Vancouver was cool. The trees were shiny like it just rained, the whole city rinsed off and sparkling in the sun. You could see mountains and the ocean, like from inside the city. A place in a movie, not like in Canada.
Wesley parked on a wide street of big wooden places in bright bathroom colours. We waited in the car as he went into a turquoise house with a huge pink porch.
He came out all bouncy. “Like I said, these are my people. Bring your gear.”
He led us down a lane beside the house. I thought he was taking us in the back way cause we were dirty, but he stopped inside the gate and spread an arm.
“Your new home.”
A weedy yard. He waded to this old shed near the back. He fit a key in the lock and pressed the door open with his shoulder.
“It’s a great little cabin,” he said.
At the back of the yard I stood on tiptoe and peered over the wooden fence. A laneway. Like the alleys in Winnipeg, except stores backed onto the other side of this one. Garbage cans were grouped along it like hitchhikers.
Wesley was saying in the shed, “You can fix it up however you like.”
We could stand up straight only in the middle of it. Rakes and hoes against one wall and old boards strewn on the wood floor. Light came through gaps in the boards on the walls.
“Serious?” Gus said.
“Better than what I got. I’m stuck in a corner of the basement because my old room upstairs has been taken over. But this is great.” Wesley nudged the boards with his boot. “You can rig up bunks.”
“It’s a toolshed.”
“It’s what you make of it.”
I said, “We sorta figured we’d be staying in a house. This commune, whatever it is.”
“They weren’t expecting me to show up right now. Frankly they’re a wee bit upset. Plus I show up with two extras. But they’ll settle down. Anyone moves out, you might get first call on their room. But get this all fixed and you might not wanna. Your own place. Privacy. No hassles.”
“No can to piss in,” said Gus.
“You can use the facilities in the house. Come in and meet everyone when you’re ready.” He tossed Gus the shed key and left.
I sat on a pile of wood, duffle bag on my lap.
Gus kicked some of the wood. “Room and boards, eh?”
“It ain’t the Royal York.”
Gus pulled a string below a light bulb but it didn’t come on. He ran fingers along the planks of the walls. “Have to stop up these cracks.”
We made room to lay out our sleeping bags, then headed for the house.
Inside the back door of the house we found ourselves in a huge kitchen. And it hit me, this was the first home I’d been in since leaving Toronto.
Bright boxes and bags of food filled open shelves. On a counter were jars of rice and beans with hand-printed labels. A table in the middle of the room was circled by chairs facing in every direction, like people had just got up a minute ago. Against a wall was a couch with magazines jammed between the cushions.
Nothing like my mother’s kitchen which was scoured and everything out of view. My father’s joke: “This place is so clean you could eat in it.”
But still this was a real kitchen in a real house where people lived and ate real meals. And the memory washed over me of that other amazing place I grew up in — warm, clean, where meals came from a fridge and an oven. And rooms where clothes were unfolded from dresser drawers across soft bedspreads. I had an urge to wander through this house and look into the rooms and run my hands over what was in the closets and find all the secret places.
“And who are you?”
She came into the kitchen from the front of the house. She was big for a woman, almost as tall as me, with straight, light brown hair to her shoulders and an angry look, like the skin was stretched tight across the bottom half of her face.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Wesley’s friends bumming around the country in that fascist car.”
She got packages down from the shelves and spoke over her shoulder, pronouncing every word like she was talking to kids. “You’ll have to sort out the issue of the washrooms. One washroom is upstairs. There’s another in the basement but only the washroom upstairs has a tub, so you’ll have to take turns. Whoever isn’t going first, scrub your hands and come help in the kitchen. I’ll fit you into the rotation if you’re staying but for now you can help me make supper. Do you grasp what I’m saying? I have a meeting tonight, so I have to move.”
And that was our intro to Petra.
I grabbed the bath first. I didn’t wanna be left with this scary woman. Gus washed his hands in the bathroom sink while I ran water in the tub. He left to go down and help in the kitchen. “Have fun,” I said.
I soaped myself all over and laid under the hot water a long while. Then I took my time towelling off. I’d left my comb in my bag, so I used one that was sitting on the back of the toilet. I yanked knots out of my hair, pulled them from the comb and flushed them down so no one would know I’d used the comb. I scraped my teeth with a fingernail and rinsed my mouth. Then I put on the same clothes I’d taken off cause I had nothing clean.
Back in the kitchen I said “Your turn” to Gus and “At your service” to the scary woman.
“It’s all done,” she said. “We’ll eat in the front tonight. You can wait there.”
It sounded like an order. So I found the front room with Wesley and three other people in it.
Wesley introduced me as “Marcus, emperor of the road.” He waved a hand around the room, “My old comrades in arms.”
He gave everyone’s name but the only one that stuck with me right away was Picket, a funny guy. Weird funny. When we were introduced he said, “Really, eh?” He was pretty short with longish curly black hair and sort of a rat face, but he was always smiling so it was like a friendly cartoon rat face.
