How Far We Go and How Fast - Nora Decter - E-Book

How Far We Go and How Fast E-Book

Nora Decter

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Beschreibung

Sixteen-year-old Jolene, named after the girl in the Dolly Parton song, is from a long line of lowlifes, but at least they're musical lowlifes. Her mother is a tanning-salon manager who believes she can channel her karaoke habit into a professional singing career. Jolene's dad, a failed bass player, has gone back to the family demolition business and lives by the company motto: "We do not build things; we only tear them down." But Jolene and her big brother, Matt, are true musicians, writing songs together that make everything Jo hates about their lives matter less.When Matt up and leaves in the middle of the night, Jo loses her only friend, her support system and the one person who made her feel cool. As it becomes clear that Matt is never coming back, Jo must use music to navigate her loss.

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Copyright © 2018 Nora Decter

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Decter, Nora, 1986–, author How far we go and how fast / Nora Decter.

Issued in print and electronic formats.ISBN 978-1-4598-1688-6 (softcover).—ISBN 978-1-4598-1689-3 (PDF).—ISBN 978-1-4598-1690-9 (EPUB)

I. Title.PS8607.E423H69 2018 C813'.6C2017-907554-3C2017-907555-1

First published in the United States, 2018 Library of Congress Control Number: 2018933723

Summary: In this novel for teens, Jolene copes with her brother’s disappearance by playing his guitars and shutting herself away from the world.

Orca Book Publishers is dedicated to preserving the environment and has printed this book on Forest Stewardship Council®certified paper.

Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.

Edited by Sarah N. Harvey Cover design by Meags Fitzgerald and Teresa Bubela Cover image by Meags Fitzgerald Author photo by Nicholas Lefebvre

ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERSorcabook.com

Printed and bound in Canada.

21 20 19 18 • 4 3 2 1

Orca Book Publishers is proud of the hard work our authors do and of the important stories they create. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it or did not check it out from a library provider, then the author has not received royalties for this book. The ebook you are reading is licensed for single use only and may not be copied, printed, resold or given away. If you are interested in using this book in a classroom setting, we have digital subscriptions that feature multi user, simultaneous access to our books that are easy for your students to read. For more information, please contact [email protected]

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To my dad, who first told me about time.

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

AN EXCERPT FROM “RODENT”

ONE

PROLOGUE

This is a travel story. About a trip I take in my head.

When I need to get away, I go back to 2001. I was eleven, and my brother, Matt, was sixteen, the age I am now, except when he was my age he knew everything. He knew normal things, like how to drive and how to make conversation with his peers. But he also had specialized knowledge, like how to get onto the roof of the parking garage downtown where you could see for days in any direction, how to avoid getting jumped waiting at the bus stop or walking down the back lane and how to handle Maggie, our mom. He knew everyone on the block and everyone knew me, because I was his sister.

We were in the middle of a cold snap when Matt got the call that his guitar was ready. The kind of cold snap that comes so late in winter, everyone tries to deny it’s happening because spring is so long past due. Times like that, prairie people refuse to put their good boots back on—they leave the extra layer of wool at home and then suffer for it. Matt hung up the phone and reached for his coat.

I know now but I didn’t know then that a guitar maker is called a luthier. Our luthier was named Sven, and his workshop was an hour north of the city, in Gimli, an Icelandic town on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Matt had been up there a few times over the course of that winter to consult on the type of wood the guitar would be made of, the shape it would take. He came back buzzing from these meetings, all lit up. I imagined they were building something holy, saw Matt’s drives to the workshop as pilgrimages.

Maggie was out with the car the day Sven called, but it didn’t matter, Matt said there was a bus from the station downtown that went out there. In the name of nothing better to do, I went too. We listened to his Walkman on the bus, one headphone each, the cord jerking out of my ear because Matt couldn’t keep still.

Having a guitar built is an insane extravagance for a teenage boy. But Matt never spent—he just saved and saved. All the money he earned working at the pizza joint over by the casino, where he spent nights sprinkling low-grade shredded mozzarella over dough painted with tomato-sauce brushstrokes, it all went to the guitar.

