by Arjun Basu
The sound of horses. Of galloping. Albertson wakes and hears horses and the sound is real enough that he has to look out his window and sure enough, there are horses racing down his street. He watches them cross another street, and run into the darkness, toward the condo construction zones, toward the reason he’s being priced out of his apartment. He pinches himself to feel pain and he does. He notices the early dog walkers on the street, awestruck, their dogs’ barking now the dominant sound, a sound Albertson had not noticed until now, though surely the dogs had been barking the entire time. If the dog walkers are out, already, if they are out then Albertson realizes he’s not returning to bed, to dream away the dreamlike reality of his waking, the obvious sound bite for the rest of his day. He can see himself at work. You know what I saw this morning? he will say and he will tell his story, unless the media picks it up, they are sure to, someone’s probably blogging about it right now. He’ll still have a story. And women love horses.
Albertson is the manager of a shoe store downtown and all of his employees are women. All of his customers are women. It is not the kind of shoe store that attracts the type of woman dragging around a dead looking husband or boyfriend or partner. The kind of men who show their distaste by being aggressively indifferent. No, this is a shoestore for women. For girlfriends. The kind of women who may be impressed by horses running down a street in the middle of a city.
But a quick scan online, and then a flip through the TV, and there are no media reports about horses running wild though the city. There are no blogs, no status updates, no photos. The radio is silent on the matter of horses invading Mile End. In both languages. He can imagine the jokes the morning DJs might make at Mile End’s expense if, in fact, the media had reported what he had just seen.
His blood feels as if it has changed color. This is how Albertson imagines what he has seen. Why is no one acknowledging it?
The morning comes and there is nothing about what he was sure he saw. And so he walks up the street. Past the butcher with the grass fed veal and the boulangerie owned by the tattoed guy who apprenticed in Lyons and the ceramics shop with the collection of fine art chopsticks in the window and the organic tamale place and then he crosses the street and turns the corner where they are constructing the green loft project and the other myriad condos that are surely going to change everything about this place and there, just beyond a construction site, he sees fresh horse shit, fresh enough, some of it has been flattened by the passing traffic, but the smell, the unmistakable smell of horse shit and piss and of horses, the presence of horses, it is obvious and he walks up to a man in a tartan bowler hat and skinny blazer and says, Do you smell that? And the man stops and takes a sniff of the air.
Do you smell something odd in the air? Albertson asks.
The man in the bowler hat sniffs the air again. He takes a good deep whiff. Deliberate. He’s polite. Like out of the ordinary? he asks.
You don’t smell it? Albertson is incredulous.
And the man sniffs the air again. I smell bread. Is that possible? And he walks away. And then when he has walked far enough away, he breaks into a trot.
Albertson wants that horse shit to be horse shit and he walks over to it and looks around and he puts his right shoe in the biggest pile, and the give, that give, it goes right through his brown oxfords right up to his brain, it registers, registers as horse shit and he smiles triumphantly. He returns to his apartment and changes shoes, he changes into another pair of brown oxfords, and he puts the single shit encrusted oxford in a plastic freezer bag and he shoves the bag in the freezer and he goes to work.
At work he waits. He waits for one of his employees or a customer, anyone, to bring up the news of the horses. Every time his phone rings, he expects a call about the horses. He checks the internet constantly, his social media channels, for the news. The city must know there are wild horses about. They are running up our streets at night and shitting near construction sites and then running some more. He has proof of these things. The proof is on his shoe. He smelled it. He saw the horses. He heard them and then he saw them and then he smelled them. That’s three senses.
At lunch Albertson goes out for sushi. He keeps his phone in his breast pocket. He does not bring a book or a magazine or a newspaper. He is too attuned to the conversations around him now, to the talk he must hear. He orders the lunch special – a half dozen California rolls, vegetable tempura, a miso soup, a salad – and he listens to the chatter, to the gossip and complaint and illicit love that are the subject matter that form the words of the soundtrack for a restaurant at lunch during the workweek. He hears nothing about horses.
No one knows.
He swims through the day and no one brings up the horses. Not an employee. Not a customer. The radio is silent on horses. He googles it, because at the end of day, if it isn’t on Google, it isn’t real, and nothing turns up.
