Kris Bertin
"Your #1 Killer & Extra Hands"

I pick him up from the airport and he’s smiling hard. Too hard, like his teeth are going to shatter. His eyes and head keep darting around like a lizard’s and he drums on the dash with his hands. We talk and he says he’s missed me so much. So, so much. So much. He kisses my shoulder so hard I swerve a little. I imagine drugs in his luggage or bloodstream.

Then he reaches over and cranks up the radio, covers his mouth, and starts bawling his eyes out right next to me. He turns his head away (like if “You Can Go Your Own Way” is turned up loud enough and he’s looking out the window, I won’t notice).

Chris, I say. Oh Chris.

Then and there I pull over on the highway and wrap him up in my arms. He balls himself up against me so small it’s like he’s turned back into a little boy again. It feels like years ago, when an icicle fell off an overpass and went right through the roof, right between us on our way to Grandma’s. His body hitching against me with the hum of the engine, his wet face on my neck. It feels exactly the same, but it’s been eighteen years since I’ve held him and two since I’ve even seen him so I’m not sure exactly what to do. I don’t know what’s wrong, why he’s come back home, and he hasn’t told me anything about it that isn’t so clearly a lie.

I take the safe bet and say the exact thing I did when the icicle almost killed us:

It’s all right, and it’s all over.

At home he does nothing, or at least nothing worthwhile. He sits around a lot, usually on the carpet, or else upright in bed, watching tv or reading something or digging through old boxes of his stuff. It’s either that, or he’s in bed with all his clothes on, just staring. He’s claimed that his girlfriend—who I’ve never met—is dead and never mentioned this again. I can see that he’s scared or embarrassed or regretful of whatever the truth of the situation is, so I don’t press him, don’t do anything that might set him off.

It’s two months before he actually accomplishes something beyond looking out the window, eating corner-store candy or diving for the phone when it rings. He digs out the Nintendo Entertainment System I bought for him for Christmas 1989, and he takes it apart and spreads it all over the living room carpet to try to get it going. He wipes the stuff down, vacuums it, but it takes him a long time to put it all back together, and I have to step around the green electronics and chips and wires for days. After that, the sound of him sighing or coughing or smoking is replaced with the sound of skeletons and werewolves getting beaten to death by a beefy guy swinging around what looks like a boat rope.

I hear myself ask him:

Why don’t you do something with your friends? I even add, pathetically, that maybe they could play a two-player game.

I don’t have any friends, he says, making the little man jump around some steps.

He says it like I’m insane for suggesting it, like his friends have all died off, and I just haven’t heard about it. For all that he’s chosen to share with me, they could have.

So I don’t say anything.

I leave him alone.

And I end up letting it go on for too long, mostly because I’m worried that if I say anything it’ll be like the car again. I let him stay right there in the living room, a grown man surrounded by cups of juice and cereal bowls. I deliver takeout food to him like a little prince, I clean up after and around him, around the spot where he kills giant bats and mummies and makes the basket of potpourri work overtime just to cover up his stink. Before I know it, he’s been home for three months and we haven’t spoken more than a handful of words to each other. He tries not to look at me and I try not to look at him, and the two of us do our best to pretend like there isn’t something crazy going on.

The thing I was most scared would happen doesn’t happen.

When he was twelve, and he found out I’d been seeing a man, Chris stood on the kitchen table and demanded I bring him over. He swung a glass ketchup bottle around and said he wanted to give him what for.

This time, if he’s noticed I’ve had a man in the house for the past two years, he doesn’t say anything. Nothing is brandished, not by anyone other than the little man in his video game.

I’d worked hard to wipe away any sign of Andrew: two whole days of cleaning to get everything squared away and how it was before. I got rid of extra food, the dog food, extra coat hangers, moved the TV back to the living room, gathered up and hid all of Andrew’s shirts and shoes and Economist magazines. It’s like I’d killed someone but forgot to hide the evidence for two straight years. Neighbours watch me with those boxes.

Then I told Andrew that we’d have to slow it down for a bit, which he didn’t like at all. He’s divorced after two decades of marriage, and I’ve been mostly single for just over ten years, so we are used to and expect different things from one another. We’ll still see each other here and there, on dates or at his house, but this, he says, isn’t enough.

