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Crosstown
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Crosstown

Chapter One

Last night they beat me up again. Three, four of them, I don't know. Young guys with short hair, real short, like skulls they looked. I remember that. Was a time when all the guys who beat you up had long hair. Fashion. They don't take my money, don't even look, just knock me down and start kicking. Running shoes they wear, I remember thinking, thank Christ for running shoes before I go away.

I come back to blindness and the call of birds. Harsh croaking horrible old birds, sound like a flock of hanging judges. Birds like that steal your eyes when you're asleep, perch on your chest with their hard orange feet to pick a couple of dripping sloe berries. Maybe that's what happened to my eyes. I reach up. No, they're just swollen shut. I pry them open, not that I want to see. I'm lying in a bush in the park, bright yellow flowers all around me and a smell of spring. The ravens are having a discussion on the grass nearby. I must have crawled here after they beat me up. I don't remember.

First things first, I have to pee. Then I sit up and think about getting home. The ravens flyaway.

It's good not to be cold. Cold days you worry all the time, collecting rags and trying to remember where the hot-air vents are. It's distracting. Yesterday was warm too, wasn't it. Soon I won't even be thinking about being cold. Of course that's when it'll freeze again. Seasons are tricky things.

My eyes stay open by themselves now. I'm walking down a busy street I don't recognize right away, which happens a lot, gas station old brick storefronts, fruit in the window video rentals black metal railing, curb chartered accountants. Darn right, too. The sign says Gerrard Street. Fair enough. There's a narrow cross-street lined with trees and parked cars and houses with locked doors. Away in the distance the tall white towers of St Jamestown stand like rotten teeth. I turn down the next street, Seaton it should be except they've taken the sign away, so it's just the street with the blind corner and the crosswalk. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later I see my friend Pete. He's standing outside the front door of the mission, like always.

Hi, Pete, I say. Where's everyone. Pete doesn't say anything.

Have they all gone, Pete. Am I too late for breakfast.

Pete doesn't say anything. Neither does the pigeon on his head. I guess breakfast is over. Missing a meal doesn't mean much today. Sometimes hunger is an animal in my stomach, with claws. Today all I have is a little hollow feeling, like a sandcastle after the tide comes in.

"Hey you! Get out of here!"

It's a mister. They all talk to me like that. This one has a tool belt and a yellow hat. I say, Sorry mister, and get out of his way. There are lots of misters around. Some are carrying big sheets of plywood, others are pointing, showing where the plywood should go, I guess. Some are standing around. A big truck is backing over the curb. I don't see anyone I know. Usually there's someone hanging around. Someone besides Pete.

"Out of the way!"

Two of them, one with plywood and one with L-shaped frames nailed together. I say, Sorry mister, and move along a bit. My throat's itchy and my tongue has started to swell. I'm thirsty.

"Mitchell!" That's my name. Someone is calling me. I turn around.

'What are you doing here?" asks Sally. She works at the mission, serving food, turning the lights off and on. She's okay. Usually she has a smile pasted on but not now.

'What happened to your face? Were you in a fightT No no, I say. Well it wasn't a fight, was it, a fight has two sides.

"I thought you were with the others," she says. "I didn't see you this morning but I just assumed you got on the bus with everyone else."

I'm thirsty. Yesterday I had a five. I wonder if it's still in my pocket, but I don't want to pull it out in front of Sally. I walk away. She follows, talking about what they're going to do with me. "I don't have a car:' she says, "and I can't ask St Joe's to send the bus back for one person. You see that, don't you? I say, Yes.

With a five I could manage a mickey of White Satin and still have enough for some T-bird tomorrow. Forward planning. Or Aqua Velva. Bye then, Sally, I say. Maybe I'll see you tonight.

"Haven't you been listening?" She pulls my arm. She's shouting, her earnest face all worked up. "Don't you realize that you can't come back to St Peter's tonight, or any other night. Look around you. They're tearing the mission down!"

The sheets of plywood have writing on them. DEMOLITION. I didn't notice. I say, Oh.

'We've been talking about it for months now. I saw you yesterday - remember? You promised to get your things together. You said you'd be ready to move this morning with everyone else."

I say, Oh. She goes on for a while. I'm thinking about my stuff. Probably Roscoe took it all. The big coat won't fit him, but Roscoe isn't the dressiest guy in the world. Come to think of it, the coat doesn't fit me either.

And I'm thinking about Pete. He missed the bus too.

Sally is writing something on a card. She always carries a bunch of cards with her. "This," she hands it to me, "is where you'll be going. You can read, can't you. Read it back to me."

St Joseph's Mission, I read out. Sunnyside Avenue.

'What's wrong? You turned white there, like you were going to faint. Are you ill?"

No no, I'm fine, I say.

"Okay. Flag a cab and show that address to the driver. You'll probably have to show some money too. I can give you ..." Sally is looking up the street. "No, wait," she says, waving. 'This is a better way."

Things are moving too quickly for me. I'm used to that. I yawn. A cab pulls up. Sally opens the door.

"No way," says the driver when he sees me. "He'll stink up the cab." Critics.

She hands him a twenty. "That's on top of the fare," she says, giving him another. 'This will cover the trip to St Joe's." She tells him the address. The driver looks at me like I'm a rat raisin in his porridge. I'm thinking, why didn't she give me the money. A week of White Satin at least.

"Goodbye, Mitch," she says, folding me into the cab.

"He going to get sick?" the driver asks her. She shakes her head. I settle back onto soft forgiving springs and we're off.

The vinyl seat cover is warm and smooth against my skin. We pass a long line of parked cars, I can see them out of the window. Their yellow parking tickets flutter in the breeze like flags. We take a corner pretty hard and I slide a bit. Now I can see signs, NO PARKING, NO STANDING, NO - something.

Sunnyside is all the way across the city, over by High Park. I wonder what it'll be like living there. About the same as here, I expect. Maybe I'll get a bottom bunk. I swallow a couple of times, try not to think about whisky wine or vodka. Or Kiwi shoe polish.

I see trees and telephone poles and the tops of houses. And patches of sky so bright I have to close my eyes. I keep them closed until the cab driver throws me out. By the time I get up he's vanished around the corner in a puff of exhaust and I'm standing in front of a hoarding marked DEMOLITION. It takes me a minute, but I work it out. I'm back at the mission. The cabbie took the money for a crosstown trip and drove me around the block. What a person. I'm glad I peed in his car.

What now. Making my own way over to St Joe's could take me the rest of my life. Meantime I'm thirsty. I decide to ask Mack for advice. He works at the liquor store around the corner on Queen Street. A guy smart enough to stock the White Satin at eye-level is bound to have a worthwhile opinion, I figure.

That's when I notice Pete. They've knocked him over and he's lying on the grass in dusty stone pieces, his head over there, bare foot over there, hand with the keys in it over there.

Hey Pete, I say, you don't look so good. He doesn't say anything.

The misters come over. "You still here?" they say. "Beat it."

So long Pete, I say.

'What was that?" Two of them, towering over me.

I was talking to him, I say. I pick up my feet. It's been a long time between drinks.

_______________________

Excerpted from Crosstown by Richard Scrimger Copyright © 1996 by Richard Scrimger Excerpted by permission of The Riverbank Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

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