wild horses part 2
by arjun basu
Albertson wakes in a dark room. The floor is damp with humidity. He touches his mouth and confirms he’s lost a tooth. And then he hears someone, somewhere in the darkness and he stands quickly and hits his head on the low ceiling.
It’s a low ceiling, the voice says.
Albertson doesn’t know if he should speak or not. Or if any of this is happening at all.
You saw the horses too, I’m guessing, the voice says.
Albertson trusts no one. He’s just decided this.
I saw the horses. Running through Mile End. Down Maguire. Then up DeGaspé. Crazy shit.
Albertson wants to speak to this voice and admit everything. And he doesn’t want to speak to this voice. He wants to trust someone.
And then nothing. No media. You mention it to someone and they look at you like you’re crazy. Or like you’re spilling state secrets.
Albertson is about to say something.
And then the old men. The crazy old men. And that Bert dude.
He punched you, too? Albertson wishes he had a match. Right now. So he could see this invisible person he doesn’t trust. The only other person who might believe his story right now.
Why are you here?
Why would he ask? Albertson feels the paranoia, like an itch deep inside of him.
The voice laughs. I don’t trust anyone either, he says. Which Albertson thinks is convenient. In the silence one can hear two men trying to figure out the world. I went down to the cop station on Laurier. I asked them about the horses. They took it down. I filled out a fucking form. And that night, I met Bert.
How did you meet him?
He knocked on my door, the voice says. Of course he had my address. I’d given it to the cops.
How long have you been here? Albertson asks. He’s going to ask his way to a place of trust.
I don’t know, the voice says. It’s always dark. They bring food in every two hours. Little bits. You snack. A chocolate bar. A bag of chips. A croissant. Pretty good croissant, I have to admit. They went to a real boulangerie and bought real croissants. But it’s always dark. That way you lose track of time.
How many snacks have you eaten?
That’s a good question, the voice says. Albertson hears him rustle and imagines he’s sitting up or stretching out his legs. There’s no way to know and Albertson now realizes he has no idea how large – or small – this low ceilinged cell is.
So you don’t know?
Albertson has just figured out he’s been in here less than two hours. Unless he was passed out for a long time. Which is possible.
More than twenty-four.
More than twenty-four snacks, the voice says. So that means two days at least.
And how long have I been here?
They threw you in with the last snack. Maybe an hour ago.
You’ve been here two days?
The horses were…
Two days ago.
And they both contemplate this. Could they be speaking of the same horses? If Louis is a judge, who is Bertrand? Who were the other men in grey? What does Mrs. Sen have to do with all of this?
Do you know Mrs. Sen? Albertson asks. He feels unsafe asking this.
I’ve never heard of her.
She owns a lingerie store downtown.
Don’t be sorry. Albertson feels his defenses fall. He feels trust growing. Like some creeping vine.
My name’s Phil, the voice says.
Albertson doesn’t give his name.
I don’t blame you, Phil says. This is all fucked up. It doesn’t feel real.
Albertson wants to stretch out. He wants to believe that none of this is happening. I have a shit covered shoe in my freezer, he says.
And suddenly the lights go on. And he sees that Phil is one of the men in a gray suit. And the door to the room opens and in comes Bertrand and Louis. What the fuck? Albertson says. He has nothing, he realizes. He is at the mercy of these men. Because he saw some wild horses running down the street. Because he knows he saw them. And because these men seem powerful and connected and because he knows he’s not, and because in a city like Montreal even the implausible is not surprising, and he has no words.
Bertrand punches him in the mouth.
Albertson wakes in a motel room. He knows it’s a motel; he’s seen this room on TV and in the movies and he remembers when he was in high school, the guys would get rooms by the hour at the motels on St. Jacques and they’d bring their frightened nervous stunned girlfriends to these motels and the girls would wonder how their boyfriends knew such places existed and how many girls they’d brought there before but then they’d see they were alone, which was rare, that no one was going to suddenly walk in on them, that no little sister would threaten to tell her parents, there would be none of that, because they were in a motel room and suddenly she felt adult, like a real adult, doing illicit adult things, and she was his.
