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 PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL  PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL  PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
Editors
Jennica Harper
Kiera Miller
Executive Editor
Laisha Rosnau
Advisory Editors    Associate Editors
George McWhirter    Nancy Lee
Brian Wade   Anthony Schrag
Residency Prize Coordinator    Production Manager
Steve Galloway   Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Kevin Armstrong Cristina Panglinan
Pete Atherton Nancy Lee
Alison Frost Anthony Schrag
Charlotte Gill Chris Tenove
Second Readers
Theo Armstrong    Linda Hargrave
Catharine Chen    Susan MacRae
Shauna Fowler    Peter Norman
First Readers
Penny Cholmondeldy Aaron Hunter
Matt Farish Andrea Macpherson
Pam Galloway Stephanie Maricevic
Karin Grey Kimberly O'Donnell 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,
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Contents Copyright © 1999 PRISM international for the authors.
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Our gratitude to Dean Shirley S. Neuman and the Dean of Arts' Office at the
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Thank you to our donors, Cherie and Julian B. Smith, and to the EE. Fund.
Publications Mail Registration No. 08867. October 1999.
A
BRITISH
COLUMBIA
The Canada Council     Le Conseil des Arts ■^^^^^■1      /\.K. 1 3  V^CJ U INCIJL
FOR THE ARTS      DU Canada Supported by the Province of British Columbia
SINCE 1957 Contents
Vol. 38, No. 7 Fall 1999
Fiction
Barbara Nickel
Milda M. De Voe
Angel Beyde
Alix Ohlin
Matthew Pitt
Lee Ann Mortensen
Maureen Hynes
Jynne Dilling
Maureen Lennon
David O'Meara
Jacqueline Bitz
George Murray
Jason Dewinetz
Kim Ki-Rim
translated from the Korean
by Shannon Hudgens
Hafez
translated from the Persian
by Russell Thornton
Puttanesca   13
Family  26
Fixing  33
A Theory of Entropy   45
Venus and Vulcan  56
On Stage   78
Poetry
Speechless   7
Mornings in the Kitchen  <
Cow Skin  9
December, 6 a.m.   24
Chinese Quince   25
Calm   40
Cure   41
Escaping Laughter   42
Dreaming Up Birds   43
Assorted Spaces Between
"About the spiders"   72
The Butterfly and the Sea
71
75
The Dark Night of the Lover   76
Contributors   91  Maureen Hynes
Speechless
How to frighten yourself speechless:
hasten to plant the snow peas
in a morning blur before
a spring trip: open the packet and spill
the seeds: a bounce and clatter
of big beanseeds all over the counter,
the floor: oh, shit: like your words,
in motion, every direction, no control
when you're rushed, not paying attention:
which is nearly all the time: just plant them.
On your return, the squirrels have dug
every beanseed out of the ground, swallowed them.
Then several mornings later,
gasp: something evil, your first
thought: something green and evil
growing out of the kitchen drain's throat:
a slender stalk, five straight inches
up to the light and atop, two wrinkled
leaves unfurling like a tiny
silk bow tie that's been crammed
into a pocket for weeks: forgotten,
insistent: you must remove this:
your own throat tightens: a gentle tug
on the needle-straight stalk: wrong
to keep its pale green here, wrong to pull it out:
fear grows like this, wordless. Jynne Dilling
Mornings in the Kitchen
Our chairs are stuck together like two horses, entangled.
I pull them apart. Dirt on the linoleum
floor produces an Iowa farm effect:
another pig dead, haunches stripped, turned
into pork chops overheating on some electric stove.
All day, we do not mention marriage.
Our silences drip down the walls like syrup.
These days you say nothing of my former girlfriend,
the travel agent. The hum of the refrigerator is upsetting,
a soft rattling in the corner. We fall asleep to the rush
of cars on the freeway. Against my chest, you say the hissing
frightens you. I think of her colourful brochures.
We keep the curtains shut all the time.
Neighbours see nothing but a hint of shifting shadows.
In the draft of the fan, brown fabric trembles. Maureen Lennon
Cow Skin
I know how your skin feels,
Though not as you.
Not as the accidental canvas
Poured over your slow bones
Spread like creamy artist's paint
Edges creeping to meet edges
Colours locking into one another
Like the teeth of gears
Black into white, white into black.
Not as the smooth black-and-white mottle
Hot to the touch in the all-day sun
The short hairs a surprise to a novice hand.
Nor as the dreamy soft of pink muzzle
Sprouting with trout-bone-soft white whiskers
The velvetness of a mouth.
No. I know the feel of you differently.
You know your skin only as
The twitching
Beneath clouds of flies on your rump
The spot you rub against bark and post
Such contented pleasure.
Passing your tongue over roughness
When your great head turns back
For a moment's exploration
You learn the contours of your own surface
Accepting skin as skeleton. You learn the skins of your calves
Even better than your own,
Your tongue wicking away the slick surface
Of their birth,
Washing them to consciousness.
Slipping past the tender shoot of an ear
You believe 'Child of mine'.
But I know you differently.
Harnessed, stunned and slit
Eyes widened in terror, rolling in disbelief
Their light suddenly extinguished
One instant to the next,
So useless in death, your brown eyes—
No market, no culinary traditions.
Splashing red on the cement below your stilled hooves,
The exodus of you from yourself begins.
Through clean slits
Dark organs fall to belts
You shed everything once contained.
Steel blades split bones
You multiply in your diminishment.
Muscles, shaved from bone props
Fall away,
Cat food.
Bones wrestled from clinging flesh,
Rib racks hang in the blood-moist air.
Scraped out from beneath your skin
You disappear
Your cloak—shipped
To be pinned to the giant butterfly boards of tanners.
10 Now even fine hairs are burnt off,
Delicate ducts evolved for blood are
Forced with fluids,
Drowned in acrid baths—
Subdued.
Soft at last
Another blade draws through
Slashing an inch-wide strap.
Layered with another, stitched, pierced, carved, enclasped
This last bit becomes
A cinch looping through trousers
The belt that hangs in my father's closet.
I have met your skin
Flesh to flesh
Yours flying through an arc in the air,
Biting into mine with
A blistering kiss.
Where it whipped and stung
My small child's feet learned to dance
My arms welted in striped tattoos,
My back arched against fiery little tongues,
My bottom glowed, two red hot pots.
Hunting me, your skin crackled and smacked
Speaking loudly
Against table legs and door jambs.
Too concerned with flight
Mine swelled in silence,
Burned for hours afterwards.
And the lesson driver
Making such a soulless tool of your flesh,
Robbing time to speak so caustically
Of nothing,
Missed everything once contained
Falling at his feet,
The exodus of his child from herself.
11 You though,
Would never think,
Driving the
Tempered hide
Of a man,
To rid the world
Of another's will,
Only your own to
Put in place.
I am sure of this,
Seeing you raise
Your great curious head towards me,
Come walking slowly
To see,
Your soft sweet nose
Reaching through the fence
To gently search my
Outstretched palm.
12 Barbara Nickel
Puttanesca
There is a mole growing under my pubic hair. I can see it through the
soapy lens of my bathwater—it's like a spot on a piece of overripe
fruit. My fiance, Rick, has told me in no uncertain terms that I must
have it removed. He is an accountant but has a keen interest in medicine—
the operation channel, Reader's Digest, those books with titles like Osteoporosis: The Long Road Back (One Woman's Story), and Lyme Disease:
The Great Imitator, which he reads on the plane traveling to and from his
jobs in the States.
"It could be harmless," Rick said last Friday night, his fingertip on the
spot. I'd just picked him up from the airport. We were at his place, on his
single bed. "On the other hand, it could be a malignant melanoma and would
need excision." This said with slight, authoritative emphasis on excision. I
tuned out the rest of his diagnosis and focussed on the pressure of his
finger on my spot. I willed silently, "Go farther down, farther." He didn't.
My bath's getting cold and I'm shaving my legs badly, leaving patches at
the back of one calf, my knee scar faintly moustached. When I dip my pink
plastic razor in the water, hairs make from the blade like a school of tiny
fish, set free like my grandfather and his siblings running into the Baltic Sea
after a day of hoeing sugar beets. In that water, a rope divided the Men's
Side from the Ladies' Side. In his bathing costume—a sleeveless, striped
affair with buttons up the front—Grandfather floated on the waves and
dreamed of Greta, the girl he couldn't marry because she wasn't Mennonite.
He was about to kiss her hair when he felt a coarse length of rope instead,
heard screaming from the other side.
"Pass auf, Jakob!" Some girls he knew from church fell giggling into the
water. He pulled back his leg from where he'd trespassed, watched their
bathing skirts undulate like the exotic flowers he imagined floating in other,
warmer seas.
"Entschuldigung—" He dove under the water, back to the Men's Side.
His face was hot.
In this lukewarm water, with an August breeze through the open window bringing with it a faint stench of garbage, (the collectors are on strike),
I have my own dreams. There's a man with dark, hairy hands who drives
me to his condominium in Burnaby, sets me down and strips off my clothes
until I'm a white root on his beige carpet. His fingertips smell like garlic.
13 I pull the plug. Bathwater sucks its way down the drain, my little hairs
turning to hieroglyphics, stuck to the sides of the tub. I rinse them all away.
***
Tuesday, almost through the show, I think about the puttanesca I will eat
later. Celine, back in the cellos, must be thinking about it, too; her solo in
"Any Dream Will Do" seems tangier—vibrato that promises tomatoes and
crushed red peppers, black olives.
"Don and I make this every Tuesday night," she said last year, handing
over a photocopy of the recipe. We were two months into a one-year run of
Phantom of the Opera and already some of the syrupy melodies were
becoming prescriptive: Play nightly except Mondays for an entire year. Will
pay off student loans and buy apartment, etc.
Don, the horn-player, came from behind and kissed the back of Celine's
neck. She laughed, took his hand. "Puttanesca's very therapeutic after the
show," she said. "Helps to drive these tunes from my head, anyway." She
kissed his earlobe and I pictured them feeding each other olives, falling
onto the couch in a tangle of limbs and hastily removed clothes.
"I'll have to give it a try," I said. I watched them walk away—out of the pit,
out the stage door, out of sight. Celine is perfect—she has a cello case on
wheels, a recipe for every occasion, a cute horn player husband. Also, at
30, she's younger than me.
Tonight when I get back to my apartment, I stand for awhile before the
still life of ingredients I set out earlier. A little tin of anchovies balances over
a can of olives and ajar of capers. On the bright yellow can of Italian plum
tomatoes (Celine cans her own from a garden tended to perfection by
herself, Don, and her Italian mother and grandmother) is a portrait of a
woman with enormous breasts only half covered by some red, flimsy material. She holds up Statue-of-Liberty-style a bunch of tomatoes that glow
along with her fresh cheeks and breasts and blown-back hair. Behind her is
the blue Mediterranean, a smouldering volcano, a white sailboat. I chop the
olives.
The phone rings just as the pasta water's on to boil, the garlic's turning
golden in olive oil and I'm ready to add the crushed red peppers and minced
anchovies. I know it's Rick, calling from Washington, D.C. My phone cord
doesn't reach the stove so I have to turn the whole thing off.
I march to the living room. "Hello?" I say, flopping on to the couch, trying
to keep the irritation out of my voice.
"Hey, it's me."
"I was just making puttanesca—"
"Sorry, I can call back later—"
"No, no, it's OK," I grab a cushion and flip it in the air. "How's it going over
there?"
"Intensely boring meetings today. Tomorrow I might take some time
14 off, go to the Smithsonian. Have you done anything about the mole yet?"
I slip my hand down my pants and find where I think it must be under a
twist of wiry hair. It feels raised up a little from the rest of my skin. Didn't
Rick say that was a bad sign?
"Listen, all you have to do is phone up Dr.—"
"I know, I know. Make an appointment and get it excised."
"Then why don't you just do it? It's so simple—"
"I don't know..." I twirl around some pubic hair, lightly stroke the spot. "I
don't know..."
"It could be extremely serious. Promise me you'll have it removed?"
I hesitate for a long time. 'Yes."
"Do you miss me?"
"Yes."
I do. Once at 3:30 a.m. when I was writhing in menstrual pain, barely
managing a moan over the phone, my nightie soaked in sweat, he grabbed
an early flight back from Seattle and climbed right into my bed with his suit
and tie still on. He smelled so clean, not at all the plastic and smoke of
airports, but like laundry left on a prairie washline for a summer afternoon.
And his hands on my abdomen, rubbing over and over some kind of magic.
"Shh, shh," he whispered into my ear, into the blue morning light.
I've lit a candle to eat my puttanesca by. Also, I have some red wine (not
the dependable Chianti suggested in Celine's recipe), a freshly stocked
pepper mill, and the recipe to read as I eat: "Legend has it that this lusty
sauce was created by Neapolitan ladies of the night. Translated, puttanesca
means 'of a harlot.' There are two stories: the ladies either cooked this
quick and tasty sauce between clients or they prepared it to entice passersby
with the tantalizing aroma."
I smell the sauce I've prepared, my face so near it that steam fogs up my
glasses; I could be in the kitchen of a Neapolitan brothel or in the mist of my
grandmother's wedding veil in one of the two stories I have of her life:
Version #1: Farmhouse near the Church, Saskatchewan, 1918
"Have you thought about what will happen tonight, Elfriede?" my great-
grandmother asks through the pins in her mouth. She helps adjust the veil.
"Yes," answers my grandmother, a woman of few words.
"I mean in the bed. What Jakob will do to you."
"Yes."
"Your father and I have been thinking. You're only 18—you aren't ready
for this. It will look bad to the community, as if you are too eager for bed.
Your father and I have decided you must stay home with us for a week.
Then you can go to him. It will be too painful for you tonight, your wedding
night."
15 "But Mother—" She had been kissed only the other night, behind the
shed. Jakob had been as smooth as cream and hard against her abdomen.
She had wondered what things would be like without clothes.
"Enough, Elfriede. It is almost time to leave for the church. Your father
will tell Jakob."
After the cold meat, buns, potato salad and wedding cake in the church
basement, after the German circle games and singing ("Miller Boy" and
"Roslein Heiden"), Jakob, my grandfather, guides his horses and buggy
down the dirt road. The gate and front porch of his house have been decorated with wild roses and ribbons by the neighbours. He walks slowly up
the front steps, into the empty kitchen. If he were in Bohnsackerweide
near the Baltic Sea, he would ask Greta to dance. Anyone happening by the
farm of Jakob Bartel on his wedding night would look into the kitchen
window and see him with outstretched arms, leading an invisible partner in
the most intricate of waltzes.
Version #2: Brothel of Ethel Baxter, 20th St., Saskatoon, 1917
"I want Annabelle."
"And what makes you think she's available tonight?" Ethel leans back in
her chair, sizes up the travelling salesman just off the 10:15 from Edmonton. He's got a dollar or two, by the look of things. She wraps a cushion's
tassle around her little finger. Life is too good these days. No RC.M.P
hassles. Lots of men on a line straight from the C.P.R. to her house. And
Annabelle.
"I've heard her name from Lethbridge to Calgary to Edmonton. Name's
Peter Wilson. I don't know if that means anything to you, but listen here—
I get Annabelle or I find another house with another doxy."
"You just happen to be in luck." She's heard his name —something to do
with Alberta oil. She can't afford to lose him. Life isn't that good. "Room 6
upstairs. And I oughta tell you—there ain't no curtains up there." Ethel
smiles. "Annabelle don't mind."
Anyone watching from the next door boarding house into Room 6 (and
they did—often—the single gentlemen, hands down their pants) would
see Annabelle, stark naked, removing each of Peter Wilson's garments,
gentle as if he were her first love or the last man on earth. He is overweight, with pinkish flesh covered in little tufts of hair. She doesn't seem to
notice. When she takes his cock in her mouth she could be licking a scallop
straight from the Atlantic—succulent, soft, white.
What he notices are her hands—one minute they're gently cupping his
balls and in a flash they're in his hair (what's left of it), then gripping his
back, his buttocks. All this foreplay—no wonder he keeps hearing about
her. Forget Diamond Dolly's women in Calgary—hardened women with
16 their painted nails and bodies used up as old newspapers. Give him
Annabelle—this little goddess sprawled under him without a trace of paint
or cheap satin. Great Scott, she's hungry for him, hungry. When he finally
does get inside he comes roaring like the trains he spends most of his life
on.
"Annabelle, will you marry me?" he says, pulling up his trousers.
The usual question. She just shakes her head, pulls on a flannel nightie.
Great Scott, a flannel nightie! She hasn't said a word.
I play around with the last of the puttanesca in my mouth for awhile. It's the
smooth textures of these ingredients—capers, an olive, smooth strands of
spaghettini—that I love as much as the taste.
As far as I know, I'm the only one who knows about Version #2.1 made it
up in the bath one night after finding an old photo at the bottom of Grandma's shoebox. She's standing in front of what looks like a city house with
her arms around two girls. Or women. It's hard to tell; the photo seems
blurred by rain. On the back, in Grandma's careful hand, is written simply,
"Annabelle".
'Where's this from?" I asked my mother. We were at Grandma's house
sorting through stuff after she died.
Mom turned it over, put on bifocals that she wears on a chain around her
neck. "I don't know...could those girls be Agathe and Elsbeth, those cousins from Saskatoon that she stayed with one summer before she was married? They were the daughters of Ernest and Agnes Friesen, originally
fromAltona—"
Unlike Grandma, my mom's a woman of many words. She is basically
the author of Version #1, although I've added a few embellishments of my
own.
"But who's Annabelle?" I asked, taking the photo again, studying the
handwriting on the back. "It's Grandma's writing, isn't it?"
Mom nodded, shrugged. "It's her writing, but who knows about
Annabelle? Check out the family book, the Friesen one. There must be a
relative somewhere with that name, although it doesn't sound like the
usual Mennonite variety. Annabelle...hmmm..." She turned back to sorting
a teaspoon collection.
I searched through every family book. No Annabelle. Then one time in
the pit, during Phantom, I was flipping through one of Celine's Maclean's
(she keeps a stash for light reading during long brass sections) and I came
across an article about brothels on the prairies. Grandma, the harlot. President of the Zoar Mennonite Church Senior Ladies' Aid and former whore.
I even studied old copies of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on microfilm at the
library when I was home for the holidays. I found an Annabelle Woods
listed as "one of the women of ill repute arrested overnight during a
17 skirmish at the Ethel Baxter brothel on 20th street."
That was all I needed.
In her spotless blue and white kitchen, I used to suck lemon drops and
watch her scrub the floor. "Wasn't it clean before you started?" I asked
once.
She scrubbed through two more lemon drops. I was reaching for a third
when she finally spoke, the most words at one time I ever heard my Grandma
say. "Clean, Katherine, clean," she pointed to a gleaming white square of
tile, "is not always what it seems. Who knows what's underneath this polish?
Your Grandfather came here from Bohnsackerweide leaving a girl he wanted
and couldn't have. He took me instead, the clumsy one, couldn't dance a
step. I was Mennonite, met the requirement, a clean decision, the elders
approved. But when he refused to dance with me? Who knew about that?
And who knew about me by my window alone on the wedding night, how
hungry I was, how alone? Eh? Who knew about that?" She poked her rag
into a corner, her whole body moving to erase a seemingly invisible spot.
"But what about all of us, this kitchen, your good food, the songs—"
"Yes. A clean house, a clean—" She went into the dining room and took
down an old photo of the entire family on her and Grandpa's 40th anniversary. "A happy family, a churchgoing family. Together. Above all, that's
what you want, Katherine. And spotless floors. Always." She got back down
on her hands and knees and I remember her white knuckles as she gripped
the rag.
I construct Version #2 remembering her hands—playing hymns while
we stood around the piano singing on Sunday afternoons, kneading dough
for the buns we ate at faspa with Saskatoon jelly, sorting the berries she
picked in secret ravines at the river. Her hands folded tight during prayer as
she sat on the Ladies' Side in church.
'That was nice," says Rick as we drive back to the city after a day with his
cousin and her husband in the suburbs.
"Yes," I answer without turning from the window. Another sultry day. I'm
watching the late summer dusk turn The Bargain Castle and surrounding
fast food joints to a magnificent shade of red. We ate iceberg lettuce salad
and casserole made with canned soup while his cousin talked non-stop
about Tupperware, even showing us her little booklet. "Eventually, I want
my cupboards to look like that," she said and pointed to a photo of a cupboard filled with fantastically organized plastic; each container had its own
little label. We sipped lime punch made from a sort of mix while she went on
about Tupperware's everlasting qualities and the benefits of hosting a party
where everyone participating gets a little something such as an egg separator or a colander magnet. In the morning we attended their huge church,
sang choruses led by a worship team, a drum set and an overhead
18 projector, the tunes and harmonies reminding me of Phantom and Joseph
but worse.
