VOX HUMANA

JOHN ELIZABETH STINTZI

A few years back, when I was playing the organ at the church, I was seeing a dental hygienist who was the front woman of a melodic thrash metal band called Clits of Anarchy. At the time, I was between living situations. I owed a lot of back rent to a guy who’d quickly became an ex-friend, and I was pretty ashamed of it. I’d never slipped that far down before, I’d always been able to skim by.

I didn’t tell the dental hygienist—Jillie—about that, that I’d been kicked out of my place with little but the pants on my ass. The season was just beginning to tail out of winter. The nights I didn’t spend awkwardly shivering in the hardly heated bus shelters I spent sleeping in the pews of the church, or with Jillie, or with some of the other girls I wasn’t dating. I told Jillie I worked a construction job north on Main, which I’d never done, but a guy who I used to drink near had, and he bitched about it so much that I felt I had done it, too. It was a good explanation for why I often came to her place smelling of the city and in need of a good, hot shower. When necessary, I used his stories on her.

Jillie had a one-bedroom in one of those high towers downtown, which look like they cost a lot more than they do. Everyone in the building seemed interested in keeping up the idea of it being a fancy place to live, so they buttoned up between the front door and their apartments. It seemed like a normal place full of adjusted people until you walked down the hall in the evening and heard their sounds coming from the rooms: yelling, moaning, inexplicable and arrhythmic knocks, hoarse chuckles, foreign tongues, the sawing of wood. But if you ever knocked they’d quiet, and someone would come to the door and ask, sweetly, in a flat wrought voice, How can I help you?

*

I started playing the little, electric organ after the pastor caught me sleeping on the bench, slumped over the keys of the console. It was a small, non-denominational church near the river, and the door had been unlocked when I tried it—freezing—on the early April night. I’d gone in and, quivering, walked straight through the ominous, modest, Christian shadows to the small electric organ’s console. Almost possessed I sat at the bench, turned the organ on, and played the heat back into my bones.

It had been a long time since I’d touched any music, and that night I played it—mid-volume—for a few hours before passing out. I toyed with all the knobs and pedals. I didn’t know until the morning that the night I’d stumbled in had been a Saturday’s night.

*

In a small bowl by her door, Jillie kept her piercings. When she came into her apartment from work she’d hook them in: one septum ring, one stud on the left eyebrow, a belly button ring, small gauged wood plugs for the ears, and two small barbells for her nipples. I remember one day, the first of several times she let me stay in her place all day while she worked. She came in the door as I was snooping through her cabinets for non-perishable food, and I looked over at her as she took off her coat, her sweater, and her bra, until she was nude from the waist up. She did it like nobody was watching. Tattoos of black roses ran up the side of her ribs. The first thing she did once she was half-nude was put in those barbells, which always made her nipples seem like they were about to burst off the perfect, full plumpness of her breasts. Then she put in the rest of them, from the belly ring north. Every time I saw her do that she always put in the barbells first.

Inside her apartment were her guitars, her keyboard, amplifiers, band posters and stacks of records and CDs. It was like a hall of fame for metal, and particularly everything related to her band, Clits of Anarchy. She kept, in a glass case, a collection of curio-memorabilia collected after their shows: someone’s smashed hair clip, a small jar filled with the empty casings of sticks of lipstick—with color names like Furious Crimson and Soul Fucking Black—a short wad of discarded ticket stubs, and one busted, mandibular canine tooth in a sterile bag. She’d found the tooth after Clits of Anarchy had succeeded in inciting their first real, sustainable mosh-pit, and the crowd had gotten so incised that she’d surfed it. She told me that she believed her elbow had done it, because it was her first time and she’d not fully trusted the crowd, and at the last moment of her descent she half-turned, to make sure they were still there to catch her, and she hit her elbow into someone’s face.

She kept gin on the shelf above that.

*

I woke up in the church to a white robed man standing over me in the morning light, which would have been a holy vision had I not been an atheist. You don’t grow up like I do, around people who are growing up different, and well, and go ahead believing any bullshit about this life being a test, because why would He give us each different ones? The pastor smiled at me and switched off the console. It had been humming a bass toned horn from my dead foot weighing on one of the stop pedals.