He reaches for the phone and picks up the receiver and doesn’t hear a dial tone. He stands and walks to the windows and pulls back the blinds but the outside world is blocked out with black tape. He goes to the washroom and pisses a long dayglo yellow piss. The window in the bathroom is covered in black tape, too. He flushes the toilet. He notices there are no shower curtains protecting the tub. He walks back to his bed and sits down. There is no TV. There is no radio. They were once there, their ghostly shapes visible by their lack of form.
He lies back on the bed and runs his tongue over his swollen lip. Bertrand has punched him in the mouth twice now and he doesn’t know who Bertrand is but he dislikes him. He’s never disliked someone this much before. Not even the ladies with smelly feet who insist on trying on shoes two sizes too small and who insist that Albertson pry them on and then off. He hates them. But they have only punched him with an odor. Bertrand has physically assaulted him. Twice. He is responsible for a tooth. And much of his dignity. He hates him.
He could use some food. He’s craving a cheeseburger. And then he understands the craving because he can smell meat. He can smell the fried promise of a casse croute close by. He could be on St. Jacques. He could be in Brossard or Laval. He could be anywhere. But the smell of the casse croute tells him he’s still in Quebec. There’s some comfort in that. Some.
The front door opens and Bertrand walks in. Albertson reflexively sits up. I won’t punch you again, Bertrand says. He grabs a chair and brings it over to the bed and sits before Albertson. No more punching.
Why are you doing this? Albertson asks. He doesn’t expect an answer. Or at least one that makes sense.
The problem is your shoe.
What about it? he asks.
Bertrand sighs. Louis is a very important man, he says. This is what you don’t understand.
What does this have to do with the horses?
You should shut up about the horses.
So there were horses.
Of course there were horses. You saw them.
But no one else did.
That’s not true.
Albertson relaxes again. Despite Bertrand’s proximity. Do you work for him?
Bertrand looks around the room. He studies it and thinks about a response. Do you understand what is happening? he asks.
Albertson considers the question. He considers it ridiculous.
Mrs. Sen is worried about you. Or for you. She knows what Louis can do. His capabilities. How high up this goes. How wide.
Albertson watches the dust float about the room. It’s a dusty room. As if it’s been empty, devoid of any sort of life, for a very long time.
What’s going to happen to me? he asks.
My friend….Bertrand’s voice fades away, to some place, perhaps one where he doesn’t have to punch people, strangers, for having seen a herd of horses running down a residential street. Perhaps he doesn’t know the answer. Perhaps he’s not even a cog in this. Merely the hired help. Perhaps his not knowing is all that keeps him not guilty. Of something. He doesn’t have the plot. Because knowing it would get him in trouble as well. On the receiving end of punches. Waking in dusty motel rooms on the edge of the city. You are here for now, he says. Safe. You are safe here.
Albertson wants to laugh. Suddenly. The humor of the thing is finally funny to him. This is a weird version of hell, he says.
Bertrand shrugs. It’s nothing. It’s a Montreal thing. Are you hungry?
I want answers.
Bertrand stands and heads for the door. I’m tired of punching people, he says. And then he is gone.
Albertson wakes in the back of a car. He has a headache and as he reaches for his head he realizes he has been struck, that he has a giant welt on the back of his head. He is alone in the car. The car is old and smells like the inside of an old garage and then he looks around the car and sees he’s in an old garage. It is dark and he can’t tell if it’s dark because it’s night or because the lights are out.
He opens the door and stumbles out of the car and waits for his eyes to adjust to the dark. He makes out a wall and walks toward it, slowly, like a kid just learning how to walk, and he kicks something, metallic sounding he thinks, and he hears it ricochet off a surface and he walks toward that and he finds himself by a wall. The wall is covered with cobwebs and now Albertson thinks every single awful thing that is going to happen to him has happened. He hates spiders.
