Scott MacAulay is a former educator and community development worker who has lived throughout Canada. Now settled in Ottawa, he aspires to write poetry and fiction grounded in social justice issues and day to day struggles with poverty, mental illness, and social exclusion. He holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Leeds.
Debits and Credits
by Scott MacAulay
Ray sits across from me most days; us regulars have our regular spots. They give us order, like knowing every Tuesday it’s tuna casserole, Wednesday it’s canned stew, Thursday it’s beans and wieners, and so on. Ray is just a kid to me, probably no more than thirty. He says he’s an accountant to anyone who will listen. When the conversation turns to money, when the next hit, the next swig can be bought, Ray’s on top of it. When’s the fuckin’ tax check comin’ out? When’s the fuckin’ hydro rebate comin’ out? Ray knows. He’s an accountant. He’s not bragging, just desperate, I think, for someone to say he doesn’t belong here. He’s got the ring. He’s got the ring from Carleton University that says he got his BBA. From there he joined a local firm and got his CA. After that he kept getting drunk. He got help for depression he told me, but he kept getting drunk. He lost his job, his fiancé, his car, and his apartment. And he kept getting drunk. Now he’s stunned, numb, and still dresses like he’s going to the office, a blue or black or gray suit. Thank god no tie. People make fun of him as it is. He looks like one of the hundreds of Ottawa bureaucrats who pass on the sidewalks on casual Fridays. I like Ray. The suits are him grasping.
Liz is his light, though. She looks tough, short and square, brick shit-house I guess you’d say, moving like a miniature tank around the floor. She’s here every day, working for minimum wage, helping us out, making sure we have meals, making sure we get soap and toothpaste and toilet paper once a week. Her face is flat, her head box-like. Her eyes do seem stressed sometimes, but most of the time just watchful. They are brown. Her hair is almost crewcut blonde, bleached, I suppose. The funny thing is that look of toughness is betrayed when she makes announcements to the forty or fifty of us who are here for breakfast and lunch, that there’s a mental health counselor or a nurse from the health clinic coming in. Her voice is warm, melodious, filling the room; it’s a hug, comfortable and soft, as I imagine a lady librarian’s pillow might be. Lizzie’s a big or little sister, an aunt or a nun, depending on your age or background.
Ray’s told me more than once how wonderful Lizzie is. She seems so honest, he says, so giving. He’s shy, says he doesn’t know what to say to her. Says she’s here to help bums like us, not go out on dates with them. Besides, he figures, he’s too skinny and tall for her. They’d look funny together, with her head not much past his rib cage. Him like a spindly toothpick, her like a block of wood. Him with orange hair and a wedge-like face full of freckles like a little girl’s, her all butchy, huffing and puffing when she lugs food bank drop-offs to the storeroom. Still, he tells me at the beginning of each month when the checks have just been deposited and there’s the sweet smell of whiskey or the foul smell of beer on his breath, he thinks he loves her.
So I call her over one day, ask her if she wants to take a break, play cards with Ray and me.
“Whew, it’s warm,” she says, short strands of blonde hair stuck to her forehead. Ray, I guess to sound smart, tells her the temperature, the Humidex, what it actually feels like.
“You know, Lizzie,” I say, “Ray’s an educated man, has his business degree, and then became an accountant.”
“I heard that, Andy” she says.
“Yeah,” Ray laughs, thinly, “Look where it got me.”
“We all have our things,” she says. And then she puts her hand on his and laughs along. “We all have our things.” She actually looks him straight in the eyes, too.
Ray glances at me. The moment breaks when two cops walk in and Liz has to go over to see what they want.
I look at Ray and say, “Maybe.”
He looks at me. “Maybe, Andy.”
