Since Ray got sprung from Bellamy Creek Correctional, it’s been better and worse and the same. Delia, for better or worse. And the same all-night radio show tiding him over, lulling what’s left of the decrepit city.
Ray works the night shift—janitorial at the DDO head office, can’t complain. Probation officer ticks another box and Ray is one step closer to redemption. That with his clean piss, weekly samples, if he can stay out of trouble. Wheel the bucket, dunk the mop, crank the handle to squeeze out another rush of dirty water. Slop it around, put weight behind it, make the linoleum shine. Repetition, not all bad. No boss breathing down his collar, no slackers aggravating the hell out of him. Ray, alone every night, with the consort radio.
Reggie Toombs’ velvet-chainsaw rumble, the voice of Detroit. Ray can’t help picture a bear of a man, grizzled chops, wide heft to his stooped shoulders, the back of his padded swivel chair worn from sitting, night after night, just so. Darker than Ray, not taller; more filled out. Late fifties, wizened and worn down like a favourite pair of shoes, shine gone but plenty of kick left. Reggie sighs into the mic. Ray imagines him pushing back headphones, large like a chopper pilot’s, cord tangled thick as pigtail, letting them fall to his shoulders making a necklace of sorts. Boots stretched long, crossed at the ankles, buried in the dirty shag of the on-air booth carpet.
Ray can more than picture Reggie, he knows him. His thirst. Beer with meals, of course. Beer without them, too. Bourbon or whiskey. Reggie’s voice thickens and slurs late into the night. Probably always got a jar on the go, never enough. When Reggie cues The Moody Blues it must be for a smoke break—why else play the long version—and Ray takes one, too. Seven minutes. Lumber to the fire escape, lean against brick. Strike a match, suck filter, pick loose tobacco off the tip of the tongue. Haul deep. Pause, and look over the darkened city: lights blinking, bus shuddering up Woodward Avenue. Sirens hook and pull the night, ripping it. People, out there somewhere, jostling and hustling. Their wants eat up all the empty space: parking lots, doorways, the putrid, dripping alleys.
Reggie’s exhale, like Ray’s, is smoke shot out dry lips. Smoke drifting the grey night air above the head. Left lung pinching, familiar burn in the throat. Ribcage relaxes, diaphragm drops, and fingers clamp the cigarette, readying for another draw.
There’s no way that midnight shaman can’t name Ray’s private agony: Delia. Reggie conjured the very possibility of romance with his nightly soundtrack. Reminded a crusty ex-con how to flirt, how to smile at a woman. The night Ray met Delia, Reggie’s show was playing in the bar, conspiring. Wingman. Reggie’s voice filled the room—honeyed baritone plunging to quarry depths. Gravel trailing a bleached cliff, skipping and rolling, landing at the bottom in a small spray of stones. God voice, complicit suffering and soothing grace, the only thing holding it together some nights. Truth is, he’s Ray’s only friend.
Most nights his work is a refuge. But sometimes Ray meets it with fury. Hauls the enemy garbage, accuses the dustpan. Punishes the sinks, toilets, the endless reeking urinals. He relives the day’s earlier confusion: Delia, hurling a vase with his priced-to-clear bouquet. Chrysanthemums, it turns out, she expressly hates. Delia, playing every guy at the bar while Ray sits, fuming. Who’s keeping her company while he empties the bins?
Once, Ray was good enough. Newest face in her corner bar. Now she’s restless. Ray blames those excruciating movies she insists on, rom coms every Saturday after spaghetti supper, meant to lead you into one another’s arms murmuring what-nots. Instead, maybe because of it, Ray has to point out the delusions. Modern fairy tales, anorexic princesses. Men without substance, sweatered and benign: beige to the bone.
“Is that what you want,” he points.
“Why do I bother,” she hisses.
“Exactly. I’m no Prince Charming.”
Arguments. Too many beers. His gut says his luck is running out. He’ll bore her to death with this newfound reliability, his steady but meagre paychecks. What he’d give for a baggie, a bump. Pills. Agonizing non-sleep, back to back in the too-small bed, not the lovemaking she tries to orchestrate. If she’d just come at it head on. Tight jeans and a wide smile, that’d do the trick. Always had.
“‘Spose you’ll leave,” she says.
Can’t she see? At least he is not abandoning her pendulum moods, her theatrics.
Regular nights Ray gives himself over to the work. Rises above. The radio helps, Reggie’s enduring voice, and Ray unplugs it, carries it along to each new wing, sets it back up, and away he goes. Music fills the corridors: Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Tommy James and the Shondells. Some proper rock and roll, some danceable funk. Ray twirls the mop and shakes his flat ass—why not, no one’s looking. Trotting the hallways, his troubles subside. He thinks survival. Prospect.
The night Reggie plays their song, that notorious Al Green ballad, Ray stifles a sob. Delia, in the early days, would climb the fire escape under a hungry moon. Chuck pebbles at the window of the room he was cleaning. Ray’d cup his hand to the reflection of fluorescent lights on the glass until her mouth pressed against it, puckering obscenely, leaving a smear on the outside he’d have to wipe later. Remember letting her in, mop clattering to the floor, her teeth nipping the skin of his neck, long hair spilling over his calloused hands, bosom pressing against his blue button-down, his uniform, for God’s sake, and the slow dance to end them all: Ray, shuffling and trying not to stomp her pretty feet, disbelieving his unexpected fortune. Ray, stopped up with longing, and her leading, leading in tiny circles going nowhere.