Creative Writing | Short Story
AFTER MIDNIGHT, Carlos walked into the Burger Queen on Yonge Street. The small, downtown fast food establishment sat between a sporting goods store and a porn shop, which, like the restaurant, was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Since he graduated from York University, with an honours B.A. in psychology, he had stuck to his nighthawk ways, even on these hot, humid, summer nights. He enjoyed the quietness and serenity of the lonely night, but to improve his chances of success in job-hunting, he figured he should begin to adopt orthodox hours. Since he was not yet working, his sleep patterns might not matter, but his impression became that finding work was a full-time job. He check his email, and re-read the message from the manager of the East York Sunflower group home, which confirmed his interview scheduled for Monday.
At two a.m., his mother called on her nightshift break. When she asked if he truly graduated, he tried to reassure her, saying York University was mailing his diploma to his hometown address.
“You coming home?”
He explained that he had decided to stay over the summer in Toronto. His mother tried to persuade him to return to his hometown in north-western Ontario; she was convinced that he would find work quickly, even without an interview.
“Ma, I’m lucky I found good full-time work there after high school, but I left that job to attend university. Is it unreasonable to assume my degree might qualify me for better work elsewhere?”
In Beaverbrook he was known, she said, but in the big city he was a stranger, anonymous, another lost soul.
“Lost soul?” he replied. Meanwhile, he remembered the countless e-mails, résumés and cover letters that he sent to employment websites and recruiters, leading nowhere so far. She had a valid point. If the job search continued without any offers, he figured he’d return to Beaverbrook, where he’d likely find a job at his former workplace—not his first choice, but at least he’d have meaningful and rewarding work. In fact, he said over the phone, he needed a wakeup call Monday morning for an interview for a position as a counsellor at a Sunflower group home. “Do you want to give me a wakeup call, Ma?”
“No.” After his mother urged him home and hung up, he ordered a coffee refill, plugged in his computer, and worked at polishing his résumé.
A woman staggered into the restaurant with her friend. Carlos noticed the smell of beer and rum exuded by the taller woman with blue eyes, and observed that her friend with short, dark hair was woozy. As she sat across from him, he could not help noticing her athletic figure, her long, smooth legs. Her low-cut dress revealed her curves and a black rose tattooed on her calf. Beneath the table, her long legs kicked him in the shins.
“What are you doing?” She sat on a high stool at the common table, facing him; he saw that her friend was in an altered state of consciousness. Having difficulty sitting up straight, Mary Joy struggled against the throes of intoxication.
“I’m working on my résumé.”
“You’re working on your résumé. Why? It’s a restaurant. It’s a fucking fast food restaurant. Order fries, a Coke, a hamburger, a sundae, and eat. Don’t work on your résumé.”
Ciara sounded belligerent. So he thought, pacify her and avoid a scene. “Ok, if you say so.”
He returned to his laptop screen and continued to edit and sharpen his résumé, trying to decide what terminology would trigger a “click” in the minds of human resources personnel.
“What sort of work are you looking for?” she demanded.
“Do you know of any job opportunities?”
“I just got my degree in psychology. I’d like to work in addictions counselling.”
As she chewed her cheeseburger, and a slice of pickle fell from her mouth and plopped on her blouse, she gave him a peculiar look. “You need a certificate for that, don’t you?”
“I think nowadays you need a certificate for every field.”
The restaurant night manager came over to the long narrow common table. He said a customer had lodged a complaint. A regular, the senior sat in the corner, frowning disapprovingly, as he sipped his coffee and read his e-book reader. The manager, who had never spoken with Carlos the many times he visited the bistro-style restaurant, now warned them to quiet down before he was forced to ask them to leave.
“Where you looking for work now?”
“Group homes for the developmentally disabled.”
She looked into his eyes and then at his hands. “Shouldn’t you have a diploma for a developmental services worker?”
“Maybe. But I earned my honours degree in psychology and I’ve already experience in the field.”
