It was early evening when we rolled into Medicine Hat. We got a room at the first place we happened upon off the highway, a place called—I shit you not—The Motel Relaxo. We checked in got a key to a room.
I unlocked the door, turned the knob and tried to push it open. When that didn’t work I gave it a bit of a shove with my shoulder. The door popped open and I stepped into the room and into the past. Swamp green shag carpet. Fake brick cement walls, checker-colored. Exposed pipe framed the corners of the walls and the ceiling, painted white to blend in, and behind a metal, lacquer-topped table in one corner there was a wall of artless tiles in colors offensive to the eyes and taste. Sick pinks, sour greens, pale yellows, nauseous browns, greys, maroons. Flophouse chic. It smelled of cigarettes and pancakes.
It was perfect.
I foresaw a time in the near future when I would return to it and hole up for a few weeks to work on a novel or book of stories when there was nothing else. I threw my suitcase down on the nearest bed. Above the lamp that sat on the night stand between the beds there hung a framed Bible quote, a familiar one, composed in cursive, high-flung lettering, with a sparse background containing two roses. “For God so loved the earth that He gave His only begotten son, so whosever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Nick through his bag down on the far bed and read it. He chuckled to himself and turned to me.
“You know by rejecting God, Jesus, the Bible and that whole system you give up heaven on the one hand. But doesn’t that system also include hell? So therefore you loose eternal life but also the possibility of eternal punishment at the same time. Maybe purgatory is the best option, a kind of pragmatic compromise between the two.”
“I seriously doubt God’s the compromising sort.”
“Yeah, well. Just a thought.”
“Well keep working on it while I make a call.”
I sat down at the desk, lifted the receiver and punched in a number on the phone. It rang four or five times and an answering message, narrated by Alisha’s voice, cut in. I stumbled through some kind of a response and hung up.
“I hate those things,” I said.
“Me too,” said Nick. “So what should we do? Find a place to eat?”
“Let’s do it.”
By this time it was getting dark and most restaurants and stores were closed. We drove around. The downtown was lifeless, deserted. Nobody anywhere. Streetlamps lit up palely and formless like spectres. We drove past a strip lined with box stores, and found one of them, a Vietnamese restaurant, that appeared to still be open. We turned in, parked, and went inside. We were greeted by a girl. She was our age and had long straight black Asiatic hair. She was all smiles. She seemed genuinely happy to see us. It was quiet; there was nobody else around. It was just like on the streets. It seemed sort of eerie.
She led us past the brass gateway into the empty main room. Under our feet, images of great golden dragons jumped out of the burnt red carpets. The ceiling was dirty gold, with circular designs that swirled up dramatically at the center point for a dome formation. We took a seat and ordered beer and cheap whiskey. She went off to the kitchen. I leaned back in my chair. I let out a relieved sigh and looked around. There was a faded elegance to the place. It reminded me of the old Shrine Hall. It was in the basement of a building downtown and as a kid my dad would take me there with him when he had practise. He would sit me down in a corner with a glass of fizzy pop they had on tap to watch them, or else put me by myself in a dusty room to watch early ‘90s sitcoms on a wood-encased TV wheeled into the middle of the room. Meanwhile, my dad, in another part of the building, cracked the snare to a series of old timey marches with a group of guys all nearly twice his age. It seemed like he was always around men much older than himself and that in turn made him seem much older and it sometimes feels like I’m destined to age in the same manner, and my children after me—a continual, generational acceleration of decay. I was starting to understand how Hamlet managed to inexplicably age ten plus years over the course of five concise acts.
Age is all in the head. And by head I mean the face and its features. But a brutal adolescence had already prepared me for that and so it was only a matter of time before time filled in the gap. Love is hidden in ever crease and crevice of flesh that time buries deeper and deeper until its mystery is so contained that the infirmities and indignities of age are all that can expunge the weight and depths of a beauty so immense, so ruined, so raw and true. Some things resist words. They say love never dies. But it does. Everyday. So we chase after it until we lose ourselves in the chase. It is love we bury in the end, not flesh. And the beauty of the world remains something bleak and astounding, and always far off—
“Hey. Buck up, soldier. We made it.”
“We sure did,” I said.
The waitress returned with our drinks and we held them up for a toast.