I, on the other hand, feel fine about it. In the little rock garden in his backyard, Andrew tells me it’s important that he meet my son, and that it isn’t fair that I keep them apart. I tell him Life isn’t fair, which marks the first mom-ism I’ve used since Chris packed up his things and left years ago. After looking at an Inukshuk he’d set up back there, and thinking about what I’ve said, Andrew tells me We’re all in this together, which sounds profound, but isn’t.

So I explain to him about the ketchup bottle and he scoffs. Says Hormones like it explains everything. But he didn’t see Chris’s face that time and hasn’t seen what it’s like these days.

I go about it the wrong way the first time around.

I decide if Chris gets a job it’ll get him out of the house, get him doing things and saying things again. I don’t really know what else to do, and when I talk about it, I can’t really give him any incentives to go to work at Subway or KFC or Rogers, so he just looks at me with dead eyes when I bring it up. All I can say are wimpy things about doing something with himself and meeting people and making friends, obvious lies that mean nothing to either of us. Plus, I know from his bank statements that I can’t even bring up money since his drug dealing or gambling or whatever scared him back home has left him pretty comfortable.

SAVINGS $18, 961.22

SMOKES $1020.90

The first time around I find a bunch of jobs and go get applications for him and they stay on the table next to his game cartridges and get shuffled under comic books and pizza boxes and motorcycle magazines in a matter of days. They sit nestled in his mess, and when I ask him about it, he makes up lies or excuses, anything to keep from doing what he needs to.

He doesn’t have his computer anymore, so his resume is gone. And the word processor on the very old one in his room is fucked.

Fucked how?

It doesn’t work. And the margins are all fucked up too.

So go to the library. Use the computers there.

That place is haunted, he says, which is the same thing he said about university when he dropped out two years ago. It’s the way he talks about anything he doesn’t want me to know about, including his exgirlfriend, his last five or six jobs, and what’s actually going on in his head. A joke and a lie mixed into one thing, shorthand for Fuck off mom. It’s been like this since his first growth spurt put us eye to eye when he was fifteen.

When he was eight and when asked to draw a picture of his family, he drew me and himself twice. Didn’t even bother to change his size. When the teacher asked, Chris said it was because he didn’t have a dad. So I have to raise myself, basically.

I have to wait for days and weeks for the next job-seeking step to happen, and when it does, it’s a struggle for him to get his newly drafted resume on a disk. And then printed. And then attached to the applications. And then put in an envelope. A struggle to go get new applications because the old ones have pizza on them.

I get a pamphlet called MENTAL HEALTH: You and Your Family from my doctor. It talks about the importance of being able to differentiate between dangerous and normal behavior before you decide to seek help for a family member. It tells us that it’s both Mom and Dad’s responsibility to watch for red flags—it even has a picture of a happy couple peering into a doorway together. It tells me to watch for other things too, like the big bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol in his room. It isn’t exactly right next to the quart of rye that’s been on his windowsill for the last five years, but it’s close enough. And similar enough to the pamphlet’s little drawing of a bottle of beer, a joint, and a mirror of cocaine, that I feel a hot flash of panic standing in his room. Maybe this time it won’t be like with the ketchup. Maybe he’ll want to give himself what for.

In my lowest moment, I fill the applications out for him and send them out myself. When a guy from Staples calls and leaves a message and Chris doesn’t bother to call him back, I almost lose my mind. I find myself standing over him, saying—shouting—the things I thought I could keep inside. Nothing that he needs to hear, and nothing he does n’t know.

It drives him back into his room, which at least gives me the opportunity to really clean the living room and smash up that grey Nintendo cartridge marked CASTLEVANIA with a hammer and throw it in the fucking garbage.

When I ask him later, quietly, what this is all about, he just shakes his head. He’s dissecting a fly or a spider with a pencil on his windowsill. Tells me to close the door. Once it’s closed, he speaks a slow sentence and doesn’t say anything more when I ask him to explain it. He says:

It’s about pointlessness.