I lie back for a nap (I feel guilty about this since Rick leaves for Boston tomorrow and we should be making the most of every moment).
When I close my eyes I see rows of Tupperware and neatly organized
years in the pit, Rick by my side calling it all "nice" and urging me to
remove the mole.
"Katherine?" He turns down some jazz on the radio.
"Yes?" I sit bolt upright. I don't know why I'm so tense. His voice sounds
serious.
"It's OK." He reaches over and massages my neck with his free hand.
"I'm not going to ask about the mole. I was just wondering how you're
feeling."
'You mean feeling in general, or feeling about us?"
"Just feeling. Whatever."
"I don't know. Did you actually have a nice day? The heat, all that
Tupperware..."
"It wasn't so bad. How can you be so critical?"
I don't say anything for awhile and he starts humming "Ride the
Rollercoaster of You", this song we made up once in the car. He has a
gorgeous bass voice. That's how I first fell in love with him. I stood next to
him in church and heard him singing hymns, gently, as if he were singing "I
Need Thee Every Hour" to me alone. By the time we get into the city we're
belting out "Ride the Rollercoaster" at the top of our lungs and my hand is
between his legs, under his shirt, anywhere I can get it without disrupting
his driving. On his bed he takes off my clothes, piece by piece. At first I
want to devour him but after a few minutes, all I want is sleep. He's still all
over me and it's irritating, but I can't let it show. I know he wants to have an
orgasm and since intercourse is out of the question (we have decided not to
have sex until we're married), I take his penis in my hand and move it up
and down.
"Please Iethim have one soon, please," I will. He doesn't. I'm on my side
and my arm aches and he's groaning somewhere above me and we have to
take breaks every so often. He finally comes over my stomach and immediately goes to the bathroom to get toilet paper and wipe it off. He finds my
panties on the floor and instructs me to put them on right away. He read
somewhere (Reader's Digest: The Bible?) that pregnancy can happen in
odd ways.
"I chose this," I think, after I've taken his sleeping bag down from its
hook, bedded down by the space heater at the foot of his bed. Since he has
to get up early to go to Boston, he'll have a better sleep if I sleep on the floor
and he on the bed. I chose this, to stay a virgin until marriage as expected by church and family and the watchful eyes of Grandma Elfriede.
19 A 34-year-old technical virgin. Did she see me up there working Rick's
penis? Does she see me now, down here in the smells of old cat pee, the
space heater casting a glow over my face? At least we've avoided the
hassles and expense of birth control pills. What were our reasons? Commitment, church, upbringing, family.
Rick is snoring. I stand up suddenly with the urge to get out of this
house, catch a cab down to Hastings Street where I've seen the women on
the corners. I could be the one by Scott's Market with hair to her waist,
fourteen years old, olive eyes and complexion moving in and out of the fog.
I get as far as the phone for the cab (if not to Hastings Street then at least
my own apartment) and something pulls me back to the sleeping bag. Once
under again, I reach down and feel the mole. I can tell without seeing that
it's grown. I think about the man with the dark, hairy hands from Burnaby,
his fingertips smelling like garlic. It's like in the bath, only now he discovers
the mole and can't stop kissing it; each touch of his lips makes it grow larger
until it begins to take over my whole body.
Rick's bass voice rumbles beautifully even through his snores, filling the
room with a kind of peace I can't ignore. Tommorrow I'll phone the doctor.
***
There is a new man in the pit, a substitute trumpet player. He has curly dark
hair to his shoulders and a long nose. He doesn't smile much.
"Sort of creepily intense, don't you think?" whispers Celine during the
string break.
"Sort of." I dare to look over at him. He's playing "Coat of Many Colours"
as if this opportunity will never come to him again. I want to dip my toes in
his sound or hear it hovering up with ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Even my mole (I didn't get around to making an appointment yet) feels
electric. When I put my violin up to my chin and work my fingertips over the
strings, I know he's watching.
His name is Michael, I find out later at the pub across the street, where
a bunch of us have gathered for drinks. It's Tuesday; I'm surprised Celine
and Don are here. I'm surprised I'm here—I need to pick up some anchovies at Safeway before it closes. I'm sitting next to Michael and each time he
exhales, his breath lands on the top of my right hand, cooling on the journey from his mouth to my skin as if he's placing pennies there, sending
peppermints again and again while the others talk.
"Katherine is getting married next spring," Celine says, emphasis on
married. I could kick her.
Michael raises his eyebrows. "What does your fiance do?"
"Uh...he's an accountant with a big firm. Travels a lot." Suddenly everything about Rick is put on hold, sort of like having to turn off the element
when I'm in the middle of puttanesca.
"Have you been gigging around town very long? I don't remember
20 you—" says Don.
Michael laughs. "No, I just sailed in. Literally. I live on my boat. If I
can get a permanent position until next year, I'll make enough to pay the
next leg of my trip."
'Where?" I ask. His tangled hair almost touches my ear.
"I'm not sure—maybe India."
"Oh really? I've always wanted to travel there." I tuck my hair behind my
ears, trying to look like Celine.
The others drift off. I know where this is heading. I also know that when
the appropriate time comes, I'll pull the appropriate plug. "Please help me,"
I pray to Grandma Elfriede. Also to the woman on the Italian plum tomato
can. And Grandma Annabelle.
Michael asks for a ride to his boat in Deep Cove. "I can always catch the
bus if it's a problem," he adds, grinning. It's the first time I've seen him
really smile.
"All the way out there? Are you kidding? Of course I'll give you a ride."
His boat is called Windy II. We sail out into the cove and find a place to
anchor. I sit on the deck and watch him pull up the sail, tie off various
mysterious knots.
'Tell me the nautical terms for right and left," I say. I pull my hair into a
tight ponytail, prop my feet up on the other side of the boat. I'm trying to be
perky but the initial excitement is waning a bit. I think of making puttanesca
at home in my own apartment.
"Port, port, what colour is port?"
"Red."
"What colour is the heart?"
"Red."
"Where is the heart?"
"Left."
"God you're quick. You're a natural. Port, red, heart, left. Port is left."
"And starboard right."
"Right." He's frying steaks. I pull my knees up to my chest. Cliffs rise up
treed and steep around us. There are stars and an almost transparent crescent moon. There is a beautiful man giving me steak and potatoes on a
paper plate.
"I feel so bad, no other vegetables, but there are breadsticks, butter, salt,
pepper, wine."
"Perfect," I say, raising my glass. "A toast—to Windy II."
'To Windy II." He sits beside me. "I have an idea," he says, covering our
legs with a blanket.
"What?"
"After dinner, you can earn this meal by giving me a violin lesson."
"Perfect. Have you ever played?"
21 "I've tried a few times. Nothing serious."
I bet. Other orchestras. Other nights on this boat. Other violinists.
But I go through the motions. Tuck the violin under his chin. Curl his
fingers over the fingerboard. Touch his arm to help him bow 'Twinkle
Little Star".
"Will you play for me?" I ask.
"Of course. What do you want me to play?"
"Anything."
He plays a jazz piece that sounds like purple fizz and velvet. Maybe this
is what I've wanted all along. This man playing trumpet on the edge of a boat
with the moon like an ivory brooch pinned to the sky behind him. I lean my
head back and see the stars I could be swallowing in the Mediterranean
over that bay where the goddess of Italian plum tomatoes resides, in
Saskatoon above the room where Annabelle lies with Peter Wilson, above
the Baltic Sea where Opa and Greta waltz, his fingers in her hair, above the
room where virgin Elfriede spends her wedding night alone, above that
place where Celine and Don go after making puttanesca. If I could only get
there. Now his music tips, sways; soon it'll fall apart.
"You know," he says, taking the trumpet from his lips. "When I was
growing up my father ruled the house. Don't do this, don't do that, I began
to suffocate. So I shut myself in my room and played the trumpet all the
time." He holds it up to the moon. "Freedom. This piece of metal stuck to
my mouth."
"Play again?" I ask.
He shakes his head.
"Freedom," I say, reaching up to touch the wet mouthpiece, then tracing
my finger along his lips. He touches each of my fingers with his tongue.
*•*
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of my apartment, I'm not thinking of the
narrow bunk space and the tightness of it all, the swaying of the boat and
the sound of the waves, although the walls of my room are still shifting
around me. Not of his surprise when I told him it was my first time, not of
the hurting or his light "See you around sometime" (emphasis on sometime) when I finally said goodbye and drove away this morning. Not even of
Rick sitting behind a desk somewhere in Boston or of the loss or gain of any
one person or thing.
I'm thinking about Version #2 and Annabelle, how she came to live at
Ethel Baxter's brothel in the first place. She spent the whole summer
before she was married with her Saskatoon cousins, Agnes and Elsbeth.
They convinced her to earn a little extra cash by working for a home-
cleaning business run by a man from their church ("It's perfectly respectable. Mr. Klassen pays well, most of the homes are rich Mennonites,
and just think of all the new clothes. Of course, you don't have to tell
22 your parents.") One day there was an address mix-up and she found
herself on Ethel's doorstep explaining that she had come to work. Ethel
took one look at her stockings and floral-print dress with tight-fitting
sleeves and collar, guffawed hugely and said the kitchen floor could use
a scrubbing anyway.
In a brothel such as Ethel Baxter's, to move from being on one's
hands and knees on the kitchen floor to that identical position in one of
the preferred bedrooms is not a great leap. I'm thinking about the night
of her first customer, how when she lay down before him she wanted to
whisper all the dirty words she was never allowed to speak into his ear
but kept quiet (she became renowned for her silence) and said them all
with her hands instead. All summer she sent messages over men's bodies until finally on one very hot day in late August, she looked at her
hands and realized they could never scrub invisible spots as Elfriede
again.
Was it when I rubbed my finger over the saliva on Michael's trumpet? Or
later, that moment before he entered me when I whispered, "Fuck me,
hard" into his ear? Somewhere on that boat last night, Grandma Elfriede's
ever watchful image, her veil and her blue and white kitchen, even the 40th
anniversary portrait, vanished.
I smell the sex on my hands. My stomach's growling; the swaying of
the boat has been replaced by empty dread. I know, however, exactly what
I'll do.
The garbage collectors are still on strike. Even in the nice neighbourhood
where Rick and I are walking, there's a stench wafting around with the
freshly cut lawns and hydrangea blooms.
"How was Boston?" I ask.
"Cool. I went into the greatest music stores and libraries. I want to take
you there sometime. You'd love it."
In three blocks, when we reach the Starbucks, I'll tell him every single
detail. I will not exclude one word or kiss. I think I know how he'll react; I'm
prepared for the worst. If he demands that we seek counseling for months
or if he leaves me on the spot, I've planned what to do.
I'll drive home to my apartment. I'll make puttanesca with lots of garlic.
I'll run a hot bath, shave away a patch of hair like a shrine for the man with
hairy hands, for Rick, for Michael, for a whole succession of men who will
come to my blemish and kiss it, work their way down until I'm satisfied.
23 David O'Meara two poems
December, 6 a.m.
Full-grey, first light floats
inside this airy hour like smoke inside
a bottle. One bird
addresses the mountains, though
the mountains refuse to answer,
brooding from the broken parapet of themselves.
Each day, like newspaper, the sky prints
the same blurry snapshot of the sea,
which the wind then delivers.
And the sun—?
The sun
can't be found, though they
talk of it constantly, the bird, the wind
and sky,
while I let the kettle
burn dry,
and hustle for dreams under eiderdown.
24 Chinese Quince
Too heavy to rustle, the waxy
leaves of this Chinese quince
are a wardrobe of stagy green, dressing
the terrace-end of my year-long residence.
A juice blooms through the fruit, uncertainly
bitter. Taste tangled in its cells
strangles the stem with weight. Late,
late November, these reluctant perennials
cling and delay the seasonal guillotine,
swaying like lanterns that gutter and flare.
I watch them silently ripen, strain under
seams of pulp, simmer with a sun-yellow glare
and shake in the frost-edged glances
of wind. My landlady will come soon,
with a stick to strike them down.
Autumn will end in one afternoon.
25 Milda M. De Voe
Family
Raynor 1937-1994
Erica 1944-
Nissa 1965-
Lamont 1967-
Olaf(Ollie) 1969-?
Sven 1971-1992
Nissa 9 lies under a piano.
She stares up at the gold bones of the Steinway. The shag carpet
that cradles her head sends up smells of Bartok, Mrs. Smythe's
cat. Nissa thinks the cat's name is very clever. The chocolate-brown book
of finger exercises by the Hungarian composer has been Nissa's nemesis
since she was six, and Bartok the cat is an untouchable Siamese. It seems
appropriate. At every lesson, Mrs. Smythe makes Nissa sight-read Bela
Bartok's rhythmically unpredictable pieces until Nissa cries. Nissa cannot
come near the cat without it hissing and trying to scratch her. Nissa keeps
trying to sight-read and keeps trying to pet the cat. She stares up at the
gleaming underbelly of the Steinway and wonders if her long white hair will
smell like cat later, if her little brothers will call her stinky.
(May 18, 1974)
Ollie 17 mows the lawn.
He whistles a tune of his own creation as he pushes the mower through
the thick Texas humidity, pretending not to sweat. Five more rows and he
will reward himself by going swimming. He is earning two dollars per acre
mowing a field which was once a horse field. The ground is long and flat
which makes his chore effortless. Today he will take the five-dollar bill
from Dr. Parnell's palsied hand and fold it carefully into his fat cowskin
wallet. He smiles, thinking of the distorted wallet with its frayed seams. It
cannot hold all the dollar bills of his life. He reaches the end of Dr. Parnell's
land, where a barbed-wire fence divides Dr. Parnell's property from theirs.
The grass is long on the other side of the fence. Ollie swings the mower up
on its two back wheels and the blade chops at the air. He swings the machine one hundred eighty degrees to the left and returns on a path adjacent to this previous path, a continuous arc of projectile grass soaring off to
26 his right. What does a rainbow look like in a black-and-white film, he
wonders. He will continue to wonder until he turns the mower around
again and hears a cowbell from across the field. The low metallic sound
will lead him to wonder whether music couldn't be some sort of alien
language, with sentences and phrases and jokes. His steps behind the
mower are andante and as even as the tick of a metronome. He breathes
deeply of the fresh cut grass. It is his favourite smell: the smell that
makes him think.
(May 18, 1986)
Lamont 13 sets a field on fire.
He doesn't intend the arson, but the power of an aerosol can spurting
flames is too beautiful and he forgets his judgment. He is not allowed to
look at pornography, or at soap operas. His mother and father never kiss.
His sister's room is off-limits, so he shares a room with his two little brothers while she has her own room. She is a teenager, older than him. Her
room is full of the treasure of strange sweet smells, love letters, and romance novels. She screams at him if he asks her questions like what are
you reading. A book, she screams. Her voice is as shrill as his mother's was
that time she walked in on his evening ritual. Once, too, he had fished a pair
of slippery pink underwear out of the hallway hamper at four in the morning by candlelight when the house was all silent and tried it on over his
head, but his sister had opened the door other room and switched on her
bedroom light. The click of the light was sharp, and Lamont froze in the
shadow of his sister's backlit silhouette, hoping the flickering candle at his
feet would fail to illuminate his pink mask. At 4:02, the door had closed. He
thinks of her face as he sprays the singing flames into the thick air.
(May 18, 1980)
Sven 21 smokes a joint.
Swirls of sweet smoke cloud his brain, and he forgets what homework was
due. He remembers only what it felt like to be the youngest and the last one
in the house. There was no one left who could learn to listen.
(May 18, 1992)
Erica 27 goes to church.
She stares at the suffering of Jesus and thanks the Lord that suffering is a
gift. She feels close to Christ, closer than she has ever felt to another
human being. Father Pat looks over at her and says Hello Erica, disturbing
her early morning prayer, but at the same time spiking her to the pew with
a thrill of happiness. If Father Pat has noticed her daily prayers, Erica
thinks, surely God had too. Surely God will reward her. She leans back
against the smooth wood, and spreads her palms on the missalette, while
27 her mouth repeats the dotted rhythms of the Hail Mary for the seventh
time. Her last baby has just been born, the third boy. In the name of the
Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, she murmurs, and she begins
the familiar rhythms da capo.
(May 18, 1971)
Raynor 55 plays the piano.
Chopin's Polonaise in A-major has booming chords in the bass, and
Raynor pounds them with his meaty hands, hands that are accurate when
he aims them. His hands pound away the memories of Protestant Sweden. It is eleven-thirty on Friday night. It could be six-thirty in the morning. It could be ten, twenty years ago. The solid octave clusters shake
the plasterboard walls with waves of sound. The children are not in bed
as they used to be, but this changes nothing. His wife is in bed: unchanged
and unchanging since the last child was born. The Lord watches over
her, Raynor thinks. He will not sleep until these fourteen chords are
mastered. He repeats them. He repeats his mistake. The G in the right
hand should be an F-sharp. In their beds, the four children would be
burying their heads in the sheets now, although the night is muggy.
(May 18, 1992)
The piano forms a heavy gold canopy far above Nissa's closed eyes. The
carpet scratches her back and she presses into the itch to relieve it. Mrs.
Smythe has given up asking her to please please come out from under the
piano, it isn't seemly for a young lady. Nissa is wearing the maroon velvet
dress her mother likes, with its bright white bow now crushed beneath
her, although this is only a group class, not a recital, and her mother isn't
even there. Nissa ignores the boys who giggle and look up her dress. She
is wearing white tights so she knows that there is nothing for them to see.
She is still too young to know that it is the act of looking which excites them,
not what they find. When she is fifteen, she will begin to understand. By the
time she is nineteen, it will be a power she controls. Now, she opens her
eyes and stares at the thick gold sky above her and wonders what it would
feel like if the piano crushed her.
Grass shoots out to the right and Ollie turns to the left. He wonders if
snakes feel the ground beneath them as they slither, and whether they
prefer sand or grass, whether sticker-bushes hurt them, whether they
feel the scrape and rasp of crossing rough cement, or if snakes ignore
these feelings, the way people ignore the feeling of the earth beneath their
shoes. Ollie walks behind his mower trying to feel the newly cropped grass
through the soles of his green-stained tennis shoes. As he walks, he imagines that he is walking in place and turning the green globe beneath him.
28 Saw-grass ushers fire into the horse field, and Lamont sees the danger.
He forgets his sister's face, he drops his flamethrower, and he runs, he
runs for the garden hose. The hose is coiled in green loops in the middle of the dying vegetable garden. Lamont lugs it to the back of the well-
house, where he is shielded from the sight of the empty house, and he
screws the metal ring to the water spigot. When he turns the water on,
it spurts cold needles all over him, and he curses. It is the first sound he
has made since he set the field on fire.
The piano showers music onto Nissa in her velvet dress. She feels
pummeled by the forte section, feeling the crescendo press her into the
carpet. She will feel this again at twenty when her brother throws her onto
a futon. She gives in to the notes, to Beethoven, and when Jeremy's fingers
pull the pianissimo notes away, her rib cage rises as if to capture the largo.
She thinks that this might be what it feels like to be in love. Jeremy is a high
school boy. He is Mrs. Smythe's son. Nissa inhales the notes he plays.
They smell like Bartok the cat.
No one hears Lamont's yelp. His grimy T-shirt is wet on the Star Wars
decal, but the water is cool. He tightens the metal ring and tries the water
again. The water flows smoothly through the rubber hose, spurting in a
controlled stream from the nozzle. Lamont trains the white jet towards the
flaming weeds and focuses the spray to its tightest and sharpest stream.
He twists the spigot to its full pressure. If only I was taller, Lamont thinks,
and he vows to grow. The water does not reach the expanding orange ring.
He points the hose towards the sky, and the water falls to the cracked dry
soil in fat raindrops. The ground is so sere that the falling water makes
smacking sounds as if it were landing on cement. It is the same smacking
sound that his face made when his mother's hand landed quickly on his
cheek that time she caught him. Lamont thinks of the sting as the ring of
flame expands, eating saw-grass, twigs, purple thistles, dried-up
dewberry bushes, pink Texas stars, and wine cups.
Erica climbs into her car to drive home, Father Pat's sermon still echoing in
her thoughts. The car is hot from the sun, its brown vinyl seats sticky on
the back of her upper arms. There is a nickel on the dashboard, touching
the windshield. A hot nickel. A week after her husband brought her to
Texas, Erica left an Almond Joy on the dashboard of her car for only a
moment while running back to the house for her chequebook. When she
returned, the chocolate had glued the white wrapper to the dash, and the
almonds were like small bugs creeping away from the coconut mess towards the indentation where the nickel now sat. She does not start the
car, but sits in the unbearable heat, staring at the nickel and remembering
29 the sermon and the melted chocolate bar.
