Holding

“Please don’t hold me. I had more of that than I could handle with Ray. He was the first man to ever treat me as anything more than a good bed partner. Here’s something I remember: I am a little depressed and so I’m very sensitive about being intimate. Ray sets me down gently, gives me more pleasure than anyone is entitled to, brushes my hair back behind my ears, licks tears away, and holds me until I sob myself to sleep.

“So don’t hold me, okay? We can have all the basic pleasures: I’m open to anything that doesn’t actually hurt me physically. I mean, hasn’t this been fun? Haven’t we sated each other enough so that we can just lie back here and wallow in the calm for a while? Here, here’s the rest of your rum. Enjoy. I’m going to have a nice leisurely cigarette.”

Ray has trouble being alone now. His latest compulsion is writing angry poems on toilet paper in the bathroom. On those nights when he can’t produce, he surrenders to the TV and munches corn chips until the last batter is out or the credits start rolling under the sonorous voice announcing that the news is coming up. More often he’ll wake up on the couch at about 2 a.m., his back sore, his glasses lying on the carpet, pieces of corn chips dotting his T-shirt like confetti.

“If you feel you have to talk to me, please don’t ask me too many questions. I’m not callous enough to make you lie there silent like a damn fool, or make you get up and just leave, but I don’t want you prying too much either. I don’t plan on asking you much and I expect the same courtesy.

“I mean, I had enough of that kind of probing with Ray. Did I mention Ray? I wasn’t used to real talking and listening till I met him. He used to say that conversation, genuine conversation, is like shared red wine: it gets to the bottom of things. You ask, they tell, you ask more, they tell more, you pick up on things, you ask again, you probe deeper and deeper.

“But I’m done with that now. It’s over. We parted on the best of terms. We’ve agreed not to call or write. It’s better that way. Get on with our lives and all that.

“I like you. You are a good person, a great lover. I hope I haven’t been babbling too much. I hope you understand what I’m saying. I’m not pining for him or anything. I’m just trying to explain why I can’t get too involved right now. I think this has been a great evening. Indian food, Smithwick’s, lovemaking. Most people never even have it this good.”

Ray feels himself starting to go blind. He turns his head quickly and experiences a blur before his eyes start to focus again. He doesn’t understand it. He looks at some students coming out of the library. Stares at them. Tries to keep the top floor of the building from disappearing. It is not so much a blur now as it is a blind spot, a hole in his perception.

Ray’s friend Marty teases him.

“If you’d leave the damn thing alone for a day or two, you wouldn’t be going blind.”

“‘Let me tell you something about yourself.’ God, how many times did Ray say that to me. I was carrying on in my regular fashion — drinking way too much scotch, spending too much money—and I would arrive at his place quietly drunk at like two in the morning, and Ray—well, Ray would never get mad. Definitely not his style. But, Jesus Christ, he could sober me up. Not in any stupid head-game way, and not by arguing like a jackass, but just by sitting me down with an espresso and starting off with: ‘Let me tell you something about yourself.’

“He told me I was out of control, that I wasn’t slowing down or allowing myself to be conscious enough to appreciate what was valuable in my life. He asked me to just stop and think who it was who was always there the next day to rub my head when I was so hungover I wished I was dead. Who cleared your balcony, Sandra, he would say. Who cleaned up your apartment because you were so drunk that you didn’t realize you were walking on gum in your kitchen, didn’t realize you had a week’s worth of garbage under your sink, or that you had scum in your bathtub that went very nicely with the black and white tiles.

“He cursed now and then, or got a little sarcastic, only to shake me up. He wasn’t harsh about it. He was just trying to make me pay attention to how much hurt I was doing to myself.

“Oh, Jesus, I’m babbling again. I’m sorry. Did you say something? I’m so sorry. Here, pour me another one, and when we’re nice and loaded again, when even talking about Afghanistan is just too damn funny for words, then we’ll have some nice stiff sex again.”

Ray is starting to get angry and confused over names. He keeps thinking Sandra, Sandra, Sandra, when he knows he shouldn’t. Everything from “sand” to “sangria,” and even what she used to call stupid Jane Austen words such as “sanguine” — everything reminds him of her, everything comes back to her. Tonight he decides to do something to free his mind from her trap.

The bar is no different from the scores of other ones he could have chosen. The bartender has on one of those white cotton aprons, thin, tied at the back, and stretched tight over an established belly. The sight comforts Ray. The decor is functionally minimalist. Springsteen pounds out something on the jukebox, something about cars, something about love gone bad, something about longing. Ray can’t help smiling when he sees her. Smoking, of course, and alone. Her drink looks just slightly out of the ordinary, Tanqueray maybe, with something fizzy in it. She sees Ray smiling, looks him straight in the eye for an uncomfortable length of time, and then looks down at the ashtray as she taps her cigarette.

He sits on the stool next to her, offers to buy her a drink, and holds out a lighter as she puts a fresh cigarette in her mouth. She nods, stares, inhales, and taps nothing from the end of it.

The sex later is functional, minimalist.

“I’m sorry. Yes, it’s Jim, right? Oh my God, this is so awful. I know you’re not Ray. I’m just a little mixed up and distracted these days. Please let me explain, Jim. No. Please, no. Please don’t go. I went out with him for years. We were supposed to get married last month. We broke up, it’s over, but you just can’t forget that kind of thing just like that. Please stay, Jim. I like you. Please …”

Ray has taken down from his fridge the schedule of movies playing at the repertory cinema, and now keeps an up-to-date list of the things he would like to do before he dies:

  1. Have sex with an inflatable doll. (Ray imagines buying her all flattened out in some kind of K-Mart shrink-wrap package. Flattened out like that clown punching bag he had as a kid. Punch, down, up, punch, down, up.)
  2. Read more philosophy. (Marty has suggested some intriguing titles by Kierkegaard he’d like to peruse: Fear and Trembling, or perhaps The Sickness Unto Death. He wants to be wandering like some demented Wordsworth with book in hand, admiring the look of the countryside, pausing a while to pick a flower or two, when he performs his first (and last) acte gratuit: jumps off a cliff, maybe, or does a one-and-a-half gainer into a blissful pond even though he can’t swim a stroke.)
  3. Be a guest on Oprah. (He loves the format: theme, dumb audience, host with more fat cells than brain cells, panel of dough-headed losers, and The Expert. Ray plans on disruption. When he explains that there was absolutely no reason for Sandra to leave him, that he would have done anything for her, and The Expert comes out with some gem like “No one person can satisfyall our emotional needs”—well, then Ray wants to start throwing chairs, or recommending the Pillsbury Dough Boy as a nice partner for Oprah, or raving about how oversexed the maids are in the hotel they’ve put him up in.)
  4. Scare her. (Ray wants to re-create the past and change it. When she says to him, “Ray, I’m leaving you because I’m in love with another woman,” he doesn’t want to be polite about it this time. He wants to take her by the hand to the alley behind the restaurant, gently, soothingly as always. Take her there, put his forearm at her throat, push so that she can breathe but can’t talk. Take out a pocketknife and pick his teeth with it, remove a bit of lemongrass remaining from the soup, and then, just after he has brought the knife much too close to her angelic forehead, simply spit a piece of noodle into her eye. Drop the knife. Ease back. Smile but don’t cry. Turn around and go home, alone.)

“Please don’t get up and go right away. Stay a while, can’t you? I’ll be all right in a few minutes. Hey, you can tell your buddies that you brought tears to my eyes in bed. Right. Sorry, sorry: not funny. I’m sorry. Come back to bed. Please don’t go. Hold me.”

  1. Publish an essay. (Ray has brooded on the topic almost continuously for the past month: the fine line there is between being middle-classed civilized — making distinctions between forks, being disdainful of unthrifty behavior, keeping the garage immaculate—between that and being murderously violent—killing yourself with carbon monoxide in that garage with the cross-country skis looking on dispassionately from the rafters, spending a wad on a .44, taking one of those forks, perhaps the small one intended for the romaine, and jamming it in someone’s eye.)
  2. Do stand-up comedy. (“You know, I think one of the things I learned from my childhood is that there are advantages to everything. Even getting dumped by the woman you love. I mean, I lost my appetite totally, and haven’t looked this great in years.”)
  3. Construct the most personally hurtful list of ways a woman could break up with you, and submit them to Letterman as a Top 10 List. (The spicy Thai noodles are followed with that excellent iced coffee. The bill arrives and is placed discreetly mid-way between the two of you. You take it only because it is your turn. She dabs a bit of nothing from the left-hand corner of her lips, puts down the napkin, and after you have given the pen and merchant’s copy back to the waiter on the black plastic tray, she tells you she’s in love with another woman. LETTERMAN: Number 2, Say she’s cleaned out your savings account as an acting fee for faking all those orgasms … And, the Number 1 Most Hurtful Way a Woman Can Break Up With You … Say “I’m in love with another woman” only after the check is paid. Laughter. Thunderous applause. Close-up on Dave announcing the first guest. Go to commercial.)

“Okay, here’s what happened. We met, fell in love, got engaged. I got way too drunk one night and slept with Monica. It carried on for a few weeks and I genuinely thought I was in love with her. I told Ray, broke up with him. The next week Monica moved in with her accountant. I called her and she told me to wise up and get a life.

“I started drinking in a serious way then. Dated a few guys. I was so happy when you came up to me. I noticed you earlier because you do look a bit like Ray. You are such a good lover. You give me so much pleasure. I am starting to feel a bit guilty. Please … tell me what you would like.

“I’m grateful for what you’ve done for me, but all I want is to have him with me again. Have you ever had to make a conscious effort to get something, someone, out of your mind. Have you ever wallowed nervously in dread that you’d never see him again. Have you ever thrown away what you love most?

“No, don’t. Please: I need to be alone now. Please understand. I’m sorry. No, I can’t, I’m sorry. If you want to help me, please just leave. No, please don’t. I can’t. Please. Please don’t hold me.”

 

 

Things That Suck

The German, still a little shaky on English parts of speech, calls them stand-by comedians.

“Wayne, can we go on Friday to see them make the stand-by comedy?” she asks so purely.

“Yes, Diane.” Dee-AH-na. She has given us all permission to pronounce her Die-ANN, but I insist on sighing her middle syllable, with longing and regret. “Yes, Diane, of course. Why don’t you bring your whole class? They’ll learn a few words that the teacher will never introduce them to.”

Diane is taking an English class while she is in Ottawa. She spends her time hiking and eating late leisurely breakfasts and writing letters to her policeman boyfriend Jan in Hanover. (I make a point of pronouncing him, correctly, YAWN.)

In the car on the way to the movie, Much Ado About Nothing, she shakes those Dark Lady ringlets and touches the hand I have on the gear shift and thanks me for teaching her the meanings of lame.

“Most people in class knew it can mean handicapped but only I knew also the other meaning.” She pauses. “Their vocabulary was pretty lame,” she says, and then laughs and turns to look out her window.

At the movie I have to whisper more meanings to her, leaning over more closely than necessary, feeling her wiry curls on my cheek, my neck, and perhaps only imagining one poking down my collar.

I am in the car with Diane outside John’s house, where she is staying. (John is a friend of her father’s.) It is about 3 a.m. We have spent the evening and early morning together, first at an open-air version of Macbeth set in the 21st century in which men and women zoomed in and out of the tent on motorcycles, and then drinking at a club in Hull, having to shout at each other on our stools, Diane finally taking me out on the dance floor, swaying with her eyes closed as I move stiffly. In the car I feel the possibility of making love with her, punctuating our time together perfectly. I do nothing because I have decided that she is too young, that the difference in our ages would make any attempted seduction pathetic. She eventually just kisses me on the cheek, says something about having a good time, something that might sound insincere from someone with a full command of the language.

I take advantage of her request to know all the meanings of the word sucks to mention its transitive senses in the context of hard candy and sex. In John’s living room the night before she leaves for Germany, she uses a black marker to make a list of things that suck on the front of my pristine white T-shirt:

CATS JESUS

THE ENVIRONMENT

SCIENCE

LINDA LOVELACE

GOLF WINTER

FOOD

Her T’s look like palm trees, her F’s like light poles. Her taste and insight are exquisite, though.

In the doorway saying goodbye, I admit to having propositioned her 498 times, and then kiss her and squeeze her backside to make it an even 500.

Pauline

Pauline’s haiku are starting to become nasty. The questions by people on the telephone seem outrageously inane, the nattering among her co-workers is irksome, and the next time her boss asks her to have yet another twenty-page proposal typed by 10 a.m., well, Pauline is a bit concerned that her reaction might have a detrimental effect on her promotional possibilities.

She pauses. “A detrimental effect on her promotional possibilities”? That’s the way she thinks now. The cumbersome polysyllabic mumbo-jumbo that she types all day is starting to invade her mental functions. What she means in plain English is that she may lunge at the guy or throw his papers in his face or even tell him that there is no fucking way she can decipher his incoherent hen-scratchings and produce in less than an hour twenty impeccably word-processed pages.

The haiku she wrote used to provide solace. They were a succinct art she turned to after a day of inputting flabby meaningless text.

Please be advised that all previous communications in terms of the viability of our new product in the eastern Ontario market should be assessed in conjunction with the new federal regulations regarding …

Blah blah blah blah blah. Pauline started to worry when her haiku about glorious moments in the natural world degenerated into prosaicness.

home row keys
inviting the touch
of rough fingers

She is genuinely shocked that lately all her haiku are about the dullest of topics: her boss, the circulation of air in her building, the superiority of WordPerfect over MicrosoftWord. She tries to rectify things by taking long walks by the creek, craving inspiration. She returns sated but can only manage

food transferred
from beak to throat
as text to hard disk

She scrambles, vows to herself to eliminate similes, scrunches her brow determinedly as she concentrates on natural topics: something about lightning, something about the hardness of rock, something about carnivores, something about how serenely perfect grass appears from afar but how gritty and disappointing it is close up. Something. Anything.

dagger eyes
fend off
sharp requests
for pencils

Pauline decides that it is hopeless. She starts to work more perfunctorily in the office and does not allow herself to be agitated by the gobbledegook. She tries to reverse the process. She transforms all the correspondence, replacing the flaccid prose with succinct stanzas, in which the images are exact and exquisite.

Weather

Clear
The Weather Channel helps me plan my day now. I used to waste hours cycling in what had been predicted as a hot clear afternoon but instead turned cloudy. I would go to the beach and make myself slithery with baby oil, but the rain would come. I would get caught fully clothed at work while hot sunlight streamed through the pocked ozone layer.Not any more. I watch the Weather Channel first thing in the morning and then phone my unemployed friend Martin. I leave a message on his machine about what the predictions are for the day, and he calls me at work if there are any changes. I have an extra set of clothes with me at all times so that I can take advantage of any unexpected sunlight. I go somewhere private and discard unnecessary coverage. Sort of like Superman.

