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The price you pay
Canada Previous Also the Land Will I Remember Next

Rico sets up four lines of coke on the glass-topped table in Jack’s living room and says, “If I looked like you, pal, I’d never sleep alone.”

According to Rico, Jack should start dating again now that his marriage has officially ended. Jack says he prefers his solitude. He doesn’t like to feel responsible for a person’s suffering, he says, and whenever he enters a new relationship, someone suffers.

Jack dreams occasionally of spending a lifetime with a woman in a world of unconflicted passion informed by logic and an absence of anxiety and self-doubt. But whenever he gets involved with a woman, he soon becomes conflicted, anxious and all of a doo-dah. Keeping all this to himself, he remains physically present with the woman even as he drifts away into a remote psychic galaxy from where he watches the relationship fall to pieces. Sometimes the skin on his fingertips begins to peel.

“That’s why I date women with no self-confidence,” Jack says. “They think it’s their fault when things fall apart.”

Rico keeps insisting that Jack needs something called “hand”. He says it again now, after he snorts the first line. “You gotta have hand,” he says. “Otherwise, a woman will walk all over you.”

“How can they walk all over me,” Jack says, “if I’m not there?”

“Hand,” Rico says again. “You gotta have it.”

From Rico’s swaggering demeanour, Jack infers that hand has something to do with assertiveness and self-confidence, and he knows he doesn’t have it.  Nor does he know know how to get it. Even when he wants to, Jack finds it almost impossible to assert himself. He could more easily walk on water. He remains a stranger to himself and regards himself as the quintessential hollow man, headpiece filled with straw or, tonight, with cocaine.

At the age of forty-one, Jack has perfected the art of imitation and exhibits to the world the appearances of a normal man. But when normal people talk about their normal lives, Jack feels the same way as he does in a relationship with a woman, as if he’s listening to a conversation in a foreign tongue. He recognizes the words, but their meaning confounds him. He smiles and nods as if he, too, believes that he can alleviate the sadness in his life by playing golf or spending a week in Florida visiting Disney World. He senses madness and desperation in the lives of normal people, but since he has nothing better to offer, be withholds his observations, and the effort exhausts him. That’s why he enjoys his time with Rico. Rico doesn’t pretend to be normal, and when Jack tells him what he thinks, he pays attention.

Now that he’s no longer married, Jack lives in an apartment near the waterfront. He works from home as a freelance writer, and spends most of his time alone. To keep in shape, he jogs every afternoon along sparsely populated streets that lead past factories and warehouses, where he seldom encounters another person. In the evening, he drinks Scotch and watches Humphrey Bogart movies. On Wednesday mornings, he plays hockey with a group of salesmen, doctors and other people with no urgent obligations, including Rico, who still lives with his parents, does nothing except sell drugs and dreams of making a big score that will set him up for life.

Jack has played hockey with Rico every Wednesday morning between September and April for ten years, but until this year, they’ve hardly said a word to each other. Rico is a much better player than Jack. He skates without apparent effort. His passes are hard and accurate, and he shoots the puck with the precision of a laser-guided bullet.

Rico started playing hockey after his parents brought him to Canada from Italy. Tormented by his classmates, who called him “dago” and “wop” and laughed when he struggled to speak their language, he developed a stutter, lost interest in school and now suffers from Krohn’s disease. But he excelled at hockey and became good enough to earn a living for a few years with a semi-professional team in Bari, on the Adriatic coast of Italy.

Comparing himself on the ice to Rico, Jack feels like a lumbering buffalo pushing a curling rock with a shovel. Goalies stop his shots as if he has tossed them a loaf of bread. When he passes the puck, he occasionally hits his own teammate in the back. When Jack bumbles one of Rico’s infrequent passes, Rico gets angry, slaps his stick on the ice and yells, “Fuck!” Jack feels mildly insulted, but he also understands that, in the universe of hockey, he and Rico live on different planets.

Early in this year’s hockey season, after Jack missed another of Rico’s passes, Rico surprised him. Instead of reacting with indignation, he gave Jack a tip. “Keep your stick on the ice,” he said. “If your stick’s on the ice, I’ll hit it.”

With that simple piece of advice, Jack immediately became a better hockey player. He not only received more passes from Rico and the rest of his teammates, he also became better at passing the puck himself. Jack felt grateful. Apart from his dad, whom he hadn’t seen in more than thirty years, no man had ever taken the trouble to help him to improve his game.

