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 PRISM international  PRISM international
2001 PRISM Short Fiction Contest
Grand Prize (split) - $1,100 each
"My White Planet"
Mark Anthony Jarman
Fredericton, New Brunswick
"The Ladder"
David Derry
Toronto, Ontario
Runners-up - $200 each
"How to Raise a Smart Baby"
Jacqueline Honnet
Calgary, Alberta
"Warm Moist Places"
Teela James
Charlottesville, Vermont, USA
"The Brotherhood of Tad and Me"
Scott Bark
Scarborough, Ontario
"Swallowing Sky: A Case Study"
Gina Ochsner
Keizer, Oregon, USA  PRISM international
Editor
Abigail Kinch
Executive Editor
Michael Kissinger
Advisory Editors
George McWhirter
Bryan Wade
Associate Editors
Shannon Cowan
Billeh Nickerson
Business Manager
Mark Mallet
Editorial Intern
Danielle Couture
Editorial Assistants
Catharine Chen
Karin Gray
Bobbi MacDonald
Erin MacDonald
Loretta Seto
Regina Yung
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Marita Dachsel
Joelene Heathcote
Lee Henderson
Colin Whyte PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published
four times per 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.
E-mail: prisrn@interchange.ubc.ca
Website: prism.arts.ubc.ca
Contents Copyright © 2002 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover illustration: Brothel, Comayagiia, Honduras 1987, by Rafael Goldchain.
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Our gratitude to Dean Anne Martin-Matthews and the Dean of Arts Office at
the University of British Columbia.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council
($16,500) and the Government of British Columbia through the Ministry
of Small Business, Tourism and Culture.
Publications Mail Registration No. 08867. August 2002. ISSN 0032.8790
auncil     Le Conscil des Arts ^^^^"---'.
BRITISH
COLUMBIA
The Canada Council I U Conscil des Arts W^^^^T   ARTS  COUNCIL
for the Arts      du Canada Supported by Ihc Province of British Columbia Contents
Volume 40, Number 4
Summer 2002
2001 PRISM Short Fiction Contest
Judge's Essay
Kevin Chong
Choosing Ties  / 7
Fiction
Mark Anthony Jarman
My White Planet / 9
Jacqueline Honnet
How to Raise a Smart Baby / 20
Gina Ochsner
Swallowing Sky: A Case Study / 29
Teela James
Warm Moist Places   / 43
Scott Bark
The Brotherhood of Tad and Me  / 55
David Derry
The Ladder / 70
Contributors /so 2002 Earle Birney Prize for Poetry
$500 was awarded to
Tim Lander
for his poem
"How They Made a Man of Me"
which appeared in PRISM 40:3
National Magazine Award Winners
PRISM congratulates Mark Anthony Jarman & Leslie Sheffield
Mark Anthony Jarman
received the Gold Medal
in the Essay category for
"Bear on a Chain" (PRISM 39:2).
Leslie Sheffield
received the Silver Medal
in the Personal Journalism category for
"A Spring Garden" (PRISM 39.2).
Western Magazine Award Winner & Nominee
PRISM congratulates Leslie Sheffield & Marcello Di Cintio
Leslie Sheffield
received First Place
in the Human Experience category for
"A Spring Garden" (PRISM 39.2).
Marcello Di Cintio
received a nomination
in the Human Experience category for
"Leaving Mauritania" (PRISM 39:3). Kevin Chong
Choosing Ties
Once when asked to pick a favourite among her own stories, the
incomparable Grace Paley answered with an oldjewish joke: "A
son comes down the stairs wearing one of the two ties his mother
has bought him. His mother says, 'You didn't like the other one?'"
This humble prize-judge shares, if nothing else, Ms. Paley's unwillingness to break a mother's heart. Of the final entries, two stories distinguished themselves by their imagination and confidence. Both stories begin with fiendishly audacious premises that are realized with grace, irony,
and an amiable type of ruthlessness. Because they demand to be read,
because their respective authors need to be lauded and compensated, I
pleaded and was very kindly allowed to declare two winners.
"My White Planet" is suffused with the ache of thwarted desire and
distances that cannot be traversed. Here, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
are first deconstructed, then relocated on a desolate arctic base. The story's
elliptical, list-driven narrative is reminiscent of Donald Barthelme's fiction, most notably his novel Snow White. Its droll yet melancholic surreal-
ism-the arrival of an unconscious woman by boat; her eventual ascension
to the ranks of Hollywood celebrity-brings to mind a whackload of Neil
Young songs: from "Powderfinger" to "Pochahontas" to "A Man Needs A
Maid."
"The Ladder" details the efforts of a young male university student to
witness—surreptitiously, using aforementioned ladder-a sexual act still
forbidden in the more prudish parts of the world. If this is not enough
incentive to skip the essay, then consider the logorrheic, mock-intellectual
tone of the aspiring voyeur, his ladder set outside a woman's window: "... I
waited, surprisingly content to be embowered by the propitious night amidst
the periodic soughing of a breeze in the branches overhead." Why are the
hyper-articulate, unreliable-narrating perverts-Humbert Humbert in
Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, or Thomas Chippering in Tim O'Brien's Tomcat In Love-the only perverts we are comfortable laughing at? Perhaps
because the juxtaposition is a comic incongruity, like the Three Stooges as
scientists or Adam Sandler as a movie star. One might also suggest that
words and desire are, like sandals and wool socks, in conflict with each
other. Desire not only exists without rationalization, it defies it. Thus, the
more outlandish a desire, the more one wants to justify it, and the sillier one sounds opening one's mouth.
Four other stories need to be praised. "How to Raise A Smart Baby" is
a rueful yet wry story about how a mother's positive reinforcement can
backfire on her child as an adult. "Swallowing Sky: A Case Study" is an
incisive, humane story about an insurance investigator's fascination with a
potential suicide. With tenderness and a patient, assured tone, "The Brotherhood of Tad and Me" traces the dissolution of a family that occurs both
gradually and suddenly. "Warm Moist Places" describes the particulars of
first love and first sex with such empathy that one's throat becomes tight
and knots by the story's conclusion.
I hope these stories find you well. Mark Anthony Jarman
My White Planet
Whether one marries or not, one lives to regret it
(French proverb)
Like watching television, everything coming to us through TV (perhaps why they call it a tube). Seasick gazing on this oyster-white
young woman being thrown around like so much thumping laundry.
Her enclosed boat a tiny orange orb among monstrous green icebergs,
and I dream of her coming to me, waves like giant white gnashing horses,
a female coming like a coma, a young woman staring at me from wild
water spray, sliding in and out of sight, her little boat a dizzy dome with
plastic windows, an offshore oil-rig's emergency lifeboat, an orange plastic
cask bobbing and rolling at the same time.
A final golden vision of her at a microphone, many microphones aimed
at her, rented jewels on her sunny neck.
I dream of her and then she is really here, inside a bubble boat, closer
and closer to seven of us stumbling on the shingle beach (there used to be
more of us, but the bears snatched one and the ice opened and took two),
this garden of stone and ice abutting water's wind-wrenched green map,
our world a snapping laundry line, her clothes stripped from her and floating in the corner and her marble white body washing and tossing inside an
enclosed self-righting lifeboat, arms out, hair askew, awash in icy seawater,
an orphan under glass.
Seven of us examine her. Seven men and our Snow White. Her palms
turned out, shoulders back, wet dark hair over a freckled white face, and
breasts that fit a teacup (we have no teacups here). We touch her neat ribs
to hear a heart song, no heat there, navel like a slot for a dime, her thin
legs in an elongated V The first female for a long time, the first not on TV
from the south, and so cold, yet clearly alive.
You imagine your hands moving up those ribs, pulled to teacup breasts,
warming her, saving her, her dripping skin, our baggy pants, every man
up straight as an icicle, not sure of her age, what is allowed here.
We inhabit a line station secretly functioning after the accord, but something went dead after June 11. Our dishes and software seem without flaw,
but our screens remain blank, thoughtless. No printouts. No officiant plies us with coded orders or fervent denials or demands our narrow circumspect data. Is everyone erased in a war or did a budget-conscious computer
take us out in a bureaucratic oversight? We are paid puppets, but no one
is pulling the strings and no cheque is in the mail.
The freezing girl is alive but unconscious, and our ungenerous God has
delivered a delirious female to our ice garden where we look at each other
in wonder, wondering about things, about our farmgirl concubine with
drained lips, our charcoal-eyed dreamgirl, our homage, our stockpiled
ohmage.
Peter the Preacher pulls out his blue-grey Czech pistol, says he'll shoot
us or kill her rather than let her be touched, and we know what he means,
means our ugly paws on her lily white flesh other than to save her, resurrect her, and I believe I once dreamed this part too, saw Peter the Preacher's fine skull and fine rhetoric and his fine Czech pistol at our nostril
hairs.
Our long lost daughter, we decide, yes, our very sad orphan, why, our
very own child, we all agree at gunpoint, no monkey business, the Greenland radioman hard against her belly, me hard against the small of her
back, our honeymoon, our blood raised, swollen cocks lifted on each side
of her, raising her back to life one degree at a time with just our body heat,
one cell at a time, hours at gunpoint, three crushed in one cot, Peter never
sleeping, her eyes fluttering, legs relaxed, her hair soaked, mustached men
in tears, in blanket memory of past and future sex, life or death, no monkey business, wanting her to live, and wanting to be in her, to slide in and
out like a wave, the head so near to her, but instead a Czech pistol, a white
towel drying her hair and shoulders and our two ungainly bodies clamped
close until her body temperature climbs.
I agree with Peter the Preacher out of selfishness really; I want her for me
or for no one, don't want all their chapped hands on her blue route-map of
veins and fine skin. I choose no one on her, will take my lottery chances
for later. Like our red barrels of fuel. They will run out someday, then we
must find an alternative or freeze to death. Doc can calculate exactly how
long the barrels will last, how long we will last, but as with long-range
winter forecasts, some knowledge we'd rather avoid.
We have bears, a few bullets, bubble gum, oatmeal, flour, raisins, dried
fruit, lentils, juice crystals, beef jerky, powdered milk, vitamins, chocolate,
no dawn, no real fruit, tea with cane sugar, pressed arctic flowers we were
told not to pick, but so many blossoms spill over our cliffs in the ceaseless
wind.
10 We carried her from the beach to shelter, my hand inside her senseless
scentless thigh, happy to carry her; we were serious and happy, her skin
ice-water tight, her hip, her perfect white shores, her ears seeming to listen
to us grunting. Our duty, the feel of her leg in my hand, her ear by
Rasmussen's hip, dead serious, and much later her dark Acadian eyes gleaming into life, taking in our world, two pin-stars of light suddenly alive in
each chocolate brown iris.
Now in the afternoons I read to her, our orphan, from old British picture
books and periodicals. She is a blank slate for me to write on, to create.
These arefarmkids chasing a greased pig.
This is a bi-plane.
This is a black bathing suit, a red guitar.
This diamond ring.
We used to explore on the yellow skidoo, but a polar bear ate the fake
leather seat (and ate Caird), and on the ice we ran out of oil and blew the
whining engine. My hands black trying to find the problem, the carb in
pieces, my fingers freezing and filthy. White polar bears after us all the
time here-you have to keep an eye out or you're a dead man. Like Caird,
pieces of him missing and pieces of him still there, life not the sharp apple
it was yesterday.
We found a wooden ship on our lost satellite, stuck in ice, perhaps
beached deliberately centuries before, lost men, food still on their table.
Did the stiff-legged bears pick them off one by one, eating the years?
Slopes of scree and ravens spying on us behind their formal wear, their
Aztec razor faces.
I walk her to the wooden ship, as if we are courting, to show her the
frozen Norwegian rat lying on ballast stones, stones and rats been there so
long a time, born in Europe, Eurocentric rats, going nowhere now.
Have you been here almost as long? she wonders.
We keep the girl alive: she has no memory, learns the world from us, from
me. A polar bear circles our camp, its feet huge and almost square, and I
can't get over feeling it's a person in a costume. Two bears stalk us; we're
bi-polar.
Preacher shot a bear last year and Gingras died after frying the liver
with some wild bulbs. For the bears we have rubber bullets and cayenne
and skunk spray and even angel dust. We're an experiment. Gingras taught
us to not eat the liver.
Our pool table was shipped in, piece by piece, back when there was a
budget, someone cutting cheques. The way they carted beautiful mahogany
11 bars and mirrors and billiard tables up the western rivers and over the
badlands. Up the stone coast I discovered a U boat weather signal left here
during WWII and still transmitting, but our e-mail is broken down. Your
Reich takes a hike, your salad days turn Turk. You get depressed, run out
of duct tape.
Nothing over satellite anymore, food stopped in our mouth as the satellite
feed stopped: no death star, no blues channel, no idea what's out there still.
May 1st brought brief pictures of Ho Chi Minh, stigmata, a Warhol banana, an AK-47. What's happening out there past the clouds of mosquitoes?
We play cards: Go Fish, War, 45, High Chicago, Low Chicago, 5 card, 7
card. For exercise I jump on the tiny round trampoline. Run outside and
the arthritic huskies attack you, though they're fine if you walk. Jog and
they think they're supposed to kill you, some old instinct they won't let go.
Jumping up and down seems good for your cells, plumps them up. You
feel better, younger.
An electronic detection system warns us if bears are sneaking close
while we're working outside the Quonsets with our big hoods up, wind
singing loud as jets.
An airplane—a beautiful engine's martial music with dynamic bass boost,
silver fuselage, and no insignia, no pilot for all we know, or the pilot dead.
A long jet-stream heading to the north pole. The captain runs the rocky
guano beach as if he can lasso that damn plane, catch its amplified buzz.
We keep shooting pool, running the table, though I play slop—just hit
the balls and see what happens. The captain runs alone, comes back in with
cold air hanging in his shirt. We give each other bad haircuts in our hours
of darkness. On our beach we hold clear panes of ice overhead and smash
them to the ground like breaking glass.
These are prickly hair curlers.
These are pink pedal pushers.
That's green grass.
That's the way a rich woman sits in an Adirondack chair.
Our VCR shows the old football and hockey games over and over, and we
bet on them even though we've seen them a million times.
GO! GO! GO!
Blitz! Dog it up the middle.
Eat that blocker. Run!
Get rid of it! Shoot it!
12 Come to Daddy!
Top shelf!
Through the uprights.
Yes. No!
Or a history channel special on Dien Bien Phu, the bearded foreign
legions, fire bases named after a French officer's mistresses (Eliane, Beatrice,
Isabelle, Claudine, Gabrielle...). How lucky the man was, until he shot
himself in the bunker in Indochina.
Another dead pilot soars over us, air gone, precision machine on auto,
fly till fuel drained, flying on fumes, vapours wavering like ghosts inside
steel rivets. And finally down, where no one witnesses, eight miles high
and then that metal skin ripping down to the ice.
Some men in the group have each other; we don't discuss their arrangements, the niceties. You dream of rivers, riding elephants.
I remember childhood fields clad in yellow grain, and they seem surreal.
Did I really live there? Was the farm real? Such livid yellow blue red
green and that Hutterite vibe. This ice the only real world, an afterlife, on
ice, but the only world that counts.
In our afterlife she tries to sweep the rug wearing my white shirt, my
shirt you can see through and her blue pedal pushers made of my cut-off
longjohns, shrunken from being washed, holding tighter and tighter, and
she's bending at the gentle broom and I can't help but look on the cant and
lexicon of her lovely lines and want to be all things to all people.
I am given to bad dreams, am the bearer of bad news, prophet of grim
gesture.
I begin carving Rasmussen a Celtic Cross, his gravestone, his dark
green-eyed soapstone rood.
These are bottles of stout.
These are shopping malls.
These are car dealers.
Freeways and doom palms.
Gambling is the only way we make our randomly picked taped games
more interesting, but then one fine Sunday our VCR breaks, movies flipping, eating game tapes.
Try tracking!
I tried it goddamit! You try fuckin' tracking!
We clean the dirty VCR with virginal movies we never watch: Ma & Pa
Kettle, Snow White, training films. Our cranky VCR works for a while,
13 we're happy again, then nothing again. Snow so industrious on the screen.
We look at each other, lost, no words, Byzantine in ardour, drooping
with anger. Time does not equal money.
Rasmussen's idea. The VCR dead. Everyone could have equal chits, Rassy
says, have turns with her. And you can gamble your turn to be with her,
lose or win, move a finger slowly, summon honey from her, and she can be
Eve, create a new race.
Our faces change. I knew this was coming.
What's wrong with that? he protests. The old rules don't apply here.
What if everyone is gone? You know, out there. Maybe she'll like it. You'd
like it. You think anyone would do what we've done so far? Been good.
We've been stupid. Why can't we just do what we want?
We have all thought about trying it. I remember lying beside her at gunpoint to bring her to life, our orphan, our animal heat on both sides of her,
my cock up against her white marble hip, its head also marble, a taut
gleaming bulb, seeking my orphan, remembering her form, knowing her
without knowing her. What I would pay to put it in, but we did not. Our
daughter, our sister, the only woman we know. Who would be first? Who
would explain? Me?
We were happier before Rasmussen brought this up again. We thought it
had been decided that she didn't really exist. Instantly her hips and breasts
suggest their shape to us through Gore-Tex or wool or cotton {cotton kills),
suggest intriguing possibilities.
She brings us tea in the same battered tin pot but it is different now. We
are secret czars of romance, closet Rasputins, long Johns too small on her
hips, clinging in pleasant lines that draw your eye down and in, show exact
aspects of her female anatomy. Not every woman does that; she has that
special look, that power. Sometimes she kisses us, sometimes she studies
us, one after the other. What does she think?
Our radar spinning madly, the dish silent. We all know he's right. We
are so alive. Fuck I hate Rassy.
Wear these snow pants, I say to her.
They smell like diesel, she says.
Wear them, I say.
What's wrong with these? she asks.
Wear these over them.
We shun Rasmussen for seven weeks; he slips and gets a concussion and
can't get around, but still we won't speak to him.
14 You know I'm only saying what you all thought.
I think of her on her stomach, sunlight in her room, a liaison as if in a
city, my fingers moving slowly up her legs, sunlight in her room, moving
all around, but waiting, moving up around her ribcage and cupping her in
front, my dreamgirl waiting for me, open and smooth. I can't get her out of
my head. We shun him.
We play music from the University of the Air tapes, the history of rock
and roll, scribble extensive notes on Johnny Horton's blue period, Otis
Blackwell doing "Pictures of Matchstick Men," Calexico's Spanish horn,
Ray Price's crazy arms that long to hold somebody new, Jack Nitzche's
"The Lonely Surfer." Only I remember Jack's pistol pushing into the movie
star, Jack's work with Neil Young, "Whiskey Boot Hill," and Graham Parker's best LP, Squeezing Out Sparks. Whatever happened to lucky Lene Lovitch?
"Do you have to breathe so loudly?!"
"Are we out of salt?!"
No new music here, no murky swamp rock, no psychobilly, though a
rich fantasy life. Where her legs meet, hidden under the long Johns. We are
swathed always in layers, you get used to layers, masks for outside when
it's bad, never completely warm.
Rasmussen says, I may begone some time, edges out into the blizzard with his
flowering concussion.
Our talks continue. She sits by me, her body so warm.
These are lawyers.
These are debutantes.
These are power lines.
This is a sizzling steak.
I find his frozen body, arm up with no glove.
We make brief contact with a woman in the Outback. She pedals a bike to
power an old ham radio. She is never cold there, a woman's skin painted
with sweat all day. We are connected, then lose her, but we know the world
is still out there.
Our two bears off somewhere hunting for tasty seals in slob ice and slush.
We stand around the solar collector, drop our pants and show white asses,
reflecting extra light into the panel. This display of white skin seems to
make all the difference for our patched up equipment.
First a video channel, then a shopping channel. Ads for heroic pickup
15 trucks bashing and splashing through rivers, the mad colours of a lost
world. When did I last drive anything with wheels and a heater? Did the
world go away or did we? Its whisper-quiet ride, its no money down o.a.c.
The world seems ridiculous, but she watches the miraculous screen, fascinated. My old tracksuits have surfaced in Glasgow. She watches videos
with tall models and turquoise swimming pools; she learns songs, takes on
new moves, mannerisms, dances in her socks (my socks!). She is in love.
