by Robert Hilles
She runs past one hulk of a building and then another before cutting behind the elementary school and across its wide, greenie playground. The sharp glare of the rising sun causes her to pull her cap down lower. She’s been jogging this same route every morning since even before the divorce last year. Emmanuel blames the divorce on her jogging but she blames it on his philandering and the fact he couldn’t stop lying. The reason for their divorce is the final thing they get to disagree on.
The dewy grass makes her shoes soggy so after the playground she sticks to the sidewalk until she’s up onto the ocean-side footpath at English Bay. This is her favourite part of her morning run because the ocean air perks her mood better than any coffee. She’s got a full two hours before she’s due at work so she’ll do her regular run and then have a long, hot shower before breakfast.
On mornings like this her pounding heart and the spring of each stride off a hard surface makes her feel thoroughly alive. In a few more minutes the endorphins will kick in like jet fuel and she’ll surge ahead then, her body pure energy.
She always turns right at the footpath not left. Going left means that the path will end right away at the beach. She doesn’t like beaches even on a hot summer’s day like this one promises to be. The beach will be deserted now, the sand smoothed out overnight and not yet disturbed by human footsteps. That would make an unwelcome, even ghostly, contrast to the rest of the city.
She likes the footpath too because all the dogs she passes will be well behaved and on a leash. Later she’ll encounter the same three joggers going the other way and out even earlier than her. She’ll also meet a retired couple holding hands and walking a vague breed of white dog. She likes it that she encounters the same people during her run. They’ve become so familiar that they could be part of the landscape. By now she should know more about them but prefers that she doesn’t. It’s the predictability of these mornings that energize her and help settle her day so that whatever happens later is more manageable.
She passes a playground still deserted at this hour. Later in the day noisy children will converge on it running or darting about but always under the watchful eye of vigilant parents. At this hour, though, it is possible to believe that no children live in this part of Vancouver anymore.
She and Emmanuel talked about having children but he was never very keen on it. He sold boats for a living, or rather, expensive yachts, as he liked to point out. He didn’t like to be introduced as a boat salesperson, but preferred yacht sales representative. Most of his customers didn’t have children, or if they did, the children had grown up and were off somewhere. He’d made of point of stressing that a few times at dinner. She’d noticed how his eyes lit up a little whenever he told her such that and then his hands got very busy cutting his meat. He liked to cut his beef into very small bite-size pieces as though worried he might choke on one.
She doesn’t wear headphones when she jogs, as that would be too dangerous, especially alone in the morning. Without them, she can hear the noises around her and if anyone comes up behind her too quickly. Right now she hears a police siren, loud at first, but it soon fades in the direction of Davie and Yaletown.
Sometimes when she’s running she hears Emmanuel’s voice in her head or the voices of her mother or father. She doesn’t know why. They just pop in and say a few words and vanish again. She wonders what is the mechanics of that and why her brain would limit it to only those three voices. She’s a crisis counsellor who specializes in drug addiction and knows that everyone hears voices in their heads. Some of them are compulsive and dangerous voices that urge them to do something criminal, horrible, or downright evil. Many of the people she works with struggle to control the voices in their heads. Some have many voices all yelling at the time. She feels the most empathy for them because each day has to be a living hell. Those don’t cope for long and often turn to drugs to quiet the voices but eventually the drugs bring more.
She wonders if Emmanuel hears her voice in his head. They never talked about such matters when they were together. There was much they didn’t talk about and that had been part of the problem. She hasn’t gotten involved with anyone since the divorce and prefers being alone at the moment. The longer she’s alone the more she sees what she did wrong with Emmanuel and what she’ll do differently next time.
She wonders too what voices her parents hear? Is one of them hers? She can’t imagine her father hearing any voices besides his own, but her mother on the other hand likely hears many. She’s never talked to either of them about this and knows they’d consider it odd if she brought it up.
Compared to her clients she’s lived a fairly uneventful life so far and isn’t at all eccentric. Emmanuel accused her of being too ordinary. That was why he’d fooled around. He’d grown bored. He didn’t say that. In fact he went out of his way to not say that but it was abundantly clear by his actions that was what he thought.
Whenever his voice pops into her head it is always to admonish her about something she is doing wrong and to tell her to smarten up and get on with whatever she is doing. He never talked to her like that when they were married. Maybe he had lots of thoughts like that but if he did he kept them to himself. He was passive-aggressive with her and seldom direct. Whenever something bothered him, she’d have to drag it out of him. She’d gotten so good at questioning him in just the right way that it never took her long to get him it out of him. That was how she’d forced him to tell her about being involved with Vanessa who also worked at the same dealership as him.
