Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fiction #58

New fiction! Issue #58
Submissions now open for #59!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #58: Kim Murray

The Sandwich

The day the pickles began to disappear, John fetched his lunch from the communal refrigerator at exactly noon. He ate the same sandwich every day: rye bread, tuna mixed with celery and mayonnaise, topped by thinly sliced dill pickles. Right away, John noticed that the distinctive, tangy taste that brought his tuna to life was missing. He folded back the bread. No pickles. He looked inside the brown paper bag on the off chance his condiment had made a run for it, but no. He looked to Charlie Morris, who sat in the cubicle beside him, but Charlie was engrossed in a container of yogurt.

That night, John scoured his kitchen for the pickles. They hadn’t been inadvertently left on the counter or in the sink. It wasn’t like him to forget, but work had been crazy and it was possible that he’d left them in the jar. The next morning he was careful, pushing the pickles tightly into the tuna. He wrapped the bread in two layers of Saran wrap and secured the paper bag with masking tape. He wrote his name in bold black letters across the front of the bag. But at lunchtime, despite a lack of obvious tampering, when he pulled back the corner of the bread the pickles were missing.

“Charlie, did someone touch my sandwich?”

“What?” Charlie looked up from his computer screen with his usual blank expression.

“My sandwich,” he said slowly. “Did you see anyone touch my sandwich?”

“What are you talking about, John? Who would mess with your sandwich?”

John went back to contemplating his bread. He took a savage bite, fighting against the unfamiliar taste.

“That’ll give you cellulite.” He looked up into the squinty-eyed face of Marjorie. She was the firm’s secretary, but preferred the title “office administrator”. She’d been with the company for almost twenty-five years and there were rumours she and the owner, Jerry, had at one time been more than just owner and administrator. It would, John thought, explain her abysmal typing skills.

“Diet Coke,” she said, gesturing to the can in front of him. “It’ll give you cellulite. You should see my ass when I drink too much of that stuff.”

John tried unsuccessfully to push the image of her ass from his mind. “Marjorie, have you heard of any funny business lately?”

“Funny business?” She leaned forward, pushing her perfumed bosom further into his cubicle. “What kind of funny business?”

“Well, any kind of funny business really, pranks, thievery, that kind of thing?”

“Thievery?” Marjorie screeched, before lowering her voice. “You mean, someone has been stealing?”

“No! No, of course not. Forget I said anything.”

Marjorie pulled back, putting her hands on her ample hips. “Now you listen to me, John Marsh, if there’s any funny business going on around here, I need to know.”

“No, everything is fine.” He flapped his arms in an effort to get her to leave. “I promise nobody is stealing.”

“Alright,” she said. “But I’m watching you.”

Before John could return to his sandwich, Devin popped his head around the corner. “Hey, John,” he said. “I see you’re still eating those tuna fish sandwiches.” Devin said this every time he came by. He had once occupied Charlie’s cubicle for a few months and had been privy to John’s daily habits.

“Yes, that’s right.” John briefly considered telling him about the pickles. But Devin had only recently been promoted to manager, and John wasn’t yet comfortable with the idea that he reported to him.

“Well, you’ve got to keep your strength up. We’ve got that big meeting with Caldwell next Friday.”

Was this Devin’s attempt at motivation? Since becoming a manager, Devin had started cutting his hair shorter and wore a tie to the office. He’d taken to calling people “big fella” and had the annoying habit of walking around telling everyone how busy he was. John refrained from replying that he had already been working long hours preparing for the presentation.

“Listen, big fella, do you think I could see a demo before three on Thursday? I want to make sure everything is in line.”

The idea of Devin checking his work was laughable. When he’d sat in Charlie’s seat, Devin had been notorious for his lazy work and sloppy code. Many times John had pointed out his mistakes. “I don’t see why that’s necessary,” he said stiffly. “When I spoke to Jerry last week –”

“When I spoke to Jerry, five minutes ago, he asked me to make sure everything was running properly for the meeting. So I’ll expect to see that demo. Enjoy your lunch.”

John choked down the rest of his sandwich, still smarting over the conversation. Devin’s promotion six months earlier had been a shock. Devin had only been with the company for two years and didn’t have the same product knowledge as John. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t felt a small stab of betrayal, the prick of his own thwarted ambition. But the idea of sales and client meetings, of budgets and performance reviews, had never appealed to him. And besides, he was far too valuable where he was.

The rest of the day passed in a familiar busy fog. But that night the idea that one of his office mates, the people whose respect and regard he’d come to take as a given, could be tampering with his sandwich left him staring at the ceiling. He wracked his brain to figure out who it could be. In eighteen years of working there, he had never had an issue with his lunch.

For the next few days it was the same. He carefully prepared his sandwich, wrapped it in Saran, and taped up his paper bag. He placed it as far back in the fridge as possible, but when he pulled out his sandwich, it was pickle-free. He thought about stationing himself on watch outside the kitchen, but was too busy to leave his desk for hours at a time. He decided to take a different approach. Perhaps all that was needed was a gentle reminder of the importance of honouring other people’s personal belongings. Just a small, friendly message designed to get his point across in the most polite way possible. The next morning he arrived early and carefully taped his note to the door.

To whom it may concern,
As you know, the refrigerator is a communal appliance. Use of the refrigerator is a privilege, not a right. I would ask that you please not touch any contents clearly marked as belonging to someone else. By respecting said contents, you are showing respect for your fellow co-workers.
Yours sincerely,
John Marsh


He went about the rest of his morning confident that the note would work. But when he went to grab his sandwich, both the note and his pickles were gone. John moved to Plan B, stopping by Canadian Tire on his way home to purchase a small cooler. If the refrigerator was no longer safe, then he would keep his sandwich with him at all times. He carried it throughout the morning, from meeting to meeting, suffering the strange looks of his co-workers. He even considered taking it into the washroom, but decided sanitary concerns trumped security. He kept his liquids to a minimum, and only stepped away from the cooler once. But when he reached for his sandwich, he could already tell it was too thin. In the place of the pickles was his note from the refrigerator. John sat in his cubicle, faced the blank wall and seethed. What had he done to deserve this? Wasn’t he always helpful? Why just that morning he’d corrected several mistakes for Charlie. Where would they be without him?

It was in this state that he entered a meeting Jerry had called in advance of the Caldwell presentation. Plump, and in his late forties, Jerry was now a dinosaur in the IT industry. But back in the mid-nineties, when he’d taken his family’s paper billing system online, he’d been a pioneer. He’d resisted buyout offers from some of the largest companies in the world in favour of running his own shop. If over the years their software had grown a bit old and hairy, the technology less and less cutting-edge, it was okay by him. And if the company had been pushed to the margins, forced to chase smaller and smaller clients, it was just the price of independence.

All of this suited John fine. There had been a time when he’d had to field daily calls from head hunters looking to tempt him to one of the larger organizations. It would have meant more money, more prestige, and a move into management, but on the whole, John was happy doing what he loved best – fiddling with the code and solving puzzles all day long. Over the years he had shepherded the software through its many iterations, watching it grow and expand while finding an immense amount of satisfaction in its myriad complexities and possibilities. But now, with pickles on the brain, it occurred to him how thoroughly he had thrown his lot in with Jerry and Select Technology Group. His phone had long stopped ringing with new job offers. And as the years had passed, he’d grown more complacent about upgrading his skills. Leaving Select now would almost certainly mean months, possibly years, of schooling and rigorous upgrading. And what chance would he have against the young and hungry hoard always looking to take his place?

