By Elise Moser
Stinkyhead toys with the idea of getting “Stink” tattooed on the back of his scalp, as a sort of joke but also as a way of updating his nickname to something a little tougher. But Dina just looks at him appraisingly when he mentions it casually one day down on the beach, the white midday sun turning the water into a broad sheet of pure light that forces them to keep their eyes on their feet. He looks up at her, squinting against the glare, but her face is blank, her eyes hidden. When she doesn’t say anything about it he drops the idea, thinking that maybe he’ll just start introducing himself as Stink when he meets new people, and as the street rats grow up, drop out, move on, gradually everyone he knows (except Dina) will call him Stink. Then maybe she’ll slip into using it too.
Shawn–or Stinkyhead, as he is best known and, if truth be told, most comfortable with–is short for his age, and thin, almost frail looking, with pale eyes that always have his fine hair trailing in them. Even when the rest of his head is shaved to the skin, there’s still a lock of hair flopping over his wan forehead and into his eyes. In the wet afternoons, the rain more like a mist permeating every breath of air, the single dirty blond lock lies plastered damply over his forehead, making him look even more bedraggled than he is. It’s good for getting spare change.
Stinkyhead watches the tourists stroll past in their sneakers and T-shirts, eating ice cream bars bought from the vendors pushing bicycle freezers; he watches the stockbrokers in their summer-weight suits gathering at the beachside restaurants for happy hour; he, himself, can’t imagine that kind of adult existence. Even the stubbly drunks left behind on the benches like garbage left on the sand by a receding tide when the bars close and everyone else goes home–even they are too far away for Stinkyhead to connect to. The Dean, on the other hand, always seems to be thinking ahead, always planning. She has a regular gig, cleaning one of the bars after it closes for the night, because she says you can’t go on forever without an income. Lots of the people they know say it isn’t cool, that working is a drag, or, like the anarchist kids, they say it’s bad to be part of the system. But Dina says you’re part of the system whether you like it or not, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. She says that kind of thing a lot, which makes Stinkyhead respect her, because it seems like she’s really thinking, not just repeating slogans.
Also sometimes when she says that stuff it’s like an eye exam, where the optometrist drops those lenses in front of your eyes, and everything gets clearer and clearer until suddenly he drops the right one in and it all snaps into focus.
Like the time that kid from Seattle cut his hand open skateboarding and it puffed up like deep-fried dough, and Dina told him to go to a clinic even though he was scared they’d call his parents to come up from Seattle and take him home. Because, she said, if they take you home you can come back, man, but if your fuckin’ hand falls off you can never get another hand. When the kid didn’t move she added, that’s infected, man, and ignoring an infection won’t make it go away.
She also said it in the winter, when she had that thing with that drummer who was living off his tree-planting money, and Stinkyhead got mad and sad and wouldn’t talk to her. He didn’t care if she slept with people, it didn’t make any difference to him, but she wanted the guy to hang out with them all the time, or she wanted Stinkyhead to come hang out with the guy’s band, and then she’d ignore him and disappear with the drummer afterward, leaving Stinkyhead to walk all the way home alone in the middle of the night. He would arrive in the little basement hole-in-the-wall they shared, and the dull echo of her absence would stop his ears like a head cold, pressure pushing against his forehead from the inside.
It changed everything, for a while, and Stinkyhead was beginning to think he was going to have to find a whole new way to live, and he was scared, shaking scared. It was, after all, Dina who gave him the name Stinkyhead. The original reason is lost to memory, but the nickname stuck. For Stinkyhead it’s not just the name, it’s the way Dina says it: love mixed with a sort of provisional disdain, the tone of her voice suggesting that Shawn could do better if he tried, no matter what they’re talking about.
They’ve known each other for most of a lifetime–most of this lifetime, anyway–from the day Shawn appeared, wiry and pale, on the street where Dina hung out with a bunch of other kids, most of whom are long gone now. That was, maybe, two years ago. Shawn had stood mute on the sidewalk, his eyes following her as Dina stepped past him. Erect in a stiff checkered dress from some retro store, torn white T-shirt artfully arranged over it, hair dyed an unnatural black, Dina was staring down a girl who had been slicing notches in her own arm. Shawn had sat himself quietly in a corner and watched Dina melt the girl’s defiance until she finally let Dina bandage her with a strip of her cotton T-shirt. Then Dina sat down and almost disappeared into the shadows against the wall. Shawn watched her as she searched with her eyes; he felt a shock when she found him.
In spite of their long friendship, Shawn still feels plenty of awe for Dina. He gave her a new name too: The Dean. It stuck, and a few months later Dina had it tattooed on her lower back: “The Dean” in flowing script, arching just above her pants waist. It’s the only flowing thing about her–her hair is a kind of chunky, grizzly black mass that sticks out everywhere, her limbs are stocky and her face is blunt. Which is not to say she doesn’t have a certain forceful grace about her, if you stand back and look carefully.