“To the road.”
“To tactful gas station attendants,” I said.
“And guys in Canmore named Ben. Who own tire shops,” Nick added. “Never can be too many of them around.”
“There sure can’t.”
We clinked glasses and drank. The whiskey burned good and was the best I’d ever had. And that’s the truth.
“This is excellent,” I said to her, looking over the glass and the almost clear fluid in it.
“I’m not even sure the brand. Just whatever we have lying around.”
“I’ll take four cases,” I said.
“OK, sure.” She laughed. “So you guys from out of town?”
“Yep,” said Nick. “Sure are.”
“Just passing through,” I said.
“Oh yeah. So where are you headed?”
“Home,” I said. “I am. He’s tagging along.”
“I home wherever I can get it,” he said.
“Yeah, well I’m from Ontario originally. Moved out here with my family about five years ago.”
“You like it here?” said Nick.
“We were driving around earlier. For a Saturday night not much going on. Town seems sort of…”
She gave us a waning smile, her cheerfulness seemingly unaffected. I looked at Nick. Nick looked at me. We both looked back at her.
“So I’ll get your food together,” she said, for lack of anything else. Pointing at my glass as she turned, she said, “You going want another one of those?”
We both sipped our drinks in silence. Then Nick, in a hushed tone, said, “Nice girl. Kind of lonely though.”
“You’re great. You’re a beautiful shining star on a chill evening in fall.”
“Piss on it.”
“Can you blame her?” I said.
“I bet you she’s looking for a husband.”
“Yeah. How can you tell?”
“I can tell.”
I shrugged. “Maybe that’ll just make it worse.”
“Got a better idea?”
I arched my eyebrows and with a sad tilt to it, shook my head. I had another nip of whiskey.
She returned with plates piled high with noodles, rice, dumplings, steamed vegetables, marinated chicken, deep-fried shrimp, large quantities of food steaming up from the table that Nick hungrily dug into. I didn’t have much of an appetite and only ate sparingly, sipped my drink, and let my gaze wander over the brass construction, lanterns hung from every wall in twos, below them a rail that ringed around the vacant room, framing a kind of palpable emptiness all Asian cuisine in the world couldn’t fill.
“The sound of silence is so intense.”
“What?” said Nick between mouthfuls of dumplings and noodles.
“Nothing,” I said. “Some quote I remember. Lenny Breau. I think.”
“No one. You going to want dessert?”
“No, man,” he said, wiping the sides of his mouth with a napkin, “I’m stuffed.”
We had another drink.
When we were paying the bill we asked about any places in town to check out on a Saturday night. When she couldn’t think of anything we gave her a resigned goodbye and staggered out into the dimly lit streets.
We stopped in at the convenience store down the street and bought coke and ice and then drove to a liquor store we made note of when we passed by earlier and then went back to the motel room. I mixed us a couple hi-balls in plastic cups from the bathroom and sat down at the table and dialled a number. It rang four or five times and went to voicemail. This time I hung up before it ended and leaned back and took a hit of my drink. Nick was lying on the bed holding the drink over his chest.
“Not home, eh?”
“She has a cellphone.”
“Right.” Neither of us had cellphones. “So what’s the deal?”
“No good. The deal is dying fast.”
“Try again. Right now.”
“But I just did.”
“Again. Do it. The deal. It mustn’t die.”
“No. You’re right. It mustn’t. She knows we’re coming. She’s expecting us.”
“The success of all deeds great and small is predicated on one’s persistence.”
“So call again.”
“OK. I will.”
I swished the ice around in my drink. Drank.
I dialled the number from memory this time. It rang three or four times and instead of a recording I got the actual thing.”
“Alyssa. It’s me.”
There was a lag in response during which time I could hear background noise made up of loud overly-articulate voices and distorted music. I had a good buzz on and was enjoying the broken communication. An amused curiosity. The possibility that anything was possible. Something totally unexpected was about to happen that I was in on. Birth. Death. Suicides. A meteor shower. Tectonic plates shifting underneath us, about to rupture and explode the very ground we stood on. Nothing was out of the realm. Here it comes. Be ready. I stayed on the line, smiling blissfully at my ignorance.
“Oh my God! Jonny!”
I couldn’t tell by the ambiguous stabs of her voice if she was excited or put off.