The neighbours who own the horses call the volunteer fire department;
Lamont soaks a picnic blanket in water and is battering the earth when
they arrive. He is drenched with sweat and well-water and streaks of
dirt cover his face and arms. Outta the way, boy, a deep bass voice growls
behind Lamont. He doesn't hear the voice the first time and he keeps
pounding the flaming grass with the heavy wet blanket until a strong
grip catches him by the wrist, and yanks him to the edge of the small
crowd which is gathered at the edge of the barbed wire fence. He is
abandoned there. Young man, do you realize what damage you might
have done, one of the men says and Lamont nods. Is your mother home,
another man asks and Lamont shakes his head. His mother is never
home. The firemen are called back to the truck, a pickup with a tank of
water in the bed instead of the usual hay. The fire is extinguished and
Lamont is left staring at a patch of ground as black as a glossy scab, with
burnt sticks poking up out of it like awkward hairs. He doesn't notice the
crowd disperse. He stands with his face towards the burnt ground and
breathes the dead air. Around the patch of blackness, the sky is blue
and cloudless, and the grey is a dry green. Wine cups peek purple
through that grass, as if taking attendance. A roan pony walks around
the patch of steaming ground, a strange look in his large brown eyes,
and Lamont looks away and pulls with his hands at the blanket he finds
himself holding. He sees that the picnic blanket is ruined, but Lamont
folds it neatly and squeezes it to his chest, as if to still the movement
there.
Ollie turns to the left and walks on his planet, following his mower. He is the
lord of this world. He is the king. The fire ants and walking-stick bugs and
praying mantises, the rattlesnakes and hairy magalormors, the bullfrogs
and chameleons, the scorpions, the mockingbirds, the black widows, all
creatures of the world of grass are under his control. He shatters them. He
splits them. He cleaves them in half. He destroys their world. He walks on
their demesnes. He walks across their bisected carcasses across their
homes across their lives their dreams. A stick pops in the mower blade and
explodes into wooden shrapnel. Ollie jumps back, releasing the mower for
a second. When he recovers from his fright, Ollie cuts the power and the
world of grass feels silent until his ears adjust and he hears the music once
again. He nurses his hand, which is bleeding at the knuckle. A frog creaks
like a distant door. Ollie sucks the blood and it tingles on his tongue like the
positive end of a small battery. He thinks, I am drinking myself. His nostrils
curl away from the gasoline smell of the lawnmower, and he wishes he
could smell only the grass.
30 If God has really predetermined my fate, Erica thinks, then perhaps I
should allow chance to determine my actions. She reaches for the nickel,
bracing herself for the burn of the dashboard. She is able to pry it loose
with her pink fingernails, and she scoots it along the hot vinyl into the
palm of her left hand. She tosses it from hand to hand like doll-sized
pizza dough until she can hold the hot metal comfortably. She looks at
the modern church building through the passenger window, and she
sees no disapproval in its brick facade. She closes her eyes, holding the
warm nickel in her right hand, and asks God whether she should go
straight home or stop at the mall on the way. She opens her eyes and
looks at the church again. Heads—home, tails—the mall, she thinks,
and she flips the nickel briefly into the air, before catching it and slapping it onto the back of her left arm. She can feel its strange warmth, and
this makes her smile. She savours the moment of giving her life wholly
over to God.
In a haze, Sven picks up the phone to call his sister in Anchorage. No one
answers, but a machine uses her voice to cheerfully state that she is not
there. If you are a new student please leave your name, your level of ability,
your last piano teacher's name. Sven hangs up. The voice was all he had
really expected, even if she had been home. The telephone is a giant black
clam, menacing.
Sven tries to call Lamont. He has to look up the procedure to call the prison.
He decides it isn't worth the trouble in the end. Roasted peanuts in a jar
beckon and distract him. He goes to the bedside table of the efficiency
apartment and eats them all. The walk to the table seemed very long, he
thinks as he sucks the peanuts into his mouth. They taste like the ocean,
like eating oceanic rocks. He feels the peanuts crumble in his teeth, and
imagines they are the sea-washed bones of whales.
Sven wonders about Ollie, but no one know where he lives, only that he has
moved from Germany to Morocco to Paris to Moscow to St. Petersburg to
Madagascar to Rome. Any day now, Sven thinks, Ollie will send a postcard
with no return address from another M place. There is that much order in
his life. Sven takes the empty peanut jar and throws it across the room. It
falls to the linoleum floor with a hearty clatter and Sven smiles. His smile is
not communication. No human has ever seen it.
Lamont waits in his room which is also Ollie's room and Sven's room and
which, a long time later, would become the music room, housing only
the piano and its sheet music. Lamont is waiting for God's verdict. When
31 his mother came home from ministering to victims of poverty, Lamont
was standing in the dry green grass, holding the blanket, staring at the
black hole in the middle of the horse field. She did not yell at her son
when she saw the black hole. She did not ask about the roan pony, or
the dappled mare, or the bay. She did not say a word. She went into the
master bedroom and closed the door behind herself with a click. On his
side of the room, Lamont lies on his bed, facing the wall and listening for
the sound of his mother rolling the punishment dice. God will determine his punishment. His mother will only relay it to him. Lamont stares
at the wall and wonders if God had been paying as much attention to him
when he set the field on fire, and if so, why did He not make it rain.
Raynor 57 plays the piano.
Chopin's Polonaise in A-major has booming chords in the bass, and Raynor
pounds them so the sound shakes the walls. His hands pound away the
memories of Sweden, but cannot pound away more recent memories.
Memories that make his fingertips numb. Memories that clench his heart.
He pounds with his numb fingers and ignores the squeezing in his heart.
He has forgotten all the love he ever had. He has banished it to live in the
home of his youth along the fjords. He protects himself by playing louder.
It is eleven-thirty on Saturday night. It could be six-thirty in the morning. It
could be ten, twenty years ago. The solid octave clusters shake the plasterboard walls that isolate each room. The children are ghosts who haunt his
home. One is missing, one banished, two have fled. His wife is in bed;
unchanged and unchanging since her last child took death into his mouth.
He had wished to devour the sea. At rest in the satin of his casket, he wore
a small smile as grotesque as happiness. The Lord watch over them all,
Raynor thinks. He will not sleep until these five chords are mastered. He
repeats them. He repeats his mistake. The G in the right hand should be an
F-sharp. He dismisses the pain. In their beds, the four children would be
burying their heads in their sheets, cringing.
32 Angel Beyde
Fixing
A sudden squall scoops up the snow dusting the stone window ledge,
whirls it past the glass in dizzy spirals. As if this were the secret
sign she was waiting for, the signal for release, Alex abruptly gathers books, papers, bag, and leaves the class where she has not heard a
word for two hours, walks. Past dozing students, down echoing corridors
and marble steps, bursting finally into the damp air. Her coat flaps open,
leaving throat and chest bare to the bitter wind that tears pearly clouds of
condensation from her mouth. She does not mind the cold. It's a relief, in
fact, after a soporific afternoon in the fluorescent, airless lecture hall. "Flayed
by another day," she murmurs to no one in particular, then smiles, liking
the sound of it. In her mind's eye a wan diva collapsing, slow-motion, on a
red velvet chaise lounge.
It's a bright grey afternoon, air vivid with that peculiar light just before a
snowstorm. The sidewalk's salt-stained concrete glows beneath her scuffed
boots.
The rush hour city sounds fade as she heads north, cutting across the
huge park that bisects the city. The din of traffic becomes a dwindling
murmur as she climbs an embankment and makes her way through a stand
of trees to a long field. Frigid silence clings to her; she imagines it dripping
from the bare trees and coating her in an icy balm. The hypnotic flash flash
flash of her black boots across dead grass and drifting snow. There are
occasional puckered clumps of white, like healing scabs, where the snow
had settled, then melted in a warm spell after the last storm.
The wind brings tears to her eyes, makes her nose run. When she sniffs
deeply, the hairs in her nose prickle in the stabbing cold. Something unfolds in her chest, like a hand unclenching, something soothed by her rapid
progress across the field. Eyes fixed on the horizon, a watery band of lime
beneath smoky blue, Alex sinks into the familiar, formless stream of images: the frozen wind's gnawing translates into wolfish teeth at her cool
neck, a grim fairy tale scene, white black red. Girl in a jet coat on ivory snow,
something silent at her working throat and the scarlet surprise of a kiss. Ex,
ex, ex, and—Oh. How it presses, presses so the hot love gushes up, she
imagines the relief of that dark release.
She knows it's silly, comical even, but Alex always imagines it the
same way, the profound, polar silence that would follow this draining
33 kiss: crawling into a giant freezer and stretching out among the hoary
vegetables and mysterious plastic packages of meat, just another shining form blind and dumb in her winter-white fur coat.
***
She arrives at the lobby of his apartment building and pauses to let the
mist on her glasses dissolve. When he buzzes her through, she takes
the tiny mirrored elevator up to his floor. Cramped silver box and she is
surrounded on all sides, three short women, shapeless in long black
coats. A pinched, foxy face in triplicate. Stray snowflakes glitter, melting
in the tangled hair, escaping from three identical braids. The elevator
creaks and shudders to the top floor and she avoids her own eyes in the
spotted glass, relieved when the door slides open. He lives at the end of
the narrow, rust-carpeted hallway. A wave of heat and the surprisingly
oppressive scent of Clementines wafts out from the half-open door. He
hovers near the entrance and, like every time, protests that Alex
shouldn't have come, that she must have nicer things to do, all the while
waiting anxiously for her to come in so that he can close the door behind her.
He waves a trembling, puffy hand towards the coat-stand, indicating that
she should hang her things up. "I'm sorry dear," he begins, breathless,
tugging at the frazzled edges of his burnt straw hair, "I'm just such a wreck
today. I know I must look a sight.. .and this place," he gestures hopelessly
at the dusty carpet covered in crumpled tissues and dried gold trails of
Clementine peelings, "I just can't seem to keep up with anything." He begins
this way every time.
They proceed with this familiar ritual of his apologies and her reassurances, until he is satisfied and they can settle on the cluttered couch. He
pushes ineffectually at some of the mess before dissolving into tears. "I'm
sorry, I'm sorry," he sobs, "I can't help it, I feel so weak, I'm sorry." She has
stopped telling him there is no need to apologize, simply holds the spongy
hand that is not covering his eyes.
Her gaze drifts around the room, not really taking in anything, until it
alights on the television. He seems to sense what she's looking at, because
he sniffs and pats around for the Kleenex box, asking "Is it time, dear? Are
they on?" She squeezes his hand before going over to turn the volume up.
He pats the lumpy corduroy couch, releasing small puffs of dust, so that
she'll settle next to him to watch his girls. Stifling a sneeze, Alex sits, drawing her legs up under her.
The four golden girls snipe and quarrel, and he cackles when the oldest
one makes a particularly rude remark. She somehow reminds Alex of a
malicious trained squirrel, with her little features bunched up under the
tight lavender wig. "Oooh, she's such ab-i-t-c-h! Oh, excuse me dear," he
adds coyly. Aims a cloudy glance in the direction of Alex's face. She reaches
34 into her bag and pulls out the net sack of Clementines she has brought
for him, waiting for the next commercial to ask if he'd like some now. He
immediately begins to weep again, as he reaches out for the bag of fruit.
"Thank you dear, I just love these things. They're the only thing I can keep
down."
When she'd first started coming, Alex had brought food from the Caribbean take-out near her apartment: akee and saltfish, roti, sweet fried plantain, cow foot soup. Even then, he barely ate anything. Picked contentedly,
talking all the while, often describing the beach behind the house where
he grew up. Sucking delicately on the fish bones, he'd repeat how he'd
never learned to swim, afraid of the greedy foam fingers that came skittering up the beach to nip at his tiny ankles, drag him under the glinting waves.
The show comes back on and he asks her what the tarty character is
wearing, because the b-i-t-c-h-y old lady has just said she looks like a hooker.
He giggles appreciatively when Alex describes the tight leather dress for
him, and reaches for one of the little oranges. The peelings fall, gather
around his bare, ashy feet in bright drifts. He sighs when the commercials
start again, popping a section of fruit into his mouth. Sucks avidly, extracting every drop of sweet juice, then spits the remains into a ragged Kleenex
he pulls from the sleeve of his blue cardigan. The damp bundle dropped on
the floor with it is full. He sucks so hard, Alex imagines the juice being
drawn straight into his veins, mingling with the infected ebb and flow.
When the snow is finished and the tears inevitably well up again, she
puts a hand on his arm and gently strokes the skin that has bloomed with
the tell-tale dark stains. His body has become a topographical map of illness. The skin is warm and dry, with the rough texture of handmade paper.
When she first heard the words Kaposi's Sarcoma, the words for the
splotches on his skin, she imagined something beautiful, like a stained
glass city in the middle of the desert. Hot, silent.
"Does it look really bad, dear? Do you think anyone could tell?" He asks this
every time, and Alex always lies and says no, because it doesn't really
matter anyway. He never leaves the house, except to go to his medical
appointments with her, by taxi. "I'm afraid," he moans, whenever she has to
help him get dressed to go outside, and he clings to her as they shuffle
through the drifting snow, with more strength than she would have imagined in those sick limbs. He calls her his ray of sunshine, his only light. She
is uncomfortable with these effusions, about the halo he sees above her
head, and rubs his back silently outside the doctor's office. Don't, she
wants to say, just don't. It's the same feeling she gets in his elevator, shifty-
eyed and fidgeting, trapped in the triplicate embrace of her reflection. Mirror, mirror—What would she ask, anyway?
'You want to know how I got it, don't you, dear?" he said once, during one
35 of their first sessions in the plastic bucket chairs of a waiting room. Turning to look at him, Alex just shook her head silently, forgetting that all he
would see was a vague bucking of dark and light. He seemed to understand anyway and smiled; as he grew thinner, this expression had become painfully minimalist, skin sliding over jutting bone with the disturbing ease of an expensive, well-oiled mechanism.
"Well, / wouldn't mind knowing!" He laughed softly for a moment,
then lapsed into silence again, hands clasped neatly in his lap.
Not knowing what to say to this, Alex began to describe her toothy
fantasies, waking and sleeping. He rarely asked her about her life, but he
was fascinated by dreams and they often whiled away their waiting room
hours, quietly describing their dreams to each other with the married
intimacy of an old couple lying awake in their twin beds.
She was, Alex explained, sometimes just an observer, but most often
The Girl herself, in a dim hallway or rank forest, the hot star of red blooming at her neck under the sharp pressure that often sent a thrilling arrow of
pleasure to the corresponding dampness between her legs. She left out
the last part, about the arousal, just describing as best she could the variable surroundings, how she would wait. Paralyzed and anxiously expectant,
waiting for the indistinct form to materialize—from behind a tree, from
around the corner, features melting and sliding, unimportant, only this tug,
this ache, always the same, so it was if she spoke: come.
When she finished speaking, they sat quietly for a while, both staring at
the corkboard, covered in a bright dog-eared patchwork of pamphlets, posters, factsheets.
"I had this beautiful Filipino boyfriend, you know, who used to wake up
screaming every night. Scared me to death every time, I was sooo relieved
when we broke up after a couple of months." After a moment, he reached
over and took her hand, squeezing gently as if she were the one in need of
comfort. "What a pair," he murmured and Alex didn't know who he was
talking about—the two of them, or himself and the ex-lover, or even the ex-
lover and herself. Not really wanting to know, Alex squeezed the swollen
fingers in return.
***
She has been coming to visit him for five months now. The two women she
used to have coffee with most days after class have given up teasing her,
trying to find out who this mystery lover is anyway, this man to whom Alex
now devotes all her free time. At the first volunteer meeting, the coordinator asked each of them why they were there. When it was her turn, Alex
felt the expectant silence swell as she hesitated, waiting for something
convincing to come to her. The coordinator smiled encouragingly. Faintly
dizzy under the fluorescent lights, Alex picked a small piece of fluff from
the sleeve of her grey sweater, rolled it between damp fingers. Somebody
36 coughed. Staring at the wrinkled fabric of her skirt, Alex finally murmured something vague about having the time as a university student,
and so few people willing to visit AIDS patients...
It started with a peer tutoring program years ago in high school and
she just hasn't been able to stop since—burned children, rebellious teen
mothers, glue-sniffing kids, mentally, physically disabled adults. Cuddling stroking advising listening reading explaining holding. Giving.
Teachers, advisors and friends' parents marvelled oh what a wonderful
girl so kind so unselfish, asked her if she wasn't getting burnt out. Burnt
out? It was a soothing image: a crumbling charred husk, sooty fragments
scooped up by a gust of wind and whirled into a colourless sky.
Alex often remembers the jolt she felt the first time she went to volunteer at the children's hospital, and someone placed a crying infant in her
arms. The tiny, straining bundle of wires and tubes slowly relaxed, and as it
stopped crying Alex felt a sympathetic calm wash over her as well. Her
eyelids drooped, as if someone had injected her with a powerful tranquilizer.
After an hour in the small, over-heated room, everything had fallen away,
even the sounds and images of her parents' latest fight—the slurred insults and screaming, the final crescendo of breaking glass and toppling
furniture. The silence afterwards which was worse. The nurse was surprised to find her still there hours later. "I wish we had time for this," she
sighed, taking the sleeping baby from Alex. Pausing to study the girl's
curiously peaceful face, the nurse added "You're certainly welcome to visit
as often as you like." Alex spent every afternoon of her final year in high
school there, pursuing that fix with a focussed hunger. To give. To give
more. And it was somehow never enough.
***
They spend long mornings and afternoons together, Alex and her mystery
man, either in the twilight must of his apartment, or, more frequently
now, under the antiseptic glare of the waiting room lights. He told her
once that he liked how she just sat quietly, rubbing his back. The last
buddy chattered nervously all the time and it got on his nerves. He hates
being at the hospital as it is, always afraid someone will recognize him
from when he used to nurse there. Alex just nods, strokes the sharply
etched wingblades of his shoulders.
She doesn't think compassionate, volunteer companion thoughts. Alex
imagines white rooms furnished only with light and shadow. Being there
alone, and watching the snow thick-feathered and profuse, whirling past
the windows. For some reason she can never get to a place like this, only
finds herself in clinics and the shabby, cluttered homes of people who need
things from her. Mostly people just want her to listen. She listens.
Shortly before he dies, he tells her about a dream he used to have as a
child in Jamaica. The hospital room is quiet, high above the lights and noise
37 of the darkening winter afternoon city. His story rambles like careless
knitting, with dropped stitches and uneven rows. He occasionally raises
a black-tipped claw for punctuation, weaving in and out of focus. 'Tou
know dear, they can tell...children can always tell if you're different.
They were so nasty...so I spent a lot of time by myself...once I fell out
and broke my arm and he beat me for being stupid." He laughs, a ghostly,
merry cackle. He tells her about the horrible old woman who lived next
door, whispers black magic, dear. Everyone in the village was afraid of
her; she drank chicken's blood, and could heal any illness just by fixing
her rheumy blind eyes on the spot. On a dare he once ran through her
dusty yard shouting curses, little mouse heart threatening to explode
with fear. He places a trembling hand on his chest, as if to show Alex
where.
He explains how these people can control your dreams. "One night
I.. .dreamt that.. .as I ran across her yard, she suddenly appeared in front of
me...stretchin' out her ol' dry-up hands to catch me...I sort
of.. .jumped.. .into the air, and then I was just flyin' over her head, too high
for her short arms to catch me.. .the sky.. .really stormy and I flew into the
clouds," he gestures towards the ceiling, eyes closed, "and I just felt sooo
relieved.. .but when I looked back there was this huge.. .dark bird right
behin' me. No matter how fast I flew, I couldn't.. .escape.. .it was like my
shadow and I couldn't shake it. I woke up just as it was... diggin' it's nasty
claws in me.. .had.. .a terrible pain in my side for days.. .kept havin' this
dream for years. Now I can't sleep anymore.. .so that's not a problem."
Smiling, Alex tugs the hospital sheet to cover the cracked, bony feet.
They remind her of sea-horses, somehow, their antique, spiny articulation against the white cotton. She remains standing by the bed, watching
the faint rise and fall of his ribcage, trapped beneath the blankets. His
shallow, tattered breathing fills the room.
The red glow of the digital clock on his bedside table catches her eye
and Alex automatically checks the time, though there is nowhere else
she'd rather be. 4:32. Her afternoon lecture would be finishing right about
now. She'd been skipping more and more classes, as he grew increasingly
feeble, and now that he was hospitalized, it seemed impossible to go back
to the meaningless drone of the lecture hall. The restless buzz that has
been eating at her the past few days had simply stopped, as soon as she
walked into the room. An incredible calm wells up, envelops her like a
fog, a magic spell. His hand twitches briefly on the pale blue blanket and
she reaches over to hold it. This is what it would be like, she thinks, to
be at the centre of an egg, or the eye of a storm: perfectly balanced,
needing nothing. The hospital should gradually gain volume with the
approach of dinner hour.
