Stay Busy Line
Serge’s mother had given him a train calendar every Christmas right up until she died. It had been nearly thirty years since they’d ridden the rails for the one and only time, taking passage on the Maple Leaf from Albany to Toronto after Serge’s father died. Serge had shown a brief interest in locomotives afterward. He asked for a train set, declared himself a future engineer. But he soon moved on to other things; video games, piano, guitars, forged checks, pills, and fighting. Outside of subways, he hadn’t ridden a train again in all those years.
The last calendar she’d given him featured the narrow gauge rails of Colorado; black-and-white images with tunnels and ledges and sharp peaks in the background, the iron mules hauling rocks out of the mountains, from Silverton and Leadville and the gold town, Cripple Creek.
“Your house smells like cinammon rolls and beer.” The little girl looked up from the piano. She’d been running through a G major scale like a flanged wheel with no groove.
“Do you really want to play the piano?” Serge asked.
The girl shook her head. “My mom says I’ll appreciate it when I get older.”
Serge had his chair tilted back on two legs. He was staring up at the calendar, smoking a cigarette, thinking about a guy named Ted who had pissed him off earlier in the day.
“That’s hard to say.”
“Do you get drunk every night?” the girl asked.
She had her mother’s mouth, and in her frown he recognized a sad plea for something. The only difference was that her mother always smiled.
“No,” he said. “I eat cinammon rolls.”
“My daddy used to get drunk every night.”
Serge set his chair down and checked his watch. He couldn’t remember if the girl was eleven or twelve.
“This isn’t working out, is it?” he asked.
The girl shook her head. “I like to sing. The piano is boring.”
“So, why did you come over for the lesson?”
She leaned forward, pulled a long strand of hair away from her face and studied it. She checked her hair every minute, or two, as if it might have changed color or gathered a coat of ash.
“My mom says it’s not up to me to decide what I want to do right now.”
Serge felt an ache behind his eyes. He had no idea how to teach the girl piano. Of course, he’d hardly even tried to come up with a plan.
“I’m sorry,” he told the girl. “Forget the scale. There are some other things we can do. I’ve just got something on my mind right now. I had to deal with somebody today who couldn’t understand simple reasoning. Do you know what I mean?”
“I don’t like your calendar,” she said.
He looked back up at the April photo, a load of rocks emerging from a dark tunnel. “Why’s that?”
“It’s depressing,” she said. “And it’s the only thing on your wall.”
“What’s your name again?”
The girl sighed, shook her head. “I bet you do get drunk every night.”
Then she pushed her hair behind her ears. “My name is Gabriella.”
“What do you know about depressing?” he asked.
“That calendar,” she said. “That’s depressing.”
He remembered his father, long ago, skating backward across an empty ice rink, holding out his hockey stick so that Serge could cling to the Sherwood lumber; a light flickered and hummed in the ceiling, the diesel fumes of the Zamboni felt like a dirty bandage across his mouth. January gray outside. A cold pickup truck waiting in the parking lot. Watery hot chocolate. Stale potato chips in the vending machine. Buffalo, New York. Those were a few depressing things.
“You’re right,” he said. “Let’s forget the piano. Do you drink coffee?”
She looked up expectantly. “I like the hazelnut hot chocolate at Starbucks.”
Serge stood up, grabbed his keys and phone from an end table. “All right, Gabriella. Let’s go get some hot chocolate. I’ll talk to your mother. I’ll get us out of this, okay?”
Serge’s mother bought the piano for him when he was seventeen; a Wurlitzer Spinet upright. She was generous to everyone, but to no one more than him. Calendars, pianos, video games, a slightly used truck, clothes and lawyers and bail money on three occasions.
Not long before she died, after Serge had moved a hospital bed into the living room, his mother told him how, when he was very little, she and his father had taken a weekend trip to Winnipeg for a getaway. His father was playing semi-pro hockey in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, and she was teaching 2nd grade in Selkirk, and things were not great with his father away eight or nine months a year, still trying to make a living playing hockey.
“You weren’t a bad baby,” she said, “but you sure didn’t need much sleep. Your father was home after the season, and his back was hurting him and he was mostly pissed off about everything. And we thought we needed a break from you. So we got a reservation at the Fort Garry Hotel. Your father had stayed there once when he got a call-up from the Jets.”
Her face was bloated from steroids the doctor had given her near the end of the brain cancer. It actually made her look healthier than she’d ever been. She’d had medical problems as far back as Serge could remember. She’d even suffered congestive heart failure during her pregnancy with him.
“It was a beautiful hotel,” she said. “Looked a little like the Plaza in New York. We go there, get dressed up and head downstairs to the restaurant and sit down, and there we are all by ourselves, not a care in the world, and what do you think we spend the next two hours talking about? You, of all things.”
She had brought Serge a wood carving of a Wendigo monster from that trip, had set it on the dresser with the diapers and baby powder. In an old photo, he could be seen teething on the head of the monster.
