From the author: If you've ever wondered what I was doing before I started writing speculative fiction, now you can find out. This was one of my earliest stories, written when I was still in school. If you knew me then? This isn't how it happened.
Bijan runs in circles in the front yard. His orbit shrinks as his tether wraps around the post. He runs out of rope. He has to unwind, running the other direction.
He screams, "Whip me, Hannah, beat me! I'm a bad boy!"
Hannah cracks the whip around his head and shoulders. The tip of the leather sears Bijan's cheek and he leaps ahead, straining at the end of his leash.
All around the whipping post the grass is worn down and scuffed by Bijan's feet. Rain begins to fall and the raw area turns to mud.
Gabe and I are inside the house, in the kitchen. Doing hot knives. I turn up the stereo. Bijan and Hannah look like they are moving in rhythm with Jimi Hendrix.
I begin to move too. "All alo-ong the watchtower..." My hands on Gabe's waist, we sway together. We are one.
We bump into the table. Gabe's cigarette pack goes flying, and with it the tiny black pellets of hash not yet smoked.
On our knees, we pick pellets off the floor. Trying to find them among crumbs and hair.
"That's twelve." Gabe rises, dusting off his jeans, inserting the knives between the stove element rings.
"Twelve? I thought we had ten left."
"There are twelve. Don't question, just enjoy it."
He removes the knives, claps a pellet between the heated blades and inhales the thin stream of smoke.
The smell is wrong. Gabe falls to his knees again, choking. When he can speak he gasps "Mouse dropping!"
I replace the knives in the burner. "Don't question. Just enjoy it."
Gabe lies on the floor laughing. Finally he struggles up, using my body for balance, and grabs the knives again.
Outside Bijan has tied Hannah to the whipping post and is smearing mud on her. Gabe looks at me, nodding wisely. He says, holding the indrawn breath, tendrils of smoke escaping with the words, "They're good people."
I have met many Good People this summer. Gabe introduces me to them in the downtown bars, at the riverside drum jams. Summer made them appear somehow, from somewhere; like weeds.
I discover why. Good People usually travel in winter. Most of them have just returned. They have hair grown into dreads and new charms around wrists and necks. They have stories. Getting nearly busted with pot on the way back from Amsterdam. Getting tattooed by an old man in the Egyptian desert. Looking for opium in Bangkok. Getting arrested while photographing Tibetan work gangs; having the film confiscated by the Chinese police.
Good People do not have good grammar. They are Good People even when singular. "He's good people," Gabe says of his best friend Hawk. The compliment is usually given when someone shares good drugs, or does something interestingly depraved. Or both, as when Hawk arrives with hash, smokes everyone up, and proceeds to do an impromptu act with a milk carton, in which he dribbles milk down his chin while moaning "Mummy... Mummmeee..."
Good People start turning up everywhere. One morning I come out of Gabe's and my bedroom to find a strange couple sleeping mostly naked on my couch. "Ask them what they take in their coffee," Gabe says from the kitchen.
"First I have to ask them who they are, and what they're doing."
He shakes his head, smiling. "They're good people."
I take my coffee outside.
The park is only two blocks away. By the river, among the lilacs, Hannah is washing her dresses. We smoke a joint in the sunshine. Hannah drapes the lilac bushes with festoons of wet Indian cotton.
"Doing this kind of work, it makes me feel so connected, you know? To all the generations of women who came before us." She wrings out another filmy length.
I want to say that the generations of women before us thanked God for the invention of washing machines, but Hannah goes on.
"I think in a past life I must have been a washer-woman. Just like this, you know, squatting by the river. I bet I was very serene." She is finished the laundry now and we light another joint, sprawling on our backs on the bank.
"You're tense," she says. "I can always tell."
"More of Gabe's vagabonds. I can't stop worrying that they'll steal my books and puke on the furniture."
