Around midnight, a skunk wandered into the front yard. Gulnaz screamed like she was getting paid to, dropped her box with a crash and scooted back indoors. George came out behind her, and put his boxes down.
“Little one, you don’t belong here,” he said to the skunk. To Jesse’s astonishment, as he came up the walkway he saw George approach the skunk and point in the direction he wished the skunk to go. It bolted, tail bobbing, claws scrabbling briefly on the walkway, and vanished.
Jesse went back into the apartment, filing the event away for future analysis.
“Skunk’s gone, Gulnaz,” Jesse said.
“How’d you do that? I thought if you got close they sprayed you! Oh God.”
“I didn’t, George did. Let’s keep moving, okay?”
She was almost whimpering.“I’m so tired. I know he’s in jail but I’m afraid for all of us if his brothers show up.”
“There are brothers?” She hadn’t mentioned brothers to George, Jesse guessed.
“Yeah. It’s complicated,” she said, trying to be funny, but the bitterness poured through her words.
“One crisis at a time. Take a break, have a cup of tea, we’ll keep going,” Jesse said sympathetically.
“You guys have been awesome.”
“Gulnaz?” came a little voice.
Gulnaz sat bolt upright on the remaining kitchen chair and said, in tones of horror, “Aaliyah!”
Jesse saw a strikingly pretty girl in an Ed Hardy hoodie and skinny jeans standing in the doorway. She was perhaps fourteen. His heart thumped a couple of times as their eyes met.
Gulnaz got up, grabbed the girl by the shoulders and shook her hard. “Go home! This is no place to be.”
Aaliyah, shooting a glance at Jesse, said, “I want to help!”
They broke into either Urdu or Farsi, at a guess. Gulnaz spoke forcefully; Aaliyah was monosyllabic.
“Let her stay,” Jesse heard himself say. “George and I will put you both in the truck and drive away if there’s trouble,” at which point George came back in, waggled his lush dark brows at Gulnaz and said, “Like he said.” To Aaliyah, he merely said, “Grab a box.”
Gulnaz, with a tectonic eyeroll, threw up her hands and said, “All right.”
Things were proceeding well when George said, “There’s a car coming.” He casually returned to the truck and pulled the tailgate down.
A Lexus RX pulled up, parked so as to block the truck, and two very angry and somewhat impaired men, one with a turban and one without, got out and started threatening George. Then they saw Jesse and checked somewhat, but continued the abuse.
“How do you want to handle this, George?” Jesse said, when there was a pause in the yelling. A neighbour’s front door banged open, and there was a witness, a sleepy-looking Filipino guy in cargo shorts.
“Errybody shut up or I call the cops,” he shouted across the street, and the door banged shut again.
While George was standing right next to the Lexus, the emergency brake let go, and the sport-ute slowly reversed the swooping maneuver which had positioned it behind the truck, and rolled back down the hill, narrowly missing three parked cars and coming to rest against the curb, facing into the street.
Cursing, the men tore off after their vehicle.
George said, “I lifted their keys while they were looking across the street. Let me deal with this. Keep moving, we’ve only got the big furniture to go.”
“He’s the boss,” Jesse said. Gulnaz and Aaliyah looked terrified. “Gotta push on through or this night’ll never end, c’mon.”
Aaliyah said, “I don’t want to go out again until they’re gone,” and Gulnaz put an arm around her. “Me neither,” she said. “What a nightmare.”
There was a very loud yell, and then silence. After a moment, they all straightened when they heard tires squealing.
They heard the truck door roll open again and Jesse saw Gulnaz sag in relief.
“C’mon,” he said again.
“What did you do?” Aaliyah said to George in wonderment.
“Told them what their blood alcohol levels were,” George said.
And how the hell would you know that, Jesse thought. “Sikhs aren’t s’posed to drink,” Jesse said,
“What a puritan! I was raised not to talk to strangers, and look at me now,” George said sarcastically. “Let’s get a move on; we’ll be done by three at this rate.”
Apart from having to go the long way around with some of the furniture, the rest of the move went like clockwork. They kept their voices down and the cops did not, in fact, come. Gulnaz and Aaliyah came back into the house after the last box and lamp was gone and found Jesse sweeping.