And then he begins to entertain the possibility that perhaps it did not happen. There were no horses. He has to give this idea some purchase. He has no choice. He asks about horses on his Facebook page. And he sees nothing. And after he closes the store he races home and finds his frozen oxford and there it is. Horse shit. He has horse shit on his shoe. Because last night happened. It was a thing, it was real. He saw wild horses run down his street. Gallop. They were galloping. He saw it. He stepped in it. He has a shit covered shoe in the freezer. It’s his link to an event he knows happened. To a specific reality.
He steps out of his apartment to the park and he walks up to a dog owner as she awaits the inevitable. Albertson approaches her and he tries to be as gentle and non-threatening as he can. He’s back on the floor selling shoes. But he’s also ravaged by the memory of galloping horses. Were you out last night? he asks, the wrong way to approach a stranger, he knows this already, but he can’t take it back.
Excuse me? she says and she looks at her dog as it squats, getting in position for the release of its bowels, and she knows she’s trapped.
Sorry, Albertson says. He stammers a bit and pushes his hair back. Last night. Here. Did you see them?
She is distracted by her dog. It is struggling to do what it needs to do. The thing is small, a mongrel, definitely some terrier in there. The horses, Albertson clarifies. He whispers this. He feels like a spy or a dissident in Communist Germany or something. They galloped down this street. The dogs went nuts.
She smiles then. Are you crazy or is this an elaborate pick up line?
Her dog has shifted position, walked to another spot a foot away, and is trying again. Albertson can sense its exertion. I wish, he says. He’s still whispering.
You wish what? she asks. You can do it Bella, go on, she tells her dog. Bella is plugged up.
Last night. No, early this morning, he says. I saw them. I heard them. I even stepped in their poop.
She puts a finger to her lips to shush him. Don’t say that, she says. Bella can’t handle that kind of pressure.
And then, she is whispering too. We’re not supposed to talk about it. And sure enough, Bella squeezes out a small turd, something small even for a small dog, but she seems satisfied, and comes over and sniffs Albertson’s pant leg.
Good girl! the woman says. And Bella looks up and wags her tail.
You’re not supposed to talk about what?
There were no horses, she says and then gives Bella a yank of the leash and walks away without bagging Bella’s gift but Albertson’s mind races with the idea of conspiracy. I didn’t see anything on the news, she says walking away.
And she’s right about that. But why would she say it? Albertson feels as if he’s missed a memo to a party that might normally welcome him.
At the other end of the park, he spots another dog walker. An elderly man and a robust German Shepard. He approaches them and the dog takes note of him and sits, alert, and Albertson slows his walk. She’s friendly, the man says, but Albertson decides to stay where he is, about 20 feet away.
I was wondering if I could ask you a question, he says.
The man pets the dog and it walks off to sniff around, to complete her picture of the world. Shoot, he says.
Were you walking your dog this morning?
The man’s face freezes. It’s subtle but Albertson notes this. What kind of a question is that? the man says.
I’m wondering if you saw anything odd this morning.
The man turns to note the location of his dog. What kind of odd? he asks.
Out of the ordinary, Albertson says. He is sinking into codespeak.
The man’s face hardens. What are you going on about? he asks.
I’m sorry to bother you, Albertson says. And he turns to leave. He has to look at his shoe again, in the freezer. He needs to confirm the events. Because now he’s not sure. Again.
Sorry I couldn’t help you, the man calls out. And Albertson turns again.
Something odd is happening, he says.
The man takes a step toward Albertson and then stops. Perhaps you need some sleep, he offers gently.
Horses, Albertson says.
Wild horses. A herd of them. Galloping down the street. Early this morning.
Albertson feels out of breath now.
Something like that would have showed up on the news, no? the old man says, and this triggers in Albertson a kind of low level panic. He feels his ears get warm. Tingling.
Yes, he stammers. You’d think. And he turns and walks away slowly, back to his apartment. He knows what he saw. He needs to look at his shoe. He enters his apartment building and walks up the stairs to his apartment and opens the freezer and there is his shoe, his encrusted shoe, and he opens a beer and sits down on the couch and turns on the television. He searches and searches for news of what he saw, for evidence, and finds none. He opens up his laptop and his fingers dance across the keyboard but nothing shows up, his search results take him everywhere but to the place he wants to go. Nothing. Less than that. Disappointment. A feeling that he is not himself, that what he knows is wrong, that everything he thinks about himself, everything he dreams, is all wrong.
A dream would not have covered his shoe in horseshit. That stuff is real. Everything else isn’t.
