Every time Billy Bilkim Costanza entered the antique shop where I worked, he would find some excuse to say, “The mountain still calling me, boy. The voice in my ears might change but the message always remains the same. Always the same.” Sometimes he would pretend he was examining one of the old, creaky lamps that Mr. Pervez, the owner of the shop, had bought at a garage sale and whisper gloomily, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to ignore the mountain. I might be playing with fire.” Then his gaze would shift from the cluttered shop with its cracked teapots and freckled brass decanters to the door facing Albert Street. He never stayed longer than twenty minutes or so.
Costanza was different from all the other customers, not only because he never made a single purchase, but also in the way he would frequently gaze outside and breathe in little gulps, as if he was suffocating or hiding from someone. And he always left in a big hurry.
One night in May, about four months after Costanza’s first appearance in the shop, I saw him digging into a box with ugly paintings of cactus plants and desert flowers. His nostrils were twitching as if he was trying to smell the flowers. I waited until his examination was over before I asked what had been on my mind for so long, “Tell me Mr. Costanza . . . is somebody looking for you?”
He drew himself to his full medium height and blew into his clasped palms as if he was rehearsing a long speech. Even though the night was cool, small drops of sweat were running down his fleshy neck. “The mountain doesn’t forget, boy. It has many, many friends. Even in this overcrowded place.” He glanced swiftly through the door. “They could be anywhere. Anywhere.”
I tried not to smile at Costanza’s habit of repeating some of his words. “And they are looking for you? What mountain crime did you commit?”
It was a mistake to speak this lightly because Costanza left so hastily he almost dislodged a row of porcelain angels set upon the wooden frame of an overturned couch. After he had left, I saw Mr. Pervez standing stiffly before his cubicle office at the back of the shop. “So you had some nice little chats with Mr. No-buy-anything-at-all? Yes?” Whenever Mr. Pervez tried to be mocking, his voice would lift to just a few notes below a shriek. “And what, please tell, did you talk about today that was so interesting?”
I knew he would be confused if I mentioned Costanza’s mountain, so I told him, “The usual. Old this and that.” This was a favourite expression of Mr. Pervez but he did not like to hear anyone else using it.
“Old this and that, eh? Now please carry old this and that cash register to back office. Or are you too tired from so many chats?”
I heaved his old, bulky adding machine, which weighed close to fifty pounds, to his small, dirty back room. I heard him grumbling about “useless no buy customers” before he broke into his strange foreign language. A few minutes later, I saw him trying to drape the “closed” sign around the neck of a Mexican statue in the little glass case facing Albert Street. When I left, he was still grumbling and manhandling the poor statue.
He broke into a broad, horrible smile that caused the mole on his cheek to creep closer to the nest of hair in his ear.
Mr. Pervez was never in a good mood but he was especially short tempered following each of Costanza’s visits. And the strange part was that both men with their neat bellies and sad, faraway looks could have passed for brothers. Yet I cannot recall a single word ever passing between the two. Sometimes while I was listening to Costanza, I would see Mr. Pervez standing gruffly before his back office and I would think of two fat, retired boxers squaring each other up. I often wondered if they had adopted that same stance before I began working at the antique shop.
I felt that they could be friends if only they knew more of each other. This thought was running through my mind when, a week later, Mr. Pervez asked what was so interesting about Costanza for me to ignore the other customers. I decided against mentioning that the shop was usually empty because that was a sore point with Mr. Pervez. Instead, I slipped out something about the mountain.
Instantly Mr. Pervez was alert. “Mountains? What damn craziness is that? What so special about this mountains?” Although I didn’t know one single thing about the mountain, not its name or even where it stood, I said that the people there never climbed down their entire lives because once they did they could never return. I think I wanted the mountain to seem special but Mr. Pervez was not impressed. “Is this all he told you? This damn nonsense?” Some of his alarm faded away. “That they only have climb-down muscles in their foot? Maybe is a special kind of polios.” He broke into a broad, horrible smile that caused the mole on his cheek to creep closer to the nest of hair in his ear. “Polios for peoples who only walking backwards.”
