Chapter Four: Reprieve

Is there a better place to be than downtown West End on a Saturday night John thought to himself? He had planned to go to a nice safe church dance but had changed his mind at the last minute. It was just not his type of crowd anymore. He had taken the number seven bus, following a routine performed a hundred times before, but instead of getting off at the church stop he had just stayed on, and the bus had carried him to the downtown core. He had wandered about for an hour and a half before asking himself what the hell he was doing there. He wasn’t supposed to be walking the scummy streets of Granville and Davie, he should have been preparing himself for bed as he had a game to play tommorrow, kick-off at 11 o’clock sharp. But John was at the age where anything new was intensely stimulating and interesting, and his life at the present bored him. Of course, being on Rob’s shit list did add a little spice to life but jackals prefer to prey on the weak, not get caught in the middle of interlocking horns. John had only needed to catch and smack one of Rob’s merry men to take the heat off for the moment. It had been a sophomore too quick with his mouth in the school parking lot, who had thought himself safe because of the presence of two friends. A quick one-two from John’s fist and elbow had sent the fool to the ground.

“You want some? How about you?” John had asked the two still standing, but they had not answered, choosing instead to drift away. It had not been an overt challenge to Rob’s authority but it had served notice. And John was wise enough to avoid dark corners and the blind alley-way behind the school. Tonight would be a good night to see a movie since I can’t think of anything else to do, John thought, but a look at the prices and his wallet soon scrapped the idea. He gave up the process of orderly thought and started to wander the streets to drink in the sights and sounds. It was early October, and the rainy season had just started it’s dreary routine earlier in the day, but had mercifully paused. Puddles of water on the sidewalks impressed themselves on the soles of John’s feet, especially in the heel of his left sneaker, where he had a nickel-sized hole. A walk up Robson’s street had yielded no flash of inspiration on what to do with the evening.

But John knew what he wanted, and that was Jennifer. He had seen her every week at church (she had done wonders for his attendance) but never managed to get beyond simple pleasantries. Like all males his age, John fantasized about the girl that he was most infatuated with. In between bouts of masterbation, he fantasized the scenario of asking her out for a date. Hey Jen, want to see a movie? Want to do this? Want to do that? John tortured himself by imaging her refusals and shuddered at the humilation he thought he would face. Worst of all, he could envision his request causing her to turn away embarrassed, giving no answer at all. The thought of Jennifer caused John far more anguish then the threat of Rob, for that was a known threat, easy to calculate. John had never been intimate with a girl like Jennifer. He stood staring at a phone booth. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do, he thought to himself. I’ll phone the stupid church and ask for Jennifer. With any luck, she won’t be there and my conscience will be satisfied that I did the best I could and it will get off my back. He put in a quarter and dialed the number which he knew by heart since he was seven, and he noted in a proud sort of way that his hand did not even shake. Someone whose voice he did not recognize picked up the other line and he asked formally for Jennifer Montgomery… The voice said it would go see if Jennifer was present. John grew more nervous with each passing second of the two minute wait until someone finally picked up the line.

“Hello, Jennifer speaking.”
Super-fast flashes of thought coursed through John’s brain. Oh you big dummy it’s actually her you’ve got her on the phone and now what are you going to say?
“Hello, who is this?”
“Hi Jen, it’s John Poleshaw, how are you?”
“Oh hi John, it’s you! I thought it might be my parents with an emergency or something…”
“No, no, you see, I thought I would just call to see if you were at the dance tonight and you obviously are…”
“Are you coming over?”
“Actually… …how do you feel about coming down and having coffee with me at Robson’s cafe? That’s where I am right now.”
There was a long pause and John winced, hoping he had sounded relatively calm speaking those last two phrases.
“Why?” she asked.
Oh man, am I am fucking this up BADLY, he thought. “Because.. I can’t tell you because it’s a big surprise.”
“A big surprise?”
“Yeah, yeah, trust me it’s a big surprise and you’ll love it but you gotta come down and see it. Trust me.”
Another long pause. John remembered a nutty phys-ed teacher who once liked to equate baseball with the pursuit of the opposite sex. To wit: “You’ll never get any hits unless you swing the bat. But if you step up to the plate out of turn, you’ll get thrown out of the game.”
“Come on, what do you have to lose?” John said in a fit of desperation.
“Okay, okay,” she said, and he nearly gasped with relief.
“Whataminute John, here’s the deal. I’ll get off the bus at Granville and Georgia. Give me about a half-hour, but you better be there to meet me, otherwise I’ll take the first bus home. Got it? Okay, see you then.”
She hung up the phone. John slammed down the receiver and let the back of his head bang the glass of the telephone booth. He grimaced, and then grinned, then grimaced again as he thought: now what the hell am I going to get a big surprise for her at this time of night? He started to run towards the Pacific Centre shopping mall, praying the boutiques hadn’t closed yet.

