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 PRISM international
Summer 2004
42:4
Contemporary Writing from Canada and around the World  PRISM international
2003 PRISM Short Fiction Contest
Grand Prize - $2,000
"Mr. Marotta's Ashes Have the
Personality of a Grouchy Old Man"
Michael P. Kardos
Columbia, Missouri
Runners-up - $250 each
"Brenda"
Claudia Gahlinger
South Harbour, Cape Breton Island
"The Boyfriends"
Stephanie Moore
Mill Valley, California
"Shiny as Film"
Billie Livingston
Vancouver, British Columbia
Fiction Contest Manager
Mike Denis
Readers
Ashley Armstrong » Sue Barber ♦ Joanna Chen
Trisha Cull ♦ Jessica Cullen ♦ Brad Duncan
Sylvia Eastman • Meg Fearnley ♦ Sandra Filippelli
Kelsey Grittner ♦ Kathryn Hepburn • Harmony Ho
Sarah Hyde ♦ Tessa King * Diana Knapton
Tsening Lang • Kimberley Mancini • Nancy Mauro
Judy McFalrane • Izabela Moldovan ♦ Amanda Muirhead
Theresa Munoz • Lindsay Popock ♦ Eleanor Radford
Leonora Record ♦ Sean Ritchie • Cecilia Rose
Jeremy Shell ♦ Clea Young ♦ Yolanda  PRISM international
Poetry Editor
Elizabeth Bachinsky
Fiction Editor
Marguerite Pigeon
Executive Editors
Andrew Westoll
Michelle Winegar
Advisory Editors
George McWhirter
Bryan Wade
Associate Editors
Catharine Chen
Amanda Lamarche
Business Manager
Brenda Leifso
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Anar Ali
Trisha Cull
Kuldip Gill
Lee Gulyas
Bobbi MacDonald
Amber Dawn Upfold
Editorial Assistants
Karen Black
Samara Brock
Alison Frost
Harmony Ho
Nicholas Humphries
Janey Lew
Jesse McPhearson
Kimberly Mancini
Nancy Mauro
Annie Murray
Joe Wiebe
Clea Young PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published
four times a year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of
British Columbia, Buchanan E-462, 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T
IZl. Microfilm editions are available from University Microfilms Inc., Ann
Arbor, MI, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, NY.
The magazine is listed by the Canadian Literary Periodicals Index.
E-mail: prism@interchange.ubc.ca
Website: prism.arts.ubc.ca
Contents Copyright ® 2004 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover illustration: Monster, by Jason Logan.
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and institution one-year $27.00; two-year $40.00. Sample copy: CDN$9.95.
Please note that all money orders must be in Canadian Funds Only.
All manuscripts should be sent to the editors at the above address. Manuscripts should be accompanied by a self-addressed envelope with Canadian
stamps or International Reply Coupons. Manuscripts with insufficient
return postage will be held for six months and then discarded. Translations
should be accompanied by a copy of the work(s) in the original language.
The advisory editors are not responsible for individual selections, but for
the magazine's overall mandate including continuity, quality, and budgetary obligations.
For details on how to place an advertisement in PRISM international, please
contact our executive editors.
PRISM international purchases First North American Serial Rights for $40.00
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Our gratitude to Dean Nancy Gallini and the Dean of Arts Office at the
University of British Columbia.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council
and the British Columbia Arts Council.
Publications Mail Registration No. 08867. July 2004. ISSN 0032.8790
A
BRITISH
COLUMBIA
The Camda Council  I  Le Conseil des Arts lK*^^^^   ARTS   COUNCIL
for the Arts      du Canada Supported by Ihe Province of British Columbia Contents
Volume 42, Number 4
Summer 2004
2003 PRISM Short Fiction Contest
Judge's Essay
John Gould
Haul Off and Happen / 7
Grand Prizewinner
Michael P. Kardos
Mr. Marotta's Ashes Have the
Personality of a Grouchy Old Man / !
Runners-up
Claudia Gahlinger
Brenda / 23
Stephanie Moore
The Boyfriends / 37
Billie Livingston
Shiny as Film / 50 Poetry
Margaret Christakos
SchooJ /60
Jeramy Dodds
My Translation of Ho Chi Minh's
August 18th 1966 Telephone Call / 66
Matt Rader
Falling / 68
Firesetter / 69
Don McKay
Abandoned Cable / 70
Hiking with my Shadow / 71
Jon Paul Fiorentino
Dispatches from Graham Mall / 72
£arie Nelson's Song / 76
Chris Hutchinson
Happiness Will Come / 77
Other Peoples' Lives / 78
Steve McOrmond
Rabbit Ears / 79
Luminous Veil / 80
Greg Seib
The Morning Of/ 81
Bridge / 82
Contributors /83 John Gould
Haul Off and Happen
My teenage daughter had American Idol on the tube the other
evening, and as I slunk through the living room I couldn't help
but notice...
Ok, fine, /had American Idol on the tube the other evening. Just for a few
minutes (the show was wrapping up) but long enough to induce in me a
pang of anxiety. The contestants—Fantasia, Diana, Jasmine, La Toya,
and...George?—had it easy, they just had to get up there and belt out a
tune in front of a few million potentially vicious viewers. Besides, they had
the support not only of their fans but of the universe, as psychic channeller
Kimberly Berg assured them. But what about me? How was I—all by my
lonesome—supposed to make up my mind about who was idolest of the
bunch? They were all so, you know, expressive. And they kept weeping and
hugging each other.
That was ordeal enough for me, so imagine my trepidation when I tore
into my package from PRISM. On /iZo/everybody was at least seeking the
same goal: to open their mouths really wide without looking too ludicrous, I guess. To emote. To emit star quality. The contestants in the PRISM
competition all raced off in different directions, each striving for some
distinct, idiosyncratic effect. There was no fixed finish line at which I
could await them. This wasn't going to be easy.
No, but it was fun. Not a single ad, for one thing; after each piece I just
struggled up from my lawn chair and took a tour of the backyard to cleanse
my palate, and then sank back in again. Another voice conjuring another
world. And not so much as a smear of glitter eye shadow.
The stories printed in this issue are the four that most grabbed me. Each
is well-crafted—which, considering the demands of this subtle and complex form, is saying a lot. Each embodies a unique sensibility. Each inclined me to flip back to page one, when I'd finished, and look again.
There's nothing objectively right about my choice of winner—another
reader on another day might easily have singled out a different piece from
this short list—yet the selection was a compelling one for me. Michael P.
Kardos's "Mr. Marotta's Ashes Have The Personality of a Grouchy Old
Man" (breathe) got me every which way. Here's a story that offers (sort of)
birth, sex, and death—and a talking rabbit. It's an inventive tale about, in
a way, invention, and it is unremittingly fresh. "Mr. Marotta" made me giggle, out there in my garden, and yet it also continued to grow in me. It
spoke to me when I least expected it.
The other three stories all surprised and rewarded me as well. "Brenda,"
by Claudia Gahlinger, is a rueful love song, a delicately nuanced portrait
of adoration. It packs some fine, deprivation-driven moments of whimsy
and insight. The G-force is free, it costs us nothing: this is something I've
always known, but never quite absorbed. "A stale doughnut: if that isn't a
thing, I don't know what is." No argument here. Stephanie Moore's "The
Boyfriends" is swift and smart and sad. Two brainy whipper-snappers await
the return of their absent father, meanwhile dealing out harsh, hilarious
justice to the pretenders circling their mom. There's quite a buzz to this
story's highly stylized dialogue, and serious propulsion to its prose. Billie
Livingston's "Shiny as Film" is a fond portrayal of young candy-flogger
who dreams in celluloid, and who lets her birdy visions guide her in building a divine family. It's a fine, shimmery piece of work.
All four of these stories fulfill the implicit promise of short fiction—the
promise that, as the narrator of Billie Livingston's story suggests, "something might just haul off and happen any minute now." To these four authors: congratulations. To all their readers: enjoy. Michael P. Kardos
Mr. Marotta's Ashes Have
the Personality of a Grouchy
Old Man
The baby upstairs was crying again while I tried to think up a fairy
tale for Larry DeSantis, who bowled lane three every Monday/
Wednesday/Friday, and who was beginning to feel disrespected
because for three days I'd come up empty. The crying wouldn't stop for
hours and was making me crazy. I screamed back. I got off the Barca
recliner that I'd burst a heart-vessel haggling for at the Army-Navy, took a
hammer from my toolbox, and hurled it again and again at the ceiling
until my floor was covered in paint chips. Nothing stopped the baby's
wailing. Nothing. I sat down again and bit my thumbnail until the skin
ripped and blood formed at the cuticle. More screaming from upstairs.
Finally I licked my thumb and went up there to tell the baby's parents to
shut the baby the hell up. It was enough already.
A note written in green crayon was stuck to their door with packing
tape.
Dear Gunnipuddy,
Take care of Tyren. We left the door open. He likes applesauce.
The note was signed M. and C, initials for names that I'd forgotten
seconds after hearing them the day I'd moved in three years ago.
I stepped into M. and C.'s apartment. No furniture, no rugs, no pictures
on the walls—in this way, it looked a lot Uke my apartment. A baby was in
the middle of the den, in a litde plaid seat, bouncing up and down. When
it saw me, it stopped crying. I wandered around the apartment. No toothbrushes or combs in the bathroom, no clothes in the closet. No bed in the
bedroom. In the refrigerator there was applesauce behind the ketchup. I
went back into the den and picked up the seat with the baby inside and
carried it downstairs with the applesauce (and the ketchup) into my apartment. I put down the seat with the baby and watched for a while. I watched
the baby watching me as if I knew things. I didn't.
Here's what I learned, though: You put some applesauce on a spoon,
push it into a baby's mouth, baby's going to eat. I fed it and fed it, and
when it seemed full, turning its head away from the spoon, I said to Mr.
Marotta's ashes, "I'll be home around ten."
"You are not leaving me alone with that thing," the ashes said.
But I had no choice. I had to leave for work, and so I poured the
applesauce into a bowl, put it on the floor next to the baby, and left for the
Bowling Centre where I mop the bathrooms and unclog balls when they
get stuck behind the pins. I've heard that working in a bowling alley's the
best job for a poet, because it's mindless and doesn't sap your energy.
Maybe so, but I'm no poet. This is my actual job.
Mr. Marotta had been my grade-school music teacher. He'd had no family,
and although his will had specified cremation, he hadn't taken the instructions any further. When he'd been my teacher, I hadn't liked the man. Not
one bit. He'd cursed a lot and smelled like burnt coffee, and he'd seemed
very, very old with those grey bushy eyebrows and creased eyes, and he'd
flirt with the twelve-year-old girls and berate us constantiy about our lousy
intonation, and when we played, he'd slash his baton through the air as if
defending himself from an onslaught of invisible birds.
I do credit him for teaching me basic musical concepts. That, he did. "A
whole note is four fucking beats. A half note is two fucking beats." Or he'd
say, "When you see a fermata, look at Marotta." Then he'd grin as if all of
his years spent on this planet had made him wise and cunning.
His funeral had been held next to where I did laundry anyway, and it
was between the casket and the row of empty bridge chairs that the funeral
director overheard me telling one of his clerical staff that Mr. Marotta had
been my teacher. Suddenly, he—the funeral director—was all smiles, offering me spring water with lemon. So, because I had history with the
deceased—besides playing second-chair clarinet, I'd been on the Carwash
Committee—and since otherwise his remains would be buried behind the
crematorium next to people nobody cared for, I said ok, I'll take the
stupid ashes, though I wasn't going to be suckered into paying for an urn.
Mr. Marotta wasn't a man to keep in an urn anyway. He had driven a '78
Duster, and even our band uniform was nothing but blue jeans and a used
white T-shirt with a logo drawn by some student from years past who'd
won the School Spirit contest.
"But in a beautiful urn," the funeral director said, "the dead feel respected."
"I'll be back in an hour," I said. I went next door to get my clothes from
the dryer, drove home, and dug around in the drawer of my night table for
the Mai-Tai fishing-tackle box. That box—hard plastic, sturdy, with a de-
10 pendable clasp—had been given to me years before by a Mai-Tai fishing-
tackle representative one morning when my dad and I were out on the
fishing pier. Long ago, I'd used up all the Mai-Tai tackle. None of it ever
caught one damn fish. So then I'd used it to store condoms, bought when I
was young and optimistic, but I never caught any women, either. The box
was cursed, I'd like to think, but more likely it was me—I wasn't any good
at landing things. I took out the condoms, which had expired anyway,
returned to the funeral home carrying the Mai-Tai box, and in went the
ashes, and there you have it.
You can't just put somebody's ashes back in your night table, so I put
the Mai-Tai box on a dresser that had followed me from my old bedroom
at my folks' apartment to the attic of Phi Mu Delta (where I cooked meals
for the brothers till they lost their charter), and then to my apartment here
on Talmadge Road, next to the prosthetic supply shop. I kept the dresser in
the den, covering a fist-sized hole in the drywall left by the old tenant.
One morning, a week into living here on Talmadge Road, I awoke to
Mr. Marotta's ashes yelling at me from the other room: "Tremolo! Largo!
Andante! Pianissimo!" I went into the den and looked at the Mai-Tai box.
The remains of my music teacher said, "What the hell are you doing here?"
Mr. Marotta's ashes began giving me advice. Often, his advice wasn't
any good and bordered on the criminal. Usually, I ignored him. But yesterday, I'd been fed up already—what with the writer's block and the baby's screaming—and so when Mr. Marotta's ashes told me for the millionth time that I was sure to die shivering and alone, I sprang up from my
kitchen chair so fast it fell over backwards, landing with a thuck on the
linoleum, and stomped over to the dresser.
"I'll scatter you over the beach," I said to the ashes. "I swear, if that's
the only peaceful—"
"Comrade," he had said, "how about I scatter you over the beach?"
As soon as I stepped inside the Bowling Centre, I heard Larry DeSantis
calling my name. I was at his lane and full of apologies before he said a
word.
"I'm having a killer time working with the handlebar moustache," I
said.
"But it's got to have that," Larry said, and subjected me to his secret
handshake that I hadn't begun to decode, leaving my wrist sore, a layer of
his sweat on my palm. "The moustache is my trademark."
Larry is a bread deliveryman done working for the day by ten a.m., and
probably had been here since we opened at noon. Leagues hadn't started
yet, so there was just Larry and the other regulars, guys with their own
shoes and balls named after girls they met once on a bus or in Radio
Shack. We stick the regulars in the same lanes every day so that they feel
11 part of something bigger than themselves.
"I need another day," I told Larry.
"Why, Gunnipuddy? Why is mine taking so long?"
Something I'd have liked to know. I was either on the verge of something or the verge of nothing. It felt the same. "Tomorrow, ok?"
"What've you got so far?" he asked.
I didn't want to say I'd come up empty. So I said, "Once there lived a
man who delivered bread each morning to the King and Queen, and who
had the world's strongest moustache."
"And?"
"And the moustache attracted the land's most beautiful women, who all
wanted his hand in marriage."
"And?"
"And so the deliveryman decided to hold a contest, and agreed to marry
the winner."
"No. The deliveryman makes love to many of the women before agreeing to settle down with any one of them."
This is what happens when I improvise. "I'll keep working on it," I tell
him.
I wouldn't consider myself a bowler. In the three years I've worked at the
Bowling Centre, I've rolled just a handful of games and never broken a
hundred. The litde holes in the ball make my knuckles sore. The shoes kill
my feet. Still, I can see the appeal. You get your own lane where the light
isn't too bright and the air temperature's steady. The Bowling Centre isn't
too loud, either, not like you'd expect, because we've got carpets on the
floor and on the end walls; and anyway, that smacking sound of ball hitting pins, it's a good clean sound. It means that somebody's getting points.
For the regulars, like Larry, we're like their local tavern, where the faces
are the same every day. And it's exercise, too, if you aren't too tight with
your definitions. Exercise, plus we're on tap.
I suppose you could say that bowling's a game with clear rules and a
clear goal, too, which are things you don't find too often in life. But I don't
think that's it, not really, not the root of the matter. Here's the real thing
about bowling: You knock the pins down, a machine sets them up again.
Knock them down, up they go. The pins you miss, the machine knocks
them down for you, then sets everything right. No matter what you do,
whether you throw a strike or a gutter-ball, once per frame all the pins go
down, then they all come back up. You might score higher or lower on a
particular day, but you never fail. You can't fail at bowling.
When I got home shordy before midnight, a grey rabbit was sitting on the
lawn near my front door. Its eyes reflected red light from the prosthetic
12 supply shop's neon sign (Arms!). Even when I came close, the rabbit just
sat there. Its fur was matted and missing in patches. It looked as if it'd lost
a fight with one of the raccoons that live in the dumpsters. The rabbit was
blocking my way, so I nudged it aside with my shoe and opened the door.
But it followed me right into the apartment.
"What?" I said to the rabbit, and closed the door, trapping us all inside.
I noticed how rank the apartment smelled. I looked at the baby. Tyren
seemed ok, except for the applesauce on its face.
"What?" I said again.
"You irresponsible schmuck," the rabbit said.
"Seconded," Mr. Marotta's ashes said.
I knelt down next to the baby. It made some baby noises. It didn't seem
too unhappy.
"I'm here, aren't I?" I said in my defence. "I went away to work but then
I came home again. That's better than M. and C. could do."
"It was wailing all night," said the rabbit. "I could hear it all the way
down the block."
"Way to go, Gunnipuddy," the ashes said.
I was tired from work and frustrated because without the fairy tales I
was only a utility man. My head throbbed. I went into the kitchen and
swallowed three ibuprofens, then returned to the den with a roll of paper
towels. "Newsflash," I announced, "I don't know how to take care of kids."
"Master of the obvious," the rabbit said. "You've got to feed it. You've
got to buy diapers and change them often. A baby takes constant attention.
You can't just leave food out like it's a dog."
"Gunnipuddy thinks he's got a dog," Mr. Marotta's ashes sing-songed.
"A little puppy. That what you think you have?"
