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Understanding Business

Pierre showed up at our log cabin on Vancouver Island one night just after New Year's. He and my boyfriend Gerard spent the evening chattering in French to each other in our tiny living room, while I sat at the kitchen table, pretending to work on a jigsaw puzzle and desperately trying to remember my high school French. I only picked up a few words and phrases, but I heard enough to understand that Pierre had important and exciting plans. I wondered, with a flash of fear, if the plans would include me.

Gerard and I were both twenty-three and had been together since late summer. I saw him as my white knight, rescuing me from a breakup that had left me feeling wounded and fragile. Attentive and loving, he was also mysterious and unconventional - so different from the other men I'd met. I envied his confidence and ability to view life as more than just a series of disappointments and episodes of emotional pain.

When Gerard introduced me to Pierre earlier in the evening, I smiled and extended my hand. "Bonjour, Louise," Pierre said and gripped my hand with encouraging enthusiasm. Then he tilted his head slightly and stared in a way that made me feel like a piece of Florida swampland being passed off as waterfront property.

That look made me want to slap his smug grin, along with his pathetic little mustache, clean off his narrow, knowing face. The pizza I'd eaten for supper hardened into a lump as I abruptly realized that, for some reason, Pierre didn't like me. My relationship with Gerard was still in that uncertain, beginning stage where I sought the approval of his friends, as if their veneration increased my value in Gerard's eyes.

They spent much of the evening laughing and reminiscing, and I shook off the jealousy that plagued me like an aggravating insect. All evening I waited for them to welcome me into their little circle of catching up and remembered adventures, but I remained an outsider, an English-speaking outsider.

Pierre left about midnight, and Gerard walked him outside to his car. I remained in my chair and tried to force a piece of the jigsaw into a spot I'd tried a dozen times. When Gerard returned, he had a phony, didn't we all have a great time sort of smile plastered across his face. Of course, his expression might have had something to do with the numerous joints he and Pierre smoked -- hand-rolled cigarettes laced with crumbs of greasy black hash, broken off a small chunk that Gerard carried in his pocket.

"Looks like you and Pierre go back a long time," I said and scanned the puzzle pieces littered in front of me as though still absorbed in my evening's efforts.

"Oh, yeah. I know him from my home-town in Quebec. I even dated his sister."

"What brought him all the way out here? To the opposite end of the country? No offense, but I'm sure it wasn't just to visit you."

"Oh, he's living in Alberta, now. About six hundred miles from here."

"I know where Alberta is."

"What's wrong with you? Aren't you happy that I saw my old friend?"

"Your rude old friend, you mean. And you're just as bad. How do you think I felt sitting here for hours listening to you two babble in French?"

He reached out and stroked my hair. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. Pierre's English is pretty bad. He isn't comfortable speaking it a lot, and I just wanted to make him feel at home."

"At the price of making me feel like a stranger in my own place, I guess. Oh never mind. What did he want? He sounded awfully excited about something."

Something flickered across Gerard's face - something that told me he was about to share less than the truth. "He bought the license to run a snack bar in a hotel in Canmore. About an hour from Calgary. I spent some time there on my way out from back east. Pierre wants me to come out and help him."

I nodded. "He wants you to come out and help him."

"He was surprised to find me living with someone. He's rented a house, and he said it's quite small."

"I see."

"No, you don't. I told him we're together, and he said that was okay."

"What a decent guy." I decided to change the subject before my resentment reduced our conversation to a pointless argument. "A snack bar in a hotel? I wouldn't think there'd be enough business for more than one guy."

He lifted my hand and rested it against his cheek. "I'm tired of working in the bush, Louise. I want a change, and I want you to come with me."

My fear of being left behind overshadowed any doubts I may have had about Pierre and his so-called business. Gerard's words banished my worries, and I reached up and touched his hand, still resting against my face. "It sounds great," I said. "I'm ready for a change, too."

A month later, pulling a U-Haul trailer full of our belongings behind Gerard's ancient International truck, we arrived in Canmore. I looked around with amazement and more than a bit of claustrophobia at the Rocky Mountains enclosing the town like a gigantic stone fence. We found Pierre's address and parked in front of the house.

I resisted the temptation to stay in the truck. Going inside meant seeing Pierre again, something I'd managed to avoid thinking about until now.

