Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fiction #49: Elaine McCluskey

Two Truths and a Lie
   
The drug-testing people had shown up again. At  6:30 a.m., scaring the crap out of you.  Bang. Bang. Bang.  At first, you thought it was the cops coming to question you about your stolen car,  and then you remembered that the cops never questioned anyone unless you were an old lady with an expired car-inspection sticker,  snared at a road block like a frightened rabbit.

“Merde, merde,” your girlfriend muttered, rushing to find clothes. “Why today?”

It was hard to be polite to strangers banging on your apartment door at 6:30, even if it was “their job.” A strange woman and an even stranger man wearing lanyards. There to take your girlfriend’s urine sample in your bathroom while watching her pee.

“Why you?” you ask your girlfriend. “ You are retired.”

“I know.”

When she spoke, it was in a haughty accent.

“So why bother?”

“So other fish can swim in the sea.”

It reminds you of one of those horror movies, in which the benign-looking officials, the ones in lab coats and gloves, the ones who look like they are from the government, are really going to remove your kidney. Against your will. 

You take a seat in the living room, which has a black pleather futon and a plasma TV. The woman follows your girlfriend into the bathroom, leaving you with the man. 

“It’s early, eh?” you say for small talk.

“Not for us,” replies man.

It doesn’t help that you find him annoying:  a mouse of a man who doesn’t realize he is a mouse. He thinks he is the judge of Me and You in his Outdoor Trail Store costume. He thinks he can remove your organ, and you shouldn’t even care, because it is for Some Greater Good.   

He is the phys ed teacher in charge of the fat-testing program at some shitty school in northern Ontario, the guy who types up the letters that start with Dear Primary Caregiver. The guy who herds the chubby girl down the hall  with the other Grade sixes, the boys using the confusion as an opportunity to bump each other, and shout “ouch!!” The guy who sets up a scale in the gymnasium, which has a broken basketball net and the smell of spoiled milk.

“Please remove excess clothing that may interfere with the results,” he orders, and a boy,  just to be stupid, starts to remove his pants. “Put those back on!” he shouts. “Put those back on.”

The chubby girl is instructed to take off her shoes, and she doesn’t want to because there are holes in her socks.  She is four foot eight, the tester informs her in a neutral voice “and you weigh ---“ his voice grows stern, “one-hundred and twenty pounds.” And then they do a skinfold caliper test, and they pinch four parts of her body.

When you are a poor child, your greatest fear is that other people will find out how poor you are, and they will judge you, and they will judge your parents, not knowing the hows and whys. They don’t know that your father was raised in a residential home, or that he worked two jobs and drove a bicycle at midnight to save bus fare, and that he believed that you were happy and just like everybody else, and you were, for the most part, unless it was Skating Day and you didn’t have skates or the $5.00 fee, and his heart would have broken if he knew, so you pretended you were sick on those days. And you don’t know how you are going to get the Fat Letter signed.

“How was school today?” the girl’s father asks.

“It was OK.”

“Good,” he says, relieved. “That’s good.”

                         *****

“Do you catch many?” you ask the drug-tester, who looks familiar now, like you might have seen him in the beer store.

“Can’t say.”

“Five or six?” You are bored, sitting there in sweatpants, so you persist.

He indicates  -- with his hand -- lower than that.

“Mainly roids?”

“Not really,” he says, without elaborating.

Your girlfriend was a member of Canada’s synchronized swimming team for five years. She trained twice a day, starting at 5:00 a.m., she went to Worlds, she spent years under water  wearing a nose plug, makeup, and a startled smile.  Consumed by secret routines and scoring. She received federal carding money, which means that the drug people can test her for eighteen months after she quits. She must provide “Whereabouts.”

You met her in a bar in Montreal, and she was gorgeous, and she told you she was tired of French guys. “I’m not French,” you told her, and she smiled, and you thought that it was the luckiest day of your life.

The first time your met her parents, you were at a hockey game, and her brother was on the ice, having, in front of 2,000 people, a terrible game.  Her father stood up and shouted -- in an attempt to excuse the poor performance: “Marc-Alexandre  come in and rest. You have a Urinary Tract Infection. You have a Urinary Tract Infection.”

Your girlfriend touched your arm, and whispered. Marc-Alexandre  did not have a urinary tract infection; he had a STD, which he had picked up in northern Quebec. The father shouted again. “Marc-Alexandre come in ....”

