Suction
Andrew F. Sullivan


After the third pair of headlights swerves to avoid us, I ask Last Call Paul to pull over. He doesn’t look at me, just presses his foot down harder. Snow lashes through cracked windows and seeps down into the collar of my jacket. Each drop slides down my spine. I rub my back against the threadbare seat. Last Call just can’t stop talking.

“My daughter, you’ve met her, haven’t ya? Donna? She’s a good girl you know, a really good girl, just confused. Teenagers, you know? You should know anyway. How old are you? She’s just in a place right now where—well, have you ever tried training dogs?”

Staying with Paul wasn’t my first choice. After eating Tom’s last box of Captain Crunch and hanging up on his mother for three days straight, he tore up the rental agreement we’d made out over a pitcher at Le Sketch a few months before and flushed it down the toilet. I had never bothered to make photocopies. My stuff was stacked neatly on the curb afterward.

“That sounds bad doesn’t it? I’m not calling her a bitch, you know. That’s not what I’m about as a father. Her mother though? Well, let’s not open up that can of shit. It’ll just ruin the night. Suffer to say—suffice—suffice to say, she’s a fucking whack job. I’m talking three rubber walls and a locked door. You know what I mean?”

“Four.”

“What?”

“Four walls, Paul. You want four walls—Jesus, stay in the lane!”

Another pair of headlights swerves onto the shoulder and Paul is just staring at me.
“Usually pick her up from school every Friday. But I go there this week, and she’s not around. First thing I think is, oh no, something’s happened, cause she’s got the diabetes, like I told you before, ever since she was a little girl, you know. Real bad, too, like real bad. No cake, no nothing. Not fun for a girl growing up, but she always, well, she always took it in stride. Very resilient, Donna is. Anyway, first thing I’m thinking—”

“You’re thinking she’s gone to the hospital,” I say and snatch the beer bottle off the floor.

“Exactly. Exactamundo, my man. And as a father—well, shit—one word for that. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying as the most god awful shit you could imagine.”

The sign for Millbrook pops up. Ten kilometres. Paul swerves across the line, but there are no headlights in sight. I am imagining too much right now. Severed arms, blown kneecaps, Last Call Paul’s head in my lap just talking endlessly into the night while I wait for an ambulance that never comes. Somehow, my imagination has decided it’s worse if I live.

“So, I call up her mother, and the fucking electrician answers the phone, the one I told you about at lunch? Yeah, he answers the phone like he lives there, meanwhile, my name, my fucking name, is still on the lease. And he’s answering the phone like he of all people is man of the house. And it is my phone, did I tell you that?”

“Like everything else in the house,” I mumble.

“Damn straight. So we get talking, and no she’s not at the hospital. No, she’s not at work, and no, she isn’t with Louise. So where is she? With a boy maybe? Well, Mr. Sparky says, how am I supposed to know? Can you believe that?”

A transport is leaning on the horn and snow is piling up on the windshield. Last Call’s heater has been out for weeks. I only know because he bitches about it every day during lunch while we play euchre for pennies in the break room. Sweet Pete, Joco, Larry B — all those guys have already put me up for a few weeks on their couch or in a back room or in a shed with a space heater. Whatever they could do until their wife or dad or girlfriend or girlfriend’s dad caught me jacking food from the fridge and clothes from the hamper.

All my stuff is now in black garbage bags in the trunk.

The transport hits the horn again, and Paul throws his eyes back on the road. His glasses are fogging up, but he doesn’t care. He’s set on beating closing at Hilda’s Bar and Grill. It’s just down the street from his apartment. A walk-up apartment, but a nice walk-up. Second floor over some Hungarian deli. They give him a discount on peameal bacon on Sundays.

“So, now I’ve got a Friday to myself. No idea where Donna is, but hey, that’s going to happen sometimes, no big deal, no big deal, not like we don’t see each other times. But we don’t anymore. We don’t see each other. It used to be that we could just hang out all the time. Watch the ball game. Maybe work on the yard, the flowers, whatever. She even just liked doing the vacuuming, you know? Loved it, just fucking loved it as a little kid. Could barely hold the thing. Pulling it all back together was the best part, you know. And now? Nothing.”

