I was floating. I was in a dream. In love? I dunno. I remember every little thing that happened between us but I can’t remember exactly when any of it happened in those few days. Like I was sick and delirious for a week. But I wasn’t sick and I wasn’t delirious. I was smarter and sharper and more aware of everything around me than I’d ever been. I was doing stuff. And not just with Petra. She was at work or political work most of the time, so I couldn’t always be with her. So I was with Gus and, when Gus wasn’t around either, I hung out with Picket or Roger and avoided Wesley. But it all blurs together cause somehow everything I was doing, no matter when or who, in my memory is still all about Petra.
Like that time with Picket. Something personal he has to do downtown, he says. Dope deal, I’m thinking, but I’m stupid enough to go with him.
So we get to Gastown and he leaves me waiting while he goes into one of those rundown buildings jammed together. Back in five minutes, he says.
I’m waiting in this park. Hardly a park, a grassy bump between two streets, a bench and a muddy patch where flowers were never planted. And twenty people laying around. Some rubbies. Some freaks. I’m sitting on this clear patch that didn’t seem as battered down as the rest, where no one’s slept for a while, cause I don’t wanna catch anything. That’s what a coupla months living in a house does. Or living in a shed. But I’m sitting there watching everything so I can tell Petra anything that happens, the way I do every night.
Three rubbies are drinking on the bench, playing some game with the bottle in a paper bag. One guy’s holding it away like he isn’t gonna let the other two have any. He drinks some off to the side and then waves the bottle around in front of them while they almost fall over grabbing for it. Then he tucks it under his arm like a football and staggers a few steps across the front of the bench like he’s running away with it. They bellow and he makes a big slow-motion show of scoring a touchdown and tilting the bag up to his mouth again. A long gulp and he turns back and hands it off to another guy with this great secrecy like every move is being watched by spies. Makes me look around to see if there really are any cops. But there aren’t and the drunks get noisy again, swearing at each other and at everyone the way drunks do, and making roaring jokes no one else could get.
Other old bums laying around look like they had their turns with bottles already and are sleeping it off. The longhaired kids prop their heads against backpacks or rolled sleeping bags. Some are fast asleep, like they’ve had nowhere to crash for a long time, and some are resting with their eyes open, maybe stoned or just resting. There’s only one girl and she’s sitting up, looking around all nervous, talking to some guy who’s wrapped around her and dozing off.
I get the idea the girl’s waiting for something. Something the guy’s supposed to do. And he’s waiting for something else to come along so he wouldn’t have to do it.
I see everyone’s waiting for something. Waiting till a hostel opens. Or for a drug connection. Waiting for a revolution. A revelation. Or just waiting for late summer when they can leave the city and pick fruit in the Okanagan Valley. Or some other job to get enough bread to hitch down the coast to Mexico. Or watching minutes and hours pass like me until till they can be with their lovers.
But who loves the rubbies? They’re just waiting for their next drink. Or sleeping it off until the mission opens or the welfare cheque arrives. Some bizarre wet dreams sputtering in their wrecked brains. Dreams of success. Beating all odds. Beating everyone. Forgetting everyone. Or waiting for the end of all bottles, the last big drunk to end all drunks.
The shoppers picking through bargains in the junky stores. The clerks wandering around on their lunch hour. All waiting too. For a spark. For a friend. For Picket. For their drug connection. For the end of the day. For whatever happens if you wait long enough. For lovers, cause love comes to everyone.
So I’m having this brilliant observation, when there’s this little explosion of swearing louder than usual from the rubbies on the bench. A little old guy was standing in front of them. It looked like he’d tried to horn in on the drinking but the drinkers were keeping him outa the game and he was hollering back at them.
I recognized the guy who’d been called Tiny when we delivered flyers. His monkey face had turned angry and ugly, his skull showing red through the patches in his hair. His vest was coming apart at the seams and bits of dead grass were stuck all over his clothes. He was pretty drunk.
He made another move at the bottle and one of the men on the bench put up a hand to ward him off but Tiny lost his balance and stumbled sideways onto a guy’s lap. The guy roared and moved over so Tiny’s head fell to the bench with a loud crack. His body rolled to the ground in front of the bench and he sat slumped there, head leaning back on the wooden seat, eyes closed.