As he contemplated his future, the heads of departments, including Devin, began to file in. Devin sat across the table and nodded briefly at him. John was the only member of his team, in fact the only non-manager, invited to these meetings. Although it had not been stated explicitly, he knew it was his role to correct Devin when he missed details. The last person to enter the room was Jerry, flustered and disheveled. As he walked to the head of the table, he tucked his shirt back into his pants.

“How’s everyone?” He dumped a pile of papers on the table and stopped to look at each person as they murmured their okays. “Devin, why don’t you start with your update?”

Devin put down the sandwich he’d brought to the meeting – a move designed, John was sure, to make it look like he was too busy to eat at any other time – and started talking through bites of food. “We’re very pleased with our progress. We’ve corrected the bug in the system around provincial sales taxes, and worked out the purchase order formatting.”

“And there’ll be no delay on order creations?” Jerry asked.

“No sir, no delay.”

“Actually, Jerry,” John leaned forward. “There will be a five-to-six second delay in purchase order creation.”

“Thank you, John,” Devin said quickly. “But I think we agreed that the delay would be almost imperceptible to the end user.”

John nodded, and sat back in his seat. Had it been his imagination, or had Devin seemed irritated? Over the years, Devin had sometimes displayed hints of arrogance that John found distasteful. He had overheard him on the phone, bragging to one girlfriend or another about accomplishments that weren’t his own. In group meetings, and in front of Jerry, Devin was careful to credit the team, but John wondered what went on behind closed doors.

“And the time/date stamps?” Jerry was asking. “The system will automatically switch the day and month for American customers?”

“Yes,” Devin said. “We’re confident that we’ll have that functionality in place.”

“Actually, Jerry,” John said, sitting forward in his seat again, “we’ve run into a glitch. I’m creating a work-around, but it’ll involve some overtime hours for the team.”

“Well that’s–” Devin began.

“Fine, fine,” Jerry waved a hand. “Whatever you need. Was there anything else, Devin?”

“No, thank you, Jerry.”

While Jerry moved on, John watched Devin. This time there was no mistaking the irritation. It wasn’t his fault, John thought. If Devin had bothered to read his daily reports, he would have known about the glitch. As the head of Marketing droned on about the technical manual they were updating for Caldwell, John’s thoughts drifted back to his sandwich. He studied the faces of his co-workers. Maybe it was a conspiracy – something company-wide and far more nefarious then he’d originally conceived. Perhaps others had also been victimized. As John ran down a list of potential suspects, Devin locked eyes with him. He casually pulled back the top of the sandwich he’d been eating and revealed a huge pile of pickles sitting on top of roast beef. John watched as, one by one, they went into Devin’s mouth.

The rest of the meeting passed in a blur. Devin refused to look at him again. By the time Jerry had dismissed everyone, John was shaking with rage. He waited until Devin had left the room before asking Jerry if he could speak with him.

“I’m sorry, John.” Jerry passed a hand over his face. “It will have to wait.”

“I’m afraid it can’t.”

“John, I really don’t have time right now. No,” he said, holding up a hand as John began to protest. “Maybe next week.”

John remained standing in the hall long after Jerry had disappeared, unable to believe the turn his day had taken. Devin was stealing his condiments and he’d just been given the brush off by a man who had once described him as “indispensable”.

“Pssssttt.”

He looked up to see Marjorie gesturing wildly from her desk. After one last look down the hall, he dragged himself over to her cubicle. The walls were plastered with posters of cats, and several used Kleenex’s lay scattered around her keyboard.

“You lose something?”

“Excuse me?”

“You were just standing there like you lost your best friend. You weren’t bothering him were you?” Marjorie folded her arms across her chest.

“No, of course I wasn’t bothering him.”

“He shouldn’t be bothered. He’s under a lot of stress, you know.”

“What does he have to be stressed about?” John asked. From behind her left shoulder, a cat hanging from a clothesline urged him to “Hang in there baby!”

“I’d be careful if I were you.”

“What do you mean, careful?”

But Marjorie only shook her head before turning back to her computer.

John took a long walk back to his desk. Around him, his co-workers moved through their day. To the casual observer, all was as it had always been. But John felt like a new lens had been added to the glasses he blinked behind. Did he know any of these people? Had he ever known them? For a moment he allowed himself to consider something different – a new job, a new company. He pictured himself walking unfamiliar halls featuring unfamiliar faces. They wouldn’t recognize him or know his work. All his years of toil, the software he’d built from the ground up would pass into the hands of strangers. It would all have been for nothing.

That evening, the walls of his apartment felt dark and close. He paced the floor in agitation, running lines of code in his mind, desperate to restore order to his thoughts. At close to midnight, he decided to confront Devin. Perhaps it had all been a misunderstanding. It was unthinkable, inconceivable that Devin could be sabotaging him. Hadn’t he always helped Devin? Stood in for him when he didn’t know the answers? He realized now that he had taken a small measure of pride in Devin’s promotion – seen it as a vindication of the training and support John had given him over the years. That Devin would betray him in this manner hurt more than he cared to admit. He needed, no he deserved, an explanation.

He went into the office early, but Devin’s door remained closed throughout the morning. When it finally swung open at 11:45, John was waiting.

“Ah, John,” Devin said, gesturing magnanimously to the chair in front of his desk. “Come in, I was just about to eat lunch.”

“Devin, I think we need to talk about the pickles.” Once seated, John began his carefully scripted speech. “From time to time in a work place, conflicts may arise and–” 

“What pickles?” Devin stared at him.

“My pickles, the pickles from my sandwich,” John stammered.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Devin lounged back in his chair.

“Devin, I saw you eating my pickles in the meeting yesterday.” He was now off-script and horrified to hear a quiver in his voice.

“The world is full of pickles, John. Why would you assume I was eating yours?”

“Devin, if I’ve done something to upset you–”

“Upset me?” Devin laughed. “Trust me, John, you do not upset me.”

“What then? Why are you doing this?” John gripped the arms of his chair in an attempt to stop the shaking in his hands.

Devin watched him for a moment before leaning forward. “Alright, John, let’s say for argument’s sake, I did steal your pickles. Let’s say I got so sick of you, and your stupid fucking tuna fish sandwiches, and your shirts buttoned up to your fucking neck, and your always having to be right all the goddamn time, that I stole your pickles. What then?”

“I….I’ll tell Jerry.”

“You’ll tell on me? Really?”

“Jerry will believe me.”

“Are you sure about that?”

John wasn’t sure. There had been a time when he could have knocked on Jerry’s door day or night, and Jerry would always have had time for the person he called his “favourite programmer”. But if he was honest with himself, yesterday hadn’t been the first time Jerry had walked away from him. And he hadn’t been called anyone’s favourite programmer in years. “I don’t know why you’re doing this. I’ve only ever tried to help you. Giving you the right answers, fixing your mistakes–”

“Right, because you’re perfect. The great John Marsh, who never makes mistakes. If it were up to me, you’d have been fired a long time ago.”

“Fired?” John sputtered. “What are you talking about?”

“Jerry’s finally seen the light. We need to upgrade, get with the times. Once I win this client for us, he’s given me permission to hire three new programmers.”

“I don’t have time to train three new programmers!”

“They’re not coming to be trained by you,” Devin said patiently. “They’re coming to replace you.”

“That’s ridiculous. They’ll never understand the software the way I do.” He tried to sound confident, but his quivering voice betrayed him.

“That’s the point, John. We need new ideas, a new approach. You’ve allowed yourself to become complacent. When was the last time you upgraded your skills? Took a course? Hell, when was the last time you changed a goddamn thing?”

John stared at him, unable to respond. A hot sweat broke out and ran into his eyes, his crotch, his socks. His software, his baby, eighteen years of his life, and they were going to take it all away from him.

