Our Art teacher had this idea we should make Art for the Blind. She said “tactile”, which sounded good. What it meant was razor-blading avocado remnants from DeLuxe Carpet, owned by Caro Szczepanski’s dad, a successful businessman in our downtrodden steel town... successful, at least till the bankruptcy rumours. Caro herself seemed untouched by squalor, steel or shag. In vintage petticoats, with her ash-blonde hair now covered with a cloche, now stuck with charcoal crepe magnolias, she floated obstinately through the cafeteria’s French-fried fug. She was Art – a perpetual, brave performance of it – and we, too blind to see.
The church was hot and stunk like lilies and pomade. Usses on the Right Side and Thems on the Left, just like at school, just like the cafeteria before Theo crossed that line to talk to Dolores.
Afterwards, the Wylie brothers brooded in the dark kitchen, too guilty to switch on the light. Myron said to the floor. “Only fixin’ to scare him a little, then the damn fool went and broke his neck.”
Sister sidled in, “Daddy just drove by the grave yard. Looks like some dogs has dug up Theo Dice. Nothing left but a big ol’ hole.”
That was the summer we swiped the rope and tied it to the big tree by the river so we could swing from the bank and into the water, tied a noose in the end as a joke.
“That’s not a proper hangman’s knot,” said Seth.
“And how would a faggot know that?”
None of us liked Seth much, and he never did learn to swim, but that didn’t stop him from coming down every day to watch the rest of us horsing around ——
“Hey, faggot, watch this!” —— our last carefree summer, till the morning Seth got there before us.
I can usually determine how drunk I am with a simple trip to the toilet. The first indicator is based on how long I need to stand there and is pretty much a direct function of how much I’ve consumed. The second and more subtle measurement is how long I choose to stand there waiting for all that liquid to pass before my addled patience runs dry and I flush. Sober, I’ll wait till I’m done; drunk, I won’t, and so flush when I’m bored, quickly realize my mistake, and race to the finish, pissing in vain against the vortex.
In kindergarten, he had a pal named Timmy. Timmy was crazy-feral in a Helen-Keller-eat-the scrambled-eggs-with-fingers sort of way. Sleepovers required three changes of bathwater before his little body stopped sticking to the sheets. He also had a peculiar habit: Bathroom door ajar he’d pee, then slowly walk backwards mid-stream. For a few nanoseconds his tiny bladder sustained enough pressure to actually hit the bowl then the sagging stream of urine would dribble across the floor and onto his running shoes. Now he’s a Winnipeg hearthrob with teenaged girls eating from his hands. Let’s hope he’s learned to wash them first.
Maybe he was a little short, women would think on a first date, but there were plenty of seconds. Lloyd had a nice twinkle and unpretentious luck with Merlots. But inevitably came The Moment. A girlfriend would stumble through the open washroom door in the morning, only to find Lloyd photographing himself. Peeing. He’d explain that he was plotting the daily trajectory of his pee, assessing when an additional variable would be needed – sign of a change in gravity, of aliens from Constellation Lyra abducting Earth. Lyran light would turn pee green, he’d whisper . . . and no one ever did hear.
Image based based on a photo by Sam Bassett (Getty Images)
These hundred words may seem a jape
A simple sprint to cross the tape;
But strewth they are a great distraction –
To pen-a-tome’s my desired action.
I here declare my predilection
For a longer form of fiction.
Should any work of mine be heard,
Perforce it be of copious word
For if I'll scribble and obsess
'Twill end a novel – nothing less.
Therefore, Reader... here I pause
To labour on my greater cause.
My channel fades, for now, to black.
Should Muses will it, I’ll be back.
But if you want to read m’latest
You’ll have to wait till post-hiatus.
Dr. Keshen advises that my Step 11 is to jettison personal baggage. And that’s you. You were an idiot even then. The line is “ . . . like the deserts miss the rain.” To think I wasted the ’eighties, my most loveliest time, on some Rick O’Casek also-ran. How’s life at Living Lighting been working out for you? I’ve burped the Tupperware marked “Jason” that’s been brooding under the futon for twenty-five years. Gone are the Carole Pope cassettes, your Valentine’s Kahlil Gibran, and the photos from your brother’s wedding. Here’s the last one, and such a shame, as my boobs look fantastic.
