WE ROLL UP TO THE JAIL as dawn breaks over Slate River Valley. Pine trees stand at attention in neat rows, shaggy with fresh snow. When we pull up to the front door, there’s no more cover from the wind. It whips across the surrounding farmland, rocks my Chevy, whistles around the radio antenna. Adam’s fiddling with the dial. He shifts from ZZ Top to Lisa Laco’s voice, leans back and slurps his coffee.
“Rick,” he sighs. “How many times I gotta tell you? None of this dad rock bullshit. Not this early in the morning, man.”
Adam likes listening to CBC. He got the shit kicked out of him a lot on the inside, so the guards gave him a little radio instead of television privileges. Adam isn’t much of a reader. Tells me CBC is the closest thing to an education he got after he dropped out. Swears by it. We never get through a whole story or interview on these morning pickups, though. He’s always turning it down to tell me some random tidbit he learned on another segment.
Twenty minutes later, the door opens. The buzzing noise still rattles my teeth, even ten years out. Adam and I lean forward as the gate retreats. Spliced by a crack in my windshield, a short, wiry man shuffles into the frigid morning. A guard follows him, shoves a brown paper bag into his hands. Sticks his hand out for a shake. The wiry man stares down at it quizzically. Ten, fifteen seconds pass like this. Adam snorts as the embarrassed guard tries to recover, slapping the wiry guy on the back instead and gesturing at my pickup.
“Beautiful,” he snickers. “That’s fucking priceless.”
I reach into the back seat for my old parka. From the look of it, it’s gonna be too big for the guy. But it’s February, the windchill is minus twenty. It’s better than nothing. His parole officer told us he got put away during the summer, so it’s unlikely he’s got an alternative.
Adam’s already out of the truck, halfway across the yard. Cursing under my breath, I amble after him as fast as my aching joints will take me.
“Vern, man,” he says. “Welcome back to the world!”
Vern gives the same bewildered look reserved for the guard’s rejected handshake. Adam reaches for his paper bag, but Vern hugs it to his chest. He’s shuddering in the cold, but trying to cover it, his jaw flexing and setting, resisting chatters.
“Hey Vern,” I say, handing over the parka. “This here’s Adam. I’m Rick. We’re here to take you around town today.”
Vern regards me with wary eyes, but nods stiffly. “Anyone ever tell you you look like Clint Eastwood?” he says.
He’s got fuzzy and gnarled eyebrows like pipe-cleaner caterpillars from a kindergartener’s art project. Maybe ten years older than I am. Gaunt grooves in his cheeks, as though glaciers carved his cheekbones. Neat little salt-and-pepper goatee. Blurred and faded tattoos creep past his collar, inching up his neck. He shuffles into the parka, gropes reflexively at his bald head.
“Shit, it’s cold,” he mutters.
We pull away from the facility, toward Highway 61. Vern’s eyes widen in the rear-view as he takes in the sunrise over Mount McKay: smears of red tinged with white and fading to blue. I signal left, waiting for morning traffic to pass.
“Nice, eh?” muses Adam. “Kinda looks like a rocket pop.”
Vern scrambles for the door, tumbling out of the truck. Adam makes to chase him but I slap my palm across his chest before he can unbuckle. Vern’s retching into a snowbank, his wiry shoulders heaving under the parka’s thick down.
We take Vern to the Husky diner on Memorial. It was Adam’s idea to take the guys here first. It’s not busy like the Hoito, but it’s busy enough. There are mostly truckers around, grizzled old fucks who mind their business and don’t stare. Waitresses are pleasant, but not flirtatious. There’s all-day breakfast, the menu isn’t too large.
Vern goes ahead of us with his chest puffed out. Surveys the restaurant. A waitress with false eyelashes stacks Danishes onto a platter, making small talk with regulars at the counter. A harried businessman squints at stock indexes in the Globe. Two young paramedics hunch over lumberjack specials, their radios crackling. Vern eyes the uniforms nervously.
