Mom gave Victor money for a haircut and he was walking along Bloor to Gus, The Other Barber’s, “Toronto’s Most Famous Barbershop”, which you’ve probably never heard of, hands freezing because Victor had lost his gloves and felt too guilty to say anything about it to Mom who was working cleaning people’s houses in addition to her normal super-early shifts at the bakery, working two jobs because of the wedding, which would be over soon, so maybe things would go back to normal, finally, except his sister would be gone, but whatever. Anyway, he got a text. Victor walked into the nearest place—one of those Korean walnut cake places—so that he could take his hands out of his pockets without wanting to amputate them. The text was from Big Sean saying he’d got his dad’s old Atari working and that Victor should get his ass over right now to play Space Invaders. Sure Victor played Space Invaders all the time at freeinvaders.org, but there was something appealing about playing on some old system with the original joystick and Big Sean was a lot of laughs and wasn’t Victor trying to grow his hair anyway, who gave a shit if his sister was getting hitched, right? Victor told Big Sean sure and bought a box of walnut cakes because they were smelling so good right now and plus the Korean people who ran the store were eyeing him like, Are you just going to stand there, ass hole?
The welcome warm air in the stairwell up to Big Sean’s apartment was soured with cat piss. Victor’s hands felt like stumps as he fumbled with the reluctant zipper of his parka. He used the side of his head to knock on Big Sean’s door. “Yo. Vicky. Give me a second,” Sean said. Tickles meowed menacingly and trotted into the front hall, his legs casting delicate, dancing shadows under the door and onto the top step. Victor cupped his hands over his mouth and exhaled. Tickles reached an orange paw out, claws curling towards the dangling lace of Victor’s boot. Using his heel as a pivot, Victor positioned his foot right over Tickles’s paw and smiled to imagine Big Sean’s fuckhead cat yelping in pain. Victor was better than that, though. He rubbed his hands together. They were starting to burn and itch a bit. He grabbed one handle of the white bag he’d hung around his left wrist and pulled it over his hurting hand. The box of walnut cakes was still warm. Victor sat down on the first step leading down from the apartment, far enough out of Tickles’s reach, he figured, and grabbed one of the mouth-sized pastries. He was holding it near his lips, enjoying the sensation of its soft warmth against his index finger, which was still numb around the pad and tip, but tingling everywhere else, when the door opened and Tickles raced out and rubbed against Victor’s parka.
“The fuck’s that?” Big Sean wanted to know.
“Walnut cakes.” Victor said, standing to get away from Tickles. “I got a whole box.”
“Those Korean Timbit things, right?” Sean scratched at some crease in his crotch, his dirty track pants dancing in rhythm with his determined fingers. Victor looked past Big Sean, attempting to respect Sean’s privacy. “Gimme one,” Sean said, holding out his scratching hand. Victor held out the walnut cake he was holding. “Gross. I don’t want one you’ve touched,” Sean said, reaching into the box and leaning over, his head close enough to Victor’s face that Victor worried he’d breathe in some giant flake of Big Sean’s dandruff. Big Sean dug around in the box, looking for just the right pastry.
Standing on his hind legs, Tickles sunk the nails on his front paws through the puffy cushion of Victor’s parka hem, then pulled them out with a pop. “Hey, fuck off,” Victor said, swinging his free hand towards the cat.
“Hold still,” Sean said.
Victor kicked his leg towards Tickles. The cat dashed screaming into the apartment. Sean huffed and roughly pulled the bag off of Victor’s arm.
In the kitchen, Sean scratched his head with a sharp scraping sound then picked each walnut cake out of the box and placed it carefully onto a plate. Tickles rushed by in the hall and a sharp, warm shit smell wafted through the kitchen. “Oh my God, that’s disgusting,” Victor said.
Sean farted loudly. “Thank you.”
Victor buried his nose in the bend of his elbow and laughed, though he actually felt a little like barfing.
Sean sat down on the floor beside the Atari. He put the walnut cakes on the coffee table. Victor was hungry, but didn’t grab one. He went to the kitchen, found the cleanest glass, and poured himself some water. When he got back, Sean was starting a new game.
“What’s that hole in the wall?” Victor asked.
Sean’s eyes darted from the game and back. “What? By that? Sorry. That weird painting?”
It was a weird painting. It wasn’t that it was bad. It’s that it was almost really good, an almost really good portrait of someone.
“Mom did it. In high school. Of her mom. My grandma.”
“Yeah. The painting. You stupid?”
“The hole though?”
