I first heard about the drug-friendly house when Julie from three doors down stopped by on her way home from work to check if we were coming to the meeting. When I asked what meeting, she said, Ask Patsy.
Patsy’s on a walking tour of Bhutan, I told her. You’ve caught me in the middle of writing her an email. Maybe she meant to delegate me and forgot. She was pretty frazzled by the time I got her to the airport.
It’s about the drug-friendly house, Julie said.
When I just looked at her, she added, impatiently, The one across the street from you.
She was standing on our front porch. I was holding the screen door open wide as if to let her in, but I didn’t. Now I pretended to search over her head for a drug-friendly house, but all I could see was the Beringers’, which will be a drug-friendly house when the moon falls out of the sky.
So Patsy hasn’t said anything, Julie said.
I know, I said. If you’re like me, it’s always a surprise when you tell one member of a couple something, and later you mention it to the other, and they have no idea what you’re talking about. This isn’t Patsy and me. We tell each other everything. We’re always scraping the bottoms of our respective barrels. And just imagine how much we’ll have to talk about when she gets back from Bhutan, even after the hourly texting and the daily blog-length emails and me following her village by village on Google Earth. I can only say that our failure to communicate in this instance has come as a shock.
Julie wasn’t listening. She was writing something on a small pad she had taken from her purse. Tearing off the top sheet, she said, Here’s the time and place. See you Thursday. Maybe. And she turned and went down the steps.
Thursday! I called. To make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, I texted Patsy.
Patsy texted back, If u dnt wnt a Rx hse a x th st thn by al mns go.
I got to the Community Centre right on time, but the meeting had already started. Or maybe the dozen or so people sitting around the boardroom-style table under bad fluorescence were just getting to know each other by sharing informal accounts of their experiences pertaining to the drug-friendly house. As I took my seat, Karen, a handsome woman with the sacrificially short hair of a young mother, was saying she lived directly across the street from it—four doors down from us, on the other side of Julie—but her van must have tinted windows. I had never seen her before in my life. She told us how one afternoon last fall she was out on her front lawn with her two kids, three and five, raking leaves and putting them in bags (you can imagine how that was going), when a guy flew out of the drug-friendly house pursued by two others. They chased him up and down the street, and just when it looked like they’d catch him, he ran over and crouched behind her van, which was parked in her driveway. The other two stopped short and hung back, because she and the kids were standing right there. The guy was down on one knee, breathing hard. What should I do? she asked him. Call me a cab, he said. Karen’s cellphone was in her pocket, so she called him a cab. When the cab came, the other two watched him get into it, and then they went back inside the drug-friendly house.
As Karen told her story, her cheeks glowed like apples. Before she could finish, the chair of the meeting, a man in a quilted vest, recognizable to me from his picture in the community newsletter as the president of the neighbourhood association, said, Listen. Don’t enable these guys. Next time call 911.
Now Karen’s cheeks looked like they’d been slapped. If the chair noticed, he wasn’t bothered. He was telling us how he used to live in B.C., where he’d once attended a series of meetings just like this, called to close down a drug-friendly house. Well, they got the house closed down all right, but it turned out the guy who organized the meetings was running his own drug-friendly house and was just getting rid of the competition.
For a moment all you heard was the buzzing of the lights. Why was he telling us this? We listened closely as he next addressed what he called the desire expressed by some to meet with the police and with the owner of the drug-friendly house, who was the aunt of its sole tenant, an unmarried female. Next he provided a confusing account of his interactions over the previous year with the aunt and with the sergeant-detective whose job it was to keep an eye on the house. It seemed that the aunt was something of a dragon and the sergeant-detective had too many drug-friendly houses on his plate. There was only so much the police could do.
Now I spoke up. I must have been channeling the general discontent with this guy, because even to my own ear my voice sounded a little harsh. So we’re here, I said, to figure out what to say at a meeting that you want to set up with the aunt and the police.
No! the chair cried. I don’t want to set up a meeting with anybody! I don’t care what we do! It’s completely up to you people where we go next with this! He looked at us, breathing hard. More quietly he added, I’m just saying it’s complicated. The aunt lives in the neighbourhood too. There are hundreds of these houses in the city.
Here Karen spoke for the first time since he had smacked her down for not calling 911. Let’s get one thing clear, she said. You’re just the chair here. My understanding was what he said—And she turned and looked down the table at me, and as if surprised to see me still there she added, Who are you, anyway?
For that second, the second that Karen’s eyes held mine, for the life of me I could not remember.
