Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your automotively transitional host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Now that I'm driving a car that is yellow, tiny and zippy rather than one that is black and Swedishly reliable I find it much harder to integrate myself into multicellular traffic organisms. Where the Volvo was invisible and non-threatening the Mini Cooper commands attention and, in some cases, retaliation.
For instance: one of the most basic kinds of traffic life is the three unit worm, in which the head vehicle is the pace pusher, the middle vehicle is the speed regulation filter, and the tail vehicle is just along for the smooth, smooth ride. Driving the Volvo I was able to build such worms easily since my vehicle was widely trusted. In contrast, driving the Mini means inspiring in too many others feelings of competitiveness which interfere with my ability compose a stable worm head; I am too little, too shiny and too ostentatious to be accepted with grace. Some people -- especially some male people -- just can't stomach being led by something smaller than themselves.
The commuting ecosystem is a complex place. Animals weave together and slide apart in a matter of miles. I am still learning my new place in this wild.
And now, we continue our tale:
The rain was cruel -- pointy, cold, incessant. Leslie tried awkwardly to shield the bouquet of roses in his arm as he leaned in to ring the bell, rain dripping from his nose.
The door opened. "Oh. It's you. What do you want?"
Leslie tried to smile. "Hello Molly. Is Margaret in?"
"She's just finished crying her eyes out over you and your antics. Why should I let you in to peck at the wound and get her all worked up again?"
Leslie's smile did not falter. "Would you please tell her that I'm here?"
Molly glanced down. "It's flowers, is it?" she sneered. "That's sure to make up for twenty years of grief."
Leslie simply waited expectantly. Molly murmured something unkind and shut the door. He could hear her bellowing for her sister inside. He shifted from one foot to the other and cleared his throat. The rain beat a sad tattoo on the flowers' plastic wrapping.
The door opened again. Margaret said, "Come in before you catch your death."
They sat down in the kitchen, Leslie's clothes dripping on the scuffed tiles. Margaret put the kettle on and took a seat opposite him. Her expression was hard but it softened for a second as she noted the bouquet. "Are those for me or for your girlfriend?"
"They're for you. They're roses."
"I can see they're roses, Les."
"I know you like roses."
"Every girl likes roses," she muttered, then added more kindly, "Even me."
"There's chocolates, too."
"Well Leslie Carstairs, you're certainly working hard to butter me right up, aren't you?"
Leslie winced. "I didn't come to have roses or chocolates do my work for me. I have something to say, too."
Margaret leaned back in her chair, frowning slightly. "You'd best get on with it, then. And you'd best make it quick -- Molly'll be back here in a moment to brain you with a pan if she has her way."
"She'd be right to do it," noted Leslie.
Margaret looked surprised. "I think that's the closest you've ever come to saying something nice about my sister."
"She's trying to look out for you. I can't fault her for that. I should take a lesson. Looking out for you is something I should do more of myself."
"Is that a fact?"
"It is. Yes, it is. For a lot of years I've been a lot more consumed with my own feelings than with yours, and let's neither of us pretend that's news to you. It isn't news to anyone except me, and it's only news to me because I'm a moron."
"So far we're in total agreement," she said lightly, reaching to the shelf and grabbing a white pack of Players. She knocked one out and rattled the box at Leslie invitingly. Leslie shook his head. Margaret lit her cigarette and drew on it, watching him through the smoke.
"For a long time I've felt like I live in a cage."
"A cage made of crap -- life crap: bills, work, Angus. I felt sorry for myself. And instead of feeling sorry for you, I came to think of you as one of my wardens. And that's worse than unfair because you don't want to live in a cage any more than I do...but unlike me you were always willing to do whatever it took to make it work, cage or no cage."
Margaret looked down, blinked. "Les, that's very --"
"Let me finish. The first thing I want you to understand -- flowers and chocolates and everything aside -- is that I respect you. I respect you, Margaret. You're a stronger person than I will ever be, and I can't express to you how sorry I am for making you feel badly about that instead of proud."
"You're going to make me cry."
"Ash your cigarette before it falls on your sweater. The point is, Margaret, that there has been a better Leslie lying underneath and I think I've finally realized what I need to in order to let him out. I just didn't know how to change."
She sighed, took a drag, wiped her eyes. "But now you do?"
"Yeah," he said firmly. "Yeah, I do."
Leslie ran a hand through the remains of his rust-coloured hair. "I saw a lot of people change around me, and I saw what made them different. I realized it doesn't take much -- just a tweak of attitude, really." He smiled self-effacingly. "I realized all I needed was a plan."
Margaret chuckled ruefully. "You're making fun of me."
"I'm not. I'm not at all." He put his hands on hers across the table. "I'm apologizing to you, Margaret."
Her eyes welled up. Leslie's breath caught in his throat. He came around the table and hugged her despite his damp clothes, tears running down his cheeks. She hugged him back tightly. He smelled her dark hair, and luxuriated in it.
The kettle whistled.
They talked for hours. Leslie felt transported back in time, back to the years when they were tender rather than bitter. Deposits of spite melted and washed away, and their eyes shone at one another. For the first time in a long time Leslie felt like a man, and looked upon his wife as a woman.
