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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Fiction #66: Elaine McCluskey

The Gates of Heaven

I am thinking of travelling to Denmark where they are developing a pill to erase bad memories: Denmark, birthplace of Thumbelina, Hans Christian Andersen, and the tormented, tangled mind of Soeren Kierkegaard, existentialist prince.

I am not sure who determines what memories are bad.  Or how clean they can erase your mental hard drive.  Is your mind like a computer, which means that nothing is truly gone, and that the IT investigators— the spooks with forensic software and search warrants—can still recover your deleted porn and threatening  emails?

But let’s say it works. Let’s say I land in Copenhagen with a bag of gold and find the person with the magic potion.  Maybe she is tall and blonde, a Danish princess, or maybe he is a hunchbacked bachelor who looks like a toad.

I do not care about the philosophical debates that people are having: How can one learn from one’s mistakes if one cannot recall them? Is mankind opening itself up to another Salem or Vietnam?  debates that are immaterial to me, I would argue, given the last six years of my life, and to anyone who deigns to differ, anyone who sits in judgment, I respectfully ask:  “Who are you: the doorman at the Gates of Heaven? “

Life is not an Instagram photo, you know, with all of the colours heightened and the background blown out. The Gates of Heaven are  not manned by mortals, but it does help to have a reference letter, and some of those come in the form of Obituaries.

Obituaries are my field of study and form the research for my doctoral thesis, which I am endeavoring to complete, despite time lost, before I turn thirty.  It is titled Snapshots in time: a study of obituaries in one mid-sized Maritime newspaper from 2000-2014.

Using established means, including a regexp for syntax highlighting, I am analyzing the obituaries of one Halifax newspaper for 14 years, noting sociological trends and/or changes.  “This qualitative exploratory study of obituaries was conducted in the grounded theory tradition. It is intended as a contribution to the sociological study of obituaries, a medium that conveys objective and subjective information about individuals and their lives.”

In  one section, I keep a spreadsheet of individuals, who were, according to their obituaries, raised by non-parental family members, foster parents, orphanages, or other. To date —and I nearing the end—have documented 130, a number that seems today, curious. My adviser is  Dr. Casper Koopenhagen, a puffed-up penguin of a man, who wears robes to lectures and talks at parties about the Cartesian mind until people's eyes glaze over, but that is another story.


At one point, my mother thought Havard and I would grow old together. We bought a Honda.  We rented a Happy Camper van and toured Iceland, bathing in geothermal pools and waterfalls.  We  took photos of Skogafoss and the falling water sounded like thunder, and the mist formed rainbows.  We were, she believed, a binary system, two stars in an eternal orbit, gravitationally  bound to each other

Havard is a commercial photographer, but his hobby is buying items at pawn or thrift shops and reselling them on Kijiji. Sometimes, he convinces himself he has a use for the item. Sometimes, he plans, from the moment of purchase, to resell for profit.  Once in a while, he strikes gold. He found for $3.99 an old Leica IIIF that a thrift-store employee had mistaken for a point-and-shoot. He asked $600, accepted $550, and we bought a tent.

Havard does not view the sales as a mere business transaction. Part of the appeal is the engagement, the interaction with strangers, who in Havard's mind, become his friends. Havard stretches out each sale, searching  for common interests. “Record in a Bag? No kidding! I have all of Hollerado’s albums!"  He exchanges email addresses and chats for months about the vintage amp that he sold.

“I think it’s nice,” my mother said too emphatically. “I think it’s nice that he does normal things.”


I tell my friend,  Veronika,  that I want to get the memory-erasing pill, which is, I believe,  a form of beta blocker. The things that keep me awake are not the bad things that others have done; they are my stupid, selfish, and poorly thought-out actions.

Veronika is sitting in my living room, and she is, I notice for the first time,  taking up considerable space. Her body language, the way she deliberately spreads her arms when talking. These are things I am starting to notice, things that give me pause.

“Is this because of Jack?” she asks.

“Jack Jack Jack. . .”

In my family, we ignore the elephants in the room; we give people time to collect their belongings, turn off the lights, and escape. Veronika pokes the elephant with her umbrella, and then, once the animal is disturbed, plows forward, nonplussed.