Cloudy
I always kept telling her “when” — “when” not “if”. As in: When you have decided to leave me, please tell me straight out. Please don’t simply stop being thrilled at coming to spend the night. Please don’t start contriving thin excuses in order to decrease the time you spend with me. Please don’t take other lovers and so make a pathetic fool of me. Just tell me straight out: John, you can’t be my boyfriend, we can’t be lovers anymore.Something inside me — Martin calls it spider sense, which tingled for Spiderman in tricky situations — something always told me she would either stay with her husband or dump me soon after the divorce. “Dump” is too harsh a word for what she has done, though. The simple fact is that I have become one of those statistics the psychologists like to refer to as the “transitional person”. She fell out of love with her husband and so became frantic and needy. I was there. I listened to her long stories about marital routine, chore schedules posted on the fridge next to the latest Far Side cartoon, pizzas ordered in the disarray of arriving home from work cranky and tired without a planned dinner. (“I thought it was your turn?”) I advised her gently about smoking less and getting a good lawyer and trying not to start the day with scotch. I made crazy unprotected love to her on my living room floor, set her head softly on a cushion near the fire, licked her breasts and went down on her as she moaned into forgetfulness.

Partly Sunny
Martin is the only one who understands what I’m trying to do. When I first told him he just nodded, offered no particular discouragement apart from asking if this is what I really wanted, and then afterwards listened attentively to updates.I stopped telling other friends and acquaintances after a couple of disappointing reactions:

“You’re what?”

“John, listen to me: you need a little help. I know a psychologist …”

“Those rays are killers, yes, John, but it would take years if it happened at all. She’s not worth it. Join a club or something.”

“You’re doing what?”

I’m trying to kill myself by getting skin cancer.

Variable Conditions
I assured her throughout our — what? relationship? affair?– that I could still love her unreservedly even though I knew we would break up. The only demand I made was that she act genuinely, that she not plan to break up and only maintain the facade of a relationship for the purposes of sex and friendship. As far as I can tell, she was true to her word, though that doesn’t make this any easier.We were both excited when she finally moved into that apartment on Third Avenue. It was 10:30 at night before all the boxes were in the place. We put about ten of the taller ones together in what would be the living room, threw a piece of foam and some sheets on top, and then held each other to sleep. In our absolute peaceful unconsciousness we were oblivious to the possibility of falling to a very abrupt awakening.

Hot and Humid
I take the day off, sleep till noon. I go to the beach prepared: Discman, baby oil, towel, lunch, fluids, money. I lie here till dinner time, turning myself as on a very slow spit. I always position myself to maximize the surface area which is exposed to the sun.The superficial effects have been pleasing. I am a luscious brown, quite a contrast to the sickly alabaster which is covered by my Speedo. I am gorgeous as Adonis, determined as Icarus. Women and gay men can’t help looking as they pass by. Some stop to chat. Most of them warn me about the dangerous effects of prolonged exposure.”You’re gonna kill yourself,” they say, sometimes worriedly, sometimes self-righteously.I just nod. “Yes, I know.”

Cooling
That Third Avenue apartment was bright and comfortable after a few months. Summer breezes lapped softly at the eyelet curtains she had made for the bedroom. Ladders of light shone through dark blue Venetian blinds in the living room. And in the kitchen the sun washed in through the large high window, casting elaborate dancing shadow puppets of the plants and ornaments which adorned it.We spent a lot of time at the kitchen table, where I noticed her smoking give way to pistachios and finally to simple soda water as we talked about the dramatic change which she had initiated in her life. “You’ve been a great help, John,” she said, splitting the shell, putting it in a separate bowl, and popping the green salted nut into her mouth.The shadows were thrown into sharper focus as the sun freed itself from cloud cover.

“I’m happy now, John. Much more settled. I feel like a new person, like a free person. I can do anything.”

She sipped the soda water, tonguing the lime.

High Pressure
I go to my doctor to find out whether I have the cancer, or even any of the early signs. It is a hot day so I wear only shorts and sandals. There is a well-insured and brightly dressed man in the waiting room. Shades of green that do not exist in nature, white, a straw sun hat.My doctor scares me, too. He is pallid, the stethoscope dangling from a scrawny neck. We chat for a while about the weather.He has the results of my test. They are very good, he says, they are the kind of news he wishes he could tell everyone.

“You don’t have any signs or symptoms of skin cancer, John. So: go home, enjoy, stay out of the sun, wear a block. You have nothing to worry about. You are healthy, cancer-free, and will probably outlive us all.”

“Oh,” I say.

Lightning
She gave me a pen as a memento before she left, a cool black Sheaffer that I could never get to write. I scratched embarrassingly on the back side of the wrapping paper, scratched and actually apologized, scratched and told her it’s just a problem with the refill, scratched and babbled on about quality control and the beauty of the pen as an object. Black, absent of light, severe, thin, serene. I put it aside. I walked to the bedroom and got a very mundane Paper Mate, blue, the color of the bay on the best of days. I started to write on the outside of her left thigh, just above the knee. Names only at first, SARAH AND JOHN, the same crazy way teenagers express their undying love on trees or the sides of bridges. A little more elaborate on her left palm, crossing over the love and life lines indiscriminately, not even noticing or seeing the thin career line thrusting between them. SARAH WAS A SPEEDING SPINNING CAR I CAUGHT A GLIMPSE OF.I moved to her belly. The line this time is unnamed, the crease which separates the flat abdomen from the small bulge just above her black pubic hair. I started near the bottom of the right side of her rib cage. I KNEW YOU WERE JUST ZOOMING BY. I KNEW THAT RIGHT FROM THE START. THERE IS NO BLAME POSSIBLE HERE. I WAS HAPPY WITH THE TRIP EVEN AS SHORT AS I PREDICTED IT WOULD BE. YOU WERE ALWAYS CAREENING, SARAH.I read her belly to her. I took off my own clothes. We made love luxuriously, wantonly as always — Sarah’s body moving, her face reddening, her voice screaming as she came, my chest hairs sticking to her wet belly like punctuation in the text.

Calm
I surprise myself. I go to the top of a small rugged hill just outside the city. The day is a scorcher and I am sweating heavily by the time I reach the top. I am alone. I strip naked and slather myself in oil till it is dripping off me. I lie on three large towels. I feel as if I’m melting, the sweat and oil parts of me which are simply falling off, falling away. I cross my hands over my chest. I think for a moment that this is how I want to be laid out in the coffin, after I am diagnosed too late and die suddenly. I want to be dead and attractive. Want people to come up to me and feel compelled to state the comforting inanity: “He looks good, you know”.

I reconsider in the next moment. No. Not burial, too traditional, too spacious, too incomplete. Cremation. Burn me as the sun simply refuses to burn me. Reduce me to ashes, destroy me, but don’t display me in a vase on a middle-class mantel. Throw me, eject me, take what’s left of me to the top of this hill and disperse me.

The Bad Guy

I killed a man last night. I know that sounds evil and macho and extraordinary, but it was really one of the most mundane and embarrassing things I’ve ever done. The more judgmental among you are formulating words such as “murderer” in your heads now, and recoiling a bit at the connotations. You’re imagining a handgun, a struggle before someone takes a bullet in the heart perhaps, or five or six bullets pumped into his back. “Murderer”. It’s a word which for the narrow-minded has a lot of ready-made images associated with it, just like “virgin”.

I’m 34 years old and I am about as ordinary, as dull, a person as you could ever fear meeting. Well, I call myself dull, and that might be the way you’d characterize me if you met me and I told you about myself, but the fact is I consider myself a valuable person. I’m attentive. Probably the most significant and most common detail I’ve noticed about most people is that they are oblivious to the abundance of minute facts and events that are bombarding us all every second. Maybe that’s a good thing, a necessary thing for them. It makes life a little easier to deal with.

I’m a bit of a nervous sort, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m not able to screen out sensations the way other people do. I walk down the street, or I meet someone for the first time, and it all feels like fireworks, things going off around me everywhere. I’ve tried to calm myself, tried to lie on my couch late at night in the dark, tried to breathe slowly and feel comfortable, but I always end up sensing the outside world seething and throbbing around me.

The first time I met Jeff I was bowled over. I wasn’t attracted to him but the strength of his character was so intense that I could hardly speak. He said hello and shook my hand and touched me casually on the forearm. I stood there staring, blinked furiously for a few seconds before I could utter a barely audible grunt.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before,” Jeff said.

I regained some composure and eventually replied, carefully, “No. I’ve been keeping to myself a lot lately, not going out. I think the yuppies call it ‘cocooning’.”

Jeff laughed, touched me again on the arm. He looked around the bar then, scouting a waitress or a friend, and I took advantage of his inattention to watch him. He wore a silk shirt, exquisite, which hung naturally. His blond hair was impeccable, set in place with gel but moving luxuriously as he turned back to me and caught me staring. In the half-second before he smiled and I looked away, I noticed that his skin shone.

It is not the absolute truth to say that I was not attracted to him. A more accurate way of putting it would be to say that I was determined not to be attracted to him. I was here to escape the rigors of my thesis research. The complications that an alcohol-induced attraction could bring held no appeal for me.

“What are you drinking?” Jeff asked.

“Gin and tonic,” I said, and he held up two fingers to the waitress as he told me that that was his drink of choice, too.

“It’s the most beautiful of combinations,” he said. “The aroma is distinctive but subtle — Jesus, I’m starting to sound like one of those pompous wine-tasters. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is simultaneously pure and luxurious. Transparent, and complicated to just the right degree by the tonic and the slice of lime and the squeeze of lime juice which gives it just the right amount of texture. Sorry, I’m babbling, and I’m not expressing myself very well.”

“No, not at all, I think I understand what you mean,” I said.

He shook his head. Our drinks arrived and Jeff stirred his and licked off the stick.

“Here’s to new faces and new adventures,” he said, clinking his glass against mine. We sipped.

“Ahhh, delicious,” he said. “So, why have you been doing so much cocooning lately? Do you have a wife and a dog and 2.37 kids at home, and do you all spend your weekends in front of the tv?”

I smiled.

“No, no, not at all. I live alone and it’s just that I’ve been spending most of my time working on my thesis, alternating between the library and my apartment. I’m compiling a bibliography of Canadian mystery novels. But I really don’t want to talk about that. It’s pretty tedious work, really, and besides, the main reason I came in here was to get away from all that.”

“Well, that’s a switch,” Jeff said. “Most people just come in here to get laid.”

We stood on opposite sides of the bed, pillows symmetrically placed, bedspread as taut as a trampoline, stood and watched each other undress. I placed my clothing methodically on the chair but Jeff’s shirt and pants and underwear just disappeared as he removed them and simply dropped them onto the floor. I was surprised that someone who dressed so carefully, undressed so carelessly. He put his watch (a slender all-black Seiko) on the night-table, bent over apparently to remove his socks, pulled the covers down to reveal pristine sheets whose clinical smell wafted to my nose, and then lay on his side without covering up, facing me. I got into bed and completed the symmetry.

I remember a crazy kaleidoscope of details and images. Tufts of hair of diminishing thickness on the inner joints of toes from big to small … Dry skin like parchment on kneecaps … His open palm cupping the whole side of my bicep now … The facts are really quite simple and unalluring: we kissed, we fellated each other, he held me for a while.

And as he was turning to reach for something on his night-table — his watch? some matches? — I turned in the opposite direction, removed the handgun from my inside jacket pocket, turned back exactly as he did, and shot him in the nose.

If you have gleaned from television and movies most of what you know about what is vaguely referred to as “violence”, then you are really pretty ignorant about the facts. I don’t mean that the world is not as violent a place as television might lead you to believe, or that there is exaggerated distortion, but rather that violence is more gruesome for the victim and easier for the perpetrator than the televised portrayal of the most blood-soaked shooting by the coolest of killers could ever hope to suggest.

For example, I killed Jeff last night with one Winchester 115-grain jacketed hollowpoint bullet fired at point-blank range from a SIG Sauer P226 9mm semiautomatic handgun. The bullet left a hole about the diameter of my index finger where his nose used to be, expanded as it went through, and came out the back of his head, leaving a hole about twice the size of the one in his face. There was a lot of blood, and some bone and brain exposed at the back. It was nothing like those neat little pinpoints we are used to seeing on tv. The sound, too, was closer to a popor a clack, not that brash booming sound you hear when cops or bad guys or innocent victims are gunned down on some badly done show.

Jeff probably died, as they say, instantly. His only terror may have been the half-second when he turned back to see that handgun barrel pointed directly at him.

I can state based on my own experience that there is no great moral debate or hesitation when you kill someone, and there is no incredulous shock, no anguished panic afterwards. I had bought the gun six weeks before with the express purpose of shooting whoever my first lover would be. The decision to kill had therefore been made in the most rational and mundane of circumstances. I decided that I wanted to have sex with a man. I decided that I also wanted to kill that man. The anti-climactic events themselves were just the sum on the other side of the equation.

As Jeff lay there dead, I set the gun down on the bed and got dressed. I put the gun back in my pocket, and walked out of the room without looking back, closing the door briskly behind me.

Some of you will precipitously call me cold-blooded or inhuman when I say that I then went to a nice Italian café and had a delicious cappuccino. But please remember: the decision had been made weeks before and I felt no more agitated than I usually feel, say, after watching a good movie.

Please suppress your groans anticipating, apprehending, tedium, as I prepare to tell you about my childhood.

There are no cliché extreme facts to report, no accountant father who routinely buggered me, no buxom mother who pampered her pretty little boy, no younger brother whose girlfriends giggled at the front door while I puzzled over cosines in my bedroom upstairs.

I don’t remember much about my life before I started to attend school. During an evening of shared gin and tonics last month my mother told me that my father had abandoned her and me when I was about 3 years old, so that he could spend Christmas with his girlfriend. My mother matter-of-factly got a job as a waitress, and I started on my string of babysitters.

The average of all my year-end averages through grade school was 96 percent. I know that sounds high but I was a fanatic for study, loved to memorize and absorb facts. I remember studying for my physics final in grade 10 by reading over and over again the passages in the text about force and mass and power. I eventually grew so familiar with chapters I had read five or six times that I recognized turns of phrase and anticipated formulae.

I never had any trouble with cosines.

I had my first taste of alcohol during the first weekend of my first term at university, some dreadful whisky that everyone was downing straight to show that they were hard drinkers. I never drank again for six months when, on the first date I ever had, Sheila introduced me to the concept of mix.

I started university with the intention of majoring in math, switched to philosophy and then English, and eventually finished off with a degree in Canadian studies. The average of my averages was 92 percent, and I was conscious of my slippage.

