We evict Champ first because we’re worried he’ll kill us. Even laid up in the hospital with one hand set to rot off, he could do it. Even fucked up, bedridden, and stuck in a room with another guy whose entire leg is swollen up like the Michelin Man, he could do it. Champ has it in him. Look past his Huey Lewis hair, and you can see it in his face, all marked up like a tiger mauled him. He could go room to room and kill every patient, nurse, orderly, and doctor from here to the lobby if he wanted to. Jack’s sixty-one with a cane, and I’m not overweight but soft around the middle and weak everywhere else. We’d be nothing to him. This is why we’ve brought J.J. with us. He stands next to the bed, slapping himself, the only thing separating us from Champ. Before pulling us apart like Kleenex, he’d have to reach past the little boy he has so much affection for, or push him down, or step over him.
I have a whole quart of Iceberg in my pants, between my thigh and balls, and my concern is that if something happens it might break and I’ll be drinking denim-filtered vodka until tonight.
When we closed the shop and didn’t need someone like him around anymore, he said sure, like it was no big deal. Then went out and fought every man in some bar across the river. We heard about it on the news first, then someone said to me, That was the Champ, you know, and then I put it together. It could’ve just as easily been us.
We expect him not to take it well.
After we let him go, he had to take a job at the grocery store, this human pit bull forced to walk among college kids and goofy old moms, forced to unload cans of soup and detergent and whatever else. A shelf stacker. Didn’t have enough money to go anywhere else, so we let him stay with us, and because he stayed all the other guys stayed, too, even though we weren’t growing or selling or dealing or anything. In the meantime, we’d been waiting for an opening. None of us have ever seen the Champ sick or hurt in any way. Even after that big fight, he’d shown up with nothing more than a limp tacked on to his swagger and some cuts on his hands. Kept sticking his pinky in his ear like he had water in there but was otherwise unharmed.
It takes a miracle of international produce exchange—a highly venomous spider stowed away in a crate of oranges—to finally lay him out. His hand is wrapped so thick it looks like a cartoon, a big white glove like Goofy wears. Underneath, it’s necrotizing. This story made it into the papers, too. The spider scientist they interviewed said it was a near-impossible event for a brown recluse to have made it this far north.
Jack gets right to the point. He says:
We’re emptying the house.
We wait while Champ thinks it over. J.J. screams a couple times, and I sort of squeeze him, but it doesn’t do much. He screams, flaps his hands, and points at Champ’s glove. But the Champ is all business. That body—with all of its strength and power, with all its years of taking beatings and dishing them out—doesn’t swell up, doesn’t flex, doesn’t turn against us. He gives Jack his good hand in a hearty clasp, the kind you might give to someone who just lost a family member.
Then he asks, When do you want me out?
And that’s it.
For the first time, that face with all its pits and bumps and scars makes him seem weak, or tired. They go over the details, share a more heartfelt round of handshakes, and it’s over. No one kills anyone. Champ says he’s enjoyed his time with us, and he even seems like he means it, too.
Then Michelin Man blows it. He says to us, Control your fucking kid, because J.J.’s been screaming again. We’re all used to it—we hardly notice anymore. For us, it’s on par with those soft, constant sounds that fill up the day: the hum of a washer and dryer, the hiss of wind through the yard.
One second, Champ’s in bed, and the next he’s throwing open the curtain in his pineapple print boxers, his body all ribs and muscle like an Olympian. In the moments before anyone thinks to say anything, Champ already has the guy by his diabetic foot, and he’s wrenching it up, even using his big white mitt. Then he closes the curtain from the inside.
If Michelin Man is brave enough to say anything, we don’t hear it. We only hear the Champ, in that quiet voice that scares the shit out of us:
awful shame if
I would if I
Then Champ is out, and that light is back in his face. Blood’s pumping. There’s even some shape inside those boxers. He gets back into bed and doesn’t bother to close the curtain, so the guy who almost got creamed is doing his best not to look at us.
Jack’s face doesn’t move behind his black glaucoma glasses, because he’s trying to act like what he just saw was no big deal. I know he’s assuming it’s a display of power. An intimidation tactic, and later he says exactly that. But I don’t think it was at all. Champ puts his good hand on J.J.’s head while he talks, and I can see for the first time that he was never going to hurt us. The Champ would hurt the mailman or the guy behind the curtain or a guy who gives him grief at a bar, but never us. There’s a flush of guilt that goes right through me, something I’ve felt a lot about him, especially since he went from being a paid tough guy to a shelf stacker at the grocery store.
