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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Fiction #65

New fiction! Issue #65
Submissions now open for #66

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #65: Caleb Brasset

The Key

In cities you find discarded clothing and other discarded objects all over the place but in small towns it is unusual, so when Carl saw the leather coat and the bag on the bench, he looked in the bag. This was when his family lived in Apox, Ontario, before they moved to Grimsby, before his parents divorced. He put on the coat. The shoulders were wide. There was a fuzzy lining, it was very warm. The leather was sort of inflexible. There was a key in the pocket. In the bag were eight empty liquor bottles and a few empty beer cans: he returned them to the beer store and got about a dollar. He enjoyed walking across town in the coat: he wondered whether anyone would recognize it and want it back, but nobody ever did. After leaving the beer store he threw the bag into the trees on the edge of town and nobody ever found it. Rainfall softened it and bugs and slugs crawled around in it but it was slow to decompose, and then the trees were felled and the ground moved around and they erected a subdivision as the town was dying and becoming a suburb of the nearest city, a place where people lived but did not work, except the farmers, who grew old and rare.

Oh Carl, it looks ridiculous, his mother said, talking about the coat. He did not give a fuck about what she said. They ate dinner; he had a younger sister and a baby brother, and they all ate together: the baby sat in a high chair fairly calmly. His mother was a little drunk. After dark they all went to bed. Carl had moved into an unheated room that had once been the horse stable of the house. He was glad to have his own room. Later on he heard his father arrive home: he heard pressure on the couch and the television activated and the volume lowered. Carl slid open the window beside his foam mattress and climbed out quickly. He walked through a sparse place in the hedges onto the street and flapped open the coat; he swung it onto himself. Then he walked downtown, following the river. The restaurants were closed, the storefronts were dark; only the bar beside the river showed some activity, very little activity, and Carl climbed the iron rail and lit upon the wet broken concrete, and walked along it till he was beside the wall of the bar, hidden by an overhanging tree. He sat on his feet, on the level of the water. Someone opened the door of the bar. He heard a woman’s loud voice. He heard a man’s quiet slurring. They were discussing someone vehemently, perhaps the woman’s boyfriend or husband: she was saying that he was such an asshole. The man with the quiet slur was mostly agreeing with her. Then the door opened again and a man’s loud voice said Here you are. The woman said Where else? A small man appeared to Carl from behind the tree branches: he was the quiet, slurring one. He flicked the end of a cigarette into the river. The loud man and woman were talking angrily to each other, and the small man sighed and returned to them. Carl said loudly in a silly voice Asshole! There was a brief pause. The loud man said What the fuck, Petey? You got something to say? Then all three of them talked over each other. The door opened and closed and just the loud voiced man and woman remained. They kept arguing. Carl said, giggling, You’re a fat asshole! And he lay on his back on the concrete. The coat kept him dry. A man scuffled around the tree. Who the fuck is talking, he demanded. He did not look beyond the rail.

The people went back into the bar. Carl sat and looked over the river. After a while he climbed the rail and kept walking. He passed the drugstore. There was an abandoned house he was thinking of. He had once delivered newspapers, and that house had been on his route, but the old person who lived there died, and since then it stood empty, and now the grass was overgrown: the house was just past a turn in the river. He had never gone there at night before. The sky was deep grey. The property was entirely dark. He went through a gap in the fence and crossed the lawn. It was a big stone house. Carl looked through the window and saw nothing. He went onto the porch. His footsteps were loud on the wood. He became nervous. But he tried the door. It was locked. A great wind started blowing. Leaves blew across the porch. There was a creaking. Carl reached into the pocket of the coat. He felt the key in his hand. He brought it out. He put his hand on the door. He felt for the lock; then he felt for the slit in the lock with his thumb. Then he tried the key. It went in. His heart jumped. He twisted the key. It did not turn. It would not work. He twisted harder. It would not work. He stepped back from the door. The wind died down. He reached out and pulled the key but it was stuck in the lock.

A week later a man in a truck pulled up to the old stone house. He was an auctioneer and he had purchased the contents of the house, and he had a key and written approval to enter it. He went up onto the porch with his key and found another key stuck in the lock. He tried pulling it out but he couldn’t. He went back to his truck for a pair of pliers but there was none. He was a bit lazy so he drove four blocks to the hardware store. He said Hey Jen. She said G’day, g’day. He said Just need some pliers, and he went and got them. He said How are you now, Jen? and he paid for the pliers. She said Can’t complain. He went back to the truck and back to the house and pulled out the key with the pliers. Then the auctioneer entered the house. It was sad that the grandson in Toronto did not care to see any of these things; there were many beautiful and several valuable things in the house, and two A.Y. Jackson paintings, two of them: they would have to be authenticated, but they really looked like Jacksons. The auctioneer ate his lunch in his truck, approximating the price he would get for all of it in a notebook, feeling pretty damn good. When he got home in the evening he emptied his pockets on the bedside table and took off his watch, and one of the objects, which he did not notice, was the bent and twisted key.

A man in a long light-brown leather coat was a wanderer. He had lived many places in Canada but he had been born in Apox, Ontario, and he grew up there, and on his thirty ninth birthday he returned to Apox in a little car that was breaking down. He had a dosage of peyote with him, which he consumed. He parked in a place he remembered well and watched the sunset through the windshield. He fumbled with the car’s cigarette lighter, dropping it, and he retrieved it and looked in the cylinder at the glowing orange circles, and held it up to cover the sun. He experienced bliss and loneliness, and then when it was dark he left the car and walked across town. It was a quiet night. He walked past the bar by the river. He sat on the steps of the town hall. He went and stared at old Mrs. Galloway’s house, the big old stone house, and it appeared as a colossal face with windows for eyes, and he experienced terror and amazement. He looked at the bright and greasy stars. As the effects of the drug wore off his feet began to feel cold, and he made his way back to the car, intending to run the engine a while and warm them up. But the engine would not start. It had finally died. And it occurred to him that old Mrs. Galloway had died too, for the lawn around the house had been overgrown; and that made him sad, for she had been kind to him many years ago. He sat in the car, huddled in his coat for a while. Then as the sun rose he roused himself and collected his stuff. There was one full beer left, which he drank; and he put the empties in a duffel bag, intending to return them. He filled his backpack with his dirty clothes. The key to the shed at the apple orchard where he had recently worked was on the floor, and he put it in the pocket of his coat. He left the key to the car in the ignition. Then he said goodbye to the car and walked to a bend in the road and sat down on a bench with his back to the river. He was sober and wondering what to do.

