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 PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
Contemporary writing
from  Canada and
around the world
WINTER   ZDD 1  PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
MACLEAN-HUNTER ENDOWMENT AWARD
?cv, FOR LITERARY NON-FICTION WINNER
GRAND PRIZE-$1,500
"Bear on a Chain"
Mark Anthony Jarman
RUNNERS-UP
"A Spring Garden"
Leslie Sheffield
"Good Guys"
Maureen P. Stanton
"Rearranging the Furniture"
Patrice Melnick
PRISM international would like to thank runners-up
Leslie Sheffield
&
Patrice Melnick
for allowing us to publish their works in this issue.  PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
Advisory Editors
George McWhirter
Bryan Wade
Residency Prize Coordinator
Steve Galloway
Editors
Chris Labonte
Andrea MacPherson
Executive Editor
Belinda Bruce
Editorial Assistants
John Wesley
Catherine Chen
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Luanne Armstrong
Ramona Dealing
Ross Deegan
Jane Hamilton
Abigail Kinch
Michael Kissinger
Karen Munro
Jean Rysstad
Brenda Simmers
Madeleine Thien PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four times
per year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia,
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: prism@interchange.ubc.ca
Website: www.arts.ubc.ca/prism
Contents Copyright © 2001 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover illustration: Blue Tree City, by Eva Wynand.
One-year individual subscriptions $18.00; two-year subscriptions $27.00; library
and institution subscriptions $27.00; two-year subscriptions $40.00; sample copy
$5.00. Canadians add 7% G.S.T.
All manuscripts should be sent to the Editors at the above address. Manuscripts
should be accompanied by a self-addressed envelope with Canadian stamps or
International Reply Coupons. If requested, Editors will reply by e-mail. Manuscripts with insufficient return postage will be held for six months and then discarded. Translations should be accompanied by a copy of the work(s) in the
original language. The Advisory Editors are not responsible for individual selections, but for the magazine's overall mandate including continuity, quality and
budgetary obligations.
PRISM international purchases First North American Serial Rights for $40.00
per page for poetry and $20.00 per page for other genres. Contributors receive a
one-year subscription. PRISM international also purchases limited digital rights
for selected work, for which it pays an additional $10.00 per page.
Our gratitude to Dean Alan Tully 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. February 2001. ISSN 0032.8790
&    A
incil   j   Le Conseil des Arts ^■^Vfltf^Pr
BRITISH
COLUMBIA
The Canada Council j Le Conseil des Arts "W^^fT   ARTS  COUNCIL
tor the Arts     du Canada ,.      _ ,,   ,,   _    .       ,_ .. . _ ,
I Supponed by the Province of British Columbia Contents
Vol. 39, No. 2 Winter 2001
MACLEAN-HUNTER ENDOWMENT AWARD
feu  FOR LITERARY NON-FICTION WINNER
Lynne Bowen &
Andreas Schroeder
Judges' Essay
Pushing the Bounds 7
Non-Fiction
Mark Anthony Jarman
Leslie Sheffield
Patrice Melnick
Bear on a Chain 9
A Spring Garden 33
Rerranging the Furniture 63
Fiction
Norbert Ruebsaat
Rick Maddocks
Bill Gaston
Muscle of Soul 25
White Plastic Chairs 50
Comedian Tire 78 Poetry
Sue Sinclair
Erin Bidlake
Aislinn Hunter
Susan Stenson
Sam Generoux
matt robinson
Michael de Beyer
Bibiana Tomasic
Posing 23
Twelve O'Clock 24
Instructions for Gardening 28
Four Poems for Breast 30
The Day They Bombed The Berlin
Zoo  32
The Panchen Lama 44
Mendel's Garden 46
Vision of My Mother as Saint
Catherine 47
Distance 48
BlossonfCount 59
Kitchen Poems 60
i imagine middle age; paint with my
hands 75
Saturday Ventures, East 76
Our Three Autumned Sons 77
Contributors   85 Lynne Bowen & Andreas Schroeder
Pushing the Bounds
One of the purposes of the Maclean-Hunter Endowment Award
for Literary Non-Fiction is to encourage the writers of creative
non-fiction, who are labouring at their desks all over the North
American continent, to show us their wares. Last year we saw an impressive number of entries. This year we saw even more, several of them
superb examples of the genre. This increase in number and quality was
apparent in the number of entries set aside by the contest manager for
final assessment by the judges. In addition, the contest has supplied the
editors of PRISM international, who have been looking for stellar non-
fiction for some time, with several pieces that they will be publishing
within the next year.
The name of our winner will be a familiar one to readers of PRISM.
Mark Anthony Jarman won the contest last year as well. With "Bear on a
Chain," Mr. Jarman has experimented with the genre and produced a
personal essay that is profound and innovative. As for the runners-up,
each pushes the genre in different ways. "A Spring Garden" by Leslie
Sheffield is deceptive in its simplicity and troubling in its message. In
"Good Guys," Maureen P. Stanton takes a fresh approach to the language
and revolutionizes the use of the much-maligned footnote. Strong structure and original images make "Rearranging the Furniture" by Patrice
Melnick delightful to read.
It has been a pleasure for me to read the work of the finalists. The
quality of the writing reinforces my belief that literary non-fiction is experiencing another in a series of renaissances that have occurred since
the redoubtable Michel de Montaigne sat down at his desk to write in
sixteenth-century France.
Lynne Bowen
* * *
My first reaction on receiving this year's provisionally shortlisted works
of creative non-fiction was considerable delight. There were almost twice
as many finalists as last year. I'd been waiting for some demonstrable
proof that creative non-fiction is indeed on a roll in this country. Perhaps
this was it
My second reaction confirmed my first. Not only were there more finalists, but our final shortlist was significantly longer. And virtually everyone on that list was a serious contender. The final choice was satisfyingly
difficult.
My third reaction, was, of course, astonishment mixed with just a touch
of incredulity when we discovered who the winner was. He turned out to
be none other than Mark Anthony Jarman—the New Brunswick author
who'd won the inaugural Maclean-Hunter Endowment Award for Literary Non-Fiction last year.
Obviously, we've got a taste for Mr. Jarman's kind of writing.
Actually, we're prepared to admit to an even stronger bias. When I
was asked to judge Event's prestigious Creative Non-Fiction Competition in 1992,1 expressed the hope that competitions such as these would
finally encourage Canada's writers to stretch the definition of literary
non-fiction. I hoped it would lead to more experimentation, more cross-
pollination—perhaps acts of brazen literary cross-dressing. I envisioned
hybrid forms that would totally undermine the Dewey Decimal System.
Unfortunately, it didn't happen. Most Event readers apparently considered literary non-fiction just another label-of-convenience for conventional memoir. Eight years later, that impression still seems to be enjoying considerable popularity. And while we can get as enthusiastic as the
next person about splendidly written mainstream autobiography, it's probably time to admit that the Maclean-Hunter Endowment Award for Literary Non-Fiction was really founded in hopes of widening the concept; of
fomenting a little literary subversion; of driving librarians to despair.
Mark Jarman's "Bear on a Chain" is taking us in the right direction.
And as far as I know, Jarman even likes librarians.
Andreas Schroeder Mark Anthony Jarman
Bear on a Chain
Tme iron of the railroad bridge now allows happy pedestrians and
cyclists across the big river. Train whistles and steam engines no
longer echo up the valley, and the rails of Barrow Steel have melted.
The hewn hemlock ties are torn away, but a cinder path still lingers behind
pointed Queen Anne towers and beaux-arts manses, a narrow shadowland
tucked behind turreted Second Empire carriage houses and Gothic
wrought iron widow walks.
Your eye knows the railroad formed that gently curving footpath, blue-
grey gravel crushed by section gangs, tamped to last longer than a Roman
road.
Your NEVER beforgoton
Walking over the railroad bridge I discover dozens of felt pen messages
covering one section of the bridge's new wooden railings. Trev RIP. The
notes to Trevor are all scrawled on the east railing, the side of the bridge he
fell from and disappeared, drowned. The river flows east and south to the
next bridge, flows to Indiantown, the pretty ridges and dairies of Belle Isle,
the polluted reversing falls, the Bay of Fundy's thirty-foot tides.
Man you were so cool to hang with that is what everybody told ME I
wish I could of hung around you but no one ever told me about you until
you died
This is my favourite felt pen note—it's somehow both comic and touching.
I'm curious why he was the coolest. Because he died young? Am I
jealous that he's so cool? At first I wondered if it was a suicide.
I'll loveya 4 life & ill never forget cha
Trevor I don't know you I have heard you are the man and that you
were everyone's best friend no one will forget you and when they die
they will be with you
Trevor was a skateboarder—the rolling clatter and leap to get air. Was he stoned out of his gourd? He'd been drinking in Officer's Square. He was
walking on the rail. Was he skating on the narrow bridge rail? I have that
image fixed in my head, a bent-kneed elbows-out silhouette, his last evening
buzzing like a gall wasp.
No one saw his long drop, no one saw him slip and fall from the narrow
lip of the wooden rail, his friend just heard a splash at dusk.
Trev was from the north side of the river, by reputation the rougher
side, working class, the hard tickets, Boss Gibson's side, Penniac, Marysville,
the old cotton mill, Rolling Town, Nigger Hill where last century a great
black man had a house on a hill with a black bear chained to a rattling post—
the other side, the other, the bridge a link between different shores.
Trev fell in the middle of the relentless river that is simply always there
like a convenience store, river like an empty parking lot waiting, our eternal
Fleuve Saint-Jean granting grace and bubbles.
Voices echoing on the bridge in the lobster-red sunset that night, waves
radiating all points of the compass, the livid light going, and no islands close,
no shore, no rescue.
As I walk on a nice day, golden sunlight smashes the river. At night city
lights crawl the moving river, red spidery maps and blood orbits bending in
the top of your head. Light ratchets through water, sways; light can bounce
and return untouched to dry air.
Imagine coming to a body of water before there was such a thing as
swimming, and no lessons, just the primal fear of water—like a primal fear
of a bear's big teeth, of a wolf's eye glowing, or river gods below you waiting, biding their time.
A cat will swim, a cow can swim, a moose, a dog swims innately, an eel.
My kids take lessons and get nowhere and the instructors roll their eyes.
Trev had no lessons. We are amazingly unequipped for this world, yet
we've flourished to the point of ruining a world that tries so hard to ruin us.
TREVOR, ULIESE, TIMOTHY, HASHEY Jan. 28/ July 8
He flew: did he ever fly in a plane? Trevor went off the rail. I'm told it was an
accident, not another teen suicide. The worry of copycats. Trev a dropout
from grade 11, dropped out of sight. The police put out a Marine Distress
Call to boats on the river. The papers spell his name differently than those
on the bridge.
In Orlando, Florida a "drifter" drowns trying to ride bareback on Tillikum,
the killer whale. They find his naked body the same morning the divers
find Trevor's body.
The famous conductor drops from his balcony, wants a way out from his
cancer. Trev wants back up (rewind the film), arms flailing like a helicopter
10 falling from the aircraft carrier, from a bridge, weightless again, a long lonely
drop to wait for the world to kick in again, stoptime, stepped out of the office
for a moment into the eels.
Someone on the bridge thought he seemed disoriented after he hit the
water. Maybe he hurt his ribs, an arm, his back, was in shock. Someone on
the bridge had a cell phone, called it in. But a teen I talk to says they had to
run to houses, bang on doors for a phone. One newspaper claimed Trevor
fell more than 100 feet, but the bridge deck is not that high.
My friend Jennifer drove by in her new Saturn and wondered what was
up—police cruisers and lights by the bridge and river. Tales from the
riverbank, a dark night, no moon, police cars parked on the grass generating as much white light as they can, and lights on the river from boats. They
are looking on the bright side, but where is the coolest guy?
Cops hate the skaters and skateboarders hate the cops, but it's the cops
who come looking, who probe the night, who dispatch the canine unit to
the riverbank, transmit the Marine Distress Signal. They "secure" the
bridge, vans at either end, and an RCMP helicopter buzzes the shore like a
nose-heavy dragonfly.
YOUTH MISSING AFTERFALL
Fall weightless but become weighted: baggy gangsta pants heavy, shoes,
weight like age on him. He'd been so light before, always got lots of air on
his skateboard.
Make this your best trip
Beth, the same age as Trev, said he was swimming, but looked lower and
lower in the water, then disappeared. Her friend Mark disagrees with Beth:
Trev was trying, but he didn't know how to swim.
Another bridge's ethereal arches float to the south-east. Trev came
from the north side, ended up on the south side, had no lessons. And the
course is pass-fail. He dropped out, they lost him on the radar.
A nor thsider tells me that your lungs fill up with river water and you sink
down with the new weight, lower and lower and gone.
How stunningly simple to leave our corner of the world, how fast, how
easy—poof. Blink and you miss it I demand more time, complications, pomp
and circumstance, demand more paydirt
Walk along the river, drive in a car over the river, see it everyday for x
number of years, mundane as an insurance office, an ordinary postcard,
then one day you fall into the boring postcard and the boring postcard kills
you.
Those on the bridge are dry, feet on wood boards. Do they laugh at first?
Do they panic, run and yell? Nothing there to toss (I see an image of a
lifebuoy tossed, of panties tossed at a bad concert). Running shoes on
11 hollow-sounding 2x6 boards.
High school girls weep by the river and walk the bridge, some possessing such tiny shoes, as if feet bound by the Chinese, and a schoolgirl eye
that shuns you, and tiny hips that don't seem capable of childbirth.
TREV: You were one of a kin a no one could ever re place you I remember all the times we got in shit with the cops. Well i'll always remember
you and I hope thatlc-ya again everynight I will think about you. until
the day that I die I will LOVE you always. (Nathalie)
There is a small heart drawn to the left of Nathalie's name. The French
spelling, perhaps Acadian. Nathalie has left the most messages on the
bridge. Did Nathalie become a minor celebrity? The bereaved teen widow
drawing felt pen hearts. In my mind she has dark eyes, speaks French,
dark hair draping shoulders white as a statue.
This river used to be the only highway, wharves from Waterloo to Smythe.
Now a boat ploughing the water is a rarity. Harleys with no mufflers roar
over the new concrete bridge upstream. I'm told a boat tried to find Trevor,
but ran out of gas. The papers do not mention this boat with no gasoline. KC
Irving's giant white oil tanks squat on the north shore. Irving owns us.
I am new to this river town haunted by United Empire Loyalists who fled
the Thirteen Colonies, fleeing liberty, some tar and feathering, a few shots,
a little ethnic cleansing, the right to bear arms, to peruse automatic weapons at the gunshow.
The Old Loyalist Burial Ground: Across This Flat Lyeth British Soldiers
Who Died (we'll never forget you). The military compound had a high
wooden wall around it, not to keep an enemy out, but to keep deserters in.
This land seemed new back then. It's new to me.
The Irvings and several families, a family compact, have their hand in
everything now, like a Central American oligarchy, a banana republic inside
Canada, a banana republic tucked inside the skin of a banana republic.
The junior high is beside the Old Loyalist Burial Ground and students
smoke coffin nails in among the graves, trying to speed up the process.
The rebels buy smokes from a machine, the rebels depend on a corporation. The wigger rebels are fed Hollywood ghetto lines, say, Whassup guy?
as I pass.
Not much, I reply walking past, and then hear whap whap whap, wigger
rebel hitting his palm with his fist.
EASTERN HEATWAVE KILLS 71
And Zionville: Who would pour diesel into Anna Doiron's well? She had to
12 drill a new well. I'm sweating in the humidity. On a country road two eastern
lynx stand, necks out to sniff, ears rotating like radar, two lynx looking
curious and alive. They're supposed to be extinct.
At the Sally Ann J buy five long-sleeved shirts all the same size and all with
the mandarin collars I like and can never find—a dead man's shirts I decide,
imagine his widow boxing them up for the thrift store.
Upstairs in The King's Shilling I look at the park where Trev drank. I
drink, order a dark beer from Halifax called Black Pearl. The label shows
what seems to be weir stakes in a river or ruins of a wharf in golden light, a
dark moist pearl in the foreground, bigger than an eyeball, bigger than a
clitoris, and under this compelling clitoris the words Cream Ale. The bottle
sweats moisture.
Down the street stand stone barracks from the 1700s garrison, each
stone a different size, high mansard windows, and behind it the sandstone
and granite guard house and a row of cells with air vents and the trapdoor to
the damp underground hole they threw you down for solitary for weeks
and you came out and right to the hospital.
How you doing, I ask the stonecutter's ghost.
Functional, he replies.
The bartender intimates that the Hell's Angels own the massage parlour next door, recently charged by the city with being a common bawdy
house. The judge fumes, Nothing but a whorehouse. The city trying to cut
their power, their phone. Their pink and blue neon sign always says OPEN
but I never see anyone slip in. Never. Ghosts.
The bartender with the paperback says they do a good business; sometimes they'll come to where you are. I never see anyone go in.
Why didn't someone go in and help the poor kid? asks a woman swimming
at the YWCA Why didn't someone jump in?
Current's too strong, says another woman.
Not that bad, argues the first, maybe ten miles per hour.
I wonder: Would I, would I jump?
Mark says he has jumped off the bridge to meet a motorboat, to swim and
climb in, says he's in the river all the time and the current is no problem.
Others talk of summers spent jumping from high bridges, or diving cliffs
into quarry pools.
Tom sits behind me at the play. At the cast party he says the current is
stronger on the south shore because that's the inside of the curve, and it
tightens on the inside of the curve, speeds up. The newspaper, however,
insists the current is strongest in the middle, right where Trevor fell.
A diver tells me he hates this river—too silty, can't see. Trevor must
13 have had mud in his lungs, like Alden Pyle, the quiet American.
Tom tells me he didn't want to walk on the bridge after Trev drowned,
then Tom felt better seeing the messages from the teens. That made him
feel better.
I walk the sunny bridge unconsciously humming Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie
Gentry, her 1967 hit tune about a guy jumping from the Tallahatchie bridge.
I realize Tre^s last name is pronounced the same way as Tallahatchie. T
Hachey. That's an odd coincidence, me singing that old pop song, my brain
dredging it up, a perverse, personal jukebox.
