Nothing But Good Times

soderstrom.jpg

Park Avenue, Tuesday 3am. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Sylvie was thinking about what she should wear that night when the old woman started waving the $5 bill in her face. She’d already gone on to the next customer, pushing his things through so she could start ringing them up. When she looked around, she was surprised to see the old woman was still there.

“Give me another bill. This one is torn,” the woman said. She had to be old even though her skin, the color of weak tea, was practically unlined. Her hair, which showed around the beret pulled down on her head, was black with a strong sprinkling of white. Her body was shapeless: the breasts seemed to have melted down toward her waist. Her shopping bags still sat on the counter, just where Sylvie was supposed to put the next person’s groceries.

“I want another bill,” the woman said. “This one is bad, don’t you see, girl?”

Sylvie didn’t reply. A bill was a bill, and besides she had other things to worry about. She’d left a few clothes at Anthony’s but it was Saturday afternoon and his mother would be there. To change at his place would open up all sorts of things that Sylvie didn’t want to have to deal with.

“I want another bill,” the woman said again.

Last weekend, Easter weekend they spent at the Mirabel Hilton, out by the airport. Nice place. They had a room that over-looked the indoor garden and the swimming pool and they’d swum and drunk and made love and smoked a little dope. Couldn’t expect to do something like that this weekend but Anthony usually had good ideas…


The man next in line shifted his weight and began to pull his wallet out of his pocket. Sylvie jabbed at the cash register with her right hand while she moved the items with her left. There were no bar code readers here, no carousels to push groceries past the cashier. This was your basic center city store: crowded, sometimes dirty, definitely not state-of-the-art.

And not the store where Sylvie would have chosen to work. If she hadn’t met Anthony she would have quit after the first month. But he was fun and he worked up the street at the hardware store. He had a car, a red TransAm. He dressed sharp. He liked to have a good time. A good time, that’s what he’d promised her for tonight too….

The old woman leaned her belly against the counter and waved the bill so Sylvie couldn’t miss it. “You trying to cheat me, girl.”

The man next in line laughed “Oh, give her a new bill,” he said. “She’ll stand there all afternoon if you don’t.”

Sylvie looked up at him: gray hair and beard, dark green leather jacket. He had money, he probably never worked in a place like this. She shrugged and continued to ring up his things.

“She’ll change it,” the man said to the old woman. “Just wait a second.”

The woman spun around so she could stare at the man. She looked him up and down. “What makes you think so? They’re all alike,” she said. She smoothed the bill again in her hand. “All alike, wanting to do dirty to the rest of us.”

Sylvie decided she didn’t need this five minutes before her break, five minutes before Anthony was supposed to meet her . She punched in the code that opened the cash drawer and very carefully chose a fresh bill from among the ones in the $5 compartment. She smoothed it, held it up to the light as if to check its honesty and then held it out to the old woman with a bow.

The old woman grabbed the new bill and wadded the old one up in a ball before throwing it at the girl.

“Oh, shit,” Sylvie said to herself. But the old woman heard her.

“Watch your tongue, girl,” the woman shouted “God gave us language.” The woman’s voice was strong but her rage and her accent make her English hard to follow. “Language is a gift from God, and and you shouldn’t go messing with it, saying bad things and all.”

Sylvie didn’t say anything. She started to put the man’s groceries in shopping bags.

The old woman looked at her but didn’t move. “Language is gift of God, and man shouldn’t trifle with it,” she shouted. “Read your scripture. Do you hear me, girl?”

The man laughed, still holding out his money.

The woman, however, looked even angrier. She turned so she could look at all the people standing in line, waiting to pay for their Saturday shopping. “Read your scripture,” she shouted. “All of you: read your scripture and lead a Godly life.” She waited a moment, as if expecting a shout of affirmation from the waiting people. But when it didn’t come, she hoisted her shopping bags and began to lurch toward the door.

Sylvie took the man’s money. She saw that he smiled at her conspiratorially. “We’re all going to get old one day,” he said, “but I hope I don’t get like that.”

She nodded, but what he said didn’t really register. She could see Anthony already in her imagination: his white teeth, his curly black hair, his neat little mustache, the gold stud in his left ear lobe. He’d be wearing his red sweater over a white shirt with the blue and red striped tie, loosened a little. His black leather coat too, with the red scarf tucked in the top. She loved to see him hurrying down the street from the hardware store, rolling slightly as he walked, full of life, promising excitement.