And now, of course, I am working on my master’s thesis on the much-neglected Canadian mystery novel. It’s dull, really, but it will be valuable to people who are interested in such things. The idea of bibliography is appealing, though: to produce a list of the titles of all the mystery novels ever published in Canada. I like the fact that the end result can be something which is perfectly comprehensive, a list in which absolutely nothing is missed. That is a rare thing in life. For example, there might have been a point, say, 30 years ago when it would have been possible to summarize me, to reduce me to a few choice sentences of description. Since then, though, so much has happened, so many small events, heartbreaks, disappointments, brushes with people in everyday life — so much has happened that it would be impossible to sum it all up now.

The trick is to learn and to accept that everything is arbitrary, that nothing is any more valuable or desirable than anything else. Within that context you make a few choices. I could have spent two years searching out a passionate woman with integrity, got married, found a job, and lived contentedly, even happily, until I died: but I just could not be bothered. I have been so busy scouring obscure periodicals and formulating citations as precisely and consistently as possible, that I only had time to buy the 9mm and take one night off to get it all done. Later today I will return to the library refreshed and dive back into my research.

My life has been an organized and uneventful one so far, and I like it that way.

Wrestling

  1. I am disdainful of fewer things since my wife and I separated. Professional wrestling, self-help books. While we were married, and for most of my adult life before then, I was either indifferent to or (more often) scornful of many of the manifestations of popular culture.

Like most people I dismissed professional wrestling because I realized it was fake. It became unworthy of further attention. A couple of my uncles have been fans at one time or another. The redneck one used to quickly gloss over any comment on the fakeness of it—”Why do they have to stamp one foot in order to kick with the other?”—and then discourse on the athleticism of the wrestlers. This was indisputable of course: the spectacle of a 300-pound muscle-bound man doing back flips would instantly silence the most persistent of doubters. The question of the fakeness, however, would never be addressed.

Another uncle, with whom I still keep in touch, had an attitude toward professional wrestling which was closer to what mine became. He liked the bickering that goes on, the ploys by managers and tag-team members to get referees to turn their backs, the theater of the whole thing.

  1. I was also quite the supercilious snob regarding self-help books. A couple of months after separating, however, I bought two about the break-up of relationships.

One was a true self-help book in all the negative connotations of the term. The title was catchy and contrived, flippant and superficially creative: Loveshock. And the subtitle, to specify that this wasn’t a book about the misfortune of static electricity during sexual intercourse: How to Recover from a Broken Heart and Love Again. The co-authors are pictured on the jacket. Dr. Stephen Gullo has an open-faced but shallowly sincere look about him. Connie Church looks as though she’s survived many of these shocks. Her jaw is angular and distinct, perhaps from months of loss of appetite, whereas Dr. Gullo’s face is tending toward chubbiness, no doubt the unfortunate result of a cushy counseling practice.

The other book is more a popular psychological treatise than a self-help book. The author is Diane Vaughan and the title is Uncoupling: How Relationships Come Apart. I found some of the passages in this book positively poetic, though I suspect now that my agitated mind was probably reacting more to familiarity of content rather than to poetry of expression.

I read Loveshock during the blackest of nights. Supper was pasta and potato chips and Diet Coke. The TV was on, engaging my mind in something easy and undemanding. I read, skimmed and skipped. Hated the book really, but needed something to break me out.

I read Uncoupling in the relative ease of my new apartment. I had lost weight (like Connie) and I pampered the body with hot bubble-gum-scented bubble baths. The pores opened, the bubbles popped, and I read about loss and the possibility of reconciliation.

  1. It had happened both suddenly and in the most gradual manner possible. One Friday night she suggested that we should separate, and the next morning she took the dog and a few necessities and drove to meet her father for breakfast. I waved good-bye to her in the most ridiculous of circumstances: on the verandah as she got into the car, the dog excited about the early-morning activity, me wearing only a pair of silly green-and-white striped shorts that hung on me like dumpy underwear. She drove off. It had been a long night during which I had slept fitfully. I closed the door and went back to bed.
  2. Most people’s disillusionment with professional wrestling, as with marriage, is a simple result of expecting it to be something it isn’t. They think that wrestling is a sport and so are disappointed when it does not display the hallmarks of other sports: skill, genuine competition, victory based on merit. The truth is, of course, that wrestling is not a sport at all but rather an elaborate soap opera. The wrestlers can no more be accused of bad sportsmanship than a doctor on General Hospital can be taken to task for lack of surgical knowledge.

The thing about wrestling which appealed to me was the exaggerated simplicity of the whole thing: there were no bad guys whose skill you had to concede, there were no good guys with character flaws. These facts were very attractive to a mind which was still reeling in confused emotion: rejected, erratic, lonely, and always contriving the most irrational and unlikely means of reconciliation.

  1. The Loveshock writers made me angry sometimes. I remember that their advice to the heartbroken for avoiding futile attempts at reconciliation was to pin notes on the phone such as: STOP! DON’T CALL! It struck me as the ultimate in bathos, relegating the coping with extreme emotional trauma to the level of the techniques used by dieters to discourage them from opening the fridge door: DO YOU NEED THOSE CALORIES? or A MOMENT ON THE LIPS, A LIFETIME ON THE HIPS.
  2. I went through her dresser drawer a few days after she left. My heart was literally wrenched at each item I picked up. The drawer was her: cluttered, simple, sentimental. I was (and remain) a paragon of minimalist order. A friend of mine whom I have known since kindergarten—the stereotypical messy male—often discusses the relative merits of neatness with me, and proudly informs everyone that I am in a class by myself.

In her unburdened departure my wife had left the contents of her top dresser drawer behind. I read a note I had jotted to her months before thanking her for some small kindness. She had saved it, whereas I used to read letters from my poor mother and then tear them up and flush them down the toilet.

  1. Ravishing Rick Rude became my favorite wrestler. His schtick was comfortingly predictable, the same scenario repeated with only the bit players changed. His performance involved spectators and commentators, the actual wrestling being merely incidental. He would make an excessively grand entrance wearing a floor-length cape which temporarily covered a magnificently sculpted body. The body would be revealed and Rude would mock the unmuscular wimps in the audience, who he imagined were shrinking at the sight of a “real man”. A commentator would point out how vain Rude was.

The major appeal was to the women though. “Lovely ladies” Rude called them. He would always win his fight (no Tysonesque upsets in this sport) and he would always invite a young woman to the ring afterwards to participate in the Rude Awakening: a kiss which would make her swoon and fall to the floor. Rude, buttocks and biceps flexing, would then dance over her. A commentator would point out how disgusting this was.

  1. It happened gradually, too, the result of some inexorable force of which I was simultaneously keenly aware and completely ignorant. In the last few months I was making an unconscious effort to be self-sufficient and self-contained. I spurned the trivial and the fundamental. Reduced my sexual pleasure to solitary late-night explorations on the couch when I was supposed to be reading. Became irritable at advice on a badly tucked-in shirt tail.

I had gained about fifty pounds, and imagined myself even more unattractive and unapproachable than I actually was, a kind of huge round object which it is technically impossible to scale. I made half-hearted attempts at diets and exercise regimens, but always ended up wallowing in the lean-to sunroom off the back yard. Furious at something, fuming.

  1. I watched Rick Rude add to his routine one night, a variation on the immutable. A woman was called to the ring for the kiss but was refused by Rude because he didn’t consider her attractive enough. The word “dog” may have been used, I can’t remember. Can’t remember either what the commentators said, whether they considered Rude to have reached a new level of disgust and tastelessness and general insensitivity.

I pitied the woman, of course, but could not help admiring the skill with which Rude was delineating his caricature. Vain rude hunk. He was complete and whole and could be summed up in three words. I, however, was a recently revived zombie, still wandering about dazed with my arms outstretched in front of me like a character from a bad horror movie.

I imagine now that a wrestling match between Rude and me would have been quite interesting. Ravishing Rick Rude vs The Zombie. Rude as brash as ever with that beautiful physique and those Lycra tights with the woman’s face at the crotch. Me tubby and depressive, vulnerable, wearing a loose-fitting shirt and pants with pleats that strained with the load.

  1. I subjected Uncoupling to a textual scrutiny that only the most organically composed of fictional works could endure. I read about the possibility of reconciliation at the various stages of separation. Or I analyzed the tone or even the adverbs on each of the pages mentioned at “Reconciliation” in the index, trying in vain to discover if this separation was just a temporary silliness. I discovered few answers, and eventually stopped looking altogether.
  2. I wrote down what I knew about professional wrestling and had it published in a newspaper. A curious thing happened some time after: I could no longer bear to watch it on TV. The predictability of the whole thing now provided more boredom than solace. The redneck audience, cheering as if it made a difference, provoked no smile. Even Rick Rude failed to excite.

I consciously adopted an affectation among friends. When they asked me why I didn’t watch it anymore, I replied: “I know too much about it”.

  1. I met my ex-wife by chance one Saturday at a mall. I was charging upstairs and she was at the top. I looked up, noticing that a dark blue coat had replaced her former affection for pastels. She blushed.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said.

“Oh, hi, how are you?” I said automatically.

We mounted the next flight of stairs together, she chattering nervously about the mundane, me tight-lipped and barely civil.

I reached the top of the stairs without volunteering a word. She swallowed a farewell, pursed her lips and turned left after I turned right, heart pounding, gait even more exaggerated, eyes fixed straight ahead.

  1. I shelved the books, filed away my article, and started to understand professional football.
[this story published in Shift, fall 1993]

 

How Pure You Tasted

This piece of paper I remove from the compartment of your wallet where you store bank-machine receipts and the claim slips for your bike (tune-up, $39.99) and that suit bag (repair, under warranty, free) you bought so impulsively before the conference. Someone else’s handwriting, the piece not quite spherical, like a gibbous moon, a small droplet stain near the bottom right, the words a parody of a simple list, the stain providing a faded period,

how pure you tasted.

These flowers that arrive anonymously while you are at work, the shop’s logo on several gold seals that hold the ribbon in place,

SOMEBODY LOVES YOU

on the box, half of the O of LOVES a crescent looking backwards. I remove the flowers from the water-soaked block of something that they are stuck in and arrange them in a vase. I ensure that the tips of everything — yellow roses, baby’s breath, greens — are suspended in the water in the vase. The convex curves of the transparent glass distort things a little, so I have to bend and narrow my eyes to confirm that the tips are submerged, and finally add more water.

We are both developing a belly, yours from pregnancy, mine from not being able to lay off the sweets. I am becoming flabby but your belly is tight, portentous, apparently always about to reveal some secret. Your belly button seems to be stretched uncomfortably, has almost disappeared, the edges turned slightly outward, a shallow crater which my tongue passes over tentatively.

I feel unnatural and inferior when we make love. My body is jiggly from the results of too much bad food, but yours is quite literally full of life, exuding health and naturalness. I insist on keeping myself covered with a T-shirt, while you loll and roll in your healthy glory.

You are a careful pre-mother. You have given up alcohol and even the very occasional toke we used to have. You have replaced running with walking. Our fridge now contains more than one fruit juice, a Brita jug of water, and 1% milk (“not too fatty, not too lame”). The last time you got drunk we were at that snooty Italian restaurant, where the owner makes his rounds among the tables, eliciting titters and the occasional false guffaw. As I refilled your glass, you cradled the globe with your hand, the stem between two fingers, and said, “This wine is going to my hair”.

Tonight you have poached cod, steamed green beans and potatoes, a slice of cholesterol-free seven-grain bread, and a glass of 1% milk. I have leftover pizza and Kraft Dinner, neither of which I feel the need to reheat. I sneak a little more salt while you are checking the performance of our mutual funds in the Globe. Security, Income, Growth, Aggressive Growth. I have spent an hour today trying to convince my Investor Service Representative (“Please, call me Andrew”) that I don’t want to lose the money I invest. “I am risk-averse,” I tell him, adopting his own lingo.

“Why would you want to earn so little on your money when you could realize long-term growth in the neighbourhood of 15 to 20 percent with some of our more aggressive investment products?”

“Well,” I tell him, “I am just looking to save a little for the future and hoping that I don’t have to put money into some glass factory in South Korea in order to do so.”

We eventually compromise on a Balanced Fund. I need some balance somewhere. My eating habits are getting a little ridiculous. I started my day with six of everything, imposing a numerical symmetry on this disordered diet: sausages, eggs, slices of toast, pancakes. A pot of coffee. The pizza and KD are the main course of a dementedly unhealthy meal which I have been eating all day — potato chips, a full half-litre of Häagen-Dazs vanilla, a large bunny I get cheap at an after-Easter sale at the chocolate specialty store next to the bank (“Take them home so we don’t have to melt them down!!!”).

One of the advantages of your being pregnant is that we no longer have to confirm to others that we are “trying”. A typical interrogation was:

THEM: So, you guys, are you expecting yet?
US: No, not yet.
THEM: But you’re trying?

I always imagined one of two situations when I heard that word. One was interpreting “trying” as something like “really trying”, and I pictured me straining on top of you, teeth clenched, thrusting forcefully like some Olympic athlete striving to break the record. The other was interpreting “trying” as “solving”. I imagined that we had absolutely no idea that pregnancy was brought on by sexual intercourse, and so we went through a series of experimental activities attempting to conceive: rubbing butter on your forehead, sleeping with socks on our hands.

I have already given away the green and white striped loveseat to that guy who lives with his mother on the fourth floor. I remember feeling apologetic for the worn arm, the synthetic stuffing sticking through, but he just shook his head, saying “That’s nothing, we have cats”.

You and I had quite an argument when you came back from the conference — “Wiring the Dory: Old and New Technologies in the Age of Information” — and saw the rest of the furniture re-arranged, and only indentations in the carpet where the loveseat had been.

“What the hell happened?”

Yesterday I attempted to take advantage of my unfitness in order to hurt myself. I ran up and down the stairs between floors in our building. On the way up for the second, third time I expected my heart to seize with each step, my face to constrict into that pantomime of pain we have seen countless times on TV. I expected to have just enough life left in me to lower myself to the stairs with whichever arm is not grabbing futilely at my chest, lower myself only for the final jolt that will knock the life of me. I expected to be found in a fetal position by someone going to check her mail after returning tired, nonchalantly, from work.

Instead, I ended up only with a sweaty T-shirt, a cut ankle from the metal stairs, and tight thigh muscles today. I consider that if I did exactly that four times a week—made some pathetic attempt to hurt myself—I would be following the exact regimen my doctor recommended at my last check-up. In six months I might be fit again and would have to seek out some other method of self-destruction.

Geneen, I am so tired of making lists. Ridiculous lists of belongings I want to get rid of, sublime lists of how I might possibly react when the wet head of some other man’s baby starts to poke out from between your legs. Will I simply fall down from the sheer manifestation of irrefutable evidence? Will I forgive the facts, the circumstances, and simply take care of the child? Or will I recognize my own reflection in that little face, as in one of those minimizing mirrors?

A Marriage

The husband arrives home from work, gets changed, and then leaves for his girlfriend’s place again, all without a word to his wife. She’s almost accustomed to it now, accepts the fact that he spends all his evenings with Connie, that he returns home not to their bed but to a rickety cot he’s set up in the unfinished basement. She works hard to take her mind off it, plays with grandchildren and has guests over in the evenings. She doesn’t say a word.