Families in the area spell their name Hashey or Hachey, an old Acadian
name, Acadian families who shifted down from the north shore bays and
woods to work in Boss Gibson's brick cotton mill and eat eels and crow stew,
down from the Mirimachi to work his Dye House, tannery, kiln, icehouse,
grist mill, lath mill, shingle mill, double sawmill and gang saws and Nashwaak
scows and booming grounds.
The grist mill burnt in 1902. The sawmills burnt in 1920, and the flames
went higher, the flames took out houses on River Street.
Bobbie Gentry was a sultry woman clutching an acoustic guitar awkwardly, sexily, her big dark hair puffed up and falling down over her down-
home Chickasaw County check shirt tucked into her tight pants, her tight
pelvis, knees flexed—I would have been eleven or twelve and how I loved
her and her sombre little ditty and her thick auburn hair, how she was
packaged for my consumption by the Glen Campbell Show and Capital
Records (jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge). I fell for her.
Trevor's fall reminds me of a British Columbia man who fell off a ferry into
the Georgia Strait. His windbreaker trapped air, his jacket a lifejacket and
he floated in warm water from the Fraser River, a toy bobbing out in the
strait all night gazing at cabin lanterns on the islands, but he can't thrash his
way shoreward, the man held fast by the current moving him south to the
American islands, floating alone and thinking all night of myriad foodchain
creatures under his dangling legs.
American fishermen, out early, picked him up where the warmer river
water is finally lost in the freezing ocean water, plucked him from the sea
just in time.
The silty river water and his jacket full of air saved him. The river saved
him. No such luck for Trev, though both are in the water the same amount
of time.
Adam, you shouldn 't only feel bad about Trev but good because you were
the last person to be with him. If you need anything just call Sharon
and get my number. I would really like to meet you if possible.
14 What sneakers did he wear? Did he demand cool-hunter name brands,
curse his acne, his parents, and what favourite junk food and what fine
music lived in Trevor's head? What music when if s 4:20, sparking up blunts
in the railroad lands' ugly trees by James S. Neill & Sons Ltd. yellow brick
warehouse, the spray-painted warehouses at the wrong rusty end of Church
Street and listening to the next shit, ugly urban missives on the headphones, not Bobbie Gentry's ho down home girl, but on the bridge Trevor's
brand new soundtrack is rudely interrupted, trouble in river city.
I haunt a strange town, move down streets named after dissolute princes
and distant daughters and mad kings. Did Trev ever leave this town with its
sidewalks shattered like crackers? Did he ever walk a beehive-buzz metropolis or burn out his shoes in foreign countries and flight paths?
A red kite stuck in a tree by the iron bridge, by the war memorial for the
bloody salients, for Sanctuary Wood and Desire Trench, hard by the statue
of Robbie Burns. A taxi cruises by slowly at night and a passenger yells at
me, "Hey Skipper! Come here."
I've never been called Skipper before. I must purchase nautical outfits to
match the new nickname.
'What?" I say finally.
'You know any other ma-ssage parlours around town?"
Trev you well always be the man
Love ya cutie
Every night I will think about you
How many girlfriends had he slept with? Everyone assumes teens today have sex early.
I hate to think of him going under in the cold not knowing what it's like to
be so warm with a woman who likes you more than she lets on, to move in
her (and not move in the river), move languidly, there will be time, a soft
bed, old-fashioned, queen size, think and don't think, not furtive, not backseat
Iago's supple beast with two smooth backs, the mystery dance in the
city of elms, lost elms, the lost white music of her shoulders and skin
planing south down two breasts pushing different ways, no one else home,
the slight slight independent sway of each breast suspended in cotton
ribbing, suspended in an afternoon above a summer belly that pulls a camera-eye down gold contours between the smooth hipbone's concave shadows, and farther down in silk where the silk road narrows to a fine line, a
wispy line the width of a drowned teen's tiniest finger.
Lightest finger on that fine line, brushing just the surface of the closed
garden, she pulls you, a home, none I think do there, current tighter, a
warm world, she pulls you down and you pull her down.
15 She wants to push aside the silk, just the tip, but the river water pulls you
down away from the bridge and none I think do there embrace, not fine and
private, figures watching, they run, dial a number, watchers on the bridge,
watches glowing, heads on the rail, dumb witnesses, running shoes to the
shore, the riverbank, but no one saves you, and the black water is freezing,
the shroud, sheets, and a silver van waits for you on the shore.
And then in daylight friends and strangers trek back with black magic
markers, their never forget you.
And I'll go see if the hard October rains take the messages away, freezing rain into the river where the Star Line steamboats slid against the slip,
paddlewheelers, Antelope (burnt for its iron fittings), Aberdeen, Forest Queen
with a walking beam engine, Reindeer rocking at the Regent Street wharf
100 years ago, 200 years ago, and the rain brings up the bridge's creosote
smell, the hewn railroad ties of last century's cedar and hemlock, sleepers
a foot square hidden from us where we walk.
We will forget, is what they actually imply with the magic marker messages, what they struggle with, what they deny. In twenty years half of
them will forget. What was that guy's name? You know. That guy.
Why do I insist they realize this, why do I want to rub their young faces
in it? To me, high school is nothing, steam, a blip unrelated to what I now do,
live, feel. I was that person, but not that person, cut off like the north side
from the south side, a bridge attempting to join cleaved halves, weld old and
young, iron and creosote.
Man you were so cool.
Remember me, asks the dead king from the clay world, the prisoner in
the hole under the jail. The divers remember.
They find Trevor with his mouth open in four metres of water; they find
the skateboarder resting with his head on the bottom, his parents standing
only thirty metres away, all night his fingers drawing circles in cold mud, his
brain gone still as wine in an old Dutch shipwreck.
TREV4LLFE
TREVKING OF KINGS
I see a negative: black lighthouse lifting from last century. The bridge's
empty white girders up into empty blue sky. I wonder if the divers stepped
on him in the silt, if that's how they find you.
There are dams upriver, the Saint John is not a freeflowing river anymore.
No cotton ribbing over a breast's slight sway and no underworld of underwear, no farmgirl leads me into the blueberry bogs or potato barn, and
no Pollyanna pulls up in a 1940 Hudson that used to be the Marysville taxi,
and no mermaids singing each to each. Is it purely egotistical to desire
hands on you most minutes of the week? Yes, but there it is.
16 Trev 4 Ever
RIP Trev Ski it up bud
I fought with Trev's skateboarder friends down by Picaroon's doomed
brewpub. His panhandling phyletic companions of King and Queen Streets
harassing me as I walked past and I turned, swearing and shoving one in the
chest pushing him off his board, and I left in a rage (dissed me), weeks after
still wanting to kill the skateboarder (you the man your the coolest). I now
officially hate youth.
The brewpub closes doors soon after I arrive in town. The usual pattern:
what I like goes under. The brick bar in the sun is a block from the river, but
you don't know the river is there, the brick town turns its back on the river,
like a relative you don't talk to. The town constructs windows and doors on
the main street but turns blank red walls to the river.
To get to the river I dodge speeding cars, run lanes of traffic to walk the
river's quiet banks, zooming cars noisier than the moving water.
These river towns flood every few years and burn down every few
years, a river wandering into the church basement like a lost tourist, into
the Bishop's mansion, the library, diocese archives lost in water, wharves
submerged, the bottom bowl of the valley covered. The big flood of 1853,
local roads eaten, and 1854 again, and riverboats lost in the Saxby Gale of
1869, a flood in 1902, and the dam smeared away in 1914, the big freshet of
1923, and 1936 the railroad bridge wrenched apart by ice and logs, and
1940, a fanner's beautiful barn floating whole until smashed to red splinters
on a bridge pillar, and the freshet of 1961, and the big flood of 1973 still
much discussed by shopkeepers on Queen Street, floodwater pouring into
the town from all sides.
At the wharf in 1865 the steamer Heather Bell caught fire, burning its
heavy hemp ropes until nothing holds it and the fire drifts on the water to
shoals on the other side of the river, Trevor's side of town, and The Royal
burning in her first year, or ships in mid-river and the boiler from Scotland
explodes into a full ship, pilots killed, raftsmen killed, women in their long
skirts swept away into the rocks and churning rapids.
And wooden towns on fire in 1825, the colony's forests all on fire, no
more masts for the King's navy, families fleeing into the river in the middle
of the night, and fire in 1860, and fire in 1877, wooden shutters burning on
their iron pintles, the sash and door factory on fire, the schoolhouse burning in 1895, this river's cool millions of gallons flowing inches from the
silhouette of a flaming town's spires and mills.
Our river named for St John the Baptist by the explorer Champlain out of
Dieppe. Some Canadians went back to Dieppe's stone beaches centuries
17 later. Did Champlain name our river in 1604? Shakespeare was alive. I forget these dates, though I took it a million times in school, took the fur trade
every year in history, social studies—we'll never forget.
Trev king of kings, his baptism, and Trevor's parents stand by, their
separate lives entwined again in panic, disbelief. Does the father regret the
fights now, the slammed doors?
My kid, she moans by the bridge, and the boat flung back and forth,
divers down, boat back and forth in its white wake trailing each time like a
bridal gown.
September 1844: The steamer will leave Indiantown on a pleasure
trip to the Celestial City for the special behoof of our sequestered
villagers, a rare chance to rub off the rust of our monotonous exis-
tance and expatiate ourselves with the aerial splendours of the great
metropolis.
Every lover of fine scenery, fresh air and good fellowship, and
concord of sweet sounds should prepare for this excursion. What with
the kindness of our friend the favourite Captain Wiley, our own steamer,
our own Band, the aquatic amusements to which the dignified Cockneys of Saint John are to pull the lusty oar for our amusement, we are
assured the liveliest expectations of pleasure.
Lightning and the river trees. This hot drought summer, he was the coolest
The river cooled Trevor, the river caught him, found him out, drew a crowd
(with felt pens, his felt pen teen tragedy die young mythology—love ya
always, never forget). No one was prepared for the excursion.
His parents waited all night by the river, the river low in summer, the
canine unit there searching, his mother wanting to wade into the river,
feeling she must find him, she's his mother, the policeman leading her
back from the water's edge, but maybe they should have let her go in the
river.
Trevor's father quiet, the two parents on shore all night wrapped in
flannel sheets, never forget, bridge an iron giant above them, the dive-boat
passing back and forth. My kid. Trying to be warmed by sheets and your
boy cold in the river somewhere so close.
You were the best cousin to me. Even when you and Dad didn't get along
it didn 't bring us apart.
They pulled the divers from the river at 10 p.m., too dark, a safety issue.
The south shore: two giant weeping willows over the two parents, and a
generous strip of tended grass sloping to a border of rougher scrub along
the water's edge.
18 Dawn, bridge to the east becoming visible, river more visible, empty,
can't see their son but he's there, Waterloo Row at dawn empty of people,
copper steeples close by, my landlady's Anglican Cathedral where she
sings in the angelic choir, sings The race that pined in darkness, sings In
the grave they laid him, sings Now the green blade rises.
Divers back in the water at 8:30 a.m., and they find the body at 10:25 a.m.
The river bottom, not far from the bridge. I thought you would drift farther,
miles and miles, like a piece of wood floating to the ocean. He stayed close
to home, close to his parents. The silver van holds his young body. The TV
commercials seem so far away. His mother steps to the rear doors of the
silver van, the mother and child reunion, for his mother must ID her son's
body in the silver van, yards from where I will buy a house if I stay in this
town. Its windows aimed at the bridge.
In the fall I walk the silver river, a solitary male, become my old uncle
taking windy walks in a long coat, watching eastern birds, writing letters to
the west. He never had a son. I have temporary work here, I am temporarily depressed here, and trying to decide whether I want to stay and whether
anyone wants me to stay. I am skating a rail.
People jog by me on the river path, trying to live longer, eyes trapped in
their face, working like a horse, eyes trapped in old face (So this is permanence, sings Joy Division). I am temporary. We're all temporary
Would my grey eyes stay open after drowning? The terrifying terrified
Grand Guignol face someone must find or step on, try to hold an ankle, a
forearm, a wet shirt. The search for the body and the body in its search.
In this town I met a blonde woman who searched for bodies at Peggy's
Cove, for the tiniest parts of flesh, of someone's child, someone's parent,
wondering about each pebble, each piece of glass, each person, what was a
person, and I met a woman from Newfoundland who mapped the underwater crash site of Swissair 111, mapped a grid on the blurred stones and sand
under the black sea. And the divers remember.
In Halifax a room full of dead passengers' suitcases, jackets, pens, passports, laptops, ballcaps, shoes, jewels, toys, dolls.
Military reservists expected to be tough, to take it, to just pick up the
pieces of 229 humans at Peggy's Cove, bags and new Tupperware containers piled on shore, a Tupperware party combing the rocky shoreline, and
they did it, walked the walk in their spit-polished boots, but the blonde
woman emphatically does not want to talk about that scored shoreline. But
they remember their mapped secrets.
He is my life. Asthon.
Asthon's name is encircled in a heart.
Is Asthon a rival to Nathalie? I see her as blonde. Like Veronica and
19 Betty. Once I was Jughead stuffing my face. Now I am Mr Weatherbee. He
is my life.
The New England Journal of Medicine argues that roughly 10% of drownings
have no explanation, that a genetic defect may disrupt the heart's electrical
system, triggered by exertion or shock. Long QT syndrome. A daily dose
of beta-blocker can help prevent potentially fatal rhythm problems.
My mother always believed that when her father drowned in a canal
outside Dublin it was because his heart stopped, wants to prevent it in me.
In California a honeymoon couple is swept from shore at Lover's Point.
The groom watches his bride pummeled by wave after wave. She weakens.
In Bible Hills, Nova Scotia, Nolan Ralph Cady beats his spouse with a
stick on the front steps, breaking her ankle and several bones, and in Bible
Hills she tries to get away and he attempts to strangle her and their two-
year-old son, their bundle of joy. Perhaps a syndrome or such.
A steeple means nothing to some of us at Lover's Point, in Bible Hills, in
Zionville, a steeple no different than a telephone pole. Once it had such
power, stared at you. Where did that power go? Down the well. What kind of
stick did he beat her with, I wonder stupidly. Night after night the police
climb down into their growling cruisers, prowl up and down King and Queen,
and their weak light reflects on our dark river.
Trevor your the man. everyone that knows you will always love and
remember you from now until the end.   from somebody
The newspaper calls for lifeboats, lifebuoys, lifelines. A phone booth is
installed at the bridge's south end.
Ole Larsen took a beautiful black and white photo of the Edward Sinclair
Lumber Company at the North West Bridge on the Miramichi River. Behind the mill you can see the masts of square-rigged sailing ships, and on
the sawmill's roof ridge you can see a line of wooden barrels: barrels of
water kept on the roof in case of fire. A large wooden structure. Water held
up top, just in case. But can you really hope to keep enough water above
you, to take your beta-blocker for your heart, that your tank will actually
move on the stone beach at Dieppe, that your yacht won't blow up off the
coast of Ireland? Can you always be ready?
No lifebuoys on the bridge. The day is gone you can leave a good lifeboat
by the water. It'll get stolen or holes kicked in it or burnt. By the same
skeletal skateboarders who knew Trev and spray-paint 'Smoke Da Weed'
and '4:20 All The Way' and burn the green vinyl sofa by the ruined warehouse. How original.
Citizens walk out on the iron bridge to watch the sunset upriver, eyeball
20 the shooting stars, the Leonid storm of freak streaks and dashes, and the
valley's stars are vowels you can't use, panels of pink light pinned in your
head.
Adam, you shouldn't only feel bad, but it's past 4:20 and our summer
soundtrack goes on without Trev, the soundtrack goes on without me in a
way, too, in my forties. On the oldies satellite channel she is moving somewhere far away not slow and where have all the good times gone?
My childhood music speaks in the greasy spoon over my 3 p.m. breakfast and lying on my bed at midnight Sterolab sings Baudelaire and I play
Godspeed You Black Emperor, play The Handsome Family (and jump
from the Golden Gate Bridge), play Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart,
play the fugue song over and over on my pawnshop headphones: the band's
bass descends, notes down a ladder, a figure falling in air, and the band's
suicide singer windmills his arms on stage, a slow riot for a New France, an
Acadian boy falling from a high railroad bridge, weightless again, and a grey
shadow in the best part of town, a perfectly engineered shadow, but that
train don't stop here anymore.
As it gets colder I buy gloves and a black tuque (prepare for the excursion).
The bass descends like winter. Signs on hundreds of houses in the Celestial City: DANGER FALLING ICE.
Some signs show a concerned fellow with a giant icicle sticking out of his
skull. With a black felt pen I alter the signs to read: DANGER FALLING
MICE.
Summer humming when Trevor went underwater, but now this blue river is
framed by yellow leaves. Worn hills, small trees travelling to the horizon.
Snow soon.
In an autumn lens this pretty valley reminds me of river valleys in northern Montana or southern Alberta, the Elbow, the Oldman, the Marias, the
Milk, the Missouri. Someone else says Ottawa.
The mother waits, moans in her sheet like a ghost, chained to bank like
the bear on its post, any mother and son chained to each other, the boy
pinned to the bottom (so cool to hang with), the long drop from the womb
to the cold river.
Water beautiful and startling blue when I stand on a far hill, but up close
it's different—green-purple water moving chocolate silt to the sad lowlands, the water impenetrable and my feeble eye can't push an inch into its
mysteries.
/ always loved his backflips. One of the best times with Trev was at
Grand Lake.
Until the RCMP came
21 A year after he fell the felt pen messages are excised from the bridge
rails, words on wood shaved by a city worker with a grinding sander, pressure-treated sawdust trailing lazily to the water where Trev last wandered.
But I still possess them, a stranger, a landlord holding a binder-twine
suitcase in case the prodigal tenant returns to the chamber on Church
Street
/ loved watching Trev skate,
he always had so much energy when he skateboarded
and lots of air.
22 Sue Sinclair two poems
Posing
Because in photographs no one
speaks. Motionless, permissive.
The undone button, the slant
of light under the door. Suspended
in the inevitable facts.
Take time away and what's left
is matter, like a woman
waking up naked, the chest
of drawers staring openly.
