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 PRISM international
Winter 2006  PRISM international
2005 PRISM international
Literary Nonfiction Contest
Grand Prize - $500
Julie Vandervoort
"Counting Out Loud"
RusseU Wangersky
"House of Dreams*
Lynne Bowen
Andreas Schroeder
Contest Manager
Emily Southwood
Linda Besner
Andrew Binks
Chelsea Bolan
Rachelle Delaney
Ben Hart
Donnard MacKenzie
Melissa Shaddix
Regan Taylor
Richard Van Camp
John Vigna  PRISM international
Fiction Editor
Benjamin Wood
Poetry Editor
Amber Dawn
Executive Editors
Zoya Harris
Robert Weston
Associate Editors
Carla Elm Clement
Ben Hart
Bren Simmers
Regan Taylor
Advisory Editor
Rhea Tregebov
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Tony Liman
Joelle Renstrom
Susan Olding
Catharine Chen
Amanda Lamarche
Ann Chandler
Wasela Hiyate PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four
times a year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British
Columbia, Buchanan E-462, 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T IZl. Microfilm editions are available from University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor,
MI, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. The
magazine is listed by the Canadian Literary Periodicals Index.
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Contents Copyright • 2006 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover flmstration: Untitled, by Dave Barnes.
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Our gratitude to Dean Nancy GaUini and the Dean of Arts Office at the University of British Columbia. We gratefuUy acknowledge the financial support
of the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, and
the Government of Canada, through the Publications Assistance Program
(PAP), toward our mailing costs.
PAP Registration No. 8867. January 2006. ISSN 0032.8790
BRITISH COLUMBIA      «B8     Canada Council    Conseil des Arts
ARTS COUNCIL C*>   *» the Arts du Canada
Canada Contents
Volume 44, Number 2
Winter 2006
2005 PRISM international
Literary Nonfiction Contest
Judge's Essay
Andreas Schroeder
The Church of Creative Nonfiction / 7
Winning Entry
Julie Vandervoort
Counting Out Loud / 9
Russell Wangersky
House of Dreams / 17
Matt Rader
The Movies / 30
Michael Bogan
How to Bury a Son / 41
Richard Cumyn
Doctor Mem / 56 Poetry
Donna Kane
Thin Ice / 21
Moose / 22
John Lofranco
Hamilton Postman / 23
Eating an Orange in the Square at the Queen's University, Belfast / 24
Looking for Shells on the Beach at Galway Bay / 25
Miranda Pearson
Green-Eyed / 26
Amrita Pritam
Ad Rajni (Creation) / 27
Ad Chirr (Primordial Painter) / 28
Ad Sangeet (The First Song) / 29
translated from the Punjabi by Kuldip Gill
Moez Surani
Country of the Blue / 37
Bruce Holland Rogers
Border Crossing / 50
Elisabeth de Mariaffi
epitaph / 47
That day / 48
Brian Swann
Open and Closed / 53
Explorers / 54
Marchen / 55
Sheri Benning
Descent from the Cross / 72
Northern River c. 1914-1915 / 73
Contributors /
74 Andreas Schroeder
The Church of Creative
I was born in Germany, but grew up in North America. Thus, I've had
reason to return to Germany from time to time, to maintain contact
with fanuly, friends, and the culture that spawned me.
Germany has a lot to recommend it: precision engineering (the
church of the right-angle), on-time trains (the church of the stopwatch),
and a music and Uterary industry that just won't quit But there are also
interesting gaps, and the one that struck me most vividly back in the
Sixties was movies. When it came to filmmaking, Germany just didn't
seem to get it. Even today, despite notable exceptions such as Fassbinder
and Herzog, Fm not entirely sure that Germany's gotten it Most German films still strike me as rigid celluloid transliterations of books—even
when they've been made from original scripts. It's as if most German
filmmakers stiU haven't become comfortable enough with this art form
to risk a throwaway Une, a non sequitur image or sound, or an illicit
pause in the forced march of their narratives.
I've long had a similar feeling about a lot of what falls under the
rubrick of creative nonfiction in North America. Since the genre underwent a revolution in the Seventies and a veritable truckload of new tools
was made available to its practitioners, we've been waiting for the big
pay-off—largely, it appears, in vain. Most of the writers whose entries we
receive for PRISM international's Literary Nonfiction Contest still seem
unwilling to stray very far from the old straight and narrow. Their memoirs or stories plunge ahead from Beginning to End with a singularity of
purpose that, even when it's done weU, seems to me somehow blinkered.
Efficient yes; effective, perhaps, but when aU is said and done, missing a
lot of opportunities.
Fortunately, we usually get at least a few non-standard entries that
keep our hopes alive, and if we're really lucky, they also turn out to be
the winners. That's what happened this year with JuUe Vandervoorfs
"Counting Out Loud" being chosen the winner, and veteran contest winner RusseU Wangersky's "House of Dreams" scoring a close runner-up.
These two pieces achieve their unconventionaUty by quite different means. JuUe Vandervoort imports features from storytelUng's oral traditions, using a second-person address for greater informaUty, to give herself the room to ask rhetorical questions, take detours (i.e. the roommate
with the Scottie dog tea towels; the imagined negotiations with imagined
abductors), and to offset the inherent liabilities of a story that progresses
primarily by working its way through a chronological list of the deaths
of nine of her relatives. Through a nicely caUbrated mix of anecdote,
musings, and commentary, Vandervoort produces a deeply thoughtful
piece about the way she and her extended family have dealt with those
deaths—though, as with most exceUent writing, it's never only about
Russell Wangersky uses elements of mystery fiction mixed with forensic investigation to produce an eerie piece that progresses with the
slow inevitability of a toxic chemical reaction. In the literary equivalent
of one of those Ansel Adams photographs in which the background appears to be in sharper focus than the foreground due to an imbalance of
Ught rather than focal length, Wangersky's post-mortem of a mysterious
house fire turns up a good deal more than merely the fire's possible
origins. As with his equally eerie winning entry "Ways of Seeing" last
year—and again, as is characteristic of aU superb writing—the investigation raises far more unsettling questions than it answers.
We keep hearing, and reading, that creative nonfiction is on the upswing—that the genre is not only coming into its own, but is on the
verge of becoming fashionable. If this is so, we encourage writers to avail
themselves more fully of this splendid opportunity. It would be great to
see a lot more exploration, more experimentation, more cross-poUina-
tion going on in creative nonfiction. Ironically, they've been doing it in
Germany for years.
8 Julie Vandervoort
Counting Out Loud
Say you come from a big family where everyone is a farmer, a
nurse, an electrician, or a hydro worker. Occasionally a teacher,
or a banker. There are two (large) poUce officers. No clergy. Here's
what you get for sure: food (ample), housing (soUd), clothing (new and
pre-owned from all directions), funny stories, backyard rinks, practical
advice, summer kitchens, a Royal Bank savings account passbook in
your own name by the time you're nine, schooled in cards, the knowledge that at least one of the adults within earshot is trained to cope with
Ufe-threatening situations.
Here's what you might not get: taken to an art gallery or any sense
that art galleries exist sad stories (told), an acknowledgment that unseen
wires also connect, displays of faith.
When I got the call that my cousin Dennis had committed suicide,
my first thought was: "Oh no. Not again." I don't mean that he'd tried
before. He was as handy as all the other adults, Head of Maintenance
actually, knew what he was doing. I meant "Not another funeral."
I was Uving in Montreal then, a city that could produce basement
apartments that were cheap, had high ceilings and waUs sponged in
peach and aqua. Faux, I was told, was the name for that kind of paint
job. The place had also produced a roommate who drove me crazy. At
twenty-four, he drove a station wagon. He had a clock that he'd brought
from home, made out of a highly varnished piece of cross-sectioned tree.
He had tea towels with Scottie dog images, and soaps that said, "Grime
does not pay." He would natter at me through closed doors, give up, go
listen to three Roger Whittaker songs in a row and then come back. He
was eager to come with the phone, that caU, because I had to answer.
After I hung up, he tried to get me to talk about it while I threw a book,
a dress, and black shoes into a knapsack. At least I thought, this isn't like
the time I had to get a dress and shoes couriered to my brother's Prudential Insurance office.
It was a great wake, Dennis'. Lots of food and the bottles, well—have
you ever seen mail deUvery robots? They follow a tape laid down on the
floor and the sensors in the tape teU the robot to stop in front of a work
station and provide or accept deliveries. Bottles at a wake are Uke that
They circulate without you doing anything to summon them. So do the stories. New ones come out, new twists at least, the listeners and teUers
bunking wet eyes in laughing faces. I shared the bottles and sent them
along but pocketed aU the bits of information in the stories.
And it was a packed funeral—they always were. Almost my only exposure to the Bible was at these funerals. I was struck every time by the
poetry and comfort of such nonsensical phrases as: "In my father's house
there are many mansions.'"
In my father's house there were two youthful ghosts; in my mother's
house there were many. I didn't know my cousin Roseanne, I barely
knew of her. My older sister remembers the ringing long-two-short signal
on the party line, huddling with Roseanne's sister Elaine near the upstairs heat griUe, trying to make sense of the loud voices gone soft For all
the time I spent with those cousins, I can't remember ever talking about
Roseanne, or seeing a picture. I certainly never heard the shocking part
about that death, until recentiy. The little I somehow did know was bad
enough—she had just graduated, just got engaged, just got in a car Uke
you would on any given day. But it crashed.
I remember more about Doug. Well, not reaUy, but he had more presence because once my aunt actually talked about him. She pointed out
which star in the night sky he was, for her, and I appreciated this confidence. I think that one happened when I was six. Motorcycle accident.
There's a nasty hook to this one too.
Before I go on, how many do you think would be normal, I mean
average? Say you had ten sets of parents—three on your father's side and
seven on your mother's. Keep in mind not to count your parents twice.
And they all had between two and six kids, so that's a lot of people and
there's bound to be some tragedies. But how many would be normal?
I mean, average, statistically, for a group that size? I don't know of any
way to know this.
The next one was Elaine's husband Bob. Here I can put a face to
the name, a merry, blue-eyed, comical, rural face. Round, boyish, curly-
headed, doomed. Brain aneurism. Didn't Uve to see his child born. Do I
have this right? Some of it? The hair?
It's with this one, knowing the whole picture, that I start to get troubled. Because this set of parents had already lost Roseanne, remember,
and although Bob was a son-in-law and not a son, faUout is fallout It's
stiU too close and a bit much. This doubling up wiU happen again.
The fourth was my coming-of-age one. I was fourteen and Toby was
my sister's husband. My sister Karen, who made me up as a clown for
HaUoween when she was fifteen and I was five. Who gave me the pleasingly mature role of "Junior Bridesmaid" at her wedding when she was
eighteen and I was eight Who now satin a rocking chair on the veranda
in the dark, nine months pregnant with a three-year-old daughter up-
10 stairs, turning Toby's soft brown wallet over and over in her hands. She
passed the wallet across the empty space beside the rocker and said,
"This is aU I have left of my husband." I didn't want to take it to hold it.
I wasn't ready.
A train hit Toby's car at a level crossing, in dayhght a curve in the
track, a lot of trees, no whistle. A couple of his friends saw it happen. The
friend's wife got the caU and she went over to Karen's and then Mom
got a call but not the fuU story. Not long after, I took a caU from Toby's
mother and that's how I found out An hour later, a neighbour burst in,
looking to me, asking, "Ifs not true, is it?" I found out that getting and
conveying the news is an adult function, and so is Uving with it till you
take on its scent Like a drawer that has a sachet tucked inside.
I'd been crazy about Toby, a brawny ex-Navy guy with the roadster
he caUed his courting car. He dove in the lake once in his new jeans and
let them dry on his body to get the fit right Naturally, we young ones
were then determined to do this too, and I exasperated my parents by
trying it with my new back-to-school shoes. I remember another Toby
as well, a later one, the besotted family man sweating through Rabbie
Burns' poetry to get bis grade twelve upgrading so he could apply to
the poUce force. My grief claim, founded on these fragments, seemed so
slender. The kid sister-in-law. Yet I'd been handed an adult's grief without an adult's private place to put it Did the others feel this way? I never
found, among all those cousins, any shared words for this curve many of
us were on or had been around.
Steven was born two weeks after Toby's funeral. It was years before
anyone figured out that he was hearing impaired. "It all makes sense
now," his teachers said, looking at his erratic school reports. "Amazing
how these special needs kids compensate."
The fifth one was sad. It was tragic. Awful and cruel. But it wasn't a
shock or a surprise or even much of a learning experience. By then, I had
kind of a structure, a floor plan of how this would go. Paulette was my
cousin's wife. I liked her. She died in her early thirties of a slow and ultimately personaUty-changing brain tumour. No one said, "How could this
happen?" That would be a sifly thing to say. But also, no one wondered,
or appeared to wonder, or at any rate said, "What is going on here?"
What was going on, in Dennis' mind, that morning? My guess is,
nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing but pain, a loose or downed power
Une and one (maybe clear) thread through it a few weU-known technical
steps, apphed in order but with no corresponding reverse order. It was
over for him, but not for the rest of us. Not for the young son who found
him, who made the first caU setting off a dozen calls until I was handed
the phone in Montreal from a roommate I would have traded for Dennis
in a minute if we ever got to have those kind of negotiations outside of
11 stories.
Our parents used to bunk Dennis and me in together, at the cottage.
Potato chips in the flannel sheets. I cried stinging, throat-closing, two
a.m. tears for Dennis, for a long time.
If you're getting confused and were to draw this out (on a chart, I
mean) you'd find that Mike (Paulette's husband) was Dennis' brother
similar to how Roseanne was Elaine's sister. It's so much more than one
plus one. I feel the wires crossing; I start the count over.
Brad was seventh and way too soon after Dennis. What if everyone
in your family was a nurse, or an electrician, or something practical Uke
that and aU of them knew that Brad could not be reconnected to life,
either because they saw the injuries for themselves or because the doctor
was straight with them in a way he couldn't be with Brad's mom? Brad's
mom has a large, soft body and face, huge eyes. She paints watercolours.
