25 April 2018

A GUEST WRITER (L.J. LEWIS) - SOUTH OF PINE STREET

Putting out an offer to my fellow students at Algonquin Collage from the Writing Short Stories course to see if these fabulous writers would be interested in sharing some their work. Surprising enough I quickly received this short story my first guest writer is L.J. Lewis.

So, reading South of Pine Street I was impressed that the flow of L.J. Lewis' story flows so well that captivates the reader in this simplistic story. A conversation between Artie a seven-teen year old and Randy a middle-aged man who both live in a low-income apartment. You find that Randy's terrible news of his mom passing is eased in chatting up with Artie, as in some sort of self reflection.



He came to Ontario from Montreal, he said – sometime back in the mid-1980's. He was hovering on the tumultuous border of teenager and adult when he decided to make the move. So, with nothing but a backpack full of clothes and his wits, he caught a bus to Toronto and then down to Niagara. He spent his time since then ricocheting through the penal system and living off of assistance checks in slum apartment buildings, between bouts of drifting. That was almost thirty years ago, when he left, and I wonder if the people that knew him back then would recognize him now? He is missing more teeth, but has at least retained his accent. His skin is tanned and leathery, and when he laughs his face erupts into a crooked spider's web of wrinkles. His hair has gotten longer and he now has a multitude of tattoos – some he got in prison, some he got on the outside. I find myself looking at one of them now.
   
    We're sitting on the steel steps of the building's fire escape on Pine Street, and he is crying. It's an extremely uncomfortable thing for a seventeen year old boy – watching a grown man cry. Especially when the grown man in question is a tattooed, French-Canadian ex-convict who is in his late forties. I watch the tattoo on his forearm as she dances. The tattoo is of a hula girl with her tits out and she is playing a ukulele. Underneath her it says 'wish you were here' written in chicken scratch. She sways rhythmically back and forth as I continue to stare. I know it's rude of me to stare, my mother has told me so, but I can't seem to help myself. I am tripping way too hard to be capable of having control over such things.

    The LSD that I had taken right before my friends all left the apartment was beginning to peak in effect. I looked up from the dancing hula girl and at the string of streetlights lining the abandoned, small-town road. They floated above the glistening pavement like alien spacecrafts. The moon hung high up in the black sky above them and seemed to pulsate there as I watched it. My mind wandered from my current company and back to my friends. They had gone pool-hopping around two hours ago; leaving me alone in the empty bachelor apartment to watch movies my myself and smoke cigarettes.

    I didn't mind – I prefer to trip alone, in fact. To get lost in the labyrinth of my own thoughts, as the drug guide me into the sordid, scary places that without them I would never dare to go. I spent most of that two hours sitting in the dry bathtub and inspecting the shower curtain, searching for the grinning, demonic face of evil. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday night.


    Randy sniffles and wipes his nose with the wiry back of his fist, then takes a swig out of a bottle of cheap rye whisky that he had been drinking. He passes it over to me, and I accept his invitation. It burns as it goes down and I am slightly taken aback by the sensation. In my frazzled thought process, I had forgotten how much of a punch drinking straight liquor can pack. Randy looks at my sour expression and momentarily putting his troubles aside, starts to laugh.

    “Ah, ha – Artie-boy!” He cackles, “That'll put some hairs on your bag, eh?”
    I choke a bit and my stomach lurches; having been unprepared for such a harsh and sudden blast of alcohol. I try to reply, but only manage to nod and sputter briefly before spitting out a series of wet coughs. Randy leans back against the brown brick wall and I pass the whisky back to him. He takes it from me and then gazes up at the stars.

    “You know, Artie, me and my buddy Jed used to sit out and drink whiskey together like this back in Quebec. He was a good fella, Jed – quiet. A lot like you, Artie.” He says, taking another pull from the bottle in his hand. I don't respond, I just turn to look at him as he continues on.

