Adagio For Dennis
When I first met Dennis it would have been easy enough to dismiss him as someone with prospects. He wore a look of success and self-assurance, a look that said perhaps he was on his way up the celebrated ladder and that he probably had to be somewhere the next day. A couple of my acquaintances fancied he was genuinely sophisticated, perhaps even deep. He was not.
I remember the first time we met. A whole pack of us had gone out after work and we’d rambled from bar to bar. At the end, there were five or six of us still standing and someone knew of an after hours place not far away. We piled into a couple of cabs and landed ourselves at the back door of a warehouse letting out into an alley.
This particular speakeasy looked like something that wouldn’t last long. It was too conspicuous, the music throbbing in the alley, people milling about. A couple of hippies sat on the roof of a car, sharing a joint, like it was the summer of love instead of the autumn of the cold call.
Someone called my name.
I turned and looked. Standing in the door of the speakeasy was a certain someone I knew from my days as a waiter. We’ll call him ‘Mr. E.’ He had his hand in a lot of things, this Mr. E, including working the door here and there. He motioned me to come to the front of the line, and after speaking to him for five seconds he waved us through, no charge. Very slick. You never know when swinging someone a few free meals will do you good down the line.
Once inside we descended into a low-ceilinged basement and immediately found ourselves gasping for air. It was like walking into a greenhouse ventilated with perspiration and cheap cologne. The place was crammed, the bass so deafening I could hardly make out what kind of music it was. Thump thump. Pause. Thump thump. Pause. If I close my eyes I can still see the room.
Drinks appeared and we tried to talk but it was no use, so we stood around looking needlessly indifferent. Once in a while someone would lean forward and shout something. Fat chance of hearing anything. It was charades only and desperately hot.
Then, when the evening seemed all but lost, we met Dennis. He arrived in the form of a dapper young man crashing through our ring and landing in a heap at our feet, his arm extended above him, having successfully saved his drink. This, as I was to learn, was pure Dennis. We helped him up and brushed him off. It was here that more than a few mistaken impressions were born. I never saw anyone recover so well from an embarrassing predicament. Who would have suspected it was practically a way of life?
He started talking. We gave him our full attention, nodding in what seemed all the right places. Of course none of us could make out a word, but you could see in the eyes of everyone present that we all seemed to think he was quite possibly saying the most brilliant thing of the evening, and wasn’t it a shame to be deprived of hearing the least bit of it. He went on for ages, lighting a cigarette, gesturing with his hands like some kind of prophet, then after a while he raised his drink, took a sip, and turned to walk away. Someone reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Her name was Elise (for some reason I always thought of her as Elsie, especially whenever I’d had a couple of drinks). She pulled him back.
At about the same time the music inexplicably quieted for a bit. It was like the lifting of a headache.
Elise tugged Dennis back into our circle and said, “I just wanted you to know. You’re the most desirable thing I’ve seen all day.” As we all know, drink can make a soul foolish and honest, occasionally both at once. Dennis looked around at us all and grinned. “Thank you,” he said, and walked away. Elise immediately slapped a hand to her forehead and said, “I need to find a washroom. Is there a washroom? Can somebody show me the effing washroom?” It was me who offered to help.
Off we went. It was slow going, pushing our way into the solid mass of sweaty folk, some dancing, some huddled together, watching us watching them as we squeezed our way through.
We stepped into an empty pocket. On the far side was what Elise was looking for. I said I’d wait where I was and Elise took off.
I luxuriated in the empty space and at some point I looked up and saw Dennis only a few feet away, downing half a beer. Looking at him I had one of those maudlin moments where it occurs to you how little you have in common with others, especially the people I was with. (Apparently I’d had my share of drinks as well.) Once we’d bitched about our jobs, what was there? Or was it just me? Was I in need of a new outlook?
“If anyone farted in here we’d all die.” I looked up. It was Dennis. “They’ve got us packed in here like fucking sardines.”
“Fucking farting sardines,” I said, and Dennis smiled.
