The thing about Danny MacIsaac was that he was average. Average weight, average height, average brown hair. He played hockey and baseball but he was never captain of the team or Most Valuable Player or anything. At school he half-slumped in the middle of the middle row, as if to mirror the position of his grades on the bell curve: most teachers (hell, most people) forgot about him as soon as he left their field of vision.
Danny’s family was also considered average. He had a younger brother named Ian. His father Billy D. was lazy and he liked his beer, but not more than most men, and his mother Willena was a regular mom: she worked, cleaned the house, cooked dinner and played bingo.
Danny liked being average. Some people wanted to stand out but not him. When you stood out, people talked about you and gave you stupid nicknames. He knew. It had happened to him once.
* * *
A spring evening just like summer near the end of Lent. Danny and his mom were walking home from his grandmother’s place at the units, where he had tried to sell some tickets for a cellophane dinner for his hockey team. They stopped in at Footsie’s for a loaf of bread and a treat. Danny looked longingly at a bag of ketchup chips (he’d given them up for Lent) until he spotted the pink plastic ice-cream cone leaning behind the counter. But as Footsie’s didn’t have any ice-cream yet he settled for one of the two root beer popsicles left over from last summer.
They walked in the just-like-summer evening, he and his mom, past houses whose windows were still propped open with bottles and sticks and whatever else was handy. Which is why they heard this as they arrived at the door of their company duplex:
“I made the friggin’ thing; you eat it.”
“You know I hate fuckin’ onions.”
“I’m not askin you to fuck ’em, just to eat ’em.”
She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids.Donnie Pepsi and his wife, Joleen. Now there was a pair. Donnie was a liar and a crook but Joleen was the real entertainment. She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids. In the summer, people knew exactly how many times a week the Pepsis did it because you could hear Joleen clear across the street. They were as good as Days of our Lives. And Danny’s mother could not get enough of them. She watched all their comings and goings and analyzed every twisty turn of their complicated existence.
‟There was a woman over there today with a briefcase” she’d say to Billy D. over the shake and bake chicken. ‟Looked like Tony Cameron’s sister, the one works for the welfare. Three o’clock in the afternoon and Herself still in her nightgown. Josephine is staying with them again. The old man must be on a toot.”
After dark Willena often took her knitting upstairs and sat on a chair beside her bedroom window. With the lights in the room turned off she could see right into the Pepsis’ kitchen and living room (they never closed the curtains or washed them that she could tell) and during the warm months she could sometimes even hear what they were saying. So when Danny came home with his root beer popsicle that night, he gave its twin to Ian, dropped the bread on the counter and went straight upstairs.
“Don’t be drippin’ that all over the couch,” Billy D. said to Danny, not taking his eyes from the television screen. And after a few minutes‚ “Where’s your mother at?”
“I dunno.” Danny said.
When the next commercial came on, Billy D. pushed down the lever on the La-Z-Boy, hoisted his big belly out of the chair and made his way up the stairs. Danny heard the toilet flushing, the creak of footsteps in the hallway and down the carpeted treads, the refrigerator door opening and closing.
“Tell you what, Bud,” his father said when he returned to the living room. He was twisting the cap off a bottle of Keith’s. “How would you like to make a loonie?”
By suppertime the next day it was all over town how Danny had gone up the stairs quiet like, pushed open his parents’ bedroom door, stuck in his hand and flicked on the light switch. Hard to say who was more surprised Joleen or Willena or the kid himself. He must be some stupid, I guess. Willena’s mad. Don’t think Billy D’ll be getting any for a while, ha ha ha.
The name Danny Lightswitch was floated for a day or two but then someone set fire to the canteen at the arena and both the incident and the nickname were forgotten. Since that time, Danny did everything he could to stay under the radar.
