Mutual Street Blue

Mutual Street Blue

A Story by G. Kenneth Weir

A very old man is a stranger in the city of his birth.

It had never been spoken of, the old building, the old town, the old life. And yet with the passage of so many years, the candles had winked and died, and it seemed now as if the whole thing had never even happened. Suds Laverie had been incarcerated for sixty-two years at Stony Mountain, a correctional facility eleven lonely clicks north of Winnipeg. Suds had made plenty of friends inside, and they all knew pieces of his past�"good Toronto boy, son of 1912 Summer Olympics boxer “Curly” Mike Laverie. But what no one knew about Suds was that he was once on his way to someplace special. Once upon a time, he’d come close to being someone. True, most Good Catholic boys from Toronto were on their way to some modest glory, and most of them ended up actually making it. Yet for one granite grey day in the winter of ’27, Suds, good old Suds from good old Cabbagetown, burned brighter than any of the other good young Catholic stars in the smoky Toronto skies.

From the moment he boarded the Greyhound on Wellington Avenue in downtown Winnipeg, Suds wore the expression of a bewildered child. The big bald man who took his ticket suspected some oddity in the old man, and as banalities like the weather seemed inappropriate, he could think only to ask Suds if he was all right. Suds’ throaty ‘No’ and sour lemon of a face made the ticket man self-conscious and he turned away. Suds would have liked to tell the bald man how long he’d been in prison. It would have been nifty to tell the young lad that he’d just celebrated his hundredth birthday and how did he look for his age, considering how long he’d spent rotting in jail.
    Suds was first to board the bus. He had quick eyes. He counted the rows and then humped himself slowly to the eleventh row. At last, after some deliberation, he lowered himself into the aisle seat on the driver’s side. Only as the bus pulled away from the station did Suds remember: row eleven, aisle, driver side�"the seat he sat in on the prison bus out of Winnipeg.

    Shadows were now consuming Remembrance Day. The snow, which in Manitoba falls almost without relent from late October through March, was particularly cruel. It had been falling steadily since late morning. In the half-light it stood in contrast with the deepening blue that was bruising and engulfing the city. For the fog on the bus windows, Suds was unable to watch Winnipeg disappear from view. It was all about the back of people’s heads now.

    Each of the twenty hours it took for the Greyhound to reach Toronto fell away like dead, rotten skin, and by the time the driver delivered his triumphant announcements and his saccharine thank-you for riding with Greyhound, Suds felt as if he had dragged the bus from Winnipeg.

    Bay Street was not at all how Suds remembered it. He expected some change over six decades, of course, and knew from reading countless magazines and books in his cell that something like progress was afoot in the world. But as he had never been much for television and had generally confined himself to sporting and scientific articles in his magazines, Suds was quite unprepared for how profoundly Toronto the Good had changed.

    As he padded south on Bay Street, Suds felt his heart race. There was excitement in his blood, a long abandoned savagery that, while now all but impossible to indulge, nonetheless screamed and bubbled inside him. Suds took Dundas to Yonge, marveling as he did at not only the height but the girth of the new buildings. The hooves of a thousand cart-horses clopped between his lungs, and his eyes attempted to process the entirety�"small armies of white and brown and yellow and black people; buses, trucks, skyscrapers, billboards; televisions overhead the length of ten train cars; unshaven men standing by, smoking, talking to themselves; storefronts gaping down on everyone like great, indifferent gods�"Suds felt, really for the first time since he’d left Stony Mountain, something like real terror. Back at Bay Street there was some semblance of what he once knew. He remembered the building between the bus station and Dundas Street. It was the same building that once housed a cigar store, a dentist’s office and a dairy and delicatessen. In his mind’s eye he could still see the Aylmer Fruits billboard atop the corner cigar store and apartments. But at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, where lights and noise and people ruled over all else, there was nothing.

    As Suds hobbled east on Dundas the snow and wind came on. Every five or six shop-fronts, the old man had to stop and catch up to himself. Conditions quickly worsened, and by the time he made Mutual Street, Suds was about ready to lay down somewhere. He took in a heroic breath and pressed on. The violent nothing of Yonge and Dundas quickly faded from Suds’ pocked mind. In its place was a new kind of nothingness.

