The Big Day

THE BIG DAY

Earle came awake feeling like shit as usual.  Another lousy day of walking the streets, looking for work, panhandling for enough change for a bottle of rotgut, checking out the chicks … there was frost on the window again.  Wasn’t winter supposed to be over?  Christ.  He lay there for a couple minutes, dragging himself through the usual litany:  nothing’s any good, what’s the point of just surviving, would have been better if humans hadn’t evolved to screw everything up … he was just about to move on to the detailed roundup of all the things he should have done and all the things he shouldn’t, sins of commission and omission, betrayals, failures, acts of brutality, acts of cowardice, his slow descent into despair, drunkenness, and poverty, blackouts, and now creeping paranoia and delusions … no point in getting up, no point in staying in bed … then he remembered:  today was the Big Day.

With a rush he recalled his plan, how it was going to change his life, get him out of this sewer of a neighbourhood … a smile crept over his wrecked face.  He felt a kind of joyous optimism.  Neither one felt familiar.

He lay there feeling suddenly light and calm.  Relaxed.  For the first time in as long as he could remember.  Maybe ever.  It was all over, the grubbing, the hunger and thirst, the cold, the heat.  He’d put together a plan, and today was the day.  The Big Day.  He even thought of it with capitals.

Okay.  Time to launch himself.  Get the ball rolling.  First order of business:  spread the word.  The good news.  Go around to all his friends and acquaintances and tell them all how he’d finally gotten it together to leave this dog shit of a life behind.  He was escaping, and it was all on account of a dream.

He’d read about this kind of thing happening to people, but it was like hearing about somebody winning the lottery.  A classic version of The Kind Of Thing That Happens To Other People.  Not him.  And not to anybody he knew, for that matter.  And okay, sure, somebody would win the lottery every week, but not him.  Somebody else.  And he knew enough about odds from his brief stint as a card sharp, a rounder, back in the day when he’d believed in luck.  But luck was horseshit.

Luck was something you looked back on and gave a name to, either good or bad.  A series of events that either went your way or didn’t, for absolutely no reason at all.  Luck was something you either believed in, or you didn’t.  Anybody who believed in luck would feel blessed when it was good, and damned when it was bad.  More often than not, anybody who was ‘unlucky’ believed themselves to be cursed,  and would usually blame somebody or something.  Sometimes luck itself.

But it was an illusion.  All of it:  lucky numbers, lucky pennies, rabbits’ feet, knocking on wood, walking under ladders, having a black cat cross your path … when any of those things ‘worked’ they knew luck was either on their side of against them.  When they didn’t work, it meant that something was wrong.  The world was out of whack.  They took it personally.  Inevitably, they would believe that their luck would change, or hold, and that there were ways to control that.  They never figured out that it only made sense in retrospect; you knew what had just happened, but not what was going to happen next.  They believed there was a limit to how many times red could come up in a row, and the trick was to wait until that limit had been reached, and bet black.  Morons.

Earle stared at the ceiling, trying to remember how he’d gotten onto the subject of luck.  Oh, right.  The dream.  The dream that had turned his life around by giving him an option.  He’d felt lucky when he woke up, or blessed or something, but on further reflection he knew there was no reason.  It had just happened.  But that was the thing:  it had happened.  And now he knew what to do.

Time to get a move on.  Stop lying around doing philosophy, get his ass out on the street and start putting together his stash.  His friends would help if they could, strangers would help if they felt like it, but one way or another he was giving this cesspool the slip.  He was outa here, come hell or high water.  Maybe even today.  Would depend on his ‘luck’.  He had to smile at that.

After performing his ablutions such as they were, he checked his fridge to make sure there was nothing in there.  It wasn’t really a fridge, because it didn’t work, hadn’t worked in years, but he kept stuff in it because he didn’t have any cupboards.  Canned goods, dried goods like spaghetti and so on, and the odd thing that didn’t need to be cold, like an apple.  But today there was nothing in the fridge, as he was sure they wouldn’t be.  But hell, who knew?  He might have been wrong about that, like he’d been wrong about so many things.  But this time he wasn’t wrong.  One thing about being a pessimist:  being wrong would have been a pleasant surprise.

Not only didn’t he have cupboards, but he didn’t even have a closet, which was unusual for a bedroom, which is what the room had been before it became his ‘apartment’.  But he figured it was an old house, and a lot of the time they had those free standing closets called armories or something, which if there had been one here, wasn’t here now.  But he had a few wire hangers, so he could hang his stuff on empty curtain rods or the nails sticking out of the walls, left over from when there were pictures hanging there.

So nothing to eat … and the peanut butter jar had two quarters and a nickel in it … not enough for a bag of chips.  So, time to get down into the street and score some coin.  And he knew who to hit up first.

Staggering down the stairs, bad knees, bad hips, bad feet … bad stairs … bad, bad, bad …  he eventually made it to the door and lurched out onto the blazing hot sidewalk, instantly blinded by the screeching sunlight.  For a minute he stood there blinking like an idiot, then headed north on South Street.

Too many people out on a scorching day like this, wasn’t even noon yet, had to get up to Sonny’s before the fucker went for lunch and never came back until the next day.  He never ate at his own place, he knew what was in those hamburger patties.  Still, Earle didn’t have a lot of choice.  Maybe he could cadge a burger.  With fries.  But he’d forego the fries if he thought that would clinch the deal … Sonny had money [ha ha] but he was a cheap bastard, always belly-aching about business being lousy, drove his wife’s car to work because it was a battered corolla, rotten with rust, so everybody would think he was skint.  Asshole left her the Escalade with instructions not to go within ten feet of it.  Made her take a taxi to the No Frills, Christ.

Sure enough, by the time he attained Sonny’s, the prick was gone, probably down to the Shamrock for their Thursday special, half-price ribs or what-the fuck-ever, nobody at the counter but Santos, the spic who pretended he couldn’t speak English … so down to the Shamrock, which was closer than his next default stop, Top Dog Collision, and a better bet because maybe Sonny would stand him to a couple of fries in addition to the bus fare to his brother’s place.

On the way he tried to bum some ‘spare change’ but his heart wasn’t in it.  Even though he needed the bus fare more than he needed food.  His brother lived a long way away, up north near Geraldton somewhere, and the bus was going to cost him an arm and a leg, and possibly his left nut, but the dream had been clear, and he was going.  Earle didn’t actually know why his brother had summoned him, but who cared?  He was heading out, getting shot of this decaying burgh if it was the last thing he did.

Sonny wasn’t at the Shamrock either, but while Earle was standing there in the foyer trying to decide where to try next, Lucy came in for her afternoon shift, and he managed to pry ten bucks out of her, which would at least get him breakfast somewhere.  She liked him for some reason, and he sure as hell liked her … shiny black straight shoulder length hair, pretty face even though she overdid the makeup most of the time, but the body was a Cadillac, no argument.  Not that he had designs on her; she was married to a big black guy with several scars on his face who bounced at the Boar’s Nest, but still, she was okay with a smile.  And a tenner.

‘Thanks, darlin’ … big day t’day.  Puttin’ together a stash, headin’ up north to visit my brother Lloyd.  Haven’t been outside this bone yard in nigh on twenty years.  He might even have a job for me or something.’  She smiled.

