Since my wife left me, I’ve taken to having a few of an afternoon, so I stopped in at the Eternity on Queen Street West for a drink. It’s one of the last good “conversation bars” left in Toronto. I like a nice quiet place to have a sip. Like all the other musicians I know, I hate the canned music in most bars. It seems designed to interfere with my conversation and to piss me off in general. In the Eternity, you can actually hear your own thoughts and share those of other people, and Henry, the guy who runs the bar, is always glad to see his landlord.
On this particular afternoon, I was in no hurry to get anywhere. I’d finished all the meetings for the week, and I looked forward to a few days of relaxation. So, I bellied up to the bar and asked Henry for a pint of Nutbrown Ale and a shot of Jameson. I believe in getting to the first stage of intoxication quickly and then coasting for a while.
I’d just about finished my first round. I was looking at the TV but not seeing it, more like staring into space mindlessly. Suddenly, I was brought out of my reverie.
“Excuse me sir, can I get you another drink?”
Standing in front of me was a startingly beautiful young woman. I was momentarily rendered speechless. After a moment, I managed to nod and even to speak. “Yes, thank you. But just bring me a pint of Nutbrown. I don’t need any more of the hard stuff for a while.”
She went to draw my beer, and I looked at her. Actually, I’m afraid that I stared. She was about 5’4” -- on the petite side but not too short. Her figure was nearly perfect for my taste. I estimated that she’d certainly fill out a nice C cup, and her hips left no doubt as to her gender. But it was her beautiful face that was most startling. Her features were almost perfectly symmetrical. Her hair was a glossy black. Her complexion was creamy white. Her eyes were the blue-green colour of a mountain lake. When she smiled, as she did now, her teeth glinted brightly.
By the time she returned with my beer, I had recovered my powers of speech and gathered what wits I had. So, I came out with my usual suave opening. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Yes. In fact, I just started today. I’m a student at OCAD, but I’ve got to take some time off to make some money. So here I am.”
The fact that she was a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design was not at all startling. Queen Street has long been the haunt of Toronto’s artists and artsy. Nor was the fact that she needed money. Most students do. I wanted the conversation to continue, so I introduced myself.
“I’m Danny Sullivan. I’m a sometime jazz musician. Mostly, I’m sort of a high-class bum.”
She laughed. “I’m Carole Tulliver.” At least it sounded like “tulliver.” “And you sure as hell don’t look like a bum to me. Bums usually don’t wear Armani suits.”
“Neither do I, but I just came out of a meeting. Tell me, do you spell your last name T-A-L-I-A-F-E-R-R-O?”
“Yes, that’s right: Taliaferro. Pronounced ‘tulliver.’ It’s an English name. I get a little tired of explaining that it’s not pronounced like it looks.”
“Well, Carole, I’ll tell you a little known secret: I was born in England, and I lived there until I was sixteen.”
“Why don't you have an English accent?”
“I learned in high school that an English accent was not necessarily a social asset. And then I got into jazz. Not too many English accents in jazz. Not in Canada, anyway.”
“Oh. Well, I’m not from England. I’m from Sudbury. Way up north. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s close to it.”
“So what brings you to Hogtown?”
“Art. Or the chance to make it. Uh oh, there’s Henry, the boss. He probably expects me to do some work. I’ve got to go. Maybe we’ll talk later?”
“Count on it.”
I didn’t really expect to continue my conversation with Carole. I’ve never been what you’d call a “chick magnet,” and now that I’m north of 40... well just say that I have more of an opportunity to look at beautiful young girls than I do to talk to them. But in about 15 minutes, Carole was back. She said, “I’m on my break now. Want to sit down at one of the tables in the back?”
Of course I did. When we sat down, me with my beer and Carole with a Coke, she grinned at me.
I said, “What’s the joke?”
Carole smiled broadly. “Henry just told me that you own this place. And you described yourself as a bum. Some bum.”
“Why can’t a bum own a bar? Most bums would die to own a bar.”
“Danny Sullivan, I think that you enjoy pulling my leg. And you know what? I kind of enjoy your joking with me.”
“Carole, I’m sorry if I mislead you. Let’s start over again.” I held out my hand. “I’m Danny Sullivan. I’m a famous jazz musician and man about town, and I own this place.”
She gravely shook my hand, and she said, “Glad to meet you. I’m Carole Taliaferro, an impecunious student masquerading as a bartender.”
