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Dreamscapes: Fiction - Vancouver Stories

Sam North

'... I need your help now '

Jennifer was particular from the word go. In fact, Jennifer wouldn’t use the word ‘go’; go would be too short for her. She hated using short words when long words would do. She liked long explanations as to why she was always late, lengthy expositions on why her problems were a lot greater than yours ever could be and even longer pauses between words as she ‘considered’, from her extensive lexicon, the exact appropriate word that would describe her suffering; and she did so agonise over her suffering.

Jennifer had dating difficulties. Anyone who had taken the risk of dating her would regret it from the very first time they ever went to Bean Around the Corner or any other coffee shop that wasn’t Starbucks. (She, of course, would not frequent Starbucks because they oppressed coffee pickers somewhere – she was never specific about where.)

Her coffee had to be Americano, the cup had to be porcelain, half filled with coffee and half with hot water, but making sure there was room for milk, which had to be 2%, but not fully skimmed and certainly never half & half. Then it had to be brown sugar and stirred with a wooden stick because she’d read that plastic spoons heat up and leach carcinogens.

Then, assuming there would be a chair (she’d leave, abandoning the coffee if there wasn’t), she’d sit and stare at the coffee mug rather than talk to you until the coffee was the exact right temperature and then she’d drink it really fast in case it got too cool. Then she’d immediately need to pee. The washroom would always be too dirty by her standards, so she’d feel compelled to clean it first and negotiate with the baristas for bleach to assist her in this. Mostly they would be only too obliging as they hated having to clean the toilets anyway and customers were always mistreating them. This would take, oh around an hour, or so.

Jennifer was always complaining to ‘friends’ that her dates would abandon her in coffee shops before they ever got to say a word – go figure.

If you saw Jennifer walking down the street or at a party you would be stunned. I have seen men instantly dump whomever they have arrived with and cut in and cut out whoever she was talking to at the time. She was striking and tall, never went out without her black hat jauntily placed on one side of her long blonde hair which just brushed her shoulders. She had slim, elegant legs that were usually encased in something very tight from Zara and to look at her, see her move, if you didn’t know her, you’d fall in love.
Her best friend Louise has suggested to me (and others) that perhaps she had bonded with her Barbie just too tightly when she was young and that could account for her rather self-obsessed behaviour.

Of course living up to Jennifer’s standards was hard. She had a list and if you didn’t have the qualities she required, clearly defined and well known amongst her friends, you wouldn’t stand a chance.

Even Ryan Gosling wouldn’t have made it to the list, especially Ryan, as she didn’t like or men with beards, or day old growth or men shorter than her, or men with perfect teeth and polished shoes. She was especially circumspect of men who paid too much attention to their grooming. Striking the right balance was a challenge to say the least.

I was not on her list. I am not even sure how we met, or how she had my phone number, or why she considered me her ‘friend’, but the odd party invite would come along and I go and mock her catering arrangements. She preferred dry food as then it wouldn’t make a mess. I liked to watch her anguished eyes as she followed people’s plates around the room just waiting for them to drop food on her teak floor, or spill wine on her sofas.

She called me out of the blue late one Wednesday night. I was about to go to bed. I hadn’t heard from her in about five months. I’d not even thought about her much except to try and warn someone about her when he called to ask what she was like. I seemed to remember it was Rob, a journalist I’d met at an Italian coffeehouse in town. I am not sure of my exact words but it ran along the lines of ‘he’d be better off throwing himself under a truck’. He just laughed, he was pretty confident he’d ‘get her into bed’. Clearly he did not know Jennifer well. Louise has assured me that Jennifer did sleep with the occasional date, according to legend. But no person any of her friends actually knew. I think she favoured people from out of town.
‘Look, I am sorry to call you out of the blue like this,’ she was saying, ‘I don’t want to inconvenience you, Sam, but I need your assistance.’
Other people might have just said ‘Help me,’ but not Jennifer.
‘Hi Jen, what do you want?’
‘I need you to help me to remove Rob.’
‘Yes Rob, he’s a friend of yours. He said he was.’
‘Rob Mellor?’
‘Rob Mellor, the third, actually. His father owns quite a lot of downtown.’