‘Cool.  Bon appetite.’

‘Come again?’

‘Bon voyage, Earle.’

 

He shoved the tenner in his pocket, and it slid down his leg because that pocket was ripped, so he stomped his foot to shake it down, then put it in the other pocket, and stumbled across the street to Haggarty’s where he could get a beer and some bangers and mash, and who was there but Sonny, all by himself at a table by the window, tucking into a plate of shepherd’s pie.  Not a fucking fry in sight.  Sonny looked up as Earle eased his way over, and sort of scowled.

‘What.’

‘I’m leaving town.’

‘No shit.  When?’

‘Soon as I can put together the scratch for a bus ticket to the tree line.’

‘Goddamn, and here I thought you’d come by to pay me back the forty clams you extorted off me last week.’

‘Oh yeah, well, when I get to where I’m going I’ll be in clover, and I’ll make good on that, but in the meantime I need two bills to get me there, so you being one of my most faithful benefactors—’

‘You think I got two hundred bucks in my pocket?  Mind you, it’d be worth it to get rid of you once and for all.  Is this a permanent move?’

‘Permanent as death.’

Sonny thought about this for a moment or two, then reached into his pocket.

‘I’m gonna be famous as the guy who sent your sorry ass far enough away that you couldn’t afford to come home.  Where ya goin?’

‘My brother sent for me.  Up north someplace.  Pickle Lake or some goddamn place.’

Earle knew that wasn’t the place, but he’d temporarily forgotten the exact location.  And he knew Sonny didn’t give a rat’s ass, so it didn’t matter, it was far, far away.  He watched Sonny pull a wad out of his pocket, and thumb off a hundred bucks.  Having done that, he looked up at Earle under heavy black eyebrows and dared him to ask for more.  Earle let his face sag with disappointment.

‘Okay, lissen, I see your ugly mug anywhere within a thousand mile radius of this town ever again, I’ll squeeze this outa you with my bare hands.’

Incredibly, Sonny peeled off another five twenties and added them to what he was already holding.  Earle eyed the stash, but knew better than to reach for it.

‘So why’d your brother send for you, anyway?  He lost his last marble?’

‘He didn’t say.  But he’s got his own business, so you never know.  Might have something for me.’

Actually, Lloyd hadn’t said much of anything in the dream, just kind of gestured for him to come along as he walked away, grinning like a dog eating cat crap.  But the feeling was one of optimism and promise.  Good times ahead.  No details, just an invitation.

‘Brother’s that stupid. is he?’  Earle wanted to say something shitty back, but Sonny had the edge.  So he gave him the stink-eye instead.  But Sonny either didn’t notice or thought it was funny.  Finally, Sonny handed over the bills so he could continue eating his lunch.  Earle had the urge to say ‘thanks’ but thought better of it when he saw how eagerly Sonny attacked his shepherd’s pie.  What the hell, he’d come for the money, he had the money—Hallelujah!—what was there left to do or say?  Not like he was ever coming back.  This was a bridge he could afford to burn without a single qualm.  And he had lots of experience burning bridges, sometimes even before he came to them ha ha.

 

One thing for sure, he wasn’t gonna eat breakfast in that dive.  He’d head on down to the Chinaman for a quick special.   On his way out the door, Earle pondered the possibility of drumming up a few more dollars, seeing as how the Toronto bus prob’ly wasn’t even scheduled to leave until around two or three.  And then there was the transfer to Geraldton or wherever.  Which was a pig when you considered the trip would take eight or nine hours and get him into Geraldton [if that’s where he was actually supposed to go] by ten at the earliest, and then he’d have to get a taxi to Lloyd’s place [if he could find out where he actually lived] and probably not much before eleven, but that was a small price to pay, unlike the ticket, which would sure as shit be a king’s fucking ransom.

There was nothing special about the special at Danny Chows, but it filled the hole. He’d shoved it in too fast, gave himself a slight gut ache, but he had to keep moving while there was till daylight.  He was feeling so pumped he even left a tip.

It occurred to him, standing on the flaming sidewalk sucking up the exhaust fumes, that he should make an effort to find out exactly where Lloyd lived before he left, so he wouldn’t end up driving around the north woods for hours, looking for God knows what, racking up a huge cab fare that he wouldn’t be able to pay, but what was the guy gonna do, drive him back to the bus station?  And Lloyd probably had some loose change lying around, even if he wasn’t home.  Earle’d done some time for helping himself to other peoples’ goods, and he knew how to jimmy a window.  Lloyd wouldn’t mind anyway

Looking around for an idea, he noticed the library across the street, and it struck him that this was the answer to his dilemma, because they had information.  And computers with Google.  He knew something about Google, at least that you could find out stuff with it, and somebody in there would be able to show him how to use it, surely to Christ.

The façade looked a little forbidding, all that brick and glass, but he was no stranger to wading into the murky unknown, especially when there was little danger of severe physical harm involved.  He crossed the street and approached the big sliding door, and while hesitating briefly, observed that the door was sliding open without his even touching it.  Another sign.  This was meant to happen.  He slouched inside, and approached the main counter with as much poise as he could manage under the circumstances.  The lady behind the counter, dowdy but not unfriendly, asked if she could help him.

‘I’m looking for my brother.’

‘Well, you can have a look around if you want.  There’s a second floor, just take those stairs.’  Earle was momentarily disoriented, and the woman gave him an inquisitive look, like what was he up to?

‘Um, no … I mean I’m looking for his address so I can go there to stay with him.  I thought you might have some kind of, um, service for that.’

‘Well … we have telephone books.  Do you know where your brother lives?’

This question had so many ramifications, Earle was momentarily flummoxed.  Did Lloyd live in a city?  And if so was it Geraldton or Hurst or Pickle Lake or some place he’d never heard of?  Not too generous with information, that Lloyd.  Never had been.  And anyway, would knowing the city nearest to where he lived be of any use in his search?   Was there some other way to pinpoint someone’s location without resorting to a city?  If he took a stab and said ‘maybe somewhere near Geraldton’ would that help at all?  How much area did a phone book cover?  And was he even sure that was correct?  He seemed to recall that once upon a time Lloyd had moved there to participate in some sort of project to do with mining.  Gold, he thought it was.  Gold that wasn’t there anymore.  Eventually he said, ‘Geraldton?’  And the dowdy but not entirely unattractive smiled tentatively and asked for his brother’s name.

‘Lloyd.’

‘And his last name?’

‘I don’t think he changed his name.  It’s always been Lloyd.’

‘Yes, but … his surname.  Lloyd what.’

‘Oh, sure, I gotcha.  Same as mine.  Higgs.  Lloyd Higgs.  Sorry, I haven’t eaten today.’

Karin [he’d noticed her name tag] nodded sympathetically, and sucked on her upper lip for a moment.

‘I’ll try to find that for you … unless you want a telephone book, or to wait for a computer?’

Earle couldn’t imagine anything better than having her find it for him, and he told her so.  She smiled thinly, nodded, moved a step to her left, and turned her attention to her keyboard.  After a minute or so, a frown crept across her plain but not entirely off-putting countenance.

