“I believe this is where the battle for civilization is being fought. I really do.”
Earl Sampson ambled along the border, thumbs jammed into his belt, fingers crabbed toward a huge brass belt-buckle forged in the shape of a Texas rose. Two newsmen followed him, one crouched behind a camera, the other, a reporter, poking a long microphone toward Earl’s face. Earl paused and flashed his best public smile, the one Helen had always said shone like the grille of an oncoming truck.
“Right here, along this border. Sure, we can build a wall – build the biggest wall you ever seen! And we’re doin’ it! Mile by mile, we’re building it, just like we’re building the drones. I mean, you take the fella they caught right here, just yesterday. Those were Shield Hawks that spotted him, yessir. Lord Almighty… Lopez, he said his name was. Well, they’re all Lopez, aren’t they?
“But my point is, you really want to fix the border problem? What you need is vigilance. Vigilance and will! And it ain’t me I’m talking about, neither. My sunset’s not far off. What I’m doing trying to ignite the spark of nationhood in the hearts of the youth.”
On cue, Earl drew from his back pocket a miniature flag, black plastic wand glued with a nylon flap dyed with the stars and stripes, a white cardboard label etched with tiny lines of text dangling from a string tied to its blunted spike. From the sidelines, his assistant, Ollie, spied the flag and leaned down to whisper to the wee pigtailed girl at his knees, who skipped over to Earl and looked up at him with eyes as wide as a Colorado sky. As though conferring a blessing, Earl pressed the toy flag into the little girl’s palm, squeezing her fingers around its holiness.
“This is my own kind of nation building, see? With each flag I pass on to kids like this little peach right here” – Earl patted the girl on the head – “maybe it helps ’em know what it means to be an American. What God-given rights they have, and why we can’t let the illegals take those rights away from them. Not to mention the jobs!
“Mark my words – this country is being invaded.”
He swung his arm in a wide arc across the scrubland behind the coils of razor wire, the desert rolling down to the bloodied cities beyond the Rio Grande, stricken drug hives that disgorged the desperate and ambitious in equal measure toward Earl’s watchful eye.
“La Reconquista. It’s on the way. Bolivar, Pancho Villa… that revolutionary spirit is bleedin’ up through the border like a coming flood.”
He turned his face and stared straight into the camera, smile cranked up to chrome-plated 18-Wheeler, pedal to the metal.
“I’m just doin’ what I can to stop it.”
Every year, leading up to the Fourth of July, the American Shield received thousands of letters of support from across the country. They poured in by mail, by email, some delivered by hand, and from each one Earl Sampson selected a pithy excerpt, which he had printed on a white cardboard label and tied to one of the little American flags from his stockpile, thereby imbuing cheap Chinese product with a dose of real American sentiment. He would then, in person whenever possible, place each flag in the dirt along the border fence between Cochise County and the Mexican hinterland. There were thousands of them, planted for as far as you could see, a beautiful force field of red, white and blue fluttering against the bleached landscape. On one part of the wall, the flags had been pinned up and arranged to spell out the words Earl Sampson held as his own personal creed and mission: SECURE THE BORDER. STOP THE INVASION.
Earl could see the slogan from the bay window in his ranch-style living room, as fine a view as any cowboy could ask for. Same as every evening, he saluted the words and the dusky sky behind them, then sank down into his leather recliner and sighed. Tonight he was extra tired from smiling for the cameras all day, and was looking forward to a night in front of the tube. He liked the old westerns, Gunsmoke and Rawhide and The Virginian, and now with satellite TV he could watch them all the time.
Earl shifted his gut and wiped a palm across his hat-greasy head as the TV glowed on, the sound of canned gunshots filling the room. It was important to be settled just right before he called in Valentina.
In his mind, he called her his Only – as in, his Only Exception. To the boys who dared give him a look, he said the same thing every time, smiling at maximum throttle: “A girl as doggone pretty as that transcends the national interest, wouldn't you say?” In those words would be contained all the ones that Earl Sampson didn’t need to speak aloud: that he’d founded the Shield with money from his own goddamn pockets, and the Shield’s guns were his guns, and that Helen had been gone over a year now, so the wise thing was to shut the fuck up unless you wanted to spend a night discussing the matter with Earl’s nine German Shepherds. And the boys would all nod and shrug and let it go… because you couldn’t argue that Valentina was one pretty little prize. Young and svelte, with skin the colour of mocha chocolate. She’d been with him for just about six months now, shipped in from Nuevo León by a Coyote he’d got friendly with, and although she cleaned the house and prepared meals, her chief concern was to bring Earl his daily after-work bourbon, and to otherwise help him relax and shrug off the tension born of holding back the tidal wave of Mexican blood that threatened to engulf his beloved country day in and day out.
On the table beside him lay one of his testifying flags – message: Keep Up the Good Fight! America for Americans – and next to it, a little brass bell. Earl picked up the bell and gave a sharp ding. “Valentina, darlin’?” he shouted in singsong drawl. “It’s time!”
She came at his call, resplendent in a dress of purple lace, carrying a tray laid with a single tumbler frosted with cold and filled with cherry-dark bourbon. Her eyes were black as opals, her frame as petite and light as a bird’s. There were times when she looked mute, ignorant even; but Earl knew what kind of fight the girl had in her. She’d been a prickly cactus at first, but he’d taught her the ropes, soon enough.
“Well don't you just look adorable as all git’ out tonight,” he said, pinching at her behind. “So kind of you to bring me my little drop of medicine in such a punctual fashion.” He took the glass from the tray and brought it to his lips with a satisfied slurp. “Did you see me on the TV today? Then you know how tired my poor bones are. Yes indeed, another tough day for old Earl and his brothers of the Shield…”
Valentina stood still beside the chair, staring down into the silver tray held out flat in front of her. Earl looked up at her face. He liked the girl, for real. After Helen had passed, he’d found that no time patrolling the border, no amount of rifle practice, not even the affection of his beloved dogs could stop the day from coming to that hollow point of loneliness, just Earl and Rawhide on the TV, him getting up again and again to fill his own whisky glass even though the bourbon wasn’t any help, either. The house empty, the bougainvillea in the big pots dying because it had always been Helen who tended them. The hollow was nothing like Earl had ever known before. It made him feel old and strange and weak, and those weren’t feelings he could tolerate, not with the mission he was on. And so he’d brought Valentina into the house on the down-low, not sure exactly what her role would be, but confident he’d find a way to make use of her, all the same.
Earl smiled at her, not his semi-truck smile, but a gentler one, a real one. He was strong – loved being strong – but any man had times when he needed a break from the bluster. Every man needed someone to talk to, to share his pleasures with.
