Noon the next day and Jack is slumped on the curb next to Alice’s driveway reading a book. He’s waiting for Alice to get back with her mom’s car. She had gotten a ride with Grace’s dad.
“I’m just going to grab a shower and then I’ll be ready to go after that,” he’d said to Alice as she walked out the door.
The sun is high in the sky and burning down Jack’s neck. The heat is so thick it’s almost visible, like a paste or pie filling. A few kids walk past on their way to afternoon classes. A yellow jeep SUV pulls up to the curb close to Jack. He keeps reading.
One o’clock rolls around and finally Alice pulls into the driveway. Jack gets up and walks towards the car, but when he goes to open the passenger door to get in Alice turns off the engine, gets out and starts walking towards the house.
“I thought we were going as soon as you got back?” says Jack, still standing beside the car.
“I have to get ready first. I can’t go anywhere like this,” she shouts back before disappearing into the house.
“We’re just getting groceries, I thought,” says Jack, but there’s no one around to hear it. Only the sound of the passing traffic.
“I’ll be waiting out back when you’re ready to go,” Jack calls into the house and steps out onto the little back patio.
The small, well-shaded yard is bunched in by a tall, dark bush. Off the deck, to the left, is a small shed and scattered on the lawn is a hose and a red plastic kiddie pool. Jack takes a seat and passes the time reading a little and staring at nothing. At a quarter to two he gives up and goes to check her progress. Next to the door is a pair of sandals that Jack notices weren’t there before and he can hear voices coming from inside. He can make out Tina’s voice. Jack walks down the hallway and out the side door.
He walks around the side of the house and crosses the street, still with his book in his hand—by some Southern writer or other, writing vaguely autobiographical tales of booze and women and loneliness. That is, life’s bitter essentials.
He walks past the school, crosses the street at the four-way, past the dirty apartments and keeps going in the direction of Main Street. He’s not sure where he’s going, but he’s hungry, he knows that. He passes the red brick Pizza Hut and starts walking up Main. The traffic whooshes past as he climbs and climbs, out of the downtown. At the top of the hill he stops at the lights, next to the fire station. He stands on the edge of the curb, and sways back and forth, surrounded by all that motorized metal coming at him from all directions. If he concentrates on it all for too long he fears it could cause him vertigo or something, so instead and stands there and blocks it all out, all incoming stimulus, as a counter measure. But then when the lights change and he starts to cross there they all are on either side of him growling and panting, twitching with anticipation for the light to change. He crosses as quick and calmly as he can and then darts across another street without waiting for a cross signal, walking straight up to the entrance of a convenient store. He goes in.
The store is cold. It is a fairly new store. Sleek. Jack has never been in it before, he doesn’t think. Maybe one night last Christmas when he was drunk, he can’t be certain. He is greeted by a cardboard display of a generically attractive blond woman in a bikini urging him with her bland sexuality to buy some brand of energy drink. Past her, a series of little display booths are setup seemingly at random all over the store, forming a kind of obstacle course, only that you’re meant to be drawn towards the objects not away from them.
At the far side of the store is a sandwich station. Jack goes over, waits in line and orders a turkey and ham sandwich. The young Indian guy working behind the counter asks him if he would like extra turkey and/or ham. “Just what you’re giving me,” says Jack. Then he asks if he would like extra cheese. “No thanks,” says Jack. Waiting in line to pay, the guy working the till is all smiles and professional courtesy to the customer ahead of Jack. “And you have yourself a great day,” he enunciates perfectly to him, beaming. Then as the customer walks away and Jack steps up to pay the guy working the till, a guy around thirty bland handsomeness of a car dealer or chartered accountant, goes to the back area where Jack can hear him say, “What an asshole.” Jack smiles at the Indian guy as he pays him with Interact. And when he says, “Have a nice day,” Jack mumbles to him, “Yeah, right” and walks to the other side of the store, where, by the window, there are tables and chairs and a counter.