“Some group that measures things that are, for the most part, immeasurable claims that the Danes are the happiest people in the world,” she adds, ignoring my discomfort.  "Maybe that’s because of the memory-erasing pill.”

“Maybe,” I allow.

I tell Veronika that I once sat in the middle of a group of Danes at an international soccer tournament, and they were, for the most part, odd. They reminded me of children on a class outing. One could not do anything without the others.  If one got up to go for a snack, they all got up, annoying the rows around them. They had blankets and red-and-white jester’s hats, and tins of baked goods, which they passed back and forth, and they were, I suppose, happy, until one of the Danish players missed an open net, and one man in the group started to cry.

“Did he actually cry?” she asks, not allowing for hyperbole.

Over her head is a sculpture:  six stems of dark  wire shooting from an invisible earth with the promise of buds and leaves. As weightless as my story.

“Yes,” I say firmly. “And it was sad, because he was one of the younger ones and he was, when crying, pitiful. He had bad skin and he looked slow.”

“And he cried?”

“His face was enveloped by pain.”

She gives me that look.


Havard had some exasperating habits. He would, without fail, drop all of his camera bags, lenses and tripods in the living room as soon as he came home. And it was the first room anyone viewed upon entering, a room that I had tried to make hospitable.

Havard is one of those men who is not happy unless all of his pet possessions are on display. He has to see them, smell them, embrace them, the moment he enters. The giant TV.  His fixed-gear bicycle. His hockey bag and skates.

“Can we please move the hockey bag into the garage?” I once asked.

“What? And get everything mouldy?"

I sighed, and he countered with "Did you touch my bike?”

“No,” I lied.


Skip Whitman lived to the age of 95 because he was lucky.  He had not lived a more abstemious life than others.  He had not cross-country skied across gorges like the allegorical 60-year-old Swede, stopping at the end of the day for a Thermos of coffee and biscuits. He hadn’t given up salt. Skip had not exercised his brain by learning  in his golden years Mandarin.  Nothing unusual had happened to Skip Whitman when he was a young man: no extraordinary riches or success, so this was his luck:  a body that had not broken at 300,000 kilometres and a mind that had not stopped working a cell phone dropped in the sink. Skip claimed that he used up all his luck when he met his wife, Lucy, in 1938, but apparently he was wrong.

I  think my favorite section of my thesis is the section that includes tributes written by family members celebrating people who lived, on the surface, the most ordinary of lives, individuals like Skip Whitman.

“Many will remember Max as the strawberry guy, who greeted everyone with a smile and a box of berries.”

“Never was there a more loyal friend than Marjorie who didn’t know how to be jealous or mean. She helped everyone she could and expected nothing in return.”

Veronika thinks that I am immersed in Obituaries because I am trying to understand myself; I am trying to decide what makes a good life and what a bad one; I am trying to determine how many mistakes one can make and still be loved; how many small kind things one must do to be redeemed, and if so, I have not yet found the answer.


Not all of Havard’s Kijiji sales went smoothly. Once, after he advertised an air-conditioner, a family of four showed up at our door.  English was clearly their second language. When  Havard told them the price was $120, they collectively waved their hands down. Lower lower.

“OK. This is the best I can do,” said Havard, who was not used to such intense negotiations with such a concerted force. “I can give it to you for ninety dollars.”

“Can you say eight-four?” asked the mother. “That  our lucky number.”

Havard sighed “Okay.”

Havard looked down, and the little girl, who appeared six, was trying to hold his hand. He managed to extricate himself without anyone taking notice, and when the mother rifled through her purse for bills, Havard reminded  her of the price.

“Can you say seventy-five?” she asked.

“You said eight-four was your lucky number.”

She just stared back.

If I had to describe Havard, I would say that he was a watercolour painted in traditional English style with a palette of four or five colours, setting—at best—a tone of mystery and gloom.  Now, add a pair of square black glasses. And on risqué days, a grey beanie. Havard was one of those men who had always had a girlfriend, someone who had gone to prom with the cute girl whose parents took photos.
Havard was rattled by the foreign family, who did not give him their email address or become his friends. But he was—like a boy who was never without a girlfriend—back at it  three nights later.