“I started calling you ‘the cannibal’ after that,” his mother said. “It was funny, but your father didn’t like it. You know, they called him the ‘Brampton Butcher’ after that fight in Oshawa. He was really sensitive about that, and he didn’t want you being called a cannibal. He was a good player, you know. He wanted to make a real contribution. But the coaches just made up their minds that he was an enforcer, that he had to fight other people’s fights. And God, could he fight. That was all his father’s fault.”
Serge first practiced his father’s trade in middle school. Academics had always been a riddle. Math slipped through his fingers; and in the other classes, even when he tried to pay attention, there were too many interruptions: the shiny hair of the girl sitting in front of him, the red suede Nikes worn by the smirking kid who always sat sideways in his desk, Iron Maiden songs he’d heard on the rock station out of Poughkeepsie. He was a heavy kid, and his own facial features appeared to have been arranged with little thought, like old furniture in a dark storage room. There was a brief time that other kids called him “dumb ass” and “potato face.” They didn’t realize he possessed his father’s large hands and quickness. After he’d won his first fight, everyone ignored him. He hated that predicament even more, so he beat up the kid with the red Nikes for no reason at all. He got a week’s suspension, his first of many.
Years passed before Serge fought for anyone other than himself. And that’s how he had met the girl’s mother, Tamara. She worked as a training manager at the neighborhood RITE AID, a familiar face from all the times he’d been in the store for refills of his mother’s medication. He’d noticed her watching him as he waited at the pharmacy, had returned her smiles and even told her a little about his mother’s condition when he paid for cigarettes and coffee in the spring. His face, over the years, had settled. The mismatched features merely looked strong and worn, an empty barn on an Ontario plain, something to be photographed in black and white. His deep-set eyes held the exhausted calm of the damaged; a broken blueliner in an Eastern Ontario semi-pro league. He recognized that same look in Tamara’s eyes.
His mother had been dead two weeks when he went into the drug store for shampoo. He picked up four cans of Starbucks Double Shots as an afterthought and carried them to the front counter where Tamara was working.
“Planning on staying up for a few days?” she asked.
Serge returned her smile. “I’m hooked on this stuff. I thought I’d have more money when I quit drinking. But now…” He pointed to the guilty cans.
She gestured toward the cigarette rack behind her. “The usual?”
He wanted to say more, to tell her about his mother’s death. It had been days since he’d talked to anyone. Back at the house, the laundry had been washed and folded. The dishes were clean, the carpet vacuumed, shower scrubbed. There was gas in the car. The lawn mower was tuned up and ready, even though the grass hadn’t yet started to grow. No prescriptions to be filled, no pills to crush and mix into Motts Apple Sauce. No one to sit with during the six o’clock news and Jeopardy. He’d done all of those things for three years. He’d also drunk a lot of coffee. Now, he felt like frozen water in a dark tunnel.
“I’d like to move somewhere warm,” he told Tamara. “I’ve never skipped a northern winter. I’d like to go somewhere the grass grows year round.”
Tamara was looking past him, as if she’d just heard the most infuriating thing possible. “Jesus Christ.”
Before Serge realized that she hadn’t even heard a thing he’d said, Tamara was running toward the pharmacy counter at the back of the store. A man in a hooded sweatshirt was holding a knife on the pharmacist, forcing her to fill a white garbage bag with pill bottles. Tamara grabbed a mop from a shelf on her way to the back and laid it into the guy’s head. He turned around, shoved Tamara to the floor, then grabbed the trash bag and ran toward the front exit where Serge was standing.
Serge noticed the robber’s sneakers; gray suede New Balance, nicer than his own shoes. The guy wasn’t even paying attention to him. “Head on a swivel.” That’s what Serge’s mother always said when someone got blindsided during a Sabres game on television. Serge lined up the guy and shoulder checked him into the newspaper rack.
“My back. Oh, God. My back.” He was young, pale and skinny. He went to the floor pleading with Serge. Copies of the Buffalo News were scattered around them, and Serge was using his hands. He clenched his fists, tucked his thumbs under the knuckles and kept his wrists straight.
“Please. I’m an addict. I can’t help myself.”
“I was trying to have a fucking conversation,” Serge said.
Tamara was grateful. She brought Serge a can of coffee while he waited to speak to the cops. He told her about his mother dying.
“I was wondering,” she said. “I hadn’t seen you as much lately, but I was afraid to ask.”
They sat in the chairs by the pharmacy counter, right beside the blood pressure station. The overhead lights pulsed in his neck. The usual shadows, along with the regret and guilt that always followed a fight, idled at the edge of things.
Tamara reached over and, very lightly, touched his hand. “I’m sorry.”
He hoped she’d leave her hand on his. But when he looked down, she moved it.
“I forgot to buy dryer sheets,” he said. “I just did the laundry.”
She smiled. “Do you have a job?”
“Not for a few years. I needed to take care of my mother.”
“That must have been hard.”
