Get lost is good advice, unless you take it too far.
The man behind the drugstore counter said we were standing in Michigan. I shook my head. I was sure I was in Canada. The friendly pharmacist said nope, no doubt about it, and told me to help myself to concentrated Bunn-O-Matic coffee and the remaining day-old doughnuts on a scalloped cardboard salver, if I was hungry.
The last truck driver said he was bound for Ottawa. The idea was to roll across The Border stashed in the back of the cab, asleep. I couldn’t remember getting off, so I must’ve had some assistance. Maybe I snore, or said something offensive about truckers in my sleep. Anyway, I woke up on a bus stop bench. A bus pulled up. The driver wheezed the door open and said get on I ain’t got all day.
“No thanks.” Canadian buses looked awfully familiar.
I thought it’d be a good career move to be an American who knows how to cook Mexican in Canada.
The drugstore manager couldn’t use a Mexican cook, but if I had a degree in Pharmacy, they needed a night man. He didn’t ask to see a framed diploma, but I didn’t want to lie to him.
There were no Mexican restaurants in Sault Ste. Marie. A more entrepreneurial Joe would’ve seen an opportunity. He’d do what needed to be done to turn a new tamale joint into a hot spot. The usual process is a cakewalk through municipal offices, fees paid, hands shaken, but liquor licenses entail organized crime. I’d been there already. Couldn’t do it.
So I thought I’d walk across the Canadian border.
On the way out of the country, I passed a funeral parlor. A woman, still alive, was on her way out too. Her hair was so red it became a traffic signal.
Not her natural color, she said. Nobody alive has hair this red.
She was on her way to bed after an all-night rush-job, a tough case, a murder victim, a local big-shot. The deceased had sustained massive shotgun damage to his face, but his survivors wanted their flesh-and-blood presentable for his last ride down Michigan Avenue. She had to glue down skin-shreds, reshape scattered eyebrows, mould mangled lips. The teeth were a relative snap, she said. Remove the ruins with pliers, snap in the one-size-fits-all-more-or-less-OK dentures. Nobody examines the dead the way they do horses.
Sanitation workers keep whatever they find. Morticians excavate gold teeth. Got to be somebenefits to jobs no one else wants to do. But I didn’t know Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was infested with gangsters. “Do they run unpasteurized cheese rackets?”
The red-headed mortician asked if I was a professional comedian. When I told her my area of specialization, she said I could make myself useful in the form of huevos rancheros. She had a car.
When we got to her place she said, “Back me up,” like we were rookie cops on TV. Her boyfriend Ern was in there, she said, and she wanted him out. She’d felt this way about him for a few months, but the right moment hadn’t come till right then.
At the door, she silently counted three and we went in.
“Sorry honey but it’s time for you to find your own place and maybe even get a job. Let me know where you settle and we can arrange the transfer of your…your louse-infested garbage, you drunken Indian.”
Her shrieks awoke Ern into what you could see in his eyes was a miserable hangover. He grabbed a potato chip bowl, vomited weakly and wiped his mouth on a hairy forearm instead of his sleeve because he was dressed in a T-shirt, a drab gray number, stained. Ern was missing crucial teeth. Grabby mortician treasure-pliers clanked like alligators in fantasyland while I observed a final domestic squabble in progress.
All I could think was, how long before she throws me out. And she hadn’t even formally invited me to move in yet.