Devin watched him closely before nodding. “Don’t worry, John. I might be able to find something for you to do. We always need code monkeys. But you don’t need to attend those weekly meetings anymore. And I don’t want to hear anything more about pickles. Are we clear?”

John nodded. He saw the gleaming, gloating victory in Devin’s eyes, but all he could feel was grateful. Completely, pathetically grateful. He slunk out of the office, ignoring Marjorie’s wild gesturing from down the hall. John kept his head down, tried to avoid the eyes of his co-workers. It was lunchtime, and it seemed like they were all laughing and talking, eating unspoiled sandwiches and drinking Diet Cokes. He stepped into the stairwell, took great gulps of air and willed his body to unclench. He took the long route to the Korean grocery, allowing the fresh air to steady his breathing, and bought a small bottle of Bick’s. Finally, he felt strong enough to return to his desk. Across the aisle, Charlie was staring at an unpeeled banana. John wondered how long it would be before he was reporting to him. 

“John? You okay?”

John nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He sat and stared at his computer screen, at the blips and symbols that constituted his world. His chair was perfectly adjusted, the instruments on his desk neatly lined up at right angles. John grabbed a post-it note and wrote his name in tiny letters. He stuck it to the side of the pickle jar, set it aside, and went back to work.

*

Originally from London, Ontario, Kim Murray now lives in Toronto. She works as a writer, editor and communicator and writes short stories in her spare time. Her work has appeared in The Nashwaak Review.

Photo credit: Paul Peterson.

Fiction #58: Emil Rem

St. George and the Saracen

"Ten Euros to Pyla." The three-hundred pound, cantankerous proprietor of St. George's Taxi Service uttered not another word once installed behind the wheel of the sleek Mercedes sedan to dispatch him back to The Sandy Beach Hotel that overlooked a sea village ten minutes away. Within seconds, they pulled away from the jerry-built shack, mere steps from the sentry box at the entrance to the British Forces Base at Dhekelia.

Since immigrating to Calgary, Canada, he could no longer accustom himself to the British tradition of driving on the left side of the road. It had its compensation, though. In this instance, it brought him ever closer to the sea and beach that ran beside him all the way "home" to Pyla. On his right stood sun-browned rolling hills, bereft of grass or any other vegetation. The scorching sun, overwhelming in its intensity on this late Sunday afternoon, had him sweating profusely, despite the intermittent breeze from the car's air conditioner.

Beyond the purple bougainvillea, the sheltering trees and the barbed wire gate of Dhekelia, the CTO (Cyprus Tourist Organisation) public beaches sprawled alongside the whole stretch of southern Greek Cyprus. Today, what the tourists had shunned — barricading themselves in their hotels to sip and nibble beside their palm-fringed pools (everything closed down on Sunday) — the locals embraced with abandon. A carnival atmosphere prevailed. Hordes of children chased down a football or competed for space to play badminton and volleyball. Elderly women gathered in circles, covered head to toe in long skirts, dark blouses and headscarves, chattering away; middle-aged women wore knee-length shorts or modest swimwear; only the youngest children were allowed the comfort of swimming trunks and bikinis. The men had sequestered the cooking equipment and stood readying the food, talking quietly to each other while smoking or drawing pipes in and out of their mouths to emphasize their conversation. As he lowered his window a little, the aroma of barbecued chicken and fish wafted in to tantalize him.

Well-trod footpaths dividing the road from the beach had been taken over by the vendors of ubiquitous fresh cut slices of watermelon, which they handed out from blue and white plastic coolers filled with ice, along with cold drinks, at a fraction of what the shops charged. Smiles and waves beckoned him to join them, the same way uncles had smiled and waved him to join their scratch cricket teams on the baking hot Sunday afternoons he'd spent on Kunduchi Beach as a child a dozen miles south of Dar-es-Salaam on the coast of East Africa.

Unlike here on Dhekelia Road on a Sunday, where the locals dominated the beaches, there had been no sign of local Africans on Kunduchi Beach, save as accompanying servants or village urchins peering from behind sand dunes to watch the muindi cavorting in the sun.

"Ten Euros to Pyla."

Beyond this curt demand, the Saint parried away all his attempts at conversation in total silence.

He smiled to himself. Little did St. George know he had a twin brother of the same build, weaving a battered white Toyota Corolla taxi in and out of the maze of streets and alleys of Muscat, the capital of Oman, perched on the Straits of Hormuz just across the water from Iran.

A week in glittery, glitzy Dubai had left him overwhelmed. He longed for the traditional way of life practised by his Arab forebears. He had flown in from Seattle on a thirteen-hour direct flight to the newly minted Emirates terminal. And he had expected the new billion dollar edifice to be as efficient as the terminal in Hong Kong, where it would take him 20 minutes from leaving the airplane to hitting the high speed Maglev train to Central station. Here, he had to take a ten-minute "people mover" — an underground train. On disembarking, there was another 20 minutes of meandering through an empty hundred-foot-high glass concourse with pink marble flooring, only there, it seemed, to impress. It could easily have doubled as a palace or a grand mosque. At its end, three immigration officers emerged to serve three hundred passengers. Once he'd retrieved his luggage, a chauffeur driven limousine took him to his hotel.

The Madinat Mina A'Salam was a billion dollar resort in the playboy billionaire district of Jumeirah Beach. Resembling an ancient Arab estate, it had its own canal system to transport its guests by mini-dhows. Beside it, across a causeway, stood the world's first 7-star hotel — the Burj Al Arab, its white canvas-like exterior the shape of a sail on a dhow or yacht. The lighting on the Burj changed colour every five minutes in the evening, and throughout the night radiated soft hues of green, powder blue or lilac.

Sheik Zayed Road, the strip of six-lane highway on the edge of the Arabian Gulf traversing Dubai was deemed to have the greatest number of skyscrapers per kilometre in the world. The buildings came in every size and shape, from needle-like structures of jet black graphite pencils to rotund, short bodies of shimmering multi-coloured glass seated like bejewelled dowagers awaiting their audience. Fifteen feet above the median, as if floating in the air, ran a rapid transit rail. All the stuff of Star Wars.

One Sunday, he sat having brunch with an Emirati friend at the Atlantis, its two-storey aquarium "nurturing a thousand species" and, like most things in Dubai, the largest in the world. At naively expressing his disappointment at not experiencing the "real" Arabia, his friend threw up his hands in exasperation.

"Will you never appreciate the vision, pain and courage that have lifted us from lice-infested nomads to this, the envy of the world?”

The Emirati gave him the look of a wise father to an errant son. "If you must see what we were like, go east, young man. To Oman. There you will find the romanticism you yearn for. But you will be sorely disappointed."

"As for me," his Arab friend continued, "leave me my aquarium to marvel at and my beautiful six-lane highway that I really don't need. To you, I donate all my camels and sand, my seven wives and fifty children," he added jokingly.

So, he went to Oman.

Two surprises greeted him at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel in Muscat.

Firstly, there were no female receptionists. Dubai had prided itself on its female workforce, all be it imported from abroad. Its receptionists were a wonder to behold — freshly mascaraed, ruby lipped blondes from Eastern Russia or Ukraine; they were a sight for sore eyes, welcoming their flight weary guests with flirtatious smiles.

Instead, he was met with a wall of faceless men behind the reception desk, all in traditional Arab attire, each vying to look identically like the other.

The second surprise, after giving Ali, the manager, his passport was "Jambo na Habari."

"Pardon?"

"Hullo and how are you in Swahili, sir." Behind the traditional thobe (an ankle length, long sleeved garment of white gossamer) came an accent of pure Eton educated, privileged class.