After a while she doesn't really want to read books with me, sorry, doesn't
really want to walk to our wooden ship, doesn't find our dead rat romantic.
A big boat with a stripe the red of lipstick used to call once a year. A
mistake to mention it. A risk if the weather turns at all bad, in fact a
dangerous journey even when conditions are perfect, and they have to be
perfect, and they're never perfect. She says she's going to leave, go without
me. Polar bears are worse than grizzlies, meaner, and they like females.
Bears like menstrual blood, are attracted, anarchists wanting under the
underwear.
Wind up, forecast bad, we sneak away without word one to the others,
knowing we might be dooming ourselves like Rassy, but life is losing, is
risk. She wants the world and I want her.
It's uphill and downhill, a plodding broken hike, and unreliable ice in
the straits. The two of us follow the old stone cairns, dwarfs in the vast
landscape, lunar explorers, endless lost horizon and cliffs like calipers,
white mountains, wracked spiny shore, wind penetrating like a wish, but
the sky clear and no bears taking a lively interest.
Binoculars and I spy nothing. Sit another day as if at a bus stop in the
middle of nowhere wishing I had a cigarette, a rare steak sandwich with a
martini, some Semylan tranq in case we need to shoot a bear. Our backpacks
at a sunny bus stop.
She says she sees its smokestack in the bright icebergs. I have my glacier
glasses on for the glare. Where? I can't see anything. Are my eyes going?
Is she seeing what she wants to see? Is she that lucky?
Bright daytime but I fire the flare and half a day later the confident hull
smashing black and white Dalmatian ice just for her, smokestack's lipstick
red stripe just for her, ice shot through with zigzags, shadow lines, the ice
a white kitchen floor suddenly buckling up, a bright breaking world roaring below sous chefs grinning at the ship's rail and white shag state-rooms
where Brooklyn tourists bray Hope we see a bear!! Buffets, fresh bread,
pepper steak, blueberries, green eyes, and the exact shadow of this ship
laid on the ice.
16 Aren't I climbing aboard? she asks me.
What's wrong? she asks.
I give her my Checkers speech.
Mad at how happy she is to leave me in the leads, in the bright shadows of
the ship, so white here, can't open both eyes. She tries to give me back my
fur hat. No one will ever know me the way she could have-I'm a prince
and a janitor both. We killed Rassy because of her.
Keep it, keep the hat.
Once she saw me about to have a shower. I staged it so she could see all of
me, her eyes on me better than nothing on me. How strange it is to be
alive. The men talk of tracing energy files, of molecular vibrations, molecular mechanics. Laughing, the men talk of the guy back home who
could leap from inside one 45 gallon drum into another and do a flip
without even a step and jumped right over a stock car to punch the driver,
and Navvy was working the rock crusher and dropped a boulder on the
roof of the guy's truck and he jumped out and hit Navvy and Navvy didn't
know if it was Christmas or New Year, never been hit so hard, but laughing
and proud to have been smacked by this backroader now dead of cancer.
We see her on Infotainment Tonight. She is shacked up with one of Jack
Nicholson's sons. They walk on the beach and Junior Jack smiles that
rakish smile, light at that magic hour the Arriflex cameras love. The cameras love our dreamgirl and he winks, their teeth white as bears on ice. In
her new video she dances with tanned surfers. In late tropical light they all
face us, scissor kicks, hair flying, sand flat as a gym floor from water lying
over it, the sun going down in her video and she's wearing my white shirt.
Water and western sky the colours of deep neon and she's in my shirt.
I remember the naked white body rolling in icy seawater, the window into
the self-righting oil rig lifeboat, that window like a TV and we stared in
like the bears stare in at us. Outside that window it's death. I thought I
could teach her.
I feel everything is over now, I feel so ordinary without her. It's like
missing yourself and maybe one thing waiting.
Her sodden hair and skin, that naked ass coming up into view like a
frozen white planet, my lovely planet, never once touched save to save
her, to carry her. Escaped-air we can't breathe. Would it have been so bad
to breathe of her? Would the world have ended?
I looked at her in her sleep, half out of her army bag, that white hip, and I
pulled her underwear down on one side just to see what she looked like.
17 Shaking I was so tense and she was sleeping, dead to the world after walking with me all day. She lives because of us and even though she's gone I
own her.
In the cold hangars and Quonsets we're down to the last barrels of
naphtha, diesel (someone is sniffing it), the last juice crystals while on the
cruise ship they eat strawberries from Mexico. I could always fry up some
liver I suppose, end it all, but I like it here, these contorted ice-fields have
become my vast home. Home is a strange pliable word, the world in a
snapping laundry line, your mother a giant in blue sky, Adam and Eve
now gone from the postwar suburb. Exactly how little you need-I'm still
waiting to find that out.
After she gets out some of the others won't wait anymore. We argue about
it. They're mad I left. They're mad I came back. The Greenland radio-man
and Doc the chess master-machinist decide on overland. Sayonara, adieu
to you and you.
They're gone. They haven't made it, haven't made it on TV. Bad sign.
At the Emmies she gives us a message. Big hi to the seven dwarves if
they're watching; they'll know who they are. A little laugh, her tiny dress
taped to her skin to keep it on while we wear more layers to stretch the
fuel. On a screen she has so much presence, light, heat. Here she seemed
smaller walking in this endless landscape. Her newest boyfriend wears my
fur hat. It's trendy. People on the screen seem happy, coloured cars everywhere. What would I do in that world? Miss this one?
I jump on my tiny trampoline, do pushups, fat boiling on burner, eating
shorebirds when I can catch them. We are alone up here, we're watching
out for those two polar bears. They want us, they love us so much, and
they do anything they want.
We make noise at the front door and the two bears run happily to catch
us in their embrace and then one of us scoots out the back door to the next
building. If they ever figure out the two doors we're dead. We have skunk
spray, slink around, not sure how well it works.
I am proud of our frozen girl, in a way glad our starlet hasn't told, hasn't
sent anyone to find our listening post where we don't listen.
The bears, when they stand erect, are tall enough to peer in any of our
windows. White mountains far away, and dark lines of whalebone scrimshaw.
Where are my hallucinatory fields of yellow and purple?
Sharpening a hacksaw in a Vise-Grip, I look up and see the bear staring
in at me, its long neck extended earnestly, black paw pads, black nose,
18 squinty black eyes hiding in that expanse of white rug {and I think of her
naked on a fireside rug, bearskin, jealous ofMalibu, the old highway). A window
ten feet off the ground and I am on display like a lobster in a restaurant.
The bear looks goofy standing up, a carnival act, arms out, a myopic
giant trying to balance on two legs with this doofus expression: Hey Ma,
look at me!
They know us, big carnal carnivores peeking in at our parts. They spy
us in the window and are nostalgic for the happy future when they will
have us in their arms.
19 Jacqueline Honnet
How to Raise a Smart Baby
I have always been afraid of frogs. My mother loves to tell the story. Do
you remember the frog? she says. No matter how many times I say,
Yes, she retells it. I roll my eyes as she embellishes the size (it was not
as big as her fist), and the intensity of my scream (at six I could not
possibly have sounded like a foghorn). My mother is not usually one for
silly stories; she delights in the practical: that by seven I could run my
own bath, that I didn't pick off one chicken-pox scab, that I was a clever
baby who walked at eight months and never needed a pacifier. She laughs—
You and that damn frog.
The frog jumps out of the tub faucet. First, I turn the tap and no water
comes out. The rainwater on the island is collected in a cistern—a pool, I
learn, for tadpoles and other horrible creatures. When the bathroom taps
shudder open, out streams a tiny frog in rotten-egg-smelling water. I scream,
hop out of the tub, convinced that frog legs, not air, skim the tiny hairs on
my body. I squeeze my eyes shut, put both hands between my legs. This is
how I am standing, barely peeking through eye slits, when my mother's
face fills the doorway.
My mother can kill anything, I tell my friends at school. This is my
proud picture of her, someone who murders small beasts that invade our
home. She has a certain look as she moves through the house, fly swatter
or tightly rolled newspaper in hand. Eyes traced with black liquid eyeliner
and a dishtowel tucked in her waistband. Prettier than most mothers. Meaner
still. She always grabs me in a way that I first mistake for a hug, then
moves me out of the way. Stop crying, it's practically over, she says. Centipedes make their way up the ceiling where she delivers the swift and
lethal blow with the end of a broom handle. She is fast, and she is right.
The centipedes never have a chance.
She doesn't kill the frog. She shoos it out the back door. Slams it hard.
I am embarrassed by the way I scream. The pitiful way I curl up onto the
kitchen chair. My mother stands me up, pats my back with a round of
quick taps. I imagine she is eager to get back to her cooking, but remembers to say, You're fine. There, now. I don't stop my warm sniffling against
her leg, though. I hold on as long as I can, while she continues chopping
20 thick tomato wedges with a meat cleaver, tossing them into a silver bowl
that clangs against the counter.
***
Today my mother is chopping onions for Biryani. Her latest project is East
Indian cooking. Last year was aerobics, when she bought cherry red tights
and a black sleeveless tank top with the words GO FOR IT scrawled
across the chest in neon pink. Cardio Funk, Kick Start, Power Cycle,
Boxercize, Step Pump. She calls me often to describe a challenging footstep and remind me, It's not too late to start—you're a quick learner, like
me. But she quits the classes within six months, saying, Those instructors
are complete amateurs. She buys her own step and workout videos—sets up
a mini-gym in her basement. She gives me a workout tape for Christmas,
which my roommate watches over and over trying to figure out if the
purple-clad workout woman was the valedictorian of her high school. That's
what happens when you're too smart for your own good, she shouts at the TV.
I am standing at my sink scrubbing the waxy skins of red and green
peppers for the Biryani. My mother hums a peppy tune. I can't make it out,
the sound warped by the hunk of doughy bread she insists on sucking. It
stops onion tears, she says with authority as she stuffs a ball of my $4.99-
a-loaf organic flaxseed bread into her mouth. I like chopping onions—the
things it lets me cry about: that maybe the grapefruit-sized ovarian cyst I
had at 16 has rendered me sterile, that if only I had asked that plaid-shirt
guy in my physics class for help I might have become doctor instead of a
marketing assistant, that if I had married my old boyfriend I could be
living in Springbank instead of sharing a condo with a roommate in
Dalhousie. Damn onions.
I scrape the onions into the wide pan my mother says makes all the
difference. I stir them with a wooden spoon. Like this, my mother says,
bumping me to the side with her hip, Stir like this. Where do you keep all
your useless information? I say, running my hand through her curls. I just
love learning, she says, tapping the side of her head for emphasis. Thump,
thump. I picture her head as a big drum, her face stretched across the
opening like cowhide, pieces of information echoing from cheek to forehead, temple to chin: Tips for Aging Beauty, Growing Giant Ferns, Mastering
Culinary Delights, Aloe: Its Many Uses, How to Raise a Smart Baby.
***
When we move to Canada at seven I think there has been some kind of
mistake. My mother tells me it will be sunny. I stand shivering, my back
pressed against the chain-linked fence in the schoolyard, watching other
children in shirtsleeves and short pants. How was I supposed to know that
sunny doesn't always mean hot? It seems to me that the sun shouldn't be
21 allowed to shine in such cold. They assigned me a buddy, a girl with a
blue-jean pencil case with little back pockets to hold paperclips and erasers. A girl who likes to raise her hand every time the teacher asks a question. A girl who probably asked to be my buddy because she thinks she
knows everything. I manage to slip away from her when the bell rings, and
now outside, I change my mind and look around at faces trying to find
hers, hoping nobody asks me another stupid question. What do they eat in
the Bahamas? Have you ever seen a hurricane? Did you have school on
the beach? Do you speak the same kind of English there? What's wrong
with you? Why aren't you answering my questions?
I take my mother's advice about learning and sign up for art at the university. Thursday nights, I do hurried sketches of naked volunteers. My instructor starts us out with short poses, models changing position every ten
seconds, but now we have graduated to longer poses of 45 minutes. I knew
the models would be naked-the course description said so-but I am still
surprised by how unceremoniously they sit, crouch, or stand, leaning on a
chair as though in their own kitchen fixing a late-night sandwich. The
male model wears a dull terry towel bathrobe with a frayed belt and a hole
in the armpit. I imagine it's the same robe he watches morning television
in while waiting for coffee to brew, the one he spit toothpaste foam on-
causing the terry cloth to form a rough, spiky patch that will stay until he
washes it. I admire the ease with which he exposes himself. I have only
been naked in front of three people, and then not at the same time. Locker
room showers and being a child don't count. I never like the feeling. My
exposed body stiffening like plaster under inspection.
***
A picture of myself at seven. The back reads: Schooldays, 1979. In the photograph it is the week before we move. My dark eyes bulge with excitement. I am in my school uniform, brown and white check with a round
collar, standing on a small stretch of sand, the glint of water in the background. My last day of school, arms laden with going-away gifts: a gold St.
Christopher pin, a folding map of the Bahamas (a blue X marking the site
of my schoolyard), a straw bag with my name embroidered in salmon-pink
on the front flap. I am surprised when my mother asks if there is something special I want to do before leaving the island. I imagine now she
meant: get a spicy meat patty from the gas station, go to Paradise Island
for a last swim, buy a bunch of juicy guineps from the fruit stand on
Bluehill Road. I ask her to drive me from one end of the island to the
other. Start at the gates of Lyford Cay and drive all the way to Yamacraw.
And she does. She takes the picture out east, on a beach far from home,
22 where we picnic and my mother quizzes me on the names of Canadian
provinces. And I keep forgetting Prince Edward Island. My mother doesn't
remember any of this. She says my father took the picture in Goodman's
Bay across the road from our house.
***
A bulletin board at the university reads: /.Q. Tests, Volunteers Required-sign
up today. I think maybe I will. That I shouldn't take my brain for granted.
I buy a book, Brain Teasers, to exercise my mental muscle. I read there is
a marked decline in I.Q. with a.ge-once development is over it's not long before
the process of aging starts pruning our brain cells, and the rate at which that
happens may also be partly under our influence. The downslide starting as early
as 30. Maybe I can still age-proof my brain.
You are smart, my mother says, not looking at me. You don't need a test
to tell you that. I flip through the book and say, Mum it's for fun. My
mother used to take great delight in telling other people I was bright. She
says, I tell you she's gifted, to my newspaper-reading father in a too-loud
voice when I bring home perfect spelling tests with words like rectangle
and scissors. At eight it's the word gifted that strikes fear into me, although
it is also funny the way it makes me think of Christmas and carefully
wrapped boxes with shiny bows, instead of school. Gifted—the way you
feel after all presents are opened; sitting in the centre of crushed wrapping
paper and silver curls of ribbon. No more surprises. Only now does it seem
ironic that for me (the gifted one) the word needed so much explanation.
My roommate and I have start watching game shows-mostly Jeopardy!.
I.Q. training, she says. I iron while she lies on the couch wrapped in a grey
throw blanket eating the Smart Food popcorn she bought in honour of my
upcoming test. She is convinced she can spot winners and losers the moment they step in front of the camera. V-neck sweater and cords combo,
she shouts. Ladies and gentleman, we have a winner. I spray speed starch
on the collars and shoulders of my shirts, the way my mother taught me,
and press them mostly during commercial breaks. What is Avogadro's
number, Alec? my roommate shouts as I fish for more hangers in the
bottom of the laundry basket. Yes, she squeals, cord boy is totally whipping their asses. I pull a pair of black dress pants out of the basket and
wonder whether they're the right look for my test. You should sit down and
concentrate, instead of pretending to iron, my roommate says, They are so
going to ask you this kind of stuff on your I.Q. test.
I didn't see television until I was eight. Reception on the island was bad,
my mother tells me. I don't have time to sit around, she says. I still feel
like I'm indulging each time I watch, even when I'm ironing. My mother
23 drags her ironing board outside in the drooping heat, sets it up on the
patio. She puts the basket of clothes up on a table-safe from creatures. She
says the humidity helps the wrinkles to drop out. Even when we move to
this dry climate she keeps the habit. Using the orange extension cord my
father bought for the block heater, she prepares her pressing station. Do
you know that the sun gives us vitamin D? she says, This far north we need
to increase our exposure.
***
I skip the second grade when I move. My mother insists. The school principal leads me into a meeting room on my first day. The psychologist will
evaluate you, she says, your mother will wait in the hall. I sit in a rolling
chair with blue cushions and black arm rests. It does not seem the right
type of chair for someone my size. I am shivering when the psychologist
walks in, my dangling feet frozen with anticipation. The psychologist smells
of cigarettes and vanilla as she brushes past me and settles into her chair.
Some questions are designed to be difficult, she says, If you cannot
figure out the answer, simply say, "I don't know," and we'll move on. She
sorts papers into piles, clanging her gold charm bracelet against the table
with every movement. Okay, she says, Here's an example.
Which one of the following five is least like the other four?
THINK-SPEAK-WRITE-CALL-LISTEN
At home my mother explains to my father the difference between listening and hearing. I am speaking, she says to my father, But do you hear
me? I am listening and thinking, but the question doesn't make sense. I
look down at my shoes, then at the psychologist. I grip my fingers on the
edge of the table, and press sweaty circles onto the brown Formica. The
fluorescent lights make my eyes water.
Which of the following five is least like the others?
CAT-FROG-LION-DOG-ELEPHANT
Frog, I say so quickly I couldn't possibly have thought it through.
Why? Because I hate frogs. Because they are heartless, crazed animals.
Because they just aren 't-, I pause for her to say that I'm wrong. Warm
blooded, is that what you were going to say-that they are not warm blooded?
Yes, I say tentatively, unbelieving that I got the question right. I hear a
scrape through the wall and imagine it's my mother scratching answers
with her burgundy fingernails from her hallway seat. My toes are becom-
24 ing numb and the ends of my words start rising into questions like helium
balloons.
I am re-potting plants. Sole survivors I call them. There are only two
plants left from the jungle my mother bought when I moved into my
apartment. Easy to care for, she assured me. I vowed to water them weekly,
fertilize them monthly, put them closer to (or further away from) the window, according to the stiff plastic direction cards stuffed into the soil. The
bonsai tree is the first to go. They always are, my roommate says wistfully,
most people can't handle complicated. Most people with half a brain, I
think, are cultivating whole vegetable patches, indoor herb gardens and
even children. The people in the group home down the street sell enormous homegrown carrots and lettuce in their front yard every summer,
which I eye enviously each time I pass.
I buy plant books in the discount bin at the Coles Books down the
street. Bonsai for Life, one title reads, and I think it sounds like a good
personal philosophy. I kill the bonsai within two weeks. It sits in my apartment for two more. At first I deny it is dead. I say things like, It's just dry,
or, It's going through a dormant phase. I eventually throw it out, telling
my mother it was a rare but deadly fungus. I keep the books on the coffee
table, though, to prove to her I am a serious learner, that I know what I am
doing.
The survivors are a Variegated Aurelia (that despite its fickle name has
somehow managed to thrive) and a Rubber Tree (which everyone tells me
is impossible to kill). They have outgrown their pots, roots bulging above
the soil line, but I am reluctant to try anything different. I've had a simple
plan so far. I water them when they look dry. And otherwise leave them
alone. Afraid that too much care and attention may make them overly
dependent. I drop the plant books in the blue charity bin at the Safeway
one Saturday, deciding I am an imposter, that real plant people will get
better use out of them. I hate plant people, the ones who say, I started it
from a clipping, when I admire their hanging fern with the five-foot circumference. It takes time, they say, keep trying.
***
I edit brochure copy over Diet Coke and Pringles at the kitchen table
while my roommate pauses the game show tape she recorded for me.
Come sit down, she says, that corporate crap is shrinking your brain. The
brochure is the kind I could write in my sleep, which is just as well since
my mind has been drifting to I.Qquestions all week. Our past success is the
foundation upon which we build our future. We are committed inside and outside
our organization, to: accountability, teamwork... I read these brochures at work
and they sound believable. Something about my office with its intercom,
25 colour-coded filing system and 17 inch monitor adds credibility. To continue to attract the brightest and the best, we must move forward. The time is now.
I get up and pull the blanket away from my roommate. Fine, I'll just take
a short break, I say, settling onto the couch. What's this, she says, clutching her hands dramatically to her chest, No papers, no ironing board, no
towel folding-ladies and gentlemen, can she sit still and watch TV? She
hits play on the VCR and stuffs a handful of chips into her mouth.