“Why?” you later asked, “Why?”       

“I do not know,” she shrugged. “I am not in his pants.”

It had taken you three months to figure out that you were not Florence’s one great love; you were her exit strategy.   She was in danger of being cut from the team -- her injuries had caught up with her, she was getting old  -- so she pre-emptively retired, so that she could move to Dartmouth to be with her new boyfriend. You.

“What do you do?” the tester asks you.

“I am a bartender. It’s a living.”

“Is it?”

You don’t like his tone.

“Yes.”

                        ****

The testing is taking longer than usual. These people are not the people who showed up two weeks ago. And two weeks before that. They  had also knocked at 6:30 a.m., and they were wearing crested shirts and lanyards with ID.  They showed Florence a mission order,  and they cleared a spot at the kitchen table, and had her provide identification and fill out paperwork. They had her drink water they had brought with them. They carried a bag filled with stuff.

This time, you barely had time to look at the woman before she vanished into the bathroom with Florence. She appeared 35, more anxious than the man, who had the appearance of someone who believes he is on the Right Side of everything. She looked sketchier, like one of those women who had mis-timed her life, and ended up in a threesome with an ugly couple who had placed an online ad for a “roommate.”

“How come no one ever caught Lance?”  you ask because he is annoying you by not talking.

“We would today,” he claims, and you don’t believe him.

He has something bulky in his pocket, and you wonder what it is.

“Or Marion Jones?”

“Not our problem.”

Suddenly, your are pissed about your car, which was stolen from your driveway, with your girlfriend’s bag, filled with Canada gear,  in the backseat. You are pissed that the cops are doing nothing. Bad things are not supposed to happen to young people; those things are reserved for other people. Old people. People on crowded buses in tropical monsoon climates.

You had to take a taxi home last night, and your driver was wired. He probably  ran a hydroponic nursery, you decided, collected albums by The Monkees, and dressed, at times, like Beck, worshipping the twin gods of subterfuge and camp. He had – without a doubt -- earlier that day, smoked a huge quantity of potent weed or taken mushrooms, rendering him incapable of driving.

“So like, there’s been a shitload of break-ins, ” he tells you on your street.

“I have an alarm,” you lie.  “And arms.”

Florence and the woman are still in the bathroom, so you get up, and make a coffee. By now, you are convinced you have seen Mouse Man before.

Florence told you how the testing goes:  when you pee, you must lower your bottoms past your knees, and your top above your bellybutton, and you must remain visible to the tester at all times. When you are done, your samples are poured into bottles and sealed. The urine is tested for PH; it cannot be too diluted or you have to test again.

You think about having another coffee.

Three weeks ago, you got a call from your best friend,  the poet, and he was  not in a good place. “Just calm down, buddy, just calm down. I’m coming.” When you got there, he did not answer,  so you went back outside, and Florence said, “There’s a window. I can get in.” And she climbed the fire escape, and she moved so quickly, so adroitly, that you didn’t see her slip inside.  And when she reached him, she sat on the floor, and she held him.  “It’s going to be all right,” she told him, “it’s going to be all right.”

“He need to make changes,” she told you, and her eyes were intense, as though she knew what she was talking about.

“I know.”

What your friend needed, you decided, was to get outside his head; to escape the ideas  that showed up each morning like the flowers of a rogue squash plant, appearing in a corner of the yard or attached to a tree; he needed to make his mind as calm as a perfect and flat as a perfect day at the lake.  He needed to stop reliving moments of grief or disappointment; he needed to stop re-breaking his heart. He had tried -- for one poem -- to be cheerful, he said, but the poem was awful. Anyone could be cheerful, it seemed; it took tortured, tormented individual -- someone who had been to a dark and dolorous place --  to be a serious poet.

You tried to have a serious talk with your friend, and he told you a story about his neighbour, a middle-aged dude who wears a Sears raincoat and a chonmage.

“Is that what really happened?”

“It is, for me. My ending is my ending, and it is as valid as any, because there is  no logical or causal connection between our everyday lives and the calamitous blows that strike us. There is no chain of events that leads to a baby being born with cancer or a bus driver driving his forty-two passengers into a speeding train. None.”

“What about the truth?”

“Everything is random. Everything important is a huge misanthropic joke.”