That evening, Albertson scans the internet for anything, for even a kooky blog about dreams of horses in urban environments, he’s looking for noise, for affirmation, for something to make sense in a mainstream way, in a credible way. He wants to see a helmet haired news anchor on a major television network speak about this event, he wants to hear something threatening, he wants to see interviews, he’d be happy to give an interview about what he saw. He’d even show the world his shoe.
Across the street from the shoe store is a lingerie boutique owned by a middle aged Indian woman. She comes in for shoes every few weeks and Albertson attends to her personally. Mrs. Sen has large feet and stands a head above Albertson and she makes a point of noting how rare an Indian woman of her height is and Albertson always feigns surprise and Mrs. Sen buys her giant shoes – she’s been partial to Mary Janes lately – and then returns to the store, Sensation-elle, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes they go out for lunch and talk and Albertson learns about women’s underwear and Mrs. Sen’s childhood in a village north of Calcutta and the unfortunate skateboarding accident that killed her first husband and how her new husband is a judge but he has bad breath and is always interrupting her and she doesn’t know what to do with him but they get invited to all the good parties and she quite enjoys her new social life.
Mrs. Sen enters the store and takes a seat on the divan that she has claimed as hers on previous trips. Albertson puts down his coffee and walks over and sits on the stool in front of her.
Mrs. Sen, he says, smiling.
We’re having a dinner party.
And what will you be wearing?
No, no, I’m not here for shoes, she says, laughing. I’m here to invite you.
This is an odd thing, Albertson thinks. Beyond their lunches, Mrs. Sen has never been overtly friendly. When? he asks.
A pair of shoes has caught Mrs. Sen’s attention, a pair of shiny blue open toed pumps. Oh my, she says.
Albertson turns his head and notes the object of her affection. I’ll have to check if we have your size.
Mrs. Sen turns to him as if he has just said something amazingly rude. I don’t want them, she says.
I can check.
And now Albertson must remember the thread of the conversation and then he does. Friday night.
She gets up and takes a look at the shoes again. Can you order them? she asks.
I don’t need them for Friday. It’s nothing fancy. Some dentists. A doctor. The usual lawyers and judges. A city councilor. The lady who owns the café next door. She has a young boyfriend who’s a musician.
I can order the shoes, Albertson says.
Thanks. Bring wine if you want.
Her husband hasn’t had a drink. Ever. Albertson is not sure a person who has never had a drink can be trusted. But he’s married to Mrs. Sen.
And as she is ready to step into the damp light of the mall she calls Albertson over and he rushes to her and she leans in and motions for him to come closer. Did you notice the horses? she whispers and Albertson’s eyes radiate fear and awe but also community. A communal warmth. Bathed in cold. So you did, she continues. She confirms something, he realizes.
And with that she leaves.
Albertson picks up a Beaujolais. He doesn’t know a thing about wine and can’t tell the difference. The girl at the SAQ seemed like she’d just turned 18 but had been drinking wine forever. Her wine knowledge bordered on autism. He didn’t ask her about the horses. Because he’s convinced the horses are more than just horses. He’s convinced the horses are real and that everyone around him knows something about the horses, knows something he isn’t allowed to know. That his understanding of this isn’t permitted. By someone. By someone important.
Mrs. Sen and her husband live downtown on Sherbrooke St. in an old high rise, built when the city was prosperous and saying something like “Sherbrooke St” meant a lot more than the name of a street. It meant that it was possible the world revolved around you. That if you’d told someone it did, they would have to consider it. But that was long long ago. The city does not have those kinds of addresses any longer. Albertson is sure that Canada no longer houses that kind of address, though he knows people in Toronto who might disagree. But they would.
Albertson announces himself to the doorman and he gets on the phone and nods him in and then Albertson is in a tiny elevator that smells of lemon scented wood polish. He knocks on Mrs. Sen’s door and she answers and registers a momentary confusion – Albertson is not on her regular guest list after all – and he holds out the bottle.
The girl said it was a good year for Beaujolais.
At the liquor store. I know nothing about wine unfortunately.
She accepts it and studies the label. She puts the bottle down on the side table where Albertson knows it will sit, forgotten.
He takes in the apartment, the decayed grandeur of it, the vaguely yellowish lights and walls, dimly lit corners populated with exotic statues and book cases and half dead plants. The apartment smells like the elevator, mixed with the smell of cooking, some unidentifiable odor produced in the kitchen, a mix of spices he can’t quite make out, like so much in this oddly lit place.
