All U Need
By Mirek Lalas
After Frank’s stroke, the new owner managed to run the bakery for about a year. During that time she racked up a debt of thirty thousand in rent and utility bills. Rumour had it that on occasion she’d buy baked goods from other bakeries just to stay in business.
Frank’s untimely collapse elicited much talk to begin with. After twenty years of giving them fresh bread and rolls every day, the guy that never failed to ask, “How are you, my friend?” became a mute vegetable.
The locals adjusted rather quickly, however, to Premiata’s scaled down offerings under new management. When the bakery closed down for good, many eyed the locked door with dismay. A smaller group found life difficult without the hot table and coffee, cold cuts and pastries.
Soon after, their eyes caught the “For Lease” sign. The regulars from the co-ops discussed the rents in the strip plaza at Nina’s Bar & Grill. Nina, the pub’s owner, told them from behind the counter that her landlady set the rent and collected the profits in another country while never visiting the plaza, nor even Canada, for that matter.
So the empty bakery looked out on the storm water reservoir from its perch atop the escarpment at the end of the plaza surrounded by a mixed, though mostly middle-class subdivision in the southwest corner of Aurora.
They all noticed the Grand Opening sign in early April. It was the beginning of spring with new hopes floating in the cold breezes of evenings, and the unmistakable warmth of sunny days. Yes, the world was ready for another re-birth, with winter-scoured earth opening up to new growth.
The store called itself “All U Need” – a risky and confusing proposition, hinting of a dollar store, or some homeopathic drugstore (like the one that lasted about three years back in the 1990’s), or even an ethnic restaurant.
The backgammon players at Nina’s agreed that the plaza was a tough place for business. Its customers – too poor, or too lazy to shop around - came mostly from the co-ops. They drank Nina’s beer, bought milk and bare necessities from the convenience store and had their teeth serviced by doctor Leeden. Those slightly better-off - from the townhouses on Cashel Court – frequented the bakery once a week or so.
The kids from the Catholic and public elementary schools, aside from being a nuisance, crowded the convenience store and the bakery at lunch time. Nina also had specials for the richer students: fries, wings, or burgers. The true suburbanites from the detached homes along McClellan Way were too mobile to keep the businesses afloat. Those from the mansions in the woods couldn’t care less about the plaza. Until All U Need opened, naturally.
Towards the end of April a new sign set the opening date for June 1. The other sign read “All I Want Is…?” People passing by considered it ineffective because if they were to set foot in the store, they would like to know the product being sold. The date was another stroke of bad luck – though a Sunday, it coincided with Aurora’s Annual Street Sale. Quaint and relatively small, Aurora took pride in the event, the largest of its kind in the world, stretching along Yonge Street.
May came and went, with its story of leaves – from a shy haze of buds to full-grown shapes – and the songs of young love caught in tree tops and unable to escape, but injecting the world with a romantic jolt of vital importance.
Only a handful of co-op kids and a couple of casual convenience store visitors showed up for the opening. They all got their fill of burgers, hot dogs and balloons without having to enter the store. Though a dud, the event itself did not doom the store’s fortunes. Just like in the bakery days, people going to work and returning home through the town’s southwestern gate saw the plaza’s corner as a defensive outpost. Instinctively, they needed it there as an assurance of protection.
Aside from colourful boxes and bottles in the store’s windows, there were no clear indications of the articles sold inside. The place looked dead on most occasions, and a feeling of imminent demise set in quickly.
At Nina’s, however, things hummed along the usual way. The pub’s beige walls featured mirrors, rose-stem shaped candle holders – Nina’s display of artsy sophistication - and large TV screens for watching sports. But a year of daily beers at the bar meant little without the regulars stepping outside for a cigarette, to celebrate the seasons through squinty eyes and plumes of smoke blown upwards.
They never talked about the itch of June in their bones, or the shiny chill of September. They didn’t have to. The passing of the months lived in the hips of teen girls from the co-ops hanging around the plaza, and dudes on skateboards, too young to step in for a beer, but making definite plans.
