It’s when you secretly slide it down into your lower frontal region that you realise why cheese is the most commonly shoplifted grocery item in North America. It’s nutritious and a half pound of it is just the right size and shape to hide in your pants. In fact, I read somewhere that cheese theft was one of the primary reasons that most supermarket pharmacies opted out of methadone dispensing programs in the eighties and nineties. All the addicts were cashing in on it. That means you have to be careful, because store security watches the cheese. Which is why I put it into the basket and walk around the store a bit before I sneak it into my jockey shorts.
That’s just something from the street, baby. I don’t care what you do with it. I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re probably all comfortable with a fridge full of cheese. And not that crappy orange shit they pass off as cheddar, either. You’ve probably got some Camembert, some Stilton or Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even some Crotin du Chavignol. Careful you don’t choke on it.
So anyway, you ever wake up with a real messed up head? Because you drank the night before, and it ain’t sitting well with the Olanzapine? Which is what you expected would happen but a friend had some cheap rye and you were feeling a bit lonely, so you helped him finish both bottles? Ever wake up like that? Probably not, because you can afford your own cheese. But it’s a bitch to wake up like that. I’ve had your conventional Betty Crocker hangovers, and they aren’t anything by comparison. I mean it’s like you wake up and you’re genocidal and suicidal at the same time, but you don’t know what to do first. And isn’t it all about choices, man?
It was like that this morning and I wanted to sleep all day, but my landlady cut this six foot hole in my wall two weeks ago so the plumber could do exactly forty-five seconds worth of work, and she hasn’t been back to fill it in. Now I can hear everything happening in the apartment above me. I mean I can hear the woman up there breathing. I can hear her light a cigarette and blow smoke. I can hear her thinking about what shade of lipstick to wear. I even tried plugging my ears with chewing gum, which didn’t work for shit, but I did find that I prefered Juicy Fruit over spearmint.
So there I am this morning lying in bed, eyes wide open at 9 a.m., listening to the woman in the apartment above me running her Swiffer back and forth over her linoleum like it’s some kind of aerobics—like it’s Swiffercise or something. And she’s listening to this lame-ass radio station playing Celine Dion and Michael Bublé.
So I get up, and I feel like shit. I mean you’ve got no idea. I can’t even puke my guts up and get it over with. Dry heaves are the best I can manage. Booze and court ordered atypical antipsychotics make for a whole different kind of hangover, baby. It’s like being in a food processor with the pulse setting cycling on/off on/off on/off on/off into infinity with Celine Dion and Michael Bublé sitting on your couch singing Don Ho tunes. At times like these, command hallucinations are redundant. I don’t need the dark shadow in the corner telling me to go downtown with a meat cleaver, but at least if it did it might ground me.
But I’m outta bed now. That’s my point. And I’m stumbling round like a fool. I even bounce off of the walls a couple of times. And I’m hungry. So I open the fridge and there’s the cheese. It’s orange and it glistens in its plastic wrap. It sits alone on a shelf in my otherwise empty refrigerator saying, I’m all you got, baby. Eat me. So, I reach in and gab it, and then there’s a knock at my door.
When I first met my neighbour Myron, I had one of those uh-huh moments. I remember looking at him and thinking, my god, the eugenicists were right! (My thoughts rarely have exclamation marks, but that one did.) Over time, I’ve come to know his knock. It was him at the door, for sure. I closed my eyes with the cheese in my hand. What were the chances that if I stood perfectly still, and didn’t make sound he’d go away? He knocked again.
Knock knock knock. “You in there, Nick? Got any weed? Nick? You home?” Rap rap rap. “Let’s smoke a joint, man. I’m feeling all strung out.”
Some of us are born with deficits. Others of us acquire them over time. Myron fits both categories. Once, in a drunken stoner of a conversation, Myron described an accident he’d been in. “It’s where I got my brain injury,” he said. He described to me how, as a kid, he’d nailed roller skates onto the bottom of the family toboggan, and rode it down the driveway. Into traffic.
“I remember seeing this big chrome bumper coming at me real fast,” he said. “It had an Alberta plate. It said Wild Rose Country just under the numbers. I was just a kid but I thought, wild roses must be real beautiful. Then, for a second, it got all bright, then real dark. It’s been kinda dark ever since.”
Knock knock knock. “Nick? I heard you bump into the wall, man. I know you’re in there.”
“Bugger off,” I yell.
“C’mon, Nick. I got the tinnitus real bad today. It’s making me crazy, man. C’mon. I know you got a bag of bud, man.”
I went to the door and opened it. “Why the hell don’t you tell the whole damn building?”
“What do you mean what? You’re in the hall telling the world I got inventory. That’s fucked up.”
“That cheese?” He focussed on what I held in my hand.
Then looked up from the cheese, at me. “You look like shit, man.”
“Could I have some cheese?”
I grabbed Myron by the shoulder and pulled him in. “I thought you wanted to smoke a joint. You want cheese, too?”
“I like cheese,” he said.
