Fiction Glen Huser Literature

Coffee Boys

Glen Huser

 

When the Laundromat that anchored the west corner of his high rise was transformed into a coffee shop, Adam celebrated by inviting his two closest friends to the opening. There had been complimentary coffee coupons in the mailboxes of all the tenants of the building and some of them had dumped theirs in the paper recycle bin in the foyer along with flyers from the grocery and drugstore chains. Adam had checked it a couple of times, harvesting discarded coupons.

For the three years that he had lived in the building, Adam had hurried by the glass panels fronting the Laundromat on his way to work. Sometimes he glanced in, but he was careful not to catch the eye of any of those using it. They were mainly out-of-building people since each floor of the Valemont had its own washing facilities. People from the few rooming houses and walk-ups wedged in between the balconied towers that mushroomed along the avenues at the top of the riverbank. People with their clothing and bed sheets in duffel bags or green garbage bags. Often he would see them sitting morosely on the cracked plastic chairs, smoking as they waited for loads to finish, flicking ashes into small crimped metallic ashtrays. Some had books or newspapers open. A few listened to Walkmans or transistor radios. But many simply sat and watched those going in and out of the building.

One morning, headed to work, he glanced in the door which had been propped open and saw a lone figure asleep on the floor by a dryer, a young man perhaps more passed out than asleep. He lay in a nest of clothing including a pair of soiled khaki pants that he may have been wearing earlier. Now he wore nothing except a T-shirt with one sleeve nearly torn off. He was fully displayed and Adam found himself momentarily mesmerized by his nakedness, the innocence of his sex asleep, his penis lolling against his thigh, like Adam’s Sistine namesake. That morning he’d come close to missing his bus and the wayward Adonis was the one image he cared to retain when the Laundromat closed its doors.

Over a few weeks the site grew increasingly more recognizable as a coffee shop in the making. On his way to and from work in a downtown daycare, Adam peeked through gaps in the building paper, hung wonkily over the windows. Partitioning defined a likelihood of nooks. Wiring and plumbing tangled along a far wall where he imagined coffee machines would be installed.

One afternoon he came past the site to see the interior had blossomed during the day into something the colour of Dijon mustard. A couple of days later the building paper had been removed and he could see the space was filled with small round tables, some high, some low, their surfaces scrubbed with paint in a way that might have been intended to give them an antique appearance. A neon sign went up over the door with a single scripted word at an angle: Gerard’s.

◊ ◊ ◊

On the Saturday of the opening, Marshall was waiting for Adam, perched at one of the high tables. Adam and Marshall had known each other since high school, although they hadn’t become close friends until they ran into one another at Little Sisters Bookstore in Vancouver and spent two overlapping days of their vacation together, making love with little satisfaction but setting the foundation for a friendship that had lasted seven years.

What Adam liked most about Marshall was the odd mixture in his personality of compassion and bitchiness. Marshall, who spent his working hours as an employment counsellor for the government, would give you the shirt off his back but would be unable to resist telling you that you looked like an oversized serving of haggis in it.

“I feel like I’ve been swallowed by an egg yolk,” he declared as Adam climbed up beside him and slipped him a coffee coupon. “Who is this Gerard anyway?”

“I think that may be him at the till.” Adam allowed his gaze to rest fleetingly on the man moving a vase of flowers from one side of the cash register to the other. In a silk suit today, but Adam realized he’d seen him at times in blue jeans with other workers. A short, slightly rotund man who looked like he might have come from some place in the Middle East or one of those countries along the Mediterranean.

“Gay?” Marshall raised an eyebrow.

“I would guess so.”

They both watched as he moved the bouquet to yet another spot where it wouldn’t interfere with the coffee orders. It was an extravagant mix of flowers with bird-of-paradise spears and kangaroo paws and artfully broken oriental weed stalks.

As Gerard—if it was Gerard—tended the cash register, he greeted customers with a generous display of teeth, a front one gold-capped. The effort at congeniality seemed to have brought a sweat to the man’s brow and a sheen to his skin. When he reached for filters from a high shelf, Adam thought he caught a glimpse of an armpit aureole of perspiration.