“Yeah. How are you?”
“Really drunk. How…why…where are you?”
“I’m in town. Remember?”
“Yeah…but—but you were supposed to be here yesterday. I stayed home waiting, expecting you.”
“Why would you do a thing like that? Friday. It was Friday when we left. I told you that.”
“So what took you so long?”
“Long story. Look. We’re here now. We’re staying in town. We got a room for the night.”
The background noise surged up and then a scream, or more exactly, a shriek pierced through the receiver. As a reflex I pulled my ear away. Then tentatively:
“Sorry about that. Oh Jonny. I’m out with friends tonight.”
“Perfect. So where are you? We can meet up for drinks. Me and Nick are looking for something to do besides drink in our room and play Uno all night.”
“Umm…Well, OK, I guess. We’re at the Horseshoe Bar but we’re just about to go over to The Eightball.” Then in an irritated voice that didn’t seem directed at me. “That’s if Barrett ever gets back here.”
“The Eightball. OK. And where’s that exactly?”
She gave me some scattered directions, all the more confused by the fact that I didn’t know any of the streets she referenced. When she was done I asked her to go over it one more time and got a completely different set of directions. Then she mentioned the one street name I remembered, a few blocks from the motel, and said we’d find it from there.
“The Eightball in twenty. See you then.”
I hung up and looked over at Nick.
“So,” he said.
“She said she can’t wait to see us. And she’s thrilled to meet you.”
In a strange town after dark, I knew it would happen. Night reigned. We were lost, completely lost, driving down unfamiliar streets, eyes peeled for signs indicating where we were, where we needed to get to. I turned right at a four-way crossing, the lone red light blinking overhead soberly. I drove past a church, a line of trees and into a residential area.
That was our first attempt.
I turned around and this time came downhill, past the trees, the church and again turned right at the four-way, now back on the street we were originally on. At the next intersection—uncontrolled—at this one, I took another right and was somewhere past the downtown, where the brick buildings became increasingly slumped and crumbling-looking, like an ancient face that was all dark frowns.
“Are we still even in town?” said Nick.
“I hope not.”
“Yes. Up ahead. This might be something.”
We passed a low-roofed building with a high-fenced patio. Umbrellas and few bobbing heads, like human buoys, hovered over it. It was the first semi-populated area we had come across all night.
“Is that it?” said Nick. “I don’t see a sign.”
“Only one way to find out.”
I parked in a lot across the street and we went inside, the dark night giving way to bright overhead lights, flashing big screens and neon beer signs. In was like stepping into a new world, the sudden contrast making it temporarily fascinating as it quickly became completely unremarkable in the realization of its familiarity. Unremarkable. A sports bar like any other. We stood around, half-dazed, half-uncertain, until a striking dark haired waitress, a glimmer in her eyes that were like dotted pearls, came over and asked us what we’d have. We did the only thing that made sense. While waiting for our drinks, I dug the place, looking for Alyssa. In a corner booth was a gang of guys and girls, and I took one of the girls seated in the middle to be Alyssa. I waved in their direction, trying to get her attention but only half-committed. It had been so long I wasn’t sure if I’d still recognize her.
On the other side of the bar was a pool table where some jock guys—tight, bicep enhancing t-shirts, spiky hair gelled and streaked in a garish manner resembling the possible effect of crossbreeding a rooster and a ferret—were finishing a game and we went over and racked them up and after a while the dark haired waitress brought over our drinks. I paid for the drinks and tipped those shining ocean-washed eyes. Between shots I paced around the table, my eyes roaming around for that recognition.
“See her yet?”
“No. Pretty sure we’re in the wrong place.”
I was sure of it. We finished our game and the drinks and left.
We stood around in front of the patio looking over the blind streets, the slanty buildings, waiting for something, someone to show us the way. There was no one, nothing.
“Which way now?” said Nick.
“No idea,” I said. “No other place looks open. All is dark. Everything is nothing.”
Just then a voice rose above the noise of the patio behind us, calling out to us. We turned and the dark-haired waitress from inside was stretched over the patio trying to get our attention. “Hey!” We turned to her with alarm, with excitement. “Did you guys pay?”
“And then some,” I said. “Don’t remember us?”
