Eating cookies in the morning with her coffee, Nancy is becoming a fat slob. She chews slowly and methodically, swallows a clump of cookie bolus and picks food from her teeth with a restless pinky. Licks, sucks. Ponders. Robbie.
Leaving for work, he says, “Bye baby, see you tonight.”
Robbie is her man. Skinny-assed Robbie. Pimple-faced Robbie. She can feel his jutting hip-bones when he fucks her. They knock against hers uncomfortably, like two badly-oiled parts that grind together and finally bring the whole machine to a screeching, sweaty halt.
In the mornings Nancy is bone-weary. Robbie takes her place on the bed at night, every night. She requires only the edge, the uttermost corner, but somehow Robbie has managed to steal the little space she’d claimed. He throws his long arms wide and dangles his legs over each side, as if she didn’t exist, as if he had the bed all to himself. Robbie is a selfish, skinny-assed sleeper.
What would Nancy dream about if she slept? She would dream about refrigeration units and cooling systems, the stuff her waking hours have been made of these last two years of study at technical college. Her dream job since she was a little girl. (Yeah, right). After the convocation ceremony in September, she will begin her apprenticeship and her life as an Electrical Technician. But it’s June now, and Nancy’s final semester is winding down. It’s a Monday morning in June and Nancy can’t sleep to save her life. For hours noise has been rattling her windows, filtering through the mosquito netting and clamoring about the bedroom.
Sirens. She’s learned to tell them all apart, from the whee-whee-whee of the ambulance, to the whee-oo, whee-oo of the police cruisers.
Construction. To the left of her apartment, they’re building something. A condo? An office complex? A strip mall? Every morning at the cusp of daybreak they are saw-bang-hammer-hemorrhaging the ground. Their machines drill little holes into her sleeping patterns, break them up like crumbling concrete until Nancy is lying awake on the wrong side of the bed, staring at the ceiling.
Robbie is asleep. He doesn’t hear the sirens, doesn’t wake with the roaring machines. He’s comatose, alive only in the breath-rush through his nostrils. Nancy ponders Robbie. She examines his thin frame in the downtown half-night. His chest rises with each flimsy breath, and his acne shines in the moonlight. Robbie fails to move and Nancy gives up on sleep. She climbs out of bed and walks to the window, staring into the oily pre-dawn greyness. Skyscrapers twinkle, twinkle in the sky instead of stars. Her breasts squash up against the pane. It’s stiff-shock cold, and Robbie sleep-whistles from across the room. The clock says six-oh-six. Nancy is wasting her nights waiting for morning. Outside, downtown is also awake, has been awake for hours, and Nancy gets the bright idea of working a graveyard shift somewhere to stave off the backlog of student loans.
The Calgary Stampede says, “Welcome to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth!” Ten carnival days in cowtown Calgary, put on every summer since 1886. Old Patrick is the Grandstand Building’s nighttime supervisor. He has the personality and contours of an open can of Bud abandoned in sauna dry July. It’s nearly flat, that can, but Patrick still has the fizz in his eye. Mud-slick hair, thick-wet lips, neat wheat teeth. Small legs. Funny and bent, his legs, and Patrick is a god. He’s got pipes in his pocket, that Patrick.
Nancy first meets him at 11:03 p.m. on the Thursday she signs in to work washroom security. She steps into the staff lounge and finds him pouring steamy streams of black coffee into his open-wide gullet: a short, hairy man in a cowboy’s costume. Nancy walks past him and gets her keys and walkie-talkie from a receptionist with a clipboard. The receptionist’s hair is all copper-wire coils and black roots, blue eyelids and pink-paste cheeks. Nancy wonders why she bothers with the get-up this late at night. The security job will only last ten days for Nancy. The receptionist, she thinks, probably works here full time.
Night is not the same in every place, in every space. In the countryside night is wide-open darkness, full-faced moons and blushing schoolgirl stars. Here on the carnival grounds, night is unabashedly naked, lit by the high beam and thrust into dead white light. The Carnival night winks neon bright and sleepiness clings like gauze to the sticky whites of Nancy’s eyeballs.
She steps into the storage room inside the washrooms across from the Grandstand Building. In the corner stands a large cardboard box of one-ply NeverOut toilet paper, the official toilet paper of the Calgary Stampede. Nancy sits back on the big box and listens to the hum-buzz of electricity, rumbling up from the building’s vast innards. She closes her eyes and listens to the building breathe.
In the morning Nancy is eating Oreos by the handful, eating Oreos like potato chips in her grubby bra and sweatpants. Letting chocolate crumbs tumble down her chin, between her breasts and onto the floor. She looks at them there, embedded in her discoloured carpet, and grinds them slowly with the heel of her foot. Pulverized cookie bits are staining the seashell grey carpet. Nancy shoves an Oreo into her mouth and chews, her teeth black. Robbie is asleep, but stirring.
