“Sure, sure,” Nick sing-songed, his face doing a lively back-up dance, the well-honed smirks of Mediterranean men over 50.
“But, didn’t it make you kind of mad?” persisted Hector. In the short time he’d known him, Hector had never seen Nick get mad at anything, not even his wife, who was mad all the time—and when she got really mad, she simply dropped Nick off at the ward with a suitcase full of ironed pajamas, lingering, long after they’d installed Nick in his room and had him swallow the first in a long line of pills, to talk to with the nurses, whom she saw as the crucial third element in her marriage. Nick was a Souvlaki chef from Park Ex. He was the person on the ward least inclined to angry outbursts, and that included the staff, and he also had the most refined table manners, including the staff as well as the wealthy but fragile lawyer who had briefly counted himself among the patients (a picker). Hector thought Nick resembled a smaller, stouter Tony Bennett, with his easy smile and thick dark hair, interspersed with steel wool for a dignified effect. He wondered why they kept him here; he seemed like one of the sanest people he’d ever met. Maybe he suffered from a surfeit of benevolence toward mankind. Or maybe he had a second gear; a potential second self invisible to the unaccustomed eye—Hector had known guys like that. Maybe Nick did things at home, disturbing things that made his wife dive for the iron, pack his bags, and hustle him into the nearest taxi.
“Mad?” Nick said, shooting a bright-eyed look up at Hector, who was much taller. “For what I should get mad? So, they give me a prick in the night—bop, it’s over, I go back to sleep. Just like my wife, ha, ha. Wake up to a nice warm breakfast; I don’t have to cook it, don’t have to wash nothing, don’t have to pay nothing.”
“Well, I don’t know. It made me kind of mad.” Hector glared at the nurses’ station.
“So? What you gonna do? Say no? Is not worth it. They want something, they take. You fight, you get trouble. You no want that, Heck-tor. It’s them, the boss.”
Hector frowned into his beard and left it at that. They continued their post-meds perambulation of the ward, letting the pharmaceuticals sink in.
“I think you gain some weight, eh?” Nick observed, with approval. “Is good. Important to eat right, my friend.”
Hector put a hand, like an expectant mother, to the growing roundness of his belly, holding steady with the three square meals he was getting in the hospital. The meals, classic—if uninspired—combinations of animal protein, canned vegetables, and shifting banks of mashed potatoes; canned or dried fruit in the mornings, with beans, heaps of scrambled eggs, and slabs of slathered bread, or portions of oatmeal so thick they held the shape of the ice cream scoop they were doled out with—far more wholesome fare than the dope-and-dépanneur diet he’d been subsisting on, up until the overdose. And the days leading up to the overdose were more dope than dépanneur, since Hector already has his sights on what came next. He’d envisioned his last few moments of life a painless, womb-like floating out to sea; a lotus blossom candle bobbing in the Ganges; he’d been “making haste to lose the name of body, and dissolve to putrefaction,” and generally getting a head-start in death, only to awaken among the drab green and bustle of one of Montreal’s larger emergency rooms, where he gradually became aware of a chicken dinner cooling rapidly on his bedside table. It felt as though he’d been unconscious for a while—it had been, in fact, two days—and he was ravenous. Hector tore into that chicken with an enthusiasm that surprised him, though he was frightened and a bit embarrassed to be alive. No point trying that again, he thought, using his spoon, and then his index finger, to get the last of the chocolate pudding from its plastic cup, but they’re going to make these next few weeks rough on old Hector. Over the course of a bedside consultation with a young but not too-young doctor, very earnest; Hector consigned himself to the hospital’s department of psychiatry until such time as he should be deemed “better,” and enquired as to that evening’s main course.
A few months prior, in early spring, he’d traveled the long, meandering L-route to Montreal from northern California, where he’d hoped to establish himself as a member of a biker gang he’d linked up with in Vancouver, his hometown. He had a motorcycle of his own, an honest-to-goodness love of the highway, and the clincher, for Hector, had come in the form of Archie from Minnesota. Archie from Minnesota was a fearsome warrior, a thinking man’s rebel, an absolutely dazzling specimen of a biker, a swaggering bad-ass motorcycle prince. He embodied everything Hector loved about it all. For his part, Archie had Hector pegged as a lightweight, but tolerated his presence until the gang had to get down to business. With regret, for he wished Hector had graciously stepped back of his own accord, Archie pointed to Hector’s lack of aptitude for the task at hand. At a major planning pow-wow, Archie made the case that the Canuck in their midst was too gentle-hearted to partake in the gang’s main sustaining economic activity, which was of a decidedly violent nature.
