by Donna Tranquada
Adelaide sits behind a metal desk putting condoms in a large bowl. “Set aside a dozen or so for me,” I yell. Pete laughs. Adelaide shakes her head. Next to the bowl is a wooden penis for demonstrating how to put them on. As if we don’t know.
We’re in an old house on Gerrard street, that seedy stretch east of Jarvis. Pete and I are in the front room, sitting on folding chairs at a card table someone donated to YouthHelp. He’s shuffling a deck of cards and picking at a zit on his chin. The ashtray on the table is full of butts. The air is grey with our smoke.
“What are you doing?” I kick him under the table. “Rubbing the tits off the Queen again?” Pete grins. He knows I can’t stand it when he shuffles forever. I drum my fingers, slip a cigarette from my pack and light it. I inhale deeply and blow smoke slowly and loudly towards his face. Pete stops shuffling and coughs like he’s caught in a burning building. We’re the same age—sixteen—but he acts a lot younger. He holds the deck in one hand, gives me the finger with the other.
“This is for you,” he says. Then he turns his hand sideways. “And this is for the fucking pony you rode in on.”
“Language, boys,” says Adelaide. She’s not cross. I can see a smile struggling on her lips. “You gentlemen know the rules at drop-in.”
“Oh, Miss Adelaide!” I say in a sing-song voice. Her smile breaks free. It always does when I call her Miss Adelaide. It’s a little joke between us.
“Carry on with the game, Nathan,” she laughs. My name’s not Nathan. But, as I said, we have this thing. Not that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong.
“Half an hour ’til show time, everyone,” says Adelaide. Three skinny girls are yakking on the couch. They nod and then keep on yakking. Pete shuffles for another round of Crazy Eights. “I’ve brought something special for tonight,” says Adelaide. Pete rolls his eyes. I kick him under the table again. “And popcorn!”
Adelaide started volunteering at the YouthHelp Drop-In a few months ago. She’s here every Thursday night. She’s different from the other volunteers. Most are uncomfortable as hell, talking to us like we’re little kids. Some of them even seem afraid of us, for Christ’s sake. Not Adelaide. On that first night, her eyebrows went up when she saw my blue Mohawk. “Nice colour,” she said. Then she tapped my shoulder.
“And nice sink plugs,” she said.
This surprised me. She was old. Well, not old. Maybe forty or so. Not much younger than my mom. “Quite the collection, indeed!” she added.
I happen to be very proud of my sink plugs. They were a bugger to yank from the taps and bathtubs of the places I’ve stayed. Chains and all. Don’t know why I did it, but what’s done is done. I fastened them to the shoulder tabs of my leather jacket. My Mohawk and plugs turn heads on the street, for sure. That first night, Adelaide took one of the plugs in her hand, held it for a second, and introduced herself.
When she said her name, a memory gave me a little nudge. I’m back in my old backyard in Port Credit. I’m on a tire swing my dad built for us, and listening to the music coming from the neighbour’s house next door. Two girls lived there with their father, Mr. Rodrigues. He was from Ghana. No, maybe Guyana. I get them mixed up. But he had an accent. The mother had run off or something. Anyway, Mr. Rodrigues and the girls were always playing records and singing. Musicals. It was nice to listen to them. They sounded happy singing like that, not minding if the windows were open and someone heard them.
Adelaide. Miss Adelaide. Nathan Detroit’s girl. I love you a bushel and a peck. l knew it. Guys and Dolls. That was it.
“Miss Adelaide!” I said without thinking. “Just call me Nathan.”
She looked confused at first, and then she smiled. There were little lines around her eyes. A few strands of grey in her dark hair. Dark like my mom’s.
“Seriously?” she said. “You know Guys and Dolls?”
“You bet your purdy neck, I do,” I sang. It was all coming back to me. She laughed. “My mom named me Adelaide after seeing that show. Is your name really Nathan?” she asked.
“Like hell it is!” yelled Pete. He was sitting on the couch, a cigarette teeter-tottering on his lower lip. “C’mon, Jeffie. Tell the lady the truth.”
“Shut it, bro!” I said. I turned away from Adelaide and mouthed “asshole” to Pete.
He dragged on his cigarette, blew a perfect “O” into the air. “Same to you, Jeff,” he said and winked.
“Brothers?” said Adelaide, looking from me to Pete. Brothers. That word was a hard fist in my ribs.
“Nope. More like a sister,” I teased, trying to cover for the pain spreading in my chest. I sat down next to Pete and play punched him in the gut. Pete doubled over. Faker.