“Do you know how to play, son?” he said from the angelic boy’s face pasted onto the front of his head. He couldn’t have been even five years my senior. I nodded.

*

For years when I was in high school I took piano lessons. I did it because it kept me out of trouble back home. I would go to the band room after the school day had finished and I’d stay there, playing, late into the afternoon. When she taught me, my music teacher would sit beside me on the bench. She was maybe thirty-five then, and beautiful.

When I was in tenth grade we started having sex in the tiny, windowless practice room. One afternoon she just sat beside me on the bench and put her hand down my pants, and that was that. After, she stopped asking me for money for the lessons and I pocketed what my parents were giving me for them. Soon she stopped giving me the lessons but I still took them, still took the money and still got her. I didn’t mind. I would slip out at the end of the day, playing less and fucking more, and would go to the corner where the Indian would buy me booze for a fair price. Then I’d go and make a friend with the bottle, the only way I ever really knew how. I wasted those years and the last of the money I’d ever see from my parents that way. I dropped out of school halfway through my last year.

That morning in the church the pastor put sheet music on the console and I played it, crudely recalling the notes on the lines, falling back into the inner sway of the metronome. Thankfully I was wearing enough clothes to hide my erection, which I’d associated with the fingering of the keys. He showed me how to use the stops, the trumpets and the strings and the flutes. He taught me more and more each time.

He never even asked if I would play for the congregation. He just went out while I was trying out the organ and brought me a robe and showed me the list of the hymns he wanted to do. He didn’t ask me and I just did it, because I’d hit rock and—having done that—had nothing further down to hit.

*

Another girl I was sometimes sleeping with at the time had a party house on Wardlaw where everyone used to go. There were always drugs and girls half naked and enough booze to forget yourself in. She herself never paid for any of it, she just opened the door and people came bearing it all. She was an empty vessel for it. I didn’t pay for anything, either, though I did sleep with her, of course. That’s always been how I kept myself from talking.

She was maybe thirty years and she looked fifty. Her house was a house of smoke and noise, and depending on the night, the crowds were different. If there was any small show at a bar out on Osborne, her place was where people ended up.

But there were regulars too. We nodded at each other and didn’t really mingle. The guy who worked north on Main. A tattoo guy who would sometimes practice his terrible tattoos on the drunks. A girl who kept her head shaved bald and sometimes pulled out a knife. Most of us didn’t bring anything to the house, we just mooched. Sometimes the host turned these regulars away, but no matter the night she took me in. I’d often get there early and she’d stumble around the house, taking the ends of the leftover bottles of booze and funneling them together into one apothecarian mix. She’d always laugh at me while I drank it down. Even though I’d lost most of my sense of taste by then, I contorted faces to make her laugh, and when I was finally drunk, we’d fuck. If there was a party going on, we’d try to get to a bedroom, but sometimes we wouldn’t make it, and would get stuck on the stairs, or in the bathroom. I think she got that house when her parents died. I don’t know. All I know is she doesn’t have it anymore.

But one of those nights I went and there was a whole new crowd—long hair, leather, piercings. That was after Clits of Anarchy had done a show at The Zoo. The house was stuffed and she was on the other side of the room when I ran into Jillie, spilling her drink. She cussed me out a little and I apologized, staring at the stain and her whole hair-frizzled get-up.

“You a rock star?” I asked, as I went and got a bottle and poured from it and necked the last few shots from the bottom.

“No,” she said, smirking. “I’m a dental hygienist.”

By the time the girl who owned the house had almost made it to me from across the way, me and Jillie slipped out into the frozen dark. That was my eighth night of being homeless.

*

A few weeks into us being what we were I was already telling Jillie I loved her. I told her hoping she might let me move in with her, but she wasn’t stupid enough to say it back. I called her whenever I had the dimes and I was sure she was off work, because I couldn’t leave her a number to get back to me. I never realized how busy the pay phones in the city were until I had to use them. I would stand a half-block away and stare at the shifty-eyed guy or girl at the phone, which were always connected to 7-Elevens. When the phone was finally free I’d walk briskly towards it, unless I saw someone else going for it, then I’d sprint. Some people could be there thirteen seconds or forty minutes, slipping from their fist dime after dime. It wasn’t the kind of wait I was willing to risk. When I got to the phone I held the receiver far from my mouth and talked loud. It would always smell of rancid smoke.