A woman who doesn't hide
her breasts because
she thinks there's no one there
anyway. In her underwear
she waters the plants
in the study. The window's
been left open, the room filled
with the smell of rain, and she feels
self-conscious for the first time:
the smell an invitation
to think of rain, where it has been, what it has
left, the trace of bareness.
Nothing moves. She pauses,
water jug in hand.
23 Twelve O'clock
heat lingers
at midnight, an insect on the edge
of a finger, folding
and unfolding its wings
lilacs shiver, droop,
hang like caught breath;
abandoned gardening spades float
in mid-air, flowers, whole
houses buoyed up
bees are insomniac, can't resist
the pollen, how it bubbles up
in the dark
the hum
of their wings interferes
with sleep, our bodies' burbling
dreams: we waken, sheet
knotted on the floor
no one picks them up
instead we wait
for the unknown insect
to fly from the unknown
finger—for the bright
invisible flicker,
the thimble that drops
to the floor
24 Norbert Ruebsaat
Muscle of Sou
A woman in the Challenge of Love Seminar looked and smiled longer
than was customary in such circumstances at a man sitting on the
i floor across the room from her, and this caused the man, after first
looking away out of politeness, to glance back, only to discover the woman
to be still looking and smiling at him. He supposed then that she might want
to go out with him, and when he approached her later, and she confirmed
his supposition by suggesting that they get together some time, he agreed,
and three days later he phoned her and they arranged to meet at a coffee
shop. At the coffee shop the woman who had smiled at the man longer
than was customary drew a circle on the table with her finger to describe
those "areas" of her life which she had explored, and then she drew another circle to describe those areas which "still needed exploring." The
area of love was in the second circle, she said, after having indicated, with
reference to the first circle, that the areas of profession, money, and power
in the world had all been successfully dealt with. The fact that she did not
have children was another area, she said, which she had not explored, and
it was an area of sadness for her and an enigma. She did not draw a circle on
the table to describe this area of her life, nor did she ascribe it to either of
the existing ones; her eyes moved instead into her lap and rested there
when she spoke about this subject. The man, who was breathless from
being in the presence of such large topics on a first date—a "coffee date,"
as these institutions were called in the "singles circuit" in which the man
and the woman moved—continued listening nonetheless because the woman's intensity and her business-like manner in approaching complex subject matters excited him.
Shortly after the coffee date the woman invited the man to dinner at her
house and she fried him a thick pepper steak which she served along with
wine in oversized glasses and a salad tossed in a wide blue bowl. She set the
latter on a table tastefully arranged with blue and red checkered placemats
and serviettes which matched not only the bowl but also the blue and red
checkered curtains that half-covered the windows in the dining alcove of
her hardwood-floored open-area kitchen; the kitchen's centerpiece was a
free-standing range with pots, saucepans, frying pans, lids and utensils suspended from a metal grate above it in an arrangement resembling a giant
25 wind chime. The red tulips the man had brought stood in a pink vase in the
middle of the table, completing the ensemble, and the man and the woman
sat, ate, and talked about love, relationships, work—she was a biologist, he
was a writer; she was beginning to write, he had from boyhood on dreamed
of being a biologist—and the meal proceeded well. The woman who had
looked at the man longer than a woman normally would said she loved
taxonomy, the naming of things, and the man who had approached her in
response to this look said he liked birdsong. The woman said she could
identify birds by their song alone, which statement sent a thrill into the
man's spine, and the two began talking excitedly about angels. The man
said, 'You know what I'm talking about, don't you?" after he had told her in
a roundabout way that the voice might be the muscle of the soul (a friend of
his, who he thought was an angel, had once said this to him). The woman
said, 'Yes," and held the man's eyes in the way she had first done in the
Challenge of Love Seminar. "I like the way you hold your gaze," the man
said, looking straight back at her. Their eyes remained locked for longer
than one would expect on a first evening together, and the encounter only
ended when the woman dropped her gaze into her lap, saying she had
never felt intimidated by a man or felt weaker than one: she had never "felt
the need to back off or escape from men." The man said he wanted to be
"met and feel engaged" by a woman, and when the woman said nothing in
the pause that followed, the man added that he didn't know exactly what he
meant by that phrase, but he hoped that something might occur as a result
of his having said it
They got up from the table and the man helped the woman clear the dishes
and rinse them and put them in the dishwasher, and the woman wiped the
counters and also the free-standing range above which the metal grate with
its instruments quietly swayed. The two chit-chatted, constantly changing
topics, and then the woman showed the man into the living room where a
fireplace composed of huge river stones cemented into a heap formed one
whole wall, at whose base a whale vertebra with outspread bone spurs lay
by a black leather sofa on which the man and the woman sat down. The
woman showed the man photos of her travels—to Borneo, to Nepal, to the
Amazon—and told stories at whose adventurous details he marvelled. Her
eyes seemed with each phrase to travel into the very distance her words
were describing, and the man followed her voice as if he were reading a
book.
When they had finished this segment of the evening and the woman got
up, which seemed to signal the end of the date, and the man got up, too, and
the two embraced tentatively at the front door, and the man thanked the
woman for the dinner, and the woman thanked the man for the tulips, the
26 woman turned her face away ever so slightly when the man moved his into
a position which signaled that he might want to kiss her, and so the man
immediately turned his face to the side also, and only grazed the top of her
cheekbone with his lips. He was holding her hips and he felt this portion of
her body press against him even as the woman's upper torso and head
veered in another direction.
The two saw each other again a few times, desultorily. Once they got drunk
together. She drank more than he did; she liked wine, was a "connoisseur,"
as she put it, while he was at a point in his life where especially red wine
gave him headaches and indecipherable hangovers which felt like small
madnesses. He had a hangover after that date, and many thoughts, some
of which he wrote down and some of which remained inchoate. When they
went on a birdwatching trip some weeks later, on what was to be their next-
to-last date, every word that came from the woman's mouth seemed to the
man a kind of terminal statement. Her lips came to a point at the end of each
phrase as if she were speaking a period. The woman told the man that the
robins they heard singing were claiming territory: only the males sang, she
said, and each was engaged in a contest with the other males over how
much space he could claim. At the centre of this sung-space, the woman
said, was a female robin who listened, and this female could tell from their
tone of voice which males were stronger and which were weaker, and she
would make her nest in the center of the territory marked out by the
strongest male. The woman told the man that each robin had a unique call,
which every other robin, male and female, could recognize, but which
humans couldn't.
When the woman who had looked and smiled at the man longer than was
customary and the man who had responded by approaching her met for a
final time at a restaurant that served spaghetti which was lukewarm and
slightly matted, and whose noodles were overly long, the woman said,
"When you told me you became easily infatuated with women who appear
to you like younger sisters (he had told her this on the second date, the
one with the tablecloth and the napkins, the wine glasses and the tulips and
the angels) I thought, 'I'm stronger than this man. He scares me.'" She
paused and then said, "I want a man who's ahead of me, but it doesn't
necessarily mean I'll follow." When the man asked her why, if she felt
stronger than he, she was afraid of him, and why she wanted a man who
was ahead of her but in whose direction she then did not want to move, she
looked at him and said nothing, and the man noticed that the woman's gaze
was now quite unlike the one he had first encountered in the Challenge of
Love Seminar.
27 Erin Bidlake three poems
Instructions for Gardening
Begin with tools,
anything wooden
or older than
your oldest fencepost.
Gather seeds.
Look under any bush or tree,
slip your fingers
into the mouth of a lily,
remove its tongue,
plant it
You'll need a hole,
deep as a crow's feather,
use a crow's feather to dig,
if one is available.
Cover the seeds with dirt.
Before covering, you may wish
to bury something alongside,
a medallion, a tooth,
or a buckle.
28 These things rarely flower.
Once the seed is hidden,
add water and egg shells.
Press down lightly,
and whistle.
To avoid temptation,
avoid apples, or anything red
as an apple,
poppies and cranberries
will only attract thieves
and bulls.
Finally,
do not rush the harvest.
Each turnip and onion
will rise to you in time,
the corn will turn its ear
to your voice,
and if you sing,
the bleeding hearts
will beat again.
29 Four Poems For Breast
i.
Rain has become
the signal has
become the static
has become the
distance
between desert
and your mouth.
2.
That morning
when Janice peered
inside her mauve pyjamas
she wondered, if this too,
was not the work
of some fledgling
tooth fairy
and was indignant
30 3.
With these
and other swellings
I will fill
what is hollow.
Even now
your concave
leans into collapse
without me.
4.
You think Artemis,
Amazon,
trade for trade.
I think
lump.
From which generation
of warrior
have you risen,
girl without quiver?
31 The Day They Bombed The
Berlin Zoo
1943,
sapphire tail feathers
from surprised peacocks
are glued to crumbling cement.
Birds, still living,
squawk and shake clipped wings
into the dust,
while rhinos and elephants
lift great bleeding heads
over the flames
to high-step through melting cages
like overwrought ballerinas.
A doubtful parade of emus,
alligators and pink flamingos
strolls out of the Tiergarten,
blinking with curiosity,
while frantic mothers pull children
into the half-standing doorways
of the Reichstag, and away
from the more purposefully striding
panda bears and anteaters.
Gibbons and gorillas swing like bandits
in boughs that line the Elbe river.
Drunk soldiers pitch rubble
at the flanks of limping camels,
and under the Brandenburg Gates,
as if forging into Siberia.
A hippo settles in Alexanderplatz
between piles of half-burned novels,
and empty shells,
while grinning families watch
through knotholes in the planks
across the bedroom windows.
32 Leslie Sheffield
A Spring Garden
A gust of wind tears at the Virginia creeper vine above my front door
and sends a spray of water, slap, against my face. I'm in the front
yard soaking the roots of my cedars so they'll have enough moisture to make it through until spring. Already some sprigs at the centre of
the trees have started to turn brown.
The leaves are all off the elms now. Some lie by the curb, soggy and
ground into a paste, but most are in piles on the boulevard. My son, Stephen,
is across the street playing in them with his friend. For the moment they
are happy. I watch as they scoop up fistfuls of curled brown leaves and hurl
them back and forth. In mock ceremony they fashion them into two enormous mounds and bury themselves, bursting from their crackling coffins
with shrill cries. I want this moment to last for a long time. Yeah, I'd like to
have life roll along easily for awhile.
My hands stiffen on the hose nozzle. Stephen has just snatched an
armful of leaves from his friend's pile and added it to his. "Loser, loser,
loser," he gloats. "My pile's bigger than your pile."
"Give 'em back!"
"Loser, loser, loser. Loser, loser, loser," he chants in a crazed voice I
hardly recognize.
"I'm telling on you."
"Loser, loser, loser!"
Next thing I know they've scattered like the leaves, my son continuing
to yell insults, his friend wailing. Another fight. I twist the nozzle as far as it
can go and aim a hard jet of water against the fence. It hits with an angry
ripping sound, rebounds, and shoots back into my face.
***
The temperature dipped way below freezing last night and I've come out to
the garden to inspect the extent of the damage. Every surface is silvered
with frost, and I slip as my feet hit the slick paint on the front steps. I have
only a fraction of a second to record the absence of ground beneath my feet
before I feel the bite of the steps on my arm and leg.
My garden is ruined. It looks like a large tank has just steam-rolled
through it: the yellowed fronds of the irises lie flattened and lifeless; the
begonias have shrivelled up and keeled over, their faces smashed right into
the ground; and the Queen Anne's Lace has been pounded into a slimy
33 green soup.
I know I should move back into the house, but I sit on the steps instead.
Any moment now Stephen will come looking for me. All day long, every few
minutes, he calls out, a desperate, high-pitched sense of urgency in his
voice, "I love you, Mom" like a breath inhaled, suspended, waiting for the
exhalation of breath, the response, "I love you, too." And if I don't hear him
or neglect to answer, he panics, gasping, "Mom? Mom, where are you?" as
if disconnected from his life source and suffocating.
I inspect the garden once again and discover the cat hidden under the
hedge in a pile of musty leaves, stretched out and cleaning herself. With
long deliberate licks she wets the side other paw, then rolls the dampened
edge across her face. Next she moves on to the soft woolly nether parts
under her tail, holding her leg aloft in a gravity-defying position. She looks
so funny I have to laugh. Head bobbing, she sets to work, spitting, biting,
tugging—her tongue a precise flash of pink carding her fur into a fluffy
halo. With each lick my shoulder muscles relax. There is something comforting and reassuring about the predictable rhythm of this motion.
Maybe I'm making too much of a small thing. Maybe this is a stage all
children go through. I should take life easy, like a cat Find a nice sunny spot
somewhere in the garden, get busy, clean up the mess, and stop worrying.
***
It grows worse. The hour before bed is the most disturbing. It's not so
much what is said or done as the relentless frequency of it: the ritual of
clothes being placed on top of my head as they are peeled off, shirt, pants,
socks, and underwear constructed into a headdress as I lay out his pyjamas; pee, poop, diarrhea chanted endlessly as I brush his teeth; my hands,
arms, and face being smothered in kitty licks while I read him his bedtime
story; and, when I bend down to kiss him good night, "I can see your
breasts, Mom."
'Why are you acting this way?"
There's no answer. Just a clown face with a large false grin.
And how many times in the past week have I heard him say, 'You hate
Sarah, don't you, Mom? You love me more than her. Don't you?" Maybe a
hundred.
Maybe a thousand.
***
He grabs my hand and pulls me upstairs to show me what he's been working on all evening, alone, in his room. He sits me in his chair and tells me to
close my eyes, that I will like this surprise.
"Ready," he shouts finally, "you can open your eyes now." Then, with
much rustling, he brings from underneath his bed two large cardboard
cutouts, one figure with horns, the other with a halo.
34 "These are for Sarah and me," he says proudly. "For Halloween. I'm
going to be the devil and Sarah's going to be the angel. 'Cause she's nice
and I'm not What do you think, Mom?"
***
He performs a curious acrobatic maneuvre—a kind of Ninja kick or half
cartwheel. Friends tell me it's cute, idiosyncratic. They reassure me with
hearty laughs and worn-out cliches: Boys will be boys or / wish I had that
kind of energy. A sick feeling grows inside me. In my stomach, a fluttery
beating of fear, and in the back of my throat, a sour presence that makes
food taste bitter and unpalatable.
It's not this odd little movement that disturbs me; it's that he'll do it
anywhere. Coming down the stairs, in the grocery store, or even crossing a
busy street. He tells me this isn't a Ninja kick or cartwheel. It's something
he has to do. His body just wants to do it.
***
First there was the Ninja kick. Now it's head turning, a brief glance thrown
over his right shoulder. He says suspiciously, defensively, "What are you
looking at?" Then later, with intense hostility, "Stop staring at me."
I fear these movements are tics and I read voraciously on the subject.
The literature advises me that tics can disappear as spontaneously as they
appeared if no one draws attention to them.
I pretend not to see, even though his tics intensify, with the head flicks
stretching further and further to the right until they grow into grandiose
twirls of his whole body—three, four, five twirls at a time. Twirls while
getting dressed, twirls while playing Nintendo, twirls while sitting in his
chair drinking hot chocolate.
And hops. Hops to the TV, hops to the refrigerator, hops to the car.
Hops and twirls together.
And grunts. Soft bleating grunts. Florid, snorting piggy grunts. Grunts
and snorts. Twirls and hops.
Stop staring at me.
***
A howling wind has drifted the snow into peaks and valleys. Beside me,
balanced on a crust of mauve-shadowed snow, is Stephen, turning circles.
The light is starting to fail and it is cold. Quick, I say, let's go home before it
gets dark, before we get lost. But he keeps circling, slowly sinking into an
ever-deepening trough. Hurry, before it's too late, Stephen. A few more
steps and the snow crust fissures, revealing a bottomless cavern. We fall
and fall until I fall awake.
***
Outside large snowflakes fall wetly from an oddly pink sky. It's a calm, still
35 night, a few days after Christmas. Stephen is in the bathtub, surrounded by
an armada of sailing vessels and Playmobil little people, happily dropping
washcloth bombs on his fleet with loud, explosive noises. I have just come
in to check on him, when suddenly, without warning, he begins screaming
at me.
"Get out of here."
"What on earth is wrong?"
'You're useless. You're the worst mother in the world."
Despite the heat of the bathroom, my skin grows clammy. "Please tell
me what's wrong," I say softly.
He glares at me and I add, "If I've done something to hurt you I'm very
sorry."
Then his face crumples. He throws his arms around me and says in an
anguished voice, "It's not you, Mom. It's not you. It's me."
I grab a towel, scoop him up dripping wet, and carry him onto the rocking chair in his bedroom. Tenderly, I hold him against my body, gently
stroke his cold, slick hair, afraid of what he is going to say.
Finally he lifts his head and asks, "Don't you see?"
I shake my head. I pretend ignorance.
He eyes me with disbelief, then starts to sob. He hides his face against
my chest and tells me about being teased in school, about being different
from everyone else, about not wanting to do the things that his body makes
him do.
I must pretend no longer.
***
Sweat drips coldly from my armpits; I am a faucet leaking acid rain. I feel the
dampness mushrooming under my arms, which I keep pressed closely to
my sides and I smell the peculiar odour of my sweat, a mixture of baby-
powder deodorant and something corrosive, like Drano or Lime-A-Way.
Stephen is being assessed by Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services and I am left alone in the waiting room, where the methadone patients
nervously gather and pace. With sidelong glances they eye me and speculate whether or not I'm a new addition to their group. I flip through last
year's People, the pages on Madonna smudged and greasy, and stew about
possible scenarios with the psychologist. I imagine her approaching me
with condemnation, loathing, and a spate of angry words, each one more
damning than the last
"He's a very angry and disturbed child."
"The tests show he really despises you."
"You're the cause of it all."
Of course this doesn't happen. After an hour she serenely whisks
Stephen back. I look for signs of disapproval: a narrowing of the eyes, a
36 tightening of the lips, a stiffness in the jaw, but her face is inscrutable.
Politely we schedule the next appointment.
***
Sarah snuggles deep into her bed as a cool breeze sends the sheers ballooning outward. She tells me I'm the best mother in the world and Stephen
is the best brother.
"I love Stephen, but he hates me," she confides.
"Of course he loves you," I reply quickly.
"No, he hates me. He tells me that all the time."
"He doesn't mean it, Sarah. His tics make him say that."
"What are tics again?"