A white pickup truck reflecting the dawn came around the bend. It stopped in front of the man who was a wanderer in a leather coat on the bench. A window went down and a voice said Davey O’Brien. The man peered forward and said Amy Gilmore? She said Yep. He said Holy shit. He went over to the truck. She said It’s been a long time. He said I’ll say twenty years. She said How long have you been back? He said Just last night. Just passing through. She said Yeah? Well I never left till now. He said You’re leaving town? She said That’s right, that’s what I said. He said You look the same. She said Thanks Davey. He said Why are you leaving? She said Bored. And I’m leaving my husband. He said So you married the bastard eh? and they both laughed. She said Yep. Big mistake. He said I could have told you that, Amy. Does he know? She said Ah, he’ll figure it out. They laughed again. He said This really is wonderful timing. She said Maybe, Davey. He said I think it is. Where are you going? She said Fitzroy Harbour. He said We could spend the night in a shed on an apple orchard just outside of Proton Station. She said No, thank you. Thanks anyway. Where the hell is Proton Station? He said West of here. He indicated the west. He said Way west. Too far. Let’s go to Fitzroy Harbour. She said Don’t you have anything to do? He said Nothing at all. She said. Okay. All right. Good timing. He said Finally. And he swung the backpack full of dirty clothes in the air and lobbed it toward the river, and in landed in a garbage barrel on the tiny beach. He left the coat and the duffel bag on the bench. He said I have to get some new clothes. She said Oh really. He said I got some money in the bank.


Caleb Brasset works as a dishwasher at the coolest hotel in Toronto.

Photo credit: Emilie Mover.

Fiction #65: Leila Marshy

The Plow

Marc woke up with one arm under her, the other over, a leg across her shins. Like a bear stirring in its cave, the tiny hairs on her skin intermingled with his own, generated heat. He dressed in the dark, missed the toilet bowl slightly for which she always forgave him, brushed his teeth. He used to skip the teeth part but she took to leaving his toothbrush on the edge of the sink. He had to use it or risk knocking it to the floor. There was no five second rule with toothbrushes. In the kitchen, the layers of sweaters, jackets and pants stiffened his limbs, slowed him down, then heated him up again. He ate fast, moved fast, left quickly. The cold didn’t hit him until he turned the key. The old Honda was a freezer on wheels and it took the entire trip to the garage, almost 25 kilometres, for the engine to heat up. By the time he climbed into the cabin of the snowplow his back and kidneys were aching. It was minus 32 Celsius and don’t talk to him about wind chill.

He drove quickly with the blade up. The seat bounced hard with every rut, always in tune with the music, buds nestled comfortably inside the large headset that kept his ears warm and sealed in the music. The night was black and yellow, empty streets save for a taxi or two. A gang of teenage boys walked in the middle of the road as if on parade. He knew the uniform: bomber jackets, baseball caps, running shoes. They moved stiffly, hands deep in their frozen denim pockets, shoulders wrapped around necks like scarves. Their collective shivering transformed them into figures of energy and menace that cast moon shadows in ways only boys can. He turned onto a smaller street. He didn’t know this neighbourhood but knew that after a couple of snowstorms it would be as familiar as his own. Small and narrow streets of single family homes built after the second world war. That’s what Serge had told him and Serge only knew because his wife had grown up there. He was expecting something a little more upscale – Serge obviously easily impressed – but as he lowered the blade he was relieved to see old cars, drafty windows, unrepaired fences, rotting balconies. He’d tell Marie-Claire. Neither of them had family in Montreal so they could set their sights anywhere. Just a simple place to raise a kid maybe two hopefully three, anywhere to settle back into her skin their shared fur skin her legs vined around his their arms rooting together in the cave of their shared breathing. Nights were long.

The blade bounced up too fast and crashed hard. The entire cabin rattled, a steel against steel quaking he didn’t like one bit. Something flew by on his right into the snow behind him. An animal maybe, a raccoon he suspected. Serge said there were lots of raccoons out here because of the fields and empty lots. But the colour was off, it seemed brighter in the streetlamp, maybe even red. Like a coat? A red coat. He screeched to a halt and looked around. Snow was careening hard off the bank and had already covered the newly cleared road with a thin drift. It sworled in through the top of the jammed window and wrapped around his torso. He pulled his arms close and wondered about getting out for a quick tour around the machine. But with the wheel up against the bank on he'd have to climb over it, slip step by step, balance on the frame of the bulldozer as the engine squalled. He’d never admit it, but he hated being close to a roaring engine. In any case, he’d done plenty of walkarounds before and for what. For nothing. After a minute he nudged the truck forward. He picked up speed at the corner and finished the route in no time. She was eating breakfast when he got home. There was an egg for him and some toast, pot of coffee. She kissed him softly on her way out and reminded him to pay the phone bill. He took his plate to the living room and looked out the front window. He wondered about his chances of getting a route closer to home. He wondered who would wear a red coat. Only a woman would wear a red coat. He scraped the rest of his breakfast into the garbage.

70,000 tons of salt, 800 trucks, thousands of hours in overtime, Montreal’s budget blown and winter had barely begun. How long would it last this year. Could be a melt in February with only a few stubborn heaves in March. Or could be a pile up until April, so much snow that the rivers would rise up and break into building-sized sea blocks, crackling day and night as the muddy glaciers broke off and moved upshore. He’d seen it out by Valleyfield, out by Rigaud, out by Chambly, as if the modest rivers had been violated by an icebreaker. He’d made piles of money then. That’s how they had the down payment for a house and that’s how she’d finally said yes. He was doing everything right. See? Proof, he said to his old friends, anyone can change, even me. They laughed and took bets. He napped in the afternoon so he could be up when she came home. She made them an early dinner, heavy greasy meaty dinner just for him. He dozed in front of the television while she cleaned up. Later, her hands roamed his body like a light breeze and he fought his fatigue, wanting to respond, wanting to be like bending grasses against her gentle plowing. But he fell into an even deeper sleep and she loved him for it. He woke up a few hours later to her soft snores. He buried his desire like a treasure, untangled his limbs, got out of bed.