It didn’t matter. Karen had a larger point to make. This was that even a nonentity like this guy, who has walked in here out of nowhere, can grasp what this meeting needs to be about. To the chair she said, Your position does not give you a right to tell us what we should or should not do to keep our children safe in our own neighbourhood.
Hey! he cried, showing us his palms.
It sounds to me, Karen said, like you’re afraid of the aunt.
Who does also live in the neighbourhood, the chair reminded her.
And you don’t seem to think, Karen continued, that the police can possibly do more than the piss-little they’ve been doing.
OK, he said, turning grim. Here’s what the police are doing. They’re taking your calls. As you know, they’ve asked you to record the licence numbers of all cars that stop at the house. They get a licence number, they punch it into their computer—he mimed this—seven times out of ten the owner is known to them, five times out of seven he’s got a cellphone, three times out of five—Bingo!—they know the number.
We nodded. This would be the long arm of the law.
So they call him up, the chair continued, and they say, Look, we know where you’ve just been. If you realize what’s good for you, you won’t go back there.
So do they? I asked.
Sometimes, he admitted. My point is, the police are on it. How much manpower do they have? A woman finds herself a few unsavoury friends. The drugs come in, the drugs go out. It’s a tinpot operation.
At this, Julie from three doors down said in a trembling voice, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Obviously you have no idea what this has been like for us. Last week I was on my front step writing down a licence number, and this character completely covered in tattoos gets out of the car and comes up my walk and asks me what I’m writing. I told him, my laundry list.
It’s not funny! Julie wailed. These guys are scary! On an angrier note, to the chair she said, If you’re telling me it’s the most natural thing in the world when my street turns into a hangout for dopers and criminals, then, mister, you lived in B.C. too long.
At this, Bob Beringer shouted from the far end of the table, The aunt should put the niece on an acreage, where her druggy pals won’t have law-abiding citizens to terrorize!
—only telling you what Sergeant-Detective Willmott told me, the chair was saying, talking over Bob. He’s spoken to the niece. She’s . . . not young. Very much . . . her own person. Sergeant-Detective Willmott says the licence plate information you people are providing is invaluable—
And it hasn’t made one goddam bit of difference, a woman hooked up to oxygen observed in a voice like coarse gravel shifting at the bottom of a copper sink.
He’s talked to the aunt, the chair persisted, who might just come around. Our best hope is, the niece herself will understand the situation can’t continue. She’ll have to close her door to these people or face eviction.
But how long will she be given? a strikingly beautiful woman perhaps seventy-five asked in a voice of polite bewilderment. She wore a charming expression marred only by a look of horror that never left her eyes the entire meeting.
When the chair had no answer for her, I saw my chance. So where are we with this meeting with the aunt and the police?
OK, the chair said, coming out of it, glancing in my general direction, Sergeant-Detective Willmott has requested we hold off on that. He’s asked us to give him a month. He’ll talk to the aunt again, and the niece—
What kind of drugs are we talking about here? a man I sometimes see walking a schnauzer suddenly wanted to know.
To this question, in the manner of one familiar with the blandishments of an altered consciousness, the chair replied dismissively, Oh, the usual. Marijuana. Hashish. Maybe a little Ecstasy. Nothing remotely addictive, really.
When people just looked at him, he leaned back in his chair and, like a dog luxuriating in anticipation of a belly-scratch, outlined another route we could go. We mount a security camera on a streetlamp, he said, trained on the house, motion-sensitive, and—Bingo!—a direct feed to police headquarters.
Would you please stop saying Bingo, Karen said.
After a short silence, we were addressed by the distinguished gentleman sitting next to the strikingly beautiful old woman, who turned horrified eyes upon him as he spoke. The niece is not an addict, he said. I know the family. She’s one of these people who, for one reason or another, have fallen out of step with the way things are generally done. Too much integrity, perhaps. Too . . . giving. I wouldn’t be too hard on anyone involved.
The narcotics element is a separate issue.
Not if they’re being dealt out of a house the aunt owns and the niece lives in it isn’t, Julie said.
I am pleased to report that in the end we voted eight to five, with two abstentions from people who hadn’t said anything, to give Sergeant-Detective Willmott his month.
A motion was made to adjourn.
Bingo! the chair said.
