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   TI
JvAJ international  JWL
international
Editor
Anna M. Nobile
Executive Editor
Vigeland B. Rubin
Fiction Editor
Eden Robinson
Poetry Editor
Barbara Nickel
Advisory Editor
Keith Maillard
Editorial Consultant
Patricia McLean Gabin
Associate Editor
Shelley Darjes
Business Manager
Gregory Nyte
Fiction Contest Manager
Zoe Landale
Editorial Board
Frank Borg
Mel Gantly
Alan Levin
Margaret Macpherson
Vincenza Micheletti
Tana Runyan PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four times per year
by the Department of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver,
B.C. V6T IZl. Microfilm editions are available from University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor,
Michigan, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, N.Y.
Contents Copyright © 1994 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover art by Bemice Friesen
One-year individual subscriptions $16.00, two-year subscriptions $24.00, library and institution subscriptions $22.00, two-year subscriptions $36.00, sample copy $5.00. Canadians
add 7% G.S.T.
All manuscripts should be sent to the Editors at the above address. Manuscripts must be
accompanied by a self-addressed envelope with Canadian stamps or International Reply
Coupons. Manuscripts with insufficient postage will be held for six months and then discarded. The Advisory Editor is not responsible for individual selections, but for the magazine's overall mandate including continuity, quality, and budgetary obligations.
Payment to contributors is $20.00 per page plus a one-year subscription. PRISM international purchases First North American Serial Rights only.
Our gratitude to the Canada Council, Dean Patricia Marchak, and the Dean of Arts' Office at
the University of British Columbia.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Government of British Columbia,
through the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry Responsible for Culture.
Publications Mail Registration No. 5496. May 1994 Contents
Vol. 32, No. 3 Spring, 1994
Betsy Burke
Larry Campbell
Michael Crummey
Gabriella Goliger
Nighat Majid
Loren Rye
Heather Duff
beth goobie
Han-shan
translated by Peter Stambler
Joseph Hutchison
Jean McNeil
Michael Penny
Uma Rao
translated from Kannada
Matt Santateresa
Alice Tepexcuintle
Daniel Tobin
Dieter Weslowski
Bernice Friesen
21
Fiction
The Florentine Husband   35
Super Bowl Sunday   63
A Course in Newfoundland History
Song of Ascent    7
Risk   82
Leo's Bitter Leaf   46
Poetry
Writing Your Thesis in the Loony Bin
in Southern Ontario   71
Room-mates in the Locked Ward   73
bedroom window   91
Where I Stand Few Sounds Reach Me    18
Yet I Stand Midstream on a Stone,
Turning Circles    19
After Fruit for Dinner I May Laugh
at Myself, Mildly   20
Chinook at Midnight    78
The Stones of Venice    33
Ampersand (winter) (#1)    92
Amma's Saree   79
A Single Earring   81
Translation    17
back at the shack    58
I could tell you about the coconut road   61
Incidental Music   39
Patients Staple Real Leaves   77
Cover Art
Cassiopoiea (detail)
(mixed media on wood)
Contributors  93 1993 SHORT FICTION CONTEST WINNERS
$2000 Prize: Gabriella Goliger, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
"Song of Ascent"
$200 Prize: Betsy Burke, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
"The Florentine Husband"
$200 Prize: Larry Campbell, Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada
"Super Bowl Sunday"
$200 Prize: Michael Crummey, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
"A Course in Newfoundland History"
$200 Prize: Nighat Majid, College Station, Texas, U.S. A.
"Risk"
$200 Prize: Loren Rye, Lincoln Nebraska, U.S.A.
"Leo's Bitter Leaf"
1993 Finalists
J. A. Hamilton, Canada        "Hunger"
Lynne Macdonald, Canada        "Personal Literature"
Patricia McKenzie, Canada        "Pau de Arara"
Marilyn Gear Pilling, Canada        "Son of Night, Brother
of Sleep"
The 1993 PRISM Short Fiction Contest had 470 entries from across North
America and around the world. PRISM international would like to congratulate
the winners, and to thank everyone who entered. We would like to extend a
special thank you to W.D. Valgardson, this year's final judge, and to Zoe Landale
our Fiction Contest Manager. Song of Ascent
Gabriella Goliger
In Jerusalem we lived on a roof.
"A view to die for," my mother said.
"An inferno. Gehenna," my father said. "And dangerous too."
He was thinking not just of the months in 1948 when the shells rained
down and the streets shook with explosions, but afterwards when snipers still took pot-shots from the Old City walls. But it was the only place
my parents could find in those years, what with many buildings still
bombed out craters and the city divided down the middle by a jagged line
of barbed wire fences and walls.
Although winters were cold and wet in Jerusalem and a bitter wind
raged around the walls of our little house, my parents both remember the
baking sun best, the eternal cloudless day that lasted from May to October. In their stories and arguments it was always summer.
It was not exactly a house we lived in. An addition rather, an afterthought. A simple whitewashed block of concrete and plaster—two
rooms and a galley kitchen—perched on a broad fiat roof of a three-storey
apartment building. It had been built, like many others just like it, in answer to the stream of immigrants and refugees pouring into the country
in the 1930s. Self-contained, it sat amid the water tanks, rusting bed-
frames and odds and ends dumped there temporarily by other tenants. A
few feet away was our connection with the outside world, a door that led
to the long, steep stairwell of the main building. No one standing on Eden
Street down below could have guessed at our existence.
Seated on her stool in front of the door, with a bowl of potatoes for
scraping in her lap, my mother could see clear across the city, to other
shacks on other roofs, to the domes, crosses, towers and the thick Crusader walls of the Old City where the Jordanian sentries stood. She could
even see the Arab women's clothes-lines strung along their roof-tops,
their sheets and kefftyehs stiffening in the sun.
Her view. Her roof. Fierce hot to a bare-soled foot, seared by the relentless blaze from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon. Her
plaza to walk about in, to wash clothes in before she hoisted me and my
basket in her arms and headed off to clean houses in Rehavia. "The sunsets over Jerusalem," she later told me with a quaver in her
voice. "The flowers." Spring anemones like tiny flames in the scrub fields
between neighbourhoods.
"What about the flies? Hey?" my father would say. He would tell about
a pan of houmus he'd seen in the market, blackened with a solid layer of
flies that leapt momentarily out of the way when the bearded vendor
dipped his cup into the paste, and resettled to their feast an instant later.
Jerusalem of gold, Jerusalem of dust. Over the years, I became used to
the two sets of stories and adept at braiding them together into complementary strands. Even today when I wake, terrified, from an old dream
in which I dangle by a thread over a gaping void, I listen in my mind for
my parents' voices, speaking one on top of the other. I weave and weave
their warring words into a net that holds us together and safe.
Every day at noon my father used to lug himself home from his job at
the import company for lunch and siesta. He trudged through crowded,
clamourous streets, along fiery pavements, across roads gummy with
half-melted asphalt and through air heavy with smells of cheap petrol, rotting vegetables and beggars' spit. He arrived limp and drained at our
building's stairwell, which was sweetly cool and dark on the first floor,
warmer and brighter as he rose. Finally, he thrust his head into the
white-hot glare, shielding his eyes against those extra torments, spears
of light that glinted off metal flashings and wash buckets.
If I was at play with my spoon and pail under the tin awning over the
front door, he swooped me up and swung me around. He held me like a
parcel high above his head, presenting me to the sky. But our moment of
delight was short-lived. After a quick lunch, during which he chewed,
without appetite, on his bread and butter and cheese, he staggered into
the shuttered bedroom and rolled onto the bed. There was no point in my
mother chatting, about her employer Frau Doktor Mercaz, for instance,
a woman who had an eagle eye for islands of dust on the legs of the
dining-room table. He would shake his head as if trying to shake free of
something thickening around him and close his eyes and drift down, down
into the well of suffocating sleep.
My mother, standing by the dresser, would see his fingertips twitch
and his chin jerk, a gesture that seemed, though she knew he was asleep,
to deliberately dismiss her. She would stir about the room, restless, open
a dresser drawer and close it with a snap; she would pick me up and wander to the front door and back while my head dropped against her shoulder. At last, she settled me in my crib, and sat down on the low wall that
ran around the perimeter of the roof to look out over the city in the afternoon haze. The one time of the day when the streets fell silent. She
would fill her nostrils with the hot, dry air which went down like a gulp of strong drink. The city—both sides—spread out before her, sun-scorched,
salt-white. Her pulse throbbed with the dangerous heat. Another minute
and she would have to go back to her chair under the awning.
Let him sleep, she told herself. Let him turn his face to the wall. Let
Frau Doktor mutter into her herring tidbits about the clumsy, inefficient
help. She stared more intently on the city, lost herself in the tiers of
houses that spilled down valleys, the weathered stones and hills, dazzling, incandescent pillars of salt under her gaze. In the distance, the
mountains of Judea danced watery shimmer, like part of the sky.
My father had never been able to get used to the Middle Eastern heat.
His blood was European, nurtured for generations by the fresh mountain
chill of Bohemia. Nothing could be more foreign than the stupifying heat
of this ancestral homeland. Low blood pressure, the doctor had said with
a shrug. There were plenty others like him. Bad luck. From the day he
stepped off the boat, no, even before they reached shore, he'd felt a
heaviness in his limbs and his eyelids, a clutching at his heart. From then
on, for seventeen years, he fought the downward pull of drowsiness, and
when he did sleep, day or night he awoke unrefreshed, head swimming.
His ideals of a pioneering life dried up under the blistering sun. He'd
planted orange trees, hacking at the stony ground with a short-handled
hoe. Shovelful by shovelful, stone by stone. His youth flaked off and fell
into the parched earth which he loosened, raked and watered with the
feeble, rubber-tainted stream from the irrigation hose. The work at the
import company was easier. There were shutters and ceiling fans. Still, it
was all he could do to keep his head from lolling forward onto his typewriter. One day he looked up from the clatter of keys and out the window
at the feet that tramped along the sidewalk. All seemed eager and energetic, while he sat like the frog too boiled to leap. A few more years and it
would be too late.
Canada. The word was like a spring released. He met a Mr. Samson
from Montreal whose smooth, pink cheeks were a living advertisement
for civilized climates, a startling contrast to the wrinkled, sun-ravaged
faces of Jerusalemites. Samson promised a job in his travel agency. He
also promised that, within a year, they would have their own house and
garden. "That's how it is in Canada," he said, spreading plump palms in
the air. My father didn't believe it about the house and garden, but even if
the half of it were true, even a quarter, he told my mother, we would be
better off. She crossed brown arms against her chest, her lips settled
into a pout.
"Ha. You think everything will be golden. And if it doesn't work out?
What will we do? Be stuck there with no one and nothing."
"Other people succeed. Why shouldn't I?" "Other people fail too."
He saw her planted against him. Her face—once so soft and carefree—
now a knot of reproach, counting up her disappointments over the years,
hoarding them to shower down over his head. Still, one day he simply put
it to her that he was leaving. She could make up her mind to come with
him or stay behind. The choice was hers.
We arrived in Montreal on a sweltering day in August and, after finding
a rooming-house, sat in Dominion Square amid a swarm of pigeons. My
mother scratched at a vicious heat rash that bubbled up on her arms and
legs, something she'd never had before. My father, head in his hands,
willed away the panic in his chest. Senseless emotion. I gurgled and toddled after the pigeons.
A piece of newspaper in the waste-basket caught my mother's eye and
she fished it out. She laboured over the headline. "Ha, ha." Fate was having its joke, so she would laugh. Why not. Ha, ha, ha. She would make
him laugh too, make him admit that she was not so ignorant of the world
after all. My father glanced at the headline she thrust into his face. "Record heatwave hits: over 95 in the shade." His gaze drifted past her to fix
on the green-bronze statue of someone—neither of them recognized the
name—in the middle of the square. He said nothing for a few moments so
that she thought he wouldn't comment at all. Then, in a flat voice, "You
think that would make the papers in Israel? Here it's an event."
After the rooming-house on Mansfield, we bunked in with the Fish-
bein's on Durocher, the Borsht Alley. Two families in a two-bedroom
apartment. Yankle Fishbein's shitty diapers in a pail on the kitchen floor.
The windows steamed up from boiling cabbage. My mother and father
hardly saw each other those months. He worked from early morning to
evening for Samson the Swindler while she worked in the apartment with
the Fishbein's, all of them hunched over, with metal punches in their
hands, pressing rhinestones into bracelets for five cents a dozen. Under-
the-table money.
At the end of the winter, my father finally found us an apartment of our
own in a no man's land of newly developed streets between two older
neighbourhoods, one classy, the other poor. It was a decent enough
apartment on a decent enough street, he thought. A park nearby and a
school. The first rung in a long but reliable ladder that might one day even
mean a cottage on a lake in the Laurentians like Samson had, Augusts
spent with feet up on a deck chair in the shade of sweet-scented pines.
Why not? My father showed my mother the features while the janitor, a
man with a face as grey as his shirt, lounged against the wall outside the
apartment door and smoked.
10 "Look at the size of the refrigerator," my father said. He ran a finger
over the thick coat of frost under the freezer, and tested the coolness of
the clean white walls.
"On the top floor, like you wanted. A balcony."
A balcony, indeed, she thought. It faced a lane way, a gravel parking
lot and the backs of other squat, three-storey buildings, all shoulder to
shoulder like policemen on guard. The back door, as my father demonstrated, opened to a fire-escape that led to a narrow, enclosed courtyard.
"Here's where we put garbage," he said with a wave of his hand
through the half-open door. He was about to close it again when my
mother pushed past and stepped out onto the landing to survey the
scene. A black metal stairway zigzagged downwards past other backdoors and bathroom windows. She sniffed the courtyard smells—damp
cement, coal dust and garbage. Looking up, the sides of the building
formed a chute with a rectangle of sky at the top. A breeze eddied some
dead leaves around the gutters.
My father worked. While Samson drummed up business over lunch
and cigars at the delicatessen, my father sat with the phone pressed
against his cheek and his hands busy with file cards and schedules.
The travel business, as my father later explained to me, was about creating connections, a bridge of good faith that could span miles and bureaucracies, safely delivering a Mrs. Seligman of Cote des Neiges Street,
first to the shops of London and Paris, and finally to a happy reunion with
her husband waiting in Rome.
"Absolutely, Mrs. Seligman," my father chanted into the telephone
while he jotted notes on file cards. "May 15 departure..."
Directories consulted. Schedules and prices compared. Calls to the airline and steamship line made to double check. More calls and consultations with Mrs. Seligman. Flights booked. Dates changed. More calls to
Mrs. Seligman and to the airline. Deposits delivered. Passport application filed. Hotel in London cabled. Collect call from Rome accepted. Pension in Paris confirmed. Porter promised. Airline ticket collected. (A run
at noontime ten blocks down St. Catherine Street to the company's office
on Beaver Hall Hill, and back again.)
One more phone call. Person-to-person from a growly Mr. Seligman in
Naples. "Tell her not to come. She is not to come." Reservations, connections, confirmations, deposits, applications—the bridge collapsed. Everything, including my father's meagre commission, cancelled.
My father could only sigh, replace the receiver in its cradle, tear up the
Seligman file cards, busy himself with another file, and wait for the phone
to ring again.
11 My mother could not at first understand why she found our street so
forbidding. It was the lack of trees, she finally realized. There were only
saplings on small squares of lawn in front of each house. Weak, pathetic
things dwarfed by the massive brick behind and the wide road in front.
The houses had a sameness to them, like soldiers' tombstones, but it was
the treeless nakedness that was most disturbing. It was worst on the
bright May days that now arrived and exposed the graceless lines of unadorned doorways and windows and monotonous brick.
Pleased to have discovered a fact, she felt compelled to state it out
loud. "This is Canada," she said to my father. "Wild forest everywhere,
but on our street, only twigs."
His voice poured over her like coarse sand with fierce cutting edges.
"You don't like it, go back. I'll buy you a ticket. Sea or air, your choice."
"Why do you hate me? What have I done to you!"
He turned and pulled away to his side of the bed. There he lay, rigid
and self-contained, and she knew he would be able to lie like that, neat as
a board, without flinging a careless arm or leg towards her side all night
long. To throw her arms around him now would be to smash like an egg
on concrete. Still, she couldn't bring herself to move away to the couch.
She hung onto the bedsheets, twisting and twisting the sweat-dampened
cloth in her hands.
One of the first things that my father bought with the few dollars he
managed to set aside, after all the weekly and monthly expenses had
been paid, was a vacuum cleaner. Riding the streetcar home that evening, he stood with one proud arm draped around a tall cardboard box
stamped "Morgan's Department Store." Canister, hoses, attachments
and cord emerged from the cardboard package that he unwrapped while
my mother watched from the doorway of the living-room.
"I don't need this thing," she said.
"It will make your life easier. Look." He plugged the vacuum cleaner
in, scattered some shreds of toilet paper on the carpet and proceeded to
demonstrate, just as the salesman had at the store. The motor still whining, he offered the hose to my mother. She shuffled across the carpet
slowly, reached out her hand. Crack. A shock. Or so she said. The sucking mouth then stuck to the carpet.
"Glide the hose. Don't rub. Don't drag so hard."
My mother jerked forward and the canister flipped over on its back,
making the motor whine louder and higher, like a scream of alarm.
"You'll get used to it," he said. But except when my father himself took
it out on Saturdays, the vacuum cleaner stood abandoned in the closet.