“You know, I was at this bar just before I came here, one of those places up on Queen St. where everybody dresses up like friggin’ banditos, but you know damn well every last one of ’em lifts the toilet seat. You know? I felt like I was walking in on some kind of suicide recovery night. Everyone had these gauze bandages on their wrists. Maybe it’s some kind of fashion statement, I don’t know. But why does everybody have to get down to get down, know what I’m saying? Someone ought to tell ’em it’s getting out of hand.”
“Definitely,” I said. “You bet.” I hadn’t the least idea what he was talking about.
“What do you do?” he asked me.
“Well, I work for a living,” I said, and Dennis laughed. It was a broad, winning sort of a laugh, a laugh that said we were now already good friends.
“What’s your name again?” I asked.
“Dennis,” he said.
“I’m Cashman,” I said and held out my hand. “Good to meet you.”
“Do you read?” asked Dennis.
“Been known to,” I said. “I know how.”
“Oh, good,” said Dennis, smiling, and pulled a flask from his coat pocket and offered me some. It tasted like paint thinner, only worse. While I recovered from that, we stood and talked. What we said I don’t remember so well, but I recall the feeling of being warm all over.
Then Elise returned. Dennis had been blabbing about something. I had made some passing reference to trees falling in the woods and Dennis became all impassioned, conjuring all sorts of ideas that hadn’t the least bearing on anything. I put it down to the time and hoped it was. He said this, this I remember, he said, “If you invite me to dinner at your place and when you’re out of the room I stick my gum on the bottom of your dining room table and you don’t see me, is it really there?” His eyebrows shot up. I said, “Sure it is. It’s right next to mine.” Dennis smiled and grabbed me up in a bear hug. It was then that Elise butted in.
She hauled me aside, looked up at Dennis, and said to him, “I am not talking to you.” Then she reached up, threw her arms about his neck, and kissed him. The next I knew she had me by the arm and was dragging me back through the crowd.
As we went the music suddenly faded out completely. Everyone started looking around, the lights came up and a murmur rippled through the place. “The police are here. The police are here. They’re handing out tickets.”
The mood swirled from disappointment to anger and quickly gelled into a near-giddy desire not to have to pay any fine. I don’t think I was the one who spotted the window, but I believe I suggested it. There were already boxes piled beneath it. I wound up climbing out behind a woman I barely knew, named Marta. She swung around at me when she was half-way out and said, “The one time I wear a skirt.” I reassured her, “I’m not looking.” Three weeks later she went to work for our competitor.
The window let out into a junkyard. All around were these rusting transformer things. We picked our way through the hunks of metal, found a hole in a wooden fence that led out into the alley and emerged into the middle of another clump of escapees.
“Is the coast clear?” asked someone; it might have even been me.
“Is it ever?”
“Yes,” said someone else. “Sometimes it is. And you can tell because that’s usually the time when it’s safe to go out.”
It was cold enough to see breath. Everyone was feeling it, especially after the sweaty pit we’d just crawled out of.
Robert, a fellow from my department, poked his head out into the alley. A moment later he was back.
“Well? What’d you see?”
“Good people? Bad people?”
“Depends, doesn’t it?”
“One or two. But it doesn’t look like they’re handing out tickets. Perhaps we’re witnessing detente. Shall we go?”
One by one we emerged into the alley. I was last. When we’d all finished dusting the last of the rust and paint chips from various appendages I noticed I was once again standing next to Dennis, only for some reason I was the only one who seemed to notice he was there.
“Oh, hello,” I said.
He said nothing at first but handed me his flask. What was I to do? I drank. It was perfectly revolting and I was fast developing a taste for it.
“Hello,” he said.
“Did they give you a ticket?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. Something better.” But he mustn’t have understood me, because what he did next was roll up his sleeve and show me his watch. “Isn’t that a nice one?”
“Lovely,” I replied.
“There’s a whole lot of money,” he said out of the blue, just like that. “I knew it was going to be a lot, but I don’t think I realized when they said ‘a lot’ how much ‘a lot’ was going to be. You know?” Again he passed me his flask.
I saw my colleagues start to drift away, shrinking from the cold. “Wait,” I said, half-heartedly, but they didn’t seem to hear and had soon wandered off.
On the horizon I thought I saw evidence of the sun about to rise, but it was only the glow of the central business district.
