Her voice is distant, reflected from tower to tower, three bars of cellular signal pressed to my ear. “Always, Pete. I go back to this party and tell them what.”
“Your boyfriend’s bathing. He bathes.” My toes work the tap. A trickle of hot water. The air is thick with steam. “Tell them he wants to be clean for the flight.”
“Doesn’t even fit in the tub. Gangly.”
“Don’t forget all the hair. I’m like an ape.”
“Had to have a clawfoot.”
“What of it?” I lift my legs out of the water.
“Somebody asks about bubbles.”
“You tell them salts, Cara.”
“Somebody asks if I’m the one who pisses standing up.”
“Tell them there’s no point in trying to know the unknowable.” I grin, wipe my brow with my forearm and put the receiver to my ear again. “Come home. Get in the tub and then we’ll go to bed.”
“This is work.” Restaurant sounds behind her. The audible swagger of lawyers working late, celebrations for her firm’s client. “I asked you to join me, remember.”
“Not my thing. You know.”
“Sure. My man of the people, no nose in the air for you.” She pauses, takes a drink. “Then by the time this party is over, you’ll be half way to merry adventures in the homeland. Gallivanting.”
I sit up, make ripples in the water. “‘Gallivanting.’ Really.”
She catches my mood shift. “Alright, Peter. Never mind. I was just teasing.”
“He’s getting old.”
“No he isn’t. That job is making him old.”
“Cara.” We’re talking about my father. The eastward trip is to visit him. “That job supported me through university. Busted his ass.”
“And look what that—” She’s searching for the right words. “I’m not saying anything—”
“—that you haven’t said yourself.”
“I know. Look.” I put the phone to the other ear. “Just let me be complicated right now. In a week I’ll be the ape in your tub, again.”
She grins. Amazing what can be transmitted through only sound.
We say our goodbyes and I drop the phone onto the towel next to the clawfoot. There on the floor is my copy of Moby Dick, Herman Melville. How did I forget? Cara would have loved that, reading about the white whale while the head of my own Moby Dick is bobbing at the surface of the bath.
I twist off the hot water tap with my big toe. This is where I live for an hour or two, every few nights. Soak, read, sweat, nap, wash hair, wash body. In that order, although today the nap was replaced with a phone call. It’s an evening ritual that I acquired as an adult, incomprehensible and frivolous to someone like my father.
I slide forward, submerge my torso and head. My legs hang out of the tub, all the way to my inner thighs. Air bubbles tickle my ears and then settle. Under the water, I plug my nose with one hand and use the other to massage my scalp, slough off grime.
And that’s when I feel it. A foreign hand in the bath. It pushes hard against my chest, forces air out of my mouth. Another hand knocks away my grip on my nose, presses on my face. I’m being held against the bottom of the tub. I instinctively reach up, find two forearms meatier than my own, hairier. The hands respond to my clumsy fighting, push me harder still. My mouth carbonates the bath. Water pours in my nostrils. A soup clouded with dirt and sweat; I see nothing but grey light above me.
My feet try to get purchase on the edge of the tub, any method to pull myself from under the weight of these arms. I kick, flail. The pole that holds up the shower curtain breaks, and the curtain falls into the bathwater.
This is drowning. Why? My hands are clawing at the ones holding me down. Giant fingers, all meat, a fleshy crab hand. They don’t budge. It’s an absurd thought but anyway it comes: I’m glad he isn’t mashing up my genitalia the way he is my face. Moby Dick is more precious than Herman Melville.
I piss myself in terror, empty my bladder into the water. Those hands push and push, knock any last air out. Water wants into my lungs and soon I’ll let it.
With a last, desperate, animal movement, I plunge a leg and pull the plug with my toes. I’ll probably be unconscious or dead by the time the tub drains. Why does it matter that I won’t be found marinating in my own piss?
There’s one last thrust, a crack of my head and spine off the porcelain, and then nothing. No pressure at all.
