Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fiction #67

New fiction! Issue #67
Submissions now open for #68

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #67: Marius Stankiewicz

Soft and Tender

In January of the previous year, on an unusually cold night in Barcelona, Mario, the well-known chatarrista from São Paulo, Brazil, decided to walk home from his meager job of collecting TVs and breaking down wardrobes all day. Rather than take the subway he crossed Bac de Roda Bridge and was hoping to catch the last number nineteen bus on the other side of the train tracks. With his head in the cloudless night sky, he got to the middle of the overpass when suddenly he noticed a man sitting on the rail facing outwards. Gesturing expressively to no one but himself, the man was clearly distraught and mumbling incoherently. By how spastic his body language, he had to constantly readjust his backside on the rail when not drawing locks of his dark and unruly hair behind his ears. His few possessions—a Flamenco guitar, a small bowling ball bag, a potted plant, and a pair of football cleats—were placed neatly in a row next to the protective barrier.

Mario slowed his pace and stopped pretending to have his head in the cosmos. He lit up a cigarette and leaned against the rail no more than a few meters from the man. He looked down and ran his eyes along the crisscross of northbound tracks, watching a train wagon full of new Audis fade into the distance to be offloaded in Paris. After drinking a bit too much Don Simon wine with some other scrappers, the last freight wagon’s red brake light trailed off in his mind even when it was already out of sight and beyond the industrial complex.

“So,” Mario said in Spanish with a Portuguese accent.

“So what?” the man said rudely, looking over at Mario with a contemptuous look.

“Are you gonna do it?” Mario asked insensitively, taking a puff of his cigarette.

“I’ll do it when you get out of here, pal,” the suicidal man said. “I don’t need an audience right now.”

“I mean, what could you possibly say to the Man at the front gates of heaven? ‘Thanks, big guy, it was an awesome ride but I just couldn’t take it anymore…my wife left me for my better-looking neighbor and my kid is...’”

“Fuck off, buddy, you don’t even know!”

“I don’t know…and I don’t believe you’ll jump anyways. Will you really do it? You don’t seem the type to back out of life without putting up a fight to understand it.”

Mario exhaled cigarette smoke with an indifferent demeanor, concealing the botched pitch as to why the man’s life was special and why he deserved to live it. With all the movies he had watched in his lifetime, on one of the many TVs he kept at his small apartment stacked up and ready to be pawned, it didn’t seem to go as well as how it usually went in Hollywood, when special-trained coppers succeed in convincing the mentally unstable to get down from apartment building ledges.

“You don’t believe me?!” the man repeated, wiping the tears from his eyes. “You don’t fuckin believe me?! Well, I’ll do it,” he said, striking out against the crisp air with one hand while holding the rail with the other. “I swear, I’ll do it!” The man suddenly let fall one foot onto the edge unsticking one butt cheek from the hard steel rail, committing himself to standing up and thereby to one step closer to his grave.

“At least time the jump so you don’t land on one of the Audis passing under us,” Mario said, bad at feigning concern. “I wouldn’t want to be the guy to hear that my sedan was suddenly converted into a cabriolet along the way.”

Mario did a pushup off the rail and threw down his cigarette. “Suit yourself,” he muttered, and continued on his path when suddenly the man called him back and asked for what Mario was smoking. Mario put on a surprised look.

Did it work?

He turned around, walked back, and pulled out his pack. He offered one at a certain distance so that the man would have to turn his body and get off the rail in order to take it. The man, however, didn’t fall for the cunning ruse thinking that it was Mario’s idea to yank him off the rail in order to save his life. Mario complied with his unwillingness to cede a bit of territory so he took a step closer instead and let the man pull it out with his lips straight from the pack. Mario then pulled out his lighter from his coat pocket but the man refused his offer of fire by gently pushing Mario’s hand down. On the brink of death and the jumper was choosy as to how he was to light up his last fateful cigarette.

The man then put his hand inside his jacket pocket, pulled out a shiny zippo lighter, and quickly lit the cigarette while holding his gaze on Mario suspiciously, as if the stranger standing there was not his rescuer but perhaps the one who’d bring him closer to his death. Mario shrugged his shoulders ‘too bad’ and used his own lighter on his own cigarette. He then leaned up against the rail once more, looked up into the sky, and started telling the man a story.

“Her towering over me…red heels,” Mario mumbled, without any sort of preface.

“The kind of footwear that should be prohibited on transatlantic flights.”

“What?” The suicidal man asked looking up into the bespectacled sky. “What was that?”

“I met a girl from Norway last year,” Mario began, unsure of himself, “and the thought of her just popped into my head.” He paused, took a puff of his cigarette, and exhaled thoughtfully. “It’s Orion in the sky, reminds me of the diamond-encrusted belt she wore that night.” He then looked down and started staring at another train full of cars riding off to Paris. “A solid ten she was…blond and curly hair with a handful that you could not not hold onto the whole night…tender and soft to the touch. So beautiful she was that there is no way I’ll ever forget the way she looked at me. Even when I’m old, white-haired and ugly, with my head on the pillow next to whoever my wife will be…I’ll remember that cute little ass in that tight black dress…that revealing neckline and her supple collarbone…the thought of her will give me that last natural breath to happily recall that pleasant moment.”

“Where did you meet her?” asked the man on the rail.