Later that morning, in the dressing room, Rico surprised Jack again. Everyone in the room knew that Jack didn’t own a car and came to the arena by taxi. Cars were a lethal pain in the ass, Jack said, and he saved a lot of money by not owning one. Until today, no one had questioned Jack’s approach to transportation or offered to drive him home. “I’ll give you a lift,” Rico said.

“Thanks,” said Jack, “but I’ll take a cab.”

Jack knew that Rico lived with his aging parents in a suburb about twenty miles north of the city. But he didn’t turn down Rico’s offer out of kindness. He did it because he thought he might have to return the favour. What could he offer to Rico?

“I need to talk to you,” Rico said. He picked up his equipment bag and opened the dressing room door. “I’ll meet you outside.”

The other players in the room looked at Jack.

“Watch your step with that guy,” said Al, who owned a trucking company.

“Wait till he asks you for money,” said a guy named Rod, who owned a grocery store.

“I lent him fucking money,” said a retired airline pilot named Mark. “Four thousand fucking dollars to import a fucking container-load of stolen fucking coffee beans from fucking Brazil, in a fucking boat. Fuck me.”

“What could he want from me?” said Jack. 

“If you lend him fucking money,” said Mark, “maybe he’ll fucking use it to pay me back, for fuck sake.”

“The guy’s a walking Ponzi scheme,” said a lawyer named Pat.

In the parking lot, Jack found Rico sitting in the driver’s seat of a grey Buick sedan, smoking a cigarette. He dumped his hockey bag in the back seat and got in the car.

“Where to, shlick?” Rico said.

Jack told him how to get to his apartment, then accepted a cigarette. As they started driving, Jack thanked him for his advice.

“Advice?” Rico said.

“How to take a pass,” Jack said.

“Nobody told you that before?”

“No one ever bothered.”

Jack opened his window to let the smoke escape from the car. To play a game well, he thought, you needed to play with passion. Jack hadn’t felt passionate about anything in his life, not until his wife had betrayed him. Now he felt passionately grief-stricken over the loss of his marriage, which he’d hoped would last a lifetime.

“You’re a writer,” said Rico. “What do you write?”

Jack said he wrote magazine articles about banking.

“I have an idea for a movie,” Rico said.

“Everybody has an idea for a movie,” Jack said.

“You couldn’t make this up.”

“That’s the trouble,” said Jack.

 “This one’s different,” Rico said.

When he’d returned from playing hockey in Italy, he said, he’d lived for a year in Cincinnati, playing hockey and selling marijuana by the ton. “I was making so much money,” he said, “I couldn’t spend it fast enough.”

He drove a Porsche, hung out in bars with professional baseball players like Pete Rose and lived with a California swimsuit model in a penthouse apartment overlooking the Ohio River. “We were going to get married,” he said.

One afternoon, as he drove across the Big Mac Bridge to Kentucky with three pot-filled garbage bags in the trunk, he saw a roadblock ahead of him. Rico stopped the car, tossed the bags off the bridge and then jumped after them. He owed money to the dealer who’d sold him the marijuana, but without the marijuana, he couldn’t make enough money to pay him.

“So I came back to Canada,” he said.

Jack waited for the rest of the story.

“I can see Brad Pitt in the movie,” said Rico. “And that other guy.”

“Sean Penn,” Jack said.

“See, I knew you’d get it,” said Rico.

That night, Rico returned to Jack’s apartment with a bottle of single-malt Scotch and a gram of coke, ready to write the script. By dawn, they’d not only written the movie in their heads, they’d analyzed the human predicament, as well, and might have saved the world from senseless conflict if they could have remembered anything they’d said.

After that, Rico spent one or two evenings a week at Jack’s apartment. Sometimes they went for dinner to a restaurant in the north end of the city, owned by Rico’s second cousin. Rico introduced Jack as “my friend, the writer.”

Some nights they went downtown to a seedy bar on the fringe of the city’s night-club district. It was furnished with battered arborite tables and wobbly chairs on chrome-plated legs, and the granite floor sloped toward a drain in the centre of the room so the manager could wash the floor each night with a hose. Rico bought coke there from an enormous bearded biker dressed in black, who perched on a stool at the end of the empty bar like a bear on a unicycle. “Meet Jack,” said Rico. “We’re writing a movie together.”

