Tabit and I were passing the high school we had just graduated from when we spotted her dad about to jump. Other men in sweats were jumping too. One by one, they sprang from the brick wall of the front entrance to the hard dirt below, a drop of six feet. I recognized what they were doing from a documentary I’d seen on parkour, which amounts to treating the city like a big gymnasium. Tabit’s dad landed, then grabbed the wall and crab-walked back up. He hopped around while he waited his turn, his bright white teeth broadcasting unadulterated joy.
“Not again,” Tabit said and bit at her fingernail. She was dressed in yet another monochromatic outfit. This time it was blue. “That’s the second day of work he’s missed this week.”
Maybe Tabit’s dad’s behaviour had provoked her recent interest in drugs. There was also George, her boyfriend, with his brooding intensity and evasiveness and his flute ballads. They were always breaking up. I worried she might fall apart.
We continued along the sidewalk until we heard someone running to catch up.
“Hey! Hey, girls!”
Tabit’s dad’s workout pants hung off his hips. His face glistened.
“Did you see my jump? ” His bulging eyes swam laps from me to Tabit. “It’ll be on YouTube later.”
“Maybe it’ll go viral,” Tabit said. “Maybe you’ll get your very own show.”
He nodded and grinned, like she was actually serious. Tabit’s dad was an entertainment lawyer representing people in reality television. This sounded mildly impressive until you spoke three words with the guy. He’d blather on about nothing we could make sense of, as if that was the best he could do with the apparent maelstrom in his brain. He often listened in as Tabit and I discussed world events—bankrupt nations, leaking nuclear plants, earthquakes, floods, storms—and though he never contributed anything coherent, at least he looked concerned when we complained about the growing apathy in our privileged country while the rest of the world more or less writhed in agony. Recently he’d asked about the book I was reading on agnotology—the study of culturally induced ignorance—but I gave up my explanation when his crazily tapping feet suggested that he wanted to go jump off something.
“You gonna come watch us? ” he asked.
“Sorry,” I said and waved a DVD to distract from Tabit’s cool silence. “We have something planned.”
What the hell were we doing, Tabitha and me? Traipsing through the humid days between the end of high school and the kickoff to our official lives, the adult part. I’d been accepted to a university in another province to study sociology, though I was worried about leaving my mom—she’d lost her job and was spending all her time in a nest with an owl thanks to the wonder of Webcams. Tabit planned to study political science at an out-of-town university and I was trying to help her keep her shit together a few more weeks.
Tabit and I both had discouraging summer jobs that ignored our potential. I worked in an ice cream parlour, a sticky, lobotomizing place that brought out unsavoury qualities in the mostly middle-aged customers—indecision in the face of choice, greed for toppings, eager, grasping hands. Tabit worked a few shifts each week in a veterinary clinic. The best part, she said, was petting the fur of sleeping animals when no one was looking. George busked in the financial district. He’d been making more money than any of us, maybe even more than our underemployed parents. As George described it, business people flowed out the mirrored towers at noon to gather around him. He played his flute, then sang about the importance of thinking independently and staying hopeful about the future. The business people chomped on hot dogs and listened, hanging off his every lyric. Some even swayed. Encumbered by food and drink, they clapped with their forearms, like seals. Before returning to the towers they dropped ketchup-speckled bills into his open case. Tens and twenties. The odd fifty. George had noticed, however, that not all the business people were going back inside: some simply wandered away. His daily earnings had begun to dwindle.
“It’s such a betrayal,” he told me. “I’m sharing my innermost thoughts through music and yet each day another dork stops paying attention.”
When Tabit and I weren’t working we moved between our houses and the library, where we borrowed books and films to keep our minds sharp. Today I’d checked out Gorillas Speak!, a film about teaching sign language to a young gorilla named Betty.
Tabit and I sat in her basement sipping Scotch and eating crackers and brie and exchanging shocked glances. In the documentary, Betty’s captor, a large-eyed scientist with a stoner’s moronic smile, babbled to the camera about the gorilla’s extensive sign-language vocabulary. Holed up in a drab trailer, Betty was alternately praised for her human-like efforts and scolded for her gorilla-like inclinations. The deal-breaking scene, the one that made us spit crumbs onto the carpet, came when the scientist gave Betty lipstick, only to admonish her when she smeared it across her forehead. Being a gorilla, Betty stared into the mirror she’d been given as if thinking, “Something is wrong with this picture.” I kept hoping Betty would hurl the scientist against the kitchenette and make a break for the distant trees. But, of course, the trailer was locked.
Tabit turned the DVD off.
“I was already feeling hollow today,” she said. “That didn’t help.”