    As Suds reached the next block, he looked up and noticed the sign: C FÉ. At first he had his doubts, but then his nose picked up the smell of coffee so he pushed forward. The Mutual Café was no refuge for man. No one was inside but for a skeletal Chinese man behind the counter. He wore a greasy Oakland Athletics cap and took up so little space that Suds had barely noticed him at first.

    “Coffee,” said Suds, shaking himself off. He took one of the high chairs at the counter and watched as the Chinese man poured. The air was thick and sour. Suds didn’t have much hope for the coffee. The Chinese man didn’t smile when he served, and it was quite clear from the thumb in the drink that this was not the Chinese man’s natural domain.

    “Sista place,” said the Chinese man, flattening the middle of his newspaper with the backs of his fingers. “Sista place open nineteen seventy-nine. I don’t like, no.” The Chinese man crinkled his nose.

    Suds did not engage the Chinese man at first. The coffee was horrid, worse than the stuff they served back at Stony Mountain. Suds glanced at the door and decided to stay put for a while. If anything, the snow had gotten worse since he’d come flaking in. He took root in his high chair and added another creamer to his coffee. Some kind soul at the bus terminal had given him a city map and told him there was a ‘Y’ on Charles Street. Maybe he’d go up there as soon as the snow let up. But for now, a coffee, warm lights …

    “You live close?”

    The question confounded Suds, who while back at Stony Mountain had lived close to everything and everyone in the entire universe.

    “No,” Suds replied. “I live … everywhere.”

    The Chinese man pulled off his cap and scratched at his scalp like a mangy cat. He nodded solemnly, as if Suds’ reply was the only sane way one could have answered his question.

    “I’m outta prison,” Suds offered from behind red-ringed eyes. “Sixty years behind bars, chum. I’ll be damned if I don’t know what the hell to make of all this.”

    The Chinese man smiled and put down his paper. He disappeared for a moment as he crouched low, emerging both flushed and triumphant with a small ceramic bottle. He looked at Suds and puckered his lips as he removed the top and set it down.

    “Hell’s that?” Suds asked.

    The Chinese man didn’t answer at first. He poured with great care, as if the contents of the bottle would explode if sufficiently agitated. Suds guessed that the fire-red lettering on the bottle was Chinese but couldn’t say for sure. He’d once heard one of the Stony Mountain guards tell another guard that whenever one yellow man died, ten came to the funeral. Suds thought it might be true of this one, but he didn’t care. Ten of these men, he figured, were worth a hundred of those miserable turnkeys.

    In the Chinese man’s eyes, heavy as they were, Suds saw not the misery of final acts and setting suns but glints of morning, sweet summer lust, memories of love gone by. Suds could tell just by watching the Chinese man drink�"he laughed before and after downing each belt�"that he had lived well and come to regret nothing. Without feeling the need to ask, Suds slid his mug over.

    “Baijiu,” said the Chinese man, filling Suds’ mug to the brim with the clear, moldy-smelling fluid. “Shuang zheng jiu. Ninety.”

    “Shoo-ang�"” Suds tried.

    The Chinese man exploded in laughter. “Good! Ah, good! Shuang zheng jiu. Is rice wine. Is distill twice.”

    The more the men drank, the less and less the men frowned. Gradually the lights overheard, which to a sober mind needled and oppressed, became as the very gaze of Heaven upon a wonderworld of soup flecks and toast crumbs. Over the course of the evening, only one soul ventured through the fog and ding-a-ling of the front door, and he was summarily banished to the outer darkness with bits of egg and packets of breadsticks.

    “There is no progress,” said the Chinese man to Suds after a long silence. “Sorrow only.”

    Suds crossed his arms angrily. It took him some time to explain it, but he did manage his point: that even he, throwing his life away over a few moments of insanity, had nonetheless progressed. He was one hundreds years old, allowed to leave prison after sixty years of good behavior.

    “I’m here now,” Suds told the Chinese man. “Means I came here from somewhere else. I call it progress.”