"A poodle," the rabbit said. "A cuddly little poodle. Gunnipuddy thinks
he's got himself a poodle."
The rabbit's voice was tinny and abrasive and although I'd gotten used
to the ashes by now, the ranting still reminded me of his former self hollering at the woodwinds for playing everything staccato. Anyway, the rabbit
was doing a little circular hop and the ashes were chanting raucously
along with the rabbit, "A puppy, a puppy, a—"
"Shut up, you stupid rabbit," I said. "Shut up, you stupid ashes." With a
square of paper towel, I wiped the baby's face. It pulled back and started
shrieking just like I'd always heard it doing upstairs. From inches away,
the noise pierced straight into my skull. "Are you both going to sit around
and make fun," I said, "or are you going to help? Shit, Mr. Marotta, you
could be in the ground right now, staring at bugs all day." This appeared
to sober him up. "Now, you two watch this baby while I get some diapers
from the Wawa."
I took a fourth ibuprofen and went to the Wawa even though it was five
13 blocks farther than the 7-Eleven, because the woman who works the register could stop the earth from spinning. If I were to make up a fairy tale
about myself, she'd co-star.
"Hi, Gunnipuddy," she said when I walked in.
I waved, but nothing was how it looked. Bonchie didn't know me at all.
I'd been coming in there for months, when yesterday I'd finally said to her,
My name's Gunnipuddy. Can you say my name when I walk in? And she'd
said, I'll try and remember, and then we had practiced, I went out and
came in again and she said it, my name. Then we repeated it twice.
But today I was a different man. I had Huggies in my arms.
"How old's your baby?" she asked, her eyes wide.
"Beats me."
"How do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean, he can't talk yet. So I don't know how old he is." I was joking
with her, only there were so many parts missing, things she'd need to have
known, that it was hopeless she'd think what I said was funny. So I just
paid, not looking up again from the conveyor belt, and left with the Huggies.
The good part about liking a woman like Bonchie was that I knew I'd get
another chance with her tomorrow or the next day. The register can't make
change by itself.
That first night with Tyren, I learned that you aren't born knowing how
to change a diaper, or knowing how to make a baby stop its nonsense. I
can see why M. and C. gave up. There went one a.m./ two a.m./ three a.m.
When the baby finally stopped complaining and fell asleep around four, I
was wide-awake, feeling like I had to make use of the middle of the night.
The thing about writing fairy tales, though, is that you can't force them.
You can't just write words on paper and expect them to be the right words.
You need to spend time listening to Aerosmith. You need to get out your
clarinet and play "Stars and Stripes Forever," or watch brawny men sell
juicers and knives on television, or throw a Superball so hard that it hits
the floor then ceiling then floor then ceiling then floor before you catch it.
But all of that shit's off-limits if it wakes the baby.
"You won't believe this," Larry DeSantis said, and grabbed my wrist, forcing me into an extra-long handshake, bending my hand into baffling positions. "I mean, there's no believing it, so don't even try. You look like
shit."
I did. Fifty-six diapers had come and gone. Four extra-large jars of
applesauce. A week, but it might have been a month or five years or ten
minutes. I'd stopped shaving and yesterday my boss said I smelled like a
carcass. Driving home from work, I'd fallen asleep at an intersection and
woken up to a UPS man tapping on my windshield. For a week I'd been
scratching my hairline until it bled, and so, when I lifted my head from the
14 steering wheel, the wheel was all crusty. When I got home, I was feeling so
tired and so lonely—I had never felt so alone before, even with the ashes
and a rabbit and a baby under my roof—that I actually bawled, until Mr.
Marotta's ashes told me to stop being such a pussy.
"I met a girl last night," Larry was saying, "the most beautiful woman I
ever saw. Green eyes like celery. Skin like ivory. And her name's Agatha,
same as in the fairy tale."
That faiiy tale had taken a superhuman level of concentration, sitting in
the Barca, getting ideas during the quiet hours of four to six a.m., paging
through The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm Volume I. That's my
book. What I mean is, except for that book, I'm not a reader. I'm more like
the kids who hang outside my apartment blasting TJerky, and who might
know every lyric by this one local thug with a hit record, but who hardly
are interested in music.
When Larry was a kid, my story went, he received a terrible gash on his
face trying to defend a man and wife from a knife-wielding lunatic. Ashamed
when the gash left a jagged sprawling scar, as soon as Larry was able, he
grew a moustache that covered nearly his entire face. Still, for years he
kept to himself, until one day some very tiny people took up residence
inside Larry's handlebar moustache. These people had fairy dust that would
make Larry irresistible to women. (This was a calculated risk as to whether
Larry would get pissed off because it was the dust, and not him, exactly,
that made the women crazy about him.)
Anyway, the fairy dust resulted in lots of sex for Larry, and talk of his
sexual prowess spread across the land. Only one woman in the kingdom,
however, managed to capture Larry's heart. Agatha. She urged him to
shave off his moustache, because her own father and mother had been
killed by a moustache-wearing lunatic. When Larry refused, Agatha put a
sleep-inducing potion in his wine, and while he slept, she sheared off his
moustache. When Larry awoke, he touched his lip and became mortified,
knowing that his moustache housed the fairies whose dust gave Larry his
sexual powers. He ran to the mirror and, seeing his reflection, he gasped.
What Larry hadn't known, because he'd worn a moustache for so long, was
that the scar on his bottom lip had come together over the years to spell
the name of his true love: Agatha. Moreover, Larry realized, it had been
Agatha's own parents who he had tried to defend all those years earlier.
The trick had been asking myself why somebody would grow a moustache like Larry's. Once I came up with the scar, things started flowing.
Normally, I would have worked out what happened to the little people
who lived in Larry's moustache. They had to go someplace, didn't they?
And why did they have fairy dust to begin with? Ordinarily I was more
careful with the loose ends. But I'd had a rough week, and something had
to give.
15 In the end, there was true love and lots of sweaty sex. And a 300-game
for Larry. They all want 300-games in their fairy tales.
"And you're saying your fairy tale came true?"
"That's what I'm saying," Larry said, and went to the bar (also the shoe-
rental counter) to buy me a beer.
I'd made up a dozen or so fairy tales about customers at the Bowling
Centre, but none of them had ever come true before. That was never the
point, if there was a point other than doing something I had a knack for.
"You're a fortune teller, Gunnipuddy!" said Frank, a bouncer at Bazookas nightclub.
It did look that way. "Maybe," I said, and then Larry returned with my
beer, handed it to me, held his right hand over the air blower, picked up
his bowling ball, and rolled his ninth, tenth, and eleventh strikes. All the
regulars had gathered and were shouting encouragement. Larry cradled
the ball—Angelica—in his arms and stroked it. (With a black marker he'd
crossed out some letters and added others so that now the ball sort of said
Agatha.) You could tell he felt very tender toward that ball. He kissed it
gendy, then sent it down the lane so that it curved dead into the pocket.
It'd be a better story, maybe, to say that while nine pins went down, the
tenth pin hovered there for a moment, spinning, still standing, before finally losing to gravity. But that's not what happened. When Larry's ball hit
the pocket, the ten pins exploded—that's what we call it—and dropped.
The pins never had a chance.
Larry began to hyperventilate, and the guys had to ease him onto the
cool floor, where he sat with his arms around his knees, tears streaming
down his face. They huddled around him and punched him on the shoulder, and said that no bowler had ever been so deserving. I sat on a bench
and sipped from my beer. I wanted to be excited for Larry, except, I realized, I didn't know this man at all. Did he speak other languages? As a kid,
had he been bullied? Two years I'd worked here, and yet I knew only three
things about each of the regulars: name, occupation, and high score.
Obviously, others were quick to become the leading male of my fairy
tales. At first it made me anxious, taking numbers and figuring out priorities.
"Ben is short and sloppy, and he drinks all day," I said to the circle of
men around me. Ben, a hospital orderly, bowled lane one. "Where do I go
with that?"
"Maybe he meets a barmaid?" Larry said. He'd taken some of the guys
out for steaks and had returned with a splotch of sauce on his shirt.
"Maybe I meet a woman who drives a beer truck?" Ben said.
"Maybe you meet a woman at A.A.," I said. The words sounded wrong,
but I pressed on. "You meet at A.A., and she owns a McDonald's franchise,
16 and you go into business together." I jotted this down on the back of a
score sheet so that I'd remember it later.
"We meet at A.A.?" He pursed his lips.
Larry asked Ben, "Do you see yourself giving up the liquor?"
"Don't ask me, ask Gunnipuddy. He's the story-teller."
Maybe I was, but I wasn't going to lie. "No. Ben's right. She drives a
beer truck. Her route takes her past an old witch's hovel, where..." I looked
around at the pairs of eyes straining wide at me. "I'll work on it when I get
home tonight."
"What about me?" said Frank, the bouncer. "Who will I meet at Bazookas?"
"No, me," said Russell.
"Russell, Russell." I chewed on the litde half-pencil. "I always see you
riding that stupid bicycle." I had never asked, but it had to be a DUI. "So
let's think about what type of woman—"
"Money, Gunnipuddy. I need money."
My version of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm Volume I ("The
Frog King" through "The Devil's Sooty Brother") comes apart in your
hands. The binding isn't any good. I stole the book from my school's
library, because there was talk of banning it. I didn't think that people
banned books anymore, but I was wrong. Anyway, I saved them the hassle.
After I stole it, for years I kept it under my mattress like a baseball glove,
as if I had other kids on my team depending on me.
When I told the rabbit and Mr. Marotta's ashes that my fairy tales had
been coming true, first Larry's and then Ben's and now Russell's, the rabbit
said, "You're home late again."
"Idiot," Mr. Marotta's ashes added.
"The guys took me out drinking. I couldn't say no." It was true. Everyone at the bowling alley looked at me differentiy now that I had great
powers. I'd stopped cleaning the bathrooms, but nobody said anything.
Clogged toilets, nothing. Musty urinals, nothing. I just sat on a bench at
the end of the alley, lane twenty-four, and guys brought me beer from the
tap and Pop Tarts from the vending machines. I got the idea they loved me
and feared me.
"Yesterday, Russell won ten grand playing Lotto," I said, and flopped
backwards onto the Barca. "It would've been an insult not to let him get
me drunk."
The baby was sucking on a binky I'd bought at the Wawa.
"All I'm saying is," said the rabbit, "you've got a baby now, and you
can't be—"
"Are you my wife? Is that it?" The last thing I wanted was a lecture. I
wanted to be drunk and ride the high of telling fortunes or creating
17 fortunes or whatever it was that I seemed able to do. But forces had converged against me—not only Tyren, but also the rabbit, which was supposedly watching Tyren while I was away. Yet its own pellets were everywhere, its fur was everywhere, and the place on its back that used to have
fur had become infected or something and was red and dotted with pus. I
shook my head in disgust. "I've got to get to work."
"It's four a.m. and you just came from work," the rabbit said. "You don't
have to go back there."
"No, I mean, I've got to write more fairy tales." I went into my bedroom with my book so that I could get some work done for the guys at the
alley where, unlike here, I was appreciated.
In the morning, things were more civil. I sat on the floor with Tyren in
a square of sunlight and fed him sweet potatoes and apples. Despite what
M. and C. had written on their note, I found that Tyren wasn't a fussy eater.
You could mix leftovers from all sorts of jars—peas, pears, pumpkin, creamed
chicken—and he'd slurp it up. Also, if you put him on his stomach, he'd
roll over onto his back. A good trick. And he'd laugh whenever you hung
tube socks over your ears and said blagablagablagablaga.
"You must be a hero at the alley," the rabbit said, watching me and the
baby from across the room.
"Work's been satisfying." I tried to stand on my head, because Tyren
liked seeing me upside-down, but the hard floor irritated my sore scalp.
"You're a man of special powers, Gunnipuddy."
I didn't want to admit what I was about to admit, so I reached for a
bottie of baby food and pretended that I couldn't unscrew the cap.
"Need help with that, Hercules?" asked Mr. Marotta's ashes.
I twisted opened the bottle.
"I don't think it's me," I said to the rabbit and to Mr. Marotta's ashes.
"None of my fairy tales ever came true before. I think this baby is special."
We all looked at Tyren, who was looking at me, but only because I was
holding the food. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure it's a godlike baby. I think it might
be God. Or something just as important. So don't kill it accidentally while
I'm at work."
The baby piped up: "No, I'm not very important. If you don't consider
the fate of the world very important."
"Oh, shit," the ashes said.
"Baby's first words," said the rabbit.
I put down the bottie I'd just opened and watched Tyren, waiting for
some elaboration. Outside, the sun was barely up, yet the kids were already blasting TJerky.
"I'll fill you in," Tyren said, "while you change my diaper."
I grabbed him under my arm and carried him like a football into my
bedroom where I kept the Huggies. Now that he could speak, I felt that I
18 had better do a thorough job cleaning him, applying the cream, making
sure that the tape didn't pinch.
Anyway, Tyren had completely exaggerated. It wasn't anything like the
fate of the world. It was just a dumb car accident that I could prevent, a
fender-bender at an intersection across the street from the Wawa. The
drivers were of religions and ethnicities that had spent several thousand
years hating each other, so maybe you could argue that, if the accident had
occurred, it would have worsened the tension between these two communities, and that maybe this accident would have been the straw that broke,
etc., and that battles would be waged, wars fought; that this particular
accident, as non-political and, well, accidental, as it might be, occurred for
reasons far more cosmic than I could understand, the one accident that had
to be prevented at any cost. Or maybe the incident was more symbolic,
like if these two people's crisis could be averted, then blah blah. Or maybe
Tyren was way off base, being a baby.
He told me the how's and where's and when's of the accident, which
pissed me off because the when was only thirty minutes from then. I put
Tyren in the crib I'd bought him at Baby Depot, ran outside to my car, and
sped to the Wawa to ask Bonchie to a movie.
Not the best timing, maybe, with the clock ticking and all, but something about the urgency I was feeling gave me a surge of adrenaline. Do it
now, I said to myself. Right now.
Twenty-eight minutes later, I didn't care whether I fumbled the fate of
the world or not, because Bonchie had said no, fucking no, she preferred
not to meet me at the Regal Cinema for a movie. So fuck the world, I was
thinking.
And yet I was thinking this from a position standing outside the Wawa,
eight-thirty on a Friday morning, right where Tyren had told me to be, and
overhead the traffic light suddenly started blinking yellow on all four
sides, and there came the '86 Ford Taurus and the '88 Honda Civic, just as
Tyren had said, and since I was the only one there who knew what was
going to happen, I went in the middle of the street and stood with my hand
outstretched like a traffic cop's in front of the Honda, which I assumed had
better brakes than the Taurus. The car screeched to a stop. The driver
growled something and gave me the finger.
I went around to the driver's window, and he rolled it down. He had an
immense grey beard and round green eyes, and I thought how easy it
would be to write a fairy tale about him.
"I'm taking a survey," I said. "Do you drink Coke—"
At that moment, the Ford Taurus puttered through the intersection and
was gone, my mission accomplished.
"Or is Pepsi more your thing?"
The man gritted his teeth and roared the engine, sending the car
19 forward—over my feet, crushing bones—and into the intersection. Long
after the car was out of sight, I kept howling.
When I refused to stay overnight at Saint Memorial's on account of the
baby, the surgeon said that I was "being a difficult patient," that I must
reconsider. Then he left my room and returned with a form stating that I
was being noncompliant with my physician's orders, that I released him
and the institution from any liability. He sent me home with prescription
painkillers, a pamphlet (CaringFor Your Wound), and a walker. I didn't get
home until ten p.m. When I told everybody about what'd happened, the
rabbit said, "Then it's time to leave."
"But I just came home," I said.
"Me. I'm leaving. So open the door."
"Why're you leaving?"
"I'm all done here. My job was to make sure you bought Huggies and
took care of the baby."
"I still don't know how to take care of a baby."
"I know. But you're learning, which means that my job's done."
"You have only one job?" I wasn't being very thoughtful to that rabbit—I could tell he needed the outdoors, some grass, dumpsters to rummage through. Yet it felt wrong for him to abandon not only the baby, but
an invalid still numb from foot surgery and high on painkillers. "Why
can't you have more than one job?"
"Why? Because I'm a fucking rabbit. And about that girl," the rabbit
said, "it's just a rejection. No biggie. Ask her out again."
"You think?" Bonchie had heard me cursing in the intersection and,
seeing my smashed foot, called for an ambulance. Maybe it was the beginning of something.
"Sure. Isn't that right, Mr. Marotta's Ashes?"
"In two/four time," the ashes said, "the quarter note gets one goddamned
beat. In six/eight time, the eighth note gets one goddamned beat."
"Just don't stalk her or anything," the rabbit said. "Don't get creepy on
her. And remember that the kid always comes first. Now let me out. I want
out."
After the rabbit left, I picked up Tyren and put him on my lap in the
recliner, but he was being all wiggly, so I put him on the floor where there
were some old milk cartons I'd saved for him. My feet killed, but I wasn't
supposed to take more pills for another four hours. In my head, I starting
writing a fairy tale about Bridget, who rents the bowling shoes, about how
she found a rich architect to run off with. But it didn't feel right. The words
in my head felt as if they'd been written by someone who didn't know a
damn thing.
"This won't come true, will it?" I asked Tyren.
20 He looked up. "No."
"Why not?" I pictured the clogged toilets I'd been ignoring for more
than a week. And how even though I never promised anyone anything,
there'd be hell to pay at the Bowling Centre if I were just a utility man
again.
"You're a loser, Gunnipuddy, and yet you took care of me without
hesitation. That was some good work, so I made you a hotshot for a while."
"Aha!" yelled Mr. Marotta's ashes from the other room. "I knew
Gunnipuddy had no talent of his own!"
Tyren ignored the ashes. "You took in a baby even though you're a
totally unfit father. You're a good man, Gunnipuddy."
And those were the last words the baby ever said until he was eighteen
months old. Turns out, except for when he was God, Tyren was a late
talker.
