Carol and Ed McGrath had been invited to a party to which they didn’t want to go, but felt an obligation. Jules and Sonia Beecham, who had invited them to this pre-Christmas party, were friends from way back, a couple they had known years ago in Montreal during the EXPO years. Ed and Jules had worked together in the same chemical plant and both couples, being English speaking and newcomers to the province in those turbulent early separatist years, had become friends. Not great friends, but friends whose backgrounds brought them together. They would visit back and forth and arrange play dates for their children. When the one couple organized dinner the other would bring their children along to play for a little while and then sleep in the other children’s rooms.
Although they knew each other well materially, knew what kinds of furniture and interests each couple had, neither could say they liked the other couple all that much. It was one of those friendships that seemed to hang around forever without going anywhere.
Ed and Jules would talk about work and Carol and Sonia would talk about kids and managing households in Quebec, each of them missing their family connections. The Beecham’s relatives were all overseas in England and the McGrath’s in the farmland of Southwestern Ontario. Together the foursome felt like emigrants to a strange land.
The reason they had all ended up in Montreal was EXPO 67 which then was being talked about all over the world. But Expo itself, while being exciting, was a limited part of their experience there. The stronger, if disturbing force, was Quebec separatist activity which, although perhaps minor in terms of terrorism in other parts of the world, still made life in Montreal fearful. Once, in fact, while Carol was grocery shopping at Safeway, the store had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat. They read about bombs in mailboxes and of innocent people being killed. The last straw was the kidnapping and murder of Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte in October 1970. Shortly after that, both couples moved away from the province.
They kept up their acquaintance over the years through correspondence and Christmas cards and had actually ended up in the same city, London, Ontario. No longer neighbours, they learned that London is a relatively small city, at least in the central core, making it easy to get from one neighbourhood to another. The Beechams lived in North London and the McGrath’s in Old South, both built neighbourhoods where each couple quickly established a family nest formed of neighbours, school and work. By this time both wives were working and the children were in university or headed there.
Although their interests had diverged, the foursome kept up their, now infrequent, dinner rounds. The McGraths had gotten involved in cultural events in the city while the Beechams were more into sporting activities. Carol and Ed were members of Museum London, attending art show openings and lectures and were subscribers of the London Symphony Orchestra. Carol was in the choir of London Pro Musica a choral society and Ed had gotten involved in amateur theatre. The Beechams went skiing in winter and had invested in a summer cottage on Lake Huron near Grand Bend where they spent their holidays and most weekends during good weather.
The McGrath’s decided to walk to the party, along Wortley Road, over the Thames River bridge and through the back streets of downtown London to Waterloo Street where the Beecham’s lived. Dundas, the old main street of London, was not safe anymore. There were stabbings, shootings and gang activity around the old main intersections. Londoners were more attracted by suburban shopping malls and Dundas was now inhabited by more unsavory characters, especially at night. For years locals had been waiting and hoping for urban renewal downtown.
The Beecham’s two storey yellow brick house, although smaller than the McGraths, was worth more money, being in the more expensive North area of the city. Its’ standard layout featured a living room off the front hall which also included a stairway to the second floor, and a dining room followed by a large kitchen. Upstairs were four bedrooms. Jules who often worked from home had a small office, formerly a sun room, on the ground floor off the dining room. Furniture was new but traditional in style, that is a blend of Victorian and French provincial with the odd modern lamp thrown in.
The McGrath’s South London home featured a centre hall with a wide elegant staircase in the middle. Rooms on both floors radiated from the centre. Their furnishings were old, sometimes even garage sale, and therefore somewhat shabby, the couple seeming not to worry too much about appearances, preferring a more bohemian style.
Neither did the two couples share the same kinds of friends anymore. The Beecham’s friends showed up at all the same parties, the fit skiing and boating crowd who the McGrath’s had met many times before, but with whom they had never established any kind of continuing friendship. The women wore tights with loose sweaters or short mini-dresses and the men sporty-looking outfits. The McGrath’s wore their culture on their backs nowadays, Carol wearing brightly coloured natural fabrics and Ed casual chino pants and a hand knit sweater.
But at this party there were a few other people they had never met before, including a very handsome, stylishly dressed couple with Italian accents, The Melchiorres were dressed to the nines in expensive glamorous clothing. Gina was a dyed redhead who wore black, very high heels with black stockings and a glittering dress trimmed with red. Paulo, her husband wore a European style, dark close-fitting suit with patent leather shoes. His dark hair was slicked back. They stood out because of the care put into their grooming.
Guests helped themselves to trays of cheeses and appetizers and, after the usual introductions and the serving of drinks, conversations began. Unfortunately, Sonia had arranged seating around the outer edges of the living room and a dreaded social circle had formed. There were not enough people to crowd around and circulate. Only a couple of men remained standing at the front near the window. Private conversations were heard by everyone and when someone with a loud enough voice began to talk all eyes turned in that direction
Gina Melchiorre who was sitting near the opening into the dining room, began talking about an incident that had happened to her and Paulo on a country road in the fall, a couple of months earlier. They were driving to visit friends who lived near Lake Simcoe in a wooded part of the country, isolated but not too far from Highway 400, when a bright white light appeared on the road in front of them forcing Paulo to put on the brakes quite suddenly as he was not sure if the road was blocked. As she told the story Paulo nodded his assent here and there.
At first they thought there had been an accident and that the light was the headlights of a car that had stopped or gone off the road.
“Paulo said, ‘We’d better look.’”
“‘Don’t,’ I said.”
“But someone might be hurt.”
“Let’s just call 911 before we get out.”
“But if no one is hurt that would be an unnecessary call. I’m getting out.”
“I said, ‘I’m staying here in the car.’”
Paulo disappeared into the light and after a few minutes of extreme anxiety wondering what had happened to him Gina decided to get out of the car as well.
The light was so blinding she could see only blurred edges of what she assumed was some kind of structure, but still she walked towards it as it grew even brighter in intensity. All around was darkness.
A kind of opening appeared in front of her. She could see the outline of 3 or 4 steps going up and a slight variation in the tone of the light beyond.
“‘Paulo, are you there?’ I shouted. ‘Is anyone here?’”
“I was so frightened,” she said, as she wiped tears from her eyes and looked up and around the company before them. She had become very excited. Her voice had taken on a higher pitch as she continued with the story. Her skin was rosy and glistening with perspiration. Paulo was nodding as if to say ‘yes, yes, go on.’ The dreadful circle was silent as all eyes were fixed on Gina. It was like the Beecham’s guests were kids being told a ghost story around a fire at a summer camp. At least a ghost story would be acceptable, knowing it was just a ghost story. Not serious like this. All around the room everyone was thinking, ‘Who are these people? Why have they been invited here?’
“I felt compelled to go up those steps and into the opening,” Gina continued. “When I got inside I could see Paulo standing there. It was like he was in a trance, lit up and surrounded by light. He didn’t even turn to look at me. ‘Paulo,’ I whispered because it didn’t seem right to talk out loud. Then he saw me standing there.”
“Look at this. It’s so light in here but there is no structure, no walls, or ceiling and it’s so warm.”
“I walked around stretching out my arms and couldn’t feel anything solid and couldn’t see where the floor was although I seem to be walking on something. I felt very hot in my coat. It was late fall, you know, and cold outside. We stood in amazement for a few minutes until I said ‘Let’s go, please Paulo. I’m afraid.’”
“We retraced out steps and got back into the car, locked the doors, watched out the window and waited. After about 10 minutes whatever it was seemed to lift up and float away, but quickly. There was no sound. We continued to watch as the thing disappeared into the sky and its’ light faded away. When we looked at our watches we saw that we had been parked there for over two hours. How could this have happened?
Paulo and I were dumfounded, literally. We were absolutely shaken but for some reason more fascinated than afraid. We have never experienced such a thing in our lives. To this day we do not know what it was. Paulo has been looking up flying saucers and UFO’s on the web and even contacted some people to see if what we saw was seen by other people that night. But we’ve found no one to verify our experience. Nothing!”
