From Allegheny, BC, published by Nightwood Editions in 2012.
She ran a boarding house on Doman Street in South Vancouver. The boarders, all men, lived in the basement two to a room. My father had moved up north and I’d come to the city alone on a bus from Cranbrook. I found her ad in the classifieds and took a cab straight from the station to her house. I had enough money to cover the first month’s rent and moved in that afternoon with my belongings stuffed in a bag. She was a large woman with a red face and dyed hair. Her husband had been a master sergeant, but died a year after he retired. When she asked my age I told her I was twenty-one, but she laughed and said, Don’t lie to me honey or you can find somewhere else to live. So I told her the truth, that my dad had left me to go up north and I’d quit school to come to the city to live on my own. The next day she took me to the welfare office and argued with a case worker and a supervisor until they agreed to pay my room and board if I went back to school. Mount Baker had been a semester school and there were two in the Lower Mainland. Mrs. Tobin took me to them both that day. Magee was for the city’s rich kids and turned me away, but New West Secondary said I could start classes the next morning. That evening, my new roommate Ken took me to the Cobalt to watch strippers and to have some beers. Before we left the house he showed me a baseball card, perfectly preserved, from 1967. It featured a young Ken, in a Detroit Tigers uniform standing on the dugout steps with a bat resting on his shoulder, a huge grin spread across his broad face. I played two seasons until I broke my back in a motorcycle accident. I couldn’t play after that. I’ve got arthritis now. It hurts all the time. But fuck it eh? I’m lucky to be alive, so ain’t no point in bitching. Ken was on disability and three or four times a year got paid to carry cocaine in a backpack via bus to Montreal or Toronto. He had a gambling problem and spent his meagre winnings on prostitutes, but Mrs. Tobin liked him and he always paid his rent. At the bar Ken walked me past the bouncers who nodded their heads as we passed. He called a waitress by name and ordered a pitcher of draft. When she left he said, I got you in, so you can buy the drinks. Okay? I nodded my head and paid the waitress when she returned. Three hours later I was throwing up in a urinal. A man shoved me as I swayed toward the sinks to wash my face. I slipped and fell against the filthy tiles sleek with piss and water. I got up and puked again into a sink. At the table Ken was gone and so were our drinks. I sat down and watched the stripper. A power ballad began to blare through the speakers. She was nude and her breasts hung and gleamed with sweat as she bent over to pick up a folded quilt at the edge of the stage. She flung it outwards and dropped it open on the floor. She walked a slow circle around it, grinding her hips. I was drawn to the perfect blankness of her face. I stood up and walked toward the stage. I felt I was the only person there besides her. The singer’s voice peaked at the chorus of the song, but no words were being sung, there were only sounds that moved across her like the stage lights that pulsed and crisscrossed against her body. She laid her belly against the quilt, and began to grind her hips into the floor. Her hand flickered between her legs like a small trapped bird as she mocked playing with herself. On her left ankle I saw a blue tattoo of a heart with wings. I reached out to touch it. Her body whipped away from me the instant my fingers touched her skin. I saw a garter snake I had tapped lightly with a stick behind my uncle’s barn. It shivered then flashed into a hole beneath the faded boards of the wall. She was standing, her dark hair wild against her face. She was pointing at me. I looked at her eyes and she screamed Don’t touch me you fucking freak! You don’t touch the fucking dancers! Get the fuck out of here! A deep warm voice spoke into my ear, it made me think of the murky water we would dive into off the banks of the river. Okay, buddy, it’s time to go. Come on. A hand gripped my arm just above the elbow and guided me between the tables toward the bouncer at the front door. He pushed it open and pushed me through it onto the sidewalk. Go home pal, you’re covered in puke, he said and pulled the door shut. The air was a thin drizzle of rain against my face, headlights slid like the blurred tails of comets through the dark. I reached into my pockets but they were empty. I lowered my head and stepped off the edge of the world.