Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Fiction #78 (Final Issue)

New fiction! Issue #78
Plus:
Extra special thanks to all who submitted and contributed ... since 1999!

Enjoy. Keep writing. Never give up.

Fiction #78: Leila Marshy

Winter, the Waiter, Water

Winters in a hot country are deceiving. The gentle morning sky entices a Canadian family out of their hotel and onto the busy streets. All around them the locals are wrapped in sweaters and scarves. Are they crazy, the tourists wonder, it’s so hot!

It is Friday and the family visits the Egyptian Museum, Coptic Cairo, and Khan el Khalili market. They are careful to never pay more than the “average Egyptian,” haggling and bargaining at every turn. The leather bag from Luxor cost 10 pounds and the shawl from Siwi only four. Emboldened, they take it up with the taxi driver. No native Egyptian would pay more than ten pounds for a cross-city trip, they tell each other. No six-day-a-week-wearing-the-same-shoes-for-years-and-five-children-he-can-hardly-feed Egyptian would pay more, so why should they? Watch and learn, says the father. But the daughter and son catch the expression on the taxi driver’s face and see that value and price are two different things. No matter.

The family eats their dinner at the Ramses Hilton. Waiters in polyester tuxedos serve peasant food on porcelain plates. French fries extra. The sky darkens, a muezzin chants the Quran, the tourists write their postcards. So noisy! they scribble.

They ask about the Nile boats that serve drinks and promise a belly dancer or two. Now wouldn’t that be a hoot. The waiter gives directions; advises that they bring their coats before heading out after sunset. His English is impeccable they generously tell him. Please, he insists, it will get cold, especially on the water. The waiter’s voice carries both authority and resignation. Looking up, the girl is surprised to see a boy her age. “Don’t be silly,” her mother says. “Do you know it’s snowing where we come from!”

Her father motions for the bill. Nudging his daughter, he clears his throat and addresses the waiter.

“What you say we knock off a few pounds from this bill, eh? Drinks on the house?”

“Dad.”

“Nick,” murmurs his wife. “This is a hotel restaurant, they don’t do that here.”

“Oh come on, of course they do.” He stares brightly at the young man.

The waiter shifts awkwardly. “You can pay me or pay at the desk,” he says.

“Dad, let’s just go,” says the girl. At this point she is not sure what is more mortifying: appearing poor or being impolite.

“No, no. This is what they do here, watch.” He looks up at the waiter and fabricates a challenge. “We ate a lot here, yallah. Good food, good food. So what do you say we fold in the desserts. Delicious, yes? Do we need to speak to the manager?”

Dad,” says the girl, hitting her father in the ribs. Now she wants to give the boy all their money.

The exchange upsets the waiter. He catches the girl’s eye and, for a brief second or two, they share the universal language of adolescent embarrassment.

The mother gets up and opens her wallet. Credit card in hand, she walks over to the desk. The waiter follows, relief visible in the quickness of his steps.

*

Blue patio lanterns dangle along the riverbank and the father wonders what holiday the Egyptians are celebrating now. Traditionally-dressed men escort them onto a boat deck where the vinyl seats shock their unsuspecting skin. They huddle together as close as is comfortable, which is not very close. A quartet of musicians wearing thick scarves and acrylic sweaters remind them of their warmer clothes back at the hotel.

“But we’re practically at the equator,” complains the father.

“Not really,” says the son. “We’re thousands of miles away.”

Somewhere on the deck a tabla player begins with a dum-da-da-dum-da, then a violinist and clarinettist pick up the rhythm followed by an oud.

“Let’s dance!” says the mother. She’s going to enjoy this evening, it’s decided. “To keep warm, come on!”

“Are you kidding me?” asks the daughter. Whatever excitement the trip held is now gone. She drinks a hot sahlab, grimaces with every sip. “This is disgusting.”

The waiter notices, motions to the busboy to bring a mint tea instead. She passes back the sweet starchy drink without looking up. “Well that was horrible.”

Winters in a hot country means the waiter can eat meat on Fridays. Fresh lamb carcasses hang in the overleaf of a butcher’s shop. Carved directly off the animal, wrapped in newsprint, the meat is warm and comforting, bought with his Thursday wages. The Nile flows softly beside him almost the entire way home. On his left, vehicles of every sort assault the senses with a chemical distraction. He crosses the Corniche at Imbaba, the old camel market and poorest neighbourhood in the city.

He sinks the meat in yogourt, cumin and salt then goes to sleep. The next morning, he arranges himself on his bed, sits up straight with a pad of paper on his lap, and writes. He doesn’t work on Friday afternoons but he cooks the mid-day meal and his mother ensures he is not bothered. Her son writes and the Quran is written; she recognizes the sacred even if she can’t read it. The meat simmers as he mixes his words. Then he spreads newspaper on the floor and lays out the stew and rice. He calls his mother, his three sisters, and his brother. There is much chatter but he eats quickly. He has shaped a delicate contour with his pen, filled in flesh with consonants, groaned with the shuddering of vowels. It waits for him.

In the evening, like all evenings, he returns to the centre of the city, passing packs of dogs and barefoot children as he walks back along the river. The surface of the water undulates, a heave from a boat, a ripple from a fish. The furrows remind him of the ever-changing shape of letters and he wonders if the Arabic language was born from this shape-shifting river. The way an adrift baby became Moses, Arabic letters change their form depending on their place in the word. In the world.

*

He arrives at the boat, lights glowing in the early night, and pulls on the crimson galabaya and the Turkish fez, a costume for tourists. Tray in hand, he approaches a table. He has been doing this for a year and still he is surprised by their smiles. They are never happy, even when they are happy. Still, at the end of the evening, Adil will roll some bills into his hand. Happiness is beside the point.

The girl slouches over the railing while the rest are dancing. Her mother pulls at her but is slapped back. The waiter waits for the mother’s reaction, but there is none. The girl finishes her tea and throws the gold-encrusted glass into the water.

The waiter and the busboy exchange glances. Someone is going to have to pay for that glass. The busboy decides it won’t be him and turns on his heels back into the kitchen. The waiter leans over the side but the glass is gone. The girl frowns at him for a minute.

“It wasn’t a person, just a glass,” she scoffs. Then she realizes he’s the same boy from the hotel.

He is uncomfortable when foreigners look at him; he knows what they see. Native Egyptian with fez! But he recognizes her familiar eyes from earlier in the day. He is happy to see her. She mutters something that he doesn’t quite catch. She extends her hand. A shy flutter stirs inside his chest.

“Can I try on your hat?”

“Sorry?”

She speaks up. “That’s really a crazy hat. Can I try it on?”

He steps back, reaches up to his head. “No, no, sorry. No.” If Adil sees this he will send him to the kitchen, away from the tourists – and the tips. He is disheartened, maybe she’s drunk. That’s what tourists do. How else to explain the raised voices, the hard slaps on the back, the laughter that exits their throats like torpedoes.

The girl sees she has come on too strong, said the wrong thing, pushed him away. But aside from English the only other language she speaks is bravado, learned from her father, and guile, learned from her mother. This is the best she can do with her limited skills.

“Do you always wear it or is it just for work because sometimes I see people wearing them and sometimes I don’t. Like, it’s hard to tell what’s put on for tourists and what’s real. How’re you supposed to know what’s fake, eh? Have you ever been to Canada? Ha, well if you come make sure it isn’t January that’s for sure.” She exhales noisily and rolls her eyes.

