The landlord always came on the weekend, usually late morning. He would ask me to watch over his car and make sure the “ticket vultures” didn’t get him. He would leave the car doors open so I could go inside and pretend to drive. So long as I didn’t honk the horn, take off the hand brake, step on the gas, or make a mess, I could do whatever I liked.
I could hardly believe my luck. I was eight, and there I was, sitting in a 1968 Camaro, in plain sight of all the shoppers on Ste Catherine.
The landlord was always well dressed. As my mom said, he paid attention to detail. He wore a red handkerchief folded over in his suit jacket pocket. He wore white shirts and the starched collars contrasted with his tanned skin. He was tanned all year round. Florida was his favourite holiday destination, from where he would bring me back salt water taffy, coconut patties and chocolate alligators. I liked the chocolate alligators the best because I could bite off their heads and tails.
His smell was a mix of cologne and cigarettes. You could smell it in his car, and on the rare occasion that he picked me up and tried to be affectionate, you could smell it directly on him. Cigarettes and cologne neutralized each other, so that he didn’t smell bad, but he didn’t smell good.
If the ticket vultures came by and saw me sitting in the car they would usually leave me alone. They would smile and move on. But one time, a vulture came along who didn’t have this live-and-let-live attitude. She was a fat woman with cruel eyes. She asked me to roll down the window and I did. She proceeded to tell me about the law.
“How old are you, kid?”
“I’m eight,” I said.
“You’re not allowed to sit in the front seat,” she said.
“OK,” I answered, trying to seem agreeable.
A couple of seconds passed.
“Even if the car’s not moving,” she added. “You’re still not allowed in the front seat.”
“OK,” I said.
I was having a hard time figuring out what to do. The landlord had been very clear. I was not to leave the car under any circumstances, not even for a couple of seconds. Not even if I had to urinate really badly. While the vulture was staring at me, I could hear the landlord’s formal way of talking in my head.
The vulture coughed.
“What I’m telling you kid is that you’re breaking the law,” she said.
To my enormous surprise, she pulled on the handle of the door. But it was locked.
“Open it,” she ordered.
Her talk of the law had genuinely scared me. I did what she asked me to. She pulled me by the hand and walked me around the car and on to the pavement.
“Are you waiting for your mom or dad?” she said.
“Which one?” she asked.
“My dad,” I said, and felt weird about it. I don’t know what exactly possessed me to lie.
“Well next time your dad wants to leave you alone in the car, tell him it’s against the law. And by the way, I have to give him a ticket.”
That ticket vulture must have really hated kids. As she walked away, she was tapping her belt, as if hinting at the things she’d do with it if she found me breaking the law again.
My dad had gone away a long time ago and I was getting a feeling that he wasn’t coming back any time soon. Mom’s answers on the subject were increasingly worrying.
“Will he come back for Christmas?” I asked.
“It depends,” she said.
“Depends on what?”
“Depends on a lot of things.”
“Why can’t you just tell him to come back?” I said.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she replied.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you,” she snapped. “There’s this little thing called money, and your father needs to earn a lot of it. He needs to pay his debts. And for Christmas he needs to find an extra thousand dollars to fly home. Let’s just say I am not very optimistic he can do that.”
Just then, there was the familiar sound of a car honking outside. I went to the window. I saw the landlord getting out of his Camaro. He walked very gingerly because the first big snow had fallen and the sidewalk was slushy and wet. Looking down on him I could see that his scalp was showing through the thinning hair on top of his head.
He arrived at the apartment, kissed my mom’s cheeks, and squeezed my ribs so hard they hurt. There was an awkward silence as he and my mom looked at me, expecting me to rush out enthusiastically to do my usual duty. But that day, I didn’t much feel like sitting in his car. I had already guarded his car close to a half dozen times.
“I can see your car from the window,” I said. “I’ll stay here and keep watch.”
“You remember that time I got a ticket?” said the landlord. “You were supposed to tell the vulture I was coming right back. You didn’t do that, did you?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Do you want me to get another ticket?”
I still didn’t say anything.
“Come on,” my mom urged. “Go out to the car and play. In here it’s boring.”
“I’m not bored,” I said.
I made myself comfortable by sitting down on the back of the sofa. The landlord seemed very tense. He stepped away from me, turned around and went to the sink and filled himself a glass of water. I was now my mother’s problem.
“We’re not going to be able to play with you,” she said. “We’ve got to deal with the rent.”
“I don’t need anyone to play with me,” I said.
“OK, fine,” she said. “Just sit there and sulk.”
She stared at me for a while, maybe to see if her words would have any effect. But this had become a matter of principle. I wasn’t going to be chased out of my own apartment. I sat there, my legs daggling down, with my head twisted around at an awkward angle to stare out of the window.
My mom offered the landlord a coffee.
“That would be just the ticket,” he said.
He pulled off his dark grey overcoat, hung it on the back of a chair, and sat down at the kitchen table with a deep sigh. They made small talk about work, about Florida. I tuned out their conversation after a while. Then my mother raised her voice and said, “Let me get my cheque book for the rent.” The landlord laughed. “Yes, please do.”
My mom disappeared into her room for a short while. While she was gone, I could feel the landlord’s eyes turn toward me.
“Are you guarding the car with your life?” he said, sounding annoyed.
“With my life,” I replied.