Sven’s place was a few minutes’ walk from where the bus dropped us. Matt led me around back to the workshop, which was taller than the main house and nearly as large.

Snow had been falling all day but slowly, with persistence. It traveled unrestricted across the fields beyond the yard. We had to lift our knees high to clear the drifts. Sven ushered us into the space, which smelled of sawdust and metal. Shelves climbed the walls like bunk beds, guitars in various stages of completion resting in the shadows.

Matt had three guitars already. The first was a little acoustic our dad, Jim, gave him for Christmas when he was nine and I was four, old enough that I remember him without a guitar in his arms, but barely. Then there was Shredder, a red electric that some guy named Bud left behind after a party. To Maggie’s credit, when Bud came looking for it a few days later she was like, Guitar? What guitar? And then she got him drunk. Meanwhile, Matt was in the basement with Shredder, getting to know new kinds of noise. When he was fourteen Maggie had some kind of windfall and came home with the Gibson. I was nine and just a little jealous of the hours he spent playing guitar. Music was always his thing. I listened, loved every new song he wrote, but by then I was starting to want to be a part of it.

They were all good instruments, he had explained on the bus ride out to Sven’s, but the new guitar would be his blues guitar, the one he’d take when he went downtown to jam with the old men at the Windsor.

When Sven handed Matt his new guitar, he reached for it like a father reaches for his newborn child. Even in my ignorance I could see it was a beautiful thing. Warmth emanated from the surface of the wood, like fire from behind a fogged-up window. Dark lines of grain flowed down it like a fingerprint. For a few minutes Matt could not be moved. He tuned the strings and struck a first careful chord, then another and another. Sven told me quietly that the rosewood had been chosen for how well it spoke. I thought he meant he could hear voices in the wood. I only realized later that there are ways of testing wood for resonance, of measuring the different qualities of sound.

Matt played until Sven’s wife appeared at the door in a housecoat and a wool hat to say dinner was ready and would we like to stay. Matt said no, thank you, we had to get home, but he didn’t stop playing. Sven patted him on the back and told us to turn the lights off on our way out.

“We should probably go,” I said eventually. He looked up, startled, even more so when he saw the clock. Before we left, Matt took off his sweater and tucked it carefully into the guitar case he had brought. I wound my scarf around the long elegance of the fretboard. We ran along the road in ruts left behind by a truck, our heads down, laughing. At the station I stood by the doors with the guitar while Matt went to get tickets. He returned pale beneath his wind-burned cheeks.

We’d missed the last bus. There was another going to the city that night, but it only made a flag stop on the highway. The station attendant said he’d radio the driver and tell him to look for us. Then he said we’d better hurry.

Our cold is dry. It sears your skin, so that you don’t feel the pain you’re in until you begin to shake with it, a shaking that takes you over, that’s more than a shiver—it’s a shudder.

At first we sang as we waited at the side of the road in the whistling dark. This song Jim liked to blast in winter. Matt and I would sing it when we took the dog out on short walks that felt like death marches.

“Let’s go to fucking Hawaii,” Matt sang.

I jumped in. “Go get drunk in the sun.”

But the song died on our lips after the first verse.

“I’ve also heard fucking Cuba is nice this time of year,” Matt said, his shoulders up around his ears. The words barely escaped his clenched jaw before the wind whisked them away. He only had a T-shirt on under his jacket, and he’d begun to shake so fiercely you could have mistaken it for a seizure if you didn’t know better.

“Fucking Cuba sounds good,” I said.

Soon there was nothing to say that wasn’t a comment on the cold. On the prairie you’re raised to respect the winter. You’re told stories of children who die of snowball hits to the head. Of teenagers who lose fingertips to the frost and of drunks who lie down to rest on a snowbank and never sober up again. As we stood in silence at the side of the road I became aware of how cocky we’d been. We weren’t dressed for such an expedition. Matt wrapped his arms around the guitar and pulled his hood down low.

Ten minutes passed. Or was it half an hour? Darkness obliterated the highway. The wind blew, and snow fell sideways. I couldn’t feel my toes. Orbs of light appeared and approached like angels, but none of those angels was our bus.

