Old Jim wasn’t really old, or at least not any older than the rest of them, but growing up he had a friend also named Jim, and since Old Jim was older by a few months, that’s what they called him. Young Jim was later killed in an accident at the potash mine, but Old Jim stayed Old Jim. Six and a half feet tall with wide shoulders and big arms, he looked like a giant lumberjack from a storybook.
His apartment was about a 40 minute walk from downtown. It was small, but large enough for Old Jim and Katey. There was only one bedroom and no extra room for Pepe to sleep in or store his things. He’d taken most of his belongings to his parents' house and lived out of a large suitcase that had taken up residence in the corner of the living room. He had another suitcase with a few more of his things tucked into the hallway closet.
Pepe zipped his coat all the way up and thought of calling a cab before leaving the café. He was spending enough money on coffee and lunches and decided that since he wasn’t working anymore he ought to try to save where he could. Instead of a cab, he hunkered down to walk as quickly as possible, the collar of his jacket pulled up around his neck and his head tucked down between his shoulders.
Even though he stayed with them, he rarely saw much of Old Jim or his wife Katey outside of the weekends. They were usually gone to bed by the time Pepe came in; although he heard them in their bedroom for long enough before falling asleep. Jim’s work hours changed a lot but he was quiet as he came and went at odd times. Only the sound of his size 13 work boots hitting the floor would let Pepe know it was Jim coming home, though he never heard him when he was leaving. Katey worked her own early morning shifts and would tiptoe around the apartment as she got ready for work.
He hoped they would be in bed when he got in — he didn't feel like talking. He groaned to himself when he opened the door and heard the TV. Old Jim and Katey were snuggled up on the couch. They laughed at him as he came barrelling into the apartment slapping and rubbing his bare legs to warm them up. He grabbed a pair of old long johns from his suitcase in the living room and ducked into the bathroom to change. He then wrapped himself in a blanket and sat down shivering in the arm chair, joining them in front of the TV as they watched an old episode of Doctor Who. They didn’t have cablevision and either watched TV through their computer or watched Jim's collection of old VHS tapes.
“How do you guys watch this stuff?” Pepe asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Jim.
“It’s awesome,” Katey chimed in. “It’s so funny.”
“There you go,” Jim said, pointing at Katey. “Good enough for me.”
"And Jim needs to get his mind off things at work anyway," Katey added.
"Why? What's up?" Pepe asked.
Jim waved his hand in the air. "Ah, nothin' really. There's all sorts of talk about going on strike and everyone's getting' kinda bitchy."
"Oh man, that sucks," Pepe said, and they all turned their attention back to the TV for a moment.
Pepe nodded toward Jim. “You know you’re starting to look pretty shaggy with that beard of yours,” he said. “You better watch out or you’ll start looking like your name.”
Katey laughed and tugged on Old Jim’s chin. “It’s his winter pelt. It looks good on him, though. I like all those flecks of blond in it,” she said and pulled his face toward her so she could give him a peck.
“And so it shall stay,” Old Jim stated firmly. “And one day they will call you Old Pep so I wouldn’t be too worried if I were you.”
Katey laughed again. “Old Pep! Sounds like a dog.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Pepe said.
“What did you get up to today? Anything fun?” Katey asked Pepe.
“Nah. Just bummed around. I saw Lil — she said to say hello. How about you? Did you bring any treats home from the bakery?” Pepe asked, craning his neck toward the kitchen table to see if there was anything on it.
“No, not tonight. Sorry.”
“Too bad, a sugary little snack would hit the spot,” said Pepe as he stood up, rubbing his belly. “You guys want a cup of something if I put a kettle on?”
“No that’s all right,” Old Jim answered. “Probably go to bed soon.” He stretched his long legs and wiggled his toes to show how tired he was.
And soon Katey and Old Jim went to bed, but not to sleep. Pepe made himself a cup of tea and tried hard not to hear them as he sipped it. He got his sleeping bag and pillow from the corner of the room and made himself a bed on the couch. He watched a few more minutes of TV before turning off the computer and sitting in the half darkness of a small lamp that sat on a side table. He was tired after not getting much sleep on that old couch over the past week and a bit. Half-baked plans and ideas ran through his head — vague thoughts of things he might do that were gone almost as quickly as they came. Daydream vignettes of his alternate life. He was glad they didn’t have cable vision. The TV news made him even more certain of the fact that something was wrong, that something big was happening, that they were all being duped.