A nurse bustles in shortly, does something with the tangle of wires and
38 tubing that connects him to food, air. She wears a mask and gloves. Her
peach cotton uniform peeks out from beneath the drab green protective
smock. She turns to Alex, and the freckled skin around her eyes wrinkles suddenly. Alex realizes that the nurse is smiling at her, curves her
lips in return. "It's nice to see someone in here," the nurse whispers.
Apparently he hasn't had any visitors in the week since he was admitted. There isn't anyone. "My mother always told me not to be chat-
chattin' your business at work," he explained to Alex, when she asked
why none of his former colleagues came to visit when he stopped nursing. The family was all still in Jamaica and he was adamant that they
never find out. 'Trust me, darlin'—they would rather think I was married to a white woman, than dying of this." This was one of his favourite
jokes. Alex was sure his family would be thrilled if he were married to
any woman at all. She said nothing, curled up in the chair by the bed. If
would have been awful, she knew, if there had been anyone else—the
crying, the shouting, the messy grief. This way it was perfect, just the
two of them, in the quiet, gull-coloured room.
***
Evening begins to stain the corners of the room with shadow and outside
the snow whirls thick-feathered and profuse. The storm's billowing silence
wraps them in a mantle of peace: this thin, dark form in the hospital bed and
the woman touching his foot. A metal food trolley rattles to a halt outside
the room and the strangely swampy smells of institutional food waft in from
the slightly open door. Alex settles back into the dun, plastic chair, watches
the icy window dim as the day wanes. There is a dull ache in her throat, a
slowly mounting pressure. She does not notice when the narrow chest
ceases to rise and fall in the nest of wool and cotton.
She imagines: teeth, delicately piercing the skin.
She imagines: the frail boy airborne in a warm tropical sky, technicolour
and punctuated with bruised-looking clouds. The air is thick with the smell
of waxy flowers larger than her head, a drunken perfume faintly sexual,
menacing. He beats at the heavy air, struggling, smooth brown skin covered in a damp sheen of fear, struggling to elude the dusky bird following
his movement like a rapt lover.
39 Jackie Bitz two poems
Calm
The night your sister calls I walk the beach below
Beacon Hill, trace ships gliding like slow whales
through the darkening strait. It is February, low tide.
The land shifts beneath me, grain by grain, holds
the strange weight of my body sinking. I have watched
ocean cover this spot, will watch it again as the last red
streaks of sky draw down. Not even the lights of a passing
car can split the night at my back, the air thick with waiting
and the dull hum of an answering machine rewinding itself
in the dark, blink of a red light eyeing my return, a message
in its measured signal: it's over. Still, I want to believe
it won't come like this, the graceful end of a slow drowning,
cell by cell. No hard white beam of lighthouse flares over
the water to mark a passage so quiet. Across town, your body
warm in the orange pools of lampshade slips deeper, simply,
into that darker stillness: the sound a foundering ship makes
miles down.
40 Cure
I run the route we walked our dogs in windstorms,
think of your yellow rain jacket slapping my shoulder,
the sound seals make on calm water. Those wet mornings,
the flap of your skin so battered grey, I knew,
I knew and still wouldn't admit it was even possible,
not with the wind knuckling up off the water, drumming
itself in dark fingers against our bodies. Running today
I need rain, the hard movement of fists punching holes
in this sky, charred skin of a coastal October. I need
the symmetry of falling, the clumsy puffing of runners,
names carried like ghosts on their chests, In Memory of...
Those small white banners of loss a link between grieving
and grieved—like the woman waiting alone at the finish,
her handmade sign: a crayoned loop of pink ribbon over
Thank You in block letters. She is the last thing I see
before crossing the line, face wet with eight months of hard
running and the nudge of you bumping against me; the rhythm
in these rows of survivors, their hands clapping and clapping.
41 George Murray two poems
Escaping Laughter
The first time I was unsure
of a woman's laugh
was when I was twelve -
trying out on the schoolyard
soccer pitch, mud & bruises
worn like a uniform,
the boys crashing into
each other like blind birds.
I had trotted to the sideline
where the coach paced
near the ranking board -
my name third from the top,
a small white chit
pinned to the plywood
like a broken tooth
barely left in a bully's victim.
I looked to where some girls
sat braiding & said to
my favourite Jennifer,
First Team, Inside Left-
that's good in soccer.
Behind her hand her teeth
were sparking,
above it her eyes held mine
then squinted out at the field.
Her laughter came short
& hard, like it was escaping
from somewhere under her chin.
I backed out into the safety
of the rough scrimmage
with the shaky legs of a survivor.
42 Dreaming Up Birds
I have a history of dreaming
up new birds-
sleep coming over me
each night like strange wings
against the sill of my head,
(something like a magpie
& a cardinal crossed -
a blue blackbird or swallow-hawk,
anything fascinated by shiny stones
or eyes)
& I watch them land on my brow
with the interest
of anyone that near the edge -
how they move
in twitches & ruffles,
nails digging into my skull,
smooth, thick maws
sitting open & crooked,
the spilled ink of their eyes
around fading points of white -
& sometimes I think
to get bread crumbs
to keep them occupied,
or to change my clothes
in case I resemble a farmer
in the field -
but usually I wait (amazed
that I cannot move, or lift a hand
to shoo, or even catch
the blurring edge
of a falling purple feather
as it drifts to rest in my sheets) -
43 & the bread crumbs
become diamonds & the soft
down turns to spiny knives,
& when I look back, everything starts
changing from the forms
of new birds to scarecrows,
or something else entirely.
44 Mix Ohlin
A Theory of Entropy
What could reach them here was the mail. Claire took the boat
across the lake to Bob's store to pick it up. The first of the
summer people were in, browsing through the aisles, stocking
up on canned goods and batteries. From behind the counter Bob nodded
and passed her a rubberbanded stack, her bills, Carson's heavy magazines—Science, Journal of Organic Chemistry—saying, as he did each time,
"A little light reading for you, Claire?"
"Puts me to sleep," she said. Around her in the store children tugged
their parents' sleeves, begged for candy and to be taken fishing.
"Hold on a minute. Something for you in the back," Bob said. Claire
waited. When he came back he carried a bundle in his arms, a padded
envelope square as a box. She didn't have to look at the return address to
know that it was Carson's book.
She piled the bills and magazines on top of it, then slid it off the counter,
pressed to her chest for balance. Bob was frowning at a boy handling a box
of fishing lures, larceny in his fingers; when she left, he raised his hand
briefly, holding up the palm in silence, without looking away from the boy.
The dock was not ten yards from the entrance of the store. She threw a tarp
over the mail and gunned the engine. She could feel the heft of the envelope in the boat. She didn't look at it. She never opened his mail, although
he had sometimes asked her to, and anyway he opened it in front of her,
showed or told her everything—he had no secrets, he always said. But
these were her scruples. The boat skittered a little as she manoeuvered
around driftwood. On the other side of the lake a motorboat roared and
circled. Underneath it and closer in, a smaller sound almost evaporated as it
reached her: the hoot of a loon.
Carson came into the kitchen where she was snapping beans. He dipped
his hand into the bowl and sat down at the table with the handful.
"She wants to come here," he said.
"Here, why?"
"Because she knows I won't go to the city."
She turned. His legs under the table stretched the length of it: he was
over six feet tall, strong-shouldered, rangy. Long fingers with thick knuckles, like knots on wood. To relax, he made furniture, and had built the table
45 where he sat.
'To work on the book," he said.
"I thought she already did," Claire said. She set the bowl in the sink and
ran water over the beans. "Isn't that what came today, the edits?"
"She says we have a lot more to do. That the book isn't quite coming
across. She thinks a few days of hammering it out in person could do it. So,
can she come?"
"You're asking me?"
"It's your place," he said.
She looked at him. She loosed a clove of garlic from its paper and set it,
along with an onion, on the table for him to chop.
Carson studied entropy. Claire didn't understand his work, and she had
given up trying. It was entirely theoretical, divorced from the data sets and
experimental designs on which he had built his early career in chemistry.
He produced it, as far as she could tell, whole and unprecedented, a rabbit
from the black hat of his mind. Sitting in his office at the back of the cottage
he wrote pages of thought with a blue marker on lined yellow pads. What
she knew of entropy came from a college textbook that she had bought, in
a vain effort to educate herself, when she first knew him. Entropy is a
thermodynamic function measuring the disorder of a system. The greater
the disorder of a system, the higher its entropy. Disorder equals randomness.
Or it used to, until Carson came along. He had developed a new way of
looking at entropy, of evaluating the whole idea of order. Of equilibrium. He
had charted the paths of molecules through systems and begun to wonder
if entropy veered towards simplicity, whether there was order within disorder, whether disorder had a quality of inevitability to it. The lawful tendency
of a non-equilibrial universe. When Claire thought about this she thought
that possibly entropy was a scientific term for fate. But she never said so to
Carson, who would tell her gently that science was science, not metaphor.
When they first met, in the city, he tried to explain the model to her,
defining its basic elements, then moving on and almost immediately losing
her, his logic twisting along a cor ridor where she could not follow. He drew
outlines for her, equations, the universe in boxes and arrows. The blanker
she looked the faster he talked, reaching into his brain for examples to
teach her by, striving to share his clarity. He stretched his hands wide,
carving air: his words a map to show her where he was. Claire was no
scientist at all: she was a freelance designer, and she had failed math in high
school. Instead of listening to his words she became distracted by the
passion in his voice, the shaking timbre of it, the way he seemed to be
peering under the surface of things to some elusive knowledge of the
world. She forgot to pay attention; attraction overruled. Eventually, they
46 both gave up the explanations.
She had known Carson for a year when he published the first diagram of
his model. It appeared in Science, was acclaimed, publicized in the non-
scientific press. Scientists pilgrimaged to his office at the university, besieged him with letters. His phone never stopped ringing. Some of the
letters and calls came from a woman named Jocelyn Gates who acquired
manuscripts for a popular publisher. She wanted him to write an account of
his work for the general reader; she said that it could be the best scientific
seller since The Origin of Species.
The other members of his department assumed that he accepted for
the usual reasons, the temptations of money and self-inflation. But this
wasn't it. He had been seduced, Claire thought, by the promise of particular riches, the only treasure he really craved—time away from the university, from the task of grant writing, the company of difficult colleagues, the
obligations to students and administrators. Time to think. He could take
leave from the university, write the manuscript, and meanwhile chase the
magnets of his own ideas. In interviews, he always said, "There is so much
left to be done."
When he decided to write the book, Claire offered him her cottage on
the lake, and her presence with it. They had been here two years.
Even in May, the nights were cold. Under the blankets she moved closer to
Carson, whose body gave off heat constantly, no matter the season, as if it
were electric. She turned her back to him and brought his arm around her.
From where she was lying she could see out the window to a clutch of
birches on a hillrise behind the house. The bark turned silver in the light
from stars.
"How old is this woman?" she asked him.
"Claire," he said. His tone a warning. He hated signs of insecurity in her.
Carson was generally even-tempered but frustration sparked from him
sometimes in fits like anger. What he liked best about her, she knew, was
the idea he had of her strength: he liked being in the position of borrowing
from her, of having accepted the favour of this house. It was important to
him to think that she did not need him.
"Old?" she said. "Or young."
"She's not much younger than you are. Twenty-nine."
"How do you know? I mean so specifically."
"She told me. She took one of my classes at one point, apparently. She
told me what year she graduated."
His hand twining hers began to sweat and he unclasped and moved it to
her shoulder. His cheek scratched her face.
"Don't be jealous," he said in her ear. "I hate it."
She flipped to her back. When she looked at him his eyes were open,
47 reflecting colourlessly in the dark, like glass.
"All right," she said.
Jocelyn Gates arrived by the noon bus. She was not what Claire was expecting, although she hadn't realized that she was expecting anything at all.
She had long, wavy hair which had been dyed an unnatural brown-red, like
dried blood. Behind thick brown frames her eyes were blue. When she
stepped off the bus she flung her backpack over her shoulder, like a student, and her eyes searched out Claire's immediately.
"Are you Claire Tremble?" she said. "I'm Jocelyn."
Claire stepped forward and shook her hand.
"Is that all you have?" she said, glancing at the backpack.
"Dear God, no," Jocelyn said. The driver struggled over from the side of
the bus and heaved a large suitcase in their direction. Claire looked at it.
"It's mostly manuscripts, I swear. Carson said there would be a boat,"
Jocelyn said. "There is a boat, isn't there?"
"That's the boat," Claire said, and pointed.
"Oh. Should I—"
"It's fine. But you might have to sit on it, that's all."
"I can do that," Jocelyn said. Claire made a move to pick up the suitcase
but Jocelyn shook her head firmly, lifted the suitcase, and gestured for
Claire to walk ahead. When they reached the boat Jocelyn lowered the
suitcase onto its side and straddled it. With the extra weight the boat sat
heavily in the water, but Claire judged that it would hold. Jocelyn sat precariously, her white hands clutching the gunwale, spray from the lake misting
her glasses. After a minute or so, the boat seemed to adjust itself and
moved slow but smoothly through the clear branches of spruce trees reflected in the water. Jocelyn leaned over to trail her fingers through their
rippling needles.
"It's beautiful here," she said.
"I know."
"What a wonderful place to write a book," she said, and inhaled deeply,
with satisfaction, as if catching the scent of unborn books in the wind. She
caught Claire's eye. "Thank you for letting me come."
Carson was waiting for them on the dock, a surprise, since he regularly
worked every day until five and would brook no interruption, a habit which
had led Claire to offer to pick up the girl in the first place. Yet there he was,
reaching out a long arm to catch the prow and rope it to the dock. He
grabbed Jocelyn Gates' hand and pulled her up. The two of them laughed
and moved from handclasp to shake. Jocelyn would not permit her suitcase
to be carried for her, and she trudged after Carson up the hill to the house.
Halfway there she paused to readjust her grip and said again to Claire, who
was behind her, "It's so beautiful here."
48 'Yes."
"A refuge," she said. Her eyes were glowing, blue coals. "I hope I won't
disturb your peace."
"Don't mention it," Claire said.
Because the desk in Carson's office was small, the two of them set to
work at the kitchen table, where they could spread the manuscript out in
stacks. Claire shut the door to her office and tried to work, but on her trips
to the washroom and the living room she could hear that they had already
begun to argue. She could not make out the specific words of it, only the
general tone of grievance in Carson's voice, and from this tone she suddenly heard her own name rising, and realized that he was calling her.
She stood in the doorway.
"This woman," Carson sputtered. His face was flushed but Jocelyn's was
not. "She wants me to tell my story. She wants me to sell the material.
Would you please tell her, please, that science is not a story? Will you please
agree with me on this so I'll know that I'm not insane?"
Claire looked at Jocelyn, who smiled politely.
"I think I'm the wrong person to ask," Claire said. Carson groaned. "I
mean, I'm no scientist, you know that."
"So? You still know that a scientific theory is a model, not some fairy
tale."
"Well, yes, and I'm not saying that it's fiction. But I do kind of think—
sorry, Carson—that science is a story we tell ourselves about the world. In
away."
Carson said, tight-lipped, "It's not just any story."
Jocelyn said, "The important thing here, Carson, is that we tell it well."
Over the next three days Carson and Jocelyn worked on the book. They
fought often and loudly while Claire, in her office, let go the pretense of
work and listened. For some time it seemed that they could not even agree
on terms, could not share meanings of words. She heard Carson's voice,
strained and hoarse through the walls. ("Order and disorder are only categories. They don't hold up, statistically.") Jocelyn's voice flowed quietly
under his. She was trying to simplify Carson's theories, to put his arguments into the plainest terms. They could be expanded later, she told him.
The book was a pyramid requiring a foundation, a wide and basic layer.
Claire thought of the phrase Carson, quoting Jocelyn, had used to describe this process: hammering it out. This was just what it sounded like,
voices striking hard as metal, Carson's strident, the woman's relentless,
pounding his science into flatness, like nails into wood. Claire was afraid for
him to see his work—so famously abstract—popularized and, inevitably,
reduced in this way. To cooperate in the reduction, even. And she was
surprised by Jocelyn's persistence, her conviction that his ideas could be
49 explained to the world. She kept on hammering.
"So all things tend naturally towards a simpler state," Claire heard her
say.
'Where do you get this naturally?" Carson cried in an anguished tone.
Any lack of precision pained him. "Where do you get this? You're creating
some kind of animism that isn't inherent in the work." Claire pictured him
spreading his palms, trying to explain. "There is no naturally. Things can
only happen according to the physical laws of the universe."
"So explain those laws to me."
"Look, miss, I didn't realize that you came up here for a scientific education. I thought you came here to work on my book."
"I am your reader," Jocelyn said without a pause. "Explain it to me."
"Maybe you're not my reader," he said. "Maybe I have no readers. The
kind of people you're talking about don't want to know about my work.
Couldn't understand it even if they did want to."
"They want to."
Other times, as Claire passed through the kitchen, she saw them working smoothly, heads together, one nodding, the other speaking, low and
constant and rhythmic, like two birds on a branch. In the evenings she and
Carson cooked dinner for their guest. By tacit agreement, they all three
avoided the subject of science, instead discussing politics or weather, the
natural beauty of the region, the improvements that Claire and Carson had
made to the cottage in order to live in it year-round. Conversation stayed
polite and almost distant, with none of the contention or excitement which
echoed through the rooms during the day.
Claire took the boat across to Bob's and Jocelyn asked to go with her. She
needed to use the phone to check in at the office.
"Although I'd rather not," she said at the dock, hands on her hips, looking out at the water. "The office seems a bit unreal at this point."
"It'll seem real enough once you get back," Claire said. The other woman
raised an eyebrow.
"I guess," she said.
"Whenever I go back to the city, I feel like I could take up my old life again
in a minute, and this is the place that seems unreal," Claire said. Jocelyn
nodded.
"Do you ever miss it there?" she asked. Her tone was neither curious
nor conversational, just inquiring, as if she simply wanted to know. Claire
wasn't sure if this was sincere or practiced. Possibly it was an editor's technique, a means of seduction for writers, giving them the sense that she
wanted them, or the knowledge only they could provide. In this way she
could pry them open and get the books out. Claire took a breath and looked
out over the lake. A string of starlings lassoed themselves into a circle,
50 twisted, formed into a symbol that looked, for a second, like infinity.
"Sometimes," she said.
'You grew up here?"
"In the city. This was our summer place."
Jocelyn reached over and touched the water.
"Can you get across the lake in the winter?"
"Usually," Claire said. "If not, well, we have a lot of food stored."
"Must be a long winter."
When Claire didn't answer, Jocelyn went on, "But beautiful." Inwardly
Claire rolled her eyes. Of course it was beautiful, but beauty had little to do
with it. She had come here not just to be with Carson, but to prove that she
could live here. Putting up food, trying to get Bob and the rest of the village
not to look at her as "summer people," insulating the cottage, chopping
wood, all the other chores—the chores had everything to do with it.
"My parents built the house," she said finally. 'We were always working
on it. They didn't intend it to be lived in year round. But Carson needed a
quiet place to work. And I could work from anywhere."
"Lucky for him," Jocelyn said.
"Not lucky. Just something I was able to do," Claire said. She felt Jocelyn's
eyes strong on her. "I was glad to be able to offer it." She was speaking
unwillingly but couldn't stop, she felt the words being reeled from her as if
the other woman held a line. She felt she had to explain—that Jocelyn had
to have the correct impression other life. She wanted to make something
clear, the necessity of it bearing down on her with a pressure like physical
weight.
"This isn't a sacrifice for me," she said. "I like living here. I don't just see
to Carson's needs. It's not like he's the, you know, reclusive man of genius
and I'm the handmaiden."
"The handmaiden?" Jocelyn said. She started to laugh, shaking her head.
She clamped her hand over her mouth but giggles issued from between
her fingers anyway. "I'm sorry. I'm not making fun of you. I've just—never
heard somebody use that word in conversation before."
"Oh, God," Claire said, "you're right." Her tension cracked and she could
feel laughter breaking the surface of her skin, bubbling up through it, as if
it were water. "I don't know where that came from."
At the store Bob handed her the mail.
"Got a visitor with you, eh?" he said, looking at Jocelyn, who stood at the
pay phone frowning at an open engagement book and making notes in it.
"Thaf s summer for you," Claire said, and shrugged. She bought a chicken
and some bread, then crossed the street to the vegetable stand. When she
came back Jocelyn was still standing next to the phone, no longer talking on
it, just standing, her face tilted to the sky. She had removed her glasses
and her pale skin seemed doubly naked, exposed to the sun. As if she
51 recognized Claire's steps, she opened her eyes with a smile already
present in them.
"Ready to go, handmaiden?" she said.
'You stop," said Claire.
