Excerpt from Under the Bridge
How can anybody eat this? Smelly muck and maggots. Do they pretend it’s white rice? At least it’s killed my appetite.
Someone’s coming. I look up and down the cracked concrete lane behind the buildings. It’s backed by a high wooden fence lined with garbage cans and bins. There’s a skinny alley between the restaurant and the building next door. I slip into it. Hey, it’s dry here. I glance up: building next door has an overhanging roof.
“They’ll be dumping the first supper plates any minute.” It’s a male voice out in the lane. Young. “Think about that whole tray of cupcakes we found two nights ago. Just a touch burned.” Laughter.
I peek out. Who are these guys? Serious rain gear, jackets with reflecting strips, nylon pants, hiking boots. One, his back to me, hasn’t even bothered to put his hood up. Mass of wet, dark curls. The other one, facing me, is a tall guy, hood up, bit of blondish hair showing, glasses.
Door hinges creak; footsteps, coming from the restaurant. The young guys disappear around the end of the fence. A stocky young man, back to me, carries a plastic bucket to one of the bins, lifts the lid and dumps it in, lets the lid clatter shut. He turns. I catch sight of his stained apron as I step back out of sight. Silence, then a cough. Whiff of cigarette smoke.
The door creaks again. “Put that out and get the hell back in here. Now.” Female voice. Rough. Probably a smoker herself. Susan, maybe. The restaurant’s called “Susan’s Place.”
Footsteps across the lane. Door bangs again.
A pause, then soft thumping sounds. “Hey Gord. Look at this. A whole piece of breaded fish.” Even coming out of that wretched bin, the thought of breaded fish clenches my stomach. I lean forward, peek again.
“What else did he dump?” says Not-Gord. He’s holding the lid of the dumpster while Gord rummages.
Gord’s head pops up. He lets out his breath, holds something out to Not-Gord.
“Hey, pasta. Whole plate of it.”
Can’t stand it. Lever myself away from the brick wall, step into the alley. “You’re not taking this seriously.” They jump a foot off the ground.
“Shit, you scared us,” says Not-Gord.
“What are you guys doing, digging your supper out of a bin?” I nod at their rain gear.
“We’re freegans,” says Not-Gord. “We’ve challenged ourselves to consume less, use what others throw away.”
“Yeah, well. There’s people have no choice. They come along and you’ve got it all ahead of them.”
He looks at my sopping jacket and pants, turns to Gord and says, “Let’s see what we can find her.” He bends back into the bin beside him. Gord pulls something out of a big pocket in his rain jacket. Paper plate. Within a few minutes they’ve come up with enough to make a little arrangement — some kind of meat, gristle mostly, canned vegetables with bits of black stuff stuck all over them, the pasta. Not-Gord pulls an old fork with a slightly bent tine out of his pocket, stands it up in the pasta and passes me the plate. “Enjoy.”
I pick a black speck out of the vegetables, examine it on my finger. Coffee grounds. They’re already headed down the lane. I fork the food into my mouth right where I’m standing, beside a smelly green bin in the rain.
As soon as my belly is full, I feel like a bag of rags. I crawl back into the narrow, slightly dry space between the buildings. My nice new sleeping bag waits against the brick wall. The streetlights come on, sending a sliver of light the length of the alley. I can see some stuff piled part way down. Might be something to lie on. I work my way along, one hand on the cold bricks of the wall, poke at the pile with my toe. Nothing but newspapers, pretty soggy. It’s going to be a long night.
I pull the sleeping bag out of its sack, wiggle and squirm until it’s wrapped around me, settle in as best I can to wait for morning. After a while, my nest starts to soak up the damp. Cold seeps into my bones. Only warm part is my hands, pushed deep in my pock- ets. The bottle. Did I take my evening pill? Too tired to bother.
The key. I turn it in my fingers, feel its jagged teeth and … wait … a piece of string? This isn’t mine. I pull it out. It’s got a cardboard disk tied to it: “Basement.” Of course. Judith’s house, the cellarway door. My stuff is there. I’m supposed to give it back after I pick up a few things for my room at Magdalen House. I can see her face as she made the decision to give it to me. Wasn’t easy.
After forever, the sky starts to lighten. Rain stops. Leaves the bro- ken pavement all shiny. A motor hums somewhere, soft, like a cat purring. I feel a warm patch on my leg, reach down, touch something as wet as I am but, after a minute, warm. It is a cat purring. I stroke soggy fur.
Time to move. I shrug off the wet sleeping bag, try to get my feet under me. Holy cow — pain. The cat leaps away. I lean on the wall, bricks biting into my hand, waiting to feel better. The cat has settled a few feet away, squinting his eyes at me. Brown and black spots on white? He’s so wet and dirty it’s hard to tell. No ears.
“Hey there,” my voice so rusty it creaks. “Freeze your ears off?” I put my free hand to my own ear, wondering if it’s frozen off, along with my toes and fingers.
Cat disappears like smoke. “Hey Raggedy, where you going?”
I’m tempted to slump back into the only dry spot. The one I made by soaking up the rain through the night. But I can’t just lie here and die in an alley.
Back door of the restaurant creaks, then slaps shut, footsteps and off-tune humming. Green bin lid squeaks a bit, bangs. Hummer returns to the kitchen.
