If he had a car, he’d drive away to Jesus. He never had thought of Him as a person, just a destination. A roadhouse with faded awnings and a door on squeaky hinges, out on a protestant prairie where the wind hadn’t let up since the cretaceous. The parking lot a quarter acre of grit blown in off the highway where some rusty pickups park. Just inside the door, there’s a scratchy 78 of Django Reinhardt playing on the jukebox. Everyone at the counter’s smoking, except for a couple farmers who prefer a pinch between the cheek and gum. Everyone’s drinking coffee. Behind the counter, the waitress is on the phone, getting some bad news. Not for the first time. She’s a tough bit of stone, though, hard to move and slow to erode.
This is Jesus in his mind. Where he’d be if he could.
Jesus the place, the ephemeral. It comes to mind in the night, mostly. Three hundred black and white lines of jumpy resolution at 3.00 a.m., long after the medication has stopped working. But the waitress, the one across the counter on the phone, she’s in colour. Slightly over saturated. The pink glow of her uniform follows her as she refills coffee cups. Her face once fresh. She’s slim from hard work and an indifference to food. There are streaks of grey in her hair. Hair that’s been put up and out of the way, though a strand occasionally falls to lie on her cheek. She pushes that back behind her ear. That’s when he sees the pink enamel on her nails, sees that the nail of her left ring finger is broken and looks painful, that the skin around the base of her thumb is a little red and cracked. That her eyes are a little red, too. From lack of sleep, or….
He sees her other places, besides the roadhouse. In the city. Standing very still on the street as crowds move around her. Present but detached. Like a dashboard statuette. Her uniform’s gone. This time of year, round Christmas, wearing a long surplus greatcoat and worn Docs that were once red. When she sees him, she smiles. It’s hesitant. Then she looks away. Traffic passes in front of her and she’s gone.
If he could go there, he would.
In honour of Christmas Eve, Elsa Street pins a small Christmas tree broach onto her hand knit tam o’ shanter. She places the hat on her head. Standing before the mirror to adjust it, she sees her mother looking back. She purses her lips and carries on, tugging at the sides of her winter coat. There are worse things than resembling your mother, dressing, walking and talking like her. Worse things, like loneliness. She walks over to the stereo cabinet and removes the needle from a vinyl Perry Como album. The last great crooner is cut off in the middle of No Place like Home for the Holidays. Elsa pulls on her black kidskin gloves and retrieves her handbag and keys from the telephone stand next to her apartment door. It snowed last night. Now it rains. Elsa remembers at the last moment and manages to grab her umbrella from the stand before the door closes.
He’s walked in the rain for a century of Christmases, avoiding the eight by six foot room and its swinging bulb. It’s full of ghosts, that room. All of them talking. Some bullying, some merely melancholy and calling out. All of them wanting part of him. So, he walks. The shoes on his feet wet, forever wet. Socks, a vague childhood memory. The crazy, unavoidable beard soaked and populated, like his long dirty hair. His eyes slightly crazed. He stands at a corner, hands in his holy pockets, waiting for the light to turn the correct shade of green. Sometimes this takes a very long time. Sometimes, like now, it’s better to try a different corner. Turning to walk away, he catches sight of her out of the corner of his eye. There she stands. The rain pelting down around her. Radiant, the colours of a summer mural. She smiles. This time, when a truck passes between them, she hasn’t disappeared. She remains, watching him from the opposite corner.
Once, while standing in the sandwich line of the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement, he mentioned her to Sister Daphne. Sister Daphne replied, joyously, that Our Lady is with us always. Meanwhile, at St James Social Services, the mention of her caused the mean, tight fisted Anglicans to insist his meds needed adjusting.
Yet there she was, smiling at him from across Burrard Street. Sister Daphne, the old, bucktoothed cheerleader for Christ, may have been right. But he’d never said she was Our Lady, only a lady. The same one that bites her thumbnail between orders and the shouts of cooks. There in that place called Jesus.
He steps out onto the wet asphalt. Crossing towards her, even though he’s lost track of the light’s current shade of green. In fact, it’s red. The downtown Vancouver drivers blast him with their horns. A bike courier yells and flicks a lit cigarette; a Yellow cab tags him just below the knee and spins him around. But he keeps walking. When he reaches the opposite corner, however, she’s gone. Only a dry spot where she stood, quickly disappearing in the rain. He stands there for several moments. A fat man with shiny shoes and a tight overcoat forces $2 into his hand.
A few blocks away, Elsa Street stands in a shop looking at flat screen TVs. Digital-ready, a salesgirl says. But Elsa’s obvious ambivalence sends her away. Elsa’s trusty Trinitron is obsolete. 1980s analog, fat and boxy.
