The scariest things always happen at the end.
Jen did not pass away. She only left me for somebody else.
I remember the night she called and said, “I have a thing or two to tell you.” This brought to mind a song I used to know by George Harrison: a sad song called “I Need You.” I’ll get back to that in a while, but in the meantime, the night Jen called was November 30th, with the rain pounding and the late autumn wind howling above the street lamps.
As I walked beneath the street lamp nearest Jen’s apartment, its light went out—a slow fade to utter darkness. I took this as a bad sign but I thought it was only that Jen wanted to borrow money again. She had asked for three hundred dollars the previous September, so she could enroll in singing lessons at the night school. She offered to pay me back as soon as she found work. Not work in the music business; we both knew how difficult it was to land anything there. She meant whatever she could get to tide her over: dishwashing at the Keg, carhopping at Eddie’s Burgers, or selling tickets at the winter fair.
So at ten o’clock on November 30th, I climbed the stairs to Jen’s apartment and we sat on the bed in her room, out of earshot of her two housemates. I put my arm around her in the homey, familiar way I used to do, and said, “Now, what did you have to tell me?”
Jen looked at my arm, the one I had around her shoulders, and then burst into tears. “I can’t do this any more,” she said.
“This.” She kept nodding toward my arm, so I removed it. It’s not easy keeping your hands to yourself when your girlfriend is crying.
I waited a long time, hearing nothing but Jen sniffling and the wind rattling her window pane, till finally she explained: “Remember that woman whose name was Jolene that I said I liked? Well, last night after the Sax Ensemble concert, I went home with her. We had sex.”
“Yes?” I prompted her. This wasn’t necessarily a big deal; Jen had had sex with other women before and she always came back to me.
There was another unbearable silence but at least her tears had stopped. “It was intense,” said Jen.
Jen began crying again. “Well, Jolene is telling her girlfriend tonight that it’s all over between them, and I’m telling you tonight that it’s all over between us.”
I sat there not wanting to cry. I mean, I wanted to cry but not in Jen’s room, where she seemed a block away. I wanted to be outside, in the middle of the rainstorm.
Her loose window continued to rattle in its wooden casing. I knew the view outside without having to look: a quaint wooden church, the back of another house, a row of poplar trees. On clear nights, unlike this one, the moon would poke through.
“Jen,” I began, but then couldn’t think of anything else to say. It was over, so I wanted it to be over in a hurry. Why drag it out and make things worse? It was then I noticed that we were sitting in the dark. Jen had neglected to turn on either the bedside lamp or the bulb in the middle of the ceiling.
“If you still have the key to my place, could I have it back?” I said, finally. I didn’t know whether Jen would find it in the dark, but she did: it was tucked away under the mattress. As an afterthought, I said, “This woman, this Jolene. You must feel rather serious about her.”
Jen shrugged, or I imagine she shrugged. Her shoulders were already moving up and down because she was still crying. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she said.
I didn’t want to stay in her room any longer. I wanted to get away into the storm outside. “Goodbye, Jen.”
From the other side of the door I thought I heard Jen say something like, “I hope you don’t need any more closure than this,” but I don’t know for sure. Whatever she’d said, silence was preferable.
What a relief to get outside with the wind and rain, where I felt okay to let my eyes well up. I didn’t know then that I’d be crying right into springtime—off and on, that is.
At the time, I felt aware only of the pellets of rain, like a therapeutic massage, which turned to sleet and then slowed down to a sprinkling of snow.
A delicate white cover had spread over the city by the time I made it home. To me, a layer of snow is the prettiest sight I can bring to mind. It doesn’t last long in our changeable climate, so you have to appreciate it while it’s around.
* * *
To console myself, I kept visualizing a scene from twenty-five years earlier. It was another snowy night and I was walking with my childhood friend Trent. My mother didn’t like me hanging around with boys, but Trent and I were soulmates. We didn’t call it soulmates then; it was merely a feeling we took for granted.
We were on our way to Cedarview Shopping Centre to buy the latest Beatles album, Help! Our favourite Beatle was George Harrison, and the only George song on that album was “I Need You.” Trent and I were singing it en route to Cedarview, even though the lyrics were a shade too melancholy for my liking.
We were walking, or rather sliding, down the middle of the street because there weren’t any vehicles about. Then suddenly there was a pickup truck with our neighbour, Mr. Evans, at the wheel. As he drove past, he rolled down the window and tossed out his wet and crumply cigarette. The tip of it glowed fluorescent amber in the powdery snow.
Trent ran over and picked it up as if he’d found a gold nugget.
“Oh, yuck,” I said as Trent put it in his mouth and took a drag.
“I got hooked on cigarettes since the last time I saw you,” Trent explained.
“The last time I saw you was yesterday in school,” I said.