“You keep this place really clean,” Jesse said. “I don’t think your landlord knew how good he had it.”
“That asshole. He’s ruined six months of my life. He’s totally insane. I’ve never seen anybody like him, he’s a scary scary guy, way worse than those two brothers of his,” Gulnaz said.
“Yeah, thanks for the heads’ up on that,” Jesse said, using a piece of cardboard to hold the dust he’d swept up.
Aaliyah said something in her birth language, and Gulnaz made an exasperated sound.
“We should leave. George said you’d drop Aaliyah at her door. You will, won’t you?”
“Absolutely,” Jesse said. He took the improvised dustpan out the door and carried it to one of the trash bins, with Aaliyah following him like a duckling. The security lights blazed as they triggered them.
Jesse said, dreading what was coming, “Get in the truck, you’ll feel safer if you’re up high.”
In a hoarse whisper, Gulnaz said, “Aaliyah, get in the truck!” finally re-admitting Jesse to the conversation.
“Safer?” Aaliyah said to Jesse. “We could die tonight! They’re Sikhs, they probably went to get guns.”
“If they were real badasses – of any racial variant! – they’d have guns in their cars, o great perturbed one,” Jesse said. “Thanks to George they’ll still have to wait a couple of hours to sober up before they shoot my heinie all to widdy bits,” – here Jesse adopted a cartoon voice – “so quit worrying.”
Aaliyah was unconvinced. “Others could come.”
“Wow. You need a life,” Jesse said.
Aaliyah stared at Jesse and didn’t say anything. Jesse shrugged and walked to the truck and got in. Gulnaz and Aaliyah slowly walked away from the apartment one last time and slowly got in the truck; Gulnaz because she’d rarely been so exhausted, and Aaliyah because her adventure was about to end and all that remained was the ritual humiliation of the joint and several scoldings her parents would administer, especially if they caught her re-entering the house.
“Where to?” Jesse said cheerfully. Thank god, it’s almost over and I’ve already been paid.
Gulnaz and Aaliyah started a quiet dispute, not in English. After a bit, Gulnaz, who still had to help empty the truck and was one eye-blink away from melting down, said, “Fine. Aaliyah wants to help us unload.”
“Which would be –?” Jesse said encouragingly.
“A storage unit on Griffiths,” Gulnaz said. “You can drive the truck straight in, it shouldn’t be long. Take 14th.”
She slouched and brushed up against George.
“God, you’re freezing!” she said.
“He is kinda clammy,” Jesse said. He didn’t normally have to sit squished into George but there was an extra person in the cab. Aaliyah, of course, had been placed as far from Jesse as possible.
“I’m really uncomfortable,” George said. “Can I ride in the back?”
Wordlessly, Jesse got down, let him out, watched George scramble into the back with the furniture and boxes, re-secured the tailgate, and got back in the truck. With a ghastly screech and clatter, they were off.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Aaliyah asked.
Gulnaz made a protesting noise.
“What makes you think I’m straight?” Jesse asked.
“Are you and George a couple?” Aaliyah asked, eyes wide.
“I only met him a couple of days ago,” Jesse chided. “I haven’t decided if he’s the man for me yet.”
George could be heard guffawing. Jesse mentally added ‘sensational hearing’ to George’s list of attributes.
Jesse slapped the steering wheel with both hands in mock annoyance. “Well, that does it. We’ll have to just be friends.”
“You’re teasing me,” Aaliyah said.
“Yeah, and I’m enjoying it, too. I’m curious to know how you two are related.” He took his right hand off the steering wheel long enough to poke it in their direction.
“Half-sisters,” Gulnaz said. She was asleep but still able to talk.
“I have a half-sister too,” Jesse said, “but she’s three months older than I am.”
“Your father had more than one wife?” Aaliyah said, trying to work out what had happened.
“Not to my knowledge,” Jesse said. “In fact, I don’t think he ever even managed one.”
Aaliyah abandoned Jesse’s ancestry as a conversational wellspring and returned to a much more pressing issue. “Are you really gay?” Aaliyah said.
