Joyland

Toronto |

Unburdened Things

by Andrew Hood

I don’t think I want to be the kind of person anymore that brings tears to things unnecessarily. Like, “Belly’s missed us,” I’ll say when our cat returns from a week off exploring, hunting mice, probably, in the few condemned factories in the neighbourhood that haven’t been turned into condos yet. “Look,” I’ll show my boyfriend, “She’s crying.” Cradling her, making a slim ghost of his finger with a tissue, Kim will wipe away the line of goo in the corner of Belly’s eye. “The Bully’s been fighting is all,” he’ll say. “Bullies never cry.” Or else, we’re under the trees after a summer rain, say. Kim and I will be on a stroll and a breeze will ruffle the leaves, and we’ll get sprinkled. Like the tree’s sobbing all over us. I gather from this that I’m either overly emotional or underly creative, and I’d really rather not be any of those ways. Because it’s not that those things don’t cry; it’s that they can’t as a matter of fact. And it’s not our business to burden unburdened things with ours.
So:
Kim comes in from the courtyard with drops of water hanging from his earlobes in no way like teardrops. Maybe more like earrings. They’d ambushed him. A rush of water balloons and those pump action deals that can soak you from fifty metres away while he was having a beer on our steps after work. Kim turned the garden hose on them and wrestled their guns away. Turned the tables on those kids. “We’re going to get a phone call,” he says, walking into the kitchen, struggling to peel his sopping shirt off his skin. His shorts come off and he’s down on the kitchen tile, which is the coolest part of the house during the sweaty crotch of early August. A secret he learned from our cat, Belly. The tongues of his steel toes droop out like the tongues of exhausted dogs in this heat. When he fights with the neighbourhood kids, Kim loses with a stink. They clobber Kim like clockwork and he’s such a sore loser. On purpose. Because for a kid nothing’s more insulting than having an adult let you beat them. There’s no joy of triumph. Only that weird feeling of being patronized. Like the feeling of wearing a shirt backwards. Upon losing, Kim throws a tizzy and won’t talk to them for days. The following afternoon, the kids show up hugging basketballs to their chests and balancing ball bats in their palms. “What’s Kim doing?” they ask. “Don’t tell him I told you,” I’ll say, “But he’s upstairs. Crying. Can’t you people take it a little easy on him?” And they scatter away, triumphant, miffed and still needing a third for Suicide Squeeze. Of course Kim is really at work, building cookie-cutter houses on the crusts of town. These kids think that because they’re off of school that he gets a break too. But if I called them on their oversight probably they’d ask, Well, then what are you doing home? Days later, those kids will be on the court behind our house and see us on the roof killing a bowl at dusk. “Kim, come play!” they call. They don’t even know my name. Kim’s over the fence. He takes the lead, but then falls back by a few points. And that’s when he becomes a flurry of elbows, inevitably opening up a young chin under the boards. Kim runs home and hides, leaving me, high as a spooked cat in a tree, to assuage the inevitable moms that will come knocking. Kim has no problem being fucked up around children. But I can’t abide that. If I had a child I would never let it see me drink or drug. Never let it see me cry. Never let it see me rolling pennies at the kitchen table. If it saw me doing any one of those things and asked, Why do you do that? there’s no way I could tell it the truth. Because it’s hard sometimes. Belly flits in through the kitchen window now, sniffs at Kim’s balled socks on the floor. She curls up on his bare stomach. There’s a knock at the door. Kim, lethargic like he just woke up, is running his finger over the grey down on Belly’s nubs. She lost most of her ears to frostbite before she was our cat, back when she was someone else’s kitten. Another knock. Belly will only let you play with her ears until she feels she’s being made fun of. She’ll try and twitch her ear away from you, only they’re too stubby for this to be actually evasive. A bellicose growl and a chomp at your finger if you don’t lay off. A rapping now. Something I’ve noticed about cats: this threshold they’ve got. Comfort is their primary aim. When they’ve established a cozy place, they grab on firmly with both paws. Belly has this way of stretching out across our bed at night so that there is no way for Kim and I to sleep comfortably. We skitter our hands around her, like chaseable critters, trying to tempt her appetite for the hunt. We tug the blankets. Mumble, mumble, she goes, ticked but immovable. Bark, bark, we try, tired and desperate. Jumping up and down on our bed like it’s a motel bed is what it takes to get to sleep most nights. Pounding. Kim stays put, but Belly looks over at me. She says, Are you going to get that or what? Keeping in mind that cats can’t talk like they can’t cry. I do. Three of them, arms raised, gripping swollen, sweating balloons. The phone rings. I bet you some irate mother. The kids see that I’m not Kim and they lower their arms. Then off they scamper. Two separate from the third and unload on him. He stands betrayed for the length of a commercial before charging after his best friends in the world. The phone rings still and I actually can’t remember what it was exactly I was doing before Kim came in. Are you going to get that or what? Belly asks. In her own way.
