Pepe lay flat on a log on the bank of Wascana Creek. In his hand was a biography of Gabriel Dumont but he’d stopped reading and instead he stared up at a stark blue prairie winter sky. It was the end of March and in Regina winter was finally coming to a finish but Pepe already wore shorts and flip-flop sandals. He didn’t care about the cold anymore. He was sick of it. He did wear his heavy parka though, so he must’ve cared somewhat, but he told himself he didn’t.
A clear sky in late winter arrives like a gift and the sun shoots across the world sideways, lighting it up as if the entire day were dawn. Pepe sat up and enjoyed the way it all looked to him. Birds and little creatures twittered through the trees and along the frost lined shore hoping for a snack from the human in their midst. He didn’t know their names but they made the world a better place, as they looked at you with dark, curious eyes deciding if you were friend or foe. He thought about walking to the Albert St. Bridge and having a look around, but the thought of hot coffee and something to eat seemed like a better idea. He tucked his book inside his jacket. He’d bought it at a used book store and it was well worn and dog-eared.
He scrambled up the frozen ground, through the trees and bushes and headed downtown to Jack’s Place. He cut through people’s yards on his way until he reached the streets and cars of downtown that forced him onto the squared man-made routes of the sidewalks. Patches of slippery ice from snow piled up over winter made him walk carefully. The flip-flops on his feet didn’t have much traction.
When Pepe arrived at the café Jack himself was behind the counter tidying and arranging things. He was a funny little guy with wisps of grey hair around and in his ears. Always wearing a fresh white apron when he was at work, he looked every bit the part of café owner. He went through multiple aprons in a day- when one became stained with coffee or coffee grounds he swapped it with a new one. To expect the same from his staff would’ve cost him a bundle in cleaning bills so he had them wear black aprons instead. Jack had become close to Pepe and his group of friends when they were teenagers looking for a hang out. He kept an eye on them trying to not let them get caught up in too much trouble, being a soundboard when they did.
“Americano?” Jack asked, pointing at Pepe and predicting his drink.
“Yeah, and something to eat,” Pepe answered as he looked into the sandwich cooler beside the counter. Nothing inside it grabbed his fancy. “Maybe just one of those big oatmeal cookies I guess," he said, pointing to the tray on the counter.
On either side of it’s entrance the café had large windows facing out onto the street. As you walked in there was a ledge along the window to the left with stools to sit at and watch the passers by. A few steps in stood the counter and the chrome and glass sandwich cooler. On the right there were tables and chairs set up throughout until the back of the room where four worn leather arm chairs were arranged in front of a stone framed gas fireplace. The walls were charcoal grey except behind the counter where they were accented with a light coffee colour. It seemed like an appropriate choice to Jack when he painted it a couple years earlier and the whole place looked great with the wood and chrome of the tables and counters. On one of those counters sat his prized Mirage Duette Idrocompresso espresso maker. One of the best that money could buy and judging by the coffee and the people lining up to get some it was well worth it. Jack would talk your ear off about the machine if you got him started, expounding about the superior flavour and aesthetic of hand-pumped espresso.
Pepe sat down on a stool at the window ledge watching the heated conversation of two men outside on the sidewalk, both of them waving their hands in the air until finally going their separate ways, each shaking their heads at the other. Pepe watched as they went before grabbing a section of a newspaper that lay on the ledge and flipping through it, reading only the first few sentences of the articles that grabbed his attention, frowning before folding it up and pushing it aside. He stared out the window as his mind wandered. The café was one of his favourite places but he usually sat near the fireplace, turning the chair a little so that he surveyed the rest of the room, the art on the walls, and the carrying-ons of other customers.
Jack brought Pepe his americano and cookie. “I’m pouring great coffee today. It’s a shame to add all that hot water to those shots. You should just enjoy a nice espresso,” he said and sipped imaginary espresso from a tiny imaginary espresso cup- enjoying it almost as much as if it were real.
He paused and looked at Pepe. “You’re itchy,” he said. “You look itchy. You getting itchy?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“What are you doing? When are you leaving or are you still planning on leaving?”
“Oh man, I don't know. Soon maybe.” Pepe shook his head and frowned.
Jack nodded then strolled through the rest of the café picking up used napkins, and dirty cups, and wiping tables, giving Pepe his space
“Anybody been around?” Pepe asked him. “Johnny Fish hasn’t been around by any chance?”
Jack shook his head quietly to himself before answering. “Someone said Johnny’s over in Qu’Appelle," he said. “Lil was in just for a bit yesterday. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her though.”
Pepe nodded. He gulped at his americano and swallowed his cookie in huge bites, crumbs falling onto the ledge. He stared out the window watching uninterested as people went this way and that. He halfway listened to the music playing in the café. He was itchy. He’d been itchy for a long time but never got around to doing anything about it until about a month ago when he decided to leave town or do something else- he wasn’t sure where or what yet.