She stared at us, expressionless. “Oh, right.”
Nick started to say, “You know where the—” then turned to me. “What was it called?”
“The Eightball,” I said to him, and then to the waitress, “We’re looking for The Eightball.”
“Yeah, The Eightball. Just follow that street a couple blocks,” she said, straining over the wall separating us, arm pointed straight as a pool cue down the darkened street. “It’s on the left. You can’t miss it.”
The night was warm, the air almost humid, Around us there was nothing but old, hard buildings, once the site of lifetimes worth of sweat and toil now little more than grim still-standing relics, and paint-peeling repair shops—made all the more desolate and done in by the darkness that enfolded them. We strolled along and there was a building like all the other buildings except that this one had people gathered by it, standing around under the dull floodlight of the parking lot, marooned together among the sightless surroundings.
We crossed the street and approached. Everyone one was loud and drunk. We laid back, close to a chain link fence, unsure whether to go in or wait for an invitation. Nick smoked a cigarette. Past the fence there was a stretch of road and across from that were cement columns supporting an overpass that wound above us. A couple guys approached, started in questioning us, our presence here. They saw us standing around, didn’t recognise us and that was reason enough to investigate further. They wanted to know if we lived in town and when we said no, we were just passing through, they became more belligerent toward us, trying to intimidate us, toward what end remained a mystery. Drunken behaviour, however determined and directed, however much conviction there is shown flashing in those cold, bleary eyes, requires no motivation. But it was hard to tell. Maybe they weren’t that drunk. In which case—
They got up closer to us. I could see one of the guys, who was wearing a bandanna and had two pierced ears, had a tattoo of something on his throat peaking out of his collared flannel shirt, impossible to make out what it was. His sleeves were rolled up and he had a faded leather band around his right wrist. This guy had the presentation down. I’ll give him that. But he might as well have been a clown performing at a backyard birthday party for a bunch of six-year-olds. I felt neither fear nor hatred toward them, completely detached, removed, untouchable. I just didn’t care.
The questioning kept coming, their put-on intensity, making damn sure there was no doubt in our minds that this was their turf we had trespassed on. I stared at them blankly, like at an ATM machine. Before long their act started to falter. With nothing more to go on, having made their point clear as can be to us, they walked off, disappearing into the crowd, while mumbling something about the threat of outsiders coming in and taking over.
“This is a strange town,” I said to Nick.
“Yeah. Weird people.”
“That’s almost too much of a compliment.”
“What do you mean?”
“Weirdness implies substance.”
Nick dropped his butt, stomped it out.
“Do you still want to go inside, or what?”
“Well, we’re here.”
Up cement steps and through a metal door, a long bare hallway, a few old black and white concert posters decorating the walls, led to the bar. Next to it was a line of bright blinking electronic poker consoles. As I stood there uncertainly a girl walked past me, up to the bar. She was wearing a silky low-cut blue dress. She gave me a glance that lingered. It was her. There was no mistaking it. It was Alyssa. She looked at me blankly, without recognition. It felt eerie. Like something out of a dream. I swam in the feeling a minute. She turned to the bar.
She turned back to me immediately in one hard motion, her expression unchanged but now gesturing surprise.
Her eyes grew huge as her pupils drilled into me, smiling hard with sealed lips. An almost unnatural expression, it seemed as if it might run the risk of becoming permanently fixed if she held it too long. Then her jaw went down and her eyes went up and the curse was broken. She started to laugh.
“Hi. Did I miss something?”
“Your hair! What happened?! You look like you joined a cult.”
“Yeah, but shh,” I said, a finger to my lips. “They told me I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Yeah, well what about yours?”
It had gone from sandy brown to sunset red, long and straight. She made a little pose, running her hand through it self-consciously.
“You like it?”
She nodded, then looked at me with pity and understanding and filled the moment’s silence with her smile.
The bartender put two beers down on the bar behind her and she turned to take them and then turned back to me with one in each hand.
“You drinkin’?” she said.
“Unless you have a better idea.”