Robbie has pale tufts of hair on his chest, like a preteen at the threshold of puberty. His breath stinks. Like horseshit, like rotten eggs. Like all-day morning breath. Like he needs some fucking Listerine. Sometimes Nancy can hardly stand to kiss him: his hot mouth smothering hers until one day it will engulf her completely.
“Bye baby,” says Nancy, trotting Oreo patterns into the carpet as Robbie leaves for work. She is becoming a fat slob and goddamn Robbie can’t even tell her to stop stuffing her face every morning.
On his twenty-sixth birthday, Robbie bought Nancy a ring. When she is working at school she will sometimes stop typing and stare at her fingers on the keyboard. She will twist the ring absently while trying to recollect the scatterings of her half-typed sentence.
Third night on the job, and Nancy sits on the break bench sipping a coffee. Patrick the supervisor drops by to say hello, an unrecognizable accent curling off his tongue before it rolls away with him into the Carnival night. He waves from the disassembled Ferris Wheel and Nancy wonders how old Old Patrick really is. There are hundreds of graveyard workers, most of them temps for the summer, but Patrick’s a permanent. He tells her he’s only been here a short time. He calls Nancy a nymph. She wonders if he’s flirting, and is vaguely flattered until she realizes the ugly receptionist in the employee office is also a nymph. Patrick has a set of plain wooden pipes he claims he won at a bean-bag toss. Other days, he claims he carved them himself, back when he was a faun in some far off grassland. Patrick plays his pipes and the darkness dances. Patrick dances, and the darkness sizzles with muted applause.
At two in the morning, Nancy makes the rounds. She walks once around the washroom’s perimeter, and once all through the inside. She bangs open each stall. There are mini flight-sized bottles of whisky and gin lining the backs of toilets. Empty Mickeys stuffed into the tampon boxes. Often she finds whole bottles of Smirnoff or Bacardi sucked clean, standing neatly behind the toilet bowl. Nancy leaves the bottles for the cleaning crew. She is looking for needles. She is looking for people. Sometimes, late at night, she will do a round and find somebody passed out on the maternity bench. Once she saw a girl’s disheveled head drooping sideways off the bench, her skin blotchy, her hair pungent. She shook her by the shoulder and spoke in a loud, firm voice: You can’t sleep here Ma’am, but the girl was heavy with quiet. In these cases, Nancy calls the park’s main security dispatch.
It’s one in the morning. Stampede Park is officially closed and the carnies are packing in their twisting, sparking giants. They are pulling tent flaps over their pink teddies and rainbow chameleons, disassembling the Lucky Duck game and stilling the brown current that carries their looping plastic ducklings. The Ferris Wheel turns its last round of the day, nearly empty but still all-over aglow with buzzing lights. It stares back at Nancy unblinkingly, one bloodshot eyeball stark against the hoary night. Nancy is sitting on an inverted metal trashcan. Her legs tap back and forth and she drinks tepid staffroom coffee from a Styrofoam cup. The carnival night still lies ahead, and Nancy tries to suppress the dead-weight soreness in her limbs.
Stevie and Lorna run the mini-donut concession to the right of Nancy’s washrooms. They are siblings from Winnipeg, fraternal twins.
“Have you ever been to Winnipeg?” Lorna asks. The donut stand is closed. They are eating greased golden bits from a white bucket. “It’s kind of a dump. The population’s gone way down and there’s all this crime now.”
Her brother Stevie loves Winnipeg. He misses his friends, his school. He misses Polo Park, the big shopping centre. “I’d hang out there, like, almost everyday. Just shooting the shit with my friends, or having an Orange Julius on a really hot day. It was nice.”
Nancy tells him about the big mall in Edmonton. “You’ll like it even better when you go there for Klondike Days. It has a wave pool,” she explains. She suckles grease from her fingertips as the bloodshot wheel finally blinks out.
“We’d always go there after school,” Stevie says again, earnest. “We’d play hacky sack, or sometimes we’d just hang out in the parking lot and smoke.”
“Well it’s not just a wave pool, it’s a whole water park.” Nancy feels sorry for this kid Stevie, cleaning the grease pit at three o’clock in the morning. “They have water slides and those big yellow tubes. You’ll love it when you get to Edmonton.”
They are brother and sister. Sinewy and small, they are two slim field mice.
“So how do you like working for the Stampede?” she’d asked them on her second night, when they’d first walked over with leftovers.
“It sucks. Mick’s kind of a hard-ass,” said Lorna. Mick was the king of the carnies. He had recruited the twins back in Winnipeg. They worked for a week, then took the carnival’s trailers down through Regina to Calgary. They’d been on the road forever.
“They deduct pay for food and shit,” Stevie told her, “and Mick’s always ragging on us to work extra hours.”
Stevie and Lorna both have wide, dark eyes and tiny hands. Nancy wonders how old they are. She wonders where their parents are. She wonders if they are runaways.
