He had his parents’ second car to get around the city, to ferry his father to and from appointments at the hospital, but he was staying at a boarding house he’d found in the Telegram’s online classifieds three nights before flying home. He told his mother he wanted a place of his own through the worst of it. Somewhere he could retreat to.
The room behind the shared kitchen was occupied by a cheerful, toothless alcoholic who’d lived in the house so long he felt he owned it. On the second floor was Sean, a diabetic manic-depressive who’d lost his right arm to one disease and a good portion of his mind to the other. A latent pedophile jack of all trades slept down the hall, barely thirty but older looking, with the air of something overused and on the verge of wearing out. There was one communal bathroom with a mauve tub and toilet and sink, the canvas on the floor buckling with water damage. The jack of all trades’ porn on the toilet tank, Barely Legal, Just Eighteen. Justin kicked the skin mags toward the open mouth of the garbage container, not wanting to touch the pages or the filthy can.
Sean hung out in the kitchen at mealtimes, hoping for company, and he was the only housemate Justin saw much of. He had a massive gut and looked like a plush toy past its prime. Unshaven, his grey shirt polka-dotted with stains. The endearing asymmetry of the missing limb. He never seemed to register Justin’s name, referring to him exclusively as “me buddy.” What are ya at today, me buddy? Some morning out there now, me buddy. He lived on white bread sandwiches and Kraft Dinner and cable television, except for the glory days after his disability cheque arrived. Twice a month, he ambled to a downtown strip club, blowing his money on drinks and lap dances and extravagant tips for the girls.
There was an old Presbyterian church across the road that had been converted into mid-range condos, a blue spotlight fixed on the spire shining out the harbour narrows to guide ships in from the open Atlantic. Justin’s third-floor room submarined by its dashboard glow at night, as if he had his own personal moon pasted outside the window.
Two houses up from number 6 there was a rub ’n’ tug, a steady procession of traffic to the door all evening and into the small hours. The girls visited boyfriends in the church parking lot between customers, smoking and necking on car hoods, the bright Ts of their thongs visible through sheer skirts. Justin wasn’t sleeping much and had no television, and the anonymous activity was a comfort.
The unoccupied room on the third floor was empty through the summer and into the fall. He spent hours imagining the exotic lost soul who might someday move in. Hypochondriac monomaniacal hockey fanatic. Geriatric transsexual crab fisherman.
There was a phone on the second-floor landing with a block on long distance. No one else seemed to expect calls and it was often ringing when he came in the door, Justin hustling up the stairs to catch it. His mother with the results of some test or other, hemoglobin levels, white counts. His brother calling from the mainland to ask after their father.
Six Chapel, he huffed into the receiver.
Jesus, Justin. Seventeen rings.
Hello, Stella Daye.
Did I catch you on the can or something?
Just got in the door.
We’re going for coffee, she said.
They sat in armchairs at the back of a faux European café on Water Street. Stella had reddish-blond hair and washed-out blue eyes, lashes so pale they were almost invisible. She had two kids and volunteered for a youth-at-risk program and worked part time as a technical writer and she was perpetually tired. Justin thought the exhaustion suited her face, her manner. It added gravity to the weather vane swirl of her opinions.
What are you now, she asked, forty?
Thirty-eight, he said. Same as you.
So when are you going to have children?
He shifted in his chair. Did I get married to someone on the way down here?
You’re not getting any younger, is what I’m saying.
I don’t know if I want kids, he said.
Jesus, Justin. You know nothing about life if you haven’t had kids.
He smiled and shrugged. Two weeks ago she was telling him children made writing impossible, that he was lucky to have none. The Big V, she’d said, making a snipping motion with her fingers, that’s what you should be looking into.
He and Stella had both had first books published eight years before and they had met during a joint reading at the Ship Inn. A wood stove against one wall, a Christ made of willow branches being crucified near the men’s room. Justin’s parents had just retired to St. John’s from a mining town in Labrador and they were tucked away in the corner nearest the stove. Stella at a table with her husband, Lee, and half a dozen members of her writing group.
