By Mark McCawley
For two blocks
through the haze of worn off gin
I’ve watched the backs of her knees
dimple firmly with every step
The breeze in her blue shift
dies She’s bare
I’m hooked She stops
Her lips are greased with opalescent pearl
They pucker & blow a whiskey kiss at my headache
from “Earlie in the Mornin” by George Amabile
Blood Ties (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1972)
If it was true that the path to heaven passed straight through hell, then I was entering a weigh station in purgatory. The glass doors of the Metro Community Social Services centre had been smashed, but were still intact, though the cracks made seeing through them impossible. I opened one the doors.
Approaching from down the hall were two cops and a bearded man. One cop had the man in a half nelson, while the other held the man’s arms behind his back. The front of the man’s shirt was ripped open. As I passed by them, I saw that the man was wearing handcuffs. Blood was streaming from his nose. A trail of blood ran the length of the hallway. When they passed through one of the glass doors, it shattered, and tiny bits of glass fell everywhere.
The reception area had the feeling of a detention camp, or a processing centre. It was standing room only. Stacks of broken chairs were heaped in a corner of the room. What seats were left had already been taken.
I knew times were tough, but not just how tough. Every face in the room had an expression of resignation, waiting to find out their fates, and whether these fates would worsen or simply stay the same. I had an appointment to see an employment resource worker.
A crooked string of people was waiting for a turn on the only available telephone. In one corner, a paltry space had been designated as a children’s play area. Around a Fisher-Price table, several children fought over a few worn and tattered toys. I found a space against one of the walls and took my place.
Every twenty minutes or so, a name would be called out from the reception desk. Nearby, a green metal door would click open, briefly allowing whoever was called to pass through before clicking shut again. I glanced at my watch. My appointment was already thirty minutes overdue.
The letter, which had brought me here, had arrived two days before. It was the middle of the month. Not a good sign. I had wondered what they had planned for me now. The letter was succinct and to the point. It had been decided that my employment status was to be reviewed, and a determination made whether or not employment services were in order.
The last sentence made it perfectly clear. Report on date stated, or have all benefits terminated. I glanced at my watch again. My appointment was an hour overdue.
My legs felt stiff from standing so long on one spot. A man from a nearby seat stood up. I took his place between a man scanning a newspaper classified section, and an elderly woman knitting furiously.
“But I was told a food voucher would be waiting for me,” a woman barked into the telephone. “How am I supposed to feed my…”
A frenzied shriek erupted from the play area. One child had bitten into another child’s arm. The woman on the telephone hung up and ran to the bitten child. The elderly woman beside me mumbled something.
“Excuse me?” I turned toward her.
“I said they think we have all day to waste here.”
“Been waiting long?” I asked.
“Just all day,” she grumbled. “You’d think they’d have the decency to keep the appointments they set.” She tugged on a string of orange yarn.
I felt a tug below, and an urge to empty my bladder. I didn’t want to lose my seat, though. Not yet. Shouldn’t be too much longer, I thought to myself. “Been waiting long yourself?” she asked.
“Just a little over an hour,” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure anymore.
Another name was called out. The green door clicked open, and then clicked shut again. The room had thinned out a bit. Perhaps some had just given up waiting and left. The old woman bent down and poked her hand into a plastic bag on the floor. She pulled out a string of white yarn, knotted it, and then resumed her knitting.
“I can think of a thousand better ways to spend my time than waiting on some damn social worker. As if I had all the time in the world…I know different, I tell you.”
“Uh-huh,” I nodded.
“You’d think they get me right in considering my husband. Got pancreatic cancer, you know. Slow death it is. Eats him up a little bit each day, leaving him just a little weaker. Doctors gave him six months, tops. That was eight months ago…”
“Sorry to hear…”
She cut me off. “No need feeling bad on my account. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. I just wish they’d hurry it up. It seems as if I have been waiting next to forever.”
Another name was called out. “That’d be me,” she said, stuffing her needles into her bag. “Been nice, talking…” She walked to the green door, waited for it to click open, and then disappeared into the inner sanctum.
I was just about to get up and ask what was taking so long when my name was called. I walked over to the green door and waited for it to click open. I heard footsteps approaching. A woman opened the door. She wore a blue skirt, a blue blazer with padded shoulders, and a pink blouse. She wore a floral broach on her lapel. I couldn’t tell what kind of flower.
“Hello…I’m Gina Wiggins-Smith, your employment resource worker. You may call me Ms. Smith…please follow me.”
I was led through a maze of partitioned office spaces. The room was enormous. Tacked on some of the partitions were cartoons about government departments, and aphoristic blurbs in large bold lettering. “You don’t have to be crazy to work here…but it helps,” read one. “You want it when?” read another.
The entire office was conspicuously vacant. One of the clocks I passed read 3:30. The office staff was probably off on one of those notoriously long coffee breaks government employees always seem to take, lasting longer than most people’s lunches.
While I walked through the maze behind her, I wondered why the vast majority of social workers I’d encountered had been women. Was it because they possessed more compassion? Or were they simply more adept than their male counterparts? I couldn’t figure which one. In the end I suppose I really couldn’t give a shit. After several more twists and turns, she led me into one of the empty offices.
“Have a seat, please,” she said, pointing to the only other seat besides her own. On the desk was a folder with my name written on it in thick black ink. I sat down. The chair I was in was very uncomfortable. My palms were sweaty. She opened the folder, then looked up at me.
