Tiny Woodland Creeks

I

Barrie’s cheeks are crammed with buttered toast as he shoulders open his screen door and steps onto his porch. He slops a little coffee on the threshold as the door slams—loud in the early morning, but he’s used to it; the sound doesn’t qualify as a disturbance. Dressed in his navy housecoat and chequered pajama bottoms, he sinks into the folding armchair his daughter bought him for Christmas. He bites his toast again. Sips his coffee. His lightly stubbled face is warmed by the scarlet rise of the mid-May sun. 

It’s recycling day. All the people in the neighbourhood have brought their blue bins to the curb, and soon, before the collection truck makes its raucous way down the street, the Scavenger will appear on his fixed-gear bicycle: a haggard old man with a wizard’s beard, his gnarled body streaming rags as he tows a battered wagon full of bottles and cans. The Scavenger is new to the neighbourhood, the result, Barrie’s sure, of the homeless shelter the city opened in the ward last fall. 

There’d been resistance to that plan, naturally, and Barrie had thrust himself to the fore. Retired from his career as an insurance broker, living off his savings, pension, and the dividends of a few early-bird plays in the stock market, Barrie has the time required of a grassroots resistor. He delivered delegations to city council meetings and he rankled at his ward councillor’s refusal to look him in the eye and the mayor’s infuriating habit of tapping his pen against the day’s agenda, which he did, most clearly, when he wasn’t listening. 

During Barrie’s forty years of selling insurance, he developed a grave but quietly charming manner, and during his ant-shelter campaign, he brought this to the doorsteps of his neighbours, where he counted his major concerns on three fingers: children, property, parks. He got dozens of email addresses and updated his contacts as the process wore on. People asked him about it at the grocery store, the bar up the street, the pharmacy. Each time, he counted on his fingers: children, property, parks. 

But as the city unveiled the shelter’s architectural design, the programs it would offer, and the sort of people it would host, fewer of Barrie’s neighbours responded to his emails. They’d been sucked into the darkness of the city’s vision and mistaken it for light. Now, two years later, with the shelter open and operating at capacity, some have asked to be taken off the listserv altogether, and one, Maria Perez, right across the street, called him a “cro-mag.” 

He pops the last of the toast into his mouth and rubs the pad of his thumb against the tips of his fingers. The crumbs fall away, and just then the Scavenger rounds the corner, beard blown over one shoulder, bike brakes squealing, wagon wheels clattering, fully obnoxious, despite the early hour. Barrie sets his coffee mug by his feet. He stands, takes the porch steps at a jog, and strides down the driveway, positioning himself between his blue bin and the Scavenger. 

The belt of his housecoat has come untied, and Barrie is for a moment aware of himself as a physical specimen: soft, lumpy in places, hunched and bald. He wasn’t always, but now he is. He has been for years, actually, but he’s seldom reminded of it like now. He ties the belt in a knot and watches the Scavenger pull up to Thomas Owusu’s driveway, but Owusu is a teetotaler and a health nut. There’s nothing of value in his bin. The Scavenger continues up the street, closer to Barrie now, but still not looking at him, which Barrie finds offensive: has this torn-down derelict truly not seen him, arms akimbo at the foot of his driveway, the light spring breeze playing at the hem of his housecoat? Doesn’t this barnacle at least have the good sense to be embarrassed by what he’s doing? To be furtive?

Barrie’s bin is full of beer cans and wine bottles, his average biweekly accumulation. Once exchanged, they’d surely make an unhealthy contribution to whatever drug the Scavenger spikes into his chaos of collapsed veins. But the Scavenger won’t be putting his grubby fingers on Barrie’s household waste. No. It’s up to Barrie to decide the fate of his things, even those things he no longer wants. 

The Scavenger peddles slowly past a few other bins before arriving at Barrie’s driveway with a shriek of his brakes. Barrie winces at the sound. It’s harder to look the man in the face than he’d imagined. The Scavenger’s eyes are glassy and the skin around them is puffy and dark. His chapped lips are nestled in the filthy grey tangle of his beard. The morning sun shines on his face but doesn’t lend him any of its softness. He looks at Barrie’s bin. He dismounts his bike and engages the kickstand, torn pants fluttering like the tattered standard of a pirate ship. Then, unbelievably, he crouches to rummage through Barrie’s things, all without so much as a word of greeting.

“Can I help you?” Barrie asks, his voice disappointingly shaky. 

The Scavenger doesn’t answer.

“Excuse me,” says Barrie, mustering his tone. “What’re you doing down there?”

The Scavenger inspects the label on one of Barrie’s wines, a recent vintage. He removes the bottle from the bin and sets it on the ground but doesn’t answer. A stench comes off him so foul Barrie is enraged. What sort of world is this? What people call it home?