“I can’t believe that shit was Criterion,” I said.
I rattled the ice in my glass, questioning the wisdom of another drink.
Tabit got up. From a vase of plastic flowers she pulled out a little bag of pills. She was small, but her neck was thick and her face the kind of pretty that draws stares. Today she looked tired. She’d been up journaling the night before. Through stream-of-consciousness writing she was trying to get at her core emotions. This was fine by me, but I wished she’d ditch the drugs—though she had been saying insightful things lately. For example, she said the reason our parents could no longer function was they recognized the futility of applying themselves to a diminished world. Faced with the crush of innumerable problems, they had lost heart and given up.
Tabit plucked a blue pill from the bag and swallowed it dry.
“You’re at blue now? ” I should have guessed from her outfit.
“I’ve earned blue, Shauna,” she said.
The pills came in a series of colours based on karate belts—white, yellow, orange, blue, green, brown, and, ultimately, black—each colour progressively more intense and more demanding. With the application of careful focus and heaps of positive energy, reaching the black level promised self-realization, however temporary. To her credit, Tabit was not a mess, not yet at least, and I hoped that university—its intellectual and social stimulation—would put an end to the pill-popping. If the drugs didn’t stop her going in the first place.
She selected a song on the iPod dock and baroque string music swelled through the room, an allegro piece so uptight it was cool in the inexplicable way coolness works. She danced, which for Tabit was simply shaking her fists with her feet planted on the carpet. Her exquisite face conveyed both bewilderment and hope, like the magical expression worn by someone searching for a book in the library.
After a brief crescendo the music stopped.
“Fuck,” she said, “I need to get outside.”
“Let’s go to the park,” I said, remembering the soothing qualities of nature.
George leaned against the porch railing, trilling away on his flute. He wasn’t quite pulling off the quasi-bohemian look he had going: faded jeans and a loose cotton shirt, his frizzy brown hair almost to his shoulders. His chunky build and rosy complexion suggested a recent home-cooked meal, even though nobody’s family bothered any more. Most nights we faced pasty food microwaved in plastic containers.
“New tune,” he whispered, his blue eyes as shiny and sparkling as the flute.
Tabit bounded past him and down the steps as though let off a leash.
“Not here, not here!” she said. “Follow me on the path to enlightenment!”
“She’s at blue now,” I explained.
He grinned, as if I was bragging when what I meant was, “Help me take care of her.” Hot sunlight sliced through the trees. We moved through the soupy beams and back into the shade as we sped to catch up with Tabit.
Surrounded by quiet streets and houses, the park was really just a couple of trees stranded on a big rectangle of weeds that looked more or less like grass. We sat down near where the play equipment used to be before it fell apart. The neighbourhood’s evening routine was underway. Food delivery cars pulled up, kids walked stir-crazy pets and teens wandered in throbbing clusters along the sidewalks while the white-hot sky turned the pink of raw meat and the humid air clasped the back of my neck. George played his flute until shouting erupted at the centre of the park where two paths crossed. A skinny man in a suit stood swearing at nobody. When he was done, he slammed his briefcase into a garbage can and stormed off.
“Nice suit,” George said.
“It’s the economy,” said Tabit, voice trembling. George reached over and stroked her hair. “Everyone’s either ditching or dejected,” she continued. “Everyone wants to be productive but they’ve lost not only the will but the means. And, anyway, why be productive? How is it of value, existentially, to contribute to an economy that’s morally and financially bankrupt? I mean, fuck.”
“What if it’s a bomb? ” I suggested, because I kept looking for signs of unrest, of apathy sprouting into frustration, then violence. The garbage can remained inert. In the distance the angry guy got smaller and smaller until he looked like a twig.
“I’ve never worn a suit,” George said. He lived with his mother and sisters. His dad lived in another city, remarried and estranged from family number one. So it wasn’t like there was a suit around to borrow.
“Imagine this,” I said. “You’re wearing a suit while all the business people listen to you on their lunch break. You’re singing about breaking free of the rigid corporate mentality, as per usual, but now you’re in a suit just like them. Like them in appearance but, no, you’re entirely different. If they see that they can be like you and still look like themselves, maybe then they’ll hang in there.”
“I like it. I like what you’re saying.”
“He’ll lose his otherness,” Tabit said, her voice wavering. “I don’t want to see you in a suit, George.” Her eyes shimmered.
But the idea crackled in my mind. Watching George transformed. Seeing him rise above everyone and do something important we wouldn’t even be able to fathom. Maybe I was selling myself short in the process. That was possible. But then, he had money now and therefore choices and not all of us were so fortunate.