Conversation at the party had come to a complete standstill. No one knew what to say. Jules asked if anyone would like another drink. But everyone stayed where they were, bewildered, still sitting in the circle of chairs as before. After a little while, likely earlier than she would have liked, Sonia disappeared into the kitchen and began bringing out food that had been previously prepared or perhaps purchased, and was waiting in the fridge covered with plastic wrap. There was some cold sliced turkey, salads, bakery rolls, a couple of fruit pies and a cake. The guests gravitated towards the table, murmuring in conversation, with the occasional burst of laughter. No one talked about the story they had just heard. Later, Paulo and Gina sat off by themselves eating bits and pieces from plates on their laps. They were not exactly being ignored but people were giving them a wide berth.
After everyone had retrieved their coats and said goodbye, guests seemed to fan out in front of the Beecham’s home. A light snow had fallen and under the arc of the streetlamp their footprints formed a half circle pattern of spokes as couples made their way home on the sidewalks to the left or right or to their cars parked across the road.
Lynda Curnoe enjoys writing short stories and poetry and anything else that appeals to her. She lives in Toronto.
Sandra Boyd lived in Oshawa, a city 50 miles east of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario, for the first 17 years of her life. Then her parents got divorced and her mom, Sally Boyd, kept the house, along with her boyfriend of the past two years, Mick Johnson, who had been a good friend of Sandra’s dad’s. Sandra’s father, Jeff Boyd, kept the cottage in Peterborough, which he sold and then he moved further north, to Bancroft. When Sandra’s parents got divorced she had two years left of high school, and then she would go to Durham College and study to be a baker. That was the plan anyway. Sandra’s dad told her it was ok if she wanted to stay in Oshawa and live with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, who was also a co-worker of Sandra’s dad at the General Motors plant in town, but Sandra decided to move up to Bancroft with her father and their German Shepherd Max and Sandra’s only sibling, her 14-year-old brother John. Sandra moved to Bancroft and she didn’t speak to her mother, for more than five minutes on the phone, until she was 20.
Now Sandra was 27 and she had her own place in Bancroft, just south of the bridge. The bridge went over the York River, and was just south of downtown Bancroft. Sandra’s dad had bought a house two hours west, and one hour north of Toronto, in Barrie three years earlier, and lived there now with his new girlfriend, Leigh Dobbs, only six years older than Sandra, and with the dog Max. Her brother John had moved back to Oshawa at 20, and was working in construction now in Mississauga. Her mother was still with the guy she had cheated on her dad with, living in her childhood home in Oshawa, which she had not set foot in or seen in 10 years. That left Sandra all alone in Bancroft.
Sandra worked at the diner and ice cream shop in downtown Bancroft, the one that served pancakes and bacon and eggs all day, and that was where she met James Saunders. James was this writer from Toronto. He had come for ice cream one day and saw her looking pretty in her blue dress, with her long dark hair which fell in bangs over her brown, doe-like eyes. She had never heard of him before, although maybe she might have, she had told him, but it was easy to find stuff on him once she knew who he was. He had his own Wikipedia page and she saw all the awards that his second novel had won. He had given her copies of both his books, and she had seen the blurbs from the Toronto Star and National Post on the back. James didn’t seem to care about any of that stuff, and that was part of the reason she liked him.
James lived about 30 minutes north of town, up Highway 62 in this nice wooden cottage on the lake he had bought with money from his second book and renovated himself. Things weren’t really serious between her and James, but she liked hanging out with him and she liked driving up to his cottage. She liked the drive itself. At the end of the drive was the cottage, and at first Sandra would only stay there when she didn’t have to work the next day. Then sometimes she’d drive up there after work in the middle of the week and drive back from there to work the next morning. She’d have to wake up a little earlier, but it was nice having someone make her breakfast in the morning. Not having to make breakfast made up a bit of time, and more. She had never slept there that James hadn’t woken up before her. Always she would wake up alone in the bed under the big white sheets and go to the kitchen and there would be sunlight pouring in from the sliding glass door, and the kitchen would smell of coffee and breakfast and James would be inside drinking coffee or outside somewhere in the back.
James was the opposite of Sandra’s last boyfriend, Sean, in a lot of ways, and she liked flattering him by telling him all the good ways he was different. For example, James was neat and organized and he always kept the cottage clean. Also, she said, she never had to worry about how James looked when they went out together. James liked hearing Sandra flatter him as the anti-Sean in this way, but deep down both Sandra and James knew part of her missed being able to correct someone on their clothes or remind them to clean up after themselves.
It was easy for James to be neat though, because he didn’t really have a lot of stuff. If anything, Sandra thought his cottage was maybe a bit on the empty side. But a lot of that was because it was so big. James had a few pieces of furniture (some of which he had built himself, like the oak coffee table in the living room and the cedar swing chair on the front porch), two couches with the big-screen TV in the living room and the Queen size bed in the bedroom, but other than that the only “stuff” he really seemed to have were the contents of the big wooden bookshelf in the living room. Lots and lots of books, and a few CDs and DVDs. Sandra regarded the bookshelf as one single entity. He had told her she was free to take any of the books she ever wanted to read – she could keep them, if she wanted – and then they dropped it. Sandra was a smart girl, but she didn’t read a lot. She had read maybe 10 books since she dropped out of high school, and that was her own guess and probably an exaggeration. James kept the literary part of himself separate from the part of him that had to live real life, day-to-day. Sandra didn’t have a lot of experience with writers, and didn’t know how many of them looked down on people defensively who didn’t read a lot, even though instinctively they knew the people they were judging were no less or more intelligent than they would have been either way. Anyway James wasn’t like that at all. The more she thought about it, the more she really liked James.
James liked Sandra too, but it wasn’t really serious. Before he bought the cottage and moved to Bancroft eight months ago, he had been seeing this girl Nikki in Toronto on and off for the past two years. More like the past eight years. That wasn’t serious either. James and Sandra were both free to see other people, and sometimes Nikki would come up and spend the weekend at the cottage. Since things weren’t serious between James and Sandra, he didn’t think he needed to tell her about Nikki. But sometimes when Sandra would come over after Nikki had spent the weekend, he would instinctively look around to see if Nikki had left anything behind. Then he would stop himself, on principle. Sandra hadn’t seen anyone in the six months since she had been seeing James, or in the two years before that since she had broken up with Sean.
One morning in mid-November Sandra was driving south into town from James’ cottage and she stopped at the Tim Hortons on Hastings Street North, the main street in town. Standing in line, the type of long line-up that characterizes all Timmys at 8:30 in the morning, but especially ones in small towns (with only two coffee shops), she was thinking about the thing she had been thinking about for most of the drive, which was James Saunders.
“He really is a good guy,” she thought to herself. “And he’s so patient too. He reminds me of dad, in that way. I shouldn’t make that comparison. But he does. I bet he’d make a really good father. I’ve seen the way he is with animals. They say the way you treat your mother is the way you treat your wife, but that’s nonsense. Look at my mom. So any guy that had a whorebag like my mom for a mom would treat his wife like that? Will John treat his wife like that? If John ever gets married, that is. I think the way you treat animals is closer to the way you treat other people. I wonder what James’ mom is like? She’s probably a sweet lady. She’d have to be, for James to be like that. But who knows. James is a self-made man. But you have to start somewhere.
“James never talks to me about his family,” Sandra went on thinking to herself. “He’s really secretive. Maybe not secretive, but what’s that word? Reserved. But we always have a really good time together. He’s a good guy. He always makes me breakfast too. Sean used to make me breakfast sometimes too. Sean was sweet. But Sean was never around. I don’t see James that much either, but I know he’s always there. In that big cottage of his. I really like the way we’re approaching this. I’m proud of you, Sandy. Breakfast was so good this morning. I’m breaking my own rule by having a second coffee before work. But it’s Friday. I’m looking forward to tonight. I wonder if that drunk girl will be there? The one that’s always looking at James. With that fake, puffed-up fish look on her face all the time. Haha. It’s funny the way James makes fun of her. What does he call her? Oh yeah, Nemo. Haha. That’s a funny name. You can tell James is a writer, the names he comes up with for people.”
Sandra knew she had allowed her mind to wander too far when she started thinking about James being a good father, but unlike James, she never punished herself when it happened. Instead, she just stopped. But this morning, she didn’t feel the need to stop. For some reason, she figured she could get away with letting her thoughts go off for a while. All women think of stuff like this, she told herself. That’s all she was doing. Thinking. James is a good guy, is all. And she liked spending time with him.