She was torn apart (but hardly flinched) when their youngest daughter told her about the father’s attempt to rape her. “Tried to get around me”, the daughter said with extreme euphemism. The wife had also come across a small cache of pornographic movies in a cardboard box nearly flattened by the metal slats of the sagging cot. A projector. She dared not watch them, remembered only some titles beneath the triple X’s: Throat II, Erotic Misadventures.

Tonight he comes home and tells her he has to go in for an operation on his groin. She nods silently. Later, she tells her sister she will not visit him in the hospital. She becomes venomous. Tells her she hopes they cut him open and find him full of cancer.

He comes to her room to ask her what size underwear he takes: in their twenty-five years she has always bought most of his clothes, silently replacing what was worn out. She gives him two pair she has recently ordered from Sears. “Can’t get those in the stores”, she says.

He has simply given up on it all. Tells her he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. Cries when she gives him the underwear.

[this story was published in Blood & Aphorisms, fall 1993]

Unmoved and Tranquil in Mind

This is not what happened:

The copy of The Teaching of Buddha in his car was not his own. He had not been poring over either the English or the Japanese parts of the dual-language text, had not been cramming for an ethics mid-term, had not been seeking solace or enlightenment in those exquisitely printed onion-skin pages.

The shirt he was wearing was not a style he would have selected himself. The short sleeves, the unbuttonable collar, the vertical stripes in the colors of a spearmint gum wrapper were not what he would have worn if he had had a choice.

His thoughts before it happened were distracted, anguished, nervous. He was not hit by the transport truck which had cut in front of him, the brakes didn’t fail and force him to plow into an unsuspecting sedan, there was no blown-out tire. He simply overcorrected, swerved, flipped. The book was jolted from the passenger seat and grazed his forehead. A honeycombed piece of the windshield came to rest on his chest, on the shirt his friend had lent him.

This is not what happened:

He didn’t get to sleep in his own bed that night. He dreamed of it on his way home, though. Saw the paisley bedspread folding back exposing pristine white sheets and pillow cases with light blue flowers. Saw the red-shaded lamp casting a subdued light up and over.

He imagined himself locking the door to his apartment, splashing cold water on his face, at the sink where they had first made love, her feet knocking over toothpaste and soap, his whole body straining at her, his toes pushing him in, his hands cushioning her shoulder blades from the hard mirror. He imagined going to the bedroom. Imagined undressing in the middle of the room, dropping everything uncharacteristically in a pile on the carpet.

He would not cover up because the nights were so hot and sweaty, would simply fall onto the bed of flowers, fall without restraint, hope that nothing would break, hope that sleep would come on him quickly, hope that their aroma would have dissipated by now.

This is not what happened:

Over iced tea during an unusual heat spell in May they did not talk about baseball or anything lighter than the fundamental truths by which they lived. They did not fret about unemployment.

He tried to avoid talking too much about her, mostly out of fear of being tedious and self-indulgent. His friend listened intently but did not suggest much, nodded not in superficial agreement with what he was saying but rather as a means of punctuating the lament. His friend lent him the book not as a manual for controlling mind and emotions, but as a means of distraction. At first he waved off the shirt his friend offered but eventually accepted it as a fresher covering than his own, which was soaked with sweat.

This is not what happened:

The passion between them was not perfunctory, was never carried out with mere suburban intensity. He couldn’t say that he ever felt deprived. He couldn’t say that he ever felt anything but unrestrained wanton generosity towards her. He couldn’t say that she wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, in this room, on this sink, in this speeding car.

Under

In the tub, bubbles on her shoulders and drooping onto the floor, someone on the radio singing about flowers opening slowly, she soaks the scent of her dead husband from her body. Her eyes are wide open but not really seeing anything. She has a fist between her breasts. She remembers when she used to measure her life in days—a weekend together, three days until the trip—but now it’s in hours. 32 hours since she waved at him from the balcony and told him to drive safely. 27 hours since the police called. 6 hours of riding around in cars, signing papers, identifying, confirming, being taken by someone from some office to her sister’s home, clean, orderly, sedate.

She visits the undertaker, and insists on the following. A simple, elegant pine box without metal attachments. A black satin lining. She wants him dressed in the black tuxedo he was married in, but no shoes or socks, and she wants the button undone behind the bowtie so that he can breathe. She tells the undertaker the story of their wedding reception, late into the night, into the morning, and her husband has shaken too many hands, laughed at too many bad puns, heard too much music, and she sees him go for some peace in the little room at the back of the hall, where she follows him, walks in while he is stretched back in a small high-armed sofa, button undone, no shoes or socks, his beloved gin and tonic in one hand, the other in his black hair, crowning his face.

And the rings, she wants their silver and onyx rings to be in there with him. His on the finger, hers in the inside jacket pocket.

*

I have just been talking to my wife Marjorie on my cell phone—she was prating about some Impressionist exhibition she says we must see at a gallery in New York City—when this woman walks into my funeral parlor. She is genuinely sad, I can tell, and the truth is that not everyone who comes in here is sad. Some are a bit too practical about all the arrangements that are necessary in order to bury a relative properly, and some are just glad that the old bastard is dead, but this woman misses the dead person—probably her husband—and is only barely maintaining a facade of control. The clothes are fine, especially the copper sling-backs, but it’s in her face where I can see that she’s on the verge of coming apart: a bit too much make-up, a kind of cloudiness in the eyes.

“May I be of assistance?” I ask.

“Ah, yes, thanks … I wanted to make arrangements for, well, I wanted to see what you have … Well, my husband was, well, he’s dead now and I wanted … ”

“Certainly, we can make all the necessary arrangements, Mrs. …?”

“Oh, Williams. Joan Williams.”

I suggest the possibility of cremation, and she says no, she could never do that. She could never destroy him like that, burn up everything quickly and forcefully.

“Why would you recommend such a thing?” she asks, not accusatory, just surprised.

“Well, Mrs. Williams, I am not recommending it, just trying to detail for you what your options are. Many people prefer the simplicity and directness of cremation. If I may inject a personal opinion, for example, my wife and I have decided on cremations.”

I leave the thought with her for a moment, and while she mulls I am seeing flames licking up the length and breadth of dear Marjorie’s soft body.

“I think I would prefer just the standard burial. You know, the coffin and the funeral and all that.”

“Yes, certainly, Mrs. Williams. Whatever you wish. We can make some selections now, if you would have the time,” I say.

She agrees, and as we look through the catalogues in my office, I imagine Marjorie lying there amid those satiny folds, hands planted with cold firmness on her chest. I will take advantage of the lid covering her lower torso by putting fishing rubbers on her, or perhaps shoes that are a size too small and on the wrong feet, so that she is crimped and goofy-looking for eternity. I will kiss her on the lips and experience indifference as a refreshing, exhilarating alternative to “What are you trying to do?”. I will run my finger along the line of her jaw without complaint.

After Mrs. Williams leaves, Marjorie calls again, and I try to explain to her, again, that I have already been to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, when I was in high school.

“James, if you are in New York City, you have to go to the Empire State,” she says.

She insists on calling it that, as if the word Building is too crude for someone of her cosmopolitan sensibilities. I say that, yes, indeed, a person can go to New York without visiting the Empire State Building. I make a few suggestions.

“Don’t be ridiculous, James. That area is crawling with muggers and rapists. Definitely not.”

I summon patience from a reserve that I had thought was already exhausted, and suggest calmly that perhaps we could narrow our chances of attack by not walking around naked at 2 in the morning with thousand-dollar bills sticking out of our asses.

“Well, James, if you do not want to discuss this like an adult …”

She says we will resolve this later, and I click her off.

*

She cries on the plane on the way to New York City for the dispersal of the ashes. She acknowledges to herself the influence of the obvious—her husband, dead, burned, his remains(as they called it) flying compactly in her carry-on bag beneath the seat in front of her. She dissipates the simple fact with extraneous details about the sappy movie, that third glass of wine.

In the end she couldn’t bear to have her husband interred (as they called it). She didn’t like the sprawling lack of control of a buried coffin, the lack of completion, the cold suffocating earth eventually caving in on him after he had finally been laid to rest (as they called it).

She stands on the observation deck. There is a warm, steady wind, the kind that has always made her close her eyes. There is a small happy family toddling around near one of the telescopes, oblivious to everything except what they see and point to. There is a couple touching.

She has him in her largest handbag. She is wearing under his trenchcoat only her black silk minidress. She hugs herself. She remembers how it felt with both the top pulled down and the bottom pulled up around her waist, him kneeling there on the kitchen floor and her backed up against the counter, his tongue on and in her and his arms raised, hands on her breasts for support, the heel of one of her hands in a bit of water on the counter and the other one sometimes running through his black curly hair, sometimes grabbing at it, and she was thinking, God, don’t take us one at a time, take us both now, send whatever you have into this kitchen, down on our poor heads, and take us while we are connecting like this.

The lid is stiff. She finally unscrews it, and in the same motion dumps the urn’s contents out into the air. Something like a cloud is formed, and then disappears suddenly. She looks down at the urn, runs a finger around the rim, and tastes him for the last time.

Later, at home, there will be flowers in the urn, bright ones in all colors.

 

Thinking Outside the Box

Martin spent the morning thinking outside the box, but when he tried to get back in, he bumped his head on a sharp corner. It staggered him a little. Rubbing the bump, he peered cautiously around the entrance to his formerly safe cubicle. The collage of clippings and pictures and cards which he had posted up on his little bulletin board had now transmogrified into the real thing. Zip the Cat was sniffing around in those boots from the Texas Folklife Festival. The quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers was cavorting with one of Modigliani’s nudes. And Cartman and John the Baptist were having a beer at the Burp Castle on East 7th St. in New York City.

Martin cleared his throat. The quarterback sat down in Martin’s visitor chair, adjusting his shoulderpads. The nude covered herself as best she could with the CENSORSHIP CAUSES BLINDNESS placard, and rushed to the bathroom to compose herself. Martin sat down in his chair, swiveled a little huffily to his keyboard, and resumed his work on the quarterly report.

Trash

Vicki spent the weekend packing up her things in preparation for her move. Monday morning she woke up with a feeling of release, surveyed the taped boxes arrayed neatly along the walls of her living room, and made her way to the Store 24 to buy the Globe for the last time. She skimmed its headlines and sipped her grapefruit juice contentedly. “Lots of Pulp”, “Boy, 2, Charged with Assault.”

Her boyfriend Bernie had left summarily two months before, leaving some old socks and a couple of CDs but no explanation. Vicki waited a month for a call or a letter or an email, but when nothing came she started looking for a smaller apartment (and found one quickly).

She spent the next month packing and throwing stuff out. Trash cans lined the street on that final Monday, punctuated by an empty one at the end of the row, an old one that Vicki simply wanted the men to take away. She’d marked it PLEASE TAKE THIS CAN. She watched as the men came by in the truck, one tossing the contents of can after can into the truck’s rear maw. When he got to the empty one, he paused. Vicki opened the window. He walked back to his perch on the back, and the driver drove on.

“Hey,” Vicki shouted. “Hey! You forgot that last can!”

“It’s already empty,” the man shouted back.

“But I want you to take the can,” Vicki shouted again. “Take the can.”

“We don’t busy ourselves with containers,” he called back, his voice already Dopplering a little. “We only take care of the inner parts, the mind, the soul. In the grand scheme of things, the containers fade to nothing anyway. It is a waste to tend to them.”

“Asshole,” Vicki shouted.

“Read Aquinas and Kierkegaard,” he shouted back.

 

Bored with an Awl

Derek was reading the Old Testament while he listened to Mae Moore on CD. He started to cry. Precisely after Mae sang about taking a room at the Oceanview Motel, one of his tears fell as a wet period at the end of Exodus 21:4-6

If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,” then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

Derek had had an argument the night before with his girlfriend Melissa, who had accused him yet again of being too introspective for his own good.

“It’s not healthy, Derek,” she’d said. “All this talk about death and the meaning of life. It’s not normal.”

Derek wasn’t sure what he was crying about. He did feel bad for the poor slave who didn’t know the difference between love and subservience. And though he resented Melissa’s dismissiveness, he knew that he had been in a bit of an existential funk. He would stare fixedly at the simplest of things—the wicker chair in their living room, the homeless man on Main Street ranting about needing water—and he just could not fathom that all this, everything, would be gone from him when he and his consciousness were gone from the world.

And though that made him sad, too, it was something in the solidity of Mae’s song that made him cry. The simple plangent voice, the possibility of taking the adjacent room at the motel, the digital counter on the CD player counting backwards the whole time.

Saved

The same night I was saved in the Pentecostal church, my mother became an atheist.

“What drove you to that?” I asked her.

“George, my love,” she said, her voice steady and clear, her fingers fiddling with the handle of her coffee mug, “I don’t understand what God and his people are up to any more. Before your father left—what is it, fifteen years ago now?—before that we were all going to church, and all the church people, family and friends, well, they all encouraged us and loved us and wished us all the best in our lives, and helped us along. I remember that time after the flood—two or three feet of stinky water in our basement—and they gave us money for the renovation when that damn insurance company said it wasn’t covered and—George, it’s just that since your father left, they all kind of just turned away. Sally even told me that him leaving must be my fault in some way, and then they were all saying that I should accept what happened and spend the rest of my days with no man in my life but with God in my heart.”

She sipped her coffee, which I had made for her, and told me for the thousandth time that it always tastes better when someone else has made it.

“What drove you to salvation?” she asked.

Dear Mouse

An Open Letter to the Mouse Under My Kitchen Sink

I don’t have a history of murderousness. My brother Ward and my friend Mike and I used to catch bees and submerge them in a bucket of motor oil in Mike’s back yard, but that was about thirty years ago and I have been pretty clean ever since.

I was, however, riled to see the evidence of your presence dotted over the spare and well-organized expanse under my sink. My trash bag chewed and a dirty mess left behind: you have been like one of those spoiled rock stars who trashes his hotel room in an alcohol-induced rage. But you have not moved on to your next gig. You’ve encored, and returned for additional performances.

I sighed like a reluctant stalker when I set those traps for you a couple of weeks ago. Gluey-floored tents. Little hotels which you could not check out of voluntarily (“Come for the peanut butter, stay for the trapdoor service”). And poison. You’ve disdained both accommodations but have been chowing down on those little blue pellets which, I am told, dry out your insides. From defecation to dessication.

I haven’t seen evidence of you for days now. The tents and the hotels remain unoccupied but the boxes of that delectable pastel blue poison have been consumed, consumed, consumed. Part of me is sorry that it has come to this, sorry that you are dead somewhere in the vicinity of my sink, your carcass perhaps dried to its basic remains like a longhorn’s head on a Texan plain. The fussy, domestic part of me, though, is relieved that a messy interloper has been discouraged by whatever means, and I can now venture confidently into my kitchen, opening that cupboard door untrepidatiously.

