Rebel reaches for a box of tampons and slips them inside her jacket. Above her head, the convex mirror relays the image of her crime to the clerk in the convenience store.
“Hey,” the clerk says loudly. There is no mistaking she is talking to Rebel.
“Hey!” she says louder. “Put that back, you thief!” The clerk is walking briskly toward Rebel.
The clerk is in her mid twenties, bigger and taller than Rebel but a hint of fear in her voice betrays her bravado. Rebel recognizes the fear and, her face twisted into a sneering mask of hatred, starts walking toward the clerk. She growls a low sustained warning but the clerk keeps coming toward her, talking louder.
As the clerk stumbles backward from Rebel’s glancing blow to her face, the tampons slip out of their hiding place and fall to the floor. Rebel scoops up the small box and runs from the store. Blocks later, her heart raging in her chest, Rebel stops and leans panting against the cement wall of the parkade where she lives. She feels wet warmth draining from her crotch.
Her period wasn’t something Rebel had considered when she finally fled her mother’s alcoholism, her stepfather’s sexual advances and her brother’s manic depression. The harrowing environment of dysfunction she left behind receded into the cruel reality of living on the street, finding something to eat, a place to sleep, warmth, cleanliness, friendship, even love. At this moment, Rebel would settle for a few minutes alone to deal with her menstrual cycle.
She slips into the near-empty parkade. It smells of engine oil, exhaust and the faint rancid odour of discarded things decaying. And, of course, urine. The ill-lit corners in the cement parkade are dark and eaten away from uric acid.
Everybody’s always pissing. Rebel has watched businessmen carrying $1,000 briefcases and wearing $3000 worth of clothes, step into a corner and piss to their heart’s content before getting into their expensive cars for the commute home. She has seen women dressed in elegant evening gowns and long gloves, aglitter with jewels, yank up their dresses and squat to relieve themselves. One woman took a small lace-edged hankie from her tiny evening bag and daintily wiped herself with it before carefully folding it and putting it back in her bag.
Like dogs, everybody’s always pissing. The creepy security guard who works midnights lets it hang out and leaks wherever he pleases. If he thinks he’s alone he’ll stand in the middle of an empty level and spin around in circles, howling and pissing, his cock flying in the centrifugal force.
It is after-hours for the day workers who drift in from the suburbs and their comfortable homes, park and secure their expensive cars and SUVs so they can perform their important daily grind feeling secure. Seldom do they notice Rebel, even when their headlights sweep across her, crouched forlorn against the cement.
She reaches up into a recess in the low ceiling of the parkade and hauls out her knapsack that contains everything she owns. She finds some table napkins she lifted from a donut shop and rummages for a fresh pair of panties. The ones she finds aren’t fresh but they’ll do. She crouches behind a low dividing wall and slips out of her jeans. Her crotch is sticky with blood. Wiping away most of the purged fluid, Rebel opens the small box, unwraps a tampon and gently pushes it in. It hurts a little going in but feels settled and helpful once it’s fully inserted. She pulls on her clothes; her jeans are foul smelling and soiled with her blood.
Rebel’s stomach rumbles. Damn. Why hadn’t she grabbed a bag of chips or something along with the tampons? It would have made the escapade complete and her punch more justified. Rebel resigns herself to another dumpster dive behind a fast food restaurant.
She sits and relaxes in the quiet parkade. She hears echoey voices coming over the cement wall. Several other runaways share the parkade with her but the voices aren’t theirs so she doesn’t check to see who it is. A minute later, a car engine starts up and pulls away toward the exit ramp.
Silence returns to the parkade.
“For fuck sake lady, my name is Rebel. Just call me that, can ya?”
“If you want us to help you you’ll have to tell me your real name.”
“Rebel. Rebel is my fucking real name.”
“All right. I’ve had enough of you. Get out.” She closed the file, looked up and saw Rebel giving her the finger as she strode out of the office.
As Rebel fumes down the corridor, she meets the Duchess of Street Medicine who’s overheard her meeting.
“Hi Rebel. My name is Lily,” she says extending her hand to the girl.
