Fiction

John Tavares

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Shoeless 

A freight train conductor, Jacob seriously considered a career change. Lonely, he considered a move from the town to the city, from Sioux Lookout to Toronto. He had been laid off following a decline in oil and coal shipments, which drastically reduced the volume of freight train traffic and the need for conductors with less seniority. So he decided to revisit some career aspirations he had as a teenager when the business world and job title of investment advisor had appealed to him.

He took several courses through correspondence and video-conferencing from his home in northwestern Ontario as well as a licensing course, the Canadian Securities Course, which he studied mostly online. He had no choice but to travel to Toronto in Southern Ontario to write the final exam for professional certification, but he started to wonder if he was using the trip to his favorite city as a distraction—an excuse for a vacation and venture that might land him in trouble. Worried that he might be led on a roundabout route of misspent time and money, he then reasoned that at age twenty-five the time had arrived for him to stop yearning, dreaming about careers and even women. He loved Toronto, though, and enjoyed leaving his hometown, so he took the train south to complete the course, expecting it might lead to better opportunities and a new career. However, he didn’t cling to much hope, as opportunities didn’t always abound.

In Toronto, he studied for a week as he sunned, tanned, jogged along the shoreline at Woodbine Beach, and joined in beach volleyball at Ashbridges Bay. He swam in the chilly waters of Lake Ontario and then read and reread his texts; wrote notes; memorized salient facts, figures, and equations; and wrote more notes. Meanwhile, he admired the women in their swimsuits and bikinis. Several days later, he took the King Street streetcar to an office building in the financial district and wrote the exam. Then he went to the Burger Queen restaurant on Yonge Street across from the strip club. He drank his morning coffee and ate his muffin. His tastes were simple and he loved the plain coffee, hamburgers, muffins, soft ice cream at this affordable restaurant; they were the staples of his diet in the city.

Meanwhile, he kept checking and rechecking the e-mail on the restaurant Wi-Fi to see if he passed the exam. He discovered an e-mail from a trainmaster in Winnipeg, asking him to bid for the position of engineer, since a few baby boomers in Sioux Lookout planned to retire soon. Finally, Jacob logged into his account with the financial institute; as he finished his coffee he discovered he passed the exam with plenty of margin to spare. He had actually given himself an extra few days in the city, expecting to fail, but he was pleasantly surprised by his success.

When Jacob looked up from his coffee, he saw a young, pretty woman sitting on the stool in front of him. She had a remarkable figure and a pretty face, but she winced and contorted her face in pain. She wore no shoes, and he speculated she was homeless, sleeping in doorways, on park benches, and the streets. But she was pretty, with long hair; a chiseled, angular face; and lovely green eyes. He thought it was heartbreaking.

The restaurant manager took issue with her. He told her that she had to leave since she hadn’t ordered any food and that they couldn’t serve her anyway because she wasn’t wearing any shoes. Reassuring the manager, Jacob said he would look after her. He reached in his backpack and took out the pair of fine sandals, which he had just bought at a sporting goods store, and placed them on her feet. Then he asked her if she wanted anything to eat. She said she would have a glass of water, no ice, and a small serving of fries, if that wasn’t a problem.

“Is that all you want?” he queried.

She said yes, but she kept looking at the menu and his food. “Are you sure? Do you want a double-hamburger, a burger with bacon and cheese?”

She was rather slender, but she looked famished, haggard, as if she had experienced war, which, he supposed, in a certain sense she had. She broke down and sobbed, and asked him for a bacon double-cheeseburger, a large poutine, and a strawberry milkshake. When Jacob said he was happy to help, she winced, and he realized he made the wrong choice of words and said he meant share. She looked relieved.

He sat across from her, feeling privileged to sit across the table from a beautiful young woman, however dirty and downtrodden her appearance. He wanted to caress her face and stroke her hair. She looked simply beautiful. He asked her what had happened to her shoes. She said a drug dealer had chased her down and snatched them right off her feet; they were designer Nike sneakers that matched his shoe size. He chased her along Yonge Street downtown, intending to beat her because she owed him money and promised to pay an overdue debt earlier. That was how she cut her foot, on a broken piece of beer bottle glass.   

The wound looked as if the blood started to clot and a scab dried, but the gash was dirty, and he worried about an infection. At least now she had footwear, though. She looked contented and relaxed when she finished the meal. He then bought her a coffee and soft ice cream cone for dessert.

“Dude,” she said, gasping, “you just hit the spot.”

“I did?”

“You know how to treat a woman.”

“I do? I thought I just knew what I liked. What’s your name, anyway?”

“Olivia. Yours?”

He had no qualms about her hygiene and reached out to shake her hand, but her palm was soiled and her fingers darkened from dirt and grime. “Jacob,” he said.