The guys were hovering over the coffee pot. Serge was reading the Journal aloud, punctuating the text with commentary. Five foot three, thirty eight years old – bén she looks like fifty in this photo! – two kids, works at the Bar Chantalle in Lasalle. He wondered what this was all about. She’s missing, said Serge. He turned the paper around so everyone could see her picture. So? he asked. So, she was coming home from the bar and no one saw her again. She’s missing.

He didn’t like the way everyone was quiet, the way they looked at him. You didn’t see anything, Serge asked. You didn’t hear anything? Did you know she lives on your route? Did you notice people leaving Bar Chantalle when you drove by? What the hell. No, I didn’t see anything! He poured the rest of his coffee down the sink and stomped towards his truck. She was wearing a red coat, Serge called out. Did you see anyone with a red coat? Serge was an asshole, always an asshole. But he was also a tease and Marc was too far to hear everyone laughing. They loved to rile each other up, to jab at that place that was softest, most vulnerable, most afraid. They'd hunt it down, yank it into the light and watch it shrink in horror. They were the men who drove monsters through the darkened streets while the rest of the world dreamed, trusting their thick hands to turn the right way, change the gear at the right time, lift the blade just so. But they were afraid of what they could do. Behemoth machines who forgave no one, who always made them pay for their sins. He started the truck then stopped it again, got back out and ran to the bathroom to empty his insides. Later, the seat bounced even harder, landing with bone shattering smashes each and every time, as if the voided weight was making all the difference between comfort and torment.

He said nothing to her over breakfast. She wanted to see the Journal, which he usually brought from the work room, but he told her he had forgotten it. She wasn’t happy about missing the paper because apparently a 9 year old girl was all set to win La Voix – plus the fact that the girl's parents were in the middle of a messy divorce due to the father's sex change. He didn’t see the connection but she laughed. Of course there’s a connection. Look it up on your phone, he said, you’re always on your phone. She waved away the suggestion, I want a new phone, mine is too small it hurts my eyes. He shook his head. Who knew how long winter is going to last this year, let’s wait. Who knew how long winter is going to last. Who knew how long winter is going to last. She stared at him.

The snow pounded and pounded and pounded. Heavy flakes came straight at him like parachuted soldiers, the wipers charging angrily up and down. He rumbled along the autoroute, an impatient trail of white lights behind him. He laughed at the idiots who maneuvered to get in front then fishtailed on the unsalted lane ahead. Hosti des caves, he said out loud. He was comfortable now. The cab was warm and he just had to drive. He marveled at the snowflakes. Each one tiny and insignificant but together they converged into a massive and brutal army.

The woman was still in the paper. In spite of the absence of news or clues, the Journal had updates daily. They had narrowed down and itemized her last moments. She had worked late at the bar, closed it up, parted with a colleague. He had offered a drive home but she was okay, she only lived three blocks away. The last he saw her was in his rear view mirror, standing in the bar parking lot as if waiting to take the first step. She had been wearing a long, red parka with a fake fur lined hood, might have been listening to music. There were two teenagers at home, the father lived in Verdun and worked as a mechanic. He was married again, had two more kids, younger ones, babies. Any possibility of his involvement was dismissed. It was his week with the kids and he had been home. They left the Journal on the table when they went for their shift, forgot all about it. Marc picked up every single copy and threw them in the garbage.

He crouched down and looked under his truck, ran his hands along the wheel well, felt under the chassis as far as he could go, looked for fabric, thread, bits of cloth. Ran his fingers over and along every inch. Wondered if had been born blind would his fingertips be more sensitive, feel what was not there, feel her breath, feel her cry as she flew against her will into a wall of steel and smoke.

What are you doing? Joe stood behind him. Joe would sell you to the devil or the dépanneur if it suited him. Joe had both hands in his pockets and was asking him questions. Did you get into an accident or something, did you forget to fill out an accident report, is there something I should know? Nothing, Marc said, straightening up. He knew how to deal with assholes. He knew it in his bones, was raised on it merci tout le monde. When you never have family you never have enemies, some one had once told him. Joe eventually just shook his head and walked away. His insides shook and for the second time that week he emptied his breakfast lunch and supper into the garage toilet.

It was too hot in the bed but she kept putting her arms and legs on him. He moved them off but she shuffled and put them back. He looked at his phone: he didn’t have to get up for another hour. She moved her face to his shoulder, both legs on his. He swore and got up. What did she want from him anyways, he wondered for the first time. Someone safe? reliable? a good man? How did she know he was a good man? He yanked up his pants and regretted where his mind was taking him. She’d had a tough ride. She said he was the first man to love her and not want to rip her apart in the process. He couldn’t begrudge her that. You have a good heart, she whispered once. He’d been so surprised to hear it, like it was another language. You make me want to be good, he answered after a long minute of hiding his eyes. Now he felt a melting and for a strange and discomfiting second thought he was going to cry. He swore out loud, louder, louder. He left the house and, forgetting everything, banged the door behind him.

He took a detour, stopped the truck. Walked over to the snowbank and kicked it. Realized that people might see him, that in spite of it being 2:10 in the morning, there might be someone wondering why the snowplow driver was kicking the snowbank right where the woman from Bar Chantalle went missing. So he dropped his glove then made as if to find it and pick it up. He waved it around theatrically, put it back on his hand. Felt like an idiot. He hated whoever could be in their window, hated them he could almost taste it, a bloody taste that shocked him with its familiarity. Chrisse, he didn’t want to go there. That was then and this is now goddammit. Got a good job found a good woman deserved a good life. He kicked the snowbank and exhaled loudly, almost a growl. No one heard.

He tried to remember. The blade bouncing off the packed snow with a jarring bang, something flying off to the side then was gone. Fluttering like fabric, not like a raccoon, heavy fabric, a coat, a red coat. He had twisted around to look but whatever it was was gone. The remembering competed with the music so he turned it off. It was hot in the cab now, he pulled off his ear protectors then his scarf. With his ears exposed the noise shocked him with its heft, the sound of working gears and pistons and pneumatic thrusting. So much metal, so much weight. His bones and insides shook as the chair bounced up and down. That was the fun part when he had first started. Now this was a job! This was something he could do, rumble down the roads in the black of night and push that wall of snow with all his weight. It made him feel strong and purposeful for the first time in his life. Like a coat whose job it is to keep a woman warm, thick fabric, not a raccoon, most certainly red.

