In the land of the dairy queen
Van der Boor breaks our lunchtime pact. Even though it’s not his turn, he goes ahead and picks the place anyway. It’s very important that on this day we go for particular fast food, though I’m not fooling myself—I’d probably pick something similarly greasy. Today he’s insistent, like he’s amped up on coke, though coke’s way out of his price range, unless we’re talking soft drinks.
“You picked last time,” I point out.
“Dave, Dave-Dave, you choose next three lunches, dude,” he says, knowing how much I hate it when he calls me “dude.”
I nod, and he slaps me on the back. I’m also not keen on the back slap, or touching as a general rule. He’s a couple of inches shorter than me but more ripped. I also know he fights dirty, so I let these things go.
All morning we’ve been doing scut work in a sketchy part of Vancouver, pulling off old stucco and the wire that girdles several old bungalows and ugly “Vancouver specials”—those two-level white stucco brick-front boxes with brick fences. Usually topped by mysterious ornaments like artichokes, lions, balls and other inexplicable objects. They’re in an area of the east side that some hot-shit investor wants to redevelop and sell to Hong Kong buyers. In the year or two since Expo ’86, everyone seems to want to sell off this city to the highest bidder.
The developer has got this Serbian shark, who runs a painting company, as the general contractor to oversee the project. In other words, paint the insides and let some subcontractors doing the exterior’s aluminum siding. Those guys are the real tradesmen, the ones that actually build and repair things. I’m lucky if I get the right tools to do my job. Sometimes, I have to use a tire iron kept in my car to pry off old stucco—that’s whenever the Serb has extra grunts on somewhere and not enough gear to go around.
To do this project, the Serb first needs some of us untouchables to take the old shit off the outsides, break it up and dispose of the remains. That’s where Kyle Van der Boor and I come in. I’m doing this to save some money for community college in the fall, after pissing away the last two years of high school and the few years since with a murky mixture of dime bags and cases of Kokanee. I’m hoping our Yugoslav overlord might actually hire me to paint, which would be a step up, meaning a few bucks more and a chance to work inside on rainy days.
Van der Boor is definitely not saving for school. He’s one of those guys who’s always bouncing between things. He hassles me any time he sees me reading a book on coffee break. When I tell him about Lolita, he calls me a perv. I respond with words like “antihero” as an explanation. He still calls me a perv.
We’ve been moving around the Vancouver area to different sites, and we eat lunch out a couple days a week. Van der Boor picked last time, and as we get ready to grab some grub, he lightly slaps me on the side of the head. “We’re going to the DQ down the road. I drove today, so I say where we eat.”
“Can’t argue with that logic.” I know when to pick my battles. A quick scan of the neighborhood reveals few other places where we could eat and be back on the job in time to dodge the Serb’s oppressive frown and aggressive tapping of the wrist watch.
We turn off Hastings Street into the lot of the restaurant, which looks like it’s seen better days, but so does everything on this stretch. Inside, we get in the line-up, order our burgers, fries, drinks, stand around waiting for our number to be called and grab a table. The brazier aroma of slowly burning meat and stale deep fryer oil overwhelms my nostrils, and I can already taste a faint tang. I take my place, and my boot soles pucker up to the sticky floor tiles.
My ass has barely touched my seat when Van der Boor lights up. “Hey, this is it,” he says, giving me kind of a leer. “Dave-Dave, this is the place! I’m fucking sure, man. This is where she worked.” Van der Boor has a habit of blurting out my name numerous times in machine gun bursts and slapping me when he’s worked up about something. He also always assumes I know what he’s talking about, even though he might be picking up on some conversation he had in junior high.
I push for more information, though I’ll likely regret the answer. “Who worked here?”
“Dorothy. That’s who,” he says, slapping me on the arm. “Duh!”
Of course, I should’ve seen this one coming. This is going to turn into a conversation from the eighth grade. “Man, Kyle, let that shit go,” I tell him. “It’s just creepy now. She’s been dead for like almost ten years.”
“She was fucking awesome, Dave. Hottest babe ever. So sweet.”
“And you’re basing this on?”
He ignores the question. He only ever answers the ones he wants.
The object of his obsession, even now, is the late Dorothy Stratten. Any boy with a newly breaking voice and exploding gonads growing up near Vancouver in 1980 knew who Dorothy was, even if they’d never seen the spread in Playboy. The local girl who became a star, like something you’d hear in a movie, as Carson told her on The Tonight Show. Playmate of the Year. Miss August 1979, dead a year later, shot in the face by the greasy pimp who’d found her in the Dairy Queen in 1978, then launched the rocket to the moon that made her a star but didn’t know when it was time to get off.