"Things your body makes you do over and over, like hop or twirl. They
also make Stephen say he hates you. Those are his thinking tics, his head
tics."
Sarah traces a line down my nose and around my lips, her eyebrows
furred together into a fuzzy caterpillar.
***
A pale green butterfly rests momentarily on a burnt orange day lily, its two
wings pressed into a still papery sheet. Sarah lunges forward over the iron
railing with cupped hands, grabbing at a handful of air as the butterfly
skitters away. Her friend Emma scoops at a ladybug and captures one in her
plastic container. With a whoop of pleasure she exclaims, "Gotcha!"
Sarah turns to Emma. "Do you know why Stephen is so mean? It's
because he has head tics. He can't help it. It's his tics' fault."
"What? He has ticks in his head?"
Sarah doesn't answer. She flutters down the steps, arms outstretched,
and zigzags across the cool wet grass to land near the day lily, nuzzling her
face deep into its throat, emerging with an orange-dusted nose.
***
"I think we've a little mouse here," Shannon from Parks and Rec. says with
a grin as she stirs a tub of blue paint. Another high-pitched squeak splits the
air. Her hand freezes mid-stir. Puzzled, she surveys the group of kids who
have gathered for a street-painting event, but no little mouse owns up.
It's humid and the air is ripe with the smell of elm sap fermenting in
glossy puddles by the curbside. From time to time sap rains down on us,
sticky as hairspray.
I know whaf s happening. A month ago Stephen's tics disappeared. Completely. Just like the snow in spring.
The only problem is they've come back.
Now, in a space so dangerously packed with people and pots of paint,
Stephen has forced himself to suppress his twirl. In its stead, a squeak has
37 erupted.
Stephen throws me a worried look.
You'll be okay, I try to say with my eyes, and with a flick of my head I
motion for us to make our getaway. But as we leave, his twirling tic catches
up with him and sends him air borne. He spins and crashes down on a small
boy who lands flat on his stomach and starts to cry.
He points to Stephen. "He—pushed me—on purpose," he sobs, gasping
for air.
Stephen's face twists in pain, as if he's the one who's just had the wind
knocked out of him.
***
Seeing as there is no couch in his psychiatrist's office, Stephen has taken
to stretching out on the floor. He starts with a spot under his chair, where
he can break off the fraying threads that dangle underneath the seat. Next
he moves to the centre of the carpet. With his head propped up by his
hands and his legs crossed at the ankles, he recites his favorite strips from
Calvin and Hobbes and shares the best one-liners from The Simpsons. I
long for Stephen to sit properly in his chair. I force myself to look away.
An image comes to mind. A few houses down the street from me is a
small blue spruce with a trunk that curves back on itself, giving it a hunched-
back look. Recently the owners have roped the tree to a shallow wooden
pen built around it, the tethers obviously designed to bend it back into an
upright position. This bonsai approach seems to be working. But it makes
me think of something I once heard. That some trees should not be staked
when young. Some must build their strength by being able to bend whichever way the wind blows them. If throttled, if forced to conform to conventional lines they lose flexibility and snap when stressed.
***
Just as farmers look to thicker coats on animals or subtle changes in the
vegetation to help predict blustery weather, I have become adept at reading the tell-tale signs of an approaching tic storm.
I take note of the increased restlessness which sends him leaping off
radiators, jumping down stairs, seven or eight at a time, and climbing up
door frames; as well, there's the sound of his feet banging on the wall long
after we've gone to sleep, and the state of his bed in the morning, the
sheets twisted into a tight cord, a life-line, spilling onto the floor.
There are other clues. Heads of Lego people are severed and stacked
one on top of the other, while hands are plucked out and abandoned in a
pile. Action figures are mummified with masking tape and turned into mobiles that hang from dresser tops and windowsills. Fragile domino-like structures are built out of books, cassette tapes, their plastic containers, and
blocks of wood to descend from his room, out the door, and down the stairs,
38 and which he sets off and watches topple. Elaborate mazes are designed
where some poor protagonist is perpetually lost and seeking his way out.
And potions of toothpaste, paint, dried grass, and rusty nails are mixed, left
on his dresser top, and "fed" every night.
Language as well grows tangled and talking in opposites becomes the
only way to converse:
"I hate you, Mom. You know what that means."
"No. You do?"
"I do. Not
"I'm confused. You do or you don't?"
"Don't ask me anymore. It fires up my tics."
And then, of course, there's Mr. Mole.
A large brown orb with elephant feet and a mouth fixed in an eternal
primal scream sits atop our TV. This is Mr. Mole, Stephen's cartoon creation, come to life in three-dimensional papier mache form, a perennial bad
guy who likes television, fame, money, candy, blood, dirt, fellow moles, and
who dreams about paying back the "good guys" for always winning. Although always present in his thoughts, at times Mr. Mole will become the
only thing Stephen can think about: his whole day at school will be spent
writing screenplays for Mr. Mole; once home, he will draw or carve or
scratch his image onto any surface he can find—a leather chair, a copper
pot, a wooden spoon, the condensation on the window pane, the dust on a
lamp shade.
Mr. Mole is a tic.
I'm with Sarah and her friend in our old burgundy K-car station wagon. It's
an abused vehicle, with dents everywhere and paint missing in long snaky
ropes. Candy wrappers, bits of plasticine, and anaemic-looking fries are
wedged between the seats. Amid the old debris lie the remains of last
night's supper from McDonald's—ketchup-soaked fries that were too
squishy to eat, limp hamburger buns, and the outside part of the hamburger, which Stephen dislikes and calls the "rind."
The buzzer sounds, marking the start of lunch break. I'm stiff, coiled,
waiting for Stephen to burst out of the doors, a ball from a cannon. I've a
dose of sugar all ready, a neatly packaged granola bar, and I've put on my
happy face, but I know this isn't good enough. Something will displease
him. Perhaps we'll be parked in the wrong spot. Perhaps he'll want a Fruit
Roll-Up instead of a granola bar. Or perhaps I'll say hello and he'll not want
me to talk.
He spots the car, his face showing strain, then collapses into agony
when he sees Sarah's friend.
"I don't want to ride with anyone else," he greets me. "Why do you
always do this? Just once I want to be able to come home alone." His voice
39 starts to escalate with righteous indignation. 'Tell me why? Why? Why do
you always do this?"
"That's very rude, Stephen," I reply tartly. Sarah's friend is staring, and
I am embarrassed. "Be thankful that you have a mother who picks you up,
brings you a treat, and offers rides to those who need them. Count your
blessings instead of always griping."
"Don't talk to me," he snaps back.
"If you can't be polite you can get out and walk the rest of the way home!"
I hate the sound of my voice. I don't want to be stuck in this pointless
argument We're like an old married couple, squabbling over how much salt
to add to the soup while the house is burning down.
Once home, the bickering continues. Except now he starts in on Sarah.
"Man, why do I have to have a sister? How come I'm so unlucky? I bet
you wish you only had me, Mom. You know, Sarah, Mom loves me better
than you. She wishes that you were never born."
A hint of a smile hovers on Sarah's lips. She's come to expect insults and
she knows how to get even.
'Tag," she says provocatively, tapping him on his arm. 'You're it." She
runs out of the kitchen shrieking wildly, knowing she has activated his
touching tic, knowing he has no choice but to pursue her.
"Both of you stop it!" I command, but it's no use. Sarah is leading Stephen
in circles at breakneck speed around the dining room table, taunting him
with cackles of glee. I'm dizzy, caught up in the whirling force of their
energy, powerless to stop them, and I've only a second to catch my breath
before they're off, spinning me in the opposite direction.
"Sarah," he begs, "Please—it's my tics. I have to touch you. Please let
me touch you."
"Please Sarah," I beg as well, "so that we can all sit down and have lunch."
Sarah consents, but instead of just touching her he pokes her hard in
the ribs, bringing tears to her eyes. However, she merely lifts a hand to her
lips and blows him a cool kiss, once again setting off his touching tic and
another mad dance.
"Stop it!" I bellow. But no one hears.
***
I turn to my garden for solitude and escape. I enjoy the absolute authority
I wield over my plants. Completely unable to get control of my children, I
am determined to subject all my plants to my slightest whim. "I want you all
in a row, no one out of line, faces forward. You go here. You stay. You're out"
Yanking, pulling, plucking, clipping. Unruly green shoots are decapitated
with strong snips of my shears. Spent blossoms, their silken edges shrivelled, are tossed into a hidden corner of the garden. I uproot plants from
one spot to another, constantly seeking the perfect compliment of colour,
40 the consummate place for size and height Every time my neighbours see
me I have a spade in one hand and a plant in the other, my fingers tight
around its throat, leaves wilting, exposed roots dangling and dripping dirt.
***
Stephen and I are walking to the corner grocery store to purchase some
deli meat and buns. This should be a ten-minute excursion, but I soon
realize it will take much longer. Stephen, who is extremely tired, can't walk
on any of the cracks. He has to hop over them, and if he steps on one, has
to go through a complicated ritual of touching his heels with his toes,
stopping, then back stepping. This occurs every few seconds at first but as
he becomes more agitated and his tics intensify, it happens so frequently
we seem to be standing still. By the time we're on the last leg of our journey, a scant four houses from home, his tics are actually taking him backwards.
Suddenly his body grows slack. 'You must hate me. Nobody would want
a boy with these stupid tics."
"Let's run home," I say. 'We'll fly over the cracks."
"No, Mom. I can't. I can't go on."
Terror grips me. Here we stand, completely immobilized, trapped by a
web of cracks, unable to advance, unable to retreat. I wonder if we'll ever
make it back home. I begin to see the sidewalk, with its benign concrete
slabs and tiny hairline cracks branching in every direction, from his skewed
perspective—as a treacherous landscape of traps and cages.
Step on a crack and you '11 break your mother's back. More like my heart.
Why I don't think to say, "Let's walk on the grass," I'll never know. I keep
wondering if I'll have to piggyback him. Will I then be allowed to step on the
cracks or will I also have to avoid them? I don't know the rules.
Fortunately I've some strawberry candies in my purse and I dole out
generous amounts to him. Sugar is a magic elixir for Stephen, freeing his
demons and settling his soul. Slowly, laboriously, we're now able to make
our way back home.
* * *
Fall has come early this year. Discouraged by the wilted forlorn look of my
garden, I've hacked all the irises and hostas down to stubs, given brush cuts
to my lilies, dumped the soil out of my clay pots, and swept the patio and
stairs free of leaves. Now it's time to clean the porch.
Around the porch windows the cobwebs are as thick as trampolines, and
loaded with the tattered carcasses of moths and flies. I sweep the sticky
fibres with my broom, but a clicking sound stops me. In one web a dragonfly
is still alive, twitching, trapped by the tip of one wing and a leg. Every time
it manages to wrench one leg free, another one adheres. A thick-bodied
spider lurks nearby.
41 "What are you looking at?" Stephen asks, peering over my shoulder.
He is stricken by the sight.
'We have to rescue it," he says.
"How?"
He runs to the kitchen and returns with a paring knife. One hand delicately secures the trembling body of the dragonfly, while the other saws at
the webbing stuck to the wing. There's no sign of his touching tic—his
fingers are all poised precision and deft skill. But for some reason the sight
of his bitten-down, ragged fingers moving with such concentration brings
tears to my eyes. He keeps on working for many long minutes. Then, with
one final slice at the leg, he sets the dragonfly free. In silence we watch it
skitter off, a bit wobbly.
***
It's 3:00 a.m. and I'm unable to sleep.
Night sounds keep me awake: the swoosh of traffic, the occasional squeal
of tires, the click of the second hand circling the clock face, the pulse of
blood at my temple thudding against the pillow. Night sounds and my
thoughts.
"Would you love me more if I didn't have tics?" Stephen demands when
I come to tuck him in. His eyes are swollen and damp.
It's a question I've been expecting a long time and one I have vowed to
answer honestly. But why does it have to be tonight?
Stephen and Sarah have spent the whole day fighting over the cat. It
went like this: Every time Stephen saw the cat, he felt compelled to touch
her; and every time Sarah saw Stephen touch the cat, she felt compelled to
pick her up. Which sent Stephen off to touch the cat again. After hours of
this Sisyphean struggle Stephen finally shrieked, "Don't you get it? It's my
tics. I have to touch the cat last."
Now it's bedtime and my body is limp with exhaustion. All I want is to be
asleep. To not think. I sigh.
"Answer me. Would I be a better person?"
"Not better," I hedge. "Different." How to explain what I don't even fully
understand myself? I reach for his hand but he pulls it away. Next I try to
smooth out the creases on his forehead.
"Stephen, it's impossible to subtract the tics from who you are. Your tics
make you—" I pause, searching for the right word, 'You."
'Yeah, a crappy me."
Behind Stephen's head is a patch of bare wall where he's peeled off the
wallpaper in the shape of Mr. Mole, and something else, perhaps a pot of
candy. Spread across his bed are several action heroes, duct-taped together
and spray-painted gold, their hands linked as if they're astronauts floating in
space. On his dresser top are the many jars filled with his murky potions.
42 'Your tics make life hard," I say at last. 'Very hard. But they've also given
you a gift. Your creativity. Look around. It's everywhere."
I reach for his hand and this time he lets me. "I don't want to change you.
I love you the way you are."
"Really?"
"Really."
***
A huge harvest moon bearing the haughty upturned face of Alfred
Hitchcock follows us, surveying our journey. We're heading out to a friend's
cottage, driving down Highway 59, listening to the hits of the fifties, sixties,
and seventies, the only music my golden oldie car radio can pick up. In the
back, Sarah has fallen asleep, her head slumped against Stephen's shoulder.
The cloud of despondency that's been hanging over us has lifted; in fact,
tonight we are almost giddy. Stephen's tics are still present, but in such a
mild form we hardly notice them. Maybe the meds have finally kicked in, or
maybe it's just the nature of his tics. Waxing and waning. I don't know why.
All I know is they'll be back.
Three songs in a row—"These Eyes," "Eight Days a Week," and "Hang
on Sloopy"—rasp into the car, crackling with static. I sing along in a schmaltzy
falsetto and at the end, give a brief drum roll on the dashboard.
"And now, the million dollar question. What do these songs all talk about?
The clock is ticking."
"I know," Stephen answers eagerly. "I know. Love."
"Is that your final answer?"
'Yeah. Isn't it always about love?"
***
The house is quiet except for the rattle of the refrigerator and slash of ice
rain against the window. Now that Christmas break is over only the cat
makes demands, jumping onto my newspaper to remind me her food dish
stands empty. I scratch her ears, my fingers finding all the itchy patches as
she rotates her head in small circles. But I'm not paying attention.
Instead I'm looking at a picture taped to the kitchen door that Stephen
made when he was six, the year his tics first surfaced. It's a picture of a
garden, painted on black construction paper, and although most of the
black has been wiped out by bold oblongs of orange, blue, white and green,
its presence still lurks in a thin black line crayoned around each shape. It's
a spring garden. In it oddly humanesque flowers wave a shy greeting, small
plants peek out and beckon, and many-tentacled trees eagerly hold aloft
buds swollen and ready to burst open. And as I sit listening to the smack of
ice pellets, I wonder what this garden will look like when it's in full bloom.
43 Aislinn Hunter four poems
The Panchen Lama
Somewhere in a room without windows
the Panchen Lama sits
imagining the time of day, remembering
the fall of light across his mother's face
the afternoon the soldiers took them,
how she had to close her eyes against it,
sunlight coming in through the canvas flap
at the back of the truck, the dust
from the road catching in their throats.
This is grief and something else—
a longing that exists outside the body
it is the way birds want to be the wind
they pass through, the way we hold
what we cannot contain.
The room is cold and the Panchen Lama shivers.
He is just a boy from a small village,
a child without means to count the years.
Later he might remember
44 the number of times birds settled on the roof,
how the cooing pigeons calmed him, he might
go back to the one day they led him out
into the back garden, how there were colours
blooming there he thought he'd never seen.
Away of accounting, each petal
reinvented in his mind, the whole
of a single flower months in the making,
a face from the village a matter of years.
He knows they will never free him
and they cannot kill him, he is given just enough—
the sounds of birds, wind storms, a door that opens
when the woman comes to feed him,
a glimpse through the window in the room beyond.
Outside he knows there are knots of long grass,
a dirt path that heads towards the city
and somewhere foothills
that ache upwards, out of themselves,
turning in the far distance to mountains.
45 Mendel's Garden
The garden is a language, an old tongue he is trying to learn—
stigma, stamen, sepal, the pure red of the petals in front of him,
Mendel in the far beds behind the monastery, saying the words
over and over again, a latinate hymn, an invocation,
campanula, matthiola, fuchsia; the bright eyes of God watching him.
A carpet of flowers this summer, the garden ready to burst,
the bees burrowing themselves in the throats of flowers,
the cloister wall hidden behind the climbing rose bush.
He is avoiding the greenhouse.
The garden peas give him nothing these days but grief.
And he is always on his knees in there, has spent half his time
at the monastery leaning over, tying pea stalks to lattice,
measuring their growth, reseeding them, transplanting,
whole generations the work of his hands.
This is penance, a desire for order in a chaotic world,
or his own petition, day after day watering the plants
as if he could coax them out of their dark secret.
His hands on them, his breath on them,
but in the evening he goes to bed with their scent on him,
sweet must, wet earth, remnants of pollen. Pisum sativum,
pedicel, placenta, in his dreams the garden peas
climbing up towards the glass ceiling of the green house.
There is no one else to do this work, no one with the patience,
they are only peas to them. But Gregor sees something else,
how like us they are, savouring the comfort of the womb,
but born anyway, into their own ingenuity, variation,
the propagation that is almost speech.
46 Vision of My Mother as Saint
Catherine
She is ten or eleven, standing in the playground,
a blue fluted summer dress, hands in pockets
watching the other girls as they grab the rusted railing,
dig their sneakers into the sand,
push the merry-go-round until it's really spinning.
She has ridden it too, in the park after hours,
coming across the street with her sister
who pushes faithfully while she holds the bars,
leans out as far as she can, the whole of the park
turning into a blur of field and trees.
It takes concentration but sometimes she can see
the street lights leaning in the distance
the playground swings anchored in their stillness,
the sand box as open as a grave
and her own tenebrous fate,
a boy who will change her, who will take her
even though this is all she might ever want—
this reeling, the feeling she gets stepping down
as if this world is no place for her, as if it cannot hold her,
how walking she barely touches the ground.