And then a pair of headlights emerged from the black, brighter than the rest, so bright it took a moment to register it really was a bus shuddering to a halt fifty feet down the road. We ran for it on clumsy, leaden legs, climbing the steps into warmth that set my flesh on fire.

“Is it okay?” I asked as Matt popped open the case to check on the guitar.

“I think so. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Snow melted down my face like a sudden onslaught of tears. He rested the guitar case on an empty seat, and we rubbed our hands together to get the feeling back. The bus drove on through the weather, and from the seat in front of us came the terrible, tuneless twang of guitar strings snapping, one by one.

We got home giddy, our cheeks chapped with wind, but we burned with something else too. The feeling we’d survived something. That we’d been brave.

Maggie was still out, so we took over the kitchen. Matt laid the blues guitar down on the table and began to tend to it, his hands stiff from the cold. I filled a pot with milk, spooned in hot-chocolate powder and stood at the stove stirring, so it wouldn’t get that skin on top. When it was ready, I sat on the counter, legs swinging, watching Matt work. He checked the guitar for damage and then began to put on new strings, patiently threading each one through its peg hole, pulling it taut and then tightening it. Finally he tuned up, tilting his head as he plucked the strings and listening as if for an answer. When each one rang true he smiled, then remembered the hot chocolate and took a long drink. “See?” he said. “No harm done.”

He strummed, gently at first and then harder, and as the rhythm unfurled into a song, I sang along. I usually only ever sang when we were walking, when we were goofing around, and that was more like hollering anyway. I didn’t know how it sounded now or if he wanted me to shut up, but when the song concluded Matt looked up and said, “That sounded good. Let’s do it again.”

So we played it again, and I wasn’t outside the music anymore, I was in it.

When I need to get away, that night five years ago is where I go. I go back to it. I turn around. Go back to it again.

ONE

In the morning there are bodies on the floor. Facedown, three of them, which isn’t half bad. One among the shoes kicked off at the door. One cozy in the slot between couch and coffee table. And one half on the floor, half on the loveseat that we carried home fifteen blocks three years ago.

That’s Cory at the bottom of the stairs, using a boot for a pillow. He’s some kind of cousin of Maggie’s, and I don’t worry about waking him—he won’t wake easily. And that’s Roxie, Cory’s on-again, off-again, wedged behind the table. I recognize her hair extensions. Loveseat lady must be new, or at least I don’t know her from this angle. Howl is waiting in the kitchen. Her tail thumps the linoleum when I walk in, but otherwise she’s quiet. She knows the routine as well as I do. We’ve been running it for a while. She won’t get her walk until I’ve made the rounds, made sure everyone has a pulse. Until then she watches, because she’s a watchdog. She sees everything we do and everything we don’t do. She sees me chuck a filter in the coffee maker and fill it with a few shakes of the hazelnut shit Maggie keeps around. (The coffee is a concession to the drunks. I don’t hate them. I just want them to go.) She sees me crack the window an inch and let in the cold. (To help wake them, clear the air. It reeks in here. Good thing I hold my breath so well.) And she sees me go into the hall to suit up for outside, which must be done with care, so that outside doesn’t kill me. All Howl needs is a leash, but I’m a mere mortal, so on go the sweaters, the hat and the scarves. My snow pants are not cool. I wear them anyway. Maggie makes fun, but then, I don’t put much stock in Maggie’s opinions. She wears high heels to wade into two feet of snow.

One more thing before we go. Smoke raid. Creep around the living room, shaking packs. The table packs are empty, the jacket-pocket packs have too few to spare, but on the floor beside loveseat lady I hit the jackpot. Pack of du Maurier, three-quarters full. I take five. Risky, but there are empty bottles everywhere, and that’s just what they drank after closing down the bar. No one’s gonna have a solid count on how many smokes they should be waking up to.

Stealing is stealing, says Howl from the doorway. Doesn’t matter if they notice or not.

Not true, I say. There are different degrees of stealing, and this kind doesn’t count at all.

She harrumphs, keeps casting judgment with her eyes. I ignore her.