“It’s funny you ask. I was chatting with her at a metal bar, real smooth-talking my way into her knickers.” Mario glanced over at him. The man was subdued by the story and wasn’t fretting nervously anymore, completely distracted from his original plan of taking his life. Mario pulled from his cigarette and looked up into the star-filled and blackened sky.

“We were standing at the bar and talking when suddenly she got on my case for lighting a cigarette in a candle that stood right in front of us, telling me that every time somebody does that a Norse mariner dies tragically in a severe rainstorm. We were, in fact, talking about losing people close to us.

“That’s heavy,” the man said.

“It is. Now listen to this. Back when she was in high school, she and five of her classmates went camping for the weekend. After a whole day fishing and walking through the forest, she decides to pick mushrooms like her grandmother used to before World War II. She picks these large mushrooms with nice white stalks—,” Mario gestured with his hands the size of the mushroom with the cigarette still wedged between his fingers. “So she’s picking mushrooms and saving more than a batch for later cause she had plans of cooking up a soup on the campfire. But after she makes soup in the evening, and serves it to her friends, they all die in their tents later that night.”

“They all died?”

“Yes, they all died. But get this—she didn’t eat the soup! Can you believe it?! I mean, they were found purple and stiff as boards in their sleeping bags inside their tents. She told the courts later on during trial that she didn’t eat the soup just because, no reason at all!”

“That’s bizarre,” the man said, kicking his legs up and over the rail, turning around to face Mario.

“It is. And so, as she’s telling the story, I’m slowly inching to bursting out in laughter. I mean, I had tears in my eyes, not out of sadness, of course—that’s how funny it was. She on the other hand was so offended by the way I reacted that it looked like she wanted to take the candleholder and smash me in the face with it.

“When she finally calmed down and asked me why I was laughing I told her that where I’m from people die every second from drugs and murders and gang violence—I mean, every day! Hundreds! Innocent or guilty, doesn’t matter! I tried to explain to her that it was so ridiculous to die in such a stupid manner that the only thing you could do is laugh and wonder how absurd life is.

“You know,” Mario stood up, applied himself, and got serious, “I don’t know what your problems are in life, buddy, or the reason why you want to cause so many people around you so much grief, including the guy who’d get a roofless car should you choose to jump in the path of a train…but people in my favela in Brazil don’t even have enough time to think about that ‘survival of the fittest’ bullshit as they’re just trying to survive, forget being the fittest.”  

Mario punctuated the story’s ending by throwing down his cigarette and putting it out with his heavy boot, a pair he had found in the garbage. There was a long silence which he figured was deep contemplation and reflection.

“My name’s Paco,” the man said, reaching out his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Paco.” Mario reached out and gripped it firmly. “How about a caña for good night? Maybe some dinner?” Paco nodded his head and started gathering his belongings. Mario could now see that he was of average height and well-built. He had a discerning yet sad look in his dark, gypsy eyes but a face that wasn’t as artful as one would think. Even though he seemed much better in temperament, his previous state of mind still lingered, as though it were a permanent part of his aspect.

“I know a good Italian place that serves real good ravioli,” Paco said, cradling the potted plant and holding the bowling ball bag in the other hand. Mario helped him by grabbing the guitar and cleats, looking over both items—as he was accustomed to doing when in possession of sellable goods—to ascertain their value at a pawnshop. And as they walked away, you could hear Paco ask: “So what happened after? Did you manage to take her home?”

“I already told you how she felt, right?” Mario asked with a proud smile on his face.

“Yeah,” Paco answered with a tinge of renewed enthusiasm, “soft and tender.”


 *

Marius Stankiewicz is a Canadian freelance journalist currently based in Busan, South Korea. Apart from his journalistic work appearing in NPR, The Globe & Mail, The Toronto Star, The Province, The Jakarta Post and Barcelona Metropolitan, he has also published short stories in the Prague Revue and Nth Position. He is currently working on his debut novel called Saudade, Barcelona.

www.mariuszstankiewicz.com

Fiction #67: Lynda Curnoe

Small Ontario Towns               

She was dating Philip but not dating him. That is, she had a boyfriend who was away for the summer working for the Ontario Department of Highways, like those anonymous tanned young men you see when you’re on holiday, the one who holds up a stop sign when the highway has only one lane and drivers have to wait until he turns the sign around to indicate cars can proceed. Philip was a friend who was filling in. He didn’t know he was filling in but that is how Maureen saw it. Philip, never Phil, even in those days when Robert was always Bob and Richard was always Dick, was trying to win her over, knowing about the boyfriend away for the summer but still thinking in the back of his mind that he could somehow win her over.

But Philip and Maureen enjoyed a kind of idyllic summer. Everything was Dutch, everything was fun, and everything was misted over with a vague sense of sexual intrigue and intellectual satisfaction. Maureen, who had just finished teachers training had a job lined up for the fall and Philip was still at University just beginning a PhD in philosophy. In a sense they were on top of the world.

Several times they went to Stratford to see Shakespeare plays, enjoying the time before and after, wandering around the park on the Avon River or having lunch together at an inexpensive place, where they had the soup of the day and a sandwich or fish and chips.