Once, you could bike out to the limits of town to gander at the mostly unbridled night. The Milky Way was a drool stain on a cerulean pillow cover. Now, stadium lights illuminate broad burrows and suggestive frames. A shopping centre with a library inside is being raised in anticipation of this burgeoning community. Life is becoming so crowded and bright these days. Kim was due there for five. He set the alarm for three. Why does Kim get up so early? “Because rolling out of bed and onto the job blows,” he says. “I need some allusion of having a life outside of work.” Kim hides the alarm on the other side of the bedroom every night so he has to bound out of bed and scrounge around the laundry like a narc dog to silence it every morning. After that panic he’s wide awake. And you better believe me too. Kim always confuses illusion with allusion. And for Kim the Pacific Ocean is Specific also. For summer coffee we fill the ice cube tray with cream and leave it in the freezer overnight. My idea. I’m brilliant. Staring at the ceiling fan over our bed, trying to plan my day, I give Kim a head start. Kneading the night kinks out of his neck, he’s hunched over his sketchbook at the kitchen table. On the counter he’s set out my mug for me, unfilled. Our stove clock wasn’t changed when last we leapt ahead. Instead of adjusting it, we learned to read the time wrong. When we fall back we’ll have to get used to not correcting ourselves. Kim squints at the page, trying to see a clear image through the bramble of other ideas. Already he’s begun storyboards for the short he will make. He’ll be ready to throw himself fully into filming by the time I start working. A few incorrect minutes happen. I slurp my coffee, reminding him I’m here, too. “So,” he asks perfunctorily. “What’re your plans for the day?” Patronizingly. Kim will never tell me that he hates that I get up with him. Hates that because he’s working for me right now he has hardly a moment to himself. And the time he does have, I occupy. He never says anything like Belly never says anything. “The Bully’s at the window,” he says. I look behind me and, with the kitchen lights on inside, only see me in the pane. We cut this deal like mustard. For one year he works while I play. Then we turn the tables. Jump back. Fall ahead. In me I eventually see Belly on the ledge, pawing, going tack tack tack. Like a teacher tapping chalk to the right of an equal sign, pleading and impatient. Come on, kids. You know this. What I would say if Kim ever said boo, is that it’s difficult for me also. It wasn’t supposed to be difficult, this year was supposed to be a productive breeze, but there you go. His free time is the only time I have to be with him, otherwise I’m alone. He has too little time and I have too much. Run a tap hot on your hand and it will become freezing to you in time. I open up the back door and cluck for Belly. She stops pawing and looks at me. Her eyes flare spooky green. She turns back to the window and asks again. “Belly,” I say. “Come on.” But she keeps at the window, so I open it. She falls inside and saunters towards her food bowl. I close the door and leave the window open for her to go back out. I will sit with Kim, not bothering him, until it’s time. He will kiss me and split. I will go back to bed and sleep until ten-ish. I will wake back up and have no idea how to get out of bed. I will think about how late in the day it is already, and that to start anything now is pointless because anyway I have to make lunch first. And maybe afterwards I will have to run out to the store for toilet paper, for anything. By the time I get home it will be time for the sassy judge show that I like to come on. It is the gift I give myself for all the hard work I do in a day. After which Kim will be home in an hour from his job. I will make him supper because he works so hard. A year, and what? I am no better at the drums, though I can twirl my sticks in a way that would make the ladies in the front row wet, the men hard. Mr. Dumbface, my dummy, can’t talk without me gritting my teeth in a horrible, threatening way that would scare the children at the birthdays I was hoping to perform at. There isn’t a play in my head that doesn’t take place at a bus stop or a TV pilot that doesn’t take place in a living room. The pair of socks I’m knitting stay heelless. A year, and that. Full, Belly plods to the door and rises up on her hind legs to ask. “Belly!” I scold. When she sits back down and looks at me I point at the open window. She looks at it, then back to the door. And then me. Kim has gone. What’s that joke about the broken clock again? The stream of eye goo running along Belly’s nose catches the kitchen light and shimmers like a knife come out of nowhere in a fight you didn’t think was that serious. Even a broken clock is right two times a day.