“A good eye for the coffee boys,” Marshall noted. The one clearing tables was a redhead that Adam was certain he’d seen in the gym before he’d let his membership lapse. He had the wide shoulders and the waist of a twenty-year-old who looked after himself. The boy on the cappuccino machine had the dark, sleepy-eyed, somewhat petulant handsomeness of a Calvin Klein model.

Logan, Adam’s other friend, waved to Adam and Marshall from outside as he spotted them through the wall of windows. It wasn’t really a wave, just a slight, tentative raising of his hand. In gestures, Logan was a minimalist, as he was with many other aspects of his life. It allowed him the energy, time and space to focus on the one all-consuming factor of his existence: depression.

Adam had met Logan five years ago when he took the job at The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Each morning Logan dropped off his pre-school nephew and then picked him up around three in the afternoon. Adam found himself chatting with the tall, quiet man as they got Christopher into his outside footwear and jacket and headgear.

Right from their first meeting, it became a challenge to see how much he could get Logan to reveal about himself. By Christmas, he’d found out he primarily worked as an editor from home, an attic suite in his sister’s house, an old building at the edge of downtown. He had flexibility with his hours while his sister, Jennifer, a fiercely feminist  single mother, put in solid work days as a legal assistant with a firm in Glenora where upscale dwellings of an earlier time were being converted into lawyers’ offices and dental clinics.

By February, Adam had discovered that Logan was gay, on antidepressants and was in group therapy. They met for coffee in March. Coffee chains had just begun to trickle into the Edmonton landscape and Adam chose a spot on Whyte Avenue where, it was rumoured, the proprietors were, if not gay, certainly gay friendly.

Over cups of something called Columbian Cachet, the coffee of the day, Adam calculated he got Logan to talk for a total of about fifteen minutes. Which meant Adam did the chattering for about an hour and a half. It required effort but he liked Logan’s shyness and the way he considered everything before uttering a word. Of course, he’d already been won over by Logan’s gentleness with Christopher and the way the little boy snuggled into the cradle of his uncle’s lanky arms.

“The first time I tried to kill myself,” Logan had said over the last sips of a second cup of Columbian Cachet, “I was fifteen. I used my mother’s sleeping pills. I told her I was homosexual and all she said was, ‘How sad. How sad.’”

“First time?” The words spilled out and Adam, seeing the pained look in Logan’s eyes, wished he’d let the subject rest.

“There were only two.” Logan looked down, tracing the rim of his coffee cup with his long fingers. They were both silent for—how long? It seemed like a long time, and then Logan looked up and, with a trace of a smile, added, “I’m not very good with a blade. I cut my fingers getting it out of the razor cartridge and there was—you know—blood getting places where someone else would have to clean up.”

Much as Adam wanted to reach over and stop those fingers from circling the empty cup, he hadn’t been able to. But he felt a wash of protectiveness not unlike what he felt when children at the day care hurt themselves. It was a feeling that persisted over the years and even now Adam kept a watchful eye on Logan as he entered Gerard’s although he wasn’t too sure what he was watching for.

“New coat,” Marshall said. “I like it. Very Humphrey Bogart.”

“No, it’s not new.” Logan folded his raincoat and placed it on a vacant stool. Adam could never quite decide what Logan thought of Marshall, although Marshall was never reticent in sharing his thoughts about Logan. “The zombie king,” he’d dubbed him after the three of them had gone out for supper one time. “Logan is going through life in slow motion. Have you ever seen him run?”

Actually, Adam had, but Logan looked so incredibly awkward chasing a Frisbee Christopher was throwing in Emily Murphy Park that he decided never to mention this to Marshall. No need to fuel Marshall’s cache of put-downs. Truthfully Logan was more of a gentle giant than a zombie and he wished Marshall would let up on trying to be so clever—not that he was ever unkind to Logan to his face.

It was hard to tell what Logan thought of Marshall. The one time they had visited Logan’s attic flat, Adam had caught a smile flicker across Logan’s wide mouth as Marshall stood in the sparse environment, for once at a loss for words. The apartment was white. White walls, not off-white or eggshell but bone-white. A white desk, two white wicker armchairs. The effect was almost that of snow-blindness. Recovering, it was possible to find a few touches of colour—beige cushions, books in an Ikea bookcase and a computer and printer that made Adam think of some putty-like plasticine the children played with in the daycare.

