by David Penhale

ISBN 9781770860537 | 5.5" x 8.5" | TPB w/ French Flaps | $22
Categories:Fiction - Literary

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Passing Through (Preview)
IT WAS FRIDAY, THE beginning of the weekend in the Middle East, a day to lace on a pair of boots, stick a map in your pocket and head for the desert. But Daniel Foster was in Toronto, not Dubai. In his daughter’s townhouse, not the apartment in Golden Sands. Tall and tanned, he had dark hair with a touch of silver at the temples. His business suit, tailored by Frazier & Sons of Savile Row, had won the respect of many a maître d’. The box of Froot Loops on the counter belonged to his granddaughter. He tugged open the fridge and frowned at the empty shelves.
Out for breakfast then. Foster put on his raincoat and patted for the keys to his Mercedes. He felt a jolt of panic. He had no keys. The sheiks had cut him loose. Bracing himself against the mild September day, he stepped out the door and spun around to inspect 27 Mazurka Street. His heart emptied as he stared at the bird’s nest on the electrical meter, at the discarded tire with a burdock growing from its centre.
Turning away, unbuttoning his raincoat, he started up the sidewalk, amending with each step the plan he had made during the whispering, airborne hours on klm. With an allowance coming in, Mary and Shawna, his only living relations, could move into one of those barn-sized houses he had flown over on the final approach to Pearson Airport.
Four bedrooms, three bathrooms, Scarlett O’Hara staircase. The works. Cheered by this thought, Foster went up the sidewalk with his coat billowing behind him like a magician’s cape.
Mazurka Street, a jumble of Victorian cottages and cinder-block duplexes, connected two major roads. Yet it seemed hidden, halfforgotten.
A puddle shimmered in the sunlight. There had been a rumble of thunder in the night, Foster recalled, a crack of lightning, a rattle on the roof. When had rain last fallen in Dubai? Two years ago? He sniffed the air, savouring the scent. Toronto’s weather could be pleasant, he had to admit. In Dubai’s perpetual summer, he had remembered Toronto as a winter city, a city trapped under a low, grey sky. Lucky thing, a fine day like this. And you need the luck, Danny, Irv, his father, would say, leaning on the hood of the Studebaker and writing an order for stove bolts.
Mazurka ended at Dundas Street. Foster glanced to the right and stepped over the curb, locking his eyes on a row of rusty metal letters spelling out Elite Restaurant. Tires shrieked, a horn blared. Bewildered, he turned to see a delivery van hurtling toward him. Was this how he would die, struck down in the roadway like a stray camel? For a serene moment it seemed right that he would perish here, his life come full circle.
The bumper of the van dipped to a stop centimetres from his knee. A tangle of dreadlocks flew from a side window. An angry face followed. “Asshole!” the driver yelled. Chastened, he had looked the wrong way. This wasn’t London. Foster hurried across the road and pushed open the door of the restaurant that seemed to have waited twenty-five years for him to return.
How had The Elite survived? The curved counter, the spin-top stools, the high-backed booths, the chromed napkin holders whirled him back to a childhood Sunday. He had trooped to the Baptist Church to hear Miss Rebecca Wilson tell Bible stories in her quavering voice, and here he was at his grandmother’s side, clean and combed and correct in his blue blazer, hungry for his reward for loving Jesus. The memory carried the scent of camphor. Foster perched on a stool and picked up a menu. What would he order if his grandmother were at his side? A hot chicken sandwich with mashed potatoes and peas. Rice pudding topped with cinnamon. A glass of milk.
“What can I get you?”
The voice had a familiar cadence, and Foster looked up, halfexpecting to see Ghuman peering down at him. But Ghuman, Foster’s friend, the ace programmer he had met in Riyadh, had perished when an airliner overshot a runway and exploded in flames. Perhaps this relic of a restaurant catered to the dead.
“Are you from Karachi?” Foster smiled. Bit of a diva, Ghuman. He could make a computer sing.
The waiter looked stonily down. “Anybody looks like me must be a Paki. Is that what you think?”
“There’s a cadence to a Karachi accent, and I guessed —”
“You couldn’t guess Mississauga?”
Foster’s smile froze. Rule one of expatriate life: never argue with the locals. “Can I get two boiled eggs? Brown toast and coffee?” The waiter walked away.
“Three minutes for the eggs,” Foster called after him.
