Sauntering down Aisle 6 at the 24-hour Dominion grocery store, Lee is cradling an overly large zucchini. It sits inside the sleeve of his thick pea-green parka, where he is pretending to house a broken limb. He conjures the cast’s hard shell and the way he’d have to lay on the couch watching daytime TV instead of dishwashing for eight hours at a time. He considers breaking his elbow, a swift snap. Then it wouldn’t be a lie.
Lee has a strange relationship to the truth. The truth sticks her tongue in his mouth obsessively. She runs her hand up his leg, almost, whispering, Why are you shoplifting a zucchini, you fucking idiot? Lee suspects he has latent Tourette’s, what with these voices coming in sharp spurts, accompanied by a shudder or a shoulder tick.
Lately the truth is too much. Last week, there was a staff party at the restaurant. Everyone got too drunk. His girlfriend Linda was throwing up in the bathroom downstairs in the basement for what seemed like hours. Kevin, the other dishwasher and Lee’s sometimes after-work friend, disappeared. When Lee finally found Linda, she’d been hit in the face, her dress torn. She couldn’t tell him what had happened until the next day, and it was all in pieces. She kept saying, It was Kevin, but it was more like a Kevin imposter. He was a monster. I kept pushing him off me, but he wouldn’t stop.
Lee brushes away the truth’s impalpable hand, walks towards the front cash.
“The worst thing is the itching,” he tells the cashier, a bottle redhead, who nods sympathetically as he pays for a pack of cinnamon gum.
“I broke my wrist last year. It sucked,” she says. Lee feels a slippery worm of guilt sliding down the back of his throat. The woman shifts from anonymous cashier to someone with bones that can fracture and heal. He slides the gum in the back pocket of his fading black work pants.
Sometimes Lee uses a crutch. Once, a fake wheelchair stolen by his older brother Dan to use for scams.
Tucked in his Y-front briefs is steak wrapped in Styrofoam. In his right boot is powdered gravy. Up his other sleeve a slim candy bar, for good luck. Always take something from right up front if you’re going to bother.
Lee comes from criminals. “It’s in your blood,” Dan told him as a kid. “Forget working class, we’re thieving class.” He’d pump up his chest, throwing Lee over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes while Lee kicked and giggled, yelling, Let me down! Put me down! Stop! Before Dan finally laid him out on the grass of their yard and tickled him until he yelled Mercy!
Lee still shoplifts on occasion, but he doesn’t do anything else illegal. He has vowed to stop stealing as soon as he makes an annual income above the poverty line. He has never hit anyone or stolen money from a person. He is an anomaly in his family, and he likes it that way.
Lee is thin and lanky, almost girly. Blondish hair, shy smile. His voice lilts a little, higher than most men, and he is often called a fag because of this. Miraculously, despite his femininity, he has never been beaten up or fought anyone. As a kid, Dan was always around to fight for him, and as an adult, he managed to avoid it. He never wanted to hit anyone before. It was what separated him from the rest of his family — the fact that he could avoid it. He counts himself lucky and always had. His adult life was filled with things he created so carefully: good friends, warm holidays, minimal conflict.
Six days ago, it was as though all of his warmth, all of his luck he lived with, was thrown into an industrial blender. He looked at his limbs and couldn’t tell if they were his. Is this my arm? Drop a dish. You’d be surprised how good it feels. To watch shards of white restaurant plates finish their purposeful lives and get swept away into giant dustbins caked with blackened grease and dirt.
What the fuck is your problem? Eyebrow twitch. He shakes his shoulders around to calm his muscular outbursts.
Lee is trying to look forward to supper. George and Stephanie invited him over to get away, out of the house. Steph will bake something weird like a buttermilk pie. She’s very Little House on the Prairie right now. She’s declared a household embargo against beer and pizza, and has taken to doing things like making her own crackers and dehydrating her own fruit. She always makes cordial and serves it in tall parfait glasses with silly straws. Exotic fruit cut up in the shape of stars and hearts on the side of the plate. She likes presentation. She has a lot of fruit scrubs and a lotion that smells like cookies in her tiny bathroom.
George and Stephanie are one of those couples who would shake the foundation of all your beliefs if they ever broke up; a ball of yarn in complementary colours. They have weekly dinner parties with Lee and other friends, but this is the first one since the staff party. They wanted Linda to come, for her to feel comforted and distracted, but she declined the invitation.
The snow crunches underneath Lee’s work boots. Sounds like the crack in his jaw where he holds all of his tension. He walks up Brunswick Avenue a little shoplifting-high, a little remorseful. Mostly hungry and blank. He can’t help wondering when his brain will return, as if it was erased by what happened.