I quickly pull myself up, gasp, choke, push aside the shower curtain. Hang over the edge of the tub, inhale, cough. Soak the book and the towel and the phone and the mat. I’m making a sound now, not exactly a scream or a yell, something low and frightened and dangerous. Inhale.
No one in sight but they must be close. Thickest hands and arms, preparing more violence against me, a stranger with unknown intentions. My exposed balls creep into my torso.
I dash out of the tub and to the kitchen. Water sloshes everywhere. I fall once, scramble. There’s blood on my leg, on the tiles, a cut from the broken shower-curtain pole. Kitchen drawer. Knife. Two knives.
I turn and wait. Naked in the kitchen with a knife in each hand, feet sliding around on the soaked floor.
“No, officer, I’m not sure how long I stood like that.” Clothed now, sweater even, but I can’t seem to warm up. “Until I was sure he was gone.”
“And this was what. An hour ago?” He’s scratching at a notepad with a plastic pen, sitting on our couch, wouldn’t take his boots off at the front door. “Why wait so long to contact us?”
“One.” Pause, to quell my ripening anger. “I didn’t wait so long. Your response time wasn’t exactly speedy. Two. My phone got soaked. Do you know where there’s a payphone, anymore? Three. Going down the street requires clothes, which requires going to my room and putting down the knives. In that I wasn’t exactly speedy.”
“You know what I’m going to say here.” The cop flips his pen, digs behind his ear with it. “No sign of forced entry and all that. Chain on the door, no possessions missing, as you’ve said. Then I’ll ask if anybody’s got a reason to attack you. I’ll question you about stress at work. Maybe you had a little left-handed tobacco after a hard day.”
“What about fingerprints? Check the god damned door handle.”
“Sure. Let me just grab my boy-detective kit from the car. Should I get my gene scanner, too?” He looks at Cara’s framed art on the wall, her rolled-up yoga mat in the corner of the room, and he chuckles. He ought to just say what he’s thinking: You yuppies.
When he’s gone, I pack a carry-on bag with a few days’ clothes, exit the apartment and lock up behind me. After years of disuse, my pocket knife is in its pouch and looped on my belt. I count the seconds it would take to get it out of the pouch, unfold the blade, and jam it into someone’s meaty crab-hand. When was the last time I acted violently? I run this mental rehearsal until I reach the payphone, same as before. Payphone and pocket knife, both neglected until now.
“Cara. Me again. Wish you’d pick up. Don’t go home until we figure out how he got in. Stay at Ella’s place, somebody’s. Not that fucker with the hots for you. Rent a hotel if you need to, but just don’t go home for now. I love you. If I could afford to cancel and buy a later flight, I would. Call you when I get there. Be safe.”
Street corner, overcast night, bus stop, thirty-minute wait in front of a burger joint. The vents spew deep-fried air on us bystanders, the smell of thick grease working its way into the fabric of our coats. Streetlights lend a high contrast, everybody’s skin blanched, oily, eyes pocketed in shadow. Strangers all around. I suspect them all.
An old lady smiles at me. A lonely lady in wool, just trying to get home to her love or to her memory, and my imagination wants to make her a villain. She pulls a burger from her purse, unwraps it, bites it tenderly.
I pissed in the bath water. Why does that matter? Coated in a layer of piss.
Bus. Train. Aeroplane. Six hours without fresh air. In the aisle seat of the plane, I notice the woman next to me is hunched, asleep, a copy of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy across her legs. Someone once told me that I share a name with one of his characters. The woman wakes with a start, sucks drool back into her mouth, looks at me and laughs ashamedly.
They took my pocket knife at security, dropped it in a Plexiglas cube full of the most vague and unintentional of weapons: screwdrivers, nail clippers, tubes of toothpaste, disposable lighters.
Smileys, they called them in high school. Flick your disposable lighter, hold the flame until the heat is too much for your thumb. Then press the end of the lighter against a bare patch of skin. It burns an oval, inside it two dots and a curved line underneath. Lasts for weeks. Smileys: this is the culture of where I grew up. This is where I’m flying, not home, but not not.
