sidewalk man

by dm gillis

10 p.m.

“You know the Skeena Terrace Housing Project, Sergeant Avakian?”

“Sure,” said the cop at the other end of the line. “I used to drive through a couple of times a week, on shift.”

“I lived there when I was a kid,” said Eli Fink. There was a blue eyed Australian Shepherd sitting at his feet, staring up at him as he spoke on the telephone.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Fink. “It was in the 70s and the cops loved to beat the hell out of us. We was just a bunch of monkeys with nothing in our pockets. They’d have a bad day somewhere else, then come to Skeena Terrace with their billy clubs and kick some poor kid’s ass.”

“I’m sorry about that, Mr Fink,” Avakian said. “I can assure you we do things differently now.”

“Oh c’mon, Avakian. The cops are doing the same shit they’ve always done, because they’re cops. You give some prick a gun, a company car and seventy grand a year, and he thinks he can do whatever he fucking wants. And mostly he’s right.”

“I see,” said Avakian.

“Good,” Fink said. “Now where I’m going with this, is this. Back then, the Vancouver cops and local cab companies drove the same car. Four door Plymouth Fury. It was the fleet car of choice. But in the mid to late 70s, Plymouth put out models with squeaky brakes, and they were loud too. You could hear ’em coming from a couple of blocks away. We got away with a lot of shit back then because when we heard that squeaky brake sound, we knew it was either the cops or a cab. Probably a cop.”

“That’s interesting,” Avakian said. “I was born in 1984, so I….”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” said Fink. “Just listen. So one day I get this idea after watching some shit on TV about Northern Ireland, and I run it by the boys. And they all laugh and say they’ll do it – of course they’ll do it! So we collect up all the rocks of a certain size we can find, which ain’t easy in a housing project if you want a lot of ‘em. Anyways, we spend a few days getting rocks together, and on Saturday night we settle in on the high ground over Herman Drive, behind the shrubs so we can’t be seen from the road. We smoke some shit and drink some beers, and wait for the squeaky brake sound to come.

“A couple of cabs went by, and then Philly the Rope who had a surplus cop Fury. And then came an actual cop car. A couple of fat pigs eating hoagies and drinking Slurpees, coming down Herman, the driver squeezing his brakes, looking all over for some delinquent to belt around.

“And when the fuckers were right below us on the road, we stood up from behind the shrubs and let ‘em have it, baby. You should have seen the pussies in that black and white piss themselves as all these rocks start comin’ outta nowheres. Bam! The windshield busted. Bam! The lights on the light bar shatter, blue and red pieces all over the road. The side windows blow out and rocks are bouncing off the body, dents and scratched paint. What a fucking mess. Then we split and hid, because every cop in Vancouver rolled in and they were pissed.”

“That’s a very interesting story, Mr Fink,” said Avakian.

“Call me Eli.”

“Okay, Eli,” Avakian said. “But I wonder what it has to do with the current situation.”

“Hell, I don’t know,” said Eli Fink. “I was just thinking about another time I was up against the cops.”

“We’re just here to keep people safe and facilitate the exchange.”

“And blow me away,” Fink said.

“Do you think that will be necessary?” Avakian asked.

“I don’t know,” Fink said, sounding a little confused. “I just know that after we pelted that cop car, the pigs spent weeks hunting each of us down. A couple of us ended up in the hospital. I got clobbered in a stairwell at night by this big fat fucker named Wilken. I still got numbness in my left hand from him grinding his heel into it, while his partner gagged me with his Maglite. The cops just wanted to let us know that they was the toughest street gang in town.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, fuck.”

“Do you think that what you’re asking for now is reasonable, Eli?”

“None of this is reasonable.”

“That’s true,” Avakian said. “I’m glad you understand that. You can’t hold the dog responsible, Eli. He’s just a dog.”

“I don’t hold him responsible. He’s just my hostage. If I could get my hands on its owner, I’d have a knife to her throat right now.”

“Careful what you say, Eli.”

“Fuck, it’s a dog,” Fink said, sounding slightly crazed. “How’d this all happen? It’s just a fucking dog.”

“And you’ve got that going in your favour, Eli. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says the most you can do is two years for causing an animal distress. You’d be facing serious time if it was a human being, instead of a dog.”

“Frankie ain’t in no distress. Are you, boy?” Eli reached out and petted the dogs head.

“All the better.”

earlier that day

How many of his dawns had come this way? Eli Fink waking from a dim dream of sleep within a wheel, with an idea of some significance lodged inside of a fragile sphere, ready to burst at the first hint of wakefulness.