Late June brought them to the threshold of summer.
“Joey came home one day,” said Ross at the first backgammon table. “He said to Darleen, I went to All U Need. It looks weird.” Ross rolled the dice.
“This guy came out and asked ‘All you want is?’ Joey was floored, so he said ‘Do you sell pizza?’ and the guy said ‘Is that all you want?’ Joey goes, yeah. The guy walks to the back and brings out pizza in a box that says All U Need Pizza. Joey brought it home. We all had a couple of slices and I wasn’t hungry till dinner the next day. The best pizza ever.”
Dr. Leeden stepped into the pub, causing a momentary silence. He put fillings and braces in their kids’ mouths, but did not belong among them at the bar even though his clinic was only several steps away. Leeden’s eyes followed Nina serving beer and wings on a half-price Tuesday night. Some greeted Leeden with a smile, and a nod. Knocking back a beer was clearly not on his mind.
“So it’s a pizza place?” Amir, the Lebanese guy, asked. Everyone at the bar had seen the scar on his underbelly from the 2006 Beirut bombings.
“Doesn’t smell like it,” said Ross. “Doesn’t say pizzeria on it either.” Nina approached doctor Leeden.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said.
Her eyes told him to get on with his request on such a busy night.
“I’m taking a vacation and Yasmine is opening tomorrow. Can you give her the keys in the morning?”
And he left.
Ten days later, Dr Leeden, tanned and relaxed, walked in again. July held sway over them, with the summer at its peak.
“Doctor Leeden,” Amir shouted right away. They thought he would show Leeden his scar and tell the story of a Jewish soldier saving his life, but Amir, though excited, said, “My tooth was killing me last week when you were away.”
Leeden approached the bar and Nina dropped a bulky bunch of keys into his hand. Yasmine’s vacation was starting the next day.
With Leeden right beside him, Amir felt entitled to continue: “The convenience store had nothing for toothaches so I thought, what the heck, I’ll check out All U Need. I walk in and see this beautiful girl. Indian, I think. I go, you have pain killers for a toothache? She says, is that all you need? And I go, you bet. She just gives me a pill bottle that says All U Need Toothache. Fifteen bucks. Worked like a dream. My tooth looks brand new.”
Leeden’s face turned solicitous. “Come in tomorrow to book an appointment.” Amir’s triumphant gaze swept the crowd. “What for, doc? I feel great.” Leeden left.
Most regulars sensed his anger, but didn’t make much of it. The talk about All U Need returned rather soon, however. Not because someone else ventured into the store to test Amir’s claim – even Tylenol is good for toothaches – but because of their kids reporting police cruisers and a Ministry of Health van at the store.
“Probably one of those fronts for criminals,” said Mike the Greek. He listened to his shortwave radio for hours at night while getting up at four every morning to clean plazas like this one. He usually had the scoop on all businesses in the strip and a penchant for conspiracy theories.
“It’s Dr. Leeden’s fault,” Nina interrupted. All fell silent. Nina would not cut Mike off without a good reason. He was the man with two jobs and the time in between to fix their plumbing, wiring, or roofs. She turned off the music and muted the large TVs.
“My Lisa went to see Leeden for a checkup. He asked if she ever got any drugs from the new store. She said no, but once she’d walked in on a dare and said ‘All I want is a boyfriend.’ The man with the glasses in there took her to, like, a doctor’s exam room. He showed her this computer program with bodies, faces, and personality types.”
Two men walked into the bar, both in their late twenties, looking like fitness maniacs who just got off their mountain bikes. One held a helmet. They stopped in the doorway, frozen by the strange silence, with images of a baseball game flickering on large TV screens. The summer was over the hump. In mid-August, mainly at dusk, cricket chirps and whispers of dark green shadows in the trees stirred the first warnings of the fall.
“Hi,” Nina said with a smile. “There’s a table by the window.”
