Long time later I woke on the floor of the shed and had to take a leak. It was still dark out. I thought I’d pee in the yard. But when I got out I could see the kitchen light on, so I went inside the house.
Petra was at the table. She was wearing a terrycloth housecoat and her hair was uncombed. There was part of a cigarette butted out in the ashtray in front of her.
“I’m usually first up,” she said. Her voice was rough and smaller than last night, like it was an effort to talk. “Except Norbert’s gone to work. Coffee’s on.”
I used the washroom and came back. She was staring into the distance like she’d had a wild night, though somehow that didn’t seem likely. Her face was softer now. She slouched back in the chair and the housecoat fell against her chest. It was the first time I’d noticed her in that way.
There were two cups on the table now.
“How’s the shed?” she asked.
“You mean the cabin?”
“It’s that good?”
“What Wesley called it. I heard mice under the floor. Or rats. We’re gonna complain to the landlord.”
She didn’t seem to get I was joking. Unless that little extra tightening around her chin was some kinda smile.
“We talked about fixing up bunks,” I said. “You know, with the wood in there.”
I was going on, wondering whether she was listening or thinking about something else.
Then she said, “Norbert might be able to help you on the weekend. He’s got tools in the basement and is skilled in that particular labour.”
“Are you two together?” It came out before I could stop it.
She frowned and I was scared of her for a moment again.
She got up to pour the coffee. “Let me tell you how we work things here. Norbert and I have the lease under our names. The others sublet from us. We all have our own rooms, except Loren and I split the big one. We all contribute the same. Ditto with the labour, like the cleaning and meals. It’s all here.” She tapped a sheet of paper, like a chart, taped to the side of a cupboard. “We’ll have to change our schedule now Wesley’s back. Fit you characters in too, if you’re staying at all.”
She set the coffees on the table and sat across from me. I was hoping she’d pull cigarettes out of her big housecoat pockets.
“How do we characters fit in?” I said.
“You’re Wesley’s guests for now. Stay longer than a few days and you’ll have to pull your share of the work. And pay into the kitty.”
“We don’t have much.”
“Fifteen a week each. A bargain because that shed’s unfit. Landlord wanted to take it down but Norbert got him to keep it, just in case. Just in case what, I dunno, maybe to store his power tools, if he ever got any. Fifteen to cover food and household expenses. Can you manage thirty a week between you?”
“For two weeks. Then we’re busted.”
“Oh,” she said. After the rat-a-tat-tat of setting down the rules, this was a different note.
“Oh dear,” she said again, looking into my face. Her blue eyes, light blue, almost silver, were focused on me. It was kinda shocking. I was in a warm spotlight. I looked away quick and wondered if I’d been staring back.
“We do have a problem,” she said. “We have to ensure everyone pays their share in this house. Food, supplies, utilities — they all take money. I suppose we don’t have to charge you for the room and utilities. You’re not costing us much out there.”
“We won’t stay long. And Gus is looking for work.”
“And what are you doing?”
That’s all it took. I guess she only meant was I looking for work too. But I told her all about wanting to find a different way to live and being part of the changes happening in the world now, which all sounded pretty stupid right then, but she sorta leaned her head toward me and kept looking at me like she got what I meant. So I told her more and she still listened. As usual I got my words balled up and didn’t say what I meant. But she waited for me to keep trying to get it right, like it was important to her to hear it exactly right. And it hit me for the first time that maybe I never got the words right cause the thoughts weren’t right in my mind in the first place.
After awhile I realized I was stretching it out, making up things, cause I wanted her to go on listening. We were into our second coffees and I was still coming up with more. Not exactly making things up. Building up little things into big thing, making everything important.
Wesley came in once. He looked at us suspicious but didn’t stick around. Had to go somewhere this morning, he said. “Just wanted to mention, I’ll have to owe the first month’s rent until I collect some things owed to me in town.”
“That’s fine, Wesley,” she said.
She agreed so easy, I wondered if there’d been something between them.
She took a moment to refocus on our conversation. Then I was back in the spotlight again, yapping away.
Finally she said she had to leave for work but we could talk more later. When she got up I had this weird thought she was gonna kiss my forehead but she didn’t.
I sat there wondering what had just happened. The second time in a coupla days I’d told my life story to someone I’d just met. And this time I wasn’t stoned.
That day Gus and I started fixing up bunks in the shed. We borrowed a hammer, saw and nails from Norbert. A bit of experimenting and a few ruined boards and we managed to bang together some platforms to sleep on, one above the other. The top one wouldn’t take the weight until we crossed the room with two-by-fours for support. Dance parties were definitely out, Gus said.
I rested on the top bunk with my sleeping bag under me. I stared up at the sky through the cracks in the roof and walls. This was better than a real bed in some ways. We were pleased with ourselves. And we thought we’d accomplished enough for one day and needed a break.
We wanted to see Vancouver, so we cleaned up and headed out. All the roads in Kitsilano, this part of Vancouver, slanted down to the water. Downtown was just across a bridge.