47 Distance
We are standing in an old metal shed
on the hill behind the monastery.
Twenty feet away the friar who built it is buried,
along with the old cat who'd followed him in
from Lumsden one winter, begging for scraps.
There is a telescope here and a cut-a-way
in the dome of the shed, the night sky a swath
above us, the Perseid meteors skimming across it
like the stones we tossed over Old Wives Lake
that summer when I was four and you were ten,
and the spear grass grew up past my shoulders.
A group of us huddles around the telescope,
near-strangers moving closer for warmth.
The wind coming over the field rattles the walls,
the odd tin flex sounding out like made-for-tv thunder
while the astronomer shows us star clusters,
binary twins, a bright nebula uneven and blurry
like an oblong birthmark set against newborn skin.
Then he names the near galaxies, recites distances,
the number of years it takes a point of light to reach us.
48 It will take me two hours to get to Saskatoon
if the roads are clear, although I can count the number
of times I've turned around, the miles between us,
the fields fanning out between farms,
the porch lights like familiar constellations.
The stars know nothing of this, how we get to these
awkward orbits, how we once stood outside this shed,
two months married, eyeing the perigee of the moon.
The door of the shed has been left open, and outside
brome and meadow turn under September,
grassland bending into itself as far as the eye can see.
I walk towards the car knowing the impassable
still stands between us, and for the first time
I can measure the distance from this patch of prairie
to everywhere else I have ever been.
It is that dark stretch bridging stars, the fields
of wheat heading into the night around me;
those stalks leaning over in the fist of wind.
49 Rick Maddocks
White Plastic Chairs
Perhaps the road had always been dirt. Either that or a slow slide of
earth and vegetation had settled over tarmac and left behind a new
road entirely. It was now nothing more than a narrow swath of mud
cut into the side of a small valley. A steep embankment reached up on one
side and on the other the land fell down and away just as steeply into a
tangle of trees, underbrush and thorns. In the middle of the road, sunk into
a deep puddle, was a rented hatchback of indiscernible make. White once
upon a time, it was splattered almost to the roof with mud and its wheels
were half-submerged. The driver's door swung open and a pair of legs
emerged, jeans and new white running shoes that hung there above the
puddle until their owner thought better of it and drew them back into the
car.
"Maybe not." The man laughed awkwardly, reaching unsuccessfully to
bring the door to. The young woman sitting beside him pretended not to
notice. She wiped the window free of condensation and stared through the
wet smear at the embankment beside her. Brush and trees, green and
black and dripping.
"Sorry," the man said. "I didn't catch that."
The woman closed her eyes and then turned a quick glare at his long,
serious face. A camel's face. High forehead, thinning blond hair. He raised
his eyebrows self-consciously, hoping perhaps for a smile, but she merely
glared at him. "Maybe not," she said.
"That's what I said."
She turned back to the window.
"Here we go," he sighed.
"Where?"
"No." He gripped the steering wheel and levelled a look at her. 'You
know what I mean."
"Whatever."
When she turned away again she met herself in the window's reflection.
Delicate features, black eyelashes that were sure, complete as her blueblack
hair. Past her own image she saw him smiling to himself, as he often did
when he was angry. He drummed the steering wheel lightly. Patches of
moisture shone on the moulded grey plastic. "So," he said. "What do you
propose we do?"
50 'We?" she asked the glove box.
"Uh-huh."
"We didn't want to take this trail in the first place. We were on the highway back up there, where it's paved and flat and it's got yellow lines down
the middle, like every other road around here except this one. You had to
take this joke of a scenic route, even though—"
"First of all," he said in a calm, patronizing tone proven to make her blood
boil, "there are plenty of dirt roads around here. More than you can count.
Second," a finger rapped the steering wheel, "this is the only way to get
there and it always has been the only way to get there ever since I can
remember, unless you count parking beside the highway and wading
through two miles of forest and swamp with all our gear on our backs a
better way to get there."
"And the difference now being...?"
He sat back and nodded, looked over at her once, twice. After a minute
he said, "I like your glasses. Pushed up back in your hair like that, they
make you look, I don't know, debonair."
She gazed out the window. "That wasn't a compliment."
They both sat for some time inside the silence of steady drizzle, the
still-clicking engine. The man shifted in his seat. This silence of hers a
physical, palpable presence. "Hysterical silence."
"Huh?"
'You've mastered the art of hysterical silence."
She brightened suddenly and said, "Hey, that's pretty good. I like that."
The man reached out and pulled the door handle. The door slammed
shut with such violence that the car sank even further down in the mud.
Panicking with the key, he tried the engine again, working the gas, but
when the car made no headway he swore to himself and shut the engine
off.
'You happy now?" she said.
"Nope."
"Me neither."
After a minute the man nodded at the sodden bend of road before them.
"My sister killed a deer here once."
The woman was surprised but she spoke flatly. "Did she drown it?"
"Ha ha," he said. "No. One night she's coming up to the cottage with her
boyfriend du jour, Ward. He's driving his pick-up, a red Jimmy, I think. A
deer darts out of the brush and before Ward can lay on the brakes, he
broadsides it. It's all over the front of the truck, blood splattered against the
windshield, carcass hanging off the grill by one hoof. So there's Kath standing in the road a minute later watching Ward get his hunting knife out and
start cutting away the deer. The hoof's wedged so tight in the grill, it's not
going anywhere, so he has to cut the foreleg just above the hoof. Kath's
51 white as a ghost when she gets back to the cottage. But Ward just starts
raving to me and my parents: You know the crazy thing about it? It didn't do
any damage to my truck! Not a dent!' he says. 'And good thing I got a red
paint job on her last week!'"
"That's so sad," the woman whispered. She was staring into the dripping
trees once more.
'Yes," he laughed, tired. "Sad." It was a word she used often, and her
penchant for it had become an old joke between them, or at least for him,
until he'd become bored of it "They broke up soon afterwards," he said.
"Because of the deer?"
"No," he said. "Because he was an idiot." He nodded toward the left side
of the road, where the land fell away sharply and the thin torsos of birches,
their scars wet black, filled the grey air before misted flat farmlands. 'The
bones are still down there somewhere," he said. "If you go over there now,
slide down the hill a few yards, clear away some of the undergrowth, you'll
find that deer's skeleton picked clean, perfect. Ribcage like a white hull of a
boat, ants and potato bugs busy on it..."
'Very nice," she said. 'Very cinematic. Especially the first scene with
the truck. Present tense, etcetera. Kind of morbid though, eh? And the last
bit—what would that be, an epilogue or just a voice-over? Black-and-white
or sepia, do you think?" Then she added sharply, 'Would that require any
research?"
He shot her a look. 'Very funny. Well, I'm sure you'd do a better job. It's
your territory."
"No, no," she smiled against the meanness tightening her chest. "This is
your territory. Remember?"
His eyes flashed emptiness, the same eyes that pretended not to catch
hers back in their apartment, what was it, two months ago now? She'd come
home early from work and found the front door unlocked. She stepped
quietly into the hall, her ears pricked up. She heard the hum of a computer,
and this caused her to relax somewhat. He was probably home, yet there
were times when he would go out and leave the computer on because he
always said it took more electricity to reboot than to leave on for hours. So
she stepped lightly down the hall, peering into the living room, bathroom.
Nothing. When she reached his office she could hear the computer crunching; she breathed a sigh and stood in the doorway and was about to say hi
when she saw naked bodies frozen on the screen. Women tied up and
hanging from walls, crouched on chairs, their legs open, leather straps and
buckles. He was totally absorbed. Both his hands were on the desk, one
holding the mouse. The next site he clicked on was a gallery of pictures.
Each photograph was too small for her to make anything out, and for that
she was grateful.
She tried to clear her throat but nothing came. She stepped forward and
52 was going to speak when he turned slightly and his eye caught her just
quick enough for it to seem that he hadn't seen her at all. He gave a fake
stretch, turned back to the screen and shook his head. "Sick," he said. He
exited the internet window and turned around with a sad smile, still shaking
his head when he looked at her in the doorway. "Oh," he said. 'You're
early."
"What are you doing?"
He looked back at the computer. 'What? You mean...?" And he laughed.
"I guess it looks bad, doesn't it?"
'Yes," she said. "It looks bad."
'Yeah," he nodded.
He told her he was doing research, for a new screenplay. She would
have found this scenario amusing if she hadn't been the one walking into
the room. What happens, she asked, and before he could answer, she said
of course, it's about a man whose wife catches him looking at porn, and he
tells her he's doing research, right, for something he's working on, right?
He stammered something that she couldn't recall, and he kept on talking
about it long after she was finished and wanted to forget about it. All she
remembered him saying was, 'Yeah, but we're not married." She was sickened but most of all she felt sorry for him. She spent the night turned to
the bedroom wall, curled up in silence.
And now here he was, with her, in this stranded car, talking about chairs of
all things. "Even here," he said. "It's getting worse. After the sun goes
down, it's a little creepy, sort of primal. Some cottages are getting burned
down. An elderly woman was attacked last summer in her home. Other
times it's just theft. My folks are worried because they decided to get
Adirondacks custom-made the end of last summer, put the old white plastic
chairs away..."
She frowned.
"Adirondacks," he said. "Nice wooden slatted chairs with curved backs.
They're popular around here, give the old folks something to be excited
about, you know, take their minds off death." She watched his face change,
loosen with the chairs, but then harden again.
'What are you talking about?"
"I don't know, I was just—"
"Why are you even bringing me here?" she said. 'You don't even like me
anymore."
"What areyou talking about?"
She searched his face. 'You need help." She tugged her blue rain slicker
out from under the bags in the back seat and got out of the car. She struggled the coat on, trying to keep her face blank. Breathless and cold, she
stood beside the car for a minute and stared at his blurred face before
53 turning away. She stepped up on the steep incline, slipped, and then groped
for rain-blackened vines and ferns and fescu grass. Stripping branches clean,
their leaves balled up in her fist and then released, falling without a flutter
quick and wet to earth.
He got out after her. 'What are you doing?" he laughed, his face unbelieving. She slipped down and her face scratched against the torn root of a
birch, her royal blue coat smeared brownblack. "Hey!" he shouted. 'You all
right, babe?"
"Fine, thank you," she said firmly, struck by her absurd politeness, the
way she brushed back her hair from her face in a fussy, practiced manner.
They had almost always been polite to one another. "Stupid," she laughed
to herself.
'What was that?"
"Stupid!" She tore out a clump of ear th and threw it blindly at him. "I said
stupid!"
She slipped three more times on her way up the slope and then came to
understand that for the whole climb she'd be falling down and that perhaps
this was what she had always done and always would do, but no sooner had
she resigned herself to this probability than she stopped falling and grabbed
onto another vine as if it were the next rung of a ladder, and her rhythm
became steady and assured, her breath distant yet in unison with this grasping hand on bark, this foot planted in earth. Like the breath she heard last
night when she woke from dreaming she was on a mountain path where
she was afraid that if she looked across the valley at the sun it would wake
her. Stirred from sleep by a muffled cry in the next room, how she got out
of bed, climbed over the rumpled sheets where his body had been when
she'd fallen asleep. She pushed open the bedroom door that had been
carefully brought to and she heard the garbled mess of sound and every so
often a sharp static belch and then a woman's voice moaning, her breath
rhythmic and hollow and a yeah that curved up at the end then crying,
'Yes, ah fuck, yesss..." And a low grunt in delayed response, sparse, almost
methodical, until he moaned over and under the woman's squeals, and she
walked into the living room aflicker with sick green light, an oil slick on
screen, flashes of red with static and the naked bodies melted and distorted
grinding one another like ripe sinuous orange dogs on the scrambled television channel and there he was on the couch with a blanket pulled up to his
shoulders and she could see his knees were drawn up too and he wore a
dull, blood-thumped look on his face, fast asleep.
Before she knew it she was at the crest of a hill. She looked back down,
almost straight down, and saw him standing by the car, gazing up through
the bracken, his open mouth the only visible feature inside the dark green
hood. As if it were the only rational thing left to do, he looked down at his
running shoes, submerged in the puddle, then began a slow, clumsy jig,
54 ploshing about on the spot, his arms and legs jerking mechanically up and
down. When he looked up the hill again, she was gone.
She came up to the crest of the hill and, over a driftwood fence, there
was the highway which traced the edge of a small lake pewtered and pockmarked with rain. Across the lake, on the far shore she could make out the
warm orange windows of cottages, their muffled mirrors on the water, the
odd pier here and there, and a washed-out margin of sand that curved
around the water. Here the water was muddy grey yet still wore a dull
sheen, more alkaline than anything, glugging up a milky grey froth against
the reeds that blotted out any hint of sand. There were no birds. Sad. The
word fluttered on her mind, comfortable, familiar. Dark had eased itself
slowly down, bringing a quiet meanness to the air, a cold that seemed to
settle into the earth, as if some vessel up there, holding all the sky's low
pressure, had suddenly capsized and sent its cargo plummeting down here
to the bottom. And suddenly she was afraid, not of the creatures lurking out
there. Out there it was only humans and no other creatures. No deer, no
birds, no fish serene under waters, not even insects, only humans, gathered by the thousands in stadiums watching other humans. Humans talking on cell phones to humans. Humans watching other humans in various
positions. There were only humans. Humans naked in a field, not knowing
what to do.
She crunched along the shoulder until there, straight ahead, a building
loomed in the rain, its form melding with a dark ridge of deciduous trees. A
squat steeple fluttered among the leaves, dark upon dark. She rushed
across a muddy gravel parking lot to the archwayed entrance but before
she started up the steps she saw it was boarded up and not only the door,
but the whole arch was meanly shut away, though the plywood was half
rotted. She grasped a chewed shard of wood, ready to tear it all out plank by
plank and huddle inside, but then let her arms drop, no more dramatics
today.
She circled the church, solid red brick as so many edifices were in this
old region. From the outside it still appeared to be in perfect condition, yet
every window and door was boarded up. Behind the building she came to a
small graveyard which held once-white tombstones. Rain was a hush over
the ceiling of trees and there was the murmur of insects too, calming her a
little, and in the muted light cobwebs shone gossamer, one laced in her way,
another hanging straight down, a sliver of leaf twirling quickly on its end.
The fungus-ridden stones wore archaic, mystic phrases like 'Too Good for
This World" and "On High" and "Gone Home." A pioneer cemetery, no
doubt No sooner had this conclusion formed in her mind than she stepped
upon a mound of loose earth and, looking down, she realized it wasn't earth
at all but a bundle of fur, soft and hollow. She shuddered and jumped back.
It was a sodden and dirty thing, all colour washed out of it, a shag rug, or a
55 blanket perhaps. She felt sick to her stomach and before she knew it she
was running, over gravel and puddles, back along the side of the road.
The highway curved along the rim of the lake, towards those warm
squares of orange light. There was no traffic to be seen or heard and she
soon found herself quickening her pace against the rainy silence, slipping
in the matted-down grass beside the highway. She didn't know for how long
she kept up this speed, running at times, but as in dreams, her progress
never seemed to realize itself, so the lights of the cottages were as far away
as they'd been five, ten minutes before, and it was only when she heard the
streaming hiss of car tires on the highway behind her that she slowed
down, not wanting to draw attention to herself though she was a woman
dressed in a bright blue raincoat alone on a country road at night.
She slowed to an absurdly nonchalant walk. The car flicked on its high
beams, her shadow cut like a black diamond against the white grass. She
stiffened and pulled the coat tighter to her chin. The car slowed beside her
and out of the corner of her eye she saw a figure lean over from the driver's
side and roll down the passenger window. 'Wanna buy a car, lady?"
She looked down at the gravel shoulder. "I'm fine, thank—"
"Aren't you cold?"
Her gaze met the driver's eyes. He was smiling at her, his eyebrows
raised beseeching, and her heart sunk gently. "I'm always cold," she said.
'You know that."
"Please, babe," he said. "Jump in. I drove it out of the swamp special."
The car was now almost black with mud, spattered up over the windows
and even on the roof. It was a wonder he could see through the windshield
at all, let alone the back window. They would have to take it back to the
rental place in a week, but for now she found it impossible to hide her
surprise.
"How'd you get it out?"
"Piled a bunch of small branches behind the back wheels and—you
know that bag of charcoal Dad asked me to pick up? Dumped it out on them
and then I reversed out."
She frowned at his face, flushed, alive. She'd never seen him do a practical thing in the five years she'd known him. "It worked?"
He nodded happily. "First time. Okay, seventh time."
"Where'd you get that idea? Some movie?"
"Read it in a book," he said. "Research."
"Ha ha," she said, and climbed in.
"Don't dirty the—ah!" He shook his head at her mucky boots on the
floor.
'You've got to be—"
'Yeah," he said quickly, driving back out onto the rainslicked highway.
"I'm kidding." He pulled a U-turn so that he now drove back against the
56 grain from where she'd come. She gazed at him, exhausted, and slid down
comfortably in her seat. He told her she'd walked a good mile further than
his parents' cottage. There was no production in his voice. He merely drove
the short distance back in silence and pulled onto the highway's gravel
shoulder. He got out and started unloading some of their belongings from
the hatchback. After a minute she was wordlessly helping him, looping her
travel bag over her arm. "Don't forget the computer," he said absently. She
gave him a dull look before picking it up, along with the cooler. "Nuh-uh.
Not everything," he said. "We'll have to leave the rest till tomorrow."
She slumped under the weight, staring at him and his sudden take-the-
matter-in-hand manner. "Why?"
"We're going down there." His arms were full so he nodded toward the
trees, the same steep slope that had risen above the old road they were
stuck on before, yet now it fell away from them, sudden and dark and
absolute. She shut the hatchback hard with her elbow and then started off
first through the weeds and long grass. At the top of the embankment she
stopped and looked into the darkness below. She pulled the hood off her
head, but still she could see only dark, save for pinpricks of light distant
through the trees, perhaps the shimmer of another lake. "It's only a hundred yards or so," he said. 'You want me to hold your hand?"
