Charlie sat between crowd rails and benches and plastic pants, glaring at red garbage pails as high as his elbows. He sat with back against a chair’s back, screw heads on the plastic digging into his back, his feet wedged under a plastic table. His feet rested on a cracked, unfinished concrete floor. Above, a tin roof covering a dozen acres of discount store was partly obscured by the red and white plastic umbrella banged into the top of the plastic table.
His back was to the store. He shut out habitually the steady din of customers and labourers, and carts and check-outs and squalling children, and PA announcements and the sizzle and banging of the little shopping grill on his right … and beneath it all, the steady drone of conditioners and the buzzing of lights, and of cars grinding by on the snow outside, carried in through the thin walls. He was cold and miserable and still his winter coat and scarf and hat were piled on the table beside the umbrella pole. He had on only his gloves.
Jane appeared behind him and sat down. She did not look unhappy. Her shoulders were straight, her forehead was held high and her head was slightly tilted. She beamed.
“Well?” he asked.
She leaned in and grinned. “It’s there,” she said, as if it were a holy thing. “All of it.”
He felt a rush. “Really.”
“My god,” he said. “Oh my god.”
She laughed out loud, drawing attention, and stifled herself. She leaned across the table and hissed in pure joy, “Yes, ‘oh my god.’ Lots and lots and lots of money. Look!” She slid a little banking slip across the table.
Charlie looked at it. “Who would ever have believed it?”
“I would,” she answered. “I told you. I said you only had to stick with it, that someone would see that all those hours and nights on the computer weren’t a wasted effort. I said you just keep at it, and don’t worry about how much you’re getting done and on what days and for how long. You worried about that, not me. I knew it would all come out in the end.”
“It’s a good thing I worried. If I hadn’t worried, I wouldn’t have gotten it done.”
“Oh shut up. It is done. It’s all done and we’re here now and I love you.” She launched herself over the table, grasped his face with both hands and kissed him hard. He kissed back and then remembered where they were. They both did. Their faces glowed a little crimson, and she sat back down, grinning at him. “Damn I love you.”
He stared at the bank slip, looking at the numbers, all of them, one piled on top of the next. When he looked at her, she was chewing something, not looking at him, but at everyone else moving around them and grinning.
“This is so weird,” he said.
“Well … I keep thinking I should do something. I should get up and howl, and you should howl, and we should make a big scene. But I don’t want to. And then I start thinking that I should talk about all the things I want to buy, but right now I can’t think of a one. A car I guess. Or a house. And yet that seems so stupid, so small. Like what kids think about. I don’t care what we drive. I don’t care where we live.”
She smiled, and shook her head, and said, “That’s my Charles. We are going to move. We are going to buy a car. I’m tired of the bus.”
“Oh sure,” he said. “But doesn’t it seem … a little dumb? Like that’s what we’re supposed to do because we’re supposed to do it? Like right now, we’re supposed to go out and get drunk, and do it with our friends and blah blah blah. But we don’t have friends and I don’t want to get drunk.”
“Seriously. Do you want to get drunk?”
She shook her head.
“So this is what I’m asking. What do we do? We have almost – shit, I can’t even say it out loud – we have all this money, and I’m thinking I’m just tired and maybe we could go home and order a pizza and watch some movie and crash. And tomorrow we could, I don’t know, go to a store? To get furniture? God … that just sounds awful. Wandering around some place looking at furniture and dealing with some jackass salesman –”
“Charlie, shut up.”
“I’ve never had money before. Ever. I’ve had … let me think, the most money I’ve ever had in my hands at one time was about 2,200 dollars. And that doesn’t go as far as you’d think. Once you pay rent and –”
“God, Charlie, will you please stop talking?” Jane put on her angry face and he closed his mouth. “I know all this about you. And you don’t have a thing to worry about. We are not going to go furniture shopping tomorrow. We are not going back to our place for a pizza. And we are not getting drunk. Do you believe me?”
“Yes.” Jane was the one person he always believed.
“Good. Then you can trust me. I’ve been preparing my whole life for this moment. I know exactly what to do. First thing, we do not go home. We go to a hotel. A nice one downtown. We get settled in our room, and then we start living there for about a month. Tomorrow, we clean out the car of anything that has sentimental value, and then we give the car to your sister. Then for a month we clean out everything that’s in our apartment that has sentimental value, and we give everything else away.”
“Can we keep the red couch?”
“No. It’s old and the stuffing is drifting inside and the one arm was burnt by the iron three years ago and in case you’ve forgotten that couch gives you a headache when you sleep in it. The only thing you like about that couch is that its red. They make other red couches, Charlie. We’ll get one of those.”
He nodded, sniffed his nose and looked serious. “Okay. Okay, I can live with that.”
“When we get the apartment sorted out, we take all the sentimental things and we put them in storage. Then we give everything else away. We tell our crappy landlord to stuff his lease and we tell him to keep the deposit.”
“Why in storage.”
“We’re going to be busy looking for a place to live.”
“Ah. So, a house again.”
“Charlie, I really do love you, and without you we wouldn’t have a thing, but you are the stupidest person alive sometimes. No, we’re not looking for a house. We’re looking for a place.”
“Do you want to live this city?”
“And you don’t care where we live, so long as there’s a computer, right?”
He nodded, and sighed. “Yeah. That’s right.”
“Okay. You said once that you thought it would be cool to live in the Maritimes.”
“Yeah. I used to look at real estate ads and they’d talk about acres with land next to the sea and ex-bed and breakfasts and forests and –”
“Have you ever been to the Maritimes?”
Charlie shook his head. “No.”
“Me either. So just in case we don’t like it, we’ll fly out there, have a look around for a few weeks, or months, and see how it feels. We’ll drive all over Nova Scotia and give it a really good glance over. And if we don’t like it, we’ll do the same thing somewhere else. And when we find a place that we really do like, we’ll buy some kind of place there and settle down. Sound good?”
“Jeez. You’re brilliant.”
“No, stupid, you’re brilliant. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes.” He stood up, and reached for his coat. “Can you promise me we’ll never set foot in a place like this again?”
“Swear to fucking god,” she said. Her coat was under Charlie’s and she dug it out. They both got dressed, pulling their heavy coats into place, tucking their hair under their hats.
Charlie flipped his scarf over his neck and stopped. He looked at Jane, holding onto his scarf with each of his hands balled up in a fist. “You know … I’ve never liked this scarf.”
“Leave it,” she said.
He felt an odd rush go through him. Still, it felt wrong, to leave something behind that inherently had value. He stripped the scarf off his neck, and let it fall on the plastic table. He let go of it … and felt lighter. Turning, he saw Jane was already on her way, not waiting for him, knowing he’d follow.
He took one look back, then went, quickening his steps.