The next day I saw the Ambassador Hotel. Every small town had a place like it -- one of those dismal black holes with terry cloth table covers and the pervasive smell of spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. I was quite certain that nobody but patrons too drunk to drive stayed in the sordid, fifteen-dollar-a night rooms upstairs. The tourists who came to see the mountains probably didn't know the place existed.

Pierre led us to the back of the huge room. "And here's the snack bar," he said with an expansive gesture that suggested we might be in the presence of royalty, instead of a tiny, cramped space filled with dirty, outdated kitchen appliances and boxes.

"Looks good," Gerard said.

I wanted to scream. "Looks good? Are you two on drugs?" I remembered the joint they smoked on the way over to the hotel and shook my head. Yeah, they were on drugs.

That night I cornered Gerard in our bedroom. "What's going on with the snack bar? I asked. "Pierre's not running it. No one's running it. The place is a dump. What the hell is going on?"

"Oh, he's been waiting for me to come and help him get started."

"You mean, he's been waiting for your money."

Gerard shrugged. "Yeah, that too." He pulled me into his arms and hugged me. "No worries, baby. We'll make the money back and plenty more. You'll see." He picked up his leather jacket.

"Where are you going?"

"I ran into an old friend of mine at the hotel this afternoon. He asked me to stop by for awhile tonight." He paused. "You'd be bored, baby. More French Canadians telling old stories, you now? How about I take you out for lunch tomorrow?"

"Yeah, okay. Guess I'll watch some TV."

"I won't be late."

It was almost dawn when he crawled into bed. He went out again that night and the night after that. I spent my time watching television and wondering why I came. By the end of the week, I was sick of Pierre's rude and patronizing remarks and his endless hash cigarettes. I tried not to look at the carpet in front of the couch, scarred with a multitude of tiny burns caused by embers falling from the end of the joint permanently fixed in Pierre's yellowed fingers.

"I'll be glad when Gerard finishes visiting all his old friends, "I said one evening. "I think it's time for him to stay home at night." I took a deep breath. "In fact, I think it's time for us to find our own place."

Pierre took a hit from his joint, pinched the end off between his thumb and index finger, and dropped the roach in the ashtray. Then he stared at me, his watery eyes squinting from the cloud of smoke around his head. "Let's get one thing straight," he said in perfect English. You're here because I said you could come."

"Fuck you. I'm here because Gerard wanted me to be with him."

He held up one hand. "Don't interrupt me again. You're here because I allow it. If you make trouble, I'll put you on a bus and send you home to Mommy and Daddy before you have a chance to pack your suitcase."

I clenched my fists and stuffed them into my lap so Pierre wouldn't see my hands shaking. "You have no intention of operating that snack bar, do you?"

"You know, Gerard told me you went to university, but I had no idea you were so clever. Oh, I have every intention of running it. There's a lot of business sitting in that bar getting shit-faced every night."

"What do you mean, a lot of business?"

He looked at me with a mixture of amusement and pity. "You're an idiot. I told Gerard that, but he convinced me you had certain assets." He stood up, stretched. and yawned. "I'm going to bed. Try to remember what I said."

I woke up when Gerard came to bed, once again just before dawn. Within minutes he fell asleep, but I was thirsty and slipped out of bed. On the way back into our room, I spotted his leather jacket hung over a chair. I hesitated for only a second before I crouched down and reached into one of the pockets. I pulled out one of those little spiral notebooks, opened it, and peered at the page full of names and phone numbers. Cryptic looking numbers and dollar amounts had been scrawled next to most of the names.

I put it back and checked the other pocket. My hand closed around several small bags that I took out to examine more closely. Each one was filled with a small amount of white powder. It all made sense now, perfect, sickening sense -- our move here, Gerard's evenings out, the notebook, everything.

A lamp clicked on and flooded the room with light. "What are you doing?" I jumped at the sound of Gerard's voice and dropped the bags. "Put those back and come back to bed," he said. "Now."

When I got into bed, he wrapped his arm around my waist and bent his head toward my ear. The sour smell of Grand Marnier and tobacco nauseated me. "Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked.

"Why didn't you tell me you were dealing drugs? Why didn't you tell me why we really moved here?"

He was silent for a few seconds. "Because I didn't think you'd like it, and you know I want you with me."

"I don't like it. I hate it, and I hate Pierre." Tell him what Pierre said to you tonight, I thought. Tell him and he'll leave here right now with you. I opened my mouth and then closed it. Suddenly, I wasn't so sure that Gerard would come with me, and that sickened me more than the cocaine.

