Corner of Pender and Abbot, just before midnight.
Whose bright idea was it to build a multiplex theatre and high-end mall here? Remember when it was a parking lot? I liked it better as a pit filled with water. I knew a guy who was arrested once for canoeing in the flooded hole that gaped where this mall now is.
I light a smoke into cupped palms. Orange glows bright, then dimmer. Streetlights leak shifting spilled paint reflections off shining sidewalks and pavement. It is chilly tonight, like this evening belongs in a whole different month than the rest of this week.
She’ll be out any minute. She’s in the bathroom, getting rid of the watery cola we drank during the late movie and fixing her mascara. I smoke with one hand and run fingertips over the ridged edges of quarters in my pocket with the other.
There’s a woman, she’s just rounded the corner off Carrall onto Pender St, she’s walking towards me. Her dress has two straps; one has fallen to her elbow and remains there, the other clings to a prominent collarbone. I watch her only because there is nobody else on the street to look at.
She shuffles, fists blossoming into five narrow fingers and then closing again. Repeat. Eyes down, back and forth, she searches the sidewalk and gutter. A flat cigarette butt is scooped and placed into the shapeless front pocket of her dress. A small baggie is picked up, opened, sniffed, licked, and dropped again. She runs a yellow tongue over peeling lips, passes a sleeveless wrist under her nose. Repeat. I look down as she starts to get close to me. I can hear the sound of her flip-flops sucking and slapping against the wet pavement. The flip-flops stop in front of me.
I don’t look up. Both hands are in my pockets. My half-smoked cigarette is crushed and soggy, an inch away from the toe of my boot. What a waste, I think, too late to fix it.
“Spare some change, young fella?” her voice is deeper than her small frame seems capable of. I shake my head. She lifts one lip a little, in my direction. “I know you’ve got change in your pockets. I can hear it. Heard it all the way up the street.”
“You asked me if I could spare some change, not if I had any.”
She raises her eyebrows. They have been plucked and then painted back on, but she raises them nonetheless. “We got a wise guy, huh?”
She flips, then flops back two steps and surveys me closer. “You go to college? That, my friend, is lawyer talk.”
I shake my head. “I’m a writer. I tell stories.”
She snorts. “Same diff. Makin’ shit up. Twisting the facts so they end up on your side. I’ll ask you again, counselor. Can I have some of the change I can hear in your pocket?”
“It’s not change. It’s my car keys.” I jingle them for evidence. Exhibit A.
“Other pocket. Nice try. What, are you afraid I’ll go spend your hard-earned money on drugs?”
I half shrug, half nod. “What if I get you something to eat?” I motion over my shoulder to the McDonald’s which is getting ready to close up. She snorts again.
“That garbage? Now that stuff will kill you.” We both laugh. I pull my other hand out of my pocket. Two loonies, a toonie, three quarters. I hand it over. A nicotine-stained hand shoots out and collects, then disappears, the change before I can squeeze out a second thought. She doesn’t thank me.
“You’re welcome.” I say.
“What? You want me to thank you now? I took your money to make you feel better about having more of it than me. I just did you a favour. Don’t you feel like a better person now? Helping out an old woman? I’m the mother of four children. I have three grandchildren. I’m almost 65.”
“You don’t look a day over 80,” I quip.
“Why thank you.” We laugh again, she coughs.
“Where are your kids then?” I’m starting to wonder where my girlfriend is, too.
“My kids? Where are my kids? You mean why don’t my kids swoop down and rescue their poor old mother from the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside?”
“Well, yeah. That’s pretty much what I mean.”
“And argue over whose turn it is to keep me in their basement suite? All the free cable I can watch? I tried that. There’s one catch. There’s always one catch.”
“I’m never allowed to bring my heroin.” I nod, because there seems to be nothing to say.
“Shit happens, kiddo. Sometimes life gets in the way of all your plans. I’m too old to live under someone else’s roof. Someone else’s laws. Had enough of that when I was married to the bastard, may he rest in peace.”
I nod again, reach into my pocket for my smokes. I offer her one, light both. She inhales deeply, stares at the red end of her cigarette.
“It’s the simple things. How ’bout you spare me a couple more of these for later?”
I look down into my pack. There are two left. “I’d offer to buy them from you, but you’d probably just go spend the money on more cigarettes.” She smiles. I hand her the rest of the package. Up close, she smells like rose water.
“There now.” The pack disappears. She pats my forearm. “Doesn’t that feel better?”