PART I: The Island of Ticking Stones
In which Cheeseburger Brown moves to the Maritimes, makes a friend in photography class, and braves a horde of keening forest-goblins.
The Getaway Plan
To be candid from the start: it is true that I told my friend's girlfriend that I was in love with her. That much can't be denied.
But in my own defense it wasn't a pick-up, it was an exit line. I was only going to know her for a few more hours. Then I was going to get into Gimli's battered Jetta with Elfington and the Jazzman to drive away to my home in a distant province, never to return.
I figured I was in the clear.
Now I could get it all off my chest, maybe make her smile, and leave Nova Scotia behind without the burden of unfinished business. I wouldn't be stepping between my friend and his girl, I'd just admit my crush to tickle her heart before I flew away.
Air tight, right?
That's when she said, "I'm in love you with you, too."
My breath caught. That was seriously unexpected. She hugged me quietly on my friend's couch on that dark, blizzardy night. I was elated and warm inside, my features softening into a smile despite my resolve. I was flattered and giddy. I didn't realise quite how badly my clean getaway had been pooched.
"I think..." she said thoughtfully.
I felt a tremor in the force.
"I think I should come with you to Toronto," she said.
I gulped. That was more than I'd bargained for. I sighed and buried my nose in her neck, smelling her hair. I now had to become drunk on her, or I wouldn't be able to stomach the madness. Was I really willing to let this happen? Could I actually take her home in a doggy bag, to enjoy all for my own? How terrible and wonderful! How large!
My head spun.
She squeezed my hand and looked into my eyes. Hers were flat and blue, like two coins of sky a hundred miles away, her face framed by unruly tresses of thick, brown curls. She squeezed my hands. "Okay?"
I felt a smile curl on my lips. "Okay," I said, squeezing back.
That's how it all ended. Now I'll tell you how it began.
Foundation and Barbarians
When Oscar Wilde came to Canada, he told an auditorium full of Haligonians that he dreamed of a school of higher education dedicated to progressive, rather than historical, forms of art.
His lilting, twirling words put a bug in the ear of British ex-patriot teacher Anna Leonowens. She had just returned from a whirlwind romance with the King of Siam and thought it was high time to settle down and pursue the professional passions she had neglected while in Asia. (Later, people would sing about it on Broadway. Cue Yul Brenner: "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.")
So, inspired by Wilde, Anna founded the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.
Just over a century later, I applied for admittance. I lost sleep over it. I packaged it all up as just-so as my physical clumsiness would permit. At John Smith's studio I laboured over watercolour and oil-painted scenes designed to showcase whatever technical expertise I could muster, while Marianne looked on from behind huge hair. But John Smith's is another story, and shall be told another time.
I was accepted.
I moved to Halifax in the dead of winter. I found an apartment shared with two neanderthals from Oshawa. They were the creative sons of auto workers, brash in their heterosexuality and strength to offset their chosen field of study and obvious homoerotic love.
Columbus was a beautiful Spaniard with deep brown eyes and an easy, jocular manner. He did the talking. The Thing was his stalky and squint-eyed companion, a Silent Bob to his Jay. Both of them worked in ceramics. Columbus wrought willowy, organic sculptures and The Thing made over-sized kids' toys out of glazed concrete, like canary yellow cranes and inedible cake.
They liked to watch a lot of violent movies from Hong Kong. "Did you see that guy's fucking head blow off?" Columbus would cry with excitement. "That was the shit man -- so fucking cool."
"Yeeeah," The Thing would concur with a dull rumble.
"Fucking bloodbath, man! He'll have a pretty sketchy time explaining that shit to the commissioner, brother!"
"Motherfucker's a bad-ass, man!"
Our apartment was like Dagobah. It was a mire of filth and garbage when I arrived, a brutal contrast to the rest of the building which resembled a middling-decent hotel. This level of poshness could only be maintained by splitting a two-bedroom apartment three ways, explained Columbus, as we pushed a rough trench through the morass in the corridor, blazing a trail to my room. Columbus had the other bedroom. The Thing slept in the closet.
My room there was my first real home away from my parent's houses. While it was true that I had shared a flat with Ruxanna, the Lipgloss Gypsy, in Montreal, the space hadn't really been mine. An island of order in a hive of mountainous kipple, this room became my temple.
A mattress on the floor was my bed, and my furniture was made of the units of packing I had used to contain my few belongings for the train ride out from Ontario. Because my father has been a musician my packing units were old music equipment crates -- sturdy, ergonomically designed black boxes with rounded metal edging, the insides lined with foam. The biggest crate became my desk, and my new used Macintosh IIci sat thereupon.
My radio sat on another box. It played nothing but CBC-1, to connect me with something familiar. I took comfort in the regular clock-step of voices, and didn't feel so all alone. You're never all that far away when you can catch As It Happens after supper, after all, the horns and flute of Moe Kaufman's jazz reminding you of a million suppers before...
I was very lonely.
Columbus and The Thing were friendly enough, but they were apes and I didn't particularly enjoy their company, or that of their obnoxious friends. There was a blonde haired, wide eyed advertisement for Ritalin named Baffoon from British Columbia, and a surly Quebecois painter with dyed red hair called Cunt. There was also Columbus' personal finger-puppet, a giggling little Asian sprite with a plaid coat, named Minxy. Over the coming months I would go to sleep most nights to the sound of Columbus and Minxy loudly screw in the next room. She was a catty, simpering idiot.
(Later, I would steal Minxy's coat. I still have it, a decade later. Fuck you, Minxy!)
School was boring as hell. I'd been through years of art education, but the requirements of the "foundation year" called on me to start again at the basics. I had no choice of electives. So I churned through the mechanical baby stages of drawing and graphic art, art history and elementary photography.
It was in photography class that I met Chuckle Bear.
We had a smoke together outside of an ornate Victorian door that opened onto a small square in downtown Halifax. Chuckle Bear rolled his own, and he rolled one up for me. He told me he liked me because I was the only one who said anything worth a damn during class critiques. I liked him because he giggled all the time, and seemed to have a light heart.
"All of those pictures are startin' to look the same to me," chuckled Chuckle Bear affably, leaning his chubby frame into the doorframe. He wore an old army jacket, jeans and work boots. He scratched his beard idly.
I shrugged. "I guess we all end up taking pictures of the same stuff -- anything interesting within walking distance of downtown." Halifax is a small city by megalopolitan standards. It is quaint. The core only spans a handful of blocks, like a theme village in an amusement park. The themes in Halifax at the time were grunge rock, earnest Maritime charm and the revival of Celtic music accompanied by modern dance beats. Inevitably, foundation students turned in roll after roll of the same dozen or so familiar photographic opportunities.
"Well...my girlfriend has a car," said Chuckle Bear, raising his eyebrows. "What say you and me take it for a drive, and see if we can't find anything more interestin' to take pictures of."
"Sounds good," I said.
We drove to the woods in a cowgirl's Volkswagen Golf. Chuckle Bear and Cowgirl had come from the Rockies so that Chuckle Bear could become a filmmaker at NSCAD and Cowgirl could become a linguist at Dalhousie University. They had been sweethearts since they were twelve.
We loaded up our cameras and wandered through the bush together. Chuckle Bear was a rural sort, and being out of the city made him happy. He rolled me another cigarette, and then produced a small pipe and we had a hoot of marijuana.
We found many things to photograph. I said many things to make Chuckle Bear giggle, or slouch over laughing. But most of time we pushed through the brush in golden silence, finding our way apart and then together again.
When he dropped me off outside my building I said, "That was fun. We should go on more photo-adventures."
"Sounds good," said Chuckle Bear, nodding.
Seaward the Strange
When the end of the term came Chuckle Bear organised a grand camping adventure, and invited all of the "interestin' characters" he had met over the months. I was invited, too.
Chuckle Bear chartered a boat to take us all to a small island off the Atlantic coast. I told Columbus and The Thing about it, but they weren't very interested. They were smoking hash oil in the livingroom, telling each other over and over again that The Thing's latest creation -- a cement truck made of cement -- was truly a Great Work of Art. "Holy fuck, it's perfect!" crackled Columbus, pacing around the sculpture. "This is the shit my friend, the motherfucking shit. I don't know if you'll ever be able to top it, dude."
"Fock," said The Thing, grinning and nodding. "Yeeeah."
I packed up a knapsack and walked down to the waterfront. There was no sign of Chuckle Bear but there was a large, square, rusted barge moored where he said our ride would be. A few people were standing on the back of the boat, smoking cigarettes or chatting or squinting in the sun.
There was a also a pretty girl standing on the dock, her hands shoved into her pockets and a wide smile on her face. "Are you CheeseburgerBrown?" she asked me in a friendly way. "I'm Cowgirl, Chuckle Bear's girlfriend."
"It's nice to finally meet you," I said. I gave her twenty bucks for the boat chartering and stepped on board.
I took out my pouch of tobacco and rolled up a cigarette. Someone who looked like a vagrant approached me, and so I opened up the pouch again to offer to roll one up for him. But he offered me a light. "Glad to know ya, CheeseburgerBroon," he said with the Irish-Scots lilt common on the coast. "I'm Null, a friend of Chuckle Bear's."
"We're all friends of Chuckle Bear's," piped up a goofy looking chinless fellow with a goatee and buck teeth. "I'm Cosmic Sean from Cape Bre-ton," he told me. "It's like it rhymes," he explained. "Could I have a cigarette, FrankfurterBlue?"
"CheeseburgerBrown," I corrected him.
"Okay," he said brightly, looking around as if deeply confused.
I gave him a cigarette.
A deep baritone voice spoke out from behind me, saying, "Don't mind Cosmic Sean. He's just a little cosmic, that's all."
That was Gimli. He was an ex-engineer from Sarnia, tall and wide like a lumberjack with a giant red and brown beard and eyebrows like caterpillars. His handshake was heavy like a sack of wet paper. His bright little eyes just barely crept over apple cheeks, and his moustache area was shaved so we could see his little smile. He had explained, "If people can't see me smile, they think I'm angry." It was this friendly giant who spotted Chuckle Bear parking Cowgirl's Golf in the lot by the pier. "There he is now."
Yes, and like a clown car the Volkswagen burst forth with a full squadron of additional campers. I recognised Punkgirl from my drawing class, and waved. Chuckle Bear was beaming, and politely directing the loading of a few last pieces of equipment -- cameras, batteries, rain-hoods, cabling and cases of beer.
A Rastafarian named Plinky hopped on board and handed me a lit joint. "You are that Cheeseburger! I have heard about your toque, mon," he smiled widely.
It's true. I wore a green woolen toque over my long, unruly hair.
Chuckle Bear boarded last, clapping me on the back. "You're a sailor, aren't you CheeseburgerBrown?" he said, taking the joint from me.
"Sure," I confirmed cautiously.
"So how about drivin' the boat?"
"I thought you were going to...uh, drive the boat, O Captain my Captain."
He laughed. "I'm from Alberta, man. The only thing I know how to drive is a car -- or a tractor."
"Well," I said. "Okay then."
And so we were away, chortling along the city shores and past a lighthouse striped like a candy-cane. The little scow plowed through some chop when we reached the Atlantic, cool and salty spray raining over one side of the boat, torn by the wind. "You're puttin' out the joint, sailor!" called Plinky. "Try to drive more joint friendly, mon!"
Chuckle Bear mounted the pilot's platform beside me and pointed out the island as we drew near. "See the dock?" he asked, squinting into the sparkling sunshine.
As I steered over he turned around to face the motley crew assembled on deck. He shouted over the breeze. "Once we hit the beach, all cameras start rolling. If you're takin' pictures for yourself, fine. If you're takin' pictures for me, please sign a camera out from the basket there. We'll set up the generator for you folks with camcorders first thing, so don't worry about runnin' down your batteries."
I kicked the scow into reverse as we grumbled up alongside the dock. The engine raged for a moment to stop us, and then I killed it.
Chuckle Bear paused, and took a moment to survey the audience, to size everybody up. "Welcome to the Island of Ticking Stones, an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. No truth allowed."
The island was a few miles around, and largely wooded. During World War II garrisons had been erected as the first line of defense against a German invasion and so its shores were studded intermittently with the decayed remains of turrets and gun-platforms. Now it was a provincial park, and the people from Parks and Rec had told Chuckle Bear he was taking out the first permit of the season, and the only one that week. In other words, we were alone.
It wasn't really called The Island of Ticking Stones. That was Chuckle Bear's invention. I asked him about it as we pushed rocks around to make a firepit at the hub of the cluster of half-formed tents people were assembling. "It's an experiment in suggestion," Chuckle Bear suggested to me. "We're gonna see how many people become convinced they hear a tickin' rock before the weekend's out."
"Just based on calling the island The Island of Ticking Stones?" I asked.