One night at the apartment, Rico told Jack that he was in debt to a Mafia hoodlum who’d lent him money to import a shipment of counterfeit Armani jeans from Italy. Rico had used the money to fly to Milan, where he’d set up the scam through a friend of his father’s. “But the shipment got stopped at customs,” said Rico. “He says he’ll break my legs if I don’t pay him back.”

 “How much do you need?” Jack said.

“Thirty-five hundred,” Rico said.

“How soon do you need it?”

“Tomorrow,” said Rico.

Jack knew he couldn’t afford to do it, but he wrote a cheque against his line of credit and gave it to Rico. “Don’t do that again,” he said.

“I’ll pay you back,” said Rico.

***************

Jack studies Rico, hoping that he might learn something useful. Rico behaves with passion, bravado and swagger, but he’s also vulnerable and just as fucked up as Jack. But no matter how closely he watches Rico, he doesn’t think that he can imitate “hand”. To Jack, the word has similar connotations to soul. Jack thinks of imitating Otis Redding and knows that he’d look like an idiot. He feels the same way about hand. “Some things you just can’t fake,” he says.

“I have to introduce you to Sonja,” Rico says one night as he pours another pile of coke onto the table from a little plastic bag.

Rico has mentioned Sonja several times, but Jack says he has no interest in dating another woman. Rico has persisted, though, and when he talks about Sonja, Jack pays attention. If he ever gets involved again with a woman, he figures he stands a better chance of forming a lasting relationship if the she comes with a friend’s endorsement. His first wife was a complete stranger when they met. When they got married, he had no idea what to expect, and neither did any of his friends. When the day of the wedding arrived, and his best man drove him to the church, Jack felt as if he’d closed his eyes and jumped out of an airplane. It was downhill from there.

Jack figures that, if Sonja’s a friend of Rico’s, she might be different. Maybe she won’t expect much from him. Maybe she’s fucked up too. At least they can take drugs together.

 “Why would she want to meet me?” Jack says.

“Her friends are losers,” Rico says. “She deserves better.”

Rico takes Jack to a bar on College Street where they join Sonja at a table by the wall. When Rico introduces them, Sonja extends her hand to shake Jack’s. In the dim light of the smoky room, she looks fit, stylish and intelligent. She wears a jaunty white cap and seems refreshingly candid. At the end of the evening, Sonja agrees to meet Jack the next afternoon at a cemetery near a wooded ravine that runs through the middle of the city. “We’ll go for a walk,” Jack says.

Jack gets there early and stands inside the gates in the shadow of a mausoleum. It takes him a moment to recognize Sonja. She wears moccasins, blue jeans and a tank top. Daylight has hardened her features. Her cheeks look sunken, and her face seems shadowed by anxiety. She walks without enthusiasm, as if she’s keeping an appointment with a dentist. Jack wants to run away, but he overrules his instinct and waits politely for Sonja to spot him.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says.

 “I’m glad you came,” he says.

As they walk, Sonja tells him that she lives with a boyfriend. But their relationship has ended, she says, and she plans soon to move to her own apartment.

They stop at a restaurant for dinner. Jack tells himself that he needs a woman in his life who will accept him on his own terms. Perhaps if he feels accepted, he can nurture the barren seeds of love that lie smothered beneath his self-doubt, anxiety and confusion. He is, after all, fucked up, and he knows almost nothing about love. Just give it time, he thinks, as he dabs at his lips with a napkin.

Sonja and Jack meet several more times, have dinner together, exchange email messages and talk daily on the phone. Although she doesn’t spend the night when she visits, Sonja stays many times at his apartment until well after midnight. But after two months, she still lives with her boyfriend.

After another month, Jack tells Sonja that she has to choose between him and her boyfriend. Until she does, he won’t see her again. It’s a strategy he learned from a marriage counsellor, the one who advised him not to return to his first wife. This time, while Jack waits for Sonja to make up her mind, the counsellor suggests that he might benefit from seeing a psychiatrist. “You’ve done this before,” he says, “always with the same result. You should find out why.”