That surprised me when I heard about it I wondered how long she'd
been doing it before she ever told anyone. Brad Uved for several days
after the crash. She wore dark glasses indoors, afterwards, for years. I
remember only ever hearing one comment on this: "People handle grief
in different ways."
I knew Brad weU, in a gang-of-cousins way. In our last conversation,
at a family New Year's Eve party, he'd been earnestly trying to convince
me to take out a loan I didn't need just to establish a credit rating. He
was about eighteen. Fd listened with the amused affection one has for a
good-natured cousin who wiU always be younger and cuter, with bigger
Greg was about the same age as Brad, about twenty, when he crashed
his car. Twenty years was how long it had been since Doug, his uncle,
had crashed his motorcycle. On that chart, if you drew one, you would
find my cousin Dave, who is stiU aUve, at a terrible intersection. Doug
was Dave's older brother, his only brother, and Greg was Dave's only
son. The symbol for volume control, or radio transmission, is often three
concentric arcs on either side of a dot I see Dave this way, and Mike,
and Elaine, struck by waves. And emitting them.
I didn't know about Greg for quite a while. I was out of the country,
or at the other end of it. Maybe everyone thought someone else had told
me. I had spent too many years away and was no longer called automatically. I hadn't seen Greg since he was the world's baldest round-headed
baby. I would have gone to the funeral though, because I loved my relatives as a child and Uke them as an adult I would have gone to hear the
minister: uIgo now to prepare a place."
I would have gone most of all to resist the notion of fearing or avoiding what may be cursed. I don't beUeve in curses.
My sister's daughter tried to talk to me about it later, that funeral,
12 about how hard she'd cried for a cousin that she wouldn't have recognized "if she tripped over him in the street" "Oh," I said, "you weren't
crying for Greg, really, but for his parents. And for Toby, your dad, and
aU the deaths. Every funeral evokes every other funeral." I was trying to
be helpful, but even I heard the abstraction, the distance in my voice.
She feU silent and I let her.
Greg was the eighth. Some of the parents missed any direct hits, but
three of the sets were hit twice. Three of the eight deaths, but not exactly
the same three as the double ones, involve births. I realize ifs hard to
keep this kind of count just in your head.
I learned recently that my aunt almost didn't attend her daughter
Roseanne's funeral because she'd just gone into labour. But she was
there. She was present when her eldest was buried and consider this:
so was that baby, kicking his way into the family. My sister Karen and I
were told this on an ordinary evening around the table. So close to Karen's own story, and fallout is fallout. She was fifty and I was forty. Later
that night, I eased the remote out of her hand and pulled the covers up
over her. Then I slammed the fridge door, slammed the ice-cube tray on
the counter, the cubes into the glass. I sat holding it Wet-eyed furious
at this latest piece of information. Does every death around here have to be a
goddamned nineteenth century melodrama out of a Catherine Cookson novel?
And besides, was that funereal baby cousin born with a cleft palate or
wasn't he? My sister and I insisted that he was, that there was something
wrong with him, but my mom kept saying no, she would remember that.
It could drive you crazy, this story.
The ninth one—no, you say, enough. That's not fair. I agree—the ninth
one is not one of mine, and it really is the end of it Whfle I was thinking
about this story and how to teU it, I had a day job working for a boss I
liked. She and I were close in age and in viewpoint and, best of all, in
humour, which God knows we needed in our surreal world of conflict
resolution, rights claimants, and formal hearings. We worked a lot with
premise, and hypotheticals, and untried arguments. How something was
Uke or not Uke something else, accommodating religious practice, say,
and accommodating pregnancy, or disabiUty. Files got closed but rarely
resolved; rather, a settlement was reached. People almost always settle,
so they can move on. "
One round-the-clock weekend, she told her story. The way she told it,
of her mom dropping dead of an aneurism, on the street, before her eyes,
when she was eleven, was so familiar. It was so Uke the way I told mine.
There is shock value in the content and cadence of these stories: "There
was just a Uttle trickle at the mouth and I ran to get my uncle." And there
is reUef but also other feelings when the recipient is not shocked at aU but
nods and waits her turn.
13 The odd thing is that I truly felt safe, growing up. It pleased me that
my mom worked at the hospital. She was the Night Supervisor and
therefore based in emergency, which we called "emerge." That was an
important job, patching people up, saving Uves. And it pleased me that
if people came to the house, after hours, my father would take one look
at the swoUen jaw, the body language curved to a single word, and go
with them. He'd open his office, turn on the lights, plug in his sterilizer
that looked like a toaster oven. He'd adjust the angles of the chair and
that wide overhead Ught you had to shut your eyes against The sterilizer
would ding. He'd lay out his delicate instruments of reUef on a white
linen towel, then pick them up, and help.
I was very pleased that there were mounted poUce in the family. This,
I believed, would keep me safe if I were ever abducted. I used to rehearse how I would drop the bombsheU of my uncle's size, profession,
and rank on my tormenters, then negotiate my release. (A part of me
still beUeves this would be worth a try, if I could convey the information
with the same conviction.) As a teenager, I remember hearing—but not
from him—how my uncle talked a gun out of the hand of the drunk up
the street who was raving about killing his entire family and himself. I
knew the house, the rec room, so I imagined the scene clearly. My uncle
stayed up listening to that man for hours.
I respected this story, the competence in it and the reticence. Just
as I respected that many of the aunts could remove a fish hook from a
hysterical kid's eyelid with a calm "Shut up, you're not hurt" or "Why
don't you look where you're going?" and release the kid back into the
fray. The white-faced wielder of the fishing rod would hear something
else, usually referred to as the riot act The rye-and-ginger crowd, finishing or dealing a hand of cards, would get the medical version, not only
of the near injury but of the X-ray needed to show the placement of the
horseshoe up the child's arse.
I often hovered around the card table, eager to sit in, or just listen.
"When I was in training..." many of the good stories began. I loved the
concept of trained adults. They handled things. Farm machinery and
farm kitchens, putting the raft in the lake, ropes and stitches, moveable
and fixed property, grief. I thought they never talked about the deaths
because of the kinds of jobs they had. That cry as you might at the funeral, the cows stiU had to be milked at five o'clock, the banks have to
open on the third day; people circulate through the hospitals and streets
all night If the power went out, you knew guys with heavy belts were
aheady on their way out and up. It was hardly worth feeling around for
a flashlight, a candle.
I stiU think that kind of work is a part of it, explains part of it, but I
also think that it had just as much to do with the kind of job we had. Is it
14 that they didn't teU or that we didn't ask? Our job, even more than theirs,
was getting on with it Say you come from the world of ten-year-olds
and your job is to be gone for hours in the hay lofts, along the low stone
walls, decorating the tree forts, walking the cottage road to the canteen
for french-fries or cylinders of hard ice cream set into squat Uttle cones.
Or maybe you're turning fifteen and ifs time to learn the gravel back-
roads from the front seat, from behind the wheel. It was a point of pride
for rural teens to book their driver's test on the day of their sixteenth
birthday. Those Ucenses were not only freedom but an economic necessity. So we wheedled and extracted keys and illicit lessons from those
older than us and skipped the learner's permit
I was more excited by the driving skills, at first but soon after came
the parking ones. Our bodies, weU fed with meat and corn and new potatoes, were healthy and insistent Nothing else was present in those car
seats. Especially not relatives, and never mind ghosts. Sometimes it was
a huge effort to caU the "emerge" at one in the morning, to try to disguise
the sex and drowsiness and maybe booze in my voice, to let my mom
know I was home safe, from the parties, the roads. But I always did it
Even now, my siblings and I can come out of a sound sleep and give you
the number we called all those Friday and Saturday nights.
During that bursting-forth time of adolescence, and through my twenties, the phone was for calling in, and booking fun. When that othervhone
rang in my life, it was as though the calls were interrupting or distorting
my story rather than shaping it. I see the hi-fi cabinet we had then, the
records we played over and over, and when they started to skip we experimented with placing coins on the arm of the needle. Sometimes that
would work, the needle would plough through the song. Trying to think
back through the deaths now feels Uke the bootleg compilation tapes I
made at that age—scratchy and with uneven pauses, some songs cut off
abruptly because the penny feU, or because I'd misjudged how much
tape was left
I have an interest now in reading how copyright and intellectual property law affect artists. In the movie U Postino, the iU-fated postman confronts the poet and claims that poetry belongs not to those who write it
but those who need it. Is it the same for family stories?
And I go to art galleries, all different kinds; I have an equaUy wide
choice of spiritual communities. I mingle at openings, and with the Halifax Buddhists, the feminist theologians, the Wiccans, the reincarnated
chanters, the UniversaUst Unitarians. Many of the practices are Uke good
used clothing. It fits okay and some of it is reaUy nice, but what Fm left
holding are threads.
For God so loved the world. I love this verse. I take the six words I can
use, the opening words. They fit in my backpack, I can sUp into them
15 as easily as into my own couriered shoes. I have the skills I was raised
with, and the various ones I acquired through further training. I have the
hand-me-down funny stories and there are always new ones. Such stories
are like a friendly game of cards played with a softened deck; they have
easy rules and a pattern, they are swept up, reshuffled by the dealer and
put away, but kept ready to hand in a top drawer. The sad stories are
I miss Toby, and the cousins. To be still sensing their absence is like
(Fm guessing, I'm not sure) still feeling their presence. We were children
then, or anyway not adults, but the deaths stopped a long time ago. We
are all adults now, everyone in this story. Once I admit that, I don't know
whose silence is whose. Or who else, if anyone, is counting. And I don't
know of any way to know this, what to say after so long. Or how to explain that while I seem to be telling, I'm really only waiting my turn.
At asking.
16 Russell Wangersky
House of Dreams
I knew it had been a small fire. I've got enough experience to teU that
from the outside. Maybe electrical, maybe not The porch Ught is stul
on, bright over the front door, so maybe the electrical panel is intact
Maybe a fire in the basement—it doesn't look Uke something that started
on the stove. But the people who live there are gone.
The snow on the steps is untouched. There is a shred of a moon, a
thin pale curve, up behind the battered clouds. The air hangs stiU: a
small winter storm has blown through but the night now lies exhausted,
too tired to even breathe. The snow covers everything like stucco—hard,
cold, and deUberate.
There is one shirt hanging on the clothesline behind the house and it's
crusted with wet snow that has frozen. A plaid shirt, maybe felt stiff now
in the breeze, so it waves all at once.
Two days ago, there were firefighters on the sidewalk, businesslike as
they rolled up wet yeUow hose, and there was a police car, lights flashing, next to the curb. Three days ago, there was nothing at all.
It's a small blue house in downtown St. John's, renovated a handful of
months ago and attached on one side to a neighbouring home, and I can
only imagine that a couple moved in there. There's something about the
size of it about the way things are inside: glass and plants, and none of
the defensive decoration that comes when you have to deal with small,
eager hands. The windows are matte black now, sealed from the inside
with the smoke. There is a spider fern in a downstairs window, choking
with soot
These are pieces you can pick up from the outside, the ones that you
can check off your Ust if you know what it is you are looking at: the way
the inside of the double panes are cracked on the ground floor tells you
that the fire was hottest there. Not necessarily that it started there, but
that it was hottest there, coming up from underneath. The long tall window that must be the bathroom is where the smoke ended up, always up
from underneath, making its way to the top of the stairs.
A Pocket Guide to Arson and Fire Investigation, Third Edition: "Window
glass in the immediate vicinity of the fire's origin will exhibit only traces
of soot or smoke residue, while glass further away from the fire's point of
origin will reveal heavier concentrations of smoke residues."
17 It's a Uttle red book, just thirty-two pages, put together by an insurance company—Factory Mutual. It fits in the pocket of your fire jacket,
packed full with details about everything from the way Ught bulbs wiU
melt and grow into a point on the side closest to the fire, to the way that
passers-by wifi behave on the fire scene. It's the simple thread of physics
and chemistry and thermodynamics, and it wiU happen exactiy the same
way, every single time, no matter how hard you try to sway or change
the results.
I know about couples, know how hopeful they can be. I know what
it's Uke when they stiU have secret knowing smiles when they run into
each other coming around any corners. I can imagine them in there,
painting the rooms before they moved in, talking about where everything would go. Picking the colours, buying the paints; later on, sharing
the heat of the tub while picking off the freckles of paint. I know the way
that they wiU turn to each other, Uke I know the way that the tops of
plastic soda bottles will always bow towards the heat, necks melting on
just one side.
They haven't been there that long, and it's a house that just screams
out that only two people Uve there, and that they are bare and painfuUy
in love—it's stuffed with that, so fuU that you can almost smell it, walking
by on the street.
I remember painting for myseU—how can I forget? Wallpaper and
trim, first, when it was two of us together, one cutting and soaking the
paper, the other hanging the sticky sheets and rubbing the bubbles out
from underneath with the squeegee and then the sponge. Painting the
thin trim around the windows, getting paint on my hands and on the
glass. Empty rooms—without furniture, but fuU of the easy comfort of
Later, when there were more of us, I remember doing the ceiling in the
playroom, the beams, and the tape player singing softly, getting spattered
with paint The way the roUer never covers as evenly as it's supposed to,
the way you always have to do one more coat than expected—the way
that, when I finished, the house was asleep and it didn't matter.
Well, mostly it didn't matter.
Years don't walk, they run.
Painting the outside of my old house, high up on the aluminium ladder, grey paint on shingles, watching the boys run around in the way I
might imagine watching them running around in a movie, shot from high
above, everyone obUvious to my presence. And it was disturbingly just
Uke that: as if, almost imperceptibly at first, I was painting myself into the
background. If you're unlucky, everything begins to turn: you become
handy, but not needed. Comfortably, constantly there, but never more
than that. Never desired. Never needed.
18 It's a small thing at first, but it grows.
Walking by the blue house late at night, before the fire, it was obvious
it was something they hadn't felt—yet Subtle and small but as decisive
as a circuit breaker throwing itself off in the box. Light then dark.
