And In The End I Can't Quite Remember Her NameSonia, V 1.0
As I turn from the cash machine and prepare to leave the 7-11, a rather pretty woman stops me at the door.
"Excuse me, sir. Did you drive here?"
I take her in. In this neighbourhood we're assailed by panhandlers fairly regularly, but she's inside
the store. Her clothes look like she's getting a fair bit of mileage out of them, but they're tidy and look clean: three-quarter-length woolen coat, black cords, white sneakers. She looks a bit like one of the African or Caribbean immigrants who live in the area, and her speech has the faintest hint of that elusive precision that makes me think English is not her milk language, but was learned very young anyway.
"Yes, I did."
"Uh, can you give another car a jump from your battery? I've got cables."
"Oh thank you so much!"
"C'mon, let's go."
In the tiny parking lot I look for any car that seems to be in distress. There isn't one. She explains:
"My van, it's just down there," a hand flutters in the general direction of the main cross-town artery some four blocks down "On the road to the bridge."
The road is a major feeder route to one of two bridges in the municipality. It crosses my mind she's walked a long way up a steep hill to get here. Why didn't she stop at the little corner store two blocks downhill?
I think. Maybe she's already tried there.
"Hop in" I say, opening the car door and getting in myself.Sonia, V1.1
"What's your name?" she asks, getting in, sitting stiffly, the way a woman might well sit in a stranger's car. I tell her.
"I'm . . ."
She told me, I just don't recall. It could have been Susannah. Began with "S" and ended with an "Ah" sound. But it wasn't something unusual enough to remember perfectly, like Savanna, and it wasn't Samantha.
She begins to talk, and within three sentences she's jabbering away nineteen to the dozen. She's a nursing student, she says, training to be an OR nurse. She's been registered at UBC but hasn't moved into student housing. She's living in her camperized van, which she drove out from Ontario, until she can move in nine days from now. And now her van has a dead battery. We talk about Ontario, and she seems delighted to learn I have a friend in Sarnia.
"Where on campus are you going to be living?" I ask. Both my sisters went to that university.
"Gage building," she says.
"No kidding? My sister lived there."
"Oh," she seems interested "Is it nice? Have they remodeled it? 'Cause that's what I heard."
I admit ignorance. We're coming up on an older model white van, it has Ontario plates and I start to slow down.Damn,
I think she's nosed right into the pullout. And someone's parked behind her. Maybe I can turn around and nose onto the sidewalk?
"That's not it," she says abruptly "you got to keep going down this road a ways."
"Jeez, you must have been right at the bridge." Which is only a couple of blocks away. Much closer and I'll be committed to crossing to the other side. What are the odds of two camper-vans with Ontario plates on the same block?
"Oh--I'm actually just over the other side."
I fume privately, suspicion rising.Sonia V 1.2
"It's the only place I can park without being hassled while I'm living in the van."
By itself, the statement makes a little sense. The neighborhood around the uni is prime real estate and the residents are somewhat hostile to vehicle-dwelling students. Yet it's a long way from there to here, and it seems to me that there are places a person could park overnight hassle-free.
"It's the only part of the city area I know." she says apologetically.
She looks a bit strained. We're on the bridge now and I'm stuck taking her across, so I change the subject.
"You walked a long way to get up there." I remark.
"Well, I hope you realize I don't always look like this." The non-sequitur catches me off-guard. "It's just I've been crying. . . There's this guy, see, he came to fix my van. I was running just the fan to keep some heat on but without using gas 'cos it's so expensive. . ."
Well there's no denying that. I feel a hint of irony, driving her across the bridge. I realize she's twirling half-a-cigarette in her hand. Idly I think That'll take a chunk of the student loan.
" . . . and he said the alternator's not charging the battery or the battery's not charging the alternator. But he says I owe him thirty-four-fifty for the parts."
This is something that I, beater freak ordinaire par excellence
, know something about. I happen to carry a basic tool set in my trunk.
"Oh it's nice of you to offer," she says "But he's a mobile mechanic and he says I owe him thirty-four fifty and I haven't eaten nearly anything in nearly three days . . . I just walked over to use the shower at the community centre 'cos it's free, right?" Her face contorts and she begins to cry.Sonia V 1.3
The year I left home I found myself flat broke with an empty fridge and two penniless room-mates. I who had never gone hungry a day in my life was faced with the real possibility of having to go hungry. When I explained this to Mama Morel, she loaded me up with, among other things, a whole chicken. Wherever you are, Mama, I think of you often, especially at times like this. I pull into a McDrive-through. Sonia protests that it's too generous of me. She just wants to get her car on the road again.
"Well," I lie,"I was going to stop for a quick bite anyway, so let me get you a meal and we'll go see what's what with your van."
She orders a chicken sandwich meal, root beer. I get the All-Canadian meal--smallest proper meal on the menu. It used to cost $2.50, but times have changed.
