Buddies. I liked the sound of that. I wanted her spotlight turned on me. I wanted it turned on me every day. I tried to fix things so we’d get moments together. From when I woke up each day I’d be making little plans what to say if I got some time with her.
But it hardly ever happened. She was always going to work or running out to do some mysterious political thing. Sometimes she’d disappear for whole days and even overnight. She’d just call from somewhere and arrange to trade her house duties. No explanations.
And when she was home there’d be all these people here. And she’d go on being this incredible on-top-of-it person that could still scare the hell outa me. Then I’d wonder if I hadn’t imagined the whole thing between us. She treated me like everyone else. No special glances or little signs we understood each other better than others. When Norbert or Loren or anyone in the house — and probably others in her life I didn’t know — when anyone had a problem, I was sure she said her old-ladyish “Oh dear” to them and listened to their life story and gave them her time and sympathy. A couple times I stumbled into a room where Petra and someone would be sitting quiet like something heavy had been going on. I bet everyone thought there was something special between them and Petra. Maybe there was. No reason she was specially interested in me.
Then it would happen. A morning coffee with her, washing dishes after supper, walking to the store together, and I was in the spotlight again. Centre of it all. All that romantic stuff about it being right and feeling you belong together. Except it wasn’t romantic. Just talking. Personal talk, political talk, any kind of talk. But god it was exciting. With both of us there for real, no one thinking about something else half the time like with most people.
Then it’d be over. And it was back to hoping for another chance later. Back to wondering about everyone else with her.
Norbert called her Pet once. He was fixing a tap, had all the pieces apart on the counter and was twisting this wrench around the stem thing of the faucet. Three of us sitting around the kitchen. He swore and shouted, “I need another hand. Fast.”
She was beside him in a flash.
“Place that washer around the spindle, Pet, push it right down,” he was telling her. Their four hands worked together. When she was done her part, she stood close, watching as he finished tightening the ring and putting the pieces back together. When he shook his head to get his short hair out of his eyes, she reached over and pushed it off his forehead, the way she pushed her own hair behind her ears. He kept working and she handed him things.
“Now let’s see if it works,” he said.
The water came sputtering out, brownish at first, turning lighter until finally running clear. Then Norbert turned both kitchen taps off and the water stopped right away with hardly a dribble.
“I did it,” said Norbert. “A genius.” He put his fists up, holding the wrench, in victory.
Petra squeezed his shoulder.
Of course the whole thing bugged me. Them working and joking so easy together. But after all the other details faded, I thought mostly about him calling her Pet. No one else ever did that. She wasn’t the kinda person you’d call by a nickname. Not like that. Were they secret lovers? They didn’t show it other ways. His Pet. Like he had an understanding with her. He knew Petra different from me. He knew a Pet I didn’t.
He never used it again in my hearing. I listened for it. Watched for any sign. But I couldn’t tell.
That night I went roaming again.
Gus and I had gone to bed in our shed, me on the top bunk we’d made, him on bottom, and we’d talked about nothing in particular. It was chilly and I’d said we should get a small stove or something in there when I realized he was asleep. The sky usually seemed bright through the cracks at night but this time I couldn’t see anything. I was drifting off myself when the rain began, a nervous tapping on the roof. It didn’t bother me. Soothing. Blotted everything out.
I woke up. Something cold and slimy was nosing against my foot.
I jerked my foot away. Then I pulled my legs up slow and inched out of my sleeping bag and as I was moving away something splattered on my head. I jumped off the bunk and turned the light on.
The foot of my sleeping bag was soaking wet with water dripping from the roof. There was another little stream six inches from where my head had been lying. My socks and the end of a pant leg were wet too.
Gus woke up and looked around, pulled his bag up over his head and went back to sleep.
“Roof leaks,” I said to no one.
I could sleep on the floor away from the drips.
But I couldn’t. Weird. I’d slept on the bare ground for how many nights, and now I couldn’t sleep on this wooden floor. The first night here I’d been so tired I’d fallen asleep on the floor without thinking. But tonight I was thinking. It was like I was back to my old nights of being awake at quarter to three in the morning, except I couldn’t tell what time it was.
Tires swished by outside. Sounded like right next to the shed, though I knew it was in the lane.
It seemed like after midnight. Maybe one, two o’clock. Nothing to tell by, it just seemed like it. Six hours before I could go into the kitchen and be okay. And I was cold. I couldn’t get all the way down into my bag cause the bottom was wet. And the floor was cold. Colder than the ground I’d slept on. Which didn’t make sense. But I couldn’t lay there all night, freezing and wet.
Why wait? I could go into the kitchen now. Sack out on the couch there. No one would care. They were all asleep in warm dry beds. When they came down in the morning I’d make like I just came in for breakfast and dozed off.
It was cold outside, specially with wet feet. But it’d stopped raining mostly, just a misty bit of water in the air. The lights in the house were out.
I tried the knob on the kitchen door. But it wouldn’t turn all the way.
Why the hell had someone locked it? What if Gus and I had to use the washroom at night? Someone musta thought we had a key.
I went around and tried the front door but it was locked too.
I stood back and looked up at the second-storey windows. I could throw a stone and get someone down here to let me in. But who and which window? I remembered Wesley slept in the basement. I tapped on two low windows at the side of the house and got no answer. Then I tried a basement window at the back. I hesitated before going around to the other side of the house. The neighbours might call the cops if they saw me there. But I went quick, tapped the windows twice each. No lights came on.