Her being Mexican… well, everyone had a tragic flaw. He’d asked the Lord for his forgiveness. And anyway, sometimes, lying in bed at night waiting for the desert moon to sink, he wondered if he might not be doing a good thing with it.
Although he would never admit it out loud, didn’t even like to say it to himself, when he looked at Valentina, he knew deep down that he could never stop them. The ones crawling across the desert, they had heart – but that wasn’t even it. What they had on their side, what he could never stamp out, was a longing to reach America, to taste its riches, to know the real meaning of freedom. How could you talk someone out of a dream like that? How could you even blame them? They’d keep on coming, thick and hungry as a locust plague, just as long as the States kept shining its beacon out over their hardscrabble lives. Hell, half the country was already Hispanic. Although Earl would remain vigilant, would stand by his banners like a good warrior, he could see full well that the old America – the one that loved Rawhide and Gunsmoke and The Virginian like he did – was getting as and thin and translucent as the Chinese nylon on his little flags.
He hated to know it, would hate it until the day he followed Helen into the arms of the Lord, but looking up at Valentina, such a lovely dark thing, gave him a thread of solace to hold onto. The whisky swirled round Earl’s his head, and he thought: If they have to come, at least let ‘em be like her.
“Now,” he said. “Let’s make sure I can recuperate in time for the fireworks shows tomorrow!” He took another swig of bourbon. “I know you don’t love this part as of yet, although I’m hoping you’ll learn, eventually. You know I’m always telling you to trust me. You’ll see it in the end – you’ll thank me for everything, for giving you a place here. Even for puttin’ some savings aside for you instead of letting you fritter it all away on that needy family of yours. Yes: remain in the care of Earl Sampson, my Valentine, and perhaps one day you’ll come to know the fullness of pride and pleasure that America at its best can truly bring.”
Earl heaved back and kicked up the recliner to emphasize the point.
“Maybe having watched that young fella on the TV yesterday, the one we picked off a mile or so from the highway, will drive home just how lucky you are to’ve landed here. It ain’t nice to say it, but you know as well as I do that you could’ve ended up somewhere out there in the desert, feedin’ the buzzards.” He eased his polyester-panted legs a touch further apart and chuckled. “You know I love ya’ dearly and consider you a special case. I hate to think of you back out there, staggering around in the dust and dark.”
Without a sound, Valentina placed the tray down on the side table and came to stand in front of Earl.
“That’s it. And mind, no mischief, now,” he said. It was the thing Helen had always said to him before he headed out for border patrol. He’d learned it in Spanish for Valentina.
“Ninguna travesura. Old Earl’s had a hard day.”
She was the only one who knew how to comfort him. A terrible fever had come over him and he’d lain drained and sweating for days in the shadowed adobe room, and their mother had quailed and wept and prayed to God for his recovery, but only Valentina had stayed by his side, stroking his damp hair away from his eyes, whispering stories to soothe him into sleep.
Andres wished she were here now. The blue desert stretched out behind him, miles of brittle mesquite and old skulls and chittering rattlesnakes; but nothing was more terrifying than the crest of pink on the horizon, the first blushing of day. The nighttime was shadowed and tense, but the days were a crazed scramble through unbearable heat and blinding light, easy pickings for La Migra’s patrolmen and the assault rifles they aimed from the backs of their armored pickups.
His vision blurred with the delirium of sleeplessness. The air was already getting harder to breathe, thickening with encroaching heat. If she was here, she could put her hand on his forehead, cooling it with her touch. Could speak his name. Say, Andino. You are almost there.
It was over a year ago that his sister had left Monterrey to go north in search of work. For the first few months, she’d sent money back. Then, without warning, it had stopped. His family waited, hoping to hear word, hoping the money would start coming again. But nothing came.
Andres, the closest to her in age, insisted on going after her.
“How will you find her?” his mother said. “She could be anywhere. She could be in Canada by now. She could be dead.” She wept, cursing the Americans and their money, cursing Mexico for needing it.
Andres knew his sister wasn’t dead. They were bound, shared an interior language forged in those long nights when she stayed by his bedside and they dreamed together of other places, magical futures. He could feel her whispering somewhere up past the Rio Grande. “Don’t worry, mama,” he said. “I know she’s alive. I will find her.” What he left out was the darkness he could also feel, the sense that his sister was somehow being choked, that she was alive but death was close to her.
The sun rose into a sky striped with long clouds. Andres slouched down behind an outcropping of cactus and orange stone, taking what rest he could before the morning was fully upon him. He looked out to the distance. He’d been walking for three days. Yesterday’s supper had used up his last bits of food, and he had only a half bottle of water left, which he brought to his mouth now for a few sparing sips. He had to be close. There was no other way to think.
He stood and began his slow, shuffling walk once more. The sun’s heat had clawed its way over the hills and was already beginning to bake his chapped lips. He kept stumbling, trying not to fall, to add more bruises and scrapes to the ones purpled and festering on his elbows and knees. Above him, a buzzard circled the griddled sky, watching. He lurched forward and threw his arms up into the air and croaked, and it flew off northward, crossing borders without concern.
Hours passed and the sun reached its blistering apex. He tried to keep an image of his sister in his mind – to hold onto the gaze he gave her as she stared out from his memory, soft but unbreakable. But the image blurred in the heat, her face turning to gnarled tumbleweeds, her dark eyes filled with the flitting tongues of snakes.
Andres closed his eyes and craned his face skyward, letting the sun turn the inside of his lids rust red. When he opened them, the buzzard had come back. There was another one with it. They circled and dipped, descending toward him. Something in their turning made him look closer. There was no patience in their curves; their hunger was harder, more urgent.
When he heard the whine of their motors he knew. Not birds, but planes with no pilots, eyes with no bodies. Not buzzards, but Border Hawks – drones.
Fear and adrenalin surged into his muscles and threw him into a run. Blind running, running anywhere, in search of cover that didn’t exist in this wide-open hell, running with whatever energy he had left in the direction he believed might lead him to safety. To his sister, still alive up there, stalked by darkness. The dust and grit and heat poured into him, and he began coughing, little catches to start, then huge, wracking coughs, his whole trunk convulsing and threatening to split apart and spill his organs out onto the baking earth. The power in his legs dissolved, giving way under the weight of his hurtling body, pitching him forward into the scrub. His cheekbone met the dirt and his vision went black.
Amidst the high ringing and the warm touch of blood he fixed her in his mind and his heart, fused his own pounding heartbeats to hers, so that each would know exactly when the other’s stopped beating. He opened his shredded mouth and although he made no sound, called to her.
By the time he rolled over and saw the green and white pickup truck bouncing over the horizon, dozens of little American flags lining its hood, he had to call it a victory. He would not die in the desert. They would send him back, but he would be alive. To wait, again. For her, or another chance to go after her.