Perfectly Logan, Adam thought.

There were two pictures, one on each of the walls without windows, of grey and black cats. Logan liked cats but was highly allergic to them.

Adam could see Marshall comparing this white suite to his own rooms—a bedroom and a small sitting room in a co-op he shared with two women on the river flats. Marshall’s apartment, Adam knew, changed from year to year, wall colours and hangings picking up the hues of a new print or painting. Plants and silk flowers grouped with pottery and knickknacks. Magazines—Vanity Fair, GQ, Florida Design—creating their own bright splashes over a glass-topped coffee table.

His own taste? Adam supposed it was somewhere in between the two. Were they an odd amalgam? Friends out of habit? Settled into seats in their nook, all three of them were scanning the chalkboard menu with its gilt rococo frame. Adam wondered who had managed to scribe the coffee and snack choices with such elegance, flagging each item with a tiny curled leaf.

“I’d love a latte,” Marshall said, “but milk makes me fart.”

“You should get pills.” Adam had pretty well decided on a skim milk latte for himself. He’d put on three pounds since Christmas. “There are pills…”

“I know,” Marshall lamented. “And I even have some but I always forget where I put them. A year from now I’ll find them in the pocket of some rag of a jacket I’m taking to the Goodwill.”

Logan ordered the coffee special.

“Casablanca Evening,” the man at the counter said, displaying his toothy smile. “It’s mellow but with a very full flavour. Let me know how you like it.”

“Are you Gerard?” Trust Marshall to cut to the chase.

“Camille,” the man said. “Camille Gerard. Welcome.” He managed to talk without losing the smile, accepting their coupons with hands that were lotion-smoothed, manicured. Adam noticed the tracery of black hairs, each startlingly individual, that trailed like scouting parties from the white cuffs of the man’s dress shirt.

Marshall ordered a biscotti to go with the caramel latte he finally decided on. “Be warned,” he said. “If I run outside suddenly, it will be simply for a wind break.”

“Can you believe it?” he said as they regrouped at their high table. “Camille. He’s got to be a drama queen. No man’s ever been named Camille.”

“Actually that’s not true,” said Logan, stirring his coffee and returning the spoon to the napkin so that its handle seemed to underline the café’s name slanting across it in the same calligraphy displayed on the sign outside.

Marshall looked at Logan quizzically, a piece of biscotti hovering in mid-air, suspended in the silence following Logan’s contradiction. “Well, for Christ’s sake, clarify.”

“The composer,” Logan said, “Camille St. Saens for one. You know, Danse Macabre.

Marshall raised his gaze to the mottled ceiling tiles. “French gender has never been one of my strengths.”

Before they left, Camille Gerard stopped by as he circulated from table to table, visiting with customers sipping his complimentary coffees.

“Is this your first venture into the coffee-shop business?” Marshall asked.

“It is.” Gerard smiled, flashing his gold tooth. “In my thoughts for many years, though. I have been an anaesthetist by profession but this has been my dream. To have a little coffee shop with Class-A beverages and Class-A service.” There was something in the way he spoke that made Adam think English was not his first language.

“We think it’s great.” Adam made a vague gesture with one hand, meant to encompass the room with its several mustard-coloured nooks where people clustered over foam-topped mugs, their conversation and bits of laughter mixing with the jabbing hisses of the cappuccino nozzle foaming milk at the counter and a muted sound system playing a collection of Edith Piaf songs. “I thought we were going to be stuck with that dreadful coin laundry forever.”

“It was my cousin’s.” Gerard chuckled softly. “But I am in agreement. It was no Beautiful Laundrette.”

Marshall shot a knowing look at Adam. “I like your choice of prints. Are they all Monets?”

“One Monet. But all impressionists. Inexpensive reproductions, but I have seen many of the originals and these copies bring them to mind.”

“You’ve lived in France?” Marshall, Adam noticed was making full eye contact. Gerard had long, very visible eyelashes and heavy eyebrows. Like Omar Sharif. In fact, there was much of Omar Sharif in Gerard, an Omar Sharif that had been pressed down and puffed out a bit.

