Burning by Alvaro Tapia | Flickr
The whirring hum of the cryptocurrency rig resonated through the Hochelaga apartment. Accustomed to the noise, Benjy Rafferty rewound the VHS amateur pro wrestling tape. Nailed it, he thought with pride as he watched his younger, teenage self in star-studded tights, the babyface scripted to be cheered on by the fans, execute a perfect piledriver on the heel, Vince Vendetta. At sixteen, one year after the tape was filmed, he dropped out of school and gave up wrestling to sell pot and counterfeit bills full time, making more money than his mother did as a receptionist at the dental clinic.
What time was it? Wednesday’s first light shone through the living room curtains. He finished the bottle of Crème de Menthe, the only liquor left in the cabinet and snorted a ten-milligram line of oxy off his roommate’s thesaurus. The rush was immediate. The fidgeting and tapping of his hands and feet let up; the buzzing of his ADHD came to a full stop. The painkiller’s weight and warmth amplified by the three-day binge. Now that the edge was taken off, he leaned his head back and smirked at the ceiling.
The phone rang. It was Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law, the ringtone reserved for Paula, his father’s lawyer, not to be confused with Sex Machine for Tinder Sandy or Pusherman for Tétreaultville Monique. As it rang, he remembered that he was supposed to meet up with Sandy last night, but had passed out on a pool table. Meanwhile, Monique was expecting him to show up any minute with some fentanyl patches. Where was the phone? He spotted it on the coffee table by the Cancun ashtray.
“Benjamin! What’s that noise? Sounds like an airplane’s taking off in there.”
“Bad girl!” He slurred at the cat that clawed at his foot. “Go play with the scratching post.”
“Are you talking to me?”
“Hold on a minute,” he said and stumbled toward the racket of his roommate’s bedroom. The neighbors downstairs had complained for the third time. Nevertheless, the landlord, Mr. Christopoulos, let the operation go on for a cut. When Benjy opened the door, he saw Leo seated at the computer with a headset, watching Lawrence of Arabia again. On either side of him, two other monitors displayed coded data. The rig had gotten bigger with twice as many motherboards and graphics processing units mounted on milk crates and shoe racks. The equipment, which generated enough hot air to heat the apartment through winter, was cooled down by a series of fans.
Leo turned around, wearing the sunglasses that never came off. He took a puff of his e-cigarette. The vapour smelled of raspberries. “What’s up?”
“Turn it down! I’m on the phone!”
Leo stared, eyes unreadable through the caramel lenses. “O.K, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He turned off the fans one by one. “This is suicide, my friend.”
Benjy returned to the phone. “Paula, you still there?”
“Have you met with Saul?”
“The rabbi?” He laughed. His Irish-Bulgarian father who was serving the last three years of his prison sentence for conspiracy and fraud, had converted to Judaism for the better meals and access to the rabbi who helped supply the prison with narcotics. “I’m putting the package together right now.” He grabbed the brick of spicy Afghan hash, tore off a handful and squeezed the sticky substance until it grew firm. “It’s looking kosher.”
“Your father needs something to keep his spirit up,” Paula explained. “Stress is a killer, but the boredom’s worse. By the way, he wasn’t crazy about the last Harry Potter.”
“Don’t worry,” Benjy assured her and stuffed the compact slab of hash into the narrow spine of Leo’s copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. His father’s only son, Benjy was made aware of his responsibilities since kindergarten. “Pa’s gonna love this one.” He flipped through the pages, but as usual, the letters reversed on him, symptoms of dyslexia he had always denied. “Paula, someone’s on the other line.” He answered the incoming call.
“Benjamin, are you coming for lunch tomorrow?”
“Ma, I can’t talk right now.” It seemed she hadn’t yet realized he had taken her car again.
“That’s what you always say. Your sister’s gonna be there with the baby.”
“Gotta go!” He returned to the other line. “Paula?”
“Benjamin, you don’t put a fucking lawyer on hold. I’m charging you for that. Stop whatever you’re doing, get on a bus if you have to and meet the rabbi. Don’t get caught driving with a suspended license. I’ll see what I can do about the demerit points. Shalom.”