She’d always wished he’d been more direct with her and in fact she has realized lately that it was her who was bored with him and how predictable he’d become with his various routines. She realizes that she drove him away but isn’t unhappy now that she did or how her life has turned out. She is much happier on her own. On mornings like this, she can take her time jogging and showering afterwards without worrying that she’s keeping him waiting.
Janice kept the apartment as part of the divorce. Emmanuel had felt guilty enough that he agreed to most of her demands. She hasn’t heard from him in over a year and doesn’t expect to anytime soon. She knows that he’s no longer with Vanessa as she left him not long after the divorce. Janice isn’t all the surprised that it didn’t work out. She assumes that is how it will be for him for the rest of his life. He’ll likely move from relationship to relationship. She also knows that he’s not all that troubled by such a prospect. He is still selling yachts, that much she knows. She hasn’t ever gone by where he works and never did when they were married just as he never came by where she worked. She’d liked that about their marriage but sees now that was likely an early clue that they weren’t suited for each other.
Her father and mother’s voices in her head are kind and praising voices and usually appear when she’s having difficulty and needing comfort. They’d appeared often after the divorce telling her that she’d done the right thing and that she’d be better off without Emmanuel. They’d been right about that. Her parent’s voices are usually right just as Emmanuel’s voice is usually wrong. She likes her father’s voice most of all and finds it very soothing. Her parents live in Oshawa, which is where she grew up but doesn’t get back there too often, so they talk every week on the phone or via Facetime. Her father voice tells her now that he’s proud of her and that makes her smile and it doesn’t matter that he’s not really here saying it to her.
She passes a couple jogging side by side and going the other way. They are in their thirties like her and they are talking as they run and she can’t imagine what they could possibly be saying to each other, or why they’d like to talk as they jog. She prefers to run alone and likes the time in her own head even if voices pop in from time to time. They never stay long. Having to carry on a conversation with someone would ruin the joy of running for her.
She’s reached the point on the footpath where there’s a clear view of the shipping lane going in and out of the harbour. She sees a large white yacht heading out toward the open strait. She’s learned from Emmanuel that such a yacht costs at least 30 million. She’d once been curious about who can afford such a yacht, but has learned enough from Emmanuel that she’s no longer curious, nor envious. There are people like her who keep the cogs of each day moving and there are those aboard yachts going out to sea.
Once they are far from land they will simply be on a small boat in the middle of a mighty ocean. Then the cost of the yacht and upkeep won’t matter as long as there is enough fuel and provisions to last until they reach land again. Otherwise no matter how much money they have it won’t be able to save them.
She has no wish to go out to sea in such a yacht and when she sees one leaving like now she doesn’t yearn to be on board but thinks instead of the yacht as just another piece of the machinery that grins though the day. Emmanuel has never been to sea in a yacht or even on a cruise ship. All he knows about yachts is what he’s learned from reading materials or been taught at sales seminars. He never told her what drew him to selling yachts except that he’d discovered he was good at it. As a teenager, he’d trained on sailboats and belonged to the Vancouver sailing club. He could probably sail a boat around the world if he wanted to but he never would. He’s often said he prefers to stay on dry land and that his job is as close as he’ll ever get to going to sea.
When she reaches where the footpath makes a hard right turn toward Stanley Park she turns back. She doesn’t ever go past here because Stanley Park is deserted and iffy at this hour and going there is bound to attract trouble.
On the way back, she always passes the playground sooner than she expects. Today she’s slightly more out of breath indicating that she’s been running faster than usual so she slows her pace and stays in the middle of the path as it takes a sharp right and then sharp left to follow the shoreline.
Get a move on Emmanuel’s voice says now out of the blue. She shoos him away immediately and he’s gone like a fly. She wonders why his voice should appear so suddenly now but shuts off that line of thinking, as it isn’t likely to yield anything. Instead she watches a couple in their eighties approach from the direction of the Sylvia Hotel. She’s impressed by how fast they are walking given their age. She hasn’t seen them before and that likely means they are visiting from out of town and she assumes it is the excitement of being here that has quickened their pace.
The woman is to the left of the man and as Janice passes them, the woman looks a bit like her mother especially the way she has let her white hair grow long and now has pulled it into tight pony tail at the back. The man wears a grey wool toque even though it’s July.
They both nod at her and then her mothers voice says, Son-of-a-bitch, for no reason that Janice can think of. Her mother’s voice sometimes swears, something her mother never does even when she’s terribly annoyed. Janice wonders about the swearing in her head and assumes that it’s some slight affliction or embellishment to make it sound different from her mother’s actual voice. The voice is also higher pitched and faster. The Emmanuel’s voice she hears is a deep baritone and at times even bass while his actual voice is more tenor. Her father’s voice sounds exactly like he does in real life.