So here he was, eight uneventful years later, so normal, so unremarkable, so friggin’ average that he was practically invisible as he stood on the crumbling sidewalk in front of Cornell’s Insurance after school. He was with Jonathan MacDonnell and Corey Deveau, smoking, hawking gobs of spit and talking about the semi-finals and horses and stuff. It was bright and sunny and warm and the whole town was outside. Cars and pick-ups and the same two motorcycles went up and down Central Avenue and parked in front of the liquor store and the Co-op. Pairs of girls paraded by in sandals and shorts and summer tops.
Danny was coming down with a cold, so in between Export A’s he sucked on some cherry cough drops. He had just popped one in his mouth when three things happened: Collie MacMaster stopped to bum a smoke, a pulp truck went by in a blast of dust and flying bark, and Joleen Pepsi appeared at the end of the street.
Even from a distance Danny could tell it was Joleen. Years of hanging out on the corner had taught him that everyone in town had a gait and posture that were as recognizable as the features on their faces. With Joleen there was also her distinctive shape. Today her round middle was packed into tight white jeans and her stiff bleached hair was pouffed high on her head. Joleen and Danny were no longer neighbours. She had moved into a low-rental after Donnie was sent to Dorchester for bank machine fraud. Now that he was back, they maintained what was known as a back-door relationship; living apart so they could both get welfare. So nothing linked Danny and Joleen anymore except that long-ago incident, now a blip in the collective memory of the town.
“I can get John L. to get the booze, but it’ll cost,” Corey was saying. Danny was about to answer, had just opened his mouth in fact, when, slick as a smelt in your hand, the cherry cough drop slid down his windpipe.
Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster.At first he didn’t understand why he couldn’t breathe. And when he did, he realized that, having also been rendered mute, he was alone with the awful knowledge. His friends just kept laughing and horsing around: he could croak right there in front of friggin’ Cornell’s and none of the bastards would notice. Gasping, he gave Corey a shove and pointed to his throat. Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster. But still he did nothing, just stood there like the dense friggin’ idiot he was until Danny pulled the package of Vicks from the pocket of his hoodie and grabbed his throat.
“Holy fuck!”Corey said. “He’s chokin’ on a candy.”
Behind Corey, like something slow-motion on TV, Joleen’s potent white thighs pumped against the cindery duff of the sidewalk. The turquoise globes of her breasts bobbed up and down like lobster boats on their way back to the wharf. She drew up beside them, took one look at Danny (Elsie Rankin was just walking out of Cornell’s, she saw everything with her own eyes) stuck her big jugs up against his back, put her meaty arms around his middle and lifted him clear off the sidewalk. The candy blasted out of Danny’s mouth like a slapshot across the ice.
His life was ruined.
* * *
At first the focus of the story was on the Heimlich manoeuver. That it actually worked was judged to be remarkable. That Joleen Pepsi knew how to perform it was nothing short of astonishing.
“Where in hell did she learn that?”
“Must have been at one of them job-finding clubs.”
Then people began to dwell on how lucky young Danny had been. On what a tragedy this could have been for the family. For the whole town, in fact. (The latter not being entirely true because nothing bonded the townspeople as much as the untimely demise of one of their own. But anyway.) On how you never knew when your time was up. Imagine, just sucking on a candy.
The next day, the teachers and students and janitors all seemed to be looking at Danny for one or two more seconds than necessary. There was interest and curiosity in their eyes. But most of all there was amusement.
So instead of chilling with the guys as he usually did after school, he went home, ate three hot dogs with ketchup and plugged in the Nintendo. He was after beating the second level of Golden Eye when he became aware of his mother’s presence in the doorway.
“Phone, Danny,” she said. ‟It’s a woman.”
Now this was unusual. But as James Bond was 110% occupied freeing hostages just then, Danny just said:
“I’ll call ‘em back.”
Returning a few seconds later, his mother leaned in the doorway and said:
“It was Joleen Dennison.” Danny had never heard her use Joleen’s real name before. “She said she just wanted to know how you were.”
He looked at his mother’s face and she looked at his and then they both looked away. On the television screen a curtain of blood signalled that he had lost the game.
