Gary Robinson

One day on the bus a girl with shoulder-length red hair noticed some poems of mine I was carrying in a folder and asked if she could read one. She was thin with the typical pale complexion of a redhead. I gave her the two I thought were best. One she really liked. The other she didn’t. We introduced ourselves. Amelia was twenty and a university student but not in school. She had problems she didn’t want to get into. At my stop we both got off and after a bit of awkwardness exchanged email addresses. I was sure she wouldn’t write. (She didn’t.) But she gave me a website where she kept her own poems from years back. She apologized and said they weren’t anything like mine. Then we said goodbye.

I went online and checked them out. Poems from when she was eleven or twelve. One was about civilized rabbits dwelling in an underground city illuminated by orange light (its origin an enormous incandescent carrot suspended magically over the city!). Some of the rabbits were highly erudite: doctors, scientists, professors. There were also ninja rabbits to guard the rabbit population, most of whom were pacifists, easy prey to dark forces lurking beyond the borders of their subterranean world. Amelia worried the ninjas couldn’t protect them all and that a horrible slaughter would occur.

Juvenile poems written in grade six or seven. The site promised new ones would be added soon. I saw she hadn’t logged on in four years.

On a whim I Googled her name and found a video she’d posted on YouTube. In it Amelia was lip synching and dancing to a song I wasn’t familiar with. She was wearing a short purple dress and twirling yellow flowers. Very sixties retro.

I put Amelia out of my mind. There were enough distractions to deal with. I was trying to find new accommodations without success. I’d been renting a room in the basement of my sister’s house and felt I had been there long enough, though she’d said nothing. In addition I was embroiled in a Mexican standoff with a poetry zine that refused to print one of my poems (a long one about a dilapidated building I’d come across a few years ago) until I removed seventeen lines from it. What galled me was that their proposed revision wasn’t better than the original. It seemed like they were castrating the poem (in an email to a friend I made it more personal, not to mention histrionic, when I said it was me they were out to castrate). We had broken off discussions and were waiting for the other to blink. But they’d given an ultimatum: accept their editing or it wouldn’t be published at all. I had two weeks to decide.

My friend Justin, who’d been a poet prior to a nervous breakdown, counseled me one morning at the bookstore he worked at in a trendy part of Ottawa. The store had a coffeebar. Justin would sell coffee and donuts to customers when they weren’t browsing. When he wasn’t doing that or helping someone track down a book, he’d come over. We were discussing the offending poem, as he had labeled it.

He advised me not to cave in. Have principle, he said. It wasn’t a big deal to me either way, since I’d been submitting poems there for a long time and they normally rejected me. Why? he asked. I don’t know, I said.

When I first made Justin’s acquaintance, he was slouched in a wicker chair, smoking a cigarette and wearing an absent expression, like he was bored or in a daze. I don’t remember who spoke first, but we struck up a conversation. It was a summer's day. From what I was told by those who’d known him (friends and fellow tenants), I was able to piece together details of his life up until when he was hospitalized.

Justin, before his breakdown, had been a prolific poet. He’d shown me hundreds of his poems. Most hadn’t found a home anywhere (my hunch is he was disinclined to send them out and didn’t care if anyone ever saw them). I can’t say who his model was or even who his favourite poets were (if he had any). They were peculiar poems, rambling and bizarre, as if Justin had been overcome by panic or frightened. Like an inkling of his illness was in them, slowly in the beginning, flaring in the middle, and then near the end, with exhaustion imminent, a mad rush like a delirium.

After the breakdown Justin didn’t write again. Contrary to rumours, he wasn’t doing heavy drugs. He’d smoke grass occasionally but was moderate in how much he did. Close friends said he shunned them all of a sudden, staying indoors most of the day, not seeing anyone. In the evenings he’d go for walks in the poor neighborhood (he had moved there inexplicably) which wasn’t a good idea (bikers and other gangs had a stake in the disreputable grounds). Justin’s family was well off. His father owned a string of tanning salons. He could have had a much more comfortable life, but he chose conditions that were borderline skid row. Nobody knew why.

His tiny apartment was once the parlor of an eighty-year-old house. Rooms were rented out on the second floor. The exterior had a slightly schizophrenic look. One part had been painted yellow. Over some dispute, the painters packed their brushes and rollers and quit. The landlord never bothered to have the rest of the outside finished. The porch was a faded green and peeling. The other side of the house was dirty beige scoured with graffiti. Depending on where you were standing, you were never sure whose house it was. At least that was my impression when I visited.