He had a car and she was pleased to wander around with him near London, exploring the old gravel concession roads, coming upon a small town one or the other had heard about but never been to, getting out of the car and looking at old stores and houses, perhaps going into a local restaurant for a coffee. And talk, which was what they mostly did, just talk, with Philip taking the lead with all his knowledge of philosophers and literature. Maureen mostly listened but she would comment too when she felt the subject applied in a personal way to her life. Philip rarely talked about himself unless it was, for example, a reference to a childhood schoolyard experience which served to illustrate some point he was making. Maureen talked about how she felt about people and events that had happened to her.

Philip was confident that his intellect was up to the task of explaining philosophy and Maureen was confident that her experience and her way of expressing herself was equally valuable These were two well adjusted people, using each other as sounding boards for what they were to become, whatever that was, although both had intentions of becoming career teachers.

Maureen found Philip mentally attractive but not physically, whereas Philip found Maureen profoundly physically attractive, but was not so sure about the soundness of her mind. During the summer they dated he never once propositioned her, thinking he was being gentlemanly, while Maureen kept asking herself, “why doesn’t he ever try anything?”

 Not that it would have done any good because Philip was a skinny guy, with the skinny guy’s narrow face, and neck. He was actually pretty good looking, with brown hair and hazel eyes but had no sex appeal for Maureen. She liked his mind, of course, and how he drew her out to talk about her life, but she did not want him to kiss her. Still, he never tried. Most guys would have.

As for Philip, he was acutely aware of the fellow somewhere up North holding up a stop sign, the big guy with bulging muscles, or so he imagined, who was her boyfriend. Philip believed he did not have much physical courage, having got by with his wit as a student, and never having been forced to confront a bully. He did not believe he would be able to deal physically with the boyfriend, something he assumed he would have to do to win Maureen. Some smart guys like Philip were subtly protected by their fellow classmates and friends, out of respect for what they had in their heads.

Maureen was flattered by Philip’s attentions because she was a girl with intellectual aspirations, even though she had done little serious reading, apart from university courses and still kept her writing, her poems to herself, as she worked out what and how she wanted to say.

In many ways they were a good match, but the guy with the stop sign remained in the background, the guy Maureen always referred to as “my boyfriend who is away for the summer.”

One late afternoon Philip and Maureen drove up to Kincardine on the Lake Huron shore. Philip’s family had an ancient cottage there. First they went for a swim for it was a hot day. This gave them ample opportunity to view each other’s bodies.

Maureen had brought her bikini, a recent, hasty purchase, for Maureen was not really the bikini type. It was an on sale designer item, covered with splashes of bold colours, blue, orange and yellow. To compensate for small breasts the bra had a push-up structure. Maureen was thin too but with a lovely carved waist and hips and she looked good, even though she was embarrassed at being seen in such a skimpy item of clothing in public. Still she looked very cute, standing up straight and running into the water with Philip’s challenge to “race you into the water!”

Philip was lean all over and had a good frame, with wide shoulders. What was surprising to Maureen was his skin which was smooth with an all over light tan colour, with very little hair on his chest, none on his back. His complexion was free of blemishes and so was his body. He moved well, not hunched over, as some skinny guys seem to do and was an excellent swimmer, far better than she, diving and staying underwater for long periods of time and then swooshing up out of the water 20 feet from where she had last seen him go down.

Afterwards lying in the sun on the beach they exchanged surreptitious looks at each other, each surprised at what they saw. She thought she could change her mind about Philip and Philip thought she was a knockout and had to be very careful that his erection did not show. At least his old fashioned swimming trunks were voluminous enough to hide some of the shape but to be sure he lay on his side.

Afterwards back in the cottage when they went back to change, they hardly trusted themselves and were quite formal deciding where they would go. This became a walking tour of the small town and eventually supper in the Chinese restaurant overlooking the harbour. That night The Kincardine Scottish Pipe Band played in their usual Saturday night parade marching up and down Queen Street, followed by throngs of tourists and locals. Maureen giggled with delight when she wasn’t feeling the prick of tears from the maudlin sounds of the bagpipes. Just why this had such an effect she did not know and asked Philip about it. He though it was some ancient response to an instrument that evoked a sense of tribalism and homeland, sad victories over ones enemies, lovers lost in death, women in childbirth, all of human tragedy rolled into one sound.

That night instead of driving straight back to London which they should have done and feeling a bit sleepy, Philip suggested they go back to the cottage for a rest and then hang around a bit longer. Maureen, who lived in an apartment with two friends, had no desire to return. They were in a kind of free fall, as far as time was concerned. Philip actually went in to his room at the cottage and went to sleep, dreaming of fucking Maureen. Maureen explored the musty bookshelves there, looking at 20 year old copies of National Geographic and dusty novels, reading several short stories by Guy de Maupassant in someone’s university text book from many years ago.

When Philip work up it was nearly 9 pm and they went out to walk along the shore on Lovers Lane and into Tiny Tots park, taking turns pushing each other on the swings. Even in the dark, even with Maureen laughing, he did not try anything. Maureen was somewhat disappointed but also relieved that she did not have to say no, to invoke the name of the boyfriend up north. They saw the dawn come up over the tennis courts and Maureen decided that now she was tired so they got in the car and began the drive back to London, with short stops in some of the small towns to look at them in the early morning light. Nothing open, just people sleeping in their old yellow brick houses.

And so it went that summer and beyond with that day in Kincardine remaining in Maureen’s mind, as a highlight, the last word on balance, closeness and separateness, being and nothingness, the most perfect day she had ever spent.