An empty pouch dangling from my belt. Vulnerable.
“Have they run the food service yet?” The woman next to me leans in, whispering, a quivering excitement.
I shake my head, then point to the Auster book and ask of my namesake. “How’s Peter Stillman? How’s the book?”
“Just terrible.” She stuffs it into the mesh pouch on the seat in front of her. Curls up again, bracing for sleep. “I hope they’re serving beef.”
The old man is there to greet me, not standing inside, but parked in the no-parking section of Arrivals. He drives a green sedan, domestic, primordial, well-maintained. As he tells it, green was a necessity: he lives in tomato country, in fact works as a vat cleaner at the continent’s largest ketchup factory, claims he sees too much red at work. His sedan is singular in any cluster of cars, abstruse in its design, dead easy to spot.
My father doesn’t wave hello, only points to the airport authorities in their yellow vests. “Get in. Those bastards are getting worked up.”
A faded-brown passenger seat that is beyond familiar. The seatbelt clicks with a childhood certainty.
“Your mother was always a royal pain in the ass at the airport.” He has a sarcastic smile for the yellow vests, zips us away, toward the highway. “‘They’re upset,’ she says. So? Is that my fault? ‘It’s no-parking, here. We’re making things worse,’ she says. The hell we are.”
My father lives in some nebulous state where a lifetime of my mother’s nagging is re-contextualized and applied to the present. In his mind, there’s no separating the past from the here and now. She’s still nagging him from beyond the grave.
“You quit your job yet?” My usual joke-not-a-joke. I wipe my window clean with my sleeve.
“You’re as bad as your mother.” He grins. Teeth like a graveyard. When we were children, my father told the dentist he’d be damned if his kids’ mouths ended up as mangled as his own. Braces for us all. “Every god damned night she says, ‘When are you going to retire?’ You going to pay me? She says, ‘What?’ Are—you—going—to—pay—me? She says, ‘Well, no.’ Then stop asking me if I’m going to retire, for Christ’s sake. Woman’s gonna drive me to drink.”
My father is a teetotaler, just like his brothers and sisters. Their father was a nasty man who spent most of his brief life drunk, a remarkable feat for a taxi-cab driver.
On the highway, now. Heading south through flat black country, autumnal air, yellow lights shining down from high above. My father meanders through a solar system of unconnected anecdotes, my mother the sun around which all other information orbits.
“Dad.” I’m interrupting, here. “Something weird happened just before I caught the plane.”
I tell him: the bath, arms and hands holding me down, brush with death, the police. I leave out the urination.
“Jesus Christ, Peter. You gotta be careful.” He scowls, concerned. “Did you lock the front door?”
I sit up. “The chain was on.”
“That’s not what I asked.” His repetition is always slowed to a crawl. “Did—you—lock—the—door. The deadbolt.”
“Well, there you go.” My father, the detective. “How many times do I have to tell you? Your mother—”
“Dad. One.” Quell anger. “The chain acts like a lock.”
“And how did that work out for you?”
“Two. Just because I didn’t put my deadbolt on the door, doesn’t mean I deserved to be nearly drowned.” I’m strangling the seatbelt.
“I’m just saying. What did you expect?” He changes lanes, speeds around a car, shouts at a driver that will never hear him. “Jesus, not in a rush, eh?”
“Three. What do you think a deadbolt would do that a chain wouldn’t?”
“Would it have hurt?”
“What? No, but it certainly wouldn’t—”
“Exactly. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Laugh. It’s my first reaction. Problem solving is his way of showing he cares, but inevitably it comes off adversarial, antagonistic. He’s trying to help but there is no way to take him seriously without throttling him. He has jowls now, coarse hair sprouting from his ears and nose, a permanent frown. When did he become an old man? When did I become a man?