There were now three people ahead of Sandra in line, and a long line-up behind her. There were two women in their 50s talking to each other right behind her, but she wasn’t paying attention to them and didn’t hear what they were saying.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a coyote?” one of them asked. “We see them around the house all the time. And we hear them every night. Frank shot at one a couple weeks ago in the daytime, with the pellet gun, not to hit it, just to scare it away. It ran away but we still hear them every night, right there in the woods by the house.”
“No, it wasn’t a coyote,” the other woman said. “I know what a coyote looks like. This was a big cat, with a long tail.”
“Maybe it was a lynx? Or what are those things called, a bobcat?”
“Nah, I looked it up. Bobcats are a lot smaller, and they have these short, stubby little tails. This was big, like a German Shepherd, but it was a cat. It looked right at us, and it had whiskers and a flat head like a cat and big green eyes. It looked right at us and then walked away. I swear to God my heart froze. I don’t know what I would have done if it didn’t walk away. Nibs kept barking at it, I guess it would have gone after Nibs first. This was about 50 feet from the house. I don’t think I would have made it in in time if it went after me. If it got Nibs I would have gone into the shed and gotten the axe. Jim says he doesn’t want me walking on the trail anymore. I told him nonsense, but I’m always going out with bear spray now. I tell you, it was one of the scariest moments of my life. But it was so pretty. It just looked at us, not like it was scared but not like it wanted to attack either, and just walked away into the bush. If it happens again I swear I’ll have a heart attack. I’m surprised I didn’t have one when I saw it.”
“What does Jim think it was?”
“Same thing I knew it was. A mountain lion.”
“Wow,” the first lady said. “I’ve never heard of anyone seeing a mountain lion around here. Do you think it came over from Algonquin?” Neither of them knew that cougars – what they also called pumas, mountain lions, and numerous other names in different parts of the Americas – had been declared extinct in Ontario for longer than they had been alive, despite sightings like this one to the contrary.
“I dunno,” the second lady said. “But you know how they’re always saying all the moose or caribou or whatever are disappearing from Algonquin because of global warming, or whatever it is? Maybe that’s why they’re coming over here now, to where people live. I just hope someone doesn’t shoot it. Or it doesn’t attack someone. It was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. It just stood there in the path looking at us, and then it just vanished.”
That day Sandra got off work early, at 3 p.m., and was in a happy mood driving back up to James’ cottage. She hadn’t been home in over two days, since before work Wednesday morning, for more than 10 minutes to pick up and drop off some stuff. Now she was heading back up north again, with a bag of clothes in the back seat. She had always loved this drive. It was long, and peaceful, and she could be alone with her thoughts, and with the sky and the road and all the trees zipping by.
Three weeks earlier the trees along the way would have been bright with colour, but now only the dark green pine and spruce trees retained their leaves, and the others were bare and skeletal. Every so often the Canadian Shield rose out of the ground at the side of the road like a 12-foot rock hedge, and registered in the periphery of her vision as a grey and green blur passing by. Along the way there was a dead possum on the road. She swerved around it to avoid running over it. Further up the highway there was a dead something-else. It looked like a porcupine. Finally she saw the sign to Plath Road, turned west onto it, and after 10-minute drive past several driveways (with wooden signs in front identifying the families whose cottages they led to) she turned left again onto another unpaved path identified as “Saunders’ Lane” that led 300 feet through the woods into an opening that was the front of James’ cottage.
Sandra saw James’ dark green Ford F-150 pickup truck on the grass in front of the house and she pulled up right behind it, under a big maple tree. Walking around the right side of the cottage (she never knocked on the front door because she knew the sliding door at the back of the house that led inside to the kitchen was always unlocked) she saw James Saunders standing tall and slim just to the left of the fire pit halfway between the house and the lake. He was standing with his back towards the house, looking down. Then she saw what he had in his hand. Then she saw what was on the ground at his feet.
“James,” she called out to him, and he looked over his shoulder.
“Hey,” James said. His voice sounded dead and flat.
“What’s that?” she asked, walking towards him, her eyes on the short-furred brown mass that lay long and flat on the short grass at James’ feet.
“It came out of the forest,” James said. “I was just going into the kitchen and I looked out the door. I didn’t hear it. I just saw it jumping around like it was crazy or wounded or something. I opened up the door to go outside and it looked at me and just collapsed, and then it kept looking at me like it was wondering what I was going to do. I thought maybe a hunter got it. Then I got closer to it, and I saw…”
There was a wound on the dead animal’s throat with dried blood around it, that had not been caused by a hunter’s bullet. But there was a fresher gunshot wound at the top of its skull, which had blown a three-inch section of its scalp clean off on the grass nearby.
“It’s a doe,” James said. “That’s why it doesn’t have any antlers. See how she’s almost kind of ash-coloured? That’s the colour their coats get in the fall and winter. In the spring and summer they’re more of a reddish-brown colour. This one looks like she’s at least about eight-years-old. They don’t get much bigger than this.”
“What do you think killed her?” Sandra asked. She was trying not to look at the red, glittering gunshot wound at the top of the animal’s skull. The deer’s black, oval eyes were still open, but they were lifeless and staring at nothing. Its head was arched almost elegantly upwards on its long, slender neck, and its long, black-snouted face was pointed in the direction of the forest to the left. Its slender, black-hooved limbs under its body were pointed towards her and James.
“It must have been a black bear that attacked her,” James said. “Looks like it got a pretty good hold of her under her throat. That’s more like how cats kill though, strangely enough. They hold onto their prey and try to suffocate them by crushing their windpipes. I dunno how she escaped. She must’ve put up a real fight. Not that it saved her in the end.”
“And you shot her?” Sandra asked.
“Yeah,” James said.
“When did this happen?”
“I shot her about half-an-hour ago.”
“How long have you had that gun?” Sandra asked, looking now at the black, pump-action Remington 870 shotgun still in James’ hand.
“I’ve had it for as long as you’ve known me,” James said. Then, “I bought it when I moved up here.”
“Where did you buy it?”
“This place in town. I forget the name. I haven’t been back there since I bought it.”
“Do you have a licence for it?”
“Why did you buy it?”
“I dunno,” James said, “Just to have it. What if we were asleep one night and we heard a black bear trying to get into the house?” Sandra blushed and James immediately regretted he had said it.
“So what are you going to do about the deer?” Sandra asked.
“I dunno,” James said. “I can’t just leave it here, and have whatever it is attacked her coming out of the forest right behind the house. I’ll have to take her down the road and put her in the woods somewhere, far from where anyone lives.”
“Are we still going to the Fox tonight?”
“Oh,” James said. “About that, Sandy. I was thinking of pussying out and staying in tonight. I’ve been up since 4:30 this morning and I’m pretty tired. Why don’t you go on without me?” Then, remembering that she had driven all the way from town, “You can stay here tonight if you want.”
“What do you mean go on without you? We planned this all week, remember?”
“I know Sandy, but I have some stuff to do. I didn’t think of it this morning. This business of the deer kinda got me sidetracked…”
“I thought you said you shot her half-an-hour ago?”
“I know, but I had some other stuff I had to do today.”
“Oh, ok,” Sandra said. “Well, are we still going down to the falls on Sunday? I was telling Audrey about that and I think she said she and Hayden want to go…”
“I might have to take a rain check on Sunday too, Sandy,” James said, his throat now dry. “But you and Dree and Hayden go. And you should go to the Fox tonight too. But like I said, you’re free to stay here tonight, if you want…”
Sandra suddenly, yet instinctively, felt a strange lump in her throat, that reminded her of the one she felt that afternoon 10 years ago when her mom and dad called her and her brother John into the kitchen and explained to them the four of them would not be living together anymore. It was the realization, that feeling of being cast away, when you had taken for granted that everything was fine.
“No, it’s ok,” Sandra now said, almost angrily. “I’ve been up for a long time too. I think I’ll just grab my stuff and head home. I have to wake up sort of early tomorrow. Audrey’s coming over at noon and I think we’re supposed to go to the fruit market...”