"Oh, baby, I'm just getting rid of some old shit Pierre had around. Then it's over. It's over, and we open the snack bar and get our own place."

"You're not visiting old friends every night, are you?"

Silence again. Did he need these extra seconds to fabricate more stories, to tell me what I wanted to hear? "No," he finally said. "I've been going to the Omega. It's a nightclub over in Banff. Before I came out to the island and worked in the bush, I was what you call it, a bouncer there. I still know lots of people, lots of friends."

"Lots of customers, you mean."

"That, too."

I pushed his arm away and pulled the covers up over my shoulders. "I'm going to sleep. We can talk about this tomorrow."

I didn't sleep, and we didn't talk the next day. Gerard stayed home for a couple of nights and we circled rentals in the classifieds, but by the end of the week, the routine returned. If he didn't go to Banff, he stayed in town. He and Pierre tidied up the snack bar and sold things like chips, pickled eggs and beef jerky, but the biggest selling item came out of Gerard's pocket. He must have said something to Pierre because there was no more talk of sending me home on a bus. I stopped asking Gerard when things were going to change and began to hide money in my dresser drawer.

One night Pierre and Gerard both went to Banff and, driven out of the house by loneliness and uncertainty, I went to the hotel for a beer and a little conversation with some of the friendlier waitresses. When I left about ten, the night's chill quickly crept through my thin jacket, and head down, I hurried home and went to bed.

When I woke up a short time later, I heard a deep male voice coming from the living room. I glanced at the clock. It was only one. They're home early, I thought and pulled on my robe. Out in the hallway, I heard the man's voice again, followed by a woman's laugh. Shit. I hated it when they brought people home in the middle of the night. One more reason to tell Gerard that I can't take anymore. One more reason to give him some kind of ultimatum.

Gerard and Pierre were nowhere in sight. A heavyset man with long black hair sat on my couch with a tiny blond woman perched on the arm beside him. "Hello there," the man said. "We didn't think anyone was home."

Indignation made me foolish, and outrage made me bold. "Who are you, and what are you doing in my house?"

"You're Louise, aren't you?" the man said. He grinned at his companion, obviously pleased with himself for remembering my name. "No worries, little Louise. I'm not here to see you." He paused. "Or to upset you. I just want to talk to Pierre. Oh yes, and Gerard. We have business. I'm sure you understand business." He gestured to the chair in front of him. "Why don't you sit down and wait with us?"

"I don't know when they'll be home. It could be hours."

He shrugged. "That's all right. I have plenty of time." He nodded towards the kitchen. "Maybe you have some wine, or even a beer?"

I knew then that this man would wait, no matter how long it took for Pierre and Gerard to get home. I also knew that I didn't want to be here when they did. "No, I'm sorry," I said. "There's nothing. I'm sorry. Just coffee."

"You want coffee, baby?" the man said to the blonde. She shook her head, and he smiled at me. "No coffee, thank you. Sure you won't join us?"

I folded my arms and shook my head in a quick, unsteady jerk. My eyes began to prick and burn the way they always did just before I started to cry. I was tired, and I was scared.

He gave me a quick, sharp look and then stared at my arms. "You cold, little Louise? Perhaps you should go back to bed."

I immediately turned and left the room. His voice followed me down the hall. "It's been a pleasure. Perhaps we'll meet again sometime."

Not if I can help it, I thought. I closed the bedroom door and pulled my suitcase down from the top shelf of the closet. Within minutes, it was full. Remembering the cold night air, I grabbed my heavier, warmer coat. Then I opened the bottom drawer of my dresser, reached under the sweaters and shirts and pulled out the wad of bills I'd stashed there.

I recalled telling Gerard that we would have to put up screens on the windows once summer arrived, but now I blessed their absence. I slid the window open and lowered my suitcase onto the ground. Then I climbed out. There'll be no buses tonight, I thought, but it's better if I hitchhike to Calgary and leave from there, anyway.

It took me only one ride to get to Calgary, and another to reach the bus station. There was just one thing left to do. I stopped at a phone booth and shoved my hand into my front pocket for some change. I asked the operator to connect me and, with trembling hands, I fed my quarters into the phone.

It rang twice, and a man's voice answered. "Canmore police department." I heard the announcement for my bus, and my palms turned slick with sweat. "Canmore police department," the voice repeated. The bus pulled up to the curb and stopped with a hiss. The luggage compartment swung open, and the driver positioned himself by the door. I hung up the phone and got in the lineup to go home.

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