For a busy executive, a wait is a gift. Foster slipped a hand into his jacket and drew out the photographs Mary had sent him. The first was a school picture of Shawna. His eleven-year-old granddaughter had lattébrown skin and springy, copper-coloured hair. “A Jamaican guy I knew for a while,” was all Mary had told him of Shawna’s father, years ago, over a scratchy long-distance line. From last night’s chat, Foster knew Shawna was clever. It seemed a shame that he was off to Chiang Mai, that he wouldn’t get to know her.
Turning his attention to the second photo, he pondered the mystery of his only child. Mary wore a black uniform with silver lightning bolts embroidered on the shoulders. She stood with a group of security guards, beaming like a teenager meeting her favourite rock band. The last man in line was leaning on Mary. Foster slipped the photos into his pocket and stared at the cloudy front window. A mailman came through the door and took a seat at the counter.
Breakfast arrived. The coffee tasted of acid. The toast was burnt. The eggs were hard. Foster chewed in moody silence. With the allowance coming in, Mary could quit her dead-end job. Go back to school. Once she was on her feet, he would send the airfare and she would visit him in Chiang Mai, the paradise he had chosen for his retirement. He pictured himself ushering Mary and Shawna into a villa set among thick, green coconut trees. There was something fishy about this mental picture.
He traced the bug to its source. The villa came from his grandmother’s bookcase, from “Rain,” a short story by Somerset Maugham. Foster pushed his sorry meal aside and checked his watch, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual that in the Gulf had been a badge of office. Mary would be home in an hour. The waiter trudged past in offended silence, toting a bag of milk.
Milk. Mary’s empty fridge. He would go grocery shopping. What better peace offering for last night’s fiasco? Mary had thrown his offer of an allowance back in his face. Foster got to his feet, drew out his wallet and stepped to the cash register, snapping a thumbnail over his credit cards as he went. Put on your plastic armour, you shall not suffer loss.
When the waiter ignored him, Foster cleared his throat noisily. The mailman shot him a knowing look. The waiter dawdled over, stationed himself behind the register and glowered at the money in Foster’s hand. “A hundred? Can’t take it.”
“It’s the smallest I have. Will you take a credit card?”
“No credit cards.” The waiter rapped a thick finger against a handlettered sign.
“Traveller’s cheque?”
The waiter shook his head. “Bring the money later. By four o’clock.”
“Thank you,” Foster said, forcing himself to smile. “Is there a grocery store nearby?”
“Cut Cost,” the mailman said, keeping his eyes on the sports pages. “Two blocks west.”
Down the street Foster strode, past Dollar Heaven and Lou’s Pawn Shop. He was eyeing the greasy stoves in the window of Appliance Wonderland when the sky darkened and rain pattered down, spreading rivulets of grime over the sidewalk. He hated Canada.
The surprising thought slowed Foster to the easy, ground-covering lope that had carried him through the wadis (the dry river beds) of the Arabian Peninsula. How could anyone hate a country as bland as processed cheese? In the Arab world, his Canadian temperament had been his stock-in-trade. Canadians are competent, consistent. Canadians have a calming effect, like goats stabled with nervous horses. The neighbourhood had fallen on hard times, Foster saw. It was no place for Shawna to grow up. When he was Shawna’s age, the Junction was a brash and busy crossroads made prosperous by railroads and stockyards. In the night you heard the boom of shunting, and on a north wind you caught the sad, charnel smell drifting from the slaughterhouses. There were pyramids of oranges in the greengrocer’s, suits with phantom lapels in Cohen’s tailor shop. And, Foster suddenly remembered, a fluoroscope in Dixon’s Shoes.
With a fat shoe clerk looking on, Foster would run to the fluoroscope wearing a new pair of Sisman Scampers, and peer into a netherworld where the bones of his feet glowed. His grandmother would hook her purse over her arm and toddle over to see for herself. Only a fool paid good money for shoes that didn’t fit, and grandma was nobody’s fool.
Grandma and her Bible, her Shakespeare, her Stevenson’s Garden of Verse. Grandma in her mission chair, watching wrestling on tv. Not that Foster could count on seeing the matches. His father might turn up to claim him, as if his son were a sentimental item he had pawned.
A week, ten days on the road and Foster was back with his grandmother. People once believed the sun, the moon and the stars rotated around the earth. The notion made a wonky kind of sense. His grandmother had been the gravity that held him and Irv, his flimflam father, in orbit. And for all Foster knew, invisibly guided the shoe clerk and Cohen the tailor.
