It’s the kind of humidity that makes you think violent thoughts in a flash. A stranger on the street looks at you sideways. Next thing you know there’s blood splattered images dancing through your head.
Shit. It’s been days of it now. Emily and I lying like garbage in front of the fan. Stripped down. On the verge of a total blowout. Whoever speaks first gets nipped at. Dog mentality.
She suggests we get out of the house. I ridicule the idea without even looking at her. But I can feel her eyes on me. So I say fuck it. And I change my tune real fast.
We decide on going up the mountain a bit. To N.D.G. To parc notre-dame-de-grâce. It’s something. Another neighbourhood. A change of scenery. Neither of us have been more than three blocks from the apartment in a week. We’re becoming stagnant. Like the air around us.
Things will get better the more we move around. That’s what we say. It’ll give us a reason for all of this sweat. That’s our logic. So we resentfully put on clothes. We pack bags. We get on our bikes. We struggle up the hill. We make it. But we don’t feel any relief.
Of course the park is packed with people. Everyone has the same damn idea. To hell with the little boxes we call homes. Get the fuck out. There has to be some kind of relief here. In the shade of a tree.
But there aren’t very many of those left. Snapped up earlier. Emily and I wander around a bit. Discouraged from the get go. Drooping from the inside out. But after a half hour of wandering back and forth a small pack of hippies moves on. We swoop in like birds of prey. Patchouli and vinegar sweat still on the air.
Emily puts her backpack on the ground. Pulls out a blanket. Lays it down. We drop onto it with sighs. I empty my bag. Place sandwiches and drinks and books between us. I open a beer for Emily. Then one for myself. Sweat runs off the back of my hand.
There’s a fenced in area for dogs near us. Emily takes a sketchbook and pencil from her bag. I watch her draw a basset hound until she moves on to the background. Then I lean back on my elbows. Stretch out my legs. Release the muscles. Look up into the cloudless blue sky. Curse the sun while I squint at it.
But it has some charm. No question. Better than our dark apartment. Spread out on the floor. Complaining. On the edge of another nasty argument. Out here we can ignore each other for a while. Listen to the birds instead of each other.
Emily can draw the whole fucking park ten times before she gets bored. And I have no problem drinking these beers. And watching all the other assholes who don’t have a better option.
I sip my beer. Watch some fat ass metropolitan lady strutting with her dog. By the looks of things. Clothes for instance. I bet she’s got it all right. Probably goes home to nice place. Air conditioner running high. But this evil eye she’s throwing her smiling golden retriever. I worry for the beautiful bastard. Pray that it’s able to avoid a malicious kick to the hindquarters.
I lose them in the crowd. Open a new beer. Look around the park. From group to group. We’ve all come to suffer in each other’s company. A little camaraderie in the middle of all the wretchedness.
My stomach rumbles. I look at the sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. I ask Emily if she wants one. She thinks on it. Shakes her head no. I tell her they’re going to go bad. She says they already have. I pick one up. Peel back the wrapping. Bite and chew. She’s not right. But she’s wrong either.
I wash the taste out of my mouth. The warm bitter beer is good for that at least. ‘Emily,’ I say, ‘we gotta hurry up. The beer is getting hot already.’ she drains the one in her hand like a pro. Crushes the can. Belches. After she wipes her mouth on the back of her hand she says, ‘quit wasting time then’
I pass her another through laughter.
She goes back to drawing. I push the sandwich away from me. Certain that squirrels will finish it. I pull a paperback from my bag. Make a sorry excuse of reading it. My eyes are too sensitive. Even with sunglasses the softly yellowed pages burn me. I squint. It does nothing.
The sweat from the ends of my fingers is soaking into the pages. Disgusted I drop the book beside me. Emily looks at me with a curled lip. Tosses her sketchbook on top of the novel. ‘I’m sweating right through the thing,’ she tells me with distress. Flops down on the blanket with a sigh.
The whole trip is looking like a waste.
‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ she says. Prostrate on the blanket. Face towards sun. Eyes closed. ‘We can get some beer that’s fucking cold. A bag of ice. Run the facet in the tub until near freezing water comes out. Fill it. Dump the ice and jump in behind it.’
To me it sounds like bliss. I chug my beer in answer. Start throwing our stuff in my bag. Emily doesn’t have a chance to get up before I’m pulling the blanket out from under her like a third rate magician. She laughs. It’s good to hear. It reminds of me when the air wasn’t so thick. When we could call this living.
We get on our bikes. Ride them slowly along a paved path winding through the park. Every few meters there’s an old wooden bench. People sit on them with drinks. Ice creams. Any god damn thing that might bring a second of relief.