After the boyfriend came back, Philip and Maureen only saw each other occasionally. The boyfriend had saved up enough money to buy her a small diamond engagement ring. Maureen wasn’t sure how she felt about this but accepted it, knowing that the boyfriend who was in medical school would provide her with a good life, along with her teaching. She was nothing if not practical. They resumed their sexual relationship which she found wonderful although less than happy over his insistence when she was not ready.

Philip and Maureen had mutual friends and the following December both were invited to a new years party where they saw each other with a certain amount of delight.

Philip immediately noticed the diamond ring on Maureen’s finger and asked about it. Maureen casually said, “Well, I guess I’m getting married probably next summer or fall, after all he’s still at school and I’m in my first year of teaching so we’ll wait a bit.”

Philip had no warning of how hard hit he would feel as his mind instantly filled with a kind of rage, completely contrary to his usual understanding of himself in the world.

He watched Maureen and her boyfriend dancing together and after Maureen had moved away and begun talking to someone else he edged close to the boyfriend and hissed, “If I wanted to marry someone I would buy her the biggest fucking diamond ring I could find.”

The boyfriend assuming correctly that Philip was referring to Maureen’s ring said nothing for he knew in his heart that Philip was right.

Philip moved to the drinks table where there were arranged New Year’s Eve party favours, including a package of sparkling multi-coloured shapes. He picked up the package, ripped it open with his teeth, walked back over to the dance floor and dumped the bits and pieces over the boyfriend’s head.

Afterwards, even long after her divorce, Maureen thought of that moment, as though it was suspended in a spotlight. Of skinny Philip on his toes throwing the shiny bits of paper up in the air and over the head of the boyfriend whose arms flew up over his lowered head as though to defend himself.

*

Lynda Curnoe enjoys writing short stories and poetry and anything else that appeals to her. She lives in Toronto.

Fiction #67: Dimitrios Otis

Billy; or, How to Throw a Mentally-Retarded off a Cliff       

Lots of times I want to throw a mentally-retarded off a cliff. Not just like push him off, but grab a wing or an ankle, or both really, and start swinging him around and around at the top of a cliff. I’m turning around and around as I do it. And then I just let go. Isn’t there an Olympic sport like that?

He wouldn’t spin or be flailing around. It’d be like one of those football throws where the ball doesn’t move while it goes through the air. Just rotating slightly as he sails away. Like that.

I’d even feel like tossing Billy like that sometimes. But not really.

I work at the Group Home. Billy makes the same noise all the time. Like, “Ahuh, ahuh, ahuh.”

“What’d he say?”

“Huh, huh, huh.” (laughter)

“No, I mean, ‘What’s he mean?’”

“He meant, ‘Gimme a beer.’” (laughter)

That’s Kerry. I work with him. He looks half Indian but I don’t really know if he is.

We work this crazy weekend shift thing where we’re there all day--12 hours awake--on Saturday and then we sleep over and still get paid and Maggie comes on for the overnight awake, and then we get up and do it again, but Maggie goes home to sleep. And so we do that and then we go and work at the Cheezie factory all week. We make pretty good cash.

Anyway, the way I think about it when I throw a retarded guy that’s bugging me off a cliff--he goes flying out over the cliff, sort of floating but like in a direction, maybe even upwards at first, and at first it might even be exciting for him. A rush. He’s fooled because he doesn’t know anything about falling, that you land on something and probably die. He thinks you just keep going and it feels good. So that’s good for him. But then he starts to drop and it starts to dawn on him that something’s wrong. He gets a worried look on his face. Then--smuck! He lands on the rocks. Or maybe the cliff is over water. I don’t picture that part too much actually. I just like the throwing part. I think I got the idea from about how the Romans threw deformed babies off cliffs or down onto rocks. That was in History or something.

So that’s what I think about if they bug me too much sometimes.

The funny thing about Billy is he really tries to understand what you’re saying, kinda like dogs sometimes look like they’re trying to figure out what people are saying. It’s kind of funny actually.

You might be able to tell--we’re stoned when we’re talking to Billy. We smoked a reefer--we do that sometimes at the Group Home. It’s freaky. Sometimes when I’m stoned and we’re laughing away with Billy and Zoltan it suddenly hits me that they’re not handicapped at all--they’re like, people. I mean, they don’t talk very well, or they can’t talk, and they’ve got physical problems and look weird but, like, when it’s the three of us, if it’s just Billy--I mean when it’s just him and Kerry and me cause the others are watching TV, and we’re joking and it hits me that Billy’s just one of us. It’s kinda cool.

One time--and I mean like we got really stoned on some Thai stick so yeah, that’s why--Billy was doing his, “ahuh, ahuh, ahuh” and I could understand him. Not like when Kerry puts words in his mouth, like,

“Hey Billy, want some pussy?”

“Huh, huh…”

“He’s saying, ‘Is it tight?’” (laughter)

But like I could really get what he was saying, what it meant, even though it was just sounds. Weird, huh? It’s like babies are people, they’re just not grown up yet. But those baby sounds they make are what they’re saying. Something like that.

Kerry wants to get Billy stoned but I said no. More like just because I don’t think he needs it to get like we do, than that it wasn’t right, but that too. We all three just sit and laugh like we all got stoned together anyway. I guess Billy was just easy to get along with.