The rain stopped, the air grew heavy. Foster walked on, his nostalgia cooling into dread. With his working life over and his death the last major item on the agenda, he found himself reaching for, if not his grandmother’s granite faith, then some explanation. A higher mathematics. A cosmic algorithm. It was a waste of time, he knew.
Musing about his purpose on this planet scarcely counted as thinking. Cut Cost, a decaying building of concrete block fronted by a glass wall, seemed familiar. His grandmother had brought him, a child of six, to the store’s grand opening. Across the parking lot went Foster, dodging a pickup truck bristling with ladders. At the entrance, he watched a woman of startling beauty — she might have been Somalian, her regal stature, her large, shining eyes, the bright tie-dye of her gown — slip a quarter in a slot and pull a cart free.
A gaunt woman materialized at his side. She took his hand, placed it on the handle of an unfettered cart and mutely held out a palm. She was Eastern European, Foster thought, a survivor of the Soviet Era with melancholy pooled in her eyes. Seized by an impulse to put history right, he yanked out his wallet, snapped out a hundred-dollar bill and pressed it into her hand. Before she could protest or thank him, he was off, clattering the cart through the doors.
The store was a swirl of saris, abayas and the cheap slacks and shirts he had seen from Cairo to Kenya. Where would these people find jobs with the air clear of slaughterhouse smoke? You’re going about it all wrong, he longed to tell them. Nowadays money is a stream of electrons, an arc of wealth that flies high over Canada. His life savings, for example — the 1.3 million American dollars winging their way from AMEB to the Cayman Islands.
It had been years since he had set foot in a grocery store, but Foster plunged in gamely, snatching up bags of apples, bunches of bananas, boxes of mandarin oranges, then lettuce, parsnips, carrots. He swung down another aisle and spotted a package of Froot Loops. He would buy a box for Shawna. The breakfast food aisle made him happy — every carton carried the promise of a new day. When a vacant checkout loomed into view, You need the luck, son!, he swung his cart up to a counter.
A teenager with spiky red hair gave him a blank look. According to the badge pinned to her smock, she was Tina, and was committed to his shopping experience. The scanner beeped. Groceries tumbled down a stainless steel ramp. From a display rack Foster took a comic book for Shawna, a copy of Canadian Homemaker for Mary, the Toronto Star for himself.
“You’ve got kind of a mountain,” said Tina. “You want bags? They’re five cents each.”
Kind of a mountain. “‘The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, their colours and their forms,’” Foster recited, smiling at Tina, “‘were then to me an appetite …’” And a something, something.
Fragments of the poems his grandmother had made him memorize still ran through Foster’s head. It pleased him to recall these lines of Wordsworth.
Tina rolled her eyes, whacked the total button and announced the damage. The amount seemed a pittance. Foster handed Tina his AMEB credit card. He looked through the window, spotted a taxi and waved until a portly driver clambered out and began a dignified stroll to the front door.
“Declined,” Tina said.
Foster looked at her. “Nonsense. Try again.”
She tried the card again.
“It doesn’t say. It never does.”
“American Express?”
“We don’t take those. Sorry.”
Sorry. Why were Canadians always saying sorry? As if you had to apologize for being alive. The balance on that card was high enough anyway. He had put his airfare on it, and the expenses from the week he had spent in London, consulting with Cedric Richards-Henderson, his financial advisor. Reluctantly, Foster handed over three of the crisp hundred dollar bills he had bought at the money exchange in Heathrow. The money he had hoped to present to Mary.
“All this?” the cabbie asked.
“Yes,” Foster said.
“Your change,” Tina said.
“Aren’t you going to pack this for me?”
“You bag your own, sir.”
Fine. The sooner he was in Thailand, the better; he had had his fill of Canada. Foster snapped open a bag. The Toronto Star came gliding down the conveyor belt. The headline read, MIDDLE EASTERN BANK GOES UNDER.
There was a picture of a bank tower.
The tower was in Dubai.
The bank was AMEB.
His bank.
