Sunday 14 April 2013

HEAD GAMES: The trailer

You thought you had escaped HEAD GAMES because I haven’t mentioned it for a few days. Well, I’m baaack, but this time with the actual story.

The time: 1979. Jim Brooks, an architect on assignment in Argentina, has arrived in Toronto to report to head office.
The setting: a bar frequented by Latinos, where Jim meets up with Don Baker, an ex-colleague. Don is a great story-teller -- a bit of a bullshitter maybe, but always entertaining.

Jim spotted Don at a table in the back. He hadn’t changed much, same big gut, same stiff neck, and a face running to lard.  
They shook hands.
“So, how’s the project going?” Don asked.
“Alright,” Jim said. “Except for the usual problems. The corruption, the demands of the military junta, the red tape.”

Don sipped his drink, listening to Jim with an air of distraction. He kept scanning the people at the bar and looking at the door as if he was expecting someone.

I’m boring him, Jim thought. He changed tack and asked Don about his new career [real estate]. The question kindled a half-light in Don’s eyes. He broke out the real estate anecdotes, a few warm-up jokes, then something with a little more jangle, but sadly below the old standard. Not even close. No fireworks, no exploding laughter.
“Last year I listed a property a couple of blocks from here,” Don said, “a three-story Victorian with a shop on the main floor and two flats upstairs. They laughed at the office when I brought in the listing. Nobody is going to buy that dump, they said. The owner lived on the second floor, with a dozen cats. Her bedroom was a feeding station.  Litter boxes and cat food everywhere.  The tenant on the third floor was a wino. The place smelled of piss. Next thing you know: the cat lady has a heart attack and ends up in hospital. The Humane Society carts away her pets. I visit the old woman in hospital and make her a bedside offer: I buy the house myself. Let me tell you, Jim, she was glad to get rid of it. It was nothing but a headache for her.”
“And so you bought the place? That was charitable of you.” 
Don drained his Scotch. “Wait till you hear the rest,” he said, signaling the waiter for a refill -- his second refill. He was on a roll now. “So I get a new tenant for the shop and start renovating the old lady’s apartment. I slap paint on the walls and have the floors sanded and refinished. The wino comes padding down from the third floor to see what’s going on. ‘How’s life at the top?’ I say.  He breathes alcoholic fumes on me. ‘Crappy,’ he says. ‘The whole city is crappy.  A shit place to live in. You pass out on the sidewalk, and people step right over you, like you’re a dog. Where I come from, they don’t treat you like that.’ He was from Sudbury, he told me.  ‘So why did you leave?’ I said. ‘Got fired from Inco,’ he said. ‘It’s a company town. You work for Inco, or you don’t work. I should’ve stayed up north and gone tree planting.’ So I make him an offer. ‘You want to go back to Sudbury, Frank?’ I say. ‘Sure,’ he says, and starts reminiscing about family, classmates, neighbours. He goes all weepy on me. ‘Jees,’ he says, ‘we had a ball of a time. Jees, I wish I could go back there now.’ So I say: ‘Tell you what, Frank, I’ll buy you a ticket to Sudbury.’  I drive him to the bus terminal. I give him some pocket money and bundle him on the bus."

Don leaned back with a mission-accomplished grin. “So everybody’s happy. I go back and tell the crew to paint the upstairs as well. A month later I sell the house at a profit.”
“Good for you,” Jim said obligingly. He noticed that he was humouring Don. Something had happened to the familiar landscape, a tectonic shift. The gap in their ages had widened. It was no longer the difference between thirty and fifty. It was something larger and unbridgeable. Don had turned into an old man, to be humoured…

The conversation dried up.

Don was cradling his empty glass and staring into space. The alcohol had started to immobilize him. His head looked like a piece of meat in cold storage. Suddenly something – the door opening, a draft of air—caught his attention. He sat up and looked past Jim, smiling.