She leaves the footpath and heads back onto a city street, running on the opposite side of the street than she’s come on. It is still early enough that there are no pedestrians and only a few vehicles—either people driving to work or coming home from a night of partying.
After the next block turn into an alley and pay attention to who drives past. This is Emmanuel’s voice again. So she ignores it and wonders why he’s back so soon. Usually when she shoes him away he’s gone for hours, even days. She ignores what he says and keeps running her usual route.
Stop! It’s Emmanuel’s voice yet again. Don’t take another step. She obeys him this time and immediately wonders why. Go. Her father says. It’s only pain. Her mother says. The voices are sped up now coming one after the other. This is new.
Stay here Emmanuel says and she immediately realizes that she is in fact a bit winded. She’s not sure why except she slept less last night and got a bit of a late start today and has been pushing herself the whole way. She rarely stops during her route but sits today on the slight incline of grass in front of the coffee shop she stops at each morning on the way to work. It’s too early for it to be open and it is dark inside with no one moving about in it yet. The grass here is damp and she feels the butt of her white cotton pants get wet and she gets up before it soaks through to her skin. Her mother brought her these jogging pants. Her mother often wears white and tends to see white clothes as the most appealing. When Janice was a little girl, her mother often dressed her in a white top and pink or red skirt or pants. Sometimes she switched that and dressed Jane in a red or pink top and white skirt or pants.
She moves to the front step of the coffee shop where it is drier. Two cars go by as she sits there. The first one is a green Honda Civic and the one behind it is a police cruiser. She watches as the driver of the Honda slows early as she approaches a red light. The Honda turns left at the intersection and the police car goes straight. She wonders if the driver of the Honda really wanted to turn left or only did so to avoid the police. She’s done that manoeuvre too. She really dislikes it when the police are behind her as it always makes her feel like she is back in driving school and being re-tested, her every move scrutinized. She worries that she’ll break some basic rules of driving.
Go Her father says. This is the second time he’s commanded her to go. His voice is usually so calm but not today. She does as he says and gets up and continues her jogging. Stay calm, her mother says. Her actual mother is racist and homophobic but her voice isn’t. Janice didn’t realize how terrible her mother’s views were until she moved west to go to university. Until then she’d thought her mother just had poor judgment and so she ignored most of what her mother said.
Where she is running now, there are tall condo buildings on both sides of the street so it is shaded here all day. Vancouver was once a small city. That was long before she’d moved here. It is large and unwieldy now made even more unwieldy by how expensive it’s become. She often considers moving back to Oshawa as life there would be easier but such a move would mean capitulation. When she was a girl, she’d assumed she’d live her whole life in Oshawa. It wasn’t a bad place to live and the people were friendly enough but anytime she’s gone home recently she always felt as though she’s traveled back in time.
A blue mid-sized car slows now and pulls alongside and then stops a few feet ahead of her.
Careful, Emmanuel says. Fuck you, her mother says. Now, her father says. She shuts them all up and concentrates on the car. She’s instantly alert.
A man steps out of the front passenger door and stands on the sidewalk directly in front of her.
“Lost?” he asks. He’s older than Emmanuel but much younger than her father. His hair is cut short but not right to the scalp the way some men do these days even though they aren’t at all bald.
“No,” she says.
“Want a ride?” he says.
“No,” she says. She can see that there are two other men in the car.
“You sure? It’s pretty early to be out here all by yourself.”
“I’m fine,” she says. Normally he’d say okay then and get back in the car and they’d drive off. But he’s not really being chivalrous. She can tell he’s stoned on Meth by the way his eyes have pulled back slightly in his head and there’s no fear visible in them even from this far away. He scratches at his left shoulder with his right hand and his right knee is slightly bent. He’s looking for trouble. Meth makes a person seek drama, confrontations, anything to speed events up and jumble reality even more than it is already jumbled. In time Meth destroys conscience too so the more someone takes it the more everything is permitted, desired even. Every crime isn’t a crime anymore but simply a deed worth doing.
In her job as counsellor she’s seen the terrible aftermath and damage that both meth and Fentanyl cause. Meth turns a brain into Swish cheese. All those holes with nothing to fill them but anger and uncontrollable urges. The person vanishes. Families are ruined.
Usually it is only when they are beyond saving that she gets to help them. The best she can do is slow down their mad rush toward the cliff they eventually go over and vanish. She isn’t sure what is she does and certainly it’s not salvation or the saving of a life. Only occasionally does she get through to someone and make a difference. At best she’s a crutch they get to lean on for a while.
