They leaned against a cold brick wall, years of hard living written in the lines on both their faces. Inside was the off-track wagering den where they’d place their bets and take their losses. Right now they smoked cheap cigarettes in the biting cold, closer to the entrance than they should be but who the hell cared? Long ago, or not long ago, depending on who you ask, there was an actual racetrack where these two men stood. Now they were surrounded by boutique storefronts, condos, and townhouses. Starter homes for young yuppie families.
These two derelict men used to visit that racetrack. There was a time when they belonged in this neighbourhood, when times were good, before layoffs happened, before wives left, before they sold their spot in the housing bubble but moments too soon, before they found solace in the bottom of a bottle, or pinned all their hopes on A Fleeting Chance, who came in dead last, by the way. Nowadays they were being given the bum’s rush. The Greenwood Teletheatre had become the Greenwood hole in the wall and not in a charming way. Seedy-looking hobos scared away most would-be customers, and many of the new and old homeowners in the area considered it a blight. The land had been bought out from under these unfortunates, and many others, and this was the last backyard where they were being politely tolerated until something could be done. Something that wouldn’t shine too much light on that glittering Liberal facade that many put on with their morning makeup or their shaving cologne.
Sal watched a sparse smattering of people passing him by. Toby studied his racing forms until Sal nudged him.
“You see that?” He said. Toby followed his gaze to a young mother. Her child, who looked to be a boy of about four years old, had been unsteadily hitching up his warm winter coat so he could adjust his clothing. When Toby looked up the mother had stopped and knelt down. She was reaching under the child’s coat to make adjustments to his clothing. His whole body jerked as she brusquely tugged and jerked around under the coat.
“Huh,” was all Toby said then tried to return to his forms, but Sal had a point to make.
“A woman can do that,” he said. “But if I tried to do that people would look at me funny.”
“That’s because that’s not your kid,” said Toby. “You trying to get yourself arrested?” Sal only glared at him. Toby looked back down at his racing forms and for a brief, glorious moment thought that Sal was actually going to let this go. No such luck.
“Don’t be a smartass,” said Sal, “you know I’m not talking about diddling someone else’s kid. I’m not a pervert. I’m talking about how women can get away with everything while us men have to live under a microscope. Every little move we make just gets blown all out of proportion.”
Toby knew better than to engage when Sal got into one of his tirades. Sal was already half in the bottle and Toby was headed in the same direction but, tipsy or not, he was still well aware that the ice had grown precariously thin and best to watch his step.
The woman straightened up and carried on with her son, oblivious that she was the topic of their conversation.
“I hear ya,” Toby replied.
“Yeah, but unless you’ve been married, you just don’t get it. Women are evil creatures, all of them.” Toby tried hard not to roll his eyes, and mostly succeeded. Luckily, Sal missed the slight gesture.
The men tossed their cigarettes and went back inside.
Sal’s wife had left him and took the children when Sal got laid off in the early nineties. It wasn’t because he got laid off that she left, it was actually about eight months later when he cracked two of her ribs and about three months after he graduated, with honours, to the level of full-blown alcoholic.
Toby had been a drifter for the last twenty years. He drank everyday and, yeah, sometimes things got out of hand, but he was functional, for the most part. He held jobs when he could, he relied on assistance when he couldn’t, and as long as he had a roof over his head and food in his tummy, with a few knocks of whiskey to warm it up, he was a happy camper. Of course he aspired to bigger and better things – what gambler doesn’t? – But for the most part he was content to just float along with the wind happily, drunkenly, accepting whatever lot life handed him.
Inside the parlour Toby followed Sal to their usual corner. A grape shaped waitress with curly hair was making her rounds.
“You boys need anything?” She asked.
“Coffee, tea, or you!” quipped Sal, offering a salacious wink.
“Okay, well let me know when you’re ready.” She said, unperturbed.
“Wait!” Called Toby. “Two Bud’s please.”
“You got it.” The waitress called back over her shoulder as she rolled on over to the bar.
“That fucking bitch,” Sal muttered.
“Did you really expect that to work?”
“Nothing works on these uptight bitches.” Sal snapped. “They act like they got pussies made of solid gold. Like we’re supposed to beg for it like dogs!”
“I hear ya,” lamented Toby.
“No, I don’t think you do. You think I’m crazy, or maybe just foolish, but you haven’t seen what I’ve seen. Julie was the reason why I drank so much. She didn’t do anything clear, like, that I could put a finger on, but it’s just the way she was. It was all the little things and sometimes just the stupid look on her face. She would practically force me to lay into her, then act like it was me who was the bad guy. I’m telling you, these cunts like to act like they’re angels but they’re really all the devils in disguise.”
