One Swell Foop

Lust-fuelled activism gone awry.

By Karen Ritchie

Afterward, there were questions about how she got into the rafters in the first place. The answer became almost immediately irrelevant in a flurry of finger-pointing about the lack of security and lurid speculation as to what might have happened if she’d had a gun or a bomb. The message on the banner was more or less ignored. Instead, the incident became another example of why, in a post-9/11 world, Canadians need to consider themselves more worthy as targets for terrorism. She thought the op/ed folks might have had a point there.

Fact is, she just walked in to the AgriPlex that day. A brown-skinned person in worker’s coveralls is easy to not notice. That’s because brown-skinned people in uniforms are a dime a dozen. It’s a description, she often thought, that would sum up their wages, too. Not that poverty wages are only for people of colour, she would hasten to add. They’re also for white people with no education, anybody who is just out of prison and addicts who can’t hold a job for much longer than it takes to process the paperwork.

But she didn’t put herself in the rafters because of her brown skin or her wages. She made good money as a human resources coordinator and she seldom thought of herself as a person of colour. And she didn’t hang her banner to protest the social conditions of convicts and addicts. She was and still is a great believer that negative consequences are the best motivation for better behaviour.

In her police statement, she wrote that she did it because she loved her country. But, she admits to herself, it was mostly because of Jeremy’s green shoes. She is nothing if not honest.

Her name is Erica Avaro: third-generation Canadian, named for a character on her grandmother’s favourite soap opera. She is built like her grandmother: square-shaped and inclined to heaviness.

Jeremy said he picked her for the job because she was so inoculated. He meant “innocuous,” but she didn’t correct him. She would never correct him. He often “wixed his mords” when very excited or agitated. In fact, Jeremy didn’t really speak English as much as fight it. It was a battle he waged using new words as if they were boulders, catapulted into his speech with great flair if not precision. Once, joking, he described his relationship with the English language as a constant squirmish. He meant skirmish, of course. But squirmish sounded better to her. It was how she felt about spiders.

She saw Jeremy the first time in the coffee house.

He was there with a guy she would later come to know as Chick. Chick’s real name was Charles Nelson Lytle, the son of a well-to-do family in the States, happily rid of him. When she learned his name she smiled and asked if the sky was falling. He didn’t smile back. She didn’t made the joke again. She didn’t really like Chick that much anyway. He made her feel like a servant.

But Jeremy. She liked him on sight and fell helplessly in love inside of 20 minutes. She never expected him to love her back. Guys like Jeremy never did love girls like her. But she was ready to do anything, just to stay near him.

He was handsome in the scruffy, intense way of a doctor who has spent too long triaging victims of a disaster. He wore a grey knit hat, a too-small button-up coat with a multi-coloured knit scarf and green canvas running shoes on surprisingly narrow feet.

Erica could tell just by looking at him that he was passionate. The green shoes said he was extraordinary.

She got a coffee and found a table where she could watch him surreptitiously. She knew she would be late for work, but for once in her life she didn’t care. There was something compelling about the way he leaned into the table when he spoke. His teeth were small and she felt her stomach flip in that good way when she imagined him gently biting her body… anywhere, anywhere.

Chick pushed a piece of paper toward him, and she saw the long slim fingers of Jeremy’s hand competently straighten the page for better viewing, although he would not deign to actually pick it up. So self-contained! So composed!

Erica would have immediately taken it up, given it careful reading as tribute to the author. She paid such homage easily and unconsciously.

She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but something about her attention communicated to Jeremy. He looked her way, and she saw light shine out of his brown eyes like he had been lit from within. She may have actually gasped; if her mouth didn’t, her heart did.

He didn’t smile, exactly. But neither did he frown. He just looked at her. She panicked and fled, abandoning her coffee and mittens.

But she came back. Not that day, of course. The next day, and the next, and so on until she realized that Gorgeous Green Shoes man would be there every Tuesday from 8:15 until 9:00 a.m.  It took some experimenting to pinpoint, and a half-day off work, but she had so much overtime banked that a half-day here and there was a drop in the bucket.

Erica would have been content to admire him from a distance indefinitely, living for Tuesday morning, fuelling fantasies that sustained her Wednesday through Monday and twice on Sunday. But one day he actually spoke to her, and so her life changed.

“Like dogs?” he asked.

He was sitting at his usual table. It was spring, now, so he didn’t have the scarf. But he still wore the hat. And, she’d learned through her weeks of observation, he was drawn to dark t-shirts and narrow-legged jeans that sat low on his hips and saran-wrapped his legs. There were slight variations on the theme, but always he wore the green canvas runners.

She liked to get to the coffee shop early so she could get a good spot to watch him come in. On this day, he sat down without first getting his coffee and set a large manila envelope on the table. He shook some photographs onto the table and she watched, mesmerized by his fingers, as he straightened one then another, moving them on the table like an artist experimenting with colours.

At first Erica didn’t realize he’d spoken to her.

“You a dog-person? You like dogs?” He had the tone of someone repeating himself, clarifying.