“Who cares?” Jesse said.
“Do you work out every day?” Aaliyah said.
“Four days a week,” Jesse said. “Plus moving.”
“Why do you have this job instead of a proper job?” Aaliyah said.
A well-crafted intersectional takedown of the previous sentence was simply more than Jesse could manage, the ethics of verbally whacking a tired child aside. So he replied, “Cause I’m allergic to the sun.”
“Nobody’s allergic to the sun,” Aaliyah said. “Darwin wouldn’t let that happen.”
Jesse hooted with laughter, startling Gulnaz out of her doze, and said, laughing his response into unintelligibility, “I’ll legally change my name to Nobody, then.”
Jesse straightened up. “Here’s Griffiths, where’s the… oh, I can see it. Good thing there’s nobody else on the road to get mad at me for turning from the wrong lane. Gulnaz, do you have the passcode so I can get in with the truck?” She fumbled in her purse and gave him a piece of paper. Jesse drove through, located the storage unit and tried to return the code and unit instructions, but Gulnaz was now deeply asleep. He handed the piece of paper to Aaliyah and said shortly, “Put it in her wallet.”
George jumped down like an acrobat when Jesse opened the tailgate.
Aaliyah said, “Let her sleep.”
The three of them finished the unloading. When she woke up, Gulnaz cried in Aaliyah’s arms from sheer relief.
“Let’s get you home, kiddo,” Jesse said.
“She was going to stay in a motel on 6th,” Aaliyah said. “You should come home with me,” Aaliyah said.
“Your mother won’t let me in,” Gulnaz said.
“Oh, yes, she fucking well will,” Jesse said. “Rather than embarrass herself in front of two strange white men.”
Gulnaz made a sound. The two women laughed wildly for a few seconds, and then Aaliyah leaned forward and said, with a much more adult intonation than previously, “Thank you, Jesse.”
On the return trip to drop off the truck, blissfully client-free, Jesse said, “I sure hope they’re not all like this.”
George, who’d had quite enough of the peaks and lows of human ambition and emotion for one day, said, “Me too.”
George seemed to be obsessed with ranking their moving experiences. Jesse was perplexed. It was also not what he wanted to be doing while sitting in a truck in the middle of the night, waiting for a client.
“Da phoque, man.”
“Am I expressing something you find to be unnervingly non-normative?” George asked.
“‘Am I weird?’ covers all of that,” Jesse said. “Go for the short, not the long.”
“Your advice, then, is to experience the experience and then have the next experience, rather than perceiving a pattern, a useful pattern, in the succession of experiences and altering your behaviour in accordance with the pattern.”
“Experience to experience is the way life works, if you’re doing it right,” Jesse said, after an annoyed pause.
George did that thing with his eyes. He didn’t do it often, about as often as he genuinely laughed or smiled, but for just the shortest second you could swear his eyes were opening bigger than was humanly possibly and it was simultaneously sickening and cool and impossible to talk to George about.
Jesse looked away and down and gave himself permission not to react. It felt too much like being with his mother, being in this mode, invisible, defensive, minimal. He set his ears to ignore George, and asked himself what was truly happening.
He’d take a breath to ask him to fill in some gaps, just idle talk, and George’d return something quiet and job-related or task-related. With a bump, Jesse was no longer in personal question land and had returned to man versus thing, or man versus cop, or man versus coworker (Jesse almost always lost) or, the ongoing ruling favourite and overwhelming nightmare, man versus client.
When he got to the end of the thought, Jesse mentally edited all appearances of man to person, and sighed. Go for the short not the long is not great advice if you’re a settler talking to a native person. Please trim this name down for me, I’m used to English. Or French. Or Portuguese. Or Spanish. And it may not work for a woman, or transperson, or someone who’s young or disabled. We’ve fallen off a sociological cliff, pretending we’re not yelling ‘AAAAAAAAAAAH!’ all the way down. Nobody really knows what acknowledging equality will mean. What it will look like. How it will play. But we all can imagine who will try to stop us.