"Watch the river," says Hannah. "When it hits an obstacle, what does it do? Just flows over it. Do that, Karen."
Sometimes I think it's futile to talk to people.
In the grass beside me a dragonfly sits. It doesn't move when I reach a finger toward it. I realize it is dead.
Gabe comes down to the park once his friends have left. I give him the dead dragonfly, holding it by one stiff, fragile wing. All the way back to our house he carries it in his open hand, trying not to crush it. He puts it in the centre of the coffee table. "What a wonderful gift," he says.
That night the dragonfly is crushed by Bijan and Hannah, while they are wrestling. I think I am the only person who notices.
Summer lengthens and the lilacs begin to brown and wither. I am working in a cafe downtown. When I take my smoke break in the alley outside, I sweat in the hot breath of air conditioners and sun-baked concrete.
Gabe comes in and drinks espresso. Unless the manager is in, he expects it to be free. Sometimes we pretend we are meeting for the first time. Gabe makes up cheesy pickup lines:
"One coffee please. With milk, sugar and your phone number."
"May I paint you? In the park on Sunday? I'll bring bread and cheese and a good red wine, and you bring nothing but your beautiful body."
Although this is a cheesy pickup line, we agree that a painting session would be a fun and romantic thing to do. Naked, of course, so not in the park. Instead I recline on the foam slab bed in our room, eating strawberries, and drink my way through the whole bottle of wine while Gabe frowns back and forth between me and the painting. Long before it is finished I fall asleep.
I don't actually see the painting until a few days later. I leave work and go to meet Gabe in the square, where he busks. The painting is propped against his open guitar case, with a note taped to the bottom: "The Muse behind the Music." Gabe, as usual, is singing "No Woman No Cry."
I look in the case. "That doesn't look like enough to cover your part of the rent."
"I made forty dollars," he says proudly. "And I bought you a candle shaped like Buddha."
"What about the rent?"
"The rent? Oh, you'll have enough for that, won't you? If you don't, I can call my mother."
I hold the candle shaped like Buddha and say nothing.
"Don't you like it?" Gabe asks. "I want you to like it. You could really benefit from having a Buddha around. Lose some attachment."
Bijan comes dancing across the square, bare feet already tanned and toughened by summer. "Gabe, man! Can I borrow twenty bucks? Chalk it up with what I already owe you." He rakes up a handful of dollars from the guitar case. "Want anything at the liquor store?"
In our house, I am at the bottom of the food chain. Bijan supports Hannah and himself by borrowing from Gabe; Gabe supports himself by borrowing from his parents and me; I support myself, all by myself. And somehow find the extra cash to fund everyone else. It's easy to preach about attachment when you have nothing. Nothing to lose, nothing to worry about, nothing to be proud of, nothing.
"Karen's got her head up her ass again," says Bijan. He leans down and speaks to my ass. "Hey in there, Karen! Want to smoke a joint?"
We are sitting in the fake Japanese garden behind the Eaton Mall, singing "The Day the Music Died" to Gabe's impromptu chords. While we were smoking the joint and drinking wine at our house Gabe's friend Hawk arrived from Toronto, bringing an ounce of mushrooms. We all ate. I can still see flecks of mushroom in Gabe's teeth as he sings.
Also everyone's skin has very defined hairs and pores. I always notice this on mushrooms; sex becomes an experience of weirdly detailed disgust, but somehow no less arousing. I watch a drop of sweat on Gabe's temple, the hairs in Bijan's nose, the ruddy colour of Hawk's neck, and all of them are lovable. But I can't see them that way for long. It’s overwhelming. "Too much, too many," I think, one of my regular mushroom thoughts. Silently, slowly, I leave the circle of singing and move a few feet away to take a piss.
In the darkness behind a stunted tree I hit one of those pockets of wastedness where your consciousness is separated from your clumsy, buzzing body and you realize simple things which seem very important.