“Yes.” Erica did like dogs, especially if he wanted her to, although she generally preferred birds. They were so much more compact and sensibly designed, so light, so easily able to rise above everything common and earth-bound. Dogs were okay, but their cheerful, slobbery, gambolling approaches made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t quite put a finger on why. Understanding her distrust of cats was easy. Cats always made her feel rejected, and really—who needed more of that?

“Got some pictures here.” he said.

It took her a moment to understand—he was inviting her to come look at them. She bumped her table when she got up, and slopped some coffee over the rim of her mug. She felt huge, clumsy. He was moving the photos around again, restlessly, as if rearranging them in a way that would make sudden sense.

She realized what she was looking at. Dead dogs. There must have been a half dozen, lying in a haphazard heap as though they’d collapsed there after an exhausting game of—what did the kids call that game? It was one where she’d always ended up at the bottom, required by the rules to be a good sport or go home.

“Dog pile.” Erica didn’t realize she had spoken out loud until Jeremy’s head snapped up.

“Aberton.” he said, as if it were an explanation. “They’re supposed to put them in garbage bags and take them to the dump. A friend of mine took this, to show.”

“Show you dead dogs?” It didn’t fit with her idea of what a friend would do, but she could certainly be no judge of that.

“To show the world.”

“Why?” she watched him put the photographs together like cards in a deck.

“To make it stop. To hold it up to the public eye, and shake people up. Arouse their despondence.” He stabbed a finger down on the topmost photo. “We are looking at the future of this county.”

“Dead dogs.” Erica was doing her best to follow along.

Jeremy nodded toward the satchel that hung over the back of her nearby chair.

“You with the media?”

There was a Rogers logo on the flap. She got the satchel as a door prize at a fundraiser for her niece’s baseball team.

“No.” Erica said. In the heartbeat it took to watch the disappointment settle on his face, she decided to tell a quasi-lie. “But I know someone who knows someone who is.”

She was nothing if not resourceful.

“We’ll call it DINN for Dogs,” Jeremy said. They were in the park this time, as there was a smaller chance of being overheard. “Sounds like some kind of puppy chow,” muttered Chick. “How about Cures for Curs?”

She began sitting at his table every Tuesday morning, had her disastrous first meeting with Chick and was easily and effortlessly included in their planning sessions. She was thrilled, and tried not to draw attention to herself.

In the beginning, the planning was vague: maybe turn the photos into posters, maybe hijack a billboard, maybe spray paint a government office. Chick produced ideas like he was pulling them out of a cigarette pack.

“Not enough!” Jeremy took a quick slurp and gestured widely with an arm while he swallowed. “We need to do something that will gag the say-nayers and ferment change across the country—all in one swell foop.”

“I thought we were only mad at Aberton.” Erica ventured.

“Aberton,” Jeremy sighed impatiently, “is just assymptom.”

She learned that the Aberton Animal Shelter had come under fire because dogs that were not adopted were euthanized with the emissions of a running vehicle in a garage.  Animal rights activists had protested so loudly that most of the dogs were now put down with an injection. Most of them.

All the early bad publicity uncovered another practice at Aberton which gave animal rights protectors much greater distress: the shelter gave dozens of unwanted dogs and cats to various universities and colleges for research purposes.

Jeremy explained that it was a simple supply and remand situation: researchers needed healthy animals and the supply around Aberton was pretty much never ending.  Many unwanted dogs came from the nearby reservation, where, Jeremy pointed out, attempts at spaying and neutering were a hiss and mitt operation. Many animals also showed up on the criss-cross of country roads where urban dwellers dumped their cats and dogs in the hope that these can-fed pets would somehow survive in the wild.

The activists wanted to put a stop to all that. Jeremy and Chick wanted to put a stop to the stop. They were all for animal research: the more, the better.

Erica learned more when the three of them were getting supplies to make the banner. Chick said he and Jeremy were founding members of the Calgary branch of Drugs I Need Now (DINN), a group formed online to protest the drug approval process in Canada. It took years longer for medicines to get to market in Canada than anywhere else, forcing Canadians to travel thousands of kilometres for cutting-edge drug therapies.

“And you gotta have MS or cancer or something before you can get your dope legal.” Chick frowned.

“Canada sucks.” Jeremy agreed.

It was very difficult for Erica to hear criticism of her country in any form, and normally she would at least think defensively. But this was Jeremy.

All she could think to say was, “Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?”

Jeremy said, “Only if you’re having unprotected sex.”

He looked right at her when he said it. It might be as close as he ever came to flirting, a male/female mind game which he would no doubt see as completely beneath him. Her brain took its time rolling over the last three words.

She blushed. “Okay, I’m in.”

Jeremy nodded as Erica paid for the paint. She was nothing if not a team player.

“We’ll call it DINN for Dogs.” Jeremy said. They were in the park this time, as there was a smaller chance of being overheard. They were looking at the dead dog photos again.

“Sounds like some kind of puppy chow,” Chick muttered. “How about Cures for Curs?”

The plan was to blow up the photo to make a huge banner that would be dropped from the rafters during a news conference at the AgriPlex. The conference was completely unrelated to dogs or pharmaceuticals, but a bigwig from Health Canada would be there.