Two officers jumped down from the truck and hauled him up by the arms. A glaring light moved in, and they held him out like a trophy deer for the television camera it was attached to. Another man, this one wearing a big suede Stetson and orange sunglasses and an embroidered cowboy shirt bulging with his gut, waddled over and stood in front of him.
“What's your name, son?” he said.
Andres hung like a scarecrow. The camera light blazed into his face and he squinted and groaned at the pain in his head, like a metal cog grinding away at the bone under his eye. His sister’s face swelled up in his mind, and then folded into ripples and collapsed, like a stilled flag.
“Lopez,” he said. “Andres Lopez.”
She kneeled in front of him, rubbing, squeezing. There were veins and callouses and hard edges, his feet pale and misshapen from years stuffed into hot boots treading uneven ground. The last two toes on each foot were clubbed, the nails yellowed and thick. She heard him take another long, oily swallow of bourbon and sigh. Some TV western blared out behind her, all tinny orchestra music and buckaroo drawl. Valentina closed her eyes and kneaded his troll’s feet, reciting out, with each application of pressure, a mantra in her mind. Last time. Last time. Last time.
She rubbed and pressed patiently, until the first twitch came, quick and sharp. Then another, a longer convulsion, the tension in his muscles tighter than a belch or a blissful shudder would provoke. She paused, holding his limp feet in her hands like a hunk of moist cheese, and now he wrenched and turned and pitched his glass rolling across the floor, emptied of the strong and fragrant bourbon, the extra little thing she’d mixed in. Above her, his face reddened and swelled like a morning sun, suffused with his proud blood, and as he thrashed she listened to the sounds of him choking, watched the streams of white foam begin dribbling from his lips. Even in the throes of death, he was so pink and fat, so much like a greased ham.
She thought about how thin her brother had looked, his smashed-in face recoiling from the cameras, golden skin whitened to ash, blue splotches darkening his eyes, making the ripped-open flesh of his left cheek all the more vivid as it streamed with blood. He was broken, defeated, and they held up his defeat like a banner, echoing the words that Earl Sampson had emblazoned on his beloved, accursed fence.
Valentina Lopez let go of the dead man’s feet. She reached over and picked up the little flag on the side table, which she waved once in a feeble victory cheer before sliding its cheap, wobbly stem into the pocket of Earl Sampson’s cowboy shirt. The sun was nearly set, and she would need to be far away before morning came. He would be expected at the parade. When he didn’t show, they would look for him. And then for her.
She grabbed the knapsack from behind the curtain, stashed that morning, and stripped off her purple dress, quickly changing into the dark sweats she’d plucked from the closet where his dead wife’s clothing still hung. The glass door slid open onto humid night, alive with the sizzle of crickets and of wind crawling over the dirt, the sound she knew so well, which she had heard like a song pulling her forward when she’d first set off into the nighttime, away from Monterrey, toward the silvered wonderland of America.
She thought about Andres, surely now slouched in the back of some filthy truck bouncing back down the rutted road to Monterrey. She thought about their crumbling house there with its claustrophobic adobe rooms, the time she’d watched her brother shiver through the fever for nine days, almost dying in the dust and heat. She remembered the stories she’d told him, about the land of hopes and dreams.
She was the one who’d made it. She was across now.
Above her, the stars were coming out, mirroring the twinkle of city lights visible to the north. She wanted to know it, all of it… the fullness of pride and pleasure. Behind her, a big spangled flag stirred atop the late Earl Sampson’s ranch, gesturing toward the horizon, whispering its promise.
McConvey is a writer based in Toronto. His short story, “The Last Ham”, was
shortlisted for the 2012 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, and is available as an ebook through House of Anansi Digital. His
writing has appeared in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, The Puritan, The Broken
City, The Found Poetry Review and other outlets, and he has won several awards
for his work as a writer and producer of documentaries. He hates winter. Find
him on Twitter @jrmcconvey.
Tenure at a college is a lot like settling in the Kootenays: the perks are obvious, but it takes a strange breed to call either one the big time. We don’t all of us end up at Princeton or in Paris, and learning to appreciate the arc of your life’s actuality, I think that’s necessary unless you fancy daily despair. But I think it’s still important to keep an eye on thwarted ambition and shattered dreams – if only to ensure that you don’t make the mistake that Brad Park did. If you throw out your own measurements for a successful life, and with them the knowledge that you’ve done so, what’s to stop you from imagining that where you ended up is where you wanted to be all along?
I first met Brad at the SSHRC Congress a few years ago, when it was at UBC. I guess I should talk a little about that, in case you’ve never been, even though I feel like if I tell you the conference, for professors and researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities, used to be referred to, by its organizers and participants, as “The Learneds” you’ll have learned everything there is to know. First of all, if you want to know what a goatee Armageddon looks like (The Great Unanswerable: is there such a thing as a good goatee?)…
But the spectacle – and keep in mind, this is an event where the keyword “spectacle” appears in, approximately, one third of all abstracts – is certain to disconcert. Is anyone here cool? Is everyone here cool? Why are there so many turtlenecks? What one would normally condemn as fashion faux pas, you have instead to scrutinize as irony. You have to assume inside each ungainly, but not hideous, outfit, exists a professor studying: the history of guncheck plaid; Brooks Brothers as a cultural institution; the dichotomy of Oleg Cassini – fashion innovator/feminist villain. And when you start thinking about that, doubt seeps in, and when doubt seeps in, if you’re me, you step out for a smoke break. Which is where Brad Park comes in.
Three things caught my attention, and Brad’s facial hair was the least of the three (but since I’m on it: a wispy soul patch, strings of hair tangled past his chin, and all of this a mimicry of shoulder length black hair, in a 80s Swayze wave). One: Brad Park remains the only person I’ve known who smoked cigarettes with blue surgical gloves. He saw me looking at them, and it was clear he’d explained them many times. “So the wife won’t find out,” he said. “I promised her I’d given up the habit for good.” I asked if his wife was with him at Congress, and he told me that no, she was back in Castlegar. “But,” he said, “I’ve gotten so used to smoking with these gloves, that I can’t stand stink hand anymore.” He stepped on a butt and extended his right hand, still in its glove. His name was first announced in smoke, the tip of a cloud from a Craven A: “Brad Park,” he said (that was #2), and before I could ask, “Yes, exactly like the hockey player, except his real first name is Douglas, and my real name is Byeong-cheol, so if you ask me, I’d more Brad Park than Brad Park, and there’s like ten thousand Korean Brad Parks having this same conversation at any given moment in time.” I told him he was my first Brad Park, Korean or Bruin.