Olivia looked at him as if she was genuinely surprised, as if she was apprising him. “Do you want to sleep with me?”

Jacob was suddenly excited and afraid. “Why do you ask me that?”

“Because that’s what a lot of guys like about homeless chicks—they’re a dirt-cheap fuck.”

“I’m sorry.” Jacob rose to leave the table and stool beside the widescreen television and the artificial fireplace. “I think you misunderstood.”

“No, don’t go. What I meant to say was I want to sleep with you.”

“But you don’t owe me anything.”

“I know. I just want to fuck you.”

She was candid, blunt-spoken, raw all around, maybe even a guttersnipe, but he believed she was the most beautiful girl he ever met, although he felt incredulous by how dirty and weathered she had become.

“I just thought I’d share. I’m a freight train conductor who makes too much money, and I just want to share.”

“I said: I just want to sleep with you.”

“Could you please keep your voice down?”

“Why? Nobody’s eavesdropping, nobody’s listening.”

Jacob looked around the restaurant; it was a huge Burger Queen, which seated hundreds on two separate floors, but it was after midnight and the colorful tables, seats, and booths were nearly empty. Even the employees were preoccupied with cleaning, sweeping, wiping down tables, washing equipment, and scrubbing counters.

“Can I sleep with you?”

“Are you tired?” Jacob asked.

“No,” Olivia said, but she appeared weary and her eyes drooped.

Jacob was staying at a student co-op apartment building that became a backpackers’ hostel during the summer. He was actually embarrassed to invite Olivia to his room, since security at the lobby’s front desk required guests show identification. He decided to take her to his room anyway, holding her hand as he led her behind the building to the back entrance. She huddled against him, and he wrapped his arm around her narrow shoulder as he escorted her down a dark back alley alongside the building and through a parkette frequented by prostitutes, drug dealers, and addicts. Then they slipped through the back door, a fire exit, which the students and residents kept open for easy access, walking quickly before they could be accosted by security. In his room, he filled the tub with warm water, gathered extra clean towels from a closet, and insisted she bathe. He cleaned and treated the wound on her foot with antiseptics, gauzes, and bandages from his first aid kit.

“You travel with a first aid kit?” she laughed.

“Doesn’t it make sense?”

“You’re risk averse,” she said.

“I wouldn’t say so: somebody who wants to become a stockbroker when he’s comfortable as a freight train conductor wouldn’t exactly be risk averse. But that’s an interesting phrase. Where did you hear it?”

“From my parents. They’re definitely risk averse.”

“Why do you say?”

“Listen, I just don’t want to talk about my parents.” She abruptly arose from the suds and bubbles floating in the bathtub. She was so quick to anger that Jacob realized he had touched a sensitive spot, and he apologized and caressed her calves. She reached across the crowded bathroom, took one of his disposable razors, and insisted he help her shave her legs as she reclined in the bathtub. Happy to see her relaxed and tranquil again, he honestly couldn’t believe she was so dirty and unwashed, the grime and dirt that came off in the tub.

Afterwards, she looked even more beautiful standing as she hugged and kissed him, reaching for his belt. Before she could unbuckle it, he pushed her hand away. Her eyes watered, and he wiped the droplet that trickled down her face and gently kissed her.

“That’s not a rejection. There’s plenty of time for that later, if the need arises.”

“If the need arises? What are you talking about? These things are supposed to happen, like, spontaneously.” She forced a laugh. “Somebody sets a meal before you and you push it away.”

Jacob looked in her eyes. “You’re a smart cookie, and I like you too much to take advantage of you.”

“You’re not taking advantage of me. We’re just two human beings doing what normal humans would do and should do in the same circumstances.”

“Should do?” Jacob queried. “One of us seems more vulnerable, so that’s debatable.”

“Vulnerable?” she gasped. Her brow was raised and furrowed and she looked outraged. “I live and fight on the streets. I’ve scrounged and scavenged for my meals.”

Jacob set out some clothes for her and felt relieved by the distraction that they were both surprised at how well his jeans and T-shirts fit her.

“You need to beef up and put on weight, dude,” Olivia said.

“So do you,” Jacob said, “and you need to wear a bigger bra. You’re bulging out of this skimpy thing.” He discarded her undergarments to the laundry pile.

“That’s the way the guys, and girls, like it,” she laughed.

He asked her if she felt better, refreshed. “One hundred per cent,” she said, “but’s it’s not as if I prefer the grunge look.”

Jacob took the financial textbooks from his blankets and stacked them alongside the bed, and she reached to hug him.

“Can we take a walk?” he asked.

“At midnight?”

“Yes, the nighttime is the right time.”

“I actually like to hang out late myself,” Olivia said, “but I’m in the mood for romance.”

“So we’ll take a midnight stroll through the heart of my favorite city.”

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