That information was in a press release Erica discovered online while researching how to use the media. When she told him about it, Jeremy was so pleased he actually hugged her. Then he hugged Chick, which took a little of the thrill out of it. Still, with her newfound status as media guru, she felt she was earning her spot at Jeremy’s side. She wanted to be indispensable.

They had already deferred to her cautious assertion about the necessity of a good headline for their release. She felt brave enough to venture further.

“How about ‘Don’t let them Die in Vain,’” Erica offered.

Chick scowled, but Jeremy looked at her and smiled. “I’ll write it Goth style, in red and black.”

She went to that park three more times, alone, and tried to put her hand on the exact spot on the grass where his head had been. She imagined that she felt her palms tingle. She was nothing if not sensitive.

It was a spider that undid her. The day of the news conference, she got up early, brushed her teeth and drank two cups of coffee. Her stomach was soon lurching with caffeine and fear: she was afraid she would throw up and embarrass herself, and she was afraid she wouldn’t throw up and would feel like this forever.

Jeremy and Chick were waiting in the parking lot. They had agreed it was smartest to take her car, and smarter still if she didn’t know where they lived. Jeremy pushed a plastic bag toward her.

“Here. Pinched this from a City deployee.” It was her worker’s uniform, one of a half dozen missing coveralls that would later cause three employees to get permanent reprimands in their files. If Erica had known that, she would have included it as one more good reason not to have put the coveralls on, not to have gone on to the AgriPlex or to have gone through the doors Chick’s friend had told him were always left open for staff who needed a place to make out.

If she had known that Jeremy would not be with her, that he thought he’d be better off near the podium so he could be more easily quoted, she might have balked. Had she known she would have to wait with Chick in the rafters, she would have proposed an alternative plan. Perhaps something that could have been done from home.

As it was, Erica and Chick left Jeremy, climbed up to the gantry, made their way over the safety rails and slid across the beams to the point that Chick deemed best for the banner’s unfurling. After that, there was nothing to do but secure the banner and wait.

At first she tried to have a whispered conversation, something to steady her nerves and make her forget her need to go to the bathroom. Chick’s grunted responses were a rebuke to her inability to grasp the stealth of the thing. He leaned his head on a beam, and looked away so that she couldn’t see his face. That was fine: his was the clearer view of the floor below. He would see Jeremy’s drop signal first.

For awhile, she tried to imagine her triumphant reunion with Jeremy—presuming they’d be put in the same police car. She figured she had enough bail money for all of them, although she secretly wouldn’t mind letting Chick fend for himself.

When she thought about what her parents would say, she cringed. But when she thought about her sister Eva, with her smugly successful marriage and trophy family life, or some of the women in the office where she worked, she was grimly pleased.

Between the pressures of her conscience, her fantasies and her bladder, the hours passed slowly. She watched the deep, steady inhale and exhale of Chick’s breathing and gradually realized he had fallen asleep.

He slept as the staff began to set up chairs for the media conference. He slept as a couple of people in suits came and fussed about water glasses and where to display the media kits. He slept through the sound check, and he even slept through the consternation of the people in suits when the display with the sponsors’ logos fell over.

Erica could see no sign of Jeremy. He was staying out of sight until the last moment. But she was getting more nervous, and would have loved for even a glimpse of his green shoes—those canvas reminders that a great country stayed great only through the passion and commitment of the people who refused to let it make mistakes.

She was bolstering herself with moderate success when a spider dropped onto Chick’s forehead. He slept as it scuttled purposefully in the direction of his ear.

“Chick!” Erica whispered. She didn’t dare speak louder, and couldn’t move closer without crumpling the banner.

He slept through her warning. The spider might have heard her, though, for it froze. It waited, then turned and made a hasty dash across Chick’s cheek, over his lip and into his mouth.

Erica simultaneously lost bladder control and consciousness.

Luckily, she didn’t fall far. Her foot caught in the rope that was strung across the top of the banner, and a miraculous pulling and tightening of knots held her by the ankle for the few moments it took her to recover consciousness. But she dangled upside down from the banner, now unfurled vertically rather than horizontally.

She was still swinging with the momentum of her fall and spent a few moments reorienting herself. She did notice Chick doing a hurried bum-scuttle away from her, back to the gantry, and disappearing without any of his usual slouching.

She had not called out. The only thing alerting people below to her presence was the gentle motion of her swaying banner. As they watched, her weight pulled more rope loose, and more, so that she lowered almost elegantly nearer to the ground. The media conference hadn’t started, but some early attendees took pictures before the firefighters arrived with their inflatable bag and the security people cut the final ropes.

Don’t let them Die in Vein.

All the words in Jeremy’s Goth-style writing were legible. The picture of the dogs was somewhat twisted because the banner was somewhat twisted, but it was clear they were dogs. And although Erica’s face was not visible, she was certainly guilty as eventually charged.

Someone mailed Erica a clipping from the weekly City Star a month later. The writer proposed that it was actually more humane to euthanize dogs by gas than injection. The article cited the incident in the AgriPlex and suggested it proved a groundswell of public opinion supporting the notion.

She was nothing if not bemused.

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