After Dina took up with the drummer Stinkyhead started avoiding her. Dina responded by following him around, talking non-stop, buying him falafels when she could see he was hungry and trying to make him talk to her before she would hand them over. But Stinkyhead just turned away, thinking, gotta find out how to live without her, and at the same time fighting tears, wishing that she would come back for good. She threatened to throw the food in the garbage, but Stinkyhead wouldn’t budge and she always gave in, leaving the white-paper wrapped pita on the sidewalk and turning away, appearing to examine the horizon for signs of a change in the weather. Finally one night he was sitting on a piece of driftwood looking over English Bay, hunched over inside his sweatshirt, and Dina was standing behind him crying and yelling, you can ignore me but it won’t make me go away, and it was like snap–he thought, yeah she’s right. And he also thought, I can’t make her go away and I can’t make her stay either. It’s not learning to live without her, but learning to live with her. And he turned around and looked her in the eye in the diffuse wash of light from the streetlight, and she saw him and came and sat down and leaned into him, not saying a word. And then it began to rain a cold rain and they went back home, walking together but not talking.
As much as his own future is closed to his view, Stinkyhead can imagine a million things for Dina. She always has a light touch, a good energy even with crazy people. The people who talk to themselves, the people who hear voices, the people who are afraid of everyone or who shout their way down the sidewalk, banging garbage cans with a stick. Dina always talks to them just like normal, and they’re always normal back. Hey how ya doing?, hey Dina got a cigarette for me?, hey Dina I saw my daughter, she’s big now. Stinkyhead says Dina should be a psychiatrist, but Dina just looks up at him from the corners of her eyes and says, yeah, right, Stink-ee-head, and as she says each syllable of his name she taps her temple with a forefinger, her face grave.
Stinkyhead goes with Dina to the bar sometimes to help her clean, and as she sweeps and mops the floors and wipes down the chairs and tables in the dim ashes-and-beer-smelling room, she keeps up a running commentary for him. The space cadets who own the bar should sell draft beer, or something imported, not just this Canadian shit, she says, chinking bottles into cases, people like that stuff and you can charge more. She shows Stinkyhead the difference between an open bottle of Scotch and a sealed one in the back; she holds the two bottles up in the light from the illuminated Kokanee clock, the unopened bottle a couple of shades darker, unwatered. And she snorts that the idiots who own the bar think they’re so clever, cheating their customers, but they leave the stockroom door open and don’t even know their bartender’s moving a case at a time right out from under their noses. So Stinkyhead says, you should open your own bar, The Dean; but Dina tosses her head over the broom handle and just says, Jesus, Stinkyhead.
When Dina gets hit by the car, Stinkyhead is hanging around outside a Starbucks on Robson asking people for change; a couple of candy kids run up to find him, their big pants flapping, their furry bags bouncing against their hips, but the ambulance is long gone by the time he gets there, the only signs of disaster being a dark splotch of Dina’s blood on the crosswalk and a scattering of broken plastic from one of the car’s parking lights. Stinkyhead puts a jagged piece of orange plastic shaped kind of like a shield, only crooked, in his pocket with his seven dollars and thirty cents in “spare” change, and starts walking to the hospital. When he gets there they won’t let him in to see her because he “isn’t family”; at the thought of Dina’s fucking nasty parents getting in to see her while she isn’t awake to speak for herself, he almost punches the wall of the emergency room. But he stops himself for her, and as he thinks about it he feels a weird cold calm descend upon him and he takes a deep breath and chills right out. He walks home, takes a shower, changes into a clean pair of jeans and one of Dina’s white button-down men’s thrift-shop shirts, and walks back to the hospital. The shirt is too big for his skinny ribs but he kind of likes that; it makes him feel bigger. Standing in the waiting room he feels like he could be Dina, not be Dina, but be like Dina. Be the Stinkyhead that Dina thinks he can be. He feels strong in his mind, and he waits until the nurses change shift and then walks up to the counter and says his sister has been brought in after a car accident, and he needs to see her. The nurse eyes him dubiously but checks the name and eventually leads him into the emergency ward. When Stinkyhead sees Dina he tries to imagine her swollen, blackened eyes flying open. Dina rises from her bed, and one by one she rips her arms free of the tubes that are taped onto them. And then she smashes her way out of that place and comes home.
At the cemetary, Stinkyhead, shifting from foot to foot next to a couple of other street rats, watches Dina’s fucking nasty parents, looking rigid and cold like corpses themselves; Dina’s mother looks like she wants to come over and yell at Stinkyhead, her mouth working at the edges, but Dina’s father lays a big hand on her arm and she purses her lips the way Dina described them being pursed all through her childhood, and her mother swallows whatever it is she has to say and stares again at the hole in the ground where they are putting Dina.
That night, lying in the shitty little basement apartment, paid for by the hours Dina spent mopping that reeking bar, the street rats still hanging out in the little kitchenette smoking dope and murmuring among themselves, Stinkyhead imagines Dina breaking out of her coffin, pushing up through the loose earth filling the rectangular hole, rising up to ground level spraying clods of dirt around her as she lifts her feet high to step onto the smooth chemical-saturated lawn that edges her grave. He imagines the kids in the other room crying out in surprise as Dina, legs stiff from death, stumbles down the stairs, her face still puffy, eyes purple, cheeks streaked with soil; and in his mind he sees her stepping straight into his room and clearing the dirt from her throat and saying hoarsely, Hi Stinkyhead. And he will tenderly reach for her and pull her down to rest next to him on the flat, time-greyed futon they’d found put out for garbage. And he will cradle her in his arm, wiping her face gently with the hood of his sweatshirt, and smiling down at her he will say, in a firm, Dean sort of voice: Stink. Call me Stink now.
Elise Moser lives in Montreal. Her stories have appeared in the anthologies Witpunk and Island Dreams.