The waiter doesn’t know if he understood everything. What does she want with his fez? He searches through his English vocabulary, but not one word for what he wants to say. Adil is suddenly behind him, “yalla ya homar.” As if calling him a donkey is not enough, he slaps the boy on the back of the neck. The girl is startled by the casual cruelty of the gesture. She watches the boy’s eyes liquefy. Adil yells again. The waiter jumps and runs to the other end of the boat where a quiet group from Italy are watching a passing felucca off the stern. Inside it, a small propane light flickers in the darkness as a fisherman and his wife cook the day’s catch. The waiter hovers over the tables, picks up empty glasses, replaces napkins, wipes spills, calms down.

But a sudden yelp bursts through the air and even the music stops. The busboy and Adil are screaming at each other. Adil looks strange, different, though the waiter can’t quite figure out why. The girl’s father is yelling to everyone, the mother is yelling at the father.

But where is she? Alarmed, the waiter runs to the railing and leans over it. Something floats in the darkness and in one stroke he pulls the galabaya up over his head. He puts his right foot on the railing and is about to heave himself over when he is yanked back. Adil kicks him for good measure.

“Son of a dog! Do you want to increase my humiliation?”

“But the girl!”

Just then, a husk of laughter pierces the commotion. He can’t quite figure out where she is but she is clearly not overboard.

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” she protests. “It just flew away, there was a gust of wind.” The mother snatches her away from the rails and slaps her arm. The father stands with a hand hiding his forehead, muttering to himself. Her brother smirks.

The waiter looks out on the water. A fez floats jauntily on the surface and he realizes why Adil looked odd. In a collective collapse, the family escapes to their table. The girl catches the waiter’s eye and shrugs conspiratorially. She leans over her brother and onto the railing. “It looked stupid on him anyways, not like on our waiter.” Her father reaches across the boy and yanks her back into her seat.

“No more dancing,” Adil says. He calls to the waiter. “You. In the kitchen. Enough out here.”

“But…”

Adil tsks in the universal Arabic signal for don’t bother me anymore.

“Please. I need my tips.”

He hates to beg, but the injustice is too much. He knows how the night will end. Her parents will tuck a generous wad of dollars into Adil’s hand and say something about sunstroke, and that money will go right into Adil’s pocket. The busboy snickers and throws the waiter a towel. He spends the rest of the trip drying glasses.

The boat docks with a bump. The waiter puts his galabaya back on, replaces his fez and leaves the kitchen to stand with the rest of the staff. Her family are the last to disembark, hands gingerly holding the velvet rope that leads to shore. He imagines the parents have already given Adil enough money to not only replace his fez but pay for his son’s education. Bitterness grips him. But just before the girl is off the boat she runs back and, smirking – kindly? unkindly? he cannot tell – presses something into his hands. Then she tears off down the gangplank and is lost in the commotion of the busy Corniche. It is money, he thinks. Suppressing a smile, he puts it directly in his pocket.

*

The walk home is long and the waiter is more tired than usual. He keeps one hand in his pocket around the dollar bills. He thinks ahead to his mother’s reaction, to his siblings clamouring for gifts, to the fountain pen he saw on Talat Harb street. The bowab is asleep at the entrance of his building. He climbs the stairs and, before entering the small apartment, decides to fish it out of his pocket before showing his mother. He unfolds it slowly so that when he sees it is only the boat’s menu, his heart stops with disbelief. But just before he tears it to pieces he notices the handwriting.

“the night is too big for –” it begins. He is astonished: it is a poem.

small things: a glass, a fez, your face
long rivers, the waiter, my tea
this stupid girl acting drunkenly
when all I drank was the night
but it was too big for me

He rereads the poem a dozen times before folding the paper up slowly and putting it back in his pocket. He goes back downstairs and sits on the front step of his building, quietly so the bowab doesn’t wake. He watches the moon fill up the sky and the clouds shredding it into small pieces. He fishes for a pen in his pocket, turns the menu around to find a blank spot, and writes.

*

Montrealer Leila Marshy is of Palestinian-Newfoundland heritage. She has been a filmmaker, a baker, an app designer, a marketer, a farmer, and editor of online culture journal Rover Arts. She founded the Friends of Hutchison Street, a groundbreaking community group bringing Hasidic and non-Hasidic neighbours together in dialogue. She has published stories and poetry in Canadian and American journals and anthologies. Her first novel, The Philistine (LLP Press) was published this year. 

Fiction #78: Don McLellan

Ouch

IT HAD BEEN a long and dusty day of hauling and pushing; of crawling into tight, dark places; of the irritable foreman cursing in a language most of the crew didn’t understand. He was waiting for a bus when a much-travelled Chevy lumbered to the curb.

It was Matt, an old friend. 

“It’s your lucky day, man,” he said, dreadlocks hanging from the window, and indeed it was.

There was also a sleeping bag rolled up on the back seat, a heap of smelly laundry spilling from plastic grocery bags. It was the 1960s; Matt, he recalled, had always been something of a nomad.

“Moving?”

“Temporary lodgings, man. I’m between jobs.”

In the pub, a ball game flickered silently on the TV above the bar, a chunky peeler gyrated cheerlessly around her pole. Few of the patrons were paying attention to either. He’d skipped lunch, so after a few beers he ran across the street for some curry chicken. When he returned, the tabletop tinkled with empties. Matt’s sleepy blue eyes were glazed like the surface of a frozen pond.

He offered to call a cab for himself; Matt wouldn’t hear of it.

The heat of the day, the booze; he began to nod off. On Earles Road he felt the car leaving the macadam, its threadbare radials crackling on the gravel. He shook off his slumber just as the semi came hurtling toward them. The last thing he remembered was Matt’s head slumped over the steering wheel, those eyes dreamily sealed.

The front end crumpled like a can of mushroom soup. His face slammed into the dashboard, scattering his teeth; a bracing foot burst through the floorboards, snapping an ankle. Matt was hurled through the windshield. He bounced off the road like a rubber ball.   

A cloud of dust appeared above the rooftops. A woman living nearby heard the collision and joined neighbours rushing to the crash site. She talked to her daughter that night of dogs howling at the keening sirens; of the bodies being loaded like crates of vegetables aboard the ambulance; of, after the wreckage had been towed, a man hosing blood into the sewer, a cigarette drooping indifferently from his lower lip.

“People will always die, little one,” her mother said. “The rest of us go on. Until it’s our turn.”

The girl made a detour on her way to school in the morning. She wanted to stand in the place where it had happened, to see if death made a place feel different, to see if death made her feel different.

It did.

She found five teeth in the grass on the boulevard, folding them into her handkerchief for later inspection.

“I thought they were beads,” she told a classmate, “from a broken necklace.”

*

THERE WAS THIS chick, see, a real looker, a few years his senior; her name was Simone. She’d returned his smile as they passed in the hall, and that’s all it took. A boy his age can fall in and out of love in an afternoon, and fall for her he did, hard. Girls didn’t normally return his attentions, but Simone, he would discover, wasn’t normal. The scars zigzagged across his face like tire tracks seared into a lawn.                                                         

He’d reinvented himself, as we sometimes must. Grew a patchy beard soft as cat fur, an aspiring intellectual. This was in the early ’70s; it seemed to be the thing to do.  He got by selling pot, taking a few history courses at the college. He enjoyed reading about war, the battles, memorizing the death tolls. 

The first words out of Simone’s mouth were, “I’m an artist,” as though that explained all he needed to know. A month later they were shacked up, fucking like rabbits. She doodled abstracts and gave them gloomy one-word titles like Solitude and Despair, peddling them to fellow depressives for exaggerated sums. Their first fight was about him dismissing her “work” as “graffiti inside a fancy frame.” He’d never met a real artist before; he didn’t know they could be so sensitive. 