He was already waiting for her when she came out of the store, smoking a cigarette and laughing about something. She started to run toward him, and she only saw the woman out of the corner of her eye. It took her several moments before she realized what he was laughing at.

“Look at that old fool,” he said, pointing toward the old woman. She had made it as far as the bus stop at the corner of Park and St. Viateur. Her shopping bags sat on the pavement beside her, and three teenagers were sitting on the wall across from her.

The handle had torn off one of the bags, and she was talking. They couldn’t her words, but Sylvie could imagine. “Language is a gift from God. Read your scripture.”

The boys laughed. “Memère,” one of them shouted, loud enough to be heard over the traffic, “there is no God.”

The tallest boy jumped down from the wall and came over to stand beside the woman. He said something and his friends laughed. His hands were in his pockets, but he held his elbows out like a bird on the attack who fluffs his feathers to look bigger.

Probably nothing would have happened then, but who knows? The 80 bus arrived, the boys got on, Anthony hustled Sylvie inside the restaurant. The woman must have continued home. Sylvie never even wondered.

About the only thing she wondered about during that time was whether this was love. Certainly that night he said he loved her, and she knew that her thoughts returned again and again to him. She knew that during the week, when she saw him pass in front of the store, adrenalin shot through her hands and the tips of her breasts tightened. She suspected that he had things to show her that she would never learn from anyone else. She could pick his voice out of the hodge-podge of sound in the hardware store. She could even tell his car when it drove up on her street.

She would look at herself in the mirror and decide that if it wasn’t love, then it would do for now.

Spring was late that year. At the middle of April piles of snow still lay rutted in the lanes and packed under stairways, but they went for rides in his car with all the windows rolled down anyway. The air smelled sometimes damp and ,faintly of green. Other times what Sylvie smelled when she waited for him to meet her was dog droppings and garbage now uncovered after months of being hidden by the snow.

By then Anthony thought they ought to move in together; his mother was moving to a smaller apartment now that it was clear that his father was gone for good. That meant there wouldn’t be as much room for him. But if Sylvie and he put their resources together they could get a nice place in this neighborhood or practically any other, he said. They were made for each other, he’d add. Then he would put his arms around her, reaching inside her coat if they were outside, running his hands over her back and sides, wherever they were. She found that difficult to argue with.

But she knew her parents would protest when she said she wanted to move out. Not that Anthony’s mother liked her, either. But it didn’t matter. She decided that when she wasn’t around him she was only half alive. Even the way he’d started borrowing from her didn’t bother her. After all, he’d paid for all their good times up until then; it was only fair, she told herself, that she start paying some too.

But he was late meeting her at the souvlaki place on the last Friday afternoon in April. He should have gotten off work 45 minutes before, and even figuring that he stopped by the bank to cash his pay cheque, he should be there by now. She looked at her watch again and looked out the window of the restaurant. The setting sun colored the sky above the buildings across the street. The days were getting longer. If they were going to take a place, the next few weeks would be the time to go looking, because leases were coming due all over the town.

There was a place for rent across the street: one of the duplexes that had been done over. She wanted something new, though, she wanted something that had some of the flash and glamour of the Mirabel Hilton. She didn’t want something renovated, she wanted something shiny. Otherwise she might as well stay home.

Then the crazy old woman came past, dragging a shopping cart behind her. The cart was loaded and Sylvie was glad she hadn’t been working when the old bitch came through the checkout. For just an instant their eyes met but Sylvie looked away quickly. The old woman continued down the street to the first of the row of three-storey triplexes where she stopped and sat down on the steps.

No. Sylvie didn’t want to live in this neighborhood.

And where was Anthony?

There, coming out of the bank, cutting across the street against the light, dodging a taxi. His jacket was open and his scarf was flying behind him. She felt her heart jump, and fingers tingle. She’d never known anyone who made her feel the way he did.

He saw her through the window, and blew her a kiss as he passed. In three seconds he was standing beside her, leaning over, kissing her, pressing his cold cheek against her warm one. But he didn’t sit down.

“Listen, Angel,” he said, kneeling beside the table so their faces were on the same level. He held her right hand in his left, leaving her left hand free to rest lightly around the back of his neck. He looked in her eyes. His breath was warm on her face. She wanted to be alone with him as soon as possible. .