12 My mother worked. She attacked the kitchen floor with a string mop
and a pail of sudsy water. She slapped the mop around the linoleum as she
had never done in Jerusalem, with a violent energy. She dipped, wrung,
slapped and scrubbed some more, sending streams of grey water into the
cracks of the linoleum and under the cabinets to swell the crumbs and
lumps that had collected there. She hoisted the metal pail, marched it to
the toilet and tipped it in, listening with satisfaction to the splash and
digestive gurgle. On her knees, leaning over the bathtub, she scrubbed
the bedsheets between her knuckles. She rubbed, squeezed, twisted,
wrung, then heaved the wash-tub to her hip and marched it to the
clothes-line.
She attacked the living-room rug, the only one in the house, first with a
stiff brush, then with a damp cloth, dabbing and picking at the lint. She
would have preferred to drag the carpet to the balcony railing and beat
the dust out with a stick. Heavy work and dirty, but effective. But people
didn't do that in Canada. Could she imagine the names we'd get called,
said my father, if the neighbours below saw clouds of dust flying around
their windows and clothes-line? Let alone what the landlord would say.
My father noticed lint on the living-room carpet, and worse, crumbs,
shreds of vegetables and undefinable grime peeking out from under the
kitchen cabinets. In Jerusalem, unwiped crumbs produced an instant parade of red ants that poured out from a crack in the wall. Also cockroaches. He remembered his nausea, stumbling into the kitchen for a
glass of water at night and finding the scrabbling bodies, the evil shine of
their brown-black shells in the electric light. Here dirt had no such drastic
consequences. Maybe that was why she let it pile up. No, he reminded
himself, it was not deliberate. She was like a dreamy, awkward child,
mooning about, refusing to focus on things right in front of her nose. He
knew better by now than to complain. But one day, while she was out of
the room, he took the broom to the litter under the kitchen cabinets. A
mistake. He should have waited until she was out of the house altogether. She stormed into the kitchen like a maddened hen.
"What are you doing? What are you trying to prove?"
"I'm helping you. Is that a crime?"
"I've already swept."
"Well, you missed a little bit." He pointed with the dustpan at the spot
he'd been working on. He spoke in the most innocent, good-natured tone
he could muster, but a guilty smile crept over his face. There was something else he wanted to say, and now he'd forgotten. How could she make
him feel guilty for sweeping?
"You try to humiliate me. You want to tramp me down into the mud."
13 In her eyes, a poison was rising, a fevered glaze staring at him but seeing god-knows-what. She swallowed, took a deep breath and began to
rage, calling him names, old woman, scorpion, snake, working herself up.
All the while her voice rose higher, the glaze in her eyes became thicker,
any moment, he knew, she would be over the edge, beyond all reasoning. He searched for calm words but there was nothing inside. Empty.
And he could not erase the grin that settled on his face.
"So? Better a scorpion in the kitchen than cockroaches, don't you
think?"
Her mouth fell open, not understanding. He pointed to under the cabinets.
"Soon the cockroaches will come to dinner, just like old times."
She flailed her fists at him so that he had to dodge around the kitchen
with his arm raised to his face.
"Set the table for them," he giggled between his fingers. "Our honoured guests."
She slumped to the floor and cried, first in silent spasmodic sobs, next
bawling and finally screaming between clenched teeth, shrill, fiendish.
She bit at her arm, dug into her legs with her nails. He saw red welts rise
up on her skin and long red scratches that made his stomach lurch. His
hands flew up to his eyes. A moment later he found what he'd been looking for: his anger, his sense of being the one who was wounded.
"Quiet. Get a hold of yourself." He stooped over her, grabbed her
hands in a vice grip. "Remember the child for god's sake." I was in my
bed, in the little room far away at the back of the apartment, but I'd been
wakened by less of a racket before.
"I forbid this behaviour." He shook and shook until her cries subsided
into a quiet keening, her head on her knees, rocking, unearthly strangled
screams. Sickened, his own knees weak, he loosened his grip and stood
up. When she finally raised her head to see what he was doing, she found
him gone. He had left the room.
On his way to the bathroom to get ready for bed, my father noticed
that the back door was ajar. He was about to lock it when he heard a
sound, the rattle of metal, above his head. He stepped onto the landing
and the breath froze in his throat. Someone was climbing up the short ladder that hung over the courtyard and led from the landing to the roof. My
mother, in her bare feet and night-gown. To get onto the ladder, she
would have had to clamber onto the narrow railing that surrounded our
landing, then step sideways to the first rung. Now she was hoisting herself upwards with unhurried, deliberate motions while my father watched
in silence. In a moment she was on the roof looking down the long chute
14 of brick into the gloom below. Somewhere down there a bathroom light
was on, illuminating a sharp elbow of zigzag railing on the second floor,
but beyond that it was all black.
My father's voice finally came unstuck. "What are you doing?" he said
softly, afraid to startle her. She didn't seem to hear. She stood there hugging herself and looking down while her night-gown fluttered against her
legs in the wind. Although it was May, it was a frosty night, damp and
windy. My father, dressed only in his undershirt and shorts could sense,
though he couldn't see, the thick bank of clouds rolling across the sky.
He cleared his throat.
"Hannah, get down from there."
She seemed lost in a trance of downward staring. He wasn't sure if she
deliberately ignored him or really didn't hear. She swayed a little, arms
tight to her chest.
"Hannah, please."
She didn't lift her head, and he stood motionless for a few moments,
but in his mind he went over the steps he was about to take. A swift and
noiseless leap up the ladder before she could notice, a firm grab around
the waist, and, once he had her, he'd figure out from there how to get her
down.
Apparently, at that very instant, I began to cry. The sound of my wailing, thin and distant, drifted up the corridor and out the open back door. I
must have woken from a nightmare and was sobbing my fears to the walls
around me. My mother looked up, startled and anxious.
"Go to her," she whispered.
"You go."
I continued to cry, frightened more than anything perhaps, by the dead
quiet in the wall that lay between me and my parents' room. No sounds of
the radio or voices or the clump of feet.
So my mother went around to where the ladder was, crouched and put
her bare feet back on the rungs. It was only half-way down that she realized what she was doing, where she was. She was suspended over nothingness, empty space that could just as well have been a chasm as vast
and deep as the world itself in its power to swallow and annihilate her.
Nothing separated her from the downward pull except cold metal rungs
turning damp in her grip.
"Come down," she heard my father say. From the corner of her eye
she saw the white of his undershirt below her on the landing. She couldn't
move, she couldn't breathe. To loosen a muscle meant to lose all hold.
Frozen in a crouch, her back bent double and aching. Nothing between
her and a brutal smash but fingers locked to metal. Beneath her the ladder began to tremble against the brick. A relentless clatter.
15 "Come on, just a few more steps," my father pleaded.
In the meantime I was howling, louder and angrier, in my room alone. I
was accustomed to someone coming in right away. Most likely I wanted
to step out of my bed, run out of my room and find them, but was afraid of
the pool of darkness around me, the stillness that lay thick and heavy in
the rooms beyond.
"Take it easy. Don't panic," my mother heard my father say from a
great distance. He moved closer into her line of vision and she saw with
startling clarity how long and skinny his legs looked sticking out of his un-
dershorts. Stork legs. She had a wild thought. "When this is over, I'll remember his legs and laugh."
A yank, a wrench of such force came now, she could not resist. Besides, her hands had already loosened. Her arms flew out into the empty
air above her, her body, stone-heavy, rushed down. She crashed on top
of him and on top of the metal garbage bin which flew off the landing, first
the lid, then the rest of it, bouncing against three flights of fire-escape
with hollow bangs. Beneath her, his arms both clung and lay pinned
against her waist and his foot lay twisted between the landing railings.
Slowly she rolled off him, and they both sat, stunned. He had a split lip
and a sprained ankle; she, long gashes on her face where it had grazed
against brick, massive bruises on one arm and an egg-sized lump on her
forehead.
Hearing the merry clang of the trash can, the sound of doors and windows opening, and voices in the courtyard, I immediately stopped my
crying. Calm and attentive, I waited for them to come.
16 Matt Santateresa
Translation
Words of your father colour your phrasings, but
you have found them to be yours in another language.
In his story, that you translate, he recounts
a chase through clamourous hills, and you
are there, a high view, your father's words
whispers, inspired, his hands cupped to your
good ear, as you watch the sloping declension
cursive branches of trees, the grammar of blue space
verb of wind over tall grass. His words you absorb
for your adjustment. Remember the Brueghels how
the sons copied the Elder's work. In one, Pieter
the Younger clothed some skeletons that his father
kept the whitest bone. The chase is elusive, now
as then. But you give his language a rendition
all your own
and return it.
17 Han-shan
a Tang Dynasty poet who lived sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries
three poems
translated from the Chinese by Peter Stambler
Where I Stand Few Sounds
Reach Me
From father and mother, I inherited
My fertile library and gardens.
I yearn for nothing more.
The shuttle glides, obeying my wife's care;
My boy parades outdoors, hectoring.
Striking a playful rhythm,
I quicken the flowers into dance.
Or I stretch out under the lime,
Cup my chin, and mimic a bird song.
The woodsmen, without envy, pass my gate.
The latch-rust does not redden their fingers.
I yearn for nothing.
18 Yet I Stand Midstream on a
Stone, Turning Circles
Without complaint the crocus
Nudges through the last snow.
Every death breeds.
Where black fruit falls, green shoots.
Only the wayfarer whose face
We love, my mother,
Makes straight for distances
And does not turn back.
19 After Fruit for Dinner I May
Laugh at Myself, Mildly
Too changing to be me,
My body rests, propped
Against a mountain stone,
Thinking. The Buddha, once,
Thus sitting, did not feel the grass
Pierce his palms.
Me? Some
Passers-by lay apples at my headstone!
20 A Course in
Newfoundland
History
Michael Crummey
Under the green plastic awning of the restaurant near his school
the heat was oppressive, adding its unavoidable weight to the
slightest of movements. Even the exertion required to eat left
Patrick dripping in sweat. His head ached.
She Ze Ming sat across from him in a white cotton shirt, the sleeves
rolled up to his elbows. His dark hair, parted on the side, was streaked
with grey. There were small lines of perspiration at his temples.
Patrick picked up his napkin and wiped the sweat from his own forehead. "I wonder how hot it is," he said aloud, though mostly to himself.
"It is thirty-eight degrees, of course," Ming said with a note of mock
surprise, and he smiled that smile of his, mischief coupled with something
like fatalism. His smugness, for the first time it seemed, irritated Patrick,
made him dislike the person he was sitting with.
"There is a law in China," Ming went on in his formal, but impeccable
English. "If the temperature rises above thirty-eight, the factories are
required to send their workers home." He smiled again. "If you understood enough to listen to the radio or the television, you would know," he
said, "the temperature never rises above thirty-eight degrees in Hefei."
For most of the past week Patrick had been trying to figure out what
exactly had brought him to China. There were a lot of things, a job was
one, though the pay wasn't much of a draw. The desire to travel, to see a
bit of the world. But it didn't add up, there was something else he could
almost put his finger on now, but not quite. Something that had happened
years ago, he thought. Patrick stared at his friend for a moment, as if he
had never really looked at him before.
Ming had spent a year in Canada, working on an exchange program
with his unit, a small technical firm that had embarked on a number of
'joint ventures' with western companies. He was a cynical man, Patrick
21 thought, but generally good-natured, and his knowledge of the peculiarities of life in China, and his willingness to share that knowledge with a
westerner, had made him a valuable acquaintance.
"You are from Newfoundland?" he said to Patrick when they first met.
"Then we are compatriots, I believe. We are both children of third world
countries." That smile of his.
This was in February, during the Spring Festival. The schools were
closed for the month, and most of the other foreign teachers at Patrick's
university had left the city to travel. They were both guests at the home
of Mr. Shu, an English teacher at Ke Da. In the unheated apartment they
sat around the table in wool sweaters and bulky down jackets.
"You have been to Newfoundland?" Patrick said to Ming, not sure how
to take his comment.
"No, I am sorry, I have not. I have been to Toronto."
"You will excuse She Ze Ming," Mr. Shu interrupted. "He has, as you
say, had one too many."
"A toast," Ming said, raising his cup, ignoring the host. "To Mr. Patrick. I understand Mr. Patrick, that 'Newfies', if you will permit me, are
great drinkers? Is this not so?"
Patrick raised his mouthful of alcohol cautiously. "Compared to
Torontonians," he said, "yes, we are great drinkers."
"Aha!" Ming shouted. "Gam-bae," he said.
"Gambay," Patrick replied. They swallowed the contents of their cups.
Patrick's hometown in Newfoundland was a community of less than
three thousand. There were two schools (Public and Catholic), a post office, a hockey rink, an outdoor tennis court where a piece of wire fence
served as the net on the third court, a small shipyard that had closed before he turned ten, and one restaurant that doubled as a teen hang-out
officially called The Garden Restaurant, but known to everyone as
"Wong's."
Wong lived in an apartment above the restaurant, and from what Patrick could tell, had no life outside his work. He acted as waiter, cashier,
cook, dishwasher, and if the need arose, bouncer, a role at which he was
surprisingly quite effective. It wasn't his physical size which made people
wary when he became angry: he was a tall thin man, and people often
joked that his slim waist was evidence that not even Wong could stomach
the food he cooked up at the restaurant. It was his strangeness that intimidated people, his Chinese epithets, the way his eyes widened behind the
thick lenses of his black rimmed glasses. Who could say what he was ca-
22 pable of? His white apron was stained with grease and gravy, with red
splotches of sweet and sour sauce. His dark hair was cut short and stood
straight up from his scalp.
At the front of the restaurant there were two pinball machines and the
town's young people took this as a sign of encouragement to hang out inside the restaurant, though the benefits of this arrangement to Wong
were not apparent to Patrick. It seemed that he and his friends rarely
spent money there beyond an occasional can of Coke, or a few quarters
for the pinball machines. On the few occasions they did order food, it was
fairly standard practice when the dishes arrived to inform the waiter he
had erred in taking their orders. "No, no, no, not chicken balls, you got it
wong, this is wong!"
He had learned to ignore them for the most part, but every evening
brought confrontations of some sort; Wong yelling at them if someone
tilted the pinball machine too vigorously; coming out from behind the
counter to stare ominously at people who were becoming too boisterous.
Once or twice each night, he cleared the restaurant after some incident
or other, a fight breaking out or a bottle being smashed on the floor. He
herded everyone outside, waving both hands toward the door. The
young people would sit on the concrete steps in front of the restaurant for
half an hour, then slowly begin drifting inside again. This elaborate ritual
was repeated almost every night of Patrick's adolescence, and both parties seemed to have accepted it and their allotted roles, for reasons that
neither probably could have explained.
Patrick became a regular guest at She Ze Ming's home after the Spring
Festival.
Ming's wife, Lou Do, was a cheerful woman who smiled at Patrick a
great deal, nodding her head and shaking his hand with both hands when
he arrived and departed. Her dark face seemed to Patrick to be perpetually tired, which gave her cheerfulness a sense of dignity, he thought,
made it seem almost heroic to him. Her hair was almost completely grey,
though she could not have been more than forty. She continually refilled
his plate during the meals, bringing more and more food to the table, and
indicating with her gestures that he was to eat more, drink more. Patrick
wished he could talk with her, but she spoke no English, and Ming
seemed frustrated and testy with having to translate anything more than
brief exchanges. As if to compensate for his wife's inadequacy, Ming always invited friends or co-workers to engage in conversation with his foreign acquaintance.
23 "I became quite interested in your home while I lived in Toronto, Mr.
Patrick, in its history," She Ze Ming said to him on one occasion. This
was the evening that Lou Ning joined them for the first time. "Life there
was very harsh, I understand, until you became part of Canada. Though I
must be honest, no one in Toronto seemed to know very much about it.
It reminded me a great deal of how we Mandarin people know next to
nothing about the minorities of the north. We assume they are dirty and
stupid and lucky to be part of our great country."
"She Ze Ming!" Lou Ning said, reproaching him. It was almost the first
thing she had said the entire evening. She was a young woman, Patrick
guessed from her appearance, not yet thirty, a co-worker of Ming's.
"You disagree?" Patrick asked her.
Lou Ning stared into her bowl and shook her head, more as an apology
for breaking in, than to assert her opinion, he thought.
"Lou Ning is a great patriot, Mr. Patrick," Ming informed him. "She
will brook no suggestion of criticism of her country or her people." He
smiled at her, not altogether kindly Patrick thought.
Ming's wife was busy clearing dishes from the table. Patrick offered to
assist her, although he knew it was useless.
"Sit down, sit down," Ming ordered him. "In China, the guest does not
help. It makes the host nervous." He smiled as he took out a cigarette
and lit it.
"She Ze Ming," Lou Ning said, still staring at the space on the table
where her bowl had been sitting. "As host, are you not to help your
wife?" There was the slightest of smiles on her face. She was a very
beautiful woman, Patrick thought. Her dark, straight hair was cropped
short at the neck, her complexion lighter than most of the Chinese people
Patrick had seen. Her lips were full and she often seemed to be pouting
as she sat there, concentrating on following their conversation. It was an
expression that Patrick found quite attractive, although he couldn't say
why.
"Lou Ning would like to travel to the United States or Canada to work
with one of our groups," Ming told Patrick, ignoring her question, and the
criticism it implied. "I think she will have to improve her English very
much before she will be chosen. Perhaps you would be able to offer her
some help?"
Patrick looked at her. He wasn't sure if she understood what had been
said or not. "I would be happy," he said to her, speaking slowly, "to offer
you some tutorial lessons in English if you are interested."
Ning smiled without showing her teeth. She nodded.
She Ze Ming accompanied Patrick to Lou Ning's apartment on the evening of the first tutorial. They rode their bicycles off the main streets and
24 through a maze of small lane ways which were unlighted. They crossed a
small bridge and on the left a large field opened up. Patrick could smell
manure, compost. They turned right, up another narrow lane way on the
other side of the field, the bell of a bike coming toward them in the darkness, like a buoy warning of shallow water or rocks.