***
.. .some say we are born with a specific level of intelligence that limits our potential
for intellectual development. They argue that this intelligence quotient is governed by
genetic factors, our I.Q being largely determined by interaction of our parents' genes.
Broadly speaking, intelligent parents will produce intelligent children.
***
I eat an extra bowl of Sunny Boy with fresh blueberries and drink an extra
cup of dark roast the morning of my volunteer I.Q. test. My roommate
okays my navy sweater and grey pants, but suggests black loafers instead
of lace-ups before I walk out the door. I wait in a small classroom without
windows. A young woman enters and introduces herself as the Master's
student who will be conducting my test. I shift in my seat and wipe my
sweaty hands down the front of my pants as she explains her career goals—
the importance of practicing the administration of the test. She reminds
me that the results won't be available for five days, and tells me it is my
choice whether or not to see them. To your left is a one-way mirror where
my classmates and instructor will be observing us, she says. I watch dim
figures shuffle into chairs, they shut off the light behind the mirror, and
the Master's student tells me to pretend they are not looking. I raise my
hand to wave hello, but tuck a piece of hair behind my ear instead. My
stomach starts to churn and my hands tingle. I think about the workbook
I should have read instead of v/atchrngjeopardy!.
Which of the following things will you never learn?
A) HOW TO MAKE PERFECT BLUEBERRY FLAN
B) HOW TO TYPE WITHOUT LOOKING AT YOUR KEYBOARD
C) HOW TO SOLVE MATH PROBLEMS INVOLVING POLAR COORDINATES
D) HOW TO DERIVE: a + jb = re"
E) WHAT 'IMAGINARY' NUMBERS HAVE TO DO WITH THE
'REAL'WORLD
F) THATJUST BECAUSE TWO THINGS ARE RELATED
DOESN'T MEAN THEY ARE THE SAME
26 Like I was saying, your first I.Q. test was incorrect, my mother says casually as she whips egg whites with a professional whisk for a lemon meringue pie. She often talks like this, starting mid-thought, like someone
has just asked her a question. Which I haven't. At first I think she means
my score was abnormally high. I imagine, for a moment, she is trying to
make me feel better, trying to lessen my disappointment in case these new
test results are not as spectacular. I.Q. 145. The number my mother stuck
on the kitchen fridge for the whole first term of grade three. The number
that makes me feel sick when I bring home math sheets with simple equations marked wrong. Practically a genius. Way above average, she says,
You just need to apply yourself.
That stupid psychologist was wrong, she snorts, You are not average,
112 my foot. 112 not 145? I shout after taking a gulp of hot coffee, scalding
my tongue, You lied Mum? My mother doesn't look at me, dumps the
meringue on top of the pie. No, I did not lie. Do you hear me? That
woman was wrong, you were just a nervous test taker, she says, creating
impossibly high peaks in the topping.
***
She sat facing her mother, eyes glazed and unseeing,.
and looking for a solution to this . All of her options
in the given circumstances were exceedingly unpleasant.
A) COGITATING...DILEMMA
B) DREAMING...STALEMATE
C) PERUSING...PROBLEM
D) CONTEMPLATING... PUZZLE
E) I DON'T KNOW
I am wiping the phone down with paper towel and Windex, cleaning a
small spot of salsa off the memory button. Lately, I've taken to listening to
the dial tone. Sometimes it's a reassuring buzz-a sound that reminds me I
could call. A buzz that could turn into a ring and ring into a, Hello? It's
me. Oh, hello! But other times it's a drone of nothingness. Like the way I
used to press my ear to seashells when I was a girl. The harder I listen the
more the sound becomes a vibration that fills my head, my chest, my
lungs, and I'm certain it has somehow moved inside me. With each movement of my head the pitch changes and the reverberation intensifies or
wanes. I'm listening to shell music, I shout to my mother as I kneel by the
sea's foaming edge, conch shells mashed against both ears. She nods from
beneath her shady bush, unpacking cold grapes and egg sandwiches from
27 the tiny, white Styrofoam cooler. I think she understands, that she'd heard
the music too, but as I press her number into the void of the dial tone I am
certain my grape-peeling, crust-removing mother is only ever momentarily distracted.
Let's say that the following arguments are true:
A) SOME GATEKEEPERS ARE WARRIORS
B) SOME WARRIORS ARE COWARDS
Therefore, we can conclude that some gatekeepers must be cowards.
Is this conclusion TRUE or FALSE?
Sometimes things are true and false. I own a car (at least in 14 more
monthly payments of $422 I will), I own a condo (I painted the walls,
ripped up the green carpeting and someday I will own more than 11 percent of the cozy dump), at work I am the least qualified (but strangely, the
most prepared and the best paid).
Sometimes I dream I am awake. Sometimes I am awake when I dream.
When I am fully conscious I find myself saying, I don't know. None of the
above. Move on. I try to remember the questions for my answers. I wonder
whether, in order to have the test scored, I need to have an answer for
every question.
***
...intelligence—a capacity for abstract thought; the ability to adapt to new situations; the capacity to learn or profit by experience; tautologically, the ability to do
well in intelligence tests.
***
You are smarter than you think, my roommate tells me. We are watching
Jeopardy!, the contestant is a turtleneck-wearing woman (A definite loser,
she proclaims). I want her to win. She rings the buzzer, pauses before
stating the answer in the form of a question. Silence. What is a tadpole? I
mouth to myself. I feel myself beside her, shifting behind the podium; I
want to lean over and say, It's okay. No one has all the answers. Alex
Trebec's mouth is slightly open and I expect him to say, I'm sorry stupid-
your time is up. Could he say that on television? Do they just edit those
parts out? Maybe he's right, maybe up to this point it's been luck. I shrug
my shoulders and say, Give up. I grab the remote control, turn the channel
so I don't have to hear the woman say, I don't know or the you 're wrong
buzzer that blocks out voices and music and breathing. It's okay, I say,
there are lots of things you'll never know.
28 Gina Ochsner
Swallowing Sky: A Case Study
All summer had been a medley of jumpers and fallers. The previous
spring, simple dismemberment, and the winter before that, freakish hurricane-related deaths and injuries-"deaths by debris,"
Leonard, Howard's immediate supervisor and cubicle-mate, called them.
"You're lucky. All I ever seem to get are the old folks," Leonard said
when Howard pointed out that his claims had been following these discrete and eerie patterns. "All natural. Nothing fishy—except that one old
gal. One hundred and two years old, survived a fire in the nursing home
only to die from a penicillin reaction in the hospital."
"What a shame," Howard said.
"Still. One hundred and two. That's beyond ripe. I'll bet she drank
Boost or something."
Howard pushed his glasses up onto a tiny groove on the bridge of his
nose. With all the power bars, energy drinks, and vitamins Leonard consumed, Howard was sure he would push a hundred at least. Before he
started at Hope and Life Insurance, Howard had never met anyone as
fanatical as Leonard about the maintenance of his own body-not even
among the gung-ho insurance sales staff on the second and third floors
who formed weekend running clubs and circulated back issues of Runner's
World on the break tables.
Despite his discovery that death was not as random as most people think,
a notion that for some reason gladdened Howard, he still found his job
disappointing. When he'd transferred from medical data coding to investigations, Howard had entertained visions of dusting for fingerprints at crime
scenes, determining whether or not his deceased policyholder was the victim of a poisoner or a strangler based on the friction patterns, those delicate whorls and swirls a simple piece of adhesive tape could pick up from
doorknobs and medicine bottles. He thought at the very least he'd get to
look at police reports, maybe even interview the bereaved. He had thought
somehow he would be more necessary, able to see things others couldn't.
Most problems, he reasoned, came from being unable to see, not from not
knowing or feeling. And so for these last nine months, Howard had been
processing claims and waiting for something to catch his eye: a murder
29 disguised as suicide, a manslaughter passed off as a careless accident, or a
large term policy taken out on a person whose net worth didn't warrant
insuring.
"You're an investigative assistant. So, it's not brain surgery. It's not like
you have to do any real investigating," Leonard informed him on his first
day. "It's pretty ordinary stuff really. Suicides—always the pink forms. We
don't pay out unless the policy is at least two years old. We usually get a
police report confirming it's a suicide and not, say, a homicide made to
look like an accident. If it's one of those..." Leonard tapped his pen against
a mini-file cabinet nearly hidden under his desk. "We wait for the coroner's report and for the police to clear any kin expected to inherit. Natural
and accidental deaths-goldenrod-we pay out. Still, all you got to do is
wait for the appropriate reports and file them with the policy. No big deal."
Howard's shoulders slumped, and he could feel a space widening inside
his rib cage. He had hoped for something more exciting. A little more
murder. He wanted to study the beneficiaries with practiced suspicion. He
wanted to know if they would glide, vapor-like, walking around as if undressed. He wanted to know how tragedy hung on the face, and what he
would say when he saw it.
The only excitement he'd found on the job was working with Ritteaur,
the coroner's assistant. Occasionally, Howard couldn't read his handwriting and would have to call for clarification. Though he knew it was morbid, he couldn't help being curious about everything that went on in the
lab and would pump Ritteaur for all the grisly details. Sometimes when he
was bored or, like today, wanted to dodge Carla, his wife, and her noontime phone calls, he phoned Ritteaur even when he could read his handwriting just fine.
"Ritteaur, it's Howard. I got a question on an older file, Pietrzak."
"Oh, yeah. I remember him. This one you would've loved.'"
"So was he dismembered before or after death?"
"Both. But mostly after."
"Was the 'before' dismemberment accidental?"
"Sort of. It started out that way. Then the wife got ideas, seized an
opportunity, if you know what I mean, and finished him off."
Howard felt his stomach tightening.
"They found most of his body cut into tiny pieces and stuck in a sump.
The wife tried to flush him down the toilet, one flush at a time. There's a
joke in there somewhere, but I can't find it just yet. Ka-toosh!" Ritteaur
laughed, making a flushing noise. "You tell me the human creature isn't
one sick animal," Ritteaur continued.
"Yeah. Pretty sick." Howard nodded his head with a mixture of disbelief and horror. He hung up the phone and studied the Pietrzak file. It
never failed to amaze him how many husbands and wives, ordinary and
30 sane people who'd sworn to love one another, killed each other. Before he
started at the company, Howard had been optimistic about both hope and
life, sure that life was good and so were most of the people in it. It never
occurred to him that he might have to fear Carla, or she him, someday.
And this made him sad, knowing that there were mysteries, little pockets
of darkness people kept from each other. He wondered what it was that had
set that woman off, if it wasn't something small-very, very small that had
bugged her for years.
At 12:05 Howard's phone rang and the white button indicating an in-
house call began to blink.
"Lunch?" Carla also worked at Hope and Life, fourth floor, in the medical
coding department. When they had first married, they always ate their
lunches together in the break room. Now Howard made a point of being
on the phone or out of the office during the lunch hour. Not out of malice.
In fact, there was no particular reason why he wanted to avoid his wife. He
just got tired of their regular lunches that over time began to feel forced,
wearing on him like a habit that needed breaking. People need space, he
reminded himself, though he knew she'd never let him get away with such
a flimsy reasoning.
"Not today. I just got back from the coroner's lab, and I haven't got
much of an appetite left," Howard lied. "You know, all those smells."
"Right," Carla said, drawing out the word the way she did when she
wasn't sure whether or not to believe him.
"Another bridge-jumper," Howard said, leaning forward to read the file
label on the blue folder Leonard had deposited on his desk that morning.
'Johnson, Svea." Howard tapped the edge of the unopened file with his
ballpoint pen.
"She's dead, right?"
"Very."
"Good. Because if I thought, even for a minute, that you were screwing
around, your stuff would be out on the lawn, Howard. You know that.
Right?"
"Right," Howard said, wondering if Carla had really wanted to eat
lunch with him at all.
Howard believed in human kindness, felt it was up to him to perform
small acts of it whenever he could. But he wasn't kidding himself. He
desperately hoped his good intentions would bring back to him some
small act of kindness in return, he didn't care how small. Besides, life was
too short not to try, he reminded himself. That's why before he was hired
at Hope and Life, Howard had volunteered at a suicide hotline where he
tried to talk people out of taking those fatal doses, out of pulling the
31 trigger. I know how you feel, he had wanted to say. I'm just like you.
After a few weeks of doling out modulated and appropriate responses,
Howard improvised, telling his callers about his grim high school summers spent chicken picking, about how he had worked at twilight, in that
blue light of his grandparents' broken-slatted barn. Told them how he
worked among the chickens that sat in their own dung. Sometimes as he
picked the unsuspecting birds up by the feet, he thought he could smell
their fear in the kicked-up dust. As he loaded them in cages on the back of
the flatbed truck he'd hear them start talking, begging for mercy. "Help,"
they'd squawk, "Please." Or worse, "We'll come baaaaack."
Though he hated that job, hated what he had to do, somehow sending
those birds to their deaths validated his own life. This was hard to explain,
even to himself. But he'd tell his callers anyway, desperate to make a
connection. Smelling their fear, knowing it was their pure desire to live,
had worked for him, he'd tell them. Hearing a smaller animal plead, beg
for the grace of just one more day, and these insignificant birds with brains
the size of a pea. If a chicken could cling to life, then why couldn't he?
This was what got him through each shift in the barn, each miserable night
spent lying on his bunk with dung-lung, his voice split and cracking, frayed
to a hoarse whisper.
"There must be something to get you through," he'd urge. "Maybe buy
a pet, a goldfish." Invariably the callers hung up then and Howard would
get that feeling, always accompanied by the taste of acid in the back of his
throat, that he'd failed again. He had this same feeling about that Svea
Johnson woman. A cursory glance at her stats revealed she was his age and
had lived in the same neighborhood Howard had grown up in. No doubt
they'd gone to high school together, and yet he could not remember her.
Howard drummed his fingers on top of the blue file. It unnerved him
how the fact of time and location forced a commonality between him and
this woman he should have known but didn't. He leaned back in his chair
and wondered, had she known him? Had she been one of those dumpy
girls hiding behind a stack of books in the library, one of those disappearing girls with a disappearing face so nondescript it blended with anything?
Or had she been beautiful, so beautiful that Howard had determined she
was unattainable and had relegated her to the deep pocket of his forgetful-
Leonard pushed back in his chair and cracked his knuckles. With his conical buzz-top haircut, even his head looked muscular. As Leonard leaned
over his keyboard, Howard noted how minute activities like typing brought
into sharp focus the muscles in his forearms. Leonard pushed back in his
chair again, this time to riffle through the lower drawers of his desk where
he kept a large stash of energy bars. Then he unpeeled the metallic wrap-
32 per off a Tiger bar and took a bite.
"Want some?" Leonard offered the rest of the bar to Howard.
Howard shook his head and pointed to the unfinished cinnamon roll
gummed to the corner of his desk.
"Treat your body like a temple, and it'll take care of you," Leonard
said, his mouth full of energy bar.
Howard blinked and pushed his glasses back onto the deep groove at
the bridge of his nose. He didn't know what to say when people discussed
their own bodies. A body was what it was. Then he thought of Sveajohnson's
body, falling head over heels perhaps. Or floating for a brief second before
plummeting. He wished he could remember her, had some shred of recollection. It was hard to conjure a faceless body, hard to imagine telling her
what he wished he could have said: how unforgiving water really was, that
of all the ways to jump off a bridge, none of them were good, this much
he'd learned from Ritteaur.
Howard's phone rang. The white button blinked and he sighed before
he picked up the receiver.
"Don't be late for dinner tonight, Howard." It was Carla again. "I'm
cooking a Martha Stewart recipe." Howard knew that meant she'd spent
too much money on hard-to-find ingredients, and would spend too much
time trying to make the dish look like it did in the Martha Stewart Living
magazine. "Presentation is everything," Carla had explained when he asked
what difference it made if a salad had radicchio or endive in it.
"Okay," Howard said, sliding the phone into the cradle. He pressed on
his sternum. Before working in the coroner's office, Ritteaur had interned
for a mortician. Ritteaur had told Howard how corpses, once pumped full
of embalming fluid, tended to bloat overnight and it was necessary to push
on their torsos and vent the gases through a plastic plug inserted in their
abdomens. Howard thumped on his chest with the heel of his palm and
wondered if he might not benefit from just such a hatch incision to let bad
air out.
Sometimes Howard imagined himself utterly split, a ghost Howard, his
consciousness hovering next to the corporeal Howard sitting there now,
his fingers gripping the ribbed steering wheel of his blue Skylark. It seemed
clear to him that in all things there were two Howards at work: the Howard
who wanted to arrive home in time for dinner so as to please his wife and
the Howard who knew, even as he promised that he would, that he wouldn't.
The Howard who knew he shouldn't leave work early, would have no
good excuse should Leonard notice his absence, and the Howard who
secretly hoped he'd be missed, knew that questions would be asked. How
else could he explain it? Here he was, four o'clock, his foot heavy on the
gas pedal, driving toward the Laurelhurst neighbourhood where both
33 Howards knew he would troll the old streets, the one Howard not sure
what it was he thought he'd find over there at 745 Madison—hoping, in
fact, it was a vacant lot of thistle and beer bottles, the other Howard knowing it wasn't so. Knowing too that neither Howard would rest until he saw
the house Sveajohnson had once lived in.
As he drove, the hills in the distance turned smoky under the late afternoon August heat. Howard rubbed his forehead. He should be at work. He
should be inputting data, he said aloud even as he turned onto Weidler. He
told himself he had no idea why he was doing this, though the other Howard
knew this drive had more to do with making reparations, with jostling a
faulty memory to reveal something of Sveajohnson. Howard had either
never known her or had forgotten her, forgotten her completely, and it
bothered him that this could happen, that the same thing could and would
happen to him someday.
You could read a lot about people from the houses they lived in, he
reminded himself as he drove past the Laurelhurst park, past the huge iron
posts, the remnants of an ancient gate marking the Laurelhurst neighbourhood from the Rose district. And then he wondered, could sorrow leave its
mark on the brickwork? Would he read the traces of grief in the troubled
surface of stucco, in the warped panes' suggestions that theirs had been a
family full of secrets and hidden hurts?
Howard nosed the whistling Skylark onto Madison. He circled the block,
even numbers on the left, odds on the right. In his squeaking car, idling at
five miles per hour, he was as obvious as a headache and he didn't like the
oily feel of what he was doing, felt he was trespassing. Though in truth he
was idling along the very same streets over which he'd once ridden his
bicycle hundreds of times as he delivered newspapers in the inky darkness
of night. Still, it didn't feel right and he drove away, willing himself not to
read the house numbers. He looped past the park three times, drove by the
house he had spent his boyhood in, past all the houses along his old paper
route. Then, delinquent both in fact and intention, Howard turned toward
home, toward Carla and her dinner.
When he pulled into the driveway, he turned off the engine. From his
car he could see Carla's shadow at the kitchen window, her dark form
moving behind the scrim of the lowered window shade. Howard thought
of the Johnsons again, tried to imagine their shapes moving from room to
room, and he felt acres and acres of empty space growing inside of him,
pushing everything else out of the way. His heart, his lungs—none of it
mattered—and he could swear he felt them shrinking to the point where he
could see himself reflecting pure sky, the vastness of that inner space.
***
"Where've you been?" Carla met Howard at the door, a spatula in hand.
34 "You missed my Capillini pasta with red caviar. Endive salad and marinated artichoke hearts."
"I got held up." Howard pulled the door closed, felt the bolt slide home
under his hand. "I'm sorry," he said, his mouth tasting like he'd swallowed
a fistful of change.
"I called at your desk and left a message with Leonard. He said you left
early." Carla set the spatula down on the stove and followed Howard to the
bathroom where he removed his pants. Carla crossed her arms over her
chest. "If there's something you need to tell me, you can just tell me. You
know that. Right?"
"I'm okay," Howard said, flushing the toilet. "I just feel a little different, that's all. Like there's an itch in my arteries."
Carla went back to the kitchen where Howard heard a whole battery of
kitchen noises: savage rips on the roll of tinfoil, garbled choking from the
garbage disposal, all the sounds women make in a kitchen when they're
angry.
