Floreat Regina: Let the Queen Flourish. Regina is a royal word, and the city celebrates its connection to the British monarchy. The name was chosen by Princess Louise, herself the namesake of Lake Louise, in honour of her mother, Queen Victoria. A grand new name for a new capital city in a new territory. The Queen City they call it, and Elizabeth II in statue rides a horse in front of the legislative buildings, carrying on the lineage of her great-great-grandmother.
At its foundation, though, the city is Oscana — the Pile of Bones. Bones picked clean by carion, bleached white by the sun. Bison bones from the great herds that covered the plains and fed the first peoples for generations. Bison bones from the slaughtered beasts that European settlers killed with disregard. Indian bones from those who starved after the bison were nearly wiped out.
Pepe walked along Albert Street, his rusty hair blowing in the warm wind. It seemed like spring but you couldn’t be sure just yet, as winter usually gets a few punches in, even after spring has started. Either way, change was in the air and early flowers were starting to pop out of the ground in yards around the city. If Pepe had been a farmer on his family land he would’ve been assured of spring’s arrival. He would’ve seen the mountain bluebirds foraging for insects, and the prairie dogs on hind legs cautiously testing the warming land. He would’ve noticed the snow had nearly all melted into riverlets making their way to the reservoir that was getting closer to full, ready for the coming crop season. From the bare branches of the lilacs outside his bedroom window he would’ve heard the chickadees happy chirping and, below that window beside the house, he would've seen the crocuses emerging freshly from the ground.
The family land had been leased out for years. His parents moved into the little farm house after his grandmother passed away and they lived there now. Pepe had spent a lot of time in that old house during his childhood summers and it held a special place in his memories — playing in the garden in the backyard and the shop. One summer there’d been a snake that lived under the lilac bush. Pepe left out lettuce for it to eat every night he was there, not realizing that snakes don’t eat lettuce. Some mornings it was still there, some of it was gone, most likely eaten by a rabbit or some other furry, little creature. As far as Pepe was concerned the snake enjoyed it.
As he got older it was the shop and the farm equipment that took up more of his time and imagination. He spent hours fiddling with the near endless supply of nuts, bolts, nails, hinges, clamps and whatnot. If some do-dads had threads that matched, Pepe would put them together. He built toy robot figurines to play with and, as he got older, his grandpa and uncle began showing him more practical things — basic repairs, maintenance and welding. He liked it. There was a good feeling in taking apart a small engine that wouldn’t run, fixing a problem and making it work again. It was all tangible — the parts and pieces laid out in front of you. They could be cleaned, repaired, replaced, oiled and put back together as good or better than original.
In the city no one had seen or heard from Johnny Fish. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear for long periods and it made sense that he was visiting family up in Duck Lake, though Pepe heard he might be in Rosthern or North Battleford. It seemed that, depending on who you talked to, Johnny was or had been in every city in the province except for Regina. Pepe wished he was out with Johnny on one of his crazy adventures and wondered what he might be up to and if he’d really been in all those towns. He’d show up eventually and then Pepe would get his answer.
At Old Jim and Katey’s apartment, Pepe was still staying on the couch. It had been a while now and they’d gotten into a routine that seemed to work well for everyone. With the odd times of Jim’s work shifts and the early bed and morning times Katey had with her job at the bakery, Pepe wasn’t ever in the way, but he was bored and itching to get going with something. He was tired of bumming around town and more and more regretted having quit his job without any real plan of what to do next. He was sick of that old job at the pizza place and needed to get out he’d tell himself, and he still had a good chunk of money in the bank even though every day he chipped away at it a little bit more. It was a good thing Jim and Katey were letting him stay for free.
He’d slept in late and then lie warm and cozy on the couch flipping through a magazine of Katey’s trying to think of something to do before finally getting up. He picked some clothes out of his suitcase and then checked the kitchen for any baking that Katey had on the counter. There was only a loaf of bread and he curled his nose, not feeling like toast. He opened the fridge, stared into it and, not seeing anything, gave up on breakfast. He went to the bathroom and splashed some cool water on his face and wetted down his hair, looking at himself in the mirror as the drops of water ran down his face and neck. It made him shiver and he grabbed a towel to dry himself from the hallway closet on his way to the living room. He opened the curtains of the large window in the living room and stood staring out over the city for a long while before heading out on his usual path downtown.
His route had few variations — one day he’d turn at one block, the next day he’d turn at another, but he didn’t stray far from that. He had his favourite park benches and a couple of public atriums where he spent his time — elbows on knees watching the people as they passed or reading any newspapers or flyers that were lying around, getting eyed by security guards. He'd stare back at them until more arrived and then leave as the lot of them following behind. There were a few shops the had been frequenting as he made loops throughout downtown. He’d been in them all so often without buying anything that the employees were keeping a close watch on him, wondering what he might be stuffing into his pockets. He tried a couple of different cafes for a change of scenery and the anonymity was nice but it felt wrong to be spending his money anywhere other than Jack’s Place.