He eats hungrily, to the point of momentarily getting a segment of cucumber or tomato stuck in his throat that has to be worked down with gulps of water from a paper cup. Jack finishes, throws out the wrapper and starts for the door. He doubles back and grabs a couple nut bars off the shelf of a nearby booth, pays for them, and then leaves.
He walks back downtown, passing a Presbyterian church, a Blockbuster and a Tim Hortons along the way. Where to? It’s still early in the afternoon. He has the whole day ahead of him. He thinks about going back to Alice’s to see where she’s at in her getting ready. But there’s something that keeps him walking downtown, something about the novelty about being back in town. Like he’s the outsider, observing everything going on, at a distance, without being a part of it. Present but not. Uncommitted. So Jack keeps walking. But where to?
He’s standing at the lights on the corner by the 7Eleven. Across the street to his left will take him back to Alice’s but instead he goes right, down the block. He cuts up the street, across from the other high school, the one his sisters attended, and then turns right again at the Post Office. Across the street is Lesley’s house. It is almost right next door to the Tim Hortons. He had met Lesley the summer before. Although they had briefly gone to the same high school, they had never met before. Lesley had been a couple grades lower than Jack, but the years have a way of bringing people together. They met at a local music & arts festival where Lesley was selling some of her paintings. After the music and drinking that followed, Jack ended up trailing her back to her house that night like a lost puppy. They sat up in her studio drinking wine and eating nuts and salad. Jack was so nervous he took too big a bite of salad without chewing thoroughly enough and started choking. He was sitting there unable to swallow and she was asking him if everything was OK. “Fine, fine,” Jack tried to say but the words came out as a whisper. He brought her a glass of water but when he drank from it the water just sat in his throat and he went into the bathroom and let it spill out. He started heaving, eventually bringing the obstruction up. He looked in the sink where an unchewed hunk of cucumber, covered in a slimy translucent film, sat next to the drain. Jack had a wheeze in his breath the rest of the night and the next day, which he spent entirely with Lesley.
They had been in sporadic contact, entirely online, since he last saw her at Christmas and hadn’t told her of his coming back. This’ll surprise her, Jack thinks. Being away for six months and then suddenly showing up at her door. It’ll be romantic, or something. He crosses the street. He walks up to her house and goes up the stone steps into the porch. Jack is excited. He is acting spontaneously. His anticipation to see the look on her face helps to minimize the intense, almost overwhelming anxiety he feels as he knock on the door.
He looks around the porch as he waits. A few open cans of open paint are set out giving the area that tart chemical smell. A moment later her mom answers the door. She is a frumpy woman and is wearing a long brown shirt that has a stain on it. Her brown hair is messed like she was still in the getting out of bed stage of her day.
“Hi, is Lesley home?”
“No, no she’s out for coffee.”
“Did she say what time she’ll be back?”
“No. But it should be soon. She’s leaving for Graniteville at four and still needs to pack.”
Jack smiles with a look of concern that approximates hers.
“Well, when you see her, could you mention I stopped by.” Jack takes off his sunglasses. “It’s me, Jack. I just got back in town yesterday.”
Having been so long since they were last together, Jack isn’t really sure where he stands with her. He doesn’t know if she heard about Alice’s coming out to visit him, and if she does, if she even cares. This might be why he’s got it in his head that she might be pissed at him, though he has no real evidence. The only thing he has to go on is a long rambling email he sent her, about a month ago, that never got a reply. But then again Jack always gets nervous when his emails or messages or comments get no response from the other party. “I finally did it,” he thinks, “I stepped over the line; I freaked them out good this time. They’ve finally found me out; no matter how I try to hide it, those naked words on the screen, spewed out of my fuzz-addled brain, show, beyond a doubt, just how insane I really am. Now they know. Fuck.” So now he tries to read into her mom’s reactions, gestures, tone of voice, anything, anything at all that would give him a clue as to Lesley’s current feelings about him, this insane person standing here on her porch. For a minute he thinks he picks up on something, an agitation, some negative vibe, but then realizes it is only her wanting to finish with him so she can close the door and be left alone that is not being well concealed. Jack is not insane, in her eyes, only a vacuum cleaner salesman, a Jehovah’s Witness.