Rebel stops, looks from Lily’s open face to her hand and back to her face.
“You’re old. Fuck you, Lily.”
As Lily watches Rebel disappear around a corner, she says to herself, “I am old. I sure feel old today. Even a Duchess needs respite from the street sometimes. I should go visit my brother out on the home farm. I’ll give him a call.”
The Duchess of Street Medicine has the patience of Job, the humility of Mother Teresa, the fingers of Jerry Garcia and guts containing yesterday’s chicken dinner because she has a cyst the size of an orange gradually blocking her upper bowel so give her a break if she seems fidgety or inattentive during today’s session with a broken ten-year-old named Cooper who was a “tail” baby.
“How about taking your helmet off early today, just for the Duchess? It would make me smile,” the Duchess offers hopefully.
Inside his helmet, the universe flickers on and off so fast Cooper can barely keep up but he does and he smiles his crooked little smile, his secret smile that only he and his helmet know the true meaning of. All the constellations of his world glow across the dome of his helmet. It is the safest place in the universe and Cooper knows it. His helmet knows it too and knows how to sustain the universe just for Cooper and keep the universe unfolding Cooper’s way. Just for The Duchess he slowly removes the helmet.
“Me worried about brother me.”
“Which one, Cooper? Your real brother or your imaginary brother?” she asks.
“Umm…I think he’s brother me real.”
“Wayne. Why are you worried about Wayne?”
“Is Wayne brother me real? Me mixed get up.”
“I know. It’s all right. Wayne is your flesh and blood brother. The one you can pinch.”
“Okay. Me pinch. Me know who now is him is now. No. Not him is now. Not now. Me brother other.”
“Hymns Ladders. Your imaginary brother? Why are you worried about…”
“Oh, Me really now up mixed.”
“Wayne is your real brother, the one you can pinch, Hymns Ladders is your imaginary brother, the one you can’t pinch.” The Duchess wonders how many hundreds of times she has explained this difference to Cooper.
“Me brother real, I as worried about pinch brother.”
“Why are you worried about Wayne, Cooper?”
A frightened look crosses Cooper’s face. “Me gone as. Bye bye.”
Cooper quickly puts the helmet back on and little body relaxes. He smiles. The Duchess sighs and thinks of the home farm.
Later, at the foster home, Cooper smiles at the loaf of bread but it doesn’t smile back as it usually does.
“Bread sad is?” Cooper asks.
The bread says nothing so Cooper asks again.
Conrad stood at the counter of the convenience store, his emaciated body weaving inside his dirty clothes. He didn’t know why the cashier couldn’t understand him. He moved the stinking rag away from his face revealing black patches of skin around his nose and upper lip, deterioration due to continuous contact with the gasoline Conrad sniffed every day all day. He spoke again without the rag over his mouth and still the person did not understand him.
Conrad couldn’t tell if the person was a man or a woman. His eyesight was growing dimmer everyday from sniff. Squinting, he repeated his words to the cashier. They made perfect sense to Conrad.
Based on scrambled prompting from his dissolving brain and passing through his black rotted teeth and decaying lips, all that came out was an incomprehensible hiss of air. Conrad had been unable to form words for several months.
Just after his tenth birthday, Conrad Nightbird began sniffing gasoline with other children on the grim Pikangikum Reservation in northwestern Ontario. The poverty, abuse, disease and desperation in which he was immersed seemed to diminish with each deep pull of the acrid solvent that Conrad took into his lungs. His mind settled into a sustained state of indifference to the world around him. Nothing mattered. Sniff erased caring. He liked that.
If he could still have remembered back to his early use of sniff, Conrad would have recalled being huddled around the warm air vent outside the dilapidated school in the middle of dark winter nights with a group of other children from the reservation. He would recall the rag that passed from dirty hand to dirty hand, the relief the rag brought and the smell of young addicted bodies. He might have remembered accidentally setting fire to the community centre and the subsequent banishment of him and three other teens from the reservation.
That was when Conrad drifted into Winnipeg.