She blanched, stiffened, and muttered, “I’m surprised. You don’t seem like the type for university.”
Meanwhile, Mary Joy absently nibbled her hamburger, as if in some reflexive motion, before she drifted out of consciousness, fell forward, and slumped in her high stool. She leaned against the table with her cheek and the side of her face resting the polished surface beside her iced cola, hamburger, and fries. The salvia from her mouth dribbled onto the paper wrapping of her sandwich, from which she took a single bite. She spilled cola onto the front of her dress as her arm twitched involuntarily. She looked ill. The manager came over and told Ciara that the pair needed to leave before he was forced to call security. Carlos could barely resist tsk-tsking, although her friend, regurgitating chewed food, salvia dribbling down her cheek, lapsed into unconsciousness.
“Well, good luck with your job search.”
“Thanks. I’ll need it. I have an interview Monday.”
Ciara looked surprised. When Mary Joy’s hand limply dropped onto her lap, Ciara tried to revive her from the table. “Come on, Mary Joy. How are we going to get you home?”
“I hope you’re not driving.”
“Well, what if I said we were?”
“I’d say please don’t drink and drive.”
“Well, what if I said we don’t have money for cab?”
Carlos reached into the back of his black jeans for his apartment keys and wallet. “I guess I might be able to afford to lend you money for a cab.”
“And then what do you get out of it?”
“The satisfaction of knowing that you both arrive home alive.”
“Who’s to say we don’t get ogled, groped, or fondled by a cabdriver?”
“I doubt that’ll happen. You usually don’t hear much about cabbies involved in crimes—unless they’re victims or witnesses.”
“So, if you’re an expert, what do you know about the danger a woman faces at night?”
“Not very much, and I don’t pretend to, and I didn’t say I was an expert. But doesn’t the city licensing department run criminal record checks on cabbies before they give them permits?”
“If they’re licensed,” Ciara scoffed. With an abrupt motion of her hand, she spilled his coffee, which splashed on his laptop. He quickly lifted the laptop and dried the splattered coffee from the screen and keyboard. From the other side of the long table, he wondered why she bothered to sit across from him when there were plenty of empty seats. She clutched her friend from behind.
“Don’t worry about it, geek. Play on your laptop computer, gamer boy. We have money for a cab.”
Ciara struggled to help her friend off the high chair and to the door. Observing their struggle, he volunteered to help her manoeuvre her friend to the sidewalk, where she could flag down one of the ubiquitous cabs in downtown Toronto. He reassured her that he had worked with the disabled as a developmental services worker, but that disclosure, he thought, was one of many mistakes he made that night.
“She’s not a retard.”
“I didn’t say she was.”
“And she can walk.”
“It looks like she’s having problems now.”
Some combination of excessive alcohol consumption and personality traits—was that what made her so combative and argumentative? He wondered. He helped transport her friend to the sidewalk along the Yonge Street curb. Ciara waved her hand at him as if she was a conductor and he was a violinist in a symphony orchestra, and she pushed him away in dismissal. Standing on the curb in her tight short dress and high heels, she waved, and tried to flag down a passing taxicab. The cabbie stopped. She looked attractive, standing on the curb, with her athletic figure, long, smooth legs, and dress that revealed her curves and black rose tattoo. Once Carlos had escorted Mary Joy to the curb, instead of expressing thanks, Ciara pushed him away, almost as if he was a rapist trying to take advantage of her intoxicated friend. The cabdriver slipped out of the cab, which he had parked at the curb in front of the sporting goods store. He strode inside the restaurant for a takeout coffee. Observing how drunk Mary Joy was, Carlos thought the cabdriver may be entertaining second thoughts. The air outside the restaurant on Yonge Street was muggy, the street was brightly lit, and the traffic hummed and buzzed, even though it was after two a.m.
“I think you should take her to the hospital,” he said.