The guys moved to the table and Nina went around the counter with menus. Though lower than usual, the chatter erupted among the regulars – either to buy Nina some time, or to cover their embarrassment about getting so sucked into the story. She took two beer glasses to the bikers and returned to the circle, but at the front of the counter and after turning the music back on. The hits of the 80’s muted her voice.
“Anyway, Lisa picked a composite sketch of her guy, and the man said, ‘You’ll meet him tomorrow night at Moxy’s downtown Toronto.’ This is the freaky part. Lisa went out with the friends who dared her, like Sandra’s Ashley. And the waiter looked exactly like Lisa’s pick. He wanted her number. I told her to stay away from this.”
She went to the kitchen to get the veggie platter, the fries, and wings ready for the two by the window.
“Holy crap,” said Ross.
“You don’t believe any of it, right?” said Mike.
“Guys, in Lebanon, I didn’t know what was real anymore,” said Amir.
And they talked like that, caught between their euchre, backgammon, the baseball game, and waiting for Nina to finish.
“That’s just the beginning,” Nina said when she returned. The circle grew big now, with all regulars showing no shame in wanting to hear it. That included Mike, who – one way, or another - was keen on knowing the pulse of the neighbourhood.
“So Leeden said to Lisa, almost like a joke, ‘I told Mr. Gerusi’ - you know, Danny from the dry cleaners – ‘to make an unusual request.’” She moved closer to them, indicating a secret. “He was mad that Amir got the medication for his toothache. Doctors hate it when people get drugs from weird places. Apparently he had told Danny to get his kidney problem fixed. Danny has this plastic pouch under his shirt to drain the pee after the operation. Danny told me the same. He walked in and said ‘All I need is new kidneys.’ He got a bottle that tasted like sugar water.”
The guys by the window motioned Nina for another pitcher of beer. The regulars could hardly hide their excitement, like TV viewers waiting for the new season of their favourite show. Nina returned, also proud of being the centre of attention.
“So Danny went over and two day later his kidney problem was gone. Can you believe it?”
“Bullshit,” Garfield said. He lived in a co-op townhouse by the forest. He married the prostitute who had originally got the place for herself and her two boys. She later ditched Garfield and moved to Uxbridge. Supposedly, he was not capable to perform like a man anymore. Afterwards, Garfield had grown a scruffy beard and gained quite a bit of weight.
“Stranger things can happen,” Amir said, and they expected a story about the bombing of Lebanon.
“You don’t have to believe me,” said Nina. “Ask Danny.”
They all knew Danny, the rat-faced owner of the dry cleaners and a video store, before he had to close the latter. In fact, Nina’s bar was now where the video store used to be.
“Leeden was livid,” Nina continued. ”He didn’t want to call the papers, but he told all his friends. People in the mansions have heard about it.
Everyone knows all the way to Yonge Street. But he called the cops and the ministry that someone was selling drugs without a proper licence.”
The place exploded into loud chatter about what they needed the most themselves. Alliances and conversation partners switched on the fly, the cards and the backgammon forgotten.
“Excuse me, folks,” a booming voice sounded from one of the cyclists by the window. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Looks like all you need to do is check out the store yourselves.”
The obvious logic caused another silence, cut short by Funky George.
“’Coz all we need is right here.” George pounded the table with his fist, smacked his rather toothless mouth and adjusted his crumpled black leather confederate cap. He shifted his eyes left and right before continuing. “A paycheque in the mail and a free ride every day. Who wants to mess with that?”
There was a challenge in Funky’s words, but his reasoning matched theirs. They couldn’t help seeing George as a local scumbag, on account of his smelly, unwashed jeans and stories of mailbox theft, but he was one of them, night after night. “When I take a stroll to the pond by that dead end circle on Cashel, I see all kinds of stuff by the curb. Bikes, basketballs, tennis rackets. Who left it there? Co-op kids. They don’t give a damn. It’s free. They just don’t care. They don’t need anything, just like us.”