The Stampede gets more crowded every year. Nancy has a hard time navigating the crowds on her way to work. They swell and bulge in the wrong places. They block her path and she has to struggle all the way to the Grandstand Building. The air is dewy with grease, and Nancy’s eyes dart over bobbing heads, over rides, game booths, and barn animals. She thinks of Patrick and of the copper-haired receptionist, of Stevie and Lorna. She forgets to think about Robbie.
When she signs in to work, Patrick touches her fingers and asks about her ring. “When’s the wedding?” he asks.
Nancy shrugs in her too-big Stampede shirt. “We’re not sure yet. Maybe next summer.”
They are alone in the staff lounge. The receptionist has left her post, and Patrick is standing a breath away from Nancy’s face, his large fingers still brushing her own, cold hand. “You don’t sound very thrilled about that, little lass,” he lilts.
“We’ve been together a long time,” she says. “We’re practically married already.” Then, inexplicably, she begins to giggle in short, breathy bursts.
Patrick laughs along with her, a loud throaty sound that rumbles the little room. “Afraid no one else will take ye? Afraid to let go of a sure thing?”
“No!” says Nancy. She regains control and her mouth settles into a stiff line. “It’s not like that at all. That’s a bit rude, actually.” She pulls her hand away.
“You’d be better off joining my cohort, Nancy. You’re a lovely little nymph.”
Nancy shakes her head and leaves the office, moves back into the heat of the crowds. Patrick is mad. They are all a little mad here: the receptionist, the young twins, Mick, the carnies, the other graveyard workers. She is the only one with a regular life, a life outside these carnival nights. Nancy slides between the bodies, between the hot stench of sweat and beer. She eases past a line for deep-fried pickles and bacon-wrapped corndogs. She can hear Patrick’s pipes, calling her softly through the chatter and the whirring rides.
The sun is shining outside and Nancy is sleeping. In her sleep grow neon-bright confetti dreams. These are noisy obscurities that press up on her fluttering eyelids, swell and shrivel in fits of waking. She jolts into consciousness. A police siren hollers at her window but the scent of goats and cotton candy takes a moment to fade.
It’s deep night: three, maybe four. The park has been closed for hours, the rides all shut down and mummified. The carnies have retired to their trailers. Nancy is on a break and sits on a foldable metal chair with her feet crossed atop a cardboard box. She is fiddling with Robbie’s ring. The storeroom is stacked with rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. Robbie’s ring is digging into the soft flesh of her finger.
She used to slide the ring up and down. She used to slip it off, roll it between her thumb and her forefinger and slip it back on, easy as butter. But for weeks now Robbie’s ring has been stuck in place, stuck on Nancy’s fat finger. She wonders what it would take to get it off.
A hand squeezes her shoulder and Nancy swallows a gasp.
“Didn’t mean to startle you, lovely,” says Patrick. “I’m just doing my duty, checking up on my employees.”
“I’m on my break,” says Nancy.
“Relax, relax. No need to get defensive.” Patrick’s breath burns her naked neck. His two hands feel large and heavy on her shoulders. Hovering over her, Patrick himself seems enlarged, broader and taller than any human man.
“I’ve got ten more minutes,” whispers Nancy. “Then I’ll do my rounds.”
Nancy stands in the doorway putting on lipstick. Robbie is on the couch, slurping take-out Chinese food from his chopsticks. He looks up from the TV and there are flecks of Szechuan sauce on his face.
“It’s your last night, baby,” he says. “You know, you were crazy to take this job. It just aggravates your insomnia. It’s unhealthy.” He slurps and sputters. “At least you made some extra money,” he says. “I love you,” he adds.
“I love you too,” says Nancy. “See you later, baby.”
Patrick takes off her clothes in the storage room. First, he takes off her sweater and her red Stampede shirt. He puts her walkie-talkie on the cement floor. He takes off her jeans and her panties. He tosses her bra across the room. Finally, all she is wearing are socks and dirty white sneakers. He touches and prods and squeezes her, his thick lips curling into a smile, and Nancy stands very still with her stomach humming somewhere deep in its core. Her breath rattles in the blackness. Patrick grabs her without warning, and she is suddenly flush against him, his body as solid and alive as the wide universe. She grips his hair and can feel hard nubs beneath the dark, wet curls.
“What?” she barely has time to gasp before Nancy loses herself in the rhythmic thrusts of their bodies. Her whole body grows loose and insubstantial, floating out of time. The shadows of storage boxes and cleaning supplies shift away into the darkness, and Nancy feels the cold night air on her bare skin. She opens her eyes and sees a million stars. The prairie grass tickles her bare legs in the darkness, and the air smells wet and new. The god’s skin is slick beneath her grasp, and Nancy is breathing hard and fast, wild and fast, as the night grows and blooms to take her in. »
From subTerrain #66