She shrugged away. "I'm fine." She took a deep breath before starting
down the slope. Smell of thick dead leaves, sap, woodsmoke. She was
drawing beads on birches now, barely visible in the black as her boots
moved over twigs cracking, wet leaves squeaking, until she tripped over a
root or vine and fell forward, her face lashed by a branch, but he caught her
by her hood and she was nearly strangled, then she straightened up and
was back on her feet in a sudden miraculous jerk. "Fuck!" she shouted.
"Are you trying to kill me?"
'Yes," he said. His breath was warm at her ear. She leaned back, against
his chest, her breath ploughing through her. She took his hand then,
clammy like hers, and on the rest of the way down they fell, the both of
them, not once but three times. "Over here," he said. "This way," he said.
"Almost there." She followed him toward the warm lights of the cottage.
She heard an electric buzz nearby which, every few seconds, crackled
loudly. When they reached the bottom of the slope they had to jump a
murmur of creek. There, clear of the trees, they found the rain had stopped.
They crossed a glistening expanse of grass, sopping wet, which made no
difference in their sopping shoes. She saw something hanging from a small
tree up ahead. A phosphorescent purple rod, vertically housed in a thin,
long cage, that sparked brighter as they approached. "What is it?" she
whispered.
"Bug zapper," he said. The thing razzled loudly as if in response. As they
passed it she could make out a shimmer of insects circling, spinning, drawn
57 to the light.
"It's so cruel."
He put on a redneck voice. "Don't got those in yer big city now, do ya?"
It was her turn not to listen. As if he hadn't been living in the city for
years now and he hadn't said before coming here that every time he came
back it was as if it never really existed, that they merely brought out all the
props, recited the lines and once he was gone back to the coast he could
picture them packing up the sets, the backdrops, wiping off the makeup,
and as if she wasn't always struck by his perverse self-centeredness.
"Here we are," he said. She found herself laughing nervously. Beyond
the purple shaft of light she could see the bright screened-in cottage porch.
The figures of a man and woman rocked back and forth in a shared swing;
its rhythmic metallic grating rang through the air. The man said something
in a low, clipped voice and the woman let out a high, melodic bubble of a
laugh. Before them, in the light spilling off the porch, potted flowers flaunted
their bright, gaudy colours. And there, alongside them on the grass, luminous and perfect, sat a pair of white plastic chairs.
"Oh," he said. "The Adirondacks were stolen."
The couple in the swing froze. The old man's silver head perked up.
"Who's that?" A softened English accent. "Who's there?"
She had never met his parents before. She stopped in her tracks, so
suddenly that he bumped into her from behind, and she found herself
digging in her heels. "Its us," he called, laughing. She was surprised. She'd
expected him to say something strange, funny, because he'd told her his
family was all kidders, maybe it's just a deer. Even when he took her by the
arm and drew her gently toward the older couple now standing before the
porch swing, she expected him to say it but he only smiled in the low light
with his pale, encouraging face and said, it's us.
58 Susan Stenson
Blossom Count
The calendar plays tricks. It's February in Victoria and we count blossoms
before the temperature says it's too early, fools, who do you think you are?
With our heads down, shoulders braced, we calculate the crazy spring.
Japonica, yellow and dripping blossoms blatant and fixed in full-throated
light, singing look-at-me, look. The daffodils open in a fit of reaching—this is
a lie—surely, there will be frost, we say against the wind. This is an abrupt
and coloured season; a sun so strained in its morning dress and gumboots,
show the white legs shaved only last night. There will be women carrying
brooms to the funerals in summer. Thousands of brides have lost their
husbands to the backyard. These women want a warm bed, not the smell of
fresh-cut grass, not rows and rows of lilies and ornamental shrubs, not the
sore backs to treat with liniment, stained, good-for-nothing sheets.
59 Sam Generoux
Kitchen Poems
(Shungiku no Ohitashi)
Chrysanthemum Leaves
burnt
the eggs this morning
while I was dreaming of
toasted chrysanthemum
leaves
rolled up in your tongue
I dreamt my tongue
coated in dandelion oil
moved
like a spatula
across your
earlobe
60 (Sakura Gohan)
Cherry Blossom Rice
white bowl of
cherry blossom rice
hesitates
on the counter
balanced
the tongue wants
garlic
I want to swallow
cloves—whole—
like the fired hearts
of little birds
I want to
tear
salt-preserved
cherry blossoms
(including stems)
into small pieces
to grind this brain
like enokidake mushrooms
through grating teeth
& appease the stomach's growl.
61 (Ginnan no Kuzutoji)
Gingko Nuts in Thick Sauce
A light-catching
translucent
sauce
embraces the gentle green
of the
gingko nuts.
1. opening the window light stirred & reflected for a moment then
placed itself among the golden honey on yesterday's spoon.
2. remembering the green leaves of the ferns on the smooth almond
skin of the arbutus tree.
3. carefully watching,
what seems like the last raindrop slip
from a leaf
outside grandpa's window,
then running outside to play.
4. hissing the green head of a match turns red.
5. looking, with one eye, through the green glass of a wine bottle; my
idle pen on the table
bends—a child's illusion.
62 Patrice Melnick
Rearranging the Furniture
In one recurring dream I have, Formosan termites eat through the soft
wood of my house until the floors and walls weaken and collapse. I wake
up to feel my heart racing. The next day, my friend, Sarah, looks up
house images in her dream book and tells me that in dreams the house is
one's body. I imagine the HIV medicines I take nesting inside my body,
digging tunnels as they gnaw at the grain of my flesh, the veneer of my
skin.
***
I had just turned thirty-seven when I first noticed a single, pronounced vein
running down each of my arms. I realized that as my limbs grew thinner,
the veins bulged like raised termite tunnels and criss-crossed down my legs
like blue earthworm highways. On the backs of my calves appeared tiny
veins like inky office doodles or badly drawn tattoos. I wondered if these
veins were simply the ugly hereditary gifts of my mother, or was the infamous AIDS wasting syndrome kicking in?
"Nice veins," the hospital phlebotomist says when I have blood drawn.
She taps one vein on the inside of my arm, admires how it stands out, as if
offering itself to the needle. I have noticed that if I become dehydrated, my
veins stand out even more, as though the ebbing of an ocean of skin reveals
the life below. It's hard for me to drink enough water because I get bored
with the taste, so I drink lots of lemonade with mint to help the tide wash
back over the seaweed tangle of veins.
Meanwhile, my middle seems to thicken, but I am not positive if the
changes are caused by genetics, age, HIV, or the medicines; or perhaps
these are simply perceptions from my body-conscious, American, female
mentality.
***
I have been cleaning and decorating my 100-year-old New Orleans house in
an attempt to control something in my life, as if straightening, cleaning,
brightening, can improve my body, cover the blue veins, bring colour to my
cheeks and eyes. I rearrange paintings and wall hangings as though this
will counteract the effects of the drugs, make my limbs grow thicker and
my torso thinner. I have lived with HIV for twelve years and have somehow
managed to stay healthy—no Pneumosistis Pneumonia, Karposis Sarcoma,
63 Thrush or the other frightening diseases that have plagued so many, and
that I continue to fear. I have seen my T-cells rise significantly over the past
year, and fortunately the medicines have suppressed my viral load to
undetectable levels and I am grateful for these indications of good health.
But then I glance down at my calves and try to read the blue hieroglyphics,
possible side effects from years of taking nelfinavir, ritonavir, efavirenz,
abacavir, didanosine...
***
I admire the cut flowers in the centre of my dining room table. I like the way
the pink carnations look with the blue irises. I shift around the sunflowers
and baby's breath until the cluster of colour seems to radiate from the
middle of the room. Then my eye catches the article on lipodystrophy in
the copy of ProjectInform, an AIDS journal of medicine developments, that
lies open on the table. I had been reading it earlier while I ate lunch.
This article discusses the side effects of various HIV drugs. This is
when I begin to believe that my body is growing thinner as a side effect of
my medicines. The protease inhibitor class of drugs can cause lipodystrophy or "truncating," where the fat redistributes, like a glacial migration,
leaving the arms, legs, butt, and face thin, while the stomach and breasts
grow larger. But I thought I only imagined these changes until recently.
***
"After a break-up, first thing, rearrange the furniture," my oldest sister
Alicia advised over the telephone after my boyfriend moved out.
I put on a Talking Heads CD—More Songs about Buildings and Food. I
turned the volume up loud, percussion pounding to drown out my thoughts
as I shoved and dragged beds and dressers around on blankets.
Jud-y's-in-the-bed-room, in-ven-ting-sit-u-a-tions
Bob-is-on-the-street-to-day, scout-ing-up-lo-ca-tions...
It seems like a feminine urge to shape and reshape our bodies and
environment. I recently helped a friend haul a futon couch into her house,
all the way to the back room that she uses as a home office. It was quite
heavy and later we both had aching back muscles. When I returned the
next evening to watch a video with her, she told me that she had single-
handedly maneuvered that unwieldy futon back into the living room—she
didn't like it in the office. I laughed at her for being so particular with her
decorating scheme even if it meant she had to haul furniture alone. She
told me of a friend whose petite mother dragged a grand piano down a set
of stairs by herself. I imagined the picnic-robbing ants in cartoons, a single
one carrying a banana, twenty times his size.
I angled my bed across a corner and then shoved the chest of drawers in
64 front of the tall window. I slid the dressing table by the other window and
filled the empty drawers and shelves with all my stuff. I spread out my
books and clothes as heart-rhythms thumped steady in my head and chest
David Byrne and I chanted:
Here's-that-rhy-thm-again.
Here 's-my-shoul-der-blade.
Here's-the-sound-I-made.
Here's-the-pic-ture-I-saved.
Here-I-am.
I jumped up and down to the song, rolling my hips, and sing-shouting
while my large black Labrador retrievers turned in circles and bark, bark,
barked at me.
***
Every morning and evening I take the pills out of the little pill containers
that have days and times marked. I think of my late grandmother pushing
her pills into piles with a frail finger. The easiest to take are the small blue or
yellow capsules. The large coffin-shaped white chalky ones stick in my
throat The tiny pink ones shriek with bitterness, even if I wash them down
with Coca-Cola. First thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, I chew
four chalky, wafer-like double-quarter thick pills. I try to wash down the
sticky residue with water, as a river washes silt through a river bed. In my
drowsy state, I barely notice the nasty-sweet taste.
The pills have names that sound like insect species, and I imagine them
climbing about in the overgrown garden in my front yard:
"The winged Didanosine thrives in tropical climates, where it can be
seen partying in Spanish Moss."
"With powerful mandibles, the Efavirenze feeds primarily upon palmetto
palm stalks, and tastefully decorated old New Orleans homes."
"By injecting a nauseating venom, the Ziagen paralyzse its prey of beetles
or streetcar passengers, then taunts its victims before sucking dry their life
juices."
***
I remember, when I was a little girl, listening to my older sisters and mom
talking about their low-fat diets of fish and vegetables. My parents and
sisters all seemed overweight at one time or another. But I can't distinguish
the feelings from the reality. At nine years old, I felt excluded and would
stick out my stomach and mimic, "I'm so fat."
"Don't joke," my big sister Vikki said, "some day you may be." Perhaps
I associated diets with womanhood.
I grew up feeling fat though in retrospect I suspect I was always average.
65 But the small incidents cling to my imagination. I remember my dad noticing my plump stomach hanging over my corduroy jeans, and he suggested
that I needed to lose a few pounds. A worried look showed in my mother's
eyes one summer when she suggested I might want to go on a diet. "I don't
want you to become obese," she said, and that word, obese, frightened me,
implying that I would grow into a grotesque, fat-jiggling, ground-shaking
monstrosity. That night Mom invited me to go with her and Dad for ice
cream, and I remember resenting the mixed signals, but went anyway and
ordered a Swenson's pink peppermint cone rolled in chocolate jimmies. My
parents went out for ice cream almost every night in those days.
When I was twelve years old, my sister Alicia said that if I lost ten pounds
she would buy me a bikini, an idea that delighted me. I think I only lost
seven, but she took me shopping at J.C. Penny's and I wore that emerald
green bikini for two summers before I could no longer deny that my body
had developed out of it, no matter how tightly I tied the top. But most of my
adult life I always struggled with my cravings for rich foods like ice cream
and buttery rolls, which inevitably brought about thick thighs and a flabby
stomach.
When my long-term boyfriend had moved out, he left bare spaces on my
book shelves, in closets and drawers, the rooms of my house and in the
corners of my days, of my life. The break-up was a familiar one: after five-
and-a-half years together, I wanted something more permanent, and he
didn't. I asked him if fear of HIV kept him from staying. He said, "No," he
just wasn't ready to make a commitment So I asked him to move out which
he did quickly and efficiently.
About a month later, I looked into the bathroom mirror one morning,
and noticed the usual morning wrinkles that crease the left side of my face,
the side which I sleep on. Then I saw dark patches on my cheeks, as if an
impressionist painter had smudged a solid blue-gray patch beneath each of
my cheek bones. I tried to wash with soap and water, but the dark areas
remained. I thought the room too dark, so I turned on the overhead light,
then the lights that encircle my bathroom mirror, and I leaned closer, but
the dark shadows still clung to the chiseled landscape of my face. I didn't
understand. I knew I had been eating less in my new loneliness, and the
swampy summer heat robbed my appetite too. I had not yet turned on my
air-conditioner because the summer electric bills are very high in these
drafty old southern homes. I found my own drawn face frightening. This
sudden thinning was surely unnatural. Concern over weight loss was one I
had never experienced in my life. After all, as a young American female,
early on I had learned the mantra: Thinner is better, thinner is better, thinner is better. Was it time to learn to wear the makeup I'd shunned all of my
66 life, in a desperation to hide my real, hollow-cheeked face? My mind flashed
to the faces of evening news AIDS victims with their corpse-stares. Had my
face really become so emaciated, my head a skull with wild Halloween hair?
My own mortality stared back at me, with that sunken-eyed skull-face.
Eventually I sat down at the table and began a shopping list of fatty foods to
buy. In my frustration, I also began a list of house chores.
***
Take out the dust mop and sweep the soft dark clumps of dog hair into a pile
(there is hair enough to stuff a dozen pillows). Dust the shelves, file bills,
maps, travel brochures. Put photos in photo albums, put away letters, cut
and tape recipes onto file cards.
***
I have always wanted to be one of those women who can eat anything she
wants without gaining weight Although the first time I noticed myself thinning, my stomach sickened with alarm. I soon began the hedonistic eating
orgy of which I have always dreamed. I went out to Mexican restaurants
and ate cheesy enchiladas, chalupas, fried flautas and burritos and
chimichangas, and sopappillas dripping with honey. I ordered regular cokes,
spooned honey into my tea and munched popcorn with butter at the movies. I stocked my refrigerator with sour cream and cheeses. I stuffed Dove
dark chocolate ice cream bars in the freezer and munched greasy Zapp's
potato chips with my sandwiches. I didn't gain weight and have continued to
indulge. I devour delicious food with the same pleasure I take drinking in
vivid colours of cut flowers and the bright shades of paintings in my house—
I take it all in.
It seems that I have two contradictory inclinations. On one hand, I try to
keep control of the inside of my house as I try to control the disease and
the appearance of my body. And yet living in doubt of my future, I want to
indulge myself, to live my life as fully as possible for I crave delicious foods,
music, flowers, art and sex.
***
I had a fine date with a handsome man a few weeks ago and as he and I sat
on my couch, becoming romantic, I felt energized. He massaged my feet
and admired my cobalt-blue painted toe nails. He ran his piano-player long
fingers over my bare, tan summer-legs, complimenting my calves and thighs.
I felt a glow as he stroked my calves, felt as though the beauty of my home
flowed into my body that night. I hadn't yet told him that I was HIV positive;
he only knew that he was wooing me, could have no idea that he was
soothing a particular part of my body that I had begun to feel anxiety over.
He didn't seem to notice the blue veins. This sexy moment returned to me
the feeling of being vibrant, human, normal.
67 My old bras have become too snug, the next size larger a neat fit. Perhaps
if I were a skinny, small-breasted woman I would be grateful to fill out my
figure. But I already feel self-conscious. As I walk down the street, sometimes I believe I notice men staring at my chest and I feel like I am a sex
freak, a pair of breasts walking around on spindly legs.
A couple of years ago, when I was vacationing in Charlotteville, Tobago,
a native woman told me people in town had been discussing me, the American, noting how unusual it was that I was so small, with large breasts. I
imagined people laughing over glasses of rum in steamy bars, gossipy
women chopping fish and plantains at kitchen tables, sweaty, talkative fishermen in the market all talking about the body that I thought was personal,
mine. At times I feel like I am in one of those dreams where I am nude,
parading proudly in a florescent-lit shopping mall or hiding from co-workers
behind office furniture.
***
I primp and stare, feeling the deep creases in my face. I wonder if my worry
shows. I suppose it is a sign of progress when I am more concerned about
the effects the drugs have on my appearance than the effects of the disease—when I fret over my looks, instead of merely trying to cling to my
health, my life. Perhaps this vanity, brushing my hair in front of the mirror,
painting my toe nails bright colours, flaunting slender white sandals and a
glittering silver anklet, is a part of being alive. Or do I fixate on these superficial concerns to avoid thinking too deeply about the virus that courses
through my veins, and swarms throughout my body?
***
In casual conversation at work one day, I told Sandra, the secretary, that I
felt good, having written a poem. I admitted I had felt depressed the day
before.
'Why are you depressed, Trecie?" she asked pointedly. I realized I had
said too much and she knew something was wrong. I suspected she had
noticed my worried look and thinning body. I felt frightened at that moment, to be so vulnerable, so visible.
"I've just been tired," I told her. 'You can tell?"
'You wear it," she said, "you wear it."
I felt embarrassed, and wondered if she might think I wear my emotions
on purpose.
"People are worried about you," Sandra said. And I began to worry more
myself.
Later, that same week, a co-worker, Valerie, asked to speak with me
alone. I followed her into her office.
'Trecie," she said in a calm but serious voice, "I notice you've looked
68 distressed, you've lost weight"
I felt a desperate wish to hide at that moment. But I have never been able
to hide my feelings. I laugh loudly during Steve Martin movies, smile open-
mouthed during a spirited brass band performance, and grin into my partner's face when I Zydeco dance—but I cry easily when I feel sad. I was
afraid I would break into tears, and felt the urge to reassure her there was
no need to worry.