‘I don’t see any Lloyd Higgs listed in the Geraldton and area listings.  Is there any other contact he might be listed under?’

This question caused the floor to drop away under Earle’s feet.  He suddenly grasped that this was not to be a straightforward process.  Especially since his information was at least two decades old.  With a ripple of uneasiness he realised that he had virtually no information to offer.  Lloyd had not given any indication where he might be, and Earle was being forced to resort to information that was so out of date as to be almost historical.  His face reddened visibly.

In fact, he now realised, he had received very little indication from Lloyd as to where, what, why, or how he was to make this trek.  What had seemed clear and promising at the outset now appeared hazy and dubious, and it occurred to him that he had made some assumptions based on very little input from his brother, from whom he had—now that he thought about it—been estranged for several years.  Many years, actually.  Most of his life, now that he thought about it.  Which begged the question, why would he be sending for him now?  Maybe to make amends for whatever he thought he’d done to Earle, that had doomed him to a life of penury and woe?  Punched him in the head often enough that his brain was handicapped.  He probably didn’t give a shit, but in the dream he’d been smiling broadly.  People change, they have abrupt [or gradual] changes of heart, attacks of remorse … God knows it could be anything, but why reflect on it now?  He had a bus to catch.

 

But to where?  That was the nagging question.  How could he locate the sonofabitch?  Who could possibly— … wait.  Loraine!  She might know.  Her and Lloyd were close at one time.  Not like her and Earle.  Christ, she wouldn’t give him the time of day after he tried to—well, that was water under the dyke.  She was his only hope.  And to the best of his knowledge, he didn’t know exactly how to get ahold of her either, but he had reason to belief [or no reason to disbelieve] that she still lived around here somewhere.  Maybe in the old house, after she got done taking care of the old lady, maybe she just stayed in the house, which after all was all she had after that asshole Larry Finn took off on her and left her with the kid, what was his name?  Or was it a girl.

Anyway, as his sister she had a moral responsibility to help them both out, given that Lloyd wanted him to come as much as he wanted to go.  He wouldn’t be able to tell her about the dream though, she’d throw him out on his ear.  So how was he going to explain how he knew Lloyd had sent for him?  She’d never believe it.  Fuck it, he’d just say he wanted to go and patch things up with Lloyd because of a dream he’d had.  That wasn’t too weird.  Not as weird as what really happened.  No shit, truth was stranger than bullshit.

So how to find Loraine.   Hang on, she and that Diane over at the post office used to hang out a lot a few years back, maybe they still did.  Thank Christ he still remembered where the post office was.  Unless they moved it.  He looked over at the corner where the post office had been, and wouldn’t you know it, there it was.  Jesus.  Ten bucks, then two hundred, and now the post office was till where it had always been.  Talk about good luck, which he didn’t believe in, but what the hell else was he going to call it?  He started toward the stately old building, hoping to Christ  it was open.  And that Diane still worked there.  And that she’d kept in touch with Loraine.  Christ, Earle, shut the hell up and walk!

He got there without forgetting where he was going, and stumbled inside.  He was really hungry now, that miserable Sonny.  But food could wait.  He needed some info, ASPCA.

He collided with the counter and leaned on it, catching his breath, and looked around.  He didn’t see Diane anywhere, but then maybe he’d forgotten what she looked like, so he signalled to a kid behind the counter who was trying to ignore him.

‘Hey, young fella.’  The kid ignored him even harder.

‘Hey you, young man, can I ask you a question?’  The kid looked up and sighed, giving Earle the once-over without even considering trying to hide it.

‘What.’

‘Is Diane around?’

‘Diane who.’  Earle felt the blood [what there was of it] rising up his ruined frame to his scrawny neck and up into his blotched and craggy unshaven face.  ‘How many freakin’ Dianes you got workin here, ya—’  He caught himself just before he managed to spit out the nasty epithet he had on the tip of his furry tongue.  ‘ —ya handsome devil?  C’mon son, I got a tenner for ya!

Earle dug into his bottomless pocket and hoped he hadn’t put the stash from Sonny in it, then tried the other pocket and sure as hell it was there.  He pulled the cash out so the little prick could get a glimpse of it, peeled of a ten, and waved it seductively toward the twerp, who had an abrupt change of attitude and came over with some sort of look on his face that could have been a smile.

‘You mean Diane Simmons?’

‘Think so, I’m a little fuzzy.  What’s the other one’s name?’

‘What other one.’

‘The other one that works here, wouldn’t it be?’

‘Oh.  You never said she worked here.’   Earle narrowed his eyes in what he hoped was a cut-the-crap kind of way.  ‘Does this Diane Simmons work here … dude?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Any other Dianes workin’ here?’

‘Nope.’

‘Is that particular Diane here somewhere?’

‘Prob’ly out back, somewhere.’  This was taking an absurdly long time, and Earle was having a challenge keeping his cool, but he was too close to his goal now to take any chances by reaching across the counter and ripping the kid’s breather out, even if he’d had the strength to do so.

‘Okayyyy, how do I get out back?’

‘You don’t.’

Earle felt himself beginning to snap which wasn’t a good thing, but then had a  brainwave.  He shrugged and tucked the stash back into his pocket, said, ‘Well, I guess we’re both outa luck, sport.’ and turned to go.  The kid perked up.

‘I could go back and tell her you’re here to see her.  Who should I say wants to speak with her?’  Earle thought about this for a time, then got another brainwave.

‘Tell her a guy with money.’  He pulled out the stash and peeled off two tens, but didn’t hand them over, and waited for the dweeb to figure out this was his only option.  Trust, man … an endangered species.  But then he got his third and final brainwave, and handed over the bills.  ‘I guess we wouldn’t want her to see this transaction and get the idea you were takin bribes.’  He tried for a wink, but wasn’t sure he’d succeeded.  The kid snatched the bills, ands tucked them into his pocket with a nod [he nearly saluted] and disappeared into ‘the back room somewhere’.

After a couple minutes of unintelligible squalling back there, a woman emerged in a frumpy grey suit and untidy red hair, looking pissed off.  When she saw Earle, she stopped dead and swore.  ‘You!’ she spluttered, making no further attempt to approach him.  ‘I thought I’d seen the last of you!’

‘Hey, Diane, good to see you too.  You’ll see the last of me if I can get some co-operation.  I need to find Loraine.’

‘The hell you do.  You leave her alone, you hear me?’

‘I just need some information, Jesus, Diane.  This is a big day for me!  Does she have a phone?’

‘It’s unlisted, mainly on accounta trash like you.’

‘You know what it is?’

‘Maybe.  But you’re not getting it.”

‘Okay, well, you call her up and I’ll just talk to her for three minutes, one question, one answer, and then you will have seen the last of me as my ass disappears out that door.’  She gave him a deeply suspicious look, and jammed her beefy hands onto her beefy hips.

‘What question.’  Early briefly considered telling her it was none of her damn business, but the sun had risen and would soon be sinking and he didn’t have time for any recalcitrance from this bitch.  He sagged theatrically against the counter to express his displeasure with her repulsively un-willing attitude.

‘I need to find Lloyd.  He’s looking for me.  He’s got something lined up for me that’s gonna change everything for me, and if I don’t find him I’ll be stuck here for the rest of my sorryass pathetic life.’

