Jack soaked up the peacefulness that reigned in the locked and nearly soundproof employee restroom. He tossed two pills far into the back of his throat and then slurped sink water from his cupped hands. In the mirror, he tried to see himself the way he would appear to the corporate HR representatives who had requested his presence at a noon meeting. Somewhere between the moral slackness of his receding hairline and the grim fatalism of the bags under his eyes, he sought out that prevailing glow that would, despite everything else, attest to his innocence, goodness, model "employee-ness."
He couldn’t find it... and neither, he guessed, would they.
He strolled out to his pharmacist post and looked out at the seemingly never-ending line of ailing or addicted customers awaiting their turn to procure pills, capsules, inhalers, and injections. They wore puffy and sagging winter coats encrusted with snow and road salt. The slush on the soles of their boots had become small puddles of muddy water, which they smeared toward him as they doggedly shuffled forward at the beckon of his militaristically pronounced “next.”
The store looked unusually crowded, mostly by Canadians coming across the bridge with their insatiable desire for milk– and other necessities– at American prices. Last-minute Christmas shoppers of the American and Canadian stripe made matters even worse, producing checkout lines ten customers deep. Yet even this could not dissuade the steady flow of incoming shoppers.
Christmas. This year he’d “gotten out of it.” Molly and the kids would be packing their suitcases this evening and heading off to visit family downstate. Knowing he would be unable get more than a couple days off, Jack had instead volunteered to work as much holiday time as possible. Molly had been upset by the news– disappointed in him, as usual. She had a way of making Christmas so stressful that Jack had come to dread its annual approach. Or was it Jack (as Molly would contend) who made it stressful? Or was it the fact that, every year, just as their bank accounts seemed to be out of the red, Christmas would rear its ugly head? No, in the end, it was probably just the corporate-endorsed Christmas CD– that had been lending its cheer on a 24-hour loop– that made Jesus Christ’s prolonged birthday party a source of profound discouragement for Jack Leblanc.
In the meeting, the faces at the table could only be described as dour. Perhaps Jack’s could actually outshine them. If nothing else, the buzz from the pills should lend some kind of warmth to his visage. Martin Pendleton, the prim and proper HR rep, didn’t beat around the bush.
“Mr. Leblanc, can you explain why the counts of Vicodin have been coming up short? Particularly during your shifts?”
“Are you serious?”
“We’re very serious,” chimed in his youthful and busty protégé, Macey. “So serious in fact, that we would like you to take a blood test right here and now.”
“Are you serious?”
“If you refuse to take the test,” Macey was enjoying this, “then corporate policy dictates you be suspended for two weeks without pay.”
They both stared at him. Allen, the store manager, sat sheepishly in his seat, the very picture of neutrality. The ball was in Jack’s court.
Jack refused the test. Awkwardly brushing past his colleagues, he made his way toward the exit, nervously humming along with the Christmas CD, which now played Josh Groban’s rendition of “O Holy Night”– a tune he particularly loathed. He hummed all the way to the exit and then stepped out into the crisp and blustery afternoon. There, he stood in the parking lot, wondering what to do with himself.
A few hours and a few single malts later, Jack pulled up to his house. The Leblanc family home– perched snugly upon a hill in a pleasant neighborhood– looked just like the perfect home. As Jack parked the Envoy, he wondered why it wasn’t. What had gone wrong? He popped a stick of gum in his mouth, hoping to mask the alcohol on his breath.
Inside the house, blaring music greeted Jack– an Elvis Christmas tune. Molly’s habit of blasting music had always annoyed him. He hung his gleaming white lab coat in its usual place, crossed the room, and turned down the volume on the radio.
“I’m home... ”
Soon Molly came down the stairs dragging a huge red suitcase. She strained under the weight and glared at him, unenthused by his presence. He moved to help her, but she waved him off.
“It’s ok, Jack. I know you want nothing to do with this trip.”
“It’s ok, Jack. It’s like you said; this way, you’ll be able to make some extra money.”
“Of course, without me here to supervise you, you’ll just spend it all at Moloney’s Bar.” She marched into the kitchen and gulped some water.
“You know what bothers me the most?” She looked pensive– one hand on her ample hip, the other gripping the captive glass of water.
“I think you could have gotten that time off. You just didn’t want to. You wanted a... a mini vacation away from the family.”