Jesse sighed again. Our minds are structured by colonialism, and like hoarders, we unseeingly walk through, that being our walls and floors as well as our trash.
“You really don’t like it when I pop my eyes at you,” George said. “I used to know people who loved it.”
“You were thinking about something else.”
“No, you were right, I don’t like it. You don’t look human when you do that, and if you have voluntary control over that behaviour, please don’t.”
“I could tell you were angry,” George said.
You smug son of a bitch, Jesse thought. “Want an Iron Cross for that?” he said. Since George never ate in front of Jesse, not once the two months he’d known him, there was no point offering him a cookie. World War II was a very sore subject for George, though, and Jesse noted the hit.
George said, after a bone chilling pause, “I can’t always tell.”
George was rarely on the defensive, so Jesse pressed him. “And sometimes you know a little too well. How’d you know about the blood alcohol levels on those two clownbags?” Jesse folded his arms, awaiting the predictable spin.
George was affable. “What’s this? I didn’t. I told them I called the cops as they drove up, mentioning that somebody had been arrested for assaulting a cop at that address two nights ago and these two gents looked like more of the same. I mentioned that I mentioned I could tell from that last swerve that the driver, at minimum, was plastered. Then I advised our two visitors they should figure out which one of them was least drunk and then he could deal with the cops and the next thing I know they’d fired up the Lexus and bugged out. Wish I knew Punjabi, they gave me quite a farewell.” He seemed almost nostalgic.
At Jesse’s expression, George said, “But it was a good move otherwise,” which was an error, because then Jesse remembered the skunk.
“What about the skunk?” Jesse said suspiciously.
“Haven’t you ever noticed that if you speak respectfully to creatures they respond better?” George asked, in his greasy, self-flattering voice. In a more sensible tone, he said, “I don’t know what happened. I expected to get sprayed, which would have been inconvenient; it didn’t run off at my command.”
“So. Nothing could be proven either way,” Jesse said.
“Please don’t tell me you think I have magical command over animals?” George said in disbelief. “I mean,” he said, and you could see him warming up to the idea,“if I could do that I’d be at the track, don’t you think? And it’s been ages since I watched the wiener dog races,” he added fretfully.
“You don’t need the money,” Jesse said, and his jealousy was plain.
“Maybe I need the experience of spending it,” George said.
For a second Jesse thought of punching him hard in the face, but a few months’ experience watching George deal with jackasses left him in no doubt what such an attempt would yield.
“Jesus Christ,” said Jesse. “Did you wake up last year in a cave, ignorant of the ways of ‘spending money’?”
“It was a castle,” George said helpfully. “In Romania, in Transylvania actually. The castle basement to be honest, and it wasn’t last year, it was,” deep breath, “a while ago.”
There might be truth mixed in with the lies. George had so much ‘give’ to him. No matter how hard you pushed or pulled, he would not move in any direction but where he wanted to go.
Jesse lashed out.
“You know,” he said, “It seems pretty obvious you were raised in an abusive home.”
George looked at him.
Time seemed to sag into a hole and lodge there.
“Is it obvious?” he asked.
“Not right away,” Jesse replied, scarcely believing he’d landed another hit. Then he asked the question yet again. “Why are you helping people move?”
“It’s very complicated, and any explanation would depend, for context, on a better understanding of my current situation.”
“It’s something illegal, isn’t it?” Jesse said. He still couldn’t figure out what.
That barking laugh again. “Yes, but that’s not the sticking point.”
“That a fucking fact?” Jesse said, once again experiencing the strong desire to punch the living shit out of George. “What am I looking at? Conspiracy?”
“Conspiracy, while it has a certain ring to it, also implies the benefit of a jury trial,” George said.
“Jesus iced fucking Christ in a bucket. So, terrorism and treason?” Jesse asked, his voice swooping upward in an unmanly way. He felt sick and cold, thinking first that George was lying, and then that he was telling the truth, and then that he was telling the truth but that somehow he’d fix everything. Jesse had watched him fix many situations, at least long enough to secure an escape route.
George said, voice wavering, “Well, no. Hang on, let me check the Criminal Code of Canada. I’ve got the app, you know.”
