When Johnny wakes up he can’t remember where he is. Two nights at his parents’, a night at his sister’s, and last night on Mike’s couch. It’s all been disorienting. For the past two years, Johnny has been waking, pissing, shitting, showering, eating, working, and sleeping at the same time every day. The routine has grown on him like another layer of skin.
Today the welfare lady is coming, and later his ex-girlfriend, Sherry, is bringing his son, Tyler, over. Johnny has a hell of a day in front of him: cleaning the apartment, getting the barbeque and his old single bed from his parents’, shopping for dinner, and picking up a movie for his boy—what do eight-year-olds watch these days? He has no clue.
He feels like he’s betrayed his routine by getting up so late. But it’s a fleeting guilt, a guilt that is soon replaced with the excitement of finally having a place to live, of the emergency welfare check he is sure to get today, and of spending the entire evening with his son.
It’s good of Mike to let Johnny stay with him. Mike has a great deal on the place. It’s only five hundred for a two-bedroom right downtown. Mike stores his music gear in the second room, but if Johnny doesn’t mind the clutter, Mike says he can stay there for two hundred a month. Mike even fudged the lease so it looks like they’re paying more. That way Johnny can get more welfare, although he doesn’t plan on staying on it long. At one time he never would have applied for welfare, but the money his ma lent him has almost run out. If he doesn’t get that check today, he’s screwed.
Johnny takes the Oxford West bus to his parents’ house in Oakridge. He hasn’t been on a city bus since he was sixteen. He can’t believe the fare has gone up to two dollars and twenty-five cents. His car is still at his parents’, but it will cost a bit to get it on the road again.
As he approaches the house, Johnny notices that his dad’s truck isn’t in the driveway. He’s not concerned. His dad is probably at the corner store buying cigarettes. It’s a good feeling to be back-to walk into your parents’ house, open the fridge, and take a big swig out of the milk carton, knowing that if your ma catches you she’ll bawl you out good.
“Ma, I’m here,” Johnny calls.
She doesn’t answer.
A casserole is on the stove wrapped in a floral tea towel that matches his ma’s oven mitts, tea cozy, pot holder, and curtains. Johnny removes the towel and sees that his ma has made her tuna and noodle casserole. He grabs a bowl, serves himself, and sits down at the Formica kitchen table. Johnny stops eating for a moment and thinks this is what normal feels like. If someone took a picture right now and held it up to a picture taken in this exact spot fifteen years ago, Johnny thinks he wouldn’t look much different. Sure he may have shorter hair now and the moustache he sported in high school is long gone, but he doesn’t feel these changes—although sometimes he wonders if maybe he should.
Johnny devours the food, eating as if he hasn’t in weeks. His ma probably made it special for him, and here he thought she was so disappointed in him. She didn’t visit him once in two years. She didn’t even go to the trial. His father did, which is strange. He’s always been so hard on Johnny. Although he doesn’t often treat his own well, his father is a firm believer in the concept of family, which means standing behind your children even if you don’t like what they’ve done.
“Ma, where you at?” Johnny calls again.
A muffled, “Down here,” rises up from the basement.
Johnny heads downstairs to the laundry room and finds his ma scrubbing socks.
“You come for the bed?” Dorothy asks.
“How does Mike’s suit you?” She turns back to her scrubbing.
“Great, once I get a bed. Where’s the truck?” Johnny asks.
“Your father just got called in.”
“Someone lost a finger on one of the machines,” she says.
“Watch your mouth,” Dorothy says.
“I need that bed!”
“You’re not back a week and already with the language.” Dorothy shakes her head. “Is that what they taught you at that…place?”
“You can’t say it,” Johnny says.
“I can say prison.” Dorothy wrings out the sock, tosses it in a laundry basket, and then starts scrubbing another one from the sink.
“I got the welfare lady coming.” Johnny paces around the hallway.
“Tell her you’re getting a bed tomorrow.”
“It’s gonna look like I don’t live there.”
“You tell her you live there,” Dorothy says then adds some Comet to a grass stain.
“It doesn’t work like that.” Johnny looks at his watch. “She’s gonna be there in an hour, and I haven’t even cleaned up.”
“Don’t touch the casserole on the stove. It’s for the potluck,” Dorothy says.
“You’re going to the Legion tonight?” he asks.
She nods and wrings out another sock. Her hands are raw and peeling and red from scrubbing so hard
“You’ll have to wait for your father,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I can’t. I don’t have the time. And if I take a cab, it’ll clean me out.”
Dorothy brushes past Johnny with her basket of socks and loads them into the washing machine.
“Tyler and I are supposed to have a barbeque tonight,” Johnny adds, annoyed that she doesn’t seem concerned about her grandson. “When was the last time you saw him?” Johnny asks.
