That’s Saying Something
I took my laptop to a coffee shop to get Wi-Fi because I no longer had internet, or electricity for that matter; it’s warmer and more cheerful at the coffee shop and I can throw on my headphones and watch Netflix on my laptop – which happens to be held together with packing tape – anything to avoid thinking about my reality. The coffee shop is a busy place so no one usually notices when I grab an empty cup and place it in front of me. Today though, it’s empty and some kid on a power trip, claiming to be in charge said I had to buy something to stay.
I hadn’t worked in weeks, was a month behind on my rent (it was like a freezer in the place), and my last scraps of food in the kitchen cupboard were two Chef Boyardee ravioli, three boxes of KD, and a single can of Heinz beans (the maple kind). When you don’t have much, inventory is easy. Anything of any real value was sentimental and came with me wherever I went. My one prized possession is the perfect backpack. I was about a month away from being out on the street…the landlord made it clear he expected the entire amount I owed in another month and who could blame him. I knew I’d be begging for money or food or whatever somebody wanted to throw my way. I’m not sure when the economy bounced back but it sure didn’t do me any favours. I hadn’t been able to hold onto a job, but the point is that I couldn’t find one on my own to begin with. I was unemployed and intent on blowing a good share of my last 20 on a pack of cigarettes, because when it gets that bad, blowing your last 20 seems like the perfect ‘screw you’ to life itself. So off I go.
I was too stressed to think straight and I was hoping that if I could smoke here and there I could keep myself from losing my mind completely. It is that thing only committed smokers could understand…funny how poisoning myself is the only thing that can bring me a sense of calm right now, but only for a few seconds. I was looking forward to a long drag followed with “ahhhh”. My mom never could stop and you’d think the fact she died of lung cancer would have stopped me but, strangely, it made me feel close to her.
I don’t remember my father much; he could be anyone. Mom rid the old place of all signs of him and that had suited me fine. I think she was in even more pain for me than she was for herself. If he wasn’t going to be in my life, she didn’t want reminders around to torment me. Mostly, I wondered if she would have picked up the habit again if he hadn’t left us. When I think of him, I feel like another person. I revert back into an angry and abandoned kid, but it is what it is, and I don’t like to spend too much time dwelling on what I can’t change.
My mom had died nine months prior and I had tried to keep it together, but when she died and I only had to look after myself it was as if all the energy I had escaped my body too. When I was still in denial and thought there was hope for my mom I was the poster child for working hard, but now I couldn’t hold onto any of the jobs the agencies sent me to and that meant they wouldn’t be placing me anywhere. When I started somewhere they’d soon get back to the agency with complaints: I was too quiet, “permanently brooding”, “couldn’t integrate into the culture”. Other places just cared about speed and I wasn’t cutting it. In truth, I was emotionally wasted and had no steam left. When I still had a regular gig, and I could feel death permeating the air, I started to under-perform. Mom’s death was an inconvenience for them because my productivity level plummeted; it didn’t matter that I had been a star employee.
So I’m at the bank at two in the morning to take out that last 20. The bank is in one of those rundown plazas and I begin to cross the parking lot. I knew right away that I wouldn’t be able to avoid what was coming. These three well-dressed guys – the frat boy kind – get out of a Mustang and one calls over, “Hey buddy.” I keep walking but they spread out to surround me. I couldn’t run in the other direction because I’d be cornering myself into a fenced area and both sides of this dumpy plaza were also fenced off. “That’s not nice. Ignoring a friend like that.” I was so sleep deprived and hungry, and my head wasn’t thinking straight; for a split second I wondered if I actually knew this guy. I started to run when they started moving in, but I could barely manage a jog. The guy to the left grabbed me and next thing I know I had my hands behind my back. The other two walked towards me and the pack leader told me to hand over the cash. I refused. He said, “Hand over the wallet or we’re going to take it and then you’ll be really sorry. I said “No.” One of them said, “Let’s have a little fun.”
