This is probably the longest short story I've ever done, I'm pretty happy with it, hopefully you guys will like it too!
The airhostess brought me four party cans, one after another before I dropped two sleeping tablets. Twenty minutes later Beano taps me on the shoulder “Come on down and see Greenland, some dose of ice”. He asks me why I’m stumbling and I give him two sleepers. The nine hour flight to Canada breezes by, us with our heads dog-like at the windows and half closed eyes. Beano starts talking to some contractor who tells us he can set us up with a tree planting company if we ever go to Alberta. He’s slurring his words though, the sleepers coming on strong and him going on about how he’s republican out and out. I interject, try and keep the old boy onside should we ever decide on Alberta. I don’t remember the rest of the journey. Beano and me head to the luggage bay after the landing and he goes:
“Jaysus boy you were slurring your words some bad back there.”
The lad on the desk at the hostel asks if we want some dried mushrooms. Mexican he says and scratches his stubble, dandruff in his hair. Just the room I say and Beano says fuck it, takes two stalks worth, heads on them like UFOs. There’s no elevator to the rooms, I manage lugging a two year visa worth up the stairs, arms cramped up and raw. Each room has a flag painted on the door, I’m staying in Argentina with a Swede called Leonard. He’s a fifty odd chap, smell of money off him, flicking through pages on a tablet. Hello I say, realising how long it’s been since I used that particular word to greet anyone. Yup, story, craic, newly useless. He smiles and puts his head back to the screen, half eaten apple there like a medal. I take another sleeper out of my bag, wash it back with a sup of water and my antidepressant. I fire everything into my locker and lie on my bunk the springs moaning with pressure.
In the morning there’s still no sign of Beano. I head down to the restaurant for a free breakfast, rashers me hole, bacon like a bag of tayto. Fucking brown oranges and something called wonder bread. The waiter comes over to me and starts going on about bagels with jelly and cream cheese. “Cheers” and he stands there eyeing me like the conversations not done. Okay then he says and fucks off. It’s playoff season and the Canucks are doing well, a pride parade is due next week and its ten years since they caught Robert Pickton. They nabbed him before he had a chance to do his fiftieth prostitute, bits of the rest of them out with the pigs. I walk out onto Granville St, and there’s two hoores boxing the chops off each other by a greyhound bus. I watch from a safe distance, they both look crack hungry, one of them muscled and toned. Square jaw tensed as she’s throwing another dig and then I see it, all because her skirts riding up her leg. The little mickey head-banging between her thighs. The cops pull in and break it up, stick the made up fella in the back seat the other one crying out loose teeth.
May as well be Times Square for a Wexford boy. Streets gridded across each other and buildings so tall you go ant like. But god love them, these poor lads don’t know how to name places at all. Future Shop one of them was called and Chronic Tacos was another. There’s a dose of punky looking one’s begging for money with a cardboard sign that reads: Too honest to steal, to ugly to whore. The tranny goes by sitting in the back seat of the squad car and I throw a quarter, or a dime, or a nickel down. No idea. The tiredness of the world is heavy and I duck into Bulldog Coffee ordering an Americano. The coffee’s two dollars but I get charged twenty cents more. I’m about to start something but then I remember the tax. I sit down by the window and open a book about enlightenment. I’m trying to understand it but it’s tough going. Full of these stories that don’t make sense and how you’re already enlightened and if you strive to be enlightened you won’t be enlightened. If you meet the Buddha kill him. But I keep at it and if I’m truthful I don’t understand a word. That’s the point the book says.
When I get back to the hostel Beano’s after leaving a message in with the dudey-man that sold him the mushies. It doesn’t say much:
Couldn’t hack it man, went home. Good luck.
So that’s that, half way around the world by myself with three full packs of Lexapro and two grand.
You’ve never seen Guinness poured as quick and those country boys aren’t lying it doesn’t fucking travel. Nearly eight quid for the pint before tax and yer one has the gob open for tips all afternoon. And don’t even start about the pub, a ‘sports bar’ with some eejit on the telly spinning the handle bars of his BMX. Beano’s probably waiting on a plane now, heart sunk on his ma’s dinners. Might even be right what?
