November 23, 2009


Shadows slouch against the glass, muddy mannequins thawing in a heated storefront.

Cold air rushes me in, carrying away most of that sharp smell. Avoiding eye contact, I half-nod in their direction. It's a generic, almost undetectable greeting, motivated by a shameful mix of pity and fear I didn't know I would feel. And I feel eyes on me.

"Hey, Katie."

I hear the words as if reading them in blurred ink, dripping and pushed together.

I stop, facing the stranger in a flash of surprise and poorly hidden hostility.

The old man's dark winter jacket wears him, so permanent and starched with grime it seems just another rough layer of his skin. His red face is pinched and creased so deep the wrinkles have shadows. Impossibly ancient.

He's smiling and I can't think of why, besides the liquor. He's looking at me from under the brim of his baseball cap, small brown eyes close together, bloodshot and foggy but shining and – familiar?

No. It can't be him.

This can't be the same well-dressed, levelheaded, charming elder who – just yesterday – sat with me in his counsellor's office declaring a month of sobriety. Trashing alcohol for burning through his vulnerability after he dropped out of residential school, for keeping him from education, for destroying his family, for throwing him out on the street, for stealing his power. He's on the waitlist for treatment even though he's been down that road twice before. The third time's the charm and he wouldn't be here all the time talking to Jeffery if he didn't think so. He had to sober up just to get on the list and he's not wasting it. He tries to bring his friends around when he sees them out with their bottles, telling them "he's a great guy. Jeffery's a great counsellor. He understands – he's been there." Residential school was a hard time, the first of many in his life. But he's done blaming himself and he wants to heal, he needs to. He'll go to treatment whenever, "where ever they'll take me." He's so close.
I extend my hand to him, proud of his purposeful handshake, matching his steady gaze as he smiles and lifts the brim of his Inuvialuit Regional Corporation ball cap off his forehead. I say congratulations.

What's changed in a day? I look into those eyes again and wonder – but no. It's not him. This man is wearing a different cap. It's dirty and so is he. This is a different man. A stranger.

Comfortable relief trickles in around the emptiness of robbed feeling as I convince myself and continue on, not looking back on my way out into the night.

I still tell myself it was just a drunken slur. He didn't really know my name.

No comments:

Post a Comment