I was a PhD Candidate from Dalhousie. The contingent I’d travelled with was dull, even by the standards set by the Canadian Society of Medievalists (if I heard one more Sir Gawain joke…) so when Brad asked if I wanted to ditch the rest of the afternoon I needed no persuading. He adopted me for the remaining three days of the conference, and I guess, if I’m being honest, I had an angle from the beginning, because the truth is I’d gone stale. I’d interviewed for every medievalist position in the country for six years and so far all I’d landed was a term teaching an intro lit course to engineers at St. Mary’s: trying to teach Aristotle’s rhetoric to future mechanical engineer? Death, that was death; like the danse macabre, which I’d delivered a paper on earlier in the week (it was the same paper, except for a new title, that I’d delivered at ten previous conferences throughout North America), and I was well aware that, like so many of us, I’d become my research and it was just too bad that, in my case, my research was living death.
Park was the Dean of Arts at Selkirk College, and what a medievalist would do at a two-year teaching college I had no idea. But Park liked me, he liked me from our first smoke break, and I just had a feeling, and a lot of it was the soul patch, that this was a man who fancied himself a maverick, a mover of heaven and earth; he was just the sort of guy who might take on a medievalist precisely because it made absolutely no sense.
About a month after Congress, I received an e-mail from Brad encouraging me to apply for a new position in the College’s Department of English. I got short-listed, flew out to Castlegar, and delivered a 30-minute interactive lecture on Kenneth Branagh and Beowulf. Easily, the most accessible talk I’d delivered in my entire career. Brad was on the hiring committee. His questions were strange: if you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be? – I’m serious, that was the ice-breaker. If you were a tree, what tree? For the record: raven, and, I don`t know what I said for the next one, because Poe was easy –he’d copped to it in his likes on FB – but there was nothing there about trees, and mostly I wondered: trees? As an interview question before 10 a.m.?
I got the gig, and you don’t know relief like that, you don’t – I’m confident issuing that as a flat statement, a challenge; I don’t care about your trials, where you’re from – my hardships measure up, don’t ever think otherwise. I’d accumulated a hundred thousand dollars in student debt. I’d been in school since I was 19 and here I was now, what? Thirty six, 37 – when asked I kept it vague like that, kept my consonants soft. The 7-11 clerks from my high school owned homes. The shop studs had children, drove 4x4s, they parked Sea-Doos in their driveways; I’d see them there, covered in tarpaulin when I returned to Brockville on Christmas holidays. Until I met Brad I’d never heard of Selkirk College, never heard of the “Kootenays” let alone Castlegar. But when they hired me for an eight-month term contract, with the possibility of a continuing position, I got up to speed, not just quickly but with the meticulousness of a historian: on the Doukobours, the Vietnam draft dodgers – I had plans to use Tolstoy as an entry point to Peter Verigin’s unsolved murder on the Kettle Valley Railway, that shit inflamed me when I read up on it. I was prepared to do anything to make my year turn into a career, and, as we know now, that’s exactly what Brad Park figured on, he’d cultivated me for my desperation.
You’re teaching four classes each term – 300 students a year, all new preps (no teaching assistants), and in a discipline for which you’re not really qualified: it feels like you can’t breathe, not hardly. In a job intended to occupy your mental faculties, you’re naturally weak in precisely that area; after classes you’re mush, you’re good for giggling, for G&Ts. I was too tired to notice what Brad was doing.
Even If I’d got wiser sooner, what was I going to do?
So much about our job is timing. Selkirk College had all the bloat, all the excrescence of any place like that, any institution what had bigged up its ranks in the 90s, under consecutive provincial socialist governments, all sorts of jokers who were as surprised as anyone that they held a permanent position, like they could hardly make eye contact with any new hire who had a Doctorate, because they didn’t, they’d really never been close to close, and, mostly, it hadn’t been for lack of trying. A friendly place? Don’t kid yourself. But the cold shoulder from my colleagues served mostly to make Brad Park’s solicitations all the more desirable.
The second week of our Christmas break, Brad invited me to his house, for a celebration of Winter solstice. People tell me I look like a medievalist, with all the awkwardness and buttoned-down Oxfords that implies; there exists no sort of academic tedium in which I cannot thrive. Ok, but Brad’s solstice party? That shit was bizarre. It was the first time I suspected that Brad wasn’t just quirky, Brad was deranged.
The chairs in the living room were set in a circle. I wasn’t rowdy out in Halifax, but I liked a Guinness and dark wood. White carpet, bright lighting, and chairs in a pattern? It was everything I’d spent my life ridiculing, and yet here I was, asked to take a seat across from the man to whom I owed my salary. Brad was the only light, much fainter than the halogen bulbs hanging from a track in the ceiling, my professional career presently knew. He welcomed us, and said he’d like to start the celebration with a question: in a word, not two, how would each of us define contentment?
I wanted to say “contentment,” only because circular reasoning suited best our spatial arrangement, and I think I must have chuckled slightly in anticipation because Brad glared at me – the soul patch seemed to point towards me in accusation – and I felt myself feigning a cough. And when my turn came – I’d been beaten by “family” “green” “pants” and “clitorises” – I settled on “Chaucer” and for that (this actually happened) Brad stood and began to applaud, and so did the rest of the circle until my blushing matched the glass of wine I drained, in acknowledgement of my triumph, even though I wasn’t a Chaucerian, I thought that dude was basically ass.
That was just for starters. The party milled for a while. Through his I-pod Brad played Enya, and, because he himself must have sensed that was too easy, a range of songs that segued better into the second act: Nine Inch Nails, Michelle Shocked, some shit Wim Mertens: finally, The Faint’s “Agenda Suicide” ushered us into Act II; so: cheese, dated, mid-Western goth-industrial, and some home-made mead (it tasted like jet fighter gin, Jesus, it burned my eyebrows), served to us in rustic blue glass goblets, by a woman named Charlotte-Rae (she told us she came from Winlaw). All of that before any reasonable chance to excuse yourself.
Again, I just want to point out: I was aware, never doubt it, how far away I was from “The Learneds”, how remote mahogany and Grecian columns and old men, bearded, yet with no fucking soul patch, smoking pipes, beautiful pipes, not glass ones filled with B.C. Kush. I longed for a second chance, for some reversal; I’d vow never to re-purpose my research for easy conference credits; I’d promise – I did so as I sat there – never to quibble with my dissertation supervisor, always to make the recommended changes. Just – couldn’t I be spared the singing?
For it was singing which came next. Singing directed by Charlotte-Rae, and not any regular sort of singing. The advantage – you have to give her credit for this – of her homebrew, was that after a glass and a half, every single person in the room was blitzed, we felt like belting croons. The drunker I got the more Brad’s soul patch bothered me: it seemed to come alive, Medusa-like (I’m telling you – that “mead” was poison). It struck me then that the man was a tinfoil-hatted delusionist flushed fully with surges of self-grandeur tuned to apocalyptic visions of species annihilation from whose ashes he – and his (slightly singed) soul patch – would emerge, the symbol of renewal: a new hope.
