I was walking up Roncesvalles, the big street in my neighborhood. Late June, late morning. Should have been at school but I wasn’t because, well, because I didn’t want to go. Hotter than spitting grease out – smells of tar and dust. Summer in the city. I moved slowly. Yawning. Enjoying the feel of the day around me. Other people being busy. Roncy has houses and apartment buildings on one side and stores on the other. I was on the store side, looking around. I stopped at the fruit place one block up from my house. K is the name on the sign. K FRUIT. The owner frowned at me. Little old Korean guy with his mouth turned down. I picked a plum from
the baskets out front. I always waited until he was watching before I took stuff. I got a kick out of it because he looked so pissed, and there was nothing he could do. Arms like pencils sticking out of his short sleeves, dirty apron wrapped around and around his middle and tied in a bow. How could he hurt me? I did forty push- ups every morning. I was only in grade eight, but I was bigger than him.
“Lousy plums today,” I said.
“What you do?” He had an accent, made him hard to understand sometimes. He picked up a broom. Like that would scare me. “What you do, boy?” He stepped right up to me, but he was afraid. I could tell.
“Shut up.” I had my mouth full. Maybe he couldn’t understand me. Ha ha. Neither of us knew what the other was saying. What a yuck.
“Why you not in school?” he asked. “Go on, boy. Go.” He made a sweeping motion with the broom.
“Why you talk funny?” I said.
I spat out the plum pit and walked away, one hand on my jeans to keep them up.
I was wearing my new shirt. I’d swiped it the day before from Goodwill, pulled it off the rack and put it on over my camo vest. Red shirt with a dragony pattern on it. Cashier was like, Did you have that shirt on coming in?
’Course, I said.
You sure? she said. ’Cause there’s a price tag on it.
Sure as you’re ugly, I said from the door.
The shirt freaked my big sister out when she saw it last night. That’s your dead shirt! she screamed, jumping up, mouth a black- rimmed circle in her white face. You’re dead, Jim! Dead! She ran past me up the stairs, skinny butt cheeks bouncing like tennis balls under her skirt.
What’s with her? I asked Ma, dropping onto the couch. A commercial came on and she changed the channel. Belched a lungful of brown smoke.
Who knows? she said.
Cassie’s four years older than me, and well, kind of strange, peering into empty corners, talking strange to shadows. On morning I went into her room because she was screaming. She was in bed, pointing at the ceiling, yelling at it to go away. And now my “dead shirt,” what was that about? My sister, what a freak- o.
I walked up Roncy past the donut shop and the pharmacy, and the Krakow Restaurant and the lawyer’s office, eating my lousy plum and thinking back to last night. What a screwup it had been. What a mess.
The air conditioner above Jerry’s door dripped onto the sidewalk, making a puddle. Jerry ran a Buy and Sell – saxophones and game systems over the counter, cars in the laneway garage with the double lock. I stepped over the puddle into the cool of the shop. Jerry, on the phone, nodded hello. I made my way to the pool table in the back room.
Sparks was doing push- ups on a patch of rug. Cap was leaning back in a broken chair, cell phone in hand, smoking. They were older than me – almost grown up. Cap was lean and dark- colored, and he wore a captain’s hat. He was kind of slimy. He’d put his hand on your arm and you’d want him to take it off. Sparks was white, except for his tattoos – lightning bolts and barbed wire going up and down and around his arms. Lots of ink, because his arms were huge. Sparks was real stupid, but loyal – wherever Cap was, Sparks was nearby.
I said hi. Cap took a drag of his cigarette and flicked it at me. I caught it like a hot potato and stuck it in my mouth.
Sparks’s body rose and fell like a piston. No effort, no change of pace. He could do push- ups forever.
“About last night,” I said to Cap. “Did you find out what happened to Rafal? The cops –”
He must have signalled. Sparks caught my leg in one hand and dumped me. I fell hard, the cigarette spinning away. Sparks went back to his push- ups.
“No talking about last night.” Cap never raised his voice.
“Yeah,” said Sparks from the floor. “No talking.”
“But it’s important.” I crawled to my feet. “Raf’s my partner. I want to know what happened.”
“That’s your problem, Jim,” said Cap. “You’re too smart for your own good. You always want to know stuff. Isn’t that right, Sparks?”
“Yeah,” said Sparks. “Too smart.”
Up, down, up, down. No strain in his voice at all.
“I want to know can get you in trouble, Jim.
Sometimes it’s better not to know. You understand that?”
“Yeah, but –”
I stopped myself before he had Sparks grab me again. “I mean, I understand,” I said.
“Good for you, Jim. Very good.”
His cell phone buzzed. He flipped it open, started pushing buttons. Sparks kept on pushing up. I left.
A black- and- orange cat sat on the curb, its mouth openin a yawn. I kicked it into the street. Stepped forward and down with the right foot, like a soccer goalie. Good thing Raf wasn’t there – he has a thing about animals. Cat went flying over a heap of garbage bags right into the road, legs sprawled, then scrambled away like a hairy streak of lightning as an SUV slammed on the brakes.
I smiled, felt better. I hate cats. Hate ’em. Only now here was Lloyd with his face hanging out.
“What’s your problem?”
He was a couple of storefronts away from me. He took a step back, licked his lips.
“Don’t like me kicking the cat, Lloyd? That it? How about I kick you instead?”
He turned and ran. I followed.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ll do!” I called. “I’ll kick you like I kicked the stupid cat!”
Lloyd crossed Roncy. I noticed that even now, with me after him, he looked both ways before leaving the curb. What a ween. He had sniffles and freckles, and ate his lunch at home every day. He was probably on his way there right now. I’d been picking on him since kindergarten.
I leapt into the street. Someone called after me to watch out. I kept running. Lloyd’s ginger- colored hair flapped up and down. I kept it in my sights. There was the warning voice again. “Watch out!” Something familiar about it.
I caught my trick ankle on the streetcar tracks and fell, hitting the back of my head. I’d had a problem with my ankle as long as I could remember. Mostly I could run and jump like everyone else, but now and then it folded over and I fell. No warning, I’d be walking along and suddenly I’d be on the ground. Happened once in the middle of a game of HORSE, cost me my shot. I wanted to do it over, but Raf said rules are rules.
This was another bad time for my ankle to go. The world flickered off and on like a faulty connection.
On: I was lying in the middle of Roncesvalles. Smell of pavement and diesel exhaust, with a hint of baking from the donut shops. An ear- shattering shriek of brakes and a long skid.
On: A beat- up blue Pontiac – I recognized the grille – was almost on top of me. The driver stared down at me with eyes as big as Ferris wheels.
On: Tadeusz standing next to me. Tadeusz! Of all people. He bent over to peer at me, closely.