I won’t bore you with the details except to say that I was beaten up because I wouldn’t stay down and the pack leader grabbed my wallet. I was on the ground looking at him from a swollen and bloody eye and so I may have been misreading his face, but he just stood there. The guy that had caught me said, “Hey, are we done here?” Their obvious leader said, “Yah, we’re done here.” The third guy was about to kick me in the head and knock me out or finish me off permanently, but the leader said, “No. Get in the car.” “What?” “Get in the damn car!” The two goons started walking to the car and when they turned their backs the guy grabbed me by my jacket, let me go and ran to the vehicle and they took off.
I don’t know how long I had been there, but I only ‘came to’ in the hospital. I started to cry when I felt my hand being squeezed and heard a voice that said, “You’re alright, son. You’re going to be okay.” I looked up and I see this sturdy looking man standing; on the other side is this girl with the darkest eyes sitting in a chair beside my bed. They looked nothing alike but I would soon see that there was something about their expressions and mannerisms that told me they were family. She looked just about a few years younger than me. The man continued, “Come on now. You’re going to be fine. No permanent damage. You just took a good beating is all.” He hadn’t quite understood that I was crying for all of it.
I held back tears the second I knew my mom was gone and kept on going until now – I couldn’t hold it in any longer. The memories started flooding my mind. I remembered the ferry rides she took me on when she was still young and healthy enough to hold down two crappy jobs. We didn’t have much but she would take me on the ferries now and again. Sometimes it was the zoo. We never had a vacation, but she did the best she could. Once she managed to rent a hotel room online and we swam in the pool and watched cartoons in the room with a bag full of treats we purchased from the corner store. Mike and Ike was her favourite. She would always give me the lime ones because she knew I loved them. She had the warmest face and most contagious laugh. She was a great mom and I was her kid, and that was enough.
I couldn’t afford a service and there was no one towards the end. The few friends she had couldn’t stomach it and stopped coming around, except for sweet Ms. Jonsley who had to watch her son shrink before her eyes too. He had been my friend. No one volunteered to pitch in. Her co-workers at the diner sent her a cheap card. My mom disintegrated before my eyes and had to die in pain. I couldn’t afford the kind of place that would have given her the proper care…the kind that would have allowed her to die with her dignity intact. I couldn’t afford a service either. I cried for that as well. I had hit rock bottom and I was making up for all the years I never cried, but my tears also ran from relief and gratitude. A few days in the hospital sounded like paradise.
“We found you in a parking lot. The police are on their way. They’re goin’ to want to talk to you.” The man stepped out and I became aware that the girl was still holding my hand. “I told dad we couldn’t just leave you alone. He tried to argue with the nurse and she was going to say no, but the one in-charge told us we could stay a while. She saw us bring you in. I’ll be back tomorrow.” The cops came and spoke to me alone. They asked me their questions and then were on their way. To them, this was a simple case of one delinquent getting jumped by another three delinquents. They had better things to do. It felt like an interrogation and was enough to exhaust me; I slept right through the night.
The girl followed through. She stepped out for solid periods of time, but then she always returned and stayed for hours at a time. I never had to say much and that was a relief because I didn’t know what to say. She would read to me the first few days, but when I could flip through magazines we would each read our own in silence. We’d play scrabble sometimes. I wasn’t very good, but she didn’t seem to care. We played cards once in a while and we’d both be silent until she’d win and let out a cross between a laugh and a giggle. Her name was Katherine – Kate. She took care of wounded things, that much was clear. Her big dark eyes would look sad on any other face, but she almost always wore a proportionally large and genuine smile. If I’d say thank you when she got up to leave, that was enough for her. On my last day at the hospital I was surprised to feel saddened by her absence. Somehow the fact that this stranger had not returned stung, which I realized was ridiculous. She hadn’t been by all day and they needed the bed. She knew I’d be leaving today and I wasn’t going to wait around for someone that wasn’t coming any longer. I figured she had felt she had done her duty and was off to take care of the next charity case or something.
