GREENLIGHT – Prose by Matthew Walsh


          The construction company sent workers out to jackhammer the cement outside the house I was living in. Someone had told me that Doug Ford had changed the law on the time people in construction and road work could start and this particular one decided to start as early as possible.
          The van with the logo on the side would pull up before I would wake up, and the man would get out of the van with a Tim Horton’s cup in his hand and survey the area, something he did every morning. The man had a red beard and would get the jackhammer out of the back of the vehicle and start jackhammering the concrete outside before the sun came up. I walked down to the foyer from the attic apartment I lived alone in, with the mask on my face, and peered out the window the first time it happened. The man with the big red beard was smiling to his friend who had shown up in a separate glossy black truck. His friend had black sunglasses on but there was no sun. I stepped out onto the balcony that wrapped around the house and checked the mail despite it being a Saturday. A woman across the street was staring out her picture window with a coffee cup in her hand. She looked like a Victorian ghost, one arm over the other with the cup in her left hand, probably about to begin her work day from home doing Zoom calls with the sound of the jackhammering echoing from the street.
          The café across the street wasn’t open yet, but one of the workers was setting up the patio so they could serve people in the neighborhood one person at a time. I hadn’t returned to my own barista job just yet, but I was supposed to next week, starting two days a week. I had been off work so long I didn’t know how it would be to return to the public. I had just been ordering beer online and watching television and buying things on Amazon and every night zooming with someone I had met on Grindr but only to pick out a movie and then to start the movie respectively on each of our devices. His name was Franco and he always wore a big burgundy hoodie that looked so comfortable I bought my own green one from a store I found on Instagram.
          I came back upstairs to my apartment just as the red bearded man had started jackhammering for the day. The house vibrated so I also vibrated and despite the heat that would eventually come because it was May, and hot for May, I closed all the windows which I would re-open at night. Everything of course now felt so circular.

          I had a shower and laid down in bed until I felt dry, then I put on shorts and a t-shirt from the clean clothes on the floor. I wondered why the people who worked at the construction company thought it would be okay to jackhammer in a residential area so early when we were all in our homes. I was mad already at Doug Ford for leaving the Wal-Mart open, and had to remind myself that someone I never met and hoped never to meet shouldn’t take up so much time in my mind, like Kim Kardashian. I should just try not to care so much when I couldn’t do anything about it unless I called the construction company and complained, which I had tried but there wasn’t even an option on their answering service to talk to a human being. I ran my finger on the top of my writing desk where I kept my computer and notebook and novels and left a mark there.

          I stood outside the coffee shop with two masks on my face with the sun blaring down and the dust from the roadwork in the air. Inside, I asked the barista what the road workers were doing and they said it was a stop light going on the corner and it was going to take six weeks. I ordered my two lattes, one hot and one cold, and laid on the floor of my apartment and watched Bon Appetite videos on YouTube. The people there were a big part of my day, and I had a big crush on Brad Leone. I loved him because he did a video in the woods where he was searching for mushrooms with two expert foragers. He stood in the middle of the woods and said something about how ‘nature is the best painting’. I couldn’t remember what he said exactly but it was very beautiful. I watched several videos while I drank my two coffees on the floor of the living room. Getting two coffees in the morning was inspired by the book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Sometimes when I really love a book, I pick up some of the habits of the main character or the world that was created in general. That book had one of the best last pages I had ever read in my life. I have always been very impressionable, which is why I have not been paying attention to the news or any media whatsoever. If I had to live in a bubble then I truly would, leaving my apartment only to pick up Amazon packages in the house’s shared foyer, or to buy all the toilet paper and Lime Jarritos from the corner store right by my house.
           I looked for the energy to go outside for a longer walk, maybe to the baseball field that bordered on Ravina Gardens, where there was a big willow tree I liked to sit and drink under. I laid in bed again and stared at the pile of books by my bed. I was half-way through one I just started but I was having a hard time reading. I will just stare at the page and then think of my own memories or problems and forget the book is even in my hands. I found a tote bag and put my notebook and a book into it, and slid into a pair of black pants that I bought from Uniqlo and a plain black shirt, and on my way out I took down two garbage bags worth of empties that were fermenting in the kitchen. I had to get rid of them before fruit fly season, because mostly all I wanted or could think about now was trying to be comfortable with being totally alone, with no interruptions. I was really worried I had lost the ability to concentrate.