“Has you current situation changed in any substantial way?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure what she meant by substantial. “I don’t think so,” I said.
She began to ask the usual flurry of questions. What had I been doing? When was the last time I’d been working? What were my current expenditures?
It was her profession to butt into my business. I had learned never to volunteer a thing, or divulge information I considered none of anyone’s business. I told her about the work injury I received, the trouble I had breathing, and the chronic pain I suffered from which kept me a virtual prisoner in my own home. While I spoke she scribbled on one of the sheets of paper in the folder.
She was one of those people whose sole purpose in life was to ensure the proper station of everyone who passed through her office, and determine their roles in the greater social order. It was obvious to me that she was ill prepared to deal with the tragedies that paraded each day in front of her.
She constantly consulted her agenda as if it were a Bible. Anything personal was taboo. That was the only chink in her armor. She was far more interested in my potential for employment, than any physical discomfort I was currently experiencing. She had pat answers ready for just about every contingency or eventuality. I was quite certain that she had graduated at the top of her class.
“There’s nothing we can do concerning your alleged injury,” she said. “It’s your responsibility to make the best of a bad situation.”
To get each and every one of her clients back into the workforce, regardless of their affliction, was her moral imperative. “There’s nothing in your case file,” she said, shaking her head, “to suggest you’re incapable of actively seeking some type of meaningful employment. Hence, any recommendation I make will certainly include that fact.”
“But I’m still suffering…my injury,” I said, perplexed.
Her face seemed to redden as I spoke. It was crystal clear what was happening to me. I was being railroaded. So why should I make it any easier for her? I thought. So what if she thinks I’m just another socially maladjusted moron? What was the point? What did I really care what she thought? I knew I would probably never see her again. I decided to appear as docile as possible. She handed over the sheet of paper she had been scribbling on.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s a social contract,” she said, tapping the sheet with the long red fingernail of her forefinger. “It’s an agreement between yourself and this agency. It states that you fully understand your obligation to actively seek employment, your responsibility to do so and that you comprehend the consequences of breaching the terms of the contract. It’s procedure. Sign your name at the bottom, please.”
It was a simple case of give and take. They give and they take away. No signature, no benefits. I wasn’t even sure what it was I was signing. Her writing was almost illegible. I handed the sheet back to her.
“You may go now,” she said, flicking the file shut. She turned in her swivel chair, stood up, then pulled open one of the file drawers into which my file squeezed inside with the rest. My bladder felt as if it was about to burst and I had cramps in my abdomen from holding my bowels for too long.
When I arrived back into the reception area, there were five people still waiting. They all looked miserable. I looked at my watch. It was 4:30. The receptionist announced that none of the workers were taking any more clients for the day. Those remaining were told to report again the next morning. I rushed to the restroom and relieved myself.
Outside, the rush hour traffic had already begun. Another day wasted. I lit up a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and then blew out the smoke. It dissipated quickly into the exhaust filled afternoon air.
The lines at Manpower were moving slower than usual. It took at least an hour to see someone. The tension in the place was thick enough to choke on.
There were three lines stretching back to the wall, where it formed one large line running the length of the small room and disappearing into the atrium around a corner. Most of the faces of the people in line looked aggravated. They all seemed to be entranced by their own private sort of misery.
When I arrived I was at the end of the line. Soon after it seemed as if I was in the middle of the line except that I hadn’t moved one step ahead. I glanced over my shoulder. The man behind me had a look of stony resignation. It was obvious he had been here before. Even the civil service workers looked haggard. Each time one of them said “next” the line inched a little bit forward.
When it came to my turn at the wicket, it was not a woman looking up at me, but the spat on face of government. I handed her my separation slip and the letter of termination I received from my former employer. She looked them over briefly. I glanced up at the large clock on the wall. It was almost noon.
“Are you aware that the date of termination on your separation slip, and the date on your letter of termination do not coincide?” Her voice oozed civility but hardly masked an underlying sarcasm.
“I hadn’t really noticed until you pointed it out just now,” I said. “I’ve never applied for U.I before.” She glanced at the clock, then back at me.
“Your claim cannot be processed until this contradiction is cleared up.” She handed me several forms as well as my slip and letter of termination. “The first form is to be filled out by your former employer. This one has to be filled out by Revenue Canada. And this one you must fill out. Next.” The line seemed to squeeze me against the counter.
“How long is this going to take?” I asked. Someone’s elbow dug painfully into my back.
“That depends on when all the forms are returned to this office…eight, maybe twelve weeks…Next.”
I took the forms and walked into the adjoining room.
There were job boards everywhere with little yellowing index cards scattered across them. Most of the positions available were for service industry positions, commission sales, telemarketing, or general labour. No one looked at them for very long.
Work was scarce and growing scarcer. I had long since given up on waiting at home for phone calls I knew would never come. No one was hiring, and if they did it was for a pittance. Even the labour union had a freeze on new members.
Near the entrance, seated behind a circular counter, was a slightly overweight balding man wearing a blue uniform with white patches sewn onto his sleeves reading “security.” He appeared to dozing off. In front of the counter was a large plastic paper-recycling bin. At least somebody had a job I thought; as I dumped the papers I was carrying into the bin.
No buses ran out of the industrial section except during peak hours, so I had to walk several miles in the heavy work boots I was wearing.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon when I entered the Ventura tavern. My feet were sore and swollen. I was happy just to get in out of the midday heat. My neck was stiff, and my hair was drenched in sweat. The cool tavern air was a welcome relief.
