Doppel

At first Jenny hoped her eyes were playing tricks.

Sharon Bala’s debut novel, The Boat People—the story of a refugee’s...

 

The homeless girl appeared on the same day Jenny Chau was evicted.

Her roommate Adrienne had left the notice on the toaster. It had the property management company’s logo on the upper left corner and an orange post-it with Adrienne’s neat printing. No words, just a series of exclamation marks. Triangles, their tips pointing down, each one punctuated by a round O like a mute open mouth.

Jenny didn’t see the notice at first. She’d slept in and jolted awake in a panic, racing around the apartment, brushing her teeth with one hand, spreading peanut butter with the other, grabbing a pair of jeans off the floor and yanking them on, her foot nudging a bundle in the pant leg that turned out to be a pair of dirty underwear.

Keys clutched, hand on the door knob, she had stood paralyzed for a moment—did she have her bus pass?—and while scanning the untidy apartment had caught sight of the notice, the orange post-it winking from on top of the toaster.

She bounded down the stairwell and was still deciphering the legalese as she shouldered her way through the front door, her foot nearly landing in a shit pile. Compact and malleable, it lay plopped on the sidewalk. A brown log. Distinctly human.

She lurched away, nearly crashed into an old man pushing a granny cart full of clinking empties, and halted at the traffic light. Termination of tenancy. Notice of sale. The whole building was being sold. Had been sold. It was done deal and this was her two months’ notice.

Jenny stood on the corner, mesmerized by the officious serif font, the impersonal page of text that must have been slid under every door of their shabby low-rise. Stealthily, by an unseen gloved hand.

Traffic coursed down Carrall—SUVs, police cars, and cyclists in Lycra bent across their handlebars like it was the Tour de France. The Chinatown bus rolled past, a bicycle affixed to its front like a mermaid on the prow of a ship. It was past seven thirty on an August evening, the sky dark and foreboding, the clouds threatening to gush.

Termination of tenancy. Jenny had answered the online ad and moved in four years earlier. Her share of the rent was a measly $600 a month. No way she was finding anything else in the city for that price now. She stood at the intersection, oblivious to the honking taxis, the pedestrians darting across the street, staring at the electronic red hand, wondering what on earth she would do. And that was when she saw the girl.

At first Jenny hoped her eyes were playing tricks. She closed them, counted to three, then peered again across the busy street. Her own face stared back at her. A little more gaunt. A lot more disheveled. But indisputably her own face. The girl stood on the opposite corner, wavering as if she might pitch forward into traffic. She was dressed insubstantially in frayed cut offs and a drooping white tank top.

Jenny knew she should turn and walk away. But when the light changed and the traffic on Hastings surged forward, Jenny crossed, curiosity a hand on her back urging her forward. She kept expecting the vision to dissolve, to get closer and find the girl had fuller lips or was an inch taller. Or maybe she’d get to the other side, to the cracked triangle of concrete confettied with cigarette butts and used syringes that was called Pigeon Park, and find no one there. A mirage.

Jenny knew all her neighbours. The black guy with the matted hair who sold KitKats and travel-sized Kleenex and single Marlboro Lights out of hidden pockets inside his trench coat. The Native woman who, in a good mood, popped wheelies with her chair. The fat sunbather who lay face down on the bench, pants around his ankles, bare ass in the air. What was her Doppel doing here? Asians didn’t end up on this corner.

Jenny stepped right up to the sidewalk and the girl didn’t budge. For half a second they stood like reflections in a mirror, Jenny an inch below, standing on a gutter. She held her breath. The girl smelled bad. Powerfully bad. Her eyes were unblinking, pupils like dinner plates, her gaze vague. She swayed like a tree oppressed by the wind. Each time she tilted forward, along came the stench, forcing Jenny to lean back. The Doppel’s mouth opened and Jenny saw her black insides, the disintegrating molars, the missing canines. Jenny’s knees trembled. She felt a woozy wave between her ears, fancied for a moment she might fall head first into the cave. A revving motorcycle broke the spell. Before the Doppel could speak, Jenny took a step to the left and hurried on, glancing back only from a safe distance.

Everyone else was going about their merry way. A shopkeeper leaned against his door jamb chatting with a customer. A toothless woman twirled in circles waving a magic wand. Jenny searched their faces, wondering, Did no one else see that?