I ordered a beer from the bar and Alyssa led me along, through a corridor and down a short flight of stairs. The place was packed and I followed close behind her, shouldering by others. My eyes caught sight of a guy with a shit-eating grin and tiny piercing eyes held in a leathery stubbly face—a real true to form mug—gazing at me straight on. He was wearing an unbuttoned black trenchcoat and nodded at me as we past, tipping his beer in our direction as a sign of some unspoken bond that existed somewhere between the profoundly limited reach of our stares. He seemed to know me. I had no idea who this person was.
The bland radio rock was blaring and in the center of the room, between two poster-covered pillars, there were black leather couches arranged in front of a big screen with a rug over the worn hardwood, though the TV was off and nobody sat at them—too exclusive for even those there apparently.
Around a corner and down a couple stairs her friends were seated at a table. She introduced me. I shook hands. They all had a certain knowing look for me, which was disarming enough, and then one guy—who I soon learned was the elusive Barrett from the phone—took my hand and, grinning hard with eyes locked in, said: “So this is the one we’ve heard so much about. We finally meet. Alyssa has told us a lot about you.” I didn’t know how to respond. “I hope she gave you the abridged version.” Canned laughter. Already there had been some kind of unclear, undefined level of expectation placed on me that I could only disappoint. I felt like I was on a blind date with a person who had done a full background check, and brought backup to boot. They had the numbers. I looked around for Nick who was across the table, watching, and I could tell he was enjoying seeing me sweat.
A waitress brought over my beer and I downed half of it immediately and then paid for it. What followed was a lot of drink sipping, occasional glances, waiting for something that wasn’t made clear. Somewhere in the middle of the excitement another guy and girl joined our table. The guy had short curly dirty blond hair and talked buoyantly and with a lisp. She had thick dark hair and was morose and didn’t seem to say much at all to anyone. They sat on opposite sides of the table, far apart, the guy closer to me and leaning over the table, gesturing loudly and talking with three or four people at once, and she all quiet on the other side, next to Nick. “They’re supposed to be on a date,” Alyssa loud-whispered to me, leaning over. “I set them up.” And when I responded with “Guess it doesn’t seem to be going so well,” Alyssa said, “Guess not.” “Wonder how come?” I said. “I wonder,” she said.
There was a pool table next to our table. When it became free someone suggested a game and I jumped. We played in teams of two, Alyssa and I and Nick and her friend, a girl whose name escapes me. The pool table was set up in a tight, busy corner, next to a brick wall with a wooden ledge for drinks sticking out and a framed “Pulp Fiction” poster above. Alyssa didn’t know how to play that well, so when her turn came up I leaned over her to show her how to position the cue. I bent her arm and eased it back, and suddenly I was enacting a bad pickup cliché that both of us were aware of and smiled and chuckled at as we went through with it. We played on. After helping her set up a tough corner shot I leaned back on the ledge and knocked over my beer and it was like that first time we had met the summer previous, in a bar, only now the rolls were reversed. We finished the game and we ordered a pitcher and were back at the table with the others.
The atmosphere had changed now, the beer flowing, the focus shifted from the new guys and in town. The curly haired guy was holding court with tales and anecdotes punctuated with high stabbing laughter, exploding from open mouth with an insistent force that quickly becomes jarring, like a motorcycle revving its engine only to realize there’s a cat stuck in it, it’s helpless yelps drowned out, buried in the terrible noise. I huddled in a corner with Alyssa, off in our own private talk like a real life gchat. Across the table Nick sat next to the girl who’d been on the aborted date with cat engine guy.
“You’re friend seems nice.”
“He is, mostly. For a genius.”
“Is that what he is, a genius?”
“In his own mind. We’re all geniuses in our own mind.”
“I’m no genius. But I’m back in school.”
“That’s good. What are you taking again?”
“Math. I’m going into accounting, I think. I’m tired of Music City. I want to find stable work. I’m not getting any younger. I want to work in a bank.”
“That’s good if that’s what you want.”
“I think it is. And it’s all because of you that I went back. Everything you told me. You’re my inspiration.”
“God help us all.”
I scrunched my face and smiled.
I took a hit of beer.
“No truer words.”
We talked and joked and drank and it was all effortless. A girl Alyssa knew came by the table and then went outside for a smoke. Next to me was a guy with dark shoulder-length hair and dark features, who I swore I recognized from somewhere. This was impossible, but then I realized who it was. It was the actor Jason Schwartzman. It was uncanny, really. I didn’t tell him this.
