Attila the Hun is eating a bun, on the corner of Yonge and Bloor
I tell him, “Behave, now go get a shave.” And he pushes me down in the sewer
And saunters up Yonge Street cocksure.
Civil Elegies, Dennis Lee
The end of the world had come and gone, strewing its wake with breadlines and beer cans, with EI, food banks and delusional bankers who didn’t know the world was over – with overdraft statements as proof. Attila was left wondering why he clung to his downsized empty apartment, as if until Yeat’s rough beast had been born in Bethlehem, denial was the best course of waiting.
Georgie stood ahead of him in the dole line. He carried a couple of plastic double baggers, intent on waiting to eat until seconds. Attila kept his seconds for seconds – he ate first while the chance was there – and stashed the rest safely in the large pockets of his trench coat. The line shuffled forward.
“Nice tree,” said Georgie, to the volunteer, who passed him two sandwiches.
“My mom decorated it,” she replied, glancing at the Christmas tree in the corner. She kept her hands on the sandwiches.
She doesn’t trust you – she’s giving you dinner, what’s wrong with you – she’s keeping me from taking – she’s rationing – she’s watching you, bare and needy, dirty – I’m not myself – you are now, yourself is yourself, you’re not a different person – it’s over, stop – it’s never over.
When the world ended Attila was stripped down to his needs. He found that society looked away with one eye, embarrassed at his nakedness, and stared at him with the other eye, as one never loses sight of the cat that just bit you, breaking all former trust. Attila took celery sticks, a pear, and headed to his seat.
“You old bear!”
“Hey look,” he pointed. “Mistletoe.”
Frank hauled Attila in and smacked him a kiss. There were whoops from the tables. Attila wiped his mouth and looked at Frank from under his thick eyebrows.
“Hey look,” Attila said. “Knuckles.”
Attila socked him on the jaw, and the tables pounded.
“Stop it or get out.” It was Sandwich Girl. Frank giggled in a placating way and got in line; Attila sat down to his sandwich. “The church giveth, and the lickbo taketh away,” she cocked an eyebrow and returned to the kitchen.
His mind was bubbling, as Georgie sat down:
Gonna get kicked out – like it matters – no it doesn’t matter – might as well – screw off! – it’s not going to change, it’s past, it’s done, shut up shut up – I can see Isabelle, in the car, driving north, I can see her knuckles on the wheel when I used to backseat drive, I can – get out – the day she packed, the day I stopped going, the day I lost – get out, get out of your head! I can taste coffee and be in the kitchen with her and a newspaper – you’ll never stop thinking about it – you’re an idiot, you lost it, you let it happen, you couldn’t go – see, see myself there, she’s here, she’s not – leave it, come back –
“Attila.” Georgie. “Shut up.”
“Ya, sorry,” he hadn’t realized he was muttering. Furtively, he glanced over his shoulder at the door to see if Isabelle was there, a lonely habit from waking up in a quiet house, nonchalantly following it with a glance over at the kitchen as if that’s where his eyes were headed anyway. His mind started over again, all Why Bothers, and Knowing Betters.
The truth was, once he got past rolling into her empty spot in bed, he started to miss lying awake at night and hearing her eyelashes blink against the pillowcase, knowing she was awake, staring to a place she didn’t want to talk about – despite the flowers and the arguments. Once he numbly started to miss the feeling of knowing that he’d somehow missed the day when he could have made her stay, he found he couldn’t go into work the next morning. The couch was a refuge from the empty bed, as if he’d be exiled instead of left behind, a place to go when he couldn’t think of anything to clean in the house where nobody lived anymore.
The fantastic scenarios played on broken record in his head – fixing it, heroic speeches, lottery winnings, shouting matches, court time, jail, violence, begging. The day Attila realized the fantasies had gotten louder than the whispers about his absences at work, he got as much courage as it took to get into his boss’ office to ask for leave and then told him he was quitting instead.
He missed bills, sold furniture on a whim, moved, and waited by the phone playing psychic games. But the world ended quickly when he wasn’t allowed to go to Barrie to see Amy sing at Christmas anymore. He returned to St. Mary Magdalene’s daughterless, vigilantly keeping evensong precious. St. Mary’s Out of the Cold was once a week – you stalked the other places on other days. He saw Georgie twice a week at least – but no matter if they had collected coins to get magnum of rum, you didn’t talk about the reasons why you needed it.
None of the other boys came to Carols – and few would be considered parishioners. Manly Mandy stood outside most nights on the bench across the street preaching redemption to the nervous passersby – caterwauling hour, Georgie called it. None of the other breadliners found peace in the advent candles, incense mixing with the broken crunch of cedar smell, or the silence he found in his head when the music started. Finally, finally, there was quiet, in the soft sounds of singing. There was safety.