He reaches along the wall, feeling his way through the cobwebs, over chipped paint and cracked gyprock, and then he feels a switch, a light switch, and he flips it and a light bulb casts a jaundiced yellow glow over the place and, yes, he’s in a garage, except it hasn’t been used in a long time. Along the opposite wall, an old work table and some tools but other than that, the only thing inside is the car, and it’s a cab, a rusted Ford Fiesta that looks like it never was a very good cab – surely a Ford Fiesta was too small for a licensed cab, even in a city with such awful cabs as Montreal – and that the car was once fuchsia as far as he can make out.
He sees a spider walk along the floor. The garage door is weighed down with a concrete weight that’s bolted down with a chain. Who ever put him here – and he’s guessing it was Bertrand – doesn’t want him to leave.
The light goes out. Albertson reaches for the switch but it doesn’t work now. Where was that spider? he thinks. He hears a sound, like someone turning on a loud stereo system and suddenly the garage is bathed in light, in a spectacular array of lights, the garage is a disco of light, the light of the universe is inside this garage now. Albertson shields his eyes, but the room is too bright and he feels the heat that is being generated by the profusion of light, by the immensity of the display that is all around him. And then he hears music. Dance music. Electric, synthetic, pulsating. The lights move and dance in synchronicity to the beat and now he is surrounded by both light and music and his body is inside this thing, this aura, he cannot escape what is around him because he has been made a part of it. He runs to the car and gets back in but there is no relief from the wash of light and ocean of music. He closes his eyes and holds his head and decides escape is the only answer, it is the only possibility and he leaves the car and heads for the garage door but it is weighed down, it is far too heavy for him to attack, he’s only one man, he’s alone and under assault, and he’s entered some crazy land and for what? Because he saw some horses on the street? More than some, sure, a lot, that was a lot of horses, but what did they mean, who cares about these horses and what he saw, where is this garage, why are these people doing this?
Why haven’t they killed me? he wonders.
Albertson stumbles over to the work table and looks underneath it. And he sees a key. He takes the key and studies the garage door and the chain and the concrete weight. The chain and weight are held together with a lock. Not even a large one at that. He puts the key in the lock and the tension of the chain is released and it whipsaws out and the garage door flies open.
Albertson smiles and walks out. It is day. And then he looks around and then he is running and soon he is on a street, in a part of town he doesn’t quite know, the street signs are different, but it’s some suburban industrial park and he figures he’s far from home. He runs. He runs past closed offices and warehouses and derelict garages, much like the one he found himself in, he can still hear the music pounding its way out of the garage and then he is on a busy street, or at least a busier one, this one has life and buildings that seem inhabited and used, and commerce, and traffic, there is traffic on the street, and he hails a cab, and he gets inside and asks to go home.
He steps into his apartment and of course Mrs. Sen is sitting there, in the dark, on his love seat, waiting for him. At her feet, the bag with the shit covered shoe.
I should probably laugh, Albertson says. He goes to his fridge and takes a beer out and joins Mrs. Sen in the living room.
Mrs. Sen nudges the bag toward him with her foot. Tell me about this, she says.
Albertson takes a pull of his beer and it feels like liquid gold going down. He thinks he should probably eat. Tell me what’s going on, he says.
Mrs. Sen sighs. She lets out a lot of air and sits back on the love seat. Mr. Albertson, she says. Like she’s apologizing.
You invite me to your place. Before that, you say something about the horses. So you got my attention. And then your husband, the judge, he’s a judge! Your husband looses his goon on me. And then I’m in a dark room. And then I wake up in a motel. And then his goon does it again. And I wake up in the back of a cab in a disco garage. He pauses and waits to see if Mrs. Sen has anything to say yet but she stares at him, with a kind of motherly blankness, of disappointment, but expected disappointment. What the fuck? he says.