I can imagine them in there, sleeping Uke spoons in a drawer.
Cheap brown butcher's paper blocking out the bottom halves of the
front windows instead of curtains, the feeling that they are wrapped up
inside the walls, the steely, bright belief that everything is possible.
It was a house I almost bought a house I could, briefly, imagine myself living in, as unlikely as that seems. Not the kind of house that suits
the weekly visit of two rambunctious boys: too small, and facing right on
the street with no yard at aU. On a busy street too dangerous for bicycling or playing. But somehow, the house sang in a way that suggested it
was possible to just go out and simply buy the song..
When the workmen were still there renovating, I would walk by and
look in the door, up the stairs past the row of white balasters. You could
get a glimpse into the kitchen, just passing, see the regiment of the tile
and the parade of the stairs; you could watch the walls move from studs
to gyprock to primer.
The front door was black lacquered steel, and underneath the doorknob, some time in the last month or so, a pattern of small, white, fingernail-shaped dents had appeared, as if someone had been pounding ur-
gendy on the metal with something, but pounding with an underhanded
swing, so as not to raise any alarm. It was a first disquieting hint, enough
to look at and wonder if things were suddenly less than they seemed.
Upstairs, on the side, for weeks I could see through one thin window—the only window on that side of the house, the side next to the
service station parking lot—and I could stand there and see high shelves
with glass objects, just shapes, reaUy, in the deep green of bottie glass.
From above, the angled light from a fixture I couldn't see. Passing by the
front of the house, there were sometimes silhouettes against the paper,
and, even more occasionaUy, the sight of a far-off hand and arm reaching
for something in the bright of the kitchen on the back. life captured for
one small instant in the frame of a window.
There is no guide to Uving, no simple chart to teU the temperature of
someone else. One moment your thermostat is true. The next the fish
sticks are in flames.
Page nine—Light Bulbs: The solder tip of the bulb wul melt at 312
degrees Celcius, the brass base at 930 degrees, the glass envelope at 7000
degrees C."
The tungsten filament has to reach 3410 degrees—unfathomable, really. Until ifs all around you, and you know how that kind of heat must
feel. The flash of it, the scarring, searing touch. One moment it's impos-
19 sible: the next moment, ifs already past leaving you marred, annealed,
changed. Unable to bend the way you once could—white waxy skin
puUed tight over old burns.
Even a smaU fire leaves an indelible mark. Ifs Uke a loss of confidence
in your surroundings, the way ifs hard to get over a break-in. Wake up
at night not knowing what to trust. Did you hear the door? A footstep?
Are they back?
Smoke does that too, late at night I can wake from a sound sleep,
knowing that I can smell it. Sometimes I actually do—an unexpected
cigarette from somewhere in the apartment downstairs, or else the stale
charcoal that the damp can always seem to bring out in a building thaf s
had a fire. Sometimes, there is nothing at aU, and I make my way from
room to room, smelling at the stiU dark air, constantly doubting my senses. Frantic to find the room where the smoke begins, before ifs suddenly
The stain a fire leaves is almost insurmountable: inside every single
cupboard, there is a soot-ring where the glasses stand on the shelf. The
glasses turn tobacco-yellow with heavy sticky gunk that doesn't come
off easily. It completely permeates a house. It turns up months later in
places you would never expect—inside zipped, hanging suit-bags, on
the undersides of drawers. Turn a corner, and find yourself face-to-face
again, with tissue raw and not even close to healing. Burns are always
slow to heal.
Smoke has a way of touching, fingering, every single thing you own—
ifs startlingly obtrusive, rude almost, pushing into drawers and digging
down deep to the raciest of the underwear, the ones that are never actually worn but talk all about futile carnal last-chance daring, about dreams
and hope and fear. Physics and chemistry and immutable fucking thermodynamics.
And I am out walking in the hoUow night, making preparatory fists
in my pockets for everyone I meet Ifs stopped snowing, but the snow is
still there, muffling my feet The passing cars hiss Uke hot metal dipped
in water. Stopping for a moment in front of the jet-black windows of the
blue house, putting a few sentences down in a notebook, the ballpoint
pen stubborn in the cold.
Page three of the guide: "Note unusual behaviour of those present at
the scene."
The windblown snow stuccoes only one side of the chimneys. A poUce car drives by me on an empty wet Water Street, stops, brake Ughts
bright red.
And then, the white lozenges of reverse.
There wiU be questions. Always questions.
Fires start small.
20 Donna Kane
Thin Ice
Solstice and still no snow.
The gravel road hard as peppermints it splits
half-inch cracks across its back
the way ice on the slough does, that sudden
timbre sounding in your ear, heavy as shadows cast
by the sun's low slant
How is it we get so cold we hear our breath
freezing, its sandpaper crackle, so
lonely we could spiU
everything, faU
right through.
21 Moose
The moose keeled over,
punched through
the crusted, snow, leaving
afoot-deep cast,
the warmth of his body Uke
a branding iron melting
the edges sharp
before they winched him up
and away. I could Ue
inside the cut-out, speckled
here and there with blood and feel
more alive than I've felt in days,
we were here, I'd say, the way
indulging in the details
of my funeral brings me a kind of joy,
imagining myself gone with me
still conducting
Sarah Brightman, for example,
singing It's a Wonderful Life,
as Fm carted away, my pine box gleaming.
22 John Lojranco
Hamilton Postman
My grandpa's grandpa was a postman who Uved
in a house cloned from the Platonic ideal
of red brick. It was demolished, replaced
by a congregation of used cars, junkies
stumbling and bleeding from their headlights.
He delivered Uves through escarpment-borne winds,
stopped for shelter at the pharmacy on the corner
of Main and Wellington, long before
Mfles Gflbert Horton was born, never mind learned
how to skate or make doughnuts. Bui was the first
draft of a chain letter signed by a son and a son
and a daughter and a son—life plunked onto my lap
Uke a weU-traveUed package covered in iconic
postage stamps. His postal uniform, easily mistaken
for military garb, hangs in a closet-memory
steady as the tick of a gold retirement watch.
23 Eating an Orange in the
Square at the Queen's
University, Belfast
Straight, black, wrought-iron sentries stand waist-
high, their round heads fiercely stiU atop metal cubes,
holding hands in a row. A clock is embedded
in the high, red watt, and I am surrounded by time,
while copper green tops cry dirty black tears.
Naked trees pose, elegant beneath younger buildings
with windows tinted teal. Flowers hide
in the mulched dirt; the wind gingerly prods
white and grey clouds. The sun pulls them back
overhead, hungover.
Three children, dressed in bright pinks and purples,
hold hands in a row with their dad. He comes over
to show off his girls: "I was just tellin' 'em that this
here is the Queen's University and this is where,
hopefully, they'll be goin' in a few years."
He asked me what I was doing. "You see there,
girls," he said triumphantly when I told him,
"We're being writ about" Their strawberry mouths
open, decorative ceramic plate eyes widen,
their dirty, round faces shine in anticipation.
24 Looking for Shells on the
Beach at Galway Bay
This family can be reconstructed at some risk:
as birds speak and flap their wings, gathering
history when they land, blowing it away as they push
again towards the sky, sand on a beach scatters
and pieces are concealed as the tide steals rubble, making a complete
restoration impossible.
The remains of a beach party; a shit-grey gull feather.
Imagine a bottie cap, a pastel shell fitting so nicely
into mosaic genealogy. And on this shore,
we found each other, looking.
25 Miranda Pearson
Up here on the cliffs you see below
a swathe of lake, green
as a false jewel. Trick of Ught, yet
the arbutus can only be a woman
and you see, you see, the classics persist
a shape in the rock, shoulders, waist, hips.
Soon these woods
will be a-chime with crimson.
After six years of duality, the
he/she balance that gUdes through the world
hiding all its tricks, you already want
to go back to that room—the one
with the four-poster bed and the mirror.
You lean from the balcony, the hot hit
of cedar makes you gasp.
26 Amrita Pritam
translated from the Punjabi by Kuldip Gill
Ad Rajni (Creation)
I—One formless one, I was
I was the devoted one made in the form of water
And you were the devotee who burst fire-like
And as fire-Ut embers floated on the water
But that is the oldest story
I—One who was of a clay broth made
And that One who of your broth drank
I was clay's perpetual dream
And you of the jungle, were a foundling
I—One who was of the clay's scent
And you, the sky's love—
because you were its bluish dream
Asleep, the bed of clay goes on and on
And that was the aroma of our flesh
And that was the reality of creation
The world's creation is a very old conversation...
27 Ad Chitr (Primordial Painter)
I was—and perhaps you also were
inside shadows, a shadow rocking
and perhaps, too, a brown shade
Inside dust storms, we met dust storms
But that is the oldest story
Of the nightly longing there was dust storm dimness
The dimness of self was like a garment
One ray of sunlight—only one
through both bodies
and crumbled off the stones like a soul's life breath
Only the round bosom a channel for the ray of light
That was the world's primordial painting
The leaves filled in the colour green
The clouds, breast-milk white, the sky, grey
And the flowers: red, pale yellow, blue
The primordial painter's art is a very old conversation
28 Ad Sangeet (The First Song)
I was—and perhaps you also were
a primordial silence existing
as of a dried leafs lines crumbled off
life, unaware as a seashore's sand-like drifting
But that is the oldest story
I gave you the initial call
And from ahead you a return call gave
And in the soft west wind something quivered
The earth's grains somewhat grated
And the stream's waters somewhat gurgled
The tree's branches became somewhat strained
From inside the leaves came a shimmer of Ught
The flower's seed pods blinked their eyes
A single bird's feathers ruffled somewhat
It was the first sound ears had ever heard
A seven-note melody, the result of a very old conversation
29 .
Matt Rader
The Movies
Morning rises in you Uke a fog and when you open your eyes, sticky,
one at a time, the world outside your motel window is wooly and
grey and smaller than you remember it The mournful call of a fog horn
wells from somewhere deep in your mind, spills out over the harbour.
Through the open blinds, the shapes of tankers, weighted with wine and
oil, awaiting pilot-boats to guide them to port
Stillness. Your body in the bed, naked and spent, warm if left in one
position. The more you think about sitting up, the harder it seems, impossible really. Exhale, from the body next to you. A small mountain
range beneath the sheets; sandy tributaries of hair on the pillow. Exhale.
Exhale. Where is she getting the air? Exhale. Wiggle your toes. Nothing. Fingers. Nothing. You are thinking too hard, just do it Exhale. Tide
change in your stomach: half a bottle of Merlot versus your reserves of
hydrochloric acid. Exhale.
30 You were driving. You remember that And her in the passenger seat
hands holding that precious belly, small hairs on her neck, alabaster
nails. Already dark, and the cherry trees releasing their blossoms Uke
small pink tongues to the street.
" they offered to shoot him," you hear her say. "To make
You are not Ustening. You Uke to imagine, when driving, that you are
in a film: the quiet, side-street neighbourhood, with its old brick buildings and long beaded necklace of cars wheeling past the windows, the
camera over your shoulder tracking your view, the car stereo humming
its tune: I got to keep movin'. I got to keep movin'. Blues faUin' down like hail,
blues fallin'down like hail.
"Can you believe that?" she says.
You've missed something. "What?" you say in a sudden panic, your
eyes darting to the corners of the road. Umm mmm mmm mmm.
"What?" she says, pitch escalating, confused, eyes following yours.
Blues faUin' down like hail.
It all happens in a second or two and then it's over: the brain misfires,
uncorks the adrenaline, fear Uke pheromones from your pores. In close
quarters you can smell it off each other. Aroma therapy. Muscles clench
in the jaw, domino down your spine. Hands on the wheel, hands on the
Blues faUin' down like hail.
31 You hit something. That's clear. The dull thump, the unmistakable
pause of colUsion, the moment cordoned off and imprinted on your
senses. Thinking back, the experience most closely resembles a sudden
gust of wind: the car shaken but not stopped, the cherry trees on their
tracks, rotting past, and when the panic ebbs from your eardrums all
you hear is the music on the stereo. And the days keeps on worryin' me. The
purr of the car tires on damp asphalt There's a hellhound on my trail. And
a strange, high-pitched whine. Ghostlike. Otherworldly.
32 The dog is a sloppy mess of blood and fur and mangled flesh. Sparks
of pain shoot from his eyes and you imagine a tiny blacksmith in the
dog's skull, hammer and tongs, striking the anvil. The dog, a brown and
white Sheperd mutt, is caught in the wheel-well of your car and when
you reach under to help, he snarls, lifts his Ups Uke a curtain, bares bis
bloody teeth. Somehow he knows—you think—that you are to blame.
Your woman sits on the curb crying, head in her lap. She looks beautiful
to you, petals Uke confetti at her feet and in her hair, the tiny industry of
cells at work in her belly.
"Fll shoot it," you announce because you think it is funny and you
don't know what else to say. You don't even have a gun.
"Fuck you," she sobs. "Fucking do something."
You are not good with demands. You are not good with crises. You
are not good with crying women. The dog has developed a raspy pant
and is now trying to lick its wounds in a kind of daze you'd call shock if
you were asked to name it You look up and down the street No Ughts.
No cars. No one to help you. You crouch down. You stand up. You don't
know what to do with yourself. You consider running, hopping the fence
and dashing into the darkness of the elementary school soccer pitch. You
consider unzipping your skin and stepping outside of yourself. Get in the
car and run it over for good this time. Get a grip.
For a moment, everything stops. The dog pauses and looks up at you
from somewhere deep within his eye; you take a breath and watch as
she stands from the curb, wraps her denim jacket around her arm, approaches the dog.
33 Together, you lift the animal into the back seat and she sUdes in with
him. You are covered in blood, but somehow the dog seems less
injured than before. Calmly, she strokes his wet and sticky head and
breathes a kind of blessing that raises the hairs on your neck. It is a voice
you could hear forever and it paralyses you. For a few seconds you sit in
the driver's seat watching her in the rearview. Then the dog catches your
eye in the mirror: Drive, he says. Drive.