    The Chinese man grunted as he stared at his bottle. Suds’ slurred utterance of “I’ve lived all my life to be here now” seemed to confuse the Chinese man, who lit up a long brown cigarette and filled his lungs.

    “Used to play hockey near here,” Suds said, casting a pair of stewed eyes out a window into the black. “Mutual Arena. Know where it is?”

    The Chinese man nodded no.

    “Course you do,” Suds insisted. “Mutual … Mutual Street. Where’s that?”

    The Chinese man smiled as he topped up his glass with baijiu. “This is street say,” he said, pointing up at the ceiling. “You see sign come in�"is Mutual Street Café.”

Suds got up and managed (just) to make the front door. Instead of stopping or passing through it, he simply walked into it. But Suds’ face did not betray pain. He squashed his red, ruddy face against the glass and blinked hard. It had stopped snowing. People were out. Suds struggled through the café door and trudged down to Shuter Street. Blank faces passed by him, and the colour blue began once more to invade the worn-out mind. The blue was not solid but wispy, dense, like the upper airs of a room full of smoking grownups to a child.
    “Ah, I close!” laughed the Chinese man, who was holding up two bottles of baijiu.
    “Where you go?”

    Suds shuffled to the corner. His eyes roved to and fro, finally catching sight of an old brown walk-up on the next block corner. Suds hurried to the next corner and stopped, enjoying greatly the crunching sounds of the Chinese man following him.

    “Where is … y-you go?” the Chinese man spat.

    Suds stared hard at the crumbling walk-up that squatted on the corner of Shuter and Mutual. Still there, after all these years. There was something revolting in the air, some strange meat, perhaps, boiling angrily in some dismal kitchen. Suds looked over his right shoulder, beyond the block-long Tru Park lot to the Colossus of a skyline. Blue smoke was everywhere. It obscured the walk-up, the skyline, and most of the CN Tower.

    “Used to play hockey around here,” said Suds, falling back to the Chinese man for one of the bottles.

    “This house?” the Chinese man asked incredulously. He laughed. “A-ha, no! No play in there, come on!”

    As he told the Chinese man, it all felt like someone else’s life. Somewhere along the way, Suds had almost become something. In 1927, he was a hockey player, a highly touted scoring prospect for the Maple Leafs. After a Saturday night loss against the Ottawa Senators, new coach Mike Rodden called for the 18-year old whiz kid from Cabbagetown. Good, clean Catholic boy, Rodden had been told, a young master with the puck, a speed fiend and tireless back checker. Rodden, a former journalist and believer in good WASP pragmatism, knew it couldn’t hurt to throw some light into the mix, something to balance this team of Bert Corbeaus and Corb Dennenys. Suds told the Chinese man all about how the police had nabbed him for something he’d done a month earlier while visiting his brother out in Winnipeg. He was just about to step onto the ice in his first game as a sub left winger when two cops blocked him. Before he knew it, the cuffs were on him and he was in the back of a police wagon.

    “I close,” the Chinese man said, gargling then swallowing a fresh belt of baijiu.

    Suds’ eyes brightened as he looked up Mutual Street, but then quickly faded back to smoky blue. It was gone. “This is Mutual Street, eh?”

    The Chinese man was now sitting in a pile of snow giggling. “Street … I close.”

    Suds watched as the Chinese man poured the remainder of his bottle down his gullet. All was lost. The Mutual Street Arena was gone now. In its place was a high-rise apartment complex.

    Suds ambled slowly down Mutual, into a small parkette at what he figured was the exact spot where once swung the front doors of the Arena. The snow was on again, but now it was soft and velvety, warm as a mother’s kiss. The baijiu was coming on hard now. Suds lay down in the parkette beneath a children’s slide. He was glad to forget that he was full of sorrow. The snow didn’t care either way.

© 2010 G. Kenneth Weir

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Added on February 23, 2010
Last Updated on February 23, 2010


G. Kenneth Weir
G. Kenneth Weir

Toronto, Canada

I've never been one for 'About Me' entries. I can never seem to get the ratios correct, and usually end up sounding either pompous or self-effacing. The truth is I'm neither ... and both. Isn't this j.. more..