Mostly he walked. Hour after hour. Up and down every street of downtown and then back through them again. Looking for something, not knowing he was looking for something. He felt the weight of the buildings as they leaned in on him. He mused his future, he mused his past, along with politics, pop culture and just about anything else he read or heard about along the way. He began to read every newspaper he found and the stories churned inside his head as he wandered. All those pieces of information — things he'd never thought of before, stories that continued on from one day to the next that he mended together in his mind. His feet and legs ached but he had worked off a little of the weight he put on while working in that kitchen the last few years. He'd be his old sinewy self before long.
He’d already gone to Jack’s earlier that afternoon for coffee and something sweet to eat but didn’t stay long. He’d been spending so much time hanging around there or shooting pool at the pub that he needed to find a different way to spend the day. If he wasn’t in one of those places he was wandering in circles through downtown wasting time until he could go back to either place without feeling too self conscious. He needed a change from the monotony of another afternoon of coffee and newspapers or beer and pool.
The streets were dusty with dirt and gravel that built up over winter and the wind blew it into Pepe’s face as he walked. He blinked hard and covered his eyes with his hand. He ducked into a used record shop to waste a little time and get out of the wind. It was one of the shops he’d been stopping in every couple of days and he felt conspicuous as he looked around. He’d already seen nearly everything they had but still flipped through old LPs, CDs and DVDs. You never knew what might catch your eye one day that hadn’t the previous. A few things looked good but not good enough to buy. He pulled them out and looked at them for a while before putting them back and flipping through the bins some more.
On the walls there was some interesting memorabilia and Pepe had a browse through it all — posters, mugs and special sets from bands or from movies. He liked the action hero figurines. If a person had unlimited funds and the space to keep them he thought they’d be fun to waste money on. On the floor by the register was a box with some old VHS tapes at 50 cents each. That was a bit more in his price range so Pepe had a good look, mulling a few choices before finally pulling out a movie called Viva Zapata. He read the blurb on the back cover and checked to make sure it was the proper tape inside the box and then placed it on the counter.
“I’m actually going to buy something today,” he said.
“Yeah, big spender,” the young goth girl behind the counter answered dryly as she rang it in.
“I guess. As long as you still have a player that works.”
“Luckily my roommates do.”
Pepe looked at the floor as he slid the tape from the counter. He left the shop and paused outside. He headed back toward Old Jim and Katey’s place — watching a movie would be something different to do. He didn’t hang about the apartment much on his own. It wasn’t his place and it made him feel strange to be there too much when Jim or Katey weren’t. She might even be home from work by the time he got there and, with any luck, she’d bring some sort of snack from the bakery. He made a quick detour to pick up another cup of coffee from Jack’s Place. He was drinking more coffee than ever these days. It came with having little to do and went well with reading newspapers and books.
The cafe was almost empty with only a couple of other people inside when Pepe arrived. The lunch rush was over and Jack and a couple employees were busy cleaning up dirty plates, napkins and various spills of drinks and soups. Lenny was wiping up behind the counter. Jack took a tub of dirty dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher before grabbing the broom to sweep underneath one particular table. He didn’t notice Pepe when he came in.
“Hey Lenny,” Pepe said. “I’ll just get a large cup of coffee to go.”
Jack finished sweeping and noticed Pepe at the counter. “Hey! Hey!” he hollered and dumped the garbage from the dustpan into a bin, banging it heavily on the edge to knock it all out. He placed the broom and pan around a corner and joined Pepe. “My treat,” he said and motioned for Len not to ring it in.
“Thanks Jack. I thought I’d get one more for the afternoon and then watch a movie.” He showed Jack the VHS tape in his hand.
“I’ve never even heard of it. Looks like an old one,” Jack said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Yeah. It'll give me something to do anyways — life gets kind of boring being unemployed.”
Jack smoothed down his white apron with his hands. “You know if you want a few hours to make a little money I can schedule you in. I’ve got space and it would be something for you until you decide what you’re doing. Making a little money while you’re figuring things out would be a good thing right? You could work with Lenny here.” He smiled and pointed toward Len with his thumb.
“No, no. I’m all right for now. I’ve got cash saved up so I’ll just take this little bit of down time. Thanks though, eh.”
Lenny slid the paper cup of coffee across the counter to Pepe who took a quick sip. It was too hot and he placed it back on the counter. He could see the kindness in Jack’s eyes and looked to the floor. “If I start getting too close to broke I promise to take you up on it,” he said.
“All right, good enough, because it’s there if you want it. I just hate to see you hanging around, wasting time, looking bored. How much money do you have saved up? If you were paying rent how long would it last?”