"Here," Ming announced finally.
"I'll never find this place on my own," Patrick told him.
"Well," Ming said as he locked his bike in front of the apartment building, "perhaps we can arrange to have Lou Ning come to your apartment
at Ke Da after tonight."
"I'm not sure her husband would approve of that," Patrick said, meaning it as a joke.
Ming stopped and looked at Patrick. "Lou Ning lives with her parents
here. She and her husband are divorced."
Patrick opened his mouth to speak and closed it again.
"It is quite unusual in China," Ming went on, starting up the stairs. "To
divorce, I mean. It is legal of course, but it is not accepted. There is still a
sense of shame attached to it here. Her husband was—very unkind, shall
we say. But it is Lou Ning who is blamed for leaving, by most people. She
has a daughter who lives here as well."
Lou Ning met them at the door and invited them in, introducing both
Patrick and She Ze Ming to her parents. Ning's father and mother nodded
and spoke a few words to Ming. To Patrick's eyes they both seemed a
little guarded, although that wasn't unusual among the older generation
when they first met foreigners. They were both dressed in nondescript
blues and greys, the uniform of the proletariat.
They sat together at a small dark wooden table in the front room,
drinking Chinese green tea and eating sunflower seeds. As they talked,
Ning's parents cracked the shells in their mouths, scooping the tiny seeds
with their tongues and spitting the shells onto the floor. Both Ming and
Ning were more discreet, spitting the shells into bowls, but Patrick knew
this was a concession to western ideas of proper table manners.
Ning's daughter stood at her mother's side, alternately staring at, and
deliberately avoiding, looking towards Patrick. Ning tried to convince her
to say "hello" in English, but her daughter simply buried her face in
Ning's dress and shook her head furiously, which her grandparents
seemed to find simultaneously unacceptable and hilariously funny. The
grandfather shouted at her in Chinese while he laughed, coaxing her.
Ning bent to kiss the top of her daughter's head, her hands at the sides of
the girl's face to hold her still. Patrick felt he had never seen such an expression of tenderness between two people before in his life. That evening, surrounded by Ning's family in the dull yellow glow of the overhead
light, Patrick felt as if he had no past, as if he had been dropped into this
25 moment from somewhere he could not remember clearly. Everything he
had experienced to this point in his life seemed small and meaningless by
comparison. He felt privileged and honoured to have found his way into
the home of such people, to be welcomed by them.
When he left that evening, little had been done in the way of English tutoring, beyond arranging for Lou Ning to meet him at his apartment in the
Foreign Guest House the following week. But Patrick had decided that
he might possibly be falling in love with his new student.
During his undergraduate degree in university, Patrick took a course in
Newfoundland history. Over twelve weeks the Europeans arrived, established the fishery, exterminated the indigenous Beothuks, fought over
territory, died of tuberculosis and scurvy, began the seal hunt, and voted
narrowly to join Canada.
In St. John's, he learned one afternoon, the first small group of Asians
arrived during the nineteenth century, having been refused entry into
Canada. Local papers referred to them as 'celestials' and described, in
some detail, their clothes, features and manners. They were all men-
immigration laws throughout North America forbade Chinese women
from immigrating, to prevent permanent settlement. There are still, his
professor told the class, one or two surviving locations of the Chinese
laundries which were established in St. John's at this time.
The ping-pong room in the basement of Patrick's university residence
was painted in golds and dark scarlets, with illustrations of dragons and
fighting cocks on the walls. It was known to everyone as 'The Golden
Rooster,' and had been painted by two Chinese students who had lived in
Bowater House a few years before Patrick arrived. They had been the
undisputed table tennis champions of residence during their two years
there, and they were popular with the other house members because of
it. They were exhibited at parties and sports events, almost as if they
were mascots.
After the afternoon in his history class, Patrick often wondered where
they had ended up. No one seemed able to remember what their real
names had been; most people had referred to them as Ping and Pong,
often speaking of them as a unit—Where's Ping-Pong? Has anyone seen
Ping-Pong? No one Patrick spoke to seemed to have any idea where they
had gone once they left the residence.
26 For several months, Patrick's tutorial sessions with Lou Ning proceeded in the following manner: on Wednesday evening, she would arrive
with She Ze Ming, who had offered to accompany her from her parents'
home to the university, much to Patrick's chagrin. The knock came at the
door at precisely seven o'clock. Patrick would pour Chinese tea as they
exchanged pleasantries. After a few minutes of conversation, She Ze
Ming would excuse himself and go to sit in the kitchen while the tutorial
was conducted in the living-room.
Patrick and Lou Ning sat facing each other in scarlet velvet covered
armchairs. Lou Ning rarely made eye contact, and what Patrick took as
her shyness, her apparent discomfort and distraction, did not diminish
from one week to the next. With the pretext of helping her conversational ability, Patrick would ask her to speak about herself, her job,
her daughter, her own childhood, what she knew about Canada. Her husband and her marriage were never mentioned. And Patrick could not say
why, but he was utterly charmed by the woman's reticence, her self-
effacement. She looked to him, sometimes, like the traditional Chinese
drawings he had purchased, the black ink sketches created with a single
brush stroke which gave them a simplicity and a stillness, and an immediacy he felt he had never encountered before. A beautiful fragility, like the
delicate line of her breastbone, or the narrow bridge of her nose.
At times he was so completely engrossed in looking at her, in watching
her mouth as she spoke or her ringless fingers not moving on the arms of
the chair, that he would suddenly find himself startled by a lull in the conversation. Inevitably, he would ask the first question that came to mind,
one that rarely had anything to do with the conversation which preceded
it. This never failed to make Lou Ning blush, and grow even more still in
her chair.
"Do you think that women are treated equally in China?" was one of his
more ridiculously unrelated questions. And as soon as he said it, he
thought of her husband and wished he hadn't.
Lou Ning seemed to consider the matter seriously for a moment.
"Mao," she began, "has said that women are as important to our country
as men. That the revolution has freed us. Women can hold up half of
heaven, he said." And she smiled then, with her mouth closed, so that
Patrick could not tell if she meant to agree with Mao or refute him. And
she folded her hands in her lap, as if to close discussion on the topic.
After an hour or so had passed, She Ze Ming's noisy shuffling in the
next room would indicate that the tutorial should be wrapped up. Patrick
and Lou Ning would move to the kitchen where he would try unsuccessfully to convince his guests to stay for more tea.
27 "We could not impose," She Ze Ming would explain, despite Patrick's
insistence that it was still quite early.
"You can't bear to be away from your wife for this long, is that it?" he
joked on one occasion. This too, seemed to make Lou Ning uncomfortable, which Patrick could understand given her circumstances, and he berated himself for being so insensitive.
Patrick would accompany them downstairs to their bicycles where Lou
Ning would shake his hand and thank him for his assistance. Patrick
would present her with a small gift, candy or a hair buckle for her daughter. Ning would refuse extravagantly while Patrick insisted she accept,
and then she and Ming would ride off together toward the university
gate.
"If you do get the opportunity to go to North America," Patrick asked
Lou Ning one evening, "would you consider staying there?" He had been
caught staring again, and this is what he blurted out. If he were being brutally honest with himself, Patrick would have to admit that this statement
was the closest he had ever come to broaching the subject of marriage
with a woman.
Nothing had happened between the two that suggested Lou Ning was
even considering Patrick in a romantic light, but his own sense of arrival,
of having stumbled on something important and irrefutable, convinced
him it was possible, even inevitable. Lou Ning stared at him with a surprised look on her face, and for one awful, hopeful moment, Patrick
thought she had some idea of what lay behind his question. But she simply shook her head. "It is not permitted," she said. "We have an obligation to our country."
Patrick heard She Ze Ming coughing loudly down the short hallway, as
a preface to some comment or other. On very rare occasions, Ming had
interrupted from the kitchen to voice his opinion on the subject of this
conversation. From where he was sitting, Patrick could see Ming's
crossed legs at the table, the blue cloud of smoke from his cigarette.
"Our patriot," Ming announced loudly now, "neglects to tell you that
our country rarely allows those of us who work abroad to travel with our
families. To ensure that we do return to fulfil our 'obligations'."
Ning turned her head away from Patrick as Ming spoke, and Patrick
kept his eyes down as well. "I am sorry," she said finally, without looking
up, as if it was necessary for her to apologize for She Ze Ming's cynicism,
for his unkindness toward her. Patrick shook his head, embarrassed for
her and feeling angry at Ming's callousness. He thought of the unnamed
cruelty Ning had been through in her life, and he felt a sudden urge to
28 hold her, to wrap her in his arms, as if that would be enough to protect
her from her past, from whatever lay ahead of her.
"Tell me," Ning said, speaking to avoid the embarrassment of total silence. "Why have you come to China?"
During the summer before Patrick's last year at university, Wong
bought the building next to his restaurant, an old hardware store that had
gone out of business. He refurbished it and opened a small grocery store.
Wong continued to operate the restaurant and the store was staffed by
his wife, a small woman whose black hair was perpetually tied back in a
bun. She had arrived only a year or two before and spoke very little English at the time. It caused a bit of a stir, Patrick remembered, when
people realized there might be more to Wong than the restaurant, the
hours in the kitchen, the endless arguments with intoxicated teenagers.
Everyone called his wife Mrs. Wong, though Patrick learned much later
that she would have kept her own name when she married.
Patrick, Bill Murphy, and Fraser Sharpe walked by the new store one
night, late, after the Schooner lounge had closed. They were all drunk.
"And look at this fucking place," Fraser shouted angrily, the way a man
will shout at a flat tire or an engine he cannot fix. They had spent most of
the evening talking about what they would be doing a year from now,
once they finished university, and things didn't look very promising for
any of them. Fraser was talking about moving to the mainland after graduation to look for work. Both Bill and Patrick had started thinking about
grad school, largely as a way of avoiding having to deal with the situation.
Bill looked up at the windows of the apartment over the restaurant.
"Hey," he shouted. "Hey, not chicken balls! You got it wong, man! This
is wong!"
When he managed to stop laughing enough to speak, Patrick told him
to shut up. "They're asleep up there."
"I'll bet they're not asleep," Fraser said. "I'll bet they're fucking up
there. Making babies. Wong's probably working on his dynasty, the
horny bastard."
"He's probably going to buy out the fish plant in Trepassy next," Bill
said. "Needs workers for the line, that's what he's doing up there."
Patrick laughed again, and told them both to shut up again.
"Fuck," Fraser said. "Fucking Chinks." And he bent over for a rock
and threw it through the plate glass window at the front of the store.
Patrick doesn't remember much after that. He remembers running and
29 falling, and then running again. And he remembers too, just as he started
past the restaurant, seeing a light come on in the apartment above it.
They sat together in the thirty-eight degree heat, under the green awning of the restaurant near Patrick's school. Patrick had invited Ming
here to speak about something, but so far had been unable to, even
though his anger had grown steadily all through the meal. His head ached,
a knot of anxiety knuckled his stomach. He stared at the man across from
him as if he had never really looked at him before. Patrick had no idea
how to start, or even what he wanted to say exactly. He scooped a little
rice into his mouth, then placed his bowl on the table, resting the chopsticks across the top.
Ming seemed to sense the animosity as it grew, and he became less
cheerful himself, lapsing into longer and longer silences.
"I have to tell you," Patrick began finally during one of these long
pauses; he lifted his glass of beer and swallowed. "When you left my
apartment last week, I forgot to give Ning her daughter's present. I had a
child's spelling book, an English book from one of the other teachers
here. I noticed it on the table by the door when I went back upstairs, so I
tried to catch up with you, to give it to her."
Ming's face settled into an impassive, almost expressionless mask, as
if he knew what would follow. As if he had been expecting to hear it for
some time.
Patrick had finally caught sight of the two of them on their bicycles,
across the open field. It was just after dusk. He was too out of breath to
shout to them. As he pedalled to catch up, they suddenly turned left, instead of right, up the narrow lane way to Ning's apartment. He could not
understand where they were going at first. He slowed down, not wanting
to overtake them now, following closely behind.
They bicycled down a main street toward a large city park, stopped to
lock their bikes at a metal rack nearby, then walked into the trees. As
they moved behind a stand of shrubs, Patrick could see them talking quietly together. Ming placed his hand on Ning's shoulder and she touched
his face, with the same tenderness, Patrick thought, that he had seen
when she kissed her daughter the evening he visited her apartment.
His first impulse was to follow them into the trees, confront them, as if
he would be able to put a stop to what was happening. As if what he saw
was a momentary aberration of the picture he had created for himself,
something he could correct simply by showing his face to them.
30 Standing there with his bicycle, Patrick remembered a story Ming had
told him months before, when they first met. About the lack of housing
space in many Chinese cities, about newly-weds who must share an
apartment, and often a bedroom, with siblings or parents. How during
the warm weather the parks are often used, and publicly accepted, as a
place for 'consummation'. He thought again about their insistence on
leaving every evening as soon as the tutorial was completed. About Lou
Ning's embarrassment whenever Ming's wife was mentioned. And Patrick had turned away then, and bicycled back to his apartment.
He looked across the table at his friend. He could not begin to articulate the sense of betrayal he felt. He felt used and cheated. But all he
could think to say was, "You are a married man, She Ze Ming." As if it
was someone else's hurt he was concerned with.
Ming smiled at Patrick then, but without humour. "There is much you
do not understand about our country," he said, in a low voice, as if he did
not wish to be overheard. "If I thought it was possible to leave my wife, I
would not have returned from Canada. I am an intellectual, Patrick. My
wife and I—my first wife and I—taught at a university before the Cultural
Revolution. We had many friends there, colleagues. We had a son. I was
one of the lucky ones, they did not kill me at least. They sent me to the
countryside to be 're-educated,' to work with the peasants. I was there
seven years altogether. I thought I would die there."
Ming picked up Patrick's glass and filled it with beer, then filled his
own. The beer was warm and did not pour well, and the froth ran down
the sides of the glasses.
"And that is where I met Lou Do and married her. It was a practical decision, you understand. For both of us. It was a harsh life, a difficult life to
survive on your own." Ming stopped for a moment, sitting with both his
hands resting on the table. "She has no schooling, nothing," he said. "She
would be sent back to that if I left her."
Patrick looked away from Ming. He felt tears burning in his eyes; he
could not differentiate now between his anger, his shock, his embarrassment. He felt disoriented and panicky, like a man lost in a forest who is
travelling in circles. He wanted to lash out at the man across the table
from him, the source of his confusion and pain—he wanted to hit him.
"And what about Lou Ning," he said, almost hissing. "How can you do
this to her?"
Ming's eyes widened with surprise, almost amusement, at this question. "Lou Ning is not a child," he said. "She does not need your protection, Patrick, or mine. We have found ourselves in a situation we can do
little about. We have decided to make do, as best we can." And, as if he
31 saw how much it hurt Patrick to think that Lou Ning could be complicit in
this, that she could have consented to the arrangement, Ming added, "I
am sorry if that disappoints you, Patrick."
The weather had cooled a little by the time Patrick left the country in
September. But there were still days when the temperature climbed
above thirty, like the afternoon he sat in the terminal at the airport in
Beijing, waiting for his flight. He sat at a bar on the upper level with a
beer, tracing letters into the condensation on the outside of the glass. He
had had the option of staying for another year of teaching, but decided
against it. She Ze Ming, his wife, and Lou Ning and her daughter, had
seen him off at the train station in Hefei, although he had not spent a
great deal of time with any of them in the six weeks before he left, and
the tutorial sessions had ended after the lunch at the restaurant near his
school. It had been hard to be around them at all after that, and Patrick
could not think of them without feeling embarrassment now, the kind of
angry shame he had felt whenever he walked by Wong's after Fraser had
thrown a rock through the window. A guilty embarrassment, as if he
owed an apology, but could not bring himself to make one.
He took a mouthful of beer and thought about what he had said to Lou
Ning the evening she had asked him why he had come to China. He had
talked about the economy, about the lack of jobs, about the uselessness
of his Master's degree. Experience, he had said. Fascination. Ancient
civilization. Things like that.
But there was also the matter of that apology he owed, he realized
now. As if he hoped that being here would provide him with the opportunity to make it up to someone, to exonerate himself. It made him smile to
think about that, a smile that was mostly anger and disappointment with
himself. He lifted his glass and drained the last of his beer. Checking his
watch he stood up, picked up his shoulder bag, and headed for the departure lounge.
32 Jean McNeil
The Stones of Venice
The design of bones.
Would you think
that one body holds the pattern to another?
Like the faulted, the vaunted
drawings for ornate and crumbling cities
where the hollows, the crevices, and the blunt balustrades
are delicate, tapered, patterned on the skin
of moss-muffled latticework.
And why should the building outlive the builder?
There were those that admired contrast
the strong shouldering the weak
the thick supporting the thin
and intricate Arabic scripts on marble.
We weren't any of that.
Our plans were flawed, inelegant.
We were grotesque, they thought, our baroque
constricted art, the way we fit together
the way we drew apart.
What millenium-fed lives we lived
when celestial cities sank into the sea
and wan rust stains dripped down white stairs
the violent colours of blood on marble and roses in summer.
There were other plums of fear that we don't remember
picking, choosing, tasting for their ripeness
or the sour fagade of broken sculptures
their crevices clogged by autumn leaves
swept along the avenues of the mind in dreams.
33 Do you remember? The jade-green tiles in the bathroom,
brass jugs and cucumbers, the splendour of gilt-maned lions
all trappings of some exhausted carnival,
ghosts of cavorting commedia del'arte musicians
a fume of passion, the grandeur and the strange bravura
of the decay; yours and mine.
