I think I’ll walk to the East End. Yeah, the East End. I got some stuff I need to get out there. I’ll come back down to Lester’s place later, ‘cause he’s got a place now. He’s not answering the door, but he’s not going anywhere. Can’t even walk. It’s only a hour and a half walk from downtown. I’ll go straight down and maybe warm up at the McDonalds. I’m already at the big trees around the hospital. Might as well keep on going.
Gotta step over that pile of snow that someone left. Just shovelled to the end of their property. Not a damn millimetre more. Give me a shovel and I’d shovel the whole block. Give me a house and I’d have a sidewalk to shovel. Give me $20 and I’ll shovel whatever you want for a hour. Give me $20 and I’ll shovel the bullshit coming outta your mouth.
I’d shovel my neighbours walk, even if I didn’t like them.
Oh. Foot slips off the sidewalk next to the schoolyard. The city didn’t scrape that part and the sidewalk is packed snow like a frozen picture of Brucey’s teenage face, cratered and walked upon. I used to do this walk with him, past the school, warm up at 7-11, panhandle for coffee and a smoke, walk to McDonalds, do it again. We’d walk the rest of the way, the Grey Mile under the highway and over the concrete dividers to the East End. But now he picks butts in heaven. Where each butt is at least an inch long, some of them even brand-new cigarettes. Except they are scattered everywhere like it was raining tobacco.
Cross at the crosswalk without pushing the button because the metal is so cold it’s hot. A 4x4 slams on its grinding brakes, sliding on the gravelled intersection, slipping through Macdonald Street. He honks and stares. His hands raised by his ears like he can barely believe that people know how to walk when it gets winter. I reach the other side of the road and he fishtails it outta the school zone and I flip him off.
I’d get a truck. I had a truck, I could fix the thing no question. Now, look under the hood and you see a robot, can’t touch nothing. But those old ones, oh I could fix them.
Stop outside 7-11, hide my gloves in my hood and hold out a red, flaking, shaking hand to people going in for smokes or lotto tickets or condoms. Make enough for a coffee and bum a few cigarettes so I can continue on my way to the East End. Three blocks down, past the third laundry/massage parlour on the block, reach in my hood for my mitts. They aren’t there. Musta fell out after my coffee. Can’t see them on the sidewalk behind. Not worth going back for. Gotta keep going if I want to get to the East End before dark. I pull my hands in my snowsuit sleeves and walk with tensed up shoulders.
Walk by C&O Masonry. Used to work there. I would carry one brick at a time in each hand, but the second day my boss showed how to do two. Big bricks, up the scaffolding. Would work double time that way. Boss liked me alright. I had big gloves back then. Worked on the hospital a bit, even. Sixth floor. Crane operator almost killed me, so he ended up getting fired. I had a truck then, that’s the one I could fix. Still could, too.
Good thing I got this full snowsuit on. It’s cold. My hands are shaking in my sleeves but I’m not sure it’s from just the cold. And that’s why I’m going to the East End. But I’m gonna need mitts if I wanna get that far. Where can a person get mitts between here and there?
The mile-long intersection takes five minutes to give the walk symbol. Don’t jaywalk here unless I’m looking to get hit. Which is sometimes. The road keeps on but the sidewalk ends, so now I’m walking in the foot-deep snow. Took me a year to find these old boots that fit. Good thing I got ‘em or my toes would fall off. Had two toes fall off before. High blood sugar. Makes it hard to balance, that’s for sure, but so does not having sidewalks. Walking next to this big blue fence that goes around this pit where the best chicken balls in town used to be. Used to go there with my deceased mom. Great wonton soup.
Ow, fuck. My tailbone. Ohh, ow. A bag of frozen shitty diapers under the snow. Sorry for swearing. Stepped on it and ended up right on my ass. Tailbone pounds like a drum. Walking slower now. Need the East End more than anything now. There’s the bus shelter I used to sit with Brucey before he went away. Too cold to stop in a bus shelter today. Where can I find mitts between here and there? I gotta keep moving or I’ll never make it and I’ll freeze my hands. Damn, my tailbone must be connected to my funny bone, ‘cause this ain’t funny. Pass the Chinese grocery place. Used to get smokes there and a drink. He’d sell singles and shots of Big Jumbo for a buck. He’s closed now. Gotta keep going. Almost halfway to the East End, where all troubles cease to exist. There’s that buffet up there. Use their phone. Could call a cab then get to the East End to the bank. Got thousands in the bank. Just need my bank card, which I lost. Cross the street again, jaywalk this time, wobbly now because of my bad foot and tailbone. Feel weak. Cars honk. Some slow down and watch. Reach the wooden door of the buffet. Ask if I can use their phone and they look around and say surereally loud. I see a cardboard box on top of the coat rack that has some words on it with black marker. I grab it down and find a scarf and two different coloured mitts, both left-handed. Pocket them in my snowsuit. The Cab company answers.
Can I get a cab to SeaLand Buffet? Ten minutes. I’ll wait.
Cab arrives, rolls down the window first and asks me if I’ve got cash. I say we gotta go to the bank and I’ll get some there. Cab drives off without me. At least I’ve got mitts now. And a purple scarf. I can make it to the East End.
Oh, there’s some Sundogs. My nephew thinks those are angels. I know better. Will be cold tomorrow. Know I could freeze tonight with those beautiful halos looking down on me. Reach the McDonalds but I am feeling good and tired of panhandling for now, so I aim for the Grey Mile. You think it’s easy? It’s not easy. The hardest walk in the city. Nothing to block the wind, and wind made from the cars flying by cuts your face. So far. One sore step at a time.
No wind today, at least. But the flat air cuts the same somehow. Stomach pains. Brain groans. The underpass is a break of sorts, quieter, no more squinting, but can’t take a break here. Not a stopping break. Other side of the underpass there’s a big old triangle ditch. Kids tobogganing. The ditch is surrounded by fast highways, like they’re tobogganing on an island surrounded by rivers. Wonder if any of my nephews are there. So close now, three quarters the way. See the orange sign on the big grey side of the first store. That’s how you know you made it. That’s how you know you’re alive. But the Grey Mile ends with a hill climb, no sidewalk, no railing. Gotta be committed to get past this part. Gotta know your limits and know your goals. I know people to have fallen over on the hill and get picked up by ambulance. The real test. Balance myself while focusing on the sign for the twenty-four hour coffee shop that might let me stay if I buy a coffee every three hours. Can’t sleep though or they’ll kick me out. The hill is steady and steep. My legs are colder. They burn and freeze at the same time. Each step with my hands on my thighs. Head down. Ears feel red and twice the size. But this pain is nothing like the pain that exists without the East End.
The buildings get bigger and I can’t talk well because my face muscles are frozen. I step into the dollar store outside the mall. The green and yellow dollar signs and the candy aisle and the batteries and the speaker plugs. I go to the aisle but they don’t have the stuff anymore. Too many people coming out here for it. They must know. Leave and go outside. Cross the parking lot of cars purring with no one in them, ready to warm the fat asses of people already warm indoors. Enter through the doors of the mall. Hands throb warm. All pain stops. My foot feels better. Tailbone feels like I never fell. I can get it here. And the pain melts away.
Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at ballsofrice.com. He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.