Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fiction #51: Mary Baxter

Two Good Men

Cal discovered the book at the end of his shift. He found it wedged between the seat and the backrest in the back of his cab, stuffed so far in that only its black spine was visible. When he pulled it out he realized it wasn’t a book at all but a notebook – one of those cheap hard cover deals with ruled pages that you usually find in the accounting section of a stationers. About every half page or so, there was a gap, then a date, then more writing. A diary.

A name was written on the first page – Ruth Carson – followed by a date, July 1, 1995, and the word BEWARE, printed in large capital letters. Underneath that: (and that means you, Paula – touch it and YOU DIE, little sister.)

A girl then.

Cal closed his eyes and tried to remember the fares through the night. There was the girl that he had picked up somewhere around eleven. He had picked her up around the music conservatory. The only reason he remembered was because she looked a little too young to be out that late on her own. He’d made some comment about her being out so late and she had looked at him like he had just crawled out from under a rock. ‘I had a rehearsal,’ she said. ‘What’s it to you.’ He’d told her that he was a musician too.

‘Yeah right, the next Eddie Van Halen, I bet,’ she’d cracked.

He’d dropped her off on a street near Bloor and Jane. Baby Point Road? Baby Point Crescent? No. Baby Point Terrace. He grabbed the well-worn telephone book on the dispatch office counter and thumbed through listings for Carson and found one located on the street. When he dialed the number an answering service picked up. He left a message.

He was bleary by the time he reached his sister’s. He climbed the two flights of stairs to his room on the third floor. He threw the knapsack that still carried the diary on the chair then flopped on the bed and stuck his hands behind his head. He stared at the sloping ceiling that Fiona, his niece, had decorated with glow-in-the-dark moons and stars. Trucks rattled along the not-so-distant Keele Street, shaking the house. At least it was quiet inside. His sister and her husband would have left to drop Fiona off at school more than an hour ago; by now they would both be at work.

‘Don’t think I’m going to pick up after you or clean up behind you,’ his sister had said when he first arrived. ‘This is strictly temporary. Until you find your own place. ’Til then, I expect you to make your own meals, do your own laundry and pay me rent. AND get a job. It’s hard enough to make ends meet without having to look out for you.’

He thought his sister had overreacted. It wasn’t like he’d asked the factory in Port Owen to close just so he could move to Toronto and freeload. He was as uncomfortable with the arrangement as she was. Hell, he would have preferred staying up north. But where were the jobs?

He pulled the portable cd player out of his knapsack, plugged in a cd and focused on the Led Zeppelin poster he’d fixed on the wall across from his bed. As he listened he imagined he was holding a guitar. He tried to match the hand positions for the chords. Later in the afternoon, he and Angus planned to look at the guitar he’d spotted last week in a pawnshop downtown. Angus figured that Cal really had a chance as a musician. He’d told him that a couple of weeks ago after betting that Cal couldn’t make it through Stairway to Heaven without making a mistake. Cal had sung it word for word.



The girl woke him mid-afternoon.

‘My diary. Oh my gawd, you’ve found it,’ she yelled into the phone. ‘You haven’t read anything, have you, HAVE YOU?’

‘No.’

‘I want it back.’ 

‘That’s why I called you,’ he said. ‘I can return it to you tonight if you want. Just let me know where.’

He heard the sound of her hand smudged over the mouthpiece. He heard voices, a pause. Voices again, another pause. The girl released the mouthpiece. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘this is what you’re going to do.’

He was to meet her at the west-end restaurant where she worked. She gave him the name and directions. No later than nine-thirty. Her shift ended at ten.

As he hung up, Cal had a sudden, very intense memory of sitting up close to the front of the classroom in high school and feeling the stick of a spitball on his neck as he flubbed yet another question. What is this girl’s problem? It’s not like he stole the fucking thing.

He looked at the clock. There was barely enough time to shower and dress before meeting Angus. They had planned to meet at the Dundas and Yonge northeast subway exit – Angus’ usual afternoon busking haunt. In the mornings, he played at Union Station, just in front of the main exit.

Cal hadn’t known Angus all that well when he lived in Port Owen – Angus was a few years older than he – but when he ran into him in front of Sam the Record Man a month ago, Angus had treated him like a long-lost brother, hugging him and slapping him in the back.

Right then and there, Angus took him out for a coffee (he told Cal it should have been a beer but he was a bit short on cash at the moment) and asked him how the old town was doing. He hadn’t been back in a long time. He’d been far too busy with his career. He was a musician. Not like the guys up north who played weekends in bars like Doyle’s at Wheable’s Corners. Fuck that sort of thing. He was a professional. Why, when U2 were in town a while ago, he’d jammed with The Edge at a party.