After a while Carla came back to the bathroom. Howard hadn't moved
except to pull the lid of the toilet down and sit on it. She wanted a scene, he
could tell, and here he was, full of guilt and too many character faults to
count. For starters, Howard did not have the energy to give his wife what
she wanted and rightfully deserved: a real fight, something, anything to
prove to themselves they still felt the way people should.
"An itch in your arteries?" Carla rocked back on her heels and studied
him. Then she turned on the tap, pulled out her toothbrush, and began
scrubbing her teeth so vigorously Howard knew she couldn't really hear
him.
"Like how you feel when you hang your head out a car window, how all
that wind crowds your throat." For a moment it scares you, and then it's pure
joy, he wanted to add.
Carla spat, turned off the tap, put the toothbrush away. "You're so late,
I already sent Kevin to bed." Kevin was Carla's eight-year-old son from a
failed marriage. For an eight-year-old, Howard thought Kevin seemed
strangely devoid of life, ghosting the hallways, ducking past Howard when
he'd stretch his hand out to rumple his hair. Kevin spent most of his time
holed up in his room fiddling around on his computer, and Howard sincerely hoped he'd do something risky one of these days: get into some
trouble, sniff rubber cement at school, smoke a cigarette, anything. Just to
be on the safe side, Howard had tried to tell him a little about the birds and
the bees a few months back. Kevin had sat cross-legged, looking at him
and blinking rapidly. The point is, he'd told Kevin, life and love are ultimately cruel but fair, breaking each and every one of us down to bits,
"And disappointment-just get used to it."
"Can I go now?" Kevin had asked, still blinking, and Howard realized
35 then these were things you did not say to an eight-year-old.
Carla pulled her ratty yellow nightgown over her head. "He needs you,
Howard. More than you know. Boys need a strong male role-model."
Howard stood and stepped out of his pants. "They need fresh air, too."
Carla sighed, climbed into bed. "Kevin's got that karate test at the Y
tomorrow night. 7:30. Don't be late, okay?"
"Okay."
She turned her back to Howard and switched off her bedside light. In a
matter of minutes, Howard knew she'd start mumbling data codes. Her
favorite: 99803: Venipuncture. He used to think it was cute, her bringing
her work home with her. When they both worked in the coding department, they'd spout codes over dinner dates, during commercials, a sort of
foreplay and mounting evidence that they shared the same sense of humor.
6670: bi-polar manic depression. 39099: male pattern baldness. All either
of them had to do was pick a person out of a crowd or in a restaurant, point
and recite a code, and they'd both bust up laughing. 41000: Liposuction.
Now Howard had to work hard not to smother Carla with the pillow when
she began her nightly litanies, and remind himself that once he had thought
her funny. But then Howard recalled his own quirks: his wearing the maroon-striped tie every Tuesday and Thursday, wearing the brown paisley
every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Maybe they were all just forgetting how to live.
Howard spent most of the next morning avoiding the Sveajohnson file.
By 10:05, when the exodus for the coffee pots had died to a trickle, he
duck-walked his squeaky-castored chair closer to Leonard who had his
fingers laced behind his neck. Leonard grimaced and twisted first to the
right and then to the left. Oblique crunches. Leonard did these every morning during their allotted ten-minute coffee break.
"People always overlook their obliques," Leonard explained.
Howard nodded. "I've got this strange feeling," he said, thumping his
chest with his knuckles, "like I'm gulping sky, can't get enough of it.
Other times I feel I'm drowning on air. Can a person do that?"
"Fish." Leonard flapped his hands at the side of his neck, indicating
imaginary gills. "They do it all the time."
Howard pressed on his sternum again, then untucked his shirt and lifted
it to show Leonard his chest. "No, really. I think there's something wrong
with me," he said.
Leonard leaned forward in his chair and narrowed his eyes. "No kidding. Your obliques have completely disappeared. If your ribs weren't
there, your insides would be sliding all over the place. Too many beers,
Buck-o."
"No, that's not it." Howard said, tucking his shirt back into his waist-
36 band. "I think it's more serious."
Leonard shrugged. "Nothing more serious than a bad case of underdeveloped obliques."
"Right," Howard said, adopting Carla's habit of drawing the word out
as she exhaled.
For over an hour Howard sat at his desk trying to work up the courage to
process the Johnson file. But the mere sight of it, of knowing that she was
most likely a jumper because it was August, the month of jumping, depressed him. Howard looked at the blue file and felt that space expanding,
pushing against his lungs. He laced his fingers behind his neck as he'd
seen Leonard do every morning. Maybe his problem could be isolated,
squeezed into form by a series of isometrics. Maybe this was why Leonard
worked out so much. Howard grunted and leaned to the right, then to the
left, repeating the movements until he could feel a tingle in his armpits,
the first signal that his deodorant either would or would not fail him. After
five minutes, he gave up. He pushed on his rib cage, lightly fingering the
spaces between the bones, feeling as spacious inside as before, if not spader.
Outside the sky was a cloudless blue, so pure Howard had to look away.
Howard picked up his phone and dialed the coroner's office.
"Ritteaur, it's Howard calling on the Johnson autopsy results." Howard
had his fingers crossed. He was hoping against all odds that she had been
a faller and not a jumper, feeling that either way, he was responsible for
her.
"Come take a look for yourself. We'll get a beer after," Ritteaur said.
Howard grabbed his keys. He knew it was against company policy to
drink on lunch hours, but it was a Friday and he was feeling that space
again, was hoping Hope and Life would catch on fire, was hoping every
office worker would steal staplers and envelopes, hoping every beneficiary
got paid in full.
***
When Howard pulled open the metallic doors of the coroner's lab, he
walked into the sharp smells of formaldehyde and antiseptic, thick in the
air and carried as a stinging slap to the nose. On a table lay the body of a
woman, a white sheet peeled back to her feet. The yellow laminate toe-tag
read "Johnson, Svea." Even though her skin was bluish and dark circles
ringed her eyes, Howard could see that she had been a beautiful woman
and he regretted he'd come.
Ritteaur pressed a forefinger into the woman's arm, leaving an indentation. "The body's a glorified sponge," he said, pulling out a skinny measuring wand that looked like a cocktail swizzle stick. He measured the
depth of the pitting, then tossed the tiny ruler into a stainless steel sink.
37 "At first I thought it was suicide. The bridge and all. At any rate, she got to
the morgue quicker than most of our water-victims do and we had to wait
a while to see if any bruising would appear. Anything suspicious-ligatures
or marks around the neck or on the arms. Bruises don't always appear on
the body right away, especially on submerged flesh. So we let her dry out
in the cooler."
"And that's when you found bruises?"
"That's just it. None. Zippo. So I'm thinking suicide. Then I look at her
fingernails and I see tiny bits of moss under the nails and two of the nails
on her right hand broken off."
"She fell." Howard felt a surge in his chest.
"Or she intended to jump but at the last moment had second thoughts."
Howard closed his eyes, imagining what he would have said if Svea had
called in on the hotline, feeling again that maybe he owed her something,
should at least be able to locate her in a dim memory of a school assembly,
the taking of a photo, but there was nothing.
"So what's the verdict?" Howard swallowed, tasting metal in his molars.
Ritteaur shrugged. "I still got to do the Y-incision, poke around in the
stomach, run some blood tests."
"Do you believe in dignity for the dead?" Howard draped the sheet
over Sveajohnson's body.
Ritteaur laughed. "Are you kidding? In this business? You think this is
bad," Ritteaur poked the dead woman's big toe, "wait until the mortician
gets ahold of her."
Ritteaur pulled the sheet back and looked at the woman's face. Her eyes
were open, but chilled and empty, the way the eyes of fish look when set
out on ice. "She's in pretty good shape, all things considered." Ritteaur
forced the eyelids closed with his thumbs. "We had a decapitation in here
a month ago. The family wanted an open-casket funeral, if you can believe
that. But I'm telling you, those embalmers can work miracles. They trimmed
the ragged edges, splinted and sutured the head to the neck, and painted
liquid sealer over the stitching. Then they threw a turtle neck and some
makeup on the guy, and I swear to God, if I hadn't seen him on my table
just a day before, I wouldn't have even suspected."
"No." Howard put his palms on the examining table and leaned on it.
"That's not what I meant." Howard adjusted the sheet to cover Svea
Johnson's pitted forearm. "I mean on the paper work, 'accidental death'
sounds more dignified than 'botched suicide,' don't you think?"
"Hey. I'm not going to tell you how to do your job. I just wanted you to
see for yourself what we got here. My opinion is it could go either way."
"But your report-"
Ritteaur pulled off his surgical gloves with a loud snap. "It's still in-
38 complete. But judging by what we got so far, I vote for accident."
"Okay," Howard patted down his stomach, his hands fluttering. "OK"
he said again, backing out of the two-way door, away from the smells of
the lab.
"How 'bout that beer?" Ritteaur untied his scrubs, pivoted, and tossed
them into a steel clothes hamper at the far end of the lab.
Howard shook his head and waved his hands out in front of him. "Another time." Howard felt his throat seizing tight, like a drawstring being
pulled, and he didn't know if the formaldehyde was getting to him, or if he
had brushed against a true sorrow for this Sveajohnson, a stranger.
Howard checked his watch. Though Leonard would be back from the gym
any minute now and Carla would have called and left messages, Howard
could feel that other Howard unpeeling like the silver backing from an old
mirror and his heart began to beat faster. Howard closed his eyes and
pinched the bridge of his nose. Before he knew it, he'd eased the Skylark
toward the Laurelhurst neighbourhood, past the long and low elementary
school, one six-year complaint of noise and misery. Howard turned onto
Madison Street and sat—parked two doors down from the Johnson house-
considering how he'd purposefully forgotten all those years: grade school
and junior high. He'd willfully, willingly forgotten the awkwardness of his
body, his body a menagerie of flawed parts as he had only been dimly
aware then of what he knew now: how the body's mysteries lay not in the
parts themselves, nor their shapes and functions, but in the naming of
them, and in the particular nomenclature for how those parts could and
would fail. And whether the naming came in the form of medical coding
or as scribbles from a forensic pathologist, Howard was continually astonished by the subtleties, the lies such language imposed.
At five Leonard left to go back to the gym. Something about spot training
his trapezius or maybe it was his lats. Howard leaned back in his chair,
laced his fingers behind his head and watched Leonard go. With Leonard
went most of the office staff in a swelter of attache and briefcases and,
though it was still warm, a few diehards with umbrellas. Everyone was
leaving and the offices and cubicles and conference rooms emptied out,
and a calm filled the floor, a liquid quietude welling along the corridors,
around cubicles, lapping over the tops of Howard's shoes. Howard loved
this quiet created by the eventual lack of noise: the gradual winding down
of the phones' nervous ringing around five, the flurry to the elevator and
the rubbery sound of its wobbled stop and the door bumping open. The
copy machine, switched off, lid open as if cooling itself, made trickling
noises as the ink pooled in hidden recesses. On Fridays after five, Howard
felt he could think a little more clearly, and he rolled in his chair, dream-
39 ing of policies that were never cancelled, claims never rejected, families
redeemed by the careful and sympathetic coding a man with Howard's
sensibilities could extend.
Howard opened the Johnson file, tapped his pencil along the still blank
spaces of the report. Then he closed the file. Howard leaned back in his
chair and palmed his heart, bearing down on his chest with the heel of his
hand. He sat there thinking of Sveajohnson and wished, again, that his
organs would just disappear, and he could give himself over to his internal
gases and float, balloon-like, up and out of the office, leaving behind every
care and worry.
How long Howard sat like that, he couldn't say. But after a while the
light glanced off the glass windows differently, the light tipping to its side
and revealing the warping in the panes. Not a bad sight, not a bad sight at
all. It was when the sun began to sink that the air turned to a grainy rose.
Then it was as if the sky held its breath, went neutral in colour, and the
lavender would creep in and the sky would slide to blue and all the other
colours of dusk and night remembering itself. Sitting in his chair watching
this trick of light, Howard felt grateful for such an ordinary everyday
miracle.
Howard's cell phone chimed a cheerless, atonal rendition of'Joy to the
World."
"Howard. Just a reminder: Kevin. Y. 7:00 PM. Green belt karate test."
Carla sounded like she was calling out a fast-food order.
"Sure. Okay," Howard said, sliding his phone back into his belt holster.
He hated these Friday night karate tests. It took forever to get through the
hordes of White belts, all of them bad. And Howard hated the parents,
crowding the mats, the galactic flash and pop of bulbs, the edgy whining
noise of film rewinding.
Howard shifted in his chair. The wall clock over the break room was set
forward to run fifteen minutes fast, like the clocks kept in bars. Six forty-
five. Still. He'd better get moving. But with the office emptied, the quiet a
welcomed mercy, Howard didn't feel like hurrying. It was in these moments of calm, these moments when he could think, that the two Howards,
his will and his action, neatly fused. This is what he told himself anyway,
as he cast and caught his bundle of keys in the air and pushed the lobby
button on the elevator panel. This was why he would even consider going
back out to Madison Street. For this combined and profoundly optimistic
Howard, the Howard who believed in doing the right thing, believed he
could do right by everyone if he tried harder to listen to his heart. And it
was this Howard who found himself once again, before he could fully
comprehend the consequences, behind the steering wheel of his temperamental Skylark.
40 Howard sat in his car, drumming his fingers along the curvature of the
wheel grip. He would knock on the Johnson door and, with confidence,
apologize for his intrusion. "But it would help if you could tell me a little
about your daughter," he'd say, "anything that goes to character or state of
mind." He would of course be professional, take notes, politely look at
photos. And he'd be careful to give nothing away. They'd never know
Ritteaur suspected suicide, never know of Howard's dilemma. He'd ask
them, carefully, about high school. Maybe he'd mention that he had been
their paper boy.
Outside the car, Howard could hear the crickets rubbing out the music
of their long legs. The air was cooling and a last ribbon of light shone
from behind a thick grove of oak at the end of the street. Howard started
the engine, kept his foot off the pedal and allowed the car to granny-lug
past the Johnson house. Idling at this speed, moving in a straight and true
line toward the darkness, he knew that the earth moved as well, turning in
the opposite direction, moving entire continents and everything on them,
including Howard and his whistling Skylark, turning so gently, so surely
not even a dog stirred. Howard braked suddenly. He sensed more than saw
motion behind him and glanced in his rearview mirror. He felt his stomach shrivelling—there in the mirror he watched Carla's blue Impala fishtail
at the end of Madison and turn the corner.
Three minutes later, Howard's cell phone beeped. Howard felt his spine
straightening vertebra by vertebra.
"I saw you." It was Carla calling from the Y.
Howard thought again of the woman of a thousand flushes. He moved
his mouth, formed the beginnings of a hundred apologies on his lips. At
last he settled, "I know."
"I don't know what's going on with you, Howard." Carla let her breath
out in spurts. "But this has got to stop. People count on you."
"I know it." Howard pressed on his sternum, then followed the ridges of
each of his ribs with his fingertips. He was feeling expansive again, like if
he took a big enough breath of air, he might up and float.
"I forgive you," Carla said at last, but Howard could hear the mercury
rising in her voice and knew that though he might in fact be forgiven, his
transgression would be remembered on a long long list of grievances.
"Whatever you were doing over there, I forgive you. But you had better
stop. And you better be here for Kevin's test."
Howard swallowed. "I'll be there," he said.
He started for the Y, but as he approached the bridge, he slowed and
parked in the soft sand shoulder. Overhead, August's moon, round as a
month full of fallers and jumpers, glowed against the deepening sky. He
walked to the bridge, ran his hand over the rough cement siding. His
maroon-striped tie flapped in the wind, slapping his right shoulder. He
41 didn't know where Sveajohnson had jumped or fallen. He knew now that
there were five ways to fall off a bridge, according to Ritteaur, but as
Ritteaur admitted, he was only an assistant, and there could be many more
ways of falling than either of them had ever dreamed. Howard knew that
Sveajohnson had not been drinking, had not taken pills. She had probably
stood first behind the spot where she would later sit. Maybe she had even
held her arms up, like Howard was doing now, testing the air for flight.
Maybe she was just having a bad day, a very bad day here in this extremely vexed land, and, like Howard, was looking for that one gesture,
that break in the monotonous tide, the necessary grace to fall.
Howard planted his elbows on the cement and leaned over the railing
as if to read the water. If a body is exiled, he thought, it's because it is
contained by skin. Is that how she felt? Did she give herself over to the
collapsing arms of the air, to all that space within and without, a falling
between the ribs and then here between the arms, between fingertips and
sky? Was hers an ordinary sadness that brought her to this bridge or a
more resonant sorrow lodged behind the breastbone? Did she sit swinging
her legs back and forth and then finally say, "Oh, the hell with it," and
push herself over? Did she scream as she fell, or plug her nose?
Howard removed his shoes and, in his stockinged, feet balanced up on
the thick cement handrail. Parsing through these borrowed thoughts, he
could see now how easy it was. It wasn't so hard to imagine, no, not at all.
A murmur of resignation washing over you, the body spinning in a full
revolution between hope and despair. Howard felt light, giddy in this feeling of anti-gravity, and for the first time in months, Howard felt like
laughing.
"Stop it," he muttered, climbing down from the ledge with caution,
much more tentative about this minor action than any other in his whole
life. He'd been right all along in feeling like he'd failed people, only they
weren't jumpers and fallers, and it amazed him what he'd allowed himself,
the lapses, what he hadn't learned yet. And for all of his empty spaces, this
is what pulled him back. There was his Tuesday/Thursday God-awful maroon-striped tie for starters. Kevin's Green belt test, and the knowledge
that he should and could probably try a little harder with the boy, try to
manufacture some genuine feeling. And then, of course, there were all
those things he hadn't lived to see: the appearance of new suns, distant
limbs of the galaxy, the relief of intolerable urges, and other small
kindnesses. This was something he could have told Sveajohnson. Howard
slid his shoes on then, still feeling that lightness but with it a sense of
forward motion propelling him to his car.
42 Teelajames
Warm Moist Places
" "IT want a prescription for the pill."
I The doctor looks at me calmly. I see censure in her soft blue eyes. Or
JL am I imagining it? "I see. Have you ever been on the pill before?"
"No."
"Is there a history of heart conditions in your family?"
"No."
"Are you with a steady partner?"
A steady partner. I think of Connor, envisioning his blond hair and
lanky frame. His skin is pale, but a small amount of red always stains his
cheeks, like he is permanently embarrassed. Connor is, to my knowledge,
a steady partner. What concerns me is his non-steady partners that came
before me. "Yes."
The doctor gives me a thin smile. "I'm going to give you a trial prescription of Tricular-three months worth. After three months, you can
come back. We'll do a pap smear then and I'll give you a prescription."
The nervousness seems to drain from my limbs. No pap smear. What a
relief. I know I shouldn't be nervous about them. I've read descriptions.
No pain, just mild discomfort. Hell, I experience more than mild discomfort just thinking about a pap smear.
"I'd like to do a breast exam though, to make sure there are no growths."
The doctor opens a cupboard and pulls out a flimsy white square of tissue.
"If you want to take off your shirt and lie under the sheet, I'll be back in a
moment."
The doctor slips out of the room, leaving me alone with the large,
white, Kleenex-like thing. Breast exam. Damn. I've always been uncomfortable with them. Ever since that old male doctor refused to sign my
medical form for camp without doing a breast exam. He had insisted I
take off my shirt. I was ten then. Old enough to be self conscious about
development that had yet to take place. How can you have a breast exam
when you don't have breasts?
My shaking fingers undo the buttons on my blouse. My nervousness
annoys me. I'm being ridiculous. I try to think of other things. French
exam tomorrow (I wonder how you say pap smear in French. La smear
pap?). English essay due Thursday. The scrap of paper the doctor handed
me unfolds into a sheet, which I tuck under my armpits, before leaning
43 back against the wall. The sudden cold of the room has made my nipples
harden and their outlines are clearly visible through the sheet. A clammy
sheen of sweat now coats my body. I wish my body wouldn't betray me-it
is bad enough being nervous, without other people knowing it.
I try again to think about something else. My essay. Same old two pages
of what I did this summer. What did I do? Lost my virginity. I picture my
teacher's face reading that essay and giggle into the silence of the room.
Of course, "I lost my virginity" is a statement of fact, not an opinion.
Essays need a thesis, and a thesis is an opinion. Loosing one's virginity
isn't all it's cracked up to be. There are no fireworks, and no one looks at
you strangely the next morning. What did I do this summer? I met a
gorgeous, handsome, smart man and he likes me. Me.