The phone rings in the middle of the night and he picks it up before I can even think about it. It’s then that I cement what I already know: that she isn’t dead, but dead to him. Or more likely, it’s him that’s dead to her. In a better place—and there with some other guy. I realize it when he hangs up and I ask him who it was and he says Nobody. And then adds, after a minute of that long late-night silence, Fucking nobody.

Andrew wants to help. It’s like when we first got together, him surprising me at the bank with lunch, him bringing me movies and records I like, except he’s always talking about Chris. What to do with him, how he can help, what my approach should be. His eyebrows rise and fall when he’s giving out advice, like he can’t decide if what he’s saying makes sense or not.

He says that a job is the answer, but mentions other things too. Says that Chris just needs to meet the right girl, get something going with a pretty young thing. Another time he says he just needs to do some hard work and make some money. I think, but don’t say, that as far as I can tell these are the exact things that brought him to where he is now.

It’s about accomplishing something, Andrew says, feeding treats to his little brown dog.

He tells me he can talk to Chris if I want. He’s never had kids and I get the idea the talk wouldn’t be so much for Chris as for Andrew himself. I can feel all the ways it could bother me, but there’s something sweet in it, too. I haven’t filled him in on the whole story and don’t really want to, don’t want him to know everything yet and definitely don’t want them to get together, so I kiss his hand and tell him not to worry.

I tell him Chris has been doing odd jobs. It’s a lie, of course. He hasn’t been out of the house except to buy Colt 45 beer or lounge on the front steps and smoke—but just a couple days after I say he’s been working it becomes true.

Mrs. Delong next door gets him to kill a skunk that’s been waltzing around her property for days. I imagine she does this half because she actually needs his help and knows he has a rifle, and half because she wants to bring him over, have a look at him, and get the scoop on what’s wrong with Ms. Rose’s kid these days.

It seemed like a terrible idea to me, calling him instead of Animal Control when the thing is perched on a stump and acting nuts, but it does something for Chris. He smiles when he tells me it was spinning in circles in broad daylight, and actually laughs when he explains it was still spinning when he shot it.

It didn’t even spray, he says.

I work hard to focus on the fact that he got up and put on clean pants and actually did something. Work hard to look past the skunk torso in the deep freeze and ignore what got stuffed in the trashcan. Work hard to ignore the fact that he carried around the rifle for the rest of the day and focus on that smile, the big goofy one he used to have, the one he first showed up with.

I tell him I’m proud of him, but proud isn’t the right word at all. It’s more like less-worried-but-not-by-much.

Andrew decides he can’t wait anymore and he shows up after supper, unannounced, on my day off. Chris is on the step, smoking cigarettes and making a mean face. He’s wearing clean clothes, but has his bathrobe overtop like a mental patient, big black sunglasses. Andrew is introducing himself, talking about himself, nodding and smiling way too much.

I immediately see all the specific, different ways this could go badly for each of them. I get terrified, furious.

But Chris is just ignoring him, his eyes on the street, smoking. He draws phlegm up his throat, spits, and watches it splatter.

When Andrew quits talking, I feel a fight sprout up between us that I know will carry on for weeks. I nearly tell Andrew it’s over then and there, but I manage to keep it together, manage to keep my eyes on my son instead. Chris hacks and gurgles, spits, hacks some more. It’s almost the same sound he’d make as a boy when his action figures would punch each other, or when he’d pretend something was being exploded.

When Andrew is gone, Chris starts a fire in the backyard. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever smelled but he’s standing right in front of the flames, still wearing those sunglasses even though it’s nighttime.

It’s the skunk, he says.

It’s here that I don’t really have a hard time deciding if it’s normal behavior or not.

It’s just the lower half, he clarifies.

Chris helps another neighbour with a piano, gets it down her stairs and out of her house for her, does it all on his own. Walks up there on his own accord, without any Post-It notes or snacks or encouragement. When I come home, he actually speaks up and tells me about it without me having to ask, the first time since Andrew’s visit. I haven’t seen much of Andrew, and except for short phone calls and a single visit to his house to get my jacket, we haven’t spoken either.

It was her ex-husband’s piano, Chris says, but she kept yelling at me like I was him. Like I left the thing there.

Did she pay you at least?

Yeah.

That’s good, I tell him.

He draws something on the window (and wipes it away before I can figure out what). It’s raining.

