My sister’s girlfriend’s grandmother’s apartment building has a lot of signs on it telling me my truck’s parked illegally. No sign of my sister or her girlfriend. The clock in the dash says they’re twenty-three minutes late. My brain says I should sleep more. Or drink less.
The building is sixteen stories tall. I counted. It was built in the seventies, or eighties, whenever brown was the most amazing colour in the world. Brown bricks, brown concrete in vertical groove designs, brown metal railings, dark brown flashings. Will the new glass towers look this dated? I guess they have to. Maybe when the glue holding the windows on fails and costs get passed to the tenants. Next door there are still a few postwar houses standing on their little lots. Between this tower and the other two I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-LeCorbusier numbers across the street, I bet these little houses don’t get much sunlight. Four squirrels are picking through fast food garbage on the bit of salty grass along the curb, with one of them keeping watch from atop a little pile of unmelted snow.
I’m getting that feeling again that I haven’t done my homework and it’s Sunday afternoon. Now that I’m out of school, using my B.A. to build decks, I guess the feeling is being repurposed as an existential crisis delivery system. (To whom it may concern: thirteen-point-seven billion Earth-years ago the universe inflated violently from some kind of singularity, and for reasons not currently understood the density wasn’t uniform, setting in motion via gravity the slow coalescence of galaxies, solar systems, planets, squirrels and English majors whose girlfriends call fucking your roommate over Christmas break “an accident,” and then you realize her poems were about him.)
I think I’ll go back to school for planetary geology. There’s a good program at McGill now. The field’s supposed to be a big deal in a decade or so when they put boots on Mars. Lots of funding. Imagine holding a Mars rock in your hands, on Earth. You’ve got to sit in a capsule with your crew for six months each way though. I’m not the best person in the world at making friends.
My sister and Katya both jump up against my window, making horrible noises. Sheila’s laughing too hard and I tell her that through the glass. I’m getting too old for jump scares.
“In normal years.” The door’s kind of busted and it takes fiddling with the lever to get it open. “In manual labour years I’m fifty-something. Hi Katya.”
Katya says “Hi” in her voice like birthday cake. She swims on the university team and she doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes my sister pulls on each morning like vestments. Both of them have taken up rock climbing and now they’re already showing me their new finger blisters. Sheila managed a V6 yesterday, Katya says. This is a scale of difficulty on the bouldering routes, up to ten. Bouldering is a kind of rock climbing with more emphasis on trick moves. To traditional rock climbing as, I don’t know, chess to sudoku. I keep promising to go eventually. Apparently I’d be good at it because I’m so lanky.
“They’ve got an introductory day coming up at the end of the month,” my sister says.
In front of the main doors there’s a thin, shitty garden of cigarette butts and naked, salt-crusty bushes. Inside, Katya taps out the code for her grandmother’s apartment on a screen and the console rings for a while with no answer.
“Well, guess we’re not moving today,” I say. “I’m going to go home and sleep.”
“No, we need you.” Then: “We’re keeping the truck.”
“Fine. Then I’ll sleep on this bench with the junk mail fliers.” Whoever drops off the fliers has built up a drift of them that looks comfortable.
The speaker above the little terminal squawks and a voice asks what we’re buzzing about.
“Hey grandma, it’s me.”
“Yes,” the voice says. “I can see that.”
I look around for hidden old ladies and notice Sheila doing the same thing. The camera’s behind us, in the ceiling. Katya grabs when it buzzes, waving us through.
“Your grandma’s polite,” I tell her.
“We love her very much.”
Top-forties music is leaking from the building manager’s office as we wait for the elevator, which is making strange squeals in the shaft as it descends. There are big, white vinyl tiles in the floor with little coloured chips set in them that remind me of the humming floor polishers in elementary school. And, I guess, every other level of school but the polishers were only huge and mysterious in grade school. There must be hundreds of millions of people in this country with this exact kind of tile in their childhood memories. Somewhere on the planet there is a person whose job it is to write the marketing copy for their company’s different portfolios of vinyl composite tiles that concisely and engagingly conveys to the consumer just how the durability and variety of FloorCo’s Valu-Tile™ FriendSquare™ with its neutral background and attractive ColorSplash™ accents create unique floor designs at excellent value. I once spent an afternoon researching marketing jobs because I think I’d be really good at it. I understand how to sell a narrative. Only problem is I’d inevitably shoot myself.
There’s an overripe-looking man on the elevator holding a small fluffy dog when we get on. Some kind of a terrier, with a sparkly collar. The elevator has fake wood walls and smells like long-term storage. The dog guy stays on until the seventh floor. No one says anything, which is an interesting thing people do in elevators. I’ve never seen a person talk in an elevator while riding with a stranger. When I moved downtown for school, my friends laughed at the idea of starting conversations with strangers. On an uneven sidewalk patio, beers sweating in the sun, they’d taken turns explaining how everyone starts out with these lovely ideas of community cheer and then graduates to sort of hating strangers on sight, just for forcing them out of their inner headspace.