On the middle of the bridge we stood in cool sunlight. The wind brushed our hair back and salty damp air filled our lungs and we looked out over it all. The Pacific Ocean out there at the mouth of the bay, I thought. The bright houses of Kitsilano back there, sloping down towards us now. And over that way at the far end of the bridge the downtown, sitting on a gleaming island, it looked like. And behind that and along the bay going out to the ocean, the mountains, all misty blue-green.
I know it’s on all the postcards but it’s still my personal view of Vancouver. My Vancouver, as Wesley would say. Standing there, it seemed the dream was possible. If only my parents and others back home could be whisked to this spot for just a minute, they’d understand something, see how right I was in coming.
Later on of course I saw that people lived in Vancouver just like they did anywhere. They didn’t go around thinking all the time what an incredible place this was, or feeling there was anything special in the air here. I got used to it myself. But I could always get part of that first feeling back by coming to the middle of this bridge, hanging above the water there, to look around at the ocean and the beach at Kitsilano and the clean white towers downtown and the faded hills, the sunlit city floating in the middle of its own universe of water, sky and all the mess of the world.
We crossed over that incredible long bridge and roamed around. When you were in it, the downtown core wasn’t pearly clean like from a distance. It was as grey and gaudy as Toronto, with buildings and signs and advertising. Only difference, at the ends of some streets, between the rows of office towers, you could catch glimpses of the mountains or the ocean.
Stanley Park was something though. It seemed unreal right beside the downtown. We musta spent two hours circling around it, counting the beaches.
I know, real tourist stuff. And it gets worse. At a little shop just outside the park we got more cards — Gus’s idea — for our parents. We borrowed a pen from the woman in the shop and filled them out right there. I wrote I’d made it to Vancouver as they could see from the picture. Everything was beautiful, I was learning a lot about different sides of the world, and some other boasting that seems embarrassing to me now. We wrote on each other’s cards too as kind of a joke. Gus put “P.S., The mountains are groovy” at the end of my message to my parents and signed his initials. I put “Hi, folks, send money. Mark” on his and I drew a flower growing from the stalk of the K in my name. We bought stamps and mailed them downtown where we ended up around dinner.
We figured we could afford just this once to eat out instead of at the house. We bought hamburgers and chips from a sidewalk vendor.
We sat with our food on the edge of this huge square fountain in front of a stone building, some kinda courthouse or something. I pulled off my boots to give my feet a break.
“Walking. It’s always walking,” I said. “Feel like I was born in these boots.”
I peeled off a sock and dangled my foot in the water.
Gus did the same with both feet, then he stood up and waded around in the fountain holding his socks and boots in his hands. I laughed and threw him one of my fries and he tried to catch it in his mouth. It fell into the water.
“I didn’t want that one. It was burnt.”
The next one he missed too but he caught the third one and swallowed it, both of us laughing. We went through the whole box of fries, shouting when a fry went into the water and cheering when it went into his mouth. Most went into the water. I threw the last ones toward the middle where the water was shooting up over this twisted metal thing, some sculpture. I was trying to lead him into the spray but he hollered, “No way.”
“All gone,” I said.
“But I’m still hungry.”
“So eat the ones you missed.”
He bent over like he was gonna fish one out.
“C’mon out before someone sics the cops on us.”
“Sure is a lotta money in here.”
“Not just pennies.” He came to the edge and stepped out. “It’d be pretty low to take money from a fountain, eh?”
He held his hand open with fifty or sixty cents in wet coins. “It can’t be illegal. It’s just picking up what people throw away.”
“You think we can get thirty bucks a week out of this fountain?” I said.
We put our socks and boots on. And we didn’t toss the coins back.
It got me thinking. You didn’t need to work to get money if you gave up all the rules you thought you had to follow. You could always find someone to put you up or a fountain to get change out of.
Gus said, “Look at that.”
Across the intersection, a young guy was painting the side of a newspaper box with a huge brush, except it it didn’t look like paint. He slapped the stuff on fast and then reached down to a plastic shopping bag beside him and dragged it over to a lamp post a few yards away. It musta had a bucket in it cause he dipped the brush and plastered the side of the pole with the same wet stuff. Meanwhile a girl, who had just seemed to be standing around waiting for someone, whipped a sheet out of a shopping bag and stuck it on the newspaper box where the guy had been brushing. Then she went over and put one on the post he’d just pasted. People were walking by them, without noticing anything going on. The girl crossed the intersection and was gone without showing she even knew the guy. He carried on brushing another coat of stuff, some kinda paste it looked, over the posters she’d put on the box and the pole. Then he dunked his brush in the bag, picked it up and walked across the street the same direction as the girl.
A middle-age man stopped to look at the wet poster. Some people gave it a glance as they went by. Others didn’t. The middle-age man stood reading it all the way through.
I wanted to go over and read it too but Gus tugged my arm. “They’re going down to the next corner. C’mon.”
We couldn’t see the girl but the guy stood out. The bucket in the bag musta been heavy and he had to walk on an angle to lug it along in such a hurry.
When he got to the next intersection he stopped and stared across the street. We hung back, still on the other side of the road, and watched. The guy set the bag down and went to work brushing the side of a garbage can and some large mail boxes and then moved over to the corner of a bank where he brushed wet patches on a stone wall.
