Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Toonie

His short waterproof jacket barely made it past the top of his pants. It was a cold, northern night. He needed money. For the bus. For a new pack of smokes. His hands rested in his jacket pocket as he caressed the near empty Pall-Mall soft pack. He knew he needed to go somewhere, do something; it was an itch on his mind. But first he needed money, and downtown was the best bet for a stranger’s generosity.

He was waiting in the street outside the restaurant. It was beside a pay to park lot, and even though the restaurant would reimburse patrons that used the lot, the one-dollar charge was often not significant enough to mention. It was only change, right?

His breath filled the cold air, like an idea of smoke dancing in front of him. He tried to hide his irritation. Today his scar was aching more than usual. Whenever he leaned to his right, the skin would protest by sending slivers of pain to remind him of the past he would never escape. A seared mass of skin running from his left nipple to just below his belt line, the scar was constantly rubbed by his ever-tighter clothing.

A couple in their mid thirties stepped out of a big white truck. Her high-pitched laughter played off the cement buildings, an echo of their carefree chatter. It was time for him to run his game. A little bit of truth, a little bit of sorrow; he knew just how to roll the dice with these two. He would play on their sympathy, shooting a vacuous aura of guilt in their direction. After all, it was a cold, dark night and they had just stepped out of a heated new truck, and were on their way to a fine dinner. They owed him something. Their simple, happy lives were not burdened with the scar, and all the memories that its constant tearing shook from him. These were memories he could use, could distill into the perfect facial expression at a moment’s need. This was the power the scar gave to him, the power to feel perfectly at ease slicing into someone else’s world. It gave him the skill, and it gave him the feeling of entitlement.

Wasn’t all mankind subject to the rules of altruism? Wasn’t the ultimate ideal to help those in need, to engage in kind self-sacrifice? Didn’t everyone need to feel good about themselves? Humanity needed to keep buying life, to keep buying self-worth, one coin at a time. And here he was, offering up self-satisfaction and goodwill for a small price. My god, he thought, I am just like a minister, and these happy, carefree souls are my flock. Without me to provide them with this small chastisement, this release of guilt for their silly, lucky, little lives, they would have no salvation. And was not everyone in need of a little salvation?

“Excuse me, do you have a toonie for the bus?” He stepped into the light so they could see the down-turned lines of his face, his sad, aching eyes. So they could see the way he carried the burden of the world in the hunch of his shoulders, could see the way the turn of his head told them his story, that of a good, hardworking, blue collar man down on his luck.

He carefully maintained his clothing so that he didn’t look like a drunken street bum. People considered that look a nuisance, and the guilt they felt was too large and ugly for them to offer up coins. Homelessness made people shudder, pull their jackets tight, and scuttle away. Their harsh judgment or fear overriding the warm sentiment of giving. But he knew what worked. He knew that they wanted to help someone like themselves. Good, honest folk who were just a bit down on their luck, just a little short of bus fare, just about to catch up and be on their feet again. That was his look. Everything about him seemed to communicate, ‘I just need a little leg up here, folks, and then I’ll buy you a round of beers next time.’

“I need to run in and get change myself for the parking payment, sir.” The man walked inside briefly, checking his phone for messages. His date stood in the parking lot and looked at him. His scar ached more than usual in response to her open gaze. She didn’t seem to be responding with a look of pity and self-sacrifice, or with contempt or judgment. She just watched him, with a soft, but keen awareness. He knew he had to continue his act.

He dug his hands out of his blue jacket pockets, releasing the warm comfort of the nearly empty cigarette package, and brought his hands into a cup in front of his mouth. He ceremoniously blew his hot, humid breath into the pocket in between his hands, in such a way that the slight steam swelled around him, making a display of hot air meeting the cold appraisal of night.

Neither her calm gaze or her face flickered in response, no emotion registered, no look of sympathy resolved itself on her face. He knew at this moment he had to win her over. It seemed like she was calling his skill, his one true gift into question. How dare this privileged bitch question him? She didn’t know his burden. She didn’t feel the aching grip of the scar on her world every day. She just stood there, with her perfect simple life, a pretty white girl always taken care of by the white men that wanted to fuck her. How dare she gaze at him and offer him no resolution, no response to his plight?

He accepted the challenge her open eyes gave him. Was she trying to tell him to let it all go, all the gestures, the act, that she saw through his magic show to some hidden truth underneath? Was she trying to make them equals? She could never be his equal. She did not know the weight and pain of his suffering, years upon years of having to be different.

He rubbed his eyes. He thought about asking her if she had any change for the bus. But who knew what the boyfriend would do, and he could walk out any minute.

