Fiction

Long Live Annie B.

Beware of too much laughter, for it deadens the mind and produces oblivion.
— Talmud

Image courtesy David Zwirner, New York
Image courtesy David ZwirnerJames Welling, C-69 (1981) gelatin silver print

Beware of too much laughter, for it deadens the mind and produces oblivion.

—Talmud

Iwas night janitor at the Pacific Cinémathèque in Vancouver when I discovered Annie B. hiding out in the theatre long after the late show was over. I found her behind the screen while I was sweeping, and that night she told me the story of why she was there, why she had nowhere else to go. When Annie B. was fifteen, her mother took her to the west side of Saskatoon, across the South Saskatchewan River and the train tracks to the alphabet of neighbourhoods, Avenue J North, Avenue P, Avenue H, and 20th Street West, 33rd, Confederation Drive, all of it threatening to fall, her mother complained. When the downtown clothier who took Annie B.’s mom to prom and got her pregnant hitched it to Toronto instead of to her, her mom had found a high-profile kiosk job in the Midtown Plaza where she stood as stock-still as a plaster mannequin in six-inch heels all day and suggested people try a free sample of a whimsical or dynamite new product. By the time Annie B. was a teenager, her mom’s ambitions leaped high enough for her to talk about administration school as her ticket off her toes. Office life had its promise of a chair, and in front of it a desk, working for a salary not a wage, with colleagues who doubled as friends. After more than a decade standing in kiosks in the malls and grocery stores, her mother didn’t know what to loathe more, the varicose veins that throbbed in her calves or the feeling of her own smile. When she spontaneously smiled at something nice, the joy of the moment vanished as soon as the muscles in her face reminded her of the kiosk. Once work was done, she could not smile. And when she smiled at work, it was not a real smile. She had no real smile anymore.

At last she found an escape from it all. A steadily heavier drinking problem kicked her mother off her feet and on to disability payments. Annie B. felt dizzy to watch her mother’s falling. Disappearing down the alcoholic mine shaft. On the west side they went to the Co-Op grocery store every cheque and bought grey broccoli and woody carrots, canned spaghetti, battered fish sticks, an econo-pack of light cigarettes, and a two-litre of neopolitan ice cream. They stole things like batteries, light bulbs, and cleaning supplies. When she couldn’t afford essentials—orthodontics for her daughter’s cramped palate, the cost of colloidal silver treatments and tetracycline for her rosacea, sclerotherapy for the varicose—stealing necessities from brand names didn’t seem so criminal. Others on the west side preferred simple break and entry. Nothing you could do about a B&E. You could be gutted or get lucky and only lose your entertainment unit. Annie B. learned the pawnshop sold you back your stereo and music collection for half price if you could convince them it was stolen from your living room the night before.

Annie B. also learned what happens on the west side to someone who needs to sober up. It was common enough for someone to threaten jokingly to do like the police and take your drunk ass for a starlight tour, drive you out of town a few miles and drop you off, make you walk home. Many winter nights it was forty below or colder under the starlight. Annie B. listened every morning to the radio announcer report in his daffy voice that on this day exposed skin will freeze in a minute, twenty seconds, freeze in fifteen seconds, what’s the difference as you eat your morning cereal and prepare to go to school if outside it’s still black and cold enough to die?

For two years, Annie B.’s mother switched apartment after apartment trying to find a place that didn’t share a wall with five or more shiftless bachelors. But every time they moved, the apartment was more cramped and stained, and the neighbours were feistier and more at large. When they lived in the ground-floor suite on Avenue P, there were white-painted steel bars over all the windows in all the rooms, her mother slept on the couch so Annie B. could have her own bedroom, and it was embarrassing every time her mother shrieked down the hall at the tenants who blared metal music at all hours. She called the cops on the boys who openly drugged themselves in the staircase. And invariably worse than any of the neighbours was the landlord himself. He sat on the stoop and was unashamed to grab and squeeze his joint whenever he saw a woman. She scolded Annie for every polite word, a hello or goodbye. Uhngh, Mom. Annie B. insisted they were gross, none of them were her type.