He refused breakfast, third morning in a row. But you have to eat, she insisted, and pushed the plate towards him. A red scarf was wrapped around her neck as she readied for work. She reminded him, didn’t he know that breakfast was the most important meal of the day? Tabarnac! Are you stupid? This is my supper. I have to go to sleep while the rest of the world has a life to live. He pushed the plate away so roughly it landed on the floor. She opened her eyes wide. A dormant part of him took pleasure as an inchoate beast sparked to frightening life. She shut the door silently behind her.

Someone had put up pictures of her face. Her name was Angèle. What the fuck kind of name was that, he wondered. Every lamp post and mailbox had a picture of her and if he drove by quickly enough it played out like a movie. Angèle, Angèle, Angèle. He pushed down on the accelerator and ran over a mailbox. Two streets away he got out and inspected the truck for dents or bits of paint. Nothing so fuck you, Joe.

Someone taped up the most recent Journal article in the kitchen. The guys worried about her now. Someone had a brother who knew her sister. They could afford to be solemn he thought, easy for them. They’re all losers. He tore it down. Hey, what are you doing, Serge asked. What do you care about her for, he demanded. Eh? Who cares about some Bar Chantalle bitch. And Angèle, what the fuck kind of name is that? They looked at him, saw something they had seen in each other, in the mirror even, but never in him. They thought he was one of the good guys and it made them proud, made them feel proud of themselves. We’re all just good guys, they could say, just simple guys who want a simple life. Now his face was screwed up and his voice was loud and the veins in his neck throbbed with visible anger. They backed away. They got in their cabs and covered their ears.

He found out where she lived and drove by her house. He stopped the truck. So what? City trucks do nothing all the time. That made him smile. He’s just another lazy city worker, they’ll think, and who the fuck cares. He sipped his coffee. She was 38 and had been wearing a red coat. Eight years older than him, he only had black coats no kids one cat, not black not red but orange. She never made it home but was lying in the snowbank a block away. Suddenly he panicked. Winter was not going to last forever. One day the snow will melt and she will be discovered. Frozen and mangled in such a way that the only conclusion will be that a snowplow was the culprit. He knew how things like that went down. A minute scrap of yellow paint on her boot, on her hand, maybe nudged between two teeth, and they’d find him. He’d be charged with negligence, hit and run, manslaughter, murder. His entire life would be ruined, he’ll be back in hell with no way out and no one to love him. Marie-Claire will look at him with disgust. He jammed down on the accelerator, careened the beast around the corner and down the road, onto another road, another corner, missed a parked cars by inches, and stopped with a thud at the snowbank. Here.

He backed up, faced into it, rammed his blade. Backed up, angled a little to the left, rammed his blade. Backed up, angled more, rammed. Backed up, angled, rammed. He kept at it until he carved out an area the length of half a dozen cars, pushed the snow so resolutely that grass could be seen underneath. First grass in months. The next morning kids on their way to school would jump up and down on it, touch its frozen lace. So resolutely was the snow pushed back that it covered a walkway and hid a front door. He wondered who lived there. Depending on their attitude, they could make a stink. Later that morning he went straight to the bedroom. She was doing something with her clothes or jewelry he couldn’t tell what. Happy to see him she went for a kiss, hot arms around his neck. He pushed her away and crawled under the blankets. Well at least take off your clothes, she said, I just changed the sheets. Fuck the sheets, he mumbled, and fell asleep. He dreamt he told her everything but then she put on a red coat, grew another head, and devoured him.

Joe waved him to a stop, motioned him down from the cab. What the hell you doing plowing a wall in front of a house? It was such a strange thing to do that right now Joe was more curious than angry. Listen, if there’s anything going on, if there’s anything I should know. How’s Marie-Claire? How’re things? No way, Marc thought to himself. No way you get to ask me about her. Everything's fine, he said out loud. She’s fine and I’m fine. Have you seen the fucking snow outside? If people can’t deal with it they can go to Florida. I plowed the snow so they can drive their fucking cars to their fucking jobs. Now they want it manicured? Joe raised his eyebrows, raised his hands, walked away. He knew to back off when guys got like that. Another hothead, he thought to himself. I thought he’d be one of the good ones but he’s just another fucking hothead.

He returned to the snowbank at the end of his shift. The street was alive with people, dogs, cars, school buses, noise. His head was light and empty, ready for sleep. How strange, he thought. Darkness can give you the impression that the world is yours, but daylight reveals that it belongs to someone else. He stopped a block away and walked to the wall of snow that was pushed up against the house. He chuckled, had to admit that it was a bit extreme. The door flew open. An old man yelled in Italian-accented French. In spite of the raised voice and shaking fist, he was relieved. Just an old guy in stained pants. He nodded sympathetically and pretended to be taking his complaint. The old man finally went back inside. He felt a wave of dizziness. He kicked around in the snow. He thought he saw something red but it turned out to be the plastic end of a sled. He could hardly breath.

Marie-Claire was waiting for him. Are you seeing someone else, she finally asked. That woke him up. Are you fucking kidding me? He tried not to swear in front of her. Are you kidding me? When? Where? I come home every day, I sleep with you. She had to acknowledge that, but logistics did not fill the gap in her instinct. There was something going on. She refused to cry, no way was he going to see her cry. Fine, she said, but a hardness in her voice had taken hold. If it wasn’t a woman then what was it? Then the thought of another woman didn’t worry her as much as the attrition of his attention. If he was turning away with no outside reason, then there was nothing she could do. A tide of despair rose up and everything inside her began to drown. Not again. She left him with breakfast and lunch and the car insurance renewal papers. He ate neither and tore up the bill.

He went back to the snowbank and idled in his truck. The old Italian opened the door and yelled. Didn’t he have anything better to do? Go back in the house old man. He did it differently this time, kept the blade high and scraped backwards. He dug through the snow like an archeologist at Giza. It had meant absolutely nothing to him when they learned about the pyramids at school. Some place, some history, some lost land of sand. But here he was at an icy monolith, feeling like one of the slaves pushing and rolling the snow back and forth. No, he was a Pharaoh, a great leader, showing the people how it’s done. The vague memory made him wonder exactly what the pyramids were used for. Something about burying the Pharaohs? The cold was getting to him so he dialed up the heat in the cab.