Not long ago, I took Tyren to a little park. Afterward, I was pushing the
stroller up the hill back toward the apartment when the owner of the prosthetic supply shop saw how badly I still hobbled and waved me in. He was
a thin old man, all teeth and joints, and he'd always seemed harmless. But
I'd never even said two words to him.
"Name's Fink," he said, once I was inside his shop. Along the walls were
various wheelchairs and crutches and walkers, and on shelves were hand-
and arm- and foot- and leg-looking devices, though none of them looked
very much like hands, arms, etc.—just enough to suggest what they were
meant to represent. A smell of formaldehyde might have been real, or
might have been in my head. On a shelf along the window was information on various products—colourful pamphlets, or what my dad would
have called literature.
"Gunnipuddy," I said.
"Apartment next door?"
"That's right."
He knelt down. "Who's the litde one?"
I told him, and we both looked in the stroller at Tyren, who was sleeping, silent, giving the wrong impression of himself.
"Mister Gunnipuddy, you just sit right here and take the weight off
those feet. You make yourself comfortable. What size shoe do you wear?"
I told him, and he went into the back room and then reappeared carrying two cardboard boxes. Inside each box was a soft foot-sole-looking
contraption that fits into your shoes if you've got fucked-up feet. I'm making it sound simpler than it is—he rattled off some words, plastoform and
purolon-urethane and other things I've forgotten—but that's the gist. The
point is, those contraptions that he put into my lap so that I could feel
them, they were soft. Not squishy, though. Supportive.
21 Fink took them from my lap and kneaded one into each shoe. I put on
my shoes again, stood, and, using the stroller for support, took a few steps.
"Well?" Fink said. "Better?"
"I'm walking on cotton," I told him. Not true, but each step wasn't
excruciating, either.
"My diabetics swear by them." He nodded sagely and put me on a
payment plan. Still leaning on the baby's stroller, but feeling less pain than
I had in months, I headed toward the door. When I'd gotten to the doorway, Fink called out, "Behaves himself, doesn't he?"
Tyren had been asleep the whole time.
"He's curious," I said. "Always into stuff." I smiled then, because just
that morning I'd been making grilled-cheese sandwiches when Tyren got
his hands on the Mai-Tai box and opened the clasp. The ashes spilled right
out onto the rug. I got mad for a moment, cursing like Mr. Marotta would
have, while Tyren stared up at me with big eyes and new teeth. I vacuumed
the mess and made a mental note to empty the vacuum bag in a nice place,
like in the grade-school playground, or maybe on the beach the way I'd
sometimes threatened. I rinsed off the Mai-Tai box and put it back inside
my night table, deciding right then that next time I went to the Wawa, I'd
buy a pack of condoms to keep in the box. The way I saw it, it was time to
find a girl—Bonchie, maybe, or somebody else—and prevent starting a
family together.
"I'll bet he's a bright litde boy," Fink the shop-owner said, and came
over for another look. "Is he a bright boy?"
I'm happy to report: this baby's average.
22 Claudia Gahlinger
Brenda
Look
at her.
Take
your time.
Even if
she may not like it.
—Nicole Brossard
The night's thin frost had burned away. The sky was pale warm
porcelain. The cool, damp, holly- and lawn-scented air fell back,
knocked down by dry gusts of diesel. And turning the corner of
Cook and Pandora—
Nothing reminds me of Brenda so much as a near-rhyme.
And turning the corner
at Cook and Pandora
in the cool late morning I saw her...
She was walking on the opposite side of the street. Dark, inconsequential, unencumbered by jacket or proper shoes. Wearing her favourite outfit: a purple T-shirt with a fox embroidered on the breast pocket, jeans tied
with a rope belt, and flip-flops. Probably assuming the day would resume
Indian summer.
She was stepping in her usual way, lighdy toward the balls of her feet,
as if drawn forward—or quietiy eluding. Drawn by glimpses of Jacob's
Ladder, the angels drifting up and down it—or eluding Ogres. Her head
was low but her arms floated a litde, stiff from her sides, hands clenched:
a child trapped in an unwinnable argument. A girl trying to deny the
Ogres their due.
Where had she come from? Where had she slept? Not under any roof,
by the looks of it.
The first time I ever saw her was in the main hall of the youth hostel. It
was two minutes before nine a.m. The night had been ruled by fossil brain:
sleep among strangers in a lower bunk submerged in a river of unknowns,
23 or in an upper bunk like a train trestle, no guard rails and a mattress
graded to take you over the side. A woman in an upper bunk kept raggedly
sobbing as if she were going over the side all night and no hands kept
reaching out to catch her. Then daylight arrived, for better or worse. A
breakfast of granola or porridge, tea with skim milk, an orange. People
lingered in the hallway afterwards, on the verge of being kicked out for the
day. Some stared at notices on the bulletin board. Others negotiated with
the desk clerk for a fourth night's stay, or, failing that, a place to leave a
knapsack.
She just stood there in the hallway, in her T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops.
Her face was round and cloudy. She had olive skin, blunt-cut black hair,
and the slight blur to the eyes of someone who wears glasses, although she
didn't. Oblique.. .oh bleak eyes, her gaze turned inward, an anonymous,
inconsequential, unangular girl, a shadow, a shadow's ghost, a dream that
is helpless to rise up out of itself to become a young woman who has
dreamt of bad things but now the nightmare is over...
I began to cross over, calling from the middle of the road to give
warning.
Unsurprised, unwelcoming, Brenda's stare nearly froze me mid-traffic.
But the cheque in my hand made me brazen. Besides, I was fairly sure the
other party in her argument was not me.
"Where you heading?" I asked. This is my line when we meet; it is hers
when we part. "Which way you heading?" she will ask, and whatever my
reply, she will turn in the opposite direction.
"Nowheres," she said now, hitching up her pants and looking away.
"I got a welfare cheque," I said. Smiling the curved, sly smile of Simple
Simon's Pieman I dangled the slip in the air.
"Well," she laughed, not giving me or the cheque a glance. "Well,
Cinderelly. How did you manage that?"
"I talked to Government."
We skirted downtown, catching whiffs of its smelly, intriguing
fulminations. And as we walked I told Brenda about the welfare lady, who
had given me, on top of the cheque, that treasure worth more than diamonds or gold: the Gift of Forgetting.
She must have abdicated a throne to sit behind that desk. Black-haired,
pretty, fortyish, she was dressed in a suit of royal blue with black piping.
The nameplate on her desk read Mrs. S. MacCardle. In a voice at once
queenly and tired she said,
"Name?"
Well. Name. Name. What a question! Hers was easy: Susan or Sylvia or
Sandrine or Seraphina MacCardle. But mine—no, I couldn't cough it up.
In the city my mind is a piece of carpet, a hundred stitches to the inch and
as many colours. In the morning, after coffee, toast and a first cigarette, the
24 carpet is a silky Persian illustrated with a pattern of library, cafe, daffodils
in February, monkey puzzle and holly. By tea time it is an indoor/outdoor
rug. Too much hunger filled with coffee and cigarettes, too much silence
alone and in public. And the relentless footfalls of the Voice of Reason,
and of my supposed Guardian Angel—the two keep masquerading as each
other—they tread the carpet all day long. Like characters in some boring
play they beat down its plush. Enter stage left blah blah blah, enter stage
right blah blah blah, God I hate theatre.
Name? "Name" is a cliche, a gross oversimplification. A cliche is the
rubberized backing of a truth. Mrs. MacCardle's question flipped the carpet of my mind over, revealing the flat beige backing. And knowing this
sudden, perfect blankness in my mind came as such a surprise, such a
great, hilarious relief (I never even knew the backing was an option!) that
I covered my mouth and rumbled.
She waited, pen poised, her patience wearing royally thin.
In a panic I reached for the Player's Filters pack in my skirt pocket. The
bummed cigarettes inside it were any old inferior variety. But somehow,
by thinking Player's Filters, my own name fell into place. "Marina Costello."
Simpler questions followed. Where do you live? The Ritz Hotel, on
Fort Street. Are you looking for work? I had a job, helping move books
out of the old library into the new one. That lasted three weeks. I've been
looking for another job ever since.
Studying, writing, then forbearing once more Mrs. MacCardle said,
"Come to the office tomorrow, then," and smiled wanly at my relapse into
joy.
Tomorrow—that is, this morning—it awaited me. It only looked n\e a
thin slip in a file folder; really it was a sweet shop, a tuck box, a cornucopia spilling good things.
As we walked I asked Brenda, "Why don't you go to the welfare office?"
Because she worries me. What does she eat? Where does she sleep?
"I don't know," Brenda said.
"You could at least get a blank mind," I said.
"Yeah, but," said Brenda. "That's not something you can plan for."
We had come to a broad slope of cement, at the bottom of which lay our
destination: all glittering glass and chrome, a cathedral stretched flat.
The glass door swung open jokingly. Soon we were standing in the cool
air and jungle moisture of Produce.
"Let's be sensible," I said. "Let's hit all four Food Groups."
"Animal, vegetable, mineral," said Brenda. "And starches. Begin with
the starches."
I turned a shopping cart down the starches aisle. Brenda wandered ahead,
touching packages. Stopping halfway down the aisle she picked up a little
cloth pouch with a red drawstring. "Sometimes," she said, sullen and
25 stubborn and downward-looking, as she always is when about to express a
long thought, "sometimes when I close my eyes I see this place in Manitoba. I've never been there. I only heard about it from a guy who worked
in the orchards. Still, I see that place. People in a canoe glide through
reeds. They bend the reeds over the canoe and thresh out the rice. The
grains pour into the hull... Why do I see them? What does it mean?
Nature, the bending, the harvest: it's a vision of the end of the world, I
think."
"Huh," I said. "Why don't we get some?"
"Alright." She tossed the pouch into the shopping cart. Then she hid
her face in both hands and sang one long, faint loon's call of laughter.
Touring the supermarket we gathered more delicacies. Marinated artichoke hearts, rye crisps, smoked oysters, havarti cheese. And apricots: not
ones grown in the orchards we both worked in so long ago, me near
Penticton, Brenda near Kelowna—it's too late for Canadian apricots—but
plump, ready ones all the same.
Our eyes wide now, our hunger habitual, we embarked on a second,
more profligate tour. Into the cart tumbled ajumbo box of potato flakes. A
sack of kitty litter, a sack of potatoes. A twenty-four-pack of toilet paper.
Items you could thump and bounce and roll around. A drum of cooking
oil. A tub of lard. It was like bench-pressing calories. Pretending it took
both of us to push the cart now we hulked over it, gargantuan consumers
shoving our excesses uphill, until we were snorting and tiptoeing with
laughter.
And laughing we tiptoed into the wrong aisle: the one we had been
unconsciously avoiding. The one with the desiccating light, frosty air and
hazy goods petrified behind glass. Maybe it reminded us of the coming
winter (where will we sleep?) but that aisle seemed to steal our appetites,
and at the same time expose us as thieves. Like thieves atoning we abandoned the cart beside the magazine rack and headed for the checkout. The
clerk took my cheque and gave me a great bundle of wealth in exchange.
Using a tiny morsel of this I paid for the apricots only.
But we are not thieves at all, I told myself. And it's not true we aren't
hungry. No. We are hunger artists.
Brenda exited the supermarket first and nearly stepped on a dog's tail.
He was an old dachshund with a pathetic face somebody had tied to the
bicycle rack beside the door. Brenda bent to push his bum over, then
kneeled to pet him. "You've got to watch your tail," she told him. "Always
sit facing the automatic door," she went on in a low, raggedy, idiot voice,
the dog replying with a soft throat-song. "Some famous gunslinger said
that. He said, You never know what kind of shopper is going to burst out,
groceries blazing.' And cheer up," she concluded, giving the dachshund's
butt a few smart, open-handed slaps, the kind dogs thrive on, "life's too
26 short."
Life is too short. To a dachshund. A pause. Then she turned a grin like a
hundred suns up at me.
Claiming a sunny bench beside a tree planter in the plaza we broke
open the bag. Of all fruits, apricots are the most hopeful, because they are
the most complete. Yellow, sweet-sour like youth in the skin. Ripe, sweet
orange mush at the heart. Grown tight to the branch in gnarled, venerable
old trees.
We were poring over the fruit and gathering the sun's warmth when an
armoured truck pulled onto the plaza. It hadn't quite stopped when a smooth
grey-outfitted guard hopped off with his holstered gun and a shifty look.
Do you have to show the interviewers a shifty look, I wonder, when you
apply for that job?
"The best things in life are free," I said, watching him. "Do you believe
that? You take the pro," I added, "since you probably want it. I'll take the
con."
Brenda blew an apricot pit into the tree planter behind us. "You could
say working in the orchards was free."
"How? We had to pay with our labour, didn't we?"
"There was everything you could ever need there: all the air, water and
fruit."
"And where would you sleep for free?" Not where didyou sleep. Direct
questions are not allowed. (Where does Brenda sleep?)
Her answer was accordingly hypothetical. "You could live in a tree. Or
a tent. Or both: a hammock. Made out of.. .1 don't know." She considered
my outfit. "Palm fronds. If people bothered you, you could say you lost
your memory, and pelt them with—I don't know. Coconuts. Well, the
ocean is free."
The sea lay about a twenty-minute walk away. The sea, the one jewel
that, if I could keep it in my sight, I would relinquish all others for it. But
in my year in this city I had found less and less of the courage it took to
meet it. At least, I'd grown convinced such a meeting required a courage I
did not have. Because I was more and more certain the sight of the sea
would crush me. It would act as a mirror, a sacred, silvery blue mirror
reflecting the profane and besmudged girl I'd become.
"Aside from looking," I said. "What are you, cheap? It can't be seeing,
feasting your eyes, anything like that."
"Patting an old dog is free."
This was profoundly true. (Life is short.)
"Supermarket doors," Brenda went on. "You step in the right place, they
open by themselves." She was talking faster. "Stepping is a low price to
pay for that." She was on a roll. "There's vending machines, the trays
going around for nothing. There's the G-force."
27 "The G-force!"
"Some people love that," said Brenda, suddenly defensive. "My sister
does. Going up or down in an elevator, feeling gravity."
Brenda looked away. Always, after these accidental mentions of her
younger sister, her head twitched and her hand flicked the air as if she
were trying to brush off a secret shame and hopelessness, and her eyes got
a slapped-shut look tinged with worry.
Brenda's sister Linda is desperately stupid. She dotes on clothes, her
hair, and her fingernails, all three of which are technically dead matter.
Linda can't keep her verb tenses straight, even when she's talking. Linda's
first time in a fancy restaurant in the city she ordered a seizure salad.
Brenda and her sister grew up in the country. They were seven and five
years old when their mother remarried and her new husband didn't want
them. So they stayed with their father. And all hell broke loose. Brenda
argued and begged with and screamed at Linda for years to run away with
her. But Linda refused. As long as the days were safe Linda could pretend
the nights weren't real.
"What about things, though," I insisted, to take Brenda's mind off her
sister. "They say the best things in life are free." This is one of my favourite
games: treating dark, oblique little Brenda as omniscient.
Brenda sighed, as if she were God and I was mortal and playing with me
all day turned her mind to porridge. "Sugar bags, from a cafeteria or takeout. Salt and pepper bags. Creamers. Drinking straws. Plastic tops for
Styrofoam cups." The corners of her mouth turned down. Tragedy seeped
into her eyes, liars, nearly. God, goofing around. "Bags for used sanitary
napkins. Toilet paper in a shopping mall bathroom."
"Oh sure," I laughed. "As if." Wanting to reach over and give her a
sharp hug. But touching Brenda is out of the question.
The armoured man exited the supermarket with a canvas bag and darted
into the truck. On the way there he shot a hard look at a passerby: an old
fellow in a brown golf shirt, blue sweatpants and ripped sneakers, sprinting
slow-slow-slow-motion across the plaza.
"Isn't that pathetic," said Brenda.
I guessed she didn't mean the old man. "What are you going to do?" I
asked quickly, careful to look at the old man and not her. His face was
twisted, devilishly shadowed. His trajectory would bring him close by.
"How are you going to find your mother?"
Brenda's long-lost mother is the reason Brenda hitchhiked here from
Ontario. The orchards were a detour, to make money.
She didn't reply. She just said, "One time, my mother looked out the
window and said, 'When I'm away from the sea I'm lonely for it. And when
I'm by the sea I'm lonely for it too.'"
The old man had nearly reached us. Reading menace in his face, his
28 brush cut, his creepy footfalls, I leaned back.
Brenda held out an apricot.
"Naah," the guy said, and took it. He stopped and leaned against the
tree planter. His face, I saw now, was not evil but only broken, like a
boxer's, the kindness in it physically shoved askew.
Eating fruit we watched the armoured truck slide a litde further, the
armoured man hopping out to rescue a bag of cash from the drugstore
next.
The boxer pulled his apricot into two halves. He slipped the pit into his
golf shirt pocket, then ate the fruit the correct way: delicately, one litde
raft at a time. "Hmm," he said when he was done. "I'll say..." Then he
resumed his slow, sprinting journey.
"One day around suppertime," said Brenda, scowling and looking at
her knees, "I was standing in the lobby of the liquor store. It's huge, clean,
warm, and empty, with more windows than a lot of people's apartments. A
big orange long-haired cat had got in, and it was sleeping on the window
ledge in the sun.
"This drunk was staggering around outside, trying to sponge money for
liquor. I'd seen him before. He sleeps under that railway bridge on.. .well,
he sleeps under a bridge. People wouldn't give him money, they were all
heading someplace fast. Home from work, or going out. I thought, Why
are those people right somehow, and the homeless guy wrong somehow?
It came to me in a big flash of light: home is crazy. And if that is true why
not go all the way: Only nomads make sense. Every country, every community, every family, is a kind of insanity... I went out and gave him a
quarter. 'Here's your change,' he said, and gave me a penny. It was a bent,
rusty penny, and special, he said. It got run over by a train, but it was still
worth the entire face value in cash."
Brenda slipped her last apricot pit into her T-shirt pocket. "I was wondering where these go. Anyways. Bags of day-old doughnuts are free, from
the dumpsters behind doughnut shops. A stale doughnut: if that isn't a
thing, I don't know what is."
