And that was that. I stayed awake in the shed in case she came to see me again but she didn’t.
The next day was like any other. Hardly even thought of her. Gus asked me if I was all right and I said sure. Why shouldn’t I be? Same as any other day. Billy said, “Lost your chick, huh?” I told him she was a woman, not a bird, but I said it sarcastically to show I was imitating her. And when she didn’t come back that night, it still didn’t feel too weird. Lotsa nights I hadn’t seen her. What’s so different about this night and every other night for the rest of my life?
But then the next day.
I musta been dreaming cause I woke up in a panic.
Danger. Something terrible had happened.
She was gone and everything was different. And it was permanent. I wouldn’t talk to her again. Ever.
Nothing could touch me now. People were talking at me and over me. Things swimming by me and through me. I couldn’t feel them.
Except music. Which was weird cause I was never big into music and the stuff I remembered had nothing to do with Petra or the way we’d been together. But I’d remember a snatch of something and that little bit would spend hours in my head. For a while my brain was stuck on a Pat Boone number — yeah, a corny old Pat Boone song — when he lost his baby and he almost lost his mind. I’d once found the record in my parents’ collection, one of those big old 78-rpm records that aren’t made any more. My parents never played it. They musta bought it, like in the 1950s, to try and keep up with the young people and then they let it sit in a closet with their old-people records. But I found it and played it and then I went around singing it cause it was the closest thing to teenage music we had in the house then, like I was ten or eleven and I wanted to be a teenager. Now it was going through my brain again. I sang it to myself, even sadder than Pat Boone, so broke up he could hardly get the words out. “When I lost my ba-aby, I a-al-mo-ost lo-ost my mi-ind.” I let every drop of that stupid song squeeze out and wash around me like a warm liquid.
Then Pat Boone evaporated, blown away by the blues coming from Norbert’s room.
I’d heard Norbert playing his albums in his room before. Old guys who sounded something like broken-down folk singers on scratchy hollow-sounding records, and young ones like Cream with electric guitars. The new ones had been okay by me, specially the psychedelic guitar solos. They’d been okay if there was nothing else on. But now when I heard this old music coming from Norbert’s room I sat on the stairs listening. One of the old guys, had to be black, and he was singing about me. And he did another song and it was kinda different but it was about me too. Then it stopped and Norbert came out of his room.
He was going downstairs but when he saw me he said, “You listening to that?”
I shrugged and he said, “Come on in.”
One whole wall of his room was lined with records from top to bottom. I sat on the bed. It was foam like Petra’s but it was on a wooden platform. He’d probably built it.
He ran a finger over a row of records. “So whadya like?”
The shelves were like the ones in Petra’s room that were full of books. He’d probably built those shelves too.
“Let’s try this,” he said.
Another old black guy. Not rough and scratchy this time though. Singing slow and soothing about having blues when he wakes up in the morning, and it was about me again. Then he hit the first note of the guitar solo and my little hairs stood up. More high piercing notes, then crashing low, somewhere around my stomach, and back up high, and then back and forth between the high and low. Then the slow soothing voice again about having the blues when he goes to bed at night. And I felt like crying but I didn’t in front of Norbert.
“You think it’s about you, don’t you?” Norbert said.
Was everything I felt so obvious?
“Her leaving,” he said. “It’s not, eh?”
“No, you don’t. You know about her and me?”
“When her and that guy she calls the asshole broke up.” Tell me it was only a few days, you and her, and then it was over, I was thinking.
“That too. Surprised she told you about that. But later.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Time those goons came for me? No, she wouldn’t have told you.”
The record was starting another screeching number but Norbert lifted the needle and put it down on a more laid-back cut.
“I was never into things like Petra, or Wesley and others, but I had my causes. Like People Against Racist Attacks.”
