(from a story set in TO that didn't make the final cut of Taking the Stairs)
By John Stiles circa 1998
When Jim arrived at his place of employment, an Insurance building, a fifteen story Toronto landmark near Queen Street, he walked straight through the scattered groups of secretaries and insurance men eating breakfast in the cafeteria and proceeded directly to the dish pit, where he put on his apron, tied the strings tight, pulled on his gloves and began scrubbing the soaking pots and pans. He never smoked in the cafeteria because he didn’t like the defeated stare that smokers wore so he rationed his cigarettes carefully so that when he went to the John he could steal a smoke and savour the smell of the smoke.
When break time came, Jim folded his apron neatly and placed it between two cardboard napkin boxes and walked out into the quiet part of the cafeteria where he ate sparingly his usual lunch of antipasto, mains and a bagel. Sitting alone he stared hard at the dining room clock until it was exactly half past twelve and then he put his dirty tray on the conveyor belt and walked back through the kitchen and deposited the newspaper into the box in a curtsying fashion as if he was laying a wreath at a funeral. When the end of his shift arrived, Jim folded his apron neatly and tucked it away under the counter and strode through the large polished corridors and into the a crowd of noisy Insurance men from the offices upstairs who pulled their arms around his shoulders and stated: “Here he is, the company man himself: Our man Jim Swan.”
In a different time Jim had been a different man. In a different time, Jim had worked the account books for Welland Transport up in Northern Ontario. But after ten years of staring at prefabricated walls and the same parking lot filled up with eighteen wheelers and pick-up trucks, Welland Trucking Caps and jean jackets and dusty clothing, Jim returned home, one day, to his bachelor apartment with a feeling of complete and utter helplessness. He wasn’t married, he never gambled, he didn’t chase women, had no friends to speak of and had never taken a risk in his life to save his soul. He was bored, boring, living an uninspired empty life in a world of people who lived the same. A week or so later Jim walked past the Baptist Church in his hometown and past a sign that read: DO YOU FEEL EMPTY? CASTING CALL FOR BORED YOUNG MAN.
Answering the advertisement and sitting in a small church basement amongst a crowd of high school kids and divorced men, Jim so impressed the young director with the focus that he brought to his part that he secured a minor role in the much talked about new local production: Lives of Working Men. Jim spent an hour every day talking in a loud voice and then a soft voice, mimicking some of the raspy-voiced blue collar men with whom he had worked, telling himself that he had what it takes to make it in show business.
So, buoyed by the success of LOWM he made a rash move: he quit his job at Wellands and moved in with a spinster aunt, in town, to pursue his new career. Despite the doubt and uncertainty that this move presented, the constant querying from his aunt at mealtime, the dour tones, and long looks, Jim surprised everybody with his limited but immediate success. One year became two, more parts, a lead, a few newspaper reviews, and a murmur, a distant murmur, of potential fame. Then in his third season Jim was offered his biggest break: he was selected to understudy Steven Brice, a Stratford trained actor who was being paid a great sum to perform the role of Mercutio in the Welland Summer Festival production of Romeo and Juliet.
However, despite the burst of pride that welled in Jim at securing an understudy position, Jim had disappointed in his lone Mercutio performance and the newspaper reviews the next day were unkind. ‘Wooden, Forced and Uncomfortable…’ read the Daily Globe. ‘Hitting one note too many times…’ ran another of the local dailies. Add to this the outrage he felt when, he was replaced by a younger and more ambitious man, a terrible loneliness at not really fitting in with any of the other actors in his troupe and an unsettling paranoia that friends from the trucking company were laughing behind his back, Jim, crashed emotionally and realized suddenly: the likelihood of him ever making it big was small.
"You don’t want to be old and broke, Jim," a friend had said to him in a grave tone after seeing one of his last performances. However, instead of going back to Wellands and a life staring at figures in accounts, Jim reservedly packed his belongings into two old hockey bags and took the Greyhound to Toronto where, after a month of flopping in a Sherbourne Street rooming house, he settled into a small one bedroom apartment and secured a cafeteria job for a respectable food services company which paid handsome health benefits, gave him three weeks paid vacation and paid the substantial wage of thirteen dollars an hour.