The tavern had only been open for two and a half hours, but most of the usual regulars were already there, drinking draught beer and smoking cigarettes. The rest would trickle in as the day wore on: the unemployed, the unemployable, those on U.I., running out of U.I., those on welfare or simply shit out of luck. I wasn’t certain to which caste I belonged, probably the latter.
Almost everyone I knew were single and out of work, looking for work, or making quick cash under the table. The government was cracking down on just about everybody living under the poverty line, so it wasn’t so unusual that the tavern was doing such a brisk business. Everyone was either desperate or destitute.
During the week, a bunch of us guys got together at the Ventura to hang out after a morning spent looking for work. There in the corner, seated around one of the small tables was Harold, Frank, Dino and Vince. Above them on the wall was a flashing neon sign that read: “Excitement On Tap.”
I had twenty dollars in my pocket, and for the time being I had no problems, or cares. I pulled over a chair from one of the empty tables and sat down. I held up four fingers to the beer slinger.
Harold was trying to explain Kierkegaard’s existentialist moment and the “Anguish of Abraham” to Vince in-between gulps of draught and furious puffs from his cigarette. Harold had been a philosophy major at university, which was until he ran out of student loans. Then he was caught for possession of hashish. The Secretary of State garnished whatever income tax refund he had coming, and the collection agency they contracted were harassing him daily by phone.
Vince didn’t seem the least bit interested and looked increasingly annoyed. Vince took a cigarette from Harold’s pack and lit it up.
“God’s a fucking asshole Harold,” Vince said, “and so are you.”
“And fuck you too, Vince.” Harold blurted back.
The beer slinger set four glasses on the table in front of me. I dropped a two-dollar bill onto his tray. Frank and Dino were watching the Toronto Blue Jays on the big screen T.V. How anyone could be even remotely interested in watching grown men hitting a ball with a piece of wood, then running around three bases, I couldn’t understand. And to pay them millions to do so seemed ludicrous to me.
The walls of the Ventura tavern were covered with velvet wallpaper, circa 1940, and on some of the walls were yellowish, age-stained photographs depicting a turn of the century city. The carpet oozed an odor of stale beer.
In the centre of the tavern was a dance floor where the carpet had been removed. Running across the dance floor was a white line, a left over from an era when men sat and drank on one side of the tavern, their wives and girlfriends on the other. I downed the dregs of my fourth beer and ordered four more.
Frank and Dino were still staring up at the big screen TV. The baseball game was over and they were watching several grey-haired men with steel bars in their hands trying to hit a tiny ball into a tiny hole. Frank tried to talk to an elderly man at the table next to ours, but the old man had fallen asleep. Frank tried to start a conversation with Dino. Dino would look at him, nod once or twice, drink from his glass, and then turn his attention back to the TV screen.
Frank would start a conversation with anyone who’d listen — usually only as a pretext to mouth his own complaints. Having failed with the old man and Dino, he turned his attention to me.
“Any luck today?” he asked.
“Yeah, the usual…bad.” I said.
“Don’t I know it,” Frank said, nodding his head, then right on cue he started up about his wife again. About how they had to separate so she and the kids could go on welfare. It was the same story he told anyone whenever he had beer in his belly.
“After a month,” he said, “she says it might be a good idea to make the separation permanent…then I’m not supposed to come around and see the kids whenever I want, that I got to call first. Shit…imagine having to make an appointment to see your own frigging wife and kids?” After three or four beers, Frank would become increasingly sullen and morose.
I think it was obvious to anyone that Frank was at the end of his rope, which he was grasping at threads of hope of ever getting back to his old life again. Meanwhile, he was living in a boarding house on the north side of the river. This prompted another volley of complaints.
“A closet with a mattress in it,” Frank called it. “The people living there are insane, yelling and screaming at each other at all hours of the day and night. Shit, I got to get drunk just to get to sleep there, and if there’s ever a fire, I’m going to be toasted. And what with the landlady waltzing into the rooms whenever she damn well pleases…one day I’m going to give that old cunt the shock of her life…” Frank doesn’t elaborate.
“Have another beer and fucking cheer up, will you?” Dino said, setting a full glass of draught in front of Frank. “You’re depressing the shit out of me, Frank.”
Frank downed the glass spilling beer down his chin and onto his shirt, and then slumped back into his chair. His eyes had the look of a mangy dog that’d been kicked once too often, and doesn’t know where the next kick is coming from, but instinctively knows that it will.
“Fucken, eh?” Frank muttered, trying to light a cigarette, which was soaked with beer. He kept flicking the lighter and trying to puff. Frank slumped back into his seat and groaned. He crossed his hands on his lap, and rested his chin on his chest.
Dino was staring at two women who had come in and sat down not far from our table. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear he was drooling. Both women were no older than twenty, maybe younger. They wore matching brown strapless elastic halter-tops, and had matching rose tattoos on their upper right breasts.
“What’s he staring at?” Vince asked.
“Those two over there,” I nodded. “Dino’s got another hard-on I think.”
“Fuck you!” Dino said. “At least I’m not stupid enough to get married to one, like you and Frankie. I know what women want and I’m the one to give it to them.” Dino pulled his crotch and squeezed. His drunkenness was making him rowdy, boastful, and obnoxious.