They took the boat back in silence. It was late afternoon, the sky changing to grey, and the water they passed through was planed in shadow,
alternately clear and opaque, plants rising up from the deep into occasional
visibility. As she docked the boat, Claire looked up and saw Carson moving
past the window of the house, his outline passing dark in the light, the line
of his neck, the curve of his shoulders. For one moment she didn't recognize him, didn't feel the familiar jolt of his presence. A blankness swept
inside her. When she first met him she memorized those outlines, enraptured by the shape of him, a desire that she could not ignore. Now she
stood on the dock and looked at him, and some emotion drained from her
in a trickle like grains of sand marking the passage of time. Jocelyn walked
in front of her, up the hill, her bare arms the most visible part of her. Claire
thought of all the woman's questions and all her own answers. Whatever
she said to Jocelyn, she had changed her life because of him, her desire for
him, that drastic feeling. It wasn't possible—or was it?—that after making
such a change, the feeling could dissipate, could disappear.
It made her wonder if she knew just what that feeling was. From the
moment she met Carson she knew that there was a part of him she could
never reach, the part devoted to an abstraction she would never touch. And
then the move to the cottage, the distance and isolation and cold. She had
not been coerced into anything. But what she had chosen was difficult, was
chosen for its very difficulty. If she had made a mistake, it was to believe
that things struggled for (the cottage, Carson, their life here) had to contain more value than things fallen into with the simple force of the inevitable. A belief engineered by pride.
That night she lay awake, Carson breathing heavily beside her, Jocelyn
inaudible in the guest room. She tried to remember as much as she could
about his work, her thoughts circulating in a slight, dull frenzy, like the
night before an exam. As if she were about to be tested. All she could think
of were the examples from the textbook. Dye dissolving into a glass of
water; from a dense red drop, a cloud of pink. Picture a truck crashing into
a wall, she remembered. This is the world in spontaneous action, growing in
disorder. Picture a mirror shattering on the floor.
They were almost finished, Jocelyn and Carson; they were working their
way through the final chapter, framing the conclusion. Claire could feel
their exhilaration. She made a pot of coffee and joined them at the table
with a cup.
52 "I think that we have an opportunity to extrapolate here," Jocelyn
said. "From the level of chemical processes, the ones you've established,
to larger ones."
Carson shuffled the papers of the manuscript on the table, then ran his
hands over his face up to his forehead. From repetition of this gesture, his
eyebrows had risen into unruly tufts, adding to his look of worry.
"I'd like to resist leaping to unwarranted conclusions."
Jocelyn exchanged a smile with Claire.
"I appreciate your caution," she said, "but this isn't a scientific paper. You
don't have to worry about peer review. This is the time for you to make wild
claims about the potential of your model to explain biology, economic and
social phenomena, the very nature of human existence. Say that the second law of thermodynamics has been forever broken. You can be speculative. Be sexy."
"Listen," he said. 'You must know by now that physical laws can't be
broken. I only uncovered them a little further. They were always there."
"Come on, Carson," Claire urged. "Have a little fun with it."
"Claire."
"What?"
"I'm a scientist, not a comedian," he said in a stricken way. This made the
women laugh so hard that Jocelyn wiped a tear from her eye. Carson shook
his head.
"Both of you," he said. "Ganging up on me."
She thought how once, in a bar, near the university, one of Carson's colleagues (an older, wheezy, red-faced man), drunk, started to talk about
great discoveries in science, the leaps and bounds of thought. This was a
popular subject among scientists, Claire had noticed, as if by discussing the
personality of genius they could associate themselves more closely with it.
This man said that there were two kinds of thinkers, those who led—who
thought the new, the fully original—and those who followed in the existing
tracks. The searchers and the followers, he called them.
Carson snapped, "It's true that there are two types of thinkers in the
world. People stupid enough to believe there are two types of anything.
Then everybody else."
"Sore subject, Carson?" said the colleague.
They finished the very last and final edit at seven o'clock. Claire fixed a late
dinner. She lit candles and set a bouquet of wildflowers in a jelly jar on the
table. Carson lifted his glass of wine and declared a toast.
"As Claire and many undergraduates can attest, I've never been successful in spreading my ideas outside of a narrow group of scientists," he said to
Jocelyn. "I know it's been like pulling teeth to get this book out of me, and I
53 thank you for it. And I'm very glad it's over." Though he smiled, Claire
sensed how strongly his relief tugged him: that tomorrow Jocelyn would
leave, silence return, and he would retire to his office with three months
left of his leave from school. Three months completely devoted to real
work. He lapsed into quiet, and a general exhaustion seemed to spread
from him across the table. By nine, the candles on the table had burned low
and the talk dribbled to nothing.
At midnight, rising to go to the washroom, Claire passed the guest room
and saw light through the door; without thinking, she knocked. Jocelyn sat
up in bed surrounded by sheets of paper, one pencil stuck in her hair,
another in her hand.
"Don't you ever stop working?"
"I couldn't sleep." She waved for Claire to come in. Claire sat down at the
foot of the bed, on a folded quilt her mother had made. She traced the line
of a square with her thumb. The pieces came from blankets, rags, old
clothes that her mother had hauled here to work on, during rainy summer
days. She used to collect the scraps through the year, kept them in a box in
the kitchen. She called it something to pass the time.
'What are you working on?"
"Paleontology," Jocelyn said. She put down her pencil and stretched, her
neck's tendons visible and strong. When she reached up, the sleeves of
her T-shirt fell back, showing the very smooth skin at the underside of her
arms. "It's a new theory of dinosaur life," she went on. "Dinosaurs are very
big sellers."
"I don't know howyou do it," Claire said. "Understand all these things."
Jocelyn rubbed her eye.
"Well," she said, and smiled. 'They're still dinosaurs, right? They still
disappeared."
"I guess that's true."
"And anyway, I don't have to completely understand it."
"Don't you?"
"Not at all. I just get it as clear as I can, and then I move on to the next
book."
Claire looked at the manuscript on Jocelyn's lap. Neat pencilled notations lined the margins. Suddenly she was horribly conscious of having
inter rupted Jocelyn's work. She felt herself flush.
"I'm sorry for intruding on you," she said, getting up and walking to the
door. Jocelyn gathered up the sheets of paper and moved them aside.
"No," she said.'You didn't."
She practically missed the bus. In the morning she came out of her
room with her bags packed, but at the last moment Claire could not find
where she had gone. Claire went out the back door and there she saw her,
crouched in a clearing behind the house. She balanced on her ankles,
54 staring at a trillium, its single white flower nodding in the grass like some
reminder of snow.
"Jocelyn, we should leave." Jocelyn stood and turned around. The slope
other shoulders was outlined in gold by the sun as it arrowed through pine
branches. Her blue eyes looked jeweled. In the sharpness of the light
Claire could see the fine down of hair on her cheek. A swoon of silence
between them.
"I'm sorry to go," she said.
Carson's book appeared the following spring. There was no preface, no
page of acknowledgments. The book launched itself into being from the
first page, Carson's voice transposed into type: / begin by stating that we
live in a non-equilibrial universe, and that the state of disorder we know as
entropy is itself an order of the universe that we have not, up to now, been
able to recognize. Claire could hear him saying it, picture his palms spread
wide. In the bookstore she flipped through the pages, ran the tips of her
fingers over the glossy jacket. This new model of entropy could change the
way we look at the organization of the universe, the way we think about its
future and ours. She turned to the back flap, touched the black and white
picture of his face, leaving prints behind.
Then she put the book back on the shelf and tapped it into place. She
walked quickly to the end of the aisle, where, because, Jocelyn was waiting.
55 Matthew Pitt
Venus and Vulcan
The deceased of Pompeii mooned Phil in the kitchen. They made
ugly faces and picked their noses with their tongues. They hated
the way Phil watched them, like a greasy teenager auditing art
classes just to hawk the nudes. Still, they knew Phil's girlfriend Ursula
couldn't see them like Phil could, and they used this fact to have their way
and have their fun with him. When one woman caught Phil staring, she
buttoned her lips and shovelled her breasts skyward. A parched old man
flipped Phil the bird while Phil drank down ice water.
It was not easy being the dead. Always stuck striking their final poses
(many of them embarrassing and undignified), the assortment of minor
tragedies from that dark day in AD. 79. The old man knelt on the linoleum,
cocooned against the fridge, his wrists slung inside a stock. He had died an
ugly death. Ursula had described it to Phil five months ago, on their first
date. The nude woman's death was grim too: she'd undressed hoping to
run more freely through the narrow streets. Her dog fetched the clothes,
subservient to the last, and got tangled beneath her feet.
Ursula was putting on earrings and adjusting her volcano. She wondered,
why was Phil looking so intently and oddly at the fridge? He probably didn't
want to be standing near the scale model, something he associated with
Charles Thackeroy. Ursula liked how Phil overvalued her time with
Thackeroy; the truth was that her ex-lover had proven to be a flat tire of a
man. In bed, on the phone, everywhere but the lab. Their arguments over
chaos theory were more exciting than the sex.
"Dry, damn you." She dabbed wood glue with Q-tips to the base of a
balsa Forum. Was she late leaving the house, or was Phil just up early for
once? When he first moved in, she'd marveled at how early he rose. "I have
to make phone calls," he'd tell her, promising breakfast "in ten minutes, on
a plate, waiting for you to fork it." He'd just lost his business in some swindle, and was nearly bankrupt. But here he was, treating those disasters as
though they were random drug tests, indignities to be endured. It was all
massively sexual to Ursula; she liked to ambush him in the morning, whip
her legs around his waist, and scribble her tongue through his pubic hair.
"How about forking me for ten minutes first? Or are you all business before
any pleasure?" It was a great game to play—would she win, pull him into
her, or would he push his way out of bed? From morning to morning she
56 never knew the answer. After a few weeks, she did. Phil began surrendering to her every advance. That lapse in mystery somehow dulled
the thrust of the sex, disappointed Ursula.
And worse, after it was over, instead of making coffee or faxing a resume,
Phil would just roll away and fall back asleep. Now months had passed since
Phil's business had gone belly-up.
"Baby, get my keys! I'm fucking late!" Ursula fidgeted through the
kitchen. Paced a tight circle, slapped at a fly he couldn't see.
"Okay, one sec. I'm looking for a stamp." The drawer was stuffed. What
a mess. Thanks to last month's trip to Naples. Like a road trip where the
vacationers accumulate wrappers to food they can't remember having eaten,
Ursula and Phil had amassed postcards of fountains—dozens of them—
from tourist traps. Ursula bought them because they were more personal
than hotel stationery. Phil bought them too, though they all looked the
same. He was simply thrilled by the devalued lira—every object seemed
suddenly obtainable. No scene was safe from Italy's fountain postcard series. Babies christened in fountains. Old men lowering their grandchildren
into the fountains. Falcons fucking in fountains, fountains reflecting the
Mediterranean sun, its massive sediment of heat.
"Baby, now?"
"Sorry. Keys. Where do you think they might be?"
Ursula shook her head and Phil heard a ting. She stooped down; her key
ring had constricted itself around her hair. "Does that answer your question?" she asked. Her face was round and smooth like a bean, and had a
quality of demonstrative sadness, which most people mistook for a bad
mood. He sniffed tobacco on her scalp: today her group would get the lab
results back. They were waiting to hear whether a certain kind of skull—
one more elliptical than ours—could bear a certain kind of nasal passage. A
millimetre error and she was happy hour joke fodder. If she were right,
though, she'd be vindicated. Ursula's goal was to locate superior elements
of our ancestors' cerebrums—Neanderthal was braver; Homo erectus, a
far better diplomat; Cro-Magnon, almost unthinkable visual acuity (compared to them we are iguanas, discerning the world only in patterns of
indifferent outline)—and eventually graft that lost genetic fabric back to us,
self-improvement from the literal source.
Phil examined the key ring. "How did you get this...never mind."
"That's right, never mind," Ursula laughed. 'You don't want to ask."
Pulling the key ring out would be easy. Still, Phil feigned hesitance. He
wanted to hold her, face in his hands, hair along his wrists, for one moment
more. When he yanked, she yelped. "Gentle, gentle." Soon she was
calm again and breathing smooth. Ursula had that ability, like a cat, to
spring from Earth at the slightest threat, and then settle back into glazed
repose the moment the threat was over. She lifted his chin, put two
57 fingers to it, and made a kiss noise. 'You'll come to the celebration?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"Ulterior. I need your scent; someone near me who doesn't smell like a
petri dish."
He thrust a postcard into her hands, then sat on the sofa. Time had
faded it, and all her furniture—the care she invested in the objects she'd
found stood in exact contrast to her negligence toward the objects she'd
bought.
The hotel in Naples had been this way too, worn and wormy and falling
apart, while the hotel guests spent their days next door, polishing the
frozen ruination of Pompeii. Ursula left in the mornings, to lecture or listen
to lectures. Phil stayed behind. The sun spoiled in the bedroom without
her. The walls ached silence. The air, with no open windows to circulate
through, tasted like mold. There was little to explore, or maybe exploring
without her held no interest. There was a library in the hotel, but nothing
was in English except for very sloppy versions of Hello magazine: "Michael
Jackson sings 'Bad' on his the last record! Phenomenal hips! Phenomenal
waste! Phenomenal dance! Yes, Michael, yes!"
So at some point, Phil took the creaky elevator down to the lobby. A few
minor artifacts were on display there. Phil looked at a rectangular box, quite
unremarkable, except that it was lit like a celebrity. The concierge approached, in his starched shirt and wrinkled English. 'You know what's
that?"
"It's a strongbox, isn't it?"
"Indeed you're right Fiorelli's find." Phil mentioned that he'd read Fiorelli,
and asked if they loaned out any of his diaries to hotel guests. "The books
are yours, but the price is time. You must wait. Our librarian, she has taken
lunch."
Phil asked when she'd return. 'This is good a questioning as any. You
will wait. Then I will ask, and you will wait. Then I will come, and you will
know." What generic symmetry between his life and his vacation. Straying
from Ursula's house or the hotel in Naples, but more for sport than purpose; and either way, never straying very far. He still didn't know Ursula's
neighbourhood; it took thirty minutes and a touch of panic to get back to
her house from the convenience store that was four blocks away.
Ursula would need to leave for work in a moment. He really should let
her. Of course he should. But he couldn't—her presence for him was like
a dream one tries, upon waking, not to remember, but extend and proceed
into the waking hour. She angled the postcard as if calculating density.
'What am I looking at?"
"It's for Dagger." Phil's nephew had just returned from camp; Phil wanted
to send a hero's welcome. Dagger had called Phil every Friday this summer, leaving gleefully rambling phone messages when Phil was in Naples.
58 The calls were nourishing, to hear his nephew describe conquering the
immutable fears of youth: getting a flu shot without flinching, swimming in
the deep end, and oh yeah, also I learned how to avoid the girl with ugly
teeth who tried to kiss me. Why were they ugly teeth? Because they always
pointed my way.
All Phil had learned at his summer camp was how to ignore backaches.
He'd sprouted half a foot the winter before. Sleeping, what a bitch it was.
The short sheets. The spiny mattress, lumps as resistant as the dining hall
mashed potatoes.
Ursula waved the postcard. "He should take Vitamin E next summer. It'll
ward off the bugs." With her, Phil slept with his ankles hung over the
end, like a corpse in a movie. She slept in an arc, subtly bent at the knees,
elbows square to hands, forming a second pillow. Her face favoured the
window. "He'll love this. I have to run."
"No, that's not it. I wrote too much; I've got no room left to put the
stamp."
"Sure you do; just cover some of the picture with some of the stamp.
Fold the stamp in half. See, problem solved." She reached into her wallet.
"Now what can I solve for you?"
"Nothing."
"Make me feel useful." She handed him a fifty, which he refused. The
chorus giggled behind Ursula, light and wavy laughter, like soap bubbles.
Phil turned and bumped into the old man. Phil wanted some water, but a
younger man, adorned with a scowl and a crisp Caesar cut, blocked his path
to the sink.
"I don't need fifty." She pulled out another bill. "I don't need twenty."
'You need something." Ursula thrust the twenty into Phil's palm. 'Take
this."
Phil heard the chorus behind him. 'Take it take it take it," they urged.
As their voices bled into one overarching hiss, the 'Take it, take it" started
sounding like 'Ticket, ticket," and then simply, 'Tick tick tick tick tick tick."
Phil slid the bill across the counter as though positioning an area rug.
"Maybe you could pick up some dinner? In case there's no celebration
tonight?"
"Of course there's going to be a celebration, Urs."
"//"there's not, I'm saying. If not." Tape-recorded bells chimed from
outside. "When will that fucking guy learn? No one buys ice cream at eight
a.m."
"Business is brisk, actually." Fine, Phil thought, I'll take your twenty. He
could spend it on good resume paper and cook something for her instead.
That was probably what Ursula would expect, anyway. No. He'd taken too
much from her as it was. "Is pizza okay?"
"Okay, pizza." Ursula kissed goodbye. Waved at the neighbour mothers
59 buying fruit-pops for their kids. "No one will ever make me one of those,"
she'd once said. "One of those what?" Phil hoped she hadn't ruled out
motherhood. "A woman with a life bordered by walls. Doors. And windows,
windows everywhere. Looks out the window while her kids get on the bus.
Out the car window while she carpools other kids to soccer practices. Then
the house window again, waiting for her husband to come home. A window
watcher."
"So say something. I thought you were close."
"Sure. But who am I to tell her how fucked up her life is?"
Phil walked to the kitchen; the dead stared back at him, finally letting
him pass through their gauntlet of airy flesh and resistance. They appeared
off-white to Phil, with yellowish tint, sickly rather than ghostly, taut (even
the chubby ones), and their heels hovered two inches above the ground.
To Ursula's eyes, of course, they didn't appear at all. They were his field of
vision, and his alone.
For a while they kept silent. But once Phil poured himself some juice,
they started in. You won't actually go to this celebration ? Without being able
to speak intelligently about her job? Without a job of your own? This is my
lover Phil, the man with the Caesar cut mocked, batting his eyes and affecting phony pride, he's unemployed and an imbecile. Isn't he just dreamy?
***
Phil sat on the arm of a chesterfield; the cushions were covered with books.
He skimmed through the intro to one. Hmmm. This he could follow. Maybe.
With the others, even the acknowledgement pages left him guessing. Ursula
was a genius. It was a fact, both grim and grand, for him to sift through. Phil
was no genius and knew it. Admitting it didn't hurt, it had ceased hurting
years ago. He knew what he wasn't—smart or lucky—and what he was: a
crook. A one-time crook. His criminal career had consisted of one great
heist, Ursula; and how he'd stolen her he couldn't say.
That first dinner should have clued him in to what she was. The feast to
his famine. They ate at Rosy's, famous for mixes of Arabic and Tex-
Mex. She was working on two projects. He cringed through her summary of "the real one," nodding and kneading a roll in his hand as she
flew over his head with talk of craniums and carbon dating. The project
he understood was "just a favour" she was doing for her old lover
Thackeroy (a cultural anthropologist). She'd built a scale model of
Pompeii, based on newly found archives, plans and blueprints for ten
buildings which would never be built.
She showed Phil her toys on the third date. "What can I say? My brothers stole my action figures when we were kids. It's payback time." She was
erecting what would have been the town commons. Her talents were manifold: the clumsy fiberglass did look like pumice now. The distressed wood,
like bronze. He'd never seen someone work like her. She was not a shadow
60 to her job. When Phil worked he felt dislocated from himself, as though
he were only some corporate charter made flesh. But Ursula had control. She took science and bent it, as Phil bent the window-blind each
morning, to reveal an apartment of sunlight.
* * *
Ursula didn't always make sense, but her words seemed to matter, more
than the garrulous babble of most scientists. The worst was Thackeroy.
His stories were zoos of esoterica. He was a turkey at parties, but adored in
other contexts; by Ursula too, still, Phil suspected. Thackeroy had long ago
developed blindness to any setbacks to his confidence. In their first encounter, Phil had seen that in Thackeroy, and this: his was an arrogance
powerful and willful enough to substitute for charm.
This was when Phil started hiding in the basement.
In a utility closet stocked with allergens and paper. Paper in high stacks,
like majestic columns of bone, the femurs of gods. Phil couldn't say when
he would go to the basement. He didn't know. Something just stung beneath skin. Sometimes after a fight he'd provoked about money. When he
was unhappy he wanted to make her unhappy too. But she couldn't brush
him off. Ursula wasn't used to criticism; the little that came her way always
triggered some wreckage. Her emotions were too kinetic—like a heartbeat through a stethoscope, they pounded with melodrama. At some point
in these arguments, he realized that, somehow, he was hurting, was breaking her. The retreats came at times like these.
"Are you going to drink that?" The sweaty older man was eyeing Phil's
cranberry vodka. For how long? Time had few fences these days, only two:
Ursula's morning departure, and night arrival. He knew she'd called it a day
when she entered the bedroom and untethered her belt. One long motion,
sexy, deliberate, like lips brushing across a neck. Then he knew it was safe
to gather her.