That’s the kind of thing that made it onto her list. Owning downtown, calling yourself ‘The Third’. Having been to a good school, being a member of the tennis club and possessing great teeth. But no trust fund babies, she liked men who had careers. ‘Trust fund babies have no focus, they always do stupid things and you always end up mothering them,’ she would say. Not that she knew. Mothering didn’t seem to be one of her natural skills.

‘If he’s drunk, if he’s being rude or obnoxious….’ I began, but she cut me off. ‘I need you now Sam. He’s heavy. I need your help and I know I haven’t been a good friend, but I am a friend and I need your help now.’
I sighed. There’s a code in friendship. You shouldn’t have to beg people to help you if you are a ‘friend’. Besides it would take a strong personality to say no to such a request and no one ever said I had a strong personality.
‘I’ll be there in – I checked my watch. ‘Twenty minutes.’
‘Thank you.’ She abruptly disconnected.

It was cold and damp. I would have walked, but given the urgency I took the bus. Jennifer lived virtually opposite me, across the Burrrard inlet. I lived in an old house, on Kit’s Point; she lived in a high rise. She lived on the 4th floor because she hated to climb if the elevator ever packed up or there was a fire. She was mortally afraid of fires. The family home had burned down one night whilst her parents were at the theatre. I believe the family fortune was based almost entirely on the insurance payout after they sued the family of the baby sitter who smoked. But I can’t be sure any of that is true. Her father had bought the apartment for her and although it was two bedrooms, she lived alone in pristine hygienic splendour.

Naturally the elevator was out of order. I walked up, noting that even in expensive apartment blocks kids had scrawled graffiti on the walls.
She answered me on the second buzz.
‘Who is it?’
‘Who else did you invite?’
She opened the door and pulled me in. ‘Don’t take off your shoes.’

She was dressed in old jeans and some scrappy sweater. This was not the girl I knew, but all the better for it. I knew she was naked under the sweater and for some reason this excited me. (I had long ago given up on expecting anything other than friendship from Jennifer).
‘So where is he?’

She sat on the floor with the white pages trying to find an address. ‘I want the sheets burned, where would I find someone who does that?’
I looked at her and saw she was much more distressed than I had thought. What had Rob done? I immediately thought of him raping her in some drunken stupor and that naturally burning the sheets would be part of some cleansing ritual. But then he was still here, which was strange.
Jennifer looked distracted and distant. ‘He’s in the bedroom. You’ll have to wrap him in the sheets.’
‘Is he stoned?’
She didn’t answer. I went into the bedroom.

Rob lay there on the bed naked. He looked drained, his face was bluish, he was not a well guy. ‘Rob?’ I asked cautiously.
I looked more closely and it was plain after a moment’s consideration that he was dead. His body was so pale I felt I should look for tell-tale vampire marks on his neck. I look back towards the open door.
‘Jennifer? You do know he is dead right?
Jennifer said nothing for a moment, probably thinking hard about the appropriate thing to say.
‘He swallowed something, of course he’s dead.’
‘Aren’t you suppose to call an ambulance or the police?’
‘He’s dead Sam. He’s dead and I want him out of here.’

I left the bedroom a moment. She was still staring at the phone book.
‘Jennifer, when a person dies there are certain things you have to do.’
‘Not in my home. Not here. Not with me. He swallowed something and he’s dead Sam. I want him to die somewhere else. You understand? He did not die here.’
I looked at her and frowned. Talk about putting a friend in an awkward situation. ‘Jennifer, you have to report it, by law. You didn’t kill him.’
‘I reported it to you. You have to help me.’
Would it be any use in me asking her why I had to do anything at all?
‘He was your friend,’ she added.
‘He was your lover.’
‘I did not have sex with that freak. You understand. I didn’t have sex with him, we barely kissed.’
‘He died naked in your bed, Jen. You don’t have to pretend to be Mother Theresa with me.’
‘I’ll pay you. I know you need money. A thousand dollars.’
‘A thousand?’ I was surprised.
‘Two thousand then’. Misinterpreting my remark. ‘But I want him gone now.’

I let a silence fall between us. Two grand was two months rent. Useful. Of course I had to help, but wouldn’t this make me accessory to murder? If it was a murder. Of course it was an accident. Rob swallowed something.
‘Then we have to burn the sheets,’ she added snapping the phone book shut.
I went back to the bedroom.
‘When did he die?’
‘About two hours ago.’
‘Two hours?’
‘I was in the bathroom. He was dead when I came out.’
That figured.