The nurse asked. “Who should I call? We don’t like to just release patients without someone to pick them up.” “I don’t have anyone. I’ve been on my own for a while. Maybe you and I can just pretend I got picked up.” I managed a smile, but it hurt. She paused and then said, “You want me to call a cab for you?” I told her no. I knew enough to know that after three weeks in the hospital without a word from me, the landlord would have dumped my stuff, cleared out the place and changed the locks. I was feeling kind of low. I had to give up a warm bed and food. Maybe I’d head to the shelter tonight.
I couldn’t help wondering what could have happened to the girl that had been so attentive. Maybe she was hoping that I was some rich kid like her and realized I was just some stray. Maybe she really did have some saviour complex and I had been saved. It didn’t matter; she was gone. I was still alive and stepped out into the early morning with nothing more than my clothes and wallet. The guys that jumped me hadn’t taken it. But there she was…standing right in front of me.
“I was just about to come get you. I told Nurse Julie to call when you were being discharged. You weren’t leaving without me, were you?” I didn’t know who the hell Julie was, and I said nothing because I didn’t know what to say. I had come to accept that I was on my own, but there she was again, and although I couldn’t express my gratitude, I felt my face soften at her smile. I hadn’t realized how tense I had been. “Let me help you.” She got me into the passenger front of a Ford Focus and closed the door. I didn’t resist because I had nowhere to go and had nothing to do. I figured that wherever she intended to drop me off had to be better than sitting on the street in the cold, or waiting outside a shelter where I would eventually sleep with one eye open.
My mind finally registered that the concrete and traffic were replaced with trees, side streets and pretty little houses with well-groomed gardens, but she kept on driving. We were eventually on a dirt road with nothing, but open fields and farms to frame our drive. When we hit dirt, we drove for another 15 minutes from town in complete silence. She was the first to speak, “You know, we almost missed you. Dad came to get me. I was at my Aunt’s house – my mom’s sister, Leanne. She’s living with this shady guy now. I was kind of upset because I didn’t realize he’d be there and dad had some words with her. I think he’s bad news. I was upset on the way back and stared out the window when I saw you on the ground. I wasn’t even really sure what I saw at first. “She had been speaking to me, but she was also sort of distant at times with thoughts of how things played out at her aunt’s place. Maybe she was also a little nervous because she was talking fast. We pulled in and Kate helped me to the front door. Her father was out on a tractor, but turned it off when he saw us pull in. He was making his way to the house.
She hurried me in and rushed me up the stairs into a room that had clearly been prepared for me. It smelled like a combination of pine, lemon and fresh laundry with undertones of cedar and stain. The bed was made. At the foot of the bed were towels and a decent pile of folded clothing, including a pair of flannel pajamas. A few wrapped candies were placed on the pillow. The room was otherwise bare; there weren’t any knickknacks or photos on the wall. I was in the ultimate guestroom; a place without anything but the furniture to tie it to another person. I suspected that this was rare to find in a farmhouse where, usually, if walls could talk they’d have plenty to share about several generations. She had cleared it out for me completely. There was a nail on the wall in an ideal spot to hang a framed photo or artwork, but, otherwise, there were no signs that anyone had lived in that room before me. The walls were white and clear of any markings, including the lines you get when you remove something that has been hanging for a long time. She had clearly spent time wiping them down. In addition to the bed, there was a dresser, mirror, armchair, and a small table with a lamp. The furniture was well made out of oak and had been stained a honey brown; it wasn’t factory made and I somehow knew the man had crafted it all himself. It sat on a stained, but unvarnished wooden floor. Even though there wasn’t much in the room it was bright with big windows that were open and there was something about being in that brightly lit and clean room that lifted my spirits. “I’ve left some clothes for you on the bed. I hope they’re okay. There are underwear and socks in that drawer. You get settled in. I’ll be back. I’ve got to go talk to Daddy.” She stopped at the door, turned around and said, “That’s your washroom” and left. I realized there was a door in my room that led into a private washroom. Right by the sink she had left toilet paper and a basket with shampoo, soap, body wash, a hairbrush, toothbrush and paste, a bottle of Tylenol. The items looked brand new; they were unopened and there was no sign of dust. There was also a clean glass beside a full pitcher of water. There was one of those sticky notes on the basket that read: “Make yourself comfortable.” She had drawn a happy face on it. I found myself smiling back at it. It was clear she had handled all this herself and did things with great care and thought. I sat on the bed waiting for her to return and could hear their strained and sometimes loud voices downstairs. I was preparing myself for the worst. She was going to walk in here any second and apologize because I couldn’t stay. Instead the man walked in.