Just before closing time, while I was lugging the cash register to the back, he told me gleefully, “Careful. Careful you don’t strain your climb-down muscles.”
The next day he wasn’t in such a good mood. He stormed into the shop and didn’t seem to care when he brushed a Russian doll that clattered to the floor, spilling all its little babies. “The worst peoples on the face of the earth is the polices. For one hour the polices only listen to the white lady who was driving as if she own the roads. One hour. Count it!” He held up his stubby ring-filled fingers before me. “And for Mr. Pervez, less than five minutes.” He always talked like this, putting himself as another person when he was distressed. “Tell me, Sammy. Is something wrong with my Englishes? Do Mr. Pervez look like some kind of common crooks?” He unbuttoned his trench coat and fled to his office.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that Mr. Pervez was racist or anything because he hated with the same dose anyone who came into the shop without buying anything. He was always polite to their faces though, pretending to be from India or Turkey or Afghanistan or Venezuela and many places in the atlas, but the minute they left empty-handed he would tell me, “I hope you learn a good lesson today, Sammy. Never trust anybody from India. Their main aim in life is to find fault and complain.” Sometimes he made a puppet with his hand opening and closing his fingers. “Pok-pok-pok.”
I know I shouldn’t find this funny because it was sad in a way to see Mr. Pervez so disappointed after he had spent sometimes half an hour talking in his fake Persian or Pakistani accent. And he always balanced out his quarrels by later bad-mouthing people from other places too. Polish, Chinese, Jamaicans, Russians, everyone who was not born in Canada set his teeth on edge. During my first week at the shop, about five months earlier, he had laid down a list of rules, which, he said, had been repeatedly broken by his previous employees. “And guess where lazy workers are now?” he had asked cheerfully. But I soon realized that his quarrels were really a kind of showing-off. Just to prove how important he was.
This bad mood with the police was different, though. It lasted all day. In the night, he stormed out of his office to complain once more about this injustice to his spotless driving record. He didn’t say a word to me; instead he argued with a row of sleepy-looking plastic Buddhas about the condition of his life, his ungrateful children, his mounting debts, his ulcers. “I have half a mind to go back home,” he grumbled to a Buddha. “Pervez just gives the polices there a bribe and everything fixed. No tickets, no bothers, no bony white ladies.” Whenever he ran into some sort of problem, the first words that dropped from his mouth were to go back home, which was strange in a way because he always complained about other people who dressed and spoke as if they were “still minding goats and sheep.”
After he had returned to his office, I noticed Costanza quietly inspecting a rusty stethoscope at the other end of the shop. I did not see him enter because I was so distracted by Mr. Pervez’s quarrelling. He asked what was bothering Mr. Pervez and I said the police.
“Police? What did they want from him? Were they here in the shop?” Only when I explained that Mr. Pervez had some sort of traffic accident did he relax a bit. Still, that same night, I noticed a new slice of nervousness in the way Costanza took off his gloves and blew on his palms and cracked his fingers. I had never observed his fingers before. They were long and slim and didn’t match his body at all. I also noticed the thin lines that split all his nails like hooves. When he noticed me staring, he hurriedly replaced his gloves and asked if I had ever observed anyone acting strange in the shop.
To tell the truth everyone who came into the shop was strange. There was the hunched man who rode on his bike whether it was snowing or not. He came into the shop with his helmet on, which made him look like a sleepy turtle. He worked at the Toronto Reference Library and he bought many of the old books Mr. Pervez had picked up at garage sales for a quarter or less. Then there was the old woman with the frizzy hair and all the beads around her neck. Her lips were always red and her soft little-lady voice would sometimes get hoarse and low like those women sports announcers on television. She was interested only in necklaces and bracelets. There was also the fat, blocky man who leaned on his walking stick and gazed for an hour or more at the painting of a half-naked woman holding a bowl of fruits, and the bald-headed Italian who was always sniffing and rubbing his nose while he complained about the ugly new buildings going up across the city. I think Mr. Pervez liked him because he always shared an apple or pear or nectarine wrapped in white paper. One morning I heard him telling Mr. Pervez, “This city is losing its soul.” Mr. Pervez liked this sort of talk too, about souls and spirits and ugly modern things.
