The sex workers have moved up a block from Henry Street to Livingstone. There are about five or six, and every few weeks a new one shows up or one disappears. They wait, one at a time, to be picked up, on the concrete steps of the grassy traffic island in front of Laurie’s house.
The island, a triangle of mature trees, has recently had some municipal attention. The city has constructed a memorial to Holloway School, a Protestant grade school that was demolished a couple of decades ago when the Catholic and Protestant school systems amalgamated.
A surviving piece of the school’s concrete foundation has been moved by forklift to the centre of the island and encased in brick with a dome-shaped copper cap. It’s a stubby pillar with a crushed gravel walk around it and a couple of park benches and new shrubs sitting in fresh ovals of mulched cedar.
There was nothing the city could do about the ugly brown metal box that provides access to underground telephone cables, a peeling yellow hazard sticker on the front. In the evenings Laurie sits in her living-room window, across from the traffic island, with her laptop. She Skypes her daughter, Lila, who is doing a summer language course in Montreal. Lila is twenty-one and there’s no internet in her dorm so she Skypes from nearby sidewalk cafés. They’re in the middle of a heatwave in Montreal, and Lila’s dark hair curls in the humidity and her eyes are big and blue and she moves in languid slow motion through the swelter on the blue-tinged screen, the racket of the city behind her, bursts of static and white noise. Sometimes there is the tinkling of pots and pans in the distance from the protests. Lila keeps telling Laurie to look up the police violence on YouTube.
They ran someone over with a squad car and didn’t stop, Lila says. Hit and run.
Sometimes, because of a technical glitch, Lila’s lips move after she’s spoken, a silent echo that gives everything she says extra significance.
Laurie hasn’t told Lila about the separation. She can’t bring herself to say it. Her daughter seems like an emissary from Laurie’s own youth. Laurie keeps expecting to hear her daughter say some splinter of truth that will reverse everything. Bring her back to being twenty-one, when she first met Gary. They’d been hitchhiking through India. The bleached cotton pirate shirt he wore, the smell of his sandalwood soap, the giant leeches that attached themselves to their ankles and calves during the monsoon. They’d sprinkled them with ordinary table salt and watched them curl away and drop to the floor.
Want to see my dress? I got it at a yard sale, Lila says as she sets her laptop down on the patio table and the picture jiggles and bounces. She holds her arms out and turns to the side and turns back. Laurie’s daughter in a delicate silk dress of colourful scarves, the breeze belling the skirt. Then she saunters forward and the screen fills for an instant with a rippling and snapping red, the tail end of one of the scarves.
How are your classes? Laurie asks. Lila looks away, over her shoulder, for a long moment.
Mom, I have to go, she says. And then her lips say it silently again.
I have to go.
One of the sex workers has something wrong with her right leg. She wears thigh-high boots and at first Laurie thinks one of the heels must have cracked, is maybe hanging on to the sole by a thread of rawhide. The wobble peculiar, as though the problem is something outside the girl and she has to recognize it anew with every step. But it is just the way the girl walks.
Some evenings, when she’s high, the girl wrings her hands as if washing them and turns her head compulsively, left and right, checking for traffic even when there is no traffic. The girl is getting skinnier and skinnier. She has a cellphone and most of the johns drive pickups. They come down Long’s Hill and pass Laurie’s window and slow down and the girl stands and flicks her cellphone shut and hobbles to the truck and speaks to the driver through the window and then she goes around the front and gets in on the passenger side.
At dusk, there is a brief period when the light gets grainy and everything loses its edge and Laurie knows no one can see her from the street. She feels invisible. At the same hour, for some reason, voices on the street become very distinct. Clear and intimate. She has heard one sex worker tell another to be careful.
You be careful tonight. You too, honey. She hears their shoes on the pavement. She hears the doors of the trucks when they climb inside, the tires on the asphalt pulling away.
Then, last week, some kind of sports car, black with a royal-blue racing stripe on the hood and splotches of rust, the ass of it swaying over the road as it screeched down Long Street. It skidded to a stop so the headlights shone down the little lane leading to Tessier Place, and the driver got out and ran after a girl and Laurie ran out onto the street and she could hear the girl screaming and the man was yelling and there was another man’s voice. The two men seemed to have planned an ambush for the girl.