"How did you know I spoke Swahili?" he asked in bewilderment.

"Your passport tells me you were born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. I assumed…"

While this was going on, each member of staff was executing his assigned duty with practised precision. One had checked his reservation online. Another had already signalled to the porter and announced his room to him.

"OK, but where did you pick up Swahili?"

"I've just returned from Zanzibar after two years. We own a resort there." The man spoke as though his family owned this palace of a hotel and much more. "Our history with Tanzania goes back centuries."

In 1698, the Omanis, intrepid seamen and fierce warriors, captured the sleepy island of Zanzibar. For the next two hundred years, the island became a staging post for a thriving empire fuelled by trade in slaves, ivory and spices. So important was this trade to the Omanis that, in 1840, its sultan actually moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. The island and Dar-es-Salaam, its counterpart on the mainland of East Africa, also established by Sultan Qaboos, were now a part of Tanzania.

“The Omanis trade with the Zanzibaris to this day," Ali concluded. "You will find your sea view room on the sixth floor. Breakfast starts at 6:30 a.m. in the restaurant on the lower floor overlooking the pool. Is there anything else we can do for you?"

"Thank you, Ali. What I'd really like is to rent a taxi for the day."

"Where were you thinking of going, sir? We are a humble nation. We don't have the malls and resorts that Dubai has. Unless you wish to go hiking or dhow sailing, you can most probably see Muscat in an hour. There are interesting forts and villages on the way south, if you prefer. I could get you a Land Rover tour of the desert, if you wish? We’ve received nothing but compliments from our guests." He picked up the phone, presumably to dial the tour operator.

"Thank you Ali, but no. Just a local taxi will do. I'm not sure what I want to do, but I really don't want to spend time with a group of people." What he really wanted to do was explore where the locals lived and shopped and ate.

A few phone calls later, Ali came back to him. “A taxi is not a problem; it will be here shortly. But they have no English speaking drivers." Ali gestured for him to follow. Outside, he almost changed his mind. At the curb stood a mud caked white Toyota Corolla that looked as if it had barely survived an earthquake. When he was introduced to its driver, he had a sudden urge to turn and head straight back to Dubai and the Atlantis.

As forewarned, the driver couldn't speak English. A twin of his brother-in-arms at Dhekelia, he too frowned and gestured. What he communicated with a raised eyebrow, however, more than compensated for his lack of tongue.

A fee was agreed upon, but as he reached to open the front passenger door to sit beside the driver, all hell broke loose. He was virtually manhandled into the back seat. A broken-toothed smile appeared on the driver's face, if only for a moment.

"Sir, you are our important guest," Ali explained. "Hakim, will be shamed if you sit beside him. People will think you don't trust his driving." There was no answer to that.

They zoomed out of the driveway, with him clutching a book-marked guide in one hand and a phrase book in the other. Surreptitiously, he eyed his chauffeur through the rear-view mirror. Hakim's smile disappeared in a blink, swallowed, as it were, by his too-wide body and flowing Arab garb that covered him head to toe. The only thing he could see was the driver's swarthy face, what little was exposed. Beneath the red and white checked headdress, dark bushy eyebrows and a dark but greying beard covered three quarters of his face. Heavy dark sunglasses hid the remainder of his humanity. The only thing missing was a Kalashnikov, ready and waiting on the seat beside him. Arab pop music blared from the car's speakers at the highest volume possible, driving him near crazy. The windows were all rolled open, and sand drier than dust infiltrated every crevice of his body. The air conditioning had packed up.

All day, he was driven from one site to another. Every time, there was a tussle between where he wanted to go and where Hakim wanted to lead him. The Corolla kept veering left and right as each contender finger-pointed to pages in the guide book. The driver just didn't seem to understand that he actually wanted to visit the smelly fish market and the dirt ridden Muttrah Souk, that he'd seen enough of modern, air conditioned malls like Muscat Grand or Qurm city — Muscat's latest gem, according to his handbook — which the Saracen particularly wanted to show him. When he refused, Hakim's consternation was palpable; his passenger's desire for an authentic experience seemed to confuse and disturb the driver greatly.

After a great deal of persuasion, he convinced Hakim to take him to the National Museum of Oman. He instantly fell in love with the eight-year old school children there on a field trip, full of laughter and mischief, in immaculate dark blue and starched white uniforms, their skin the colour of milk chocolate, their doe-like brown eyes huge and round with wonder. They were led by women teachers, covered from head to foot in black abayas with full head and face covering, save for their obsidian eyes, so diligently serious, as their charges raced from one room to the other. The women shared a knowing look and simply threw their hands in the air. Outside the museum, the driver snored in the back of his Toyota, under a tree with the car doors open to capture any hint of a breeze, as he did at each destination.

On the road again, he asked Hakim in mangled, phrase-book Arabic to take him to a local eatery. Hakim put his foot down, folding his arms horizontally and unlocking them sideways, like karate chops. He would only take his passenger to Western cafes or hotels to eat. And when invited to eat with him, again in extraordinary Arabic pronunciation, Hakim mustered the entire battery of words he had learnt in a lifetime to respond in an equally hideous accent, this time in English, "No! Me driver, NOT Sheik." He had been completely insulted.

Ultimately, the driver took him everywhere he wanted to go, and it was all fine, until they returned to the Al Bustan, where he tried to hand Hakim the agreed fare. Hakim refused with a roaring "No!" that let out all his frustration and disappointment at this unyielding and incorrigible passenger.

The passenger, meanwhile, couldn't understand the angry refusal. Was the driver now trying to gouge him for more money? No way was he going to pay more than they'd agreed upon. After all, instead of travelling all day, they had visited a mere handful of places, and Hakim had spent most of his day snoozing in the back of his car. Never at ease with the sour, darkly menacing Arab, he panicked and rushed up the front steps to the lobby, shouting for Ali.

Ali also seemed to panic, as if fearing the worse had happened to his esteemed guest. He listened intently, then dashed down the steps to the curb. Outside the hotel now, a flurry of raised voices and then peace, followed by a benign smile from Ali and, finally, an explanation.

"Sir, of course the driver has refused the payment."

"But why?"

"You agreed to go to many places, but Hakim tells me you only went to half of them, preferring to go to museums and spend time on your own."

"Yes, that's so, but why would that entitle him to more money? We spent the same number of hours as agreed."

A smile beamed across Ali's face." But that is exactly the point, sir. Under the changed circumstances, he cannot accept the agreed fee. It is unfair and not in accordance with his religious principles."

"Ali, just tell me what he wants." Frustration was getting the better of him and his anger rose.

"Half of the fare agreed on."

"What?!"

"According to him, he cannot take advantage of an honoured guest who was recommended to him by us."

The fee was duly cut in half and they parted as pleasantly as the driver would allow. He dared not attempt to shake Hakim's hand.

During his short but memorable stay at the Al Bustan, he was treated like family, just as he was treated by the village ladies who cleaned his room at The Sandy Beach Hotel in Pyla, where he was now staying for the summer.

The following December, back in Calgary, the Al Bustan all but forgotten, a card arrived from Muscat bearing "Season's greetings from Ali and the staff." Each had signed the card with a personal message. The Saracens had sent him a Christmas card.

St. George was still pouting. When he looked at him, again through the rear-view mirror, the Saint reminded him of the Saracen. As he gazed out at the revellers on the CTO beach, he was transported to a beach in Africa, where a native boy peered at him from behind a sand dune, much as he had spent his life peering at the alien world around him, trying in vain to understand it, to make it more manageable.

And so he oscillated between the past and the present — the past so dangerously more real.