“Yeah but I’m hooked,” said Trent. “It’s a habit now.”
It turned out that he and our friend Robbie had smoked a couple of cigarettes the night before. They had stolen them from Robbie’s oldest brother.
“This Friday we’re going to drink wine from the cellar—Robbie and me,” said Trent. He flicked away Mr. Evans’ cigarette with a manly finesse.
“Are we going to the winter fair this year?” I said, mostly to change the subject.
“I sure hope so. It wouldn’t be the same if I went without you.”
There were two things at the winter fair that Trent and I were crazy about: the corn dogs, and the Midnight Spook Show.
The Midnight Spook Show was a walk-through exhibit where live actors would come out from behind the walls and try to scare you to death. I couldn’t figure out why it was called the Midnight Spook Show—like the rest of the fair, it closed down by 11 p.m.
“No doubt about it,” said Trent softly. “Who can stop us from eating corn dogs and going to the Midnight Spook Show?” He sounded like he wasn’t so sure.
For the first time since I’d known him, I had the feeling Trent and I were drifting apart. We were, but it took another year—the year we entered junior high—to drift away for good.
I didn’t want the evening to end. I had the oddest feeling I was going to catch hell when I got home, even though I hadn’t done anything. This prompted me to say, “Hey Trent, don’t get caught.”
“Get caught what?”
“You know, smoking and sneaking wine from your cellar and drinking.”
Trent shrugged. I couldn’t see his face because I was trudging behind him. I hurried to catch up, and we began to sing again.
* * *
During the winter that Jen and I broke up, I saw her one more time. It was at the winter fair, after the last bits of snow had melted.
I hadn’t been to the winter fair in years, and was surprised to see that the Midnight Spook Show was still around. The trailer from which it operated looked the same, but the price of admission was five times more than it used to be. I paid it anyway and went inside.
“Was it always this dark in here?” I asked myself as I held out both hands in front of me. My night vision was better when I was a kid.
Every now and then I’d inch my way into a room painted with fluorescent polka dots. An actor dressed in black tights with the same coloured polka dots—amber and chartreuse—would emerge from the wall and shriek. Then he or she would walk backwards and disappear.
Things were different from the days when Trent and I dared ourselves to enter the Midnight Spook Show. Back then, caskets marked His and Hers were strewn about, and live actors inside creaked open the lids and made faces at everyone. Other actors in gorilla suits brushed past us in the corridor. Cobwebs hanging from the low plywood ceiling got in our way. I sure didn’t recall any polka dots that glowed in the dark. And banging on the walls, like someone pounding with a fist—I didn’t recall that either.
A couple of people giggled somewhere behind me. They sounded like exuberant teenagers trying not to be scared, and I inched ahead less slowly so they wouldn’t bump into me. I must have been nearing the exit because I felt a rush of damp air. The scariest exhibit was always closest to the end, so the people outside waiting in the queue would hear you scream.
When we were kids, the final exhibit was a hearse with a casket in the back, and a live actor inside would fling open the lid and snarl at you. You had a good view because all of the windows had been removed from the back of the hearse.
This time around, it was the exact same exhibit: a hearse with a casket in the back. The hearse looked as though it had been in a few more road accidents since I’d seen it last. It was all lit up with footlights, just as I remembered. The lid to the casket began to rise, and the actor inside looked familiar. It was Jen—I was sure of it.
She was wearing white greasepaint and one prosthetic scar across her forehead. Fake blood dripped from both sides of her mouth, the kind of blood concocted from Rogers syrup and Red Dye No. 2. But she had the same unmistakable long auburn hair and dreamy blue eyes.
“Is your name Jen?” I said, stopping alongside the hearse.
Normally I would have said something more familiar, like “Is that you, Jen?” but I felt so shaky in the Midnight Spook Show that I could only speak in a gingerly, hesitant way.
The moment I spoke, she ducked back into the casket and pulled the lid shut. Surely she wasn’t embarrassed to be seen in the Midnight Spook Show. Did she just not want to acknowledge me?
The giggling teenaged couple bumped into me in the dark.
“Hey, you scared me,” said the girl.
“Isn’t anyone coming out of that coffin?” the boy said impatiently. “Last time a ghoul came out and chased us.”
The coffin lid looked as though it had been glued shut.
“Let’s get out,” said the girl. “It’s colder in here than it is outside. And I don’t want any ghouls chasing us.”
They gave me a shove, and the three of us stumbled through the exit curtain.
“Are you okay?” the boy said to me, when we’d all regained our balance. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Some people in the queue overheard him and began to laugh. I did, too, though I didn’t much feel like it. I knew I could alter my state of mind if I found the corn dog stand and ate one with plenty of mustard.
I walked away from the Midnight Spook Show without looking back. I didn’t want to think of Jen, dissolving into nothing in a closed-in space.