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Daydreams of angels, p.18
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.18

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  The old man was lonelier than he had ever been that week. He made several trips to the supermarket, buying only one thing at a time so that he would have an excuse to come back again. He dressed like many of the old people in this neighbourhood. He had on an old suit jacket that had survived from the 1950s. It looked as though he had made the pinstripes on his jacket with a ruler and a piece of soap. He also sported a checkered tweed hat, matched with a pair of bright green jogging pants that he had got from the Salvation Army.

  “Do you think I’m sweet enough to buy some of these sweets?” he said to the cashier, trying to be funny.

  She smiled weakly. She looked bored out of her mind and he knew that she was looking forward to him walking away.

  On the way back to the apartment he tried to talk to the neighbourhood children. They were all over the place. They were dressed in faded Cookie Monster T-shirts or heavy metal T-shirts that had shrunk in the laundry. They had little broken arms and scabs on their knees. Their chronic lack of supervision led to them doing things like falling off roofs on a regular basis.

  They would grow up to be criminals: the unacknowledged drug dealers and burglars of the world.

  A future car thief hurried by with a tiny Matchbox Porsche in his hand. The old man tried to ask him about his car, but the child continued on. He saw a skinny boy with long hair who was carrying a duffel bag that looked bigger than him. For a second he thought that the boy was wearing sunglasses, but then realized that he had two black eyes. He stopped to wave at the boy, who responded with a sad smile and a tiny little wave but kept going. It was a shame, he thought, that children were not allowed to talk to strangers anymore. He would like to pass on his wisdom about old TV shows that had gone off the air, and the price of hot dogs before the war. He could tell them about scandals that had ruined the careers of politicians in the 1950s.

  A bus zoomed by, coming so close to the sidewalk that it seemed to grab hold of the old man’s jacket. One day he would get dizzy and he would teeter over and fall into the street and be run over by a bus, he thought. He imagined everyone gathering around to look at him in the middle of the street, crushed and dignified.

  He knew not to talk to any of the men, because anything could set them off. You would see groups of them yelling at each other and flashing knives. They were at an age when they enjoyed endangering their lives, but the old man was careful with his life. As though it were an egg balanced in a spoon in a children’s race.

  In the coming days, he found that he couldn’t deal with the loss of the dog. It made him feel terrible to wake up in the middle of the night and go for a pee and not trip over his buddy. It made the hallway seem to go on for miles and miles. Even though the apartment was tiny, it was amazing how much emptiness fit into it.

  Finally he thought that getting another dog would be the only thing that would cure him of the loneliness. He called his daughter, asking her to get him a new dog. He said that he was miserable without one. She didn’t seem very concerned, probably because she wasn’t listening.

  The old man had been too strict with his children when they were younger. Now they resented him. He knew this, but he could not go back into the past and change the way he had been. He was even alone on Christmas Day. Each year, he sat in front of the one channel that he got, waiting for the Charlie Brown special to come on. “It’s starting!” he would call out and then he would realize that no one was there.

  In this world, there was no one, other than dogs, who could love him now. Putting aside his preconceptions, he talked to all the aggressive-looking young men about getting a new dog. Those guys had a way of making just about anything happen. One of the old man’s neighbours, a twenty-year-old guy who wore a shiny silver tracksuit, said he had a cousin who wanted to unload some Rottweiler puppies.

  “They usually go for eight hundred dollars. But it so happens that he’s worried that the girl he broke up with is going to tell the police he had a puppy mill. So I can get you a dog for two hundred.”

  At first the old man was completely taken aback by the price and couldn’t speak. That’s the way he got when he was faced with almost any amount these days. He still couldn’t get over the fact that things weren’t five cents and a dime anymore. Still, he surprised himself when he went into his old Chinese tea box, where he hid all his money, and took out two hundred dollars. The money in the tea box was for a rainy day, and there had been a storm cloud following him around for a month. The tea tin rattled like a Gypsy’s tambourine as he was off for a new adventure.