‘Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we.  He’s lookin for you?

‘Didn’ I just say that?’  He successfully resisted adding ‘ya stupid cow’.

‘So go wait out on the curb so he can find you.’

‘He’s up north somewhere!’

‘So go find a curb up north to sit on.  I’ll give you Loraine’s number when hell boils over.’  Earle had forgotten her irritating habit of butchering stock phrases, but thought better of commenting on the fact.

‘For Christ’s sake, woman, you dial the number and I’ll do the talking, and you can stand right there and listen to every word, okay?  That suit ya?’

Diane stood there stubbornly, obviously trying to think of a reason why this might not suit her, but finally came up with ‘We’re not supposed to use the office phones for personal business.  Besides, it’s long distance.  She’ll have to accept the charges.’

‘Long distance?!  Where in the name of Christ is she now?!  She move ‘again? ‘

‘Couple years ago.  I gather you guys don’t keep in touch.’  It was beginning to feel to Earle like the good luck he’d had up to know had left town.  Not that he believed in luck.  But what the hell else are you gonna call it?

‘Okay, so where’d she move to?’

‘What’s it to you?’

‘I told ya!  Jesus!  You want shot of me or not?  I’m gonna stand here and bellow until you either tell me where she lives or call her up.  Your call [ya cantankerous  twat, he didn’t actually say].’   Diane, not used to ultimatums, gritted her teeth.  ‘Well I’m sure as hell not sending you up there.  Besides you couldn’t afford the cab fare.’

‘Fine, call ‘er up then, let’s get this the hell over with, can we?’  She gave up and dialed.

 

The phone rang and rang and rang [Loraine obviously had no answering machine] but Diane wasn’t about to hang up, thereby putting herself in the position of having to give Earle directions to her place.  Or worse, the cab fare.  Easily fifty bucks one way.  After eleven or twelve rings, the receiver finally got picked up, then clattered to the floor in a cloud of curses.  Some fumbling, more curses, then ‘What!  This better be important!’ Diane scowled her meanest scowl yet.

‘You have a collect call from the Kingston Public Libr’y.  Do you accept the call?’

‘What?!’

‘Loraine, it’s me.  I’m at the libr’y .  Man here says it’s important.’

‘What man!’  Diane glanced over at Earle, not even remotely prepared to tell her his name.  Then she too got a brainwave.  ‘Man with money.’

Dead silence on the other end.  She could hear breathing, raspy, like a file on cement.  ‘C’mon Loraine, I’m on the office phone, just talk to the bas—… guy, will ya?’  Another brainwave.  ‘Otherwise I gotta send him out there.’

‘The HELL you will!’  Pause.  Puff.  Wheeze.  ‘Okay, put’im on, but this better be good or your ass is glass!’

Earle could hear her bellowing; he winced.  Glass?  Christ, now they were both doing it.  Diane held the phone out like it was a dead stinking catfish, and Earle grabbed it without so much as a by-yer-leave.

‘Loraine, honey, it’s yer long lost brother Earle.  Where’s Lloyd at?’  Dead silence.  ‘Don’t hang up, just gimme his address, and you’ll never see from me—hear from me, rather—forever and ever aw-little green-men.’  Another silence.  Earle could feel the sweat breaking out all over his chicken bone body, especially his scalp.  ‘Look, don’t make me have to come up there.  I don’t wanna see you any more’n you wanna see me.’

There was a long pause.  Earle stared to get panicky.

‘This dead air is costing you money, y’know.’

‘Lloyd’s dead.  Been dead seventeen years.  Was living up in Kenora with that scrag whatshername.’

 

Earl stood speechless, starting to sway on his feet, the colour draining from his face like somebody flushing a toilet.  Loraine blundered on.

‘Killed them both drivin’ home from the Four Aces, drunk as a muskrat.  Hit a fucking tree head on.   I didn’t even go to the funeral … except there wasn’t one … but I would’na gone to it anyway.  Any other questions, dipshit?’

‘Yer … yer … lyin’.  YER FUCKIN LYING!’  Standing behind him, Diane jerked like she’d just sat on a snake.

‘Hey!  Whoa!  Watch yer damn language, Earle.  This is a government institution!’  Earle turned his blanched face toward her, eyes like cue balls.

‘She’s sayin he’s dead!  Lloyd’s dead?!  No goddamn way!’  Back into the phone:  ‘No way, bitch!  I seen him!  He came to me in a dream!  Tell me where he is or I’ll come up there an—…’  Diane clapped her hand over her mouth.  Earle noticed this.

‘Oh shit, that’s right!  I forgot.  Car accident.  Killed himself and that tart he was living with up in … wherethehelleveritwas.’  Loraine came back at him.

‘A dream?  You woke me up out of a dead sleep!  I mighta had a sweet dream that you got hit by a bus.’  Earle was far beyond being offended by anything Loraine said to him, especially now that he was reeling from this catastrophic disclosure.

‘Kenora …where’n the hell is that?’  Earle stammered.   Diane grabbed the phone, saying ‘Gimme that!’ and clamped it to the side of her head.  ‘It was Geraldton, Rainy … what’re you drinkin these days, lighter fluid?  [a beat]  Ya, well same to you!’

She cradled the phone violently, stared at Earle with an evil twinkle in her eye.  Earle was long past being aware of her, though …started wading toward the door like a sick moose through swamp water.  Diane deposited the phone back on her desk.

‘Have a nice day, Earle!’

 

Outside, Earle turned east toward the edge of town and sleep-walked his way down to the bridge.  Water was fast under there, big rocks down there, shopping carts and bed frames and wrecked bicycles and baby strollers, snagged on the sharp edges or rocks or caught in the gaps.  He stared down at the dismal wreckage.  So familiar.  So disheartening.  And there was Lloyd again, only just his voice this time.

‘Big fuckin’ day … c’mon down to hell, Earle … we can have us a few laughs … it’s nice an’ warm down here … place is jam-packed with people know how to have a good time … so c’mon down, I’ll be waitin’ on ya … you know the way, right?’

Earle walked stolidly on towards the bridge.  He knew the way.

 

***

Absolution

ABSOLUTION

 

They didn’t see it coming.  But then, does anybody?

Life wasn’t perfect, their marriage wasn’t perfect, but as she passed Derek’s ‘office’ on her way to the hall closet to get her coat she glanced in and saw a sight that warmed her heart and brought a smile to her face.  Her husband was at his desk, working on something, while Hawk, their adopted five-year-old Vietnamese son [whose name was actually Hakeem, and they should have called him Hack, but didn’t want to for obvious reasons] played peacefully on the rug beside his father’s chair.  Surrounded by toys of all kinds, he concentrated on some incomprehensible arrangement of the pieces, mimicking his father’s serious face.  She grabbed her coat and purse, and stepped back into the doorway.  He looked up as she appeared.

”Going somewhere, Val?”

She in turn made a face.  ”No, I just find it a bit chilly in here, don’t you?”

He made a face back that might have been a smile if he hadn’t been so deeply tangled up in his work.  She regarded him patiently, waiting for him to ask where she was in fact going, but instead, he asked her if she could take Hawk with her.

