Everything Must Go
Carol was used to people opening up to her at the salon. Nobody did that at Steve’s crack house. It made her uncomfortable so she started talking more about herself, just to fill the silence. She told one of the prostitutes about Ron, a wealthy guy who had been enchanted by her feet.
“How common would you say that was?” Carol asked the prostitute.
“Foot fetishes. Do you meet a lot of guys into that?”
“Not really,” The prostitute said, and tended to her pipe. Carol glanced at the woman’s sneakers. They were puffy with melted snow and rimmed with street salt. Carol was curious about the woman’s money-making body but most of it was wrapped in a billowing floor-length down jacket the color of car exhaust.
“Well, you know, maybe it takes a certain kind of feet to attract guys like that,” Carol said.
“Yeah, that’s possible,” the prostitute said, flicking her lighter distractedly.
“Like really elegant feet,” Carol said.
“Uh huh.” The prostitute lifted her pipe to her mouth and inhaled deeply. She put her hand over the bowl to trap the escaping smoke.
“Oh,” the prostitute said with startled joy.
“Good?” Carol said.
“Yes,” she said, as her face slackened. She stared intently and lovingly at a spot just above Carol’s head.
“It’s so good,” she said softly.
Carol dropped a pellet of crack into her own pipe and inhaled smoke that tasted like burnt plastic and gasoline.
“Oh, it is good, isn’t it?” Carol said. Her body was filling with light. She was finally growing into the baggy, ill-fitting costume called “Carol” that she had been dragging around all her life. Growing and growing, until the seams were bursting.
“Wow. Crack. We’re smoking crack, aren’t we?” Carol said.
“Yes, we are,” the prostitute said.
“Crack. Crackity crack. We’re smoking crack,” Carol said.
“Yes,” said the prostitute, and raised the pipe to her mouth again.When the little white pebble in Carol’s pipe fizzled away to a greasy little stain in the wire mesh she immediately replaced it with a second rock from the pile in front of her.
“You should wait,” the prostitute said.
“Oh, is that like a rule of responsible crack smoking?” Carol said.
“It’s just good to wait,” she said.
“It’s good to smoke, it’s good to wait. It’s all good,” Carol said. She was babbling. It was her second night at Steve’s. She was always a little over-talkative when she met new people. Then later she wouldn’t be able to sleep, thinking about all the stupid things that had tumbled out of her mouth. So far, though, she was feeling a lot less social anxiety than she usually did in large groups. The other crack-heads seemed so detached. Not distant and judgmental like the people at work, but genuinely thinking about other things. Or at least one other thing, which was crack. There was a man with mental problems who wept and muttered whenever he took a hit off the pipe. Another one who kept asking everybody for money in a hyperactive blur of words. Steve wasn’t shy about throwing out these two or anyone else when they became unruly, but there wasn’t that blast of gossip you’d expect after they left.
As the second rock began to wear off, she began to worry that she may need to pee but was still too high to know it. She took a deep breath and stood up. The thing was, she wasn’t crazy about Steve’s washroom. The door was thin and there were always people sitting just a few feet outside of it. You could hear them talking, and they could hear you peeing. The quality of the repartee that drifted through the door was another one of her complaints. She understood how people could be addicted to crack, but didn’t they ever get tired of talking about it? Good crack, bad crack. This crack has speed in it. You got a big rock, mine is small. Only Carol accepted each new morsel with quiet gratitude. It was true that the first rock of the evening was the best rock — a plump bomb of ticklish light — but her mind luxuriated in the knowledge that there was more, much more crack somewhere, hidden in the cupboards or in the walls — it was like living inside a cake.
She came out of the washroom and sat down at the folding table. The prostitute was gone. Carol was suddenly feeling self-conscious. She took out her pipe and the Hello Kitty pill box in which she kept her crack. There was one rock left. She smoked it and settled into a warm nest of apathetic bliss. She stared at the empty chair where the prostitute used to be. The woman was outside somewhere standing on the frozen sidewalk. It made Carol happy to think of her out there, not out of cruelty but because she liked to imagine she knew lots of people throughout Montreal. She wanted to feel that wherever she went there was the possibility she would bump into someone she knew. She pictured herself walking down St. Denis Street with her friend Marcy from high school and waving at prostitutes.
