For Gregg Sutter


THE BLACKBIRD TOLD HIMSELF he was drinking too much because he lived in this hotel and the Silver Dollar was close by, right downstairs. Try to walk out the door past it. Try to come along Spadina Avenue, see that goddamn Silver Dollar sign, hundreds of light bulbs in your face, and not be drawn in there. Have a few drinks before coming up to this room with a ceiling that looked like a road map, all the cracks in it. Or it was the people in the Silver Dollar talking about the Blue Jays all the time that made him drink too much. He didn’t give a shit about the Blue Jays. He believed it was time to get away from here, leave Toronto and the Waverley Hotel for good and he wouldn’t drink so much and be sick in the morning. Follow one of those cracks in the ceiling.

The phone rang. He listened to several rings before picking up the receiver, wanting it to be a sign. He liked signs. The Blackbird said, “Yes?” and a voice he recognized asked would he like to go to Detroit. See a man at a hotel Friday morning. It would take him maybe two minutes.

In the moment the voice on the phone said “Detroi-it” the Blackbird thought of his grandmother, who lived near there, and began to see himself and his brothers with her when they were young boys and thought, This could be a sign. The voice on the phone said, “What do you say, Chief?”

“How much?”

“Out of town, I’ll go fifteen.”

The Blackbird lay in his bed staring at the ceiling, at the cracks making highways and rivers. The stains were lakes, big ones.

“I can’t hear you, Chief.”

“I’m thinking you’re low.”

“All right, gimme a number.”

“I like twenty thousand.”

“You’re drunk. I’ll call you back.”

“I’m thinking this guy staying at a hotel, he’s from here, no?”

“What difference is it where he’s from?”

“You mean what difference is it to me. I think it’s somebody you don’t want to look in the face.”

The voice on the phone said, “Hey, Chief? Fuck you. I’ll get somebody else.”

This guy was a punk, he had to talk like that. It was okay. The Blackbird knew what this guy and his people thought of him. Half-breed tough guy one time from Montreal, maybe a little crazy, they gave the dirty jobs to. If you took the jobs, you took the way they spoke to you. You spoke back if you could get away with it, if they needed you. It wasn’t social, it was business.

He said, “You don’t have no somebody else. You call me when your people won’t do it. I’m thinking that tells me the guy in the hotel—I wonder if it’s the old guy you line up to kiss his hand. Guy past his time, he don’t like how you do things.”

There was a silence on the line before the voice said, “Forget it. We never had this conversation.”

See? He was a punk. The Blackbird said, “I never kiss his hand or any part of him. What do I care?”

“So, you want it?”

“I’m thinking,” the Blackbird said, staring at the ceiling, “you have a Cadillac, that blue one.” It was the same vivid light-blue color as his grandmother’s cottage on Walpole Island. “What is it, about a year old?”

“About that.”

So it was two years old, or three. That was okay, it looked good and it was the right color.

“All right, you give me that car, we have a deal.”

“Plus the twenty?”

“Keep it. Just the car.”

This guy would be telling his people, see, he’s crazy. You can give him trading beads, a Mickey Mouse watch. But said over the phone, “If that’s what you want, Chief.” The voice gave him the name of the hotel in Detroit and the room number, a suite on the sixty-fourth floor, and told him it would have to be done the day after tomorrow, Friday around nine-thirty, give or take a few minutes. The old man would be getting dressed or reading the sports, he was in town for the ball game, Jays and the Tigers. Walk in and walk out.

“I know how to walk out. How do I get in?”

“He has a girl with him, the one he sees when he’s there. It’s arranged for her to let you in.”

“Yeah? What do I do with her?”

The voice on the phone said, “Whatever your custom allows, Chief.” Confident now; listen to him. “What else can I tell you?”

The Blackbird hung up the phone and stared at the ceiling again, picking out a crack that could be the Detroit River among stains he narrowed his eyes to see as the Great Lakes. Ontario, Erie, Lake Huron . . .

His name was Armand Degas, born in Montreal. His mother was Ojibway, his father he didn’t remember, French-Canadian. Both were dead. Until eight years ago he had lived and worked with his two brothers. The younger one was dead and the older one was in prison forever. Armand Degas was fifty years old. He had lived in Toronto most of his life, but didn’t know if he should stay here. He could go downstairs to the Silver Dollar and after a while feel pretty good. There was a bunch of Ojibway that hung out there. Maybe he looked like some of them with his thick body and his thick black hair lacquered back hard with hair spray. They’d talk, but he could tell they were afraid of him. Also there were more punks coming in there, crazy ones who colored their hair pink and green; he didn’t like the way they called him the Blackbird, the way they said it. The Italians, most of the time, called him Chief. It was like they could call him anything they wanted, the guineas posing in their expensive clothes, talking with their hands. Even if they said he could be a made guy, one of them, he wouldn’t ever belong to them. When the phone rang he had been trying to figure out why he drank so much. He was thinking now, as he began to picture a young girl in the the hotel room in Detroit, he drank because he needed to drink.

The girl would be young and very pretty. It was the kind they found for the old man. She’d be scared. Even if they told her, you open the door, that’s all you have to do, and gave her some money, she’d be scared to death. He wondered if the old man would notice it. You didn’t become old in his business missing signs. He wondered if he should wear his suit to go into that hotel. It was tight on him when he buttoned the coat. He’d drive to Detroit in the Cadillac ... and began to think about his grandmother, trying to picture her now, older than the old man he was going to see. They called him Papa, a guy who’d had his way a long time, but no more. The Blackbird saw himself drive up to the blue cottage in the matching Cadillac and saw his grandmother come out ... Then saw a young girl in a hotel room again, scared to death.

But when the girl opened the door she didn’t seem scared at all. She was about eighteen maybe, wearing a robe, with long blond hair down over her shoulders like a little girl. Except her expression wasn’t a little girl’s. She looked him over and walked away and was going into the bedroom as he entered the suite and saw the room- service table and what was left of breakfast. The bedroom door was open. He could hear her voice saying something— that nice-looking young girl, not the kind he had expected. The Blackbird glanced at the bedroom but didn’t see either of them. He walked past the room-service table to the room’s wide expanse of windows filled with an overcast sky. Now he was looking at Canada from six hundred feet in the air; Windsor, Ontario, across the river, Toronto two hundred and fifty miles beyond. Not straight across but more east, that way, where the Detroit River turned into Lake St. Clair. Keep going and you come to Walpole Island. Staring in that direction he squinted into the distance. A sound behind him made him turn.

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