“Mazel tov,” Benjy answered, but Paula had already hung up. He got up on the kitchen table and reached in behind the loose ceiling panel. He removed a fat wad of cash and the Beretta M9 he had bought after one of the Haitians in the Montreal-North crew pulled a meat cleaver on him. They clipped his stash and wallet, even his sneakers. Never would he be embarrassed like that again, he vowed. “Act like a bitch, you get treated like a bitch,” his father always said.
Outside, his mother’s Honda was illegally parked across the street. He tore a parking ticket from under the windshield wiper and threw it over his shoulder. He got into the car, put the Beretta in the glove compartment and did a keyshot of blow to even out the oxy buzz. Now, pulsing with confidence and the adrenaline required to stay awake and make the drop-off, he started the engine and reversed down the one-way street.
I taste blood, Benjy thought. And my back is killing me. The air bags hadn’t gone off. He touched the dripping cut above his eyebrow and looked through the shattered windshield. He had crashed the Honda into a median. A school zone road sign lay on the pavement. Coughing and woozy, he unfastened the seatbelt and climbed out of the wreck.
As far as he could tell, there were no other vehicles involved in the accident or pedestrians watching. The book, he remembered and retrieved it from the passenger seat. His father would not be able to buy favours from the inmates and guards without it. Letting him down was not an option. Even after Benjy had confessed to stealing a Bunsen burner from the science lab, his father was the one who stood up to the principal. Without hesitation, it was his father who defended him when the coach cut him from the hockey team for taking a swing at the goalie.
Benjy limped through the nearest alley to a quiet street. Breathing heavily, he leaned on a light post. The neighbourhood was familiar. Not far from Mom’s, he realized. Relax, he told himself. You’re not getting busted. The rabbi would have to wait. He wiped the blood from his eyes and stared at his reflection in a nail salon window. Blood was seeping from a gash on his thigh. His shirt was soaked, but rather than attend to his wound he examined his coiffed hair that had stayed perfectly in place.
A vehicle was approaching from behind. It was a purple minivan. The driver rolled down the window. “Are you okay? I can give you a lift to the hospital.”
Benjy got into the passenger seat. “Can you leave me at the gas station on De Chambly?”
The man eyed the passenger’s bloody thigh. His lips formed a perfect O. “Are you sure you don’t wanna go to the ER? It—”
“—Don’t worry,” Benjy said and reached for the twenty bag in his shirt pocket. “The friend you’re driving me to is a surgeon.” He rolled up fifty-dollar bill and snorted from the bag.
The driver hesitated. “Listen, I-I don’t want to get involved with...” He stopped speaking and looked straight, eyes fixed on the road. His breathing grew shallower.
“Drop me off at the curb,” Benjy wanted to say, but unable to string a sentence together without garbling his words, pointed to the corner for the driver to pull over.
Giggling, he stumbled out of the minivan. Only a few blocks till Ma’s, he thought. Oxy’s fuzzy feeling was wearing off and with each sluggish movement toward the end of the cul-de-sac, a surge of pain shot up his left leg and lower back. “Everything’s cool,” he assured himself, denying the feelings of anger and failure that were rising through the chemical euphoria. Once he reached the house, he held himself up on the “For Sale” sign in the front yard and spat blood onto the grass. Cindy Ambrosio, the neighbour’s daughter from across the street, was pedaling on her Barbie bike. She turned her head and stared.
“Hi,” Benjy waved with a limp hand. “How are your parents?”
“Good,” she replied after a pause.
“Great,” he muttered and struggled up the steps past the garden gnomes to ring the doorbell. It was then that he reached into his pocket and realized what was missing. His phone was gone. Then he remembered the pistol in the glove compartment.
The kettle screeched. Angela Rafferty, Benjy’s mother, poured the boiling water into the teapot.
“Drink,” she said, raising her voice. “It’s chamomile. And stop fidgeting, you’re giving me a headache!” She stood by the stove in her Minnie Mouse pyjamas and shook her head, working herself into a rage. “Frankly, I’m fed up! You take my car without asking, drive it at who-knows-what-speed, hopped up on God-knows-what and crash it into God-knows-where! Have you lost your mind?” Frantically, she stirred the honey into her teacup. “You’re out of control!”