Costanza’s question made me realize for the first time that these customers always came by themselves. They all seemed old and lonely, without friends and families, even though they sometimes mentioned that a cheap little item reminded them of this or that person. Anyway, I told Costanza that there were always the same people in the shop, and he said I should let him know if I noticed anyone new. I think this was the first visit he had not mentioned his mountain.
Maybe Costanza had some sort of special spider sense or something because just such a person came into the store a few days after our conversation. He had been waiting outside in his buttoned-up coat and plaid hat. The minute I opened the door, he followed me inside. I saw him staring at the signed paintings of boats and lighthouses and farmhouses before he moved to the wooden chests, which he opened one by one. He was better dressed than the usual customers, and brisker too. I left the counter and followed him, though at a safe distance as I had been advised by Mr. Pervez. Since he seemed to be examining all sorts of items, I asked if he needed any assistance.
“What’s the cost of this pipe?”
“It is twenty-five dollars, sir. It’s very old.”
“Yes, I can see that.” He passed a finger over the cracks on the long curving stem. “And the machete on the wall? Where did you get such an item?”
Mr. Pervez had warned me to never mention the garage sales or places like the Salvation Army and the Donation Centre. Say it is from auctions, he advised, forced upon grieving, suddenly penniless families. When I told the customer this, he glanced at me in surprise. “How old are you?”
“I am eighteen, sir.”
“And the owner of the shop?”
“Fifty or sixty.” All old people seemed the same age to me.
“Do you accompany him to these auctions?”
I felt he was setting a trap so I decided to cut the conversation short. “Mr. Pervez, the owner, is at the back. He will explain better. Should I get him for you?”
He smiled at this and I noticed that his front teeth were much whiter than the others. “I will take the “—he glanced around—“torque corkscrew bottle opener on the wall.”
When I mentioned this bottle-opener man to Costanza the next day, he immediately unloaded a ton of questions. Describe this man to me. What was his purchase? Did he ask any unusual questions? Where was Mr. Pervez at the time? On and on he went.
I tried to answer his questions as best as I could. I mentioned the machete and the corkscrew. Costanza took off his gloves, blew on his palms and examined his nails. He seemed extremely worried. I tried to cheer him up by pointing to a recently arrived crate crammed with rusty routers and drill bits, but he would have none of it.
“How long have you been working here, boy?”
“A year and a half.” This is the week for questions, I thought.
“And before that?”
“I was in school.”
“I lived in Trinidad. My father sent for me when I was sixteen after my mother died in Trinidad. I told you all of this before.” I didn’t like to talk about being all alone in our little basement apartment on Ellesmere for weeks on end, wondering when my father would return.
Maybe Costanza was surprised by my impatience for he now spoke in a softer voice. “Sammy . . . is that your name?”
“Okay, Samuel then. I am more than three times your age. Do you believe that?”
I felt he may have been younger but I said nothing.
He was still gazing at the people walking by on Albert Street. “Look at these people outside. Moving at the same speed day after day. Now tell me . . . have you ever asked yourself where they are going?”
“They seem to be going to their jobs.”
“Excellent. Excellent.” He acted as if I had solved some difficult riddle. “I have another question. Have you ever noticed that their expressions never change from day to day?” In spite of his earlier annoyance he seemed to be enjoying this a bit. “Look at that woman with the shopping bags. Her face is as flat as a powder puff. A powder puff.”
“They seem busy to me. In a hurry.”
“Yes, yes. Very good. Busy running away.”
“I didn’t say that.” After a while I asked him, “Running away from what?”
“From what they have left behind, Samuel. All of them have something dragging behind them. Sometimes the rope is a mile long and sometimes it is just a few inches. But the important thing, Samuel, is that just when they are beginning to forget, they feel the pull.”
I said lightly: “You will need a real thick rope to pull a mountain?”
He smiled his sad faraway smile. “It is only when they are alone and safe in their little apartments . . . their little apartments, that the knot loosens.”