There’s this rap. Behind my kit, I’m holding my sticks like a fork and knife, waiting for a late meal to be served finally. Even though lunch has just been smoked. No dishes. I’m brilliant. Three of them. One has a black eye. The other has a scab shaped like a lightening bolt on his shin. The third has corn rows and a basketball at his hip. All four of us are roughly the same height and have roughly the same mix of masculinity and femininity to our features, but only three of us are rough. “Kim home?” they want to know. “I’ll play if you want.” Sour, their pusses. “Two on two,” I offer. “You any good?” the shiner-one asks. “Good?” I say. “Are you kidding? They call me the White Larry Bird.” So me and Corn Rows versus Shiner and Scabby then. My move is sending the ball into orbit around my waist. They see this and are impressed. “Kiss your moms at the bus stop,” I say, “Because I’m taking you all to school.” With that, they are further wowed. Until I check the ball out from my chest like I’m shoving someone. Their eyes roll like shoes in Laundromat dryers. Dribbling up court, Shiner slaps the ball away from me and lays up the first point. Corn Rows looks at me like, Come on! This time he checks and Scabby’s on him as soon as he passes half court. I am the wide open Specific Ocean. I’m unguarded under the net and flagging Corn Rows down like my car has crapped out on the side of the highway. But he makes a break for the hoop anyway. And is denied. “I was open,” I say. “Didn’t see you,” he says. So: two to fuck you. I check and charge towards half court, jump, plant my feet, and take my shot. Nothing but air. There are other things I could be doing right now. Learning Wipe Out, or perfecting that Hole in the Bucket routine with Mr. Dumbface. Their bodies change after my Hail Mary. Before, they were on the balls of their feet, but now they’re flatfooted as detectives. The boys turn languid and gentle. Carrying the ball, forgetting to dribble, I slip past Shiner and sink my first. Kim is a stickler, will call all transgressions. A kid stink-eyes him and it’s a foul. Kim will slap his wrist like he’s demanding the proper time. For a travel he will spin his fists, one around the other, in some furious rumba. “Wasn’t that travelling?” I ask. They exchange glances. Kim will take his penalty shot and always just barely miss. “Two-one,” they say. Because I am fifteen years older than them, and am now obviously a worse basketball player, they let me drive the lane and tie. They’re making allowances now. If anything, I should be paying their allowances. Corn Rows is open under the net and I’m being halfheartedly swarmed by Shiner and Scabby. If I’m as bad at basketball as I know I am, then this is all an accident: I feed Corn Rows the rock. Feed it to him when he isn’t looking. No dishes. They wanted to end this. So I end it. In no way like tears, blood dribbles out of Corn Rows’ nose and dots his jersey that’s long as a dress. Let them clot their own selves. At home I hide behind my kit. And the phone bringles. My first impulse is to start banging away at the skins so as to justify not hearing it. But before I can Belly leaps up — thump, thump — and curls up for a nap on my floor tom.
Kim and I went for a walk when I got home from work. It’s winter now. Belly’s been gone two weeks and in that time they’ve demolished and excavated one of the old factories to make way for condos by the spring. Which means that if Kim were still working he’d only have to travel a block over for work. Kim tells me he looks for her in the day, but who knows. Dusk was frigid and quiet, and my eyes started to water. “I’m just getting used to it,” I say.