“How was work today?” James asked her, lamely. They were both still standing over the body of the extinguished deer, but finally he had turned to her.
“It was fine,” Sandra said, “typical Friday.” She was about to tell him the story about the guy who came in asking for directions for Quebec, but stopped herself.
Then James said to her, “I’m thinking of selling the cottage, Sandy.”
“Oh.” She was about to ask him if there was someone else, but remembered she wasn’t supposed to care, and didn’t.
“I miss the city,” James went on. “It was fun for a while…” He stopped before he said anything more.
“How do you know about Nikki?”
“She texts you all the time, doesn’t she?”
“Just some girl from Toronto,” James said. “I went to college with her.”
“Is that the one who comes up and stays here? Unless your hair grows 10 feet at night and you shed it on the bed.”
“You hair is long and brown,” James pointed out.
“My hair is dark brown,” Sandra said. “Is that why you thought you didn’t have to do anything about it?”
They were walking towards the house now, the shotgun being carried lamely but dangerously in James’ hand. “Stop it, Sandy,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“Are you going back to Toronto to write?” she asked. James was glad she understood a bit of the reason. What James didn’t know was that Sandra had almost asked “Why are you casting me off?” instead.
“That’s part of the reason,” he said. “A big part.”
“I’m sure your next book will be amazing,” she found herself saying. She wasn’t being sarcastic. She wasn’t sure what role she was adopting now, but wherever it came from she meant it.
“Thanks,” James said. “Let me just get this away from you.” He went into the bedroom and removed the unused shells from the shotgun. He put the gun under his bed and put the shells back into the cigar box he kept in the nightstand. Why had he filled the whole magazine, he thought, when he’d only need one, or two shots at the most? I guess I wasn’t thinking, in the confusion of getting the gun I thought I’d never use, and loading it. I was probably just thinking of putting the deer out of its misery as quickly as possible. She must’ve suffered a lot by the time she stumbled into the back of the cottage. Poor girl. That was a stupid joke to make about the bear. Safety catch or no safety catch, I don’t like leaving this thing loaded there under the bed with Charlie poking around. Where is that cat anyway? I wonder what Sandra would have thought if she had seen it there one day? When James got back into the kitchen he saw that Sandra had left and had pulled the sliding door in behind her.
James waited a while, to let Sandra drive away without having to see him again, then grabbed his keys and went outside through the front door and got in the pickup truck and backed it to the side of the house. He grabbed the deer by the ears and dragged its warm body heavily along the ground and pulled it up the ramp into the bed of the truck. He shut the tailgate and got inside. “She could tell right away,” he thought to himself. “Even before I said anything about selling the cottage. I’m a real shit to have cancelled our plans for tonight. I totally forgot. If it wasn’t for the deer we would have still gone out. Maybe it was better this way, to get it over with. Like shooting the deer. That’s one hell of a pretentious way of thinking of it, Saunders. Who or what the hell do you think you are?”
James drove south on Plath Road until he had timed 10 minutes between cottages, then drove back about five minutes and pulled up at the side of the road between the two cottages. He got out of the truck and hopped on the bed and grabbed the deer by its ears again, turned it around on the bed and pulled it down the ramp. He dragged it about 20 feet into the forest with crows circling overhead and then dropped its head softly onto the ground. “Yes, a real shit,” he thought. He had stopped thinking about the deer five minutes ago.
Meanwhile, Sandra was driving south into town, with the Canadian Shield on both sides of her. “Stupid,” she thought, “you’re stupid for letting yourself be hurt by this. And I acted like such a bitch to him. Why did I have to bring up that other woman? I knew it wasn’t serious. We both said it wasn’t serious. But I was really starting to fall for him. I didn’t realize it until just this week. I wonder if they can tell? I wonder if men can sense it? They don’t like it when they feel trapped. I honestly thought things were going so well. Oh well. I guess it’s just me and you again, Sandy.”
Several times she glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror, then looked away so quickly that only the reflection of her red, watery eyes registered. “You’re a real mess right now, aren’t you?” she suddenly said out loud, laughing. “No wonder you scare them off. I guess you can’t blame them.”
She had no way of knowing how beautiful she looked at that moment, or that James Saunders had often thought she was beautiful, and never more than today when he broke up with her, and now Sandra never, ever would know.
Ambarish Maharaj is a writer, poet, musician and visual artist from Toronto. He performs, musically, under the stage name, Marquis de Amberfish.
…a genius of meta-solutions—knocking over the chessboard, shooting the referee. – Pynchon
Bar deadness, crashed by a slam opening. Stumbling. Lou halts midwipe to look on.
This one held the Saturday Morning Star above his head. Supposed makeshift parasol or what’s left of it. A number of pages ripped out by the rain. Trampled in the downpour, blown ragged in whipping wind.
The leftovers still holding in grips above him, resembling a sponge supersaturated with wastewater. The liquid mixture of ink, chemical pulp and fingerprints drip drops on his forehead, a thin torrent trickling down past misty glasses, collecting in cracked grincusps.
He wrings it out on himself. Sloosh.
Shedding a few more layers, detaching and dropping to the ground like filmy leaves. Landing and lilypadding in the puddle tracked through the door, a taupe carpet of newsprint unrolling ovular around oozing galoshes. He opens his blazer, exposing a mangled collar and a gash of red ink on the left breast pocket. Collecting the paper into himself, his laughter unabated except as an aching afterthought.
Let me guess, you need a drink, said Lou who held down the bartending duties around here.
I need a pen!
Never heard of it. Only got Bud and Bud Light.
What? I mean a pen, you fool! As in the device for writing—écriture! It’s mightier than the sword, you know? Wait—
He reached into his coat pocket. His grin disintegrated. He retrieved a handful of instruments covered in dark red ink, which he instinctively wiped off on his jeans. Not without painting his face, jacket, and paper in the process. Erratic sidestepping about the puddle for more than a minute. Backwards, spinning. All with the same giddiness. Occasional outbursts exhuming out of his nasal cavity, wheezing uneasily in subterranean frequencies, of which he was only probably unawares.
It did not take long for him to get distracted with de-inking. He started testing his instruments on nearby napkins. Frenetic scribbling, ripping through tissue sheets, soiling everything he touched. He wanted to write it on the wall, but the tissues stuck to his hands and withered from the moisture. Stucco proved unfit for scripting. So he came over to the bar and laid out his gooped implements on mahogany countertop. For the first time Lou caught whiff of the wet dog that followed him around and occasionally took pisses on his pantlegs.
What followed was a desperate juggle of wet papers, intermixed with episodic cursing and a whole repertoire of noxious snorts and subvocal eruptions. Cheath tattering, bones creaking charnelic harmonies. A cyclone of deflected impulse whizzed in his place. And without a single visible scriptsign issued over the duration, he let out a cry of desperation. It cut the circulation of spent pens and tattered leaflets which had hitherto deluged his attention. They fell to the floor as he collapsed on the bar in depression.
One Bud, coming up, said Lou who knew beer time when he saw it.
The man glared and replied:
Can’t you see that I need a pen, not a dose of your goddamned idiot’s brew? Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? Don’t you realize what’s at stake? No, be gone with your booze, but send me your nearest working apparatus of écriture! Of textual exteriorization! Pronto!
By the time his speech petered out, Lou had already retrieved the bottle. Momentum carried him through his daily routine of crouch, grab, open in hoping disbelief of what he was hearing. Surely the man would come to his senses, have a revelation. Lou could not believe his ears. He would have to bend his knees all over again, just to put the bottle back in its original position in the fridge under the bar. Unbelievable. He emitted a groan which echoed throughout the corridors of the establishment.
Well? said the man, tapping his finger on the bar.
So you don’t want a beer, but you want a pen. Am I hearing you correct?
By Deus, yes!
Lou stood back and sized up the wet man. Joe Wetman. The one who demanded not beer on an empty afternoon. Who tracked the weather into the bar, mucking up the place. Who was obviously nuts. Just look at him diddle. Bugger jitters. Varicose veins throbbing under his dome, pumping molten blood into the core of a cerebral meltdown. Look at his eyes, peering from beneath fogged bifocal screens like bottomless wells, counter-sizing, swallowing any reflection you might glean of yourself in their pillars of consummate shadow.