Music, one of the new rhythmical styles, boomed from Mary’s house as Foster picked his way up the front walk with the cabbie a step behind carrying grocery bags. Was Mary home? Foster knocked, hesitated, then pushed open the door, searching his pockets for his cellphone — until he remembered that he had cancelled the service before he left Dubai. Mary’s phone was an old, wall-mounted model. He reached for the handset, forcing himself to think. A fragment of Kipling floated through his mind. If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you … The papers had exaggerated the story. No one trusted the Arabs, not since 9/11. An urgent beat thumped from the living room. Foster stuck his head in the doorway, waiting for Shawna to take the hint and turn the music down. She was at her computer desk, swinging her legs, bobbing her head, slanting her shoulders side to side. She waggled a remote control at a wall unit and the room fell silent. No, a tinny beat leaked from her earphones. She had a gadget clipped to her waist. Was she old enough to be left on her own? “Where’s Mary? Where’s your mother?”
“Mama back soon,” Shawna sang, “back soon, back soon, back soon.”
If you can keep your head … Cedric’s business card had a reassuring heft. The sheiks wouldn’t let AMEB fail, Foster told himself as he tapped in the number. The line buzzed. The cabbie went back and forth like the sorcerer’s apprentice. Foster tilted the card, mesmerized by its holographic mantra. Plan the future / Live the dream, Plan the future / Live the dream, Plan the future / Live the dream.
“Appalling taste, of course,” Cedric Richards-Henderson had said when he handed Foster his card. “Meant to pull the Yanks.” The breezy Brit-slang was part of Cedric’s act, Foster had decided. Foster was “the wild colonial boy.” Managing money was “a doddle.” A stock tip was “a Chinese Whisper.”
“Run the lolly through the eye of the needle,” Cedric said. “Best route to the Caymans.”
“Eye of the needle?” Foster said.
“If we send the lot through AMEB, we save the transfer fee.” We, though the money was Foster’s. That week — the week the sheiks cancelled Foster’s contract, handed him his passport, threw his life off course — the stock markets came crashing down. But Cedric, bless him, had seen the downturn coming. Foster’s fortune was all in cash. “Maybe we should spread the risk?”
“Oh, there’s no risk. Safe as houses, AMEB.” Cedric smoothed his tie. The tie was Eton, but was it genuine?
Standing in Mary’s kitchen, the phone buzzing in his ear, Foster looked over to see white plastic bags covering the kitchen table like a fall of snow. When the cabbie arrived with yet another load, Foster gestured impatiently at the floor. Sylvia of the silky scarf, pick up the phone.
“Richards-Henderson Financial,” Sylvia said, in her rich contralto.
“That’s the lot,” the cabbie announced at the same moment.
“Sylvia, it’s Foster.” With the handset jammed against his shoulder, Foster paid the fare and waved the taxi driver away.
“Daniel. Hello.”
Call me Foster, he had told the woman, and more than once. Everyone calls me Foster. “Put me through to Cedric.”
The line clicked and Foster found himself alone with Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” How Foster hated that repetitious piece! It was music for the elevators of hell.
“Monitoring the line,” Sylvia broke in to say.
A roar came from the living room. Shawna had turned the stereo back on. Should he tell her to turn it off? Why had Mary left the child on her own? “It’s bad,” Cedric said, coming on the line suddenly. No breezy banter. Then it was bad.
“Tell me that my money reached the Caymans.”
The din abruptly stopped. A murmur undercut the ensuing silence, as if the phone had turned into a seashell. A Nautilus shell, Foster thought uselessly, the pretty one with the logarithmic spiral.
“The money went down the rabbit hole, Foster.”
Rabbit hole? Had Cedric dipped into his stock of single malt scotch? Foster took a deep breath, forced himself to exhale. If you can keep your head … “The newspaper says something about derivatives.”
“Yes, the twit stuck the bank in all the way, assets, reserves, light bulbs, those little pens on chains …”
“Pens on chains?”
“The market reversed and AMEB went arse over teakettle.”
“Arse over teakettle?” Foster staggered back, colliding with the kitchen table. “Twit? AMEB’s wonder boy president?”
“The same.”
“But how …”
“Bugger fiddled the books.”
“Fiddled the books? Explain that.”
Foster listened, staring through Mary’s patio door. There was a rusty barbecue out there, a swing set with no swings, a basket-weave fence missing its bottom board. As Cedric talked on, jargon swirled through Foster’s mind like tinsel in a winter wind. The Yuan exchange bridge. The Yen carry trade. Swap counter-parties. Domino-driven funds. The dark money pool. The global slosh effect. Ripple wrecks. AMEB had been hit by a tidal wave, Cedric told Foster. The bank had simply vanished, sunk like a stone, gone down with all hands. Taking Foster’s fortune with it.