“You’ve got to be kidding; she’s not sick.”
“She’s practically comatose. She looks as if she’s suffering from alcohol poisoning.”
“Suffering? What are you talking about—suffering? You make it sounds like she’s a victim when she’s drunk, having a good time. She had a very good time.”
He frowned and rolled his eyes.
“She’s Filipino. All she can do is work; all she can think about is work. Finally, I showed her how to party, take a vacation. It’s her birthday, and she gave it her all, and, with my encouragement, had the time of her life. If you’re going to play, you have to pay.”
“She’s paying all right; she looks like a zombie. You’re just enabling alcoholic behaviour.”
“Shut up!” Ciara reached out and slapped him on the cheek. “You’re such a prude,” she snapped, “so prim and proper…and uptight—you’re an alarmist.” Ciara glared fiercely at him. He looked away, directing his gaze towards the restaurant. He feared his laptop might disappear while he dealt with the two young women on the street outside. Ciara opened the rear door of the orange and green cab and tried to thrust her friend inside, but the cabdriver reached across the seats, and slammed it shut. “She’s not getting into my car. She’s too drunk.”
“What are you talking about? Why are you discriminating against us? Who do you think you’re talking to? Do you know who I am?”
“I don’t care,” the cabbie said. “You’re just a bunch of drunks as far as I’m concerned.”
“Listen to me, you Paki!” Ciara demanded. When the cabdriver snarled and turned away, Ciara attacked. She seized a broken hockey stick from a heap of damaged sports merchandise stacked on the boulevard, and charged through the garbage bins that lined the curb. Ciara struck the taxicab, denting the hood, cracking the passenger side of the windshield. The cabdriver lunged towards Ciara, but Carlos stood between the pair. A slender man in tan khaki pants and a leather jacket, the cabdriver appeared ready to attack. Carlos urged him to leave.
“Who is going to pay for the damage?” the cabbie shouted and pointed.
“Listen, man, leave,” Carlos urged. “Do you want an assault charge from the cops? You want to lose fares, and rack up lawyer fees?”
When Carlos turned to face Ciara, she raised the hockey stick and, as he defensively raised his hands, struck him on the forearm. When she hissed, and tried to strike him again, he grabbed the cracked stick in midair, and tossed it aside. The cabdriver made for cab door, then sped northbound up Yonge Street. He abruptly turned, squealing his tires as he drove east onto Wellesley Street, while southbound traffic sped down Yonge Street. Several cabs drove past before another cab arrived, and parked at the curb. An unsuspecting cabbie picked the pair up and drove them away after Ciara flashed a wad of cash from her clutch.
Carlos returned to the restaurant where he sat at the common table. He double-checked the message from the manger of the Sunflower group home, confirmed the time of his interview, then headed home.
On Monday, when he arrived at the East York group home for the job interview, he noticed first the black rose tattoo on the calf of the interviewer, who wore a short skirt and crossed her legs as she swivelled her chair behind the desk. Ciara was apparently manager of the Sunflower chain of groups home, but she did not have a cheeseburger, fries, a drink, or a broken hockey stick in her hand. Instead, she tapped a golden plated pen on her desk and rapped a file folder, which held his laser printed cover letter and résumé. As soon as she looked up from the folder on her desk she blanched and reddened. She took a yellow tablet from a prescription bottle, drank from a glass, and took a gulp of coffee.
Carlos wondered at the coincidence that this was the same young woman who had left a welt on his arm with a broken hockey stick, early on Sunday morning. She hurriedly regained her composure, and explained that she was extremely busy that morning, so she didn’t have much time for an interview. “What are your ultimate hopes and aspirations?”
Since Carlos expected a practical tact, particularly at the beginning of the interview, he thought the line of questioning peculiar. “I’m hoping to become an addictions counsellor.”
“Yes, but this opening is for a developmental services worker.”
“Yes, but I have experience in the field. I returned to university as a mature student, and graduated with honours in psychology. I think it’s an excellent way to resume my career.”