He passed me a small, ornate pipe and then set to building a foundation of kindling from the piles gathered by volunteers. "Well, that and --" he fished into his pocket and pulled out a small cloth sack that jingled. "Liquid suspension of disbelief."
"What is it?" I asked, drawing from the pipe.
He slipped a single tiny vial filled with clear liquid out of the sack. "This is pure lysergic acid. It ain't like that blotter paper shit -- this doesn't even have speed in it. It's undiluted and uncut."
"No speed?" I echoed, handing back the pipe.
"No speed," he confirmed. "You can go to sleep on this stuff. You're not all wound up and rangy. And when you come down you don't feel like shit. It's nothing but wakin' dreams." He puffed on the pipe and smiled.
By noon the camp was set and the campers had fallen into chatting in small groups, smoking cigarettes or joints or hashish while drinking beers or coolers or wine. The spring day was clear and bright. I sat with Gimli and drank wine. We watched Chuckle Bear ambling slowly from group to group, stopping to chat for a few minutes and dispensing eye-droppers of LSD. A small crew trailed him with a 16mm camera and a microphone on a boom.
"Have you ever noticed how much Chuckle Bear looks like Peter Jackson?" asked Gimli idly.
"Who's Peter Jackson?"
That's when Chuckle Bear appeared next to us, dipping the eye-dropper into one of the vials. Gimli took two drops beneath his tongue, and so did I. "In about half an hour we're all gonna go for a little promenade," he told us. "So get your shit together, boys."
"Aye aye, Cap'm."
I disengaged my camcorder from the generator and Gimli loaded up his Yashiga with a fresh roll of film. I slung my guitar on my back and gave Gimli a nod. The rest of the campers were congregating near the exit from the clearing, so we joined them as we polished off the last of the wine bottle. Chuckle Bear stood on a small boulder and told us that we were going to march to the Clockstone Beach, where every rock kept time by quietly ticking. He drew a crude diagram in the dirt with a stick, describing our route. "Everyone pick a buddy. We don't want nobody gettin' lost out there," he told us. "Because the goblins come out after dark."
And so our parade strung out in twos and threes, picking its meandering way through the bush toward the shore. We would follow the shore around half of the island to meet at Clockstone Beach on the other side. I walked somewhere near the middle of the pack while Gimli told me about Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles. I smoked cigarettes and wondered when I would feel anything from the acid.
The Turtles of Clockstone Beach
Waking along the stones in a silent string of marchers, the acid sneaks in. The sound of the surf becomes more important by degrees, until I care about it deeply. I am comforted by it, and I can't help but smile at the ripples and slow-motion scudding clouds of silt awakened in the water by my passage. I am wearing white painter's coveralls, and they're rolled up to my knees. The water is clearer, sharper, and little meaner than I remember it. But still its sound and sparkles make me feel love.
"Are you feeling anything yet?" rumbles Gimli.
It takes a surprising effort to say, "Yes."
"Do you think it's safe for us to be in the water?" he asks, like a kid.
"Sure," I tell him.
A long pause. Our feet sweep through the water. There are people walking in front of us, too. But they're pulling away, faster. Chuckle Bear is urging them on. "Say," says Gimli. "Didn't there used to be people behind us?"
"I wonder where they...went."
I stop walking and look behind us. Nobody home. Gimli asks for a cigarette, so I withdraw two prerolled smokes and light them. "Fire makes me happy," admits Gimli.
We have a long conversation about something very slippery. We may, in fact, have been having two altogether different conversations. At any rate we decide to give up on the people behind us. Then we realise that between the two of us we have conflicting notions of which direction we had been travelling in. I argue that the water was to our right, Gimli argues that it was to our left. The people ahead of us have disappeared from shimmering, swimming sight.
Standing in the water up to our knees we have another smoke. He is a giant and I am a painter with a guitar on my back. It's somebody's dream, somewhere.
We choose a direction and continue our march. A million micro-adventures later we follow the shore around a small cove and see an expanse of beach opened up before us. And on it: members of our party.
Chuckle Bear is interviewing people with the 16mm behind his shoulder. Plinky is passing around a blunt. Punkgirl and her boyfriend Spike are making out. Null opens up a big bottle of homebrew wine and offers it to Gimli and I as we approach. "Much obliged," I say. The wine is bitter but its fruitiness makes my cheeks tingle. It traces a warm line into my belly.
"Have you checked out Cosmic Sean?" asks Null. He points up the beach. Cosmic Sean is lying on his back, gesticulating wildly at the sky. Null smiles and says, "That boyo sure has a loose grip on his marbles."
I go to investigate. Cosmic Sean is watching the clouds. "Turtles in the sky!" he's calling upward. "I love you! Please come down, turtles."
I try to start a conversation but Cosmic Sean is elsewhere.
As I wander back to the group Chuckle Bear is organising everyone into a ring. We will take turns listening to a carefully selected stone (smooth, uncracked and monochromatic) to see if we can hear the ticking. "Remember," admonishes Chuckle Bear. "Miqmaq stories say that you can only hear the ticking if there are no lies weighing down your heart."
Punkgirl shakes her head and offers the stone to the her boyfriend. "I don't hear nothing," she smiles.
"Shhh," says Chuckle Bear not unkindly. "If you don't hear it just pass it on. Only say somethin' if you do hear it."
Because our actions are a loop, time loses all meaning. The smooth stone is passed around endlessly. We drink, we smoke, we laugh. At some point Chuckle Bear asks me to play a song, so I pull the guitar off my back and strum at it idly. I sing:
Clockstone, sweet ticking stone,
Our black hearts cannot hear you.
Clockstone, old ticking stone,
Our souls are clogged with poo.
And when the music stops we all notice Cosmic Sean crouching on the periphery of the circle, one hand pushed into the sand to stabilise himself and other clutching a small stone against his ear, his eyes rapt and distant. "Ho-ly mo-ther," he says slowly, licking his buck teeth.
"It sounds wonderful, doesn't it?" prompts Chuckle Bear.
"It's amazing," whispers Cosmic Sean. Experimentally, he holds the stone against his opposite ear. Then he puts it back. "I can only hear it in the one ear, though."
He closes his eyes, concentrating on the stone. Minutes pass. We're all quiet. The surf licks the beach roughly.
"I hear it!" announces Punkgirl, squinting. She is holding the ring's rock. "It's...slow." She hands it to her boyfriend. "It's soothing," she tells him.
"It's warm," he comments.
"I didn't think it was real but maybe it's real," mumbles Pocks, a dark haired girl who would be pretty if her skin had not been left scarred by acne. "I thought Chuckle Bear was just making it all up. Is he making it up? Are they in on it?" she wants to know.
"Everyone is in on it to the extent that they choose," rumbles Gimli, leaning back in the sand with his hands beneath his head. "How much you play along is up to you, I think."
"But is it real?" persists Pocks.
"It would be fun if it were real, wouldn't it?" asks Gimli, propping himself up on one elbow.
"Yeah," agrees Pocks.
"So, are we having fun or aren't we?"
"What do you mean?"
Gimli leans back into the sand, watching the turtle clouds. "I'm having fun," he says.
Pocks grabs the head of my guitar and tries to gently push it aside. She shuffles over to me on the sand and whispers, "I can trust you, right? CheeseburgerBrown?"
"Okay," I say.
"Are the ticking rocks real?" she asks earnestly.
I smile and squeeze her shoulder, leaning in conspiratorially. "Yes."
Come Pocks' next turn with the stone she cradles it gingerly against her face, her eyes fixed in the distance. A long, thick moment passes. Her eyes fill with tears. She shakes her head and passes the rock along. She's thinking of Chuckle Bear's tales of the Miqmaq indians, and the lies in her heart.
I almost begin to cry, too, because suddenly I feel cruel.
But tears are premature. The suspension of disbelief has just begun.
Interlude: Steamed Mussels
I never understood how Chuckle Bear and Null and their immediate party had beaten us to Clockstone Beach carrying all of that gear, but I guess that's what you get for standing in the water discussing tripped out ephemera with a giant. You miss things.
Among the gear was a massive camping pot and two coolers of fresh mussels. As the afternoon cooled a fire was set and dinner was steamed up. Chuckle Bear and Cowgirl doled out hot mussels in triangles of folded paper, and we each drank whatever we'd been sensible enough (or not) to bring with us. Gimli and I, who had brought nothing useful from the campsite, shared Null's homebrew wine.
With the last dying moments of battery power I used my camcorder eyepiece to review some of the footage I had shot. Nothing very interesting. A lot of water, and close-ups of leaves. Perhaps I could find something useful to do with it later, I thought to myself, shrugging. (And I would. Two years later I would sell the footage to the Financial Post Environment Awards for Business.) I tucked the camcorder into the front pocket of my coveralls.
I rolled up a cigarette while Chuckle Bear made the rounds with his eye-dropper. The sun disappeared behind the trees. The sky turned an impossible, comic-book colour.
Evil Forest, Haunted Mines
It isn't long into our march back to camp when rumour snakes through the line that we're being followed. Whispering surrounds us. The forest is dark. Up ahead, Chuckle Bear's flashlight casts a roving glow through the crawling shadows.
His light is getting closer, because he's stopped. Our parade draws us into a ragged crowd around him, pressing toward the light. "There can't be nobody followin' us," he laughs. "You're imaginin' things, Null."
"Listen man, I didn't take any more drops," says Null. He's lying, but most of us don't know that. "I'm sober, and I'm telling you: there's somebody back there, hanging behind us."
"Jesus Mother! Jesus we gotta move!" urges Cosmic Sean. "Holy shoot, man!"
"I'm gonna go look again. Gimmie your flashlight," says Null. He takes Chuckle Bear's light and wades his way through us, back along the path toward Clockstone Beach. He disappears from sight, but we can still hear the sticks breaking beneath his boots.
A pause. We huddle. I can hear us all breathing. Punkgirl lights up a cigarette. Plinky passes me a small pipe. "Peace, mon," he says.
Suddenly Null is erupting back into our midst, his face panicked. "He's coming! He's running right at us! Run!" he screams. The panic is contagious. The mob blasts over the undergrowth and hurdles down the path away from Clockstone Beach, footfalls following footfalls in the dark. The world becomes a shadowy, leafy, panting, frightened blur.
I think: Null is fucking with us. This is fun.
We come to a sudden stop. People pile into people, and yelp. Chuckle Bear has regained his flashlight and points it at the broken wall of a decaying garrison. "This way," he says, urging people on past him. I stumble over the ruined concrete and rusted metal railings, staggering onto a weed-grown gun-platform looking out over the sea.
A beat. We catch our breath.
"Where's Chuckle Bear?" asks Cowgirl. We congregate near the break in the wall near the thick bush, but Chuckle Bear and his flashlight are gone. "Where the fuck did he go?" Cowgirl asks again, her voice edged with worry.
"We should just get the fuck out of here," says Kerchief, a boy I didn't know very well who has been lugging a crate of camera gear on his back. "We should just save ourselves and get the fuck out of here now."
"What about Chuckle Bear?" cries Cowgirl.
"And Null -- where's Null?" asks Gimli.
"Oh Jesus Mother," mutters Cosmic Sean, walking in small circles.
That's when Chuckle Bear's voice comes screeching out of the woods: "He's got Null! Guys, help me! He's got Null! Oh fuck! Guys!"
Cowgirl slips back through the cracked wall with no hesitation, so I follow her. We jog along the dark path, our hearts beating in our heads. Chuckle Bear's flashlight is waving around ahead. "You came with me!" says Cowgirl, suddenly cheerful. "That was pretty gallant of you, hey?"
"Is Chuckle Bear okay?"
"Of course he's okay."
"Shut up!" hisses Chuckle Bear. "Are they coming?"
We draw up to Chuckle Bear in a small clearing. Cowgirl calls after the others and they come running, wanting to know what's going on. Chuckle Bear transforms himself into an agitated state, swinging the flashlight around wildly. "He took him into the tunnel -- we've got to follow them!" And without another word he charges into a narrow concrete stairwell set against the garrison.
We have no choice but to follow him.
At the bottom of the steps we come through an open doorway into a wide, dark tunnel. The floor is a blanket of rotting leaves and swill. The walls crawl with water stains that seem alive in our lysergic vision. This is part of the fabled maze of tunnels that criss-cross the island, linking the garrisons. "Jesus Mother," comments Cosmic Sean. "It's like freakin' Dungeons and Dragons down here."
Chuckle Bear leads, we follow. The pace he sets is slightly faster than any of us would like except, perhaps, for those in the rear. Pocks walks besides me, and asks if she can hold on to my arm. "Sure," I whisper.
I find myself fairly scared.
I think: I am a fool -- it's all just a game.
And then I wonder at my hypocrisy: while I preach submission to the wonder to the others, I myself cling to rationality to ground me from my fear. Swim! I tell them, hugging the shore.