The waitress was approaching and was well within earshot when Sal made this last remark.
“That’ll be seven dollars,” she said, dryly, still quite unfazed. Toby handed her a ten.
“Thank you, sir.” She handed him his change.
Toby tried to remember why he hung out with Sal in the first place. He was actually an okay guy when he wasn’t ruminating on his ex-wife, or life in general, or a myriad of other things, but once his tongue got flapping, his fists usually weren’t far behind. Toby could sense that this was going to be a bad night for Sal. A lot of nights were bad nights for Sal.
Toby had no idea how they’d met, probably because they were both fall-down drunk, but he knew that if he went to the Greenwood off-track and Sal was there, they were going to hang out together. They knew each other, somehow, and they were in the same bar – one of the only off-tracks that Toby was still welcome at in the city, so it was just par for the course.
Both men slugged their beers.
“She used to say little things to me, on purpose, just to get under my skin.” Sal said after he’d clunked his beer back down on the table.
“Like what?” Toby said.
“Just stupid stuff,” Sal replied. “Like, she’d bring up bills at the worst possible time, and she’d play with her hair in a way, like, trying to be cute about it. One time she even said she wouldn’t be interested in sex until I got interested in looking for a job. That’s exactly what the bitch said! Like, how was I supposed to take that?”
“Do you think maybe she was just stressed out?”
“She was stressed out?! I’m the one that lost my goddamn job! During a recession! Then she was gonna try to use the only thing I had left to try and motivate me? You can’t motivate me with what’s already mine, bitch.”
She’s not yours anymore, thought Toby. They slugged their beers in silence.
“Another time she woke up early, brought me breakfast in bed, two eggs, bacon, toast, all the trimmings. I should have known it was a setup. She watches me eat, then takes the tray and says to me, smiling, ‘I wanted you to have a nice full tummy so maybe you can go look for a job today?’ Something like that. I forget how she worded it, but it was the constant nagging that did me in. Always pestering me about the job thing. Money. It’s like that’s all women want these days. Greedy fucking cows, they are.” Sal took a quick nip and set in again with a mimicry of Julie. His mouth turned into a caricature of a duckface and out chirped a psuedo-lady voice. “The kids need shoes… We have no food… Get a job… We’re going to lose the house… It was like I never heard the fucking end of it.”
Toby finally lost it. Sal’s rendition of his ex-wife’s nagging sent Toby into a maniacal eruption of laughter. The more he tried to stop, the more he just kept right on laughing, keenly aware of Sal’s growing rage. Toby imagined Sal with steam shooting out of the top of his head and his ears and laughed even harder. He laughed right up until he felt Sal’s fist explode into his belly. He was still hitching with giggles but, with all the oxygen forced out of his lungs, the only sound was wheezy huffing.
As he caught his breath his laughter melted away exposing a furious rage hidden beneath the surface. A few guys were still watching the screens and their racing forms, but most we’re nervously surveying the fighting couple. Management whispered among themselves, probably hoping that the fight would peter out without any intervention on their part, and a few of the scruffy-looking men in the parlour yelled, some egging them on, some telling them to take their shite elsewhere.
Toby struggled to his feet, squaring with the raging Sal, who looked about ready to go on for a round.
“You know what, fuck you.”
“Oh, fuck me, right? Look at you, pussy, siding with the women. I bet you never had a pussy in your life because you are one, that’s why.”
“I wouldn’t tell you about it because you’re a piece of shit who doesn’t deserve to know what I had!” Toby’s voice had grown to a thunderous roar by the last part of his sentence. Sal was momentarily dumbfounded. He’d heard Toby yell a few times, but not like this. Toby lowered his voice and continued. “But I’ll tell you. I had a mother, used to lock me in a cage and beat me and my brother with an extension cord for no good reason. My brother died, and she said it was an accident, but I know it wasn’t because I was there. I had a woman, not a bitch, and not a pussy or a cunt or whatever you call them, but a beautiful woman, she was beautiful to me. The only woman in the world who ever really loved me, and who ever really knew me, and man, I just loved her with all my life.” Toby paused. Most of the eyes in the establishment were on him and he wished he’d just walked away, but it was too late now. “She died,” his voice cracked and he glanced down at the racing form, which he was wringing ragged in his hands. “She died and I-“ He didn’t know how to go on.
“Hey, look man, I’m sorry. Maybe your lady was… maybe she was-“
Different is what Sal was going to say, but Toby wasn’t finished yet.