A psycho killer with a fix for jamming pens up his ass. Heh. In order to punctuate his colon!
Lou let out an uproarious guffaw.
Excuse me, did you hear what I parleyed? Does it bear repeating? A working pen or pencil, post haste if you will good sir!
Just give me a damned pen!
Sheesh! said Wetman with a wave of his wet hands, sprinkling droplets onto Lou’s face. He catapulted off the stool and proceeded to rummage up and down the bar, uprooting chairs and tables in search of lost ballpoints. Lou kept watch over his forage. He allowed the rearranging on the sweet anticipation that the hunt would come up fruitless. Though doubt pervaded him for a second when Wetman reached underneath the virtual lottery terminals in a last-ditch attempt to get his hands on the items dropped by chance and claimed by filth. But no luck. Shucks. Lou let out a sigh of relief. The wretch returned to the bar in fatigue.
You know, whatever your worries, whatever problems have got you down, buddy, beer will help to pick you up, said Lou with a note of charity in his voice.
I suppose it’s inevitable that I’d lose it…
Thatta boy. Take your medicine.
Hey, what the—
Wetman seizes past Lou’s readied arm, a flinch away from cracking the bottle, to pull at a speck of something. Lou parrying lifts the bottle in an attempt to shield his chest. Beer begins to fizzle out of the semi-cracked cap and spout foamy upon his apron. Still through his blockade and sudscreen could be seen an inch of cylindrical clear plastic that Wetman had uncovered from the pocket. It gleamed in the artificial barlight like the second coming of Christ.
Testing the name tag, proceeding with caution, Wetman went on:
Now Lou, it’s decisive that you let me borrow your pen. I’ll even give it back to you when I’m done. But let me use it for just one second.
Just one second?
No, Lou. That’s pars pro toto. More like thirty minutes. What does it matter? You’re not even using it.
Not this minute, but who can say for the next.
No, who can say. I don’t know. All I can say is that I have an idea. Have you ever had an idea, Lou? They happen inside your head, if you don’t know. They make your brain think, if and when. Usually they’re not worth the electroencephalographs they’re recorded on, most of the time, but this one comes from the pit of my stomach, Lou. Or I mean my heart. Up to the top of my head. Whatever, it’s the same thing. In any case you got to help me out. Give me a pen so I can get it out onto the page. I’ll spring it from my wrists, Lou. God. Consider it a favour. I.O.U.
Don’t drag the Lord’s name into it or you’re asking for trouble, said Lou in curt retort.
It dawned on Wetman the scope of his miscalculation. Without any inkling of how to proceed, Lou took advantage of the blank slate to set things straight.
I don’t know where you get off, buster. Saying that I don’t got ideas. The mouth on this one. Let me tell you. You’re not the only one with a plan, man. You got that? I know what’s what. In fact I got idea right now of where you can stick that pen!
And another thing. The problem with people today. It’s simple. They think too much. That’s the whole problem right there. You get in trouble. Start making stuff up. That’s why you gotta concentrate on one thing at a time, that’s right in front of you. At the center of your attention. To keep from going around looking like your type. Trying to fit it all into your mouths, all at the same time. Oh I know your type. Know-it-alls. A pack of jackasses in mortarboards. With diplomas sticking out of their hoo-has!
Wetman lunges over the bar. He has his fingers on the pen. Not so fast. Lou pivots, his stealth unanticipated by Wetman, who loses his balance and spills over the bar. Dumping headfirst onto the other side, face laid against the caked rubber mats grounding the barback. Bloodshot eyes squeezing out of their sockets, following Lou’s trot to the office where hangs a padlocked cabinet painted like a Union Jack, red, white, and blue. From which Lou produces a double-barrelled baseball bat. Ol’ Trustworthy. Best bouncer in the world.
He takes up the slugger in both hands. This gesture vaults Wetman from his shambles back onto the customer side of the bar. But he loses his balance along the way, sliding on a coaster and onto a nearby table, splitting it in half with his back. The legs and stretcher exploding out from under it and ricocheting across the bar like chipboard shrapnel.
Wincing and writhing in the wake of his broken landing, Wetman spots Lou walking around the bar with his bat. Lou exaggerating his stroll to relish the sight from his elevated vantage. He pat the shaft of Ol’ Trustworthy in his open palm, two steps behind but always within reach, while watching Wetman wriggle his way to the exit.
On the way, Lou glanced out the window. No mercy out there. Still the rain poured, even harder than before. Clouds blackening. Rumbles amplified with every passing minute, the shrinking interval between strikes signalling the approaching storm.
Lou did not want to compromise his dryness. He followed the man as far as the door and allowed him to slither free from the immediate menace posed by him and Ol’ Trustworthy. Lou thought it good of him to do so. A good guy gives grace. Better than they deserve. Mercy on your soul. Now out the door with you.
Wetman rested for a second, soaking in the gutter. He closed his eyes for a stretch. The weather made it difficult for Lou to keep in view of his movements. Soon though he had caught his breath. Soon after that he stood up.
The bench at the bus stop lent him something to lean on. Lou could no longer identify his face, which got lost in the moving waters washing out the streets, appearing only for a second and again, refracting through the rain.
Lou monitored the outcast as he trudged away, but began to grow concerned when he stopped and turned back to look at the bar for what felt like a long time. Lou chose to return the gaze, ready to protect the establishment at all costs. Nor one to turn down an opportunity to claim self-defence should some maniac in the streets want a whooping.
The standoff did not last long before the levee broke. The rising thunder of the thousands of feet matched shots of canisters and gunfire that ricocheted from the northeast intersection. It flooded the streets in seconds. Burning private property on the adjacent avenue fuelled the charcoal smoke rising overhead, blotting out the sky. Water spewing from fire hydrants and broken mains got kicked up in helicopter cyclones along with thick plumes of teargas, billowing up into the higher regions of the atmosphere.
The multitudes were dressed in red and black and green. They did not wait to throw a garbage can through the window. Too many of them filed in for Lou to know what to do. His shaking hands lost hold of the bat. He could only watch as they ransacked the fridge, tossed the bottles they could not carry off, flipped tables and tagged along a streak of smeared graffiti. Lou tried to grab a few of them by the end, but they overthrew his holds with elbows and knees. A punch to the gut took Lou off his feet.
When he caught his breath, he looked up to see Ol’ Trustworthy used to shatter the wraparound mirror backing the bar in an explosion of wood and glass. The swing broke the bat. They took the jagged hilt and jammed it through the big screen in the corner, where it jutted sidelong from the elephantine black box in a fountain of yellow sparks.
Crowds streamed past him in this state, trudging through turbulence and human traffic. Working hard for disobedience. Following the action. Taking photos on camera phones and tweeting cohorts. Some scrummed around him in his stupor, but how to speak without hearing? Looters vultured the leavings, others cast him as background to frame their photogenic. Only when the medics arrived did he realize what he had been saying.
They walked him outside and laid him down on the bench. One began to tape Lou’s head with gauze while the other went for help. Fumes began to funnel out of the windows of the bar. Soon it was smogsheets spilling upwards into the heavens, enjoining the coal nimbus already encircling the city. Lou’s eyes followed them up and away.
The block began to unclog. As the crowds rushed on to take in the next sight, this bodily dispersion allowed Lou to catch one last glimpse of the man from before.
Kneeling on the other side of the street, at home in a pile of jettisoned placards, treating them fresh under the point of a permanent red marker scrawling feverishly in his left hand. The signs spun out from under his pen and into the arms of passers-by, who hoisted them into the air to dance above the heads of the crowd.
Lou blinked. The signs did not communicate. The symbols resembled no alphabet he knew. Strange squiggles linked curves, hoops and knots of no known origin. Meanwhile slogans sounding a babble, many mouths shouting differences at the same time, each headed in the other’s direction or getting in the way going the same way.
Yet this did not prevent the runes from telling a story to Lou. They read of the passion of the antichrist and the twilight of the gods, a drama enacted in the whirling substitution and alternation of signs ebbing and flowing in the brooking mass, coursing on to the revel, around the corner and gone.
Civil dusk passed unnoticed behind the eclipse.