Then bang, the great idea was gone, upon Fink seeing the worldly ceiling above him. As across the street a coin operated newsstand was refilled with the morning news, and its spring loaded door slammed shut. Was the sound of it a crash or a thud? It happened so fast, so unexpectedly every morning that no one cared to think. Then the newspaper truck sped away, and it was quiet again. A second chance at sleep.

But there’d be nothing for it. Eli would be fully awake, if a bit sticky of mouth and in a fog. And that idea of some significance had floated away. The residue of the fragile sphere it occupied had sunk to the ground, while the vapour of the idea itself had migrated into its surroundings, and twisted and bound with the atoms of the walls and floors, lost there forever. How many of his dreamed ideas had bound with those atoms? God might know, if God gave a goddam.

He thought for a moment of Rachel, so recently gone that her perfume lingered in the bedding and bathroom towels.

You’re mad, she had said in her kitchen table goodbye note, which he had found the night she’d fled. I thought it was aestheticism, she had written, but it’s just a common working man’s madness. Goodbye.

He’d had to look up aestheticism on Wikipedia. It was a compliment that had come too late, and it broke his heart. Rachel’s absence was an abyss that absorbed all available light. Eli Fink would now and forever stumble in the dark.

He turned in his bed and placed his feet on the floor. The clock suggested 5am. A sound offer. He’d take it, and wash his face. Then eat from the refrigerator. And after that, drive his flat black ’68 Ford to the job site, where the labourers lingered at the coffee truck, the surveyors played the angles and the foremen dreamed of empty desert highways, souped-up Chevrolets and any floral print damsel they could find, other than their own untidy wives, riding shotgun in the republic of doo-wop.

It was Wednesday. The day they’d pour his concrete. His curving masterwork through a maple grove and around a fountain in the park would come to life.

The excavation for his sidewalk conformed absolutely to the lines and grades specified. He had taken great care in avoiding damage to areaways, and appurtenances.

The cement would be type Normal Portland GU with a minimum 28 day compressive strength of 32 MPa, and a maximum nominal size of coarse aggregate of ¾ of an inch. Slump at point of discharge 3 ± 1 inch. All laid over an immaculate granular backfill.

His forms were of flexible plywood and were of sufficient strength to resist the pressure of concrete when poured, and all vibration from nearby construction. They were staked in place with three pins per yard, and he’d placed a pin on each side of each form butt joint. There’d be no more than a fraction of an inch of deviation from the grade.

He had chosen his trowels, edgers and a broom of the correct coarseness the day before. He would etch in the cut-marks with scrupulous precision.

After this magnum opus, he should retire. He could never top it. But he couldn’t retire. He was only fifty-four. There were still hundreds of sidewalks, avenues, boulevards, ramps, corners and curbs to lay. Hundreds of miles of them, to join the hundreds he’d laid before this. Would the length of them eventually reach round the world, or to the moon? Who kept track of these things? Perhaps some manless prude at city hall, who stayed overtime to check her arithmetic. Then went home to her pitiless cat.

The first cement truck arrived at 7.30am, and began to pour at 7.35.

He watched the fluid concrete flow down the chute, and into the forms. It was full of stony viscous metaphor. A river one might travel down, but upon which he could never return. There were tides of it, hard and in its liquid form, made high and low by the gentle moon. It lay wet and vulnerable for a time, at the mercy of cruel circumstance, but then solidified to a hardness and resilience beyond measure. But during that time of vulnerability, any number of things could happen. The worst of which were the careless footprints of senile oldsters, and unrestrained children and pets – and graffiti, who the hell was Ziggy, after all? There was no adequate protection against these things. He could only return from further up the length his work to find the irreparable damage, and inside, weep.

That day’s damage would be caused by an unrestrained pet, a friendly Australian Shepherd named Frankie. Frankie’s human was a woman named Francine. The closeness of their names was one of those things that made one wonder about human/pet relationships. Eli Fink would learn the names of these two when in a desperate fit, he did a desperate thing.

Francine, as it turned out, rejected leash laws, believing that they commodified and degraded animals as intelligent as dogs. In a newspaper interview yet to come, Francine would observe that leashes were only appropriate for cats.

Like all dogs of his breed, Frankie was born to herd the sum of all sentient beings on planet Earth into a tight maneuverable knot that could be run from one pasture to another, or back to the shearing hut. But lacking a medial orbitofrontal cortex, he had never regretted the fact that he had failed to ever do so – he’d just kept trying. And on that day, after the cement was poured and Eli Fink was creating his master work, as he moved up the walk with trawl, edger and broom toward the fountain roundabout, Frankie the dog would lock onto a grazing flock of Canada geese in the vicinity of the Fink’s finished work, and after sneaking in a crouched position so as not to alarm his quarry, he would launch into a genetically preprogramed dash meant to corral the rabble.