It was dusk. I got up and offered my hand to Tabit, who was wilting as the pills wore off. She let me pull her to her feet while George blinked up at us.
“What’s next? ” he asked.
“Something grown-up,” I said.
I led them through my front door but Tabit went only as far as the living room, where my mom had left damp laundry draped all over the upholstery. Mom would be in bed with her laptop watching the owl’s nest in a northern forest while socializing on-line with her friends, even though they all lived nearby. She had made noises about looking for a job, but my guess was she did nothing. She spent a lot of time staring at the back of the owl’s head, waiting for it to swivel and offer her its unblinking eyes. Tabit plopped onto the couch, remote already in her hand. The noise and bright colours of a shoe commercial invaded the room like a bad smell.
George followed me upstairs to the spare bedroom where my mother had put all Dad’s clothing and CDs and sports equipment. After a decade’s absence, it was unlikely he’d be showing up to use it. Either he was a tragic figure who died far away, alone and unable to contact us, or a cold-hearted genius who saw things were on the skids and cut his losses. George stopped outside the room while I opened the closet and slipped a dark grey suit off its hanger.
“Try it on,” I said.
“Whose is it? ”
He didn’t know much about me or my family.
“If it fits, it’s yours.”
George put the jacket on. It fit, although he couldn’t button it across his wide chest. I held out the pants. He unzipped his jeans, looking straight at me with a mixture of pride and humour and nerves. I just kept my eyes on his while he dropped his jeans and put the pants on. They were too long so I knelt down in front of him and folded up the hems. While I was down there he cupped his hand very lightly to my hair. I stayed still a few seconds, thinking about what he was thinking. His hand like a bookmark for a moment like this we might return to in the future. When I stood up we both acted as if nothing had happened. He took the stuff from his jeans and put it in the jacket pocket.
“Now what? ” he asked.
“It’s your first time in a suit,” I said. “Make it count.”
I had no idea what I wanted him to do except to be serious and open to the infinite possibilities. When a look of concentration transformed his face, I was grateful.
On our way out we passed Tabit. She was asleep and we paused to look down at her.
“Someone should paint that face,” George said. “I mean, for a painting.”
On the television a group of wrinkled blond women took turns interrupting one another. They sat on mauve chairs and their gesturing hands flashed jewellery and vibrant fingernails. I couldn’t pick up on the topic but one of them said, “Our power as humans, girls, is in our ability to decide.”
“I can’t believe it,” I said to George. “She’s quoting Buckminster Fuller.”
Then she added: “But how can we do that when no one is pointing us in the right direction? ”
Which was so sad it was funny. George snorted as he picked up his flute and led the way outside.
George and I sat on the front steps under the darkness of the trees. I like watching the night sky and when I can’t see it, I get restless. Recently I’d seen a documentary on Buckminster Fuller. He said some fascinating things about the universe. The one that blew my mind was that some stars we see are actually dead. It takes many lifetimes for light to travel the vast distances to reach our eyes and during that time quite a few of them kick the bucket. Like ghosts or imposters, they shine along with all the still-alive stars and we can’t tell them apart just looking at them.
“I like the way this feels,” George said, pulling me from my thoughts.
“You mean nighttime in summer? ”
He chuckled and pulled on the sleeve of his jacket. “The suit, Shauna.”
George blew a few throaty notes on his flute. Though I find his music interesting—his songs meander, never with any discernible melody or chorus—I wasn’t in the mood to be left essentially alone while he communed with his art. He played a while, then lowered the flute and sang: “Do you remember your life at work? / Life with work? / Oh, life, it is work. / Do you remember the money earned? / That you dropped at my feet? / Dollar bills at my feet.” And here his voice rose high and sharper—his signature sound—“Oh, sweet money for my tunes!”
I was ruminating on the change in George’s lyrics—less philosophical than I remembered—when the vibration of a truck lumbering up the street throbbed through the steps and upstaged his song. The truck groaned to a stop in front of my house. Strapped to the side were ladders while on top its flashing light made the overhead leaves jump from orange to darkness and back again. Three workers emerged. They wore hard hats and fluorescent yellow vests with reflective Xs. One of the guys gripped a flashlight and a clipboard that he read from aloud. The two others started lifting sheets of plywood we hadn’t even noticed were spread around on the road. They slid sheet after sheet off to the side.
“I wonder what they’re up to,” George said, standing.
“It’s just nice to see adults working,” I said.
One of them took a ladder from the truck and slid it into what we now realized was a big hole in the road. He stepped down and disappeared below the surface.
“Down, down, down,” George said, jingling coins in his pockets. “That sucker is going down.”