What the flying fuck, Joe yelled as he got out of the truck. Joe only talked to him in English. He rarely answered and Joe probably thinks it’s because he can’t speak the language. Is that it? Does Joe think he’s a dumb ass? Thinks he can’t speak English? What the hell do you think you’re doing? What is going on? Joe wouldn’t let up, he couldn’t even get a word in French let alone English. I got two complaints tonight, two! One from the same guy and one from a neighbour. What the fuck? I got the city breathing down my neck, the mayor breathing down my neck, the fucking union breathing down my neck. And you're acting like a weirdo. I’m asking you nicely now Marc, what the fuck is going on. You losing it? Drinking? He looked at Joe and unzipped his jacket. Unfurled his scarf. Kicked the snow off his boots. He said nothing. But Joe’s eyes got harder. Worse, they got questioning. Like he was the asshole. Fine, Joe said. This one’s going in your file. One more complaint and you’re out. On your fucking ass.

Marie-Claire stood over his sleeping body. Fuck you, she said softly, and left for work. He opened his eyes and shot up, layered himself, two for his feet, two for his legs, three for is torso, then the coat. Not red, but black. Coffee was waiting for him: one, two, a third. He returned to the snowbank. It was daylight, he was in his own car, everything would be different. He retrieved his shovel out of the trunk and got to work. Five minutes later the Italian came out in his boots and coat. Not red. Didn't yell. Mark glanced up but otherwise paid no attention. Then the Italian started blathering like he was talking to someone. A crazy, Marc thought. I just call police, the old guy said. Marc stood up and groaned. His back was sore, his hands were cold, snot was running down his face. The snow was soft, like a pillow. He remembered crawling in a snow cave once and hiding for the entire day. His hot breath had made a soft film of ice around the inside walls, strengthening them, keeping in the heat. He should have stayed there his entire childhood. The Italian lurched forward and grabbed Marc’s shovel. You go, he said, you get out of here! They tussled back and forth until the old guy fell forward on his face. What do you expect, Mark yelled at him, frustrated that he had been forced to wrestle an old man down. He nudged at him with his boot. Come on, get up tabarnac. But his body was as inert and heavy as the snowbank. Fuuuuck, he yelled to himself. He thrust the shovel again and again into the snow. Fuuuuck. The police car screeched to a halt. Snow was on his face, down his neck, up his stomach, breaching the layers, cold rivulets on his skin. They pushed him into the back seat. An ambulance arrived a minute later and loaded the Italian onto a stretcher.

Marc had no answers for them at the station. Why was he digging into the snowbank? Why had he made the snowbank in the first place? So, Marc thought, they’re thorough. He resisted calling Marie-Claire. No sense calling a lawyer, he didn’t know the first thing about finding a lawyer. Anyways, they hadn't charged him with anything. What, arrest him for plowing too hard? He wasn’t even thinking of Angèle. He looked around the station. The officers were like teenagers, their heads boring into cellphones. He got up and looked at the printouts of various missing people. Then he saw the poster for Angèle. He glanced around and met someone’s eyes, a police officer he hadn’t noticed before. So what happened to her, he asked as casually as possible. Did you ever find who killed her? The cop got up and tore it down.

Have you solved the case then? Marc was incredulous. Nah, they found her. Found the body? The cop looked at him now, something strange about this guy. No, he told Marc, they found her, she had just ran off with some guy for a few days. What? Yeah, she turned up with some guy she met on the Internet, why? Nothing, Marc said, we all followed her story in the Journal. Yeah, this shit happens all the time, the cop said. She went to Arizona or something like that, go figure. Marc had to sit down to catch his breath. Another cop came in from outside and they whispered. The first turned to him. Mr Del Fiacco is dead, he said. Who? The guy you beat up, he’s dead. They cuffed him.

When Marc didn’t call or come home, she didn’t panic. She knew then and there that the trust was broken, all bridges down. She packed up her things, took that overtime due her, and went to Trois Rivières. She’d set up at her mother's apartment for a bit, figure things out, get back on her feet. She cried for three days, maybe four. Her mother never liked him, didn't she say? Never liked the look of him. Darkness doesn't go away just because you turn on a light, she'd said. They were eating dinner in front of the television when they saw him on the screen, a mug shot, followed by a picture of Vincenzo Del Fiacco, age 81. The union was blaming it on the stress of overtime. Her mother recoiled. Did she have anything to do with this? Is she in hiding? Marie-Claire did not have the energy to deal with her mother’s confirmed suspicions. She packed her bag.

Marie-Claire paid his bail took him home ran a bath put on the kettle didn’t ask a single question, answers would come eventually, winter always leads to spring, rivers thaw, darkness disappears with the flick of a match. He lay quietly in the candle-lit bathroom. The smell of onions and butter coming from the kitchen filled him with a hunger he hadn't felt in weeks. He let his arms float in the water, every now and then turned on the hot to keep the temperature up. He hadn’t taken a bath since he was a boy. In spite of everything he had always been a kind boy, a sweet boy. People would say that in court and it was true.


Leila Marshy spent the last two years as an overnight baker and got to know a snowplow driver or two - in the weathering sense. This story was concocted in a blizzard and written while the bread did its second rising. She’s been published in journals and anthologies in Canada and the US. She is completing her first novel. She is at

Fiction #65: Bassel Atallah

Arabic Love Poetry

Every day after work, Zuheir Anwar would go for a walk in Westmount Park. He would then sit on a bench and read for an hour or so before taking the subway to Verdun and returning to his one-room apartment.

His window looked out on the St. Lawrence River. When he first immigrated to Montreal from Damascus ten years ago, he lived with his then-wife Rana in an apartment on Cote-Vertu. The windows looked out either at the busy street or on to a nearby apartment building. Whenever Zuheir looked outside he saw people, either walking on the street or going through their home lives inside the neighbouring building. From his apartment in Verdun, he saw no one. Just the river. This made him very comfortable.