The door to 1213 is slightly ajar and Katya pushes right in, saying something jingly in Russian. Her grandmother’s response is also in Russian, but not jingly. Katya apologizes, I think, and says something about having called. I note she’s taken off her shoes, so I do the same.
Walking in, there’s a door to the left into a bathroom and to the right is the kitchen and living room. The kitchen is just big enough to open the oven door without denting the drywall. The living room and the bedroom are the rest of the space. The living room has a big table and some other furniture with boxes and piles of stuff all over. Every horizontal surface has a minimum density of doilies, figurines and picture frames. Her grandmother is wearing gray sweatpants and a Canadiens jersey. “You called twice,” she asks in English, “and I didn’t answer?”
“I don’t know, it’s probably a phone thing.” Katya follows her into the room as she starts pointing at things. Ну вот мы пришли.”
“Я всё утра сидела и тебя ждала, думая: проведу ли я вес день в этом кресле?”
“Баба, this is Sheila’s brother Andrew.”
She looks up at me and nods her chin upward. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m okay thanks. Could I trouble you for some water though?”
“Trouble? No, you don’t trouble me. Here,” she comes over to the kitchen and I squeeze against the wall to let her by. She pulls a glass out of the refrigerator freezer. “See,” she says to me while waving the glass, “you leave it in the freezer and it’s always cold whenever you want it.” From the fridge proper she pulls out a bottle of water. “I don’t drink the tap water here. Too much Fluoride. Drink from this.”
This is not the time to correct her about the Fluoride myth. “Thank you.”
Katya’s grandmother is already moving around the apartment and describing stuffed cardboard boxes. “Here,” she says snatching a pen and pad of paper from a table. “Write a list.” She puts them in Katya’s hands and points to a white enamel table. “You two, standing around. Come lift this.”
Sheila and I hoist the heavy table, which is apparently made of lead, and maneuver it toward the door. “You’ll have to carry it sideways and go around the corner — don’t chip my walls!”
Sheila winks at me. “Yes, Nadia.”
“There’s a mark here on the edge and that’s the only mark. I don’t want to see any other marks on it when you invite me over to your new place.”
Katya swears on pain of death to uphold the sacred honour of the table.
“Неблагодарная девочка. I give you my furniture and I get sarcasm as payment. Ты меня превратила в клише!”
Sheila and I work the legs around the corners in a hail of warnings as carefully as we can without dropping the thing. I’m already starting to sweat and beginning to wish I had gone home first to shower. As we wait for the elevator I can still hear Katya arguing with her grandmother.
Sheila says she likes visiting here.
“Well, I think I like Katya the best when she’s exasperated. And that old woman pisses her off even better than me.”
“You’re a bad person.”
“That’s why you all love me.”
At the truck I drop the tailgate and we take a few years off the working life of our spines heaving the table up into the bed. We get it to the front, kicking my tarp out to protect it. “Hipsters are going to be breaking into your place for this shit. Look how retro this is.”
“Not this place.”
“I guess not.” The house the two of them are moving into is known locally as the Nazi House on account of the previous owner. According to Sheila, Katya and her have a moral responsibility to live there and have as much sex as possible. “Have you checked the whole house for secret rooms yet?” I ask. “Might find cool stuff.”
“More like a Hitler RealDoll.”
“I know what these pricks really want.” She starts making fey German sex noises as she walks back to the building. I stay back to mentally tetris the rest of the old lady’s stuff into the bed and hear something about meine großer Führer as Sheila rounds the corner of the building. When I head back inside she waves from the other side of the locked glass door and flips me the bird until the elevator doors close. Darling.
Okay. So: there are a lot of people living in this building. According to the registry in the console, there are at least five Russian-sounding last names. Code 079 is SHCHERBATYKH. There’s also a ZHELEZNOVA (066) and a ZHDANOVA (021). That sounds right but I can’t remember. But one of them is probably it. Actually, code 054 is ASIMOV, which is sort of cool but not helpful. The first number gets me a young woman with children yelling in the background, the second: no answer. Same for the others. So: step two of my plan is to sit down.
I spread the junkmail around a little and lay down. There’s a deal on organic ground beef at the local Metro. I wonder how they organize which products go on sale each week, and for how much? Usually the answer to questions like this is “a computer,” but still — is it all automatic? Maybe other items go up in price when sale items go down, and there’s a huge matrix of related food purchases to make sure that, overall, profit remains the same.
Also, I think it might be really cool to be a beef farmer, raising cattle on open pastures and growing crops with cool tractors. I’ve always been good with animals. They don’t lie. Hard to meet women though, unless the veterinarian is cute. Note to self: look up government programs for new farmers.