“Yes,” she said expectantly.

He swallowed before he started to speak. “Listen, I got to run..”

She clutched at his hand. “Hey, no, you can’t do that. We were going to go out to dinner,” she said. She felt the anger rise up inside her. Damn it, she’d been waiting. Why did he have to run out?

He reached over so he could give her a little kiss on the cheek. “It’s all right, Angel, not to worry. All I’ve got to do is go around the corner and see this guy.”

“Why?” she asked. There is something more behind this too, she suddenly suspected. He looked, what? upset?

“Why?” he asked back. His gaze went out the window as if he were seeking the answer there. Then obviously he decided he had to tell her something. “I got to see a guy about the car repairs.”

“There’s something wrong with the car? It was okay last weekend.”

He hesitated. Then he stood up, and leaned over to kiss her again. “It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “Look, I’ll be back in l5 minutes. You stay here, order us both a beer and some Greek salad or something and when I come back we’ll decide where to go. ”

“Hey, no,” she said. “Come back. Don’t run out on me.” But he was wrapping his scarf around his neck, and opening the outside door. .

Fifteen minutes. His l5 minutes was usually longer than that, but then he’d never left in the lurch like that before either. Maybe he really only had to do something about the car. She hoped, she hoped. The waitress came over to see if she wanted to order. For a second Sylvie though about nursing her coffee a while longer, but then she decided, what the heck. She ordered fries and two beers. If Anthony didn’t ccome back quickly, she’d drink the second one too.

He said around the corner. He said car repairs. He hadn’t mentioned anything about that until then. But she hadn’t seen him driving to work, either, and he hadn’t said anything about going any place in it on the weekend. Maybe there was something wrong. But why hadn’t he mentioned it before?

He had secrets, that she knew. But then so did she. Secrets were normal. You couldn’t let them get in the way. Life was too short, there wasn’t enough fun in it to ruin what there was by worry. That’s what he’d showed her. That’s what he always said: good times, we’re going to have nothing but good times.

The old woman was getting up. She grabbed hold of the handles of the shopping cart. She turned it around so that it was easier to pull, then she started down the street again, her head thrown back. She was singing, Sylvie suspected, although Sylvie could hear nothing.

It was getting darker now, the street lights came on. From two of the houses on this side of the street, black-coated Hasidic men came out followed by a gaggle of small boys. The old woman stopped and watched them. She was saying something about Jesus, Sylvie imagined. She wondered what the Hasidic men thought about that.

The waitress came over with the fries and the beers. Sylvie took a few tentative sips of her beer as she watched the old woman open the little metal gate that enclosed the patch of front yard and then wrestled the cart around the stairs which led to the second floor. It was hard to tell from a distance but Sylvie guessed she must live in a basement apartment that had a separate entrance, down a few steps from the sidewalk level.

The woman must have opened the door. An outside light flooded the little front yard and an ordinary light appeared in the window. Sylvie allowed herself to wonder what it was like inside the apartment; pictures of Jesus, crocheted afghans, postcards from the Rockies and the CN Tower. A cat or two maybe; she tried to remember if the old lady bought cat food.

But suddenly the woman appeared again, as if she’d been thrown up the stairs by something. She stood for a second on the sidewalk and then threw back her head and arms in a sceam that Sylvie could almost hear.

Two Hasidic boys turned around to stare at her, and then hurried on. A woman on a bicycle pulled to a stop just past her, however. The old woman didn’t see her coming because her body was still contorted in the scream.

Jesus Christ, Sylvie thought, what the hell is going on now?

The bicycle woman looked around her, as if wondering what was needed, who could help. She apparently saw the door open to the basement apartment and left the old woman standing to go look inside. Then she came hurrying out too. But instead of screaming she went and pounded on the doors to the apartments on the first floor.

No one answered. The woman ran up the outside stairs to the second floor, where she pounded on the doors there. She was about ready to head for the third floor when the left hand door on the bottom opened.

Sylvie, of course, could not hear what was being said, but she could tell from the way the man at the door reacted that something grave had happened. He turned around and headed back into the apartment, leaving the door open. The woman stood watching for a moment, before she ran down the stairs to the old woman. There she tried to get the old one to sit back down on the steps.