It’s six when I get back to the hostel, eyes jet lagging, wankered on four pints. Leonard’s gone and it’s just me in the room. Nicer jails out there I’d say. Four green bunks, four lockers and a dirty, tiled floor. Walls are stacked bricks like the dorms back at DCU. I drop two sleeping tablets, an antidepressant and wait to fall asleep. My heart starts hurting like it sometimes does, those sour pints of Guinness turning bad in me. Sadness looming, the heart tighter, sure what have you to be moaning about? Half way around the world and a small fortune. I’m reminded of my own weakness born of nothing in particular. I fall asleep gasping and fart some stout.
Three days later I’m landscaping, tearing around with wheelbarrows full of dirt. No lies now, but I feel like going down in a heap. Never a day of hard graft in my life, teaching children creative writing before I left, bit more than a stone’s throw. It’s like fucking Screwball Scramble. The lads are after setting up these metal ramps. About five feet off the ground you go up and then you’ve to come down. If you go against the barrow you’re on your arse so I run down the ramps praying the USIT insurance will cover poor employment choices. You’d want to see the rest of them, arms like legs, swinging picks like madmen.
“You alright there Irish?”
Oh God no.
There’re two lads working with me. A Canadian called Birdman and a South African named Andore. There’s no macho bullshit just a few lads shite talking while they dig up worms. Turns out Birdman’s in his forties, doesn’t look it at all, tanned, brown hair and a body like one of the fellas in the WWF. “If I wasn’t wasted the day was” he says and goes on to tell me about living on East Hastings. You’d get done for cycling through there without a helmet but free bass or shoot up and no one misses a beat. Cops leave that street alone, a kind of unwritten agreement with all the junkies, long as they stay put sky’s the limit. Birdman relapsed a few years back, wrapped a contractor’s van around a tree and lost his job, he’s been landscaping since and nearly four years sober. Andore’s an illegal, he’s an incredibly polite white boy with cheek length, sundried blonde hair. The only time I’ve seen him break his veneer of geniality is when he starts talking about the ‘fucking caffers’ back home. We three do the hard work while our foreman Lucas circles for mistakes like sharks do blubber. He’s built like a panzer tank, mid fifties and I’d wager suffers from some kind of mood disorder. Intimidating’s not the word at all. Brought up somewhere on the soviet block well before it all fell apart, manly as you’d expect, but every now and then he laughs and holds these slab-hands over his mouth like a school girl.
Few weeks go by, I get stronger, lads come and go. One poor German fella thought we’d be planting flowers all day and arrived in a new pair of runners. Rubbished all together they were, he walked off the site three hours after he started, breathing heavy and shoulders limp. I wind up getting a place in Burnaby, a little room in a basement but a welcome break from the hostel. That weekend me and the rest of the lads from work go out and get absolutely transmogrified, chap who owns the company is an English bloke called Trevor, he’s mid fifties and buys us drinks on the card. He calls me a ‘mick prick’ and I accuse him of wearing the ‘butcher’s apron’, two of us are the last to fall, walking to a taxi rank arm in arm apologising for what our countries did to one another. Hungover I read more of the Zen books, now and then I feel a blast of cool air passing between my eyes. All through school teachers taught me to think and now here I am trying to unlearn, accept and observe.
Work starts at seven a.m. Monday. Lucas picks everyone up outside Commercial and Broadway in his truck. It’s a large white cabinet, with a rusted, metal grill below. A galvanised trailer attached houses all the equipment. Mostly axes, wheelbarrows, shovels and ramps, the bigger machinery like the Stripper is hidden underneath a blue tarp. Painted on the side of the trailer are the words ‘Trev-Lawns: A New Garden Quick!” The three of us fit comfortably inside but today there’s someone else waiting at the stop. He’s wearing a torn up pair of shorts, high top boots and a white vest. His skin is dark, head shaven, eyes sunk. We introduce ourselves in the cab and small talk. The new guy is from Montreal, his name is Remy. Etched in black ink on his right forearm are the words ‘til human voices wake us, and we drown.’ I ask him what it means and before he can answer back Lucas swings around, fist thrashing the air.
“You will all shut up!”
The cab goes quiet, I look at Birdman, question marks in my face. He shakes his head like mother to a cranky baby. We pull up next to a forest entrance, birds causing a ruckus up above. We take some pick axes from the truck and walk into the trees. Eventually the wood opens into a grassy park, there’s a scratched, blue car door on the ground.
“Fuck happened here?” Birdman says.
“Nothing” Lucas turns to him red faced “that will make a difference to your day Birdy!”