“Oh yeah,” Vince laughed. “Like the time you showed up at my place with your gonch full of green puss stains? You couldn’t even drive; you had the dose so bad. Your just a fucking slut, you know that Dino?”
“Well at least I use what I got,” Dino said. “Not like you Vince. Your cock’s probably atrophied and fallen off for lack of use.” Dino downed his glass and staggered toward the two girls. Frank stood up, garbled something incomprehensible, then staggered toward the washroom bouncing from table to table like a pinball.
I had been watching Dino dancing with one of the two young women. It didn’t really resemble dancing though, more like some obscure kind of mating ritual in which each participant tries to rub their genitalia the most on the leg of the other.
I poured the last of the beer in the jug into my cup and swallowed. I dug my hand into the pocket of my jeans and came up with a five-dollar bill and some lint. I was almost broke but feeling no pain. I grabbed some peanuts from a bag on the table and popped them in my mouth. I noticed that Vince was looking around the bar. “Have you seen Harold?” he asked.
“Not for awhile. I think he beat off back home,” I said.
“Goddamn prick head skipped out without paying again. That’s the second time this week he’s stiffed us. Next time I see him I’m going to cut his balls off. How much money you got?”
I poked my hand back into my pocket and retrieved the five-dollar bill.
“That just aughta bout do it,” Vince said, plucking the bill from my hand then slamming it down on the table.
I wondered what I had at home that I might be able to sell. Dino slumped back down at the table. Sweat was running down his face. He was trying to catch his breath between puffs on his cigarette.
“Having fun?” Vince said to Dino.
“Listen,” Dino said to Vince, “this cunt’s she’s ripe fuckin hot for me, man…but her roommate’s having a big shit about going back home by herself. You’d really be helping me man if you came along…she thinks you’re a hunk man.”
“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” Vince said. “I aint that desperate…besides, she aint my type, you know that.”
“Then just do it for me, man…” Dino spat out. “All you got to do is hang around their place long enough for us to disappear, then you can buzz off all you like. C’mon…I’ll owe you one.”
“All right…all right,” Vince said holding up the palms of his hands, “let me get my coat on first.”
Dino turned to me and slurred, “Where’s Frank?”
“He’s still in the restroom,” I said.
“Yeah,” Dino said, “probably vomiting. Man, that Frank’s depressing. Tell em I said adios.”
Dino and Vince walked toward the two girls. They stood at their table for a while, and then all four left together, waving back at me as they walked out the tavern door.
The tavern was just about to close down for the night when I found Frank curled up around the toilet in the restroom’s only stall. One of his arms was draped over the rim of the toilet bowl; the tips of his fingers were brushing the surface of the water. There was puke on his shirt, on his pants, puke in his hair, on the floor. Everywhere except inside of the toilet.
He was snoring into his other armpit. I lifted Frank up by his underarms, and sat him down on the toilet seat. He was barely able to keep his eyes open. Someone yelled into the restroom, telling us to get a move on. “Just one frigging minute,” I shouted back.
How I was ever going to get Frank home was a mystery. All I was really sure of was that it was going to be one long, tough haul.
I wasn’t sure whether the noise I heard came from inside my head, or from somewhere else. It awakened me with a start. I curled my pillow around the back of my head, and held it over both my ears. This hardly muffled the ceaseless ringing I kept hearing.
Once I figured that the noise was originating from the telephone on the end table beside my bed, I reached over to answer it, if only to stop the noise.
It was Colin. He spoke so fast I couldn’t understand one word he was saying.
I felt woozy and had this overwhelming urge to throw up. My head felt as if someone had taken a crowbar to it while I slept. My mouth tasted like stale beer and cigarettes.
“Slow down a minute,” I mumbled into the receiver, “I’m not even awake yet.”
“Okay,” Colin started again slowly, “remember last night at the bar? You were telling me you were desperate for some work, any kind of work?”
“Yeah, yeah I remember. What about it?”
“Well, a friend of mine is renovating his place of business. He doesn’t want to bother with all the paperwork, so it’s all under the table, cash up front. His name is Floyd. Let me give you his address.”
“Wait a second,” I said, “I’m looking for some paper.”
I picked up a pen next to the phone and scanned the room for a piece of paper. I picked up an old paperback, tore out a page, and wrote down the address along one of the margins.
“Let me know what happens, eh?” Colin said. “Tell Floyd I sent you.”
“Sure. Thanks,” I mumbled, and then hung up the phone. I stood up too fast and almost fell back onto the bed. I took a few deep breaths, steadied myself against the wall, and then headed to the bathroom to recuperate.
The downtown sidewalks were loaded with Saturday shoppers. The hustle and bustle on and off the streets was making it difficult for me to concentrate on the address I was looking for.
In my hand, I had the piece of paper on which I’d written down the address. As I passed by each business I looked down at the sheet, then up at the numbers over the doors.
There’d always been something about large crowds of people that always made me nervous. It wasn’t agro-phobia. It was more like a deepening misanthropy.
I was still jittery from the other day. A job I had started the morning before had barely lasted until the first coffee break. I was hired as an assistant to a white supremacist, anti-Semitic interior auto designer.
For two excruciating hours I worked in close quarters with him. He complained about the Jews at his bank, the Jews in government, and the Jewish Zionist threat. He blamed every personal or professional problem he’d ever had on the Jews. I was positive that if he developed a bad case of hemorrhoids, he’d probably blame that on Israel, too.
