Of all the buildings in the complex, ours was the best. It wasn’t the newest, or even the cleanest – but everyone agreed that it was the friendliest. Thanks to Bill.
My mom said that Bill was the heart of our building. I liked the idea that our building had a heart. It reminded me of a story my first grade teacher told about some boy named Jonah who lived inside the belly of a whale. That was building A: a big, grey whale that we all lived inside of.
Bill was the Super for all three complexes, but he lived in building A, like mom and me. He hung a notification board in our building’s mailroom. Every week he posted congratulations: Adam got an A+ on his math test; the Burnabee’s are expecting their third, that sort of thing. Before he left, my dad would admire Bill’s attention to detail. “Unbelievable the way that man obsesses over the littlest things,” he’d sigh, shaking his head as he read about our neigbours. The little things seemed important and I vowed to notice them, too.
Bill ran a flea market downtown and once a month he hosted a sale on our building’s front lawn. He lugged out boxes full of CDs, books and odd trinkets that were probably useless, but I wanted anyway. We hadn’t missed a single lawn sale since dad left. My mom spent a stupid amount of time sorting through the music, singing under her breath like a crazy person. Bill’s started setting CD’s aside just for her.
The best thing about Bill – better than the notice board, or his lawn sales, even – was his parties. Everyone in the building was invited. There was always a big bowl full of cherry licorice and old-fashioned root beer, which I secretly hoped he kept just for me.
Bill lived just down the hall from us. I watched our neighbours arrive at his door with their casserole dishes, or bottles of wine, and tried to wait patiently for my mom to finish getting ready. She was sitting in front of her mirror, pinning up her hair and humming some Bruce Springsteen song. My mom loved Bruce Springsteen. She had every one of his CDs stacked on our bookshelf. When my dad still lived with us, he surprised her with tickets to see him in concert; mom was so happy she nearly cried. Dad made me promise not to tell her that he got the idea from Bill. I kept the secret, but it probably didn’t matter anymore.
A crowd had already gathered at Bill’s place by the time my mom had finished dressing. I could hear music playing and people laughing as we walked through the open door. I made a dash for the cherry licorice and was stuffing my face when Bill walked up.
“I see you found the licorice, Jason. A man who knows what he likes”.
“It’s my favourite,” I mumbled, through a wad of cherry flavoured wax.
Bill nodded like I’d said something wise and shoved three whole sticks into his own mouth. We stood there for a moment, chewing and smiling goofily at one another until my mom walked up.
“Slow down Jason,” she said as she ruffled my hair. “You’ll make yourself sick if you keep eating like that.”
“Nonsense,” Bill laughed. “He’s got to keep his energy up, with all that hockey he’s been playing.”
“I almost scored twice last Tuesday, Bill. And Coach said if I keep practicing he’ll let me start next month.”
“That’s incredible Jason – I’m proud of you, but not surprised. You have the look of a star.” Bill smiled knowingly. I felt like a star and suddenly wanted to give everybody at the party a high five. I wished that I could call my dad and tell him about what Coach said. My dad gave the best high fives of all.
Bill took my mom’s hand and whispered something into her ear before leading her to his old fashioned record player. He pulled out an album and I heard my mom squeal with excitement. The next song to play was an acoustic version of Born to Run. My mom grabbed Bill and they began to dance.
I watched them for a moment. My mom looked happy. Bill was holding her hand and spinning her around in circles. She used to dance with me like that – spinning me ’till I thought I was going to puke. My dad would never join in the dancing, but later he’d tell me that I was going to be a “lady killer” because women love a man that knows how to dance.
Jason the lady killer. I imagined that announced on Bill’s notification board while I stuffed a handful of licorice into my pocket.
I wondered if Gracie liked licorice, too? Gracie sits beside me in math class and once, a couple of weeks ago, she snuck me half a cookie. We stole bites whenever the teacher turned her back to write on the board. Gracie makes these beaded bracelets during recess. Sometimes when my friends are being boring, I like to watch her make them. My stomach felt funny thinking about Gracie. I put an extra piece of licorice in my pocket to give to her on Monday, and then left the snack table to wander around.
Bill keeps a big selection of colourful beer bottles out on the counter during his parties. Everyone is invited to help themselves. I snuck a couple of sips once. I don’t get what the big deal is; I’d rather drink root beer. Some of the bottles have really cool labels. I spotted a box of empties under the table and crawled under to look through them. My favourite had a lady in a bikini on it – she had blonde hair just like Gracie’s, only shorter. My cheeks flushed when I thought of my mom finding me under a table, ogling girls on bottle labels. I put the bottle away and, for good measure, hid the entire box under a big brown coat that was hanging over a nearby chair.
I was in such a rush to get out from under the table and back into the party that I bumped into Mr. Hannigay. He was looking through Bill’s stuff, too.
“Would you look at this! Jason, c’mere and look at these ol’ beauties.”
Mr. Hannigay was pouring over an album full of animation stills from old cartoons. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse and other stuff like that. Mr. Hannigay used to work as an artist for some old show I’ve never seen. Sometimes he’d draw pictures on lined paper for me. I have a couple taped to my wall. There’s one he drew where I’m playing hockey in space and I’m using the moon as my puck – that one’s my favourite.
“I did that!” He exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief and pointing at the album. “This one right here, I drew that! Back in ’57.”
“You’ve discovered my secret hobby I see.” Bill appeared, looking sheepish and holding out a pen. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, Mr. Hannigay, if you you’d sign the piece you drew? It would mean the world to me.”
“I had no idea Bill – I mean most of my drawings end up in the trash. I had no idea that someone might think to… most people don’t appreciate this old stuff. But Bill, you get it. You really do.”