34 It was her idea. It was what she wanted. Midnight had come and gone
Uke a rat from the cupboards and in the darkness of a strange town
you could offer no other solution.
In your arms, the dog relaxes into a sick and sleepy child. Groggy and
barely awake, his head lolls from side to side as you climb the stairs to
your room. She is still making the soothing noises she made in the car
and watching the dog intently even as she unlocks the door. You suspect
she would not notice at this moment if your skin turned to iron and
began to rust, so long as the dog is ferried safely to wherever she wants
With extra blankets from the closet shetf, she makes the dog a bed in
the bathtub. How you treat this dog, you are coming to beUeve, will determine how she treats you. Gingerly, you sink to your knees, place the
dog carefully in the tub. You make the sign of the cross. An inside joke.
Watching her treat the dog's wounds with soap and water—the way
the animal gives itsett over to her touch, how she knows what will hurt,
what will not—reminds you of something you recognize but cannot
name. Tender describes the action. Compassion, the motive. These are
only words. As the blood and pebbles are cleaned away, the dog appears
to heal before your eyes.
"He'll Uve," she says.
You cannot watch.
You take off your stained and bloodied shirt, toss it on the floor. A
bottle of wine sits on the table, eyeing you. You stare back.
"Let's celebrate."
35 Swing your legs over the side of the bed and sit up. There, you've done
it Your skin is pale and thin; dayUght reaches through and grips your
flesh. The sun is a diffuse disk of white in the hazy morning sky. Even
your hung-over pupils are strong enough to take it in. Rub your face.
The bed shifts, a whole new continent emerges beneath the sheets. Over
your shoulder, you see yoursett floating in the brown pools of her eyes.
Smile. Exhale. Smile at your mistake.
Outside the window, a pigeon cranks its motor and the city grinds
into a low gear. Exhale. Stillness dissolves Uke sugar in your mouth. The
fog shifts its tatters, Ught sttps through. Exhale.
From the bathroom, the click of nails on linoleum. Exhale.
36 Moez Surani
Country of the Blue
...the gulf between the "real world" and their own isolated, imaginative selves
often remained a conspicuous one or, on the contrary, collapsed altogether and
left them in the bluest of countries, the country of American romance.
-Eric J. Sundquist
Late evening blackout
seizing work, aspiration
in its grip.
So cards and wine
in the candle's waver.
Between hands
standing before the kitchen window
the glazed snow
holding full moon
in its expanse.
There were once men who observed logic in all this
who sat tranquil at a table Uke this one
pouring landscape into unblemished syntax
saw the woman they craved and encrypted her
quality into the bank's contour—
some could make the sonnet breathe!
or spUt the pomegranate    and stagger from its excess
(a friend who cannot handle
poets who imbibe wisdom from fruit)
37 So take the tone of unswerving devotion
and iambic heart  the sound proclamation
leave everything that squabbles.
The woman you love will leave the man she is with
if you can offer better carnival
or thrill her without skin let me
tell you about life
The Japanese restaurant on Pare
he realizes he is landlocked
He cannot swim and that vaults
to the top of his priorities ahead of marriage
reconcttiations and getting a dog
which will be called The Governor
("He went for a walk with The Governor.")
The conversation at times laboured. He pushes
the tumbler of cream above his place setting.
He has been preoccupied absent minded
if he tumbled into the cream and thrashed about
he would be disgraced welcome to
gallows humour the Country
of the Blue our wet
romantic tradition well
Drunk flights 1:30
after catting up an old friend,
he rises
38 steadily into the hallway
needing a beer
to subdue this profundity
'Was ist
Aufklarung?" Bent over
his head in the fridge.
Back in his room
savouring the foreign prosody.
Its recurrent music
Come home and
hang my head on a hook.
"is quiet. Let's be quiet. Let us listen:
—What for, Mr. Bones?
—While he begins to have it out with Horace."
Miss Anne
throe pee.
Acoustic guitar on the floor and sometimes us
Women on the couch upside down
look at you I say look at me she says
something in the room is red
my insides Southern hemisphere Chris stands leaves
then Fm working a broom collecting these odd clear countries
into dustpan you look predatory she says
don't feel predatory I say her ankle came down
took the wine glass and spread it over the floor
eartter we were sharing dreams
Chris and I dreaming of car crashes
the women of grim pregnancy
see how we're gendered she says I say O
go home evening sleep partitioned neatly by nightmare
39 VI
The branch   ordering the day's snow
"Was ist
Aufklarung?"   & rougher debates
over women   Bly
earning potential break down into coarse tongue
people who don't smoke lean away
thoughts return tempered
What will you be in
some years or rather where
tranquil evening recollection
who wants to go home
with you who you'd like to go home with
beer bowls of popcorn
Is this what I wanted  when I came here?
The tree could go on creating complex
snow filigree if it likes but I am obtaining no metaphor insight
nor deriving wisdom   4 months and
what I have done is march my intellect in moods
across the length of a dime and
sometimes though not lately am fine  with this breadth
40 Michael Bogan
How to Bury a Son
Lie to hina—tell him no, he won't die. Look at him lying on the bed,
tubes sprawling into his arms, invading his body. His legs are so
short they don't even stretch halfway down the bed. Then explain
to him that the doctors are going to stick him and bleed him. His head
is going to burn and he's going to throw up every night his muscles will
decay and he won't be able to walk, his cheeks will sink until the bones
stick out like handles. But tell him you'll be sitting in the chair holding
his hand the entire time, helping him to get well. And when he does finally get well, the two of you can go home again, and he won't ever have
to come back to this place. Ruffle his hair and kiss him on the head, and
try not to cry because then he'll know you are lying.
Or let it slip out—yes. Yes, he could die. Then watch his face drown
into the blankets as he begins to understand that he will never play soccer again. When he says he doesn't want to die, tell him you don't want
that either, and then break down and sob uncontrollably until the tears
are so thick you can't see. Leave the room and cry on the linoleum in
the hallway and ask the nurse to close the door for God's sake so that he
won't hear you.
And when he asks—and you know he'll ask it—if you'll bury him in
the ground when he dies, and will it be dark under there, and will you
come see him sometimes, realize then that he will never understand what
is happening to him. Lie and say he's going somewhere better, without
needles or CAT scans, or throwing up, or surgeries. Try to beUeve in
God, so that you can share a vision of endless green fields and yellow
daisies, of huge white gates made of clouds, and of his grandmother
singing Irish folk songs—all of them waiting for him, waiting to welcome
Tell him this. Tell yourself this.
Don't tell him that his arms are so thin they hang out of his gown Uke
straws and you could break them with just the smallest twist Lie and say
that he looks extra tough today, and you can tell he's growing stronger.
When the nurse comes in and takes him back to the operating room,
and ifs just you and your wife sitting on the edge of his bed, confess to
41 her that you're a horrible father and sometimes you wish you'd never
had children. TeU her that most of the time you just don't want to play
Candy Land, or read Hop On Pop for the third time that night, and that
sometimes you don't want to sound out letters and help him practice the
piano, because you just want to Ue on the couch and watch the 49ers
play. Now try to survive her judging eyes. Wonder if anyone can let out
these ugly truths and not be judged. But try to make her see how much
you love him. Because you hope, really hope inside, that other fathers
feel this way too, and that you're not really such a bad guy. Because in
the end you do wrestle with him on the floor and show him middle-C
on the piano yet again, and you do read that damn book that you both
have memorized, and you do skip whatever it was you wanted to do and
spend the time with him instead.
And later, don't say anything when he starts to lose his hair, when
he?s throwing up all over you and you're cradling him in the rocking
chair, and who gives a fuck what it smells Uke or if it gets in your mouth
and nose, because he is all you have at that moment And you would, in
an instant, trade places with him. And, oh fuck, you cry again and your
tears are falling on his bare legs, but this time he doesn't know, thank
God, because he's still out from the drugs.
When he asks you from his hospital bed if he can watch that violent
cartoon on Nickelodeon that is too bloody for kids even twice his age,
feel that instinct kick in that says absolutely not, but then realize that
you're such a jerk and let him watch it Anything he wants. Anything and
you'll get it for him. And, man, see how happy that makes him.
Afterwards, after he's gone, be happy that he doesn't have to Uve
in pain any longer. But be pissed that he's been taken from you. Be so
thoroughly and constantly pissed that you become an even worse father
to your other children.
Cry every night Even worse, stop crying every night Ten years from
now, go a whole day without thinking of him. Go two days. Visit his
grave every day. Then every week. Then every month. Then forget who
he really was. Try to remember, but forget the Uttle details: how many
teeth he had lost and what words he still couldn't pronounce. Dig out the
old photographs because that is the only way you can remember him:
laughing under piles of red leaves in the backyard and running in sloppy
circles with his arms locked around his brother. And when you look at
the pictures, don't remember taking them.
Try to forget that when you are old, so old you can't remember anything at all, there will be no one left who remembers him.
42 When he's come back to the room and his eyes are dark Uke oil and
he's peed all over himself, when you're sitting there on the edge of his
bed wondering how anyone, especially someone as young as him, could
make it through all of these months of pain and sickness without giving
up—and you expect him to wake up crying and begging for you to make
it stop, but instead the first thing he asks you in his half-awake voice is if
you are tatter than Dracula—Jesus, don't start crying then.
Tell him that when he was born and you held him for the first time,
alone in the recovery room, his hair was soft Uke down and his skin was
still yellow from the birth. You promised him on your life that you would
always take care of him, that you would never let him suffer, that your
new purpose in life was to make sure he was always safe.
When you are crying on the hallway floor and the nurse comes and
shuts the door so he doesn't hear, tell her about the time last year when
he wanted you to flip over his pttlow to the cool side because his head
was hot He just wouldn't go to sleep and you became so angry that you
took all of his stuffed animals away for the night He cried for an hour,
but you wouldn't give in because your kids won't be spoiled brats, damn
it Ask her if you are the worst father in the world or the best. See if she
knows the difference.
Rescue him from that hospital bed and rip out all the damn tubes and
take him home with you, and let him sleep in his bed one last time with
his animals. Take him home and wrestle on the floor and let him win, let
him jump on your back and flatten you with his weight He'll say, Fm
stronger than you, aren't I, Dad? Just nod your head yes. Then sit in the
big chair and let him pick out a book to read, and read it together and
laugh at the pictures, and then say it's time for bed, but let him talk you
into at least one more, maybe two. By the end of the second book he'll
be yawning and half-asleep, and he'U say he's ready for bed now. But as
soon as he gets up from the chair he'll be wide awake again, and he'll
race up the stairs with his brothers to be the first to brush his teeth, and
they'll run in circles around the bedrooms waiting for each other to finish. Gather them up and carry them to their room. Watch him climb into
his bed one last time. Cover them up and kiss them goodnight They'll
ask the same question they do every night what will you dream of? Say
something silly Uke elephants and ice cream. They'll teU you that they'll
dream of the long jump because they just watched the Olympics that
week and they've been practicing jumping ever since. They'll keep asking you questions as long as they can, trying to stretch the day just one
more Uttle bit Look what my fingers can do, Dad, and Tomorrow can
43 we have bagels for breakfast? Let them keep asking, because you would
do it too if you were them, and some day soon they won't ask anymore.
Give them Eskimo kisses across their noses, and turn off the Ught and go
back downstairs. Sit in the chair with a book, but don't read; just listen
to a conversation only brothers whispering across their beds could have,
pretending to be mean T-Rexes and superheroes, singing songs together
and arguing about who is going to wake up first in the morning. Let him
fall asleep that way, not scared any longer, just back with his family. Hell
belong to you once more, not to the nurses, and hell forget that he is
sick. Because he'll be thinking about tomorrow, how you promised he
could go see the polar bear at the zoo if it doesn't rain, and that in two
weeks ifs his birthday, and Halloween is coming soon, too, and then far
off—but not too far off to start getting excited about it—is Christmas.
And the last thought before he falls asleep will be of you, with your arm
around him in the chair, reading him the book.
Don't tell him that he'll never get to be team goalie, never the fastest
runner in the world, never a dad.
And after he's gone, fight with her every night. Throw books and
wine glasses at each other. Call her a bitch and tell her it's her fault Go
to her therapist and learn that this is just making the two of you stronger.
But know it's beyond pop-psychology. Every time she looks at you she
sees him, and ifs too painful. A year, maybe two, but no longer than
that And then you'll worry about whose weekend it is to take the kids,
and the politics of family holidays.
Go get a bottle of water from the vending machine. A mother is
there—her daughter is dying down the hall. Start a conversation and end
up confessing that you paddled him. You whapped him on the butt and
you did it for his own good. Then tell her that once, or maybe twice, he
didn't really deserve a paddling but you did it anyway because he made
you so mad. Tell her this, and she'll look at you Uke you don't deserve to
have a child that gets well. Try to defend yourself and say that you would
give your life for him. You would take it yoursett at this very moment
if it meant he could Uve to be a man. See in the way her eyes squint at
you that ifs a meaningless gesture, because it can't really happen that
way and you know it Shell push past you and get her soda, and leave
without even saying goodbye.
When your wife comes in to take her turn, to sit by bis side for a while
so that you can eat go ahead and try. Try to eat something, anything
from the cafeteria. Try the Salisbury steak or the turkey salad. But just
^ waste your money because you won't be able to swallow the first bite.
Instead, go smoke ten cigarettes in the dark parking lot. Then go for a
walk, faster, trying to forget for just a minute. Pump your legs across the
parking lot and into the small park for the nurses on their breaks. But
don't feel better. Sit on top of one of the picnic tables with your feet on
the bench and stare into the dark sky. Watch stars fade in and out and
wonder what the fuck ifs all worth. Call home and teU your other sons
that you love them, but then feel guilty because you should be back up
in the room telling it to him.
When you go back up after the cigarettes, hit the doctor. Hit him hard
in the face and make his teeth bleed so that he'll know your pain. He
needs to hurt Uke you do, to understand that this is your son. To him ifs
just some boy. He needs to care more, to try harder.