“Who is that?” Marcy would say.
“Oh, that’s Francine,” Carol would say.
“Is she a…hooker?” Marcy would say.
“Sex worker is the preferred term, I believe,” Carol would say. Marcy had married a guy from their high school, David Seabrook, who owned his own wine store. They lived a couple of hours outside of Montreal, in Granby. Marcy had a girl, two years old. Carol tried to remember the kid’s name, but she was suddenly distracted by a sensation on the left side of her head that she was being stared at. There were two French-Canadian women sitting side by side on Steve’s bed and both of them were looking right at her. They wore layers of torn sweaters and there was a tangle of raincoats on the floor next to their legs. They had dry red skin and cracked lips. They sat on the bed with their loose, scaly necks and dead little eyes like a pair of hyper-vigilant lizards. She had seen them when she had first arrived that night. She had assumed that she had become invisible to them as soon as they had realized she was just another irrelevant Anglophone cluttering up their city.
“So what ‘appened wit’ da guy?” one of them said.
“Huh?” Carol said, coming down fast from her high and choking back a little swirl of panic in her stomach.
“Da guy,” the woman said again.
“Ron?” she said.
“’E doesn’t like your foot hanymore?” the woman said.
“No, no. I broke up with him,” Carol said.
“Oh, god. He was sooooo boring. He was nice looking and everything. Incredible hair, kinda all moussed up in little bunches?” she said, twirling her own hair to demonstrate. “And he had a great apartment just over on Jeanne Mance. Really tidy. Like scary tidy. Like, hello? Does anyone live here? I mean basically I was dating his apartment. My place is so — ,” she stopped herself in mid-babble. The two women had stopped listening. They were arguing in French with each other. She wondered how she would have ended her sentence. My apartment is the storage place for the detritus of my dreams? She could imagine it now, three blocks away, dark except for the streetlight outside the living room window. It missed her when she was away. Worst of all were the boxes. Five boxes, or was it six now? Big cardboard boxes in her bedroom full of the abandoned projects of the last three years. Each night she went home to books about web design, illustrating medical textbooks and writing mystery novels; boxes of art and sewing supplies; French and Japanese language-learning cassettes; bottles of solvent for refinishing old furniture, tubes and funnels for making beer; and a pricey slab of soapstone, scarred with a few half-hearted gouges, that she had planned to sculpt into a sensuous, challenging shape.
The argument between the two women died away and Carol watched them pass a crack pipe back and forth. Once they finished the pipe, they switched to cigarettes and stared at Carol like kids contemplating a brand new piece of playground equipment. One of them said something that got lost in a fit of coughing.
“Huh?” Carol said.
“’E was a rich guy?”
“Do you tink e’d like to play with deez?” one of the women said, kicking off an enormous snow-mobiler’s boot and holding up a bare foot with an inwardly bent big toe and a calloused knob on the side. The two women rocked back on the bed, laughing.
“Sure. He likes all kinds of feet,” she said, remembering Ron’s collection of catalogs full of pictures of women’s feet sheathed in various forms of hosiery.
“Maybe you can make us the introduction,” she said.
“I’d love to introduce you guys to Ron,” she said.
“But he don’t have the stuff. It’s the hempty ‘ouse,” one reminded the other.
“Stuff?” Carol said.
“”’Ouse stuff. Da big TV and CD player.”
“Oh, he has all that kind of stuff. Jeez, the place is lousy with home entertainment doo-dads,” Carol said.
“What’s the doo-da?”
“House stuff,” she said. She thought for a moment and then said, “Why? Do you want to steal his things and sell it all for crack?”
“We don’t do dat,” one of the women said and they disappeared into some angry French.