Kerry’s always saying Billy wants to fuck Maggie. She’s not bad, either. I think it means Kerry wants to fuck Maggie so he’s pretending he’s Billy, in a way. He’ll be like,

“Let’s let Billy fuck Maggie!”

“Like she’d do that.”

“We’ll drug her.”

“You’re nuts.”

“We could do it! It’d be fuckin’ hilarious--we’d strip her down, maybe tie her up, and let him go at her.”

“That’s fucked.”

“You mean, ‘She’s fucked.’ Ha ha!”

We take them out and do things--walks, drives, shopping. There’s Billy, Zoltan, Martin, Charles sometimes--he goes home a lot on weekends--and Raheed. Paki. Take them out for ice cream. I like Billy the best. I mean, he drives me nuts too, always grabbing your arm and hanging onto you like he likes you. So that’s why sometimes I think about throwing him off a cliff too. Not really. He’s the nicest one, he doesn’t have fits or break things or whatever.

I usually change him too. Kerry hates that, and Maggie wakes me up if she thinks he has to go. She’s not supposed to do things like that anyway, cause they’re males. The rest of them can go to the bathroom mostly anyway, but Billy has to wear diapers even though he’s the most normal looking. Weird. So that’s a drag. But its okay. It’s not all the time either, just if the timing doesn’t work, cause we go and sit him down there regularly.

His parents come by to visit. They’re pretty nice. He has sisters and brothers, they’re all normal. A couple of them have come before to visit but not usually. But Billy’s parents come once a month. I guess that’s not that much. His dad doesn’t say much--it’s like, “Hey! Hey Billy!” like they’re going to play sports or something. His mom’s nice. Billy knows them for sure, not so much his dad but he hangs off his mom, really gives her a big hug.

And we do all the feeding and pills and baths if they need it--fuck, it’s a lot of work when I think about it. “Toast buckets”--that’s what Kerry calls them. But I don’t mind doing it, I really don’t. Funny. I say stuff but really I feel sorry for them and someone’s got to do it anyway.

But this was kind of funny. Billy’s got a big thing and Kerry’s always saying what a waste. “What a waste of sausage and eggs!” he says. “Maggie doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

Anyway, the one time Billy got a boner in the bath. And Kerry calls me in, he’s like, “Joe, get in here quick!” He’s pointing and he says, “Check it out!” It was sort of embarrassing. Kerry stands up straight and salutes and says, “Maggie needs meat, sir!” I had to laugh. It didn’t even make sense.

It was kinda weird though. I wonder why Billy got that in the bath, he never did before. I took over and got Billy out of the bath and dried him off--he didn’t have the hard-on then--and got him in bed. I make it so Kerry doesn’t do the bath part now.

Kerry even pushed Billy’s hand onto her ass once, like Billy was doing it on his own. That’s when Maggie came in early for her shift and Billy was still up. Maggie was walking by and Kerry pushed Billy’s hand so it hit her ass. She just went like, “Eww...” but really it was like Kerry wanted to grab her ass so he made it like Billy did. Billy wouldn’t really know to do it--or that it was bad, or good, I guess. But I laughed too, I’ll admit it. I’m thinking all this stuff afterwards really, about wrong and right, about how these guys are people like us.

But I’m saying all this about Billy like he’s still here. But Billy died. Yeah, he’s dead. Wham, he got hit with a brain-something. I wasn’t there, it was during the week. But the manager said we could go to the funeral if we wanted. His parents were there and some of the brothers and sisters. Kerry didn’t go. It was weird, I just like all of a sudden my  chest heaved and I couldn’t help it and I started bawling right there. It felt weird but I couldn’t stop. I was saying his name, Billy. Billy, like he was my friend.


*


Dimitrios Otis bio: Born in Belleville. Lived out west 20 years. Came back. Wrote novel, still unpublished, based on the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom.

Author photo credit: Catalina Motta


Fiction #67: Kate O'Rourke

Nothing Can Harm You

Miss Enid Bugaloo lived in the big toppling grey house set on the crest of the hill at the end of Dre Ary Lane, Rural Route 13, in the tiny town of Rockstop, population 552 (at high season). There were no other rural routes, however in Rockstop, but 13 seemed like a lucky number to the town planner, Everett Bugaloo, eldest son of Eugenius Bugaloo (more on both of them later).

The children of the town were all afraid of the “big old Bugaloo” as Enid was known even though few children had actually met her, and even fewer had really ever seen her, other than in their wild imaginings. Big brothers were keen on inventing tales which included the sinister and nasty Enid. Truth of the matter was, Enid was neither big nor old, nor sinister. She was 45, with lovely brown eyes and a timid manner, a tiny and birdlike creature. More like a mouse than a lion, but given her quiet nature, and the nature of the horrid disasters that befell her family, she was quite content to live with the name given her, and enjoy the fact that it meant people avoided her, her house, and Dre Ary Lane altogether.

Enid let out an audible sigh of relief when people thought she was in fact, the hired help who bravely faced the specter of Enid on a daily basis. It allowed her free reign of the town, shopping, using the library, the cinema, and the occasional Dairy Delight stop for an iced treat when the heat overwhelmed at the top of the hill.