"I am Karen," I think, jeans around my ankles. The singing goes on. No one notices I have slipped away. Pissing is a great relief. "I only know myself when drunk and stoned. I will probably not remember thinking this tomorrow." And, "This is real life."
It's later, on the same night. I am at home, puking into the toilet. When I raise my head, Gabe is in the bathroom too, looking in the mirror. He frowns, grins, stretches his face. Uses his fingers to mold the skin into gargoyle grimaces.
"Look at my eye, Karen." The eyelid is flickering rhythmically. "I look like a madman."
I put my arms around him from behind. "You're not a madman."
"No, seriously. I went to the doctor's. They gave me a brochure about manic depression. I think I might be manic depressive."
"No, Gabe. Don't, it's okay, Gabe. You're good people."
And we stumble to bed, where we have grunting, shouting, hydraulic sex and finally pass out.
The next day, having breakfast of black coffee and cigarettes at one in the afternoon, I open my journal and discover that sometime during the dead hours of last night I left myself a message:
"I am in hell."
After receiving this revelation, I begin to think something must be done. I mention to a few people that I am unhappy, stressed out, that money is tight and my housemates are making it tighter, that all I do lately is work and get wasted. The common consensus is, "Man, that's too bad."
As for helpful advice, a literary friend tells me that it will all make a great novel one day, a pothead friend tells me to smoke a joint with him, and a frivolous friend tells me to go buy something cheerful, like a stuffed animal or a fish.
I buy myself a stuffed fish, made of terry cloth, for a child's bath. I try playing with it in the tub, as well as hugging it for comfort like a teddy-bear. For some reason this gesture brings me to tears. The bath water cools around me and I huddle there crying, holding the fish, while Hannah knocks at the door. "Karen? I need to pee... Karen? ... I think she's passed out in the tub, Bijan. Let's piss in a bottle and tell her it's beer."
Around this time, Gabe disappears. Of course we are all used to his comings and goings, but he doesn't turn up in any of his regular places. A couple of days pass before I really have the time to look for him. When I do, I circulate through all the good people hangouts. Gabe is not on his busking corner. He's not on the patio at Chaz's, nor did he appear at the open stage there yesterday. As far as I can determine, he's not with Hawk in Toronto.
At first I try to be casual and unobtrusive about hunting for him. He's probably just exercising his right to a free existence. Liberating himself from timetables. I will only be emphasizing my own uptightness by making a big deal about it. Later, though, I resort to calling his friends, asking if he's been at their places, if they've seen him on the street, in bars, at parties.
I am told, in so many words, that I am being very uncool. I am not told, although it's true, that no one has seen Gabe.
For a few days I am more sleepless than usual. Sounds--the telephone, the front door--wake me in expectation. I call home from work to check the answering machine messages. Once I pursue a man through downtown, to find he's a total stranger with a poncho like Gabe's.
Four days, and still there is no sign.
At six a.m. on the fifth day, Gabe returns, wearing the same clothes he left in. He obviously hasn't showered. He crawls into bed with me fully dressed and wakes me with kisses. I begin to speak but he strips us both and welcomes himself home. He seems very energetic. Neither of us mention his absence. I find I am afraid to ask him any questions.
July first. I can't cover the rent. I haven't been getting many hours at the cafe. My own share is no problem, but Gabe has forgotten to call his parents, or fought with them, I'm not sure which. Bijan has most of his and Hannah's share in a crumpled ball in his pocket, but when I count, it comes up fifty bucks short. "Oh, sorry," Bijan mumbles, falling back onto the couch with his arm over his eyes. "Guess I drank the rest last night. I'll get it for you in a couple of days."
"Call someone. Borrow it," I tell him.
Bijan makes a few calls, but it's the first of the month. No one has money to spare.
I call Hawk myself, thinking if he's made any big deals lately he might be able to cover me. But even in the drug world cash is scarce.
