Sunday, November 15, 2009

Seeing the Light

There’s a common thread about those who haven't finished the trip. They talk of a bright light at the other end. And of feeling disappointed when they don’t go all the way through.

I’ve been there. And the stories are true. About the bright light anyhow. But I don’t remember being disappointed when it faded and I was sucked back through the tunnel. Nor did anyone tell me it wasn’t my time yet.

It didn’t change my life, either. I’m still the same crummy kind that I was before I nearly died in that emergency room.

Actually that’s not quite right. The first bit. Maybe I did change. I probably became even more of the not nice person I used to be. Because I killed Lela in that car wreck, and she was the only one who ever came close to making me a decent human being.

It’s cold tonight. But I’ve been here a long time and don’t feel it much. Cold is something you feel only if you have ever been warm. Living on the streets of Calgary, even in the long-term hotel rooms where I am these days when times are better than bad, doesn’t give you much chance to get used to warm.

My ‘office’ is the streets. Different ones, different parts of them. Tonight I’m in a doorway on Delaraye. The dirty end. Physically dirty, and pretty shitty at the head level too. My clients generally only have one thing on their minds. Or what's left of their intellectual capacity after years of using what I supply.

Intellectual capacity. A big fancy phrase from a dealer. Well, I read. Always did. And I don’t do dope myself. Never have. Does that make me any better than the deadbeats I make my living from? Don’t reckon so. They’re losers, straight. I’m a loser, self-educated, although with money of my own now. The other thing we have in common, neither them nor me care.

Business is bad tonight. Maybe the cold is keeping the regulars away. Or perhaps their financiers, muggable citizens on the streets, are also scarce in the bitter evening. A rasp of sleet rides down the wind. The gust clatters a discarded beer can along the broken paving of the sidewalk. I watch the can boosted in and out of a pothole on the edge of the curb, then it rolls sideways, as if with a life of its own. It shifts direction again and wanders off Delaraye into one of the alleys where my clients usually scuttle to after buying.

I figure it’s time to go. I take a last look around. There’s not even a car in sight, apart from an old clunker across the road. Flat tyres signal it long beyond use. Except maybe as street people accommodation. I’ve been there too.

I leave the doorway, careful going down the cracked steps.

The Gaugin Hotel sounds fancy. Artistic even, unless you realise they misspelled the artist’s name. If you know your Calgary and this particular warren of streets off Delaraye, you know that fancy doesn’t happen down here. Besides, me staying in any hotel is not a recommendation. If they knew, even the fleas would think twice.

The Gaugin has advantages. Mostly about anonymity. Management doesn’t ask for names. Management, whose name nobody asks for either, and which isn’t offered, takes cash only. I could afford better nowadays. I even have enough money for a deposit on an apartment. But there's only myself, and the Gaugin is convenient to my places of business.

I push through the front door. Management doesn’t look up from his newspaper, but I know that he knows anyhow whether whoever comes in is paid up. Once when I was short and a day behind with the next month’s rent, I tried to go through without meeting him. Those are the only times he looks up. You pay whatever you have then or you don’t get back to your room.

I get on the first step of the stairs. A newspaper rustles. “You had a visitor.”

I look back. “Yeah?” It’s as much conversation as I’ve had with him in two years.

“Yeah. A girl.”

“I don’t know any women. None that know I live here, anyhow.”

He rustles to another page. “Not a woman. A girl. A kid maybe eleven, twelve.”

I shake my head. “I don’t know any kids.”

A couple of seconds pass. “Told her I don’t know you either. Told her to beat it.”

I take another couple of steps up the stairs. I look back. “She ask for me by name?”


“I never told you my name.”

He closes the paper, turns, looks up at me. His gaze is professionaly blank. “Yeah. I never asked. Like I told her, I don’t know you.”

I continue upwards. In my room I read myself to sleep. As I drift away, voices whisper in the wind outside. Too soft, too far away, for me to hear what they’re saying.

The crash is in slow motion.

We’re arguing. Or I am. Lela sits there, her face tight. She wants us to settle down and have a child. But she doesn’t want the child of a dealer.

She’d just said it quietly, out of the blue, as I drove. And I know, because I know her, that she won’t say it again. I know too it’s yes or no. No, and I know we’re done.

It’s the rock and the hard place. And I blow the moment. I ask her who does she think she is, laying our future on me like that? I only know one thing, how the goddamn else am I going to make us a living?

