Jesse Silver moved quietly for a big man. At twenty-three, he was as muscular as his junk food intake and nocturnal workout schedule allowed. No-one, seeing him move with exaggerated stealth around the alley’s dirty puddles and broken glass at 1:25 in the morning, would guess he had chronic health problems, or that he was anything but a guy ducking into an alley to unload after too many pitchers at the Brickhouse.
He was not, in truth, scoping a place to take a leak. He wanted to sneak up on his coworker/partner/friend, and as with every time he’d tried, at the last second George turned toward him and waggled a finger.
“You covered in mirrors, or what?” Jesse exclaimed in disgust.
“If you’d had my childhood, nobody could ever sneak up on you. I heard you coming; it’s hard once the glass shards get stuck in your shoes.” George tried to sound sympathetic and smile, but often his intentions were better than his execution.
“You never make a sound when you walk,” Jesse said.
“It’s a gift,” George said, in the self-congratulatory tone Jesse liked least. Then, with more edge, “And I do make noise; I make the floors creak at your place.” For perhaps a tenth of a second, George seemed to vibrate slightly under the cone of orange glare from the sodium vapour streetlight. Jesse blinked and the sensation was gone.
“Whatever,” Jesse said. “Did you find the apartment?”
“It’s over the Money Mart. There are two exits – not sure where we should park the truck. Our client texted that she thinks her ex will show up any minute.”
“Well, you can use your famous charm on him,” Jesse said.
“We’ll see,” George said. He was a slender, sharp-featured man in his late thirties, dressed as if he’d been at an Edwardian re-enactment and had somehow, in a fit of adventurous befuddlement perhaps, found himself in an alley famous for administering needle sticks to the incautious.
Jesse knew three things about George for certain. He was improbably strong, very smart and imperturbable. As they plied their odd trade, nothing that cops or clients (or their ranting landlords and former lovers) could do, and no hindrance the drunken wreckage drifting out of bars could create, made him lose his good spirits and inventiveness in dealing with problems. He seemed to like problems, although not to the extent of making trouble for himself for bonus points.
George was a piece of work, and Jesse had no clue what motivated him. As far as Jesse knew, George had an independent income and a complacent girlfriend, whom George insisted on referring to as his ‘mate’. She was some sort of difficult, gorgeous creature who apparently made the independent income possible. Jesse had started to think she was imaginary. George hadn’t so much as given her a name, let alone introduced her.
Why George would be okay with sitting in a rental truck for hours while waiting for the client to show and then moving a one bedroom apartment in the middle of the night, for however long they had until they lost the dark and Jesse had to bail, was still a puzzle to Jesse. If he had money he’d never work again. Only an idiot would. No, George was after something else, but Jesse was not able to work out what it was. He’d started to wonder if there was a Greek word for sexual gratification from moving furniture.
And it was a job, and it was a cash job, and it wasn’t every night, so it didn’t dig into Jesse’s personal life too much. He didn’t have much of a personal life, since the diagnosis, but he tried to see his sister and one of his ‘girlfriends’ at least once a week. It was better than collecting disability and feeling that his life was over. He felt like he’d just barely managed to escape from his shitty excuse for a mother. Then, within a few years of his glorious liberation he’d woken up in hospital after an allergic reaction that nearly put a lily in his hand.
Welcome to Vancouver. Here, have some atypical solar urticaria. Being in the sun raised welts all over his body. His eyes would swell; the itching was on a scale he could not have believed if he had not been forced to live through it.
“Oh well,” said one of the many residents who had come past his bed, collecting him like an animé critter, “The sun hardly shines here anyway.”
That was true enough, if you were an ordinary citizen who didn’t consider light overcast to be a death sentence. With tight clothes, and a special mask with special goggles, he could go out in the sun, if he felt like being stopped by the police and glared at by civilians all frickin’ day long. Jesse couldn’t deal with the freak show. He realized freak show was not a good way of expressing his feelings and tried to find a less ‘othering’ way of saying freak show, and settled on circus, even though circuses are supposed to be festive. The words you’re not allowed to say have more traction.
He almost died, but the doctors had nothing to do with that.