Sylvie looked at her watch; it had been 25 minutes since Anthony left. She felt a little shiver run down her back: not fear exactly but a sort of worried questioning. Just around the corner, he had said. Then she heard the sirens. One siren—a police car—turned off the avenue and roared by the restaurant. It turned the wrong way down the one-way street. A yellow 911 van followed.

Sylvie stood up. The two waitresses were looking out the window and a handful of people had already stopped at the corner to look down the street. Another police car drove up, this one without its siren running. The 911 squad pushed past the old woman. One of the policeman with a clipboard began to ask questions of the other people who lived in the building.

The old woman watched, but nobody asked her anything. She tried to move back toward her apartment, but one of the policeman stood in her way. She said something, but the man shook his head.

Sylvie watched and waited for the explosion. But the old woman just stood there, as if what was happening was completely beyond her. A medic hurried past to the emergency van and came back with a gurney. Another 9ll car drove up, a third police car swung into place at the far end of the block to keep traffic from turning onto the street.

Then slowly the woman started to walk up the street. She held both fists to her head, and her eyes seemed focussed on the pavement in front of her. She walked slowly, she seemed to be unaware of the people watching what was going on. She was talking to herself, Sylvie saw. She was in a world apart.

The man who owned the restaurant came out from the kitchen and saw the waitresses staring out the window. “Hey,” he yelled. “There’s work to be done:” One of the waitresses tried to explain what was going on. “I don’t care if there’s a Jesus Christ himself being crucified in the next block,” he said. “As long as it’s not in here, and it’s working hours, we’ve got to work.”

But he came over to the window to look too. He stood beside Sylvie’s table and peered down the street. “Ha, looks like it’s the Sharks’s place,’ he said. “Somebody must have got it.”

“The shark?” Syulvie heard herself repeating.

“Yeah, that’s not his name, but he’s a loan shark. Rough customer. Does a little small-time dealing too,” he said. He turned around to look at Sylvie. “A place to stay away from, Miss.”

Sylvie shivered. The other clerks at the store still talked about the time a year ago when there were a couple of shooting galleries on Park avenue. Didn’t last long, the cops cleaned them out after about three months. But while they were there the store had a steady stream of half-stoned people buying soft drinks and packaged cakes. Weird people with needle tracks on their hands and, sometimes, wildness in their eyes.

They’d been gone before Sylvie started working there. That didn’t mean there weren’t other strange things going on, though.

Sylvie took a big drink of her beer. Her stomach tightened as the cold liquid ran inside her. She wished that Anthony would show up so they could go some place else. He always said he had nothing but contempt for people who used drugs. He knew some, who didn’t after all? But aside from a joint now and then, to celebrate something, he always said he was proud to be clean. He wouldn’t have anything to do with somebody who was dealing.

But then Sylvie became aware of eyes on her and she turned to look out the window. The old woman was there, staring at her. Then she reached up and rapped on the window with both her fists. “Your man,” she shouted loud enough to be heard through the glass. “The wages of sin are death. Your man has been paid in full.”

Anthony. The car repairs. The Shark. Sylvie stood up quickly, almost knocking over her chair and the beer. She grabbed for her coat and her purse. The waitress saw her and started toward her. “You haven’t paid,” she said.

Sylvie stopped and rummaged in the purse. She found first a handful of change but she knew that wouldn’t be enough. Then she found a $l0 bill: too much, not enough? She didn’t know, but it would have to do. As she hurried out the door, she thrust it at the waitress.

Outside the damp cold hit her in the face. The old woman was there at the corner, her hands covering face and her body rocking from side to side. Sylvie stopped in front of her: “What did you say?” she asked, reaching out to take the woman by her shoulders to shake her.

The woman looked up. Her face was gray, her eyes were bloodshot. “Your man,” she said, “and the other. The Lord has acted..”

She would have continued, but Sylvie started to run down the street. One of the policemen was in a patrol car, talking on the radio, two others were on the second floor landing, talking to the people who lived there. The medics were still bent over by the entrance to the basement apartment. Sylvie stopped when she got to them.

By then she knew what to expect. It was Anthony all right, lying curled on his left side, his right arm up over his head as if protecting it. There was a line of blood running out of his mouth. His eyes were shut, his skin was pale under the stubble of whiskers. The red scarf was still around his neck, pulled tight, but Sylvie also saw the smooth curve of his forhead was broken. The skin appeared uncut but the bone underneath it was pushed in. He was breathing, she could see his chest moving underneath the blanket which covered him from his shoulders to his feet.