“Sounds like one of her —”
Yeah, Petra’s comrades were behind the group. But all kindsa people were involved. Most of them weren’t political at all except they opposed racism. It was a front I suppose, but it did a lotta good work. Perfect for me. I’m more of a liberal at heart. I might even have become a social democrat if I didn’t have Petra to embarrass me out of it. But in this PARA committee of theirs I could raise money to fight racism and work with East Indian and black self-defence groups and I never had to carry a red flag or follow a party line. So one day we’re running a picket line at this store downtown, one of the big clothing stores. The owner’s a notorious racist. Won’t serve anyone who’s not white. Runs ads in the papers with prayers for Rhodesia and South Africa. Prayers for the whites in Rhodesia and South Africa. We’re pretty sure he’s funding these white supremacists, like Western Guard goons, who are beating up on immigrants. But we can’t prove that, so we’re demonstrating against his store. We’re picketing, marching back and forth in front, and the owner himself comes out and yells we’re interfering with his business. We’re expecting this, so some of our East Indian comrades — yep, that’s what we called everyone — these Indian comrades, they say to this businessman, then we’ll give you some business, we’ll shop here, and they push past him into the store. Well, he goes completely rangy, like he’s having a fit. And two minutes later our friends are being escorted out of the place by security guards. Well, now that’s put the lie to us being the ones keeping customers out of his store. And we’re all shouting, ‘Racists Have No Rights,’ that sort of thing. And this businessman’s shouting back at us to leave or he’s calling the cops. Well, he goes in and no cops show up. But know who does? Western Heritage or whatever the Nazis call themselves now. We know them and they know us. And they stand there, these goons, side by side in a line there just ten feet away, arms folded, staring at us through their shades, trying to intimidate us. But we’re not backing down and we start shouting right at them, calling them Nazis and brownshirts. They’re looking at us as if they’re proud of it, and one of them pulls out a camera and starts taking our pictures one at a time. Like they’re making note of us for reprisals later, who knows? And some of us in reality are intimidated. Some of the people in our group have been victims of real vicious attacks, it’s not just crazy fear. But we’re together and we’re getting angry together and that makes us all stronger and we’re yelling at them and moving closer to them. And, know what? They move away first. To the other side of the road and after a bit they take off and they’re gone. Though we figure they’re still around somewhere watching us. Well, afterwards me and another guy are heading home and we’re transferring buses and we get out at this bus stop and there’s one of the racist thugs standing there. All alone. Waiting at the bus stop. And he doesn’t look so big and tough now. Just one guy. And he looks kinda nervous and sorta half smiles like he’s just another guy waiting for a bus. And we grin right back at him and push him up against a building wall. Look around, no one watching and, bam, I smash him right in the face. Didn’t break his nose or anything, just banged him a bit. But he squeals and takes off, holding his hands over his head like we might throw something at him, and we’re yelling, “Run, racist, run!” Well, I’m feeling pretty good about it. But when I tell Petra, she doesn’t congratulate me. She says she thinks it was wrong, we have to organize people to smash them, not take vigilante action. A mistake, she calls it. A mistake in the right direction.
“A mistake in the right direction?” I asked.
Yeah. It becomes a bit of a joke between us after that. When one of us screws up, we say, it wasn’t too bad, only a mistake in the right direction. But that night when everyone’s asleep, like two in the morning, I’m woken up by a crash. My window is shattered. And there’s voices outside calling, Nooorbert. Jewwww boy. Like ghosts. Yeah, I’m Jewish, or my parents were. I dunno how these goons knew or how they knew where I lived. But they’re out there in the night calling me through the broken window. And then there’s another crash, another window in the house, and they’re saying, We’re coming to get you, hippie faggots. And others are awake now. We’re afraid to turn the lights on. We’re all just kinda huddling in the dark, asking each other what’s going on, who is it, though I had a pretty good idea. And then they’re banging on the front door. We’re freaking. Should we call the cops? Call the PARA hotline? No, they’d never get here in time. We’re basically panicking. Most of us aren’t even in PARA or anything, except for me. A buncha freaks, some of them just crashing there for the night. And then I hear Petra’s voice downstairs. And she’s yelling at the front door, like pleading, saying, “Don’t break it, I’ll let you in, you can have him, don’t hurt us please.” And I can’t believe my ears. I’m racing downstairs shouting, “Don’t lettem in! They’ll kill us!” It’s still dark, but I can see light from outside as the door opens and these dark shadows are coming in. Scariest thing I ever saw. Most scared I’ve ever been in my life. And next thing I hear is thwap! and some guy grunting. And another thwap! — more like a crunch — and guys are shouting all confused now and I flip a light switch and there’s Petra swinging a baseball bat, like a gladiator, and these goons are fighting each other to get out the door. And the last guy trying to squeeze out gets this big whack on the shoulders, just missed his head, and goes flying forward, they all fall out onto the porch. And Petra goes out after them, still swinging. Then when it’s clear they’re gone she comes back in and asks if everyone’s fine. She’s standing there, wearing some long t-shirt she slept in, holding a baseball bat. I didn’t even know we had one in the house. Blood running down it. I’m not exaggerating. Blood all over it. And she’s asking if we’re good. We’re all stunned and I finally say, “How about you?” And she just kinda shrugs and says, “Political struggle, eh?” and starts organizing us to take shifts to watch for more attacks. Yeah, just that, standing there with the bat and the blood. “Political struggle.” Petra. And the goons don’t come back that night. But in the morning the police do. Say some guy’s in the emergency ward at the hospital with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder claiming he was assaulted here by one Norbert Goulding. That’s me. Guess the big tough Nazis couldn’t say they were beaten by a woman. But Petra tells the cops she was the one. Tells the whole story of them attacking our house and what she did and if they want to press charges against her she’ll be glad to tell it all in court but somehow she didn’t think they were going to do that. Cop say they’re just investigating a complaint. Then he sniffs and says he thinks he smells marijuana and they should search the house for drugs. Petra says he couldn’t be smelling anything cause she doesn’t allow drugs in the house for the good reason that it gives the police an excuse to arrest us when they can’t get us on overtly political charges. Which wasn’t a hundred percent true. She’d tried to keep out the dope but half of us had our private stashes. But it was true enough that it sounded believable. So the cops give up on that one too. And that’s Petra.
