Copyright is held by the author.
LET ME tell you, I am filled with joy to see Diane comin’ in — but sad to see her too. Long ago we shared a life and it was bitchin’ cool. Such a different era. Now we are the zeros. Invisible. She doesn’t have a pot to piss in. I don’t either.
Once again, we become a solid team. Just like before. We gossip about our good old days. We whisper like we used to. Buddies. I remember the clubs. We are, again, a couple of ducks on a log, grooving to the tunes in the night owl scene, waiting for the guys to ask us to dance, pretending nonchalance.
She sits beside me, balanced at the abandoned picnic table. It’s a wobbly piece of wreckage. One of the struts is cracked. A chunk is missing. The green paint is peeling and the top of the table is slopped by shitty gulls and pigeons.
We hang out real close to the tent I share with my boyfriend, Bilson. Actually, I don’t know if I should be callin’ him my boyfriend? He’s my current something or other. I’m 45 and Bilson is 48. He’s not a boy and not much to brag about.
Diane’s speech is gritty: “It’s awesome to see you, Lenora,” she tells me, and her voice shakes a little like she’s full of salt. She always smoked too much.
She’s the best. I haven’t seen her for 18 years. Maybe longer. And here she is. Wow! I rub my hands together. She is welcome. I feel hopeful. A long time ago, Diane was a dancer. She could make any crowd of people stop and stare and clap. Like a professional. She won prizes. She worked the scene.
She came in yesterday and lugged her crap over to a patch of dirt at the far end of the park. She’s right next to a line of traffic cones and she sacks out there. It’s barely big enough. She has to squat down under a bunch of plastic and orange garbage bags. She overlapped a tarp onto the branches of a chestnut tree. She’s got a wooden pallet to block the wind.
“It’s shittin’ time if it rains,” Diane admits to me. “It’s gross; gets super wet. And I see so many spiders, squirrels and a lot of bugs and rats. Thought I saw a snake, but it might have been a rope. There’s a fearless crow that jumps around. But it’s the rats that freak me out.”
“Yeah, ugly, horrible rats. They flop around like silky fishes with licorice whips for tails and they’re, like, multiplyin’.” I yak a long, long while about the other inhabitants, the human ones. Then I tell her more about our homeless camp. “It’s comin’ on to shorter days,” I tell her. “The rats are gettin’ brave.”
“Won’t the hungry crows eat the rats?”
“I haven’t seen it. Besides, it’s probably not a crow you’re checkin’ out. There’s a friendly blackbird. He’s sorta special. Likes to hang around. He dances. We call him Ralph.”
“Okay . . . Wow, Lenora,” Diane says, and she draws her hand over her forehead like she’s sweating. “That’s so freakin’ weird. But it’s awesome too. A dancin’ bird?”
“I didn’t say he was a wonderful dancer. Mediocre. Ralph the bird. ‘Lot of stuff goes down.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Four weeks. Uh . . . oh no, that’s not right. It’s more like seven. It’s October; yeah?” And I tell her this for sure: “It’s goin’ to get wetter and rattier because the summer is turnin’ into fall.” And I warn her that because of the rodents and raccoons and the seagulls and the geese and the bugs, that she should never leave food inside her place. “Especially bread. And you know what?”
“Bilson . . . He’s a genuine slob when it comes to cleaning up and he’s careless about cracker crumbs and that means the rats are feeling just like they’re invited to his pop-up restaurant.”
“So,” Diane says: “I’ve seen your guy. He’s got a beard and a kick-ass bike? Yeah?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So, Bilson is not a cup o’ tea. That right?”
Diane is using the phrase we employed when we referred to a guy we wanted to be with, like, any guy we found attractive, like, back in times when we both had decent jobs and prospects. I rented a wonderful apartment way back then. We were not stuck with poverty or forced to be in no-woman’s land. And now we’re living in a tent or under rags and alongside filth and squalor. There are no shelter spaces anywhere in town.
And Diane is dead right. Bilson is not a cup o’ tea. I wonder why I really stay with Bilson? Of course, I know. He’s got the decent tent.
Diane and I joke some more about my boyfriend. We talk about the others. Diane doesn’t have any guy right this instant. She doesn’t really want to find one. Doesn’t feel the need.