“The thing I’m going to do first is go to Greece. Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to see the Mediterranean.”
The flask was somehow in my hand yet again. I took another belt even though I could hardly see straight. When I stopped spinning I looked up and saw Elise was back and was necking with Dennis (she would later deny this ever happened), then just as suddenly she was gone again.
“Any fiction?” said Dennis.
“Plenty,” I said. “What?”
“You read fiction?”
“Possibly,” I said, closing my eyes, since they were now of absolutely no use whatsoever.
“Mind if I run something past you?”
“I’ve got an idea for a book.”
“You don’t even know me,” I said.
“I might steal your idea.” I had my eyes closed and was talking to my shoes.
“Are you a writer?”
“No, but who’s to say I won’t pretend I am?”
“You never would.”
“You never know.”
Dennis put his hand under my chin, tilted my head up, looked me in the eye, then he said, “Nah, you wouldn’t,” and took a pull on his flask. What follows is not necessarily the actual story Dennis said he intended to write:
“It’s about a guy sitting in a bar,” he began. “It’s Friday night, he’s getting plastered, the bar is empty. Everyone’s gone away for the weekend. I mean everybody. The city’s a ghost town. As the sun goes down, this guy goes to a bridge and watches the tail lights of all the cars leaving the city for cottage country. The horizon is red from all the tail lights.” Here Dennis looked at me to check my reaction. I had no reaction. I felt dizzy and contemplated falling over.
“And this guy, he walks into town. There’s absolutely nobody around. He goes down to the big buildings and discovers he’s being followed. After a while he sees it’s only a monkey, a chimpanzee. And this guy and the monkey, they go down to the big buildings and there, in the middle of all those skyscrapers, is the last tree in the city. The monkey climbs up the tree and the guy takes off his clothes and climbs up and joins the monkey.”
Dennis stopped here. He pulled his flask from his pocket and took a drink.
“Wow,” I said, “Nice.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “It’s got everything.”
“It says something, right?”
After this I remember next to nothing. I believe we went to another booze can and Dennis picked up the tab for everything. I have a vague recollection of him telling me how he’d come to get a certain Filipino nanny in the family way, and just where that was supposed to be headed I haven’t any idea.
I woke up in my own bed, fully dressed, still wearing my shoes, imagining the angel of death swooping down for a visit and laughing long and hard when he realized that leaving me be was surely the most sinister of all possible fates. I survived, if you can call it that. My day at work was nothing less than evil. Atonement, atonement, a few of us whispered, our voices more brittle than old pint glasses.
None of us spent much time talking about that night, but from the little that was said I was reminded that where alcohol is concerned, memory is not merely selective, but totally untrustworthy. Robert, the fellow from my department, asked how I’d ever let him take off on his own like that, which was, of course, news to me. He said he’d stumbled along until he’d come to another booze can where everyone was seated at tables and smoking cigarettes using cigarette holders and getting up now and again to lip-synch to songs from old musicals, and it just so happened that Dennis showed up and after a few minutes stood up to do his best impression of a song from Oklahoma, or perhaps it was something from The Sound of Music. Robert confessed he was having trouble remembering which. So, clearly, his version of the wee hours was at odds with mine.
And when I caught up with Elise a few days later, just outside the atrium, I raised my eyebrows and asked her what, in particular, she had found so special about Dennis. She narrowed her eyes and said, “I liked that he didn’t seem the sort to say a lot of stupid things, not like some other people I know.” And as she turned to walk away she whispered through her teeth, “He knows what to do with a woman.” I dropped my pencil when she said this, electing to leave well enough alone.
Dennis, ah Dennis, disruptive vibes seemed to follow in his wake. Twice more my boat ended up being swamped while in his company.
For months I was a good boy. I went out only on weekends, and even then I always managed to catch the last train. It helped that I had met someone: Pauline, a woman of no small virtue. A lovely couch she had. Work was another story altogether. I was demoted. Not officially, but it amounted to the same thing. For no reason I could see I was assigned the equivalent of a mop and bucket and told to swab the decks no one had visited for sometime. I was carrying around portfolios that would have embarrassed an earthworm.