She could also be gloomy. 

“Just look out the window,” she’d say, in one of her moods, “all the fucked-up people. Give me two good reasons not to be blue.”

“A cold beer on a hot afternoon.”

“That’s one.”

“You and me in the shower.”

A premolar began acting up, but he was living on student loans and couldn’t afford a dentist. Simone seemed to know a lot about non-traditional medicine; she seemed to know a lot about non-traditional everything. Until her, he’d thought people wanting to be tied up were joking.

One night she brought home a bag of cloves, a tropical spice.

“It looks like mud,” he said.

“It’s a painkiller. And don’t knock mud. Food grows in it.”

He was riding the bus home after class one day when the tooth started throbbing. The pain was fickle and would occasionally subside on its own, but this time it didn’t, and he’d left the cloves at home. It was rush hour, the bus was packed. The discomfort, as medical professionals like to call it, became so severe he disembarked miles before his stop, running along the busy street frantically looking for a dentist.

He found one above a row of retail shops, blurting out his predicament to the nail-painting receptionist. Dr. Murphy, cleaning teeth, overheard him. He leaned into the hallway, pulling down his face mask, a middle-aged man with kind, dark eyes and a caterpillar moustache.

“I’ll be with you in a moment, young man,” he said.  “Marilyn will give you a couple of Aspirin.”

After probing and prodding the troubled premolar, he recommended a root canal; it would preserve the tooth. Dentists talk about “saving” a tooth like it’s a human life. They don’t mention the procedure costs more than a respectable second-hand car. That you can holiday at an all-inclusive in Mexico for less.

“I’m a student,” he said. “I don’t even have bus fare home.”

“You strike me as an honest fellow,” Dr. Murphy said. “If you’re willing to mow my lawn once a week for the summer, we can do an extraction. You’ll be out of here in a jiffy.”

“What about the root canal?”

“You’d have to paint a house. Mine is vinyl-sided.”

“Is it a big lawn?”                                                                                                       

“I am a dentist.”

Once the Novocain kicked in he felt a slight tug; his mouth filled with blood. Dr. Murphy dropped the premolar into a vial and handed it over. It looked like a Chiclet.

“Marilyn will give you bus fare.” 

After he mowed the lawn, Dr. Murphy’s wife would feed him before driving him to the bus stop. The IOU was retired in September. The doctor also bought a doodle from Simone, who sometimes came along to help with the raking and because of the food. The doodle consisted of a few wiggly lines and an image that might have been a tooth. She gave the piece a title: Ouch. Though their relationship didn’t survive – he always thought of Simone as his Maggie May – Ouch still hangs above the fireplace in the Murphys’ rec room.

*

HIS FAVOURITE UNCLE had passed; there was an inheritance; he decided to travel. In Hong Kong, a bar in Wanchai, he got into a tussle over a girl. They took the quarrel into the alley. His opponent danced around him, making him dizzy. He remembered someone telling him that over there, after a few drinks, everybody becomes Bruce Lee.

The guy’s shoe caught him flush in the mouth before he could throw a punch, taking out three teeth. He lay on his back a while, gazing up at a south China sky black as ash.

The desk clerk at his hotel recommended a denturist in Oi Kwan Road. The stitches would be coming out in a few days, and the denturist would have to make an impression.

“Tell them who sent you,” the desk clerk said. “You might get a discount, you might not.”

He dropped into the last available chair in the waiting room, the only gweilo. It was the one Cantonese word he knew; the girl he’d fought for had taught him.

“It means ‘foreign devil,’” she’d told him. “It also means ‘ghost,’ because to us, that white skin, you all look like one.”

A Christian pastor clutching a bible sat to his left; the collar dug into his fleshy neck. He was accompanied by his wife, a plainly dressed but attractive younger woman. A schoolgirl – their daughter, he presumed – hunched over her homework. 

The receptionist addressed him in Chinese.

“She wants to know if you have a health card,” the pastor said.

He wagged his head, rubbing his thumb and index finger together: I’ll pay cash.

“Do you speak any Chinese?” asked the pastor.

He removed the bloodied cotton balls from his mouth, tossing them into a trash can and inserting replacements.

“I’ve only been here a few days,” he said, “but ever since I arrived I’ve heard people saying this one word; I’ve been hearing it everywhere. The guy who did this to me was saying it.”

“Maybe I can help. What’s the word?”

“It sounds like, dyoo-lay-mo,” he said. “Make any sense?”

The pastor flushed.

“Well…I – ”

The receptionist called the next patient – the man of the cloth. Patients to the right urged him to move into the vacant seat, as a lineup had formed. The pastor’s wife glanced up from her magazine and smiled.                                                                                                                       

“Do you know that word?” he asked her. “Dyoo-lay-mo? I might be pronouncing it wrong.”

“Your pronunciation is adequate,” she said, “but it’s not a good word. Nice people do not use that word.”

Wanting to be thought a nice person, doubtful he was, he fell silent. After a few awkward minutes she leaned over and whispered, “It translates as…‘fuck your mother.’”

“Oh,” he said, “I get it:  ‘motherfucker.’”

“No,” she said. “Fuck your mother.”

“Sometimes people would say, dyoo-lay-mo see fat,” he said. “What’s that mean, the see fat?”

The pastor’s wife looked as though something had caught in her throat; she scurried to the washroom. Everyone shifted seats again.

“Hello,” the daughter said. She had sweet brown eyes, a fine row of teeth. It was 1987.

He repeated the question:  “I know dyoo-lay-mo means ‘fuck your mother,’” he said. “What about see-fat?”

The girl put aside her schoolbooks.

“In the ass,” she said.

*

HE’D ALWAYS KNOWN he’d eventually have to go to full dentures; implants were suspect in the early 1990s, and he didn’t have that kind of money. He’d squandered the inheritance in less than a year.

“I have ten teeth left,” he was telling his drinking pals, Steve, Kim and Phil. “The rest are partial plates and bridges. I’ll be a new man with dentures.”

“Like Brad Pitt,” said Phil.

“You’ll be swarmed by pussy,” agreed Kim.

There was a group of yahoos, half a dozen younger guys, at the next table. He asked the waitress to find them another, but there was a playoff hockey game on TV, and the bar had filled up fast. The yahoos were shaking their drinks, soaking anyone within reach. Everyone at his table knew something was going to happen because they used to be the yahoos. When they whooped it up, something always happened.

“Settle down, fellas,” shouted Steve, who loved a scrap, win or lose. “We can’t hear each other talk.”

“Then don’t,” the largest of the yahoos fired back.

When the hockey game ended and patrons started filing into the parking lot, the yahoos slipped off their stools and came at them like an invading army. Another place, another time, he might have tried to broker an armistice. That evening, never certain why, he started swinging.

In the morning he studied his bloodied mouth in the bathroom mirror.

Two down, eight to go.

*

WE BEGIN WITH thirty-two. Those of his that survived had been repaired and refilled multiple times or filed down to anchor artificial replacements. Some partial plates were secured with metal wires, hastening the decay. Everything needed to be replaced, which would require another bank loan, and he hadn’t paid off the last one. And then his girlfriend told him they were going to have a kid. It was 2003. He was almost forty. Most nights he drove a taxi, twelve-hour shifts.

He decided to have the remaining eight extracted surgically and get fitted for a full set of acrylic imposters. According to his calculations, over time, doing so would save him thousands of dollars. He’d never have to see a dentist again.

A buddy, Lenny, said he knew a guy who could help.