Don't tell him he is lucky to have been born at all. Don't speak of
what you almost did to him, how you talked to her incessandy until you
practically forced her to do it You. had all but gone through with it even
driven her there and already cleared it from your mind because it had to
be done, but you couldn't find the damn building. You even catted from
your cell phone but no one answered. Thaf s how close he came to not
even having these few years. Don't tell him all this—just remember it in
every detail. Then look at him lying in bed, too weak now to do anything
but watch cartoons and listen to you read, and see your bloody hands on
his face. See yourself over him with a knife and scalpel. See him hung up
on a cross, paying for your sins.
Sing to him. Sing Amazing Grace. But realize you've forgotten the
words. So make up words. Sing to him your most comforting thoughts:
how handsome he is, how smart, how glad you are that he is your son.
Sing to him these truths. And sing Ues to him too, because you've run out
of eveiything else. Sing that he will get well, and sing that by Christmas
he will be home again, and you can all sit around the tree in the morning, under blankets, and he can unwrap the first present and it will be
big, bigger than him even, so big it will take two people just to unwrap
it Then you can all have hot chocolate and Bing Crosby will sing White
Christmas, and then you'll get on your snow suits and boots and hats and
go outside and try to build a snowman. Sing to him these Ues and see
him smile, and know you were right to do it
Halfway through the song, start crying again, but make yoursetf stop,
at least until she arrives for her shift. Then out in the hall, and outside sitting on the curb, let yourself go and get mad at God and mad at yourself,
and mad at her and mad at him. Do it there, where he can't see. Because
he gets strength from you and if you are not strong he'U know you were
45 singing Ues.
And later, when he's been taken away by the nurse once again, loopy
and dizzy from the goofy juice—after you carry him from his bed to the
gurney, after he disappears through those double doors and down the
white hallway with the Disney cartoons painted on the watts, after you
and your wife go back into waiting room yet again—sit there and smell
the ammonia and sterile watts, the cotton balls and needles. FUp through
the channels and try to watch daytime TV, but ifs just noise because
you're thinking other things. You're thinking about how ifs taking longer
than it should, how you're starting to get worried. Then hear the page
over the intercom, and an alarm going off at the nurses' station, and
know that ifs for him.
That alarm—it triggers it AU the pain you've laid away inside. You
both start crying, crying hard, so hard you can't even talk—just moans
escaping from your mouth. You fall to the ground on your hands and
knees and just cry, not caring about anything else in the world. It hurts.
Oh Lord, it hurts. Don't even realize she's there too, because this pain
causes you to be alone in the world. And know it will take a long time
for the pain to pass.
And then one night, years later, wake up alone in your bed with the
window open and a cool breeze blowing in across your face. Ifs raining,
and the noise of the drops against the leaves has woken you. You were
dreaming about him again. Behind the rain, hear his voice—he's saying
he needs a drink of water. Know that it was just your dream, just the waning moon in the night sky, but get up anyway and go check in his dusty
room. Go check because you still see his eyes closing, wet; it's all you
can see, all you can ever see. Go check because you're bis father and you
have to go check, one more time, just to be sure.
46 Elisabeth de Mariaffi
telling all those Ues, it wears
you out makes you stupid
until finally one day you hear yoursetf:
I'm sorry, I can't
I just can't talk about this
anymore, I don't care
if you make jam from sour cherries
or how much you paid
for your baby's shoes
you unzip your costume and drop out
For one brief moment before
heading across town
stop and peer back at the parade
Uke shells with their ghosts left behind them,
pushing, slack-bodied, their strollers
endlessly to the same park
and wearing exhaustion like a sheriffs badge,
starry and pinned to a breast
47 That day
your eyes must have shone
icy out when the door swung its slow
arc open and they were standing
there, two or three
or maybe six men, all
blank in the eye, slack-
jawed, staring.
They needn't have acted
surprised: they had come
looking, after all, knowing
what they were looking for.
They drew you out,
knees and elbows all scrambled
high against your chest;
your Uttle undershirt
with a rosebud, the same one
we all wore then.
48 Someone was called, I suppose,
for photographs, but I don't know
enough of physics to tell
much more. Your throat would probably
still have been so blue, but
was your mouth closed or open?
And what became of your ski
jacket, the mittens? There are so many
unanswered questions.
You were on the floor, the men
walking around and around you
and trying to find something to do
with their hands. One of them,
the one closest, reaching out
a thumb to touch
that sweet cheekbone, so cold,
brush the snow from your hair.
49 Bruce Holland Rogers
Border Crossing
Lately, I don't recognize this country, the land of my birth. The
contours of the land are the same. I can buy what I always bought in
the stores. The weather has changed, though. Last winter, we had no
snow, but the wind blew love letters to dead soldiers into drifts up to
my knees.
When I drove north across the border, I didn't have smuggUng on
my mind. I drove through the mountains like any tourist who wanted
only a Uttle respite. In the alpine snowfields, I saw blue shadows. That
particular colour has its own name, a name unknown on my side of the
The border guard walked around my car, inspecting with a mirror on
a long rod. He made me open the trunk. A dog sniffed the upholstery.
"Take off your shoes," the guard said. With gloved fingers, he lifted
the insole to find the word I had hidden underneath, the word for blue
shadows in snow. He said, "Did you think we wouldn't know where to
When I was a boy of five, I played all summer in a green jumpsuit
with insignia on the sleeves, firing my cap guns at the enemy trees.
I had a red fireman's helmet too, with the long brim in back, and I
was spanked for aiming the garden hose through an open bedroom
window. When I grew up, I was going to be a fireman or a soldier, and
I didn't see much difference between them.
Across the border, the money is more colourful. On the blue or red
bills are portraits of heroes whose names I never heard in school.
Lately, I don't recognize this country, the land of my birth. These
mountains are the same mountains. The presidents on my money
are the same ones whose names I learned in school. The weather has
changed, though. Last winter, we had no snow. Instead, the names
of dead presidents fell from the sky. Wind blew the black letters of
Washington and Lincoln into drifts up to my knees.
50 It was no trouble at all to cross the border. The guard looked at my
passport and stamped it only because I asked her to. I wanted some
physical sign that I had been somewhere else, some evidence besides
Certainly, I did not have smuggling on my mind. On my second day
there, I drove across the grasslands at first Ught Cresting a rise, I saw
wheatfields lying before me Uke a blanket We have such fields in my
own country, but we do not have a word for the colour of the ripe grain
first thing in the morning.
The border guard walked around my car, inspecting with a mirror on
a long rod. He made me open the trunk. A dog sniffed the upholstery.
"Open your mouth," he said. With gloved fingers, he lifted my tongue
to find the word I had hidden underneath, the word for miles of ripe
wheat in the morning Ught. He said, "Did you think we wouldn't know
where to look?"
There is a border between innocence and experience, a border that
moves. I keep thinking that I have crossed it and having crossed it
I change my mind about what I know. I am a man now, and I know
what it is to be a man. But then I find that the border has moved
ahead of me, and I still have much to learn about being a man. War is
never necessary, I think. But the border has moved. War is sometimes
necessary. No, I find that I am still on the side of innocence.
The same trees grow on either side of the border. In the other country,
many people speak the same language they speak in the country
of my birth. Not all the words are the same. The dust doesn't know
which country it belongs to. Wind blows dust north today and south
tomorrow, increasing one nation at the expense of the other, then
taking back what it gave.
Lately, I don't recognize this country, even though the trees are the
same on either side of the border. My own country feels strange. It is
the other side that feels familiar. Familiar, and strange at the same time.
In the land of my birth, the weather is still the weather, although last
winter we went without snow.
For miles and miles, no fence divides one side from the other. You
could walk back and forth all day, testing the difference until night fell.
You might wake to find your head in one country and your feet in the
51 In fact I did not walk the unguarded portions of the border at night,
but when I was in the other country, I walked beyond the glow of my
campfire until I could no longer see my hand before my face. I lay on
my back and looked up through the trees silhouetted against the starry
sky. The darkness between the stars is the same darkness we see from
my own country.
The border guard walked around my car, writing notes on a chpboard.
He made me pop the hood and open the trunk. He took me to a room
without windows. "Take off your shirt," he said. He used a sharp blade
on the skin of my chest and he peeled back my skin to reveal the word
I had hidden underneath, the word for the dark between the stars. He
said, "Did you think we wouldn't know where to look?"
In the other country, they wear red plastic poppies on their lapels to
remember the war dead.
In the mountains of the other country, I came upon a field of poppies.
They were not red at all, but a shade of orange.
Lately, I don't recognize this country, the land of my birth. I feel
sometimes as if I crossed a border that I hadn't intended to cross.
Those are the hills that have always been there, forested with trees that
I know. But last winter, we had no snow, and the wind blew the dried
petals of poppies into drifts up to my knees.
The border guard walked around my car. He inspected the back seat
the trunk, the hubcaps. He took me to a room without windows. "Take
off your shirt," he said. He pushed a needle into my arm and drew out
my blood. He spread the blood on a plate of glass. He read the word
that I was smuggling home. He said, "Did you think we wouldn't know
where to look?"
52 Brian Swann
Open and Closed
"Get off my land!" I yell. They look
around. The sun on the open angle
of pane makes me burning bush and
the voice within. They stomp off
over the rise and whang a jay to pieces.
Everything is theirs. They have inherited
the earth, even the insides of my house
which they once strewed under pines
and tossed into the old quarry among
tiles, broken glass, tires and iron bedsteads.
This land's been cleared more than once.
Blasting powder took off the tops, wedges
along bluestone lifts turned pre-Devonian
to rightangles. But at night there's sometimes
fur along the cabin's sides and great galaxies
howling overhead. Songs dive over earth
like birds and in the morning I can almost
pray to boulders, smooth as stones or apples,
rooted yet touched by sidereal hands,
open yet closed.
53 Explorers
They measured, these taltters of date and hour,
determiners of altitude by Polaris or Aquilae,
longitude and latitude by immersion
and emersion of the sun's lower limb
of the dark limp of Jupiter's first satellite.
They coped, boiling and stretching powder horns,
scraping and stretching them on wood,
heating buffalo glue by bois de vache
to repair barometers and such. Over kitting
snows they laid down glassy grids. The cold
was merely one more factor made to fit
accurate to an edge. Their very bodies
ran on an internal fire that drove them on
so fast they barely noticed it themselves.
54 Marchen
The mare's tale could swish
stars from her back, her nostrils
breathe in the world. Above
a frieze of trees the moon, red
as pale blood, rocks her slow crescent
slowly paring down in sky gritty
with comets and fireflies. And one
night soon she'll burst, leaving
a great purple stain on the grass.
Earth will shiver with absence
until lunar skin swells again
as the year's fruits turn to fullness.
The last moths will unmoor the air
and children float down Uke leaves.
This is the story they'll bring.
55 Richard Cumyn
Doctor Mem
Four men had a hand in my sister's death. Five if you count poor
Anthony. I am one of them. I see her late at night when I can't
sleep. We sit on the bed together, the way we used to when she'd
come home and tell me all about her latest date. But now Fm older than
she is. I say, "Why did you have to go back in there?" She never repUes,
though. She never even takes her coat off.
My sister Vera cut and styled at Hair Apparent for seven years through
three changes in ownership and under four increasingly tyrannical bosses until the place became too toxic for her to stay, and I'm referring not
only to the bleaches, dyes, and holding compounds. If she could, she'd
tell you she needed a change, that she was becoming stale doing the
same thing to the same sparse grey hair every day, and that if she didn't
get away from Anthony, her chair neighbour, she was going to either
drown him in a vat of styling gel or sUt her wrists. Anthony, a talented
but erratic stylist, had some kind of substance-abuse problem—Vera
never elaborated—and left the salon a few months after she did. Disappeared for a stretch. I never minded him. For a while there, he reproduced my boring, side-part, above-the-ears, truncated-sideburn cut every six weeks, regaling me with the more salacious gossip colouring the
salon. I've never had that ten-foot-pole reaction to him that my wife and
daughters do. I still see him around town. He's opened up his own hair-
cutting shop where a computer store used to be. When he heard about
Vera, he offered condolences, some would say effusively, but that's just
Anthony. He liked my sister very much, he said, and admired her skill.
More than that, he said, holding onto my forearm lest I leave him before
getting the golden kernel of his point, "She was good with people." His
point was that she was and he wasn't. K he had half Vera's talent at putting people at ease, making them not only look good but beUeve that the
image in the mirror was attractive, he'd be a success today. As it stands,
from the sign in the window, he depends upon the nearby student traffic
at reduced prices for his UveUhood, and I bet his business is a fraction of
what it needs to be for him to cover his rent
56 Vera might still be working at Hair Apparent had she not come in
early one Monday morning to find that AngeUque had pencitted a walk-
in into her nine a.m. slot Vera liked to come in early after dropping
Marcel—the best brother-in-law a guy like me could ask for—off at his
office. Her routine was to get a coffee in Phil's, the restaurant next door
to the salon, smoke some cigarettes, and play SoUtaire before stepping
into the day. She said she never cheated and I beUeve her. I Uke to think
of her sitting in one of the booths beside the window. They all knew
her there. She was a great one for holding names and a compendium
of arcane personal facts in her head, this waitress's anniversary and that
line-cook's kid's soccer schedule. She knew all the regular customers,
the old dears having a tea while they waited for their prescriptions to be
filled at the drugstore. She did their hair. That was her workaday world
and she was a bright player in it Whenever I hear people bad-mouth the
service industry, I feel Uke telling them to shove over while I fill them in
about my sister. It was not an act with her. It carried on outside. I can still
feel those careful soothing hands on the back of my neck and nobody
but nobody touches me there. She did something miraculous with those
The walk-in waiting for her was a doctor from upstairs in the building.