The apartment was lightly furnished: a desk, chair, dresser and a bed. An oval rug purchased at a yard sale completed the furnishings. And an unpleasant smell permeated the place, a smell like vegetation or earth, as if the apartment was buried underground. The drapes were always closed. The sun wasn’t welcome.

Oddly, there were no poetry books anywhere, or I never saw any. His poems were stacked on the dresser. He had no interest in them at all anymore. It was as if he was far away from everything. There was little that stirred his curiosity. That ended when he acquired his job in the bookstore, which became his only concern.

One of the boarders in the house said that back then she'd suspected that Justin had joined a cult. She alluded to a spartan-like lifestyle (her description) and suggested he was attempting to purify himself. To move away from bad influences. But she was wrong. Justin wasn’t moving away so much as he was compelling something to appear. This is what I learned.

There was a door walled up with bricks at the back of Justin’s apartment, beside the bathroom. It used to lead from the old parlor of the house into the backyard. Why it was walled up God only knows. It was already done when the present landlord bought the property.

One morning Justin was interrupted by the sound of knocking. Surprised and unable to discover the source (it wasn’t the front door), he realized it was coming from the rear of the apartment. Near the bathroom the sound began again, where the door used to be. Justin ran out, assuming someone was playing a prank. Nobody was in the backyard.

Mystified, he went inside. Several more times that day the knocking started up. Each time Justin investigated only to find no one. There was no more knocking after that.

But from that day on, Justin rooted himself in that one chair he'd dragged in front of the bricked-over door and waited. People later explained away the knocking as a construction crew on a nearby street, digging up the sewers with hydraulic hammers, replacing the corroded metal pipes with plastic. I think their answer is plausible, but Justin paid no attention. He was certain someone (or something) had been knocking where the door used to be.

When I first heard the story it came across as a haunted house episode. Supernatural phenomena. Justin had been spooked by events he couldn’t attribute to natural causes. But it was more than that. Justin opened up as we got to know each other. He felt more comfortable in my presence. Or maybe he only needed to tell somebody, and I just happened to be there.

Justin (ensconced in the only chair in the apartment, myself cross-legged on the rug) said that for the first time he had a sense of something behind his life, beckoning. That’s how he interpreted what had taken place. He wasn’t really talking about ghosts, though he did spend a bit of time pondering the likelihood of a transitional state between life and death. And he eliminated any notion it had been dream-knocking or a waking hallucination. The knocking was very specific as well as intentional, he concluded. Simply put, he’d been shaken out of his complacency. He became aware of all the shadows he’d never seen, as he put it. He’d come face to face with an alternate world. Sci-fi movies had portals for escape. Here, he couldn’t get away. When he confronted hthe door of bricks, hour after hour, he believed he was staring well past it, past the house, the other buildings in the area, the people who led marginal lives in the poor neighborhood. To Justin, the shadows were an emptiness, a terrible hollowness without form that startled him. He had tried pulling away, but it was too late. He wrote poems (and had been for years), thinking they would lead him out. He wasn’t eating or sleeping. He stayed inside and composed. The poems were a rope he'd clung to, helping him traverse the empty spaces, kept hi, dangling over the abyss. But he’d been marked, branded by this experience (call it a condition, call it a vision). His poems became more erratic. The rope was fraying in his hands. He went for walks in the evening, and when he returned he hoped everything would be arranged as it used to be. But no sooner was he in that tiny apartment that smelled like it was buried and moldering than he made his way without volition to the chair and the bricked-up door, his torment beginning all over again.

One day he collapsed. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital and then transferred to a sanatorium.

Another employee arrived and told Justin to go on a break. We stepped outside, where he lit a cigarette. I knew he enjoyed his smoke breaks, so I remained quiet. He was studying pedestrians. What are you going to do? he finally asked. I don’t know, I replied. Turn them down, he said. I probably will, I said. Then we said goodbye.

The next few days I was looking at rooms all over the city. At first I tried convincing people I would make a suitable roommate. It was a mistake. When they became aware of my situation (protracted poverty at the top of the list) they couldn’t get me out of their homes fast enough. They were young urban professionals who could smell something on me they didn’t like. They were on the way up while my trajectory was still plodding along near the bottom.