”Actually no, Derek, I’m shopping for a certain item to go with a certain occasion that’s coming up on Saturday, and it wouldn’t be cool if a certain person caught sight of it now.”  She jerked her head in Hawk’s direction, unnecessarily [she hoped].

Derek looked slightly stricken, but nodded.

”Okay, well, he seems fine for now.  But I’ve got at least four more hours to put in on this blankety blank assignment.  Maybe you could leave him in the car while you dash in?”

Val gave him ‘the look’ and he smiled wanly.

”Can’t blame a guy for trying.  How long will you be?”

”No idea.  I’ve got some other stuff to do.  I’ll be as quick as I can.  Man up, dude.”

At this point Hawk looked up, concern in his black eyes.

”Mummy going away?”

He hadn’t yet learned the phrase ‘going out’, and every time she heard ‘away’ Val cringed to think he might still be remembering being abandoned.  She went over and squatted down beside him, ruffled his hair.  [Later she would remember this gesture, and how it crossed her mind to wait until tomorrow, when Derek might not be so busy.  But instead she straightened.]

”I won’t be long, honey.  You be a big boy and look after Daddy, okay?  He might get lonely for Mummy.”

Derek looked over, raised an eyebrow.  She raised one back, and quickly took her leave, before Hawk could start thinking of reasons why she shouldn’t go.  He’d move on soon enough, get absorbed in his construction project, and forget all about her.  She knew that now.  Knowing things had a certain comfort, a significant one.  She flushed a little with gratitude that this was not only the case now, but was continually—if incrementally—blossoming.

As she went down the walk toward her car, she glanced over at the pile of junk stacked beside the garage, and frowned, remembering how many times she’d asked Derek to get rid of it.  They had a nice house with a nice yard on a nice street in a nice neighbourhood.  But the junk wasn’t nice.

As she backed out onto the street, she caught sight of Andy Forest raking his front lawn.  He smiled and waved, and started walking toward the edge of the road, so she pulled over and cranked the window down.

”Morning, Andy.  What, Cindy’s arms painted on?”

”Hah!  You got that right!  Lissen, that little freezer over there against the wall, I don’t suppose it still works?”  Val shook her head.

”Sat in the garage for a whole year not working.  Fortunately we found that out while there was only bread in it.”

”Aw, heck, well, I really liked that latch arrangement he put on there to keep the varmints out.”  Val looked over at the dead appliance, resolving she’d make Derek get rid of it next weekend.

”Sorry, Andy.  See ya.”  As she pulled back onto the road, Andy pointed to the garage and held his nose, grinning. Val flipped him a friendly bird as she drove away.

_____

 

Back in Derek’s office a couple hours later, he scowled at the figures coming up on the screen and felt a sudden urge to dump the whole project and take Hawk to the library.  But it was Sunday.  A quick game of ‘catch’?  He loved his son, and felt slightly uneasy at the thought of him having to entertain himself so much.  Thank God for school.  It had been worse before, whole days working at home while Val ran around selling houses.  Seemed he often spent the whole day changing diapers [no longer, thank Christ] reading stories, watching ridiculous kid shows on TV until he could slip away … sometimes he felt it had been a mistake not to rent an office, and hire a nanny.  But not yet.  He needed to be doing better with his extra-curricular day trading before a nanny was a viable option.

The phone rang and he scooped it up [they’d kept the land line to avoid the endless searching for cell phones.]  It was Val, telling him would be a little longer than she thought, she was having trouble finding the present, and she might drop by her sister’s place.  Erika the hypochondriac.  Another pain, itch, spot, wrinkle, leading to another wasted afternoon for Val.  And more stress for him.

He glanced down at Hawk, caught the bored expression on his face.

”Ya, lissen honey, we gotta go play outside for a bit. The rug rat is getting antsy. … Yup, chocolate’s fine.  Whatever.  Bye.”

Hawk was already on his feet jumping around.

”Outside!  Yaaaayyyy!”

Derek hung up and rubbed his hands together.

”Time to get a little fresh air, Hawkeye.  What’ll we do, toss the football around?”

”No, hiben go seep!”

Derek let a sigh escape.  He wasn’t big on ‘hiben go seep’ because Hawk didn’t hide very well, probably worried about never being found.  Derek had to pretend to look in a whole lot of places before he suddenly pounced. Still, it beat the crap on TV, the junk the networks knew was now a necessity for a lot of families.

They went out into the still-warm autumn afternoon.  Hawk slid in behind a tree, then poked his head out when Derek didn’t come after him.  Derek faked surprise.

”Aha!  Boo! I spy with my little eye … a Booooddhist!”

Hawk burst out laughing at the funny word, and started running away.  Derek chased him for a bit, then eventually faked a heart attack, and stumbled around before collapsing on the lawn.  Hawk would pile on and they’d have a short, perfunctory wrestle.  Derek never got to hide after the time Hawk couldn’t find him and had a meltdown.  Val had heard the noise and had come to the back door and let him inside to have a cookie, but Derek had been hiding around the front and didn’t know this.  He hung on for fifteen minutes before he finally gave up, and discovered that Hawk had given up and was now watching television.

That being said, Derek was a good game player; he always got right into it.  They soon tired of the unstructured horseplay.

”Okay, Daddy, I hide now!”

Just as Hawk was running off, the phone rang inside.  Derek watched him for a second, then decided to take the call.  It would be Val asking if he wanted sweet and sour chicken balls or almond guy ding.  He ran in and grabbed up the phone.  He could still see Hawk through the window.

 

It wasn’t Val.

”Derek?  It’s Jeff.  Bronson just called, they don’t like the graphics anymore.  Some CEO didn’t get laid this morning.

”Shit.  Okay, hang on a sec.”

Derek went to the window and looked out.  He could see Hawk’s little head, the shiny black hair poking out around the corner of the garage.  He lifted the window and called, I see you!  Gotta hide better than that.  [Of all the things he could have said, why in God’s name had he said that?]

Hawk took off running and Derek went back to the phone.

”What don’t they like?”

”I donno, that’s your department.  Probably everything.”

The honchos at Kilroy and Fitch were all anal retentive assholes and  control freaks, who made trouble just for the hell of it.  Derek dropped into his chair, picked up a pen and a notepad, and made some quick notes.

He was still on his laptop trying to convert the notes into art when Val came sneaking in with a package wrapped in brown paper.  She immediately saw that Derek was alone.

”Where’s Hawk?” she whispered.  ”I gotta hide this.”

Derek held up a ‘just a second’ finger and continued tapping on keys.  Val looked around.

”Derek?”

‘Yeah, okay honey, just a sec … sorry, I’m really preoccupied right now.”

”I see that, ya.  Derek … where’s Hawk?”

”Just a second, honey … ”

Again with the finger.  Val sucked air in through her teeth. It was a sound he knew only too well.  He saved his file and swung his head around to face her, then noticed the look on her face.

What, honey!”

”Where’s Hawk?!”

Derek froze.  “Oh shit!  Jesus fuck!”

He got to his feet instantly, purposefully displaying a casualness he didn’t feel, intent of easing her anxiety and demonstrating his unwavering patience in the face of her hair-trigger panic.  She stared at him in alarm.