Enid Bugaloo was a bit of a mystery to all the citizens of Rockstop. Ms. Bugaloo was the last surviving member of a long line of tragic Bugaloos, whose forebear, Eugenius Bugaloo had founded the town in 1912. Eugenius threw a rock from the top of the hill where he decided to build his mansion, and the exact spot where it rolled to a stop is where he built the town, and called it, unsurprisingly but quite unimaginatively, Rockstop. Thankfully, he did not call it Bugalooville, or Bugaloo Station or Goodness knows, Bugaloo Junction, since there is no junction in town. Everett forgot to put one in. Rockstop is straight line from the site of the infamous “stopped rock” to the top of the solo Rural Route 13.  People built their homes on either side of this straight line and so Everett called it, you guessed it, Home St.  No one thought to question Everett’s decisions, since he was a son of the founding father. Why would they need a junction? Straight lines were best. Simple. Straight.  Taking their cues from Eugenius and his family may not have been best thing for the citizens of Rockstop.

Eugenius, while not a shining example of his name, did however, make his fortunes selling imported bottled tap water to citizens of the next town over, Waterton, when the reservoir dried up. After all the years of living in a town so named, its citizens assumed it would fill up again, or just somehow come seeping or sloshing or sluicing back. Most seemed unsure how to obtain more water. Eugenius, in somewhat of a dehydrated state, drove his truck to the next town over, to bring back water for his pet goldfish, Ernie.  Thus he became the town hero and citizens reveled in his genius. Mostly he became famous and rich because the citizens were too dehydrated, and so getting someone else to do this strange task was helpful to them. They happily paid Eugenius to hew water when they were too drawn out to do so.

However, after years of building the town of Rockstop, and feeling his work as town founder was done, Eugenius retreated to his hilltop mansion with his wife, Eunice, and their brood of children – Euclid, 20, Everett,18,  Emmett, 16, Endor, 14, Eckhart, 13, and Emmaleen, 12. Emmaleen begat Evangeline, who begat Edwin, who married Edith who then next married Eddie when Edwin died of a fever and had Enid. No one like from the Bugaloo clan like Eddie, and so asked Edith to keep her named as Bugaloo, instead of her father’s name which was Bugbear, which to their minds, was much less sophisticated.

Euclid sadly, came to no good. She met up with Fred, not a good match for the Bugaloos at all. She ran away, and now it is said she is raising devilish twins, Flo and Farquar in the tiny town of Whislindixie.

Everett, although not formally educated in the arts of town planning, was the oldest and most favoured child of the Bugaloo clan, after of course, Euclid left in disgrace.  Boys Emmett and Endor are both engineers, Eckhart has taken to egg farming and Edith, sadly died of a broken heart. Turns out she preferred Edwin to Eddie after all, but he was long gone with fever, and so she despaired of Eddie, and he ran off with a show girl from Vegas (A mere 100 miles from Rockstop as the crow flies across the dessert.) Her only consolation in life was in fact, Enid.

Enid was a lovely child from birth. Always full of mirth and joy, and Edith, when not unconsolable, was oft-found in the company of Enid, playing distracted games with her, mussing her hair in an off-hand fashion. Enid came to appreciate at an early that her mother was often distracted and somewhat aloof, and simply accepted that  all mothers were thus. Motherhood to Enid meant dreamy “yes dears” to all inquiries, including the following

“Is the world flat mummy?” yes dear

“Do babies come from cabbage patches?” yes dear

“Do rabbits turn orange if they eat too man carrots?” yes dear

“Will I turn brown if I eat too much chocolate ice cream?” yes dear

“Will the tooth fairy bring me a dollar bill?” yes dear

(These were the worst of all the realizations, that mummy’s yes dears, were not always in fact portents of things actually happening, learned the hard way by Enid.)

However, despite Edith’s distraction, Enid loved her dearly and grew to appreciate her mother’s off-hand way with the world, providing safe harbour through the storms of the Bugaloo life as it were. Enid grew to be a lovely, if somewhat distracted girl, into a fine specimen of a distracted woman.

When Edith died in Enid’s 21st year, she was well on her way to understanding that life is best lived and viewed from the vantage point of somewhere else other than where you presently stand.

Nothing can harm you when you are at least twenty paces from your actual self.

*

Kate O'Rourke kept the blog Auntie Cake's Shop from 2010 until she died of breast cancer in 2012. She was one of the editors of Framing Our Past (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001). She married the editor of The Danforth Review in 2007. She wrote this story in 2006.

Editor's note: Publishing this story is probably a conflict of interest, but, dear world, give me this.

Hope is the thing with feathers - Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Fiction #66

New fiction! Issue #66
Submissions now open for #67

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #66: Blake Bennett

Ptolemaic

The Cathedral of the Old City (or Ciutat Vella) of Valencia is bordered on two sides by wide cobblestoned squares in the beating heart of the ramshackle teetering plaster apartment forest that comprises the district. The squares, one larger, one smaller, provide breathing space amid the choked alleyways; when one leaves those alleyways into the sunny expanses, it is as though, having forgotten that they were outside at all, they have rediscovered the sky. The smaller square is centred on a fountain of a reclining classical god.  Its placement just outside the door of the cathedral speaks to the strange syncretism of the country—Roman paganism and Catholicism now aesthetically complementary, if not recognizant of each other, and the architectural legacy of the Moors grudgingly acknowledged without given much credit. The statue faces away from the arcades and colonnades that frame the stained-glass eyes of the church, as though the building is staring at its recalcitrant back, willing it to eventually turn to Christ. The filth of birds blankets the statue’s shoulders and upturned knees. That no-one scrubs it clean in its heathen nudity and languor, perhaps, says something as well. Perhaps it is because Valencia is a beautiful bastard of Iberia; neither Catalonia proper nor Castile, not Andalusia either—its own former kingdom in the Crown of Aragon, as a city smaller than both Madrid and Barcelona, but proud still of its former stature.