So I waited on the porch, laid on a kinda bench there. I couldn’t sleep there though. It was colder than in the shed and I couldn’t keep from rolling off the narrow bench.
And then I couldn’t believe I was out walking again. Roaming down a street in the middle of the night. The cold and dark again. And with damp feet this time. Maybe walking would warm me up and dry out my socks.
I saw an apartment building with all the lights out except one on the third floor. A head showed over the back of a sofa. They were probably asleep. Or reading. Or talking to someone I couldn’t see in the room. I wanted to call out. Hey, down here. Lemme in. I’m a regular guy like you who just happens to be out here. I won’t hurt anyone. I’ll just sleep a few hours. On your floor even. Your warm floor.
But I didn’t, so there I was turning off on a bigger street and heading downhill in the general direction of the bay. Everything was still wet from the rain, waiting for the sun to come up and dissolve it. There was a thin blur of lights further down the hill, a kinda main street closer to the bay. Fourth Avenue, hang-out for freaks, whoever. People like us.
I got there and found it was deserted too. Bars and stores and everything closed. Only the odd taxi and cop car going through. The closed shops made me feel all the more shut out. Better to walk around the darker residential areas. Less chance of getting picked up by cops.
When I started back up the hill, I realized I didn’t remember exactly what street our house was on. I remembered the apartment, the guy in the window. Maybe he was still there. That was the street to turn on.
But there were lotsa those kind of low apartment buildings. None of them had a third-floor light on with a guy’s head in the window. I wondered if I was going up the same street I’d come down.
Someone else was going up the hill ahead of me. Guy was small. I was gonna catch up and pass him. I could say something then, it wouldn’t be weird then, and find out where the hell I was.
Just a kid, could be. Kinda late for a kid to be out. When I got closer I saw something on his shoulder. A bird.
When I got right up to him and started passing him, I saw who it was. “Hey, Picket. It’s me — Mark. What are you doing out?”
Even with his usual automatic smile he looked kinda freaked out. Mumbled, “Oh, yeah….”
So I said, “I got up to walk a bit, eh?”
“I got nothing to do with it….”
Now I figured he was stoned. He really had a bird on his shoulder, a fake budgie pinned to the shoulder of his vest. With that goofy rat face and a plastic budgie on his shoulder he was one strange-looking guy. His face was smiling as always but nervous smiling.
We walked in silence while I tried to figure it out and at the next corner he said, “Seeya,” and turned down the street. There was a dark apartment building there.
“Hey, that’s our street,” I said. “I’m going with you.”
Now he looked downright panicky.
I said quick, “I was gonna dry out in the kitchen but the doors were locked.”
He looked like he might break into a run.
“The rain came through the roof of the shed and I couldn’t sleep. Gus and I’ll have to fix tomorrow.”
“Oh wow,” he said. A happy smile now. “The freaks in the shed. I thought you were a narc.”
“Me, a cop?”
“I’m fucked up, man. I thought you said you were a narc.”
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I thought I was being followed when I heard steps behind me and then you came up and — Too real, man.”
He let me into the house with his key and I thought he’d go up to bed and leave me to crash on the kitchen couch. But he opened the fridge and looked in it a long time. He finally took a banana from a bowl on the counter and sat at the table. I didn’t know what else to do, with him right there, so I got a banana too and sat across from him. I wasn’t much into talking. I was into sleeping.
“Tonight’s been like —” he said. “This is a weird town, man.”
“Seems pretty great. Except for the rain.”
“The people, man. Too much.”
“Why, what happened tonight?”
He asked me for a smoke but I didn’t have one.
I couldn’t talk to him and I couldn’t get rid of him, so I listened to him tell me about his weird night in his own mixed-up order. I was dozing off, even as I sat opposite him with my eyes open. I couldn’t follow the whole story. Hanging around some club to buy and sell a little hash like he did whenever he was having trouble making ends meet. Some freak ripping him off, giving him weak stuff, and then another freak that he sold a nickel bag to coming back and taking all his money. At another place finding the freak who ripped him off with the shitty hash but the guy telling him it was good stuff. So that guy, a hard kinda guy, a dealer, went with him back to the first place and pulled a knife on the first guy and got the money back for Picket and took half of it for himself. That was fair. So Picket made it up to the freak who’d bought the nickel from him by sharing the rest of what he had left and they smoked it up. And then he bought some speed from another guy and they both shot that up. Something like that. Along with some other people and places mixed in.
My head was on the table when Petra came in. Picket was still talking and eating.
“You still up too?” he said to Petra.
“It’s morning, Picket.”
“Really. Strange night. Me and Mark. He’s not a narc. You got a cigarette?”
“Sure.” Petra looked at me. “Picket keep you up all night?”
“Rain. Shed pissed all over me. My bunk is soaked.”
“You wanna go up to my room and get some sleep? First door at the top. Take the empty bed and don’t wake Loren. She’s not working today.”
Going up the stairs I heard Petra below. “Come on, Picket. I’ll make you breakfast.”
Was there was something between them to make her so nice to a strung-out speed freak? Even if she was like twice his size? But she was giving me her bed. That was something. Though she hadn’t given me a special look. Maybe everyone slept in her bed.
It turned out to be a thick piece of foam on the floor with sheets and a blanket around it. Loren was under covers on a similar bed, so-called, on the other side of the room. I laid on top of the blanket on Petra’s foam. With my head so close to the floor I could hear through to the kitchen below. Roger must be up too. I could hear the two voices talking, “Oh nooo” and “Really,” back and forth.
And I was asleep without thinking this was the first time I’d slept in a woman’s bed.