The driver of the sports car had left the door swinging open and the car was running and music thumped out. Laurie had been whipping cream and she’d put the stainless steel bowl and whisk down on the staircase in her rush out the door. She waited with her arms crossed over her chest, trembling all over, in the middle of the street. Then she saw the girl, the red T-shirt she was wearing, run across Livingstone and into a backyard. It was the girl with the wobble. She must have broken through the thick alders on Tessier that hid a little alley between two houses.
The driver trotted back down the lane and got into his car and Laurie approached him and asked him why he’d been chasing the girl. The man said he was a police officer.
You’re a cop? Laurie said. She kept her arms crossed tightly, gripping her elbows, but her voice kept creeping up, getting shrill. Yes, I am, the man said. I’m with the police. The black leather seats were sunk low and there were blue lights inside and the smell of cologne wafted out. A pungent musk with a hint of something sweet, like coconut, masking something sour. Maybe he’d spilled milk in there. The man was bald and his arms were very big and his neck was thick and ugly and she asked him again.
So, you’re a cop, she said.
Not an actual cop, he said. I’m a security guard. That girl stole something of mine.
Really, Laurie said. A security guard of what? But he was already backing up.
What are you guarding? Laurie screamed. The car squealed all the way back up Long Street, then turned and tore down Long’s Hill, on the other side of the traffic island, and was gone around the corner onto New Gower. When Laurie approached her front door she could hear a metallic rat-a-tatting going on inside. The dog had found the bowl of cream and was nosing it against the radiator, licking it clean. Laurie called the police, but she didn’t have the licence plate.
She called Gary that night but he said, I thought we weren’t going to do this.
Do you have someone there? she asked. Laurie, he said. What about counselling? she said. We’re just seeing where this gets us for now, he said.
The girls go into the parking lot of the Kirk and do whatever they do in the trucks with the dim cab lights on. Laurie is up there sometimes with the dog, but she never looks in the direction of an idling truck. She is frightened in the dark lot, but the dog needs to go out all the bloody time. He’s just a puppy, two years old. A frisky English setter who nips at her bum when he’s excited, or he jumps up and plants his two front paws on her chest, pinning her against the wall.
Once the front door is open he pulls so hard on the leash she feels like he might tear her arm out of its socket. The rasping and wheezing he makes, straining against the collar, as if she were choking him to death. Beyond the parking lot of the church there is some undeveloped land, a steep hill of saplings that gives way to gravel, and far below that, the dance school’s empty parking lot. Laurie keeps the dog on the leash to cross Livingstone Street, and then Long’s Hill, but when they get to the Kirk she unhooks him and the dog takes off.
His paws barely touch the ground. The dog is mostly white, with black spots, and he’s liquid and silvery under the streetlights. He stops to piss on the grey dumpster at the end of the parking lot, and he pisses on the tulips in the flower bed in front of the community hall, and then he tears around the corner and weaves through the grass and saplings of the steep hill behind the church. She calls to him but he doesn’t come.
One night she is in the parking lot and the dog has found a spot in the long grass and his back is curled up and his tail is raised and he’s straining to shit when a truck engine starts up and the headlights come on. Laurie calls for the dog. She bends and slaps her thighs and begs him to come.
Here, Hunter, now, she says. Come now. The dog staggers forward a step or two, but stays where he is, and the truck moves toward her. It’s after midnight and she turns to walk the length of the lot, a fast pace, the leash draped over her shoulders. The truck pulls up near and crawls beside her, the wheels crunching over the loose gravel, dipping into a few puddles.
Nice night, the man says. Laurie doesn’t look at him. Leave me alone, she says. Are you looking for a bit of company? he asks. Then the dog comes out of nowhere, whacking her hard against the back of her knees so she stumbles. He barks and growls and snaps at the truck and the man moves off, pulling on to Long’s Hill and up to Parade Street.
There is a service for the unveiling of the memorial on the little traffic island. They’ve blocked off Livingstone Street for two hours and put out a hundred folding chairs on the asphalt and a school band is playing and Laurie can hear them from the bath.
The music vibrates through the cast-iron tub and she can feel it in her bum and the soles of her feet and across her shoulders. They’re playing songs from musicals, Over the Rainbow and Singin’ in the Rain.