I wake up in my old bedroom, posters of alternative bands still taped to the wall. Alternative. I wore a backwards baseball cap and a goatee in high school, beige trench coat and sneakers.
Early afternoon light creeps in through the vinyl blinds, bent, no longer parallel, and through them I can see the Wilsons’ new pet project in the backyard: a muscle car propped up on cinder blocks and covered in a blue tarp. My old dresser is stuffed with faded T-shirts and tube socks.
The old kitchen is a mess of paper and Tupperware, junk mail and empty plastic, unnavigable except for the cereal box my father left out. I find him in the living room, his reclining chair, an empty bowl propped on his belly. When he breathes in the spoon slides to one end of the bowl; it returns to its initial position when he exhales.
“Grab yourself some breakfast,” he says.
“Ate too much cereal in my life, Dad.” I don’t know where to look. The television is mesmerizing, reality show, rural panoramas and trash talk. My father’s breathing looks effortful. Couch covered in clean laundry, unfolded. This is how he lives. I stand in the doorway. “You should really think about retiring.”
“Those pricks have got me back on afternoons.” He means the late shift, two until midnight. He means the Americans who were brought in to synergize the ketchup plant.
“Dad.” I can’t get his eyes off the television. “You’re sixty-five. They give you the seniors’ discount at restaurants, now.”
“What can I say? I’m a nice guy.”
Somebody on the TV is shouting numbers, rapid fire, his voice echoing off the inside of a barn, auctioneering. Why would anyone watch such mind-numbing shit when they could be drowned in the tub at any moment?
“You clean up after people for a living. You’re a servant.” Pangs, even as I say it. “They think of you as a servant.”
He mutes the show, slouches forward, puts the cereal bowl on the table next to him.
“Your mother pulled this once.” To stand, he puts his hands on his knees and pushes down with all his force. He grunts. Over my life I have watched his body disintegrate, one ten-hour shift at a time. “We were just married. She was pregnant with you. ‘You have so much potential,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you go back to school?’ Then you’re born, food and diapers and mortgage. I’m throwing money at you every day. No parents to help us out, nobody to cover our bills if we can’t pay them. Never again did your mother pull this shit, not until the end.”
He labours past me, into the kitchen, tosses the bowl in the sink. “You don’t eat cereal anymore. That’s just fine. Eat what you want.”
“Dad.” I trail behind him.
“You went to school. I’m proud.” He opens the closet, yanks on a puffy coat. “But don’t think you know a thing about work. Don’t tell me to spit in the face of the people who paid for your fancy school in the first place.”
“I just meant. You’re sitting on thirty years of pension.”
“The union’s done a good job of pissing that away, haven’t they?” He slips his feet into shoes, wide and round, Velcro ties.
“I just meant.” Empty Velcro pouch on my belt. I thumb at it. “But if it’s an issue of money, maybe Cara and I—”
His nostrils flare. A warning. His pride.
I take a step back, wave my hand. “Alright. Never mind.”
“Got shit to do before work. The key’s on the counter. See you tonight.” He coughs, opens the front door. “We always told you kids, ‘You can work with your back or you can work with your head.’ We’re glad you chose your head.”
He doesn’t wait for a response, lumbers down the front steps, closes the door behind him. I’m left lingering on that last expression he wore, not angry or disappointed, not anything I saw in all the years of my childhood. Hurt.
It proves surprisingly difficult to be hygienic. Bathing is out of the question. I turn on the shower but it blocks out all external sound, leaves me vulnerable. I open the bathroom door, sightlines at least, but I would have to stand naked, Moby Dick exposed, for ten minutes. I’ll live with being unwashed.
Open every drawer in the living room and eventually I find it, underneath address books, shoe polish, old pop-can tabs, rubber bands, pens that haven’t worked in my lifetime, my mother’s hair ties with brown wisps still tangled around them: a Swiss-Army knife. Three-inch blade, tip still sharp, enough weight to feel reassuring in the hand. The pouch on my belt is way too big but I put the knife there anyway. I lock the deadbolt on my way out the door, imagine my father’s grim satisfaction.