Since then, he had lost the mental capacity to remember anything of his past or to anticipate a future. All that remained for Conrad was a confused and dim now, a present that was mostly a blur. Sniff had wiped away the brain cells needed for thoughts and memories. Any personal ability he may have developed to analyze and think things through was gone. He could no longer step back and observe himself; all perspective had dissolved into the solvents. His sense of self was flat and momentary. He barely existed.
Without a sufficiently distinct sense of himself, Conrad could no longer support complicated feelings such as love or anger. He was not capable of emotional range. All that mattered to him was basic bodily impulses and instincts but, in the throes of his deterioration, even hunger and sexual arousal had been erased. He was left with only one instinct, one need: to cauterize himself and the world with sniff.
This was not an egocentric requirement. The loss of personal perspective and the brain damage from sniff reduced Conrad to a pre-egoic state, back to the primary matrix. The only reason he existed was to feed his cells the sniff they screamed for every moment. It was his only attachment to the world, his last responsibility.
Most of his language was gone. Conrad was reduced to a few basic sounds, mostly senseless noises. To Conrad, his noises remained a murky communication that still allowed him contact with others.
The one thing, in some cases the last thing, all huffers truly know is that fire will kill them. Open flame of any kind is their nemesis. It takes a single witnessing of a sniff-drenched friend who forgot and lit a cigarette. The indelible image of a human being exploding like a bomb from internal fire will not be denied, no matter how high you get.
Conrad’s last emotional strand related to this fear of fire, yet he was not sure what fear was anymore. He did not know if it felt good or bad. This left him uncertain about fire.
Conrad’s only other link to the world was through music. Vague and fleeting, snippets of song lyrics or distinctive voices still resonated inside his mind. He was saying “Johnny Cash” because he “remembered” a song about fire Johnny Cash sang. Conrad’s previous request at this same convenience store several days before had been “chestnuts” because he recalled a song about chestnuts roasting. The clerk did not understand him then either.
Since the cashier could not understand his words, Conrad began to express himself with uncertain gestures of his right hand. It moved in the air like a dirty grotesque puppet, nails and fingertips black and rotting from the solvents. Conrad’s squinty eyes traveled back and forth from his fingers to the hazy form behind the counter. Neither his words nor gestures were getting through to the cashier.
Something distant but overpowering began to rise in Conrad. In that undifferentiated wasteland that was the remainder of his awareness, an emotion was emerging. Though he could not identify it, Conrad was feeling frustration due to the lack of communication. And his body was responding!
As the central organ dealing with toxins, Conrad’s liver had become a sluggish mass of disease and corruption. It began sending flushes of toxic waves through Conrad’s bloodstream several days before. This sent shooting pain through the core of Conrad’s body. At the convenience store, this enormous pain registered for the first time in what was left of Conrad’s consciousness.
His eyes rolled back in his head as he collapsed into a cardboard display of Bar B Q potato chips. His body began to shake, his arms and legs flailed among the noisy garish bags. Every pulse of pain sent Conrad into convulsions, dark vomit spewed from his mouth, a trickle of blood came out his left ear. Brittle bags exploded, reddish potato chips flew into the air with every spasm. The harsh crackle of the bags, the frightened cries of the young cashier and the store manager on his cellphone calling 911 filled the small store.
Just as the manager was telling the operator he had a fifty-year-old sniff addict out of control in his store, Conrad’s body settled into stillness. His arms and legs stopped flailing, his body relaxed and, sinking into a red bed of potato crumbs, he died. Slowly, like a flower opening, his rotting fingers released the foul rag.
Though he had not remembered, Conrad turned seventeen the day before.
written January 12/03 “Sniff” won Third Prize in the Winnipeg Writer’s Collective Short Story Contest, Spring 2003. Published in Collective Consciousness May/June 2003
“Does it hurt?”
“Yeah, at first, kinda, a little bit but it feels real good in a little while.”
“Does it hurt every time?”
“Yeah but you get used to it, kinda. You’ll see. You never stuck anything up your ass…just to see what it feels like?”
“No!” Kevin had but he wasn’t going to admit it.
“You ever sucked a guy’s dick?”