  He named the dog Ferdinand after a man who had sat next to him in a cubicle at work. They had worked together for twenty-four years. It was the only job that he’d ever had and he had felt so lucky to get it too. His father had been a construction worker, so for him there was something so elite and classy about working in an office. He and Ferdinand had been friends, eating lunch and talking about politics in the park together. It seemed strange to remember that he had had a friend once.

  Ferdinand the dog grew bigger and bigger each day. But he also grew gentler. Mothers would move their babies away from him even though the old man would swear over and over again that the dog wasn’t violent. If Ferdinand pulled, he would be able to knock the old man over and drag him down the street. But he never pulled. A grey striped cat, looking like a skinny British aristocrat in a topcoat, gave Ferdinand his sourest, most conceited look. But Ferdinand didn’t growl or make any aggressive motion. He followed the cat’s drama as though it were a late-night foreign film on television, having nothing to do with him really.

  That year the old man found himself getting older and more tired than ever before. He couldn’t hear anything at all.

  He found it too difficult to go to the corner store to get groceries. He would settle on eating out of an old peanut butter jar for dinner. He didn’t change his clothes. The old man went to get his mail wearing a sweater vest and his underwear. He came down to make conversation with the mailman but he wasn’t sure he was making any sense.

  “Do you know that my father built the funeral home around the corner? No kidding. Of course he did. He painted it too. It wasn’t there since the beginning of time, you know? Don’t you believe me? Yes or no, man? Yes or no?”

  He couldn’t walk the dog much anymore. Sometimes he wasn’t able to take the dog out on time and it would pee on the floor. The neighbours called the health inspector because of the smell. The old man answered the door in a dirty sweater and his jogging pants and with his white hair looking greasy. The inspector was surprised to see a giant dog that looked the picture of health, standing behind the man. He didn’t seem to be the right sort of dog for a man his age at all. He had expected a blind Shih Tzu or a toy poodle with Alzheimer’s.

  To appease the health inspector, the old man looked for a dog walker. The dog was so gentle that he was able to pay the four-year-old boy who lived next door a dollar to walk it around the block. Four-year-olds were always good if you were looking to hire someone under the table. The little boy strolled in nothing but his slippers and jean shorts next to the dog, making it look like a giant from some place like the bowels of hell. He ran into his cousin—a troublemaker—on the corner. The older boy had a handkerchief tied on his head and was wearing a terry cloth baby-blue tracksuit. He was always on the lookout for dogs for fights that he organized in secret spots for interested gamblers. He had a gold eyetooth that you could see as he smiled at Ferdinand.

  “Not this dog,” the little boy said. “He’s a good dog.”

  The old man would simply open the door and let the dog spend the day in the small back courtyard of the building. There were flies and bees everywhere from the garbage in the alley. Ferdinand liked to lie and watch the little patterns that they made, even though they were too complicated for him to understand. The flies were like mathematicians at Harvard standing on ladders and drawing wild equations on enormous chalkboards.

  One day Ferdinand was sitting in the yard, but he was restless
now because he was hungry. The old man had no sense of time passing by anymore and Ferdinand hadn’t had anything to eat in almost two days. When a tenant from the third floor dropped a garbage bag out the window into the lawn, the dog started to root through it immediately, smelling a hot dog somewhere in the great darkness of the sack.

  When the bee stung Ferdinand, he was suddenly filled with a terrible pain that flooded through his skull. He tore around the yard, trying to make the pain go away, terrified that it would happen again. Who could be so angry with him? He had always minded his own business and now someone was trying to kill him. He didn’t know where the invisible villain had come from, so he didn’t know in which direction he should flee. He was like the old man when the bank teller asked him too many questions instead of just cashing his cheque. He smashed his head against the fence.