“I can’t give you any more money!” Her voice cracks; she feels guilty but isn’t going to do anything about it. “If your father knew about the hundred I gave you, he’d skin me alive.” She opens the dryer and takes out a load of fluffy clean towels and begins perfectly folding them. “Even if I wanted to give you the money, I couldn’t. I was going to get you to drop me off at the Canada Trust.” Dorothy pulls a sheet out of the dryer and motions for Johnny to help her fold it. Reluctantly, he takes an end and they fold it together.
Johnny doesn’t think his mother has looked at him once since he’s been back. He’s tried to meet her gaze, but she diverts her attention to some small task like picking at a piece of string on her shirt or brushing off a crumb, sometimes she simply turns away.
“I saw Tyler two weeks ago,” Dorothy says.
It’s so out of the blue that Johnny almost forgets he even asked her the question.
“Your father and I went to his soccer game,” she says then walks upstairs, leaving Johnny alone in the basement.
He pulls out his wallet and looks down at his last twenty-dollar bill. God, he wishes he applied for that credit card when he was still in college. Sherry had told him to, but he didn’t listen. Johnny doesn’t like owing anyone money, and he knew himself well enough back then, to know he wouldn’t have paid it back.
Glancing around the room, Johnny spots his father’s tackle box with a blue bungee cord hanging out of it. He thinks he’ll be able to use it to tie the mattress to the roof of a cab. The bed will prove he lives at Mike’s place even though his name isn’t on the lease. And that’s the priority—getting that check.
He thinks about all the things he’s going to do with the money. The hamburger and hot dogs and ice cream for the barbecue. A case of Labatt’s 50 and a carton of Players Light for himself. The video for later. Maybe he’ll wait and walk down to the video store with Tyler and let him pick it out. Tomorrow he’ll get a new shirt—for job hunting. Johnny’s not the type to take a hand out for long. He’s going to look for a job right away, but a good job. There’s not much point in taking the first thing that comes along. He wants something with advancement. He has plans for himself, and they don’t include working for some asshole like his father does. For years Johnny, his mom, and his sisters bore the brunt of a beaten down man’s frustrations. Although Johnny’s father has a good set up now, working two shifts on the weekends and getting paid a full week’s wages, he paid the price of putting up with thirty years of bullshit. Even now his father has to answer to someone, and Johnny doesn’t want to answer to anyone but himself.
When Johnny goes back upstairs, his mother is dusting the living room.
“Can I take the barbecue? he asks.
She nods, “But make sure to bring it back.”
“There’s buns and wieners in the big freezer,” Dorothy says. “Want me to get them?”
“No, don’t bother.”
“What if you don’t get the money today? What are you going to feed the boy?”
“I’ll manage,” he says.
When the taxi comes, Johnny secures the mattress to the roof of the car with the bungee cord. He puts the barbeque in the trunk and the propane tank in the back seat. His ma follows him out to watch the proceedings but gets sidetracked picking dead petals off her geraniums. She only waters her plants once a week and wonders why they are dying.
Johnny wants to leave before she sees that he’s gotten into the casserole. He knows she’ll flip out good.
On the ride home, Johnny and the cab driver recognize each other from high school. Johnny dated the cab driver’s sister, Red. Everyone called her Red because one summer she got sun burnt so bad she was crimson from head to toe. She kept going out in the sun even though her peeling skin got worse and worse, even though she was in plenty of pain. She thought if she stayed out there long enough and put on enough baby oil, she would eventually tan like all her friends. She ended up in the hospital.
That was the same summer her family won two million in the Wintario jackpot. They were celebrities in London for a while because her father said he was going to give some of the money to local charities. He didn’t. He bought a big house in north London and a yacht that he docked in Grand Bend and some other toys. Two years later her father ended up in the news again—filing for bankruptcy. And now here was her brother, Chuck, driving a cab.
“So what happened to all the money?” Johnny asks.
“My dad blew it all. He just spent and spent and then he had a heart attack. My mother’s cleaning houses again.” Chuck shakes his head.
“How’s Red?” Johnny asks.
“She’s up at the university taking her degree,” Chuck looks over at Johnny. “What have you been up to?”
“Not much,” Johnny says. “I’m looking for a job though—if you hear anything.”
“I heard you were in jail,” Chuck says.
Johnny looks down.
“What’d you do, rob a bank?”
“I hit someone and they died,” Johnny says.
There’s some silence.
“It was an accident.”
“I got a buddy who’s painting houses. You ever done that?” Chuck asks.
“No,” Johnny shakes his head. “But I can learn anything pretty quick.”
“I’ll put in a word.”