“Anthony,” she said, softly.

One of the medics heard and turned around. “You know him?” he asked.

She nodded.

The medic stood up. “He’ll be all right probably.’

“Oh,” she said. She took a step closer. She was shivering, she realized. Car repairs he’d said. Being beaten up had nothing to do with car repairs. “He was mugged,” she said. Anybody could be mugged. It happened all the time.

“Maybe, maybe not,” the medic said. “You should talk to the police about that.”

Which meant, what? That it didn’t look simple urban crime, the innocent assaulted by the wicked. How could she tell, how could they tell?

“God will have his way,” came the old woman’s voice from the doorway. She must have followed Sylvie back to the scene. Or perhaps she had merely come home: her shopping cart still stood in the open doorway. “He dared to mess with ungodly, and the ungodly smote him. Let that be a lesson to you, girl. Avoid evil, and the appearance of evil. Live cleanly, act justly, cast the devils from you…”

Sylvie shut her eyes. They ought to call Anthony’s mother, she’d want to know what had happened. They’d have to talk to his boss too. They’d want to know what he’d been doing, where he was going. There were a lot of questions that were going to have to be answered.

“Who hit him?” she asked. “He left me just a couple of minutes ago, who ever hit him can’t be very far away.”

“Did he have any enemies?” one of the policmen asked , coming over with a clipboard. “Do you know if he was in any trouble?”

“Who hit him?” she asked again. “Does he had any money on him? He’d just gone to the bank, he should have quite a bit even if he did pay somebody….”

The policeman looked interested, but before he could question her back, the door at the rear of the basement opened, a door which looked as if it went to the trash containers or the furnace room. Sylvie held her breath as soon as heard the hinges begin to move. The eyes that peeked through the narrow crack were dark and suspicious, and when the policeman ordered the door opened further, they blinked twice, as if considering.

“No,” Sylvie said out loud.

A tiny groan came from Anthony, so tiny that Sylvie could barely hear it. She wanted to lean over, to listen more closely, but the sight of the eyes at the door made her blood freeze. This could not be happening. All she wanted was a good time, she hadn’t asked for anything more than that. Surely people were allowed to enjoy themself. Why this?

The groan thickened into a sort of croak in the back of Anthony’s throat. The medic who’d been monitoring his blood pressure looked up and and called something to his colleague that Sylvie didn’t catch. The policeman stepped forward and put his hand gently on the her arm. “MIss,” he began.

But she knew she couldn’t stay any longer even before the medics began to push her out of the way. He was mugged, she told herself again. Of course that’s what happened. This isn’t a safe place to work, or even to be.

“A very shady character,” said somebody in the crowd which was gathering by the outside door.

“Thought he’d moved out, we’d been given assurances…” somebody else said.

“Guy was a clerk at the hardware store, saw him come around once or twice before.”

“Shark.”

“In over his head….”

Sylvie was at the door now. She wanted out. She would leave and never come back. She didn’t belong here, nobody belonged here.

“You can’t leave,” the old woman said, as she started down the walkway toward the street. “The Lord will judge you, you have to wait…” The red car, Anthony’s red car, was parked half-way down the block. Sylvie brushed past the old woman’s hand, held out to detain her. If she got to the car, everything would be all right. Anthony would get well, the world would go on, there would be pleasure again.

But before she got there, she heard the old woman screaming: “She’s going, she’s going. You cannot let her get away.”

And then she knew she was trapped, and that it would be a long time before the next good time.

“Nothing But Good Times” is taken from The Truth Is, a collection of short stories set around Park Avenue in Montreal. It is published by Oberon Press and can be purchased online at Oberon’s website or at ChaptersIndigo.ca. In Montreal, find it at Paragraphe Books (2220 McGill College, downtown) and Nicolas Hoare Books (1366 Greene Avenue, in Westmount).

Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal writer. Her most recent book is Green City: People, Nature and Places, which explores the relationship between nature and cities, from Babylon to São Paolo to Shanghai.

COPYRIGHT 2000 BY MARY SODERSTROM.
USED WITH PERMISSION. UNAUTHORIZED USE FORBIDDEN.

This entry was written by Mary Soderstrom , posted on Wednesday January 24 2007at 01:01 am , filed under Fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments are closed.