The Hanged Man Café by Andrew Tibbetts
Here it is,” my mother says, excited to have found her way to somewhere in Toronto, even though The Hanged Man Café is a mere three buildings from my apartment and behind the only tree on the block. The café changes who they hang in effigy from their spindly tree more often than they change the table linen. Today it appears to be a former, much-hated prime minister back in the news. A dummy in a suit with a papier-mâché face dangles from the thickest branch.
They’ve given him a bag with a huge dollar sign on it, drooping from his hand. My mother looks at him closely, swats a fly off his nose, turns and arranges her face into what she hopes is urban nonchalance.
“I’ll have my usual,” she says as she begins to rearrange the patio.
Her usual! We’ve only ever been here once before. I tell myself: be glad she’s normalizing the city. Previous visits, she’d gritted her teeth the entire time, startled at every siren, every street-person’s shout, every clanging garbage truck and hadn’t missed an opportunity to wax poetic about the quiet little town she’d retired to: Lovelyville. I’m not kidding.
While I endure the line-up, she moves a table and three chairs into the shade of Brian Mulroney’s chin, lifting them one by one so they won’t scrape on the patio stones. After I put the coffees down I drag my chair back into the warm sunlight.
“Hello skin cancer!” I say.
“Don’t joke,” my mother says, sipping her latte. “I never told you, but I had cancer.” She holds a hand up to my gasp. “I said, ‘had,’ honey—past tense. I’m perfectly fine now.”
She puts her latte down, leaving behind a foamy moustache above her smile. Her eyes swing to the trannies at the next table who’ve just burst into operatic giggles, possibly unrelated.
“Wipe your mouth,” I say. “And oh my god when? No, your top lip. And why didn’t you tell me? Right in the middle, you’ve got Hitler froth.”
She licks it off and says, “Just a little lump when you were about to go off to university. I didn’t want you to worry. You had school. I do like this fancy coffee. I can’t believe how much it costs, but it’s delicious.”
“You’re paying for the ambience,” I say waving my hand in a 360 around the joint.
“They’ve painted a bunch of old stuff black,” she says. “And what do they have against poor Bob Hope.”
“A lump, eh,” I say, “in your...,” I stir my Americano—no milk, no sugar, nothing, but I stir it
like crazy. I cough. I stretch my neck to the left and then to the right. My mother looks through her suddenly fascinating purse.
“Breast,” I eventually force out of my mouth.
“Don’t announce it to the world,” she says taking a quick Linda Blair at the trannies. They are checking her out now, if they hadn’t been before.
“I think it was why your father left me. He panicked. One reason, anyway.”
“Jesus,” I say.
“Why don’t you just make coffee at home?” she says. “If you must have the fancy stuff, get a little
espresso machine at Kmart. I’ve seen them. Personally, I’m happy with my drip.”
“I can’t sit at some drinking coffee. I’d be crawling the walls. With loneliness.”
“Loneliness? I thought you had a new fellow, this Todd person, who’s late by the way. And this is a long trip we’re going on.” She pats her luggage. And gives some serious eyebrow to my little knapsack.
“Just a date.”
“Oh. Your sister thought it was serious. You’re not going to meet anyone here, Simon. Unless…oh my goodness, you aren’t…into…these…what do you call them?” She leans in and whispers, Hermaphrodites? Is that what they are?”
“We’re T-Girls, Poodle,” the taller one says, leaning in to our conversation. “Hermaphrodites are those people who have both ladies’ and gentlemen’s business between their legs and we call them ‘intersexed’ now.”
The shorter one says, “If I had both bits of business between my legs I’d never leave the house. You know what I’m sayin’, Poodle?”
The taller one adds, “People’d tell me to go fuck myself and I’d get right on that. You know what I’m talking about, Poodle?”
My mother hasn’t the faintest idea what to say. She tries to pull a comment from her brain. Her mouth opens but it stays there, empty of sound. I refuse to bail her out. We’d had a little fight that morning and also she didn’t tell me when she had cancer.
Todd pulls up in a little red convertible. Parks on the sidewalk right beside us. He hops over the door without opening it. Stylish! James-Bond-ish! If he hadn’t’ve tripped it would have been the height of cool.
From the ground he says, “Look at the space I scored! You must be Mrs. H. There’s a lot of gum under your table, looks like a map of Switzerland. It’s a whole different world from down here. I’m so glad I fell. I’m Todd, Simon’s boyfriend.” He stands, kisses her hand and then my cheek.
“My date, not my boyfriend,” I say.
“We’ll see about that!” he says.
The trannies giggle and Todd says, “What are you crackwhores looking at?”
The trannies go back to checking their compacts.
“Fucking skanky bitches. You know they’re not up this early, Mrs. H. They just haven’t been to bed yet,” he says.
“It’s not really early by this point,” my mother says.
“Todd, how much did that car cost to rent?” I ask.