Let me introduce you to my husband.
She takes his arm and leads him though a room of three people standing and talking and each holding a tumbler of scotch, three semi dignified looking men, all in gray suits.
Am I early?
Mrs. Sen stops walking and looks at him, confused again, and then realizes what he’s said.
No. My guests are late. Annoyingly so. My husband just arrived. He’s in the study.
And then she opens the door to the study and her husband, the judge, is standing in the middle of the room, holding a tumbler of scotch, watching television.
Louis, this is the young man who sells me my shoes.
The judge turns to face him. He studies Albertson and Albertson studies him and neither man learns much. Louis is wearing a gray suit. It seems to be a uniform. Albertson feels flashy wearing different shades of blue.
My wife owns a lot of shoes.
Mrs. Sen nudges Albertson toward her husband. Albertson allows himself to be nudged.
Mrs. Sen has an eye for footwear.
The judge takes a sip of his scotch and walks over to the TV and turns it off.
Nothing about the horses. He sighs and then nods his head and smiles.
Albertson doesn’t know what is happening.
I have questions about the horses.
The judge walks to a corner and sits on a chair. It’s a simple wooden chair and seems uncomfortable or old or both. It doesn’t belong to this room and, quite possible, this apartment.
What kind of questions?
Albertson turns to look for Mrs. Sen but she is gone. The door is closed. Albertson is alone in the room with the judge.
I have a shoe in my freezer at home. With horse shit on it.
Louis’s eyebrows reach north.
I heard them. But nothing. There’s nothing on the news. On the internet. The radio. Nothing. Not even on my street.
Albertson lowers his voice. Like the people on my street? They act as if I shouldn’t bring it up. When I do. And I only brought it up with a few of them.
The judge stands. He walks to an alcove in the wall and opens a door. Would you like a scotch?
Albertson nods. Suddenly he feels like he’s been hit by something large and he doesn’t know when it happened.
The judge pours the scotch and hands it to Albertson. He pulls the chair from the corner and sits it in the middle of the room. Have a seat, he says. And Albertson sits.
The judge leaves the room. Albertson sips his drink and closes his eyes and sees the horses again, he feels them rumble through this room and he opens his eyes and the judge has returned and this time he’s with one of the men in the gray suits. This is my colleague. He’s not a judge, he’s a friend.
So he’s not your colleague? Albertson asks. He wants clarity and nothing more now.
What he is or isn’t is not important, the judge says.
The colleague is older than Louis, with thinning hair and age marks splotching his temple. He holds out his hand. I’m Bertrand, he says.
Albertson reaches for the man’s hand and Bertrand grabs Albertson’s and grips it tightly. He leans in to Albertson until he can smell the old man’s breath, the old man-ness of the old man. He tries to pull his hand away but he can’t. The old man’s grip is surprisingly fierce.
Tell me about your shoes, Bertrand says.
Albertson feels as if he’s about to be sick.
Bertrand has Albertson’s hand but it feels like he has all of him. Albertson feels engulfed. Tell me about your shit covered shoes.
Albertson feels faint.
Do you ever eat sausage and then lie down and then feel like you’re about to choke or at least suffer from incredible heartburn? Bertrand asks.
Albertson doesn’t know why he’s here, in this room, in this house. Who are these people?
Do you sometimes dream in one language but when you try and recall the dream you realize you’ve forgotten it in a different language?
Albertson feels a kind of poison running through his veins. He feels the world tilt on its axis. Maybe even change direction. He thinks he might not know where the sun is.
Does the television always come on before you enter the room? Bertrand twists his face as he asks this, with an especially dramatic turn around the word television. He doesn’t seem like the type to watch TV.
Albertson searches out Louis but only now does he realize Louis has left. Are you going to kill me? he whimpers.
Bertrand loosens his grip on Albertson’s hand. His face softens. His eyes become grandfatherly. Tell me about your shoes.
Albertson sits up. He thinks he does. He can sense the sweat covering his back in tiny dew-like droplets. My shoe is covered in horse shit.
Bertrand shakes his head. Emphatically. No they are not, he says.
Just one shoe.
Bertrand raises his hand. Stop.
I put it in the freezer, Albertson says. Why wouldn’t he tell the truth?
And then Bertrand’s hand coils into a fist and that fist connects with Albertson’s mouth with the intensity of a meteor hitting Earth.