"Sandy Beach Hotel!" St. George's voice pierced his reverie, yanking him back to the here and now.

*

Born in 1955 to middle class East Indian, Muslim parents in Tanzania, Emil Rem immigrated to England at the age of five and was fostered by a working class Church of England family. He spent his formative years commuting between the two communities, eventually settling in Calgary, Canada, as an accountant.

Emil began writing St. George and the Saracen in 2014 on the death of his Indian father, the latest of many voices cut off by death in old age that had guided him and their community at large. The loss of these voices and the destruction of their community impelled him to preserve their wisdom for future generations, including his two teenage sons.

Fiction #58: Jenny Prior

Clinic, Car, Couch

Eve thinks way too much about Cal’s other marriage. She always has.

At first it was the actual wedding that gnawed at her. Snooping through Cal’s stuff she found a photo, in a file folder with ancient credit card bills and foreign change and grit. Anastasia’s light hair glints in the Toronto Island sun and the lake laps around her feet and the bottom of her hippie-ish dress. Cal’s small ears are being held in her hands – it looks awkward. But his eyes! They’re starstruck, moonstruck, sexstruck, and puppydog. Eve used to torture herself, endlessly reconstructing Cal’s special day that had nothing to do with her.

“I barely remember any of it,” Cal would say, lightly, when she’d badger him.

After Eve’s own wedding reception, even the concept of the picture made her cry boozy mascara tears in their ironic honeymoon suite. 

Cal said, “You can’t obsess over this! Stop thinking about that picture! I doubt I even kept it on purpose.” 

It was like she married an amnesiac.

Five years later, she truly doesn’t care about Cal’s brown eyes filled with lust and painful, doomed love for someone else, someone with natural ringlets. Eve takes the photo out of her underwear drawer where she weirdly keeps it, lies on the rug, and stares only at Anastasia’s middle. Miranda’s in there, not detectable yet. Just curled up and floating. Being made as the weeks roll beautifully, effortlessly by.

How many weeks along in that picture?

Cal couldn’t say. “Hon! Stop dwelling on stuff like that. I have no idea, I don’t remember.”

Fine, Eve can calculate for herself. It’s morbid but soothing to do it over and over. Counting backwards from the present-day Miranda, with her recent fifteenth birthday cake (mocha) baked by Eve. A late bloomer: Miranda’s breasts and allure came suddenly, but in full force. Boys love her, and she loves one particular boy. She communicates with adults through monosyllables and long stares.

Even though she’s always lived with her mother, Miranda stays at Cal and Eve’s place more and more lately. Eve knows Cal is holding his breath and praying Anastasia doesn’t come caterwauling. He won’t let the boyfriend sleep over, either, and Miranda pouts. But apparently she and Anastasia get into borderline physical fights over it.

To Eve, it’s bitterly funny that someone thinks of their house as a haven.

When Miranda barges in, and mopes, and doesn’t leave, Eve feels patient. The lovely girl smells sweet and clean, even when she plants herself on their couch, festering there with her texting and her music. She watches movies with them sullenly, chewing gum, making witty comments on the schlock Cal picks. She’s getting smarter, with sharper edges. Eve and Miranda are a bit of a team.

Before Eve and Cal went back to the clinic and its sperm-in-a-cup episodes, Miranda was complicating their increasingly sad, exhausting sex schedule. Eve would hiss for Cal to come upstairs, sometimes crying through it. There were ugly, failed scenes. Eve had to shriek into her pillow, so Miranda couldn’t hear.

But now they’ve returned to medicalized conception attempts in the distant suburbs, where the live-birth stats are supposedly the highest. If creating a person or people is even possible, it will happen outside the home, away from Cal’s daughter, away from even Cal. Eve wishes this would mean a one-night stand, a drunken mistake with some hammered lughead. The blissful way of normal people. But she’s too chicken. Like with Jeremy.

So Eve is at peace with Miranda practically living on their couch. The only bothersome thing is that Miranda used to be housed inside Anastasia.

Twelve weeks along in that picture in Eve’s underwear drawer. Maybe thirteen?

Was Miranda born early, late, or right on time?

“I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter, and I can’t hear you talk about this again.” Cal is low-grade-alarmed about Eve’s accelerating strangeness.

She avoids telling him about her other psychological hobby, which is overdosing on the childbearing and rearing experiences of others online. The rabbit holes are staggering, from pictures of positive pregnancy tests to ultrasounds to newborns in funny sunglasses, first steps and first days of school. Also the written pleas for parenting remedies – it won’t nurse, it won’t sleep, it sleeps too much and has a dent in its head, it barfed, it’s fevered, need advice!! The uniquely sick feeling of jealousy sets in immediately, but Eve keeps scrolling, tapping, and clicking. 

Objectively, she realizes she’s got problems.

*

Eve is hurting. Her mind, her veins, her pride. Her ass where she jabs the at-home hormone needles in by herself, because she doesn’t want Cal to have an image of her like that. Men are so visual.

Eve’s muscles are sore from steeling herself against the clinic’s invasions. Her earliest dirty fantasy was alien doctors very interested in examining her private parts. She takes it back now, she really does.

Ow, her tubes. Her bones, her abdomen. Her soul, or spirit, or whatever. Something inside her is rotten. No one can find anything, but she knows.

But back to the clinic she goes, where they tell her she has everything going for her (zero cysts, three eggs!) and then nothing to show for it (no strand of cells, no blip of life).

These biological misadventures happen pre-dawn, on Eve’s way to work. The packed waiting room has insensitive glass doors leading out to a corporate mall. Too many high-quality screens play rise-and-shine tv on closed caption – the pregnancy and baby stories are rampant and ultra-bright. Celebrity magazines stuffed with maternal themes are piled slick and high. In comparison, the brochures for counseling services are insignificant: pastel squares of paper on one of the end tables, mostly ignored. 

Eve counts today’s waiting room: fifteen silent women, three silent men. The men seem edgy, the women resigned. 

Where’s the crazy bitch who physically angles to be first on the patient sign-up sheets? Missing, out there somewhere in the darkness. Has she surrendered? Been institutionalized? Today she’s not in the game, she loses and Eve wins. Eve is first on the sheets today! Only a small percentage of the population would understand this hollow victory.

The absent psycho’s name is Dorrie, which is out-of-time and incongruous with her lacquered appearance. Dorrie has sinewy workout arms and perfect makeup (she must do it in the middle of the night). For all her efficiencies, why can’t Dorrie get the babymaking job done? Why can’t any of them?

Well no, some of them do. Eve can’t look at the evidence anymore, the photo wall beside the reception desk. There are women from Eve’s last go-around here, with their single, double, and in one case triple infant batches. When Eve has to go by that wall, she stares at her shoes – they’re usually quite hot, she dresses up for the office. Sometimes she focuses on her thirty-six-year-old hands instead. Her wedding band is simple, not expensive.

This morning, the wait goes on and on. Cal’s performance isn’t required at this point and Eve sits there alone and hating him. She hates Anastasia too, for having sex for sexual reasons and ending up with Miranda. Eve loves Miranda, though, a lot. Round-cheeked and ten years old when they met. Miranda’s big shy eyes were hesitant, fearful, but Eve won her over quickly. They went to the zoo.

How far along, in that wedding picture of Cal’s?

Twelve weeks.

Thirteen?

A hamster-wheel of thought.

And then:

Why won’t this happen for me?

It’s never going to happen.

There are so many worse problems to have.

At least you don’t have cancer.

Yet. (These first-world hormone treatments will give it to you, and soon, and you’ll deserve it).

MILLIONS of needy children need a home. DON’T complain if you don’t want to adopt –

My friend? She tried for TWO YEARS. And then she went to an all-inclusive in St. Lucia and got pregnant!