"Hey, I'm dying over here. Can I get a drink or what?" As his answer, Phil
sipped down a last dash of alcohol, draining the rest slowly down the sink.
"Cocksucker." Phil turned away and opened a door. "Oh sure," the old
man said, "can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!" This was true. In the
basement, Phil had learned, he could get away from the dead. Ursula kept
a stereo in the basement and, when he turned the music up loud enough,
Phil could make the dead soft, feint, he could drown all they had to say.
***
"Good morning, Medi-cINC. How may I direct your call?"
"I'd like to participate in a study." Phil cleared his throat. He'd found a
stash of ambition in the juice and vodka, TV and dopamine, something to
spur him from the fog he could not shake on afternoons like these, when
he'd slept two or three hours too long. Some days he found it hard to
emerge from dreams of Pompeii. He dreamt about the crush of flesh, the
61 automatic society of panic ensuing. In his dreams the dogs died first,
trampled to the limestone. Then the lapilli and pelting ash. There they
were, these unsettling things, a thick butter of chaotic violence.
"Certainly. Are you a healthy, non-smoking male?"
"Say again? My respirator cut you off." Phil got a laugh. This could be
gold. Anyone clocking under nine an hour didn't laugh at jokes. Phil bet this
guy made fifteen.
"Great. And you've had Strep? And were treated with penicillin?"
'Well, here's where it's tricky. It was an antibiotic. Basically penicillin."
"Basically penicillin." The voice flattened. Phil heard a candy wrapper
rip; he reset the receptionist's wage at twelve dollars. 'Then we can 'basically' pay you. This isn't an amoxicillin study. Please read the fine print
before calling next time."
Ten dollars.
Damn. Why was this so hard? Phil had been calling this place for weeks,
impatiently trying to make himself a patient. Medi-cINC was just down the
road. Semi-skilled technicians doping their guinea pigs with drugs not quite
ingratiated to FDA constraints. Participants were held for up to two weeks,
pro rated per hour for any study they fit.
The problem was Phil didn't fit, exactly, any study. This was a surreal
failure: trying to match his maladies to their cures, hoping to run across
something wrong with him they would need.
Got Acne?
Experiencing Balding In Places Other Than The Head?
YOU MAY QUALIFY FOR $$$!
Do You Suffer From Wooden Bladder?
'What's wooden bladder?"
"If you don't know you don't have it. Please call back if—"
"Wait. Please, what else is there?"
The receptionist ruffled through pages, about to repeat a list for the
fiftieth time today; he was doing this to make money for medical school,
probably. At night he waited tables. His whole life was about memorizing
the specials. "We currently have a wide range of studies. Tell us about
yourself. What do you think is wrong with you?"
"I have a lazy eye."
The receptionist sighed. "You're too healthy. You can't help us."
"But I need this," Phil said. How hard the buried in Pompeii had clutched
their children, their gold, their prized possessions! Had they even been
running away at all? Was it possible they only wanted the gods to know what
they wanted with them in the afterlife? Wanted their gravediggers of the
future to see what they had loved?
62 Why didn't you hold onto what you had? Those were your things! You
earned them! It was true; he felt weaker for pawning his watch for quick
cash. And you weakened in her eyes, too. Maybe. No. Yes. Maybe. Pawned
all his things except his suits. And where's that money now? Under the
mattress? In a savings account? It's dried up, gone. Their voices coiled and
sprang. He wanted Ursula to see him digging out of the hole, but when he'd
pawned everything, he felt only a sensation he was adding more weight to
the spade.
Pull yourself together, jackass! Phil pulled himself together. "I'm sorry,"
he said to the receptionist. "It's only I was—in a recent accident. And I lost
much of what I owned."
"Look. I know. It's tough. I'm trying to finance a deep-sea dive myself."
'Yeah," said Phil, "I kind of sensed that about you."
"Listen, how old are you?"
"Now? Thirty."
"Okay, okay. Please hold." Hold! Hold had to be a good thing. Maybe this
wandering science was exact after all. Maybe a conversion chart existed
that would spit out income options. Then Phil could afford an incline to his
life. He could move out—not that he wanted to, but it would signal to Ursula,
I'm on my feet again. He'd ruin his asshole business partner. Ruin him
back. Take him to court. Tit for tat, eye for eye. Unclean images danced for
Phil; his bastard partner shaking before a jury of peers. Punitive damages.
Him not being able to get it up for his wife. Him staring at a gun in a glass
case. Or hung, neck frozen inside a loop of leather. Vivid and malicious and
relaxing images.
Only in the basement did Phil feel on the mend. Just a barrage of must
and mildew at first, it had come to mean something else, a stage to view his
dreams and despair with acuity. Its coarse furnishings, the confidential
congress of dark sounds, spits of heat from the colicky fur nace—all a comfort. Archipelagos of dust on the shelves that changed colour when he
stirred them. Phil was even used to the smell of cat piss. He didn't mind it
now, found it almost aromatic. Did formaldehyde smell this way to Ursula?
In revolt, do we create romance from the suffering we cannot rid ourselves
of? Would he someday learn to appreciate, or at least dismiss, last year's
bankruptcy? Right now his anger and anxiety seemed fraught with an endlessness that left his breath shallow.
The receptionist clicked back over. "Call back in five years."
"Five what?"
"Prostate." Phil heard a book shut. This chase was over. "It may be on
the blink by then. Best advice I can give you. Check regularly." What do I
look for? 'You'll know when you feel it. Lumps, for instance, are good. Call
us first thing if you feel lumps."
He hung up, needing to move, remaining in his seat. His bladder wasn't
63 wooden. His eye not lazy enough. Everything about him was really quite
fine, and he told himself this as he stared through the bedroom window.
This couldn't be a call he'd make in five years. He couldn't imagine
his decline lasting this long. Vesuvius had taken mere minutes to erupt.
He would call again later today, after a nap. Try, try. Try again.
"Why so glum, champ? Another stamp crisis?" The dead smirked as Phil
crossed into the kitchen. He was, he knew, more susceptible to attack than
most. Phil recalled the second date. The meal he'd cooked for Ursula had
burned badly. Thinking quickly, he ordered Chinese from a restaurant that
made food lame and limp enough to pass as Phil-riginals. With nothing to do
but wait for the deliverer, he boned up on Pompeii. He meant to study
carbon dating, but got caught up in the myths. Vulcan, despite his ability to
create destruction, was a minor God. Scorned and rebuked by the others.
Vulcan was comic relief for the deities, the 98-lb weakling of the cosmos.
And yet he was sated. In love with, and loved by, Venus. Who was many
things, none of them minor. Venus was protection. On her back rode
Pompeii's prosperity. Her divinity edified the people, allayed their paranoia
over the corporal fragility of their home. There were plans to rename the
town Pompeii Veneris. And who do you love, Venus? Somehow, she doted
on Vulcan. Devoted herself, despite the imbalance of power, for him.
"Maybe your girl can help...it is tough remembering which side to lick,
and which to leave alone." The old man crumpled a soda can with surprising force. Was that a real can? How had he done that? "I meant to
ask, by the way," he continued, "did she choose you for her community-
service, or were you court-appointed?"
Bottle the pressure; blot it. She was enough to sate him. She had to be.
Just as Vulcan endured the browbeating, endured even his own ugliness
and belittlement until a moment of explosive reckoning, so would he.
Phil closed the bedroom door and removed his clothes. Her belt from
yesterday hung from the headboard, the strips of leather entwined like a
caduceus. This belt, he had removed. This has been them. Hearts folded
over one another. Skin steamed close, kisses and moans. The rage and
chatter muted, for a moment, into even harmony. Like in those moments in
Italy, when she would escape from the conference and the plenary sessions, to be with him—with him!—on the hotel mezzanine. They split
Pellegrino, scanned the town over. The heat was like a tide finally cresting;
they imagined the fountains below worked, and that their waterworks had
risen up, to wash and cool both their bodies, from the soured skies, the
quarrelling earth. And not a trace of dissonance. Venus and Vulcan.
***
More bad dreams. In these Phil saw the arrogant faith that precipitated
Pompeii's collapse. After an earthquake in 63 A.D., the city was left to lick
its wounds. They had done wrong by the gods. Efforts were installed to
64 rebuild the weak union. To plead for the dormancy of Vesuvius, to please
Venus. Years followed without incident, though, and a proud strut resumed in the city. The town stood rebuilt. Christ had fallen, his shadow
yet to complicate Mesopotamia.
One man, Ursula said, had been uncovered in the stocks beneath the
Basilica. An older man, punished for releasing horses under his charge.
The man claimed his crime had been pursued "with solemnity and forethought. The beasts possess more sense than we. Of late they seem to beg
to leave Pompeii, and cannot. We might do so, but refuse."
Positing such a dread future in the midst of tranquil times was tantamount to treason. Still, judges planned to commute his sentence. They
waited too long.
***
Ursula's call woke him early in the evening: 'You sitting or standing?" She
spoke in blurts he strained to hear. Too many others talking. Was the
talking coming from her end, or his? Background rustling, was the line
about to go dead? And then a gunshot? Only more hollow, like the tube that
travelled through the underground lungs of a drive-through bank.
"What's that sound?" Phil asked.
"I don't know what...oh. That! Cork. Popping cork."
"Where are you? Are you okay?" His concern was out of control, unsightly. She believed in him beyond what he afforded himself. How stupid
and lofty to believe devotion for another could ultimately balance the self.
"No, I'm not. You're not okay, I'm not okay. But what we are is rich. I'm
rich, you're rich, everybody's rich, rich!" The results had come back. Her
project had been funded. Phil suddenly felt sick with hunger. A queasiness
not entirely separate from last year, when he'd stood on the subway platform, toes over the yellow line, to feel the train sounds bang through his
stomach. His partnership had just dissolved. One hand held a summons,
the other, a framed degree.
"So this is the big one!" Ursula shouted tentatively. "This changes our
lives! You, me, everyone." He'd have believed this once, but not now: there'd
be no ornamental car, no trophy condo, no shameless tourist's cruise between decrepit port cities.
The money wouldn't alter Ursula, it never had. This was a woman who
still fused bright-coloured balls out of the apple slices of soap from showers
past. We all carry peculiar perceptions of how to maintain our economies.
With Phil it was a tipping scam. If he ate at a coffee shop where gratuity was
just another covert tax, when the cashier turned, Phil would slam pennies
into the tip jar so they'd sound like quarters. Though he wondered if the
nickel-and-dimed employees weren't attuned to such subtle tricks with noise
and echo. He was, since the disaster; the sound of money had grown louder.
"Buona fortuna! Adesso si da al bel tempo. Vale a dire, beve fino a essa
65 fondera."
"Who is that?" Phil asked.
"Excuse me, baby." Ursula cupped the phone's low end. "E un vero
vulcano di cattveria! Ciao bella!" Beautiful; Thackeroy. Trying to steal her
back in Italian now. His ambition wasn't only overt, it was bilingual.
Phil cut in to tell her 'congratulations', and that he thought something
might be burning. "I'll let you go," Ursula said. "I think your line's going
dead, anyway."
***
Phil made for the basement. He flipped a switch; brightness beat into his
eyes, forcing them shut a moment. How could light, so crucial to survival,
overload us so easily sometimes, tear the eyes when we've been deprived
of it for too long? Perhaps Ursula could study those evolutions, but they'd
have to wait. She'd become a movement. She would go tonight to a party to
be introduced to and mugged by anyone of importance in the science community, and she would do it all with her date in a clinic. Medi-cINC had
phoned back, late that afternoon, five till five: they needed him. Phil was to
be a key participant in a no-doubt vital study on cold sores.
But it's work, it's money, it's good fortune. If you respect good fortune,
you take it. When you expect it, you give it away.
You should never have gone to Naples. Given away all that time. What
did you accomplish there, or learn about yourself? Other than that you can
play the dormant sidekick?
Music. Drown-out music. Phil lowered his finger down the rack of CDs
like a priest beginning to trace a cross. He wanted it bright and loud. Wanted
music hard to keep from dancing to, music so loud it would blow the chorus
out of his head. He chose mambo, and lay on the concrete, back on cool
floor, feet in air. He'd slept this way many nights in summer camp, after
losing battles with the bed.
He heard the fist of brass, the high-pitched drum land on the second
beat, like a miner's hammer ticking at a mountain range, greedy but patient
for treasure, or the instruments Ursula used to break dirt from skulls without doing damage.
Ursula! How in Hell had the grant come through? Even she'd admitted
her funding proposal was porous. She'd been working on this for years—
"my enchilada," she called it—a study to create a mock-up of the perfect
simian cranium. But secretly she thought it was a dead end, that its mystery would outrun her perseverance.
"What I'm after is selective, human-sponsored, manipulated atavism.
Nothing less." Her fork stroked over couscous. "Pass the salt."
"Salt for what?"
"The coleslaw." She looked at the food as though it were another table's
order. "Anyway. It's work I'm proud of. Of course, it spits in the face of the
66 organic evolution cadre..." Um, Ursula. "But that's fine, I'm a good
spitter." Ursula..."Yeah, Phil?"
"My 'D' in Biology was practically bought. My parents had to get a
mortgage."
"Sorry." Her bottom lip bent, sorrowful and pouty in the wisdom and
passion she couldn't share. "I'll stop."
"Don't stop, just break it down. Way down. Not chunks. Not bits. Splinters."
"I'm not a doomsday woman, like some of them." She'd explained
Thackeroy. A tranquilizer with a pulse, she'd called him; but Phil could tell
her heart was much more forgiving than she let on. She was getting over
him still. Who could claim otherwise? Ifs as though the lovers we leave and
friends we lose do not drift and drift until gone from sight, but rather lie
down beneath us, waiting to trip our path.
He watched her eat and it pleased him: she ate her salted coleslaw with
a spoon, couscous with a fork. A woman intimate with the most sophisticated tools still lacked a handle on basic dinnerware.
"I believe the human form is moving toward perfection. But you know
how some medicines cause problems as debilitating as what they cure?
Our enlightenment climbs at that same jagged pace."
"We de-evolve?"
Ursula nodded, spoon in mouth. She stirred sugar into her teacup with a
middle finger. Phil watched a melted candle coagulate, its journey from
solid to liquid back to solid complete. "Sounds right," he said, "My ex-business partner fits that. He's scheduled to revert into protoplasm next week."
"Ex, huh? So you've moved on?"
"I've, yes. That."
"Bad mix?"
"Oh, I'll tell you stories..." But he never did. The fact of Phil's poverty
became clear to Ursula in the weeks ahead. But not the how. When pressed,
Phil revealed only generic samples of the fallout.
Phil removed from the shelves a box, six inches deep and a foot wide
and long. It had been hand-painted with acrylics by an old lover; there were
scrapes in the paint, unliving scars where he'd sliced her artwork in the
nights following the break-up.
Phil stammered through the old love letters as the furnace rumbled;
these were other partnerships he'd never imagined would end. But here
was evidence they had, from first insults to flared endings. He wished he
didn't have to keep these letters. But he did. He needed them for now.
There were so many stubs to look through. The refrain that kept surfacing
as the mambo played and Phil read through it was surrender. "Giving up for
you is a form of exercise," one lover wrote. "Once you knew you had me,
you started looking for ways to fritter me away."
67 In Pompeii, the effect of the earthquake that startled the town into
subservience had in time faded. The priests stopped imploring the gods
for providence, and began to expect it. A few years later, Vesuvius. The
priests were left to their failed meteorology, their inaccurate forecasting of the mood of the gods. Some scrambled for a quick sacrifice, stalling for time. Others chose suicide, a vote of flesh. What if that were the
root of all tragedy? When we decide to stop begging for grace?
Ursula was good at being jivey with herwork. One night, they viewed an
odd sociology video about a group of cannibals in Holland who were trying
to break off into an organized sect. They wanted to go legit. They would
design currency, draft a charter, apply to credit unions. "How would you
write them if you wanted their business?" Ursula wondered. They wrote a
fake letter from such a potential company: the salutation read, 'To 'Eats His
Own'". Something about her made a mess of his stoic depression. It was
heroism, somehow, to admit vulnerability in her presence. To believe it
belonged in the world.
***
Much later that night, hours after the celebration had ended without him,
Phil walked into the bedroom. He pressed his pants to his skin so the
jangling keys wouldn't wake Ursula. She kicked at the sheets; a glow of
drool rested near her, a kidney-shaped pool below the chin. Her face
twitched and winced. It would be a difficult hangover.
He clung to the dress she'd worn. One of his favourites: steeple-backed
straps, a thick hem, coloured a moody shade of plum. He could still smell
the perfume, the perspiration, the cigarettes she'd smoked nonchalantly.
The sex of her indented the air. She'd danced in this dress, obliged boys
she'd schooled with as a doctoral candidate, who'd been chasing her for
years and who she didn't mind throwing bones to. Hugged countless times
through this fabric. Phil imagined Thackeroy draping her in shameless
conceit. Begging kisses after toasts.
And she drank in this dress. When did it start? When she realized Phil
wasn't coming, when the highway fell quiet; that's when she began seeking
the waiters out, begging doubles. She'd hit herself hard in the last hour.
Phil guessed who took her home, and whether she'd considered keeping
her seat belt on. There was not much spite in her. But there was a trace, a
tremor.
"I'm so proud of you." As though she were a child sleeping through
church service, unimpressed with the testimonials from former lost souls,
she did not stir. "I'm done downstairs. I need to be by you."
Ursula scooted to one side. Dragged the sheet for Phil to slip under. In
sleep, forgiveness comes with an ease and grace not matched in the working light of life. In daytime there is pride to contend with, crevices of doubt,
wariness. At night there seems to be only gesture. Lock the door or give up
68 half the bed. Request a conditional pardon, or wait out your time in the
basement.
Which had he done tonight? He'd gotten through the cold sore study
none the worse for wear, no biopsies, no sluggish aftershock from drugs,
no damage. The desk clerk had handed Phil his remittance slip for three
hundred dollars with a smile. She liked Phil; they'd been comrades-in-unattractive-jobs. She'd told him how to fake an anxiety attack so the attendants
would be forced to roll a TV into his room. But she had gazed at Phil so
oddly afterwards, when he explained Ursula, and the celebration he'd
skipped to come to Medi-cINC.
He didn't need the map to return. Every post and beam other than
those to Ursula's house seemed to sink back into the earth. With each
step, though, he found himself weakening. What had the desk clerk said to
him? Are you sure here is where you should have been tonight? He asked
her what she meant, did she think he'd made a bad decision? But her face
only tightened calmly, like a mannequin's, as the dot matrix printer whirred
behind her, printing up the proof that he had earned his check.
Phil walked on, drained by silence. He wanted the chorus to show. If
they would only speak, even to lampoon him...Phil had never been out this
late, alone: never before known a sky so free of stars and nature's crowded
restlessness. The palms didn't sway; weeping willows hung still. Eyelashes
of terra cotta grass never batted. The ghostly calm hiss of the streetcleaner's
brushes was absent. Had he been wrong to stand her up? Who said recovery wasn't grim? Who said that in the hard process of relocating what you've
lost, you won't lose even more in the wake? No voices were around to mock
him or approve, to galvanize him one way or another. As the streets continued, Phil continued with them, towards Ursula's home.
This too was alien terra. He pulled the sheets up over his chest, ankles
dangling over the end: this bed which was his to lose. He had never known
such an invitation, an invitation for nearness like this. He'd had to tap dance
into women's lives, and labour to remain. But Ursula hadn't needed a prompt;
it was and continued to be her offering. He kissed her open mouth; it was
filled with the chalky mosh of nicotine and gin.
'Why tailor's chalk?" Phil had asked her once. She was working another
long Sunday in the lab, making her marks, her scrawl's wide swoon like
unwound paper clips. He was there to pull her away to a picnic.
"What else would I use?"
"There must be something. Black pencil? Electric tape?" After all, these
were measurements that mustn't be misread, crucial millimetres. Science
begged perfection of its practitioners; yet she used chalk that barely showed
up against the white bone.
"I imagine where the marks should be on my drive over. And they're
where I imagine." He walked over to Ursula's desk and felt the skulls other
69 paradise men, their hybrid intellects etched together, their meagre gifts
assembled on one head. To think, he thought, we might yet prove perfectible. Nimble enough to outrun our mediocrity. But she could see
this? Faint etchings against the enamel and jaw hinges? Chicken scratch
examining an occipital bone from a long-obsolete ancestor, which might
protect us in a way ours now failed to?
He wished Ursula could measure him with such ease. Wished it for
himself. This mirror of love—reciprocity—frightened him. He guided his
hands along the curve other skull. He wanted her eyes. Her faith. What
she owned was difficult to sleep beside. It was rattling thunder on a window.