I wondered if he might be some Nazi war criminal. He was certainly the right age for it, but I wasn’t about to hang around to find out, though. When the first coffee break arrived, I beat it.
In those two hours I’d heard so much hatred, it felt like bile coming up my throat. All I could do was take my last twenty bucks and go numb myself at the bar.
I continued to look at the numbers above the doors I passed. I no longer referred to the sheet of paper as I had virtually memorized the address.
An old man and a young pregnant woman were standing on the street corner I was approaching. The man stood silently while the woman beside him chanted loudly at the passing people.
“The wages of sin are death,” she barked out caustically as I passed by her and the old man, “repent now or forever burn in Lucifer’s hell fire.” She had this eerie look in her eye, like I’d seen it before somewhere. “Naw,” I said to myself, shaking my head, “It’s not possible.” I could feel her eyes glaring at the back of my head.
I wasn’t too far now from the address I was looking for. It was up ahead in the middle of the block, situated between two larger brick buildings.
Hanging between the glass pane and a magenta curtain was a candy apple red neon sign that read: “Silk Touch Massage.” I pulled open the glass door and stepped inside.
In one corner of the foyer, behind a tall narrow counter, was a woman talking into a telephone and smoking a cigarette. She was thin and had straight, shoulder length brown hair.
“Can I help you?” she asked as she hung up the phone and placed her cigarette in an ashtray. She had unusually long fingernails, which were ruby red in colour.
“I’m here to see Floyd,” I muttered. “Is he in?”
“Just follow me,” she said slipping off the stool she was on. I followed a few steps behind her. She wore a pink body stocking with a bright yellow miniskirt around her waist. She left me standing in the doorway of an office near the back of the premises.
I looked around nervously. On all the floors were black plastic drop sheets made out of garbage bags. They were held together with packing tape.
Inside the office, behind a high backed swivel leather chair, a man was almost shouting into a telephone. He was really pissed off at the person on the other end of the connection. All I could see of the man was a balding spot near the back of his head. I presumed it was Floyd.
Each time his voice rose, his right hand would rip back and forth through the air, sending cigar ashes every which way. I had no idea what it was he was so pissed off about, and little interest in finding out. I listened intently. It appeared to involve an amount of money and whether or not he was going to get it soon. “Stupid goddamn prick,” he shouted as he slammed the receiver onto the telephone. He spun around in his chair and looked at me. “Who the fuck are you?” he demanded.
“I’m here about the painting job,” I said, “I heard you were looking for somebody.”
Floyd sucked on his cigar filling the office with smoke. He leaned back into his chair and stared at me, sort of giving me the once over.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“Colin MacDonald,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” he said, nodding his head. “Do you paint for a living?”
The truth was all I had ever painted were a few tenement apartments I’d lived in, and the odd picket fence as a teenager. Like everything else in my life, I was a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
“Here and there,” I replied. I hoped he wasn’t about to ask for any particulars. But since the job was under the table, I didn’t think he’d ask for any. Which he didn’t.
“I’m going out of town on business for three or four days,” he said. “Could you have the job done by the middle of next week when I get back?” I told him that I could.
“I have all the paint, brushes and rollers you’ll need near the back door. And as you can see, drop sheets have already been set down. As for the money, I can pay you two hundred for the entire job, all under the table you understand? I can give you a hundred up front, the other hundred when you finish the job. Is that all right with you?”
He pulled out his wallet and took out five twenty-dollar bills and handed them to me.
“It’s all right with me,” I said, stuffing the bills into my front pocket of my jeans. “When do you want me to start?”
“Could you start, let’s say, at seven o’clock tonight?” I told him that I could.
“Then it’s a done deal,” he smiled at me, the stub of his cigar sticking out from the side of his mouth, holding out his right hand. As we shook hands he squeezed mine for all he was worth.
“See you at seven,” I said.
“Oh, I forgot,” he whispered to me, “if you don’t mind, could you clean the place up before you leave, dump the ashtrays, take out the garbage from the rooms, odds and ends like that? I sure would appreciate it. And make sure the girls are out by midnight. If you give ‘em an inch…” Then he winked at me.
“Sure, no problem,” I said.
I stepped out onto the sidewalk. I recalled passing by a Chinese take out place not too far away. I started walking up the block. I was thinking I might have an egg roll and some mixed vegetables with rice. I hadn’t had a bite to eat all day.
It was four in the afternoon. I hoped I wouldn’t have to pass by those religious chanting psychotics again, but when I neared that intersection, she and the old man had already moved on.
I began by painting the front foyer. I had painted for almost an hour when the fumes began to make me dizzy. It was a sealed building and none of the windows opened. Only the door at the back was open and just a quarter inch or so.
There was no breeze at all. My face was oozy mixtures of sweat and paint droplets. I went into the staffroom, sat down on one of the wooden chairs, and lit a cigarette. I looked around for an ashtray.
Seated on the nearby couch were four of the masseuses. Two others were still busy with clients. From what I’d seen of the girls so far, they were all quite thin, almost too thin, and perhaps anorectic. Their hands and fingers were at once muscular and bony at the same time. To me, they looked like the girl next door, nothing at all what I expected.
While we didn’t speak to one another, we were all generally amiable. They did their work and I did mine, though while I rolled the paint roller on the hallway walls, it was as if the walls were moaning with each swath of paint.