That evening as I made myself a lonely chicken-tender stir-fry, it came to me that the woman in the drug-friendly house was the same one who’d appeared in the small hours last summer at our son Cam’s twenty-first birthday party. Patsy and I had checked into a hotel for the weekend, and so we missed her, but Cam said she just walked in with her little dog at three in the morning and started clearing glasses and doing dishes, saying things like Don’t mind me and You’re only young once. Cam, as drunk as his friends, wasn’t sure what to do about her. In the end, she stayed, and he was able to blame her for every cigarette burn and stain on the carpet.
If I had the right woman, then the drug-friendly house was a vinyl-sided bungalow unremarkable from the street except for a weedy firepit and an apple tree out front. For days at a time, a sun-corroded Chev Impala was parked on the grass next to the driveway. Sometimes the house pounded like a boom box. Once in the front window I saw what looked like an artificial Christmas tree. Christmas was so long ago that it was possible the tree had gone up early. Like stepping out of the night with your dog to clear glasses at a party for twenty-year-olds who don’t know who you are, the tree suggested a benign, crackpot domesticity, a willingness to enter into the larger cultural conversation.
It was around this time that I had a dream about a cascade of tectonic events that causes other-dimensional amphibians to leach into materiality and cruise the jet stream in search of unconventional thinkers. Recruiting the homeless is no problem, but when an unconventional thinker has a roof over her head the difficulty for an amphibian is knowing where the unconventional thinking ends and the house begins, and so it takes the whole house. I don’t know if this dream was inspired more by the drug-friendly house or by the information flowing in daily from Patsy in Bhutan, where fishing is illegal because fish are wild creatures; where society is matrilineal, so old women live with young men and nobody bothers to get married; and where signs say things like The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war and
NO TIME TO JOKE WITH AIDS.
The dreamer would not have been surprised if the day the amphibians leach back out of materiality one of them departs with the whole of Bhutan under its arm (more accurately, webbed forelimb), but this scenario was perhaps over-indebted to Patsy’s experience as filtered and framed by her enthusiastic reportage.
On a P.D. day for me, with no vehicle parked out front of the drug-friendly house and all seemingly quiet inside, the drapes standing open, I knocked at the door. As I waited, a cab moved slowly along the street behind me, and already I could see the headline: DRUG DEAL GONE WRONG: WELL-MEANING HOUSE-CALLER CAUGHT IN FATAL CROSSFIRE.
But the cab continued on until it reached the letter-distribution box at the corner. There our mailman got out. He must have been running late. Perhaps he had family money and delivered mail strictly for the exercise and fresh air. But then, why take a cab? Because he could afford to be late? OK, fine, but what about his health? As he crouched to unlock the box, the door of the drug-friendly house was opened by a lean, wary woman with fine threads of grey along her part. At her feet, an orange Shih Tsu started barking as soon as it saw me.
Hi, I said. I’m Morris. I live in that house over there. You pitched in last year with the clean-up at my son’s party. Receiving no response, I added, What’s your name?
Audrey, she said. We shook hands. Audrey’s grip was narrow and bony. It conveyed a concentrated force.
As for the little dog, it gave one short, sharp yap, spun around twice, shot me a dirty look, and with its rear end in the air and me after it followed its mistress down a brief hallway past a perfectly ordinary living room, Christmas tree notwithstanding, into a kitchen last renovated fifty years ago but clean enough. Dust motes hung in a ray of morning sun from a window over the sink. As the little dog clicked across the lino to check its bowl, from the fridge Audrey took a bag of spring greens and invited me to look inside. At first I didn’t see anything, and then I did. Blinking up at me from a shallow bed of flat-leafed spinach, the pulse in its throat going but making no sound, was a small, pale green tree frog.
They want me to bring it in, Audrey said.
This was the Superstore on Fifty-first. We didn’t take the dog. Audrey sat in the passenger seat with the bag on her lap, saying little. When I wordlessly indicated a portable hoarding outside a pet store on Twenty-second I thought she might find of interest—BABY FERRETS NOW IN—she made no comment. Inside the Superstore it was a quiet Monday morning. The posture of a young produce stocker examining a grapefruit pyramid suggested a kid with a head full of dreams just putting in time. Whoa! he said when he saw the bag in Audrey’s hand. He led us through heavy swing doors with rubber bumpers into a refrigerated cinderblock bunker between stacked boxes of produce on pallets toward a dark corner. He threw a switch—Whhaaah! he said. On a paint-stained Rast nightstand, there stood revealed a homemade terrarium. If the four or five tree frogs inside were startled by the sudden brightness, the only sign they gave was one slow, asynchronous blink.
