All four members of my brother’s family are in Victoria Hospital at the same time. Dave went in for minor surgery but an error by the anaesthesiologist left him oxygen deprived and possibly brain damaged. His wife, Nancy, just gave birth to Michael. Their first son, Danny, is dying of cancer. Danny gets to meet his new baby brother, hold him in his arms, kiss the top of his head.
This is one of those times when Danny is able to return home, faint hope in all our hearts. I am on the floor with him putting together a race car set his dad has bought him. Danny pauses to look up at his dad and say “Dad, I’m the luckiest boy. I have everything.”
Michael is as old as Danny was when he died. Michael tells his mom “Dad took me to where my big brother is buried. We both bawled like babies.”
“Pocket” is okay. As are “carpet,” “park” and “tack.” But how do you depict “packet?”
Mike is behind the counter with me. We are talking about last night’s hockey game. The door opens to the familiar jingle that announces the arrival of a customer, handy when you’re preoccupied stocking shelves. This time it’s not a customer. It’s a man with pantyhose pulled over his head, extending a knife towards us. He demands the cash in the till. As I hand it over I realize I have allowed too much cash to build up. I am meant to transfer cash to the hiding spot to minimize how much can be stolen. When the detectives arrive they look at Mike and me suspiciously and ask “There were two of you and you didn’t try to disarm him?”
A London Police van just pulled up. A young homeless man with stringy hair to his waist, his face blotchy and smeared, is sitting against the store wall. The officer questions him then orders him to move on. I am allowed to sit, undisturbed, drinking my Perrier.
I am inside the fridge loading milk on the shelves. I hear the jingle and look for a customer at the door. A moment of confusion as I see no one. Then panic as I see the man with the pantyhose on his head running up the aisle towards me, the knife extended in front of him. My first thought is “He’s back to kill me so that I won’t identify him.” I try to shut myself in the fridge but as in a bad dream there is a metal bar lodged in the door. He appears in the doorway and orders me up to the cash. This time I have done a better job limiting the amount in the till. “You must have more money somewhere,” he snaps. I deny that there is any more. This time when the detectives are there a woman from the neighbourhood brings me hot tea with a shot of brandy in it. “For your nerves,” she says.
The detectives take me down to the courthouse. For the first time I see the man without his pantyhose on. At first I can’t tell but when they order him to stand, there’s something about the way his head sits on his shoulders. I turn to the detective and say “yes, that’s him.”
We both have low expectations. It’s very appropriate that we are meeting for brunch. Dinner and/or drinks would raise the stakes. We both order a crepe. I ask her if she has done much traveling. She tells me about her cross-Canada tour. I realize after a while that the question will not be volleyed back to me so I respond as if it had been. She asks if I am close to my family. I tell her we are not close, we don’t really know each other. She is clearly disappointed. We say goodbye beside the hot dog vendor. We shake hands. I say “It would be nice to see you again some time.” I’m not sure if I mean it.
There is a method for food courts. You must first establish twelve o’clock. This is generally the main entrance into the food court. On your first visit you take the numerical value of the current month. This being March it would be three. You then get your lunch from the place at the three o’clock position. In subsequent visits you go to the place counter-clockwise from your previous visit. You must remember where you left off.
It is one of those dinner parties where someone injects a game into the conversation. In this case, you must give one word that comes to mind regarding the person seated to your left. I say “spunky.” The woman on my right gives me the word “Jesus.” She explains that, not knowing whether or not I am religious, she gets a feeling of calm benevolence from me.
All the food court outlets have been boarded up but the seating is still intact. I am sitting here alone watching the shadows swing slowly to the right with the afternoon sun.
“I know, I know, I know. I hear you. I hear you. I know, I know, I know.”
I am working in this small room barely big enough to accommodate my small desk and a single chair. At the end of each day I return to the rooming house where sad, desperate men hit me up for money. Sad and desperate myself I feel the need to make contact with someone who cares. I go to the phone booth on the corner and call my friend Wayne. But I have to hang up because all I can do is sob.
We have repeated this routine every school day. I drop him off at Hopewell Public School, make sure he has his lunch, wish him a good day. This time, from the back seat, he asks “What’s going on?” I don’t answer because my throat is clogged with sobs. “What’s going on?”
“They’re saying that everything deserves an exclamation mark.”
There is that moment of incomprehension when the pattern has been repeated so often without variation and suddenly your expectations are denied by a violent rupture. Things are not as they should be. Things will never again be as they should. I already have my key out to unlock the door when I see that the door has been kicked in.