    “He's dead, you know. I saw it happen, Artie.” He mutters, pulling out a cigarette from the pocket of his dirty blue jeans and lighting it. He offers me one too, and even lights it for me.

    “They threw him off a bridge, right – back in Montreal. The one-percenters, I mean. He got into the crank too hard, Artie. Owed them money. He was always writing cheques that he couldn't cash.”

    “Oh, yeah?” I finally manage to say. This was the first time I had said anything back to him in close to twenty minutes. He glances over and his normally jovial face suddenly looks grim.

    “Yeah.” Randy says, “They rolled up, jumped us when we were comin' back from the strippers. They put the boots to me for a little and then to him –  picked him up by his arms and legs, and then...” He stares into my eyes and smacks his palm against the cold, steel step with a bang.

    “Splat! He was gone. Just like that, Artie-boy. I couldn't do nothin'.” He shakes his head “Not a goddamned thing.”  

    “Jesus.” I exclaim under my breath. He smiles at my reaction.
  
    In our younger years we hadn't seen anything strange about hanging out with Randy. Granted, he was roughly three times our age and a criminal. Most of these so-called 'normal' people would undoubtedly raise an eyebrow at seeing us together. If they knew about that rag-tag group of adolescents that would regularly spend their time gathered in his dank, one-bedroom apartment inside of that old Pine Street slum building. That we would be drinking and smoking joints, watching him chop lines of cocaine on his banged-up oak coffee table to offer us. It would have certainly raised more than a few eyebrows. But we didn't give a fuck. It was just another thing to do as far as we were concerned. That dead, Southern Ontario town sitting on top of the hill didn't have much else to offer us. We were bored, angry and unsupervised – and a magnet that seemed to attract people like Randy. They flocked to us like moths to the glow of the moon, captivated by our wild and errant youth. I think it's because, to some degree, they felt like bigger people in our presence. Like they were shepherds, of a sort, and we were their motley flock. That they impressed us. The idea of it was intoxicating to them. That somebody looked up to them. More than anything, though – I think that in us, they saw a glimpse of their former selves.  

    Randy lights another cigarette and a deep sigh rattles free from his lungs. For a while, he doesn't say anything else. He just watches events unfolding somewhere a million miles away – wandering off inside the vast, uncharted territories of his own head. We sit here like this for what feels to me in my altered state like hours until finally, he speaks.

    “Artie.” He says, and passes me another one of his cigarettes “Thank you, Artie-boy. I'm glad that you took the time to sit with an old crooked fucker like me.”

    “No problem.” I say back. My voice sounds like tin in my ears.

    “I mean it.” He goes on, “I got a call, before I came knockin' to see you – some bad news.” He pauses for a moment and sniffs “Some very bad news.”

    I try to look sombre, to express that I am taking what he is saying seriously, but I find it difficult. The brown bricks set into the wall behind him are glistening and I wonder if it has recently rained or if I'm just hallucinating. Suddenly I feel damp and uncomfortable. I tell myself that it's all a trick of the mind. That I'm likely as dry as a bone in reality and that it's just the drug that's fucking with me. A bug – a black ant I think, crawls across the step in front of me and investigates my socked foot.

    “My mom died tonight.” he explains, and empathy slaps me across the face.

    “That was my brother on the phone. I haven't spoken to the guy in over ten years before tonight.”

    He pauses again, and I don't respond. I don't know how to respond, or quite what to say. I've never been a very comforting person, although I try to be when the need arises. I search through my mental catalogue for something, anything that I could say that might make him feel better. He's staring at me now and tension weighs heavy in the air. His eyes look glassy with moisture. I begin to form a sentence but the words get caught in my throat. He exhales smoke in two thin streams through his nostrils and lets out a weak chuckle in an attempt to mask his pain.

    “It's okay, Artie-boy. You must be flying. Kelly told me that you and Martin dropped 'cid when I saw them on their way out a few hours ago.”