The lights went out: I could not have been happier. Charlotte-Rae lit a single candle and placed it on a stool in the centre of our group. Everyone looked ghoulish, recessed in new shadow, and I couldn’t see Brad’s soul patch anymore, but I could feel it, could sense the slithering. I wanted the lights back on. We all held hands. Charlotte-Rae said that to celebrate light, and remember the cleansing power of fire, we were all to yell, or yelp – to get it out however we could – a sound from deep within, a sound that pre-dated culture. Make a sound, she said, to purge yourself from yourself; celebrate the pagan within, and you’ll expel all of society’s corrosive effluvia (I’m not making that up: she said “effluvia”).
I tried to make eyes with Brad, but not only did he not see anything to ridicule, he started to pound out a beat, palms to knees, and, when I saw that, I closed my eyes, just as Charlotte-Rae… “sang”? (I want to say “sang” except this was no singing, this wasn’t even a wail, not in a Bob Marley sense; this was as close as I’d ever been to a hospital delivery room and my back went rigid with fright): I must have been squeezing too hard, because the woman on either side of me, released herself from my grip, and instead each gave me pats on my back, I suppose meant to reassure. The sounds were terrible and sublime. At three-second intervals all of earth seemed to open itself up to a chasm, located directly beneath our feet, and I re-took the hands in mine: 1) because I was afraid of falling in; 2) because my turn was next.
I have to live with the memory of the sound I made for the rest of my life, and with the knowledge that as I stand in front of lecture halls filled with freshmen, I am one and the same man who can, under the right mix of jet fuel and peer terror, produce a death-devil sound of such vile darkness. I was like Caruso getting ass-fucked by the demon sea monster Forneus as I fell from a cliff into an inextinguishable lake of fire. Turns out, I can shock and silence even the most seasoned Winlaw wicca. When I opened my eyes, it was to a room filled with huge eyes, and no one touched me anymore. It took a few seconds before Brad said, “Intense, brother. We recognize and honour the truth inside of you.”
For the rest of the Christmas break, I scoured the usual places for positions opening up the following fall, positions at universities in cities I’d actually heard of. There was nothing of course. Even if there had been I hadn’t helped my cause by accepting work at a college; quite the opposite. It’s easy to descend to the lower leagues, but once you have, it’s like Dante down here, there is no way out – this is you for all eternity, this is your best-case. I tried to make the most of it: for a few nights around New Year’s I booked a King suite at the Hume Hotel in Nelson, and that was a proper town. I consoled myself with its proximity. I was making the best money I’d ever made, and here, (for the first time in my life) I was a star, a stand-out with the ear of the Dean. Brad went over all of these same points during my end-of-year evaluation, and it was then, for the first time, that he made me his proposition.
He told me he’d wanted a medievalist for a long time, to help him string together a narrative that could be used to stage a spirit-summoning performance, and in doing so accomplish two related things: 1) establish for himself a national reputation as seer and visionary (for the good of the college); 2) convince a lot of fellow travellers to part with sizeable cheques (for the good of the college). As a term lecturer, I had no employment for the summer, and, Brad told me, there was no other work the college could offer me. But, if I was prepared to help him script and stage a special “fundraising séance,” he had a summer research grant he’d been planning to slide my way.
I didn’t accept immediately. I spent an entire week personally working each of my contacts in the Academy. Most of the colleagues with whom I’d gone to grad school were in plum places: NYU, Northwestern, there is hardly a research university in Canada that doesn’t employ someone I know. All of them were sympathetic; I believe all of them really wanted to help. But there was no help for me, I was beyond that point. And so, the same week my term contract ended, I started with Brad on a research project he’d titled: “Séance and the sane: a critical dialectic on the praxis of spiritualism.” I had to give Brad credit for that: he had the wool so far over the eyes of Selkirk College’s Executive, he could show up naked to board meetings, and the poor saps, them in their old money and pleated chinos, they’d offer him and his dong some newly conceived commendation for innovation.
The research was actually pleasant – I got into it. I shipped out from Halifax most of my books, and seven or eight years’ worth of back issues of Florilegium, the Canadian Society of Medievalists’ journal (including the 2005 issue which contained my one – and only – peer-reviewed publication); Selkirk College had a decent library, they subscribed to all the essential academic databases, and Janice, the librarian at the Inter-Library Loans desk, was efficient. It was the good old days all over again: me, lost in the stacks, using everything I’d learned – including Latin, Middle English and a working knowledge of Old Norse – to crack open a new problem. It didn’t even bother me after a week or so that the problem assigned to me was how to communicate with the souls of the ancient dead. Antiquity had long been my quotidian, and to me, at first, the question seemed legitimate. The modern world was an obvious and almost incalculable degeneration; only fools didn’t know that we’d forgotten much more than we could ever hope to discover anew. To me it was axiomatic: it was always in ruin that we’d find our salvation, and through forgotten fragments of text I considered myself born to dig. I still thought Brad Park was a charlatan, but it was looking like there could be a research paper in it for me; and, no matter what happened, anything beat starving.
I was constantly entertained by my readings, but after two weeks, the conclusion was easy: necromancy was for imbeciles. I knew before I began the project that the chances of a third-rate intellectual happening upon an unique formula, discovered previously by no scholar of any era, that provided instant easy-peasy communion with an obviously fictional place called “the spirit world,” was unlikely, and I considered the whole undertaking so embarrassing that I told no one exactly what it was Brad Park hoped to discover. I couldn’t figure it myself: sure, the guy was off-kilter, but was he fully and utterly unhinged? That Park had, before the age of 45, managed to rise to a full-blown Dean of Arts despite his highest credential being an MBA from The University of Phoenix, a for-profit distance education degree mill, and with only two years teaching experience, at Northwest Community College in Terrace, was one of the true marvels of the age.
I’d seen him at Winter solstice. If that was an act, he was Stanislavski. But if he was Stanislavski then it was possible that he’d perfected his method so expertly that he’d forgotten the distinction between backstage and the show. That was the gamble I took. That he’d become the mountebank so thoroughly that for him the show never stopped. And I knew – hack that I was – that if I couldn’t string along some soul-patched spiritualist with the worst possible graduate degree in North America, than I truly was as worthless as I often felt. And so I set out to see if I could outkid a kidder.
First of all, I said, the Egyptians tell us no congress with the realm beyond is possible without a pyramid: it’s the three points that Christianity later appropriates: father, son, holy ghost.
Easily done, he told me a few days later: I’ve reserved the pyramid at Summer Hill winery in Kelowna for Summer Solstice. Does solstice help?