Chuck gives Johnny a break on the fare, so it only costs him ten dollars to get downtown. He helps Johnny carry the bed into the apartment. They exchange phone numbers and agree to go for a beer sometime at the Brunswick, a hotel bar three doors down from Johnny’s building. This is the same bar where Johnny and his buddies drank underage. One time they got caught, and his dad convinced the police not to charge them.
Johnny’s friends always thought his parents were cool because he’d never been grounded and because they could smoke in the rec room. And if they were desperate enough to steal some of his dad’s beer, he’d never let on that he noticed.
But growing up, his dad had a hell of a temper. If you caught him in a mood, he’d cuff the back of your head so hard you’d see stars. Once his father got so mad he chased him around the yard with a rake and then beat him with it. The next day his face was so bruised and swollen he looked like a rotten mushroom. When Johnny had his own child, he vowed he’d never hit him. And even though he knows Sherry spanks Tyler from time to time, Johnny has never laid a hand on his son.
Johnny walks Chuck back to his taxi and watches him pull out of the lot. He attaches the propane tank to the barbecue and goes inside. The apartment is a mess. He looks at his watch. The welfare lady is going to be here in twenty minutes. Scurrying around the room as fast as he can, Johnny tries to make the place look decent. He puts all the empty beer cases in a corner of the living room and covers them with a blanket. He doesn’t want her thinking all he’s going to do with the money is buy beer. He throws away Mike’s old pop cans, butts and roaches, cigarette packs, pizza boxes, candy wrappers, and chip bags, and then quickly runs the vacuum over the coffee stained carpet. He doesn’t have time to even think about the dishes, so he piles them neatly beside the sink and wipes the spilt orange juice off the counter. In an attempt to make the living room more cheery, Johnny opens the blinds. He looks around the room and sighs. It’s not great, but it will have to do.
Johnny heads to Mike’s room to get the lease. He notices an open pack of smokes on Mike’s dresser and puts one behind his ear. He sniffs his shirt and regrets not showering earlier. As he digs in his bag for a clean shirt, the buzzer rings. Half undressed, he rushes over to the intercom.
“Come on in,” he says and presses the buzzer. Johnny hurries to the bathroom and finds a bottle of Old Spice aftershave. He dabs it on his face and neck, smoothes down his hair, and takes a deep breath before answering the door.
She’s a lot younger than he expected—younger than him, but she has to be at least twenty-four. Johnny leads the welfare lady into the living room where she sits uneasily on the couch, her clipboard held tightly to her chest.
“They said I needed an assessment?” Johnny says.
“Yes,” she says.
“What I really need is the emergency check.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” she says. “I have to ask you a few questions.”
“Oh, sure,” Johnny says. “Fire away,” he smiles.
She looks down at her clipboard.
Johnny takes the cigarette from behind his ear and starts to light it, but then he stops himself, thinking she might not like smoke. “You mind?” he asks.
“No, go ahead,” she says. But the way she says it, Johnny’s not sure she means it.
“I’m trying to quit,” he says. “Smoking’s bad for you.”
She clears her throat. “I need a copy of your lease.”
Johnny grabs Mike’s lease from the bureau and hands it to her. “My name’s not put on yet. I just moved in.”
She looks over the lease and frowns. “This document has been tampered with,” she says.
“No way,” Johnny says defensively.
“The rent has been liquid papered out. I can’t accept this.” She hands the lease back to him, and stands up. “I’ll come back when you get another copy.”
“Can you come back today?” Johnny asks desperately.
“What?” Johnny says angrily.
“I could report you for fraud.” She walks over to the door, quickly as if she’s suddenly afraid of him.
“I don’t have any money.” He knows he sounds desperate, pathetic.
She hands him a card. “Call me next week.” Then she leaves.
Johnny crumples up the lease and kicks the door so hard that the wood splinters. He hopes Mike doesn’t notice. He hopes Mike can get him another copy of the lease. Why didn’t they just leave the damn thing alone? And Johnny was worried about the bed. Hell, she didn’t even look in his room.
He can’t think about it now. Most fathers would have bought their kid something, and all Johnny can get is some chips and hotdogs for dinner. Renting a video’s definitely out, but maybe…maybe they can watch some TV together after they eat. All kids like to watch TV Johnny tells himself as he runs his fingers through his hair. And that will just have to be good enough for now.
Johnny sits down on the couch. He’s a little tired, a little stunned. His mind is in the same state it used to get when he played hockey and his team lost a game. He used to call it the zone, a place he had to be in to get his head on straight. Really it’s just more like being numb.
A few hours later when the intercom buzzes, Johnny is sitting in the same spot. He hasn’t moved. He pictures Sherry in the hall with her oversized clothes and her heavy makeup finishing up a smoke and standing beside his son whose face he can’t remember anymore; it’s been so long. The intercom rings again and again. Johnny doesn’t move. He stares straight ahead, pretending that he’s not there, pretending he’s not home.