We started talking by default. His name was Curt and he was telling me about how he planned to start some kind of animal car service. Or maybe it was just dog care. He told me about how when he was younger he would look after his neighbour’s dogs, all six of them, for long stretches at a time, walking them, feeding them, grooming them, and this led him to do the same for other’s in the neighbourhood. Where other kids would go around door-to-door mowing lawns he would go around and see about taking care of their dogs. Eventually word got around and people would start coming to him about tending to their dogs, and he started making pretty good money at it. After high school he had moved away to go to university to take some finance classes but ended up dropping out and returning. And so came more offers.
“I just really like them a lot. And they really seem to take to me. I’ve had owners say how they couldn’t get their dogs to behave at all and were almost to the point of getting rid of them, until I would come in and start training them and then they said their behaviour would completely turn around.”
His story perplexed me at first, I didn’t know what to make of it, but then it made perfect sense. He was completely sincere. There was something so sweet and simple and perfect in it, and it made me wish that I had discovered some sort of gift so naturally and so early and had honed it or whatever and could now be at the point of putting it to good use. Instead of what I’d ended up doing which was jump around from one thing to another, chasing it awhile like an errant kite sailing off higher and higher, the air getting thinner and thinner, then off after another one, only to watch it also slip through my fingers. Nothing ever stuck, and whatever adhesive there was that provided a short-term handle was starting to wear away for good. But such is the way of things.
Nick had come up behind me and slapped me on the back.
“I’m going out for a smoke.”
There was a finality in his voice and I said I would join him and bottomed my beer and wished Curt all the best with his dog grooming venture.
Outside Nick was smoking with a purpose.
“This fucking town.”
“What got into you?”
“What got into me? Well, if you really want to know, I’ll tell ya. It’s this whole small town apathetic mentality, man. Negativity, cynicism, tearing down everything. Can’t bother to do anything with their own fucking lives they got to shit on others who actually do something, put something positive out into the world. I’ll tell you what it is—it’s fucking cancerous.”
“Yeah, OK, fine. But where is this coming from?”
He took a long drag.
“You know that girl in there, the friend of Alyssa’s I was sitting next to. We’re both there, so, you know, I figure why not chat her up a little. I asked her, ‘So what’s there to do around her for fun?’ Harmless, right? But she gives me this look like I’m out of my mind. Says, ‘What do you mean by that?’ I mean, I was just trying to get her to open up a little, now suddenly I’m having to explain myself. I says, you know, ‘What do you guys do besides come to the bar and drink?’ And her response: ‘Nothing.’ Just spits it out at me—nothing. I ask her if she works. Yeah, she says, and leaves it at that. Geez, sorry for prying. So I take a different tact. I start telling her about myself. If only to fill the silence, you know. I tell her I’m in school, working on my degree, play bass, etc. Meanwhile she’s just looking off, bored. Like, Oh sorry, didn’t me to try and engage you, relate with you. How stupid of me. I mean, we are in a fucking bar after all. I’m a guy, you’re a girl. This is usually how it works after all. Fuck. Why fucking bother. You know.”
He took a breath, sucking on his smoke.
He was in a real mood. I bounced around a few different angles to take with my next remark. I had to pick carefully, cautiously. I chose empathy.
“Maybe she was having an off night.”
“Try an off life.”
“Well fuck it. Fuck it all. Fuck this town.” He tossed the remains of his cigarette over the chain-link fence. “So what’s the deal with you and Alyssa? You two were really hitting off.”
“Yeah, I know. This night is full of surprises.”
“Listen. You should invite her back to our room for a drink. See what happens, where it might lead. I don’t mind sleeping in the car.”
“You don’t need to sleep in the car.”
“So what do you want to do? I’m ready to get out of here.”
It was a good question. What was I doing? Where was this night leading? Could we stay here another day? No, that was out of the question. So what then? What was it I—
My attention was stolen by a fight that had broken out, near the entrance. A punk girl had come storming out the door and was screaming at a couple guys about who knows what. She was really screaming. The two guys were laughing and trying to calm her down, but mostly they were laughing. To show them she was serious, she knocked over the guy closest to her, then pounced on the other, neither of them knowing what hit them. She had the second guy on the ground, with her kneeled on top of him, wailing away with fists of fury.