 

Dear Wayne

An Open Letter from the Family of the Mouse Who Used to Be Under Your Kitchen Sink

I have enough common sense, and know enough about the biographical fallacy in literary criticism, to realize that the letter you wrote about trapping the mouse may have been fictional. There may never have been any mouse, or there may have been one but you have simply contrived the details of his death, extrapolated, marshalling your meager literary talents to produce an epistolary story that might be considered slightly humorous among some species.

However, it’s been more than a month since my father has returned to the walls of your house where we live, and so I am beginning to suspect that the events detailed in your callous letter are cruelly and tragically true. The word dead has not yet been uttered in our home, and our mother certainly clings to the hope that her beloved husband has simply wandered off again.

He has done so twice before, and I’ve heard him castigated for both during late-night arguments in which my mother has stated her black-and-white case, and my father has usually ended up storming out of the wall. The first time was when he’d had that affair with some mousette he’d met in the basement. “That vixen has had her little upturned nose in more whiskers than she knows how to count,” my mother would say.

The second time that my father was away was when he was chased and scratched by your cat last spring. He barely escaped being killed and eaten—scampered under the dryer at the last possible minute—and then stayed there for three days until the cat forgot about him and his wounds healed. “You could have at least called,” my mother would say.

Well, Wayne, your letter makes us think that he has not been so lucky this time. You may be happy that you can enter your kitchen fearlessly now, but our family is just sick with worry. My mother hasn’t eaten so much as a piece of paper in a week, and my two sisters are confused and inconsolable. “Mommy, when is daddy coming home?” I hear them ask every night before I settle in for another fitfull sleep.

You, Wayne, can rest assured that this cowardly and all-too-human murder, once proven, will not go unavenged. Yes, you may enter your kitchen now, and traipse around your apartment insouciantly, but the time will come when your life too will be shaken, blood will be answered with blood, and yet again our onslaught will be felt. Droppings? Uh-uh, Wayne. Look for us in your shoes or marching across your kitchen counter or in your bed at night, converging in a bottom corner of the sheets, and then scurrying up around your ears before you start flailing and we head straight back to the safety of the walls. Groups of us, Wayne, schools, packs. We’ll drive you out of the place, or at least diminish some of your comfort. We are starting to abandon any hope for a happier life for ourselves, but the prospect of ruining yours does bring us some measure of contentment.

 

 

Christmas in Somerville

In the front yard of the house, the plastic Santa is flanked by humungous candles, all hiding the Virgin Mary who now seems even more reluctant to emerge from her half-bathtub alcove. The owner is taking down the Baywatch-babes photo that dangles from the mirror of his old red 240SX, replacing it with a Christmas-tree ornament. He puts the photo in his pants pocket and tells his friend that he wishes they were that close to it.

It’s too warm for December, no snow on the ground, no leaves on the trees, the sun harshly exposing it all. The congregation is milling forlornly outside the Portuguese Catholic church. They’re primed for Christmas but it’s wedding weather and everyone is half expecting another brown bride to show up in white, giddily attended by her girls in peach.

Frank is sitting at the kitchen table trying to write the letter his wife Ella has asked him to. He’s written the date and “Dear Ella” and “I think the reason is because” but now he has put the pen down and turned on the football pregame show. The Steelers running back sprained his ankle in a fall from a stepladder during the week, and so his normal status as a starter is now relegated to “questionable” for today’s game.

About the same time as he was falling from the ladder and cursing that burnt-out lightbulb, Frank was sitting on the edge of another woman’s bed, pulling on his socks. When he walked into his own bedroom about three hours later, Ella looked at his wrinkled shirt, smelled his hair, and then asked him who she was and why he did it.

Why is what she’s asked him to write down. “And also how much you’re sorry about it, Frank, and how stupid it was and how likely you think it is that you’ll do it again any time soon.” He mutes the TV and walks to the bay window which looks down on Watt Street. Santa is encouragingly jolly, but the Virgin is staring straight ahead, implacable.

 

Your Life Vest May Also Be Inflated Orally

The credits are rolling at the end of this feel-good comedy—all those real and fictitious names, all those incomprehensible job titles, all those dots—and I don’t feel very good at all. The woman beside me looks over at me a little bleary-eyed, and says: “She reminds me of that actress in that stupid movie about, you know, the water.”

We’re over North America now, I think, flying direct from somewhere to somewhere else. I managed to get on this earlier flight and thus to save myself a three-hour layover, but now I have a premonition that the people who were supposed to be my fellow passengers will at leastarrive, while this damn plane will either explode or its engines will stall inexplicably and we will all just drop pathetically to the ground.

The guy sitting to the other side of me is a pilot (smaller planes), and I tell him I always worry that the plane will just flip over as our pilot overcompensates for an air pocket or lightning or —

“Actually, that kind of thing is highly unlikely,” he says somewhat reassuringly, but then adds: “It’s always the things the average person knows nothing about that you really should worry about.”

The magazine he’s reading has an article about the space station and he tells me lovingly about the spare parts used in its construction. “Stuff from the early ’80s,” he says, and I look out at the window at the wing and wonder what variety of old parts has been cobbled together for thisthing.

The flight attendant is stopped a couple of seats ahead of me and so I lower my tray in preparation for a snack.

“How much longer is this flight?” the passenger she’s serving asks.

“About another hour,” she says.

“Can’t you put the gas to it?” he asks and his companions all laugh.

“What?” she asks.

“Can’t you put the gas to it?”

More laughter.

“I’m sorry,” she says, now attending to another group of passengers. “I didn’t catch that.”

The guy persists when she is about to move on, and asks her a question about Santa Claus.

“Can he read?” she asks, trying to clarify. “Can Santa Claus read?”

He repeats his question.

“Oh,” she says. “Is he real?” Pause. “Yes, he is real.” And then she moves on to me and my seat mates.

While she is pouring my soda water, I ask if she has lime.

“Lemon,” she says.

“Lime,” I clarify.

“We have lemon,” she says.

I take it plain and she gives me some indecipherable look, glares at the drunken guys in the seats ahead, and then pushes the cart on to the next rows of passengers.

I settle back limelessly in my seat and my mind wanders. I don’t really care whether the plane goes down or not—all I care about, all I silently beg of God now, is that it happens fast if it does happen, that I am sucked roughly out the door or that the terrorist bomb is directly under my seat, not that something goes only mildly wrong in the air and we end up hurtling to our noisy, embarrassing deaths five miles below.

I look up at the television screen and there are clips of various sports rolling by now, regular and then slow motion, sometimes the same event in both, and they remind me that all I want to do is to complete one single discrete act—run turn catch fall, or chase tackle bring down. Something simple, something not of the daily world, an action that just folds in on itself, complete.

My soda water is warm now, no fizz. We will soon be merely landing.

 

It’s Not a Process, It’s a Thing

The first thing she threw at me was the duck-footed cheese board, a Christmas gift from Gordon and Melanie. It was heavy and didn’t travel far, barely making it over the kitchen counter she stood behind. It landed on one of the pewter feet, which broke off and clattered over the hardwood floor to my feet, like an offering, while the dark green marble board clapped loudly on the floor, the remaining three feet sticking up in the air, a deformed dead duck.

Later, we followed the same rituals as the night before and as too many nights to remember before that. I sat up in bed moving files around on my notebook computer while she removed make-up and put on red flannel pajamas in the bathroom. When she’d finished and was turning down the covers on her side of the bed, I put my notebook on the night table and got up and headed for the bathroom. Brushed teeth, put on cut-off sweat pants and an old T-shirt, both gray. When I got back to the bed she was on her side facing outside. I turned off my notebook and slid cautiously under my own covers on my own side of the bed.

“Night,” I said.

“Night.”

While she snored softly I could hear the ornaments of the Christmas tree sliding off the artificial branches and plinking onto the floor of the family room. In the morning I gathered up the ones which had survived the fall, and then tried to reposition them more securely. The broken ones I swept up and put in the trash.

I’d told her—I was almost sure I’d told her—that we had tickets to the new Duchamp show at the museum, but she said no, she couldn’t remember, I didn’t, and she could not possibly go today because she’d already invited Greta over for lunch, and didn’t I remember her telling me about that?

“I think I’ll pass on lunch and take in the show,” I said. “It should be OK—your ticket is good for another couple of weeks.”

It was called “Duchamp Douchant: A Shower of Art” and the billboard photo featured a cartoon of him, dressed in a natty suit, soaking wet from a shower, and standing next to a urinal. Not many other people were there. Three or four teenagers giggling. A perplexed old couple in front of the Nude Descending, the woman adjusting her head and the angle of her view so that, perhaps, it all would make some kind of sense.

I walked over to the Mona Lisa with the mustache. A woman approached from the side and put her nose about three inches from the art, staring intently.

She looked at me and smiled.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” she said.

“Ah—hello,” I stammered.

She pointed at the painting. “Original?” she said, the i’s sounding like e’s.

I paused.

“Ohio,” I said eventually. “I’m from O-hi-o.”

She looked at me and then at the art again.

“Excusez-moi?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said illogically. “Yes.”

I turned around and walked out of the museum to my car. It had started to rain and the driver’s side wiper was broken. I looked out my own wet obscured side mostly, and out the other side for right-hand turns. On the radio, the host was interviewing the author of Why Someone You Love Doesn’t Want You, asking superficially probing questions and never giving her a chance to answer.

“When it’s all over,” she was saying, “you’ll look back on it and you’ll notice all the signs, all the indications that there was something desperately wrong with your love. It’ll seem like a long drawn-out process to you then, inexorable even, progressing—so to speak—progressing from hints and disagreements and criticisms to the point where one of you has a suitcase in your hand and you’re headed to a hotel for the night while the other is left in the house, clattering around with all those tainted possessions, and at best the cat is the only other life you’ll have around you.

“At that time, as someone watches someone else drive away, you won’t care about any process. You’ll know as little about what has happened as about what will happen, and it’ll all just seem like one precise thing then, like a single event with no cause and no predictable outcome.”

I pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned off the radio and the wiper, and let myself be both engulfed in the rain and protected from it, too. Lightning flashed and I waited for the thunder to tell me how close the danger really was.

 

Nine

It wasn’t until the 9 billion dollars had been deposited into my accounts, a packet of gleaming new checks awaiting me—personalized, but with my name misspelled as Bne—it wasn’t until I was poised to embark on a lifetime of consumeristic excess that I lost all desire for possessions, for travel, for anything. I sat in my apartment daydreaming of total divestment, and calculated the only interest I had: at 4% per annum, the 9 billion dollars, just sitting there like me, would earn $366,673,886, which averaged to $7,051,420 a week. That’s a decent wage, I thought.

I did that for four or five solid days, alternating between the mathematical calculations and wandering semi-dazed around the apartment eating blueberry scones and drinking Evian. I lay on the hardwood floor late at night, into the early morning, and thought I saw the bills being wrapped and stacked neatly in a private vault for my convenience. I thought I could hear the bank manager greeting me ever more smarmily as my fortune accrued coextensively with his capacity to lend money at rates higher than what he was giving me.

Accountants, who’d read about my windfall in the newspapers, called and called, offering me their services. After a day of that I turned the ringer off and changed the voicemail message to: “You’ve reached Ben at 555-2652, but I can’t come to the phone right now because I’ve got my leg stuck under a stack of hundreds”.

They were interested in a take, though, and not dissuaded by the sarcasm. They left messages anyway, self-righteous about their financial knowledge and obsequious over the (unstated) prospect of their percentage.

“Ben. Jeremy Palama here. If I might be frank and informal with you … The reports have said that you’ve deposited the sum into interest-bearing accounts, but I’d love to advise you on how you might maximize your earnings with a well thought out program of investments in a diversified portfolio of …”

The voicemail was the first thing to go in my not at all thought out program of divestment. I gave away every single thing in the apartment except for enough clothes to get me out the door civilly. I rented a pristine condo on the 59th floor of a building downtown, the penthouse with views of the city in all directions. It felt hermetic, hermitic, but not enclosed. Safe, but free.

My campaign of assholish behavior—but not without some redeeming societal benefit—began with a visit to the God’s Will Bible Supply. It was spotless and neatly organized but smelled of something I couldn’t positively identify, perhaps like surplices that were not drycleaned enough.

“May I be of some assistance, sir?”

“Yes, please, I’m looking for a Bible, one with—”

“We have a wide range of Bibles in stock, sir,” she interrupted. “Is there a particular version you were interested in?”

“Yes,” I said. “I want one with all the weird parts taken out.”

She looked up at me, and then at the door, as if she were expecting an accomplice to blast in and make some violent sense of this bad joke.

“Excuse me, sir?” she said.

“Without the weird parts,” I said. “You know, all the violence and sexism and homophobia and general moral conservatism. All that. Can you show me one with all that taken out?”

“Sir, I—”

“I’ll give you a million dollars if you will give me a copy of the Revised Standard Version with all the offending passages crossed out.”

“Sir, I am going to have to ask you to leave if—”

“Ten million dollars. I’ll give you ten million dollars if you will personally cross out these passages from”—I handed her my typed list, and looked around—”from that copy there.”

I handed her $100,000 in cash and was poised with my pen over check 001. The poor woman was shaking. She looked at me sadly and seemed about to cry.

“Listen: take the money,” I said. “I’ll come back on Friday with a check for ten million, and if you’ve got the crossed-out copy and will sell me every other Bible in your store so that only the crossed-out one is left for sale—well, the money is yours.”

She acquiesced, and on Friday she accepted the check. I asked her to box up the other Bibles and have them delivered to my condo.

“God help me” was all she ever said.

I spent the next few months on similar projects. I sent packets of cash to various pop cultural annoyances, and promised even more if they would simply promise (and sign a contract) to stop doing what they did. Céline Dion, Howard Stern, Stephen King. I offered O.J. 200 million if he’d confess. I offered Oprah a full 2 billion dollars if she’d shut down the show and the book club as soon as possible.

I entertained myself with smaller projects, too. After a late-night meal of the driest and blandest fish and chips at Peckton’s Family Restaurant (“Welcome home to Peckton’s”), I launched a suit over their policy of serving the Oreo Ice Cream Surprise only to children under 12.

“Pure age discrimination,” I told my lawyer.

Back in my apartment, I still owned nothing. That felt good, as did the fact that the money was all in one place and not sensibly diversified. On my way here, in the grimy subway car, a woman looked up from the Holy Bible draped over her thigh and smiled at me. That was good, too.

How Jerry Survives His Wife’s Death

1. He doesn’t think much. That helps. But he doesn’t try to dull his senses either. He loses his desire for everything that matters: food, sex, beer, friendship. The messages on his machine start off terse (“Jesus, Jerry, come out with us for a drink”) but when days go by the tone changes. They get longer and more imploring, the red LED counter now showing 47. When it’s still early in the morning he can hear the phone ring or the doorbell or even the knocking, but late at night when there are tones of worry, anger, pleading in the voices of friends at his door—then Jerry can’t hear anything anyway. He sits in his rocker, stripped to his underwear and a T-shirt, sits sipping water from a mug.