Of course, they were all being duped. There was no doubt. And not a sane person in the country would have told you otherwise if they thought about it. It didn’t take a genius to know that something didn’t add up. That the system (what system? Government? Corporate elite? It would be good to have a little bit more foreshadowing as to what is gnawing at Pepe) was slanted in someone else's favour and that somehow it needed to be balanced. "Hard work," a voice in his mind said, but he argued against it. Hard work could help you claw your way against things but it didn't change the angle.
Pepe softened his pillow and leaned his head against it. Maybe he’d go, or maybe he’d stay. He didn’t know anymore, but he was itchy and something would have to be done about that.
The Magpie was one of the more popular restaurants downtown. When the owners told people the name, they were unanimously told not to. This is farmer territory and farmers hate those no good, crop stealing, God damned magpies they were told, but the owners liked the name and rightly figured there weren’t a lot of farmers in Regina anyhow. They also did other things right, which any restaurant needs to do: serve good food and hire good staff. It was a cozy spot and smelled nicely of the roasted garlic that they used in about half the dishes. They kept the light dim but not dark. One of the tables, a horseshoe-shaped booth, was tucked into a corner, the others were spaced evenly throughout the room and there were a few stools that stood at the small bar. The room itself was painted black with blue and white accents in homage to the colours of their namesake bird.
Lil waitressed at the Magpie in the evenings from Tuesday to Saturday. Tips were great and on the weekends there was usually someone fun who’d buy drinks as the night wore on. Tonight was a week night, things were slow and she didn’t want to be there. There had been one good table of big spenders — three guys in suits who sat in the horseshoe booth and must’ve been in town for business as they talked furiously among themselves. They were finicky and arrogant, treating her with little consideration, but at least they tipped well. She didn’t mind self-centred tables like that — they were easy. They made her laugh and were less work since all they wanted was waiting on and no conversation. As long as the kitchen did its part of cooking good food, and Lil did her part in getting it to them quickly and attentively, everything went smoothly.
She stood behind the counter polishing silverware. The monotony and the dim light were making her sleepy and she was already worn out from staying up late the night before. She was in a funny mood anyhow and couldn’t wait for her shift to end.
Ever since seeing Pepe earlier in the day she’d been feeling antsy. It wasn’t a new feeling, but it was worse than usual. His mixed up energy was contagious. He’d been talking about it for a while now, how something needed to happen or change. She felt it, too. The vibrations got under her skin. She stared off into space fiddling with a cloth and the cutlery.
“Hey, wake up,” came a voice from the restaurant's manager as he grabbed her shoulders and gave her a friendly shake. “What’s up with you tonight? You’re kind of zoned out.”
“Ah, nothin’. It’s slow and I’m getting antsy.”
“You know that table with the two young couples that was in. What if I told you that they complained about your service?”
“Seriously? Those two girls were a couple of pieces of work. I just bit my tongue and served them. What did they say?”
“Nothing. I’m just bugging you.”
“You ass,” Lil said and flicked a balled up napkin at him.
“All right. When you’re finished up with that silverware you can call it a night. If you want.”
“Yeah, I think maybe I will.”
“But if you’re going home early, you get to do cleanup duty in the bathrooms, too.”
The beautiful clear day had turned into a beautiful clear night, the sky full of stars and satellites, the occasional blinking lights of an airplane flying over the North Pole to someplace in Europe. “What time is it in France?” Lil wondered as she watched the lights move across the horizon. Her mind wandered further, “I wonder who would win between Napoleon and Cromwell? They both turned out to be assholes anyways.” She smirked to herself and lit a cigarette. She pictured Cromwell in his armour and Napoleon with his hand in his shirt and then a defeated, cold Napoleon on his horse, his head and the horse's head both hanging low. He could’ve been on the Canadian prairie in January the way he looked. “Was that even a real picture?” she wondered “or is it something I’m just making up?” She knew the first pictures in her mind were of real paintings, but wasn’t sure about the one on the horse. “I’ll have to look it up on the net when I get home,” she thought.
