When Jack was assigned to Ottawa as the correspondent for a small-town newspaper with big ambitions, he rented a second-floor walk-up apartment for six hundred dollars a month. It was all he could afford. It had two rooms, two windows and a galley kitchen that accommodated a small refrigerator, a stove and a sink. The window in the front room, where he put his desk, faced a brick wall. The window in the back room, where he slept, overlooked a parking lot.
It took Jack about twenty minutes to walk to the National Press Building, where he shared an office with a woman from Winnipeg. Every morning after breakfast, he set out past the glass-clad condominium next door and, farther down the street, the iron gates of the embassy of Iraq, whose government, backed by the United States, had deployed chemical weapons that year in its war against Iran. Inside the gates, an armed guard sat in a concrete bunker, shielded by a pane of bullet-proof glass.
During the day, Jack interviewed politicians and civil servants, attended committee meetings and debates in the House of Commons and wrote articles for his newspaper. In the evenings, he retreated with a bottle of Scotch and a pack of cigarettes to his apartment, where he sat for several hours in a comfortable chair, reading journals and magazines and taking notes about rebellions in Africa, clandestine Western-sponsored military intrusions into Central America, skulduggery in the Middle East and the misappropriation of foreign aid in Indonesia, whose embassy was three blocks away. He thought it was important to stay informed about world affairs.
On weekends, he wandered around the city, visiting museums and exploring neighbourhoods where people with families seemed to lead conventional, well-ordered lives supported by steady paycheques from the government. Sometimes he jogged for a mile or two down the path that ran along the Rideau Canal to keep himself from falling into disrepair. At thirty-three, he still thought his future had just begun.
On Saturday nights, he read for a few hours and sometimes smoked a joint before heading to a movie theatre a few blocks away. In a city of bureaucrats, the midnight matinee felt mildly subversive. He felt at home with the audience of stoned-out hippies and late-night revellers who seemed to share his disaffection for government-imposed order, and the popcorn was fresh.
Even though he made little money and worked almost day and night, Jack loved his job. He’d spent the years since he’d left university floundering around with no direction and no motivation to do anything but carouse with his friends. He’d attended law school, twice, but could never convince himself that the rewards of a career as a lawyer would compensate sufficiently for warping his mind into the shape of a dollar sign. Now his friends had moved on with their lives, and he was alone, in Ottawa, where he knew no one.
Along the path that led him there, he’d followed no particular philosophy, but was guided by random biographical details of writers and poets he admired and by equally random snippets of their work: “Mushrooms,” by Sylvia Plath. The essays of Montaigne. Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford, a generous man. The epistles of Horace. An epithet from Samuel Johnson: “How small of all that human hearts endure/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” They cluttered his mind like road signs on a highway after an earthquake.
Now, in Ottawa, he wondered about the incoherence of his ideas. Taken together, they formed no particular creed or set of beliefs. They slithered through his mind like eels, offering flashes of insight into one conundrum or another but always remaining elusive and ambiguous, never definitive. He could never have organized his thoughts into a manifesto or delivered a marketable solution to the challenges of life that would attract an audience or get him elected to Parliament. He appreciated the comfort and security that come from a sense of order. But he also knew that order was questionable and that life was tenuous. Even though they caused him anxious moments, he resisted the temptation to inform his uncertainties with dogma. If it made him uncomfortable to feel so unresolved in his thinking, he also knew that he’d rather nourish himself on scraps of wisdom leavened with skepticism than gorge himself on the over-cooked banalities of some fast-food ideology.
Now, as a reporter for a small newspaper, he put his heart and soul into bearing witness on behalf of a readership that could fit inside a hockey rink. But he was getting paid and doing no harm. What more could he ask?
After smoking a joint one Saturday night in February, Jack put on his coat and boots and plodded through a blizzard to the theatre to watch a movie of a Neil Young concert called “Rust Never Sleeps”. He took heart from Neil Young’s music and felt elevated by the adolescent fury and simplistic optimism of the songs. He was tired that night of thinking.
By the time he walked home again, hearing echoes in his mind of a song called “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”, the snow was up to his knees. The side streets were deserted. There were no cars moving. He hummed as he trod through the sparkling blanket of fresh white powder that twinkled under the streetlights. In a hushed city where everyone was asleep, it was easy to believe in a universal spirit of goodwill.
He’d just passed the iron gates of the Iraqi embassy when he saw a human shape in the snow. He moved closer and saw a woman in a fur coat, struggling to stand up. When she moved her feet, the soles of her fur-topped boots skidded out from under her, and she fell forward again into the snow.