To me though. Each one looks more beat that the last. Run into the ground. Exhausted. Their cold treats not everything they’d expected. The fools. No one will see any comfort for days. When if we’re lucky. Some cold ocean air blows down the Saint Lawrence. Bringing with it rain. The ability to breathe. Freedom.
Then it happens. I feel a concentrated burn from the distance. I look up ahead of us on the path. And sure enough I’ve been singled out. He looks like the biggest oaf in the park. Furrowed brow. And a fat gut that brings to mind a pressure cooker rattling just before it blows.
His eyes are on mine. There’s a look to them that takes me back decades. To when I was young. And lived in a small town with nothing to do. Meatheads like this would cruise the streets looking for anyone strange. A different punching bag every Friday night. At least I have experience.
I look him up and down. His hair is black and shiny. Slicked straight back from the forehead. In one hand a red plastic cup. His eyes are glassy. A lack of reason behind them. I know I won’t be lucky. And leave the park without knowing what he thinks.
Time starts to slow. I pedal faster. I watch the oaf with scrutiny. He lifts his arm from his gut. Takes a step back with his right leg. Plants his left. Arms fan out wide on either side. A bounce in his back leg. Like a world class soccer player limbering up before a penalty kick.
So this is how it’s going to be. He lifts his back leg. Swings it in like a fucking wrecking ball. His timing is perfection. His enormous running shoe connects. Pain shoots up my left shin. I continue to pedal. Like nothing even happened.
Which throws the huge beast off balance. I look over my shoulder. He’s spinning around. His thick ape arms are thrown in the air. The force of the spin pulls his drink up out of the cup. It hangs in the air an instant. I smile. It soaks his neck and shoulders.
I don’t know why. But stopping my bike seems like the right thing to do. Emily passes me. Stops farther away from me. From him. Safer. She asks me what the fuck? Do I know him? I start laughing. I tell her he was my rival at charm school.
She rolls her eyes. ‘Well, I should’ve known he was an old friend of yours. He’s got the look. A real fucking winner.’ she starts laughing. And in a couple of seconds we’re both doubled over.
But then. All of a sudden. Emily gets quiet. And there’s some fear in her voice when she says my name. I ignore her. Thinking about my luck. Singled out like this. And from a distance no less. I should be honored.
So it takes Emily a few more tries. Her soft voice raised as she says babe over and over. There’s that fear again. So I stifle my laughter. Stand straight. She points behind me. I get off my bike. Let it drop to the ground. I look where she was pointing. I see why she’s scared.
The big oaf ain’t moved since he kicked me. His red plastic cup on the ground beside him. Broad chest heaving. Eyes narrowed. Staring at me from under his brow. And from where I am I can see his thoughts as they happen. They say this is my fault. And I have to pay.
Which is just like back home. When some dumb bastard made a fool of himself instead of me. These types never have a capacity to admit defeat. Walk away like a man. The mind recoils from the humiliation. Goes blank. Then gives up control to fists the size of a ham.
It must be the heat. And I’m just as much on edge as everyone else. Looking for a fight. Or at the very least someone to take all of my hate like a gift. I can hear Emily begging me to pick up my bike. Ride away. She sounds so far off. And I’m passed coming back.
‘What the fuck man?’ I yell over at him.
‘I’ll. Fucking. Kill you. Motherfucker,’ he growls at the top of his lungs.
Shit. I expected some back and forth. Playful insults. Male posturing. Pissing on each other’s leg. That sort of thing. But now I’m wondering what I’ve got myself into. I don’t listen to current events. For all I know there could be a Canada wide manhunt for this maniac. Recently self liberated from a first rate bughouse.
I think of Emily’s pleading. And how I should’ve listened. But there’s no going back. I’m in it now. There are hundreds of witnesses. Waiting. Watching. All of them looking for a sign of me backing down. And I hope to hell they can’t tell I’m quaking.
So I start running over things in my head. Like what I’ll do if this fucking screwball starts charging. I have to keep out of his reach. He’s a head taller than me. And at least forty pounds heavier. If he gets a hold of me I’m finished. Busted face and unconscious. Emily crying. Guarantee.
Just then Emily tugs on my sleeve. Says ‘c’mon’ with some fear in her voice. And I know I should listen. But I don’t. Instead I softly touch her arm with my hand. Tell her not to worry. That things are going to be just fine while never taking my eyes off the oaf.
I remind myself of the outcome. One wrong word. Beaten and bloodied. But I’m without a filter. And before I know what I’m doing I’m mouthing off. Giving the people what they want. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? You fat greasy ape.’ Emily sighs behind me.
My first hope is that he doesn’t understand English. Which is pretty far off the mark. He did threaten to kill me in my native tongue. And even if I had my doubts. The way his face turns red. And how his body shakes. I’m certain every word I just said soaked straight through his thick sloping forehead.