She sits there, looks through the wipers sloshing across the screen. Her thoughts somewhere beyond the storm. I try to see the road in the sheeting rain. But the real blindness is in my brain.

The bridge looms, slow in my head but too fast for the car. Like in a dream, reactions can’t catch up. The railing bends around the fender and eventually breaks into splinter-edged remnants of the wood. The car rides over the edge into the blackness. I turn to Lela to say I’m sorry. The words don’t come. I watch her head explode the windscreen in a mess of red and grey. I lose my sight, mercifully if only for the moment. And I lose, whatever there is of it, my soul.

I wake soaked. Sweat, not the river. I sit up, click the bedside light. It’s familiar territory. I look at the facing wall for several minutes, seeing nothing. Then I reach for the book. I know that I’ll get through a lot of it during the remainder of the night. First, though, I have to face once again what they told me in the hospital.

Lela was already pregnant when I killed her in the crash.

I’ve never figured when management goes home. Maybe he doesn’t. He seems always to be there. He doesn’t look up when I go out in the morning, heading for breakfast. Daylight is no kinder than the night was. Dirty grey sky instead of dirty light-polluted black. There’s traffic. People walking. Standing. Most alone, some in groups. Commuters, not my business.

If I had known her, I’m sure my mother would have told me that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I didn’t. She didn’t. But it is. Sometimes it’s the only one I have. So when I can afford it, I make it a good one. This morning I have The Fat Elvis in the Edgemont Grill. Banana and peanut butter in French bread, dipped in egg and toasted. Not exactly the healthiest start to the day. Even with the side of blueberries, maple syrup and fresh fruit yoghurt. Maybe especially not with those. But I walked a long way to be here. Perhaps that’s a balance.

I like the Edgemont. Hardwood furniture in moody lighting. A nice alternative to where I live. I never see my clients there, another reason to like it. There are few things worse than a strung-out junkie in the morning.

I pay the check. Step outside and squint until my eyes get used to the brighter street. When I can see clearly, I watch the traffic for a couple of moments. Idly wonder what to do for the rest of the day.

Then I see the girl.

Management was right. She’s not quite a teenager, I figure. Dressed in the uniform of her kind, sneakers, jeans and a red puffy jacket. She’s wearing a small daypack. I know it’s her because she’s looking right at me from the other side of the street. Her face is familiar. But I don’t know her.

Her image plays hide and seek in the traffic. She looks vulnerable against the city backdrop. There’s no room in my life for the vulnerable. I turn and walk on.

Down the road I feel I’m still being watched. Eventually I stop and look across the road. She’s there. Watching me.

I look along the street. There’s a crosswalk coming up. I start walking again, not watching her. But I know she’ll be there.

I wait for the signal. She stands at the other side. The signal says cross. I hesitate, then walk. She waits. Says nothing when I stop in front of her.

“You lookin’ for me, kid?” I say finally.

A couple of seconds, then she nods.

“What for? Should I know you?”

She shakes her head.

This one-sided conversation is unnerving. “C’mon, kid. You got something to say, tell me. Otherwise, beat it.”

She still has that overall vulnerable look, but close up there’s something tough behind. Familiar, but I can’t place it. I look at her for a couple of moments more, then shake my head. “Like I said, kid, beat it. Don’t follow me, OK?”

I turn and start to walk away. I get a few steps, then I hear a child voice behind. “Lela sent me.”

If anything is to stop me, that is it. But I give myself time before I turn. “Who?” I ask, loud enough for her to hear above the traffic.

“Lela. She sent me.”

I turn then. “Lela’s dead,” I say, my tone flat. “She’s been dead this three years.”

The kid stands her ground. “She left me a note.”

I finally see something. Maybe it had been there anyhow and I didn’t want to see it. “You’re her ... daughter?”

She nods, hunches her jacket against a wind that whips around the intersection.

“She never told me about a kid.”

The girl shrugs. “They never told me about my mother until a while ago.”

“Who didn’t?”

“The sisters. The nuns where I grew up.”

This is going to be a longer story than can be told at a traffic light. The smart part of me says I don’t want to hear it. “Not my business, kid. Go back to the nuns.”

She shakes her head. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“They only keep us until we’re twelve. Then we go to state residential school.”

I spread my hands. “So go to state school.”

