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BACK IN THE CITY OF BROKEN GLASS
Having matured and mellowed with age, and having crawled up through the bowels of the restaurant industry, Jonas not only washes dishes, but he now cooks short orders. Cramped into the bar’s airless kitchen, skating around on the greased linoleum, wielding honed French knives and hot saucepans, Jonas works blissfully alone. He sees himself as a failing freak-show act. Or no, he is Mayakovsky stuck inside a fisheye lens. Or no, he is a one man crew of a rattrap submarine, Captain Nemo without a clue!
He is stable for once, he is sober, but chits are piling up: chicken parmesan, bruschetta, popcorn shrimp, nachos, and three poutines.
Beyond the swinging doors, bathed in the endless radiance of televised hockey highlights, the pub’s regulars—middle-aged, corpulent, fish-eyed lumps—hunch over their cheap mugs of foamy yellow beer, sinking silently inside themselves. Jonas knows this journey, the brain descending, the chin delving into the dark waters of the solar plexus. He knows this partially submerged place, opaque with nostalgia and slimy with regrets. He knows how lonely Vancouver can be in the fall, winter, and spring.
He sears the chicken, dunks a basket full of shrimp into the fryer oil, layers the nachos with cheese for the microwave, then stuffs the bruschetta in the Salamander to broil, all the while thinking that in another world, anything might happen. Some other kitchen could be skimming beneath the waves, the dishwasher squelching and pinging its way along the seafloor’s topography—while here, in this greasy and muggy corner of a Friday evening, his machine, his sturdy Hobart can only chug and wheeze along, fulfilling its function, sterilizing the silverware, beer mugs, and plates.
Nevertheless, he stands firm, feet planted on the (caution: slippery!) linoleum, employee of the hour, the centre of all things, paragon of kitchen helpers, clothed in diaphanous shreds of steam, slightly lost in the clutter of his half-thoughts. O yes, he is a responsible, wage-earning, tax-paying, workaday citizen and necessary component of if not a flourishing then at least functioning commercial enterprise. He has a weekly schedule: two till closing, Wednesday through Saturday; and daily responsibilities: cook, prep, wash dishes, take stock, mop. Bad luck to whomever bothered to build the pyramids, or write a brief history of the short-lived, or invent the microchip—suckers and dupes. Jonas, king of his domain, sovereign of the here and now, gets fountain drinks for free, and sometimes calculates his own tips! Indeed, there is a financial value given to his labour and time—or so he tells himself, to defend his position, to explain why he’s stuck scuttling around with the cockroaches and mice, instead of out there, getting wrecked with the bloated and blurry lumpenproletariat.
He has forgotten to sprinkle diced olives over the nachos again. Examining the jar, where a straw-hatted man wearing green overalls and bearing a wooden bucket climbs a ladder up into the foliage of a tree whose sunlit limbs tangle and combine to spell the word “ITALIA”, Jonas wants to tell the man that the existence of a short-order cook, like a poet’s or a painter’s or a puppeteer’s, is not what it appears to be, not an exercise in self-defeat, but a kind of conceptual artwork, the high-irony of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of internal, rather than external goods. What worldly careers can compare to the treasures of a rich inner life, other than, perhaps, olive-picking in Tuscany?
He has forgotten to drop the fries for the three orders of poutine—goddamn it all, and shit-fuck. Every stupid mistake he makes delays his one reward of smoking half a Belmont Mild in the back alley, motherland of yowling cats, green garbage dumpsters, and a pure infinitude of chilly night air that turns his breath to Russian ghosts…
Earlier that day, walking to work on sidewalks dotted with cigarette butts, pigeon shit, bottle shards, and new spots of rain, Jonas was convinced that his life in the city would never change. But later this evening, the event that will chart the course of his summer, the incident that will transport him to the desert and present him to the luminous beings who possess the secret knowledge of how to travel backwards in time, occurs near closing, when Jonas forgets to warn the new gangly-limbed waitress, Martha, that he has just mopped the kitchen floor.