After work that night, I squeezed in the subway car with a group of tired men and women. I sat between a small Chinese man and a woman who smelled of bleach or ammonia. They both slept until Victoria Park Station and after they had trudged off I wondered what they were dragging behind them to their tiny apartments.
• • •
The well-dressed man never returned, but early one morning, a pretty woman with a briefcase entered the store. She was not wearing a coat or anything heavy, but two silky layers that repeated the shape of her body. In a friendly voice, she asked if people actually bought all the old furniture and comic books and rusty tools. I followed her gaze over the shop and saw how it could be seen as junk, though the word she used was bric-a-brac. I wanted to impress her so I boasted of all our regular customers. She looked toward the office and asked if I had ever noticed any customers who came regularly without making any purchases. I shook my head. Then she wanted to know if Mr. Pervez had any regular visitors. I should have been suspicious of her but she was so pretty in her brown boots and skirt and deep red shirt that I wished I could tell her something she didn’t know. All I could think of was that Mr. Pervez remained in his office most of the day. When she asked whether he was shy or perhaps hiding from someone, I remembered some of the annoyed customers who brought back items like knives and ugly statues and clay decanters that had been recently made in China, not years ago in Mexico or Brazil as Mr. Pervez had claimed. I didn’t want to go into all of that, so I just told the lady, “Maybe.” She gave me a nice smile and left.
I think it was a mistake to mention this lady to Costanza during his next visit. I shouldn’t have brought up her question about regular customers. Maybe I wanted to show off about chatting with such a beautiful woman. Costanza grasped his umbrella and seemed prepared to leave, but at the doorway he hesitated and returned to the counter, walking very slowly. “I cannot blame you, Samuel. It was bound to happen. Don’t feel too bad about it.”
“About what? I am not feeling bad about anything.”
I think I was becoming a bit impatient with this mysterious sort of behaviour so I told him.
He continued as if he had not heard me. “A man cannot run from his past, Samuel. He is tied to it, always, always.” He squinted a bit and I was sure I had heard the line before in a western. He even looked a bit like Peter Ustinov from the old-time detective movies, smart and scheming. “Sadly my time is up. The noose is tighter than ever.” He brushed his finger over his neck.
I think I was becoming a bit impatient with this mysterious sort of behaviour so I told him. “My time is up, too. I have to clean the store before I close. Mr. Pervez is away today.” But Costanza made no attempt to leave; he just stood before me leaning on his umbrella. I have to say that I was glad he didn’t walk away because for the next half an hour he finally explained the hold of his mountain. I cannot remember all of his exact words so I will try to fill in as best as I can.
Before he fled to Canada, he lived in some South American country, Peru or Chile, I cannot remember exactly. His family owned a huge plantation and he was always attended by servants. These servants were all tribal people and he remembered treating them, in the fashion of his parents, rather badly. Then he fell in love with one of these servants, a woman with dark striking eyes. He visited her often, without his family knowing. She lived in the mountains and he soon grew familiar with the people there and the secret tracks they had used for centuries.
“It is impossible to properly describe the ridges and breaks and gullies in the mountain, Samuel. The angle of the trees and the sprinkle of leaves. The colours and fragrance of the flowers. The land beneath so far away and the sky so close. There is a purity up there that you can never find anywhere else. It is so quiet that if you listen carefully you can hear the clouds moving. Brushing the peaks.” He took one of his deep breaths and I wondered whether he was imitating some habit of his time there. “I cannot describe the people I grew to know so well. I used to pretend they were cloud people but as I became more familiar with them, I discovered a sad truth. A sad truth.” He took another deep breath. “You see, Samuel, they were really plain people who many, many years earlier had been chased up the mountains by the rich cattle ranchers. Ranchers like my own family.”
Now that I think of it, there were parts of Costanza’a story that were unsatisfactory. Maybe he couldn’t remember everything or perhaps he did not want to reveal too much. Like the part where his parents found out about his mountain girlfriend and shipped him off to a university in another city. Or how easily he forgot about her while he escorted dozens of other women to parties and functions. He even found a job in this new city and got married.