“If my arithmetic is right,” Lenny said, “the extractions are going to cost you the same as the dentures, am I right?”

They were hoisting a few in a smoky joint on Kingsway.

“The dental surgeon wouldn’t budge on price,” he said. “Whenever you question their fees, they tell you how many years they went to university.”

“Tell them about all the shit jobs you’ve worked,” Lenny said. “The asses you’ve had to kiss.”

They drove out to a place in Surrey one night in Lenny’s Merc, to a barn that looked like it should have burned down a long time ago. The guy who could help, Nob, was dentally challenged himself and looked as mangy as Sugar, the mongrel mutt lolling atop a bale of hay. Nob also had a pet goat, Shifty. It roamed in and out of the barn like a drunk in search of a vacant bar stool.

A stall still smelling of former residents had been refitted with the equipment – pliers, a syringe, the works. A lamp attached to an extension cord hummed intermittently in the corner.   

“Nob your only name?”  Small talk calmed his nerves.

“It’s a nom de guerre,” Nob said. “Open wide, don’t move.”

“You’re going to dope me up, I hope.”

“I were you, I’d start with two Oxy. Some people need three. They’re fifty bucks each.”

“I’m getting work done,” he said, “I usually ask for customer references. You have any?”

“I do. Ask ’em anything you want.” 

Nob whistled, and both of them came running.   

 *

Vancouver writer Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea and Hong Kong. His debut collection of short stories, In the Quiet After Slaughter (Libros Libertad), was a 2009 ReLit Award finalist. Brunch with the Jackals, his second story collection, was published by Thistledown Press in 2015. More info at donmclellan.com.

Fiction #78: Jill M. Talbot

The Documentary Channel

“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”
—David Foster Wallace

Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop (2015)

—     How can you eat and watch that stuff on TV?
—     Why not?
—     His poor wife.
—     Spring roll?
—     No thanks.
—     They’re really good.
—     How can they film him while he’s cooking?
—     Everyone’s gotta eat.
—     Not on TV.
—     You’d rather live in a fantasy world where TV characters don’t eat?
—     You’re getting plum sauce everywhere.
—     The dog will lick it up.
—     You’re a dog.
—     Could be worse, I could be eating steak.
—     I’m going to vomit.
—     No you’re not.
—     Watch me.
—     After this show.
—     You should call your mother.

We Were Kings (1996)

Michelle was a vegetarian. The smell and texture of meat made her sick, always had. Paul therefore complied and didn’t eat meat at home either. He splurged after a fight and went to a fast food joint. You could tell how bad the fight had been by the order. When Fat Burger came to Vancouver a few blocks away, it seemed almost perfect. He started to put on weight from all of his trips there.

Food, Inc. (2008)

—     When we met we had donuts from Tim Horton’s, leftover from some event. Food brings people together.
—     I don’t think our lives would have been different if we met over cigars.
—     Oh but it would have been. Tim Horton’s is a good start. A real Canadian story.
—     I thought you were going to say Real Canadian Superstore.
—     Looks like he has a thing for real Canadian bacon.

Born Into Brothels (2004)

Paul’s parents visited once a month. Michelle’s never did, her mother was dead and her father out of the picture. Where she grew up fathers were like fairy tales and you showed off who had the best fairy tale father. Ethnic was good, mysterious, missing a part of himself. They could be fairy tale fathers because they were unknown.

—     Mine’s Spanish!
—     So what, mine’s Indian!
—     That word’s racist! You’re racist!
—     I mean from India, dumby, not Native.
—     You don’t look Indian or Native.
—     I am!

Then a new girl one-upped them all. She didn’t know who her mother was. After that they stopped comparing fairy tale stories. And here she is making casserole. Maybe she had just wanted Netflix and a cat and dog. Maybe she didn’t really like being ethnic.

She grabbed some celery from the fridge. 

Christ, I married a rabbit, Paul said, passing Michelle on his way to the bathroom.

Red Army (2015)

—     Why do the neighbors leave their laundry out there for everyone to see? I don’t want to see their underwear.
—     Better for the environment.
—     Not for my environment.
—     Why do I always end up with fascists?
—     Every woman secretly wants a fascist.
—     That’s stupid.
—     I know.

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

If she wanted a perfect husband, one with a spark in his eyes, white teeth, cooking gourmet tofu, she was simply out of luck. A husband who wiped up and never reminded her of where she came from. Did he like it when she cooked and kept her mouth shut? Of course he did but she knew this. He bought her a Roomba and she cried for three days. There is no telling what will do it.

He sang, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with, to the greasy burger. He sat in his BMW in the parking lot, fat dripping down his chin, shameful as a middle-aged man getting a blowjob in a car where his wife had recently had the carpets cleaned.

Triumph of the Will (1935)

—     You didn’t eat your donut, just gave it a bite. Then when I took you to restaurants you only ordered salad.
—     Salad is good for you.
—     You were anorexic.
—     Everyone was back then.
—     I never knew if I was supposed to comment.
—     Now you have.
—     Do you think you can be a real Canadian and anorexic?
—     What the hell does that mean?
—     It just doesn’t seem very Canadian.

The Missing Picture (2014)

Michelle bought picture frames that said CAT and DOG. There was one photo of themselves where they appear to be tourists in some forest. In truth it was the park down the street. The picture of Paul’s parents was also in front of some woody area. There used to be a photo of her mother but Paul said it was creepy, her mother’s glare made him feel watched—that photo is haunted, he said. She looks like Julia Roberts after a lobotomy, he said. It’s the only photo I have, she said. Get rid of it, he said.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

—     I read that eating disorders are a side effect of high expectations. Like middle class crack. So why you?
—     By read you mean you saw a documentary.
—     Answer the question.
—     I thought I should expect as much of myself as people expected of middle class kids.
—     How did that work out?
—     I’m making casserole.
—     Maybe you’re actually bulimic.

Finders Keepers (2015)

Michelle played with keys, they sounded like a baby rattle. This was her guilty pleasure, collecting lost keys. People should really be more careful, she thought.

She looked through her collection, there were many different keychains, mostly made up of cartoon characters. One Narcotics Anonymous, some business freebies. Michelle had eighteen keys in total, at least seven that had been legitimately found. How one could find seven legitimately seemed strange, but who was she to question the workings of the universe? Those keys were usually scratched, as if someone had thrown them out a window then drove over them repeatedly.

She thought, if this were a TV show I would be a serial killer. She smiled. Her mother died before the oldest dog died. Before thirty. She was now nearly thirty and terrified of the gray hairs that keep popping up like pimples during adolescence. Maybe nothing actually changes. Is that what the dog thought the day he died—thirty years and nothing changes?

The War Tapes (2006)

—     The cat keeps bringing in half dead mice then letting them escape.
—     You’d rather he eat them?
—     Of course. Better than having mice running around half dead.
—     Get some poison.
—     It might kill the cat too.
—     See, we all have to eat.
—     I’m going to vomit.
—     He just wants attention.
—     You sound like he’s a child.
—     He sort of is.
—     The cannibal cop had a child.
—     Let’s never reproduce.
—     Were you really anorexic?
—     What do you mean, why would I make something like that up?
—     Wasn’t it just a fad?
—     I can’t talk to you like this.
—     Like not everyone who does coke is a cokehead.
—    You’ve been watching too many documentaries.

F for Fake (1973)

The dog and cat had actual names but Paul and Michelle had taken to calling them the dog and the cat, as if they were living in a dollhouse where each item was only a generalization of the world. Dog. Cat. Kitchen. TV.