He reaches back and pets it, “A lot of blowjobs in the back room, but worth every slurp...oh, mother of...I’m a sex worker, Mrs. H. Did Simon tell you?”
She looks at her hand where Todd kissed it.
“No, he didn’t,” she says. “That must be … very interesting work.”
“Would that it were!” he says. “Last night I fell asleep with some guy rimming me.
Anyway: spending money! Coffee is calling me—I’m getting myself one to go. Either of you want another for the road?”
I do. She doesn’t. He goes in to the counter. And I wait for it.
“Todd seems very...,” she says.
“Yes very,” I say.
“Aren’t you worried about getting...,” she says.
“It’s called safe sex, mother. They call it that because it’s safe. And you can stop rubbing your hand with the napkin, you’re fine.”
“Oh stop, Simon. I’m not completely ignorant.”
“No, you stop.”
“Simon, have you…purchased his services…for
your sister’s wedding…?”
“No! Mom! He’s my date-date. Okay? No cash exchanged hands. I don’t have any, anyway. Cash.”
“Calm down,” she says. “I do like him. He’s charming. He’s very handsome. And muscular. I didn’t know you liked that type. I suppose he’d have to be a bit of a dreamboat for his line of work although he’s a bit short and why don’t you have any money?”
“I have money, just no whore budget. He’s a teacher’s assistant with special needs children. He’s only been part-time stripping for two weeks. He won an amateur contest and they gave him a job. He’ll get bored of it by the end of the month.”
“Oh! Thank goodness. He must have a lot of patience for that…not the stripping. I mean with the
“Oh, the words keep changing. We said ‘mongoloid’ when I was a girl. There was a little mongoloid child...challenged, sorry...in the house next to mine. She didn’t go to school. I think it’s nice that they have them go to school now. And look at the handsome people they get to help them! Penny. Penelope was her name. When I was very little I played with her, until the other kids teased me out of it. We were horrible to her. Oh, I like Todd. I like him a lot. And he rented us a lovely car. I’m going to feel like Sophia Loren. I have a scarf for my hair in here somewhere.”
She starts to look through her luggage.
“It’s a ridiculous car for miles of unpaved road out to a cottage,” I say. “And he’s not short.”
Todd put a new Americano down in front of me and said, “Don’t be a party pooper. It’s a rental. You’re supposed to drive the shit out of them. Sorry, Mrs. H., I swear a lot. Did Simon tell you? Can’t do it at work, so it just busts out at all other times. And I know I’m short. Vertically challenged. Was your ex tall, Sime? I already hate him. If he’s tall I’m going to get all homicidal on his ass. Hey, Sime, I put you down as second driver. That way your mom and I can sit in the back and chat. Oh mother of... it doesn’t have a back! I didn’t get a big enough car. Give me ten minutes!”
He jumps into the convertible and zips off.
“He has attention deficit,” I say.
“Wouldn’t it be ‘attention challenged’,” my mother asks. “I will have another one of these, Sime, since we’re hanging out for a bit.”
“Frigg, I forgot to bring water for the drive. And apples. I was going to bring apples. Apples refresh me. It all went out of my head because you slapped me.”
The fight: my sister is marrying my ex-gay, exboyfriend. I am not completely happy about the idea and have granted myself the right to bitch a bit. To add insult to injury, my sister wants me to give her the ring our grandmother had bequeathed me. I don’t even like the gaudy bauble but I’ve been holding firm: no. Ridiculous family shit. This morning it seems like my sister has roped my mother into guilting me about stupid jewellery. I caved a bit under pressure from the maternal fifth column and consented to loan them the damn thing. My mother had clapped her hands together. But then I’d added, “loaner ring for a loaner husband,” and my mother had slapped me in the face. We’d walked over in silence. Not talking about the slap. Not talking about the ring. Not talking about my sister’s wedding. Not talking about anything. Oh! Not true—we did talk about cheeses. I like ‘em stinky; my mother likes ‘em mild.
“I can’t believe I did that,” she says, reaching over and rubbing my face. As if my face still hurts. It doesn’t. As if rubbing it will help. It does. I feel three years old.
“I’m sorry and you know—” she says pulling a bit of paper from her purse and waving it at me. “You can make lists to help you. That’s what I do. See: number three—‘ring.’ You and Todd should have made a list. Suitable car should have been on it, as well as water and apples. Oh my goodness gracious, did you remember it—the ring?”
“Yes, Gollum. Precious is here. Ready to be leant out. Leant.”
“I never know what you mean half the time. You know, Simon, you could do a really unselfish thing here…”
“Coffee,” I announce and leave her babbling. The taller tranny grabs my hand as I skedaddle by.
“He’s yummy,” she says.
“You should nail that one down,” the short one says. “And he’s not short. I like a fellow I can toss on a bed.”