“Only visited, I’m afraid.” Gerard adjusted his tie and seemed to make a decision about which table to move on to. “I hope to see you often.”

◊ ◊ ◊

They did see him often, the three of them, organizing Saturdays around a visit to the coffee shop, generally mid-afternoon when Logan was finished with his weekly massage, part of a regimen his therapist had outlined to battle chronic depression. Massage, group therapy, regular journalling and Prozac.

“Dr. Vincekovek feels I should try to form a relationship,” Logan divulged one Saturday in June, when they had been coming to Gerard’s for three months. “But the thought of meeting people gives me cramps.”

“It gives all of us cramps.” Marshall patted Logan’s hand. Even that physical contact, though, made him jump.

“Maybe when you get into your thirties it’s too late.” Adam had been spending time with a commercial artist over the past few weeks. After two pizza dinners and three movies, they’d finally gone to bed together, and at two in the morning Adam found himself roaming around his apartment, rinsing glasses and tidying towels, wondering how he might get Chad to call a cab and go home. The sex had been okay but, once it was over… The fact was he didn’t love Chad; he liked him. He was someone you might want to meet for coffee once in a while.

“God, don’t say it’s too late,” Marshall moaned. He’d just turned thirty-five, an event he acknowledged by going to one of the two gay bars in Edmonton and picking up a tipsy twenty-three-year-old.

“How’d that go?” Adam guessed not well.

“You want a blow by blow? There were a couple of those.” Marshall sighed. “We fell asleep in each other’s arms but when I woke up—I do admit to having had a little too much Asti Spumante—he was gone with my latest copy of GQ and my new ghetto blaster. The one I bought on sale at Radio Shack for one hundred and sixty-five dollars as a birthday present to myself.”

In addition to the account of lust and crime, Marshall fed them the interesting bit of gossip that he had spotted Gerard at the bar around midnight. Gerard and the Calvin Klein coffee boy. The sighting changed the way in which they talked with Gerard when he joined them at their table.

“What did you think of the stripper?” Marshall asked him.

“He had no humility,” Gerard said. “Few people tip for arrogance. His body was…” Gerard made a wavy motion with his hand. “So-so. An ego bigger than other parts of him.”

Marshall hooted with laughter. Logan looked embarrassed.

“So are you and Mr. Cappuccino over there an item?” Marshall nodded to the boy lounging by the coffee machines, his eyes half-closed.

“Thomas?”

They were all looking at him now and, perhaps sensing this focus, Thomas shrugged his shoulders, did some chin and neck exercises and began cleaning the spouts.

“An item? I hardly think so.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It wasn’t too long after this that Gerard cut his staff to the one helper, the wide-shouldered redheaded boy.

“Business must become much better.” Gerard uttered a small sigh which turned into a soft, anxious giggle. “Or I’ll be back putting people to sleep, not brewing coffee to wake them up.” It was one of the weeknights when Adam came to the coffee shop by himself. The place was empty except for a Chinese boy and his girlfriend who got on and off the elevator a floor below his, and an elderly man working his way through a crossword puzzle book.

One of the franchised coffee shops had opened up two blocks away on Jasper Avenue. Another was under construction a bit closer to where Adam worked downtown. Few people left the main drags to seek out Gerard’s. Adam was mystified. Gerard’s was clean. The coffee was at least as palatable as the chain shops. Piaf and Sinatra and Leon Bibb on the sound system gave the place some atmosphere. Gerard was friendly. Perhaps he was too friendly. Perhaps people wanted their coffee with anonymity.

Adam and Marshall and Logan brainstormed for ways in which Gerard might get his business to pick up. He even tried a few of their ideas, leaving discount coupons at the Roost and Flashback night clubs, placing an ad in the university students’ union newspaper, bringing in a jazz trio on Friday nights for a month.

But they could see he was sinking. The gold tooth revealed itself less and less often. Cleaning staff was let go. Marshall detected a telltale odor in the men’s washroom.

“Neglect,” he said. “You can smell it.”

By November, Gerard’s was closed in the mornings.

