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"9th & Hennepin" • Tom Waits (by Bob Armstrong)

The furnished apartment is supposed to have satellite television, but it’s just static.

“Well,” the caretaker says, “it was cold last night and now it’s warm, so that causes the metal in the dish to contract and expand. It messes up the reception.”

I nod. He’s got a point. 

Later, I realize it’s always colder at night and warmer in the day.

The couple across the hall are fighting. He’s screaming. She’s wailing. Glass is breaking. I call the police, then realize he’ll guess it was me. I place my ice axe by my door in case he breaks it down.

I’m listening to a lot of Tom Waits on my boom box. It’s an off-key, dissonant world, steam swirling over nocturnal streets. Well, not for most people. For them, it’s a scenic ski town in the B.C. Rockies. But it’s my beat. There are 5,200 stories in the city of Fernie – 5,500 if you count Hosmer, halfway to Sparwood – and it’s my job to tell them.

I’m getting to know the woman at the 7-Eleven. Well, maybe not know her. But she seems to recognize me. I stop in for a coffee when it’s late and I have a couple of hours of writing to do. I lean against the counter while she takes my money. From outside, I imagine, it must look like Nighthawks at the Diner.

Monday night is city council night. Friday night, I’m capturing the action at the hockey arena. Saturday night, I’m in the office late finishing my week’s stories. Sundays I take my films and the disks containing my week’s stories to my sister paper’s office in Sparwood to put the week’s edition together.

When things go well, I’m home in time for CBC’s Sunday night jazz at 10. When they don’t, which is most weeks, there’s nothing but my boom box. My body’s just off the Crowsnest Highway, but my mind is at Ninth and Hennepin. 

I haven’t heard the fighting for a week. Maybe the police gave him a stern talking-to. There’s a knock on the door and it’s the woman from across the hall: dark hair, a little younger than me, holding a four-year-old by the hand. 

“Can you give me a ride to my babysitter’s place?”

A rumpled knight errant, I’m at her service.

There’s another knock a week later. She invites me over to watch a movie as thanks for the ride. She gives me a beer and puts a zombie movie on and I wonder if my ears deceived me that night. Maybe it was a different couple fighting?

“Say, did you hear a big argument a couple weeks ago? About 2 a.m. on a Friday?”

“Yeah, that was the night my boyfriend choked me with his boot. He’s up in Northern B.C. now.”

The paper’s losing money. The owner gives up the office on Second Avenue and lays off the part-time receptionist who deals with classified ads and takes messages for me. The owner rents me a corner in the basement of the McLeod’s hardware store, where I set up my desk. The classified ad calls will now go to the Sparwood office.

It’s a Friday night and the hockey game’s over and I don’t feel like going back to the apartment yet, so I head to the bar next door. My neighbour flags me down. I order a beer and start talking about the game but another woman comes over and the two of them exchange words and then fists. The bouncer drags them away. I never see or hear my neighbour again.

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m typing furiously to get through all my stories for the week: city council, court, school board, arts council, sports. It’s early spring and the bikes and lawnmowers are set up in the basement. 

“Excuse me. Do you have bikes with training wheels?” 

I want to say I don’t work there. But obviously I’m there and I’m working and explaining would be both too time-consuming and too humiliating, so I lead them to the bike display and find one in the right size.

Twenty two years later, in Minneapolis, I make a pilgrimage to Ninth and Hennepin. It’s just a normal downtown corner. I feel cheated.

Bob Armstrong is a novelist, playwright, speechwriter and occasional comedian. His novel Prodigies (Five Star/Gale) won the 2022 Margaret Laurence Prize for Fiction in the Manitoba Book Awards. His short fiction and non-fiction have been published in Prairie Fire, Exile, The Fiddlehead, FreeFall, anthologies of speculative fiction and humour, and various U.S. literary magazines. He lives in Winnipeg. 


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