This is a different autumn than I remember from my childhood, a September where the leaves have barely changed colour, a layer of perspiration just from standing in the sun. The land is still deadly flat and the houses spaced far apart, long tracts of unused grass and winding driveways, no sidewalks, a township where the only pedestrians are teenagers or the mentally ill.
A transport truck bounces by, the back full of Mexican migrant workers. I wave to them and they pat off their jeans, squint. Once a week the landowners take the Mexicans from the tomato farms to the box stores, groceries, clothes, cigarettes, maybe a cheap piece of furniture from Ikea. Third-year anthropology, I wrote an essay on adversity faced by Mexican migrant workers in Canada. Still never spoken to one, only waved impotently as the trucks rolled past.
The songwriter Stompin’ Tom Connors immortalized our town in lyrics, a cheery refrain of Ketchup loves potatoes, but he never mentioned the Mexican migrants.
I walk toward the tiny business district. These houses are all familiar to me, old paper routes, old friends, old friends’ sisters that I lusted after. Brick and aluminum siding ad nauseam. Here is a litany of Levesques and Beauregardes whose children speak only grade-school French, rich Italian families in their own sequestered neighbourhoods, greenhouses and rolling farmland on one side and identical suburban houses on the other. Lush, meticulously groomed lawns.
Nights on these perfect lawns, we would play the pass-out game. Crouched with your head between your legs, breathe heavily for two minutes. Then stand abruptly and press the palms of your hands against your neck. Wake up on the lawn, unsure of what’s happening at first, back of your head a dull throb, your friends laughing at you from the steps. This was our idea of fun.
Flashes of yesterday, powerless and ignorant at the bottom of the tub.
“Cara. Are you okay? Call me. Did you ever play the pass-out game as a kid? Do not sleep at home.”
Hang up the payphone and eye my destination, two buildings away: Lucky’s. A bland cube with too much siding and too few windows. Parking lot filling up, meaning the day shift has just ended. Bells jingle above the door as I enter.
So dark inside that it’s difficult to see at first. Smells like cigarettes even though smoking inside bars has been prohibited for a decade. A few old farts along the counter, the tables a mixed bag of middle-aged and younger shift-workers. Red trousers or coveralls, bloated faces, dirty fingernails, shitkicking boots.
“Motherfucker.” Someone is shouting at me, roughly my age. He stands and approaches. “Petey Stillman?”
“Wilson.” The neighbours’ kid. We were in the same class. We punched each other out in grade six, just before he flunked. I smile. “Is that your car on blocks in the backyard?”
“Do I look like I would drive a fucken IROC?” He thumps me on the arm, gestures for us to sit.
Four of us around a lacquered table. Wilson’s got a beer in one hand, the collar of my shirt in the other. The other two men are older, don’t care about us, but Wilson’s pestering them anyway. “Look at this fancy piece of shit. Look at him.”
The waitress comes to the table, same lady from whom I used to order French fries in high school, her face pickled from alcohol and cigarettes. She pitches her thumb toward a wall, Lucky’s List written in dry-erase marker.
“What do you have that’s vegetarian?” I mutter reflexively as I scan the menu.
She crosses her arms. Wilson howls in laughter. The two others’ interest is piqued.
“Never mind.” I wave dismissively. “Grilled cheese and fries.”
She sighs. “Beer?”
“Same as this unsavoury dirtball.”
Wilson loves it, thumps my chest, and the waitress saunters off. There’s no rush left in her, the other customers be damned.
The two older men converse quietly amongst themselves. Wilson grills me for details since my departure: schools, jobs, travel, women, anything worth equal parts scorn and admiration.
“You’re a buy-low-sell-high motherfucker, now.” He grins.
“You obviously have no idea what ‘sessional lecturer’ means. You probably make more money than me.”