Admitting defeat, I give the landlord what I have, and shame myself by bursting into tears. He pats me on the shoulder and gives me two weeks.
The next day I quit my cafe job and apply to work the full-time night shift at a 24-hour fast-food drive-thru.
The idea is that I will sleep during the day, but it's not always possible. I get in a few good hours before my housemates get up at noon, but after that, it's chaos. I lie in our upper room with Gabe bounding in every few minutes--"Where's the hash? In your little box? I can't find it. Can you find it?"--and constant thumps and crashes and flushing toilets and drug smoke and loud TV dialogue and guitar playing from below.
At first I have trouble staying awake at work, and make mistakes counting change. I triple my coffee consumption; that helps. Hawk suggests speed; that helps more. Very quickly I discover an alternate reality, which I zip through on a constant stimulant buzz. This reality consists of numbers, which I tally obsessively:
Hours of sleep per day (usually four)
Hours worked per week (about forty-five)
Cups of coffee per night (around seven)
Weight lost (not much, surprisingly)
Money in the bank (more, but never enough)
I can't always make the numbers add up to my satisfaction. Money slips through the cracks in my concentration. So does time. I do silly things with my time. One day I fall asleep on the bus on the way home, and end up riding the whole route around to get back to my stop.
I see very little of Gabe. He comes through the drive-thru sometimes, and I give him free food because if I make him pay, he'll have to borrow the money from me anyway. When I get home, my temper is usually vicious. Either I snarl at him until he gives me the whole bed, or I wake him so we can have sex, which sometimes makes me feel better.
The rent gets paid.
Although I'm keeping strange hours right now, I still notice that Gabe is sometimes acting more eccentric than usual. Sure, he's an artist. Sure, he does more drugs than me, having more time. But do all artists pay such close attention to their girlfriends' genitalia? I am afraid I can't stand such close scrutiny. Gabe gets down there and peers and pries and sniffs, and doesn't give me the head I was expecting. It's irritating and weird.
Also there's his new hat. I see him wearing it one night when he walks through the drive-thru. It's a John Deere tractor hat, with its deer-crossing emblem. The deer has been given a huge, staring, black eye.
When asked, Gabe admits that he drew the eye. Then admits that he found the hat in an alley, in the same greasy, filthy state I see it in, and put it on his head right away. He says the deer is a deer in headlights, and it represents the state of his soul.
Maybe Gabe just doesn't mind dirt like I do. After all, I am the uptight one, the one with too much attachment. Gabe is an artist and a self-taught Buddhist, and he's Good People. I should just let it go. And maybe try on a little dirt myself. Right?
One afternoon I come downstairs sleepless to find Gabe in the house with another of his Good People. This man is a street person. Rumour suggests he used to be a university professor, married, with a house, but gave it all up when he realised that life was illusion. For this reason he is a hero and sage to other Good People. He dispenses new age wisdom and empowering sound-bites for the price of a cup of coffee.
Albert makes most of his living scavenging. Since I started working at the drive-thru I have saved out food to give him when he comes by, usually around six in the morning. In return he clears some of the garbage in the parking lot. I think this is a more reciprocal deal than most Good People would offer.
I wait for Gabe to leave the room so I can ask Albert about the things bothering me. But Gabe doesn't leave and Albert, wearing his usual fur-hooded parka despite the summer heat, smells bad.
As usual, they discuss their philosophy, and as usual, I do not participate. Gabe sees me as muse, not teacher. Some days I have no problem watching these dialogues, dreaming about other things or just enjoying the movements of Gabe's face as he has ideas. Today, though, there's a pressure in my throat; I watch the conversation more and more urgently, waiting for them to say the one true thing. They don't, or I can't hear it, or maybe I just can't understand.
"I used to have a great mind," I blurt.
Gabe and Albert look at me.
"Nothing," I say, and leave the room.
Albert catches me on the street that night, on my way to work again. "Karen!" he calls from the corner. People I don't know stare at us: why is that street person talking to that nice-looking young woman?