At dawn, while everyone slept, Hector wheeled quietly away; kick-starting at the foot of the northern route out of town. All the way up the Oregon coast, he shouted abuse at Archie from Minnesota, ropes of spittle streaming from the corners of his mouth. He rode a little too fast and hard, but braked for restorative, throat-soothing slices of apple pie with ice cream. The Washington forest induced a sort of sleepy melancholy; the sky and the trees began to look like home, and under the bracing red and white of the maple leaf flag, the border guard forgave him his expired passport, and waved him through. He rolled toward Vancouver and the remnants of his family—his brother, Marty, afflicted with AIDS, his grandmother inclined to curse Hector to his face—and listened for the long Canadian quiet behind the towns and cities, the pull of the great northern silence.
Hector accepted his grandmother’s tongue-lashing—“Goddamn Hector you stupid sunvbitch you good-for-nothing misfit how could you throw away what God gave you don’t you know your parents died way before they should’ve otter and you fer fuck’s sake all you do is fuck around, just fuck around and don’t care who loves you don’t care about shit you lousy no-good loser, you sorry excuse of a man, just like yer father that lousy shit, you break my fuckin’ old heart”—and then went to find his brother. Marty taught English to recent immigrants as part of a government program, dealt with his HIV infection adroitly, and had recently taken on a heavily mortgaged condo in a far better neighbourhood than the one he and Hector grew up in. Their parents had both succumbed to early graves—had, indeed, run full-tilt toward death, a litter of empty bottles behind them.
They leaned against the rail of Marty’s balcony before Hector left.
“They give you some badass nickname?” Marty asked.
“What was it?”
Hector ducked his head to the side and away, and looked for the sea through the buildings. “Moondance.”
“’Cause we were up at Jericho that night, and I was dancing around. You know that song, ‘Well it’s a marvellous night…’ ”
“You were still more of a hippie then.”
Crossing the Rockies for the first time, Hector discovered what looked and felt like a different continent on the other side, though the usual trappings and neon-lit strips insisted it was all one country. He rode through Alberta and Saskatchewan hopped up on Timbits and missile-fuel coffee. He went on to Winnipeg to look up a friend, but the friend was too hard to be found, and in fact Hector was unsure of his last name. He kept on, tending to his bike with care as he went, across the vast Ontario hinterland, stopping in a town called Marathon, where in the café of a motel painted pink, he met a shockingly pretty girl named Andie. She said she was leaving for New York City just as soon as she could scrape together the cash—exactly as a girl who looked like her ought to say, Hector thought, yet he was disappointed. Her father and brothers were all bikers, too, she said, but no one had heard anything from them for a long time. Andie thought they might have gone to California, near where Hector had been, but when she told him their names he didn’t know them. When he had ascertained that she wasn’t spoken for, and invited her to his room, she said, “You got any Jack Daniels in there?” And when he said no, she left, leaving Hector to wonder whether it had all hinged on a stupid bottle.
His roadside snack of choice now tending toward hamburgers with as many different-coloured condiments as he could get, he hugged the shore of Lake Superior for a while, then headed inland to Sudbury. Banking south, he rode alongside a batch of young recruits jogging in neat formation near CFB Petawawa. When he crossed into Quebec, the road signs bristled with accents and jaunty little hats; and the road itself cracked and greyed over, as though it had endured many more winters than the smooth black tarmac on the Ontario side. The sky changed, too, as though anticipating the true open ocean, the St. Laurent River a sly Gallic finger, beckoning toward the Atlantic.
By the time he reached Montreal there was only the motorcycle, and virtually no money to gas her up with, so he decided to stay put for a while. He was reduced to siphoning off of parked cars at night with a length of rubber hose and an empty jug of Tide. Most new model fuel hatches opened by pulling a lever inside the car, and when they refused to be jimmied Hector used a screwdriver, leaving blasphemous scratches in the paint. When he did get on the road he avoided the places he knew other bikers would go, preferring instead to point his front wheel south across a West-end bridge—the Champlain, which arced through the air in a lacy fan of oxidized metal, beneath it the runoff from the Great Lakes rushing to the embrace of the Atlantic. He gravitated to a neighbourhood near a hospital for children, with the usual characters pollinating the usual cheap rooms and basement apartments, and rented a half-submerged grotto in an old greystone on Charity St., with a cot, working mini-fridge, microwave oven, and an old fabric hanging of a sunflower brightening the plywood bathroom door it was tacked on to. Just south of his apartment the city dropped off in a steep escarpment. Leaning on his elbows over a café newspaper, Hector learned about an ancient sea that had once covered the entire island but the tip of the mountain, and for a while all the trees looked like coral.