Are you having orgasms? You totally have to come if you want to get knocked up.

And always:

You’re a worthless fucking piece of shit.



“Eve?” It’s one of the sultry ultrasound technicians. Some of them are robotic, some are maternal, some are mean, and some are just too much to handle at an ungodly hour. This one’s infuriating, with her tousled, beachy vibe. Sex on the beach. What, sex for fun? Probably never again.
Eve follows her obediently.

*

The tests are a familiar minor ordeal. Eve copes. There are people starving being raped being murdered being dead. Any baby or babies they might make will one day die. What’s the point of any of it? Put Miranda first, she’s still got some growing to do. Miranda should be the focus.

But Eve’s pitiful hope for success dominates. Dr. So-and-So, filling in for the regular doctor (who is pregnant), is in a jubilant state as she studies Eve’s charts. Eggs are looking goood! Soon Cal will need to jerk off again at the clinic. He can’t stand the porn selection and the masturbation stations, and he won’t discuss them even to complain anymore.

The sky is mildly light when Eve flees through the embarrassing glass doors. She feels like calling Jeremy on the walk to the subway, but that’s inappropriate and misplaced: they’ve never talked on the phone.

She calls her younger sister, the perpetual grad student, instead.

“What happened?” Taryn says. “I’m sleeping.” 

“Nothing, sorry. I thought maybe you didn’t even go to bed yet.”

“I haven’t done that in ages. I’m maturing.”

“’Kay then. How are things?”

“Why are you calling right now? You and Cal are separating?”

“No-no, shut up!”

“You wanna go for a drink and talk about it?”

“It’s the morning, freak. And I’m not drinking anyway.”

Taryn wakes up a bit more and chirps, “Ohmygod! Are you – ?”

“Dream on.”

“Oh. Shit. But you’re…back at that place?”

“We’re just – yeah, we’re back trying. It’s pretty awful.”

“Still? Why can’t those scientists just get-‘er-done? It’s taking forever! Can you even afford it?”

“Ugh, why do I call you? I don’t know why I call.”

Taryn smooches into the phone. Eve hears her turning over in her feather bed and wants to chop her neck.

“I’m gonna give up soon,” Eve says.

“Poor dear. I told you, it’s Cal’s fault! ‘Cause he’s old! He’s sterile I think. Just believe that. I hate when you blame yourself.”

“I’m not. But he has Miranda, remember?”

“Yeah but that was before. He’s old now!”

“He’s only forty-seven. There’s nothing technically wrong with him. Us.”

“Hmmmm.” Taryn stretches and shuffles around in the white sheets. Eve has lain in them with a hangover. It was fun not to go home that day.

“’Kay Taryn, I’ll talk to you later, I gotta get to work. Sorry, this was a random pointless chat.”

Taryn yawns. “I don’t care. I really hope I don’t have all this trouble, like when I’m ready. Should I try now? I’m worried. Should I go out and get laid this second?”

“You’ll be fine. Statistically you’ll be fine.” Eve is walking by a gas station. She tries not to notice the vehicles of affluence preparing for their daycare drops. The backseats are filled with car seats and cartoons playing – in some cases separate cartoons, for each kid.

Taryn is musing. “I want a baby with really pretty eyes. Like Asian eyes, but grey.”

“Then you’ll have one. Positive thinking.”

“Are you thinking positive though? You sound weird.”

“I’m okay.”

“So like, if it doesn’t work this time…”

“I’ll kill myself.”

Taryn doesn’t take this even slightly seriously. “No, I mean then you’ll make the baby outside of both your bodies?”

“Ha, yeah. Something like that. Or maybe I’ll just keep making that witches’ brew, from the fortuneteller. The ginger mixed with mint and pubic hair buried in the backyard.”

“Ew!”

“Although you’re right, Cal’s friggin’ old, I’m noticing all the grey pubes when I clip them.”

“Ha! Gross!”

“Bye.”

Why does Eve have to clown for people, obscuring the trauma? With Cal she completely loses her shit, but otherwise she picks irreverence over a breakdown. She wants to appease concerned parties. They’re uncomfortable as they grapple with her stubborn, unsolved issue. They can’t help her. She wants to chop them all in the neck. 

*

Everyone cool at her office is pregnant these days, so Eve has been kissing and kissing and kissing Jeremy in parking lots. A group of them used to go out for beers, but that faded away with all the peeing on the sticks and the squeals of joy, and now here’s Eve for the third time with the newish web guy in his old, green car.

Jeremy isn’t old and green, though, he’s quite young and nice-skinned and he smells like the woods. Their kisses start out by-the-numbers, until they change and somehow become brilliant. They’re letting Eve live on another planet for a while, every week. He’s such a regular dude, not her type at all and boring to talk to, especially sober. But his mouth is a good one, straight and strong and the right amount of soft when making out.

Eve has to get home.

She should make a baby with Jeremy.

No, she should not.

It’s crucial not to do anything involuntary around him, like confessionals or orgasms. She’s ridiculously turned on by the kissing, which lasts a long time but goes nowhere. For some reason she thinks it’s idiotic to seem legitimately horny. So she forbids any touching beyond her face and hair.

Jeremy is perplexed, but still willing to just kiss, for now.

“I’m such a gentleman with you,” he says, marveling at himself.

Maybe it’s okay to do more things, Eve thinks. Maybe they should do everything. Maybe they could make a baby! It’s bananas, but it might be the ticket.

Tonight, in some church parking lot, Jeremy wants to take off Eve’s coat and then likely her shirt. But she has a rusted-over cotton ball and a band-aid and a giant bruise on her arm from the morning’s blood work. Remembering it transforms her. 

“Nope.” She moves Jeremy’s unzipping hands away. 

“Why not?”

“Because this is dumb,” she says, but friendly, and Jeremy likes it. He  laughs while kissing her again.

“Stop. I have a husband,” Eve says.

“I know, Eve, I have a girlfriend.” He leans back slightly to consider her. She can’t read him, but maybe it’s because there’s nothing to read.

She says, “My husband’s ex-wife? She wanted to call their baby Passion, boy or girl.” Oh no, she didn’t say this on purpose.  

“Why?” Jeremy stares, waiting.

“Isn’t that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard?”

“I guess.” Now his torso is moving distinctly away from her, it’s lining up with his bottom half.

Eve says, “My husband doesn’t even remember it happened. Or he says he doesn’t. His daughter told me.”

“His daughter Passion?”

“Ha-ha, no. Miranda. She can’t stand her mom right now. She likes me better.”

Jeremy nods, huffing out some air. 

“I hope you never have to go through something awful, like, in your personal life.” Eve can’t stop the spiral.  

“Are you okay?” Jeremy doesn’t want to know the answer. He’s fiddling with his keys dangling in the ignition.  

“My name is Eve, like, the first woman. You know?”

“Right?” He’s so confused.

“My name is Eve and I can’t even have a baby.”

Jeremy clears his throat, jingles his keys. “Oh. That’s rough.”

Eve asks, “Can you drive me to the end of my street again?”

Gladly.

*

Her little house is warm and buttery-smelling. Eve can’t use her brain, she can’t feel anything except chilled.

At first, Cal and Miranda on opposite ends of the couch are cute and pleasing. They’re watching a movie and Cal’s munching on popcorn. But Miranda is zoned out and maybe weepy.

“What’s goin’ down?” Eve sits between them, warming her feet under Cal’s legs.

“Not too much. Have fun with the girls?” Cal asks, patting her.

“Not really.” Eve grabs some popcorn. The makeouts never include dinner.

