We look back and so much of the past seems to portend what would come later. The man in the seat in front of me on the Greyhound bus was returning to Edmonton from his annual vacation in Las Vegas, where in the off-season you can get a cheap room with everything you need, colour TV, air conditioning, room service, no windows, but who needs windows in Las Vegas? He didn’t gamble but he liked to eat cheap meals and read thriller novels and go out to girlie shows, which he preferred to do discreetly as he put it, although once this last time they sat him at a front table two feet away from the showgirls, and that was something, he said, and he held a hand out in front of his chest and blew out his cheeks: if you know what I mean. Across the aisle an older woman with a German accent and her husband, who spoke in the flattened vowels of the Cree peoples or perhaps the Blackfoot Nation, were telling the young woman in the seat ahead of them about the limousine that they had been given use of in Hollywood because the husband, who owned a ranch in Alberta and was wearing a ten-gallon hat in the Greyhound bus, had played an Indian chief in River of No Return with Marilyn Monroe. I would have liked to join their conversation and perhaps introduce myself to the young woman and get to know her a little and go and live with her somewhere in deepest Alberta, but I couldn’t escape the narrative grip of the man in front of me, who had draped himself over the back of his seat and locked his eyeballs onto mine. After Las Vegas he had gone on to San Francisco, where they have porno movies everywhere as he put it, and he had seen Hair the musical, the men standing naked straight up just like that, but the women were all sitting down. The Greyhound bus hurtled down a hill toward a river and then we were in the depot and I hastened off the bus away from the man in the seat in front of me and stepped for the first time into the freezing streets of Lethbridge, Alberta. I had been on the Greyhound bus for twenty-three hours with no sleep and when I went into the nearest beer parlour my eyeglasses steamed up in the warm air and my hands were trembling as I put down my suitcase. Within moments a short balding man in a green windbreaker was explaining to me that his mother was going to take him shopping for pork chops and coconut fingers, heaven help him, a man of his age living with an aging mother in a crummy downtown apartment. His name was Ron and he was forty-seven years old. Last week the aging mother called the police when she lost her wallet, and she and Ron were eating their pork chops when the police came to the door and arrested him in the middle of dinner, but he wasn’t one to complain, for such was fate or perhaps it was destiny that he meant: here was a man whose life was a parable of the unkindness of the world. Last month he’d gone to the HBC to inquire about a janitor position at closing time and a couple of floorwalkers as he called them grabbed him and dragged him into the back room and next thing he was in the paddy wagon heading downtown, which in his words was ironic because everything in Lethbridge is downtown. There was a table full of beer in front of us and I had turned my gaze to the TV set above the bar, on which a wrestling match was playing silently in black and white, when Ron spoke up again: so you noticed I only got one eye, he said. He was tapping the side of his head by his right eyeball: I might have been an airline pilot if it weren’t for this, I could take it out for you but I don’t do that here, not any more. Now I felt compelled to keep looking at Ron in his good eye as he explained among other things that the TV set gave his aging mother nightmares if it was on after 8:00 p.m. When she got the idea that the old lulu in the apartment upstairs had died or croaked as he put it in the middle of the night, she called the ambulance and the hearse and they woke him up pounding on the door with the siren screaming and his mother refused to open up: I never open the door after 8:00 at night, it’s a matter of principle, she says. Then a large man who looked like Samuel Johnson in a peaked cap came up the table and said good afternoon to you, Ron, and he put a large soft hand into mine and said, hello my friend, where have you been all this time? Then he laid a quarter on the table and sat down and picked up a glass of beer, and for a few moments no one said anything at all.