“Wait a second... You call working overtime shifts at the store a mini vacation! You are crazy. Do you really think I would rather spend the holidays at the pharmacy?”
“It’s the holidays! We are going to be swamped. It’s the last place I want to be!” Nothing I ever do is good enough for you, Molly, and this is the final proof.”
“Spin it however you want to, Jack.”
The cold green of Molly’s eyes bore into Jack. Nowadays he rarely glimpsed in those eyes that softer hue of jade that once sparkled warmly in his presence. Jack sighed and plopped down into an easy chair. Soon, however, his anger turned to something like amusement. Was he lying when he’d said he’d rather go with her than stay home? Maybe, but he wasn’t sure. Was he lying when he said he was going to be swamped with work at the pharmacy while she was away? Oh yeah. That was a true lie, an unequivocal deception, a real whopper. And somehow it felt good. As Molly labored over suitcases, Jack sunk deeper into the chair, savoring the idea of the freedom he would shortly have.
Eventually Jack managed to be of service, helping Matthew and Cassandra with their suitcases and doing a little shoveling at the end of the driveway. He even managed to get a hug from each of them, and Molly too, before they left. “See you in a couple weeks,” he said, wondering if she’d smelled the alcohol on his breath.
Back in the house, he shut off all the lights. The white walls basked in the half-light of dusk. In the living room, he extinguished the television and plopped down on the floor, resting his back against the couch. He cracked a bottle of scotch and sank back. Jack stared at the enormous framed photo of his family on the wall above the dormant entertainment center. For so long Molly and he had been drifting apart, but he had always held on. In the dim of the evening, his eyes played tricks on him. It was as if he could see the soft jade in her eyes gazing peacefully down at him again. He sat like that until it was almost dark. Then, groaning, he shifted his weight and pulled out his wallet. Reaching deep into its recesses, he unearthed a small, folded napkin, upon which was scribbled– in a bubbly, feminine scrawl– the name “Natalia,” followed by a Canadian phone number.
Jack had never really given much thought to Natalia. She was Canadian; she lived across the bridge. He didn’t know much more about her than that– not even her last name (which was probably Petrangelo or Pingatore... one of those Italian Canadian names). He’d only seen her a handful of times, always at Moloney’s Bar. The first time was actually around this time last year, when she’d come in for a drink after the Eagles-Thunderbirds hockey game. She was on the Thunderbird side (the Canadian team), and Jack, although he really didn’t care and never went to the games, was, by default, an Eagles supporter.
He stared at the letters and numbers inked in red upon the napkin. He recalled the awkward moment when she’d handed it to him. He’d accepted it, but only with the certainty that he’d never act on it. But nothing was certain in Jack’s life these days– not his job, not his marriage... not his reasons for keeping that number buried in his wallet instead of discarding it.
Jack used the scotch to wash down a couple more Vicodin. He flipped on CNN. He was going to sleep magnificently that night.
In fact, he did not sleep so magnificently. In the morning, after a couple false starts, he ended up peeling but not eating an orange, and then going back to bed. Around noon, he emerged from the bedroom into the flagrantly empty and silent house. He stood naked before the picture window that revealed the winter wasteland that was his neighborhood. Gray clouds choked the sky so thickly that it seemed they might soon engulf the trees and the houses themselves. He felt the next two weeks spreading out before him: time manifesting itself as a magnitude of loneliness.
By 5:00pm, he’d still eaten nothing, done nothing. His heart began to pound as he picked up his phone and began punching in that foreign number. He felt panic creeping up his throat with every ring of the phone, and just as he proceeded to hang up, a familiar voice answered.
“Hey, Natalia... It’s... uh... Jack,” he laughed. Whereas just seconds ago he might have been capable of pouring his heart out to her like a fool, he now found himself collected and charming, as he tried to pass off the phone call as no big deal. He was just calling, actually, to see if she had plans to go to the Eagles-Thunderbirds game on Friday.
“You mean the Thunderbirds-Eagles game. Yes, of course! I wanted to go, but I haven’t been able to find anyone to go with me.”