It was still hard to be up all night and sleep during the day, and the grogginess and digestive strain of it was made even harder to bear by George’s knack for getting four hours of sleep, whenever he felt like sleeping, and then bouncing out of bed with all the eagerness to face the day of a Labrador pup. Jesse was as energetic as he’d ever be in his life, and George made him feel like he was walking backward.
The wind picked up and pushed a noxious smell down the alley along with a couple of fat drops of rain. Jesse had the driver’s license, so he walked back to the truck parked around the corner and moved it as directed by George until the rear of the truck nearly touched the awning over the back entrance. George got the tailgate down halfway and then jumped to one side, causing a man with a baseball bat to strike the tailgate with a thunk and a clang rather than stave in George’s skull.
“What are you two assholes doing here?” the man with the baseball bat said, breathing hard.
“You’re going to hit a total stranger with a baseball bat?” Jesse yelled in disbelief, coming round the far side of the truck and keeping George between himself and the jackass.
The man with the baseball bat swung it at George again. George put out a hand and stopped the swing, wrenching the baseball bat away with such force that the jackass fell hard onto one shoulder and then, cursing and moaning, rolled onto his back. From this vantage point, gasping, the jackass watched as the baseball bat went soaring into the air to land with a subdued thump on the roof of his ex-girlfriend’s apartment building.
“Go away, or it’ll be you next time. I’m sure if my friend helps me I could throw you onto the roof.”
“Toss the human caber, oh, the hijinks you get up to,” Jesse murmured.
The jackass got up, wheezed in a way which would have been comical if he hadn’t already tried to kill George, staggered from alcohol and lack of oxygen and in a sideways lurch, closed the distance between himself and George.
George tripped him, pulled two tangled zap-straps from his jacket pocket, and slid one over the jackass’s hands. With a vicious jerk, George dragged him to a bike rack and secured him to it before anyone could react.
“What the fuck! I’m gonna fucking kill you!” the jackass screeched, finally figuring it out. He looked up to where he had last seen his bat, as if it was going to pick itself up and fly back down to him. George pulled out a handkerchief and gently put it in his prisoner’s mouth, as he had extended his jaw to its furthest gape. The jackass doubled over and started scream-coughing behind the handkerchief, and then he blew it out of his mouth and started yelling again.
Trying to cut through the din, Jesse said, “Jesus. You carry handcuff-style zip-ties.”
George picked up the handkerchief, which had not been improved by its brief trip to the asphalt. He fashioned it into a gag and tied it around the thrashing jackass’s mouth while saying. “Not usually, but I couldn’t resist stealing them from that flaming asshole cop who was bugging us on our last job.”
“George, when I grow up, I want to be you.” The jackass was making disturbing noises, running the gamut from angry squeaking to sound-dampened growls.
“The position is already taken.”
“I’m sure I can take over if you die,” Jesse said. He made his blue eyes as puppy-like as he could, even though he knew George was impervious to cuteness.
“Can you wait a couple of hundred years?” George asked. “I don’t actually plan on dying for at least that long.”
“Me neither. Or growing up, either.”
“Oh, I imagine I’ll have to grow up someday,” George said. “Here she comes,” he added brightly.
The jackass, seeing his ex, Ilanna, started thrashing around and howling against the gag. Jesse was amazed nobody was coming to windows to yell at them to shut up.
“Devin,” Ilanna said.
Three words, likely, “You goddamned bitch!” came out in three explosive grunts.
“Language,” George said. “You’re going to sit here and stay quiet until we’ve moved everything. If you’re good, everything that’s yours will be in the apartment packed up for you when we’re done. If you are noisy or get loose or try to hurt anybody I’m going to spend fifteen minutes describing what I’ll do to you and thirty seconds actually doing it.”
“Wouldn’t advise it,” Jesse said. “The description is scarier, but the doing hurts like a bastard, especially if he pulls out the Sub-Atomic Wedgie,” he added with a smile.
Ilanna shook her head and tried again. She sat on the ground next to Devin but backed away rapidly when he tried to kick her. Looking down at him, pity and disgust meeting in her expression somewhere between her knotted brows, she said, “Devin, I went to the cops today and asked for a peace bond. If you agree to sign it and leave me alone – “ at which point two grunts which sounded like “Fuck you!” forced their way past the gag, “– it’ll go better.”