Pete is a lot like my little brother, David. Small and stringy with freckles scattered across his face. His eyes are also the same colour, pale blue with bits of gold. We met at a shelter last spring. Pete had hitchhiked from Halifax to Toronto. Said he needed to leave, to try some place new. It was because of his old man. He’d always been a nasty drunk. Not like my father. No. I made him a nasty drunk.
One day I took Pete to the Eaton Centre, my usual haunt. “Lots of tourists are looking for something to show the folks back home,” I told him as we left the shelter and walked south on Yonge street. “They’ll pay for that something.” I stopped in front of a store and checked my reflection in the window. “Man, I don’t know how you get it to look like that every day,” said Pete, nodding at my Mohawk. I elbowed him, and we started walking again.
“Pays the bills, bud,” I said.
We arrived at the Eaton Centre and stood outside the main doors off Dundas.
There were people everywhere all going somewhere. Pete and I were like stones at the bottom of a river with all those people swirling around us. The security guard gave me a thumbs up. He knows I’m no trouble. A streetcar rolled by and that got the tourists snapping away at a damn Rocket. Then they spotted me. One took a photo from a distance. I instantly waved and smiled, all friendly like. They moved closer, cameras raised. “Watch and learn,” I said to Pete.
“Do you mind if I take your photo?” asked one lady in a straw hat and pink dress. The man with her frowned and gave me the look, the one that says—If you were my freakoid son, I’d be kicking your sorry ass right now.
“Sure,” I said. “My usual rate is twenty bucks!” I laughed, and she laughed too. “But for you, ma’am,” I said politely, “a special rate: just a dollar.” It’s the “ma’am” that does it every time.
She posed next to me, her soft hip brushed against my leg. Her husband took the photo, glaring at me from behind the camera. I ignored him. The men rarely smile. Pricks.
She opened her purse and pressed some bills into my hand. “Enjoy your visit to Toronto,” I said. “Take care,” she whispered. It’s the same each time. They wave and walk away. One of them always reminds me of my mom.
“Unfuckingbelievable!” said Pete, rushing over. He punched my shoulder and shook his head. I hit him back and slipped him a few dollars. He stuffed the money into his jean jacket and then looked at me the way David used to when I climbed to the tallest branches of the tree in our backyard or skipped stones on the lake at the end of our street. His eyes were bright and his grin was wide. It made me feel good, like I was special again after such a long time.
“C’mon, let’s get some smokes,” I told him and rubbed his head.
One afternoon Pete and I were at the Eaton Centre when I noticed a man watching me as I posed and took money from the tourists. I felt the shame rise instantly and wondered if everyone around me could see it. Mr. Rodrigues was dressed as I remembered him: beige pants and a loose short-sleeved shirt, the kind people wear in the tropics. He had a small wrinkled frown on his face. Not angry. Just sad.
He started walking towards me. My next breath seemed to lose its way in my chest. He gave a little wave and was soon standing in front of me. He reached out a hand and put it lightly on my shoulder. He didn’t seem to notice the sink plugs.
“I thought it was you, son,” he said with his soft accent. “Yes, yes. I knew it was you. You look the same, son, even though . . .”
I lowered my head. It felt so heavy. I noticed his desert boots. Mr. Rodrigues always wore brown desert boots.
The first time I saw them I was about nine years old, in my backyard trying to catch a garter snake. It was moving quickly through the grass, heading for the hedge that separated our yard from Mr. Rodrigues’. As I crouched to grab it, I saw his boots on the other side of the hedge. I watched as Mr. Rodrigues knelt down and neatly caught the snake behind its head as if he were picking up a twig.
“Come over, son,” he said, looking at me through the branches. “Come have a look at him. He small. Too-too small to harm us.”
I walked around the hedge and into his yard. Mr. Rodrigues held the snake gently, letting it wind itself around his wrist and forearm.
“See,” he said. He was smiling. “He no trouble.”
I watched as the snake climbed up his arm and slipped inside his shirtsleeve. Its tiny head appeared at his collar. It flicked its tongue. He extended his arm, and the snake disappeared in his sleeve again and wound its way down towards his hand. He didn’t flinch. He just watched its striped body as it moved. When it reached his wrist, he grabbed it quickly. He pinched it behind the head with one hand and took hold of its tail with the other. He stretched it out in front of him as if he were measuring string. He could tear it in two with a single sharp pull, I thought.
“Not much to him,” he laughed, holding the snake before me.
