Here Comes a Regular
When Ann and I cross the river to go downtown, we always take the same bridge. When we emerge from the valley, we’re close to Oliver, a neighbourhood I lived in 25 years ago. Sometimes we drive past a bar on
Street called the Gas Pump. Ann says, “That was
your old hangout.” “Yeah, it’s still going, amazing.” “We should drop in one
day.” “God, I’m afraid I might know somebody.”
In the spring of 1990 I moved from
Montreal to .
I wanted a career that involved a tie and a tweed jacket instead of a tie and
an A&P apron. I had limited success in my hometown after university. I did
some freelance writing. I’d published a couple of short stories. I hated myself
and was profoundly dissatisfied with the life I’d forged. I wanted to be closer
to my brother who had moved to Edmonton
in 1973. I suppose I needed him to direct me, push me, the way he had when we
were growing up in the same house. Trouble was I was married. I did not consult
my wife about my plans so much as deliver her a fait accompli; my intent was
that she should not be dragged down too. Edmonton
I rented a one-bedroom in a high rise located on
near Jasper Avenue,
lovely concrete the Wimbledon. There was a
living room and a dining area off the galley kitchen, a surprisingly large
storage closet and a lengthy hallway to the bathroom that suited my
bookshelves. I was finally working in advertising. I began to daydream about
writing a novel that would unfold over the course of a Triple A baseball season,
bleachers, rain delays, peanut shells and beer cups.
The apartment came with a flaw that was not addressed in any clause of the lease. When I stepped off the bus and took the elevator up to my new home, there I was, just me, my regrets and my flaws. I couldn’t tolerate my company. When you can’t bear to go home, you’ve got a problem. Pacing around my lair after smoking in the bathroom with the fan on, I’d pause to look out the window. Across the alley was a red building which resembled a giant brick. There were business awnings at the bottom and five or six storeys of residential above. There was a place that looked like a refuge to me from me, the Gas Pump.
Ann and I went into the Gas Pump one recent Saturday. It sort of looked the same but it didn’t. The bar was still intact. The tables by the windows with the bonus sill seats were still there. The paint colours had changed and seemed relatively fresh. We quizzed the bartender though she probably wasn’t born when I did my time in the joint. And out of the mouth of a babe: “Todd still works here. He’s on days now.” “Todd? Todd! Does he still weigh 90 pounds?” “Eighty-five now.” “Jesus.”
One day after work I skipped the elevator ride to the tenth floor of the Wimbledon. I went straight to the Gas Pump with a folded Edmonton Journal under my arm. I picked an empty stool at the bar and made a beeline for it every day thereafter. I’d nod to the faces that were slowly becoming familiar. I’d peruse the newspaper and then begin work on the crossword puzzle. Sometimes I’d ask the regulars about a clue. If there was a game on TV, sometimes I’d chime in with a remark. Todd became attuned to my old
habit of ordering two draught beers
at a time. Before too long I was deemed reliable enough to be allowed to run a
tab as I made new, flimsy friends. Montreal
Russ and Vance worked in the oil patch in some capacity. Sometimes they’d talk about going to
together to force
themselves to quit drinking. Russ reminded me of the actor William Holden, a
little past his prime. Vance was prematurely grey and balding, his flushed face
fast food heat lamp red. Vance got married while I was working on a down
crossword clue but never left his barstool and so it didn’t last. Saudi Arabia
Steve, his younger brother Denis and their friend Morris published News for Seniors, a monthly tabloid. They played cribbage constantly. Together we formed a disastrous curling team one winter and an equally disastrous slo-pitch team one summer. Nadine was an attractive redhead who worked for those guys, a single mother, willing to do everything required to prop up a teetering small business operated by gamblers and drinkers for a paycheque that wouldn’t bounce. Administration? Ad sales? Distribution?
Kate was a talk radio host with no off switch, ON AIR all the time. Her friend Barb was a school teacher who sipped white wine and read Victorian novels amid the din. Terry managed the bakery department of a Safeway grocery store. Ted, a retired lawyer, would arrive every Saturday at exactly noon for his weekly two-ounce tipple before going home, everything on his wife’s errands list neatly crossed out. The Cowboy was
incarnation of the Marlboro Man, a regular who didn’t talk much and the only
murder victim with whom I have ever been acquainted. Edmonton
The Cowboy’s girlfriend was a Filipina beauty. Word around the Gas Pump was that she was mail order. She’d march in from time to time to scream at him. He’d just look over at Vance and shrug. The rest of us would stare into our drinks, so nothing different unless a game was on. The Cowboy ditched her. She withheld a second key to his apartment and the knives were in the kitchen. There were whispers too about goings-on in the back of the Gas Pump, bookmaking and cocaine dealings. And that girl over there with the shaved chemotherapy head? Rumour had it that she’d do anything for anybody in the underground garage and she read Tarot cards too.
Last Saturday Ann and I returned to the Gas Pump for a second time. Standing behind the bar dressed entirely in black was a wraith with longish, blondish, grayish wispy hair. “Todd,” I said. I took off my cap and held out my hand. I could see by his eyes that he was scrolling through the years. I introduced myself. Maybe he really did remember and recognize me because I haven’t changed one iota.
There wasn’t much news. Steve had died of cancer. Vance had passed just a year or so ago. As for everybody else, they had moved on. Maybe some of them were dead too. He blinked at me. “I just started working days, man, can’t get used to the sun.” He mumbled something about retirement not being a viable option yet.
I said, “Jesus. Your vampire days are over.”
He smiled. “I’ve got something to show you.” He pulled out his phone, pressed an icon and began to swipe. “My granddaughter.” Todd showed us a picture of himself with an infant, the pair of them in matching Rolling Stones t-shirts. We laughed. “Man, I didn’t even know you could get Stones stuff for babies.”
“Mick’ll sell you anything,” I replied. I paid for my pint. Ann’s club soda was on the house. “All right, thanks,” I said, “good to see you again. Are the toilets still in the back?”
“No, man, other end. You’ve got to walk all the way to Jasper now. Hey, I work Tuesdays through Saturdays, days, come back and see me.”