The way Vera told it, he needed a haircut about as much as she needed
her face shaved. She knew him to see, knew about his 1962 Mercedes
two-seater that he treated Uke a revered parent parking it underground
in two reserved spots, half on each. He drank espresso and was the reason why Phil bought the silver Italian monstrosity that's always making
funny noises and getting clogged behind the counter. The thing about
this doctor, though, what made her look twice the first time she saw him,
were his shoes—oxblood-red loafers with tassels—and even from across
the lobby she knew how soft they must be. The shoes, the suit the moustache—Omar Sharif was never better turned out
It was one of those impossible April snowstorms that make you want
to crawl into an open coffin—I mean give up, flush the catalogue seeds
you got the other day in the mail, throw the bedding plants out the back
door. Stunned denizens were stumbling in off the street, stamping the
wet white uninvited stuff off their boots, and there, standing waiting for
the elevator with his double-E in a paper cup in one hand and the other
in the pocket of his trousers, the Herald folded under his arm, was this
leading man. Oh yeah, she knew who he was. She used to kid Marcel,
who's no Christmas dumpttng, no dog-face himseU, that she could think
of only two people who could tempt her: Michael Jackson (I never got
that one, but hey, I'm not Vera) and Doctor Mem, the hair transplant
specialist from upstairs.
Vera called him Doctor Mem, but only recentiy did I learn that his
57 real name is Mahmoud Memviziri and that he's as quattfied to call himself a medical doctor as I am. Egyptian by way of a stint in St. Kitts in
which he was nmning a for-cash-only breast enlargement service. He
would meet his patients in Miami, take their money, and fly them to the
island and his operating room. Actually, I think he got around U.S. law
by taking the cash after they had landed. This all came out a couple of
years ago on 60 Minutes after another "doctor," the one who bought the
practice from Memviziri, killed a woman with an improperly administered anaesthetic. This dupe claimed Memviziri was at fault because he
was the one who had trained him, and although nobody could prove culpability, by association, Morley Safer did track Doctor Mem all the way
up here to Halifax. Why is it that men who look Uke they should own the
world, standing astride it on colossal legs, end up being the skunks?
The segment opened with, of all things, an old TV commercial of
Memviziri's—one I'd seen late at night at one or two in the morning,
usually just before or after the girls in bikinis came on, posing in beach
sand and surf, tinny instrumental music and a 1-900 number the only
added effects. What can I say? Sometimes I can't sleep.
Doctor Mem's ad was what my daughters would call cheesy: him in
a flesh-coloured skullcap, moustache similarly covered, sporting a Telly
Savalas fedora. He looks directly into the camera and says something
Uke, "Bald men, who loves you, baby?" The tough-guy spiel continues
for a few more seconds, during which he lets you know what he can do,
how effective his procedure is (99.8%), and where he can be found. Today he can't be found. If you beUeve Anthony, who cornered me in the
express lane of Sobers the other day, Memviziri is on the lam for tax
evasion and for unttcensed medical practise.
You've probably figured out by now that Memviziri wasn't there
to get a haircut that wintry Monday morning in April. Vera knew at a
glance that the man had his black and silver coif attended to by a very
expensive, very precise stylist, probably every week to ten days. She
guessed it was someone who had the time to work on his hair the way an
archaeologist approached a dig. Immaculate. The workmanship, like the
quaUty of his footwear and suits, took her breath away. I can imagine her
being seduced by the very idea of working for a man who had no need
of her hair-cutting skills. She always loved being around people who
seemed so sett-sufficient that they had no need of her.
At least four boys had asked her to her senior prom, including the
steady beau of three months, the voUeybatt player she had just dumped.
She'd rejected them all. You have to understand how beautiful my sister
was. She had forty-year-old men propositioning her on the street. These
boys—think of it. They've only just defeated the heartache of acne;
they've summoned their last scrap of courage to pick up the phone, dial
58 our house number, actually not hang up when she answers. And maybe
she goes but with them a few times and maybe she even thinks that
they're fine, potential sweethearts, but you know and I know what each
one did to kill his chances, including the vice-principal of the high school
and including the owner of the fabric store where she worked evenings
and weekends. He let her know that the idea of her was embossed on the
inside of his skull, so that when he closed his eyes at night, etc etc. Think
kiss of death. Never say "I love you" to a girl who hears the words almost
as often as she hears "Have a nice day."
The one boy who didn't make this mistake, because he loved my
sister the way you love your best friend, was Jaime Alessandro. He was
the first openly gay person I ever knew about Vera fell for him before
she knew that boys could feel that way for other boys, showing how innocent or blind or simple or sett-captivated she was at the age of sixteen.
Nobody told her. I think she knew but refused to beUeve it about Jaime,
who was from Jamaica or the Bahamas and looked a lot Uke Harry Bela-
fonte's daughter.
He was the one who, without taking a single measurement sewed
a prom dress that fit her as well as anything she had ever bought And
she was one picky clotheshorse, my sister. Our mother finally refused to
shop with her. Vera could pick out the most expensive item on a rack
by feel alone. She used to cry streams of tears in frustration until she
was old enough to earn her own money to buy clothes, and still she was
never satisfied. This was no selfish insatiable hunger, don't think that
The same Vera who could take a woman sick from radiation and make
her feel like a star in a new wig was the girl who appreciated finery with
a joyful expansive heart
The dress was flamingo pink. She showed it to me. She didn't wear
pink, hadn't since she was a child. This was a duplicate of something
Audrey Hepburn had worn in a film, Funny Face or Sabrina. A UgUt sheer
scarf the same colour as the dress wrapped once around the neck, across
the shoulders and down each side of the back. Jaime showed her how it
was supposed to hang. And shoes—where had he found ones to match
and how did he know her size? How did he know how to achieve any
of this? I recall Vera saying that his mother and aunts were seamstresses,
that he had grown up ah only child, adored and spoiled in a household
of women, and that every day he came home from school to watch television, usually an old movie: Ruby Keeler, Betty Grable, some gaudy
extravaganza. He didn't know it at the time, but this was valuable homework for him, crucial study time.
Vera put the dress on and he waited for her to get off work. I can
picture him leaning back against a cutting table, his hair trimmed severely short Uke a Roman emperor's, his face made pale with makeup Uke
59 something out of Weimar-era Vienna, an Isherwood death-head grinning at his creation, dettghting in the shock waves, loving but not needing my sister, who at that moment, that aching chrysaUs-age of sixteen
going on immortal, was someone who could have caused stupid men to
go to war.
Perhaps I exaggerate. She is not here to contradict me as she surely
would. All I have is the memory of these accounts she told me, breathlessly, late at night on my bed or hers, in the dark or across many miles
connected by a phone Une. I used to think that if we tried hard enough
we might have been able to communicate telepathicaUy. I was convinced
of this in grade ten after reading The Chrysalids, sure that Vera and I were
endowed with minds as powerful as those mutant children in the book.
Jaime Alessandro, who seemed to know what it was to be a woman
better than many women did themselves, took Vera by the hand, led
her out of the fabric store onto the sidewalk, and flagged down a taxi.
"Where are we going?" she said, the way you do when you know you're
not going to get an answer until you can see it for yourself. She wanted
to freeze this frame and spend as long as she wished in it It didn't matter
that, I was her kid brother; Vera held nothing back. She made me privy
to the most intimate details about her dates, which were usually with desperately groping, lust-struck boys. Vera was discerning enough to avoid,
or refuse and refuse again, the rogues and the rakes, the never-at-rest
Lotharios, the ones with their own money and pick-up lines. Instead, she
would go out with some nice sweaty chump who was maybe good-looking, maybe not so handsome—it didn't seem to matter. She was more
interested in what the boy thought, what he stood for, how independent
he was, how much or how Uttle he was going to let his life be changed
by close proximity to her in a darkened movie theatre. The family car
would be parked up behind ours in the driveway, often close enough
that the bumpers were touching. Sometimes, Romeo was so nervous that
he didn't brake in time. Nice boy. Anxious boy. I was no different when
I started to date.
Vera would watch me pace in a circle around the telephone or mope
Uke a mourner after the loss of another chamber of my heart "Is it about
sex, Jay?" she would ask and I would Ue at first, saying, "No!" or "What
do you take me for?" or "You don't understand, you're a girl" but she
knew exactiy what was up, and her abiding question was, "I understand
the urge. I have it too. What I don't understand is your—I mean boys'
in general—needing it so badly and constantly. Ifs more than a physical
release, isn't it, for you?"
"Yes. Ifs more."
"The problem with men," she said, as if I weren't one, "is that they
can't just be with a woman, enjoying her company. They have to always
60 be plotting: how to find us, how to keep us, how to win us back. Ifs war,
all the time, isn't it? We can be sitting in a restaurant ordering dessert
after a movie and on the surface everything is pleasant and innocent and
calm, but I'll look in his eyes and there he will be, distracted, thinking
about bis next move."
Knowing what she knew about men, and from such an early age, Vera
must have sensed that nothing Memviziri ever did was random or spontaneous. He was waiting for her at Hair Apparent that snowy Monday
morning because he needed an assistant, someone who knew hair and
was restless enough or paid so poorly that she would be willing to change
jobs. He had precise criteria: she had to be physically stunning, with a
pleasant submissive nature, and be open to seduction. By him.
"I brought him over to my chair and started snipping. There was
nothing to do. He was perfect"
"What did he say?"
"He said, Something is wrong? So I said, Fm sorry, sir, but there is not
much I can do for you. Now that is not exactingly true, he said. like that
Exactingly. I almost lost it on the spot"
"You mean laughing?"
"Quite... You certainly don't need a haircut, I said. Would you like a
different colour? (Guess what? He didn't) A tan? I said. We have a Ught
table in the next room. He looks at me like Fve insulted his mother:
Do I appear before you requiring a tan? No, I said. No, you sure don't... I
doubted he wanted his nipples pierced, either."
"You're kidding. You didn't ask him that!"
She punched my bicep affectionately. "No, dummy, I didn't ask him
that When I took his bib off him he got out of the chair and started pulling paper money out of his wallet You should've seen it: black calfskin
you could put on a baby."
"You didn't take it"
"Of course not I said, I can't charge you, and gave the back of his
neck a whisk. He smelled good, Uke cocoa butter and aloe, and I got
this crazy urge to touch his bare chest I hoped he had hair there, some,
not too much. And isn't there this oyster-shell chronometer peeking out
from under his French cuff! / must pay you for your time, he says, and
presses a wad of twenties into my hand. No, I tell him, I can't. Surely, he
says. Something.
"Vera, I say, waiting, watching to see if he gets it No, Mahmoud Come
back when you get shaggy, Mamood, I say. Mahmoud, he says again. It
has sounds I know I'll never get my mouth around, so I say, How about
Moe? He goes, I never get shaggy. I mean, shit, I knew that was true the first
second I saw him. Then he says—get this: Allow me to dine you out."
If a warning bell was sounding somewhere, Vera didn't hear it. She
61 accepted. He told her where he worked and she said she knew that already. "Oh, so you have been surveying me!" he said, when what he
meant was, "I've been watching you.n The branch was salted and limed
and she had made a perfect landing, not a feather mussed.
Bald men, who loves you, baby?Jesus loves you. Mummy loves you. My brother-
in-law Marcel is pretty close to bald, was already doing the hopeless
comb-over when he met Vera. Here is a bald man who thinks nobody
can see, she thought and the idea squeezed her heart Marcel came into
her life well before Memviziri did and he remained the constant good
husband throughout Unlike the scrupulous and meticulous tax man he
is, Marcel failed to detect anything untoward about the so-called doctor.
Nor did I, for that matter. I kept going to Hair Apparent and would drop
in on Vera upstairs in the hair replacement clinic, if she was working a
Saturday or a weekday evening, which she sometimes did. In the first
few months working for Memviziri, she was happier than Fd seen her
in a long time. In her new workplace, there was no gossip, no back pain
or Sore arches, no jealous disputes over tips and the share of the weekly
earnings. No Anthony to endure.
Anthony can be one snippy fellow, I think he'd be the first to agree,
but nobody, not even Vera, gave me a better cut than he did. Still, out of
twisted loyalty to Vera, I continue to patronize Hair Apparent Saturdays
I come in, sit, leaf through a Vogue back to front, never resting my eyes
for too long on any one page, and I take whoever's free. Or they take
me. I should really make appointments. I don't know, maybe I keep
returning in the hope that Fll feel something of her spirit again, there
where she made so many people look good. Once, I was leaving, reaching for my jacket hanging in the salon's coat rack, and my hand brushed
against a soft sweater, yellow mohair, on a padded pink hanger, and I
was sure it was one Vera used to wear. It was then a Uttle more than a
year since the fire at the Folly and three since she had last worked at the
salon. Would they have left her sweater hanging there all that time without anyone putting it aside or claiming it? I kept my hand there. I was in
view of everyone sitting in the waiting area, including the receptionist
I stepped closer, brought my face up against the garment, breathed in
what I was certain was her scent But what would I do with the sweater
if I brought it home? Give it to my wife? One of my daughters? Here,
honey, this was Vera's. I want you to have it. What kind of screwy karma
do you catch when you wear a dead person's clothes? It probably wasn't
even hers anyway.
After she began working for Memviziri, his waiting room filled with
62 two kinds of patients. Customers is the better word. One was the candidate for hair plugs, the transplant procedure Memviziri claimed to have
perfected. These were men who, because of inherited traits, were losing
their hair in a wide swath off the top of the head straight back from the
forehead. The other group, smaller in number, were women wanting a
natural-looking wig. Often they were receiving cancer treatments and
wanted something as close in appearance to their old hair as they could
get If they were really thinking ahead, they came to the clinic well before the chemotherapy began, and Vera would take photographs of their
hair from all angles, sides, back and top. Then she cut the hair off. It was
usually long, thick, luxuriant, lustrous; women with short, limp, colourless hair didn't care to reproduce it
After removing the hair, Vera would find as close a matching wig
as possible, so that the woman could wear something suitable in the
interim. What remained on her head would be very short Vera would
fit the temporary wig, comb it out, trim it to specifications, preferences,
and they would leave. Whatever Doctor Mem paid Vera to do this work
could not possibly have been enough.