Howl is Matt’s dog, one of the many things he loved that he forgot to take with him when he left last year. Other items on this list include his amps, tambourines and harmonicas. All of his guitars—except for the blues guitar—as well as his entire record collection, which ranges from bluegrass, rockabilly and country to blues—both Delta and Chicago style—’60s psychedelic, Motown, early Lower East Side punk, early British punk, grunge and electronica. And, of course, me. He found Howl one night on his way home from a jam. A huge gray mutt with human eyes. He said she had the soul of an old bluesman and named her after Howlin’ Wolf, even though she’s a girl dog.

Together we made Howl a bit mystical. When we needed guidance, we’d ask her and try to divine the answer. It was like What Would Jesus Do but for pagan music nerds who lacked strong parental figures.

With Matt gone, treating the dog like an oracle has lost some of its charm. Since he left I fear my sense of humor has atrophied. All my jokes are old and only made sense to him.

Loveseat lady slides closer to the floor, then all the way onto it. I wait for her to settle, then take the whole pack.

The loveseat is ugly. Itchy and orange. I don’t know why we wanted it, but we saw it on the sidewalk and did. Want it, I mean. It was so heavy we couldn’t go more than half a block before we had to put it down. We’d put it down until we felt we could go on and then lift it up again. Me tall and strong for my age, and him for any. That’s how we carried it the whole way home.

Last thing, for real this time: a wake-up call. I tune the radio to that station that exists in between the morning news, Top 40 and total static buzz. Tune it to that and then go.

Matt was the one who told me to always steal in odd numbers. Nab one or three beers from the fridge, but never two or four. Less likely to get caught that way.

At the river I flop down where no one can see me and light a stolen smoke. Howl is above and behind me. I only leash her for the walk. She doesn’t really need a leash, but I kind of like the feeling of being pulled in one solid direction.

The snow is a better bed than the one I have at home. It fits my back right, and I don’t feel the cold through the fabric of my layers. I think my best thoughts here.

Or my clean, clear thoughts. The ones I think at other places are all muddy.

Here’s a thought I’ve been having lately. I don’t know if I believe in time. I mean, I don’t believe it works for me the same way it works for other people. Other people can count on today turning into tomorrow and tomorrow turning into the day after that. But I can’t count on it at all.

So I come here to collect proof that it’s passing. There isn’t as much as you’d think. You can see it in the sun rising above the trees on the far side of the frozen river, and in a few months, if all goes well, you’ll see it in the cracks in the ice and the flowing water below. It looks like nothing is moving, but it is moving under there. It better be. In a few months the ice better crack up and the river better swell until it floods the plains surrounding the city. If it doesn’t, that means this is the winter that will never end. This is the one.

This can’t be the one. Because if time isn’t passing, then everything is staying the same. And that would kill me. That’s why I have to kill time first.

I stand up and call, “Come on, Howl! Time to wake the dead.”

But she’s right there behind me. Howl knows all about time. How it can stop short. Hold very still. When what you want is for it to fly. When what you want is for it to blur.

Our house is the one with the double yard. It gives us a certain status, though we only have it because the place next door got torched and they didn’t rebuild.

When the crew came to level what the fire left, Jim took his beer outside to watch. “Thing is, Jo,” he said, “you’ve gotta find the sweet spot. Once you do, one tap and the whole thing comes tumbling down.”

Jim destroys things for a living. He and Maggie were still together then. We all were.

The day of the fire, after the trucks had left and all the neighbors had gone back inside, I snuck over to investigate. The ground was burned darker in the places where the flames had blown out the windows. I bent down to touch it, but it wasn’t warm anymore like I’d wanted it to be.

I was eight. I remember because divorce was in the air. By the end of that summer Jim had moved across town. Every summer since, Maggie has dragged a barbecue home, and cracked plastic lawn chairs appear, and she and her crowd drink sweaty beers and cook hot dogs to a crisp and carry on, carry on until something dark happens to shut it down, like the sun comes up or the cops show or whatever. When the leaves change and fall all at once, the way they do here, she takes the barbecue over to the scrapyard by the tracks, where you can get ten bucks for the lid alone.