  Coming down the alleyway, the little boy’s cousin and his friends could hear Ferdinand barking and growling before they even saw him. The alley was filled with garbage and old furniture that people had thrown out. The young men spotted a pile of vinyl kitchen chairs with giant green hothouse flowers exploding on them. They pulled the chairs over to the fence so that they could get a look at this dog.

  The men stood perched on the chairs, wild and hyperactive and excited, their eyes opening wider when they saw Ferdinand. All they saw was a dog shaking his face wildly like a fist. Its muscles heaved like lava coming down a mountain. They could see all its enormous teeth and black gums and they could smell its angry breath. The men looked at one another happily, thinking that fortunes were about to change on their block. The little boy’s cousin opened the door of the fence slowly, whispering for the dog to chill out and that no one was going to hurt him.

  3.

  All the women in Isabelle Ferdinand’s family were loud. Her father had left when she and her sister were both still in diapers. Her aunts were always over, because there were no men to toss them out or put them in their place. They would fight with the kitchen windows open, and everyone in the neighbourhood could hear their business. They didn’t care. They put the TV out on the sidewalk and ate their dinner with their plates on their laps, screaming at the game show.

  Even their style was loud. Her mother wore high-heeled slippers and tight jeans that had patterns of roses on them. Her sister would walk to the store to buy a carton of milk wearing a striped bikini. Her sister was attracted to all the boys, especially the ones that made a lot of noise. When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower. She and her mom liked talking to everyone, popping into different doors, pollinating the neighbourhood with fantastic gossip.

  Isabelle, on the other hand, didn’t like to draw attention to herself. Even when she was in grade school, the teachers would write on her report cards that she didn’t play well with other children. The kids asked her if she wanted to play Red Rover or soccer or baseball and she would say no, no, no, no. She was always by herself in the corner, flipping through picture books.

  Now she was in high school and her name was at the top of the honour roll list when you entered the school. She didn’t really have any friends though. Now that they were teenagers, it was like the other girls carried around bullhorns that they held up to their mouths when they laughed. She liked to go straight home after school and go to her room and read books until the sun went down. They lay scattered about the room, open to hold their places, like drawings of seagulls by little kids.

  One of her aunts drove them to a wedding on a Saturday. When she was there, relatives she barely knew kept asking her whether or not she had a boyfriend yet. That’s what they wanted to talk about all the time. They used to be interested in her marks and all the awards for academic excellence that she had won. Now the bigger news was that one of her older cousins was engaged to a millionaire who owned a spaghetti restaurant franchise. They were all worried that Isabelle would be unlucky in love, like her mom.

  There were things about herself that Isabelle knew should be evolving. She was fourteen and she still had a school bag with Kermit the Frog on it. In the winter, she wore big moon boots and a Canadiens toque with her curly and frizzy hair sticking out from underneath it. She figured that she would have to make a concerted effort to change. Things just weren’t happening naturally, the way they were for everybody else.

  The next Saturday, as she was walking home, her path was blocked by ambulance workers pulling a stretcher across the sidewalk to the truck. The body was covered, but she knew it must be the old man with the big-assed dog. She crossed herself as she wondered what had happened to the dog and about how life is short. When she got home, she went straight into her sister Corinna’s room.

  “I’m going to a house party,” Isabelle said. “This girl in my class said that I should not be a ninny, and come. I think I need a makeover, though.”

  Corinna jumped up and down on her bed, clapping her hands. She handed Isabelle a T-shirt with a print of a unicorn on it and one of her jean skirts that she had cut ludicrously short. Her sister fixed Isabelle’s hair up with dozens of little butterfly clips and she put the reddest lipstick in the world on her. Her mouth was the colour of Superman’s cape when he was standing in his ballet shoes, about to jump off the roof of a building.

  Corinna said attitude was also important when it came to boys.

  “You should crawl on your hands and knees across the bed. Men get crazy when you go at them like an animal.”

  Most boys liked it a little rough, she assured Isabelle.

  “You should try to slur when you talk too. Guys are like crazy about that speech impediment thing.”