Jim turned and saw that he had his eyes on a Latina. She waved at Don and made her way to their table, doing a kind of cha-cha, mouthing the lyrics to a pop song, snapping her fingers as if she wanted to wake up the whole place. She had Don’s attention at any rate.
“Lisa,” he said when she arrived at their table. “You are late today.”
“There was a sale on at the Botanica,” she said. “I went in and talked to Santos.”
Don’s face dropped. “Santos? What’s he selling? Snake oil?”
Lisa patted his shoulders and said in a purry voice: “You’re in a bad mood, Don. Want me to go away?”
“No, I don’t want you to go away,” Don said, and his body went into a praying curve. “Sit down. Have a drink.” He patted the empty chair beside him.
Lisa sat down, letting her denim skirt ride up and flashing her pink tube top at Don. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll have a beer.” …
[Don does the introductions and rolls out a carpet of South American anecdotes for Lisa.]
“Lisa’s parents are from Argentina,” he said. It was as if he had pressed a button at the back of Lisa’s head. She opened her mouth and spilled the family history, pouring out a river of words, as if she had always wanted to tell them and had just waited for Don to give the signal and open the flood gates. She was a natural storyteller like Don, although she couldn’t match his scope. She kept to one topic, went at it from different angles, but all points of departure led to the same dark corner: Her mother had an affair in Argentina and got pregnant. There was a shotgun wedding to another man who believed the child was his, who still thought he was Lisa’s father.
“But one of these days I’ll go to Argentina and look up my real father,” she said, coming to the end of her story. “His name is Miguel Soriano.” She mouthed the name with gusto, as if she couldn’t wait to make him part of her family saga. She stopped and looked at them expectantly, waiting for their reaction.
“That’s quite a story,” Don said. He was ready to believe in Lisa’s rogue father, but Jim had reservations. She laughed too much when she told the story.
 [Lisa is the character for whom I named my novel HEAD GAMES. She has plenty of scenes playing in her head, but is unsure what role to play. Not to worry: Don already has her slotted for a part.]

 After she’d left, Don said: “So what do you think of Lisa?”
“A little too intense for my taste,” Jim said. He put resistance into his voice, the kind of resistance he meant to put up against Lisa’s fatal attractions.

Don nodded, holding on to his empty glass, gathering strength for one last anecdote, one for the road. “She comes in here practically every day and chats up people. She has a tremendous need to vent. No one takes her seriously. They all think she’s a little crazy. But I worry about Lisa, you know. She reminds me of my daughter, Asu.”  
Don had never mentioned a daughter before.
“You have a daughter?” Jim said.
“I adopted her.” Don shifted and stirred in his chair. “She was an orphan, but her grandfather treated her like chattel. If I wanted her, he said, I had to pay him compensation. That was his view of the matter. I had to buy her off the old man.”
Don’s voice was sodden. He seemed barely aware of Jim’s presence. It was as if he was talking to himself. “He was Quechua,” he said. “Living on a little farm in Jujuy. There is no employment in that part of the country, no future for the young people. When the boys are old enough, they go to work in the mines of Bolivia. And the girls become maids in Salta. Or whores.”
It sounded as if Don wanted to get the story off his chest, but was afraid of saying too much. There was a nervous furtiveness in his eyes.
“It broke my heart to think what was in store for Asu. I wanted to get her out of this hopeless situation. When the old man saw I took an interest in her, he said: ‘You like the girl? She’s ready to go to work.’ ‘I already have a maid,’ I said. He smiled. He had a mouth full of stumpy teeth, yellow with decay. ‘You tell her what to do,’ he said. ‘She’s a very good girl. You take her for two hundred dollars.’ I saw what he was getting at, what kind of work he had in mind for her. I played along. We started haggling. I got him down to fifty dollars, which was all I had on me. It was a fortune for a man like him.”
“And that was that?” Jim said. “Fifty dollars, and she was yours?”
Don nodded and went on. It was a story that wanted out.
“Now here is the part that hurts,” he said. “I took Asu back with me to Catamarca. I sent her to a good school. I gave her every chance to realize her dreams.  But, no: just before graduation, she drops out and runs off with a gas station attendant.” He paused, as if to reconsider his role in Asu’s life, then shrugged his shoulders. “And that was the last I heard of her. She didn’t bother to stay in touch with me. After all I’d done for her!”
“And Lisa reminds you of her?” Jim said.
“Well, I can’t put my finger on it, but Asu had the same craziness in her eyes. Those Indios live in a world of their own, you know, a world of magic and superstition. Lisa has the same take on things. She talks about signs -- good signs, bad signs. She checks her horoscope. She jots down her dreams. She’s looking for direction from above.”

Was that the point of Don’s story? That Lisa was superstitious? Was this about Lisa? Jim didn’t think so. Don’s sweaty excitement raised a flag. He was holding something in reserve.
“History has a way of repeating itself,” he said grandly, starting to cover his tracks. “I am afraid Lisa will make the same mistake and fall for an unsuitable type. You heard her mention Santos?”
“He is an ‘unsuitable type’?”
“A shady character. A drug dealer if you ask me.  I’ve told Lisa to stay away from him, but I really shouldn’t get involved. When it comes to women, I tell myself: Careful, old man, don’t look, don’t talk, don’t listen.”

He can’t fool me, Jim thought, I’ve seen the way he looks at Lisa. He’s on a mission. He wants his daughter back, but he’ll take Lisa in a pinch...