I stabilize my legs. If he comes running I have to be ready. It’ll call for perfect timing. But I believe in myself. And I think I’ll be able to land a good straight jab to the bridge of his nose before he has a chance to throttle me.
My only fear is evolution hasn’t blessed him with a thicker skull than average. Like some god damned mountain goat. If that’s the case. I can add broken wrist to my list of upcoming injuries.
But he doesn’t come at me like a barbarian. Instead he stands up straight. Puffs out his chest. And yells in a booming voice. ‘Do you wanna know who the fuck I am? I’m the god damned king of the park. And I kick whoever the fuck I want.’
The whole world goes silent. Still. Did the birds all die? Has all the traffic stopped along rue Sherbrooke? He’s the fucking king of the park is he? Jesus.
I know what I’m going to do before it starts. I stand there with tears streaming down my face. One arm covering my convulsing stomach. Laughing in the king’s face. Pushing my luck.
Emily is pleading now. She’s no stranger. Seen this all before. Me crossing lines I shouldn’t. I turn around and look her in the eyes. Which are glassy with worry. Pre-tears. I’ve gone and got her scared again. So I smile. Touch her cheek. Whisper ‘don’t worry baby, we can get going now.’
She smiles. I’ve done the right thing.
Sure I’ve crossed a line with the king. But that has no weight. Not compared to the line I crossed with the girl I love. I’ve gone and made her afraid again. I always forget I’m not alone. That it matters if I’m the victim mentioned in tomorrows violent headline.
She backs away enough so I can no longer touch her. So I use my most calming voice when I nod and tell her she’s right. That it’s time to leave. Even though it’s a fucking lie. I know I want one last word. I need it. I can’t escape it.
The king hasn’t moved an inch. I pick up my bike. Throw a leg over the frame. Look at Emily and wink. She smiles. I already feel bad when I turn around towards the king. ‘Hey, your highness,’ I yell at him, ‘from where I’m standing, the only thing you’re the king of fat asses.’
I can feel Emily’s outrage tear through my shirt. Burrow its way deep into my heart. I know I should’ve just left quietly. But it’s not in my nature. It’s sweet of her though. That after all these years. And all my bullshit. She still believes I can change for the better.
Someone clears his or her throat. I look around. I’d forget where we are. A crowded public park on a sunny afternoon. The people are bored. Looking for a show. A little blood stain on the pavement would do the trick.
The king must feel the pressure too. His subjects silently waiting his proclamation. And like all great kings before him he delivers an unforgettable answer. ‘You know what I’m gonna do?’ he screams, ‘I’m gonna shove heroin up your ass and make you beg.’
If I thought it was silent before I was wrong. I look around. Young mothers are scrambling to cover the ears of their children. Shocked faces everywhere. And I have to agree. I didn’t see that coming.
Which I have to give the guy some credit. It’s not often you hear such unbridled creativity in the streets. This is the kind of thing people wished they said. He sure has put a smile on my face. But I remember Emily’s plan of cold beer and a colder bath. And I know that I’ve had enough.
‘You take it easy pal. I gotta go.’ I blow him a kiss. I turn to Emily, ‘aw fuck it Em. Lets go home.’ she’s smiling now. Her moment of fear a memory. She laughs while she asks me if I heard what he said in excitement. I nod and tell her I think the whole damn park heard him.
We cycle away laughing. Making jokes. The sound of the king in the background. Growling like a wounded animal. Still in need of a violent outcome. And for the time being we forget about the heat.
– – – – –
A few minutes later. At the depanneur on the corner of our block. We stand inside the cooler pretending to make our choice. We wait until our sweat freezes. We grab a dozen of cheap beer. Pay for it. Hop on our bikes. We ride like valkyries.
I unlock the door. Emily pushes passed me. Goes to the bathroom and turns the water on full blast. I put most of the beer in the fridge. I chuckle to myself while I do. It might not have been any cooler in the park. But at least we had some fun.
I bring four cans with me into the bathroom. Emily is already stripped down and sitting waist deep in the cool water. I open two of the cans. Place them on the edge of the small tub. Rip open the bag of ice. Dump it into the water. Emily squeals with relief.
I pull my pants off. And there’s a large black bruise covering my shin where he kicked me. I hand Emily a beer before I get in. When I sit down she asks me if it hurts. ‘You’d think so. But no,’ I tell her
‘Can I touch it?’ she asks while reaching out slowly.
‘If you even try…I’ll shove heroin up your ass and make you beg.’
Steve Anwyll has a novel (Welfare) coming out with Tyrant Books, he talks shit at Hobart pulp and runs the twitter @oneloveasshole