Before there was Facebook, young lovers would treasure those few photos they had of each other and the good times they’d spent together, perhaps even splurge for an extra set of prints at the Fotomat so that, even while they still lived apart, they could always share the memories of that romantic week at the Holiday Inn in Montréal, or the New Year’s in Ottawa before they broke up.
“But that’s where I met Cécille,” he said over the phone. “Could you at least give me those?”
“Of course,” she said, slowly burning. “In fact, I’ve got them right here.”
Like Pharaoh, she will rewrite history. Two years of it, anyway. She collects the evidence: her laptop, the big heavy album, his letters. She prepares her tools: her giraffe lighter, a pint of Dewars, a bucket of ice.
She deletes the jpegs quickly, ruthlessly, then flips open the album to find a photo of them together at Tracy’s wedding. As it catches flame, its edge curls towards her, beseeching Mercy! Mercy! Both torsos darken to spectral shadows. She taps the image and it crumbles into dust.
She swigs whiskey vengefully.
Soon, to forget, she will drink straight from the bottle.
My raisiny little grandfather was an ironworker. Although he mostly constructed bridges, he also built the tall smoke stacks at the Ford Foundry. My childish mind believed he did this singlehandedly. Just Pépé. On Sundays we’d wave to them on our way home from Holy Rosary. In university Vic and Sergio pointed out that the famous architect Albert Kahn designed the factory. A fact lost on Oscar. He just had to build them high enough so that the soot floated past the nice houses on Riverside Drive to settle instead on the battleship grey porches of Hickory Road. His street.
The night shift at Colorization Inc. is one cup of coffee after another, then all neatly stacked in the dishwasher, row upon row of identical white mugs to be washed for the next shift of trackers, all sitting at their workstations off the long corridor they call the Bowling Alley, crudely tracing through their frame sheets with broad blocks of pre-defined colours. There’s lunch around 4:00 A.M. and two well spaced breaks, until it’s time to line up again and punch out. “Hey, it’s just like 1984!” someone jokes, as if that hadn’t already occurred to everyone there, every night.
It happened to us on one of those early, pencil-case days of high school. “Us” being me and Agnes – Agnes, who always did up every snap of her plaid shirts; Agnes, who’d gape with me at Nastassja Kinski’s plush-mouthed Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Agnes, who’d blurt into her locker that she dreamt of becoming a prostitute. (“Not a whore,” she’d insist, crisp again, “a prostitute.”)
That particular day, our assignment to rescale a map kept getting derailed. Finally, we realized our two rulers measured out inches differently. Two definitive, metal-edged assertions. Diverging, irreconcilable.
She would become a cop police officer.
Evita Peron’s downfall sounded the death knell for stylish dictators the world over. Witness the sartorial gaffes of the recently deceased North Korean despot. Although ’way down the list of What’s Wrong with Kim Jong Il, the dude really was a tacky little man. Couldn’t someone just have taken him aside, and kindly but firmly advised him to drop that Yoko Ono-does-Little Richard vibe without risking decapitation? Maybe not. Legend has it that his birth was foretold by a swallow. Pity it wasn’t forestalled by a swallow. Then maybe the party faithful might have rocked a little colour into their wardrobe.
“The nesting dolls aren’t real,” said the screenwriter. “They’re a metaphor for the general’s rise through the ranks and the hollowness he feels in a world of constant war.”
“But if it is set in the future,” said the producer, “let’s make it more like Alien and have one of the smaller generals actually burst right out of him!”
“But it’s not supposed to be real . . .”
“It’ll be real as hell in Dolby 3D!” “It’s all in his head!”
“Even better!” said the producer. “He’s insane, like Human Centipede, except that he hollows them out before he fits them together!