A presence so intense it must be near. But no; gaze through the window
long enough and you knew. That heat, that sound, that strength, was all so
faraway.
70 Jason Dewinetz two poems
Assorted Spaces Between
Simple movements,
yet some days
even gesture turns unreliable.
Lifting cigarette to mouth
or the unnoticed habit of eyelid.
Elbow a loon stretching to find air.
Dentists who pull out their own teeth
with their hands.
Tonight
there is a division
between the epistemology of sight
and the acts of my hands
a silence between the muscles of my back
that like roots find their way
to the movement of
even this writing
A wire bridge over water
Constantly aware of this distance
Someone has taken the knife you gave me
and sawed through this cable.
71 'About the spiders"
i
That summer you stopped for a swim
and stayed for a few days
in the green boathouse,
bringing a box of food
bottle of bourbon   soft curl
of hip towards stomach   an open hand
over my mouth.
Waking me that afternoon to swim
out into cool Okanagan
past bobbing plastic bottles   and down
breathless to touch the red tongue of radiator
anchoring the neighbour's boat,
not knowing I'd given up bourbon for vodka.
Coffee at night
steaming on the green Coleman.
2
Calf tensed   stretching
holding your purple Bic lighter
and burning white cotton egg-sacks
from the corners of this room,
burst out of shadow like new stars.
3
Red canoe tied to the rotten pier,
arms sore after paddling from Ellison park.
Numb with rhythm
72 like breathing.
Touching your back now,
you are on the plastic lawn chair.
I am spreading oil onto skin
glinting like trout   warm
spreading this mirror into you.
4
Soon you would break apart
and fall   thread like
into grey sand.
Water streaming into loose grass
like karst, hidden passages
beneath my scratched feet.
Turning back to look at me
skin of your breasts embroidered
woven designs from the chair.
Twist into this
hook
Pushing into your mouth   a kicking insect,
tongue   taking your palimpsest body and
finding new tastes.
73 5
Throwing a brick into the fire pit.
Shoulder lit from sparks
crawling out into night
towards the lake,
sweat along the base of spine and
a tongue tasting this     or
webbing you with fingers.
You won't sleep    in there
all those tiny blacknesses
out for revenge
yet
you trust these hands
finding clarity and pushing into you    devouring.
6
Waking to waves
twitching like fish on the beach,
bits of us sticky as blood,
your spit in my beard   sand on my
lips    weak    broken    sick    blue above us
a new ceiling to be charted.
Moving in hangover,
intricately.
74 Kim Ki-Rim
translated from the Korean by Shannon Hudgens
The Butterfly and the Sea
Since no one has let her in on the water's depth
the white butterfly feels no fear at all for the sea.
Believing it a blue radish patch she dips low,
salting the young wings in the break
and like a princess, exhausted, returns.
Flowers on a March sea don't blossom;
in the butterfly's back, a blue shiver of moon.
75 Hafez
translated from the 14th Century Persian by Russell Thornton
The Dark Night of the Lover
Wine-bearer, circulate and offer the cup,
for love seemed easy at first, but now it is difficult.
Because of the smell of the musk-pod the wind will release at last
from that lock,
and because of each musk-fragrant wave of her hair, what blood
has spilt in men's hearts.
In the halting-place of the Beloved, what security of pleasure can I have,
when every instant
the caravan bells' anguished cry informs me: Lift up your burden; Depart.
Colour your prayer-mat with wine if the magian tells you to,
for that traveller is not without knowledge of the way and manner
of the stages of love.
The dark night! The fear of the wave! The terror of the whirlpool!
What can the light-burdened on the shore know of our state?
Because of my self-interest, all my actions have, in the end, drawn me
into infamy.
How long will the secret they speak of in the gatherings remain secret?
If you long for the Beloved's presence, do not be absent from the Beloved,
Hafez;
when you meet the one you desire, say farewell to the world, abandon
everything.
76 w<f,i;jii/(j/{sl}ij'
77 Lee Ann Mortensen
On Stage
I, Teresa, woman of muscle, am here on stage in a Phoenix auditorium,
seeing only lights and knowing there are people down there watching
me, my body tan in this spiritually white bikini. Or at least that is what
Linda, my trainer, says about white, that it is powerful and can help me win.
I flare my lats like Linda has shown me, make my veins large for the audience, and they moan, wanting to touch me, to see if I am real. I pull my arms
above my head to give everyone a good look. I let them see my indented
triceps full of lines and sinew. The soundman plays Cuban music that goes
off on its own, and I stand still and sweat, flexing my quads until they shake
and the people I can't see below me are clapping and whistling. Pastified
judges are in front pointing at my muscular flaws, my asymmetrical pectorals and unaligned left gastrocs. I dance my body around for them, twisting
in the ways Linda taught me to twist. I try to look for her out there, sitting,
perhaps, with my staring, flirting boss and his blonde, staring children.
I know they all want to be like me, a woman made of muscle.
When the song ends, I run off stage to see if there are notes in my bag,
notes from Linda saying she still wants to train me, still wants to live with me
even though I am less holy, less celibate, less Navajo than she is. But when
I open my bag, there are only messages from Judge # 4, the one whose
back is bent, the one who is always trying to take me out for drinks and ice
cream and kissing after I win things with my body.
'Your abdominals. They are so ooooooh," he says when he inspects my
bikini before every show. This is the kind of winking man who makes
me want to throw things as he touches me, as he looks for evidence of
cheating or excess. His pinches and remarks remind me of the barrio
boy who came at me once, angry and touching, thinking I owed him
something. Judge #4 sometimes puts his hand on my gluteals that same
way, as if I were the kind of girl who likes to put out. He does not think I
could break his arm with a breath. I like to think I could do this, just look
at someone and do violence. I like to think I could scare.
Sometimes, after all the judges have gone away, after they have felt and
pinched at me and I have stood there taking it, I like to sit backstage and
throw things. I pick up another body builder's cold cream jar and throw it
against the wall to watch it explode. All that mess gives me a power I never
feel at home with Linda. Five years ago, she wanted me to be like one big
78 muscle because that was what she was, sinew and body and years of
starvation. Now she has hit her cultural mid-life crisis. When she stopped
kissing me her body became a withered stick. Not long after she stopped
looking at me. She said she knew what I was thinking, that I was too in
love with the physical. She told me this was the beginning of death.
"Celibacy is the only way toward perfection," she told me a few months
ago. She had already started to lose her muscles, but the idea of celibacy
was, at the time, a surprise, and all I could do was look at her, my hand on
her blonde thigh, my trainer, my lover, gone mad.
"Sex is only for the here and now," she said. "I have seen what is important. I have a vision."
Linda likes to think she is prophetic. Perhaps she is. Her lips are not
what they once were. Her hip bones protrude. Her eyes go big at slight
noises. It's all for her own good, she tells me, looking sad and celestial,
looking much too small for a big woman. This is why I think of sex all day
and dream of it at night.
Linda once got the comments I get now. 'You could be a barbell model,"
Judge #4 told me backstage one night after checking for illegal bodily extras. He looked at my shoulders and my neck and breasts for too long, like
he owned them. Then he gave me his card, a small barbell engraved in the
centre.
"I run an agency," he said. "Famous all over the valley."
"Lovely," I said, and kissed the card, leaving my lip stains there, knowing
he was the kind of man who would want to kiss these stains of mine late at
night when his wife was snoring beside him.
I have collected and kissed many cards by now, mostly from lawyers and
retired police officers who want to stare without being slapped, who think
that I am here for them. Sometimes though, when I am lucky, I find notes in
my bag from other kinds of men, visitors, replacements, and uninitiated
fans like sheep ranchers and prickly pear farmers who think they like big
women.
"I enjoy it most when you flex your calves," said a new judge once after
a difficult competition. The large sign with a #3 on it still hung around his
neck as he talked to me, as he stared. He was a Latino in a straw cowboy hat,
looking anything but judge-like, looking so young, so smiley. I scraped oil
off my body and watched him closely to see if his eyes or his mouth Were
anything like the barrio boy's. But this one did not look like the type who
would follow a woman, or shove her, or yell at her in an old city gym about
fucking and gringa bitches. The heat would not get to this man that way. He
was more of a ranchero type, like the ones who live by South Phoenix
mercados and grow grapefruit. He was soft. His eyes were not angry at the
world. He spoke to me in an accent I have always wanted to speak in.
"Are you a Latina?" he asked. My hair is dark, and I could tell it made
79 him want to discuss the old neighbourhood.
"No," I told him. "My father stopped being Mexican a long time ago.
He's a Mormon now."
A small mustache covered the smooth youth of this judge's skin, and I
almost touched his face right there, but I had oil on my hand. Linda would
have looked at him and laughed at his tiny, slim body.
"I know what good muscles look like," he said. I could tell he was only
guessing at what symmetry and cuts meant, only hoping to give the right
scores. "I'm filling in for the judge from Peoria," he said, biting his mustache.
The other competitors in the room were watching him as he pulled on the
dark hair under his hat, blushing and shy.
'You're so smooth," I told him. 'You shouldn't have a mustache."
"I look like a baby without it," he said.
He asked me to flex my biceps for him, and I did.
'You're so cheap," said one of the other women as we walked out of the
changing room. They have always been jealous of me. They only wish the
judges would fall in love with them.
That night the ranchero let me shave the mustache off him, me behind
his back putting on the cream, washing off the razor after every pass,
trying not to make cuts or bur ns. The cream came off in neat rectangles as
he told me about Margarita, and Xotchil, and Jimena, his tall sisters who
grew cattle in Nuevo Leon. I watched his talking mouth in the mirror and
nodded and laughed at his stories about cows and wind storms. While he
talked, I noticed that the smooth, hairless skin on his back could be anyone's skin, Linda's after a day in the sun, or the barrio boy's. I kissed his
skin there, and it was sweet at first, but then I began to feel my throat
collapsing dry, filling with the bile of these people who think they can own
me.
For a moment, I held the razor, a plastic disposable, in front of his soft
neck. I imagined I could control him from back here like the barrio boy
controlled me, like Linda controls me, and that if I wanted to make a change
and see blood and death, if I wanted some kind of cleansing, some sense of
real power, it would have to happen now. I pressed the razor in, but he was
smiling. He was rubbing my razor-holding hand. His lips were like children's lips, with cream around the edges.
When I was done with the shaving, I could see he was right. He did look
like a baby, so I put my mouth all over his baby lips and body, and for an
evening I had fun. I almost didn't think of Linda at all, and how she would
look at me, unholy and impure. I almost stopped imagining she could see
the two of us through some cosmic telescope. As the ranchero shaved my
already smooth legs, I even smiled. He laughed as I bit his toenails, unaware that his life had been, for a moment, a thinness ready to disappear in
front of me.
80 'Terry, you are so reckless," Linda told me after I got home, laughing and full of cervezas. "He could be anyone. He could have guns. He
could have a disease. Then where would your muscles be?" She stood
in front of me looking calm, but would not move or let me walk past her.
Then she touched my arm. "Don't you want to be better than this?"
"He was very young," I said. 'Very quiet and smooth." Linda had been
training my muscles and fucking my body for the last five years, but her
face was foreign to me now.
'You don't really want my help. You need to be on your own. I can sense
these things." She walked into the kitchen, her small back moving away
from me.
Linda has always thought of herself as more knowing than other women.
"I won tonight," I told her, holding up my new trophy. "They were all
clapping and stomping. I hit my extensions perfectly." I looked at her back.
"I was really it."
'You want only what distracts," Linda said. From the front door, I could
see her drinking something with leaves in it.
"I don't care, I don't want to know about your higher purposes," I told
her, my voice cracking and dry. Linda does that to me, makes me just a little
afraid, unsure of where to stand, even though I am twice her body size. I
looked to see if she would react, but her face was like gritty rocks. I touched
the striated veins on the back of my hand and said, "A big girl like me has to
have an outlet. You of all people should understand."
'Your mind is too out of control," she said, ignoring me. 'Your body could
go at any minute. You like food too much. Your hair is too thick. I have to
think of higher things now."
'You are so omniscient," I said. But I knew she was right. I was on the
verge of something uncontrollable. My celibate, mystical Linda is right too
often, and lately I find myself wanting to hate her for it all.
***
It has been three days since I've seen Linda and her blonde, Navajo ways,
even though I have been living in her house and running through her
backyard desert and past her newly constructed sweat lodge, looking for
her or her body, but hoping for something more. She hasn't been around to
make me lettuce sandwiches or watch my caloric intake. She hasn't been in
the weight room to spot me, or make me do sit-ups until I want to bleed, or
touch me with her once sharp and colourful nails. She left no messages, no
notes to say she was angry at my muscles, that they were not getting big
enough or lean enough, that they weren't celibate enough for her. There
were no notes saying my unruly thoughts were giving her headaches, or
that my old sex partners were calling too much. As I stepped through the
house, flexing naked and tight in front of Linda's mirrors, laying face down
on her scratchy carpet to stretch my gluteals and look under the bed for
81 any signs of her, I could see that all of Linda's astrological magazines
were stacked neatly in their spiritual places under the mattress, dusty
from lack of use. The one she had been reading the night I came home
from my last competition was still open on the edge of the bathroom
sink.
I walked by each corner of the house to see if she had hidden anything
from me, a burned incense stick or a piece of wine-soaked sage. A Navajo
horoscope. An etching on the wall. A sand painting in the tub. She started
doing things like that a few months ago after she saw Frederick, my bank
boss and our neighbour, try to kiss me in his back yard.
"He likes my quads," I told her.
As we lay in bed later that night, she said, 'You would sleep with anything."
"At least I am still living," I said.
'You know how I feel about it," she said.
And now Linda wasn't here. I felt bad for hating her. I sat on the couch for
hours, holding onto the cushions. Around 2 a.m., ten hours after not seeing
her, I took a flashlight and walked outside to look at her newly constructed
sweat lodge. I wanted to see if she had etched anything into the mud walls,
but all I felt when I touched it was smoothness and radiating heat. Linda
made it one week when I was on the Arizona Body Builders Tour for
Leukemia. As I sweated for cancer, as I pumped in the dark, old rooms, as
people who had never seen women with muscles asked if they could touch
and if I had implants, Linda was praying in other languages and stirring mud
into puddles in her back yard. As I was pointing my toes painfully to maintain maximum gastroc definition, Linda was chanting and braiding twigs. I
came home on a Saturday night, and looked out the kitchen window to see
a brown dome where an ocotillo bush had been.
"I had to have something. This is a safe, natural space," Linda said. There
was mud all over the carpet and in Linda's thinning hair.
"I am the same as I was. This is the real me. Pretense is dead."
And now my nirvana woman was gone and I was partially dressed and
outside, looking at the opening of her manic creation. It was a hole, really,
small and close to the ground, made to humble. I turned on the flashlight,
and pointed it around the unfenced yard, then inside the sweat lodge.
As I sat inside it, dust got on my hamstrings while I smelled the remainder of incense sticks and Linda's sweaty, spiritual perfumes. Near the mud-
packed opening of the lodge was a collection of dead lizards, neatly lined up
side by side, drying there for some spiritual potion she would no doubt
make herself later, if she came back.
Then something moved at the far side of one wall, and dust went swirling. I thought for a second that I saw a face. I squinted, then closed my eyes.
Not even Linda can make me see what isn't there.
82 "It's not unusual," Darryl tells me four days later when I call him. My
old, fat boyfriend who once fucked Linda is the man who's house has
dead tumbleweeds and grocery sacks pushed up against window screens
from afternoon winds. His dead yard is filled with dog shit. He is the
neighbour everyone wants to kiss, but once I thought I loved him. I lay
on the bed, listening to him sounding peeved because I'm not still living
with him, helping him binge on chocolates and pies, helping him feel
better about being fat and afraid of the heat and the people outside. "She
used to always go off to lunar conventions before her husband and kids
moved away. It's nothing new. If you don't want my cheesecakes you
can just get used to it."
"She hasn't done it before," I say. As I lay there, I felt weightless at not
knowing she was still somewhere in Arizona, sleeping at the same time as
me, sweating when I was sweating. I couldn't know if she was dreaming at
the same time I was of saunas and muscles, of violence and sand and sex.
Now she could be anywhere, in Mexico or Europe, or even with my brown
father and white mother in Peru, with their rain forests and baptisms and
terrorists who only look into your eyes when pulling the trigger.
***
During the wet monsoon nights before the fourth body building competition of the Arizona season, I sit and stare at the gun I finally bought after
Darryl showed me what it felt like to hold one correctly, even though the
gun he had was small and stolen from a grocery delivery boy. After calling
my mother to hear another of her terrorist stories, of bombs going off, of
dead chauffeurs, after dreaming about the barrio boy and waking up alone
with no Linda in the house, and after being whistled at by those Latin
grapefruit pickers, I went to the gun store. The pickers' words were still in
my head as I looked through the sight of the salesman's largest short
barrel magnum. Those men had called me a maricon and a transvestite
because they were not sure. I could be anything with calves like this, I
know. But I still walk like a woman, and after they stopped me on my way to
lunch and tried to touch my breasts, after the one looked so much like that
barrio boy I could hardly move. I sat in my office and flexed and flexed,
feeling like explosive air at high altitudes. As I left work early, I passed by
Frederick's office and tried not to look at the new 8x10 glossy he had of me
holding a trophy in my white bikini. I tried not to show him that this big-
bodied woman was afraid.
And now I'm sitting here in Linda's house, looking at my gun and hoping
it will give me what I need. The gun is blue black and polished, a colour like
something Linda would put on her nails to prepare for a bad day. If she were
here today instead of lost in a sand storm, no doubt taking these last few
weeks off from work and from me to try and find her aura in the dust, I
would tell her to paint those once long, cool nails this colour of black. I would
83 hold my .44 on the bathroom sink and say, "Paint your nails like this." I
would even try to sound angry, to make sure she knew what effect she had.
There was a time when she would let me rub my lips over her nails to
feel their smoothness that is like fur. I would lay there with her, my lips on
her fingers, my muscles aching from squats as I smelled her Noxema and
the perfume of her woolly suits. I would listen to her Tuba City stories of
drunken dogs and pow-wow encounters until all we could do was laugh. She
would rub light swirls on my naked back and tell me about the husband and
children she hadn't seen for many years. And as I fell asleep I would think
her lips were saying the word "love."
But things have changed. If Linda were here and sleeping right now, I
would have insomnia, for her nails, her celibacy, her regimen of starvation
do that to me, make me sleepless and constricted. I would be next to her
cool body, thinking nothing could intrude on my last pleasure, the absolute
silence of touching skin, but then I would remember Linda was changing,
and in my weakness I would remember the barrio boy. I think of him now.
I let him touch me, I let him make me too afraid to punch or move. I let him
show me who I thought I used to be. When I think of this I want to go down
to South Phoenix with my gun, driving fast, looking for him, seeing something, shooting, and later putting a dead boy in a park or a ditch. The news
would say the gangs had started to go wild again. Even with these muscles
and bulk, even though I could have bench pressed him or flattened him
with an arm twitch, I did nothing. His eyes were so angry they were almost
yellow.
Now that I am armed I decide to go to South Phoenix to show myself
there is nothing to be afraid of. I get out of my car by the lime orchards and
walk in my overstuffed jacket in the heat. My black shorts show off the
heavy power of my shaved legs. My .44 in its shoulder holster pulls tight
against the obliques and breastless breasts. When I bought the gun the
man said, "That's not a woman's gun, but I guess a woman like you doesn't
care." I shook my head to reassure him.
When I walk through the barrio, I can feel the weight of the bullets and
metal close to my skin, and I almost laugh. I'm in public. I have a gun. But
there is something to it, its weight, its liveliness, and I start feeling like I can
look anyone in the eyes, maybe even Linda, and tell them all to fuck off.
This makes me smile for the first time since I shaved and kissed the smooth
ranchero.
***
Three days later, after my visit to the south side made me feel confident
enough to hit one of the grapefruit pickers and yell at them all until they
ran, I even tell my boss I can't come see him for a while. I was able to hang
up on him. He called back and I didn't answer. This is me, feisty and pumped
and ready.
84 Darryl calls and I tell him to fuck off.
"How rude," he says. To hear him sound bewildered makes me smile
for several hours. I sit on the couch all toothy, looking at my legs and
liking them. For a moment, as the sun moves down Linda's picture window, I think of leaving this house, of throwing my tailored work suits in a
bag and driving off, never to see the sweat lodge or my weaknesses
ever again.
Then Linda appears, walking in without knocking or waving, and the air
leaves my body. She says, "I always find exotic things."
"I don't care what you think you've found," I tell her. I'm mad she's here
to interrupt me. I hold my leg up to flex the quad, trying to act like the body
builder she has made me into, a woman who cares only for her own flesh
and no one else's. The only time she leaves me alone is when she thinks I
am a mindless muscle.