The guy with the bottle had snuck off to the side of the park near the skinny bushes and sprawled in the grass to drink on his own. The others looked around and found him and shuffled over to join him.
No one was paying attention to Tiny. He was awful still.
I got up and walked around so I could pass by him. I wanted to see if he was breathing but I didn’t want to be close enough he’d recognize me if he opened his eyes. I got close enough to smell him, like five feet away, and had to hold back a choking cough. His temple was cut. Blood trickled down into his ear. It was hard to tell if that’d happened when his head hit the bench. His face was covered in scabs. Maybe his fall had opened an old cut. He wasn’t breathing that I could see.
But he snorted and lifted his head. He made an effort to get up and fell back, his head landing in the dirt under the bench. He stared up through the slats and muttered some words in a singsong like a bit of poetry and closed his eyes again. He seemed to go right to sleep. He was snoring deep in his throat, something in there was going up and down on a tide of spit.
At least he was alive, so I didn’t have to do anything. Not that I’d know what to.
“Who’s that?” Picket beside me.
“No one. Thought he hurt himself.”
“C’mon. Gotta go another place.”
“More personal business?”
So we go across the city and we end up on Burrard where there’s this hostel, a big white wooden building with freaks hanging out front. Some are sitting on the steps eating cheese sandwiches and apples from white boxes. Picket goes inside.
I remember it’s noon and I ask one of the kids on the steps, “Where you get that?”
He doesn’t look at me. “They give us a box lunch every day. And a breakfast ticket.”
“That’s more than they give you in Winnipeg,” I say.
The kids on the steps don’t care, so I go in after Picket.
I was kinda nervous cause of what happened in the Winnipeg hostel, like that guy in there mighta called ahead to warn them to watch for me. But that was paranoid. That guy wasn’t gonna tell anyone. And when I stepped inside this place, it was so different from Winnipeg that I forgot all that. It was big and open with, like, a hundred beds. Off to the side of the big room was an alcove with a TV that was on with no one watching. The office and showers must be through the doors at the far end. Some of the beds still had guys on them, sleeping or reading or getting dressed.
Picket was in a corner sitting with a guy on a bed. They were talking private, with their backs to the rest of the room, so I kept a distance and wandered around.
I found Billy rolling up his sleeping bag.
“Instant karma,” I said. “Keep running into each other.”
His blond hair was still long and straggly. Longer and stragglier.
“Runner.” He was tying up his sleeping bag roll with shoelaces.
“Haven’t seen you since — you know,” I said. “We had to leave, Gus and me. Catch our ride into Van.”
He lifted a corner of the mattress and took out a small pouch. He tied it to a belt loop on his waist. A patch on his jeans under his crotch was coming off and I could see his underwear through the broken stitching.
“Marmalade Skies,” he said. “Some acid, eh?”
“Like MDA. The love drug, man.” He stuffed some last bits of clothing in the rolled sleeping bag.
“You still with that chick?”
“She was crazy. Into balling all the time, man. I was in love.”
“What happened to her?”
“I dunno. Since the festival.”
“How bout Lonnie? Is he in Van? Making his fortune with Indian belts?”
“Don’t think so,” he said. “You crashing here?”
“I got a place,” I said.
“Someone ripped off my backpack, man.”
He hefted the sleeping bag onto a shoulder. “I need a new place. You can only crash here five nights and I’ve done like twenty under different names. I think they’re catching on to me. So it’s back to the Third Beach Hotel.”
“Can you get in there?”
“It’s just a beach, man.”
I said, “I’m just visiting here with —” but when I looked over to the corner Picket was gone.
“Sitting there? Crazy dude?”
“Goes around with this dead bird thing? Comes here to push weed or hash, small stuff? You’re crashing with Picket?”
“Come and I’ll show you the Third Beach Hotel.”
So now I take off with Billy. I’m thinking I might see Picket outside but he really is gone. Probably smoking up somewhere and forgotten me again.
So now Billy and me are hiking past all those high-rise apartment buildings near the water and we get to Stanley Park and I’m counting the beaches as we walk around the boardwalk. The further around we go the less sunbathers there are on the beach, till we get to the third one and there’s maybe ten. Part of the beach is sorta hidden from the boardwalk behind some trees and bushes and there’s some plastic draped over driftwood stumps and a freak sitting in front like an Indian in a movie before his teepee.