Grass never grew back in the spot where the house next door burned down. I suppose if we had planted some it might have, but we did not. We’re Tuckers, and we do not build things. We only tear them down.

At the front door I listen. Radio still on but tuned to a single station with the volume low. Bacon in the pan. Char, Maggie’s best friend, is in the kitchen. She comes over most mornings to make sure all the bodies have dispersed and that we don’t stay in bed longer than we’re supposed to. It’s annoying, but she’s not wrong. Otherwise we would both probably stay in bed.

I let Howl go, and she races ahead toward the smell. “Jo?” Char calls.

“Uh-huh,” I say, shedding layers in the hall. The living room is empty—the drunks have cleared out.

“Breakfast,” says Char.

“School,” I say, walking into the room. Char’s rat dog, Baby, is on the table, sniffing at a box of donuts. I toss her onto a chair and pour myself some coffee. Upstairs, Maggie is singing in the shower. Sounds like Shania. Maggie loves all her divas equally, but she believes she and Shania are spiritually aligned. This is based on their common roots in the poor backwoods of Northern Ontario and because they’ve both been dragged through the mud by evil, heartless men while maintaining relatively svelte figures and immaculate hairdos against all odds.

Char and I both relax a tad, because if Maggie’s singing that means she’s not too hungover. I help myself to a donut.

“Good girl,” says Char. “You gonna be around tonight?”

I shake my head no.

“Me neither. I’ve got a date.”

“Oh yeah?” I say. “Who’s this week’s winner?”

Char’s been on an Internet dating rampage lately. It’s hard to keep track.

“He’s a new one. His profile says he’s an entrepreneur.”

I raise an eyebrow. She watches me refill my coffee. No sleep again last night.

“It’s too bad you’re not going to be around later,” she says, all faux-casual, obviously working an angle. “Your mom could use someone to help her run through her number for karaoke. She’s gotta get a high score tonight to make it to the next round.”

“We’ll see,” I say, even though we won’t. Maggie worships at the karaoke altar. It’s sad, but I also get it a little. Aside from taking trips in my head, music is my favorite way to kill time, and I guess some people might call what Maggie does music. She acts like she’s got a gig every week when really any old drunk can pick a song and sing it onstage. They’re running a contest this month, though, American Idol style, with judges and shit. The rehearsals that have been going on nightly in the living room would be enough to send me into hiding, if I wasn’t hiding already.

“Quarterfinals are tonight,” says Char. “Competition’s heating up.”

I hear Maggie’s phone ring upstairs. It’s probably Dwayne, Maggie’s long-suffering boss and unofficial benefactor of our lives. He’s another one of her cousins, who for some unfathomable reason never tires of helping us out of cash-money jams. Dwayne hit the jackpot when he got into the tanning-salon business about ten years ago. Turns out fake tans are big business around here, there not being many months of the year in which to get a real one. He paid my swim club dues and for Matt’s guitar lessons, not to mention the down payment on this house. Two years ago he took the plunge and gave Maggie a job. Amazingly, she generally shows up five days a week, more or less on time, thanks to Char.

Now Char sighs over her cell phone. “Maybe I need another new profile. Could you help me with it tomorrow?”

Maggie’s voice moves toward the stairs. I wave my donut at Char and go down to the basement. We are trying a new thing, my Maggie and I. We don’t talk except through third parties. Works great.

The Gibson is on the bed where I left it. I sit down to eat my donut before I pick it up. Howl has followed me—she doesn’t really like the basement, but she likes Baby less—and she settles onto the floor and gives me this look. This look that says, You should get ready for school.

It’s still early.

Not that early, she says, her eyes following the donut as I move it into my mouth.

I talk through crumbs. Nothing important happens at school before 10AM, plus I went yesterday. That should hold me for a while.

You did not go yesterday! I know you were downtown.

I toss her the last bite of donut. She snaps her jaws and catches it easy. Relax, man, I say, licking the sugar from my fingers. (She hates it when I call her “man.”) School and I have reached an understanding.

Howl sniffs. I sure hope so.