“OK. Now that we’re formally introduced, let’s talk.”
And we did talk. We talked all that afternoon and during the succeeding days and weeks. We talked about all the great and small things -- things that you share with friends. Soon, we were good friends. Our afternoon talks became a habit.
I learned that Carole’s parents were more than willing to help her through school, but that she’d put a limit on the amount of their help that she was willing to accept. They were both teachers. Her dad was retired, so the family income wasn’t very big. Hence the job at the Eternity.
I also learned that she had wanted to be an artist as long as she could remember. Her dad was an artist, and she grew up watching him create wonderful things with his hands and his mind. And then she found that she had talent. I suspected that she had a lot of talent, and not necessarily all for art.
Not that I put the moves on Carole. Far from it. I’m as prone to dirty old man thoughts as the next guy, but Carole and I had become great pals. I didn’t want to fuck up our friendship by hitting on her.
One Saturday afternoon, I’d just finished one of those interminable goddam meetings. I was consumed with a raging thirst, so I came into the Eternity for my customary tipple. Carole was nowhere to be found. I thought it might be her day off, or perhaps she had a cold. I finished my first round and headed for the john. There sitting at a table near the washrooms was Carole. She was leaning on the table, holding her head in her hands. She was crying.
“Sweety, what’s happened?”
“That cunt of a roomate of mine! She’s throwing me out!”
I’d never heard Carole use the C-word before. I guess I never even thought she knew it. I momentarily forgot about my need to drain the lizzard.
“OK, what’s going on? How can she toss you out?”
“Because she owns the fucking lease, that’s how! And she’s decided to move her goddam boyfriend in and me out.”
“Then just move somewhere else.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t fucking afford to move anywhere else. I’ve been living in this pigsty because she only charged me $300 a month. Any place else I’ve found is at least $700. And for that you get something even worse than I have now.”
I sat down next to her. I thought for a moment. Then I put my hand under her chin and lifted her lovely face so that I was looking into her teary eyes.
“I may have a solution. You need somewhere to live. I have a place that’s not being used. No, wait a minute. Don’t say no until you hear me out. I have a basement apartment in my house. It’s a legal apartment -- separate electrical service, separate entrance and all that stuff. Doors with double locks. But I just use it as a rehearsal studio, and I don’t play that much any more, so it’s hardly ever used. I have no idea what it’s worth, and I don't care. I wouldn’t rent it to anyone else anyway. At least come and take a look at it. What can you lose?”
She looked at me with those big glacier-blue eyes, still full of tears.
“Danny, I won’t take charity. I’d rather go back to Sudbury.”
“Carole, you’re not taking charity. I just want you to come have a look at this joint and see if it’s worth the trouble. OK?”
She smiled a little bit. “OK.”
“What time do you get off work?”
“Tonight? Well, I guess it’ll be 8:00. I’m on the early shift.”
“OK. I’ll pick you up in front of the joint at about a quarter after 8. We’ll go take a look at the apartment, and you can decide.”
“Danny, I couldn’t possibly afford it.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Be in front at 8:15. I’ll be in the green BMW.”
“Yeah, green. You wanna make something of it?”
She smiled at last. The clouds passed away, and the sun came out. “No, it’s just kind of unusual, that’s all.”
“You bet your Aunt Fanny, it is. See you later. Right now, I’m going to complete the mission I was on when I was interrupted.”
I made it to the john just in time. Blessed relief. Then I had one more beer and went to my office.
At the appointed hour, I pulled up in front of the Eternity. I’d chosen that time well. It would give Carole time to get her stuff, and I knew that I couldn’t park in front of the Eternity. Traffic on Queen was always nuts, and this was a Saturday night. I stopped, and she hopped right in.
“You weren’t kidding, it’s green, all right. But it’s a beautiful car. What model is it?”
“It’s an M5. And you’re right, it’s green.”
“I thought that all BMWs had three-digit model names, like ‘320’ or ‘530. My dad’s a real car nut, but I never heard of an ‘M5.’”
“Most bimmers have those three-digit names, but this one is special. Hand made, in fact. Buckle up.”
I drove to my house in Rosedale. At that time of day, it was about a twenty-minute drive. At least the route I took. I parked in the driveway and, being the gent that I am, went around the car to open Carole’s door. She was sitting there looking at the house. The outside floodlights had come on with the timer. I hardly ever thought about it, but I guess to Carole it looked quite spectacular. After all, that was the intention of the guy who’d done the lighting design.