Their clientele were mostly middle-aged men, though I wasn’t certain if this was the case or the exception. Whenever another client arrived, one of the girls’ names was called out: names like Pinky, Cindy, Candy, Debbie, and Mandy. Names too contrived to be simply coincidence, I thought. I figured the use of aliases must be pretty common practice in their line of work. I knew that if I were in their shoes, I certainly wouldn’t want one of these clients suddenly showing up at my home.
Around eleven, I was pretty well ready to call it a night. I’d painted a little over half of the premises. All I had left to paint were the five massage rooms. I decided to leave them for after hours the next night. I went outside and lit a cigarette.
While I smoked I noticed several cars idling in the back alley. I figured they must be somebody’s boyfriends waiting to pick them up after work. I dropped my cigarette onto the asphalt and ground it under my shoe, then went back inside to clean myself up.
I looked at my face in the washroom mirror. It was covered with a sweaty film of dust, dirt and droplets of paint. I pulled a paper towel from the dispenser, held it under the hot running water then started to scrub.
No sooner had I finished scrubbing my face, when the washroom door crashed open and some fat, balding guy pulled me out of the washroom and threw me face first against the newly painted hallway wall.
The handcuffs were digging into my wrists. Seated beside me in the police cruiser was a man I recognized as one of the clients I had seen. He was staring at a pair of shoes, which were on his lap. His feet were bare and all he was wearing was a pair of pants and a white undershirt. I guess they caught him either undressing or in the process of getting dressed.
The cop in the front passenger seat periodically looked back at us, and then scribbled something down on a sheet of paper. Whenever the cruiser stopped at a traffic light, drivers and passengers in the adjacent cars gawked at us. I tried not to look at their faces.
“Excuse me,” I said, leaning forward in the back seat, “I think there’s been some kind of mistake here…” When I tried to explain to the officer in the front passenger seat, he abruptly cut me off.
“You can talk all you want at the station,” he barked, “just settle down and shut your trap until then.” The fellow beside me began to moan.
The right side of my face felt stiff with dry paint. I had managed to wipe off most of the paint with my sleeve, but the residue had hardened over like a cast. Some of the paint had dried on my eyelid, which made blinking difficult. When I tried to rub my eyelids, I felt a painful stinging sensation in my eyeballs.
At the downtown police station I was booked, fingerprinted, and brought into a small interrogation room for questioning. There I was told I was being held on the suspicion of “communication for the purpose of soliciting sex.”
For several hours I was alternately questioned by one detective, and then another. They asked the same questions over again and again, altering them slightly but almost always the same. They were in plain clothes.
One of the detectives looked like Archie Bunker. His face was puffy and his gut stuck out like an enormous apple. He looked to be in his mid-fifties. The other detective looked to be in his earlier thirties. He had a scruffy red beard, sort of an Irish Serpico. Each one took a turn questioning me: sometimes alone, sometimes both at once.
At times they left me alone in the room. They were working some nice cop, mean cop routine. There’s nothing like an innocent civilian to really fuck up one’s shift, I thought to myself.
On the wall facing me was one of those large institutional clocks I remembered from high school. A wire cage protected it. It read 0430 hours. Its loud ceaseless ticking was very hypnotic. It didn’t help that I was dog-tired and half-stoned on paint fumes. Perhaps this was all part of their interrogation routine, I thought.
There were moments when I felt myself drifting off to sleep, then one or both of them would come back into the room and start the questioning all over again. Why was I at The Silk Touch? What was I really doing there? Do you really expect us to believe you were there to paint the place? Why don’t you make it easy on yourself buddy and tell us the truth?
I thought the paint on my shirt and pants would make my story as plain as the nose on their faces, but I was just kidding myself. It was pretty damn clear to me that we weren’t going to get anywhere soon. If anything, they were consistent. I give them that much.
“Okay,” said Archie Bunker, running a fat, hairy hand over his face, “let’s go over it again. Why were you doing in the bathroom at the Silk Touch?”
“I was cleaning up…I’d been painting for most of the night,” I said. “I was just about ready to leave.”
“And who hired you?” blurted Serpico.
“I told you before…the man’s name was Floyd,” I said.
“Floyd, who?” asked Archie Bunker.
“I didn’t know his last name.” I repeated, for what seemed to me to be the thousandth time.
“So what you’re telling us is you were working for this guy named Floyd…and you didn’t even know his last name?” he said, mockingly.
“That’s the fact,” I said.
“Well…as a matter of fact,” Serpico said, “I know for certain that nobody by the name of Floyd runs the Silk Touch…are you sure you’re not just lying to us to save your own ass? That maybe you were there for a little, how should we say…tension relief? C’mon…go straight with me for once and I might just be able to get you out of here before the sun comes up.”
“I would if I could,” I said, sleepily. “All I know is what I’ve already told you…”
“And where is this Floyd now?” asked Serpico.
“He told me he was going out of town on business.”
“A likely story.” said Archie Bunker, shaking his jowls. “I’m not getting anywhere with this guy,” he blurted out to his red-bearded companion, and then pushed himself up from the table with both hands. “You give it another try. I’m going out for some air.”
Serpico sat down, then began to pick through the items on the table – my wallet, my watch, the change left from the hundred dollars Floyd (or whatever his name was) had paid me, and the torn sheet from the paperback I’d written the address of the Silk Touch onto.
“Do you always carry this much money around with you?” asked Serpico, holding the bills up to my face.