The date was set. They would meet at the arena. Jack went back to looking out the picture window, dressed now (if you could call a pair of boxers and his lab coat “dressed”). Four days until Friday. The time no longer stretched out before him so menacingly. He made a to-do list. Not of things to do around the house, but of things he’d been wanting to do– read Moby Dick, go ice fishing with Ian, sort his record collection, write long letters to his high school and college friends, get out the old cross country skis, finish building that chest of drawers... With a good supply of Scotch (he added reading a book about single malts to his list), it would be a marvelous week.
On Friday night, Jack stood in front of the Pullar Arena, beneath the plastic letters, settled against the lit backing, that clumsily declared “The oriGinaL hockeyTown.” Jack, unlike his fellow northern Michiganders, had never really cared much for hockey. He marveled at the throngs of people– Americans and Canadians alike– converging on the little arena. Suddenly, out of those throngs, emerged the familiar pale face framed by buoyant brunette hair. It was Natalia, her cheeks blushing slightly from the cold, her breath manifesting itself in little puffs of steam. Her long, European boots heartily crushed snow as she moved toward Jack, her eyes gleaming.
It was a gutsy move, showing up with her here, in such a small town. And yet, fortified by his week of freedom, Jack didn’t care at all. In one of those flashes of savoir-faire that are the opposite of stress and panic, he realized that his best bet was to bold-facedly enjoy himself with her at the game, as though he had absolutely nothing to hide, as though she were a cousin who just happened to be his best friend. Yes, he would opt for that identity, should the need to introduce her arise.
The Eagles and the Thunderbirds were semi-pro teams playing in the Algonquin League. It was the league you watched if you wanted to see fights. Often, highly competitive, quality hockey would be on display. Other times, the games degenerated into amateur boxing hours. You never knew which you were going to get, and hoped for something between the two. On this night, however, halfway into the second period, things were already starting to degenerate.
The Thunderbirds continued to extend their lead and things turned ugly. An Eagle brutally hammered a Thunderbird into the glass right in front of Jack and Natalia, and the Thunderbird tripped his opponent with his stick. Helmets and gloves came off and fists flew. Jack grinned down at Natalia; she was enjoying this way too much. Finally the fight was broken up and an extra penalty given to the Eagles. It seemed everyone except the referee had seen the stick come out and trip the Eagle. The fans were furious. One fan– a hulk of a man wearing a green winter hat with a yellow ball on top– threw down his cup of beer, grabbed a nearby garbage can, and hoisted it out onto the ice.
“Gonna be a rough night at Moloney’s, I’m afraid,” joked Jack, as they exited the arena.
“Yeah...,” she mused. “You know, there are some nice places on my side of the bridge...”
“Let me get this straight. The Canadian team comes over here and mops the floor with mine, and now you want me to go over there and support their economy with my hard-earned money?”
“That’s the idea. Come on, loser, let’s go. I’m driving.”
Traveling across the International Bridge, Jack peered down at the St. Mary’s canal below, where a thousand-foot freighter made its laborious passage through that no man’s land between countries. Sure, they could place a border marker on the bridge, but where did one country begin and the other end down there in the swirling, churning water? Up ahead, Canada approached. The lights of that foreign city spread out into the vast night. Jack’s career was in limbo, his family was hundreds of miles away, and his hand held that of a foreign woman who was definitely not his cousin, but who felt, at that moment, like his best friend. He couldn’t have known it would be a week before he would return to the U.S.
One day she drove him a couple of hours into the Canadian wilderness and took him cross country skiing. Another day she took him downhill skiing for the first time in his life. Each day’s outdoor adventures were capped by an evening of fine dining and then drinks in the bars on Queen Street, where he enjoyed dubbing himself “The Canadian” to his amused fellow-drinkers, who taught him to drink Rye and Ginger and Molson Canadian, to smoke Player’s and Export A’s, and to generally spend loonies and toonies like a champ. Natalia didn’t mind his pill addiction, and she even partook occasionally herself, “Just to be on the same wavelength,” she said.
On Friday, the day before Molly would return, they ended up at Studio Ten, a strip club nestled in the shadow of the International Bridge. Jack was impressed with Natalia’s bravado in the strip club; she evidently knew the place. She cheered on the girls with the same gleam in her eye as she’d cheered on the fighting hockey players.
“Do you want a lap dance?” Natalia asked him.
“I don’t know. Not really,” he laughed.
“Come on, it’s ok... Céline, viens ici!” she shouted.