Apricots done we strolled downtown, past pizza and jewellery and Cowichan
sweater shops. A breeze lifted the flap of my wrap-around skirt. The wind
is forever lifting this flap, and I must forever clap down on it, to prevent a
high glimpse of thigh—or worse, because I don't wear underpants. Every
moment of every day working at the library in this skirt I had prayed no
calamity—a banana peel, a freshly waxed floor—would befall me. Even so
it is my favourite outfit. Somebody donated it to the Salvation Army,
where I snatched it up. The skirt and its matching top, a straight V-necked
short-sleeved tunic, are made of softest cream-coloured cotton flour bags
sewn on some Caribbean island, the flour's brand name printed in faded
29 red. The skirt's flyaway tendencies are balanced nicely by the sturdiness of
my brown Oxford shoes.
Brenda as usual wore her purple T-shirt and jeans. We both smelled. (It's
not that we don't like clean clothes, just like anybody else. No. We are smell
artists.) Brenda's feet slapped at the sidewalk, making a comfortable, homey
sound. "Wherever you go," she said happily one time, "when you wear
flip-flops, the world is like a laundromat in winter."
Now here is a theory I must remember to share with Brenda next time
we run into one another: I dress in the hopes of being identified, bagged
and reintroduced to my natural habitat. Brenda dresses in hopes of slipping past the Ogre. Two fashion statements, same goal. Basically.
Eventually the scenery opened and fell down toward the harbour. The
American Destroyer hove into view, still docked in the harbour from
helping the city celebrate Thanksgiving—or was it Remembrance Day.
The ship bristled with so many grey-laquered turrets and funnels that it
barely fit. In fact it was barely a ship. The incongruity of it—the multifarious toy like weapons pointing random as sniper fire at the heart of this
tiny, touristed provincial capital—it could destroy your faith, is what it
could destroy.
Above the harbour sits the Empress Hotel, with its elegant high windows and balustrades, its broad verandah lined with tables set for High
Tea.
No matter the time of day, when I see the Empress, the spectre of returning to the other work, the night work, rises up before me until by
nightfall it hovers like malevolent northern lights. Empress, Queen, goddess,
mother, Mary: all of these words are related, all hold connotations of warmth
and compassion, but the Empress Hotel does not. (Of course it doesn % snaps
the Voice of Reason. What are you, stupid? asks Guardian Angel.) The Empress says, Cold, night, shunning. You can walk in my plant-filled conservatory
but you can't sleep in it. The Empress is a genteel destroyer.
Whatever. Brenda, like the lilies of the field, does not care. (Where does
she sleep?) She will not take welfare. Why not? Maybe, to Brenda, welfare
is an extension of "every community, every family."
We had reached the Sunflower Cafe. Climbing its steps we went inside
and swung ourselves into a booth. Here is the perfect room: a lofty ceiling
of white pressed tin, a tabletop of glossy, reflective black. One side of our
room is open wide to the bigger world, the other three are boxed in and
safe.
I could see now how, backed by the booth's dark, varnished wood,
Brenda's face had changed since we last met. It was puffier. And her eyes
were shiftier, her gaze more flickering. From hunger, probably. And disturbed sleep, maybe. If only she would sneak up to my hotel room with
me! Every night would be a sleepover. Between what we bought and stole
30 we could cobble together a feast, eating at long last and gaily and in secret,
like children hidden under a buffet table at a terrible wedding.
Starving is fine though too. It is like taking short, blissful steps toward
beatitude. "This is a good diet we've discovered," I suggested when the
waitress had brought our order. "Apricots and coffee."
"I don't know," said Brenda. "The apricots were a little rich."
And we bent over like two saints with buckteeth hiding our laughter in
our hands.
We lingered a while in that bent position, checking the reflections of
our faces, our hands in the black pool. A girl with amazed, hopeful, fearful
eyes and scorched blonde hair peered up at me. She starded me at first—
scarecrow in a night field—but I forced myself to get used to her.
Brenda's black hair melded with the glossy black so that her face seemed
to float in a lake, pure. Putting her hands on her cheeks she pulled back.
"Sometimes," she said, "I think I'll just keep going till I'm gone. I've been
eating for what—twenty years. What a stupid set-up! Haven't I eaten
enough?"
"You're a pig," I said.
"Anyhow," she said, "this coffee is a meal in itself."
It was true. Sunflower Cafe coffee is thick, smooth and nutty. With
cream added it must provide loads of calories. And it's strong. It turns to
electricity practically on its way down your throat.
Coffee and genius are virtual synonyms. "I know!" I said. "Here's what
we could do to make money: star in our own television show. Not Cooking
with Brenda and Marina."
She smiled at this. So I asked again, quickly, "Why don't you apply for
welfare?"
At length, in a curt way meant to close the subject finally, Brenda said,
"Because you need an address."
"Oh. Well. I guess... Let's get muffins. Talk of starvation gives me the
biggest appetite."
"Alright."
We ordered the muffins. The waitress didn't seem disappointed in us,
taking up a booth for so long with so little cause. She came back in under
five minutes bearing warmed plates with pots of butter.
The muffins had undergone Trial by Fire. They were huge, golden,
shiny, with tender bottoms and crunchy rims where they'd begun to overspill the cups. Inside them were golden raisins, walnuts, threads of carrot
and bits of pineapple. We huddled over them, trembling.
Sunset was still hours away. The cafe windows framed a sky still china
blue. Quietly and with mixed feelings we were absorbing the nutrients
into our bodies. I was smoking one of my bummed cigarettes, thinking
31 this would absolutely put a cap on the day's desires, when Brenda said,
"Let's walk."
Even though we'd been together so long already. Even though Brenda
can't tolerate my company for more than an hour or two at a time. Even
when we were working at the library, pushing carts of books. Let's walk.
Following Brenda out the door I thought, This is what it is like to have a
friend.
We followed the sidewalk that leads alongside the steep grassy slope
going down to the harbour, with its sailboats and its Destroyer. Crossing
the road at the big intersection we stepped onto the green velvet grounds
of the Parliament Building. Aimless as tourists we roamed the grounds,
standing still now and again for no reason, randomly, as if our motor skills
had gone on holiday somewhere else, or to stare at the Building, that mass
of stone inside which weighty decisions are made. The province's fatherly
brain: not much help there either. No succor. It is hard to speak without
pain, bitterness or sarcasm against the Empress. But railing against Parliament is kind of entertaining.
The flowerbeds that decorated these grounds last time I visited them
were burial mounds now. It being autumn, this should have come as no
surprise. Yet it did. It came as a shock.
"One day flowers, next day dirt," I said. "Where did they go I wonder."
Brenda was walking gladly again, drawn forward, knowing everything.
"The groundskeepers nipped off the rose heads, all at once. Off with their
heads!"
"You saw them do it?"
"I did."
"And was it terribly shocking?"
"Oh terribly. But I asked them if I brought a bag, could I have some?
They say yes. I run into the Museum of Man and Nature, pay for a shopping bag with a dime I found on the sidewalk." Brenda laughed shyly, so
pleased with her initiative. Retracting her head like a turtle's, wedging a
thumbnail between her front teeth. "I run back, we fill it with roses."
"Just the heads!"
"I know. It's like eating just the icing. And the guys helping. Big burly
hands stuffing rose petals in a bag. And you think the best things in life
aren't free. Rose petals, sometimes, in sunrise-sunset colours. And the
smell... I looped the handles of the bag on my ears to make a feedbag and
walked around all day like that, smelling the roses and near-fainting."
"Saint Theresa. Did you really? Liar!"
Brenda laughed.
"Tell the truth," I said. "Pinocchio."
"No. But I spread them over my—in my—on my bed, and.. .dream I am
the Queen of Sheba."
32 She had led us under one of the trees that grow at the Parliament Building's perimetres. Like royal elephants they pose on the emerald velvet,
their trunks smooth, grey and solid, their limbs dipped to lift circus performers.
Brenda tucked in her T-shirt, tightened her belt, and climbed onto a
branch. I tucked my flour sack shirt into my flour sack skirt and climbed
clumsily onto a branch opposite hers. Brenda let herself down until she
hung from the branch by the crooks of her knees. I bunched my skirt
between my thighs and gingerly lowered myself too.
There was the Empress: a block of decorative grey jutting into a pond
of azure. And the Destroyer: a mass of hideous grey stalactites. The upside-down tourist shops stuffed with jade and sweaters, the upside-down
sidewalks littered with hunks of discarded lunch (a podatch for crows,
Brenda once called them)—you couldn't blame the Earth if it yanked the
trap and let it all drop into space.
Should it drop us too? Maybe. Maybe not. No. Not if Brenda and I are
together.
"Funny the water," Brenda began. She stopped to laugh; her voice was
a cartoon turtle's. "Funny the water in the harbour, at least, doesn't pour
out..." She dropped her arms so they hung down—or up—at the grass, and
heaved a sigh. Then she quacked, "I always wished I knew some poems.
But I don't. Do you?"
"Does a bear poop in the woods?" How strangled our voices had become. This wasn't speaking, it was extruding. And how red and bulgy our
heads. Faster and faster, with gritted teeth, throwing in a few charades and
ploughing through Brenda's quacks of laughter, I recited the entire sonnet,
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.
Excited, head pounding, I somersaulted painstakingly off the branch
and then climbed back on. Brenda did the same, but with a sort of whirling
panache, and choosing a higher branch this time.
And so, sitting in a tree, in Brenda's company but alone, I began.
The words stepped forward, defiant. All those poems I practised this
past year in the city, on my lonely destinations. Waiting for welfare. Waiting for a bus. Waiting for business on a dark street, dreading success.
Poems like clues for a forensic psychic, to help me locate a single proof I
was a good person. Or, failing that, help me locate Brenda. Poems to
crowd out truths and replace their absence with music. I recited all of
Margaret are you grieving over golden grove unleaving. And Thou whose breath is
sweetest perfume for the spent and anguished heart. The poem I learned in high
school German: Nacht ist wie ein stillesMeer... The French one that begins,
Je crois, que Dieu, quandje suis ne, pour moi n 'a pas fait de depense.... The one
by St. John of the Cross: / live yet do not live in me...
Lasdy, staring at my shoes, I recited the poem that bears my name, but
33 that tells of Brenda's birthplace.
Brenda grew up in Ontario. But she was born by the sea, on a fogged,
wet and windy island of massive firs, small villages, and tidal pools jewelled with starfish. Being raised Catholic makes you afraid of the forest;
Brenda is not. Whatever bad happened to her, Nature is still in her blood.
What water lapping the bow
And wood thrush singing through the fog
What memories return oh my daughter
Finally I ran out of words. Brenda didn't say anything. She dropped to
the ground, then stood waiting while I jumped down and brushed off my
skirt.
She didn't say "Where you heading?"; she just began to walk. So I
followed her.
We walked across the lawn, not returning downtown, but heading the
opposite way, behind the Parliament Building. It was a direction with only
one destination I knew of.
The street started off broad and busy. Long, low houses with Spanish tiled
roofs lined it, and fake-Tudor apartment blocks of pasty stucco. Eventually
it narrowed, and quieted down. Here were small, sweet, candy-like houses.
Well-loved houses, one-storey homes stuccoed in pink, salmon and blue.
Gnomes' hideaways and elves' abodes with little round windows and curved
gables, their lawns decorated with bushes sculpted into cubes and cherry-
topped sundaes. Safety: that old dream. Surely nobody could be unhappy
or in danger, living in homes like these.
Now the residential air was ruffled by a breeze that fluttered with kelp
smells, rotten and fresh. We turned down a last street of lucky toy-houses.
And here, just where the tourist maps say it must, the horizon fell open.
It was even broader than I'd imagined: a vast and lightly ruffled azure
turning to Prussian blue and shining with the most generous, most forgiving light.
The seaside park began as scrub and brush and broom. Brenda took a
familiar dirt path through it, and soon we were standing at the land's edge.
The sea's white rim spilled onto stony sand. It brushed up on shore in a
random, repetitive and diminutive way, like a gende teacher as the lesson
winds down, saying, Questions, suggestions? Anyone, anyone? I see, I see....
At one end of the beach the bare, broad lawn sloped down to a pier.
Kids and adults were running on the green, flying kites. Halfway to that
green slope Brenda stopped, kicked off her flip-flops and sat down. I
shoehorned off my Oxfords, pulled off my hot socks and joined her. The
grass was a slithery dry silk. A cool breeze, soft as mice, scurried through
34 my toes.
The sea sizzled at my eyes. The sky was a pure blue wash and sunlight
poured down. Then the world darkened briefly, just a shade, like when a
light bulb flickers in a country kitchen. The air cooled slightly, then warmed
again, and the light returned full force. That time of day in autumn, between home-from-school and supper.
Through the sky over the pier the kites fell and aspired. Rainbow boxes,
Chinese dragon, garish moth. They strained upward, then kamikazied down
through the limitless family blue.
Brenda lay on her side, her cheek on her forearm, watching them. "It
always looks to me like a game of Snakes and Ladders," she said. "Only
there's no winning or losing. Up takes them into the sky, and down takes
them to earth. Just sky or earth. Maybe heaven is a lie, and home is a lie.
But so is hell. So it's ok."
At some point, with Brenda, everything is all right. And at that point I
am released.
The first time I saw her she was a moon with a blurry atmosphere, a moon
without a planet adrift in the hallway at the youth hostel. The last time was
the opposite. It was the next day, near Cook and Pandora, at the edge of
downtown, where gusts of diesel knock down the scents of holly and lawn.
Here she comes down the sidewalk: that girl from the hostel. Only not
oblique now, not inconsequential, not adrift. No. Whirling, a meteor burning, turning under the force of an awful compression. Her arms iron rods
flying, her fists clenched, her eyes blind with rage, she was screaming at
Linda and a bunch of other invisible people to fuck off, shove it up your oss,
etc, etc.
Passersby startled, but only with their eyes; they gave her a wide berth
and kept going.
I was rooted to the sidewalk. My heart filled and spilled over. I needed
to grab her, hold her and stop her, but couldn't for fear of getting pounded.
I told myself quickly her rage was never going to be solved by me. I found
a bathroom in a gloomy lounge nearby and cried.
How did this make me different from anybody else? I gave her a name.
"Brenda" has in it pretty words, like brooch, barrette, and mend. I keep her
near me—as near as she lets me, and for as long as she can stand it. The
place we leave each other is always different, but the place we meet is
usually the corner of Cook and Pandora. She saves my life: some days my
love for Brenda is the only proof I can find that I'm alive. And in return
for this gift I remind her over and over, with my company, that everything
is all right. Nothing is permanent, therefore even this time will pass.
The world darkens briefly, just a shade. The temperature dips and doesn't
35 recover. One by one the kites are coming down. It must be suppertime. On
the sea's horizon, gone silvery with eventual dusk, sits an island and next
to it a freighter.
In the other direction from the pier, to our right, the lawn slopes down
to sand and rocks. A great tree trunk has washed up there, at the foot of a
sharp, rocky rise.
Maybe there's a headland beyond that rise. A wild seascape. No people
to spoil it, no sight-numbing slabs of hotel or bristling Destroyer, no bright,
faith-cutting shards of Commerce. Just rocks and sea.
"Let's walk to that end of the beach there," I say, putting on my shoes
and socks. "Let's go climb those rocks and find out what's past them."
"You can't." Brenda's voice has never sounded so sharp. Then she relents, although you can tell she's uncomfortable. She looks around for her
flip-flops. "I mean, the rock is steep, like a wall. The water can come up.
Very high. In a storm. The waves could suck you in. I've tried it."
Ah. / see. I see... There is a cave in those rocks. A hollow big enough for a
rolled-out sleeping bag. With maybe a little parlour area at the cave's mouth. The
parlour gets drenched by waves but it doesn 't matter, because the deeper part stays
dry. And there's a twisting sort of hole in the roof. So the smoke from a campfire can
get out, but rain can't get in...
Brilliant. Brilliant Brenda.
She has put on her flip-flops. I tie my shoelaces and brush down my skirt.
"Where you headed?" she asks.
The ruse is no longer necessary. I would never follow her; it's enough
to know she sleeps. I head over to the sidewalk that will take me downtown.
Now here is another truth, a bitter and puzzling one: I look down on
Brenda. She is omniscient, much of the time. She is smarter than I am,
more beautiful and honest. There is something about her—inside that cloud
she walks in, something shines like anthracite. More: something adamantine. Her eyes are open wide to darknesses, both the beautiful natural kind
and the fearful manmade ones. Yet I willfind excuses to talk down to her,
if only in my mind's eye. Why? Because she is smaller and darker than me.
Because I can recite poetry and she can't. Because she is still tormented by
concern for the safety of that idiot sister of hers, and daydreams about a
future when they can be together again, whereas I have managed almost to
forget mine.
Because she pronounces "says" say's instead of sez Because when somebody gets mad at her she is liable to stare at the floor and pick her nose
like a child.
Because she is childlike.
Because I want to touch her.
Because she is childlike, and I want to touch her.
36 Stephanie Moore
The Boyfriends
No one on Cascade Drive can sleep when Castrating Mother Guy
gets that desperate header rolling. Peep and I are hiding in the
kitchenette, slamming Stauffer's Lean Cuisine, praying the Main
Event terminates prior to America's Most Wanted. Dear God, please let Castrating purchase his experience. Don't let him groan. Don't let him thrash
and wail and please-please-please spare us his breathing, because he can't
whatever, or we may have to bury him in the backyard, under the redwood
tree, immediately south of our Disaster Centre. (Regarding said Centre:
when the quake occurs with the resulting fires, water shortages, and power
outages? Mother's boyfriends wander the streets, searching, searching,
searching, never finding, but Peep and I? Go it alone, no room at the Inn
for genitalia parawhatever.)
"Trying to eat here," Peep yells into the hall.
Mother comes through the kitchen door, flushed, wrapping her kimono
dragon robe around her bare body. "May I who pushed you into this world
ask a personal question?"
"Absolutely."