It’s cool when anyone from Canada, especially our little outpost on the coast, finds fame in the States. Having Americans give us attention is like having the hottest girl in school talk to you in class. In front of everyone. Nicely. At least I’m guessing that’s what it’s like because such a tectonic event has never happened to me. I grew up surrounded by sisters yet didn’t have the first clue about girls. Shit, I have a hard time making eye contact, let alone having an actual conversation.
Van der Boor doesn’t have much better luck, though you couldn’t tell by the way he talks about girls. You’d swear he’s Warren Beatty.
I’d known him since elementary school. He was one of those people you inherit as a friend without really knowing how. He’d always been able to sneak Playboys and Penthouses from his older brother or his stepdad without their knowledge, so naturally a bunch of us would head over to rifle through the mags down in the Van der Boor rec room. There had to be some incentive for being the guy’s friend.
While Van der Boor had a hard-on for pretty much any girl with or without clothes, he was gaga over Dorothy. Still. After he’d found out her real last name was Hoogstraten, he figured she was Dutch, like him, and started fantasizing about turning her into some milk maid and having them take over his aunt and uncle’s dairy farm out in the valley. “I could show her a thing or two about milking those teats,” he told me.
“That’s udder nonsense,” I replied, but the pun sailed over his head.
Stratten was the kind of gorgeous so distracting if she passed by, you would’ve been caught frozen in the middle of a Hastings crosswalk, long enough to be taken out by a city bus. Sure, I saw the spread in Playboy. It was a rite of passage for any West Coast teenage boy, right up there with sneaking out of bed late at night when the local TV station played Emmanuelle, in the flesh. It wasn’t Dorothy unclothed that stuck with you though, not the tits or that flash of pubic hair south of her 49th parallel. It was those eyes that haunted you, not clichéd jewels, or the “almond eyes” favored by more serious writers, but upstairs bedroom windows late in the night, out of which she would give you the quickest peek before flicking out the light.
We were told she grew up in our backyard, once upon a time, but for most of us, she was a mythical creature that never existed. And most of us knew she was mere glossy printing paper. But Van der Boor’s obsession seemed out of proportion. I once joked that he was a necrophiliac. He glared back at me.
He hadn’t mentioned Dorothy in ages, but clearly he’s still obsessed, which explains his choice of lunch. I’d driven by this DQ before and never once made the connection. “So, this is why we’re here?” I ask. “Not for the burgers.”
“Sure, the food,” he says, his mouth full of burger. “But I thought it’d be mega cool to come here to see where she was discovered.”
“Yeah, by that asshole husband of hers.”
“Don’t spoil this for me.”
“Spoil what? This is some historic site,” I say, dabbing up some ketchup with a fry.
“You’d expect them to have a plaque.”
“Fuck off, Dave.”
We eat without a peep for several minutes until Van der Boor snaps out of it and throws a fry at me. “Hey, Dave-Dave, Dave, how about those two chicks working the till?”
One of them is petite, perky, with blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. The other is taller, gangly, freckled with feathered red hair. They’re cute enough but look a bit young. I shake my head. “I don’t know. Aren’t they a bit too high schoolish?”
“I like ’em farm fresh. I’m gonna get me a Peanut Buster Parfait,” he says, pronouncing the silent T. He makes his way to the counter, leering back at me, which tells me he’s in full pick-up mode. The thing with Van der Boor is that girls do kind of like him, at first. Tall, handsome, Euro blonde, confident. He’s also stupid, vain, egocentric, and he only just got rid of his perm. After working his charm with the two counter girls, he returns, Royal Treat in hand, and plunks down a piece of paper. At first I think it’s another order, until I see a phone number. “We got a date tonight,” he says.
“Are we potentially facing charges?”
Van der Boor shrugs, then laughs. “They’re eighteen. Plus they got fake IDs for the bar.”
“Wait, they’re each eighteen, or eighteen if you add them together?”
“Ha, you’re funny, man. The blonde’s mine. Fire crotch is yours.”
“Give me a taste of your parfait,” I say, not pronouncing the last consonant.
He sticks his shoulder out like he’s setting a block in football, so I can’t touch his ice cream. “Piss off! Sharing’s for chicks—and fags.”
“You missed that lesson in kindergarten, huh?” He ignores me, spooning another scoop of sundae into his mouth.