This realisation dulls my enjoyment of the next few scares, which involve false sightings of goblins. I'm like an adult escorting kids in a house of horrors, and it makes me feel weary. I am only beginning to appreciate how delicate my psyche feels when it isn't anchored to certainty, and I don't care for the feeling. I am a coward!
Eventually we are guided to another stairwell, and we surface by the shore not far from our campsite. In our relief to be free from the passages we forget about Null and pile enthusiastically toward our tents. But we stop, in twos and threes and then as a unit. There is...a sound.
"Did you hear that?" somebody asks.
"What the fuck was that?" asks somebody else.
"It was probably just the wind," says Chuckle Bear, and I can hear his wry smile in the dark.
There is a moaning in the dark field. Quiet, low. First ahead and to the right, then behind and to the left. We are riveted in place, listening as it fades up and disappears, seeming to move. My eyes try to pierce the shadowed trees encircling our camp, but the darkness just sparkles and swims in my grainy, hallucinatory vision.
"Is it a wolf?" gasps Punkgirl.
The sound dips away again, and we all strain to hear it. The white noise of the night seems to get louder in the void -- insects, leaves, the nearby water. Instinct prevails and as a mob we act like beasts, frozen like squirrels with our heads cocked and turning.
A blaze of screaming erupts from the woods -- a horrified, suffering wail that seems to be moving rapidly around us. Branches snap, bushes tear, the keening veers closer and louder in a sudden surge, and --
-- And we all fucking lose it.
I am surrounded by hysterical screaming and scuffling. I fall over Punkgirl who's prone on the ground and lose my sense of direction. On my hands and knees I stare into the dark, flip around and search wildly the other way. My heart hammers in my chest. Without conscious decision I have bolted and am sprinting with what feels like superhuman speed, eating up the distance with elastic strides in a blind flight across the camp.
I hit a small tree with shocking suddenness and then go skidding off into the grass.
In the aftermath I can hear that the air of filled with a new sound: ticking. Overlapping patterns of clicking tocks, mingling and coming apart in muttering report. Before I can recall doing so I have decided that the ticking can only be coming from the famous stones, and that the famous stones are good and will therefore protect us.
A moment later I am laughing at myself, lying on my back in the grass and watching the stars. I can hear other people laughing too, across the camp. Punkgirl is crying, and Spike is soothing her. The clicking becomes quieter and then is gone.
Slowly, the adrenalin drains. My brain ceases to beat inside my skull, and my fingers quit fidgeting. I breathe deeply, and think about how wonderful it felt to let myself go there. To be forced to let go, rather.
Stars twinkle. I think about aliens.
The Story Phone
The bonfire was tall, and around it was gathered most of our company. Null had retrieved my guitar from the grass and was retuning it. Gimli was brushing chunks of mud out of his beard. Some were missing: Punkgirl and Spike had retired to their tent, and Chuckle Bear and Cowgirl were apparently out searching for Cosmic Sean.
"Poor Cosmic Sean!" moaned Plinky. "He freaked right out, mon."
Kerchief then appeared in the light of the fire, loading the two jacketed speakers he was carrying into a foam-lined crate. These were the last of the speakers from the woods, planted there and operated by Null to deliver Chuckle Bear's aural finale. "I'm done," he said, picking up a bottle of liquor from his knapsack and disappearing again.
When Chuckle Bear reappeared we all gave him a round of applause, initiated by Gimli. But Chuckle Bear was in a serious mode. Behind him came Cowgirl with Cosmic Sean in tow, sweating and shaking. "Sean's kinda upset," explained Chuckle Bear quietly. "So let's all do our best to help him calm down a shade."
Cosmic Sean sat down around the fire and blinked at us, mumbling to himself and occasionally yelling out something incoherent. He kept trying to involve himself in the campfire chatter, but nobody could follow his babblings.
I sat down next to him and said, "Can I trust you?"
"Shore," he replied in a certain whisper.
I put my walkman into his lap and held out the earphones to him. "Listen," I said, "inside these headphones is a wonderful woman, and she loves you. She wants to explain to you what happened tonight so that you understand all about it."
"Really?" he asked with a kind of earnestness that made me want to cry. "Cowgirl tried to tell me that --"
"Nevermind what anybody out here says. They don't know the truth."
"I want to know the truth," said Cosmic Sean, grabbing my arm. "Please!"
I started to hand him the headphones but then paused at the last moment. "If I let you hear this, you have to promise me something."
"You have to listen to the whole story. You can't stop listening until she's finished. If you listen all the way to the end, you'll understand everything and you'll feel great. I mean, really happy."
With that, I solemnly handed Cosmic Sean the headphones and he put them on, closing his eyes in concentration. I watched him for a few moments as he relaxed his squint, and cocked his head in rapt attention. About ten minutes later he started to smile. He opened his eyes and looked at me, so I winked. He winked back and then descended again into the audio world, gaining enlightenment that soothed him.
Of course I have no idea what it was that he found so enlightening -- he was, after all, listening to Radio Sweden International's report on fashion. The satisfying truth -- whatever it was -- was his own invention, but it worked. When he finally took off the headphones an hour later he was giddy and relaxed.
He said he wanted to take more acid.
"That lady in the story phone is the nicest, smartest lady I ever talked to," he assured me. "Wow."
And so it seemed to me that the suspension of disbelief could heal, as well as thrill. That's the lesson I took away from the Island of Ticking Stones.
There were other adventures and games, but they would serve only as anticlimax. A day and a half later we packed up our kipple and returned the scow to Halifax. There were extended farewells, for most of us were leaving the city for the summer. I left Cowgirl and Chuckle Bear haggling with the boat chartering woman over fuel costs and hauled my knapsack, guitar and video-bag across downtown to my apartment.
To my surprise it was abandoned. Without mentioning it, Columbus and The Thing had chosen this weekend to return to their native automanufactury of Oshawa. In their wake they had left a mess of monumental and grisly proportions. I waded through the filth to get to my room, where I discovered that they had also unburdened me of several gems from my CD collection, a generous vial of hashish oil, my bong, some cash and the a Sex Pistols poster The Thing had once mentioned he liked.
"Bastards," I said.
I crunched my way into the kitchen and discovered that they had also eaten all of my remaining food while I was away. They had not, however, discovered where I had been stashing my wine to I promptly got plastered, smoking cigarettes and watching cartoons while lying on a bed of old pizza boxes. Like spit into the sea, I sullied the apartment further by ashing my smokes wherever I sat. Chunks of mud from the Island of Ticking Stones crumbled around my boots. I watched an episode of a brand new Star Trek series called Voyager, and enjoyed the extensive computer animation in the opening sequence.
I fell asleep there, and dreamt of goblins.
Morning came. The stereo clicked on automatically with CBC-1. I surveyed my sunlit surroundings with some distaste. I had two days to find what of it belonged to me, to pack it together and have it picked up for shipping before catching a train home. It didn't take long. By the afternoon of the first day I was finished. Right before supper I had everything in the lobby, and the man from the shipping company used industrial-scale plastic wrap to attach it to a freight palette. And away it went.
And so my duties were done, but I was not restless. Though I had felt very lonely for months, suddenly being all alone in the forsaken apartment I felt inexplicably content. I ate soda crackers and drank wine. Columbus had started sketching on the walls, so I picked up a piece of fallen charcoal and finished up his drawing of a pornographic mermaid. Later, drunker, I would cover the rest of the wall in a sloppy monochrome mural of my own pictures...
I was awakened the next morning not by the CBC but by the insistent, alien meeping of a fire alarm. I crawled over to the stereo and blinked until the time came into focus: ten AM. I was already dressed so I opened up the front door and stuck my head into the corridor.
The door opposite me opened and a Naval officer with grey hair and a crisp uniform stuck his head out in the just the same way. "Is it a drill?" he asked me.
"Not that I heard about," I told him. He nodded and withdrew, closing his door.
I looked the other way but nobody else was peeking out. I withdrew into my apartment and waded across the filth to the windows. Firetrucks were gathering below and people on the sidewalk were standing in little clusters, pointing up at my building. "Aw, crap," I said.
I went back out into the corridor and met the Naval officer again. "I think there's an actual fire," he said. I agreed, and went down the concrete stairwell together. He looked at my outfit -- a dirty white coverall stained with paint and charcoal and miscellaneous -- and asked, "Art student?"
"Yessir. It shows, does it?"
"You have smudges on your face."
I turned over my charcoal-covered hands. "And more or less everywhere else, too."
"It's a messy business, but somebody's got to do it," he said in a friendly way.
At the bottom of the stairwell were two passages, one of which lead out near the front of the building and one of which let out through the back. The Naval officer headed for the front, but I opted go to the other way. I figured I might as well go and find some breakfast rather than hang around in a crowd watching the building burn.
So I popped out into the back alley, blinking at the sun. I looked up, but I couldn't see any visible signs of fire. I took a short-cut through a second alley and was walking out onto Barrington Street when the squad car pulled up alongside me. Both cops got out right away and approached me from opposite directions.
"Do you live in that apartment building, sir?"
"Can we see some identification please, sir?"
The menacing politeness of authority. I complied with the ritual, handing over my licence for inspection ("Your papers, pleassse!") and identifying my dwelling unit number ("I am a meat-popsicle!"). Next, a surprising battery of questions.
"Where are you going?"
"Bob and Laurie's Diner, on Gottingen."
"Is that your place of employment?"
"No, I was going to have breakfast."
"During a fire?"
"I figured it would be a while before we'd all be let back into the building."
"Who do you mean by 'we'?"
"I mean me and my neighbours."
"The other residents of the building?"
"Why didn't you come out to the front with everybody else?"
"I don't like crowds."
"What is that substance on your face and hands?"
"Charcoal? What kind of charcoal?"
"Drawing charcoal. I'm an art student. It's for sketching."
"Your eyes look pretty red. What's wrong with them?"
"I'm very tired."
"Why are you so tired?"
"I was up late making drawings with charcoal."
Right. So, suspected of arson I was escorted back to the front of the building where I was invited to sit in the back of a different squad car while the police went off to have a little chat. I could see black smoke running out of the one of the apartments on the opposite side of the building from mine, and on a distant storey. Cool, I thought, my knapsack is safe.
Within twenty minutes the police had nabbed the man who was actually responsible, and I was released. I wandered away from the squad car and lit up a cigarette. That's when I saw Raphael.
"So..." he said quietly, eyes downcast. "Were you arrested or what?"
Raphael had not been in any of my foundation classes, but I had run into him socially attached an acquaintance of mine called Mutton. Raphael was half-Japanese and half-Mexican. He had a long, light-cocoa face with slanted eyes and long, black hair. He looked at his shoes a lot and spoke very quietly. Raphael and I had once had a long conversation about The Trading Game, but that game is another story and shall be told another time.
"No," I replied. "It turns out they don't think I did it."
"...Did you do it?" ventured Raphael timidly.
"Ah, okay," he said. "I was just taking some pictures of the smoke."
We both turned to admire the smoke for a moment, billowing so speedily out then slowing, catching up, piling up into a fat ball that slowly dissipated away north with the wind. He asked me if I was going to live in the same building next year, if it didn't burn down. "No," I said. "I didn't really like my roommates. I have no idea where I'm living next year."
"Why don't you come live with us? Mutton and Feminazi and I are renting the place over the Indian Grocery, and we need a fourth."
"Ah, sure. Why not?"
And it was agreed. I would take the fourth room over the Indian Grocery, a spacious flat always occupied by one cadre of art students or another. I bid Raphael adieu and went for my breakfast.
When I returned to the building I chatted with a guy in the lobby who had heard that the fire had been started by someone who was scheduled to have their apartment inspected before moving out. "Why would they do that?" I asked. The guy explained that they must have done more damage to the apartment than the deposit would cover, so they didn't want it to be inspected.
"That's messed up!" I commented, and got into the elevator.
I pressed the button and got a sinking sensation in my belly. Apartment inspections...scheduled before moving out...
It suddenly dawned on me why Columbus and The Thing had split. I rushed out of the elevator and back into my apartment, kicking through the sheaf of junk-mail piled beside the door until I came across the notice. Our apartment was due to be inspected: today.
I dashed through the place and collected my remaining trinkets, throwing them into my knapsack. At last I stood at the door, wearing my knapsack over Minxy's plaid jacket, my face and hands washed of charcoal, ready to make my escape.
A knock at the door.
Through the spyhole I saw an old man with a clipboard. I opened the door and rushed out. "Are you the inspector?" I asked him.
"Yes, I'm sorry I'm late but there was that business with the fire, you see..."
"Yes yes, I understand. I'm late myself, I have to leave," I said, starting away from him.
"Hold on, sir --"
"I really have to go, but my roommate is inside and he'll help you out."