* * *
He had to stop hanging out on the corner with the guys because if anyone spotted Joleen they said:
“Hey, it’s Danny’s lifesaver.”
“I’ll bet she wouldn’t choke on nuttin’.”
“It would have to be a lot bigger’n Danny’s little candy anyway.” Or something like that. And then one night he was pissed at his brother for eating all the Rocky Road ice-cream and putting the empty container back in the freezer and he had him pinned to the floor good, he was really owning him when Ian said:
“Let me go, Heimlich.”
“Wha?” Danny said.
“That’s what they call you now. Know what that makes me, fucker? Know what that makes me? Thanks a fucking lot.”
He was thinking about this the next day as he stood at the kitchen sink shovelling milk and Fruit Loops into his mouth. Rotten fucking luck he’d had choking on that cough drop. And now the name. He’d be stuck with it for the rest of his life.
The telephone rang.
It was a woman. The voice was smoker-rough, sexy.
“Yipper,” he said.
“It’s me, Joleen.”
He remembered her breath on his nape, the softness of her big breasts against his back, the sweet release in her arms. His heart began to knock against his chest.
* * *
Late on a Sunday night. Danny is slowly pedalling his bicycle on the dark quiet streets of the town. He is smoking a cigarette. The bike makes long lazy arcs on the damp pavement. He almost feels like a character in a movie. Older. Mysterious. Someone who has his own apartment.
It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”He turns onto Campbell Street. Joleen had told him her house was yellow with a white door. He sees it. The light is on in one of the windows. Frilly yellow curtains, must be the kitchen. Rosie said all she had to was call the welfare and she got all new curtains. Maybe she is putting the kettle on, making herself a cup of tea. (But Joleen never drinks tea, she drinks Pepsi, what else? With ketchup chips.)
It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”
* * *
Danny was not a virgin when he leaned his bicycle against the back of Joleen’s house. But only technically. The girl was completely wasted, it had lasted maybe three and a half minutes, and the next time he saw her she had looked at him as blandly as she ever had.
In her silky embrace—he had watched her from the bathtub, floating a pink lotion, then a scented powder over her breasts and belly and arms—or next to the fragrant satiny insides of her thighs, he felt as he did when he left his friends on the beach and swam out into the ocean alone, far far out, the deep water holding him up like the hand of God.
He’d been after swimming like this for almost a month when a car drew up beside him on the highway as he walked home from Corey’s place late one night. The front doors opened and Donnie Pepsi and Mild Bill MacInnis got out. Danny began to run.
“Come here you little cocksucker,” Donnie said.
Danny ran up and up the bridge hill he was huffing and puffing it was the smoking he had to quit smoking and those Colt 45’s he just had didn’t help that Mild Bill was way too fat to run this fast he was one scary fuck as big as a truck he wished someone would drive up just now even the Mounties that would give those dicks a scare they sure must look funny all three of them running to beat the band—
They broke his nose and one of his ribs.
“I hope you learned your lesson,” his mother said as she drove him home from Outpatients. His father said:
“Time to move on, Buddy. Lots of good-lookin’ girls in town.” He winked: “If I was twenty years younger …”
His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off.But Danny didn’t listen. He didn’t even hear. He was living in a kind of dream, where things he had once thought important, like taking Lila Murray to the Grand March and maybe getting into her pants afterwards; or seeing a Habs game on home ice; or riding a motorcycle up and down Central Avenue with Lila Murray’s boobs against his back, well, they meant little or nothing now. His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off. Lots of people were taking a year off because everyone knew that if you got your stamps the unemployment would pay you to take a trade.
In June, his uncle Lauchie got him on a grant at the nursery. All he had to do was drive a ride-on mower so he still had tons of energy when he came home. The grade-twelve parties were still going strong, in rec rooms and garages and on the beach. On the way home he’d stop in at Joleen’s. He was getting laid almost every night.