He finished the last of his coffee and got up and placed his dishes on the counter. “Alright thanks eh, Jack”.
"That's it? You're going?" Jack asked.
"Yeah, I don't feel like sitting around."
“All right, take it easy then,” Jack nodded. He stopped wiping up behind the counter and watched as Pepe headed out into the street. “And put some clothes on, it’s cold out there,” he called. "And brush your hair."
Pepe gave a half smile and a wave as the door closed behind him. It was late morning and the streets and sidewalks were calm before the upcoming rush of lunch time traffic and all the hungry people who would be quickly searching out someplace to eat. Where the sun peeked around buildings stark shadows appeared on the sidewalk and street. Pepe’s own shadow lay out in front of him. He followed it along the streets of downtown. Wherever it went- it didn’t matter. He had nothing to do and everything to do. He’d quit his job, he’d moved out of his apartment and was couch surfing with friends until he decided what exactly his next step would be.
He walked around the block and thought again of heading to the Albert St. Bridge to have a good look around. To look out over the lake or blank out as the traffic roared passed. That was his spot- he liked going there and letting his mind wander, but today he couldn’t decide. Maybe he’d drop by Lil’s place and see what she was up to. He didn't want to but he did want to talk to her about a place to stay for a while when it became time to move on from Old Jim and Katey’s.
Lil waitressed at a funky little restaurant called The Magpie downtown on Scarth St. and she rented a basement suite a few blocks from there. Pepe made his way but walked passed before making up his mind and turning back. She answered in her worn housecoat when Pepe knocked on her door, peeking suspiciously through the crack as she opened it.
“Hey!” she smiled, seeing who it was. “What are you doing here? Come on in.” Lil’s voice was hoarse. She talked a lot with her customers and some nights stayed up late drinking with them afterwards. She cleared her throat before continuing. “The coffee’s fresh if you want a cup.”
“Sure, yeah, of course,” Pepe answered and he threw his coat over a chair in the kitchen.
Lil handed him a cup of coffee and then laughed “Flip-flops?” She topped up her own cup of coffee and then stirred in some milk and copious amounts of sugar. “That’s quite the outfit.” She looked him up and down with a smirk. “What you up to?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Not much. Just wandering.”
Pepe pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and sat down. Lil joined him.
“It looks like a nice day for it," she said motioning towards the window with her chin. “Maybe I should get myself together and get out there. Pardon my hair and face by the way. It was a rough one last night.” Lil lit a cigarette and turned her head to blow the smoke away from Pepe.
“Yeah, I’m sleepin’ on Old Jim’s couch these days, maybe Katey told you, so I haven’t been getting much sleep either lately,” Pepe said. “I don’t know how old that thing is. I think they got it from Jim’s Mom. I don't wanna bother them for too long so I'll probably be looking for a new place to stay in week or so. Do you think you might have room on your couch?”
“Uh sure, yeah I guess. Let me know. The neighbours upstairs are a bit nosey but I wouldn't worry too much about them. Pro’lly got their ears to the floor right now," she laughed and raised a finger towards the ceiling and the people living above her.
“Why’d you move out of the place you were in anyhow?” she asked.
“I don’t know- maybe it was kinda stupid. I couldn’t pay rent without a job. And I just hated those roommates. You met them. It was just like… Oh man, I don’t know," Pepe looked away. " It's like, you know, if you stay living with guys like that for too long you just end up becoming an alcoholic or something. It would be too easy for me to fall into… And I don't know- it's like they're just a bunch of dead end guys from that dead end job and I don't wanna keep going on like that- not sure what I wanna do really but not that, and I only ever lived with them because they were looking for a roommate when I started work and it made for cheap rent.”
“Don’t you think you should’ve hung onto it a bit longer? Until you were a bit more organized?”
“Maybe.” Pepe paused. “Nah, I just had to get out of there. I just need to get on with something. Or maybe I shoulda stuck with the job and found a new place. I don’t know.”
“Coulda, shoulda,” Lil said.
Pepe looked down towards the mug in his hands.
“You don’t have any plans though do you?” she asked.
Pepe looked towards the window above the sink and shrugged. “Nope. I’d like to get going somewhere, doing something but seems like I’ve gotta get organized here first. I’m hoping to track down Johnny Fish before I leave town. If I leave town. Jack said he’s over in Qu’Appelle.”
“Are you sure it’s Qu’Appelle and not Fort Qu’Appelle? He was talking about Fort Qu’Appelle some time when I saw him. What do you want to see him for? Can’t you just do whatever you need to do?”
“It'd just be nice to see him before taking off and it would be good to bounce a few ideas around. He’s usually got a good idea- usually a bit crazy, but still a good idea. I don’t know what it is, but for me something’s not right. Something’s bugging me but I can’t figure it out- you know.” He looked into the black coffee in his cup, swirled it around before downing the final mouthful.