“If you don’t, in about three weeks they’ll put together a picture of how much you get drunk and high and like to threaten to throw me off a building, and to prevent that they’re gonna make you pee in a bottle every month for a year, and we all know how you feel about cocaine and fentanyl, so you’ll be in breach pretty much right away, and then you can detox in jail while figuring out how to pay the fine.”
The response to this was a hate stare and a growl. Jesse said, “I think you’re getting through to him!” at which point the hate stare swiveled around to him like a laser pointer. Jesse smiled and gave him a little wave.
“But if you do, I’ve got some protection and you can keep snorting coke and if you don’t stalk me it’ll stop in a year anyway.”
“Can I talk to you for a second?” George asked Ilanna. They walked briskly out of earshot.
Jesse tried to make conversation, mostly to cover how uneasy he was that they were unlawfully confining a violent drug addict with a decade-long history of domestic violence. Ilanna hadn’t pulled any punches in describing him. Jesse and George, per their mandate, spent no time sighing over her poor relationship choices.
“So,” he said, “Did you vote in the election? You look like a provincial Liberal to me if I ever saw one. I voted Green though and we got our asses kicked.”
The move went fast, considering Ilanna hadn’t slept in 24 hours so she could both pack and work a last late shift at the restaurant. The boxes marched down the stairs, and then Jesse and George staged all the big furniture. By four a.m. it was pretty much done. Devin’s wrists were bleeding and his eyes looked ready to pop from his head.
“Ilanna, get in the truck,” George said pleasantly. “I’ll make sure Devin’s somewhere else when we leave. Back soon!”
“Let’s go back to your car,” George said to his captive. He cut the zap straps, and faster than Jesse could make out from the dim reflection in the side-view mirror, George put Devin in an elbow lock and marched him past a sagging chain-link fence covered in dead ivy, away from Jesse’s view. George pushed Devin toward his car and tugged off the gag at the same time, sending him into a spin. He smacked into the car and bounced back, roaring and trying to grab George, who ducked and wove and didn’t even breathe hard while Devin waved his arms around and cursed at him.
“I’ll kill you!” Devin said. George checked for security cameras, and finding none, choked Devin until he passed out. He leaned the unconscious man against the passenger side door, found the box knife he was carrying, and carefully slashed all of his tires. He stepped back to admire the effect and, leaning forward, put the knife in Devin’s limp grasp.
Then he trotted back to the truck.
“Is he okay?”
“Last I saw he was passed out next to his car,” George said, truthfully if not usefully. “I think he’d had a lot to drink and we tired him out. He never asked me how I knew which car was his, but I think the cheap cologne would have been as effective as a flare gun!”
“So he’s alive,” Ilanna said. It was impossible to tell whether she was happy about this.
“Yes, you’ll still have to push on with the peace bond. Don’t ask me to kill him though, that costs more money than you have. I am a little concerned he’ll report you.”
“Fuck,” Ilanna said, with no volume and little expression. “That won’t happen. The only people in the Lower Mainland he hates worse than you right now are the cops.” Without further conversation, they drove through streets empty of anyone but addicts, cabbies and cops.
The unloading was into a ground level storage unit, since Ilanna had decided to leave town and come back and collect everything later, and they got everything off the truck in forty-five minutes, working flat out because dawn was coming and Jesse had to get the truck back. Ilanna paid them just under a thousand dollars, cash, and the party split up; George and Ilanna shared a cab back to their respective crash spaces (George picked up Ilanna’s fare, it only seemed right after she’d laid out a g-note), and Jesse returned the truck and took a cab home. The sun came up while he was going home, and he put his Evil Villain mask on, after warning the cabbie.
“Holy shit man,” said the cabbie, looking at him in the rear view mirror with sleepy horror.
Jesse had been living with his sister up until the diagnosis. Watching her try to cope with his schedule was too painful. He often found himself watching her sleep, which center-punched the Venn diagram of creepy, sad and jealous, as Raven put it the next day when he finally told her. So he moved into a co-op house, sound-proofed and blacked-out his room and did his best to cope. He joined a 24 hour gym, bulked up as far as he could without drugs, watched a lot of movies, and tried to find work that would suit a vampire.
