I got a job as a purple dinosaur that kids could get their picture taken with, on the corner of St. Catherine’s and Peel in Montreal.
“Why the hell are you doing that?” my brother Otis asked when I announced that I was now fully employed.
“Why?” I replied. “Why?”
Otis spent his days in a hydraulic swivel chair, masking himself from halitosis and TB while excavating pinholes of rot out other peoples’ teeth. He’d hold out a gloved hand and Yasmina would place a glowing orange biolaser there. “Thank you Yasmina,” he’d say in a voice low and muffled.
I made a commission off every photo a child had taken on my purple lap. Kids called me “Barney” and screamed with joy and hugged me with honest and startling love, hugged me like I could save them.
My new boss Harry stood nearby on short, shifty legs, grabbing kids by the collars and shoving them onto my lap. “You want a picture with Barney?” he’d say? “Hey? C’mon. C’mon!” Then he’d snap a ten-dollar polaroid and parents would yell, “You scumbag!”
I felt a lot of tugging, small hands on my dino-suit. I heard shouts and searched the inside of Barney’s head, trying to see out the peepholes, glimpsing bumblebee rain-boots being lifted off the ground, kicking the air. I reached out with my big paws.
Harry had hired me after discovering my street talents a couple of blocks away where I’d been doing public readings of my essays for spare change.
There wasn’t a lot of spare change; the essays were nothing ground-breaking and it was starting to get cold, the wind off the river going straight to skeleton, making it rattle. Mine had been nudging at my shoulder-flesh, poking around my torso until it was either food or the dignity of living under my own roof and I chose the former and moved in with my brother.
A framed portrait of a yellow Corvette hung above Otis’s yellow leather couch where I slept. Otis also had a silver refrigerator, but that didn’t help me much because he only ate arepas from the store below the anthropomorphic tooth that glowed in his office window.
“What’s an arepa anyhow?” I asked.
“The ideal meal,” he said. Then he pointed at my face. “Let me fix that.”
“You mean my crooked one?”
“I can handle a little orthodontics. What, you don’t think I can do braces? There’s a rainbow of rubber bands to choose from. You could clean my office in return.”
“No chance! You see this as a flaw, but this is my facial sense of humour. Gilles saw it. Gilles knew.”
Gilles was the man I’d been spending time with ever since I started stepping out of a dinosaur suit with forty bucks in my pocket – more than enough for one of those little glasses of amber port at the Gypsy bar, the place I went to write my essays. One evening I shared a cushioned bench with Gilles and he leaned over and said, “That guy there is from a whole other time. Look at him. A World War One face if I’ve ever seen one.”
I eyed a narrow, buck-toothed kid cleaning glasses and I had to agree with Gilles. “Looks like someone who might’ve caught miner’s lung in nineteen-twelve.”
“Ha!” Gilles said.
Gilles was silver-haired with the figure of a healthy thirty-four-year-old inside his autumn jacket. Not that I’m one to judge figures. I’m more interested in noses, and his was long with a handsome bend that had the deceptive effect of making his smile look crooked. He removed the plaid hunter’s jacket and laughed at something happening on the other side of the room: three old men dancing like it was disco night, wheezing hard as though they might die. I laughed with Gilles and with the old men and with everyone else in the room.
On the open page of my notebook I’d left a sentence that I’ll never know how to finish. It read: When we can’t sleep we…
Later that night, after someone had kindly bought me two more petite glasses of port and many old men were dancing, I asked Gilles what he did when he couldn’t sleep.
“I think of a kid I love.”
“Are there many?”
“A certain six-year-old. My nephew. He’s got a cup of innocence in his hands.”
“Jeez,” I said. “That sounds dangerous.”
“He’s got a long way to go without spilling.”
“Does thinking of him help?”
“It makes me get up. Call it night, as you English say.”
“You call it a night, and get out of bed?”
“Step outside and look at the street from my balcony. Wait for the snowplough brigade to come by like a team of armoured ants.”
“God I love them.”
“It’s the sound, you know? The low, hollow scraping, coming from far off. Something happening.”
“I like how you say that.”
“Something happening.” He took a thoughtful sip of beer.
“Not a lot of people know someone who lives on Sherbrooke Street anymore. They plough that one like demons. God!” He suddenly stopped talking and studied my face. “You’ve got a cute tooth.”
I probed the overlapping one with my tongue. Without saying so, I agreed.
I didn’t go back to the Gypsy bar just to see Gilles, but when I did see him we waved to each other and he came over to my corner table where two could fit. I was busy with an essay about the parapsychology institute up the hill where I had once found a temporary job after finishing the Masters degree that had trained me to write a lot of essays, but little else. So, for eleven dollars an hour, I offered my services as a guinea pig in an experiment that some parapsychologists were doing about ghosts of history.
“They put sensors on my head,” I told Gilles, “and spoke to me about a passenger ship called the SS Sardinian that arrived in the port of Quebec City in 1899.”
“Scientists did this?”
“They asked me to recall the smell of the sea air. The noise of the crowds on the lower decks. Then they measured the waves that my brain emitted as I spoke.”
“I bet those brainwaves make a pretty picture.”
“But they wouldn’t give them to me! It still upsets me so much to think of it. Those brain waves were the only thing I wanted, but they said they only had one copy and they needed it.”
“We could go find it.”
“They’ve got some ancient machines up there,” I said. “Filled with ghosts.”
Then Gilles said, “I’ve heard about the clinical trials. See him over there? That guy in the maroon toque? That’s how he makes a living.”