Wesley was telling them amazing things about his travels. A girl or woman — I couldn’t tell if she was older or younger than me — was painting sparkles on her toenails, while a guy rested his blond head on her lap and hung his legs over the end of the couch. He kept saying, “Oh nooo,” dragging it out like a painful laugh, to Wesley’s stories. But he closed his eyes like he was dozing off. Picket smiled and smiled and so Wesley talked mainly to him, but Picket never said anything except “Really.” He rolled and smoked one cigarette after another, always holding his pouch of tobacco out to me first.
The front door slammed and a guy in greasy overalls went past and upstairs. He returned wearing jeans like everyone else.
“Normal Norbert,” Wesley said.
“Wesley. You’re alive.”
“Keepin’ on keepin’ on. You got a straight job, looks like.”
“Working-class hero. Haven’t seen you since — last summer?”
“Spring.” He started telling Norbert about his trip but the big scary woman came in and said the food was ready.
We dished it out in the kitchen and sat with it in the front room, most of us sitting on the rug. Gus asked the scary woman why she called Wesley’s car fascist. Someone laughed.
“Because it is,” she said. “The Volkswagen was promoted by Hitler in the 1930s to demonstrate German fascism could produce consumer goods. It means people’s car, one of the Nazis’ smaller lies.”
“We can’t be blamed for riding in one now,” Gus said.
“I didn’t say you could. But it’s better to be aware of facts than blithely go about not knowing, don’t you think?”
Wesley laughed his throat-chuckle. “Petra the Great. Scourge of fascists and imperialists everywhere. And they are everywhere, you accept the teachings of Che Guevera interpreted by Comrade Petra.”
Norbert said, “You’re behind the times, Wesley. It’s the gospel of Marx-Lenin-and-Everything-Chinese now.”
“In the first place, I do not find imperialists under every bed,” Petra said. “But it is important to point out imperialism wherever it rears its ugly head, to use the correct terminology, so people can recognize it and smash it. And, Wesley, what have you been up to for the past year?”
“Fieldwork,” he said. “Personal research….” I thought he was gonna launch into a big spiel like he’d done with Gus and me but he just let it trail off.
“Almost got through a day without a political lesson,” said Norbert. But he was smiling.
“I’m sorry,” Petra said. “But not sorry.” And she smiled too, for the first time.
I wondered if they were a couple, her and Norbert. That left only one woman unattached, the younger one, Loren, who’d been painting her toes. Roger, the blond guy who’d been sleeping against her, was eating at the opposite end of the room now. Everyone called him Rog. Made me think of Raj back at Cruikshanks though they were nothing alike.
“So this is a commune or something?” I said.
They looked like they didn’t get what I meant at first.
“We’re just friends,” Norbert said. “Sharing the rent.”
“I’ll tell you about communes some time,” said Petra.
Cigarettes came out after eating, ready-made ones, and everyone smoked. I noticed Petra smoked one halfway down and stubbed it out.
Picket leaned towards Gus, “Ever been to Van before? I can show you round.”
Gus asked if he worked.
“Off and on.”
“Easy to find work here?”
Norbert said, “I knew it. Everyone comes west either to play at being hippies or to look for jobs.”
“I think we’re doing both,” said Gus.
“All they have to do is arrive here and snap up some high-paying job. Bloody land of milk and honey.”
Gus said, “In Toronto I kept running into guys from the Maritimes cause they’d heard of the good life there. It’s always better further west. We’re as further west as we can go now.”
“There’s always China,” said Wesley, nodding at Petra.
I said. “I just wanna get some scratch so we can take off again. California maybe.”
Loren got up to leave, saying she was “working in the club tonight” and had to change. I figured her to be some kinda dancer.
“I’m off too,” said Petra. “Anyone want to come?”
“What this time?” said Norbert.
“On the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”
“You’ll need a new bulb for the shed,” Petra said to Gus and me. “There are a few extra in the kitchen cupboard.”
When she had gone, Norbert said, “I stay outa the heavy political stuff.”
“Soft drugs and soft politics,” said Picket. “Stay off the heavy stuff.”
Norbert was saying to Wesley, “Jesse’s father is being a prick over access. He’s been using one excuse after another to keep Loren away from the kid.”
I thought of a baby coming from that skinny body with the speckled toenails.
Roger said, “Talking bout dope, let’s you know.”
It was dark when we found our way back to the shed. Still feeling the buzz, we sat on the piles of wood in yellow light.
“You know, this might not be all that bad,” I said.
“Not as cramped as that fucking car.”
“Fucking fascist car.”
“We’ll have to make bunks. Like Wesley said.”
“You any good at carpentry stuff?” Gus said.
“I can bang something together.”
“I never took shop serious at school.”
“Leave the renovating to tomorrow,” I said.
“Gotta think ahead. Like how bout the colour scheme?”
“Fuck the colour scheme,” I said.
“Way I see it, flowered wallpaper, shag rug. Breakfast nook at that end. Chandelier bout here. And I kinda have my heart set on a loft. With a skylight … sundeck….”
“And a sauna. Gotta have a sauna.”
“You’re right. Whole place can be a sauna. When it gets hot, I’ll hang my socks from the rafters. Steam it up.”
“From the chandelier.”
“See, this place does have possibilities.”
“It’s what we make of it.”