“No, it was okay. I liked it, you know. It was an honor. And sometimes I think her getting sick kind of saved my own life.”
She asked what he had done before his mother’s illness.
“I played in some bands, and then I did security work for some other bands. Mostly, I bought drugs for them. And for myself.”
“Anybody I might know?”
“You listen to any metal?” he asked.
She shook her head. “My ex-husband liked Pantera. Some of their stuff was okay.”
“Dimebag,” Serge said. “He was amazing. But I didn’t work for anybody that famous.”
Serge had started shooting heroin with the bassist for the last band that employed him. They’d forged checks up and down the east coast to support their habits until the lead singer’s mother noticed the band’s financial straits and had the two of them arrested. It turned out she was an accountant. Serge’s own mother had to cash out an insurance policy to pay for his attorney. She’d just been diagnosed with brain cancer.
Tamara asked if he was going back into security work.
He shook his head. “Honestly, I like the house work. It makes the day go by fast.”
She laughed again. It seemed like a nervous gesture to Serge. But she had a pretty smile and soft pink lipstick with an icy shine. He wondered if someone had told her a long time ago that she needed to smile more often.
“Seriously,” he said, “there’s a beauty to doing something that nobody else sees. I quit caring what other people think.”
“Well, that’s nice,” she said. “But what about money? Did your mother leave you anything?”
“The house. It’s paid for. But I don’t think I can pay the city taxes. And then the funeral, headstone, some medical bills. I need to sell some stuff for cash. Furniture, things like that.”
She pulled a pack of chewing gum from her jeans. “Why do I like this gum so much?” she asked. And then she offered him a stick.
“Thanks. I’ll chew later.” He slipped the stick into his jacket pocket. “After the coffee.”
“The reason I asked about money,” she said, “is we’ve got a service/cashier position open. It’s not security, but it’d be nice to have somebody in the store who could handle the kind of stuff that happened today. This wasn’t the first time.”
She unwrapped a piece of gum and slid it into her mouth. She pushed her light hair behind her ears.
“And if you want small tasks that nobody appreciates,” she said, “I’ve got plenty of those for you.”
Serge had thought a lot about drinking the past few days. There wasn’t enough to do around the house. The walls heckled him, called him a fuck up and a retard. They wanted him out. He’d punched two holes in the dry wall above the sofa and then left them to fester.
He asked his mother once, early in the cancer, why she wanted to live so badly. It was right after his detox and jail term, and he couldn’t see any good reasons for either of them to move forward. She only smiled. “I’m scared of dying,” she said. “And I like talking to you every day.”
Serge was scared, too. And so he told Tamara the job might be a good idea. “I’ve been thinking about what to do,” he said, “but I wasn’t expecting a real job opportunity.”
“I wouldn’t call it a great opportunity,” she said.
“You don’t know the other things I was considering.”
“Think of it as an open door,” she said. “Maybe it’ll lead to a real opportunity. Something better. That’s how I like to see this place.”
“It’s a nice store,” he said. “Well stocked. Better than the RITE AID on Phillips Street. They never have the Pantene Classic Clean over there. It’s crazy.”
Another smile. He enjoyed his power to move her lips, even if he did understand that it was a habit. His relationship to the store had changed. He’d never noticed that the boxes of antihistamine were so bright. Packaging made everything, even nasal wash, look like a present.
“I’ll get you the paperwork after we’re finished with the cops,” she said. “It’s just a formality, though. You’ve got the job if you want it.”
Serge nodded. Neither of them even mentioned the hourly wage.
Serge had been no prodigy. His aunt tried to teach him piano when he went to live with her while his mother visited Quebec City to receive a pacemaker. He was fourteen and coming off three school suspensions in a little over a year. The aunt, who had no kids and no television set, decided it would be a good idea to give Serge lessons on the dusty upright in her cold Albany basement. She was quiet and kind, but it only took three days for her to lose patience with him.
“How can you not understand the difference between a half and a full step? It’s the most basic thing in music. You can’t do anything until you learn that.”
Serge, too, wanted to know why he couldn’t understand things. He felt his heart pounding inside his chest, and he wondered if he might someday be heading to Quebec for a pacemaker of his own. The thought comforted him a little. Everyone loved his mother, and everyone at least pretended to like him when he was with her.
He and his mother lived in the aunt’s basement for a full year after her surgery. His mother sometimes played the piano at night. She always showed him a few keys to play for a melody; “Twinkle, Twinkle…” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and then a bit of “Close to You” after he’d gained some confidence. His mother never talked about steps and scales. Before long, he was playing parts of songs from the radio on his own. And then he asked his mother for a guitar. He heard music in his head nearly all the time. He played along to his metal CD’s. He wrote his own songs. He didn’t fight as much. He didn’t even play his video games. He’d found something inside his brain that worked and made sense.
“Your father loved music,” his mother said. “I tried to teach him piano, but he had that crooked middle finger from the fight in Kitchener. He couldn’t do it.”