“Danny, this is a goddam palace! It must be four or five stories high! And look at all these gardens.”
“Yeah, it’s a big old dump -- way too big for me. As for the gardens, a guy has a contract to take care of them. Let’s go inside. You need to see the apartment.”
She came with me. I keyed the entry pad at the door, and the lock clicked open. We went in. She was wide-eyed as we walked through the ground floor. I tried to imagine what it must look like to her. The marble floors, oak wainscoting, designer furniture, and all the other stuff Janet loved but I never cared that much about. Janet was gone, but the house was still kept spotless by Maria Alvear, my wonderful cleaning person. Without her, I’d live in a sty.
We reached the back door. We walked down the back stairs off the deck. I led Carole around the corner of the house. There were a few steps that led down to a door. I opened the apartment door and handed her the key. “This is your front door. As you can see, it opens on another street. There’s also a place in the garage for you, if you get a car. Let’s check out the apartment.”
The apartment was not as spotless as the house upstairs, although it wasn't bad. The living room furniture was fairly new, and so was the dining room stuff. The kitchen had the basics: range, fridge, microwave, dishwasher. There was even an apartment-sized clothes washer and dryer. I’d sort of forgotten about those. As far as I knew, they’d never been used. The apartment had been designed with the idea that Maude, my ex-wife’s mother, could live here and be independent. Then Janet and I split up. Needless to say, Maude never moved in, and I’d never rented the place. I didn't need the money and didn’t like the idea of some stranger living in my basement. Since the place had never been lived in, the appliances and the furniture had hardly ever been used, except for a few grungy jazz musicians sitting on the chairs, warming up the occasional pizza in the oven and, of course, keeping beer in the fridge. The bathroom was nice. Basic, but nice and very nearly new.
There were two fairly small bedrooms, one a bit bigger than the other, but there was no bedroom furniture. Like I said, I’d been using the place to rehearse, and there was just an electronic keyboard and a few chairs in the bigger room. There was nothing in the smaller one. But I offered an alternative: “If you’d like, I’ll furnish the bedrooms with whatever you choose. Just go to a store, pick out some stuff and give them the address.”
Carole went into the living room and sat down on the chesterfield. She tucked her feet under her and looked at the floor for a while. Finally, she looked up at me and spoke.
“Danny, I can't let you do this.”
“Don’t play dumb. I hope you know me well enough to know what I mean. I already said that I won't take charity from you.”
“Fuck charity! This place is empty. And when I’m out of town, the whole goddam house is sitting empty. I should pay you for looking after it. Do me a favour: try this place out for a while. See how you feel. We’ll discuss a price, and I promise it’ll be fair.”
“I can’t take it.”
“Sure you can. And you will. Pack up your stuff, and I’ll have it moved in. In the meantime, let’s buy you a bed and some other furniture, and in you go. Look, we’re friends, right? If I needed something and you had it, you’d help me, right? So consider this something on account. You’ll pay me a fair rent that we both agree on. You come and go as you please. This is your place as long as you want it. We’ll sign papers tomorrow. Tonight we’ll shake hands. What do you say?”
She launched herself at me. I now knew why the term “bear hug” was invented. I felt as though I were being hugged to death. What a way to go.
“Danny, you’re the best. I know I shouldn’t do it, but yes, I’ll live here, if that’s what you want. If it wasn’t for you, I’d have to go back to Sudbury with my tail between my legs. What did I ever do to deserve you?”
“Like Clint Eastwood said in ‘The Unforgiven,’ ‘Deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.’”
She looked up at me. “If I can live here for a while, it’ll mean a lot to me. You probably didn’t notice, but I’m sure there’s great light in the small bedroom in back. The windows are located just right. I can paint there. I was able to paint at OCAD. There was a big studio that I could use. It had good light, and there was room for several of us to set up our easels. Since I haven’t been in school, there’s been no place I could paint. Here I could leave my easel up all the time. It’s perfect.”
“It’s yours as long as you want it.”
I took her upstairs. We sat in the kitchen, and I opened a bottle of champagne. We toasted Carole’s new apartment. Then I fired up the barbeque and burned a couple of steaks. We had a great little impromptu party.
