Butterflies Dreaming of Being Men
By Jeff Dupuis
We usually went to the pool hall just to drink. But that night CJ and Johnny O wanted to shoot pool, so I sat elbows on the bar next to McInnes. He was buying and I didn’t want to miss out so I stuck beside him even though we didn’t ever have anything to talk about. I watched the others disappear from sight as they went down the stairs towards the tables at the back, all of which were empty.
Clumps of dirt from McInnes’s work boots collected on the floor under his stool, like puzzle pieces that could be fitted back into the tread. He came straight from work every day, skipping dinner or even a shower. McInnes ordered two beers and Rose, who owned the pool hall with her brother, Ed, gave one to him and the other to me.
I had asked Rose for a date once. We all had, but she said she didn’t date the clientele. It was bad for business. At least that’s what she told me. She told CJ that she didn’t date people who weren’t Catholic. She told Johnny O, a Catholic, that she didn’t date outside her culture. We all kept coming, spending money and getting wasted, so I guess it worked out just the way it should have.
“Fuck, I’m tired,” McInnes said.
He cleared his throat.
“I hear that,” I said, swigging back that first sip.
“Do you?” he asked. “Do any work today?”
He looked at me with a cop’s gaze.
“Yes,” I said.
"You got a job?”
“No,” I said. “But I helped some friends move.”
Jen, my ex, and the guy she’d cheated on me with, moved into a low-rise about ten minutes from my mom’s house. Jen had said “let’s not ‘be friends’ unless we’re really friends” after we’d broken up, so I figured I should volunteer. I’m a fuck of a nice guy, I think. Besides, I wasn’t doing anything else.
Plus, there was something I wanted to tell her. I couldn’t think of it at the time. But Derek bought pizza and beer for me and Murray, the guy who drove the van, so it wasn’t a total failure.
“Good man,” McInnes said, tapping the neck of my beer bottle with the mouth of his. “A man’s gotta work.”
He was red-cheeked with short, strawberry-blond hair that bordered on ginger. His blue eyes were wide and empty as he looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar. He didn’t smell very good and he cleared his throat enough that it was annoying. You always thought he was going to say something, maybe something important, but he never did. He and I had played on the same softball team when we were kids, but he didn’t remember it.
“Should I put the baseball game on?” Rose asked.
“Yes, please,” I said.
She reached under the bar and pulled out the remote. The TV was an old, gray box that had been mounted up over the bar since before flatscreens were a thing. There was no sound either and the speakers at the corners of the bar kept playing classic rock. Nobody ever went there to watch the game, but I didn’t complain so long as I could read the score.
Angie, a Greek girl who was dating a Newfie we all liked to call “Sass,” came in as it started to get dark outside. She was looking really good in a spaghetti strap tank top and tight blue jeans. I turned and said “hello” and McInnes asked if Sass was coming. She said “hi” and “maybe” and sat at a table by the window.
A Honda Civic rolled up with Notorious B.I.G. blasting loud enough that we could hear it over the music playing inside and parked beside McInnes’s truck. Two girls who I recognized as Angie’s friends got out. There was usually another member, Holly, a clone of the other two, but she was nowhere in sight. Angie was the hot one of the group, the other three were dumpy girls who only wore sweatpants and hoodies and stank of cheap, gnarly weed. Maybe Angie was one of those hot girls who needed to be the hottest girl in the group at all times. Or maybe that was just how the cookie crumbled. I’d chatted with all of them at Johnny O’s house party on the weekend and they were all pretty cool once you got past the hoodies, unwashed hair and the scowling.
The girls came inside and sat with Angie, who took out her phone and started texting. Rose went over and took their order. With the TV on, there was no reason for McInnes and I to speak to each other, so we worked slowly on our beers and watched the Jays blow a 3-1 lead and fall behind 4-3 in the top of the 5th inning.
“The Blue Jays are losing?” Rose asked, glancing up at the TV quickly as she scooped ice cubes and dumped them into plastic cups.
She unhooked the soda gun and filled the cups, two with a brown liquid, one clear. Bubbles clung to the sides and rose to the top. Before I could ask who the hell was ordering pop in a place like that, Johnny came to the bar and ordered two bottles of Labatt 50 for him and CJ.
“Who’s winning?” I asked him.
He looked at the girls, then out the window, at the parking lot, then across the street at the audio/video equipment store, with its “closing sale” banner hung across the front window.
“Johnny, bro, who’s winning?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders, then slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar. He didn’t wait for his change, taking a bottle in each hand and going back down the stairs, where two rows of pool tables extended to the back of the place, light fixtures dangling over each of them. Johnny stopped and looked over his shoulder. I nodded at him, but he wasn’t looking at me.
The Jays clawed back a run in the bottom of the 6th to tie the game. I headed for the pisser as a commercial for tires came on. All the girls were looking at me.
Maybe it wasn’t a tire commercial. When I came out the game was back on and Sass was climbing up the concrete steps, smiling at me through the glass as he pulled open the door. No amount of beer ever made me feel lonely in those days, and that night it felt like friendliness was inflating me like a helium balloon.
“Sass!” I said cordially and maybe a little too loud.
The whole place fell silent for a second, except the classic rock, that kept right on rocking.
“Sass!” he said right back to me. “How are ya, bud?”
“Chilling,” I said.
He walked over to the table behind the one the girls were sitting at. He grabbed a chair and dragged it along the floor and put it at the head of Angie’s table. She looked at him like maybe they’d been fighting, or the kind of “talking” girls liked to do where everything was serious and every answer you gave was the wrong one.