“That’s my work.” The fraction of Sean that wasn’t lost in the game laughed, though the rest of him quickly interrupted. It was known that Big Sean was rough, so Victor wasn’t really surprised. In the gym class where they met, Sean broke Steve Deikmann’s nose because Steve was talking shit about Big Sean’s free throws during a three-on-three game and Sean’s locker, where they met up sometimes at lunch, had this growing dent which anytime one of them asked about it Sean would say, My fucking Math teacher’s a bitch, or, Fuck that cocksucker, or whatever, you get the idea.
So probably Victor shouldn’t have been surprised when, after like an hour of waiting to play on the Atari with that old joystick, an hour during which Big Sean had already gotten mad that Victor expected a turn and so had gotten his laptop out so Victor could play on freeinvaders.org, an hour during which mini-tiger Tickles gradually, and completely without encouragement, managed to get his bloodthirsty self onto Victor’s lap where he fell asleep after some exploratory pushing and clawing all because Victor was, like, in the middle of a game and even though Sean said, Just push him off, Victor was like, Yeah, right, to which Sean asked if Victor was a pussy, an hour at the end of which Sean finally let Victor play the Atari, finally handed Victor the joystick, which Victor couldn’t get both hands on without moving and couldn’t move without disturbing the weapon of mass destruction snoozing and purring on his lap, so he pulled a little bit and the screen went this crazy green colour and Sean cursed and called Victor a fucking idiot and put his hands on his head and tried to coax the Atari back into action, all which disturbed the cat again, so Victor could get up and kneel on the floor beside Sean and touch the game cartridge, which actually brought some sort of pixilated image flickering onto the screen by the way, but it sent Sean into some flailing rage and Victor was on his back and smelling cat piss off the sandpaper carpet and holding his forearms in front of his face because Sean was pounding him and then Victor was pushing against Sean because Sean was hitting his ribs and Victor needed it to stop.
The walnut cakes were all over the floor. One was still rolling towards a corner already occupied by a jackrabbit of a dust bunny. Sean was against the couch panting and crying and emitting this strange snarl. Tickles was looking at Sean from around the doorway. When Sean turned to see what Victor was looking at, Tickles leapt up and ran thumping down the hall. Victor felt his face. Under his eye was super sensitive. “I didn’t even get to show my dad,” Sean said.
“Doesn’t your dad live in, like, Sudbury or something?”
Sean held up his phone. “A picture, shit head.”
“You didn’t take one yet?”
Sean leaned forward and slammed his fist into Victor’s thigh.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“It might work again, right?” Sean was looking at the Atari.
“How would I know?”
As Victor limped home, he knew he was in shit. He caught a glimpse of his face in the glass of this Christian bookstore and coffee shop that he’d made the mistake of going into for a Coke once. Coke, 99 cents. Conversion attempts, free. But his face, now, on the way back from Big Sean’s? Swelling fast. His left eye was nearly shut and both eyes were underlined with crescent bruises. There was a ringing in his ears. Worst, though, was that Victor’s hair was still curling sloppily out from under his toque.
When Mom got home, Victor was sitting in front of the computer his heart beating panic through his body. His tinnitus had stopped, but the bruising on his face had established itself blackly. He put in his earbuds and turned up Liturgy’s “Follow.” As the guitars washed out all possible sound he returned to his game. He felt his mother’s hands. She turned his head roughly, her fingers in his hair. When she saw his face, though, it was like something had dropped on her—she tucked her head into her shoulders and winced. She was crying and touching his face and Victor wished she would stop, because how was he supposed to not start crying, then? He tried to pull his face away, but her gentle, strong hands held him there and lay bare his regret about not going to Gus, The Other Barber’s, about buying walnut cakes with his haircut money, about going to Big Sean’s and getting his face fucked for the pictures, about what he felt was some useless wreck of a life without any hope of becoming interesting or meaningful or valuable or full of love or passion or affection or even simple friendship, about squandering his mother’s love and money, about disrespecting her and his big sister, but mostly her, mostly his mother.
Victor meant to tuck his face gently into Mom’s shoulder, but the force of his desperation and the speed of his embarrassment at crying ran his face into her boney collarbone and sent a new blast of pain radiating out from his nose. He grunted through clenched teeth, then started laughing. Mom removed his headphones.
He was laughing too hard to answer.
“What’s so funny?” He felt her shoulders start to shake, too. “Oh, sweety,” she said, tender through her laughter.
Toronto, October 2015
Emoji sequence and photograph: Teacher and writer, Will Wallace
Story: Lee Sheppard