“Did you and her then — you know?”
“We’d tried it before but it wasn’t right for us. But, man, I was in love with her all the more after that. In a different way.
“I think everyone is.”
“It’s why she’s such a bad communist,” Norbert said.
“That’s what she says. What does it mean?”
“She gets too involved with people. She gets social relations, you know what she calls it, all mixed in with political relations and screws up the political work. That’s her problem. But she keeps trying. I dunno why. But that’s Petra too.”
The record was long over. Norbert put it back in the sleeve and pulled out another one. “This one’s a bit different but I like it.”
It was about me again but as I listened this time I could see it was about Norbert too. I thought of him and Petra. Was this song about back when they were lovers and it didn’t work out or was it later when they fought beside each other?
I thought of asking if he knew where Petra was. Maybe they were keeping in touch with letters or phone calls. They must have some arrangement to take care of the house.
For a sharp second or two, that bugged me. Then it was gone. He was being kind to me, like I’d lost the most here. Said I could use his room whenever I wanted to listen to music. The next day when he was at work I came back and looked for that first song that made my hair stand up. I couldn’t find it, didn’t know who did it, but I played other records. With no one around, I let myself fall apart a little. The first tears felt good on my cheeks and I let them sit there a long time without wiping them away until they dried.
After that I was sort of okay. Though I still wanted to play the music now and then. Sometimes with Norbert and sometimes alone. Billy came and sat with us once.
I musta been a jerk with everyone then. Wrapped up in myself. My little tale of woe.
I remember once sitting in a cheap restaurant on Fourth Ave. Just having a coffee, sitting by the window watching the street. It was way out Fourth, away from the main action. There was this old guy out front on the sidewalk, a regular old guy with the old-guy grey pants hitched way up and old-guy shirt buttoned to the top button, and he was walking a raccoon. Yeah. A raccoon on a leash like a dog, waddling along in front of the old guy. They passed right by the window.
The waitress asked if I wanted another coffee. I knew it was the kinda place that would charge you for a refill if that’s all you were buying, so I said no. Then I said why not and asked if she’d seen the guy with the raccoon.
“He’s along here every day,” she said. “Has a lizard sometimes too. Not a lizard. That long thing like a lizard? Japanese dragon or some such?”
I didn’t know. The world was getting mixed up, I told her.
She probably figured I was on drugs. When I finished the coffee, I asked her for toast. Brown toast. Dry, no butter. And another coffee. I wanted her to see I wasn’t stoned.
I don’t think she saw. Either that or she’d seen a lotta men with broken dreams come in and eat more dry toast and coffee than was good for them.
Yeah, I’m making fun of myself here. I guess around then I realized I was ridiculous. I didn’t really have the blues no more. Yeah, there was an empty space in me and if Petra came back I’d fall at her feet. But I wasn’t in another world, not like the second day after she’d gone. I tried hard to remember that day when I’d been hit. I could bring back some of that feeling for a few moments. Some of the ache and the feeling that the real world couldn’t touch me. I looked around the cheap restaurant and outside the window with those clear sick eyes for a minute. But the feeling wouldn’t stay.
Then I understood what people did. They stored their little bit of misery away in a small part of them, so they could take it out from time to time and get feeling all warm and miserable over it. Then they put it back and went on. Almost everyone over a certain age must have something like that stashed away. Maybe a few things.
I went back to lay in the shed and think of what to do next. Just like when we’d first come to Vancouver and I wasn’t attached to anyone. Except I was older now. Couple months. Another two weeks I’d be twenty, though I felt like I’d passed that a long time ago.
I wasn’t sure where I stood with Gus. I’d been kind of ignoring him the last little while, I was so hung up on Petra. Anyhow he disappeared during the day, probably still plugging away trying to get work.
Moneywise we were screwed, worse than when we’d arrived. We couldn’t afford more board. Just enough left over to get out on the road again.
I went over the list of places I figured I’d go next, the same list I’d gone over since I’d first thought of leaving Toronto. Down the coast. California. San Francisco. Maybe Mexico. Maybe a commune somewhere. New experiences, ways of living. All that. Somehow it didn’t excite me as much as it used to. Nothing did. Staying here or going. Of course if we stuck around for two weeks, we’d be here for the demo. That was something.
It came to me roundabout like that and I couldn’t figure out how I hadn’t thought of it before. If Petra was anywhere out west, she’d be at that demo.