“Grab a seat, Sass,” he said to me, pointing to the empty one next to Michelle, who we all called “Mickey,” and across from Marta, who we all called Marta.
“Whatever you say, Sass,” I said.
I wasn’t going to let him big-dog me into taking on a shitty nickname that was given to him by Josh, the buddy who’d introduced me to him. We’d crossed the Rubicon, and for me to start calling him by his name, Trevor, would mean that I’d be “Sass” for the rest of my life, or at least until Josh got back from Afghanistan. Until then I had to hold the line. Grabbing my beer from the bar, I walked over to the table slowly, a smile for everyone there. McInnes watched me until he lost interest and went back to the ballgame.
“Who you here with, Sass?”
I folded my arms, rolled my eyes, shook my head. The girls all knew that he was Sass, not me. He was just embarrassing himself.
“CJ and Johnny O,” I said.
“CJ, as in Chris Jackson?”
“How many CJs do you know?” I asked, looking from Marta to Angie, then to Mickey.
They were all looking at Sass. He turned and looked toward the stairs that led to the pool tables. Johnny and CJ were blocked by the waist-high wall that ran from either side of the stairs and partitioned the bar from the pool hall. But you could hear that they were still there. The crack of the cue ball breaking echoed.
Sass had a baby face and the same golden hair he’s had since childhood. But his hands were thick and calloused, meaty cubes when formed into fists. He took out his phone and started texting. I finished my beer while Sass stared at his phone. The girls said nothing. I set the empty bottle down on the cardboard coaster advertising a rival brand.
“You need another, Sass?” he said, looking from the screen to the table in front of me.
He awkwardly rotated his stocky body in his chair until he faced the bar.
“Rose, can I get a bottle of Canadian and another 50?”
Rose brought the beer over. I don’t think I’d ever had so many people buying me beer in one day. It felt like respect. I tilted the neck of my bottle toward Sass and he clinked his against it.
“Much obliged,” I said.
His phone went ding-ding as I took that first sip.
“They’re on their way,” he said.
“I’ll wait outside,” Angie said.
She stood up.
“Me too,” Mickey said.
“I’m staying,” Marta said.
Two of the girls went outside and got into the Honda Civic. An old boat of a car, a Buick maybe, rolled in and three guys came out. They were familiar, guys I’d seen around but couldn’t name or place. Sass stood up and went to meet them at the door.
It was just Marta and I left at the table. She pinched the tip of her straw and stirred her 7 Up with it, the ice cubes clattering against the side of the plastic cup. She had skin like a peeled potato and a wide-set nose that looked like it had been broken once or twice. But her pale eyes had something gentle in them that I could see while she made the ice cubes dance, and she seemed to have fair-sized boobs under that hoodie. I knew better than to mess with Angie’s friends, since she saw herself as the queen bee and would probably sic Sass on me if I fucked it up.
“Did you get home all right after the party?”
Marta looked at me for what felt like the first time. She let go of the straw and as she pulled her hand away I noticed a rosary tattooed on the inside of her forearm. There sure are a lot of Catholics here, I remembered thinking. Jen was a Catholic too. Her church had a sign out front that said “abortion stops a beating heart,” though that didn’t stop us when the time came.
“You guys were pretty wasted,” I said. “And Holly, shit, SHE was in rough shape.”
Holly had gone fetal on the bed in Johnny’s guest room, laying across other people’s jackets. Mickey and Marta, stoned out of their minds, had been sitting on the corner of the bed with her until it got late and they got paranoid and had to leave. I had to peace out to catch the last bus home. The party was pretty much over anyway, with Johnny in his room with his girlfriend. CJ was with Holly when I left. I remember her saying she couldn’t get up without puking.
“Like they say, beer before liquor, you’ve never been— .”
Marta planted her elbows on the table and leaned across toward me. She narrowed her eyes on me. There was the scent of weed with a chemically-sweet fragrance on top.
“Do you ever get tired of being so…you?”
What the fuck do you say to a thing like that? I leaned back in my chair, keeping a hand on my beer. Then the whole place blew up with the honk of a car horn. In the Civic, Angie was leaning across from the passenger seat, pumping that steering wheel. Sass and his boys hurried to the window and I noticed CJ’s Mustang turning onto Kingston Road, which was fucked up because dude was my ride.
“They went out the back,” one of the boys said, way too late for it to make a difference.
A notion came to me half-formed, like trying to remember a dream from the night before. Maybe I should have just got up and walked over to the bus stop. Maybe I should have just stayed home. Sass came over and stood behind my chair.
“Do you know where CJ lives?” Sass asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“Let’s go,” he said.
It was then when I thought of what I’d meant to say to Jen earlier that day, when we were alone together, she was three steps ahead of me as we walked up the stairwell to her new apartment. She carried a fan, its cord dragged along the stairs. I carried a Rubbermaid bin with pots, pans and dishcloths in it, a cardboard box holding glasses and mugs balanced on top. Our footsteps echoed.
“Sass, let’s go,” he said. “Up.”
I wish I’d been better, more patient. I wish I’d listened more than I talked. I wish things were different.
As if by some strange, supernatural coincidence, Right Now by Van Halen came on. Sass put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it a little too hard. I stood up. Rose looked at me, so did Marta. McInnes cleared his throat, but said nothing.
Jeff Dupuis is a writer, editor and podcaster based in Toronto. He is the co-founder of The Quarantine Review and the author of three novels. His most recent book, Umboi Island, was released in March of 2022 by Dundurn Press.