“So what happens now?”
“It’s early days. There may be some recovery.”
“Some recovery? Cedric, I’m on my way to Thailand. I’ll be in Chiang Mai next week, shopping for a villa.”
“At least I’m here,” Cedric said in a flat voice that shook Foster to the core. “I took your call. Kevin’s done a runner. Stuck his cellular in the charger and walked out.”
Foster closed his eyes. “You’re there, Cedric. You took my call. Thank you. You’re my advisor. Tell me what to do.”
“Forgive me, Daniel.”
Forgive me? The line went dead. After a moment, Foster put the handset in its cradle. He stood for a long time gazing through the patio door at the lengthening shadows.
How long had Mary been in the kitchen? In her sweatshirt and jeans, she seemed younger than she had last night. Her face bore an expression of wonder. Mary, I’m in trouble. I’m frightened. Badly frightened. My life has come to nothing. He should tell his daughter this. He should tell her now. But Foster had no words. Every family invents a language, and the Foster version did not include the vocabulary of the heart. He said nothing and the moment passed.
“Hey, you guys!” Shawna called from the living room. “Sam and Dam are on.”
“Coming.” Mary said. She touched Foster`s arm and moved away.
“Coming,” Foster echoed, though he had no idea what Shawna was talking about. He began to walk, and found himself shuffling his feet, fixing his gaze on the floor. At the entrance to the living room, he stopped and looked around, taking in the threadbare couch, the beanbag chair, the mismatched end tables.
Mary settled herself on the couch, and Shawna snuggled up to her mother. The beanbag chair seemed a long way across the room, and then it seemed a long way down. Mary was watching him furtively, Foster sensed as he thunked into the beanbag. He sat with his legs straight and his arms thrown over the sides, staring at the television. The colours were out of whack. The greens quavered, the reds flared, the blues burned. He would buy Mary a new set. As soon as AMEB was sorted out.
On the television, a white-haired man strolled into a locker room with a towel around his neck and a tennis racket under his arm. A younger man ambled in. “You beat me again, Sid.”
“That’s because I beat my pain.” The white-haired man held up a bottle of pills. The bottle was blue, and it seemed to be on fire.
“Foster?” Mary said. “Are you okay?”
“Little problem with my bank.” Foster made a dismissive gesture.
“Nothing to worry about.”
When the commercial ended, a hawkish-looking woman in a white satin gown swept into a room that had red walls and too many mirrors. A bellboy flitted through the foreground. Was this a hotel? It certainly wasn’t the Burj Al Arab, the luxury hotel shaped like the sail of a dhow. “He found the receipt,” the woman told a brawny youth in a tuxedo. “He knows everything.”
“He knows nothing,” the youth scoffed. Was he a guest, Foster wondered? The manager of the Burj Al Arab? A client of Cohen the tailor?
“That guy is so-o-o-o screwed,” Shawna said.
“You think?” Mary said.
“Samantha and Damian are, like, you know, doing it,” Shawna whispered.
“Are they now.” Foster nodded sagely. He would have a word with those two. If the sheiks caught wind of that kind of hanky-panky, they would put Samantha and Damian on the next flight out. Very moral, the sheiks. A major bank couldn’t just disappear. It’s early days. On the screen the words Restless World formed in misty letters over a daybreak sky.
“They never open with Sam and Dam,” Mary said. “Something’s up.”
“Totally,” Shawna said.
“Um,” Foster said, as if he were in a meeting at Duboco Petroleum and had yet to make up his mind about the matter under discussion.
He didn’t care much for television, but now the commercials fascinated him. They were punchy thirty-second movies with plots, stars, settings. The last commercial ended. The pretty people disappeared. Well, there it was. People are easily replaced. You learned that in the Middle East and you learned it fast. You’re just a donkey they’ve rented.
“Foster?” Mary said. “Thanks for all the groceries.”
Were groceries on the agenda? Restless World resumed. The scene had shifted. “You stole that formula,” said a woman wearing a lot of makeup.
“Yeah? Let them prove it.” The man in the white lab coat was a petroleum chemist, Foster decided. He gazed down the length of his body at his bare feet. When had he shucked off his shoes and socks? An Arabic proverb came to mind. Come back with Hunain’s shoes. It meant to come home with nothing.