"Someone's inside?" he echoed, gesturing at the ajar door.
"Sure. Go right in! His name's Columbus."
"Ah yes, I see that on the lease. Thank you," said the inspector. "And you're The Thing?"
"You got it. I'm sorry, I've really got to run."
The man nodded and pushed the door open again, calling out, "Mr Columbus?" For my part, I ran like hell. Thinking he might radio down to the lobby I took the same back exit off the stairwell I had when the fire alarm went off, sprinting through the alley and bounding over a small brick fence behind the shipping alleys of a downtown mall.
When I regained my breath I lit up a smoke. Smooth getaway, I thought.
I would pass a night sleeping in a graveyard like a hobo, and then catch my train back to Ontario the next day. A few weeks later I'd meet up with Chuckle Bear on his way back west; we'd busk on Eglinton and go camping in a city of beavers, and have other adventures, too. And yes, I would sell a bunch of watercolour illustrations to Toronto Life magazine, thus kicking off my career in commercial art. And I'd even get together with the girl I'd convinced myself I'd be pining after while I was away in Halifax, after so much want finally getting to be her beaux for a brief and busy summer...
But those are other stories, for others times.
When next we meet we'll reconvene once more in Halifax, for my second (and final) year of art college and the continued path that leads me to where this story began.
PART II: The Gottingen Street Wine Company
In which Cheeseburger Brown joins a gang, interferes with a blowjob, becomes a vintner and befriends a jazzman.
The train tapdanced along the rails, leaning in and then out, shuddering over a series of changes, sweeping us through mile after mile of New Brunswick's late summer woods.
I sat in the lounge car, swaying with the rhythm, smoking yet another cigarette despite the appalling taste in my mouth. Twenty-five hours is too long to spend on a train...at least without liquor and whores. With a cold lunch, a bad novel and a pack of Dunhills it's pretty much a kind of exquisite torture. Granted, you can watch the leaves whip by for a few hours in green and yellow smears, but night comes and then all you can see if your own pallid reflection, eyes flitting restlessly.
It had been a full summer. I sold my first artwork professionally, and got a job scanning photographs for farts and pennies per hour. I hung out with Red Vicious and got drunk. I dated an exotically beautiful half-Israeli half-Indian girl, shy and smart and self-effacing and sweet (I've mentioned her briefly before). I made a tragically incoherent short film with highly questionable production values -- concerning soft drinks, extra-terrestrials and the apparent powers that be.
I was on top of my tiny world, and not nearly so intimidated this time around about plunging into the crowded and strange world of university. I had been lonely before, but now I had some friends. I had been shy of competition before, but now I knew the calibre of work the average student generated and I felt confident that my own efforts would compare favourably.
What fresh adventure would grip me as I stepped off the train?
Well, none. I took a taxi to the Indian Grocery, and went inside to buy a pack of a cigarettes. The place was crammed with South Asian staples, apparently presided over by a dirty television hung from the ceiling upon which a man in heavy mascara was warbling along with a sitar. Then I noticed that in the corner, below the screen and squished in beside an old till and almost completed blended into the chaotic and colourful surroundings, was a tiny lady wearing a red dot on her forehead and a pink sari. I told her I would be living upstairs, and she told me I could have a discount on video rentals. I thanked her, scanning the shelf of Bollywood hits with uncertainty.
I took a flight of metal steps outside to our second storey front door, and fished out the key that Raphael had mailed to me. I let myself in. "Hello?"
I wandered through the empty rooms -- grubby grey carpets, dingy white walls, a nice skylight in the central hall between the bedrooms. I was the first to arrive. Alone, again.
Cheeseburger Crusoe Redux
Things started turning south when I called the man from the shipping company and learned that my toys and clothes and kipple had all been accidentally shipped to the wrong coast, and were currently hanging around in a warehouse in Vancouver awaiting an opening aboard a train with other eastbound freight.
I hung up, and sighed. I sat in a kitchen without dishes, a beam of sun lighting up slow, ghostly whorls in my cigarette smoke.
I could contact nobody I knew, because those who were in town lived new addresses and had new, unknown telephone numbers. Come Friday I could try hitting some of the usual haunts, to see who I might bump into. But until then I was alone.
I was restless without my toys and books. I wanted to play with my computer, to keep learning about the cool stuff it could be for.
For the rest of the day I just wandered the rooms and smoked cigarettes, pacing around and making up fantasies to amuse myself. I bought chai and instant noodles downstairs, and had a little supper. I slept on the floor, using Minxy's plaid coat as a pillow...
I was awakened in the morning by clattering garbage cans in the alley outside. Blearily I peeled myself from the floor and walked stiffly over to the window. Down below was a dirty old black man who looked a lot like Sanford from Sanford and Son. He wore a ragged toque and layers of coats, and appeared to be unloading a grocery cart of recyclables into the alley, mumbling incoherently all the while.
I stuck my head out the window. "Hey, would you mind keeping it down? It's six o'clock in the morning."
The old man looked around aimlessly and yelled, "Ham radio!"
"Hey," I called again. "Up here. Would you mind keeping it down a bit?"
He looked up and squinted at me. "There's a cat in the phone, barking in the ham radio," he said grumpily, adjusting his toque and giving me the finger. Then he went back to sorting his piles of metal and glass. "Dog and pony sassafras," he was heard to comment.
Okay. So I gave up, and got up. I wandered around my new neighbourhood and found a greasy spoon for breakfast. Last year I had lived a block up from the cutesy downtown core of Halifax, but the Indian Grocery was in a part of town known simply as the North End. The North End was the part of Halifax had been violently disintegrated in the famous Halifax Explosion of 1917, in which a boat-load of war munitions made a small navigational miscalculation while in Halifax Harbour, resulting in the biggest man-made explosion of conventional ordnance in history.
The municipal powers that were decided that the cost of rebuilding the flattened quadrant with respectable structures was prohibitive. So, instead, they made it a ghetto for coloured folk and let them put up whatever ramshackle piece of shit lean-to they could afford. Times changed, and it became embarrassing to have people living in open squalor -- even coloured ones. So in the nineteen-fifties the provincial government invested money in building affordable housing. For decades that affordable housing decayed, until it became the quaint but dingy crime-riddled neighbourhood I saw around me as I ate my poached eggs.
I read about the Halifax Explosion on the placemat.
A tired looking whore having a cup of coffee at the next table kept trying to catch my eye, but I locked my gaze to the placemat and read it over again. My bacon was undercooked, and it disappointed me. I left a good tip anyway, because I was likely to end up back there again before long.
Yes -- and two more days passed, without my finding a soul to talk to. I pestered the shipping man, but it didn't make my worldly goods arrive any faster. I bought a transistor radio at a dollar store and put in the kitchen, where I sat looking out the window, drinking milky chai and smoking my Dunhills away, listening to CBC-1 and dreaming
I don't know what I dreamed of, but the hours did pass.
My housemates arrived. Raphael and Mutton came by train together from Guelph, and then Feminazi followed hot on their heels by jetplane from somewhere in Saskatchewan. I was quickly disabused of the notion that my priority arrival gave me the choice of rooms -- Feminazi had claimed the grandest room on the basis that she'd been the one to negotiate the business with the landlord; Mutton had claimed the next best on the grounds that he'd found the place; Raphael shily confessed to having chosen the less dismal of the two remaining rooms, and seemed on the cusp of reluctantly offering to trade with me when I shrugged the whole thing off. The closet-sized room with the window that faced an alley was mine...so be it. I wasn't about to throw a tantrum.
The thing was this: I'd waited patiently for three days for friendly contact, but when folks arrived I didn't find myself soothed.
In fact, I found company abrasive. Raphael, Mutton and I went to see a couple of one-act plays in a local festival, and in the evening we'd retire to our respective rooms. Raphael and Mutton played their guitars or listened to music, and Feminazi watched TV on her tiny personal television beside her bed.
As for me I sat on the floor and looked out my window, which faced another window across the alley. Through this window I watched a thick black man in a dirty undershirt entertain hookers and smoke crack after they'd left. When he was having at it with the hookers he often cried out instructions like, "Close your eyes!" or "Don't look at me, bitch!" Then he'd smoke crack and watch sports on TV. He favoured baseball.
I also watched sports on his TV, over his shoulder. I didn't have anything else to watch.
I sat on the sill and smoked a marijuana cigarette, drinking a cheap export ale called Keith's. The world turned buzzy and focussed. Down below in the alley Sanford muttered in his sleep, rolled over in the cardboard tube that was his bed, and farted.
Deus ex Machina
I was giddy like a schoolgirl when my palette of freight finally arrived. My situation improved immeasurably: I had an inflatable camping mattress, changes of clothes and gachis, a mini-stereo, books and art supplies and compact discs -- and a computer.
And so as my fellow students trickled into town and the familiar haunts became full, I gave up my attendance and stayed in my room. I had my very first modem, a 28.8 job with a silver case from US Robotics, and I had an account with the province's only service provider. I discovered Internet Relay Chat.
Do you remember what IRC was like back in 1995?
To most of us it was all so new. On my first night I found a channel with a few people on it and started shooting the shit. We shot the shit until sunrise. We found each other next night, too. It turned out we were all relative newbies, even the guy who'd founded the channel whom we viewed as a sage of the medium. We were all charmed and pleased to have found such sociable friends so quickly, willing to engage in long conversations about anything. I learned that the channel had been formed only moments before I arrived, and the others had arrived within a quarter hour of that. A random meeting, and for a week we were riveted.
I dreamed of IRC -- a dream where I have no corporeal manifestation, but instead my consciousness and the graphical interface are a singular event.
But in that week school started. We were all students, far flung from each other and our homes, lonely and adrift. Our schedules changed and the channel dissolved, and none of us ever found each other again. We had each taken a crash course in online communication -- the ambiguity, the lag, the jargon -- and we had all come away addicted.
I showed up at school to pay my tuition. Waiting in queue I ran into dozens of acquaintances, including Gimli. "Do you know where Chuckle Bear's living?" Gimli rumbled. I shook my head. We advanced together to pay. Gimli produced a neatly folded cheque, and I produced a wad of bills and a sack of loose change.
The girl at the counter stared at me, agape.
"Is there a problem?" I asked. "It's all there, you know."
"Uh," she said. "I don't think we take cash."
"What do you mean you don't take cash? That's ridiculous. I read the mail-out. It said I needed to show up with so-and-so dollars and cents -- well, here they are. Dollars and cents."
A supervisor was called in to settle the issue, and it was decreed that my tuition would have to be accepted. The girl shot me a venomous look as she began smoothing out the crumpled bills with her palms. "Retard," she commented as I left.
"I wiped my bum with those bills," I mentioned. She stopped her firm smoothing action mid-motion. I disappeared up the steps to street-level.
That night while I screwed around on IRC Gimli hung around in my tiny room with me, drinking beers and smoking joints. We chatted some, but the friendly giant was just as happy sitting back and doing nothing while I chatted online. He just wanted to be around.
Gimli knew something already that I didn't. We had a posse in the works, and he was content to wait around until the rest of us arrived. The giant was a herd animal, and his instincts told him to cool his heels in anticipation of the return of our captain.
"Hey, I think that guy's getting a blowjob," Gimli commented, looking out the window across the alley.
"Close your fucking eyes!" the man across the alley commanded.
"And the Expos are ahead by two runs," Gimli added.
Yes, and Gimli whooped with joy when we were staggering out of the Seahorse Tavern and saw Chuckle Bear parking a battered-looking red and white 1957 Chevy, grinding the grubby white-walled tires into the curb. The engine shuddered as it stopped, a loud backfire echoing down the street. Cowgirl climbed out the passenger seat. "Hello, boys!" she smiled. "Drunk already, hey?"
"Yes ma'am," we said.
Chuckle Bear climbed out of the beautiful old machine, swearing and shaking his head. "Almost didn't get here," he said. "Old girl was just barely makin' it up Citadel Hill."
They explained that Cowgirl's Volkswagen has died on the way, and they'd been forced to buy a car on the road. They had to stop at least once in each province to have repairs done. Chuckle Bear petted the sleek fishtails along the rear of the car, saying, "But what kind of a jackass would let a little thing like functionality get in the way of a great lookin' car?"
On my way I home I saw a couple of high-school punks making noise in the mouth of the alley beside the Indian Grocery. As I drew nearer I saw that they had corned Sanford and were mocking him, threatening him, lunging at him playfully and then laughing uproariously at Sanford's retaliatory screeches. "Get the hell off the grass! Stop your sickness!" Sanford roared, and the teens guffawed.
Brazened by beer, I came up behind them and shouted, "Hey -- what the fuck are you doing?"
They turned, startled, and before they could answer I continued, "Leave him alone! This is my house! Get the fuck out of here before I call the police!"