The carpet’s colours cast me back. To Primary School No. 4 and Kim Jong-Il pulling me into our hideout behind the boxwood hedge. Somehow he’d gotten hold of two candies. Not Korean candy, but something entirely forbidden: Japanese candy. Morinaga Chewlets. Silky pineapple for him, sweet strawberry for me. I was so excited, I swallowed mine immediately. I began to cry. Jong-Il boldly took his candy out of his mouth, bit half off, stuffed it into my mouth, and punched my head.
He changed, yes. But when I bowed, longest and deepest, it was to that six-year-old boy, my friend.
They have long memories on Coney Island—the people who live there, that is, not the rubes that come in from the city, not one of the more than one thousand people who came out to Luna Park that dreary January morning in 1903 to witness this rather inglorious affair.
The handlers fed her carrots laced with potassium cyanide while Edison’s men placed the electrodes and fitted her with special copper-lined sandals to complete the circuit. Six-thousand volts, and the big beast died without a trumpet or groan.
When Luna Park burned down in 1944, they called it “Topsy’s Revenge.”
A million years after they crossed into The West, two out of three Pleistocene species have yet to thrive: Lemmings. Unemployable since 1958, when Disney used a turntable to make them appear to fling themselves off cliffs. Reindeer. Assimilated. Red-nosing with Santa since 1939. Mammoths. Stuck representing megabigness since 1801, when Thomas Jefferson wrote of a “Mammoth”, 438-lb. quarter of veal. Their ginger locks, their tendency to rest their trunks against only their left or right tusks garner no notice. Poor old mammoths. Hunkering at the back in Kindergarten. Hot red eyes wondering why no one’s passing the leftie scissors.
We used to get more mice in winter, and our cats were better hunters, but I felt so badly for the first one they cornered, I actually scooped it up and walked it all the way to High Park so that it might live out its life in a more pastoral setting.
The night of the second mouse was particularly cold, and it was all I could do to cross the street and release it in the remains of the school’s vegetable garden.
The third woke me up and I’m sorry to say, but I flushed it down the toilet.
With cousin Lynn, Kenny the Mensch graced every Christmas, Chanukah, wedding and funeral of my childhood. In just three syllables LynnandKen promised an evening of glamour and bonhomerie, an anticipated exoticism far removed from my Everyday. When I learned Kenny had died I thought of a book Dad bought Dan at the very start of his life. It was a French telling of Hickory Dickory Dock. We read it daily, tracing the mouse’s journey up and down the clock. In this version, time passes and in its chaotic wake the little mouse’s beloved toy is broken. Funny how that happens.
Don’t think for a minute I’m fooled by the mouse. I know the rules. I’m hip to the deal. For two square a day, all I need do is look cute. It’s a good gig, although I was furious when she got rid of ma boys. (That fucking vet!) So now, I’m a wallflower at the nightly back-lane caterwauling session. Oh, I get her back, all the time – but in small ways. I pee on her rug and scratch holes in her drapes. I cough up hairballs on her bed. Now and then, I leave a doo-doo on her shoe.
Sylvester will lap it up. The invite to the Oscars, the gilt-edged seat between TomKat, the feather-soft hints that the acme of his career is imminent. Lights will dim. Sylvester and all will don greytone glasses for a silent ceremony, with Deco subtitles and a tiptoeing circus of CGI mice. Once Jean Dujardin has mimed his Best Actor speech, I’ll tweet, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat”, onto his digitized superspy contact lenses. As Uggie the Dog’s best friend, he’ll gallantly pull his statuette’s detonating pin, and bolt away. Leaving Kodak Theatre – and Sylvester – blown into eternally sufferin’ succotash.
Image: Apologies to Badger and Laurie Leclair, his agent and photographer.
Greg thought that her empathy, remarkable for a woman that stunning, bordered on the Pollyanna. His life experience taught him that beautiful girls were bitches. These were salad days, yet he’d convinced himself that she was inimitable. Until that evening at the restaurant. He, finishing his convoluted work story, looked up from his plate to catch her, her angelic face contorted by complete revulsion. She was transfixed, watching a woman who had just placed a forkful of cheesecake into her mouth. She felt his gaze and the Perfect Hot Saint returned. He’d found the thorn on his otherwise flawless rose.