There is a soft knock on the door and the doctor returns. She instructs
me to lie down, then peels back the sheet and begins pressing on my breast
in a small circular motion. I wonder why she gave me the sheet; she was
just going to pull it off anyway.
"So how long have you been seeing this boy?"
I feel a small surge of resentment. He isn't a boy. He's in his fourth year
at the University. A computer science major. "One month," I say, feeling
inexplicably guilty. "But we were friends before that." For about two weeks.
The doctor nods sagely and switches her examination to the other breast.
"You know, you don't need to go on the pill if you don't want to."
If I didn't want to go on the pill, why would I be here? The doctor
seems to take my silence as encouragement, and continues. "You don't
need to have sex to have a fulfilling relationship. And even if you have
already, that doesn't mean you have to continue."
I'm being lectured. And it's working. I feel a surge of warmth flood my
face.
The doctor covers me. "Everything is fine. Now, are you sure you want
that prescription?"
Really smart, lady. You persuade me not to get the prescription and I'll
be back in a month asking for a pregnancy test. I nod, mutely.
The doctor's lips purse tightly. "Very well. If you want to get dressed,
I'll be back in a moment with the trial pack."
Although I love Connor, he isn't the best about using condoms. He
thinks withdrawal is a reliable birth control method. This puzzles me because Connor is very smart. How he can believe such an obvious fallacy is
beyond me. I explained everything carefully, quoting the facts they gave
us in school. He laughed, and told me it was a conspiracy on the part of
parents and teachers to keep kids from having sex. I told him that if it was
a conspiracy, every library in the world was in on it. But I laughed too. I
wish I could discuss it with Mom, but I know she'd be horrified if she knew
that Connor and I use withdrawal. In a strange way, I'm flattered by it all,
44 even though I'm scared of getting pregnant. It makes me feel like he loves
me so much and wants to be so close to me that he can't bear wearing a
condom. Of course, I could never explain that to Mom. She'd never understand.
Moments after I have finished dressing, the doctor returns. She hands
me an aqua and pink box.
"Do you have a plastic bag?" I ask, not wanting to carry the brightly
labeled box in plain view.
"No, I don't. Sorry. The instructions are in the box. Come back in three
months if you still need the prescription."
I nod, then walk hurriedly away from the examining room. There is a
pharmacy attached to the walk-in clinic and I stop there to buy some
Halls. Not that I need the Halls. I'm more interested in the bag I will
acquire with the purchase.
As I leave the clinic, I pass by an open window and see the doctor. Her
office. The doctor is arguing with a girl who looks to be about thirteen.
The girl wants to go to a concert. The doctor is saying no. There is a
picture of the girl on the office wall, peeking out from behind a large
cactus, and I realize that the doctor is the girl's mother. Somehow it surprises me that the cold, remote doctor could be anyone's mother. I'd had a
suspicion that medicine had narrowly triumphed over the convent in becoming her career of choice.
***
"We're all very worried about you." Jillian pushes her large glasses upwards, sliding her finger along the bridge of her freckled nose. "You've
missed a lot of school."
I smile slightly. "What's my average?"
Jillian's brow puckers. "That isn't the point."
"Why isn't it the point? As I understand it, the purpose of the school is
to learn. As my marks indicate, I'm learning."
"You've skipped a lot of classes."
I slouch down in my chair, and nod approval. "Correct."
"Why? What do you do with all that time?"
Connor. Connor is what I do with that time. It isn't my fault that his
first class doesn't start until ten. As a result, I rarely make it to school
before nine-thirty. Like this morning. We stayed up late last night watching a movie, then slept in. I would have made it to my second period class
on time, if Connor hadn't interrupted me while I was in the bathroom
doing my hair. Connor kissing my neck. Connor lifting up my skirt and
slipping his hand inside my underwear. Making love, I have discovered,
gets better with practice.
"Well?"
45 I blink, dispelling the image. "Huh?"
"What do you do all the time when you skip?"
"What do you do when you're not at work, Jillian?"
Jillian blinks in surprise, then assumes a hurt look. "I'm trying to help
you. You do realize that, don't you? It wouldn't hurt to cooperate. You do
know that if you skip many more classes, we'll have to expel you?"
"Why?" I demand. "Why should I have to come to classes? Why should
I have to do it your way? I'm not getting anything out of those boring,
repetitive, egotistical monologues. This school is wasting my time. I could
be out there learning, if I didn't have to putz around in your under-funded
classrooms."
"You are so wrong," Jillian said. "Try not to see things in terms of'our'
way. We are all working together to provide what is best for you. I know
you are a very smart girl but even if you already know what they are
teaching you, you still need to be in class."
"Why?"
"Well...you learn a lot from group work. You can help the other students."
"That's called being a teacher and as a rule, one gets paid for it."
"You need to examine your atti—" The phone rings. "One moment,"
Jillian says, picking up the receiver. 'Jillian Clarke speaking. Guidance
Services. Hi, hon—" she cuts short the endearment, glancing in my direction.
Hmm. Jillian has a boyfriend. Now I actually do wonder what she does
when she's not at work. Jillian turns around to face the window while she
talks, as if I suddenly can't hear the conversation because she isn't facing
me. "What do you mean?" she demands. "We made those plans two weeks
ago. My parents would be so disappointed...it's not like you'll never get
another chance to see a hockey game."
Her parents would be disappointed. Funny, I didn't think parents got
disappointed in you once you were an adult.
My parents are so disappointed. Why don't they like Connor? They say
they do, but they are lying. How many times have I had the argument that
Jillian is having? My parents want me to spend a little time with my
family. Connor wants to take me to the Taj Mahal restaurant. My parents
want me to visit Aunt Marg in the hospital. Connor wants to see Metropolis.
Connor always wins. Do what you want to do, he tells me. I want to be
with him.
"Listen, I can't discuss this right now. Can I give you a ring back?
Work, okay." Jillian turns back to face me, and puts the receiver back in
the cradle. "Sorry. Where were we?"
We were talking about my attitude, but I don't have a lot of interest in
getting back to that topic. "Are you going to cancel with your parents?"
46 Jillian looks startled, then calculating. "Of course not," she replies. "I
have a responsibility to go see them. I've made a commitment. I find it
very important to keep commitments."
Yeah, like, oh say, the commitment to go to class. "Ask a stupid question..."
Her brow furrows. "What do you mean?"
"Never mind."
The doctor is an old man. There are no female doctors on duty. I shudder
when the man walks into the room. His hair, what is left of it, is a dirty
gray. It clings to his head in isolated strands. Bi-focals perch professionally
upon a ruddy nose. I clutch the flimsy sheet closer to my clammy body. If
only Connor were here. He said no, that his presence would only make it
incredibly awkward for everyone involved. I don't know why he thought
that his absence would make it less awkward. I thought about asking Mom
to come, but I guess I'm too old for that.
"Hello there," the doctor says. "I'm Dr. Kerr." He ushers a nurse in
after him, and I find myself comforted by her presence. "I understand you
are experiencing itching and burning sensations in the vaginal region."
I nod.
"How long have you had this pain?"
I clear my throat. "About two weeks. It...it wasn't really as painful at
first but it has gotten worse. I.. .it's pretty bad right now."
The doctor pulls some plastic gloves out of a box on the counter top.
"Well, why don't we have a look?"
My body is actually shaking now. I try to control it. Steady, deep breaths.
Try to concentrate on the fact that the doctor will give me something to
help. I can't sit still anymore. The itching makes me move, makes me seek
for ways to scratch the area without being seen. Dr. Kerr pushes the white
paper sheet, which I had tucked around my feet, up to my knees. A rush of
cold air strikes me. "How's school?"
School? He wants to discuss school while staring at my crotch?
"Fine," I squeak.
His firm hands clasp my ankles and guide my feet into the metallic
silver stirrups that adorn the side of the examining table. The cold metal
brands the arches of my feet. "What school do you attend?"
"Sir John. A.," I mumble.
"Really? My son goes there."
His son goes there. Great. Exactly what I need to hear at this moment.
Suddenly I feel his fingers, prying at me. Startled, I jolt up slightly, barely
managing to check the movement.
"Oh," the doctor clucks sympathetically. "That doesn't look so good.
47 All red and scabby."
I choke slightly. I want to shriek, "Don't look at it," but manage to
contain the words. Red and scabby. That's how it feels too. When Connor
is inside me, it feels like having sex with a block of sandpaper. And after,
that awful burning that makes me stand up and pace the room, all the
while trying to pretend that nothing is wrong.
"He's in grade eleven."
"What?"
"My son," Dr. Kerr replied. "He is in grade eleven. That's one year
behind you, right?"
I nod. "That's right."
Dr. Kerr is replacing the sheet over my feet. "I don't think I need to get
a lab sample on that. It's clearly a yeast infection. Why don't you get
dressed and I'll come back and discuss it with you?"
I dress quickly, glad that the examination is over. I grimace slightly at
the sight of my underwear, the crotch stained with the mucus white substance that came with the infection. I sit in the chair momentarily but soon
need to get up and pace the room. I try and think if I know Dr. Kerr's son
but can't think of a guy with the last name Kerr. Thank God, I don't know
him. School has been bad enough without someone there knowing about
this.
Connor doesn't really understand. I think he may have forgotten what
high school is like. How people talk. One day, when I was sick (well, I
wasn't actually sick. Connor and I were sleeping in) they discussed a poem
in English that was about a girl who is killed by an STD given to her by
her older lover. One of the guys, a former friend of mine, taped it to my
locker. I confronted him, of course, and he said he was just trying to make
sure I got all the material I missed. I pointed out that he had never shown
any concern over my studies before and told him to fuck off. Connor says
that it isn't important what narrow-minded people like that think. Connor
is really strong that way. He doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks of
him. He just does what he wants.
Dr. Kerr knocks on the door, then enters. He sits down on the little
stool and opens my file. "What you have is a yeast infection. Now I can
prescribe either cream or capsules. Which would you prefer?"
Cream or capsules? "Uh.. .how do they work?"
Dr. Kerr sighs. "Have you ever had a yeast infection before?"
I shake my head.
"Yeast occurs naturally in the vagina. Sometimes though, the balance
gets upset and the yeast multiplies and there gets to be too much of it. That
is what causes the itching and the burning."
Naturally occurring. "So it isn't sexually transmitted?"
He shakes his head. "It can be but usually it isn't. Many women get
48 them. They're very common. You treat them by inserting either a medicated cream or vaginal suppositories, which are capsules, into the vagina
on a regular basis. After a day of treatment, you should begin to feel
better."
I consider the options. Cream sounds kind of messy. "Capsules?"
The doctor nods and begins scribbling out a prescription. "There are a
few other things you can do to help. Wear cotton underwear. It allows air
to circulate. Yeast thrives in warm, moist places so you want to try and
keep the area as dry as possible." He tears the sheet off the notepad and
hands it to me. I grasp it gratefully. The doctor gives me a few more tips
but I am anxious to go. Soon I am scuttling out of the room, and heading
toward the pharmacy.
The pharmacist fills the prescription. "Have you ever taken this before?" he asks.
I shake my head.
"Insert one in the morning and one in the evening, for the next six days.
Wash the applicator thoroughly with warm water after each application."
I grab the bag and head for the exit, hoping that none of the other
patrons had heard the instructions. As I climb into Connor's Celica, which
he lent me for the excursion, I notice Dr. Kerr standing smoking under an
elm tree by the backdoor of the medi-clinic. He waves to me, and I wave
back. I like him better than the other doctor.
I am sleeping at Connor's tonight. My mom hates it when I do that. She
makes me call every night, just so she knows where I am. Connor still
lives with his mother because it is cheaper. It seems like there is no escaping adults. He doesn't really like her though and I can see why. Connor's
mother is stupid. I think he must take after his Dad, who left years ago. His
mother is there when I arrive. After sitting through the required pleasantries, I escape to the bathroom with the capsules. They must work. They
have to work.
The capsules look like Christmas tree lights. They are Crayola yellow.
The applicator is long and thin with a plunger like thing on the end. I try
to fit the capsule into it. It doesn't really fit, falls off, and rolls across the
bathroom floor. I chase it, recapturing it just before it hits the door. The
capsule has collected dust from the floor, so I rinse it.
I can hear Connor fighting with his mother. They always fight. Right
now, they are arguing over who neglected to water the now dead plant in
the living room.
I settie on the cold vinyl, my jeans gathered around my ankles. My back
rests against the wall, while I stare up at the bright theatre-style lights above
the medicine cabinet. Connor's mother is yelling at him in the living room.
49 It's the third infection this spring. They were good for most of the winter,
but then they came back and they haven't stopped since. The nurse ushers
me into the examining room, handing me the familiar sheet, handing me
the familiar instructions. I undress quickly, lie on the examining table,
splaying my legs. The sugary smell of the infection reaches my nostrils. I
hate that smell. I smell it when I get dressed in the morning. I smell it
when I go to the bathroom. I smell it when I have sex.
I can't help feeling that it is Connor's fault. He sleeps so peacefully
beside me, while I burn so badly. He snores and I want to pound on his
chest. Last night I tried crying, hoping he would wake up. I tried to pick
the right balance—soft enough that it would sound like I wasn't trying to
wake him, yet loud enough that he'd wake up. He slept on.
The doctor this time has a South African accent. She says that if I'm
sure that a yeast infection is the problem, there is no need for her to
examine me.
"Wait," I tell her, stopping her in mid-prescription. "It's not just this
infection. I keep getting them. Why don't they stop?"
She sits down on the little stool. She has decided to stay after all, instead
of rushing off to the next patient. "How often do you get them?"
"Consistently. I've had it all summer. Just when it starts to get better
and I come off the medication, it starts again."
"Steady partner?" she asks.
I nod.
The doctor raps her nails rhythmically against the counter top. "It could
be that your partner is giving the infection back to you. Men can get yeast
infections. They don't feel discomfort though, like women do, so it is
possible that he has it and keeps giving it back to you."
I feel cheated. Why don't men feel the pain? Why should I have all of it?
"Do you continue sexual activity while the condition is being treated?"
Sheepishly I nod. It's not that I want to. But after the first few days of
treatment, once the itching has subsided, I usually give in to Connor's
advances. It doesn't really feel good, but it doesn't hurt much either.
"That will aggravate the condition. It spreads the yeast, and the warmth
and moisture created in the vagina by sex provide the ideal condition for
yeast to grow in. I'm going to prescribe some cream for you. Complete the
prescription, and don't have sex during the treatment or for a couple days
after. I'll also prescribe a cream for your partner, which should be applied
to the tip of his penis twice a day. Hopefully that will help the condition."
I hate the pharmacy attached to the medi-clinic. I hate having to go
there. I hate what it means to be there. I walk up to the pharmacist and
slam the prescriptions down. He picks them up and reads them.
50 "Have you been here before, ma'am?" he asks, hands skimming over
the keyboard of his computer.
"Oh yes."
"You need ten days worth?"
I nod, then turn away. 'Just give it to me in bulk," I mutter.
***
I'm waiting for Connor in his room. I asked him what I should do while he
went to teach his evening tutorial. He told me to play on the computer.
Play what? His computer has no good games on it and his internet connection is down. So he started up Eliza. Eliza is a psychologist. A computer
psychologist. One of the early Al programs. Connor's area of study is
artificial intelligence, so it shouldn't surprise me that he is trying to get me
to use an Al program. He told me to type in a problem, and let the computer solve it. See if you can figure out the gimmick he told me, then
disappeared out the door.
I stare at the monitor. A prompt flashes in my face. I hate computers.
Connor spends more time with his computer than he does with me. It's
sort of insulting to think that one can't compare with exciting activities
like configuring printer settings.
Perhaps I should listen to music. I move over to the stereo, and begin
fingering through the music. It's all Connor's music, though. Bands I'd
never heard of until I met him. Not that I don't like it. It's okay music, but
I just don't feel like hearing it again.
From across the room, the flashing cursor catches my eyes. I move
over, sit down, and stare at the screen.
ELIZA:> I am the psychotherapist. For your protection, I have been censored according to the Communications Decency Act. Please, describe your problems.
Each time you are finished talking, type RET twice.
I don't have anything better to do, so I begin to type.
Another doctor. Great. Just what I need.
ELIZA:> Why do you say just what you need?
I'm sick of seeing doctors. No pun intended.
ELIZA:> Is it because of your plans that you say pun
intended?
I can see you got your diploma from a Corn Flakes box.
51 ELIZA: > Maybe your life has something to do with
this .
Brilliant deduction. I guess my life has something to
do with it. How about you? Why don't you tell me your
problems? That would be a switch.
ELIZA:> Is it because would be a switch that you came
to me?
I have to read the sentence twice. Clearly grammar isn't Eliza's strong
suit.
I came to see you because I am waiting for Connor.
ELIZA:> Does it bother you that you are waiting for
Connor?
Maybe. No, yes. I mean, I don't ask him to sit
outside my locker while I go to class.
ELIZA:> Is it because of the people you hang around
with that you are going through all this?
I don't really hang around with very many people.
Just Connor.
ELIZA:> Are you sure that just connor?
Yes.
ELIZA:> Yes, hmmm.. . so, what makes you think this is
so?
Well, I don't really have time for anyone else.
ELIZA:> You mentioned that you are waiting for connor?
Point taken.
ELIZA:> How do you reconcile problems at school?
My crotch itches. I stand up and walk around the room, shifting uncomfortably from side to side. Another day and my current prescription should
have worked. I want to put the cream in now, to help with the itching but
52 it works best if you put it in right before bed.
I can feel tears begin to roll down my cheeks. I'm not sad. I'm just
frustrated. Why won't this stop? One can only pace a room so many times.
I return to the computer.
What do you mean reconcile? I don't reconcile them, I
ignore them.
ELIZA:> Perhaps this has something to do with your
sex life?
Don't you think that is a personal question?
ELIZA:> Don't tell me what to do. I am the psychiatrist here! Possibly hangups you have are related to
this.
Hangups? I itch 24 hours a day. I have nightmares
about pap smears. Don't tell me about hangups.
ELIZA:> What makes you believe that I shouldn't tell
you about hangups?
Well, for one thing, you are a computer. You've never
been in love. You've never had an infection. What do
you know?
ELIZA:> You mentioned that you are waiting for connor?
Why does she keep bringing that up? Who the hell wrote this stupid
program anyway? All it does is ask questions. My nose is running.
I stare at the bathroom mirror as I blow my nose. My tears have streaked
my mascara; there is a dirty path through my rosy blush. I can almost see
Connor's face behind me in the mirror, see his neck bending as he leans in
to kiss my ear lobe. And I always stand still while he does this, like a deer
caught in headlights. I stand and I think, I wonder if he forgot to use the
cream again. All he has to do is dab it on the head of his penis twice a day.
He doesn't have to inject the stuff. He doesn't have to sterilize plungers.
He doesn't have to wear pads for weeks on end, like a never-ending period.
He doesn't have to try to think of innovative ways to scratch in public. He
doesn't smell the invasion of his own body every day, walk down halls and
wonder if others can smell it too.
I can't be still any longer. The cursor continues to flash, as ELIZA waits
patiently for me to reply.
53 "Hi, Mom."
My mom turns away from the sink and looks up. Her hands are covered
in soil. She is repotting an asparagus fern. "I thought you were staying at
Connor's tonight."
"Where's Dad?"
"He's working late."
We watch each other in silence a moment. "I have to repot this fern,"
she said finally. "It's getting really overgrown. It doesn't fit in the pot
anymore. I had to cut the roots apart with a knife; it was so root bound.
The school called again today."
"I skipped French."
"I know." She has turned backed to the plant and is gently trying to ease
more of the roots apart.
"Mom?"
"Hmm?"
"I think I'm going to break up with Connor."
Mom looks up. "Oh." None of the triumph that I expected to see rests
on her features. She doesn't say "I told you he was too old for you."
Instead she just looks concerned. She turns on the tap and washes most of
the dirt off her hands, then wraps her arms around me. "I'm sorry."
Enclosed in the warmth of my mother's embrace, I break into wet tears.
I am waiting for Connor. He hasn't called. Every time a silver Celica goes
by, I check to see if he is driving. There are a lot of Celicas in this city. I
keep going to places we used to go together—the Broadway Theatre (even
though I hate those weird movies he made me watch), 8th Street Books,
even Future Shop. I never see him there anymore.