“Fine. Sit down.”
I pulled a joint out of a small soapstone box above the electric fireplace, and threw it at Myron. In the kitchen, I opened the cheese with a pair of scissors.
“You got a match?” Myron said.
I cut the brick of cheese into six chunks and threw one at him through the kitchen door. It bounced off of his nose and onto his lap. He looked down at it with his mouth open.
“You got a match?” he said again.
I grabbed a Bic off of the top of the refrigerator, and threw it at him. It bounced off of his forehead and fell next to the cheese.
“Let’s watch Mandy Patinkin videos on the YouTube,” he said.
“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”
“C’mon, man. They cut off my internet.”
“Why you all hot for Mandy Patinkin all of a sudden?” I said. “You turning queer?”
“No. He’s just got a good singing voice.”
“Forget it, man. You’re in a Mandy Patinkin free zone.”
“Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin.”
“Fuck if I do,” I said chewing on cheese.
Then Myron said, “Check it out. I do a great Mandy Patinkin impersonation. Listen: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
“It’s getting real gay in here,” I said.
“He’s a talented and sensitive guy who’s overcome great adversity—I read that somewhere.”
“I think so,” Myron said lighting the joint.
Then I said, “Hey, you know I knew a guy once that looked like Mandy Patinkin. His name was Dick. Dick Freed. He was even more fucked up than you, Myron. He dealt crack downtown. Smoked as much as he sold. One day, after a harsher than average encounter with the cops, Dick says he’s had it. Fuck the cops, the crack, the other addicts, sleeping in the alley. He says he’s gonna disappear, leave the city. Go to the country and live in the woods, or some shit like that.”
“Sounds good to me,” Myron said. “Can I surf some porn?”
“No,” I said. “Hands off the computer. So anyway, I tell Dick he’s full of shit. I tell him that every skidder-junky I ever met downtown says the same thing. They ain’t even got bus fare, but they’re going to live in the woods or with the goats on some imaginary farm. They’re gonna get all clean and healthy and shit, and start eating their vegetables. And then I told him that it never happens. I never met anyone that made it out. Talk’s cheap, and it’s boring. And then I told him another thing; I told him to be careful because, in my experience, it was always shortly after a junky starts talking that kind of shit that he overdoses or gets knifed or gets, in some other way, dead. When you lose your focus on the street, you die baby. That’s just the way of it.”
“You got crackers?” Myron said, taking a monster toke. “Cheese needs crackers,” he coughed.
“I got ‘em, but you can’t have any. So, I run into Dick Freed a few times after that. One time, he’s all bandaged up. He’d just gotten his arm sliced by some crazy bitch named Helga in the Savoy. Not with a knife, but a broken beer glass. The next time, I’m pissing out back of the Washington Hotel and there he is, bleeding bad leaning up against a dumpster. Beaten for outstanding debts. I made sure he was still breathing, and split. Called 911 from the hotel lobby.”
“Can we listen to Howard Stern, man?” said Myron.
“Shut the hell up, I’m telling a story. Next time I see Dick is the last time. Months go by. Dick Freed is nowhere downtown. I stop thinking about him. Some other dealer takes over his spot on Hastings Street. His name comes up a couple of times in conversation—Whatever happened to Dick Freed? You remember crazy Dicky Freed, looked just like Mandy Patinkin?—that kind of shit. But he’s real gone, and I figured dead.
“Then it’s December, just before Christmas, and I see him. Dick Freed, walking up Hastings towards Carnegie. And he’s dressed real nice. He’s standing straight and walking kind of proud, like a real citizen. I mean, he actually looks out of place against the locals. I step aside as he approaches, and watch him coming. When he sees me, he says hey there, Nick, and holds out his hand. We shake. He tells me that I’m looking swell, which I know I’m not. And I say the same of him, which he actually is. He asks if he’s been missed and I say that he has, by some. And then he tells me what happened.
“Back when I told him to be careful, that the shit he was talking was an overture to his own demise, he took it to heart. After the beating out back of the Washington Hotel, he begged five bucks and bought a lottery ticket. He lost. But he did it again and the lucky bastard won. He won ten million seven hundred thousand and change.
“So, now he lives in a nice little house in the woods on the Sunshine Coast. He’s gone off of the drugs and booze and he’s eating his vegetables. He said he was in the neighbourhood looking up old acquaintances. It was Christmas, after all. That was when he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crispy new one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me. Ain’t much, he told me, but he hoped it would take the edge off.”
“Wow,” Myron said, in a cloud of smoke. “That’s kind of a cool story. What you told him helped him to move on, to overcome. That must have made you feel good inside.”
“Not really. I was jonesing, and I figured there must be more where that c-note came from. So, I pulled the kitchen knife I’d hoisted from the dollar store and robbed the bastard.”
“What?” said Myron.
“Yeah. It was Christmas, after all. He was doing the Santa Clause thing, handing out the hundred dollar bills to all us junkies. Turns out, the dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”
“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”
“You got beer?” he said.
“Not for you.”