She held up his résumé, laser printed on heavy paper, and gazed at him rather intently. “So you graduated from high school when you were twenty-one?”
“I dropped out of high school a few credits shy of a diploma. I went back to high school, then to college. For me, life experience provided a better perspective on the value of education.”
“Oh, well, then, we’ll be in touch,” Ciara said. She motioned to the office door, and spoke into the speakerphone of her telephone. “Security,” she muttered. Their gaze met as she, with an expression of animosity, glanced up at him. Stepping out of the office, he picked up a brochure about the Sunflower Company of senior residences and group homes. Since she was only a few years older, he couldn’t believe she was a manager. Who was she sleeping with? Anyway, he hoped he could look back at this interview as an interesting digression en route to some meaningful career. He noticed the bruising on his forearm had mostly healed.
Later that night, he returned to the Burger Queen, where he ordered a coffee and cheeseburger. The food and drink grew cold as he read the Sunflower brochure. He learned Ciara had recently been promoted to manager from her previous position as senior counsellor—and that her father was president of the Sunflower corporation.
A few weeks later, Carlos stumbled upon Ciara’s picture in the local newspaper. In the wake of a scandal involving abuse of clients in Sunflower group homes, Ciara had been promoted to executive director. The article described the move as a “bureaucratic dustup and corporate shakeup”. He glanced out the Burger Queen’s windows onto Yonge Street where, a few weeks earlier, he had witnessed her meltdown over a taxicab. He mused over fate and missed opportunities, then checked his email, which was cluttered with messages from employment websites.
Shortly thereafter, Carlos had a job interview at another Sunflower group home, this one in Etobicoke. He journeyed on streetcars, subways trains, buses, and then on foot to a residence on a cul-de-sac around Islington and Finch. When he finally arrived at the group home, Mary Joy greeted him at the door. The identity of the senior counsellor surprised him, but he did not betray his emotions, and Mary Joy did not appear to recognize him; she was so drunk that evening, he recalled, she was virtually comatose.
He found himself gazing past her at a disabled young man in a wheelchair. The man reminded Carlos of his brother—except this man seemed oddly lethargic. In fact, he looked so distinctly unwell that Carlos wondered silently why he was sitting unattended in the hallway. Mary Joy summoned him into her office for the interview, which was the reason he visited the group home, he reminded himself.
“Ok, I like your résumé. Now for just a few questions.”
Through the open office door, he gestured towards the young man in the wheelchair. “He looks unwell.”
“I know,” she blurted. She hesitated, then added in a low, tense voice. “That’s David. He didn’t go to the activity center today. In fact, he hasn’t been active all week long.”
“Why isn’t he getting attention from a medical professional?”
“Because I need permission from Ciara.”
“My boss. The executive director for the Sunflower group homes. She’s in charge of the East York and Etobicoke units.”
“You need Ciara’s permission for a resident to see a doctor?”
“That’s screwed up. I’m calling 9-1-1.”
“Here,” whispered Mary Joy, with a look of relief, and handed him the cordless phone on her desk. Within several minutes, the ambulance was speeding towards the group home.
“Okay. Thank you for calling the ambulance, but now I have to call Ciara.” Nervously, Mary Joy dialled, and began explaining the situation. Carlos could hear Ciara’s loud voice demanding to speak with him.
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
It was his tormentor, again. Holding the cordless phone away from his ears, he said: “A concerned bystander.”
“I’ll have you know we have policies and procedures in place; Sunflower has rigid protocols!” she raged.
Carlos handed the phone to Mary Joy. “I don’t think I want to speak to her now. She sounds out of control.”
“I understand, but you should leave. She likes to drive fast and is heading over now. When she gets upset—and it doesn’t take much—she has this tendency to blow her cool and create a scene.”