After six months he realized that there were no jobs designed around the absence of Sol, and he really was cast out of humanity. He applied for disability. It took for bloody ever to come through, and his aunt sold her second favourite horse to pay his rent for a couple of months. He ate so much packaged ramen he told Raven he thought he was turning into a solid lump of MSG.
He was written up in medical journals. He was interviewed by a woman who made a living from squeezing ad money from tragedy, and stopped answering his phone when it was a long distance number he didn’t recognize.
Each time he went out at night, depending on his friends and sister to buy him beer, young women and sometimes men would glimpse his blue eyes, dirty blonde hair and shoulder-waist ratio, and try to pry him out of his clothes.
Jesse enjoyed sex but a pattern emerged that drove him out of the market for a partner. He’d sleep with her without telling her about the atypical solar urticaria (Raven always scolded him when he did that) and then the woman would ghost once she knew. So he’d tell her in advance. Half of them bailed, since no matter how smart a human is they can have damned strange ideas about infectiousness and then again there’s the welfare of unborn generations to consider. The other half banged him out of curiosity and then bailed when they realized he wasn’t joking about the Evil Villain costume.
Or they realized he was broke, and he wasn’t good looking enough to support. (Raven always lost her cheese when he mentioned that.) Or his new queen would say something racist or sexist and Jesse would call her on it and then it was ass, meet snow.
He gave up, joined a polyamory group, (on his sister’s recommendation, which was kinda strange when he thought about it) and met dozens of cool people, layered with the usual assortment of assholes. He settled among a group of older and mostly unpartnered poly women, and told the Vancouver dating scene to kiss his dimpled ass. He was getting laid despite being unemployed and his mental health markedly improved.
He ran into George at a poly meet. They got talking, and the conversation wound around to unemployment and illness.
“I’m in perfect health until the sun hits me,” Jesse said.
“Generally the first thing happens is that the bags ‘round my eyes inflate to about 150 p.s.i., so driving can be interesting. Then I bust out in hives so bad I have to be restrained to not scratch them. Then I whip out an EpiPen® and eighty dollars later I can see.”
“But you’re okay at night.”
“You’ve looked for night work,” George said.
“Yeah, but it’s never night work, not really. You’ve gotta work rotating shifts, or you’re forced to go in during business hours for HR or staff meetings or training or whatever-the-fuck and then I show up in my Evil Villain outfit and sad times are had by all.”
George considered him for a moment.
“You know what I did last night?” he asked.
“Just so’s you know, I’m a bit of a prude,” Jesse said.
George made a barking noise which might have been a laugh.
“I’m a bit of a prude, too, according to my family, but no, I wasn’t needing to brag.” He considered Jesse for a moment, a rueful smile on his face.
“One of my girlfriends is a sex trade worker,” George said. “She works independently and would like to keep it that way, but a pimp had a different idea. He decided to follow her home and beat her up.”
“Holy shit,” said Jesse. It was a great story, but that wasn’t what impressed him. George was unembarrassed to have a sex trade worker girlfriend. Jesse had never met another man who could utter those words in public, let alone squeeze it into a sentence which normalized poly to that degree. Jesse felt for the first time the tidal pull of George’s charm.
“What did you do?”
“Helped her move. As I was shoving things into the truck, by the light of the silvery moon, it occurred to me that there might be many people who need to move out in the middle of the night.”
“Yeah, but are they people who can pay?” Jesse said, and took a long pull on his beer. That was always the chokepoint.
“Desperation makes cash appear, in my experience,” George said blandly. “Perhaps you could start a business doing that.”
Never say you have a problem, the solutions folks offer are twistier than the problem. “I’m not really cut out to be an entrepreneur,” Jesse said. “I’m kind of a born employee.”
“Fine,” George said. “I”ll start the business and hire you.”
Jesse grinned. “I warn you, I’m a terrible employee.”
“How so? You just said you’re a born employee. Are you lazy? Tardy? Unsanitary?”
It wasn’t the words themselves so much as the way George enunciated them that made Jesse laugh.
Sobering, he said, “I beak off a lot.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I am not lazy. I probably have a better attendance record than most people my age, and I frequently shower twice a day.”