"You do have a great mind," Albert says. "All you people have great minds." He is very articulate for a street person. More articulate than most of us who live in houses. "Just don't forget your purpose. You have a great mind, and you are a good person."
A good person, I think. Not "Good People". There is a difference, but my great mind is too tired to figure it out.
Walking through the park the next morning, I am shaken out of my trance of fatigue by a series of screams. The voice is male. The screams go on and on, only stopping for breath. They come from a shirtless figure who stands by the river.
I get closer. Gabe stops screaming when I call his name. He runs to me, embraces me tightly, buries his face in my hair.
"What were you doing?" I ask, cautiously.
"Yelling," he says, and smiles. "I'm not quite done. See you at home?"
All the way up to our street, I can hear his shouts behind me.
"We haven't spent much time together lately," I reflect, massaging Gabe's shoulders, trying to get him to relax.
"We haven't had much time. We're busy people."
"We make time for sex and getting wasted."
"Remember when we got together, how we thought this relationship would be all artistic and creative?" Gabe sounds honestly regretful. "I mean, it is. Sometimes. But I just can't focus right now. On my art, I mean. Or anything."
"I worry about you, sometimes."
"I worry about you, too. This can't be good for us."
"I miss you. I love you."
The atmosphere in our house changes dramatically: Bijan and Hannah decide to quit drinking. I don't know why. Maybe they've been thinking about it for a while. But like most of their life choices, it seems to me to happen organically. They are going with the flow. It doesn't always take them to bad places.
Gone are the impromptu guitar jams, midnight wrestling matches, tai chi demonstrations on the porch roof. The whipping post resumes its old function of tetherball. As if experiencing residual hangover, Hannah and Bijan pass the days in eerie quiet, watching TV, drinking tea on the porch, sleeping on a blanket in the yard.
Hannah complains to me that she doesn't know how to have sex sober. "It feels--I don't know--uptight. Like, people smell. And there's hair. You know."
I don't know, actually. Gabe and I don't really have sex sober either. In fact I am never sober: I'm always strung out on fatigue, like a low-key codeine high. My hands feel like they're gloved, my fingers shake, I drop change and keys, I don't dream.
Hannah says, "Hey, Bijan. Just telling Karen about our problem. Wanna go try and fix it again?" And they move upstairs. When they come down again, they make curry, leaning against each other in front of the stove, saying nothing, hands touching each other's hair.
Against this backdrop of quiet, Gabe's behaviour looks more erratic than it has before. Now, when he has a screaming bout, it sounds shockingly loud and emotional, where before it was just another voice in the tower of Babel.
He sleeps less. Sometimes he visits me at work, but sometimes I just see him through the drive-thru window, passing by on the other side of the street, on his way somewhere at four in the morning. His walk is very energetic. When I walk with him during the day, he smiles and says hello to everyone we meet, acquaintances or strangers. Children and dogs seem to love him, but parents veer away nervously.
I am amazed at how lightly he takes his raw power and throws it in the air. Normal human laws of self don't seem to apply to him any more. He has the energy to go around and around, cheering people, telling them things, making music, buying beer, never ceasing to smile.
It tires me out.
When Gabe disappears again, I am at first relieved. I sleep through the whole first day.
Then I find the note he has left me. At least I think it's a note: my name is on the outside and it's folded up.
He has drawn me a series of pictures, a metamorphosis, beginning with a small spotted cocoon or pod, which grows, sprouts wings and a face, and finally becomes a pterodactylian creature with a ravening mouth. I don't need to be told that this is another of his metaphors for the state of his soul. He's an artist, after all.
I show it to Hawk, who is in town for the weekend.
Hawk says, "Uh-oh. Get in the car."
He explains, as we drive, that he recognizes this image from one of Gabe's recurring nightmares. It is a sign, he says. Things are serious.