Adam catches my eye. Back booth, he mouths. He’s right. They always choose the back booth.
There’s a small plop, followed by a hissing goddamnit. Vern tenses. The businessman fishes around for a cufflink, two fingers in his coffee cup. Everybody’s ignoring us.
“Let’s take the back booth,” Vern says. Adam winks at me.
The waitress hands us splotchy laminated menus, cracks her gum as she deadpans the daily specials. Deposits a few oily coffees and a stack of creamers on our table. Vern’s back is to the wall. He scans the room under his pipe-cleaner eyebrows, then paws at the metal cutlery and its wondrous implication of trust. He squints at the menu like it’s a legal document.
“What a trip, right?” Adam chatters at Vern, dumping obscene amounts of cream and sweetener into his coffee. “Lemme guess: Tuesday is still southern special. Eggs and Eggo waffles.”
Vern’s eyes light up; we’re getting somewhere. Adam’s good at striking common ground. Prison menus always come up. Vern leans in. “Used to wrap that shit up, right? Put a little maple syrup on it.”
The waitress comes back around but Vern’s still caught up with the menu. He fingers the jam stains, digs the plastic corner under his nails. All these options. The air is greasy with the smell of juicy, succulent bacon—actual, identifiable meat. It’s a lot for a guy to take in. She blows a strand of hair out of her face, raises her eyebrows. Adam’s straining to jump in. His knee is bouncing under the table; I give it a little knock with mine— shut it, man.
“Eggs benny,” Vern says. “No—French toast. Pancakes! You got Finn pancakes? With sausages. And bacon.” Adam’s nodding vigorously, but Vern looks to me for approval. Not a good sign.
“Have it all,” I say.
“Cook makes the bacon crispy here,” warns the waitress, ripping the chit from her notebook. “Like it’s stripped from Satan’s asshole. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
For a wiry guy, Vern can pack it away. He orders two more rounds of breakfast. When he’s done, he traces through syrup and hot sauce, licking his fingertips with emphatic smacks.
His empty plate is a finger painting masterpiece. Adam and I sit patiently, because we get it. The first meal out is always a mind-blower.
“So,” he says, sitting back with a contented groan. “What’d you guys go in for?”
“Dumb shit,” says Adam. “Ten years for gang stuff.”
Wisely, he leaves a lot out. He got tangled up with skinheads, put away when he beat on some poor kid for his initiation. Adam was eighteen. Wanted to be part of something. Wanted to feel tough, because his dad used to rough him up. Lots of people find Jesus in prison. Adam found enlightenment in a cycle of liberally doled prison beatings and the liberally minded programming of the CBC.
Vern thrusts his chin at me. There are toast crumbs dotting his beard. “What about you, man?”
“Fifteen years,” I say. “Drug charges. You?”
We already know the answer to this one. His parole officer told us. But it’s a ritual, to share like this.
Vern stares at his hands. I notice for the first time that they’re not calloused, the way most inmates’ are. His fingers are long and tapered, like a pianist’s. Kind of elegant. He squeezes them into fists, then releases. Squeeze, release.
“I went off my meds for a month, twenty years ago,” he says. “A bad thing happened.”
Somebody bumps into Vern while we’re in Walmart getting toiletries and clothes. The guy doesn’t mean anything by it. The aisles are small. Vern is bent over Adam’s iPhone, marvelling. Adam’s scrolling through Facebook, showing him the weather forecast, texting me. Guys on the inside see ads for these things on TV, but they’ve never had a chance to use one. I got released around the time smartphones flooded the market, so I learned with everyone else. Adam’s that generation that seems effortlessly tech literate, so he never missed a beat even though he only got out last year.
Adam’s taking a selfie with Vern when the guy brushes past him. He’s got a suburban dad look to him. I don’t mean clean-cut; they’re not really, these days. Plaid flannel jacket, scruffy hipster beard, tapered jeans, toque pulled low over his eyes. A vape pen sticks out of his breast pocket. I can tell he’s a dad because he’s hauling Huggies under both arms. The guy’s diapers connect, making Vern’s lower back buckle slightly. Vern whirls, knocking the case out of the guy’s arm by accident.