I laugh like hell when she tells me I’m a settler and she kids me like I’ve lowered my expectations to below the sub-basement criteria. I can hardly breathe. I’ve smoked too much crazy cheap and tainted weed. Found a bag and a good number of roll-yer’ owns the other day. What a score! But used-up quickly. Nothing more. Now that Diane’s here my mood is high enough.
Inside Bilson’s tent, we goof around. We laugh and snort until we sound like Canada geese. There is nothing else to do but celebrate; so we laugh and we honk like we used to. There’s no weed and definitely no meth for today, so we consume two beers each. I put the glass bottles outside by the bin. Bilson is going to be pissed. The beer belongs to him. But it’s not funny now. There’s no dope anywhere. I’m starving.
I’m surviving in this wicked polyethylene tent. It’s not some tattered blanket. Bilson and I share the two-person Mountain Hiker’s Model 107 that he swiped from the outdoor camping store. Yeah, he hooked it. Exceptional value. Its waterproof. We had a little cash back then, but not enough for squat or any extra frills. We score our funds from picking and recycling tons of beer cans. There’s always money lying around.
Bilson’s out there picking cans today. I guess he’ll be gone for a while. He whizzed away on his bike, looking to find enough to score a stash of weed. Each rollie costs a fiver.
The community has a great nickname. We call ourselves: Tent Ass City, because we’ve got this stubborn and emboldened purpose. We’re gripping tightly and proclaiming our rights and freedoms. Tenacity. There’s talk (again) of shutting the place down. Time is looming. The cops are here like fruit flies almost every day, especially in the early evening times.
I’ve got a lot of stuff to explain to Diane. She’s so new, but she makes it easy. She gets it. I know it’s a real cliché, but we’re such good friends that we finish each other’s sentences.
Not like that Sienna across the way. Now there’s one repulsive cow. Worst butt crack ever, like . . . the champion of gross. I wish Sienna had some other pants or sizable jeans. She wears real thin stretched-out leggings that do not cover her stomach or her arse. I have to turn away if she’s leaning over.
I just saw that well-meaning pissy-eyed outreach worker, Lee-Ann. She was schmoozing around this morning once again. She was here yesterday and last week also. She informs me that there’s a new shelter place soon available. It’s a brand-new shop, and it’s going to be called Seeds. And it’s only for women. She says it’s gonna be just perfectly awesome and I could move in, probably in two months’ time. Like a rooming house? I dunno? It might be cleaner.
The rumour is that they’re kicking us out of here by Friday and Tent Ass City has no place left to relocate. We’ve moved it twice already — first from Percy’s Boulevard and then to Sheldon Lake and now we’re here in Haythorn, but eviction is staring us in the crotch again.
I wish I was dead. Except I don’t really wish it now that Diane has arrived. I hope I die before the rats eat my eyeballs or the city comes around and fixes everything so we don’t exist.
I shouldn’t be so, you know — so cynical, cranky and depressed. There’s hardly any other women around. See, there’s me, Diane, Sienna and then there’s Missy Ruth. She’sthe leader of the band.Missy is a wicked looking skank who stays on her own on the other side of the compound. She’s far away from my place and further still from Diane’s hovel.
I don’t know Missy Ruth’s real identity. She looks kind of like a guy — but I think she’s female, you know, claims it. She might be one of those people who is not definite. Sometimes she sits with that crew who are all First Nations and they stick together like a gang. It’s hard to get to know anyone of them. I’m not indigenous and not related. They’re so different.
And Bilson is not related either.
Bilson is aka the slob. The rats are goofing around in the dark. Like, all night long and making their stupid chit-chuck sounds and I freak out. I wake him up. “I don’t want sicko rats crawling over me,” I say this to Bilson. He doesn’t give a crap. He tells me I’m a candy ass. I start to complain again and Bilson agrees that it’s the cans. “The beer can stink brings the rats like refugees.” Bilson doesn’t admit he’s the one to blame. He keeps hauling his smelly cans right inside the tent “Leave ’em outside?” I tell him. “Easy fix.”
“No.” he says. “Someone else swipes ’em if I do, and that’s our honey pot.” He means that’s the money we find and save and we use it to buy ourselves some extra scratch.
I tell him: “Take yer lazy ass to the depot and cash the cans right away. At least the smelliest.”
“Listen babe, I’m tired,” he says. “It’s 50 cents fer can-collecting bags.”
“You like rats? Bite your fingers; chew your clothes.”