Daylight hours see the statue and its fountain teem with tourists spooning gelato to each other in the heat and locals sipping coffee at the shaded tables set out by the cafés, tutting about their foreign counterparts. The late afternoon, as elsewhere in the country, is a period of hush closings of storefronts and rest before the long night. And then, as the sun becomes long and low in the sky and the shadows crawl over the two squares, those store and café and restaurant fronts are thrown open again, their tables invading as far into the squares as can be gotten away with. Native Cava and imported beer flow in equal measure as the well-dressed come to while away the evening and brush away the desperate flower peddlers. Great flat pans of paella! Oiled charcuterie boards piled high with hard musky cheeses, Catalan-style ham sliced paper-thin, plump queen olives, balsamic vinegar and cloudy bread with hard floury crust! Mussels sighed open in buttery sauces of white wine! These smells swirl in the light breeze like the raucous conversation which swells in volume to combat itself. Hours later (for this is Spain, after all) the meal is finally finished, for it began late and lasts far longer than it needs to. But finally, after the innumerable bells in the plenitude of churches throughout the Ciutat have bellowed midnight, the dining crowd disperses. Exhausted busboys and servers remove all trace of their employers’ property from the public space, stowing it deep within their restaurants as the chefs dispose of the night’s grease down sewer grates in the backest of the back alleys.

A large segment of the crowd, searching further for their kicks, relocates to the more modern, trendier, chrome-and-glass neighbourhoods of Valencia. But some stay to wander within the labyrinthine Ciutat Vella, flushed orange with the dim incandescence of outdated bulbs in gothic streets. Shadows are long, faces softened. It is like the deep diffuse of candlelight made unnervingly still by the absence of the flickering life of a flame, steady instead, flat, filling everything and everyone with a quiet sense of tone; tone selected by the painter, the monochrome and its subtle variations that hint at intentions, at a certain mood that should be sustained and inhabited by all so painted, who all feel self-conscious and unsure if they are out of step with the artist’s vision. In the second, larger square is where the canvas is stretched, primed, and awaiting its subjects.

This second square has no central feature. It is simply broad, bordered with descending steps that give it an amphitheatre-like aspect, and paved mirror-smooth with wide granite slabs. The steps are well-lined with these converging nocturnal souls who entered the plaza out of the labyrinth slowly, filtering in like dazed and mismatched couples a-wandering in Oberon’s forest. The drops of petal-juice in their eyes seem at first to guide them astray, until, arriving in the square, they feel a sense of destination has been fulfilled. A mixed crowd, to be sure. Young skateboarders use the smooth surface and the bemused crowd to practise their tricks and flips in front of an audience. A lone guitarist fingerpicks a doleful cançó on his dull nylon strings, not standing out enough from the countless other street musicians throughout the Ciutat to be anything more than background noise. The crowd is gathered but their attention is not faithful. They are by and large more interested in each other than they are in the scattered performers in the square.

He enters meekly in full garb, laden with a large stereo and a small trunk. He doesn’t struggle with the weight, but his white-painted face with the small black inverted triangle beneath each eye makes him seem burdened in other, deeper ways. North Americans in the crowd point him out to each other; in their countries, the tradition of busking is moribund, or at least far enough underground that the sight of a man clothed in baggy, shapeless, white coveralls with matching satin gloves and a conical hat atop his shaved, uniformly whitened head is cause for suspicion and not entertainment. But the locals and other continentals know from his garb that what is in store is neither buffoonery nor sinister. The guitarist winds down his playing according to whatever code may exist between street performers. Does he recognize that while people might enjoy his music at all hours of the day, this harlequin’s act is best employed at only this time, in this tone, in these dog days of summer? The skateboarders feel the hush descend. Some pick up their boards and sit as well, while others, caring more for their craft than for any sense of audience, wheel off back into the labyrinth.

He doesn’t speak. No introduction, no call for attention. He lays a CD in his stereo, presses play, and then kneels down behind the trunk. He unlatches it, lifts the lid. The contents are hidden from the onlookers. The music begins, but first only as a low hum swelling in volume in no particular hurry. The tone of the hum is unusual, like the singing of a crystal wine glass, but so low as to suggest not a glass, but a whole basin or vat being stroked. The harlequin monkishly reaches within the trunk and with the pious reverence due of some saint’s skull lifts out a single heavy crystal sphere the size of a small grapefruit. The look on his face is not one of concentration, nor one of incitement towards the audience. Indeed, he seems oblivious to the audience, as though he would be here doing the exact same routine with no divergences were the square completely devoid of people. His expression actually matches many of those in the audience: a serene bemusement coupled with interest in what’s to come, as though he himself does not know.