I scrunch myself lower in my seat, realizing if we do crash, I will probably lose both eyes to shattered glass, both knees to the glove box, and most of my hair in the ensuing fire.

“So I just kind of sit there in the school parking lot. It starts getting dark, so I call the house again. Louise picks up, says she’s not sure, but she’ll have Donna call me when she gets in right away, and that it was very sweet of me to worry. And it’s, well, like this real civil sort of conversation for a few moments and then we both hung up. Just like that, like none of this shit ever happened. Some actual civil human interaction for once. Unbelievable.”

Buildings begin to pop up in our headlights. I can see the sign for the bar still sputtering in between the snow. I push my fingers out of my sleeves and run them along the dashboard. Ice is forming around the lock on the glove box. Bottles and old VHS cases rattle around my feet as Paul turns into the parking lot. He’s no longer talking, just sort of panting. I almost can’t see his eyes which are probably red and purple blotches behind his fogged glasses. He runs a hand through his hair and belches into his palms.

“This is the place, my friend, the place.”

I whack the slush off my boots at the door and hear cheers as Paul sways inside. A couple of regulars in knit caps and old Oilers jackets sit trading stories at the bar, half empty pints growing warm. A line of scraggily booths, duct tape holding in their deflated stuffing, separate the bar from the dining area. A few regulars stare at the bubbles moving ever upward through their pints. The bartender waves at Paul and marks another line on a chalkboard behind the taps.

“Fifteen days straight now, Paul? A new record!”

I nod at the bartender and order a gin and tonic. Paul keeps yakking to him about the management and the new contract for unloading the trucks. I collapse in a booth and crush the ice in my drink between my teeth. The bar is wallpapered with a flower print like my Nana’s place. Paul sits staring at three pints in front of him. He smiles. One of his canines is missing. Down the bar, the two guys in Oiler jackets compete with the television volume.

Last Call Paul always worked the afternoon shift. Getting off after midnight, he made sure to make the rounds at the bars around the warehouse before coming home. Half-lit neon signs, orange pool tables, places with only three brews on tap. Temporary homes, like way stations on the hazy odyssey home. Sleeping on the couch became a comfortable position for Paul, until one night when Louise decided to keep the couch and everything else, according to her attorney and the family court. She packed all his stuff up in garbage bags while he was at work. He told me he lost half his records when the dump truck came by in the morning.

After a two week suspension for dropping a forktruck off the loading bay dock, Paul came back into work a couple months ago. I smelled him before I heard him behind me in the locker room. I stood there in my stained underwear while he told me about his weekend.

He’d gone over for Donna’s birthday, without any cake, of course, her being diabetic and all. He and Louise were getting along till he found a hammer under the couch. He didn’t own any Mastercraft hammers, he told me. Never bought his stuff at Sears like some of the other guys he knew. Never trusted the place after some blonde nancy had screwed up the alterations on the suit he wore to his Dad’s funeral. Everyone could see his ankles the whole ceremony. And maybe, yeah, maybe he’d had a few too many, but it was his daughter’s birthday, can’t he celebrate that? Louise was talking on the phone to who knows who, and it was his goddamn house. Donna wasn’t even paying attention; she had some movie on the television. Some bullshit with Demi Moore, except she had a boy’s haircut.

And all Last Call Paul had? Well, all they’d left him was this hammer.

“This bitch ralphs on the deck we built” the one Oiler bellows. “Anyway, she comes back in to grab the vacuum cleaner, I guess to clean up her gunk, and turns it on before she gets outside. Full blast. The dogs freak, just freak like mad and start shitting all over the carpet.”

An antique armoire from Louise’s grandma, a handful of porcelain penguins, three window panes, and five thousand dollars in damage to the kitchen later, Last Call found himself with a restraining order and three hundred hours of community service—picking garbage off the road.