In the elevator going down, Jack says he thinks it went well because of the painkillers, tapping his temple while he says it, but I know better. I nearly say what I’ve realized, which is, It went well because he’s our friend, Jack, but I don’t. I know he hates to be corrected, know it isn’t something he needs to hear, and know I have nothing to gain by saying it. All I have is a fight to start. I think about the spot of blood on Champ’s bandage, like someone with too much lipstick had leaned over and kissed him there. Instead, I say:
Two down, three to go.
Which is much more of a Jack thing to say, and he even gives me a little smile for it. We don’t have anything else to say about it, so I take out my bottle and have a nice long drink while J.J. beeps and grunts in time with the elevator noises. I have an urge to run as soon as the door opens, cradle my vodka like a baby, and run up and out that ramp with the orange lights, run up to the surface and disappear. But I don’t.
If the house weren’t in such a shitty neighbourhood, the door would have been broken down long ago. Me, Jack—all the deadbeats in our employ—we’d be in jail. J.J. would be taken from us, along with any and all assets related to the growth and cultivation of an illegal substance, and that would be the end of it.
But that can’t happen anymore. Now there’s no drugs or hydroponic equipment in the house, and the only person strung out on anything is me or Morgan, who’s using stuff with names like Blow Off keyboard duster and Gorilla Glue. When we pull in, we find him on the deck, lying on his back like a dead bug, his blond hair fanned out with dry leaves in it. Even with orange around his mouth and a paint-stained bag in his hand, he’s as beautiful as ever. Breathtaking.
There was a time when Morgan used to fit right in, when he was a totally normal part of the scenery. Now the house is a nice place—has a fancy two-tiered living room with inlaid bookshelves, hyper-modern bathrooms, a macho stainless steel kitchen with marble counters. We used to get drunk on the steps and throw our bottles and trash into the street like it was the 1800s. We used to have motorcycles parked in a row out front, with Odie’s biker buddies buying vacuum-sealed bricks of weed the size of travel pillows. Morgan—with his cans of keyboard duster and spray paint and solvents—belongs to the old neighbourhood.
We’ll get him later, Jack says.
We step over him and go inside.
We used to watch the gentrification (what Champ called the fancy-fication)—the condos springing up, new businesses appearing, abandoned buildings getting pulled apart—and it scared us. One day, when we were having gin and tonics on the stoop, we saw a guy with a tie and a briefcase on our street. That was the scariest day of our lives.
Jack was a newspaper person once, so he’s aware of the correlation between a neighbourhood’s income level and police presence. Always talked about it. If it became nicer, he explained, if there were happier, friendlier people—taxpayers, voters, citizens—it would be over. All the other telltale signs of a hothouse had been there: power bill through the roof, bars on all the windows, and the simple smell of skunky, earthy weed growing in plant pots by the dozen. But we knew these things weren’t enough to draw attention. You needed people for that. People who weren’t zombies. People to complain and point fingers, wring their hands, and say that house is a danger to the community. But we got out just in time.
Are you at least going to drink out of a glass? Jack asks me.
He motions to J.J., who is with his toys, and definitely not watching me, but who is at least nearby. I don’t point out the obvious; if J.J. is capable of learning anything, it isn’t going to be from any of us. We’ve had him for years, and he’s never copied us, never done anything remotely normal. His autism makes him like a person buried inside a pile of rocks. He can scream and writhe around, and not much else. It doesn’t matter what we do around him. When I mentioned this before, I paid for it immediately. Had to go to the drugstore and find makeup the right colour and tint for the skin around my mouth. I also don’t mention that Jack used to drink out of liquor bottles, too; that was how we met. The news editor and a lowly carrier, both sneaking out to have cold sips of vodka in the alley near the break room.
Instead I say, Oh yes, sorry, and hustle to the kitchen. I get a mug that says IF YOU’RE PUSHING 50, THAT’S EXERCISE ENOUGH, which doesn’t at all match the new decor, though I don’t either. I fill it up, but to be sure I put my quart right back down my pants.