Louis is my second husband.
This is not a response. This is nothing. A non-sequitor. Why is Mrs. Sen in my apartment? he asks himself, knowing an answer is impossible. Any answer.
My first husband, he was a cardiologist. Dr. Sen. A very accomplished man. But he died, as you know. She lets the information sink in. Again. She knows he knows all of this. I’ve been married to a cardiologist and now a judge.
Albertson thinks back to the times he’s served Mrs. Sen as she’s come to his store for shoes. He thinks of the awesome amount of shoes she’s bought from him. The Imelda Marcos amount of shoes. Her lingerie shop is always empty. She’s married to a judge. And this judge has a friend who has punched him at least twice. Who is responsible for the loss of a tooth. He thinks a normal person would go to the cops, would find a cop with some sympathy in his eyes and tell him this story, but he doesn’t trust the cops. Not in this city. Not if a judge has old guys ready to punch him and stuff him in cabs and end up in disco garages. For the first time, Albertson is thinking of a conspiracy. Something vast. Like an ocean. The kind of conspiracy that doesn’t seem like anything until the anvil of it falls in front of you. Those horses were real but he’s not supposed to know about them. Bertrand had told him this went far and wide. Why is your husband’s friend punching me in the mouth?
My husband wanted to stick to law. He was a very good lawyer. He’s told me that so many times.
Once, I lost my nail clippers and I found them two weeks later in a bottle of Tums.
She’s lost her mind. Albertson can see that now. What she’s doing here is another matter. He’s not even sure how she knows where he lives. Her husband the judge has placed her here. To scare him? What has he done to his wife? She’s a shell, empty, discarded. A void.
He reaches over and takes the bag with the shit covered shoe. It’s been out a while now, apparently, and it’s starting to smell. The horse shit never dried; he put it in the freezer still fresh. And now it’s thawing out. He stands and takes it to the fridge. Except his bag is still in there. He opens the bag in his hand and it’s one of Mrs. Sen’s shoes – a shoe he once sold to her – and it is also covered in horse shit. My husband hates those shoes, she says.
He turns and she is standing at the door to the kitchen.
He says the color doesn’t suit the shape. Or something. He’s a very intellectual man. But he doesn’t really have good taste in shoes.
Is she crazy or speaking in code? Albertson’s head feels like it’s being struck by boulders.
Are you even old enough to remember cassette tapes?
The light in the apartment changes. Night is coming. Albertson realizes he doesn’t know the time. He doesn’t even know if he should be tired or not.
I cannot patronize your store any longer, she says. I am forbidden.
Albertson imagines the moment before a jumper gives in to the physics of their reality. The feeling of utter loss. And freedom.
Keep my shoe, she says. You might need it. I’m almost sure you will.
She turns to leave. Albertson can’t even bring himself to call out, to ask her to wait, to ask even a single question.
Albertson wants to call someone. But he also doesn’t trust his land line. He doesn’t trust his cell. He imagines he is being monitored. He imagines it’s happening right now. That someone outside is watching the windows of his apartment. He dare not turn on his computer. His television. He keeps one light on, a small desk lamp in the front hallway, for no reason than to know that he can. That he’s allowed. He debates turning it off. Constantly. He has not answered his phone. Either one. He’s sure they are calling from work. He runs that store. It’s practically his. They will worry. Maybe they already are worrying. Or at least confused. He paces around the apartment. And then he thinks of his neighbors. What if they report him? All this pacing. It must be driving them mad. He lies on his bed. He tries to sleep. But he can only think of Bertrand and his gray hair and gray suit and his fist. He keeps imagining Bertrand punching him, in slow motion, over and over. And over. And with this image, he falls asleep.