Then George said, clearly knowing it was a strange question, “Do you think men should find other ways to signal mutual trust and fellowship than shaking hands?”
“We could get a tattoo to mark the occasion,” Jesse said.
“I like your style, but I balk at the commitment,” George said. “And then there’s the issue of the hazard involved, which is small, but non-zero.”
Jesse would not let it go. “Belly bump works for me,” he suggested.
“Damn,” George said, after a pause. “Let’s do the checkbox.”
“The checkbox. Suppose for the sake of argument that you want to substitute one custom for another, most particularly for reasons of health and safety.”
“Are you a professor of something?”
“Which meaning of professor are you using.” There was no question in George’s voice.
“Okay, so, no. Or no to anything but linguistics and philosophy.”
“I have audited university courses but I never got a degree,” George said. “Since you will not allow me to lecture you, perhaps you will permit me to divert the conversation. Do you envy people who have finished university?”
Jesse choked on his beer. After a couple more coughs, he said, “That totally depends on where they went to university and when. I would give not a pinch of chicken shit for the degrees I see guys my age chasing.” He sloshed the last of his beer around waving it in a gesture of dismissal and screwed up his face. “I’m not like my peers, mostly because I don’t have any. I shouldn’t comment on what the functional millennials are doing these days to prop up end-stage capitalism.”
“You’re a dour young man,” George said.
“Chronic illness’ll do that to ya,” Jesse said.
“But you don’t look sick,” George said.
“And that does it to me too,” Jesse said. “‘Cause that was a dickish thing to say.”
“Was it? Let me get my bearings.” After a moment, George said, “I apologize for making an uncivil comment on your appearance without thinking, and I recognize that being easily killed by your environment must be a daily source of anxiety, which you alone best know how to manage.” During this speech Jesse drew breath and expelled it in disbelief several times, and he was winding up when George forestalled him.
“Within seconds of meeting you I could tell you had both character and capacity. Please let me address an issue of your character, since you show signs of wanting to improve it.”
Jesse said, “What?” with piteous disbelief.
George said, “I don’t use gendered slurs, as I find it’s one of the ways I am colonized by English.”
“I used a gendered slur?”
“Slippery, aren’t they?”
“What, dickish? Dickish is a gendered slur?” An evil thought was sown, grew and blossomed in Jesse’s mind. He stood thinking for a minute, while George, his expression mild, waited for him to speak.
“English is not your first language?” Jesse asked, politely. It was not what George had expected Jesse to say. George’s English was lightly accented, but it was hard to say how.
“Oh no,” George said. “English is not my first colonization.”
One minute he sounds like a con man.
The next he gives me a perfect way to get up Raven’s nose.
Jesse was twenty-three, going on eighty, going on eight.
The conversation wandered into commonplaces. They exchanged contact details and then George excused himself, presumably to the restroom, but he was not seen again at the party.
Jesse, who’d seen everyone he wanted to, hung around for a while, looked for George and, not finding him, walked home. He expected nothing to come from George’s joking threat to start a company, but he wasn’t disappointed in the conversation at all. It was a pleasant evening, and he had a lot to think about, so the two miles seemed about right. He walked down Hastings and thought about gendered slurs. And the look on Raven’s face.
He was startled to hear from George by text two days later.
I don’t have a driver’s license so can you please meet me to pick up a credit card to rent a truck.
You have a customer?
The answer was offputting.
Unfortunately, yes we do.
George appended the time and address.
Jesse texted his sister.
I told you about George – just asked to meet me to rent a truck.
Raven’s response was predictable.
?! Make sure you get paid up front.
Apparently George lived in Gastown. He mentioned that his apartment was nearby, when they met at the Starbucks. Jesse didn’t normally patronize chain coffee shops, but it was the only one open after sunset. Without fanfare, George handed over a HSBC MasterCard, and Jesse said, perplexed, “You’re just going to hand a credit card over to me.”
“You are not a thief.”
“There’s no way you can know that.”
“I’m sure you’d steal if you thought it was in your interest,” George said. “It’s a good thing your standards are so high.”
“Why don’t you have a driver’s licence?” Jesse asked, after deciding that picking a fight about his standards was not wise.