That night we wait out front of the club for the girls, who show up in a taxi, and after a quick flash of IDs we’re inside. The place is like every other club. Dark under purple light, bass-heavy electronic noise thumping from the PA, strobes flashing. It’s all enough to throw an epileptic into seizure.
Van der Boor, who’s still in his leather tie phase, and the blonde seem to be hitting it off on the dance floor, even though the guy has no rhythm. I make a joke to the redhead. “Kyle does that chicken wing thing when he dances, like he’s drying out his armpits.”
The girl giggles a little, though I’m not sure she hears me through the noise. Truth is I hate these cattle auctions. I assume strangers only come to hook up, so I’m a blank as to what we are doing here when we’ve already got dates. Certainly not for the canned music or conversation.
We try to find a corner of the place where we can hear each other, but the only places even close to quiet are the toilets. All we can do is hammer sentence fragments into each other’s ear at maximum volume. I’m not learning much, only that she’s got one brother, her parents are divorced, and she likes chemistry. I try a joke. “Any chemistry here?” The joke fizzles. Then again, maybe she didn’t hear. She only half-grins and nods. When I ask what her plans are for the fall, I expect to hear about university classes.
“Same stuff as Grade 10 pretty much,” she says.
“I thought you guys were eighteen.”
“Oh, my God, is that what she told you guys? I’m so embarrassed! Though it’s kinda cool you believed it.”
On instinct, I back away, and I break the news that maybe we can hang around to finish our drinks but that I should get her home. At this point, I don’t even want to make contact or do anything that can be construed as a come-on. Suddenly, I’m all brotherly. Actually, I always seem brotherly. That’s my problem.
At this point, Van der Boor sidles up to me, with a smug look that suggests he’s about to score, but before I can reply that this is a bad idea, he simply leans into my ear to say he’s going to catch a cab with the hot blonde. “Kyle, wait—”
Too late. He’s receded into some corner of the bar, no doubt looking for the blonde to steer out front and into the nearest waiting taxi.
A minute later, a minor drama unfolds under strobe light when I catch sight of the blonde slapping Van der Boor across the face. She’s frowning, her nose bunched up in disgust. “Let go of me, asshole,” she tells him, pushing his hand away. I’m surprised Van der Boor isn’t trying to negotiate, but he’s attracted the attention of the bouncer now, who’s built like he plays offensive line in the pros. Maybe he does.
The blonde grabs her redheaded friend and issues the order that they’re leaving. The redhead and I give each other awkward waves, and I try to finish my drink on the assumption that we’re leaving too.
“Screw it, Dave. I’m staying. There’s plenty of bush in here. I’m not going home empty-handed.”
“Look, man, I’ll give you a lift, but it’s a work night. I don’t want to go in shit-faced tomorrow, especially if the Serb comes breathing down our backs bright and early. What the hell did you say to her anyway?”
Van der Boor starts walking to the bar to grab another drink, though I think he’s trying to avoid eye contact with me. “Shit, all I expected was a hand job.”
I know there’s more to the story, but even so. “So you didn’t wait until maybe you’re at her place or even in the cab? Just dive right in, huh?”
“She seemed into me, man.”
“She’s a kid playing grown-up.”
“Turns out they’re in Grade 10. Fifteen, maybe sixteen. Smooth move, stud.”
Van der Boor mouth drops open, like he’s just realized his wallet’s been stolen, then looks all pissed off. “Well, shit, that’s not what she told me.”
Of course not, I think, never is. I mean who would ever think a girl working in a fast-food joint could still be in high school? Of course, I’m just as stupid as Van der Boor, which is maybe why I don’t turn sarcastic on him. “Seriously, man, I’ll give you a lift home.”
“Nah, I’m staying,” he says, sipping from the drink just handed to him. “Time to get back in the saddle and ride,” he adds.
“If you say so. See you at work tomorrow. Don’t get too wrecked,” I tell him. On the way out, I look back towards the bar and see him drinking alone. For a second I feel sympathy, or maybe it’s the simple pity of seeing a guy, even Van der Boor, have to face the fact that he’s not quite the man he thinks he is.
The next day at work, there’s no sign of the whites, or reds, of Van der Boor’s eyes, and only later do I find out from the Serb that Van der Boor is feeling sick, stomach flu apparently. Flu, my ass, I think. In any case, the Serb is cranky and barking at me like somehow Kyle is my responsibility. “Davey, you work extra hard,” he says. I know better than to argue.
It’s still morning, but the day is already hot as ass and my T-shirt is drenched as I lug around hunks of old stucco, keeping an eye peeled for any sign of Van der Boor to help lessen the load. The chicken wire’s scratching the hell out of my forearms to the point where I look like I’ve gone twelve rounds with a feral cat.
