I was fourteen, and it was my first time overseas. The trip was a big deal and my parents would never have allowed me to stay home. After all, how many kids got to go on a four-week all-expenses paid trip to Oxford courtesy of the Rotary Club? That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question but in case you’re curious, the answer is thirty. That’s how many kids were in my group that year, anyway. Kids from all over Canada, all between fourteen and sixteen, all of us there for a “cultural exchange”.
Oxford was a nice, old town. One of those towns that you’re happy to have been to but one that I would never have chosen as my destination myself. Under the Rotary rules, the extent of my free will was limited to ranking Germany, France, Spain, and the UK in my order of preference. Dad strongly recommended that I put France first because “a month in France will help with your French grades.”
Well, no such luck. Some Rotary governor somewhere put my name in the Oxford group, and that was fine with me.
“C’est la vie, Dad,” I said.
Barry “Big Deal” Davis sat down at his table and gestured to the young lady in the caravan that was also the food truck that he wanted a cup of coffee. Davis had hardly had time to get properly settled in the white plastic chair when the waitress came out with a paper mug and set it on the table in front of Davis.
He liked to tell people that he had once been kind of a big deal – hence the official nickname – but when asked to elaborate on the topic, he clammed up, and changed the subject. That, naturally, as was his intention, only made people to want to know more. It also made them believe the story.
And that’s why that nickname stuck, instead of one of the many other names people called him behind his back.
And of course: Fat Elvis.
I could hear them calling for me but I wasn’t ready to come out yet. I was deep underground, in a cave where I was sure an ancient Inca treasure was buried. Or, maybe it was a treasure chest left there by Blackbeard, an infamous pirate, like my friend Ari said.
Fine, I wasn’t technically underground, because the cave Ari and I had built was made out of snow and the pile of snow was most definitely above ground.
I guess it’s needless to say that there was no real Inca treasure, either, but I’ll just say it anyway so that there aren’t any misunderstandings: there was no Inca treasure. There was no pirates’ treasure, either. It was all in our our nine-year-old heads.
Look, there he is. His hair flowing in the air, or at least the half mullet that’s sticking out from underneath his baseball cap, as he rolls down the hill on his Persian green bike, a Peugeot. He’s on his way to … well, nowhere to be honest. He just hopped on his bike and rode around for a while, and here he is now, a walkman clipped to the waist of his shorts, listening to music and taking in a perfect summer’s day. Just as comes to the edge of town and rides by the car dealership he’ll buy his first car from a couple of years later, he hears computer making beeps and bleeps.
He puts his hands back on the handlebar and turns up the volume. He’s never really listened to the song before.
“Good evening. This is the intergalactic operator. Can I help you?”
“Yes. I’m trying to reach flight commander P.R. Johnson, on Mars, flight 2-4-7”
Since I was a writer, it was easy for me to put aside some time to solve the mystery. I called it “research” to silence my guilty conscience, which wasn’t that guilty to begin with. After all, I was “between projects”, the creative term for being unemployed.
Now, when I said that he was always at the mall during Christmas, I was using the phrase in a casual way. I obviously meant that he was there every time I was therebut surely he couldn’t have always been there. It was a shopping mall, he couldn’t live there.
Or could he?
Sollentuna is a 15-minute commuter train ride from downtown Stockholm, Sweden, with a population of about 70,000. We had everything: fancy restaurants, middle-of-the-road restaurants, pubs, a mall, public swimming pool, gyms, grocery stores, teams in all sports divisions, trains and buses to – and with the arrival of the old man, a celebrity.
A celebrity that didn’t seem to like publicity, as it was. The next time I saw him was a year later when he set up his table and chairs in the middle of our mall and traded stories with people until Christmas Eve. Then he disappeared – only to return a year later.
Henry Baker hated his name. He wasn’t crazy about the Baker, but it was his last name and he considered it a given. Besides, it was the only thing he had left of his father.
No, Baker was fine. Even Mom thought so. It was Henry he had a real beef with.
He loved his mother very much but he hated his name, and that was a problem because while she loved him very much, too, she may have loved the idea of having a son named Henry just as much.
I know some people think that video store clerks are losers, that they’re kids, or punks, with basically no lives or friends, and that they walk through life dressed in clothes that push whatever movie is being pushed at the time and speak in movie quotes.
Fine, right now, I’m wearing a black T-shirt and a baseball cap with “The Heat Is On!” printed on them because we’re pushing Beverly Hills Cop.
The slogan’s particularly funny right now because it’s minus-25 outside. How cold is minus-25? It’s so cold that when you stand at the bus stop and don’t blink for a while, you don’t seem to be able to shut your eyes anymore. It’s so cold that when you inhale through your nose, your nostrils seem to get glued shut.
Both things happened to me when I walked from the bus station to work to our store just a few blocks away.
Once upon a time, she had been a wunderkind. An overachiever, a go-getter. She had graduated from high school a year ahead of time, and then joined the foreign office as a 20-year-old, and in another time, she would have been on track to become the youngest foreign minister in her country’s history, and probably, the youngest prime minister, and possibly, the first female prime minister.
But not in the Seventies, maybe not even in the Eighties, although after Thatcher in the UK, there were some rumblings – in the circles that were in the know – about her becoming a cabinet member, but by then, she was too far into her diplomatic life overseas, and loved it too much to put in the effort to make it happen. She had her supporters, of course, but not enough of them at the very top.
Also, she had always been one of those people who saw the whole world, not just one country, as her domain, and when she at the age of 24 got her first foreign posting – an undersecretary in Asia – she saw it as a stepping stone to … something.