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In Light of Ray

Chapter ~ One

I first met Ray, as he sometimes called himself, about two months ago. Since then I have slowly disappeared. I never thought of myself as particularly visible, but other than a ghostly image in a security camera an hour ago, I don't exist in any real way anymore. I am the smear of grease a glacier will make of a body, the ice cloudy and discoloured where once were bones and consciousness.

Before I am completely gone, and perhaps this is merely vanity, I want to prove to a world no longer cognisant of my presence that I have been. This last record of my journey then is a logbook, like those of Captain Cook or Joshua Slocum, only text left to prove they'd sailed away. Unlike Ray, the total obscurity of my new life scares me, and I guess by this letter I hope to stave off its more menacing implications. Do any of us exist beyond a few lines in the public record? We have meaning in the memory of our friends, but other than those snow-filled tracks blown in by the wind, the mark of our passage is surprisingly light. My body has occupied space for thirty years now and often to me it felt ponderous, but likewise I'm sure, an ant's interminable voyage may, on a minuscule scale, seem overwhelming. Somewhere a birth date and name is recorded for me, and soon I will supplement that with a death certificate.

Taking Ray's advice, I gradually liquidated, in as normal a fashion as possible, my assets, those more solid representations of my life. I drained my bank account by small withdrawals, attracting less attention even though I was charged outrageous service fees. My spending patterns were meant to be as standard as possible. I even went on one last trip like a regular tourist, partially to feel that normality again. I went to a resort in Cancun with a younger woman I barely knew. We were still in the air when she told me she would rather spend the vacation alone. I suppose this was her careful plan, and she'd chosen that moment so her trip was still paid for and she could avoid the almost inevitable scene. I'd brought her with me for mercenary reasons as well, so I could hardly object. For me, she was my alibi, and the excuse for much of my money going missing while I was on holiday. Although my motivations were at least as suspect as hers, I was still hurt I'd been used, and those feelings helped me to be more convincing when I acted broken-hearted. We parted ways at the airport, and as she went off excitedly to enjoy the resort, tropical birds flew from the rooftops above her.

When I arrived at the resort I sat infuriated on the beach surrounded by paper tourists and impoverished staff. I tipped lavishly, and although I was a darling and thought to be very rich, more than once I caught curious glances in my direction. Strolling on a nearby beach outside the resort, I saw people living in strange tents or huts, swathed in blankets, but when I approached them, inspired by an interaction with the real, they gently turned away. Like the Barbary apes I had tried to photograph in Gibraltar, they were wise to the ways of tourists and shy of flashing cameras.

Upon returning to Canada, I was eager to disappear immediately, but I restrained myself. I still had much to do before I donned my new costume.

Three weeks later I took from my closet an old suit coat and pair of jeans, as well as a sweatshirt, boots and some change, and began my life on the street. The only concession I made to the world was this paper, which is now in your hands, and a pen. I wonder where you are. Are you reclining on a well-made bed in an immaculate apartment, or at work, the intemperate shuffle of your shoes under the desk your only rebellion? Or are you like me, for Ray tells me there are others I'll never meet, scraping your boots along the sidewalk, imitating the more desperate derelict, trying to blend?

The last time I saw Ray he was in a wheelchair and when I expressed my surprise, he winked solemnly, and I realised he'd embarked on another adventure. How much I have to learn.

~

I've found a warm corner near the doughnut shop where I can ask for change if I wish. I'm out of the wind for a moment and enjoying the morning sun. I was cold last night, and my resolve wavered, but this warmth is nice, and I can catch up on my letter.

Ray advised me to tell no one where I was going, but I'm sure this letter doesn't count. In any event, I haven't seen him in a few days, and by the time I'm done writing I'll be dead.

~

I'm not sure how to put my decision in perspective. It would be much easier if Ray had that Charley Manson or Hitler type of charisma, then I might be excused for wishing to dawdle on his path, but it's not that simple. I was more struck by his seeming bland normality. Our first meeting was at one of those torturous dinner parties. I was tottering near the food tray, trying not to stare at the women in their gowns and party dresses and cursing the bland moronity of it all. One woman in particular had caught my attention and I watched subtly, waiting for her rather large breasts to tumble out of her low cut dress.

Perhaps because I was so occupied, I didn't socialise as much as I typically would. I gradually became ostracised and found myself near a doorway watching Ray circulate. Otherwise I might never have noticed him.

He was average looking. No, that's not true either. He actually looked a bit strange. He had slightly greasy brown hair, but not excessively so, and a pockmarked face. His brown eyes were glancing about comfortably and his eager left hand gave the impression that if he were alone it would shake his right. He was at that indeterminate age, somewhere over thirty and under fifty-five. Even though his looks were mildly unusual, now that I peered more closely, Ray passed amongst these puffy men and gaunt women as though he belonged. I was struck by the contrast between his apparent comfort and obvious unfamiliarity.

He dressed similar enough to pass, with a suitcoat that was slightly shiny at the elbows and cuffs, and tan dress pants, although his running shoes didn't go with the rest of his outfit. He mingled, addressing the men first, as you must at these functions, and then including the women in a conversation ostensibly for everyone, but really was a more showy version of latter-day chest beating. People responded well, but with a puzzled air, as if they were trying to figure out how he fit into their social network. A few vigorous handshakes later and they were in close conversation with this apparent stranger.

I moved in to hear what they were saying only to have Ray shift to another group. He claimed it was time to "top up," and I was the only one who noticed he was scarcely drinking. At that moment the big-breasted woman cut in front of me and slurred hello. Whiskey, perfume and her acrid sweat blew towards me as her praying mantis arms fumbled a greeting. Her breasts sagged with her dress and portions of her pallid midriff were sliced by the juvenile cut of its fabric. She wobbled uncertainly. The desperate nature of the situation called for alacrity rather than originality and I said, "I've got to top up" and followed Ray into the kitchen.