    He explodes into a belly laugh, almost inappropriate for the situation, “She was no angel –  my Ma. Really, she was a nasty sort of woman. Mean like an old alley dog. A lot like me I guess.”

    Randy leans forward and rests his chin on his hands.

    “But she is the only one I got. Well, that I had. You know, Artie? Wish I had talked to her more. Seen her more. It's too late now though, right.”

    “Where did she live?” I ask. The sound of my own voice startles me a bit. It cracks as it comes out, hoarse from disuse.

    “South of Pine Street.” He says, almost in passing.

    “Just a few minutes South of here.”

    In the distance I can hear the sound of tires peeling on tarmac, and then the night is still again until the next one passes.

    We sit out there for a while longer and don't say anything more. We just pass Randy's bottle of whisky back and forth, until all that is left is a golden ring around the base of the clear glass. The peak has waned and while the world around me still crashes in waves against my spirit, it does not do so as intensely. I've hit the emotional part of my journey. The beginning of the end. That last handful of hours that is usually speckled with epiphanies and horrors. Randy turns to look at me, understanding. His eyes look stone-dead and I can see dark traces in the bags underneath them.

    “Well,” he starts “it's about that time, Artie.”

    “Calling it a night?”

    “Yeah bud, thanks for sitting our here with me.”

    “It's no problem, Randy.”

    “No, really – thanks.” He says, putting his hands on his knees and pushing himself up to his feet. I get up too, and my legs buckle as I stand there with him. I watch as the sun peeks out over the small, simple rooftops in the distance. The clouds are awash in colours – yellow, purple, orange. It looks magnificent – celestial in it's beauty. I haven't seen a sunrise in years and am slightly in awe at the sight of it. It could just be the drugs talking, though.

    We pull open the heavy fire escape door that leads into the hallway and we enter. The couple in 2B are already at it. The man is ranting about something or other, and his girlfriend or wife or whatever she is pleading with him to just let it go. I hear him gradually getting more worked up as we pass by the unit.

    “No – goddammit! I told her that we couldn't afford it again this month.”

    “Please, Johnny.” A hushed voice urges, “I hear people outside.”

    “Well, so-fucking-what? Fuck them!”

    Randy and I glance at each other and Randy grins, exposing his teeth – or lack thereof, and jostles me by the shoulder.

    “Yeah! Fuck them!” He calls out, laughing, and all goes silent behind the door of 2B.

    We continue down the hallway and I run my fingers along the peeling paint on the walls. They are stained sallow from nicotine and above us a broken smoke detector dangles down from two wires. We get to the end of the hallway and Randy stops at the door of 6B and I at the door of 7B, just one apartment down. It's my friend Kelly's place. She lives there with her boyfriend Dan and at any given time she has a cavalcade of kids crashing on her floor. At this current time, I am one of the floor kids. I'm about to turn the knob, when a thought strikes me from out of nowhere and I freeze. I can hear the jingle of keys from behind me as Randy unlocks his door and I turn around. He notices that I haven't gone in and we catch eyes for a few moments.

    “Hey, Randy?”

    “Yeah, kid?”

    “Do you ever regret it?”

    A look of surprise splashes across his face and he looks down at the floor for a minute in contemplation. A black ant runs across the worn-out, green and white linoleum tiles and sniffs at a crumb.

    “If you could, would you go back? Do it differently?” I elaborate.

    He continues to gaze down at the floor and then up to the ceiling. Inside his apartment, his dog barks excitedly at his return and the scurried clicking of paws echoes through the whole building. After a minute or so, he sighs and then starts to laugh and shake his head as he opens his door. He glances at me once more. The florescent light from the tubes humming overhead shimmers off the creases in his leather, highlighting his crow's feet. He doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. He just smiles at me and then heads inside, saying more with his lack of statement than he ever could with words. I stand in the hallway alone, and on the floor a small black ant carries his prize back to the queen.
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