“Hardly anyone comes in the mornings,” he told Adam. “It’s dead and I’m dead too.” The redhead was working fewer hours. “Maybe this was the wrong location,” he said, shaking his head in the way one might to get rid of a bothersome fly. “I thought, you know, a Class-A apartment building. Even if just the people in the building and the nearby apartments came, there would be lots of customers.”

“It should have worked,” Adam agreed. “My brother is a businessman. Runs a car rental, really cheap cars he gets from a used-car lot and fixes them up. He says the high you get from sussing out a good business prospect is a little like the feeling a gambler has for cards. Kind of a sixth sense I guess. Not for me though. Just give me a steady split shift at The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. A paycheck at the end of the month. An advance in the middle.”

“You’re sweet,” Gerard said. He placed a hand on top of Adam’s. Adam was surprised at the delicacy of Gerard’s touch, the smoothness of the underside of his fingers.

No one had called him sweet since the college instructor he dated, who taught child development the year Adam took his training. He’d been twenty-four then, and the instructor was thirty-six, the same age Adam was now. “My sweet boy,” he said once after they’d made love at the instructor’s apartment, a high rise seven blocks from where Adam now lived. As fingers caressed him, Adam felt a sensuous satisfaction. But he found himself looking past the professor’s ginger-coloured beard, past the comfortable matt of hair on his chest, to the bedroom window and a little built-in seat below it. He still lived at home then and couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to have his own window, to be able to choose his own cushions for the seat. Walk into the kitchen and make a cup of coffee for himself at his own table.

“Camille,” Adam said, as Gerard withdrew his hand. He felt surprised, in a way, that he’d called the shopkeeper by his first name. “If this?”

“Closes down?” Gerard finished the question. “I have to admit I’ve thought about closing the doors some days, locking up and leaving. But other times, I think it will turn around. People will discover it the way they do a good movie that hasn’t been well advertised. Word of the mouth.”

“A sleeper.”

“That’s the term that eluded my mind. People have such funny meanings for sleep. They say sleep with to mean have sex with, and a sleeper movie to actually mean one that would have a better chance of keeping you awake.”

“Riddles.”

“Life is filled with riddles,” Gerard agreed.

Three weeks later, a large cardboard sign on the inside of the glass door proclaimed the coffee shop closed until further notice.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was two years before Adam saw Gerard again. With the coffee shop closed, his meetings with Marshall and Logan moved to the Second Cup on Jasper or, some weeks, the gay-friendly café on Whyte Avenue. On weekends, both bustled. Sometimes they had to wait for a table. For a few months the Calvin Klein coffee boy—Thomas—worked behind the counter at the Second Cup. He seemed sleepier and even more surly than when he worked at Gerard’s.

“Do you ever see Gerard?” Marshall asked once as he collected his caramel latte.

“Are you kidding?” Thomas replied. “If he showed up on the other side of the counter I wouldn’t see him. The jerk.”

“A lover spurned,” Adam suggested when Marshall reviewed the conversation.

“An employee dumped,” Marshall added.

Logan smiled wanly. He had switched medications and was finally in a relationship. Gregory, his partner, was an electrician who had begun attending the group therapy sessions Logan went to on Tuesday evenings. They didn’t live together, and Marshall’s opinion waffled on how much sex was involved.

“Gregory has three cats and a domineering mother,” Marshall revealed after grilling Logan once when the three of them went for dinner at Gillian’s, an old Glenora house transformed into a restaurant. Antique dolls were tucked into any shelf or window ledge not already overtaken by sprawling ferns. Adam had been fifteen minutes late and Logan, maybe to escape Marshall’s barrage of questions, had retreated to an upstairs washroom.. “Logan rolls the cat hair off him before he allows him to step into his attic.”

“There must be some attraction,” Adam whispered, spotting Logan descending the staircase.

“A group rate on Paxil?”

Adam gave him a small kick under the table.

“Abuse!” Marshall feigned indignation and fought back a spider plant tendril trailing from a curio shelf above him. “Okay.” He reached down and rubbed his ankle. “I’ll be nice. I’m happy for him. Besides, he’s the one with a gift certificate for dinner tonight.”

Logan reclaimed his seat and looked at the two of them suspiciously.

“When do we meet Prince Charming?” Marshall asked sweetly, giving Adam’s foot a return nudge.