When Jennifer got off the bus she spotted John sitting on a city bench not twenty feet away. To hide her nervousness, she marched right up to him and demanded to see the big surprise. “Surprise, what surprise?” John asked in a bemused tone of voice, “but hey, it’s good to see ya.”
Half-angry, half-flustered, she turned away but he touched her on the shoulder and presented her with three red roses. She accepted them in wonder, speechless because no one had ever given her flowers before.
“So um, do you like them or what?”
“Yeah, they’re really nice, thank you,” she said in a soft voice. They both felt awkward and looked away. I’m really glad that when you give a girl flowers you’re not expected to provide a sales receipt, John thought to himself, remembering briefly the snatch-and-dask at the shopping mall. Damn, either I’m smoking too much or those security guards are cutting down on their doughnut intake.
“Um. Sorry to take you by surprise like this Jen, it just sorta came out.”
“Yeah well, you could have made it a lot smoother if you had just come to church and asked me to dance.”
“Ahhhhh, they’re good people but I just don’t feel comfortable there, you know?”
“Yes, I do know.”
“Shit.”
“Don’t worry about it. Gossip is gossip, maybe I’m not as naive as you think.”

Both of them suddenly withdrew, thinking too much had been said too fast. John asked her if she would like to go down the beach and see the ocean. They walked along in silence for awhile. Day and night, freighters and tankers slipped into the Burrard Inlet from the Georgia Strait, dumping and loading cargo. There were at least six ships waiting in the bay that evening, easily visible from shore by their night lights. The clouds overhead blocked the moon’s light and the stars so the horizon was invisible. To the west there were six clumps of light and nothing else.
“God, don’t you wish you could pack your troubles on one of those ships and watch them sail away?” John said.
“Yes, I see now why my father chose to take us here.”
“Huh?”
“Oh nothing, forget about it.”
“Come on, tell me -wait a minute, I know- you’re a Westmount Rhodesian; I bet your old man didn’t want to move here, right?”
“Westmount Rhodesian, very cute, where did you pick that one up?”
“I dunno, Mordecai Richler, I think.” John had kept himself awake through enough class lectures on modern Canadian history to be aware of the flight of anglophone businessmen from Quebec. The province had only just passed Bill 101 which forbid the use of English on signs and the like. Also, French now had to be spoken in businesses employing more than 10 people. The French-speaking population of Quebec had long been at the mercy of the anglophone minority but the “Quiet Revolution” had changed all that. Now, many in English Canada had believed the pendulum had swung too far the other way.
“I’m sorry to hear your family had to leave Montreal.”
“Well, don’t go through a crying fit or anything. It’s not like we left with only our clothes on our backs. And at least I can take classes in English now.”

