The Pope lets out this crazy shriek and rips the Minotaur’s head from its body. I ascend to the next level. The grin across his Holiness’s face grows as he holds the beast’s cranium high above his head, gripping one horn tightly and shaking it, ignoring the blood dripping onto his robe. My roommate Doug and I are playing Pope versus the World. It’s a video game. Ultra-realistic – neither of us has moved for three hours. A not unrewarded focus, since we’ve reached the third hardest level: Enter the Queen Mother. I control the Pope –- Doug, the Queen Mother. Then Jon, my other roommate, walks in and kicks my shoes in greeting. It’s distracting enough for Doug to opportunity cost me, using the attention lapse to trigger an SAS strike. Doug’s fast. Immediately tiny soldiers swing down ropes and dive-roll out of helicopters. A Harrier Jump Jet hovers above, expectantly. I press my controller’s ‘A’ button frantically, but it sucks crap and the Pope’s Swiss Guard refuses to activate. Too bad, those guys know wicked judo.
“Pope Bitch, take that!” Doug shrieks, contorting his body around his controller as he works it furiously.
On the screen, a sergeant places the Pope’s skullcap on his head and dances atop the papal corpse as the other soldiers link their little digital arms and sing God Save the Queen. That’s three hours totally wasted, I feel like having a bath.
From inside the TV, the Queen Mother smiles and waves. In our sitting room she reigns supreme. Next level I would have faced a posse of kung fu fighting abortion doctors. I’ll get there: it’s Easter Weekend and there’s nothing else to do.
Jon rests his pellet gun on his hip like he’s John Wayne. A small bush thing is growing yellow below the bathroom’s only window, obscuring it and making a perfect blind. Besides a yellowing deck chair, the yard holds only a bird feeder. It still has some seeds left and Jon is spending Easter Weekend culling the local squirrel population. The birds he killed last weekend.
The three of us share a duplex in outer Willowdale. It’s convenient for our jobs. Close to the Highway and next to a stretch of powerlines, so our electricity flows really strong.
Doug’s bona fide paparazzi. He hangs out a lot outside the big Toronto clubs and the duplex is covered in celebrity pics. We’ve got full body posters, glossy eight by tens and a wall featuring only Winona Ryder. She’s pretty much our favourite. Doug drives a Toyota Corolla and refuses to take public transport like Jon and I. Last weekend he got a shot of Kirstie Alley frenching James Earl Jones, or so he says – the picture’s kind of fuzzy. It’s not Winona Ryder, but regardless we are celebrating.
I’m planning on wearing my high top basketball sneakers all weekend. Wearing them I can really party. They have heavily padded ankles, black leather strapping and a thick bulging tongue which on each shoe protrudes like a thirsty dog’s. People laugh and say my feet look big, but wearing them I’m this Ninja who happens to live in Willowdale. And not just another IT guy on a government employment scheme with an interest in Karate. Jon, on the other hand, has legs that are big and round like these Thai elephants I saw on TV. He sweats constantly and I tell him to get better ankle support.
“Shut up,” he says. “How can I believe a guy who can’t even win playing the Pope?” He grabs Doug and they both take their pellet guns and run to the bathroom for more shooting. All three of us wear hockey helmets and from the stereo, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries booms. As they leave the room, I light a cigarette and look through our sitting room’s sliding glass door into the backyard. Outside, a baby crawls after some squirrels. Baby, I think.
“Guys! Guys! The neighbours’ baby is in the backyard again!” “What!” “Don’t shoot! The neighbours’ baby … Backyard!” I yell. I can faintly hear Doug mumble shit. I hear him pick up the phone and dial. “Your fucking baby’s in our yard, man!” He yells some more and then slams the phone down. “You should take it easy,” Jon says. He’s taken his hockey helmet off and is scratching his head. “It was an accident.” “We could be liable.” Doug says, “think about things for once.”
Weekends are the best. Even on casual Fridays my office bans sports shoes. It’s a traditional workplace. Everywhere people wear suits: Brown ones, short ones, suits with long arms, suits with big stripes, or with nothing whatsoever. Security wears these green jackets that make them look like really good golfers. If I could wear my shoes at work, I’d navigate digital entanglements like an arctic explorer around icebergs. I’d be a multitasking demon and jerk between open windows, gliding through their repugnant quirks. I’d banish incompatible code and evil, unreadable plug-ins to the recycling bin. And I’d filter through shit software like a DJ flipping past old records at a garage sale.