“Or were you planning to spend it at the Silk Touch? Huh?”
“I told you before,” I said, “I was paid to paint and that’s exactly what I was doing there…that’s it, the whole story.”
I glared at his red beard, waiting for the string of clichés I knew would rattle off his tongue again. The two of them were like castoffs from a Grade B Clint Eastwood movie. The trouble was they were serious. Dead serious.
Just then the door opened, and Archie Bunker came back into the room. He leaned over to the side of Serpico’s head and whispered something into his ear. Serpico pushed my belongings across the table toward me.
“Your story’s been corroborated by the others,” he murmured matter-of-factly, “you’re being released.”
“Huh?” I muttered, surprised.
“You’re free to go,” said Archie Bunker, tucking in his shirt and pulling up his pants.
I took my things, put them in my pockets, and walked out of the room. That was it. No apology. Nothing.
Outside of the station, I flagged down a cab and got into the back seat.
“Where to, buddy?” asked the driver.
I told him my address. He pulled away from the curb and headed south. I could see him looking at me in the rearview mirror.
“You look awful,” he said. “What happened to you? The right side of your face is all white.”
“It’s a long story,” I said, looking out the window. The early dawning light looked almost golden as it reflected off the glass windows of downtown office buildings.
In the end it always comes down to necessity. Basic necessity. Four walls and a roof over your head. Something in your stomach to keep you going for another day. I was broke again and jobless. As all my alternatives dwindled away, Manpower seemed more and more attractive. I figured some temporary work would pull me through what remained of the month.
The first job I was sent to made customs windows. I was nearly killed by several morons who thought playing William Tell with air tools was an exciting way to pass the time. The next job was at a toxic waste dump that disguised itself as an oilfield parts supplier. The fumes were so bad I was nearly knocked on my ass after the first whiff.
Each job I was sent to seemed to be worse than the last. Whenever I asked for any safety equipment, all I got was laughter in my face. At the last job the owner simply chuckled and said, “What’da’ya think this is boy…a union?”
Now I was being sent across town to work as a “sanitary assistant” in some suburban mall. I’d always said I’d try anything once, that was my motto, but I wasn’t very sure about that anymore. I’d done a lot of shit jobs lately, and tried not to think about what I might be asked to do next.
I spent two hours riding a string of late night buses to get to work. It was ten minutes before eleven when I hopped off the last bus in front of the sprawling mall. I walked across the deserted parking lot towards a gathering of people at a service entrance.
I’d just ground a cigarette I’d been smoking under my heel when two cars turned onto the parking lot and drove toward the service entrance.
Out of one of the cars emerged several people, a Vietnamese family I’d later learn. Out of the other car emerged a lone white male, the owner I presumed. He unlocked the service door and everyone filed inside.
The owner’s name was Wayne, or so he said. He was short, fat, and balding and looked as if he hadn’t lifted a finger in years. His potbelly pushed out at the bottom of his shirt and hung over his waist. He was that sort of anti-human, botched excuse for an abortion I usually took an immediate dislike to, and did.
He was huffing and puffing, sweating profusely and constantly pulling up the back of his pants. A smoldering cigar stub stuck out of the side of his mouth. Every one stood around waiting for him to catch his breath.
“If you’ve forgotten anything outside,” he finally began, “too bad. The mall security system’s been activated and won’t be shut off ’till 7:15 tomorrow morning.”
He took the cigar stub out of his mouth and coughed several times, then continued. “There’re two ten minute breaks and twenty minutes for lunch. I’ll tell you once and only once that if I so much as guess you’re sloughing off it’ll come out of your pay envelope. Any questions?” No one said anything. “GOOD!” he barked.
Holding the cigar stub between two fingers, he began pointing it at people and bellowing out orders of where to go and what to do. At times his arms resembled spinning windmills as people took off in all directions. Spit flew from his mouth until I was the only one left. “YOU!” he shouted, “COME WITH ME.”
I followed behind him to the other end of the mall, all the while waving away at the plumes of cigar smoke that trailed behind him like exhaust.
We came to a storage room where he flicked on the light. He pulled out a metal cart that had, on one end, a metal bucket with a mop sticking out of it, next to shelves full of rags, soap, detergent, toilet rolls, paper towels, and a black garbage bag hanging from the other end.
“Ever worked in sanitation before?” he spat at me.
“No, not really,” I answered, shaking my head.
“No time like the present to learn. Take the cart and start with the restroom over there and work your way back.” He was pointing his thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll let you know if you fuck up.” Then he turned and walked away in a gray cloud of smoke.
It was thoroughly disgusting work from the get go. I bitched, I swore, I cursed. I vowed to never again sink so low. Anything would be better than this, anything had to be better than this, I thought.
There’s nothing like being up to your elbows in other people’s excrement and refuse to put a damper on your day, or your night as was my case. You never really know how thoroughly disgusting and despicable human beings are until you clean up after them. It didn’t take very long for me to start seeing people as nothing more than a series of excreting holes on the move.
I wondered if these people were any less sanitary in their own homes than they were here. Was it the knowledge that they wouldn’t have to clean up after themselves that made them feel they could piss and shit on the floors, stuff the toilet bowls with who knows what, and gob all over the walls? Thinking of all the restrooms I had left to clean simply boggled my mind.
