It was in the fall of ’69 that things began to happen.
Pugwash in the sixty’s was about as idyllic a setting as one could hope to find. Harboured safely from the ethical and political turmoil that characterized the end of the age of innocence, it thrived in all the quaint comfort of ambiguity and changeless rhythm of easy life.
At least outwardly.
For even the simplest fabrics of society are eventually permeated with progress, the tightly woven fibres of tradition and morality inevitably becoming stretched with the weight of a new age. Slow to expose itself, modernism wrecked its havoc in the shadows until it could no longer be concealed behind facades of naivety.
I was part of my own quiet whirlwind, not bound by any particular movement, not endeavouring to answer to a generational call for rebellion. My journey was my own.
It felt that way, anyway.
September that year found me as low as I had ever been. I was wretched and I knew it.
For starters, I had left home last week.
Ever since Dad had passed away a year ago, Mom had done little but sit in her recliner, watch the TV and smoke. When I could handle being home and in the same room as her, she would stare at me mindlessly, not saying a word. Just puffing and dissecting me with her eyes. I honestly had no idea the depth of her knowledge regarding my state. She never asked, her ignorance excusing her negligence. I found I couldn’t stand her. I’m not sure what bothered me more – the brooding silence or the occasional ill-timed suggestion she’d fling out.
“Get out of this town. Go get yourself a real job,” She’d say around her cigarette. As if my success would somehow redeem her lethargy.
It was in those moments that I’d find myself experiencing a keen and unexpected pull of grief. I missed my Dad. In his absence I realized his quiet presence had been my champion. He had died too soon, too quickly.
And I was truly alone. I couldn't think about it. I retreated deeper into myself.
We were not the kind of family to talk out our sorrow. Or to talk at all. Now that it was just Mom and I – the silence had become larger than us. It had been inflated with the gasps of death, strengthened its sinews with the tension of bereavement.
It had been a relief to leave, honestly. To move in with Reggie and be done with quiet guilt, the endless long looks of sadness, the cloying aftermath of sorrow. To have at least the pretense of being on my own, foreshadows of independence.
But now this.
“What do you mean I’m fired?” My question was marked with fear as much as it was with anger. A sick knot of dread took hold of my stomach, and I braced myself against the till.
Maybe I should have known this was coming. I mean, how many times can I guy show up a late and half cocked to work and expect to get away with it? I just never thought McIntyre would find the nerve to actually do it. He looked like he was struggling through the moment as much as I was. The weather was unseasonably warm for the fall. Never mind the dozens of whirling fans, the stagnant air was unmovable. The grocery store always felt especially warm for some reason. Even more so now, in the heat of discomfort.
McIntyre wiped the back of his neck with his hand.
“I’m sorry, Jack. I can only afford to keep someone who’s worth their pay.”
His words were fair enough. I definitely wasn’t worth my pay. And McIntyre didn’t even know about the packs of cigarettes I snuck out with me at the end of every shift.
“So this is it?” It seemed unbelievable that after my three years of working there, I had just finished my last shift.
“I’m afraid so,” He seemed as miserable as I did, as I laid my apron across the register.
I had known McIntyre for as long as I could remember. I used to cut his lawn in the summers. He had hired me without an interview.
“So long, McIntyre,” I couldn’t keep the despondency from colouring my voice.
“Wait, Jack,” McIntyre said quickly as I turned to go. “Here,” he pushed a pack across the counter. A peace offering. Or maybe he knew about the stolen packs after all.
Either way, I thanked him and left. I didn’t go far. I sat down on the ground outside the grocery store, my back against the brick wall. I had taken many breaks there in the past. And just like that I was done. My service to my secret addictions had won out. Above all, I served drugs. And that was okay with me. Everyone served somebody, didn’t they?
The sunset was setting over the river, casting strange oblong shadows across the parking lot. I stayed, hidden in the dusk. I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I felt like I was walking away from the only real thing I had possessed in my life. The safety of routine, the security of pay, all suddenly gone. I had to linger just a bit longer. Somehow I knew when I left the protection of soft darkness I would begin to process this unexpected change. I wasn’t ready for that. But when was I ever ready to think? I often wondered how other people did it. The ones that made it through life without needing an endless cycle of drugs.
Like the woman approaching the store, her bright yellow heels clicking against the uneven asphalt towards me. She was clean, shiny, happy. The little girl hanging off her hand stared at me. She looked rosy and hot. She grinned at me.
I smiled back at her. She waved.
“Don’t stare at him,” the mother gave the girl’s hand a rough shake. She managed to squeeze a scowl in my direction as they hurried past into the building.
I didn’t blame her. Who would want their little girl looking at the thug slouched outside the grocery store? Who wanted their daughter seeing what happened when someone ruined everything just for that sweet feeling of simply not thinking?
I fumbled around inside my coat pocket until I found what I was looking for. Taking a drag of my joint, I closed my eyes and willed myself to relax until pain was slowly, mercifully replaced by ecstasy.
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