Hawk thinks we'll find Gabe someplace that has a particular meaning for him. We visit the two houses he lived in before he met me, and then his old residence room at the university. No luck. We check his favourite bars, which are closed, as it's Sunday morning. We visit his previous girlfriend at her apartment.
"He was here yesterday," she says. "He wanted some pot. I threw a piece of toast at him and he left."
Well, at least he didn't come to sleep with her, I think.
Hawk and I drive to the riverside park. Albert sits on a park bench, eating from a can. He says Gabe was there in the middle of the night. "We shared a cigarette. He seemed disturbed. Are you going to take care of him?"
Coming from a man who is taken care of by no one, this frightens me.
"Where else would he go?" asks Hawk, banging his fist on the steering wheel. "Where would you go, if you were going nuts? The hospital? The university, maybe, some professor?"
"No," I say, suddenly inspired. "The Zen garden behind the Eaton Mall."
And I'm right.
Footmarks in the raked gravel lead us to where Gabe sits, crouched against one of the perfectly placed boulders. He is weeping. His shirt is gone.
When I sit beside him, he wraps his arms around me and squeezes, pressing his face against my face, sobbing, ignoring my protests that he is holding me too tightly, he is hurting me. He grips the back of my neck with one hand, seizes at my hair, drags my head back. His mouth, mashed against my cheek, makes loud hoarse noises. When I try to pull away he shakes me, clutches me closer, shouting furiously "I LOVE YOU!"
And even then I don't quite understand that he is not sane. I keep telling him I love him too, asking him what's wrong, as if he is capable of just answering me and making things all right. At some point I realize that Gabe will not hear me, that I'm not giving him what he needs, that I can't even try, because he is too strong for me and I can't break his hold, and his hands are closing tighter and tighter on my throat. There is nothing I can do. I can’t breathe. The vessels in my eyes swell and block my sight. There is nothing I can do.
Somehow Hawk gets us untangled. I hear him speaking firmly to Gabe, making him unclench his fists and sit still and smoke a cigarette. Gabe's shouts diminish in volume to intense whispers, and then just intense breathing. I smooth down my hair, wipe my face, clasp my hands together and stick them between my knees. How did I let things go this far?
And just when I think Gabe is calm, he takes his cigarette and butts it out in the middle of his own forehead.
Hawk and I are frozen, watching him, and he meets both our eyes in turn, steadily, ash falling down across his face.
Summer has ended. I sit at the kitchen table in my new bachelor apartment, smoking, watching a wasp die on the windowsill. After Gabe was checked into the hospital for observation, I let our lease on the house lapse, and went looking for my own place. Bijan and Hannah went off the wagon again and were last seen drinking red wine in the back of a pickup truck heading to the United States. Hawk went back to Toronto for his girlfriend's abortion.
When I walk downtown I see hardly anyone I know. The square is empty; the parks turn brown. Chairs are piled upside down on the patio tables. No one busks on the street corners. All the Good People are gone.
So why am I still here? Masochism, partly. I revisit all the places where things went wrong, probing the bruises Gabe's hands left on my skin, trying to understand.
Habit, partly, too, like any other bad habit. I would rather have a familiar, sad life here than a new life in a strange place.
But also, I have a few good reasons for staying. My education; I don't want to follow the Good People trend by dropping out. My job; they're keeping me on for weekends, so I’ll be able to make money for school.
Also I have a stubborn streak. I could just leave here, start over, someplace where people don't know about my failures or gossip about my misfortunes. But people make mistakes everywhere, and sooner or later you run out of places to run to.
I wasn't such a failure, anyway. No more than anyone else. We were all trying to be good people, and we all failed, and none of us could save each other, or even ourselves.
At least I can sit here, today, and know that I am sane and solvent. I have food in the refrigerator, new textbooks on the shelf, a place of my own. And the bruises will fade, eventually.
This story originally appeared in Prairie Fire.