It doesn’t hurt, I said, it doesn’t hurt. But after I left his office: Okanagan wineries have pyramids? Motherfucker!
To buy myself more time, I tried a new gambit: which spirits in particular did we wish to summon? Did we have a Top 10? Brad must not have liked my tone because he bade me shut the door, and asked me to take a seat. “Let me clear something up for you,” he said. “The afterlife is real, that’s something people of all races and religions have believed throughout human history.” It turned into a two-hour lecture on his family, which had emigrated to Canada in 1960, part of the great Canadian Korean Christian migration. In Vancouver, where Byeong-cheol was born two years later, his father served the diaspora as a Minister in the Vancouver Korean Presbyterian church, the denomination of the Canadian missionaries under whose guidance he had undergone his conversion. “What we are doing,” Brad told me, “is no more unbelievable than what happened in my father’s church every Sunday morning. But people today don’t go to church expecting miracles; and so they don’t find them. Anyone willing to gather in a pyramid expects miracles, they want to believe: all you and I are doing is facilitating this desire. You give me something credible to start with; I’ll provide the incredible. Ok?”
I said it was fine, but if all he wanted was a séance, it seemed to me like Charlotte-Rae, she and almost the entirety of his present social circle, could provide better, and more current, guidance. That’s kid’s play, he told me: I’m not talking about Ouija board, Aaron Spelling hocus pocus – I want a ritual so spectacular (there was that word again, like a virus) and so grounded in research that no matter what happens, something has happened. He repeated this, as he stroked his soul patch, his eyes focussed on a far-away place: “no matter what happens, something has happened.”
Rebuffed, yet reassured, I went back to my books. After a few weeks I came across something – I guess you could call it a ritual – ancient, well-documented and bizarre; something that, given all of
Brad Park’s trimmings, seemed certain to carry Brad’s name to all corners of the nation.
Unfortunately, it involved a goat.
Perfect, Brad said: Carmelis Goat Cheese is 10 minutes south of Summer Hill. The “goatgonzola” is to die for.
I told him I didn’t think they’d sell us a goat, not when they knew what we needed it for.
“A sacrifice?” Brad asked. “Are we sacrificing a goat?”
“Not we,” I said, “You. The high priest must do the sacrifice.”
“I’m the high priest?” he said.
“Well, I’m not,” I said.
“What do I wear?”
I opened my messenger bag, and produced a series of photocopied images, which I handed across the desk. Brad began to giggle. “It’s excellent,” he said. “I better run these over to Charlotte-Rae this afternoon. We’ve only got a week to go.” He asked if I wanted a robe too. I said it wasn’t necessary.
He said of course it was.
To be fair, after I’d read up on Summer Hill Winery I didn’t even think they’d mind Brad Park sacrificing a goat inside the structure they’d built to finish their organic wines. They celebrated it as a “sacred space” where various ceremonies just encouraged people to BE. I didn’t think what I was proposing was all that out of their ordinary. Besides, I told Brad, the word “pyramid” means fire in the middle, and basically that was my plan: sacrifice, then goat feast bacchanalia. Nonetheless, we agreed it best to keep the sacrifice a surprise. I’d never sacrificed a goat before so I didn’t know what unholy forces we’d unleash; but I’d put together a completely implausible concoction of Incan mythology, the usual amount of basic paganism, and some standard Aleister Crowley-type Baphomet worship, more or less basically invented whole cloth from various graphic novels about The Knights Templar, also some Dan Brown. Once I knew that Charlotte Rae was coming, with her mead, I pretty much said fuck it; two glasses of that and Brad Park’s soul patch in candlelight, inside a pyramid – with a goat? You wouldn’t bet against anything.
The three of us made the five-hour drive together, me in the backseat with the robes and mead. Before she’d get in the vehicle Charlotte-Rae insisted on anointing each of the tires of Brad’s Murano with a pentagram. She also told us to visualize a blue pentagram stretched out over the hood of the car as we drove. I tried, but all I could think about was the goat.
I entered Carmelis alone. I asked first, I will say that, but the guy working refused categorically to sell me one. The truth is he gave me ten seconds to leave. We drove a few feet back down the road until we were out of view of the cheese shop. Brad asked me if a goat was important. Of course, it is, I said, and we can’t get one, so we should call the whole thing off.
Brad looked at Charlotte Rae; together they shook their head. Then together they nodded. Brad told me I had to steal one.
“How am I going to steal a goat?” I yelled.
Brad asked me what I planned on doing in the fall; because whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be at Selkirk College if I didn’t skulk back up that road, hop that fence and bring him some Pan. There were sixty people waiting in the pyramid, he reminded me: a who’s who of prominent B.C. spiritualists and Selkirk alumni (surprisingly often, one and the same).
I said, well what if someone sees me?
Brad ran his fingers through his hair. “I got it,” he said, “the robe.” He got mine out of his vehicle and threw it at me. I put it on. It billowed down past my ankles, black with a crimson hood. On the front was stitched a golden pyramid, inside of which shot forward the blood red horns of a goat.
“What about fingerprints?” I said.
Brad reached inside his blazer and produced a pair of blue surgical gloves. “Kid gloves,” he said.
“Not funny,” I said, but I put them on.
“May the goddess protect you,” Charlotte-Rae said and forced a bottle to my lips. It burned, dear Lord how it burned.
I had tried the robe on once for size, but its design was purely ceremonial. I kept tripping over the hem as I walked uphill. It was after six so the shop was closed; there was no one to stop me, except myself. I was up to that challenge.
The fence wasn’t even that high, but the fabric of my robe wrapped around a pole and I flailed there, in my black Satan robe, my blue gloves, upside down. I kicked and I swore, but I was stuck and I couldn’t get free. Blood rushed to my head and I didn’t see those two goats charge me, it was only when I felt their horns butting against my head that I knew. That hurt, but obviously nothing stung as much as my pride.
“Goat to Satan: No Kidding!”
“Horny Cultist Says ‘Cheese!’”
“Goat of the Week: Medieval-Knievel”
The media had a field day, and I’m told that Carmelis hangs a picture of me, hanging on their fence, inside the shop; the free publicity sent their trade through the roof. I don’t mind that, but I still don’t get how Brad Park got away with it. I heard the Murano squeal off, just as I’d been sighted, and then the two men from Carmelis came running; oh, they remembered me just fine. Brad and Charlotte-Rae proceeded back to The Pyramid and improvised some sort of ceremony. When the police interrupted them, some thirty minutes later, Brad, I am told, broke down, and said he was just happy they found me alive. He said I’d got drunk on the drive from Castlegar and ran away screaming, something about the blood of a goat.