”Derek?!  What the hell are you––oh Christ, you left him out there by himself?!”

Derek didn’t reply or pause.  Val dropped her package and followed him outside.  He was now striding around the yard calling Hawk’s name.  Val stared at him in horrified disbelief.

”Are you kidding me, Derek?!  Are you fucking kidding me?!”   Derek, wheeled on her, teeth bared.

”Don’t follow me around like an idiot!  Help me find him.  ”

 

They checked the clump of trees that bordered their property on the one side, then went into the garage.  Val was still dogging him.

”Jesus Christ, Derek, what were you thinking?!”

”I was thinking about how this Tron-K deal might be going down the toilet, and us along with it!  Interrogate me later, all right?!  Let’s just find him, okay?!”

”Did you check out on the road?!”

”For God’s sake, Val, you’ve been on my ass the whole time!  Did you see me check the road?!  YOU check the fucking road!”

Val growled something unintelligible and dashed down the drive toward the road.  It was a fairly quiet subdivision, but this stretch of road was straight and the cars [and trucks] tended to pick up a bit of speed.  They’d meant to harass the council to put in speed bumps, but so far no one had taken the initiative.  Now Val hated them all.

She looked back over her shoulder, and saw that Derek was still in the garage.  Hawk was obviously not in the garage, how long would it take to establish that?!  She started checking the road in both directions, calling Hawk’s name almost hysterically.  Andy was still—improbably—out raking leaves.  He looked over.

”What’s up, Val?  Something wrong?”

”It’s Hawk!  He’s gone!  We can’t find him!”

”Gone?!”  Andy dropped his rake and strode across the two lawns toward her.  Already his face was red from the exertion.     ”How long ago?”

”I don’t know!  I just got home!  Derek was supposed to be watching him.”  Andy noticed but did not comment on the snarl in her voice.

”Okay, well, what would you like me to do, get the car and go around the neighbourhood?”

”Would you?  That would be great, Andy!”

”No problem.  We’ll find him, he just got bored and went exploring.”

He sprinted back across the lawn to his own driveway.  Val spun back to her search, suddenly noticing the freezer.  With its ‘dandy’ new latch.  Val was halfway across the lawn already, running, her mind racing.  He couldn’t have gotten in there!  The latch!  Derek had come around the far corner of the garage and was behind her, not running, because he ‘knew’ Hawk wasn’t in the freezer.  He couldn’t be.  It was latched from the outside.  Locked!  Even as he suddenly remembered taking the padlock off because he needed it for something else, Val’s voice screeched like a train braking.

”THERE’S NO PADLOCK ON THAT FUCKING FREEZER!”

She got there before he did, flipped up the hasp and then the lid … and howled.

 

_____

 

They fought over him, Val unable to get a proper grip, Derek

trying to elbow her out of the way, both of them speaking in tongues, a paroxysm of horror, anger and grief.  It was clear he was dead, but still, somehow, time was of the essence.  Derek finally managed to pull him out, then sank to the ground, cradling him and sobbing.

 

Val dropped to her knees, trying to grab Hawk away from Derek.

”Give him to me!!  Oh my God … oh my fucking God!  HAWK!  HAAWWWK!”

She managed to yank him free of Derek’s grip, and shook him, calling his name.  Derek sat still and watched her, finally put out his hand and touched her arm.  She sprang back, a wild look on her face, teeth bared, eyes fierce.

”DON’T TOUCH ME!  Jesus Christ, Derek … WHAT DID YOU DO?!”

”Nothing, he … we were playing hide and seek, and … the phone rang …”

”Hide and seek?!  You left him out here by himself to answer the Goddamn phone??!!”  Suddenly Derek is floundering in confusion and a new fear of his wife, a raging virago.

         ”I could see him here was right over there!!  I didn’t … I told him and told him … don’t ever get in that freezer!

         “You told him?!”  A five-year-old?!

“It was locked!  I swear to God!”

”Then why in God’s name did you have to tell him not to get in?!  WHY DID YOU TAKE THE LOCK OFF?!”

She clutched Hawk to her chest and stared at Derek with a look he’d never seen on her or anybody else.  Ever.  [He would remember that look for the rest of his life.]  When she spoke, she hissed through a clenched jaw, so quietly he could hardly understand her.

”You never loved him!  You blamed me for my cancer!  Then you blamed me for wanting him instead of a white kid!”

”Val!  Jesus!  I never blamed you!  ”How could I?”

”It’s true and you know it.  You left him out here by himself because you didn’t care enough!”

Derek stared at her, white-faced and stunned.  She was clearly out of her mind with grief and shock, but still, she’d said it.

”That is a vicious lie!  I loved him as much as you did!  He’s my son!”

”Bullshit!  YOU COULDN’T HAVE A SON!!  OR A DAUGHTER!!  NEVER!  Not with me, anyway!  You should have just left me!  Why didn’t you leave me?!  WHY DID YOU TAKE THE FUCKING PADLOCK OFF, YOU SONUVABITCH?!”

 

Somehow she got to her feet, still holding Hawk, and started for the house, half stumbling, half running.  Derek, stunned, started to rise, but she wheeled on him in fury.

”Don’t you DARE come into this house!  DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE!”

She got to the back steps, staggered to the door and disappeared into the house.  A moment later he heard a growl and a shriek.  The door slammed.  She had kicked it shut.   Derek staggered to his feet, staring at the door in desperation, then suddenly attacked the freezer, punching and kicking and screaming every obscenity he knew.  Finally, spent, he sank to the ground, clutching his head and silently rocking.

 

_____

 

The police came and went.  An ambulance took Hawk away.  Val had sneered at the paramedics for bringing an ambulance for a dead kid.  One of the cops put his hand gently on her arm, but she shook it off.

”They have to take him in.  It’s what we have to do.”

”In where?!  The ICU?!  He’s dead, goddammit!”

         The cop made a face, looked at the ground, then right into her eyes.

”We have to take him to the morgue, ma’am.  It’s the law.”

”Will we have to identify him?”  The cop looked like he’d just stepped in something nasty.  Derek moved in quickly.

”Jesus, Val—!”

But she was already running toward the house, her hands over her face.  The cop looked at Derek, exuding more emotion than he’d ever seen in a cop’s face.

”You folks don’t have to come in today.  Tomorrow morning’ll be fine.”

 

__________

 

And it came to pass that Val fell into a deep depression.  There had been no funeral, and no argument about that decision.

The police had warned them that there might be an inquiry.  [In the end, it was decided that the death was accidental, child services demanded that they both attend child safety classes.]  Derek had moved out almost immediately, and was living in and working out of his sister’s basement, sleeping on a foam slab on the floor.  Val stopped going outside, stopped answering the door or the phone.  She eventually ran out of food, surviving for a few weeks on preserves.

One morning there came some ferocious knocking at the front door, then door burst open, hitting the wall with a loud bang.  Val hardly looked over as her father came in and stood with his hands on his hips, looking at her and breathing heavily.  She knew what he was going to say before he spoke.