Three weeks after this humiliation, sometime in the middle of spring, I happened to be out on the loose again. Pauline had dumped me before I could dump her and I believe I started off the evening telling myself it was just the one (oh, how easy the walls tumble) and I worked my way in a sort of semi-circle, going up and around the university and coming down the other side. By about last call I was probably willing to concede to anyone who would listen that I now knew exactly why it was called a pub crawl.
Then, as it got late, I started to make my way down to where I could catch the all-night bus, and I was singing a little song to myself when who should appear from a dark alley but Mr. E himself. I almost walked right into him.
“Cashman!” he said, as if he was genuinely happy to see me. He was looking very high-tech, with some kind of two-way radio headset thingamabob clasped around his head.
“Who’re you supposed to be?” I asked.
Once again he was doing the door for some after-hours place. I looked around and said, “Where?” There didn’t seem to be anyone or anything around. It was the middle of the garment district and the store fronts were shuttered, the street quiet, above us the neon sign of some bridal shop.
Mr. E led me across an empty parking lot, knocked on a door and an instant later it opened. In I went, down, down, down into the concrete depths of some ugly joke of a building that smelled intensely of children’s safety glue. At the bottom of the steps another door swung open and the sound and heat and cigarette smoke hit me like the front of a nuclear firestorm and I inauspiciously thought to myself, “This could be good.” All things being relative.
I found the bar and got myself a couple of beers, neither of which I needed, but my hands wanted something to do. Next, I found a wall and settled in. I decided it might be best if I didn’t try to speak to anyone since I’d already been two or three hours in that gray area where intelligible speech is intermittent. There didn’t seem to be any air. My eyes were stinging from the smoke.
A group of people settled around me, fashion victims mostly. They were close enough that I could make out bits and pieces of what they were saying. Appropriately enough, they were whimpering about the influence of Bauhaus on modern architecture, but during one digression things got a little confused at one point over a mix up between Christopher Wren and Christopher Robin. Understandable, really, especially in a booze can.
The fellow just to my left, leaning on a large gray slab of a pillar was in the middle of making some pronouncement on territoriality, sex and the innovation of the manor house. “Even today,” he was intoning, “People sleep around the house, once in this room, once in that, just like animals marking their territory. What else is a house good for if you can’t do all that?”
As I said, it had been my intention to keep quiet, but somehow I’d forgotten. “How about for keeping warm?” I suggested. No one noticed.
Feeling shunned, I looked down along the wall and there he was: Dennis. He looked different, a little rougher round the edges. His hair was longer and scragglier, and he seemed a little pale (though a booze can is never the best place to go around judging anyone’s complexion). He was wearing mechanic’s overalls and a scarf around his neck. I half expected to see a pair of drum sticks poking out of his back pocket, but there were none that I could see.
Before I knew what I was doing I found myself walking over to him. I held out my hand and said, “Hello, you.” Dennis smiled and leaned in close. “What did the cow say when it was reborn as a lion?” I shook my head. “Funny, I think I’ve been herbivore,” and he slid his flask into my sweaty little hand.
One of Dennis’ front teeth was half-missing. I asked about it. “Tobogganing accident,” he offered, looking around the room uncomfortably. Then he told me to come with him and put his hand on my shoulder and led me through the crowd to the other side of the floor. On our way we encountered a bride in her wedding dress. I could see no groom.
Dennis led me into a little alcove. I stood at the entrance and watched as he pulled a bunch of things from an inside pocket. I looked behind me and again saw the bride. She had her arms around a couple of men, neither especially groom-like, her head thrown back in the middle of a bout of raucous laughter.
“Here,” said Dennis, his tongue poking through the gap in his teeth. He offered me a rolled twenty. “Do a line?” he said, nodding and looking past me.
“Coke?” I said. “People still do coke?”
I received no reply.
A minute later we were out in the crowd again. I saw the bride whirling around, her train getting caught up in her legs and nearly felling her. But when I turned, there behind me was another bride, all white lace and fairy tale.
I recall that next we were standing in the midst of a group who seemed to know Dennis. They were all ears as he spoke. “If milk is for baby cows, what about cheese and yogurt? What is that for? And what about buttermilk pancakes?”