Parts of the grass have been dug up by whatever tires the door belonged to. Some drunk kid, entitled as fuck I’d say, drink, drive and donuts. Either way the Van City government are charging him for the repair work. We start at picking the tread marks, Andore asks if we’d be better off using the Stripper. Lucas doesn’t respond. Politely he asks again. No reply. I smile at the new guy and throw eyes to the skies.
“The community asked us to do this slow, charge by the hour” Lucas says “teach the little piglet lesson.”
He stands by the car door and lights a fag. He doesn’t lift a pick. Sweat beads and rolls over my brows, stinging my eyes. I drop the pick and walk to the truck to get some water, I screw the top off and down some.
“Who said you could have a break?!” Lucas shouts.
“Thought you wanted to do it slow?” I yell back.
Birdman stops picking and looks at me, bottom lip bit to stop the laughter. Andore looks to Lucas, Remy keeps at the job. Lucas walks his bulk over to me, clenched fists to the sides. He stops a foot from me and grabs the water bottle. He unscrews the top slowly and begins drinking, water streaming down his heavy jowls. His eyes keep on me, head slanted until every drop is gone. He screws the top back on, hands me the bottle.
“Back to work” he says.
I go back to work.
My arms start burning, heat rising off my biceps. Everything starts to hurt. Whenever I try to stop for a breath Lucas eyes me. Cumbersome isn’t the word at all. Lucky to get through ten inches in ten minutes. I start to see shapes in the ruffled dirt, people wrapped around one another, faces. Sweat dripping into tiny puddles beneath me, my breath heavy. I start to think about my childhood, ice cream lining my knuckles, da giving me maths grinds. He used to put me on his back in the pool before I could swim, holding on in the deep end.
A cool breeze shushes somewhere behind my eyes. I feel the pick axe in my hand, my fingers calloused on the wood. An extension. I breathe in the leaves, the trees, the mark of the treads. Something is about to happen, I’m about to lift off the ground or be sucked into it and then Lucas shouts break and I snap out of it. Lucas walks to his truck, he never eats with us.
“You doing okay Irish?” Birdman asks.
“What’s the deal with Lucas?”
“Gotta be fucking bi-polar, don’t take it personally man.”
“You should have seen him before he kicked the drink.” Andore says.
“He was a fucking demon.”
Someone asks Remy what he did back in Montreal and to be fair the chap gives us the best answer ever.
“I was a pedobaiter.”
“What the fuck is that?” I ask.
“I would set up fake facebooks” his French Canadian accent is weak now, hushed “be a fifteen year old boy or whatever. Get them to say some weird shit and then tell them to put a grand in my account or I’d send all the links to their families.”
No one says a thing.
“Snagged a cop by mistake, had to get out of Montreal.”
The door on the truck opens, fifteen minutes isn’t a lot. He walks towards us. His torn dungarees caught in a mild breeze. We head for the pick axes, horizontal beside the treads. Lucas hands me a water bottle as I walk and nods. There is something terribly desperate in the way he looks at me like a dog that shit the bed. Thanks I say and drink. He walks away before I can hand him the bottle.
It’s mine now.
I try to recapture the feeling I had before. Concentrate on the soil, on the feeling in my muscles, focus on the sweat soaking through my cotton shirt. I spend the rest of the day observing everything around me, moment to moment, trying to recreate whatever happened. The more I try to recreate it the further away it seems. We work into the dark, a twelve hour day at least. We fill the tread marks in with fresh sod and repack the truck. Remy looks broken, it’s the same look we all had after the first day. Trevor has a rule about everyone being driven to their door if they do a twelve hour day. I live furthest away, luck of the Irish yeah? It’s fifteen minutes with me and Lucas in the truck. I can almost feel the heat off him, red mist rising. I take out my book and leaf through the pages. Lucas sits beside me, his weight anvil like against fake leather seats. He looks at the book, lips curling into what looks like a frown.
“This is not the best one.” He’s lived in Vancouver for thirty years but for some reason his accent sounds almost Mexican.
“You read books like these?” I ask.
“For many years before I came here.”
No one says anything for a few seconds.
“How long have you been miserable?” Lucas asks me.
“I’m not” I pause “how...”
“Religion is for the people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for the people that have already been there. This is your hungry ghost.” He says.
He takes a left off Willingdon Avenue and pulls up outside my flat.
“In eastern teachings the hungry ghost is a terrible ghoul with a mouth like a straw but a huge round belly. He cannot feed fast enough and is forever hungry for sadness, for anxiety.”
