I live at the Lady Dorchester for two years. It is a short, beige building at the end of a cul-de-sac. Beige is too generous.
On the east side is an empty lot – cracked pavement split by waist-high weeds and glittering with flecks of paint and broken glass. On the west side is a raised brick bungalow with stained curtains pressed against the windows. It is empty, and the house is for sale, although the realtor’s sign lies in pieces on the sidewalk.
Between the Lady Dorchester and the house is a laneway but it doesn’t go anywhere – just trails off after a hundred metres or so into the high grass. Beyond that are fields of garbage and old washing machines and eventually some trees and a little crick filled with tires and some shopping carts.
The Lady Dorchester has no shade. The apartment windows are stuffed with tinfoil and faded blankets.
Inside it smells like dog, cigarettes, piss and sweat. Maybe some hash oil. The overall effect reminds me of rotting grain. The hallway carpets are hard and thin, constellations of blotches against black and brown. Because the foyer and windows for the stairs are at the front of the building, the hallways are always darker towards the back, this kind of perpetual late afternoon. Sometimes I look down them and see something like shadow made of carbon paper, something crinkled and electric and unstable, the air in crackle and buzz, and it reminds me of being a kid, when I’d look at pages in the atlas that showed maps of the stars, these shiny surfaces of blackness, and I’d feel nauseous and scared and snap the book shut and get away from it.
The Lady Dorchester has a laundry room but I never go down there.
I encounter children at the Lady Dorchester but they are only ever visiting, although sometimes for months at a time. The Lady Dorchester’s caretaker is a skinny little white guy with a lazy eye. He tells me: I had a school teacher who told my mom that I could get my eye fixed. That the government would pay for it. My mom said, It ain’t hurtin’ him none. My mom always said, Life is simple – don’t complain. She was a real bitch, let me tell you.
I call him Juicy because he’s always shouting at me to come into his apartment to look at something "juicy". It’s usually a porno or at least something weird or disturbing on the French channel, but he goes out of his way to collect printed material too – pictures of sepia-toned women in corsets fellating miniature horses, war-time executions or motorcycle stunts gone horribly wrong, faces hanging in pieces. He keeps it all in labelled shoe boxes. His favourite photo is of a giant nest of spiders, in the corner of a bedroom, thousands of spiders emerging over a sleeping woman's head. Juicy used to deal marijuana and cocaine. But I quit that shit after the bad guys blew my fingers off, he says, holding up his three-fingered hand. He uses the other hand to wave me in.
Juicy, I don’t want to come in there just to see some fat girl in handcuffs, I say.
No no no, this is way better, he says, pointing overhand at the television.
It’s wrestling. One wrestler is huge and blonde. When he shouts his teeth flash. The other wrestler is huge and bald. When he shouts his eyes bulge maniacally. The storyline involves a little white terrier called Mitey Bite. The bald wrestler has kidnapped Mitey Bite and is now taunting the blonde wrestler with an empty leash. The blonde wrestler retaliates by throwing an oversized dog bowl at him like a frisbee. Juicy’s own dog in the corner twists his head around at the hollow clunking sound when the bowl hits the bald wrestler in the forehead. Goddamn! Juicy yells.
The tenants of the Lady Dorchester always have dogs. They do not have cats. The only cat I ever see is a dead one laid out on the front lawn. It stays there for three days, collecting flies, while Juicy is away in Mexico.
The dogs are always big dogs. They have names like Bandit and Outlaw and General and Rocky. I never see them but I do hear them being yelled at. It’s hard to tell which dogs are where sometimes. Their growls are random, just behind a door. They click and they pace and they scrape.
Like prison, the Lady Dorchester’s economy is cigarettes. People smoke their way through the course of the day. For exercise, they smoke outside. Supplies are keenly felt. People try to save, come up short, curse their mooching friends and hide a stash for the next morning. To not have a smoke for the morning is to know real misery. And then there will be a fight.
The tenants of the Lady Dorchester don’t really know how to fight. What they do know how to do is scrap. Scrapping is all noise and bravado, shouting arguments and crazy stares and threats and chest-bumping on the street. It is professional wrestling without the choreography. I go to my window and watch and after awhile feel sick inside. By the time someone gets shirtless, the police arrive.
Sometimes the fighting is fuelled by drinking. These are the worst fights. Someone will fall down. After the age of thirty, falling down becomes serious business. In the Lady Dorchester, the liquor tends towards the infantile; people drink Baby Duck, Little Pheasant, Honey 15. The beer is less important, stays cheap and brightly American.
Juicy tells me none of this means anything. Me and Cecilia are going down to Mexico, he says. Live on the beach, live like kings. And they do go, for three or four weeks at a time, but the money doesn’t last like it should. Cecelia has dry black hair and cracked lips when she smiles. According to Juicy, her back teeth are gone.
I leave the Lady Dorchester because I finish college and get a job. What do you want all that for? Juicy asks. I got everything I want right here.