'Tell me what's wrong, please," she said as her kind brown eyes looked
into mine.
"I think it's just the heat," I said as I shifted in my chair. "I finally turned
on my air last week, shouldn't have waited so long."
"Well," she said as I got up to leave, "people are very concerned about
you."
With the word "people," I imagined small meetings where friends talked
about my body changes and once again I felt that nude-in-public-dream
feeling.
As friends and colleagues continued to confront me one by one, I felt
turned inside-out like a mango peel, my emotions exposed and pulpy. I
didn't know who to talk to or what to say. If I had discussed the ex-boyfriend, I would have burst into tears like a lovesick teenager, right there in
the office. If I had mentioned that I have HIV, I was afraid these concerned
friends would have panicked. And I wondered if others then would question
my ability to do my job. They might wonder if I was contagious, if they
should avoid sharing office space, pens, or a dessert over lunch. What
might my colleagues imagine as the cause of my subdued behavior and
weight loss? Clinical depression? Breast cancer? Ovarian cancer?
I felt a need to protect not only myself, but to protect others from worry.
I didn't want to be thought of as a person who burdens others with her
problems or craves attention and sympathy.
But the worries of others increased my own, and at the time, I didn't
know why I was thinning. Also, I was alarmed to have my appearance change,
during a summer when I was scoping out possible new romances at clubs
and parties, trying to fill the empty shelves in my love life.
***
Hang the beaded voodoo flags, polish the leather-covered coffee table, put
the green table cloth and straw placemats on the table, dust ceiling fan
blades, grandma's ship-wheel clock, and the stained-glass lamp, put marigolds in the cranberry glass, a rose in the glass bud vase, straighten pictures: Native American abstracts with bright cubist faces, huge 6x4 primitive paintings with blue people, fire-eyed dogs, burning buildings. Burn
"desert rain" incense, wash the dog-nose smudges off the windows.
69 Reverend Harris, next door, has Alzheimer's disease and a nurse takes
care of him every day. His wife, Mrs. Harris, is frail and stays inside the
house most of the time. The nurse and Mr. Harris sit on the front porch
together, but she gets restless, goes into the yard to push the lawn mower
and clip the edges of the lawn. One day she cut the new shoots of my rose
bush that grew through the chain-link fence into the Harris' yard. I glared
at her, told her that if Mrs. Harris didn't want the roses growing on her side
of the fence, I would be happy to put up a partition. But Mrs. Harris had told
me she didn't mind. I had been nourishing the bush by giving it fertilizer
and mulching around the roots. Whenever I cut the crimson buds to bring
into the house, I carefully clipped down to the junction as my mother had
instructed me, so that the bush would produce new growth. In my fury
over the snipped shoots, I considered putting up a trellis, or an ugly bamboo
fence between us. Maybe a gray cinder block wall.
"So sorry," the nurse said, but she didn't look sorry. She kept tugging at
untidy weeds by the front fence. I noticed she had even dug up the begonias and day lilies that had lined the Harris's house. As Mr. Harris sat strapped
in his wheelchair arguing with visions of deceased relatives, she stabbed a
pointed shovel into the garden, daring anything green ever to grow in that
soil again.
Nurse Kill-It-All squatted low to pull, clip and shovel, as she began to tell
me about her sick sister with liver cancer, and a nephew with sickle-cell
anemia. She said working in the yard gave her mind ease. Loose flesh
jiggled beneath her busy arms as she tugged and trimmed and clipped and
mourned hopeless situations that rooted in her mind. Meanwhile, she was
snipping the yard into a sharp-edged square, neat as a new placemat
She tried to cut back wild growth, to limit the green life, as I was trying to
nourish and promote new growth. However, I must admit, tropical plants
flourish out of control in my yard. Greenery grows and tangles as thickly as
an Amazon jungle. It might not be surprising to see an anaconda uncoil from
beneath the thicket of wild petunias, or to witness a jaguar peering down
from the roof through the dark rubber tree branches. An anarchy of white
ginger blooms seems to spring upward like a fragrant geyser. In the night
the sweet scents of the ginger, the night-blooming jasmine and the Angel's
Trumpet compete and overwhelm the air.
If I don't cut the grass soon, I thought, I might need a machete to hack
my way from my doorstep, through the small front yard and to my truck
each morning.
I decided against the cinder-block wall and Nurse Machete never clipped
at the shoots of my rose bush again.
***
In another dream, a tremendous thunderstorm pours water into my house
70 through the holes in the roof. I look for the phone number of the roofing
company that just installed the new roof, but can't find it. A worker had been
walking on the roof, and left piles of slate, the job unfinished. I feel angry
and helpless in this dream.
***
As a teenager, I attended an expensive, private high school with tall, slender, Vogue-beautiful girls. I thought of myself as plain and unfeminine. By
the time we were seniors, several of my friends had fought bouts of anorexia. I remember one girl as stocky and athletic, another full-faced and
beautiful. Then one by one, each began dieting, until their energy and
beauty had drained away leaving terribly thin, frail girls. I felt disturbed and
worried about them. As for me, on one hand I felt rebellious against the
pressure to always be thinner. And yet I, too, was haunted by the tall, waiflike ideal of beauty. This ideal crept into our minds as we flipped through
shiny glamour magazine ads, overheard the comments of our peers and
parents, and watched the popular high-cheek-boned beauties who sauntered about during morning assembly.
As I look at myself in a full-length mirror, my thick, self-image competes
with my concern over my skinny butt and legs. I can't remember how I
used to really look, or see how I look now, and I see image upon image like
a pile of transparencies, based on what I hear from my friends and family,
and what I think I see in the mirror, what I think I remember I looked like
years ago. My stomach has always protruded, like my mother's—is it more
distended now? My childhood friend Teresita says I've always had skinny
arms and legs, though I know the bulging veins are new. She says I just look
like I work out, and this thought comforts me. My mother has "chicken
legs" with blue veins. I can't distinguish with any certainty the results of
aging, drug side effects, my natural body type, depression over a lost love,
or my fickle memory and imagination.
***
I cover my legs with citronella bug repellant before I go outside to weed the
garden, trim night-blooming jasmine, wash the dogs and comb their fur so
they will shine. I transplant coral-blossom Angel's Trumpet, hang baskets
of yellow walking iris, baskets of fuscia desert rose, baskets of crimson
begonias. The small, tiger-mosquitoes buzz hungrily around my ankles.
***
In the summer that the boyfriend moved out, the summer of a sweaty
house, rearranged furniture, empty shelves and fresh hollows in my face,
I went to a small family reunion at my parents' house in Santa Fe, New
Mexico. I was nervous about the journey, wishing I could disguise the
diminutive self I had become, and hide from my parents and two sisters.
71 They, of course, knew of my having HIV for all these years, but I always felt
the impulse to protect them from difficulties such as a cold that lingered
too long or my fears of ending up in the hospital, or worse. Only with
hesitation would my mother ask about my health, and only reluctantly
would I offer information. I tried to tell her mostly of positive signs such as
rising T-cells or good health despite working with sickly colleagues during
flu season.
When I arrived in Albuquerque for the reunion, I walked past the crowd
of turquoise-jewelled strangers to the baggage claim carousel. My bag was
one of the last ones to come up the chute, and just as I hauled the strap over
my shoulder, my mom appeared. She approached with a smile but it looked
to me like her eyes were studying my face and body. She hugged me tight,
and then began complaining that my father made them late because he had
to stop at the post office to mail some packages, that Dad said it wouldn't
take very long, but it did. He was waiting in the red Nissan Pathfinder,
parked in the five-minute zone. Their Malamute mix, Stormy, was looking
out the back with dark-ringed eyes. Dad got out and hugged me, his beard
scratchy against my face. His pool-green eyes looked tired, surrounded by
a Sahara of wrinkles. Dad took my bag and put it in the back with Stormy.
The hour-long drive to Santa Fe was quiet, peppered by careful conversation.
"How was your flight? Uneventful, I hope," my father said.
"Fine," I said, as Stormy drooled on my shoulder.
"Those jeans got pretty loose on you," my mother said, glancing back at me.
"Lost some weight" I said.
'Wish I had that problem," Dad said as he whipped into the left lane and
sped towards Santa Fe. My father doesn't ask about my health often, nor
mentions any body changes that he may notice. He settles into a serene bed
or cloud of silence, broken by occasional questions or smart-ass comments.
As we talked I could hear strands of concern in my mother's voice even
as she chatted about the wildflowers that had bloomed in her yard. Over
the years, my mother has made only occasional inquiries into my health.
Mom described virtually every single gray jay, junco, bluebird, yellow warbler, gold finch, black-capped chickadee, and red-breasted grosbeak, that
had landed on her bird feeder in the past month as my father swung in and
out of lanes with his death-defying Indianapolis 500 driving style. Her bird
monologue was punctuated by an occasional gasp, which my father pretended not to hear.
Since this weight loss was uncharacteristic for me, I was glad for any
distraction.
We arrived at the house to the hugs, smiles and wise-ass cutting up that
my family revels in. But my sister, Alicia, changed the tone with, 'You've
lost a lot of weight."
72 My aunt looked me over, but she didn't appear concerned—she didn't
know I had HIV
I began to tell Alicia about the heat and humidity, but she wasn't listening, she never does. Her eyes filled with panic as she said again, 'You lost a
lot of weight, Trece."
I tried to use a casual tone to tell her about the boyfriend-depression, but
I knew she was thinking about AIDS.
Alicia led me into the back bedroom and shut the door.
"It's the drugs that do this," I said. "They make me lose weight, Alicia.
My doctor doesn't know what to do about it."
'You know, working out with weights can help with wasting..." she interrupted.
Then I became angry that she dared use that word "wasting"—a word I
associate with AIDS, hospitals, dying. I was annoyed that she didn't hear
my explanation and we retreated into a familiar, stubborn, sisterly standoff,
this time born of concern, fear, frustration, and love.
We seemed so far from the day she had rewarded me with that bright
green bikini. "Thin" used to mean healthy, beautiful and successful in my
family, but now it suggested "AIDS Victim," even if that wasn't exactly the
case.
***
"Look at this," I show my doctor the veins in my legs.
He notices the veins on my calves, as well as the deep lines etched in my
face. We spend little time discussing my T-cell count, which has risen from
139 to 278 in the past year, and viral load remains undetectable. I beg for
solutions to these body changes.
My doctor nods, but doesn't have an answer. Researchers don't know
the reasons for the lipodystrophy and there is even some controversy over
exactly which drugs, or drug combinations cause this wasting effect. He
tells me about some studies that will begin in the coming months, and then
hesitantly suggests I try eating more fats.
"I do," I say, and then run through the list of Mexican foods I have been
devouring.
He smiles at my pleasure.
But I am still frustrated by my appearance, and I don't tell him about my
growing urge to attract handsome men into my life—it is not always food
that I crave.
***
Glue arm back on the kachina doll, polish cypress fireplace mantles (1/3
linseed oil, 1/3 turpentine, 1/3 vinegar), wipe down baseboards, wash underwear, wash, dry and fold clothes, iron skirts, run the dishwasher and
put away plates, scrub soap scum off the royal blue bath tiles.
73 I planted seedlings at the start of the summer, and now I have three sunflower plants, only one of which is blooming yet. That one has a large black
disk center and blazing yellow petals. The marigolds are just about to open,
and a hanging basket overflows with hot pink portulaca. I have piled cedar
chips in the front garden to keep the soil moist.
I brought home a full bouquet from the store—there are not yet enough
blooms in the garden to cut. I fuss over getting the right balance of reds and
yellows and blues in the vase. In some ways my life feels like borrowed
time and I find myself hungering for the sensual, the fabric of life. Perhaps
this uncertainty makes me more selfish and determined to live life more
fully. I crave a heightened sense of experience and I want to devour colours,
flavours, music, textures, scents, the factors that make me more human. I
hunger to be as alive and as human as possible by experiencing and feeling
as much as possible.
***
When I was in 8th grade, I drew a collection of pen and ink drawings, which
I showed to my art teacher, Mr. Skora. He complimented the line quality.
One of the drawings was of an electrical outlet with vines and feathers
growing out of the sockets. Mr. Skora said he thought the drawing represented my sexuality coming forth. He explained that an outlet represented
female anatomy, and said the plants represented my blossoming sensuality. At fifteen, I blushed and discounted his explanation, it was just a cool
drawing to me. But now, I feel that I am that outlet with electricity and
greenery springing forth out of my life. I believe this sensitivity, sensuality,
sexuality, makes me feel most alive. And I hope to keep the power flowing,
like the blood in my veins, despite threat of illness, like power surges.
With the improvement of my health, my demands for quality-of-life grow
like the cries of a spoiled child: I want a smooth face, and bigger legs and
arms. I resent the blue squiggle veins. I suppose I am trying to postpone
mortality and hold onto my life and youth long enough to embrace a future.
I think this hunger for life causes me to let the yard bloom and become
a mass of tangled growth in the summer rains. I crave the flavours of rich
delicious foods, and wish to fill my home with bright colourful flowers. I feel
appreciative that I can enjoy the beat of Samba music blasting from the
stereo speakers, and the scent of night-blooming jasmine oozing in through
the doors and windows. I feel driven to dance around my kitchen singing
loudly as I stir a pot of curried lamb. I want to smell spices and incense, feel
the touch of rose petals, or a man's hands massaging the bottom of my foot.
I think this greed is a natural tendency for me. When I think of the HIV
hiding silently inside my body, my drive for life intensifies until I am immersed in the heat and colours of a life that I adore.
74 matt robinson
i imagine middle age;
paint with my hands
—the small brown, unlocked luggage
that's completed its work in this world.
—Albert Goldbarth, "Suitcase Song"
the small, brown unlocked luggage
of the plot (that has, for the moment,
stopped its wormy tumbling at the edge
of this backyard garden—clotted briefly,
like the urgent seething tangle of passengers
leaving a railcar at the end of the broken
concrete platform at the end of a long, dry
voyage) is intriguing, it begs questions with
its haphazard spilling and clumping, it seems,
at first glance, used up—like something
that's completed its work in this world—
like the shade of brown that results, when, as
a child, one would mix all the paints together
in an attempt at creation, and now my hands
are still, years later, filthy, soiled not with
an experimental innocence, but instead with
the dogged clawing of years, i have convinced
myself i need to plant, to nurture something,
before (for all the earth, concrete, and drying
skin) i can no longer distinguish my hands.
75 Michael de Beyer
Saturday Ventures, East
The way the butcher's daughter
scrapes the sweat from the meat
is an art. Noon in the market. Fresh
brushed teeth. The stink of cheeses.
Here, in the crux of the L,
I'm waiting for you. My own bag
a bag of potato blues.
And hearing your voice there,
from the squash wagons, buried deep
within the fleshy meat of the fruit.
76 Bibiana Tomasic
Our Three Autumned Sons
Grey air approaches as it must. It is time to undress
into the leaves, lie supine under the turning dogwood.
In rain, all five of us disintegrate into the memory
of this season when Opa died, when one of us tried to.
Regardless of how we worked to protect you, your father
and I pressed fallen leaves into your hands as a baptism,
placed the papery thin smell of death on your tongues
as communion. Unintentionally, but with trust prolific
as lemon balm, in a green and gangly faith,
we made you human.
77 Bill Gaston
Comedian Tire
Buddhism says there's no beginning nor end to suffering, so in that
sense there's no beginning nor end to this story—which is also
about how humour lives in the very heart of suffering, and pops up
like a neon clown from its big black box.
The background to the story involves my brother, Ron, who a year ago
at age fifty had a stroke. He survived with huge holes in his memory,
dragging a foot, slurring, and utterly pissed off. Apparently strokes at his
age aren't so rare. But, though he's ten years older than I am, in the ugly
stew of emotions his illness brewed for me, one of the worst was a sense of
my own mortality. And then my guilt at that. Watching him limp around in
morbid despair, how could I possibly think about myself? But he looks like
me. At the root of myself I felt my own death.
A month ago it got worse. Ron had a series of heavier strokes, was now
truly demolished, dying—could die at any time from a next stroke—and
was placed in extended care with elderly people who are similarly bedridden and waiting for death. Ron can no longer walk, talk, control his bowels, eat on his own. I can see he recognizes me, but my arrivals lift his spirits
not one bit. Waiting for the final oblivion, he stares at game shows with the
other, older residents, unable to ask someone to please turn off this pap
and stick in a decent movie. Or whatever. I don't know if he could follow a
movie, or if he wants one, but from his eyes I know that he hates what he's
watching, the canned laughter filling the room and its dying, demented,
warehoused bodies.
With Ron in Vancouver, and me on the Island, my monthly planning
involves working out when next I can steal two days to ferry over and visit.
Kyle's soccer tournaments, our baby daughter Lily, my wife Leslie's work
schedule, not to mention my own; plus dentists, doctors, barbeques—all
fight my attempts to get over and see Ron, who I don't really want to see,
and who maybe doesn't want to see me either. Add to this mix my car—an
'89 minivan—which lately had been stalling. My wife Leslie has demanded
a tune-up for some time now, using the words "dangerous" and "Lily" in the
same sentence. In my list of things to do, underlined was the note, Fix van,
visit Ron.
I'm within walking distance of one of those red and white retail establishments with the red garage bays, and I took it there for that reason. I'd heard
78 general warnings about the place, but in other cities I'd gone there for basic
servicing and nothing bad had come of it, aside from being dinged the
expected unexpected extras. Lots of cars sat out front waiting to get in, a
good sign. The van needed a tune-up is all, and anybody with dirty fingernails can do a tune-up. I asked the man behind the counter for an oil change,
and tune, and to call me if they found anything big. Maybe I could catch the
ferry that night, visit Ron in the morning, then stop by his apartment and
load up. That was part of the reason I was avoiding this next visit Ron would
not be going home again and his apartment needed cleaning out. He would
no longer be needing his clothes, furniture, CDs. My parents were pressing me. Either I come pick up his stuff or they'd "just go put it out in the
street." I didn't want to go and sort through his stuff because then I would
have to think about Ron. My connection to Ron.