Carlos was ready to leave the senior counsellor’s office, but paused in the hallway before David, slumped on the reclining chair, and remembered the last time he encountered someone in a similar physical condition. Pinching David, Carlos discovered that he was unresponsive. He wondered if the young man had suffered a stroke. A moment later, the paramedics arrived. They examined him, saying they figured he had “something neurological going on.” Mary Joy anxiously hovered around David and the paramedics, then warned Carlos he should leave before Ciara arrived.
Early the following week, Carlos went to the Burger Queen for his regular late night coffee. He read the daily broadsheet, and was startled to see Ciara’s picture once again. She had killed in a traffic accident on Highway 401, after colliding with an eighteen-wheel transport truck. A spokesperson said the police traffic division was still investigating the incident. A few pages later, Carlos saw Ciara’s obituary, placed by a funeral home. As he read it, Carlos realized that he and Ciara were actually the same age, and had both attended York University. She had graduated a year earlier.
Then he did something he had difficulty understanding and rationalizing. Was he motivated by smugness and schadenfreude? He travelled across the city, and over the suburban borders to Oakville, to a funeral home with an Irish name. Ciara was member of a large Irish Canadian Catholic family, so the wake was supposed to be some kind of celebration of life, wasn’t it? Carlos mingled with friends and family in the viewing room at the funeral parlour. When her brother, a thickset man in a three-piece skinny suit, with a pale face at turns florid and sweaty, asked him who he was, he was in the middle of pondering her graceful appearance and serenity as she lay in the casket.
He said he a classmate from York University. They worked on the same academic project together. Her brother nodded. Somehow, Carlos summoned the chutzpah to ask what happened. Seamus replied, “She got a call from Etobicoke where she works for our father, managing a group home. She was drunk and angry, and rushed across the city to where a client was seriously ill. She collided on the expressway with a transport truck driven by a driver with a rap sheet. Our father’s lawyer is trying to blame the truck driver, since he survived the crash, and I guess truckers on Highway 401 are an easy scapegoat.”
Smelling the whiskey and beer on his breathe, Carlos assumed it was because he had been drinking that he spoke so frankly.
“I’m sorry,” Carlos said. He shook the young man’s hand as he hugged him.
“There’s no reason to be sorry,” Seamus said. “We appreciate you coming.”
Then as he mingled with the mourners and well-wishers; he recognized her father from the family portrait he saw in the Sunflower brochure, and felt ashamed that he wished he had brought his résumé. He stood before the casket, and thought that there was no denying Ciara’s physical beauty. Although she had struck him with a broken hockey stick, leaving him bruised and bitter, he couldn’t help thinking she would have made an interesting wife. He also could not help noticing they were born only a day apart. Then, he remembered her quickness to insults, and wished he stayed home the night he first met her; fate had her dealt a terrible hand. His emotions began to vacillate between pangs of guilt and grief.
Mary Joy, wearing a chapel veil and dressed completely in black, noticed him and took him aside. She whispered her gratitude, and informed him that David was well now. She reassured him his timely intervention had probably saved his life.
“But the accident happened as Ciara rushed to the group home.”
“I know. After I called her, Ciara sped like crazy across town on the expressway to the group home. She got excited and panicked. Maybe lost control is a better word.”
“Sounds like she flew into a rage,” Carlos said. “She didn’t have to react that way.”
Mary Joy nodded, saying she agreed.
“So, I guess if I hadn’t called she would still be alive.”
“Ciara was my friend. I called her. All I can say is thank you, and David is well because of you. Thank you. Thank you.” She hugged him as she sobbed. Standing before the casket, clasping a rosary, she gazed at Ciara’s body, and then upwards, made a sign of the cross, clasped shut her eyes, and whispered prayers. Carlos took an obituary card with the prayer of Saint Francis, and stepped outside with a mourner “dying for a cigarette,” as the priest greeted the mourners for the rosary, words of remembrance, and a homily.
© Copyright 2016 John Tavares
Photograph by Elise Matich