There was a legendary alcoholic at the bar, middle aged and misanthropic, a failed writer/failed musician/failed actor who had settled on drink as his vocation. He showed no interest in the proceedings until Stella came to the mike. Lemme see yer tits, he called out. Stella stumbled through her intro as the writing group tried to shout him down. She seemed lost briefly, flipping back and forth through the pages of the book. Took a breath and launched into a description of oral sex so visceral and surreal it was almost hallucinogenic. The alcoholic staring meekly at his coaster, cowed by the graphic detail, by Stella’s evangelical delivery.
Justin followed her with a group of poems about his father’s time spent fishing on the Labrador coast as a boy, an earnestness to them that felt tame and effete by comparison. He went over to her table afterwards to offer a signed copy of his book. She’d been planning to read a birth scene before the asshole at the bar spoke up, she told him. She said, Please tell me that’s not your mother you’re sitting with over there.
They crossed paths on Water Street the week he flew home from Ontario to help with his father. He knew no one in St. John’s and Stella called occasionally to keep tabs on him, to ask after his father’s health, to insist he see Almodóvar’s latest film or read Cormac McCarthy or Susan Minot, oh my God Justin Fewer, you have to, every single word. Most of what came out of her mouth was an order or a directive. She told her friends what to wear, who they should date, what to study at school, which parties they were going to on the weekend. He didn’t know how she got away with it.
How’s your dad doing? she asked.
Are you writing about him?
He shook his head.
I don’t know, Stell.
You absolutely should.
Feels a little too close right now.
There’s no better time, she said.
Hang on, he said, I’ll have to make a list. He mimed taking notes on the palm of his hand. Write about Dad, he said. Get married. Have kids.
Just for the record, she interrupted, I didn’t say anything about marriage. She rolled her eyes and let out a long breath. Lee and I had a major racket before I left the house, she said, and there was an odd note of satisfaction in her voice, as if she were talking about sex or food.
How long have you two been married?
She looked at the fingers of one hand. Ellen’s eleven, she said. No, thirteen. Is she? Thirteen, I think. We’ve been married fourteen or fifteen years anyway.
Stella had no facility for numbers, no grasp of time, no sense of money. It was as if she’d been immunized against math as an infant. He loved throwing equations in her path to watch her stumble her way through. She waved the hand she’d been counting on. Listen, she said, there’s a party at Elaine’s on the weekend.
I don’t feel much like a party.
You’re going, she said. You want another coffee?
They sat outside on the flagstone patio at Elaine’s place. Light through the kitchen windows in stark rectangles on the lawn, people hauling on sweaters and coats against the cool air. Last weekend of the summer. Corona and red wine and tequila shots, candles wavering in coloured glasses, banana slugs in super-slo-mo on the patio stones. Elaine in a long cardigan over a sleeveless red dress, black hair halfway down her back. The oldest of her four youngsters still awake and wandering among the guests. She had just flown home from a conference in Arizona where no one had ever heard of Newfoundland.
They thought I was talking about an amusement park, she said. New Fun Land.
Like Disneyland, Lee said.
Exactly, Disneyland. Only newer. Elaine laughed and pulled her sweater tight around her. She said, So Justin Fewer. Who have you slept with since you moved home?
Jesus, Elaine, Stella said.
Oh, like you don’t want to know.
His father is sick, b’y.
You know women can’t resist that in a man.
I’m only saying. It’s a mothering instinct.
Lee: It’s in your genes.
Elaine: We can’t help it.
Stella stood up. I’m getting another drink.
We’re related, Elaine said to Justin as Stella headed inside. Did you know that?
You and Stella?
No b’y. Me and you.