*

Work was an industrial laundromat in Richmond. Jenny took two buses and a Sky Train to get there. Her shift was nine to five with a lunch break at midnight. Noor was in the locker room adjusting her hijab when Jenny arrived. She raised a hand to the mirror, making the row of bangles on her wrist jingle, and Jenny waved back. The unofficial uniform at work was jeans and running shoes but Noor did her best to look high fashion. She was proud of her Coach purse—it was a very good fake—and liked to carry it in the crook of her upturned arm, swinging her hips as she strutted down an imaginary cat walk in five inch heels and over-sized sunglasses. Noor was just here for the summer. Next month she’d go back for her final year at UBC.

Noor leaned forward and poked at a zit. I lost my wallet, she said, her breath fogging the glass. Someone found it and charged a bunch of stuff to my credit card.

Jenny stood beside her, digging in her purse for her work ID and lanyard. She spoke to Noor’s reflection. Oh, the credit card company will take care of all that.

Noor scowled. Some creep’s pretending to be me, buying kiddie blow up dolls from Japan.

Ew. Is that even legal?

Noor turned and now it was like there were two conversations, duplicate dyads speaking in profile on either side of the glass.

The doll comes with a school girl uniform and lube, Noor said. She examined the red polish on a nail and added, Whatevs. I just don’t want that shit associated with me.

Ina was in the locker room too, hanging up her coat. The Japanese, she said, tapping the side of her head. They have sex robots. I saw on the news. There is something wrong with these people.

Ina had fled Donetsk the year before. There was a referendum about re-joining Russia and, rather than vote, she had boarded a train to Kiev with her fur coat and a duffel bag stuffed with British pound sterling, crisp bundles of Thatcher-era bank notes wrapped in rubber bands. Ina was five foot nothing and couldn’t have weighed more than a 100 pounds. She never left home without her fur coat. Coming to and from work she wore a paisley scarf tied under her chin and, if it rained, would cover the whole thing with a plastic shower cap. Once, when a vagrant had wandered in and tried to attack Noor, going for her hijab and raving about Sharia Law and foreigners who refuse to fit in, Ina had charged him with a yellow laundry cart, yelling obscenities in Ukrainian. Afterward, when everyone crowded around to see if she was okay, Noor had scoffed: Please. The idea that the hijab is oppressive is so played.

In the laundry room, the industrial washing machines stood in a bank, all their doors wide open. Kev and Hassan were already at it, latex gloves on, pushing carts of dirty scrubs. Twice a day the green cube van arrived for drop off and pick up. Scrubs came in vile and stinking, and left good as new, cleansed of their sins, ironed, folded, and swaddled in plastic.

The laundry carts were lined with see-through bags. Inside, arms tangled with legs, small tops knotted with extra large bottoms, all of it blood encrusted and reeking, covered in the excrement and bodily fluids of every hospital patient and nursing home resident in the Greater Vancouver Area.

Kev held the ends of the bag together, lifted it to the mouth of the washer, and let the whole mess tumble in, un-touched. Hassan used his hands, plunging them in to gather up armfuls that he tossed into the washer. Hassan never made so much as a face. There were two kinds of people who worked this job. Lifers and temps. Jenny had been here for nine months and could see who was who.

All night long as Jenny snapped on gloves and poured detergent, hung up scrubs and pressed the button to feed them into the mechanical folder, she couldn’t stop thinking about the girl on the corner.

Abbotsford had begun spraying homeless camps with chicken shit, causing an exodus to the city. Or the girl might have been in the neighbourhood all along, one of the low income residents turfed by the recent sale of a public housing building on Columbia to a condo developer. Or she was an escapee of the sex trade, a girl smuggled in via shipping container from China and forced to sell her body to pay back the fare.

She might have come from anywhere really, from the Interior, from Seattle, from Montreal like Jenny, who had moved here fifteen years earlier for school and never left. For a moment Jenny felt she had been followed but shook the idea out of her head. It was just foolishness, some remnant of a ghost story that had gotten lodged in her imagination.

They broke for lunch at midnight, unfolding chairs and forming a circle, balancing sandwiches and plastic containers on their laps. Kev’s usual was a shawarma that he nipped out to buy before Ali Baba’s closed for the night. He ripped and unravelled the tinfoil, releasing the spicy smell of spit-warmed lamb.

Kev came from Belfast, part of the diaspora that followed the fall of the Celtic Tiger. Or as Kev called it: the second Potato Famine. His visa was good for another six months. Whenever Jenny asked what he planned to do next, Kev just shrugged in a way that made her think he’d stay, find a gig under the table, and fade into the crowd.