Living on Cote-Vertu was Rana’s idea. She said that the large Syrian community in the neighbourhood would make it feel like a home-away-from-home. When Rana left Zuheir and returned to Damascus, living in a home-away-from-home didn’t appeal to him. It never had. He’d often run into his neighbours, and those who had taken his side during the divorce would ask him sympathetically how he was doing while those who hadn’t would eye him judgementally. This wouldn’t happen in Verdun. No one knew him and he didn’t know anyone.

He got rid of most of his old furniture when he moved; he even replaced the king-size bed he had shared with Rana with a single bed. There was no need for a couch in his new apartment; just a single reading chair was enough for him. Bookshelves surrounded the apartment, leaving no space on the walls for any picture or painting.

Zuheir was small, both in stature and presence. He stood just below five-feet-three, round-shouldered, his dark hair thick and curly. His eyes were barely visible to others, not just because of his thick glasses, but because of a life-long habit of keeping his head down as he walked and when he interacted with others; in recent years, such interactions were rare. At the office, he had his lunch at his desk, holding his sandwich with one hand and his book with the other. Some at the office didn’t even know his name. Others did, it was Zuheir Anwar or Anwar Zuheir; they weren’t sure which was the first name and which was the family name. When he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper. Everywhere he went, he carried a strong aura of timidity with him, a timidity that began in childhood and grew with age. Zuheir the Cat, he was called back in Damascus, a title given in his early school days by the other kids in class. He’d bury his face behind a book and sit in the corner of the school playground, and still the kids would follow him around and mockingly meow at him. Sometimes, one of them would grab his book and throw it on the ground, and Zuheir would bend down to pick it up while the other kids would continue meowing. The nickname stayed with him throughout childhood and his teenage years, temporary disappearing during university where he’d leave school the minute his classes were over and go straight home, never staying on campus one more second than he should. The nickname returned with his marriage to Rana when during the many fights they had—they were one-sided fights, Rana yelling at Zuheir as he sat silently looking down—she’d say, “You’re still The Cat.”


One evening Zuheir was reading in Westmount Park when someone called his name. He looked up and saw her.

“My God, Zuheir,” she said. She covered her mouth with her hand and looked away from him for a moment. He didn’t say anything; he just kept looking at her, his finger still marking the page.
Finally he stood and walked up to her, still marking the page with his finger. They looked at each other.

“Hello Nahla,” he said.

“I didn’t know you were in Montreal,” she said. “I had no idea. How long have you been here?”

“Around ten years,” he said.

They went for coffee on Sherbrooke. Neither specifically invited the other; they just started walking together and soon found themselves outside a Starbucks. It just made sense to go inside.

They caught up on each other’s news. Nahla went first, generous with the details. She told him that after marrying George—no need to tell Zuheir that she had married George; she was certain he was aware of that—they moved to Dubai, had two children, Tanya and Roger, and lived there for seven years. Then they decided to move to Canada; George’s brother was starting a branding business in Montreal and wanted George to work with him. So they immigrated, and now lived in a house in Laval.

“What about you?” she asked Zuheir.

Zuheir was less forthcoming. He told her that he married Rana, and two years later they moved to Montreal. It didn’t work out between them, so Rana moved back to Damascus while he stayed here. Zuheir knew that all Nahla had to do was call a couple of their mutual acquaintances—he was certain that Nahla was resourceful enough to find them—and she’d get all the details he omitted. She’d find out how it was Rana who had pressured Zuheir into moving to Montreal because she didn’t want to live in Damascus anymore. Four years later, Rana said she couldn’t handle living in Montreal. She returned to Damascus, alone, and announced to all relatives and friends that the problem wasn’t living in Montreal or Damascus, it was living with Zuheir as he wasn’t providing her with the life she wanted and deserved.

But for now, Zuheir told Nahla only what he wanted her to know.

“Any children?” Nahla asked him.

“No,” Zuheir said. “She couldn’t. I always knew.”

“Where do you live?” Nahla asked.

“Verdun,” he said. “But I work here, in Westmount.”

“Do you still do translations?”


“I teach ballroom dancing,” Nahla said. “The dance studio is nearby, on Sherbrooke and Atwater. Do you still dance, Zuheir?”

“No,” he said.

They finished their coffee and Zuheir offered to walk Nahla to her car. They walked in silence. Nahla gave Zuheir a hug and said she wanted to see him again. She asked him for his phone number without offering hers.

She called him a week later. She said she was at the dance studio and asked if he wanted to meet for coffee later. He said he had just returned home from work and wasn’t planning on going out again that evening. She asked how about tomorrow then, early evening in Westmount Park.

They sat on a bench, and Nahla asked Zuheir if he visited Damascus often. Zuheir said he had only been back twice since coming to Montreal, the last time three years ago when his mother passed away. There was no reason to visit nowadays.

Nahla asked him if he was involved with anyone. He said no, he lived alone and he liked it this way; it was organized and quiet. There was no need to tell Nahla how important it was for him to lead a quiet life. No need to tell her about his reserved personality that back in their community in Damascus made him an “eccentric,” a word that in Arabic is associated with a more derogatory meaning than its gentler English translation. No need to remind her of his family’s reputation that made it hard for him to find a rightful place in their community. She would have probably understood why he lived in Verdun, why he didn’t interact with the Syrian community in the city. In Verdun, he was a nameless individual, at peace with his eccentricity. No one called him eccentric over there. He wasn’t Baheej Anwar’s grandson. He wasn’t The Cat. No one cared enough about him to call him anything, not even his name.

Nahla brought up the subject of ballroom dancing and asked why Zuheir never picked it up again. He shrugged and said that he never felt the need. “You should visit my studio,” Nahla said. “I work late on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

Zuheir waited two weeks before making the visit. Nahla showed him around. Two other teachers were working at the time, so after the tour they went to one of the empty rooms.

“Do you want to dance?” Nahla asked.

“I haven’t danced in years,” he said.

They sat beside the window. “You were such a good dancer,” she told Zuheir. “The best dance partner I ever had. You should take it up again. It would be a great way for you to meet people.”

Zuheir said he wasn’t interested in meeting anyone. Nahla said he was wrong; he shouldn’t let what happened with Rana affect him. He said he was content with his life and didn’t want any changes. She said he must feel very lonely sitting night after night alone in his small apartment. “My life is organized,” he said. “But you’re so alone,” she said.