Like poor von Aschenbach, who, in the enigma of his arrival
saw that he would never leave, or write another novel.
I have never been here. Neither have you.
In cities built upon love we are foreigners by instinct.
Every day we slaughter our finest impulse
to move cold art to emotion, to rebuild the past
to take the soulless structures of stones and bones
and inhabit them again, even for a moment.
But as Ruskin knew there is no restoration.
We are washed away by sand, and become ourselves again.
The monuments are steadfastly rooted to the ground
and in our eyes, a wash of ruins.
Stones.
Beams.
Thrusts.
Bones.
The last sacrifice, we know, is alchemical:
the third, the divine, the passion
is not given, but must be found.
34 The Florentine
Husband
Betsy Burke
He has asked for me. They say he is dying. I have sent word that
I can stay for a little while, but not as long as I stayed the last
time he was dying. I travel badly these days.
At his bedside in Santa Maria Nuova he takes my hand and says, "Do
you still feel it? You know that you are the only woman I have ever
loved." I have to remind him that of all his wives and mistresses, I am the
only one still living.
When I bend over to kiss his tissue paper cheek he says, "You smell
like death."
"Well if that's the case," I say, "move over, because you look like
death."
He moans like a little boy. "This life doesn't fit me anymore." He says,
"It's too tight in the shoulders."
We met in a theatre in Venice during Carnevale. It was in the 1930s.
Rafaele was dressed as Mozart. He looked asinine, far too tall and handsome for any Mozart I'd ever seen. He leaned over the balcony to flirt
with my friend and fell on top of her. Put her in hospital. It was one of
Rafaele's specialties, putting people in hospital. Since my friend was indisposed, he attached himself to me. He was between wives at the time.
He whisked me off to Florence and introduced me to some very high
society. When they heard I was from Canada, the voices rippled outward.
Some people said, "But I've been to Canada. There's nothing there,"
and looked at me as if I were a figment of Rafaele's imagination.
And I said, "Oh, but such nothing, like nothing you have ever seen."
I wore my country on the inside, like a silver grey lining on a bright red
cloak.
The orderly has come to change the heart plaster. When Rafaele sees
the white uniform approaching, he grabs my hand and says, "Please, you
do it. I can't bear to have a man touch my body. All you have to do is tear
this one off and put the other one on. And tear it off quickly, you sadistic
35 bitch. It's a dynamite bandage. It kick-starts my valves."
The last time he was dying, he made me feel his pacemaker. I think if
he could, he would open up the scar and make me reach in and touch the
palpitating muscle.
There are days when I hate him for growing old. He should have gone
the first time he was meant to die, when his flesh was firm and resilient.
It would have been so much easier than watching him wrestle his guardian angel to the ground and strip him of all his feathers. Rafaele has always insisted that the two worst things that ever happened to the earth
were Christianity and the American Revolution. He thinks the Americans
would have been greatly improved had the English been allowed to guide
them with an imperialist hand. And, as for Christianity, he's afraid he's
going to have to look into the face of God, and God will look just like
him—a pruny blue-eyed Florentine with rattly dentures and a ticky heart.
I think, though, that God might stop short of slicking back his silver hair
with brilliantine.
My son bears no resemblance at all to Rafaele. He has never read the
memoirs of Casanova, never had to choose between the beauty of
women's or horses' flanks. I find it hard to believe they share the same
blood. My son is like the earth, taciturn and darkly sensual. He is also at
peace, at least, as much as any man can be. Rafaele is pale, manicured
and full of terror.
If I had stayed and delivered my child in Florence, I am certain a Fascist midwife would have insisted my child be named Benito or Vittorio,
and he would have fallen asleep to Fifth Column lullabies. Rafaele would
have found a way to make himself immortal through my son, because although Rafaele's divorces snag the years like calloused hands on a silk
stocking, there were no children apart from my son.
Rafaele is feeling loquacious. He is so small under the vast white
sheets. He was so large before.
"I can never remember quite why it was that you left me," he says.
"Tell me again."
"I couldn't see the stars clearly here."
"You wanted to become an astrologer or something."
"Astronomer."
"And did you become one?"
"Oh yes. My telescope has been trained on the universes. Not always
the right ones of course, but we can't always have everything we want."
"What would you have wanted if you could have had anything?"
"To look at the stars, then at you, then at the stars again. You were a
handsome devil in your day."
36 I am quite stunned at the way he transforms himself when I say this. I
know he is suffering, despite his pride. His manservant told me he found
him outside the front door blubbing like a baby because he couldn't make
his key work in the lock. He is afraid of the drug addicts in the piazza. I
don't blame him. So am I.
The nuns are descending like disgruntled vultures. I don't trust them. I
think they want to hover over Rafaele until that decisive moment, then
snatch up his soul, and trundle it off to some secret wash house where
they can plop it into a bucket of bleach and leave it to soak.
He props himself up and in a surprised tone says, "I didn't know the
stars meant so much to you."
"That's because you never listened."
"No, I don't suppose I did."
"You didn't know me. Don't you remember how nervous you always
got when I went into the kitchen? You thought I couldn't boil an egg. I
can, you know. And I could then."
"But you didn't need to. There was Alba."
"Alba told Mussolini that she was Joan of Arc."
"Did she? Did she really?"
"Whenever he phoned, she'd say, 'And I'm Joan of Arc.'"
"She's still alive you know. She's living in sin with a man ten years
younger than herself."
"I always thought that you cared more about her than me. She was an
ugly old thing even then."
I can see his face growing beet red. "But she was my domestic. Domestics are irreplaceable. Wives are easy to find."
I know how important his servants are to him. But for Sylvester and
Ramona, his Sri Lankan couple, he is alone in the palazzo, rattling around
like an unhappy ghost. He is worried that every distant relative is after
his money. He has forgotten the days when money was no object; when
footmen in frozen ranks at the main entrance spoiled their livery with wax
from the candelabra because the master was late. In the days of loyalty
and excess.
Sylvester and Ramona have seen him through all his recent madnesses. The last time he went out of his mind, he ran naked, peeing, and
roaring like a lion through all the hallways, insisting that he had no privacy. Then he climbed into bed between Sylvester and Ramona, and
screamed for squab. Sylvester drove all the way across town and got a
man out of bed to kill one of his pigeons. Ramona plucked it, cooked it and
set it in front of Rafaele at four o'clock in the morning. Rafaele said he
didn't want it anymore, it looked like a dead bird on a plate. Ramona
slapped him across the face and made him sit there and finish it. I can't
37 tell how they really feel about him. They are so inscrutable. No Italian will
go into service these days. Everyone is his own little tiny land baron.
The nuns are shooshing me out of here. The doctors have to make
their rounds. There is such a feeling of decay in this hospital, of medieval
practices, that I am happy to leave.
I will make my way back to Rafaele's house. I think it is so considerate
of him to die in May, when the wisteria is at its most glorious. When I
lived here, May was the only month that didn't disappoint me. How I
missed the rough coastline of Vancouver Island! The cold green sea. And
rain. I thirsted for rain. All the things the Florentines called nothingness.
Rafaele outlived my visit. We spent the week toting up significant digits. The moments in his life that he considered triumphs. Crooked business deals mostly. And the little sadnesses. Women.
On my return, my son asks, "How is my father?" The way one might
say, "How do you like your coffee?" With no particular weight. I am in
awe of his lack of restlessness. He has never wanted to leave this island.
He already knows it is the most beautiful spot on the planet. He says
crowded crumbling cities hold no attraction for him. He is a botanist. His
fingernails are always dirty.
Sylvester has written to tell me about the end. Rafaele asked him to
bring to the hospital—I suspect there was a bribe involved—his Harris
Tweed suit and his brown Ferragamo shoes, spit-shined. He said he
wanted to see his city one more time from Giotto's bell tower. Rafaele
climbed all the steps, although it took him several hours. He paid people
and priests to stay out of his way and managed to arrive on high. He
looked once around him with tears in his eyes, said, "Troppo bello," and
threw himself over. It is so like him to want to trick death.
I half expect, as I am sitting at my telescope, to come across Rafaele,
somewhere out beyond the Andromeda or Spiral Galaxy. He is outside
the gates of Heaven with a duster in his hand, glowing like a supernova.
All his women are inside the gates, and they say, "Keep polishing. When
it shines, maybe, just maybe, we will let you in."
38 Daniel Tobin
Incidental Music
Rural Route
Clouds in the east
like fins of flying fish
above the mucky tracks.
Plumage
Out from Highbridge Tower
black sparks of birds dart,
carving the moment's runes
on the sky's blind slate.
Boone
You were the bravest of us
with your shoreman's swagger
and black mane of hair,
with your sharp tongue cocked
to tell off the world.
There was a ripe burn
where the bullet went through,
a boy's shattered stare,
the mouth wide open
and all that silence.
39 Another Emily
It's not her's but that other's
whose voice dashes against the pane
in the pure grammar of the wind.
Visit
Tonight my child-self crawls in bed
beside me. He has an old photograph's
sleepless gaze; a raw lump
juts above his eyes as if to sprout
a horn. "Still banging your head
against the wall?" "I've come with a gift,
lean closer." His lips touch mine.
The hot coal flames on my tongue.
Puer Aeternas
He's the one with the baby face
behind the graying beard,
the one whose clear eyes gaze at you
like a child's, the child who can't
find his way. He's the one
who follows you, a shadow,
a dwarf, the one who wants you
to stay, the one hiding inside you,
the one who will not go away.
40 Red Delicious
White clouds the sprayer
sent down have settled
into the apple, along
the red grain of stars;
onto the stem, the nubbed
folds underneath,
where the core opens
its cave in the fruit.
Turning it over in my palm,
it's hard to tell
which is poison,
which is light.
Workers
All over the bee's corpse that's puffed
as a fat boy in a rugby jersey, the ants
crane fork-lift arms to find the right point.
Where will they take it? Are there others
widening gates to a city under our feet?
The body rises. And like slaves below
the capstone of Cheops, they carry it off.
Beginning Winter
After the last rain, leaves
print their images
in walks, shadows
burned in by the light.
41 Straw
The sun's golden
radiance honed
to a brittle hair.
Lightning's second self
gleaned for kindling.
What we clutch last
when the light dies.
Again
falling
deeper into
the pit, I clutch
the dark:
it holds.
Elemental
Windblown, the flames'
hair. Wood burns
to orange cliffs. This fire
sounds like water.
A sudden
shift. The blaze slides
into itself: firefly sparks,
the ashes pouring
down, down, down.
42 Bursitus
A few sparks under the skin:
by nightfall the full flames
curling over bones, licking through.
Next morning: only a faint char,
glimmer of coals, the body again
risen to life.
There's always something bids you
remember—ashes on the forehead,
a throb, like a stranger
warning, "I'll be back"
in the road's heat-shimmer.
View From A Window
The sky an infinite gray.
Hedges shiver in draggled yards,
houses' eyelids shut.
Through white lace curtains
a lamp shimmers at an alley's end,
and I find if I lower my head
to the right, and close one eye,
its light shines through a hole
in the filigree—so much more brightly-
like a train gunning through a tunnel.
43 Kettle Boiling
Before you know,
there is a light rumbling
as when a train is far off,
then the chug, chug
grows wilder until
everything happens at once,
and water screams
through the tunnel of its dying.
Demolition
Jackhammers gouge pavement
with the sound of artillery.
Already they've unearthed
the shattered platform,
wash of footprints,
crumbled tiles.
Stunned with sunlight,
pillars are battered
into rising dust.
Scrawled names fly off
in all directions.
Sacred Canopy
A battered tent in wilderness
propped by flimsy poles. Inside,
glyphic with holy equations,
canvas flapping like angels' wings,
the tribe intent on the empty wind.
44 Give Us This Day
Sunlight floods the reservoir,
bathes my skin
while I sit in Central Park
wolfing a burger and fries.
Whom should I praise for the absence
of flies about my lips?
From A Runway
Sunrise. A litter
of planes suckle at the dugs
of the terminal.
Goldfinch
(after Caret Fabritius)
Three hundred years-
still the bird waits to perch on
the master's ringer.
45 Leo's Bitter Leaf
horen Rye
Improbably blue, I thought, listening to jazz on the radio this morning.
The piece had a name like 'Day Spring', or 'Good New Days', or
something like that, but as soon as it started, the chrome speaker on
my dime store radio went deep blue, and everything in me got misty and
mushy. It reminded me of how sometimes I pick up a pen and what I
write should be black, but is blue. Improbably blue.
I sat there and listened for a while; it was melancholy, and I was smitten. It sang like a songbird, lilting and polished, and I was in the perfect
mood to be appreciating it, sitting on my overstuffed couch watching the
sun just beginning to come up the concrete stairs on the porch. The grass
was green, and some of the trees were still green too. The sky was light
blue, the air was quiet and bright in the suburbs, for once at least. Every
colour was very clear. Everything seemed happy.
I got up early and cooked up some eggs and coffee and sat and listened
with an early-morning-stubble-face on, and when that tune came on the
first thing that came through my mind was, this guy plays. Some great orchestra played around behind him, maybe Kenton's or Ellington's, but
what really hit me in the nose was how much real music he played. He
was good. The saxophone that he was playing sounded good, and I never
have loved the sax, so I couldn't help but smile. It wasn't only the sax that
was playing. He played his soul into that line.
Well, he finished, whoever he was, and some inconsequential big band
chart came on next, one that wouldn't last much longer, because it wasn't
very good, and then the station lurched into the news. That is, who did,
who didn't, who was dead, who wasn't quite dead yet, et cetera. Two minutes into it I got bored, flipped the radio to 'tape,' put in the newest Dave
Brubeck cassette, and sat back.
Around the time that I first heard Sylvie play, I started listening to
Dave. There was something about him that just filled me. His fingers
sauntering down the keyboard; his music seemed to walk around on my
senses. When I was just starting to feel what music was doing to me, I
first heard Syl play. We, Syl and I and the rest of the U-Kansas Jazz band,
were playing a concert, a group of green college kids who thought better
46 of our collective experiences than we probably should have. I mean, just
think: I thought that I was a bass trombone god just waiting to become
one with the music world. The opinions varied from instrument to instrument, but we all pretty much thought that way, except Sylvia.
Bright lights, a big stage, stuffy clothing and a bunch of people I didn't
really know. That was the first night I heard Sylvie play. A number ended
and I looked over at her, still trying to catch my breath, and her eyes
were looking for mine. I gave her a pretty neutral look back, and then
looked away kind of blushing, partly because I wanted her real bad, and
partly because I'd stopped breathing and there was no oxygen to my
brain.
Then we set into the next piece, a slow blue and red tune, kind of
bright but mostly blue, a deep light blue, maybe. We pushed and pulled
our way through, as pro as we could swing it, and it was pretty good, and
we played pretty well. Sometimes things just pull together like that. Midway through the piece Sylvie's solo opened up and she started to play a
rigid, by-the-book piano solo.
That is, it started out by-the-book, pure grade-A melody transcription,
maybe because she was afraid of improvisation, but it changed. She began to take little side-trips into improvisation. She ran around on the bass
line. And before anybody knew it, what had been a conglomeration of rotten melody became a living piece of improv. It grooved, trickled, plinked
stones into a river of moving bass, lifted a face to the rainy drum line,
smiled and walked on the ocean's floor. Syl's eyes closed, but that was all
right, because they weren't playing the piece.
When the band took over her line, I almost wept. I'll tell you what it
was. When I looked back over, she was breathing like she'd just run the
mile in twenty seconds, and her eyes were all shot with tears. I saw and
heard her solo, but what I witnessed in that short sixty-four bars was her
transformation from proletarian music player to musician.
I never really met Sylvie. The closest that I came was in looking at her
during rehearsal, and at the end of the semester, when we were doing
faculty evals, and I was taking them to the music office. She handed her
sheet to me and for just a moment our eyes locked.
Sylvie was the kind of woman that everyone knows unless they at one
time had a crush on her. She had wavy blonde hair and never wore any
make-up, because somewhere along the line she had discovered—
wisely—that she needed none. For all the playing I did with her, I never
really noticed her fingers, but she had a gentle neck and some sort of
wonderful face that was never unkind. I could never see any movement
of her head that wasn't subtly smooth and gentle. I suppose that she was
average height and weight, but she had a build to her that made her seem
47 slight. If you combined all this with her moony eyes and her perpetual
smile, you got Sylvie. A wide-eyed wisp of a girl. But she sure could play.
I can't really remember what she looked like, not really, but she sure
could play.
So, the band weaved on through the rest of the piece. Twelve bars or
so before the end, I came in laying down low notes like clay under the
foundation of a house, and most of the band went out for the last seven
bars. Then I shot myself in the foot. I missed count one, a note that had
to be there, that was a basis for the ending. Since then I grant only the
fact that it was low and I still wasn't very experienced, but the director
gave an awesome cue and nothing came out. Nothing for two measures,
nothing but dead air. My horn and I sputtered, coughed, and then I
tripped over the note.
Really, on the Richter scale, I think it was not such a horrible mistake.
Any rookie washed-up, grade school musician could have made it. But I
cannot really explain how horrible and stupid and sad it made me feel. In
rehearsal the director said, Leo, take it up an octave, but I didn't. When I
destroyed the ending of that piece I just about sat down and cried right
there. Understand me, I am not usually a horrible man.
I felt stupid but the rest of the concert salvaged my self-esteem. I let
myself mope for the next piece, screaming through a blues solo that I
had. Then I made myself look up and at least wipe the frown away so that
the audience would not realize that I had messed up, or that everything
was not going my way. I smiled so the audience would not notice that I
was very sad. Showmanship is the hardest thing to remember when you
make the biggest single mistake of a performance. And that stage did it.