His father had been dead for three years, shot and killed during a break-in at his apartment in Windsor. A woman and two other men were killed as well. His father was out of hockey by then and hadn’t lived with Serge and his mother for a while. The newspaper said the killings appeared to be the result of a soured drug deal. The article didn’t even mention his father’s hockey career.
Years later, when Serge’s mother was dying, she took to writing on legal pads. It started with a visit from a hospice worker who suggested daily affirmations and lists of ways to enjoy each new day. The lists soon gave way to page length sentences covering everything from the inordinate amount of time local newscasts spend on the weather to the details of her marriage.
“He gave me all the good he had,” she wrote about Serge’s father, “and it was bright and beautiful but there wasn’t enough of it to last because of what he had been through and how his father had seen him and treated him and then how other people saw him and treated him and how they wanted him to be something he really wasn’t underneath and he never could protect himself even when his whole life was fighting for other people like his mother and his brothers and the goal scorers with the skinny shoulders, and I couldn’t help him because I was always sick, and our son was what I could save but I don’t know if I did because people seem to look at him the way they looked at his father and when they dismiss him it breaks my heart.”
Tamara came by the house on a Saturday afternoon to look at the things Serge hoped to sell.
“Anything and everything,” Serge said. “Except maybe the television.”
She went right to the piano. “Do you play?”
“Not well,” he said.
He stood where he could keep an eye on the television. His mother had gotten him into the habit of monitoring CNN all day long. The only excitement in their day had come when the “Breaking News” or “Developing Story” banner ran across the bottom of the screen.
Tamara talked him into playing the piano. He took a stab at “Close to You” and made it through a verse and chorus with only a couple of stumbles. He hadn’t played music while his mother was sick. Something hard had grown between the original joy of playing and the years of disappointment that followed, namely all of the bands that had dismissed him because of his drinking, fighting and inability to remember songs when he was using heroin, Ketamine and other drugs. He’d thought of a band as a family, but he found that he was always easily replaced. Bands weren’t families. They were like gangs of dogs, each member willing to chew through another’s neck for a spoiled scrap of food or attention.
Tamara leaned against the back of the sofa and listened to the music. The living room was bright from the afternoon sun. Serge’s mother loved the sunlight. That’s why he’d put the hospital bed in the room.
When he’d finished playing, Tamara applauded. “You’re really good,” she said. “You must have learned when you were young.”
“Fourteen,” he said. “My mother gave me this piano. You wanna buy it? It sounds kind of flat, and some of the keys are sticky. But it’s not bad.”
“You can’t sell that,” she said. “Not if your mother bought it for you.”
“She bought me a lot of stuff. I just can’t afford to keep everything.”
“That’s so sad,” she said. “What type of cancer was it again?”
“Brain,” he said. “But she had heart problems, too. She told me she always thought it would be her heart that got her. She used to dream about her heart stopping.”
“I have bad dreams, too,” Tamara said. “About my daughter. Some times I dream that I’ve lost her or she’s on the edge of a ravine and I can’t get to her. It looks so real and familiar, but I can’t really remember ever being anywhere like it.”
Serge stood up. On the television, a group of firefighters were rescuing a duck from a storm drain. Serge thought of a Chinese restaurant he used to frequent. The specialty was Peking Duck, but Serge had gone for the strong drinks at the bar. The bartender was usually good for some coke as well.
“It must be scary having a kid,” he said. “The worst dream I have is that I get forced to go back to high school.”
Tamara smiled. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, they tell me I missed one credit but I have to go all the way back to ninth grade.”
“Good God,” she said. “That is a nightmare.”
“Yeah, but it’s a stupid nightmare. My mother was dreaming about dying, and you’re dreaming about keeping your daughter safe. Those are real things.”
Tamara walked back over to the piano and stared at the keys. He could tell she wanted to touch one of them, to feel the sound.
“How old’s your daughter?” he asked.
“She’s eleven. Her name’s Mabel.”
“That’s a nice name,” Serge said.
“Do you think so? I named her after my mother. She was the strongest woman I knew.”
“My father named me after a hockey player. Serge Savard of the Canadiens. It was between him and Toe Blake.”
“I like Serge better,” she said.
She finally plinked a key. She frowned at the noise, drew back from the piano and walked over to him.
“Listen, I don’t have much money right now. I can’t really afford to buy any furniture. But what if I paid you to teach my daughter to play the piano. I’d really like to do that for her. For me, too, I guess. I think it would be great to have a house filled with music.”
“I don’t teach,” he said. “I don’t have any real training, you know. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
She shrugged. “So, how did you learn? Did your mother teach you?”
For some reason, he told her his aunt had taught him. “I don’t remember much. Steps and half steps and all the formal things.”
“Don’t give me that,” she said. “You’re great. If you don’t want to teach a kid, just tell me. Believe me, I understand.”
She might have understood, but her face tightened in scrutiny. And her suggestion had stirred an apprehension inside of Serge. The warm sun on the back of his neck felt uncomfortable.