The phone rings. Albertson is startled and he reaches for the phone and answers it. Don’t speak, he hears. He thinks it’s Mrs. Sen but he can’t be sure. Just listen. Hold on. Albertson pinches his arm to make sure he’s awake. The granola is in the pantry behind the Corn Flakes! the voice yells. Sorry, she says. Louis, he can’t find anything in this house. He’s useless. He puts his shoes away and a minute later he can’t find them. Does that sound normal to you? Do you know how many toothbrushes I keep? At all times? Because he walks around the house with his toothbrush and then he puts it down and he forgets where he’s put it and he hasn’t finished brushing!
Albertson doesn’t trust the phone.
There’s a horse festival happening, up in Little Italy. Have you heard of this?
I said behind the Corn Flakes! On the third shelf! Sorry what did you say?
I didn’t say anything. Albertson needs a double espresso. Now.
Le Festival des Chevaliers or something. My god, there’s a festival for everything in this city.
Why are you telling me this?
You know why, Mrs. Sen says.
He might but why would she tell him this now? No, I don’t know.
It’s new. It’s a horse festival. It’s up in Little Italy. It has city money and business money. A lot of construction companies. Since when do construction companies sponsor these festivals?
He hasn’t paid much attention to who sponsors what. Marketing is wasted on him. He notices shoes and makes assumptions based on footwear but he doesn’t notice much else. Like sponsors on a billboard. Albertson wishes he’d never seen the horses. He wishes he’d never stepped out and then stepped in horse shit. When? he asks.
It starts tonight.
I haven’t heard about it.
Me neither, Mrs. Sen says, whispering. Louis told me.
She hangs up. And Albertson puts his phone down and closes his eyes. And the sleep never comes. He knows what he’s doing tonight.
Albertson heads up Saint Laurent towards Little Italy. Mile End’s not far, but Little Italy is on the other side of the tracks, literally, and the crumbling underpass, the city is always planning to fix it but then always pleads poverty, makes the next neighborhood over seem further than it is. Little Italy always seemed far, even though it was nothing more than a 20 minute walk, at most, and before Albertson can notice the new pho diners and kitchen design stores and depanneurs serving artisanal toast, he’s in Little Italy, he’s passed the marble gates to the neighborhood and he’s in and in the park, right here, in Little Italy Park, there’s the sign for the horse festival, and there’s bunting on the grandstand, and there are hundreds of people milling about. None of them look horsey but Albertson isn’t sure what a horsey set in Little Italy is supposed to look like. And in the grandstand he sees Louis, surrounded by important looking people, important looking because some of them are wearing the kinds of hats only important people can wear in public, and because they are the only ones in the grandstand, they are above everyone else, they have access to a microphone and everyone else is in the park and they are listening to Louis. He’s the one speaking. The important looking people are standing behind him, looking important. Albertson doesn’t see any horses.
The crowd claps and Albertson sees that Louis has finished speaking.
Banners snap in the breeze. The park is full of families. Well dressed couples. For some of them it’s date night. Italian music plays over loudspeakers. Albertson makes his way toward the grandstand. He shouldn’t be here, he realizes that now, Louis might kill him for all he knows, but he also wants to see the horses, he wants to confront Louis when the horses come out, and he wants to do it surrounded by these people, by these well dressed people, by the important looking people. There is media here. Nothing can happen to him. He’s safe. There are cameras and microphones. The park is well lit. Albertson smells grilled meat and at one end of the park, he sees smoke. A balloon flies above his head and toward the sky, toward space, away, free from the pull of gravity.
Albertson walks toward Louis. Why is a judge such a big shot? Albertson thinks. And Louis sees him. He registers surprise and then he smiles. He turns to face him. Albertson stops. He has to confront him now. The breeze shifts and the smoke from the grills is around him and he realizes something.
The people are eating horses.
Albertson thinks: So what? You can find horse meat all over this city. You can find the stuff in the grocery store. On menus in not even overly ambitious restaurants. People eat horses here. People eat everything here because people like to eat. There are no foie gras protests in Montreal. It’s hard to be a vegetarian. Albertson has had to figure out the itinerary of visiting vegetarians based on where they might find more than a limp salad on the menu because people eat everything in Montreal. Including horses.