The large man who looked like Samuel Johnson had been laid off by the Downtown Parking Co., whose logo was fastened to his cap. His name was Mac and he was seventy-two years old and he was wearing a rust-coloured cardigan that lent him a grandfatherly air. What have you been telling this man, he said to Ron. On the other side of the beer parlour a tiny woman appeared in the doorway holding a furled umbrella out in front of her; her head was tilted back and she seemed to be looking straight up at the ceiling. Ron called out, over here, over here, and began waving his arms as the tiny woman, who moved as if she were afflicted with a debilitating disease, arthritis perhaps, or osteoporosis, stepped into the maze of tables filled with men drinking beer. Ron continued to call out from his chair: here, Mother, straight ahead, turn right, straight again, I’m here, over here, and she floated up to the table with her head thrown back and the lenses in her eyeglasses, which were as thick as ice cubes, covered in steam: she was holding her head back so that she could see under the glasses. Now she swept her gaze over the table and said rather sweetly, what will I ever do with him, he’s forty-seven years old: why do you make me come down here, son? All right, Mother, said Ron, we’ll go shopping now, and then he said this won’t take a minute, you boys wait right here. When they were gone Mac put a quarter on the table and picked up another glass of beer. I don’t know what she can do with that boy, he said, and then he said, how long have you known him? I had known Ron for less than two hours. Ah yes, said Mac, and where do I know you from? At the table behind us a group of men in hunting caps and plaid wool jackets were boasting about shooting crows. It was 5:00 in the afternoon and I was drunk. I got up and went to the washroom and on my way back bumped into one of the men in the hunting caps, who grunted savagely and uttered a curse and I reminded myself not to forget the suitcase. So you’re leaving town, are you? said Mac: you know there are things I could tell you young fellows. We were both standing now and he stuck out his big soft hand and I took it for the second time. Always enjoy seeing you, he said: look me up again. I began to ease my hand away and he said just a minute, and then he locked his pinkie finger around my pinkie finger and gave a tug. I went out the side door and because everything in Lethbridge is downtown I knew that I would run into Ron again if I didn’t take care, so I went down the alley and into a joint called the Blue Moon Café All Cuisines, which was crowded and much noisier than the beer parlour, and sat down on the only unoccupied stool and took off my glasses to wipe off the steam. The walls of the Blue Moon café were covered in blue crescent moons and yellow stars, and so was the white jacket of the counter man, who slapped down a coffee before I could speak and then said to the man on the stool beside me, whose head I now noticed was resting in a plate of scrambled eggs: hey you, hombre, get the head up, you eat those eggs now, hombre! The man with his head in his eggs had his face turned to the side and seemed to be trying to say something; he was wearing a red toque and a huge overcoat and one eye looked up at me like the eye of a flounder or some other bottom fish, and I could see ketchup in his nose, and then I realized that he too was wearing eyeglasses, but that his were missing the left temple: in its place a length of black thread had been wrapped around his ear and looped into the hinge. Surely he couldn’t have done that himself. Now the counter man put a hand under the man’s forehead and lifted his face out of the eggs: you keep it up there, hombre, and you eat those eggs, he said in a strong Asian accent. The man began pushing eggs into his mouth with his hands, and hash browns and eggs and ketchup leaked out of his mouth and over his fingers and onto his coat. He was moaning softly. The counter man smiled and turned away. It was hot and I had begun to sweat; everywhere else in the Blue Moon there was gaiety and laughter: in a booth against the window a crowd of Hutterites were pouring Beefeater gin into their coffee and chortling madly. The other booths were filled with people in plaid jackets and parkas drinking from brown bags and eating hamburgers and french fries soaked in vinegar and in one of them a large woman in a tight dress was sitting on someone’s lap and kissing him exuberantly. Across from me on the other side of the horseshoe counter, three prosperous-looking gents in expensive overcoats were looking at the obituaries in a newspaper spread out before them: one of them was reading out names in an accent of some kind, and then he said no, there he is: Schmidt, Wolfgang. That’s Schmidt there, poor old Schmidt. The man next to me began to choke and to spew his eggs and the three gents put their hands up in front of their faces. The counter man had disappeared. I looked away and the large woman in the tight dress had moved to another booth: she was throwing herself onto people’s laps. I’m going to kiss all the men in the place, she shrieked. I resolved not to be one of them. The three gents got to their feet in order to wipe scrambled egg from their overcoats and the man next to me began waving a piece of bacon in the air; he was growling and choking and he appeared to be threatening them with the piece of bacon. He blew hard and more scrambled egg flew through the air and now there was ketchup all over the counter. The large woman shrieked again; she was getting closer. I was young and had been halfway around the world and I realized then or perhaps later that I knew the names of exactly two people in Lethbridge and that one of them, who could have been an airline pilot in another life, had a glass eye that, for reasons I would never know, he never took out for you in the beer parlour, any more.