John Tavares

On their first date, in a cafeteria in the campus commons, Pierre told Bronwyn he lived an unusual life. He worked at an unorthodox job, a saw filer in a lumber sawmill, until the time he went to university. There he met Bronwyn and fell in love. She still couldn’t believe she was the first woman he, nearly forty, ever dated.

As he rummaged through the storage locker, Pierre couldn’t believe how many books, record albums, compact disks, comic books, magazines, paperback books, hardcover books, and graphic novels he had accumulated. The hoard dated to the time when life was easier, simpler, when he was a filer at the stud saw mill in Sioux Lookout. When he applied at the sawmill he was already rejected for work as a forest fire fighter, a track maintainer, and a train conductor. After a fifty second interview at the sawmill, though, he landed the better job. His boss said he could blame his short stature. If he was much taller than his five feet, the supervisor would have ordered him to work at more physical labor, stacking lumber, piling studs, shoveling scrap wood, sweeping mounds and mountains of sawdust. Instead he sharpened the jagged teeth of the huge circular saw blades. He had considered becoming a machinist at the sawmill, but his mother didn’t think he had the technical skills or mental abilities, so he didn’t bother applying for the trade training courses at the satellite campus of Thunder Bay’s community college.

A single man, he considered himself an ineligible bachelor. After all, he lived in a house he inherited from his Catholic mother, who died of breast cancer. Since he never felt any strong attraction for women until after she died, Bronwyn try to convince him, his mother brainwashed him into believing he was unattractive. Until he met Bronwyn, he never felt as if he was missing anything, because he had his video, music, and book collection.

Then, as the Financial Crisis struck and the Great Recession intervened, he was reminded of the interconnectedness of life and economic affairs. With a fascination for worldly philosophy and economics, he could never stop discussing the great recession, which resulted in his unemployment. This chatter bored Bronwyn to yawns and tears; its significance hardly registered with her. When the financial crisis struck, she, a teenager, worried more about lip gloss, skin cream, and hair straighteners. Pierre, though, found himself out of work, approaching middle age, when he thought he was set in his boring, dreary life, working day, night, and graveyard shifts at the lumber mill. He read and collected every form of media, absorbing novels, graphic novels, magazines, and comic books in his spare time, with not a care in the world, not a worry or concern, until his mother died of breast cancer. In the wake of the recession and subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, his domestic paradise collapsed. Laid off after the collapse in the lumber market, he then permanently lost his job. He needed to decide what to do with the remainder of his life. What, he wondered, would someone with no previous college or university education do? With a deep and abiding love of reading and learning, he decided to pursue a degree in English literature. He applied to university as a mature student. When the university gave him an acceptance, he felt relieved and vindicated. He tended to check the post office around midnight. He told Bronwyn she didn’t understand small towns or rural life because she lived in Toronto all her life. But she thought he was something of a recluse; he tended to avoid the downtown, the centre of local gossip, rumor, and news, during busy business hours, he said. When he received his letter of acceptance, which he received when he checked his mail box at around midnight, he walked from the post office to the Catholic cemetery where his mother was buried to share the news.

Now, after dropping out of graduate school, he couldn’t believe the work and bother he created for himself: he stored all these books and comic books in a storage locker costing a few hundred dollars a month. Since he was fired from his position as a tutorial assistant at the university, he decided he’d call Bronwyn to offer his favorite books and cherished vinyl records, even as he reminded himself he couldn’t contact her because of the restraining order.

He already stopped paying for rent for the storage locker, allowing the self-storage company to appropriate the contents of the unit, his beloved personal belongings, his book, music, and video collection, including important letters and personal documents. He hoped to give away the materials he cherished or thought the most valuable to someone like Bronwyn, but, after he thought about it, there was no one else, aside from her, on the list of people he trusted. He should have sold all these books, magazines, cassette tapes, vinyl records, and compact discs in a garage sale in his hometown, before he sold the house, but then he loved his media collection more. Before sojourning to university as a mature student, he believed his media and book collection had value, but he simply didn’t have the time, knowledge, or the wherewithal to sell the material online through auction and collectable websites.

He examined a high school yearbook with trembling hands. Looking around the crowded and cramped storage locker, he couldn’t believe he had borrowed and rented a truck to make six two thousand miles road trips over the summer. He spent over a month travelling back and forth between Northwestern Ontario and Toronto, moving his personal library from Sioux Lookout. A more peculiar mystery was how he managed to store and organize the entire contents of his personal library into the storage locker. He rented self storage space after he realized using a whole house wasn’t a practical solution. He balked at finding a house to store the library. Instead, he moved into a small single room in a student housing co-operative downtown. After he graduated from university and became a graduate student and a tutorial assistant, he moved into a room in the college residence. Initially, he did not want his own bachelor, but later he decided he could not afford an apartment.