I tried not to think about what strange diseases might be lurking in the nooks and crannies I found myself in, or what infinity of disorders came immediately to mind. The human body isn’t a place one wants to be in unless it’s your own. After a while I began to scratch nervously without really knowing why. All I knew was that when I got back home I was going to take the longest bath in human history.
By far the men’s rooms were the worst. The stink of urine was everywhere. There was piss on the floors, on the walls, everywhere it seemed except in the toilets and urinals. The women’s rooms were somewhat better, but they had their own surprises. It was amazing what crap women would try to flush down the toilet.
It was as if they emptied entire pursefuls of things down the drain. When the plunger failed to clear the toilet, you had to resort to sticking in your arm, up to the elbow, and poking at the blockage with a short length of a plumbing snake. I took out wads of tissue paper by the handful, and pulled out bloodied tampons by the score. I made a point to leave all the toilet seats up whenever I finished a room.
A few times every hour, the P.A. system would crackle to life and Wayne and his nasal voice would blurt out orders, telling people where to go and what needed to be done.
As I scooped out yet another stuffed up toilet, I could imagine him sitting in an office somewhere puffing away at his cigar, his head going a little balder and his pot belly pushing out his shirt a little farther. I kept thinking how good it would feel to see him buried up to his eyeballs in all this piss and shit and putrid gook, a bloodied maxi pad taped across his mouth.
When Wayne announced the first break, I sat down on the toilet I’d been cleaning and lit a cigarette. At least while I smoked I couldn’t smell the pungent ammonia odor of piss. As I puffed I looked at my hands. They were like two enormous prunes, almost raw from the detergent. Another cigarette later, the P.A. came on and it was time to go back to work. I dropped the butt into the water and flushed.
By lunch break I felt dizzy, nauseated and sore. The muscles of my arms and shoulders were aching like never before. I sat alone in the closed food pavilion not eating because I’d spent the last few dollars I had on a tasteless hamburger. I attempted to relax by thinking of the ways I could forget this entire fiasco. The consumption of copious amounts of alcohol kept coming to mind.
Also seated in the food pavilion was the Vietnamese family I’d seen earlier. Although I hadn’t heard them utter a single word in English, I knew that they knew what kind of work I’d been doing. They sat a comfortable distance from me and I didn’t blame them for it. I couldn’t get the stench of the last restroom out of my nose, no matter how much I smoked.
All through lunch break, Wayne’s voice buzzed over the P.A telling people what to do after the break. It was enough to make you lose your appetite.
I was thinking how good it’d feel to stick that microphone down Wayne’s throat and make him listen to his arteries harden, when an elderly Vietnamese man appeared at my table and set down a napkin with a rice cake on it next to a cup of tea. The rice cake had some kind of spread on it.
All the time the man was smiling and nodding and gesturing with his hands for me to eat. I nodded and smiled back as best I could. After he rejoined his family, I gobbled up the rice cake. It tasted delicious, whatever it was spread on it. I brought the tea to my lips and sipped. It tasted like mint.
It was 7:00 a.m. and everyone was waiting in line to pick up his or her pay envelope. We were all to be paid in cash after each shift. No taxes, no paperwork. I knew it was going to be my first and last. When I received my envelope I walked away and looked inside.
There was ten dollars missing. I went back to talk to Wayne about it. “What’s going on?” I said. “There’s ten dollars missing.”
“Nothing’s missing,” he muttered matter-of-factly, continuing to pass out envelopes.
“What’da’ya mean, nothing’s missing?” I shot back.
I was getting pissed off.
“Smoking in the restrooms,” he said, “ten dollar fine…it’s the rules.”
“You never told me…” I said, but he cut me off.
“Too bad,” he said, “you’ll know for next time.”
I turned and left without even trying to argue the point. He was a bastard, plain and simple. I knew it; he knew it. What I couldn’t figure was how he knew I smoked in the restroom in the first place. I hadn’t seen him once during the last eight hours.
I waited, along with everyone else, in the space between the two sets of mall doors for the security system to be deactivated. Back where I’d left him, Wayne was standing and puffing on his cigar. He looked so smug as he stood there gawking. I hated his guts, and I admit there were a lot of guts there to loathe.
Then I noticed the “emergency exit only” sign above a door, which was off to the side from where we were standing. I moved toward it in a slow lackadaisical manner, and then pushed open the door.
As I sauntered across the parking lot, I could still hear Wayne’s screaming nasal voice above the high-pitched shrill of the tripped emergency alarm.
The bus came and I got on board. Looking out the window at all the golden, sunlit buildings, I thought how beautiful they looked after such a long and shitty night. Just then, two fire engines and a police cruiser whizzed past. I closed my eyes and smiled, resting my weary head against the glass.
Mark McCawley is a fiction writer, editor, poet, and micro-press publisher. Since founding Greensleeve Editions in 1988, he has published over fifty chapbooks. Since 1993, he has edited the litzine Urban Graffiti. He is the author of eight chapbooks of poetry and short fiction, most recently, Stories For People With Brief Attention Spans (1993) and Just Another Asshole: short stories (1994), both from Greensleeve Editions. His short fiction has also appeared in the anthologies: Burning Ambitions: The Anthology of Short-Shorts, edited by Debbie James (Toronto: Rush Hour Revisions, 1998) and Grunt & Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex, edited by Matthew Firth and Max Maccari (Toronto: Boheme Press, 2002). Mark McCawley can be contacted via email: email@example.com
Collateral Damage © Mark McCawley 2008, 2012