And off they went, making colourful references to my anatomy and character once they were sufficiently far away to feel safe. I turned to Sanford and he rushed at me, flailing his hands in my face menacingly, screaming incoherent profanity. I stumbled out of the mouth of the alley, surprised. "Get offa my hell grass! Stop, stop, stop!" he screeched.
"You're welcome," I muttered, heading wearily up the iron steps to my door.
The first disagreements between Chuckle Bear and I started the very next day, when it came time to choose our classes. It was my opinion that we should sign up for video, but Chuckle Bear insisted on film. "Film? Are you nuts? You only get to make one movie in the whole semester!"
"But film is beautiful -- video is ugly."
"Yeah, but the first twenty-five movies you make are going to suck, no matter what, because you don't know what the fuck you're doing yet. So who cares if they're beautiful or not? I want to make at least five more shitty movies before I start worrying about the goddamn medium."
"But I want to be learnin' the craft of it, because it's the medium I want to work in."
"Listen man, if you want to waste your tuition learning how to load reels and splice frames in a dead vanity format, be my guest. But I'm here to learn how to make movies."
"Film is hardly a dead format."
"It will be. Do you think a decade from now they're still going to be shooting features on thirty-five, or on high-definition video?"
"Film. Video doesn't respond to light the way film does."
"Not yet, but it will."
"Well when it does I'll switch, then."
So Chuckle Bear signed up for Introductory Film and I signed up for Introductory Video. I showed my summer film to the department head and got automatically bumped up to Intermediate Video, which made Chuckle Bear sullen for the rest of the afternoon.
But our first weekend and our therefore our first camping trip was upon us. Come Saturday morning Chuckle Bear's '57 Chevy was honking for me outside of the Indian Grocery. I clattered down the metal steps and jumped into the backseat with Null and Cosmic Sean. Cowgirl sat up front.
"Where's Gimli?" I asked.
Chuckle Bear indicated the car following us, a rusted-out VW Jetta with Gimli at the wheel and other campers filling out the other seats. We were a small convoy, I thought. But in future weekends our parade would lengthen.
I don't even remember where we went, that first camp of the autumn. We drank and smoked and took acid adventures, caught up on the fluff of summer, wondered what our major classes would be like (Gimli majored in Jewellery, Chuckle Bear in Photography, and me in a nebulous cross-disciplinary field called Intermedia). We talked about abusing the power of narrative, and hiding behind cheap symbology. We talked about what made a story a story, and what made an experience an experience. We slept under the stars.
School was a dim world in comparison.
Our nameless gang swelled. Word spread about the fun he had each weekend, and it seemed infinitely preferable to a lot of people than did cruising the same dank bars, drinking Keith's and seeing bad carbon-copy grunge rock bands cavort. Within a few weeks we had bled out a solid contingent of art students, and the factor most of them had in common was that they had come from rural homes. So when each Friday rolled around the city-kids made their plans to hit the bars and the country-kids made their plans to trip out on a beach somewhere.
I found myself the only city-kid in the camping bunch. Most of them viewed being from Toronto with a mix of awe and contempt. I became embarrassed at answering the question of where I was from. I started to reply simply, "Ontario."
One weekend I asked a exotically beautiful girl with rounds cheeks and a waggling ass where she was from and she replied, "British Columbia."
"Where in British Columbia?" I asked.
She hesitated. "Don't stereotype me but I'm from Vancouver."
I nodded. "I understand completely. I'm from...Toronto."
We were sitting around one of two campfires, roasting sausages on the beach as the sun set over the water. Prince Edward Island was a hazy smear on the horizon. "My name's Lilo," she said, shaking my hand. She had an easy laugh. Deep brown eyes, wide but delicate jaw, long inky hair. My heart fluttered.
"I'm CheeseburgerBrown," I told her.
"I know," she said.
It turned out that Lilo was originally from Maui, Hawaii. She was studying linguistics at Dalhousie, and was a friend of Cowgirl's. Null came around with the magic eye-dropper and Lilo and I both took a couple of hits. "This is new stuff...strong, in my opinion," warned Null. "So be taking it easy, eh?"
And just as we wonder whether or not we should be feeling something, our guts growl. A familiar symptom. The world is taking on a kind of glow -- nearly invisible, a faint scintillating aura that somehow seems to have meaning. This leaf could be your world, the sliding energies advertise. Dance with us.
The swimming light from the fire makes Lilo look sick and strange to me, and so I suggest we take a stroll along the water. Our legs are spongy beneath us, but it is not our bones but rather the sand that is soft. We find our sand-legs, drooping and swaying and giggling. Lilo touches my shoulder, and we walk.
We pass the second fire, where Chuckle Bear is strumming on my guitar and singing something by a Guthrie. His latest "interestin' character" acquisition is a boy named Bluegrass from Kentucky; Bluegrass is playing along on harmonica. Cosmic Sean is lying on his back on the sand, eyes flitting across the burning sunset clouds. Gimli is engineering a castle out of sand, and we sit down to help him. "Reinforce the walls with wood," advises Gimli seriously, tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth as he works. "Walls with wood, walls with wood, walls with wood..." he repeats, feeling the Ws with his lips.
The sun drops and something terrible happens. I don't know what it is, but an air of anxiety sweeps up the beach. "Cosmic Sean is freaking out!" calls Null. Everyone gets up and starts moving. In the sparkling, swirling twilight it takes me a moment to realise I'm the only one who is moving toward Null's call.
Past both fires on the dark of a small glen Cosmic Sean is loudly hyperventilating. A few shadowy figures stand around him, including Null. "Does somebody have a paper bag?" Null is asking. "He's supposed to breathe into a paper bag, eh?"
"Does it have to be paper?" I hear Chuckle Bear ask.
"I don't know," admits Null.
I sit down on the sharp crab grass next to Cosmic Sean. I say, "You're breathing too fast. Breathe more slowly."
"I can't," he gasps.
"But you already are," I correct him. "Just stop and listen."
And he does. He catches his breath and holds it while he listens for a second, and then gasps and catches his breath again. Each time he listens the period between gasps widens. "I can't hear anything..." he wheezes.
"That's because you're breathing too quietly to hear. Listen."
Cosmic Sean listens. He gasps less forcefully, and then listens again. I breathe in a slow, windy, rhythmic way. He hears me, and forces himself quiet to hear again. As the moments pass his breathing becomes synchronous with mine.
The sky turns black, and the first stars poke out. Still we breathe.
Then all of sudden Cosmic Sean asks, "Hey, why are we sitting here breathing like this?"
"For fun," I reply.
"For fun?" he echoes, incredulous. "Holy shoot, you're way tripped out or something, man." He stands up, and dusts the sand off his pants. "I'm gonna go to the fire or something, man." He shambles off.
It seems to me that I am alone, so I wander away to the shallow valley of tall grass that grows in the sand between the beach and the road. The moon has come out, and the valley looks like another planet in the ghostly light, rippling stalks undulating slowly in the breeze in every dark direction...
Suddenly a band of shadows appears, muttering and laughing and moving swiftly toward me. "Oh my god who is that?" somebody calls out.
"It's CheeseburgerBrown," I call back. I stop walking and take out my tobacco pouch, rolling up a smoke. "Who's out there?"
"We're running away from Cosmic Sean!" someone else says, and then the group rushes off along the road, tittering and talking. I smoke until they disappear, and then go back to imagining a planet of endless grasses.
I experience the peak of the hallucinatory effect while lying on my back in that grass, watching the stars wheel slowly around, fading before the milky glow of the bare moon. I have a moment of remarkable communion with myself which cannot be rendered easily by word, but suffice it to say I come out of the whole enterprise feeling that I am happier in busy solitude than in the company of people. It is the first time I will consciously realise this, or spend any appreciable amount of time thinking about it. I feel buoyant inside. I feel shed of layers of useless need and craving.
"All the important stuff happens alone," I say aloud. "Epiphany, suffering, discovery, death."
I breathe deep.
I wander back to the beach, now dark as pitch except for the random sparkles of light from phosphorescent algae flashing in the surf. The fires burn, abandoned. There is no one around. I walk to water's edge and take off my boots, tying them together and hanging the arrangement over my shoulder. I roll up my paint-stained white coveralls and wade along the shore amid the flashes and glints of animacules.
I am a long time walking before I see another shadow ahead. "Is that somebody?" asks the shadow.
"It's CheeseburgerBrown," I answer.
"Are you standing in the water, or is that just me?" I recognise Lilo's voice.
"No, I am standing in the water."
"Aren't you cold?"
I consider the matter, and instantly feel cold. "Yes."
I walk over toward her, and find that her shadow is taller than I recall. When she speaks again I recognise her as Cowgirl, and wonder how I could have ever gotten the two voices confused. "What have you been up to, hey?" asks Cowgirl as we walk along the sand.
"I was exploring Grass Planet."
"I see," she says.
"Where is everybody?"
"Oh, I don't know. I think they're all running away from Cosmic Sean."
"Is it a game?"
"I don't think Cosmic Sean thinks so. I've been trying to find him."
And so Cowgirl and I wander the black beach chatting until we find Cosmic Sean in a little shivering ball at the base of a small, wind-bent tree. He leans into us and gibbers as we support him between us, making our slow way back to the distant spots of orange that mark our camp upbeach. Cowgirl says, "It was really good of you to talk to Cosmic Sean when he was freaking out, hey?"
"You were there?" I ask dumbly. "I didn't know who was there."
"Well, Chuckle Bear was there until he left."
"That stands to reason."
"I mean he fucked off as soon as he saw that somebody else was dealing with it."
She sounds mad. "I don't think Chuckle Bear should be inviting Cosmic Sean out to these things if he's just going to get made fun of. It isn't fair to use him for entertainment. He's a goof-ball but he still a human being, hey?"
"Did you say I'm a superball?" asks Cosmic Sean blearily.
When we arrive at camp we see that people are gathered around both bonfires, drinking and passing around smoke. Cowgirl grabs a flashlight and this helps us track down Cosmic Sean's tent...once we get over the trailing afterimages of brightness the flashlight paints in our acid-churned vision.
"That looks so fucking cool," I note. "I love light."
A ruckus is breaking out at one of the fires. Somebody's shoe is on fire -- one of the Newfies, merry like a hobbit, drunk like a cod. Cowgirl rushes over to help. Meanwhile, I deposit Cosmic Sean down on the grass where he sits placantly. I unzip the tent-flap and crawl inside with the flashlight in my teeth.
This is what I see: Lilo is sucking Gimli's cock.
"Damn!" shouts Gimli. Lilo withdraws her mouth from him and squints into the light, clasping her hands over her exposed breasts and squirming backward. "Who the fuck is that? Get out!" she hollers.
So I back out. I sit in the sand for a second, and then point the flashlight at the side of the tent where Cosmic Sean's name and home address in Cape Breton are written in magic-marker. "Who's in my tent?" asks Cosmic Sean, like a kid.
"Uh. Lilo and Gimli. They're...uh, using it right now, it seems."
In a small voice he says, "Can I at least get my sleeping bag? I just want my sleeping bag. I'm shore am cold, CheeseburgerBrown."
Aw, crap. Why do I have to deal with this? Fucking pathetic creature. "I shore am cold, CheeseburgerBrown" indeed! Pitiful puppy! I curse him, and then call into the tent, "Hey guys -- Cosmic Sean needs his sleeping bag."
There is no reply.
"Guys? Can we just get Cosmic Sean's sleeping bag?"
A long pause. The sound of some fidgeting. Mumbled reply from Lilo, "We're using it."
Aside: On Being Ostracized
Listen: I went to a gradeschool where I was picked on for speaking French. Then I went to school where they tried to beat us up at recess for being "gifted." I've been accused of being a faggot because I paint, accused of being a coward for not being easily taunted. I have been the odd man out more times than I can name -- marginalised for unfamiliarity or difference or for the eternal crime of not being a fucking moron.
And, if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is a gang of the strong mocking the isolated weak. If there is one things that raises my ire, it is the drooped head of the meek man as he quietly asks for less than his due. "Can I at least get my sleeping bag?"
Cosmic Sean was used to being treated without regard, because he was simple. But I would not tolerate it in his stead.
I would not.
Irreconcilable Differences, Continued
I tore open the front flap of the tent and shoved myself inside on my knees again. I grabbed the edge of Cosmic Sean's unfurled sleeping bag and tugged, feeling the sluggish resistance of two bodies entwined in it. So I pulled a lot fucking harder.
Bottomless Gimli and topless Lilo spilled out of the sleeping bag as I jerked it toward me, gathering it up in my arms as I crouched in the entranceway, the flashlight gripped in my mouth. I took it out so that I could bark, "What the fuck do you guys think you're doing? Give the man his fucking sleeping bag! Jesus Christ!"