While the women argued, Carol thought about leaving. She had to work tomorrow. She looked in her purse for some money to buy a rock for the road. She only had five dollars and that wasn’t enough. She thought about the salon. The scissors and the comb that cramped her hands. The smell of elderly hair. She had only been a hairdresser for three months but she was already totally sick of it. She had been a shampoo girl before that, sweeping up hair and massaging scalps. She did the classes with all the cheerful little girls newly graduated from high school and utterly dazed by their own cuteness. She tried not to laugh when the other women at the salon imparted to her the secrets of feathering and layering in solemn tones usually reserved for the transmission of sacred funeral rites. She kept a straight face for 18 months and finally had her own chair, which was supposed to be like her dream come true. There had been a party. One of those awkward work-place events where tired people sick of your face try to act jovial. Janis, the salon owner, had toasted her with champagne and then opened a cardboard box.
“Girls, the new capes are in,” Janis said, pulling one of the sheets of multi-colored vinyl around her head like a scarf and letting out a whoop of laughter.
“Aren’t they great?” she said. The question was not rhetorical. Janis was intensely insecure about her taste and lived in constant fear of some salon décor slip-up. She fretted over every new addition, be it the strips of halogen lighting or the drum and bass background music. She needed constant reassurance that the salon was cool. The capes were meant to be items of retro-kitsch to go with the fifties-style astronaut helmet hair dryers. Carol could see right away that they were made of some fifth rate polymer and that the floral pattern was nothing but a bunch of imprecise machine-made blobs of color. The first time Carol had draped one of them around a client the red spots had become numerous tiny wounds, as if someone had gone on a stabbing frenzy with the two sharp points of her scissors.
That was the first bad thought. After that, her mind filled with all the mischief one imaginative underachiever could do with her scissor blades. There was one woman in particular, a cheerful Jewish elf called Avi, who got Carol’s mind bubbling with homicidal ideation. Avi did some kind of research vital to the survival of all humankind. The first time that she had entered the salon she had had her hair gathered in a lump at the rear of her head, held in place by a pencil-like stick slid through two well-worn holes in an oval of leather. She claimed not to have visited a salon in years, having relied all this time on a cost-saving home styling device her sister had given to her on her thirty-eighth birthday. She had accepted the hideous vinyl wrap with shy excitement. Carol wanted to admire Avi’s courage to continue drawing breath as a spunky, middle aged dwarf but whenever the little woman looked up at her with her twinkling little eyes, she always started thinking mercy killing.
There were so many other women who came to the salon who deserved to be harmed more than Avi. Trendy, evil, busty, long-legged, spoiled, rich women who treated Carol like some clumsy boy. There was also the big-boned Janis, whose salon thrived while Carol’s projects died one after another like rare tropical fish she did not know how to feed. Yet, it was mostly while standing behind Avi’s small head that Carol thought about plunging her scissors into the soft stubbly nape of the neck. She had actually started willing herself to imagine giving the other women a quick gouge, in the hope that she would weaken her compulsion by broadening its target, but that only worked sometimes. The second time Avi had been in her chair, Carol had become dizzy fighting the desire to snip off a raisin-sized mole near the woman’s tiny ear. She had signaled Denise, one of the other hairdresser’s, and quickly pointed a finger into her own mouth.
“Go for it,” Denise said. Denise carried a small pharmacy of prescription medicine in her purse. Carol went to the backroom and unzipped the long belly of Denise’s handbag, approximately the size and shape of a sea-turtle. Inside was all the equipment of true urban womanhood. Among the geological layers of girl stuff were two hair dryers, a penis-shaped lighter, a crimping iron, pepper spray, condoms, tiny bottles of liqueur, and a pair of star-spangled ankle socks. A little digging among the pill containers turned up a bottle of Ativan. Carol had been taking other people’s anti-anxiety medication for so long that when she finally went to her own doctor for a prescription she had forgotten to dramatize her condition. She had merely rattled off her symptoms — night sweats, a sense of perpetual dread, gasping early morning anxiety — in a clear, unembarrassed tone. She had not mentioned the fantasies of scissor-violence. The doctor said that she did, on occasion, prescribe psychoactive medicine, but in Carol’s case recommended yoga and a vegetarian diet low in dairy.