The yeast infections have finally cleared. No surprise I guess. After all,
sex aggravates it. Without the constant stinging, I find I have a renewed
interest in sex. This typically manifests itself in a fantasy about Connor-
usually during my boring classes, which I've taken to attending again.
Strangely, I'm less there now than I was when I was skipping.
Perhaps I should call him.
54 Scott Bark
The Brotherhood of Tad and Me
That first snowflake fell after recess as my fourth grade class settled
in to watch a documentary movie: Life Cycle of the Serengeti. Entranced by the drama of a lion pursuing a springbok across the
golden veldt, I stared at the projector screen until Jimmie Weisenberg,
who sat behind me, poked me with his pencil. He jabbed me again, until I
relented and turned to him.
"Next recess," he boasted, grinning mischievously. He was still miffed
at being final it at recess tag. Next Monday morning recess, he implied, I
would be the antelope and he the lion.
Unfazed, I returned to the movie. Again, he skewered me with his pencil. He was being very reckless. If Mrs. B. caught us not paying attention,
she might not let us watch the movie in reverse when it was over. Jimmie
didn't seem to care. Doggedly, he dot-dashed my back until I turned to
him. Instead of more bluster, he simply gestured beyond the windows
flanking our desks. Outside, an opaque sky drizzled snowflakes like a bad
case of dandruff.
"Big deal," I huffed, annoyed.
Yet, as I watched the movie, the squall quietly gathered into a gale. It
was only when the wind picked up, driving the snowfall from the vertical,
to the diagonal, then to the horizontal, that it competed for my attention.
Others noticed too, including Mrs. B. Sitting at the back of the class, she
kept a nervous vigil, biting her fingernails as if they were miniature ears of
corn. When the sky finally became indistinguishable from the ground, she
slipped out the door.
A surge of children swept toward the windows. Piper-who sat ahead of
me-andJimmie and I, stayed put, while my other friend,John Guy, used
the opportunity to emancipate himself from his Gulag at the back of the
class. Writing his political testament in the frost on the windowpanes, he
scribed FUCK Um block letters. Fuck was his favourite word. He used it
so often, to describe so many things, that I suspected he didn't know what
it really meant. The truth was, none of us did. At times, we felt close, like
when we gathered by the marsh to gawk at the Playboy magazines John
Guy had checked out from his brother's dresser drawer. Though we knew
that fucking somehow involved those naked women, and though we boasted
55 about what that really was, none of us dared admit our ignorance. Like
those women, fucking was regarded as a sacred mystery, something to be
solved at that later time and place known simply as when we were older.
I stuck with the movie. The storm didn't interest me; games, hide and
seek, the hunter and the hunted, did. When a zebra evaded a lion, I turned
to Jimmie, exuberant. See that! Next recess, catch me if you can, I was about to
say, but he too, was mesmerized by the storm.
When Mrs. B. unexpectedly returned, she precipitated a tidal wave of
students to their desks. She looked unhappy. We're in for it, I thought.
With so many students caught out of their desks, there was no way she'd
show the movie in reverse. Confirming my fears, she silenced the projector.
"Class," she said solemnly, "the staff have conferred with Mr. Morrow.
CBC radio has called a blizzard warning. After careful deliberation, we've
decided to close the school early so everyone can get home before the
weather worsens."
Jimmie and I gaped at each other, scarcely believing. We had expected
a scolding; instead, we were getting an early weekend pass.
"But before anyone can leave," she continued, "I must know who gets a
ride with their parents and who, right at this moment, does not have anyone waiting at home for them." At first, no one came forward. Then, as if
lifted by an ominous wind, one arm raised, followed by another. Piper's
was last. Jimmie gasped, incredulous. He knew what was coming.
"Those with no one home, or who are waiting to be picked up, will stay
with me until arrangements can be made," Mrs. B. declared. "The rest of
you may line up at the door."
We knew better than to rush. Instead, we were orderly and thorough in
dressing. Once we had tasted the Friday afternoon air, however turbid, no
one wanted to be hauled back for being inadequately dressed. From her
desk, Piper watched us, a doleful look on her face. I pitied her. She would
pay for her honesty by doing connect-the-dot math sheets and other
busywork Mrs. B. kept for just such an occasion. One day, when we were
older and she became my girlfriend, she could come home with me instead of having to wait for her dad.
Though we marched as a group down the hall, once outside, we scattered like a spilled sack of marbles. Jimmie and I stuck together for the
long walk home. With the blizzard striking us like an ice cream headache,
we were forced to double over. Progress was slow, measured by fresh
footsteps planted in virgin snow. It seemed to take forever to reach the
turn-off to Jimmie's house. When we did, he tapped my shoulder. With the
wind rendering our ears useless, we communicated in our own peculiar
sign language. Come home with me, he gestured; Mom will have cocoa
and hot Pop Tarts. It was tempting, but his house was twice as far as mine.
Come with me instead, I counter-proposed. Sure, there wouldn't be toaster
56 pastries, but Tad would be there and we could always munch on dry
Shreddies. Jimmie didn't reply. Instead, he fell still, a snowman in the
making right before my eyes.
Jimmie?! reached to him. In a blur, he swatted my shoulder, knocking
me down. Bounding down McArthur Street, his grin shone through the
squall like a lighthouse beacon. He had got me good. Unless I followed
him home, I would be it, the final it of the day. He was the lion after all.
Revenge would have to wait until Monday morning. There was no way I
would pursue him in that weather.
We parted on good terms. I continued alone, trudging past the white
stucco apartment buildings that loomed like ghostly milk cartons. Behind
them, over the chain link fence, was the marsh where Jimmie and John
Guy and I gawked at nudie magazines. In a distant, secluded corner of the
marsh, Tad and I had discovered a weedless oasis that made for a perfect
ice hockey rink. Weekends, we played there; it was an ideal refuge from
Dad's drinking and the fights it spawned. With the weather as bad as it was,
it seemed unlikely we would go there that weekend. Instead, we'd have to
hide out in the bedroom we shared, playing Bobby Orr table hockey and
listening to the radio as Mom and Dad waged war in the downstairs living
room.
I raced the final steps to our house, eagerly anticipating the warmth and
dryness within the two stories of vinyl siding and asphalt shingles. I grasped
the front door handle as if it were a hand extended from a lifeboat. To my
astonishment, it was locked. That seemed odd; Tad usually left it open
once he got home from high school. Going around back, I found that door
bolted too. Then I remembered: we had been sent home early. Tad wasn't
due for at least another half-hour, even more, if the storm delayed him. In
less time than that, Jimmie would burn his mouth on Pop Tarts while
Piper's eyes would tear from the bi-level heat of her dad's car.
For the first time, I longed for my house key. Last summer, after Tad
had lost his, I had given him mine. Tad had reasoned things would go
easier with Carl if I took the blame. He was right. Because I was Dad's
flesh and blood, I got only a mild lecture about responsibility and the loss
of key privileges for a year. If it had been Tad, Carl would have inflicted a
harsher punishment on his step-son.
Squatting beside the back porch, I thought of ways to find shelter before the storm turned me into a frozen fish stick. Next door, the Fera's
kitchen light was on. Old, retired and paler than a winter's day, Mr. and
Mrs. F were undoubtably home. All I had to do was knock and they would
surely let me in. Yet as cold as I was, I couldn't do it. More than once, they
had called the police when Mom and Dad's fights grew too loud or went
too late. The only thing more embarrassing than having the cops called to
your home is to face the neighbours who called them. I couldn't go there.
57 Tad could, but not me. As long as you have a head, he'd say, hold it high.
Yet, for all his bravado, Tad wasn't above getting even. On those evenings after the cops left, he'd sneak us out in the middle of the night to piss
on Mrs. Fera's vegetable garden. The next day, we'd snicker from our
bedroom window as Mrs. F. puzzled over her scorched lettuce.
There were other neighbours, other homes, where I could seek shelter,
but at some time, they too had called the police on us, or offered that pity
your dad's a drunk look when we passed on the street. I couldn't face them
for the same reasons as the Fera's. It was hard to hold your head high when
you were of the same flesh and blood as your drunken father. In some way,
you felt as though his alcoholism reflected on you. Being of a different
pedigree, Tad had no such problems.
I began to shiver uncontrollably. Bivouacking in the snow, my mitt
caught on a splinter of wood from the basement transom window. Digging
deep, I discovered the wood frame rotted where the spring melt pooled.
Though the window was meant to open outwards, given a good kick, the
inner lock would probably break through the sill. It seemed like my only
choice. Anchoring my feet on either corner of the window, I pushed. The
upper hinges strained backwards as the lock tore a groove through the
bottom sill. With a pop, it broke, knocking the screen into the basement.
Prying the window open, I let it fall on my back as I wriggled feet-first
into the darkness.
Dangling by my arms, my feet groped for something to stand on. Like
a cat being dragged across a carpet, I slowly lost my grip. Inadvertently, I
kicked something—a knobby protuberance. Balancing on it as best I could,
I halted my slide. As I rested my arms, the snow on my boots began to
melt, turning my perch into a slick pinnacle. Before I could plan my next
step, I slipped. Tumbling backwards, I expected to smack the hard concrete floor. Instead, I bounced off a mattress and landed on my hands and
knees, cat-style.
Right away, I knew I was unhurt. Nana's old bed was a shambles, though.
The box spring had crashed through the frame, squishing the junk stored
underneath out the sides like a stomped tube of toothpaste. Haphazardly, I
jammed everything—the boxes of half-knitted sweaters, Nana's collection
of playing cards, the empty tins of lemon drops—back under the box spring.
Beyond the footboard, some magazines, spilled out of a paper bag, were
splayed across the floor. The top one drew my eye. Smooth and glossy and
smelling like model glue, I examined it under the opaque light of the
window. To my surprise, I saw a naked woman on the cover. Though her
privates were strategically covered by her hands and well placed lettering,
the inside pages had no such discretions. Page after page was filled with
pink, contorted, overexposed bodies. Everywhere, I saw wet mouths and
large pricks and spread legs and puckered cheeks. Though black circles
58 blotted where they joined, there was no doubt what those men and women
were doing. Those magazines were not Playboys; they were about fucking.
They had to be Tad's. I had found his stash the way John Guy had
discovered his brother's. It was a well chosen hiding place. Since Nana's
death the summer before, Mom avoided any reminders of her. Dad stayed
away because he didn't want to be reminded of the rotting window frame
that needed fixing. As long as he didn't see it, it could forever remain the
next to do on his next to do list.
I thumbed through the pages. At first, the pictures shocked me, but
quickly curiosity supplanted my embarrassment. So this is fucking, I
thought, proud to have happened upon the solution to one of life's many
mysteries. Though I couldn't quite imagine Piper and myself in those
pictures, looking that way, doing those things, I felt confident that one day
those things I saw would become things we'd do. Like Tad, when that day
came, I'd have no more uncertainties about fucking. Those magazines
would guide me. I might even have my own personal stash. Hell, I thought,
I might even inherit Tad's.
For now, I could wait. I bundled the magazines back in their paper bag
and jammed them under the bed. Replacing the window screen and reassembling the window frame, I took a step back. Unless you looked closely,
you couldn't tell they had been busted.
With the box spring propped on the frame, I raced upstairs. Doffing my
boots and jacket beside the front hall radiator, I plopped on the sofa and
kept vigil for Tad's return.
When he comes through that door, I thought, it's gonna be hard to keep
from grinning. Like him, I now knew what fucking was all about. It was
something we shared that made me feel a little older, a little more his
equal.
Overhead, a floorboard creaked. Instantly, my legs jellied with fear. At
first, I thought it might be the wind, until it happened again. Someone was
upstairs. It had to be Tad. Maybe he had a fever and was trying to crawl
downstairs to the bathroom. Quickly, I re-checked all the doors and windows. All were locked. It couldn't be a burglar. It had to be Tad. Still, my
heart pounded. I had to know.
Like a lion stalking a springbok, I crept up the back stairs. Reaching the
landing between the two bedrooms, I crouched, silent, listening. The suspect noises did not come from Dad's bedroom, but from the one Tad and I
shared. The door was slightly ajar-it hadn't closed properly since that day
Dad, drunk and staggering, fell into it on the way to his bedroom. I peeked
inside. Tad lay on his bed, facing the wall, his back to me. Softly, he
moaned the way a sick person does. So that was it. He was delirious. After
getting home, he must have gone straight to bed. That's why he forgot to
leave the door unlocked for me.
59 Another voice, deep and unlike Tad's, moaned. Tad wasn't alone. Someone was with him, hidden between his body and the wall.
My heart beat like a tribal war drum. I should have crept downstairs
and turned the TV on so that they would know I was home. But something
curious and mischievous, goaded by the adventures of the snowstorm, my
B and E, and the illicit discovery I had made in the basement, emboldened
me. I pressed my eye to the opening. Tad was wearing his black hockey
shirt, but from the waist down, he was naked. The covers at his feet stirred
and shadows jigged across the wall. A hand curled over his bum, caressing
it. Tad's hand disappeared beneath the covers.
"That's perfect," Tad said softly.
"Tell me if you want me to stop," said the other person. I shuddered at
the voice. It was no woman. It was Tiberio, Tad's friend. At first, I refused
to believe it. It could not be the same Tiberio who befriended me, who
taught me to play Rummoli for pennies, who sometimes played goal during our pond hockey games. It could not be the same Tiberio who taught
me Portuguese words like afastar-ce and cuecas that I used to tell others to
go to hell without them knowing it (only later did Tad tell me that it was
all a prank, that those words simply meant go home and underwear). But it
was. I knew it.
He and Tad were in bed together. Is this what fucking is? I wondered. Is
this what's in store for me? Slowly, I slipped down the staircase, like
chocolate melting in the heat. All the things Tad and I had done in our
room as brothers-games and jokes and shared escapes from Mom and
Dad's fights-seemed different, tainted. Horrified, I remembered the times
he had let me crawl into bed and sleep with him when Mom and Dad's
fights kept me awake. Not only was he fucking Tiberio, but he was defiling
that too. Suddenly, I felt like I no longer knew him; he was the false
brother, the one who had been lying to me without ever having said a
word. Worse than betraying me, Tad had disappointed me.
Sitting on the downstairs sofa, I blotted out the upstairs noises with
pillows. Every instance Dad and John Guy and Jimmie had used words
like faggot and homo resonated in my mind. I too, had said them. So had
Tad. I suddenly felt foolish for misusing them, exhaling them like so many
hiccups, never once reflecting on their origin, their meaning. Now those
words had connotations, associations with things I had seen, people I knew.
They had realness. Tad had shared the apple, the worm, with me.
He should have been more careful. He should have known I'd be home
early on a snowstorm day. He should never have fucked in our house, in
our room, with our friend.
Our bedside alarm rang, warning them of my impending return. As
they dressed, the floorboards creaked with greater urgency. I rushed to the
front hall and donned my jacket and boots. Waiting outside, I listened for
60 them. First, I heard laughter, then voices, then an ominous silence. As a
warning, I stomped my feet before entering.
Only Tad seemed surprised to see me. "How did you get in?" he puzzled as he took a subtle step away from Tiberio. "I thought I locked that
door."
"Why would you do that?" I answered, taking off my jacket and boots.
Tad shook his head. "Never mind," he said.
"Hey, little guy," Tiberio interjected. "Bitchin' storm isn't it?" I didn't
answer. I couldn't look him in the face. Instead, I brushed by the interloper
on my way to the sofa.
"You should be going," Tad told his friend. "The walk home'll be hell as
it is."
Tiberio grunted. Turning their backs to me, he and Tiberio exchanged
a flurry of sideways glances and hushed communiques. Tad seemed impatient, even exasperated. He helped Tiberio into his parka as though he
were fitting him with a straightjacket.
"Thanks for the help with the homework," Tad declared without a hint
of subtlety.
"Yeah... sure," Tiberio stumbled along. Tad walked him to the door, all
the while keeping a measured distance. I spared them by turning on the
TV. llAdeus, little guy," Tiberio said to me.
"Afastar-ce," I grunted. The door shut with a hermetic whoosh.
Tad watched his friend disappear into the storm. I followed his reflection
in the TV screen as he skulked to Dad's drinking chair. Coolly, he watched
me watch him in the TV screen.
"Funny that I'd leave the front door unlocked," Tad mused, breaking
the silence.
Don't answer, I thought. But Tad had a way of using silence to maximum persuasion, or sadism. "You always do that," I answered, wilting.
"I suppose," he sighed. "Still, it was kinda absent minded of me, seeing
as I was upstairs. Anyone could have come in."
"But no one did."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right," he said. I tuned the television to a re-run
of Columbo, his favourite show, hoping it would distract him. Instead, the
googly-eyed, don't-take-no-for-an-answer miscreant spurred him on.
"There's just one thing I can't figure out," he said. "Why is there a wet spot
on the floor beside the front hall radiator?"
I rolled my eyes. "It's wet, stupid, because that's where I put my boots
when I came in."
Tad sat quietly for awhile, leading me to think I had him convinced.
"But little brother," he finally said, "I saw the wet spot there before you
came in."
I glared at the TV, unblinking. He knew I had faked my arrival. If he
61 knew that, he must also have suspected that I had done it to cover up
having discovered Tiberio and him together. If he suspected anything less
damning, he would have confronted me.
I wanted to confess, then and there. I wanted to tell him about the
break-in, but what good would that have done? If I claimed that I had
never gone upstairs, then why would I fake coming home a second time?
Either I confessed to the break-in and the spying or nothing at all. Yet as
much as I wanted to, I knew I couldn't look Tad in the eye and tell him I
wish I had never seen what happened between him and Tiberio because
what I really wished was that they had never done it in the first place. But
they had, and nothing I could say to Tad could change that.
Tears welled in my eyes. I dammed them, diverting the freeflow to my
nostrils. I convinced myself that if I didn't move, Tad would never see how
upset I was. Many minutes passed in silence. Finally, Tad tossed me a box
of Kleenex. He knew.
That night, the storm intensified. Mom was next to arrive home. Exhausted,
she fought back the snow that infiltrated our house by slumping against
the door. Every difficult customer she had waited on, every agony of the
three-hour bus ride home, was etched into a furrow on her face. As I
helped get her boots off, Tad lit a Du Maurier for her. Silently, we watched
her smoke it; we knew better than to talk until the nicotine had time to
work its wonders.
As the serpentine drug wound its way through her nervous system, her
spirit slowly revived. Changing into a sweatsuit, she began her second
shift of the day, making us toast and eggs and corned beef hash for dinner.
Together, we ate at the kitchen table. Though it had been an eventful day,
no one had stories to tell. Mom was simply too tired, while Tad and I were
bound by an uncomfortable silence. As we ate, we kept an ear tuned to the
front door. Dad would be home even later. Though he took the same bus
route as mom, his journey featured a detour to The Beer Store. I knew his
return would inaugurate a weekend of drinking and fighting, yet deep
down, I longed for it. It seemed to be the only thing that might free Tad
and me from the shame and embarrassment we felt in each other's presence.
After dinner, Tad rushed upstairs. Once Dad got home and the Hyde
had been lured out of him by alcohol, Tad knew he was as good a target as
Mom to have a fight picked with. Only I was immune, perhaps protected
by my age and the blood Dad and I shared. Even so, I usually avoided Carl
when he was drinking. Instead, I kept Tad company upstairs. That night,
though, I stayed in the living room.
Dad arrived an hour later. Unlike Mom, he didn't seem the least bit
62 worn by his long day and longer journey. Small and balding, he hefted the
case of twenty-four under his arm with the casualness of a schoolboy toting his library books. As always, he off-loaded his precious cargo into the
fridge before saying his hellos. Like Mom's first Du Maurier, his pleasantries came only after he had tasted his first bottle of beer.