She shakes her head. Her mouth has a stubborn line, one that I can relate to. I didn’t go to the state school, either, after my mother died. I ran. That’s how I got onto the streets.

“You ran.” I say.

I see it in her face. I shake my head. “Sorry, kid. Like I said, not my business.” I turn, ready to walk.

“I have Lela’s note,” she says quietly. Like her mother used to talk.

Now I don’t hear the traffic any more. I don’t see it either. All I see is Lela’s head exploding the windscreen.

There’s a Wendy’s on every other block in downtown Calgary, so I bring her to the next one I see.

She orders all over the card. Classic Burger with bacon and fries, fruit dish, Nesquik chocolate milk. She clears everything methodically. I guess that in the convent the kids learn to eat everything whether they like it or not.

I sip a coffee. I say nothing until she has finished the last of the food. She licks her fingers, then wipes them with a napkin, carefully, completely. Rolls the used paper into a tidy package and puts it on her empty plate. By then I’ve checked a few things out. Her clothes are still pretty clean and she doesn’t smell. I reckon it’s only a day or two since she ran.

“How’d you find me?” I ask.

She lifts her daypack, unzips a pocket, pulls out a crumpled envelope. She pushes it across the table. “The nuns gave me this when they put me in the car for the state school. My mother gave it to them a few years ago. Said I was to get it on my twelfth birthday if she ... if she didn't come back."

I look at the envelope. It’s addressed simply to Gemma. I hadn’t even asked her name. “You didn’t see her when she called?”

She shakes her head. “Hadn’t known she was alive. She gave me up to the nuns when I was two. Couldn’t cope, the sisters said. They told me it was best for me, but I don’t remember.”

I don’t know much about kids. But I’ve read that they can remember from very early. Maybe her infant mind blotted out the before when she was left. A trauma reaction. “So what’s in the letter?”

She shrugs. “Read it. You’re in it.”

I don’t want to. Lela is gone. I killed her. I can’t bring her back.

I sit there, lift my nearly empty cup to my lips. But the coffee is cold and bitter. I make a face, put it down, too fast. Brown drops splash the envelope. I pick up a napkin and reach to mop it. “Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to mess.”

She doesn’t comment. And I’m now holding the envelope even though I don’t want to. I put a finger and thumb inside, pull slowly at the single folded sheet.

The first thing is the date. A week before the accident. Lela would have known she was pregnant when she decided that her first child had a right to know where she came from. By the end Lela is telling Gemma that she will be getting a sister, and when she is born they will all be together again.

The middle bit is Lela telling Gemma that she has been living with someone. She hopes they might marry, but they have to discuss that. She also say she’s sorry for leaving Gemma with the sisters for all those years. The language is simple. There's no attempt at excuse. But she does hope that the sisters have given her daughter a better start in life than Gemma would have had if Lela had kept her in the bad times.

There’s a mention of the Gaugin. When I was with Lela, we lived in the apartment she had rented before I met her. But she knew I had lived at the hotel before. Maybe she wanted Gemma to have a point of reference in case she needed it.

Gemma sucks her chocolate milk through a straw.

I have nothing to give beyond this breakfast. “Kid, I can’t help you. Go to state school, learn what you can. It isn’t the best, but it’s better than the street.” I pause. “Believe me. I’ve been the street route. It isn’t good.”

The straw gurgles empty in her glass. She puts it aside. “What was my Mom like?”

Since the accident, I’ve only thought of Lela in the crash, and the minutes ahead of the crash when I was angry. But Gemma’s question is a key to the door of a better past. It throws me. I point at her empty glass. “You want another?”

She nods. “And a waffle. With ice cream and syrup.”

This kid has some appetite. I call a waitress and put in the order. When it comes, I’m ready as I’m going to be.

So I talk about the Lela I met one day. The Lela who thought she saw something that I didn’t see myself. I tell her of the Lela who didn’t talk about her past, and who didn’t judge the past of others. I recall her compassion, totally alien to my experience before her. I tell her how, for the first time, Lela was the reason I opened myself to somebody else. At least a little bit.

Finally I tell Gemma how Lela died. How I killed her. That’s tough to lay on a youngster, but I figure she has a right to know. Besides, it should help convince her that I’m not the one she should be pinning any hopes on.

All the time I’m talking I’m not looking at the kid. Like in the Catholic confession box, it’s easy to let it out because the priest is at the other side of a screen and there’s no eye contact. When I’m finished, I feel tired. Like it’s the end of the day instead of the beginning. I catch the waitress’s eye and signal for the check.