Linda walks in front of me. She must not be in the mood to be ignored.
She's in baggier-than-before shorts, looking dusty and a little greasy, a little
dehydrated with her peeling, burnt skin that has been in the sun for more
than a month. I can see scratches and cuts on her shoulders.
'You look thinner," I tell her. 'You've been whipping yourself again." Her
mystical atonements, her self-induced starvation, and the Sonoran sun are
making her transparent, like old, beaten glass.
"I'm becoming holy," she says, sitting far away from me. She does not
want me to kiss her or be close or touch her ragged nails, but I don't want to
do any of these things now. We sit there for a while, and she looks at me. I
know I am a blank. Later as she showers and rubs the dirt and mud off her
body, I sit on the couch and watch a high cloud dust storm come in from the
southeast. I want to think that her holy presence, cleansed by the heat and
dirt of the desert, will not infect me again.
***
The pose down is a strange event in body building. All of us slide around
each other trying to get the judges to notice, to see our bodies first and the
careful deprivation we have put them through, to see that our legs have
done the most squats, that our triceps have been the most perfectly tortured. Still, this exhibitionism always takes an extra effort for a shy girl like
me.
"Just imagine you are alone," Linda told me after my first competition. I
didn't want to touch anyone because they were sweaty, and so I flexed
behind them, unseen until it was over and the others were going back to
the dressing room.
'You need to think, 'front of the stage.' Push them all out of the way if
you have to," Linda said. 'You're bigger than they are."
Now, during this seventh competition of the season, during my 6th year
of pumping and squeezing, I pose down better than anyone as I try to
85 imagine I am alone while pushing at the other bodies that are so much
like mine, so inhuman. I now imagine there are no women surrounding
me, or touching me with their oiled hands, or slipping their shiny biceps
in front of my face. I imagine their sweat doesn't really drop on my eyelashes. Still, as we show ourselves off in every competition, one woman
always leans against me to lift her leg for a hamstring flex, and I try to
imagine I don't see her, or feel her hand on my arm. When I turn toward
her to show my back off, she licks her lips at me. She touches my
abdominals, and the scar I have there from one sleepless night when I
once drove to South Phoenix for drinks and got cut in a knife fight at a
fake cantina.
This woman who is trying to distract me now, who has always licked her
lips at me, touches my scar very lightly while we flex. The crowd claps
politely. They are tired and it is hot outside.
"She always was a cheat," Linda will say when I get home. "She thinks
she can break people with her eyes." Linda will be dehydrated and quiet,
sitting at her kitchen window to stare outside for hours. She no longer
comes to see me and my body win things, and I am almost relieved.
In the dressing room the lip licking woman comes over to me as I take
off my make-up. She walks over in only a pair of shorts and starts to rub my
shoulders a bit, her breasts never moving, never looking like something a
woman would have. Our bodies are the same, sexless, flat, but so very
human under fingertips.
"I hope I didn't ruin your concentration," she says. "I just had to see that
scar of yours up close. I like a woman with scars." Her face is much older
than mine, more like Linda's face after years of smoking, or a long time in
the desert.
"How nice," I say, trying not to look at her hand on my scar, or at her lack
of breasts. I know her kisses would be only physical, and that is what I will
tell Linda, that physical is not what I want right now. I want to fool the all-
seeing Navajo and make her believe that I, too, want to be holy. This may be
the only thing that saves me from her.
"I haven't even thought of sex, or food much," I tell my trainer later. I can
still feel the breastless woman's bite on my shoulder, sharp and small and
humid.
"Sometimes the physical is nice," says Linda, always trying to catch me
off guard and make me think twice, but I know she is not becoming the
woman I want. She has been spending long hours in the sweat lodge, sweating and hitting her arms and her back. When she showers I can see the
marks. She turns toward the living room window and watches a station
wagon drive by. "I was once a very different person," she says. I sit up
slightly. This is not like her, to almost speak like other people. I wait, wishing I didn't care, but wanting to hear the words, any words that show me she
86 is still alive. She says nothing more, and that night sleeps far over on her
edge of the bed. It's hard, she tells me, to be as holy as she is.
'You were a marvel," Frederick, my bank boss says backstage after a late
season competition. "I almost drooled." His children stand next to him
and look at my greasy legs, at the lack of tan line I have there, at Darryl's
old muscle shirt, and the lack of bra underneath it.
Frederick smiles like a man who has tried to kiss me, like a man I
have hung up on. He comes to these events a lot now, but this is his first
time back here with all the women.
"I can't imagine being able to do that," he says, looking around to see if
any other competitors are looking at him. He flexes a little bit as if to try it
out and see what body building is all about.
Frederick is a little red. He knows I see how he wants to touch me
sometimes, especially my deltoids. He looks at them now, trying not to let
his very blonde children notice his eyes. And because I want to be the slut
they all think I am, I say, "I'm coming over tonight, Frederick," as one of the
competitors brings around the Haagen-Dazs for our immediate pleasure.
"Maybe you were a worrier in a past life," my boss tells me later. We're
out at midnight, running through the yucca fields. As we sit on the warm
ground, his breathing pushes into the still hot air. He smiles, and then I see
him going in, his lips pushed out as he thinks of kissing my dusty kneecap,
but then he changes his mind, rubs his lip.
"I worked hard for these legs," I say to distract him, and he nods. This is
something he wants to understand, and it keeps him at a comfortable distance. It isn't so easy with Linda. I wish for indifference, but still want her to
enjoy the darkness of my almost Latina hair, gotten from my almost Latino
father. I want her to leave or kiss my mouth and really mean it.
Instead I touch, then kiss Frederick, and we take each other's shirts off.
The next morning Linda seems disrupted for the first time since I've
known her. I imagine her prophetic eyes seeing us out there under the
moon. I walk by her sweat lodge with my mouth still dry from Frederick's
wet lips. I see her looking at her lizards. I see how her face wants to be hit
by their leathery carcasses. I almost stop. I almost want to go inside with
her and smell the incense as she walks through the house, holding onto
her matches and mumbling 'Viceroys" under her breath. But there is no
smoking now, no hidden cigarettes, no tobacco tins. She has been too good
for too long.
"I wanted to look at his whiteness," I tell her.
"I can't believe you," she says. "It's just disappointing to see you go bad.
He's a man. A white man."
'You're a blonde, Linda," I say.
She sits on her couch lighting matches and breathing in the phos-
87 phorous.
'You made me into a body." I rub my lips over the veins in my hand.
"A body doesn't always care where it finds pleasure."
"Kissing will make your muscles fade," Linda says. "And I won't be able
to help. You are almost gone as it is." She is trying to talk like a trainer,
trying to keep my muscles in mind, but her eyes are, for once, angry.
Later in that week, and for the first time in six months, Linda decides
to give in to her earthly side, decides that for an evening she will come
down from her spirit world and kiss me, but she pulls me onto the couch
with her, which she does awkwardly, being so out of practice. When she
almost has her dusty lips on mine that are so muscular, I tell her my
mouth is very dry, dehydrated, painful from too many sprint intervals.
"My quads hurt too much for lips," I tell her, surprised at myself.
Linda's face begins to flatten. Her smile goes straight. I close my eyes,
feeling just a little petty. She touches my mouth with her fingers like a
nurse, acting again like she is only here to make my perfect. For the rest of
the evening she gives me electrolyte replacement drinks and rubs oils on
every part of my body, trying to make me smooth again, make me see that
she really wants what's best.
Her fingers burn every part of me.
"Sometimes I wish I didn't have a calling," she says. I stop breathing, and
for some reason hope for a change. I wait paralyzed for the words I need to
hear, but then she says the unforgivable.
"I loved you more than Darryl or my husband."
Her past tense words make me want to faint, and I hate that she can see
this.
That night, when this Navajo woman is sleeping, when her self-inflicted
bruises seem to glow in the dark, I am awake. There are electrolytes buzzing in my arms and thighs, making my heart beat too fast. I sit there in bed
with my gun on the carpet, watching her breathe, watching the glow of
lizard welts on her back. I start to feel angry that she is so violent with
herself. I feel angry that this emaciated woman, this caved in thing, this
alien who had lips can still make me crave her. I feel guilty for not kissing
her and for wanting to kiss her. I feel stupid for still being in love.
Sometimes I would like to be as violent with her as that barrio boy was
with me, call her agringa bitch and just be done with it.
There are billions of us on this planet, so I pick up the gun. My index
finger twitches, and for a moment, for just a small point of time, I aim it at her
back, knowing it is loaded with shiny, clean, silvery bullets waiting to explode into something. I lie on the bed and feel my pulse as I move the gun
slowly toward her, until I touch the barrel to her naked backbone. If she
were awake she would say the cold feel of it was the perfect sensation for
focusing on other worlds. I think of pulling a bit at the trigger to watch the
88 firing arm move just slightly. But then, behind me, it's as if someone's
eyes are big and staring, and I think I hear Linda say, 'Wait."
I run outside to the backyard desert, Linda's electrolytes burning my
esophagus. The air is hot and thin even when everyone is sleeping and the
downtown lights are going off. The moon is rising over the bouldery
mountains to the east as insects fly by my ear. Everything that moves is
highlighted. Scorpions. Dogs. Coyotes. Snakes. Rocks. At this hour, the
desert is alive, and my feet bare. Something makes a noise in a bush
nearby, then moves quickly into Linda's sweat lodge. I think I hear
breathing. Linda's eyes seem to still be behind me, staring, and then a
voice says, "Gringa puta." I pull the trigger, and a shot goes toward the
Cave Creek mountains and the yellow moon.
"Wait," I hear from the sweat lodge. I shoot at the voice until the gun
is clicking and there are large holes in the dried mud. I hear dogs barking. I stand there, listening for something wounded, but I can't move
toward it to look. Nothing makes a sound for many minutes as I stand
there, my muscles stiffening, and then I hear a coyote from far away. A
police siren goes off, but it doesn't come down our street.
The next morning I wake up with swollen eyes from a lack of sleep, my
former lover standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. I watch as she
goes into work without nail polish, in a dull, grey suit she hasn't worn for
years, one that is now too big for her unmuscled body. She wears this suit
every time she wants me to feel guilt. When she's gone, I watch the sweat
lodge from inside the kitchen. Its holes are obvious and violent. Later I put
on sandals and go outside to stare at the opening of the lodge. There are a
few drops of blood in the dirt. I bend down to touch one of the drops, and it
is still wet. It should be dry. It should be old. It should be some of Linda's
from a particularly violent self-cleansing. I squint inside it, but there is nothing there. No animals. No barrio boys. My night of violence has produced
nothing but holes. I bring a bucket of water outside and pour it into the dirty
sand to make a mud pit, and then pat heavy, slick patches onto each hole
I've made. I know Linda expects this, and so, maybe for the last time, I
comply.
That night Linda isn't talking. I look at her face as she sits on the couch,
staring, then closing her eyes, opening them to look at the desert wrens
hitting themselves against the windows. I walk into the bedroom to dress
for an evening at the barrio where it's easy to feel powerful. As I put on my
black shorts, I notice Linda's apricot suit hanging in the closet. I touch it, put
it against my skin. It looks so orange next to the stretched tan of my arm.
Linda's soap smell is still in the fabric of the large sleeves.
I breathe her old cells in.
As she gets into bed that night, I know she is a dead thing.
"A woman like you shouldn't need sleep," I say. She doesn't respond. I
89 watch her until her breathing is thick. As I leave, I look at myself in the
mirror and for once, I don't think about which muscles need work. I see
how dark my eyes are, almost ethnic, almost watery and red, but not quite.
Outside the air is as hot as Linda once was, and I suddenly don't feel like
toting a gun or anything else. The moon is rising. I drive with the windows down, breathing in dust until I am high up in the Cave Creek hills.
When I stop, there are finally no homes, no development sites, no gas
stations anywhere. There is only the bright moon highlighting the boulders and the cacti, making sharp, dark shadows. My car looks almost
white up here. The Phoenix lights below are washed-out and quiet.
I begin to walk, then run and shed things as I pass blue sand, scorpions, and ocotillo. First, the gun goes, thrown toward the city lights. I
don't hear it land. Then my tank top, floating white onto a saguaro. Then
my shorts, my watch, my shoes, my earring hoops dissolving into the
sand. I step on painful things, running naked but not looking naked, my
arms so bright, the air so warm flowing over my fluid body.
I swim through it and nothing in the desert moves.
90 Contributors
Angel Beyde lives in Montreal where she is currently in the throes of
a Masters thesis. When she is not chained to her computer, she teaches
and is a contributing editor of Matrix. This is her first published story.
Jacqueline Bitz was raised in rural Saskatchewan and currently lives
in Edmonton, where she is pursuing a graduate degree in English at the
University of Alberta.
Milda M. De Voe won second place in the 1997 Raymond Carver Short
Fiction Contest. Two of her translations and one original short story
have been published in Lithuania: In Her Own Words, a collection of
emigre and local Lithuanian writers (Tyto Alba Press, 1998). She is an
MFA student at Columbia University in New York, where she lives with
her husband and a parakeet. Yes, there is a novel in progress.
Jason Dewinetz is an Okanagan writer whose poetry and fiction have
appeared in journals across Western Canada including The Inner Harbour Review, The Lyre, and Prairie Fire. He is the author of a long poem
chapbook, Gericault's Severed Limbs Paintings (Greenboathouse
Books), and the editor of The Greenboathouse Reader: An Anthology of
Okanagan Writing. He is currently working with Outlaw Editions on a
book entitled The Gift of a Good Knife. Jason lives on Vancouver Island,
where he is pursuing graduate work at the University of Victoria.
Jynne Dilling studied Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.
She currently lives, works, and writes in New York City.
Hafez of Shiraz (1320-1389 A.D.) is considered the undisputed master
of the "ghazal" form and one of the supreme lyric poets of Persia. His
poems are widely read (and sung) even in contemporary Iran. In Hafez's
lines, which are unmatched in their beauty, music, and symbolic resonance, human and mystical love are woven together so subtly as to be
indistinguishable. Many readers see Hafez as a kind of oracle; they open
his "divan" (collected poems) for spiritual guidance, inspiration, and
messages about the future.
Shannon Hudgens has published work in Ellipsis Magazine in the
US, as well as an anthology titled Shi'in Sa in Korea. She has begun
working on a novel, based loosely on her experiences in Korea.
91 Maureen Hynes' first book of poetry, Rough Skin, won the League of
Canadian Poets' 1995 Gerald Lampert Prize. She is now working on her
second collection, Harm's Way.
Kim Ki-Rim was one of the first poets to introduce modern poetry to
Korea. He was primarily an imagist and in favour of discarding musical
rhythms and the romantic tone of earlier poets. Unfortunately, Kim Ki-
Rim was banned in South Korea until 1988; he had been "kidnapped"
and taken to North Korea around the time of the Korean War.
Maureen Lennon has been a closet poet since childhood. Lately, the
closet has become a tad too confining, so here she is, all busted out into
the world. So far, so good.
Lee Ann Mortensen has been published in Ploughshares, the Mississippi Review, and Inscape. She won a Poets & Writers Exchange Fellowship, and two Utah Arts Council Awards. Her work has been anthologized in Tasting Life Twice (Avon). She received her MFA from the
University of Utah.
George Murray's poetry and fiction have been accepted for publication in journals such as: Prairie Fire, Exile, The New Quarterly, The
Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, and Event. His new volume of poetry, Making Sense of Bones, will be published in the spring of 2000. He
last appeared in PRISM 36:3.
Alix Ohlin grew up in Pointe Clair, Quebec, and currently lives in Austin, Texas, where she receives a fellowship from the James A. Michener
Center for Writers. Her stories have been published in The Bellingham
Review and Five Points.
David O'Meara was living in Kwang-ju, South Korea, when he wrote
"December, 6 a.m." and "Chinese Quince"; they will appear in his first
poetry collection, Storm Still, due out in the fall of 1999. He currently
lives in Ottawa.
Barbara Nickel's first book of poetry, The Gladys Elegies, won the 1998
Pat Lowther Award. She has written two children's books and lives in
Saint John.
92 Matthew Pitt completed writing 'Venus and Vulcan" in Brooklyn, New
York, where he holds a membership to Venus Video. He began the story
in Austin, Texas, where he held a membership to Vulcan Video. He is
currently a New York Times Fellow in Fiction at New York University,
and a great believer in coincidence.
Lisa Rigstad has been freelancing for about four years, since receiving an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has been seen
in publications such as L.A. Weekly, Montana Magazine, Sunshine Magazine, Christianity Today, Virtue, and Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities. Currently, Lisa is teaching figure painting and drawing at the
Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan.
Russell Thornton's poems have appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies, including The Canadian Forum, Descant, Event,
The Fiddlehead, Grain, The Malahat Review, and Vintage '95, '96, and
'97-98. Several of his poems are included in an anthology of Canadian
poetry due out in the fall of 1999 titled The Edges of Time (Seraphim
Editions). He has a collection coming out in 2000 titled The Fifth Window (Thistledown Press). Russell lives in North Vancouver.
93 Announcing PRISM international's 14th Annual
SHoRT
$2000 Grand Prize
FICTIoN
5 Runner-up Prizes of $200
Contest
Plus publication payment!!!
Entries must be postmarked no later than January 31, 2000.
Entries must be typed, double-spaced, on standard-sized white paper, and no
longer than 25 pages. The entrant's full name, address, and the title of each story
must appear on a separate cover page. The title should appear on each page of
the manuscript, but the author's name should not.
The entry fee is $22 for one story, plus $5 for each additional story. Those entrants residing outside of Canada must pay in American funds. Please make
cheques and money orders out to PRISM international. All entrants will receive a
one year subscription to PRISM.
Entries must be original, unpublished material, and should remain available for
possible publication in PRISM's Fiction Contest Issue. Works of translation are
eligible. Include a SASE with your entry to receive a copy of the shortlist. Manuscripts will nor be returned. For full contest details and entry forms, see our website:
www.arts.ubc.ca/prism
Preliminary judging: PRISM international Editorial Board
Final Judge: Zsuzsi Gartner, author of All the Anxious Girls on Earth
Send your entries & payment to:
PRISM international Fiction Contest
Creative Writing Program, UBC
Buch. E462 -1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z1 Creative Writing M.F.A. at U.B.C.
<3£>
to?
«
^
The University of British Columbia offers a Master of Fine Arts
degree in Creative Writing. Students choose three genres to
work in from a wide range of courses, including: Poetry, Novel/
Novella, Short Fiction, Stage Play, Screen & TV Play, Writing
for Children, Non-Fiction and Translation. A course in
Managing, Editing and Producing a Small Magazine is also
offered. All instruction is in small workshop format or tutorial.
The thesis consists of imaginative writing. The Creative Writing
Program also offers a Diploma Programme in Applied Creative
Non-Fiction.
\
***<
&
*r
Faculty
Sue-Ann Alderson
Keith Maillard
George McWhirter
Jerry Newman
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Bryan Wade
For further information, please write:
Creative Writing Program
University of British Columbia
Buchanan E462-1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T IZl
Or check out our web-site at:
www.arts.ubc.ca/crwr ATTENTION
ALL PLAYWRIGHTS!
PRISM international presents the
CREATIVE WRITING RESIDENCY PRIZE IN STAGEPLAY
at
The Department of Theatre, Film & Creative Writing
University of British Columbia
This is a bi-annual prize for a full-length stageplay.
Entries are to be submitted to PRISM international (see address below), along with
a $50 reading and processing fee. The fee includes a one-year subscription to
PRISM international.
The prizewinner will be awarded a Writer-in-Residency in the Creative Writing
program at UBC for the period of one month to the value of $25,000, plus expenses. The full-length play will be published as part of PRISM international's
regular volume year and as a separate book publication for distribution. As well,
$30,000 has been set aside as a production budget. The Theatre Program of UBC
will have the option to produce the play as part of its regular season, or to co-
produce it with a local professional company.
For complete rules & regulations, please send a SASE to:
Residency Prize in Stageplay
c/o PRISM international
Creative Writing Program, UBC
Buch. E462 - 1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T IZl
Website: www.arts.ubc.ca/resprize
E-mail: resprize@interchange.ubc.ca  Full-grey, first light floats
inside this airy hour like smoke inside
a bottle.
— David O'Meara, Page 24
Angel Beyde
Jacqueline Bitz
Milda M. De Voe
Jason Dewinetz
Jynne Dilling
Hafez
Shannon Hudgens
Maureen Hynes
Kim Ki-Rim
Maureen Lennon
Lee Ann Morten sen
George Murray
Barbara Nickel
Alix Ohlin
David O'Meara
Matthew Pitt
Russell Thornton
PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
FICTION
DRAMA
POETRY
TRANSLATION
CREATIVE   NDN-FICTION
Cover Art: Untitled by Lisa Rigstad

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