Steeltown Songs


All down the conveyor, the limes bumped ends with a banged-up mango and my checkout nerves. Off work, soon. And then another BOGO week, my lip gloss layered on like sealant, a week of soap and fat onion sacks hefted high to haggle their worth. Nothing else to watch but gas blots in a grimy overhang of light, where a caravan of cabs wear lit-up caps and idle more smoke at smokers’ backs.


Sometimes the Axe-doused after-school stock boys tackle shelves with the force of a tag team, sweaty and boastful in their show-off skill. Brings it all back, though whether it’s them or just piss-warm coolant from the on/off A/C, I couldn't say. It’s like ghost pains in a gangrened limb: to spar with them! to flex with pumped-up steroid pecs and vault them to the vertigo of ceiling tiles! (all sense slashed by 4061-lettuce, 4041-plums, and an old recognition that dawns on me like drink).


The new-bruised limes bump on past checkout, and I stutter “cash-debit-credit”, then see. Spit-thin girl. A spastic 16, nearer to bald and pitted by pockmarks, who still watches worms oooze fatly in rain, still skips a hopscotch to the chimes on poor porches. Prue. Same grin—toothy, lean of love—still half-stirring some Cops and Robbers cool, half-known through the soft swells of a roughed-up decade. She is gaunt as sparerib in the disaffected drought of June. Older, now.


Back then, me and Prue were coyotes. Spooked mean and scrapping into fights, we spat like it was our sole tiff with the mud- plugged stone. Played tag, too, with the boys (in roles, always Bad Guys or Mounties) imagined other selves we’d rather be jailed in a quarter hour twice daily. Back in that cramped neighbourhood of knives, Four Square was the thing each weekday: a mangy tennis ball matted by dog drool and hit over chalked-in lines. And dirt above all, ingrained in denim, dusting a tanned crust of skin.


Thursday Night Smackdown. These were pay-per-view poets, gods of powdered cheese and TV take-downs, and I knew war was a need of skin. Broken bodies got tried on daily like shin pads, mouth guards, never quite fitting no matter how much their shapes got stretched to make them fit. There were lives beyond lives, sands beyond my little slit of beach and beer glass. Wanted to earn belts myself someday. Or box, The Meanest Bantamweight east of Toronto, my triceps emboldened by barbells, blood, and a bluish cancer courtesy of Maritime Steel.


Sometimes we skipped our chalked-in court, our tire swing’s welts of spit-out gum. Mondays the dawn mist of strangers’ pot did it—too much bitter in the smell of sweet. Or too much sweet. On those days we followed the ripped-up main road like alley cats, strays mewing loudly for bones. Past the dark, bloated bellies of trash bags brimming with meat scraps, past chipped paint and chokeweed, we wandered where train tracks scarred the town. I dug for rail spikes loosed by boxcars while Prue eyed the dank front of the building behind: self-storage doors like little garages rusted shut and let lie for years.


Mildew, damp earth, plywood for windows, a thin fire escape of warped gray boards. Gang tags advertised the safety of standing, so we left the earth and its spray-on bruises behind to climb until ears popped and we saw in panorama. The whole town: musty churches, the Liquor Commission, and blue banks where the river swam its current to trees. No rail, so we helped each other higher, rocked like planes redirecting in air higher, past gutters and patched-up doors. Busted boards swayed below us like seesaws. Facing left: our North End, the used mattress shop with just a bare spring on display.


We saw it all: home, on Clover and Worth, where the prefabs were mostly built of Insulbrick and gin. Crushed-up cans in the mealy oaks. There, we were one stock, whiteblackredbroke. When the dizzy bloodrush of too much height got Prue and we started to crawl back groundward, we both thought past town lines we couldn’t see. And what might grow there. Dragged legs to Kwik-Way where found change paid for half the counter: nickel each for neon straws and grape-shaped gobs dipped in sour sugar. Squinted hard and puckered as we sucked. Like steeling for punches. Or for a kiss.