As an afterthought, I order two apple pies. My mother impressed upon me years ago that when you're short of money, you eat plenty of Kraft Dinner, but you never get the luxuries. It's why she donates luxury canned foods to school food drives. Smoked mussels, artichoke hearts . . . well maybe not quite that swank, but never a tin of beans. Dessert's a luxury I think Sonia (?) could use.
It's at this point I realize that I can't quite recall her name.Sonia V 1.4
After we pick up the food, it turns out they got her drink wrong.
"I hate Coke." she says. There's a pause "But I guess beggars can't be choosers."
"I never eat there," she says. "Did you see that movie Supersize Me
We talk nutrition and corporate responsibility:
"What I hate is that they got all this money, but they never use it to help anyone but themselves."
I want to dissect this foolishness, but I resist. She's supposed to be going for nursing, not political science. She eats her fries as I make a wrong turn that will take us several kilometres out of our way. She directs me with an ease I find suspicious. I hold the suspicion in check--she may have had good reason to learn the local roads.
"I don't usually do this," she says apropos of nothing "I was just so desperate. You can see I'm desperate, right? I mean I'm out over there ready to sell myself for . . . You gotta understand I'd never do this if I wasn't . . ."
She seems about to cry again. I am uncomfortable, although I couldn't tell you why. Is it that she's just admitted to being so desperate to fix her van that she'd trade sex for cash? It's not like she'd be the first person I met who'd had to face those choices. Is it because I get the feeling that she's just made a lateral pass--Offered me sex-for-money in terms no vice cop could bust her for?
Her vocabulary and manner are slipping now, and I reluctantly admit that whatever she is, it isn't what she's claiming to be. Stiffly, wanting my nasty suspicions to be wrong, I drive her to the end of an industrial wasteland road. unfenced, informal scrap yards hunch on each side of the road where she's now saying the van is parked.
At a bend in the road she waves me over.
"You can see the van over there." she says "But I don't think Alec's there."
Glory be, there is
a ratty old white Dodge camper van, its top just visible above the trees, tucked away on the side street.
"He's the mechanic. His shop's just down that road back the way we came."
I offer to take her there. I do business with half the wrecking yards and about two thirds of the mechanics in this city, and most of them aren't unreasonable joes. I might be able to talk terms or credit.
She agrees with a certain enthusiasm, but something's missing in her response. It's beginning to feel as though having started to dance together, we've discovered we're dancing different steps and neither of us knows quite what the other is doing. She's becoming extraordinarily fidgety.Sonia V 1.5
Alec isn't at the shop, an unlabelled bay in a mint-green stucco warehouse complex.
"Do you just want to go and try to jump it?" I ask.
"Well the thing is, there's no battery in it," she replies "It started leaking this battery acid or something. So he took it out."
Sonia asks if I'll drive to where she thinks Alec might be. She knows the roads very well. I drive this neighbourhood daily and I'm learning new things. From time to time she restates the not-quite proposition she made earlier. When we pull up to the back alley behind the Tempo gas station that I decide she's officially taken me for a ride.
But it isn't over. Instead of getting out of the car she asks to borrow my cell phone. She has a short, loud and emotional conversation with someone on the other end whose voice, actually, doesn't sound like anyone named "Alec" but might belong to a woman.
She flips the phone closed and crumples, cryng again. Begs me for money with an almost frightening intensity.
"He still says I owe him thirty-four-fifty." Nearly crying again. Unable to cope with her waterworks I shove her the change from lunch. First a fiver, then two toonies.
"I know it's a lot to ask, but can't you just spare even ten dollars more? For twenny dollars [yes, twenny
] he'd fix my van, I know he would."
I derail. I lie and tell her that the money she's seen in my wallet is for my landlady, and that it's part of an overdue rent payment (which it is, kind of. I give money to the SO, she pays the rent). I really can't spare anything more.
We both know I'm lying. And I don't know what's worse. That we know we're both
lying or that I've crawled into the gutter with her. Such is my shame that I find myself agreeing to provide her with yet another fiver. I pull around to the Tempo station.
I go inside and ask for change. There's a group of people clustered inside the warm office, smoking and talking.
"You see that girl in the passenger seat of my car?" I ask the clerk.
"She a regular?"
"How long has she been
"Oh I guess a few months now? Why?"
"Oh, nothing much," I say "She's just giving me a story."
I drop her off in the alley. She's stopped telling me how terrific and generous I am. Probably already thinking about where to get a rock.Sonia V.X
On the way home, I stop and look at Sonia's alleged van. Close to, it's obviously been there a couple of years. The paint is discoloured with spores of moss. It has no plates.
On the way home I call an old friend to vent my dull anger at having been suckered (and I only wish this was the first time) out of twenty dollars by a hard-luck story.
My friend, call her Becky, is sympathetic:
"Oh please sir, can you help me? You see, I have to watch a hockey game tonight and I've no beer. And of course, you can't have a beer without pizza--could you please spare a little
. . ." she whines.
I get my first belly laugh of the evening.
"Hang on," I reply "You haven't offered me a forty-dollar hummer yet!"