“What do you think of,” she says, “when you see a person covered in cat hair?”
He’s spinning his pen around in his hand—as if it’s the world itself. “What colour?”
She runs her tongue over the sore spot in her mouth where she earlier bit herself, the silky membrane now ruptured, broken. “What do you mean, what colour?”
His pen drops into the notebook in his lap and settles alongside the spiral spine. He turns to look at her, turning his back on his world. He smiles. “I mean, what colour cat hair?”
She rolls her eyes and sighs. He can never just answer a question. He always has to dig, find the exact measurements of the precipice he’s being placed upon. “Black. Black cat hair on a black knit sweater on an overcast spring day…” He opens his mouth to say something but she jumps in. “Bloor line at St. George, 4:30 p.m., Thursday.” She smiles, braces herself against the force of his gaze, amazed how, after all this time, it still feels like standing up to a cold wind naked. It fills her with tremulous tension, this penetrating press. At times she wishes she had such control over him, but she knows that would ruin everything.
He narrows his eyes, focusing the beam. “Man or a woman?”
“Forget it,” she groans, turning her attention back to removing from her sleeve the hair, the black and wiry remnants of last night’s visit to her mother’s house. Alone.
His smile grows, the bow pulled taught. “Julia, Julia,” he says, rolling the syllables playfully, “don’t be so impatient. You mustn’t be afraid to work for what you want.”
“And you mustn’t be so damn annoying!” She abandons the hair razing and goes to the computer to change the music.
He speaks to her back. “You have to realize the power of a single word. The subtle variance in the framing of a thought. Do you want something? Or, do you want anything? Two very different questions.”
She chooses the Chicago Underground Duo. “Only to the anal,” she throws back, as the chaotic rhythm of sax sixteenths, high-hats and cascading toms take hold of the atmosphere and refuses to give easy answers about the present, never mind the future.
“Ah, anal, one of my favourite words. What an image. The greatest of compliments, but always dealt as an insult. Which makes it all the more rewarding, as one can always be sure it’s genuine.”
She approaches and settles on the floor at his feet. “I just don’t know how you put up with me and my slipshod ways.”
“You are my meaning, Julia,” he says, matching her melodrama, pen in hand again, spinning. “My pile of stones to rake into a Zen garden.”
She pulls back to look at him, putting him in context, parting her lips and placing one hand on either of his bare knees and slowly sliding them up his thighs. “I could do with some raking right now.”
His smile slackens as he reaches for her arms and holds them arrested. “Not now Julia. I’m almost done this and you’ve distracted me enough as it is.”
She looks at the black where his pen had just scratched her wrist. “What is it? I’ll help you.”
He gives her a doubtful, hesitant look. “Just a word.”
“Yes…one precise arrangement of letters, two syllables…to describe a road.”
“A road?” She affects a thoughtful pose. “Winding? Lonely? Sun-drenched? Wait, I guess that’s two… Bending? Um, crumbling?”
“Don’t, Julia.” He looks at her emphatically. “I’ve got a house of cards here until I find this keystone. You can’t just pull them out of mid-air and try them on one by one, like shoes, or dresses.” He holds her slight forearms frozen against his thighs, as though he still isn’t certain she understands. “I’ll find it.”
“Oh Will,” she groans, pulling lightly on her arms trapped by the grip that holds fast. “You’re too grave about all this. My goodness! You’re going to choose a word-search over sex? Do you think anyone would understand if you told them?”
“All I care is that people understand what I’m trying to say here,” he says, releasing her and tapping his notebook. “That’s why I need the right word. And that’s why I’m going upstairs now.”
Her hands fall to the floor along with her sigh of defeat. “If only you spent as much time living life as you do trying to describe it,” she says to his back as he sets off up the stairs.
He doesn’t feel badly. They’ve been over this ground before and he knows she understands. And it’s not like it’s easy on him either. Not at all. He just has no choice and she knows it.