“I don’t even listen to music anymore.”
“How can you not listen to music?” she asked. “God, I’d go crazy.”
He cracked a window and lit a cigarette. He stood watching the neighbor’s dog run in circles on a patch of snow.
“I get interested in something, and then I overdo it,” he said.
“I think she could use something like this,” Tamara said. “She’s a little different.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t think it’s really unusual, but she pretends to be people from movies and television shows. And sometimes she makes up characters on her own. When she’s home, she does it. She can go a month as this totally different person. At school, she just kind of shuts down. I think she has a great imagination, but it doesn’t always come across well to other people. Her teachers never say anything positive. It’s always negative.”
“Well, people are assholes,” Serge said. “If you’re not what they want you to be, they don’t give a shit about you.”
She walked up behind him and touched his shoulder. “You’re not an asshole,” she said. “And I promise I’m only an asshole part of the time.”
He stubbed out the cigarette on the windowsill and turned away from the sun. She was looking at his face, smiling like she’d stumbled across a rare find at a junk sale. She’d made her appraisal, and he had surmised to a degree something inside his own less organized brain. It was no less appealing for being a bit out of tune, a melody that touches the nerves a little, a new song to learn. New shoes. Fresh, gleaming ice. Tall grass to mow. He reached out and touched the insides of her wrists, and she moved closer to him.
Serge held the door, but the girl wouldn’t walk inside the coffee shop.
“I thought we were going to Starbucks.”
“It’s three more blocks,” he said. “Plus, this place is locally owned. I swear, they’ve got great hot chocolate.”
“You’ve never even had it,” she said. But at least she walked inside.
They ordered and sat down at a table by the window. Double cappuccino for Serge and a mint hot chocolate for the girl. She hadn’t been happy that Serge’s place didn’t offer hazelnut hot chocolate.
“This is not real mint.” She pushed her cup away. “It tastes like chewing gum and Nestle’s Quik.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “They make good coffee. You want a coffee?”
She shook her head, looked out at the cars and the gray slush on the street.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, “but I forgot your name again.”
She sighed. “Gabriella. I told you twice already.”
Mabel still had the hood of her sweatshirt pulled up over her dark hair. She had ripped holes into the cuffs and hooked her thumbs through the holes. Serge took note. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “Kind of like a glove, but keeps your fingers free. You could play the guitar like that, too.”
“We don’t have to talk,” she said.
Serge nodded. “Okay, thanks. I’ll just drink my coffee.”
Mabel picked up a copy of Artvoice from the table beside them and thumbed through it while he finished his coffee. The small shop was empty except for the two of them. Serge was left to stare up at a photo on the wall, a latte with Che Guevarra’s face depicted in the foam.
“Do you play the guitar?” she asked.
“Could we do that, instead of piano?”
“You mean lessons?”
“Guitar is a waste of time,” he said. “You’ll just end up playing in a band, and a band is the most insincere thing on the face of the earth.”
The girl shrugged. “Fine. I don’t want to come to your house again, anyway. It smells like shit.”
“I thought you said it smelled like cinnamon rolls and beer.”
“I was trying to be nice.”
She took the top off the hot chocolate, opened a packet of sugar and dumped it inside. And then another and another. After the fourth pack, he told her to stop.
“You’re wasting it. The owners have to pay for that stuff.”
She shook her head, gave him a dismissive look. “I knew you were an asshole and a drunk. I bet you need a drink right now, don’t you?”
He slammed his paper cup on the table and leaned forward. The girl drew back instinctively. He caught himself and tried to keep his voice quiet.
“Don’t say that again. I don’t get drunk every night. And I know your name’s not Gabriella. I was trying to be nice.”
The last time he’d gotten drunk had been the night of the RITE AID robbery. He stopped off at the liquor store and bought a fifth of Seagram’s VO after talking to the police. At home, he spoke to the indignant walls and put a few more holes in them and then Spackled the holes and touched up the paint and vacuumed the carpet. He pulled out the card given to him by the detective at the RITE AID. He called and asked if the perp had been arraigned. Serge wanted to bail the guy out.
“I’m a little confused,” the detective said. “Do you know this guy? Did you have something to do with the robbery?”
“No, I just feel bad about how I handled him. I think I may have broken his nose. I’m pretty sure I felt some cartilage give way. I’d like to take him to the emergency room.”
The detective laughed. “Jesus, dude. The guy’s a fucking shit stain. Forget him. If he needs any medical treatment, he’ll get it.”