Again the girl came along casual-like and stuck posters over the can and the mailboxes.
But before she could move on to the walls of the bank, something must have happened. Both the guy and the girl set their bags down and walked off in opposite directions.
A moment later a police car came by. The cop at the wheel didn’t look to either side as he drove through the intersection.
“How’d they know a cop was coming?” I said.
“I thought I heard a shout,” Gus said.
And then I did hear a quick shout like “hey” or “ho”.
The girl and guy stopped walking away and hurried back to their bags which were still sitting on the sidewalk where they’d left them. But instead of continuing their work, they stared across the street again.
This time I could pick out a neatly dressed young guy in a cap standing over there looking up and down the streets in all directions. Then he lifted his cap and ran his fingers through his short hair. A third-base coach giving signs.
The posterers immediately went back to work, the girl sticking down posters on the bank and the guy going over all the posters with another coat of paste.
They crossed the street, waited for the signal again and started in on that corner pasting and sticking up posters. The guy’s jeans and jacket were blotched with paste, some of it already dried. I could see splatters on the girl now too. Cops could pick them out easy if they were watching for them, I thought.
For a second time they dropped everything and walked away real casual. Gus and I had both heard the warning shout this time, more of a “hoy”, and this time I knew it came from the lookout with the cap, cause I was watching him at the time.
His eyes followed another police car approaching. This one was unmarked but you could tell it was a cop car. The two cops inside noticed the fresh posters on the garbage can and mailbox. They slowed down for a brief look but drove on without stopping.
Another “Hoy!” and the posterers stopped walking away and went back to finish. Then they left, probably to go to the next intersection.
I walked across to the corner with the bank where they had been.
The posters advertised a demonstration against Canada’s complicity in the Vietnam war. I didn’t even think we were involved in the war. Vietnam was an American thing. But there was a lot of writing on the poster about it, small print under the big red headlines. I wiped a finger on the wet poster and sniffed my finger. It was definitely paste, like wallpaper paste, but with some gritty stuff too.
I showed my finger to Gus. “It’s got sand or glass in it.”
“Make it a bitch to scrape off when it hardens,” he said. “That’s why.”
Just then, two cops stepped out of the bank, right beside us. I did a little jump and the cops looked at us. They looked at the poster on the side of the bank and back at us.
They musta decided we had nothing to do with it and they ignored us. One of them peeled the wet paper off the wall. They saw another poster on the mailbox and took that one down too. They talked quietly a moment and crossed the road to the corner where the latest posters had gone up. Now they didn’t bother taking any down. They just kept walking in the direction, obviously hoping to catch up with whoever was putting them up.
Without saying anything, Gus and I tailed them across the street and down a long block, staying back, watching for the poster people too.
We spotted the lookout on a corner kitty-corner to the one we were coming to, which meant they must be working right ahead of us. We couldn’t see them for all the pedestrians and I guess the cops couldn’t see them yet either. But they would in a few seconds.
The lookout was watching up and down the streets at the lines of cars, not watching the sidewalk.
Gus and I glanced at each other, like “Should we?”
I called out, “Hoy!”
It was a split-second before another shout just like it came from the other side of the street but not from the lookout on the corner. There musta been another lookout we didn’t know about.
The cops turned, one of them stared at me. For a moment I thought he recognized me, which didn’t make any sense. I was shaky but we kept strolling ahead like nothing had happened. I was ready to run again if they tried to stop me.
But we went past them and nothing happened. I guess they weren’t sure where the warnings came from, if they even knew the shouts were warnings.
When we got to the corner the posterers were gone. We crossed at a green light to the other side of the street and started doubling back. When we were a little ways off, we stopped to look back. The cops were standing at the corner inspecting the bag with the bucket of paste in it, sitting on the sidewalk beside newspaper boxes.
They didn’t notice yet the other bag, the one with the dry posters in it, slouched down beside a building wall. It looked like the usual litter on a city street.
“Least no one’s arrested,” I said.
The posterers were probably a block away by now. The lookout with the cap was still on the kitty-corner, acting like he was waiting for a bus, but watching the police all the time. They’d never suspect such a neat guy of being connected to the messy job of pasting up posters.
Gus said, “I bet I could truck right on by those dumb cops and pick up that other bag without them even noticing.”
“But don’t,” I said.
“Bet I could.”
“They’ve got the situation doped out themselves, these people. We don’t wanna mess it up. Let’s get away from here.”
As we started to walk away we passed the wide entrance to a department store and I saw Petra standing there. She saw me too. She was dressed so proper — skirt, blouse, a neat stylish jacket, one my mother would wear, nothing I expected the scary woman to have.
She let us pass by her without speaking. Somehow I knew I shouldn’t say anything either. Gus hadn’t seen her and we were soon past the entrance and she was gone from sight.
It was like a snapshot in my memory, her standing there real quiet in the shadow, seeing me seeing her, not reacting with the tiniest expression. I thought it must be embarrassing for her to have such a straight job she had to dress like that. It seemed like our secret. I felt cool and mature and, in a weird kinda way, close to this person I hardly knew.