Funky George shut the cyclist up good and solid, and the story died for the night.
But two of the regulars, with nothing else to do, went to check the store out the next day. They found a notice on the door “Public Health Food Service Inspection in Progress.” Three weeks later the community paper, The Banner, featured a story about a local resident warning the public not to shop in the store as it violated packaging, ingredient listing and bilingual labelling regulations. The picture showed an elegantly dressed woman in her forties who happened to live on Carlyle Crescent and work for the federal government.
“Carlyle?” Ross said one evening at Nina’s, “That’s the mansions. They never shop here or even stop except for passing by on their way to work.”
“My daughter goes to school with her son,” said Lawrence, a car mechanic known for washing his pick-up truck twice a week. He actually lived in a small detached house on Cashel Court, but didn’t mind hanging out with the co-op crowd. “She said Cameron, the kid, told his entire class how it happened in a three-minute spiel about his mom’s job. One afternoon she brought him over to the plaza and said ‘Cameron, I don’t want to be seen around here, but go into this store and ask for a chocolate bar. The kid thought she meant the convenience store, but she ran after him in that fancy coat of hers and screamed, ‘Not that one. The one at the far end. I’ll wait for you behind the trees.’ So she stood on the sidewalk, not wanting to be seen in the neighbourhood. They live half-a-mile up the street, for crying out loud, in one of those castles near the conservation area.”
“Can you imagine her coming over for wings and beer?” said Nina. They laughed and Ross cocked his straw cowboy hat.
“The kid goes, ‘Mom, what do I say? It’s the weird store everyone’s afraid of.’” Despite a receding hairline, Lawrence still had a pretty good head of hair, very much like the dirty blond manes of the ladies in the crowd – greasy and bleached strands, with darker roots showing. He had a face of a small-town killer for hire: a hooked nose, sallow complexion, and the gaze of a loner, who had killed his partner in crime to keep the loot for himself. “’I want you to say exactly this, sweetheart, she tells him, ‘All I need is a chocolate bar.” The kid goes in, comes out with a nice big chocolate bar, and she snatches it out of his hand. ‘You can’t have it, honey. Mommy needs to show it at work. See? No French, no ingredients listed. No peanut allergy warnings.”
“My union rep told me not to go there either,” said Mel. She worked for an east-end auto parts shop unionized under the UAW. In late August – according to Mel - some kid from a nice house north of McClellan had gone to the store as a joke and asked for a motorcycle. He got a shiny bike made of stainless steel. In September, his house got sold after his parents divorced and the mother couldn’t afford the mortgage.
“So the dude comes over to our shop,” Mel continued, “wanting to know how much he can get for the bike to help his mom. When our shop steward, Gord, saw the bike, he asked the kid where he got it. First, Gord called the kid a liar when he heard the All U Need story. Then he told the boy to keep the bike because it’s worth a fortune, but you can’t sell a motorcycle from a shady dealer. Later, Gord himself went to All U Need. He immediately called UAW for an inspection and dealer licence. He had the place closed for a week. The owner told the union reps ‘I don’t sell motorcycles here. It was a present for that young man.’”
The pattern, duly documented by The Banner, became familiar. Some authority – municipal, provincial, federal, union, human rights, etc. got wind of All U Need through a resident acquiring a strange item. One agency after another, not linked to the neighbourhood, would swoop down, with the public’s interest first and foremost on their mind, pretending to follow a complaint.
They pounced and clawed to turn the place into a shameful stain on the fabric of the community.
The regulars at Nina’s would loathe to admit it, but while they enjoyed swapping stories about All U Need, they now had a fear of walking by the store located just steps away, right past the hair salon and the tutoring academy.
Yet, the owner of All U Need persisted. Though people mentioned other clerks in the store, Mr. Aldis, the enigmatic man in his late forties, or early fifties, appeared in all of The Banner’s news stories. He looked like a Eurasian gentleman. As the owner, he offered simple answers to all accusations: his customers got what they wanted and did not have any complaints.