It made everything distanced enough so that nobody really noticed.
The rest of that concert is history that no one really wants to remember. In another generation, it won't ever have happened. So, good riddance.
Right now, my horn is soaking out gunk in the bathtub. I have not
played for a long time. Years. I got it out this morning, when that song
drew out my guts and a lot of tired memories, like when I thought that I
was going on forever in music. I thought that I was becoming a legend. It
was a dear piece of brass. So dear because it is as full of memories as it is
gold. It is a heavy bass trombone (being gold and all, I expected to be the
foundation of every great big band) but I played it like I meant it, even
though I wasn't good enough to be doing that. I only got the darn thing
out to see what it looked like after these six years, but when I saw that it
was all mouldy, I couldn't help but feel sorry for it. I figured I might as
well clean it out.
The water that it is soaking in is green and black, but the horn is not as
rancid as I thought when I first got the thing out. Most of the crap is com-
48 ing off, and the gold bell is showing through. It kind of bothers me,
though, that this grey water is just like every colour that I usually see in
the city. It gets dull, as if the colour just washes away. Everything gets
dulled after a while.
Maybe it's just that today is so exceptional that it brings out what was
the worst about yesterday.
Well, yesterday was not so bad, though. Not yesterday like "the-day-
before-today-yesterday." Yesterday collectively. I can remember holding
my girlfriend in a sculpture garden, realizing that I was in love. Those are
the kind of moments that I like to remember, but instead I remember not
falling in love with Syl. When I try, I remember how I broke the depression spells that not knowing if my love was real brought me. Without trying, though, I remember only the bad. Happiness is hiding under everything else. I remember walking home through downtown Chicago years
ago, right after I quit, letting my shirt tails blow around, and seeing this
young black man sitting at the corner. A trumpet was in his hand and its
case was at his feet. The case had a lot of money in it, and so I guessed
that he was pretty good. I tossed a few quarters and a silver dime into the
case and he asked, "What do you want to hear?"
"Blues," I reacted. Something grabbed me. "In C. Not that I could
tell." He seemed well-dressed for a street player. I guessed that he could
tell me C. He probably went to school. He nodded and zipped into some
bluesy notes and I wondered how it was that I came to ask for blues in C.
He was good, though, and so I stopped being preoccupied with being
seen listening to a trumpeter on the street and listened. He made the
notes flutter around the brick and glass as if they were birds and dry
leaves. Some of them seemed to get lost in the traffic, lost in the crowd
of passing people hurrying worriedly through the streets, trying to find
something or other. Blank cardboard faces who didn't see or hear anything. Faces that looked similar to mine, which despite its wrinkles and
grey city skin I still thought attractive, even though no one else seemed
to openly agree.
Now, look. This guy was good, I'm not saying that he wasn't, but there
just is nothing you can do to get away from a place like Chicago sometimes, you understand? Even though he first swept me up, the city got
back into me. Maybe I needed to leave then like I do now. Sometimes
you get tired of even the most benign tumour. Sometimes.
The trumpeter built up his bop and then finished off, ending on a perfect low C. I felt something in me running away bawling, trying to jump a
song train and go anywhere. He looked at me.
"Do you play?" He stepped back, looking at my absently tapping right
foot.
"Huh? Why?" I looked away toward traffic.
49 "Oh, no reason, man. Just curious." His eyes turned down the street.
He was ready to have me leave.
"No," I said quietly, not thinking any conscious thought. "I don't play."
I did not even look back at him. I just let my head fall and let my feet carry
me comfortably away and I didn't think about jazz for the rest of the day.
But I didn't feel very good for the rest of the day, either. Some days I just
wish that I was incapable of thinking anything.
Improbably blue.
As far as all of that goes, I haven't really been happy for six years.
Since I gave it up. I woke up this morning and jazz was on the radio, and I
felt better than usual, but what kind of stilted perspective am I viewing
this all from? Am I viewing it from my work standpoint? As an insurance
salesman? If so, my perspective is pretty ill. I think I haven't felt good in
years, so I really couldn't tell. Is six years a long time not to be in love? I
mean, not with a woman, because she is gone and that was easy for me to
reconcile, but what about not loving myself? I do not know—it's around a
sixth of my life, which is a lot of time, but not really.
Sometimes I do miss not having it as a backup. Some people call it catharsis, but that is only a pretty word for escape. I used to play when I
was too happy or sad to cope, and I could just hook up to my trombone
and just play, just play, and not have to think, just let the stream of
thought in my brain flow until it got to a place where it was not such a
muddy confused mess.
But, then again, sometimes I do not miss it at all.
Since today is Saturday, I did not have to get out of bed but I did, and I
ended up going through old stuff after breakfast, after I listened to that
guy on the radio. Program notes and reel-to-reel tapes, mouthpieces,
spray bottles and old slide cream. By god, some of it looks very, very,
very old.
Part of this reminiscence has been spurred by a certified letter that I
got yesterday. There has to be something in this box that I unconsciously
want. I didn't just get it out for kicks. Really. Let's see.
Bitter Leaf, says the program. That was Syl's song. It was in the key of
C minor something. The note that I flubbed was a low C. I wish that I'd
apologized for ruining the ending of her song, but she never stuck around
after rehearsal, preferring to make herself and her dreamy brick-brown
eyes vanish into the unknown elsewhere. I never had the guts to follow
her, but I guess that you follow people in other ways.
Twelve years ago (is it so long?), give or take a month or three, Sylvie
found a big break. She called one chilly Sunday afternoon when I hadn't
thought about her in a long time.
50 "May I speak to Leo?" I didn't recognize the voice. I don't think that I
had ever heard her speak before.
"This is Leo," I told her, and then she got ecstatic. I swear that she
was rising up off her chair when she spoke again.
"Leo! This is Sylvie."
It went on in that vein for several minutes, saying "Hello," and, "I
missed hearing you play," et cetera. I wanted to tell her that I wanted to
buy her dinner, and take her out on the town and romance her until she
was mine, mine, mine! But, of course, as such things go, we got down to
business.
"Leo. Do you want to play? I have a piece that is crying for a bass
trombone solo, and I need someone like you. It'll pay a couple grand at
least. I got an offer!"
An Offer. The words sank slowly, but what they said came fast: Syl
was going professional. She had the Gift. The blooming that I had seen
was only the beginning of some greater spring.
"Yes," I said, trying to sound happy instead of stunned. "I'll play for
you."
She told me dates and things like that, all of which I needed to know, all
of which I wrote down quickly because my mind was not to be trusted
with details. She kept saying, "I really missed seeing you move." She had
evidently been on the bar circuit when I had. She'd seen me take off my
shirt once, she said. It came down to good-byes, and her glee, maybe it
was glee, sank playful teeth into my ear, and as I put the earpiece down
into the cradle, the eastbound thought-train started rolling.
She didn't know me, really, you see. I never really talked to her in
college, ever. I didn't have the self-esteem to make love to, or for, any
woman, beautiful as she could be. I was a virgin until I was twenty-five.
And on top of that, no woman ever really loved me, except maybe one
girl. And that was not Syl.
I was barely making a living playing at night clubs and on street corners. I had not been getting good reviews—when I got them. So she had
seen me take off my shirt, so what? I was thin, no Adonis, and though I
was comfy and money was less sparse than it had been, I had no reputation. I had no house and I wasn't good-looking. I had a mean temper and
was a manic-depressive without money for medication. Just because
clubs let me take off my shirt didn't mean that anyone went out of their
way to book me. Nobody wanted to listen to a bass trombone without his
other trombones and band. Nobody called me to do a gig, for god's sake!
What was she doing, calling me years after we had never met, asking me
to play in a recording studio on a piece when I didn't even play well
enough to stay alive?
51 I didn't even remember what she looked like.
There is no soul in jazz anymore. At least, not in the new stuff. You
can't approximate soul digitally; you can't give a piece life through electronics. That's a myth. All you get are empty notes that some guy throws
on a page. There are no new great artists, no incredible players, and only
a few screamer trumpets that make their livings dubbing and cutting and
pasting identical digital tracks, missing the real life of it. They can't even
play without a mike. They are musically retarded. The music, it is empty if
you try to make a machine do your work for you. Even from a standpoint
of insurance work, I know what is good and what is not.
But I guess, even if I hate what it has become, I miss playing. The
scene, though? No, I really don't miss the sadness. Sometimes it never
got better than the worst, living with my horn and cardboard boxes full of
all of my stuff sitting in the rain, sad, melancholy, broken and desolate.
Helpless to end the progression of regression. My precious memories
getting soaked and ruined in cardboard caskets, evicted and left under
the rainy eaves of my apartment. Being without a gig for four weeks, eating borrowed or stolen food, and living out of my van (a $200 special that
was my home for three years before state inspection condemned it).
Hard, hard times that left me bony thin and with nothing left but a soul
that did nothing impressive.
In the stuff that I just dug up an hour ago, I found my very first gig
cheque stub, $400 payable, at last, to me, and me only. After that first
rainy night in a downtown Chicago nightclub, the money came regular
enough, and I lived comfortably. There's a ticket stub here, too, that
says "Brubeck Quartet." It is from the night when I saw Dave Brubeck
and his Quartet, and when I decided that jazz was what I wanted from
life. There are many programs which I keep in a shoebox, but my name is
not on a lot of them. And at the bottom of the shoebox I find a plane ticket
that was bought for me, because I was broke, from Chicago to New York,
indefinite round trip return. I got into New York at two a.m. in October,
rain driving over and down in the threatening perpetual dusk of New York
City. At noon that same day I started to record Sylvie's debut album.
I showed up in a faded green field jacket of WWII vintage and grey
worn tweed slacks, and from the moment I walked into the record company's building, I was a monstrosity. The button-down white shirt that I
wore I bought in Chicago for just this occasion, but they claimed that it
was blase. Tweed slacks?! They moaned in dismay, you're hopelessly
fashion blind. How could you possibly play the trombone? I got very angry.
I screamed at them that since I wasn't going to appear on the record
jacket, they didn't need to care about what I wore. I stopped just short of
telling them that they could go to hell. Maybe I'm lucky that I did. Maybe.
52 The studio was small. At one end was the drum set, and the bass, and
at the other was Sylvie and her piano. In between were the three saxes,
three trumpets, another trombone, and myself. We jammed a bit, riffing
over a bass line under glass and cardboard. I do not recall talking at all except perhaps obligatory hellos and affirmatives/negatives. We played Bitter Leaf on that first day, and I stuck that one note real nice. I caught a
moony-eyed look from Syl before I cut at the end, and then we both
looked away. After the first session, Sylvie gave me a big hug and handed
me an invite to a cocktail party after the rehearsal. We pulled sixteen
numbers in four days, and I have never been so exhausted in all of my life
as then.
The pay cheque eventually ended up being $16,000 in full. I never
talked to Sylvie, played a few restless gigs around New York until her album hit the stands. It sold out, top of the jazz charts. Nobody said anything about the trombones. Then I went home, back to Chicago. I played
a few clubs for maybe two months and then gave up the ghost, $35,000 in
the black, and unhappy as hell. I got sober one morning, just picked up
my horn, and stared at it for hours, waiting for a big red neon sign that
said, Leo, just play your horn and quit whining, but there wasn't one. It
just sat there, an insolent dark lump of brass and gold, offering no consolation at all. So I polished it, laid it gently back into its case, and closed it
away from the world. I stowed it in my bedroom closet and went to trade
school. I was twenty-four and there was nothing left for me in music. I
was empty. I had to live, and so I went back to school. Over the next six
years I played very little, and never got paid for it.
I've been working for an insurance company since I graduated top of
my community college class. Community college was what I could do
with my limited resources and worthless music degree, and like the community college, I handle people, I am one of the guys who calls you up and
says that your policy does not cover whatever accident you were in. I
screw people. I am anonymous because my weapon is the phone and I
have become heartless, because that is what I must do to stay alive. The
weak are screwed by the strong. That is life, though it is easy to fall into a
rut and start believing the insurance company's delusions of providing for
the common man and the destitute. But mostly I think about what I got
rid of back in New York. It is hard not to think of. Mistakes can be easy,
though, and I guess that in retrospect it really does not matter who
screws who, because I have been on both ends, and they were both the
wrong one. Who cares?
Don't get me wrong about New York City. I had fun there. If you were
alone like me, New York was a great place to get drunk.
53 While I was there for Syl's recording sessions, there were cocktail
parties after dinner and the evening session, up on the eleventh floor of
the 'Company Building,' in huge Victorian banquet rooms full of glitz,
baubles, and shiny-toothed hungry men with plastic women at their sides,
all pretending to be Syl's friends. They would watch greedily for the
right moment to jump in on a conversation with her, making themselves
friendly and acquainted. Making connections. All of this under polished
glass and steel chandeliers trying to make semblance of culture—frescoed ceilings, and the smell of a hundred expensive perfumes that all
blended together for an odour not unlike that of an open air fish market in
a rose garden. Gaudy portraits and photographs of famous Company musicians surrounded everything, looking down at us with critical stares.
For each of those four nights I stood in a corner with a crystal tumbler
dry after one drink, resisting the urge to get stronger bourbon, promising, Twenty minutes. I can stay twenty minutes for Sylvie, who, as far as I
could tell, never knew that I was there. Never talked, never looked. I
know that we weren't even friends. But didn't I deserve something? I remember being on the edge of an ebbing sea of gaudy facades and realizing
that I was not one of them. And I hated them all because they would not
let me succeed. I don't know why.
After the obligatory twenty minutes, I would walk out, unrecognized,
tired, clutching my empty hands in the wearing pockets of my grey tweed
slacks, sticking close to the walls. I would check my jacket from the overpaid attendant and give him a tip, praying that next time he would remember that I tipped him, and that my friendly old green coat would still be
there intact. Then I would go back to the hotel, walk the six flights of
stairs to avoid having to give the elevator boy a tip because I could not
afford it, and fall asleep naked on top of the covers, too exhausted and
depressed to be cold.
Those slacks, though. They were something of a joy to me. I can't find
good tweed anywhere, any more, for reasonable prices. But those
slacks, they were soft and warm and cool. Back when it was neither socially extravagant nor much too expensive to have your own tailor, I
bought those slacks for thirty-eight dollars, and a matching coat (which
was stolen from a deli just a week later) for twenty more. Beautiful soft
combed wool tweed. Things were better then. Those slacks have worn
out and, of course, their modern counterpart is polyester for twice the
price. Always hot and sticky. I cannot afford better and really spend so
little time in clothes at home that it really doesn't matter. By its very nature work is uncomfortable, and so I usually don't worry about pants.
There are more important things.
54 I just finished polishing my horn, and by god, it is still as beautiful as
when I first bought it. The slide and valves still run smoothly. Imagine,
after six years in the closet collecting smog and dank water. Oh, it is such
a beautiful thing, gold bell glowing in the one o'clock sun. Every perfect,
beautiful curve, tells me of a feeling that I put to music once. I almost find
it incredible that I could ever have played such a wondrous thing.
Vasili Petrasky is etched delicately into the bell in gentle script, the
work of the incredible, small grey man from Northern Europe from whom
I commissioned my horn. I knew when I saw the gleam in his eye as he
handed it to me that, as time passed, it would become even more magical. This piece of metal would outlive the world around it, I knew, but it
was as much a part of me as my eyes.
It is sitting on my couch right now, soaking up the sun that it has been
without for these years. Very curious, how it seems to be calling me,
beckoning me to play it and sing out of it, wail for yesterday which I have
neglected. I cannot turn away, but sit reliving those feelings from years
ago, feeling my breathing flowing through the phrases of some inaudible
chart.
The old man, who had been booking me for little gigs in New York
while I was there waiting for Syl's album to hit the charts, booked me for
one last shot after the album hit big. A night-club which was pretty low
even by the extreme tastes of New York in November. In the dark corners of that haunted city rested all breeds of foul beastly clubs, but this
one took the cake and ate it too.
Beside me on the little paperboard stage was some trumpet player
with nothing going for him, a saxophonist with no ear, a bassist who
played for God's big band and a drummer from the other end. This was
after the recording session's finale, at a huge hotel in New York's shiny
business district, with six inch deep burgundy carpets and a lot of overstuffed heads strutting around in Sylvie's friendship. This club, the Piranha, was dark and smoky, and the floor was finished with rubber, mud,
and booze.
The five of us ground our way through some fresh meat blues songs,
and then launched into some improv, which everybody could do fairly
well, since the crowd wasn't critical. The improv started getting mellower when the bassist went through on his ride, and the drummer let it
turn into a ballad simply because he had neither memory nor any sense of
keeping time whatsoever.
It was my shot at a solo, and I was desperate and angry and riding on a
sea of depression up to my neck. I had eaten myself for dinner and wasn't
55 full. I frantically pulled sour notes out of the air because I didn't have it in
me to play, and then everything went purple.
I was probably hallucinating, but everything went purple and then
there was sudden clarity about all that I wanted to play. Since that night,
I've thought about it a lot, sitting in the bathtub or on the way home from
work, and I've named it the Purple Field, after something similar in a
book by Thorn Jones.
I wasn't playing that night. I wasn't being any good. I'm not even sure
that everything was purple, but there was some sort of power whose
edges I could not even imagine pulling on me so hard that I could feel
nothing but my lips and my lungs. Suddenly I was no longer just improvising. What I wanted to be playing became as clear in my mind as a broken
window. Suddenly I was making music and everything in me was going
into it. Suddenly there was only the bass, trap, and my music funnelling
out of me and into my horn.