* * *
And then one damp evening at the end of August. Danny was sitting in a booth at the Grill with Corey and his cousin Kayla. They had just smoked a couple of fat ones at the bandstand and everything around him was coming into sweet sharp focus: the clink of a fork on a plate, the bass line of a song on the radio above the pie cabinet; the smell of frying meat and hot salty gravy and ketchup, of cigarette smoke and wet sneakers. He noticed things. The way Corey looked at Kayla’s boobs when she got up to get the ketchup. A sad expression on a woman’s face. He felt insightful and wise.
He was after wrapping his hands around a double-cheeseburger-with-the-works when the door opened and Joleen walked in. Alone.
There was a ripple in the air. A kind of disturbance in the Force. People seemed to sit up a little, pay attention. This could be good.
Joleen didn’t stand at the entrance and look around the way most people did when they entered the restaurant. She marched up to the cash and started talking with Lynn Ann. This meant she was getting take-out. She leaned on the counter as she waited for her order. She was wearing a baby-blue sweatshirt on account of the rain and a pair of tight cut-offs that dug into her butt crack. A gold chain twinkled on her ankle as she shifted her weight from one tanned, shapely leg to another.
Danny felt the eyes of the room. Going from him to Joleen and back. As if they were waiting for something to happen. He realized that he was holding his breath. That he was waiting, too. He looked at his burger. A mustardy slice of onion had slithered out between the meat patties. (He had specifically asked Lynn-Ann for no onions.) He raised it to his mouth anyway.
Joleen spotted him just as the first mouthful of soggy bread and meat went down his throat.
“Hey Danny,” she said. Looking surprised and pleased.
All over the room, chicken fingers and slices of pepperoni pizza and forkfuls of poutine paused on their way to open mouths. The waitress and the cashier stood still. The only sound in the place was the spit and sizzle of a basket of frozen french fries sinking into the deep-fryer in the kitchen. And, from the pie cabinet, Don Henley singing ‟… swear I’m gonna find you / one of these nights …”
A bark exploded into the stillness. With a shock, Danny realized that it had erupted from his mouth. He tried to stop the second one but he couldn’t. It tore through his body like it had to make way for all the others coming right behind it. He coughed and coughed and coughed. And coughed some more. Finally, in a daze of pain and embarrassment, he swung his legs over the side of the bench, gripped the edge of the table with his ketchupy hands, stood up and walked to the can. There he put both hands on the washbasin and leaned in. He was probably going to die.
Corey came in then, closing the door behind him quick like some bad guys were about to bust in and said: “Hey man, you okay?” Danny nodded to him in the mirror above the basin. He caught a scary glimpse of his own face: purplish red, his nose running, his eyes pissing water.
“Did you choke on something?” Corey said.
“No!” Danny coughed, and Corey left as fast as he had entered.
When it was over he felt weak but grateful. Like that moment at the end of a stomach flu when you realize that you’re done throwing up. He blew his nose, splashed water over his face and bloodshot eyes. Had a piss. Held his hands under the tap again. When they stopped shaking, he pulled hard on the bathroom door (the hinges were loose and it dragged on the sill) stepped onto the mudwet floor of the Grill and walked out. He didn’t pay for his double-cheeseburger-with-the-works and his Pepsi.
And no one said a goddamn thing.
“Well, thanks for the memories.” Joleen smiled.
She was sitting cross-legged on her bed in a red-and-black slip, lighting a cigarette. Danny had to laugh. He had known she’d be all right. There would be others. And Donnie Pepsi still wanted her.
His parents drove him to the bus depot in Hawkesbury. His father offered to take him all the way to Halifax but Danny refused.
“Make sure you do the dishes at Wendell and Joann’s,” his mother said for the third time. “And pick up after yourself.”
But when she came back from the counter with his bus ticket she began to cry.
“Come on, Ma.” he said. He squeezed her in his arms. It was something he had not wanted to do for years. But today it felt good.
It made him feel like a man.