Vern’s whole body changes. His shoulders tense, knees lock. Hands clenched at his sides. The muscles in his neck spasm, the only part of his entire body that’s reacting outwardly. Adam sucks in his breath, waiting for catastrophe.
But the hipster dad chuckles, bends down to collect his diapers. “Sorry ’bout that, man. Wife always tells me I should just get a damned cart.” He flashes a grin at Vern, gives us a nod. “Have a good one.”
It isn’t until Vern looks at me that I realize I’m holding my breath, too. He’s trembling with restraint, but didn’t react. I’m proud of him.
“Let’s grab you some shaving stuff, a toothbrush,” I say, recovering. “Doesn’t look like you’re gonna need shampoo with that squeaky clean dome.”
He barks laughter, and I offer him control of the cart. His long, tapered fingers curl hesitantly around the handlebars, testing the feeling. Everything is foreign. Small, measured steps are the best way to take it. Like learning to walk again.
We get to the main aisle and Vern stops, gazing around him as if he’s aware, for the first time, of where he is. People bustle around us. Rows and rows of every conceivable need stretch for yards ahead and behind us. Fried snacks. Gym socks. Baby blankets. Hockey cards. Fishing rods. A couple of fluorescents wink overhead.
“I haven’t seen a James Bond movie in twenty years,” he says softly. “They put me away two days after I seen a trailer for GoldenEye. You think they got movies here?”
Vern asks to swing by his old house on Dease Street. Adam tries to talk him out of it. Our good cop, good cop routine usually sours a little here. We don’t agree on whether the passenger should be reminded of their old lives. Adam’s a believer in cold turkey. No wonder. I don’t blame him for not wanting to get entangled with those bullshit lowlives again. But I’m the driver, so Vern gets his request.
On the drive, Vern asks us what we do for a living, now that we’re out.
“I’m a farm hand,” says Adam. “One of those wheat farmers out in Slate River. Can you believe it? It’s hella hard work, man. They give me room and board Monday to Friday, because I don’t have a ride all the way out there. On the weekends my brother comes to pick me up. Spend time with him, with my niece. It’s pretty dope.”
I tell Vern this is my job. The pickups, that is.
We park in front of the address, tell Vern we’ll be back in ten, fifteen minutes. He looks as though we’re abandoning him. Some things are important to do alone. He’s gonna have to get used to being alone a lot now. His pipe cleaners are all nervous and wrinkled up, but he doesn’t say anything.
Adam and I trudge a couple of minutes till we reach Dease Park. It’s cloaked in heavy layers of fresh snow crunching under my Sorels. Midafternoon sun makes the park glitter. It’s hard to look at directly. Behind the Dease Street Pool changeroom, I mentally map the Vickers Firehall and massive Fort William Curling Club and hockey arena.
“Maybe we should take Vern to a Thunderwolves game this week,” I say to Adam. “We can take him for Chinese buffet at the curling club after.”
He nods, moulding a fistful of snow in his hands. He lobs it at the murals decorating the pool’s change room, but it lands with a distant thud on the pool’s cover. “You think he’s gonna be all right out here?”
“Sure,” I muse. “Ten minutes won’t hurt him. Sometimes when you see what you’ve lost, you can make peace with moving forward.”
“That’s not what I meant, man,” says Adam, rubbing a hand at the back of his head. He readjusts his Blue Jays ballcap. “Most guys, you know―they’d be stoked, by now. I just keep talking, trying to get him stoked. But he’s not.”
He’s got a point. Usually passengers start out nervous, but gain confidence by the time we leave Walmart. Vern keeps asking what time lunch is, whether we have to report anywhere. He’s anxious to check in. Every time we give him tiny opportunities to gain independence—pushing the cart, swiping my credit card, getting a transit pass—he looks stunned, like somebody’s just asked him to enter a nuclear code. Relieved when it’s over. Trails behind us when we’re walking anywhere.
