I’m eating supper at the Spicy Noodle House, hoping I’ll get used to this unemployment game, hiding from a nasty cold snap, watching the couple in the corner booth, knowing I could steal her from him without too much trouble—and I’m crawling pretty close to the baseboard these days—when in walks Burnell.
He sees me right away and recognizes me right off, even after seven years. “There’s a face I know! Hey, how ya doing Pete? Man! Long time!”
I’d been avoiding the Village for a while—too many ex-girlfriends lurking about—but Burnell was a skeleton I thought incapable of door-rattling and here he is pulling up a chair, calling for a menu, looking as mercenary as he always did.
“When was the last time we ran into each other?”
I remember everything, so I tell him. “About two weeks before you were busted for stealing that gun collection. I was at the Wet Lounge and you wanted me to help you break into the chemistry labs at the university. I said no.” I roll some noodles around my chopsticks, don’t look up. “So, how long did you do in Headingley? Make any friends?”
He looks like he’s doing some anger management exercise in his head and then he starts laughing, a gap-mouthed snort. I can see his teeth are still a mess. “Man is this a coincidence,” he says. “You know who I saw yesterday? Brenda Demchuk!” He slaps the table. “You’d never guess where. The Runway. She’s a ripper there. Good too, excellent floor show. You still see Brenda?”
A thin-lipped smirk sits under his weasely moustache and then broadens into a real smile. A tormenters smile. A top-dog smile. “You know what we should do? Head over and see Brenda’s show. It’ll be like old times. What do you say?”
“You’re not still mad about her fingering you for rape? Come on, years ago. Forgive and forget. You had an alibi. They got the right guy. No harm, no foul. Come on, it’ll be good. She’ll be naked.” This last bit he says in a sing-song style.
I imagine staying here for a tense evening of verbal sparring, the threat of violence brooding in the wings. So I decide to gamble on Brenda not being at the stripclub and being able to leave Burnell to whatever friends he has there. I call for my bill. “Okay. We’ll go. But it’s a bad idea.”
My face is clamped between Brenda’s formidable silicon-enhanced breasts. I tried to steer Burnell to a table at the back of the bar, but he insisted on sitting at the rail. As she releases her meaty hold, I stifle a sneeze and she pouts at me, offering a hip. Not wanting to be rude, I stuff a five in her g-string. She bends over grazes my lips with hers and then continues her tired walk around the edge of the stage to “Bad Case of Lovin’ You.”
“You like that,” Burnell shouts into my ear. “Didn’t I tell ya?” Then he grabs my biceps and squeezes. “Drink up, Pete. Drink up. Don’t want you falling behind.”
Burnell seems to know everyone in the club, but he hasn’t left my side. So I drink up and the rounds keep coming. No sooner do I finish a beer than another appears.
Brenda’s floor-show is not as Burnell advertised and I feel embarrassed for her and for myself. Except for us assholes at the rail, no one pays much attention until she’s starkers. Then the crowd, like primitives around a fire, is hooting and banging glasses and bottles on tables, shouting, “Shower, shower, shower.” I join in out of a perverse sense of loyalty to her, wondering how pathetic I can feel before I find the courage to bugger off.
When it’s over and she’s off the stage, I get up to leave, but Burnell’s hand is heavy on my shoulder, pressing me back into my chair. “Hey Pete, sit down. Sit down. Don’t you want to talk to her? Just leaving isn’t any way to treat an old friend, is it?”
Brenda comes from backstage in a red robe and black “fuck me” heels. Walks right over to us. “So it is you. You bastard. I thought that nose felt familiar.” She looks at Burnell wearing his shit-eating grin. “You fucker, fuck you for bringing him here.”
Brenda looks both condensed and enhanced. The sweet pouty Slavic face I knew now has glacial set to it. Her breasts are mighty and motionless; her buttocks nearly indistinguishable from her tenuous thighs. Her hands—always creepy, adolescent-sized—have huge over-done pink nails. Only her thick brunette hair, a distressed roller set, is familiar to me. She found that look early and stayed with it.
“Happiness,” Burnell says, putting his arms around us. “Happiness.”
“So Pete, you guys working together?”
“No, we just bumped into each other.”
“Pete’s just a little coward. He would only open the back door, hang out in the kitchen, while I did all the work. He was a real backdoor man.”
“Yeah, Burnell is the only real criminal here, even though he couldn’t get into a house without kicking in a window.”
“Back door man. Hey Brenda, was he a backdoor man with you?”
“Fuck you,” she says. “Pete, come with me.”
She leads me through the scramble of tables and chairs to an empty corner. “You have to buy me a drink. Keep the management happy.”