John tried to cheer her up. “You haven’t seen Vancouver at its best, when on a clear day you can see the mountains. My family used to live on Vancouver Island and I was a member of the Boy Scouts. We used to go on rappeling camps; that’s where you go climb a moutain or a cliff and then rappel down it on a rope. The feeling is awesome.”
John told her many more things about British Columbia , how it snowed maybe once every winter and the excitement of the salmon runs, when the fish come up from the Pacific into freshwater rivers to lay their eggs and die.
“… the only problem now is that much of the spawning is controlled by hatcheries because of over-fishing. It sorta takes the Nature thing out of it.”
Jennifer looked at him with a curious, amused look. “Hey, you’re not such a tough guy after all.”
John felt uncomfortable all of a sudden and tried to retreat. “Yo, woman, what do you mean by dat question?”
Jennifer laughed and hit him. John decided he liked her laugh a lot.
“I know guys like you,” she said. “You like to act big and tough but down inside your heart you get all mushy over puppies and stuff like that.”
“What? What? Hey, you think this just because I gave you flowers? Hey, if you tell anybody I did that, I’ll deny it and never talk to you again.”
Jennifer’s smile disappeared as she turned her gaze out to the ocean. “Tough guy,” she repeated, and that was all.
John didn’t try to kiss her or even hold her hand that evening, for he was still in awe of her. Rich, beautiful, he could have handled the disappointment if she had turned out to be a bitch but she wasn’t. She even had a sense of humour. She didn’t fake the regret that showed on her face when she looked at her watch and announced that she had to get herself home.
“Maybe I should escort you to your house.” John said.
“What for?” she asked in a mocking tone. “Trust me when I say I live in a fairly decent neighbourhood.”
“Oh yeah, I believe you. It’s just a fair distance between here and there, I do believe.”
“So what? Vancouver doesn’t haven’t much street crime, at least not like Montreal.”
It was John”s turn to be amused. “Dahling, I can tell you don’t do your shopping at Downtown Eastside. Hey, hold a second there, thassa a nice blouse. Did old moneybags Daddy buy that for you?”
“Shut up, poor white trash.” “Nah, nah, I don’t think your Dad bought it. I think you bought it yourself… …with your Dad’s credit card. Was it Visa, Mastercard, or American Express?”
“Shut up, shut up,” and she started to slap him on the shoulder and the chest.
John laughed and shied away. Then he edged closer and start to apologize in a patronizing sort of way. “Jen-ny, I’m soo sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Please Jennifer, oh pretty please forgive me…”
Eventually she laughed and John broke out in smiles again. He very nearly reached out for her hand.

Jennifer’s family lived in the exclusive community of West Vancouver, where the beachfront property had the distinction of being the most expensive in Canada. When they reached her neighbourhood by bus, John noted that roughly each city block was occupied by two, maybe three houses.
“Gee, I’d hate to be the poor sucker who has to mow all these lawns.”
“Oh, we pay our gardener well,” Jennifer said, all of a sudden looking distracted. John unconsciously took note and grew silent as well. They stopped in front of a house with four cars in a two-lane driveway and a quarter-acre front lawn.
“Well, this is my place. Thanks for walking me home. See you in church.”
“Hey, is there any chance we could do this again?” John could not help but ask in such a blunt manner.
She looked away with a sad expression. “I’m sorry John, I don’t think so, I just want to be friends.”

John wanted to say anything but okay but that’s what he said. He watched her walk up the long pathway to the door and still stared at it long after she had gone in. Why? he asked to the house with the lush green grass and the fancy doorpost and shrubbery. Why? he asked to the sky with clouds too thick to even show moonlight. He asked the question again and again on the walk back to the bus-stop, and as he sat down on the bench to wait the answer came to him. He examined his jeans as for the first time, noticing one faded spot of his left knee. His sneakers were worn and faded (but that was the way he liked them). Lastly, he looked at his hands, especially the hard nudges of callus between his fingers and palm. Such a rough surface would scratch a hand as soft as Jennifer’s. Yes, that was it, that was the reason.

***

At almost exactly the same time that the bus came by to pick up to take him home, Scott was lying in his bed as per the coach’s instructions. He couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t nervous about the big game tommorrow, he was fearful about what lay after it. For the hundredth time, he regretted the harsh words said and the challenge made to Rob. But an apology to the main man of Laurentian would have stuck in his throat. He was not sorry and it did not take much to rekindle his anger; maybe just one look at Woody on a especially bad day. Indeed, he wondered if Woody’s nostril linings had been scraped away by the cocaine granules yet, or whether he had already switched to injection. They had been brothers once, before the coke, going all the way back to Toronto where their families had shared an apartment in the Jane-Finch corridor area.

You dumb fuck, Scott thought, how many people did you’n me see fucked up back in welfare housing? We vowed to stay clear of the white powder, so what happened? But he shouldn’t have openly challenged Rob. Now he couldn’t put sugar in the gas tank of Rob’s motorcycle, or heist Rob’s supply without falling under immediate suspicion. Back in Toronto they would have gone at it, maybe with knives; there had been rules once, up to even a few years ago. But the rich white boys from the nice neighbourhoods had discovered the joys of getting coked and stoned. When they had started to flash the fat wads of cash around, everybody had gone crazy. Scott was glad they had moved out of Jane-Finch. Unfortunately, he now had no idea how things worked anymore. Scott got out of bed and walked over to his sock drawer. He opened it, thrust his hand through the socks, and withdrew a small tinfoil package. It would impede his performance at the game tommorrow if he smoked too much of it but he needed it tonight to calm his nerves. He unraveled the tinfoil and placed the last of his marijuana on a EXPORT “A” rolling paper. The stuff was Vancouver-grown hydroponic, brought to fruition in an indoor garden so it was nearly pure THC. He rolled the joint in a clumsy manner as he hadn’t smoked enough to become expert, but at least he had gotten over the habit of double-rolling. Five minutes after the first toke he felt the first wave of the stone break over him. The corners of his mouth twitched upward, and then stayed there. Ahhhh, he thought, that’s much better. As the stone descended from his head down to the rest of his body through his nervous system, everything (his thoughts, incoming stimuli) seemed to slow down, become… more manageable.