But the geese flew away instead, leaving Frankie momentarily confused, until he started biting away at what might have been a flea on his haunch. Regrettably, in his pursuit, Frankie had run along the sidewalk of wet cement and permanently added his paw prints. They’d remain there for all eternity.

Eli Fink ran back to the spot as fast as he could, when he was informed. But all remedial efforts were for not. The concrete had been too close to setting.

Frankie and his human, Francine, now stood by and observed the visible signs of Eli Fink’s heart sinking, and Francine stepped up and said –

“Frankie and I are real sorry, mister.”

Fink thought about those words for a moment and recalled all of the times he’d heard them before, from dog and cat owners, and mothers of wicked children with gummy soled shoes. In 1985, a car drove across his just laid sidewalk, and the driver, stinko drunk, got out of the car and vomited on Eli Fink’s boots – he’d said he was sorry. In 1989, a group of punk rockers had etched FuCK boN jOvI in two foot letters on a curb – they’d said sorry too, then fuck you cement boy. In 2006, a blind man tripped and fell trying to walk a just laid avenue – he said he was real sorry. But a week later, he began a civil action, claiming Fink and the City were negligent for allowing wet cement to just lay around, a hazard upon which anyone could injure themselves. It took three years, but it was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Fink was suspended a week without pay. Even the union couldn’t help.

There were other examples of the public’s carelessness and disrespect of his vocation and art. And then –

I thought it was aestheticism, Rachel had written, but it’s just a common working man’s madness. Goodbye.

“Fuck!” Eli Fink yelled, and grabbed Frankie by the collar. He began walking toward a park gardeners shed, pulling the dog behind.

“Wait!” Francine called out. “What are you doing with my dog?”

She ran after him as more and more people stopped to watch, and Fink turned, pulling a small Swiss Army knife from his pocket. He fought to open it with his teeth, as he held onto Frankie’s collar. But in his struggle, he succeeded only in producing the corkscrew. He swung it round wildly, so the world could see that he meant business. He’d always wondered what use he had for a corkscrew on a knife. Now he knew.

“Don’t hurt my dog, you psycho,” Francine shouted.

“Just back off,” Eli Fink said. “I got demands. (Actually he didn’t, yet.) You don’t get Frankie back until those demands are met, baby. And if they aren’t, the mutt gets it.”

Fink pulled Frankie along, looking over his shoulder once or twice, until he was in the shed. Then he closed the door and jammed a shovel under the doorknob, and waited. For what, he didn’t know.

Sergeant Avakian arrived twenty minutes after the first squad car, along with the Vancouver Police Department ERT, and an Officer of the BCSPCA.

“He’s just got a dog as his hostage?” said Lieutenant Black, of the VPD Emergency Response Team. He had his balaclava pulled back so the world could see his ruggedly handsome face, and what a swell bunch of good natured guys his heavily armed, black clad paramilitary team was.

“Hell, we can have him outta there in a couple of minutes,” he said. “With a stun grenade. We just got these new ones that….”

“No you don’t,” said Officer Wilma Muson of the BCSPCA. She was four foot, six inches to Black’s six foot, three.

“Why the hell not?” said Black.

“Because,” said Munson. “Section 23.2 (1) of the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says: A person must not cause an animal to be in distress. I think a stun grenade would definitely cause that poor dog one hell of a lot of distress.”

“It’s a dog, for the love of Pete,” Black said. “Since when is a dog a legitimate goddam hostage?”

“You’ve gotta admit, Lieutenant,” Munson said, “that there is a chance that the dog will be killed or injured in any attempt you make to free him and take the hostage-taker into custody, right?”

“I guess,” said Black. “There’s always a very slim chance that….”

“Well,” Munson said. “Section 23.2 (2) (b) of the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says that: A person who kills an animal must not, in killing the animal, cause the animal to be in distress or do anything that is prohibited by the regulations. I’d wager that being shot and wounded or killed in the confusion you and your crew would cause, would be very distressful to that animal. It’s the law, Danno.”

“This is a joke, right?” Lieutenant Black said. He clenched his fists and kicked at the grit on the ground. “We just got in a brand new goddam shipment of stun grenades to try out. They’re from the Mexican Federal Police. They’ve been using them on the cartels down there with mucho goddam exito. Now we want to give ‘em a tryout, Officer Munson, and this is an excellent opportunity. You’re just getting in the way. Go rescue a fucking gerbil.”

“I’m pretty sure, Lieutenant,” Wilma Munson said, with a smile, “that you’re used to having things your own way. But now’s not the time for you to have a hissy-fit.”

“A what!”

“Look,” Sergeant Avakian said. “I haven’t even spoken to the hostage-taker yet. Let’s try that first, shall we? We just got his cell number a moment ago.”