The microwave in the corner beeped and Hassan gingerly lifted out his lunch, just the tips of his fingers on the lip of the container. He brought rice and grey lentils every day. They looked soggy and indeterminate but with her peanut butter and jelly on white, Jenny didn’t feel she was in a position to judge. Biting into the bread made her remember the toaster and her eviction notice. She knew she should ask for leads on apartments.

Instead, she said: Have any of you ever seen your Doppel?

Mine’s a chick in Manchester, Noor said. I check her Insta sometimes. She wrinkled her nose. She’s a bit…low rent. Noor fiddled, one-handed, with her phone. She claimed she ate with her parents before work and never brought so much as a granola bar.

Hassan pressed the back of his fork into the lentils, mushing them into the rice. My brother was in the plane with his Doppel. Hassan was Somali. His anecdotes contained an inexhaustible supply of brothers.

No! Jenny said.

It was plane to US, Hassan said. My brother won immigration lottery. But when he come to the seat, there (Hassan indicated to Kev sitting next to him), in the next place is the Doppel.

What happened?

My brother, he got off. All the passenger, they got off. Flight was cancelled.

Everyone nodded.

Hassan laid his fork in his now empty container and closed the lid. Leaving the circle, he pulled two chairs together into a make-shift cot in the corner and lay down to nap. Hassan was training to be a plumber. He went straight from his shift to college classes. He was in his 40s with a wife and twin sons back home in Mogadishu. Jenny looked at his lunch box, left behind on the vacated chair, and thought of Hassan in a basement apartment somewhere, washing his plastic fork, rinsing and then leaving it to dry with the plastic container upside down on a tea towel.

I have one, Noor said, putting away her phone. My mom. She works janitorial at St. Paul’s? Noor sometimes slid into teen speak, every sentence tilting up into a question. Jenny had tried to warn her against this but Noor had just raised one eyebrow and given her a look like, You gonna tell me how to get ahead? Jenny was sorry she’d told everyone her age. She should have kept her mouth shut about being thirty three.

Noor shuffled her chair a little closer and then they all did the same, closing in the circle as she told her story. Well, one night last year there was a car accident and a woman was brought into the ER. They had to, you know, use the paddles. Noor mimed, pressing fists to an invisible chest, jerking them up. She said, Halfway through someone noticed the patient’s face…

Noor paused and looked at them, one by one, significantly, before the punch line.

…And it was the doctor’s Doppel.

Ina crossed herself. My God, she said. With her accent it sounded like My Got.

Kev’s left cheek bulged as he spoke out the right side of his mouth. I’ve heard this one before.

No, no, this is real, Noor said, waving her hands, cherry nail polish flashing under fluorescent lighting. Dr. Hafiza Ahmed. Look her up.

So the patient lived, Jenny said.

Well yeah, Noor said. Talk about motivation.

Yeah really, Jenny said.

In my country we don’t speak of these things, Ina said. No. The Doppel, it will steal your life. She cut a finger across her throat then lifted the crucifix that hung from her neck for a kiss.

That’s not how it works, Noor said. You’re born at the same moment and you die at the same moment.

Ah now, what about Paul McCartney? Kev said. Crumpling up the tinfoil, he half turned in his chair and aimed for the garbage can.

Noor crossed her arms and sat back, raising her eyebrows.

Kev snapped the stem off a banana and pulled down a strip of peel. Your man died in ’69, right before Abbey Road.

Then how is he playing Madison Square Garden next week? Noor asked.

Ina nodded, understanding. See? she said. Doppel kill him, took his life.

But how—

Mirror death doesn’t apply when your Doppel kills you, Kev told Noor.

This was news to Jenny. She said: So the guy who just released a new solo album is?

Billy Campbell, Kev said. He laid the banana across his lap and pulled out his phone. Ask Google if you think I’m taking the piss. You think the real McCartney would be a poncy vegan? Getting weepy over a few dead seals? His thumbs moved across the bottom of the screen as Noor leaned in for a better look. No way, Kev said. This Campbell character saw his chance and took it.

Ina shook her head and made a squeaky shame-shame noise with her tongue, flicking it against her gums. She clutched Jesus in one hand, her fork in the other.

I saw my Doppel today, Jenny blurted out.

­­­

Kev and Noor looked up.