"Absolutely," says Peep. "Please do."
"You're too deep for yelling, right?"
"Perhaps," I say.
"Perhaps," says Peep. "Can we have the evening to think it over?"
"He was this close," Mother makes scissors with her middle and index
finger to indicate exactly how close he was. We tell her how truly sorry we
are, extremely, irrationally sorry about it. Excessively so. How we were
praying for him, how we always pray for him.
"Oh I get you," Mother says. "Genius or nothing? Am I right? Genius
or you don't care."
"We care," Peep calls to Mother's back as she flows down the hall, robe
steaming behind her.
"We care a tremendous amount," I say.
"Not happening again, not on my watch," says Peep. "Now if you'll
excuse me?" He slides off the barstool and heads down the hall, pulling
the phone off the hook as he walks, palming it, heading into the bathroom.
I slide over to the door so I can listen.
"Reporting an emergency..."
37 "Hang it up buddy," I call into the bathroom, slamming my palm flat
on the bathroom door—whack!—so hard it hurts. "Remember last time?"
I hear him whispering the three w's—who, what and where—with perfect enunciation.
"Peep, out of that bathroom this instant. Hang up NOW."
Peep walks out sheepishly, stares at the floor, slides onto his bar stool.
"When I hear someone dying? I can't chew my food."
"Oh for chrissakes."
We sit in silence, masticating. Suddenly sirens. A pounding at the door.
When I open it, a huge, bald Scandinavian ambulance driver stares me
right in the face with his one good eye. After what we did to him last time,
you'd think he'd grow up and leave us alone, right? But not Mr. Big Time
Cry Baby Guy, not when he can still crawl.
"Not you again," I say. "Do NOT start crying."
"No crying," says Peep. "Nunca."
Cry Baby's ^'//wearing an eye patch. Seriously. Just because he had a
weenie accident involving a red fire truck on the third step last month,
when he was running to put out what he assumed to be a fire and turned
out to be a nasty junior terrorist smoke bomb, what? We bring him poached
eggs on Sunday? The friggin' sports page? Last month for God's sake. Big
Fat Cry Baby won't be satisfied until we extirpate his personals, Peep and
I. We can't stand it. We're young, you know, we eat three meals a day, we
have a waterdog in the bathtub, how about you kill yourself?
"Don't you find that a bit..." I point to Cry Baby's head.
"Excessive?" asks Peep. "Now that you mention it, I'd have to say yes,
yes I do."
Big Time Baby wells up on us.
"Perhaps I could change that dressing for you, sir?" says Peep.
Mother emerges again from her bedroom and we hear Castrating call
after her, "Can Papa come out now?"
She takes Cry Baby by the hand and leads him over to the bookcase. He
says you always, you never, I wish, just once, all my life. She says I promise, I mean it. He says, you always mean it. She says tonight. Cry Baby
reaches over, cupping Mother's hand like a wounded parakeet. I'm staring
down the bottomless pit, cupidity, that stops so many of Mother's companions from crossing the bridge to a fuller, richer reality.
"Sir," I say, "if something untoward were to happen to you tonight, I
really don't think I could ever forgive myself."
"I know I couldn't," Peep says.
"If, for instance, let's say, God forbid, the house were truly to catch fire,
and let's say, somehow, in spite of protective clothing, you were to catch
fire, your impulse would be, what? To run?"
"Like the wind," Peep says, "because accidents do happen."
38 "Our advice? Get out while the gettin's going good."
"However, if you choose to ignore us and you happen to be, say, fatally injured, God forbid, with the prerequisite blood spurting from an
artery, rest assured I will stop it with hand pressure. Not like last time."
Peep looks down for a moment at his feet, overcome, hooks his wire rim
glasses with his pinky and yanks them off his nose, bends over, hands on
knees. He yells, "Ready, set, go," and runs right at Cry Baby, grabbing
him around the knees, knocking him off balance. Cry Baby catches his
head on the claw foot of the sofa as he goes down—whack!—that nasty
skull-thwacking sound. Peep starts slapping at him, his hands flat like
paddles, all over his body. Cry Baby reaches up and grabs Peep by the
throat. I throw myself on his neck and go for his eyes; Father always told
me: go for the eyes, or worse case scenario, go for the Adam's apple if
perchance the eyes are temporarily unavailable. I pull back on his patch
and when I let go, as expected, the massive femme overreaction.
Men are not who men used to be according to Mother.
Since Father fled twenty-six months and sixteen days ago, Mother has
resuscitated an stultifying crowd of Trust Fund Inepts and Backlash Wonders, Shutdowns and Shut-ins and All on Papers, Dubious Achievement
Kings for a Day, Fiscal Foot Soldiers and Four Season's Chapter Eleven
Runaways. How persistent the delusion of women and their Gods. Peep
says Mother's locked down tight in a screaming repetitive negative compulsion; we have named it Her Downward Spiral. We exist cicumambulating
this what-fate-has-hurled-in-our-path-to-make-us-strong scenario, prepared
for any eventuality, one weekend per customer.
Peep sees right through Mother and out the other side, a skill he acquired from Father who says: name a thing to know a thing, to know its
suchness. Mother says Father is full of s-h-i-t. He will be returning shortly,
in fact, he will be returning any day. But first? First we must expurgate—
ie: dissuade, paralyze, dissect, lobotomize—the boyfriends.
We sleep in shifts, set traps, tape conversations. We track them as they
circulate through our house, padding down halls, whispering into cell
phones, booking flights to the Caribbean. Sometimes we punish them,
sometimes we cast a spell. For instance: they might lose all their money on
some weak-kneed advice, slip on a Tonka truck in the dead of night, or run
out of gas in the fast lane or end up white-cuffed in debtor's prison for
raping the masses.
The current forerunner, Castrating Mother—who intends or pretends,
so he says—to marry Mother, has plans for our little family. He says that
today, this instant, our Peep is an All-American Boy, but someday (praise
God) he will be an All-American Man, and like All-American Men everywhere, of which Castrating is, according to himself, an example of note, he
39 must prepare himself.To get Peep ready for this grave manly adventure, he
must become a Cub Scout of America and, to this end, Castrating will
accompany him every week on Friday afternoon to the Hawk's Pack Meeting, conveniendy located at 246 Cascade, immediately across our street.
Because God knows if it hadn't been for the Boy Scouts, well, enough said
on an unpleasant subject.
"No more tutus and that's final," Castrating says and raises the freshen-
up martini in his hand.
Mother leans into me, whispers Absolut in my ear, "This one's perfect."
Then she delivers the shut-your-mouth-or-more-trouble-where-that-came-
from look. I glance over at Peep the Geek, all of almost ten with his jeans
too short, his enormous high tops undone, his spaghettini arms dangling at
his side. His buzz cut so flat you could land a DC 10 on it.
"Not the Hawks of Thadeus Baxter fame?" I caught Thad three weeks
ago, tying a plastic Safeway bag on the head of his own dog, Rustproof,
said he had reason to believe that the animal was a terrorist.
"You and Thad?" Castrating holds up two fingers slammed together.
"Like this litde buddy."
Peep walks up the invisible stairs, very slowly. Places an invisible noose
around his neck, being careful not to catch his ears. Straddles an enormous
invisible horse, strokes his invisible ear. When the enormous invisible
horse bolts, he snaps his head to one side and his grape gum tongue sticks
straight out.
When Peep comes back from his first troop meeting, I'm in my room,
torching a Camel. He grabs my wrist, plucks the burning match from my
hand. "Ouch," I say as he drops the match in my coffee.
"As a real American," he says, "I will do my best to be cautious with
fire."
"A whatican?"
"A real American tells the truth," he says. "People can depend on him."
"Didn't fall for the crapola, did you?"
"No. I did not," he says. "However a real American does not say c-r-a-
p-o-l-a."
"I suppose I'm going to have to really k-i-1-1 you now. What about the
enemy?"
"Present and accounted for."
"Deportment?"
"An exceptional show of hospitality."
"What did he say that was so exceptional, our Thad?"
"He said no girlie faggot boy was going to wreck the Hawks, because
they're men. Real men. Every last one. He said it takes a man to do a man's
40 job. And he said you, faggot boy, don't know from men."
"What did you say?"
"'Can I come to your sleepover?'"
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'No way' Then he said unless and did this," Peep sticks his
hand out and does come hither with all his fingers.
"How much?" I ask.
Peep makes a bird with his thumbs locked. She flies away.
"All of it?"
He looks at me with that deep sea longing, endless waves beating out
the rhythm of what we wish we were and what we know we never can be.
Mr. Hatchett, Peep's Scoutmaster, has knees that are quite slender, white
and almost hairless. He's wearing Khaki shorts, a deep red cardigan and
his kerchief drawn halfway up his neck. His comb-over won third place at
the London House singalong.
"Bald I presume?" I ask him.
"Excuse me young lady?"
"Eagle, sir," I say. "A litde icebreaker."
He looks past me at the back porch with the various exercise equipment piled everywhere: a Thighmaster and three stationary bikes, a pile of
coloured barbells of every designation, a sprung mini trampoline leaning
against the deck fence.
"I'm afraid Mother can't make it, sir, she conveys her deep regrets and
wishes to inform you that she is incognito at the moment"
He pulls the eagle lariat off his chest and slides it up and down over his
red kerchief. "May I speak frankly here Miss Whatever Your Name?"
"Caroline, sir. Please do, speak frankly that is."
He holds up his hand and pops up three fingers, one at a time. "Three
things young lady, three things exactiy: you promise, you prove, you do."
"I understand."
"Is your Mother proving it? Today? Right now?"
"She could use some work sir."
"And what about your father, Hans Schultz?" he asks.
"Yes sir?"
"Died in a fire?"
"Almost sir."
"Peep tried to save him?"
"That's correct."
"Good. Very good," he says. "Now I'm going to have to tell you something NOT," forms the word with his lips, "so good," and he pauses with
his index finger skyward. "That Peeper of yours didn't save him, can't be
done. Not by that boy. No way, no how. I want to believe, I wish I could
41 believe it, but..."
"But?"
"But I don't," he says, "won't. Can not. It is, and this is unfortunate, a
big fat lie." He demonstrates a zipping of the lips, a turning of the lock, a
throwing away of the key. "That is that of that. You see?"
"I get the picture."
He stands up out of his chair, adjusting his hat. "You may ask, as many
people do, what does it take to become a realBoy Scout of America?" He
looks at me hard, like he's checking for ticks.
"I might indeed, sir. A truly fine question."
"You may also ask, does Peep," he slows way down, like he's sharing the
secret of life, "have what it takes to become such a scout?"
"Excuse me, sir? Peep? Peep most definitely does. Peep has what it
takes to become three scouts. This is all he thinks about—this is all he
does—he never sleeps, he never eats. On Tuesday, he stayed up all night,
doing push-ups with his pack full of gravel, reciting the Bill of Responsibilities, and then, where do you think he went on Wednesday evening?
Well, he just let himself down his sheet rope ladder to the Safeway to help
any hapless old citizens with their groceries. He spent Saturday praying
for stalled cars, boating accidents, food poisonings, avalanches, etc. By
Sunday he's up on Mt. Tarn searching for lost children just so he can recite
The Oath of Athens. Why? Because he's the New Improved Peep, sir, that's
all I can say. And we owe it all to you. This is his big chance, in America,
his American big chance and as an American he's taking it. And you're
giving it to him. You and other Americans like you, across this big fine
American country of ours..."
"That may all be, but..." Scoutmaster Hatchett picks up his leather
satchel, "here's my point, I believe in my heart of hearts that I have to do
something here, today, something I do not want to do, something I'm
going to regret for the rest of my life, realizing full well that it is only by
striving for high ideals that..."
"That what for chrissake?"
"I'm going to have to let him go."
"Let him go before the sleepover?"
"Fraid so."
"But he's the quartermaster."
"Thad and the boys said if little Pee-Pee comes back they stone him,
dead."
"If you 'let him go,' sir, as you call it, before his Father comes to visit,
I believe that Peep may succeed in stoning himself. Is that the citation you
want next, sir? Suicide provocation?"
"A man understands when a man does what a man has to do to be a
man."
42 I start. "Someday..."
"Someday," he says, "he may, God willing, ride first in your Gay Pride
Parade, but until that illustrious day comes when you and the rest of your
friends and the people like your friends and your Mother Incognito stand
on Castro St. waving with tears in their eyes...until that moment arrives?
Stick this under his bed." He hands me a videocassette with a picture of
Paris Hilton, glued on upside down.
The following day the rain sheets through the redwoods, the creeks and
gutters run rivers. I find Peep flat out in a chair in the attic, staring up at
the skylight, surrounded by pans beating out a rhythm of drips.
"A present came from Father," I say. "Shhh..." I bring my fingers to my
lips. "Not one word. Swear?"
"A scout does not lie. Depend on it."
I set the tiny wrapped package right in Peep's lap. Like a surgeon performing a heart transplant, he opens it, extracting a tiny silver Nokia cell
phone. "Peep," I say, "I have to tell you something."
"Yes?"
"He may not come back for a very, very long time."
"Because he's on a mission?"
I look around the room, I check out the hall. "Do not," I say, "tell
anyone, ever. Not your Scoutmaster, not Mother, no one. Because when this
phone rings loud and clear?"
"Yes?" He wipes his eyes on the back of his arm, white as paper.
"Don't cry, buddy," I say, "because when this phone rings?"
"Yes?"
"When this phone rings, it will be him. Ready-set-go."
"I understand."
"It is critical that you learn the trails now, today, not when we are
fleeing for our life."
"Evacuate?"
"Do NOT cross bridges or overpasses."
"Gotcha."
"More than likely?" I say, "it will be in the deep dark dead of night.
That stupid sleepover? Forget it, Buddy. Because this Friday? This Friday
could be zero one hundred. Clear?
Peep reaches inside his pocket and pulls out a ripped white hankie and
pretends to climb a flagpole. When he finally reaches the top he ties his
hankie to the ropes, now flapping gendy in the imaginary breeze that blew
up so unexpectedly, I almost didn't have time to pull on my sweatshirt.
43 It's two A.M.
"Know you're in there," Mother whispers from the hall. "You? Are you
in there? Because if you're in there," she kicks the door, "are you in there?"
"It's my room," I slide back my deadbolt, spin my combination, push
my dresser over the rag rug and swing open the door, bounce-banging off
the chain. When I undo it, Mother free-falls onto my bed, Brigette Bardot
if she'd stayed out of the sun and read. Not the iguana we see today, a
modern tragedy, according to Mother who considers anti-aging to be the
one true religion.
"Big surprise," she says. "Big-big. Guess?" I don't know, maybe four hundred nude inmates. Maybe Sex Crimes Anonymous. Maybe all-nighter-drug-induced Tantra Fiesta Or Die Guy. Maybe not. "Remember Eddie?" She stares at
me like for chrissakes.
"I will never date Eddie the Drug Dealer, Mother. Shoot me again, I
never will."
"Date?" she says. "Who said date?" she yanks a thread from her jeans
and holds the thread aloft, wiggling it. "Not even if he bought you a car for
your birthday?"
"My birthday? Jesus, how could you? And he didn't buy me a car."
"He didn't?" She holds aloft a set of keys with a turquoise rabbit's foot
hanging from them. "Sweet sixteen ride around the block, period?" she
says. "Is that a lie? In your brand new Mustang?" Can I do this for her?
This one thing? After she has made a career of unmitigated sacrifices for
her children, the ridiculous prodigies? Get a brand spanking raw red Mustang, just for taking a ride with Eddie the Innocent? Around the block for
heaven's sake, if I'm so paranoid? Tomorrow noon, no monkey business.
I'm really going to like this Eddie, he is the answer to Mother's prayers.
Loves children. Imports Persian rugs. Home in Sonoma. Happy for
chrissake, not suicidal, not like the other two. Raised by a paraplegic.
Caring. Wants to help us. How many men do you know that honestly just
want to help? And we do need a car, don't we? Who am I to turn a car
down? And ruin my Mother's life?
"Can't you just ride around the block ONCE, like certain other people
who need vehicles."
"And then?"
"What? You're trying to kill me here?" And she pets the side of my
cheek with her fingertips. "Best I can do, baby."
"He's a dealer, Ma."
She leans on my shoulder, "You think I don't know? I know. You can't
begin to know what I know in a lifetime of knowing, even then you won't
know what I know. There, I've said it."
"Yes, Mother."
"Don't you 'yes Mother' me young lady," she says. "You lived inside
44 me, you got that? And all I've ever asked in return is a ride around the
block. Is that fair enough for you, Eleanor Roosevelt?"
FINALLY she leaves, and I hang the Keep Out Individuation Sign on
my door, "Porn: Hazardous to Women."
Under my covers, I flip open my cell phone, call Peep and give him the
birthday lowdown.
"Someone's car is scheduled for technical difficulty," he says and hangs
up.
I feel for matches in my pocket. I flick my flashlight on and off, stay
calm, display flags: red for help, white for ok. Listen to the radio, call 911
ONLY in case of life threatening emergency. Keep the street clear for
rescue vehicles.
Four a.m.
Awakened by a tinny, bombish, vibrating noise, I put my ear to the
door, listen, lay my palm flat, feel for heat, check for structural damage—
consider known hazards—slide on gloves, kick open the door. Sitting central
in the hall is a box with a lavender curly bow stuck on its side, I nudge the
lid off with my foot, inside, surrounded by crinkled Cottonelle toilet paper, vibrating like a ferret undergoing electric shock, is a lavender plastic
thing. A note's stuck to its tip with curled, cracked tape: To My Big Girl on
Becoming a WOMAN. You can tell me anything. Any-thing. XOXO, Audra. Big
ornate scrawl.
PS. We love (this is crossed out in red ink, over and over) NEVER LET
THEM HURT YOU.
Morning. There's that knock at the door. I open it. Eddie the Freak Hair
Museum. Nice to meet you, for the millionth time. He's got those dead soul
eyes that make you want to run to the end of the soul scorched earth and
disappear.