"What the fuck?" asked Lilo, grabbing at the sleeping bag. "What the fuck?"
"It is Cosmic Sean's sleeping bag," urged Gimli, touching her shoulder. She released the edge and dropped back on her haunches, her bare breasts swaying with recoil inertia and a scowl of hatred on her face.
"Thanks Gimli," I said, withdrawing from the tent. "Sorry," I mumbled. (I'm Canadian -- I can't help it.)
I gave the sleeping bag to Cosmic Sean and he went to curl up just outside of the ring of people surrounding the closest fire. Like a dog. I turned away in contempt and stalked off down the beach, my breathing ragged and my pulse pounding in my ears.
Yes, and I found a Cowgirl crying by the flashing waters. "It's just me," I said. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she declared viciously.
I backed off.
In the morning Gimli was chagrined because Lilo was being "weird" with him. She had claimed she didn't recall their being intimate the night before. She paid Gimli little mind, and was cheerful and happy-go-lucky with me. "Have a good time last night, CheeseburgerBrown?" she asked flirtatiously.
On the way back Cowgirl rode in Gimli's car. The '57 Chevy was somber. Chuckle Bear was in a very bad mood.
Enter the Jazzman
The next camping trip was a wet, clammy disaster. I came along in Bluegrass' pick-up truck, and it wasn't until we arrived that I realised that Cowgirl, Gimli and Lilo weren't along. "Pussies," spat Chuckle Bear. "They said it would be too cold."
And it was. Chuckle Bear played court, favouring his newest discoveries. Null muttered that Bluegrass was getting on his nerves, with his constant folk similes and the affectation of his exaggerated accent. "Why, that fire's a-hotter than the space between a fat girl's thighs on a Ju-ly afternoon!" Bluegrass would croon. Or: "Why, that car's a-runnin' worse than a one-legged marathon runner!" Or: "That boy's more excited than a virgin in a cathouse!" And on and on.
I pretty much wanted to shoot him, too.
Chuckle Bear's newest friends seemed to be getting dumber and dumber. They were less like "interestin' characters" and more like simple sycophants. They did not threaten or challenge Chuckle Bear's wisdom, they just accepted and revelled in it. And Chuckle Bear pointed a camera in their faces, and they made fools of themselves for his entertainment.
So, come the next weekend, I opted out.
The telephone rang, knocking me offline. It was Cowgirl, telling me she was hosting a party and that I should come by if I could. I bought a bottle of cheap wine and walked down to Gottingen. I let myself in and tramped up the stairs.
Lilo greeted me at the top. "Hey, CheeseburgerBrown!" she warbled, apparently already quite plastered. I caught her as she started to spill down the staircase, and righted her gently on the landing.
In the livingroom I found Gimli and Cowgirl, as well as a number of other people I hadn't met before. Cowgirl wanted me to meet all of her friends from Dalhousie. She introduced each of them and shoved me at them, insisting that she was certain we'd hit it off. I chatted for a while with a tall, thin history major named Elfington was wanted to know whether or not I had ever played a game called Risk. I hadn't. Elfington invited me over the following Wednesday to partake.
I was bounced from one loquacious major to the next until I needed to go outside for a breath of air. I climbed out Chuckle Bear and Cowgirl's window and dropped down to the garage roof. I sat down and twisted up a smoke.
I flicked my Bic. When my eyes adjusted to the dark after the flare of the flame I saw another cigarette tip, burning orange in the night. "Come out for some air, boss?" came a voice, husky and nasal, with a subtle Francophone lilt.
"Exactly," I agreed. "It's a bit busy in there."
"Yeah, it's a bit crowded in there, you know?" He drew on his cigarette. "But I'm supposed to go back, because Cowgirl wants me to meet some guy. Some friend of hers, you know?"
"It's probably CheeseburgerBrown," I said.
"Yeah, that's it, man. CheeseburgerBrown. You know this guy?"
"Kinda," I said. "He's a dick."
"Shit, boss," breathed my smoking friend. "Everybody's a dick. You know?"
We smoked in silence for a minute more. "So...what's your major?"
"What's my major?" he echoed, and then laughed. "Did you say, what's my major, boss?"
"Yeah. Isn't that the question of the evening?"
"I don't know, man. Maybe it is, you know?" He shook his head and sighed. "I don't have a major, man. I'm a singer."
"You sing in a band?"
"In Montreal, yeah. I do a bunch of stuff, you know? Jazz, mostly."
And so, much in the same way that I first met my friend K and first met the predatress Tigress, wandering out of a party to seek a moment of solitude I met another player in the adventures of my life: The Jazzman.
The Jazzman had followed a girl out to Halifax, a girl he'd been dating in Montreal. I knew the girl he had followed; she was in my drawing class and I had been pretty sure was a lesbian. I mean, she wore lesbian clothes. At any rate, Jazzman had come east to win her back. "How's that going?" I asked.
"It's a long road, winning back a woman like that. She's fierce, you know?"
I did. But that's another story and shall be told another time.
The Jazzman wore a black beret pressed against his head like a skullcap. He had droopy, sorrowful eyes and a long nose. When his cigarette was done he stuck a toothpick into the corner of his mouth and stood up. "Well, shall we?" he invited, gesturing toward the window. "Let's go meet this CheeseburgerBrown, eh boss?"
We all had a good laugh when Cowgirl tried to introduce me to the Jazzman. "You're tricky, you know?" he said. Plinky stopped by then are treated everyone to giant spliffs of marijuana. I saw Gimli and Lilo chatting in the corner, and experienced light jealousy. I tore my eyes away from her cleavage to find Cowgirl at my elbow. "So," she said, "what're we going to do tomorrow night?"
A new gang had formed -- ex-campers, enjoyers of spirits and smoke, too chatty and interested to drown out company in the bars or the clubs. In the absence of Chuckle Bear Cowgirl became our de facto captain, the person at the centre of our communications and arbiter of disputes. Gimli and I were now the sole art students in a small, friendly knot of Dalhousie undergrads. Instead of talking about art and film we talked about science and books. Instead of tripping out on the beach, we sat in other's livingrooms and drank and shot the shit.
"Drink is too expensive," moaned Gimli one night.
"Yeah, man," agreed Jazzman.
"We should make our own wine," suggested Cowgirl. "Wouldn't that be cheaper?"
A light went on behind Gimli's eyes and the engineer part of him took over. He flipped over the tiny notebook he always carried and jotted down a few numbers. "Mmmmm..." he said, nodding slowly. "Maybe."
And that's how the Gottingen Street Wine Company was founded.
The Kind of Story We're In
Classes were very dull. In video they just patted me on the back and told me to keep it up, which made being there at all insipid and boring. In drawing we repeated exercises I remembered from childhood at John Smith's. In graphic art we painted with gouache paint, like fucking fashion designers, instead of computers, like people who planned to be employed one day. In life drawing I drew nudes in charcoal of models ranging from athletic to lumpy to sickly, the same as all my life.
My intermedia teacher was video-installation artist Jan Peacock, and she thought I did neat work. I think I amused her. She was very nice to me, at any rate. She loaned me video-art from her personal collection, and this is how I first fell in love with Bill Viola. She encouraged me to screw around with different narrative concepts in my work, and to explore exploiting more situational aspects of my presentation. She wisely decided that I was less inclined to installation work than I was to the idea of events and experiences as art, and so she pointed me in that direction. I've already mentioned one of the projects I did for Jan, when I strung up the Morse Tea Building in an explosion of white string webs.
I avoided the main university buildings as much as possible, usually spending my time at school alone in my intermedia studio. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but this is apparently a "very intermedia" thing to do. Intermedia students are "like that" they say.
On my way home I'd as likely as not poke my head up the stairs at Chuckle Bear and Cowgirl's place. I'd sit and have a cup of tea with either or both of them, depending on their schedules. Sometimes I'd come upstairs and find nobody but the Jazzman, smoking a cigarette and watching their TV. "Cowgirl'll be back in an hour," he'd say. "Sit thee doon, boss."
And when I'd get home Feminazi would be on her telephone line blathering to her best lesbian friend, Fifi from Montreal. Once she covered the mouthpiece and said to me as I passed, "Fifi says there's some creepy guy stalking her -- she says she saw him with you!"
"Oh, yeah," I said, shrugging off my green toque and leaning in the doorway. "The Jazzman. He's quite a character."
"Do you think he's dangerous?" hissed Feminazi urgently.
"Shit no," I said.
She nodded and uncovered the phone, apologised with a white lie, went on jabbering. I passed on by. It was true that Jazzman had enrolled in the same evening cooking class as Fifi, and it was true that he tended to know her schedule in alarming detail. But I was convinced he was harmless -- love-stricken and lost, maybe, but harmless. He was twenty-eight years old and he worked in coffeeshops...he was barely a threat to himself.
I would check my voicemail and get a message from Gimli, updating me with unnecessary details about the temperature of the wine vats or some such other bit of vintning trivia his engineering self felt to be critical. Then I'd lollygag in IRC while doing my schoolwork.
Autumn deepened. The leaves fell.
I sat on the metal stairs, watching them skitter across the sidewalk in the dying light. The Jazzman passed me the bottle, and I passed him the joint. "Can I make a documentary about you?" I asked.
"A documentary, boss? What do you mean?"
I shrugged, handing him back the bottle. "A slice of the story we're in, I guess. I'll just shoot a lot of footage and see what happens."
"Like about the Gottingen Street Wine Company?"
"No, just about you."
He was quiet for a moment. Then, "Sure, boss. I mean, why not, you know?" He chuckled. "Maybe you'll make me a famous guy."
A longer pause. Jazzman scratched his face. He was growing a beard. I scratched mine. I was growing a beard, too. "What kind of a story do you think this is, anyway?" he asked.
"Every story's about a woman, in the end."
"You think so?"
"I guess it could be a love story. Aren't you in love with Fifi?"
He considered this, swigging from the bottle and flicking the end of the joint into the gutter. "I'm definitely troubled by a woman, boss," he said cryptically. "There's no doubt about that, you know?"
"Fuck Fifi, man." He looked out into the street. "Cowgirl's some kind of woman, you know? That's a smart woman, there. That's a strong character, you know?" He passed me the bottle. "I think I'm falling for her, boss."
And, for reasons not fully apparent to me at the time, this admission troubled me. I took the bottle and drank deep, feeling the burning of the cheap hooch warming my belly.
It was fall, and the air was changing.
PART III: The Rodeo Riders
In which Cheeseburger Brown sells wine, makes a movie, drops out of school and wins a rodeo.
Industrious Students Are We
Light snow was falling, but it turned to water on the roads. I shuffled along the street with my camcorder pressed to my face as the Jazzman bobbed in my viewfinder. "So we're late to meet Gimli," I prompted.
The sun had already set, and we were due to meet Gimli for a beer at the Economy Shoe Shop Cafe. Then Gimli and I were going back to his place to bottle the latest harvest of wine while Jazzman went to Fifi's cooking class. "We were supposed to meet him at five forty-five," said Jazzman.
"That's not good," I said.
"I feel guilt and shame," he agreed.
Later on, with the Jazzman on his way, Gimli unlocked the door to his place. "Shh," he advised. "Lilo was sleeping when I left." We slipped inside and he flipped on a light. The apartment was alive with the thick aroma of yeast.
While Gimli did some tests on the vats' contents to make sure everything was nominal I lined up the empty wine bottles we had cleaned and affixed with our proud label: a grainy photograph of the dingiest strip of Gottingen Street above a clean line of no nonsense type: GOTTINGENWEIN - Cheap and Deadly.
Lilo wandered out of the bedroom, rubbing her eyes sleepily, tugging a small T-shirt down to cover her round, brown bum. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Another batch is ready," said Gimli, looking around awkwardly. Lilo's state of partial undress embarrassed him. I kept my eyes on the bottles as I lined up the funnel and prepared to pour out the first litre and a half.
"Cool. Pour me some."
Gimli busied himself with more temperature taking, checking the other batches, so I poured her a jar of wine, averting my eyes. When I sat down again next to Gimli and the vats of wine he quietly mentioned that Lilo was driving him crazy. "She never goes to school. She just parties and hangs around. I don't know how to get her to leave."
"Doesn't she have her own place?"
"Yeah, but she always sleeps here," he moaned.
"So? Tell her to fuck off."
Gimli frowned. Then he leaned over on his elbow and called out, "Hey Lilo -- fuck off!"
Lilo giggled uproariously and drained the jar of wine. "Let's go dancing!"
I turned back to Gimli. "My. God. She's a monster."
"Shut up. She only hears what she wants to hear. She's psycho. If I tell her to leave she just treats it like a big joke." He sighed and shrugged, gesturing at the wine and the wine-making apparatus we had all gone in on together. "And besides, a quarter of all this shit is hers."