Schwumpff! the kid said. This was hardly the sound of a bag of spring greens being emptied into a terrarium on top of four or five tree frogs, but Audrey was already untwisting the twist-tie. The contents of the bag floated down to make a fresh green carpet, but even as we watched, various sectors rustled and heaved, and soon six tree frogs had crawled out to gaze up at us, arranging their tiny thighs, with pulsing throats and not a sound between them.
Ta-da! the kid said.
Back at Audrey’s, the sun-corroded Chev Impala was parked on the lawn again, and on a kickstand out front was now a Harley-Davidson. I’ll just drop you off, I said, but an irritated look from Audrey let me know I was coming in for coffee. The little dog was overjoyed to have its mistress back. Me it lunged at with a demented yip. At the door to the living room Audrey paused to introduce the three individuals who had made themselves at home while we were out. Wayne and Bo were slumped on the chesterfield, doing a convincing impression of two worthless layabouts. More prepossessing was The Organism, a buzz-cut individual in an unbuttoned shortsleeve floral shirt, who sported solid tattooing from his chin to his beltline. Like a speaker reviewing a keynote address, The Organism sat hunched forward on a wing chair, going through a stack of 3×5 file cards.
Hey man, he said when Audrey introduced us. How’s it going.
Good, I said. We just dropped off the tree frog.
I don’t know what that means, he said.
Here I was tempted to offer a droll account of our trip to Superstore, but when I looked to Audrey, she and the dog were already on their way to the kitchen. I can explain, I told The Organism. Instead, in a feint of ironic homage to the disconnectedness of contemporary social interaction, I shrugged and followed Audrey. In the kitchen, the dog was having its topknot fondled while sitting at the table in the lap of a biker, who held my eyes before addressing me by name.
Hey Morrie, long time no see.
We just dropped off the tree frog, I said. I looked to Audrey. She was filling the coffeepot.
The biker extended his hand. Davis Purefoy, he said.
It was a familiar name. As we shook I told him this.
Fucking I’ll say, man! he replied, after a stunned delay of incredulity. You only sat across from me the whole of Grade Two and half Three! Southside Primary, Miss Walser’s class! I can’t believe you don’t remember that. We were best buds!
I do now, I assured him, and I did, except for the last part, but it was too late. Davis was looking at Audrey, and for a moment I thought she must have gone to Southside too. Raising his voice above the tap, Davis said, Sorry, Aud’, I meant to make more fresh, but . . . His gaze drifted back to me.
We had some catching up to do. While Davis touched on some of the good times we’d shared, I reflected that all I’d ever got from Davis Purefoy was knuckle punches and Indian burns. The noncongruence of our memories set me thinking how the human tendency to pass time in unmoored reverie compromises memory as surely as it impedes attention, and I was hardly taking in what Davis was saying. It was only when he mentioned that he’d just done nine months for bottling a cop that I snapped to awareness.
So what about you, Morrie? he asked me. What’s your game?
Teacher, I said, shortly, dismayed by a note of apology in my voice. How spineless we are! Such chameleons!
Still in class, eh bud? And you’re thinking to yourself Beats jail, loser.
Not at all—
Davis’s sad smile as he doubted this suggested that I was not in immediate danger. While the coffee perked and the dog went out of its mind with senseless barking, Davis got me to help him move the table away from the wall. As we fetched more chairs from the living room, he told the others to join us. I said I really needed to be getting along, but Davis couldn’t think why I would want to do that. He was still looking at me, puzzled, as Audrey set out a plate of cookies and mugs of coffee. When the five of us had taken our seats and got settled and Audrey had sat down herself, with the dog on her lap, panting, Davis opened the meeting.
OK, he said. We have three options: Walk away. Dig in. Revenge.
I would say the reason neither Wayne, Bo, nor The Organism immediately seized upon the only sensible option—Walk away—was a reluctance to be perceived by the others as fearful or cowardly. Revenge, I said. That got their attention. Thinking strategically, I proceeded to make the case for a coordinated friendliness assault. There’s your drug-friendly house, I said memorably, and then there’s your friendly drug house, and which one will still be around in ten years? This means no loud music after eleven p.m. No flipping the bird at neighbours. All visitors to park discreetly in back. Don’t get me wrong, I said. Nothing you do will win them over one-hundred percent. On the other hand, nothing confuses people like a warm smile. Think of it like living well, only more disturbing.