A clear night sky meant that it was cold and Lil was glad she’d worn her touque as she walked the few blocks home. She warmed her lungs with smoke. She had an Audrey Hepburn-like elegance to her smoking, minus the oversized cigarette holder and the evening gloves. Perhaps it was her tall, slender figure. She was taller than her friends except for Old Jim, and she was nearly as tall as he was if she wore heels, which was rare, and only short ones if she did. Being so tall and gangly as a teenager made her self conscious — she hunched herself over and mostly wore flats. When she got older she broke herself of the hunching habit but she never did learn how to walk smoothly in heels. Men were apt not to approach a tall woman anyhow, so why make the problem worse.
Soon she was home, her upstairs neighbours peeking out of their window at her as she unlocked her door. She waved sarcastically at them and went inside. She dropped off her things on a small table in the front hallway and went to the kitchen where she poured herself a glass of merlot. From one of the drawers she grabbed a wooden box. Inside was a small, colourful glass pipe and a small bag of pot. She loaded the pipe, and took a couple puffs before putting it away.
She let the tingly, relaxing feeling wash over her and sat down at the kitchen table. She checked her phone for messages and then flipped through the junk mail and a magazine while she drank her glass of wine. She turned on her computer and looked up images of Napoleon. The picture in her mind was real. It was from a painting of his retreat from Moscow. She compared it with another painting where he and his horse stood alert in front of the Sphinx.
“The arc of a man’s life: from the deserts of Egypt to the winters of Russia,” she said aloud in her best documentary narrator’s voice and smirked to herself.
She searched around the internet for a while more, meandering pointlessly from story to story before shutting down her computer and putting the magazine on a small stack on the coffee table in the living room. She rinsed her wine glass and placed it in the kitchen sink before jumping in the shower to wash off the smell of the restaurant before heading to bed for another night of fitful sleep.
Morning came late for Lil. It always did. She rarely had a reason to get up early and she was usually up late, so it seemed right. It was the ringing of her telephone that woke her up, but after running to the living room to catch the call, there was no one there. It made her mad. Such an intrusive way to be woken and why did she still have that old land line anyway? She sat down on the couch with her legs stretched out and pulled a blanket over herself. She’d restart the day from there after that unceremonious wake up call.
Her apartment was tidy with everything in its place. She didn’t have a lot of things to clutter it, which helped, but she liked to keep the place organized. The only thing dingy was the old tin soup can she kept on the kitchen table she used as an ashtray. Trying to buy a proper ashtray was a lot more difficult than she would’ve thought, even at the dollar stores. A thrift store would have been a good bet but then she was told that piling up ashes in a tin can could be used as a tool to quit smoking, so she settled on the can. You were supposed to be disgusted with all the butts and the smell and reminded of how bad it was. So far it hadn’t helped her quit, but it did the job of an ashtray just fine.
She smoked a cigarette and made a cup of coffee. “Breakfast of champions,” she said to herself and held her mug up in the air in brief salute. It was another bright morning and she sat looking at it through her kitchen window. She added a piece of toast and jam to her breakfast and, after getting herself ready, she went out into the day, pulling her touque over her ears and wrapping her neck in a scarf. The streets were busy with traffic and noise. She mindlessly wandered to Victoria Park where she sat on a bench among the bare-branched trees and lit a cigarette. There was an ice rink in the park. It was empty this morning with small pools of water collecting here and there and Lil imagined it would soon be shut down for the season if it hadn’t already. One of these days she’d bring her skates and try it out. She hadn’t skated for years and she was clumsy at it even then.
She sunk down low on the bench, stretching out her legs and finished her cigarette. She’d spent a lot of time in that park during Occupy Regina — protesting the disproportionate distribution of wealth between the rich one per cent and the other ninety-nine. There were all sorts of other local issues that became a part of it but that widening gap was the heart of it. She didn’t camp as part of the big tent city that took over the place for a month but she had given a speech after writing an article about it for the Prairie Dog magazine. It was so hopeful but it didn’t stick. With any luck it planted a seed, but for now it looked more like society just peeked one eye up from its head in the sand. No one had a long enough attention span to follow through, even on things that mattered to them. The One Percenters had enough time and money to wait them out. Then the next quick fix news event would take its place and then the next one after that, or maybe people didn’t fully grasp events that happened as their messages got muddled among various groups and headlines, or maybe no one cared. That’s a depressing, she thought, but it’s true for some.
One long, final drag on her cigarette and Lil blew a smoke ring. She flicked the butt to the ground and stamped it out with her foot. She checked her cellphone for messages and quickly took a look on Twitter, wishing she had something inspiring to write. Then again, that would just be adding to the quick fix news headline problem. At least Jann Arden usually had something funny to say. She appreciated that.