“Asshole.” His voice is steely now, and the Scavenger stiffens. “I asked you a question.”

Finally, the man looks up, his face a portrait of filth and vice. “I’m just rooting through your bin, sir.” His voice is surprisingly clear, even polite. 

But Barrie isn’t charmed. “Put the bottle back and take a hike, buddy.”

“I can’t bring it with me?”

“No. It doesn’t belong to you.”

The Scavenger makes a little snorting sound. “But you’re throwing it out.”

“No,” says Barrie. His sense of agency has grown super. “I’m recycling it. That’s my right.” He gestures with his arms to indicate the whole neighbourhood. “It’s the right of everyone in these homes, and frankly, we’ve all grown a little tired of you coming through here and disrespecting that. So I’m telling you again. Take a hike, buddy.”

The Scavenger rises to his full height. Barrie is an inch or so taller. They look at each other in silence, and it’s not clear what the bum is thinking. Barrie feels a pang of doubt in his chest. He feels himself losing his nerve but draws on a reserve of strength to jab his finger down the street, and he chokes out the words: “Take a hike, buddy!”

The Scavenger doesn’t react. Barrie stands there, his chest rising and falling, his arm tense, his finger pointing. It occurs to him that what he’s done is extremely dangerous. The Scavenger has led a vicious life of addiction, violence, and all manner of corruption. He could wake up in his shelter-provided cot at midnight and sneak back to Barrie’s house. He could climb through a window and creep into Barrie’s room. He could restrain Barrie with barbed wire and claim the home as his own.

Over the Scavenger’s shoulder, Barrie sees Maria Perez open her front door and step outside. She’s wearing a garishly coloured jogging suit and has a large canvas bag in each hand. She looks at them for a second, seemingly frozen, then calls out: “Eric!”

The Scavenger lifts his hand and waves. He parts his peeling lips to reveal a partial set of crooked brown teeth. Barrie can’t believe it. These two know each other? On a first-name basis? 

He watches as the Scavenger crosses the road to greet Maria, who extends to him the canvas bags, which are full of wine bottles. They fall into conversation, Maria all the while scowling at Barrie, an ugly woman indeed.

Just then, David Maughan exits his home next to Barrie’s. He’s dressed for work and swinging a briefcase. Barrie watches him assess the situation and waits for David to look at him so he can relay his position with a telling glance. But David turns his attention to the sidewalk and keeps it there, strolling past Barrie without so much as a mumbled hello.

 Barrie is overtaken by a profound sense of failure, and he retreats up his driveway, up his porch, and inside his house, easing the screen-door quietly shut. He stations himself at the kitchen window, where he watches Maria and the Scavenger—Eric, she called him—as they chat and laugh. 

It was a mistake, he realizes, to leave his bin at the curb. He could’ve taken it up onto the porch, or even into the foyer of the house. Then he could’ve waited for the recycling truck to arrive and personally hand his things directly to the workers. But he doesn’t want to go back outside to gather his belongings. Not right now, while things are so tense.

II

Later that day, Barrie sits on his stool at Bottoms Up, his neighbourhood bar and grill. The owner, a youngish fella named Terry, has subscriptions to all the national and regional newspapers, and Barrie likes to spend some of his afternoons perusing their pages while enjoying a stout. Often, he enjoys a number of stouts. 

He’s been coming here for years, since before Terry bought it, and he considers himself among the cherished group of regulars that make a community bar such an attractive place to hum away an afternoon. He has his own stool, which is in the back corner, where the long, oaken bar returns to the wall through a thin curtain of shadows. He sets his cellphone on the bar, his wallet beside it, and a newspaper in front of him. He reads. 

When Terry appears, always neatly dressed, always immaculately polite, they talk about the weather, the community, and their children. Otherwise, he might sometimes chat with the servers or bartender, all of whom are women, some his daughter’s age, but most quite a bit older, though not as old as Barrie. They’re lovely, all of them, both in appearance and personality, but Barrie is reluctant to talk with them for too long; he doesn’t want to be mistaken for one of those disgusting old men who creep around bars during daytime hours, making passes at women who have no choice but to humour him. 

Today, he’s the only regular. It’s spring. The others play golf, which Barrie has never cared for, and while their discipline falls off as the warmer months carry on, they always begin the season with enthusiasm. 

Personally, Barrie prefers to devote his attention to community goings-on, as well as his daughter, who hasn’t yet answered a text he sent her after breakfast. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be especially concerning. She takes after her mother, who was forgetful, but in an endearing way, less out of self-absorption than total absorption—she was into everything, just like her daughter. 