The crowd moved in around them, enjoying the show. The girl kept working him over but the guy did nothing to fight back, only raising his arms to block the incoming blows. Everyone was having a good laugh at this impromptu bit of late night entertainment. Here was this wee punk girl—Mohawk, suspenders, patched up cargos, wife-beater, Doc Martin’s—having her way with this skinny little dweeb. But she was relentless, not letting up, a wild cat on the attack.
Some guys—maybe friends of dweeb boy, maybe not—came over and tried to pull her off. Fists kept flying when suddenly one guy got her from behind, arms wrapped around her tightly, holding her at bay so the guy under her could get away. He got up, stunned and bloody-nosed.
The guy now on top of punk girl had her down on the ground, pinned underneath him as he mounted her and dry humped her for good measure. She forced them both back up, at which point he lowered his hands, still wrapped around her waist, into her cargos, coming out with a handful of white underwear—men’s underwear. He threw his hands up, then let go, backing away from her. She stood their still screaming and gesturing wildly, the underwear having been hiked up over her shirt like that poor loser from grade three left cowering in the corner at the end of every recess.
I still had no idea she was so mad about. Drunken behaviour. No motive needed.
It was a hell of a show, and in the aftermath Alyssa had come over to us, a bit freaked out, or so she pretended to be. Showing concern, I hugged her around the shoulders and rubbed her back as we watched the last of the action play out. Somebody from the bar came out and barked at those involved to get off the property and the crowd that had gathered to watch started to disperse, though most remained in the parking lot. A few cars were driving around doing victory laps, or something. Victory? What victory?
There were no winners, only losers on this night.
“That was some crazy shit,” I said to her. I felt the obvious needed to be stated, for verification.
“What do you saying going back with us for a nightcap?”
“Oh Jonny. Not tonight.”
“What night then? We’re gone tomorrow.”
“Do you have to leave tomorrow?”
“Oh Jonny, you were supposed to be her yesterday. It only takes 14 hours to get here from where you were.”
“Fourteen hours? Where’d you get that number from?”
“I looked it up on the internet.”
“Well, maybe by jetpack. We drove all night, nonstop. Our only hold up came when we got to Banff—”
I explained the whole ordeal we had gone through. How we intended to leave early on Friday but got set back by the flat tire. Then finally getting off the ferry late afternoon, driving as far as Kamloops only to wind up not being able to find a hotel room and nearly spending the night in a park, only to drive all night through the mountains, only to have the car fuck up on us by the time we reached Banff in the morning.
I told her of the emergency call I almost put in for her to come get us. But then taking our chances and making it to the next town and discovering the problem with the other tire, and then the sheer luck of meeting up at the same place with the one guy who could service it. I tried to convey to her the sense of desperation we felt when our plans were effectively got shat on. And in turn the exhilaration at overcoming everything and getting back on the road and driving balls out all the way into town, just to get to spend Saturday night with her, in a bar, right here, right now. And all in just over 24 hours. Explaining this to her, I could barely believe it myself, this being my first opportunity to reflect back on the previous day’s events. Did all that really happen? I was informing myself as much as her.
But my excitement was for not. I sputtered out my story, gesturing and emphasising certain points, going back over things to fill in certain details as they came to me, and Alyssa, a consoling smile, with the mildly condescending false wonder of a mother giving her attention to an insistent child demanding they see, right now, right this second, how they can do a cartwheel, listened to it all, and then said: “I’m going back inside now.”
I let out a breath. I was a fool.
“Well, maybe if you decide to visit your friend this summer you can take a little detour and stop in for a drink.”
Her friend lived two hours away from where I would be—the same city Marissa moved to be with her husband.
“No,” she said with a smile that didn’t reach the eyes. “I don’t think I’ll be doing that.”
She started for the doors, and at the stairs turned back, a hand on the railing.
“You coming back in?”
I looked over at Nick.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said, starting off.
“Just a minute,” I said. “I’ll join you.”
I turned back to Alyssa. I was trying to hold onto something but wasn’t sure what.
“I’ll be back.”
We slumped along the barren streets, back in the direction we came. I stopped behind some kind of aluminum bunker and took a piss. The temperature had dropped but there was no wind, a quiet night.