About halfway through, I looked out to see if anyone was still there,
because I had been so absorbed that I hadn't been thinking of the audience at all, and every eye was on me. Sylvie sat way at the back, nestled
into a dark booth in a corner, under the layer of smoke looking between
heads and drinks and into me. For the rest of that piece our eyes made up
for being alone during the recording session, during the closing banquet.
When it was done, she got up and pressed a word toward a grey-haired
man at the next table, and with a gentle smile and a bit of resignation,
kept her eyes on me while the rest of her walked away. The well-dressed
old guy came for the stage, trying to bully his way through the ecstatic
crowd, and I could see, even though I couldn't hear anything, that I was
putting my horn away for the last time in New York City. I left through
the back. All of my euphoria crashed down around me and wet the sidewalk. I was empty like the pale blue sky.
I left nameless. I hopped a cab, and couldn't feel anything in me, nothing at all. Some other car tried to follow us but I knew that it wasn't Sylvie
and so all I wanted was to be alone. All I knew was I didn't want that
other car there. I told the cabbie to lose it, and I guess he did. When I got
to the airport I got myself lost in all the people, boarded a plane, and then
came home, lost, alone, emptied out at a worthless dive in the slums of
New York City, and quit.
Six years, for god's sake. Syl has chugged out six or seven albums,
now. I lost track for a couple years, but I think that the number is seven.
Maybe I should call and make sure. Maybe she would enjoy hearing from
me. She's probably married but that's good, because I don't love her like
I used to.
Anyway, the trends are different, lately. Two days ago I got a cheque
56 in the mail (a cheque for $1,000 in advance), accompanied by a letter
claiming that I was needed for a recording in Ontario, and that I had been
recommended by Syl. I've received other letters from Sylvie but I never
opened them. Most of them are probably still around somewhere. I've
been in love since then and now I don't want much to do with her, but this
is money. And it isn't insurance.
I don't even know the girl that I'll play for, but that is nothing new. She
is some trumpet named Rena Herman. I played part of the recording that
came with the cheque, and she plays beautifully, so this might be fun.
She's got the kind of edge that Dave Brubeck has. She walks on me.
She's making some sort of debut too. I seem to be kicking a lot of those.
The date of recording is pretty broad, being some time next year around
April 15, which is fine for me, because I hate the tax season, especially in
the insurance business. Let's guess sometime in April then. It's August
now, so that gives me, what, nine months?
Why do all of these people want to play Bitter Leaf? Why do they want
me to play Bitter Leaf? And what is all of this about the key of C? I hate C!
My horn smells sweet as I put it to my lips and blow warmly through it,
like I am exhaling from my stomach. That is important, breathing deeply
and relaxing the throat so that the sound is not tight and tinny. The
mouthpiece is warm and it feels soft. I coax a little more air through and
taste the dusty air of my room, and it feels good to blow again. The horn
feels very solid. I'm starting to like it again, feel it all again, the valves and
smooth slide.
My embouchure feels pretty soft. Can I get it back in ten months? I
know, thinking about that one last night, that the purple field is still there.
That it is still in me to play. I think I still feel it when I walk home, sometimes. It makes my bones want to rattle—I want to make music so bad.
Sometimes it gives me strength and vitality enough that I can hum at
work. That is power. And speaking of the insurance business, I hope I
can get the time off in April, because I'd hate to quit. It would be nice to
walk in Ontario, because I hear that it is beautiful in the spring, especially
if it is bright and crisp and jazz is singing through the trees.
57 Alice Tepexcuintle
two poems
back at the shack
back at the shack
down by the helicopter pad
i was flat on my back
i was flat on my back
under the palm fronds
at the watermelon shack
i was crashed out
under the palm fronds
dropping watermelons off
the helicopter pad
bombs go off
under the palm fronds
dead iguanas walk past
surfs up
and so is the hurricane
phosphorescent waves breaking
on the sand
you cant surf on a helicopter blade
back at the shack
back at the shack
down by the helicopter pad
i was crashed out
under the palm fronds
dropping watermelons off
the helicopter pad
watching them shatter on the ground
like empty helicopter shells
you cant chop a helicopter
with a watermelon blade
58 surfs up
and so is the hurricane
dead iguanas walk past
bombs go off
under the palm fronds
wrap your body in
a dead iguana skin
and meet me down
by the helicopter pad
back at the shack
back at the shack
down by the watermelon pad
you were flat on your back
you were crashed out
bombs goin off
under the hurricane
coptermelons crash
into the heliwater
dead iguanas walk past
you cant crack a melonwater
on a copterheli pad
back at the shack
meet me back at the shack
down by the helicopter pad
i'U be flat on my back
i'll be flat on my back
bombs goin off
under the palm fronds
i will be dead on the helicopter pad
i will be dead on the helicopter pad
wrap my body in
a dead iguana skin
and lay me down under
the hurricane wind
never look back
59 never look back
at the shack
never look back
leave me forever
never ever look back
at the helicopter pad.
60 I could tell you about
the coconut road
I could tell you about the coconut road
When you awaken    still   reeling
to look for samwiches
surf   yello sunlight full
of hundred dollar bills
I could tell you about
slopes of azure water curl curl curl
When you awaken   an old species
still flapping around
your little bivouac   bottles bottles
so many broken summers behind you
I could
take you down
to the coconut grove
When you awaken to every flavour
of rain   new and frail   in dreams
licking bright swordfish   still hung over
clutching the moose antlers    surf boards
curved beyond despair   and bottles    bottles
smoking   push them clear aside   whisper
I will change my life
Dont be afraid   folio the truck driver
Be careful not to get
bonked as you walk along
the coconut road
61 And when you awaken   walking into midnite
fireflies    a hunters moon
hauling the ghetto blaster
thru the nights unfinished crimes   and I'm
gone   gone
Waiting for you   maybe
down the coconut road
62 Super Bowl Sunday
Larry Campbell
George is talking to Brenda, his wife. "So—. Okay—. So—. Who's
going to pick up the kids again? Am I or are you?" Whenever he
gets to feeling frustrated or harassed, which is possible whenever he and Brenda have to interact at all these days, he starts to chop
and choke off his words like this.
It doesn't faze Brenda, though. "You are," she says after a slight
pause, looking at him. "I took them. You can get them. Right?"
"Okay. Right. You want me to get them. Right?"
"Right."
Their two girls, Miranda, five, and Jennifer, four, are at a birthday
party this Sunday of the Super Bowl game. The party is at Elly and Paul
Levinson's, a couple George and Brenda know casually. The general
idea, now that it's been sorted out, is that George will pick them up a
little after two and deliver them to Brenda's parents, who'll look after
them until the evening. Then he's going to go to an old friend's house,
where there's an annual Super Bowl gathering of the 'guys'. That's a
word Brenda uses and George, who's just turned forty and is nine years
older, avoids. Brenda herself is meeting one of her own friends for a regularly scheduled game of squash.
She's gone back to sorting the laundry while George cleans up last
night's dishes. These little stare-downs have become merely part of the
routine around the house, and neither one of them thinks twice about
them as a rule. But this time something is ticking over in Brenda's mind.
The word 'routine' itself occurs to her, and she stops what she's doing.
"Um," she says, "no. No, I'll get the girls after all. This time."
He doesn't say anything, but he forgets to rinse the cup he's just
washed before putting it in the rack. He picks another dish out of the sink
and starts running the dishrag over it until he stops and looks up. As
though it's taken this long for her words to register.
"You're going to pick up the girls," he states, though it's really a
question.
"Yes. After all."
He does a quick glance to heaven, but it's lost since she's not looking up.
63 "Well, look," he says then, "maybe you should just write out my instructions for me. You know, every morning? Pin it up? You change your
mind, all you gotta do is scratch out the old one, write in the new. Huh?
Save wasting words."
"Oh, George," she says then. "It's just that I don't want you to miss
Allan's Super Bowl party. You know." She draws out the last phrase in a
cajoling manner that usually has a mollifying effect.
But this morning George seems a little more prickly than usual. He
waits for a second, and then he says, "I thought your Sunday squash
game with Helen was supposed to be sacred, for Christ's sake."
"Well. It is, as a rule. But the gym's there every Sunday and Super
Bowl's just once a year, right?"
He mutters something.
"You want to go, don't you? To the party? See the guys? The old
gang?" She's stopped fussing with the laundry when she says this. Her
head is up and there is a look of real concern in her eyes that seems at
odds with her rather casual words.
George too stops what he's doing and looks at her seriously. "It's not a
party," he says. "And it's not a gang. That's for you gals." And then goes
back to his dishes. "Of course I want to go. What do you think?"
She doesn't say anything, but she continues to stare at his bowed head
for a few long seconds. The look of concern doesn't go away.
Brenda is a short, dark, and largely imperturbable woman. Though
she's small in size, there's a force to her character that's more like a
weight or a mass, or like the inertia of a big boat that cruises undisturbed
through choppy waters, and doesn't turn easily. Something's having an
effect on her now, however.
George, by contrast, is over six feet tall, sandy-haired, and still wiry
and gangly as an adolescent. He isn't the same as Brenda in character, either, but he has another quality about him that often produces the same
result. He can be pushed off course relatively easily, but he comes back
to it with a deep persistence, like a homing instinct. Brenda is aware of
this.
Later that day, just after noon, George is alone in the house. Brenda
has left early, to visit briefly with Helen and explain why she can't keep
their squash date this time. He's sitting in the kitchen, at the large, round
oak dining table, reading the Sunday tabloid, when he notices something
and looks up. What he notices is the silence. It almost disorients him, like
someone who forgets, just for a moment, where he is.
64 He closes the paper, leaving it alone on the clean wood, and stands up,
just pushing his chair back and gazing about him. Their home is a rented
duplex in a quiet residential corner of North Burnaby. On the east side
live a young Vietnamese couple, so inconspicuous they might almost not
exist. In this room, usually so filled with the common noises of life, there
is now no sound at all. The slanting winter sun comes in through the
kitchen windows in a swath of pale yellow and lights up surfaces—enamel
of the fridge, stainless steel of the sink, porcelain of the drying dishes,
the swirled oak grain in a bright wedge of the table.
He walks, softly, through the rooms of his house. He imagines that
he's someone seeing it for the first time, but seeing it completely. He's
thinking of it as a space, a space that's full rather than empty, every point
of it potent with the life contained within it. He notices the signs of
habitation—tacked-up drawings, children's boots at the door, stacks of
old newspapers, the lingering smell of fresh laundry. In the living-room,
the light from a high western window appears as a shaft through the still,
hallowed air, dust motes turning in its beam. Sanctuary, that's what's in
his mind. Not the word, but the idea without the word.
He thinks of his absent, dispersed family. Away. These are the voyages of the starship Perry-Calahan. He is alone on the Bridge. It's not
space so much, his mind worries, but time. There's no way time can be
filled like space. He can't quite believe in fate, and anyway that wouldn't
be the same. Things happen, is all.
He's back now where he started, in the kitchen, sitting at the table, the
newspaper before him like a small portal. Finally, with the slightest of
sighs, he opens it to the sports section. He starts when the phone rings.
It's a friend calling him up about getting a ride to Allan's that afternoon.
"I probably shouldn't be going, really," Reg is saying to him, over the
phone. "Harriet's out of town, eh? And I don't know about baby-sitters.
And anyway, there's, you know, there's things I gotta do around here."
"Uh huh," says George. He thinks that Suzy, just up the street, could
surely handle Reg's seven-year-old, Elliot. George happens to know she's
free, and Reg isn't far away. But it seems as though that's not the point.
"What're you, wallpapering again?" he asks. Last year Reg wallpapered over top of wallpaper he'd just put up a couple of months before.
"No," says Reg too fast, then, "Yeah, right," as he gets the joke. "No,
it's, you know, just kind of clean-up, and, you know."
George thinks he knows. There's a short pause, a second of dead air
over the phone. "Great day, isn't it?" he asks.
65 "Mmm," says Reg.
"Well," says George after a moment, "I'll just come by. We can talk
about it."
Brenda, at about this same time, is at Helen's condo, where she's
stopped on her way to pick up the kids. Helen, one of her oldest friends,
and one of the few still unattached, has been trying to talk Brenda into
playing squash after all.
"Helen, don't—" Brenda says, starting to clip her words like George
now. "Just—. Don't do this to me, okay? It's just important... to me
right now... to pick up the kids. I just want to make sure he does this,
that he gets out to this party or whatever it is, that he doesn't have any
excuse not to. You know?"
Helen can see Brenda's agitation, all right, and knows very well how
unusual that is. But she can't see why, and has known her too long to
conceal this. "Well, no," she says, "actually I don't know. Tell me.
What's so bad about him picking up the kids? He's just taking them to
your parents, right? He can still get to the game."
Brenda takes a long hard look at her friend. Helen is thirty-two, a year
older than herself, and never been married. She's tall, with light brown
hair, not at all bad looking; had any number of men; makes, as a computer
consultant, about twice what Brenda does as a lab assistant; still claims
she has no desire for children. For just a second Brenda thinks, what
would it be like, her life? It's a common enough thought, a grass-is-
greener sort of wonder, but this time it's a little more intense than usual.
"He won't," she says finally. "I'm afraid that he won't. Get to the
game. That he's just looking for an excuse."
"Okay, so? Then he doesn't want to go. I mean—" and Helen leans forward, hands up in the air, eyebrows raised. "Help me out. What am I
missing here?"
"That he never does! Ever! He hardly gets out of the house at all anymore! Except for work."
"So he's underfoot? But you're not there that often—"
"No, that's the point! Oh, it's-"
"Ah, he makes you feel guilty! That's it. Is that it?"
Short, dark, Brenda has a glare of withering intensity, and right now
it's directed at Helen. But then she lets it go, and looks down at the
kitchen table, playing with her half empty coffee cup. "No," she says,
quietly. "Well, it does make me feel guilty, a bit, but that's not really the
point. Not really."
This time Helen waits for a while, then says, "You're not happy,
66 Brenda." It sounds like a statement, but it's really a prod. The face of her
friend, however, when she looks up, is serious and sad enough that
Helen is taken aback. Brenda shakes her head.
"I've actually thought of leaving," she says. Helen just watches her. "I
can't explain it. He's changed. He's become this little... curled up...
larva. I'm just sick of it. Is this what I married? A housewife wannabe? I
mean help, fine, great, and he's good with that. But am I going to have to
carry this guy the rest of my life? Is this what it's going to be? You
know?"
Helen shrugs. Then says, "Don't look at me. I'm the spinster here, remember. " A little brusque, but that's just a feature of her role in their
two-part, long-playing performance. They talk some more, Helen is sympathetic, and Brenda subsides.
"He's not bad, you know," Brenda says at one point. "He has a lot of
good qualities. We basically get along, for all our bickering. But it's like
he's shrinking away. The incredible shrinking man. I can see it happening, but I can't stop it. And I can't see why it's happening, I can't understand it."
She's subsided, Helen thinks, but it's still there. Whatever it is.
The phone rings and Helen gets up to answer it. "Oh, hi, George," she
says. "Yeah, she's right here," and holds the phone out to Brenda, with
wide eyes and a little smile.
"Glad I caught you," says George to Brenda over the phone. "I'm here
at the Levinson's after all." Brenda feels like a weight just landed on her.
"And I might as well take the kids to your folks. See, I went to pick up
Reg, and he says why don't we get Paul too, 'cause apparently Elly could
use the car, and I said sure if you don't mind my dropping the girls at my
in-laws. They both said fine. So you and Helen can keep your squash date
after all. Okay?"
Silence. "Okay?" he says again. "Brenda, you there?"
"You're still going aren't you?" she says then, softly. "To the Super
Bowl party?"
"Sure, what do you think? We're just sitting around here talking for a
bit and then we're off. The kids are having a good time. Reg brought Elliot over too. See you later."
"That bastard," she says to Helen as she hangs up the phone. "He's
not gonna go."
At five thirty the next evening, as George is fixing dinner—he goes in
to work early and gets home before four, as a rule, so this is customary
for him—he spots potential trouble out of the corner of an eye. Miranda
67 and Jenny are having about their third glass of juice since they got home
from the daycare, and Miranda, finished her own glass and still thirsty,
reaches for her sister's half-full one with the casual arrogance of the elder. Jenny, in an instant rage, and with a piercing shriek, grabs it back,
and before George can make a move the glass is flying through the air. All
three of them watch it bounce against the wall, miraculously without
breaking, splashing yellow orange juice against the off-white paint, and
down into the wall heater at the baseboard.
"She shouldn't grab," says Miranda, sulkily, when George gives her a
look.
"You," says George, "you shouldn't grab. Right?"
"Yeah, right!" says Jenny, helpfully.
Then in walks Brenda, just home from work. George gives her a look
and starts wiping at the wall heater with the dishrag. "Little industrial accident here," he says, trying to sound chipper. He knows what's coming
though.
After George's phone call yesterday, Brenda and Helen played their
squash game and then took themselves out to an early dinner. Brenda
called home, and there was George, as she'd known he would be. Everything was fine, he'd said, and she'd let it go. But after that she took on a
grim determination to stay out, not to go home yet. They called up Edie,
another friend, and all three went to a pub. There, out in the city, Brenda
felt a weight that grew heavier, more oppressive, as the night wore on,
and before long they left to go back to Helen's. The night sky, she noticed, outside amidst the city neon, wasn't black but a dark, sullen, pulsing red.
When she did get home, George was already asleep, and the next
morning she'd waited until he'd gone before she got up. This is the first
time they've been face to face since Sunday morning.
"You didn't go, did you?" she asks, right off.
At first he doesn't say anything. Sometimes, he thinks, these things go
away if you just avoid contact for a while. Especially eye contact.