“I knew he was bitter about the way his life turned out,” Brad told the reporter from Global, “but I never imagined him capable of anything like this. Funny way to repay the one guy who tried to cut him a break.” He said that I had set back a legitimate and vital study on contemporary regional practices of ancient spiritualism – one reason he’d accepted a position at Selkirk in the first place – by a decade. I’d made a mockery of the sacred, that the only thing he ever wanted to see people sacrifice was themselves, in the cause of a greater good.
Vice President, Academic and Student Development, Brad Park is a fraud, I guess that’s all I’ve been trying to say; that, and – even though I’m an untenurable ex-con sleeping in my parents’ basement – at least I don’t have a fucking soul patch, Christ.
Colin Snowsell is the author of the novella The Frollett Homestead (The Okanagan Institute 2010). His writing has appeared in Event, Maisonneuve, PopMatters, Prairie Fire, Ryga, and This Magazine, among others. He lives in Vernon, B.C., where he is a professor in the Department of Communications at Okanagan College.
The drug-testing people had shown up again. At 6:30 a.m., scaring the crap out of you. Bang. Bang. Bang. At first, you thought it was the cops coming to question you about your stolen car, and then you remembered that the cops never questioned anyone unless you were an old lady with an expired car-inspection sticker, snared at a road block like a frightened rabbit.
“Merde, merde,” your girlfriend muttered, rushing to find clothes. “Why today?”
It was hard to be polite to strangers banging on your apartment door at 6:30, even if it was “their job.” A strange woman and an even stranger man wearing lanyards. There to take your girlfriend’s urine sample in your bathroom while watching her pee.
“Why you?” you ask your girlfriend. “ You are retired.”
When she spoke, it was in a haughty accent.
“So why bother?”
“So other fish can swim in the sea.”
It reminds you of one of those horror movies, in which the benign-looking officials, the ones in lab coats and gloves, the ones who look like they are from the government, are really going to remove your kidney. Against your will.
You take a seat in the living room, which has a black pleather futon and a plasma TV. The woman follows your girlfriend into the bathroom, leaving you with the man.
“It’s early, eh?” you say for small talk.
“Not for us,” replies man.
It doesn’t help that you find him annoying: a mouse of a man who doesn’t realize he is a mouse. He thinks he is the judge of Me and You in his Outdoor Trail Store costume. He thinks he can remove your organ, and you shouldn’t even care, because it is for Some Greater Good.
He is the phys ed teacher in charge of the fat-testing program at some shitty school in northern Ontario, the guy who types up the letters that start with Dear Primary Caregiver. The guy who herds the chubby girl down the hall with the other Grade sixes, the boys using the confusion as an opportunity to bump each other, and shout “ouch!!” The guy who sets up a scale in the gymnasium, which has a broken basketball net and the smell of spoiled milk.
“Please remove excess clothing that may interfere with the results,” he orders, and a boy, just to be stupid, starts to remove his pants. “Put those back on!” he shouts. “Put those back on.”
The chubby girl is instructed to take off her shoes, and she doesn’t want to because there are holes in her socks. She is four foot eight, the tester informs her in a neutral voice “and you weigh ---“ his voice grows stern, “one-hundred and twenty pounds.” And then they do a skinfold caliper test, and they pinch four parts of her body.
When you are a poor child, your greatest fear is that other people will find out how poor you are, and they will judge you, and they will judge your parents, not knowing the hows and whys. They don’t know that your father was raised in a residential home, or that he worked two jobs and drove a bicycle at midnight to save bus fare, and that he believed that you were happy and just like everybody else, and you were, for the most part, unless it was Skating Day and you didn’t have skates or the $5.00 fee, and his heart would have broken if he knew, so you pretended you were sick on those days. And you don’t know how you are going to get the Fat Letter signed.
“How was school today?” the girl’s father asks.
“It was OK.”
“Good,” he says, relieved. “That’s good.”
“Do you catch many?” you ask the drug-tester, who looks familiar now, like you might have seen him in the beer store.
“Five or six?” You are bored, sitting there in sweatpants, so you persist.
He indicates -- with his hand -- lower than that.
“Not really,” he says, without elaborating.
Your girlfriend was a member of Canada’s synchronized swimming team for five years. She trained twice a day, starting at 5:00 a.m., she went to Worlds, she spent years under water wearing a nose plug, makeup, and a startled smile. Consumed by secret routines and scoring. She received federal carding money, which means that the drug people can test her for eighteen months after she quits. She must provide “Whereabouts.”
You met her in a bar in Montreal, and she was gorgeous, and she told you she was tired of French guys. “I’m not French,” you told her, and she smiled, and you thought that it was the luckiest day of your life.
The first time your met her parents, you were at a hockey game, and her brother was on the ice, having, in front of 2,000 people, a terrible game. Her father stood up and shouted -- in an attempt to excuse the poor performance: “Marc-Alexandre come in and rest. You have a Urinary Tract Infection. You have a Urinary Tract Infection.”
Your girlfriend touched your arm, and whispered. Marc-Alexandre did not have a urinary tract infection; he had a STD, which he had picked up in northern Quebec. The father shouted again. “Marc-Alexandre come in ....”
“Why?” you later asked, “Why?”
“I do not know,” she shrugged. “I am not in his pants.”
It had taken you three months to figure out that you were not Florence’s one great love; you were her exit strategy. She was in danger of being cut from the team -- her injuries had caught up with her, she was getting old -- so she pre-emptively retired, so that she could move to Dartmouth to be with her new boyfriend. You.
“What do you do?” the tester asks you.
“I am a bartender. It’s a living.”
You don’t like his tone.
The testing is taking longer than usual. These people are not the people who showed up two weeks ago. And two weeks before that. They had also knocked at 6:30 a.m., and they were wearing crested shirts and lanyards with ID. They showed Florence a mission order, and they cleared a spot at the kitchen table, and had her provide identification and fill out paperwork. They had her drink water they had brought with them. They carried a bag filled with stuff.
This time, you barely had time to look at the woman before she vanished into the bathroom with Florence. She appeared 35, more anxious than the man, who had the appearance of someone who believes he is on the Right Side of everything. She looked sketchier, like one of those women who had mis-timed her life, and ended up in a threesome with an ugly couple who had placed an online ad for a “roommate.”
“How come no one ever caught Lance?” you ask because he is annoying you by not talking.
“We would today,” he claims, and you don’t believe him.
He has something bulky in his pocket, and you wonder what it is.
“Or Marion Jones?”
“Not our problem.”
Suddenly, your are pissed about your car, which was stolen from your driveway, with your girlfriend’s bag, filled with Canada gear, in the backseat. You are pissed that the cops are doing nothing. Bad things are not supposed to happen to young people; those things are reserved for other people. Old people. People on crowded buses in tropical monsoon climates.