My point made, I looked around the table. Davis was watching a pencil pass end-to-end through his fingers. Audrey was retying her dog’s topknot. From the look on its face, you could tell it was visualizing the movement of her fingers, and the next time it stopped in front of a mirror it would look at its topknot and vaguely wonder if it could retie it itself, and then it would glance down and notice that it had no fingers, and by that time it would have forgotten this whole sequence of thoughts, if that’s what they could be called. Wayne and Bo were engrossed in some kind of rib-elbowing game and in serious need of a timeout. Only The Organism showed genuine interest in what I was getting at. What the fuck are you talking about? he inquired thoughtfully.
Now for the sad part: they didn’t want to know. This became apparent to Patsy and me not a week after she got back. One morning, as we set out on another walk around the neighbourhood from which I would return with Bhutan dribbling out of my ears, we came down our front steps and were brought up short by the sight of a six-foot chainlink fence with barbed wire along the top, entirely surrounding the drug-friendly house. Sometimes you reconnect with someone from your past, and in no time at all they’ve said or done something that reminds you why it didn’t work then and won’t now. Still, it’s sad when all that comes of an unbuttoned exchange of ideas around a kitchen table is a chainlink barricade. By that time, the aunt had sold the drug-friendly house to what was rumoured to be a numbered company held by a biker gang and Audrey had moved out, to well beyond the outer limits of the west end, far from the tensions that, despite heroic efforts by the neighbourhood association, working hand-in-glove with Sergeant-Detective Willmott and his men, continue to plague us here. I just hope the coyotes don’t get her little dog.
Fortunately, my personal interactions with the residents of the drug-friendly house had been happy ones. So when two officers came to the door recently to ask if my family or I had ever encountered any problems or disturbances from that quarter, I told them uncategorically that we had not. While I can’t speak for my neighbours, I said, in my own experience the residents of that house have been model citizens. As evidence of this, I mentioned Audrey’s helping hand at my son’s birthday party and asked them to picture a free-ranging, sunny-morning kaffeeklatsch in her homey kitchen.
The officers neither affirmed nor refuted my favourable assessment. From their body language I would say they tuned out at model citizens.
On a less sanguine note, after the meeting at Audrey’s, as an expression, I suppose, of his gratitude for my contribution, Davis insisted I accept two ‘hits’ of what I thought he called Ecstasy. Now, drugs are hardly my ‘thing’, but Davis’s intemperate response to my refusal took me back to one or two occasions when I have inadvertently offended my foreign hosts by declining some ugly keepsake or disgusting food item. And then I asked myself, Will Davis be any the wiser when they go straight into the trash as soon as I arrive home? In a quick volte-face, I accepted his gift. But once in the door, I remembered Patsy’s fond accounts of her hippy days and forgot it on the mantelpiece, and when she got back from Bhutan and came across it dusting, she seemed intrigued and suggested we ‘drop’ it the first Saturday night we had nothing better to do. Even as every atom of my being screamed No!, I readily agreed. What more romantic way to acknowledge the depth of our love than by ‘dropping’ a modern-day ‘love potion’?
Well, either I misheard Davis or after my initial refusal he gifted me something completely different, perhaps in the spirit of revenge he’d always been known for. While the lasting effects of Patsy’s hippy days seemed to render the poison in her system relatively innocuous, I enjoyed no such advantage. I soon found myself crouched before the refrigerator in a psychic death grip with a lizardlike raptor obscenely impersonating my wife. When it unexpectedly seized the handle and pointed inside, it’s possible it was inviting me to join it in a late-night snack, but I could only assume it wanted me to climb in. When I demurred, it canted sideways to open the vegetable drawer, from which it removed a bag of spinach greens. This it tore open and held out to me, with a significant look.
Just as when Davis Purefoy offered me the poison that was even then coursing through my veins, my first impulse was a polite No thanks. But this time it seemed important to know exactly what I was declining. This must be why I stepped forward and peered into the bag. And there on the green carpet, in a squat, naked but for long, floating orange hair, with a topknot, was a creature into whose heavy-lidded globes my being swiftly poured, swung round, shifted its thighs, its throat pulsing, and in a voice hoarse with outrage and yet sounding a note of primordial complacence, croaked Bingo!
Aw idney koot the giant face above me rumbled, with a lizard grimace.
Bingo! I reiterated.
Wee urr dyoo! the giant face crowed, a look of depravity creasing its scaly features.
Bingo! . . . Bingo!
It was no use. Next we’d be on our way to Superstore and the kid who spoke exclusively in sound effects. He’d take care of me.