Couldn’t she feel that his need, pressing against her from ten feet away, was greater than any need she had ever had in her privileged little life? His was the need born of years of begging, in one form or another. The times when he worked, his bosses always screwed him, firing him for their own lack of foresight and skill. His bills were always behind, late charges eating up what little profit he could make. Everyone always taking advantage of his poor position in life to stick him with another expense on top of what they were already owed. A world of bloodsuckers, all of them be damned.

He had found his talent, one hot summer’s night, when he had spent his last toonie on a pint of cheap beer, and had to borrow another one to catch the bus home. This was his gift, and it dawned on him on the long ride home. In the space in between, while he was looking for a way to hold his body so that the jarring of the bus, shock-less and old, wouldn’t shake his scar the wrong way. The ease with which he had been handed that coin, a shared handshake between two brothers helping each other get through one more week in this hard-knock life. What camaraderie, what mirth, what secretive joy had taken seed in his heart. Oh! The ease!! He was reborn that night, with the quiet enthusiasm that a child gets when they peek at their Christmas presents weeks before the unwrapping. His scar gifted him all the tools he had ever needed.

He took it to the streets after work, honing his craft, sometimes on the very people he worked with during the day. A free beer here, a lift home there. Change for the bus, borrowed until he cashed his paycheck. Somehow, it never seemed important to pay people back, it was only change anyway, and who was that cheap that they really cared?

His last boss had tried to fire him after the first round of tools had disappeared. But that wasn’t his fault. Someone should have locked the garage door that night. It wasn’t his fault, even though he was last to leave. The supervisor was supposed to check each night that everything was locked down. It wasn’t his fault that the supervisor went home early to celebrate his daughter’s first birthday. Hey, it’s not in my job description. I don’t work security. I’m a mechanic.

But after that the boss had had it in for him. There was no way that old fool could have known he’d been waiting for just that opportunity to make a profit. He worked like a dog all day, and he was taking his bonus. Plus, he was sure tool theft was covered by insurance, and a new set of tools showed up the next day. Although the box they came in had the supervisor’s last name on it. Not his problem, anyway. The supervisor should have followed protocol and done his job.

He got written up three times, twice for being late (but only by 20 minutes, and only cause he missed his bus, not his fault the bus came early on Mondays) and once for forgetting to charge his cousin for the new brakes he had taken all afternoon to install. Hey, she was wearing a low-cut top, and flirted with him the whole time, slowing him down, slurping pop through a straw, and punctuating her short statements with cute little giggles. Not his fault he got distracted, and forgot to get her address or phone number, or even a name on the work order. Not his fault she got in to “try out” the new brakes, and didn’t come back to the shop to pay. He never told his boss that she was his cousin, and lived on Sewell Street, just north of the railroad crossing. Fuck that prick of a boss; he didn’t know what it was like to be nothing in this world but a poor man with a scar and a fucked up story. He needed a little attention from a woman every now and again, even if she was his cousin.

That was how he thought before he discovered his gift. His true power. He could get women now, the same tricks worked on them as on co-workers, friends, and strangers.

Why was she just standing there? Shouldn’t she have gone inside with her boyfriend? Why would he have just left her outside with a stranger asking for money? There was something not right with this couple. They were not behaving, not responding in the manner of good, upstanding citizens. Didn’t she know you should not stare at bums? Although it wasn’t that she was staring, she just wasn’t looking away. She just wasn’t giving him any kind of real attention either, any acknowledgement for his plight.

He felt like ripping his shirt off, and running over to her and shouting, ‘See? See what I have had to live with, all these years!!! See the way it is red down here from where my pants cut into it? It never heals!!! It forever scratches at my mind, remember me!! Remember me!! I have no peace, because I cannot forget how this scar came and took up residence in my world!! Do you understand what it is like to live this way? The scar makes me fail; I can never be anything, anything but this!! This is my only success!! This scar gives me sanctuary by granting me the power to make you feel pity for me. Why don’t you have some respect for my pain and pity me?’

He took one step toward her, and just then, her boyfriend came out from the restaurant and walked a straight line to the parking payment booth, sweeping her hand into his and carrying her with him.

The man on the pavement put his hands in the pockets of his blue parka, feeling the reassuring warmth of his near empty cigarette pack, turned on his heals and walked off very quickly.

The girl looked at her boyfriend with those same calm, still eyes, and said, “I think I have a toonie in my pocket, but it is dark and I can’t tell the difference between your Canadian coins.

Would you like to give it to that strange man?”

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