I figured he’d pick up his flute and segue into song. Instead he slowly exhaled. I noticed then how silent the street was for a summer evening. There was no one on the sidewalk, no one driving by. I pictured everybody in the neighbourhood glued to their televisions, watching the women on the plush chairs. Maybe we’d got it wrong. Maybe they had been saying something important and we were missing it.
The guy handling the pylons set the last one on the asphalt and stepped onto the ladder. We watched his hard hat descend out of view.
“They must be fixing it up,” George said with a hint of satisfaction.
“How do you fix a hole by going into it? ” I asked. I didn’t expect George to have an answer. The question just needed asking.
The one with the clipboard clomped around on the pavement. He stopped and shone the flashlight down the hole, then started writing. He climbed back up into the driver’s seat and stayed put. Several minutes later there was still no sign of the others.
George straightened the suit jacket, flicked something off the lapel, and walked over. I followed. Near the curb was a gaping pit bigger than the area of two cars. The ladder stuck up out of it. We couldn’t see the bottom.
“A sinkhole,” George declared.
“But sinkholes occur because of an underground disturbance,” I said. “Usually after a storm or some kind of utilities construction. Nothing has happened here.”
“Maybe our focus should be on solutions,” he snapped, “and not speculation.”
I looked at him. “What the hell’s eating you? ”
Just then a helmet broke through the darkness. We moved back as one of the guys climbed up and out, followed by his colleague. Ignoring us, they pulled up the ladder and hooked it onto the side of the truck, but they didn’t put the plywood back over the hole. The engine started up.
“Excuse me!” George called, arm thrust out and pointing. His grey, suit-jacketed back was as rigid and imposing as a slab of granite. “You’re just leaving this here? ”
“Do we look like Road Repair? ” one of them said. “We look like we have asphalt ready to go? ”
“Clearly this is a hazard,” George said. “A serious one.”
“Who the hell are you? ”
The man’s sneer seemed like a slight not so much against George as against the suit.
“I’ll be contacting someone about this,” George continued. “I have friends downtown who’ll be interested to know about holes in the road big enough to swallow an entire goddamn community!”
His voice had risen to a shout.
“We don’t have to listen to this shit,” the guy said to his co-worker.
Shaking their heads, they hopped up into the truck and drove off.
George strode right over to the edge of the hole and looked down.
“Someone has to get to the bottom of this!” he yelled into it.
The hole did nothing to his voice. No amplification, no echo. I was disappointed for him. Like all of us, George just wanted to feel significant.
He came back onto the grass.
“George!” Tabit padded across the lawn toward us. “George in a suit!”
She caressed his back.
“He’s going to wear it when he busks,” I said.
Tabit clutched his shoulder and started laughing. She didn’t stop. She laughed so hard she snorted but she still didn’t let go of him.
“What’s so funny? ” I asked.
George wasn’t laughing. He removed Tabit’s hand like it was debris.
“That isn’t how he makes his money,” Tabit said.
“Hey, Tabit,” George said. “What the fuck? ”
“What’s going on? ” I asked.
George rubbed his forehead, then shrugged.
“I’ve stopped going downtown. I don’t busk any more. I deal.”
Deal? As in little coloured pills? I was speechless, reeling from the sucker punch of his complicity in Tabit’s Little Problem. Meanwhile, Tabit had noticed the hole and stepped toward it. Luckily, George saw her as well and we lunged in unison, just managing to grab her arms—thin arms still warm from sleeping.
“It’s O.K.!” she shouted, trying to wriggle free. “I’m solid. I’m not transcending any more.”
The weight of holding her up and George’s admission were pissing me off. My arms ached. We were in a kind of struggling huddle, the three of us were as close as we had ever been or would ever be again. But George’s gaze skimmed the top of our heads, like he was thinking about things unrelated to us and this strange stew of a night, as if he was looking at something far in the future that wasn’t great, maybe, but big and challenging, something he was going to take on.
Tabit broke free and got right up to the edge. George stayed beside me, hands in his pockets, watching her.
“Stop her, George!”
“Tabit—,” he said, and as he took his hands from his pockets a plastic bag fell to the ground. Dozens of black pills spilled onto the grass and asphalt.
Tabit crouched beside the hole and stared down in. Both her proximity to the edge and the revolting black pills, like the blind eyes of a hundred dolls, brought a ribbon of bile up into my throat. Despising both George and Tabit, I twisted away and hunched over the grass, though all I produced were a few pathetic dry heaves.
From the front door my mom’s carefree voice sailed out, “Hey, you guys! Want some dinner? ”
For a moment I thought she was offering to cook. Then I saw the phone in her hand.