At a quarter to midnight, his shift almost done, Jonas watches with paralyzed panic as Martha, after having kicked open the kitchen door with the tip of her black Mary Jane, comes rushing in, a tray of dirty mugs balanced in each hand—then her feet slipping out from under her, her elongated arms tossed heavenwards, and her torso tilting madly as if she is sliding into home plate. There is a black and white explosion as legs arms trays mugs and the steel prep table combine, fall apart, then come crashing down.
Snapshot: a crimson rivulet forever investigates the cracks in the linoleum tiles around Martha’s opened forearm.
(Here it is, the motif that will haunt you through the years: a mosaic of broken glass, and the echoing blood you cannot make cohere.)
Your fault! says the Voice.
“So sorry. Fuck! So sorry so sorry,” says Jonas, clenching and unclenching his hands, stepping towards her then turning away, not sure whether to pull her to her feet, or dash outside for help. Whatever it is that jolts life along from point A to point B is failing him again. “There is some kind of first-aid kit?” says Martha nonchalantly, shock making her voice sound relaxed, her face almost exultant as she clutches her bleeding arm, holding it up like a trophy, one strap of her black dress nestling in the crook of her elbow. “Oh yes,” Jonas says, then sprints to the back office where in the corner next to the mop he finds an old sour cream bucket whose contents include an empty soft pack of Players cigarettes, a pink lighter, a red kidney bean, a latex glove, a tube of Neosporin, and a tattered roll of surgical gauze. “Here it is!” he cries out. “Help is on the way!”
Seated on a slumping box of potatoes, Martha lifts the strap of her dress, closes her eyes, and mutely proffers her arm. As gingerly as he can Jonas grips Martha’s wrist, noting her frosty pink nails before he slowly turns her palm supine and, mustering his determination, inspects her inner forearm. There is a deep puncture hole, but the bleeding slows and Martha hardly flinches as Jonas prods and smudges the oozing tip of the Neosporin tube around the wound, then wraps her limb in several layers of gauze, depleting the roll. Lacking tape he ties everything up with butcher’s twine, which he cuts wrenchingly with a paring knife.
“There you are. I have made you whole again,” Jonas says, and tries to smile. Martha’s eyes, he sees, are rimmed in pink and her mascara has clotted at the tips of her lashes. “Your hands are trembling,” she remarks quietly with what Jonas fears might be a trace of scorn.
“I’m okay. I’ll be just fine, thanks,” Jonas says, then inwardly winces—then faints...
The next day, lying on his back beneath his bedcovers, staring up at the pattern of cracks in the stucco ceiling, a pillow clutched tightly to his chest, Jonas shivers and aches. It is one o’clock and he is scheduled to be back at work in an hour, but he feels feverish. He is still struggling with his dream of last night, unable to square his words with his behaviour. If he could at least grasp his language at a point close enough to its origins in order to confront his fucked-up emotions... Instead he hears the Voice: Lack of accountability! Failure of foresight! Incompetent! Slacker! Escapist! Why did his hands tremble? O curséd extremities! Why did he say and do what he said and did? He should have given Martha his share of the tips. Her bandaged arm, he now sees, resembled a mummy’s ragged appendage. And what kind of man gets dizzy spells? Who swoons?
But it is late spring, and the sun—suddenly streaming through a hole in the clouds and splintering through the dense crowns of holly trees outside Jonas’ bedroom window—has begun to show signs of caring again, casting an arabesque onto the thin comforter and warming Jonas’ quivering legs.
He makes a decision.
At two o’clock, he turns off his phone then brews a pot of Irish tea which he drinks with honey seated at his kitchen window. Observing a congregation of small birds niggling and jostling one another along the length of his neighbour’s wrought iron fence, Jonas holds the thought that the cities in which he so often finds himself can only breed small-mindedness and contempt. If his life is to be unique or interesting, it must exist in opposition to how the world expects him to behave. The equivalent of personal integrity, decides Jonas, is to be answerable to no one. True vision is nothing less than radical inwardness.
He spends the rest of the afternoon shuffling around the kitchen in his boxer shorts, mumbling to himself and flicking cigarette ashes into the sink. In the evening he goes on the internet and learns that swooning is also called “lipothymia,” then searches for information about how to work for food and lodgings on organic orchards on the Mediterranean coast.
Finally, he goes out drinking to celebrate the end of his money, and winds up in jail.