“You probably don’t remember me,” he said. I squinted, eyeing up the six-foot figure across the room. There was a smile, but not the sort that hugs you. My elbow cocked with a mind of its own. Ankles stiffened in resolve.
“Where are you from, friend?”
“Alberta,” he said. “You and I was in Grand Cache back in a eighties.”
My mind thumbed quick-like through a stack of twenty-five calendars, trying to time-adjust the shape now filling the barbershop doorway. 1987 was a lot longer than al lifetime ago. It was the year I discovered heroin, and all the vivid details that brings to a life; a year of burning bridges. ’87 was the year I went nuclear.
“Sorry bud, the old memory doesn’t work so well these days. Lots of living has gone by since Grande…” The two hundred pound black man stepped into the light and slowly removed his toque. The gap between his teeth was still there, swallowing light like an Einstein physics theory. So was the scar.
“Inch,” I said.
“Yeah.” We stared at each other across a quarter-century – fatter, balder, less sure about what comes next. Somehow he seemed taller. The forehead still jutted out like the front-end of a Humvee. I remember the distinctive sound it had made when I smashed an aluminum bat across it.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “At was a long time ago. I don’t want no piece of it.” I stared straight into his eyes, hunting for the smallest sparkle of a lie. But the windows were empty, the house vacant. The hate that used to live there had moved on.
Eighteen years ago, I turned my bow into the wind and did something seemingly out of vogue these days. I changed my mind. The setting was a segregation cell in Ottawa, where I was wickedly plotting my own Curt Cobain moment. At twenty-seven years old, I had tasted every thrill, chill and spill that the underworld could offer, and ending it all just felt like the right thing to do. Thankfully I snapped out of it. Over the next twenty-four hours – the most important ones of my life – I would reach out for help, stare wide-eyed into the abyss, and finally make a decision I have yet to waver from. My book of life was about to get a major rewrite; goodbye Arabian Nights, hello Maurice Sendak.
But what a smug, self centred know-it-all couldn’t have imagined was how littered the road ahead would be with questions. If change was the new tune, then who would be the piper? Buddha, Jesus, Tony Robbins? And what about all that wreckage behind me? Most fairytales promise you a land without baggage. Yet, Cinderella was hardly a career criminal. What about the things I’d never been caught for? And those other things – the ones that stalk you in your sleep like a hereditary gene? What do you do when the wicked witch doesn’t melt?
“You know, I use to collect clipping bout you from the paper,” Inch said. “I kept the one from you lass escape on a bulletin board for a lot a years. And at TV show you did – on Discovery – I must a watch at five times.”
Then it was my turn. I explained what had changed for me, how I had children now, how I was part of a family. I mentioned my spiritual journey, the decision I made in a cell eighteen years ago and how it steers every inch of my life. With each detail, he nodded a silent approval, breaking eye contact only at the mention of faith. But I’m used to that, and didn’t linger.
“I bin through hell since a lass time I seen you. I bin stabbed, piped – even bin lit on fire. I done most a my time in a hole. Didn’t hardly talk to nobody for sixteen years.”
I thought back to that parallel universe, where Inch and I had played our game of one-on-one baseball in the gym bathroom. I don’t know which startled me more – that the first shot didn’t kill him or that the second shot put him back on his feet. If that kind of tough could be canned, you could give it out to cancer patients.
“So how did you survive?”
“I got into music. I had a keyboard and my own computer in my cell – back when they let us – and I just made my music. I got good. I even sent out some tapes to people in the business, an aye said day want me to call when I get out. All a got is one more year and I’m done with awl this.”
Last night I saw Inch again. He came back to the barbershop – this time with a couple of cold Pepsi’s. “You cut black hair?” he asked.
I’d be lying if I said that my clipper hand wasn’t shaking as it shored through Inch’s time-thinned tresses. And I know that the veteran gangster never once closed his eyes while in the chair. But as we sat across from each other afterwards, nursing cold colas and swapping war stories of the good old days that never were, it felt about as close to happily-ever-after as my story may ever get.