He asks her out. They have hot dogs from a vendor and go to a movie. I stay in my room as usual with the TV, flicking through the poverty channels over and over again, talk radio playing in the background. It is a gray room, pretty shabby. It doesn’t have a bed, just an equally shabby couch that I sit on, sleep on, fart on, eat my meals from the microwave on. It smells of stale smoke, which it did when I got it from St. Vincent de Paul, and still does even though I open the window when I light up, when I’ve got the money for cigarettes. I think of Elsie a lot, here, alone. The noise from the TV and the radio, on all the time, at the same time, chases away nothing. The beer, when I’ve got it, doesn’t either. She’s been dead three years now. I had a lot of money for beer then. I lost it. I lost everything. I lost her laugh, her saying things would get better, her ways of soothing my temper. We used to go for hotdogs and movies, too. We never had kids. We weren’t blessed that way. We made ends meet. After her cancer, I fell down. I never got back up. Just her picture on the wall now, in her bright red dress. God, I love that dress. Her eyes sparkling. I could never work again. I could never sleep again. The doctors gave me pills and pills and pills. I didn’t want them.
Ah, those hotdogs, those movies, Elsie. This gray old room, my gray whiskers, my sickly blue eyes staring at me in the little mirror above the sink. I’ve come down a couple a’ notches since you… But Ray, young Ray and Lizzie, the angel of New Beginnings, New Hope, there’s a couple to watch. Maybe they can climb some notches, eh?
You think they’re holding hands? You always had me hold yours. I didn’t mind.
Ray comes in the next morning, smiling.
“Well?” I ask.
“It was good.”
Then that rotten prick Ronnie Musgrave comes over, those crack-wheedled eyes of his just glaring with trouble. “Hey Ray, buddy, saw you with our Lizzie last night, ya’ fuckin’ dog, fuckin’ the help.” Ray tells him to shut the fuck up. Ronnie messes Ray’s hair with a clammy hand, tells him to take it easy, that maybe he’d like to have a go at her sometime too, that maybe she likes the down-and-out ones. Musgrave’s a big guy, bald on top, thin, stringy hair down to his shoulders. Even from across the table, I can smell the rotting teeth on his breath.
“Leave him alone, Ronnie,” I say. Ray is sitting down. Ronnie is behind him. Ray just stares ahead, pretty well straight through me. Musgrave tells me to mind my own fuckin’ business.
Ronnie says, “Yeah, I sure could use some a…” and then Ray twists quickly in his chair, his right elbow out, and slams Ronnie in the balls.
He shouts, “Go to hell!” and stands up toward Ronnie, swinging his fist right into the big bastard’s gut as he’s bent over. The whole place is quiet, then everyone’s shouting “fight, fight, fight!”
Liz comes running out of the kitchen, the dishwasher and cook right behind her, her short legs moving quickly and her flat face puffed out now like an angry hippopotamus. “Stop it, stop it!”
Ronnie gets upright and grabs Ray in a headlock. “You stupid little prick!” he says, holding Ray tight in his grip.
“Call the cops!” Liz yells at the dishwasher who scampers back to the kitchen.
“I’ll kill you,” says Ronnie, and pulls upward with his arms to increase Ray’s pain. Liz gets behind Ronnie and jumps an astounding height to take hold of his shoulders, trying to break his grip. I get around the table and get hold of one of his arms, one of the other guys grabs the other one, and we manage to get them apart. Ronnie struggles free, waving his arms. He whips around and catches our Liz on the nose. She’s bleeding. Ray wraps himself around Musgrave’s waist and puts all his might into his legs, forcing the two of them to go crashing onto the table, collapsing it and ending up on the floor. Everybody at New Beginnings is in on it now, gathered round and hooting and imploring the two of them to quit, the cops are coming.
And they do, quickly. Two men in those silly black shorts cops-on-bikes wear in the summer. Except for the black sticks and the guns, cops-on-bikes look like they’re going to the beach or a skateboard park. Ronnie and Ray are just holding each other, trying not to let the other move. Cops-on-bikes get them apart and put them in cuffs. One of the cops speaks into the radio on his shoulder, calling for a car to pick Ray and Ronnie up.