“You’ve seen bigger ones?” I asked. I touched the snake. It was dry and firm.
“Oh, yes. Much bigger,” he said. He let go of the tail and allowed the snake to coil around his arm once more. “An anaconda. The biggest snake in the world, son. Helped catch one where I’m from. In the jungle. He body thick-thick as a tire. He head the size of a dog’s.”
Mr. Rodrigues squatted in the grass and released the snake. We watched it slither away.
“Much bigger than this little fellow,” he said as the snake skimmed through the grass. I remember how he looked that day. Disappointed.
He had the same look on his face as he patted my shoulder again outside the Eaton Centre. He tipped his head sideways, trying to look me in the eye even though my head was still lowered. A streetcar clanged as it rumbled by on Dundas.
“Son, it’s time to come home,” he said quietly. His hand was now on my arm. A small squeeze. “Your parents. They miss their boy. It’s been a year. They miss him so. Come back to them. You been gone too-too long.”
I couldn’t speak. He nodded, squeezed my arm once more, and walked away. He was soon lost in the crowd. Pete appeared at my side.
“Who was that? Dude looks like he’s on safari or something?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Something like that.”
Adelaide pops a video into the VCR. “Tonight, it’s one of my favourites,” she says. She hands me a bowl of popcorn and places a tray of coffee on the card table.
“For once can someone get blown up?” says Pete as he lights a cigarette. “Even a fuckin’, I mean friggin’ car chase would be nice for a change.”
I pelt him with a handful of popcorn. He opens his mouth to catch some. I like our movie nights with Adelaide. Once a month she brings in a film, usually some corny musical. The first was Oklahoma. One of the girls groaned when Adelaide showed us the video cover, and someone shouted “Noooo-klahoma!” But Adelaide just smiled and said, “Cowboys and farm girls fall in love. What’s not to like? Oh. And everyone sings!”
Tonight she brought Camelot. “Crapalot!” hollers Pete. Everyone laughs, including Adelaide. “English King. Hot girl. A French guy makes a play for her,” she says. “Oh, and of course, everyone sings.” More groans, but it’s our routine now. Adelaide turns off the lights, and there’s King Arthur wandering in some fake woods with fake snow. Christ.
“Dude’s looking a little light in his tights!” shouts Pete. “But I’m liking this Guinevere chick!” The girls watching with us roll their eyes.
Adelaide shushes us, and King Arthur starts pouring his heart out to Guinevere. That’s when other scenes start unspooling in my head.
The rain may never fall till after sundown
By eight, the morning fog must disappear
I was home again. I was sitting on the back stoop where I always went when Mom lost it.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
Mr. Rodrigues was singing next door. It was summer. I could hear him through his open windows.
For happily-ever-aftering than here
He was singing loudly. His voice was deep and strong. I sat there with my eyes shut, my head against the brick wall of our house. Mom was inside, crying. She’d been like this for months.
The snow may never slush upon the hillside
By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear
Dad was the same. Not crying so much. He did a lot of that just after David. But now he was drinking. Every day.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
And it was my fault. I had told them the truth. I was holding David’s hand.
For happily-ever-aftering than here
But then he let go.
David was four years younger than me. Scrawny. Freckles. And he was always happy. He’d get excited about everything. Mom’s cookies. The kites Dad used to make for us. The storms that came in from the lake. He asked questions all the time, even about touchy stuff. Embarrassing stuff.
“Jeff, why does it feel good when my weenie gets bigger?” Christ, what do you say to a little kid who asks stuff like that?
One day, we were standing on the sandy shore of the lake. It was late spring, and low dark clouds hung above the waves. Mom had given us a small bag of bread crusts for the ducks. David spotted a dead seagull lying on its back next to a log. We walked over to examine it. The lake breeze made me shiver.
“Do you think it hurts, Jeff?” David asked. He picked up a stick and poked the gull in the gut. “Do you think it hurts to die?”
He sat on his heels and dragged the stick along the feathers on the gull’s wings. Then he dropped the stick and pulled the wings wide with his hands, so they opened like a fan.
“I don’t want it to hurt,” he said. The bones in the wings stretched as if in flight. The feathers looked like long white fingers. The breeze caught them and made them flutter.
“It’s not going to happen for a long time, “I told him. “Don’t worry about it.” David grabbed some pebbles and stood up.
“It’s just old people who die, right? Like Grandma and Grandpa.” David tossed the pebbles at the gull’s stiff legs. He hit its webbed feet, and they twitched.
