ILLUSTRATION: JEGA DELISCA
People yelled at him a lot. He knew that was putting it simply, but sometimes that helped, putting things in the simplest terms possible. People had always yelled at the construction site. Telling him what to do; telling him what he’d done wrong. It was no wonder the accident had happened. They’d yelled at him until all he could hear was yelling, and not the sound he should have heard, the machine coming down. Back when he could work.
It was the same with the girls downstairs. All they did was complain, like it was somehow his fault that his buddy Stevo had left the squirrel on the porch.
Stevo had only meant it as a joke. Who knew where he’d even found it — Kenny didn’t think he’d skinned it himself. But the girls thought Kenny had left it there for them, and they didn’t seem to think it was even a little bit funny. They’d started yelling and everything. Probably he should have cleaned it up before they saw it, and definitely he should have cleaned it up before that Maddie kid from across the street saw it, but he wanted to get on his bike and start his bottle run before all the guys from Stevo’s house beat him to it.
The Tuesday after the September long weekend was one of the best runs of the year. Recycling bins overflowed with wine, scotch, and vodka bottles — stuff he would never spend money on, himself — because people were too lazy to take back their own empties. Regular cans were ten cents each. Twenty cents each meant sixteen regular bottles could get him a king can. Even on a slow weekend, he could get a hundred or so. Stuff added up fast, if you got out early enough and got to it first. And you never knew what else you might find. One time he found some cool plastic grim-reaper axes that now stood in his garden. A fake skull was out there too, impaled on a broomstick. A glass orb was stuck on one of the fence posts. The girls downstairs didn’t seem to like the axes much, nor the skull, but there was no point in worrying about them, because they’d never like anything he did. He’d almost been friends with them, that one time. But it all went to hell before it even started.
The girls had just moved into the one-bedroom downstairs that June, and they’d quickly tried to claim part of the backyard. It was a huge yard, for the city, a hundred feet deep at least. But he’d been there first, and he’d done a lot of work moving plants around and sectioning off a vegetable garden with a low wooden wall and chin-high fencing, and laying down a little patio way at the back by the old metal shed. He had the smallest apartment in the house: shouldn’t he have most of the backyard? He thought he was being pretty nice, leaving them the section closest to the house. He thought they thought so, too.
One of his best days that summer had been when the girls were outside laying down their own patio while he worked on his garden fence. He made a few jokes and they laughed. He’d been worried, because he knew the girls were friends with the two who had just moved out. Those two had made his life very difficult, constantly complaining to Ry, the landlord, about the work he was doing — like his first crack at the front yard, last summer. Was it his fault that it was right outside their living room window? Of course not. And Ry had permitted Kenny to convert the lawn into a natural garden, which meant digging it up first. He knew it didn’t look right yet. Even now, he wasn’t done with it.
Anyway: those two were gone, their friends had taken over the ground floor apartment, and the joking around that day in the backyard gave him hope. Maybe they could be friends. He made some jokes about Ry, and how they could do anything they wanted, and Ry wouldn’t even notice because he never came around. He told them how the backyard was practically big enough to raise rabbits, and how he’d found a little pair of plush antlers he was going to put on their cat because the way he ran, with his back legs out to the side, made Kenny think of a leggy horse. The girls hadn’t said much to most of this as they sweated over their heavy patio stones, but he saw them exchange looks and then laugh, and he felt absurdly pleased that they were all getting along so well. When he said that last thing, the shorter one looked right at him and said, Don’t touch our cat. He said he was only joking, and she nodded, so he was pretty sure they trusted him.
That made him brave enough to ask, a few minutes later, if they liked to party, but the wind had come up and they must not have heard him, because they didn’t answer. Which was maybe okay, because as he’d asked it he’d realized he didn’t have any money for another week, and he didn’t think he knew them well enough yet to mooch off them. Even though they had a car.
So they were laying down their ten-by-ten patio, and he looked over and saw the taller one start to fill in the ditch he had dug last fall along the foundation of the house. Right away he walked over, his own shovel in hand, saying, No, no, no, I dug that for drainage, you have to leave it, I’ll look after it. He thought they just needed to understand what it was for. He sure didn’t expect them to turn on him the way they did.