Footsteps crunch behind us. Vern’s headed down the footpath. Drops of ice glitter on his cheeks. Tears frozen in the windchill. He paws them away aggressively.
“She’s gone,” he says. Adam starts talking about how his girl left him too, it’s not so bad, there’s plenty more in the sea.
“That’s not it,” Vern says, shaking his head. He doesn’t bother to tell us who, or what he’s lost. We don’t press him.
When the pharmacy tech at Shoppers hands Vern the bill, he starts breathing funny. These little stop-start, stop-start breaths. Setting my jaw, I prepare a gentle lecture on how he has to do these things himself soon.
“Just a minute,” he says to the baffled tech, waiting to receive payment. “I need to talk to my friend Rick, here.”
He pulls me into an aisle, nearly upending a vitamin display.
“I only got fifty on me. That’s all they gave me when I left. I can’t afford this shit.” His eyes are rolling wildly, one hand waving the receipt, the other clutching at my parka like a drowning man. “Do you know what happened the last time I couldn’t take these?”
I take the receipt, scrutinizing the charges. Bold print demands a three-figure sum for a one-month supply. My stomach sinks. It’s way more than my blood pressure meds.
“Okay,” I say, trying to be upbeat. “Let me talk to them, Vern. We’ll see if we can sort something out. Just give me a minute, okay? Go find Adam. He’s probably taking his blood pressure or in the magazines or something.”
The tech is a girl—pardon me, a woman—about Adam’s age. She’s got finely arched eyebrows, cheekbones like shrapnel, lots of dark, smokey makeup around her eyes. Prim, nerdy glasses with thick frames, the kind we would’ve beaten people up for in grade school. Her wide smile holds rows of perfect, contemptuous teeth.
Before I have a chance to open my mouth, she says she’s sorry. It’s such a shock, she knows, but he’ll have to get used to it, these are very, very necessary and if he cannot afford them there are government programs that can assist, you know, with the payment issues, if you’re—she whispers this part—you know, of a lower income bracket, and you can find the paperwork online, but she’s really, really sorry she can’t do anything for him because she most certainly does not recommend skipping any doses, with his condition.
She is not sorry one bit. I know it in my gut as I swipe my credit card, as I thank her for her time. Prison tells you when people mean it, and she does not.
Quiet drive to the shelter. Vern doesn’t have a lot of questions for us, which isn’t a good sign, either. Dusk smears pink across the sky, as though
the world is a child curiously applying Mother’s rouge. At the lights, I check on Vern in the rear-view. His head is against the back window, tracing his initials in little puffs of condensation against the cold glass. He preferred the back bench, even though Adam offered him shotgun.
Adam lays a hug on Vern as I gather his bags. We check in at the front desk, make sure he’s got his room keys. He drops the set in his pharmacy bag. “The two most important things in my life,” he says, grinning. He looks excited to be here. More excited than he’s been all day.
“We’ll get you down to the ministry tomorrow,” I say, as Adam and Vern unpack his things. “Get you some ID, so you can get a job. Apply for those health benefits.”
He doesn’t hear me. He’s asking Adam what time breakfast is served in this place, what time everybody takes their meds. Like it’s another prison. It breaks my heart.
My cell vibrates through the down in my parka. When I haul it out, I see it’s Vern’s parole officer, texting me for updates.
You were right. He can’t afford his meds. He needs structure.
Give it a week. He’ll come around.
I give him a month. Till his meds dwindle, till the shelter kicks him out. Adam and Vern are bent over a cheap DVD player, hooking up the red and yellow wires to his little TV. Tina Turner’s sultry snarl lingers over the opening scenes of GoldenEye.
“Look, Rick,” he says. “Adam got it set up for me. I’ll be shaken, not stirred in no time.”