It was impressive that Angus took the time to chat with him. ‘You’re on the way, man, you could be next, you don’t have to talk to someone like me yet here you are,’ Cal said.

‘A good man never forgets his roots, no matter how successful he gets – that’s my number one rule,’ Angus had responded.

Cal spotted Angus and waved. Angus was singing some pokey old Patsy Cline tune, with this serious long face that Cal knew was a subtle send-up of the song and the people who might like it. Angus saw him and winked.

‘Hey there,’ he said after he finished. He peered into his guitar case at the handful of change. ‘Not the best day.’ He picked up the change and dropped it into his pocket. ‘Got the rye?’

‘Sure.’ Cal set down his knapsack and opened it. He grabbed one of the bottles of Coke he’d swiped from his sister’s cupboard, took a couple of swigs then unscrewed the cap of the twenty-sixer he’d picked up at the Eaton Centre and poured. He took another swig then passed it to Angus. They passed the bottle back and forth and watched people emerge from the buildings along both streets and lean into the wind tunneling between the buildings. They were like a huge herd of horses clopping along.

Cal remembered the diary. ‘Hey,’ he said.

‘Hey what?’

‘Somebody left something in my cab last night.’ He pulled out the book. ‘A diary.’

He told Angus about meeting the girl later that night.

‘Here. Pass it over.’

Cal hesitated.

‘It’s not like I’m going to tell this chick I looked at it.’ Angus called all women under the age of thirty chicks. He called some over thirty chicks too, if they’d kept their figure. If not, they were cows. ‘Does it have any juicy stuff?’

Cal shrugged.

‘Don’t tell me you haven’t looked at it.’ Angus shook his head and clucked. ‘Man, oh man. You’re too honest for your own good, you know. Here. Hand it over.’

He beckoned. Cal passed him the diary.

‘Look at this, see?’ Angus snickered. ‘A real girly-girl this one. Just look at those i’s. Like bubbles. Sweet.’

Cal looked over Angus’ shoulder. He was right. There were the circles all over the page like open mouths expressing surprise.

‘Shit. Listen to this.’ Angus pointed to the passage as he read it out loud. He flipped to another page and read about the girl’s involvement with a boy at school. He snorted and rolled his eyes.

Cal looked at his watch, noticing it was getting close to six. He wanted to get to the shop before it closed.

‘That’s enough.’ He reached for the book.

Angus turned away from Cal so he couldn’t get the diary. ‘I bet ya there’s lots of stuff in here. I bet ya this chick’s done it a few times. How old do ya think she is?’

‘C’mon Angus,’ Cal snatched the book back. ‘We gotta get moving.’

By the time they arrived, the store had closed. Through the window they could see the clerk counting out money from the cash register. Angus banged on the door, yelling for the clerk to let them in. The clerk gave them a dirty look. Angus kicked at the bottom of the door and the clerk gestured with his hand and pointed to the telephone.

Cal pressed his cheek against the display window. It felt cool and grimy, like it was covered in soot. He eyed the guitar in the window display. The red inlays were what had caught his attention a week ago. He pointed at it and asked Angus what he thought.

‘Fucking clerk.’ Angus set down his guitar case and pulled a pouch of tobacco from his pocket. He alternated between looking at the cigarette he was rolling and the guitar in the window.

‘Expensive,’ he finally said. He moved up to the window and peered inside. He pointed to a dull acoustic guitar at the edge of the display. ‘That’s more your speed right now.’

‘Shit,’ Cal said.

Angus scrounged for matches in his pocket and lit his cigarette. ‘Hey, what do I know? It’s not like I’m the expert here. Oh, that’s right, I am.’ He smacked his forehead with his palm.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘There will be a time for the shiny guitar. Right now you need something to learn on. Something that you can’t fuck up on.’

The clerk gave them another dirty look. Angus spat on the ground.

‘What’s your problem, man?’

‘It’s sure a nice guitar,’ Cal said.

‘Jee-zuz. Buy it then.’

‘No, you’re right.’

The clerk came up to the door and started turning the handle but stopped as if something had just occurred to him. The bells attached to the door jangled. The clerk returned to the sales desk and picked up a phone. Angus yanked on Cal’s jacket sleeve.

‘This shit’s going to call the cops.’