The shorter one said a drainage ditch beside the house would drain into the house, and the taller one insisted that that was their end of the backyard, right under their bedroom window, and he should worry about his own part of it. Which, the shorter one added, was most if it. He tried to demonstrate how the ditch would work by turning on the hose and starting to fill it, which made them both yell things, words overlap- ping so that he couldn’t make out what they were saying. All he heard was what the shorter one said after, which was basically, Leave us the fuck alone. Which got his back up, for sure. This is why I don’t talk to women about landscaping, he said, and then the taller one said, We’re done, dropped her shovel and went inside. In the hot silence that followed, he tried to tell the shorter one that he hadn’t meant to upset the taller one, but she only said she wasn’t talking to him, either, and continued filling in the drainage ditch. And stay out of here, she added; we’re going to plant things. Kenny said he’d have to talk to Ry about it and went inside.
Using Ry’s name was a bit of a bluff. They had an informal arrangement that Kenny would look after the yard for a slightly reduced rent —his apartment was already very cheap, for the city
— but the couple upstairs said Ry just wanted to shut Kenny up, that Ry didn’t care what he or anyone did to the yard because this house was his retirement plan and would earn him a mint even if he let it fall apart. Which was possibly true — Ry didn’t fix things very often
— but Kenny still used Ry’s name to back him up when he needed to. He did call to tell him about the girls and the drainage ditch. Ry just said he should work it out with them. Kenny knew he was lucky to have the place, so he left it at that.
+ + +
The next time Kenny saw the tall one she was working on their patio again, adding another row of one-by stones, levelling the dirt underneath. He leaned out his kitchen window one floor up to tell her was doing a good job. When she didn’t answer he knew she was still mad so he tried to say he was sorry, because he was sorry, not so much for what he’d said but because he liked it better when they were laughing at his jokes and not getting upset. She squinted up at him and said it was water under the bridge, and he admitted there was a lot of water under that particular bridge. They both laughed, but it was never the same again.
ILLUSTRATION: JEGA DELISCA
Even before the accident, things had never gone easily, people had never warmed to him the way they seemed — from the outside —- to warm to each other. Drinking helped. Partying helped. He knew — or he’d been told, by teachers, bosses, one rather pretty social worker — that it didn’t actually help, especially if he did it too much. But he also knew that after a couple beers, or whatever, he just liked people better. People liked him better. He even liked himself a little bit better. Until later, maybe, when he was alone in his apartment and coming down, but that was like everything in life. You always had to get ready for the crash.
Kenny was a philosophical kind of guy, a poet in his heart, or maybe an artist. That was why he spent so much time in the garden, talking to the plants, puttering around with chicken wire. His daily bottle runs also turned up a wide range of treasures that were slowly turning his garden into the kind his father’s neighbours had always had, back where he grew up. The scale was smaller — instead of old car parts and rusted swing sets, he had broken chairs and bicycle parts. He mixed them in with his sunflowers and tomato plants and it felt homey and safe — beautiful, even, the way the neighbours’ places had always felt homey, always offering new things to find and do and never putting him down, never hurting him.
+ + +
This summer was about finishing the front yard: he spent weeks digging, tough. That fired up the twinge in his back and made him drink more than usual. He did it when the girls were home, ignoring their scathing looks as they came and went. He occupied that space right outside their living room window the same way he’d always occupied space: knowing he wasn’t wanted but boxed in by his own stubbornness.
He finished in August, and he thought the rusted bits of metal and pieces of broken glass he’d stuck in here and there looked quite artistic, even though the dirt mounds he’d sculpted were kind of stark. And the wildflowers would eventually bloom where he’d scattered the seeds from the shed, assuming they weren’t too old. For a natural pool, he’d filled one of the gullies between mounds with the hose. The water had soaked right in and turned the gully to mud, and now it looked bulldozed, torn apart, and flooded. But he’d worked hard, and the beers he’d drunk while doing it had mixed with the heat and the sun. Before he even put his shovel away he had a little sit-down on the sidewalk, feeling well and truly buzzed.
Pink sneakers and red socks bounced through his field of vision as the kid from across the street skipped by him. A moment later she was back. Look what I found, she said. As he looked up, he remembered her name was Maddie. Cute and peppy in her eight-year-old pigtails, she held out a fist-sized piece of pink crystal, or quartz — some kind of sparkly rock. His vision was blurry when he tried to focus on it, so he reached out and took it so he could look more closely. She let him take it, and he could feel her watching him as he turned it over and held it up to the light. Noon sun pierced right through it.
Are you okay, Kenny? She asked.