She had taken a writing workshop but quit when they were asked to write about losing their virginity. Virgin. Whore. Husband. House. In-laws. Fat. Meat. Meat. Meat. Vomit.

No End in Sight (2007)

—     Crawl like you’re a dog.

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

She noticed a bit of fat on her stomach. It stuck out in the most bizarre shape. She poked at it like testing vegetables in a supermarket. As if some lost and found objects were stuck inside her. This should’ve please her but it didn’t, it didn’t at all. She remembered as a child when they called it baby fat, a term that made her feel like livestock. Adult fat wasn’t much better. Was she an adult? Apparently. But when, exactly, had that happened? She felt like it had all been a game. She poked her stomach with a key and eyed her thigh gap. Perhaps she had never got rid of her baby fat. The gap was more of a sliver. Boys never have baby fat, of course, because the term implied that it would go away, and little girls needed this promise. It made it cute and only momentary. And now she was making a casserole. Christ.

Life Itself (2014)

—     Do you ever feel like your life is composed mostly of talking about your life, even if it’s just in your head?
—     Not really.
—     Sometimes I want a lobotomy.
—     Sometimes I want you to have a lobotomy.
—     The neighbour thinks you’re a serial killer.
—     Good. That woman doesn’t need a lobotomy but I’d give her one.

Deliver Us from Evil (2006)

Paul didn’t know what was wrong with Michelle but knew that every suggestion that there was something wrong would end horribly. So he hoped that it would pass, would be a toothache that didn’t need a dentist but a few days without anything too hot or cold. He tried to be lukewarm but what could he do if even plum sauce sent her into rage? What could he do about any of it? He missed that young, lost, weak girl he first met, her snappiness more cute than cruel.

Control Room (2004)

—     When I was a kid I put ladybugs in jars of water.
—     That’s horrible, why are you telling me this?
—     I was just curious. I was like the cat. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Eventually I felt guilty and stopped doing it.
—     Why ladybugs? Ladybugs are cute.
—     And that gives them some sort of a right to life?
—     Ladybugs don’t bite anyone or cause malaria or anything.
—     And they don’t pollinate the plants we need to live or kill the mosquitos either. Look, you refused to eat Tim Horton’s like a good Canadian, I put ladybugs in jars, the cat brings in half dead mice, this dude fantasizes about eating people, nobody’s perfect.
—     Sometimes I don’t know how we got here.
—     Television, probably.
—     I’m going to throw up.
—     Of course you are.
—     Your parents are visiting. I told them I’m making your favourite casserole. Maybe you should make it.
—     If you answer their questions.
—     I’m almost thirty.

The Imposter (2012)

Michelle looked up employment ads, something in hospitality, something part time. She ended up looking up Craigslist personals, just out of curiosity. People were gross and desperate. Craigslist, at least, no longer had the erotic services section. There was a time when you could sell yourself on Craigslist. One man told her that she needed more baby fat, another told her that she was too pretty to be a whore. A few of them lost their keys.

Paul had said, if anyone asks, we met at a party. Every story needs some consistency, some truth. You will say we met with donuts and you knew at first sight.

Nostalgia for the Light (2011)

—     Now eat meat. Dogs eat meat.

He stuffed food into her mouth, she couldn’t see with the blindfolds on. She was relieved to discover that it wasn’t meat but bread. She struggled to swallow it.

Stories We Tell (2013)

—     Gina? Too strange. What’s your real name?
—     Birth certificate real?
—     That’s generally what real means.
—     Michelle.
—     That’ll do.

Wordplay (2006)

Paul was disgusting, there was no way around it. He was getting chubby. He thought that love was something you buy—he got the previously loved euphemism mixed up with used. He thought girls should be like new china. He thought that if they never spoke of how they had met, it wouldn’t be true. Doesn’t every girl secretly want to be Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman? That’s what he asked. He lay on the couch mostly, every once and awhile he did some cocaine. He used to share until he discovered what a buzz kill Michelle was when she was high. She started talking about things on the list of things not to be talked about and she would panic. She was like a feral cat on cocaine. At first this gave Paul power as he tried to be the one to soothe her back, to let her rock back and forth in his arms, but fairly quickly she would turn on him. Michelle bit her fingernails as she thought of this—of the cocaine courage. Liquid courage was better. Or anorexic silence. That’s what anorexia was to her—silence. But now she has stopped caring and started snapping back at Paul. Once she had said that she preferred heroin to cocaine. When he looked shocked and disgusted she said, I’m joking, though they both knew that she wasn’t. She started to sing “Creep” by Radiohead and remembered how old she was.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

—     If our lives were reality television, the whole world would hate us.
—     Let them.

Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

Paul got his greasy fat burger and unwrapped it, mouth watering. It was the smell of youth, of everything forgiven, forgotten, placed in a drawer somewhere. There was something unhealthy about wanting to vomit at the smell of pure protein. His hands were so greasy as if he had been lubricated to enter a small tunnel. It filled up his belly, made him feel like Superman. Made him feel so good that he ordered another. Later Michelle would question him on his eating habits but he didn’t care. A man needed some privacy, some protein, some dignity.

For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)

—     Are you religious? You think you’re a saint? Paul the disciple? Should I be washing your feet?
—     You should be washing your mouth.
—     Oh but that’s your job.

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

Michelle went to the bathroom and puts the bath on. The bathroom felt like a sanctuary away from the world. She got out her hidden toothbrush and put on an audiobook. It wasn’t so much the story she was interested in but the soothing way of reading the actor had. It seemed that they always chose one with a generalization of the male voice rather than a real voice. She especially loved when he announced each chapter. She dealt with dinner between Chapter One and Chapter Two and then got into the bath. She turned up the generalized male voice so that she didn’t have to hear Paul’s documentaries.

Documentaries used absurdly male voices, not generalized male voices. None of them, of course, used female voices. She liked Chekov because it was a generalized voice reading generalized words, such as The Lady with the Dog. Names—real names—were problematic.
She stayed in the bath until the water was cold and her skin was wrinkled.

Inside Job (2010)

—     Can we watch something that isn’t a documentary?
—     You’d rather live in fantasy?
—     You were the one who wanted the fantasy.

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

She remembered watching porn with a guy where the girl had a huge scar across her chest, it made her sick to watch, as if the heart of the girl had been removed and consumed. And this was what he wanted to watch? She shivered. Paul had been friendly enough. Why do you pay, she asked him. Because I can, he replied. Doesn’t it ruin it? It makes it better, or makes you mine. I’m not a lost child for you to save, she said. I know, he said. Your taste in porn suggests otherwise, she said.
She always thought he would turn on her at some point but it was more like he turned on himself. He no longer seemed interested in even owning himself.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

They told Paul’s parents that they had met at a party, they practiced their lines until it was who they were, this method-acting version of real people. The truth was more like when Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes and bit his ear, except darker, but Paul made it seem like Romeo and Juliet.
He said that he had met Ghomeshi before but no one actually believed him. He also pointed out that Romeo and Juliet killed themselves, at least everyone from the Ghomeshi trial was still alive. For now, Michelle said.

The Invisible War (2012)

One night a drunken Paul whispered, aren’t you glad you aren’t Gina anymore? Michelle answered with silence.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

—     Would the TV woman have been better off if she had never found out?
—     Probably.

Undefeated (2011)
—     I’ve gone all fifties housewife and they don’t even show up.
—     They hadn’t called, there must be an accident, how can you think about casserole?
—     That’s what wives do, isn’t it, think about casserole? Why did we get a cat and dog?
—     You wanted the cat, I wanted the dog, we decided that neither of us should limit the other.
—     Have you called them?
—     About a million times.