Another layer appears in the music: higher, clearer. The instant it emerges, the harlequin begins to roll the sphere from the base of his palm up to his middle knuckle, smooth on the satin of his glove. It takes a full rotation or two for the audience to fully grasp the intended effect. The focal point of the rotation is perfectly tuned to the sphere’s precise position in space. It hangs dead still in midair. His hand flows beneath and around it and even over it without shifting it an inch in any direction. Its surface, which, from the audience’s distance, can appear to one observer lens-like and to another reflectory, betrays not the rolling and manipulation it is undergoing; it merely is, and the illusion of its stillness manifests as an equally illusory centripedal force on the harlequin’s hand, which begins to radiate outward, hypnotically encompassing the whole square into its orbit, all eyes pulled by inwards by its gravity.

Then, all attention captured by the one sphere, the harlequin with his other hand reaches back into the trunk and withdraws another sphere identical to the first. The music gains a new harmonious layer, the glassy melodies melancholic and veering into and out of each other, like liquid stalagmites and stalactites in a windy cavern. The twin spheres hover in plane with each other, the harlequin’s hands dancing a complex ballet around them. The only movement on the stone steps is the occasional sip from wine and beer bottles. Passers-by skirting the edge of the square on their ways home from elsewhere in the Ciutat hush as they go, not staying long enough to be trapped by the trance of the spheres, but enough, at least, to feel the tug.

Then the harlequin alters the effect. Seamlessly the two spheres fall into circumambulation with each other on one hand, then the other, twin planets in each other’s pull. Then the orbit widens as the harlequin extends the rolling up his arm, across his clavicle and down the other, the spheres equidistant and opposite, never slowing or speeding in relation each other. The centre of gravity, of enchantment, has shifted from the single sphere itself to some crux within the harlequin’s body. And at will, he brings them together again, touching and rolling against each other in his palm, and then apart once more. The music, while still glassy and lulling, has intensified in its melancholy. The whole show has pierced each observer. They see within its constituent parts something painful and true and revelatory about their lives, though this is revealed in feeling and impression and not words outright, but if they were to try, then, perhaps, the best guess would be something like this…   

The music infusing the scene is ungraspable and wholly conceptual… whatever meaning it contains is subjective, base to the human soul. That tones, and their changing relation to each other, should have some sort of significance universal to all who hear them is absurd. And yet they do; the sound of the minor scales and the subtle chord progressions within larger changes of key strike one and all with an eerie sense of melancholic insight into the nature of being, as though the sound of an imploding star or of a light-crushing black hole or of a sinking ship or of a breaking heart all fall within that calculus of frequency. And within that frame, that colossal, cosmic scope stands the sad figure of humanity, all humanity, painted and adorned as Suffering, but Suffering detached and accepting and bemused at the fates in his hands. And those, those spheres, those atoms of tiny solidity in this miasmic realm of concept and tone and vastness, those are what create the greatest effect upon the spirits of the observers. They reflect, they focus, and they distort what is seen in them. They are manipulated by the figure of sadness who wields them but they seem to act upon him in illusion.  They are our loves, our losses, our obsessions, our guilts, our memories, our fears, our hopes, and our disappointments, all brought out and spun for our absorption by the satin-gloved harlequin of our own Suffering on earth, who disappears into the scenery as his hand in the matter becomes tenebrous and ethereal. Rotating, devoted to one another, inseparable, the spheres build static from the fabric of his glove, and then are flung apart from each other, back into gulfed hands but threatening always to once again be involved in life’s pitiless, despairing circularity.

The crowd as one ponders. They think back to old loves in the sequences of rapprochement between the spheres, just as they think on current loves as they are torn apart. They look into the spheres within themselves and see that face; that caked, whitened face with the inverted black triangle beneath each eye staring back at them, distorted in the convexity of its surface. Some rail against his presence within themselves; others resolve to dispel him like a curse upon their name; but the wise among them recognize him not as a foe, but as a mathematical constant to be accepted and even embraced.

The show is over. The spheres are returned to the trunk, the stereo switched off, the small hat laid at the harlequin’s knees for any coin come what may. The crowd is quiet. Some try and renew conversations where they’d left off, but this is done out of a vulnerability they are not prepared to admit. Many drink deeply from their bottles, changed not a little by what they have watched and what they have seen in themselves. A scant few open their wallets and leave their spare change in the dainty felt cap, which is left looking like a pathetic cornucopia. Off into the labyrinth they go. Tourists who had been smitten with the quaintness of the Ciutat and with each other look at both with a saddened eye, seeing the satin hands behind it all for the first time.

The harlequin himself departs the square as he entered: meekly, little noticed. Does anyone watch him go, and wonder, aloud or to themselves, who he is when he has removed the paint and the getup? What awaits him back at his home? His daytime hours, what do they entail? Does he possess any more or less insight than any of his observers? Was his message and effect carefully designed and executed, whether by his own hand or through some proud lineage of busking harlequins of centuries past?

No. Nobody wonders. They are too deep within themselves to see him for anything but the symbol as which he dressed.

The Cathedral stares down with stained-glass eyes on the downturned faces of the leaving crowd. The reclining god in the fountain smiles his knowing smile through the filth of the birds.

*

Blake Bennett is a graduate of the English Literature and Language program at Queen's University. A freelance writer and ESL teacher, he lives and writes just outside of Toronto. 

Photo credit: Melanie Winter