She was young enough to be under the impression that if she said something out loud, that’s how she really felt. And so no matter how many free vodkas and acid tabs they gave her, these upstairs bachelors weren’t what she had her heart set on. Didn’t matter if she watched movies with them. Same apartment layout as hers, but mirrored, and a staggering mess. Three of them living in a one-bedroom. She couldn’t imagine herself dating a dropout who chopped up stolen bikes in his apartment and resold them, or an acid dealer, or a grindcore drunk, no way. But their lewd comments shocked her, and made her feel attractive, despite the better judgment she supposed herself to have. So without her mother’s consent, she started sleeping with a seventeen-year-old dropout bachelor, a part-time gas jockey and group home alumnus who shared an apartment upstairs with his older brother and best friend.

He was into horror movies. Annie B. lost her virginity while watching a VHS dub of Claudio Brook rising naked from a crypt full of blood in Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda. She didn’t consider herself his girlfriend. He already had those. He was her secret, he was cool with secrets. She skipped algebra and lay on his bed foam and watched his movie collection stack up to fill the whole room. They watched slasher movies every day and all the ’60s counterculture they could find. Obscurer the better, unless they were notorious doozies distributed by Media Home Entertainment or Interglobal Home Video, like Castle of the Walking Dead and The Asphyx. He hunted down Thriller Video movies, chunky-cased VHS Star Classics like The People Who Own the Dark, rare Wizard Video titles (Headless Eyes; I Spit on Your Grave), Paragon (Blood on Satan’s Claw), Magnum Entertainment, Midnight Video/Select-a-Tape (Bloodthirsty Butchers; Torture Dungeon; The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!).

But it wasn’t just budget videos they fucked to. Because that’s all it was, she knew it was not love, it was always cheap and fun even if the movies sometimes meant more. He brought home a complete set of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries, and they stayed up late and wept with rage over the extinction of life, in every episode something so beautiful was set to vanish from the planet. Extinction of the elephant shrew, extinction of the Awá tribe, extinction of monkey puzzle trees and extinction of rivers, extinction of wild orchids, extinction of everything. They watched footage of the Australian lyrebird, which can imitate the sound of a motor-drive camera’s click, a car alarm, and the rip of a chainsaw. This world is full of shit, he said. I love all this graphically violent shit, and whenever there’s druggy images of the afterlife, he told her, and all the perv directors sticking the camera right in the sex scenes. But this shit right here, he said pointing to the documentaries, this is too much for me.

One week he might have three new tapes for them, or twenty, or 200, but not according to any single taste. Annie B. was hooked especially to French, British, and Italian cinema. They watched previously viewed cassettes and promotional copies all day and at least a couple new releases a week. Often when she snuck up to his place he’d be in front of Harry in Your Pocket, starring James Coburn as a master pickpocket, theatrically released the year he was born—her west side secret was named for Coburn’s character. Movies’re in my name, that’s why I need to see so many, I guess, he said, sliding in an Italian slasher. Annie B. cozied up. She was ashamed how much she loved to see all that crime and sex and blood, to see movies where they filmed skin penetrated, broken, and bleeding, however fake or real it was, she couldn’t stop looking. They wanted to see all the movies made that were as sex obsessed as they were. Brando grew to embody Annie B.’s ideal, and Brando was who her secret would grow to become.

But one day on the bed foam, her west side secret flipped her onto her stomach, got her on her hands and knees, and spat on her cheeks. She put on her clothes as quickly as possible, couldn’t look at him, he laughed and apologized, and she, feeling deeply wounded, hurried downstairs to her room. She lay in bed blinking in the dark. Why did she feel so sick all of a sudden, she didn’t think she was in love. She was only fifteen after all. She realized she wanted her west side secret to disappear. She would break from him. Because she wasn’t foolish. Her west side secret, a bed foam, and an infinite library of R-rated movies? Was that any kind of life? Did this relationship have any future? She’d cut him out.

