Liz Stuckey’s marriage to her husband, Brian, was not without its rewards. First, there was their daughter Abby who was a delightful child of eight and accounted for much of Liz’ appreciation of life. Then there was her comfortable existence in the suburbs, with a 3,000 square-foot home and a Lexus in the driveway. Of course, it was Brian who drove the Lexus, but the cachet still enveloped the whole family. Liz drove a serviceable but hardly glamorous Dodge Caravan.
Brian, however, was another matter. Most nights, he wasn’t home. He either stayed late at work or he was out with the boys, playing in a house-league game or hanging around a tavern watching one of Toronto’s numerous professional sports teams on TV. Both Liz and Abby felt some sense of betrayal and abandonment, but most of the time they got by alright.
Liz had her own pre-occupations buried in her family history. There was a matter about which she felt a weighty sense of obligation. Perhaps there was more she could have done. Liz’ older brother Edward had turned into a troubled young man. Throughout his university years, his professors had marked him as brilliant. But he’d been overwhelmed by emotional problems.
Try as they might, the Smith family elders had never been able to rescue him from his demons. Bouts of rehab and mood-altering drugs all came up short. The upshot was that Edward disappeared into the legions of the homeless in the city’s core when Liz was only in her teens. She had been too young to do anything about it then and her sense of loss and impotence never left her. There was no doubt in her mind that she still had a duty to perform.
Since her father died and her mother’s health deteriorated, mainly due to heartache, Liz had adopted a new routine. For the past decade, there was one day a year when Liz would go to her friend Cynthia’s florist shop and purchase two dozen yellow roses. Cynthia would usually throw in an extra one for good measure, bringing the total to 25. Liz would sit in her car and carefully cut each blossom to a length of five or six inches, also snipping off the thorns along the remaining stems. Then she would drive downtown. This was a journey that always threw her into heightened anxiety, not only due to the traffic but also on account of what she imagined she might find when she got there. She never wavered, though, and proved she was a trooper.
She’d park the car around Sherbourne and King Streets and make her way west on foot. Along the way, she’d pause when she encountered some derelict soul and hand them one of her roses, all the while checking if a flicker of recognition might cross their face or creep into her own. Originally, she had shown pictures of her brother to some of the people she met, including social workers and the “soldiers” of the Salvation Army. Lately, though, she’d given up that effort.
Life on the streets was hard on people and the change in appearance in a short period of time could be unbelievable. She wasn’t even sure what she would do if she did meet her brother. It wasn’t as if she could take him into her home. His problems had always been too deep and ingrained. But she had to try to find him if for no other reason than to let him know she cared.
The first person she encountered that night seemed harmless from an approaching distance of ten feet or so. He was a stooped version of a former giant, with straggly red hair and craterous skin. But standing right in front of him and getting a close-up look at his face sent a jolt of fear through her. His countenance was as angry as any she had ever seen. Suppressing her trembling, she handed over a flower. It took a moment to register, but the positive change in his appearance was astonishing. Liz moved on quickly. This might augur well for the rest of the evening.
Two hours later, Liz had worked her way across King Street all the way to Bay. Here’s where the skyscrapers stood. Sixty-storey and higher towers loomed over all the corners of the intersection. Giant media screens with advertising, stock information from foreign exchanges and the latest news lit up the sky. Human diminishment and eerie dislocation were hard to shove aside.
Liz was getting tired and there was only one rose left. She crossed the street on a green light to pass on her final floral treasure to an indigent who had camped on the south sidewalk, swathed only in a sleeping blanket, other assorted scraps of fabric and cardboard. The cold of the night at this time of year was like what one might imagine encountering in the vacuum of outer space.
Ever since the Wiz came to appreciate his skill in math, he’d been grappling with one question. It occupied all of his time, costing him all prospects and pushing him to the brink of insanity. He had a theory with the potential to explain the most important subject of all, good versus evil.
In his younger days, when he’d been more cogent, his proposition was framed as follows. Most people think they know what one plus one adds up to. Well they’re wrong. One plus one does not equal two. Nor does it make 11 as grade schoolers like to say in their riddle. Nor is it the punch line for the joke about the shady accountant which ends with, “Whatever you’d like it to be.”