I know so, I say, picking up the guitar and starting to play. I just want to keep practicing the song I wrote last night.

Your E is flat, says Howl. She stands up, turns around twice and sits back down facing away from me. And don’t be a jerk. Help Char with her profile.

She’s right. The dog’s got a good ear.

Char gets me to write all her dating profiles, even though I doubt my carefully curated list of musical interests is helping her get laid. I don’t understand Internet dating. But then, I don’t understand much of anything to do with people. If I wrote a profile for myself it’d say I reside in the frozen armpit that is the North End of Winnipeg with a semi-telepathic dog and my mother, who named me Jolene after a slutty lady in a Dolly Parton song. It would list my favorite things as sandwiches and music played at a volume that will destroy my eardrums by the time I’m twenty. My pastimes include taking my can of mace and my dog for long walks along the seedy riverbank, where in summer I can watch the mud-hued waters of the Red drift by, placid yet menacing. I used to swim competitively, but I quit last year, washed up at fifteen. Last summer I worked at a frozen-yogurt place downtown, and I think I did an okay job even though I don’t speak small talk. Technically, I still work there—they just put me on call for the off-season, and they never call. My skills include being able to read the facial expressions of dogs with a high degree of accuracy, holding my breath for extended periods of time and giving my five-foot-ten-inch mother a fireman’s lift up the stairs. I’ve read a wide array of depressing works of literature, and despite my love of loud music I’ve got extremely good, possibly supernatural, hearing. But I never would write an Internet dating profile for myself. So it’s just more shit I’ll never say out loud.

I stop to rest my fingertips. My calluses are peeling because it’s winter and everyone’s skin is flaking off, but also because I’ve been playing so much.

When Matt left, parts of me stopped working. My mouth doesn’t move when I try to talk. Or it opens but nothing comes out. At night when I lie down to sleep, I can’t close my eyes, even when I try. My feet won’t listen to reason. Some days they insist on carrying me to a strange part of town, like they have an appointment to keep that I’m not privy to. My brain can’t compute simple things. Like, I forget to listen when people talk, and sometimes it slips my mind where I am, what I’m doing, and when I wake back up to it, it’s alarming.

But I can play better than I could play before. My hands do things they couldn’t. My voice reaches for the note it needs. There’s no thinking involved. It’s something else.

Matt only took the custom-made blues guitar with him. The rest are all mine now—the little acoustic, the Gibson and good old Shredder—and I’ve been teaching myself how to play. I had to. Otherwise I’d only get to sing silently.

I play my song again, trying to get it perfect this time. I think it counts as a song, but I don’t know how to tell when you’re making more than noise, when you’ve given the sound enough shape to call it something else. I played it over and over last night so I wouldn’t forget it. I played till it infiltrated my bones and my pulse fell in step alongside it, until I could hear it even when I stopped playing, so that any dreams I might have had were drowned out. Music is the noise I make out loud. The rest I keep inside myself.

When I stop, the house goes silent. Howl rises as I do, and I switch off the amp, then climb the stairs into daylight. Maggie and Char have both gone to work. I layer up and put my boots back on. No snow pants when I go downtown. Means cold legs, but I have my pride, you know. I pause on the front steps to let my eyes adjust. The sky is clear, and the sun on all that snow is blinding. It’s February, and it feels like it’ll never thaw.

TWO

Most of what they say about Winnipeg is true. It’s cold and flat. When it’s not cold it’s flooding or burning down in an act of arson, or someone is being knifed in a back lane as a swarm of mosquitoes feast on the flesh of victim and assailant alike. But it always persists in being profoundly, devastatingly flat.

The flatness is almost unchallenged. There is only a handful of high-rise buildings downtown, so mostly what you notice here is the emptiness and, above you, the sky.

That’d be the third thing of note about Winnipeg. We have an abundance of sky, so much I think we could sell some of it off and still have a surplus. It really doesn’t seem to serve any purpose except to remind you what a blip you are in the grand old scheme of things.

Here is what I know of this place.