No one is currently living in the old bungalow I’m tearing up, but the young mom next door waves to see if I want some water or lemonade. “Sure, lemonade would be great. Thanks.”
The mom has an obvious blonde-dye job with waves of hair falling all over her face. She’s wearing too much eyeliner, especially for a weekday at home. The bubblegum-colored Spandex top she’s got on shows off a body that’s a few years past being able to squeeze into that thing. I can tell life is hard and isn’t going to get easier.
When she returns, her little girl is in tow, hanging around like she wants something but hasn’t figured out what. “Sure is a scorcher today. You be careful working in the sun,” the mom says. “I saw something on the tube about that greenhouse effect, or whatever, you know, the sun.”
“Ozone layer,” I say, instantly wondering why I bother to correct the woman. “Yeah, I’ve got sun block with me.”
“It’ll be nice when they get these shitholes fixed up,” she says, pointing to the adjacent house. “This neighborhood could use some classing up.” Her own place is marked by crumbling stucco that looks like month-old frosting on a cake.
As I chug down the drink and hand the glass back to her, she adds, “You let me know if you need anything. Bathroom or whatever.” She goes inside, leaving her daughter to play in the front yard. The girl is maybe five, six, seven. I can never tell little kids’ ages—or teenagers apparently. I hear the mom yell from inside the house. “Sweetheart, you leave the man alone. He’s working.”
The girl has been busy skipping rope, paying me no attention, until the mom mentions me. Suddenly, I’m the most interesting thing in the world. I continue to toss old stucco into a wheelbarrow and roll it over to a huge dumpster on site, warning the girl not to come into the yard or she could cut herself. The kid stays on her side of the fence and launches into a monologue about how much she doesn’t like baloney, how much she likes Kraft Dinner, how her favorite restaurant used to be Dog n Suds when she was small but now it’s Burger King, what the “third-, second- and first-best” cartoons are, how much she doesn’t like school, except for drawing and colouring. I pay limited attention. Then she starts talking about her mom’s current boyfriend. At first, it’s more of the same stream of consciousness chatter that little kids love, but then she says something that disarms me.
“He’s got a wiener.”
“What?” I ask reflexively, hoping the kid is talking about frankfurters.
“He’s got a wiener. Its name is Penis. That’s a stupid name. Mom doesn’t have a wiener, and I don’t have a wiener,” she says, twisting some strands of hair in a way that shows she’s bored, but if she were older, could seem provocative. “But that’s why my mommy’s his girlfriend. Because he has a wiener.”
“I really need to finish this job,” I said, then start lugging the old stucco away in double time, quickly wearing a path with the wheelbarrow between the house and the bin.
The kid keeps on talking. “I don’t know what I’ve got,” she says. “I don’t think I want a wiener.”
How she’s seen one I don’t want to know. Maybe an innocent game of doctor with another kid. I didn’t get anything resembling sex ed until Grade 6. My only aim now is to finish up at this site and get away from this kid. Even being seen near her seems like potential trouble. She keeps talking though, oblivious to the fact I’m trying to ignore her. “You’ve got a wiener because you’re a boy.”
I drop what I’m doing and walk over to the fence. In a firm voice, I say, “You shouldn’t say stuff like that.”
From inside the house, the mother barks, “Goddamn it, leave him alone, you hear?” She pokes her head out the front door, scowls and runs over to yank the kid back in the house. In the background, I can see a guy looking out the door, scowling in our direction. He’s all biceps and triceps, wears lambchops and a Fu Manchu on his face. Long, black greasy hair. He looks like the skids in my high school that would boot-fuck you if you weren’t careful around them. I get the sense this guy knows where at least one body is buried.
As it happens, my bladder needs to be emptied and there’s no porta-potty. I think about the mom’s offer to use the toilet, but there’s no way I’m going inside that house. There aren’t any bushes, so my only option is to jump in the bin and close the gate behind me so no one can see. I unzip, take a whiz and hope the Serb doesn’t drive up at this moment. He doesn’t, and even though the kid is back in the house next door, I work like hell to finish removing the last of the stucco.
I can’t stop thinking about the girl. Part of me wants to go knock on the door and tell the mom she should warn her daughter about predators, but that part loses out to the part that wants to get the hell away. Before I leave, I do go over and when the mom answers the door, I thank her again for the drink and say, “Your little girl, you should keep an eye on her. Just to be safe.”