“Shit,” George said after a minute. With a great show of cheerfulness, he said.“Well, let’s hope it never comes to that.”
“What have you done?” Jesse said.
“It’s not what I’ve done,” George said. “It’s how it’ll be interpreted.”
Somewhere in this lazy tangle of steep hills, plunging ravines and multi-million dollar views their new client was waiting.
Or maybe not waiting. She had met George in a quiet corner at Lonsdale Quay earlier that day and handed him ten one hundred dollar bills. She at no point gave her name and never took off her hat, gloves or sunglasses. George was troubled that she was accompanied by a nanny and a sweet looking toddler in an expensive stroller that looked like concept art for the offspring of a Vespa and a blimp.
With the receipt of the money, they had one half of a civil contract, and Jesse procured a van. There was one further communication from the client. In heavily accented but clear and correct English, she had told George by phone that her residence was in the British Properties, her angry husband was coming home to take their toddler back to China, and she needed to have some furniture and clothing moved to a condo in the Olympic Village tonight before eight a.m. She then hung up before providing either address and ceased responding to the number she’d used to call them.
They tried to be positive and not think badly of the customer.
“She’s likely quite perturbed,” Jesse said. “I need to stay calm and not reflexively hate the rich person.”
“Rather hard to fulfill a contract when conditions have not been met,” George said in annoyance.
“I’m willing to wait until two hours before sun-up,” Jesse said. “I got paid, it’s okay.”
“You just like sitting in a van with me,” George said coyly.
Jesse grinned. “Why not, when you fart less than anybody I ever met? That being one virtue towering among many, I hasten to add. But believe me when I say that I go home sometimes to a bunch of smelly men, and I miss not being able to smell your farts, plus you never get b.o.. You know, I can’t figure out how you can be so – antiseptically clean. It ain’t natural,” he said, and turned and looked directly at George, who was giving him a tranquil, almost amused, profile.
“I don’t have any control over how I smell, or don’t,” George said. “This van, though, there’s something wrong.”
“Hoo-ee!” Jesse said, after he pulled up the rolling door, waving a hand in front of his face.
This van smelled like something disgraceful had happened in it, but only when the dust in the cracks in the particle board shook loose.
The smell was almost certainly, but not conclusively, evidence that something had been alive, and then dead, and then liquefying, and then removed, and then the suffering approximation of wood had been cleaned with something as effective as prayer but much stronger smelling. Loading and unloading the truck would be a pilgrimage through a traumatizing stench.
George remembered that they hadn’t been able to detect it in the cab. Jesse closed it up and they fled back to the cab, which smelled comfortingly of cigarettes, tarry drops of coffee and pine freshener.
“I need a checklist,” Jesse said, feeling stupid for taking the truck. “But the rental guy is always in such a hurry.”
“A genuinely unmarked white van is surprisingly hard to come by,” George said.
“So there’s no insurance, either,” Jesse said morosely. “Good thing I’m so in love with my driving skills. I think I’m fucked if I hit anything, I’ll probably lose my licence for a year.”
“I hope not. You’re a good driver.”
“So what now, drive up there and wait until she calls us in a panic?”
“Why not?” George said. “I’ve never been up there.”
“I don’t imagine people in that part of town would like it, us going up there,” Jesse said, considering it. “A van in the middle of the night is not super relaxing to have around. Could be anything, surveillance, party bus, coffin hotel, perv command vehicle, wifi sniffer. Why, it could even be legitimate!” Jesse poured himself a coffee, knowing that in four hours he’d have a blind date with a bush halfway up a mountain, and simultaneously remembering he’d left his Maglite® at home. “Yup, an unmarked white van is guaranteed to be perfectly acceptable – why not just say welcomed? – while parked in front of a fourteen million dollar house with a guarded entrance and servants’ quarters!”
“You know it would be a really bad idea,” George said softly.
“Shall we?” Jesse said, and started the truck.
Jesse had never had any reason to go to the British Properties. He did not enjoy driving a moving van through it at night, so his first impression was rather crimped.