Denise’s Ativan made Carol feel sleepy and light. She went to Baskin Robbins on her lunch break and stared into a tub of emerald green ice cream that helped her forget about killing Avi. This hard shiny green seemed like the solution to her problems. Somehow it represented a whole cool green lifestyle made up entirely of shopping and lunching with artists. She needed to do something — buy the whole tub and paint her walls with it. Plunge her stoned face into it. Give herself a refreshingly green ice cream facial and start thinking sharp clean thoughts.
One of the Baskin Robbins staff in her peculiar little hat gave Carol a purple sample spoon of the green ice cream. It was disappointingly sweet, like a mint breath freshener. She turned the spoon over in her mouth until there was nothing but the taste of chewed plastic. The girls in the paper hats were getting nervous. It was time to commit to some ice cream or leave the store, and yet she was unable to do either.
“May I suggest Rocky Road?” a voice behind her said. There was a young man standing behind her, dangling car keys from his hand. He wore a charcoal-colored suit made, perhaps, of puppy hide — it was so soft and rich. This was Ron. He bought her a cup of Rocky Road then led her to a bench outside, where he took hold of her instep. She was too stoned to react and after a few tentative moments he began to massage her foot. Wires of tension were unhooked and warm relief spread up through her ankles.
“I’m Ron,” he said, lowering her foot and offering his hand.
“Cool,” she said.
A few long afternoons later, watching TV while Ron licked her toes, and she started feeling slightly better. Before Ron, she used to lie coiled in bed at night, a pillow between her knees. Her sides had ached with non-specific disappointment. When she got up to go to the bathroom, the boxes full of all her abandoned projects took on the shape of humped animals and seemed to have edged a few inches closer to the bed. She had nightmares about Avi leaping out from behind the boxes, wearing tiny felt slippers and cavorting on her bedspread which had transformed itself into one of the salon’s blood-flower plastic sheets. Dream carefully, Avi advised, every idle aspiration costs something when you put it down.
“Well, duh,” Carol would reply. Then Avi would twinkle and coo as Carol pulled her scissors through the tiny woman’s chest with long, slashing strokes.
“There’s this woman who comes in sometimes,” she said to Ron one day. He was kneeling on the floor in front of her.
“Huh?” Ron said, removing her toes from his mouth and holding up her foot delicately with one hand, the sleeves of his Armani shirt rolled midway up his hairless forearm.
“A client. This itty bitty woman. Really friendly and like…nice.”
“I want to carve her up like a Christmas turkey,” Carol said.
“Is that right?” Ron said, one hand deep now in his pants.
“Yeah it’s seriously freaking me out,” she said and gave him a little jab in the face with her toe nails.
“Uh,” Ron grunted, looking pained but pleased.
“Come on. At least, like, say something clichéd,” she said.
“Like what. Like you’re at least pretending to give a shit,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, but continued to busy himself inside his pants. She withdrew her foot and curled her legs under her on the sofa.
“No!” she said. “Not until we talk.” Ron gave up and sprawled backwards on the floor.
“What’s the problem again?” he said.
“I want to hurt a kind woman,” Carol said.
“For fuck’s sake. I don’t know,” Carol said.
“Maybe you think she’s you.”
“How do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, seriously. That sounded so wise,” she said.
“You asked me to say something. I said it,” he said. She looked around Ron’s empty apartment and suddenly couldn’t stand it anymore. There was a mound of wadded Kleenex on the carpet next to Ron’s head. When had he used all that tissue? On TV, a sheep was wading in a narrow trough.
“Let’s go outside,” Carol said.
“Let’s walk. You’ve sucked on my feet long enough tonight. You’re going to get a rash.”
“Whatever,” he said.
Walking with Ron was like walking alone except that he looked so neutrally handsome that she had the feeling that at any moment she could trade him in for any of the other young sociopaths decorating the bars and cafes at the expensive end of St. Lawrence Street. Before Ron, she had thought of confident men as strictly off-limits. She had always believed that she needed bony guys with pale, indoor skin. They had to like squelchy electronic music and enjoy making collages with her. With Ron beside her, she saw that she could handle the whole impersonal singles scene where people dressed up to go on actual dates without any previous discussion about their favorite spoken word artist.