Actually that’s a lie he will admit. Dad’s brother, Uncle Trett, drunk or high or both, forced shirtless Kevin to his knees and poked his cock in the boy’s mouth when Kevin was in the garage putting the lawn mower away. He vividly remembers retching and gagging while Trett laughed and pushed his cock further into Kevin’s mouth. He was 12 at the time, two summers ago.
“Canyon will teach you everything you need to know. He’s cool. He’s deep. He’s a professional. He taught me…here he comes now.”
“Hi Canyon. This is Kevin.”
“You bet, Canyon.”
Rootboy gives Kevin a quick sideways smile as he walks down the street past the liquor store and the bum puking on the sidewalk.
“I hate your name, Kevin, so before this day is over I’ll have a new name for you which you will use whenever you and I are doing business. Your new name will be a compound word. Got it?”
“Umm…yeah, compound word.” Kevin doesn’t sound sure.
“Meanwhile, I’m going to teach you how to take it like a man from a man, any man but still be a boy. Do you wanna learn that talent, almost-not-Kevin anymore? Is this what you want me to teach you? Is that why you want to see me?”
“Yeah. Okay.” Kevin is still uncertain, maybe.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” Kevin replies, not quite fast enough.
“I’ll be fifteen in a month.”
“Better. C’mon, baby, time for lesson one.”
They could have been father and son walking together down the grimy street just past noon – Kevin in his 14-year-old body still with a touch of baby fat, as his mother used to call it before she killed herself, and Canyon, 35 years old, eight inches taller and seventy-five pounds heavier, most of it muscle, all of it hard, glancing down at the slim boy, delightful sexual immediacies dancing with dollar signs in his head.
Kevin is so nervous he thinks he’s going to throw up but he doesn’t. He hasn’t eaten since the previous afternoon and feels woozy.
“Umm, Canyon, could you buy me a burger before the lesson? I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Feeling, you know…weak.”
“After the lesson I’ll buy you anything you want, that is, if it goes well.” Canyon’s voice is deep and sonorous and scary, thinks Kevin. He’s so big, his arms are…
“I have a place here.” Canyon turns onto the steps of an apartment block built in 1920, rustles a set of keys from his pocket and lets them into the lobby. It smells of pesticides, something fried to burning and dead things under moldy carpets. Up one flight, down the hall, Canyon opens the door with number 9 painted in bright red nail polish.
It’s a small apartment with a narrow kitchen, small living room and even smaller bedroom. The bathroom is bigger than the bedroom. Canyon locks the deadbolts on the door and pockets the keys. He turns and stares at his new boy.
Kevin’s t-shirt and jeans are torn and dirty, his sneakers are the colour of mud, his long stringy not-quite-blond hair is matted, his rich brown eyes are clear so he’s not on crack…yet, and he smells of lemony body odour strongly mixed with “the way boys smell.” Normally Canyon charges extra for a smelly, dirty street boy to satisfy some master’s fetish, but today he wants a clean start with this sweet, frightened boy.
Kevin wonders if Canyon can see him shaking or if he is just quivering on the inside. It feels like an earthquake is passing though him. He stares at the large man before him whose handsome face is sectioned by a well-trimmed goatee and moustache. Kevin is physically attracted to yet fearful of Canyon.
Canyon makes the most appealing gesture Kevin has seen since he ran away from home in Squash Squander Heights. The big man stands with his arms open and welcoming for a hug. Kevin falls into Canyon’s embrace which is long, strong, soulful and sincere. Kevin hasn’t felt this wanted, this loved, this human for years, maybe ever. Tears well up in his eyes and drain onto the fabric of Canyon’s pale blue shirt leaving dark lurid splotches. Kevin smiles through his tears.
“When was the last time you had a shower, boy?”
Kevin can’t remember. He’s learned how to take birdbaths in lockable washrooms. “Don’t know.”
“You smell bad, boy, not even good bad, just bad bad. Time to get clean. We’ll get clean together, wash away our sins and start a new life, born again clean and free, amen and praise the Lordy Lord Lord Lordy. C’mon, stinkerboy. Don’t worry, that’s not your new name.” Canyon chuckles. “Stinkerboy, ha!”