I say okay and she waves a hand towards the bar and then lets it drop to my knee. “So, you want a lap dance?”
“No, no. You don’t have to…
“That’s a joke, Pete. You see any lap dancing going on here?”
A waitress puts a bottle of ‘Champagne’ on our table, holds out a hand. “Forty dollars.”
I hesitate. “Petey,” Brenda says. “Be nice.”
So I pay. I decide to try to be nice. I fill our glasses and we share a wordless toast. “You still use the same perfume.”
“Guess you had to notice. Sorry about that, I couldn’t resist. Something about you makes me aggressive.”
“No kidding. Like when we were kids.”
“Yes. Remember? We’d go into the garage and play ‘married couple.’ She leans forward, her robe opening a little, revealing a satin chemise. “The way I made you hold my hand on the way to school? Made you kiss me hello and goodbye?”
“I hated all that, but you were bigger and older. I didn’t have a choice.”
“No you didn’t, and I really liked it and you liked it too,” she says sipping her wine. “You sure liked it when we were older.”
“I was in charge then. You liked that.”
Her expression shifts, like she’s trying to force a sincere and calm look on her face. Her face resists. She looks sick and terrified. “My rape…”
“That was…well, he looked like me. Really, it could have been me.” And it could have been. “I can’t imagine what it was…
“Please don’t. Not here.”
“Another time,” I say. I’m not sure if I’m lying, of course, but I’m trying to…I want to tell her I left because I didn’t trust her anymore. Because she is totally unpredictable. Capable of anything.
But I don’t. Because none of it is true.
I down my wine, pour more and try to keep an eye on Burnell. He’s keeping both on me like he’s planned some special outcome for me.
I break our awkward silence. “Did you know Burnell was bringing me here?”
“Just wondering what he’s up to. Asshole.”
“Don’t worry about him. He just drinks a little too much.”
“What’s he doing for cash?”
“He keeps a couple of grow houses for some guys. He isn’t ambitious about it, but it’s better than working. Why?”
“Just curious, that’s all.” I file this bit of information.
A bouncer, his shaved head sporting a flaming skull tattoo, walks up to our table and whispers in her ear. “I’ve got to go Pete.” She leans close and says, “Come see me tomorrow. I’m living in my mother’s old house. Come there. Please. Tomorrow.”
She goes out a door near the bar with the bouncer and another guy. See her tomorrow? I need to survive tonight. I head for the exit over a carpet as damp and sticky as gum.
“Not leaving are you Pete? Not without saying a proper goodbye?”
Burnell gives me a hard bump and I lose my balance easily, drunker than I think. I swerve toward the can. “Just going for a piss.”
“Well, I think I’ll join you.”
The stink is something else and some schoolboy is half hanging out a stall puking his booze up. Burnell waits until I unzip.
“Pete! No wonder you get the ladies. Who’d think a skinny guy like you’d have a hose like that.”
“Cock watching a hobby you pick up in jail?”
He grabs my hair and pulls hard. “Be careful what you say to me, especially with your dick hanging out.” He slaps my head forward. “Zip up. Time for another drink.”
When I step back into the noise, I decide it’s time to face the consequences of my stupidity. I head for the exit.
In the parking lot, I’m holding my own. I’m in close and tie-up Burnell’s arms, clinging to his leather jacket like a leech on a swimmer, but I stumble and he shrugs off the jacket. He’s screaming, “You snitch, you fucking snitch, fuck you, fuck you, you snitch, fucker…” I stumble again in my panic to get my bearings. His knee cracks into my cheek, so like the coward I am, I hit the gravel and turtle.
And he lays the boots to me.
I come to shaking, but I don’t move, not yet, not until I’m alone. The darkness is a thin blanket but I’m happy to let time pass. My watch ticks in my ear. The sound of cars pulling out of the lot gets me up. Burnell’s jacket is underneath me and I have his wallet, too. I’m covered in blood and dust. My head is pounding and it’s hard not to puke.
After a short walk, I find a cab willing to take me. Cash from Burnell’s wallet pays for the ride.
The phone is a banshee. I’m hungover, beaten, embarrassed and someone needs to speak to me, but there’s no one I need to talk to. I keep the apartment dark and try not to move. The pulse of my blood tells me my left eye is half-swollen and my jaw isn’t working smoothly. My inventory of discomfort also includes a gash on my forehead, a goose egg on my head, a sore ass, a tender knee, and bruised sternum and ribs. Broken?
I should go to the hospital. But that would be stupid.
I inch out of bed in the late afternoon. Burnell’s wallet is on the kitchen counter. It’s a fat, cheap brown number. I heat a can of tomato soup and go through the wallet while I eat. The usual I.D., but his driver’s license is expired and I’m surprised to find a library card. Four rags of paper with lists of phone numbers, and the bonus—about a grand in tens and twenties.
