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It’s winter. The men lie on subway grates, wrapped in flannel shirts and sleeping bags. The sleeping bags look like giant worms ingesting human skeletons, bloated blue or black or brown bodies resting on the edge of the sidewalks, pressed against buildings, squeezed inside crevices between buildings, scattered across downtown. An infestation of night crawlers, growing fat on human detritus. The men’s faces, when I can see them, are gaunt and unshaven, and their facial scruff is usually greying and sparse. These men don’t bother speaking; they have long given up asking the passersby for change or pity. Instead, cardboard signs propped against their bodies give brief explanations: laid off, fired, alcoholic, addict, home repossessed, evicted; please help. Next to these signs tattered coffee cups collect pennies and nickels. I rush past, looking up at the buildings.
Outside of my favourite bookstore, there is a woman. Day after day she sits there, amidst a heap of stuff—odd clothes, bulging plastic bags, empty food wrappers from nearby fast food joints, a stuffed bear, broken juice bottles, a wilted balloon; most of it is garbage. Her hair is matted beneath a knitted toque, and she is engulfed by layers of fabric: two scarves wrap around her neck, a man’s plaid shirt over what looks like two or three tee shirts, a hippie skirt, leggings, and some disintegrating work boots on her feet. A hodgepodge of goodwill attire. She asks me for change as I pass. I don’t have any. I smile slightly, and shrug. I push open the door, and head to the right so that the greeter won’t ask if I need any assistance today. I want a book on mythology; I want to know what Wealhtheow believes in. I’m not entirely sure where to start. I wander the store, and wind up looking at the single bookstand that holds the poetry collection. Three copies of Beowulf, I notice, each translated by a different man. One is the same as the copy I own. I examine the other two. Which translation is the most faithful? How can I tell? I decide to buy one, to compare it with the version I’ve already read. I pick the cheapest, and go up to the cashier. I pay in cash; I will give the coins to the homeless woman outside.
She has been in this spot for a few years now; I’m not entirely sure when she first showed up. This street is slightly tucked away. It has the bookstore, a used music shop, and little else. Perhaps this is a good spot for her; there is only one store entrance on this street so other beggars sit where more foot traffic passes by. I cannot guess her age—she probably looks much older than she is. She could be younger than I am. I have a feeling she’s very skinny beneath her layers, and probably cold as well. Still, she smiles. She weaves her head back and forth. I suspect that she’s disturbed, or on drugs. Her movements are jerky and abrupt, but her head never stops moving. I stop in front of her, hold out the change. There’s no cup set up for collection. A hand with a thin fabric glove appears out of her left sleeve. “God bless,” she says, taking the offered money. She peers at me, leaning her whole body forwards.
“You have a beautiful smile.” I don’t know how to react to the unexpected compliment. Suddenly aware of my mouth, and embarrassed by my thick lips, I take a step back and break eye contact. I hurry away, back into the mechanical pedestrian flow of Yonge Street. I walk over to Queen and catch the streetcar. I dislike streetcars—I’m afraid that one day I’ll step off and be hit by an oncoming car—but it’s the most direct way to get to The Lair from here. I could head underground and loop around on the subway, but then I’d have to walk further once I resurfaced at street level. So I take the streetcar, and bite down on my left pointer finger when I glance out at the street and step off.
Phil’s behind the counter and I don’t see Tia around, which is unusual for the afternoon. It’s warm inside, so I take off my hat and mitts, and shove them into my shopping bag. I go up to Phil and order. As he’s counting my change, he mentions that Tia’s given him my story, my manuscript he calls it. He’s been reading it, and would love to talk to me about it; he knows a thing or two about the medieval period. He implies that he can help me with accuracy.
How could Tia have shown my work to Phil? My private work? Stiff, I turn and walk out. Phil calls something after me, I think, about my coffee. I keep going. I think I should be cold but I don’t feel anything. Staggered, I drag myself home.