Lil put her phone away and thought about heading to Jack’s place for lunch. The coffee was good, the soup was tasty and she could usually find out what her friends were up to just by hanging out for a little while. If she didn’t see them herself, she’d see someone who had.
A few more people began milling about the park, enjoying the sunlight. A man wrapped in thrift store winter wear, hair and beard sticking out in various directions and carrying a long stick noticed Lil sitting there and started toward her. “Please don’t come over to me,” she hoped, “why do they always come over to me, I don’t want to talk.” She watched him warily, wondering about the stick, ready to kick him in the knee if she needed to.
“Could I bum a cigarette from you?” he asked when he got close enough.
Lil nodded. She could see the nicotine stains on his fingers and his moustache. She pulled her pack from her pocket and gave him one, lighting it and another for herself without saying anything. Under his arm the man was carrying an economy sized jar of peanut butter.
“What are you up to?” Lil asked him, gesturing to the stick and the peanut butter while inhaling.
“Just out feeding the squirrels,” he grinned and dipped one end of the stick into the jar and then waved it around, showing Lil the peanut butter that covered it. “Winter’s hard on them, too! Thanks for the smoke.”
“Not a problem,” Lil smiled.
She watched him wander away and laughed a little to herself. It was getting on near noon and she got up from the bench and took the long way around the park. The leafless arms of so many trees reached into the cold air, leaving strange shadows on the ground. Years ago there’d been some sculptures of ants made from aluminum and placed as if climbing up one of the trees, and Lil wondered what had happened to them. One by one they’d been stolen and then took up residence on someone’s desk or in someone’s basement. Soon they’d be thrown into a box with other dust collectors and in another ten years they’d all start showing up at thrift stores, most people having forgotten where they came from. It would be nice to collect them all and place them back in the park. She made a mental note to buy them if they ever did start appearing in the shops.
She made her way around the park and to Jack’s Place. It was busy with the lunch time rush of people, and the windows of the café were steamy with condensation when she arrived. After ordering tea and soup, she found a small table to sit at. The morning newspaper was lying there and Lil read it through as she waited for her lunch. They were slow in getting it to her, and then forgot to bring a spoon when they did. Lil had to go up to the counter and butt to the front of the line to get one. At least the soup was good and her favourite — chick peas with rosemary. It was hot, so she ate it slowly in small sips from her spoon.
She was interrupted by Old Jim’s sudden appearance at her table. “How is it?” he asked.
Lil spilled soup down her chin and reached for a napkin to wipe it. “Shit, you startled me," she said. “It’s good. Here, pull up a chair.” She motioned to the empty chair across from her. “You don’t usually come down here for lunch.”
Old Jim sat down at the table. “No, you have to let them know if you ever leave the yard but I just wanted to get out of there for a while today. Everyone’s gettin’ all worked up and talkin’ strike. People jockeying for position and all that. Seemed better just to come down here and stay out of it.”
“Life in the rail yard, eh?”
“Yeah," Jim nodded. "Everyone’s starting to lose their heads and suddenly guys who were buddies are arguing with each other because one’s a manager or they see things differently. I mean, there’s some stuff that could improve, I guess. I kinda feel like I haven’t been there long enough to really know. But it’s not really my sort of scene. And if it comes to a vote, it’s still a ways off. A lot could happen between now and then,” he paused as the waitress placed his lunch on the table in front of him, spilling the soup as she did so.
“Nice service. At least she brought you a spoon,” Lil said and shook her head as the waitress was walking away. "I don't know where Jack gets some of these people."
“It’s no big deal,” Jim said and wiped the table with a napkin. “Anyhow, it’s nice to get out and have something good to eat.”
He dipped his sandwich into his soup and took a hearty bite, chewing slowly and purposefully. The two of them ate their lunches quietly for a while, Lil still scanning the newspaper folded in half on the table. She let out a snort of laughter, pointing to a small article.
“There’s a little blurb here about the city asking people to nominate special trees throughout the city to add to its “Trees of Significance” list.” She smirked. “It says, 'Is it big? Is it historical? Is it interesting?' bla, bla, bla," she laughed again. “Of all the things they could be doing, but whatever, I guess it’s all right. It makes me laugh— 'Is it big? Is it interesting?' ”
“Why, yes Miss, it is,” Old Jim answered in a smarmy voice. “I’m not sure if it’s historical, though,” he added.