Frowning, the woman steps back into the house. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I almost tell her about the conversation but turn chickenshit. “No, I just mean that it’s a worksite. She wasn’t bothering me or anything, but it’s probably best she steers clear.” As if to clarify that I’ll be nowhere near this place ever again, I add, “I’m done here, but there’ll be some siding guys working next door soon.”
That afternoon, I’m working at another site with Van der Boor, who’s risen from the dead after all. He catches a lift home with me, having been too hung over that morning to drive himself. In mid-commute I tell him about what happened with the little girl, and he starts laughing as soon as I say wiener. He can’t stop, repeats the word a few times, then laughs harder. When he calms down, he slaps my shoulder and asks me a question. “So what did you tell her?”
“You’re an idiot, Kyle.”
“Dave, Dave-Dave, Jesus, I’m just joking man. Seriously, that’s pretty fucked up. What did the mom say when you told her?’
“What do you mean?”
“That maybe someone needs to check out her kid. See if she’s okay.”
“I didn’t say anything about the conversation. I mean, what do I actually know?”
“Aw, Dave. Something’s going on there. It’s got to be the stepdad.”
“It’s just talk she picked up on the playground.”
“Yeah, yeah, you tell yourself that. Someone should cut that motherfucker.”
“We don’t have proof of anything. When did you become such a moralist?”
Van der Boor calms down, takes a swig of coffee but spits it out the passenger window. “Morals got nothing to do with it. This guy’s a sick fuck, I bet you, and someone needs to do something,” he says. “Pull over. Now.”
“Wait, what?” I steer the car toward the curb. “What are you doing?” Van der Boor gets out of the car and starts strutting back in the direction of the work site, so I get out and yell, “Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna go find that prick,” he says, without looking back.
“Kyle, you don’t even know the house. Or what the guy looks like.”
He stops and shrugs, then turns around and walks back to the car. “Shut up,” he says under his breath as he gets back in. “Don’t say a word.”
The whole way home there’s silence, not even music in the car, but as I get close to dropping him off, he starts to mutter, at first unintelligibly, then so I can hear him, which is clearly his intent. “Someone at least needs to let that diddler know people are watching him,” he says almost to himself as much as me.
When I pull up in front of his place, he gets out of the car immediately. “Dave, you can’t be a pussy all your life,” he says, again without looking at me. He leans back in through the passenger window and punches me in the shoulder. “See you tomorrow.”
His parting words piss me off the whole evening. No matter how much I try to drown them out by cranking the TV or stereo, shooting baskets at a nearby playground court, even jerking off before bed, I can’t let it go. When I try to sleep, I keep rolling around like I’m roasting on a spit.
Finally, I get up. It’s not even that late, and within a few minutes I’m dressed, out the door and cruising back into the city, to the east side, like I’m in some dialogue-free scene of a thriller, cruising past the familiar red ellipse of the DQ sign, urging me on like the luscious red lips of its murdered pin-up queen Dorothy. Do it, she whispers in my ear, as if leaning over from the passenger seat.
In what seems like five minutes and five hours, I’m parked on the street near the month-old frosting house, staring inside for some clue as to what goes on inside its walls. I sit waiting for something to happen, but all I can see is the TV’s faint, fiery glow from the living room.
When I least expect it, there’s a yell, which makes me realize I could’ve easily fallen asleep there in the driver’s seat. I wait for the sound of broken windows, woman’s pleas, screaming, crying, lamps being thrown, the ripe-blue, bruising smacks of a breakdown, but there’s nothing to hear but a few quick masculine growls followed by a slamming door.
Through the dim porchlight I see the guy with the lamb chops and Fu Manchu bolting toward his pick-up, jumping in and squealing away from the crumbing house. A monster, even worse than some predatory pimp husband, he’s the one in need of a shotgun blast to the face.
Without thinking, I start my ignition and begin to follow his trail along Powell Street and into the heart of the Downtown Eastside, where he slows down. A young woman—no, still a girl—approaches his passenger window. After some conversation, haggling I assume, she starts to get into his car. I slow down right behind him, and he turns, glaring through his back window toward my headlights.
I too turn my head, checking over my shoulder to think what I’ve got in my hatch, to see if maybe that tire iron is where it’s supposed to be, because in that moment I have to accept that I have no idea what will happen next.
Michael Chouinard’s first job was at a Dairy Queen at age 14. These days, he lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia with his girlfriend Carie and their two cats, Alice and Iris. Since that first job, he’s worked at many things but mostly as a newspaper reporter. His fiction has been published in print and online journals in Canada and the U.S. He’s looking for a good home for one novel and completing the first draft of another.