Benjy sat at the table beside the narcotic-stuffed self-help book, holding a bag of frozen mango chunks to his forehead. He washed down a handful of Tylenols with the scalding tea. His eyes were shutting. “I can’t hear this right now,” he mumbled. The down of withdrawal had already begun.
Angela threw up her hands. “Stole my car? What are you, crazy?”
Cotton-mouthed and tongue-tied, he rose with a grumble.
“Where are you going? I’m talking to you!”
He staggered downstairs to his old bedroom, where his father kept the weed stash. Goodfellas posters still decorated the walls. Wrestling trophies were displayed on the dresser. He searched through the sock drawer, denying the intensifying back pain. The search paid off: a dime of pink kush along with some rolling papers. Next, he stuffed a duffel bag with clothes. “What if someone tries to jump me?” The Montreal-North crew holding a meat cleaver to his crotch came to mind. He test swung Best Young Talent, the biggest of the trophies. Solid, he concluded and threw it into the bag.
“Where’s the portable phone?” It wasn’t in the dock. The light flashed red. The line was occupied. “I need the phone!” Benjy yelled. What was Paula’s number? “Ma?” He cursed and locked himself in the bathroom. He rolled a pinner, turned the fan on and lit the cinnamon-scented candle to cover up the smell. After three large tokes, he flushed the roach and smoked one cigarette after another. How long would the rabbi wait? Over an hour had passed since the accident. Another ten minutes down the toilet here. He imagined his father sitting in his jail cell, banging his head against the wall, bored and betrayed by his only son.
“What are you doing to my bathroom?” Angela knocked on the door.
Benjy opened up and hurried past her with the bag, but she followed him into the kitchen. He picked up the house phone and dialled Leo, one of the few numbers he had committed to memory.
“Bro, I’m melting in this sweat box,” Leo answered. “The fans—”
“—Pick me up at my mom’s.”
“Me pick you up? Porca miseria! All I have is a bus pass.”
Benjy scratched his head, aggravated by the sound of Leo’s casual vaping. He wanted to whip the phone against the fridge. “Call someone for me! I’m waiting outside! Bye!”
Angela was breathing hard, her face red. “Who do you think you are, Al Capone?”
“I’ll get you a new car. OK? I promise.” He put the rabbi’s book in the bag, grabbed a pear from the fruit basket and snatched a bottle of rum from the liquor cabinet.
“Grow up, big shot!” Angela grabbed the porcelain teapot and threw it in his direction. It hit the wall and broke into pieces across the hardwood floor.
Benjy stormed out of the house with the duffel bag slung over his shoulder and the bottle of rum in hand. The moment he bit into the fruit he met the grey eyes of a goateed police officer standing midway up the steps. The cop’s shorter, bald-headed partner was getting out of the vehicle parked in the driveway.
The pain was pulsating through Benjy’s body now. He dropped the fruit. It hit the porch with a splat. He glanced over his shoulder. Angela was peering through the blinds. His jaws clenched, hands trembled. “You ratted me out?” That’s why the line was busy, he realized. His father had him running around doing errands and now his own mother sold him out.
At any second, the goateed officer was going to lunge at him. His father had always told him to act like a man, yet when the police came for his arrest, he had locked himself in his bedroom and hid under the bed. Benjy glanced at the window. His mother had drawn the blinds. Nobody was leaping to his defense; the babyface had turned heel. He could feel his old hockey coach berate him. He saw his principal shake his head and strip him of the championship belt.
Tears welled in Benjy's eyes. He smashed the bottle of rum against the stairs, and made a run for the side of the porch. As the officers shouted and drew their pistols, he leapt over the railing and grabbed onto the downspout of the rain gutter to swing over the driveway, land onto the recycling bags below and jump the neighbor’s fence. The aluminum downspout twisted out of the outlet. Benjy soared through the air, an acrobatic somersault from the top rope of the ring. No way he was going down for the count.
It was a daring move only Babyface Rafferty could pull off.
Joe Bongiorno is a writer of fiction and non-fiction as well as a high school teacher in his native Montreal. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in publications including Geist, Broken Pencil, Carte Blanche, Existere, NōD, and The Headlight Anthology. He is currently working on a novel.