He backed up his bike perpendicular to the sidewalk a few blocks away, where rents were higher, and settled in to wait. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for—a better understanding of his purpose on Earth, a loosening of his hatred for Archie from Minnesota—but there was no sign of it yet. He’d seen a rhyming book once, for kids, but written so you knew the author was really talking to all people about all things. There was a part in it about waiting for whatever might change things—hope on a rope or socks in a box. There was a library nearby, and Hector reckoned that, being so close to a children’s hospital, they probably had that book, but he never felt together enough to go in and ask for it. Walking near the hospital, a man on his way in offered him $5, and Hector was bashful, but took it. He stood still by the entrance for a moment, and a woman on her way out, seeing him there, took her little boy by the hand and passed him to the other side of her body, away from Hector. After that he only went to the park.
He did his best to decipher the stack of parking rules, set out in French on placards affixed to poles, the poles, surprisingly numerous, placed at regular intervals on any given street. He stood in the street he’d selected for his motorcycle one day, gazing up at the signs, a protective hand on the seat of his bike. A resident, Alan, was strolling out of his garage when he saw Hector standing there, and reacted to Hector’s shaggy, black leather-clad presence first with irritation, then self-chastisement, since he liked to think of himself as a tolerant person. Hector did not turn his head; he could sense not only the man but the nature of his ambivalence. He kept on reading, then, cross-referencing one sign with another, first on the same pole; then with another set indicating conflicting rules on another pole 10 feet away.
“Confusing, aren’t they,” ventured Alan, unconsciously jiggling the change in his pocket.
Hector sized him up. He saw someone doing his best to be neutral, even helpful, despite some serious misgivings. “Yep.”
“That’s a nice bike.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Sure,” Hector responded instantly, and the man came over to admire the machine, lovingly maintained with Hector’s own hands. In the end, a spot behind Alan’s garage was offered for a nominal fee, which Hector accepted with a debt of gratitude so large it almost passed into resentment. Within an hour the motorcycle was safely veiled under its tarp in the sheltering shade of Alan’s home.
In the park near Charity St., crackheads and assorted junkies gathered, along with dealers, random young people getting high, and the local aged and/or mentally ill, such as the lady with the long faded hair and the bright pink jacket, who fed the birds. She arrived in the morning with a world of tote bags, and spoke to no one but the pigeons and sparrows. There was a bronze monument to a 15th-century Italian merchant explorer, who’d duped an English king and been lost at sea. One day, a religious leader and his followers came and stood around the monument. They hung banners, shooed the usual denizens away, and the leader gave a long and angry-sounding speech, patched through loudspeakers. A crowd of people gathered, but most were just curious and soon wandered off, leaving others to stop and listen. The banners and the speech were in a foreign language only a few people in the audience seemed to understand, and even hunkered over a bag of chips in his basement, Hector could still hear the loudspeakers. When it was all over, the park regulars re-convened around the monument, and Pete, a young guy from Kahnawake, passed around a bottle of whiskey sheathed in a white plastic bag.
In time, Hector heeded the siren call of the neighbourhood’s hardest-working seductress, and he picked up his heroin habit where he’d left off in California, only this time, there was something more urgent about it. Then there was Ida, who arrived in the park one day late in summer on the arm of a neighbourhood junkie, who soon faded away. She was child-sized, dressed all in black like a strumpet Johnny Cash, her jet-black hair cut in a rocker style she told Hector she did herself, with nail scissors. Even her upper gums had patches of black that looked like they were probably some kind of birthmark, but Hector wasn’t sure, and couldn’t bring himself to ask. She was older, but not by that much, he hoped, and besides, she shared her dope with him. He tried to keep exploring the neighbourhood and the city, keep his bike gassed up and take it out on the road, but the shrinking of the world was a looming and then an inevitable thing. Soon there was only the park, the needle, and Ida. She smelled terrible, and as time went on Hector knew that he was beginning to smell terrible, too. His jeans were getting looser each day, so that they bunched up under his belt like the top of a brown paper bag, and the tattoo on his bicep was beginning to droop. He’d had it done in California; strutted into the shop with a couple of already well-adorned members of the gang, pulled back his sleeve and slapped his arm, growled, “Yeah, right there!” and paid $150 cash, for a 3-D butterfly-winged motorcycle. The guys laughed at him, told him it was a woman’s kind of tattoo, but Hector liked it.