Lee has stopped plotting to hurt Kevin for the first time in six days. Squeeze, or kick, or punch him until he cries. He is trying to make peace with the situation, going against his mother’s suggestion to “kick the living shit outta that waste of skin,” at Linda’s pleading to “just let it go.”
All other days have gone as follows:
Bring Linda breakfast in bed, wait until it is congealed and she is still staring up at the ceiling. Take it away. Stand in living room with daytime television on for noise. “My Teen Daughter Wants to Be a Stripper and a Humanitarian!” Bring her bouquets of flowers, novelty candy from the store across from Future Bakery, books of poetry from Book City. Remind her to go to counseling appointment, doctor. Shuffle in her mother, her sister, Steph, who is her best friend. Apply arnica to her bruises. Hold her if she cries. She only cries once, usually, before Lee goes to work.
Linda talks. There was a guy in high school, her swim coach. There was a trial, a jail sentence, a school divided. Linda is reminded of it all, and can’t go outside. When the coach went to jail, six months plus probation, she didn’t feel satisfied. Still, people avoided her. Blamed her. When Lee suggested calling the cops about Kevin, Linda said, Why bother. Didn’t work the first time.
Outside is too much. Lee is trying to be a good boyfriend, support her, but he is completely uncertain what to do.
He goes to work at the restaurant and works an eight hour shift dishwashing. Lee calls her on the hour.
“I’m fine, don’t worry so much. I’m just, tired.”
“Do you need anything?”
“I need you to not do anything stupid. Bye.”
When she hangs up, always first, Lee rests his head against the brown grease-stained wall next to the pinned-up schedule and tries to breathe. Lee’s name is written in red marker eleven days in a row. He has no days off because Kevin quit so suddenly, just didn’t show up the day after the staff party.
Kevin. Lee can’t even think his name without his eyes going out of focus, the dirty floor paneling shifting. Kevin. Lee blacks out all the Kevins that appear on the January work calendar. Out of ink. Tries again with his nail. His nails have grown long from neglect.
He brings the mop water out into the alley to dump and looks up to the third storey window where Kevin lives above the restaurant. He thinks it would be too easy, to walk up the stairs, break down the door. Instead, Lee goes back into the kitchen, where every move his body makes feels leaden and irritating. When he thinks there may be a lull long enough for a smoke break, another table clears, another grease-caked pan arrives.
After punching out, he declines invitations to go next door for pints and pinball and instead climbs up the fire escape of Kevin’s building.
He watches through the window. Kevin’s in red jogging pants and a shirt that says “I Survived the Black-Out 03.” He smokes and flicks the remote. Picks at the knee hole in his pants. His girlfriend sleeps on the armchair. It’s the same every night. Stops to roll joints on a TV guide. Eventually falls asleep. Lee looks for signs of distress in his face, guilty dark bags under his eyes. Finds nothing.
Lee goes home when a woman startles him, walking through the alley muttering to herself. He notices his fingers are numb, and he’s lost his nerve. If there was one thing valuable he learned from his brother it’s that you don’t want to go to jail. The voices of reason beat the voices that chastise and degrade.
Stephanie is doing pretty well, considering Linda is her best friend. George is one of those people who deals with tragedy very calmly. He has been writing letters to the community paper about safety for women in the neighbourhood. He has been examining his life and begun using phrases like "I’ve been noticing my male privilege."
George has never seen a crime that he wasn’t watching on television. He thought it would feel different, that it would feel monumental. His own composure scares him.
Stephanie is all life goes on, and it coulda been worse, and she’ll heal and move on. Steph had a gun in her mouth during a hold up at the Cash Mart, a father who locked her in a closet for three days, and scar in her left foot where someone once stabbed her when she bartended at a strip club.
When Lee arrives for dinner at the apartment that Stephanie and George share with some other kids from school, she notices his TV-dinner eyes. His complexion is an old dishrag.
“You look good,” she says, giving him a friendly hug. Stephanie regards her position amongst their peer group as Den Mother, emotional glue stick, party starter, and conflict mediator.
Stephanie watches silently while Lee reaches into his pants, pulls out the steak. She grabs his red offering and smiles warmly, careful to hold his gaze, hoping to transmit some comfort. She’s worried for him. He doesn’t seem right. Even though she knew he was sensitive, erratic, a soft little boy with the exterior of a lanky slacker comic book artist.
She sits Lee down on the couch and runs her hands over his head before going into the kitchen to bring out a tray of lime cordials. George is finishing up a PlayStation game while Stephanie tells Lee about her latest art project embroidering internal organs on the outside of cowboy shirts.
Lee seems pretty calm, considering, being around his friends.
“So, Linda doesn’t want to come eh?”
“I made buttermilk pie — her favourite.”