Michelle dumps the casserole in the garbage.

—     Hey, someone might have eaten that!
—     I can’t, I can’t even look at it.

The Look of Silence (2015)

One day a woman dropped by, arriving minutes after Paul had left the garage in his car. Michelle wanted to ignore her but the woman kept on knocking. When she finally answered the woman merely handed her a brochure—WIN: Women In Need. You are better than this, the woman said. Michelle’s head made the gesture of nodding only half way. Michelle shut the door. Moments later they discovered each other peering through their respective windows.

Which is it, WIN or In Need, Michelle wondered. They should get their message straight.

This Is Not a Film (2012)

—     Mom called, dad had a stroke. Do you know where my keys are?

Blackfish (2013)

Next to the keys were three birth certificates.

*

Jill M. Talbot's writing has appeared in Geist, Rattle, Poetry Is Dead, The Puritan, Matrix, subTerrain, The Tishman Review, The Cardiff Review, PRISM, Southword, The Stinging Fly, and others. Jill won the PRISM Grouse Grind Lit Prize. She was shortlisted for the Matrix Lit POP Award for fiction and the Malahat Far Horizons Award for poetry. Jill lives on Gabriola Island, BC.

Fiction #78: Grace March

Iced-Tea and Bruises

I am sorry for the summer.

You know the one. And I really am sorry. Kelsey brought it up again yesterday.

I tried, I really—I did try. There aren’t any excuses good enough, and I don’t even want to make them, only I wish you had told me instead of Kelsey because I would have changed—not for the right reasons, of course; it would have been out of fear rather than affection or blank deference, but I would have changed nonetheless.

You see, I was terrified of you. I still am. I can picture the blown fuse in Oma’s eyes if you heard me say that, or the cloud rising out of Opa’s features like condensation from the kettle spawns on the wall beside it. You would ask what you have ever done to make someone afraid of you, and the answer would be both everything and nothing, because I might understand it now but I didn’t in 1993. Now that I do know, it won’t change anything. You will still be communicating all your rage and confusion with your Merry Christmases, and I will still take two days working up the guts to send a polite email, because I think it would be better if we just forgot about each other entirely. I am never going to be able to do as you wish, and you are never going to approve of me.

I still wish that we could have been friends. At the same time, I wish there were enough apathy between us that we could arrange a neat estrangement. Now, there cannot be, in part because of the summer of 1993 and in part because of how much everything has changed since then. It is almost as if the summer of 1993 was our last chance, and it was royally botched, and the whole carefully-gestated structure of our relationship was aborted, and now all we have between us is the knowledge that there was a life, once, but it is as gone as it was unrepeatable. The most we can do is to pretend that it was an involuntary miscarriage or that it didn’t happen, at all; the most we can do is plate squares for Sunday afternoon coffee in the same kitchen, process beans on the same afternoon, and compliment each other’s health because it seems to take a real talent to hang onto, after a while. You were so proud of your sunroom, the way the light danced across the table, the colour of iced-tea.

What you did to make me afraid of you was done out of love. That was what Kelsey said. She didn’t say for whose love, just that, for whoever, you loved yourselves into debilitation and decay, until you were crotchety and impatient, northern Mother Teresas in sun-visors and plastic aprons. She said that you wouldn’t be as shrunken and hoarse-voiced as you are now if it hadn’t been for how difficult we were, my siblings and I, and we have always known that, but we also always figured it was your own fault. You were supposed to have been powerful enough to stop the bruises forming on our bellies.

The way Kelsey explained it was: that you loved us, so you hated to see us so dirty, helpless, and socially-inept, and because you hated to see us that way, you became short-tempered, and maybe you were trying to help us become otherwise, by inserting little instructional moments into our conversation until the entire dialogue consisted of reprimands. Because you were angry, because you so obviously loved us that you could not imagine we would suppose you didn’t. But we were children, and we were frightened of you. Every time you sized us up and told us how much we were worth, we would rather you have told us that you didn’t love us, at all. You said that you loved us because of who our mother was; you meant it as an encouragement, because you do not think anyone could separate themselves from their family, but we, because of everything else that you didn’t know, would rather you have told us that you didn’t love us, at all. When you said the bruises were our own faults. Now that the bruises are gone, should the hate be gone, too, or is it me who should leave?

There was so much that you did know. I knew nothing, and disdained you for what you knew and what you ignored and what you lied to us about. If you had, at any point, been honest, I would trust you less, and as you never were, I would have rather you told us that you didn’t love us, at all, at all, that you didn’t love us at all.

Except for, Kelsey says, that you actually did, and that makes all the difference.

Hence, I am sorry for that one summer. You know the one.

What, exactly, are we supposed to do?

Plate squares for Sunday afternoon coffee in the same kitchen.

Throw packs of beans into the freezer.

Compliment each other’s health.

Drink nameless black tea from white ceramic cups.

Eat pineapple pizza in sunlight the colour of iced-tea, watching for hummingbirds and squirrels, the life you are so proud of.

Let everything stew quietly inside and never tell one another, only you will tell Kelsey so that she can tell me years later, and I will tell nobody that we both know, to spare myself the questioning and also to preserve, at all costs, your reputation. To make sure that nobody you know ever asks you why I should be afraid of you, because you will say that I shouldn’t have been—I didn’t know any better, I only knew that you were angry, and never asked why—because you were righteously angry, even if it was the only part of our relationship with any righteousness in it; because you measured us out like so many cups of water for boiling, and publicized our faults, in order to motivate change, however you knew how, as change was needed more than anything else; because when you say, “Merry Christmas,” and it carries the weight of two decades’ worth of disappointment and dismay, you are not saying that you would give up two decades if only to escape the disappointment. Because you actually did love us. That makes all the difference.

That’s what Kelsey says, anyway.

*


Grace March is a writer from the prairies of Western Canada. Her work has been featured in Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal. 

Fiction #78: Lynda Curnoe

My Death                                                                                     

The very idea of their being witnesses to my death was outrageous to me. While I was in a great deal of pain from terminal lung cancer, the pain in my soul from these upstarts who insinuated themselves into my last days on earth was far worse and much more terrifying. I know they have been my wife’s friends for many years, but I have never considered them mine. Oh, I tolerated the dinner parties together and the odd theatre and concert evening, even the parties, since I was able to chat with people whose company I did enjoy.

My wife has been a friend of Brooke’s since they were at university together at Queens. I did not meet my wife, Judy, until we were both working in Toronto. When Brooke married this chap Freddie (oh, how I hate that name, when he has a perfectly good name, Frederick or even Fred) my wife was the maid of honour and I was assigned an ushers job, even though I knew neither one of them. But I was by nature an easy going sort of fellow, enjoying the wedding and reception, dancing and flirting like the rest of them. Little did I know we were to become best friends as two couples for the rest of our lives.

One thing that has been incomprehensible to me is how couples relationships begin and persist. I do not understand why it is assumed that when two women are close friends the husbands are expected to be buddies too. My wife has known all along that I did not particularly like Brooke and Freddie and merely tolerated them. Brooke and Judy’s relationship was solid, two friends who talked on the phone, discussed careers, children, all aspects of living as they lived their lives. There were times when we moved around with my work when we did not see much of them but, eventually, when we retired to live in Toronto 9 years ago we began to see them almost every weekend. I had many good friends of my own, but they and their wives always kept apart from us to a certain extent, although of course, we saw them at parties and the occasional dinner.