I looked up to meet his eyes. He looked around the room as if he was seeing it for the first time and he turned his eyes to me again. I wasn’t sure if he was waiting for me to talk, plead my case, or beg, but I didn’t and so he was the first to talk.
“Travis. That’s your name, right?” “Yes sir.” “Well, Travis, my daughter seems to think I should let you stay here. Now I know we found you, but that doesn’t mean it’s our duty to care for you, understand?” “No sir. I mean, I understand.” I was about to get up to leave, but he said, “Sit down. Where you from?” “I was born and bred in town sir.” “You don’t seem like the bad sort. What’s a kid like you doing at 2:00 a.m. left for dead in a parking lot?”
I told him everything. I told him about my mom, trying to get my last 20 out to buy some smokes, and how I got jumped. He wanted a replay of the incident on the night they found me even though he had already heard it.
He listened and remained silent for some time and eventually spoke again, “Sorry about your mom, son. There isn’t anything I’m goin’ to say to you that will make it alright so I’m not going to try, but I’ll try and give you a fighting chance. If I let you stay you’re going to work. I expect you to work, but more than that…you’re going to start planning for a future. You understand? I’ll give you room and board, but you’re going to start thinking about how you’re going to make a living. If you impress me I’ll consider giving you some sort of payment so you can start putting some money aside for your future. I can’t give you much if I give you anything at all, but you won’t have expenses so you should be able to put some away. You have to work hard though, son. Real hard. This isn’t negotiable. The police in town say you have a clean record, but first sign of trouble or if you’re just plain lazy, anything that makes me feel I should regret letting you stay and you’re out of here. A typical day is you’ll be up at five and you will be in to eat dinner at about six or seven. You understand?” He started walking to the door and just like Kate had done not even an hour before he turned around at the doorway, “A few more things: no smoking. Not just here but anywhere. You won’t throw your life away while you’re living under this roof. You want to do that find somewhere else to stay. If I find your hands on Katie you’ll be lucky if you leave here in one piece. That beating that landed you in the hospital will be nothin’ by comparison. Talkin’ is fine but nothing more, understand? You’ll start next Wednesday. Now wash up and come downstairs. Dinner will be in 15 minutes.” I said, “Sir, I can start tomorrow.” “You call me Tom. You just got out of the hospital, son. I will make you work, but I’m not cruel. You’ll take the week to recuperate some more.” “Thank you, sir.” “Yes, well, we’ll see if you’ll feel like thanking me by the end of next week. Come on down. Katie went through a lot of trouble to make us a nice meal. She made a turkey, stuffing, mashed potato, and every pie under the sun … so get downstairs as soon as you can. It’s Thanksgiving, son, and there are still many reasons to be thankful.” He left me to it. I had forgotten it was Thanksgiving. The smell of food had clearly been lingering for a while, but it was the first time I noticed. The delicious aroma was making me hungrier by the second.
I washed my face and hands and hung up the clothes Kate had left on the bed. I was looking forward to a hot bath after the meal. I took my battered leather jacket and hung it up in the closet. I felt a crunch, like a piece of paper, in the inner pocket … but there was something else. I was surprised when I let out a solid laugh. To my amazement, there I stood looking at the original 20 and a bunch of rolled up hundreds. Did this guy grow a conscience when he realized I risked my life over a twenty? Suddenly I remembered how my mom used to tell these crazy stories she had heard in passing or on the news. She’d say “Sometimes people can still shock me and that’s saying something.” I shoved the notes back in the pocket and headed downstairs for my first real meal in a long time.