Lilo went to the bedroom to put clothes on and then helped us carry the bottles down to Gimli's Jetta. We drove around to the usual spot behind the Morse's Tea Building, and parked. A couple of guys were already there, waiting for us. "Good evening gentlemen," I greeted them, stepping out of the car. "Can we interest you in a little wine this evening?"
"Damn solid," said Barton, an American sculptor with a handle-bar moustache. "Is this batch good? The last batch was a little yeasty."
"Each batch is better than the last," promised Gimli, stroking his beard. "Gottingenwein is all about quality inebriation -- for less."
We took care of business and the boys left. Another small group arrived moments later. Lilo spotted a police car driving by, so we decided to change locations before they came by again. We did a brief and swift business around the corner from the Birdland after last call, and then got a tip about a house party in the Dalhousie student ghetto that was in danger of running dry. We unloaded the rest of the batch there, and stayed for a few rounds.
With my cut I could make rent and buy some food and another pouch of tobacco. Money for marijuana went into a common pool. Gimli used some of his money to put gas in the car. Lilo wanted to go to the casino. I took Cowgirl's money and promised to drop it by to her tomorrow.
I liked providing myself with excuses to visit Cowgirl. I would have dropped by anyway, but lately I had been taking comfort in having excuses to do so. So I put the cash into a wad in my coverall pocket and bid Gimli and Lilo goodnight.
Lilo started kissing him as the car pulled away. Gimli heaved a sigh and waved.
A Crisis of Confederation
When I came to bring Cowgirl her money the next day she was sitting on the sofa crying. She tried to pretend she wasn't when I came up, but gave up the ruse in fairly short order. "It's Chuckle Bear," she told me. "Things between us having been going so well lately. For a while."
She said that Chuckle Bear was frustrated with school, and that he was spending all of his time camping with a shrunken version of our former squadron: Bluegrass and Cosmic Sean formed the core, with a crowd of new blood forming the loose periphery. He had no time for Cowgirl. He was brusque with her, impatient always, grouchy usually. She even told me that Chuckle Bear's lovemaking had become savagely selfish, a sign of his inner emotional state if every there was one, she claimed. "But he won't talk to me," she added. "He never has anything to say to me anymore."
Let me tell you about Cowgirl. She was tall. She had tresses of brown hair, sometimes loose in an explosion around her shoulders but more usually pulled into a simple bun. She never wore makeup. Her eyes were blue. Her face was an open one, usually smiling, pale but smooth, dotted intermittently with freckles. She was fond of wearing the same loose, green cotton pants that surgeons wore. She had a favoured white tank-top and a long leather coat. She always wore big boots.
She was serene. I don't mean that like a dancer is serene -- not an effete grace, or a practised poise -- but rather the easy way of someone who is essentially secure. She spoke softly, but without uncertainty. She was approachable and affable, and people warmed to her right away. She was quick to laugh, and quick to reply in witty kind.
She held herself with the carelessness of a child. She struck no poses. She walked heavily, like a man. She grew up on a fifteen thousand acre cattle ranch. Her daddy was a cowboy, her mama was a minister.
"Chuckle Bear is...probably just going through a phase," I said lamely.
"Yeah, maybe," she said noncommittally, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Come on. I'll distract you. I'm meeting Elfington down at Grand Parade Square, for the rally."
Yes, it was that time again: la belle provence was threatening to succeed from the confederation of Canada, to strike out as a sovereign nation with "a distinct culture" based in Francophony. The last time had been in 1980, when I was five. It seems that each generation takes a kick at the can. Now it was 1995 and the issue was up for a fresh popular referendum.
Everywhere we looked were cars with that damn bumper sticker, white on black: MY CANADA INCLUDES QUEBEC!
The noise of the rally reached us when we were still blocks away. We stepped over the snaking cables running from the media vans and entered the square. Various musics were playing, and on a platform decorated with giant red maple leaves a skinny vegetarian-looking woman was yelling about patriotism and multiculturalism. Everywhere were banners and slogans and signs and flags.
I take photographs as we wander through the densely packed square. Cowgirl greets friends from school. The crowd is caught up in a thrilling fever, and it is infectious. People are gushing and enthusiastic. "It's so strange to see Canadians worked up like this," shouts Cowgirl over the din. "I mean -- over Canada."
"It's unbelievable," I shout back.
Our experience of our culture for most of our lives was that Canadians eschewed most forms of patriotism as hopelessly gauche at best, and jingoistic zealotry at worst. Canadians favoured a self-effacing manner with regard to their country, a kind of cultivated humility. Canadians always put Canada down, and made fun of our symbols.
But it wasn't that way in the autumn of 1995. All of us were concerned and a lot of us were electrified. Canada seemed to matter suddenly, when it seemed threatened to break asunder. What would become of us? Things crystallized for many when some idiot senator from New England suggested without real basis that the Canadian Maritimes might be absorbed into the United States in the event of the collapse of confederation. The Maritime media concerns had a field day, fanning our worst Imperial fears.
The yellow journals would have us believe we would be seeing American ATATs at the southern border the hour after the referendum went wrong.
Others had more concrete reasons to be concerned: economic, cultural, historical. Whatever the reason, people turned out in droves for the big "we love you, Quebec" rallies held all over the country in the days leading up to the referendum. Cowgirl and I were surrounded by students and workers, businesspeople and professionals, young and old, Francophone and Anglophone and Allophone alike.
And listen, honestly, I don't normally go for this kind of thing, but it was impossible to resist. We sang. We all sang. I mean, the whole fucking square sang -- I don't know how many overlapping voices, a terrible, beautiful sound. We all sang Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage, a perennially Canadian song (comparable perhaps to the way Americans feel about America the Beautiful). Many people cried. Shit -- I cried.
I almost cry now, typing about it. Isn't it remarkable the hypnotic hysteria of a crowd? A decade later, I am not free of it.
You know what happens when you experience something special with somebody. Some of the specialness rubs off, and you have a magical time together. We held hands, Cowgirl and I. I didn't feel badly about it given the circumstances and neither did she. But things would never be quite the same between us again.
"Holy shit," she said as we walked back to the North End.
"Holy shit," I agreed.
Way of the Jazzman
There was a transformation taking place. Or maybe it had always been that way, and I just hadn't noticed until my senses were sharpened by jealousy. But after the day at the rally with Cowgirl I started to notice new dynamics in our social playgroup.
The Jazzman vied for Cowgirl's attention, and so did Elfington in a more subtle way. I saw the way Gimli looked at Cowgirl when Lilo was bugging him and read the affection in his eyes. I couldn't ignore even the way Lilo also pushed herself upon Cowgirl, desperate for her approval and friendship.
We were all falling in love with this unpretentious, sweet little tomboy. Every one of us. Was it something in the water?
Our evenings revolved around her because we all wanted to be chosen.
It was a kind of rodeo, and we were all riders. No one wanted to be shaken off.
It disgusted me, and so I started playing hookey from my friends. I did what I considered the gentlemanly thing to do, and withdrew from the race. I retreated into IRC, searching fruitlessly for those magical acquaintances from the end of summer (but they were lost forever in the sea of EFnet, different nicks, different providers, different schedules). I discovered Internet pornography and invested insomniac hours in culling erotic wheat from dreary chaff.
During the days I sat in a school edit suite watching endless hours of Jazzman going about his daily life. "Music will always be a part of my life..." he mutters, smoking. He pursues a new job in a coffeeshop. He bums around with Gimli. I dug around and I watched, reviewed and rewatched, looking for the string of story hidden in all of the meandering hours...
Eventually I made my cuts and the story was carved, for what it was worth. (Way of the Jazzman - English / 13 minutes / 1995). My video prof gave me an A. "That poor soul," he sympathised. "So lost." He shook his head. "Hilarious and tragic."
I thought "hilarious and tragic" was high praise. Life was hilarious and tragic.
One night Cowgirl dropped by. "I haven't seen you around much, and I need your help," she said. She wanted me to help her rewrite her term papers. "I think you have a way with words, CheeseburgerBrown," she told me.
So we spent the next few evenings churning through German folklore. We sat close on milk crates set before the trunk I used as a desk, drinking Gottingenwein and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. She was there sitting beside me when Curvy called to tell me she was flying out to Halifax to visit me. "Wow," I said. And then, "Great!"
Curvy was very excited. And in the coming days I came to be excited, too. I was looking forward to having Curvy around to remind me what charmed me about her, and to defocus me from thinking about Cowgirl. Maybe Jazzman was right, and this was a love story after all.
Curvy would save me.
It was time for the Halifax Film Festival. Chuckle Bear and I were volunteers together, serving trays of drinks to industry notables. Rick Mercer asked me where the washroom was, and David Cronenberg backed into me and made me drop an empty tray. He was very gracious in apology. Nobody apologises like a Canadian.
A good time was had by all. It was the most Chuckle Bear and I had palled around in a long while, which was nice.
After the crowd filed into the screening Gimli and Elfington picked me up and took me to the airport. It was easy to spot Curvy at the gate, picking her way uncertainly through the milieu of other passengers, looking up and seeing me, looking down and blushing.
On the way home I sat in the backseat and held Curvy's hand. Elfington asked her some polite questions to which she responded quietly, self-effacingly. She looked at me and smiled quickly, biting her lip. She giggled.
Yes, and later we all met up for drinks. Curvy met Cowgirl and the Jazzman, Lilo, Plinky and others. We took a large table in the Seahorse and pounded back rounds, growing boisterous. Curvy sipped at her drink and blinked. She held onto my hand and cowered from attention.
And, to you the whole truth, it became tedious quickly.
I felt like I had a little child-friend, not a grown person who could speak up for themselves. She seemed to need to be sheltered from the new, the strange, the loud, like a skittish pet. I sighed, and tried to remain buoyant.
Come evening I was less bothered. Alone, just the two of us in my cramped room, Curvy was more like herself. She joked with me, and nuzzled my neck. She said she missed me. Shy as always, she changed into a T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts for pajamas, sitting on my inflatable bed, her arms folded against her chest. "So..." she said. "How's university life?" Then she covered her face and moaned. "I'm so retarded!"
"Don't be silly. What's going on back home?"
"Oh, I don't know. You know. Just stupid high-school stuff. Just...stupid." She paused. "Our lives are so different now. Maybe I shouldn't have come."
"What do you mean? What would you say that? I'm so happy to see you."
"Yeah, I'm happy to see you too," she said, hugging me. "It's just...weird. I feel so retarded."
"I don't know. You've got all of your Coolie McCool university friends and I'm just some stupid little girl, and I don't have anything to say to them, and I don't know." She knotted her fingers together in her lap. "Can we smoke a joint?"
"Yeah," I said, reaching for the supplies and starting to roll one up. "You shouldn't feel intimidated. So what if they're a year or two older than you are? It's nothing special -- it's not that different. You are Curvy the Powerful!"
She giggled. "No I'm not," she said softly, burying her face in my shoulder.
We were smoking the joint in silence when the alley exploded into a riot of clattering. Curvy's eyes widened in alarm. "Don't worry," I assured her. "It's just Sanford, bringing home his evening haul of loot."
"He's the old black bum who lives in my alley."
"Oh my God. Does he always make that much noise?"
"A few times a day. You can tell him to shut up if you want to. It's kinda fun." I opened the window and gestured her over. Forgetting her modesty she walked to the window with her arms at her sides instead of guarding her chest, allowing me to appreciate for a moment the jiggle of her most excellent breasts beneath the thin fabric of her T-shirt. She crouched by my side, taking a sidelong look out of the window. "Go on," I urged.
"No. Really?" she giggled again, pinching me. "Tell him to shut up?"
Sanford upended a grocery cart full of aluminium cans with a torrent of slushy noise. I nodded decisively. "You betcha."
"What will he do?" she asked. I shrugged. So, Curvy leaned her head of the window and called out "Hey you, shut up!" in a small voice.
There was a pause. "Wait for it," I warned.
"Ham radio!" cried Sanford, echoey between the alley walls. He then went on sorting his clattering loot.
We cracked up laughing and closed the window. We kissed and cuddled, and retired to bed. In the dark, everything between us was fine. Just fine. Halifax melted away. Cowgirl was just Chuckle Bear's girlfriend, and Chuckle Bear seemed like just a distant dream himself. He was things he'd said to me, reduced to lines of text on the screen of my mind. I was dreaming of IRC again, and the players in my life all had ops...
I was separated from them in a violent netsplit, but then it was morning and I was awake. Curvy slept beside me, nude and cocoa and tranquil, her shoulder gently rising and falling with her slow respiration. I tucked the covers over her so she wouldn't feel shy when she woke up.
But the glow didn't last. The day was awkward. Curvy just disappeared into herself whenever she was presented with a new person or situation, like a very cute turtle. In the evening we all went to see Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles at the local dog and monkey cinema house, the Wormwood. Chuckle Bear thought it was fantastic. There were to be drinks afterward, but I decided to spare us both the ordeal and so took Curvy back to the Indian Grocery.