“I give up,” said a young woman, throwing her arms around Dennis and tackling him to the floor. Over in the corner I saw no less than three brides sharing one bottle of beer. The shortest bride had a beard.
“My God,” said a tall woman beside me staring down at Dennis, still pinned beneath his admirer. “I think we need some kind of adage for Dennis. I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with something.”
A fellow on my other side leaned across and said, “‘Adagio’ is the wrong word altogether. I’m sure you mean ‘adage,’ don’t you?”
“What?” said the woman. “Can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
The music being, as usual, unhelpfully loud.
Dennis stood and looked nervously around the room, then he brushed himself off and adjusted his scarf. His assailant pulled out a compact and began to reconstruct her lips. I looked on helplessly, not so much because it was fascinating, but because I was halfway to a coma. Then Dennis was beside me. He slipped me his flask and said he’d be right back, which he wasn’t. I didn’t see him for a while. It could have been ten minutes or a half an hour or more. Time was no longer in effect. I bumped around in the crowd and at one point I walked past a bunch of guys who looked like rugby players. One of them motioned for me to come over and I did, only to be told I was a ‘scrub,’ whatever that is. It didn’t sound good though. When I finally saw Dennis again he was over in a corner leaning against the wall beside a door, clearly marked ‘NO EXIT.’ Another sign said ‘THIS DOOR LOCKED AT ALL TIMES, WEDDING BELLES.’ As I made my way towards him I saw the door open and out came a couple of brides. I watched them pass into the crowd just as I came up alongside Dennis.
“Hey,” I said.
He seemed a little preoccupied. I handed him his flask and apologized for having emptied it. He said it didn’t matter and produced another.
“You know,” he confided, “Someday I want to be able to hear something from the disco era and not feel like I’m going to cry.”
I put a hand on his shoulder.
“Did you know the impressionist movement can trace its pedigree back to Japanese woodcuts?”
I was pretty sure I had heard something along those lines before.
“Yes, Monet?” I said, partly as if it were a question.
“You can never have enough,” said Dennis, his tongue once again testing the gap where his tooth had once been. Then he looked at me and stopped and seemed to consider something. “Can I trust you?” he said.
“Absolutely,” I said, “I’m like an olive.” I meant to say ‘elephant,’ but it came out ‘olive.’ I remembered only later that elephants were celebrated for their memory and not their fidelity.
“I’ve been working on something and I wanted to get a second opinion, but I don’t want to tell it to just anyone, you know?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Couldn’t agree more.”
“Good,” said Dennis and he took a drink from his flask and peered over my shoulder as if looking for someone.
“No,” he said. “I’m just never sure who my friends are any more. Where was I?”
I shook my head.
Dennis shrugged his shoulders and went on about this vision he’d had. He’d been sitting in a bar and had closed his eyes and seen himself walking through the neighbourhood where he grew up. When he arrived at the corner of his old street he saw that the corner shop was open, the windows filled with all the candy he used to get when he was kid. Sponge toffee, jawbreakers, Cracker Jack and Dubble Bubble chewing gum. When he went inside, the store was full of candy. The shelves, the fridges, the freezers, it was all candy. But strangely, there was no one in the shop, no shopkeeper. A bell rang. It was the door opening. In walked a boy. He went up to Dennis and asked how much for a bit of candy he’d picked out and that was where the vision ended.
“Interesting,” I said, and nodded resolutely.
“So, what do you think?”
“Very nice,” I said, nodding even more vigorously.
“Would you go to a store like that?”
“Sure. There’s a couple near where I work. I go all the time.”
“There’s already a place?”
I nodded. “Yeah. My dentist has already thanked me more than once.”
Dennis knit his brow and seemed to be considering something. “Want to go get something to eat? I think I need to get out of here.”
Before I could say ‘sure’ or ‘sounds good to me,’ we were already picking our way through the crowd, so many of whom seemed to be arrayed for the altar. We found the exit, climbed the steps and burst out into the parking lot, the crisp air engulfing us, like jumping into a cold pool on a warm day. Not that it brought me any closer to being sober, just that suddenly there were all these other sensations beyond just being drunk. Of course after we crossed the parking lot and got as far as the street, Dennis handed me his flask, and I was once again invited towards the shadows, but as I tilted my head back I saw the sign above the shuttered windows of the store right there, a bridal store.