Pepe shuffled on his feet. “Oh man, I don’t know. Maybe two or three months I guess,” he said.
“Well, think about that for a minute. That’s not a lot of money. You’ll go through it quickly and I’ve got hours for you. It’d be better than just hanging about and you’re in here half the time anyhow. You may as well get paid for it and get your coffee for free at the same time. I’d be happy to have you and it’s hard to beat free coffee.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Pepe nodded deliberately. “Thanks, eh. I’ll figure something out soon and I’ll think about it in the mean time. Katey said she could hook me up with some friends of hers over in Vancouver. So that might be a nice change to head over there for a while.”
“And what would you do?”
“Should be able to get another job in a pizza place easily enough.”
Jack nodded his head from side to side. “Well, sure, I guess so. You could also get some experience here and then easily get into a shop there. Lots of coffee shops in Vancouver to choose from,” he said and the two of them began slowly walking toward the entrance. He gave Pepe a good pat on the back. “Any word on your buddy Johnny Fish yet?”
“Not a peep.”
“Oh well. That’s probably all right."
"He's a good guy."
"I didn't say he wasn't," Jack said and pulled the door open. He gave a bow of his head and a wave of his hand as Pepe passed through. "You take it easy and I mean it about that job.”
A few blocks away, Lil sat on a bench in Victoria Park. Beside her was a statue of John A. Macdonald but she paid no attention to it. She just finished a cigarette and with a serious look on her face stared into the distance.
The previous night she saw an art show based around the Cree War Chief Wandering Spirit. It was a powerful show of images and text by Winnipeg artist Kris Rose. The image that stuck most clearly in her mind was of a bloody Wandering Spirit, a noose around his neck, stampeding as part of a herd toward a buffalo jump and his doom. A person came away with a lot to think about and that’s what Lil had been doing ever since. The world gets sold to you a certain way and it takes some digging and discovering of these little things to shed new or different light. And then you have to do a lot of reconciling as you put it all together with your previous thoughts and ideas.
She moved her feet back and forth along the pavement underneath her, listening to the scraping sound they made and creating different rhythms. Perhaps she was wasting her degree being a waitress at The Magpie. Then again, where would the world be without good waitresses; and it was a good job for studying people, and she enjoyed that. That was another reason she liked sitting on the park benches watching people and all the strange things they got up to. She imagined herself years from now, slightly stooped and pouring coffee to the regulars at some diner, her voice harsh and worn from years of smoking. She’d give out bits of wisdom from all her years of people watching. She’d have a backlog of faces and stories which she would call upon whenever needed. Whenever a young girl sat alone and teary in the small hours of the morning or some guy was in the middle of a late night James Dean impression, she’d slide them a free piece of pie and start off, “You know, I’ve seen people like you before…” Lil imagined whole scenarios, whole interchanges where she knew just what to say. The people she ministered to would scoff at first, but they’d come around. They’d hear the wisdom of what she said, they’d make their difficult decisions, their lives would turn around and she’d never see them again. Half the population of Saskatchewan along with countless random travellers would owe their ongoing happiness and success to that waitress they met at that place. She’d be the unknown God-parent to children across the land.
Lil smiled to herself — if that wasn’t good use of a sociology degree she didn’t know what was. The wind kept blowing her hair into her face and she remembered the beret she’d seen in a store window. Maybe she should’ve got it. She reached into her jacket pocket for a hair elastic and pulled her hair back into a bun. It was nearly time to go home and change her clothes and eat before her shift started. She lit another cigarette, blew a couple of smoke rings and started on her way.
The mail had arrived at her suite and she grabbed it out of the box before unlocking her door and glancing at the window upstairs to see a pair of eyes watching her. The curtain quickly shut and Lil rolled her eyes and growled to herself.
Most of the mail was junk, but there was one envelope from her landlord that seemed out of the ordinary. She went inside to the kitchen and opened it with a butter knife.
“Fuckin’ hell,” she groaned. That couldn’t be right. It was a notice for a rental increase of 50%. She sat down and read it through again with her hand on her forehead. Scheduled for six months from now but even then she wouldn’t be able to afford it. She pinched the bridge of her nose between both of her thumbs. She read it again. She threw the letter on the table and got up and paced the living room, stopping and staring toward the kitchen window, arms folded across her chest.
Lil sat back down and moped at her kitchen table for a few more minutes. She poured herself a glass of wine and sipped at it while she began cleaning the living room. It wasn’t messy but it kept her occupied. After she dusted and vacuumed and tidied up, she stretched out on the sofa. It was a 1980’s thrift store special but it was comfortable and she flipped through a magazine, looking at the pictures or staring at the ceiling as she lied there with her head propped up on a pillow. She had another quick cigarette and then made herself a sandwich before getting ready for work.