When the weekend came, Jim followed his usual early morning routine. He stepped into the clothes he had laid out the night before, he poured himself a small glass of orange juice, topped it up with the Vodka, then patted his hair against his scalp, and pulled on his `weekender’ white shirt. Then he descended the old wooden staircase, stared into the hallway mirror for several minutes and because it was the weekend, made the face of a sad clown, a happy child, a angry man, an old scared pensioner and proceeded down the stairs and out the door and walked along the street towards his favourite peeler bar.
Walking through the neighbourhood park as he usually did on Saturday afternoons, Jim was relieved to see that spring had finally come and that the leaves had begun to flare out from the tips of the Maple trees in the park. The crocuses had broken through the soil along the pathway and under the trees, and on the main quarter as far out as the tennis courts, the grass had begun to green. There were people walking their dogs, and there were couples cuddling in the park benches, faces turned towards the sun and Jim was faintly pleased seeing these things until he came upon a homeless man sitting at the exit of the park near Queen Street. The man, a gaunt fellow, with dark yellowish brownish circles under his eyes, wore a baseball cap and sat nodding and nodding like he was counting something. Jim walked past him not looking back, but he couldn’t get the image out of his mind, the man just sitting there nodding and nodding, arguing and arguing, counting and recounting something.
Jim liked the way that the women at the strip bar came up to him and flirted with him. He liked the idle banter and that fact that whatever he said they laughed, and he was having such a good time laughing and joking with everyone, that a couple of drinks were gone before he remembered that he had come there to see a young girl who had once worked in a neighbouring coffee shop, a girl who had once confessed to him her dream of being a ballerina.
"Is there a new dancer working here," he asked, "a dancer by the name of Manuela?"
A young sultry woman with her hair tied up in a bun, stared at him with a kind of disappointed expression and looked towards the stage. She pointed with her long thin fingers,
"You just listen for Dog and Butterfly because Dog and Butterfly is Manuela’s song."
So Jim took a seat at the front of the stage and sipped his vodka and orange juice through a straw. He sat there for some time and tried not to stare at the naked women but he did anyway because he noticed after a while that the women didn’t seem to be embarrassed at what they were doing. Eventually Manuela came on stage, twirled on her blanket, and shimmied up and swung on the pole, and then crawled over on all fours towards him. Jim had a sense that she hadn’t expected to see him there and because he wasn’t sure exactly what to say, he announced in a theatrical voice:
“Dido a dowdy,
Cleopatra a gypsy,
hildings and harlots,
Thisby a grey eye or so...”
“The name is Manuela,” she said in a cold voice, her eyes flashing. And when the song was over she took her blanket and covered herself with it and walked off stage.
Traipsing back through the park, drunk, Jim found himself collapsing into a park bench halfway through, trying not to think too much about what had passed. But two images tormented him. The high booted shuffle step that Manuela had done, a one-step forward, two-steps backwards shuffle strut that seemed to him vulgar and the way that Manuela had covered up afterwards, with her blanket draped down over her naked front and had walked down off the stage looking past everyone. There was nothing refined or remotely graceful or beautiful about her actions, they seemed careless in a way, slovenly in a way, and there was something of permanence in them.
When the next Saturday came Jim looked in the mirror. He ruffled his white linen shirt and shaved his neck hair that he noticed was getting long. Then he took out a small pencil and traced, ever so carefully across the tops and bottoms of his eyelashes, four dark lines, an outline. He blinked a couple of times in the mirror and thought that this new appearance, this sexy dark-eyed Egyptian appearance was an improvement. Then he puckered his lips and drew just over the tips of his lips a thin red line, and then pressed at it with his fingers smudging it and smoothing it in. He hadn’t intended for the lips to be so smudged, but he left the marks there anyway and he put the pencil and the crayon the back in his case and walked out.