And a memory washes over him: whenever he used to see her drinking anything other than hot liquid from a mug, he’d say “Are the glasses all dirty?” And she’d say no, or she didn’t know—she’d remind him that it was just another container for some liquid or other. Mugs could hold cold stuff, glasses could hold hot.

2. He tries to reduce her possessions, former possessions, to as close to zero as possible. Mostly he gets rid of the things that prying siblings or her father or some reporter wouldn’t understand: the nineteen porn videos (including Traci Lords’ teenage first); the family Bible, one published in 1899, in which she’d drawn stick figures to replace the original beatific illustrations; the hotel towels.

It all fits into three plastic trash bags, which he loads into the car. He drives to the dump, sets it on fire, and watches it burn, the acrid smoke bringing tears to his eyes.

3. He finally organizes their photographs into albums, incidentally reviewing their life as a couple. He feels a mess of emotions for her, lust at the sway of her breasts, her calmness, the way she talked, the way she listened.

There’s a photo of her in his bathrobe. She smiles bashfully at his staring—it was after that walk they’d taken one winter Sunday along the newly frozen canal, Jerry throwing huge rocks into it, which gulped to the bottom, and she zinged small stones along the ice without cracking it, the stones whistling over the surface.

4. By the time he’s reduced her former possessions to a bare few, he’s also lost weight because of his ascetic eating regimen. Everything feels balanced at the fulcrum between success and failure, life and death. Any small addition or removal would tip his life up into a whirling confusion of sensations, or down to a hard empty crash.

 

Look into My Light

I decided to leave my wife at a bar called the Cajun something-or-other on Bourbon Street. With fiddle and accordion music filling the room, along with what seemed to be French lyrics—”mes pieds dans mes souliers”?—I was detached enough from the whole proceeding to note the time (8.39 p.m.), take a triumphant sip of beer, and tell her I wanted a divorce.

She couldn’t hear me over the din of music and conversation, which was perhaps the best thing, as it was our honeymoon.

“I can’t hear you!” she shouted at the floor while her ear pressed near my mouth awaiting the fatal repetition.

“I want a,” I said, just leaving it there, waiting for her to make the decision or at least the inference.

“Want a … what do you want, Bill?” she shouted back.

“Let’s go,” I said—just that. Nothing about divorce, nothing about the, well, epiphany.

Here it is: the lead singer was pounding out the vocals, and stretching that poor accordion to its physical limits at the same time. The rest of the band was supporting him, all seemingly in their zone, the fiddle player with his eyes closed and staring blindly heavenward at nothing. I thought, Exactly, and right then the goal scored by the woman soccer player on TV just seemed to confirm it all.

That’s it. Exactly.

A song with no meaning and a goal scored for no other purpose than to add to the tally of goals already scored. That was the way, and not this IT job where I cracked six figures last year and could afford to plant quite a rock on that finger of hers and still maximize my 401(k) contributions.

“Let’s just go,” I repeated.

Back in the hotel room, she didn’t want me eating the potato chips from the convenience bar.

“They cost like five times what you’d pay in a corner store,” she protested.

“But you pay for the convenience,” I told her. “Hence the name.”

I ended up relegated to the airplane nuts she had salvaged from the flight. I counted them sullenly in my sweaty palm. Twelve. Twelve nuts, but they’re free.

In the morning I couldn’t bear her pleading again that we get up before the maid came to clean our room. She didn’t want us to have to shoo her away, saying we weren’t up yet, while, as Greta put it, “she and the whole staff would know what we were up to”.

I left her a note (“Gone for nuts!”) and sneaked out while she still snored softly. Breakfast was a shot of Jim Beam and a beer chaser. I got a little happy, a little drunk, a little sad.

I thought about my optometrist. I’d had my eyes tested before coming here, and there in her darkened office, an equipment leviathan in one corner and a computer in another — she flashed meaningless words at me, ever diminishing in size. When it came time for the close examining of my eye parts, she shone the light directly at me and drew her head near, her hair brushing against my forehead.

“Look into my light,” she said. And then the other eye: “Look into my light.”

And I did. I did whatever she told me to.

 

David, I Think

(co-written with Oscar Martens)

She asks me what my phone number is and I tell her I don’t know. There are few acceptable excuses for not knowing your own phone number, and I can only think of two as I look down at my new shoes, one of which, I seem to remember, squeaks: I have undertaken a series of secret identities lately, like that guy in the Talking Heads song; or, I am completely losing my mind and/or long-term memory. In any case, I like the way she is touching me, over-familiar for a stranger and very relaxed, lingering.

“Well, what’s your name then?” she asks.

“Whatever you want it to be.”

“Right. Because you can’t remember it, or because you’d prefer to role-play a little? You know, be Napoleon or a famous rock star or something?”

I mimic her gentle touch, hoping that will do for an answer. She smiles at me, looks down at my hand.

“David, I think,” she says. “Yes. You mentioned it before when we were talking about your sister. Your name is David.”

The careful release of one or two facts just makes her more curious. A better strategy is to fill her with fictional trivia about my mother’s house in Philadelphia, the perennials which appear every spring, where they are located, her amazing sense of color. After a very deep breath we’re on to my father’s long, slogging rise to the middle of an insurance agency. And speaking of insurance …

The thing is, I don’t remember saying David. The name—the word, when examined for too long, becomes untrustworthy. The “D” part is passable but “avid” seems exotic, archaic—part of a Greek structure? It reminds me of “ovid”. What can you say about a name that ends in “vid”? Would you want your daughter dating someone whose name ended in “vid”?

“David,” I think, and then say out loud, to her, to no one in particular, “David”.

“It doesn’t sound right,” I say.

“What doesn’t?” she asks.

“David. My name. The one you called me. It’s not me. It just doesn’t sound like me.”

“Well, I’m just repeating what you told me. Just now, when you were touching me. I like you, David. I’d like to hear more. Tell me some more about yourself.”

“I don’t like loud music. I don’t like dancing. Did I say that already?”

Some pyscho is staring at me from across the bar. He won’t look away. The challenge of wills ends when I realize it’s my reflection. I scratch my nose to make sure, a little shocked by my glowering face. The woman next to me does not seem to notice that she’s talking to a guy who looks like he’s on his way to kill someone. Fun, happy people give us plenty of room.

“OK, no music, no dancing,” she says. “So perhaps this place wasn’t the best idea?”

She turns to look for something—an exit? a bathroom? something to slap me in the head with and put herself out of her goddam misery?—and I see her back muscles in the mirror, smokily, one bra strap, purple, showing, one ear exposed, her dress that kind that only quite beautiful people can bring off, not new, perhaps even bought second-hand, something that would hang frumpily off the shoulders — oh, those exquisite shoulders—of anyone else but her.

“My apartment is 4 minutes and 30 seconds from here,” I say. “Out, then left, then right, right, then there it is in front of you.”

I don’t wait for consent. My hand is on her lower back and we move toward the door, past the bouncers and the coatcheck, into the street. It’s pushy but pushy seems like the way to be—it has resonance. I know how to get to my building but have to check the vehicle registration for the apartment number. Luckily she doesn’t ask me to explain this.

This whole day has been like standing in front of a room of people and singing a song without knowing for sure if you can sing until you hear the first few notes. I got lost in a parkade this morning—really lost. I noticed a car that looked like something I’d buy—not something I’d want to own but something I’d end up with. When the key wouldn’t turn I almost panicked. The second key on the ring worked and I relaxed slightly, thinking that I might eventually make it out of this intact.

We enter the apartment. There’s a longish hallway leading to what looks like a living room with some pretty ugly furniture in it. A kitchen on the left. A closet full of someone’s clothes on the right. I lock the door behind us and accidentally drop the keys on the floor, but decide to leave them there. I turn around and she is staring at me, smiling.

“Leslie, I think,” I tell her. “Your name is Leslie?”

“Some girls would be really insulted. Doesn’t even remember my name. A guy should pay more attention if he hopes to get lucky.”

“Some girls would be insulted—but not you. It’s Leslie, right?”

“Lisa.”

“Right, Lisa. Listen, Lisa, I’m sorry. Things aren’t making a lot of sense today. I’m just a little tired, I guess.”

“Maybe you’re too tired,” she says, picking up her purse and turning to go.

“No, not that tired.”

Lisa pauses, hesitating. I reach out and pull her hips toward mine, brush a light kiss onto her lips. When she excuses herself to go to the washroom, I go to bedroom and find it messy, covered in books and magazines. I grab the bed cover and send them all flying.

I hear her unlatch the door and crack open the deadbolt. I race to the door and put my hand against it to block her escape.

“You can go, but tell me what’s upset you first?”

She leads me to the bathroom and points to three pairs of black panties, hanging from the shower rod.

“You’ve got a wife, girlfriend, guest for the weekend, or you just like to wear women’s underwear. Which is it?”

I alternate my slack-jawed staring between her and the panties. Yes, they’re black. I touch them, perhaps not a good idea given the circumstances. They’re dry, even a little stiff.

“David, I think,” I say. “I think David put them here.”

“But you’re Da—you know, I’ve had enough of this shit.”

She turns, walks out of the bathroom and out of the apartment altogether. The door closes oh so softly.

“Leslie,” I call after her. “My name is Leslie. But my friends call me Les.”

 

Sherry

Sherry feels she looks better in the hotel’s mirror. Whenever she’s putting on her makeup (never too much) in the bathroom, her cheeks always seem a little less puffy to her, less chubby, and her jawline seems cut and slender and beautiful. Her skin looks great—same with her hair, and her eyebrows, and even the nose that her bratty little sister, now thankfully ensconced with that rich dope in one of the Carolinas, couldn’t resist making fun of every damn chance she got—even her nose seems smaller and even slightly upturned. She looks like a woman even though she never feels like one.

She stands on the toilet seat and checks out the other proportions of her body. Nice, she says aloud to herself, nice. She wonders if the place has one of those mirrors like she’s heard they have in some hotels and department stores—the ones that make you look slender, especially when the light is muted somehow. The ones that make you want to stay an extra night or buy one more twin set.

Outside, she doesn’t feel good at all in South Beach. A couple of times she thinks she sees guys looking at her, checking her out, but she never feels worthy of that. She finishes her lunch quickly, the dog at the next table sniffing at her french fries and the waiter advising her to keep an eye on her muffin—finishes her lunch and then heads right back to her hotel to shower and change and try to do something with her hair. But inevitably when she returns to the cafe or goes to the beach she still feels bloated and obvious and dirty there, and the others still look laughingly beautiful.

“You need service?” a woman asks her when she is on her way back outside for shopping.

“Pardon?”

“You need service? You know, housekeeping?”

“Oh. No,” Sherry says, “that’s not necessary. I’m checking out today anyway.”

She rushes back out to Ocean Drive to pick up souvenirs. It’s a blur. Her flight leaves in three hours and she has bought nothing. She goes at it in a frenzy: sometimes her credit card works and sometimes it doesn’t. She bumps into a couple getting up from their table at the News Cafe, the woman a bikini babe with a black mesh dress, and the man wearing a conventioneer’s badge. HELLO, it says, my name is Sam.

“I’m sorry, excuse me,” Sherry says, but they just walk on, the man telling the babe that the keynote speech is on latency.

On the plane ride back, news from the crash of the something-or-other Air flight some-number-or-other is fresh in her mind from the CNN report, and she worries that everything is latent, anything is possible. It’s pouring rain and windy and the landing is rough. She arrives back at her house, sets her luggage down in the hall, checks for phone messages (five), and goes to the basement. The floor is flooded: she dips her toe in, further, further, and it’s about three inches. It’s still early enough to call that plumber her sister-in-law told her about. She goes back upstairs and retrieves the number from a piece of paper amidst the collage on the refrigerator door. She looks at it, the digits all meshing now, and then she just stares up at the ceiling where the fan is whooshing cool air on her.

She opens the bottle of red wine she’s been saving for nothing in particular. It’s still raining and she hears a vague clacking sound in the basement, but she sits in the white wicker chair in her living room, swirls the wine and sips it slowly in small mouthfuls.

 

Avoid

Everyone knows that you should try to strip everything down to its bare elements. Life’s easier that way. Go through the closets, try on each item in there, and summarily discard anything that does not fit or anything you have not worn in, say, six months. Bag it all up and take it to Goodwill or somewhere.

Look at Gavin, for example. He’s done that for his clothing months ago, and has now extended his minimalistic zeal to all of his possessions. He went through 1,589 books on his shelves, mostly 20th-century novels and biographies of British monarchs, and winnowed them all down to 65. He went through them again, and got rid of 7 more (5 of Graham Greene’s novels, and 2 biographies whose scholarly methods he disdained). So: 58 books — 58 books which are as valuable to him as the Bible to the practicing Christian. Books he has to have. Books he would be continually borrowing from the public library anyway if he did not have his own copies. He reads the same ones over and over again. Pale Fire at least twenty times. The Mezzanine every quarter. Zero every three or four years.

His wife was livid when she found out.

“We could have at least sold some of them and gotten enough for the DVD player,” she said.

“Don’t be mad.”

“Are you kidding? How can I not be?”

“Well, you know what they say: we shouldn’t go to bed angry. It’s bad for our relationship.”

And so she stayed up the entire night, watching TV on the couch in the living room, watching videos, even watching the infomercials (“yours for three easy payments of $49.95”).

He couldn’t sleep himself, what with all the noise, so he ended up in the bathroom re-caulking the tub. “When filling a void, more than one application may be necessary,” the instructions read.

Gavin got rid of a fine world atlas, too, so that all he is left with for all his cartographic needs now is a child’s block puzzle of the United States.

“Ages 4 and up: that includes me,” he tells his wife, trying to break the ice, but she is sulky and sullen for a good solid week.

He’s memorized the basic location of all the states by the end of the month, and all the capitals, even the obscure ones, like Frankfort, Kentucky. She is defiantly unimpressed.

“What’s the price of a one-way ticket to Helena?” she asks.

 

Blank Inside

None of the cards is appropriate for what she wants to tell him. She thumbs through rhymed and lilting sentiments, hundreds of them, and eventually they all seem the same to her, cardtalk, neither happy nor sad nor congratulatory. A new baby leveled with a dead grandfather.

He shouldn’t have done that. That’s all. He shouldn’t have been with her—the other her—when this her was rubbing the achy belly of their son. She is worried that he has passed on his deadly habits to his own offspring, that the boy is poisoned with a desire to tear things down, to neglect what’s valuable, to look a naked woman straight in the eye and lie to her.

“Honey, you know I wouldn’t do that.”