Jillie kept telling me to be quiet about my loving her. It made her smile and squirm, and I knew she only half-wanted me to stop. On her keyboard, one night, near the end of it, I played her “Sweet Child O Mine” and sang it out, and she laughed at me. I’d told her that my name was Axel, but if she wanted she could call me Spokes, because I got around on a bicycle. I didn’t. I belted out my worst Axl Rose impression and she fell to stitches. I knew, even then, that I was just her little street minstrel. She saw through me and I couldn’t blame her for stringing me on like that because I appreciated it, the play of it. When I told her I loved her I hadn’t meant it, of course. I loved parts of her, I loved her apartment, I loved the weird building and its weird quiet people, I loved the way those barbells made my tongue seem an expert and I loved the way she could smile and growl and talk mouths. She was the best of my selection of situations. But at some point I’d said I loved her so much that my saying it out loud meant nothing at all, which made it mean something to me, so much something that it began to ache me. Or maybe it was just that I myself was meaning less every time I said it, just getting smaller each time. All I know is that before then I’d hated every moment I was conscious in, and at that point I only hated every moment where I wasn’t with her.

*

On Sundays, through that April and flowing into summer, I went to that church and I played their hymns and their gospels and everything they needed, pulling stops, swaying. The pastor gave me twenty-five dollars per week, to which I added whatever I could palm from the collection plate, which was usually no more than five or ten more dollars extra. I went by Gabriel there, because it had a holy connotation, and I told the people of the congregation—almost all of them old people—that I’d never touched an organ in my life before the pastor found me sleeping there, and when he woke me I just played. I told the pastor, Samuel—which he said was a kind of stage name, his real name being Jamie—a version of truth, where I said I’d grown up in a halfway home and had a mental disability that made me useless for most things, which was why I was living on the street. That was the story that got me the key to that church, for emergency use only.

When I played there, I imagined that I was elsewhere, as I always had. Behind those keys I felt I could make my fantasies come true. That I could sing false into matter. Each of the people who I claimed to be had their dreams, and each time I played the organ, I let each of them step into me and dream through me. I was the vessel of them. I was honest only in that I was never truthful. There were no exceptions, not even at the church that I stole from. When I spent nights there, which only happened once or twice a week once I met Jillie, I would take bottles of the cheap wine that was meant for communion. I would play the electric organ, sometimes at full volume, with all the stops pulled. When it got that loud the speakers buzzed digital and fake. I would improvise songs when drunk that I would never be able to replicate sober. Not that I was trying to get sober, not then.

*

The ex-friend who I owed the rent to saw me once, in mid-April, when I was sitting in the bus shelter on Memorial trying to nap lightly enough so as not to get jumped. He was with a friend of his I never liked very much. It was a Saturday night and they must have been on something. Their eyes jittered in their heads. My ex-friend shook in excitement, his hands trembling out into fists. I backed into the corner of the glass shelter. They were big guys, little more than beards and guts and bad breath stuffed into tight jackets, and I wasn’t a very big guy, still aren’t, but that night I’d not eaten in a day and a half and had little energy for conflict.

“I don’t want your money” was the first thing he said to me when they had me cornered. It was just past three in the morning and nobody in their right mind was on the street. “I don’t want your money. I don’t want your apologies, or your excuses, or your little fucking stories, or any of your tips for tricking your little fucking whores.” To punctuate, his friend spat shitbrown chew across the cold plexiglass beside my face. Their eyes were spinning. “What I want from you is your honest fucking blood on my fucking knuckles. What I want is for your little ribcage to collapse under my feet. What I want is for you not to say anything but think it all to yourself, how sorry you are to have fucked with me, how—”

An hour later, maybe less, I broke from the cold unconsciousness. My jaw pulsed. A man who was homeless too, who I could tell had been homeless longer than me because he had a professional three coats on to my blood-stained one, stood over me chomping on his lower lip. My eyes tried to align so that I wouldn’t be staring like a fish. It was still dark, and slowly I sat up and slowly I stood and the man helped me carry myself to the ER with the shallow stab wound on my shoulder, which was done not with a knife, because it wasn’t very clean, and my four badly bruised but thankfully not-quite-broken ribs, and the two lost teeth on the right side of my mouth.