The city is cut in two by a train yard. Predictably, there’s a right and a wrong side of the tracks. We live in the North End, the wrong side, where teen moms push pudgy-cheeked babies in rickety strollers, and corners are haunted by gang members in their colors and hookers in their heels. Not every stereotype is true; there are nuances, exceptions, but you also get what you’d expect. Businesses open and close in time with the rhythms of city-hall-speak about inner-city revitalization, but only the fast-food chains seem to flourish. Over by the tracks are the scrapyards, where you can hawk stolen manhole covers and other precious metals. In front yards, muscle-bound dogs test the limits of their chains until the grass wears down to dirt.

Lots of Indigenous people live in the North End, so many that sometimes it’s called an urban reserve. We’re white, which means we live here but a lot of things that happen here don’t happen to us. Like, you know, the fallout from a couple of centuries of racism and cultural genocide. We can just leave the North End, and it’s behind us. Char is Ojibwa, and she says the North End follows her wherever she goes.

Two bridges go over the tracks to the right side of town, but I’m afraid of bridges. I’m afraid of a lot of things. I work around it.

You can also escape the North End by walking down Main to the underpass that goes below the tracks or by taking the path that runs along the river. That’s the way I go if I don’t feel like navigating the crowds that huddle outside the hotel beverage rooms on Main at all times of day. Lean-tos left by last summer’s hobos poke out from underneath the snow, and sometimes you’ll pass a few drinkers resting on the riverbank, king cans between their knees. Mostly it’s deserted this time of year, except for the stuffed animals that are propped up next to a tree, a memorial for two brothers who went through the ice last year, one of them going under and the other plunging in after. No one found them until the ice cracked up a couple of weeks later.

This winter has been the coldest on record. This winter it’s been colder here than it is on Mars. That’s a true fact—they keep repeating it on TV. Everyone here watches the Weather Channel. It validates our suffering somehow.

Usually winter is quiet, what with the sun going down by four, but this year it’s so dead you can’t even imagine. But try. Imagine air so cold bare skin freezes in less than sixty seconds. Imagine a horror movie where the entire city you live in is trying to kill you. Everyone stays locked up tight in their homes, afraid to go outside. That’s what this winter has been like.

Except for me. I go out. I do it all the time.

King’s Cash for Gold is my favorite pawnshop, hands down. Don’t be fooled by the name—they deal in much more than gold. Behind the thick, yellowed glass of the front window is a wide array of the kind of junk no one ever buys. A coat rack and a pinball machine. A collection of old license plates, pool cues and an eight-track player. The massive head of a moose who’s misplaced one eye. Shelves of movies and CDs spill over into milk crates on the floor, board games from bygone eras lurk underneath tables, and a portrait of the Queen presides over it all.

The stuff people trade in for fast cash is fascinating. Most of this shit has been here since I was a kid. Electronics and instruments seem to be all that ever sells. Everything else just sits around accumulating dust, including Earl, who glances up when I come in, blinks and turns back to the stereo he’s tinkering with. For all the attention he pays, I could be the wind. It’s the relationship I’ve built with Earl over the years that keeps me coming back.

I haven’t been by yet this week, but there’s nothing new except for a pretty blond acoustic. I slip behind the counter and reach for it. Earl gave me behind-the-counter privileges a while back. He got tired of me coming in to ogle the guitars. Must figure it runs in the family.

The first time Matt and I came to King’s it was to buy the TV back after Maggie pawned it to acquire funds for a bottle of Canadian Club, one of the really massive bottles they keep locked up on a special shelf at the liquor store.

“You guys aren’t thinking about this logically,” she said when we protested. “It’s an investment. By buying one big bottle instead of all those little ones, I’ll save enough for three TVs by the end of the month.”

I don’t know how long I play—there are no clocks in here, and Earl doesn’t care. Like I said, music helps me pass the time. Sometimes I play for what I think is five minutes when in fact it’s been an hour. Sometimes I come up from the basement and two days have passed.

Eventually I put the acoustic back in its place on the wall. It’s a nice guitar, but all wrong. Earl’s given up on my ever buying one of the guitars I ogle, but I do want to. It’s just that I’m looking for something in particular.