So that night, there I was, driving through drizzle in my parents’ Monarch to pick up Gus. He was on a corner beside a dirty brown hump that had been a snowbank a coupla weeks before. He had an army surplus coat over the same jeans and T-shirt from work.
His feet were soaked, he said when he jumped in.
Same running shoes too.
I turned on the car heater. “So you live around here?”
“Turn down Bathurst.”
We passed a row of large brick houses fronting right onto the sidewalk.
“That’s mine there,” he said.
“It’s most of it single rooms here. Rooming houses.”
“Look okay,” I said. They kinda didn’t but I didn’t want him to think I was criticizing his place. Though turns out I didn’t have to worry, he was critical enough on his own.
“Other day I walk into the john on my floor, there’s a guy sitting there with his head back, his eyes closed, a needle stuck in him.”
“Not moving a muscle. Sitting there with the needle hanging from his arm.”
“You mean dead?”
“Dunno. An hour later I come back, he’s gone.”
Minute later: “We heading anywhere in particular or just driving around?”
“Vancouver,” I said.
“Wish. Just driving until one of us decides where to go.”
“You know the bars around here?”
“You twenty-one?” I asked.
“That a problem round here?”
“The Blitz on Spadina. They never ask for ID.”
“The drinking age is gonna be lowered soon anyways.”
“My luck. By the time I turn twenty-one they’ll have it lowered it to eighteen.”
At the Blitz the music is always blaring onto the sidewalk from a speaker above the door. Inside you get a choice of seeing a live band upstairs or sitting in the bar downstairs with piped in music. So after we asked each other a couple dozen times what we wanted to do, I ended up paying three dollars for each of us upstairs. Gus bought the beer.
For something to say, I told him I used to play in a group. I was exaggerating what was a couple guys fooling around after school.
“I wouldn’t mind starting a group. Maybe out west —”
That’s when the band launched into a set and drowned me out.
So I settled in to be a regular guy with another regular guy in a bar. Between numbers we’d say it was a great band and make remarks about the girls who were dancing and the dorks they were with. It always started this way. First I’d be tense, self-conscious, you know. Then after a drink I could let go a little. Smoking dope didn’t work, if I was nervous, just made me worse. But a few drinks and I might even be up dancing and falling over. Had to work up to a good time.
Not like some guys, not like this Gus. He was slouched back, holding a mug against his stomach. Now he leaned forward, probably to make a joke about the wiggling girl with the black headband. I’d laugh even if I couldn’t make out what he said.
He shouted louder, “I think we blew your six bucks. Coming up here.”
I frowned like I didn’t know what he meant.
He nodded at me to drain my glass so we could leave.
On the stairs down he said, “Sorry you wasted your money to get in there.”
He led into the bar on the ground floor.
“I’ll pay you back in drinks. Least we can hear ourselves now. Away from that godawful band.”
So we ordered more draft, smoked more cigarettes and I heard about him coming to Toronto to get away from St. Mary’s, some piddly town a hundred miles away. All the kids who didn’t see their future working in cement wanted to leave St. Mary’s, he said, and most of them ended up in London or Kitchener or some other bigger towns nearby. But for him it was always the big city.
“For the job opportunities.” I made it sound sarcastic which was easy after two beers.
“Tell you, shovelling gravel in St. Mary’s starts to look pretty good after awhile here, specially without a job. Least I’d have some money, some friendly faces around.”
He’d spent most of his time here in what he called the unemployment office. Made me laugh describing the characters who hung out there every morning. When he finally landed the job at Cruikshanks last week, he was almost broke. If the strike got settled fast, he could make enough to start looking for a better job by the end of summer. “Or go for some kinda training. Get a trade, eh?”
“Like welding or bricklaying?”
“Something wrong with that? Or truck driving. Go back to St. Mary’s with a licence to drive a cement mixer.”
“No. But it could be I’ll have had enough of Toronto by then.”
“I have already,” I said. “But I ain’t going to no hick town.”
I hadn’t meant it like that. But he didn’t seem to take offence.
“Out west,” I said. “British Columbia. Anywhere out there. Up the coast. Down the coast. California, man. San Francisco.”
“For what?” said Gus.
“I got plans.”