“Maybe I’ll just give her a call. I think I still remember the number.”
She looks at him blankly, nervously. It’s the complete opposite of an interrogation. The door starts to shut slowly. Only her head is sticking out now. They both look at each other, saying nothing. Jack can’t think of anything more to add. He turns to leave.
“OK. Thanks. Bye.”
She shuts the door.
Jack puts his sunglasses back on, walks out of the half-painted porch and down the stairs.
The afternoon heat is at its peak as Jack walks down Main Street. He looks around at the same old buildings, the same old streets. Nothing’s changed. What am I doing here? he thinks vaguely. His lazy stroll picks up, turns into a brisk walk. He has the sudden need to see a familiar face. He decides that he must find Lesley. Her mom said she was leaving at four for the weekend. That gives him just over an hour to find her. He needs to see her before she leaves. He takes a long look in at the window of the coffee shops along the way, peering in trying to make out the faces through the reflected glare. No Lesley. He turns down High Street and stops at the building next to the bakery. It’s a fitness center but above it is where Frank lives. He tries the door to Frank’s side of the building but it’s locked. Taped to the window on the door is a homemade poster promoting an “experimental” music show scheduled for the next week.
Jack walks back down Main Street and stop at the last coffee shop on the block, Bean There. The tint of the glass is too dark to see inside very well so he goes inside. He looks around. No Lesley. Jack decides to get a coffee while he’s there. He orders, pays, and goes out a side door to an outdoor sitting area. He sits at an empty picnic table. He reads a couple pages of his book while waiting for the coffee to cool.
A couple guys come out the door with iced lattes and sit at a table next to Jack. They’re a couple of burly guys, dressed almost identical in sandals, navy blue shorts and polo shirts, and one of the guys starts talking to the other about his business. His voice increases as he gets going on whatever it is he’s talking about and Jack has to put his book down. It has something to do with recreational services or something, Jack can’t really tell. He’s trying not to pay attention but, regardless, feels like he’s stepped into a business meeting or “power lunch” where one guy comes in with his rehearsed spiel that he’s already given to a bunch of potential clients and investors and interested parties a hundred times before. Jack hears this thing all the time on campus when upper level students start talking about their plans for how they’re going to use their degree once graduated, elaborating at length, with all the little details and specifics, always in that composed confident tone, as if their futures are set and uncertainty has been banished to the wolves. It’s at times like these when they’re in their element. When their existence is brought into focus with needle-point precision, worry, fear, doubt and all the rest be damned. Hearing talk like this, of career aspirations and ambitions, Jack has a hard time relating it to his own university experience, which so far, after three years, has meant a lot of trips back-and-forth between his apartment and campus, uncomfortable classroom encounters and semester long bouts of insomnia. He still isn’t entirely sure how to write a proper essay.
Another man comes over and stops the guy in the middle of this and asks him if that’s his SUV parked out front. When he tells him it is he replies that the meter has expired.
“Well, shoot, we were only going to be a couple more minutes, hang on a sec, Ted, let me…”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the man says, “I took care of it. I bought you some time.”
The guy, who was starting to get out of his seat, sits back down and thanks the man. He turns back to the other guy. “So, I was saying, it’s all about finding the right group of people who understand your needs as a…”
Jack downs the rest of his cooling coffee, picks up, and puts boots to concrete.
But he’s run out of coffee shops. And out of Main Street for that matter. Time is ticking. He needs to contact Lesley. He needs a phone. He doesn’t have a phone but knows someone close by who does.
His sister lives on the South side of town, across the Sakami River. He fancies the idea of “popping in to see her,” the novelty, just like the town itself in this early returning stage. Jack walks along the sidewalk off the One Way that juts out and curves up a slight hill. Before the hill starts to ascend Jack stops at the bridge to look at the blue-green water. He looks past it, up the bank, where a train of about fifteen, twenty cars is stopped on the tracks. Beyond them the old ugly buildings of the downtown puncture the clear faded sky like a line-up of dirty syringes.