Ida liked it, too. One day, as they sat together on a bench in the park, Ida lifted the sleeve of Hector’s T-shirt with her finger and traced the lines of the tattoo. Hector batted her hand away. She pouted, then leaned over and whispered, “Why don’t you take me back to your place.” He sighed. She was wearing him down, and he felt guilty for all the free highs she gave him. “We can go to my room,” she was saying. “Come on—it looks like it’s gonna rain.” She stayed in an upper floor of a tiny but crowded, run-down rooming house not far from Hector’s basement. As they walked up the iron-railed staircase that seemed to Hector as though it had been designed for people half his size, he could hear people coughing, groaning behind other doors, lending an overall effect of a hospital. Ida’s room was fairly clean; he was relieved to see; an avocado plant germinated in a glass of water on the windowsill, its pit suspended at the mouth of the glass with toothpicks. But he had a strong sense of everything being too small; of the whole east coast being built hundreds of years ago for much smaller people, and now it was too late and too crowded to amend it. Ida offered tea, and plugged in the kettle. Waiting for it to heat up, she cocked her head to one side with as much charm as she could muster, sidled over to Hector, and kissed him. She tasted of the beer they’d shared in the park. “Not so bad, is it, hon?” She nuzzled at Hector, trying to get him to loosen up.
Ida moved her lips down his neck, her tiny bony hands alive all over him. She reached his belt, and worked her way down, sending uncertain glances up at him that made her look more than ever like a little girl. Hector decided that if he was going to stop her, he should do so without further delay. He touched his hands briefly to her hair, felt his knees about to give, and sought the support of a nearby chair. He thought, “Ah, hell,” and let himself go, shutting his eyes against her busy mouth. The kettle’s steady exhalation covered up the sounds they made, which Hector was grateful for since he could hear every word of soap opera dialogue on an unseen neighbour’s TV. When she was done Ida sat back on her heels, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “It’s not everyone I have the sincere and honest desire to do that,” she said. “You’re a sweet man, Hector.”
Hector left as soon as he could, descended the Lilliputian stairs, and emerged into a warm rain misting the late afternoon. He recalled walking home from a girl’s house once, back in Vancouver. Eleanor worked in the box office at the theatre on Granville Island, where Hector worked the fruit stalls, and she had a magical trail of freckles across her nose he wanted to put his tongue to. He’d been after her for what seemed like forever, and when she finally split with her boyfriend, she invited Hector over. They’d smoked a few joints, talked; she cried; they made love. Walking home he found it impossible to wipe the smile off his face, and after a while he stopped trying and let the smile do its thing, and it spread and spread until he thought it would be there always. The next day, Eleanor got back together with her boyfriend.
Lying on his cot on Charity St., looking at his sunflower, Hector remembered the Hopi carver he’d met while roaming Arizona on his own. It had been hotter than Hades, but Hector didn’t mind. He ended up in Coconino County, where there was a bunch of tourist-y stuff to do, and Hector was tickled to come across a place offering canoe and kayak rides. He rented a kayak and paddled along—he’d never set foot in a boat in Canada—until he came to a rest area where Navajo and Hopi vendors had their stalls set up. A Hopi carver was playing the wise-old-shaman thing to the hilt for the milling tourists, though Hector suspected it wasn’t all bogus. The old man had a table set up displaying handmade crafts and, somehow not incongruously, fresh corn. Spread on the rickety table, almost hiding its rusted legs, was a woven wool blanket, and across the geometric pattern marched a phalanx of kachina dolls. Hector was drawn to a simple-looking, mostly white one, whose face reminded him a little of Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live. “Eototo,” the carver crowed, tilting his head back to let out the sound, and people turned to look. The carver told Hector that he had chosen the most important one—the chief of kachinas, bestower of abundant harvests: Eototo, descendant of Ometeotl of the Aztecs (according to some). Hector extracted a tangled clutch of bills from his pocket. “Keep it with you,” the carver said as he handed over the statuette. “You never know.” And he smiled a wonderful old man’s smile, mixture of knowing as much as it’s possible to know and admission that it probably wasn’t enough, an ambiguity he seemed to accept with grace, while Hector still struggled to see the corners of things. “Take some corn,” the carver added. “Have to eat it today.”