He thought she was joking, but she offered up a genealogical chart of his mother’s family that went back three generations—
uncles, great-aunts, deaths and divorces and second marriages—
and she highlighted the single slender intersection of his roots with her own. That makes us, what? she said. She lifted her head to the faint light of the stars. Third cousins, twice removed.
Not an issue as far as screwing goes, Lee said.
Don’t let my husband hear you, Elaine whispered, and they fell over each other laughing.
By 1:30, they had surrendered to the chill of the patio, standing around the tiny kitchen. Table and countertops like elaborate medieval castles constructed of wine bottles and half-empty beers, glasses, and ashtrays. Getting a drink from the fridge required a synchronized manoeuvre involving half the people in the room that they were less and less capable of executing. Lee fell into a corner of the cupboards with a ponytailed archivist and they sat there, carrying on their conversation without a pause.
Stella weaved in from the hall near four in the morning. What time is it? she asked.
Justin looked at his watch. It’s only midnight, he said.
Really? Stella said.
He’d meant it as a lame joke, to say it was too early to think about leaving, but the relief on her face was palpable.
I thought it was way later than that, she said. She started for the fridge, shouting at people to clear the way. Elaine’s husband had disappeared and Stella wandered off to find him, armed with a fresh beer.
He’s gone to bed, Elaine said.
He’s getting up then, Stella shouted from the stairs. It’s only midnight.
Elaine had abandoned the cardigan and stood arms akimbo against the cupboards in her stunning dress. She said, Now that you’re back home we’ll have to hook you up with someone. Make sure you stay for good.
Lee: Maybe he isn’t interested, Elaine.
In a relationship or staying home for good?
Shut up, Lee, she said. She pushed his shoulder and he leaned precariously toward the corner where he’d been talking to the archivist. Elaine said she couldn’t believe, in a town where an alcoholic bass player with lousy credit and three kids was considered a half-decent catch, that he wasn’t sleeping with anyone. Women must be falling all over a bit of fresh meat like you, she said.
Stella barrelled back into the kitchen: He won’t get up, Elaine.
You’re losing your touch, my ducky.
I dragged him halfway out of bed but he was naked. Couldn’t deal with it. She leaned her face against Lee’s chest and shook her head. Lee, she said, and there was a note of desperate exhaustion in her voice. He reached past Stella to place his drink on the table. Want to split a cab, Justin?
But it’s only midnight, Stella whispered.
I’d rather walk, Justin said.
He stuck around to the bitter end, clearing up as the stragglers departed, setting glasses in the sink, collecting empties, scraping cheese and crusted hummus into the garbage. Elaine stood across from him after seeing the last of the guests out the door, her arms folded under her breasts. So what is it he’s got? she asked.
Leukemia is how it started, Justin said. In the spine. He broke his back turning over in bed last August. And they found a lymphoma in his abdomen in May, he’s been doing chemo for that all summer. But there’s something else in his throat now, they can’t figure out what’s going on.
You don’t think he’ll make it.
Justin shrugged helplessly and she nodded at the floor a few moments before walking the three feet across to him, leaning her face into his neck. He turned his head to one side when she tried to kiss him and she pushed away, looking up at his face. Stood there with her palms against his chest, swaying slightly.
Sorry, he said.
Elaine shrugged her beautiful shoulders. The kids will be up now the once anyway, she said.
By late September his father had lost his voice and was choking on anything he tried to swallow. He was admitted to the Health Sciences and Justin bought a green camp cot that he and his mother could sleep on during alternate nights at the hospital. After his father was given his evening meds Justin settled down himself, angling the tiny television on its space-age arm to watch the baseball playoffs with the sound turned down.
His father kept a portable radio on his bedside table and occasionally Justin woke to the whisper of gospel and country music. His father lying with the radio on his chest for company when the sleeping pills leached clear of his system in the small hours, turned low and tuned to VOWR. Eddy Arnold and Ray Price and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.