“I’ll go talk to him,” I said. “I need facts from other experimentees.”
The man in the greasy maroon toque who had also made an unreliable living as a guinea pig up at the Medical Research Centre went by the name of Eduardo Cabalas. He had hollow cheeks and a ragged moustache and he told me that doctors had put probes on his temples and got him to gamble for forty-eight hours while he did lines of pure cocaine off of a stainless steel tray.
“Did they give you a rolled up bill?” I asked.
Eduardo threw his head back and laughed loudly. He cackled with his eyes shut. His teeth clacked as he gasped and chomped at the air. “It was a five!” he finally whispered, wiping tears.
“A five dollar bill.”
“I remember that trial,” I said. “I tried to get in on it, but you had to know blackjack.”
“And that I do,” he said, suddenly glum. “But then I couldn’t stop playing. The games went faster and faster. The scientists would come by at regular intervals with measured amounts of pure cocaine and I’d go at it like a hungry anteater, then get back to the game with my eyelids stretched wide open. They had to tear the cards out of my grip when the job was done. I staggered out into the bright morning and got on the Longueil bus. I took all my money – nine hundred dollars in forty-eight hours – and went straight to the casino on Notre Dame Island and lost it all on craps because there was no blackjack table open at that hour of the morning and shooting craps is exactly what translates as. Oh,” he moaned. “I came down off that clinical trial hard.” He shook his head. “I’d qualified for that trial because of my gambling history. Believe me, nothing’s changed.” He was grim. “I did a trial where they gave me foot fungus. I did one where they filled a room with fog. Then one for laser-fillings.”
“Of the teeth?”
“But we’ve hit a dry spell. The only trial I know of now requires you be obese.”
“That’s a hard thing to catch in times like these.” Then I told Eduardo Cabalas about the purple dinosaur suit.
“Good deal,” he said.
“I could use someone to give me a break once or twice. Maybe we could alternate shifts. I’m doing alright at the moment. See those?” I pointed at two stuffed grocery bags under the corner table. “Those are mine. And the boss, Harry, he lets you smoke in the suit – hands a cigarette in through the dinosaur’s peep holes to give you a puff.”
Gilles came over with a bell-shaped glass and handed to me. I thanked him sincerely. We clinked with Eduardo Cabalas. “Come by tomorrow,” I said. “St. Catherine’s and Peel.”
Then Gilles and I raised our arms to some sweet violin music and began to dance. Our moves were hilarious and I couldn’t stop laughing at our dancing style. My cheeks burned like I’d just finished a holiday dinner. It was warm in there.
The next day the man in the greasy maroon toque came downtown and saw me, the big purple dinosaur, with my paws up against a police cruiser. One minute earlier, I’d heard Harry yell a stream of filthy French words; then I glimpsed his legs running full speed toward Sherbrooke. Next thing I knew, two cops grabbed my puffy arms and pushed me against the cruiser.
“What about the kids?” I called through the cushioning. There were kids everywhere, watching me get roughhoused. “Think about the kids!”
I could hear kids calling, “Barney! Barney!” And some were crying.
“Don’t do it!” I yelled when the cops pulled my purple head off. “Don’t make the kids watch this!”
My pinhead stuck out of the suit, long strands of my black hair rising from static electricity. The cops shoved me into the backseat. I waved a paw to the man in the greasy maroon toque who was clutching his stomach, laughing violently. I waved to the kids. Their parents laughed and took pictures. Kids stared at my real face with confusion in their eyes. But they still waved.
At the station, amidst the criminals and mistaken criminals and loved-ones of criminals, a detective sat me down and asked me about a ship.
“A container ship. At the port of Longueil.”
“Is that near Notre Dame Island?”
“We’re keeping you here,” he said, “unless you tell us everything you know.”
“There’s a casino around there. I have a friend…”
“He was on the corner when you were busting me.”
“What does he know?”
“A thing or two about obsession. The white room. The single-mind track.”
“You messing with us?”
“You got a place that I can sleep?”
Otis picked me up in the morning in his white BMW. “You are busted, Miss Novak,” he said. “You are so busted.”
I laughed but he wasn’t trying to make a joke. He drove us to his office and handed me a mop. I leaned the mop against the wall and made coffee in the mini-kitchen and while it hissed, I listened to Otis murmuring soft periodontal words to Yasmina as they communed over fleshy interior of an open mouth. In the afternoon Otis treated me to pork and pea arepas from the depanneur downstairs.
It turned out the suit had been directly lifted off a container ship down at the port. It was also in violation of copyright.
I went to Gypsy bar to explain the loss of the job to Eduardo Cabalas. His dirty maroon toque was nowhere to be seen in the Friday afternoon crowd, but Gilles was at the corner table. He stood and waved me over. There was a look in his eye of a man who couldn’t wait to share some big news. He grinned and beckoned. In his hand he held a long brown tube, the kind of thing used for shipping large glossy prints of Corvettes to dentists.
As soon as I took the tube in my hand, I knew what it was. “No,” I whispered. “You didn’t.”
I pictured Gilles trotting up the stone steps of the cold, dark parapsychology institute. I saw him slipping past the thin woman at the reception desk, down the long hallway with slate floors and many tall closed doors. “But how in the world?” I asked. And then I said, “Wait. Don’t ever tell me. I never want to know.”
There, in the middle of the Gypsy Bar, I unfurled my brain waves. Yellow lightning bolts rose and fell in jagged arcs along silver paper. In the midst of the patterns there were mysterious moments where the lines of my thoughts lost definition, glowing outward in blurry shapes. Like stars.