Eventually a black woman with a wireless headset and heavy shopping bags lets me in without making eye contact. Back in the apartment, Katya is trying to negotiate out of taking a freezer bag of frozen chocolate Santas and get the discussion back to the short wooden dresser. We take that on its side with some cutlery, a doily-looking curtain and a toaster oven stuck in it. The dresser is heavier than the table, made of real wood. When we finally set it down in the truck, I climb up to shift it into place and discreetly look inside. The dovetail joints are beautiful.
“Also, you ditch me downstairs again,” I say, “and I’ll torch your Nazi house.”
“Others have tried and failed.”
“I will find a way.”
Katya’s grandmother is showing her a set of royal family spoon rests when we get back. I sneak by and out onto the balcony with Sheila. I can see all the balconies of the north-east side of the east wing. One has Christmas lights up still and several have potted plants. On the third floor a cat is staring up at us from a sun-yellowed plastic deck chair. Sheila tucks her arms against the wind, leans on the cold metal bar bolted to the concrete and stares out at the other buildings and suburban strip malls that recede to the horizon, where the downtown core spikes up exponentially. To the left, looking past the corner of the building, the concrete and pavement eventually gives way to forests and the fields. I mention the dovetailing on the bookshelf.
“Don’t even think about it.”
She rolls her eyes at me but turns away, biting her lip. In grade ten my sister beat the living shit out of a guy for calling her a dyke too many times. Swung-a-caf-chair kind of beat. It just … feels like the world barely changes for so many years and then, suddenly, everything’s different.
“You’re a pretty cool grown-up person, Sheila.”
“I don’t need your approval, Andrew.”
“Well, then, fuck yourself then.”
She laughs and it turns into a yawn. Through it she asks if I remember the night we soaked a tennis ball in gasoline and kicked it around the yard.
“Yeah, of course. Fire Soccer. Never did get it off the ground as a sport.”
“Fine. She’s going to a missile silo in New Mexico with Robert. You should talk to her.”
“I know. I just … hate her, is all.” A helicopter near the horizon is doing lazy orbits of something. “I have to though, I guess.” She motions her head inside. “I’m going to … you know.”
“No, asshole. Fucking … big question?”
“Oh. Jesus. Not here, I hope?”
“You’re the worst little brother in the history of the universe.”
She goes inside before I can say I’m the best also, by default. Katya puts us back to work lifting. We make three more trips, once with a really nice end table that I don’t believe her grandmother intended to give away. In the moment, as she looked around before sending it off, she looked like a balloonist trying to shed weight.
Next we carry chairs. They are white to match the table and upholstered in the same gray and blue fabric they carpet kindergarten classrooms with. Her grandmother starts explaining how to stack them so we can carry two at a time, which she tells us she knows because she carried them up herself when she moved here from her bigger apartment upstairs because she doesn’t have money like her rich granddaughter.
“I don’t know if we need the chairs. And we don’t have lots of—”
“They go with the table!”
“Yeah, but we’ve already got— Hon, do we need the chairs?”
Sheila leans her head in from the kitchen, chewing. “They go with the table.”
Her grandmother pouts.
“Here. What about this?” The old woman picks up and lifts the lid off a ceramic bowl. It’s painted white with yellow and blue designs. “You put sour cream in here, or custard.”
“That’s okay. We don’t eat sour cream.”
“You eat sour cream.”
“Not that much, anyway. Here, Andrew, just go.” She hands me two of the stacked chairs, then a lamp. “Sheila, come help carry chairs. These are your chairs.”
Her grandmother is looking at the sour cream holder. “If you have guests?”
“We don’t have guests.”
Sheila and I step out the door with the stacked chairs and head toward the elevator. We stand there waiting and I notice they have stamping on the bottom of the seat that says Made In Canada. That’s kind of cool — they must be old. At the truck I make her wait while I try some ideas on how to wedge things into the bed more efficiently. I start to mention Mom’s new car but then I decide not to.
The last thing we bring downstairs is a cardboard box full of little dishes with blue flowers on them and the spoon rests. Before we leave, Katya hugs her grandmother tight and says nice things in Russian. The old woman softens a bit as she pulls away.
“Видно у тебя всё есть. Возвращаться сюда не требуется.” She gives her granddaughter a little mock-slap on the face.
“Yes I do. I’m sorry I’ve been busy.”
“No no, you’re living. Be busy while you’re young.”
The three of us say our goodbyes as we hunch over our shoes and then we’re out in the hall and the door clicks shut behind us.
I throw a tarp and a couple thin ratchet straps over all of their new stuff to try and make it look road-legal. Sheila steps back and says it looks like the Joads going west. I rack my brain for a line from the movie but nothing comes so I just shrug. She touches her breast pocket and swears.