She’s not sure now whether that is what he really said, or whether she heard that line in a bad country song, or read it on one of these cards.

Their boy, conceived at the edge of a graveyard after they’d spent the day looking for the headstone of her grandfather, fidgets a little in his stroller and pulls one of the bunches of cards onto the floor of the store. She picks them up (“Hey, look who’s turning 16!”) and distributes one of each of them into all the categories.

 

On On Love Etc. Etc.

Reading Alain de Botton’s On Love while listening to Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and drinking Concha y Toro’s Cabernet Sauvigon & Merlot blend mixed with Diet Minute Maid orange soda

Saturday evening, Feb. 3, 2001


Preface

I feel bad that I was not able to attain the precious Fanta orange as J had instructed would be the perfect mixer, but I derive some consolation from two facts: she has told me that the specific De Botton and Yo La Tengo I have chosen are a promising pairing, and Minute Maid is made by the same company as makes Fanta (alas, Coca-Cola).

First Glass

I mix it about half and half. The wine is warm and the soda is cold, and the resultant mixture is (surprise!) somewhere in between. I actually like the taste of it very much, but plan to add ice for my second glass. The three events—reading, listening, drinking — take place simultaneously, and the first and the third predominate: De Botton’s writing is excellent (funny, insightful, in that deceptively loose and easy style which is so hard to bring about in practice); and the soda/wine (tastes great). I think I hear a train chugging in the first short piece on the Yo La Tengo, but afterwards the music becomes background, which is perhaps the point.

I laugh, not quite out loud (that happens very seldom, as it should), but laugh heartily at some of De Botton’s words. E.g.: “If God did not play dice, He or She certainly did not run a dating service.” Other words of his are deep and casual at the same time: “All too often forced to share our bed with those who cannot fathom our soul, can we not be forgiven if we believe ourselves fated to stumble one day upon the man or woman of our dreams?”

I can’t help thinking of the chance meeting of the narrator and Chloe (one chance in 5840.82) and my chance meeting with J. I had hardly known her before suggesting through a friend that she come to lunch with us. I had a memory of having met J once before, and I knew she had a boyfriend, and mainly I wanted her to be there so that there would be a third person.

She turned out to be a singular third person.

About a Quarter of the Way through the Second Glass

The ice was an excellent idea, if I do have to say so myself. Two cubes, of course, which seems right for the book and the CD and the project generally. Two. I wonder if J is a purist who will disdain me now for mucking up a perfectly good trio of decadences. Somehow, I don’t think so.

De Botton continues to overwhelm, and in the (for me) numerologically significant 9 and 15 sections. In 9: “What is so frightening is the extent to which one may idealize another, when one has so much trouble even tolerating oneself.” And in 15: “The initial movement is necessarily founded on ignorance” (his italics). I like the numbering of the sections in the novel, and it reminds me (self-centered brute that I am) of the story I published in Shift magazine oh so many years ago, about my breakup with my wife. Title: “Wrestling,” and also in numbered sections.

I did consciously look for cheap bad wine. I know nothing about wine, really, so I just sought out the cheapest bottle I could find, thinking that would be in accord with J’s instruction that the stuff be pretty basic. It cost $5.69. Five, sixty-nine. All good numbers still.

Nearly Finished the Second Glass

I have to say that I really don’t like the Yo La Tengo when (for two songs at least now) it starts off with this really hard and gravelly guitar riff. I’ve used my remote to turn it down. Part of that is that since I am so inexperienced in music, I need to listen to it by itself, while I read along with the lyrics like a child learning his ABCs, or someone trying to learn French by cassette.

Can’t agree with Chloe more when she says, as they are in the gallery together: “But actually, I sort of like looking at things and not knowing quite what they mean.” If I didn’t like J so much, I think I would be in love with Chloe.

Seriously, though, it reminds me of the experience of art. You look/read/listen/whatever, and you sense something, you feel something, and you are able to articulate part of that, especially if you are a person with some experience and facility in eloquence. But, of course, you can’t express the whole thing, no matter how good a, for example, literary critic you are, not even if you are Northrop Frye. Art cannot be contained in the enclosure of explanatory words.

De Botton is (words fail me, so I just have to say …) excellent. I am envious.

I have spent the day in a flurry of getting practical things done: cutting illustrations out of a book on metadata; incorporating into my novel, Will’s Dead Wife, some comments from a couple of other readers; preparing my tax information for a CA in Toronto (who was so great and enthusiastic and knowledgeable on the phone with me on Friday that I could have shouted with glee); clearing out some paper; sending tapes to Oscar and to J, and T-shirts to my mother. But then, also: starting my French story for J (may I say that I love the title, which is: “Je la tiens”?).

Into My Third Glass

Finally, the Yo La Tengo is great, too. Track 10, “Green Arrow.” And I just received an email from J about 10 minutes ago. Ah, life is good on this quiet Saturday evening, having the trio experience, getting email from her, writing this, and, multi-taskingly, doing my 300 words in Novel3, too.

It’s one of those things one sometimes forgets is necessary for someone to be a good writer, but he/she has to know words. Writers have to have language in them, and be able to spew it out of them like <insert appropriate artisan metaphor here>. I was struck by these sentences from De Botton: “Tentatively, we plotted our orientations and definitions. We did so in the most tortuous ways. We asked each other ‘What does one look for in love?’ — this one embodying a subtle linguistic abdication of involvement.” That last phrase (“this one embodying a subtle linguistic abdication of involvement”) is something from a writer who knows words and knows how to string them together into sentences which are smart and articulate.

I have never understood quite what flirtation is, so this is interesting to me: ” … the first rule of flirtation, where what is said is never what is meant.” Because I don’t quite understand flirtation, and consequently don’t “do” it well, I have sometimes either come on too strong to women, or have seemed (to them) as though I am flirting with them when in fact I am just acting on my natural curiosity about people generally. Same thing on the receiving end: there have likely been women in my past who have flirted with me shamelessly, but whose subtle cues I did not pick up on at all. With J, I now feel: she is interested. I have made it clear that I am interested. Flirting and communicating are just co-extensive now.

Further into Third

Breaking one-third of the rules, this portion has been a reading with soda/wine, and sans music. But, holy shit, it is worth it for these things from Chloe. On her father: “All his problems started when his parents called him Barry.”

I think this combo of basic red wine and orange soda should be marketed as a product if it is not done so already. A cooler or something, because my experience over this hour or two has been that it is best chilled (reminds me of the slogan on one of the Indian beers I have had: “Most Thrilling Chilled”. Really!).

Finished the Third

I did so just as Chloe has seduced him. He’s in her apartment, and has just emerged from the bathroom, and is about to leave, when “she placed her lips on mine and there began the longest and most beautiful kiss mankind has ever known.”

It’s been a long while since I have had such a great novel recommended to me. It is either that my tastes in fiction do not coincide with those of most of the people I run into, or that I just don’t like the stuff that most people happen to be reading, or that most fiction is so godawful anyway that it is unlikely that anyone’s recommendation is going to turn out to be fruitful. Like movies (perhaps all art forms) that way: a very high percentage is just outright junk, and a very low percentage is the stuff that makes you shiver with aesthetic longing.

I’ve really not had much wine. With my second glass I started mixing more soda than wine, so that I feel only the slightest tincture of intoxication. Thass wyy Ime not shlurrrring my wordz or ennythhing like thettt.

I’ve decided that I will let the end of the Yo La Tengo CD decide when this (what?) report is over. I am now at page 45 of De Botton (“Mind and Body”) and I think the CD is on track 14 of 16. So, I am off to pour my fourth and likely last glass of the elixir for the night.

Fin

The Yo La Tengo ends at precisely 1.09 a.m., according to the clock on my VCR. I am on page 56 of On Love, where he and Chloe are having their first morning-after breakfast together, and I have only just started my fourth glass. I’ll switch modes now, and boost the J I have been referring to up from third to second person:

Thank you for suggesting these activities to me, J. Here’s a detail which harkens back to the beginning of the novel when De Botton was talking about fate and destiny and all that: I have the three things here in my bedroom with me now, the jewel case of the CD, the novel, and the drink, and the colors all match. They are in unity. They are beating, and being, as one.


In Your Chest

You were standing behind him in line at Starbucks, doubly distracted. First by his order, a tall non-fat no-foam latte, or no-fat non-foam—you weren’t sure, and you were puzzling over the syntactic protocol while looking at a flyer on the floor, bright orange, plain lettering, DOVE CLEANERS, and you were distracted by the immediate image that was imprinted in your mind, a dove, the purest of birds, and why would anyone ever need to clean one?

And then suddenly his elbow was in your chest, an accident, and he apologized profusely, “Sorry, I’m sorry,” and he looked genuinely surprised that someone had been standing that close to him, and you felt worse than he did, like a ditz who got in the way of normal people who were trying to carry on their lives, and never thought about it again until you were sitting with your grande something non-something, hoping to savor the contrast between its milkiness and the sour dryness of the lemon scone, and there was a stab of pain, sharp this time, not dull like when his cotton-shirted elbow had thudded against you.

Bank

Here’s some advice about asking your bank teller out for a date: don’t do it by writing a cryptic message on a slip of paper and then passing it to her while you fidget and sweat on the other side of the counter. That was my mistake. I walked into the bank at what I figured would be a slow time (mid-afternoon) on a slow day (Wednesday). Indeed, there was very little activity: one guy in the waiting area flipping languidly through Maclean’s; a young couple listening earnestly to every promising word issuing from one of the financial advisors; an old man at the little forms kiosk, crouched over a deposit or withdrawal slip as if he were making an etching.

Perfect. I didn’t want her to be distracted by the unrelenting and tedious bustle of a long line of customers. There was a lull and she was talking cheerily to the teller next to her, a heavily made-up woman wearing a bad combination of chartreuse and fuchsia. I should have typed out a nice legible message on a card at home, but I had forgotten to in the foggy-headed anticipation of finally acting on my desires. The old man, the etching complete, stepped up to the multi-colored teller and handed his work to her. More people entered the bank and I rushed up and grabbed one of the forms and thought I was clearly writing this on the back of it:

hi, I like you. My name is Frank. Would you like to go out with me sometime?

But I tend to write badly when I am in a hurry, and—as the police officer later confided to me—she assumed from the scrawl that I was requesting something negative, and it was a bank, so …

I remember that she didn’t say a word to me as I smiled and slid the paper toward her. An odd look swept across her face. She cleared her throat and looked down at what I had written.

“Sir?” she said.

“It’s Frank.”

“Yes. I mean … You … Sir?”

“I wrote it all down there. Otherwise I thought it’d be awkward.”

The police officer also explained that many banks have now equipped all the tellers’ stations with a foot-activated alarm, so that the tellers aren’t blatantly reaching down to press a button while an edgy robber, gun in hand and pressed for time, watches their slow-motion actions, the eyes darting, the hand gradually disappearing under the counter.

“Sir, if you—”

“Frank. Please call me Frank.”

“Frank. OK, Frank, if you would just tell me what you would like me to do, what you want, then I hope we can resolve this.”

“Resolve? Well, Valerie, I was hoping … Is it OK if I call you Valerie?”

“Sure.”

“I was just hoping that maybe we could just go out to a movie or something some time. You know, just go out some time.”

“Sir?”

“Please. Frank.”

“Yes. Right. Ah, go out?”

“Yeah. You know, like a date.”

“And the money?”

“Excuse me?”

“The money. From here. The bank. The money you’re robbing.”

It was about then that there was a loud noise at the entrance, and I turned around to see that police officer there with—well, with a gun pointed at me.

“Drop your weapon, sir,” he said.

I looked down at the pen that was still in my hand, unable to see how this could be construed as anything other than an innocent writing implement. Sure, maybe some psycho bent on dispatching his victim regardless of the lack of standard weapon: Joe Pesci used a pen pretty effectively in Casino. But I—

I turned back to Valerie, only to see that she had vacated her station—in fact, all the tellers had. I saw my note still there on her side of the counter, upside down, and while I was reaching for it I heard his voice at my shoulder (“… the weapon …”), then his hand, and a muffled scream from someone at the back of the bank.

The police officer was calm and understanding. I deciphered the note for him, which he had rescued as potential evidence, and he just chuckled as I guided him through my atrocious handwriting.

“Ever thought of a career in medicine? You know, writing prescriptions?”

I turned to look at him one last time as I left the station, and he was still laughing, and nodding his head, and now he had his arm around the shoulder of a fellow officer. I thought I heard “dating his teller,” and then guffaws, as the door whooshed shut behind me.

Desdemona Eating a Banana

During intermission at the play she eats a banana, calm, even taking the time to peel off that stringy bit that clings to it, calm even though she knows that her husband will kill her in about 45 minutes.

Dead William

Jason has rented a dumpster from the big place out on Commerce Road that he passed sometimes on one of the variations of his route to work, usually when he was in a hurry and so had to forgo the country road for the paved practicality of the industrial suburbs. It’s brand new, an excruciating orange in about the shade of the prisoners’ uniforms he’s seen in some movies. The black lettering on all sides says HUMPSTER’S DUMPSTERS, and Jason makes the delivery guy park it right by the side of the house. Some flowers, and Shayla’s entire crop of oregano, are ruined, but Jason nods approvingly as he hands the guy a twenty-dollar tip. The gears grind and there’s a billow of ugly dark smoke as the truck makes its way down the street. Jason can still smell it as he walks into the house.

He walks up the stairs and has to stand at the door for a full minute before he is able to enter William’s room. The window is already open, and when he looks down he is staring right into the maw of the dumpster. Shayla has told him explicitly and repeatedly not to do this, but something in her knew that he would do it anyway, and so she has already rescued some of the clothes, some of the toys, most of the things that were gifts from friends and relatives. She passed him in the hallway with a squeaky dolphin in her hand, and he just stared ahead blankly as she pursed her lips, held back tears, and rushed by him quickly.

Jason has no system. He takes an orienting look out the window to gauge the target, and then just lets a few objects drop, and heaves some others. He examines the result: everything has plonked into the dumpster. It’s a bit of a frenzy after that as he goes about emptying the contents of the entire room. The smallest is a platinum letter W which he tosses out nonchalantly, as though it’s a bit of debris that he has come across while dusting. The largest: a dresser where Shayla has meticulously folded all of William’s clothes. The clothes are easy, and the drawers make crisp splintering noises as they crash into the harsh metal of the dumpster, but he has to kick the frame of the dresser to pieces, and then beat at it with its own cracked-off limbs. He sweats: it’s the best (the only) workout he has had since William’s death. He goes at it for five solid minutes, choosing the weak spots, like a boxer, pounding for a while, and then drawing back slightly to rest and to re-evaluate strategy, and then to hone in for the kill. He lays it on its side and then rushes it like a linebacker would, pounding it into the wall. Something cracks, and in a lucid moment he hopes that it is not his shoulder.