“Were you my girlfriend,” I said to Maureen, “I wouldn’t bore you with roses on Valentine’s Day, I’d give you . . . Peonies!” in yet another bout of barroom bravado from the boy who knew nothing of flowers beyond the funny names; who, come February, would search in vain for their blooms among more traditional fare; who’d eventually have to settle for a perfectly respectable crocus— supplemented with a poem, mind you—that ended:
Still there is a better reason . . .
The peony is out of season,
And, though it may be really nice,
It can’t be bought at any price.
Though they’d longed for a child, their daughter perplexed them. They enunciated each “tomato” and “tomahto”; Baby Maudie bawled until Nanny gave her catsup. (As vulgar as pickles, Cousin Helen said.) Nanny could not keep Maudie from the beloved rose garden, where she stuck sticks into the beds and could not say why. Then too, Maudie’s hair was distinctly auburn. Her mother had had no idea her husband’s family bore this tint. She chose blues for Maudie, who fought for reds like a slap. At 18, Maudie planted a ladder into the garden, tossed out two suitcases, and clambered away.
After seven years, she found herself with child. They paced all week-end in the library, so rattled they nearly forgot to water the roses. She had managed to ascertain that her cousin Helen knew of a reputable agency of British nannies. Mightn’t French be better, he wondered. Foreign languages, so valuable and . . . They compromised. Nanny would be British.
Piqued, he ventured that all his favourite names appeared in Byron: Augusta, Selim, Caroline. She said nothing. Thyrza, he said. She opened her Tennyson: a girl would have to be Maud. He kissed her pale blonde hair. It was his favourite name.
They first met at a harpsichord concert. He liked Bach; she sniffed and spoke of Mozart, the early Mozart. At lunch the following Tuesday, he said “tomato” and she, “tomahto”.
They married despite all that but there were no children. He sighed privately. She wept once, openly. Then they rallied, designing a beautiful little rose garden behind their Morningside Heights brownstone. White roses only, she said, they’ll glow at night. He misted the bushes lightly; she arranged heavy bouquets.
At cocktail parties, she took to declaring that the roses were really like children to them. He, to displaying the scratches.
Escaping a mountain of midterm work, I bought my ticket, crested a dune, and found myself looking down this bright busy beach. It was still October back in the Hyland, but here it was hot, so I ditched the jacket, took a knife to my jeans—shorts and bare feet to blend in with the crowd.
And please don’t make me bore you with school, but somebody asked, and somebody else on the crew said the director was looking for young engineers to help with his next war picture . . . a new romance, maybe . . . but adventure, regardless I won or lost.
With the exception of a new box of Crayolas, Judy thought nothing smelled better than a fresh tablet of construction paper. And she scored the good scissors, not the Lefties with the rounded blades and green handles, nor those made sticky by intemperate use of mucilage or the accumulated exhalations of those Jolly Rancher mouth-breathers seated across from her. She loved the scraping sound of the blades, the yielding crunch of the paper. Her desert-coloured animals leapt from the background, their matching auras so precise she had to paste them in as well. Giraffes entering the gates of Giraffe City.
Cut from a stunted forest, it lies atop a bed of goo which was once an ocean, but is today transformed by alchemy to manna. Big-haunched termites gorge on its viscous guck. Satiated, they drag themselves to the tubular palace of their queen, where soaring flame-topped towers light up like Christmas trees at night. Their magic twinkle fades to dawn’s reality, an industrial hive, a teeming belching mechanical Babylon. Steam, smoke, prosperity, all disperse on four strong winds, but the manna – that ethical liquid gold – will flow through pipes to sate the thirst that warms a choking, sullied, fragile rock.
They say there’s forty words for snow.
for thirty-seven point nine degrees
The flip-flop of doubt as sandals melt,
not into tar, as they are wont,
but onto concrete sidewalks, floating
sideways into slow repose as strangers
chatter into iced cafés, pile up
in tales of wilt and pushing fluids
(Getting old is hell, says Alan,
shouldering his laptop,
don’t get old.)
Sprinklers at 346 go on
and here at thirty-seven odd degrees,
headlights shine through the mists in flowing
goldfish tails that once, impossibly,
were arctic snow.