Lil let out a whoop of laughter and covered her mouth with the napkin in her hand. “You never know, it might be to Katey,” he said.
“We can hope,” Jim laughed. His face turned slightly red and he went back to eating his soup.
The city took its trees seriously. Originally, the land where Regina grew was flat grassland for as far as the eye could see. Perfect grazing land for giant herds of bison and pronghorns but not so perfect for settlers who wanted a modern metropolitan city. They worked the land, manipulated it to create what they desired. A city worthy of its name. A future home for the people who would flock to their envisioned hub of the west. The hundreds of thousands of trees throughout the area were planted by hand, turning the city into a beautiful prairie oasis. Elms dot the yards and streets, willows weep alongside the creek, splendorous maples spring up with reserved patriotism. They’ve all been there so long now that you’d never imagine what it once looked like. You’d never imagine the vast nondescript flatness that once spread out in all directions farther than you can see. Canadian prairie before wheat, before parcels and fences. Nothing of any significance to make the spot stand out aside from some piles of bones and a small creek snaking its way through the land on its way to the Qu’appelle River.
“Hey, do you know where Johnny Fish is by any chance?” Lil suddenly asked.
“I think he’s up in Duck Lake visiting family or something. You’re not looking for him, too, are you?”
“No. Just asking for Pepe. Seems everyone thinks he’s somewhere else, though. It’s hard to know with that guy. He’s a bit of a shyster isn’t he? I imagine he’s pro’lly up to something.”
“Good ol’ Johnny Fish, eh?" Old Jim smiled. " You just never know. He’s all right though. . . .”
“Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t say anything. I don't really know him that well,” Lil said, looking away. "How is it living with Pepe?"
Jim shrugged his shoulders. "What do you mean?"
"I was just wondering. He asked me about staying at my place for a while when he's done at yours."
"Oh. Yeah, he's fine. I've known him forever so. . . . You should ask Katey."
"It just kind of caught me off guard that he asked. So I was just wondering if he was in the way, or . . . you know . . . he's kind of moody and just so . . . Pepe."
"Yeah. I hear you, but no it's all right. I'm more surprised he's thinking of moving on already." Old Jim wiped his mouth and beard with his hand and checked the big clock on the wall behind the counter. “Time for me to get back. Good bumping into you.”
“You too. Don’t get too wound up about things up there.”
“I promise I won’t.”
Lil waved and went back to reading the paper, smiling again as she reread the tree article. Her concentration came and went as she went through the rest of the paper, reading for a while and sitting thoughtfully for a while, watching the blurry images of people outside through the steamy windows. She mentally rebutted articles and quotes. She crumpled up her napkin and placed it in the empty soup bowl. She still had a few hours to kill until her shift started and had no plans for the rest of the day. Winter is too long in Saskatchewan, she thought. I bet they’re out for strolls along the beaches in Vancouver. At any rate it’ll be over soon and the sun in the last couple days has been a nice change.
A waitress cleared the dishes from the table and Lil got up to leave. She wrapped her scarf around her neck and pulled her touque over her ears as she got outside. She’d wander around town for a bit before going home and getting ready for work. I’m going to have to do something with this staticy hair of mine, she thought. A traffic light stopped her and she fiddled with her package of cigarettes, finally lighting one and being careful to blow the smoke away from the people around her.
She noticed Jack the café owner on the other side of the street. He was carrying a few bags of groceries. She gave him a cheery smile and waved at him as they passed.
“How you doing Lil?” he asked and smiled back at her as they passed.
Lil wandered through downtown a bit more but couldn’t be bothered to check out any shops. Looking in the windows would do. One of the mannequins she saw wore a maroon, knitted beret. She thought about buying it and imagined how it would suit her as she looked at her reflection in the window. She began to walk toward the door but changed her mind and turned around, deciding that her touque was good enough, and besides, she had lots of other stylish hats at home that she never wore. She didn’t need another.
For the time being, it was a nice day to walk. It was cool out but the sunshine had some springtime heat and she was warm in her winter outfit. She thought again about work — maybe she was wasting her time, too. Hopefully, it would be a busy night and go by quickly.
She was antsy. She fiddled with the keys in her pockets. She fiddled with her cigarette lighter. She smoked way more cigarettes than normal. Maybe it was just the changing of the seasons. Her intuition told her something was coming and it played on her mind.