It was on Christmas day, and all in the morning
Our Saviour was born and our heavenly King…
It was Sandwich Girl. The warm flickers painted her with flush cherubic features prettily rising above her cassock and surplus. She bobbed lightly with the conductor.
It was on Good Friday, and all in the morning
They crucified our Saviour and our heavenly King…
She looked at him, straight over the music and the aisle into his transfixed eyes. He could not bear to smile, but kept her gaze until she was musically forced to return to the conductor.
A familiar taste filled his mouth, of the sweet tobacco he used to smoke. He was swallowing back joyful pride looking at Amy in a surplus that drooped over her hands – she looked like an armless, shapeless doll when she wasn’t holding up sheets of music. Isabelle was coming for service after work, and Attila had brought their daughter to rehearsal in a warm and empty church. Amy had stamped the snow from her boots with him before running down to the chorister’s coatroom; he had been left alone to wander among the stained glass but for an acolyte who lit the candles one by one.
Amy was young with a young person’s pure voice, singing the high lines. She shone with the music – she loved it. He had never seen a ten-year-old practice willingly, but ever since she had big enough hands she bashed around with the piano until something pleasing finally escaped the instrument. Even younger, the memories showed her with a penny whistle, sitting on his shoulders blowing with all the might of her little lungs, as they marched with his brother in the Pride Parade, surrounded unafraid with shouting and bursts of confetti and water guns. Music gave her a conspiratorial smile at the dinner table, bursting with keeping the secret of whatever piece would be sung at a concert.
As the rehearsal concluded, such a smile walked up to him, hiking the folds of fabric up to her knees.
“Mum’ll like it?”
“You bet, sister,” Attila said, with a chin tuck.
“I’m not your sister,” Amy droned, long sick of the joke.
“That’s what you think.”
“Ugh,” she scoffed, and walked away with the choir, too cool once again for Dad.
“You skipped the doctor’s appointment,” Isabelle’s voice interrupted from behind, the pair alone in the church.
“I had to pick her up at school.”
“Your brother was supposed to get her.”
“He would have been late.”
“Your brother’s almost never late!”
“I had to get her myself. She might have…”
“What? Stop it.”
“Isabelle, don’t get mad. I’ll call the doctor in the morning.”
“So you can skip it again? Twice-”
“I’m sorry, you made me worried again.”
“Look, I’m sorry, if you’d just called Tom-”
“Why are you getting so angry?”
“I’m not, I just – I had a long day. How was the rehearsal?” She put a hand on his neck; her thumb stroked his cheek.
Attila found himself outside in the snow with an itch on his face, and touched his thickening beard.
Isabelle had anticipated, or precipitated, the end of the world. She argued with him day and night and came out of it knowing the end was here. So she’d betrayed – abandoned – she had to, it was your fault, you did it, you pushed her buttons, you forgot the milk, you didn’t put your laundry away, you over thought, you smothered, you called within too many minutes – she didn’t listen – you didn’t make enough, you weren’t enough – she went – she had to – she took Amy – to save her from you and your pathetic self-pity. Look, you’re doing it even now. Self-pity yourself into dust. Congratulations.
And she’d gone. Attila was left with social workers who social worked his beard length.
“Did you like the service?” Sandwich Girl. Dinner. She sat down across from him. “You’re there a lot.”
“Ya, s’good,” Attila said quietly.
“I’m not trying to intrude on your meal. I’d like to at least know your name.”
“You didn’t have a name before Angela?”
“What business is it –” Use skills. Be calm – hah, ya right – stop. “Stop. What do you w- how can I help you?”
“I just, well I just thought since you liked Christmas services, there’s another at St. Michael’s, with the St. Mike’s boys’ choir school, and we’re going, and a few from out of town. You want the poster? Hang on to it.” She passed him an 8×11 and went back to work. St. Mike’s. Huron. St. Mary Magdelene’s. Elora. Guelph. London. Barrie.
You could go – but you can’t, but you shouldn’t – only chance – couldn’t possibly – get cut off – get thrown out – too late – flashes of her face, her voice – flashes of her running to my arms, hugging me, smiling, laughing – did you like it, you’re here, you made it, mom told you! – Isabelle’s thunder face, Isabelle grateful? Surprised? Hateful? Murderous? – Scene in front of her choir, conductor, the others –you idiot, pansy, piss, horseshit –
“They’re not worth shit, Attila,” said Georgie, shunting down the table. “Don’t worry about it.” Attila felt his heart beat must be visible, as he swallowed anxious bile.
“ ‘Course. I know.”
“Good man.” Georgie chowed down.
“You remember Angela?”
“Ya, I do.” He spoke softly. Angela was everyone’s favourite.