It’d be no big deal, but today he’s feeling lonely. Maybe a bit shaken. He’d watched the Scavenger—Eric—talk amiably with Maria before returning to rifle his bin. It was disturbing, to have someone defy him regarding the fate of his things. It was more disturbing to think this happened on the edge of his lawn, which is still, despite its distance from his bed, a vital component of his property, and that’s something he very obviously owns. All of it. Including the edges.

He sips his stout and rustles his paper. If he thinks about it, he’s not necessarily rattled by the fact of Maria Perez giving away bottles so a dangerous man can exchange them and buy drugs with the proceeds. It’s still a major mark against her, and it’s also bad for the broader neighbourhood, because now Eric will come more and more often. She might as well give him fresh needles at the same time. And why not the drugs themselves?

But that’s Maria Perez for you. She’s a bad person. He knew that the second he finished reading her insulting email. Who calls someone like Barrie a “cro-mag?” What, he’s less evolved because he thinks differently? Please. But that’s the sort of person she is. That’s Maria Perez. And yet, while Barrie can’t accept her, not exactly, she’s something he can live with, even if it means he has to take extra precautions on the matter of his property and the properties of his neighbours. That’s fine. He’ll assume the mantle. That’s why he was out there this morning. Waiting. Watching. 

No, what disturbs him most is she called the Scavenger by name. He can’t help but imagine what that might suggest. The intimacy. What must’ve happened for them to know each other by name? What sequence of dreadful events? And how might those events progress? Then David Maugham came sauntering along and seemed uncomfortable, yes, but not on account of Maria Perez’s intimately engaging a dangerous criminal beset by violence and vice; rather, it seemed like it was Barrie he didn’t want to acknowledge, Barrie who made him uncomfortable. 

He looks up from his newspaper and catches Alison’s eye. He smiles slightly and taps his glass. She nods and pulls him another stout. There’s something deeply sinister in Maria knowing Eric’s name. The situation has left him feeling isolated, the lone voice of sanity in a choir gone mad. And so he yearns to text with his daughter. Something lighthearted while he drinks his stout. He didn’t like texting when it first came around. He found it distancing, impersonal. But gradually he’s come to see it as more natural than talking. 

Alison brings him his beer and smiles and turns away to tend to some other chore. Barrie sips it. Turns the page of his newspaper. When he was in grade school, he remembers, he hurt a classmate. Attacked might actually be a more fitting word. He can’t remember why he did it. He just remembers he was in the hallway alone. He was standing by the coat hooks. The classroom door was closed. Then along came this other student, this kid named Tyler Greely, who was slightly larger. He came walking along, probably back from the bathroom, and as he walked by, Barrie lunged at him and palmed the side of his head and thrust it into one of the coat hooks. 

It was a brutal thing to have done. Barrie thinks about it sometimes. He’s done bad things in life, things he regrets. He’s mistreated people and made a fool of himself. He’s been confused by politics while pretending to be certain. He thinks about these things sometimes, in particular this incident with Tyler Greely, who was slightly larger. He doesn’t remember what happened after. He doesn’t remember what happened before. Just the two of them in the hallway. The thrusting of the head. The coat hook. It was an awful thing to have done. Sometimes, he wonders if Tyler Greely hadn’t actually said hello in the split second before Barrie palmed him. 

He sips his stout and checks his phone. His daughter hasn’t responded. He sips his stout. There’s good scotch in here, but it’s best to be cautious. Good scotch is expensive, and Barrie keeps to a budget. He wonders if he shouldn’t look for Tyler Greely online. He could find him and apologize, after all these years. He looks at the top shelf behind the bar. There’s very good scotch at Bottoms Up. That much is true. He can have one, he decides, but only later, when he’s ready to leave.

III

The next morning is a major challenge. He’s out of ibuprofen. The veins in his head have constricted to tiny woodland creeks, but his heart beats an ocean. The first swell of pain wakes him at four. He wriggles in bed, praying unconsciousness will consume him for at least another hour, and it does, for two.

At six-thirty, he brings himself to the shower, naked man, bag of flesh, and he slouches beneath a spray of warm water. His head is tied to his chin and his chin is very heavy. Time passes.

He’s hopeful his dignity hasn’t been harmed. He remembers leaving Bottoms Up after that single ounce of scotch. It was good thinking to coordinate it with his bill. He made no spectacle there. On his way home, he stopped at the liquor store. He bought a quantity of beer and wine, and while he may’ve been seen in the neighbourhood with his arms full, he’s certain he drank it all inside, although he’s not quite certain where that certainty comes from. 