It’s difficult not to be nostalgic at times like these. Retailers go for the throat. It’s essential to possess the newest things. Who are you if you don’t? She looks down at her prudent shoes. Is she really so old, so out of touch? Was it that long ago that she stood in Woodward’s Department Store holding her father’s hand, marvelling the Christmas bustle from that safe place? Perhaps she was born old. A man in her life said that once. He’d stolen money from her purse, and thought buying clothes at second hand stores made him smarter than everyone else. Elsa thought the frayed collars and missing buttons made him look cheap, and a little stupid. She’d walked away from him and never met anyone else.
Now she takes an escalator down and emerges onto Granville Mall.
She decides to walk west along Robson. At Burrard, emergency services have congregated. A knot of them, police, fire and ambulance, around a filthy, poorly dressed man seated with his back against a plate glass window. Hit by a cab, someone says. His head is rolling on his skinny neck. His eyes make great, all encompassing arcs in their sockets. He’s taking in all of creation, yet he sees nothing at all. Elsa looks down and sees one more tragedy. She feels numbed, then slightly ashamed. She hears a cop say mental male into his two-way. She begins to look away, but not before he, the mental male, makes eye contact. She can’t help but return his stare. A firefighter shoulders through the gathering crowd, nearly knocking the umbrella out of her hand, but she holds her ground. And for the briefest moment, there is an altogether complete silence before the man on the ground yells…
He tries to stand and says, “You” again. This time holding out a hand. Elsa tries to step back, but she cannot. His yelling has attracted more people. A police woman asks if Elsa knows him. She says no, but is suddenly unsure.
He is standing now. The ambulance crew moves off, allowing the police to move in. He’s gotten to his feet faster than anyone would have believed. “It’s you,” he says. “Don’t go. Please don’t go this time. Stay and talk to me, just once.” A pair of cops step in while a police woman takes Elsa’s arm.
“No,” Elsa says. “It’s okay. I….”
Again, the policewoman says, “Do you know him, ma’am?”
“Then move on. He’s delusional. He’s not going stop until you go.”
“PLEASE,” he yells, now holding out both hands. He can hear the scratchy opening bars of Django’s Honeysuckle Rose. It’s coming from somewhere outside of his head. The two officers attempt to restrain him, but there’s very little of him to hold onto and he’s slick with rain. He takes three steps toward Elsa as one of the officers draws a weapon. In unison, the crowd backs off. The officer shouts, “Taser.” The other cops look confused, but there’s no time for discussion. As the emaciated man comes close enough to grasp Elsa’s lapels, there’s a brief hissing sound and he stands frozen with his hands out. Elsa sees the grime beneath his nails, the bulbous knuckles of his starved fingers, and then looks up to see his wet, stunned eyes. The dark network of red around the pale hazel irises. They implore, and are resigned. They tell their entire story in the time it takes to gasp.
He drops to the concrete, and the ambulance team is on him. Rolling him over, checking for vitals, tearing his shirt open. No pulse. Everyone seems surprised. They’re pumping his chest now, creating an airway. Elsa feels a hand on her elbow. It’s a policewoman coaxing her away. No, she won’t go. Inexplicably, she’s been called to witness this thing. To breathe deep the troubling scent of its finality and wrongness. Is he really dead? Is it possible to be so profoundly unwell? To die so easily on such a grey, ordinary day?
Looking up, Elsa sees her reflection in the plate glass.
For a while, he stood observing the gentle but persistent wind move the fields of prairie grass. Planets and stars. Then he walked in off the shaded porch, past the faded Orange Crush and Copenhagen ads, and sat at the counter. These were remembered eyes, he realised. Eyes he’d once looked through before it had all come down to a choice between flat affect or psychosis.
“Coffee, stranger?” the lady in the pink uniform asks. She smiles, and he sees some creases round her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. The kind that don’t come freely; the kind a woman earns.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”
She poures. “Menu?”
“Nah,” he says taking a deck of Players out of his shirt pocket, like it’s the most natural thing in the world to do. “Bacon and eggs, I guess, with biscuits and gravy.”
“That’s a mighty big plate in this joint, mister. You hungry?”
“Awfully,” he says. Then quieter, “Awfully hungry.”
“Cream,” she says, writing up the order.
“Yes, cream.” He could have cream in his coffee. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Say, you got some nickels?”
He pats his jeans pockets. There’s something there. “Uh huh.”
“Do a girl a favour and drop some in the juke. Nothing worth a damn on the radio this morning.”
Outside, a pickup pulls in. The country twang on the vehicle’s radio dies and both doors slam shut. There’s some good-humoured chatter coming up the stairs. The voices of happy people who meant no harm.
“Gonna be a damn fine day,” she says.