“I just blame it on the seasons. Winter’s slow in ending and spring’s slow in coming. This time of year is always like some sort of seasonal limbo. But I’ll grant you there does seem to be something in the air. Maybe I read too much news but it seems like everything’s going to shit. Like the city or the province or the country or the world’s going to hell. Pro’lly all of it but it starts small first I think. It starts here. I’d join you if I knew what to do.” Lil blanked her cigarette in a tin can on the table. “You want to go get some lunch someplace?”
“Sure.” Pepe shrugged.
Lil finished her own coffee and cleared their mugs from the table, placing them in the sink and filling each with water. After taking a few minutes to get herself ready, she and Pepe walked the few blocks back downtown. They ate hamburgers and spent the afternoon shooting pool until it was time for Lil’s four o’clock shift to start. Pepe walked with her to the restaurant.
“So it’s okay if I get in touch when it’s time to move on from Jim and Kate’s?” he asked.
“Yeah, yeah. For sure. And I’ll keep an eye out for your friend Johnny.” Lil waved with a flutter of her fingers and went inside.
Pepe stood by the door of the restaurant for a moment wondering what to do. It was dusk and definitely cold out now. There was no way of denying it and no way of pretending not to care. Pepe’s feet were freezing and he wished he would’ve worn pants and socks and shoes. “What was I thinking?” he asked himself. It would be a long walk to Old Jim’s apartment later in the night and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
For now he decided on going back to Jack’s Place for a bowl of soup and another coffee. It was nearby and he walked there quickly. His legs and toes tingled when he entered the warmth of the café. Jack had gone home for the night and there was a new girl working there- a part-timer for the evening shift. She frowned when she saw Pepe come in. Looking him up and down trying to figure out what sort he was. Working with her was one of the long time workers, a guy named Lenny.
“Hey Lenny,” Pepe said as he walked up to the counter.
Pepe ordered and the two of them chatted while the new girl made the coffee and Lenny ladled out a bowl of soup.
Pepe crossed the room to his usual spot in the nice comfy chair by the fire. It’ll be good to warm up as much as possible he thought and he put the bowl and mug down on the little side table. He flipped through a newspaper, reading the funnies and the auto section while eating his supper. The soup was good and after finishing his bowl, Pepe folded up the newspaper and placed it on the table beside him. He stretched out comfortably in the chair, took his book from his coat and began reading again. He’d pause now and then to muse certain parts of Dumont’s life or to wonder about other customers who were coming and going. What were their plans? How would they change the world if they could or were they quite content? Lil was right though- it starts small. Everything grows from a seed.
Lenny came by to clear Pepe’s soup bowl. “What you reading?” he asked.
Pepe held up the book to show him the cover. Lenny leaned in to read it and then shrugged.
"Dumont was a Metis leader back in the 1800's."
“Is it good?” Lenny asked.
“Yeah, it's kinda interesting- not something I'd usually read, but yeah I think it's important.”
“Did I tell you about the trip I’m planning? Gonna go to Australia in July. Just gonna keep working and saving up until then.”
“Weren't you going to school or something?”
“I was, but I dropped it. Maybe I’ll pick it up again next fall. How about you? You still leaving town?”
“Not sure,” Pepe shrugged.
“You’re pretty good at fixin’ cars eh? That’s what Jack mentioned.”
“I don't know about that, but I guess I kinda know what I’m doing.”
“Good, yeah. I was wondering if you could maybe take a look at it sometime?”
“Sure, no problem. Is it here?” Pepe looked outside and moved to get up from his chair.
“No, I took the bus today. It’s just parked in the driveway at home. Makes an awful sound somewhere in the front end so I thought it’d be best just to park it.”
“Yeah, well let me know. I…” Pepe began but another customer came into the café and Lenny went to the counter to serve them.
Pepe watched for a moment as Lenny began to make the customers drink. He put his book on the table, facedown open to the page he was on. He stared at the fire and let his eyes lose focus remembering for a moment the blue sky of earlier in the day. A sky like that makes you think anything’s possible, everything’s wide open, life is up for grabs. Like nowhere else the prairie sky encompasses you. You look around and there is little else: the ground under your feet and then up, up, up- air, sky, space. Nothing stops it as it goes on forever and you become a part of it. And on a clear summer night with perhaps only the smallest sliver of a moon and the stars of the milky way sparkling and moving around you, if you don’t feel humbled as a part of this beautiful universe then you need to stay a while. Look again the next night and again the next. Perhaps modern living has made you feel big and important. Camp out on the prairie and get some of its medicine in you. Let its big sky pull you up into it's bosom and come back to Earth a little better for it.
Pepe shook his head, waking up from his reverie. He buzzed his lips and ran his fingers through his shaggy rust coloured hair. He needed a hair cut. He looked around the room and watched Lenny and the new girl working before returning his gaze unsatisfactorily to the fire. It was nice but the gas flames lacked something. He watched it with an increasing disappointment that slowly burrowed under his skin. He let his mind wander again- another cup of coffee, more reading and daydreaming and an hour later he was ready to head home.