“So now we’ve got dogs shitting all into the old shag carpet in front of the TV,” the Oiler laughs. “Sheila’s waving around this Hoover like she’s going to shoot up the dining room…”

“Hoovers ain’t shit, man,” Last Call says. “Let me tell you as one man to another: Hoovers ain’t shit. What your old lady needs to get is a goddamn Dyson. Now that’s the kind of shit you need for a vacuum. That shit’s got suction, it`ll pull out all that shit stuck in your stain.”

Last Call is all up in their faces now, his arms draped around the two Oilers’ fans at the bar. I’m waiting for a fist and a scream and snow filling up my body cavities as we wait for the ambulance to arrive. None of this happens. It isn’t as bad as being in his car.

“Why, haha, oh man, Last Call you alright? Why not a Hoover?”

“Well, see the Hoover,” Last Call says.”Well first of all, J. Edgar Hoover? Asshole. So there is your first problem, am I right? Aecond off, you gotta look at manoeuvrability, like, sure suction is a big deal to some, but if you can’t get in the corners, or ‘round the furniture, you’re going to have a pretty dusty place, right? And another thing, it’s too loud! You want a thrum, not a hiss when you’re trying to clean shit up. That hiss will haunt your dreams otherwise, and your paycheque too ’cause those sons of bitches break down more than Oprah.”

The two Oilers nod, smiles creeping across their faces.

“How you know all this shit, Paul? You selling for them on the side?”

“Oh yeah, I’m selling for all those big suits now,” Last Call says. “Bissell, Kirby, Oreck, Kenmore, Panasonic. A Hoover machine, in my humble estimation, is just not worth the investment. You gotta know your machines. Gotta put a premium on suction.”

The bartender shouts out last call. Paul waves him off.

“How do you do that, eh Paul?” the one Oiler says. “What’s the secret?”

“Well, it’s a trade secret for me, you know? You gotta hold’em, feel the vibe they give you. That’s how you know. Just put a hand on them. They’ll let you know. A lot like dogs that way.”

“Oh, really?”

“No, you dumb shits,” Last Call roars. “I’m just fuckin’ with you. You gullible bitches.”

Paul staggers away and waves a hand at me. He’s supporting himself against the door frame. I pull myself up out of the booth, a lone strip of duct tape tethered to the back of my jeans. Paul slams the glass doors open and I pull my coat tight against the chill. As soon as he’s out the door, the two Oilers start sniggering, slapping each other’s backs and imitating vacuum sounds.

I follow Paul down the street into an alcove beside the Hungarian deli. Tomorrow is Toonie Tuesday for shaved salami. Someone has spray painted RUCKUS in black across the door to Paul’s apartment. The streetlight in front of his place is busted, so we stand in the teal and pink illumination of the deli sign. Snowflakes pop and hiss when they touch it.

“Finally got the little bitch into the hole. It sticks sometimes.”

I follow Paul up the stairs, stumbling around piles of cleaning supplies, dragging my sleeping bag behind me. I leave the garbage bags in the trunk to freeze overnight.

“So, like I was telling you before, about Donna, you remember, right?” Last Call says.

“You ever find out what happened?”

He opens the door to the apartment.

“Well, like, she calls me up later that night. Here, just toss your stuff on the end table. You can use the couch there. She calls me up and we start talking. Turns out she was volunteering that day down at the old folk’s home near our old house. Well, my old house. I don’t know.”

I try lying down on the couch. It’s covered in sweaters and blankets. The whole place smells like stale beer and sweat seeping into the drywall. The kitchen is stacked with old beer bottles.

“What don’t you know?”

Paul pulls off his shirt and rubs his stretch-marked belly. Purples lines crisscross his chest.

“Well, it’s kinda fucked man, ya think? She’d rather spend her time with some old fogies, slobbering all over themselves and trying to eat the Monopoly pieces during game hour than hang out with her Dad? Not like I was going to take her back to this dump. I know a dump when I live in one, alright? But she’d rather hang out with them for four hours than go bowling with me, or whatever? I mean, at least I can feed myself.”