When we got there I tried to give the man what little money I had, but it was all gone. Thankfully they’d not taken my wallet, just raided it of its simple worth. I still had my health card.

I shook his hand and I didn’t tell him thank you, because if I had I somehow wouldn’t have meant it. He slipped off into nowhere. Later that day I shuffled back to that bus shelter and found those two broken teeth of mine. The spit stain was still there, beside a little splat of blood. Jillie, a week later, when I was healed up enough to go see her without having to explain myself too much, told me the names for those as she fingered their lack in my face. Mandibular pre-molar. Maxillary cuspid.

I told her I’d got knocked over by a forklift full of bricks.

*

Just before I dropped out of school my music teacher took a group of her favorite students to visit the Anglican church near Grant Park. She wanted us to see their huge pipe organ because it was undergoing maintenance. I’d recently stopped sleeping with her because I’d started sleeping with younger girls when their parents were out. I also stopped because I’d quit going to school more than once or twice a week. But she was still in love with me, so she invited me to go on the trip even though I wasn’t in class with her. I met them all outside the church because I knew that if I showed up to the school, they’d never let me leave.

The tiny man, who was cleaning and repairing some of the organ’s pipes, brought us into the church to see the instrument, a huge factory of music built into the wall. It stood there in the church like a cup full of different length straws. Some of the pipes were out of the organ and were laying on the floor beside it. We walked down the aisle, past the pews, approaching the organ slowly as the man told us about the instrument. I felt her, behind me, watching me and loving me and not in the least way knowing me.

There were more than three-thousand pipes in that organ, some of which you couldn’t stick your pinky in and others you could fit your whole head inside and scream. Most were wood but others were brass, and you couldn’t see most of the pipes. You couldn’t even see half. You could maybe see a hundred, and when we got close and he pointed beyond the huge pipes in front, where the rest were hiding, it still didn’t feel like three thousand. The big pipes fronting the outside were carefully painted, clean, and beautiful. The ones you couldn’t see were dusty, dull metal, with tongues bent for musical and not aesthetic reasons. The organ had not been maintained in fifteen years, which the little organ man claimed was not a very long time, despite fifteen years basically being what each of us kids could’ve defined as a lifetime.

She stopped loving me for a moment to ask the little organ man some questions, and some of the others did too. He kept pulling at the short hair on his face while he listened and thought. I wondered if he had three thousand hairs on his face.

After he answered the questions he climbed onto the bench and talked about swelling, talked numbers and ranks, and named each stop as he turned them on and began to play, noting the different sounds. Violin, he said, playing, Flute. He perched his back. Vox Celeste. He played, slowly pulling out each stop and adding more and more weight to the sound. Soon, all the stops were pulled and the organ was booming out like a regiment of cannons. The floor shook. I nearly fell over as the sound lanced through the room, through each bit of me. I forgot she was looking at me. I forgot that there were others in the church at all. I forgot I didn’t have a God. I forgot the little man was the one who was beating passion into the keys of the console. That it was not me. I forgot me, forgot it all and felt only the music moving through me, loudly whispering that it could demolish me if it wanted to. For a moment it felt like there was more music in my body than there was me. I felt all three thousand, and then I felt more.

After that the little man, slowly, eased the organ out of the stops, quieting it down. He looked sheepish when he turned to make sure we were still there, looked sheepish for having done that to us. It felt like he’d just fucked our brains out without warning. It felt like waking up after being hit. The world never felt so quiet as right then, and after a few beats of rest, sitting there at the console and tugging at his face, the little man pulled out one single stop out and played it all alone.

Vox Humana, he said, as the pipes began to ooze tremulous shafts of sound, began to quaver their soft impression of the human noise—a gorgeous, familiar, dishonest tone.