Where? Kev asked.

Across from my place. In Pigeon Park.

Homeless? Noor asked. That’s rough, Jenny.

I can’t stop thinking…I should do something.

Leave it alone, Kev said. He shook his head and put the phone down.

Noor gazed at Hassan, arms crossed over his chest, snoring. Ina lifted her Tupperware to her mouth and split a home-made pierogi in half with the edge of her fork. Jesus on His cross hung down, perilously close to the sour cream. Kev became very interested in his banana. Jenny knew what they were thinking. Overdose. Exposure.

The first time Jenny saw a mirror death, she was twelve. A toddler collapsed in the middle of the cereal aisle. Jenny and her Dad were part of the crowd that formed around the wailing mother. There was no point attempting CPR. The store manager called the morgue and one of the other customers began the Lord’s Prayer. Jenny stared at the toddler, his eyes blank and still open, and thought how just a moment ago he’d been grasping at a box of Fruit Loops, on the verge of a meltdown.

Jenny’s father had squeezed her hand tight as they recited the prayer twice, once for the child in front of them and once for the unknown boy, the one felled by accident or illness, criminal intent or neglect, somewhere else in the world. All that evening her parents spoke in soft voices, were especially gentle with Jenny and her brother and kinder to each other. But the next morning the dog puked on the carpet and there was a fight at the breakfast table and everything went back to normal.

In the laundromat, the dryers’ rhythmic tumbling changed to a frenetic spin then wound down to a stop. One by one their doors popped open.

Break’s over, Noor said, pushing back her chair.

Ina shook Hassan on the shoulder and he sat up with a yawn. Noor waved a joint at Kev and titled her head in the direction of the exit sign.

I’ll meet you out there, he said.

He and Jenny folded the chairs, returning them to lean against the wall.

I saw my ex-girlfriend’s Doppel once, he said.

Yeah?

In a porno. He cupped his hands in front of his chest and added: She’d had enhancements but it was her, so it was. Down to the birthmarks. Colleen had a strawberry one here (he pointed to his left thigh) and this bird had the same one here (he pointed to his right thigh).

Wow.

He frowned. It was fucking creepy. A real boner killer.

*

Technically the apartment was a bachelor and Jenny slept in the sunroom. There was no door, only a curtain for privacy and a long wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that Jenny stood in front of, palms pressed to the glass. Sometimes she imagined the whole thing giving way, toppling face-first into traffic, hair and limbs splayed, surrounded by shards. The catastrophe happening in excruciating slow motion.

On that first day, when Jenny told her about the Doppel, her roommate Adrienne had shuddered and said, Christ. What bad luck. At least you’ll be outta here soon.

From her third floor vantage Jenny looked over the derelict square and dribbling water fountain, the junkies shuffling around with their palms held out. She’d watched the corner for weeks as summer turned to fall, the days shrinking and cooling, but the Doppel hadn’t turned up. It was almost a relief to think she might have moved on, that she was out of Jenny’s life.

Behind her, Adrienne’s sealed boxes were scattered around, the tape gun on its side, a roll of bubble wrap propped against the wall. The day before two lesbians had turned up to cart away the sofa bed. There was a week left on the lease and Jenny had no plan.

She had come home from work an hour earlier, taken a shower, and promised herself she would trawl Craigslist for a rental. Instead, she stood at the window, mesmerized by the mid-morning scene, the tableau of urban zombies down below.

The Doppel appeared, conjured from thin air. Jenny leaned forward, her hot breath fogging the glass. Was it really her? A white Camry cruised by, rolling to a stop at the corner. The Doppel leaned through the passenger side window for a moment before climbing in.

Later, Jenny rolled this way and that on her mattress on the floor, unable to eject the Doppel from her mind. She fell into a fever dream and saw the girl on her knees, her mouth between the legs of a faceless stranger, his palm, hard, on the flat of her head. The Doppel opened one eye and stared right at her and Jenny knew she was next.

When she woke up it was six and the sun was setting, the sky a vengeful red. The Doppel was back, though she seemed to have lost her jacket. In a hot pink t-shirt and shredded jeans, she lay splayed on her back in the middle of the sidewalk. Jenny’s heart plummeted. Bile rose up her throat. She heard a dull whine in her ears and thought, This is it. This is how we die.

