I hadn’t been able to get hold of my regular dealer, a worldly earth-mother type I’d met through a friend of a friend. She was a grandmother, endlessly knowledgeable about all types of plants and flowers, and had no end of hilarious stories about chaotic rock concerts of the ’60s and other drug-culture fantasias, so visits to her house were always enjoyable. But she had a busy and colourful life and, every once in a while, she was impossible to reach.
So I thought about making a visit to Lester’s place. I hadn’t seen him for about two years or so, and there was a possibility I might be persona non grata with him. But I decided I would give it a try. How bad could it be?
When I called, trying to sound casual and jovial, I identified myself and asked if I could come by at 6:30. The conversation was strictly codified, as was required, and he answered loudly, with a nervous energy I remembered all too well.
“JEEZ MAN I THOUGHT YOU DIED!”
Because it had been a while, I worried for a moment that I wouldn’t remember how to get there. But, as I walked up the modest North End street, memories of previous visits started to float into my head, and, when I walked in, greeted by his big, affable white pointer dog, Smiley, I had my own so-called Proustian rush.
“GET IN GET IN GET IN!”
He quickly ushered me into his living room, looking over my shoulder, wild-eyed. I experienced his handsomeness, his charisma all over again, and considered that most visits to his place were memorable in one way or another.
In his characteristically breathless fashion, he told me a story of woe. Just last week, he said, two rookie teenagers broke into his place and a neighbour had noticed and called the cops.
“IT’S THAT FUCKING LITTLE BROWN BUGGER ACROSS THE STREET ALWAYS WATCHING ME!”
It turned out that two huge cops had rushed into Lester’s place, complete with an aggressive German shepherd that terrified Smiley, and nabbed the horrified teenage boys on the spot. But the interior of Lester’s place, of course, left an indelible impression on the cops: weigh scales, bags of processed marijuana, spectacular adult plants under expensive electric lighting, and Lester’s real signature touch, dozens of rifles lined up against the wood-panelled walls in almost every room.
The prospect of returning to jail again, maybe soon, was giving Lester an extra shading of anxious energy and a keen appreciation of the luxurious freedom of the present moment.
I was seated by the front window at a big table piled high with an archive of videotapes on war and warfare, when we received a surprise visitor. Fred exploded through the doorway from the front porch; he was an old comrade, it seemed. I’d never met him before.
Fred was really gigantic. I guess maybe he weighed about 350 pounds—not exactly fit but certainly robust—and he was outfitted for effect, in cowboy boots, ancient jeans, and an inadequate black T-shirt with a flashy picture of a vintage car on the front.
He locked eyes on me with an unfathomable kind of enthusiasm, and I recalled the comments of an unknown narrator from some TV nature program, musing on outmoded concepts of dominance and submission. He kept his eyes on me while he wheezingly announced the generous purpose of his visit. He had delivered a gift to Lester’s porch, a deluxe car-stereo system he’d miraculously acquired only moments before. Hence the breathlessness.
Lester yelled out, “HAVE A BEER! YOU TOO—HAVE A BEER!”
Normally, I don’t drink at all, because I risk suffering punishing migraines as a result, but some primal instinct suggested it would be wiser to agree with pretty much anything in this unfolding ritual of male bonding.
So I had a beer. And another. And another.
Soon I was trying to navigate the suddenly tricky route to Lester’s toilet, at the back of his small house. When I returned, staggering a bit, I found Lester and Fred laughing extravagantly while they discussed different strategies, almost like conducting a workshop, on How To Strangle People.
Fred, nodding enthusiastically, wiping tears of mirth from his red and bleary eyes as Lester pantomimed, holding his own throat in his two hands and flailing around.
“YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE, WHEN THEIR EYES ARE SO FAR BACK IN THEIR SKULLS, AND YOU CAN SEE EVERY FILLING IN THEIR MOUTHS, THEY’RE COUGHING AND COUGHING…”
Me, nodding numbly, trying to pretend I know what it’s like (“Isn’t that the way!”).
Me, trying to figure out how to desperately slip out, hopefully with my herbal quarry, at the moment when Fred took his turn, moving like Godzilla toward the Little Boys’ Room, where I think he just peed in the general direction, from the hallway.
When he returned, Fred opted to sit right next to me. He started in on another workshop effort—How To Break Doorknobs—that became unnecessarily performative, involving him leaning his T-shirted bulk in my face and cracking his well-used knuckles over my head, his T-shirt lifting to reveal an expansive and hairy torso.
At this point, Lester generously suggested we switch from beer to whiskey and, with a dramatic flourish, produced three big tumblers that he filled (four fingers?) with a golden whiskey of some sort. I realized that the current drinking ritual required a kind of staring contest between me and Fred—who had locked eyes on me again, without blinking—while I obediently swallowed the evil quantity in one big gulp, following my example, staring unblinkingly at Fred.
For me, things sort of went dark at this moment. I remember attempting again to find the increasingly elusive toilet.
When I returned, I noticed that Fred’s mood had taken a surly turn, and he was confiding ominously to Lester about his problems with his girlfriend.
“That fucking bitch is going to pay BUT GOOD…”
Again, I didn’t have anything useful to offer to the conversation, and from my foggy perception of things, I became somehow aware that Fred had drifted out of the front room and out of the house like an angry thundercloud, while he muttered to remind Lester about the windfall of the car-stereo system waiting on the porch.
Lester took his turn, then, to visit the toilet, and even he had difficulty locating it. While he did this, I nervously phoned home, asking my boyfriend if he could pay for it if I arrived home in a taxi.
“Sorry,” he said lackadaisically, “I don’t really have any cash on me. I’d have to go out to a bank machine.”
I felt nonplussed by this, and then Lester yelled in my ear:
“DON’T WORRY, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, I’LL DRIVE YOU!”
Soon we were in Lester’s pickup truck, with Smiley sitting happily between us in the cab, me holding both Lester’s open bottle of beer and also my own, while we moved swiftly down McPhillips. We swerved into a gas bar complete with convenience store, where a young boy was having difficulty dealing with four vehicles at the same time, and a number of irate customers.
Suddenly I noticed that Lester was inside the convenience store, raging up and down the aisles, gesturing dramatically with his arms in the air, yelling at somebody for some reason.
I remember that I spoke aloud to myself at that moment.
“Lester, what the fuck are you doing?”
And I saw that the overwhelmed gas jockey was staring candidly at me then, talking to myself in the truck’s cab and holding two open beers.
Then we were on the road again, loaded up with chips and chocolate bars on the seat between us, where Smiley sat, panting. Lester started on an angry tirade a
t this point, complaining about many specific things and then life’s injustice in general. I listened, somewhat numbly, to his rant, until I noticed that we seemed to be headed for the outskirts of the city, instead of Fort Rouge—and my apartment.
I mumbled something to Lester, in sympathy with his rantings, and he turned sharply away from the road, studying me. He did a classic double take and his features registered genuine surprise.
For a moment, it seemed, he had completely forgotten who was in the truck with him, and in his mind’s eye he figured he was driving home with some other friend, some other customer.
It appeared it was my task to make him remember who I was. And also, I suppose, to convince him that I was the type who deserved a ride home.