Around this time her mother’s habits changed, starting with early rising, better housekeeping, a calendar hanging the correct month, May 199—. Some mornings she even told Annie B. she was off to work, she had an on-call desk job in Midtown Plaza’s administration. A swivel chair: her mother seemed to thrive in the muck of managing the Midtown Plaza, or administrating it, or whatever it was she did. Annie B. couldn’t seem to care. A staff of eleven, all super-nice folks. Who knows, maybe a few eligibles. But the tone of voice, giggles aside, something in how her mother talked about her desk job at the mall made Annie B. feel repulsed and embarrassed. After work her mother might still go find a drink or invite a girlfriend over for one. The Midtown Plaza where Annie B.’s mother worked was on the east side, the absolute most western edge of the east side, backing onto the west side, with a set of old train tracks in between.

Later Annie B.’s mother confessed that all she did was cross the tracks to the east side, to the Midtown Plaza, and pretend to shop. She rode the escalator. She mused over shoes. She lunched in the Sears restaurant. She stalked men. Or she didn’t really stalk them, she flirted. She didn’t confess any of this to her daughter of course, until she hooked up with a man who promised to pull them out of the swamps of the west side. Her mother was so self-conscious about her decision, and she’d worked it out that all the arrangements for the wedding and the move had been made without Annie’s knowledge. So for Annie B.’s sixteenth birthday celebrations back on the east side, her mother and new stepfather threw a party in their bungalow off Spadina, wine gums in a bowl on the coffee table but not a drink or any friends in sight. Annie hoped life was going to be easier now that she had her driver’s licence.

The night she killed him it was thirty below, a January night in the middle of the school week, and he called her from the pay phone outside the 7-Eleven on the west side where she used to buy her hamburgers. I’m literally freezing, please, Annie B., could you give me a ride home, he said, c’mon, before the five-o catch up. That’s not funny, Annie B. said. She wanted to know what kind of trouble. Nothing, just come get me and I’ll explain, okay? he said. Who are you with? No one, he said. By myself. What are you doing all by yourself then? Looking for Silent Sam, he groaned. Come on, Annie B., what is this with the third degree? I’m freezing. Shit’s real. Put a Harry in your pocket, baby. I’m so super-cold and they’re on my tail, I’m a wanted man, eh. Okay, fine, fine, she said. She didn’t know if he was joking. Yes, I knew you’d be cool, she heard him say. Love you; click.

He didn’t. And maybe she didn’t either. But he could be charming, acting just like that pickpocket in the James Coburn movie. She could see him there at the pay phone brushing the hair out of his eyes with his frozen bare hands. He never remembered to bring gloves.

She got her coat and started the Datsun, warmed it up enough to drive, unplugged the car from the house, took off into the ice. Her mom and stepdad were passed out upstairs with their bedroom door ajar and the lights in the living room still turned on and never noticed she was gone. It was Friday after all. Who said anything about Annie B. caring what her reckless mother did? It was too late. The roads were snow packed, there were deep iced ruts for the tires to lock into like train tracks, and Annie B. was a novice driver. She spun out a few times, fishtailed against a meridian, and slid straight through a few red lights with her foot hard on the brake before she finally skidded into the parking lot of the 7-Eleven where he was waiting. Where you be-een? he cried as soon as he got in the car. Holy, I’m fre-eezing, turn up the heat. It’s on full blast, said Annie B., with mitten to dashboard dials. Less go in the back seat together, he said. You got to help warm me up. Hold on to me. Put your body against me. His thin wool jacket was almost frozen solid. Oh God, he was so cold. His skin felt crisp to the touch, sharp and stiff like hardened slush. His fingers were dryly cold and swollen red. He started to shiver hard.

At first he tried to control it, but it got so he was lying in her arms rattling as loud as the car’s engine, shivering furiously, and scared enough to start laughing. I’m like a Popopopsicle, he said. Careful you don’t bite your tongue. Only reason you’re not dead is all that vodka in you, she said. I-I’ll be fine, he said. I-I’ll go call my brother in a minute, see if anyone’s at the apartment let me in. Loss my keys. Borrow me a quarter? She leaned up and opened the car ashtray and thumbed around urgently for change, like forcing some unknown object out of a dog’s mouth. She gave it all to him. They spooned for a while longer. His shivering died down. He took a few deep, halting breaths. He calmed. Not warmth, but she could feel his skin revive and speak to her. I want to stay like this all night, he whispered. Hardly anything left in the tank, said Annie B. You better go make your call. You want to come over, he asked, watch a movie, like old times? I can give you a lift, she said, but then I got to take the car back or my mom will freak. He groaned and chewed his lips. That’s what I thought you’d say, he said. Toque back on, he was set to leap out the door and run across the parking lot to the phone booth in front of the 7-Eleven.

