Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fiction #70: Christian McPherson

Red Ball

It was manufactured in an industrial plant in Shenzhen, China. It travelled by truck to the coast, where it was loaded onto a ship destined for Canada. Once it had crossed the Pacific and docked in Vancouver it was transported by CN Rail to Toronto, at which point it was gathered up alongside its cylindrical brothers and sisters and put on a truck to Ottawa. It arrived at a warehouse where it sat for several weeks until it was placed on a smaller truck and brought to a toy store. The red ball sat amongst the others, waiting for someone to purchase it.

* * *

Q was soaring at a hundred and ten clicks across the bridge at Lac Des Deux Montagnes in Julie, his rusting, baby-blue Mercedes, who was emitting a James-Bond cloud of blue smoke. He whipped out his package of Drum tobacco and Zig Zag papers, and with the dexterity of a rhesus monkey one-handed a beautiful chalk stick. He popped it into his mouth and looked over at the Squid, who was tapping out a Marlboro for himself.

“Smell that gas? Roll down your window man,” yelled Q over the popping, hissing static, as he spun the radio dial looking for some Stones, or Zeppelin, or something that he thought was kick-ass.  The Squid rolled down his window and lit up with a snap of his Zippo.  Q leaned towards the Squid, keeping his eyes on the road, waiting to receive a light as if he were waiting to receive communion.

“Thanks,” said Q out of the corner of his mouth, as he finally tuned in Robert Plant singing Nobody’s Fault But Mine.
Q looked over at the Squid, and the Squid looked out the window, over the water.

“What’s wrong, something bugging you?,” asked Q as his cigarette bobbed up and down as if it were conducting Jimmy Page’s solo.

“Nah, I’m fine,” said the Squid before taking a long, greedy drag on his Marlboro.

Q kept looking over at the Squid, looking at his stiff posture, his wild eyes, which had fallen to the grey, omnipresent duct tape of Julie’s dashboard.

“Come on Squid, what’s up?”

“I just want to get there and get rid of it.”

The Squid leaned forward and tapped his ashes onto the pile of butts in the overflowing ashtray, which was also held together by more grey duct tape.  He slumped back.  The Squid took another drag and exasperatedly blew out smoke, like he had been interrogated for hours and had finally been broken.

Q turned to the Squid and gave him a big grin and then started to laugh.

“You worry far too much,” said Q.

The Squid looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks.  The wind messed up his greasy Elvis hair.  He whipped out his comb and sculpted it back into form, like he was spreading icing on a cake. That’s when Q saw the lights in his rear-view just after they crossed into Ontario. Then he saw the lights in front of them too.

“Shit,” said Q.

The Squid sat up straight looking at the two OPP cruisers, lights flashing, ahead of them parked on the shoulder. The officers were already standing outside their vehicles, waiting.

“Somebody’s a rat,” said Squid.

The tires grumbled as Q slowed and pulled the car onto the gravel. The trailing car tucked in behind them.

“It’s fucking Merv,” said Q.

“It’s his fucking blow,” exclaimed the Squid.

“Driver and passenger, slowly stick both hands out the window,” chirped an officer with a megaphone.

When they were both lying face down on the ground, hands cuffed behind their back, Q looked across Julie’s rusty undercarriage at the Squid. The Squid met his gaze.

“I shouldn’t have come,” said the Squid.

“I know. But now we have do the time,” said Q.

“I’m no Mickey Mouse.”

“I know.”

“Then why bring it up.”

Q was already thinking ahead, thinking about how he was going to fix this, but to do that he needed Merv out on the streets. And that meant the Squid had to keep his mouth shut.

“You tell them it’s all me,” said Q.

They lay there on the ground looking at each other underneath the car as they heard the trunk pop open.

An officer whistled, “Well, well, look at this. Somebody got some explaining to do”

“Got it?” asked Q.

The Squid nodded.

After all was said and done, the Squid wiggled out of his precarious situation and ended up only serving two months. Q did a two year stretch in the slammer. And not a day went by he didn’t think about Merv the Perv.

* * *

“I want that one,” said Lilly tugging on her father’s pant leg. She was pointing at the red ball inside the giant gumball like dispenser located near the entrance of the toy store. Meyrick looked at the stack of balls.