As I handed Dennis his flask, I suddenly recalled something. I asked him about the Filipino nanny.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Doesn’t ring any bells.”
We pointed ourselves in the direction of Chinatown and there before us was an old toothless lady in slippers and a housecoat. She had an unlit cigarette in her mouth. She asked for a match. Dennis reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter. He produced a flame and held it before the old woman.
“Match!” screamed the lady. “I said ‘Match’! You think I’m stupid? Those things can kill you.” And she shuffled away in her slippers.
“Know what?” said Dennis.
“What?” I said.
“She’s right.” And Dennis threw his lighter in a grand arc over the street and out of sight.
We went for Chinese food. I don’t really remember all that much, only that Dennis kept refilling my teacup with booze. The place was very bright and I believe we wolfed down everything, including the garnish. When we re-emerged in the street there were already signs of brightness in the east.
We walked a ways together, Dennis talking about this and that, about the benefits of licensing prostitutes. My head was already beginning to grow. I would have to be at work in five hours. Getting home, getting showered, changing and coming back would take three of those. Two hours sleep, that’s what I was thinking when we hit the intersection where we would part and my bus went flying past. I subtracted an hour of sleep.
“You know, everybody misses buses,” said Dennis. “But how many do you think have missed the boat altogether?”
I shook my head. He was right. Now there was an adage.
We said good-bye and Dennis told me I might not see him for a while. He said he was going to Thailand then walked off into what little was left of the night. I went and stood at the bus stop and closed my eyes and waited for my bus. Eyes closed, I was still seeing brides.
Almost three quarters of a year passed. Not really the best three quarters of a year either. By the time the Christmas season had arrived in full force, I began to fear for my job. I had been late quite a bit. Too much, in fact. Not that anyone had said anything, but I was starting to get the feeling I was about to get the sack, and the sack was something I didn’t think I would wear very well. I tried to imagine myself looking for a new job, sitting there at the interview pretending I’d been let go because I was just too good, and the interviewer on the other side of the desk looking at me and thinking ‘Why is this guy smiling so much?’ One look and they’d know. They’d know I was a scrub.
I’d become enough of a regular at one bar I frequented that I was invited to the Christmas party, which turned out to be such a good romp that after the owners had had enough and booted everyone out, a bunch of us marched off to find an after hours joint.
The place we found was behind a storefront on a busy street. A little conspicuous, I thought, but oh well. We were on our way in when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Mr. E. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said very quietly, “I wouldn’t go in, if I was you.” I shrugged and said, “But if I don’t, who will?”
There were several rooms in this place, six or seven, each a variation on ugly. In the first room I could smell pot. The air was thick with it, even though the room was mostly empty. I nearly went down in a puddle of spilled beer. The music seemed to be playing at the wrong speed.
We passed into the second room and stood there like a bevy of tourists discovering we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and were now in the wrong part of town. As I looked around the words ‘the experiment went horribly wrong’ kept running through my mind. Every person in that room looked as if someone had stolen their soul, and they were looking back at us as if to say, just forget you ever saw us.
We pressed on and found a room where everyone looked content, perhaps too content. Another room had all the ambience of a dripping tap. Finally we found the room where everyone was just plain drunk. In the corner was a bar and collectively we breathed a proverbial sigh of relief. One woman from our little party looked at me and said, “See what we have to do to get a drink in these times?” I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the era in general, or if she was referring to our specific experience on that night. Either way, I had to agree.
I got a drink and glanced across the room and there was Dennis. He looked just terrible. He was wearing a green parka, and his hair was longish and greasy. He looked as if someone had just poured a bucket of water over his head. The words ‘drowned rat’ came to mind. As I set off towards him I saw him bend over and collect a half smoked cigarette from the floor, stick it in his mouth and light it.
I went up and said hello.
“Oh, hi, hi,” he said, not looking at me.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Good, good. I got something now. Something good. I’m sure it’s the real thing, you know? A winner. You spare five bucks? Or no? Maybe no.”
“Buy you a drink?”