Canyon walks into the bathroom, flicking on a light that creates a pleasant dim glow in the entire room. “Take off your clothes,” he says to Kevin as he unbuttons his shirt and tosses it onto a hamper.
The bathroom is spacious and includes a huge old double claw-foot tub with the taps in the centre and, in one corner, a large shower. Canyon reaches in and turns on the shower. He strips off his blue jeans and stands naked before Kevin who has just removed his t-shirt and stares at Canyon’s muscled flesh.
“Today, boy, today!” Canyon lights a fire under Kevin who finally gets into the moment and strips off his remaining clothes. The sound of the shower resonates warm and soothing through the room. Another embrace with Canyon! Kevin’s never felt anything like it in his life. His living, quivering naked flesh presses against the hard body of a man, a real man, a true man, larger than life man but real, this time, real, hard and real.
Canyon lifts Kevin slightly and kisses him hard and long on the lips. Kevin dangles in Canyon’s grip. Still clutching Kevin, Canyon takes three steps and they are in the shower. He releases Kevin who trembles under the warm gush of water. As Canyon lathers him with a bar of Irish Spring, Kevin starts to relax. Weeks of fear and longing are washed away, the uncertainty of his future feels less compelling in the steamy shower. Canyon shampoos Kevin’s long hair, which feels remarkably familiar and wholesome to the boy, like Mother. He succumbs to Canyon’s curious hands.
With every caress, every probe, Canyon is already figuring out the market value of Kevin’s young body, who among his many clients will pay the most for a smooth virgin “straight off the farm,” how many times he can pass the boy off as a virgin and how submissive Kevin might be or can be trained or coerced to be. Beyond his future cash value, Kevin possesses the fast approaching inevitability of being thoroughly trained and thoroughly enjoyed by Canyon. The prospect inflames the big man. It always does with new boys.
Stepping out of the shower and toweling each other down, Canyon says to Kevin, “From now on, pay close attention to everything I say and everything I do. This is your new streetwise education. If you want to survive out there, remember all of it.”
Three hours later, Canyon says, “Before we move on to lesson two, what say we grab a bite, Candyass?”
“Candyass. That’s my name for you, our business name. To me, you will never be Kevin again. Got it, Candyass?”
“Because you got the sweetest one, baby, the sweetest one.”
THE COFFEE ROCKS
Requiring little or no cream in your coffee was a badge of honour when coffee became mandatory for everyone. Bungle waged a private war within himself every time he sipped his brew black. He even eschewed sweet, though it was a radical stance; artificial sweeteners were mandatory for people under 25. Sweet and low, thought Bungle.
The media was baffled, as usual. Why were so many college age men suddenly feeling compulsions to gather around boulders and perform seemingly random rituals that involved a great deal of touching flesh to stone, dancing in slow motion and smashing their cell phones, now mandatory for everyone from birth, on the rocks? What’s going on? The media hasn’t really wanted to know the answer to that question in the last twenty years.
Let me background you on the stones. They became a trendy landscaping feature in the early part of the 2000s after cosmetic poisoning of lawns, boulevards and all grassy areas was made mandatory. Weeds were against the law. You were fined if a weed inspector found a dandelion on your lawn. That meant the grass everywhere was toxic all the time. Entire residential blocks hired cosmetic lawn poisoning companies to continuously slosh a chemical on the earth to prevent weeds of all kinds. Only green grass and some flowers were permitted.
Instead of lawns, concrete became the popular option. To add some visual relief to the cement, we used stones. Rocks didn’t need poisons and broke up the straight lines. They became such a common feature of city landscapes that businesses catered to a lunch crowd who sat on small rocks to eat off larger rocks. Every coffee shop had a few big boulders among its tables and benches. There were coffee shops on every block, often nothing but coffee shops with boulders out front or in back. It was the Stone Age but with coffee.
Bungle was working on his eleventh cup of the day as it approached two in the morning. Bungle and his buddies hung out at Win-Win Situation, a slightly sleazy coffee bar known for some “interesting” brews. The coffee boys gathered around a large granite boulder, one of the more popular stones outside Win-Win. Garnet, Loop, Fifi (a man with a dog’s name) and Bungle usually met at this boulder for their nightly howl.