Come midnight he kissed her on the forehead and told her he'd come around after work tomorrow to take her and Angus back to the house, if that's what she wanted. She did. "I didn't know you could still surprise me," she told him softly. "I do love you, Leslie."
"I love you, too."
He left her in the kitchen picking at chocolates and staring at the black beyond the windows. In the hall Angus was loitering on the staircase. He smiled at his father. "Good work, Dad," he whispered.
"Good work, son," Leslie said to him, squeezing his shoulder.
Angus pulled him into a hug.
The rain had stopped. The night was strangely warm and a mist was rising from the empty streets. Leslie lowered himself into the Taurus and flipped open his telephone, thumbing through his contacts until he found the address he was looking for...
He drove slowly. He was at ease. He left arm still smelled faintly of roses.
A quarter hour later he was keying in the code for Chad's apartment, the security camera behind him buzzing quietly as it panned back and forth across the lobby. The intercom clicked. "...Hello?"
"Chad, it's Leslie Carstairs -- from the office."
"Oh -- uh, hi Mr. Carstairs."
"I didn't wake you, did I?"
"Uh, no. Can I help you with something or something?"
"Yeah. Do you mind if I come up?"
"Uh, sure. Hold on. I'll buzz you through."
The corridors of Chad's apartment building smelled like fresh laundry. The patterned carpet and ornate lighting fixtures made the place look like a hotel. Leslie found himself wondering how much IT guys got paid. He knocked on Chad's door which cracked open instantly and released a rich, skunky aroma.
Chad's eyes were bloodshot. "Are you okay Mr. Carstairs?"
"Call me Leslie. Can I come in?"
"Okay. Uh, please excuse the mess."
Chad's livingroom was a sea of empty pizza boxes, wrappers, DVD cases and dirty clothes amassed around several mounds of wire-entangled electronic devices: computer monitors, videogame consoles, stereo equipment. Chad waded into the midst of it and brushed a slurry of kipple away to free up one of the chairs, then gestured at Leslie to take a seat. Chad himself settled into an ample ass-shaped dent in the sofa and looked at Leslie expectantly. "So, what can I do for you Mr. Carstairs?"
"Please, call me Leslie. I heard you quit."
The chubby techie nodded. "I've sort of been re-evaluating my life priorities a bit, you know?"
"Are you really going to Africa?"
"I might be going to the Congo, uh, to help out there and stuff."
"That's very commendable."
"Thanks, Mr. -- uh, Leslie."
There was an awkward silence. Leslie leaned forward in his seat, the garbage under his feet crunching. "I'm wondering if you can do me a favour before you go. When's your flight?"
"I'm still working out the details."
"Okay, good. I have a bit of a project I need some help with. You originally went to school for engineering, didn't you?"
"Yeah, at TUNS."
Leslie licked his lips. "I need you to build me a device."
"What kind of device?"
"I need a device that can be triggered from a distance."
"How big a distance?"
"At least a couple of miles."
"And what does it do when you trigger it?"
"It opens a bird cage."
Chad blinked. "Is this for like a magic trick or something?"
Leslie considered this. "Yes, I suppose it is. A very dangerous magic trick -- hence the distance requirement."
"Let me think..."
"I can pay you for your time, of course."
Chad dismissed the last statement with a wave, the beady eyes in his doughy face defocusing at the wall. His lips twitched and his fingers moved. He frowned briefly, then seemed to come to a conclusion. "That shouldn't be too hard. We could use a radio relay, maybe trigger it through a cell phone. Is the cage door resistance- or latch-based?"
"Probably need a pretty hefty battery to give us the power we'll need to pop it open."
"I can pick one up at Canadian Tire tomorrow morning. And anything else you need. Just write it out. Make a list."
Chad held up a pudgy finger. "Wait!"
"Wait!" Chad repeated, getting up and thrashing his way over to a far corner of the livingroom. He dug in the trash until he came up with a remote control 4x4 truck which he presented to Leslie triumphantly. "Ah-ha!"
"Powerful little motors in here," explained Chad, prying at the plastic chassis which was covered in banana stickers. "It's already wired for remote control. All we have to do is boost the range and find a way to rig the motors to the cage door. Presto!"
"You're a genius."
Chad snorted. "I'm a fat fuck who smokes too much weed, but I do like a challenge. When do you need this?"
"As soon as possible. Tomorrow?"
Chad nodded as he lowered himself back into his dent on the sofa. "Shouldn't be a problem. What about the cage?"
"What about it?"
"Did you bring it?"
"Um, no. I'll bring you a test cage in the morning."
"Well, as long as it's got the same door mechanism that should be fine."
"Good," said Leslie, standing up.
Chad opened his mouth, hesitated, then opened it again. "This isn't...you're not..."
Leslie grunted. "What?"
"You're not a Muslim or anything, right?"
"Christ, no. Like I said, it's a magic trick."
"Actually I said it was a magic trick. You said it was dangerous."
Leslie smirked. "Only to me."