Two cops on foot patrol arrived on the scene. Jenny’s vision dimmed. The only thing she could think of, the idiotic ear worm that had burrowed its way into her brain, was Kev whistling Hey Jude in front of the industrial dryers. And all the while, the cops casually strolled to where the Doppel lay. Call an ambulance! Jenny wanted to scream. Save us! The cops bent over the Doppel for a long, interminable minute, then continued on their way. The girl raised one hand and gave their backs the middle finger.

Jenny grabbed her coat and purse. Outside, the usual crowd milled about. A man loitered at the crossing making the same whispered offer to every passerby: Hash. Hashish. Marijuana. His grey hair stuck out in all directions.

Not today, thanks, Jenny said. She marched right up to the Doppel, whose eyes were wide open, the inside of her arms covered in terrifying scars. You hungry? Jenny said. Come on.

There was a McDonald’s two blocks away. The Doppel followed a few paces behind, swirling her arms and contorting her body as she walked in some kind of interpretive dance. Jenny kept glancing back to make sure she was still there.

Keep up! she snapped finally, when the Doppel paused to stare in through the window of a vacant storefront.

Depositing the Doppel at a table by the door, Jenny crossed to the counter and ordered two Big Macs from the teenager on duty, glancing back to make sure the table was out of his eye-line. She didn’t want him to see two Doppels at a table and freak out. They were changing the oil in the deep fryer and the guy said the fries would be a few minutes. Jenny paid for two large drinks and waited as Coke pissed from the dispenser. The cups were decorated with cartoon monsters and ghouls. Michael Jackson’s Thriller played over the speakers.

The girl sat with her cheek pressed to the table. When Jenny set the trays down, she perked up. Jenny saw how scrawny she was, the jut of her collar bones, Jenny’s nose so prominent on the girl’s emaciated face. Her palms turned clammy. The stranger was so thoroughly, identically, her. It made Jenny dizzy.

The Doppel demolished her burger, attacking it with huge greedy bites, barely chewing before she swallowed. The smell coming off her was fierce, a potent combination of piss and sweat, the musty undertone of motel sex. Jenny realized then what she would do next, the unconscious plan she’d been plotting all along.

The Big Mac was gone. The girl licked the wrapper clean, lapping up the fallen bit of lettuce and onion. Jenny had no appetite. She stared at the Doppel’s arms, at the red puncture wounds like vampire bites, the ugly bruise in one crook. She had to do the thing herself. It was no good pushing the girl into traffic.

Do you use the safe injection site? Jenny asked.

The Doppel didn’t reply. She went at the chicken nuggets, shovelling them in and nearly swallowing them whole.

Look, you can’t just go around sticking used needles in your arms, Jenny said.

The girl would crash when she came down from her high. All Jenny had to do was lure her into bed. Jenny put her Big Mac on the Doppel’s tray. The girl said nothing. She grabbed the burger and unwrapped it in a hurry, shoving it into her mouth.

Have you been tested? Jenny asked.

When the Doppel spoke, Jenny was startled to hear her voice, hoarse and scratched like a needle yanked across a vinyl album. You’re taping this, right?

What? Jenny pulled her head back.

You’ve got a recorder somewhere. Burger clutched in one hand, the Doppel looked under the table. Is there a van outside?

She looked at the girl’s stupefied expression and thought that surely no judge would blame her. It was only self-defense.

Jenny shook her head. What are you on?

What are you on? The Doppel cackled, mouth open, bits of half-chewed meat patty and processed cheese on display.

Jenny gripped the sides of the table and leaned in. Her fury was so heady, it immunized her to the smell. What the fuck is wrong with you? she said. How can you be so selfish? The girl screamed. A single, elongated, operatic note. The guy on duty leaned across the counter and Jenny jumped up.

We’re just being silly, Jenny called out. Sorry!

The Doppel stopped screaming mid-apology and Jenny was left yelling the word “sorry” into silence.

Fries are ready, the guy said and looked back at his phone.

Throwing the Doppel a nasty look, Jenny went up to the counter.

My friend is a bit dramatic, she said. Sorry about that.

The guy rooted under the counter for the ketchup, his concentration focused on his phone.

Jenny stared at the deep fryers, spitting and sputtering, brimming with hot oil. The girl was practically suicidal. If it wasn’t AIDS, it would be an angry pimp. Or an overdose. What Jenny was about to do would be a mercy.

There was the sound of the door opening and the traffic came through at full volume before fading as it shut. Jenny turned, holding the tray, to see the deserted table, her coat and purse gone.

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