“Yeah, right. I bet you get paid to synergize. God damn, who decided you’d leave this shithole and I’d stay?”
I drink, shrug. “There’s no point in trying to know the unknowable.” Drink again. “That’s one of the things I teach, actually. Semiotics. We’re all meaning-making machines. Heard that before?” This beer is like water. “Two things happen in close proximity and we strive to make connections between them, even if they’re not causally related. Most things are just coincidence, have no link to the rest of our lives, no meaning at all. But meaninglessness is a much scarier alternative, isn’t it?”
One of the old men at the table barks at Wilson. “Will you shut him up? Jesus.”
So Wilson regales me with his own accomplishments: dog, a fat Rottweiler; child, also fat; wife, no comment; and quite remarkably, a job at the plant.
“Somebody die?” I ask.
Wilson thumps me again, a raucous hoot. “As a matter of fucken fact.”
Food and beer. More beer. More still. Wilson chews with his mouth open. He is a mirror of what I might have been.
The last of the daylight drains from the tiny windows. Hours passing without thought.
“Looks like you have a friend.” Wilson’s pointing to the door, a white man and a Mexican woman.
“What do you mean?”
“Motherfucker’s as dainty as you.”
I take a close look at the man. A few days unshaved, some sort of pomade through his wavy hair, shark eyes. But Wilson’s right: no coveralls and no shitkickers, in fact quite finely clothed, button-up shirt and designer jeans, soft leather shoes, a scarf around his neck. Definitely from out of town. The part I don’t like is that he keeps looking at me.
Wilson and his buddies call it a night but I’m not ready to go back to my father’s house. I take a seat at the bar, continue to drown myself. The part I don’t like: every time I turn, there he is, Mexican woman under his arm, dead eyes aimed my way.
In the men’s room, I have to stand with my back to the door while I piss. My other hand grips the pouch on my belt.
“Well, old man, fancy that. We meet again.” A fake British accent behind me. Cologne and body odour.
My stream of urine dries up. I turn. Shark eyes, dainty clothes. “Do I know you?”
“Of course you do.” His is the worst kind of smile, the veneer of a predator. “The name’s Melville. Herman Melville. Perhaps you’ve read some of my books.”
He’s standing between me and the doorway.
“The one about the whale, no doubt,” he says, more phony British.
What is happening, here? The bathroom reeks of piss. I rub my nose. “Melville was from the States, not England.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He drops the accent, the smile. His mouth and lips look wet. “And so, Fanshawe, what brings you to Lucky’s this time of year?”
A glimmer of relief. “Sorry, what was that name?”
“Fanshawe.” The word is an ugly exhortation from his mouth.
A flood in me. Some unfortunate coincidence, then, this Melville. Meaning-making machines. I take a step toward him and the exit. “Ah. Sorry. My name is Peter Stillman.”
He puts his arm around me, like we’re old friends. It’s surprisingly thick, meaty, and tufts of hair come out the cuffs. “No problem. If you want to call yourself Stillman, that’s fine with me. Names aren’t important, after all. What matters is that I know who you really are. You’re Fanshawe. I knew it the moment you walked in. ‘There’s the old devil himself,’ I said. ‘I wonder what he’s doing in a place like this?’”
I duck out from under his arm, take a step back. He’s about the same height as me, same weight and build, more or less the same outfit. He’s smiling again, hungry.
My hand is on the knife pouch. “Look. You were wrong. Leave it be.”
“Too late.” He steps toward me, one crab-hand raised. “Your secret’s out, my friend. There’s no way to hide from me now.”
I move quickly around him, kick the men’s room door open. “Fucking leave me alone.”
All eyes in Lucky’s are on us out-of-towners. Heads shake.
In one motion I move to the bar, put down two bills, and continue on to the front door. My legs wobble underneath me but I no longer feel drunk. The door jingles.
Chilly, damp night outside. I walk along the edge of the road for five minutes, never turning around. Pull the knife from the pouch, draw out the blade, put it back. Five solid minutes of walking on the pebbled shoulder of the street. Breathe. Connections between this and the bathtub. Or not. Melville. Hands and arms.