Now all he wanted was the family photo albums, folders, and envelopes, but mainly the picture of the high school girl who wanted him to date her. She also wanted him to help her lose her virginity during their final year of high school. He remembered the long weekend, the school holiday for parent-teacher interviews, when his mother got into his backpack and read the note, which she wrote him and passed along to him through an intermediary, her friend. She became sarcastic, crumpled the note in front of him. She criticized the teenage girl and mocked her romantic sentiments. Then his mother told the girl’s mother. The paramour became short and angry with him in the classrooms and corridors. Two decades later, she was perpetually pregnant, in his hometown, but he still found her an attractive woman.

Certain another photo album was at the bottom of the huge, strong, reinforced steel trunk, which he inherited from his mother, he scanned the shelves and roof of the storage locker. He saw some heavy boxes of books, his first set of Encyclopedias Britannicas, on the top upper shelf near the rings where he stored his endless chains of the keys and padlocks, part of his large collection of locks and chains of every brand, material, strength, and variety. He had been searching for the keys for the luggage locks for many filing cabinets and luggage locks for the suitcases, where he stored first editions and collectables. Frantically searching, he found he safely stored the keys in their original location, after a few books fell and nearly knocked him on the head. He removed mountains of folders, letters, photographs, and envelopes from the trunk, which contained bundles of receipts and letters, which his mother kept. His mother kept everything, all her correspondence, even if it was a forty-year old paid electrical bill, or a sewage and water utility bill. He started to believe he inherited that packrat gene. Finally, he found the family photo albums. After recovering several thick albums, he felt surprised at the number and size of the photographs, snapshots, and portraits. Distracted, perusing pictures, he lounged comfortably inside the huge truck. A small man by contemporary standards, only five feet tall and a hundred pounds, he fit quite easily inside, alongside the photo albums.

Then a bulldozer and backhoe rattled alongside a road backing the storage locker. The vibrations sent a boxful of encyclopedias crashing downward on the open lid of the trunk. The upper lid of the trunk, which his mother bought from the Sears catalogue store in downtown Sioux Lookout in the late nineteen-sixties, abruptly slammed shut. To his initial consternation, Pierre discovered he was stuck inside the trunk, but he did not panic because he was not claustrophobic. Alone in a quiet, dark, and safe place, where he could read in quiet and privacy, he felt relieved. He illuminated the dark cramped confined space with light from his smartphone. Pierre had a fetish for flashlights when he was a youngster. Whenever his mother locked him in the closet, he would merely pull out his flashlight, turn on the light, and read a pocketbook or comic book he stashed in his pocket.

Reality sank in eventually, but refusing to believe his fate, he cursed and swore. As he tried to open the lid, he realized two or more boxfuls of books, including the heavy set of vellum bound encyclopedias, must have fallen on the top of the trunk. He repeatedly tried to heave and push the trunk lid open. After failed attempts, pounding from the inside, he realized the lock must have automatically engaged when the lid fell. He pushed and hammered, but he didn’t have the strength. He did not know precisely what happened to cause him to be unable to open the lid of the trunk from the inside. Although he did not feel a strong sense of urgency and panic, he knew he eventually needed to escape. He turned on the smartphone, which Bronwyn had given him to replace his flip-phone, although he had been using the smartphone more as a flashlight and an e-book reader.

After he was fired from the university, he hardly received calls and hardly used the smartphone. He went to his cellphone carrier and reduced his calling plan to prepaid local calls only. In fact, cash flow became such an issue, he dropped his regular phone company, which he used all his life, following the influence of his mother. He changed his calling plan to a discount cell phone provider and prepaid local calls only. In the Toronto area, aside from a few York University telephone numbers he would sooner forget, he only knew one local telephone number: Bronwyn’s. Risks were associated with calling Bronwyn’s number, though; he could get arrested since there was a restraining order her parents and their lawyer insisted upon, the purpose of which was never made clear, except the judge agreed to the request. The judge abided by the plea and the condition was allowed and attached to the order.