From the bedroom, I heard Havard escort someone in.

“Wow, that looks great.”

Havard’s customer stayed twenty minutes and Havard offered him a cappuccino. He showed him a picture on his camera back.

“This guy was cool,” he said, money in hand. “And he's a student at your school.”

“What's his name?”

“Gerry.  He said he’s a friend of Jack’s. Who is Jack?”


What can I tell you about Jack without making myself sound fatuous and foolish? If Havard was an English watercolor, Jack was a pop art painting by Lichtenstein. Jack had the ability to fix you with his eyes and persuade you  to join him in a secret bond—a nebulous never-defined  meeting of the minds, a collision of the souls—that had, just had, to happen. Jack was blond and sun-drenched. Twenty-two. His checkered shirt looked like it was in danger of flying off at any time.  He had a speech bubble over his yellow head that said, Hey! And you could never be blamed because you were doing nothing to propel these events. You were doing nothing but showing up at class and waiting  for him to raise his hand, your TA’s heart already racing, and you weren’t even sure it was happening, were you?


A tricky section of my thesis is one in which I note how some families obliquely convey the cause of death.  Donations may be made to the Mental Health Society, Anthony Recovery House, The Liver Association, or Daisy’s Womens Shelter. And  so it goes, a wall of good intentions demolished by the randomness of life which  does  not discriminate between sinners and saints.

People who die from the effects of alcoholism are described as such:  “Albert was a very social person who enjoyed fishing and had a love for animals, especially dogs.”

Suicides are written:  “Shaun was too sensitive for this world. He will be remembered for his gentle spirit.  In lieu of donations, reach out to someone before they are swallowed  by darkness.” And I can see Shaun, someone’s much-loved son and beautiful brother, and if he was still here, he would tell you: no one asks to be a poet or a paper ballerina.


Havard changed his phone number and his email. He ghosted me, and so I waited until I saw a Kijiji ad and I replied as The ad was for a 16 X 20 Saunders Omega darkroom easel and he was asking $120. I knew it was Havard because, even though he had changed his address, I had been there when he found the easel for $10.
He and dawna234 exchanged messaged, and I went to his house.

“What do you want?” he asked, knowing the answer.

“Ahhhh.” I thought about saying something.

I wanted to apologize, I wanted to make it right,  but he didn’t care because he wasn’t hurting anymore; I was. I wasn’t seeking comfort for him, I was seeking comfort for myself, and then—as he stood there holding his $10 easel and looking, for all the world, like  a bad idea— I decided, fuck it.


In Obituaries, I have found, in addition to  tributes, cruelty and pot shots. People use the submissions to settle scores—Abandoned by his mother, Darrell had a very hard life—or to rewrite a life story that should not have been rewritten, an offence most common among second or third wives in control of both the body and, for one day at least, the past.

Dean’s life began when he met his soul mate Barb and her son, Dwight. They enjoyed many wonderful hours at the Windsor Curling Club and at their retirement village in Florida where they made true  friends. He is also survived by his first wife and eight children.

Did you know that Kierkergard  and  Andersen are buried in the same cemetery, and that people can say whatever they want about you after you are dead? Someone wrote a play about Andersen and masturbation. Someone said he stalked Dickens, and that the little match girl  didn’t need to die, and the girl with the red shoes didn’t need to lose her feet. And who, I might ask, said that life was easy?
People can sit in a room with you every day and lie, people you adore. People who neglected to tell you that they were—while you were doing their laundry and editing their paper– apartment shopping.  Four days in a row.  Checking out leases and pricing futons.  After you saw them out of the door with, “Have a great day.  Love you.“ 

And you should not have been surprised when Jack ran away with Heide because she was so bright and so young that you knew that it was supposed to be, in the same way that the ugly duckling was supposed to turn into a swan. Heide was like a piece of fondant-covered wedding cake, butter-filled and divine, left on your plate after your third glass of wine, impossible, at that point, to resist.  And we had both been moving forward, hadn’t we, in our own strange way?


Kierkergard once asked:  “What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music.”