Her bathroom window was smashed by her twelve-year-old son, Carl, and his friend Neil, and now there is just a piece of plywood over the broken pane. Laurie got an estimate to replace it but the men are so busy. It could take all summer.
Apparently, Carl and Neil had been playing video games all afternoon in Carl’s bedroom, American soldiers blowing up Iraqi army barracks, shooting machine guns at anything that moved, splats of pixelated blood and smoke. They’d reached a fine pitch of agitation and revved-up boredom and they exploded out of the room and, crashing into the walls and bannister, they crammed themselves into the tiny bathroom, slamming the door behind them against imaginary assailants.
Carl told Neil, in the bathroom, that he had watched his parents swimming in a river once and his father had squirted water in his mother’s face.
Laurie heard the story from Carl, and then from Neil’s mother, and from Lila, who’d been babysitting and who’d managed to get a version of it out of her brother. Lila had been in the kitchen and heard the bathroom door slam and had been about to go up and send Neil home.
What happened was Carl had taken a mouthful of water from the bathroom tap and squirted it in Neil’s face. That was how the fight had started, Lila told her.
Carl had been saying how his parents had gone under a waterfall, and his father had dipped below the surface and was gone and when he popped back up his cheeks bulged with the water. His mother, with the waterfall hammering down on the top of her head, thick white foam hugging her shoulders like a fur coat. Then Carl had turned on the tap and put his face under and came up snorting with supressed giggles and just let Neil have it right in the face
And it was true. There had been a waterfall, last summer, and some kids high up on the cliff on dirt bikes, and Laurie had put a hand above her eyes to see the older teenagers up there, revving the engines of their bikes, the sun behind them.
She couldn’t make out who they were or if they were going to fly over the edge of the cliffs on the bikes, the bikes falling away from their bodies as they plummeted to the pool below, and Gary’s hands were on her shoulders and one of his legs between hers and poor little Carl was on the bank watching them through the haze of the waterfall. The roar of the white foam, deafening, and Carl had been huddled and shivering under a wet towel.
Gary had dipped under the water, and Laurie, who is in the bath, dips her head under, and when she comes up the band outside has moved on to an ABBA hit, and Gary came up and shook his head and water drops flew out in sparkling fans, his cheeks bulging, and he’d squirted a stream of water over Laurie’s upturned face, upturned to receive it, laughing, her mouth open, and all the golden sinking sunlight making little rainbows in the mist.
Where is Gary right now? Laurie thinks. Where is he?
Carl had said to Neil in the cramped little bathroom: Like this, my dad sprayed it over Mom’s face like this. And Carl squirted water in Neil’s face and Neil was instantly enraged and he grabbed two fistfuls of Carl’s shirt, near Carl’s neck, and Neil slammed him into the window, once, and then again, and the window smashed and Carl was halfway through and falling but Neil had him. Had him by the shirt, and he dragged Carl back into the bathroom and Laurie can picture the sex worker stopping in the centre of the street, the girl with the strange hobble, and looking up at the boys, astonished and wringing her hands and wringing her hands.
Laurie had been in Cuba with Gary when the window was smashed. They had gone to Baracoa, it was just last month, and stayed with a family and every morning they’d had breakfast on the roof overlooking the city and it rained hard three of the seven days. They drank the silkiest hot chocolate from a teapot the woman of the house brought to them on the roof, and when it rained they sat under a square of corrugated green fibreglass and the lightning spread over the darkened dome of the sky.
The trip was a last-ditch effort. That’s what Gary called it later.
There was a chocolate factory, opened by Che Guevara, and hot chocolate was a specialty in the region and there was a hotel with a couple hundred steps up to it and they went up there and sat by the pool and drank beer delivered by a waiter in a bowtie. They’d taken a taxi to the beach when the weather cleared.
They’d had a lot of sex and got badly sunburnt and went to a bar where Laurie was asked to dance the tango by a professional dancer who was hired by the bar to get people up on their feet.
The man was black and tall and very handsome despite a bad complexion and Laurie didn’t realize, at first, that he was being paid to dance with her.
In the bath, she thought of how it felt, his hand on the small of her back and the music and how he had tipped her over his knee and she’d found she could keep up with him and she saw him lift his eyebrow, surprised by how good she was. It had been an incredible thrill, the look on Gary’s face afterward.