“Of course you want the one in the middle,” said Meyrick as he began pulling out the bottom balls and tossing them back into the top of the towering vending machine. Slowly the red ball descended down and finally popped out the opening. It rolled into the waiting arms of the little girl.

“Got it,” she said picking it up. Meyrick smiled large because his daughter was smiling large.

“Okay kiddo, let’s go find your brother. I think he’s in the video game section.”

“Yippee!” exclaimed Lilly.

* * *

The windows were fogged from the steam coming off the cheeseburgers and fries. Two Seconds made a circle with the forearm of his sleeve to look across the rainy street at the bank.

“Maybe he’s late because of the rain?” said Two Seconds.

Q just threw him a look. He took a bite of his burger, chewed it and swallowed.

“It shouldn’t make any difference.”

“Merv’s late,” repeated The Squid. He was sitting behind them on a plastic milk crate in the back of the van sucking on a strawberry milkshake.

“He’ll be coming,” reassured Q.

The three men sat listening to the rain tip-tapping on the roof.  A woman walked by the van on the sidewalk wearing a white coat with knee high black boots.  She carried a see-through bubble umbrella.  Two Seconds looked at her well groomed blonde hair brushed back over her ear, falling down past her shoulders.  Her pedigree was money.  The whole of the Glebe was money.  He watched her expensive ass wiggle as she dashed across the street and disappeared into a health food store.  He turned his focus back to the open tinfoil wrapper where his half-eaten burger sat on the dashboard.  He looked over at Q who stuffed the remains of his greasy double cheese into his mouth.  Two Seconds felt coffee and bile come up into his mouth.  He swallowed hard forcing it back down.  His palms were sweating under his black racing gloves. He owed Q a solid for helping him out in the joint. And he needed the money. Jazz musicians always needed money.

“There,” announced Q giving a nod of his head toward the pudgy man carrying a brief case. “He’s got about a hundred grand in that thing. Every two weeks he makes his deposit like clockwork. 11:30 a.m. sharp.”

“It’s 11:35,” said the Squid flatly.

“Maybe he was taking a shit,” postulated Q, “Whatever.”

“And who’s that?” asked Two Seconds pointing to the tall man

“That’s the 11:35 train pulling into the station. He is also bringing in his week’s cash. It’s twenty to thirty thousand,” said the Squid.

“How do you know this?” asked Two Seconds.

“I was his head chef for two years,” answered the Squid, “Both these assholes run like clockwork. They come in at the same time every week, well Merv the Perv comes in every two, but yeah, same shit every Thursday at 11:30 a.m. Then those two dirt bags go out for lunch,” said Squid as he sucked his milkshake until it sputtered out, running dry.

“And look at this shit, here comes the sun,” said Q pulling down his rubber Halloween mask over his face.

* * *

“Jack, look, the sun is finally coming out. Why don’t you take Lilly out and kick the ball around?”

Jack was fixated on playing Minecraft and didn’t respond to his mother’s suggestion. Jack knew it wasn’t a suggestion; he was being told. Subtly.

“Jack, did you hear me?”

“Yeah, okay, just a sec.”

“You’ve been on that all morning and the sun is finally coming out. You know Lilly, she loves it when you play with her.”

“I said okay. Okay?”

“Don’t be rude or you’ll be off of that thing for a week, got it?” snapped Evelyn.

“Sorry,” said Jack, “I’m almost done.”

Lilly appeared in the living room holding her new red ball.

“Jack-O, will you play with me?” asked Lilly.

“Yeah, just let me finish this,” said Jack twisting his Xbox controller in the air, rapidly hitting buttons with his thumb.

“When?” asked Lilly.

“When I’m done,” said Jack still twisting the controller in the air and then put it down on the coffee table, “Which is now.”

“Yes!” cried Lilly.

Evelyn smiled at Jack. Jack gave her a wink back.

“Let’s go out front, the backyard is muddy,” said Jack.

“Your dad’s working in the garage,” said Evelyn, “I’ll call you in when lunch is ready.”

* * *

Two Seconds, sweating under his rubber Dracula mask, waited for a pause in the traffic and then pulled a U-ey with the van. He pulled up in front of the bank and threw it into park. He checked his side mirrors while flicking on his hazards. The Squid, dressed as Michael Myers, passed a gun and an empty backpack to Q.