“I may need a few more therapy sessions before I’m brave enough for that.” Logan made a noise that might have been the start of a chuckle. Blushing, he drowned it with a swallow of sparkling water.

For once Marshall allowed him the last word.

◊ ◊ ◊

A few Saturdays later, meeting at the Second Cup, Adam updated his friends on the latest metamorphosis of the retail space that had housed the Laundromat and then Gerard’s. Since the coffee shop closed, it had been, briefly, a hair salon and now the conglomerate that owned the building had turned it into an exercise room. Whenever Adam walked by, the wall of windows revealed legs in motion, lycra-encased thighs, and tank-topped torsos in a small jungle of metal tubing, pads, bicycle pedals and moving ramps. Thumping music pounded through to passers by.

“Some of the scenery must be interesting.” Marshall went to gyms regularly. He had his own assortment of running shoes and lycra.

“I suppose,” Adam conceded. “But I miss—what?—the civility of the coffee shop. I still miss being able to go down for a late-evening latte and a chat with Gerard. Camille. I want Billie Holiday in the background, not that eternal thumping.”

“I wonder what he’s doing now,” said Logan. The utterance gave Adam pause. He couldn’t remember Logan speculating about anything that didn’t really impinge on his preoccupation with his own discomfort and unhappiness, his enclosed circle of work for companies putting out safety manuals, brochures and tiresome newsletters. For Logan, Adam decided, the world was inching open. Maybe the encircling arms of the electrician were responsible.

Adam thought of the fact that it had been quite some time since any man had put his arms around him, that he was settling more and more into the social insularity of three men meeting for coffee once a week. Marshall, of course, hugged everyone. Friendship hugs. But increasingly, the only arms that embraced Adam were the arms of four- and five-year-olds when he greeted them in the morning or got them ready for their afternoon pickup.

Marshall too, it seemed to Adam, was recounting fewer and fewer amorous escapades. He’d recently joined a gay men’s outreach group to, he declared, “expand his horizons.”

“The facilitator is a fifty-year-old with a shaved head, and—by his own admission—pierced nipples and a pierced penis who’s turned his basement into a pleasure dungeon with chains and pulleys, leather masks, studded collars and lord knows what else. He offered to give anyone who was interested a tour.”

“Did you go on the tour?” Adam asked.

“Not yet. I’m working up to it. I don’t want to expand my horizon too quickly too soon.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The horizon Adam was checking out when he finally saw Camille Gerard again was the skyline visible from the pedestrian walkway of the High Level Bridge. Adam was heading home from the Garneau Theatre on a Monday evening after taking in an early film. It was fall, and the remnants of a sunset rimmed a scattering of clouds with a soft gold echoed in the shallow September water of the North Saskatchewan. Along the distant riverbank, the windows of apartment blocks glowed more brightly as the indigo sky deepened and the river mirrored the rectangular clusters of light. Adam felt caught in a consciousness of thousands of lives being lived within the illumination of these lights, people finishing a late meal, putting children to bed, negotiating about television shows. Shared lives, he thought, for the most part. It filled him with a yearning for the ordinary connections, a yearning that was somehow undefined as the sky’s transition into night.

Lowering his gaze he spotted a figure midway along the bridge. It looked as if he were about to climb up onto the railing. It was a spot, he remembered hearing, where the suicidal sometimes chose to hurl themselves into the terminating waters below, and Adam quickened his pace to something close to a jog. When he drew closer, he realized the short figure, who was merely supporting a foot on the first rung of the railing, was none other than Camille Gerard.

“Camille!” Adam surprised himself with the loudness of his voice.

Gerard turned toward him. He was thinner than he had been three years ago, and his Omar Sharif hair had streaks of grey. But he smiled his wide toothy smile with the recognition of who had called out to him. He was dressed casually. No silk suit.

“Adam.”

They started to shake hands but Adam turned it into a hug.

“How’re you doing, guy?”

“Fine. Fine.” Gerard held him at arm’s length to look at him. “You’re looking well, Adam.”

“What are you doing out here on the bridge?”

“I often walk across and back during my break. Especially if the evening is as beautiful as it is tonight. When the snow appears, you will find me a less eager pedestrian. Tonight I thought I saw a boat going upriver, just now passing under the bridge. Unusual.”