When he gets to his sister’s house the doors are all locked and there’s no one home. So much for that, Jack thinks, and starts back across the river. By now it’s well past three. He passes an old man under the bridge that supports the train tracks and nods at him. The old man looks at Jack. His wide eyes and open hanging mouth give his wrinkled, leathery face the expression of possessing something akin to pure, abject terror. But at what exactly? Jack thinks. The noise from the flock of pigeons nesting in the overhead girders can be heard all around him: a cluster of hooing that echoes out in grim cadence; the amplified violence of a dozen wings flapping at once. Jack walks along. The coolness of the shade, in contrast to the sterile heat, wraps around his skin and locks into his veins.
Back out in the sun, Jack backtracks down Main Street and winds up back at Frank’s door, between the bakery and the fitness centre. This time the door is unlocked and he takes the stairs up to Frank’s loft. He knocks on the door and a familiar voice calls out, “Come on in.”
Frank meets Jack in the kitchen. They greet each other, shake hands.
“Hey man. You’re back. How long you in town for.”
“I’m not sure yet. A couple weeks, a month. We’ll see. I’m staying at Alice’s in the meantime.”
Frank is 65 and made of iron and tar. Jack met Frank through Alice and Bobby a few years back, when he still lived in town and Frank was living in a small apartment on the same street four, five blocks down. They would go over at night when there was nothing going on or after the bars had bummed them out and they would listen to Frank, always puffing on an endless rolled cigarette, read from his poetry, which was all from memory, and tell stories from his years of wandering from one coast to the other and even traveling to places way down south. When he would give readings like this to the small group that had assembled, his voice, which ordinarily was gravelly and deep from decades and decades of cigarettes and bourbon, filled with a wonder that was part show and part communion with some other presence that had joined them there in the room. These readings, at there best, when he really got into them and was almost taken over, became hypnotic, calming affairs. That was one of the reasons Jack kept coming back. That—and he was also a great pot connection when Jack was still into that.
“So. Can I use your phone?”
Jack sits done on the padded bench by the window punches in a number on the phone on the counter, next to the wall.
It rings and rings. The voicemail cuts in. Jack leaves a message and hangs up.
“Have you heard from Lesley?” he asks Frank.
“Yeah. Matter of fact, she’s supposed to be coming over any time to pick up a couple tables for the weekend.”
There is the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
“That must be her now.”
The door opens. There’s a voice that greets Frank and then Lesley appears from behind the open door.
“Hey Jack,” she says, sliding around the door and past the counter to give him a hug.
And just like that he had what he wanted, Lesley there standing before him, and the vague fear that had occupied the back of his mind was coming true: He couldn’t think of what to say to her.
She glances at the book he brought that’s sitting on the counter.
“I tried reading that book you gave me. Didn’t make it very far.”
“Don’t worry about it. A lot of English majors I know still haven’t got through it. I haven’t got through it.”
At Christmas Jack gave Lesley a box of books for a new bookshelf she got. One of them was an old translation of “War and Peace.” He made a deal with her that if she finished it by the next time he saw her he would give her something or do something for her or take her out somewhere. He can’t remember want the deal was exactly, and now he’s off the hook.
Frank leads her into the next room where the tables are. Jack follows them.
“These should work good,” she was saying, inspecting the foldable tables.
“You need a hand with those?” says Jack.
“No, that’s OK. I got Wally to help. He’s parking the van. He should be up in a sec.”
Jack is sitting on an old couch. Lisa sits down beside him. The sound she makes as she flops down indicates that it was well-earned.
“Yeah. Been running around all morning, and the afternoon had to finalize the van rental. That turned out to be a lot more work than I was expecting. But that’s all taken care of and now there’s just some packing to be done. And then we’re off.”
“Yeah, but it’s good. It’s a good opportunity to get some of my stuff out there, outside of this old bastard town.”
“How long are you back for.”
“A while. Until they kick me out.”