He returned a week later. The studio was closing down for the day, and Nahla was the only teacher left. They sat by the window again. Nahla told Zuheir she still felt bad and sorry about what had happened between them, even after all these years. “There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Zuheir said.

Nahla told Zuheir that she got what she deserved for leaving him. “I don’t love George,” she said. “He is very sweet. He treats me so well, and he’s such a great father to the kids. But I don’t love him. When I married him, I thought, hoped, that I’d grow to love him. My father had always believed that romance was a fallacy, an invention of popular culture, something created by movies and music, and that real-life marriage was completely different. When George proposed, my father convinced me to accept. He said that once I saw what a good husband George is, I would learn to love him.”

Nahla looked around the ballroom, smiled, and said, “Sometimes my pupils are couples. Sometimes they’re a young couple practicing for their wedding dance. I see the romance between them and I wonder what it would have been like if I have had that with George during our wedding.”

Nahla looked at Zuheir and laughed. “I bet you’re as a good dancer now as you were many years ago,” she said. “You remember how to waltz, right?” she asked. Before waiting for an answer, she put on a CD and the music was playing.

“I can’t dance,” Zuheir said.

Nahla took Zuheir’s hands and led him to the dance floor. “Yes you can,” she said.

“I can’t remember how.”

“It’s not something you forget.”

“Please, Nahla,” he said. “I don’t want to.”

Nahla grabbed Zuheir’s left hand and put her left arm behind his shoulder. “But I want to,” she said. Nahla took the lead first, Zuheir not resisting, just mirroring her movements. Then he took the lead. They danced. “I told you it’s not something you forget,” Nahla said.


It was Zuheir’s mother who first suggested that he take dancing lessons. He was twenty-five at the time. His father, an elementary school Arabic teacher, had recently passed away, and Zuheir’s mother worked as a hairdresser assistant to provide for the two of them as Zuheir attended the University of Damascus. He studied Languages and Literature, and soon after graduation got a job translating French and English articles and books to Arabic. As had always been the case, he was spending every evening at home. His mother told him of a new dance studio that had opened in the city. Zuheir said he wasn’t interested. She told him he needed to become interested in social activities if he was to have any hope of doing more with his time than just stay home and read. She signed him for six lessons and gave them to him as a Christmas gift. She told him it would be rude to not accept.

At the dance studio he was partnered with Nahla. That was how they met. Nahla, tall and slender and beautiful, and Zuheir, diminutive and socially inept. But they danced so well together, and they continued being dance partners, Zuheir signing up for another six lessons, then another. They spoke as they danced, Nahla, as she had always been, generous with what she shared about herself to Zuheir. She told him of the effort her parents were putting to make her into a proper lady for society and their community. They believed that it was the parents’ job to help a daughter find the right husband, and since their family had a very good name—her father, Mounzer Takla, was a successful lawyer, and her mother was the daughter of Dr. Nasser, a prominent physician and well-known throughout the city—Nahla’s social etiquette was expected to be nothing less than perfect. So Nahla was raised to be a proper lady, her mother regularly inviting guests over and arranging for Nahla to be the host who generously offered drinks and cakes and sat looking pretty, diligent and dignified for all to see what a good wife and wonderful mother she’d make. She told Zuheir that her parents were so busy turning her into a proper lady and prospective wife that she was missing out on her chance to become an independent person. That was why she loved dancing; even though her parents saw it as yet another fine social skill a lady should have, she saw it as a chance to express freedom of body and closeness with others that she didn’t experience when accompanying her parents to their social functions. 

Nahla also generously listened to all Zuheir had to tell her. And in her, he found a rare listener, someone with whom to share his intellectual life and thoughts. His inability to carry conversations had resulted in his retreat to the safety and solitude of books. Nahla wanted to hear about the books he read, particularly his vast knowledge of Arabic poetry. She discovered his love for its musical meter and rhyme, its colourful language that was so rich in adjectives that it may seem over-the-top in most other languages, the way it was recited emphatically, the speaker waving his or her hand during the recital that would also seem exaggerated in many other cultures. She discovered that his favourite poet was Nizar Qabbani, the famous Syrian poet of love and feminism. Nahla had heard of Qabbani but was unfamiliar with his poetry, her father among the many who disapproved of Qabbani’s frank and erotic portrayal of love. Through Zuheir, she learned more about Qabbani’s writings, listened to Zuheir recite his verses as they danced, heard about the long history of forbidden love in Arabic literature and how it had always been easier for it to exist in poetry than in reality.

His words proved to be prophetic. At first, Nahla’s parents didn’t think there was anything to be worried about as they ruled out the possibility of their daughter showing any romantic interest in this meek little nonentity she had chosen for a dance partner. They considered the attention Nahla was giving Zuheir to be nothing more than a form of charity. But then Nahla’s continuous involvement with Zuheir began to trouble them. The class division between the two families was one problem. The other was Baheej Anwar, Zuheir’s late-grandfather, who had served time in jail thirty years ago for counterfeiting. Nahla tried to tell her parents that Zuheir was an honest man, that both his parents were honest as well, and what his grandfather did all those years ago had nothing to do with Zuheir. But the community’s memory was strong and unforgiving, social class and family reputation imprinted on each individual and carried around like a visible birthmark worn either as a badge of honour or a social stigma. Nahla eventually gave in to her parents when they made it clear that if she were to marry Baheej Anwar’s grandchild, she would be cut off from the family. A year later, her parents introduced her to George. “A man from a respectable family,” they said of him.


“I was so scared of facing you,” she told Zuheir after finishing their waltz. “I was scared of the way you’d look at me, after what I did.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Zuheir said.

“I should have tried harder to convince my parents,” she said. Zuheir shook his head and said it wouldn’t have made a difference. As far as her parents were concerned, he came from a lower family. They would have never accepted him.

“God, I wish it had ended differently,” she said. “But I thought of you. I thought of you so often, prayed that you had found someone else, someone with parents who would accept you and not judge you because of something your grandfather did.”

“I did,” Zuheir said. “It didn’t work out.”

“You can find someone else,” she said. “She doesn’t even have to be Syrian.”

“I’m doing okay,” Zuheir said.

Nahla said she had to go, but she wanted Zuheir to come back, and she wanted them to dance again.