“I gotta grab smokes. Totally forgot about that.”
“It can’t wait?”
“I’d like it not to? And it’s across the street. Shotgun, by the way.”
Katya scoffs. “You can’t call shotgun when you’re going back inside.”
“I’m going to have the guy bring them out of the store.” She takes off toward the road, yelling that she called it and no reversies.
Katya opens the passenger door and climbs in, digging through my mound of work clothes, burger wrappers, broken measuring tapes and CDs, cramming what she can behind the seat. “Did something die in here?” She asks. “While wearing a dryer sheet?”
“Close. I forgot a banana behind the seat. And all I had was Bounce. Trust me, this is better.”
“It’s a work truck.”
She grimaces and shakes her head.
I shut the door on her and walk around to my side. We sit without talking and listen to the radio while we wait for Sheila. A commercial that I hate comes on and I spin the tuner until we’re listening to jazz. The squirrels are screaming nonsense and chasing each other now, up trees and along fences and into the attics of the houses.
“She’s going to ask me to marry her.”
“She’s not as sneaky as she thinks she is.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “Should I though?”
“I, like … I have to say yes, I think, but on the other hand …” I catch myself picking at the spot on the steering wheel where the plastic has started cracking and pull my hand away. “You have noticed she’s insane, right?”
Katya frowns and takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to be lonely.”
“Well, don’t get married just to not be lonely.”
“No, I don’t mean that.”
“My parents slept in different rooms when I was a kid. They didn’t fight or anything, they just ignored each other pretty much.”
“My parents weren’t exactly great either.”
“No, sorry. I’m not trying to compare.” She thinks for a moment. “The problem is their wedding album is the happiest book I’ve ever seen. They loved each other so much.” She shrugs. Then: “I love Sheila so much.”
“Well, you know,” I hope I’m about to talk myself toward something constructive. “I’ve never been much for spending fortunes on shiny rocks but I bought Michelle a necklace last year, in October. She cared about stupid shit like that, so I swallowed my pride and wasted all that money on shiny fucking rocks. I did it because I loved her and I thought we were happy. It’s like … What am I trying to say here? … Loneliness is just a feeling in your brain. Like hunger.” I think about that for a moment. “Like love.”
“And after a while you develop a tolerance and the love-high wears off. You start chasing it, trying to figure out what you have to do to get that high again. We’re all just junkies. That’s my theory.”
Katya chuckles. “You’re weird, Andrew.” After a moment she shrugs and looks at me. “So, what do I do?”
“I guess don’t chase love or companionship. Chase, like, someone you’d still want to be with once you’ve fallen out of love.”
Her smile is so small it’s like bells ringing. For a moment it feels like it was her I grew up beside in that tiny bedroom.
“I’m sorry about Michelle,” she says.
I think about saying something dumb like “Me too,” but I don’t. There’s a silence for a few moments where neither of us can think of what to say next. “It’s okay. I’m just lonely. I work with construction men all day. And now my social life is being drunk with those same construction men in their basements while we hide from their families. My lizard brain doesn’t like that.”
She’s looking into the mirror and I can guess she sees Sheila coming back.
Sheila wafts into the cab, bumping Katya over into the middle seat, telling us how she was caught up rescuing an old man’s papers after they blew out of his hand. She gets the fancy roll-your-own tobacco because she went to Europe once, and it smells a lot better than Bounce banana.
“He was an American,” Sheila explained. “Went over for Desert Storm. He told me this crazy story.”
The story involves a few infantry troops, alcohol and a bombed-out market, and it doesn’t end until we’re on the 410, where traffic is really slow for some reason. Katya gets reminded of one of her grandfather’s stories about her great-grandfather in WWII and starts into it. Alcohol is also involved. I’d like being in the army, I think — playing with guns and whatnot — if I didn’t have to actually go kill people.
By the 407 off-ramp we’re out of stories and I’m fed up with the stop-and-go, so I edge off the highway onto Derry and then over it, going east. The old truck makes a lot of unhappy noises with this much weight in the back but the ride is a bit smoother. At the top of the bridge, looking south, I can see flashing red and blue in the distance, near the ramp to the 401. I can’t make out what happened. I notice that Katya has taken Sheila’s hand, holding it lightly on her thigh. Michelle used to do this thing where she’d sit in the middle seat so she could stick candies or garbage in my pocket when I was distracted. Sometimes I didn’t notice until hours later, when I’d find a jelly bean while fishing for my phone. She liked the long con. Sheila changes the station to the news, waiting for the traffic report. There are cars lined up to the next intersection, idling with us. The light turns green, at last, but we won’t make it.
JACK HOSTRAWSER likes old motorcycles, tornadoes and outer space. And portage trips. And shiny rocks. More of his work can be found in The Dalhousie Review, Existere, The Fieldstone Review and In The Hills.