I looked at Rob more carefully. Now I thought about it, his clenched hands, and his distorted neck. This man died in pain. I tried forcing open his mouth but couldn’t get much movement, rigor mortis was setting in. I moved the side table lamp and looked down his throat. Amazing white teeth the guy had and there, at the back of his throat, along with some vomit, a chunk of aluminium foil. A wrap. You see these things being handed around at parties. But the assumption is that you unwrap a wrap to smoke it or swallow whatever it was (and I didn’t want to think about what really was in there.) I tried to surmise on how it had lodged in his throat. Had Rob begun sucking on it, waiting to surprise her with whatever he had in there? Had he been bored; endlessly waiting for Jennifer to come out of the bathroom, then fallen asleep and the wrap had somehow had lodged in the back of his throat. Nasty way to go. A stupid accident.
‘He choked to death, Jen, you sure you didn’t hear anything?’

Jennifer ignored me. She was looking for an old blanket in the cupboard, something she could burn without missing it too much. ‘This one – it’s got paint on it.’ She looked at me. ‘Wrap him up Sam. Don’t forget the pillowcases.’

Rob rolled up pretty well. I hadn’t noticed how short he was out of his heeled boots. Jennifer rolled the blue rug around him and taped up the edges with masking tape. I watched her make sure it was secure and had neat edges. She didn’t want any part of Rob to flop out. I couldn’t but help think that she had done this sort of thing before.
‘The Bridge is too bright,’ she mused, ‘is there anywhere else we can dump him?’
‘You want to dump him? What about his parents, they’ll miss him. He had a girlfriend too, Grace somebody.’
‘Grace Haffley?’
‘Well, he was with me, she’s not going to miss him now, is she.’ She thought for a moment, screwing up her eyes to think. ‘Spanish Banks. The tide will take him.’
‘It’s pretty public and the police patrol that area.’
‘It’s winter, it’s dark, the cops are in the doughnut shops. I just want him gone and disconnected from me. That’s all I care.’ She pointed at a box. ‘Everything he touched is in there and his boots.’
I looked at the box and back at Jennifer, then sighed, ‘OK.’

We carried him down the stairs to the basement. We didn’t meet anyone and she dropped him twice as he was heavy and awkward as we negotiated the bends. Finally with effort we got him into the Jeep. No one appeared. No one surprised us, nothing happened. I drove us to Spanish Banks out by Point Grey. The tide was coming in, and it was windy, so that meant waves. Jennifer never said a word the entire time. This event was already over as far as she was concerned. We parked as close to the beach as we could get and I switched the lights off. There were no other cars around and I could see the usual ships moored out in the bay their lights twinkling in the black night.
‘We need to be quick, they patrol quite regularly.’
I dragged Rob to the beach and Jennifer followed carrying his clothes.
‘What are you doing Jennifer?’
‘I read that when people commit suicide they take their clothes off and wade into the ocean. Unwrap him.’
‘We have to put his trousers on and his sweater. It’s more realistic.’
‘I don’t want to touch him.’
‘Jen, help me dress him. OK?’
I felt her staring at me with annoyance, but couldn’t see her too well in the darkness. ‘OK?’ I repeated.

We unwrapped him and although she didn’t want to touch him, she helped me pull his pants on. This is not an easy task on a cold beach with the freezing water swirling around. Jennifer was staring at his sweater with obvious disgust.
‘My god, it’s acrylic.’
I shook my head. This was no time for aesthetics.
‘Give me his wallet.’
‘Because it will look more natural if it is in his pants.’
‘There’s a hundred dollars in it.’
‘All the better.’ She brought it to me from the box, along with his boots. We put the boots on, but my hands were so cold I couldn’t tie the laces and left them loose. I think I may have put the boots on the wrong feet. It was impossible to see in the dark.

As Jennifer huddled in the blue blanket and sheets, I waded out to sea. The problem with Spanish Banks is that you have to wade quite a ways to get a body launched so it won’t come back at you. He sank a little, but not much.