Freddie and I found enough common things to talk about, I suppose, but generally he was too conservative for my taste and more the sportsman while my interests lie in literature, reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, carefully so that every word shines out for me, revealing layers of meaning. Mind you I didn’t discuss my serious interests with my own friends either, but we did discuss literature in general, the books we read and so on. How I would love to have seen them more often as I reached the terminal stage but they stayed away, except for the odd visit or phone call. They were all at the funeral, though. Some of my old friends were weeping.

Oh, what a terrible thing that I spent my last days with anger and hatred filling my mind. I lay there in my bed at home waiting for the next dose of pain medication, hoping that the dreaded doorbell would not ring and it was Freddy and Brooke again, with a little supper for us, some magazines for me or whatever. Their expressions so kindly with Freddie calling me old chap or some such kind of pseudo endearment. What I really wanted was to be alone with my wife and being able to read occasionally or watch old movies when the pain was not too bad.

But I do understand that Judy needed them around, they made her feel alive just as surely as I made her feel that death was all around.

I was always happy to see the children, and their phone calls would lighten up my day. Sometimes I wonder if they knew that. And to see the grandchildren, clustered around me, with their bright shiny hair and beautiful lips and eyes that I could gaze into until eternity. They were a little afraid of me, because I was so thin and I wonder if I had some bad smells perhaps from my mouth or from the many drugs that permeated my body and came out of my pores. But they did come as often as they could and these were always very joyful occasions to me. I would ask them to bring me the children’s books that we keep on a shelf in the living room and we looked at the pictures together while I asked them to tell me the stories.

Brooke and Freddie often arrived Sunday morning after mass, bringing with them some homemade soup, squash or lentil or some other healthy variety, that Brooke had made for our lunch. I have to admit it tasted awfully good but, since they were not eating with us, they hovered around almost like parents tending to a child, making sure the bib was properly fastened around my neck and that the soup wasn’t too hot or too spicy for me, as I couldn’t tolerate spices those last days. And Freddie again calling me old chap, smiling as he did sympathetically as though saying “I know how you feel.” But he didn’t-because he was not dying.

I tried to tell my wife how I felt and she would reply, “But they are our best friends.”

“Yours” I would say “not mine.”

Then she said, not too unkindly, “You don’t have any best friends.”

“Does that mean,” I said, “that these are my best friends by default and because I don’t have any obvious ones, these best friends of yours must do.”

But arguments were too exhausting we both realized, and we stopped this kind of nattering. I could never tell her how I really felt. Judy simply promised that she would tell Brooke and Freddie not to drop around quite so often, that they should call first and that perhaps they could speak more by telephone, as visits made me so tired.

“Yes,” I agreed. But I kept getting worse with less and less control over how I would be treated and soon wished to see only my family as the disease progressed. I knew I would have to go into palliative care at some point, when my wife was no longer able to take care of me.

My daughter drove me to see the hospice which looked like a comfortable hotel with large beautifully decorated rooms, reception areas with fireplaces and friendly staff. There were terraces outside, lined with flowers, and flowering trees, short walk-ways and landscaped lawns with large trees in the distance that you could see from the bedroom windows. How awful it all was. And I was told by a woman who came to our house, who specialized in such things that eventually I would begin to accept all of this and would not fight it anymore. That did happen.

Upon arriving, I told the supervising nurse about Freddie and Brooke, that I did not want them to be around me in the hospice and apparently she told my wife but they came anyway, to comfort her. No one listened to me or understood my position. Oh they kept out of the way, but I knew they were hovering nearby, perhaps in the lounge. And my wife would often mention them in conversation so I knew they were still very much a part of her life.

They were even there the night I died. I worsened quite suddenly early Saturday evening when my heart began to give out and unfortunately both my children were up at their cottages. They were called and wanted immediately to return to Toronto but my wife told them to wait until Sunday as she didn’t think they would be able to get back in time. There was simply too much to do with waking up the children and getting the car packed. She continued to call them every few hours throughout the night.

I was in no position to do anything about protesting that my children were not there as, by this point, I was drugged up to my eyeballs which remained wide open throughout the hours it took for me to die. No doubt I looked appalling, as I could not blink and just stared uselessly at a point somewhere across the room. My body was totally emaciated and my face looked like an orange skin-covered skeleton. What with my shallow raspy breathing and my creepy eyes, you would think Brooke and Freddie would be horrified and want to leave. But they did not.

They stayed there all night (I didn’t die till 6 am) alternately holding my wife’s hand, the one she was not holding my hand with, and, unbelievably, mine. I couldn’t see out of my eyes, mind you, as I was traveling in and out of my body throughout the night, sometimes hovering up around the ceiling, looking down on the horror that was me and the horror that was Freddie and Brooke trying to comfort me, and sometimes right inside my drugged unfeeling body as I worked on dying.

Nowadays I occasionally visit my wife in our home, being very quiet as I think she might be frightened or think that I was there to give her some kind of message from beyond which would be highly unlikely as neither of us had ever gone in for that sort of thing, either on earth or where I am now.

I never enter our house when Freddie and Brooke are visiting. I don’t even think I shall approach them when they come here, and I certainly hope they don’t recognize me.

My, what a joy they have been to my wife, she tells all her other friends, and I'm not surprised to hear her add, especially during the time of my death.

*

Lynda Curnoe enjoys writing short stories and poetry and anything else that appeals to her. She lives in Toronto.

Fiction #78: Chelsea La Vecchia

Antonina

Antonina lived on high volume. She talked as though she always fought to be heard, because no one listened to the valid points she made. The kind who talked so intensely with her hands driving with her felt like you would veer into oncoming traffic any moment, her story a wayward cliff. The kind who burned as bright as a welder’s torch but worked with wood, incinerating every inch.

I knew her as a girl. We grew up at the cross section of Mortimer and Coxwell or Woodbine, depending on how “street” or “classy” we wanted to be. Woodbine was where the poor kids lived, the ones who hung around in the high-rises and lit firecrackers in port-o-potties at Stand Wadlow Park’s Canada Day festival. The Coxwell kids would snicker under their breaths, turning away from their parents who shook their heads and claimed their children would never do something like that. The kids who could afford to go beyond select hockey at East York Arena, who played ball hockey at Withrow and baseball at Topham and soccer at Dieppe all in the same year.

We were sandwiched in the middle.

I was 13-years-old when I learned Antonina played with fire. It was Canada Day in East York, a working-class town-turned-neighbourhood in Toronto, and I was staying with her while my parents went to their friend’s cottage up north.

That day I remember she stared out the window, wearing the red shirt her mother forced her into. “We’re proud Canadians,” her mother said, avoiding an envious look at me as her olive-skinned daughter pulled at the snug red shirt that was probably a hand-me-down from her Zia.

I was the Canadian friend. The one born at East General Hospital to parents who could trace their lineage as far back as the original settlers. Antonina’s mother had escaped an abusive marriage back in Italy, her chubby daughter a tiny babe at the time. I didn’t know all this then. I only knew that my friend’s mother stayed silent each time Antonina brought up her father.

“Mama, look!” Antonina pointed out the window of their apartment above the corner store. I heard the sound of laughter, people talking loudly and children joyously yelling the parade was coming.
The two of us raced outside, ignoring the hurried calls of her mother, dashing down the stairs as though we’d fallen and pushing through the wall of parents on the outskirts of the festivities.

The parade felt magnificent to my childish eyes. It was led by a marching band dressed in red, a group of five people holding a Canadian flag in the middle. Each float seemed to surpass the next in beauty; every community group from the school board to the police, organizations like the Shriners and the Greek Canadian association all sought to surpass each other in flagrant nationalism, red streaming from every surface imaginable.