There was obviously some kind of mythology of Eototo, which Hector had meant to look up, but never did. He almost wished he’d chosen a less important kachina; perhaps the Old Man, or the Eagle Dancer. Hector doubted he’d ever be the chief of anything. He hid the Eototo, of course, from his biker friends, who might have teased him mercilessly, as they teased him about the tattoo, and his yellow helmet— though he’d heard Archie from Minnesota was Ojibwe. Suddenly needing to see the Hopi kachina, Hector found it in a forgotten pocket of his duffel bag, rolled up in an old but clean sock, in which Hector had thought to wrap it— in a motel room in Saskatchewan, if he remembered correctly. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” he told it, rolling his eyes at the borrowed line, and he sat and held it for a while, thinking not without envy of the old Hopi man with his long tidy hair and traditional garb. He’d seemed a man well-loved, and who knew where he belonged.
Over the next few weeks, Hector counted out his money, sitting down with a pencil and paper to write out columns of precise figures. Toward Ida he remained cordial, but avoided prolonged eye contact. At the side door of the church, when the Narcotics Anonymous meetings let out, he made the necessary arrangements. On a quiet, leafy night—it was now autumn—Hector “Moondance” Alembic bathed himself carefully, and trimmed his beard and hair. He parked his bike on the side of the road where no one would have to bother with it for a few days. He had laundered a T-shirt, socks, and underwear, though his jeans were still somewhat soiled. He arranged his stockpile and paraphernalia on the overturned cardboard box he used for a bedside table; checked one last time to make sure his things were packed and clearly marked with his brother’s address; the dishes washed, the floor swept clean.
It was Ida who haggled with the landlord for the key, and found Hector unconscious on the floor; she who called the ambulance and then sat with his still-freshly shampooed head in her lap. They wouldn’t let her ride with them, so she tucked in with Hector the funny little doll she’d found beside him and made sure the paramedics saw it. She told them he had a motorcycle parked somewhere, but she didn’t know where, and then Ida stood by the side of the road long after the stately departure of the yellow ambulance and its Hector-containing cube, so covered with banners and lights it was almost festive. She stood there for a long time, as though waiting to receive them back again.
“Mr. Alembic, you’ve got a phone call,” said the morning nurse in her beautiful accent. Hector wanted to know where she was from, but was too shy to ask.
“Thanks,” he said. He glanced at Nick, who gave him a crinkle-eyed smile. Hector shuffled down the hall toward the row of old-fashioned, wood telephone phone booths that reminded him of confessionals. He paused and turned back toward the nurse.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I was wondering about the nurse who paid me a visit in the middle of the night?”
“Yes,” replied the morning nurse. “I understand that can be unpleasant. Sorry we can’t warn you when they’re going to come; the samples have to be completely random, so that we can prove you’re complying with recommended medical intervention. That way, the government will keep footing our bills, you understand.”
Hector and Nick stared at each other. Recommended medical intervention.
“Don’t forget your telephone call, Mr. Alembic,” the nurse prompted.
The receiver waited on a minor sector-shaped ledge in a middle booth.
“Bless me, Father.”
“Hector?” It was Marty, in Vancouver. “What the fuck, man? Do you know how hard it was to find you?”
“What’s up is Gran died. That’s what’s up.”
“‘Oh.’ And what’s up with you?”
“They’re keeping me here for a while.”
”I know. I spoke to the nurse.”
They were both quiet. Then Hector said, “Don’t you think she has a nice accent?”
“Listen, Gran left you something.”
“That’s impossible. Gran hates me.”
”Hated. But, no, apparently not.”
“That’s—are you sure?”
“I’ll wire you some. Try not to shoot it into your arm. OK? Get your bike back on the road. Maybe you could come home before it snows.”
“You sound good.”
“I’m on new meds.”
“You know, you walk into a bar around here in a biker get-up, and some of these guys, they get the wrong impression.”
“Come on home, sweetheart, and I’ll take you to the best leather bar in town.”
Hector could swear he caught a whiff, in that airless wooden phone booth in a Montreal hospital, of the prairie; the scratch of grain and animal shit at the back of his throat, the face-smacking wind marking the halfway point between here and home. He imagined the chafe of his helmet at the back of his neck. He thought he might like to follow the river up the Gaspé Peninsula, and then tack east to Nova Scotia to look out at the Atlantic. Or maybe that girl back in Marathon was still broke and hangin’ out in motel restaurants—though, to be fair, it was one of the few restaurants in town and the apple pie was delicious.
Rebecca Rustin is a Montrealer with roots in London, England and the shtetls of Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. After studying the great authors of the English tradition at Concordia University, she finally picked up a copy of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and felt at home.