Jason stands up, the sweat now literally dripping onto the floor, his body drenched as if he has just stepped out of the shower. There’s a fine line, perfectly straight, running down the top of the dresser, and he half laughs and half cries as he charges at it for one last time, and the thing splits in two. A large splinter of the wood, about a foot long, also now sticks out ludicrously from his bicep, and he pulls it out and watches the blood run down an arm, mixing in with sweat and dirt and debris from the floor, all forming a rivulet which ends at his elbow and drips from there. He pulls off his T-shirt, then his pants, and stands there in his socks and underwear. He wraps his shirt around the cut in his arm, pulls it tight, ties it in a knot. It feels immediately better.

Jason surveys the room. The dresser is the only thing of any substance remaining, and he forces the biggest two pieces of it out the window, and the sound they make reverberates, like it should when something gets destroyed obscenely, like it should when a child dies, like it should when it all comes to a crashing end. An hour and a half later, the room is completely empty, as if he has cleaned it out and tidied it up for new tenants. He gets a broom and sweeps all the little bits into a large plastic trash bag, and that is the last thing that he throws into the dumpster.

Shayla is sitting on the couch when Jason sees her from the kitchen on his way to the basement. There’s a magazine in front of her, bright glossy photos with impossible greens in them, a little text on the edge, but she seems to just be staring straight down at the table rather than looking at the magazine. She looks up and he can’t see anything at all in her face, as though a mess of many negative feelings have all cancelled themselves out and ended up just looking like fatigue and resignation.

“Jason, for fuck sake.”

He hesitates for the briefest moment-but then just touches her lightly on the shoulder, averts his eyes, and heads for the basement. On his way back upstairs with the paint and brushes, he avoids the kitchen and heads straight back for William’s room.

He wants it all black, including the floor. He’s already stripped off the carpet, which is discarded in a hundred pieces of various sizes in the dumpster. The walls are bare, the closet empty of even hangers, the light bulb and its cover both now also removed and lying in the dumpster. Jason starts with a wall, slathering the paint on with a large brush, the light blue giving way easily to the black, the rainbow which he had meticulously, lovingly painted over the door about a week before William was born-the rainbow is also soon lost in blackness. Each wall takes about twenty minutes and Jason makes sure to do the closets as well.

Eventually, everything is done except for the floor: he sits in the middle and stares up at the ceiling. The sun is just starting to go down outside and the ceiling looks like it goes on forever, an insubstantial blackness which combines with the sky, everything connected, everything poisoned by the death of a baby. Jason finds a toothpick in his pocket and he starts absentmindedly poking at his chin with it while he surveys the room now. The paint has gone on thick, like on a black panel by an abstract artist.

He throws the toothpick out the window and starts painting the floorboards. It’s exhausting work and he can feel a threatening twinge in the part of his lower-right back which sometimes goes out. He stands, stretches, bends backwards, and then returns to the painting. This pattern is repeated until, like in a cartoon, everything is black except the area he stands on in the doorway. He steps into the hallway, dips his brush one last time into the paint can, and makes it all one, dark, black, negative, evil, the last memorial to their dead son.

He wakes up in the same hallway. It’s early: he can tell by the light and the quiet outside. What day is it? He’s never sure any more.

His back is sore and he has some trouble just getting to his feet. His cut arm hurts. He goes to the bathroom and runs the water for a bath, pouring lavender-scented bubble bath into the gush of water. He slides down into the tub, his body more slender than it has ever been, now that he doesn’t care at all about such things. It’s too hot, but he shivers as though it were too cold. It’s up to his neck now, this sweet-smelling water, and he fantasizes about sinking all the way down, disappearing. Not about killing himself, but just about slipping quietly into a world where there is no such thing as loss and anger and the debilitating helplessness of being a mere man against God.

God. That’s who occupies his mind all the time. He wants to slide wetly into a world where he could wreck some vengeance on God, sneak up behind him, hurt him when he was least expecting it. Or better yet: kill his son again the way that God apparently let William die, God just easing back onto a comfortable cloud, checking his nails, while a baby gasped for air. An eye for an eye, a son for a son. He imagines sacrilegious scenes in which anonymous thugs have pinned God to the ground but allowed his head to be turned so that he can see Jason nailing his son to another cross, the blood running from the hands, the tears in the all-powerful father’s eyes as he sees the error of his ways, eventually turns his head away in shame as much as horror.

Jason is embarrassed at his fantasies, not because of their content-he couldn’t care less about God and all the rest of it-but at how cliché his reaction is. He can’t blame a drunk driver or a burglar for causing his only son’s death. He can’t blame himself. He can’t blame a bungling emergency-room doctor. So he shuffles around looking for someone, anyone, to be the object of his rage, to be the unlucky chosen one on whom he pours all his hate and frustration and helplessness-God, who in Jason’s imaginings is guilty for not doing anything when it was obviously within his powers to do so. Don’t they call it “criminal negligence causing death,” or something like that?

The water is getting cold. Jason considers letting some out and replenishing the tub with more hot water, but he notices his wrinkled skin and decides to get out instead. He towels himself off and looks in the mirror while the cloudy water eddies down the drain, little tufts of bubbles still clinging to the tiles in some places. He does feel a little better: a simple hot bath has put him in a better frame of mind for dealing with the indifferent universe and its laissez-faire creator.

For a full month after Jason’s blackening of William’s former room, neither he nor Shayla even acknowledge it. Jason is not sure what she thinks about the whole thing, and he doesn’t really want to talk about it. He concludes that she is not particularly angry at him, but she is quiet and subdued. She sits at the dining-room table looking around, and only smiles weakly when Jason brings in the salad for dinner. She pokes at the wet leaves of lettuce as if she is trying to make something, as if she is looking for something better than what she has been offered.

“It’s good,” she lies while still chewing. “It’s good. Thanks.”

Jason is not much more enthusiastic. For about a week he subsisted on nothing more than chocolate bars and potato chips, all washed down with Coke. It gave him permanent heartburn, and he had to pop Tums every hour or so just to stay livably comfortable.

He removes the salad after she has played with it for twenty minutes and consumed only about a quarter. Shayla nearly winces when he places the pasta in front of her: she can’t even imagine tackling this.

“Jason, I don’t think I can,” she says, looking at him helplessly as he sits back down in his chair.

“Can’t what?”

“I can’t eat. I’m not hungry. I don’t think I can eat anything.”

Jason looks at her for a moment and then just turns his eyes toward his own plate. He fiddles with the sauce and scrapes a fleck of some herb or other off a noodle. There’s silence at the other end of the table, and he looks up to see that Shayla has abandoned her utensils altogether. She pushes her plate forward toward the center of the table, as if conceding defeat.

Jason doesn’t have the heart to cajole her anymore. It’s just a matter of timing, he thinks. He’s just coming out of his own pattern of disordered eating, and starting to eat normally again. But Shayla has no appetite for food right now. Her son is dead and she’s not hungry. What could be more normal than that? He hopes and expects that she will come out of it, emerge a better person somehow, but he won’t push her. Let it happen. Let it all just happen the same way that everything else just happens.

He smiles across the table at her and she nods back.

It is the following Sunday morning and Jason is sitting on the deck at the back of the house. Coffee in a dark brown mug on a pine table. He sits in a wicker chair, his legs stretched out in front of him. He’s wearing a dark blue cotton bathrobe with stylized white-line images of fish on it. The sun is just about to come up, and an occasional chill breeze makes him pull together the front of his robe over his knees.

Jason sometimes is scared and sometimes just does not care enough to work out all the financial details. He knows that if he did the simple math, dividing what he has in the bank by the number of years he could reasonably expect to be alive, the prospects would likely not be good. He knows that he might have to get another job at some point, though right now he cannot possibly fathom even the hint of that: getting up in the morning, going out to work among people, coming home exhausted and frustrated and bored, and then doing the whole thing all over again the next day.

The top of the dark orange orb of the sun is now showing itself on the horizon. Jason feels that its light and warmth are directed right at him. He closes his eyes nearly all the way and through the slits he sees the sun get larger and less orange until it is huge and illuminates everything around him. It’s too bright now, darkness having given way to a perfect balance and then deteriorating to this plethora, and when Jason closes his eyes all the way, he sees black, and then all the colors, and then white. Things swirling and things appearing out of nowhere.

Dark House

My entry in The Globe and Mail’s Great Toronto Literary Project)

The gush of water from the Eaton Centre fountain turns wispy at the top, stops ascending and seems to consider its options, and then falls back down in a scattered mess of drops, exactly 59 of which land on Vida’s head.

“My father?” she says. “You were my father in a former life?” Vida sits on the edge of the fountain while she waits for the dishevelled man in front of her to explain the unexplainable.

“Yes,” he says.

“Yes?” Vida replies a little too loudly, startling some of the people around her who are not focused on last-minute shopping. “That’s the best you can do?”

Vida awaits a clarification, an expansion, that doesn’t come. Fifteen seconds pass, a minute, and this time she shouts the first words much too loudly, “Let’s get this straight,” and they whiz around the ears of the desperate teenaged boy who is proofreading the gigantic card he just got for his girlfriend, and Vida looks behind her and hopes that she hasn’t startled Snow’s Canada geese.

“Let’s get this straight,” she repeats in a more civil tone. “I get an email from a doctor named Boo who may be the devil, and now he’s telling me—now you’re telling me—that you are my father? Is that right? Like Star Wars brought to life, Mr. Vader?”

Boo laughs. “It’s not quite that simple, but, yes, you’ve got the basics right. Perhaps we could sit somewhere a little away from the crowd and I could explain?”

Vida looks around at the frenetic shoppers. She feels like she is on a set for a movie with an incredible premise, while the production crew and various extras mill around her. She adjusts her backside on the edge of the fountain and invites Boo to sit next to her.

“Here’s a compromise,” she says. “You sit here with me now and start talking, and if it seems like you’re making any sense at all, then we can go and sit somewhere a little more quiet and away from the masses.”

Boo stands there for a moment trying to make up his mind about what to do. He relents and sits beside her.

“OK, let me have it,” Vida says.

“Nothing is ever what it appears to be, Vida. That’s probably something you’ve learned over the years yourself. I could tell, for example, that when you first saw me here you thought I was just bumming for money, and though you were kind enough to be one of those people who actually is generous to the less fortunate, yet it was all for nothing, so to speak. I am not a panhandler. I am not some crazy person. I am not here to hurt you or to try to get anything from you. I am here to help you.”

“Help me?” Vida asks. She feels herself stiffen a little. “Why do I need help?”

Boo rotates his body so that he is facing Vida directly, and he looks straight into her eyes. She smiles tentatively.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Boo continues. “I wouldn’t single you out as if you are in blatant need of some intervention or something.” He laughs. “We all need a little help some time. We all need a reminder from people who love us and care about us.”

Vida smiles again and decides that she will listen to this person. The fountain gushes again behind her and she settles in for information.

“You’ve had a turbulent time lately. I was as sad as you were when your mother died and I felt so sorry for you, felt I wanted to reach out to you immediately, when you moved in with your sister. I wanted to help you—yes, that word again—wanted to let you know that things would work out fine, that you just needed to make it through these upheavals and then your life would be set on a different course.”

“So, where am I headed?” Vida asks glibly. “What exactly is it that I’ve got wrong in my life and how do you think you could help with that?”

“Don’t be angry at me, Vida. I’m not judging you, I’m really not. As vague as this sounds, it’s just all about your direction. Or maybe I could say lack of direction. I see such excellent traits in you, and I’m just here to nudge you so that you succeed in all the ways you can, and become happier than you have been in the last couple of years.”

Vida shifts a little on the hard seat. She realizes that she trusts this person, whoever he is.

“I know what you mean. ‘Nudge’ is a good word: just spin me around and tell me where to go! It’s all very positive and encouraging, everything you are saying, but all these positive vibes seem a bit, well, surprising from someone who edited a book called The Anatomy of Despair.”

Boo wrinkles his brow. “I don’t follow you.”

“Well,” Vida says, “despair, as in lack of hope. That’s not much of a picture of a positive future.”

Boo laughs loudly. “That’s a good one,” he says, “and a great illustration of my point. The title is actually The Anatomy of This Pair—this pair, and the reference to us, to this pair right here, is the most important one. The copies of the book that you have seen were of an early, faulty printing. Damn those electronic files! Life is always the story of relationships between people, of pairings of one sort of another. You and your mother, you and your sister, you and me. Everything is a pair of some kind. Everything is—”

But before he can finish, things go very dark in the Eaton Centre. There is a booming clack, like thunder would make if it happened indoors. The sound echoes, reverberates around the shops and up to the high ceiling, and then seems to echo again. The total darkness is replaced by the eerie pinpoints of the emergency lighting, and for the briefest moment there is absolute silence.

Then the screaming starts, a voice like an older woman’s, and then a child just crying and crying.

Vida stands up, but Boo remains seated, watching her. She looks around, up at the heights and down at the gleaming floor. She listens for something, moves her head one way, and then the other. Finally, she just nods slowly, looks down at Boo, and says one word: “Electrical.”

Before Boo can respond or ask her what she means, Vida is off running. He sits and waits. And waits. And waits. There are two pools of activity around him. Most people are sitting or milling about quietly, realizing (or hoping) that this is nothing very serious and that they should just wait out the repair so that they can get on with their shopping. Another group, smaller, is panicked. They’re thinking about terrorists and the evil appropriateness of ruining the most prominent holiday of the West. Security guards appear out of nowhere and start whispering reassurance to the vocal and the distraught. They also do a lot of pointing, showing one man where the brightest light is, showing a child where his mother has gone, showing a group of teenaged girls the way to the washroom (“This is like totally” something or other, Boo hears).

Things settle eventually. The panicked take a seat and start talking to each other, and the already-calm get even calmer. Laughter, conversation—and the lights come back on in all their glory.

Spontaneous applause erupts. Store owners emerge from the back where they have been guarding the cash registers. People start shopping again. The teen with the big Christmas card decides that it’s time to reward himself with a slice of all-dressed pizza.

And in the distance Boo can see Vida returning to be with him at the fountain.

“Where were you?” he asks. “I was starting to get a little worried.”

“Oh, just fixing a little problem,” Vida replies elusively.

“You fixed the blackout?”

“I won’t tell if you don’t tell,” Vida says. “Let’s just say that someone who used to work in mall security, loves shopping, and has a degree in electrical engineering is a good person to have around at a time like this.”

Boo relents. “OK, fair enough. How about this: you tell me all of your details and I will tell you all of mine. I will tell you how I am your father, and you will tell me how you took this dark house, and gave it back its life.” Boo pauses. “Vida,” he says. “That means ‘life,’ and I named you well.”

“Deal,” Vida says and moves forward to give him a hug.

Vida looks around at the crowd one last time while she hugs her father closer to her. The fountain behind her spurts yet again, but on the way back down this time it’s all snowflakes, which fall gently and melt on her upturned face, revealed by the sparkling lights in all colours.