“Sure. Yeah, thanks. Thanks.”
I went and got him one and the minute he took a sip everything seemed to perk up. The effect was close to immediate, like waking someone from a bad dream.
“I saved somebody’s life the other day,” he told me. “I was with this buddy of mine and we were walking along the street there, and there was this other guy crossing at the intersection carrying a huge ladder and I just happened to see it was going to touch the overhead wires, the ones for the streetcar, and I pointed up and the guy stopped dead in his tracks. In the end the guy got the ladder to the other side without getting electrocuted, only my buddy got all pissed because he figured I’d just saved this guy’s life and he hadn’t even bothered to say thanks. So my buddy there, he ran back across the intersection and I swear he almost beat the shit out of the guy for being ungrateful. You know? Fucking guy. Does aluminium even conduct electricity?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Yeah, I don’t even know. You got a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Lucky you. I’m going to Mexico next week. Acapulco. You need a passport for Mexico, don’t you?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
I asked Dennis if he’d made it to Thailand, but he said I must have been thinking of someone else.
“Mexico,” he said. “It’s always been Mexico for me. Always wanted to see the Panama Canal.”
“‘A man, a plan, a canal, Panama,’” I said.
“Exactly,” said Dennis. “Maybe I’ll get on a ship.”
“What can you do with a drunken sailor…”
“Ah, surely it wouldn’t,” I said, and wondered where Dennis’ flask might have gotten to.
Beside us was a foursome that looked as if they must be in a band. I’d only turned to look at them for a second, but when I turned back I found that Dennis and I had somehow been enveloped by a crowd of six or seven others, and one of them, a beautiful looking young man with near-eastern features, was talking to Dennis. His face was so close to Dennis’ that I thought he was maybe making a move on him. I looked on with fascination. I wondered just how close one person could speak to another before it became an intimate act. Dennis didn’t seem to mind, though I noticed he was swaying a fair bit.
I leaned in closer myself.
“I’m not sure I trust my agent,” said the young man.
His eyes were something else, his lashes so thick and dark, they made his eyes look like they’d been outlined with coal.
“None of the people I’m with seem to know anything about it. In fact I don’t really like any of them. They’re so fake. If they just went away, I wouldn’t even notice.”
Dennis was matching the young man’s gaze. Neither seemed to have any need for blinking.
“It’s not easy. No one cares. It’s such a cold business. The minute you’re not around, they stab you in the back.”
Dennis drained off the last of his beer. Once again the young man moved in close.
“I don’t have any friends. I don’t have anyone I can talk to.”
“I have no real friends,” the young man repeated.
“Really,” said Dennis.
“Will you be my friend?”
“Sure,” said Dennis. “I’ll give you my number. Call anytime.”
Dennis looked at me. “You got a pen?”
I pulled one from my pocket and gave it to Dennis. I watched him tear off the lid of a pack of cigarettes and scrawl out his number. Beside it he wrote “Friend,” just like that, in quotation marks.
And then there was shouting. I looked around the room and realized I couldn’t see any of the people I’d arrived with. I did see what all the commotion was about, though. There was a guy standing in the middle of the room taunting the guys from the band. He had his hands on his hips and he was posing like he was some bad old rocker. Then he did all these fancy moves with his hands and feet, which I guess were supposed to be karate moves or something. He probably thought he was being very funny. Then someone pushed him from behind and he landed in the middle of the musicians and they all went down like bowling pins. Up jumped the guy with the karate moves. He punched the first person he saw, which happened to be some preppie type guy. Down he went. His buddies apparently didn’t much like this, and in less time than it takes to run away half the room exploded into a free for all. I’d only ever seen this in the movies. From what I could remember there was always some innocent guy trying to slink away who got knocked out cold. I found myself wondering just how innocent I really was. Perhaps I was safe.
Dennis took me by the arm and started to pull me along the wall. I didn’t think it was the way I’d come in but didn’t argue. Someone crashed into the wall just in front of us, caving in the drywall, but he popped himself out of the hole and dove straight back into the fracas.