“OK. One of those deals.”
“I don’t know. A month maybe. I just finished up some classes. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m glad I got to see you before you left.”
“I got your email you sent a while back. I didn’t respond because never know how to reply to those things.”
“That’s OK. Most don’t.”
Frank comes back in from the kitchen.
“I should have a joint here.”
Neither Lisa nor Jack mentions his staying with Alice. They go into the kitchen and Frank lights up a joint. They pass the joint around. In the middle of this a guy comes in. Jack has never met him. His thin hair is pulled back into a ponytail and he has a long thick goatee and long thick sideburns. Probably to make up for the lack on top, Jack thinks. Lesley introduces them.
“Jack, this is Wally. Wally, Jack.”
“Well, this is always an apt way of meeting someone.”
Jack takes a hit off the joint and passes it to Wally. He breathes out the smoke. “Yeah.”
Before Wally takes the joint he puts a couple paper bags down on the counter. He has a toke from the joint and says, “I got all the essentials for the trip right here.” He passes the joint to Frank and starts going through the bags, pulling out cases of brownies, cinnamon buns, chocolate chip muffins and other decadent treats.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to eat all that,” says Lesley.
“Suit yourself,” says Wally, picking out a brownie from one of the plastic trays and shoving it in his mouth. He finishes it in two bites.
Some time after the joint is finished Lesley says, “We better be a moseying.”
Jack offers to help her move stuff outside, forgetting he already offered.
“I think we can manage.”
Lesley and Wally leave with the bags of treats and the tables and it is just Frank and Jack again.
“I got something else we can smoke,” he says, pulling a tray off a shelf and placing it on the counter like a waiter in a restaurant presenting the main course.
On the tray there is tobacco, rolling papers, little glass jars, a roach clip, and other paraphernalia. Frank opens a tin containing a brown chunk about eraser size. He brakes off a small portion and drops it in a glass pipe, passes it to Jack.
They smoke the hash and then Frank tells Jack he should get going. “I got some people coming over to do a bit of business. They wouldn’t like it much if I had someone else here when they get here.”
“I gotcha, I gotcha,” says Jack, about ready to be leaving anyway but unable to take the required step. They shake hands and Jack is down the stairs and out the door.
He wanders down to the park. The early evening sun cuts through a row of trees as dusk approaches. Jack leans up against a tree and reads from the book he’s been caring around. He takes out the nut bar out of his pocket and eats it. Then he lies down in the grass and stares up at the cloudless sky. At the time Alice came out to visit Jack was finishing up a summer English class. The focus was on Eastern religion. A lot of the books Jack read talked about things like how to live an “authentic” life, based around “goodness” and ridding oneself of earthly “illusions” and seeing life “purely,” and learning to appreciate the sad, tragic beauty of human existence on this planet. One of the ways to do this, to live an authentic life that promotes goodness and honest understanding, is to mediate on the emptiness of the world, on the impermanence of all life. Jack stares up at the sky and tries to do nothing. He lies there and tries not to think about anything, his life, the people he knows, his insecurities, his prideful ambitions. To focus just on the naked sky above. But it is impossible. There is always something going on. Scouting out the next thing, weighing possible scenarios, possible futures to be lived. It is no use. And what about Alice? The question comes to him in a flash. He had left only meaning to get some lunch and now here it was after six. Maybe we can go out for supper, Jack thinks. Yes, that’s it, he’ll make it up to her by getting her supper. But make what up to her? All he did was not tell her where he was going, she was the one who got preoccupied with other things, other people. She can’t expect him to wait around all day. Can she? Waiting around for her had been something he had got used to as long as he’s known her, and he rarely if ever voiced complaint. A precedent had been set. What were the rules, the codes and procedures he should follow in such situations? In school he heard something about how if a teacher didn’t show up fifteen minutes after the bell rang for class the students were allowed to leave. Or was it twenty? He was thinking this and then became aware of the level of thinking he had reached and realized he was a long way from the kind of clear-minded do-nothing thinking he was shooting for. Well fuckit, he thinks, as he stands up and begins walking across the park and down a stone stairway, passing the amphitheatre on one side and the small waterfall on the other that runs into a stream circling the whole of the park. Up another stone stairway he goes and is back out on the street heading towards Alice’s house.