Four major problems, I tell him; he says, so? So, sir, I say: water, food,
shelter. And good sanitation is essential. Yeah, right, he says. I say, did you
know California's responsible for eighty percent of the world's earthquakes?
And thisis where you live, I tell him. Understand??? The choiceyou made.
Peep, slumped over a box of Pop Tarts, says, "So what's your excuse?"
Eddie gives us the look, like he's an idiot, like we're all idiots and
capable of overlooking it one more time.
"Madonna whore out of Carolina?" I ask him. "Stuck at fourteen? Sad
Sado Guy? Oh my yes, there it is, we have a winner." I turn to Peep. "Right
there."
"Bingo."
"If you're about to tell us riding crops," I say, "well don't."
"Do not, sir," says Peep. "Quartermaster reports we're full-up on riding
45 crops.
"What's with you, kid?" Eddie asks.
"Kid?" Peep says, "kid???"
I say, "You mean Peep?"
Eddie says, "Peep? What kind of weirdness names a kid Peep?"
"Perhaps you've forgotten where you are?"
"The main rule for getting lost sir?" says Peep. "Stay calm. Take it easy.
Relax under a tree. Then and only then? Reason your way out."
"Listen, Pepper or whatever you think your name is..."
"Gentleman scholar Monsieur Eddie, sir," I say, "call him Bo, call him
Buster, call him Pookey, ok? He was named after Mother's second Porno
Suicide, so it's his fault he's not laughing? Would you? Perfect Person?"
"Yes, Mr. Perfect Person," says Peep, "would you? Would you keep your
chin up under trying circumstances, even when your namesake forgot to
THINK! Forgot to TAKE FIRST THINGS FIRST? And what happened?
He hung himself. Indoors. That's what."
"That's funny?"
"Not very, sir."
Eddie squints at me, like I don't know from life. "Where's your Mother?"
He reaches for the phone, I slap his hand, he looks up startled.
"All communication facilities reserved for matters of life and death."
"Perhaps now would be an appropriate time for three blasts of a whistle,
three shouts, or if you're feeling particularly overwrought, three gunshots,
that much you could muster without fear of retaliation."
"That does sound reasonable," I say.
"Let me put it this way if I may, sir," says Peep. "There may come a
time in your life when you come face to face with an accident. That
shouldn't happen. Not to you. But sometimes? Splint him where he lies sir,
in our limited experience."
"Very limited."
"Perhaps, sir, if you would allow me to lower you," says Peep, "with the
use of ropes, from a height sufficient to demonstrate proper rescue techniques?"
"Once is all it would require sir," I say. "It would mean so much to us."
"We would be ever so grateful," Peep says.
"Get your big-ass sister to do it."
"Now sir, good manners make it so much easier, wouldn't you say, for
people to get along?"
"Riding," he turns to me. "Or not?"
I wink.
"The litde freak ain't coming."
"Peep?" I look around, but he appears to be missing.
46 Looking in the rearview mirror, I see it first, that flaming zipper. I wonder
what kind of hell, what kind of torture, what kind of endless stare—one
egregious reckoning, one triumphant focus—at that thing, for this pivotal
moment, if I could give it my undivided attention, would it change anyone's life in a significant way? Would it change the world? Could gravity
reverse its pull, could the world stop spinning on its axis, could pi then
equal this guy's buttocks? I brush my hair back from my eyes, wondering,
what possible vibrant harm could he do me that will make him feel more
alive?
"I'm somewhat unclear about this car fiasco," I slam the door on his
cherry red Mustang with the white leather interior and the bowling ball
gear shift and the pink dice strung off the rearview. "Possession being nine
tenths of the law, and all."
"Yeah," he leans back and I feel his fingertips press into my neck. He
starts the engine. Guns it. Puts the car in gear and it inches down the
driveway until our oak tree lays her shadow on his hood.
"Mother told me..."
"Your Mother, man," he says.
Suddenly Eddie's arm, the one behind my head, disappears, his entire
body ripped to the right. His foot inadvertendy jams the gas pedal, slam,
tree crashing destruction. Eddie's head whacks the steering wheel, and
when it snaps back? There's that sound again. In the rearview, I catch Peep
crawling out from under the blanket he's hiding under, "It isn't easy to be
a real man, sir." He pulls his cell phone out of his vest pocket and speed-
dials 9-1-1. "But that doesn't stop a real man from trying."
Most people are freezers or runners. Peep's a runner, I'm the opposite.
That's why I always tell him, Peep, take cover in the closest, safest place.
Drop, form a ball, cover your head, close your eyes. Wait until the detritus
stops falling. You want to crush all your fingers? Then the world bashes
what's left of your brains? Grow up. That's the least you can do, I tell him
as we crawl out of the car and back into the house.
Mother greets us, "How could you?"
"S'nothing," I say.
"S'not," says Peep.
"Your friend, Eddie, he is one menace to society. Air vac that guy to
hell," I say.
"Don't you two ever rest?" asks Mother.
"When the Big One always arrives in the dead of night?"
"What these children need," Castrating says, "is a father figure. Not
(shouts the not) another stupid accident."
"Disaster brings out the worst in my children," Mother rises from the
sofa with the phone in her hand.
47 "Don't you worry about us," I say. "We're fine."
Peep shakes glass shards from his hair. "A scout does his duty for man
and his country."
"I'm not afraid of you Scout," he says, "of your needs. When all this is
over," he motions towards the lawn with his index finger, "this family's
going fishing." Whack! He slams the arm of the red suede chair. "In addition to other recreational activities."
"Peep learns how to fish, I kill myself," I say.
"We don't fish and that's final," says Peep. "Sorry sir. No fishy." His
wire rim glasses slide off his nose and onto the floor. Then he leans over
the sofa and passes out.
Tonight is February 28th, the night of the Hawk's sleepover, and Peep and
I are waiting for Law and Order, Special Victim's Unit, to come on. We're
executing Jenny Craig's Chicken a la King with Rice and pillowing the
sofa.
Mother hangs on the doorjam. "Might be needing this, Scout." She
throws a tightiy wound khaki green sleeping bag onto the zebra rug.
"No, thank you," says Peep looking down. "I've decided against it," he
swings shut an imaginary door and starts to walk up the imaginary stairs.
"Oh no you don't," Mother says. "No kid of mine..."
"They kicked me out."
"No they did not."
"Did," I say, "because he told them how Dad was stuck in his second-
storey bedroom when you torched our house in Santa Barbara and he
climbed up a sheet fence and broke the windows with his hammer and
dragged him to the window until the fire truck arrived and now Dad has
burns over eighty percent of his body. So how could he possibly come get
us, ever, until he heals?"
"You mean to tell me," Mother turns on me, "after Peep climbs up and
down that stupid sheet rope all night long, they don't believe he saved his
own father?"
"The boy needs some direction, Mother."
"Peep, go sit on the lawn," says Mother.
"I want my Father," he says, his transparent fingers wrapped around a
cell phone.
"You," says Mother, "bust out of here."
"But I..."
"Blast," she says.
"But I..."
"Scoot," she says, making shooing signals at Peep with her hand. "VAMOOSE." She reaches over and snatches the cigarette right out of my
mouth. "For the record, your father?" she blows into the Absolut bottie,
48 making a low throaty drone. "Not afraid of a litde pussy fire." She walks
over to the junk drawer and pushes stuff around, then she pulls the drawer
out and flips it over, pennies and matches and pictures and a transparent
ruler and a cracked thermometer rain on the ground. She hands me a ball-
peen hammer with a broken handle. "Stick this in his back pocket. When
he heads up the rope?" she says. "Tell the litde son of a bitch to hit with
everything he's got."
She unscrews her pill bottie, tilting it to her lips. "Morons," she points
her tongue in the opening and draws them out one by one, like an anteater.
"Idiots," she waves her fingers indicating the masses of stupid people
everywhere and drops to her hands and knees, crawling over to the sage
velvet drapes. She slides a Bic from her jeans, flicks it and holds it under
the drapes. "Hate this fucking house." She crawls over to the steps. "For
the record," she says over her shoulder as she pulls herself up the carpeted
stairs, "me? A triumph over sperm." Before the first smoke billows and I
slide out the door, she tells me to call Mussolini and his horde of brats.
"Yes, ma'am," I say.
Peep's got his head on his knees when I come out, his arms lifeless by
his side, when all of the sudden he looks up and sees the curtain in the
living room flaming. He yells at the top of his lungs, "Get the people out!
Get the people out."
We look up and see Mother at her window, both hands alongside her
face, serving the rest of a lifetime sentence, her cheek resting on the glass.
The sheet rope flaps in the breeze from the window like a full sail on a late
afternoon in April.
I get on my phone. "Mr. Hatchett? Look out your window, sir."
"Who is this?"
"Perhaps, sir, if you look out your window..."
And I hang up the phone and speed-dial the fire department. "I would
like to..."
By the time I hang up, I see Peep, hand over hand, pulling himself up
the sheet rope to Mother's window. With his hammer, he takes a mighty
swing. The Scouts flooding out of 346 Cascade are jumping up and down
on Thadeus' lawn and cheering. Above the din, ever so faindy, in the
distant corner of my ear, I hear the tinny tune of a cell phone.
49 Billie Livingston
Shiny as Film
She rides shotgun in some early seventies convertible, candy apple
red and the top's down. Playing her boyfriend is a twenty-something
guy with a great white Dentyne smile. He shifts gears and regards
her with a whole and perfect love. She glances at the map and grins back;
her smile is Pepsodent. They are so beautiful and clear-eyed and strong;
together they could win best of breed.
Eventually they spot it, the cabin in the mist of a wheat field, not another building in sight, not a person, not a thing, nothing but this cabin
and endless waving grass. The cabin sits on stilts as though it were near
water and built for flooding. Seeing her uncle outside the door, plump in a
suit, smoking a cigar, a fat black moustache behind the smoke, she and the
boyfriend climb out of the car and run up the stairs. The uncle smiles and
holds his arms open, gestures them inside to a small, single room. Her
heart sinks. There is nothing inside but a bed and a dresser. On the dresser
is a pile of flawless white eggs and a heat lamp. They have been duped.
It is clear now that she and the boyfriend have been lured by this uncle
of hers to procreate and leave the egg behind, where it will be hatched, the
baby sold through the black market. The door closes.
Knowing they will be killed or held indefinitely, they do what needs to
be done and add their egg to those warming on the dresser.
They break past the uncle before he can change his mind, rush back to
the red convertible and speed off. Until her furious boyfriend stops the car
only minutes from the cabin.
She panics, "Drive!"
"I'm not leaving it."
"Just forget it! They can't be alive with just a heat lamp. They're dead.
Drive!"
"I've not leaving without it."
"Then you're on your own," she says and gets out.
The boyfriend turns the car around and leaves her in the dust.
She stands alone, scared that he'll be killed, that they'll come after her
or she'll die there alone in the long yellow grass. But he returns in seconds
with an egg-filled sheet wrapped into a sling. She leaps back into their car.
Two other vehicles give chase.
The boyfriend is fierce now, driving for their lives. She holds the sheet
50 of eggs in her lap until the prairie grass ends and they are suddenly in
Vancouver, rolling right onto the beach. The car stops and she jumps out,
eggs in hand, rushing down the hot sand. The sun is falling, the horizon in
front of her is turning pink and orange as her feet hit the ocean. She takes
a stranglehold on the sheet, swings with both hands like a batter, sending
the eggs into the setting sun until they splash, bobbing light on the water.
Peach rays shine through the eggs, illuminating the babies inside, their
silhouettes standing, hands held up to the warmth and bright. "They're
alive. They'll die now and it's my fault."
Fern jolts from sleep, tears dripping, lays her head back down and stares
at the ceiling.
***
She is giving out Lindt balls in a department store—Eaton's this time—
handing each shopper a Swiss-made ball of sugar, cocoa and hydrogenated
fat, wrapped in one layer of red foil and another of clear crunchy plastic,
twisted at either end, giving them the look of legless flying bugs in gaudy
formal wear. This is typical of the sort of job Fern's been doing lately. She
has an agent who rents her out at sixteen bucks an hour—three for the
agent, thirteen for Fern—for handing out food and drink samples in supermarkets, liquor stores, wherever they want a shiny-faced girl with a quick
smile and a mini-skirt.
Prior to this job—like say, when she was a receptionist at the dental
office—Fern could not have imagined anything so staggeringly dull as six
hours spent lurking in department store aisles, lips opening and closing
like a drying guppy, same words falling out over and over, Would you like
to try a Lindt Swiss Milk Chocolate Truffle? Not that one really need ask
when holding a wicker basket full of eyeball-sized gobs of chocolate. All
day long, open hands shove under her nose and fast food lips demand
more—for their children, husbands and mothers, visible and not. During
the lunch rush today, they lined up past Candy into Gourmet Foods.
But now it's 2:30. Fern breathes and stretches to keep from trying out
the Kick Boxercize she's learned from infomercials and booting down six-
foot displays of Mon Cheri and Ferrero Rocher. It is at this time of day, she
prays for one of those lonely old mall-women to come and talk preserves
with her, talk about their sons, their hip replacements. The air prickles her
nose as though something might just haul off and happen any minute now.
She breathes slow and deep, tries to think serene thoughts as she turns
around into a breathless shopper's face. Fern chuckles pleasandy and steps
back. The woman oops and ohs and touches Fern's arm, setting her purse at
her feet, gasping, her heavy bosom heaving, jowls shaking. "Ohjeez," she
says. Her hand flits on and off Fern's arm then lands again. "You got any
idea what's goin' on in the mall, hon'? There's a bleedin' jewellery heist
51 goin' on upstairs!"
Fern smiles and chuckles again, waits for the highway robbery punchline.
"No," she says and laughs.
"Oh yes! I'm tellin' you, right upstairs, cops're there and ever'thin'. Two
guys are robbin' 'em and they got those, uh, whaddycallits on, the black
toques that go right over your face—and they got a hostage! A girl your
age, they got her and they're usin' her like a human shield."
She says human shield like something rich and exquisite, the way she
might say movie star or diamond tiara. Or perhaps that's just the way Fern
hears it.
"No-o-o.... Upstairs? Now?" The woman nods, loose fleshing quivering
from her cheeks to her arms. "They have a hostage?"
More nods as she lets go of Fern's arm and takes a chocolate from Fern's
basket. "Oh, oh Lord, it's really somethin'," she says, still catching her
breath, pulling the wrapper's ends, letting it spin itself open, then popping
the brown ball in her mouth and sighing as though it were a sedative. She
pats Fern's hand and announces over her shoulder to no one in particular
that she'd best get on home to catch Doctor Phil and Oprah.
Fern looks around to see who else is on the floor, scanning for the
supervisor from the food distributor's office who just might have picked
today to come in and pore over the demeanours of each food demonstrator, make sure their smiles are in order, and that each of them insists the
customer eat the candy there on the spot thereby upping the chances that
they might buy buy buy. Demonstrators are on an hourly though, no commission, so none but the real keeners, the new ones, give a rat's rump who
sells what.
The supervisor is nowhere in sight. She drops off her basket behind the
candy counter, mumbling to the clerk—whom the store dresses in a white
doctor's coat, as though he really is doling out sedatives—that she's going
to the bathroom.
The escalators and stairs to the second floor of the mall are all blocked
off and Fern gazes up longingly as she listens to pissed-off teenagers demand to know why they can't go upstairs. The officers don't seem to be
parting with any information and Fern swallows the lump of desire in her
throat, ears cocked to catch a snippet of jewel-heist-type conversation. She
imagines the woman in the thief's arm, his free hand holding the gun out
in front of them. Fern can feel his arm there across her own chest, can feel
herself being pulled backwards along the glossy mall floor. He'd bring her
to the getaway car and they would tear out of town. Him, her, and the
driver, diamonds falling over the seats, biting into her thighs with their
sweet toothy ridges. She looks at her watch. One more hour of candy-
dogging.
52 What's the point of being an exhibitionist if it's all for someone else's
viewing pleasure? The problem with voyeurs is they think it's all about
them and their greedy litde eyes. They never stop to think about the
exhibitionist. Ask any old exhibitionist you like, and they'll tell you: exhibitionism is about the exhibitor for the exhibitor. Fern sits on her couch
watching the news and carving out this new theory of demonstration and
spectacle in her head as though it were a letter to the editor.
A performance artist is the second lead story on the six o'clock news
tonight, the pink underside of his cape snapping in the wind as he calls out
over the small crowd in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. "In exactly
one week, that's seven days, I, Martin Flash, will perform living art, here,
at the bottom of these very steps which, as you may recall, were once the
steps of the Vancouver Court House, the steps to so-called justice, the steps
on which we are left to scramble in despair like so many rats." With a
flourish of his long bony hands, he presents a fat black rodent. The rat is
encased in a clear container, the size and shape of five-pin bowling ball.
Martin Flash goes on to say that on July the tenth at exactly four p.m., he
will drive a steam roller over this rat who will see but neither hear nor feel
a thing until he is crushed by steel and glass. Fern titters at the screen but
feels queasy and bites into another Stoned Wheat Thin with cheddar. The
crowd is beginning to rumble and heckle unintelligible things at Flash as
he picks up his ball of rat, bows to the cameras, and strides off.
The taping took place two hours earlier and now the station has thrown
together some reaction sound bites. Owen Almond from the Life Is All
Right movement announces that Martin Flash is a sick individual and that,
as long as he, Owen Almond, is chairman of LIAR, not a single hair on
that rat's head will be harmed. He goes on to say that the mandate of LIAR
is to expose abortionists and feminists and these sorts of so-called artists
for the l.i.a.r.s that they are. Looking straight into camera, he says, "Freedom to kill is a lie."
Fern reaches beside her for another cracker to go with the last slice of
cheese, patting her fingers over the empty plate but keeping her eyes to
the television screen as a girl with pink dreadlocks and a pierced eyebrow
shrugs into the reporter's microphone and says, "He's just some loser trying to get attention."
"Huh!" Fern barks at the pink-haired girl. "He'll be famous in an hour
cuz you dinks won't be able to shut your big yaps about him."