“She sounds nice,” the kid says. She’s finished eating and the glass is empty too. She’s gazing across the table at me, her expression solemn. But I don’t see what I’m expecting. I don’t see anger. I don’t see blame. What I do see is a small replica of Lela.

“She is, kid. Uh ... she was.”

She studies me for a couple of moments. “I’m glad you knew her,” she says. She gets up from the table. She puts on her puffy jacket, lifts her dayback by a strap. “Thanks for the breakfast.” Her voice is steady, but it is still the voice of a child. It’s a ricochet puck that slides right by me. Before I can get up she’s heading for the door. By the time I stand and drop a couple of bills on the table, she’s gone.

I walk quickly outside. I look up and down. Her red jacket bobs out in a group crossing an intersection a block away. I jink across the street through the traffic. Some drivers have to brake, sound their annoyance. I ignore them, make it to the other side.

I can’t see the kid now. But at least I know the direction. I break into a run. There are only two ways she will go, straight along this street or down the next one to my right. At the lights I still don’t see her. A woman stands on the corner, maybe waiting for somebody.

“A kid, young girl, red puffy jacket,” I say. “You see her?”

She hesitates. “My ... niece,” I say quickly. “She’s upset, just lost her Mom.”

The woman nods, points down the cross street.

“Thanks,” I mutter. Step up my pace. If I miss her on this one, the odds are against me being as lucky again. In the city, people don’t see people.

I catch up a block further on. She’s looking at a bus map. I stop a few feet away, catch my breath.


She looks around. I see in her eyes that she didn’t expect me to follow.

“It’s OK, kid. But we need to talk some more.”

I take her to the Glenbow Museum, down on 9th Avenue. OK, just because I deal doesn’t mean I’m not interested in culture. Besides, my business hours are later in the day and I often have time to kill. Museums and galleries are good places to be, in from the cold without having to spend much money. I figure it’s neutral ground for me and the kid.

Maybe it isn’t. The Glenbow is where I first met Lela.

I like the Charlie Russell paintings of the Old West. So we sit on a bench in the room where they hang his ‘Seeking the Trail’. Russell managed to capture the dignity of the Indians on the Great Plains before it disappeared under the relentless tide of us and our crass ways. I point at the painting. “What do you think?”

She looks at it. “Freedom,” she says quietly. “We took it from them.” If I had any doubt about her being Lela’s daughter, I don’t have now. She has the same way of thinking. Some of it rubbed off on me, though maybe not enough.

There’s nobody else in the room this time of the morning. I need to say something, but I don’t know what it should be. In the end, because any more silence would be impossible to cross, I just jump in. “I need you to go to school, kid.”

“Call me Gemma.”

“I need you to go to school, Gemma.”

She thinks on this, raises an eyebrow. “Why?”

I have the answer. “So you don’t turn out like me. Or worse.”

“How bad is that?” She has the mind of a Jesuit.

“Too bad for you to want it,” I say. I’m thinking that I wish somebody might have told me the same thing once. And that I might have listened.

She gets up from the bench. Takes a wander around the room, stops at a couple of the other pieces. In the end she comes back to the ‘Trail’. Stares at it for a while.

“It was easier then,” she says eventually.

“Why?” I try it her way. Ask the questions.

She shrugs. “Everyone knew who they were.”

“Do you know who you are?”

She nods.


Her small smile is like what Lela used to give me. “I’m me.”

I realise then that it wasn't herself she'd meant when she talked about it being easier in the time of the Indians. But I take the hook without even thinking about it. “And who is you?”

She looks directly into me. “Maybe you won’t take the chance to know?”

I know the difference between ‘take’ and ‘get’.

We stand outside the museum. The sun has shifted the earlier cloud, but it isn’t much warmer. I look at the kid. Gemma. Her expression is Lela's calm one. I turn back to the street. It doesn't look like how I've known it.

I wonder how I’ll convince management to let us both stay in the Gaugin until I find an apartment suitable for a father and adopted daughter. I need to talk to the nuns too, find out how I go about adopting Lela's child.

I also need to find another way of making a living. Lela didn't want her kid brought up by a dealer.

None of this is going to be easy. But I think I see just the faintest hint of light in the far distance.

© November 2009 Brian Byrne