That night was awkward, too. Curvy decided to branch out sexually and attempt to give me head, but she was having a terrible time of it and really nobody had very much fun. I thought it was nice of her to try (seeing it had previously been under the "I don't do that" heading), but really I felt quite uncomfortable with my flagging member in her mouth, trying not to wince when scraped by her teeth. (Is there a Hallmark card for that kind of occasion? Thanks But No Thanks, maybe.) Neither of us knew what to do to conclude the non-event, and the fiasco continued for far too long to be recovered from with any kind of dignity.
"I don't know what I'm doing," she said.
"That's okay," I said. Encouraging lies wouldn't have cut the mustard. "Let's just, uh, do something else."
"Okay," she said. But her embarrassment stifled her passion, and the ensuing play was mechanical and left us both feeling a bit empty and sad.
"I'm so retarded," she whispered into the dark as I fell asleep.
The next day Cowgirl drove us to the airport in the '57 Chevy. It was hard for Curvy to hide her relief at seeing her adventure's end. She held me close in the terminal, but was quickly on her way.
I wandered out to the car. Cowgirl was smoking a cigarette, leaning on the sweeping chrome fender and looking around in a careless way. "Hey," she said.
"Hey." I climbed into the car.
"So..." she said as we pulled away. "That was Curvy."
"Yeah. That was her alright."
We rode in silence for a way, coasting on to the highway back toward Halifax. Eventually Cowgirl said, "I never really imagined you with a girl like that."
"Frankly, I'm having some trouble imagining it right now," I told her. Then, "What do you mean when you say 'like that'?"
She shrugged. "Beautiful, for one thing."
"You know what I mean. She's like some kind of exotic princess." A pause. "And so quiet! I just never imagined you with such a quiet girl."
"Yeah," I said noncomitally. I looked out the window. "I'm pretty sure it's over."
"Oh," said Cowgirl.
We drove along a high suspension bridge across the harbour, the shadow stripes whipping over us in staccato patterns. We crossed the bridge and descended the other side, returning to the North End. The whores were on their corners and the clusters of black men were sitting on their porches sucking ale, smoking cigarettes, talking sport.
I couldn't help myself. It dawned on me in little sharp pieces. By the time we were pulling up in front of the Indian Grocery I felt queasy and dizzy, my sternum burning cold in my chest.
I was in love with Cowgirl. I was in love with her like I thought I was going to die.
I got out of the car and said, "Thanks for the lift."
The snow came, along with an e-mail from Toronto Life. They wanted new watercolour illustrations for their online restaurant guide. They proposed a fee for my services which I considered most generous. Work would begin in the new year.
I asked myself what I was getting out of school. Basically, it boiled down to limited access to arts professionals who would, once a week, look at what I'd done and encourage me to continue my explorations. Shit -- an imaginary friend could do that for free, and I was paying these rascals thousands of dollars each semester.
And those thousands of dollars had run out. Between tarrying in Montreal with the Lipgloss Gypsy, romancing Curvy through the summer, and buying wine-making apparati, I had utterly cleaned out my savings. The money I had earned as a working teenager was finally entirely gone, and now I would be living on nothing but the returns from wine sales. I had already been reduced to finding dinner by going to art gallery openings and filling up on hors d'oeuvres, and given up buying recreational intoxicants of any kind.
The prospect of moving back to Toronto and learning by working and getting paid appealed to me much more than taking out a student loan and beginning my career with massive debt.
Also: if I moved back to Toronto I could put Cowgirl out of my mind.
The plan got better and better. I called my mom and broke the news. "I'm not returning to school in January. I'm going to work." She cried. I was supposed to be a Master of Fine Arts. Instead, I was going to be an artist.
I could escape! I could escape dull classes of soft information, student poverty and a room with a view of a crack ape; I could escape quaint Halifax, and escape from Cowgirl. I could be free.
I e-mailed the magazine and confirmed the booking. I was going back to Toronto. I was going to escape.
Precious Little Time
The world was white and crunchy, encased in a layer of ice. People were dissipating away, the semester was ending. Chuckle Bear and his entourage took off for a big wintercamp festival of controlled madness.
I sat on Cowgirl's couch with Cowgirl and Elfington. Freezing rain beat against the windows. We ate magic mushrooms and watched Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, a long and elegantly told film with amazing sensitivity and grandeur. I had never seen it before. I was blown away. Before the movie started I told Cowgirl that I was leaving. Throughout the show she clutched my hand in the dark.
"We have so precious little time with you, CheeseburgerBrown!" she said cheerfully after the movie ended. "Don't go home right away."
"Yes, do stay and have a few drinks," agreed Elfington.
And so I did. There were only two riders in the rodeo now. And when Elfington staggered home through the sleeting snow I remained, rooted on the couch, smoking Cowgirl's cigarettes and sipping wine. We talked about trivial things while I worked up my courage. We laughed and joked, and wondered what kind of a destiny would await such a weird soul as the Jazzman's. She touched my hand again, squeezed it affectionately. "I'm going to miss you," she said earnestly.
"Yeah," I said. "I'm going to miss you too."
I lit another cigarette, and then put it out. I picked up my drink and put it down. "I'm going to miss you a lot, Cowgirl." I turned took a silent breath and turned to her and said, "Listen, can I tell you something? It's only because I'm leaving that I can tell you."
The wind howled at the windows. "What is it?" she asked.
"I've -- totally fallen in love with you." I looked at my hands. "I would never -- I mean, Chuckle Bear --" I trailed off, stammering. "I just thought you might as well know, now that I'm leaving." I looked up at her again. "I just thought it might make you feel nice, to know some boy fell in love with you."
She smiled, and patted my head. "Oh, CheeseburgerBrown," she said soothingly. "It does make me feel nice."
I felt nice, too. I mean, she was being so cool about it. I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
"What are we going to do with us?" Cowgirl muttered, lighting up a Camel and putting her boots up on the coffee table. "Just what are we going to we with us?"
A moment. She turned to me. "Hey? What are we going to do about us?"
"What are we going to do?" I echoed, dumbly.
"I'm in love with you, too," she said, looking into my eyes. Then her eyes filled up with tears and she looked away quickly. "What are we going to do with us?" she asked again, huskily.
I hugged her. Moments passed. "What are we going to do..." she murmured into my chest. And then she looked up. "What do you think?"
"I don't know what we can do," I admitted.
"I think..." she said, her eyes suddenly far away. "I think I should come with you to Toronto."
That's pretty much where we came in. Remember?
We dared not kiss, but we also could not separate ourselves. We clung to one another on the couch, listening to the frozen snow beat against the panes. I smelled her hair, moving my lips close, so tantalisingly close to her lips I would not touch. Sometimes almost kissing can be more erotic than kissing. Something almost touches are more electric than the real thing.
I felt her breast against my bicep, felt her nipple harden under the cloth. She moaned quietly and pushed herself closer to me, her lips flitting past my ear, glancing past my neck, driving me mad...
But still we could not part.
"It will take me a couple of weeks to get out of here," she said. This was a euphemism for "to leave Chuckle Bear" and we both knew it. I just nodded. "We have precious little time," she said, her hand exploring mine, then squeezing it. "I don't want to let you go."
"I have to go," I whispered. "I have to pack my shit. We're driving back tomorrow."
But still I did not go.
The sun rose. Gently and by stages, we untangled ourselves. We straightened our clothes. She looked up at me from the couch, and it took every ounce of will I had not to lie down beside her there. "I have to go," I said for the hundredth time.
This time I turned to leave. I put on Minxy's plaid jacket and started patting down the pockets for my accessories. Cowgirl grabbed my arm from the couch. "Look," she said seriously. "I'm really in love with you."
"You torture me. I have to fucking go. Please stop being wonderful."
I left. I banged down the stairs and smashed myself up against the front door, which did not open as expected. I put my shoulder into it and it ground open, a barrier of ice snapping out of the way with a series of loud cracks and pops.
I stepped out into an early Sunday morning encased in ice. The light was indigo and diffused, reflecting off everything. I carefully picked my way down the treacherous sidewalk, opting in the end to walk along the middle of the street where at least the ice was reasonably regular instead of corrugated.
It took me three tries to climb the short hill to the block the Indian Grocery was on. I kept falling on my face and slowly sliding backward down the hill. I tried to grab at a hydro pole, but it, like everything, was glazed in a thick crystal layer.
"Jesus Murphy Brown, I'm licked," I said to myself, drunk and in love and exhausted and in pain. I took a few deep breaths and then flung myself halfway up the hill, wedging myself on the high side of a newspaper box before rallying for the next lunge.
I eventually made it to the top on my hands and knees, feeling ridiculous. The glassy streets were abandoned. The sound of falling, shattering ice came intermittently from every side. I was cautiously skiing my way toward the metal staircase at the Indian Grocery when a skinny, desperate looking middle-aged black man stepped out of the doorway of the store.
"Give me your wallet," he barked, holding up a blade.
Holy shit! Twenty years in Toronto and I've never been mugged, but a year in Halifax and I'm accosted by the robbery capades!
I stepped back, startled more than anything. "What?" I said.
"Give me your fucking wallet," the man barked again, flexing his chin out aggressively and then flashing the knife again. "Right now right now, let's go," he snarled, his bloodshot eyes bulging. "Give it, buddy!"
That's when Sanford burst out of the mouth of the alley hollering all holy hell, banging two scraps of metal together as he skated into the mugger and knocked him down. "Pig sticker beggingman go home!" gasped Sanford, scrambling away and kicking at the man. "Get off the grass, dirty dog!"
The mugger ran away.
"Wow," I said. "Thanks, Sanford! You're the best homeless guy in the world, man."
I like to think that Sanford was paying me back for scaring off those punks, but it's hard to be sure. When I tried to help him up he slapped my hand and started screaming. I stepped back quickly.
The man who liked his hookers to close their eyes opened his window and stuck out his head. "Shut up!" he bellowed.
"Ham radio!" replied Sanford with a scowl, retreating back into the alley.
And so ended a long, long day. I negotiated the icy steps wearily, and napped for a few hours before completing the final stages of my packing. When Raphael got up for breakfast I gave him the details about when the shipping company would be coming to pick up my stuff for freight. "Ah, okay," he said, eating Fruit Loops. "No problem, CheeseburgerBrown." He gave me a mix CD, as a parting gift. Sweet guy.
By noon Gimli's Jetta was outside, honking.
I'll Miss You Most of All, Scarecrow
Halifax shone in the flat, cloudy light the day after the ice storm. Icicles smashed down from every roof, making walking outdoors risky. The city felt deserted. No birds chirped. Traffic was thin and cautious.
"Where are we going?" I asked, noticing that Gimli did not make the turn off for the TransCanada.
"I want to go to say good-bye to Cowgirl, boss," answered Jazzman. "I have to give her my number in Montreal, you know? I mean, you never know, you know?" Poor dreamer. Poor rodeo clown. The Jetta fishtailed down Gottingen toward Cowgirl's place. Aw crap, I thought.
But we put on a brave face. Cowgirl gave everyone a nice long hug, and had words for each. She gave the Jazzman a kiss on the forehead, and made him promise to put a jazz album together once he was back in Montreal. She gave Gimli a kiss on the cheek, and told him she'd mind the wine until he returned after Christmas. She kissed me quickly on the chin, whispering, "And I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow."
"See you in a few weeks!" Elfington called, and we all got back into the car. The Jetta skidded off of the slippery curb while Cowgirl stood back and shoved her hands into her pockets. Her eyes glistened and the muscles in her jaw worked.
I looked away. I looked at the back of Elfington's head. Gimli drove on. The ice palaces of Halifax disappeared behind me, like so much else, destined for the nonsubstance of memory. Strike sets -- I'm out.
Yes, and we would have some adventures in Montreal, exploring the home turf of our Jazzman. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
Yes, and Gimli and I would stay in a sub-zero abandoned cabin the night his Jetta got stuck in a snowbank, nearly freezing to death in the night. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
And yes, I would win the rodeo after all. Cowgirl would come to live with me in Toronto after I'd broken up with Curvy. Cowgirl would make good on her word. She really did love me a lot, it was true. We would have a basement hovel in Riverdale, where we would live with her one-eyed cat. She would enjoy riding the subway for the novelty factor, and would delight in staring out the front or rear windows like a kid. She would kiss me, at last. She would show me a woman where I had only known girls. And a million other things would happen, too.
But those are other stories, and shall be told another time.
On October 30th 1995, the province of Quebec voted to remain a member of the Canadian confederation by a margin of less than two percent. All unions are delicate.
The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle | What Art Is | Lipgloss Gypsy | What Art Is | On Enemies
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