When he gets inside Alice is moving back and forth between the kitchen and the bathroom. Her makeup is done up and she is wearing a black dinner dress. Jack leans against the counter, takes the earbuds from his iPod out, places them on the counter.
“Hey,” says Jack.
“Hey,” says Alice, coming back into the kitchen, her head down, not looking up at him.
“Sorry for disappearing,” says Jack.
“I was wondering what happened to you.”
“What can I say? I’d been waiting awhile got hungry. The fridge doesn’t exactly have much to offer.”
“That’s why I thought we were going to go do something about that.”
“Yeah, I thought so too, but then I saw your friend over...”
“Oh, Tina. She just popped in. Under her own volition.”
“I see. Well, I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I split.”
“I noticed. I wondered where you got to.”
Jack starts to tell Alice everything that he did when he was out. She isn’t really paying attention, preoccupied with what she was getting ready for when Jack came in. She keeps bouncing around from room to room and Jack sort of half-follows her, trails her, as he talks. He gets to the part in the park and isn’t sure how to explain it to her but it doesn’t matter because she’s already halfway out the door.
“I’m going out for supper,” she calls back, as if this explains everything.
“OK,” says Jack, conciliatorily as the door closes behind her.
“Guess she was a step or two ahead of me,” says Jack, looking around the kitchen uncertainly while scratching a spot behind his ear. He goes over to the fridge, opens it. Besides salad dressing and a few other condiments in the door compartment, the only other thing in sight is an open container of condensed soup broth and a container of yogurt, expiration unknown.
Jack doesn’t want to find out. For something for supper Jack walks over to the 7Eleven and gets a bottle of strawberry and kiwi juice, a coke zero and a barbecued chicken pita. He walks back to the apartment.
On the way he sees what he thinks to be his sister’s car, a black Honda Civic, stopped at the lights. Because of where he’s standing in relation to the sun’s reflection he can’t see into the car to see who’s driving but he waves anyway, a kind of tentative gesture. The lights change and the car drives ahead of him and turns into a parking lot. Approaching the car he can see that it is in fact his sister and gets in passenger side.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting supper. You?”
“Nothing. What’s Alice doing?”
“I don’t know. Went out. For supper. With someone. Didn’t really say.”
“Oh. It’s probably Lyle.”
“Lyle, right. I’ve heard about him.”
“Have you two met?”
“Nope. All’s I know is what I’ve heard.”
“And what’s that.”
“Let me think. This point, just his name, I guess.”
“That’s not much.”
“No. An abstraction, really. He’s whatever I want to make of him.”
“He used to be her boss when she worked at the dealership.”
“Oh, that’s right. I knew that. But that’s it. That’s it. Have you talked to her?”
“She texted me this afternoon. Wondering where you were.”
Jack explained what had happened, his waiting for Alice, Tina coming over and his deciding to leave.
“That’s a little different than what she told me.”
“Well, what can I tell you? That’s what happened.”
“She told me she hopped in the shower and when she got out you were gone.”
“Hmm. Fancy that.”
While they were talking, his sister started driving, first pulling out of the parking lot and then, unsure of where he was headed, took a roundabout way to Alice’s, climbing the hill up Main, turning down a side street that led back down. They were now parked on the street next to Alice’s house.
“So what are you doing now?”
“I don’t know. It would seem I have the house for the night. In which case, there’s only one thing to do.”
“Oh, yeah. What’s that?”
“Throw a big-ass slammin kegger.”
“Damn. And I have to work.”
“Great, you can supply the keg.”
Jack’s sister gives Jack an incredulous look as he opens the door and starts to get out.
“Right,” says Jack, resigned. And tapping the hood of the car he says, “Have a good one” and closes the door with a toss of his hand. He watches her drive away and then goes in the house.