Céline, a voluptuous French Canadian, obeyed. “Bonsoir, Natalia.” They kissed each other on the lips. Jack sat frozen with his drink in his hand, not knowing if he should be more surprised by Natalia’s French or her flirtatious gesture with another woman. Céline offered Jack a lap dance, and she invited Natalia back into the booth with them. Removing her top, she said, with a heavy accent, “You are the friend of Natalia. You can touch.” Jack laughed off the idea, shaking his head. But then Natalia grabbed his hand and placed it gently onto one of Céline’s bobbing breasts, cupping the other with her own hand. They sat like that for awhile as Céline danced on Jack. Eventually, they looked away from the mesmerizing breasts and into each other’s grinning eyes. The smirks on their faces widened as they tried not to erupt into laughter.
Jack had managed to sleep on the couch every night until then. That night, however, he could not refuse climbing into bed with Natalia.
Jack awoke early, however, and began tossing and turning. He slipped out and took a cab back across the bridge to his car, still parked outside the Pullar Arena. He drove home. Molly would return later that day. He had a decision to make.
Inside the empty house, he paced and grimaced. He avoided looking at the family portrait at all costs. Before long, he was packing a couple of suitcases’ worth of clothes, papers, and toiletries. Then he went out to the garage and dug out the shoe box filled with bottles of pilfered Vicodin; it was a collection he’d amassed over the years. He nestled it into one of the suitcases. Before leaving, he quickly penned a note to Molly. It was unfeeling, to the point. He was leaving her for another woman; he would be in touch about a divorce.
Feeling light-headed, Jack pulled out of his driveway and headed toward the International Bridge. Soon he could see it looming metallically in the distance. He couldn’t get to the bridge fast enough. It felt like all of America was at his back, chasing him down, trying to suck him back in before he could reach the safe haven of Canada... of Natalia. Moreover, the longer he delayed, the more worried and confused Natalia would become. It pained him to imagine what her reaction must have been that morning, waking up to an empty bed.
His hands trembled as he reached into his pocket at the toll booth. He had only Canadian cash on him now. He handed a blue five-dollar bill to the collector, received a toonie in change, and just like that he was on the bridge. Later, he would be unable to recall actually traversing it... his mind was elsewhere, racing. When he reached the Canadian customs, he let out a sigh of relief. He’d made it across. Jack advanced his car to the customs booth and extended his passport.
“Nationality?” asked the agent.
“Reason for coming to Canada?”
“Visiting a friend.”
“How long do you plan to stay?”
“Just for the afternoon,” he lied.
“Ok.” The agent began writing. “I’m sure you’re fine, eh, but we’re doing random inspections today.” He handed Jack a yellow slip of paper along with his passport. “Take this, and pull over to the side, please.”
The danger hadn’t even occurred to Jack until they’d opened his trunk where the suitcases lay. Inevitably, they opened the suitcases. He stood mute, feeling a cold sweat coming on. When an agent opened the lid of the shoebox and exposed all those pill bottles, Jack felt nauseous.
“Sir, we’re going to have to escort you back to the U.S. side.”
America had sucked him back in. After lengthy and humiliating formal procedures, he found himself being locked up in the local jail, the one he drove past every day on his way to the pharmacy. Before putting him behind bars, the guard directed him to a phone.
“You have your phone call.”
Jack hesitated. Molly would have already returned home and found his note. Natalia would be confused and angry. Walking to the phone, he struggled to remember Natalia’s number, trying to envision that little napkin as it had looked to him on that evening in his living room, when he’d first unfolded it, there under Molly’s jade eyes in the family portrait. He could still see Natalia’s bubbly script... those loops and curves of red ink. Yes, he thought he recalled the number. He lifted the receiver, but his heart sank as he read the small sticker below the number pad.
“U.S. calls only.”
He stood there, dazed.
“Let’s go, Mr. Leblanc,” said the burly guard. He gripped Jack by the bicep, and herded him down the narrow hallway toward his cell. Jack began to hum.
“What are you humming?” demanded the guard.
“O Holy Night... At work, they–”
“Just stop. Christmas is over, pal.”
As the cell door clanked shut, Jack closed his eyes, and continued to hum.
Joshua Armstrong's fiction has appeared in Quiddity International Literary Review and The Modern Word. Readers can follow the misadventures of Jack Leblanc at fictiblog.com.