So Jim was at the strip bar, sipping vodka and orange, and waiting, in his patient way, for Manuela to come on stage. But after exhausting most of the money that he had brought with him, he realized that she wasn’t coming on because he had waited near an hour and a half.
“Is Manuela working today?” He had asked the bouncer at the door.
“Moved up north,” the bouncer replied looking past him, “Works at Ralph’s place now. Yonge and Finch.”
Walking back into the entrance of the park, Jim saw to his dismay, the man with the baseball cap rocking back and forth on the wooden park bench. The sight irritated Jim and he was drunk and so he stopped there beside the skinny man, shouted at him.
“Did you ever think for once someone else might like to sit there?” And the skinny man with the dark circles around his eyes glanced back up at him, a sad, sorrowful expression. And Jim grabbed his shoulders and started shaking him and then slapping him with the backs of his hands until he realized that the man’s mouth was gashed and swelling and there was his blood on his hand, slashed across Jim’s knuckles, dripping down the corners of the skinny man’s mouth. Jim looked around sheepishly.
“Well, look what you’ve made me do,” he said wiping his hands on his pants.
Ralph’s was worse than Vinny`s place; it was larger and more cavernous, most of the women were from the Eastern block, Rumania, the Ukraine, and they had harsher, more direct ways about them. Manuela was there though, and she seemed to Jim, happier than he had ever seen her before.
“Jim,” she collapsed with her arms draped around his shoulders,” and whispered into his ear, “thirty dollars and we can go into the room, the private room if you want, upstairs.”
“I just came to see you Manuela. I felt like I needed to see you, Manuela.”
“Do you have thirty dollars, Jim,” she was pulling at the lapels of his jacket, “It’s just a few dollars, Jim. I promise you I’ll pay you back.”
Suddenly Jim seized upon the idea that there was some trouble about her, that she needed the money rather than wanted the money and so he gave her the thirty dollars and began walking out; but Manuela pulled him towards the stairs and he didn’t resist her because he couldn’t. So he walked up the stairs with her, wanting, suddenly, to ask her what sort of trouble she might be in. But each time he looked at her he saw in her eyes, a tension, and a fear concealed behind a forced smile.
“Just stay with me for ten minutes, Jim,” she said, “just lay back here and we’ll just wait and see what happens,” She went towards the door and peeked out. Then she came back sat on the bed. Jim found his hands stretching out towards her nipples and circling them.
“Don’t Jim,” she caught them between her hands and squeezed them, “please don’t.” Jim looked at her hands, suddenly speaking as if he couldn’t get the sentences out of his mouth fast enough. What he said was:
“Don’t you ever feel like you’re a different character, Manuela? I mean don’t you ever feel like you’re someone completely else?”
Manuela played with the lapels of his jacket and stared at Jim blankly.
“You know I used to be an actor Manuela, out in Welland. I used to act in the local theatre community and people used to tell me I had the talent.” Manuela pushed his hair away from his face saying in a calming voice, “But that’s just the thing Jim, if you had the talent you would have known, that’s the whole thing. If you’d had the talent you’d be actin now wouldn’t you Jim, wouldn’t you Jim?”
“But I do have the talent.” Jim was just saying it all so hopelessly, pitifully, emptily, over and over again. And Manuela stood in the background, in her negligee and lifted her leg up over her head, and then pointed her toes towards him.
When Jim arrived at his job on Monday morning he was sure he detected in his co-workers a pall of ill humour and gloom. When he went into the office and took out a hair net and put it on, one of the women said, “you don’t have to wear that, you know,” and Jim turned right around and stared at them.
When break time came at the cafeteria Jim sat where he usually sat, near the clock so that he could watch the time ticking past and, snapping the hair net against his head, he listened to the conversations of the insurance people around him. And he noticed for the first time that mostly they just talked of themselves and the things that interested them. And there was hysteria in their voices, rather a lack of certainty in their voices as if they had no confidence in what they were saying.