“We’re in the middle of something,” George shouted at her. “Go back inside.”
Instead she came right out in white socks that would get filthy.
“The middle of what? ” she asked, gamely.
George dropped his head back and grimaced up at the dark trees. “No, no, no. Not the middle, the edge. We have a situation here. Please, just go inside.”
“You look very grown up!” Mom said to him. George straightened up. He did look older in the suit. I could picture him at thirty, forty, fifty years old all at the same time. I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw.
“We’re not children any longer,” George said with strained patience. “Far from it. We’ve got a firm grasp of the current state of affairs out here.”
She had nothing to say to that.
When she’d gone in we turned back toward the hole but Tabit wasn’t there. Then we spotted her halfway up the street walking home. George stopped staring after her and started pacing.
“I can’t fucking believe you!” I said. “Are you that much of a creep all of a sudden? ”
He sure looked like one, squeezed into that jacket, pant cuffs unravelled and dragging on the pavement.
“How could you put Tabit in jeopardy like this when she’s worked so hard to get into university? It’s her one chance to get away! She’s lucky her dad’s still working and can actually help pay. She has this one chance to make a future for herself and maybe improve the world a little, and you’re busy trying to screw her up! Seriously, George, what the fuck is wrong with you? ”
“Maybe, Shauna,” he said, “you should be asking what the fuck’s wrong with Tabit.”
He looked at me. In the gloom of the street lamp his eyes were gaping black pits.
“They’re only sugar,” he continued. “I have real shit but I wouldn’t give her that and she knows it. It’s all just ‘make-believe.’”
“Wow. Like I’m going to believe that.”
“Don’t then. But it’s true.” He looked at the ground. “Those were the last of the black ones. She’ll be disappointed. She was pretty hyped to earn them.”
Then it made sense. This was one last game for the two of them to play together, a perverse coda to end their adolescence. I warmed to the idea of harmless sugar pills. In fact, I was delighted to think she’d never placed herself in any danger. There was, however, Tabit’s brilliant rant about political reform and democracy in the Middle East when she was at orange level. How was she coming up with that stuff?
“Then she’s amazing,” I finally said. “Some of the things she’s been talking about have really amazed me.”
“Yes, and she’ll be even more amazing in the future,” he said.
And before I could say anything else, maybe about how I, too, might be amazing despite some of the odds stacked against me, George held up two fingers, either the sign for peace or V for victory. At any rate, he left. He walked away down the street, in the suit, leaving his flute on the porch.
It was just me and the hole. I yanked at the plywood and dragged it across, then sat on the curb, thinking it felt good to be certain no one would fall in. I sat there a long time. I’m not sure why I felt responsible but I did. Just like I did about Tabit, who was my best friend. George was probably right about her: she was a bit of a nut but also amazing. She’d go to school, she’d be O.K. She’d been O.K. all along, really, though she’d been keeping things from me. But I’d been keeping something from her too, if only to keep her on track. I wasn’t leaving in September. I hadn’t gotten the scholarship, and putting myself into major debt in another province while Mom imploded back home just didn’t seem like a good plan.
The neighbourhood houses gradually went dark while the streetlights kept glowing and humming. The air smelled like leaves and humidity and overwrought flowers, and if there’s a smell to people sleeping obliviously in their homes, it smelled like that too. When a raccoon walked by and hissed at me, I moved up to the porch where I could still keep my eye on the plywood. A while later Mom came out. She’d made me a sandwich.
“Is this O.K.? ” she asked. It was mostly yellow lettuce on stale bread, but the effort was encouraging.
“It’s fine, Mom. It’s going to be just fine.”
I was hungry but also exhausted. I ate half the sandwich and had to close my eyes for a second.
I must have dozed off, because when I looked up Mom was gone. The plywood appeared to be in the same position, but I couldn’t be sure from way up on the porch. Part of the hole may have been exposed. What I hoped was that Mom was safe in bed with the owl’s nest. Now that it was dark, the owl would be preparing to head out for a night of hunting. I hoped that before leaving, the owl would swivel her head and stare into the Webcam with those eyes like black moons on yellow skies. And then the owl would turn away to face the world because she has things to do out in it. She flies up through the darkness, wings pumping, cool night air streaming over her feathers. She leaves the dark edge of the forest, flying first over the snaking line of the river, then coasting over a field of silent silver grass, powerful wings stretched wide to the horizon. She decides to do something new. There’s still time before the business of hunting. She tips one wing up and pivots, keeps pivoting like this until she is coasting upside down, belly to the endless sky above, eyes scanning the stars, greeting them like old friends who are there, always there, though tonight and every night must be experienced alone.