They walked down the street to an intersection. Angus suggested they head over to the Silver Coin until it was time to go meet the girl. As they trudged into the bar, Angus told Cal to forget the guitar. It was over-priced and probably a lemon. He figured he knew where he could get one for Cal, dirt-cheap. His friends had piles of old guitars.

They grabbed a table near the stage. Cal ordered beer from a waitress who looked old enough to be his mother. She spoke with an eastern European accent and tapped her fingers against her bony hip as if she were in a hurry to get some place else and they were taking too long to order. In front of them, on the stage, a girl wrapped in a skimpy towel pushed a bathtub on stage. The lights in the bar dimmed and bubbles appeared. A disco tune blared. More beer arrived. More strippers appeared on stage.

It was after eight o’clock when Cal remembered the diary. He stood up and swore. He told Angus it was time to go and drop off the book. Angus decided to go with him.

They bought another bottle at the liquor store and had a pretty good buzz on by the time they reached the subway. On the train, they took turns singing the introductions of songs and making each other guess the song’s name. The other passengers gave them a wide berth and Cal pointed this out to Angus. It was hilarious.



The restaurant was empty when they arrived. They stood at the entrance until the girl Cal had driven home the night before emerged through the kitchen swing doors.

‘Hey,’ he yanked on Angus’ arm. ‘There she is man. Hey.’

He reached into his knapsack. Working carefully, for his fingers did not seem to want to cooperate, he picked out the diary. The pages were wet from the rye.

He waved the book. ‘Come and get it,’ he yelled.

The girl wiped her hands on her apron as she looked at him. She leaned back, pushing the kitchen doors open. She must have spoken to someone in there because all of a sudden a large guy in an apron walked out. The girl approached Cal in quick, angry steps and snatched the diary.

‘It’s wet,’ she said.

‘Yeah.’ Cal tried to stifle a giggle.

‘You’ve ruined it.’ She held it away from her and chewed her lip.

The large guy in the apron stepped in front of her. ‘There boys, you’ve done your good deed, now it’s time to go.’ He gave Cal a friendly but firm push.

‘Hey.’ Angus set his guitar case down and crossed his arms. ‘My friend deserves to be thanked properly.’ He pointed at the girl and wagged his finger. ‘I’ll have you know that my friend performed a true act of chivalry to return your precious little diary. He could have thrown it out. Or ridiculed it with his friends. There was any number of things he could have done. But not our Cal. No. He’s got morals.’ He swung his arm over Cal’s shoulders and pulled so hard Cal almost fell over.

‘Get over yourself,’ the girl said.

Cal regained his balance but then the big guy started shoving him. There was something he wanted to say but he couldn’t remember what. He lunged at the big guy and tried to make eye contact with the girl. ‘I didn’t read it,’ he yelled as the big guy slammed him against the door.

‘What do I care now?’ The girl opened the book up and began to rip pages out, throwing them on the floor. She was crying.

‘Get lost or I’ll call the cops,’ the big guy said.

‘Fuck you!’ Angus gave him the finger.



In the subway, as they waited for the train, Angus embraced Cal, slapping him on the back, like they had just lost a football game but were showing face.

‘That girl knows shit,’ he slurred.

‘Forget it.’

Angus started singing a Pink Floyd tune about heaven and hell. They stumbled to a bench. Papers and garbage floated up off the tracks fueled by the compression and release of air. Angus barreled out another line as he slumped down on the bench. Cal lurched down beside him.

‘Stop it,’ Cal said. ‘I don’t like that song.’

‘You know what your problem is, man?’ Angus prodded him. ‘You think too much. You’re like the fish in the bowl, swimming round and round in your thoughts, convincing yourself the world out there’ll be your ruin. You gotta leap outta the bowl, man, breathe in your fears. Be a hero.’ He slumped against Cal and began to snore.

The train rumbled into the station and dank, fetid air swirled around Cal. The doors slid back and revealed a handful of people, most sitting alone. He should get in but he was getting the spins and doubted he could stand.

As the doors drew closed he remembered walking in the bush at home and the plush scent of cedar. Wish I was there, he thought. He repeated the phrase out loud. Then he yelled it at the departing train and its passengers but his voice was no match for the moan in the tunnels. Beside him Angus turned and snorted.

*


Mary Baxter is a London, Ontario Canada writer whose quest for great literature has led her to the mountains of British Columbia to earn an undergraduate degree in English literature and to Dublin, Ireland to “master” Anglo-Irish literature (not to mention the fine art of pouring Guinness). Since then, she has written about agriculture in Canada for which she has received many awards, including the 2012 International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ star prize for print journalism.

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