“That’s the Third Beach Hotel, except at night it spreads all over the sand. Tents and sleeping bags. Pigs leave us alone. Long as you don’t panhandle the tourists too much.”
“Ever seen Lonnie around here?” I asked.
“See that guy there in front of the tent? Meditates all day. Except early morning he goes in the woods to hunt stuff to eat like mushrooms and roots. The woods right here in the park. Cooks them up.”
“He can live on that?”
“Look at him.”
“So what happened with Lonnie? Did he go home? Corona or somewhere?”
“He came to Van.”
“So where is he?”
“Shit. See that bridge? No, you can’t see it from here. But back there we could—”
“You mean Burrard Street? Up from the hostel there?”
“Yeah. Burrard Street bridge. That’s the one he jumped off.”
“He jumped off? The bridge? You mean into the water?”
I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. “So is he okay or what —?”
“Yeah, he’s dead.”
I waited for some sign this was unreal.
“He jumped off the bridge into the water,” Billy said. “And he’s dead, okay?”
“Why? What happened? Were you there?”
“Like a coupla weeks ago. Coupla months ago.”
“So what happened? Fuck. C’mon, man.”
“Nothing. Just he jumped off the bridge and drowned or....”
I wanted to shake him, make him tell me about it, but that wouldn’t work. So I stopped asking and we started walking and after awhile he told me more.
After the rock festival Lonnie had to decide if he was going home or not. It was only a few hours away in the other direction and for some reason it got him down. Like he’d been everywhere and he was back again and there didn’t seem to be much point in anything. That’s what he was saying. But Billy didn’t make anything special of it. He got in that kinda mood himself, he’d just tell himself, shit, do my thing while I can, make love. That’s the way he was.
“But Lonnie gets to thinking that way and he offs himself. I didn’t see it coming. We’re just going across the bridge from Kitsilano and he’s been quiet all afternoon but he’s funny like that, raps on and on and then nothing for a long stretch, so I don’t think anything, and we get to the middle of the bridge, one of those places where there’s a kinda lookout, and he jumps up on the railing and spreads his arms out. First I’m laughing cause we’re stoned of course but then I get kinda worried cause we’re not that stoned and I’m gonna say something to him and he just says goodbye and he jumps over.”
“I keep thinking it’s some kinda trick or special effect and he’s gonna pop up again. But when I look over he’s really gone. It’s straight down to the water, long way, no ledge or nothing and I can’t even see him in the water. It’s all chopped up, the water. But that don’t matter cause I know he’s dead.”
“Ever find him?” I asked. “Like his body?”
“I couldn’t see him.”
“I mean the police or ambulance guys.”
“I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t stick around.”
“You didn’t tell anyone?”
“I just freaked out and then I walked across the bridge. I get to the other side and it’s like it never happened. The guy never existed. And nothing’s happened afterwards to show a freak killed himself. Like ever since. Like he never existed.”
“So no one knows Lonnie’s dead.”
“Just me. Now you.”
We were walking back on the boardwalk, back past the second and first beaches and towards the Burrard Street bridge without thinking about it.
“He musta got washed up somewhere,” I said.
It was weird. I had this excitement like this was the most interesting thing ever happened to me. I mean I was freaked out, hardly able to believe someone I knew had killed himself, and wishing it wasn’t true, wishing the tall guy with the big yellow teeth and the big belt buckle would come around the next corner and smile his big yellow smile and hold out a bottle of cheap wine. I was feeling all that but I was also feeling excited, like some big mystery was opening up before me. Someone I knew and talked to and thought of was dead and nothing was changed cause of it. Except as we walked towards the bridge where Lonnie died, I could see everything was sorta shot through with this new thing I knew. The blue dancing air, the living wood under our feet, the remembering pavement when we left the park and hit the street. Know-it-all highrises. And, when we got down to the water, the living laughing remembering choppy water. Always knowing this thing that’d been kept from me until now.
We were at the water’s edge below the bridge now. “His parents should be told,” I said. “They’re probably worried they haven’t heard from him.”