”Okay, enough is enough.  I’m taking you up to the hospital, baby.  Okay?  Pack a few things, I’ll come back and pick up the rest later.  They’re waiting.  [Later, she would say that she had felt nothing since kicking Derek out.  Now suddenly she felt relief.  Something was going to change.]

The next day, Derek moved back home.

 

He had just finished putting his stuff away and was standing in the middle of their bedroom feeling like an intruder in his own house, when a knock came at the kitchen door.  This was a rarity.  A knock at the front door would mean something to do with ‘the incident’, something official.  Nobody ever knocked at the kitchen door.  As he stood there indecisively, he heard the door open a crack, followed by  Andy’s voice.

‘Hello?  Derek?  You home?’  A pause, then:  ‘I have beer.’

 

They sat at the kitchen table for a while in silence, until Andy finally broke it.

‘I wasn’t sure if I should do this, but after a while I couldn’t stand the indecision so I figured what the hell, I’m gonna bargain in good faith with the universe for once.’  He glanced up at Derek to see how he was responding.  Somehow Derek already knew what this was all about, and more or less what he was going to say. But he understood that this was as much about Andy as it was about him.  No platitudes would be forthcoming, no expressions of sympathy, no unintelligible murmurs of support or commiseration.  Andy took a deep breath and started speaking.

‘A few years ago, Jess and I were going through a bad time.  We fought, I drank, she cried, slammed doors, went shopping when we had no money … the typical scenario.  We’d just had Julie a couple years before the trouble started, and she’d been colicky, and nobody got much sleep for a helluva long time.  Business was sketchy, we were broke, nerves were frayed … it was pretty bad.

“One Saturday afternoon I was sitting in the living room watching football and drinking beer.  Jess had gone out to Food Basics to pick up some groceries, and she’s been gone a long time.  Julie was in her crib, and had been quiet for a while, so I was feeling sorta relaxed, you know?”

Derek suddenly wanted Andy to shut up.  He felt he couldn’t bear what he was about to hear, but this wasn’t about him.  He sat looking down at the table top, slowly rotating his beer bottle while Andy continued.

‘So Jess comes home finally, and made a snarky comment, like ‘Who’s winning?’ and I told her I didn’t know.  And I didn’t.  She snorted and went to put her bags down on the kitchen table.

She says, ‘Julie in her room?’

I say, ‘Sleeping.’

She says, ‘At this time of day?  Great.  Now she’ll up all night!’

I say, ‘What else is new.’  That kind of stuff, right?  So she drops the bags on the table and bangs down the hall, and then I don’t hear anything.  I’m so smashed I hardly even remember that she was here.  Then suddenly there’s this howl.’

‘I know the kind you mean.’

‘Yeah, I guess you do.  So I don’t to tell you what ensued.  She attacked me physically!  It was a fucking nightmare.  Worse.  Long story short, I moved out, we tried counselling … didn’t work.  I was a wreck, wallowing in guilt and poverty.  I knew she was never going to forgive me.  As though it was something I did to her!’

‘Um … so … sorry, but … what happened, exactly?’

‘You mean to …’

‘Yeah, I mean how did she … you know …’

‘Die?’  He let the word hang in the air for what seemed a long time to Derek, but really wasn’t.

‘It’s okay, I mean, you don’t have to …’

‘No. no, it’s only fair, I mean …’

‘Right.’

‘I guess she woke up tangled in her blanket, and she … Jesus Christ!  I’m sitting in there pissed, yelling at my stupid goddamn team, calling them idiots, and Mankowski ‘butter fingers’ …’

‘I know … I was on the phone … talk about a cliché …’

 

And that was it.  Neither of them spoke, until Andy got slowly and shakily to his feet and said, ‘Well.’  As he turned to the door, Derek said, ‘Hey, take your beer.’  But Andy just waved his hand and went out.  And they never really talked again.

 

 

__________

 

The next day, Arthur called.  They spoke very few words:  a time and a place.  When Derek entered the restaurant, he spotted Arnold right away.  Val’s father was a big man, rangy like a football player, with iron grey hair that he brushed straight back.  His face was craggy, handsome, weathered like a mountain climber; an ex-navy gunner,  with steely grey eyes that bored into you through a fine web of tiny blood vessels, the result of some serious drinking.  He rose as Derek approached, but didn’t offer his hand.  He indicated the chair across the table, and sat back down.

”Thanks for coming, Derek.  Something to drink?”

”Thank you, no.”

”Suit yourself.  I’m going to have another beer.”

Arnold signalled the waitress, then placed his elbows on the table and clasped his hands together.

”I thought it was about time we had a chat.  Have you been in to see her yet?”

Derek expelled a breath, pushing out his cheeks, shook his head.

”Do you think she’d see me?”

”That’s not really the point.  Look, I know she was pretty rough on you, but I’m sure you’re man enough to understand that and not let it be the thing that rules your life.  You two had a pretty good life together, and even though the death of a child usually results in divorce, I don’t think that’s necessarily necessary.”

Arnold almost smiled at his unintentional blooper.

”She thinks I let it happen because he was Vietnamese.  Or because she couldn’t get pregnant after the cancer.”

”Are you sure?”

”It’s what she said … screamed at me, rather.”

”Yeah, but does she really think that?”

”I don’t know.  It’s a position she’s taken.  She’s mad with grief, and I’m not sure she’ll be able to accept that I’m not.  I grieved, I mourned his loss, but I didn’t go to pieces.  I think she holds that against me.”  Arnold sucked on his cheeks and teeth.

”She has to hold something against you.  She needs someone to blame, and you had the misfortune to do a stupid thing that came back to bite you in the ass, and I don’t imagine you’ll ever forgive yourself for that.  But she might.  In time.”

Derek realised suddenly that Arnold needed a reason to hope his daughter would recover.  That’s what he was asking for, Derek’s co-operation in trying to make that happen.  Derek was still bitter about being blamed, and on top of the grief he felt, it seemed like too much to accept.  But somewhere deep down he believed [or decided] that he was free to transcend whatever circumstances he found himself inhabiting.  His own father had been a man of principle, and never lost an opportunity to mock what he called ‘learned helplessness’.  He had often snarled at Derek that ‘can’t’ was a choice, but not an option, and although Derek rebelled against his father like any healthy teenager, the principle had taken hold.

He returned Arnold’s steady gaze.  The challenge was daunting, and nobody would blame him for failing to achieve the miraculous.  In a pinch, he could hide behind that.

”I guess this is what you might call an existential crisis.”

”Call it what you want Derek, I think we need to do something, or we’re going to lose her.”

At that moment, the waitress brought Arnold his beer.  He flashed her a quick, thin smile, and she left them alone.  Arnold regarded Derek with something like expectancy, then played his ace.

”When I was in the navy, whenever we wandered into action, our commander would call us together and explain the situation.  Then, just before he dismissed us he’d say, ‘Okay you fuckers, don’t miss your chance to be heroes.’ ”

 

_________

 

The walk from the lobby of the hospital to the psych ward and on to Val’s room seemed to take no time at all, even though it was a long hallway.  He was deeply immersed in morbid fantasies of what he would find, and then suddenly—too soon—he was at her door.  Fortunately, Arnold had arranged a private room.  Her doctor had informed her that he was coming, to which she’d replied nothing at all.