If you are manning the Gates of Heaven, you have already met Kierkergard and judged him,  but  here is what you need to know about me:  Havard didn’t “believe” in birthday presents; the strewn cameras were passive-aggressive weapons; and Havard’s  mother was a big, bossy woman who took up too much space.  Maggie (her real name was Magdalene, but she called herself Maggie to create the illusion of youthfulness and fun) was the type of woman who would show up at a sporting event with a lawn chair  and park herself in front of everyone,  arms folded, chin cocked like Donald Trump. Oh dear. There she is.

Have you ever driven to a wilderness park with a slender path through the woods—over rocks and tricky stumps—that leads to a glorious cliff overlooking the ocean, and there is, for that moment,  nothing but water and history and air, and your body is lifted by the negative ions, and you feel freedom. Maggie had the opposite effect. She was a one-woman atmospheric condition, killing your mood. And she hated me.

She hated the back tattoo I got when I was 20 during my first round of SSRIs.

And  the sleeve I got at 23,  terrified by visions too awful to share, so I won’t.
She hated the star on my right hand that I turned to each morning, seeking direction, when my life was a cacophony of bad decisions and fear.

And it is the fear that I most want to forget, the fear that comes  from being so ill that you hide knives under your pillow and you hurt yourself to feel better pain.

Havard’s mother hated the fact that I was damaged, even when I was better. She hated the scars that I had covered with ink, and every time I saw her, I could see the judgment in her eyes, and after a while I saw it in Havard’s eyes, too.


The loveliest section of my thesis is this: the list of old names no longer in common usage. I spend hours inhabiting it, and sometimes I write longhand notes to people named Leander and Toss. I have 409 first names that I have classified as uncommon (Loman, Alricha, Minnie, Halden, Alton, Niva, Effie, Fayreen,  Obediah, Medford, Rufus) as well as 228 nicknames that speak to the character of the people and their birthplace. (Fluff, Buckaroo, So Long, Duckie.)   In some parts of the province, nicknames were not always  given lovingly, you know, and were used as a means of torment. No one, I suggest, asked to be called Pie Face MacNeil, Aluminum Leg Gable,  or Wiggie Hanrahan.


Shaun was the son every mother wished for, the brother you would have chosen. He was the kindest sweetest boy who ever walked this Earth and we will miss him every single day.


One day, I looked in my closet and realized that everything was black, the black of death, the black of despair, the black of cynics and nihilists with shriveled up souls. The black of people with dialed-down emotions and hearts that have, through suffering, been turned to mute.  When we were in Iceland we came upon a public chalk board and it said, Before I Die I Want to:  and someone wrote: live free, and someone wrote: make it, and someone wrote: meet David Hasselhoff, and I wrote nothing.

And so, last week, I went to a store and I turned the sound back on; I purchased a pair of slim turquoise pants, tight at the ankles, and so exuberant that they smiled when I tried them on.  They were the turquoise that you might find on a vintage car or a sari embroidered with gold or jewelry from Arizona.

“Nice,” said Veronika, who had, at one point, gone through an Emily Dickinson phase,  parting her hair in the middle and only wearing white. It was an act, though. She wasn’t too sensitive for the outside world, and she only wrote one poem, and it was dreadful.

I tell Veronika that I am thinking of  adopting a dog, and it will be happiest, most free  dog you have ever met, and I will let him do whatever he wants; I will take him swimming in the lake and throw him sticks, and when he comes home, he can lie in the middle of the floor where Havard’s cameras used to be and he can be full of mud for all I care.  He can  smell like moss and muck.  And I will buy him toys and I will buy myself a Ford truck and he can sit up front and stick his head out the window, and maybe I will name him Rufus or Buckaroo, and maybe we won’t even go to Denmark, and maybe we will be okay.


Elaine McCluskey writes short stories and novels. Her most recent book, The Most Heartless Town in Canada, is coming out in Spring 2016 from Anvil Press. She has published three short-story collections, and a debut novel, Going Fast. She has appeared in journals such as Room, The Dalhousie Review, subTerrain, The Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead, Other Voices, as well as anthologies, including the Journey Prize and the Fish Anthology in Ireland. She lives in Dartmouth, N.S.

Photo credit:  Andrew Vaughan

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