"Did you?" she asks again. "Come on, George, look at me."
He looks at her now, a full three second stare, his face expressionless.
Then he does a very small shrug. "We got to talking," is all he says. He's
starting to get a bit curt. He doesn't try to pretend that he doesn't know
what she's on about—at these times that doesn't buy you much. But it irritates him that she's this aggressive about it, and also that he's as defensive as he is.
Both can see the impasse now, however, and neither wants to get into
anything in front of the kids, so it stops for the moment. The girls go out
to play in the backyard until dinner, and Brenda takes off her coat and
68 starts setting the table. Some of the tension seems to ebb.
"You have a good time at Paul's?" she asks finally.
"Sure," he says, and there's a slight pause. "What about you?" he asks
then.
She nods. "Sure," she says.
He waits for a minute. "Wasn't much of a game anyway," he says then,
deciding to risk it.
"Yeah?" she says.
"I guess Allan's a little pissed off," he says. "Apparently not many
showed up. Harry was there, though. With his new girlfriend, from what
I heard." And George does his quick glance to heaven. "Making the usual
ass of himself."
They're both quiet then. He knows it hasn't gone away. Brenda's
standing on the far side of the table, watching him as he carries over the
last plate of food. Here it comes, he thinks.
"It's a kind of fear, isn't it?" she asks.
He stops, the plate in his hand. He's ready for it, he's been ready since
he got back from the birthday party yesterday afternoon, the kids still
with him. Now, hearing this, even though the question itself surprises
him a little, he's all ready to be hot and indignant. He's even got the
words ready—"Aw for fuck's sake—" is how he's going to start, using a
word he doesn't resort to often, but wanting to return some aggression
finally.
It's not her question, though, but her tone that stops him. This isn't
her condescending voice, which he doesn't hear very often anyway, but
which he recognizes. This is different. For the second time since she
walked in he looks her in the eyes, this time not staring.
"I don't think it's fear," he says to her, and repeats it. "I don't think it's
fear." There's a pause. "Not sure what it is though." Saying that with a
quick and nervous grin.
There's a short silence. Then Brenda says, "It scares me, George.
You know?" A pause. "If you're scared, it scares me. Don't you see
that?" Another little silence. "I just wish I knew what you're afraid of."
He's set the plate down by now. "The whole fucking world, maybe,
I don't know." Which seems to release him a bit. "I don't know, Brend. I
just—I worry. I'm worried for the damn kids, maybe that's what it is.
I don't know why, or about what. I don't know what I can do about it. I
just worry."
He's looking past her, out the window. He can see that this affects her,
like a contagion, and he keeps a distance. "It's not a big thing," he says.
Whatever it is, she thinks. But words can sometimes cage things that
they can't exactly name, for a while at least, and Brenda is ready to ac-
69 cept that these few words, spoken between them, have done about as
much as words can do, for now. Almost. She moves a little closer to him.
"Well," she says, "is it going to get worse?"
He looks at her again, and a few of the lines ease from his face. He recognizes this tone too. "Nah," he says, drawing it out, softly. And so they
stand gazing at each other for a moment. Wordlessly this time, but with a
kind of antique gentility, hands lift and touch. Phantoms diminished, for
now, each is filled up with the other, anew.
After dinner, George and Brenda, in smooth, practiced movements,
clear and stack the plates. Very little is said, and the talk is very small,
but each hears that words are spoken a little more clearly than usual. The
weather is mentioned, for example, and the small, hard, bright winter
sun is appreciated between them for its rarity.
They head into the living-room. No room lights are on as they come
down the hall, but the television set is, and its jittery phosphorescence
guides their way. From the doorway, in the partial dark, they can see the
girls sitting on the carpet cross-legged before it, their faces bathed in its
cold white light, looming shadows dancing on the walls behind them. Just
for an instant, Brenda thinks of the flaring city neon bouncing off the darkened buildings outside the pub last night. And George, in the same pulse
of time, recalls the shaft of sunlight that shone in this very room yesterday, in such silence. Then they go in, turn on a lamp, and join their children. The logo for Star Trek: The Next Generation comes on, and there
they sit on the sofa, the girls moved up to the middle, all four boldly
going.
70 Heather Duff
two poems
Writing Your Thesis
in the Loony Bin
in Southern Ontario
(for Patrick Gray)
You cannot see
the page of Koine Greek,
it blurs—
the omegas and epsilons are drunken snails;
it's from forced drugging: they call it
Sleep Therapy,
chlorpromazene enough to knock out a large camel, they said,
so why are you still dancing in the halls?
We gave you enough to flatten
a Siberian political prisoner,
to make a less-than-silent dishrag
out of some incarcerated serial killer
from Penetang (that maximum security retreat
for the criminally insane)
This is the drug they
wisely selected
to force down your throat
with thin paper cups,
the kind that holds mustard in greasy spoon restaurants,
but instead this is full
of puke-warm water
You type your Masters thesis;
it's not very good;
you know this but you keep on typing
to the hollow clunk of typewriter keys
amid liquid shrieks
71 from the woman down the hall
strapped to her bed
with steel buckles;
it could be really good
if you weren't on drugs
but it's hard to see the page,
who you are
It's about Communion
The nurse comes in to take your blood pressure;
she asks you why you are typing
when you could be out in the dayroom
with the deadbrains wearing lipstick that misses the lips,
watching Days of Our Lives
and fiddling with your dressing gown sash;
you tell her you are an aspiring expert
on the body and the blood
in the Pauline Epistles;
she hides her face
in her clipboard
and writes in your chart:
PATIENT HAS OBSESSION WITH TYPEWRITER
72 Room-mates in
the Locked Ward
Your room-mate,
Cassidy Lee:
schizophrenic
tells you
last admission
when she was in your bed
Jesus came
in the middle of the night
thief-like,
made love to her
You want to believe her
because maybe second comings
are the only way
out
u
They're lining the hallways
swaddled in threadbare flannel sheets,
shivering soundless
vows of celibacy—
homemakers sans maison,
manless nymphos, matchless pyros,
Salem rejects
uncanonized,
the mortification of the flesh in etchings:
razor scars on wrists, golden
rope burn anklets
73 December—
they've gone and turned the heat off in the wacko ward
a medical experiment
How far gone are they?
Do they feel temperature changes like normal people?
Do they ovulate?
masturbate?
evaporate?
m
Your first room-mate, Katia:
depressive
bums lining her arms,
small, round, the shape of cigarette tips,
a connect-the-dots game,
unplayed
"This is no brain chemical deficiency!"
you scream,
"Somebody mistook her arm for an ashtray!"
The medical professionals
confer with Katia's husband
who fidgets with his empty cigarette package;
they stuff you with more
beluga-white
pills
to squelch your ongoing ward critique
IV
So you
recognize the Messiah,
she's slouching in the craft room
beside Cassidy Lee
making a candy dish,
her eyes are crystal balls bathed in Sunlight detergent;
you don't know if it's the first coming
or the second;
74 it's not about proving
a truth;
it's about the porcelain tiles
she can't line up right,
about white glue
sludging over the edges;
she has no vision left;
it's a bitch of a side effect
tomorrow, macrame,
and no one will be able to tie the knots
The Messiah
begins to weep glass,
there's blood drizzling
down her calf, her period
whose body?
whose blood?
You want transcendence
not medication;
you can imagine
transcendence, barely—
there's another drug designed
to annihilate spirituality:
IDENTITI-NUKE-AZONE TZ26103
Pauline theology:
either bread or wine
constitutes full communion
When you've utterly forgotten
the smell of fresh-mown grass
they pronounce you "functional"
and discharge you
Thus,
body = blood
blood = body
75 You wrestle with obscure equations:
inside = outside, locked = free, death = life;
you pack your theology texts
and misshapen crafts
It's summer now;
you go out into the world
in a bathing suit;
in an instant, the sun like hot irons,
curdles all pores on your skin
(Another chlorpromazene side-effect
they accidentally forgot
to tell you about)
On the outside
you keep waiting
for the night-thief;
you lay your bets
on the night-thief;
it's one escaped room-mate
you won't evade
in the Miracle Mart cereal aisle
76 Dieter Weslowski
Patients Staple Real Leaves
to a tree of black
construction paper.
The occupational therapist
thinks this a good activity
to usher in autumn.
In the evening, Diego
rips off leaf after leaf,
saying, he hates to see them
crucified.
77 Joseph Hutchison
Chinook at Midnight
This gust from the screen that quickens
my skin, with its fragrance of lilacs
and the opulence of high, backlit clouds,
makes me close my eyes and rock, bough-like,
holding a face in mind.
Always your face—
you—white moon amid the ragged leaves
that rustle like a pulse in my ear. Your light
comes down, I might say, brokenly; but truth
is, the wind scatters it over my longing
like manna, like a balm of blossoms.
78 Uma Rao
two poems translated by the author from Kannada
Amma's Saree
When I was cleaning the cupboard
the day before yesterday
I found Amma's saree.
A soft crumpled mass
amidst colourful salwar kameez sets
crisp T-shirts
sequined duppatas
and smooth Garden Chiffons.
If I had to barter it
with the juna-puranawallah
he would ask me
What's left in this Amma?
What can I give you for this?
Yes.
See the colour
it must have been a bright green years ago
Then the pallu is all eaten up
having wiped traces of curds
off the little grandson's lips every afternoon.
The border is in shreds
after all that shuffling
between the kitchen and the bathroom
and the bedroom and the sitting room
The zari has lost its lustre
there's also a stain or two
here and there.
Amma's saree.
The body is faded
soiled by sweat, kitchen smoke
79 and hot sighs.
But with the passing years
it has become softer
and just right to cover
half-naked children huddled
together under that lamp post
or in the courtyard of that
temple in ruins
or the single bogie
shunted away on those rails
that didn't lead anywhere.
80 A Single Earring
When the red double decker
carrying the sprightly seventeen-year-old
exploded in the middle of the concrete road
at Worli that afternoon,
all that was found ten blocks away
was a single earring.
That, too, after three months.
Where did the other things go?
The counterfoil of the movie ticket
bought at Satyam,
the birthday card picked up a few minutes earlier
cold tablets for mother
the pink nail polish on the tips of the finger-nails
his name scribbled on the back of
the Five Star chocolate wrapper
hidden under the perfumed handkerchief.
Reports say there were eighty-five people in that bus
some papers say there were ninety-two.
Who knows—
gasping breaths
entwined in molten metal,
a feeding bottle
shuddering at the frenzied impact.
The picture that appears
in the Times Of India's missing columns
every third day
doesn't have a frame.
But that smile will not fade away
even after centuries.
Minutes after the newspaper is folded and put down
a dark tremor in the fingertips.
81 Risk
Nighat Majid
Saima clutched her purse, ready to be hurled out of the 20D at the
Teen Talwar roundabout of Clifton along with the sweating, over-
clad maids who worked in the houses around the area. Every
morning the same women pressed against her. Even after she got off,
the odour of burnt wood and stale food from the women's bodies stayed
with her.
As she started walking toward the store, she felt the pinprick of wetness deep between her legs and knew her period had started. She was
lucky again this month—an instant of relief. It might not be so bad to be
with his child—she allowed herself to lapse into that for a moment—
perhaps a son. She would leave her family, become a Muslim for his sake.
She knew marriage was out of the question though. Moin sahib, from
the start, wanted to take her to a lady doctor and have her put on the pill.
She kept finding excuses to put off the visit. She couldn't make herself go
to someone who had seen Moin sahib's other women for the same reason. As long as she took risks, she could say to herself there was more to
their friendship.
She fumbled in her purse even though she knew she didn't have any
pads. She was wearing a white shalwar and she cursed herself. She could
stop at the supermarket on the way to the store but she would feel awkward handing a packet of pads to the man at the checkout. She always
made Mother buy things like that for her. She was sure she had some
pads in the cabinet in Moin sahib's bathroom. He let her keep her things
there. The rest of the staff used the common bathroom which comprised
a squatting toilet, with urine and rusty betel juice squirted all around its
rim. There was no window. There was a dim bulb which made the walls
appear jaundiced. Whenever she had to go in there she held her dupatta
tight over her nose to block out the stench. Since the day he first asked
her to come to his office, Moin sahib had allowed her the use of his personal bathroom.
Moin sahib wasn't in yet. She asked Rafi sahib, the accountant, for the
key to Moin sahib's office. When Moin sahib wasn't around, Rafi sahib
82 was in charge. He was Moin sahib's first cousin. It was Rafi sahib who
handed out their pay each month.
Rafi sahib cleared his throat, and passed a hand that was like a dried
leaf over his bright orange beard. Even the hair on his head was orange.
He dyed it with henna in the tradition of the prophet Mohammed. He had
told Saima she should change her religion to Islam if she didn't want to go
to hell. He looked at her for a moment and then sent her back to her section to wait.
In a few minutes he appeared at her counter, and, avoiding her eyes,
told her he had called Moin sahib's house to ask permission to give Saima
the key to the office, but Moin sahib wasn't there. His wife had told him
that Saima should wait till Moin sahib got to the store.
The begum sahib had become involved in such a simple matter. Her
heart beat faster with anger and the wetness between her legs became
warmer and stickier. "There was no need to call. I could have waited,"
she said.
Rafi sahib cleared his throat twice. He stood for a minute, tugging at
his beard. He looked injured. His bony hand pulled at the orange hairs
nervously. Saima started dusting her counter and didn't look up until he
left. Something about Rafi sahib's pious ways clutched her stomach in a
tightness.
Saima's job was to manage the baby clothes section. She glanced over
at Mariam's women's apparel and Adila's jewelry stalls. They knew Moin
sahib let her use his bathroom and what that meant. They had stopped
speaking to her. Saima had felt bad for a while. Afterwards, she decided,
if they didn't want to talk, that was their problem. But it was hard when
those two girls shared their tiffins over lunch while she sat and ate alone,
just a few feet from them.
Saima had seen the last one leave. She was leaving the day Saima had
started in her position. She was about her own age, not very pretty, a
dark thin girl with big eyes. The boss hadn't fired her, Mariam told her.
She just didn't want to work anymore. Her name was Sally, they told her,
Sally D'Souza. It was odd, she thought—two Christian girls in a row.
Saima understood why Sally had to leave. She hadn't said much to
Saima. Just showed her how to unpack and display new stock, and to
write out receipts. Things only made sense when they happened to you.
You got used to a thing and couldn't go on without it.
Moin sahib was generous to her. Just after the first month, he had
raised her salary by two hundred rupees. He asked after her father often
even though she had told him he was doing better now. It was hard to
think of life as it was before Moin sahib asked her in to his office. Those
83 were the dark and stinking days of the staff toilet. Even Rafi sahib, Moin
sahib's own cousin, had to use the staff toilet. Saima stiffened a little with
pride when she saw him shuffling towards it. He had diabetes and had to
go often.
Above the grey and white marble sink in Moin sahib's bathroom, there
were several bottles of cologne on a glass shelf. The marble was cool to
touch. She liked spraying the cologne on her handkerchief. On the bus,
when the exhaust fumes irritated her, she'd pull out the handkerchief,
hold it over her nose, and inhale air filtered with hints of lemon and tobacco, cloves and cinnamon. There were little soaps, pink and cream,
shaped like shells, in a cream-coloured bowl on the marble counter next
to the sink. Moin sahib never used them. She picked them up and smelled
them, felt their smooth surfaces against her palm, turned them round and
round, and then put them back in the bowl. She washed her hands and
face with the Lux bar that Moin sahib used. It was a novelty to her that
even among soaps there were some you used and some that you just
kept to look at.
Moin sahib came in an hour later. He sat at Rafi sahib's desk and they
talked. They went over the accounts ledger and Moin sahib smoked a cigar. The first time she saw him smoking one of those she thought they
looked like dog shit or stale seekh kebabs but she kept this observation to
herself. He kept them in a special wooden case on his massive carved
desk. Saima came to like the smell of cigars. They weren't rancid. They
weren't cheap like the cigarettes her father and brother smoked. Those
burnt her nostrils. Moin sahib's cigars looked special sitting in that
wooden case, each wrapped separately. They had a sweet thick smell,
and their smoke rose in grey brown clouds and hung around Moin sahib's
head, and made him look like a hero in a TV play. She liked going into his
office after he had been smoking for a while. His face was softer and
younger hidden in those clouds. He would encircle her waist with his
thick hairy arms. Trails of smoke snaked upward from the ash tray. When
he kissed her, his mouth smelled the same sweet thick way.
He'd sigh and say something like, "Not now, my princess, we must
wait."
On those days she stayed back in the evenings after the store closed at
eight.
She was showing dresses for a one-year-old girl to a woman who didn't
seem to like anything. Moin sahib was still at Rafi sahib's desk. Even
from this distance she could detect the furrow between his brows. He
was thinking. He didn't seem very happy. Saima became uncomfortable.
Rafi sahib must be complaining about her. She knew his ways—he never
said anything directly accusing, but with his beady eyes cast downward,
84 wringing his papery hands, in his croaky halting voice, he knew how to
garner sympathy for himself.
The lady got impatient.
"Don't you have something that's not frills and lace? Show me a dress
that's pretty but not gaudy," she said.
The customer is always right, Moin sahib told them again and again.
Ladies who came in wearing sun-glasses, like this one, were fussier than
those who didn't wear them. It was one of the rules Saima had made up.
When a woman walked into the store, Saima tried to guess which section
she was going to go to. She imagined the details of the big houses they
lived in. One of her other rules was that rich Muslim women were prettier and fairer. She was dark herself. On Fridays she rubbed a paste of
ubtan and turmeric on her face and neck. She had read in Akhbar-e-
Khwateen that it lightened skin colour.