He came weekly, always late on Tuesdays when Nahla was the only teacher remaining in the studio. During the other days of the week, he maintained his routine of walking and reading in the park before returning to his apartment. He started cutting his walks short, not wanting to be in the park by himself for too long. He found it hard to concentrate on whatever book he was reading. For the first time in over fifteen years, ballroom music was ringing in his ears everywhere he went. When he looked out his apartment’s window to the view of the river, no person in sight, Zuheir felt very alone.

In the dance studio, Zuheir and Nahla continued dancing to waltz music. “Let’s pretend we’re still in Damascus,” Nahla said, and they would dance quietly. Other times, they talked as they danced, as they often did back in Damascus. Back then, Zuheir would whisper Arabic poetry in Nahla’s ears.  He readily quoted from Nizar Qabbani, Adunis, Colette Khoury, Khalil Gibran. He quoted from memory, so fluently and not once stumbling or hesitating.

“How can you memorize so many poems?” she had asked him.

“It’s easy when you spend so much time home reading it,” he had answered.

She would never get tired of hearing him recite Qabbani’s love verses, Ignore what people say, You will be great only through my great love..... when I love, I become time outside all time..... When I love you your breasts shake off their shame, turn into lightning and thunder, a sword, a sandy storm…. I want to write different words for you, to invent a language for you alone…. Had I told the sea what I felt for you, It would have left its shores, its shells, its fish, and followed me…. When I love, I feel that I am the king of time…I possess the earth and everything on it and ride into the sun upon my horse…. Nahla would whisper back how beautiful the words were and she’d thank Zuheir for those beautiful words as though they were his. She had told him how her father hated love poetry, said it created false illusions of how love should be, made it seem filled with excessive passion. Relationships should be founded on reason and compatibility between the families, her father always said, not the exaggerated emotions of Arabic love poetry.

Dancing together now in Montreal, Nahla asked Zuheir if he could recite Qabbani’s verses as he used to do back in Damascus. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.

Nahla told him that what Rana did to him was unfair. “She’s the one who dragged you here,” Nahla said. “Then she left you here and went back. How could she do that?”

Zuheir said he didn’t blame Rana. When they’d married, they didn’t know each other well. Zuheir always suspected it was because she felt desperate, worried that no man would accept her because she couldn’t have children. And she accepted Zuheir, her parents not complaining too much about his family’s reputation. “It’s better than being alone,” her parents said to her and Zuheir’s mother said to him. And that remained the sole justification for their marriage.

“And then she got to know me better,” Zuheir said.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Nahla said.

Rana dragged Zuheir to family and friends get-togethers. “Please say something,” Rana told Zuheir, pleaded to him at times, begged him to exhibit extroverted traits that he didn’t have in him. “Zuheir the Cat,” she said to him, his childhood nickname returning after all these years. “Maybe you should meow when we’re in public. At least you’ll be saying something rather than just sitting there silently like a statue. Better be a cat than a statue. Right, Zuheir the Cat?”

Rana then started talking about a move away to a different city, a different country, somewhere far away. “Canada,” she said. “We’ll immigrate to Canada. If you love me, you’ll agree. If not, I’ll immigrate without you.” Zuheir didn’t want to leave his mother all by herself. But his mother insisted he oblige with Rana. “If that’s what your wife wants, then give to her,” his mother said. “You don’t want to spend your life alone.”

“Poor Rana,” Zuheir said to Nahla. “Life with me was so boring. That’s why she wanted to leave Damascus. She thought that if we moved, then maybe the new environment will change me. But the problem isn’t with my relation to a specific community. It’s my relation to other people. That’s why she left me.”

“I never found you boring,” Nahla said. “Not for one second.”

“Because you only knew me as a dancer,” Zuheir said. “If you had met me anywhere other than on the dance floor, you’d probably not have noticed that I existed.”

“You were never boring with me.”

“Because we were only dance partners.”

“You were more than that to me.”

“You only knew me as a dancer.”

“Then dance with me now,” Nahla said.

Sometimes Nahla spoke of George, saying what a good man he was, a good husband and father, how much she respected him, but just didn’t love him. She said maybe she wasn’t worthy of listening to Qabbani’s love poetry. Qabbani had famously said that love in the Arab world is like a prisoner and should be set free. Nahla, with her decision to marry George and not Zuheir, didn’t help with that cause.

“Maybe your father was right,” Zuheir said. “Maybe love verses are better left on the page. Maybe romance is an invention of popular culture.”

“What I felt for you was romance,” Nahla said.

“Please don’t say that,” Zuheir said.

“I still feel romance when I’m with you.”

“Please don’t say that.”

She put her head on his shoulder, and they continued dancing. “I don’t want to wreck my home,” she said.

“I don’t want to be a home wrecker,” Zuheir said.

“Then dance with me. That’s it. Just dance.”

They danced. And met the following week and danced. He noticed that Nahla had recently put up more pictures of her children in her office. She showed Zuheir the pictures and spoke about her children, how they were both taking swimming lessons and George always picked them after the lessons and took them for hot chocolate. Later in the evening, all four would watch the Cartoon Network before Tanya and Roger went to bed. She told Zuheir how Roger’s birthday was coming up, and he wanted a magician for his birthday party and George assured him that he’d find one. She told Zuheir how Tanya enjoyed going grocery shopping with her and always reminded Nahla to get Rice Krispies because it was George’s favourite. Nahla would then hold Zuheir close as they danced and whisper in his ear, “Let’s just dance, Zuheir. Please, let’s just dance.”

Zuheir knew that if they kept this up, it would reach a point when they wouldn’t just dance.  News would quickly reach Nahla’s and George’s families in Damascus, the 5000 miles distance suddenly becoming far too short. Years from now, Nahla’s children would still hear about it, her past becoming part of their present, just as Zuheir’s grandfather’s past had been part of his. 

He didn’t come to the studio the next Tuesday. Nahla called him. He didn’t pick up. She called him again the next day and left him a message, said she just wanted to know that he was okay and nothing had happened to him. He called and left a message on her office phone telling her he was okay. She didn’t call back.


Bassel Atallah lives in Montreal where he teaches at Dawson College and McGill University. His short stories have appeared in The Dalhousie Review, sundayat6, and In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec.

Photo credit: Tijana Stojkovic.