“You mean you’re not going to ride them in on your tricycles?” somebody behind me asks. Even at such a horrible moment, I have to laugh.
A lot of people follow to watch the end of the spectacle. Liz looks shocked, holding a wet rag to her nose that somebody brought from the kitchen. Her face is white and a few tears leak out as she watches Ray and Ronnie being escorted through the doors of New Beginnings. The fine line of eyeliner she sometimes wears is smudged and vulnerable.
I pick a chair up off the floor and place it close to Liz. “Sit down for a second.”
We stare at the collapsed table, the chairs strewn all over the place, coffee spilled in the excitement, some broken mugs on the floor.
“What a mess. What the Christ was that all about?” she asks.
“I don’t know. Ronnie was looking for a fight, as usual. Pickin’ on Ray for his suits or something,” I tell her.
“That doesn’t sound like Ray. He takes it all the time. I admire him for keeping on wearing them, the geek,” she says with a sob and a little chuckle.
“You two have a good time at the movies?” I ask.
“Yeah, I hope so. He’s really smart though. Not the usual type that goes for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I like him, but back home none of my family wore suits to work. He says there’s money in his family. They own a few high rises and stuff. They won’t talk to him, but still. It has to make a difference.”
“You’re the one with the job. He’s the one beggin’ for soup, Liz.” I put my hand under her chin and lift her face to look at me. “Don’t you think that’s kind of funny, in a way?”
My God, she’s a rough beauty! Almost a boxer’s face, but with the eyes and lips of a sculptured Madonna. Suits and money in the family aside, Ray’s about as handsome as a shaved greyhound.
“I guess it’s funny,” she says. “I don’t want him to think I like him because of what he was. And he’s not a letch like a lot of guys. He’s a gentleman. Fuck, that’s so old-fashion…”
A cop comes in and interrupts us, wanting to speak to Liz. She asks if me and a few of the guys would mind straightening things up before lunch.
Ah Elsie, it was passion. I don’t blame Ray one bit. Do you remember me hauling dirt for old man McCready off that gentle rise of his in his backyard that Mrs. McCready wanted flattened to make a proper backyard? I’d be working with just a shovel and pick and a wheelbarrow, breaking up dirt, picking up stones, and hauling them to the boggy area behind his fence. Middle of July and hotter than hell. Him crankier than hell, standing over me, smoking one rollie after another. He’d spit and curse at that damned little hill he had to pay me to get rid of.
We were having hard times then, you and me. You were just starting beauty school, just learned you were pregnant. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Grade ten didn’t get me much. It took me awhile to decide on a plumber’s apprentice with your uncle. All I could think of was the baby and you, even though McCready kept saying all women were nutters, and me being paid to remove his hill was proof positive. Well, my lovely in the red dress, I moved the hill, and our baby was dead before it even saw the light of day. I trashed our place, punched holes in the walls, broke all the kitchen furniture. What did we do to deserve it? Mrs. McCready heard about it from your mother and came to us with a hamburger casserole, said she was sorry, that there’s no accounting for what happens. You put everything in you can and you take out as much as you can.
Ray is back the next day. No bruises to show for the scuffle he had with Ronnie, just a sore shoulder from the tumble on the table.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, I lost it, though. He shouldn’t have been talking about Liz that way. You know, it was a great night. She told me all about her family in way up there in Owen Sound, how she came here with her very first boyfriend, the two of them going to Algonquin College for business diplomas. She didn’t like business much. They split up, he got really physical with her at the end. She took some kind of social work diploma, ended up working here. But, you know man, she listens, too. Heard all my story, said I’d get by, just keep positive. She asked about the drinking.”
“What’d you say?” I ask.
“The truth. I drink when I have money. The rest of the time I think about having money. The only thing close to a savings account I have is the empties that build up the first week of the month. She asked if I could help out around here, stay busy. I said I’d think about it.”