*

Jillie, I think, was one of the few girls who ever made me twist up into a full joke. Around her, I became silly, which I think was either my getting comfortable around her, or her making me feel insecure. She was one of the few people I’d met who actually got to me, who actually made me feel as if I was somehow worse, talentless, hopeless deep down, and that if she was to keep me around I would have to entertain her. Perhaps it had to do with her being my own age, with her doing two real flesh and blood forward-looking things while I couldn’t claim to be doing one. Perhaps it had to do with how little use she had of me.

The man she knew, the man she fucked, the man she spooned and laughed with and taught things about teeth to—Axel—was an absurd person. He was a jester, a self-prescribed, self-effacing moron who told vaudevillian stories about working a construction job, about the time he’d spun around with a long plank over his shoulder and knocked his supervisor out cold, about the day he poured cement onto the floor of a soon-to-be laundry room of a low-income complex, only to realize too late he was standing within the wood frame of the floor and was pouring cement around himself, like a doofus, making it so he had to take his boots off, jump out of the wood frame, and fill them up with the cement, since the suction was too powerful for him to fish them out. About how when the cement dried he had to cut what parts of the boot stuck out, and when they installed the washing machines he covered the spot by putting one of them half a foot out of place. None of that was real, though. None of it was him.

None of it was him because all of it was me. I was the one who lied to her and loved her. Maybe. And I don’t know why I didn’t feel I could come clean with her, perhaps because I didn’t believe that I loved her because at some point things between us began to feel so real, the way she looked at me, and smiled at me, and touched me in the night—it all felt too simple and real.

I know I was afraid, afraid that a young, homeless guy, jumping between girls who loved him, and who he didn’t love, and her, who he felt like he loved, but who didn’t love him back, would have been too big a joke to her. That she would have laughed, laughed at his unemployment, his stealing, his alcohol problems, his weekend gig as an atheist playing hymns at the church while she thrashed with her girls in a warehouse studio in the Exchange. Mine. Mine, not his. It was me. It was me that was afraid that who I was would not be entertaining for her, would not be fun.

It was me. Not him.

*

Then there was that time in May when I stayed at the church for a whole week. I showed up on Monday, before the world had woken up, and camped out in pastor Samuel’s little office just left of the altar. Because people used the church throughout the week, occasionally, for gatherings, I flipped my schedule. I slept in the office through the day, curled up under the desk, and only came out to kick around the pews and the organ at night when I knew no one was around. There were no windows in his office, and nobody went in there but Samuel, and he only used it before the service.

That week was the week where I had nowhere to go, when I didn’t want to drag myself into anywhere, so I stayed in the church. By then, I knew where they locked everything up and where they hid the keys and figured I knew how much they could stand to lose. During the day, I huddled in the office and when I needed to I’d throw up wine-stained bile into a pail that once held salt for the walkway. At night, I’d go out wearing Samuel’s dark robes for warmth, and I’d stand at the lectern and look out at an invisible congregation in the dark. I liked how from up there, looking down, I couldn’t see the cross behind me. I liked how the streetlights whimpered their way through the stained glass, getting into the church as nothing but a weak tinted glow. I liked how there was a little shelf in the lectern and how the height was just enough for a bottle of communal wine. Later in the week, I learned the little shelf could hold two bottles of wine. Eventually, I kept two in there and one in my hand, and preached off book in my head.

On Sunday morning, after nearly a full week of this, Samuel woke me up in his office. He was tying up his robe at the mirror, chin down and sniffing it as he frowned. He wasn’t looking down at me, splayed out at his feet, but the cool bottom of his loafer was pushing down on my hand like the pedal of the pedalboard. Like I was a stop on the organ he was trying to get to sound. I looked up at him and once he got his robe tied he pulled mine out of the little closet, my white robe, and he lowered it to me with one hand, handing down the music book with the other. I sat up, having only gone to sleep a few hours ago, and wanted to die. He went out of the office and I used his comb and put on the robe and threw up in my stained pail for five minutes straight. After one of the communion hymns my head began to split. I rested it against the open hymnbook, head tilted and looking.

Samuel took a loaf of bread and ripped it in two in front of a row of adults kneeling. A boy came up the aisle from the little kitchen with a pitcher of grape juice. My stomach swirled. All the blood was gone.

The second my finger hit the last note of the last song, I got up from the organ and left the church. I didn’t stop to get paid. I didn’t palm anything extra. The sun as I left the church destroyed me, sent me writhing determinedly down the street. The spring heat was blooming.