“Ready?” asked Q checking over his gun.

The Squid and Two Seconds both nodded.

“Let’s go,” said Q opening his door.

Two Second listened to the roll of the van’s panel door as the Squid flung it open. Q and the Squid went out their respective doors with backpacks slung on their shoulders, guns in their hands, and rubber masks on their heads. Q slammed his door behind him. The Squid left the panel door open. Two Seconds watched as the Squid held the bank door for Q and then followed him in. Two Seconds’ couldn’t see them after that; the reflection of the glass doors was too much. He could only see the reflection of the van, see his Bela Lugosi reflection staring back. His heart was a monster pounding on the inside of his ribcage. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. He checked his mirrors again. Traffic was moving slowly in both directions. No sirens. No flashing lights. Everything nice and normal.

Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Check the mirrors. Check the bank door.

“Come on, come on, let’s go,” muttered Two Seconds. A couple walked by. They were talking and laughing, drinking take-out coffees. “Keep moving,” said Two Seconds to himself. He noticed a woman was pushing a stroller across the street. A tall man with a closed umbrella walked by. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Like cockroaches at night, everyone comes out after the rain, thought Two Seconds.

The smell of the rubber mask was overwhelming. It was wet with sweat. It ran down his neck, down his back. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Check the mirrors. There! Flashing lights. Then he heard it, the sirens. He didn’t have a lot of options. Wait to get caught or run. Take off on foot and leave them the van was the most logical choice. They would still have a chance if he left them the van. No time now. Cars were moving out of the way. The sirens were blazing. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Two Seconds was about to bail when he realized it was a fucking ambulance. “What are the odds?” Everyone on the sidewalk had slowed or stopped as the ambulance roared by.

Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.

BANG! A gunshot from inside the bank. Sidewalk people swivelled. The woman across the street crouched over her stroller. Some people froze, others began to run. The door of the bank flew open and the Squid came barrelling out, gun in one hand, backpack clutched in the other. Money was flying out of the bag like confetti spewing from a busted piƱata. BANG! BANG! The bank door burst open again and Q came flying out. He was covered in blood. A woman on the street screamed. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Two Seconds checked the mirrors. It was time to go.

He flicked off the hazards, flicked on his indicator, and put it into drive as the Squid jumped into the van. Q, running, lobbed his bag ahead of himself into the van. His body followed coming to a walloping stop as he shoulder checked the interior wall like a linebacker. The Squid rolled the panel door closed as Two Seconds hit the gas as pulled out into traffic. They heard another siren. This one wasn’t an ambulance.

* * *

Lilly threw the ball over her head. She was aiming for Jack-O but the sun was in her eyes and she ended up tossing the ball towards the large cedar hedge in an ungraceful twirl.

“The sun’s too fat, Jack-O,” said Lilly holding her hand over her eyes. Jack liked that she called him ‘Jack-O.’ She learned the term ‘jack o’lantern’ last Halloween when they were carving pumpkins. She had been calling him Jack-O ever since.

“Let’s switch spots,” suggested Jack retrieving the ball, “That way the sun won’t be in your eyes.”

“Okay Jack-O,” said Lilly who walked towards the end of the driveway.

“Carful by the road,” yelled Meyrick over his music from the garage.

“No worries dad,” said Jack as he gently kicked the ball towards Lilly. The ball rolled past her and into the road.

“Wait Lilly,” said Jack, “Look out and make sure there aren’t any cars coming first.”

Meyrick and Jack both watched as Lilly came to the edge of the cedar hedge and stopped. She looked left and right and then cautiously stepped out onto the street to retrieve her red ball. She came back smiling. She placed it on the ground and kicked it towards Jack-O.

Meyrick liked the song that was playing and turned up the volume on his docking station before he went back to fixing his bicycle.

* * *

Two Seconds could still see the ambulance ahead of him. It left a wake of cars pulled to the side which had gotten out of its way. Two Seconds stomped on the gas. A small car in front of him was pulling back into traffic. Two Seconds laid on the horn and swerved around him keeping his foot firmly pressed on the gas.

“Keep going,” said Q who was looking behind him out the back windows at the flashing lights of a police cruiser three blocks away.

“Oh yeah,” said Two Second who knew if he got closer to the ambulance he could surf through traffic right behind it. But then again, so could the cop.