“You’re an idiot, Sal. I’m done hanging around with you because you’re an idiot and I just can’t take it anymore. Neither could your wife and that’s why she’s gone. It’s not because of the devil, or because of money, or because all women are bad, it’s because you’re bad. You drove her away. You had it all, and you fucking blew it, and you blame everybody else because you just can’t accept that it’s all your own fucking fault!”
Sal’s fists balled up, but something in Toby’s face deflated him like a slashed tire. He plumped down into his chair, looking quite slapped.
“Fuck you,” he said, weakly.
“No, fuck you,” Toby shot back, “You had a wife, who’s still alive, you fucking broke her ribs, and her heart, instead of being a man and here you are, drinking with the sots like you got problems! You asshole! The only problem you got is you! You’re going to either fix that problem, or you’re going to live with it till the day you die, asshole, because all the people you are blaming for your shit are too busy moving on with their own lives to toss you even a hint of a thought.”
The next moment Toby was flinging open the glass door and stepping out into the frosty air. Then he was running.
He finally dropped, panting, on a park bench near the Martin Goodman Trail at the beach. He searched his pockets for his little mickey of whiskey that he’d snuck into the off-track, but he couldn’t find it.
Must have lost it in the scuffle, he thought.
Then he put his face into his hands and cried.
It was a long walk to the nearest liquor store that wasn’t right across the street from the off-track. Toby made the walk because he didn’t want to run into Sal, but also because he needed to think.
His mother, left alone to raise two boys and a girl by herself had become a lot like Sal. She hated men, and she hated the world. She hurt people.
His own Sophia, gone forever. How unfair life could be and how cruel. His long-awaited chance at happiness, snuffed out in the blink of an eye because someone just happened to have a brain aneurysm while behind the wheel and the chain-reaction created a short list of casualties and a long list of ripples in a tragic pond.
Why build a castle when the tide can turn at any time and just wash it all out?
He thought that maybe he needed to take his own advice. What angers us in others is what we often sense but fail to see in ourselves.
He saw the glowing lights of the LCBO in the distance.
I’m going to give AA another go, he thought, as a flutter of anticipation whispered through his belly. His pace quickened, although not to his knowledge.
This story was inspired by true events – one true event, I should say. I was walking my son home through the brisk cold and I did stop to adjust his clothing close to the off-track wagering place. There are always men smoking outside, and I imagined the beginning of the dialogue as something two of these men might say to each other.
Then I wondered what would happen next and the rest is history, but that really makes it seem so simple, doesn’t it? No, it really wasn’t that simple. I’ve started a lot of these stories, but I’ve finished very few. Usually I get stuck on some point and, being unable to think through it, I decide to give it a rest and maybe it’ll come to me, or maybe I don’t have time to think through it because life is happening and I have stuff I need to do, and a lot of the times nothing comes to me, or I forget about it, or I get another idea and decide to start working on that instead. There’s always an excuse not to finish things, but with the short-story section of my blog still sitting empty two weeks after its inception, I was determined to finish something.
I was actually in bed knitting when I thought back to that particular moment of the day and I realized that idea would be perfect and simple enough to sculpt into a tidy little story for my blog. I tossed my knitting aside and spent a few hours on it before I reached that inevitable point. I’m stuck. I don’t know where to go next and there are too many options. I really needed to go to bed. I have to get my son ready and get him to school in the morning.
So it’s the next day, and my son is at school, and I head straight to my story. I read through it with a fresh head and the direction seemed to be pretty clear. I’ll keep my own personal experiences to myself, but I used my knowledge to build my imaginary characters and then it was just a matter of how they would behave, being who they are. I wanted them to be authentic and natural and I hope I achieved that. As it unfolded Toby emerged as my favourite, Sal as my not-so favourite, but Sal’s story doesn’t really get told. We are left to wonder what shaped Sal’s personality, and whether or not he can overcome it. I say ‘we’ because I wonder and I hope you do too.
I didn’t write this story to condemn anyone, or to glorify anyone. I suppose my beliefs can’t help but bleed through into my writing, but when I read over this story I sense the recurring theme that there is more depth to people than what’s on the surface. For my part, I simply tried to be authentic. Everyone is free to form their own take on it, though. It’s art, after all.
Thank you for taking the time to read my little story. If you are reading this now, know that it means a lot to me and that I’m grateful for you. It’s a lot more motivating to write knowing that someone, other than me, will be enjoying my work. Feel free to share, by linking directly to my site, if you think that others would enjoy also!