The women returned two weeks later now used to their synthetic hair,
complaining mildly about how hot the wigs could be in summer, but
embracing the prop as a necessary appendage. Chemo might have commenced by then. They might even have finished a preliminary round
and were looking forward to two weeks or so of rest Vera would bring
out her creation constructed of long threads of their former selves, arrange it on their heads, and with the help of the pictures make it look
the way it had before everything in their Uves had frozen in an inward-
leaning posture straining towards treachery, invasion, betrayal, truncation. Invariably they cried, took one look in the mirror and broke into
Even with Vera's facsimile of their hair now on their heads, they would
never quite look the way they did that first day they came in. Their skin
would look different: pallid, dry, thin. They would have lost weight not
as much as they would eventually drop but enough to be noticeable.
What Vera noticed more than the altered skin, melted fat waning muscle, and thinning bone mass, was the change in their eyes, which said,
"She has been taking poison. A war is waging inside. Look at us: a pair of
hazy, smeared panes of flat glass. Did you think a mere arrangement of
dead tissue, these protein strands, was going to change anything?" One
woman said, "I thought it would transform me. I thought I would be my
old self again." Another said, "I didn't know how bad I looked until I put
it on." Another, sobbing angrily, tore the new wig from her head, threw
it at Vera, put the brassy synthetic one back on and, not stopping to right
it, walked with it all askew towards the door. Before opening it to leave
63 and without turning to look at Vera, she said, "I'll make do with this. Ifs
really all I deserve, when you think about it"
During these exchanges Vera would be alone. Memviziri hid in his
office and let his talented new assistant brave the emotional storm. "The
moment I saw you," he said, "I knew you were the one I was looking
for." She never called him the coward that he was. That was Vera. In her
eyes she was fulfilling one unique responsibiUty of the job, one she had
to carry out alone. She never stopped being grateful to the snake.
Vera told me that as he handed her into the taxi, Jaime Alessandro
said the same thing Memviziri had. I think Jaime meant that the moment
he saw her he knew she was the one he had waited for his whole life, to
play with, dress up Uke a doll, giggle with Uke sisters. He directed the
driver to a club that had opened recentiy downtown. It was called Folly
Go Nightly and it occupied an abandoned theatre beside a bathhouse
that was regularly being raided by the police. The nightclub was a virtual
extension of the baths, the cUentele of the latter creating the audience of
the former. Jaime led Vera to a tiny round table at the front near the stage
and told the waiter, who Uke all the servers was dressed in drag, to take
care of her. He brought her a big flamboyant drink in a coconut shell. It
had a Uttle parasol and bits of fruit floating in it
"As I sat there, I felt Uke I was drinking something that could change
my life. What was that stuff the Greeks drank?"
"No, the gods."
"Right ambrosia. I looked around and I thought People can be who
they are here, even more than they are, by dressing up Uke somebody
else. There, the only thing men needed from me was my applause. It was
Uke, to be male was to be elusive Uke a dust devil or the tip of a tongue
on the back of your neck. I sat there drinking my silly show-drink, waiting for Jaime and his friends to don their costumes. All around me, the
tables were fitting with handsome, well-dressed men. It was amazing,
Jay, real gold flashing off their wrists and in the necks of their open
shirts. They looked as comfortable there as they might have been in
a boardroom or on a tennis court You know the type. Picture Uncle
Eldon, only younger. He knows which fork to use and when, knows
how to hand his lover every desire on a gUstening tray. Fm sitting there,
gapped out daydreaming about getting in and out of limousines with a
man like that We're standing at the mezzanine bar while he buys us two
over-priced flutes of champagne and talks about the barely audible catch
in the tenor's voice, blaming the dry air and the singer's insane schedule.
It was Uke I was floating on the fumes of my nutty drink, loving being
watched as the house Ughts dimmed, even if the guys checking me out
64 preferred their own company to mine. I didn't give a hoot I was flying.
"I was quiet in the cab on the way home. I didn't want the bubble of
the evening to pop. When Jaime asked me what I thought of his performance I said that I liked it He said, When my litde sister gives a piano recital
I say I Weed it even if I didn't. You don't have a sister, I said. You know what
I mean.
"I didn't understand the significance of everything he was doing up
there—I think he was supposed to be Courtney Love doing Hello Dolly,
but I told him I appreciated the quality of the performance. I said, You
got such a loud response. They were so enthusiastic. Actually, people
were clapping so hard it scared the shit out of me."
"How do you mean?"
"Like he was their saviour or something. Like the only way things
were going to get any better in the world was if he died."
"Thaf s heavy."
"You're telling me. Anyway, then he says, I don't care what they thought,
I want to know what you thought. So I tell him the truth. I say it left me feeling empty."
It was four a.m. and we'd been talking for an hour in low voices, so
not to disturb our parents. "I wish I'd said something Uke, instead of
making me feel empty, his performance washed away all the crap of everyday Uving from my mind and replaced it with starlight and moonlight
and that glowing green Ught in the sea. That was how I felt. Whaf s that
word? For the green Ught?"
She wanted to phone him that instant to tell him so, to use the word.
She may not have been well-educated, but she cared a lot about words
and meaning. She was upset because she didn't have his number and
didn't know where he Uved. It was too late. His mother and aunts and
girl cousins were asleep. Might they have waited up for him? Did they
even know where he'd been all night, what he'd been doing? Perhaps
they would not have understood the reason why he, their only Uttle man,
chose to transform himself into a woman on the stage.
One of Memviziri's cttents was a man who read the local news on television. He was a good candidate for surgical hair replacement because his
follicles grew close together and the hair at the back near his neck was
thick. He had a wide roll of fat just above his shirt collar there that Vera
could turn into healthy plugs. First she shaved the area. Then Memviziri
began by giving the patient a local anaesthetic before slicing a strip about
six inches long and an inch wide. This he handed to Vera while he sewed
65 the incision closed. In the case of the newscaster and similarly hefty
men, the effect was much like a facelift They noticed that their collars fit
better afterwards. Some even breathed easier. Because the incision was
made across a thick band of hair, it healed without the scar being seen. I
started watching the news at 5:30 after Vera told me. Sure enough, week
by week bis forehead began to shrink, the former widow's peak reaching
out it seemed, to join his eyebrows. I wish I'd taped it so that I could
watch it happen in fast motion.
Vera's job was to take the band of skin, fat and hair, and to sttce
it into tiny segments, each containing a healthily rooted hair or two.
These Memviziri planted in incisions just wide enough to accommodate
the plug. One effect of this epidermal sowing was that blood flow to
the excavated area increased, new capiUaries spreading like rivulets in
a spring melt to nourish the seedlings. So rarely did anything go wrong
that Memviziri dispensed with malpractice insurance. Recent history
suggests that his best insurance was a packed bag, a false passport, and
an open airline ticket to some sunny island far away.
The big-turde-in-a-little-pond anchorman was coming in weekly for
new plugs—Memviziri could plant only a few at a time, having to wait
for the last incisions to heal before introducing new little saplings—and
Jaime Alessandro returned after an unsuccessful attempt at achieving
stardom (or anythingdom) in New York. Vera hadn't seen him for almost
five years. Folly Go Nighdy had reopened under new management
The bathhouse was now an upscale health club with Nautilus machines,
personal trainers, whirlpools, and a juice bar, but the clientele was the
Jaime dropped by on a day when the newsreader was receiving his
last cornrow and was being obnoxiously attentive to Vera as she assisted
Doctor Mem in the procedure. The lush new growth must have given
the man a testosterone boost, because he directed his comments and
queries to Vera in a way that made her blush, more for his lack of tact
and embarrassing choice of cliched double entendres than for the risque
references themselves. Jaime was sitting out in the waiting room common to a group of medical practitioners on that floor.
"I could see the doctor wasn't happy with the guy coming on to me
Uke that What I didn't realize until later was how much he'd fallen for
me. He's normally so courteous with patients, a Uttle distanfbut makes
them feel Uke they're the Pope or something, except without all the fawning. You know? But with this dude, I'm telUng you, he stopped just short
of throwing him out of the office.
"I tried to put him at ease by saying that I'd been getting this kind of
thing from men all my life and that it bothered me less than a hangnail
or a paper cut But before I can finish what Fm saying, he places his hand
66 on the small of my back and he draws me in and doesn't he kiss me? I
swear, Jay, for the first time since Marcel, and maybe for the first time,
period, a man kissed me in such a way that I had to grab onto the edge of
the examination table to stop myself keeling over. He held onto me until
I could stand on my own again. We kept looking at each other close up. I
was going cross-eyed. I was thinking, Oh, this is not smart, not a prudent
thing in the least I couldn't get my arms to push away or do anything
but hang on to him."
The receptionist & pleasant and tactful person, knocked before pushing open the door to tell them that Jaime was waiting to see Vera and
wasn't the buzzer on the intercom working? Memviziri let go of Vera and
retreated into his office. Vera continued to stand in one spot, unsure if
her legs still worked well enough to let her take a step. The receptionist
gave Vera a smile and a wink.
The hair styttst at the Folly had just quit and Jaime wanted Vera to
apply for the position. "No makeup, strictly hair." The cast numbered
twelve and included two acrobats, a comedian, and a magician. Jaime
was of the opinion that they would benefit gready from her professional
expertise. "Fve seen what those hands can do," he said.
"I tried to recall Jaime ever seeing me work, but all I could remember
was the time I cut his hair for him back in high school. It was before he
started performing at the club the first time, before he went away. It was
almost graduation day and Jaime was in a right royal funk. He had no
idea what he was going to do with his ttfe. Going back to school was not
an option. He said he'd rather join a monastery than do that He said, in
this voice Uke death, Give me a businessman's cut, Vera, so lean get an office
job. The way he said businessman's cut, he might as well have been saying
\fera took the job at the Folly Go Nightly, cutting back her hours with
Memviziri, much to his displeasure. After his display of passion, she
needed time away, and so came to work at the clinic all day Monday
and Tuesday, but mornings only on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sat:
urday—those days when the club presented its full revue. Though she
could have kept working full-time for Doctor Mem, she needed that buffer of a few hours each day between working so closely with him and
entering the netherworld of the nightclub.
"Please understand, I said to him." She was straddUng him. They sat
face-to-face in his padded swivel chair. Sometimes she told me more
than I needed to know.
"He said, You don't want to be near me. I think what we're doing right
67 now successfully contradicts that I said. I love you. I love Marcel. I love
Jaime in a completely other way. We—this isn't going to last. I have to
have the time to—if I don't take it FU disappear. Do you understand
what I'm trying to say? No, I do not, he said. Fll disappear into you, I said.
Fll lose myself. Let us go away together, he said. Come away with me. I know
of an island."
He had to catch himself there, I imagine, remembering that the portal
to that particular paradise was closed to him. No, she said. They would
have this for as long as it lasted. She wasn't going to budge. She came to
him and continued to do so during the lulls between appointments, but
never in the after-hours. She told him she wasn't going to do anything to
compromise her marriage.
Memviziri, having never met Marcel, maintained a courtly silence
on the subject of the husband. He must have seen himself as a kind of
quixotic knight for whom honour carried the same weight as his arrogant
sense of noblesse obttge, of being above the law. His favourite rant was
that they, whoever they were—patients demanding refunds or court-enforced restitution for surgical slips, tax assessors, creditors, grim associates^—did not appreciate what he did for them. They did not properly
acknowledge their debt to his genius. And yet a husband, cuckold or no,
stood well apart in his estimation from this gang of thieves. A husband
was a nobleman in this land of unmoored appetite and domestic disintegration. He promised he would do all in his power to ensure that Marcel
never know about Vera's infidelity.
He did not release Vera, however, even those few hours a week,
without telUng her how much he disliked her friend, "the female impersonator." The hair specialist was no rube. He had travelled widely, had
seen similar performances in Europe and Southeast Asia, and accepted
with the worldly man's capacious heart all that a cosmopolrtan existence
might offer. The difference was that Memviziri had committed the crime
of confessing not only his romantic love but his need for Vera, and as
such had become that most dangerous of humans, the jealous man. He
saw how much Vera loved Jaime, how her eyes grew large watching
him sing and strut and prance, how they finished each other's sentences
when they drank together after the performances. We made a tight Uttle
gang for a while there, for the first few weeks that the club was operating: Marcel, accepting that the only time and place he was going to see
Vera during the week was then and there, where the performers made
irreverent fun of the very way of life he and she led out in the suburbs;
I, out of curiosity, wanting to share something with a sister who was
growing not so much distant as hazy; and Memviziri, who was becoming
careless in love. If he'd had a wife, his marriage would have been ruined
by now. H bis business had depended upon discretion, he would have
68 had to close shop eartter than he did. As I said, for all his faults the man
was empathetic, leading me to wonder whether or not he had once been
married and had lost his wife to another man. Marcel, in his eyes, was an
unfortunate, unwitting victim.
Can anything be finer, more invigorating to one's sense of worth
and well-being, than to sit in a group of dear friends and be entertained
by someone universally loved? We felt it; I'm certain we all did. Faces
around us were richly Ut by candleUght and flushed by the heat of the
room or perhaps by the sauna next door. It was the flush of good cheer in
the community of those who invest all they are in the here and the now,
worshippers at a temple beyond which no life is conceivable. Their catechism was a strict devotion to pleasure and, in expressing it, one chanted
one's essence over the rising din, ever so sweetly, ever so urgently into
the ear of the one seated next to you, that he could not but bend to your
desire. "The Blessed Trinity!" I heard an audience member exclaim after
a performance in which two men, one older, the other younger, both
dressed as milkmaids, manipulated marionettes and sang the yodelling
song from The Sound of Music "The Father, the son, and the holy goat!"
The sniffs, raised eyebrows, penetrating stares, and sputtering cackles
following this pun were the equivalent of guffaws and backslaps anywhere else. I wish Vera had been sitting with us then, to see and hear, but
she was backstage, as always, helping the next performer get ready.