Noah R. Gataveckas is a writer and activist from Toronto. His articles have recently appeared in The North Star ("Ted Grant and the Spectre of Trotsky"), Numero Cinq ("On the Genealogy of Style: Marx, Nietzsche, and Lacan"), and The Platypus Review ("La Contra Adorno: The Sex-Economic Problem of Platypus"). His most recent poetry can also be found at Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers ("Dispatches from the Austerian War (2008 - )") and Numero Cinq ("Why do we burn books?; or, The burning question of our movement").
My best friend Christie and I were coming back from the store one Saturday afternoon – the Chinaman’s, my mom called it, as in, “Rachel, go to the Chinaman’s and get me some cigarettes.” It was down our street and around the corner, about halfway down the block. Today I wasn’t getting any cigarettes, though. Christie and I both bought watermelon gum. They came three to a bag and were green striped on the outside and pink on the inside. They didn’t really taste like watermelon, but they were sweet, and kind of sour, too.
Lots of people thought we were sisters. Her hair was brown and mine was blonde, and she was a year older than me. I was afraid of the big, black dog in the front yard of the house beside the store. Christie wasn’t. She said they used to have a dog, Tinkerbell, who got run over. This day it was too hot for the dog to run up to the fence like it usually did. It sat on the verandah and barked instead.
The house was two-storeys, white, and the upstairs windows had brown shutters with silhouettes of sailboats cut into them. One of the shutters hung by one hinge, looked like it would fall off.
Christie nodded at the house as we walked by. “A girl in my class lives in that house. Her name is April Muller.” Christie had just finished grade one and I would start in the fall.
She continued. “She used to have a little brother. Stephen.”
“What happened to him?”
“He bit his own wiener.”
I was confused. “He died from biting his own wiener?”
“He bit it and he swallowed the pee. It poisoned him. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.”
I didn’t say anything else. It sounded kind of crazy, but it seemed like the world was full of crazy things. And I had a little brother. One thing I definitely knew about boys – they were weird.
When I went back into our house around supper time, I knew my mom and dad had been arguing. They had arguments a lot, sometimes little ones that they thought I didn’t notice. They’d talk through clenched teeth, or sometimes didn’t talk to each other at all. Even though they were trying to pretend they weren’t mad when they did that, I knew just because they weren’t yelling at each other didn’t mean they weren’t having an argument. This one might have been a big one, one of the ones that just seemed to start like something exploding. They didn’t even try to pretend those ones weren’t happening. They’d launch into yelling, screaming, throwing stuff, crying and it was like Wayne and I weren’t even there. We’d go outside if it was nice out, or daytime. But sometimes we just had to stay in our bedroom. There wasn’t anywhere else to go. We could hear every word they said through the thin walls.
This one looked like it was over, mostly. Wide World of Sports was on but my dad wasn’t really watching it. The TV flickered in his glasses. The muscles in his cheek rippled as he blew smoke out his nose and looked out the window. Mom was making supper. She slammed the cupboard doors shut, banged the pots onto the counter. I thought she’d break the plates the way she threw them on to the table.
Before I answered I tried to think – what had I done? Was it something about me they were fighting about? “Yes, Mom?”
“Go find your brother.”
Wayne wasn’t four yet, but sometimes it would take me a long time to find him. Sometimes that was good. Sometimes I thought Wayne was a lot smarter than me.
Wayne and Dennis from down the street were crouched at the end of the alley, their blond pigshaved heads almost touching.
“Wayne, it’s time for supper.”
“Wait a minute. Look at this.”
They were poking with sticks at something on the sidewalk.
“What is it?”
“We got it out of a robin’s nest,” Dennis said.
A baby bird spilled out of a blue shell. It had huge, closed eyes that would never open, transparent skin, no feathers.
“You killed it.”
“We thought it was ready to hatch,” said Wayne.
I had to stop looking at the dead baby. It hurt to look at it. “C’mon, Wayne. We have to go.”
When we got home Mom gave Wayne and me our suppers, said nothing.
“Where’s Dad?” Wayne asked. I’d been thinking about the baby bird, forgot about Mom and Dad.
“He went out for a beer with Gil. Eat your supper.”
Wayne opened his mouth like he was going say something else, but I kicked him under the table. I could see that Mom was not in the mood for more questions.
The next day was Sunday, another hot day, and we had to go to church, like we always did on Sunday. I wished there was a Baby Jesus to look at in this church, because I liked babies. But there was only the old, scary Jesus on the cross, and the other sad one with his heart on fire. The crinoline Mom made me wear under my dress was hot and itchy, and I knew if I tried to scratch in church I’d get in trouble. Once communion was over, every time we got up from sitting or kneeling, I’d think it must be the end of the mass, but it seemed to keep going on and on. Finally, though, the priest said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and we all answered, “Amen”.
Lately, when we crossed ourselves in church I wondered what would happen when I developed. Was there a special way ladies did it so that you didn’t accidentally touch one of them? I watched my mom and the other women as they crossed themselves, but none of them ever seemed to accidentally touch one. I was sure I would, and it would be awful. Maybe you had to practise in front of a mirror for a while to get the hang of it.
After lunch I called on Christie. She said it was too hot to go out and we should play in the basement. Christie had a lot of Barbies, but her little sister Tillie had cut the hair off almost all of them. So her mom knitted hats for them. We played Barbies behind the big stack of boxes of Pablum in the middle of the rec room floor. Rows and rows of pink-faced babies with spoons in their mouths stared at me and Christie and the toque-wearing Barbies.
“Why do you have all this Pablum? Isn’t Tillie too old to eat it?”
“It’s not for Tillie. My dad’s a salesman and those are samples he has to take with him when he goes out of town.” Christie’s dad was Gil, the guy my dad went out for beer with sometimes.
I didn’t say anything else, but it made me a little mad to know that the Kendalls had all this baby food in their basement, and my mom was about to have a baby, and they didn’t give us any. Come to think of it, Mrs. Jeworski from next door had a new baby, and so did Kenny’s mom. All these babies around, and all this Pablum in the Kendalls’ basement. It didn’t seem right to me.
“Christie,” Mrs. Kendall called down the stairs. “Tillie’s going down for a nap right now, and I need it to be quiet in here, so you girls go play outside.”
There was a big tree in Christie’s front yard. We sat in the shade and smashed our leftover watermelon gums with big rocks. The ones we’d chewed tasted good at first, but once you chewed all the sugar out of the gum it was stiff and kind of bitter. Ants came, red and black, and crawled all over the smashed gum. We poked them off with sticks and they kept coming back.
Two older boys from down the street came by on bikes and stopped in front of us. One had red hair and freckles and the other had black hair and black-rimmed glasses. Christie knew them from school, but I didn’t. I felt kind of shy of them. They talked to Christie, who laughed at the jokes they told, but I kept quiet. After a while the one with glasses asked me what my name was. Before I could answer, Christie said, “Her name is Rachel. She’s not in school yet.”
“Hey, Rachel. Do you know what a cunt is?”
I’d never heard the word before. I looked at Christie, but she just shrugged. “No,” I answered.
The red-haired one spoke up. “Why don’t you go ask your mom?”
“Why don’t you ask your mom, Christie?” After all, we were in her yard.
“Tillie’s sleeping and my mom doesn’t want any noise.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay,” I said, getting up to cross the street. “I’ll be right back.”
It wasn’t much cooler inside our house than it was outside. Mom was watching TV on the couch.
“Mom,” I said. “What’s a cunt?”
Her face went all white, and she stood up and stared at me. She looked really mad and for a minute I thought I was about to get it.
“Where did you hear that word?”
“Two big boys came up to Christie and me and asked us if we knew what it meant.”
She was out the front door before I even knew what happened. I couldn’t hear exactly what she said, but she was yelling at the boys. I was glad she wasn’t yelling at me. I looked out the screen door and saw the boys ride away on their bikes, and my mom came back into the house red-faced to the roots of her dark brown hair.
“Don’t you ever say that word again.”
I still didn’t know what it meant, but I could tell it was something bad.
My mom and dad hadn’t been talking to each other since he went out for a beer with Christie’s dad. At least that was quieter than when they were yelling, but it still wasn’t any fun. If they wanted to talk now, they’d talk to me and I was supposed to talk for them.
“Rachel, ask your dad to pass the sugar, please.”