“I like him too, T-girls,” my mother says. “Such a happy lad! You need cheering up, Simon. You get so mopey. Todd’ll be good for you.”
“Yeah, Simon,” the tall tranny says. “Yeah, Sime,” the short tranny says, “Listen to your mother. And you are so right about lists, Poodle, Mrs. H. I keep my ‘things to do’ on my palm pilot.”
“I keep my ‘who to do’ on my palm pilot,” says the taller. “And I’m adding that peeler fellow, before he gets bored and quits. When’s he on next? He works at Rems or Flash?”
“Keep your hands off my future son-in-law. And those are lovely nails.”
I shake myself loose of the lot of them and go back into the café. My mother flops her biggest case up onto the table to search for her pretty scarf. As I wait in the line-up of bitching gay men, I see her triumphantly pull a handful of silky fire from the depths of her case and wave it dramatically like the opposite of surrender.
The trannies clap. They help her set it over her hair and then begin to touch up her makeup.
“Could I jump to the front of the line before the girls turn my mother into Tammy Faye?” I ask the other gays. They step aside. They have mothers.
When I get back all three of them are talking at the same time. The shorter trannie is explaining the airbus kick-back scandal, the taller trannie is explaining how the tarot cards work, and my mother is recounting the foibles of my father.
“You have a responsibility not to take advantage of situations when you’re in power like that. your decisions should be based on what’s good for everybody.”
“I came home from the doctor’s—and he knew that I was getting my results—and found a note saying ‘work thing, couldn’t get out of it, hope you’re ok, back Sunday.’ It was the loneliest few days of my life, but I figured out what was what, I tell you.”
“The hanged man is supposed to be upside down so if he’s right side up he’s actually upside down and then it means something completely different. It’s about decisions but I can’t remember in what way.”
I put the coffees down just as Todd runs around the corner.
Quick,” he says grabbing my other’s cases. “I’m parked in front of a fire hydrant on the side street half a block north. It’s an S.U.V.!” He runs. He’s a little bullet.
My mother and I jog after him. Off to the cottage!
Brian Mulroney stays behind hanging from the tree. The T-girls are fixing his make-up. Maybe it is Bob Hope—it’s not impossible that my other could be right about something.
“Alright,” I say running. “I’ll give them the damn thing.”
“What’s that,” she says panting as we reach the S.U.V.
“Nothing,” I say. The sight of a pair of heterohipsters hand in hand coming our way bitters me out.
Oh well, I figure I have a twenty-one and a half hour car ride with an anxious mother and an ADHD boyfriend. Pondering the ring will give me something to brood about—one day I plan to be a decisive person. Not today—and also brooding will help me avoid talking. So many things I do not want to get into: Cancer. Fathers. Ex-boyfriends. Current boyfriends. Money. Fuck, I am already exhausted and we haven’t even begun. Family.
“Simon, come on!” My mother says backing up to where I’ve stopped to lean against a lamppost.
“Did you think you were going to die?” I ask, quickening to keep pace with her.
“No, it didn’t mean death to me, it meant change. I started standing up for myself with your father and other people. I took up Scottish dancing. I learned to read sheet music. I started having friends over to the house. I figured all the things I’d been keeping inside were now literally starting to eat away at me bit by bit so I just...,”
The tall trannie pulls on my sleeve. I stop. My mother carries on, telling the sidewalk what I should probably be hearing.
“You dropped this,” the trannie says.
She has my grandmother’s emerald ring in her hand and I see how beautiful the world is, so much more beautiful than I give it credit, and that really, really, really, I should be a better person.
Todd is bouncing in the driver’s seat. My mother is belting herself into the passenger’s seat and begins spinning her head to scope out other drivers and various dangers.
I flop across the back, aiming to nap, asap, but first an announcement: “I’m going to be civil throughout this shindig, going to try really, really, really hard. Please call me on it if I start to get bitchy.”
“Oh, me too!” my mother says. “I’m going to do my best not to get all homicidal on your father’s ass.”
“Me too! Even if he’s a giant. Deal. And if everyone’s going to try to be nicer,” Todd says, “We need a code word. If any of us says something negative the others will work the secret cue into…”
“We know how a code word works, numbskull.” My mother and Todd turn to me. “Bitchy,” they chorus.
“Code word here,” Todd says.
“Ring,” my mother suggests.
“Convertible,” Todd suggests.
“Lump,” I say.
“How ‘bout Poodle,” asks Todd squealing out into the traffic.
“Poodle, poodle, poodle,” my other shrieks banging on Todd’s thigh.
I close my eyes and flood with feeling. There’s time and distance and chaos banging all around. but also, a vein of green stillness cutting through, from here to there to anywhere. The shining calm pulls me into sleep and a dream that I am both miner and mined. I am my own treasure, my own hard work.
“Here,” I say, rousing slightly, handing the ring to my mother, “take it, keep it, give it, whatever…”
And then plunge into darkness.
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