“The more you fight the ghost the hungrier he gets.”
“So what do you do?” I ask.
“You do the one thing the ghost cannot feed on. You accept him.”
Lucas takes a fag out of a tin pouch, rolls the filter in his fingers and lights it.
“When I accepted that I could never live without alcohol I finally managed to stop drinking it.”
He draws hard on the cigarette then writes something on a piece of paper. The End of Your World. I can’t pronounce the writer’s name. He hands it to me.
“You are a good worker.”
He drives away leaving me with a torn, gridded copy page.
The end of my world.
The next few days Lucas regularly stops me from work and talks to me about spirituality. I tell him what happened to me on the tire tread job. He says it’s like a Buddhist garden, dragging the rake over the sand, lining the grains. The mind becomes so still that it begins to challenge its limitations. It’s the same reason monks meditate for weeks on end, coaxing the mind into a state of what mystics call ‘enlightenment’. The rest of the lads look at me jealous, I’ve found some kid of loop hole. Birdman’s been on the crew longer than anyone else and he tells me he’s never seen Lucas shoot the breeze with someone like this. It’s not light hearted talk though, it’s the kind of stuff that rattles your head, forces pressure on your temples. The art of un-thinking. I tell Lucas that I’ve started the book he told me about, that the meditations described inside it cause me to be angry, sad, joyous and anxious. He says that my mind is separating the chaff from the wheat, that for a time everything will be messy.
We pull up to the job Friday morning, the yard is yellow, the soil cracked, a house at the end of a steep drive, a beautiful harbour view in the distance. Lucas holds onto the handles of the Stripper to cut lines in the yellow, fried grass. He uses a large pair of ear muffs to drown out the dull roar of the machine. We use snow shovels to scoop out large, square chunks and toss them into yellow wheelbarrows. The incline of the hill makes it hard to wheel the dry soil around. The Loser birds are out making noise in the trees somewhere. I’ve never seen one but they make a kind of two syllable noise that sounds like ‘looo-seeeer’. Birdman says that when he was renting non-windowed motel rooms on East Hastings he’d wake up with a crack hangover and hear the birds calling him. “Damn nearly lost my mind” he says and lights a smoke.
We’re about half way finished when I start to pick up a particularly dry square of dirt. It falls apart around the snow shovel so I try to haul it up with my arms. I can hear the Stripper cropping through the grass near me. The soil begins to fall apart in my arms and I throw it into the wheel barrow. A cloud of dirt bursts from the soil as it connects with the yellow plastic. It mushroom clouds into the dry air and right in the centre of it there is the dark silhouette of a man.
It is Lucas.
He lets out a roar and grabs the ear muffs from his head. He starts shouting and spitting into the grass.
“For fuck sake, you got it all into my eyes!”
He charges through the dirt like a dragon through smoke and sees it’s me.
“Every day I’m living in constant fear of you making another fucking mistake!”
Strings of saliva hang from his mouth, bubbles bursting through the spaces between his teeth. His eyes are blood red in the corners, he blinks uncontrollably.
“Go home” he shouts “get the fuck away from me.”
“C’mon Lucas, it was an accident.” Birdman says.
“You want to go with him, you fucking crack head?!”
Birdman looks at me apologetically.
“Ring Trevor about work on Monday, you’re not on my crew anymore.”
“You fake piece of shit!” I sneer “You think you’re going to transcend yourself?! You can’t even control your own fucking temper!”
I grab my bag and walk away. It’s a long trek to the bus, I feel like crying and don’t know why. I get off the bus and buy a bottle of Paddy from the off license. It’s ridiculously over priced but at least there’s a taste of home off it. I get to my basement flat, take a piss and drink some of the whiskey. I don’t stop for a long time.
When I wake up the bottle’s empty and there’s dry vomit. I fall as I try to stand up, outside my window I hear it coming through.
I retch and spit out something bubbled and white. There are cigarette burns in my t-shirt, a smell of old armpits. The sun burns my eyes when I open the door, my muscles tired and heavy from the week. The off licence isn’t far away and they open at nine a.m.
I grab cans, spirits and fags. The clerk tells me there’s a soup kitchen down the road. Cheers I mutter. I start into the cans on the walk back, my head firing off rounds between my ears.
There’s a chap sleeping on a mattress in the alley behind my house, he nods at me, I hand him a fag and a can. He shakes his head.