I could tell Mr. Hannigay was really touched; his eyes got super wide and his mouth kept opening and closing without making a sound. This was another one of those times where Bill dazzled with details.
That night, I heard at least three other people say it: Bill gets it. When I went to bed that night, with a belly fully of cherry licorice and root beer, I had to agree.
My best friend, Andy, lived in apartment complex B. I hang out there a lot now that dad’s gone. Andy’s mom lets us play mini sticks in the living room and drink chocolate milk on the couch.
I was leaving Andy’s place, crossing the dark divide between apartment complexes and trying not to think of anything scary. When I passed the dumpster I noticed something weird: a man in a big brown coat and black gloves, too warm for September, snooping through the garbage bins. The man had his back to me; he was empting bags and making notes in a Hilroy notebook.
Curious, I crept closer. I stood in the shadow of building A and watched from around the corner as he rummaged. An overhead light attached to the side of the building flickered. He emptied a black trash bag, took a few notes, then threw its contents into a second dumpster. He mumbled while he worked and I held my breath to listen closer. Did his voice sound familiar?
“Beth Nelson – $300 – the Elmwood Spa. Better tell her she’s looking well.”
The man moved to a second bag. He untied it carefully and shook the contents around a few times before pulling out a handful of crumpled receipts
“Kevin,” the voice said, “Pizza, more pizza, hmm scotch? Islay’s, he like old ones, eh.”
His heavy brown coat twisted in the wind. He reached for another bag. When I heard my name, I froze. For a moment, I thought I’d been caught spying. Then, I noticed the man holding an empty box of my favourite breakfast cereal.
“Jason isn’t recycling,” he said, as he wrote in his notebook and tossed the box into the recycling bin. He reached back to the trash bag, I inched a little closer to the dumpster, careful to keep hidden in the shadows. He pulled out a CD, my mom had thrown it out earlier this week. “Carol – damaged Fleetwood Mac – I can replace that.”
I watched our garbage pass through the stranger’s gloved hands: old shampoo bottles; candy wrappers; then a card. He opened it, read, and laughed softly. My heart throbbed inside my ears, drowning out the hum of the building’s air conditioner. That was my card. That was for Gracie.
Gracie has this really pretty blonde hair that she always tucked behind her left ear. She wears these earrings that look like buttons. I wanted to tell her that I liked her button earrings. I wrote her the card to tell her, but then worried she’d think it was stupid and threw it away. I hid it deep in my wastebasket, under Kleenex and crumpled papers so that my mom wouldn’t see it. Now, here was this strange man holding the card that I’d spent a whole hour making. And he’d laughed.
I spun around and ran. I didn’t slow down until I’d run up five flights of stairs, down the hall, and to my front door. I wished my dad were there; I wanted to ask him what to do. If I told mom about the man and the garbage, she’d worry. Plus, I’d have to tell her about the card. I stood in the hall until I caught my breath, and then let myself in. Mom was so tired from her “night out” that she didn’t notice a thing. I went to bed without saying a word.
In the morning, I hoped I had dreamt the whole scene. It seemed likely – what would a stranger want with our trash anyway?
A couple of weeks later Bill held another sale on the building’s lawn. I met my friend Andy there – we had about $4.00 between us and wanted to see if there was a good movie in Bill’s stockpile. I wanted to get Akira, but Andy was daring me to get the Blue Lagoon because he heard you could see some girl without her top on in it. I was embarrassed and kept telling him to be quiet because my mom was just a few feet away. I didn’t want her to hear us talking about boobs. Mom was asking Bill some question when he interrupted. “Carol (that’s my mom’s name), did you do something different with your hair? It looks lovely.”
“Oh yes! How sweet of you to notice. I had it cut just a couple days ago. I’m not sure about it though – do you really like it?” She patted her head self-consciously.
“I love it. It suits you very well. It reminds me of Audrey Hepburn.”
He left my mom grinning and walked over to Andy and me. “And what are you two looking at here? Akira or the Blue Lagoon? I used to have a big crush on Brooke Shields in that one,” he laughed. “But I found that a real girlfriend is better than an imaginary one. Do you know what the trick is to getting a girlfriend Jason?”
Mortified, I stared at my shoes, and I shook my head no.
“They like it when you notice things; especially the little details. There isn’t a girl in the world who wouldn’t want to be complimented on her hair, or even, say, her earrings for example.”
My cheeks burned with embarrassment but I kept my eyes nailed to the ground. I thought about Gracie and her button earrings. I thought about the card I’d written to her. How carefully I’d drawn my letters, with my pencil gripped tight in my hand. Right then, for the first time ever, I hated Bill. Everyone thought he was so was great for noticing the little things, but in that moment, I suspected that everything he said was just trash.
Christine Testa lives, writes and loves in Toronto, Ontario. She graduated from the University of Western Ontario where she completed her tenure without ever wearing Ugg books, or Tiffany jewelry. She speaks fluent geek, is not afraid of genre fiction, and is comfortable using the word cunt in every day conversation. She wears plaid the way Liz Taylor wears diamonds and drinks scotch on weeknights. You can frequently find Christine at music festivals with her husband, or fervently debating feminist politics at dinner parties.
Tracy Pumfrey lives in Toronto, Ontario with her cat. It’s not a particularly nice cat, but there is an undeniable love-bond thing between them. In addition to her cat, Tracy is a lover all things forlorn including Ali Smith, Joan Didion and wind chimes. After graduating from the University of Western Ontario, Tracy pursued the art of hula hoop dance to no acclaim. Only slightly lesser known is her public space intervention project, Phone Books, which converted city phone booths into free libraries. Her cat has been somewhat supportive, and at times instrumental, to her work.