Do you like doing this kind of thing? I ask. Helping out and that?

People think they need people, but they actually don’t, he says.

He draws another picture on the kitchen window with his finger. A face with long hair, big eyes. It might be no one, but it might’ve been her. Or maybe just the lady with the piano. Or me. Or Andrew with long hair, like in his college pictures.

Maybe you could make a living out of this sort of thing?

He mutters something that’s either Afraid of being alone or Fear of the unknown. I don’t know which, and I don’t care. I just nod and smile, and the next day I take out an ad in the Guardian, a listing in the yellow pages, and print cards up. I pick the name almost at random: EXTRA HANDS.

Do you need an extra set of hands? Help with odd jobs? Moving? Yard work? Chores? Call Chris at (902) 566-2880. He takes pride in helping others.

Andrew said odd jobs would be a good way to scare him back into school, that if you move enough fridges it puts your life into perspective fast. And he would’ve been right if all he did was dig up weeds and make lumber piles, but everyone wants him to use the skill set he’d displayed with Mrs. Delong. Everyone wants him to kill. He reads about killing bugs in his spare time, learns how to kill ants with hand soap, bees with a half a pint of mouthwash, and caterpillars with chili powder (though that’ll kill most anything, Chris tells me).

He gets hired to kill rats, to shoot birds, to haul away an old carpet filled with silverfish and burn it. He does a lot of burning, on customer property or mine, and seems to get way too close to the flames once they get going, looking into the flames with those sunglasses on.

He’s talking again. Tells me about his jobs if he does things I’m not around for, and starts to get me involved when I am. Me with a bag on a stick, standing ready to catch the hornets’ nest as big as a balloon while he saws it off a branch, dressed in a snowsuit with a snorkel and goggles.

They only get you because of your breath, he says. So hold your breath when it comes down. Ever notice how they swarm your face?

No.

They swarm your face.

He cuts it down and it goes in the bag and I close it up and we’re both laughing like crazy.

Do you want to help burn it?

I decide then that this is maybe enough for me. After all, it was enough for a very long time. Maybe I don’t need another grown-up to hold me and tell me he loves me. Maybe I just need to drive my son to old farmhouses and trailer parks and cook him dinners and just get by on that. Maybe I just need the few times he smiles and really means it—when his face lights up and you can see past his greasy hair and scrubby beard and he looks like himself again. Maybe I don’t need any of the things I thought I did.

I do it on the phone with the cord stretched all the way up the stairs and into my bedroom and Andrew tells me there’s no need for any of this—that we can just take a break for a while if it’s about Chris. And even though he sounds pathetic and condescending at the same time, I can feel our two years together really pushing against me so I tell him quietly: Okay.

Chris stops talking to me again. He still goes out and does jobs, but walks to them or else takes the bus. When I ask if he needs a lift he says no, and when I ask him What did I do? he shrugs or says nothing, walks away. I imagine it’s the same mental process as looking at the phone and not answering when I would call him before he moved back. The same thing as staring at the receiver or reading my name on Caller id and doing nothing about it. Same as throwing out the birthday cards that I mailed to what everyone told me was the worst neighbourhood in Montreal.

He takes to staying out really late, then sneaking back inside to sleep for a few hours and slip out again before I get up for work. The only signs that he’d even set foot in the house are more of those jumbo beers come or gone from the fridge, or a soaked patch of mud and grime by the hose where he sprays off his work boots.

Money begins to appear on the coffee table where his magazines and pizza used to be. Seven-hundred and fifty dollars, a sum he must’ve decided was fair for rent and food and putting up with this bullshit.

I find him one night while driving around, acting like I’m not looking for him. He’s at the ball park near the house, shooting his bow and arrow, firing it straight up into the air. I honk and flash my lights, but he doesn’t get in.

What are you doing? I shout.

I’m killing bats, he says.

And then I can see them, up in the air near a patch of moon, flapping in a crazy cloud. I watch his arrow sail into them and keep going.

Is someone paying you?

No.

Do you want a thermos?

I have two. His old Garfield one, filled with beer. And the new one, filled with coffee.

No, he says. I’m fine.