Dad's drinking was all I had ever known. Weekends had always been a
drunken bacchanal sandwiched between five days of work and sobriety
and an almost normal family life. Sundays through Thursdays, he seldom
drank, probably because once he started, he couldn't stop. Fridays and
Saturdays were different. He and Mom seemed to have entered into an
unspoken agreement: as long as he didn't jeopardize our family's tenuous
financial well-being by showing up at work drunk or hung over, she permitted his over-indulgence on weekends. Starting Friday nights, he drank
until his drink ran out, usually by Sunday morning. Worse, booze seemed
to bring out a bitter zeal for fighting. Though he was never physically
violent, he did not hesitate to start an argument over the slightest provocation. Though he sometimes targeted Tad, his crosshairs were usually trained
on Mom. More often than not, she was an obliging combatant. I never did
understand why they fought so much those weekends, so little any other
time. It was their maddening hours. Perhaps his drinking aroused bitter
courage while her witness evoked sour disappointment.
By four beers, a no man's land had been delineated between Dad's armchair and the sofa where Mom sat. Tad rumbled downstairs. Foregoing
hellos with Carl, he fixed a snack in the kitchen instead. His brush-off
might have gone unnoticed if he hadn't accidentally knocked a beer bottle
in the fridge. When he did, the clang resonated like a war bugle.
"Careful with those," Carl admonished, his opening salvo of the evening.
Though Mom usually jumped to Tad's defence, she smiled wanly instead.
Still, there was no denying war was imminent. You could hear it in Tad's
hurried preparations, see it in the empty beer bottles stacked like spent
shells on the end table, smell it in the pall of cigarette smoke gathered
over our living room. There was only a narrow opportunity for escape and
it was rapidly dwindling.
I pecked Mom goodnight on the cheek. She pressed her palm to my
forehead.
"Off to bed without being told?" she puzzled. "You're not even sick?"
"Just tired," I said, faking a yawn. Before Tad returned upstairs, I wanted
to be away from the war zone, in bed, buried under the covers with the
lights off. If I did, Tad and I wouldn't have to deal with each other, at least
for the night.
Mom smothered me in an octopus hug. "Remember your Nana in your
prayers," she whispered. I tried to slip past Dad but he too, reined me in.
"Don't forget me in your prayers either," he whispered. When he drank, he
63 never included Tad or Mom in his reminders.
Finally freed, I raced upstairs, turned out the light, and burrowed under
the covers. Listening for Tad's footsteps, I heard Carl's voice instead. He
griped about the garbage can rattling out back that Tad had forgotten to
bring to the side of the house. By morning, it would be entombed in snow.
"You'd need a friggin' metal detector to find it," Carl grumbled. At that
moment, I hated him, not just because he was drunk and picking fights, but
because he had waited for me to leave before doing it. It made me feel like
the mouse that started the war.
Mom jumped to Tad's defence. The battle was on. Shortly, it would
conflagrate to all the things they hated about each other, about their lives,
as if neither Tad nor I could hear. Tad raced upstairs. Secretly, I was glad.
I hated when he got involved. It only diminished him.
In the darkness, Tad sat on his bed, nibbling a sandwich. Below, the war
pitched to full volume. It would not subside until Mom tired, Carl passed
out, or the Feras called the police. There is nothing in the world more
vertiginous than a no-holds-barred fight between your parents. It shatters
your confidence in all that seemed safe and balanced in the world. Luckily,
Tad had always been there to restore some of it for me. Yet suddenly, I felt
very alone.
"Night brother," Tad said, but not knowing what to say, I pretended to
be asleep.
Quickly, he dozed off. He always did, no matter how loud the fight.
When Mom and Carl kept me awake, I'd slip into bed with Tad and nestle
between his knees and chin. Then, he'd fold his arm over me and I'd
burrow beneath the covers while his snoring drowned out the shouting. I
could no longer go there. It was a place he had shared with Tiberio. It
wouldn't be decent.
I lay awake for hours, waiting for the war to dwindle and die. Finally,
Carl mounted the stairs. He was very drunk; I heard it in his awkward
struggle to his bedroom. Once, Tad and I awakened to find him asleep
outside our bedroom door. Other nights, Carl would scream in his sleep,
waking us. Tad called them the deetees. Though they sounded terrifying,
Tad reassured me that Carl felt nothing. When they kept us awake, we
made up stories about them. Carl's got bad swimmer's stitch tonight, Tad
would joke. No, I'd reply, he must've found my pet tarantula.
Mom was lucky. She slept on the couch. It hadn't always been that way.
There was a time, Tad had told me, when she only slept downstairs on
weekends. That she and Carl slept apart didn't seem unusual to me, but
then again, neither did Carl's drinking. That's the funny thing about things
you've known all your life. No matter how fucked-up they may be, you
never suspect it at the time.
I poked my head above the covers. Only Tad's snoring disturbed the
64 silence. Try as I might, I couldn't fall asleep. It was something about the
room itself. It no longer felt mine. It belonged to an old me, one who lived
in memories, and a different Tad. Ghosts were everywhere. I couldn't sleep
there. I slipped downstairs. Mom's face, smooth and peaceful in sleep, was
finally freed of the burdens of the day. I crawled under the blankets at her
feet. Cracked and yellow and smelling like the schmalz Carl sometimes
distilled from bacon drippings, they were the feet of a full-time waitress
and long-time mother. Others might call them ugly. To me, they were the
safest place in the world.
"You should be in your own bed," she groaned, half-asleep.
"I can't sleep."
"Were you having nightmares?" she asked. I shook my head, no. "Then
you should go back to your bed," she decided.
'Just for tonight, I want to sleep down here. With you."
She yawned. "This couch isn't big enough. If Nana were here, she'd give
me hell for letting a nine year old sleep with his mother. Maybe I should
sleep in your bed."
I shrunk into the cushion, occupying as little space as possible. I needed
her-a constant, someone unchanged in the last twelve hours-near. "No,
stay," I insisted. "Only for tonight."
Sitting up, she lit one of Carl's Rothmans. "Did you remember your
Nana in your prayers?" she asked. The truth was, I hadn't. I wasn't sure if
I believed in God. Like all kids, I believed in the here and now. I believed
in necessity. So I lied.
She puffed contemplatively, summoning Nana's ghost for forgiveness.
When she butted out, I knew I could stay. I swaddled into the nook between her legs and the cushions. Ensconced in a fortress, everything seemed
as it had once been. I didn't want that moment to end. But sleep came like
a highwayman, unexpected and quick, robbing me of everything.
***
In the days that followed, I lied about many things. The worst snowstorm
my town had experienced in twenty years had come and gone while my
family quietly slipped back into its routines: work, school, and a schizophrenic family life. All the while, the dark secret of that snowstorm day
entwined itself like a parasite through the brotherhood of Tad and me.
Because we did not speak about it, in time, it became easier simply not to
speak at all. And once Tad and I stopped speaking, it became easiest to
avoid each other altogether.
I no longer slept in my bedroom. At night, I was kept awake by the
memories of what I had seen and heard. Biding my time until Mom fell
asleep, I'd sneak downstairs to sleep on the sofa. Adept at not waking her,
I always returned to my own bed before daybreak. Yet I fooled no one but
65 myself. One night, I woke to find Tad staring at me from the end of the
hall. Like Mom, he must have wondered what I had to fear from sleeping
upstairs.
The first weekend since the snowstorm returned with a vengeance. When
I arrived home from school, Tad had already left for Tiberio's. Now that
we were estranged, he no longer had any reason to stay home with me
when Mom and Dad fought. I was on my own.
I spent the night in our room, listening to records, looking out the
window, waiting for the war to erupt. It came like a seismic tremor, winding through the timbers of our house. There was no escape. I shouted for
them to stop but they didn't hear. I opened the windows and dared the
Feras to call the police, but Mrs. F. only pulled the drapes. I cursed Tiberio
for what he and Tad had done. I damned Tad for leaving me alone.
Desperate, I took refuge under the covers of Tad's bed. Without his
snoring, the tent only amplified the sounds of fighting. I missed Tad; I had
never known how terrifying Mom and Carl's battles could be until I had
endured one alone. Under the very sheets he and Tiberio once shared, I
was flooded by the memory of what I had seen and heard that day of the
snowstorm. In comparison to Mom and Carl's fighting, what Tad and
Tiberio had done no longer seemed so grotesque. It seemed
almost..innocent.
I hid under the sheets until the house quieted. Remaking the bed, I
slipped downstairs.
Mom surprised me, bolting up from sleep. "No!" she said.
"Just for tonight," I pleaded.
"I checked on you earlier. You were sleeping just fine," she said mistakenly. "I can't let you stay unless you tell me what's been bothering you."
Tad's and my estrangement had not gone unnoticed. As for my sleeping
habits, I had run out of excuses. Sickness, nightmares, insomnia, noises
under my bed, Tads' snoring, bad springs, big spiders, their fights—she had
heard them all. Since a recycled lie is worse than the truth, I was left to
beg.
"Don't make me go back up there," I pleaded.
"This isn't about your bedroom. This is about Tad," she said. "Ever
since the snowstorm you two have avoided each other. I want to know
what's going on?"
"There's nothing to know."
She lit a cigarette. "You know," she began, the firelight of her cigarette
penetrating the darkness like a laser, "I went downstairs yesterday to check
the oil tank. I had a sit down on Nana's bed and you know what I got? A
sliver in my hand. Now where did that come from? I wondered. Then I saw
how the windowsill had been smashed and put back together. Do you
know how that happened?"
66 I shook my head. It was too late to go upstairs and pretend nothing had
happened.
"You're father's seen it too," she continued. "He blames me. What can I
say to him? I didn't break it. And if you didn't, then I guess that leaves
Tad. I'm figuring that the day of the snowstorm, he lost his key again and
broke it to get inside." Again, I said nothing. Butting out, she immediately
lit another Du Maurier. "I guess I'll just have to ask Tad when he gets
home."
I couldn't let her. Tad would deny he broke the window and then he'd
know for sure it was me who did it. That was all he needed to confirm his
suspicions about what I had seen. "You don't have to do that," I gushed. "I
broke the window. Just the way you said."
Her cigarette glowed. She hugged me, but it only freed a torrent from
my nostrils.
"You're not in trouble," she said softly.
"It feels like I should be."
"Not if you tell me what happened that day." I remained silent, plastic,
immovable. If I didn't breath, I couldn't speak. If I couldn't speak, I couldn't
betray Tad. "Tell me," she urged.
I began to cry. Everything felt hot and suffocating, as if we had been
shut up together in a kiln and she held the handle to the oven door.
I opened my mouth to tell her I had seen nothing. Instead, all the
details of that afternoon spilled out in a torrent, as if I had been slit from
belly to neck. I told her about leaving school early, how I smashed the
window and crept upstairs to investigate the noises. I told her what I had
seen between Tad and Tiberio. Until then, I never realized how much I had
needed to unburden myself, yet once I had, I felt no better.
"Is Tad in trouble?" I asked, having calmed a bit.
"Of course not," she answered. "And neither are you."
"We don't have to tell him, do we?"
She shook her head, no. It wasn't the promise I had hoped for, but I
clung to the illusion that Tad's and my secret was still inviolate; it merely
had another keeper. If it stayed that way, we might even be able to return
to our lives as if nothing had changed.
The front door opened. Tad stepped inside and doffed his jacket. With
Mom cradling me against her shoulder, we were face to face. His eyes
widened with wonder and horror.
"What's going on?" he asked, weakly.
"Off to bed now," Mom answered curtly. Tad turned to me for an explanation. Clinging to the hope that Mom would not betray what I had told
her, I shrugged as if I didn't know. But A^did. He knew I had told. I could
see it in his face. The last sinews of our brotherhood had been cut.
Tad skulked up the back stairs.
67 In the nights that followed, I forced myself to sleep in our room. Yet I
saw very little of Tad anymore. Though I wanted to apologize for my
betrayal, our rift only widened. First, Mom began to cold shoulder him.
After that, he was hardly at home. Most mornings, he left for school but
never arrived. Weekends, he stayed at Tiberio's. Weeknights, he came home
only to go straight to bed.
On the final weekend of the school year, I sat alone in our bedroom as
Mom and Dad argued below. It was a bad one; loud and mean spirited, no
doubt spawned by Tad's failing report card. Though I had spent many
weekends by myself, I had never got used to enduring their fights alone.
When the Feras finally slammed their kitchen window shut, I was relieved;
it would only be a matter of time before the police were called. Even so, I
still resolved to piss alone on Mrs. F.'s lettuce patch later that night.
The knock never came. Instead, the front door creaked open, silencing
Mom and Carl's war. It couldn't be the police. They always knocked. It
had to be Tad.
"Decided to see your mother for a change," a drunken Carl hissed.
"This is still my home," Tad answered.
"Don't talk to me like that!" Carl raged. "That's those bad influences
talking!"
"If so," Tad said. "I don't have to look further than the role model I've
got for a dad."
Carl smacked something, a table, a floorboard, perhaps even Tad's face.
"You will not," he spat, emphasizing each word, "spend time with that
Tifario any more."
I closed my eyes as Carl's words reverberated in my mind. He had said
Tifario, not Tiberio. Ti-faerie-o. Mom had told him. I always knew she
would. I wasn't angry with her, only myself for telling her. She had told
Carl for the same reason she stayed with him: he wore her down until she
was too weak to fight back. Their wars always had been about attrition.
Mom's voice supplanted Tad's, though she didn't defend him. Instead,
she diverted the argument to Carl's drinking. Tad stomped upstairs. He sat
on his bed, his head hanging. We had hardly spoken in months and though
there were no longer any secrets left to keep, I didn't know what to say. I
no longer hated him for what he had done that day, only myself for not
having accepted it. More than anything, I feared losing him. There was
only one thing left to do.
"They're fighting about you, aren't they?" I said. "I'm glad you didn't
join in."
"That's unavoidable now," he sighed.
"They both know, don't they?" I asked, already certain of the answer.
"They do."
68 "Brother," I said and Tad lifted his head. "I'm sorry for everything."
"That's all right, brother."
"What are you gonna do now?"
He paused, deliberating. "I'm not sure," he finally said. "But if you
want to, you can crawl in with me while I think about it."
Without hesitating, I slipped into bed with him. Facing the wall, I curled
into the cavity between his knees and chest. He put his arm over my side
and I covered us with the sheet.
"I want you to remember that whatever happens, it's nice to have you
back," he said. I thought nothing of it at the time. Downstairs, the police
rapped on the front door.
"Maybe later," I suggested, "we can pee on the Fera's lettuce together."
Tad laughed.
69 DavidDerry
The Ladder
Iwas, shall we say, initiated to the Voyeur's life the morning I purchased an aluminum ladder. It was summertime, Saturday. I awoke
unrested with only the thinnest sheet covering my body, and though
the sun had yet to breach the city skyline, the heat hung heavy, like the
smog that hadn't dissipated for a week. I fetched a cup of coffee and stationed myself atop the fire escape; which was when it finally occurred to
me.
I lived amongst so many of them-females, women, girls-stacked and
arrayed in remarkable displays of self-organization. Waiting for the bus,
on my way to school, purchasing a newspaper in the variety store, they
seemed composed, assured; but their cracks-fault lines, if you will-invaded by pants just a little too tight-or better yet, a pair of short-shorts-
betrayed all sorts of sordid activities. I longed to pry them apart. So much
so that I was weeks behind in my course work. At the desk in my bedroom
a female's footfalls had only to click through the open window and I'd be
done for, starved by a glimpse before she disappeared.
I like to think I made a series of decisions: I'm not a determinist. But
they trouble me, these aspects that incite me against my will. I imagine
myself caught by a river, free to move from bank to bank, but unable to
extricate myself; free, perhaps, to speed or slow, but drawn inexorably to
the mouth of my personal oblivion.
You must understand that there are few more upstanding than I. When
I entered the hardware store, I did so with the equanimity of one well
within the bounds of his untransgressible moral principles. I surveyed the
ladders stacked against the wall and, though I recognized I was trespassing
into hitherto unknown territory, I discerned no alteration of myself. How
effortlessly, it occurred to me later, we cross the lines that are thought to
define us.
For some time already, I admit, I had been watching windows-late at
night, on my way home from the bar or a friend's place. Once I glimpsed
what I thought was flesh, but when I backtracked and passed again, whatever it was escaped me. At some point I began taking nighttime strolls-
but I always liked walking-following alleys behind houses and the peripheries of parks. These activities, I understand, sound suspect, but so far as I
understood, they were innocent.
70 You see, when the lucky ones among us are small, criminals are like
monsters, fancies of our imagination; and they bear scant resemblance to
the people in our lives and none whatsoever to ourselves. The robber in
the ski mask is Santa's evil twin, and the legendary kidnapper offers candy
from his rusting van for unimagined reasons. But unlike the troll beneath
the bed, who, for the stable ones, disappears into the white noise of our
lives, social monsters flesh out and develop to resemble ourselves. "And
yet how is this possible?" we puzzle. "I'm good, and they are evil." It was
this presumption of my innate goodness, and of the exotic nature of evil,
that granted my fantasies licence to develop.
I purchased the single 15-foot section of ladder from a young clerk with
firm little tits. She was charmed by my attentiveness: I know, because her
nipples grew visible beneath my lambent gaze. I savoured that vision as I
walked home with the new ladder under my arm, optimistic in a way long
forgotten. Behind my apartment building I taped the tops of the ladder
rails with cloth to muffle them and stashed it in a dilapidated garage. The
remainder of the day I toiled on an overdue paper; though excited, I was
controlled and unusually productive.
The evening was restless. I called Alfred, my friend, and we spoke. He
suggested I drop by for drinks, but I declined, explaining I had work to do.
I ordered a pizza and watched television; did what I could to usher myself
quickly through the relentless summer dusk.
Until 10:30. At 10:301 dressed in black jeans and shirt. Overtop I wore
white painter's coveralls (another life: I painted for two summers with
Alfred, and I might as well confess a small collection of filched panties
stashed in a shoebox in my closet). At 10:45 I fetched my ladder from the
shed and, with an end-of-workday saunter, took the back alley. It was muggy
and I was sticky.
I happened to have noticed, on previous strolls, the routines of several
local households. There was a young couple nearby—a blonde with delightfully small and hard parts-and I knew they usually made for their
bedroom shortly after eleven. But frustration was mine when I arrived at
their place to discover it dark. With a whispered curse I proceeded to my
next prospect, four backyards along.
A family lived there, three kids, a husband, and most importantly, a
wife. She was one I loved to watch walk: long cotton skirts, like curtains;
and should a wind gust, her substantial curves suggested themselves, defiant of bashful attempts to separate material from thigh. The television
flickered a spectral light downstairs, and upstairs, a half-drawn blind revealed their bedroom, still lit. With circumspection, I laid the ladder at the
edge of the yard, stripped my whites, and climbed through a low border
hedge. I stole across the lawn to the wall and, close to the living room
window, crouched for a few calming breaths before inching an eye to the
71 lower corner of the glass. Inside were two children, beneath a blanket on
the floor, engrossed in the television. I was pleased. This boded well for
unmentionables in the parents' bedroom. I retrieved the ladder and set it
beside the bedroom window, abreast of a cedar.
I drew an anticipatory breath, then climbed, impatience restrained, step
by step, until I stopped, knees bent, face just below the window sill. Blood
drummed my inner ears, hands and feet grew numb—deep breath.. .breath
deeply.. .count backwards. I straightened my legs to face a television screen
at the foot of a bed. My curvaceous one slept beneath me, and beside her
lay a torpid husband, snoring noisily with his head tilted forward and
glasses hovering on the tip of his nose.
Duped! I wanted to smash the glass and tear off their sheets, enraged as
I was by their vapid lives; but I stopped myself and descended the ladder,
swiftly as quietly possible. At the bottom I laboriously shifted my sites to
a third target: a nearby house where a black girl lived. She was tall and
lean and kicked her legs when she walked, reminding me of a wishbone.
I don't remember the short distance to her house; just that I crossed an
empty lot behind it and was reassured by the protection thus afforded. A
room downstairs was lighted. I sneaked close and peered in: she was watching
television alone. I knew which was her bedroom, upstairs. An air conditioner rattled in the bottom of the window. I set my ladder beside it, before
I tucked under the night-shadow of a lilac bush; where I waited, surprisingly content to be embowered by the propitious night amidst the periodic
soughing of a breeze in the branches overhead. When the light downstairs
went out, I up and climbed the ladder.
She had just entered the bedroom when I peeked through the glass.