Ray was talking to one of the caterers and had his back to me, but I got the distinct impression he knew I was there. That was when I first noticed there was more about Ray than met the eye. On the surface he was witty and had the wry cynicism that suited these events, but some other Ray hovered just below his deliberately bland facade.

Many years ago, I was fishing with my father, which meant looking desultorily over the side of the boat until he either tired of fishing or my petulance and would go home. On one occasion, and it only happened once, I looked into the muddy water and saw a sudden flicker below the cloudy surface. I stared more intently-

~

Just now a tweedy looking youth going into the doughnut shop offered me a coin. A dollar. My first money from this life and I wasn't even asking. I can do this.

~

I looked into the water, my reflection wavering on the brown surface, and saw again, just beyond the limits of my vision, a gleam and then it was gone. Seeing my interest, my father crossed to my side of the boat, but whatever it was vanished. He began to tell me about the green flash of the descending sun through the clear tropical water, as if the sun wasn't still high in the sky. He told me that giant schools of tuna had reflected the sun in such a way that commercial airliners had turned from their path to search for survivors wielding a mirror only to crash thousands of kilometres from shore.

"But most tuna are on grocery store shelves now," my father said slowly, as though he were teaching me something. "Or they're caught in planet-sized drift nets, rotting a kilometre down, waiting for the winch that will force them into tiny tins with dolphins on the side."

I stared over the side but the flash never came again. I invented stories about what I'd seen, for Loch Ness and Yeti were an everyday part of my childhood, but the mysterious truth was subtle and more troubling. I'd forgotten that sensation, that magic of discovery, and it was only in the kitchen listening to Ray that I remembered.

"So what do you get paid anyway?"

"What? Oh, I work for the caterers. They give me a flat rate for the evening."

"Kind of annoying work. Bunch of rich people. Didn't even notice you come into the room."

"Yeah I know. But what're you gonna do?"

"Do you have any more of those olive things? Whatever they're called."

"Hors d'oeuvres."

"Oh yeah? Do you have any more hors d'oeuvres?"

"I have some here. You like'm?"

"Yeah they're great."

"I made them."

"Wow. Really? So you could open your own catering business?"

"It's something I've thought about. It'd beat making ten an hour at this gig."

Their conversation dwindled and finally stopped, and the woman looked dejectedly back toward the party as a blue suit came through the door, his tie stuffed into his shirt pocket.

"Gotta go. See ya."

"I'll just stay here and eat these hors d'oeuvres," and Ray saluted as though the stuffed olive were a glass of champagne.

Blue suit stumbled out to follow her and Ray turned his regard to me. The kitchen felt small, and somehow hotter.

I said "Hi," and extended my hand.

Ray's eager left hand took the snack and he shook with his right.

"Good party." I didn't know quite what to say.

Ray leaned back on the counter and rolled the olive around with his fingers. "Yeah. Although you missed your chance back there."

"What'd ya mean?"

"With Breasty."

"Well, she wasn't all that interested," I said. He must have known she'd approached me.

When Ray asked me if I worked in a bank, I told him I was a salesman.

"Selling what?"

"You know those logos on people's jackets and hats? Well my company, Logotech, runs a factory where we generate the graphics, and use computer driven sewing machines to embroider them onto the fabric." Amazingly, Ray's eyes hadn't wandered while I explained. I knew from experience to keep the description short; I'd lost potential customers from long-windedness.

"So you do the sales for them?" Ray prompted.

"Yeah. There's a bunch of us. I mainly deal with truck stops and trucker companies."

"How much of the city is your turf?"

This is never a comfortable question for a salesman. We're generally very secretive about our routes and favourite customers. It's a cutthroat business. But by asking the question, Ray exposed how little he knew and that put me at ease. "I cover the entire east end. All the way from 142nd and the train tracks to Hastings and Route One."

"Big territory. You're a busy guy."

Before I asked Ray what he did, he cut in, "I've thought about sales. Interesting what you do: that logo thing. Such a small thing but I never thought about where logos come from."

"Most people don't even notice them. They just go along until they need a logo on a shirt, and then they call us. We're invisible, all the more necessary because we don't make a big splash."

Breasty came in claiming I was hiding, which I guess I was. I wasn't really in the mood, but Ray was already drifting toward the door opposite the one she'd entered and he made a gesture like a goodbye.

She pulled at my shirt in a playful attempt to get my attention, but in her drunken clumsiness she pinched skin. How drunk was I that I'd been attracted to her? I brushed away her contrite apology, perhaps a little roughly, and followed Ray. He'd left the party and since I'd lost my patience for those insipid people, I disentangled myself. I made leaving noises, trying not to interrupt their childish parlour game. Feeling the ominous presence of Breasty at my back, I followed Ray, hoping the Vancouver drizzle would sober me.

~

Some tracksuit guy entering the doughnut shop just yelled at me to get a job. Shows what he knows. For all he knows I could be a writer, and sitting here in the grungy street I'm getting a feel for my subject. We never know what is going on with another person. I learned that from Ray.

~

I breathed with relief when I traded the hot apartment for the rain on my face. I fumbled with my car keys. The streets were nearly empty; it must have been well past midnight. A couple of guys took it upon themselves to tell me I shouldn't drive. I ignored them and went along 12th Ave from Kitsilano to my apartment in the east end. 12th should have less cops. I was nearly to Renfrew when a flashing from a following car at first startled and then angered me. I was sober, so the joke was on them. When I pulled to the curb they passed, having received another call and wishing me out of their way. I continued at a safe forty kilometres an hour through the sodden streets.

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