Annie B. faced me, sometimes looking to the movie screen for her thoughts, often directly into my eyes. As I listened there were at first five then three seats between us in the theatre, then two, and finally one, I was close enough to imagine being in the car with her on that cold night. My hard-working mop and bucket of cold soap water on casters were waiting for me in the aisle. I had listened to her reasons for staying the night inside the Cinémathèque, how she had made it this far, out of Saskatoon and as far west as she could go, and as far from her old life as she could go. But she wasn’t out of the movies yet, and neither was I. We were here.

She said, I’ll never forget being in the back seat when he shut the door of the Datsun and went to the phone, put in the coin and dialed. He looked at the pay phone’s earpiece and listened. Then he smacked the earpiece against the pay phone’s metal shell and checked if it worked now. He hung up and tried again with another coin. Still nothing. Now what’s he going to do? she wondered, just come back to the Datsun already. He hammered the earpiece against the steel shell of the pay phone until the wire guts popped out. Oh, great. Then he ran back to the Datsun. She rolled down the window. Ha ha, see that, out of service, he said. I’ll go check see if the clerk’ll let me use the Sev’s phone. I’ll just drive you there, she said. What if nobody’s home? Just hold on, okay. He turned back into the 7-Eleven.

He was in there for a matter of minutes when the cruiser silently pulled into the parking lot with its lights off and the two officers lifted themselves out, walked side by side into the convenience store. She reached forward frantically to turn off her car, then stayed hid in the back seat, watching. When the police came out again, he was between them, missing his toque and dragging his feet meekly along as they carried him by the arms to the cruiser. When he had a chance to look at her, Annie B. saw his nose bleeding. They put him in the back of the police car and one of the officers returned to the convenience store, and her heart froze when she saw the second policeman walk toward her vehicle. She cowered under her coat. The officer tapped on the frosted window and told her to roll it down. Let’s see your licence, he said. Annie B., still in her gangly, awkward teens, fumbled and vomited all the contents of the glove compartment, jawing it open to get him the registration papers. Your licence, I need to see your licence, miss. Shivering now, she coughed up her wallet. He looked at her licence for a long time. The cold air rushed in. She stole another look at her west side secret cuffed in the back seat breathing a warm round hole in the frost of the cruiser’s window so she could see him mouthing the words, Help me, Annie. What are you doing? the officer asked her. She noticed for the first time how swollen the cop’s face was, webbed by red veins like her mother’s. I came to pick him up, give him a ride home, she said. Who’s he? He’s my friend, she said. You been drinking? Smells like it. No, he—, I was in bed asleep. Well, you can go back home to bed now, young lady, we’ll make sure your friend here gets home safe, too. Well, is he in trouble, what’s he done? Oh, you know these west side boys, all kinds of havoc.

We have a call out for him tonight, he’s been into people’s homes, you know your friend here’s into B&Es? Go straight on home now, Miss Annie B. Back to bed. We’ll take care of this. Good night, now. She rolled the window back up and crawled into the front seat and, shivering, put the car into gear and drove. Drove the Datsun fast, afraid to look in her rear-view mirror and see the cop’s face like a brick wall… and his bloody face in back of the cruiser on the other side of the parking lot. Help me, he says. What a jerk to get himself into such trouble. Get me out of here. For the first of a million times she thought about his starlight tour as she drove home through cones of dark orange light and the harsh white lights pouring out the windows of the mall onto the black parking lots, and everywhere she looked the walls were sprayed furiously with illegible graffiti—what did any of it say? The white snowdrifts, the dark orange snowdrifts. No one could survive this. She decided in the car driving home that she would never see or talk to Harry again. The decision seemed frozen and black and irreversible. It was too cold. She could not imagine a place on earth where night and ice didn’t exist permanently, as they did for her in Saskatoon.

Lee Henderson, an associate writing professor at the University of Victoria, published the award-winning novel The Man Game in 2008.