When Derek came in, she looked at him, expressionless, then looked away.  He knew then that he had made a mistake—it was too soon.  He left without speaking, but at least she’d known he’d been there.

 

It took three months, but eventually Val was considered adequately in control of her emotions to leave the hospital, and she was discharged.  On the way home in the car, neither of them spoke until Val told him she was going to move back with her parents for a while.

”For how long?”

”A while.  I don’t know.”

”I think we need to talk.”

”Not now.  Later.”

”Maybe we should speak to a counsellor.”

”What?”

         ”A grief counsellor.  A marriage counsellor.  Somebody.”  She laughed harshly, and turned to look out her window.  Minutes passed before she whipped her head around to face him.

”I don’t need a fucking counsellor!  I need time.  Away from you!  Away from everything!”

”Val––”

”I can’t go back to that house right now!  Maybe not ever.”

”They said … they told me you were better.”

”Better’ is a relative term.  Besides, they needed the room.”

 

Derek offered to move back into his sister’s basement, but she told him not to bother, it was her turn to ‘find a squat’.  He didn’t argue, suddenly feeling it was time to stop coddling her before it became the motif for the rest of their lives, whether or not their marriage survived.  They didn’t discuss that possibility.

For the next few days, he didn’t see Val at all.  He went to work, came home, made himself a desultory supper, thought about how he would present his case to the inquiry.  His case—Christ!  Like he was some kind of criminal!  Negligence … of course he’d been negligent, but was that a crime?  A mistake, maybe  A lapse of attention, of memory.  Would she bring up the issue of Hawk not being his real son?  Not being white?  Would she actually go that far?

 

One morning, he went out to where the freezer was still standing against the side of the garage.  He stared at it, wondering why he hadn’t gotten rid of it.  Was it some kind of perverse memorial, like a gravestone?  Had he in fact come unhinged?  Suddenly he went into the garage, grabbed a hammer from his toolbox, and carried it outside.  Christ!  He hadn’t even removed the latch!  Earlier, when the police had suggested he do that, he’d snapped back that there was no point, the damage had been done.  Before the officer could reply, Val had spoken in a voice that was dead, empty of any emotion.

”There are other children in the neighbourhood.”  [Later he would remember wanting to hit her.  Her self-righteousness, her smugness.  Now all he could do was stand and stare at the empty freezer, and bawl like a baby.]

After a minute or two, spent, he put the hammer back in the toolbox, went back into the house and called Earnie Higgs to come and take it away.

 

Derek offered to pick Val up the day of the inquiry, but she refused, saying she would take a taxi.  The inquiry, brief and not at all aggressive, took place in the judge’s chambers, with no lawyers present.  The judge had come easily to the conclusion that this was an isolated incident and not part of a larger pattern.  Val made no mention of her imagined suspicions about Derek’s possible subconscious motives.  Before they adjourned, the judge had gently admonished them to try their best not to let this tragedy ruin their lives.  He didn’t say ‘your marriage’ but they both suspected that was what he meant.  Hope springs eternal, Josh thought as they left the courthouse.

 

Derek began taking late morning walks through the neighbourhood, when he knew most of the kids would be at school.  Sometimes he’d spot a young mother pushing a stroller, and he’d force himself to glance in at the baby as she passed, and smile appreciatively.  [Later he would lie awake for hours wondering why:  had the woman even recognized him?  Did she know what had happened?  Who was he trying to impress, himself?]

 

One morning when he got up, there was already a message from  their doctor, with the name of a counsellor he knew who would be willing to see them.  It would be a referral, no charge.  Derek made the call, but went alone.  The counsellor’s name was Eugene Gottlieb.

”Your wife wasn’t willing to come?”

”She’s too angry to be in the same room with me.”

”She blames you for the accident?”

”She refuses to accept that it was an accident.  After a brief, tense silence, he added:  Hawk was adopted.  A Vietnamese orphan.  She thinks—she says she thinks—that I didn’t love him.  That I resented the fact that she couldn’t conceive after the cancer.”

”Did you?”

For the first time since ‘the incident’ Derek gave this question serious thought.  If there was any resentment, it was buried pretty goddamn deep, and if anything he was even more appalled by what happened than Val was:  she had the luxury of having someone to blame.  And that’s what he told Gottlieb.

Gottlieb leaned back in his chair, regarded Derek with a new alertness, but before he could ask the obvious question, Derek told him her theory about his subconscious rejection of Hawk.  Gottlieb surprised him by asking what he thought of the theory.

I think it’s insane!  She’s angry, of course, and blames me, of course, but can’t get over the idea that somehow I was also trying to punish her for robbing me of the chance to have a ‘real’ son.  I wasn’t.  I never resented her, or him.  I knew she was devastated.

 

They talked a few minutes longer, and before leaving, Derek assured him that he would bring Val for a session as soon as possible.

That never happened.

 

A couple weeks later, Val suddenly walked into the house just as he was cleaning up after supper.  She stood in the doorway to the kitchen, looking exhausted and empty.  She looked at the floor, not at him.

”I can’t go on hating you, Derek.  It’s going to make me sick.”

Before she could say the word ‘divorce’, he said:

”I can’t go on hating you either, Val.”

”Me?”

There was genuine bewilderment in her voice.  He had no idea how he was going to say what he needed to say, but as he began to speak, the words just came.

”I don’t pretend to understand how you feel, but neither can you understand how I feel.  I hated you briefly, after you first accused me of not loving Hawk enough to keep him safe, but then I realised you were out of your mind with grief and anger, and you needed a reason to hate me.”

”Derek––”

”Let me finish!  Please.”

”Yes.  I’m sorry.”

”I kept wondering how you must be able to think that of me, given that he––that Hawk wasn’t really your son either.  Seeing the two of you together, it never once crossed my mind that you might be feeling anything other than love for him.  How could you imagine that I didn’t feel as you did?  But then I realised that you had  to hate … someone or something.  I’ve been hating myself relentlessly since this happened, not because I didn’t love him, but because I did!  I do!  What I hate is myself … for being careless, stupid … imperfect!  I refuse to call it an accident.  I caused it to happen!  But Jesus, Val, not on purpose!”

She couldn’t look up, but bit her lower lip as though trying to bite back a response, and as he watched her he felt he could detect [very slight] softening of her posture.  He knew she was listening.

”I understand that you may never be able to look at me without feeling not only the grief, but the anger.  Yes, I’m to blame.  I failed as a father and as a man.  I failed both of you.  And I’m never going to forgive myself for that.  But I need to be able to forgive you for questioning my love for him.  If I can’t do that, then our life together will be unbearable.”

 

Her stillness was unreadable.  He knew she had to be breathing, but could detect no sign of it.  It was like waiting for a bomb to go off, and Derek could feel himself beginning to tremble, to heat up, to sweat with sheer anxiety.  Just as he was feeling he couldn’t stand it another second, she looked up, her face expressionless, but streaked with tears.

”I’m sorry, Derek.”

Derek felt his own tears, not knowing what they meant.  What she meant.  An eternity passed before she said:

”I know you loved him.  I know you did.”

 

As she came slowly toward him, he reached out his arms to her, weeping openly, because at last he felt there might be hope.