No inspection managed to substantiate its charges. The store had no clear designation for its merchandise, which was strange, but not illegal. Nevertheless, zoning complaints were filed by a number of zoning regulations officers. They forced Mr. Eastman, the mayor, to call a town hall meeting on revoking the store’s permit.
The mayor agreed reluctantly since he couldn’t understand the uproar. An east ender himself, he was perplexed by the ostracizing, and the blind desire to close the place down.
The dying days of November descended on Aurora - the last gasps of fall doom before early December’s crisp promise of Christmas. Only a small handful of ordinary citizens showed up for the meeting – despite the Banner’s sensational titles in various lead-up features such as “Who Needs All U Need?”, or “The Miracle Store Ordered to Close.” It was not their fight – they had all they needed.
The rather big crowd in the gallery consisted of officials – municipal, provincial, federal and such. The women and men wore elegant jackets, trench coats, or even furs, since winter was near. They traded knowing whispers about scandalous establishments threatening the community by disregarding public safety, good taste and social order. Each official carried a formal report in a slick plastic sleeve full of eye-catching title pages, graphs and tables showing the store’s frightening impact on commerce in the region.
The women seemed more dramatic in their outrage, shaking their stiffly starched perms of multi-coloured streaks, and fingering their necklaces with calculated absentmindedness, or in a slightly flirtatious manner. The men showed more restraint. Circles of expensive suits communicated through nonchalant gestures of executive power – hands in pockets for a belt buckle display, heels of patent leather shoes kicking the floor with compulsive impatience. Their comments, if any, were curt and concluded with that peculiar power-affirming snort that tightened their nostrils and produced momentary indents in the bridges of their noses.
The store had only one defender from the public: Mrs. Reddy, a lady from the co-ops whose daughter was diagnosed with lymphoma.
“I’m here to say, ‘Shame on you’,” she started, and The Banner, to their credit, reported it faithfully.
“Which comes first,” she went on, “the chicken or the egg? Do goods serve our needs or the needs of those making up useless rules? ”
A murmur rose steadily so Mrs. Reddy raised her voice, nervous and alone now in a crowd ready to devour her.
“My daughter is healthy,” she shouted. “No doctor could cure her and definitely not worthless phonies like you.”
A female councillor spoke into her microphone in a mellifluous voice of airport quality. “Point of order, Your Honour. We don’t allow derogatory terms in our proceedings.”
The mayor, looking bemused, but clearly sympathetic toward Mrs. Reddy, muttered into his microphone, “Please refrain from name-calling.”
“I’m sorry”, the woman said and sobbed. “I just think that if it works, we shouldn’t kill it with rules. I got a potion from Mr. Aldis that made Alex well again.”
The murmur became a string of loud phrases: “Is he a doctor?”, “Can you prove it?” while most heads shook with incredulity at her naiveté.
Mrs. Reddy looked up, stood there and cried, in hopes that her tears would do the talking. The roar in the audience rejected her gamble.
“You have anything else to tell us, Mrs. Reddy?” asked the mayor. She hid her face in a piece of tissue and walked away in sobs while Mr. Finch of the Canadian Pharmaceutical Council slid behind the microphone with executive swagger. The crowd erupted into applause, but he silenced them with his hand.
“Your Honour,” he intoned, “nothing less than the future of Canada as we know it is at stake here.”
Loud applause exploded once more. Some rose to their feet, and the rest followed. The mayor shouted against the thunder of their clapping. At first, they suspected him of siding with Mrs. Reddy, but his persistence convinced them to quiet down.
Standing up, Mayor Eastman growled against the dying cacophony,” Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just received news that the establishment in question has been firebombed half an hour ago by an unknown individual. Therefore, we must adjourn this meeting until such time when the status of the business becomes clear enough to continue our discussion. We’ll keep you updated, including the date of our next meeting.”