Around this time my sister and her boyfriend began arguing over matters I didn’t want to know about. One of them (sometimes both) would be at my door in the evening and use me to tee off on the other. My sister’s boyfriend was a tradesman who regularly had to go out of town for jobs. It was the reason for the quarrels. He was away for long stretches, which my sister objected to. At the heart of it were my sister’s doubts about his faithfulness, which he swore were baseless and unfounded. I wasn’t going to choose sides. I would listen politely and shrug. Inevitably, they’d take in all the books stacked on the floor, in bookcases (there were three in the room), or piled on the bed (usually over a hundred), then dismiss me as just the sort of oddball who’d sleep in a basement.

I began thinking I might accept the changes to my poem after all. What harm could there be when only five people (if that many) would ever read it? While I was weighing the possibility one evening I headed out to a downtown rooming house that had a room available. I don’t go to that part of the city much, it was an older area, and predictably became lost. I turned a corner and almost bumped into two people. One of them had a shaved head and an unmistakable creepiness about him, the sort of person you wouldn’t want to give your back to. The second was Amelia.

We’d only met that one time on the bus ten days ago, but she seemed to have lost weight. She looked like an exclamation point, as if her fading body were making an urgent and startling retreat from the world. I had already passed them when I heard her shout. Poet!

I asked her how she was. The man (shorter than me, but broad and muscular) shifted to one side.

Amelia said they were on their way to a party. Did I want to go? I had my eye on her companion. He kept his head lowered. A tattoo of a snake (an anaconda or python) wound around his neck. Amelia said something to him, too low for me to hear. He smiled.

She gave me the address and said to drop by. I have somewhere I need to get to, I answered.

But thirty minutes later I still hadn’t located the rooming house. It was eight o’clock. A few people I questioned hadn’t heard of the street at all. Wondering if I was pursuing a ghost street, I regretted not having a map (or a medium). Finally an oldtimer, a boozer from down east, pointed the place out. Twenty more feet and I was there at last.

The rooming house was halfway down a deserted dim street. The cement steps were cracked and at a slant. The small plot of grass that was the front yard held bits of late-evening light. The building looked beaten up (all rooming houses do), the worn brick streaked as if tar had been sprayed on it. The landlord was a handyman who led me up to the room, which wasn’t much bigger than a closet with a single sheetless bed and an asthmatic chest of drawers that could have come from the garbage. The pane of glass in the window was supported by a stick over a makeshift screen. Even with the window open, the entire house stank like someone’s pet dying of neglect. I told the landlord I would think about it.

I took a cross street (figuring it would lead me out) rather than retracing my path, but again ended up in unfamiliar surroundings. A kind of battered house syndrome dominated up and down the street. No one was around. A television was on somewhere, volume up, a comedy I didn’t recognize. I smelled hamburger cooking. Everything was depressed, secondhand, from an earlier era of style and means now run down into low-rent housing for university students and welfare cases.

One house had thick drapes (or blankets) blocking out the first-floor window. Two men were smoking on a ruined porch, wrecked and flimsy. I expected them to fall through the precarious wood. The door opened and Amelia stepped out. She might have been waiting for me. She waved and gestured to me to come over. The two men on the porch scanned me like conspirators.

Inside, the house looked as if it had been cleaned out. It didn’t seem inhabited. Stairs rose to the dark second floor. Not a light was on. We went to the living room. It was bare aside from a few folding chairs arranged in a semicircle. It could have been a séance or a twelve-step meeting. Several men were already seated. A black man in a blue jogging outfit nodded to me. I didn’t catch on immediately that he was missing a right arm. One man, older than the rest, was dressed in a suit like an accountant or a lawyer. Everyone else wore jeans. There was a woman in a corner, thirty-ish, her hair long and brown. She was smoking and shooting me a look that approached hostility.

I couldn’t believe this was a party. More men showed up, all of varying ages. The accountant’s arms were folded across his chest. He had dozed off.

Amelia came down the stairs, which were beside the living room. I hadn’t been aware of her absence and was surprised she’d given me the slip so easily. I prided myself on being observant. She smiled at no one in particular. She’d put on makeup, which only made her resemble a child pretending to be a grownup. She said she had let everyone know I was a poet, and told me how excited they were. But nobody even glanced at me. The other woman had disappeared. Voices came from the rear of the house.

The accountant, awake now, brushed by me. He climbed the stairs. The ceiling creaked. Amelia was talking to someone. I realized the bald guy with the tattoo wasn’t in the living room.