They were on their way to Martini’s, a bar that served gin and vermouth 65 different ways. Until Ron had started buying her colorful drinks accompanied by cleverly designed swizzle sticks, Carol had restricted her drinking to five crummy bars with the same wobbly wooden tables and chalk-drawn specials on pitchers of French-Canadian microbrew. Now She was ready to dance with Latin men and let guys with gym memberships tell her about their cars. As she surveyed her new options, she glanced down Pine Street and saw two women and a man get out of a taxi. They stood in front of an apartment building waiting to be let in. When a police cruiser rolled by, they bowed their heads and started walking away.
“I wonder what we’re missing down there,” she said.
“Huh?” Ron said.
“There,” she said and pointed.
“Ah yes. Ye jolly old crack house,” Ron said.
“Are you serious? How do you know?” Carol said.
“Uh…,” Ron said, and almost looked like he was going to explain. Then all the boredom washed back into his face and he started prodding a snow bank with his loafer.
“I want to go. Just to look,” Carol said.
“So go,” Ron said. He turned around before she did and started walking back down St. Lawrence Street.
Carol made it to the door of the apartment building just as the three from the taxi were going in. None of the dozen or so people crowded into the tiny basement apartment were surprised to see her. She felt like she had entered some low budget horror movie in which at any moment someone would turn to her and say, “Ah, Carol. We’ve been expecting you.” Ensuing scenes of her ritual dismemberment flitted through her head.
Surprised that she needed no code or secret sign, she bought her first little white stone of crack cocaine from Steve, who also handed her a plastic pipe made from an asthma inhaler. She smoked her purchase, experienced a spasm of joy that was quickly replaced by an aching cloud of fluttering anxiety and hurried outside. She fled home, exhaling gusts of white breath and stumbling over the ridges of other people’s frozen footprints. She tried to reassure herself with how outrageous and fearless she would one day sound, recounting her adventure over and over again to people in bars.
Inside her living room, the red light of her answering machine pulsated in a dull, insistent way that seemed to embody Ron’s entire personality. She called him back without listening to the message. As soon as she heard the first few notes of Ron’s exhausted little greeting, she said, “I’m moving on, Ron. This whole thing is just way too dumb.”
“Wow. I guess you found a new hobby, but it’s not like I’m asking you to choose between me and the crack pipe.”
“I’m not leaving you for crack, you rich fuck. I’m just like perved out, you know? I’m sure you’re not hearing this for the first time.”
“No. And it’s even possible that at some future date I might even give a fuck.”
Ron was gone, but for the next two days she continued to experience most of the sense of social possibility she had known in his blank, well-dressed presence. She filed away her visit to the crack house under “try anything once” and scanned the entertainment weekly for the perfect dance club or DJ event to make her debut. At the salon, she checked the reservations book and noticed that Avi had made an appointment two weeks in advance. It seemed like sufficient time to throw together a lifestyle that would ward off evil thoughts.
A third day passed before her legs decided to take her back to Steve’s. She was on her way from work, her fingers touching her tip money in the pocket of her duffel coat. She was heading for the Gap or the art supply store or perhaps just south, drifting in a haze of other people’s medication.
Once she stood in front of Steve’s apartment building she tried to explain to herself why she was there. Her last visit, she reasoned, had been so unsatisfactory. She had conducted herself like a panicky little nerd from the suburbs. She needed to redeem herself. There was also that brief moment of whirling bliss that, in her hysteria, she had managed badly. It had been no ordinary high. She had glimpsed the possibility of a self without fatigue or bodily ache. Every thought had shone with dazzling relevance. Booze nested in marijuana smoke was a cozy slum, but crack was a launch pad. Crack promised something beyond itself, a booster rocket that falls away once free of the earth’s atmosphere.
Six rocks later, she was taking out her last wrinkled five and smoothing it against Steve’s unsteady table. The French-Canadians on the bed stared unblinkingly at her hands as she rubbed and flattened the bill. Her mouth tasted metallic and her guts twisted around vivid barbs of pain. She was thinking about the women at the salon. It was the mirrors that killed her. She just couldn’t get used to spending eight hours a day standing in front of her own reflection, with the clients and the other stylists staring back at her. She was still putting together outfits from Salvation Army clothes, although ever since she had got her own chair she noticed Janis staring worriedly at her baggy, quadruple-layered ensembles. In front of her warped, speckled bathroom mirror, each combination was a brilliant feat of bricolage but somehow the effect did not translate among the clean, bright surfaces of the salon. The others were so sure in their choice of scarves and scents. They stared at their hair with such expert calculation. Sometimes she stepped away from the chair, sensing a client needed a few personal moments to confer professionally with her image. If only they had something she could take away from them, a single amulet of their power.