I think about the fight we could’ve had if I had said no about the mug. With Jack, a yes or a no can take you anywhere—good or bad—so you have to choose carefully. I remember when the paper went under and Jack talked about an old piece of real estate he had and the babysitting job he could give me. I had blown my internship and wasted my degree and was carrying papers instead of writing stories like I thought I’d be. I was thinking about jumping off the Macdonald Bridge. I remember exactly how I said yes to him, which was in a careful way—because I was excited, didn’t want to mess it up, and wanted so badly to please him. I think about all the other men I could have said yes to, and think about what I would be instead.
I think about all that and watch J.J. slap his own face, watch Jack drink from my cup. I think about how everything is really just a bunch of yeses and noes, from cave people to your grandparents, all the way down to right now.
I know how this is going to go:
We’re going to go through that steel basement door we put in to protect the product and hold back the smell, except now that earthy chemical tang will be gone, replaced with something worse. We’re going to smell the stench of B.O., cigarettes, and the black mould growing out of the dropped ceiling, a smell like fish and feet and that pulpy hamster cage odour that develops when no air circulates. It’s going to be so thick we can pluck bits of it out of the air like cotton candy. All of this will make Jack very upset.
There’ll only be two of them down there, Odie and Will, and they’ll be smoking and drinking and doing blow or meth or something I’ve never heard of. There was once carpet down there that has since been beaten down to a hard black crust of spit and dirt and tobacco. Will’s bare feet will be right on the stuff, in a spot he’s cleared of burger wrappers and broken glass and little bits of crud. Will could be half-naked. Odie will be wearing the same clothes he’s worn for weeks. That vest with a defunct motorcycle gang logo on the back. THE WANDERERS, with a bearded skeleton on a hill.
Will, who’s old and feeble, will be affable and friendly. Odie, who thinks he’s owed something from the world, will get shitty with Jack. And Jack will try to be cool, but inside he’ll be boiling. He’ll try out his boss voice and make rational points: he’s never charged them rent, he’s given them lots of warning, and he’s not being unfair by wanting to finish the basement. He’ll be mad, and I might have to pay for it.
Odie’s face will turn to granite, his lower jaw will jut out, and his nostrils will flare like an early human’s. He’ll say something, and then Jack will say something back, and from there anything can happen. The big bowie knife that Odie sometimes wears on his belt might get plunged into Jack’s chest. I can see a world where I jump in front and save him, and one where I don’t. One where I watch him go down and do nothing about it, and one where I fall over his body and start screaming and crying. I can see a world where Jack puts the right words together and they go, Sure thing, chief, and everything’s like the good old days, when we were all pals, all the same kind of guys living in the same kind of place, all doing the same kinds of things. I can see a world where they shower and put on clean clothes, and we all have a last supper in the new dining room, at the new dining-room table, in the new dining-room chairs.
In all these situations, Jack will come upstairs mad, either at the outcome, or the state of the place, or that he needs to change his clothes now. Or at me.
So when he says, Come on, let’s go down, I make sure I’m sitting on the cream-coloured loveseat near the patio where J.J. likes to sit, shaking a stuffed animal at his dull face. Pretending to be enraptured with his son until he ignores me and goes down to complete the next eviction on his own.
When he was at the paper, Jack believed—at all times—there was a cabal out to get him, to dethrone him and install a new leader. In the alley, between our sips of vodka, he’d talk about it, and I would believe him, or convince myself that I did. So when he comes back upstairs, even though Odie and Will were amenable and friendly, he’s convinced there’s something else going on. He looks through the living room, right past the spot where Champ and Odie once had a mercy fight and Champ popped two of Odie’s fingers right out of their sockets and everyone was so fucked up we all started laughing and clapping like it was a stage play. He looks right through the walls like they aren’t even there, his mind going wherever it goes when he’s like this—to the past, or the future, or some place kept totally secret from me.
He’s at the kitchen table in the exact spot where we used to drink and do lines and fuck around, his sock feet on a sun-warmed patch of hardwood—the spot where one of Odie’s biker buddies threw up and no one noticed for weeks and weeks, until it hardened into the carpet like cooled lava.
If it’s the past he’s visiting, this could be precisely the vision he’s having.