***
She is sitting on a rock. She has given up—the sand is silty and can't be
walked on. She's tried and her feet sink. She slipped in up to her knees the
last time, like quick sand, the type that swallows you up to your neck and
then holds you there, lets you hover until some passerby reaches out with
53 a stick and drags you from the primordial ooze. At least that's how it used
to work on Gilligan's Island but, perhaps in real life, there would be no
hovering.
Sand and rocks and ocean. She is stranded there and the only living
things she sees are green pokes of grass sticking up through the wet sand.
Until he appears. Just like that, he comes toward her, but he's not wearing
his cape. He's comfortable, a regular guy, in J. Crew cotton khakis and a
T-shirt and he's walking just fine. Her eyes shimmy over his nose; it's
large and hooked—a real beak—and she wants to touch the bump and
slope of it with the tip of her tongue. He walks up to her with an easy
stride, without a care; he walks like that on quicksand. Like Jesus. He asks
her if she would like a piggyback and she says yes, yes please, climbing
onto his back. Just as she's settling her thighs down into his hips, he bends
at the waist, flips forward, and begins walking on his hands as though it
were nothing, just natural, and each step he takes, each time a hand dips
into the silt, it becomes a bird foot, clawed with short webbing, and each
time one pulls out—long thin fingers again, palms; human. She hugs to his
chest, says, "Where did you learn to do that?"
"I saw it in a movie," he tells her. And she is in love.
Fern is nervous in the supermarket all the next day. She's giving out mini
paper cups of non-alcoholic cider and she's cold and frustrated. Too much
bloody air conditioning, she thinks. Who the heck needs to be this cold?
But that thought is soon shoved off in a heap because mostly all she can
think about is Martin Flash and how he appeared to her as a birdman in
her dream last night. She's never dreamed about a person having bird-like
qualities prior to this. Never. Only herself with the whole egg-laying business.
Before this, Fern just assumed she was a bit nuts with these egg dreams.
She remembers the very first one, when she was a teenager. During waking
hours she'd always had a type of nervous condition that manifested itself
in her feeling as though she was needed to perform some task, something
big and important and she was bloody-well late. It niggled at her, con-
stantly there in the back of her mind while walking home from school,
having a bath, doing sit-ups in the middle of P.E. class—she had to get
going, now. Hurry the hell up was the general gist of the feeling. It drove
her to distraction and confusion and then—wham!—a dream: birds. Dream
birds were creating something monumental and they sent for Fern. Because they desperately needed her help. The creation required her to make
ajourney and it would be then that she would learn her purpose, she would
know what she was meant to do. She walked along, cutting through the
backyards of strangers, giddy with anticipation.
54 Then—Grab. Shake. "What are you doing? Fern? What's wrong?"
Oh for godsake, lemme go, she'd wanted to say but there she was in the
kitchen all of a sudden, her mother jostling her shoulders and demanding
answers to foolish questions when anyone could see that Fern was almost
there, it was just around the corner.
She tried to push past her mother, brush her off with, "The thing, I'm—
I gotta... Thing!"
Fern's mother grabbed hold with both hands then, voice rising shrilly,
"What's wrong with you? Are you on something? Fern look at me! Are
you taking marijuana?"
She never forgave her mother. How could she? But now this Martin
Flash guy with his rat. Him turning into a bird the way he did in her
dream, it was a sign.
She filled the cups with raspberry and apple lime cider, looked down at
her red mini-skirt and rubbed the litde rounded pot protruding; something was gelling in her mind but she couldn't quite make it out yet. If she
could just talk to Flash, find the missing link, it could all make sense. He
was the key.
"Are these on sale?"
Fern squinted up. "Huh?"
***
"....has sparked a furor in Vancouver. Performance artist, Martin Flash, or
The Flash as he's known in some creative circles, announced three days
ago that in one week's time, he will act out what he calls the 'ultimate
human experience' when he drives a steam roller over a rat. Here to comment are animal rights activist Ryan Turner, as well as...."
Fern eats her cheese and crackers, head bobbing from the six o'clock
news down to The Province where a crumb-covered picture of Martin Flash
sits on page two. She swats the cracker bits onto the floor and leans to read
page four of The Vancouver Sun.
Flash says that art is the ultimate question—it is the provocateur—it is
life itself. Protesting art is tantamount to embracing a totalitarian state. It
is death. The Province quotes him as saying, "These are the same people
who get exterminators in their homes to kill pigeons, mice, rats, roaches,
whatever they can snuff out. Furthermore, these rats, at the pet shop—the
majority are purchased to feed snakes." In both papers his image is caught
on film in a black and white snarl of agitation.
Fern rubs her midriff, trying to calm the butterflies, and looks back at
the news: "Martin Flash was unavailable for comment." Her face droops
just a little but she looks down at her newspapers and touches Martin's
face, dusting her fingertips with black ink.
55 The two birds halfheartedly chirp in her ears, breathless, but she understands them. Exhausted, their breasts heave. They have been building all
day, laying eggs, one each. A third would have been there too, but she was
taken hostage by a totalitarian regime and may well have been exterminated by now.
Fern cries for them, knows they are far too tired, there is barely anything left of them. They beg her to help, lay the third egg. She understands
She is at Costco Wholesale today giving out samples of melba toast with a
new kind of peanut butter and she's thinking to herself how she's becoming like that girl in the Margaret Atwood book, The Edible Woman, the one
who found herself so repulsed, she could eat nothing but bread and peanut
butter. Fern thinks she's just like that except with her it's crackers and
cheese.
She can't stand food or people or anything. She can't even remember
the last time she returned a friend's calls. She wonders if this means she
doesn't have any friends anymore. The idea isn't terribly troubling and,
just as her eyebrows raise in curiosity at this indifference to friendlessness,
Molly MacRae walks right up to Fern's peanut butter stand and pops a
piece of melba in her mouth.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in! Long time no see, stranger," she
says to Fern, sputtering a few crumbs.
Fern wipes away the one crumb that's landed on the back of her hand.
"Yeah," she says for lack of witty repartee.
Molly MacRae's baby is parked in a stroller beside her and Molly ab-
sentiy jiggles one handle, jostiing her baby who drools a small smile at
anyone who will look. "Where the hell have you been, Ferny? Haven't
heard a peep out of you since Christ was kid."
Molly's from Cape Breton and Christ and Hell figure a lot in her conversation. Fern finds this particularly irksome right now for reasons she
can't quite place. Perhaps it's the use of Jesus' last name like that, as though
he were prime minister. Or a serial killer. Fern looks at Molly and tries to
smile but thinks that, for a bunch of Catholics, those Cape Bretoners wouldn't
know something sacred if it bit them in the ass.
"So?"Mo\\y stares wide-eyed at Fern. "What's up?"
"I'm," Fern looks away two or three moments as though she might be
going into a trance then looks back at Molly and finishes with, "going to
have a baby."
Molly gasps, "Jesus Mary and Joseph, Fern! I didn't even know you
were seeing anybody. Wow! That's great! Isn't it?"
Fern smiles sheepishly then beams, "Yeah, it's pretty great. It's what I'm
56 meant to do. This baby is—this baby will complete the world."
Molly lets go of the stroller and comes round to hug Fern. "Oh God,
that's terrific! That you're happy and all, and, and who's the proud pappy?"
she asks, then whispers, "You didn't run off and get married already did
you?" Fern shakes her head. "But you're gonna, right? Yeah?"
"We haven't decided yet." Fern's smile becomes what could very well
be construed as smug.
Molly holds her back at arm's length. "Chrissake, Fern, you're bringin'
a baby into the world! Get yourself married," she hisses.
"Why? Mary and Joseph weren't married."'
"What? Oh jeez, Fern, of course they were married! Jesus had brothers
and sisters for godsake."
"Nope. It doesn't say that anywhere. You're just assuming. Jesus wasn't
married either."
Molly lets her go, puts one hand on her hip, the other over her mouth
and shakes her head as though wherever they just let this girl out of, there
is no choice now but to take her right back. After several seconds of that
she says, "Fernjesus never married because He's God. You know? He was
a virgin. The man never so much as looked at a woman."
Fern giggles. "Oh sure, him and Mary Magdalene were just platonic."
***
The heat is on now. And not just for Martin Flash the whole town is suffocating in record temperatures. But it must be especially bad for Martin,
Fern thinks, being on the lam with his rat and all. He probably doesn't
have air conditioning where he is, and her eyes well at the thought as she
rubs her hand in circles over her belly, round and full now with crackers
and cheddar and jasmine tea. At least there's only one more day to go.
Tomorrow Martin Flash will show the masses a thing or two about a thing
or two and Fern will be there. She's already turned down two jobs for
tomorrow and one of them would've paid double her usual salary. Dressing up like a bumblebee and giving out samples of tuna salad downtown
would've paid twenty-five bucks an hour. But no matter. Tomorrow she
will be dressed in a manner befitting a mother-to-be and she will find
Martin and take his hand and instantiy he will know, live on camera, on
radio, that she is the one.
Fern is making her way downtown. She is frustrated with herself because
she'd meant to be there by now. She wanted to be standing up front right
beside the steamroller where she could smile into Martin Flash's eyes as he
turned the ignition and got ready to rumble. But here she is trying to make
her way over the Burrard Street Bridge and traffic is at a standstill. A
sunny Friday afternoon in this city and the whole place goes mad. People
57 don't know what else to do but run to their hopeful little Miata's that have
been sitting with their miserable tops up for a month of rainy Fridays,
jump in and peel off to somewhere blue and glinting, anywhere just to be
seen in the sun by the water looking breezy and blessed.
Fern smoothes her new dress and glances at herself in the rearview
mirror, noticing her eyes are a little baggy. She could hardly sleep last
night and as soon as the stores opened, she spent the whole day changing
in and out of dresses. She wanted something gauzy and flowing and visited
ten or twelve different shops in Kitsilano trying find it. She would know it
when she saw it, just the way she knew Martin when she saw him and the
way he would know her. And she'd found it, all right. This was the dress.
She felt radiant just having it against her body. She looked down, patting
her belly. "We'll get there. We'll get there because we'll get there, that's
all."
Robson Street is so packed with traffic, Fern is on the verge of abandoning
her car smack in the middle of the road and walking the last couple blocks.
She searches for an all-news radio station. Towards the end of the dial, a
female reporter quacks about an angry mob gathering in front of the art
gallery. Martin Flash has yet to be seen.
Fern's heart jumps though her new dress. She looks at her watch and
screams out the window, "It's five to four, you bastards. Move your lousy
butts!"
Gunning it, she darts ahead, ignoring the honks and curses of surrounding traffic. If she has to, she will pull up onto the sidewalk and park, tow
trucks be damned.
Coming up on Georgia Street, she can hear the crowd outside her window. She turns up the radio. The reporter's voice bites through the airwaves,
"....and pockets of school children are chanting in unison, Free Shnooky,
Free Shnooky. As you may know, the black rat that Martin Flash will crush
today has been dubbed Shnooky by children across the city. Climbing onto
the steamroller parked here in front of the gallery, the children vow they
will put a stop to the rodent's murder—here he is! Martin Flash is coming
down the steps of the gallery in a black and pink cape. The crowd can
barely be contained. Flash, himself, is smiling but does not appear to have
the glass ball encasing Shnooky the Rat on his person and—Oh no—
Martin Flash has been hit! Someone from the crowd has struck Flash and
he is on the ground—Police are moving in...."
Fern churns round the corner now, laying on the horn, screaming at the
top of her lungs. Twenty or thirty metres ahead, men and women heave
together as one contorted face spewing rocks and obscenities. The caped
figure of Flash has wrenched himself free, to tear across the grass, the
58 sidewalk, and through parked cars. Hypnotised by the sight of his cape
snapping toward her, Fern's foot continues to shove the gas until something large and flapping flies out from the crowd. Martin Flash is slapped
across her windshield like a scrap of paper before he flutters down and off
the hood of her skidding car.
The crowd is seized by the air around them. Fern is paralyzed, her foot
jammed onto the brake as police demand public order over bullhorns in
the distance. Stock still, protesters stand in the street, mouths open, eyes
on Flash—unsure what to do with hands or weapons before they raise their
stare to Fern's windshield.
She swallows at them, her pupils litde black monsters in her head.
Pushing the gear into park, she steps out and around to the front.
Eyes glare from all sides as she hunches to the pavement beside Martin
Flash. A rat hangs, dead, from a pink lined pocket inside his cape and
someone mutters, "Stupid bitch. Should watch where you're going." Arms
and sticks are limp at their sides now.
Fern puts her cheek to his, says, "Forgive them, Lord, they know not
what they do," and carefully lays her body down beside his.
"Shh." Just enough for her see light wink against his pupil, Flash slits
one eye open and whispers, "Lie still," as flashbulbs blink and camera men
cut through, circle around, and crouch for a clear shot.
59 Margaret Christakos
School
Foreword
In her jewels an enigma reflects most often "I want
to go home" Admiration is not demented even after centuries
After all the copies drawings engravings this body of work
toward a labour of the beautiful gives me a taste
for the epoch that we know so well.
60 The First School
"Treasure of marvels" a retreat of her image The art
of living by luxury and the ideals of impossible pleasure
We have royal hands Fluctuating and indecisive art offers to
our eyes all its most exterior fruits In the age
of the grand rhetoricians lyrical songs after the sinister business
renounce to borrowed charms by an overly large familiarity with
conscience and the classes at the heart of this fever
And maybe artists speak of almost nothing
jealous of the
worse suppositions and refinements of the spirit Is it jealousy
toward "strangers"? Between the impression of a brusque rupture and
the voyage of the ideal does language in reality have
the taste deliberately turned toward a search singularly modern? We
researched the rarity of the subject aroundabout Proportions of an
unconscionable coquetry Art of a fashion Even more and smiling
Her drawings showed us the unknown for the first time
The seductive originality of compositions Of exchanges which imply an
intimate collaboration Some figures emerge little by litde from anonymity
It is impossible here even to refer to them
The
current master of taste does not disappear to the death
of her most famous symbols She is known by the
bag of the city which gives her privileges and liberty
Independent whole violent erudite cerebral refined at the middle of
61 a pure illusionism To whom comes the idea of this
union? Her strange rotations mentioned among the artists read themselves
then respond to scenes of apparent estrangement in which the
frame of the senses is reinforced Which salamander runs each
of these grand tableaux under the direction of her artist-boss
of a smiling nostalgia and holes the least clear We
see the dryness to which is joined lucidity Each view
wears this injury-mask of the century to its own tinted
interrogation But the spatial problem has left her senses almost
surrealist Her figures isolated from the masquerade uncomforted haggard
surely the most interesting of this ensemble We know almost
nothing
of these same symbols held in the manner of
an exploited section for some terms of framing such that
the views are often empty and inexpressive We have changed
the style of purism which fucks with the academy Her
works are not well known yet are in place which
is an intimate fusion A good example of short eclipses
of the particulars which are the origin of our style
(hell!) She shows how to imagine the seduction which expresses
all susceptible poetry "If I had found others who could
have made work as good as hers I would not
have bothered her but there was no one
so capable No one"
Nature is for her the sensuality of the subjects and
her so-spontaneous touch We know of her a sensitive writing
62 without a doubt to complete an unfinished set-up of a
chromatic fantasy Naturally All of it These familiar landscapes are
brought to life in litde scenes This lost composition is
not isolated A work this personal has been greatly
admired.
63 A Section
We know
that she has illustrated numerous works
with a
vehemence both
flexible and light This lucidity will
not permit
her role
as decoder of the symbols of
the blue
fountain But
the echo pierces any evident single-mindedness
Elegant A
certain left-handed
zeal is used to express horror
This is
the work
of a personality of a sensitivity
with a
difference Visibly
perhaps placed on the page captured
in a
drawing The
litany of personae colours catches you
by surprise
Near these
almost indiscussable canvases rests the critique
of style
of which
we know still
almost nothing.
64 The Second School
In this second school of
which we know almost nothing
little seems to have the
temperament of a boss exaggerating
musculature so sensitive with a
paradoxical virtuosity between the windows
or sacred The ambitious decoration
through the first school must
not forget feelings gone excessive
Taste changes Like fashion having
carried the best of a
style Of a culture....
65 Jeramy Dodds
My Translation of Ho Chi
Minh's August 18th 1966
Telephone Call
Tell me the windows aren't really sweating.
You should come back when I've something better to wear.
I'm sorry but no one could tell me the time and I was worried I'd be late.
The birds are pulling out the rain.
After it's all down, it makes the outside like a basement.
I can see the antennas are bored.
I'm tall, but not as tall as my shadow would allow.
There are no church bells, but gates
often rattie on their latches.
My favourite line in a newspaper story:
He brought up the gun and let it go.
My favourite sign:
Those likely to die on the premises are strongly discouraged.
My favourite thing about America
is the inhale sound of cars on the streets after rain.
The last time I heard her name it was breaking through my sleep.
In the sky are hills of weather.
The croissant really isn't that great.
I hear shouts and stay away from the curfewed parts of town.
I swear the garbage truck arrives earlier each week.
66 Before you came, I saw clouds waterfalling over the mountains.
When I'm out for dinner I never want to meet the cook, I just don't want
to know.
I hid the word Peace in the shelter of my notebook.
The front step of my aunt's house dips at its centre.
When you came, the wind was drawn back.
I have seen him wandering through camp talking to his feet as if they
were a dog.
I worry about people washing their cars late at night.
I'm more worried about the way you drive
than the number of drinks you've had.
The bat-winged junks are lovingly filled with mortars.
Things I will never hold:
The lightning on the sun, the diamonds of the sea...
[on the tape he leaves the telephone and you can hear the sound of latches
tumbling, sheets flapping on a line, a match striking. He coughs in the distance
before returning to add:]
If by the time you get here, the telephone
is dangling from its carriage,
and emptying into the room,
it is because I have gone outside to repair the night
through a colander of stars.
Note: "My translation of Ho Chi Minh's August 18th 1966 telephone call" has
been translated from so-called CIA cassette tapes I bought over the Internet.