The police investigation into the firebombing discovered two empty containers of Coleman camp fuel in the store, both badly misshapen by the heat and presumably used to ignite the blaze. The detectives speculated that the arsonist smashed one of the store’s front windows to enter, doused the place with the naphtha, and threw in a gas soaked rag to start the fire. That part of the building got condemned temporarily. No witnesses came forward. Aurora’s Canadian Tire store confirmed sales of camp fuel that month, but the clerks had only vague recollections of the buyers. Since Mr. Aldis indicated no intention to reopen in the future, the police dropped the investigation indefinitely.
“They’re all happy now,” said Ross on a half-price wing night at Nina’s. “Did you read the paper? All those people saying that the guy had it coming, and we’re all better off now. They don’t give a damn about us, or the plaza, but just couldn’t stand one little store that stuck in their craw.”
“Where is Amir?” asked Garfield, who must have lost a hundred pounds between December and March. Irene returned from Uxbridge to move in with him again.
“I got a letter from him last week, but waited for the entire gang to show up.” Nina waved a letter at them. The stamps gave it a distinct overseas feel.
No one asked her to read the letter. They were hollowed out, like that space at the end of the plaza. Nina used her finger as a paper knife to enter the envelope’s crease, cut along the top and fish out a page, and a post card with the view of a Caribbean beach. Somewhat resigned, but determined to conclude, she pressed her tummy against the counter and started reading:
“Hi guys, I told you that miracles happen, but you didn’t believe me. I bought a house in the Bahamas, a nice part of town where rich people live. I read about All U Need online and I knew it would happen. You wanna know why? Listen to this.
Remember how Garfield and I were the only ones with the guts to go there? I went twice, actually. Once about my tooth, and then again with Garfield. Well, Garfield and I went a couple of times because they kept closing the store for inspections. But I kept bugging Garfield even though he thought I was stupid. He can tell you why he went with me so many times, anyway. Must have been a pretty good reason. One day we go and the store opened again. The guy inside said, you already got what you needed. The girl must have told him, I have no idea. But I said, how I now believed in him. So he agreed to give me one more chance. I don’t know what Garfield asked for.” They looked at Garfield, and Garfield looked down, avoiding their eyes. Irene put her arm around her guy. Nina continued:
“After, Garfield and I went to Yuan’s convenience. Funky George was there buying cigarettes. I said I wanted to play Lotto 6/49, and Yuan said, how come, it’s Thursday and you always play Saturday. George got suspicious. Ask him why if he’s still showing up for cards. If he’s not, you probably know. So George said, let me guess, Amir, you went to All U Need to get the numbers. I didn’t say anything. It was an easy guess because of how we talked about it almost every night and George saw us coming from that side of the plaza. Then George told Yuan that the guy next door was stealing his business.
Business? What business? Yuan asked. Funny, but he knew nothing about All U Need. Nothing. He’s so busy at the convenience, he has no time to check on the weather. So George said that Mr. Aldis was stealing Yuan’s business by practically giving stuff away for free. Yuan got a little mad. The way George explained it, All U Need wanted to drive Yuan out of the plaza. I said it wasn’t true. Look Yuan, I said, if I win the jackpot, I’ll give you money to prove it. George said, bullshit, Yuan, just give me a carton of cigs and I’ll fix it for you. Then George had the nerve to ask me for a ride to Canadian Tire, so I knew something was up.
Anyway, I won the lottery, but didn’t tell anyone. You always laughed at my stories and that store. After the fire, I was too pissed at Yuan to keep my promise. I still think of you and wouldn’t mind having a beer with you all. Best wishes. Let me know when you’re coming to the Bahamas.
They looked at Garfield again, but his head was down. Irene kissed his ear. “All you need is love, eh, honey?” she murmured and that masculine, cigarette-tinged laugh gurgled in her throat. Garfield lifted his head. A big fat-cat smile spread across his face. The rest of him remained slim and sexy.