I couldn’t just spell them out with my head starting to float. My plans weren’t like “When I get out west I’m gonna do this or that.” I didn’t know exactly. Things would come together. Things that wouldn’t come together in Toronto. Cause out west wasn’t like Toronto. Wouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be where my parents and relatives and teachers and bosses were. It was different out there. Different kinda people, young and doing interesting things and the world changing. Places, groups where people supported themselves without having to work for some big company and bosses. People doing interesting things that didn’t have to do with making money and fitting into a fucked-up society. Lots of amazing things out there for sure. You can’t talk about those kindsa things without sounding weird, like one of those drugged-out hippies that comedians make fun of on TV. Some dreams sound silly when you try and put them in words. Even in your own head.
“Start another band?” said Gus.
It took a moment to remember what we were talking about. “I wasn’t in a real band. Just fooling around.”
“In your bedroom, right? Me too. Me and some guys. Till my father wrecked my guitar. Claimed it was an accident. I left it on the floor and he stepped on it. Snapped the neck right off. We never even got to be a garage band.”
“We should form a group. Like the Band. You know, the Bedroom Band.”
“The Grateful Bed. Whadya play?”
“Drums. Sorta.” I said. “Anyhow I’m leaving in a coupla days.”
“Maybe the next day. Maybe sleep in late, just cause I wanna sleep in late, then go tell McIntyre I quit. To his face. This beer tastes like piss.”
“You know what piss tastes like?”
A few drinks in me, I was clever like that. I could talk about anything. I started in telling Gus — who was a great guy after all, I could see that now — I started in telling him all about working at Cruikshanks for ten months and knowing today I was gonna quit and Duffy being a great guy too but I didn’t wanna end up like him, afraid to do anything. “Except for today when he hit McIntyre, okay,” I said when Gus pointed it out to me. Pointed it out nice cause he was a nice guy and I was too, and I was big enough to admit when something was pointed out that was true.
And we drank some more. I did anyhow. I had to toast Duffy.
“To Duff Wortsensomething — a nice guy.”
“A nice guy gone bad.”
“Nice guy gone bald.”
And I toasted old Crooked Shanks, the bastard who started the company a hundred years ago. Duffy’s joke, that’s the kinda good guy Duffy was, or maybe it was Brissette, I couldn’t remember and I didn’t wanna be taking nothing from anyone cause they were both good guys.
Somewhere in the conversation we got in my car and Gus said he’d better drive. I told him I could drive him home but, no, he wanted to cause he hadn’t had a chance to drive a car since he came to Toronto, so he’d drive me home. That was fair and if I was anything I was fair. I told him that. Besides, if he drove I could talk more about the things I meant when I first talked to him in the warehouse today and couldn’t get it out right but somehow I never got around to it.
When we reached my parents’ place in the west end, I realized Gus still had to get back to his place. He’d find a cab, he said.
You”re right again, I told him. I was being polite cause somehow it didn’t make complete sense but I didn’t wanna embarrass him. He was obviously drunk.
I said, real polite, “Seeya in the morning,” so he’d know I was the kinda good guy I was.
Did I want a smoke to take in with me? Nah, I never smoked at home, I told him. Dunno why. Dad did, sometimes Mom, just something I wouldn’t do, that was the way I was, I told him.
And then Gus disappeared in darkness down the wet street in his army coat and running shoes. As I walked in the front door of my parents house, I felt how drunk I was. Next thing, I was in my warm bed and that was that.
Until a quarter to three.
It’s always a quarter to three at night I wake up if I was drinking. Sometimes when I haven’t been. Always seems like quarter to three, I wake up thirsty for water and then after a drink from the kitchen tap I can’t get back to sleep.
I was shaky but my brain was clear. Too clear. Everything was always clear as a shopping list at quarter to three.
Me making an ass of myself.
Me getting drunk and making an ass of myself the second time the same day.
Me going on and on, things that couldn’t be explained to anyone else who didn’t already know what I was talking about. Why didn’t I ever explain anything better, so afterwards I could forget it instead of going over and over what I’d said? Cause I was always trying to explain things that were ridiculous to try to explain cause they were things a person either felt or didn’t. Nothing I could say could change that.
The future didn’t exist here any more. Maybe it didn’t exist anywhere, but I knew it didn’t exist here. I knew this as I roamed around the dark kitchen and living room and the basement recreation room, quiet so I wouldn’t wake my parents but banging furniture and stairs a little so they might wake up by accident and ask me what was going on, so I could tell them the future didn’t exist in Toronto, in this old world I grew up in. But they didn’t wake up and I didn’t tell anyone anything, which was good cause maybe I was still just a tiny little bit drunk.
Okay, tell them first thing in the morning. I’d be on the highway by noon with my thumb out.