“My family doesn’t drive,” George said.
“Your whole family doesn’t drive,” Jesse said slowly. Then, with more curiosity than heat, he asked, “Where the hell do they live?”
“Oh, here and there, mostly in eastern Europe,” George said. “My cousin Michel is thinking of moving here from Montréal, and of course my mate lives nearby.”
“Your mate. You say you have girlfriends, but also a mate.”
“I’m serious about her. We’re trying to have kids,” George said starkly. In a calmer voice, he added, “The same cannot be said of my girlfriends, who I think would be very angry with me if I tried to get them pregnant, not that I would without informed consent.”
“Nobody at the poly meeting has ever seen your ‘mate’,” Jesse said. He had checked, after George left.
“And they won’t. She’s shy of her appearance and has mobility issues,” George said.
Jesse contemplated the implications for a moment, and decided that George was either flat out lying or playing a game of misdirection.
“So I won’t meet her,” Jesse said.
“I’m not ruling it out. It’s her call,” George said. “She’s a difficult person in some ways, but in any substantive respect, she is without peer.”
Jesse had never heard a man describe his true love in quite those terms, but responded instead to the personal reference.“She knows about me?”
“Yes. I showed her a picture of you and she says you look big and strong,” George said.
George realized his error from Jesse’s expression, and added, “From the Facebook page.” “For the poly group,” he added.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, that picture.”
“She finds it comforting to know that if it came to it, you wouldn’t have any trouble carrying her. Not that you would have to, I can carry her, no problem.”
Jesse did not know what to say to this, and so turned to the business at hand.
“About our client,” Jesse said.
“She’s a friend of a friend of an acquaintance, and she paid up front.” George offered an envelope. “I already took out your share of the truck rental. Her boyfriend can’t help because he’s on a job out of town, and her girlfriends are all too scared to help, so it will just be us and the client.”
“Why does she have to move out in the middle of the night?”
“Her landlord gets out of jail in two days,” George said. “He would have been out today but he was injured during the arrest.”
“Oh God,” Jesse said.
“Oh Montréal,” George said agreeably. Jesse didn’t recognize the phrase and stared at him. George continued, “Mr Landlord put cameras in her flat, assaulted her boyfriend, messed with her heat and hydro to give himself an excuse to enter the premises, and then he got caught going into her flat without 24 hours’ notice after her boyfriend set up a cam of his own.”
“So, he’s a scumbag. Oh gosh. Is scumbag a gendered slur?”
George smiled.“Not in my lexicon. I prefer clownbag, that’s what Michel calls people who shout a lot and hit people.”
“It’s ten o’clock at night,” Jesse said. “How do I get the truck?”
“We’ve got about half an hour to pick it up,” George said. “They’re going to want your driver’s licence but they won’t care whose name is on the credit card.”
After a short cab ride, they pulled up at a lot with a number of white cube vans. A harassed looking man came out of the shadows, put a Square on his cell phone, ran the card and handed over the keys.
“Drive safe and bring it back here for 6:30 –no later – or it’s big trouble.”
“M’kay,” said Jesse.
The brakes screeched and the gearbox was so stiff it took all of Jesse’s concentration to drive to the address in Burnaby George had given him.
They pulled up at a typical Burnaby monster house; it was big, it was ugly and it was beige. Gulnaz, their client, a thin woman with an eagle nose and two close-set brown eyes, ran out to greet them, “Thank God.”
George murmured for Jesse’s benefit, “As an atheist, I’m always pissed that God gets the credit for my heavy lifting,” and Jesse said, “Ha!”
Gulnaz had not been idle while she waited for them. Everything was boxed, taped and labelled. A couple of times as Jesse passed her, going back and forth to the truck – which they’d had to leave on the street as the driveway was blocked by two cars with expired plates – she was weeping, and angrily wiping the tears away with the back of her hand.
The Midnite Moving Co. is a prequel to the Upsun trilogy in which Jesse and George run a moving company which specializes in getting victims of domestic violence and landlord harassment into safer accommodation. Jesse’s doing it to pay his rent, but as he gets to know George, he starts to wonder who his secretive and unusual partner really is. Their story continues in the Upsun trilogy.