Ron, you see, is a hard-assed guy. A racist right-winger. We've never
agreed on much. We've used our age difference as an easy excuse not to
talk. But to put Ron in a nutshell: when I was nine, and he was nineteen, Ron
went to the States and enlisted to fight in Vietnam. (Over a thousand Canadians actually did that.) I vaguely recall him talking about "gooks," and remember thinking the whole idea pretty cool as I marched off with my
crooked stick to shoot at shadows in the woods behind the house. Though
he didn't see action he returned as gook-hating as ever, despite the peace
movement in particular and the Age of Aquarius in general.
In the years we both lived at home, I never did get to know him well. I
remember closed doors, lots of being ignored, a few bored shoves when I
got too close. Years later, smirking, he bought me and my friends our first
case of beer. In fairness I'll add that he was never unkind to my mother, and
he had the sense to keep quiet about my father's summer in Kelowna. Ron
and I communicated with severe, silent eye-contact over that one, and I
believe that's as intimate as we ever got.
It's been hard to admit to myself that I'm in no hurry to see him again,
my own brother. The last time I visited extended care it was excruciating to
watch him being lifted out of bed for his bath. His eyes were sunken and
he'd lost his muscle. They use this wheeled crane that hoists a body up in
a canvas sling. An attendant on each arm. Slowly airborne, Ron began to
panic, or maybe it was pain—eyes bugging, he whimpered and slobbered
and both hands clawed and convulsed minutely. He looked pleadingly to me
and all I could do was avoid his eyes and smile a smile so hollow it said that
all was fine because now he was going to have his nice bath. Half the horror
came out of questions coming at me over the hum of the crane-motor: How
do I feel for this man who is my brother? What is carried in genes and what
does the word "brother" mean? Here is a man I'd avoid if I weren't related to
him. He is suffering in ways I can't comprehend and might be better off
dead. Do I want him dead? For what reasons, exactly?
79 The garage place called me late that afternoon, saying they'd indeed found
serious problems. As a matter of course they'd conducted their "21-point
inspection" and found the van lacking rear brakes, the emergency cable
was frozen, and the horn didn't work. The total cost would be $700. "The
stalling," I said. "Did you find the reason for the stalling?" The brakes had
been feeling okay to me, and I'd known about the emergency cable, rusted
in place by New Brunswick road salt some six years ago. I guess I never
used the horn.
"It's stalling?"
"I brought it in because it's stalling. When you stop at a light it idles
really—"
"That's your basic tune-up," he said.
"Okay. I justwantthe tune-up. And an oil change please."
"I really, really, wouldn't advise you driving it off the lot with no rear
brakes." He paused, during which time I closed my eyes. "I couldn't help
noticing your baby-seat? It's not my business to say, but—"
"Okay. Forget the horn, forget the emergency cable. Go ahead on the
rear brakes."
"Go ahead then?"
'Yes."
He said it would be ready by noon.
That night I was telling Leslie how odd it was, Ron's present situation. At his
age so feeble, and him a man who'd always valued, and assumed, his physical strength. He'd worked mainly in heavy equipment (pretending he was
driving a tank, I joked to myself), for the last decade building local wharves
with a pile-driving outfit. He often had his shirt off, and grease on his considerable chest muscles—he was one of those guys you see yelling to
other guys over the roar of machinery, their shoulders glowing bigger than
their hardhats.
But what I was describing to Leslie was that virtually all the attendants in
extended care were Asian. Here was a man who'd never seen fit to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, whomever. They were
small, sly, and in his country for no good reason. I'd not heard the word for
awhile but gooks. And now, bedridden, unable to move or speak, Ron was
being looked after by gooks.
I described the scene to Leslie. Ron, already pissed off at his traitorous
body, and here's this endless stream of Asian care-givers—most were
Philippino actually—dressing him, sponging his private parts, feeding him his
baby food, and keeping up a gay, accented banter: Okay, Ron! How you do
today! Boy, you big! You getting bigger I think! Talking to him like a child as
they stripped or sponged or fed. I found I couldn't begrudge them their lack of
sincerity. A job like that it was amazing that they managed to feign cheer.
80 But the look in Ron's eyes. As if he were assessing a persistent bad
dream. I tried to describe it to Leslie. She used the word "karma." I pictured
one of Dante's poetic hells.
Ron's situation—his being attended to by cheerful, fast-moving Asians—
is something I would have liked to talk to him about. I tell myself there's lots
about Ron I would like to learn, but I wonder if that's because now it's
impossible.
At noon the next day my van sat out on the lot, ready. I entered and announced myself. A long and detailed receipt chugged its way out of the
computer. A fellow with "Kyle" on his chest, but no grease under his nails,
cheerfully told me I owed $950.
Leslie says I don't stand up for myself. It's true: while not exactly a wimp,
I do shy away from confrontation. Without going into too much detail here—
it's the kind of garage-hell everyone has experienced, after all—I'll just say
I did myself proud. First I calmly stated the obvious logic, that since I'd told
them to do less work than the $700 quote would have paid for, the amount
I now owed could not possibly be more. Kyle cheerfully said he'd add up the
figures again, and did.
"Nope, it's $950," Kyle chirped. He showed me, jabbing his finger on the
receipt, how they'd replaced my emergency cable, did my brakes, the
horn, lots of stuff. At the head of the list was the 21-point inspection, for
which I was being charged a cute $21.
"I told the guy on the phone to change the oil, tune it, and the rear
brakes. That's it. Not the other stuff."
"Well, no sir, you were talking to me, and you said, 'Go ahead and do it.'"
"No I—Well, yeah, go ahead on the rear brakes." I jabbed my own finger
onto the sheet. "I'm not paying for that inspection because I didn't even
want an inspection, I wanted a tune up." By now the trap door in my gut was
hanging wide open, and I was well into that icy sweat of futility.
"Not what I heard, sir. You said—"
"Even if you did all that stuff, it still can't be more than $700. That was
the quote. It can't possibly be—"
"It was an estimate, sir."
And so on. In the end I loudly threatened (a first for me) to tell my
friends about this; I had a lot of friends (a lie) and they all drove shitty cars
like mine and used places like this frequently but would no longer. I almost
said that I was a writer and that I'll write about this place. I did say I would
pay no more than the quoted $700,1 would drive my van away (though my
key hung from a hook on his wall behind the counter), and they could call
the police if they wished. In fact, please do, because / want to report a
crime.
Two other customers watched me, perhaps entertained. Kyle wore a
81 practiced poker face, not a tiny muscle of which had yet twitched. We
stared at each other. I sensed victory He said he'd "go through the numbers and see what he could do." After five minutes of crossing out and
typing, and a new bill chugging out he told me he'd been able to get it down
to $750.1 stomped out clutching my key, feeling utterly defeated in victory,
having paid $750 for a tune-up. Well, I had new rear brakes and an emergency cable I might one day use. Maybe I'd honk at someone.
My van was surrounded by other cars, shining in the sun. The garage
bays were empty. It struck me that all these parking-lot cars were decoys,
brightly-painted mallards floating on this cement suburban pond, luring in
foolish ducks like myself. Driving the two blocks home, I felt I was riding in
a fragile creature, a victim of unwanted transplants.
That evening I phoned my parents, who worried when I hadn't shown up.
Again they berated me for "letting all Ron's things go to waste," though
there were still two days before the end of the month when his apartment
had to be cleared out. It struck me how the elderly hated chaos, what they
called "leaving things to the last minute." Maybe the notion of "the last
minute" takes on fatal implications. I didn't explain my hesitations about
weeding through Ron's private stuff. Since his second wife left he'd been
living alone for almost ten years. I didn't tell them that poking through my
brother's things would feel like climbing right up into his angry armpit. I
said I'd leave tomorrow morning and be there in the afternoon.
"Good," said my mother. "Ron really wants to see you."
The next morning when I started the van, stepped on the brake and put it
in reverse to commence backing out, the brake pedal went smish, right to
the floor. I smished it several times in disbelief. I turned it off, got out, saw
the thin stream of brake fluid running the length of the driveway to the
reddish pool on the street.
This was good, this was comedy—$750 to have my brakes broken. What
if I'd driven right out into traffic? I stomped inside, swearing and laughing,
Leslie shaking her head saying, 'You're kidding!" and little Lily starting to
cry. I phoned the garage. It wasn't Kyle, but in about twenty words I got my
message across and the fellow, blandly apologetic, said a tow truck would
be there in minutes. Lily was loud now and I could hardly hear myself
demanding that the car be driven back to my house when it was fixed, and
I wanted this done by noon. I was all-business, macho, a new me. I'd never
considered Ron a role model, and didn't now. Him looming up behind me, a
smirking spectre, likely had to do with how much he'd occupied my thoughts
lately. What would Ron have done? Well, he wouldn't have taken it there in
the first place. And he wouldn't have given them a fucking dime. In fact, he
would've just tuned 'er up himself.
82 Two that afternoon I called the garage asking where my car was. (I had to
restrain Leslie from taking the phone and yelling at someone. She could do
that sort of thing with ease.) The man checked and said it was just coming
into the bay. I said I was promised noon, I said I needed it now. I almost,
almost, said something about needing to catch a ferry to go see a dying
brother.
The van was delivered at five. The driver, a kid, and oblivious to the
history of injustice, was no one to yell at. He seemed to expect thanks for
this special service so I thanked him. He said, 'Your right drum coupling
wasn't on right, so out she came." He looked at me as if I should have
known that
I phoned my parents, tried to explain but ended up apologizing. Tomorrow, I promised. My mother got in that Ron had really wanted to see me
today.
In the morning I repacked my day-bag, and was throwing some rope and
bungees into the van (I figured to bring back a chair or dresser of Ron's, if
only for show) when Leslie hurried out with Lily in her arms. Lily had
thrown up, had a high fever, and Leslie had arranged a quick visit with the
doctor. She'd be back in an hour. I nodded and kissed Lily's hot little head.
Leslie smiled sadly for me, knowing intimately my dealings with Ron and
my parents, having heard about it so much. She looked big-eyed and feverish herself.
I went back inside to make myself a proper breakfast. The phone rang as
I was flipping eggs. It was my mother. Her voice sounded oddly firm, full of
strength.
"He's had another. We're at his hospital. They think this is it this time.
It's affecting the swallowing and the breathing."
"Is it—I should—"
'You should be here right now."
I said I was on my way, and I hung up. Staring at the clock, my heart
beating, I calculated doctors' waiting rooms, traffic, ferries. Behind these
calculations, something else was weighing my desire: did I want to see Ron
die, or did I want to miss it?
But the comedy that had begun a couple of days ago was accelerating.
Timed like deus ex machina, the phone rang again. It was Leslie and she
was hysterical.
"We almost—The car—almost killed us—These bastards—"
"What's wrong? How's Lily? What happened?"
"It was hardly running, and I was passing, right by, so I turned in—It
stalled—A truck had to screech to—We almost—"
I got from her that they were at the garage. I ran the five blocks. The
van was parked haphazardly, at a diagonal, blocking two garage bays, the
83 driver's door still open. I was huffing and dizzy as I pushed in the door. What
I walked into instantly cleared my head.
My wife held Lily, who was red and mouth-breathing. Confronting the
young man behind the counter, my wife was red too and breathing heavily
herself. She had been yelling. The young man, a comedian wearing the
overalls of someone named "Lisa," was smiling defensively.
"No, no. I worked on that van," he told her. "So you're saying you want a
tune-up?"
Spontaneously, my wife vomited. Angrily, her eyes on him. I don't know
if her joining the comedy was deliberate. It's the kind of thing Leslie could
probably do if she wished. But there in the aftermath stood "Lisa," and
Leslie, and Lily, and me.
I think we'd all stopped breathing. And in that second before anyone
could move, the world was clarified for me. Clarity, no meaning to it at all.
Everyone knows a place that, for a moment, rings vastly crystal. Mine
was a garage waiting-room. I could feel the slight squeeze of shoes on my
feet, I took in the candy machine with its three glass offerings of peanuts,
cashews, and jelly beans. I understood that my van's engine had been built
in Asia. I could feel my complex hurry to see my dying brother, who I would
never know if he was worth knowing, or if he had a sense of humour for
moments like these. Here was feverish little Lily, my feelings for whom
were absolute and unthinking. Here was my wife, who likely had the flu
herself but was possibly enjoying herself in ways I couldn't know. Here was
this guy "Lisa," who lacked training in what had just happened, and what
was happening now.
Mostly I knew that soon enough we would be in Ron's shoes. The comedy of bodies and cars breaking down, the junk that lives do become. Which
of course is only absurd. Easy to laugh, but hard to smile. In this garage,
with "Lisa" in control, we can think or feel or do whatever we want, and
nothing will change. This red garage.
84 Contributors
Michael de Beyer has published work in several journals, including Event,
The Fiddlehead, Gaspereau Review and Smoke, and has work forthcoming in Canadian Literature, The Antigonish Review and Pottersfield Portfolio. He has recently completed a Master of Arts at the University of New
Brunswick, and is on the editorial board of The Fiddlehead. He has been
awarded the Angela Ludan Levine Memorial Book Prize.
Erin Bidlake has spent the last three years living and travelling through
Europe and Latin America. She recently published her first book, The Goddess Count. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Bill Gaston's most recent collection of short fiction is Sex is Red, and his
latest novel is The Good Body. "Comedian Tire" will appear in his next collection, Mount Appetite. He teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria.
Sam Generoux's "Kitchen Poems" are part of a series entitled Domesticating Magic. This is Sam's first publication.
Aislinn Hunter is a Vancouver writer. What's Left Us, a novella and short
stories, will be published by Polestar/Raincoast in the spring. A book of
poetry, At This End of the Country, will follow in the fall. Aislinn can be
frequently heard 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 is
director of the Banff Centre's Wired Writing Studio. He has been recently
published in WashingtonSquare (NYU) and Under The Sun (Tennessee), and
was shortlisted for the 1999 Prize Stories:The O. Henry Awards.
Rick Maddocks was born in Wales and grew up in Ontario's tobacco belt.
He now lives in Vancouver, where he writes and performs music. Sputnik
Diner, his collection of linked stories, will be published by Knopf Canada in
Spring 2001. His story "Lessons from the Sputnik Diner" first appeared in
PRISM (33:3).
Patrice Melnick's essays and poems have appeared in Grain and Buffalo
Bones as well as PRISM (27:4 & 33:4). She received a Masters of Fine Arts
in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska. She directs the Creative
Writing Program atXavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
85 matt robinson was the winner of the 1999 Petra Kenney Memorial Poetry Competition. His work has appeared in various journals, including
Grain, The Antigonish Review and Canadian Literature. He is on the editorial board of The Fiddlehead and holds an Master of Arts from the University of New Brunswick. His first book, a ruckus of awkward stacking, was
published by Insomniac Press.
Norbert Ruebsaat placed second in the 1990 PRISM Short Fiction Contest. As well, he has won the Aya Press Short Fiction Contest, Event's
Creative Non-Fiction Contest, and received Honourable Mention in the
Federation of B.C. Writer's Literary Rites Competition. He has been published in numerous literary journals, and writes regularly for GEISTand
the CBC Radio program Ideas.
Leslie Sheffield, a long-time Winnipeg resident, writes in the winter and
gardens in the summer. She has been previously published in Prairie Fire
and Rhubarb.
Sue Sinclair has published poetry in various journals, including The
Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Canadian Literature, Grain and The
Wascana Review. Her first book of poems, Secrets of Weather and Hope, is
due out in Spring 2001 from Brick Books.
Susan Stenson won the League of Canadian Poets National Poetry Competition in 1999, This Magazine's Great Literary Hunt 2000, and The
Hawthorne Society's Chapbook Competition in 1997. Her first book, Could
Love A Man, is forthcoming from Sono Nis Press. She lives with her family
in Victoria.
Bibiana Tomasic has published poetry in Event, The Malahat Review,
Grain and Prairie Fire. She is currently working on a collection titled So
Large an Animal. She has a Master of Fine Arts from the University of
British Columbia.
Eva Wynand, born in Germany, has lived in Victoria since 1967. She has
had several group and solo shows there since the mid-eighties, the most
recently of which was Chance Dances at Rogue Art in 1999. Her work is in
private collections in seven countries.
86 ^eell*****.
p°etry
sPoken
Canada's Poetry Webstore'
www.poets.ca
The most complete soune of Canadian poetry.
Register at poets.ca and be notified of special offers,
discounts, draws, and events
> as of April 2001, over 200 books and eds to
choose from and growing
> reviews & sample poems
> author's comments & biographies
> special offers and draws
> history of Canadian poetry
> publishing information
> poetry games and teaching resources
> inexpensive shipping
> extra-easy navigation and ordering
Ci 11*1
anada Join The Antigonish Review's
GREAT BLUE HERON POETRY CONTEST
Send us your poetry on the natural world, the planet today, the
planet tomorrow.
Entries: 5 poems not to exceed 10 pages total (typed and double-
spaced).
Prizes: $500 (Canadian) first prize & publication
$300 (Canadian) second prize & publication
$200 (Canadian) third prize & publication
Entry fee: $25.00 (includes one-year subscription to TAR).
New Deadline: All entries must be postmarked by May 31,
2001.
Judges: Peter Sanger and Anne Simpson
Mail submissions to: The Antigonish Review Contest
Box 5000, St. Francis Xavier University,
Antigonish, NS B2G2W5
Entries will not be returned, only winners will be notified by
October 31, 2001. List of winners will be available at our web site.
For full contest details, guidelines and queries,
see www.stfx.ca/people/TAR
phone (902) 867-3962 or TAR@stfx.ca.
Send only original, previously unpublished material  (that has not
been accepted for publication elsewhere).
No electronic submissions please.  r
This is grief and something else—
a longing that exists outside the body
it is the way birds want to be the wind
they pass through, the way we hold
what we cannot contain.
— Aislinn Hunter, Page 44
PRLfM   INTERNATIONAL
FICTION
DRAMA
POETRY
TRANSLATION
CREATIVE   NON-FICTION
Michael de Beyer
Erin Bidlake
Bill Gaston
Sam Generoux
Aislinn Hunter
Mark Anthony Jarman
Rick Maddocks
Patrice Melnick
matt robinson
Norbert Ruebsaat
Leslie Sheffield
Sue Sinclair
Susan Stenson
Bibiana Tomasic
Cover Art: Blue Tree City, by Eva Wynand
"72006   "86361

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