He places himself at the insistent oak desk in his study, beside the towering window that looks out onto the small square of hedged-in grass fronting their house, the narrow street beyond, and the line of terraced houses across—the leaking-light alongside the lifeless. The late spring evening is close and the sun’s nearly gone down, but the temperature refuses to follow. He heaves open the window and a heavy gust of air smelling like damp grass and grilled meat squeezes in. He can hear the neighbourhood children playing hide-and-seek, but he can’t see them.
He closes his eyes and thinks about the poem—the last line. Nothing fits. He feels the usual excitement mixed with the stress and nervous tension of being nearly done; sometimes nearly done feels farther from done than not-yet-started.
And he thinks about it once again: to throw it all away, responsibility to the proverbial wind, and the whether-or-not-I-wouldn’t-be-so-much-happier-without-it-all. We. The tantalizing idea wraps tendrils seductively around him, like reckless abandon, like divestiture. But once again, for the umpteenth time this day, he reminds himself: Life is not solely about being happy.
He looks at the page again, so close to complete. This poem is shorter than is usual for him—they’re getting that way lately. On good days he assures himself that brevity is the goal, that efficiency and efficacy are the highest virtues of a poet. On bad days he forces himself to answer the question such an idea begs: Yes…the ultimate poem is a blank page.
But today’s neither a good day nor bad, it’s just a stuck day. He’s caught in the fractal snowstorm of the blank space between ‘a’ and ‘road’. The blue lines of the page are the bars of his prison cell. It can’t just be a road. Not just a road. He’s been turning it over for the best part of two days now and the uncertainty’s starting to bleed into the neighbouring words like an infectious disease. The outbreak of an epidemic? Time to panic?
Then she’s knocking at his door. Frustration rises, until he notices it’s 8:21. 8:21 on a Friday night. He’s been at his desk for over an hour and a half, lost in the space between words, where time and space follow their own laws. “Yep?”
The door pushes open, tentatively, an epic battle in fast motion. When there’s enough room she wedges her long forehead and narrow eyes into the space. She scans, then presses the rest of herself through and in.
“Well, did you fish the word out from between those big ears of yours yet?”
How she wants to help him. She can see by the look in his eye that it’s past the point where the suffering begins. She’ll never understand why he puts himself through it. She wants to tell him to change it to a path, to a sidewalk, to a bridge, any damn thing man enough to stand on its own. Something that needs no hype. Something self-sufficient.
Sometimes she gets carried away, but she knows it has to come from him. And though she understands as much as she does, she still can’t bear to see him putting himself on the rack like this, wringing himself out in the hopes of hearing the hollow thud of the word falling upon the worn floor. And the worst is, it’s not that—it’s not just one word, of course not. It’s the whole piece. If he hasn’t found the key to unlock it by this point, he’s not going to. But, one has to help where they can.
She pulls her left hand out from behind her back.
The tool he tries to deny himself.
The vantage point.
She doesn’t want him dependent upon it, but with time she’s becoming more and more pragmatic about such things—and she wants him tonight.
He catches sight of it and smiles. “Come here with that, you.”
She approaches him and he takes her in his arms and kisses her.
“You know I don’t need that,” he whispers in her ear as he takes the bottle in his hands.
“I know,” she says reassuringly. “I do.” She pushes his notebook aside and sits down on the firm desktop. She watches him lean back in his chair and stretch, then twist the cap off and take a long sip, closing his eyes as it falls deep into him, hopefully bringing a flood of words to the surface. “Francis just called. He’s coming to pick us up at 9:30 to go to a show. Do you remember his friend Charles? The jazz drummer?” He gives her a blank look. “He’s playing up in North York somewhere…” She watches as her obdurate love takes another hit of the liquor. “It sounds up your alley. Will you come?”
“I don’t know Julia. Let’s just see how this goes.”
“Okay, then I’ll leave you to it.” She pops herself off the desk and out the door, leaving the earthy scent of her perfume behind, along with the bottle of scotch.
He takes another swallow and looks hard at his notebook. He rereads the five stanzas of the poem, feeling so good about them. They’re among his best; but without this final line they’re nothing.