No, one plus one, when it comes to human affairs, is always more or less than the individual parts. The interpersonal reaction of one-on-one results in a net plus or a net minus. In the case of the former, the difference between the whole and the sum is a quantifiable good. That’s where angels live. In the event of the latter, the net negative, that’s where soul eaters are born and derive their nourishment. One always has to worry about being pursued by soul eaters.
When many people get together and behave well, such as in charity events or in response to catastrophe in weather-ravaged regions of the world, the storehouse of good receives a boost to its inventory. When gatherings of people turn into a lawless mob, the subtraction from the whole is nothing short of evil. At all times, the psychic balance of the world can be determined by mathematical calculations. The Wiz had been working for years to figure out the exact formulas.
Earlier that evening, the Wiz had been expounding on his theme once again while taking sustenance at the soup kitchen on Sherbourne. The usual semi-lucid audience was there, paying him little attention. He’d noticed Red in the background. Most of the Wiz’s colleagues had assumed street names. Red originally got his from the colour of his hair. More appropriately now, it reflected the colour of his skin. The dappled blotchiness was the result of drinking too many bottles of plonk. When the Wiz thought of Red, he thought of blood. Red scared him.
The Wiz appreciated his name. It matched his tendency to pontificate. But he’d only acquired it after a former Wiz had departed the scene, taken down by despair and alcoholism. The previous Wiz had been given his name by the cops for a diametrically different reason having to do with incontinence. The new Wiz much preferred his new sobriquet to his old nicknames of Eddie and Smitty. Besides, it had helped to confuse and throw off the frightening pursuit of the soul eaters.
Seated in the cafeteria, Red looked his usual sour self. But who knew, maybe some of what the Wiz was saying was having an impact. Maybe that explained why later that night, Red offered to let Wiz sleep on top of a warm air vent. These were prime real estate locations for their sub-culture above subway lines, underground parking lots and hot water pipes that heated several downtown office buildings. On any other night, Red would have given him a hassle and driven him away just for the fun of it, employing the threat of physical violence. On the other hand, maybe it had something to do with the yellow rose that Red was clutching in his beefy paw.
It was a joy for the Wiz to stretch out on Bay Street in what was, for him, rare comfort. He lay facing the street in the peace of the evening. A lady approached him from behind. He knew her gender from her footfall. Then a man walked up and the two of them started conversing.
“I wish they’d go away. I’m going to keep pretending to sleep. They must know each other. Yes, that confirms it, they’re talking about their marriage. Well I have my theory about relationships. I’m just going to let them have their privacy. Hope this doesn’t bring out the soul eaters.”
Brian Stuckey stepped out of the sports bar and into the cold night air. He’d gone downtown with several of his buddies from work in the government office building near Wellesley and Bay. This was fairly common practice for the lot of them. They’d knock back a few brewskies, flirt with some waitresses, talk about their sports heroes and get into a silly pointless dispute or two.
They started out in the trendy area of Queen Street West. Then they moved closer downtown. Heading into the third bar-hop, Brian became restless and unhappy. This was happening more frequently lately. The thrill was going out of sitting and getting hammered with his frat boy companions and arguing about what was wrong with the Leafs or the Argos or the Raptors.
He had a great wife and adorable daughter back home. What was he doing down here? Brian left the group and walked along King to clear his head. His intention was to eventually climb into a cab to take him to his parked car. Then he saw her. She was just about to bend down over a homeless person sleeping right there on the street. Could that really be Liz? He called out to her.
“Sweetheart, is that you?
She looked back. Startled at first, she was too tired to register a whole lot of surprise. “Yes, fancy meeting you here. We’re going to have to stop meeting like this.”
Then it came to him. Brian remembered his wife’s obsession with finding her long lost brother. In many ways, she was a remarkable woman. His heart melted.
“I forgot that you do this every year. In fact, I just realized something. If you’re doing this, then it must be Valentine’s Day. I’m sorry, it slipped my mind.”
“You’re absent a lot these days, Brian, in mind and body. Abby and I miss you.”
“You’re right. I don’t know what I’ve been thinking. I’ve been neglecting you for no good reason. It’s not acceptable. Will you forgive me?”
“Possibly. Probably. I’m beat. Can we talk more later? I’d like to leave now.”
“You still have a rose left.”
“Yes, I was going to place it on that man’s shelter. But here, let me stick it in your lapel instead.” Then stepping back and examining the result, “That looks really nice. Let’s go home, dear.”
Equally as romantic as the foregoing is Physician to Precarious Longings.