Why they were continuously drawn to this spot night after night, meeting with groups of others, was utterly outside the awareness of these four young men and all the other men who, for equally inexplicable reasons, were drawn to other large stones. What subterranean direction were these men following? What Kosmic commandment held them in its sway?
No one could explain this bizarre behaviour.
Chemicals are added to coffee to increase its addictiveness, as with cigarettes. Since the Human Genome Project mapped our DNA, everyone is vulnerable to the good and evil whims of scientists, corporations and politicians. One effective way to exploit without being discovered is to add several hundred genetic markers to products to increase their addictiveness, markers that ensure a wide gamut of human types will become further enslaved to the product. Tobacco, coffee and alcohol are the obvious places for such an experiment. But it extends into breakfast cereals, canned peaches, baby food, instant soups, soft drinks, among hundreds of other everyday products. Don’t get me started about what the greasy burger chains do with their meat!
One of the unforeseen reactions to these chemical markers is this odd behaviour in young men of a certain genetic make-up: northern European with blonde hair, blue eyes and pale complexions from Sweden, Norway, Holland, Denmark, Germany, usually very lactose intolerant.
During the “rituals”, the media showed the young men gathered in the dark, eerily lit by midnight streetlights, caressing the stones, singing wildly, incomprehensively. Dancing, entranced, in slow motion, their lithe bodies swirled around the stones, each a moving expression of his inner agony. There the media coverage usually ended. This is a heavily censored story.
Those were only the first symptoms. The second stage is stranger. At a time of their lives when most men can think about little else but sex, the coffee boys became utterly asexual. Their sex thoughts dried up, their genitals shriveled, their body hair fell out and sex became irrelevant to them. This the media never reported. Nor did they report the late stages.
The endgame began innocently enough with each taking a turn smashing his cell phone into the rocks, the plastic jabberware disemboweled and silent. It was a symbolic gesture. It’s meaning resonated only within a certain strand of the DNA, far below waking consciousness, dreaming and deep dreamless sleep. The media would give teasing glimpses of but no explanation for the heretical smashing of cell phones against the rocks. It was disturbing for people to feel someone didn’t want to be in touch with them, that there were unphoneables.
After that, the boys go “seeking the softness of the rock” and “turning to stone”; meaning they throw themselves down repeatedly with great force onto the stones. Sometimes they’d take running starts and smash their shoulders onto the stone, breaking collarbones and ribs, sometimes necks. But the usual cause of death, and most of the coffee boys died, was smashing open his skull on the rocks. You can live to do it again if your body is working on sheer instinct alone. It cannot be done thoughtfully a second time. You no longer are able to think.
As Bungle emerged from Win-Win Situation carrying his dozener for the day, he saw his friend Fifi laying on the concrete jerking and twitching, his right shoulder a mass of blood and bone. Loop and Garnet stood wide-eyed and speechless, pointing.
Fifi’s spasms became more organized and he painfully drew himself up into a low crouch. Then he ran, as fast as he was able, into the rock headfirst. His body arched and he fell, a dead heap, blood oozing from his head in ever-decreasing pulses.
A sudden envy grew in Bungle when he saw his friend, someone he’d known for fifteen years, now prone, lifeless, delivered, an escapee. Bungle felt a need to accomplish this too, an inner drive that compelled him toward his next act, his destiny, his time.
Bungle howled one last time at the glare of the yellow sodium streetlight, put his headphones on, pushed a button and “Baby Elephant Walk” by Lawrence Welk began to play – all good music had, like weeds, been made illegal – turned it up full and sped, fleet and fair, his blonde hair streaming away, head first into the rock.
His bounce was sweet and short, he lay next to his friend. A sudden geyser of blood erupted from a growing bump on his head. Bungle had blown his top. The rock was sprayed with a fine mist of Bungle’s brains and blood. They’d still be there the next morning, dried into a red crispy peeling sheet.
If you listened carefully, you could hear the bucolic strains of Lawrence Welk still playing on Bungle’s headphones.
written August 16, 2002