                        ****

Mouse Man should make small talk, you decide, or go outside. He is getting on your nerves in this cramped space. He should tell you something interesting - some inside dope about Lance or Ben Johnson -- something that makes this worth your while. You saw Mike Tyson on a talk show, and he said that he passed his drug tests by using a fake penis filled with clean urine. “It’s connected to a jock strap,” he lisped. Testers are supposed to watch you pee, but this was Tyson, the baddest man in sports, and he bit someone’s ear off. Mouse Man should tell you something like that.

It is the fourth time in six weeks that the testers have shown up. The last pair did not get on your nerves like this guy. The last time, the man tried to sound hip by making a joke about crypto-cyber anarchists. And you laughed.

Why is it taking so long?

Maybe, because Florence got up in the middle of the night and peed.

You think of knocking on the bathroom door, but Florence will get mad at you.

Sometimes, Florence looks distant, as though she is visualizing an intricate routine  with platform lifts and torpedo sculls, and you wonder.

“I used to play semi-pro hockey,” you tell the tester.

It’s a lie, and it is deliberate, and you think about the Ken Kesey quote that your friend, The Poet, likes to use: “It's the truth even if it didn't happen.”

Mouse Man gives you a creepy look that you do not like.

When you met Florence, you told her about a game that teachers made you play in high school. Two Truths and  a Lie was supposed to break down social barriers, discourage bullying, and open dialogue among students.  They started it after an uber-religious student got beat up on the school bus for wearing a faux gold crucifix.  In the game, a student makes three disclosures about himself; the others try to decide which one is untrue.

The first day that you played it, your teacher looked  nervous.

“I was in Youth Court.”  Jared went first.

“I own a Fender Stratocaster.”

“I live with my grandmother.”

A girl raised her hand and made a guess: “I don’t believe you own a Fender Stratocaster.”

“No.” Jared  was proud of the Strat. “I do own one; It belonged to my father before he moved out West.”

There was a positive buzz until the teacher, the curator of our misfortunes,  asked in a teacherly fashion: “Then what is the lie, Jared?”

“I don’t live with my grandmother,” he said. “She died, and I live in a group home.” And the whole room winced.

The game continued for three weeks, and by that time, you knew that one girl’s father suffered from epileptic seizures, and that a boy had been shot while hunting, information, that while titillating, served no purpose. You learned that Ellen had a baby.

And then it was your turn, and you told the class that 1) your father had started a private reptile zoo filled with exotic animals, including an African  rock python, that 2) you knew how to play Chopin on the piano, and  that 3) your best friend took an acne drug,  some stupid zit script,  and it messed up his brain.

“What,” your teacher asked,  “do you think is the lie?”

                ****

You have waited long enough; it is your apartment, after all. Your guitar, your posters. Your shoe rack with your girlfriend’s UGGs and your sneakers.  Your coffee is empty, and you want to go back to bed. By the time the wired driver dropped you off, it was 3 a.m., and you are tired.  You tap on the bathroom door, and you ask: “Going to be much longer?” and nobody answers.  So you tap again, and you can feel the tester behind you, you can feel his mouse-like body.

                                    ****

If you could rewrite your life as easily as changing the name on a fake ID, the following would be true: 1) That little boy, the one who was supposed to be with his mother, would not have been left alone in a room with a fifty-kilogram snake. 2) Your best friend would not be writing dark poems, but quirky songs for a hipster band with an accordion. 3) You -- Mitchell James Armstrong -- would not tied up in your own apartment by two criminals who have been stalking your girlfriend for weeks with a preposterous plan to  kidnap her.  Your life would not be a huge misanthropic joke. Everything happened so quickly that you do not recall being hit.  You do remember wondering, minutes before, if things were going to work out with you and Florence, or if she would get bored and return home. To Montreal. To those French-speaking people, who said, “in your teeth” instead of “in your face,” people who dressed up like nuns and priests on Halloween and still thought blackface was funny. People who didn’t,  you suspect, like you. You thought you heard someone coming up your stairs, and that it was the cops, and they were going to tell you that they had found your car,  but you know that’s not true.

*

Elaine McCluskey is the author of a novel, Going Fast, and two short story collections, Valery the Great, and The Watermelon Social. She is a Journey Prize finalist. She recently placed second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Contest in Ireland. She has been published in The Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead, Room, Other Voices, The Dalhousie Review, and others.  She is at work at a collection entitled Hello Sweetheart.

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