and his body had hell to pay, but aside from a toke, if available, if offered by any one he knew, he didn’t do drugs, and he had stopped drinking, not even a beer anymore. Some fruit would be a good idea. Prevent scurvy, he chuckled, worried about his teeth and gums. People died from bad gums and rotting teeth, he had read.
Merchants in Kensington market sometimes threw him an orange or apple, but he didn’t care to walk there today. Of course, there were a few soup kitchens and the Sally Ann, but he had a mind to wander this evening, perhaps in the ravine cutting through Rosedale where he could stare up at the lights of the splendid homes of the wealthy as if they were spaceships glinting through the branches of trees inhabited by alien beings. Unless hustled out by authorities, he could stroll inside the palatial Union Station, and later cross a bridge over the Don River where a half way house stood to give him a hot meal. Maybe play cribbage with a friendly resident, maybe get a bed. Not all doors were closed to him.
About the Author: Kenneth Radu has published fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including his first collection of stories, The Cost of Living, shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Award. His second collection A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is now working on a new manuscript of stories, which will include Personal Injury, and continues to live out of the lime and other dimmer lights on the outskirts of an obscure village.
Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.