“Paris is changing! but nothing within my melancholy / has shifted!” – Baudelaire
Barry elbows shut the basement door, locks it. Trundles along cracked sidewalk over to the bus stop. Looks up. The sun is trying, but not hard enough. Thin clouds stitched to an even thinner sky: March. A spiteful wind spirals dust and grit and the odd piece of litter flies at him, plastering to his pantleg, his old woolen coat. A strong gust sends him off-kilter. Change is coming, he can smell it. At his feet, tiny bones, chicken or maybe pigeon—the kind of thing a dog would yank free the leash to devour—lie scattered on the lawn of the adjacent flop house. Like signs and portents from an ancient divination, a warning spelled out in the yard.
Too late, he thinks. He’s already in the shit of it.
He checks his pocket for the paperwork, again.
Even with his knee grating around in itself, Barry prefers to walk. Takes the bus under duress—when he’s hungover or when winter gales blast the city in ice. Today he’s running late for the court-ordered appointment. And a ravenous hunger compels him: upon waking, he snuffled through cupboards, dumped cereal from its box, stale crackers, the last traces of peanut butter from the jar.
Empty shelves, an empty wallet.
The bus, when it arrives—dipping into potholes at the edge of the abused street, reeking its own brand of misery—is a direct line down to the Institute. He used to go with his mother. He hoists himself up the steps, plunks his last bit of change into the slot, waits for the silver goateed driver to offer a transfer slip. The aisles are speckled with fast food wrappers which he eyes greedily. An empty cigarette pack, wadded up newspaper. The bus’s archaic red seats are stained by substances he shudders to consider. On more than one occasion he’s seen excrement, likely human, smeared down the inside of a window.
Southbound. They pass his old elementary school playground, site of bombastic snowball fights and elaborate, secretive recess rituals, some of his fondest boyhood memories; his middle school, a turn for the worse, a place of infinite humiliation and rejection—good riddance; the methadone clinic where, years later, he was hired to stock shelves and where he met Keith and, shortly thereafter, Adam.
Another block south, the plastic-wrapped porch and sunken front steps of the house he grew up in, where his mother still resides: a neglected brownstone, subdivided into hodgepodge apartments, sheltering all manner of the forlorn. His visits, once upon a time weekly, now monthly, land right after cheque day when she still has something in her purse. Cookies in the jar. Upbeat, pills swallowed. Otherwise he dreads re-entering the premises, breathing its smells. The timeworn mat for scraping shoes. Skinny windows on either side of the front door, hung with floral curtains from the 1970s. Navigating the towering stacks in her living room: a hundred thousand spiral notepads filled with her feathery script. Details, both known and invented; the adventurous life of Alex Trebek.
To be fair, Barry’s current address—where he’s been a sub-dweller for the past twenty years in a kind of suspended animation, a dreamless slumbering—is almost identical. But at least it’s his own mess. He can do as he likes. For years he paid fifty bucks a week, cash. Then seventy-five, although amenities didn’t improve. Kept creeping higher as the neighbourhood was colonized by students and artists and then by the easily-spooked procreating yuppies. Now it’s two hundred with laundry in an add-on at the back: fifty cents a wash and some genius rigged the dryer with a casino chip, so it’s always running. You have to open the door to make it stop; slam it to get her going again.
Down the steep hill, brakes screeching to the stop at Davenport. The corner where Adam cold-cocked him one night after a row at the sports bar, breaking his nose, leaving a souvenir bump on its bridge. They ended it and made up so many times, after a while he couldn’t keep count. Tumultuous, that’s what they were together. Highs and lows, so much drama. His longest running relationship, even if you didn’t count the times they weren’t speaking. Even if you considered all the guys they both met on the sly. They weren’t the hand-holding type, didn’t wave a flag or anything. No parades. The sex was sloppy, sometimes rough, meeting their furtive needs with ferocious instinct. Wasn’t always great, Barry’d be the first to admit. Stumbling around drunk, hardly knowing their own names, half the time. Secrets, secrets, such self-loathing.
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