He spent his free nights downtown, travelling from bar to bar in the laneways and alleys off Duckworth and Water Streets. The Duke, Junctions, the Spur. Occasionally he ran into Stella and Elaine and a handful of others at the Ship, after their meetings. They asked about his father and he offered the latest news before they drifted back into whatever discussion he’d interrupted, the best opening lines of all time or minimalism or the sad state of book reviewing in Canada. He found he had no opinions on any of it, but sat with them awhile for the company.
There was an upstairs club at the end of a filthy Water Street alleyway he went to after last call, knocking on the locked door until the bartender’s face appeared at the window. Two scarred pool tables in the centre of the room, smoke drifting through the cones of light over the baize. A dozen people scattered around the tables talking in whispers as if they were sitting in church. He felt strangely calm and unhurried sitting there, the bartender flicking off the overhead lamps as daylight filtered in through the harbour narrows. His father running so hard and so close to the surface of Justin’s life that his mind felt raw, hypersensitive, like a patch of skin soaked in turpentine. He drank nothing stronger than beer all night, pacing himself, paying attention. He was trying to take it all in, the world as it was with his father still in it. To hold as much of that as he could, for as long as possible.
Iwas only sixteen the first time your father kissed me, his mother said.
They were sitting side by side while his father lay asleep across the room. He hadn’t gotten out of bed in weeks and slept most of the time now. There was a noticeable change in the way he slept as well, in the length and pitch of it. An absence that deepened over time like a bruise. It was as if his father were caught in an undertow that dragged him fathoms farther below the surface every time he closed his eyes.
They were holding hands as they sat there, he and his mother.
This was the night the Royal Stores burned down, she said. Your father was living at the bunkhouse then, just boarding at our house for meals. And the two of us were at the kitchen window watching the fire up by company property. I don’t know where Mom and Dad were. Anyway, he kissed me. Right out of the blue. Twenty-six years old he was. And I don’t know which one of us was more terrified.
His mother was squeezing Justin’s hand unconsciously as she spoke. As if the memory were run through with the same electric current as the moment itself, fifty years before.
We never said a word about that kiss, she said. Not ever. She turned toward Justin. You’re just like him for the world, she said.
An early November blizzard brought the city to a standstill and Justin lay in his bed watching snow whip through the beam of the harbour light, the storm corkscrewing through the streets all evening. He was supposed to spell off his mother at the hospital, but the roads were barely passable and she didn’t want him driving. Even the snowplows were being pulled off the streets, she said. Justin’s brother and his wife were trying to get home to see his father and they’d called the hospital to say they were stranded at the Halifax airport by the weather.
After he said good night to his mother, Justin tried to occupy his head with a book, picking through One Hundred Years of Solitude until midnight. Made his way downstairs then and bundled up in the narrow hallway. The house shifting with the weather’s push as he opened the door. There was no traffic but for vehicles stuck and abandoned at intersections and he walked down the centre of the streets where the snow was shallowest. Not a soul about and he almost turned back when he reached the three-foot drifts at the bottom of Victoria. Heard the thud of the bass guitar over the wind as soon as he started down the laneway stairs above the Ship. He opened the door on a sauna of dark and damp and heat, the church pew along the far wall caravanned under coats and snow pants, a fan of wet winter boots on the floor. Justin snaked his way to the bar and settled back into the swaying hammock of the crowd with his beer. There was a local reggae band onstage, tables pushed clear to make room for the throng of barefoot dancers, a rich funk of weed in the air. The tiny room like a snow globe in reverse, a winter storm pawing at the windows and this artificial sliver of summer conjured under glass. It was hokey and ridiculous and soothing, the tie-dyed dancers shifting like kelp in the drift of the tides.
It was a young crowd and he didn’t see anyone he knew before he ran into Elaine’s husband in the men’s room. They stood side by side, shouting over the music through the walls. Elaine’s husband said, Have you tried the Mary Jane they’re passing around out there? It’s hydroponically grown, he said, wicked stuff.