In the movie, a man in a leather jacket shoots another man in a leather jacket a whole bunch of times, and Cal laughs uproariously. Eve punches his shoulder and turns to commiserate with Miranda, who’s already staring at her.

“You’re all glassy,” Eve says. “What’s up, anyway? Are you stoned?”

“No. The popcorn,” says Miranda. She means she wants it.

“It’s please, you cretin, “ says Cal.

Eve passes her the almost-empty bowl. Miranda takes some and gives Eve the gum from her mouth. It sits on Eve’s palm, hyper-blue and dried up.

“What a brat!” says Cal. “Evie, see? You already got a baby, right there.” He’s joggling Eve’s impassive knee, pausing the movie, calling them hungry hungry hippos, taking the gum from Eve’s hand and heading to the kitchen to make another round of popcorn.

Miranda has stopped eating and is crying for real.

Eve is receiving a signal.

That radar she’s developed. How could she not see it before? Her blistering consciousness of her own inadequacy. So many can do what she can’t.

Suddenly lightheaded, Eve says, “What? Tell me, honey.”

Eve knows. Before Miranda responds, Eve feels a trapdoor being opened.

“Eve?” Miranda swallows and keeps crying.

“Yes.”

“I’m pregnant.”

And even though Eve is falling through space, she says it right away, she says, “I know. I’ll help you.”

*

Jenny Prior writes fiction and plays and lives in Leslieville. Her novella, Catholic Dreams, is available at www.shortandenjoyable.com.

Photo credit: Dave Lazar.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mark Anthony Jarman

In late 1999/early 2000, TDR interviewed the brilliant Canadian short story writer Mark Anthony Jarman.

Now he has a new short story collection, Knife Fight at Hotel Europa (Goose Lane, 2015).

We've reprinted the 15-year-old interview below. See also:

*

TDR: Your novel Salvage King, Ya! (about a minor league hockey player near the end of his playing days who has his hands full balancing a girlfriend, a fiancé and an ex-wife) radiates the complexities of 1990s Canada. It also seems to argue with the standard tropes of "Canadian literature" (lush lyricism, small town realism, victim/survival ideology).

MAJ: Does Salvage King argue with standard tropes? I hope it does. I wanted to use them and stand them on their head at same time. I didn't want to write a standard A to B linear plotted book. I don't mind them, many writers are good at them, but I wanted to fool around more. In general, critics sometimes review what they think should be there, not what is actually there; editors and agents can be very conservative about what is allowed, especially compared to art, music, video, etc.

I had a lot of trouble with editors and publishers and agents over that book. I thought I wouldn't be able to sell it for a while, yet the reviews were great, except the first one by Andrew Pyper in Quill & Quire. I wanted to punch him in the nose, but now I'm okay. Now people want to punch me. Like Joni Mitchell, I've been on both sides now. Ha.

TDR: Could you comment on the relationship between 1990s Canada and the nation's literary tradition? Is Canada changing faster than the country's literature can adapt? 

MAJ: Yes it is changing fast, but probably always been so; perhaps a matter of degree (I know I sound vague). I think of Hugh Garner's forward in Alice Munro's first collection. The forward is gone now but was in the early editions, and was very awkward. She was new and he wasn't sure what to say. Now it looks funny and wrongheaded and now she is the name, the icon. I like Garner but he was in a different world, and the same is happening now, happens over and over.

TDR: What is your assessment of the state of Canadian writing today? Does the new, younger generation of Canadian writers share a sensibility? 

MAJ: I doubt it, I think of writers as individuals more than a mob or brat pack. I like good vs bad, not young vs old or Amercian vs Canadian, or street cred vs lack of street cred. By the way, I'm not young, so I don't want to define the young. A subgroup I could mention is Smoking Lung chapbooks: Brad Cran seems to be running the show and he publishes himself and Shane Book, Billeh Nickerson, Karen Solie, Adam Chiles, and a bunch of other good younger writers doing interesting things. Arsenal did their anthology. They sold a ton of books at the Vancouver festival and did a cross country trip, reading wherever they could, bands playing, teeth gnashing driving ice on the Rogers Pass, etc. I think they're worth watching.

TDR: How would you summarize the Canadian literary scene? Public perception of Canadian literature is obviously dominated by a few big names and a few big awards, but there is a whole range of literary activity (from 'zines to poetry slams) which is rarely handed any media spotlight. Where should people go to find out "what is really happening"? 
 
MAJ: I agree with what you said about lit. activities that are not covered by the media. CBC goes to the same few names every time. They plug the same safe books over and over. It reminds me of music. The Globe never reviews interesting small label bands. Shania or Celine all fucking day, never see Godspeed You Black Emperor. Part of it is built in, is systematic. Mailer called it feeding the goat. The media is a goat that has to be fed something. Many in the media are rushed, and it's impossible to know every scene. There is also a kind of lazy journalism. It's simpler to pigeonhole, label, or to go with what everyone else covers or what is deemed as trendy or chic or happening. So it's easy for a writer to get lost, ignored, turned around, forgotten and wandering the boondocks. Hence my identification, in Salvage King Ya!, with a minor league player bouncing from team to team, town to town. In my hockey story "Righteous Speedboat" the player won't be drafted because he clocked his coach.

TDR: What sort of challenges do you set for yourself as a writer? What are you trying to "do" in your writing? (Please answer providing examples from your work.) 

MAJ: Challenges I set as a writer: I don't always know what I'm going to do, it's instinctive and changes with each piece or project. I don't have big plans and not a big picture person. Perhaps I think in the small picture, the next word, next sentence, idea, random images, scraps of dialogue, song lyrics. a voice, a headline, etc. In "Cowboys Inc" (from my first book Dancing Nightly In The Tavern), I wanted to do a travel/road piece and I wanted a triangle and I wanted a sex scene on an ironing board. I had a lot of notes and matchbooks and napkins, etc. and threw them together. In "Mir" I wanted to do a story set on the Russian space station and while I was working on it I was puzzled as to why -- seemed stupid at time but editors liked it.

Anvil is doing an anthology of public transit stories so I put together a few little bus anecdotes I had in journals and worked it over. My story "Metered Dream Palace" started as a jazz poem which was not good, but I worked it over and it got longer and longer. My point is that I often work blind in a manner. I do a lot of revising. The title of my novel Salvage King Ya! I saw scratched on a wall in a bar in Cutbank, Montana. I saw it on two different trips and liked it so I wrote a junkyard into the book to use it. It was a message of sorts but my book might have sold more if I had ignored it.

TDR: You have been a writer, a teacher and an anthologist. Do these different hats complement each other? How?

MAJ: The different. hats do complement each other. I've learned an amazing amount from having to teach, especially being forced to repeatedly examine Shakespeare, Joyce, Ondaatje, Melville, Marvell, Munro, Keroauc, Pinter, Cheever, Roethke, Eliot, Atwood, even though I may not like them all. I love dropping bits from Hamlet or Prufrock in my work, but the bad thing is I don't know if I can stop. I've actually picked up some great stuff from blueboxes by the photocopying machine, say Viking runes or Chaucer lines, and consider that part of my ongoing education. I would actually like to stop teaching, the essays kill me, but I'd probably miss the contact and the trapped audience. I never planned to be a teacher. I thought I'd drive a truck and write on the side. At grad school (Iowa) I was offered a T.A. which meant some money, in-state tuition, and some teaching experience, so I took it. My hands and knees shook when I started; it was fun but scary.