And then I know he’s there. I turn and find him following me on foot, a few hundred metres behind me, his shirt half-unbuttoned, eyes all black.
I run. Why am I running? It’s only a fluke. Terrified.
He’s chasing. Footsteps and ragged breath behind me, slowly getting closer. A smile full of teeth. Amazing what can be transmitted through only sound.
I turn a corner, urge my feet to move faster. Fanshawe is the name of a college a couple hours away.
“It’s too late. I know who you are, Fanshawe.”
I’m wheezing, gripping the Swiss Army knife until it’s painful. Run. Fanshawe’s a small-town vocational school, non-academic. Nothing to do with me.
“It’s all over, Fanshawe. You’ll never get away.”
My legs are slowing, physiological betrayal. Come on. Fucking run. I considered taking journalism at Fanshawe College but chose university instead.
I’m tackled from behind.
We’re a jumble of expensive clothing and sweat on a dirty road. But if I’m tired from running, he’s exhausted. He paws at me with nothing more than a feeble swipe, bends my nose and makes my eyes water. Hits me with some blunt object in his hand.
My body comes alive. I haven’t punched anyone since I left this town but it feels as natural as breathing. I use the hand with the knife in it, blade not extended, only an extra weight, a bludgeon. Knuckles connect beautifully. His head bounces off the asphalt, eyes staring into nothing. Pick him up by his fancy shirt, hammer him again, and his neck kinks from the force. Drop him, a lifeless dead-eyed fish, and I stand up. Kick him, spine and then ribs and then once in the face. I remember this satisfaction.
Sliding around inside my clothes, sweat and piss mingling into a slick layer of grime on my skin.
The knife. Swivel out the blade. Three inches would be long enough to pierce right through his palms, the hands that nearly drowned me. He’s lying on the ground, mouth-breathing, shark eyes open and even more vacant than before. His jeans are dark and wet around the crotch, bladder released. The object in his grasp now on the asphalt. A paperback copy of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. What?
His arms are thinner, bonier than they seemed in the bar. Not really that much meat or hair to them. Not nearly strong enough to hold me under water.
The world’s biggest fucking fluke.
“Did you win?” The old man in his chair again, a plate of cheese toast resting on his belly this time.
“What do you mean?” I’m speaking through a mouthful of cereal. Pushed the clean laundry off the couch so I can sit.
“He means the fight.” Cara, thousands of kilometres away, on her friend’s designer sofa. I’ve got the receiver of the old family phone pinned between my shoulder and ear while I eat.
I speak to both of them. “Fighting came back to me a little too easily. Ketchup loves potatoes, I guess.”
More reality shows on my father’s TV, big trucking rigs rolling out of warehouses, thick Canadian accents. After the fight, I pitched the unbloodied knife and walked home, iced my swollen hand and nose. I took the Auster book.
To myself as much as them, this time. “I still don’t get it. What’s the connection?”
“The hell should I know?” My father makes a face like the question is idiotic. “Nothing, something. What difference does it make?”
“‘There’s no point in trying to know the unknowable.’” Cara laughs at the reversal, brings a glass to her lips, wine from the sounds of it. “Your father’s onto something. What’s the word? ‘Profundity’?”
“Cara thinks you’re profound, dad.”
“What can I say? I’m a nice guy.” He turns back to the television. “But you know something, your mother would be pissed right now. ‘Peter’s such a good boy,’ she says. ‘Why is he acting out?’ Jesus Christ, woman, he’s a boy, what do you expect? ‘I don’t want him to end up like us,’ she says. The hell’s that supposed to mean?”
He takes his eyes off the set for a moment, considers me. “But she was right, eh? The last thing we needed was you getting stuck here.”
I slurp from my bowl, a man in his thirties eating cereal for a midnight dinner. But after this I’ll draw a bath.