Once Moin sahib had said to her he liked her eyes. Just once, but it was
enough to let her dream. She had peered into the small mirror in her
room and decided she'd never get glasses even though she needed them.
She started lining her eyes with kohl. Her dreams were like silk, soft and
shimmering, their details not quite clear. She didn't have to decide
whether he loved her. Or think of how she had to stay back for him when
all the others had gone home to their families. The dreams were an intoxicating thing. She could close her eyes and inhale their essence, like Moin
sahib's colognes. She could be entirely oblivious of the jolty bus ride on
days when she could dream like that.
"Madam, this dress just came in," Saima bent down to get a blue and
white floral pattern dress that had no ribbons or frills from the glass cabinet.
"Is this all you have?" the lady said accusingly.
Saima looked past her at Moin sahib sitting at the back of the store.
"Such a big store, and such uncooperative sales-people. I know Mr.
Moin. I'll let him know what I think of you. I see him all the time at Sind
Club."
The woman picked up her purse and glasses and left. She was out of
the store before Saima could focus her eyes away from Moin sahib's
empty chair. It happened in a moment. He had got up about the same
time as the woman was saying she'd tell him.
Saima felt the blood trickling down faster. At this rate, she'd have a
crimson shalwar soon. She pressed her thighs together and wondered
what would happen if the lady really complained to Moin sahib. Would he
fire her? Or would he laugh it off? She picked her steps carefully over the
carpet, as if walking slowly would help restrain the flow.
Inside his office, Moin sahib was seated in his swivel chair, facing the
85 window. Bright sun beat on the glass panes but inside it was mossy and
cool. The air conditioner purred softly. Except for the one window, the
others were covered by thick crimson curtains. The room was in half
darkness. It was peaceful in here. Outside, in the store area, it was hot.
She saw his face in profile. The frown was still there, she could tell. A cigar sat smouldering in the ashtray. She didn't walk up to him and let him
kiss her as she ordinarily did.
She rushed to the bathroom. There were two big bright stains in the
crotch of the shalwar. She could handle that. It always felt much worse
than it really was.
"In such a hurry?" Moin sahib chimed, and swivelled round to face her
as she stepped out. "No greetings for us today?"
"I'm sorry, sir, I had to—"
"Never mind, jan-e-man, come here."
She cringed when he called her that—that was how the prostitutes she
had seen in Indian movies on her neighbour's VCR were addressed by
their men. They sat on balconies, all dressed up, and gestured to men
who passed by below.
After he had kissed her and fondled her breasts, he let her go.
"Until this evening, then, jan-e-man," he said, picking up the cigar
from the ashtray.
"Sir... Moin sahib... not today... I'm sorry, sir." She stared at the
glowing orange tip of the cigar as Moin sahib stuck its other end into his
mouth.
"Why not?" His bushy eyebrows knit together, and in his voice she
read anger.
"I... it's... I can't stay today." A dull pain started somewhere in the
small of her back and radiated round to her abdomen. She didn't have any
aspirin with her. She was becoming so forgetful.
"Aha—the princess begins to give herself airs. All of you two paisa
girls are the same... Give you a little money, a little attention, and that's
the end of it."
"Sir, I'm sorry sir," she said.
"Listen, Rafi told me you had him call me at the house this morning.
Why did you do that? I don't want you putting ideas in my wife's head."
"Sorry, sir," she repeated, sucking in a great quantity of air with her
last word. It should be very simple to explain, but the words needed had
left her. Her brain palpitated inside her head. She knew it could be explained in a sentence. But anger and confusion made it difficult to speak.
Everything became clouded by his calling her a "two paisa girl." She had
never denied him anything. She felt a stab of pity for herself that made
her tearful. He had never spoken to her so harshly before. Was he get-
86 ting tired of her? She might as well go to that lady doctor and get the pills.
What was she saving herself from? She could tell him she didn't need this
job anymore.
She stood there until he asked her to leave.
That night, when Moin sahib dropped her off at the head of the alley,
she still had the strange taste in her mouth. She had stood for a long time
at his bathroom sink and rinsed her mouth, but the film of fluid remained.
She ran her tongue over the roof of her mouth repeatedly to get the hairs
that seemed stuck there, but there was nothing. She walked the few
yards to her apartment building without looking back as his car sped
away. He was always in a hurry to let her out and be gone. He never
waited to see her reach the building where she lived. He brought her
home on days when she stayed back.
It was dark, but she could see her way with the light coming from the
windows of buildings on both sides of the alley. The nine o'clock Urdu
news was coming to an end. She could hear the loud voice of the man
reading the weather report through the open windows. The entrance to
her building was blocked by two or three dark figures. Someone had
stolen the light bulb again. She heard voices. It was Rafiq and his good-
for-nothing friends. They were smoking. She could see the glowing tips
of their cigarettes. They could have seen her get out of the car. They
were always watching. They were idle boys, worse than old ladies. She
was friends with their mothers and sisters. She felt a thrill when she
thought they couldn't possibly know what she had been doing just a half
hour ago. They stopped talking as she got close. She went past them and
up without speaking to them. Their eyes seemed to follow her up the
stairs in the dark.
She was up one flight when Rafiq said, "Yaar, karanti girls will do it in
a car if you pay them enough."
Cheap, obscene laughter followed. She stopped, and almost raced
down and slapped him. She kept going up, though. She didn't want them
to think she had heard.
Inside their two-room flat, which her brother had bought for them a
few years after he went to Dubai as an auto mechanic, Father was sitting
on the floor near the kitchen. Mother handed him the platter of rotis
wrapped in cloth, and a bowl of curry, as soon as she saw Saima enter.
"Asalam-alaikum," she said loudly. She always used the Muslim
greeting. She went to church sometimes and her surname was Jones.
You could tell Sally D'Souza was a Christian at a glance from her weepy
features and her broken karanta Urdu. But there was nothing about
Saima's looks or speech or even her first name that gave her away. She
looked like all the Muslim girls who lived in their alley. "You two should
87 have eaten," she said. "You know what the buses are like. Poor Moin sahib saw me waiting at the stop and brought me home," she made up the
half-truth without effort. It was easy to lie to these two. They would believe anything.
Moin sahib had looked at her application and said, "Jones? So you're
Christian*" He had seemed surprised. "You don't look like a Christian."
There was something in his voice that had been loud as a siren. Sally's
face as she was leaving had come up before her. A month or so later,
when he asked her to come to his office, and kept her there for an hour,
the siren rang louder and louder. Yet she stayed on, listening to him,
smiling shyly at the compliments he paid her, eyes lowered, saying little.
He asked her why she had decided to work. She said because her father's
factory had closed down. That was not a lie, but it wasn't the truth either.
Her brother Michael sent them enough money. She let him take her
home, letting his hand slide down her back and pull her close to him in the
car. All that night she didn't sleep well and was sure she wanted to quit.
But she went back to work the next day.
She went into the bedroom that she shared with her parents and fell
limp on the bed. The window was open and the white cotton curtain ballooned gently inward with the breeze. It was the end of October. The
days were still scorching but the nights were cool. Her face touched the
soft cool pillow. A small tear trickled out and she felt its warm path as it
slid down her face and disappeared into the pillow.
Moin sahib's face had been red when she had finished, and there were
beads of sweat on his moustache. He had moaned with pleasure. Afterwards, she had stood at his bathroom sink and thought she was going to
throw up. She waited for him on a chair after she came back from the
bathroom. Moin sahib lay on the couch as if he had fainted. His eyes were
closed. One leg was on the couch. The other dangled on the floor.
Mother came in and asked her to come and eat.
"In a little while," she answered.
Mother leaned over and asked whether the day at the store had been
very tiring. No, not really, it was just that her period had started, she
said. She always felt terrible the first two days. Mother said why didn't
she quit this job, they didn't need the money, and when was she going to
get married?
Once Mother got going on the business of marriage, Saima had to
shock her into silence. "Do you really want to know when?" she looked at
her mother slyly. "When I've buried you two. What will you two do if I
get married now?"
Mother put on a pained look and went away.
When she went in a little later, they still hadn't started eating. They
88 were staring at the bowl of curry and the platter of rotis on the small
square table cloth on the floor. They looked like two little children who
had been scolded. Mother saw Saima come in and took the bowl of curry
to heat it up. Father coughed and said there was a letter from Michael.
She nodded.
She remembered how she had sung and been so playful at Michael's
wedding a year ago in that bright red dress. And how she had been lively
and coy at the same time with that engineer friend of his from Dubai. His
eyes had seemed to follow her everywhere. She had prayed to make him
come to her door. Prayed hard because she knew even God would have
had a hard time convincing a nice young Muslim to marry a Punjabi Catholic like herself. He wasn't jowly like the dark moustached men, dressed in
shirts they were bursting out of, whose photographs her aunt brought
over. They were all factory workers like her father or mechanics like her
brother. The better ones were office clerks. She would have been happy
with the engineer. He was educated, he dressed smartly, he looked cultured.
"Did you eat your fruits today?" she asked Father.
"What fruits? There's only bananas," he complained. "Your mother
doesn't buy anything else. One day I'll die coughing."
"You'd live longer if you complained less. I'll try and bring you some oranges tomorrow," she said.
Mother came in with the curry. Steam rose from the bowl in waves as
she put it down on the table-cloth. She served Father first and he took a
roti from the cloth and started to eat. Mother placed all the meat on
Saima's plate and Father's. For herself she had only gravy left. Saima
stared at her plate. The brown gravy, lined with a golden border of
grease, and the piece of meat sitting in it, turned her stomach. The
grease and the film in her mouth were the same thing. She rose from the
ground and went to the bathroom.
She squatted near the water drum and opened the tap. She stuck a finger down her throat twice and waited until the bile rose from her empty
stomach. She retched and spat and watched the bubbles of saliva flow towards the drain with the water. She waited a little longer but nothing else
came out. She washed her hands and face and rose to go back. Her head
swam and the sudden getting up from the ground made her dizzy. She
held out a hand to the wall to steady herself. In a minute or so her head
cleared and the darkness below her eyes disappeared. She took a few
deep breaths. Things seemed better now.
She returned to the sitting room and broke her piece of meat into two,
and placed the bigger piece on Mother's plate. Mother looked at her and
she smiled back. Father had finished eating and was picking his teeth with
89 the pointed end of a safety pin. He let out a loud burp and sighed.
She began to eat and talk. She knew how they waited for her to come
home. They waited for her acid remarks even though they pretended to
wince at them. "Those boys downstairs, all they do is smoke and talk
nonsense," she said. "Rafiq's sisters are going blind embroidering other
people's trousseaus. Why doesn't he get a job?"
"Beti, who are we to say? He doesn't listen to his own parents,"
Mother said.
"If he were my son, I'd kick him out of the house," Saima said.
After the dishes were done, Saima and Mother went into the bedroom.
Father was already snoring softly. Mother too, fell asleep on the bed next
to him after she said her prayers. Saima lay awake on the mat on the
floor, listening to the sounds of the night coming in through the window.
The woman downstairs was clanging her dishes. A night train sped past.
She could feel its vibrations travelling up through the ground. Trains sent
a desolate feeling through Saima. She drew her legs into her stomach and
huddled under the quilt. The walls cricked and the night creatures made
their noises. A tree outside sighed with the breeze.
Saima found herself lecturing the boys downstairs. She became eloquent. Her head cleared and she no longer felt tongue-tied like she had in
Moin sahib's presence. "You haramis have too much food stuffed in your
bellies. You boys better shape up or get out of this house. This isn't a
charitable orphanage, you know. If you can't work, can't study, why
strain the world with your useless lives? Your sisters work, and then
your wives will work, so you can eat and drink, and fatten up like cows.
I'd rather be dead. What sort of men are you? To live off women. If you
have an ounce of shame, go drown yourselves—"
She went on. The night breeze grew cooler. Some more trains passed.
She told them that not all karanti women were to be bought with money.
Finally, she ran out of things to say. She felt heavy and warm under the
quilt. In one languorous movement, she stretched and yawned, curled
her arms around her pillow, and drifted into sleep.
90 beth goobie
bedroom window
July evening maples rustle black, landscape
a browngrey sky, watercolour strokes from a weak brush,
from exhibition park, the crack of bat against ball
travels through underwater air toward the girl's ear.
she cradles it like an aggie, rolls it back and forth,
cheers follow, rise and fall like seaweed, sluggish.
head on one arm, the girl floats,
face to the living window, houses on this street
squat in shadows that could go anywhere.
three doors up, a streetlight coming on
sketches a porch, shutters in dull yellow.
the girl watches the city scatter light,
confetti across the evening,
into the whispering heave of trees.
she could not say she is trapped in this house,
trapped in her own flesh, she does not know
this room is a genie's bottle, her body is a genie's bottle.
she does not know she wants out.
the place beyond her window moves within itself,
alien and other as it has always been,
traced out like a cosmic fingerpainting
that does not touch her. she is the single
still place, cork pushed down the throat,
anchored in a body that went down a long time back,
she stares upward to where swimmer legs
kick pale flashes of flesh light, fading shouts
and laughter sent down to her like a depth sounding.
she cannot remember air. she cannot remember
sun. there is only the surface far above,
stained glass window of water and light,
the eyes of the drowned upon it.
91 Michael Penny
Ampersand (winter) (#1)
There, to down,
snow glided onto Ampersand,
covering him,
smoothing out, so coldly,
the shapes of Ampersand
& what he joined,
which, he hoped
was the frozen skin of his planet
& the pale sky it spun through
around its white star.
But Ampersand was wrong.
Nothing moved.
There, to down,
snow glided onto Ampersand,
clothing him
in an angel's raiments,
black to white,
one of the elect
holding what holds together
by the cold force of spirit
until Ampersand's hope,
a single splayed feather,
down, falling down,
like snow, covering & losing all.
92 Contributors
Betsy Burke grew up in Victoria, B.C. and received her Bachelor of Music from the University of Victoria. She has sung with the Vancouver Opera and with Pacific Opera Victoria.
She began writing four years ago and is currently completing a first novel. Ms. Burke has
lived in Florence, Italy since 1986.
Larry Campbell lives and works in Vancouver. This is his first published piece.
Michael Crummey was born and raised in Newfoundland, and now lives in Kingston,
Ontario. His first published story appeared in Quarry.
Heather Duff is a director with the Vancouver Youth Theatre; danced in her multi-media
work Cinderella Cross with DAS Festival; has appeared as a storyteller on several episodes
of Tell-a-Tale Town. Her short fiction appears in Phoenix Rising and in Shrink Resistant.
Bernice Friesen has degrees in Visual Art and Education. Her artwork has been shown
throughout Saskatchewan, but in the last three years, she has concentrated on writing fiction. Her stories have appeared in Grain, CV2 and Prairie Fire.
Gabriella Goliger is originally from Montreal, but has lived in Jerusalem, Iqaluit, NWT,
and currently resides in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in the anthology Tide Lines: Stories
of Change by Lesbians (Gynergy Books, 1991) and in Our Lives: Lesbian Personal Writings
(Second Story Press, 1991).
beth goobie is the author of Could I Have My Body Back Now Please? This poem is part of
a poetry collection due out this fall from NeWest Press entitled, Scars of Light.
Han-shan was a recluse who took refuge on Cold Mountain and lived the life of a lay monk.
Tempermentally, however, he never quite gave up the world.
Joseph Hutchison is a graduate of the Creative Writing Department, UBC. He is the author of House of Mirrors and several other collections. His poems have appeared in Poetry,
American Poetry Review, Ohio Review, and in many anthologies. He resides in Denver,
Colorado where he makes his living as a writer.
Nighat Majid was born in Pakistan, the setting of most of her stories. She is married, has
one daughter, and works as a lab technician. Writing is her other life.
Jean McNeil was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, grew up on Cape Breton Island, but
now lives in England. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead, and
Poetry Canada, as well as many UK publications.
Michael Penny was born in Australia and educated in Alberta and New Mexico. He has
been published in numerous periodicals in Canada and U.S.
93 Uma Rao has been published in several leading journals in India. Winner of the Andrews
Fellowship for 1993-94, she writes short fiction, poetry and plays, as well as acting and
directing for the stage. She lives in Bombay and works as a freelance copywriter.
Loren Rye is happy living and working in Lincoln, Nebraska. This is his first published
piece.
Matt Santateresa lives and writes in Montreal. His poems have appeared in various Canadian magazines, most recently in Fiddlehead and Quarry. He makes his living as an academic advisor at Concordia University.
Peter Stambler has published three books. Unsettled Accounts won the Quarterly Review
of Literature's International Poetry Prize in 1987. Encounters with Cold Mountain, his book
of seventy Han-shan poems, will be published by Singular Speech Press in 1996.
Alice Tepexcuintle is a performance poet living and performing in Vancouver, B. C. Her
work has previously appeared in Prism international 30:4.
Daniel Tobin grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and is an assistant professor of English at
Carthage College in Wisconsin. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The American Scholar,
Prism international, The Southern Humanities Review, Chelsea, and other literary journals.
Dieter Weslowski has published two volumes of poetry, The Bird who Steals Everything
Shining (S.U.N.Y. Press, 1987), and Candles of Wheat (Black Tie Press, 1991). He continues to moonlight in the "real" world as a psychiatric nurse's aide, thus, earning his keep.
94 PRISJVJ international
$2000 1st Prize
and
5 Prizes of $200
plus publication payment
Judge: to be announced
Deadline: December 1, 1994
For entry form and rules, please send
a SASE (outside Canada enclose SAE with IRC) to:
Fiction Contest
Prism international
Department of Creative Writing
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C. V6T IZl
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