“I believe it was three years into my unlucky marriage when my new, wealthy friends began to whisper nervously about the mountain tribes. They talked like scared little children about weapons bought from drug money, and guerrillas from neighbouring countries, and training camps and rebel bases deep in the mountains. I had little time for this nonsense, but then one night a ranch in my family’s village was burned and its occupants murdered. Then it spread.”
He paused and stared down at his umbrella as if he was trying to remember some small detail of that time. “At first, I was worried about my parents, as every good son should. But as the trouble spread, I began to think, more and more, of the mountain people I had grown to know. And about the woman I had left there. One night there was an argument.” The quarrel was with his wife. He couldn’t remember what the disagreement was about but believed it was pointless. “Something simple. Simple.” The next morning he packed his bags.
This was the most puzzling part of his story. He didn’t explain how he got caught up in the rebels’ movement or how, after two years in the mountain, he became one of the leaders of the rebellion. They regularly ambushed the ragtag (his word) army and assassinated local government officials but they soon turned their sights on the president. (Or maybe the prime minister, I cannot remember exactly.) A plan was hatched. It included cooperative palace guards. Costanza was part of the squad that included five other men. Three of these men were killed, and two captured. Costanza and the other prisoner, an ordinary peasant, escaped but they lost each other in some swampy jungle. He felt for sure that the guards had set up the squad. “I can’t tell you how many times I was almost captured,” he told me, “before I came here to Canada.” He pushed his umbrella beneath his arm and bowed like an actor in a play. “So here I am. Costanza, the refugee. Standing before you like an ordinary man.”
“Is this your real name?”
“It’s good as any. I have grown used to it.”
I asked the question that was on my mind during the conclusion of his story. “And the woman?”
He took his umbrella and pointed it upwards, either at the sky or at his mountain.
“I am getting old. And the mountain is calling.” He thrust out his hand. “Goodbye, Samuel. Goodbye. This may be the last time we meet.”
• • •
Costanza was right. I never saw him again.
I cannot say whether he heeded the call of the mountain or whether he was deported or captured, or continued living at his old address—wherever that was—laughing at the story he had pushed on to me. Maybe he still walks along Albert Street and stops at the intersection where Mr. Pervez’s antique shop once stood. I still think of him and of his suspicions of the pretty questioning woman and the man who had bought the corkscrew. I can never be sure if they were there to investigate Mr. Pervez, whose simple little driving accident led to a background check and the discovery that he had been involved with some nasty group before his arrival in Canada. Anyways, to cut a long story short, Mr. Pervez was forced to close his shop, and although in those last days, he quarrelled endlessly about his bad luck, he never once blamed me for being so friendly with the pretty woman, or even waiting an entire week before I confessed my part in his distress. “Such is life,” he had told me, speaking with the same sad faraway voice as Costanza when he said “a man is tied to his past, Sammy.”
Sometimes when I am alone in my father’s apartment, my mind moves into all sort of strange directions and I imagine Costanza and Pervez together, walking through swamps and up mountains and getting lost and always finding each other.
• • •
I now work nights at a video rental shop. A few nights ago I got off at the Victoria Park station and followed the woman who always smelled of bleach and ammonia. She stopped at a park in Jackson Street that was overshadowed by an old high rise. She sat on a bench and swung her stubby feet at the scattered leaves. She seemed in no hurry to get to her home. I stood behind a tree, some distance away. A runner gave me a nasty look so I moved from the shadow of the tree to a bench. The woman stopped her kicking and rested her head on the backrest of the bench. She remained like that for maybe half an hour, as if she was taking a little nap. Then she got up and dragged her bag up from the ground and slung it on her shoulder. The little rest must have done her good because her body didn’t crumble as before, from the weight of the heavy bag. I watched her walking to the apartment and with each step she seemed straighter, so by the time she opened the glass door to the ground floor, she was looking like a much younger woman, maybe a pretty subway girl with a fashionable shawl hiding her neck. I remained on the bench until I saw the lights on a fourth floor apartment switch on. Costanza had told me that the knot would loosen only when they were alone and safe in their apartments. But on the balcony of this apartment was a row of Christmas lights, maybe left there from the last season. I felt there were many little children there, waiting patiently. As I walked away, I wondered when my father would return to our apartment in Ellesmere.