“Tell your mom I’m going out tonight so don’t wait up for me.”
Part of me wanted to ask them why they did this, why they made me part of their fight when they knew I didn’t want to be. But I knew I couldn’t. I was just supposed to do what they told me to, no questions. I was supposed to be a good girl. But when they acted like that I wanted to take off and stay away all day the way Wayne did.
A few days later we were playing in Christie’s basement again to be out of the afternoon heat.
“Come and see this calendar my Dad’s got,” Christie said.
We went into a part of the Kendall’s basement I hadn’t seen before. There was a bench with tools hanging on the wall behind it. And a calendar with a picture of a lady sitting on a leopard skin couch. She had long red hair and orange lipstick and wore a black nightie, and held a drink in a fancy glass. Then Christie lifted up something and suddenly the lady had no clothes on. The black nightie was just printed on a piece of clear plastic. Christie flipped the plastic back and forth and the lady’s nightie appeared and disappeared. I was speechless.
“My dad thinks I don’t know,” Christie said, “but he has a whole box of magazines with pictures of naked ladies like this in the garage.”
I wondered if our dads looked at pictures like these when they went for beers. Probably. That must have been why they couldn’t just drink beer at home. That’s what Mom always asked him, why couldn’t he just have a beer at home? Now I knew why. No wonder Mom was mad at him.
A few days later Christie and I played hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of her house when the same two big boys came up to us on their bikes again.
“Hey, Rachel,” the one with glasses said. “Did your mom tell you what a cunt is?”
He looked across the street at my house to see if my mom was around. They began to pedal away, but he turned around just before they ducked into the alley and said, “It’s a girl’s dink.”
A girl’s dink? I was so confused. So was Christie. As far as we both knew, girls didn’t have dinks.
A little while later Christie had to go in, so I went home. And even though I wanted to ask my mom, or someone, about the whole girl’s dink issue, I knew I didn’t dare.
When I came into the living room, Mom and Dad were lying on the couch and kissing. I don’t think they even noticed me. I knew this was another one of those times not to talk to them, same as when they were fighting. I went through the kitchen and out the back door and sat on our swing set.
After a while I heard some stirring in the kitchen. Mom must have been starting to make supper. “Rachel,” she called out the screen door. She probably wanted me to go to the cellar to get some potatoes or set the table, or maybe go to the store to get something.
I kicked at the dirt under the swings for a minute as Wayne and Dennis ran laughing past our back fence. Mom called me again. But before she saw me, I slipped through the back gate and down the alley. My heart pounded as I ran free after my brother, and I laughed, too.
Lori Hahnel is the author of a novel, Love Minus Zero, and
a story collection,Nothing Sacred, which shortlisted
for an Alberta Literary Award. A new novel, After
You’ve Gone, is forthcoming from Thistledown Press in Fall 2014. Her
fiction and poetry have been published across North America and in the U.K.;
her credits include CBC Radio, The
Fiddlehead, Prairie Fireand Room. As well as teaching at Mount
Royal, she has served as writer-in-residence for Alberta Branch Canadian Authors
Association and The Alexandra Writers Centre Society.
The city issued a memo early in the snow-melt making bus drivers responsible for the collection of hands. They didn't bother to print it on official letterhead. Just mailed it out to the supervisors and had them shove a print-out into everyone's locker, so that the pages fell on us when we got to work. It was a good trick. If they'd given us any warning, we could have lodged a complaint. Something about biohazards or inappropriate working conditions. Instead, the memo reached us about the same time that the announcement went out on the morning news.
In response to the large number of hands which have been discovered in melting snow drifts, the city has established an interim hand-collection policy. Winnipeg residents are encouraged to wrap any discovered hands appropriately (in grocery bags, etc.) and turn them in to city bus drivers. Drivers will return all hands to a central collection point, from which the city will make all reasonable efforts to ascertain the hands' origins and identify their owners.
If you are unable to wait for the next bus, please leave the hand at your nearest bus stop. Ensure the wrapping is labelled clearly.
I was braced for ugly, wet bags waiting in piles at otherwise empty bus stops, stinking and slowing down the route, but in fact most people waited in person to submit their discoveries. I was issued a big plastic box, red and yellow, to hold the results. There were very few grocery bags. Instead, I carefully accepted bundles wrapped in old baby blankets and sweaters. There were a couple that at first I thought might be kittens, or something else little and still alive. It meant I had to check. Pull back the wrapping and ensure that whatever I'd been given wasn't going to suffocate.
They were all hands. People took it very seriously.
The snow-melt always reveals a few ugly things that stayed politely frozen all winter. There's the layer of dog shit and garbage and small animals that didn't survive. The police force is in my union, for some reason, and they told us that bodies turn up every spring, dead all winter and picked at by scavengers, and suddenly everyone's very urgent about it, just like the poor guys weren't missing all winter.
The first few hands were collected by the police with full forensic teams. The city was worried, the way they were in Vancouver when feet started washing up on the beach. People started talking about serial killers.
Later, when they started to desensitize, people made jokes about secret implementations of sharia law. Even before the hand-collection program started, at the bus sheds we received a couple of reminders that anti-Muslim sentiment wasn't welcome in the department. That all residents of the city who gave respect deserved to receive respect.
It was phrased like that, about giving and receiving respect, because of the crazies, and the right we'd won in the last strike to eject them if they started to get rowdy. We got our safety shields in that strike, too. Taxi drivers only got safety shields this year.
Because of the shield, I had to climb down every time someone gave me a hand. It didn't seem right to just say, Put it in the box with the others. I had to come out and accept the wrapped-up thing, and tell the waiting person thanks. Like it was a lost iPod or something: You did the right thing. I'll make sure it gets back to its owner.
The police relaxed when they got a sense of how many hands were actually out there. It seems counter-intuitive that they'd breathe easier when the number passed a thousand, but it was evidence that the hands couldn't possibly have been severed from city residents. People would have noticed. The hands were only hands, not evidence of bodies. They were neatly severed just above all those tiny wrist bones, with no extra osteotic fragments. It was done really neatly. And because they were mostly still frozen, the hands didn't really smell. There were some white hands and some brown hands and some black hands, men's hands and women's hands.
No children's hands. That helped. I don't think I could have just accepted a child's hand from some stranger hunched over waiting at Inkster and Keewatin.
The second week of collection, I lined my box with a flannel sheet from the top of my closet.
The police sent us notes about the status of the hands. The notes went up on the bulletin board next to our lockers. When they determined that nearly all the hands were lefts, they told us. Later, they added that about one in seven were right hands. They were all dead, obviously, but it wasn't immediately clear whether they'd been severed before or after death. The medical examiner wasn't even really sure how the hands had been severed, since there were no broken bones, and the cut ends were so even.
They were just hands.
There weren't anywhere near six hundred thousand, though I kept hearing people on the bus speculating that maybe there was an extra hand for every person in the city. Still, the police cadets were pressed into service finger-printing them all. Students from both universities came in to take DNA samples. The city petitioned the province for funds to catalogue and preserve the hands until they could be properly something-ed. The regional health authority invited people to come in and submit DNA samples, just in case.
That triggered the poster campaign. I was working a north end route, so I didn't mostly see the signs until I took a few days off. The posters went up in the city core and the hipster villages south of the Assiniboine River. The kind of areas you can travel on foot, or on a skateboard.
I tried not to read anything into that. Not everybody rides the bus, not by a long shot. I see the odd bumper sticker, while I'm stuck in traffic, that reads, Anyone caught on a bus after 30 has failed at life.
A few whack jobs are banned from transit. We have pictures of them up on the bulletin board, just in case, though most of them only ever haunted a couple of routes, and didn't try to crash new ones.
The campaign posters were hand-drawn and photocopied. They warned us all against submitting DNA samples. The police, they said, were just trying to make a catalogue of all citizens.
Below that it said, Smash the state! Learn to skate!
We tried not to take that as a slam against the transit system, either.
The hands dwindled once the snow was gone. The odd one was discovered in Assiniboine Forest, chewed by dogs or coyotes, and a couple washed up on the river banks, but they were obvious leftovers. No new ones appeared.
The city didn't identify any of the hands right away, or later on, either.