  The way that a cheetah would go after a gazelle with a broken leg, boys would go after stupid girls.

  Her mother was playing cards in the kitchen with two of her sisters. They all made such a fuss when they saw Isabelle.

  Isabelle’s stomach was fluttery, and she felt like she had to pee the whole way over to the party. The yellow reflective lights on the pedals of the bicycles passing by looked like the eyes of wolves catching the light. She passed a store that gave massages and had all its windows painted silver. There was a jewellery store that sold huge hoop earrings and rings that had giant gold lion heads on them. The moon looked like the Day-Glo face of a wristwatch. Everything had Saturday fever!

  It was near the first of the month, when people got their welfare cheques, so they were out. She saw some men that looked familiar from the neighbourhood, but they had a wildness about them now, as if they had been infected, like pet dogs who had got rabies. They all turned to stare at her in her party outfit, as if they were wondering if she wanted in on their secret. Did she want to join them and be a vampire and live forever?

  There was a little boy, carrying a paper bag with milk in it, stuck outside his house because he had forgotten his secret knock. A piece of newspaper flitted by in the breeze like Mikhail Baryshnikov in the frenzied finale of a ballet.

  The party was on the third floor of an old triplex. There was a big gargoyle of a demon on top of the building, looking down. Most of the gargoyles had committed suicide, falling to the ground like the rest of the old masonry on the buildings. When they leapt, they would hit the pavement like an asteroid and you would feel the ground shake while in your bed.

  She went up the steep staircase that led to the top apartment, where all the windows were lit up. It was like someone had propped a ladder up to the moon and had told her to go ahead and ascend. People had locked their bicycles to the outside of the staircase, like they were magnets stuck to a fridge. There was a familiar little piece of paper next to the doorbell, saying it didn’t work. There was a sign like that on everyone’s doorbell. There was one at her apartment and it made her feel at ease.

  When she walked through the front door of the girl’s apartment, the sound system was making so much noise that Isabelle couldn’t hear herself think. Everyo
ne was dancing while they held their plastic cups of beer over their heads. The kids had formed a tight circle around the carpet, watching a boy dance. He was rolling his fists around each other as if he was rolling up a ball of yarn. He swapped spots with another boy who put one hand on his heart and the other in the air and jumped up and down. A different boy pushed his way in and kept tucking his hands into his armpits, leaning his torso back and strutting in a circle like a rooster at a cockfight. Then he dropped to the floor and moved his hands around like he was trying to put together a puzzle at record speed.

  The girls gathered in clusters, like horses worried about a storm. Their long skinny legs looked impossibly vulnerable.

  She saw Luc, a boy from a grade higher, coming toward her. He had on a bolero jacket. He was legendary. He’d become quite the player since he had had his braces taken off. No girl was able to resist him, and a huge number had lost their virginity to him. He liked girls that were hard to get because he needed a challenge.

  She was glad when Luc took her hand and led her down the hallway, away from the party. He opened a door and led her into a bedroom. Isabelle knew that if she let Luc go all the way, when they came out of the room, everyone would be happy and congratulate her. Everyone would want to hear about it in school the next day. She would finally have a subject of conversation that they were all interested in. They would applaud her, go nuts, and sit with her at the cafeteria table. They were like a coliseum full of people waiting for her to take off all her clothes.

  He gave her a sip from a bottle of beer and it made her feel warm and glowing, like there was a spotlight on her. Like she could open her mouth and a song would come out and everyone would be entranced by her. She laughed. The laughter sounded strange. It didn’t sound like herself laughing at all. It was like she was listening to her own voice on a tape recorder.

  “Come on, sweetie,” Luc said. “You’re so pretty. I can’t keep my eyes off of you. You’re like the best-looking girl in the room. And you’re so smart too. I just want to hold you. I was watching you when you were giving a science report and I thought, That’s the kind of girl that I would want to wrap my arms around. You’re the kind of girl that a guy gets serious about.”

 
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