At their first session, the psychiatrist asks Jack to describe his father. Jack shrugs. His father is dead, he says. He hasn’t seen his father in thirty-three years, and he doesn’t know much about him. When the psychiatrist asks Jack to describe his mother, he talks about her with reverence for twenty-five minutes: her courage, her kindness, her generosity of spirit, her strength in leaving her marriage and raising two children on her own. When the session ends, Jack wonders why his recollections of the past seem so distorted. It will take him ten years to find out.

At the end of the summer, Sonja leaves her boyfriend and moves to her own flat. She and Jack resume their relationship. Now, when Rico visits Jack’s apartment, Sonja often joins them. They consume blizzards of cocaine. By the time hockey season starts again in the fall, Jack thinks that Sonja is the smartest, most insightful woman he has ever met. When the other players ask why he spends so much time with Rico, he says, “He introduced me to my girlfriend.” He doesn’t mention the drugs.

In January, Jack announces to the dressing room that Sonja has agreed to marry him.

“Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” says the player named Rod.

Pat, the lawyer, jokes that Jack should forget about marriage. “Just cut to the chase and give her a house,” he says.

“This one’s different,” Jack says. “She seems to like me.”

The marriage starts smoothly. Jack has seen enough movies, read enough books and met enough decent men to behave like one. If their life together doesn’t smolder with the heat of mutual passion, they can at least conduct a civilized relationship. But without the forgiving embrace of love, Jack soon finds fault in his wife. Jack gives her a monthly allowance for groceries and personal expenses, but she has no ambition and seems in no hurry to find work. They buy a house and Jack starts making mortgage payments, but Sonja doesn’t offer to contribute. Nor does she share the sense of relief that he feels after occasional episodes of enlightenment that occur during his sessions with the psychiatrist. In her opinion, psychoanalysis offers nothing more enlightening than astrology or the I-Ching.

Two years pass. Jack feels himself drifting away from Sonja into the realm of psychic indifference. He finds excuses to avoid spending time with Rico, as well. One night he returns home from a late meeting and finds Rico and Sonja at the kitchen table. Rico has just returned from Moldova, he says, where he has met a former KGB agent to discuss the bottling of black-market vodka. He needs to raise a few thousand dollars in Canada, he says, before he moves back, probably for good.

Without the embellishment of cocaine, Rico’s half-baked plan angers Jack. He knows that Rico travels on other people’s money, and the gratitude that he once felt for Rico’s friendship no longer compensates for the annoyance he feels over Rico’s feckless ambition. Jack goes to bed, leaving Rico and Sonja to inflate themselves till dawn on the hot air of their cocaine fantasies.

On the day after Rico’s visit, Sonja asks Jack for more money. Jack says he has already given her money for the week. “Where did it go?” he says.

“I lent it to Rico,” she says. “He borrowed money from the Mafia. He said they’d break his legs if he didn’t pay them back.”

“Where have I heard that before?” Jack says.

“He’ll pay you back,” Sonja says.

“He’s had three years to start.”

Jack hopes that Sonja will understand his reasons for turning his back on Rico. It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Rico does the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. But Sonja defends her friend, says he’s unsuited for a regular job, just needs a break, and casts Jack in the role of a Judas. Jack reminds himself that his marriage depends on more than a detail. If it irritates him that Sonja remains loyal to Rico, at least she has a good heart. But he wonders if she remains loyal to Rico because he supplies her with cocaine.

Jack considers leaving his marriage, but he has given his word, and he believes that men don’t walk away from their wives simply because they feel dissatisfied. But instead of telling Sonja how he feels about her laziness and instead of telling Rico how he feels about his self-deluded corruption, he avoids confrontation and keeps his mouth shut.

One Friday afternoon Sonja tells him as he sits at his computer that she has decided to leave him. “I feel so lonely,” she says.

“I understand,” Jack says. And of course, he does. He knows he has become distant and unreachable. He’s amazed that she has put up with him for so long.

On a Wednesday morning later that winter, Jack tells the players in the dressing room that his marriage has ended.

“I told you just to give her your house,” says Pat.

“Gotta choose your fucking friends more wisely,” says Mark.

To his psychiatrist, Jack says he feels sorry for abandoning his wife in spirit and betraying his friendship with Rico. They thought he was the person he’d pretended to be, he says. 

“I feel as if I’ve broken a promise,” he says.

“What promise?” says the doctor.

“To remain fucked up and ignorant,” Jack says with a shrug.

“Betrayal,” says the shrink.

“Betrayal,” Jack says. “The price you pay for hand.”


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