It’s the most he’s said to me in maybe two weeks and the first time in two weeks I get to see him for an extended period of time. So I stay and drink the rancid beer out of that little orange cup and watch. He gets three, then lets me take him home. He’s driven his bats onto one arrow like a shish kebab. He keeps whirling it around in his hands. Their dead wings clap for us or maybe just for him.

Eventually I end up at Andrew’s. I kiss and lie under him. Look up at his face and try to see if I’m right or wrong. If it feels good to be with him or if it just feels good to not be alone.

Later, he drives me home, and I let him come inside. Then the two of us listen to a message on the machine from Grodd River Golf Course. They say that something’s wrong with Chris, that I should call them as soon as possible.

Right away Andrew speaks: I’m coming with you.

Holding my arm: You can’t expect me to not care about your child.

And then, arms at his sides, his head low: I care about you.

I don’t respond to any of them because I can’t. I wait with the door open for him to leave. Then I go there on my own, everything fast and blurry and running together like in a dream. I can see what’s coming— know just what it’s going be like, the position his body will be in, and exactly what I’ll do when I see it.

At the golf course, the guy drives me across the green and tells me what happened—how Chris went out to set up traps for their gophers and didn’t come back. He explains that he found Chris lying on the ground after they were closed, that he wouldn’t get into the cart. Chris said he was listening for gophers and refused to get up or do anything the guy asked him to.

Just laying there. Who does that?

He keeps saying it—Who does that?—like it’s just some wacky, inconsiderate thing Chris is doing for a laugh.

I don’t know, I tell him.

I’m expecting him to be catatonic or screaming or just plain crazy. Or motionless with a belly of pills or half his head missing. I expect there to be something so big and life-changing and horrible waiting for me that I almost want to get out and just lie down myself.

At the eighteenth hole, I’m only half inside my body.

But he isn’t there. There’s just a big hole dug into the ground with cigarette butts all around it, a perfect square of green grass and earth, and three brown lumps. Groundhogs, all in a row. Dead, and I can’t immediately see how. There appears to be no blood whatsoever, like he was just able to somehow stop their hearts from beating.

The fuck, the golf course guy says.

He drives me back to the gate, and even though I know Andrew’s going to be waiting for me in the parking lot, I watch the tree-line. I try to imagine what it must be like to walk out there, through the forest, onto the road and down the highway. To walk forward and into a place you don’t know, by yourself, and make your way across all that distance, in the dark.

He’s home when I get there, his lenses lit up by his computer screen. I watch him flip through pictures of ants and gas canisters, going back and forth between them and some kind of flyer or newsletter. Watch him paste a dead rat onto an empty field, give it a thick green outline.

You break up with that guy? he asks.

Probably because he’s been (and still is) smoking, his voice is rough and dry, like an old man’s.

Yes I did, I tell him.

Because of me.

Yes.

That’s stupid, he says. Then he flips between some windows and brings up a little yellow box with green letters. Tells me to look at it. It reads:

YOUR #1 KILLER
of pests and small animals
CALL
“REMORSELESS” CHRIS ROSE
(902) 566-2980

I changed the company name, he said.

I see that.

I’m gonna stick this dead rat in that blank space here. He flips to another window and shows me the rat again, blood coming out of its nose and mouth, its eyes bulging out of its sockets.

Great.

You shouldn’t break up with some guy just because of me, he says.

Then he turns around.

His hair is getting long and curly and his beard has absorbed all the missing patches so that his face is one big scribble—his smooth cheekbones and wide lips hidden away.

You deserve to be with somebody.

And what about you? I ask. And I expect one of his answers. One of those half-jokes that burns right through me.

We’re talking about you, he says.

There’s silence for a minute until he mutters something like That’s not me. And if it is, I can almost see what he means. He’s wearing his heavy work coat over a spring jacket over a hooded sweatshirt, layers and layers separating him from me and everyone else, with just the tiniest bit of skin peeking out.

The phone rings just then, and he doesn’t move, doesn’t get up. He drags the rat across the screen again and sticks it on the page he’s working on. He taps the screen, right on the rat’s face, and the phone keeps ringing and ringing.

I took this picture, hey? It’s one of mine.

Good stuff, I tell him.

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