I had nowhere to go but I still felt like I was running out of time to get there.

I came back to the church the following week because I’d forgotten to leave the robe when I left.

*

I quit working at the church by the end of June. I had, as Jamie—an ex-pastor, from Victoria—gotten a job lifeguarding at a pool and started paying real paper money to live with a fellow in Osborne. I’d faked the qualifications for the job, but I was a strong swimmer, and I didn’t think I’d have to worry about it ever being tested. I’d never known anyone to have truly needed their life guarded. But after I’d been drunk on the job and nearly let someone die, I decided to try and quit drinking. Instead of playing organ at the church I took life saving lessons on the weekends, at a place that didn’t serve the head-quieting blood.

I shook from the withdrawal on the high seat in the pool. People thought I was just cold. “Wait till you see one of our winters, Father,” my boss joked, wandering past in his little red trunks. When I was off the clock I swam laps and went home only when I knew I’d pass out as soon as I hit the bed. I dreamed of amber emptying out of a neck of glass.

One Sunday, in August, after I’d earned the qualifications that I’d lied about having, I went back to the church. I was cleaner and I was shaven and I wore a suit that I’d stolen from the Value Village a few days before. Nobody recognized me, and I sat in the back and watched as Jamie—Samuel—preached about how important honesty is, how our Father God can’t lie, but we all choose, at each moment, whether we want to be honest like Him or dishonest like Satan. Samuel didn’t look at me, there in the back, when he preached it. He looked everywhere else.

“You can never trust someone who’s dishonest,” he said. “You will never be trusted if you lie.”

After that sunk in he went over to the organ and started to play the hymn. All rose. My fingers moved on my lap as I stayed sitting. I wanted a drink and I knew where he’d hid it. But I stayed sitting and listened to him play. He was much better than I was at the organ, because he was honest about it, and I wasn’t honest about anything, not when people were around. Years later I’d read somewhere that Coltrane had said that you could play a shoestring so long as you were sincere.

When I left that church, as Samuel was getting up from the console and everyone else was starting to sit, the key to the front door was laying on the pew where I’d been.

*

Jillie and Axel broke up in May when Axel woke her up in the middle of the night, a few hours before she’d be getting up to go to work. He told her that his name wasn’t Axel, and he didn’t work construction. He didn’t work at all. She rubbed her eyes in the dark and tried to reach for the lamp but he clamped down on her reaching wrist hard and said No. She hit him in the face, the side where his two teeth weren’t, and so he slapped her. Listen, he said, and she started to scream. He grabbed her other wrist and pressed her face into his chest. Listen, the-man-who-wasn’t-Axel said, smothering her under his chest. She stopped making noise and she started biting him. He didn’t try and stop her. His lip bled over her from where she’d hit him. He started to cry. I’m homeless, he said. I play organ music at a church on the weekends. I sleep there sometimes. I’m an atheist. I steal money from the collection plate as I help them pass it from one side of the aisle to the other. There, my name is Gabriel. With other girls, it’s Vernon, or sometimes: Lou.

Jillie stopped biting him, and maybe she stopped listening to him, too. His chest bled onto her face. She had bit him as close to his heart as she possibly could have. He stopped crying. He got out of the bed and he put on his clothes and she was still there in the dark. She didn’t go for the lamp. “Is that all?” Jillie said, and right then he fell forward onto the floor and started beating the ground, beating it with his arms, bleeding onto the carpet from his face and his chest, screaming. Then he got up and put on the rest of his clothes. She didn’t say anything. He went out to the hall and tied his scarf around his face. He put on his coat, the one he’d been stabbed in a few weeks before. “Is that all?”

No, he said. I didn’t get hit by a forklift. I got beaten and stabbed and left for dead by the guy I owe money to. She didn’t say anything. Maybe she didn’t even breathe. He closed his eyes and stepped out of the door and buttoned up into character. Had anyone passed him in the halls on his way to the street, they would have thought him to be adjusted. But he didn’t run into anyone. He didn’t turn around when she called after him from the doorway.

Axel and Jillie never broke up. He just ran away.