“Is that your blood?” asked the Squid.

“I’m good,” answered Q, “Merv might not be feeling so well though.”

Two Seconds was flying, his horn blaring as he went through a red light and was now less than a block from the ambulance.

“We switching at Lansdowne?” asked the Squid.

“Don’t think that’s going to work now. Plan B, ditch at Grasshopper, cut through the park to the other car,” said Q keeping his eyes on the police car which was closing fast.

They flew over the Bank Street bridge and were now less than fifty metres behind the ambulance. At the next intersection the ambulance went right and Plan B was straight.

“Ambulance or straight?” Two Seconds barked.

Q looked at the Squid and the Squid said, “Stick with B.”

“Straight!” said Q at the last moment.

Two Seconds laid on the horn and blew through another red light. Traffic was light in Ottawa South and they hit all greens moving into Alta Vista. As they crested over the hill past Billings Bridge, Two Seconds knew it was coming two seconds before he caught sight of another cruiser coming towards them.

“Fuck,” said the Squid.

“Take Kilborn,” said Q.

“Exactly where I’m going,” said Two Seconds as he slowed down to take the corner and then accelerated into the turn, the tires squealing. The van roared up Kilborn and was only a minute from Grasshopper Park where they could ditch and make a run to the other car, and then be gone with the money. But Two Seconds could feel it again. A third cruiser was coming towards them along Kilborn. The two cruisers behind them were close..

“Let’s hope we can cut through somebody’s back yard,” said the Squid as Two Seconds turned two blocks before the park.

* * *

Evelyn dipped a spoon into the tomato soup and brought it to her lips as she blew on it. She cautiously sipped it. Perfect. She turned off the stove and went about ladling out bowls for lunch. She flipped the grilled cheese sandwiches one last time to check they were the perfect shade of brown, then flicked off that burner too.

She went to the front window and watched Lilly and Jack. She was proud of him the way he took care of her. And now he would be walking her home from school. Ten might be a little young for a phone, but she wanted him to be able to get a hold of her in case of an emergency. She went back to the kitchen and grabbed the portable and dialed Jack’s new number.

Jack felt his thigh vibrate. At first he didn’t understand what it was, but quickly remembered it was his new phone.

“Hello,” said Jack answering as he gave the ball a hard kick in Lilly’s direction.

“Time to come in for lunch,” said his mom.

“Okay,” said Jack.

“Is that a siren?”

* * *

At the next corner Two Seconds spun the wheel hard to the right and the van’s back end swung out like a ballroom dancer, the back tires skipping across the pavement like a stone in little hops.  He took his foot of the gas and counter steered back.  He was fishtailing, something they didn’t have time for.  He hit the gas again.  That’s when he saw it appear from behind the tall cedar hedge two houses up on the right.  It bounced once. He hit the brakes. It bounced again.  He turned the wheel hard to the left.  Q braced gripping the door and the armrest, the Squid held onto the handle on the side of the van.  The ball bounced and began to roll.  Two Seconds spun the wheel and hit the brakes hard. The van flipped.  The little girl chasing after the ball didn’t see it coming.

* * *

It was that moment when the red ball bounced into view which came to define Q’s life.  That red ball would haunt his dreams, appearing in fields of tall grass, or disappearing under a wave.  It remained of the periphery of his mind, occasionally coming into view. That red ball.  That fucking red ball. Always that.

* * *

The red ball sat tucked in a dark corner of the garage for three months until Evelyn noticed it one night when she was taking out the garbage. She stabbed it with the garden shears, cut it into little pieces and threw them into the trash along with the empty mickeys of vodka.

The trash was collected as it was every Monday morning in Evelyn’s neighbourhood. The garbage containing the pieces of the red ball were brought to a landfill where it was all buried deep in the ground.


Christian McPherson is the author of seven books, Saving Her, Cube Squared, My Life in Pictures, The Sun Has Forgotten Where I Live, The Cube People (shortlisted for the 2011 ReLit Awards), Poems that swim from my brain like rats leaving a sinking ship, and Six Ways to Sunday (shortlisted for the 2008 ReLit Awards). He is married to the beautiful Marty Carr. They have two kids, Molly and Henry. They all live together in Ottawa.

Photo: Judith Gustafsson 

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