After a bottle of champagne and a couple of bottles of red wine, I didn't think I should drive, so I sent Carole home in a cab. Fortunately, she didn’t have to work the next day, and I hardly ever work these days. We made a deal that she’d call me the next morning, and we’d go shopping for her stuff.
The next day, Carole did call me -- none too early, I was amused to note. I picked her up in the bimmer, and we went furniture shopping. I don’t know a hell of a lot about furniture, but one of the few decent pieces of information I got from Janet, my ex, was where the good stuff could be found. I took Carole there.
She tried to buy the cheapest stuff in the store, but I noticed what she was really looking at. I made a deal with the salesperson while she was looking at the cheap stuff. A few extra bucks changed hands, and the delivery was made that week.
Carole moved in. When she saw the new bedroom and studio furniture, she was pissed off. Well, not really, but she told me off in a fond kind of way.
She had pitifully few things, barely one load of a minivan, but she soon put her own touch on the place. With just a few little details, Carole made the place special. It felt like her. It was hers.
We established a routine. Carole’s days off were Sunday and Monday. On those days, we’d cook supper together in my kitchen or hers or on the natural gas barbecue on the patio. This went on for several weeks. Until one Saturday.
Carole had the day off. She was looking forward to a three-day weekend. We were going to celebrate. I’d bought steaks and all the fixings, including a nice bottle of wine. She was going to make desert. I put the steaks in the fridge and went in search of Carole. I knocked on her door. It was open, so I went in. I heard soft sobbing sounds coming from the bedroom. I carefully went in.
Carole was lying on the bed crying. I went over and put my arm around her.
“What’s the matter, dear heart?”
“Oh Danny! It’s all over. This is really the end. I’ll have to go back to Sudbury now. I lost my job today. Henry called me and said that he has to let me go. I can’t even pay you the little bit that I’ve been paying. This is it. No more art. No more school.” She looked at me through her tears. “And worst of all, I’ll have to leave you and my little home. Oh God!”
“We’ll see about that. There’s always a way out if you look hard enough. Go and wash that pretty face while I make a few calls. You look after yourself and I’ll get supper on.”
“I don’t think I can eat.”
“You’ll eat. You’ve got to keep your strength up. We’ll have a lot to do, trust me.”
She tried to smile, without too much success. Finally, she said “OK.”
My first call was to Henry at the Eternity. Luckily, he was still there, going over his books.
“Danny, I’ve been expecting you to call. Believe me, I hated to let Carole go. I know that she’s a friend of yours. And she’s the best I’ve got, but unless business picks up I may not even be able to pay the rent, much less the staff. It was either her or the cook.”
“Henry, there may be another way to go. I’ve got an offer for you. If you’ll keep Carole on for a while, I’ll deduct the amount of her salary from your rent.”
Henry was always cagey. “Plus benefits?”
“Plus benefits. You can also offer her a raise in a few weeks. I suspect you can afford it.”
“You mean that you can,” he said. “What’s in this for you?”
“I get to do a favour for two friends while we work this situation out. And I just might have a suggestion for you. You need to increase your profit from the bar. That means you have to get more people coming in. They have to stay longer and drink more. Have you thought about live entertainment?”
“Yeah, and I also thought about winning the lottery. Who’s gonna pay musicians if I can’t even pay a waiter?”
“There are ways. Have you ever heard of union pension fund gigs? No? Well let me look into it. It’s a way to get the union to pay musicians for a gig if the profits go to charity. In the meantime, call Carole. Right now.”
“You got it.”
I started puttering around in the kitchen, lit the barbecue and was just about to set the table when Carole burst in. She was a different girl.
“Danny, Henry just called. He’s figured out a way that he can keep me on, at least for a while. Isn’t that great?”
“Fantastic. Let’s celebrate.”
Carole had regained her appetite. She handily put away a steak, baked potato and sautéed mushrooms, as well as more than a few glasses of wine. There was no dessert. Carole was supposed to make it, but she’d been otherwise occupied. We didn’t miss it. After supper, we relaxed in the living room with some excellent Armagnac.
Carole had been quite light-hearted all through supper. Now, her mood turned more serious. “Danny, can I ask you a personal question?”
“Sure. You know you can.”
“I’ve never asked you before, but I’ve been curious for a long time. You have all this,” she made a circular gesture to indicate the house, “and I hear rumours that you own most of Queen Street. How did a musician get all that money?”