Because she loved the excitement of the work, the frantic preparation that had the feel of something prenuptial, she would have done
it full-time and without pay had she and Marcel been able to afford it
She quickly took on much more than she had originally agreed to do:
makeup, costume repair, set construction, sound checks, Ughting design,
snack runs—anything and everything, to be close to the hum, close to
Jaime. When he fell in love with this boy or thatana^ when he plummeted out she cried with him. When he threatened to leave because of an
unspoken sUght that only he had perceived, she convinced him to stay.
When he came off the stage and the applause continued, and before he
went back out for his encore, she was there to pat him back into shape, to
give him a bolstering drag off her du Maurier, and help gather the Ught
around him again.
"You're such a wife," he said to her once, meaning, "Where would I
be without you, you beautiful helpmeet you capital-f Friend?"
"You're such a wife," I said to mine after I had told her about Vera's
affair with Memviziri. We were driving back from her funeral.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"I only meant that until you find yourself in Vera's position—"
"Which I never will."
"And let me be the first to praise you in your constancy."
69 "Not appreciating the sarcasm."
"Who said—?"
"You used the word 'wife' the way you use the word 'spinster' or 'fishmonger.' "
"Fm sorry. All I meant was—"
"Vera was an adult She was in charge of her destiny. She made choices."
"Fm not condoning what she did. Fm only saying—"
"Yes, that you understand. By all means, let us understand."
"And the alternative?" I said.
"The alternative is that we act like grown-up people. The alternative
is responsibiUty, sett-control, considered behaviour."
Vera wasn't there to defend herself and I wasn't in the mood to argue.
To tell the truth, I was bereft with guilt as much as mourning. I should
have told Marcel what was going on. He would have been angry, he
might have bit her, but she would be alive today.
I think about the three of us—Memviziri, Marcel, and I—sitting in
the audience, sometimes together, sometimes apart, watchingjaime and
his fellow performers but adoring Vera, the incandescent thought of her,
with each his own motive and intensity. Tired of late-night second-hand
accounts, I was there to be part of her world. Naive Marcel tried to understand her, he really did. I think all he wanted was to spend whatever
time he could with her. They had a grateful and understanding babysitter. Memviziri, with his ever-present demitasse at hand, would stare at
Jaime, quiedy seething.
When the alarm rang, I thought that it was coming from next door
and that the bathhouse was being stonewalled again. Marcel and I stood.
We were sitting with two of Vera's cronies from Hair Apparent Memviziri had disappeared. Smoke was beginning to waft out across the litde
stage. When the audience saw that it wasn't dry ice and part of the act
they didn't panic. In fact, some looked annoyed by the inconvenience.
I waited until I saw Vera and we filed out the front entrance together. It
was cold out on Barrington Street midjanuary, and many of the performers had come outside wearing only their costumes. Gallant patrons
took off their mohair overcoats and draped them over slender bare
shoulders. The fire engine came wailing down Spring Garden from the
west Someone said, "Where's Jaime?" He said it in the Spanish way, a
moan, a sigh of distress. Nobody was asking where Doctor Mem was.
Before I noticed she was gone, and before anybody could stop her,
Vera had ducked under an arm and squirmed through the wall of huddled bodies. Then the firemen were there, telling everybody to move to
the other side of the street. I asked where Vera was. Somebody said he
saw her go back inside the club. Marcel started crossing the street but
a policeman waved him back. We told them that there were people still
70 inside. My sister was in there. "My wife," said Marcel. Don't worry, they
said, we'll get them out. Just stay put
The building, a yellow-brick theatre with apartments above, built
around the time of vaudeville, went up like the model schoolhouses we
used to burn as the culmination of Victoria Day fireworks. It was majestic, almost pure flame, sun-strong and smokeless at its apogee. The
heat drove us up the street to where it meets Spring Garden Road. We
watched the water freeze on the roof and on the sides of the Folly. Firemen on the ground worked in pairs to control the hoses. They stepped
this way and that with the force, and it looked Uke choreography. In a
bucket on the end of a raised hydrauUc arm, one of their fellows directed
a gushing stream through a broken upper-storey window.
After the fire was extinguished, they brought Jaime and Vera out together. They were wrapped in identical grey blankets and carried by two
firemen, one still angel in the arms of each. They looked to be merely
asleep, and I expected the firemen to begin the routine resuscitation that
usually retteves suspenseful TV dramas. When they laid their bodies out
on the sidewalk and covered their faces with the blankets, I went berserk, running up to them, demanding they do something, smashing my
fist into the watt.
The three upper, unused storeys of the building were charred wrecks,
but on the ground floor, where the fire started, in the hallway outside
the tiny dressing room where Jaime and Vera were found, fire damage
was minimal. The flames spread up the inside of the watts, leaving the
nightclub looking eerily intact though covered by a film of ash, the floor
awash in black water. The autopsies showed that Vera died of asphyxiation from the smoke, and Jaime, from an overdose of morphine administered by hypodermic injection, the needle still in his arm.
I ask Vera, late at night when I can't sleep, "Morphine? Come on. Really? That's stuck-in-the-projects, ex-con stuff."
No answer.
"The needle was sticking out of the side of his left bicep, high up. I
distinctly remember you saying that Jaime was left-handed like you."
As always she's as quiet as the Sphinx. A sUght shake of the head: You
know the answer, bro. Figure it out.
"Left-handed. Like Doctor Mem."
She cracks the faintest Mona Lisa grin.
"I'm going to find him. Drag him back here to face justice."
She winks: Sure, O J., you go right ahead and do that.
71 Sheri Benning
Descent from the Cross
Descent from the Cross1
Rembrandt 1634
Hermitage Museum
St Petersburg, Russia
The face in the Rembrandt of the man pulling Christ off the cross. It's your
father pacing from the machine shed to the barn. Night diffuse with the silence
oil have nothing. Empty-arm begging of autumn fields beneath sky. Dry snow-
flaked stars, moths of reflected light. Wheat two bucks a bushel. Harvest dust-
thin. His body a reed flexed with work and frost In the middle of his life, a
grief that stops blood.
In the painting, a woman holds a candle. The worn-cotton glow of the yard-
light poorly cloaking the back of night. The man pulling Christ off the cross
is thinking nothing. Not what should I do? what should I do? because to look it
in the eye is to die. He's just standing, now in the barn, the heat of sleeping
breath, straw, manure. His bloodless face drifts in the cadence animal-pulse.
Across his shoulders a burlap sack of feed, a limp body. Against his cheek,
silence where a heart once beat.
72 Northern River c. 1914-1915
Northern River c. 1914-1915 2
Tom Thomson
oil on canvas
155 x 102 cm
National Gallery of Canada
Night moved across you like a glacier and you woke' here, bone-broken, far
from where you thought you would be. If you could tie a string to your what
ifs, this is what they would weave—a hydra-nest of jackpine. The way out of
drowning in the foreground is a matter of perspective. You will never read all
there is in pine-shadow, the dim library of your past. Look through.
Lay aside thinking. Crouch in old blood-stiff sun, moon-ash moss, the thick pelt
grief grows. Crouch in the residue of snow, last season's estrus, bark, leaves;
melting, a shoot of light in a winter cellar. Wear your past, a pine-shadow mane,
across your back. Let your stare be a reaching hand starred with grain. Let the
river come to you.
The sudden sound of your name linked to no one's, heavy as a bird without
wings. Tie a string to your what-ifs. This is what they weave—the helix of
your pace, a search for certainty, for a dead thing. Choose to love the living.
The river is a sweating bone new from the unlit hut of the body; the river is
generous, fresh-meated with reflection, balm for forest bruised feet. Let stiff-
back jackpine strip the dross of your stare, your stare a whetted reed. Song will
lift from your looking.
73 Contributors
Dave Barnes is an honours graduateof Sheridan College's Illustration Program.
His artistic approach involves observing life, recycling objects, transforming
wood, and using historical elements to merge nostalgic mood and modern concept. Please visit
Sheri Benning's second book of poetry, thin moon psalm, is forthcoming with
Brick Books in 2007. Her first book of poetry, Earth After Rain, came out with
Thisdedown Press in 2001. Her writing is also included in the anthologies Breathing Fire 2, Listening with the Ear of the Heart, and Third Moor Lounge. Sheri currently
lives in Edmonton where she is a doctoral student at the University of Alberta
Michael Bogan lives in Danville, Indiana, with his wife and four children. This
is his first published story. Email him at
Richard Cumyn has published four collections of short fiction and the novella,
The View from Tamischeira. He has new fiction appearing soon in The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, and The Nashwaak Review.
Kuldip Gill was born in Faridkot Distt, Punjab, India She attended school in
the Fraser Valley, and obtained her PhD in anthropology from UBC. She won
the BC Book award in 2000 for her first book of poetry, Dharma Rasa (Nightwood Editions). These are her first pubUshed translations. Kuldip currentiy
teaches poetry at UCFV.
Donna Kane lives in Bessborough, a few miles northwest of Dawson Creek,
BC. Her first book of poetry, Somewhere, a Fire, was published in 2004 by Hagios
Press. She has poems forthcoming in The Fiddlehead and The Antigonish Review.
John Lofranco coaches cross-country running at Concordia University in Montreal.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi's work has been published in a handful of Canadian journals, including Fireweed, The Fiddlehead, and Pottersfield Portfolio. Having taken
some time out to raise two small children, she's back and smarter than ever,
and is working on two manuscripts and dipping her toes into the crazy waters
of filmmaking.
Miranda Pearson is a graduate of UBC's Creative Writing MFA program, and
currentiy teaches in The Writef s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.
Her first book of poems was Prime (Beach Holme) and another, The Aviary, is
74 Amrita Pritam was widely known across the Punjab on two sides of the Wagah
border as the poet who captured the poignancy of Partition. The first woman recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, she was also the first woman to be awarded the Padma Shri, and was given the Jnanpith Award for lifetime contribution to
Punjabi literature in 1982. Among her famous books are the novels Pinjar—recreated on celluloid recentiy by director Chandra Prakash Diwedi—Ek Thi Saara,
Kachchi Sarak, Unchaas Din, and Adalat.
Matt Rader is the co-director of the Robson Reading Series at the University of
British Columbia Robson Square and the author of the book of poems, Miraculous Hours (Nightwood). He lives in Vancouver.
Bruce Holland Rogers has published stories and poems in Descant, North American Review, Abraxas, and Poetry Australia, among others. His fourth collection of
short stories is The Keyhole Opera. He teaches fiction writing in the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in addition to leading workshops in Greece and
Andreas Schroeder is the author of seventeen books. His memoir, Shaking It
Rough, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award in 1976; his documentary novel, Dustship Glory, was shortlisted for the Sealbooks First Novel Award in
1986. In 1990, he won the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for Best
Investigative Journalism.
Moez Surani has had poems published in magazines and anthologies in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Canada. He recently completed his MA in English
in Montreal.
Brian Swann received his BA from Queen's College, Cambridge, and his PhD
from Princeton. He has taught at Princeton and Rutgers, and is now Professor of
English at the Cooper Union. He is the author of over thirty books, among them
works of poetry, fiction, translation, literary criticism, and children's literature.
He is a resident of New York City.
Julie Vandervoort has been published in Grain and Geist and is the author
of Till the Driver: A Biography of Elinor FE. Black, AfD..Vandervoort is a human
rights lawyer and a singer/activist with the international Gala project, linking
voice to species and habitat protection. She lives in Halifax.
Russell Wangersky is a writer and editor from St. John's, Newfoundland. His
short fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in Grain, Prairie Fire, and Saturday Night. He was the winner of PRISMs Literary Nonfiction Contest in 2003
and 2004 (PRISM 42:2 and 43:2). His nonfiction appears in the anthology, What
I Meant to Say. A collection of short stories, Hour of Bad Decisions, will be published by Coteau Books in the spring of 2006.
75 '■*&%
The Creative Writing Program at U.B.C.
The University of British Columbia offers
both a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and
a Master of Pine Arts degree in Creative
Writing. The M.P.A. degree may also be
taken by distance education. See our
website for more details. Students work in
multiple genres, including: Poetry, Novel/
Novella, Short Fiction, Stage Play, Screen Ar
TV Play, Radio Play, Writing for Children,
Non-fiction, Translation, and Song lyrics
& Libretto.
Lynne Bowen
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Please visit our website: EVENTS*?,
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Three winners will each receive $500 plus payment for publication in Event 35/3.
Other manuscripts may be published.
Final Judge: Charles Montgomery is an award-winning writer and
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won the 2005 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
Writers are invited to submit manuscripts exploring the creative non-fiction
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Entry fee: Multiple entries are allowed, however, each entry must be accompanied by a $29.95 entry fee (includes GST and a one-year subscription;
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College Canadian
■f   Literature
Canadian Literature is pleased to announce its latest edition,
Issue 186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory.
Laura Moss  Beyond the Belly
David Williams  Making Stories, Making Selves:
"Alternate Versions" in The Stone Diaries
Laura Robinson Remodeling An Old-Fashioned Girl: Troubling
Girlhood in Anne-Marie MacDonald's Fall on
Your Knees
Ellen Quigley  Picking the Deadlock of Legitimacy: Dionne
Brands "noise like the world cracking"
Mary Eagleton  What's the Matter? Authors in Carol Sheilds'
Short Fiction
Stephen Dunning  Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The
Terror of the Therapeutic
Canadian Literature
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V  Fiction/Poetry/Drama/Translation/Creative Nonfiction
Lately I don't recognize this country, the land of my birth.
The contours of the land are the same. I can buy what I
always bought in the stores. The weather has changed,
though. Last winter, we had no snow, but the wind blew
love letters to dead soldiers into drifts up to my knees.
—"Border Crossing" by Bruce Holland Rogers, Page 50
Sheri Ben ning
Michael Bogan
Richard Cumyn
Kuldip Gill
Donna Kane
John Lofranco
Elisabeth de Mariaffi
Miranda Pearson
Amrita Pritam
Matt Rader
Bruce Holland Rogers
Moez Surani
Brian Swann
Juile Vandervoort
Russell Wangersky
PRISM international
Literary Nonfiction Contest
Judge's Essay:
Andreas Schroeder
Cover Art:
by Dave Barnes


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