Jesse did not believe that rich people were necessarily evil people, but driving around the British Properties late on a warmish Tuesday in July was not improving his opinion of them. He’d been cut off by a Porsche, and a skateboarder had used his tailgate as an anchor point prior to whipping down Eyremount Drive.
“Holy fuck,” Jesse said.
“Oh, he’s fine,” George said.
Jesse shook his head, and watched the kid as he wheeled out of sight, doing 70 at a bare minimum.
He’d never seriously taken up the hobby, growing up 50 kilometres from the nearest skate park and 8 kilometres from the nearest paved road. He’d cadged an old beater of a board from a school friend, during that magical period when his mother was too fucked up to home-school and Rhonda refused to do all that and do all the exterior work, plus chickens, plus goats, plus riding, feeding, doctoring, mucking out and training horses.
Working furiously on his chores so he could steal a few minutes away, he’d tried to set up a few minis. He worked his way up to a half-pipe, with Raven hammering nails alongside him with glee.
His mother, on one of her rare, and thus infuriating, forays out of the house and past the yard, had found boards missing and torched his two tiny ramps. He remembered Raven had shown more anger. Jesse knew it was safer for her to let it out, and he didn’t mind.
All the parts that cared were going to die, anyway, or so he thought at the time; it’s easy when you’re twelve and your mother hates you (and every other man living), and your sister and co-mom are too intimidated by her cruelty, rage and spite to protect you. Nor had he grown ten centimetres and put on fifty pounds and lost all his wiry boyishness, and Ma sure as shit had not enjoyed him morphing into his father in front of her. Thinking of that made him smile, but it was not a happy one.
From his adult perspective, on a street a thousand metres above sea level, death was neither convenient nor romantic. He was lucky to be alive. He was lucky to be looking across Vancouver, ‘that breath-taking panorama of never-ending beauty and charm’, at least according to the most recent listing for the client’s house, which George had looked up on his phone. “Oooh,” he had said, like a kid finding a double sawbuck in the upholstery. “A Zen garden. And there’s a hot tub.”
“I really don’t think I’ll get to soak in it after we load the truck,” Jesse had replied. “Isn’t calling it a Zen garden bigoted, unless it’s located where people are practicing Zen? Otherwise it’s a Japanese-style garden, but I guess the word Zen is worth money or it wouldn’t have been in the ad.”
The client sounded difficult, suspicious, fragile and frightened; Jesse had wanted to bail within seconds of hearing George’s description. Then he recognized his error. If they were helping people leave abusive landlords, lovers and family, the only means test was, “Can you raise a thousand dollars cash?”
She was rich, and had not been in Canada long enough to get used to it. Her toddler had been born here, but citizenship didn’t mean much to the global super-rich. She’d lived a previous life as a magnate’s daughter in China – another fact gleaned by George from the internet – but those were not reasons to turn down the job. Rich women get knocked around by their husbands, and sometimes by their wives. She could be rich, and yet so isolated that hiring two gwai lo rounders had been her only option, when she needed to bug out.
George, with the prescience that Jesse was starting to find far too coincidental, had doubled their fee over the phone. She was to give him another thousand on completion.
The customer still had not called or texted.
There was time to think. It was easy to frame the lesson he had taken from those crushing years before Raven rescued him.
In this culture you could not be a man until every soft feeling in you was dead and every hard feeling was yoked to the success of capitalism.
Raven said, “Harsh!” but he didn’t hear an argument.
After they applied to become emancipated minors and fled to Vancouver, Raven said it wasn’t right to confuse his mother with capitalism; Jesse told her it made perfect sense. “Why not use second wave feminists to reinforce strict gender roles? Isn’t that what capitalism wants them to do, if it can’t shut them up or kill them? When they get older they are just as angry but way more tired, and they have all the prejudices of the generation, and hate it when you point it out.”
Around the last time his mother had gotten really sick, he’d told Raven he wanted to die. Not to commit suicide, which still seemed foreign and messy, somehow. Just to disappear, never to awaken.
The kid on the skateboard was long since out of sight.
“If he comes off, he’s gonna have a really bad time,” Jesse said.
They waited in silence for George’s phone to ring.
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.