You had to take a taxi home last night, and your driver was wired. He probably ran a hydroponic nursery, you decided, collected albums by The Monkees, and dressed, at times, like Beck, worshipping the twin gods of subterfuge and camp. He had – without a doubt -- earlier that day, smoked a huge quantity of potent weed or taken mushrooms, rendering him incapable of driving.
“So like, there’s been a shitload of break-ins, ” he tells you on your street.
“I have an alarm,” you lie. “And arms.”
Florence and the woman are still in the bathroom, so you get up, and make a coffee. By now, you are convinced you have seen Mouse Man before.
Florence told you how the testing goes: when you pee, you must lower your bottoms past your knees, and your top above your bellybutton, and you must remain visible to the tester at all times. When you are done, your samples are poured into bottles and sealed. The urine is tested for PH; it cannot be too diluted or you have to test again.
You think about having another coffee.
Three weeks ago, you got a call from your best friend, the poet, and he was not in a good place. “Just calm down, buddy, just calm down. I’m coming.” When you got there, he did not answer, so you went back outside, and Florence said, “There’s a window. I can get in.” And she climbed the fire escape, and she moved so quickly, so adroitly, that you didn’t see her slip inside. And when she reached him, she sat on the floor, and she held him. “It’s going to be all right,” she told him, “it’s going to be all right.”
“He need to make changes,” she told you, and her eyes were intense, as though she knew what she was talking about.
What your friend needed, you decided, was to get outside his head; to escape the ideas that showed up each morning like the flowers of a rogue squash plant, appearing in a corner of the yard or attached to a tree; he needed to make his mind as calm as a perfect and flat as a perfect day at the lake. He needed to stop reliving moments of grief or disappointment; he needed to stop re-breaking his heart. He had tried -- for one poem -- to be cheerful, he said, but the poem was awful. Anyone could be cheerful, it seemed; it took tortured, tormented individual -- someone who had been to a dark and dolorous place -- to be a serious poet.
You tried to have a serious talk with your friend, and he told you a story about his neighbour, a middle-aged dude who wears a Sears raincoat and a chonmage.
“Is that what really happened?”
“It is, for me. My ending is my ending, and it is as valid as any, because there is no logical or causal connection between our everyday lives and the calamitous blows that strike us. There is no chain of events that leads to a baby being born with cancer or a bus driver driving his forty-two passengers into a speeding train. None.”
“What about the truth?”
“Everything is random. Everything important is a huge misanthropic joke.”
Mouse Man should make small talk, you decide, or go outside. He is getting on your nerves in this cramped space. He should tell you something interesting - some inside dope about Lance or Ben Johnson -- something that makes this worth your while. You saw Mike Tyson on a talk show, and he said that he passed his drug tests by using a fake penis filled with clean urine. “It’s connected to a jock strap,” he lisped. Testers are supposed to watch you pee, but this was Tyson, the baddest man in sports, and he bit someone’s ear off. Mouse Man should tell you something like that.
It is the fourth time in six weeks that the testers have shown up. The last pair did not get on your nerves like this guy. The last time, the man tried to sound hip by making a joke about crypto-cyber anarchists. And you laughed.
Why is it taking so long?
Maybe, because Florence got up in the middle of the night and peed.
You think of knocking on the bathroom door, but Florence will get mad at you.
Sometimes, Florence looks distant, as though she is visualizing an intricate routine with platform lifts and torpedo sculls, and you wonder.
“I used to play semi-pro hockey,” you tell the tester.
It’s a lie, and it is deliberate, and you think about the Ken Kesey quote that your friend, The Poet, likes to use: “It's the truth even if it didn't happen.”
Mouse Man gives you a creepy look that you do not like.
When you met Florence, you told her about a game that teachers made you play in high school. Two Truths and a Lie was supposed to break down social barriers, discourage bullying, and open dialogue among students. They started it after an uber-religious student got beat up on the school bus for wearing a faux gold crucifix. In the game, a student makes three disclosures about himself; the others try to decide which one is untrue.
The first day that you played it, your teacher looked nervous.
“I was in Youth Court.” Jared went first.
“I own a Fender Stratocaster.”
“I live with my grandmother.”
A girl raised her hand and made a guess: “I don’t believe you own a Fender Stratocaster.”
“No.” Jared was proud of the Strat. “I do own one; It belonged to my father before he moved out West.”
There was a positive buzz until the teacher, the curator of our misfortunes, asked in a teacherly fashion: “Then what is the lie, Jared?”
“I don’t live with my grandmother,” he said. “She died, and I live in a group home.” And the whole room winced.
The game continued for three weeks, and by that time, you knew that one girl’s father suffered from epileptic seizures, and that a boy had been shot while hunting, information, that while titillating, served no purpose. You learned that Ellen had a baby.
And then it was your turn, and you told the class that 1) your father had started a private reptile zoo filled with exotic animals, including an African rock python, that 2) you knew how to play Chopin on the piano, and that 3) your best friend took an acne drug, some stupid zit script, and it messed up his brain.
“What,” your teacher asked, “do you think is the lie?”
You have waited long enough; it is your apartment, after all. Your guitar, your posters. Your shoe rack with your girlfriend’s UGGs and your sneakers. Your coffee is empty, and you want to go back to bed. By the time the wired driver dropped you off, it was 3 a.m., and you are tired. You tap on the bathroom door, and you ask: “Going to be much longer?” and nobody answers. So you tap again, and you can feel the tester behind you, you can feel his mouse-like body.
If you could rewrite your life as easily as changing the name on a fake ID, the following would be true: 1) That little boy, the one who was supposed to be with his mother, would not have been left alone in a room with a fifty-kilogram snake. 2) Your best friend would not be writing dark poems, but quirky songs for a hipster band with an accordion. 3) You -- Mitchell James Armstrong -- would not tied up in your own apartment by two criminals who have been stalking your girlfriend for weeks with a preposterous plan to kidnap her. Your life would not be a huge misanthropic joke. Everything happened so quickly that you do not recall being hit. You do remember wondering, minutes before, if things were going to work out with you and Florence, or if she would get bored and return home. To Montreal. To those French-speaking people, who said, “in your teeth” instead of “in your face,” people who dressed up like nuns and priests on Halloween and still thought blackface was funny. People who didn’t, you suspect, like you. You thought you heard someone coming up your stairs, and that it was the cops, and they were going to tell you that they had found your car, but you know that’s not true.
Elaine McCluskey is the author of a novel, Going Fast, and two short story collections, Valery the Great, and The Watermelon Social. She is a Journey Prize finalist. She recently placed second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Contest in Ireland. She has been published in The Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead, Room, Other Voices, The Dalhousie Review, and others. She is at work at a collection entitled Hello Sweetheart.
“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.