What to do about Rob? He needed power to fight power. Out of the blue the image of the suitcase arose from Scott’s memory. Coolly he thought of the coke which could command over a half-million dollars from the street. He thought of the dealers he had known back east who had driven their Mercedes slowly through the blocks of welfare housing, and the pretty ladies that had sat in the back seats with them. No. For every shaker chauffeured in style, there were ten in jail or dead. He thought of Woody, his brother, who at the age of twelve had saved him from buggery at the hands of two drunks who had camped in the stairways of the their slum apartments. Son of a bitch! Scott sat upright in bed. Why did he have to think of that? The image of the suitcase buried under three feet of dirt stayed persistently in his mind, sinister and attractive. Scott knew Rob was flying high at the present time (and up to his eyeballs in pussy, no doubt), but it would only take one serious mistake and he would crash harder than a smack junkie out of needles. Scott laid back in his bed and closed his eyes to let the stone carry away his consiousness. He floated away to dreams in brillant technicolour, and a wonderful sleep.

***
Unbeknownst to John and Scott, they had nothing to fear from Rob for the time being. Ricky Jones, the quarterback and offensive team captain of the Laurentian Tigers, had paid a visit to Rob Gates to plead for team unity, and also to go over the plan for tommorrow’s game.
“So blood, is the pharmacy gonna be open tommorrow? This here is a big game, you better believe,” Jones said. No one called him Richard.
“Don’t worry boss,” Rob said. “There will be enough pills distributed to keep the whole defense a hip-hopping well past the fourth quarter. All provided at cost, of course.”
“Good, but keep them away from the offensive line. Those boys are supposed to be keeping my ass safe from grass stains, not charging ahead and playing Rambo.”
“Gotcha chief,” Rob answered, firm in his conviction that brown-nosing people of status led only to good happenings, provided there was no cost involved.
“And one other thing too, concerning the zebra buddies.”
“Hey, man, I’m running a business here, and you gotta let me take care of business. Don’t get me wrong, Scott and John are good people, but if word gets out that I can be pushed around…”
Rob held his hands up.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Ricky tried to sound sympathetic. “Just try to keep it away from the team, you understand? We ain’t doing so shit-hot this season but we have to, you understand? We have to stay like Gods to the gen-e-ral population of Laurentian High. Give them something to believe in.”
“Man, I provide them already with all the joy and pleasure they can handle.”
“Uh-huh, but once you bring the real world into the locker room, the team might start to choose sides. Boom, no games won. Boom, they start looking over our school records and come down hard. Why do you think coach don’t come into the locker room until exactly ten minutes before game time?”
“So what are you saying blood? Lose face and take shit?”
“Just until the season is over and the championship trophy is safely locked away in the sports display. Then I don’t give a shit.”
“You mean until you safely got a scholarship to a big-time university down south.”
“So? Stick with me blood, and I’ll drag you along on my coat-tails. Laurentian is the sticks compared to university. All those willing U-heads just begging for a little of this, a little of that. It’s the last great untapped market.”
***
The Laurentian Tigers had the reputation of being the craziest and dirtiest team in the city. The players were proud of wearing the same colours as those of the NFL Los Angeles Raiders, silver and black. John entered the lockerroom a half-hour before game-time, not bothering to take note of the pandemonium around him. His eyes stared ahead with an unusual intensity. Perhaps he was used to the chaos. The players were going through the ritual of preparing for war. The postions which required the least amount of skill and the most adrenalin, had by coincidence the players who could be considered the most violent and aggressive. The defensive linebackers and ends were having a contest to see who could put the biggest dent in a locker, by use of a forehead without the benefit of a helmet. In a far corner Rob grimaced and wondered if a single greenie dose would have been sufficient for the defense, instead of two.
“Alright, alright, you dumb fucks, knock it off and save it for the game,” he yelled.
“Let’s go TIGGGGGERS! TI-gers, TI-gers, TI-GERS!”
One of the linebackers had opened a cut on his forehead and the taste of blood in his mouth had apparently driven him insane.Rob dropped one of his shoulders and rammed his pad into the madman’s chest.