The cop car arrived about two minutes later. I was still out in the water transfixed by his headlights.
Jennifer shouted to warn me and then (she confessed later) actually pissed herself and started crying. I thought she was going to die there she was so scared.
The cop shone his flashlights on her and then at me out in the water. I waved to him, calling loudly.
‘Officer? You’d better see this, there’s a man in the water.’
I could sense that he didn’t want to wade out into the cold ocean.
‘You know you can’t park out here after sunset,’ he was saying.
I was wading back towards him. ‘I was trying to call the police, but my signals dead. There’s a guy floating in the water. I was trying to pull him in but he’s heavy’.
He shone the strong car searchlight across the water and finally picked out Rob floating there, rising and falling with the waves.
‘Shit, I’ll have to call the coastguard.’ You could tell he was annoyed.
‘You want to help me get him in?’ I started back out into the ocean, trying to look as co-operative as a body dumper could in the circumstances. ‘Lucky we stopped. She’s was feeling sick and my headlights just caught him as I turned.’
The cop reluctantly waded in after me. ‘Fuck, this water’s cold.’
‘Sorry, the guy’s dead, but I had to check.’
The cop was still cursing his luck. ‘No, you did right. Damn this water’s cold.
‘Is he dead?’ Jennifer was calling from the shore in her most innocent little girl lost voice.

We reached Rob and the cop shone his flashlight at him and swore again.
‘Yeah, he’s dead. Get floaters out here all the time.’

This floater was taking on water, but I was sort of glad to hear it. Suddenly there was this great surge of water that rolled over the both of us. The cop dropped his flashlight, I was bowled over and found I was swallowing water in a moment of panic and the cop was struggling himself.
‘Damnit’. Both of us were swearing and coughing up seawater when we surfaced and of Rob, there was not a sign.
Naturally we looked a bit longer, but neither one of us was keen to get pneumonia and we eventually called it quits and headed back to the shore.

Jennifer was sitting in her Jeep looking miserable and expecting the worst. The cop looked frozen and not really in the kind of shape to this kind of thing. He took our names when he could finally hold his pen again.. Then seeing as both Jennifer and myself were turning blue with the cold told us to go home. ‘And next time neck in the park or something,’ he added.

I ended up sleeping over at Jennifer’s that night. She was too scared to sleep alone and since there was only one bed, I was obliged to share it. Of course we had to make the bed and she had to soak in the bathroom, but she did let me take a warm shower first, seeing as I didn’t have any dry clothes. Sometime later in the early hours of the morning I found that she wanted comforting. Only then did she finally settle. Curiously I spent the rest of the night wide awake thinking about Rob on his way to Hawaii.

Six weeks later, after no contact from her at all, she arrives at my office to tell me she is pregnant and thinking of killing herself.

As far as she is concerned I am the guilty party. I think about Rob, but then remember she said she only kissed him. Now, of course, I wondered if that was true.

We went over to the Bean Around the Corner and talked about it as she warmed her hands on her Americano. Somehow, I am not sure why, duty I suppose, that, and knowing that she was Catholic, I asked her to marry me.
She looked at me with horror, then back at her coffee and then at me again. After what seemed like an hour, during which time she was probably weighing in her mind the right kind of polite but adroit and balanced response to my sudden, but hardly unexpected question, she suddenly sighed, looked at me again with searching eyes and said,‘Yes, I suppose so.’

I can't remember what I felt, duty has no feeling perhaps. I think I heard the sound of a heavy stone drop a hundred feet into a well, but I can't be sure.

They found Rob, or what was left him, the day we had our engagement party at her apartment. The cop from the beach came around to tell us. He seemed happy to see us and stayed for one drink when he realised we were getting engaged an’ all. It was a lucky thing Rob had such good dentistry he told us. It was all that was left of him, those white shining crowned teeth.

I know Jennifer was glad Rob had washed up at last. Now his family would know where he was and realise why he hadn’t called in a while. His girlfriend Grace was at our party and Jennifer was very particular in making sure she hugged and comforted her a lot once the cop had gone away.

‘Poor Rob, what a terrible thing to have happened’ she repeated more than once, for everyone’s benefit. She did not of course explain why the cop had come to her place to tell her about it, seeing as Grace was supposed to be the girlfriend.

Grace, who hadn’t especially missed Rob, but had been slightly miffed that Rob hadn’t called her, suddenly realised that he had meant something to her after all. She was happier to share this sudden blow with someone so caring as Jennifer.
Jennifer, particular as always, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

© Sam North 2000
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