Monday night was the deadest night of 2007. It was probably the deadest night so far of the twenty-first century, at least in this town. The Riders had won the Grey Cup the day before, which had provoked a massive spasm in the guts of the city. Everyone disgorged into the streets in celebration. Now the partiers, the street whoopers and the basement screamers, had agreed to lay down on their backs and stare at the ceiling for the next twenty-four hours. I thought it would be a good time to go out.
I went to Abstractions, a coffee shop owned by a Syrian family. They brought to the neighbourhood a ready source of falafel, zaatar, and their strange overseas religion, which they called World Cup Soccer. I got a cup of coffee and sat down. The owner spent the time staring out the window and remarking that he needed to clean the ceiling. I was the only one in the place.
Fifteen minutes into my cup of coffee and my copy of The Public Burning, a man in his forties accompanying his mother, a toothless woman with a home perm and dye job, stepped in from the darkness. They were poor. Not just poor: destitute. The destitute have a way of looking like they've stepped out of some other time, wearing last decade's fashionable coats and T-shirt slogans. They look like they stutter through time, sticking bits and pieces to themselves as they go, a cap here, a pair of boots there, buttons from forgotten causes. They gave me a smile as they went by.
&mdash Long time no see! the man called out to the owner, as if he were addressing someone severely deaf. Over the next half hour it became clear that he spoke to everyone this way. They ordered two bowls of chicken soup, which they agreed was superior to the soup down at Soul's Harbour, the local mission.
&mdash Hey! the man shouted at the owner. Aren't you guys from Arabia or something?
I pulled my head behind my book. Somehow I thought that it would make the direction that this conversation was headed in a little less embarrassing.
&mdash We are from Syria.
&mdash Syria! Hey, isn't that near the Dead Sea?
&mdash Very close. The Dead Sea is in Jordan.
&mdash You hear that, Ma? Irrigation! He shouted, as if they had been talking about irrigation. Nothing will grow around the Dead Sea. They have to use irrigation. It's too salty!
His mother, who had been silently spooning chicken soup into her mouth for the last ten minutes, raised her head from her bowl.
&mdash Macedonia, she whispered.
&mdash Yes, said the owner. At one time, Macedonia.
He pronounced it 'Mack-edonia', like macaroon. 'At one time' was a diplomatic way of putting it. The last time Syria or Jordan had been called anything like Macedonia, Alexander the Great had been running things, and Jesus was still three hundred years in the making. How old was this woman?
&mdash How's your soup, Ma?
Instead of replying, she picked up the slice of panini and began to turn it around in her hands. I watched her long fingers pick up and land on the bread as it rotated, as if she were mapping its shape.
&mdash They gave me unleavened bread, she croaked in her desert-dry voice.
&mdash That's because they're from Syria, Ma.
Yes, I thought, and she's here on vacation from the Byzantine Empire.