“Yeah. It won’t happen to us until we’re old,” I told him. He looked up at me. “I hope it doesn’t hurt,” he said. “I just don’t want it to hurt.”
The day it happened we were going to the lake to fly a kite. Dad had made
us a new one out of wrapping paper and thin bits of wood. Mom tied cloth ribbons to its tail. David insisted on carrying it. “Make sure you hold your brother’s hand!” she called from the front door as we left. David turned and blew her a kiss. She blew one back.
We had to cross Lakeshore Road, the main street in town, to reach the water. We got to the stoplight. Waited for the light to turn green. David slipped his hand in mine. Even today I can feel it. Small. Warm. Trusting.
The light turned, the cars stopped, and we started crossing the road. A gust of wind must have caught the kite. I heard the paper snap. I turned and saw it rising above the street. David let go of my hand and ran into the intersection.
It was a dark grey car that hit him. Rubber burned. I could smell it. A heavy, wet crunch as metal struck flesh. I saw David. He was in the air, still holding the kite string and, for a moment, I thought the kite had saved him, that it had lifted him free at the last second. But then he fell to the pavement.
I got to him first. His legs were twisted strangely. All fucked and broken. There was blood on the side of his head. I tried to straighten him out. To put his legs right. Wipe the blood from him with my hands. People were shouting for the cops. An ambulance. Someone was crying loudly. “Son, son,” A man put his hand on my shoulder. “Your brother. We get he some help.” It was Mr. Rodrigues.
“How bad is it?” a woman cried. “Is he badly hurt?”
I bent close to David’s face. His eyes were open. Gold flecks in blue. He was breathing.
“It’s okay, Jeff,” he whispered. “It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.”
Adelaide makes her way through the room, collecting our coffee cups and the popcorn bowl. Time to clear out. She heads into the tiny kitchen and runs water for the dishes. “I’m locking up in ten minutes, kids,” she says. “You’ll have to scoot.” The girls brush popcorn bits from the couch and gather their purses. Pete pulls on his jacket and tucks his smokes in a pocket. “You coming?” he asks. But he knows Adelaide and I have this thing. I always walk her to the subway. “Naw, see you in a bit,” I tell him.
Adelaide is in the kitchen. The way she’s standing at the sink, smiling and quiet, reminds me of my mom before all that shit happened. She was always humming as she scraped pots and washed the plates. I would dry the dishes beside her. She would lean over and kiss me on the head. But after the accident, she couldn’t be near me. She never touched me again. My dad touched me. A hard right across the face hours after David was killed. Once again on the day of his funeral. And pretty well every time he got drunk, which was often. Can’t blame him, really. I guess all that pain can’t be caged. It must keep searching for a way to escape. I had to escape.
“Ready?” says Adelaide. She slings her purse over her shoulder. I grab my jacket and cigarettes. I turn out the lights, she locks the door, and I make a show of extending my arm like some geezer escorting another geezer. She takes my arm, and we walk the three blocks to College Street.
Music rises from the subway station below. The notes are loose in the air like birds released from branches. We walk down the steps, and a busker is playing the guitar near the turnstiles. His head is bent as he plucks the strings slowly.
“Nice,” says Adelaide, smiling and tugging at my arm. She fishes two tokens out of her purse. “My treat,” she says and drops them in the collector’s box.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I don’t know yet.”
We walk down to the platform.
I always have trouble in subways. Dark tunnels. Shiny tracks. A rush of air and speeding metal. One step. It would be so easy. So quick. I would soar for just a moment. Suspended. Free. Would it hurt?
“Listen!” says Adelaide, her head tilted. The busker is playing a new song. Something happy. She holds out her arms. I look around. We are alone.
“Come on,” says Adelaide. “Shall we dance?” I take her hand, and we start to dance. We hold our heads high and take clumsy steps. It’s a mess. We make our way along the empty platform. The busker plays on.
The music takes me home again.
The windows are open to the night. Lake breezes stir the curtains. Music from Mr. Rodrigues’ house fills our living room. He is singing. My Fair Lady? That’s it. His voice is clear and warm.
I have often walked down this street before
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before
Mom and Dad are dancing. Her arms around his neck. His hands hold her waist. David and I watch from the doorway. Dad whispers to her. She laughs and looks at us.
“Boys,” she says with a smile and a nod. David and I join them.
All at once am I several stories high
Knowing I’m on the street where you live
My head is on Dad’s chest. I smell his Old Spice. Mom kisses our cheeks.
Mr. Rodrigues sings. I have David’s hand in mine. We take flight.