Liz comes over and sits with us. Her big brown eyes show lots of light and luster, not the usual pale watchfulness. “You don’t look so bad,” she says to him, her hand on his shoulder. “I heard what Ronnie was saying about me, not that this guy,” she points at me, “told me anything. You don’t have to stick up for me or anything, but thank you.” Her voice is songbird sweet.
I give them some time alone by going over to the coffee and glancing through the newspaper. When I get back to Ray, Liz is off talking to a few other regulars. Ray’s eyes are on her like he’s found his redeemer.
“Lizzie’s taking next week off, some vacation time, said she’d take me up to her family’s old cabin on Georgian Bay. Haven’t been on vacation—except if you call this a vacation—for a long time. Might be good to get out of here.”
Ah Elsie, my red-dressed lovely, you remember the trips we used to take around the city? Well, we called them trips, anyway. I suppose for most people trips mean a long car ride, an airplane, a train or a ship. Not to us, eh, Elsie? Renting bikes to go along the Rideau Canal was exotic, just as much as the time we splurged and got that horse and sleigh ride on the Canal at Christmas, or our picnics at Mooney’s Bay by the falls, making love like mad dogs after dark and sleeping there till dawn. Your world expands according the amount of money you have, I guess. I should give that to Liz for one of those daily affirmations she writes on the board at New Beginnings. I should probably add “and you can fuck it up accordingly.” New Beginnings, my ass. It’s more like The Last Stop. Jesus! Philosophical and not even drunk.
“C’est la vie,” the French say. I don’t care much for the French, never did.
It is a long week without Ray. The Last Stop isn’t the same. I hadn’t realized how fond I’d become of the guy. Oh, I know people in an off-handed sort of way. Enough to mumble hellos, to receive their grunts of sorry if they bump into me with their trays in the narrow passage between the coffee line and the lunch tables. If a familiar face is missing no-one comments or raises a concern. The face will or will not return. Most of the faces, however, are blurry scrolls of design on wallpaper. I pretend I’m standing too far back to see the details, but, really, I’m not far back. My scrolled face is in the fucking wallpaper. How can I possibly tell if something is amiss?
With Ray not around I play cards with Rosie and Jack, mostly. I don’t know much about them. Rosie says she’s forty, but she looks fifty to me. She’s got J-E-S-U-S tattooed on the knuckles of her right hand and C-H-R-I-S on the knuckles of her left hand. Any time some newbie points to the left hand she cuts them off and says “I know! Motherfucker. I like the name Jesus Chris, ok? You gotta’ problem with that?” Jack’s nineteen. A nice kid though you wouldn’t think it by looking at him. That nose ring must’ve been painful going in. Spiked purplish-blue hair, ripped shirts, pants tucked into heavy black boots. That stuff used to scare me, some of the punks who come in here. Now, I hardly notice.
I talk to Jack alone sometimes, ask him what his plans are. He says he wants to be a full-time musician, play his guitar. He’s already been in a few bands, but he keeps drifting back and forth between here, where his mother lives, and Toronto, where his dad is. He never lives with them though, been on the streets or in rooming houses since he was sixteen. I ask if he’s any good, does he practice a lot. I try to give some fatherly advice. He’s polite. I’ve never heard him curse, at least not in front of me, which is odd around here. I tell him music is a hard road, though he and I both know I know nothing about it. I tell him he’s got to work hard if he’s going to break through. I know it’s clichés, but it’s not lies. Elsie and me believed some things to be true.
Yes, I see you looking at me, Elsie. I lost my belief in those things. I’m in this shitty little room waiting for the first of the month to come so I can buy a couple of packs of smokes and a two-four. I’ll lose myself for a couple of days, Elsie, just lock myself in here with you, my three channels and the radio. Fuck New Beginnings, New Hope. All I do there anyway is pretend I’m the wise old veteran. The wanderers and the addicts whose lives are so deep in the crapper, they actually think I’ve got it together. I go thinking that I’m putting something in, but really I’m only taking the beans and toast. Same as them.