I sit and wonder if Burnell was looking for me or if he simply took an opportunity too good to pass up. I decide I can’t care. Then I pick up the phone; it beeps insistently.
The messages are all from Brenda. Each is a variation of her hoping that I’ll drop by today, it would be great to see me. She leaves an address and a phone number. The last call sounds desperate—“Fuck, Petey, pick-up. Fuck.” I call and get her voicemail. I hang up without leaving a message.
I decide a cross-town trip is what I need. I hide my hammered eyes behind sunglasses. On the way to the bus stop, I chuck Burnell’s wallet into the dumpster behind the neighbourhood drop-in clinic. The cash is in a coffee tin at the back of my ‘fridge.
Brenda’s house is as I remember it, white stucco bungalow, pink trim, brown carpet on the steps, an aluminum front door with a die-cut of three-foot tall heron stalking through reeds. Everything is sun-faded, flaked, careworn. The lawn is uncut and the garden under the front window is a snarl of weeds and the same perennials her mother grew. It’s all wilting and browning from the cold.
I ring the doorbell, ready to bolt if I hear footsteps and change my mind, but there’s no answer. I head around back. The outer door is open, the inner is locked. I have a flash memory from childhood. They kept a back door key under a patio brick beside the garage door—the garage where we played married couple. The key is under the brick.
The kitchen looks like it’s seldom used. A coffee maker with a half-full pot, a rinsed cup in the sink. Stove, refrigerator, dishwasher all white and empty. When breaking into houses, this was as far as I used to come, but I’ve been here before, it’s more like visiting. The powder blue pile carpet in the living room bears the tracks of an upright vacuum. The house smells like a vanilla deodorizer. What used to be Brenda’s bedroom, the room where I lost my virginity on a Thursday afternoon, is now stacked with boxes. I stand there a long time, and the memories of what we got up to here provoke an urgent erection.
I go into the bathroom stand over the toilet and unzip. It is sick, but I decide to make it sicker. The black shoes Brenda wore in the bar are beside the bathtub. I grab one and jerk-off into it. I usually masturbate to take the edge off a hangover, but I keep it furtive and normal. This isn’t. It is a swift and miserly pleasure and fills me with regret and shame. I give the shoe a hasty wipe, flush the tissue, and put the shoe beside its mate. I nudge it with my foot until I’m certain of its positioning.
Then I fuck off out the back door and down the lane.
I’m at a Tim Horton’s fuelling up on coffee and crullers, surrounded by students from the career college across the street. I snag The Sun from a table. A triple slaying dominates the front page. Two men and a woman were found in a West End bungalow yesterday morning, shot execution-style. The men were associates of a local motorcycle gang and the woman was known to the police. Police suspect the slain woman, Brenda Demchuk, was a victim of circumstance.
In the washroom, I puke-up cruller, coffee, and last night’s pizza. Is it from regret or relief? Brenda was killed the evening of our so-called date. If I had shown up earlier, would she be alive or if I would be dead? I tell myself it is because of relief.
Then the memory of her as a young girl comes to me; Brenda wearing her mother’s wig, her mouth slathered with red lipstick. Her hands holding my cheeks, steering my head. No, this way, this way, kiss me back, push out your lips, kiss me back. Kiss me back. Until I did, and she didn’t have to make me anymore. And I know it is from regret, and I heave until I’m dry.
I rinse my mouth from the tap, keep spitting until I no longer taste bile, and brush my teeth with my forefinger. In the mirror is someone I’d avoid on the street, someone I wouldn’t want to recognize in a restaurant. I open my mouth. My teeth are clean and straight, unlike the train wreck in Burnell’s mouth. And I believe that’s all that separates us: good teeth.
I decide I need to fuck-up Burnell.
I call Crimestoppers from a corner payphone and offer a tip about Burnell and his grow houses, imply that he might have a connection to the dead bikers, mention his previous convictions. I throw in a couple of numbers from the raggy lists that now live in my wallet. I decline a code number. “This one’s for free,” I say. I hang-up, thinking I’ll call the tax department and snitch on him there, too.
The sky makes good on its weeklong threat of snow. Brenda and I had our best times as kids playing in the snow. Before the wig and the lipstick and the kissing. I stick out my tongue discretely and catch a few flakes. Snow makes everything seem new and clean. I start walking home, not happy, but calm.
Then I remember the shoe.
A version of this story first appeared in Front & Centre in No. 6. It is also included in the work-in-progress Black Wind: A Prairie Pulp Fiction, a linked story collection.
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.
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Best paired with Lucky Lager, warm from the can.