There wasn't actually a one-to-one ratio of hands to city residents; more like one-to-one-hundred. The final tally of hands was six thousand eight hundred forty-one. They're carefully wrapped and stored in the Health Sciences Centre, now. All in little bags, with tags indicating what they were wrapped in when they arrived, and details like nail polish colour. I found out that last detail when I signed up for a tour. They have a little fact-sheet they give out to the curious. It listed the number of men's hands and women's, and how many there were by race, roughly, and odd little things like the fact that while lots had tan shadows, three actually had wedding rings on. Seven had tattoos.
If they can't trace the hands within ten years, the official plan is to release them in bunches to religious groups, so they can hold funerals. It'll be proportionate. Nobody has a plan for the atheist hands. It'll probably depend on how religious the city council is feeling at the time, whether they leave room for atheists.
I keep hearing a rumour, though, through the union newsletter and work chatter, that if the religious thing falls through, they're going to give the hands up for adoption. Sort of like kittens. So I put my name in for that. I'll take in a hand. Maybe bury it in my flower bed. I carried so many of them, I feel like I owe them something.
Annette Lapointe has lived in Saskatchewan, Quebec, Newfoundland, South
Korea, Manitoba, and Alberta. She has published two novels, "Stolen"
(2006), which was nominated for the Giller Prize, and "Whitetail
Shooting Gallery" (2012), which was a finalist for the McNally Robinson
Book of the Year. She lives in northern Alberta and teaches at Grande
Prairie Regional College.
Your new book, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice (CZP, 2013), is a both a departure from your previous two books and also a return to home for you. That is, if one draws a line between so-called genre writing and literary fiction. I don't want to dwell on the genre question, but I do want to know if this latest book was more fun to write. Also, is it fair to say that your writing is both progressing into a new phase and also returning to base?
Yeah, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice was a lot of fun to write. I enjoyed creating my first two books as well – I chuckled often while I was writing the hapless drifter in Please, and The Warhol Gang was just plain absurd – but they were books that focused more on situation and trends in our society. They were plot and issue driven rather than character driven.
The Mona Lisa Sacrifice is a much more character-based book, and I love the characters of Cross and his friends so much. In fact, the concept for the entire series came to me with the character of Cross, the soul who occupies Christ’s body after Christ is crucified and dies. Once I had him figured out, and a sense of the kind of story I wanted to tell, the other fantastic characters just started drifting into my mind, and I had as much fun bringing them to life as I did with Cross. Judas was an early one, of course, and I decided to make him an ancient trickster god dedicated to the destruction of humanity rather than just a misguided mortal. Then I dreamed up Alice, who’s sort of an escapee from the Alice in Wonderland books and a very strange character who can move between libraries.
The faerie queen Morgana was a lot of fun to write as well, especially given the power struggles that Cross and her have over the years. I decided at an early point to make everyone larger than life and really embrace the fantastic in this series – just wait until you see some of the characters in the second book! So it was really enjoyable to write these characters because I could let my imagination run wild in a way that I couldn't with my other books which, however you want to look at them, are essentially realism.
I’m not sure I’d say my work is entering a new phase – I’m still writing literary fiction as well as the genre works. I’m midway through a new lit novel now, and I’m thinking about the next one. I’ve got some ideas for stories when I can find time – I’ve also written a story that’s sort of a sequel to Please, starring the same narrator. It needs one more write through, I think, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Hopefully before the end of the year…. The Cross books and the other genre stuff I’ve been writing – the weird westerns that have been published in the online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, for instance – have been more of an expansion of my writing than choosing a different path.
I just wanted to write stories that were a little different than the literary fiction I’d been writing. But I always intended them to be in addition to my literary fiction rather than replacing it. I should note that I still consider my genre works literary. I work hard at the craft and still try to write an interesting sentence, and I blow up the genre conventions and constraints rather than confine myself to them. But they're definitely in the genre camp when it comes to marketing and all the practicalities of the publishing business.
The Cross books do mark a return to base, as you say. People have asked me whether I was influenced by Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics or the character of John Constantine in the Hellblazer comics, but in fact my influences go much farther back than that. I grew up reading and rereading Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber – that series was one of the things that started me writing. I always wanted to tell an epic tale like the Amber books, populated with strange and wondrous characters. When I came up with the character of Cross, I realized this was my opportunity to write my equivalent of the Amber books. So yeah, the writing thing has kind of come full circle for me.
I mentioned to you earlier this year that I would ask you about Cervantes, that ancient anti-literary literary forbear. Don Quixote is a wandering fool (and the book a commentary on popular romance narratives) and your protagonist, Cross, is also a wanderer, seeking perhaps what can't be found as he surfs across some of the greatest disasters of human history: gory Rome, medieavel knighthood, the holocaust. There is obviously much magic and anti-realism in The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, but there is also among the destruction important points about hope and quest for meaning. As Don Quixote is a book about books, is The Mona Lisa Sacrifice a kind of story about stories?
Absolutely. I had a choice once I came up with this immortal character who’s lived for thousands of years and basically all of civilized history: he could be the sort of guy who just drifts through history anonymously, always in the background, living through unimportant events, or he could be the sort of guy who is right there in the middle of everything, present at every important event.
I went for the latter, obviously, not only because it’s more fun to throw Cross into things like the Colosseum and Camelot and the jazz age and all that, but also because it makes it easier for readers to relate. There are so many touchstones for readers – I really wanted people to be able to go, “Hey, I’ve been at the place where this is happening.”
The whole fight with the angel in Gaudi’s Barcelona church at the beginning of the book is all about this. I wanted people to think, “I know this. I have lived this.” It just makes the story that much more personal and brings readers' own stories into the book.
At the same time, I really did want to write, as you say, a story about stories. There are many asides in The Mona Lisa Sacrifice where I mention events/characters that could be books on their own, and then never follow up on them. Take, for example, Cross’s comment about the time he stole the U.S. constitution because he needed it for a certain ritual. I didn’t follow up on that story elsewhere in the book, and I don’t intend to in the other books. I really like the idea of readers creating this other, parallel story in their own minds, based on the little asides that Cross makes here and there.
I’ve always liked books about other books and tales that address storytelling itself. Certainly there was more than a bit of Eco, Calvino and Borges in the back of my mind while I was writing The Mona Lisa Sacrifice. I think one of my early pitches on the series was it's Roger Zelazny meets Umberto Eco.
As for Don Quixote, that wasn’t in my mind when writing the book, but it’s not a bad comparison. Cross certainly has his moments of being a wandering fool, especially in the flashbacks, which are set over different ages, and he’s often on the wrong side of history. But at heart he means well and is generally trying to do the right thing, even if he makes a mess of it. Which is almost always.
I'm going to ask you to pick a director and a dream cast of stars, if you were to see one of your books (or stories) made into a major motion picture. What work would you pick? Who would you choose to direct and star in it? Also, briefly, why.
Before Robert Downey Jr. played Iron Man, I could have seen him in either Please or The Warhol Gang. He used to have that sort of lost, adrift personality – psychically, morally, spiritually, you name it. But I think he’ll forever be known as Iron Man now, just like Johnny Depp will always be Captain Jack Sparrow. So I guess I’d have to take Aaron Paul (Jesse on Breaking Bad). Whatever happens, I think the episode in Please where they run over John Cusack with a car really needs to star John Cusack.
As for The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, well, it would be kind of fun to see Iron Man beating up angels. Or maybe Jason Statham. Anyone who can guarantee funding for a film, basically. Hell, if Seth Rogen wanted to star in it I'd give him my endorsement. I've always pictured Jesus as Seth Rogen!
Best piece of parenting advice you ever received?
It’s best to think of kids as little mad scientists – they’re always experimenting with their world, trying to understand how it works and blowing it up because they don’t know any of the rules. Thinking of them like this is the only way to forgive them for ruining your life.
What would you like to ask J.D. Salinger?
What was the point?
What did you do with the Rob Ford crack video?
The same thing everyone else did: I sold it to Rob Ford for a lot of that Ford family money. [ed: just kidding]
What's your favourite opening sentence from a short story?
"I was an infinitely hot and dense dot." From Mark Leyner’s My Cousin My Gastroenterologist. After that, there's nothing left to say.