           One thing I had started doing is trying to master the Bolognese recipe from Bon Appetite. I currently had a huge pot I had made following a three-hour recipe. Outside the house there was a pile of items on the grass. An empty DVD case, some jewelry, and a butt plug with a fox tail attached to it. Next to it was a pile of ripped up mail with the basement tenant’s name, Stephanie Cubulski. There was also a bottle of lube with red hairs from, from the fox tail, I thought. I went to the baseball field and listened to Tracy Chapman, and sat in the little bleachers at the end of the field near a mural of Chester Cheetah. The clouds had parted and through them were little patches of blue, like puddles. I smoked a joint and walked through Ravina Gardens where a mother was pushing her baby on one of those swings where the seat was shaped like a diaper and as I came down the steps, she pulled up her surgical mask. My phone buzzed and I saw that it was my boss texting me if I felt safe enough to return to work. The café shared a kitchen with another business. I texted, Kyle and Laura going to be there too?
          I saw the little ellipses, then his answer, if you don’t feel safe tell me now.

          When I got home the construction worker van was gone but they had left behind signage and those cylindrical orange and black things that block off where they had drilled to let people know that there was no more sidewalk. I texted my boss and told him I would serve coffee next week. I had to start trying to get back into some routine, like the man with the jackhammer. I scrolled my phone in front of the TV and ordered food on Door Dash, and watched it get delivered to my front door, and waited for the picture confirmation on my phone of the paper bag sitting on the table. Franco texted me about trying to watch a horror movie so I went on Zoom where he was waiting in the burgundy hoodie. He waved, and I waved and said hello, which felt like the first time I had spoken in three days. I carried my computer and two cold beers to my bedroom where “Hey, how is it going?” I asked Franco, getting comfortable on my bed, putting a toque on my head and a hoodie on to hide as much of myself as I could.
           “On my second bottle of wine,” his image said, a slight delay as he moved his arms on the video.
      “I just opened a beer.” I said, “what movie did you want to watch?”
          We tried watching a movie with Mira Sorvino, but our devices kept falling out of sync again and we abandoned the idea. Instead, we just drank beer online together, and screen shared videos we found funny on YouTube between complaining about being in our houses so long. Franco’s was literally one room with a bathroom and a small kitchen, just off Bathurst and Queen. Whenever we drank online together, he would get me to do tours of my place by carrying the computer around the apartment, saying things like he was jealous of the balcony, but it was more like part of a fire escape that went up the side of the house.
          Sometimes we would find ourselves staring at one another on the screen while we were clearly typing to someone else or checking an email or I would just be so drunk and falling asleep on camera. I showed Franco one more video and said I had to go, and in the morning, woke up naked in a tub of cold water with a beer can floating between my legs.

          It didn’t scare me that I fell asleep in the tub. I had done it before and this particular bath had been shallow enough that nothing bad would have happened to me, but when I told my friend Erika she gave me a weird look. We were sitting under the tree in Ravina Gardens drinking beer from a grocery bag full of ice I had brought. Erika worked part time at the same café I did, and I told her the boss had asked me to go back, and that part of the reason was the jackhammer man who woke me up in the morning anyway. “I`m not at King Street, but there are plastic partitions between us and the customers everywhere,” Erika said, ashing her Belmont on a dandelion.
          “It’s going to be weird making coffee during all this,” I said, opening another IPA which I drank all the time despite one making me feel so full.
           “People tip really good but all the tips are on debit so it sucks,” Erika said, picking a strand of hair out of her mouth, “and people come in without masks. One tried to make a video when they were denied service but the tips are good.”

          I went into the King street store the next day hungover, and there was a plexiglass wall between the customer and me. Most people wore masks or put the mask on when they walked in the door. Everything had to be two guests at a time because of the shape of the store. All day I answered the same three questions. How have you been coping through the lockdown? Do you know anyone who has actually caught Covid? Do you guys have decaf?
           I did know someone who had caught Covid; my ex and his boyfriend both had told me that he had gotten it when I messaged him on Instagram. Mike had thought he had gotten it from a five dollar bill but he didn’t really have any way of knowing. When I told customers that their eyes grew large as they snapped lids on their cortados. “I haven’t seen him in person so don’t worry,” I said, “I haven’t seen anyone in months.”
           “That must be so tough,” one woman said, taking her mask off her face to sip her coffee. “At least I have my family.”
          “Part of me wants to have someone to be able to hang out with, and part of me wouldn’t be able to stand living with someone through this,” I said honestly, looking at the debit screen to see that she had tipped five dollars on a three dollar coffee. The woman took another sip and smiled with her eyes. “See you tomorrow.”
           “Maybe.” I said, “I don’t know when I`ll be in next.”