“Yeah,” Lee says, shrugging. “She’s still taking those sleeping pills the doctor gave her.”
The dinner table is set with a frilly lace tablecloth and fancy china Stephanie bought at an antique sale two weeks ago. A plastic pitcher with Strawberry Shortcake is filled with strawberry daiquiri. “My latest eBay conquest,” Stephanie says, filling the metallic pink pint glasses with the pulpy liquid.
All three take bites and chew methodically. When they are done, George clears the dishes away and Stephanie prepares the pie and ice cream.
Lee says it first.
“I want to hurt him.”
Stephanie says, fork clinking on china, “I want to kill him.”
George raises his eyebrows a bit. Closes his eyes tightly, turns red. “We could probably get away with it.”
Anna, their cherubic roommate walks into the kitchen, mumbles, “Hey.” She looks like a commercial for facial cleanser. She goes into the living room and turns on the television. The sound of The Simpsons fills the apartment. The one where Maggie shoots Mr. Burns.
“I love this one,” they say simultaneously, getting up and heading towards the other room.
Lee goes to the bathroom and throws up. George watches TV with Anna. Stephanie chain-smokes. Lee watches the swirls of former pie turn and he thinks he might faint. He rests his head on the toilet bowl, snivels, squeezes his eyes shut.
What am I supposed to do with this? How can I live with this?
The truth climbs up his spine, says, You’re just going to have to.
Lee knows that he is the worst person to ever live. He hadn’t fully believed it before. He protested vehemently his own self-worth. But here it was, staring him in the face while the creamy vomit swirled down. Like his mom used to say, “You’re fucking nothing. You sissy little shit, you’ll never be anything.”
The memory of his mother’s voice sometimes sounds like the truth, the same soft woman, insistent and composed. It confuses him. He heaves again.
Leaving the washroom, George hands the cordless to Lee with an anxious look on this face. Linda says, “I hear something outside. I can’t breathe.”
Lee grabs his coat and runs out to the street, keeps a steady pace the whole two blocks home. He climbs into bed with her, still wearing his parka and sloppy snow-covered work boots. She is staring at the ceiling. He holds her and falls asleep there, dreams about eating fish sticks made from dead prime ministers. When he tells Linda about the dream, it’s the first time he’s heard her laugh since it happened.
The next day Lee comes out of the kitchen at work, wipes his wet, pruned hands on his apron, and walks to the bar to have a smoke. George is sitting there nursing a pint, “Hey, I was waiting for you to take a break. Come with me.” He takes Lee by the arm, weaves through the tables, and out into the street, even though they are both wearing T-shirts and the snow melts on their pale arms. He stops three doors down at a storefront window. Looking in they can see a self-defense class in session.
“I’ve been watching them for an hour,” George says. “And I think I know how to do it, how we could really fuck Kevin up, you know, make him pay for what he did.”
“Are we going to kick him in the groin until he dies?” Lee asks, laughing. Inside, a sweaty blond in a ponytail is kicking a padded person that looks like the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters.
“Well,” says George, who is even more girly than Lee, more timid and non-confrontational, has never so much as landed a punch, Lee guesses.
“We need Stephanie,” Lee says.
They run around the corner to George and Steph’s apartment. Stephanie is doing crunches on the living room floor, listening to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall.
“How are we going to do it?” George says, panting.
“Why aren’t you guys wearing coats? Do what?”
She sits up, takes the small pink towel from around her neck and dabs at her forehead.
“What the fuck are you talking about? I just said I wanted him dead. I didn’t say I was going to kill him.”
The boys sit down and light smokes. Rub their numbing arms with couch pillows.
“Isn’t your break over?” George asks.
Lee is startled. “Holy shit, I forgot I was still working!”
Lee runs out the door and crosses the street moving fast into the parking lot, ducks into the back door of the restaurant. A backload of dishes, resentful looks from the waiter who hates him. He feels energized, like maybe something will happen, maybe they can make Kevin feel some sort of forced empathy for what he did. They don’t have to kill him, just fuck him up a bit. Like a beat down. Like in rap videos.
Kevin is waiting outside in the alley when Lee goes out to dump out the mop water after closing. His face is a blank glazed donut. Lee feels cheated, that this wasn’t what he planned.
They stare, a foot apart, like two cowboys in a standoff. Kevin starts to speak, “Look, Lee, I don’t really remember everything, I was so wasted, man.”
The crowd in the bar next door cheers after the Leafs score a goal.
Lee’s heart is the only thing he hears. His mouth is dry. He lifts the mop out of the bucket, slopping water all over the pavement. He pushes Kevin up against the brick wall, pins his chest with the mop handle.
“You don’t remember? That’s your excuse?”
Instinct takes over. It must be in his blood, this violence.