Paul turns off the lights in the kitchen. He opens up a closet and starts yanking out spools and spools of electrical cord. As I unpack my stuff, I watch him line them up against the walls. I don’t say anything as he carries two vacuums into his bedroom.

I try to close my eyes and hear Paul bump into the television. The volume is low and a sports reel is playing. He’s shoving vacuum plugs into all the open sockets, even unplugging some lamps and an old answering machine to plug some more. He turns each one on as he goes, the sound building like a swarm across the floorboards. He runs a few more cables under his bedroom door and they tangle together in the thick, pink carpet.

“But Donna, she’d rather be working in a place like that, for free. Volunteering,” Last Call says. “She says it’s for school, but why not work at a summer camp or some shit, you know? Go pick trash on the highway with your old man. But no, she’d rather be volunteering with the goddamn walking dead than sitting with her Dad or even going out for dinner. Who does that? Choose that kinda life. That’s the problem, man. She’s confused. Just like her mother.”

He pulls another Dyson out of the closet and takes it into his bedroom.

“Everyone is just too confused. So, it’s not even like it’s her fault, you know?” Last Call says. “‘She’s young, but to just see her rotting away there with them? Well, that’s gotta be lonely for her. I worry about that. I think I worry more than I should. Shoulda, coulda, woulda, right?”

I begin climbing into my sleeping bag. Paul turns off another light, starts turning on the vacuum cleaners. I’m too tired to ask him why. I once slept with a girl who had all her stuffed animals face away from the bed when I stayed over, except for the elephants. They watched.

“You alright if I leave these on? That alright?”

He’s faltering now. I watch the beers sliding up behind his eyes, little capillaries bursting one by one. I can smell the hops and the gin dripping from his forehead and his pits. Paul’s shoulders shudder and wilt as he turns to the bedroom. I just want to sleep, but he isn’t finished talking yet. All around me are humming machines trying to tell him to go to goddamn bed.

“I need to go hit the sack now. But like, don’t get freaked out by the machines, alright? Hey, you know where the bathroom is and everything? You good with pillows?”

“I’m fine, man,” I say and close my eyes again.

“Alright. Hope you feel—well, feels like some kinda home, right?”

Paul turns off another light. He’s got a talking fish mounted over the door, but no batteries are left in it. The sale sticker is still attached. I can’t find the TV remote under all the sweaters.

“Hey, Paul, man? You there?”

“Yeah?”

“Why not just like leave the TV on, or like a radio, man?” I ask. “You really need all these going? I don’t want to ask but like, well, what about your hydro bill?”

I don’t have to quite yell over the sound of the vacuums. True to Paul’s word, there isn’t a Hoover anywhere to be found. Just a steady uninterrupted thrum making the coffee table vibrate under my hand. The sensation travels up my arm and I feel it shake my teeth softly.

“Huh?”

“What about the TV? Why not just leave it on?”

He just stares back at me with his mouth open, tongue poking out the black gap in his teeth. His jaw swings loose back and forth, trying to get a hold on the words.

“TV ain’t—don’t got—doesn’t have any presence man. Just noise. You don’t feel nothing from it. Doesn’t pull anything at all. I can turn them all down if you want.”

“Nah buddy, never mind. Wake me up before you get breakfast, okay? I make good eggs.”

“Sure. Scrambled,” Last Call says. “You know how to do scrambled, right?”

He closes the door. The room goes dark. I pull my sleeping bag over my head. The constant hum works its way into my cells like a quiet chain reaction with no end.

Somewhere I hear moaning. The hair on my knuckles prickles up and the sound surrounds me as I close my eyes, swaddled in vibrations. Out there in the trembling air, Last Call dreams of voices he will recognize in sunlight, of hearts instead of motors, of daughters and the soothing weight of a hammer in a hand that no longer shakes. The moon outside is hiding from me behind the snow.

I am dreaming of a better place than this.



Andrew F. Sullivan was born in Peterborough, Ontario. He has an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Sullivan’s fiction has recently been published by Joyland, The Good Men Project, The Cleveland Review and Riddle Fence. He no longer works in a warehouse. You can find him here.