He thinks of Francis and the show. How he wants to go. How he’d love to just untether his mind, set it free of the wall of words collapsed upon it, but he can’t. He’s trapped. He’s not his own. Every undone poem is the same, a skyscraper lying on its side with him heaving on one end, muscles tearing, all too human.
But when it comes!
If only the word would come. “This damn road!” He punches the desk, whose wood, were it not so hard, would surely be dented from all he’s thrown at it. Its smooth solidity seems to rub his nose in the non-existence of what he needs. Is it obsessive compulsion? This need for perfection? Some say it is, but he always has the same response, that without the drive for perfection among certain individuals, this wouldn’t be much of a world. To Julia, who’d reply that settling for nothing less than perfection is nothing more than egoistic selfishness, he’d return with, “That’s what lazy second-raters tell themselves anyway.”
But she never takes it as an insult. His cutting comments only make her love for him all the more raw. At least that’s how it’s always been.
He stares and stares, trying to force the word up and out of the paper, trying to guilt it out of hiding. He closes his eyes and turns the pockets of his mind inside out. He almost allows himself to go over to the Thesaurus and ravage it, tear it open and dive in, a man clawing desperately at the clothes wrapping a lover long withheld. But he doesn’t, for it would be as crude as peeling a word from Julia’s lip. He might as well plaster the lamp poles around town with posters: “Wanted: The word.”
It’s not like words aren’t coming; there’s a downpour, a torrent of them, but none are right. The disease is spreading—maybe there is no correct word…because the poem itself is fatally flawed. This is the real fear coming out now. Have I even written a poem? Is this a sign that it’s all garbage…have I ever written anything? Do I even speak?
He puts his head on the desk and closes his eyes. He concentrates on the press of the cold defiant surface upon his forehead. It stimulates pain centers, as though the wood’s angry at its burden of gray matter. Or, his head’s angry with him for trying to deny gravity, the fact that the universe will end in a zillion years and no matter how thick the lead in the strong box, all’s destined to become as insignificant as a speck of dust’s appendix. But the pain cascading behind the bone of his forehead tells him that somehow, some way, this matters.
This God-damn word!
A knock at the door.
“I’m opening up,” she warns, pressing through the doorway, sending the darkness running for the cover of corners. She stands still in the hallway’s light as it muscles its way past her. “I’m going now. …You coming?”
He thinks hard.
One last stab…
If only the word had come.
But it hasn’t.
How it hasn’t.
And he tells her so.
She always does.
She always does.
And she closes the door behind her.
He hears her walking down the stairs.
At the doorway.
Putting on her shoes.
The black, school-girl shoes, opening up to highlight the white satin-skin at the top of her feet, leaping up around her ankles, and up to her pulsing calves, and knees…as perfect as…as…
He watches through the window as she pushes her sleek leg into the car and then the rest of her follows and disappears behind the cold polished door of the black Audi. The window’s open and he makes out, “No, no, he’s—” before the revving of the engine steals her words away. He wants to call out. He nearly does. He bites his nails as he watches the car drag its taillights up the hard dark lonely old cracked tired cramped potholed narrow fucking! road, then disappear around the bend.
He faces the scene out front, silent and empty. The children have gone in and the wind’s died down, leaving the leaves alone. The neighbour’s cat saunters affectedly across the street, seemingly not a hair out of place.
He turns his back to the window and turns back to the vast chasm on his desk. He takes a long pull of the Scotch. Maybe he’ll catch up with them later.
jp grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and studied in various
universities, taking more courses than he suspects anyone ever has en-route to
a teaching degree. He began writing
fiction in Tokyo, while teaching English to students ranging in age from 3 to
88. After two years in London he returned to Canada to pursue a career in
social work. He currently works in that field in Toronto. jp has had short
stories published in various journals such as The Dalhousie Review and The
Nashwaak Review, and his first novel ‘The Space Between’ was published by Dundurn Group.