There was a dim glow in the hallway behind her. She switched on the light,
and I hadn't a moment to adjust myself before she tugged off her clothes,
tossing them carelessly in the corner, and started for the bed; forcing me
to dodge and climb one rung higher. Whence I watched a dark arm peel
the bedspread, like a tantalizing prologue, followed by a flash of the novel
piece that her body was; all that had insinuated itself for so long beneath
tight, wrap-around skirts. She switched off the light as she slipped beneath
the sheets. I kissed the brick beside her window and bade her goodnight.
At home in bed I flipped through a magazine for relief, and that night I
slept the proverbial sleep of just.
A month of biweekly expeditions ensued. I sketched detailed maps of
the neighbourhood and passed my days drafting itineraries. Mondays and
Thursdays became nights of action, and steadfast abstinence on other nights
was designed to prevent my disclosure and afford me an illusive sense of
self-restraint.
Now those of you who admit like perversions might be interested in my
first disappointment: most people's lives are boring. A few unusual en-
72 counters aside, I'm not exaggerating when I say that three quarters of the
couples I tracked lead unremarkable—virtually non-existent—sex lives. I
blame the flaccid husbands. You retort that women reach their prime years
after men are spent; but even the young bucks I tracked behaved like
neuters. I decided that if I was to vanquish my overweening desire, I'd
have to expand my territory.
I drew up three primary objectives: (1) observation of an Oriental girl
penetrated, (2) observation of Lesbians fornicating, (3) observation of a
female Sodomized. I believed that if I oversaw each of these acts, I'd be
freed from perverted desire and able to revert to an orthodox lifestyle.
And you know what? It's incredible what you can accomplish when you
put your mind to it. My parents told me that, but I never understood what
was meant until now; if they had forecast my achievements to me, I'd have
laughed with sincere disbelief: objectives one and two I struck from my
list in less than a month. Just as they counselled, it took determination, a
willingness to explore, and proper discipline.
First, I dropped my summer courses. I felt it absurd that several poor
grades should tarnish my transcript because of a passing distraction. It
made much more sense to take an academic hiatus, concentrate on the task
at hand, and re-enroll in the fall, refreshed. Thus relieved of obligations, I
applied myself with an added sense of responsibility to my cause: during
the day I explored likely neighbourhoods—Chinatown, the university district, Gaytown—and I established prospects; at night I climbed and shimmied, animated by my great expectations. And sure as the night sky is
black, before long I witnessed both an Oriental and a Lesbian affair.
In the critical recesses of my mind it concerned me that I wasn't tiring
of the spectacles I sought. Satisfaction was fleeting, but it fulfilled in a way
that copulation had consistently failed; acts which I'd surely have found
absurd and embarrassing, had I been a participant, were riveting, reasonable. When I climaxed, eroticism's film remained intact, unaffected by the
vulgarity of bodies and stink.
I suggested earlier that when we transgress certain lines we become
unrecognizable to others, yet, paradoxically, remain unchanged to ourselves. I'm proposing that our morals adjust themselves to our lives unless
we refuse them that licence. However, if I'm an indicator, right and wrong,
inculcated early, are tenacious in ways that actions belie. I report this not
because I was assailed by shame (though I was sometimes, it is true, particularly when noon-hour's vacuous light robbed me of my rich-textured
dreams); but because I was struck by the defining effect my Victorian
moral heritage had on my sense of the erotic. The conscience doesn't cease
to serve us, especially in our most despicable moments.
Here's what I want to explain: I tried to move toward light; there was
only one way apparent. I spent a second month in rabid pursuit of my
73 third objective: observation of a female Sodomized.
I'm not gay. My aversion to sexualization of the male body is visceral.
For me, the Voyeur, it serves the crude but necessary role of the penetrator,
but is in itself best ignored. I had a girlfriend for a short while and we
attempted anal sex. I'd fantasized about it many, many times, but had
never before had the confidence to propose it. She was amenable, but when
I positioned myself behind her, I was disgusted by the prospect of contact
with that fetid hole. Needless to say, we did not proceed. However, unappetizing as the actuality was, the fantasy retained for me a unique attraction; objective three was to be the acme and omega of my illicit activities.
A methodical approach at first seemed impossible: I didn't know how
to identify a girl who favoured back-door penetration. I wasted too much
time on random chance, wrongly buoyed by the mistaken impression (from
magazines?) that many harboured such predilections. I explored downtown neighbourhoods, often the Annex or further south, where basement
and first floor bedrooms were common and I could snoop unencumbered
by my ladder. But after two futile weeks of determined effort, any vestige
of optimism vanished, to be replaced alternately by rage and despair.
I was walking home one night up Yonge, frustrated and despairing that
my aspirations were too great. It was the end of August, Monday or Tuesday, late, and a disperse flow of traffic moved north. I occasionally passed
a crew of garbage collectors slinging bags into the ass ends of dripping
trucks and was repulsed by the stink and rank puddles that meandered
across the sidewalk. While cautiously navigating one such section, I looked
up and was startled by a dainty hand brandishing a whip!
Worn as I was by my travails, I was momentarily alarmed, before I
recognized her for the sadistic mannequin that she was, inert behind the
storefront glass. I stared briefly, pondering the curve of her buttocks and
the lines to her groin with my unsated eyes, before I turned to resume my
homebound trudge.
But in a stride I was inspired: a sex shop—in sex shops customers indulge their forbidden pleasures! Why hadn't that occurred to me before? I
examined the store more carefully: Loraine's Palace, the unlit sign above
the window read in cursive letters, punctuated by an exclamatory cat-o'-
nine-tails. I oriented myself, noted the number, then walked home with a
revivified step. For the first time in weeks I had a real childhood sleep.
I became a regular customer at Loraine's Palace. Larry, the polite Chinese who owned the place, before long smiled and nodded discreetly when
I came in. His benign familiarity was reassuring, if a little embarrassing.
Incidentally, Larry was heavy and poorly groomed. Whenever I think
back, I see him standing behind the counter in a sweat-suit lifting gleaming noodles to his mouth, surrounded on three sides by unshelved stock. I
have a video in my hand: Lucy's Hunger. Larry sets down his dinner box
74 and chopsticks, and, unaffected by gaping Lucy, he checks the price. He
says "twenty-four ninety" and "sank you" and slips the video into a brown
paper bag, handing it back with a sagacious nod. This is how I remember
Larry, and each time I do, his hair and the noodles gleam more brilliantly,
a growing number of dildos peer mischievously from opened boxes, and
I've become more ludicrous.
I accumulated unwanted paraphernalia: the magazines and video were
useful, especially after luckless nighttime peregrinations; but the dildo
and benoit balls (I told taciturn Larry they were for my girlfriend) remain
to this day unused in the top drawer of my chest.
You do understand that I went to Loraine's Palace not for the merchandise, but for the clientele. On the aforementioned serendipitous night it
occurred to me that if I became a regular buying customer, I'd be able to
browse with impunity. In doing so I'd have opportunity to observe female
customers. I assumed that some would peruse anally oriented magazines
or merchandise, and I hypothesized interest implied practice.
But to my dismay, Larry's clientele was predominantly male. We composed a multifarious sampling of our gender: the races were all present,
and the classes fairly represented. Occasionally a pair of effusive fags
slipped in; other times jocular teens had to be chased away; but most of us
entered alone, browsed alone, and eventually exited nervously. Girls entered most rarely, and with boyfriends when they did.
In spite of this dearth, I remained faithful to Larry. I attribute this in
part to superstition: I suspected an Invisible Hand had presented me the
one with the whip, and I was loath to betray; and in part to my parents'
trenchant advice: patience is the missing ingredient in unattained ambition; whatever you choose, see it through.
With these platitudes in mind, I visited Loraine's Palace thrice a week,
an hour per visit. I foreswore such self-restraint so as not to lose sight of
myself, and also because I was afraid I'd be thought a pervert by Larry or
the other customers if I showed my face more frequently. Two fruitless
weeks passed abrasively. My sleep became fretful again, and my dreams
jarring and fractured. I was frequently a child, it seemed-but I was an
adult, I think-searching for a box-safe I once used for hiding acid from
my parents. In the dream I accidentally give the box to my mother. And at
that moment I become hopelessly mired in a most viscous sense of space;
whereupon a futile struggle to return across the short distance of a narrow
ravine, wherein all substance seems like water in the way that it inhibits
intentional movement, ensues, ending with my awakening. I awoke to a
growing conviction that my real life was lived in a most occluded place. I
stopped calling my parents and friends on the pretext of overdue essays.
Friday of the third week a peroxide blonde came into Larry's with a
man. She was narrow, with stiletto heels, leather pants, and a cropped
75 leather top. Lines etched round her eyes and at the corners of her mouth
betrayed an aging that the firmness of her buttocks belied.
They surveyed the sex toys, chuckling conspiratorially about this and
that. I thought of her leathers as skin, as the rind around an orange, and I
wanted, as I often do, to pause all consciousness, except for my own, and
peel. So distracted was I by the appeal of such control, it was a moment
before I noticed the anal probe in her hand. My stomach tightened and my
groin tingled; but I bridled myself—was she serious? They were smiling;
she snickered. I savoured her buttocks once more, then I triumphantly
(silently) declared, "At long last, an ass-fucker!" They returned the butt
plug to the shelf, browsed a while longer, and eventually left, empty-handed.
Now! I stuffed a magazine back into the rack and dashed for the door,
heedless of impressions. Outside I scanned the early-evening crowd feverishly: north. I caught up in seconds, then drifted back, reassured.
There's power in resolve that's only understood when it's finally felt;
the ease with which we then devote ourselves stands in stark relief to our
routine apathy. We walked and I wondered, will they drive? I was alert for
cabs. What if they go to a movie? Or a strip club? Will I enter or wait
outside? What about a bar?
These questions and all others evaporated when they descended the
subway stairs. I strode to catch up. We caught a train north, I in the same
car as they, but close to a different entrance. The cars were packed and
stank of humans. I couldn't see her, but he was tall, so I watched his head.
We clattered into Bloor, and the head bobbed toward the door. I followed
suit. We descended further underground and took a train east, adopting a
similar arrangement. We crossed the Don Valley and stopped at Broadview.
Passengers disembarked.
Four more stops, and half the passengers gone: this felt dangerous now.
I could see them both, sitting. I watched carefully, surreptitious glances at
the junction of her thighs. He had a hand on one of them, fingers so close.
Damn, it's incredible what's hidden before our eyes.
The train squealed into Coxwell; he rose, then she. I had been standing
all along. The passengers leaned against the breaking train, like many
appendages of a single body, and popped erect again when it stopped. The
doors slid open, he stepped onto the platform; she followed, and I.
They took an escalator, I climbed the stairs, and one at a time, we
emerged. It was growing dusky. We walked two blocks west on the Danforth
before they entered a door beside a frame shop. The building was a two-
storey brick affair, a type common to that part of the city: stores below,
apartments on top, backed by a laneway. I dashed down the driveway
between buildings, intending to infer from the procession of lights that
would accompany their entrance the layout of the apartment, and took
shelter beneath a crabapple tree heavy with ripe fruit. A light came on in
76 the front: the hallway. Next, a small frosted window suggested a bathroom.
I wondered, is she urinating? No, there she is in the kitchen, beyond the
sliding glass doors that open onto a deck and fire escape. Behind her
passed the man to a room. A room, it occurred to me, which could only
face the street. A room, it occurred to me—fuck you—the bedroom. There
were no other windows facing the back. The bedroom.
The bitterness of that notion still curdles on my tongue. My mind scrambled; my anxiety spiked, higher and higher. I slipped into the driveway
between the buildings and propped my crestfallen body against the brick
wall.
I was leaning there, hard done by, daunted by the prospect of returning
to Loraine's Palace, when a diffuse light from above distracted me. I looked
up, bewildered, for a source: a second storey window, near the street. And
just as my spirit had submitted without protest to the chains of despair a
few moments before, it was suddenly the weightless minion of hope, ascending far past the second storey to the darkening firmament. I had no
doubt about that lighted window; like Pascal and his bush.
Granted, the circumstance was treacherous: I'd have to use my ladder;
there'd be passersby in the street; a car could wheel in at any moment. But
desperation and an inordinate capacity for misplaced optimism allow us to
rationalize possibilities that prudence would preclude, occasionally realizing miracles: the driveway would soon be dark; I could lean my ladder
almost parallel to the wall; people are frightened by alleys at night.
I took a cab home for my ladder, under the impression that I was yet to
make a definite decision. I reasoned that, lacking time and perspective, I'd
best proceed and reassess the situation when I returned. At home I called
Albert while changing into my blacks and whites and asked to borrow his
car. I explained that a friend he didn't know had just moved to town and I
was going to help paint his apartment. Albert agreed, and I dashed round
back for my ladder and set off in a jog for his house. Five minutes later I
was strapping the ladder to the roof rack of his old station wagon, remarking nonchalantly on the heat and the end of summer.
The sun had set when I dropped down the Bathurst St. hill. I remember
I had the radio on to some kind of electronica—as if I wasn't charged up
enough already—and I could hardly keep myself zipped in as I passed all
the college girls showing off their tits and asses along Bloor St. But I did,
because I knew what I wanted, and soon I had swept across the viaduct and
the valley below, bearing down fast on my great design. In the theatre of
my mind I replayed a single loop of imagination: the coveted moment of
penetration.
I parked on a street east of Coxwell. The apartment was west, but I
figured, should fortune turn against me, I'd ditch the ladder and bolt on
foot, with the stereotypical painter's car waiting a safe distance away. I
77 affected a placid, if vacant, expression and set my compass to the blonde's
apartment, navigating an occasional shoal of pedestrians with the ladder
beneath my arm. When I arrived (side window was lighted!), I slipped
down the driveway to the back-kitchen light, on; hallway and bathroom,
dark; nobody in sight. No time to waste. I stripped off my coveralls and
started for the spot beneath the window; but I was arrested, discomfited, by
a raucous bunch of teenagers that careened past the driveway. Would they
have noticed, I wondered, had I been in place? Surely not. Far too dark.
Besides, they were drunk. I ritually fretted, conveniently oblivious to the
con in my ostensibly objective assessment; and shortly performed the
augurable miracle of deeming the situation secure. I set my ladder beneath
the window, galvanized by imminent success.
Suddenly footsteps—holding my breath... somebody passed, unaware.
No more time to waste on second guesses. My breath levelled and I
climbed, one rung at a time, encouraged as I pulled myself away from the
ground.
My face was beside the window. There were burgundy curtains and a
crack where they parted. With a hand on a rung and one on the sill, I
shifted myself, electrified. I couldn't see anything. But I had been hearing
that torn mantra of lust or pain that I sought. I shifted a little; I shifted a
little more. Nothing but moaning and cries. I unbuttoned myself; the air
felt cool and titillating. I heard her, like a desperate animal trying to
escape, but I couldn't see anything. I climbed a rung higher.
"What the fuck are you doing?" My hand froze. "You fucking bitch!" I
couldn't see. "Get back over here." Something crashed to the floor; the
curtains stirred; there was a stifled scream. "Angie, get over here. Now!"
"Van, Van, please...stop it!" More strident now, "Get away from
me...no..."
My entrails, all of my bloody organs, recognized the instant I started to
fall. High atop the ladder my clutching form traced an arc over the driveway and crashed into the opposite wall. I was stunned, dangling uselessly
from a shuddering rung, when I heard, "What the hell are you doing?" I
began frantically descending the ladder, hand over hand. "Call the cops,
Angie. There's a pervert out there." I released my grip.
I was stuffing myself in and running for the street, but something made
me stop. I turned and ran the opposite way. That was my mistake. Just as I
rounded the back of the building, my captor boomed down the fire escape
like an ape and tackled me. I landed and curled, anticipating blows, but
there came only hot breath on my ear: "You are a disgusting pervert. The
cops are on the way." My face was pressed to the asphalt, my hand and
forearms burned; and we waited together without another word. The screaming wheels of consequence gathered momentum.
The police arrived with their intrusive lights and noises; I was cuffed
78 and pulled upright. They manhandled me like a problematic stone. A
circle of onlookers had gathered while I was on the ground, and they were
only slightly less restrained, inveighing with pinched voices, hanging back
and staring with salacious disdain. I desperately wanted to say something,
to explain, "You're mistaken. No, no, no. This is...this is...it's okay. I'm
normal, like you. No, this is just an experiment." We could have laughed
so easily then, but a policeman ushered me with a firm grip to the cruiser.
He pushed down on my head when I climbed in, as though he were
recorking a bottle of wine.
There were five who stared at me until we were gone. When we turned
out of the alley, Van was carrying my ladder away. The blonde never
appeared. Some time later, my parents posted bail; and of course, I was
ashamed to see them—I need not go into that. And again in court; ashamed
a lot of the time, if I'm not alone. But I don't think that means very much,
does it, about me? I haven't changed, that's their mistake. When they
picked me up, my mother twisted around to face me in the back seat and
asked in her anguished tone, "What are we without our morals?" I replied
that there was no way I could know.
79 Contributors
Scott Bark lives in Scarborough, Ontario. His short stories have been
previously published in the anthologies Winners Circle 5 and Winners Circle 9. When not writing, he works as a Behaviour Therapist with adults
with a developmental disability. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling,
reading, and the quest for that ever elusive perfect short story idea.
Kevin Chong is the author of a novel, Baroque-a-Nova, published by Penguin Canada. His book reviews and articles have appeared in The Globe
and Mail, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, and The Vancouver Sun.
David Deny lives in Toronto with his wife, Shannon Bramer. He works
part-time writing and editing scientific academic literature.
Rafael Goldchain's artwork has been shown across Canada, as well as
Chile, the United States, Cuba, Germany, and Mexico. His work is in the
collections of the Biblioteque National (Paris), the Canadian Museum of
Contemporary Photography (Ottawa), the Museum of Contemporary Art
(Toronto), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Houston Museum
of Fine Art, and the Museum of Photographic Arts (San Diego). Born in
Santiago, Chile, Goldchain received a Master of Fine Arts from York University and currently teaches photography and digital art at York University and at Sheridan College.
80 Jacqueline Honnet was born in Scotland and spent her early childhood
in the Caribbean. She now lives in Calgary, Alberta. She was recently
published in Filling Station and Room of One's Owmnd is currently working
on her first collection of short stories, Limbo.
Teela James is a Canadian with a passion for chocolate, table tennis, and
writing fiction. Somehow this led to a career in computer science in Virginia. Her previous published work, The Alessi, was broadcast on CBC
radio.
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of 19 Knives, New Orleans Is Sinking
and Salvage King Ya!. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and
won the Maclean Hunter Endowment Award for Literary Non-fiction two
years in a row (one entry was cited in Best American Essays). He was recently awarded the Gold Medal in the Essay category of the National
Magazine Awards for his non-fiction piece "Bear on a Chain" (PRISM
39:2).
Gina Ochsner lives and works in Keizer, Oregon, with her husband and
four children. A collection of short stories entitled The Necessary Grace to
Fallwa.s released by the University of Georgia Press this spring. Her work
is available to view at www.darkhorsestories.com.
81 Creative Writing B.F.A. at U.B.C.
M
^
The University of British Columbia offers a Bachelor of Fine
Arts degree in Creative Writing. Students choose three genres
to work in from a wide range of courses, including: Poetry,
Novel/Novella, Short Fiction, Stage Play, Screen & TV Play,
Radio Play, Writing for Children, Non-Fiction and Translation.
All instruction is in small workshop format or tutorial.
^
\
ml
Faculty
*      Lynne Bowen
Keith Maillard
George McWhirter
Maureen Medved
Andreas Schroeder
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Bryan Wade
For information, please write:
Creative Writing Program
University of British Columbia
Buchanan E462-1866 Main
Vancouver, BC, Canada  V6T IZl
Or check out our website at:
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%m
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40:4
Peter the Preacher pulls out his blue-grey Czech pistol,
says he'll shoot us or kill her rather than let her he
touched, and we know what he means, means our ugly
paws on her lily white flesh other than to save her, resurrect her, and I believe I once dreamed this part too, saw
Peter the Preacher's fine skull and fine rhetoric and his
fine Czech pistol at our nostril hairs.
Mark Anthony Jarman, Page 10
Fiction Contest Issue
Judge's Essay:
Kevin Chong
Scott Bark
David Derry
Jacqueline Honnet
Teela James
Mark Anthony Jarman
Gina Ochsner
Cover Art:
Brothel, Co may agua, Honduras 1987
by Rafael Goldchain
'7SDDb"flt,3hl'
DM

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