What a tumbled-together mess. If it smells like this in November, what’s it like in summer? Imagine the flies and mag- gots then. No, don’t. Yellow chunks, scrambled egg, some bread, mushy with, what? Ketchup. Something’s wrapped in newspaper. I tear a piece off, use it to hold my eggs and bread while I sidle in between the two buildings again, lean against the wall. I spot the old cat, sneaking up all cautious. I drop a piece of egg. He takes his time sniffing it before he chews it down, purring the whole time. “Hey Raggedy, how can you have such a tough life and not lose your purr?” Am I actually talking to an alley cat?
Exhausted beyond thinking, but have to think about where to go. I shove my freezing hands into my pockets, feel for the bottle of pills, the key. I hesitate, rubbing it between my fingers. Sweaters, socks, warm, dry.
Pushing the sleeping bag back into its sack, I take a deep breath and set off, hobbling on my wooden feet. She’ll be at work. I’ll just slip in, get something warm and dry on, leave.
Somehow, I expected Judith’s basement to be clean. She’s so orderly. I’ve never seen more than one file on her desk. But this is a cave: dirt on the concrete floor, bare lightbulbs with dangling strings, dirty cobwebs festooned from the joists making haunted- house curtains in front of dingy, high-up little windows. Packed full of stuff. Furniture, smaller things balanced on larger ones. A bookcase overflowing with old books. Boxes piled on boxes. A rail hung with garment bags, newer plastic ones and older cloth ones. Everything covered in a thick layer of dust. Is the upstairs a mess too? Is that why Judith never invites anyone here?
This was Judith’s parents’ house, and her dad’s parents’ before that. The generation before lived on this lot too but in a house the Halifax Explosion smashed to pieces. The Halifax Relief Commission built this one. It looks like no one, in all those gen- erations, ever threw anything out.
I spot a pipe running along the side wall. Mostly it is hidden by piled things, but a section is exposed. There’s even a sort of path to get to it. I pull the string to click on a second light, pick up my sleeping bag and make my way there. Thick layer of dust on the pipe, but who cares? I pull the sleeping bag from its sack, turn it inside out and hang it. My wet coat too.
How am I supposed to find my things? At least they won’t be buried under other stuff yet. It’s only been a month since Judith and Althea packed up my apartment. Landlord, the creep, started an eviction procedure as soon as the judge sent me to Burnside. He could, Judith said, since I hadn’t paid rent in three months, and she gave me a rare exasperated look. She was always after me to save some money when I had it, but I hated the thought of a bank investing it in corporations, and besides, there was always someone with a need greater than mine, more urgent than “someday” when I would need it. Except, “someday” came.
So, my furniture’s gone, sold to pay the back rent. All from thrift stores anyway. I look for boxes, out front, a little cleaner than most. I spot them. Make my way over, shifting a wooden ironing board along the way, a bucket with a string mop dried inside, click on another light. Yes, boxes from a grocery store — “Ritz Crackers,” “King Cole Tea.” Beneath the product labels, in Judith’s neat lettering: “Lucy — Bedding, Towels,” “Lucy — Tapes and CDs.” It’s a pretty small pile. Not much of a coffin for a whole life. “Lucy — Kitchen Drawers” hurts. Memories of cooking for friends, discussing politics over dessert and tea.
“Lucy — Nightgowns, etc.” includes underwear and another painful memory, a worn cotton shawl, handwoven, its once-bright colours faded. A quick root through “Lucy — Sweaters” produces a blue turtleneck and a big, soft, old brown thing I used to wear at home in winter to avoid turning up the heat. I strip off everything I’m wearing, drop them in a sopping pile on the dirty floor. I pull on the turtleneck and the sweater over top. My skin is icy, but the minute the sweater is on, there’s the beginning of warmth.
I’ve gotten so big since I started taking the pills, can’t imagine any of my pants will fit. My eye falls on “Lucy — Skirts.” I pop the flaps, a long, tweedy brown one on top. Don’t remember it, but it looks warm. Doesn’t quite fit around my middle. Lucky the zipper has a catch. I can leave the button undone. I rescue the pills and key from my wet pants, stuff them into the skirt pocket.
I go digging again, this time in a box marked “Lucy — Winter Jackets, Gloves and Hats.” Wool coat isn’t the best for rain. Soaks it all up. I look at a nylon winter jacket, but it’s too small now. Socks, hat and mitts will help. A box marked “Lucy — Winter Footwear” provides boots.
Warmth brings sleepiness. Beside my boxes, there’s a big, comfy chair, fabric worn bare on the insides of the arms and along the top where a head would rest. A small cabinet, maybe a bedside table, sits upside down on the seat. I bend to move it and spot something even better leaning against the wall behind the chair. A small, thin mattress, wrapped in plastic. I slide it to the floor where it lands with a puff of flying dust. I cough. Behind the mattress, against the wall, is a taken-apart crib. Yellowed decals, grinning white rabbits with big bows around their necks. Looks nineteen forty-ish. Judith’s? Hard to imagine Judith as a child.
That mattress, so tempting. I drop myself down onto it and stretch out my sore legs. My eyes won’t stay open. I’ll just doze a bit, an hour or so. Out of here long before Judith comes home.