Since Bronwyn hadn’t spoken with him in weeks and missed his voice, after she looked at the caller identification, she answered the telephone.
“Pierre, I’m in the hot tub, the bubble bath, trying to relax, trying to forget all the agony you caused me. What the fuck do you want?”
“I’m in a bit of a bind.”
“Pierre, you do understand that you could get arrested for calling me. And the other thing: I can hardly hear you. It doesn’t hurt to pay extra money for a good phone.”
“That’s easy for you to say: You can depend on your parents to pay the bills.” Looking at the battery icon, the level light, on the smartphone she had given him, he realized the phone was running low on power.
“So why the fuck are you calling me?”
“Bronwyn, I’m sorry for the way things turned out.”
“You’re sorry. I’m sorry. There goes my career as a high school teacher.”
“Bronwyn, you know I wanted to teach high school myself. I didn’t want to be a tutorial assistant for snobby university students.”
“If you didn’t want to do it, why did you, Pierre?”
“Bronwyn, it didn’t have to be this way. I lost my job over this affair and my career prospects are also ruined. I didn’t want to be a TA, and I really did, do, want to teach high school, middle school or even elementary school. Younger kids bring out the best in me.”
“Pierre, you can’t teach.”
“Why didn’t you simply accept my judgement.”
“Why did you have to come down on me so hard for a short paper about a lousy sexist John Updike short story?”
“Because the department chair, your aunt, complained some tutorial assistants were being too generous in marking. We’ve been over this before.”
“Did Aunt Katherine mention your name specifically?”
“Bronwyn, your Aunt is the vice chair in the English department, and I didn’t want to be accused of favouritism or bias or of crossing the line.”
“My aunt doesn’t care for me. Did you see what happened after I complained at the instigation of my parents? She re-evaluated all my papers and essays then she had the nerve to accuse me of plagiarism.”
“So, is that why you reacted the way you did?”

“Pierre, my parents gave me no choice. They’re academics, too, and they hate my aunt. You, though, Pierre, are a hillbilly and a backwoods boy and you should have stayed in northern Ontario filing your sawblades.” The smartphone cackled with static and low power. “Pierre, I loved you and the sex was actually good, for an inexperienced hick from the country. I guess I was lucky enough to find a forty-year-old virgin. Maybe that’s what I should have written my term paper on—the trope of the forty-year-old virgin in contemporary literature and film. But, Pierre, you are a royal fuck-up. You just don’t know when to bend the rules and ease up and let go. That’s why you needed to wait four decades before you found someone who’d fuck you.” Abruptly reminding him she was in the hot tub, she said, she was dying to find some rare moments of relaxation. Impatient, upset with the interruption of a rare moment of pure relaxation and serenity, she again asked him what he wanted.

“Bronwyn, I meant to tell you I’ve some books, first editions, and vinyl records, in excellent condition, for you.” She perked up at the sound of his description, first editions, hardcovers by literary artists, and compact discs and vinyl records, but she continued having difficulty hearing him through her smartphone. “Didn’t you hear me?”

“Pierre, your phone keeps breaking up. You might want to give that phone a charge the odd time.”

“Bronwyn, I use this phone to read e-books. Your phone number is literally the only telephone number I remember because I have no other friends in Toronto.”

“Then move back to Northwestern Ontario.”

“Bronwyn, I love you. I’m sorry it turned out this way.”

“Pierre, it’s over. It was a fucked-up relationship to begin with. I don’t know why you thought it would last.”

“You thought it would last, didn’t you?”

“Pierre, if my parents find out you’re talking to me, they’ll have you arrested.”

“You’re a grown woman, Bronwyn.”

“Who still lives at home with fucked up parents. That’s the fucked-up reality.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The point of your phone call, Pierre, the point.”

“The point is I love you, and I have some books for you.”

Her tone eased, especially when he gave her descriptions of the vinyl records and books he wanted to give her: first edition hardcovers of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth; vinyl records and compact discs from The Rolling Stones and the Beatles. First, he added emphatically, she had to find him.

“What do you men? Find you?”

“I mean get me out.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Bronwyn splashed in the hot tub as she shifted positions in the soapy, sudsy water and dropped the book on the heated tile floor. “I’m sitting in a hot tub, reading Anna Karenina, in a beautiful limited edition leather-bound hardcover, given to me on my sixteenth birthday by my aunt, the same aunt who accused me of plagiarism after my parents made me complain about your marking, and my aunt, the full, tenured professor, insisted on reviewing and regrading every paper I ever wrote for the class  you graded, and you want me to find you on a Saturday night?”

He realized Bronwyn was probably candid and truthful when she said she figured she had an undiagnosed, untreated case of bipolar disorder. She grew extremely lively, in moods that lasted for days, and her flights into anger were energetic and dramatic. Distracted and relieved to be finally talking to her again, he forgot his own predicament, and his confinement didn’t cause him to feel cramped or claustrophobic. He felt strangely and oddly comfortable, locked inside a trunk.

“Just wait a second. You’re stuck in a storage locker, literally locked inside. A truck, no less?”

“Don’t be silly and obstructionist! A trunk!”

“And you dare to call me at home, while I’m trying to luxuriate in a hot tub!”

“I love you.”

“All right, Pierre, give me the locker number and the address. I’ll see if I can unlock you. I just don’t know if I can believe you anymore. You have no credibility with me any longer.”