The next day, they’ve opened the basement windows and begun chucking their shit out haphazardly. An old fan here, a card shuffler there. A busted-up lawn chair. Old clothes. It’s building up slowly at the sides of the house, like the place is purging itself. I point this out to Jack in the best, most constructive way I can. It’s happening. Champ has already been released from the hospital, has already come by and cleared out and scrubbed down the little room near the garage. He even took the stains off the wall with a special sponge he lifted from the grocery store, invited us to have a look when he was done, hoping we’d be proud.
It’s happening, I tell Jack. It’s just happening slowly.
I’m holding J.J.’s hands at the wrist when I say it, so he won’t hit himself. Jack has both hands on J.J.’s shoulders, keeping him pressed into the kitchen chair while J.J. works through a fit.
I know you’re not a stupid person, Jack tells me, but you sure act fucking stupid sometimes.
I work hard to keep Jack out of the house, but then the only reason to go anywhere is the house itself—to buy new trim for the upstairs hall, new paint, new pendant lights to hang over the new counters. When I try to come up with something else to do, he laughs at me like I’m insane to want to go for a walk, or to a movie or a bar. Whenever he’s home, he’s in the kitchen, staring at that black metal door with his blacked-out glasses, thinking black thoughts.
I know I’m going to get it. It’s just a matter of time until it comes my way.
One day, Jack catches Morgan sitting in the empty kiddie pool in the backyard, his head in a bag of some solvent or other. So Jack gets a baseball from the trash piles near the basement windows and whips him in the temple with it. J.J. and I watch this through the sliding doors. Other than the big red lump that grows slowly from Morgan’s serene beauty, nothing has changed.
There’s a long talk about what the next step should be. Jack’s driven around looking for the Champ, checked out all his old haunts and bars, but he’s not anywhere to be found. At the grocery store, they say he’s quit, and we don’t see him jogging in his too-short sweatsuit, those big hands sticking out from sleeves that stop halfway up his arm. The idea is, we can pay him to oust the others, but he’s nowhere to be found. I realize it was a fatal misstep to get rid of him first, but like every other thought I have I can’t safely express it to Jack.
The long talk takes us in and out of rooms, from the kitchen to the bedroom to the shower, where I sit and watch his vague shape behind the mottled glass door. I drink from my mug and first imagine him as a different man back there, and then I imagine myself as one. One who might go in there, bounce his head off the new tiles half a dozen times, and be a man for once. A guy like the Champ, who might be able to take all this away from him, a guy who gets to say no at least some of the time.
The irony of taking Morgan to get help isn’t lost on either of us. On our way to the addiction centre, we stop at Wendy’s, where I fill an empty cup with Iceberg. Jack and I share it for the rest of the drive, and a few times he even smiles at me for bringing it along. Using a straw makes it go faster, and soon everything is soft and light and easy to handle.
Jack and I agreed once that being drunk in the daytime was like being on another planet. He said, A planet almost exactly the same as this one, but a little better. A little more colour, a little more fun. I liked that. That stuck with me.
The night before, he had said something like Tomorrow’s our visit to the dog pound, and I got upset. Paced around, hid in the bathroom. Whisper-screamed shit to myself. Slept downstairs, through the steel door and into the smell, where I shared the shredded couch with Morgan himself, who kissed my neck all night but was a soft nothing when I reached behind me for his dick.
But today I’m reaching into the back seat and petting Morgan like he is a dog, careful to avoid the plum-coloured growth on his noggin. And I’m doing the same thing to J.J., so it’s almost like we have two pets back there. Today I’ve decided that Jack is right, and that I’m going to be good and do like he says from now on. Today I feel more guilty than usual, and he’s being nicer than usual. His eyes are hurting less today, I think, and on top of that we’re one step closer to the end.
Somehow, before we can come to the stone walls and the line of pine trees that surround the addiction centre, we lose Morgan. We lose him and end up driving in circles, taking the same off-ramp and looping around the same stretch of highway near a truck stop, over and over again. We hang our heads out the window to watch for him, and it’s funny, because if Morgan were a dog like Jack said, this is exactly what we’d be doing if he’d jumped out a window. We’d be wringing our hands and shouting his name, watching for any sign of him, describing him to people at the gas station and leaving our telephone numbers.