Watch it, her father’s voice says now.
“What’re you wearing?” the man asks.
She knows he’s not really confused by what she’s wearing but that’s code for saying he knows exactly what she’s wearing and what she’s doing out at this early hour. The fact she is keen on being healthy likely bothers the hell out of him. The Meth will want him to do something terrible to her. All alone like this even in the middle of this city means he can do and say whatever he wants.
Run, Emmanuel says. And she does just that, running back the way she’s come. She knows she’ll never get past him going the other way.
She hears him running behind her and his breathing is loud, meaning he’s out of shape so she runs even faster.
Left her mother says and she turns left into an alley where there are still houses on either side. It must be garbage collection day because the alley is lined with garbage cans, metal ones and plastic ones. She tosses over the first one she passes and it clangs on the pavement behind her. She hears him trip over it and says fuck and then shit and bitch and then fuck again. She keeps running. She hears the car behind her and she keeps running.
Faster her father says. As she runs she tosses over more garbage cans. She hears the car hit the first couple and then stop. A door opens and she hears scrambling feet and garbage cans being tossed against a fence.
More her father says again. And she knocks them over from both sides of the alley. Several dogs bark and she sees an outside light come one farther up the alley. She runs in that direction and when she reaches there she sees a man, her father’s age, wearing garden gloves and carrying a garbage can by its handle. He sets it down at the back of his fence. She stops when she reaches him.
“Hello,” she says.
“You smell of garbage,” he says.
“Yes,” she says.
She looks back down the alley and sees the car back out and then squeal tires as it powers up the street and is gone.
“What was that all about?” the man says.
“Trouble,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate.
“Yes,” she says. He’s seen her runners and she can tell he is trying to make sense of her being out here next to his house right when he brings out his garbage for the week. He’s a man that gets up early and gets the chores done. Likely someone whose gotten up early all his adult life, like her father. To him, her being here is unusual and an enigma. Perhaps he has been bringing out the garbage every Wednesday like this for decades and this is the first time there’s been a woman standing there at the exact moment he comes outside his fence.
He might be the sort of man to take this as a sign that his life is about to turn in some mysterious new way.
She knows that’s not true and that this is a one-time interruption and she hopes he sees it that way. Yes he’s saved her life but she can’t tell him that. Maybe he’s figured that out already from the disappearing car. Maybe that’s why he’s staying out here and not hurrying back in, as he likely normally does.
“Do you need to call someone?” he asks.
“I’ll be alright in minute. I just need to stand here for a bit.”
“Okay,” he says.
He leaves her there and goes down the alley and picks up the nearest turned over garbage can. She joins him and by then he’s loading trash back into the garbage can using his gloved hands. She crouches down beside him and reaches her bare hands into the stinking muck and lifts a dripping heap into the garbage can.
“Careful there might be glass or something sharp in there. It’s best to let me do this. You can carry the garbage cans back to where they belong.”
“Okay,” she says.
When he finishes loading that can as best as is possible in the dark, she puts on the lid on it and carries it a few paces to the back fence of the nearest property.
“You did all this?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says.
“Smart cookie,” he says.
It takes them another fifteen minutes to clean up the remaining cans as they work their way back toward his house.
When the last can is cleaned up and put back, they return to where his is and his outdoor light is still and it looks so dim in the bright morning sun.
“What do you do for a living?” he asks.
“I work as a counsellor.”
“Tell me about that,” he says.
“What do you want to know?” she asks.
“How do you do it?”
She realizes that he’s decided not to talk about whatever trouble she’s just been in. She realizes too that he’s a good man and has likely been a good man his whole life. For him, saving her life doesn’t need mentioning and his asking her that question is his way of helping her further. She can say whatever she wants to say and he’ll be just fine with it.
Forget those assholes, her mother’s voice says. Then her head goes quiet as she decides what to say next.
Robert Hilles lives on Salt Spring Island and has won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Cantos From A Small Room and his novel, Raising of Voices, won George Bugnet Award. His second novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada and now is in paperback. His books have also been shortlisted for The Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize, The W.O. Mitchell/City of Calgary Prize, The Stephan Stephansson Award, and The Howard O’Hagan Award. He has published fifteen books of poetry, three works of fiction, and two nonfiction books. His latest poetry books are Partake and Time Lapse. He working on a short story collection called, Little Pink Houses. His next poetry collection, Line, will appear in the spring of 2018. He is currently working on a novel set in Thailand tentative called, Don’t Hang Your Soul On That and a new poetry book called, One of Not Many.