Fuck The Last Stop.
“Stop your self-pity, Andy. You’re in your cups early!” I hear you. I picked up a few bucks hauling garbage for the landlord. Let me finish my beer, a few pills to mellow. You know I’ll sober up and in a day or two I’ll see things brighter. I’ll step outside my door. For now, for now, my lovely, slip that red dress off and come and lie with me. I’ll hold you. We’ll pretend The Tommy Hunter Show is on. We’ll pretend it’s an evening in spring in the early 70s and you and me are dancing round the parlor floor.
Liz and Ray are back. He’s across the room talking to Liz as she bustles around the kitchen with the cook, trying to get things ready for lunch. I raise my hand and wave but I guess he doesn’t see it. He’s lost the suit, just faded jeans and a dark blue t-shirt. Looks like he got some sun on Georgian Bay. The freckles on his face stand out a bit more. His orange hair is lighter. Liz is laughing at something he must have said. She blushes and throws a wet rag at him. He turns to let it miss him. “Whoa!” he yells. I raise my hand again. I guess he’s too much in love to notice.
I’m sitting in my regular spot, playing cards with Jack. Rosie doesn’t want to play. Her dog got hit by a car. She’s beside me, picking at the center of her peanut buttered toast with her fingers.
“Did you ever see my poochie?”
“No,” I say.
“I tied him up outside sometimes when I come here. Tiny brown, fluffy thing. Black eyes. Little Fucker. Little Fucker. I’d call him that sometimes. Jocko when my worker come around. I done my make-up a little darker for him this morning and put my hair right.”
“You look nice,” I tell her. A shoebox taped up with black electrical tape sits on the table in front of her. I don’t ask. Jack’s excited and telling me about a gig he had on the weekend with a few of his friends at a pub on Bank Street.
“Andy, you shoulda’ seen us, man. Gizmo writes his own stuff, and we practiced them a few weeks. He played the place before with some other guys and got the manager to give us a shot Saturday night. First time he done his stuff live. Kinda’ blues and punk mixed together, and people loved it. Called us back on when things were supposed to shut down. Maybe it’ll happen.”
I tell him that’s great, he should be proud. We keep playing cards and he keeps talking like a kid about to get a bunch of candy. Rosie rests her empty coffee mug on the box, goes to the bathroom and comes back, and tucks the box under her arm. “See ya’ later,” she says.
I finally catch Ray’s eye and he comes over. He’s all smile, his teeth are white and gleaming.
“You have a good time?” I ask. He tells me I wouldn’t believe it. The water of Georgian Bay is warm and blue and big as the ocean. They swam, barbecued, and walked along the beach for hours with no one to bother them. Seagulls and waves, just seagulls and waves, and country music on a little radio they carried with them. He looks good. He tells me I should go sometime, says everyone here should go. We just need rejuvenation. He laughs and slaps my back so hard people around us can hear it.
“Everyone around here just needs rejuvenation!” he says again, loudly. Behind him I see Liz carrying a flat of canned spaghetti from the storeroom to the kitchen.
Ray’s got work now, Elsie, an actual job. It doesn’t pay much, but he says it’s a foot in the door. Each week for half a day on Friday afternoon when we clear out after lunch to face the weekend, he sits in front of the computer in that cluttered office between the Ladies and the Gents at the back of New Beginnings, New Hope. He records the donations and enters the payables and the receivables, the receipts and the disbursements, all the debits and the credits. Liz even got some business cards printed up for him and he’s going around to all the soup kitchens and the charities telling them he’s an expert in non-profit financial management.
Monday mornings he lets me in on how the place is doing, because I’m his friend, he says. Truth is he doesn’t have much time for me anymore. I won’t hate him for it. We’ll see what kind of a head he has for figures.
He hurts our Lizzie, I’ll gut the fucker.
Copyright 2014 by Scott MacAulay