How lit up and happy Gary had seemed, with his cigar, waiting for her at the table. He had seemed proud of her. How sexy she was, out of breath and warm and graceful and there had been applause afterward. She’d done an ironic little bow, and swayed her arm through the air toward her dance partner and he’d bowed too. He had plucked his shirt away from his chest a few times with a finger and thumb, as if she’d made him hot, or like his heart was beating out of his chest, and the audience laughed. He’d wiped his brow and blew breath from the O of his lips, hamming it up, and he’d fanned himself and the audience cheered. The man was making the audience laugh, but there was something authentic in the way he was treating her.
She’d caught, out of the corner of her eye, a minor grimace, a strain. As if they were in it together, getting the audience on their side, and it had been a delicate operation. He’d held her fingers tight, squishing them together in his raised fist as they bowed for the final time, and he’d let her go and kissed the fingers on both his hands and flung them out toward her.
Later, when Gary and Laurie were leaving, she’d glanced over the crowd and the man was at the bar and she waited to catch his eye and he saw her and lifted a little shot glass full of a light-struck dark amber drink and nodded as if they’d reached an agreement.
When Laurie and Gary got back to St. John’s they discovered the bathroom window.
This is just great, Gary said. Who’s supposed to pick up the pieces here? Tell me that?
Lila left for Montreal the very next morning, and two weeks later Carl was off to summer camp and Gary told her he wanted to try a separation, which was both out of the blue and coming all along.
The thrum in the cast-iron tub of the brass band playing ABBA, Darling, can’t you hear me, SOS. Splinters of glass still glittering on the baseboard radiator.
Laurie thinks the brown telephone-cable box probably leaks some kind of radiation that causes an obscure nerve-damaging disease. She knows a man who lived in an apartment whose bathroom window was near a telephone pole with a transmitter and half his face became paralyzed. The paralysis was spreading down his neck when he decided to move out.
The sex workers have moved up to Laurie’s block because of a Facebook campaign, last summer, to shame the johns down on Henry Street. The girl who keeps wringing her hands and has the limp most often sits on the concrete steps in front of the brown metal box and Laurie thinks that the girl will end up with a paralyzed face or a paralyzed everything.
A couple of nights ago, she heard the girl say to her cellphone: You know I would do anything for you. But don’t ask me to do it alone. The girl flung out her arm in a gesture that took in the whole street, including Laurie, who was invisible because of the light at that hour, and all the cars and houses and the Kirk and the parking lot and the stubby pathetic memorial, as if the girl would give whoever was on the phone the whole world if she could, and if it meant she didn’t have to be alone.
Laurie had watched her hobble down the street with the cellphone pressed to her ear. The petals had fallen off the peony Laurie’d had in a low glass vase on the side table, left over from a dinner-party centrepiece, the first dinner party she’d had without Gary, and she was trailing her fingers through the petals as she watched the girl and they were wrinkling up and getting sticky and turning black as she touched them.
Don’t ask me to do it alone. The black car showed up again, with the blue racing stripe, driving down Livingstone next to the girl at a crawl and the girl stumbling on, ignoring the driver. What had she stolen?
She should have taken him for everything he had. It wouldn’t have been enough, Laurie thought.
Laurie wakes up in the middle of the night because of the car horns. Bleating horns, like a wedding. The dog galumphing down the stairs to the living-room window, front paws on the sill, barking. Laurie throws off the bedsheets and pulls on her jeans and picks up the phone and calls Gary’s number on her way down the stairs.
The phone rings and rings in her ear. Four cars are pounding on their horns and tearing around the traffic island, one after the other, at high speed. The sex worker with the bad leg is standing in front of the brown cable box facing Laurie’s window. Her cellphone is emitting a faint green light, and is pressed against her chest. The four vehicles have her trapped there, one of them taking the corner on two wheels and she is hesitating but it seems like she is going to step out between the cars.
She sees Laurie in the window and she is going to run over to her. Make a run for it. That’s what it looks like. The tires squeal and the cars have their hazard lights going and other lights are coming on in the houses all around the neighbourhood. The back wheels of the cars skid and swing out and squeal as they turn the corners and one of them hits a parked car and there are sparks and the horns keep bleating. Just as Gary picks up the phone Laurie bangs on the window with her fist and screams as loud as she can: Stay where you are.
“Guard of What” from Something for Everyone copyright © 2018 by Lisa Moore. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com