We were almost out of the room when Dennis suddenly disappeared. I looked down on the ground and there he was. Someone had tackled him round the legs and was clawing away at his pants. I could not for the life of me figure out what was going on. I jumped over them and grabbed Dennis’ arms and pulled and soon enough I’d pried him away and we were dashing through the rooms. Before we knew it we were in a bottleneck of people all trying to get out the door. There was the sound of a siren and flashing lights and then we were out in the street and everything was fine. There was no one there to stop us so we started walking. Then we began to run (I don’t know why, as I said there was no one there rounding people up) and we ran the length of one block and only stopped when we got to the next major street, both of us painfully out of breath.
I started to laugh, but my cheek hurt. I felt it, and to my surprise I found I was bleeding. It was strange. I had no recollection of being hit or cut, but there it was. It felt like a good one too. I pulled an old napkin from my pocket and stuck it on my cheek. It stayed there all by itself.
Dennis looked at one of his pant legs and said, “Shit, I need these pants for tomorrow. They’re supposed to be clean.” But it was already too late. I pointed to his behind where there was a huge flap of material hanging loose.
“Crap,” said Dennis. “That’s it. That’s fucken it. What am I going to do now?” He kicked a newspaper box. It made a good sound. “What a goddamn mess.”
“You can have mine,” I said. “If you want.”
Dennis looked at me. At first he seemed confused, but finally he said, “You mean it?”
“Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”
We found an alley and swapped pants. It was a little cold on the legs. When we got back to the street we started walking. I don’t think we were headed anywhere in particular. It certainly wasn’t any direction I needed to go.
Neither of us said anything for a while. Dennis spoke first. He said, “Life is so friggin unpredictable.”
“Ain’t it just.”
After that we were quiet for another spell. It was pretty cold. I had my hands shoved deep inside my coat pockets.
Finally Dennis spoke again.
“I was sitting in this bar the other day,” he said abruptly. “And I was thinking there’s nothing for me here. There’s nothing. My parents moved here because it was supposed to be better here. There were supposed to be opportunities. I’m sure there were once. You know what there is now? Do you? Because I don’t. I don’t see anything. All I remember is being a kid and waking up on Saturday morning and getting to watch all the cartoons I wanted. There hasn’t been anything as good as that since. Hold on a sec. I got to pee.”
And Dennis stopped right there and started to go against the side of a building. He didn’t even try to hide himself by going over by the garbage bags ten feet away.
A police cruiser was right there, parked at the curb. The officers who were in it watched Dennis and when he was finished they got out and arrested him for relieving himself in a public place and put him in the back of their car.
After that I walked around on my own till it started to get light. My eyes were dry and began to sting. My cheek hurt. Snow began to fall. It came down in big clumps, like dabs of paint. Somehow I ended up in Chinatown. Several people were quite sensibly using umbrellas to hide from the snow. I overheard one person say to another, “Oh, grow up,” and like magic these words rang in my ears for days afterwards and long into the new year.
I saw Dennis twice more after this. Once I saw him in the market. It was summer and someone was showing him how to buy fish. I was near enough that I could hear everything. I heard about the eyes (they should be clear) and the gills (they should be deep red) and the skin (it should bounce back when you poke it). At one point Dennis looked up and stared me straight in the eye without recognizing me. I felt like Charlie Chaplin in City Lights with his millionaire buddy who never recognized him either, not when he was sober.
The other time I saw Dennis was just a little while ago. I was out with a bunch of people from my department (yes, I still have my job). We were playing pool. As it happened, our table was near the front of the building, by the street. I just happened to be looking at the door or I might have missed it, it happened so fast. In walked Dennis. He grabbed a drink off the nearest table and downed half of it before anyone could say a thing. He was yelled at and pushed back out the door, into the street. I stepped out a minute later. At first I wasn’t going to, but thought maybe I should. Dennis had already disappeared.
Then, just today, on the way home, I saw posters up on a few telephone poles in my neighbourhood. Each was a photo of Dennis from earlier days, and underneath, the words ‘Have you seen this man?’ and a phone number. I expect what they meant was “Have you seen this man—recently.” There isn’t likely much value in what I could tell them.
Joe Davies’ short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, eFiction India, The Dublin Review, Prism International, Queen’s Quarterly and other publications. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.