Just tired from doing all this work here, he said, gesturing at the scarred yard behind him.
Why did you dig it up like that?
Makes it easier to look after, he said.
She wrinkled her perky little nose. It’s so ugly, she said.
He was about to respond, Yeah, well, you’re ugly, but he didn’t get a chance, (which was probably okay), because just then Maddie’s mother yelled Maddie! Get away from there, from across the street. Their freshly painted house: three floors for one family. He heard the edge of worry in her mother’s voice. The people who owned houses in this neighbourhood — not the old couples who’d been here for fifty years, but the ones who had moved in over the last decade or so, the younger families with their fancy beer and organic wine, who threw out perfectly good chairs — they always seemed hostile to the renters. Or to him, anyway.
Maddie stood, still looking at Kenny, who still had her precious rock in his hand.
You better go, Kenny said, and he held the pink rock out to her. And then he added, to make up for the insult he’d almost said out loud, That’s real pretty.
Maddie smiled; she had a lopsided grin and teeth her parents would insist on straightening in a few years.
That’s okay, she said. You can keep it. And she ran home, looking both ways before she crossed the street — home to her mother’s reprimands, to their tidy hosta-bordered lawn. Every week, two bottles of red.
+ + +
The bottle runs the previous couple weeks had been disappointing. Kenny was lucky if he got one king can a day. His best score — not worth any money — was this curved circle of plastic mirror, maybe three feet across, like a giant contact lens. When he looked into it, he could see his reflection but also the world behind him, curling in and around, stretching back and away. He took it home and rested it on the stump of the sapling he’d cut down beside his vegetable garden and stood over it, looking down. It balanced like an old satellite dish and he could see sky — so much sky, sky forever behind him, above him — for that moment he was smack dab in the centre of the universe. He was the centre of the universe. It felt like a gift, or a message. It felt like despite everything that had happened — the difficulties at school, the money problems, the accident — or maybe because of it, buried under everything if he looked at it the right way, there was something bigger, some kind of meaning. To his life, maybe, or life in general. Either way. Every day since he’d found it, he’d been out there to check on it. He’d make sure it was steady on the stump, and just stare into it for a minute or two.
Once he did this while the two girls were eating lunch on the patio they’d laid. They ignored him, talking so quietly he could barely hear them. He kept looking over to see if they were talking at all or just eating in silence. The taller one saw him looking. He looked away, then looked back, and now they were both looking at him, eyes level across the high tips of the late-summer grasses they had all let grow as a sort of no man’s land between zones of the yard. Well, that they had let grow, and he’d been told not to touch. Now they were making eye contact with him for the first time in months and he felt like he had to say something, so he said, I found this mirror.
He told them how he liked to stand over it and just look down and through and out to the sky. He invited them to try it but the taller one said they were eating right now. Which was pretty nice, coming from her, so he said they could try it out anytime they wanted. If you look into it, you can just… see yourself, he explained.
The girls laughed, and the shorter one said that was a decent quality in a mirror. And then they all laughed, but he knew they didn’t understand.
+ + +
So when that Maddie kid gave him the crystal, he’d known exactly what to do with it. He felt like it was offering him something, if he could only figure it right. In a life where every moment came with new things to regret, a guy needed all the help he could get. He took it around to the backyard and placed it in the centre of the mirror, stood back and admired what was now a garden sculpture for sure.
The big September weekend came. Kenny went to the liquor store and spent a good part of his cheque there, figuring he’d make it back on Tuesday’s run. Stevo came over and it was a beautiful night. They sat on the tiny patio he’d built in the far corner of the backyard and drank. They drank all they had. It got to be late. Maybe they were supposed to go somewhere. They might have argued. Kenny wasn’t even sure who landed on the mirror, but the next day it was cracked into three big pieces with a bunch of splintery bits lying in the grass like teeth, and he couldn’t find the crystal anywhere.
It felt like an omen.
A few days later, the mutilated squirrel appeared on the porch. It was early, and Kenny figured he’d deal with it after his bottle run. But afterwards, when he rode down the street to the house, his wagon rattling and bumping along behind him, piled high with shopping bags full of cans and bottles, he could see there were people out front already. And when he got closer, he saw that one of the cars in front of the house was a cop car. A man and a woman in dark uniforms stood on the sidewalk talking to the girls, who were pointing at the porch, pointing at the half-finished front lawn and shaking their heads, and then, as he got off his bike, pointing at him.