As the float for the Irish-Canadian society went by I looked beyond it and saw Tia Rubinovic across the way, nestled into the arm of her much older boyfriend. “Look.”

Antonina took her eyes off the parade and saw her. I expected my friend to make a snide remark, to loudly state something about her appearance or the older boyfriend. She would with anything else. But Antonina—my loud and boisterous friend—stayed silent.

Tia had come back from summer holidays the year before with a new look. Before she wore regular t-shirts and oversized pants, but when she entered grade eight it was all tight-fitting jean onesies and such grandiose gold hoops they looked as though her arms could fit into them. Everything was meant to accentuate her petite developing frame, plunging into a pool of hormones and growing quickly.

The girls in our school gossiped behind her back, while the boys made rude gestures and called out to her in the halls.

Tia looked comfortable with the guy. I recognized him from lunch break. He was one of the ones who hung around the pizza place across from East York Collegiate, his face almost a pizza itself. You’d never tell him that. The guy fought like an animal, and I’d definitely seen him carted away by the police who patrolled the area once or twice.

He had his arm around Tia. She smiled up at him when she saw me looking, and I squirmed, embarrassed to have been caught. Tia looked back at me with sharp eyes, boring into my vision and making my face redden.

When the parade was done Antonina and I went back inside to cool off before heading to Stan Wadlow Park for the carnival.

*

The place was alive with music and laughter, the creaking sound of cheap rides and auto-tuned carnival game music a symphony to my ears.

Day waned, and the sky turned a soft cerulean. The whole neighbourhood flocked from the rides to the shallow hillside, awaiting the fireworks that would come as soon as it was dark.

Antonina liked being further back, closer to the arena and sloped on the hill. I followed her, and we found a spot and put our blanket down.

The sky got darker, and the crowd buzzed louder. The fireworks were coming.

I turned to my friend, but she looked down, her head tilted to expose her ear to something in the alley behind us. The smile dropped from my face as I tuned in as well.

There were voices speaking hurriedly, and then the sound of a muted cry.

Antonina got up in a flurry. She waited a moment, then we heard another cry and she was gone, red shirt tearing slightly at the seams. I could hear her footsteps on the grass.

I followed her around the corner and ran right into Tia and her boyfriend. It took me a moment to see what was happening. Tia was pushed up against the wall, mascara lined down her cheeks from crying, while her boyfriend stood a little further away with his pants undone.

“Get the fuck out of here.”

Antonina didn’t say a word. She walked up to Tia and grabbed her arm. I watched, mouth agape, as the boyfriend grabbed my friend and shoved her away from them. Antonina stumbled, but got right up and pushed the guy so hard he fell on his ass.

The guy’s face paled, his oily acne leaving red dots on a blank face. I could see the rage boiling from below him, a flame to the pot. Antonina grabbed Tia by the arm and pulled her towards us as he rushed up.

But he was dealing with welders’ fire.

She turned to him before he could strike her. He froze in his steps, Antonina’s gaze bearing down at him like sunlight through a magnifying glass, and him caught in its blaze. His rage subsiding into a softened embarrassment, anger tucked away for another time.

Behind us, the fireworks began.

Antonina led Tia out of the alley and onto our blanket, where we calmly watched the show, Tia clinging to Antonina’s arm like a buoy, her mascara crusted onto her cheek and flaking off.

*

Chelsea La Vecchia is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. She has been working on her debut novel since graduating from the University of Toronto Scarborough in June, 2017, where she studied English literature and creative writing. Her articles can be found in Torontoist, SickNotWeak Society, and dandyhorse magazine. When not reading or writing, you can find her cycling from A to B, cooking, or taking a dance class.

Twitter: @ChelseaLaVecch 
Instagram: @cheldawg7 

Photo credit: Leanne Simpson

Final TDR Editorial

Pity the poor editor. Actually, don't.

Seriously.

I mean, it hasn't been easy. But that's not, now, what settles in the forefront of my mind when I consider 19 years of The Danforth Review.

Nineteen years, holy smokes. (Okay, 19, minus a two-year pause, 2009-2011, but still.)

What settles in the forefront of my mind is the gratitude that it happened at all, that it thrived, because others participated. Contributed. Edited. Submitted. Downloaded and read it.

Without you -- you -- it wouldn't have happened at all.

We experimented, we fiddled, we made mistakes, we carried on. And on and on.

In 2018, much has changed; a new generation has ascended, and that's great.

There are all kinds of new "small magazines." Many new writers demanding to be heard. And the range of the stories being published is broader than ever before. So nice.

Looking back, reflecting, what to say?

The first three issues of TDR were coded HTML in a subfolder off my personal website.

It is archived here - http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/202/300/danforth/index.html 

Then I started using Microsoft Frontpage to provide a templated structure, which made things easier. Easier to get bigger.

Submissions came in from around the world. One came from a U.S. soldier in Faluja, Iraq. Others from India, Korea, the United States of America, the United Kingdom.

Mostly, though, submissions came from across Canada. People found out about us by word of mouth, or following links.

In the beginning, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no social media or any kind. No smart phones.

There was just the internet, its basic tool (HTML), and a desire to communicate. To bring the literary magazine online. To some, this was too radical. (As I canvassed for submissions for those early issues, some said they would never publish online.) Now, online publication is second nature, even intuitive, unquestioned.

And the premises of the internet (hyperlinks, overwhelming volume of content, global reach, search functions) are taken for granted. Social media blew it up a billion fold.

In the beginning, TDR was about "the small press scene." It was never about "Canlit" writ large.

"Small press" was managable, right? Wrong. So wrong.

The diversity available from Canada's small press has been large and diverse for a long time. Since before TDR. By running TDR, I learned so much. I learned there was more than my initial, meagre vision could contemplate.

Then life intervened, and I pulled the plug, took a break.

After the hiatus, TDR returned in 2011, using Blogger, and focused on being smaller. We focused on publishing fiction, my greatest joy.

What a long series of pleasures it has been to introduce writers to a wider audience, especially to give writers their first publication.

What was TDR looking for? What was our "thing"? I have struggled to articulate this.

What I know is, I liked to find what I didn't expect. Which doesn't mean I looked for the odd or the weird, just the thing that didn't conform to stereotype (being weird can be a kind of stereotype).

TDR published all kinds of stories, from all kinds of writers, some strongly traditional, others wildly experimental.

I'm confident that short stories will continue to be championed by editors and publishers -- and sought out by readers. They are a barometer of our times, tracking the imagination, and the form is far from exhausted, as the writers who have submitted to TDR through the years have perpetually proven.

They don't do it for the money, that's for sure.

I hope we inspired many, as we kept doing what we do. What we did.

If TDR is remembered for anything, I hope it is remembered for sharing peeks into spaces previously unknown.

Where we have made errors, they are entirely mine.

Enormous gratitude to all of the "staff" of TDR over the years. You made it possible: Geoff Cook, Dani Couture, Nathaniel G. Moore, Shane Neilson, Karen Press, all of the reviewers, all of the authors who agreed to be interviewed, everyone who ever contributed, everyone who ever submitted..... And Nathan Whitlock for editing an issue, back in the day.

I met someone recently who told me she'd submitted something in the early days of TDR and I'd rejected her work. She's gone on to publish two novels (so far), both New York Times best selling.

So what do I know? Keep writing, never give up.

*

Michael Bryson, September 2018

Photo by Michael Bryson, July 2018, at the memorial for the Danforth Avenue mass shooting.