“You’re being unfair,” he protested. He realized he better play nice, since, firstly, he still genuinely loved her; he needed her assistance immediately. He gave her the address of the storage building, a facility open twenty four hours a day and open seven days a week, located at the edge of an industrial park, where heavy trucks and bulldozers and front end loaders were serviced and repaired, electronic components were manufactured, and auto parts warehouses lined the chain link fences.

“Yes, Pierre, I’m a grown woman. I’m not afraid of the dark.”

Still, she had problems hearing the number. He repeated the number of the storage locker thrice, shouting 777, but every time she, incredulous at three 7’s in a row, read back the number 773. After she wrote down the street, Skyjack Way, she had problems hearing the numbers, but he shouted the numbers and repeated the numbers of the storage locker number: 7-7-7.

She said, “773?” as his cellphone battery drained and the line went dead. She couldn’t believe the number was 777, since three sevens in a row seemed improbable, too lucky. About an hour later, he heard her walking, in her high heels, wearing Daisy Dukes, and crop top, the aisle of the storage unit pounding the doors. He tried to shout his explanation he left the doors on his storage compartment open. She just needed to pull up the garage-like door. He heard her loudly trying to slide and pull up the sliding doors on the other side of the corridor in the storage unit warehouse. Finally, he heard her call him a motherfucker, and she headed down the corridor of the industrial warehouse with loud clacking footsteps.

Bronwyn concluded the self storage warehouse was a mausoleum of broken teams, but then she worried: what if Pierre really was stuck inside a storage vault? She could not abandon the man she still loved, the forty something year-old man who acted like a boy, the man she promised her mother she’d never see again, to a miserable fate.

Then Bronwyn conveniently became distracted. On the door to the storage locker and on the billboards, the signs advertising the auction sale of the contents of a few storage lockers caught her eyes. For the few tenants who stopped paying rent on the storage units, the owner of the self storage facility seized their delinquent contents. She had plenty of time on her hands, lately, since she was kicked out of university. Pierre’s mention of his book and a CD and vinyl record collection aroused her sense of curiosity. She was keen to see the contents of these storage lockers. As she stepped towards the exits of the self storage building into the parking lot to her  parents’ idling Cadillac, she was gripped by a sense of urgency; if her parents noticed their luxury car was missing they would automatically call the Toronto city police, which they supported through numerous friendships and charitable donations. Her parents refused to tolerate any criticism or bad mouthing of the Toronto city police, whom they considered heroes.

At the same time, Bronwyn wondered if she may have possibly been the victim of a prank Pierre pulled, or some desperate ploy to get his attention, so why should she worry? She thought instinctively it was right she suspect something was amiss when he told her his storage locker number was 777. The number was a memory mnemonic, too easy to remember, too lucky. A few days later, she was surprised when she received an envelope from the university with a refund for a semester worth of tuition. She cashed the check into a wad of twenty- and fifty-dollar bills and decided to put in a bid at the self storage facility at One Skyjack Way.

She decided to bid on the contents of storage locker 777. Locker 777. Hmm. That sounded familiar. Was she bidding on Pierre’s belongings? Anyway, so few buyers put in bids, the auctioneer joked, and blamed a large flea market and farmer’s market in a warehouse parking lot just off the nearby expressway. Chuckling at her fortune or misfortune, she thought she should have visited the flea market and farmer’s market to purchase fresh organic cherries, peaches, and apples. Participating in the bidding in the storage wars auction, she felt jubilant and celebratory when she put in the winning bid at her first auction.

Inside the storage locker, she noticed an earthy sweet odor, but she didn’t think the smell significant as she perused the contents, mountains of books, vinyl records, compact discs, and beneath crumpled cardboard boxes of heavy encyclopedias, a huge trunk. Energized by her victory, she felt impatient to view the trunk’s contents. She wondered if there were collectable first editions or rare vinyl records or even vintage furs or luxury clothes inside; it was strong and a well-built container, and appeared airtight. But the lock was a cinch to open, and it seemed to engage automatically without the need for a key. When she opened the lid on the trunk, she suspected nothing unusual, although the odor should have triggered a warning. She recognized Pierre’s remains instantly, despite the mould and discoloration and bruising on his skin, the bloating of his flesh and torso, the foul stench of gas and decay, the blackened and decaying flesh, the advanced state decomposition of his small body, fringed by the thick dark hair, which was dried and curly but looked alive. She best remembered his thick, dense locks, his curly handsome hair being a physical trait she most admired. The blue metal trunk with the ornate brass hinges and ornaments became his tomb and casket.

Her loud voice screamed as she, nauseated, sickened, fled down the concrete and metallic corridor. She collided with the industrial glass doors and crumpled into a weeping heap. Her cries echoed throughout the storage building, a mausoleum, with their white walls and countless stainless-steel blue garage doors. Her sobs created distress in the administrative offices, as help came across the roadway from the strip mall and industrial park.

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