Except during shoots or when she’s doing publicity, nobody tells Winona Ryder what to wear. That’s why the wall used to be Meg Ryan’s but now belongs to Winona. When she came into our lives, it was like a fresh coat of paint on an old and rotten section of drywall, faded like its colours were out-of-focus. But she doesn’t seem so fresh faced anymore. Now there’s J-lo, Jolie and Britney out there, pumped up and straight from the glamour box. Winona’s becoming an awkward reminder of our earnest, all fuck-the-police and fight-the-power former selves. Embarrassing. Except for Jon. He still watches Heathers at least once a week. And he won’t let us take her down.
It’s the next day and we get up late. The only thing on TV is the News – a bald guy talking about violence in foreign countries. In response, Jon rolls a joint big enough to sink the Titanic. We channel surf for several hours and then our landlord’s wife comes over. She doesn’t tell us why she’s at our place, but she’s really hot. She’s like Russian or Moldavian or something — 20 years old, she wears a jean jacket overtop a black T-shirt with FUCK ME written in tight white letters across her chest. Except for Jon, nobody even notices the colour of her hair. He thinks she looks like a Slavic Winona Ryder.
“She’s like Winona with cheek bones.” He whispers to me as we watch her glimpse under a sagging chair.
She leaves after looking around and making some notes.
Our landlord’s really skinny, but we suspect he’s Mafia. His English is terrible. And his nephews have this thing with Jon. Ugly, ugly kids. They’re both squat with close-cropped hair, thick foreheads and wide nostrils. Once, they were walking by and began poking Jon as he brought cases of Cinquante in from Doug’s Corolla. He almost dropped the beer, and when he told them to stop, they laughed and kept doing it. I think they wanted him to chase them. But Jon went to his room and traced their movements through the blinds of his bedroom window with his pellet gun. They pounded on the door for him to come out but he pretended nobody was home.
Later, while playing Pope versus the World, Doug and I wonder about what our landlord’s wife wanted. Our conversation quickly skates into a discussion of how hot she is and then moves to include hotties in general.
Jon enters the room with three bottles of Cinquante.
“Who wants to hear some classic rock!” he shouts. We cry yes and Jon slides The Spirit in the Sky into the stereo. We open and clink our beers, toasting our landlord’s wife. Returning to the game, I work the pontiff hard and he fights like he’s on crusade.
Later still, the yard is empty of squirrels and with The Ten Commandments about to start, we settle in for the evening. We’ve each got a ratty chesterfield. Doug says it’s a bullshit movie with a bullshit message, and him and Jon argue over who they would rather party with: Moses or the Pharaoh. It’s a toss up between being fanned by slave girls with palm fronds and Moses’ crazy magic. I think no contest, but Doug stresses the lessons learned by repeated watchings of Scarface. Their talking washes out the movie’s dialogue.
“TV’s talking!” I say, “don’t be rude.”
Ringing doorbell wakes me – early – next morning. It’s the neighbours. They’re a young couple, cute and in their teens. They want to apologize for the day before.
“Dude, so sorry about Baby here gettin’ into your yard,” says Paul – the daddy. His Expos hat betrays Cornwall origins. The baby gurgles unintelligibly in his arms.
“Yeah, Jonathon here was supposed to be looking after.” Shelly, the mommy, pats their four-year-olds head. Like her he’s blond, but with less roots. He has a smile that’s going to need braces.
“Say hi, Jonathon.”
He stares at me, saying nothing.
“That’s all right,” I say, smiling at the child.
Doug has joined me in the door. I nudge him in the ribs.
“Hey, I’m sorry about blowing up like that,” he says. “But it’s like our yard you know.”
“You guys could be liable,” Shelly says wisely. “Here, I made some soup.”
She hands over three bowls of hot, clearish liquid.
“To make things up.” She looks at me and adds, “I like your shoes.”
With her paint-on red top stretched round her torso, she’s pretty in a confused adolescent, yet maternal kind of way. Jon pushes past and steps onto the squat concrete of our stoop, rubbing his eyes.
“Something smells like potty,” he says.
Paul and Shelly take their kids back next door.
Doug slowly brings his spoon to his mouth, blowing its heat away. He’s standing in the middle of the sitting room, deciding what to do.
“Ack” he spits. “This soup is horrible.”
“Terrible,” Jon confirms, taking a sip. “Just terrible.” He shakes his head, disappointed.