None of the lines are accurate translations (as far as I know). However, they are
"true as can be" to cadences in the speech.
67 MattRader
Falling
Clipped my skull on the lip of the bridge
as I plunged feet-first into the anxious river.
My teeth jawed together, all castanet
or clam-shell, crunched my tongue to pulp.
I couldn't talk, or scream, or lift a finger.
Couldn't remember why I was there or where
amongst all the falling my body had gone.
Rivulets of red ribboned my head like an insect-
painter's quick study of the wingless human—
The Faller—a gesture-drawing in blood and air.
Here's how I picture it: limbs all stutter and wheel
in the rioting wind, all seizure of sign-language
and panic-dance, eyes scrolled back, calculating
velocity by distance, the time left to swallow
or spit before impact. Never mind the fear
or embarrassment, I pissed my pants just for
the warmth in my crotch, that one last sloppy kiss.
Falling and falling is lonely business.
68 Firesetter
Pyro plain and simple: I build fires. Behind the Safeway
a man touched me in a way I will not speak of. I burned him
alive with lighter fluid and a match I struck across my shoe.
It is a curse and a gift, handed down, bequeathed, inherited,
like clairvoyance, alcoholism, the impulse to violence. A medium
between the elements. I once met a man who felt water
through a stick, wanted to feel me too. I set him ablaze
with a bottle of rum and the cigarette that smoked in his mouth.
Watch as the spider curls like paper, the snake shrivels
through the alphabet. There is language in the click of a lighter,
epiphany in a blister of skin. I was not always like this
you must remember: dangerous, kindled, combustible. It was
the man in the cloakroom, the oil on the ocean, the magnifying
glass and bone-dry grasses, electricity, paint-thinner, bottled
oxygen. Life is a kind of burning, a moving towards ashes,
so lift your hands and be gone. Behind the school the oak trees
eat themselves from root to leaf until they vanish like ghosts
in the heat and thickening smoke. Do not overestimate
my control: fire is a fist in my throat I cannot swallow or spit
out. It has a mind of its own and every breath I take is fuel
to help it grow, rampage, consume, consume, explode.
69 Don McKay
Abandoned Cable
Tangles of it by these overgrown
former bushroads, stiff constrictors
left to rust mid-writhe, the unfurled
unshriven entrails of the industrial
revolution. No point
preaching that all must rot, that everything
becomes ecology. This is the snarl
that strangled Laocoon, yarded
megatons of timber and erased
the forest that once was.
This is how the will
will manage its retirement: angry, kinked,
still waiting for its old buddy donkey-puncher to show up,
to step, pot-bellied and profane,
from the salmonberry bramble, build
a head of steam out of brag and booze
and show these soft-hearted
po-mo cappuccinos
something about work.
70 Hiking with my Shadow
Though it has to bushwack
while I take the trail, it keeps pace
perfectly, folding over boulders,
skimming the stumps and alder scrub, bulging
then flattening, sometimes as a puddle,
sometimes as a hunchback or a baby grand,
always as nothing, nothing
that loves me and that dogs my tracks
better than a dog.
Patient companion, little
ink lake, when I pause
you heel and wait like a suitcase
while I squander my attention on a wren.
Just barely do I sense that faint
tug on my foot like someone
fumbling for a valve.
As though you know that one day
I'll be yours, and flow
into that deflated body bag to be
its third dimension.
And our real life will begin.
71 Jon Paul Fiorentino
Dispatches From Graham Mall
All around Graham Mall the abandoned walkers glimmer, the mad
trams tremble.
All day where shoppers won't tread the windows beckon soot, the
doorways settle in.
If I had the means, oxygen would burn through these grey expanses,
bloated babies
would beguile from these storefronts, the mayor would breakdance daily
at noon.
I have a loudspeaker and some free time. I have a mind to not stray.
Mallwalkers of the post-prairie, unite. I will make the posters and you
can buy the glue.
Come down; join my empathic strike!
But on second thought, don't leave your home; don't dream of leaving.
Just throw me a phone call and we'll meet in between the Graham Mall
and another nowhere.
72 Graham Mall, city planners say, is a major vein.
Dirty oxygen blankets funereal flats.
Everyone comes to Graham Mall
on their way to somewhere else.
A former funeral home bursts
in an insurance blaze.
The city rests in its untied hospital gown.
Transit fare is an abrasive blanket.
73 The trams practice recursion every hour, every day.
The infinite sentence is living here, belongs here.
The ironic dative shift of residency:
The author gives a mythology to Graham Mall.
The author gives Graham mall a mythology.
I can't begin to tell you how I got here.
I can't begin here.
Declaration breaks down, reassembles, dissembles, then disassembles.
The Graham Mall acts like home for shifted and non-shifted alternations.
74 The author disavows the term "bus"—it lacks sonic energy.
The trams are missing their cables.
A varicose line in a sullen city centre.
An indefinite incursion by no one in particular.
With euphonic angels surgically removing their vocal chords
With endless religion and arson enthusiasts.
It's getting too dark all over Graham Mall.
It's morning all over Graham Mall.
75 Earle Nelson's Song
I am with you tonight, Earle Nelson, as I drag my rope
through the snow from Smith to Vaughan via Graham Mall.
There's a memory lapse I'm dealing with.
I have thought of changing my name—the city's so small.
The rooms for rent are harder to find by the day.
Squalour presents itself as potential.
St. Boniface seems to be calling or taunting.
Headingly presents an alternate case.
My victims will be IT workers, lounge singers, dental assistants.
My method will be charmingly anachronic.
My tense will always be subjunctive. If only
the constables were literate.
Strangling dates itself almost a century behind.
I will wear a whipcord suit and a pocket watch.
I continue my sulk through the great unplowed
in fetishistic nightshift.
This city is an unwashed comforter.
There is an arsoned grocery store on murder mile.
I glimpse Mrs. Emily Patterson
in the ashes, splinters and wreckage of Winnipeg's Broadway.
And I am with you now, Earle Nelson, and always thinking of the potential
of one ten foot extension cord and the limitations of sainthood.
76 Chris Hutchinson
Happiness Will Come
Yesterday you claimed: happiness will come
stumbling in at last, fists full of crazy
daffodils and stalks of pampas grass,
so long as the broken wanderer returns
penniless as a newborn—
Forgetfully you promised: the sky will grow
tendrils of light visible as curlicues at the bottom of water
like a dream of hieroglyphs or a soft chandelier,
so long as an old friend arrives unannounced
and with him the surprise of newly fallen snow—
But I predict: sadness will curl up
like a comma, like a soldier hunkered down
inside the cold womb of his bunker,
so long as you remain here with your sexless conversation
and the wonderful ornaments of your body concealed.
77 Other People's Lives
Day appears through
a sieve of dust, through a maelstrom
of institutional schemes and designs,
as other people's lives kaleidoscope
like a whirlwind of butterflies, ungovernable
as a nation-state, terrifyingly
child-like—
Night appears through
tear-translucent glass, through insinuations
of blue and the spiritiess quality of ice,
as other people's lives flash and fade, blink
in and out of sight: Imagine, at your fingertips,
a keyboard of stars—
78 Steve McOrmond
Rabbit Ears
We couldn't leave them there—the neighbours'
basement having disgorged its contents on the lawn
like a cat coughing up a hairball: cookbooks,
dehumidifier, unused strips of quarter round.
Amid the debris, the Bakelite tv set and portable
antenna awaiting instructions from the mother ship.
Artefacts circa the age of Sputnik. "To the moon, Alice,
to the moon." Television's incunabula, how nostalgia
manifests itself in kitsch. A piece of masking tape
stuck to the dusty screen: "Works. $15." We haggle,
talk the old lady in the track suit down to ten.
Watching her sort the bills, osteoarthritis, liver spots,
I see a handsome woman in her early thirties
taking a break from housework, the baby
dozing in its crib, to watch a special report
coming to her live from the Dallas airfield.
She leans forward on the sofa's edge asJFK steps
down the gangway into a sea of outstretched hands.
79 Luminous Veil
In 2002, the City of Toronto erected an elaborate
suicide barrier along the Bloor Street Viaduct which
spans the Don Valley. Since the bridge opened in 1918,
over 480people have leapt to their deaths below.
Do you hope we'll slink home
and rethink our lives, find the god of
second chances? Maybe you'd prefer
we killed ourselves neatiy, quietly,
in the seclusion of our own homes. We've tried
overwork, whiskey, fried food; they take too long.
10,000 steel rods, stainless, shimmering
in the morning light will only delay
the inevitable. Any rooftop or train tracks will do.
Think of us as your distant early warning, canaries
in the mineshaft. What is your life worth
and who pays? We mean our final gesture
to be no less political than those monks
who douse themselves in gasoline,
set their orange robes aflame. With our dumb
flesh and bones, the insignificant labour
of our bodies, which belong to us alone,
we wish to send you a message. Air mail.
80 GregSeib
The Morning Of
I eat venison sausages. Dip them in the orange yolk on my plate. The
sunlight falls in a rectangle across the linoleum. Your plane falls to the
snow, a stone into the centre of a pond—and you're gone. My mom
knows how much I like them, a special treat. The seasoning is so good
and salty. Lost in the murk of earth and vegetation, stubborn waves of
snow are sent rippling outward, roll up to boulders and the bases of
trees, lock in place like a photograph. I like my eggs over easy. McCain
hash browns too. During the spring thaw, the frozen water will continue
in its outward motion, flow downward and away from the peaks. Tiny
measures of your blood, minuscule samples of your tissue locked in ice,
will thaw. "Can you please pass the ketchup." Then you will be carried
in particles slickly toward streams that turn into rivers, rivers that wash
you coldly over polished stones to the ocean, the ocean that spreads up
the Washington coast to the Strait of Georgia—draws the line on the
horizon from the shore of the town where you left. "Salt and pepper too
please, thanks." The hunters with packs on their backs move like snails
in the sediment. They plod along, snowshoe within ten metres of you
before even realizing they're amid the ruins. "Thank-you." The wind
that's blowing doesn't stop afterwards. The trees bow and bend, heave
and sway under metric tons of snow. Baby powder. My mother's bathrobe somehow always smells of baby powder. She leans over my plate—
offers another spatula of sausage. It occurs to one of the hunters that the
ridge is like a drift net, remaining trees fringing logged slopes look like
lines of rope. "No, I'd better get ready." Push my chair out. Take my
plate to the sink. Yes, you will be carried in particles slickly toward
streams that turn into rivers, rivers that wash you coldly over polished
stones to the ocean, the ocean that spreads up the Washington coast to
the Strait of Georgia—draws the line on the horizon from the shore of
the town where you left, where I will look for you. I floss my teeth. I
straighten my necktie.
81 Bridge
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82
ground. Contributors
Margaret Christakos is a poet and fiction writer living in Toronto whose
collection Excessive Love Prostheses (Coach House, 2002) won the Relit. Her
most recent publication is the chapbook Retreat Diary (Book Thug, Summer
2004).
Jeramy Dodds grew up in Orono, Ontario. His poems have appeared in
several Canadian and international journals, and have been translated into
Finnish, Icelandic, Swedish, French, Latvian, and Dutch. He is working on
his first collection of poems. He currently lives in Port Perry, Ontario.
Jon Paul Fiorentino is a poet, essayist, and editor. His poetry collections
include Resume Drowning (Broken Jaw Press), Carol Shields Award-
nominated Transcona Fragments (Cyclops Press), and Hello Serotonin (Coach
House, 2004). He is the editor of Career Suicide! Contemporary Literary
Humour {DC Books, 2003) and the forthcoming Post-Prairie. He is currently
working as an editor for Matrix magazine. He lives in Montreal.
Claudia Gahlinger is a museum curator and organic gardener in South
Harbour, Cape Breton Island. Her stories have appeared in various literary
magazines and anthologies.
John Gould is the author of two collections of very short stories, Kilter,
which was shortlisted for the 2003 Giller Prize and won the Mary Scorer
Award (for the best book by a Manitoba publisher), and The Kingdom of
Heaven. He co-created and ran the otherwords program at the B.C. Festival
of the Arts, and is now the Executive Director of the Victoria School of
Writing. He serves on the editorial board of The Malahat Review.
Chris Hutchinson lives and writes in Vancouver, B.C. His work has been
published widely in Canadian journals and is forthcoming in the anthology,
Breathing Fire II: Canada's New Poets. In 2003 he was the recipient of the
Earle Birney Prize for Poetry. His first collection of poems was released by
the Muses' Company in the spring of 2003.
Michael P. Kardos holds a Creative Writing Fellowship in the doctoral
program at the University of Missouri where he is working on a story
collection and a novel. His MFA in fiction is from Ohio State University.
Recent work has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Florida Review, River City, and
the Writer's Chronicle.
83 Billie Livingston is the author of a novel, Going Down Swinging (Random
House, 2000) which was recentiy optioned for a feature film, and a poetry
collection, The Chick at the Back of the Church (Nightwood Editions 2001).
Short work has been published in numerous magazines including The
Malahat, Event, This Magazine, Toronto Life, Flare, and PRISM (37:2). She is
currentiy at work on a new novel as well as a short story collection.
Jason Logan's work has been exhibited in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles,
and the Yukon. He has taught art in Winnipeg, Art Directed The Walrus
Magazine'm Toronto, worked as a silk-screener in California, and is certified
by atomic energy Canada to practice non-destructive testing. At present
he is working on a children's book about monsters. As of July first, he will
be living on the upper east side with his dog, Baltimore.
Don McKay has published eleven books of poetry, most recently Camber,
a selected poems. Currentiy he lives and writes on Vancouver Island.
Steve McOrmond's first book of poetry, Lean Days, was published this
spring by Wolsak and Wynn. Steve was born in Nova Scotia, grew up on
Prince Edward Island, and currently lives in Toronto.
Stephanie Moore is a Pushcart Prize Nominee, a notable in New York
Stories Notable Stories, a Marin Arts Council Fiction Grant Winner, and a
Writer's Digest Short Story Winner. Her stories have been published
extensively in the United States and Canada. She is forthcoming in
Monologues for Women 2004. She lives and teaches writing in beautiful Mill
Valley, California.
Matt Rader is the publisher of Mosquito Press and co-founder of Crash:
Vancouver's Indie Writers Fest. His poems have appeared in many Canadian
literary journals, most recentiy in Event and Pinemagazine. His first book
of poetry will be released by Nightwood Editions in the Spring of 2005.
Greg Seib holds a BA in English from the University of Victoria and, this
fall, will begin an MA in creative writing at Concordia University. He has
also attended writing workshops at the Banff Centre and the Victoria School
of Writing. Currentiy, he works as a researcher, editor and medical writer
for the B.C. Ministry of Health in Victoria.
84 2004 Earle Birney Prize for Poetry
$500 was awarded to
Esther Mazakian
for her poems
"Her Seminal Texts" & "Ravish Me in Jackets
Red Hyacinth White Your Small Hands of Rain"
which appeared in PRISM 42:1
2004 National Magazine Award Winner
PRISM congratulates Marlene Cookshaw
who received the Silver Award
in the Poetry category for her poems
"Dial" & "Pocketwatch" (PRISM 42:1)
2004 Western Magazine Award Winner
PRISM congratulates Michael V. Smith
who received the Gold Award
in the Fiction category for his story
"What We Wanted" (PRISM 41:4)
2004 Journey Prize Nominees
PRISM congratulates Michael V. Smith
whose story "What We Wanted" (PRISM 41:4)
has been nominated for the 2004 Journey Prize
and will appear in the Journey Prize Anthology 2004
PRISM congratulates William Metcalfe
whose story "Nice Big Car, Rap Music Coming Out
The Window " (PRISM 42:1) has been nominated for
the 2004 Journey Prize and will appear
in the Journey Prize Anthology 2004 .:«
■#■:;
Creative Writing M.P.A. at U.B.C.
The University of British Columbia offers
a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative
Writing. Students choose three genres to
work in from a wide range of courses, including: Poetry, Novel/Novella, Short Fiction,
Stage Play Screen & TV Play Radio Play,
Writing for Children, Non-fiction, and Translation. New genre: Song Lyrics & Libretto.
All instruction is in small workshop format
or tutorial.
Lynne Bowen
Meryn Cadell
Keith Maillard
George McWhirter
Maureen Medved
Andreas Schroeder
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Bryan Wade
For more information, please write:
Creative Writing Program
University of British Columbia
Buchanan E462 - 1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T IZl
Or cheek out our website:
www.creativewriting.ubc.ca
Faculty £004 Kogers Communication
Literary Nonfiction Contest
$500 Grand Prize
Entry Deadline: September 30, 2004
PRISM international
»    X    »
Act
$2,000 Grand Prize
5 Runner-up Prizes of $200 each
Entry Deadline: January 31, 2005
^»&^i%f&frf^r
For more information please go to our website:
prism.arts.ubc.ca vallum
contemporary poetry
contemporary      poetry
journal   featuring   poets
from     across     North
America and abroad,
eclectic    and    edgy
with    a    focus    on
established    and
emerging   poets  with
something relevant to
sav—be    it   about   the
earth, the air, the polluted
state of world affairs, poetry
as magic, concrete poetry
or various other rhythms.
O Box 48003* „j
QC, Cao»d*
SUBSCRIPTIONS:  $16.50 (CAN), $14 (US)
ORDERS FROM ABROAD IN US FUNDS
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sardonic, obscene, often
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this word) —lovely."
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42:4 BSSSmS^^^^^KSSS
I've heard that working in a bowling alley's the best job
for a poet, because it's mindless and doesn't sap your
energy. Maybe so, but I'm no poet. This is my actual
job.
Michael P. Kardos, Page 10
Fiction Contest Issue
Judge's Essay:
John Gould
Margaret Christakos
Jeramy Dodds
Jon Paul Fiorentino
Claudia Gahlinger
John Gould
Chris Hutchinson
Michael P. Kardos
Billie Livingston
Don McKay
Steve McOrmond
Stephanie Moore
Matt Rader
Greg Seib
Cover Art:
Monster
by Jason Logan
' 7200b "flb3bl'
DM

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