“I’m the ranking officer here,” said Lieutenant Black.

“So far,” said Avakian. “But I’m the negotiator. Procedure says we talk first, and you know it.”

“Well, fuck me,” Black said, walking away and yelling at his men to take their goddam balaclavas off and stand down.

“Wow,” said Munson. “There goes an angry man.”

“Never mind,” Avakian said, and punched a number into his phone.

Inside the shed, Eli Fink’s cell phone rang. He thought it might be Rachel. It wasn’t her ring, but then she’d changed her number.

“Hello?” he said. “Rachel?”

“No, Mr Fink,” Sergeant Avakian said.

“Look,” said Fink. “I’m not interested in a time share.”

“I’m not selling anything, Mr Fink. This Sergeant Avakian of the Vancouver Police Department.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

“Who’s Rachel? Is she someone you’d like for me to contact?”

“No.”

“I will, you know?”

“I wouldn’t know where to find her.”

“Is there anything you need?”

“Ah, no,” Fink said, disarmed by the cop’s calm tone and kind questions.

“How’s Frankie?” said Avakian.

“He’s a little shit,” Fink said. Frankie sat and looked up at him. He looked wise, for a dog. He looked like he might say something profound. For the first time, Fink noticed dried cement between the animal’s toes.

“There’s a woman out here who wants him back, Mr Fink,” Avakian aid.

“I want things, too.”

“Tell me what they are.”

“I want that sidewalk replaced,” Eli Fink said. “And I want every sidewalk I ever laid, that was ruined by animal or human, pulled up and replaced.”

“That might take a while,” said Avakian.

“Then get started.”

“This isn’t a typical demand. Replacing sidewalks will take a while.”

“I got a corkscrew at this little mutt’s throat, right now. (Actually, the Swiss Army knife was in Fink’s pocket.) You get the ball rolling or I’m gonna delete his cookies. I know it’ll take a while. You just get me a promise from the Mayor that he’ll do it. Then Frankie’s free to go shit on the lawn.”

1 a.m.

There was chanting coming from a short distance away from the shed. People were yelling animal rights slogans and lighting candles. Twenty cops in riot gear stood their ground. Eli Fink’s effigy had been hung by a noose from a tree. Special high powered lighting was focused on the shed. For some reason, the fire department and five ambulances was there.

“So, when do you think the Mayor’s gonna come through?” Fink said. “It’s been hours.”

“He’s been informed of your demand, Eli,” Avakian said. “He says he’s talking to the City’s lawyers.”

“I want kibble, water and some capicola pizza and beer.”

“Good,” said Avakian. “I’ll get it for you.”

“Hurry. Frankie looks hungry.”

“Eli?”

“What?”

“Did those Skeena Project cops ever have to face disciplinary action?”

“Doubt it,” Fink said. “Someone would have had to rat them out, and we wouldn’t do that. My money’s on karma. Maybe they got prostate cancer.”

“Ah.”

“What about your SWAT boys? They ready to dance on my head?”

“ERT’s on alert, but they’re holding back for the moment.”

“How long will that last?”

“I don’t know. It’s dark. They like to work in the dark.”

“Frankie probably needs to take a piss, I guess,” Fink said. Then he heard a commotion at the other end of the line. After a moment, Avakian spoke —

“The Mayor’s office just called, Eli. He’s says no.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah.”

“Am I gonna die?”

“Come out with your hands up, Eli. No one needs to die tonight.”

Frankie was asleep, curled up at Eli’s feet. Eli reached down and scratched the dog’s ear.

“People think I’m high strung,” he said.

Avakian didn’t reply.

“I just got kicked around a lot when I was kid. Now I want some control over things. I like to do things right. You pay a price for that, you know?.”

Avakian remained quiet.

“You there, Sergeant?”

There was more commotion on the cops’ end of the line. It sounded like the phone had been dropped.

“Just give me a little more time,” he heard Avakian say.

Fink opened the door a crack and peeked out. There were animal rights protesters and media on the sidewalk. The energy of the crowd was changing.

Frankie barked twice, and began to growl, looking up at a small window. Then something burst through the glass. It was hard and the shape and size of a can of soup. It came to rest on the floor after bouncing off the walls. On its side were the words uso de explosivos extrema precaución. Mexican soup, Eli Fink thought a second before the stun grenade blew.

Fink lost the hearing in his right ear, and spent the rest of his life having to turn his left ear toward the source of pleasant sounds. He taught many of his fellow prisoners how to work with concrete while doing federal time. There were the animal endangerment charges, and other subsequent charges that added up to five years. While in prison, a psychiatrist prescribed him a benzodiazepine medication.

Frankie recovered after three days of deafness, and Francine now uses a leash.

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