Eventually, we have to give up.
He’s not our problem anymore, Jack says. What the fuck else can we do?
Ido my best to agree, which I have to do by keeping my mouth shut and staring straight ahead. It’s the exact same thing I have to do when we get home and we can see that something’s wrong even before we come to a full stop in the driveway. It looks like the door and windows are all open. But they’re not.
All the windows are smashed. The walnut-panelled door is gone.
We find it in the living room, where it’s come in through an obliterated side window. The cream-coloured rug is smeared with shit, actual human shit, and I can see that it was smeared with actual human hands, too. Everything that can be smashed is smashed. Anything that couldn’t be destroyed is covered in shit, or red paint, or both. There are holes in every wall, and the wires are torn out, hanging like dead snakes from the ceiling and walls. The banister is completely ripped off the stairs and is now hanging out the back window. The stairs themselves are pulled up like fingernails. The marble counter where I used to make bread has been smashed haphazardly, like the surface of the moon. If I were to roll dough there now, it would come away with wild tumours from the craters and rise up in the oven like some deformed baby. The walls leading upstairs have a message—written with a ball-peen hammer—made up of dozens of black holes:
J.J. is screaming, his voice rising and falling, the same sound over and over again like an ambulance.
If Morgan had stayed in the car, we would have been here to see it. We would have found them with hammers and buckets of paint and a crowbar—and maybe a chainsaw, from the looks of the couch. Maybe we would be in pieces, too. Maybe they would have cut me right in half and vodka would have gone everywhere. Maybe they’d have stomped on Jack’s head so hard his eyes would pop out of his skull and he’d finally have ocular relief. Maybe they would have taken J.J. and thrown him out the window rolled up inside the rug.
But Morgan did not stay in the car.
I had made the mistake of asking him if he was ready to go, and he said, Where, and I said, To detox, and that was it. He said no. Said it by opening the door and running outside, out of a moving vehicle going so fast we didn’t even know he was gone. It was only when we took a turn off the highway and the door slammed shut that we even realized it had been opened in the first place. As well as I can figure, he went into a ditch and through a drainpipe or something. Into another dimension, maybe.
When it became clear that we were not going to find him and I started to cry, Jack told me to stop. He said it immediately, at the first sign of tears, and with a hand cocked back all ready to go, right into my mouth or my eye or the side of my skull. I tried hard, but something kept catching; something about it kept on coming. My chest heaved and hitched, and I kept making little noises that made Jack’s face red and furious. I knew neither of us could help it.
I think of the conspiracy Jack has already imagined for this new disaster, maybe one where I roll away from his innocent body and sneak into the night. Open that metal door and let those ghouls in one by one so we can plan his downfall at the kitchen table. I picture us as he must, as every kind of monster—a Dracula and a Frankenstein and a Wolf Man and a Mummy and a Swamp Thing. I can feel how much he hates us, hates everyone that isn’t himself. But I put those thoughts away.
Instead, when Jack looks at his house, covers his face, and starts to cry, I go to him. I could hide somewhere, under the porch, or maybe in the rubble. I could run away, take the car and drive away, drive and go find Morgan and take the two of us to detox, but I don’t. I go to Jack.
I know just what I’ll need to say and do to get him through this. I’ll tell him right away that we need to get out of here, that we should get a hotel and get drinks, relax and just not think about it right now. I’ll tell him that this will all be better tomorrow, and that insurance will take care of it. I’ll tell him that the sun’s gonna go down tonight, but it’s gonna come right back up tomorrow, and the good stuff we got coming to us is gonna come. It’s just gonna be a little bit late, that’s all. In the meantime, we got each other and we got J.J., and everything’s going to work out, you’ll see.
I put my arms around him and press his head to my chest, same as when J.J. has his fits, same as my father would do when something scared me, same as his father did with him, and so on, all the way back down the line to the very start of everything.
This appeared in the July/August 2013 issue.
Kris Bertin (krisbertin.com) will publish a new collection of short stories, Bad Things Happen, in 2016.
Adam Biehler collaborated on March to the Top, a co-production of CBC and the Documentary Channel.
Will Vincent has worked with such clients as Air Canada, Lacoste L!ve, and Pop Montreal.