Steve finally noticed her fussing with the five and came to investigate.
“Got any blue-light specials?” She said.
“Tapped out?” Steve said.
“I’ve got the five,” she said.
“You’re going to need that later. Where’s your pipe?”
She held it up and he sprinkled a bit of dust into it. She played the lighter over the granules and took four short hits off the pipe. On the third and fourth she inhaled nothing but butane. It was only the faintest suggestion of a crack-high, but it was enough to propel her out of her chair and onto the bed. She crawled toward the two women saying, “Don’t freak out. We need to have a meeting.” One of them clamped her hand on the forearm of the other.
“What do you want?”
“I want to go on a crime spree with you,” Carol said.
“See, there’s these women…and…oh! I’m a hairdresser… I cut hair and there’s these women and they have a lot of house stuff.” The women spoke to each other in French. Carol struggled to control her euphoria.
“We could so do this,” she said, and shook the little bed for emphasis, causing one of the women to drop her cigarette.
“I know when they’re not at home…I could tell you when there with me… it would be during the day when maybe their husbands are at work…and you could take their things!” She pictured herself walking around the neighborhood in her clients’ clothes. She saw herself at the Double Diamond lifting a glass of draft beer with kid gloves. She would wear their clothes and never wash them. She wouldn’t be careful at all. She would wear their clothes until they tore. She would fix the rips with black electrical tape then throw it all away when it began to stink. She would invite drunk people to sign her Channel handbag and then give it to the homeless man who always held the door open for her at the ATM.
The two women on the bed were eyeing her like she was a rabid dog but Carol was still hopeful. She sensed a little greedy something in their willingness to continue listening to her.
“Let’s just try it once, okay?” Carol said. The women reached for their raincoats.
“What are you doing?” Carol said.
“Maybe we’ll see you here again.”
”Wait! I know a place. There’s no one there. We could go there tonight,” Carol said.
“Where? The rich guy’s ‘ouse?”
“Yes! Ron’s place. I have the key,” Carol said. They paused and looked at each other. She held up her Pikachu key holder and shook it until the other junkies turned to look.
“See?” she said.
“Where does ‘e live?”
“It’s just a few blocks from here,” Carol said.
“Okay. We make the inspection.”
As they emerged from the cramped basement apartment, Carol felt her mind quicken under the cavernous winter sky. She led the women past her five favorite bars, scanning their interiors for familiar faces. She had only been away for a few hours, but it seemed a whole new generation of shabby artistic youth had replicated itself during her absence. The two women did not care to walk beside her, preferring to lag a few meters behind. When she slowed to let them catch up, they stopped and leaned against each other, staring at her impatiently and shivering in their raincoats. She took them down a street that had the dark outline of McGill University at its far end, then down one more street. She waited for them outside a dull brick building six stories high.
“Here we are,” she said. They pulled themselves up five curling flights of stairs. Dozens of peepholes monitored their progress. She unlocked a door and led them down the hallway.
“It’s all in here,” she said and turned on the bedroom light.
“What is dis?”
“See? It’s already in boxes,” Carol said. One of the women crouched down and picked up a length of copper tubing. The other turned over a book with a plastic cover and the words “Japanese for Busy People” written on it.
“This is not the good ‘ouse stuff,” one of them said, dropping the tube back into the box with a clatter.
Carol shrugged. “I know,” she said. She went to the kitchen and waited for the women to leave. It was her favorite room. It too had seen its share of projects gone wrong — failed ratatouilles, fallen soufflés, veggie burgers that tasted like tilled soil — but it had the best window, looking out on a private patch of nothing nestled between two buildings where layers of inviolate snow gathered in a single undulating heap.