Serge slammed down the phone, flipped it off and yelled, “Fuck you.” He got in his truck and drove to Wendy’s. He thought that food might calm him down. He could bring it back to the house and eat on a plate and then wash the plate. The Wendy’s parking lot was always a mess, traffic funneled into the drive-thru lane from two different directions. A pair of signs asked drivers to “Please alternate.” He’d never had problems before, but a prick in a Malibu cut him off at the drive-thru. Serge didn’t even think. He jumped out of the truck, ripped a “Please Alternate” sign out of the ground and pounded it against the Malibu’s windshield. A big guy in pajama pants and a sweatshirt stepped out of the car and looked like he wanted to say something. Serge didn’t give him the chance. He went to work with his hands. “It says to fucking alternate.” He hit the man until his arms burned and felt too heavy to lift, and then he stepped back and noticed he was shaking. He knelt and threw up in the grass and slush. When he stood back up, the man’s wife was kneeling over her husband, crying. The man was groaning and holding his nose. Serge pulled a twenty from his jeans pocket and tried to give it to the woman. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really sorry.” But she wouldn’t stop crying. He tucked the twenty under the windshield of the Malibu and drove home without a hamburger.
He was better after that night. There had been the afternoon at the house with Tamara and then a night spent at her flat while her daughter slept over with a friend. The first few days working at RITE AID felt like a new life. He stocked shelves and set up displays with the exactness of a city planner. Things had gone well, at least until the afternoon of the piano lesson. He’d left work a half hour early, with Tamara’s blessing, but had gotten a call on his cell phone from Ted, the day manager, telling him he’d be fired if he ever left again without telling anyone. “Tamara’s not the boss,” Ted said. “I am. I don’t give a shit if you’re fucking her.”
That’s when the wheels left the track again. Serge called Ted an asshole, told him to go fuck himself sideways, said he was coming to the store right then to kick his ass and ended the call. He was still shaking when the girl knocked on his door.
After the go-around over his drinking at the coffee shop, he asked Tamara’s daughter to excuse him. And then he went to the bathroom and punched the mirror. When he came out, the barista and a customer stopped talking and stared at him. Tamara’s daughter only looked at his hand. He didn’t even realize he was bleeding. He walked up to her and asked if she was ready to leave. The girl sprang from her chair and ran out the door.
Melting ice trickled off the awning outside the RITE AID. “I’ll tell you some things about spring time,” Serge said. “My father was killed with a shotgun in the spring. Twelve gauge to the face. I got kicked out of two bands one spring. I got arrested twice in the month of April, evicted once, wrecked a car and had my girlfriend stolen by a bouncer at a night club, a dick head who sold ecstasy. One spring, I threw up every morning after I got out of bed. I did Ketamine on Cinco de Mayo and saw my dead father. He was pulling me behind a truck. The St. Lawrence River was frozen, and I was wearing his old Super Tacks, hanging on to a rope, skating on the chipped ice. He leaned out the window and his face was missing and he said to me very clearly, ‘You were conceived on April 15th, and you will die on April 15th.’”
“That’s tax day,” Tamara said. “You were on drugs. It has no significance.”
“You don’t know,” he said. “There was clarity.”
Serge was on his break, smoking a cigarette outside the store front. The clouds shifted like jigsaw pieces trying to connect, hiding the sun a while and then letting it loose. It was a warm day, but Serge had his hood pulled up.
“I’ll take care of things with Ted,” she told him. “You don’t have to quit. I just don’t know what happened with you and Mabel. You really frightened her.”
He dropped his cigarette in a puddle. “I want to make it right with her. What can I do? What kinds of things does she like?”
“She asked you to teach her guitar.”
He shook his head. “I can’t do that. There’s something not right about me, a loose screw or something. She can see it. I think she knows me better than my mother did.”
He pulled his hood back, let it fall around his neck. A breeze sent a chill up his arms, and Tamara offered her hand. He turned his own palm up and let her take it.
“She’s not that perceptive,” Tamara said. “She’s just a little girl who has a fucked up father. She’s angry. She doesn’t know how to forgive yet. She doesn’t know that people don’t really set out to hurt you. She doesn’t know they just can’t help themselves.”
Serge hadn’t slept since the piano lesson. He felt as if he’d finally landed in the realm of acknowledged defectiveness. It was a penalty box the size of Quebec and every bit as cold.
That night, he found his old Jackson white King V guitar in his mother’s basement. He changed the strings and dusted off his practice amp and set all of the equipment by the front door. He remembered a hat box that his mother had kept filled with wrapping paper and bows. He spent an hour looking for it, but the closest thing to a bow that he could find was a red cloth tassel in one of his mother’s dresser drawers. He taped the tassel to the body of the guitar and stuck a post-it note above it: To Gabriella.
By the time he’d gotten everything together, it was after ten. He called Tamara and asked if he could stop by. He told her he had something for Mabel.
Tamara sighed. “I’d say yes, but she’s sort of on lock down.”
“She used my Visa card to order a karaoke machine off the Internet. I told her she had to go to bed at nine every night for a week.”
Serge laughed. “Okay. Maybe I could come by in the morning. Before school.”
Tamara told him that would be fine. “I talked to Ted,” she said. “He’s a bastard, but I think he’s gonna let the whole thing slide.”
Serge thanked her for working things out, even though he already knew he wasn’t going back to the RITE AID. The only way he’d go back was if someone forced him to do it in a dream.