*

Years later, when I’d finally quit at the pool and got a new full-time job at a boring floor store, and was just about to become engaged to a nice girl from Winkler, who I wouldn’t cheat on but who’d get me drinking hard again, I went to Clits of Anarchy’s last show in Winnipeg, before they moved out east. They either went to Toronto or Montreal, I don’t remember which, just that it was someplace bigger where they might find a more lucrative scene.

It was then that I saw Jillie soar into the crowd, for the first time and the last time. As she put down her axe and threw herself from the stage she did not second guess herself at all. The little body, hardly clothed but strapped in leather, black and pink, with new tattoos flicking out from under her short top, and snaking out from her high boots, her little body, which had been thrashing and screaming on the stage with her girls, had full faith and trust in her people. She landed, about ten feet from me, softly on twenty hands. She kept singing as they jostled her around in a melancholy celebration. The cord for her microphone was all that tied her to the stage.

As I ricocheted through that mosh pit, trying and failing to reach her, to touch her one more time, I dropped my two lost teeth from my fist. I’d saved those teeth for years just for that, I’d decided that morning, stuffing them in my jeans. I did it hoping that Jillie would come out after the show and find them, and recognize them as mine. But that venue, the Garrick centre, was bigger and more official than the bars they’d used to play, and after the show I watched the staff come out and sweep the floor clean. She didn’t come out after they left the stage at all, not beyond the encore where they came out to play their ode to the city, Living On Shit River.

When she didn’t come back out I imagined her, soaring east, back-first with abandon, even though I knew she was likely just grinning, packing up her things, while every metalhead in the city wanted to have her for themselves, to keep her, to keep every maxillary cuspid and fossae and ridge and mesial surface of her, every pierced and tagged edge, every sob-dark corner and each lit eye. Every heartbeat, giggle, and smug smile.

I left the vibrating Garrick once I watched a guy sweep my teeth into a dustpan. I walked out through the warm doorway into the cool, bodied dark of Winnipeg’s downtown in fall. I breathed through the gaps in my teeth. I’d learned to whistle a little through them.

*

Once when I was trying to call Jillie at the payphone, early in May and near the end of us, I accidentally put in the wrong number, realized I’d ended it 1-8 instead of 1-5. Instead of Jillie I got an old man who called me “James” loudly through the receiver after I’d said Hello. After a pause I said I wasn’t James, and he asked me who I was and so I just told him. I’d paid for the call. He said he didn’t know anybody with my name and I said that was because it was a wrong number. He understood, he always dialed wrong numbers. At his age he could apparently look a 9 straight in the loop and still slip onto the pound, or nick a 6. Even with his new phone, which had bigger numbers. I turned and leaned my back against the 7-Eleven’s exterior, looked out toward the darkening downtown, the shadows laying flat out on Portage Avenue. It was a Thursday. After he told me about his experience with wrong numbers I told him a story about the time when I was twelve and I picked up the phone while my parents had left me alone. That they were out at a friend’s place, probably drinking and lubricating their fists.

“I told the guy on the phone that he’d gotten the wrong house, but he didn’t believe me. He just kept asking me for someone named Logan. I didn’t think it was alright to hang up a phone back then so I just kept telling the guy ‘I’m not Logan. My dad’s not Logan. My mom’s not Logan, either,’ but he didn’t believe me. Eventually he started to yell at me and I said to him ‘Okay, I’m Logan,’ and do you know what he said to me?”

“What?” the old man said.

“He said he didn’t believe me. Then he hung up.”

“What a world,” he said. “What people there are here.”

I nodded my head and then said Yes, because he couldn’t see me nodding. After not too long I ran out of coins and had to say goodbye to him. I didn’t ask him his name and I didn’t call Jillie that night. I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t really want to, though maybe Axel did. Later in the week I tried to call the old man back, because I felt somehow cheated for not knowing his name, the rest of his story, who James was, but I got someone completely different.

It turned out I’d messed up more than just those two numbers. The lady who answered the phone told me to please please please stop fucking calling her.

JOHN ELIZABETH STINTZI is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and their work has appeared in the Malahat Review, Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares. They are the author of the novel Vanishing Monuments as well as the poetry collection Junebat.