“Don’t never mind,” he says, and he flops down onto the top of his sleeping bag and sacks out, rolling his skinny ass over a couple of times to settle in. He cradles his neck on a rat-eaten blob of pillow. He turns his back to me. I stare at his Screaming Eagle jacket logo.
“This sucks,” I tell him.
“Shut up,” he says. “Rats won’t kill ya.”
“Ever heard of the plague?”
He doesn’t move. I listen when he snores.
So, I go out, and I start poking around to find cans to make some walking-around cash for me, at least six bucks worth. I always start out with the intent of buying my own supply.
Why have I ever allowed myself to get this seriously busy with Bilson? It was… like… one stupid effing night. A lot of beer. I guess. A little dope. That’s my weakness. We were hammered. That made him look — you know — like, maybe he’d be okay? We were setting up this new tent. I’d found a mattress, rescued it, and a ugly down-filled sleeping bag thrown out onto the boulevard. I sleep sometimes. And pretty good. But sometimes I cannot sleep at all unless I’m passed out cold or I’m righteously stoned.
It’s been dry this summer, but the air is foggy and everything gets clammy. The worst is that there’s no place to get clean or dry and we have to sign up at Miltson House to do any sort of wash, or to take a shower. I wasn’t always this crappy dirty. See. But it’s just how it is. We’ve got a porta potty and a hygiene station. Huh? What a laugh. We’ve got a water tap, but even that’s set for removal before Friday’s deadline.
So, they’re kicking us out of here, like one snitchy step each time. There’s no place left but Hell. I wish I was dead. Except I don’t really wish it now that Diane’s here. I hope I croak before the rats eat my eyeballs or the city comes around and fixes everything so we can’t survive.
They’re shutting down the place one iota at a time, one item at a time, one agonizing day at a time. They won’t let any volunteer neighbours bring us food. We used to have sandwiches and granola bars and sometimes this great chicken chow from the Chinese restaurant.
I wander outside to get a drink of water, and I watch sorrowfully as it dribbles and the water runs dry.
I used to care. Now, I’m zero.
I wake up really late. My head reverberates. Cops have infiltrated everywhere. Like sand flies and killer ants and poisonous snakes. An overdose. Someone? Who? Where?
I ask around.
No one knows a piece of shit about anything. No one’s talking anyhow. I run over to Diane’s area. There’s yellow tape around the tree. The cops tell me to scram. Then Bilson returns. Where the hell has he been hiding? “It’s the bitch,” he says. “The new one.” My heart high jumps.
“What do you mean the new one?”
“Your long-lost chickadee — Diane. Bought her final ticket. Sure. She’s on her way to heaven. Probably got some fentanyl. And . . . she’s dead.”
“Dead! No. You mean —?”
And I fall. I don’t scream. I can’t deny it. I lie down like a rag on the pathway of rocks and stones and dirt. I do not move.
Bilson leans over me. Eyes like a vulture creep. He says: “The ambulance came. It left empty. Yeah, your buddy was not breathing. Cops said she was going to the medical examiner, not the hospital, and they quickly loaded her up and took her away in that big ass car that looks like a limo. Paint it black.”
I don’t know how much time passes as I lie on the dirt before I crawl. I start lookin’ around for that gruesome skag — the outreach worker. What is her name? Oh yeah — Lee-Ann. She’s a conceited know-it-all. Arrow straight. She’s an uptight cow. I want to die. I can’t find the god damn worker.
I plan it out so ultra carefully. I’ll find a nice warm bed and then I’ll die inside. And there won’t be any rats or rain or shit. First, I gotta find enough meth and ex and cocaine to overdose. I’ll find some oxy. That’s so easy now. I’ll hide it carefully. It’s just so clear and simple. I’ve got to fake the outreach worker into believing what she wants to hear. I’ll tell her I want to straighten up. I’ll tell her that I choose to be sober. Huh? I’ll just fake her out. I don’t know where I’ll find strength and tenacity to pretend so much, or to gradually amass enough drugs, but I will do it. There’s no option. I don’t care.
The blackbird comes around. He hops very close to my cold feet. I watch. He dances and jumps and twirls around beside the green table. I clap my hands to make him leave, but the bird keeps on and on and on and he’s dancing like he’ll never stop. It’s meaningless and insanely fascinating and I can’t think or move or begin to implement any of my secret exit plans because I can’t do anything when I’m watching this stupid effing bird.