“Trying to quit brother.” He says.
“Just accept it.” I leave them beside him, chuckling to myself.
I start to black out half way through the whiskey.
It’s Sunday morning when I come to. I can’t remember being awake but there’s barely any whiskey left. I open the last can, take a sup and light a fag. Something rises up inside me, something terrible, formidable.
I fucked up with a bottle of pills once, had to get pumped or whatever, two weeks in a psych ward. Melancholia the doctor called it, an old chap with a great white beard. He wrote me a prescription for anti’s and told me to look into eastern philosophy, made sure to warn me that every other doctor would tell me my condition was purely chemical. “Nothing but a shower of gobshites” he said smiling. Ma found me in time, otherwise I would have checked out permanently. She told me to promise I’d never do it again and I love the old one so I did. We never told my father. She’d ask me how I was on a scale of one to ten. I started to hate seeing her, knowing the only reason I was still alive was her. Sometimes I’d tell her I was worse than I was. If I hadn’t left for Canada I might have killed the both of us. I promised myself I’d make a decent shot at life in Vancouver but if push came to shove at least ma wouldn’t be the one to find me.
Push was shoving.
Puny, useless man. Loser. Loser. Ungrateful wretch. Loser. Loser.
Get it done.
A knife with mozzarella hangs edge forward over the sink and I pick it up. I feel the air in my nose, burning the nostrils, turning the stomach, bubbling back up through my mouth. The dirty stainless silver cold on my forearm. Everything empty as webbed skeletons, no colour, no lights no music. But I don’t slice, my arm won’t let me.
The air goes in and the air goes out. I feel it inside, grinding against my lungs but I continue breathing, keep living.
I close my eyes and focus on the air, the knife in my hand, the cold tiles on my feet. That cool wind blows between my eyes and when I open them I am the knife, I am the air, the fag burned couch, the unmade sheets, the snow capped mountains over the glacial water.
I accept the emptiness and the emptiness accepts me.
I spend the rest of the day staring at the half hanging light fixture above my bed. The wires, green and woven peeking from the plastic mould. There are no words, no future, no past. My phone begins to ring. It’s Trevor.
“How’s the mick?” He asks.
“I’ll be honest with you Trevor, I’ve never been better.”
“You’re back in the usual pick up spot with Lucas at seven yeah?”
“I’m on his crew again?”
“Bit of a barney was there?”
“He kicked me off his crew.” I reply.
“Don’t worry about it mate, he’s an angry Polish bloke, you wouldn’t be the first. He did say to tell you something though.”
I don’t say anything,
“You there mate?”
“Yeah, yeah sorry, bit spaced.”
“You were right.”
“No idea what he meant either mate. Fucking nutter. Good luck.”
The phone flatlines. I stare back at the light fixture. Trevor is gone, work doesn’t exist yet. The air comes into my lungs. The air leaves.
My alarm doesn’t go off in the morning, I wake up at six twenty five. I’m out the door with no breakfast and running for a Sky train. Lucas might have let me back into his crew but he’ll chew me up if I’m late. I pay for a ticket and sit down, last night’s feeling of peace has left me. I try to focus my breath, stay in the moment but nothing happens. I start to think about what Lucas will say when I tell him about my flash of enlightenment. We’ll forget what was said on Friday, it’s in the past. It not real.
I make it to the stop with a minute to spare. Birdman and Andore are leaning against a lamp post smoking fags. We joke about what happened on Friday. Birdman says he’s never seen Lucas that angry before.
“He didn’t say a word afterwards man, dude was pale as fuck!”
“Pale?” I say.
“Like he saw a ghost.”
Lucas is never late to the pickup spot but we’re five minutes over. Then fifteen, then thirty. Birdman takes out his phone. “Fuck it, I’ll ring Trevor.”
I stare out at the road, waiting to see the rusted silver grill, the off white cab.
“Hey Trevor, we’re still waiting on...”
Birdman’s voice cuts off.
“What?” He says, he voice trembling.
I wait to feel the air, but I’m shallow breathing, barely anything going to my lungs.
Andore looks at Birdman his brows arced inwards.
I’m waiting to see the rusted grill.
Waiting for the off white cab.
“Fuck!” Birdman coughs, a tear rolling down his cheek.
“Oh no...” Andore whispers.
I’m waiting to see the rusted grill.
Waiting for the off white cab.