“She sang with, you know, my daughter.” Attila bit his tongue, evaluating the bait he left hanging, breaking the rules of breadline conversation. Complaining is kosher – personal ruminating made people nervous.
Georgie’s rough beard twitched a little bit, back and forth. “You know I stashed a set of beers.”
“You did what?” Angela had asked.
“I slogged him.” She laughed. She was the only social worker he knew who laughed at these things.
“And what did he do?”
“I thought he might come back at me, but Georgie was laughing and Georgie stood on his chair and toasted me with the lemonade. And then they all did it and cheered like Norsemen. And we got good and drunk and sat in on the Dufferin Grove spring parade. When they laughed at the wrong spot I started to stand and glower and then they kept their giggles to themselves. And no one’s messed with me in the last two weeks pretty much.”
“Did you still make your appointment the next day?”
“Ya, I went.”
“Ok then. Good work, Attila. Let’s talk about the punch, though.”
“Ya. It’s my new name for you.”
“That’s what Amy called her stuffed elephant.”
“I wasn’t quite going for that effect.”
“I was more thinking, barbaric leader.”
When Angela was there, Attila got his EI cheques on time. He kept to using cash to keep out of the credit card game. He once got the courage to get a haircut again and deal with the taunts at breadline. Angela left to help her Dad in Gananoque when he got cancer. Attila stopped keeping up after that, and then Isabelle pulled visitation rights.
Drunk, Attila was walking up to the gothic building on Church Street. The organ was just barely audible above the slushy sounds of passing cars and the muffling of the wet, soft, falling snow. The architecture was disappearing from his senses as he strained to hear the choir and walked forward uncertainly, thinking.
If I could see her – if I could try – you are trying – you’re a joke – I can just stand in the back and listen – if they see you – they won’t even recognize you, sleeze – if Isabelle’s there – she will be – I know, I know, she always knows, she can see, she’s paranoid – that’s not fair, she’s worried – she hasn’t called – about Amy – she’s blocking you off – wouldn’t you? He touched the iron handle. Felt the varnish on the wood, wet – someone could open it and smack your face – ok! Opened the door.
In the vestibule he could hear them sing. He leaned against the wall, peering at the dim, warm light, while the snow dripped on the floor. He didn’t want to touch anything in case he got the pamphlets soggy. There was a shuffling of papers, and a pregnant pause.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
He was transported – watching her play with her new toy on a Christmas afternoon, the carol on the radio floating through the room. He loved this carol. Amy looked up at him and said, “Knock knock.”
“Knock knock.” – ad infinitum. Attila finally punctuated the delighted child’s endless rhythm, sensing the punchline was hours away.
She burst into giggles and tried again. “Knock knock.”
“Nope, no one’s here.” She was helplessly rolling around laughing.
“Nobody here but us chickens!” And he dove in to tickle her.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him: give my heart.
She’d be delighted – she’d be afraid. She doesn’t know – they don’t know, she hates you – she doesn’t know – she’s gone – she’s mine – I want her back, I need her, I need them – they don’t need you – they can’t – they have stop whining, stop crying, what kind of pathetic grunt are you, buck up, buck up, get a job, get a life, make it happen, you just wallow – can’t get out of this – can’t – her face is there, her voice, her singing – at the church, I can’t not go, I have to go, please let me go – please – stop screwing yourself up, you won’t go, you’re old, drunk and wavering, foolish, sick – it’s not fair – people don’t have food and you live on the charity of others – how can I leave – how can you go, you reek, you see her smiling in your head, see her crying, see her running away – see her running to me – see Isabelle intervening – all over again, all over again – stop –
Can’t breathe, can’t think, inexorably the neurons catch hold and I’m glued to the electric circuit, flying along a railroad of violent voltage that screams in my brain, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, it’s not real, and the boilers build steam, and the cold sweat runs and you’re choking and drowning and you have to smash something, have to let it out, I have to get out of here, my body, trapping my thoughts over and over and I’m just thinking but it’s all over and it’s ripping me apart like a hurricane that’s going to explode and tear holes in whatever is around me – I want to scream but I’m stuck shut burning down to a singularity –
“Would you like a program, sir? Or a tea? It’s meant for after but you-”
Attila nodded and nodded and nodded up and down, make her stop, don’t touch me I can’t control my mind and I don’t want to explode but I’m going to scream and I can’t hold it in and I can’t get out.
“Sir? Would you like to sit down?” Politely, nicely, everything I can’t be don’t touch me I’ll break out in sparks.
“We all have hard days sometimes. It’s ok.” It’s not ok! It’s not ok! I can’t make it stop, I can’t breathe, I’m going insane – I’ve lost grip on my brain, help me, oh God don’t do it.
“Here’s a seat over here, if you like,” she touched his arm.
“No!” he yelped in an anguished, strangled cry and ran headlong into the snow.