Placing his bowl under his chesterfield, Doug sits down. Jon takes his bowl and goes to the Kitchen while Doug and I restart Pope versus the World. From the beginning. This time Doug is the Pope. Level one he’s against Russian Old Believers. I control their Patriarch. My main weapon is a spin kick and the foul-smelling incense I twirl above my head. It’s not very effective. Doug has developed this mad move where he makes the Pope roll close, inside my defences, and grabs my beard while punching me in the stomach.
“Do you think Shelly’s hot?” I ask.
“Obviously she’s fertile, but she’s no Winona Ryder.” He pauses the game and packs our hookah’s bowl. Copper and gold imitation, it comes from the Orient via Yonge Street. We’ve attached surgical tubes to its pipes and it reaches anywhere in the Duplex. Doug makes the hookah’s bubbles do their work.
After him, I inhale deeply and sputter a cough before we resume playing.
Everything is still. Only the occasional beep is audible. Doug even ceases to grunt over his controller.
“With Moses you could turn people into Locusts. Stop traffic an’ shit.”
Then he returns to seriously kicking my ass.
The next thing happening is George, our landlord, comes over. His nephews accompany him, declining to take off their plastic-looking leather jackets. George’s shirt is unbuttoned enough to reveal his mostly hairless chest and its single, dangling medallion. He walks into our sitting room and settles with a sigh into my chesterfield.
“Area re-zoned for Industrial Application,” he says. He waves his arms.
“Factory get built right there!” he points out the window at a squirrel, or the yard and the space beyond. It depends on your perspective.
“Someone wants to build a factory on a squirrel!” Jon says, forcing surprise into his voice. We don’t bother answering him.
“What kind of factory?” Doug asks.
“Big.” George says. He holds his arms far apart, doing the universal sign for BIG.
“Cool” I say.
When Doug gets mad, red splotches splay across his forehead like he’s stepped on a rake. I watch his face go fire engine red.
“We’ve got a lease, buddy,” he says.
“Not, I find damage.” George replies.
One of the nephews looks at Jon and pokes the other one. They both smile. Jon fakes like he’s going for his pellet gun, which is propped in a corner. Doug and I turn and look at Winona’s wall. Her pictures cover a gigantic hole I kicked through the duplex’s crappy drywall while practicing karate. It’s all too much for Jon and he starts giggling, his body heaving in great waves. George’s nephews call him a girl and then, as quickly as they arrived, they leave.
Through the duplex’s windows we watch them walk to their car and drive off. Out the driver-side window George shakes his fist. Jon rushes to the bathroom, but the squirrel has disappeared. When he comes back, he immediately resumes the Moses-versus-the-Pharaoh debate with Doug.
“I would party with Mosaoh.” Jon announces, scratching his hand across the air like he’s a DJ and there’s an invisible turntable in front of him.
“Who the hell’s that?”
“Their adopted daughter. She’s got a great personality.”
Doug appears to reconsider. He mumbles something about false idols. But really, he just enjoys arguing. A barely suppressed smile tugs the ends of his mouth.
“Slave girls, Doug,” I say, choosing sides.
“... Versus forty years wandering the desert, man,” Jon says.
“Wicked falafels, smoked meat.” Doug replies, pointing his finger at us. “Hot Jewish chicks.”
This makes me hungry. But I wonder whether Doug is being racist and consider demoing new karate moves to him. Let him inspect the tread of my wicked shoes while I learn him like I did the wall. Bring down the God Wrath – like in the last level of Pope versus the World. The Pope fights Jesus for supremacy. Playing one person, only Doug’s ever made it that far, but he feels uncomfortable fighting Jesus on account that his favourite Aunt belongs to this Pentecostal congregation in the States. If he’s on a big run though, he’ll keep playing. But before I can make a move, I notice a Robin land on the feeder and peck gingerly at the seeds scattered inside it. The first of the year, I’ve seen. I don’t want to say anything, but Doug sees it and screams at Jon to get the guns. The two of them rush to the bathroom and fire as fast as their pellet guns allow. They miss.
“Tell your friends!” Doug yells after the retreating bird’s feathers. Claiming he delivered a mortal wound, from now on, Jon wants us to call him the Anti-Bird Killer Machine. Too long. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. Instead, Doug calls him Bird Shit Fucker. Which proves a bit stickier.
That night, after we’re all tired and when The Ten Commandments' last installment finishes, I turn the TV’s contrast down low and let it sooth us to sleep. We think of Winona and what she’s doing. In another region, in a different part of town, in a room decorated her way and nothing like the one we drift to sleep in. She’s probably combing her hair. I think of her pulling knots from hair that’s already growing back from her last movie and imagine her practicing smiles in the mirror. My roommates and I sigh at the thought.