Billy said he didn’t know they would be, from what Lonnie had told him.
We went back up to the bridge and started across. I didn’t ask him to show me where Lonnie had jumped off. I looked sideways at a couple places I thought it might be but Billy didn’t slow down. He looked straight ahead or down at the sidewalk.
I started rethinking Winnipeg.
“What happened to that other guy there? Short guy, fuzzy chin—?”
“Dunno. We didn’t travel together.”
I was leading him back to our house. “You gotta come and see where I’m staying,” I said. “It’s like a cabin. Maybe you can crash on the floor.”
At the house I took him round to the back. The whole property seemed lush and luxurious now.
“It’s just a shed,” I said. “But we’re fixing it up.”
I told him to wait there, unpack his stuff if he wanted, and I’d check out the situation in the house.
Petra was alone in the front room. We touched each other’s arms quick the way some lovers kiss or grope each other after being separated all day.
“Remember I told you bout the guys I was with in Winnipeg and at the rock festival that time I freaked out. One called Billy?”
“He’s in the shed. I thought he could crash with us awhile.”
“I know, I don’t think he’s got any bread.”
“It’s not just an issue of money, Mark. It’s an issue of not wanting to start something we’ve been through before.”
“He doesn’t have anywhere else except the beach.”
“I don’t want to start a trend with everyone you may have run into on the road.”
“You don’t have to worry about that. Lonnie for one is dead. Committed suicide off the Burrard bridge rather than go home. That’s one less you have to worry about.”
I was being pretty rough and she looked at me shocked for a moment. “Damn.” Her fist bounced off the top of the television set. “Damn it, Mark.”
“Don’t be mad at me. I’m sorry but he’s got nowhere —”
“I’m not angry at you or him. Just — another kid killed —”
“No one did it. He offed himself.”
Billy stood inside the doorway when I brought him in. He looked around the clean kitchen with the open shelves stuffed with bags and jars and boxes of food. Like me when I first arrived here.
Petra said, “I’ll tell you what I told Mark and Gus when they came. You can eat and sleep here tonight but if you’re going to stay longer you’ll have to come up with some money to pay your way. An alternative is you can work it off with house duties — cleaning, cooking, we have a list of jobs. But that can be no more than a temporary arrangement. If Mark and Gus are going to let you crash with them awhile, that’s fine. Perhaps later, if space becomes available and you wanna stay on and we agree to let you, you can have your own bed. But by then you’ll have to be paying your own way. Understood?”
“Now where are you from?”
As he answered her questions, I could see he took her as part of an older generation, not like our parents but not one of us kids either. At least she was one female he wouldn’t think of coming on to. Which relieved me. It also kinda made me wanna flirt with her in front of him so he’d see that she could be a chick if she wanted to but chose not to be cause she was beyond that, except with me. I dunno if that makes sense.
Then, after awhile, he wasn’t talking like to someone older. I could see the rest coming.
I put my arm around her, so Billy could see it.
“You think Wesley might be leaving again?” I said. “Open up a space?”
She didn’t respond to my squeeze. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
She removed my arm and turned back to Billy. “I’m sorry to hear about your friend. It must have been terrible for you.”
“We have to stop this attack on youth.”
“He did it to himself.”
Leaving the kitchen she brushed past me and poked me where Billy couldn’t see.
When I went back to him, his face was going weird like “Whoa, what was that?”
“Petra’s cool,” I said. “This house used to be some kinda commune and she ran it. She’s been into stuff.”
I felt I was boasting of her but I couldn’t stop. “We sorta work together,” I said.
“She your old lady?”
Later I had to break it to Gus that someone was gonna share the shed with us. But Gus just asked Billy how he got past customs. Billy said, “Huh?”
“You cleared it with Petra?”
Before we crashed, Gus said he was gonna try for work the next morning again and asked if either of us wanted to come.
Billy said he’d give it a try. Which was funny. I couldn’t see him lasting in that kinda work.
Sometime at night I woke up thinking about Lonnie turning all blue and green, drifting underwater out from the inlet under the bridge out to the ocean where sharks and whales and little fish tore bits out of him but he couldn’t feel it, just kept drifting further out, further west, out toward the middle of the Pacific Ocean and further and further where everything was always better....