After Iowa I lived in Seattle illegally and cut lawns, chopped wood, etc. and worked on my first collection, Dancing Nightly In The Tavern. Then I was spring skiing in Banff and applied at Mount Royal College in Calgary, because a good friend was teaching music there, and I got part time work for three years, then ended up at Univ. of Victoria, and am now teaching fiction temp. at UNB in Fredericton. As I said, no five year plan, it was very random. It was a way to eat, but I grew into it, enjoying it more than I could have predicted. My friends at Iowa laughed when they heard I was going to teach. I didn't strike them as the type. I don't like bureaucracies but I like some of the colleagues and many students. Not all. The danger is that you are turned into a bureaucrat just by being inside a bureaucracy for so long; it's bound to affect you, consciously or unconsciously. It makes you more careful, more politic, like working in a bank, and that's not good for an artist, if I can use that term. I don't usually use the term.

Perhaps the best thing about teaching is that you're not chained to one locale all day. You move around. No punchclock. The day is broken up and you have bits of time. I've learned to write with those tiny bits of time. Some people think they need a garret in Paris and time. That's bullshit. They're avoiding it, making excuses. I can write anywhere. Dif. hats can help or hinder. I believe that teaching has helped me in my writing (one hat), but I'd also like to cut back teaching and write more (the important hat?). I think I've written a fair bit considering I have to teach a lot to pay bills, feed my kids, etc. I'm a sessional, and sessionals are not rewarded the same way full time or tenured faculty are. There is a measure of exploitation, but it's better than being exploited by 7-Eleven. I went in with my eyes open. But that doesn't make you happy about being exploited.

The other hat: athologist. I'm not well known as one but I do want to edit an anthology of road stories soon, and hope to do it with Anvil Press or Smoking Lung/Aresenal. I tried to put together an anthology of the best of The Malahat Review years back, but the publisher I was working with quit and things fell apart. It would have been good. The first anthology I edited, Ounce of Cure, was a collection of Canadian alcohol-related stories. Like teaching, this was also random. I saw a book like it in Seattle and thought someone should do this in Canada. Then I thought, maybe I should do it. Ounce of Cure has some great stuff in it but got zero promotion, the usual writer's complaint. I only have one copy left, and wouldn't mind finding a couple more to keep. (Same with my book of poetry, Killing The Swan.) I'm not sure being an editor affects my writing. Basically it's another title on your CV or in the marketplace. Putting together an anthology does make you look around, keeping an eye on what others are writing, which is good, because it's impossible to keep up with everything.

Another hat is nonfiction. I've been doing more and more and recently won both Event and Prism's nonfiction contests with some Irish material I'm working on. I went there about 20 years ago and returned recently and the changes are amazing, not all good. My mother is from Dublin. I love going there and in some ways the writing bankrolls or justifies the travel. I like to travel but can't always take off when I want.

TDR: Could you say a few words about your influences.
 
MAJ: I take influences from anywhere, anything. I like a lot of writers, eg Nathaneal West, John Dos Passos, Celine, Hubert Selby, Pinter, Joan Didion, Renata Adler, Amy Hempl, Lorrie Moore, Bukowski, Joseph Mitchell, Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, Carver, Tom McGuane, James Purdy, Lowry, Mary Gaitskill, but I'm also influenced by movies, newspapers, pop culture, slang, music, etc. The band Joy Division is probably more of an influence on my writing than Faulkner, though I like him. Ditto with musicians like Howling Wolf, Tom Waits, Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt, Portishead, etc. I always play music and I like reading poetry while writing fiction. I collect anthologies like the Pushcart Prize, Best Essays, Best Stories, monologues and plays (I had a lot of trouble with dialogue when I started out). These are worth picking up. I've had some good teachers: Matt Cohen, PK Page, Phyllis Webb, Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee, Barry Hannah (wild southern writer), Larry Levis (good usa poet, we used to shoot pool in Iowa, whose heart just stopped, likely from too much speed and alcohol), Barbara Moon, and Captain Kangaroo.

I really like Isaac Babel, amazing Russian writer, wrote about riding with the Cossacks as a Jewish journalist, and was killed by Stalin. I also like Dennis Potter who did The Singing Detective for British TV; wild, surreal scenes that gives you hope for TV. I hate beer ads and most shows (I like The Simpsons but that's not news.). Playwrights: I like Eric Bogosian's monologues, Mamet, David Hare, Caryl Churchill, George Walker, David Rabe. I mentioned Pinter already: I think he's a huge influence on Ray Carver but no one seems to have ever pointed it out. Both slightly skewed, which I like.

TDR: What's next for Mark Anthony Jarman?
 
MAJ: My new collection of stories will be out in April 2000, called 19 Knives, with Anansi. Also want to make my Irish travel pieces into a book. Sitting in on screenwriting and playwrighting courses here at UNB so I'm going to try writing a 10 minute play based on a Ray Carver story, and may try to turn my story "Cowboys Inc." (from my first collection Dancing Nightly In The Tavern) into a short screenplay. Fun more than serious attempt.

p.s. I forgot to mention Flannery O'Connor as a favorite, and I also think of John Cheever as an invisible influence, in that people reading me wouldn't think of Cheever but he's a huge influence. I once rode a Greyhound from Philly to Seattle, three days on a bus and his collected stories kept me sane. It was also important for me when I started writing to find writers who wrote about where I lived (in the west). Until I read Robert Kroetsch's Studhorse Man or Ken Mitchell's short stories Everybody Gets Something Here, I thought you had to write about New York or Paris or a safari somewhere else, and not where I was from. mj.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Links

Back in the day, TDR had quite an active links page, but it hasn't been so for a while. But here's a valuable selection of Canadian literary magazines courtesy of The Journey Prize. It lists the publications that submitted to the 2015 anthology. (No, TDR wasn't on the list. We didn't think online magazines were eligible. They weren't last time we checked, but that was some years ago. In the future, we will stay alert to the deadline, which unfortunately has passed already this year.)

The Antigonish Review, AntigonishReview.com
carte blanche, carte-blanche.org
Cosmonauts Avenue, cosmonautsavenue.com
The Dalhousie Review, DalhousieReview.dal.ca
Descant, Descant.ca
EVENT, eventmags.com
The Fiddlehead, TheFiddlehead.ca
filling Station, fillingstation.ca
Found Press, FoundPress.com
FreeFall Magazine, FreeFallMagazine.ca
Geist, geist.com
Glass Buffalo, glassbuffalo.com
The Humber Literary Review, humberliteraryreview.com
The Impressment Gang, theimpressmentgang.com
Joyland Magazine, JoylandMagazine.com
Little Brother Magazine, littlebrothermagazine.com
Little Fiction, littlefiction.com
The Malahat Review, MalahatReview.ca
Maple Tree Literary Supplement, www.mtls.ca
Matrix Magazine, matrixmagazine.org
New Orphic Review, www3.telus.net/neworphicpublishers-hekkanen
The New Quarterly, tnq.ca
On Spec Magazine, OnSpec.ca
One Throne Magazine, OneThrone.com
The Overcast, TheOvercast.ca
Plenitude Magazine, PlenitudeMagazine.ca
Prairie Fire, PrairieFire.ca
The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, PrairieJournal.org
PRISM international, PrismMagazine.ca
Pulp Literature, PulpLiterature.com
The Puritan, Puritan-Magazine.com
Queen's Quarterly, queensu.ca/quarterly
Ricepaper Magazine, ricepapermagazine.ca
Riddle Fence: A Journal of Arts & Culture, Riddlefence.com
Room Magazine, RoomMagazine.com
The Rusty Toque, therustytoque.com
subTerrain Magazine, subTerrain.ca
Taddle Creek, TaddleCreekMag.com
This Magazine, this.org

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Fiction #57

New fiction! Issue #57
Submissions now open for #58!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.