“You’re right. Not many boaters. Especially when the river’s this low. Especially at night. You’re working close by?”

“I’m back at the University Hospital.” Gerard sighed. “It’s a job, not of course a passion. I think sometimes the passions pass quickly in our lives.”

“I miss it,” Adam said.

Gerard looked at him quizzically.

“The coffee shop. There was something—I don’t know—so civilized about it. It’s an exercise room now. Machines and sweat and loud, pounding music.”

“I’ve gone by it a couple of times.” Gerard turned and looked back over the stretch of the river. “I must say it seems busy. But the people…” He turned back to Adam and the gold tooth glinted in an overhead light on the bridge. “The customers mostly, I find, have a determined desperation.”

“To have bodies of the lithe and young.”

“There’s the truth.” Gerard smiled. “I picked the wrong preoccupation.”

“There’s no figuring—”

“You’re right. Who can figure it?” Gerard sighed. “I often wonder how much we are at the mercy of the winds of chance, and how much we trim our sails to set a new course.”

Adam didn’t say anything. He was struck by the fact that Gerard spoke in the homilies of people from a different generation, a vocabulary that was absent from Adam’s own circle. Were they that much younger? Or was it something to do with culture and language—a different culture, a second language? Did Marshall, Logan, or Adam himself ever think of life as a sea, a simile so common and vast it seemed to wash against great unanswerable questions of life and eternity? For an instant he felt faint, felt the kind of vertigo he sometimes gave into when he stood at the edge of a ravine or close to the balcony railing of a high rise. The river crawled far below, sluggish and silent.

“And how are your friends?” Gerard asked. “I’ve forgotten names. The tall, somber one…”

“Logan? He’s coming out of his shell a bit.”

“Good. I’m glad.” Gerard searched his jacket pockets for something. “And the other?”

“Marshall? Marshall hasn’t changed. Maybe he needs to build a bit of a shell.”

Gerard smiled. He’d found a piece of paper and a pen in an inner pocket. “Let me write my number, and perhaps you can produce yours for me.”

“Hey, good idea.” In his own pocket, Adam found a note about a dental appointment a parent had left with him that morning. He borrowed Gerard’s pen and scribbled his phone number on the back of the note, holding the paper against one of the bridge girders.

Adam giggled inadvertently as they traded papers. Was there anything more clandestine than the exchange of information in the trellised shadows of a city bridge?

Gerard echoed the riff of laughter and his hand, the hand that had held porcelain cups in the shop and now moved delicately, it would seem, over the arms or backs of the ill, brushed against Adam’s own before retreating to a jacket pocket.

“Give me a call.” He smiled wryly. “We can meet for coffee.”

When Adam reached the north end of the bridge, he turned and watched Gerard grow smaller as he walked into the darkness of the southern approach. He watched him disappear.

Would either of them call the other, he wondered. In the kitchen cupboard and dresser drawers of Adam’s flat there was a collection of other phone numbers jotted down on the backs of counter coasters and matchbox covers and bits of newsprint torn from street papers. A kind of archaeology of chance meetings, odd numerical ciphers of possibilities.

The number on the paper in his pocket, the paper his fingers felt as he trudged up the hill to his apartment, could summon Gerard before him again. It made him smile to himself.

Maybe Adam, like the shopkeeper-anaesthetist, would trim his own sails, set a new course. The night, as autumn nights in Edmonton do, was growing chilly, and there was warmth in the thought. Adam wrapped himself around it the way he liked to wrap his fingers around a mug of hot coffee.

 

 

Photo credit Perspectives Photography Studio

A public school teacher and school librarian in Edmonton from the 1960s to the 1990s, Glen Huser retired to Vancouver where he worked as an online instructor for UBC’s Faculty of Creative Writing for several years. His first novel, Grace Lake, was shortlisted for the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1991. A young adult novel, Stitches, won a Governor-General’s award for Children’s Literature in 2003 and another YA novel, Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen (2007), was awarded a Governor-General’s silver medal. His short stories have appeared in Canadian literary magazines and the NeWest anthology Boundless Alberta. Website: glenhuser.com

 

 

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