You’re a reggae fan, Justin said.
He shook his head. Got stuck on Duckworth driving home from the office, he said. Couldn’t get a cab to save my life. He was having trouble holding his position at the urinal. He said, Your old man still hanging on?
For the time being.
It’s a big thing, Elaine’s husband said, losing a father. He shook himself elaborately and zipped his fly. It’s once in a lifetime, he said. Don’t let it go to waste.
Justin stayed on awhile after the band’s final encore, watching the blissed-out stoners pick through the tangle of winter coats and boots, and the storm had almost blown itself out by the time he left. He headed up the stairs below the LSPU Hall and stumbled on a man sprawled in a drift on Victoria Street, one arm of his parka empty and flailing like a windsock in the gusts. Justin leaned over him. Hey, Sean, he shouted.
Hello, me buddy, Sean said.
It’s Justin, he said. From upstairs.
Yes, me buddy, he said.
On his way home from the strip club, Justin guessed. His glasses fogged over, his eyebrows white with snow. Too drunk to feel the cold.
Need a hand? Justin asked.
If you got one to spare, Sean said. Ha ha, he said.
They took Justin out the night after the funeral, Stella and Elaine and their husbands, a few other writing group regulars. It was a Monday evening, and the Ship was empty but for them. The men’s room out of order according to a sign on the door. Lee went up to buy a round and asked the bartender to put on something by Ron Hynes. Good grieving music, he told Justin when he sat down, his hands crowded with glasses.
Two pints later, Stella rapped her knuckles on the table to make an announcement: Justin Fewer is writing a book about his father, she said.
Justin: Stella Daye is writing a book about Justin Fewer writing a book about his father.
Don’t go getting all po-mo on me now, Justin.
He just lost his father, Elaine said. Everyone gets a little postmodern when they lose a parent.
Lee: They stop using quotation marks, you mean.
Elaine: They get all self-reflexive. They tell stories within stories.
Why is that?
It’s some kind of coping strategy.
Justin raised his pint. I like the old-fashioned strategies just fine, he said.
They got profoundly drunk. Late in the evening, Stella climbed onto the table during an argument with the ponytailed archivist, leaning over him to make her point. Lee with a hand around her ankle, still talking to Elaine’s husband. The bartender leafing idly through a newspaper as if it were just another Monday night.
Justin drained his glass and set it down by Stella’s stockinged foot. Elaine’s husband pushed his chair back to make his way to the women’s washroom, and Lee glanced at Justin’s empty pint. Jesus, Stell, he said, as if he’d just noticed his hand around his wife’s ankle. Get off the fucking table.
Stella stepped down onto her empty seat and from there to the floor, drunk enough to manage it gracefully, as if she were descending a ballroom staircase. She’d taken off her boots earlier in the evening, and she held Justin’s shoulder to steady herself as she put them back on. She cupped his face in both hands then and kissed him before she marched off to the bathroom.
Elaine leaned on the arm of Justin’s chair, her head so close he could smell the honeyed shampoo in her hair. He said, I was here with your husband the night Dad died.
I heard all about it, she said.
Her husband backed out the bathroom door then, as if on cue, still talking to Stella inside. You didn’t even put the frigging toilet seat down in here, Stella called after him.
Justin told the story of finding his housemate baffed out in a snowbank on his way home from the bar, just so he could repeat Sean’s little joke about the missing arm. If you got one to spare, Justin said, ha ha. And something in his face buckled suddenly, a naked look of grief creasing his features. The table going slowly quiet around him, so as not to interrupt what they all saw as a private moment.
The bartender turned down the music to holler last call into the silence and Elaine laid her head on Justin’s shoulder.
You’ll be all right, she said, and he nodded into her hair.
You’ll be fine, she insisted.
This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
Michael Crummey has a new collection, Little Dogs, due out next spring.
Genevieve Simms (@GDFSimms) draws for such publications as Canadian Business and McSweeney's.