After he’d put down his cell phone, he sat in the chair for a moment watching the news. But the house felt agitated so he went to the kitchen, straightened a dish rag hanging from the oven handle and checked the refrigerator to see if anything needed to be thrown away. He heard a noise in the living room, and when he went to check he saw that the train calendar had fallen off the wall. It lay on the carpet, open to the month of January. Only one date was marked, in his mother’s neat blue Sharpie script: January 15 – Serge’s B-day!
“What the fuck do you want?” Serge asked the wall. “I’ll burn the goddamn house down.”
He threw his cell phone against the wall. It broke into two pieces, and he didn’t see where either of them landed. He grabbed his keys and headed for the door. He took the guitar and amp and set them in the back of his truck.
The Chinese restaurant was about to close. The lights had been turned up, the hostess stand abandoned. Serge sat down at the small bar and called out Ben’s name.
“Holy shit. In walks a ghost.”
They shook hands, and Serge ordered a Seagram’s.
“I hadn’t heard anything about you,” Ben said. “Like everybody lost contact.”
He told him about his mother dying.
“Jesus,” the bartender said. “You working anywhere?”
“I don’t wanna talk about that.” He took a sip of his drink. “Listen, what are you working with these days?”
Ben shook his head. “My guy, Julian, got pinched last November. I’m taking it easy right now.”
Serge pulled out a ten and offered it to Ben, but the bartender waved off the money.
“I already closed out the register. This one’s a gift.”
“So, you don’t have anything?” Serge asked.
Ben smiled. “You still like that dance club shit?”
“I see visions.”
“That stuff will fuck up your brain.”
“It’s like a reverse reaction with me,” Serge said. “It pulls the truth right out of the air. It’s like satellite TV.”
Ben loosened his neck tie and pulled it over his head. He ran his fingers through his hair. “I got some coke,” he said.
Serge finished his drink. “I wasn’t gonna sleep tonight anyway.”
They took Serge’s truck to an ice rink and parked in back. The rink was closed for the night, the parking lot empty and dark, left over snow piled around the light poles that never worked. Ben had slipped a bottle of Seagram’s out of the restaurant under his jacket. They took turns drinking from the bottle and snorting the coke through a Wendy’s drink straw that Serge had burned in half with his lighter. Ben owned an ipod with an FM transmitter, and they listened to Slayer through the radio static and the occasional interruption of a Sabres game being broadcast from Toronto.
The two of them had known each other since high school, had played hockey together and in a couple of bands that never gained steam. Ben was divorced, had two kids from the marriage who’d moved to Florida with his ex and her new husband.
“My girlfriend’s pregnant,” he told Serge. “I feel like I’m getting a second chance.”
“How’s that?” Serge asked.
“Well, I never get to see Jen and Will any more. They think Stella’s new husband hung the fucking moon. And she won’t even let them friend me on Facebook.”
Ben drank from the bottle. “It’s my own fault, I know it. But I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do is leave them alone and let them have the life they’ve got. And as soon as I did that, as soon as I found peace about it, my girl Loni found out she was pregnant. It was like a gift from God.”
“God?” Serge asked.
Ben wore an embarrassed expression. Serge understood it had nothing to do with the glob of coke hanging from the side of his nostril.
“Loni and I go to church. She’s a very spiritual girl. I’m starting to understand about second chances and how God has a plan for all of us. I’ve really done a lot of growing up the past few years.”
“So, you’re just writing off your other kids?”
Ben sighed. “It’s more complicated than that.”
“You don’t even call them?”
“They don’t wanna talk to me.”
Serge took the bottle and drank from it. He asked Ben if there was any more coke, and Ben told him it was all gone. They’d been snorting off the top of a Buffalo News sports page. Serge tossed the paper onto the dashboard, took off his jacket and lay it on the seat between them. His back was sweating inside his shirt.
Ben looked through the rear window. “What’s with the guitar and amp? You playing in a band?”
Serge shook his head. “It’s for somebody else. I’ve been done with bands for a long time now.”
Serge pointed to a dim light bulb at the rear door of the rink. “This is where my father taught me to skate.”
“Shitty rink,” Ben said. “I remember getting food poisoning from the hot dogs here.”
“I thought there was a lake under the ice,” Serge said. “I thought it was gonna open up and drown me.”
Ben laughed. “You were a good skater, man. That’s hard to believe.”
“I was only five,” Serge said. “And there was this older kid who lived next door to us. He’d gone out on a frozen lake and drowned.”
“That sounds familiar,” Ben said. “Something Fratello, right?”
“Yeah, I think so. Everybody said he was a really smart kid, too. How does something like that happen to a smart kid? I mean, he was probably a lot smarter than me.”
Ben shook his head, drank from the Seagram’s. “I gotta tell you something. When I didn’t hear from you for all that time, I thought you were probably dead.”
Serge felt a chill shoot across his jaw. “How’d it happen?”
Ben didn’t seem to understand.
“Me dying?” Serge asked. “What happened to me?”