It’s quite something, Louis says. He surveys the park with a father’s pride.
Those horses I saw, Albertson says.
You did not see horses.
Let’s not play that game anymore.
You saw a run for freedom, perhaps.
Louis is still smiling. He’s won. Albertson doesn’t know what Louis thinks he’s won but the smile is the smile of a winner. And then Albertson feels hands on each of his arms and slowly he is being led away. Two very large men in t-shirts and dark sunglasses lead him behind the grandstand and release him. What is going on? he asks.
Louis stops smiling. He sighs. My wife visited you?
Albertson sees Bertrand. He is walking toward them, a glass of red wine in hand. He puts the wine down and extends his hand. Albertson shakes it. Your wife visited me, yes. But you knew that.
Frank Sinatra comes on over the loudspeakers. He’s singing My Way. Albertson wants to laugh. At this touch. At the orchestration of the thing. At this moment. No media, Albertson says. Nothing. How are all these people here? No publicity.
That’s not true, Louis says. Looks at all the television cameras.
The ones you didn’t see?
I have proof I saw them.
And how is it that no one else saw these horses? How is it that no one in your entire neighbourhood saw these galloping horses that you claim to have seen, Mr. Albertson?
Albertson doesn’t know. He can’t even pretend to know why.
My question is why you’ve gone through all this trouble.
Did you read the papers this morning? Louis asks. He knows Albertson hasn’t. He’s asking rhetorical questions to prove he’s in charge.
Bertrand takes a page from that morning’s Journal de Montreal from out of his back pocket and unfolds it. Right there on the front: the police’s cavalry has gone missing.
We had a problem with a supplier, Louis says. Bertrand refolds the page and puts it in his back pocket. Not a major problem, but enough of one. And one of our sponsors said he could fix it. And he did.
Albertson wants to be dumbfounded but he’s come too far. This whole thing. He wants to sleep. Your wife has a shit covered shoe as well.
I never liked those shoes, Louis says.
Bertrand cracks his knuckles. Albertson does his best not to flinch.
I have discussed your situation with many people, obviously. Louis’s voice changes tone. Now it’s business. And now Albertson thinks that perhaps he will die. Right here. Surrounded by well dressed families eating horse burgers and steaks and sausages. And we have made some decisions.
Albertson knows he can’t run.
We have wondered how best to purchase your silence.
Who would believe me?
This is true. But still. We are fair people. I am, after all, a judge of the Superior Court.
Albertson waits for laughter.
You have been the manager of that store for, what now?
Almost ten years, Albertson says.
You know shoes. Ladies shoes. My wife is very fond of you. Of your expertise.
Albertson wonders what has happened to Mrs. Sen. Or if she has always been off. He can’t recall now.
You will get your own store, Louis says. A boutique. Whatever you want to call it.
Montreal doesn’t need another store selling ladies shoes, Albertson says.
We have picked out a spot. It’s very well located. Near all the new construction in Griffintown. Or, if you would prefer, there is a spot on Laurier, on the Outremont side. But that’s a tricky street. And it’s not so good for your customers.
I don’t even have a store.
No, but you already have a clientele.
Albertson understands. It has all been fixed. He’s going to be a store owner. It’s going to be patronized by some wealthy women. Louis has secured everyone’s freedom.
All the paperwork is done and awaiting the relevant signatures. All the legalities and financials. All the construction and permits.
Albertson feels like he’s about to shit his pants.
You will combine your contacts, your skills, with certain contacts that my people bring to the table. It will be a massive success.
Albertson just wants to faint. He wants to be tough and he wants to yell for help. To scream. All that for a horse burger? he asks.
Louis smiles again. And then Bertrand steps forward. And punches Albertson in the face for the final time. Perhaps. One never knows in the shoe business.