The two who had been out smoking on the porch came in. I was against the wall and didn’t know whether to take a chair or stay where I was. The gathering had an air of expectancy, though no one spoke. It reminded me of the discomfiture shared among people sitting in the waiting room of a dentist’s office.

There were almost a dozen, all men apart from Amelia and the other woman, who was serving drinks to everyone. She handed me a glass and I tasted rum and coke. She said nothing. The guy with the snake tattoo appeared in the living room entrance. He had the same coiled and lethal pose he’d had an hour ago. The woman leaned toward him. He smiled like a cynical hunter watching game stride innocently into the sight of his rifle. If he'd noticed I was among the group, he didn’t seem to care.

Amelia placed a CD player on the floor in front of the chairs. The woman was bringing refills. The accountant was on his third. I hadn’t finished my first yet. A small lamp only made the shadows more pronounced. It could have passed for the setting of an amateur movie. I was still at my spot by the wall.

Amelia had changed into a red leather skirt. She removed a CD from a denim bag and put it into the player. It was jazz music. She began dancing, slowly and strangely, like a zombie recovering from an anesthetic. The woman continuously brought drinks to anyone with an empty glass. I was handed another. The guy with the tattoo was gone. As though the real purpose of the evening was unfolding, the woman went upstairs with one of the men. They came back fifteen minutes later. Amelia left with someone as well. Both Amelia and the woman were often gone at the same time. This was repeated throughout the evening. The stairs became as busy as a downtown street during lunch hour.

The party (or whatever it was) put a tenuous grip on a house focused in abandonment. As if swept clean of the former occupants (evicted for not paying their rent was my guess), it opposed the presence of strangers. The idea of echoes was suddenly intimidating. Maybe that was why nobody was speaking. The jazz CD was wildly out of place but necessary all the same, as if the music kept the shadows company, or at bay.

I became drunk and asked for the washroom. The black man in the jogging suit said to use the one in back. I stumbled down the hallway in the darkness and almost walked into the woman whose name I still didn’t know. I could tell she was suspicious. I’m looking for the washroom, I explained. She moved ahead of me. The washroom was off the hallway, light on, door open. I was amazed I had missed it.

I returned to one of the unoccupied folding chairs in the living room. Different men were seated now. Two were talking quietly, sipping from glasses. The accountant was missing. And the black man. I didn’t know if they’d gone upstairs or left the property.

A tap on my shoulder and Amelia was beside me. She had a blood smear on her lower lip. She said she’d fallen, then she giggled. The bald tattooed guy approached and whispered in her ear. He didn’t look at me at all. She followed him out. Three kids, maybe high school students, had come out of nowhere and were standing and laughing. The anonymous woman put her arms around them and ushered them upstairs.

Amelia returned and placed another drink in my hand. She sat opposite me. Her eyes were glazed. I wasn’t sure if she was drunk or stoned.

Are you still writing poems? she asked, sounding as if she were talking in her sleep. Yes, I said. I told everyone you were a poet, she said. I didn’t believe it but I thanked her. I asked her if she intended to go back to university. I don’t know, she said. Maybe next year. Did you like my dancing? Yes, I answered. You know what? she said. Some of these guys are real pervs.

The woman approached. The high school students had gone. She took Amelia aside. She must have mentioned me, because Amelia looked over. The woman wanted to know if I cared to go upstairs for a while. It was the first time all evening she’d addressed me. I’ll wait for Amelia, I said. That seemed to make her less antagonistic. At least she smiled. She and Amelia moved off somewhere.

Then I felt a queasiness in my stomach rising inexorably to my throat. Rather than use the washroom in the hallway, I went to the foot of the stairs. No one was there. The upper hall was without light. No noise came down from the second floor. But I didn’t think I’d be able to get up to where there had to be another toilet. My head was going every which way. I knew I was going to throw up so I quickly got outside and around to the side of the house, nearly tumbling. I vomited in the tall grass.

Are you okay?

Amelia was balanced on a box in the darkness. For the second time that evening she’d proven herself adept at sneaking off. She motioned for me to come sit with her. The box was a discarded tv stand that had been upended among the weeds. I asked how she was doing. She was good. Steve had given her some magic mushrooms. Who’s Steve? The guy who organized these parties, she replied. I assumed she meant the bald guy with the tattoo. She giggled when I referred to him in that way. How long did the party last for? All night usually, right until morning. Shannon (the other woman) enjoyed the long hours (more money) but for Amelia it was tiring.