“Alyssa’s nice a girl. Good. Honest.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She is.”
“So sad though. You can tell she’s had a hard go of it. Gone through some messed up shit. Know what she needs, she needs a guy to come along and treat her right.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. You’re always fucking right.”
And I should have left it at that. Return to the car, drive straight back to the motel and a nightcap of Crown and coke, congratulate ourselves on a safe, success journey this far and quickly pass out into a good, heavy sleep. The last two nights I had had a total of three, four hours of sleep, and was running on pure adrenaline since Canmore. It had gotten me this far but I was libel to give out soon, and in a big way.
But no. We went back.
The crowds had thinned out. It was near closing, and we made our way to a back corner, where Alyssa was at a booth nursing a beer, Curt and the lisping guy seated at either side of her. They had been anticipating our return and we approached, heads hung and hands in our pockets, like accused men brought before a tribunal. We stood before them. They stared ahead at us and we back at them. A showdown and surrender all at once. Somebody said something. Words were spoken. There was mention of this being our only night, that we were leaving in the morning. This was enough to start the lisping guy off.
“Well in that case,” he began, digging in. “I have got to tell you of some good places I know to stop for breakfast. First, there’s the Smitty’s on the highway. Oh my god, they have the best hashbrowns you’ll ever have. Seriously. So good. Absolutely to die for. Or else, let’s see, there’s the Open Chest restaurant at the, now which is it—oh yeah!—the Uptown Plaza—off Fifth Street, hang a left at Pirate Lane. It has a buffet including make your own omelettes. And then there’s also the Fritter Café, downtown. Now they don’t have much of a menu but their French vanilla lattes are simply divine. ‘Nuff said. You must be sure to try it before you leave. Oh, and also if you’re interested in a spicy breakfast, if that’s your thing, there’s the—”
He went on and on, elbows up on the table, limp wrists fluttering and flipping about in front to animate his speech. But I had tuned him out and was focusing in on Alyssa. Her eyes were downcast, rubbing the side of her glass, an air of resignation as she slouched behind the table like a wounded doe. I wanted to tell her something but I had no words, and, even so, by the time I'd have managed to pull some together and get them out they would no longer mean anything. And it was just as well.
“—so there are a few options for you guys to consider.”
He went quiet, folded his hands under his chin and looked on with no real interest in our replies. Curt looked at us apologetically but said nothing. There was nothing to be said. We waited the moment out in silence, then sadly said our goodbyes and left.
We slumped back to the car. We drove around listening to an Eric Dolphy free jazz album Nick put on. At one point I turned into a large empty parking lot, for a mini mall or something, and somehow got stuck and had to do a three-point turn to get us out. We drove back to the motel, drank our whiskey, and slept the sleep of the dead. No dreams, no wakeup calls. It was wonderful.
There was a quote I came across during my research. It was by some obscure seventeenth century philosopher, I can’t remember his name. I never ended up using it for anything but always had it close at hand, to refer back to. It’s a simple enough message. But the truest things always are. “Don’t invest hope or longing in an arena where you have no power.”
Sunday morning. I was the first one up and had a shower and dressed. Nick woke up shortly after, all groaning, groggy and shitty, and was about to fall back asleep until I told it was almost checkout. While he took his turn in the shower I packed my bags and lay back on the end of the bed listening to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his poetry.
“The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! Everything is holy!” he proclaimed in a pained and straining joyous bellowing voice. And I believed him.
There was a knock at the screen door. I opened my eyes and raised myself up. The little Korean proprietor was there saying, “Checkout time! Your checkout time now! You leave or else pay another day!” I pulled out my earbuds and said, “OK. OK. We’re as good as gone. Soon as my friend’s out of the shower.”
This seemed to satisfy her and she walked away. I looked at my watch. It was 10:57. I took the bags out to the car, mine being the only one in the lot. Nick emerged from the shower shortly and I returned the key.
We decided to forgo a full breakfast, grabbing a couple coffees and fresh fruit from the store where we gassed up. The sun was high and heavy and the temperature was headed the same direction. It was going to be another hot one. We slopped on the sunscreen in preparation, and with the sun racing up the sky behind us, merged onto the highway along the lines of semis. Setting out on the road one more time. It wouldn’t be long now. We were on our way.