Jack reached down and placed his hands under her arms. The fur of her coat felt soft. “You’re okay,” he said.
He hoisted the woman to her feet. Under her bulky clothing she felt as light as a bird. When he stepped away, the woman began to topple over again.
Jack held her upright. “Let me help you,” he said. The fur of her hat matched her coat.
The woman pointed at the glass and steel condominium next to Jack’s decaying brick apartment building. “I’m going there,” she said.
A breeze blew fumes of alcohol past Jack’s face. He realized that the woman was drunk. Jack felt relieved. Her condition made her seem more human.
“We’re going in the same direction,” he said.
He turned sideways and ploughed ahead, guiding her by the hand through the deep snow toward the front door of her building. He glanced toward the embassy’s concrete guardhouse and imagined the man inside. Did he think the old woman in the fur coat was a suicide bomber? If Jack hadn’t come along, would he have helped her or would he have exercised his diplomatic immunity, watching through his pane of opaque bullet-proof glass at two o’clock on a cold Sunday morning in February until she floundered for the last time and died face-down in the snow?
“There’s no rush,” he said. “We’ll make it now.”
He made it sound as if they’d just walked across Antarctica.
Unlike Jack’s building, the woman’s condominium had an outer door that opened into a vestibule lined with mailboxes and an inner door that required a key. They stood on a rubber mat while the woman fumbled in her purse. When she found her key, she couldn’t fit it into the lock.
“Let me help,” said Jack.
“Thank you,” she said. She held on to his arm and watched him unlock the door.
“That’s better,” he said. He was about to say goodnight then and walk away, but he realized that, if he did, the woman would fall down. “Let’s go to the elevator,” he said.
They shuffled past a French provincial credenza under a gilt-framed mirror. Jack resisted the temptation to look at their reflection. The last thing he wanted to see was an image of himself being virtuous.
The elevator doors opened with a sound like distant thunder. Drunk and stoned, they stood side by side and ascended to the fifth floor.
“My husband was a diplomat,” the woman said.
“Lloyd George knew my father,” Jack said. The woman didn’t respond.
The elevator doors slid open.
“Here we are,” the woman said. She giggled. Jack felt as if they’d become buddies.
In the corridor, light fell discreetly from shaded sconces on the papered walls onto a royal blue carpet with patterns in gold of a fake regal crest. The woman wrapped her fur-clad arm more tightly around Jack’s and together they glided arm in arm like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers returning from a gay night on the town, until the woman stopped outside a white door displaying 516 in brass numerals. She handed her keys again to Jack. He wanted to warn her against allowing a stranger into her apartment, but they’d come this far. He didn’t want to alarm her now. When he opened the door, a gust of warm perfumed air poured into the hallway like scented gas from an oven. Jack followed the woman inside, where she seemed to revive under the bright lights of a chandelier. She straightened her back as if she’d inhaled a dose of smelling salts and unbuttoned her coat.
“Just a moment,” she said. She shuffled in her fur-topped snow boots down the hall.
Jack set the keys beside a vase on a polished walnut occasional table. He looked farther into the apartment and saw beige wall-to-wall broadloom, an upholstered couch, a matching upholstered chair, a coffee table, lamps and paintings and preposterous china figurines of ballet dancers and bullfighters.
The woman returned, still wearing her coat and hat and carrying her handbag. She extended her gloved right hand in which she held a five-dollar bill.
“So nice of you to help,” she said.
Jack put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the brown puddle that had formed around his feet. He raised his eyes. He felt like weeping, reluctant to insult the woman by refusing her payment but reluctant, as well, to abandon his righteous innocence.
Outside in the snow, he waved his hand at the Iraqi embassy, hoping to remind the guard at the gate of his humanity, but he knew it was an empty gesture and that sooner or later he would have to admit that he lived in a world whose most cherished values were the ones that could be measured in money.
Bruce McDougall’s work has appeared in journals such as The Antigonish Review, Ward’s Literary Magazine, Dark Ink, Geist, subTerrain and the Amsterdam Review. His short-story collection, Every Minute is a Suicide, and his non-fiction novel, The Last Hockey Game, were published in 2014. In addition to writing for The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Canadian Business and other publications, he’s worked as an airport attendant, a bouncer, a taxi driver, a social worker and a newspaper reporter. He graduated from Harvard College and attended the University of Toronto Law School, twice.