           In the afternoon, Laura who worked in the kitchen and who I hadn’t seen in months, came in which I dreaded not because I disliked her but I was just so tired of repeating what I had been up to the last four months again, and was relieved she had a catering order and didn’t ask me anything.
            I stood outside on the front stoop, free for a moment of anyone asking me if they could bring their dogs inside or if they had to put in their own sugar. I couldn’t wait to go home and listen to the Lo-Fi hip hop channel on YouTube. Looking across the street, a group of dogs had collected and were jumping around each other like they hadn’t seen each other in ages but from where I stood, they all looked like new puppies. The boss, Dan, texted me about the broken planter outside the store, the one which always got knocked over on Saturday nights when people were coming back from bars. It belonged to the dog salon next door where the canines of the astute got their smiles cleaned. Dan texted; can you clean out the planter of garbage?
           The one in front of the dog salon?
I texted back. Its full of broken glass and Burger King garbage and dog poop bags. None of the garbage is ours.
            It doesn’t matter whose garbage it is,
Dan texted, It’s a joint effort to keep the space clean.
           I wanted to say that the other two people who had been working here could have done that over the months we had re-opened, but instead I put on gloves and dug through the broken glass and dog poop bags, hot and fluffy from the sun, putting everything into a garbage bag, running back inside here and there to serve customers. When I was done, I sent a text back, reiterating that there was just a bunch of broken glass and dog poop bags in the planter and maybe we should get it removed on garbage day so no one else had to clean up broken glass and dog poop bags while making coffee to which Dan texted, Okay, thanks Matt.

           I felt worn out from working the six hours but shouldn’t I be thankful that I had a job? I made a hundred and thirty-one dollars in tips but part of me just wanted to stay home and be on CERB so I could be left alone, despite the jackhammer guy and having nothing to base my life around for the time being. Maybe my mother was right and I did belong in a cult where everything was decided for me. I walked up to Bathurst and Queen and caught the streetcar, wearing my double mask. I TTC’d past where Franco said he lived and I wondered if we would ever meet in person one day or if I even wanted to meet.
            I went to Hole in the Wall and bought a frozen lasagna and eight beers for dinner, wondering as I drank, watching a moth fluttering through the living room trying to detect the hint of a breeze to lead its body back outside. It was sunny until nine o’clock at least now, so there was plenty of time for the moth. I checked to see if Franco had texted me about zooming and he hadn’t, so I said I took the TTC past his house today. He responded right way with the washing hands emoji and the eggplant emoji and I thought about how nice it would be to maybe never wonder what people were up to anymore.
            I opened another beer and started the bathtub, and brought in a bunch of tealight candles which I lit and put on the toilet. I started reading The Cow by Ariana Reines, turning the pages with my wet fingers while the sunlight dish detergent foamed up around my body. I used to joke about sleeping until the pandemic was over but what I really needed to do, I decided, was make a big move, but what the move was I still didn’t know. I knew life could be more than cleaning up other people’s dog poop bags and passive-aggressive text messages to Dan.
            I laid the book on the bathroom sink and laid down in the water, staring at the brand of beer I was drinking. Inner Eye by Blood Brothers. I knew then I had to fall asleep early enough so when six in the morning came, I could say I tried getting enough sleep. I don’t know why I have a hard time making the right choices, I thought to myself as I dried myself off as best I could and threw the beer can into the garbage by the toilet. It was still bright daylight outside and the moth had settled on the wall in the living room between the patio door and the window.
           I stood there dripping wet in a towel watching the tree outside my window sway back and forth thinking in my head how far away six weeks was and how soon it would be until the construction outside would be complete, and when I would finally see the stoplight flash green on the corner of my street.

Matthew Walsh (MW) is a writer from Nova Scotia. Their first book of poetry was released in 2019 with Goose Lane/Ice House and their work is forthcoming with CV2. Twitter: @croonjuice

Art: Snow Angels of Trinity-Bellwoods: (for Matt Walsh), a VISPO by Robert Frede Kenter (c) 2022. Twitter: @frede_kenter

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