The hot water begins to fade. Normally, he’s sitting outside by now. He’s watching people go to work. Nodding at them. Lifting his hand in greeting. But sometimes there are mornings like this, and he wonders if his absence from the fore isn’t noticed by his neighbours. Noticed…and relished?

No. That’s the hangover talking. He has nothing to be ashamed of. He checks his phone and sees that he was texting his daughter last night. He scrolls through their exchange. It’s all safe. All dignified. He gets clean clothes from his closet and walks to the pharmacy to buy ibuprofen. 

But it’s too early for the pharmacy to be open, so he cuts through a park and sits on a bench. It’s a nice park. There’s a maple tree and its leaves are his favourite thing about the fall. His wife used to love them. They’d walk to the park every Sunday afternoon to watch the leaves flutter in the autumn breeze. Then, as now, there were dog walkers and people with children. It’s a nice place. Warm. Friendly.

Barrie fishes out his phone and looks more closely at the texts he exchanged last night with his daughter. Maybe he was a little on the effusive side. Maybe she knew he was drinking. But that’s okay. He didn’t say anything too ridiculous. She’s moved in with her boyfriend. He’s glad. He told her she’ll enjoy coming home to someone after a long day of circulating in the broader world, a long day of letting slip the mask. It’s nice to come home to someone who’s grown bored of judging you. That was a slightly strange thing to say. But Barrie has a sense of humour. He likes to crack a dark joke or two. His daughter knows that. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. He’s happy for her. She knows it.

A man wearing a spring jacket and one of those chequered golf hats walks into the park and sits on a bench not far from Barrie’s. He’s also a regular at Bottoms Up. His name is Tomas. Last week, he was cut off after drinking too much. He nods. Barrie nods, then, before events progress, takes his leave.

The pharmacy still isn’t open, so Barrie decides to get his ibuprofen at a convenience store. He seldom goes to this part of the ward, because the store is right across from the homeless shelter, but he’s in search of ibuprofen and he won’t be swayed from his goals. He’s a citizen of this ward. A taxpayer. He has every right to wander its reaches. 

It’s true that the shelter is nicely designed. He has to admit that. He likes the big glass windows, the yellow bricks, the wheelchair ramps. He likes the planter boxes. Disheveled people of every race are splayed out on blankets in front of the building, and these he doesn’t like. Others are standing. Barrie condemns them. Their clothes are oversized and even from this distance, he sees tattoos on their necks and faces. Clouds of smoke hang above their heads. They spit on the sidewalk. Some of them are clutching themselves as if they’re cold. One of them isn’t wearing a shirt; he’s an old man with a matted beard and flaps of grey skin hanging from his chest. 

Then Barrie sees the Scavenger approaching a bedraggled woman sprawled on a blanket. He crouches to talk to her. She nods, digs through a backpack, and produces something small, which she passes to the Scavenger. He examines it for a moment, his shoulders slumped in defeat, then extends his other hand. The woman reaches for it, takes it, and lies back to stare at the sky. The Scavenger settles on the sidewalk next to the blanket, but the woman lifts herself from her repose and, shoving the palm of her hand against his face, makes it clear she’d rather nap alone.

The Scavenger stands and walks to the edge of the street. He sits on the curb with his back to the other bums, one of whom kicks a stone at him. He looks across the street and sees Barrie looking back at him. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t wave. And yet, there’s nothing menacing about him. Nothing confrontational. It’s as if he’s waiting to see how Barrie will react.

A car passes between them. And another. Barrie enters the store and buys his ibuprofen. He also, without quite knowing why, buys a two-litre bottle of Pepsi, even though he never drinks the stuff himself. When he comes back outside, he sees the Scavenger—he sees Eric—sitting in precisely the same spot, staring. He holds up the Pepsi and smiles, but Eric still doesn’t react. He just stares. 

Maybe Barrie’s message isn’t entirely clear. He’s just come to understand it himself, actually, the scope of his empathy, the very flood of it. He unscrews the cap of the Pepsi and empties the bottle all over the sidewalk. A black, foamy mess flows into the gutter. Barrie holds the empty bottle up and waves it at the Scavenger, but the Scavenger’s face remains blank. Fine, thinks Barrie. Be proud. He sets the empty bottle on the ground so Eric can get it after he leaves.

The sun shines as he walks home. His hangover has mostly subsided, but he avoids the park and chooses not to sit on his porch. He naps until very late in the afternoon, after which he feels completely restored. He stretches. He yawns. Time, he thinks, to head to Bottoms Up for a stout. It’s almost dinner, and the boys will be back from golf to keep him company.

— Paul Carlucci wrote The Secret Life of Fission, A Plea for Constant Motion, and The High-Rise in Fort Fierce. His dog’s name is Hank. Hank’s the shit.