I enjoyed your poem about the rabbits, I blurted out. Amelia leaned her head on the bricks of the house and gazed at the sky. Or maybe she was stoned on the mushrooms.

How far away are the stars? she asked. Far enough, I said. When she was a child she thought it would be possible to actually touch one. At night she’d reach out one of her hands, lining up a star beyond her bedroom window, imagining she was cradling it like a precious stone or pearl. Her father said if she caught enough stars she’d become a princess and could wear them like a necklace. Then her only rival would be the moon. Her father liked to tell stories when she was little. Those were her best memories of him. When she was older he became serious and angry. She didn’t know why. One day he told her how disappointed she made him.

Amelia’s head fell to my shoulder. Her hair smelled good and clean and spread across me like cool flames. I put a hand on her thigh and slid it up her skirt. She didn’t resist. I lifted her to the side of the house while I pressed against her, her arms limply around me. When I was done I brought up the rabbit poem again, for what reason I couldn’t say. Her eyes were shut. The magic mushrooms must have been kicking in. I smelled vomit on my shirt. Amelia said we had better get inside. I wanted to hold hands but she walked ahead of me.

She disappeared down the hallway to the washroom. The accountant had returned and was drinking again. Shannon asked where Amelia was. People were coming in and out of the house like a blur. I was drunker than I realized and slumped to the floor and passed out.

I dreamed I was running after Amelia in a desert of sand as white as ice. Her slim figure, dressed in a black robe, raced ahead. I was afraid she would get away like she always did. Finally I caught up and seized her. When I pulled the hood of her robe away I saw my own face blinking back at me.

A kick awakened me. Steve was standing above me. Nobody else was there. I expected him to kick again but Shannon spoke to him and he abruptly went off with her.

Amelia appeared then, in jeans instead of the skirt. She’d washed off her makeup and could’ve been mistaken for a child. She was frightened. Steve had been yelling at her while I was out. I got up and staggered from the place. When I turned around Amelia was on the porch, thinner than anyone I had ever seen, waving at me like I was a friend who was going home.

I never met Amelia again after that night. I returned to searching for a room and believed I had one until a disagreement with the landlord made me back out. I resigned myself to staying in my sister’s basement until something else came along. There was never any hurry in my life.

I learned I had a spine after all. After vacillating long enough over my poem I emailed those editors to inform them their changes were not acceptable to me. They wrote back regretting my decision. But Justin, when I let him know, said I’d done the right thing. One day I took another peek at Amelia’s website and read her poems once more. Poems by a girl who was promised she could be a princess. Then I played her strange YouTube video. Dancing and singing like it was the psychedelic sixties. A girl who’d never outgrown fantasy. I recalled that bizarre night at the house. How had she ever gotten involved in that? Why hadn’t I tried to explain she didn’t belong in that scene? I’d taken advantage of her too. I was no less to blame.

The girl dancing in that video would always be a child. Then I experienced a surge of annoyance, not at myself, but at Amelia. Was I trying to hide more guilty feelings? To use her was pretty despicable, even if I hadn’t been the only one. She had to grow up, I reasoned. She’d become a better human being. But I didn’t feel any better myself for thinking that.

I began a poem but made no progress. I wanted to alter my style, find a new one in fact. A grittier style to reflect the world as it was. A world of poets and young hookers and addicts. Something Rimbaud could have written. What I had seen on that occasion with Amelia. But it was the image of her and the night sky that transfixed me. Every time I went to put a line down I remembered her asking about the stars. It was so charged with anything but grit I couldn’t help feeling bad. Though I knew it was senseless.

One day while on the bus I picked up a newspaper someone had left behind. A headline and a photo inside caught my attention. At the next stop I got off and found a bench. I opened the paper. Amelia’s photo was on page three. Beneath the photo was the write-up. A young woman’s body had been discovered in a park north of the province. Hands bound behind her back. She’d been strangled and positively identified through dental records. Her family lived in Ottawa. Her father noted her drift into drugs. His daughter had become distant in the last few years. She’d taken up with criminal elements and had even been arrested one time for prostitution. He said it was tragic and sordid.

I stayed there for a while. People and traffic went by. Several buses passed. Finally I decided to walk. The sky was clear, almost transparent, and it was obvious that though it looked very close it was really far away.

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