Ben shrugged. “I didn’t, you know, think that much about it. It just kind of crossed my mind one day.”
Serge got out of the truck, grabbed a tire iron from the back and walked toward the building. Ben jumped out and fell into step behind him.
“What are you gonna do?”
Serge told him they were going skating. “Come on, we’ll borrow skates and sticks from the pro shop.”
“I don’t know, man. I kind of need to get home soon. Loni didn’t know I was going out after work.”
Serge felt like he’d never reach the building. His feet couldn’t keep up with his thoughts, which raced ahead and then came back and circled him with menace. He could see his father standing on the ice in his practice jersey, the bridge missing from his front teeth, just like in the joke wedding picture his mother had framed. He was holding out his stick, telling Serge to take hold. “Come on. It’s the best thing ever. I promise.”
It wasn’t the best by a long shot, but then the ice never opened up to swallow him. And that was something, maybe a part of a kept promise. They eventually skated in circles together, carving their way across the gleaming, milky surface, the smell of diesel in the air and his father’s stick lying at center ice.
Serge was still a few feet away from the building when he took aim at a window and flung the tire iron through the air. It caught the middle of the glass, tumbled inside the darkness and left a gaping hole in the window.
“Jesus,” Ben said. “I’m serious. I think we should go.”
The night sky was clear but starless, light creeping up from the ground in all directions. Ben’s cell phone rang, and he pulled it out and talked to Loni. He told her an old friend had stopped by the restaurant and they’d been catching up. He told her he’d be home soon.
Serge recognized the miles between his situation and Ben’s, namely Ben’s belief in some sort of plan or second chance. It made it possible for Ben to avoid being swallowed by the life he’d lost, the family he’d written off. It wasn’t a bad thing. Serge spoke out loud. “He’s not a bad guy.”
“Who?” Ben asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on,” Serge said. “A couple hours of skating, then we get some doughnuts and coffee. I’ve got a lot of time to kill.”
Ben pulled out his phone and held up his hands in surrender. “Do what you want. I’m calling a fucking cab.”
When Ben turned his back on him, Serge felt a blade carve the length of his spine, laying open his raw core. His heart dug in, angry and pained, strong legs and a motor mouth urging him to skate, run, or fight. He punched Ben square in the back as he dialed the phone. His friend let out a gagging sound, dropped the phone and went down to his knees.
Serge turned Ben over and straddled him. He grabbed the front of his shirt and drew back to hit him. Ben closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands.
“Goddammit,” Ben said, “you’re a fucking asshole. I should have never come out here with you.”
Serge had meant to hit him. He had meant to throw the first of many punches. But something buckled inside of him. A table collapsed, a calendar slid down a wall, rows of bright medicine boxes fell to the floor––and the legs on his heart turned to liquid. The bloody organ shut its mouth and curled into a helpless ball. Serge let go of Ben’s shirt. He felt his balance sway to the left, and then he fell onto the asphalt.
He understood what was happening. His mother had told him about her dreams, and his father had told him about the month of April. He didn’t expect any help from Ben. He knew exactly what Ben would do, and that was to run away. He was already pushing himself away from Serge with his elbows.
There was really only one thing to worry about, but Serge believed the guitar would be okay. At least he’d written Gabriella’s name on it. Tamara would figure it out.
His eyes met Ben’s. Ben slid himself over to his cell phone. He picked it up, appeared to think about using it, then slipped it into his jacket pocket.
“You would have ended up dead anyway,” Ben said. “This is not my fault.”
Serge’s heart stood again and allowed him to take a full breath. Before Ben could climb to his feet, Serge took him back down to the pavement. He pressed his forearm into Ben’s windpipe, pried the phone out of his fingers and flipped it open. He held the phone to Ben’s face.
“Call,” he said.
“Fuck you,” Ben said. “You want an ambulance, call your own self.”
Serge wrapped his fingers around the phone and punched Ben in the face. “Your fucking kids,” he said. “Call them, god dammit. You piece of shit.”
Ben sucked in his cheeks and spit in Serge’s face. Serge punched him again. “Call.” Ben laughed with disdain and fury. “Fuck you.” Serge punched again and again, until the pain cut across his jaw one last time and froze his left arm. The next thing he felt was a kick to the back of his head, even though no one was there. He let go of Ben’s shirt, made a move to place the phone to the bartender’s ear and then dropped the phone and fell to the ground.
He could hear Ben talking. “You’re a fucking asshole. You were always an asshole.” The tone of his voice became shrill, then thick, then muted while a warm blanket of ice settled over Serge. It was clear and soft and smooth, and he was far beneath the surface of it, where people skated while an electric organ played. There were hockey jerseys, knit hats and scarves in every color, and the sharp, silver blades dotting the ice beneath them, carving eights and arcs and long, straight lines as they vied for his attention.
Dallas Hudgens is the author of the novels Drive Like Hell and Season of Gene. Click here to read some of his other work on Fanzine.