“That’s it Frankie,” he said during the momentary pause of quiet that accompanied the hit.
“I’m cutting you back to one-half greenie a game.”
The group laughed at Frankie, who silently picked himself off of the floor.
On the other side of the lockerroom, the offensive linemen blocked and head-slapped each other with grim determination. The purpose of their position was not to administer punishment but to take it. So they hit each other as a warm-up. It was a measure of pride not to even grunt after receiving a slap, let alone cry out.
John played tight end, being neither excellent at blocking or catching but very good at both. He did not, nor would ever, have the size to play at the next level, but his tenacity made him more valuable to the team than a player who had enormous potential but a bad attitude and non-existent work habits. Scott played weak safety. He sat quietly with the other defensive backs and rapped with his partner, the strong safety. Better a DB who nevers fucks up on coverage, who always breaks up a pass, than one who salvages blown coverages with spectacular hits. Woody stalked through the locker room like the magnificent lion that he was, shoulders back, greeting every player with an air of quiet dignity. In the lingo of sports, he was a “gamer,” that is, someone who looks like dogshit all week long in practice but shows up on game day, puts the team on his back and carries them to victory. Ricky’s arm provided the sizzle, but Woody was the steak, and everyone knew it. Woody knew it too, and had just enough coke in his system to dull the pain in his back, not enough to get coked out.
At exactly ten minutes to eleven coach Robinson walked in, The coach had big dreams of coaching down in the states, hence his interest in showcasing Woody and Ricky as his stars. One of the ways to make connections down south is to supply the colleges with quality players. Another way would be to win, win, win. Laurentian had already two losses this season out of five games played. It would be unacceptable to have anymore.
“Boys, I’ll be straight and honest with you. To be three and two is not that bad, but it’s not that good either. To tell the truth, with the talent we got assembled this year we should go all the way,” the coach said.
He paused paused to stroke his chin in an exaggerated manner. “When a team has a lot of talent but doesn’t win enough the coach can only look at himself for blame. The coach thinks `What am I doing wrong?’ I’ve been thinking… I think I’ve been working you boys hard enough but perhaps their has been a lack of… discipline.”
Oh shit, shit, shit. The thought ran like an electric current through the collective mind of the team. We’re not putting enough meat on the table so the coach is gonna cut off the flow of gravy. “I’ve heard that some of you have been… let’s say cutting a little bit of slack in the discipline of academics. I cannot tell you how distressed I am to hear that.”
The coach’s tone of voice hardened. “Who is going to forgive a boy for cutting a class if that boy is a loser? Losers don’t pass tests, losers can’t do any one of a half-dozen things that a winner can do. DON’T FUCK UP! All I’m asking is for ONE LOUSY DAY, you people get your shit together and take care of business. Then you can relax and enjoy life as your due. Don’t fuck up this good thing you got going.” Having finished his speech, the coach said good luck, glared around the room, and walked out.
There was silence for almost five seconds before Ricky spoke. “Brother Tigers, read between the lines.”
The locker room erupted into a frenzy of growling screams. Everyone picked a partner and went at it, pushing, slapping, and head-butting. John knocked one of the reserve lineman on his butt, as he had been stoking his inner fire all night, lying in bed, brooding.
The game itself did not turn out to be much of a contest. The opposing team managed to complete a few short passes and even kicked two field goals. But mid-way through the second quarter the Tiger defensive line stunted and broke through to the quarterback, who crashed to the ground on one knee. The injury took him out of the rest of the game. By force of intimidation, the Tigers carefully pulled away to win 28 to 6. John caught one touchdown pass and blocked with a quiet ferocity that helped Ricky escape with nary a grass stain on his jersey. Woody only carried the ball 15 times but gained 130 yards on the ground to move to the top of the league standing in rushing. It was the finest game the Tigers had played all season.
Copyright 2008 by DJ Dunkerley. All Rights Reserved

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